Pairing: Spike/Xander
Rating: NC-17 overall, PG this part
Word count: 1,462 this part
Summary: One day, William takes a short cut through the forest . . . and his life is never going to be the same.
Warnings: None for now, AU
Betas: [info]ribby and [info]tested_tempted
Notes: Little Red Riding Hood told for grown-ups, with a sexy wolf, a very irregular grandfather substituted for the grandmother, and the huntsmen are very evil men indeed. This started out as one of my usual fairy tales, which should have been around 5,000 words. But then it grew. And grew. And grew. It's around 25,200 words at the moment. It is complete and has been betaed. I did so much research for this that I made a Biliography





Red Velvet


by
Creyr



1 William of Wyre

It had been two months since Master Bels, a swordsmith, had come through the town. He had been a friend of Liam’s who had served beside him in the war. He’d seen William working at Morier’s forge when he stopped at the crossroads to ask for directions. Master Bels had talked of taking William on, training him for swordsmithery, but William had no more thought of it. He hadn’t presumed to, for every dream he’d ever dared had come to naught in the end.

And he was old for an apprentice, no one wanting the responsibility of a boy such as he, of uncertain parentage and unnatural looks. It didn’t help his situation that his grandfather was the town drunk and the good folk of the village gave the man odd jobs out of pity. William had been resigned to the same life for himself when his sixteenth birthday had passed and he had been no closer to finding a vocation.

But then Master Bels had come calling. Master Bels had thinning sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes. His frame was lanky beside Liam’s burly build, and they seemed an odd set of friends. Master Bels was clearly educated and well read. Liam could read, William knew, but his grandfather put no stock in anything but the necessities of living. Still, he seemed pleased to greet Master Bels.

The man had shaken William’s hand, but then turned the hand over curiously, fingers tracing William’s scars.

“These are from fire, hot iron, yes?”

William nodded, but Liam answered. “He works at the smithy, making small trifles. But he’s a good worker, pays careful attention.” Liam went to the mantel, where some of William’s carvings sat. “And he has an eye. See these? How fine they are?”

William was puzzled, because Liam never normally said so many words at once, but also because it seemed that Liam wanted this old friend to approve of William. Liam had never cared before what people thought of his bastard grandson.

“Indeed?”

Master Bels took one of the carvings, a relief of jonquils that William had carved when they were first breaking through the blanket of snow a month earlier. Long fingers traced the work, and William knew that the man would find no flaw in his carving, that it was smooth and clear of splinters.

“Does he read?” Master Bels asked.

Liam looked away, seemingly ashamed. “Yes. I taught him. Perhaps more than I ought, but he’s got a quick mind and I didn’t like to smother it.”

“Are you offering him?”

William realised that they were talking about something that he completely did not understand, but he knew better than to interrupt, not if he wished to avoid Liam’s fists.

“Yes.”

“Very well.” Master Bels turned to William. “You may not know it, lad, but I am a swordsmith in Camforth. Your grandfather has just offered you as my apprentice. Do you accept?”

William would never forget the swelling joy and gratitude that flooded him at that moment. Liam had given him the greatest gift possible. He hadn’t thought that his grandfather was aware of his unhappiness with his life, but here was proof that he’d been wrong to think Liam uncaring.

One of the cart wheels bumped across a rut, jolting William out of his memories of the day he’d found a purpose for his life. This day he left his home behind to embark on his vocation.

The early morning mist blurred the small house as the cart slowly moved away from it. William perched on the cart tail, watching his home vanish when the track turned, clutching tightly at the bolt of velvet that had been his grandfather’s parting gift.

William devoutly hoped that Liam had traded something that he could afford to lose for the cloth. He was certain that his grandfather hadn’t been anywhere that he could have stolen it. William rubbed his cheek against the soft nap. It was a deep red velvet, dark as blood, dark enough that it wasn’t the slightest bit feminine. And it made William wonder what had prompted his grandfather to gift him with something so outlandish.

He was finally getting away. Away from the place where everyone looked at him oddly and they all knew him as the bastard son of Mad Drusilla. He’d endured those looks all his life, while they waited for him to start talking to the stars or barking at the moon.

Of course he’d found friends in the tiny village. The small settlement did not hold so many children that those who were there could afford to be overly choosy. He’d said goodbye to Daniel the night before, ignoring the short ginger-haired boy’s muffled sniffles while they drank ale purloined from Liam’s supply. Daniel had gone to the weaver two years before, having a talent with colors and small deft hands. Their other friend, Robert de Burgh, had left several years before as a child oblate to the Benedictines. Robert was the bastard son of one of the local earls, and despite his upbringing in the relative obscurity of their small village, he’d always been acknowledged by his father, and they all knew that he was destined for great things. No one, especially not Robert, doubted that he would one day be an abbot. William missed his sharp mind and reckless ambition which had carried the three of them into many adventures.

The cart rumbled quietly over the wooden planks of the bridge spanning the river, the noise muffled by the fog rising from the water in the cool spring morning. That was it. The boundary between what William has always known and the new life he was starting in the town of Camforth.

Alone in the house at the edge of woods with his unstable grandfather, he’d learned to walk quietly and curb his naturally impulsive nature. Liam had done his best, but William suspected that Drusilla’s ‘madness’ had more to do with Liam’s heavy fists as he sought to escape his grief after his beloved Anne was lost to the plague. More than once, William had found himself on the receiving end of Liam’s rage when the man had cursed himself in a haze of alcohol and regret.

He could be anyone he pleased in this new place. Studious apprentice to Master Bels, respectable member of the town, humble servant of Christ who wouldn’t be questioned by the mistrustful priests. Not be pitied or despised for his family’s poverty and ill luck.

The cart kept to the well-traveled road around the forest of Bodlith. It was a wild land, thick tangles of trees unbroken since the beginnings of man. The forest covered the lower slopes of the mountains that led up and away to Powys, with the mountains thrusting out of the surrounding wilderness like the bald pate of old Father David from his tonsured head. William watched the mountains wheel slowly past them and scratched unconsciously at a bedbug bite. He wondered what it would be like to explore those wild heights.

The forest was said to be haunted, and few dared to travel through it. The King’s foresters did not keep it as they did his other woodlands, for though he claimed it, all knew that the wild things within it granted dominion to no king of man. The woodsmen lived on the edges of it, and Liam had made his home just under the eaves of the first trees. Drusilla was rumoured to know its hidden paths, but that was yet another reason why William had drawn the scorn of the villagers.

In fact, if the tales were to be believed, she had disappeared into the forest all those years ago when she had abandoned William. They said that her restless spirit howled in the trees when the moon was full. William knew better. He’d seen her in the early morning light when she’d crept away from her father’s house. Her face had been turned to the east, towards the gentler lowlands where the cities were. Where she could be someone else. He knew without knowing how it was so that she’d gone someplace where her life was not a tale for the gossips and good wives.

William was thoroughly jostled and sore by the time the small cart passed the gates of Camforth. The carter directed him to Master Bels house in the craft guild section of town, the street of the smiths. William hefted his pack of belongings, including the bolt of red velvet, and set off, still in the hopeful mood which he’d began the day, not minding his aching body. He’d always had a head for direction and though the town’s streets twisted, he never lost his way.





2 Camforth

The forge was dark, but a door at the back led to a room of light and warmth. Master Bels was away, but his wife, Mistress Yonary, was expecting William and welcomed him eagerly.

“Bless you, child, but himself did say I should know you by your hair like thistle down. Not given much to poetry is he, but I say that you do inspire a body to flights of fancy.”

William followed her inside, finding her chatter somehow reassuring. He did not need anyone to tell him that his looks were odd, that he stood out among the people of the Marches with his light hair and sharp blue eyes. It was rumoured that some runaway Saxon villein had gotten him on Drusilla for he had none of the look of Liam’s family, not even the long-dead Anne, who had been blonde but not as light as he.

The common room showed evidence of recent supper, with a maid clearing away and the dogs following in hopes of scraps. But it was neatly swept and the dishes tidily stowed. Very different from Liam’s attempts at housekeeping. Two children sat on the bench beside the fireplace, puzzling over their letters while a man looked on.

“This is John, he’s our journeyman, he’ll see you to your room.”

The man nodded to William, keen grey eyes sliding over him in appraisal. William refused to bristle, knowing the man was seeing his patched clothes and bare feet. He owned one pair of boots and he wore them only in the smithy to protect his feet. But he could not afford to offend this man who would be his superior. He knew that he was little more than free labor for Master Bels and would have no rights or remedies until he became a journeyman himself. This was too good a chance for him to lose because of his temper.

William followed John up two flights of creaking stairs to the space under the rafters. A rope hung between two rafters There was a straw pallet in one corner and a washing bowl on a table. A chamber pot sat underneath the rough washstand.

“Hang your clothes from the rope. We bathe on Saturday after sunset, Mistress insists. We break fast at dawn and you’ll get another meal when we close the forge.”

John gave him an assessing look, no doubt wondering whether his appetite could tolerate such long times between meals. But though William thought he might still be growing, food sometimes went short in Liam’s house, until his grandfather could catch or steal something. William had been accustomed to scavenging for himself as soon as he was old enough. Two meals a day would be a luxury for him, so he nodded his assent.

“Master Bels will determine your skill and set your tasks. I am to see that you do what you’re set to.”

“I shall hope to please.”

“See that you do,” John grunted. He turned and went back down the stairs, passing Yonary on her way.

“Mercy, those young ones do tire a body.” Her face was red, presumably from chasing her children. “Settling in, are you? It’s not much, but it should do,” she said, smoothing the bolster.

“It’s fine, more than I expected, really,” William hastened to reassure her.

She gave him a curious look, grasping his chin with rough strong fingers. “You’re an odd one, no mistake. Those eyes, that hair. Your face . . . sharp as a blade . . . or a beak. Like something I’ve seen . . . .”

William had a momentary vision of Yonary as something other than the simple good-wife she appeared. He was frightened of her, but didn’t know why. Women were an unknown race to him, full of incomprehensible mystery and power that he respected. No woman had ever touched him so personally. He supposed she was pretty, her body still lithe after two children, wide brown eyes and chestnut hair shimmering in the candlelight. She was much younger than her husband, but that was the normal way of it. William wondered what she truly wanted with him.

She released him, shaking her head. “There. It’s gone, whatever it was.” Her gaze narrowed again. “Your beard is not more than fluff, but you must shave once a week. Do you know how?”

William shook his head. He’d never seen much of his own face, never more than a rippled picture in the millpond. Enough people had commented about his hair and his eyes that he did not doubt their strangeness, but none had remarked on the shape of his face before.

“And a bath this eve,” she muttered. “I’ll not have your vermin in my house.”

He blushed, afraid he’d disgusted her, his hands going to the welts at his neck without thinking. But then he stopped himself, standing uncertain, not knowing what to do.

She pulled his small pack open, sorting through his belongings. “Ah, no matter, our John will show you.” She tsked disapprovingly. “Just like a man, can’t do ought to take care of his things,” she muttered. But then her hands encountered the velvet and she drew it out slowly, face full of wonder.

“What’s this, then?”

“It was a gift . . . from my grandfather.” William shifted uncomfortably, wondering again where Liam had gotten the cloth. “For my leaving.”

“A whole bolt,” Yonary murmured, stroking the nap. “Silk, this is.”

She unwrapped it, holding the fabric up to the light. “Not a colour for a lady. So deep a red, almost like blood. Fit for a king.”

“Not a king. Just the unknown bastard of a madwoman.” He couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“None of that,” she said briskly, carding the velvet through her fingers. It seemed to glow, rich flickers of fire in the depths of the soft weave. “There’s plenty here. I can sew this into a cloak for you, if you like. Perhaps some gold thread . . . .”

“No!”

She looked startled.

“I’m sorry. I’m just an apprentice. The cloak is enough, no gold, please.”

The woman nodded. “You have the right of it, I think.” She gathered the cloth into her arms. “We will see you come morning.” But she paused at the head of the stairs. “There was once another bastard named William. As it turns out, he was fit for a king.”

He knew she meant to be helpful, but those kinds of reminders did not bode well for someone with the face of a Saxon.

The next morning, John sat him down with a basin of steaming water and handed him a mirror. The thing was polished silver backed with bronze. Intricate swirling designs were carved into the backing. The patterns caught his eye, teasing him and pulling him in while his mind wandered along spiral pathways. Faces peered out at him and then disappeared. The mirror seemed like some artifact from ancient times and William couldn’t take his eyes off it.

“Right. One normally uses the other side.” John’s voice was amused, but it broke the trance that William was in, released him from the enchantment of the designs.

He turned the mirror over. The silver was polished smooth, worn in places, but it caught his image perfectly. He’d never seen himself like that. For all of his life quavering pools of water had been his only chance to see his own face.

William gawked at himself. His cheekbones were high and sharp, his eyes a deep blue that seemed to echo the boundless depths of the sky in autumn. His hair was paler than he had expected, nearly white. No wonder the villagers made signs against him behind their backs, warding themselves against the strangeness of a child. He looked like no one else that he knew and indeed, he could see no resemblance between the image in the mirror and his memories of his mother’s face.

John cleared his throat and William flushed, embarrassed at having lost track of what he was doing again.

“You’re quite a savage child, aren’t you?”

William didn’t know what to say to that and he suspected that John didn’t really want an answer.

John handed him a thin knife with a nearly transparent edge. “Soak your face with heat first, then some oil. Go slowly.”

He followed the instructions, wary of the sharp knife near his vulnerable throat. The shaving was soon done, but his face felt like it was exposed, flayed.

John smirked. “Ah well, you need do this but once a week. Pity your fellows who must shave every day or else look like ruffians.”

It was true that John’s dark hair resulted in a dark beard, but William thought that John would look much better if he would let his whiskers grow a bit.

The next few months found William soaking up knowledge like a flower long denied rain. Sword making was entirely different from the blacksmithing he’d been doing. The metal needed more care, more attention, the blades nursed along as carefully as any babe. The swords were works of art, inlays and intaglios, delicate traceries of leaves and vines, heraldic beasts and jewels. The work was brutally hard. Will wielded the striking hammer all day, as that was the most he was allowed to do at first. His hands were covered with small nicks and burns, but it satisfied his soul like nothing he’d ever known. He begged a few scraps of vellum from Mistress Yonary and in the light of a guttering candle, spent late nights sketching designs for the swords which had fired his imagination.

Master Bels admired William’s work and began to use it on his swords, well pleased with his apprentice. Their shop received more orders and Master Bels became more famous.

The craftsman’s guild was powerful in Camforth and it attracted many talented men for a town of its size. William became friends with an older apprentice, named Sean, from the smithy next door which worked in gold. He was a few years older than William and his family had been brought from across the Irish Sea. William loved to listen to his lilting voice and the tales of what he remembered from his homeland.

Mistress Yonary made the velvet cloak, as promised. It was a heavy thing, full and well-lined. William put it away during the summer months, but when the solstice came the nights grew chill and he wrapped himself in its softness. Its warmth kept out cold winds and its fine touch and rich color pleased his senses. The people of the town grew used to seeing him about in it. The children teased him for it, calling him cycyllau goch, or sometimes hysgallyn mhen for his light hair. But he smiled at the names, sensing no malice in them, not the way it had been in Wyre where he was game for any youth with a grudge or something to prove.





3 Visiting Liam

Master Bels was taking his family to the fair in Oswestry and he had released William to go his own way for a few days. William had determined to go home to see Liam, and Master Bels granted him permission but warned him that he must be back on the morning of the third day. Little enough time to spend in Wyre, but William missed his grandfather and the small house at the edge of the forest. Camforth was full of people, always moving, always talking. Part of him longed for the quiet of his small village. It was a five hour walk, but he could hope to find a cart part of the way. He walked out the town gate and took the north road.

Liam welcomed him crankily, hobbling around on an injured leg. “What are you doing here, boy?”

“Master Bels gave me leave to see you. What happened?”

His grandfather made a flipping motion with his hand and William knew from long experience that Liam had no intention of discussing his injury. William supposed that meant that Liam had been hurt doing something he ought not. William hunted up a jar of ale from the well house and began to pour, making sure to give Liam an overly generous portion. Liam was in a surly mood and drank without talking.

He succeeded in getting Liam into a relaxed sprawl in front of the fire, where he was soon snoring. William worked quickly, deftly getting Liam’s boot off and working his breeches up until he could find the wound.

Liam’s shin was scraped raw, nearly to the bone, and William couldn’t imagine how he might have damaged himself so. It was probably better that he remain ignorant, but he couldn’t allow Liam to neglect it, knowing it could easily fester. The skin at the edges was already red and puffy.

William wrapped his cloak around him and took himself to the weaver’s, partially to see Daniel, but mostly because Mistress Agatha was a skilled healer. He hoped he could persuade her to part with a salve without her visiting their hut. He had been dosing Liam for one thing or another ever since his mother had left them and he knew how to manage his grandfather’s sulks. Agatha’s well-intentioned meddling would do nothing other than send Liam into a fit of rage.

Master Henry greeted William’s soft knock. “William! What are you doing here? I thought you had been prenticed to that swordsmith in Camforth.”

But there was no censure in his voice and William was mildly surprised. Master Henry had never approved of him and his had been one of the strongest voices demanding that he be turned over to the nearest abbey as a child oblate. When Drusilla had fled, the voices of the village leaders had become louder, calling for Liam to put away his bastard and now motherless grandson. It was one of the few matters for which William was grateful that Liam cared naught for the opinions of others.

“I’m released for a day or two, never worry. But Liam has taken a hurt and I have need of your good wife’s potions.”

Master Henry turned into the house, motioning William to follow. “Agatha! Daniel! Look who’s come calling!”

Daniel grinned at him silently and William smiled back, greeting his quiet friend. He and Daniel would talk later.

But Agatha enveloped him in a hug pressing his face against her shoulder; she was one of the few who always had been very affectionate with him. William was surprised to find that he was taller than she now.

William described the injury to her and was grateful that she made no inquiry as to how it happened.

“I’ll go to him immediately,” she said, turning for her basket and cloak.

“No, I beg you, it is already dark and your family needs you. If you but give me the salve, I’ll see to his healing.”

He did not need to mention how much he had done it before. The whole village knew what occurred in their tiny cottage, if none made any move to help them. They were no doubt relieved that their own houses were not visited by such misfortune, and perhaps thought that Liam and William deserved whatever penance was brought down on them for their various sins.

“The boy is right, Mistress,” Henry agreed. “He can tend to old Liam whilst you see to your duties here.”

Agatha grumbled under her breath but nevertheless went to her stillroom. She returned with a small pot.

“Keep the wound dry and clean, but put this on it every few hours. And try to keep him abed with his leg up.”

Liam, of course, complained frequently and loudly about William’s insistence that he take to his bed. But William knew that he could not afford to stay with Liam longer than the time that Master Bels had given him. He refused to ruin his one chance by letting Liam pull him back into the problems that Liam created for himself. Therefore, he must have Liam as close to healed as he could get him in the short time given.

He though about the ways his life had changed while he watched over Liam’s restless sleep. The cottage was filthy, full of dust and decaying food and unwashed linens. Liam himself did not smell terribly fresh, even aside from his wound. William couldn’t imagine how he had ever lived in this manner. His grandfather continued to puzzle him. Sometimes it seemed that Liam must be altogether more than he appeared, but William could not conceive of a disaster that could have brought the man so low. William was grateful for the peace and contentment that pervaded Master Bels’ demesne.

Perhaps the new tolerance he found in the village had to do with Master Bels and his service to that good man.





4 A Shortcut Through Bodlith

The day he was to return, William got a late start, his worry over Liam’s leg keeping him long in the cottage. But Master Bels expected him back in the morn, and though it was full dark already, he would have to take the road home. He thought of that long curve of beaten dirt with despair. He would barely make it through the city gates by dawn and then put in a grueling day in front of the forge.

Liam was nodding, the ale dulling the pain in his leg already. He mumbled when William bid him farewell. William walked out of the cottage, slipping the latch and settling his cloak around him. The day had been hot though it was long past first frost, but the night had cooled down quickly, making him grateful for the heavy weight of the velvet.

He hesitated, turning to regard the dark bulk of the forest. The direct route. It would save him many miles if he took a bird’s flight through the silent woods.

The forest had lurked at the edge of childhood tales, a cautionary place where bad children went astray. It was said that the trees talked to each other and that the animals hunted any man who dared enter it. The stories claimed that there was no direction inside the woods, that the paths twisted and tangled back against each other and anyone who chanced its borders would find himself wandering lost until starvation took him or else the wild beasts.

William could see past the first ranks of trees –beeches and chestnuts and solid oaks. Ordinary trees that one encountered in everyday life. No magic. No talking. No prisoning unwary humans. He decided that the time saved would be worth the risk.

With one last glance at the mountains for his bearings, William took the path under the trees.

The trees closed in and he almost regretted the impulse to bypass the road for the forest. The quarter moon rode low, framed by tangled branches of trees reaching for it. The stars that he’d relied on all his life to steer by were uncertain and dim. William pulled the hood of his cloak tighter around his face, trying to keep the moss on the branches from striking his face. The dry leaves that were left on the branches rustled in the night wind. The forest was full of the sounds of small hurryings and busyness in the underbrush.

The squeal of bare limbs against each other raised the hair on the back of his neck, and he told himself that he was no lassie to start at odd noise. It must be the music of the forest, he told himself.

The paths twisted uncertainly and William hoped that his sense of direction had not failed him, for none of the guides were visible in the deep darkness under the trees. The mountains seemed to rise on his right and he hoped his senses weren’t deceiving him.

He had the sense that he was being followed and twice he whirled around to see what it was but the black reaches of the woods foiled his eyesight. His own breathing seemed loud in his ears, an echo of drumming of savage spirits. The forest duff deadened his footfalls, but skittering noises followed him.

A clearing opened before him. He saw that his instincts had not failed him and the stars were in their proper places. He wasn’t lost.

William took courage from that and pushed his hood back, turning to face his unknown pursuer.

“Well then? Have the courage to face a man!”

His answer was something impacting his chest, driving him into the ground. William froze for a tense instant, but a tongue came out and swiped across his face, no different from the hounds that lolled in the village dust. William nearly laughed until he saw the beast that was pressing down on his chest.

A full grown wolf stared at him with yellow eyes and William couldn’t stop his fearful whimper as the animal raised its lip, growling low and showing its teeth. He couldn’t help it, his courage deserted him and he closed his eyes, waiting for the pain and the gush of his life leaving his torn throat.

Instead, the weight on his chest was gone. William put his hand up and found that his throat was still whole and he was entirely undamaged, save for his dignity.

He sat up and looked around. There was a deeper shadow under one of the trees and William let out a small undignified shriek when it moved and started to speak.

“I beg your pardon. I mistook you for someone else.”

William had never heard that ruffians and brigands were overly polite to their prey, so he got cautiously to his feet. There was no sign of the wolf. “You’ll have my pardon after you show yourself.”

The shadow laughed, a merry sound, and then stepped away from the bole. It was a man, a rather young man, possibly not much older than William. He had long dark hair and pale skin. His eyes in the reflected moonlight were dark, much darker than William’s blue eyes. He was much taller than William, broad-shouldered, and he moved with the long-legged grace of a man accustomed to fighting.

William supposed that the man could do him any harm in the woods that he desired, and William would never be able to stop him. But for some reason his fear vanished, and he suspected that the wolf or other denizens of the night would be no match for this warrior.

“You don’t seem to be a devil or other haunt.”

The man grinned, his eyes twinkling. “I’m no devil.”

“What happened to the wolf?”

“What wolf?”

“There was a wolf . . . .”

William trailed off as the man looked at him questioningly. Perhaps he’d tripped and imagined the wolf. But no, his face felt sticky still from the slobbery tongue. Mayhap the animal took a fright when it sensed the other man.

“I didn’t see anything.”

William gave up. He needed to be home, back to his place and didn’t have time to argue about it. “Right then. I must be off home.”

“Wait.” The man held out a hand, but didn’t go any further when William flinched. “What’s your name?”

William hesitated, but though the man was mysterious and William didn’t entirely trust him, he thought that he intended William no harm.“William of Wyre. And you?”

“Alexander Blaidd. But I’m mostly called Xander.”

“Charmed.” William pulled his hood back up and wrapped the velvet cloak tightly around his body. “I’m off then.”

Xander made no move to follow and William stepped away. Eventually the prickly feeling of being watched faded away. He reached the edge of the forest not long after midnight and was soon tucked in his own bed, safe and warm.

He thought to himself that the forest was neither as haunted nor as dangerous as tales made it to be. But he decided that when he next cut through it, he would be sure that he had plenty of daylight for his trek.




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