CLOAKED by Katherine Brown
I shivered. The firefly-sized lights I’d been walking towards for hours were finally growing larger, almost the size of watermelons now. A village beckoned over the next snow-laden rise. What I wouldn’t give for a hot meal rather than the tough rabbit jerky I’ve been chewing for days. I had been walking for at least eight sunsets.
It would be risky to stop, I argued with myself; if I delayed for too long I would lose his trail. I couldn’t let that happen! Not again, not when I was so close.
My belly grumbled loudly, weighing in on the argument in no uncertain terms. I would have to stop, I reasoned. It would do me no good if my treacherous body announced my presence before I had the opportunity to run my blade across his throat.
Just another step. And one more after that. Trudging over the snow banks, one slow step at a time, I was thankful for the freezing cold; at least the snow was hard-packed making it much easier to walk on. There was of course still the chance that I would be thrown out of this village just as I had been from the last two. The rumors about me were growing. I had told too many people who I was, and who I was looking for when I first set out. That was my mistake. I saw the furtive glances. Heard the whispered words.
In the last village of quivering idiots, they had even made a nursery rhyme to teach the children. The verse I heard went A cloak of white Little Red now dons; Beware the night, she’ll kill you dead and by the morn’ be gone.
When the village healer came to visit my grandmother seven years ago, she found me, a mere girl of ten, clutching an axe and surrounded by blood and carnage. She took one look and condemned me. I was catatonic for days, and by the time I tried to tell them who had killed my grandmother, it was too late. Not a soul believed me. Evil, they called me. Murderer, they yelled. I would have been put to death were it not for a trapper, traveling through our village. He saw my fear, my lostness, and he bought me from the village elder.
For seven years Trap, that’s the only name he ever told me, took care of me. He taught me to trap, to fish, to cook. He kept me clothed and fed. We moved constantly; he taught me to navigate, to mark a trail, and to track. He prepared me because he knew. He knew I was going to be a survivor from the moment he purchased my life. Each and every day after that, I promised him I would kill the murderer who took my family from me. And he knew I would do just that, so he gave me every skill he knew I would need.
On my seventeenth birthday, I awoke on the ground, staring up at a full moon. The restlessness gripped me harder than ever before. I had to leave, it was time.
Frost had settled in my hair, making the ends crunch when I tied it back with a leather strap. Trap was already awake, sitting silently by the dead fire, a wrapped bundle in his hands. He knew.
“I’m going to kill The Wolf,” I told him. It was my usual greeting, but it took on a new meaning today.
“Yes. And you will need this.” Slowly Trap handed me the package. He coughed, spitting blood. His sickness had been worsening for weeks. Rubbing sticks together with gnarled fingers, he gave new life to the fire.
With trembling fingers, I untied the rope around the bundle. Gently I unwrapped the tarp, spreading it on the ground to reveal the contents. A shock of white with shimmering silver strands reflected the firelight into my eyes. Holding it up I found it to be a thick, gorgeous, hooded cloak. Made of warm but sleek fur, it was lined on the inside with a deep, scarlet material for added protection from the weather. Still laying on the tarp was the last gift. A gift that set my heart racing. A gleaming dagger, sharpened so fine that a simple brush would draw blood, with a hand-carved bone handle. The scene on the handle was of a cloaked figure standing over a dead wolf.
I barely had time to thank Trap; his next fit of coughing didn’t cease until he drew his last breath. I sat with him awhile, until the firelight dimmed, and the frost tickled my nose. Then I put on the cloak, slipped the dagger in my clothes, and walked away.
As dawn’s timid sun peeked over the horizon, I reached the village. Hunger pains gripped me at the first tantalizing scent of baking bread. I slid the hood off of my head. Better to have cold ears than put the villagers’ backs up right away. Gliding into an alley, I joined a homeless man at a fire barrel to warm my hands as I took the lay of the land. Cobbler, blacksmith, stables, mercantile. It appeared I had made it to a town rather than another impoverished village like so many I had come across. Good. More people to question, and hopefully, less superstitions.
I spun and wrenched back the arm of the homeless man; he had been inching closer, reaching for my satchel thinking a young girl was going to be an easy target for a quick meal. Bad luck for him. Using his arm as leverage, I shoved him face first into the log wall of the butcher shop side where we stood, scraping splinters into his cheek purposefully before pulling him back up straight.
“Hello friend,” I whispered.
“Let me go wench,” he gasped, struggling to be free.
“Tut, tut, that is no way to speak to a friend,” I told him. “You want food. I want answers. I believe we can come to terms.”
He stilled. Food was a powerful motivator. “I’m looking for a wolf,” I told him casually.
“Go look in the woods. Now give me food.”
“Not just any wolf,” I continued, binding his arm just a bit tighter. “A wolf who walks on two legs and has a taste for flesh.”
The man froze. I waited.
“Well?” I growled impatiently.
“I’m not hungry,” he said as his head and shoulders slumped.
My mouth twisted up in a grin. That could only mean one thing. The Wolf had been here or was close. This poor wretch would rather go without eating than risk being eaten alive.
I reached into my satchel and grabbed two sticks of rabbit jerky for the man, tossing them in the snow at his feet as I set out for the bakery. I would need sustenance; it might prove to be a long day.
The baker, a jovial old woman, wouldn’t sell me day old bread. But she would give me a whole loaf if I would move on and not stir up trouble.
The cobbler wouldn’t repair my boots. However, for a promise to never see me again he would give me multiple strips of leather to use as I needed.
By the time I reached the stables, word of me had spread. The barn door was slammed in my face. Children in the hay loft sang the song of Little Red.
Turning to try my luck elsewhere, I caught a snowball square in the face. Reflexively my fingers curled around the bone hilt at my waist. Furiously blinking snow from my eyelashes, I glimpsed the next missile and ducked. My assailant, a blonde freckle-faced boy of about twelve, beckoned for me to follow him around the barn.
A steady grip on my dagger in case of a trap, I followed. The boy sat huddled by the smallest campfire I had ever seen, crying. I knelt in the snow, feeling the wet seep through my breeches, and asked, “What is it boy?”
“You, you are looking for a wolf?” he asked, voice quaking but meeting my eyes.
“I am,” I nodded.
He swallowed, “What will you do when you find him?”
“Kill him.” I raised an eyebrow, not mincing words.
“Good.” The boy clenched his jaw and stood up, surprising me with his vehemence.
Skirting through a copse of trees on the outskirts of the town, the boy Cade, told me his story as we walked. “Poppa tried to stop him. He ran his claws into his stomach and ripped it out. I saw from the bedroom. That’s when Momma shoved me out the window and told me to run. I looked back once and I saw the wolf’s head in the window. He howled and howled.”
“Cade, when was this?”
“Two nights ago. The town won’t help me.”
Two nights. I tried not to show my agitation. In two nights, The Wolf could have disappeared.
It wasn’t far, and soon Cade put a small finger to his lips, letting me know we were close. He pointed to an isolated shack, to an open but curtained window facing the trees we now hid in.
“Stay here,” I demanded.
Crouching, I made my way with small quick steps to the shack and flattened myself against the wall. Peering through the thin scraps of fabric on the window I saw the room was empty. Being still again, I closed my eyes and honed my ears in to the sounds, listening.
A whimper floated through the wall. The scrape of a chair. Then I heard him. The gravelly, cold voice of evil that I remembered from my childhood. “Get up woman, bring me coffee.”
I could only imagine why the wolf kept Cade’s mother alive. I shuddered for the poor woman. I was lucky I had hidden under the bed.
Eyeing the window, I decided it was my best option. Pulling myself up on the sill, I eased my head and shoulders through and came to a sitting position. Bringing first one leg and then the other over I dropped silently to the floor, landing in a squat.
Exercising every skill at sneaking that Trap ever taught me, I cut through the room and peered out the door. The Wolf was seated at a chair with his back to me. The woman searched the cabinet for coffee. I pulled on my hood and unsheathed my dagger.
Turning, she caught sight of me, and her eyes widened. I put a finger to my lips, mimicking Cade’s action earlier.
“What’s taking so long?” the man menaced. The wolf pelt that he typically wore on his head sat on the table in front of him.
“I’ve got to get extra coffee from the cupboard,” Cade’s mother said shakily, moving far away as I snuck closer. When she was clear, I leapt forward and kicked his chair over.
His head grazed the table and he fell to his back on the floor, right where I wanted him. He would see who killed him. Know his life was over. Taken by a woman, in recompense for all the women he preyed upon and families he destroyed.
I attacked before he recovered his senses, slicing both arms to the tendons so they lay uselessly beside him. He thought he still had a chance, pushing backward with his legs.
I sauntered closer, peering from beneath my hood. Slowly, I straddled him; confusion flooded his eyes, leaving him paralyzed as he tried to work out what was happening. Lowering my hood with one hand, I smiled and leaned forward. “The Wolf will hunt no more,” I whispered. The dagger sang as it opened a blood red smile across his throat.
Wiping the blade on his tunic, I sheathed it. Raising my hood, I slipped back outside, running to Cade. “Take care of your Momma.”
I smiled, warm; the frost couldn’t touch me now.
Katherine Brown is a lover of books and weaver of words. Her first official publication was of two children’s books in 2017, however she likes to think her career as a writer started when she sold her parents newsletters of her life for fifty cents per copy as a pre-teen.
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Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff