<h1>Part One</h1> <h1>1</h1> <p class="fl"><span class="dropcap">F</span>rom the towering heights of the tree, the little girl could see everything. The sleepy village of Daggorhorn lay low in the bowl of the valley. From above, it looked like a faraway, foreign land. A place she knew nothing about, a place without spikes or barbs, a place where fear did not hover like an anxious parent.</p> <p>Being this far up in the air made Valerie feel as if she could be someone else, too. She could be an animal: a hawk, chilly with self-survival, arrogant and apart.</p> <p>Even at age seven, she knew that, somehow, she was different from the other villagers. She couldn’t help keeping them at a distance, even her friends, who were open and wonderful. Her older sister, Lucie, was the one person in the world to whom Valerie felt connected. She and Lucie were like the two vines that grew twisted together in the old song the elders of the village sang.</p> <p>Lucie was the only one.</p> <p>Valerie peered past her dangling bare feet and thought about why she had climbed up here. She wasn’t allowed to, of course, but that wasn’t it. And it wasn’t for the challenge of the climb, either—that had lost its thrill a year earlier, when she first reached the tallest branch and found nowhere left to go but the open sky.</p> <p>She climbed up high because she couldn’t breathe down there, in the town. If she didn’t get out, the unhappiness would settle upon her, piling up like snow until she was buried beneath it. Up here in her tree, the air was cool on her face and she felt invincible. She never worried about falling; such a thing was not possible in this weightless universe.</p> <p>“Valerie!”</p> <p>Suzette’s voice sounded upward through the leaves, calling for her like a hand tugging Valerie back down to earth.</p> <p>By the tone of her mother’s voice, Valerie knew it was time to go. Valerie pulled her knees up under her, rose to a crouch, and began her descent. Looking straight down, she could see the steeply pitched roof of Grandmother’s house, built right into the branches of the tree and covered in a thick shag of pine needles. The house was wedged in a flowering of branches as if it had lodged there during a storm. Valerie always wondered how it had gotten there, but she never asked, because something so wonderful should never be explained.</p> <p>It was nearing winter, and the leaves had begun to loosen themselves from their branches, easing their autumn grasp. Some shuddered and fell free as Valerie moved down the tree. She had perched in the tree all afternoon, listening to the low murmur of women’s voices wafting up from below. It seemed like they were more cautious today, huskier than usual, as though the women were keeping secrets.</p> <p>Nearing the lower branches that grazed the tree house roof, Valerie saw Grandmother float out onto the porch, her feet not visible beneath her dress. Grandmother was the most beautiful woman Valerie knew. She wore long layered skirts that swayed as she walked. If her right foot went forward, her silk skirt breezed to the left. Her ankles were delicate and lovely, like the tiny wooden dancer’s in Lucie’s jewelry box. This both delighted and frightened Valerie, because they looked like they could snap.</p> <p>Valerie, herself unsnappable, leapt off the lowest branch and onto the porch with a solid thump.</p> <p>She was not excitable like other girls, whose cheeks were pink or round. Valerie’s were smooth and even and pale white. Valerie didn’t really think of herself as pretty, or think about what she looked like, for that matter. No one else, though, could forget the corn-husk blonde with unsettling green eyes that lit up like they were charged by lightning. Her eyes, that knowing look she had, made her seem older than she was.</p> <p>“Girls, come on!” her mother called from inside the house, anxiety bristling through her voice. “We need to be back early tonight.” Valerie made it down before anyone could see that she had been in the tree at all.</p> <p>Through the open door, Valerie saw Lucie bustle over to their mother clutching a doll she had dressed in scraps that Grandmother had donated to the cause. Valerie wished she could be more like her sister.</p> <p>Lucie’s hands were soft and round, a little bit pillowy, something Valerie admired. Her own hands were knobby and thin, tough with calluses. Her body was all angles. She felt deep inside that this made her unlovable, someone no one would want to touch.</p> <p>Her older sister was better than she was, that much Valerie knew. Lucie was kinder, more generous, more patient. She never would have climbed above the tree house, where she knew sensible people didn’t belong.</p> <p>“Girls! It’s a full moon tonight.” Her mother’s voice carried out to her now. “And it’s our turn,” she added sadly, her voice trailing off.</p> <p>Valerie didn’t know what to make of it being their turn. She hoped it was a surprise, maybe a present.</p> <p>Looking down to the ground, she saw some markings in the dirt that formed the shape of an arrow.</p> <p><em>Peter</em>.</p> <p>Her eyes widening, she headed down the steep, dusty stairs from the tree house to examine the marks.</p> <p><em>No, it isn’t Peter</em>, she thought, seeing that they were just random scratches in the soil.</p> <p><em>But what if—?</em></p> <p>The marks stretched away from her into the woods. Instinctively, ignoring what she <em>should</em> do, what Lucie would do, she followed them.</p> <p>Of course, they led nowhere. Within a dozen paces, the marks disappeared. Mad at herself for wishful thinking, she was glad that no one had seen her following nothing to nothing.</p> <p>Before he’d left, Peter used to leave messages for her by drawing arrows in the dirt with the tip of a stick; the arrows guided her to him, often hiding deep in the woods.</p> <p>He had been gone for months now, her friend. They had been inseparable, and Valerie still couldn’t accept the fact that he wasn’t coming back. His leaving had been like snipping off the end of a rope—leaving two unraveling strands.</p> <p>Peter hadn’t been like other boys, who teased and fought. He understood Valerie’s impulses. He understood adventure; he understood not following the rules. He never judged her for being a girl.</p> <p>“Valerie!” Grandmother’s voice now called. Her calls were to be answered more urgently than Valerie’s mother’s because her threats might actually be carried out. Valerie turned from the puzzle pieces that had led to no prize, and hurried back.</p> <p>“Down here, Grandmother.” She leaned against the base of the tree, delighting in the feel of the sandpaper bark. She closed her eyes to feel it fully—and heard the grumbling of wagon wheels like an approaching thunderstorm.</p> <p>Hearing it, too, Grandmother slipped down the stairs to the forest floor. She wrapped Valerie in her arms, the cool silk of her blouse and the clunky jumble of her amulets pressing against Valerie’s face. Her chin on Grandmother’s shoulder, Valerie saw Lucie moving cautiously down the tall stairs, followed by their mother.</p> <p>“Be strong tonight, my darlings,” Grandmother whispered. Held tightly, Valerie stayed quiet, unable to voice her confusion. For Valerie, each person and place had its own scent—sometimes, the whole world seemed like a garden. She decided that her grandmother smelled like crushed leaves mingled with something deeper, something profound that she could not place.</p> <p>As soon as Grandmother released Valerie, Lucie handed her sister a bouquet of herbs and flowers she’d gathered from the woods.</p> <p>The wagon, pulled by two muscular workhorses, came bumping over the ruts in the road. The woodcutters were seated in clusters atop freshly chopped tree stumps that slid forward as the wagon lurched to a stop in front of Grandmother’s tree. Branches—the fattest ones at the bottom and the lightest on top—were piled between the men. To Valerie, the riders looked like they were made of wood themselves.</p> <p>Valerie saw her father, Cesaire, seated near the back of the cart. He stood and reached down for Lucie. He knew better than to try for Valerie. He reeked of sweat and ale, and she stayed far away from him.</p> <p>“I love you, Grandmother!” Lucie called over her shoulder as she let Cesaire help her and her mother over the side of the cart. Valerie scrambled up and in on her own. With a snap of the reins, the wagon lumbered to a start.</p> <p>A woodcutter shifted aside to give Suzette and the girls room, and Cesaire reached over, landing a theatrical kiss on the man’s cheek.</p> <p>“Cesaire,” Suzette hissed, casting him a quietly reproachful glance as side conversations picked up in the wagon. “I’m surprised you’re still conscious at this late hour.”</p> <p>Valerie had heard accusations like this before, always veiled behind a false overtone of cleverness or wit. And yet it still jolted her to hear them said with such a tone of contempt.</p> <p>She looked at her sister, who hadn’t heard their mother because she was laughing at something another woodcutter had said. Lucie always insisted that their parents were in love, that love was not about grand gestures but rather about the day to day, about being there, going to work and coming home in the evening. Valerie had tried to believe that this was true, but she couldn’t help feeling that there had to be something more to love, something less practical.</p> <p>Now she hung on tight as she leaned over the back rails of the wagon, peering down at the rapidly disappearing ground. Feeling dizzy, she turned to face back in.</p> <p>“My baby.” Suzette pulled Valerie onto her lap, and Valerie let her. Her pale, pretty mother smelled like almonds and powdery flour.</p> <p>As the wagon emerged from the Black Raven Woods and rumbled alongside the silver river, the dreary haze of the village came into full view. Its foreboding was palpable even at a distance: Stilts, spikes, and barbs jutted up and out. The granary’s lookout tower, the town’s tallest point, stretched high.</p> <p>It was the first thing one felt while coming over the ridge: <em>fear</em>.</p> <p>Daggorhorn was a town full of people who were afraid, people who felt unsafe even in their beds and vulnerable with each step, exposed with every turn.</p> <p>The people had begun to believe that they deserved the torture—that they had done something wrong and that something inside them was bad.</p> <p>Valerie had watched the villagers cowering in fear every day and felt her difference from them. What she feared more than the outside was a darkness that came from inside her. It seemed as if she was the only one who felt that way.</p> <p>Other than Peter, that is.</p> <p>She thought back to when he’d been there, the two of them fearless together and filled with reckless joy. Now she resented the villagers for their fear, for the loss of her friend.</p> <p>Once through the massive wooden gates, the town looked like any other in the kingdom. The horses kicked up pockets of dust as they did in all such towns, and every face was familiar. Stray dogs roamed the streets, their bellies empty and drooping, sucked in impossibly tight at the sides so that their fur looked striped. Ladders rested gently against porches. Moss spilled out from crevices in roofs and crawled across the fronts of houses, and no one did anything about it.</p> <p>Tonight, the villagers were hurrying to bring their animals inside.</p> <p>It was Wolf night, just as it had been every full moon for as long as anyone could remember.</p> <p>Sheep were herded and locked behind heavy doors. Handed off from one family member to another, chickens strained their necks as they were thrust up ladders, stretching them out so far that Valerie worried they would rip them clean off their own bodies.</p> <p class="spb">As they reached home, Valerie’s parents spoke to each other in low voices. Instead of climbing up the ladder to their raised cottage, Cesaire and Suzette approached the stable underneath, which was darkened by the shady gloom of their house. The girls ran ahead of them to greet Flora, their pet goat. Seeing them, she clattered her hooves against the rickety boards of the pen, her clear eyes watery with anticipation.</p> <p>“It’s time now,” Valerie’s father said, coming up behind Valerie and Lucie and laying his hands on their shoulders.</p> <p>“Time for what?” Lucie asked.</p> <p>“It’s our turn.”</p> <p>Valerie saw something in his stance that she didn’t like, something menacing, and she backed away from him. Lucie reached for Valerie’s hand, steadying her as she always did.</p> <p>A man who believed in speaking truthfully to his children, Cesaire plucked at the fabric of his pants and bent down to have a word with his two little girls. He told them that Flora was to be this month’s sacrifice.</p> <p>“The chickens provide us with eggs,” he reminded them. “The goat is all we can afford to offer.”</p> <p>Valerie stood in stupefied disbelief. Lucie knelt down sorrowfully, scratching her little fingernails up and down the goat’s neck and pulling softly at her ears in the way that animals will only allow children to do. Flora nudged Lucie’s palm with her newly sprouted horns, trying them out.</p> <p>Suzette glanced at the goat and then looked at Valerie expectantly.</p> <p>“Say good-bye, Valerie,” she said, resting her hand on her daughter’s slender arm.</p> <p>But Valerie couldn’t—something held her back.</p> <p>“Valerie?” Lucie looked at her imploringly.</p> <p>She knew her mother and sister thought she was being cold. Only her father understood, nodding at her as he led the goat away. He steered Flora by a thin rope, her nostrils flaring and her eyes sharp with unease. Holding back bitter tears, Valerie hated her father, for his sympathy and for his betrayal.</p> <p>Valerie was careful, though. She never let anyone see her cry.</p> <p class="spb">That night, Valerie lay awake after her mother had put them to bed. The glow of the moon streamed through her window, stretching across the floorboards in one great pillar.</p> <p>She thought hard. Her father had taken Flora, their precious goat. Valerie had seen Flora birthed on the floor of the stable, the mother goat bleating in pain as Cesaire brought the small, damp kid forth into the world.</p> <p>She knew what she had to do.</p> <p>Lucie padded along beside Valerie, leaving the warmth of their bed and heading down the loft ladder and to the front door.</p> <p>“We’ve got to do something!” Valerie whispered urgently, beckoning for her sister to join her.</p> <p>But Lucie stayed back, fearful, shaking her head and wordlessly willing Valerie to stay, too. Valerie knew that she couldn’t do as her elder sister did, huddling in the doorway, clutching her doe hide. She would not just stand by and watch the events of her life unfold. But just as Lucie had always admired Valerie’s commitment, Valerie admired her sister’s restraint.</p> <p>Valerie wanted to cover up her uneasy sister now and tell her not to worry, to say, “Shhhh, sweet Lucie, everything will be all right by morning.” Instead, she turned, holding down the latch of the door with her thumb and letting it ease noiselessly into the jamb before she plunged into the cold.</p> <p class="spb">The village was especially sinister that night, backlit by the brightness of the moon, the color of shells that had been bleached by the sun. The houses hulked like tall ships, and the branches of the trees jutted out like barbed masts against the night sky. As Valerie set out for the first time on her own, she felt like she was discovering a new world.</p> <p>To reach the altar more quickly, Valerie took a shortcut through the woods. She stepped through the moss, which had the texture of bread soaked through with milk, and avoided the mushrooms, white blisters whose tops were speckled with brown, as if dusted with cinnamon.</p> <p>Something pulled at her out of the dark, clinging to her cheek like wet silk. A spider’s web. It felt like her entire body was crawling with invisible insects. She tore at her face, trying to brush off the filmy web, but the strands were too thin, and there was nothing to hold on to.</p> <p>The full moon hung lifeless overhead.</p> <p>Once she reached the clearing, her steps became more cautious. She felt queasy as she walked, the same feeling she got while cleaning a sharp knife—the feeling that one small slip could be disastrous. The villagers had dug a sinkhole trap into the soil, staked sharpened wooden rods into the ditch, and covered them with a false ground of grass. Valerie knew that the hole was somewhere near, but she had always been led safely around it. Now, even though she thought she’d passed it, she wasn’t entirely sure.</p> <p>A familiar bleating pulled her on, though, and there ahead she could see Flora, pathetic and alone, stumbling in the wind and crying out. Valerie began to run toward the goat’s sad form struggling alone in the bone-white moonlit clearing. Seeing Valerie, Flora reared up wildly and craned her slender neck in Valerie’s direction as much as her rope would allow.</p> <p>“I’m here, I’m here,” Valerie began to call out, but the words died in her throat.</p> <p>She heard something bounding furiously over a great length at a quick pace, coming closer and closer still through the darkness. Valerie’s feet refused to move, much as she tried to continue.</p> <p>In a moment, everything went still again.</p> <p><em>And it appeared.</em></p> <p>At first, just a streak of black. Then the Wolf was there, facing away from her, its back massive and monstrous, its tail moving seductively back and forth, tracing a pattern in the dust. It was so big that she could not see it all at once.</p> <p>Valerie’s breath burst out in a gasp, jagged with fear. The Wolf’s ears froze, then quivered, and it turned its eyes to meet hers.</p> <p>Eyes that were savage and beautiful.</p> <p>Eyes that <em>saw</em> her.</p> <p>Not an ordinary kind of seeing, but seeing in a way that no one had seen her before. Its eyes penetrated her, recognizing something. The terror hit her then. She crumpled to the ground, unable to look any longer, and burrowed deep into the refuge of darkness.</p> <p>A great shadow loomed over her. She was so small and it was so immense that she felt the cover of the standing figure weigh down upon her as though her body were sinking into the ground. A shiver coursed through her body as it responded to the threat. She imagined the Wolf tearing through her flesh with its hooked canines.</p> <p>There was a roar.</p> <p>Valerie waited to feel the leap, to feel the snap of its jaws and the ripping of claws, but she felt nothing. She heard a scuffling and a tinkling of Flora’s bells, and it was only then that she realized the shape had lifted. From her crouch, she heard gnashing and gnarling. But there was something else, another sound that she couldn’t identify. Much later, she would learn that it was the roar of a dark rage being let loose.</p> <p>Then there followed a panicked silence, a frenetic calm. Finally, she couldn’t resist slowly lifting her head to look for Flora.</p> <p>All was still.</p> <p>Nothing was left but the broken tether still tied to the stake, lying slack on the dusty ground.</p> <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Red Riding Hood</b> by <b>Blakley-Cartwright, Sarah</b> Copyright © 2011 by Blakley-Cartwright, Sarah. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.