Red by Paul Freeman
The girl stood in the centre of the clearing, staring straight up. Sunlight pierced the heavy growth of the forest through a gap in the overhead canopy. She could feel the heat of the sun on her face, when she pulled back the heavy dark hood of her cape. She closed her eyes and absorbed the sounds and smells of the forest. Birds singing, insects buzzing, small woodland creatures scurrying in the undergrowth. She breathed in the pungent earthy smell of the trees and forest floor.
Long strands of thick hair, the colour of molten metal flowed down her back. Like lava streaming down the side of a snow covered mountain, her father had once remarked, referring to her pale white skin and fiery mane. She opened her eyes, two sapphires, two deepest mountain pools. Full rose red lips quivered slightly, the barest hint of agitation.
She was hungry. She looked at the basket she carried in her left hand, imagined it’s contents, imagined gorging herself on the bounty that was her burden.
No! That is not for you.
Silently she cursed herself for leaving the path, she thought she would make it to the cottage by nightfall, she thought she knew a shortcut, she thought she would be safe. Now she was lost, lost and alone. Which way?
She turned in a circle, no longer sure which way she had come. Even if she wanted to, there would be no going back. She bit her lower lip as she tried to gauge how much daylight was left. She swallowed a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She took a breath, was about to cry out, then stopped. Who would hear her? Who would come? What would come? Were there bears in the forest? She wasn’t sure, she had never heard her father mention them, there were other creatures though, not all made of flesh and blood.
Spirits and goblins, demons and monsters.
They were only stories, tales to frighten children. She was no longer a child. She had to deliver her basket. There were no dragons or ghosts, no wailing banshees or screaming terrors.
She tensed as she felt a change in the atmosphere of the forest, perhaps it was her imagination. Had it got colder? No. What was it? She listened.
Nothing! Her eyes darted about, her ears strained. There was nothing, no sounds, no birds, no scurrying animals. Just silence.
She jumped at the sound. A dead branch cracked. Somebody was there, something was there.
She ran, hitching up her skirts, she bolted like a frightened fawn, fleeing deeper into the forest flaming red hair streaming behind her, her dark cape billowing. She could hear it’s grunts behind her, feel it’s hot breath on the back of her neck. Razor sharp fangs ready to devour her whole.
Don’t look back.
Even the forest turned against her, branches reached for her, bramble tried to block her way, roots appeared from the ground to trip her. All the while, it gained on her. She fell over a log, her hands reached out to save her, she dropped her basket, before hitting her head on a rock.
Grandmother, she sighed, a whisper, like a kiss from a warm breeze. Her last thought before the darkness was for her Grandmother, alone and unwell in the cottage.
In her dream, her broken body was found by a wolf, her injured head licked clean and miraculously healed. In her dream, she was safe.
She opened her eyes, all was black, night had fallen. She felt groggy, her head ached. She put her hand to her head and it came away sticky, she could smell the metallic scent of blood. She heard a long mournful wail.
She scrambled up and away. Running blindly through the forest, thorns cut her hands and face, ripped her cape and skirts. She struggled and ran until she could run no further, until her heart felt as if it would burst in her heaving chest, until each breath of gulped air burned her lungs, until the muscles in her legs ached unbearably.
She stopped. Waited. She realised she had lost her basket. It no longer mattered.
She did not have long to wait. From the darkness of the forest he emerged, his movements quick and lithe. She gasped when she saw him. A wolf walking on two legs, taller than she. No, not a wolf, a man, dressed in furs, a great axe slung across his body. He snarled, she tensed. When he came close she could smell his fetid breath. Blood. She looked into his yellow eyes, wild and unreadable.
She jumped back when he pulled something from behind his back. Her basket. His hands where black with dirt, his fingernails long and filthy. He sniffed the air around her and bared his teeth, they were unnaturally long and sharp. She could feel her heart beating wildly as she took the basket.
In the distance a wolf howled. She turned towards the sound, when she looked back he was gone.
She heard another howl then, closer, then another and another.
Run, Red, run!