The Scarlet Woman (Fantastical Bookie Challange)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
My short story entry for MysticDolphin's Fantastical Booksie Challange.

Rumors talk of the mysterious and ellusive Scarlet Woman who roams the countryside, protecting the helpless, defending the defenceless, and instilling fear in the hearts of men and wolves alike who desire to do harm, all in the disguise of her trademark mask and bloodred cape. So why would a fearless woman like her ever have a reason to fear the dark woods?

Submitted: January 09, 2011

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Submitted: January 09, 2011

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The young woman stood alone at the top of the tall tower, peering out into the forest faintly illuminated by the waning daylight. A broad expanse of fresh snow glimmered dully in the dim twilight, separating the castle from the village on one side and the woods on the other. The cold wind whipped about the woman without mercy, but she shrugged it off as if it were nothing, merely pulling her trademark blood red cloak closer about her for warmth. She had suffered much worse before. This had been the twilight she had been privately dreading for weeks, a night not unlike many previous ones before it, and so she preferred to stand atop the battlement without company and await the nightfall that would once again bring about the torment that she alone would have to face.

The woman sighed; she had been lonely-as some might call it-for much of her life, and the solitude had grown on her, but she all too often contemplated that perhaps these nights when she preferred to be alone the most were in fact the worst times to be alone. There was too much time for reflection. Each of these nights she would come up to her perch to stare out at the woods that she so loved and so despised, and the same question would always cross her mind: how did I end up here? The woman never liked to dwell in the past, but how could she not when her past, present, and future were so helplessly entangled?

That question which constantly plagued her mind was surprisingly similar the questions that abounded concerning her in the village, for she had been a mystery to the townsfolk for many years. Or at least, it had seemed like many years; in appearance at least she was very young, and beautiful, too. But just how long had it been since she had arrived at the castle, as the supposed bride for its mysterious inhabitant? And how many years more since said master of the castle had disappeared without a trace, leaving his bride as the sole mistress of the manor and surrounding lands? It could not have been very long, nor the lady very old, for her two children were still young. Exactly how anyone in the village knew this for sure was a mystery itself, for no one from the town ever had the opportunity to enter the castle and hardly anyone ever left it, meaning that the only ones to have ever seen the children-of-the-house were the servants and the lady herself. No one knew the exact reason, but almost as soon as word of the twins' birth had gotten out, her ladyship had ordered that a high outer wall be built around the castle, cutting it off from the village, or perhaps more importantly, the woods.

The woman knew exactly what the villagers said of her, and cared little about it. What concern was it of theirs how she should go about protecting her children from the world that had treated her so harshly when she was a child? Who were they to judge her; she, who had given them protection from the evils that surrounded the village, though they knew not that it was she who was their mysterious protector. She, who had inspired fear in the hearts of men and wolves across her land, spawning a legend that was told to many children  in many other villages that she would not dare to tell her own children of? Had she not herself walked amongst these villagers as a young girl as one of them? It brought a wry smile to the woman's face to know that none of the townsfolk she had known in her childhood would recognize her now. She still had the dark, lustrous hair from her youth, the color of which matched the strange, bejeweled wooden hilt of the sword at her hip. But she grown much from the baby fat of maidenhood into a tall, slender, and exceedingly beautiful woman graced with generous curves and a lovely angular face. Her full lips, naturally ruddy, were painted even darker to match the bloody redness of the velvet cloak.

Her attire, though unusual and mostly very simple, only served to enhance her sultry, almost feral, beauty: a plain, front-lace bodice over a low-cut ruffled blouse, black suede pants tucked into well-worn boots, and black leather gauntlets to match. Over all of this was draped her brilliant crimson cloak. Next to such plain attire, the color of the garment seemed almost garish, even in the semi-darkness. The woman had many jewels, but this simple cape was her prized possession, as much part of the mythos that surrounded her as were her actions and appearances across the countryside. Though she was young, she had come to be known by many names by those who did not know of her true identity, many having as much to do with her trademark cloak as with her vigilante-style heroism: the Red Lady, the Assassin, the Huntress, the Bloody Countess, the Swordmistress, and perhaps her most famous guise, the Scarlet Woman. Ah, the Scarlet Woman; now if that name were not a small bit of irony to amuse the lady! True, she was a "Lady of the night" after a fashion, but the Scarlet Woman herself found it quite perplexing to be associated-if only in name-with the loose morals of the village prostitutes. Still, she liked her title just fine and in a way it suited her well. It was, after all, a far cry from her innocent childhood nickname of "Little Red".

But her eyes! They were the most changed thing about her. As a child, they had been a merry periwinkle blue, her only inheritance from a father she had never known. Now they were two glistening black onyx staring out into the forest, the only discernable evidence of her curse. Like her stoic expression, they revealed nothing. To look into her eyes was akin to peering out into the abysmal darkness of blackest midnight. If the eyes were the windows to the soul, then the depths of the Scarlet Woman's soul were unfathomable. How and when the change had occurred had long been forgotten by her, but she could only guess that it had something to do with the curse that had begun its evil work on her so long ago that day in the forest...

How did I get here? She had asked it of herself many times, but she knew the question was irrelevant. She had known for years that the answer lay in her all-to-perfect memory of that day in the woods...

She had been a motherless child for almost as long as she could remember, and fatherless for even longer. Her mother had been just about ready to drop the baby when she had stumbled into her own mother's secluded cottage that bitter winter's night, bloody dagger in hand and clutching her swollen belly in pain. The Red Lady's birth had been a difficult one, culminating with her grandmother, ever the expert midwife, taking the knife from her daughter's hand and cutting the baby out herself. Weeks later, after recovering from near death, Little Red's mother took leave of the cottage, leaving her baby girl in her mother's care. She stoutly refused to reveal her destination and no amount of coaxing or cursing could get her to reveal the father's name. To her baby daughter she gave two unusual gifts: the dagger she had carried with her-which turned out to be pure silver and encrusted with blood red rubies-and an elaborately wrought silver crucifix, which she placed around her baby's neck. And then she was gone, disappearing into the woods as mysteriously as she had arrived.

Her mother was not to return for nearly four years, during which time the old midwife had raised her granddaughter as her own child. Though the little girl was naive and often mischievous, Granny loved her very much and vowed to educate her well in the ways of the apothecary and benevolent magic. The old woman knew that the child was special, perhaps in some sinister way, but rather than try to suppress her unusualness she sought to enhance it and channel it towards good. In a bold display of her granddaughter's uniqueness, she decided to fashion for her a beautiful red cape and cap, the same cape for which the girl would earn the nickname of Little Red, and the very one which the Scarlet Woman would later model her legendary cloak off of. Little Red wore it proudly as she skipped along the forest paths and walked hand-in-hand with Granny in the village square, blissfully unaware of the whispered accusations of "witch" directed at her grandmother, or the town gossips' talk of her as demon spawn and the daughter of a shameless slut.

Her mother's return, however, was no momentous or joyous event in Little Red's young life, for she had lived more than three years without knowing of her existence. The little girl was playing in front of the hearth when she heard the pounding on the door. Granny came to open it, and bade her granddaughter to move away as she dragged the woman who had collapsed in her arms into the bedroom. Little Red stood transfixed with fascination and horror at the sight of the stranger, eyes rolled back in her head and moaning with fever, her arms and face bloodied and a sheen of sweat across her pale skin where it could been seen beneath the blood. The old midwife's cry of anguish was not long in coming after depositing her long-lost child on the bed, and she hurried out of the room, frantically whirling about in search of something. She brushed her dumbfounded granddaughter aside as she moved to open the cabinet, taking from it a familiar-looking magnificent dagger gleaming with silver, and marched back to the bedroom, closing the door without another word. Late that night, long after she had believed Little Red to be asleep, she burned the filthy, bloodstained clothes and buried her daughter in a secluded spot deep in the forest, a sprig of wolf bane the grave's only marker. The little girl knew not where her Granny had struggled to carry the woman's limp body, but she had smelled the stench of death on the fire and heard the prayer whispered at the stranger's deathbed.

Granny never told the child that the stranger was her mother, but by the time the girl had grown into a maiden, she was able to figure it out on her own. It would not be until years later that the Scarlet Woman would discover that her own mother had been a legendary Huntress in much the same sense that she herself now was. So perhaps it was something in her blood that fueled the little girl's endless curiosity about the strange silver knife, a curiosity that alarmed her grandmother to the extent that she buried it in the garden, only to find it in the cabinet again the next day without a trace of dirt on it. It was this very knife that the maiden would take with her for protection on that fateful walk in the woods.

Her Granny had been very sick that day, too sick to get out of bed. The old woman refused to let the village physician near her, but she commanded her grandchild nonetheless to take herbs from the garden and trade them in the marketplace for bread and meat. The young maiden put on her red cloak without complaint, secretly tucking the silver dagger at the bottom of her basket, and set out on the forest path without fear. Little Red, naive as she was, hardly knew the meaning of fear, even in the dark woods, for her grandmother had taught her that the woods would never harm her, so long as she never strayed from the path.

The maiden had taken the path many times before and knew the way to town and back very well, but never had she travelled through the woods at such a late hour, nor in such horrible weather. The wind howled with the rage of the unexpected storm, and several times Little Red had to take cover under the trees from a sudden downpour of rain. By the time night had fallen, she was certain that her grandmother must have been very worried, and was frightened to discover that she had lost sight of the right path back home. How was she to know, then, that when He came upon her alone in the dark, his intentions were not quite as innocent as merely helping her to find her way?

Her assailant was not of the usual type, and in the darkness, many things about him were uncertain. But somehow, it never occurred to the girl to retrieve her silver knife from her basket; indeed, she had quite forgotten about it, along with her previous worries about being stranded in the woods. She had been found, after all, and by an intriguingly mysterious and handsome stranger at that. He was more helpful to her than she could have imagined, and on more than just that one occasion; they would meet in the woods again not long after that night...

And that was when the Red Lady's curse was truly placed upon her. Had she only seen Him for what he was, had she only stayed on the path, had never put her faith in the persuasions and promises of that charming stranger... his promises had all sounded to bizarre to be true, so how come she could not just simply laugh them off? If she had believed her eyes and soul when she beheld before her a beast ready to devour her, would she have still unwittingly become his bride, mistress, and wedding-feast all at once?

The Scarlet Woman started from her reverie; by now the wind had died down and the sun was nearly set. She had stayed too long! Knowing full well that the moon would be up soon and her doom upon her, the Huntress left her tower perch with a flourish of her magnificent red cloak. Her steps were brisk and urgent as she marched through the castle halls, momentarily hesitating as she passed a large wardrobe in a dark corner. Resolving herself, she unhooked her sword sheath from her belt and placed her weapon in the cabinet on the highest shelf next to a black mask and a spare pair of leather gloves. There would be no need for her blade or disguise on this night, she knew, though she refused to part with the silver dagger encrusted with rubies. For though she did not need it, the Scarlet Woman wished only to draw what small comfort that she could from its presence. This cursed night would not be like the others before it: tonight in the woods, her curse would at last serve its true purpose.

With this in mind, the woman set forth again and walked on in silence until she had reached the doors of the family parlor. Inside, she found her two little ones, Hansel and Gretel, playing a game of marbles on the carpet as their nurse watched nervously from the plush armchair. She cleared her throat loudly as her ladyship entered. No sooner had she done this than the twins leapt up from their game and bounded joyfully over to their mother.

"Mama!" little Hansel cried, throwing himself into his mother's waiting arms as she knelt down to greet them.

"My dears!" she exclaimed, "Why aren't you in bed yet? I hope you two haven't been up to too much mischief today!" She pulled away from their embrace and took a good look at them, feeling, as she all too often did, that she may never see them again. They were the most beautiful children in the world, Hansel with his mother's dark hair and Gretel with her mane of bright gold curls. And both with a pair of merry periwinkle blue eyes.

How could a mother with as much love as I do for such two perfect children not wish to do all she can to protect them? Though the lady. I never had a mother to love me, and my grandmother only gave me the protection of a cape and a hood; what good are those against the evils of the wild forest? If only they could understand what lengths I go to offer them the protection of these walls...

As she pulled back, the crucifix that had been hidden in her bodice spilled forward, shimmering with silver in the firelight. Little Gretel grasped the chain eagerly in her hand; eyes alight with wonderment at the shiny trinket.

"Oh, pretty!" she said.

A sharp intake of breath, almost hiss-like, came from the Lady's perfect red mouth, but the mother allowed her little child to admire the treasure before gently prying it from the disappointed girl's grasp. With her gloved hand she slipped the crucifix back into her bodice, her face belying her alarm at the sudden heat of the necklace burning into her skin. The moment she felt the heat, a singularly chilling howl could be heard from afar, faint but clear. The room fell deathly silent at the sound as if by command. The mother rose to leave; it was time.

Little Hansel held her back. "Mama," he said, "Can't you just stay here tonight with us? I don't like it when the wolves howl, it scares me. Why do you always leave at night? And why do you always leave on the nights when the wolves howl? Do they scare you too, Mama?"

The Bloody Countess’s entire body shivered, the silver symbol scorching into her breast; she needed to leave, to take flight, but she felt rooted in place. "Wolves are not your friends, Hansel, but you needn't fear them so. I'll keep those big bad wolves away, I promise," she said, ruffling her son's dark hair. "Nurse, please make sure to put them to bed on time; you know what time to expect my return." She turned to leave the room.

"Yes, milady," the nurse replied with only the slightest shiver. The old woman had never been privy to the secrets of her mistress's nightly journeys, but she was not stupid; when, on such a night, the moon happened to be full and the wolves howled, quite little was left to the imagination as to her ladyship's destination.

The snow had begun to fall thick and fast, but the woman's brisk pace did not slow. She travelled on foot as swiftly as the wintry conditions allowed, knowing that her destination was too close to necessitate a horse, and also knowing the risks bringing a horse entailed. It did not take her long to reach the forest's edge, but she did not enter.

She hesitated, and chided herself for it. She, the Huntress, the Swordmistress, the Scarlet Woman, defender of the defenseless maidens and helpless children of the land when valiant knights and loving fathers were not to be found, was afraid to enter the dark woods. She had done so many times before, so why could she not now, when she most desperately needed to? But she knew that this night was not like the others, for it was on this night that He would finally return to her, and she to Him. She had seen this and more through that terrible gift of foresight that her witch's blood had instilled in her and her curse had honed to an awful clarity. She knew that here, tonight, the woods that she so loved and so despised would bear witness to her final confrontation with the very beast that had been her oldest love and worst enemy.

She had no choice. The change was imminent, it would not wait. The lady walked proudly into the waiting embrace of the shadowy forest, fully aware of the subtly glowing eyes that surrounded her as she hurriedly undressed behind a tree, leaving only the crucifix that burned like a chain of fire around her neck. There she stood, unshivering in all her bare-naked glory ankle-deep in snow, and gave herself fully and completely over to her curse.

The she-wolf burst through the trees, the fiery cross clasped around her furry neck like the collar of a domesticated house pet. She bounded into the clearing with the grace of any deer that might become the meal of one of her kind. Her onyx eyes scanned the area for any sign of Him. She did not have to wait for very long. The pack emerged from the opposite side of the clearing with movements so lithe and fluid that their paws made not a sound on the forest floor as they approached the lone wolf. The advancing line stopped some distance away, parting in the middle to make way for what was seemingly both the sleekest and most grizzled wolf of all, a truly majestic and ferocious beast indeed. He alone approached the she-wolf, and the two came to face each other in the clearing as if nothing or no one else was there.

"My queen," he growled in a low, sensual rumble, "Many a year has past since we have last met. I know that you have made an interesting life for yourself; do you wish to end it so soon?"

The female snarled in reply, "If that is what must be done. However, I do not believe that I have quite outlived my usefulness yet. Perhaps I have yet to discover a greater purpose for my curse."

"I most sincerely pray that you discover it soon, my queen."

"And yet, perhaps I already have," she said, black eyes fixating on her prey.

And then slowly, they began their dance.


© Copyright 2018 ImaRocketDog. All rights reserved.

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