Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Red (Fractured Fairy Tale #1)

In the spirit of Halloween, I've put together a mini-series of Fractured Fairy Tales. This is the first, based on Red Riding Hood. 


     When I was little, winter meant packing on layer after layer of wool sweaters. It meant huddling beneath a rough-spun quilt with baby Buck and Pa and shivering out the coldest nights, watching our fire sputter and die. It meant Pa looking at me helplessly, question in his eyes, and me sprinting the distance between the door and the woodpile, my toes numb before I could take more than a few steps. The year I turned fifteen, winter meant watching Pa wither and die beneath that same quilt, and waiting for sunrise so Buck and I could haul him outside our cabin. We burned him, his body wrapped in the quilt, and it wasn't until dusk that Buck nudged my hand, jolting me to my senses and reminding me that the dark brought the worst of the cold.
But I grew up, and Buck grew up, and winters came to mean the two of us trudging through hip-high snow checking snares and sharing whatever vegetables I'd managed to preserve the autumn before. Usually it was enough to keep the worst of the hunger at bay.

     Except when it wasn't.

     When that happened, Buck and I would leave the cabin, me wrapped in the blood-red cloak Ma wore on her wedding day and Buck hurrying beside me. He always got around in the snow better than I did, even when he was so small the drifts swallowed him whole.

     The forest surrounding our cabin was so thick it felt like a wall of trees. A comforting embrace for us, but the steady stream of passengers that cut through the far northern end were terrified of it. The sight of Buck and I appearing from the trees usually brought shifty-eyed glances at best, and curses and thrown rocks at worst.
     But we had a system, Buck and I.

     Even when he was little, Buck understood the benefit of silence. He never made a sound, though the chill bit into our skin as we waited for someone – always a man, always traveling alone, always well-dressed – to round the bend in the path ahead. I would tense. Buck would stay silent.

     The trees gave enough cover for Buck to hide among them as I stumbled onto the path, red cloak billowing around me like flame. I gasped and shook and tore at the ground, for all the world a terrified girl who, on a visit to a far-away grandmother, strayed too far from her family's wagon. I'd been lost in the woods for the better part of the day, and my tear-stained cheeks silenced any doubts my heroes had.

     “My little brother- he's lost in there,” I stammered between sobs. “That's why- why I went into the trees in the first place. He left the path, and I didn't think he had gone too far ...”

     Nine times out of ten, it worked. The men puffed their chests, leveled their eyes somewhere along the stretch of dress between my neck and my stomach, and set into the trees.

     “Tough one, you are,” one of them remarked to me as we traipsed through the snow. His leather boots left deep impressions with each step. “Surviving a whole day in the wild, on your own. Wonder, it is.”

     I let my eyes go wide, disbelieving. “Why?”

     “Lord Almighty. You not seen the notices?”

     Of course I had. It seemed to me they were nailed to every other tree along the path.

     “I can't read.”

     “Ah.” His face softened. “There be wolves about, miss. Snatchin' folk right and left, they are. Is why they tell us to travel in groups, and why it's a miracle your bones ain't gettin' chewed on right this second.”

     Gasping, I clutched the cloak to my chin, until its hood bunched along my jaw.

     “Why are you alone then, sir?”

     “I'm not afraid of wolves,” he said. “Dumb beasts, is what they is. And man- well, man is ruler over the beasts, is he not? A clever man can go anywhere he wants, with only his own company. Long as he keeps his wits about him.”

     He shifted his own cloak aside, revealing a hatchet with a blade twice the size of both my hands held together.

     “'Course, there's no sense in traveling unprepared.”

     I made a soft, impressed noise in the back of my throat.

     As we walked, I watched for faint shadows of Buck darting from tree to tree, silent as always. He let me see him once, and caught my eye long enough to tell me, in his own way, that he was ready when I was.
I nodded.

     Later, as the last rays of sunlight glowed orange and gold through the cabin's windows, Buck gave a satisfied groan and snuggled closer to me. Warmth bloomed on my skin, held captive beneath the quilt I'd stitched together from the finest men's cloaks. A hatchet lay by the door, its handle still slightly wet from the hours I'd spent scrubbing it to rid it of blood and hair.

     I took a deep breath. Buck's fur smelled like blood and a kind of wildness only a wolf could possess. The first soft, easy whisper of sleep drifted over me, and I smiled. Buck hid his kills well. Our latest hero would last him a few weeks, if not longer. The next day, I would walk to town and buy enough food for myself to bridge the gap until the spring thaw.

     And the hatchet?

     That would come in handy the next time our supplies ran low.

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