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Little Redhead – by Shana
Sorrel was seven years old the day she met the boy she was supposed to kill.
She wasn’t supposed to be outside that day. Yesterday, she had knocked over the churn and ruined the day’s batch of butter, and as a punishment, her mother had set her to churning all the next day. Her arms were throbbing by the second hour, but she didn’t dare falter under her mother’s watchful eyes. A sudden knock on the door made her look up, and she quickly let the the handle drop as her mother set down her darning and walked towards the door.
“What is it?” Sorrel heard her ask as she rubbed her aching forearms furiously.
“Sienna, you’re needed at the cobbler’s shop,” the anxious voice of one of their neighbours said. “One of the boys caught his foot under a hammer.”
“Oh dear. I’ll be right there Alma, don’t worry.” Her footsteps moved back towards the kitchen, and in a flash Sorrel seized the handle and resumed her churning. She looked up as her mother entered, widening her eyes in innocent curiosity.
“What’s going on, Mama?”
“I have to run into town, Sorrel,” her mother said, moving to the corner where she kept her herbs and stuffing the small leather bags into a carrysack. “You stay inside, you hear me? Not even a foot into the yard.”
“Not a foot,” Sorrel promised, crossing her fingers behind the churn handle. “What should I do once I’m done churning?”
“You can leave it in the churn, I’ll take care of it when I get back.” Her mother swung the carrysack over her shoulders and moved towards the door. “Play with the doll Emily gave you or something. I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay, Mama!” Sorrel called after her. She waited until she heard the heavy wooden door close behind her mother, then darted off the stool and over to the window, where she watched her mother walk down the path and down to the gate. Her mother paused, one hand on the weathered wood, and looked back to the house. Sorrel ducked below the sill and hoped her mother had not seen her. After a long moment, she peeked up again.
The gate was closed. The lane stood empty, and her mother’s back could be seen receding down the road. Sorrel was alone.
Beaming in delight, Sorrel skipped across the kitchen floor. Bypassing the churn entirely, she ran to the back door and out into the yard without even bothering to put on her shoes first. For several minutes, she danced in the yard, making patterns with her bare feet in the dirt, giggling and humming a little song to herself. Eventually, she slowed, and looked back on her patterns with sigh.
Patterns were boring now, she decided. What else did she want to do?
There was a whistling sort of sound in the distance. Now that Sorrel was silent, she could hear it. A faint, high-pitched singing, like a bird singing for the end of summertime. Curious now, she drifted towards the source of the sound, unconsciously drawing closer and closer to the edge of the yard, and the dark forest beyond. Her feet brushed against the crackling leaves, and she stopped short, staring into the depths of shadow through the trees.
Her mother’s words echoed in her mind.
Never go into the forest alone, Sorrel. Only with me or Papa. And whatever you do, don’t talk to strangers or stray off the path!
But this isn’t the big forest, Sorrel reasoned. Just a… woods. Behind the house. Beside the forest. It’ll be fine if I go in here. Plus, she really wanted to know where that singing was coming from.
She took one hesitant step into the woods, then another. When nothing terrible happened, she tried another step. Soon enough she was running through the woods, leaping over logs and through piles of leaves, her ears pricked in an effort to track the source of the high song, growing louder as she ran. It was fairly ringing in her ears. She flung herself over huge forked branch lying on the forest floor, and slammed chest first into the figure standing in the middle of the clearing.
He let out a startled yelp of surprise and staggered back as Sorrel knocked him over into the mulch and the leaves. Sorrel let out a matching shriek, and struggled to roll off the boy’s chest. “I’m sorry!” she said. “Sorry, sorry – who are you?”
She crouched in the leaves beside the boy and stared at him in shock. The boy flinched, but didn’t move as she slowly reached up and gently rubbed one of his fuzzy ears – ears which more closely resembled those she had seen on the dogs around town. “I didn’t know boys had dog ears,” she said, awed.
The boy scowled, and lightly batted her hand away from his ear. Sorrel flinched, and snatched her hand close to her chest. “They aren’t dog ears,” he said, clearly offended. “They’re wolf ears.”
“Oh.” Sorrel thought about that for a second. “I didn’t know boys had wolf ears either.”
“I didn’t know girls came this far into the forest,” the boy said. He pulled his legs under him in a nervous, crouching stance.
Sorrel frowned. “This isn’t the forest,” she said. “It’s just the woods.”
The boy tilted his head towards his shoulder, amused. “Really? Who gave you idea? This is definitely the forest.”
“Oh.” Sorrel gulped, and looked down at her scratched and dusty feet. “Then I’m not supposed to be in here.”
The boy eyed her cautiously, then slowly settled himself into a cross-legged position, seeming to accept her as not a threat. “I’m not either,” he admitted. He held out a hand. “I’m Raff.”
Sorrel took his hand and shook it vigorously. “Sorrel.” She grabbed his hand as he tried to withdraw it. He froze, and sat very still as she examined his nails. They were long and sharp, narrowing at the tip in a way that reminded her very much of claws. “You have cool hands,” she said, letting go, and sitting up and smiling at him.
He grinned back, very faintly. “Thanks,” he said, rubbing the back of the hand Sorrel had grabbed. “You have cool hair.”
Sorrel grabbed at her dark red locks and scowled. “It’s not cool,” she said. “It’s weird. All the other girls have brown hair. Mine is too bright.”
Raff shrugged lightly. “I like it,” he said.
Sorrel bit her lip, and grinned at him again. They sat together for a moment in silence. Sorrel noticed, with faint interest, that the whistling singing had stopped. She let out a quiet breath and looked at the boy across from her, thinking. She hadn’t known wolf-boys lived in the forest. If this was the forest. Which she supposed it must be, if he said so.
The forest. This was the forest.
Sorrel stiffened, and bolted upright. Raff leapt to his feet beside her, instantly on alert. “What? What is it?” he asked.
“I’m not supposed to be here!” Sorrel exclaimed.
Raff frowned, and scratched the back of his head. “Yeah? You said that already.”
“But I didn’t cross my fingers when I promised!” Sorrel bit her lip anxiously, looking back and forth between Raff, and the way home. She was in the forest… she was not on a path… and she was talking to a stranger. “It was nice to meet you, I gotta go!” she babbled in a rush, backing away as she spoke. “Maybe I’ll see you again!” Without waiting for him to answer, she turned, and plunged back into the trees, running as fast as she could back to the house, and the yard, and her mother’s rule.
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