Supernatural Fiction posted January 13, 2022

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A girl, a red cloak and a beast in the woods

A Walk Through The Woods

by sherrygreywolf

Though the dark red cape hid in the gathering shadows of the evening, golden eyes had no trouble following the slim girl's faltering progress through the increasing gloom. Her pale face and hands seemed to glisten in the scant light, picking up the last rays of the setting sun.

Shaya stepped into the shadows of the woods and pulled the cape more tightly around her shoulders.  Earlier today the afternoon seemed like it would stretch on forever.  Visiting  with her sister, they had eaten lunch from the basket Shaya had brought,  laughing and chatting as they used to. She enjoyed bouncing Lara's babies on her knees and helping with the laundry.  Both girls lost track of the time. And now the sun was beginning to set and it seemed the darkness was falling as fast as the water tumbled over the falls she could hear in the distance.

Hurrying along the swiftly vanishing path, Shaya knew there was no way she could get through the woods before the gathering darkness hid the trail completely. She shook her head, thinking how stupid it was to have stayed so long with Lara and the children.   What was supposed to be a visit to take them some food and check on their wellbeing in her brother-in-law's absence had turned into a longer visit that would now strand her in the dark woods overnight. 

Shaya shivered in the cool evening air and she was thankful for the thick, heavy velvet of the cloak. It was a gift celebrating her entry into womanhood two years ago. She smiled at the memory of her grandmother draping it around her shoulder at the ceremony. Grandma's voice had been proud as she told the tale of how her own grandmother had sacrificed much to purchase the deep burgundy fabric and how many hours she had spent making the tiny, perfect stitches that held it together and decorated the edges. Shaya's smile faded at the memory of finding her grandmother only months later, lying cold in her bed. She had lived a long life and she had met death as she lived life, with a soft smile gracing her wrinkled face, but Shaya still missed her every day.

The trail narrowed and branches caught Shaya's hair, causing her to wince and catch her breath.  She vaguely remembered a small cave somewhere up ahead. It seemed she had known about it forever, but when she tried to remember how or when she had found it, there was only darkness. Now she prayed she would recognize the patch of berry bushes that masked the entrance to the cave.  She hurried on, hoping she could find the entrance and that the cave would be empty.

The beast was used to the darkness of the woods and made his way through the thick foliage, always keeping her in sight but remaining silent and unseen. He noted the direction of her footsteps and was pretty sure he knew where she was heading. Knowing he could find her again if he needed to, he left her hurrying down the trail and loped on ahead.

The night was growing colder and the darkness was beginning to hide the path by the time Shayla saw the berry bushes. She stopped and knelt by the nearby stream and took a drink of the cold, clear water. Then she heaved a sigh of relief and grabbed a handful of the berries. Knowing that Lara was often short of food enough for her family and expecting to be home for supper, she had eaten little at lunch. She put the berries into her mouth a few at a time, enjoying the sweet juiciness and crisp flesh.   She picked several handfuls of the berries and put them into the small basket she carried on her arm.  While she gathered the berries, she listened carefully but heard nothing from inside the cave. She pitched a small rock into the opening and stayed quiet. There was still no noice from inside the cave, but the only way to know for sure was to go inside.

Digging into her basket,  she pulled out a couple of flints and a tiny amount of tender. Striking the flints together, she blew softly onto the sparks falling into  the fibers. She watched as the sparks grew into a tiny flame and then, as it grew, she used it to light a flame at the end of a dry stick.  Taking a deep breath she hesitated and then pushed her way through the leaves into the entrance of the cave.

As she had hoped, the cave appeared to be empty of anything more threatening than a wall of spider webs and the small mouse that her entrance had caused to run deeper into the cave.  She looked around and, seeing nothing threatening,  breathed a sigh of relief that she had somewhere to spend the night.

Scattered dry twigs and limbs littered the cave's floor and a huge pile of what appeared to be windblown leaves were high against one of the walls.  Gathering the wood into a pile in the center of the cave, she pushed the flaming stick into it's center and watched as the flames grew larger, chasing some of the shadows further back into the cave. After warming her hands, she plumped the leaves and sat atop them, drawing the cape closer around her to protect against the breeze that sometimes slipped through the leaves at the rocks' opening.

She wished she had something to drink, but settled on eating more berries. She watched the flames and enjoyed the warmth of the small fire. Her thoughts drifted and she began to doze.

From the darkness deep in the cave, the beast watched, his eyes narrowed. He grinned at her obvious appreciation of the kindling and leaves he had hastily placed into the cave when he realized her goal. He crouched silently in the shadows, watching as she slipped into dreams and the flames began to burn to embers. She stirred in her sleep,  the cape spreading around her as she made small, sad noises deep in her throat.

When he was sure Shaya was sleeping he crept silently from the small, narrow opening in the back wall of the cave. He towered over the slim shape of the girl and watched as she slept on, unaware of his presence. He thought of watching her as she grew into womanhood, often peeking through the leaves at the edge of the forest, seeing her laughter and her tears. He remembered her grief at the loss of first her parents and then her grandmother. He saw once again her joy at her sister's marriage and the birth of each of her nieces and nephews. He wished he could have spared her the shock of learning of her intended's death but was also glad she had not married the pampered old man who would have been ill-prepared to deal with the girl's free, adventuresome spirit and youth.

Moving quietly and carefully, he lowered himself onto the soft velvet next to her.  Without waking, Shaya sought the warmth of his body and he relished her closeness.   Stealthfully, he stroked her cheek with butterfly-soft movements, watching as her eyelids twitched slightly and her breathing quickened. Even in sleep, she leaned into his touch and his lips parted in anticipation of their eventual union. He did not know for sure how or when it would happen but he knew it was their destiny.

He lay quietly by her side and listened to her soft, even breathing. Often he would stroke her hand or her cheek, careful not to wake her. She slept on, unaware of her uninvited visitor. They lay, touching, but separated by the softness and warmth of the beautiful red velvet. And with the coming of the dawn, he silently moved away from her, pushed through the bushes  and vanished back into the woods.

Shaya awoke, smiling, and stretched. In spite of her night on a makeshift bed of leaves, she felt refreshed and more contented that she had felt in many months. The fire had gone out but the cave had stayed warmer than she had thought it would. She shrugged and decided not to take the time to build another fire. Instead she would make her way home so she could cook some freshly gathered eggs and toast some stale bread on her own hearth. Her mouth watered at the thought.

Grabbing another handful of berries as she pushed her way from the cave, she glanced around and made a mental note of her surroundings to make it easier to find this wonderful little hideaway. Again, she tried to remember when or how she had discovered the hidden entrance, but it was a blank. There was nothing there - just a dark fog, drifting. And the harder she thought, the darker the fog became.

A puzzled smile appeared on her face as she remembered her dreams from the night before. Most nights, her dreams quickly turned to nightmares. In the darkness of her nights, she relived the brutal deaths of her mother and father or she felt again  the sadness of finding her grandmother's body. She had troubled dreams of finding out that the man she expected to marry had been murdered on his way to meet her and the guilty relief she had felt. The common thread were the dreams were always stories of loss and death that played out in her mind and left her feeling exhausted when she woke. Many nights she dreaded going to sleep and would sit in her rocking chair, staring deep into the flames of the fireplace, watching as the fire burned down to embers. Fighting the sleep and the dreams but always falling into the terrors of the night a few hours before dawn, then awaking more tired than when she went to bed.

Last night's dreams had been different. More feelings than actual dreams, they were comforting and felt like long-forgotten memories of being safe and warm, held in loving arms.   They were feelings that she hadn't felt in a long time but in the afterglow of them, the smile stayed on her face for most of the walk home.

It would be a couple of hours before she arrived home and she wondered if anyone from the village even realized she did not come home last night. As she walked the path, Shaya brushed the remnants of dried leaves from the red cloak. She finger-combed her long hair and removed tiny twigs, before twisting it into a braid. If she ran into one of her neighbors, she did not want to appear any more disheveled that she had to. She lived near the edge of the village and stayed to herself so much that it was possible that she would be able to sneak into her cottage without anyone even knowing about her absence. She hoped. There were enough questions about her life without people wondering why she had stayed out all night.

The day warmed up as she walked and she removed the cloak, draping it over her arm. The noises of the forest lulled her mind and she remembered the relaxed feeling she felt when she woke in the cave. She wondered if she would be able to dream without nightmares in her own home tonight or if it was being in the tiny enclosed space of the cave that had chased the nightmares away last night. She smiled sadly and wondered if it was sleeping in her grandmother's cloak. Or maybe it was the magic of the woods or maybe, just maybe, she had finally outgrown the terrors of the darkness that had plagued her for as long as she could remember.

Distracted she walked the path through the thick underbrush, never noticing the being striding noiselessly parallel to her footsteps. His silent presence, unknown to her, kept her safe.  

His presence kept her safe as it had for most of her life.

A First Book Chapter contest entry

A non-traditional approach to the well-known fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood. But in this story, there will be an unexpected twist.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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