Her cloak was made of scarlet canvas, waxed so the rain rolled off. It reached down to her ankles where her boots were covered in the slimy mud of the forest floor, keeping her warm and dry during the deluge as she and her partner trudged through the dark woods. She squeezed the grip of the crossbow concealed underneath, taking comfort in the feeling of the weapon in her hand. It was almost over.
The woods were so different to how she remembered them. The path was now overgrown and wild. Even the smell was different: there was nothing of the scent of wildflowers, only the rain-churned earth and the decay of fallen, rotting leaves. But flowers still grew in the thick of the wood, just off the old track. “Wait here,” said Red, leaving the path. Shortly, she returned, stuffing two fresh-cut flowers into a pocket and her silver dagger into its sheathe.
The two continued on their way, Red and Jack the Woodsman, oil lanterns in their hands casting feeble, ruddy light that could barely touch the darkness around them.
“It shall be over soon, Little Red,” Jack said softly, his axe resting on his shoulder.
Aye, she thought, it shall, but made no reply. She squeezed the grip of her crossbow. It was so close now. Soon she could finally move on. Closure. A new life free from the horrors of her past. So close.
The rain had died down by the time they reached the old house, and the full moon crept through a gap in the clouds to paint the glade in silvery light. The three old oaks stretched over the house with long, twisted limbs – naked, gnarled and grotesque, clawing at the night. The house itself was no better, a haunting ruin of a memory that Red could barely recognise.
The crumbling corpse of the house where Grandmother used to live.
“Hello, my dear!” came the voice of an elderly lady, though Red could not say where from. It seemed to come from everywhere at once: the oaks, the house, the moon. She and jack put their backs together and laid down their lanterns, as the moonlight illuminated all. “Oh what a pretty little red cloak, my dear child! And what do you have underneath? Banana bread, cake, wine, all for me?” She cackled long and loud – a rasping sound that clawed at Red’s courage.
Red drew the crossbow from under her cloak.
“Oh my!” gasped the voice. Again, that clawing cackle.
“Where are you?” roared Jack, hefting his axe in both hands.
“Ah yes, the woodsman, ever the hero. Where am I? Why, right in here.”
The door of the house opened, groaning like some dying beast. Within there was only darkness.
Red trained her crossbow on the open door, watching, waiting in the preternatural stillness of the woods, unmoving and unblinking. Jack was restless by her side, breathing hard and rocking from foot to foot, shifting his grip on the shaft of his axe and grinding his teeth. How long passed? She could not say. But Jack did not have the patience. “We have to go in,” he said finally, and started to move forward.
“Wait!” Something in Red’s voice stopped him dead. “The lanterns,” she whispered, “throw them through the door. Burn her out of the house.”
Jack nodded, collected the lanterns and crept slowly towards the door. Red kept her crossbow steady.
Twelve paces from the house, he stopped. He swung one lantern underarm and tossed it through the doorway. A crash and a flare of flame within. He tossed the second lantern.
A hideous creature rushed forth from the doorway – mottled fur of white and grey and terrible yellow eyes. The stench of death came with it, thick and sickly, catching in Red’s throat and choking her. It let out a vicious howl as it swiped at Jack, sending him crashing to the ground.
The crossbow kicked and hissed, the silver-tipped quarrel burying itself deep in the werewolf’s gut. The howl turned into a sickening scream, the death-cry of a demonic beast. There was never a sound in the world so sweet to Red’s ears.
She walked calmly to the creature, convulsing in the throes of death, and pushed her silver dagger deep into its heart. She felt strangely at peace. “Rest now, Grandmother,” she said, and took one of the flowers from her pocket, laying it on the beast.
Her crossbow reloaded, she made her way to where the woodsman lay. “I’m sorry, Jack,” she said, and raised her weapon.
“No! Wait! Red look, no blood – it didn’t draw blood! I’m not infected! I –”
The crossbow kicked and hissed and Jack was silent.
Red placed the second flower on his chest.
It was finally over. Nothing remained of her old life. She was free to live. The house that was once her grandmother’s blazed in the glade.