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Scarlet

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"Don't go into the wood," they said. "There are things in the wood, dark things," they said. But no one ever seemed to agree on just what it was that inhabited the wood beyond the village.

Some spoke of wolves and other vicious creatures. Some spoke of demons or spirits. Some spoke of souls of the unsettled dead.

Scarlet's father said there was nothing in the wood, nothing but the animals one would find in any wood. Nothing that would offer undue threat to the prudent traveler.

Scarlet's father was not afraid to travel through the wood, to take the path that would more than halve the time to the next nearest villages, but yet was universally avoided. He'd taken Scarlet through sometimes herself as a child, seated ahead of him on his horse and looking curiously about her.

That was when Scarlet's father was still around, of course. And then one day the child Scarlet was helping her mother hang out the washing outside their house, her eyes straying as they often did to the shadow of the wood at the edge of the village. She was the first to see the familiar silhouette of a tall man in a red coat on a black horse appearing from the verge of the woods. But the horse was galloping at a breakneck pace, and continued directly until they reached the house. When he dismounted she saw his face blanched beneath his dark hair, his arms tightly clutching the body of her little brother, too still and stone cold.

She remembered her mother red-faced, screaming and crying. But her father was a wraith of himself, his dark eyes sunken and lined. No word was spoken, but somehow she knew, and she knew they all knew, he would not be long for this world himself.

Scarlet's father didn't speak at all after that.

Scarlet's mother spoke of faeries in the wood.

***

Scarlet’s mother passed her a pile of neatly folded fabrics. “I want you to take these to your grandmother’s house, so she can sell them for us. It will be market day in her village on the morrow, a market much bigger than ours, and traders from the cities are often present. Take the path around the woods, and don’t dawdle. I want you to be home well before nightfall,” she instructed her. Scarlet hardly noticed the words, for they were the same every week. They had had to sell the profitable farm when Scarlet’s father died, it being too much for a single woman and child to manage. But Scarlet’s mother had taken up weaving, and with only the two of them to support, they got by.

She slipped the fabrics into her basket, slipping a pocket knife in between layers of cloth just in case. Scarlet’s mother picked up her red cloak from its hook by the door, laid it over her shoulders, and fastened it tightly about her with a snug knot.

“A red cloth tied about the chest will protect the wearer from faeries,” Scarlet’s mother had said when she made it for her. Scarlet saw no reason to believe that there were faeries. Even if there were, she did not see how the cloak was any different from the red coat her father habitually wore, and that did not seem to have had much of any effect.

Still, she liked it all the same; it was a fine cloak, and it kept her warm. Soon enough she was so known for it that many in the village began to think she had been named for it, forgetting she had been Scarlet long before there was any cloak. (To be fair, it was a rather strange name for a girl with snow pale skin and raven dark hair.)

She walked briskly out from their cottage to the edge of the village, to the place where the path reached the edge of the wood and branched. One branch curved around and followed the border between tree and field; the other plunged unswervingly into the heart of the forest. And at that fork, as she often did, she paused.

In former times the verge of the forest had extended even to where the village now stood, but that had been cut away so that now the edge of the dense, full growth of the wood came on suddenly. Bare of leaves, the trees that rose up in a forbidding wall were dark, nearly black shapes, particularly in the dim twilight of that winter morning. If one could look down from above, Scarlet, like the ravens that darted about overhead and ventured in and out of the trees, the village with its thatched roofs would be a small dark spot pinned between the black mass of the forest and the white stretch of snow-covered fields. She herself would be no more than a tiny red speck, like a single drop of blood.

She looked again at the wall of oak, ash, and thorn that rose up before her, and could have sworn she heard faint strains of music from within the depths of the wood. She felt almost as if someone was beckoning to her.

And why not? Tales and superstitions, stories no one could even agree on, that was all the evidence anyone had to condemn the wood. Why not? She could be done with her errand in half the time.

She stepped onto the path that led into the wood.

It was quiet, peaceful. The trees cast long shadows, but that was hardly a reason to be afraid. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, nothing twisted and ominous like the fireside tales suggested. Once she thought she heard a wolf howl, but the sound came from a long way away. She walked briskly along the path, making good time, until she thought she must have been at least halfway through.

It seemed to her that she saw a lightening of the shadowed wood ahead of her, and she thought perhaps that she was coming up upon the far edge, that she was nearly across.

That was when she came upon the meadow. A faint speck of blue caught her eye along the side of the path. When she looked closer, she saw a bluebell peeking up through the light dusting of snow on the ground. There was another beyond it, and another.

She stepped off the path to look closer, entranced by the unexpected growth of the flowers in winter. She would still be more than an hour earlier than usual, so she saw no harm in making a short detour. She followed the trail of them, straying further from the path.

The wood opened up onto a broad meadow filled with bluebells, a tapestry of blue on white. Hardly believing they could be real, wondering how they could be growing in the depths of winter, she bent down to touch one.

She heard the wolf’s howl again, and was more disconcerted, but her fingers sought out the knife hidden in her basket, and she told herself that the sound was still a good ways off, and she was reassured. A moment later she had almost convinced herself that she had only imagined it, as the faint strains of music she thought she’d heard at the edge of the wood came again. She ventured further into the meadow, following the sound and seeking for its source until the music faded away.

Well, that was that, Scarlet thought. Time to get on with her errand. She would just stop and pick a few of the flowers while she had the chance, and then she’d go back to the path. She pulled up a handful of delicate bluebells.

For the third time, she heard a wolf howling. And this time, it was very, very close.

She panicked, and bolted.

As she ran blindly through the thick knots of trees, she realized she no longer knew where the path was. She could be out of the wood and safe soon, very soon – if only she could find the path.

She stumbled over a thick root, tripped, and tumbled over head over heels. But when she brushed herself off and got to her feet, she realized that she had ended up back on the path. She fairly ran the rest of the way, and in minutes she was out of her wood, and there was her grandmother’s house welcoming her at the edge of the village.

Scarlet paused to catch her breath. She smoothed out her cloak, checked her basket to make sure everything was still there, and stepped up to the door, where she knocked three times. “Grandmama? It’s Scarlet.”

“Come in, child,” her grandmother called out.

She frowned, for her grandmother would usually come to the door, but she shrugged it off, and let herself in.

“I have a basket of cloths from Mother for you to take to market,” she said, looking around. Was it just her, or did the cottage somehow seem greyer, dimmer than usual?

“Set them down on the table, child,” her grandmother said from where she was laying in bed. “There’s wine and meat in the cupboard, help yourself. I’m afraid I haven’t been well.”

So Scarlet set down her basket on the table and opened the cupboard to find the wine and meat there. When she was done with her meal, she came over to her grandmother’s bedside.

“Are you going to be okay, Grandmama?” she asked.

“Don’t worry about me, child,” Scarlet’s grandmother reassured her.

“Are you sure?” she asked with concern, leaning forward and looking closer. “You look too pale and thin … and your eyes are too narrow … and your teeth are too sharp!” she exclaimed, realization dawning slowly that this was not her grandmother.

Not-grandmother snarled, and suddenly was no longer a malformed human shape but a wolf leaping out of the bed and at her.

The warnings and tales of faeries that she had disregarded but had nevertheless heard from her mother many times came rushing back to her. She had to get to her basket and the cold iron blade concealed within it. As she backed up hastily, she swept her red cloak off, turning it inside out.

The glamour broke, and she took in the changes around her in a moment. She was surrounded no longer by the solid walls of her grandmother’s cottage but a collection of small trees and branches twisted together in a crude approximation of the shape of a house, standing in a meadow in the midst of the dark wood. The dishes she had eaten from were only a hollow acorn and a leaf, sitting on a stump beside her basket. The figure confronting her was no longer a wolf but once more a tall faerie, almost human looking but too thin, pale, and pointed of feature and dressed in tattered rags – but he was still leaping at her.

Stumbling back against the stump the table had become, she managed to reach her basket and found her knife tucked between the layers of fabric. She unsheathed the cold iron blade and held it out before her.

The faerie retreated slightly. But his feral smile unnerved her, and the knife fell from her trembling fingers. She shrunk back, terrified, as he advanced on her. “Please, please, if you know any mercy, spare me my life. Let me go free.” she faintly heard her voice pleading.

The faerie laughed, a cold, cruel sound. “I have no use for you dead. But those who eat of faerie food forfeit their freedom forever. Still, I suppose I could be moved to release you…”

He picked up her cloak from the floor, stroking his long-fingered hands over the fabric. He draped it over her shoulders, and she shivered when his fingers touched her. Somehow the cloak felt softer, thicker. He fastened it tightly around her with a snug knot.

Scarlet fell to her hands and knees, and felt her body changing. Then she knew only simple, animal thought.

She lifted up her head and howled.