The small village was bustling with life, the villagers enjoying the warm spring sun as they hurried to prepare for the spring festival, only a few days away. Merchants were trickling in from all around, setting up their stalls, talking and laughing with each other. Everyone was eager to be a part of the big event.
Red smiled weakly and mouthed a quiet thank you to the merchant she'd been haggling with. She had gotten most of what she had wanted to buy and it was high time to head back before Granny became any more irate than she no doubt already was. With a sigh, she shot a last hopeful glance at the crowd behind her. Maybe this year, Granny would let her see the festival? Still, while the wolf sightings this winter had been nothing more than rumors, Granny had been as strict as ever. She sighed again, shaking her head. A few hours at the festival during daylight would be the best she could hope for.
Despite her bright red cloak, not many people noticed her as she walked past them with hurried steps and head bent. The few who did, viewed her with worry, curiosity, even fear. She was the strange girl living out there in the forest with no one but her granny – why wouldn't people talk? In fact, if things continued as they did, she might even become more of a bogeyman than the wolves and monsters in the forest were.
It would have been amusing if it hadn't been so true.
After all, she didn't have more freedom now than when she was little; if anything, the opposite was true. Mary had left soon after she showed up and Peter – even Peter – hadn't been able to stand Granny's hostility forever. Not long after Mary had left, he had followed suit, only leaving a brief note behind. The worst part of it was that Red hadn't even been surprised; she had know exactly what the note was as soon as she had laid eyes on it. Granny had only scoffed, talking about "that boy" and huffing that it was better this way.
Deep in her thoughts, she didn't notice the men in front of her until she almost collided with one of them.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she quickly apologized, taking a few steps back. "I didn't see you– I was lost in thought–"
"Please, there's no problem," the man said with a smile, waving away her apology. "I should be the one to apologize, Ma'am."
Red let out a little giggle, surprised at the overly formal manners of the man. He was oddly dressed too, wearing full armor and a sword on his hip. His dozen or so comrades that were walking by next to him were all dressed the same. "You're soldiers," Red noted, watching the sun bounce of the polished metal of their armor. Feeling a bit foolish from pointing out the obvious, she continued, "I mean, it's not something you see everyday in these parts."
"Indeed. We're part of the Royal Guard." He bowed, the smile still firm on his lips. "But fear not, we're only passing through."
"Well then," Red said, responding with a curtsy, "I wish you luck on your journey."
The soldier dipped his head again and then joined his comrades farther down the road. Red followed them with her eyes until they disappeared into the crowd, an odd sensation in her chest. Hope? Excitement? Envy? Perhaps a mix of all of them. Soldiers... they traveled, saw the world, and they fought; they didn't hide away in a cottage for year after year, hoping that someday maybe everything would be alright. They fought.
That day, she had a little more bounce in her step than usual on her way home.
"You're late," was the gruff greeting Red got as soon as she stepped inside Granny's cottage. "What did you do this time, flirt with another good-for-nothing boy?"
"I..." She paused, wondering if there was any point in stirring the hornets nest. Although, it couldn't exactly get worse, could it? "There were a few soldiers passing through. I spoke to one of them. He seemed very nice."
"Soldiers," Granny scoffed. "Swords for hire, that's what they are. Butchering anything that their kings or queens or whoever pays them the most tells them to."
"At least they fight," Red countered, tired of her grandmother's constant dismissal of anything and everything outside of their cottage.
"And they die." Granny let the words hang in the air for a while and then shook her head. "That's what happens to people like that. That's what happened to your parents." She went over to the front door and locked it tightly. "Foolish people, that's what they were. You can't fight everything and you certainly can't win every time. Sooner or later, you're going to lose and that's the end of it." Huffing, she shot Red a reproachful look. "Enough talk about that. You know what to do."
Red slumped, knowing she wouldn't get any further with Granny, at least not this night. "Yes, Granny," she sighed, going to each window and closing the shutters. When she was done, she turned back towards Granny, wringing her hands slightly. "The spring festival is only a few days away," she mentioned.
Granny muttered something inaudible.
"Can I go this year?"
"That hullabaloo?" Granny grunted, shaking her head. "We'll see."
What little elation Red had felt from her trip to the village was swept away by Granny's dismissal. As much as she phrased it with uncertainty, "we'll see" never meant "yes". It was just Granny's way to avoid the confrontation.
"Now off to bed with you," Granny continued, sitting down in the rocking chair in front of the door, crossbow secure in her grip. "And don't forget the cloak. It's almost wolfstime and red–"
"–repels wolves," Red filled in. "Yes, Granny, I know."
Red closed the door behind her and took a deep, shaky breath. As much as she loved her granny, the complete control she had over Red's life was too much, making her feel suffocated and cornered. She threw herself onto her bed, staring up at the ceiling. Seeing those soldiers had awoken an urge in her, something she hadn't felt for months, not since Mary and Peter left. It was the urge to run, to leap out of the confines of the cottage and run freely through the wilderness. Much like the wolves she had been taught to fear so much, ironically.
But despite her own feelings towards the creatures – even despite the fact that a pack of wolves had been responsible for killing her parents – she couldn't help but admire them. They were free and they were strong. They didn't cower in fear or hide in their home for decades. No, they fought, like the soldiers she'd met in the village.
As she lay there, mulling over the day's events, a plan slowly started to form. She could leave. She could leave, run away and go her own way, create her own life. She could travel to another kingdom, even become a soldier. The more she thought about it, the more her excitement grew. Jumping out of the bed, she tiptoed over to the door and listened carefully. Soft snores told her all she needed to know, but she knew she still had to be careful. Her granny's sharp hearing had surprised her more than once.
With light steps, she went back to her bed and sat down. Biting her lip, she pulled out the dagger she always kept with her. If she were going to do this, there was one thing in particular she had to do. While women were known to serve in armies and as mercenaries, they were never the norm. She didn't want to be special anymore, to be the strange girl in the red cloak that all the villagers whispered about, which meant she couldn't be a girl anymore.
She shrugged off her cloak and ran her fingers through her hair, eventually picking out and holding up one of her tresses. After a brief moment of hesitation, she cut it off. "Okay," she mumbled, her heart racing. The world hadn't ended and Granny hadn't run into the room, ranting and raving. Another tress joined the first on the bed beside her, then a third and a fourth. Soon, her hair was not even half a foot long, standing in odd angles. She knew it probably wasn't particularly pretty, but it would have to do. Running her hand over her scalp again, she couldn't help the small giggle that escaped her lips. It felt so strange, so forbidden, yet so good.
Imbued with confidence, she rifled through her clothes, glad that she owned a few tunics and hoses and not only dresses and corsets. Looking down on her chest, she frowned. She'd have to cover that up somehow. Luckily, she quickly found a worn tunic that she could sacrifice, cutting it up into a long band, mindful of the sounds she was making. It took a few tries, but she eventually managed to bind her chest with the remains of the old tunic. The result was neither perfect nor particularly comfortable, but it covered her up well enough.
The moon was peeking in through the cracks of the window shutters when she was finally getting ready to leave. Even if she maybe didn't look completely masculine, she certainly didn't look like a girl anymore. She wore a loose tunic that covered what little her bound chest didn't, a pair of dark hoses and a simple, dark green cloak. Her bow was on her back, her dagger in her belt and slung over her shoulder was a bag filled with what little more she needed to bring: extra clothes, a few coins and a few trinkets.
She opened the window as quietly as possible, looking back at what had been her home for as long as she could remember. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving it, even at leaving Granny despite their differences, but she knew it was what she had to do; she had to get her own life. Her eyes lingered at the red cloak carelessly tossed in a crumpled heap on her bed, the color strong and vibrant in the moonlight. Wearing it would have made her far too recognizable, but it didn't stop her from wanting it anyway. After a few moments of hesitation she gave up, walked over to the bed, picked it up and put it in her bag. As much as she hated what it stood for, she still loved that cloak.
With a last glance around the room, Red hoisted herself up onto and through the window, landing on the ground with a soft thud. Adjusting the bag, she took off quickly, intent on covering as much land as she could before Granny noticed she was missing.