She staggered down the shadow darkened alley, leaning against the mossy stone wall of a building for support. Her head pounded and her eyes were blurry from all the ale she had drunk. It wasn’t often that she would visit the taverns but when she did; she matched the men tankard for tankard. From behind her a deep, thick voice spoke into the darkness, “Well there lass, it looks like you could use a man about now.”
There were two of them she knew. Even in a stupor, she had heard the sound of four shuffling boots. “Leave me be,” she warned. “I have no need of your kind.”
“Ah but we have need of you girl. Juice on my cock or blood on my knife, one so comely must not go the night unsatisfied.”
She smiled, tightened her hand on the hilt of the Damascus steel that was strapped to her waist, stiffened her back and replied, “Yes, I suppose you are right.”
In her dreams that night the Memories came again.
After He fell into that deep sleep that only orgasm brings, she slipped the noose of the rope from around her ankle and slid silently from the bed. Her dress lay on the floor and she carried it into the other room before she dropped it over her naked, bruised and bleeding body. She had time only to grab her Nana’s Red Hat and glasses from the hook on which they hung as she passed through the doorway and into the night.
The forest floor was cold and rough on her bare feet as she ran fast and quiet away from the cottage where she had known so much happiness in her life. All that had been there was gone now she knew.
And then she heard Him, coming for her, with the howl and growl of hell itself. She closed her eyes as she ran, her feet feeling the way as her Nana had taught her, and called for the butterflies. For centuries, the Great Monarchs had always looked out after her family and she knew they would hear her now.
Hours later and many miles away from the valley and forest that had been the only home she had ever known, they placed her gently, high in the boughs of an ancient oak where she slept.
The next morning, as they were opening their shops, the merchants found what might have been the bodies of two men in an alley near one of the taverns in the old city. It was hard to tell really, so hacked apart they were. But four boots equaled two men they reasoned, even though one of them was cleaved cleanly in two leaving behind a nice shoe of sorts. They muddled through the mess with sticks, finding anything of value. “These focking immigrants,” one jeered. “I’ll send the slop boy later to get what the dogs don’t eat.” And that was that.
Oh the Gods, she thought as the midday sun tried to pass its light through the heavy, black velvet curtains that covered the windows of the sparse filled room, I am late. The King will be furious. She jumped naked from the bed, raised a large clay pot above her head and gasped as the cold water ran pale red rivulets down her body.
Her entrance to the throne room was always an event of sorts. Only the King and the Captain of the Guard were allowed to enter without question. She gave a nod to her men as she passed and they sheepishly grinned back at her knowing what was to come.
“Ah, so I see my Captain has finally decided to join us this, um, this early afternoon,” the King boomed loudly, his voice echoing of the walls. “Perchance she was late with the ale last night”. He had looked up from his papers when he heard her boots treading across the white marble floor.
“Tis no business of yours Sire. I am here now and this is all you need to know.”
Giggles erupted from the corner of the room where several courtesans were whispering together.
“How dare you speak to your King with such insolence”, he replied playfully. “I shall have you beaten.”
Everyone laughed, even the solemn faced advisers who were bent over their ledgers and charts. All within the kingdom knew that Red Hat was its most loyal subject. Legend had it that, some twenty years ago, the King found her near death beside a mountain stream when he was out hunting one day. A lone Monarch watched over her but fluttered away when the King arrived.
In the following years she became a part of his household, more a daughter than an orphan. His only child, a son, had died shortly after birth and the King brought her up as a substitute, teaching her the ways of war and men. Some even said that she would be queen in the days after his passing.
“True apologies my King. I went for an early ride this morning and let the time slip from me. I shall be more attentive to my schedule hence forth.”
The King worried about her sometimes. He always knew when she was lying but it was so seldom that he rarely brought it to her attention. All lied at times he reasoned, even himself, and he knew she would die for him without question or thought. She loved him. Of this there was no doubt and truth be known, he would probably forgive her anything. He only wished she could love others as well. Oh, she was kind and generous to those around her, a fair but disciplined Captain, and she had been a dutiful daughter to his Queen but there was always something distant and reserved in her for all but him. Between them there was no separation but to others she was always just well liked and a little feared.
He remembered when he found her, shivering and frightened.
He had built a fire by the stream, wrapped her tightly in his own furs and hung her dress on a low branch to dry. He mused over the odd red hat. It was the same one that she still wore always, repaired many times over.
After two days of broth and rest she was ready to travel but it was weeks before she would even speak to him. Once back at the castle he had tried to turn her care over to the hand maidens and nurses but she would allow no one near her but him. All these years later he was the only one who knew what had happened. She told him one night by the light of the fire. Afterwards, in his rage, he had sent soldiers across the land seeking the abuser but He had faded away into the mist of folk tale.
All Kings desire a son and he was aware that he had taught her as a boy and not a girl, but she had always been more interested in the sword than the mirror. She had taken to it like rain to the storm and none in the kingdom were more skilled in its ways. Never had she a care for the beauty that was apparent to all but her and he wondered if there would ever be, had ever been, a lover for her. Oh well, on to business. The Kingdom will not run itself.
“Alright young lady, today we take stock of the western lands. Cartographer, bring out your maps.”
That night, alone in her room, lying in bed, she thought about the two men she had killed. She knew that she should feel some guilt or remorse but she did not. They were not the first. There had been many over the years, wanderers that passed through the city or highwaymen she happened to come across while traveling the kingdom. She never took a life undeserved but neither had there ever been a thought of compassion or forgiveness in her when she unleashed her rage and fury against the Users. In quiet moments of self reflection she realized that she was broken inside. This was not the little girl that her Nana had raised from a baby after her mother and father had been taken by the Sickness.
As her eyes grew heavy and she drifted off a solitary Monarch alighted on her arm and she remembered something her Nana had told her one day so many years before.
“Good morning little one! Up, up, up! A new day awaits!” her Nana chirped as she pulled the covers away. “The berries are ready for the picking and will not wait on us. There is a nice warm bowl of oats for you. Eat quickly while I get the baskets down and soon we will be off.”
There was nothing harder for a eight year old girl to do than leave the comfort and warmth of cotton and down for a day of work in a berry thicket but she did as she was told and soon the two were walking down the path, the rays of the early morning sun chasing behind them.
“Nana?” she asked.
“Last night when dark came I was looking out the window and I saw a bright light streak across the sky and then fade away to dark.”
“Wonderful!” her Nana replied. “Your first falling star.”
“Stars fall?” she asked.
“Oh yes. From time to time one will become separated from the others and fall away. It is said that if you wish it with all your might and love then it will hear you and will return from the darkness to its brothers and sisters to help and light the night sky again.”
She didn’t answer but throughout the day as she picked the berries, her hands red with the juices, she thought about what her Nana had said and late that afternoon while they were on the path back towards the cottage she asked another question. “Why would wishing love to the falling star make it go back?”
Her Nana stopped walking for a moment, knelt down and looked into her grand daughter’s clear blue eyes. “ Child, love is light and light is love and so sending your love to something always brings it back towards the light. It’s a simple thing really. Now we must hurry in time to clean our berries.”
The next day as she went about her duties, Red Hat kept thinking about her Nana and all the things she had taught her.
“Learn to sweep your own porch well first child and and only then will you see clearly how to help your neighbors sweep theirs.”
“We are always free to choose to be who we are. Sometimes being true to yourself is a hard choice to make. No one owns your soul but you.”
“Honor and respect others freedom to choose and be themselves in their own times and ways. We each have our own paths to walk whether they be rocky or smooth. It is not your right to choose another’s for them. In all things encourage freedom.”
“Defend the helpless, lift up the weak, temper the strong, and speak good of those who would speak poorly of you. In this way all will be saved.”
There were so many lessons she had been taught and so many cast aside and forgotten. Her anger, hurt, fear and horror of Him had closed her off for so long. No one knew it but for years she had employed spies to seek Him out. They had discovered His lair deep in the forest a year prior but she had been too afraid to go there to take her revenge.
Later that day as she lunched with her King she asked him, “Father, have you ever been afraid?”
His heart lept because in all the years since he had taken her in she had never called him this and inside he was deeply pleased. “Of course girl. All men are afraid. There are two great forces in the world, Love and Fear, and you must take a side. Love is the one true power and Fear cannot exist in the hearts of two or more gathered in Love’s name for Fear lives alone.”
The next morning she rose long before dawn and saddled her great white war horse Chivil. The King’s words rang clear and true in her mind and she knew the time had come to face the only Fear she knew. Out of habit she had strapped her sword to her side but now she looked down at it, unclasped the buckle and left it behind.
Two days later after riding deep into the forest of the great oaks she neared his lair. It was cold and she trembled, pulling her hat tight against her head. She could smell His rot and stench and knew He was near. The Memories began to flood her mind and she had to hold tight to Chivil’s mane for a moment to steady herself. And then, from a thicket of briers, He emerged, dark, foreboding and triumphant.
“I knew one day you would come.” He slathered. “I have been waiting. We shall have another roll you and I.”
Instinctively she reached for her sword, then realizing it was not there she dropped off Chivil’s back and faced him, square and true. “Yes, I am here.”
He growled, bared his teeth, turned his head towards the sky and howled. He stared hungrily at her with black empty eyes and drool dripped from the corners of his lips. “This time you will not escape me. There are no Kings or Monarchs here. There is just us two and my lust for you.”
Red Hat saw his muscles tense and she crouched, dug her heels deep in the forest floor and prepared for his attack.
“Nana is it true what they say of you?”
Red Hat reached out a old and withered hand and placed in on her granddaughter’s blonde head. “Many things are said of me child, of what do you speak?”
They sat on an old iron bench in the palace garden where they had been gathering flowers for the table.
“The Legends say that you fought Fear deep in the forest of the Great Oaks and that you returned victorious. They say that after Great Granpapa died you were made the Queen and taught all the Kingdom how to vanquish Fear from their hearts. They say that there has been peace for almost a hundred years now.”
“Child,” she began, “There was a time long ago when I was faced with a choice. I was young and foolish and had let Fear come into my heart. I was angry at the world and did many bad things and hurt many bad people like myself. Then one day the words of your Great Granpapa and Great Nana reminded me of who I was and the three of us, gathered together in word and deed vanquished Fear from my life. In the grand scheme of All it was a small thing really, hardly the stuff of Legends, but it changed my world and hopefully helped change the world of those around me in little ways.”
The little girl took her hand in her own and asked again, “How did you do it Nana? Defeat Fear I mean?”
Red Hat looked of into the distant sky and replied, “In the end I struggled with Him, fighting as hard as I knew how, I looked into His eyes and realized that He was frightened too, that Fear was all He had ever known. Hate and anger and spite had come into His heart and blackened it. At that moment I knew He was no different than me. He had just chosen the wrong path and so I just let let go. I surrendered my fate and His to the lessons I had been taught and when I did a strange thing happened. He gasped and retreated in the face of my realization. He lay whimpering on the ground for a moment and then slinked away into the forest. Even now I wonder whatever became of him sometimes. It is likely he died a sad and broken man. It is possible to become so lost in fear that it is almost impossible to find your way back. One day you will have to choose as well, like we all do. Now come child, we must get to dinner or your father will be cross.”
They walked hand in hand back towards the palace, a young girl and an old woman.