Forest of Light
Story stumbled toward the break in the trees, where she knew a lush, grassy green field would greet her. Blinking back the tears that wanted to blind her eyes, she shook her head. Everything was changing, and she didn’t like it one bit.
“Ahhhh!” A flash of red jumped out in front of her with a high pitched screech that Story echoed as her heart gave a lurch, and she jumped back from the cackling figure that hopped around the trees.
“Jess!” Story yelled, realizing who it was and clenching her fists, her tears and grief at Kestrel’s departure forgotten for the moment. The girl, standing taller than Story with long, wild hair that twisted orange and red around her head and down her shoulders in a blanket of color, continued her giggling.
“You scared me!” Story said, accusation ringing in her voice as her best friend attempted to catch her breath. Jess’s face was as red as her hair, and after a moment Story felt a bubble of laughter escape, forgetting for a moment that Kestrel was gone and that the next day she’d be off to Ninian’s.
“What are you doing here?” Story finally asked after a moment when they’d both gotten their giggles under control. “I thought Grandma Red was taking you into town.”
Jess hiccupped one last giggle, and then, almost as if it never existed, the smiled vanished from her face. Shaking her head she shrugged. “Nah, something came up. So I came looking for you. Faulks said you were out here with Kessie so I thought I’d try and catch up.” Peeking behind Story further into the trees, she hopped from one foot to the other, bouncing up and down to see over her head. “Where is she?” she asked, finally standing still for a moment.
Shaking her head, a dismal tide of gray seemed to wash her good mood away once more. “She’s gone,” Story said softly.
“Gone?” Jess asked, her red brows arched high on her forehead. “Where did she—“ Jess stopped in mid-sentence, tilting her head quietly around, her usually-sparkling blue-gray eyes narrowed and calculating. Jess may have only been a year older than Story, but she always felt safer when her friend was around. She didn’t know any other eight-year-olds that wore an axe strapped to their back, but Jess had as long as she’d known her. And Grandma Red made sure Jess knew how to use it too.
“Did you hear—“
“Shh,” Jess hushed her quickly, slowly turning around so that she was looking beyond Story, her eyes widening almost imperceptibly. “Don’t panic,” she whispered.
At once, a sense of dread washed over Story and she turned with a start, backing up a few paces when she saw a man was standing behind her and she’d never even heard him approach.
“Don’t run,” Jess said softly, her face paler than Story had ever seen it before as she stared at the man watching them.
“Well, well, well,” he said, his voice a low, mocking growl. “Two tender little morsels, and one a young Hood. The Will must be pleased with me today,” he said, running his tongue slowly over a wide, full mouth and smiling. It wasn’t friendly though, Story thought. It was a scary smile. “I don’t usually get to meet one of your kind so young,” he said, looking to Jess.
Frowning, Story glanced between the two of them feeling confused as her friend scrunched her little face up menacingly. She hadn’t even noticed Jess had grabbed her axe, which she held clenched in the air and ready.
“Do you know him?” Story asked, watching as the man barely flicked a glance at her, his attention solely on her friend. For the first time, she noticed the man had the palest and coldest blue eyes she’d ever seen. They seemed devoid of emotion, of love, and Story shuddered, fear creeping into her and crawling over her skin.
Jess shook her head keeping her eyes on the man, whose jaw was clean and shaven and almost feminine in the soft curve and angle, but which did nothing to make him look less intimidating. He wore a tunic made from skins and when he stepped forward, his booted feet made no sound on the forest floor. And when he laughed … it began like a growl under the rumble of a man’s mirth, except no joy was present. The vibrations shook Story, and she glanced desperately to Jess, who was standing as still as bunny caught in the open. But while she looked frightened, Story saw the brave flicker of a warrior in her eyes. It was the same kind of glimmer she’d seen shining from Kessie’s gaze as well when she’d left with the Pegasus only an hour or so before.
“Leave us alone. You know what I am,” Jess said, her voice pitched so low Story almost didn’t recognize the tone from her usually care-free friend.
He laughed again and Story decided she really didn’t like it when he did that, his glacial gaze never leaving Jess. “Your mother is dead, your grandmother … well, she’s old, and you’re all that’s left. I could kill off your line here and now, and I’d be a hero to my kind,” he said, his tone light and mockingly conversational.
Time stretched by and Story desperately wished her papa would come looking for her. She should have been back to the Gardenia some time ago and maybe he’d save them. Jess may have been fierce, but she was only a little girl just like Story and the man … well, he was something else. Story wasn’t sure just what, but she had an idea.
“Are you a—“
“Shush, Story,” Jess spoke to her for the first time since he’d confronted them.
“Oooh, I know, saying it out loud will make it real. How about I just show you what I am?”
Shaking her head emphatically, Story looked over at Jess who, if it was possible, had grown even paler, the light dusting of her freckles standing out stark on her skin.
“If you answer me this, perhaps I’ll let you go,” he said with a long smile. “Who came first, the wolf or the hunter?”
Jess let out a snort, sounding like her normal self for a moment. “That’s silly, the wolf, of course. Why would you need a hunter without the wolf?”
The man paused, his eyes hooded and sinister as he flashed large, white teeth. “Because there is always other prey,” he said, tilting his head and watching her. “Bigger prey … Today, you’re nothing. I could shred you and it would be of no consequence. And as much as I’d love to see what a little Hood like yourself could accomplish, so full of spirit and innocence, someday you’ll be a full grown Riding Hood, and that’s so much more titillating. That’s when I’ll find you. So don’t forget about me, little red,” he said, blowing a kiss. Then, finally turning his full gaze on Story, he winked a pale blue eye. She watched as the air shimmered around him, seeming to warp the very atmosphere, and then he was gone, and all that remained was a large black wolf that bore the same frigid blue gaze. As his tongue lolled out, a drop of saliva dripped onto the forest floor, and Story could sense the hunger that lived within him before he trotted off into the trees.
Instead of running, Jess stilled Story with a touch of her arm, watching him until he disappeared. “Jess, let’s go! That was a Wolf, a Big Bad Wolf,” she hissed.
“Yes, I’m aware!” she said, finally pulling Story along with her to the clearing that had only been several feet away the entire time. “Don’t run, whatever you do, don’t run. He could still be nearby and running is what prey does. It’s instinct for him to chase.”
Story nodded, properly chastened and even though every muscle inside her body was pleading with her to run away as fast as she could, she made herself walk normally by Jess’s side.
Jess glanced at her after a few moments and after they’d put more distance between them and the forest, although even the brightly lit fields couldn’t chase away the chill the Wolf had left in his wake.
“Story,” Jess finally said. “You smell like magic.”
Confused, Story looked at Jess and shook her head. “So?”
“The Wolf, Nigel,” she added softly, “he should have smelled it too.”
“Well, why would he care?” Story asked, drawing her brows together, perplexed. “And how do you know his name?”
“My grams told me about him, the Wolf with the soulless blue eyes.” Jess paused, gazing into nothing with a haunted look of fear settling into the hollow of her cheeks and glisten of her eyes, but she shook it off after a moment and glanced back at Story. “You don’t just smell like normal magic, you smell like … funny magic,” Jess said, wrinkling her nose.
Shrugging, Story shook her head. “I smell funny?”
Jess laughed for the first time since escaping the Wolf, nodding with a grin. “You don’t smell like you usually do. I mean, you always smell like magic, but this time it’s different. I’ve smelled it on you before.”
“It’s kind of weird that you can smell all this stuff,” Story said finally, giving her friend a sidelong glance. “Is it because of what he said? That you’re a … you’re Little Red Riding Hood?” Story said in an excited whisper. She’d never realized before that her very own best friend was an actual Fairytale.
A flush crept up Jess’s cheeks and she glanced down. “I’m a Little Red Riding Hood. All the girls in my family are. We can smell like Wolves can, and see in the dark really good, and stuff like that. My grams has been training me to fight Big Bad Wolves my whole life,” she admitted.
Stopping suddenly, Story turned and looked at her, grabbing Jess’s hands between her own. “How come you never told me this before?”
Jess didn’t meet her eyes at first, but finally she lifted them. “I was afraid.”
“That you wouldn’t like me. Plus, Grams doesn’t like me telling people on account of Lord Brink and the way he treats Fairytales. She’s scared he’ll find me and lock me up, or put me to work in the mines and fields. And you know, the Wolves work for him,” she said, finishing the last part in a breathless whisper, as if the very air had been snatched from her lungs by the thought.
Frowning, Story nodded, troubled by the mention of Brink. She’d heard her papa talk about him before and how Brink hated Fairytales. Thankfully, Locksley was almost on the other side of Tressla, so his influence hadn’t affected them too greatly. “Jess, I will always like you. And I think it’s so cool that you’re a Red Riding Hood!” she said, trying to make her friend smile again.
“It’s cool?” Jess asked, wrinkling her brow.
Giggling, Story just shook her head, a thought coming to her. “Someday,” she began, taking on a serious tone and gazing deeply into her friend’s eyes. “Someday, you and I will free the Fairytales.”
Jess stared at her for a moment, a hopefulness lifting the corners of her mouth when she smiled. “Okay, Story. I’m in.”
Laughing again, she swung Jess’s hands. “Weren’t you scared when you saw the Wolf?”
Jess nodded. “More than anything, but I kept hearing Grams’s voice in my head saying to not let him see my fear, look him in the eyes, let him know I’m an equal. Let him know that I’m more.”
“Are you scared he’ll come find you like he said?” Story asked more softly, watching her friend carefully.
Jess shook her head and grinned. “Like he said, I’ll be a full-grown Riding Hood someday,” and then she growled, eliciting a laugh from Story, who slung her arm around her taller friend’s waist and started walking once more toward home.
As the Gardenia became visible, Jess looked down at Story, who sighed deeply thinking about Kestrel’s absence and what it would mean to Faulks, but most of all, Hank and Jemma. “You never told me … Where’s Kessie?”
Story glanced up at her and shook her head. “She’s gone from Locksley by now.”
Jess’s eyes widened. “Gone? Where?”
Shaking her head, Story glanced toward her home. “I don’t know.”
“Well, who did she go with?” Jess asked.
“I’m not allowed to tell,” Story said softly.
Jess was quiet and after a moment, she nodded. “Funny smelling magic?”
Letting out a breath, Story looked back up at her friend and smiled softly. “Yeah, funny smelling magic.”
“You’ll see her again.”
“I know,” Story said, lifting a hand and waving forlornly to Jemma, who, pausing in the midst of sweeping the stoop, seemed to be searching the fields beyond where Jess and Story walked. “I just wish I knew when.”