Archives

Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 4

Forgotten Daughter

Liesel felt nervous until she finished her chores and set off into the woods the next day. What if he didn’t come? The boy was certainly unusual, but there was a warmth about him that Liesel found herself craving. She really didn’t see how she could survive much longer without a friend.
Liesel had never known the meaning of loneliness before her mother died. She’d grown up with friends all over the city, and even after Amala had fallen ill, the girl always been able to find one of her grandparents to follow around the house or through the fields. And while Liesel wasn’t prone to idle chatter, she liked hearing other people speak. Living with the silent Warin was beginning to take its toll on her. She walked even faster as she sent up a prayer to the Maker that Kurt would indeed return.
To her delight, he was already standing where she’d left him, staring up at the small patch of sunlight and wearing a thoughtful look.
“You said yesterday that your grandparents’ home has lots of sunlight. There are other places around the world like that as well, are there not?”
“Yes,” she walked up as close to him as she dared and looked up at the beam, too. Without turning, he simply nodded.
“I knew it. Father was wrong. You know how I knew?” He finally turned his serious golden-brown eyes on her, and without waiting for a response, grabbed her wrist and began dragging her deeper into the forest. Liesel allowed him to lead her, although a wiser voice in her mind that sounded much like her mother’s wondered how far she should let this strange boy lead her into woods she barely knew. And yet, the heat of his hand was comforting in a way Liesel had never felt, and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so she let herself be led along until she heard water.
Without warning, they burst out of the trees and into a clearing that laid just at the edge of a waterfall. Liesel gasped as she looked up at the waterfall and saw a large patch of blue sky above it. Unimpeded, blinding sun spilled down into the water that lapped the sand not far from their feet. The roaring of the water was mesmerizing as it crashed down into a sparkling blue pond three times wider than Liesel’s cottage. The waterfall itself was about as tall as the church steeple back her in old city, and it was nearly as majestic in its bearing. Liesel found herself grinning ridiculously as she looked up in awe at the clear blue sky she’d missed so much.
“What is this place?” She had to nearly yell for him to hear her over the crashing of the water. He waved her over to a log on the other side of the clearing, a bit further from the noise.
“I found it when I was small. My mother had told me stories of places with lots of open sky, and I wanted to see for myself. My father says this is as big as it gets, but I never believed him.” He looked at her, his eyes suddenly burning with curiosity. “Tell me,” his voice was reverent. “Tell me about all of those other places!”
“Well,” Liesel thought for a moment. “I haven’t been to many of them myself, as I’ve only lived by the mountain, but I’ve read stories…” He nodded eagerly, so she continued. “In one kingdom, the rulers have greater powers than our king, or any other king, possesses. The man who is king now made a grievous mistake when he was a prince, and his entire kingdom was thrust into darkness. They would have all perished if it hadn’t been for a merchant’s daughter, who brought the magic back with the strength of her heart. Then there-”
“Wait, it was good magic?”
“Of course it was good magic. The next place they went-”
“But there is no good magic!”
Liesel huffed, finally tired of his interruptions.
“Are you a magician?”
“No,” he grimaced at her.
“Well then, how do you know that good magic doesn’t exist? Now, do you want to hear the stories or not?” Nodding, he got up from the log and flung himself down on the sand at her feet, closing his eyes and putting his hands behind his head. Mollified, Liesel continued.
“One of my favorites is the kingdom where the ocean meets the land, and the ocean folk are half human and half fish.” Kurt sat straight up, sand spilling out of his wild hair and down the back of his shirt. He was so focused he didn’t seem to notice, though.
“Tell me about that one!”
“I could tell you better if I had the book my grandmother gave me. It’s filled with drawings and stories from when she and my grandfather traveled the world. I could bring it tomorrow, and you could see for yourself. If you can’t read it, I can-”
“I can read,” he scoffed as he stood up and skipped a rock across the water. Liesel felt a bit guilty. She knew the story by heart, as she did every story in the book, but she hadn’t been sure he would want to see her again after this. By promising to bring the book, she knew she could buy herself at least one more day with him. With the hope of another meeting, she leaned back on the log and lifted her head towards the sky, allowing the heat of the sun’s rays to wash over her whole body. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this gloriously happy. Time quietly passed as they sat in silence. Liesel tried to quell the questions that were raging inside of her, but finally she gave up and asked just one.
“If your father is so sure there aren’t places with open sky, why doesn’t he leave the forest to see for himself? It’s only a day and a half’s ride to the edge of the forest.” To freedom.
“My father doesn’t ever leave the forest. He has too much to do taking care of the family.”
“Oh. Do you have a large family?”
“You could say that,” He stared out at the waterfall. Liesel shook her head to herself in confusion. Never had she met anyone so determined to be mysterious. Not long after, it was time for her to leave. When they stood to go, Liesel hated staying goodbye to the waning sun that was now beginning to sink. More slowly than the first time, they made their way back to the edge of the forest. Liesel realized as she lifted her skirts that the run had put more tears in her dress than she would be able to mend in one night. It had been worth it, though, she smiled to herself. When they were near the path, he stopped.
“Don’t forget to bring your book tomorrow,” he said before turning to go.
“Wait!” Liesel had an idea and spoke before she had time to lose her nerve. He turned and looked at her with an open expression. “Would you like to come back with me…just for a few minutes? You could meet my father, and I could show you the book there.” But he was already shaking his head.
“My father wants me to stay out of the town.” The disappointment must have been evident in her face, however, because he added more kindly, “But I will be back tomorrow.” And with that, he was gone.

***

“I don’t think you could stand out any more if you tried,” Kurt shook his head as he handed the book back. It had met near disaster the first day Liesel had tried to carry it to the waterfall. She’d caught her dress on a bush and nearly dropped the book in a puddle. From then on, Kurt had taken to carrying it for her. Every day, they read another story, and every evening, he asked her if she was coming back the next day. Liesel had enjoyed it immensely, having someone else as interested in her beloved book as she was, but she was somewhat concerned about what she would do when they ran out of stories. It had been a week already, and there were only a few dozen left. The more she got to know the boy, however, the more she dared to hope that he would want to visit even after all the stories were gone.
“A girl walking through the forest alone in a red cloak, carrying a book is just asking for trouble,” he continued with a frown. Liesel smiled and stood up straighter.
“Not so much a girl. I turn fourteen today!” Kurt held his hands up and gave a mock bow.
“My apologies, my lady. Happy birthday. Now, may I have your permission to return home?” Laughing, Liesel curtsied back and turned back towards her own home. It had been the best week she’d had since her mother had been well. Kurt was indeed different from any boy she’d ever known back at home. He still had an untamed look in his eyes, and his walk could only be described as stealthy. The paths he led her down were imperceptible to her eyes, and he would often stop and listen for sounds she never heard. But for an inexplicable reason, she felt safe in his presence.
Liesel’s mother had warned her about boys when she’d turned twelve.
“They’re like wolves, Leese. They have little on their minds aside from eating and chasing girls. You’re turning into quite the pretty young woman. Don’t be giving them reasons to think you want them to chase after you. When you are old enough to marry, your father and I will find you a good one, but don’t be paying these hooligans any heed now while you’re young.” She had nodded at some of the boys Liesel had once played with, as she continued to hang up laundry on the line in their yard.
“What about Father?” Liesel had asked. “Wasn’t he a hooligan once?” Amala gave a loud laugh.
“Now where did you hear that?”
“Grandfather.” Amala had rolled her eyes.
“Fathers always think young men are hooligans…all of them. That’s why the Maker gave girls mothers, to help them find the true men among the boys.”
Liesel sighed. How she wished Amala could meet Kurt. She was sure her mother would have liked him. He was different from the boys she had grown up around. His wild ways were a bit alarming at first, but he was gentle. He was careful with his words. Liesel could see him weigh his thoughts before speaking. How she just wished she could hear more of what he really thought instead of having to guess at his silence so often.
As Liesel neared the cottage, she knew something was wrong. The door was ajar, and she could hear a strange wailing from the inside. Sucking in her breath, she steadied herself for what she was sure to find. It was the fifth time that week her father had come home in such a state.
Sure enough, as she pushed the door open, he let out another wail. She set the book in a cupboard where it would be safe before turning to face the mess on the floor. Warin lay stretched out on the ground, flailing his arms about as he groaned. Liesel could smell him from where she stood.
“Where ha’ you been?” he moaned at her when he finally realized she was walking towards him. “I been callin’ you all day to make it stop!” Feeling her face flush with anger, Liesel hated the way he slurred his words.
“I wouldn’t have to make it stop if you didn’t spend so much time at the tavern,” she muttered as she expertly grabbed him behind the arms and started dragging him towards his bed. His hair was covered in dirt, and one eye was black. Liesel could only guess he‘d said something foolish to one of the burly travelers who often frequented his favorite tavern.
“Don’t you sass me, daughter!” he yelled loudly and tried to point at her. Choking back a gag from his stench, she managed to haul him up onto his straw mattress before removing his boots and shoving his feet onto the bed with him.
“There are some people in this world who can handle a drink now and then,” Amala had told her once, shaking her head after Warin had spent too much time at a tavern back in the city. “And your father is not one of them.” Liesel had always thought her mother wise in every way, but she was tempted to wonder sometimes where that wisdom had gone when she’d accepted Warin’s marriage proposal at the tender age of seventeen. Her grandparents certainly hadn’t approved of the match, not even her grandmother. For all Amala’s talk of listening to a mother’s sense to choose a good man, it seemed she hadn’t followed that sound advice herself.
To be fair, Warin wasn’t a bad man. Even in his drunken stupor, he’d never once tried to hit his wife or daughter. He’d always seen to it that they were well provided for, even if that meant spending hours nearly freezing in the woods in the dead of winter just to bring meat home for supper. When she was little, he would even lift her up onto his shoulders as they walked through town so she could see everything from above. Long gone were those days, however, and long had it been since Liesel and Warin had shared any kind of special bond. Amala had been the love that tied them together. And now Amala was gone.
When Warin was finally quiet, passed out on his bed as if death had taken him, Liesel cut a few slices of bread and cheese and went to sit on her own mattress, tucking her knees under her chin. Her chest tightened, and the food suddenly felt dry in her mouth. No. Liesel tightened her jaw and then began chewing again. She wasn’t going to let the sadness take her. She wouldn’t let the tears have their way, because if she gave them permission to come now, they would never stop. So she tried to think about home.
If she had been at home, and her mother had stayed well, Amala would have served Liesel a blueberry tart for breakfast in bed, as she did every year on her daughter’s birthday. The day would have been spent looking at cloth in the tailor’s shop, and Liesel and Amala would have chosen some for Liesel’s new dress. They would have gone out to her grandparents’ home for supper, and her grandmother would have made her favorite sweet bread with honey and milk. Then her grandfather would have told her tales of when he was a young man traveling the world, and her parents would have presented her with a new pair of shoes and some little bauble they’d picked up from one of the traveling merchants who came to town from distant lands.
Instead of making her feel better, however, the memories only made Liesel feel worse. Tearless sobs shook her body as she lay on her mattress in the dark. There was no blueberry tart or sweet bread this year, no new dress or new shoes. Her mother was never going to push the hair back from her face and greet her in the morning with a smile. She would never see her mother’s face again. Instead, she was stuck in a forest without light. The people ostracized her, and her father seemed to need the drink more than he needed her. Her grandparents were miles away, and she hardly knew her only friend. Maybe fourteen wasn’t so special after all.
The next morning didn’t start out any better.
“Don’t be tellin’ folks about what happened here last night,” Warin warned her as he rubbed his head. “A man’s entitled to a drink every now and then. Best we forget about it and begin anew.” With that, he’d pulled on his coat and left for work, not looking at his daughter enough to see the glare she’d been aiming at him all morning. She didn’t know why she’d hoped he would remember her birthday this morning. It wasn’t as if that was something he was ever likely to do on his own. And yet, she’d foolishly hoped.
Liesel spent the rest of the morning cleaning the cottage and tending to the horse. She slammed the cupboards and cottage door as much as possible, and their loud protests made her feel just slightly better. She was still in the same sour mood as she set out for the woods to meet Kurt, and only when she’d nearly reached their meeting spot did she remember that she had forgotten the book. Sure that Kurt would want nothing to do with her without the book, she decided to dawdle as she went, not paying attention to where she was really even going.
“There you are,” Kurt’s voice broke the silence as she kicked a pebble. “Why are you all the way over here?”
“I forgot the book!” Liesel huffed.
“So you’re getting yourself lost instead?” Liesel sent him a scathing look before turning back to find the pebble. Kurt reached out finally and took her by the elbow, forcing her to look at him. His voice was gentle this time, though.
“Liesel, what’s wrong?” Liesel felt her chin tremble as she weighed whether or not to tell him.
“I hate this place!” She finally spat out. “It’s dark and ugly here! Not even the flowers grow, and everything dies!” She wanted badly to tell him about her father, but the shame was just too great. Words of anger were much easier.
“Well, at least you’re in a bright red cloak,” Kurt’s voice was teasing. “I still think it’s strange, but at least I’ll be able to find you if you make it a habit of getting lost like this.” She just glared at him. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, all of the jest gone from his tone now. “It was a stupid joke.” He thought for a moment before taking her by the wrist. “Come with me. I want to show you something.” She said nothing, but let him lead her. The invisible path he took seemed to have no markings or reason to its twists and turns, but she was used to his odd methods of getting around the forest by now.
After what seemed like an endless walk, he let go of her wrist and bent down next to an old hollow log.
“What do you think this is?” he asked softly. Liesel stared at the log with contempt. She had the idea a lesson was coming, but she really couldn’t care less.
“Something dead.”
Kurt gave a faint smile. Silently, he lifted the log enough for her to spot something furry beneath. In spite of herself, Liesel leaned in to get a better look. Then she gasped in delight. A fawn was curled up, hidden by the shadow of the aging wood. It looked soft and sweet as it stared up at them with trusting eyes. Softly, Kurt lowered the log again.
“Her mother will be back soon,” he whispered. “It would be best for us not to distress her.” For the first time that day, Liesel allowed herself a small smile. The fawn stayed nestled in her bed as they left. She was the very picture of serenity, something Liesel hadn’t felt much since her mother fell ill. But even more comforting than the baby deer, however, was Kurt’s affection towards it, the care he took to keep the creature comfortable, and the desire to spare the mother anxiety. The sweetness of the moment was like a healing balm to Liesel’s wounded soul.
“Thank you,” she mumbled as they walked, suddenly embarrassed of her petulance. It wasn’t Kurt’s fault her father was a drunk, and although she truly did hate the forest, there was no reason to insult his home to his face. To her relief, he gave her a broad smile, the biggest he’d worn since they’d met.
“I’m not done yet.”
They continued exploring for the rest of the day. Liesel was in awe at the amount of life the shadowy woods sheltered. A nest of baby birds hidden in the shelf of a crooked tree, and flowers that bloomed without sun were all placed near her normal path, but without help, she never would have seen them. He showed her how to find berries that were safe to eat, and a poisonous plant with healing milk.
“It looks lifeless at first,” Kurt conceded as he held his hand out to help her climb the cliff face of the waterfall. “But these woods harbor more life than one could ever know.”
“I believe you,” Liesel puffed as she struggled up the steep incline behind him. “Why exactly are we going up here again?” The sun that covered the forest floor at the base of the waterfall was warm and unadulterated. The cliff itself, however, had enough trees resting atop it to escape all direct sunlight of its own. Still, Kurt pushed them higher.
“Just think of it as your birthday gift.”
By the time they reached the top, Liesel could tell it was much higher than she’d originally guessed. The cliff face was at least twice as high as her old church steeple at home. Perhaps even more. Her dress was stuck to her body with sweat, and she was breathing so hard she could barely speak.
“What,” she huffed, “are we looking at now?” As she stood up, she had to work to keep her face from falling. All she could see was more forest on both sides of the thin river that fed the waterfall. Kurt just smiled, took her by the shoulders, and turned her around. Liesel nearly fainted with joy. From the top of the waterfall, she could see that they were surrounded by miles and miles of green treetops. But to her left, to the west, she could see the outline of a mountain.
“My mountain,” she whispered as she fell to her knees. “You gave me my mountain.” Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she let them fall. They were tears of joy. The contours of the four peeks were mostly hidden behind thick gray clouds, but she could see just enough to recognize it as hers.
“Why?” She suddenly turned and looked up at him. “Why are you being so kind to me?” He didn’t answer immediately, just returned her stare as a troubled shadow fell over him. His young face suddenly looked old.
“It’s the most I could do,” he finally muttered. “The life you were chosen for is hardly the one you deserve.” Liesel had no words with which to reply. Her first reaction was to attribute his cryptic response to her mother’s untimely death and unattached father, but something, an undertone in his voice, send a shiver down her spine. An instinct somewhere deep in her stomach warned her that something was very, very wrong. But what could she do? She’d already tried to escape once.
She looked back at Kurt one more time. He was staring out over the treetops again though, and didn’t see her gaze. His set jaw looked as if it had turned to stone, and he had his lanky arms crossed defensively across his chest. If nothing else, she decided, she could take comfort in knowing that he cared. They might be powerless to stop the lonely end that seemed to be determined to take her, but through it at least, she would have a friend. And for that, she would be grateful.

———————————————————————————————————

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 5. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!

Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 3

Finding the Sun

“You’re not readin’ that book again, are you?” Warin called through the doorway. Liesel paused, trying to come up with something to say. She had nothing, however, by the time her father walked inside. “You’ve read that blasted book every day for the past month,” he shook his head at her. “You’re goin’ to bring both of us to madness if you don’t leave this house sometime.”
Despite Warin’s rare show of paternal love the night her mother died, Liesel and Warin had spoken less in the month that followed than ever. He’d never even asked about the wolf, just accepted what the hunter had told him. Then he’d gone on as if nothing had even happened. The wolf attack, her mother’s death, even his new job at the blacksmith’s stall merited only a few words. And Liesel was fine with that. In fact, she was more than fine. She knew he missed Amala, and she knew he was grieving, but it did little to lessen his accidental participation in her mother’s death. Warin had never even apologized. He’d simply gone on as if the whole thing had been just an accident.
The funeral had been small, just a grieving husband and daughter, the Holy Man, and the aloof mayor, although Liesel wasn’t sure exactly why he was there. Perhaps he felt some guilt for playing a part in Amala’s death, she thought at first, although one wouldn’t know it from the number of times he yawned while her mother was buried. It was about all Liesel could take to have him present, and it helped her realize even more how much she needed to escape Ward.
She was desperate enough to break the silence she’d kept towards her father the night after the funeral. Liesel had begged and pleaded with him to take them back to the vineyard.
“You could even move back to the city,” Liesel had followed him around as he mucked the tiny stall that stood behind the cottage for their horse. “You wouldn’t have to worry about me. I could live with Grandmother and Grandfather! We-”
“No,” Warin had been sudden and fierce in his refusal. “We’re not goin’ back.” Seeing the look in her eyes, he leaned down. “And don’t you even think of naggin’ me about it ’cause my mind is made up. We’re stayin’ here. Best for you not to question the wisdom of my decision.”
“You only ever think about yourself,” Liesel had hissed at him, trying desperately to keep her tears at bay. Immediately, she regretted her words. He turned away silently, but not before she saw the raw pain in his expression. Still too angry to apologize, however, Liesel had stomped away and had gone for a walk instead.
Ward was not a large village, but there were enough people milling about to call it bustling. The mayor had mentioned that while they couldn’t farm for the lack of sunlight, the townspeople made their living by hosting travelers who were taking the shortcut through the forest to the capitol city. Instead of growing their food, the people had their supplies brought in by wagon from the sunnier places outside of the forest. This struck Liesel as expensive, but she quickly realized they could afford it through their many inns, as well as animal stalls, taverns, and wells. Liesel passed by the tailor’s shop, the swordsmith, the butcher, two bakeries, and the church as she walked.
It should have been a pleasant outing. The market was full, and neighbors chatted happily as their children scampered through the streets. The more she walked, however, the more Liesel realized she was not the only one looking. The villagers were looking right back at her as well. The adults didn’t even attempt to hide their stares, and some of the children pointed.
Liesel felt herself blush, probably red enough to be visible even in the gray of the forest evening. Had word gotten out about her fit at the healer’s? Or was this how they treated all new people? It wasn’t long before she’d decided to return to the cottage as quickly as possible. Since that day, she hadn’t left the cottage except to get water from the well or gather kindling for the fireplace. Her grandmother’s book had been her sole comfort and companion. Warin didn’t allow reading in the evening, as he said it wasted precious candles, but during the day, the book was her only friend. And now her father wanted to take even that.
“Why don’t you go outside?” He frowned at her beneath his dark, bushy eyebrows. Liesel raised her own eyebrows in response and looked pointedly at her hand. Her father snorted. “Won’t do you any good hidin’ inside when the entire village is in the forest, girl. Wolves mostly stay to themselves. You probably just surprised the one that got you, that’s all. Now I want you out of this house for the time bein’. Go.”
It wasn’t without irritation or the temptation to say something sharp that Liesel left her beloved book in the cabin. But arguing with her father would be pointless while he was in such a mood. Slowly, she made her way down the narrow dirt path to the main road. She wasn’t going back to the town by herself, that was for sure. The open stares had made her feel like she had the plague. So she began down the road in the other direction, the one that would eventually lead her towards the sun. She might not be able to escape the town for now, but she could pretend, even if just for a while.
After about twenty minutes, a change brought her to a halt. It took her a moment to recognize it for what it was, though. On the other side of the road, deep in the foliage, almost too deep to see, one thin beam of sunlight shined down through the otherwise canopied ceiling. Liesel felt her breath catch in her throat. After a month in the depths of an eternally gray forest, she was starved for something bright.
After pausing for a moment, Liesel set her jaw and lifted her skirts delicately to begin chasing the bit of sun before it disappeared completely. The forest floor was littered with dead branches and dry pine needles. As she slowly hiked over pile after pile of dead brush, Liesel started to wonder at the wisdom of her decision to make the journey in a dress, but when she finally reached the spot, it was worth it. The sun was weak by the time it made it through the tree tops, all the way to the ground, but its warmth was delightful. Liesel stood where it trickled down onto her face, imagining she was back on the vineyard, when a rustle in the bushes behind her made her heart stop. Nearly frozen with fear, she turned slowly towards the sound. The forest was suddenly eerily silent as Liesel held her breath and waited. Was it a snake, or perhaps a wolverine? There was a story of one of those vicious little creatures in her grandmother’s book, one that had attacked a man and taken his arm. Or could it be another wolf? Trying to gather her wits, unable to wait any longer, Liesel lifted a large stick and spoke, but her voice sounded dry and hoarse,
“Who is it? I know you’re there.” She immediately felt rather foolish, considering the noise might be an animal just waiting to pounce. It was no animal sound, however, that came from the brush in response.
“Only if you put down the stick.”
Liesel nearly dropped the stick in shock. It was a boy’s voice.
The boy stepped forward slowly, his eyes wary. His dark brown hair was messy, roughly chopped off as if cut with a dull blade, or perhaps just cut very carelessly. The clothes he wore had holes in several places, and looked just a little too short, although that wasn’t unusual for boys about Liesel’s age, which was what she guessed him to be. The way he moved, however, was the most unusual thing about him. The grace with which he placed his feet as he cautiously stepped towards her was almost feral. Neither of them spoke for a long time. After her legs began to hurt from standing so still, Liesel finally gathered the courage to speak again.
“Why were you watching me?”
“I was wondering why you were in the forest alone. Women don’t walk these woods alone.” His voice wasn’t deep, but it wasn’t a young boy’s tenor either. Liesel raised her chin a bit defensively.
“And what if I like to walk in the woods?” It was a strange thing to say, as Liesel did not actually like to walk in the woods, these or any others, but it annoyed her that this boy would tell her what she could and couldn’t do. He just shook his head in disgust.
“It doesn’t matter. Women don’t walk these woods alone. Actually, they don’t walk in them at all. It’s not safe.” The way his brow furrowed made Liesel feel somewhat foolish. Of course she knew it wasn’t safe. Her first night there had proven that. She sighed in resignation.
“We just moved here, and my mother died.” Her voice cracked a bit. “No one will talk to me, and I don’t know why. Then I saw this patch of sunlight, and I just…I needed something familiar. I needed to escape, even for a little while.” The boy watched with wide eyes as Liesel shed the first tears since the night her mother died. Suddenly unable to stand, she fell, crying, on a low boulder nearby. She was immediately angry with herself. She had sworn not to break, not to give her father another reason to reprimand her, and now she was doing just that in front of a complete stranger. Sniffling, she wiped the traitorous tears from her cheek and tried to give him a confident smile.
“I’m sorry.” This time, his voice was less suspicious and his expression was softer.
“I’ll be fine. And my name is Liesel.” Liesel struggled to make her voice less tremulous as she looked back up at the small patch of sunlight that filtered through the distant treetops. “I just wish there was more sun. It would be a little more like home.”
“You lived somewhere with lots of light?” The boy was obviously trying to stay cautious, but Liesel could tell his curiosity was getting the better of him. As she nodded, a sudden longing took hold of her. She desperately wanted him to stay, where just a few minutes before, she had hoped he would just let her run back to the cottage. Though he still looked tentative, his eyes were kind, and he was giving her more attention than anyone else had since she’d arrived.
“I lived on a vineyard with my grandparents.” Unconsciously, it seemed, the boy stepped closer as she spoke.
“What did it look like?”
“Their vineyard is at the foot of a mountain, so you can see for miles from their front door.” She smiled at little at the picture. “The sky is endless. Below it, you can see the city, as well as other towns that lie down the road behind it. The vineyard is green, and laid out in rows, and the air is warm and dry.”
“You miss it.” The boy stated matter-of-factly. Liesel nodded again.
“I never knew I could miss someplace so much.”
“You don’t like it here?” This time it was a question, as if the thought had never occurred to him that someone might not want to live in the woods.
“No,” Liesel shook her head so emphatically a tendril of yellow hair fell out of her hood. “Not even flowers grow here. I miss the sun and the colors. I miss my grandparents.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Besides,” Liesel gave one final sniffle and stood up to dust off her dress, “as I said, no one in town will talk to me.” The boy dropped his eyes immediately, as though guilty. Liesel almost asked, but stopped herself, afraid she might scare him off. She wanted at least one person to talk to, even if he was an odd boy from the forest. “Do you live in town?”
“I live in the woods with my family,” he said uneasily. It took everything in Liesel not to ask all of the questions building up inside her head, but she decided against it, again fearing she’d frighten the shy boy away. She couldn’t think of why he could be so nervous. She wasn’t threatening by any means, at least in a way that she knew of. She had picked up that stick, of course, but really had not the slightest idea of how she would have used it had he been an animal. He must simply be shy, she decided. Unsure of what else to say without overwhelming him further, Liesel finally said,
“I suppose I should go home soon. It’s getting dark, and my father will be expecting supper.”
“Wait,” he half turned towards her as if waking from a stupor. “Will you be coming back tomorrow?” Liesel weighed his expression before answering. Was he trying to avoid her, or did he really want to see her again? She sighed.
“Truthfully? Not if I can help it.”
“Why?”
“I…,” she paused, “I am afraid of the wolves.” It felt foolish to talk about the wolves in broad daylight with another person, one who lived in the woods no less. She hadn’t talked to anyone about the wolf bite, not even her father. She’d tried to tell him, of course. No matter how hard she worked, however, the moment she tried to tell him about the actual wolf, aside from what the hunter had told him, her voice caught in her throat, and she just couldn’t get the words out. To her surprise, the boy snorted and shook his head.
“I’m here. They won’t attack.” Liesel thought that was one of the strangest things she’d ever heard anyone say. She looked dubiously at the boy again. His voice was beginning to change, but he certainly didn’t have the body of a man yet. What did he think he was going to do if one of those giant beasts found them? He looked so confident, however, that she decided not to challenge him.
“Well,” Liesel bit her lip hesitantly. “Do you want me to?” Her heart beat unevenly as the question rolled off her tongue. If he said no, she would be spared the dangers of the forest that might come with a companion who thought himself impervious to wolf attacks. And yet, there was something about him that drew her nearer, made her want to look more deeply into those kind eyes and draw out their secrets.
“I suppose it would be alright.” He shrugged carelessly, but Liesel didn’t miss the nervous glance he threw up at her while staring at the ground. She couldn’t hide her smile.
“Then I suppose I’ll be back.” Liesel turned to head back towards the road.
“One more thing,” she turned to see him staring after her with a quizzical look. “Why is your cloak red?”
“My mother liked red. Why?” He shook his head.
“It’s just an odd color to wear in the forest, unless you want everyone and everything to see you.” Liesel touched the cloak gently. He was right of course, but…
“It was my mother’s when she was a girl.”
“Huh. I still think it’s strange.” And without another word, he was gone. For the first time since she’d arrived in Ward, Liesel felt warm, and it wasn’t from the rays of the sun she’d basked in either. Having someone to talk to, and better yet, someone who wanted to see her again, made her feel just a little at home in a way she hadn’t felt since the her grandmother’s last embrace. By the time she got home, Warin had already returned from the blacksmith’s where he worked. He was already pulling his boots back on, however.
“I forgot the cornmeal today while I was out. Come with me. You can tell me what else we need. Your mother always did these things,” he muttered. As angry as Liesel still was with her father, she felt another stab of pity for him. He had depended on Amala in so many ways. Nodding, she smiled, and for once, it wasn’t forced. As they left the cottage, she decided not to tell him about the boy just yet.
“So, lass, have you made any friends?” Mayor Odo’s voice made Liesel jump and then cringe. How had he found them? His house was on the other side of Ward. “Ah,” he laughed, “I can tell you have by that expression. Who did you meet?” His smile was friendly enough, but there was something in his eyes that made Liesel think otherwise. Unfortunately, her father chose that moment to suddenly be as interested in her welfare as the prying mayor. She could see him giving her a long sideways look as they walked. She sighed.
“I don’t know his name, actually.” It was only as she spoke, however, that she realized it was true. She had given the boy her name, but he’d never shared his. An idea formed, so she continued to talk. “He’s about my age though. He has hair the color of bark, and brown eyes. He’s probably half a foot shorter than my father. Do you know him?” Perhaps the nosy mayor might be helpful after all. She was dying to know the boy’s name. “Oh, and he said his family lives in the forest.” At this last mention, the mayor’s face suddenly paled. Even Warin noticed.
“Is there something wrong with his family, Odo?” He scowled at the short man. The mayor shook his head vehemently.
“Oh, no! Kurt’s family is very nice.” Liesel allowed herself a small smile. So his name was Kurt. It fit him, she decided.
“What do they do out there?”
“They’re hunters,” Odo examined a sack of potatoes very closely while he answered Warin’s question.
“I thought you said huntin’ in this area is forbidden!”
“It is, but…Kurt’s family is very old. In fact, they own much of the land around the town. It’s best just to leave them alone.” But her father was already shaking his head.
“Liesel, I don’t want you-”
“No, no, no!” Odo interrupted him. “She’ll be perfectly fine. The family just tends to keep to themselves, that’s all. The boy needs a friend, though. He’s a good boy. Liesel will be the perfect friend for him with you living at the edge of town and all.” Liesel held her breath as she looked at her father. While she’d never been one for disobeying direct orders, she didn’t know if she could keep her sanity and live much longer without some conversation. To her relief, however, Liesel’s father finally nodded his head in assent.
“I suppose that will work then, if it gets you out of the house sometimes.” Liesel grinned in spite of herself. Her father had succeeded in separating her from her beloved book, but Liesel was suddenly very glad to have a reason to leave the cottage. Besides, she thought, she might not have to give up her book after all. She had an idea.

———————————————————————————————————

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 4. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!

Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 2

Forgotten Daughter

By the time the sun rose, Liesel knew the fields they passed were not her grandfather’s. They were flat, unlike the rolling hills of her grandparents’ land that lay at the foot of the mountain. Her mountain. She watched sadly as its sharp crags softened into blurs, and her eyes strained to see them as their cart rolled along. The dark blue shadows became less pronounced, and the green tree line turned gray. Green rows of vineyards gave way to golden wheat and barley as the land slowly dipped down, and soon the trees came into view.
The trees were nothing like Liesel had ever seen. Her grandparents’ vineyard had small clusters of wooded land here and there on their property, large enough for her grandfather to find some game in, but they were nothing compared to these.
These woods towered so high they looked from a distance like a great dark cloud hovering over the ground. Their depths seemed measureless, and they stood blacker than anything she’d ever seen before. There were no smaller trees leading up to the giant trunks. The grass simply ended at the bases of the ancient sentinels that guarded the entrance to their wood.
A chill moved down Liesel’s back as they turned right off the main road onto a smaller one that led into the dark domain, leaving the sunlight behind them. There were no flowers growing beneath the trees. Liesel could only imagine that the lack of light choked the life out of anything that might begin to sprout here beneath the twisted canopy. By the time they’d been in the forest an hour, no sunlight reached the forest floor, just the shadows of branches, which entwined themselves with a surprising thickness.
As her courage thinned, Liesel tried to remind herself why they were venturing into such a strange place to begin with. Her mother didn’t stir as Liesel gently tucked a stray piece of hair behind her pale ear. She hadn’t stirred in a long time. After watching her for a moment more, Liesel sighed and pulled out her grandmother’s book.
It had shocked Liesel when her grandmother had pressed it into her arms. The book was Ilsa’s most guarded possession.
“Reading is a privilege, Liesel,” her grandmother had sternly told her when she was a young child, protesting the reading lessons Ilsa insisted on giving her. “Most people do not have such a privilege. But believe me, in all the places I’ve been, in all the disasters and miracles I’ve seen, reading has been the key to unlocking the most wonderful of secrets.” Opening the book to a random page, Liesel began reading to distract herself from the increasing darkness they continued to ride into. Written in her grandmother’s own hand, with pictures drawn by her grandfather, Liesel marveled again at all the places they had ventured to to record such wonderful adventures. If she tried very hard, it was possible sometimes to pretend the path her family journeyed was an adventure in her book. But then, some strange sound from the trees would startle Liesel, and she would have to start trying to pretend all over again.
When night fell, or Liesel guessed it had fallen, as it was darker than she had ever known possible, Liesel’s father stopped the cart horse and started a fire, cursing quietly into the night as he fumbled with the tinder. When the fire was finally of a decent size, he began to roast some salted fish they’d brought with them, and Liesel once again checked on her mother.
What had become a year of endless sleep for her mother had begun more abruptly than Liesel could have imagined possible. When it had happened, they’d been working in their herb garden together, a task both Liesel and Amala enjoyed. The garden was small and neat, nothing compared to the size of her grandmother’s garden out on the vineyard, but decently sized for a garden in the city.
“Keep working on that mugwort, will you?” Amala had slowly risen and begun to walk back to the house. “I’m feeling a bit overheated. I think I’ll go lie down for a few moments.”
“Are you sure, Mother?” Liesel had begun to rise to follow her mother inside, but Amala had waved her back down, her brown eyes smiling warmly at her daughter. “Thank you, no. I’ll be fine. I just need a bit of rest, that’s all.” That was the last smile her mother had given. A moment later, Liesel heard a thump and the sound of pottery breaking. Running in, she found her mother unconscious on the floor. She’d feared the worst at first, thinking her mother dead, but then she saw the shaky, shallow breaths Amala stilled forced in and out. Sprinting into the street, Liesel had screamed for someone to let the town healer. Women had gathered to do what they could, but upon the healer’s arrival, nearly all hope was lost. A slumber malady, the healer had called it, a sickness without a cure. Liesel had felt as though she might pass out as she stared down at her mother on the bed, white as the Holy Man’s robes and as still as glass.
Upon the their friends’ urging, Warin and Liesel had moved out of their city cottage and into Amala’s parents’ home on their vineyard at the foot of Liesel’s beloved mountain. From there, Liesel’s father and grandparents had sent word to towns near and far, begging the healers to come up and examine her mother. And many had come, although Liesel sensed it was generally in hope of the reward promised by her grandparents to the one that could cure Amala, as opposed to a common sense of integrity. Despite the generous reward, however, soon there were no more healers, just a woman clinging to life with little more than the ability to swallow and breathe. There had been little hope.
“We’ve seen this before, Warin,” Liesel had once heard her grandmother whisper softly to her father.
“Yes, yes,” her father had brusquely replied. From the corner that she’d hidden in to eavesdrop, Liesel could imagine him rolling his eyes. “And the fairy of the land healed the fair maiden and they lived happily ever after.” His voice was thick with mockery, but Liesel knew too well it was how he hid the pain.
“But it’s true!” her grandfather had insisted. “If you would only be willing to go to them and ask for the fairy-“.
“I’ll not be runnin’ about the land, chasin’ after a daydream while my wife draws her last breaths!” Warin had bellowed. “We’ve been through this before! There is no magic!” The stubborn outburst was no shock to Liesel, who’d heard Warin’s countless rants before. That was why it had surprised Liesel so much though, when her father had listened to the stranger instead.
Just a few days before their secret escape, Liesel had been chasing a runaway chicken in front of her grandparents’ house. Out of the corner of her eye, she’d been watching a man walk up the long road from town. Considering the vineyard was the last piece of land before reaching the mountain, she knew he could only have been heading for them. He’d stopped for a moment before starting up the path to their door, studying her for an unusual length of time. Hesitantly, Liesel had waved, which gave him the courage, or audacity, as Warin had put it, to come up to the house and talk to the girl as if she was of age. Liesel had found it quite enjoyable though, despite her father’s later grumbling. Thirteen was a strange age to be. She was expected to do the work of a woman, but was ordered around as the babies were. And this man seemed to read her mind.
“You’re a little old to be chasing chickens, aren’t you?” He’d smiled easily as he walked up the dirt path to the house. Liesel felt herself blushing as she returned the smile,
“Yes, but if I don’t, no one will.”
“Well, that’s a good way to think of it if nothing else,” he’d laughed. His clothes were simple, but clean. In fact, their detail suggested a bit of authority, someone with more influence than a simple tradesman. He spoke clearly and smiled pleasantly, but Liesel hadn’t missed how his eyes traveled up and down her the way her grandfather eyed a horse he might purchase. “Is your father nearby, perhaps?” Liesel had fetched her father from the field, wondering the whole time what the stranger could want. He answered her question when he introduced himself to Warin.
“Good morning, sir! My name is Izaak,” he’d greeted her father enthusiastically. “What a lovely vineyard! And your name is?” Liesel nearly let out a giggle. Whatever he wanted, this man was not off to a good start.
“Warin,” her father had grunted. “What do you want?” Izaak looked slightly taken aback by Warin’s brusqueness, but recovered his smile quickly.
“I’m not familiar with this countryside, I must admit. I’ve never seen anything quite like your land-”
“It’s not mine,” Liesel’s father had turned and started walking back to the fields. The thin stranger followed.
“So, you aren’t a farmer?”
“Blacksmith.”
“And you’re out here because…?” Warin turned sharply to face the man.
“Look, I’m busy. What do you want?”
“I must confess,” Izaak finally lost his smile and sighed. “My village suffered a great sickness last winter. Many died, and there are few to take their places. I’m looking for strong men who could move out to work in our village.” Liesel felt the first ripple of unease when she saw her father’s eyes light up at the mention of moving. While Warin had agreed to live at the vineyard, everyone knew he hated living with his wife’s parents. Then disappointment settled into his face.
“Interestin’ as that sounds, my wife is ill. We’ve had healers from all over to see her, but none could help.” The man’s eyes brightened again.
“Ah, but since the sickness, we have a new healer! She came to us from the Far East with herbs and salves few around here have seen! And I know she hasn’t been to see your wife yet because she refuses to leave the village.” The moment he mentioned the new healer, Liesel knew they were going. It wasn’t long before all of the details of the move were settled between the two men.
“Liesel,” her father had called to her as the thin stranger left. “Don’t tell your grandparents quite yet. I’ll tell ’em when it’s the right time.” The right time came two nights later, apparently, when her grandfather was gone hunting, and her grandmother was powerless to stop him. And now they were in the middle of a forest without light.
“We’re almost there,” Liesel whispered to her mother before laying a goodnight kiss on her cold cheek. Leaving the vineyard was the last thing Liesel had wanted to do. As she stared into the fire her father had built, however, Liesel decided that maybe it was worth a try. She would do anything to have Amala back.
They rose early again the next morning and continued along the road. The further they traveled, however, the more uncomfortable Liesel felt. These woods felt sick. Though no direct sunshine had penetrated the trees the first day they’d entered the great forest, it had still been light enough. But on the second day, even the brightest spots made the forest appear the way the sky had during the darkest storms back on the vineyard. Liesel looked down at her bright red cloak, suddenly glad for the vivid color in such a dull place.
They arrived at the town late that afternoon, or what Liesel guessed to be afternoon at least. Glad to see signs of life after their strange, solitary ride, Liesel smiled at the first passersby she saw. Men, women, and children came out of their thatch roofed cottages to stare at the newcomers, but oddly enough, no one returned her smile. Further into town, a small child raised her hand to wave, but her mother pushed it down and hurried her out of the street. Soon the houses grew closer together, and shops, stalls, and larger buildings all blended together until they could see what looked like a town square up ahead.
“Father,” Liesel called in a low voice. “It doesn’t look like there was an illness here recently.”
“What do you mean?”
“All these people…the shops are full, and people are everywhere.”
“Bets are they’re like us,” Warin said with a shrug. His nonchalant attitude didn’t fool Liesel, though. She could see him looking at the people as well, a small frown furrowing his brow.
When they reached the well in the center of the town square, Warin pulled the horse to a halt and instructed Liesel to stay with her mother. He was on his way up to the steps of the largest building Liesel had seen yet, when a rather rotund man walked purposefully towards them, Izaak trailing nervously after him.
“You must be our new blacksmith!”
“Which is odd, considerin’ I just passed one up back there,” Warin frowned at Izaak, his lilting accent making his displeasure even more obvious. “You said there had been an illness that wiped out the village.” Izaak paled a bit, but the other man, unfazed, stepped forward with an overly friendly smile.
“We can always use another blacksmith, especially as ours is getting along in years.”
“And you are?”
“Odo, town mayor.”
“Well, Odo, we’re here to see your healer.” The mayor’s sweaty smile faltered for a moment before reappearing on his face. “Surely you’d like to see your new home first-”
“The healer. Or we’re leavin’.” Liesel felt a small flicker of hope in her heart. Perhaps this healer might know something the others didn’t. And when Amala awoke, she could convince Warin to leave the forest and take the family home. The mayor looked a bit unnerved, and paused before answering. Finally, though, he glumly nodded and turned, motioning for the family to follow. Warin hopped back up into the cart and clucked at the horse. Just two streets over, they stopped before a small cottage.
It looked no different than the other cottages, with the exception of an herb garden that lined the path to the door. Liesel felt another stab of unease as she glanced at its contents. The garden itself was barely larger than her mother’s had been, and she recognized every plant in it. Most of the plants looked sick, which Liesel guessed was from the lack of direct sunlight. The weedy plot hardly looked like it belonged to an herbalist from another land, just as the woman walking out of the house to greet them hardly looked like she was from the Far East. She had pale skin, as did everyone else in the forest village, mousey brown hair pinned back carelessly beneath a dirty blue cap, and a thin face with dull eyes.
As Warin gently lifted his wife from the back of the cart, the mayor fairly sprinted over to whisper in the woman’s ear. Her eyes widened a bit, and she looked over the mayor’s shoulder to glare at Izaak. By then, Warin was heading up the path. Liesel didn’t miss the look of panic that flitted across the woman’s face as she opened the door for them to walk inside.
The cottage room was dark with just one candle to see by, but there really wasn’t that much to see. Liesel had been inside the healer’s house back in her old city, a building that was full to the brim with dried plant pieces in jars, other plants hanging upside down to dry, a large variety of mixing bowls, mortar and pestle, and a large pot to boil mixtures in. This house had only one shelf of jars, and most of them were covered with dust. The mayor cleared the table so Warin could lay Liesel’s mother on top of it.
“What-” the healer began to ask, but Izaak interrupted her.
“Remember the sleeping sickness I told you about, Doffy?” The woman stared at him blankly until a look of nervous recognition came to her face.
“Oh…oh, yes.” She walked over to her shelf of jars and stared up at them for a moment before pulling four down. Grabbing the dirty mortar and pestle from another dusty table, she went to work grinding and mixing the herbs. Liesel watched intently as she worked, running through the plants and their uses her head. Her mother had been an expert with herbs. Although this mixture of herbs the woman had concocted seemed a bit simple for the kind of illness her mother was suffering, nothing was too alarming until she pulled out a dried clipping of a dark green branch with spiky leaves and fluffy orange buds.
“No!” Everyone jumped when Liesel cried out. “That’s fox heel!” Everyone, even the healer, stared at her as if she’d spoken another language. Only then did Liesel realize how rude it must seem for a girl to correct a grown healer. But Liesel knew all about that plant. She’d nearly eaten it when she was two. Her mother had looked over just as Liesel had raised it to her mouth, according to the family story. They kept it in the garden because it could heal skin wounds, but it was absolutely never to be eaten. Amala had run so fast she’d dropped and broken a clay bowl to keep Liesel from touching it to her tongue. When she was older, Amala had taught Liesel how to safely apply it to a bruise, but never was it to be eaten or drunk, according to her mother.
“Crushing the flowers into the herb makes it poisonous,” Liesel explained softly as her father’s look of shock turned into a glare.
“Liesel, outside. Now.” Liesel felt her face redden with embarrassment as she followed her father out the front door like a small child. Warin bent down to look her in the eye. “Just what do you think you’re doin’?”
“I told you,” Liesel whispered. “Fox heel is dangerous.”
“You think their healer doesn’t know her own trade? That a girl of thirteen knows better than she does?” Liesel felt resentment rise in her throat. Glaring back at her father, she huffed.
“They lied about the sickness. There’s obviously been no blight here. They lied about their healer being from the Far East! Doesn’t it seem that they might lie about this, too?”
“One more word out of you, girl, and you’ll regret it!” Warin gave his daughter a withering look.
“I don’t care!” Liesel shouted, tired of watching such foolishness play out. “If you let them give that rubbish to Mother, she’ll die!” She could be just as stubborn as her father when she wanted to be. Warin stared at her in awe for a moment before giving her a sneer and stalking back inside. Liesel took off after him, darting around his large frame, just in time to see Doffy prepare the mixture for a tea. Without a second thought, Liesel knocked the spoon out of the woman’s hands.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I’ll not let you poison her!” she yelled. Two strong hands grabbed her from behind, however, and Warin said,
“I apologize for my daughter’s behavior. She’s just upset about her mum being sick. Please, do what you need to do. She’ll see eventually that she needs to trust those who know better than her.” After giving the mayor a nervous glance, the healer lifted another spoonful of the mixture out to prepare the tea again. Liesel felt like her heart had stopped beating and dropped into her stomach as she watched the woman mix the poisonous orange tinted tea. Tears began to slide down her face as she realized she was going to watch her mother die. She shrieked for her father to stop them, pleading with him to save Amala’s life. Warin put his hand gently but firmly over his daughter’s mouth as he continued to restrain her.
“It’ll be alright, Leese,” he whispered kindly into her ear through her weeping. “I know you’re frightened, but this woman will save her. She’ll be better. I feel it in my gut.” All too soon, the deed was done. Amala had swallowed the tea, and the family was taken to their new cottage.
“The old tailor lived here,” the mayor had explained. “He passed away three years ago. It’s yours now. Let Izaak help you carry your wife in so she can rest.” Liesel watched it all with dead eyes. The mayor and Izaak left soon, and then it was just their family. Liesel sat with her mother, holding Amala’s hand as Warin emptied the cart.
“Is she showing any signs?” he asked hopefully. It was all Liesel could do to stay silent in response, when all she wanted was to scream. She glared instead and shook her head. “Well, then I’m off to the butcher’s. Take care of your mother. I’ll be back.” Liesel silently loathed his hopeful tone, ignoring his wave as he left. It wasn’t long after that that Amala’s breathing slowed and her hands grew cold. Through the blur of her tears, Liesel finally saw her mother’s gray-blue eyes flutter open for the first time in a year.
“My Leese,” Amala’s hand shook as she lifted it to touch Liesel’s face. Her voice was raw, but it was sweeter than Liesel remembered. Liesel grabbed her mother’s hand and held it to her cheek.
“Mother,” she sobbed, “I tried to stop them, but they wouldn’t listen! Father wouldn’t listen!” In some part of her mind, Liesel wondered why she was blubbering about the tea when her mother’s eyes were finally open. Didn’t that mean she was better? Besides, there were so many other things she wanted to tell her about that had happened in the last year, but all she could do was sit there and cry like a child.
“I know, sweet girl,” Amala’s voice was faint. “I couldn’t see you, but I could hear.”
“You could hear?” Liesel frowned in confusion. Coughing, Amala nodded.
“I could hear everything.”
“Since the day you fell sick?”
Amala nodded, wincing as though in pain.
“But are you better?” Liesel held her breath. Amala coughed deeply again in response, as if to answer her question.
“No, love. I’ll be gone soon.” She drew a shaky breath. “But it seems the Maker has given me a few moments with you before I go.” Liesel felt a new flood of tears wash down her face.
“Now, there’s no time for that,” Amala gently scolded her daughter. “Your father will need you. He won’t take care of himself without your help. And you,” she gently tapped Liesel’s nose, “be careful. You’re so beautiful…and men will notice. Men aren’t always what they seem.” She took a shaky breath and caressed her daughter’s face once more. “I love you, my sweet girl.” And with that, Liesel’s mother was gone.

***

Liesel sat perfectly still for an immeasurable time, staring at her mother’s ashen face. But deep inside, the part of her that dreamed couldn’t be still. It couldn’t accept that this was how it ended. Words began to echo in her head, some from her mother. There were other voices that were there, too, however, and eventually, there was one command that drowned out all of the rest.
Whatever you do, you must escape those woods! Her grandmother’s voice commanded desperately. Come back to me, no matter what!
Grandmother had been right. They had come to this wicked village, and the healer was either completely incompetent or she had just poisoned Amala purposefully. With all of the lies that had been told, all of the desperate looks the townspeople had been giving one another after seeing her, something in the town of Ward was very wrong.
Without knowing what she was doing, Liesel found herself out of her chair and running. Night darkness was beginning to cover everything, but it didn’t matter. Liesel knew which direction the vineyard was in, and she wasn’t stopping until she got there. It didn’t matter that she could no longer see more than five feet in front of her, nor did she care that she had no supplies. All Liesel could think about was going home, running into her grandmother’s arms, and leaving this wretched forest behind forever.
But soon it was too dark, and Liesel’s skirt caught on a low branch, causing her to trip. Her hands stung as they scraped against unseen sticks and dry pine needles, and she stubbed her toe on a rock. Wet earth stuck to her as she began to rise, but something made her freeze halfway up. Her breaths were ragged and heavy from her run, but she tried to quiet them as she strained to listen. She was almost sure she’d heard breathing that was not her own.
Turning slowly, still on her hands and knees, the girl nearly fainted as she realized she was not alone. The silhouette of a creature stood out against the shadows. A growl slipped out, so slight she wasn’t even sure she’d heard it. Fear made her blood turn cold, and all thoughts of the damp ground and her scratched palms forgotten, Liesel took off again, even faster this time. A tiny voice in her head wondered what she was doing, why she was even in the forest, and screamed at her that no sane girl of thirteen years would be where she was, but she ignored it completely.
She’d only taken a few strides, however, before she was flat on her stomach, the creature crouching on her back. For the first time, Liesel found her voice, screaming as loudly as she could for help. A heavy paw was shoved expertly onto the back of her neck, shoving her face into the ground, cutting off her cry for help as a snout with gleaming white teeth lowered itself down beside her face to growl a warning. It occurred to Liesel that she was going to die.
A part of her wondered if this was the Maker’s way of secret mercy, saving her from a long miserable life in that horrid village without her mother. The rest of her, however, was terrified. What kind of pain could a creature like this inflict upon a human, particularly one that wasn’t yet fully grown? What kind of gruesome things could those teeth do?
In the brief second before the bite, Liesel wondered which side he would attack her from. The neck? The side? A warm pang from her right hand surprised her, however. Without thinking, she turned her head as best she could to look through the darkness at her hand as the warm blood trickled down it. It hurt, but it wasn’t the killing lunge she’d been expecting. And even stranger was that the animal wasn’t continuing the attack. As soon as he bit her, he’d moved few feet away, a low growling still in his throat.
Despite the blackness of night, she could make out the contour of a wolf, the biggest she’d ever seen. His coat was silver, and it almost gleamed in the gray haze that filled the dark woods. Liesel had seen wolves before, but only from a distance, and with the comfort of her grandfather’s expert crossbow nearby to protect her. His claws were difficult to see, but they looked longer than anything Liesel had ever imagined.
At that moment, she locked eyes with the beast, and as soon as she did, she began to shake. The eyes into which she gazed were unmistakably human.
She didn’t have time to linger and ponder his unusual eyes, however. One second, the wolf was watching her intently, as if surveying its strange work, and the next moment, it was lying lifelessly on the ground, an arrow in its heart. Liesel watched in horror as the human eyes closed.
“Are you alright?” a man’s voice called from a distance. As heavy footsteps approached, Liesel found herself incapable of answering him. She couldn’t even lift herself up off the ground. She just lay there trembling uncontrollably, scrunching her eyes shut as though that would make the horror disappear. “That’s a nasty cut there,” the deep voice kindly said. Gently, Liesel felt herself lifted by strong arms and cradled like a child. “Do you live in Ward?” he asked. Liesel racked her memory, trying to remember the village’s name. Ward sounded right. Even if it wasn’t, she didn’t really care. She just did her best to nod.
“What are you doing out here alone?” She could hear the frown in his voice. Liesel finally opened her eyes and looked at him, but couldn’t answer through her chattering teeth. His expression softened. “Well, no matter. We’d best get you home. I’m sure your mum’s worried something awful. I know my wife would be.” He didn’t see, but Liesel felt a tear roll down her cheek. Yes, Mother would have worried.
As he carried her, he talked. Liesel found his voice soothing. He was a hunter, he said, and his name was Paul. He didn’t usually come this far east, but the buck he’d been chasing had led him outside of his normal grounds. He had a family back in higher country, including a daughter about her age, and he didn’t like to leave them for long. She began to drift in and out of slumber as he carried her back and chatted away.
It wasn’t until they were at the edge of the village that she realized she’d fallen asleep.
“You, man!” The hunter called out. “I have a girl here, and she’s not well! Do you know where I might find her family?”
“I’m new here. I wouldn’t know.” Liesel’s eyes were closed, but she recognized the worn, rough tone of her father’s voice. Instead of its usual arrogance, however, it was hoarse and broken. A small piece of Liesel’s senses returned, enough to feel pity for the man. But with the pity came rage as well. It was he who had dragged them to this place of death, and he’d been the one to hold her back when Amala still could have been saved. And he knew it, from the sound of his voice.
“If you please,” the hunter said, uncomfortably shifting her weight in his arms. “I found this girl in the forest. She was being attacked by a wolf-”
“Girl?” Warin’s voice lifted slightly. “I been missin’ mine since I came home and found her mother dead.”
“I…I’m sorry,” the hunter said softly. “I found this child in the woods, like I said, bitten by a wolf. Perhaps the pain of losing her mother was just too much…” He stepped forward again. “If you would just look and see if she’s yours.” Liesel heard her father rouse himself from the stoop slowly and walk towards them.
“Aye, she’s mine. Don’t know what the fool girl was thinkin’, runnin’ into the woods alone at night.”

Despite his harsh words, his voice was soft and gentle. Familiar arms lifted her from the hunter’s. Liesel wished she could find her voice to thank the stranger for his kindness.
Her father didn’t put her into the bed, and Liesel couldn’t look to see if it was because her mother’s body was still there. Instead, he simply carried her to a wooden chair in the corner of the room and cradled her as he had done when she was young. The last sound Liesel heard that night was Warin’s quiet sobbing as he held her close. Her last thought was a desperate one. She still hadn’t escaped the woods.

———————————————————————————————————

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 3. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!

Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 1

Grandmother’s Warning

“You don’t understand!” Liesel watched in alarm as her grandmother ran after her father and grasped his arm. She’d never seen her grandmother so upset. “People that go to that town…they never leave! You can’t take Liesel and Amala there!”

“And why not, Old Woman?” Warin demanded gruffly. He tossed another sack into the wooden cart before turning to face his wife’s mother. The burly man crossed his arms across his chest defiantly. “Once and for all, if it’s so dangerous, surely you’re willin’ to share those secrets you guard so closely, if only to keep your daughter and granddaughter near.” Liesel didn’t know what secrets her father spoke of, but she wished her grandmother would tell him. The idea of moving to a village her grandmother hated terrified her. Despite her wishes, however, her grandmother just stared up at him desperately, her mouth open and her jaw trembling. But no words fell from her lips; just a silent fear that Liesel could feel from where she stood. A strange pain that the girl had never seen before filled her grandmother’s hazel eyes. Warin watched the older woman as well, nodding impatiently when she failed to answer.

“That’s what I thought. Liesel, make sure your mother’s comfortable. We’re goin’!” Liesel hurried to the back of the cart to make sure Amala was well tucked in beneath the blankets she and her father had piled upon her. As she did, Liesel could hear her father muttering about superstitious foolishness under his breath as he stalked back inside for another bag. “Just an old woman making up stories to keep her children near.” He threw a disgusted look at his mother-in-law as she paced back and forth in the darkness of the early morning.

Liesel wished it wasn’t so early. She would have liked to see the large cabin once more in the glow of the morning sun, rather than the flicker of torchlight. This darkness felt alien to her.
“I know why you’re leaving now!” Ilsa suddenly stopped pacing and yelled, so angry her voice shook.

“My husband is gone hunting, so you think you can sneak out of here like a thief in the night!”

“A thief?” Liesel’s father stormed over to where Ilsa stood and glowered down at her. “We finally hear of a healer that could cure your daughter, and when I try to take her there, you call me a thief?” His face was red, even in the light of the flame, and each angry word cut Liesel’s heart like a knife. She wanted so much to plead for him to stop, to wait until her grandfather came home. He knew much more about the forest than her father did. Shouldn’t they ask him if he knew about this village in the great forest before they left for it? But she knew from experience that her pleas would only make her father angrier.

“Liesel!” Warin barked, still holding Ilsa’s glare. “We’re leavin’!” With that, he threw the last bundle into their rickety cart, jumped in, and clicked at the horse. Liesel stood frozen in terror behind it as it began to roll away. Without a word, Ilsa turned and ran inside the house.

“Grandmother!” Liesel shrieked, unable to move her feet. She could hear the cart stop behind her, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t leave her grandmother. Not like this. As the shriek left her lips, Ilsa sprinted back out of the house clutching a large, colorful, bound leather book to her chest. She shoved it into Liesel’s arms.

“Whatever you do,” she sobbed fiercely to her granddaughter, “You must escape those woods!” Warin’s large arms closed around Liesel’s waist before lifting her and roughly dropping her into the back of the cart. Ilsa still cried out. “Come back to me, no matter what!” Tears streamed down the girl’s face as she watched her grandmother fall to her knees, wailing as she grew smaller and smaller in the distance.

———————————————————————————————————

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 2. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!