The Baker was almost ready to close up shop. It had been a quiet day, and each day was quieter than the last. Little villages like hers were dwindling into obscurity, as more and more people chose to live in the big towns, with all the convenience and safety that offered.
The Baker wasn’t sure she could blame them. It must be nice to live without the looming threat of the forest, without Mother Nature constantly pressing at their boundaries, trying to retake what was hers. The forest was a dangerous place, full of wild animals. People went missing all the time around here. The Baker presumed that animals got them, or perhaps they simply got lost. There were many unsavory individuals taking refuge in the woods, too.
Yes, she understood why people, especially those with families, wouldn’t want to live here.
But of course this meant that every year lost her a few more customers. Each year’s profits were a little tighter, and flour wasn’t getting any cheaper.
The tinkle of the door opening woke the Baker from her unpleasant thoughts.
‘Are you closed?’ the little girl asked hopefully.
The Baker smiled and shook her head. ‘You made it just in time. What would you like?’
The little girl rattled off an impressive order, mostly bread and pies, things that every household would need. With a guilty flicker of her eyes, the little girl also requested a few cakes. The Baker suppressed a smile and said nothing. She had a feeling those cakes would be gone by the time the girl returned home.
‘I don’t recognize you from the village. Does your family live out in the woods?’ The Baker asked, neatly piling the pastries into the little girl’s basket.
‘Yes. We’re hunters.’
‘Goodness, all of you?’
‘Yes. We only hunt wolves, though. We move around a lot, you see. That’s why you don’t know me.’
The Baker smiled to herself at the little girl’s bravado.
‘I think you must be very brave, to hunt wolves.’
The little girl beamed. ‘My name’s Rosie. Your pies smell lovely.’
‘Thank you. They’re famous around here. Or at least, they were.’ The Baker tucked the cloth over the top of the basket. She eyed the girl thoughtfully. The child couldn’t be more than ten years old, rather young to be wandering around alone. It was common practice for parents to give their children brightly coloured cloaks, to make them easier to spot. Red was a popular colour, but this little girl wore a vivid blue cloak, with a sunflower embroidered on the back. The ribbon threaded through her black curls matched the cloak perfectly.
‘Are you going home by yourself?’
Rosie tilted her head to one side. ‘Yes. Why?’
‘It’s just that it’s getting dark, and there’s wolves in the forest. Have you far to go?’
Rosie bit her lip, glancing out at the growing darkness. ‘Not too far. I’m sure I’ll be alright.’
The Baker had always been too softhearted for her own good.
‘Shall I walk you home?’
‘No, thank you.’ Rosie beamed up at her, taking the basket and skipping out of the shop. Then she was gone, her cloak a flutter of colour in the distance.
The Baker continued packing up for the day, frowning to herself. The child should be careful, going around alone in these parts.
‘Hello there, little one. All alone, this time of night?’
Rosie paused in her skipping. An old man sat on his porch, stuffed into a rickety old rocking chair. His wife sat beside him, knitting a long and misshapen…something. She peered over her glasses at Rosie.
‘That’s a lovely coat you’ve got on, my dear.’
‘It’s a cloak.’ The old man corrected. ‘I hope you’re on your way home. The woods aren’t safe at night. Isn’t that so, Mary?’
The old lady nodded vigorously, almost dislodging her glasses in the process. ‘It’s a dangerous place for children.’ she said, squinting at a mysterious hole that had appeared in her knitting.
‘I shall be alright. I’m not scared.’ Rosie reassured them. ‘I’m brave. Besides, my family hunts wolves.’
The old man frowned. ‘Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, little one. Nor is it recklessness. How about if Mary and I walk you home? Give us a moment to wake up our old legs – ‘
‘Never get old, dear.’ Mary interrupted.
‘ – and we’ll be right along with you.’
‘No thank you.’ Rosie answered blithely, skipping away before the old man could heave himself out of his chair.
‘I wonder what kind of wolf she meant.’ Mary said absently.
‘Hello there, little girl.’ The grey-haired man said, leaning down to smile right into Rosie’s face. He leant close enough for her to get a good whiff of stale breath. ‘What are you doing, alone in the woods, this time of night?’
Rosie summoned her best smile, holding out the basket in front of her.
‘I’m bringing this to my…’ she paused briefly, trying to think of an unthreatening relative, ‘…grandmother.’
Grey hadn’t noticed her slip. ‘My, those smell delicious. Could I nibble just a corner of something?’
‘No.’ Rosie pulled the basket back to her chest, a little more sharply than she’d intended. ‘They’re all for Grandmother.’
‘I see.’ Grey’s smile didn’t falter at all. ‘Well, a youngster like yourself shouldn’t be walking alone in the woods. How about I walk you to Grandmother’s house? Just to make sure you’re safe.’
Rosie was getting into her stride now.
‘Yes, thank you.’ she said without a flicker of hesitation.
The old Woodcutter’s cottage lay exactly three-quarters of a mile outside the village boundaries. A casual passer-by would assume that it was still inhabited by woodcutters, judging by the piles of firewood and assorted axes that lay outside. Smoke curled lazily from the chimney, perfecting the image of an idyllic forest cottage.
The curtains were always tightly drawn, though.
Inside the Woodcutter’s cottage, the family was preparing their evening meal. Rosie’s father was shuffling through a selection of papers, sorting them into two stacks.
One stack, the slimmer one, was pinned to the table with a knife. The topmost picture was a sketch of a man who looked exceptionally like Grey. Underneath the picture read, “WANTED: REWARD. DEAD OR ALIVE.”
‘Not a bad day’s work, everyone.’ Rosie father announced. ‘That makes three in the past week. This one had a fair bit of gold on him, too. Nicely done, Rosie.’
Rosie beamed at the praise, trying to focus on that, instead of the shrouded body her brothers were dragging out the back door. ‘Was I brave?’
Her mother leaned forward and patted her shoulder. ‘You were very brave. You were very clever, too, to get him all the way up here.’
‘I did the right thing, didn’t I?’ she glanced between her parents for reassurance.
Rosie’s father stopped shuffling papers.
‘Of course you did, Rosie.’ he said, voice grim. ‘We’re hunters, aren’t we? Someone has to hunt the wolves.’
To check out more of The Magpie Fancier’s work, go here.