Enter Red Riding Hood
Winter, Year 1304
Wings cannot cut the cold night and take flight.
Instead the bird will fall where the dark ones wait.
In the northern lands, the first fall of snow came early. In those woods, a woman walked the empty road. She was a dash of red that moved against a pale scene of trees, snow, and sky. The sound of her steps was crisp as they moved across the frozen dirt. They broke the silence of falling snow, causing the woods around her to stir restlessly.
There had been no one on the road for hours. Those who preferred the gentle predictability of spring, the plentiful harvests of summer and autumn had long left on these roads. Those types would winter in the warmer lands by the southern seas.
And yet she continued, her back to the south, her steps facing north -- a brown eyed, brown skinned bird caught in a frozen wind. She sang quietly under her breath a strange little nursery rhyme, not knowing that it had been a lean fall and an even more punishing winter that had lasted weeks longer than anyone could remember. She did not know why the trees had been rubbed raw; the lady had never seen the type of hunger that drove small animals to leave their dens after the first snow and wander out desperately to forage, only to be plucked off by larger, equally desperate animals.
She had not been in the Northlands for years.
While the cold began to wear down at her, the young woman reminded herself that it was only ten minutes from Winchester to her grandmother's home. She had been told if she had walked straight north down the road from Crossroads without stopping, she would be at Winchester in time for the evening dinner. The shopkeepers in Crossroads, however, could not have possibly known that the many hilly parts on said road would have iced over and could not be traversed as quickly as they had promised.
When the sun had set, she found herself not in Winchester. Instead she was caught in the deepening dark of the woods. When a howl sounded faintly in the distance, she was surprised. The townspeople had neglected to warn her of the things that dwelled within the woods.
The woman's hand left the basket she carried and drew instead to her side, fingering the gift from her mother that had been secured around her waist. She began to move more quickly.
'Not yet,' she thought. 'Not now.'
She should not use it; once the gift was used, she could not use it again so soon. She compelled herself forward, as she soon would be at the bridge where her grandmother's retainer should be waiting to help her. And beyond the bridge, was a village, and beyond that was her grandmother, waiting. That thought sustained her courage while she walked.
However, when she came upon a clearing before an open bridge she found no one there. Only a stone lion statue waited, yawning indifferently at travelers as they passed by. The howls drew closer. She fingered the pouch on her side and picked up her pace to pass the stone guardian. She had been told as a child that it had been placed there as a protective ward. If there was any luck to it, she wanted to be behind it.
Across the bridge she went, trying not to slide on the slippery snow as she did so. The growls were close, but had stopped moving. She tensed slightly but kept going. She did not wish to confirm if the beasts she heard were following her.
The growls started again as she finished crossing the bridge. But they became angry, attacking barks.
Then there was silence.
The barks became sad, pathetic yelps that melted into cries of anguish.
She was startled by the sounds, wondering what the dogs or wolves had discovered.
There came another sound, an odd sound an ominous snuffling and crunching noise -- a sound of bones being crunched and dogs screaming as if they were splintered into nothingness. The dogs had not discovered a bear, she realized with dread.
Her feet had started moving on their own. As she passed old, abandoned houses along the road, her thoughts flew back to the stories of the Shadow things, or the Unthings, as Grandmother had liked to call them.
Many years ago, they had appeared shortly after the elves withdrew from the area. They came at night, particularly when there was no moon. These things were creatures of emptiness, hungry for both flesh and spirit, and consumed things indiscriminately. Unlike other creatures, they did not respond to weapons or fear men. Only light and their simplicity would allow an unlucky traveler to avoid them.