Three poor sisters lived in a cottage at the edge of a wild place.
The elder, Rose and Lily, started each day in a furious bustle, storming around the kitchen before dawn preparing for the day, frying bread for breakfast, slicing cheese for lunch, scrubbing the table, which was already clean, and pestering the youngest, Violet, about her chores. Had she collected the eggs yet, had she milked the cow, had she made sure the iron and rowan were still above all the doors to protect them from the Fair Folk so the hens would keep laying and the cow keep giving milk?
“If we don’t have eggs and milk we’ll all starve,” Rose would say to Violet every morning, shaking a spoon at her.
“Do you understand?” Lily would admonish, the two of them trapping her between them to make sure she knew this truth: if Violet ever failed, she and her sisters would starve.
Violet’s sisters loved her, she knew they did. They wouldn’t worry so much if they didn’t. And they did worry.
Her sisters had a loom and a spinning wheel that took up most of the space in their little house, and much of their living was made from turning fluffy sheep into warm blankets. Violet didn’t spin and weave, so it was left to her to keep their little flock of sheep alive. There were stories about the wild place near where they grazed, the tall grassy hill in the middle of it, and her sisters worried. Every morning they stopped her before she left the cottage.
“Have you got a nail in your pocket? Here, take another,” Rose said, shoving nails in all her pockets.
“And here’s some bread and salt,” said Lily.
“And St. John’s wort—”
“—and a sprig of rowan.”
Violet’s pockets bulged with charms.
“Now, what do you do if you hear music?” Rose demanded
“I ignore it,” Violet replied, as always. “Walk on as if I never heard it.”
Lily added, “And if a stranger tries to speak to you?”
“I walk away.”
“And if you see a circle of toadstools?”
“And say your prayers, don’t forget to say your prayers,” Rose sighed. “You remember everything, then?”
“And for heaven’s sake don’t lose any of the lambs, not a single one. Or we will all starve.”
If not for that last declaration, the one truth more dangerous than all the others, made every morning so she would never forget, Violet would never leave her bed at all. But someone must graze the sheep or they would die, and without their wool she and her sisters would starve. So she must go, however many dangers waited to murder her, or worse, steal her soul. She sometimes thought, she had such a very little soul, how could it be worth stealing?
Her heart racing before she even set off, she opened the gate to the pen and let the dozen sheep and their lambs spill out, bleating and running, and counted them all every other minute to make sure she hadn’t lost a single one.
• • • •
One afternoon, Violet’s count came up short. She counted again. Still one short. One of the lambs had wandered off. She was sure she hadn’t turned away from the flock, not for a second. But the stupid little creature was gone, and she wanted to cry.
She could not return home to Rose and Lily without the lamb. She would not be the one who caused her sisters to starve. However much she hated the thought of it, however much terror the prospect promised, she had to go look for the thing.
• • • •
The lamb’s cries echoed, and Violet wasn’t quite sure what direction the sound came from. But she was quite sure it was somewhere on that wicked grassy hill, the one that all the stories were about, where no living thing on two legs or four ought to go. She checked all her pockets for charms, bit her lip, ignored her racing heart, and set off.
Violet pushed and pulled her way up through masses of blooming heather on the hillside, tracking the sound of mournful bleating. However it had gotten to the top of this craggy, overgrown rise, her task was to bring it down again. While keeping them both alive. Her calves were scratched above where the tops of her boots were laced. Her hands and arms were cut where bush and thorn had caught her, slowing her passage. Her skirt and even her tunic were wet and spattered with mud. Dark clouds to the west suggested rain. She must get the lamb and return home before the weather found her, or nightfall did, and wilder creatures came out to hunt.
She crossed the hill, switching back and forth as she climbed, searching. The bleats were louder now. She could almost hear words in the beast’s noise, which seemed to mock her. If she found it standing on a clear path with an easy way down the other side of the hill she would be so very angry . . .
She topped the next hillock, pausing to catch her breath before moving on. And there it was, a scraggily little gray thing with soaked wool and tear-matted eyes, four legs braced as if it expected the ground beneath its feet to topple.
Something was wrong.
She had seen this before, a small silly creature needing her to come fetch it from a perfectly clear and even stretch of grass because it had grown uncertain of its legs. This lamb was trapped, leaning forward, straining against some binding that anchored it to the earth. It might as well have grown roots.
“Stupid thing, what’s got into you—” She went to pry it up from whatever held it. Maybe there was a tiny patch of bog. She searched the ground carefully.
Then she saw the fairy ring. Perfectly round caps of perfectly white mushrooms peeking through the grass, closing the lamb in as well as any pasture fence. It let out another stuttering cry, as horrified at its situation as she was.
Her sisters had so often told her what to do in this situation, but Violet was too scared to remember. She didn’t know what to do. Maybe if she cleared one or two of the mushrooms, just quickly kicked them aside without really touching them, praying all the while—
“I wouldn’t do that.”
If a stranger speaks to you, you should run, you must not speak or the unholy creature will carry you away. . .
The figure was somewhere between male and female. Hollow-chested, sharp featured. Spindly, with clean chin and cheeks and milk-pale skin. It was dressed in loose-fitting raggedy leathers that had been badly tanned and left outside in the weather, or perhaps worked over by a pack of dogs. It wore thick hard boots and a conical cap over black, stringy hair. The cap stank like a slaughter. Stiff and flaking with clotted brown that peeled like a scab, the thing should have been red, she thought. Her mind kept wanting to call it red, like blood, which the cap might have been dipped in over and over again. In truth, it was the color of death, of blood that had been spilled days ago and rotted in the sun. The creature had thorn-like claws at the ends of its fingers and teeth to match. It showed them all when it smiled.
“Hello there,” it said to her in a surprisingly clear voice. She expected it to sound rotten, like the cap.
If she spoke, she was lost. If she said a word, the thing would turn her voice against her and peel her skin and cut her heart and dip its cap in her blood. If she ran it would catch her and gut her, if she went for the lamb the thing would devour them both. She should run. But she couldn’t leave the lamb.
“What? Can’t you speak?” It smiled, its mouth breaking its face in two. “Won’t you tell me your name?”
She shook her head and wondered if that was enough, that tiny bit of conversation, to doom her. She should have simply pretended that she hadn’t seen the demon at all. And now she was like the lamb, stuck as if she’d sunk up to her knees in a bog and wanting nothing more than to cry.
The demon took off its cap. The shape of its head was round, larger than it should have been. Somewhere between human and inhuman. It was terrible. It turned the cap around and around, studying it as if judging the stitches underneath the layers of clotted blood.
“Oh my goodness, now you’re shaking. Poor thing. But you know—you can walk away from here. Simply turn around, and you’ll not be harmed. Leave now and this will all seem like a dream. You can tell stories about it. It’ll be a good story, everyone will believe you.”
She almost ran, just like it said—but no, it said to walk, and if she ran she would be trapped, that was the sort of trick these creatures played. So she didn’t run and didn’t walk. She looked at the lamb on its stick-like legs, wearing its first growth of matted wool. That lamb would produce a mountain of wool over its lifetime, which she and her sisters would clean and work and spin and weave into cloth they would trade for food to keep them alive for many winters. Maybe they could do without the lamb. Or the lamb might mean the difference between starving or not. If she were a braver girl to risk all that, she might walk away. But she realized just then that she was more afraid of what Rose and Lily would say if she came home without the lamb. They would be so disappointed in her, and Violet couldn’t stand that.
“I’ll take my lamb back,” she said, as softly as she could and still be heard. Her voice had stuck in her throat.
“Of course you will.” The Redcap smiled like it had won something.
A tear slipped down her cheek, hot as an ember. “What could a thing like you want with a wee lamb?”
The Redcap moved. Not a lot. Just shifted its place as if to stretch cramping muscles. But the limbs bent wrong, knees creaking opposite the way they should, finger bones cracking like dry wood. Her stomach turned at the sight. She should look away; but then she wouldn’t see when it finally struck.
It licked its lips with a red tongue. “You people get it wrong so often. You tell each other stories—about circles of toadstools, for example. You warn each other not to step inside, that the circle will trap you, pull you underground, and you will be forced to dance at unholy revels for a hundred years. As if you might be walking and suddenly stop to find that a circle of mushrooms has sprung up around you. ‘Oh no, where did that come from, I’m doomed!’” It flung out its arms in a show of mock terror. Then it leaned forward on its knobbed hands, and she cowered away from the stench that came off it. “But that isn’t how it works. You think I set the circle here to trap the lamb? The lamb is just the bait. Bait in a trap for shepherd girls.”
After this speech, she took a risk and reached into the ring of toadstools, the perfect fairy circle. Carefully pressed into it like she might push open a heavy door. And nothing happened.
She grabbed the lamb, pulled it out of the circle, hugged it close to her and collapsed on the mist-dampened heather, gasping for breath. The animal snuggled close and she let it, even though its wet wool soaked through her tunic and chilled her even more. It kept up its bleating, which told her they were still in danger.
The Redcap laughed.
Her voice grew very small. “What . . . what could a thing like you want with a shepherd girl?”
“Exactly what I’m getting right now. Your tears smell delicious.”
In desperation, she ran. Or tried to run. Squeezing the lamb in her arms until it wriggled in discomfort, she lurched to her feet, stumbled and tripped on the foliage but managed to stay standing and point herself away from the Redcap. Just away, down the hill. But the Redcap sprang from its perch and came to land in front of her, moving deftly like some kind of spider skittering across a stone. She turned away again, and again the creature blocked her, leering with a mouth full of daggers. And now, now it would close those teeth around her and rip her to bits, flesh from bone, guts strewn everywhere, and it would soak its cap in her blood, laughing all the while.
She stopped, hunched over the lamb as if she could protect it. Still, the Redcap didn’t kill her.
So she waited for the ground to open up and pull her under, to swallow her into hell. The world the Redcap called home would be hell. She tried to steel herself, tried to think of everything her sisters ever told her about not eating their food and not dancing to their music and not stealing their wares. But none of the charms in her pockets had worked to protect her from this creature.
She only wanted to take her lamb and go home to a warm cottage with a warm hearth and iron over the doorway to protect her. She could proudly present her sisters with the lamb she’d saved, and tell them what such an unholy creature was really like.
The Redcap returned to its rocky perch. Something wriggled in its claws—along the way it had caught a mouse. It broke the mouse, which only squeaked a little as the bones snapped. The Redcap sliced into it, scooped out and devoured its innards, then held the little furry body over its cap and squeezed as if it was a berry. Blood dripped, softening the brown scabs that covered the cap, renewing its awful stink.
There was nothing left of the mouse when it was done except a tiny little leg bone, which the Redcap used to pick its teeth.
“Yes,” the Redcap hissed, gazing at her with night-black eyes. “Your tears are most delightful.”
She could try to stop crying, holding her breath and locking all her fear away. Even the lamb had stopped bleating. In fact, it held very still now, as if exhausted. But she needed all her energy simply to stay upright, chin up. To face this thing as best she could. If she could not run, she would at least not lie down. Or she would try not to.
The Redcap smiled even broader, and she wondered what she had done wrong. Why it seemed so pleased with her.
“Do you know what? I think . . . I might . . . yes, I think I will. Change my mind, that is. You’re trying so hard to be brave—I should let you go home, shouldn’t I?”
She blinked at the Redcap, afraid to hope. It tilted its hideous head, winked a baleful eye.
“But you must answer me a riddle first.”
A fresh new fear burst upon her, melting her limbs and making her dizzy.
She hated riddles. She wasn’t any good at them. Famously not good. Her sisters teased her about it, asking her riddles and telling her the answers before she had a chance to think of them for herself. A sense of resignation settled over her. She was doomed. Maybe she could get the lamb to flee, go home on its own and give her sisters some hint of what had befallen her. But it nestled firmly in her arms, clinging to the only source of warmth on the hillside.
It was as if the Redcap knew exactly how to torture her. This thought made her tired.
“Are you ready? Shall we start?” It clapped hands together like a child. A hideous, bloody child.
“I hate riddles.”
“Even better,” it said. “All right, here it is: What is more frightful the smaller it is?”
“I don’t know,” she muttered.
“Aren’t you even going to try?”
“I told you, I hate riddles.”
“Go on, you have to apply yourself, just think a little and it’ll come right to you.”
“I’m not clever, you know.” Her sisters were clever, which was why they stayed home to weave while she wandered all over creation looking for stupid lost lambs. She looked at the lamb in her arms, and it gazed back it her with hopeful eyes. As if it thought she could really save them.
Maybe she could. She tried to think, she really did. Even though the Redcap had made no promises, had not said that answering the riddle correctly would win her freedom—or that answering it wrong would not. She was certain that nothing she did would make a difference, but just in case it did, it case it might, she thought. What is more frightful the smaller it is? A spider? The gnats one could barely see to swat out of the way, rather than the big flies that gave some kind of buzzy warning? Or—the larder. Those weeks late in the winter when the food you’d stored up started to dwindle, and you didn’t know if it would last to the first fresh greens of spring. . .
“The larder,” she said, with some small amount of confidence that she might even be right.
“Wrong,” the Redcap stated.
“What? But what about—”
“A bridge,” it answered. “A bridge is more frightful the smaller it is.”
She wasn’t sure that was exactly right. A small bridge over a small stream wasn’t so scary. A small bridge over a river, perhaps, but who would build a small bridge over a large river? It didn’t make sense. This was only one of the reasons why she hated riddles.
The Redcap sucked its teeth and said, “Let’s try another one. I know you can get this.”
“Please let us go, please—”
“I have a hill full and a hole full, but I cannot catch a bowl full. What is it?”
A hill couldn’t be full of anything. Neither could a hole, or it wouldn’t be a hole anymore, would it? And what could you put in a hole that you couldn’t put in a bowl? And how big of a hole?
Sullenly, she glared at the Redcap and didn’t say a word.
“Make a guess. Any guess at all. Oh, come now, can’t you think of anything?”
No. She refused. If the Redcap was going to rip her apart anyway, she shouldn’t have to play its stupid game.
“Fog. It’s fog. You really are a dull child, aren’t you?”
“What do you expect, scaring me half to death then asking me to think!” she shot back.
“Now. Just . . . one . . . more.”
Her tears started again. Her feet were cold, her heart felt tight, and her eyes were sore from weeping. She’d started petting the lamb, stroking its tangled wool with her chilled fingers, to comfort herself more than anything. The lamb had fallen asleep as if nothing was wrong. Well, that was something anyway.
The Redcap asked its third riddle. “And what, I ask you, is over the head but under the hat?”
It raised its hat from its raggedy head and tipped it to her, mocking courtesy.
“I don’t know!”
“Answer me or I will tear your heart out.” It had crept very close to her, or maybe it had appeared directly in front of her instantly, with no intervening movement. The teeth would only have to snap to take off her nose. The claws on the wicked hand only press forward an inch to plunge into her chest.
She screamed. That was all. She couldn’t think anymore, she couldn’t listen anymore, so she screamed to purge the world. Now, she was sure the Redcap would kill her. It must grow bored of torturing her sometime, yes?
But still nothing happened. Falling quiet, she looked up to the Redcap, back on its perch now, folded up like some spindly bird, hands still dripping blood from the mouse it had killed. It smiled, showing teeth as if pleased.
It said, “Are you frightened? Are you terrified?”
It appeared to want an answer. “Yes!” she sobbed.
“Am I not the most fearsome creature you have ever seen?”
“The most fearsome creature you will ever see?”
“Yes yes yes!” she cried, hugging the lamb to her. She’d woken it up, and it blinked back at her in surprise.
“Good,” the Redcap purred.
It sat back and blew on its claws, then polished the claws on its leather shirt. Regarding her with a half-lidded gaze, it said, “All right, you can go now.”
Of course she didn’t believe it at first. This was another trick, another torture. She took a careful step backward—and the Redcap didn’t react. Another step. The Redcap seemed to have forgotten about her.
“What was this all about?” she finally blurted in confusion.
“Proving a point,” it said, still studying its claws. “Doesn’t concern you.”
She thought of arguing. Venting her sudden anger at being toyed with—and she didn’t even know why. But the question occurred to her: did she really want to know why?
No, she did not. She turned to go. Hesitated. Turned back, just one more time.
“Hair,” she said.
“What?” The Redcap looked up.
“Over the head but under the hat. It’s hair.”
It smiled that hideous smile again. “Begone, you silly girl.”
Violet ran, clutching the lamb in her arms, and was never afraid of anything again as long as she lived.