I lay curled in the fetal position trying to block the outside world from creeping into my delusions of calm. Cold seeps through my thin dress and rocks jab into my back. It hurts, but not as much as the pain slithering through my lonely chest. I know that soon I will have to drag my tired body up to face another day of tracking, of hoping.
It is hope that murders me every night, yet revives me each morning. The promise that my goal may be achieved forces me to trudge on until hopelessness surrounds me once more, and I collapse into despair. But, even now I feel the spark, a glow, urging me to get up and keep looking. Maybe today will be the day. Maybe, I will find my little girl.
A memory of a note from Red, and screaming fill my mind. Red took my only child, Scarlett, and he will suffer. I push my old bones up and take out my long knife and tracking stone, made from dragon fire. I prick my pinkie and let the blood drip onto its black marble surface. Silver swirls within and forms two parallel lines. She is close. My joints creak as I pack my few things. Magic is stealing my youth.
Cows moo their goodbyes as I leave my temporary sleeping quarters. I sneak out into the bleak morning light, my ruff hair swinging as I scan for the owners of this land. No one is up yet, even though the rooster has already screamed its morning song. The crisp pre-winter air bites my naked arms while I stroll through the grounds as though I am supposed to be here.
The sturdy wooden gate is a few steps away when I stop. Stuck in the grainy wood is one large wolf tooth; Red’s symbol of death. He was here, and might still be. I am closer than I thought. Blood pounds in my ears and adrenaline sings across my skin.
The cruel living monster, hope, grows and growls. I lift my brown rag of a dress and run back to the decrepit house. Thoughts of Scarlett haunt me as I rush inside, finding no one in the first dusty room. The dingy kitchen is also empty. The largest bedroom is not.
A man and woman lay on their thin, metal-framed bed holding hands. Their wide eyes replay a story of horror. Blood coils around their bodies like a snake crushing its victim. The thick crimson color stains their newly decaying skin. Bile rises in my throat, the bitter taste sticking on my tongue. There’s so much blood, but not a drop out of place. A work of dark spells. Red’s doing.
Hate scorches my soul. How can any man be so evil?
There is a whimper from the next room. I leave the couple to their endless rest in hopes of finding a survivor. Maybe, Scarlett.
The bedroom is large enough to fit one child sized bed, and a table for candlelight. A young boy, around the age of six, sits on the floor. A dirty quilt protects him from the oncoming winter’s cold. In his left arm he holds a red teddy bear.
A soft cry escapes his pale lips at the sight of me.
“I won’t hurt you.” I tell him. His green eyes dash to the door.
“My Mommy? Daddy?” He whispers. A tear drips down his crusted cheek leaving the skin behind clean and pure.
“Don’t worry about them buddy. Let’s get you out of here.” I reach to lift his skinny body off the floor, but he backs away like a frightened puppy, still holding his shiny bear.
“They are dead.” He says to the air. Tears prick my eyes.
“Yes they are.” I slowly put my hand over his. He looks at me.
“I am dead too.” He says. “Any minute now. I can feel life leaving me.” He turns to show me the teddy bear. Now I see it is made out of his flowing blood, just like the coils wrapped around his parents had been.
He can’t die yet; he might know something about my Scarlett.
“Wait, wait.’ I beg, and cradle his fragile body. “Did Red have anyone with him, a young girl around 13?” His green eyes fade like leaves dying in autumn. His eyelids flutter.
“Yes.” He sighs.
“Where did they go?” I shake him and his head rolls to the side, but before he dies he points towards the forest. I let him fall to the wooden floor with a soft thud.
The hopeful beast inside me roars. Today will be the day.
I need a sacrifice. I can’t go wondering the forest without knowing where she is. Too much time has passed.
I go to the chicken coop and find the bird most angered by my presence. She clucks as I twist her neck, the brittle bones snapping beneath my fingers. I slice into the stomach and let the guts fall out. The heart tells me where to go. The spell works, but its draining. I can feel energy leave me, and see my hands wrinkle with untimely age. I look like a grandmother, but the price is worth it.
Thoughts of my daughter entertain my mind as I race towards the forest. I can still feel the joy I felt as I placed my newborn in her pink bassinet. She looked so fragile. I would kiss her forehead as she fell asleep and whisper how much I loved her. I remember when she was the farm boy’s age, chasing butterflies by her Father’s gravestone. She would catch the buzzing creatures and pull off their wings as I wept. On our last night together, I kissed her head as she drifted off to sleep, and she smiled. The next day she was taken by Red.
I wish I knew why.
Hope speeds my aged legs through the twisted forest. I feel that she is near, and the bloodless organ in my hand agrees. It grows hotter the closer I get to my lost Scarlett. At last the chicken heart burns my palm and I drop it to the forest floor. Up ahead, the sun shines through a crack in the wintery clouds down upon a figure draped in a hooded crimson coat, my little girl.
She smiles when she sees me.
“Mommy?” She calls in disbelief.
My heart burns as bright as the one I just dropped. Love overwhelms me until tears threaten to spill. In that moment, I am happy.
Then I see him behind her, surrounded by a pack of gray wolves. Red. He is handsome, and younger than I expected. His chestnut brown hair falls in a twist above his eyebrows, and perfect white teeth gleam when he grins. He struts up behind an unknowing Scarlett; hand on the hilt of his sword.
The world turns. “Don’t touch her!” I scream. Grabbing my cooking knife I sprint to the evil human, my magic worn body forgotten. I reach him in seconds. Before he is able to defend himself I plunge the short, rusted knife into the center of his chest. It slides in easier than I imagined. A puff of air wheezes out of his lungs. Red’s silvery eyes brighten with shock, then fade away like the new moon. He falls to the ground, dead.
Relief splashes over me. I can’t believe it’s done.
“Mom, you killed him.” She smiles and calls to one of the wolves. A large furry wolf trots over. She opens his jaws, grasps a front tooth, and rips it out. The dog howls, then licks her face leaving a streak of red on her cheek. “Good boy.” She says, and places the ivory fang on the dead man’s chest.
“What are you doing?” I ask her.
“I’m marking our dead.” She says, then gestures over the puddle of blood in the dirt. It rises and takes form.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s time you should. I wrote the note for you that morning. I needed to be on my own, and see what I was capable of, and oh, I am powerful. I go by the name Red now.”
She stops her spell. The man’s blood has transformed into the shape of a heart. It’s true. My daughter is the person I’ve hated for a year, Red.
My world collapses. I have found Scarlett only to lose her.
“Then who was he?” I ask, pointing to the dead boy.
“Just a guy who followed me because he thought I was pretty. He wanted to court me. Too bad, he was cute.” She shrugs and stands. “It’s ok Mom. You have already killed, the next one shouldn’t be difficult.” Scarlett smiles at me like she did the night before she left.
“Join me?” She offers.
I should kill her. She is a murderer. I think of the innocent lives she has stolen, about the skinny boy at the farm, but then I look at her. Her strawberry blond hair shimmers beneath her hood, her body has slight curves now, and sore pimples mark her face, but to me, she shines.
I can’t kill my daughter. Everyone deserves redemption.
“Okay.” I say looking down.
“You will come? You will help me?”
I kiss her bumpy forehead. “I will do whatever it takes.” I answer.
The pregnant clouds above can’t hold onto their weight any longer. They release heavy pieces of snow that begin to cover the corpse we leave behind. The earth will soon be white and new.