The Scarlet Cloak |

The Scarlet Cloak

By Linda Hogenson

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Chapter One
Small town in Wyoming

The wolf locked eyes with Scarlett. He stood two yards from her, tall and dark, night black fur melting into the morning shadows. Scarlett stared, transfixed by the burning gold of his eyes. Intelligence lingered there, as if she could speak and he would understand.

You’re staring into the eyes of a wild animal
! Some distant warning in her mind screamed at her. She should look away, though it took her a moment to remember why. Eye contact meant a challenge. Scarlett looked down at her torn sneakers. She could still see the wolf from the corner of her vision. Wolves hunted on the run. As long as she remained still, he probably wouldn’t hurt her.

The wolf didn’t move.

“Take your time,” Scarlett said softly. “Getting trapped in the middle of the forest with a wolf is a great excuse to miss school.”

Won’t your teachers ask what you were doing in the forest in the first place?

Scarlett jerked her head up. The wolf met her eyes again. His lips curled in a low growl. But she couldn’t look away. Wolves didn’t speak. And she didn’t have much of an imagination. Why did she imagine he answered her?

The wolf let out a derisive snort and prowled off the path. He quickly disappeared into the trees. Scarlett stared after him.

“It’s too early for this,” Scarlett decided.

She let her breath free in a mad exhale that puffed against the chilled air. An old nightmare brought her outside to the woods, the one place she always felt safe, but her thin coat did little to keep her warm, and now the need to get back inside pressed against her. She turned but froze at a sight far more intimidating than a wolf.

“Mom,” Scarlett said. “Uh… good morning?”

“What are you doing out here?” Mom asked, brow creased with worry.

Scarlett ducked her head. “You didn’t have to come after me. I’m fine.”

“You know I don’t like you in these woods. There are wolves out here.”

Scarlett brushed by Mom and started for home. “I know. I was safe.”

After a moment, Mom followed quietly behind Scarlett. Scarlett hastened her pace, desperate to get out of the cold. She needed a new coat. But she would never ask for one. At seventeen, Scarlett knew money was tight.

She paused at the edge of the trees. Not seventeen. She was eighteen now. For the last eleven years, she always thought of this day first as the day of her father’s death. Her birthday paled in comparison to that.

She hurried across the backyard and entered the small cabin condo she called home. The warmth hit her immediately, though she left her coat on a little longer. Under the coat, she still wore her pajamas. Getting dressed had not been her first waking thought. Or even her last. The thought of school made her want to hibernate.

“I’m going to get some hot chocolate heating on the stove,” Mom said from behind Scarlett. “That counts as breakfast, right?”

“Sure,” Scarlett said.

Inwardly she cringed. Mom tried too hard to act like things were normal. Scarlett slipped into her room by the stairs. If eleven years hadn’t made things normal, nothing could. Time didn’t bring Dad back. And time didn’t get rid of the dreams. She just had to deal with them.

Scarlett tossed her coat on her bed, plastered on her best fake smile, and went upstairs.

“Just on time,” Mom said without turning.

She turned off the stove with a click and retrieved two mugs from the cupboard above her head. Scarlett settled at the table and Mom presented her with a steaming mug of chocolate.

“Guess I can’t blame you for loving the forest,” Mom said wistfully. “Kyle did too.”

Dad. A fresh pang dashed through Scarlett’s chest. He used to tell Scarlett he’d bring her camping when she got old enough. He taught her everything she knew about animal safety and wilderness survival. But the city hid far more dangerous beasts than wolves. Humans. Dad meant to come home early to surprise Scarlett for her birthday. Instead, he found himself in the path of a killer. Police never found out who did it. They ruled it as random. As though a life could be measured and given up in that small word.

“Kyle wouldn’t want us to miss your special day over him,” Mom said. “You’re an adult now.”

“Only in forty-eight states.”

“Wyoming counts,” Mom replied with a wry smile.

Scarlett mustered a smile of her own. Mom worried about enough without having to worry about her too. She could pretend to enjoy today. For Mom.

Mom must’ve seen right through it because she sighed. “I meant to wait until tonight, but maybe you need motivation to get through the day. A package came from your grandmother.”

Scarlett pounced on the change of topic. “She’s never sent me a package before.”

“Eighteen is a special birthday,” Mom replied. “There’s also a letter on the counter if you want to read it while I get the package.”

Gale Ingwood was the only living relative they had left. And she… wasn’t close. Scarlett had only seen Gale once, at her father’s funeral. And there were letters too. Gale wrote Scarlett every week with a return address that didn’t show up on the internet. Scarlett treasured those letters because they felt like a piece of her father.

But she knew Gale didn’t act like a regular grandmother.

Scarlett retrieved the letter, which had miraculously ended up on top of a pile that covered half the counter by the stove. Scarlett tore through the envelope and pulled out a letter written in elegant script.

Dear Scarlett,

Happy birthday! I can hardly believe you are already eighteen. Just yesterday, you were a young girl, full of bright-eyed wonder at the world before you. There are things I wish I had told you then. Secrets that should never have been kept. You are old enough to hear them now, though a letter seems the wrong place to talk about something so important.

You are approaching a point in your life where every decision will change your future. It is a scary time, but also an exciting time, and I know you will meet your challenges head on.

I was eighteen when my mother gave me a very special gift. A gift which I now pass on to you.

I cannot begin to stress the importance of this gift. It has been a part of our family for generations. Keep it safe, and it will do the same for you.

There is great strength inside of you, even though you may not understand it right now. You were born for great things. I know you may not remember much of your father, but he would be proud of you. Remember him. Remember nobility and strength run in your blood. Though the paths we take inevitably lead us into the den of our enemies, our friends will never be far.

Remember these things and use the gift I have given you. I love you, Scarlett, more than I could adequately express in a letter. When you are ready, ask your mother, and we will meet again in person. I wish I had been there for you, but… But it is too late for regrets. Stay safe.

Grandma Ingwood

Scarlett stared at the letter a long time, feeling like she failed to comprehend it. Secrets that should never have been kept? What kind of person talked like that?

Mom returned and handed Scarlett a parcel wrapped in plain brown paper. Mom sat in her spot again and Scarlett tore through the wrapping. Red cloth tumbled into her arms.

Mom gave a start that caused her to slosh her drink on the table. “She’s giving you that?”

Scarlett still didn’t know what “that” was.

She held the mess of fabric out at arm’s-length. It unfolded to reveal sleeves and a hood. Scarlett frowned. It was a bright red trench coat, fastened at the middle with three old fashioned clasps. She fingered the thin fabric dubiously. Even if it wasn’t a fashion statement, there was no way this would keep her warm.

This old thing was the most important thing Gale could give her?

Scarlett folded it over her arm. “Well, that was nice of Grandma.”

Only then did her eyes fall on Mom’s face. Mom sat stock still, eyes widened in shock.

“What?” Scarlett said.

Mom slowly shook her head. “That thing is worth a fortune. You need to keep it safe. Gale should have asked before she gave that to you.”

Surprised at Mom’s tone, Scarlett grew defensive. “I can take care of it.”

“Of course you can. Just… be careful with it.”

“Be careful? Mom, it’s a coat.”

“Yes, it is,” Mom said simply.

“What…?” Scarlet stared at Mom, unable to form the right question.

“It’s a family heirloom,” Mom said. “There’s even a legend that it belonged to a long line of kings. What… did Gale say in the letter?”

Scarlett handed Mom the letter and folded her hands in her lap when she realized they shook.

“She said it’s important…” Scarlett said.

She watched Mom’s lips tighten as she read the letter.

Then Mom abruptly stood. “I have to get ready for work.”

“But, Mom—”

“I just think Gale’s trying to interfere where it’s not her business. Don’t you worry about it.”

“You’re worrying me, Mom. What won’t you tell me?”

Mom paused in her haste to retreat. “Gale is involved in… unusual things, Scarlett. Things that Kyle—” Mom closed her eyes and breathed deeply, and Scarlett lurched back to her nightmare. “Just… be careful. And don’t let Gale push you into anything you don’t want. I don’t know how to explain any better than that.”

“But you didn’t explain anything.”

“And I can’t,” Mom said. “Last time I spoke with Gale was Kyle’s funeral. I only understood enough to know I don’t want you dragged into Gale’s messes.”

“What messes? What secrets?”

Mom sighed. “I have to get ready for work.”


Mom swept out of the room, signaling the end of the conversation. Scarlett sat there a moment, too stunned to react.

Her eyes fell on the red bundle around her arm. All this for an old coat? Perhaps left her sanity out in the woods with the wolf.

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About Linda Hogenson

I've written fantasy since I could write and have created stories since I could think. I grew up in a world of dragons and myth, and sometimes I tell people I know I am secretly the Empress of a distant land. While no one will bow to me on the streets, I'm still empowered by the vision of the way the world could be, and I will always defend it.

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