Hunting Monsters by S.L. Huang
Published 10/7/2014 | 6,500 Words
“Happy birthday, child. Careful not to shoot any grundwirgen.”
Ever since she was a small girl, she has learned to be careful on the hunt, to recognize the signs that separate regular animals from human-cursed grundwirgen. To harm a grundwirgen is a crime punishable by death by the King’s decree – a fatal mistake that her Auntie Rosa and mother have carefully prepared her to avoid.
On her fifteenth birthday, when her mother is arrested and made to stand trial for grundwirgen murder, everything she thought she knew about her family and her past comes crashing down.
Auntie Rosa has always warned her about monsters. Now, she must find and confront them to save her mother, no matter the cost.
My mother taught me to shoot, but it was Auntie Rosa who bought me my first rifle. It was long and sleek and shiny, varnished wood and brass and just my size. I fell in love at first sight.
“Isn’t she a trifle young for a firearm?” said my mother.
“Too young? Ha. Seven is almost too old,” said Auntie Rosa. She reached down and ruffled my hair as I ran my fingers along the stock over and over again, marveling at the living smoothness of the wood. “Happy birthday, child. Careful not to shoot any grundwirgen.”
I spent more time with Auntie Rosa growing up than I did my mother. I loved my mother—and I was certain she loved me—but she was a reserved woman. Aloof.
I wondered sometimes how she and Auntie Rosa had become so close. Auntie Rosa was an enormous presence, tall and big-boned with a personality to match. Sometimes, when they were together, I saw my mother laugh.
Maybe it wasn’t that my mother didn’t know how to express love, but that she didn’t know how to interact with a child, other than teaching me how to hunt and fish and lay in stores for the winter. My earliest memory is my mother placing a firm hand across my lips as we crouched in the dry leaves on a hillside, her rifle slung from her shoulder, her lean frame alert and arrow-straight and her black eyes flicking down through the woods. In my memory I am very, very still, though I remember to raise tiny hands and press them against my ears as hard as I can as my mother eases her rifle up to her shoulder and tilts her head behind the sights. The roar when she pulls the trigger is devastating, the thunder and flame of Heaven and Hell, and my mother’s blade-thin silhouette is backlit by the setting sun and she looks like a god. And I love her.
Auntie Rosa’s place was a cottage like ours, but bigger and more luxurious, all soft furs and bright fabrics. She cured all her own pelts, and I would curl in the decadence of her bearskin rug while she knitted and told me stories, or sit cross-legged by the fire and clean her guns while she quizzed me on the habits of the grundwirgen and the ways a hunter must recognize and spare them. Auntie Rosa had been hunting longer even than my mother, ever since her own grandmother had taken her out on the trails from before she could walk.
“Tell me again,” she’d say to me, night after night, her voice starting to creak with age even though her spine was as straight, her eyes as bright as ever. “Tell me again, how you know one.”
“Aw, Auntie,” I would groan as I got older, snuggling down by the fire. “I’m never going to see a grundwirgen. They’re too rare. What are the chances—”
“The chances you’ll be tried for murder? Child, have some sense. You must know. There are no excuses.”
“I think if one starts up a conversation I might suspect.”
“And if you’re stalking your quarry, if you go for a clean kill, you think a grundwirgen would ever have a chance to beg for its life? Don’t be stupid.”
So I would rattle off the signs: the habits a creature would have if it was trying to be the human it once was, or if its wild nature hid a witch in disguise, or if it chanced to be an honest animal but one born with the capacity for reason. All types of thinking creatures were lumped in as grundwirgen, not only the cursed but also those who chose to roam in animal form or those who were beasts in truth but with intelligence equal to our own. Mistaking a grundwirgen for a game animal was not an excuse, not under the law; it was the same as firing upon a human.
“I’m glad they aren’t more common,” I said once. “We’d starve to death. Everyone would be too afraid of accidentally offing some spoiled rich kid who went and got himself hexed.”
Auntie Rosa sniffed. “Child, it’s a big world out there. The grundwirgen are not all alike—some are innocent, and some are brutal. Just like people.”
“Have you ever met one?” I demanded.
“Yes,” said Auntie Rosa.
“What? When?” I cried, sitting up straight as if I were a dog with a scent. But she refused to say anything more.
Auntie Rosa gave me another, larger rifle for my twelfth birthday, and a third for my fifteenth. Three days after my fifteenth birthday, the King’s Men burst into our cottage and arrested my mother for murder.
The cottage erupted into a tumult of curt shouts and tromping boots and someone screaming—I was screaming. My new rifle was in my hands, my knuckles white where I gripped the wood, but even then my mother and Auntie Rosa’s teaching kicked in, the years of safety lectures dragging me back, making me hesitate, because I’d never raised my rifle against a human form and that felt wrong—and the pause was enough time for my mother to snap, “Get her out of here” and for Auntie Rosa to bear hug me from behind, pinning my arms to my sides and dragging me into my mother’s bedroom.
I cried for so many hours after they left—heaving, messy sobs that wouldn’t stop. Auntie Rosa stayed with me through the night. I refused to let go of her, my fists clenched in the scarlet wool of her sweater so tightly they cramped that way.
Auntie Rosa offered to come stay in our cottage, but I looked around at the empty rooms and the overturned chairs and the too-enormous lack of my mother and insisted we go back to hers instead. We packed me a bag, gathered the hunting gear and perishable food, and hiked over the hill together, not speaking.
I’d asked Auntie Rosa once why she didn’t live with us, when I was old enough to understand her and my mother’s relationship. She’d smiled and said that it was better for all of us if we had our own spaces. I hadn’t agreed—still didn’t—but now I was glad for the refuge, for a sanctuary that didn’t have the memory of swarthy, booted King’s Men stomped upon it.
She gave me her room, with its bright patterned quilt and draped crimson fabric—Auntie Rosa loved red; she blanketed her house with it and wore it in brilliant scarves and hats and shawls throughout the season—while she herself insisted on sleeping under a deep red blanket by the fire, snugged on a pile of furs. I wondered again about her other room then, the locked one. It had been locked for as long as I could remember, and when I’d been nosy about it as a child, she’d told me that it was her private storage space for things too naughty for a young one to see. My imagination had run wild as I got older, but I’d never seen her enter the locked room once, not even to clean.
But this day I had neither the courage nor the energy to press her. I put my things away in her room as she directed and then lay down and buried my face in her bed, breathing in the lingering scents of pine and hickory smoke on her pillow.
Auntie Rosa went into the city the next day to petition at the courts. She refused to allow me to come. When she reappeared at sunset, hiking up the slope with her walking stick, my heart somersaulted and then plummeted. Such was my faith in Auntie Rosa that I had somehow expected to see my mother walking at her side, for Auntie Rosa to have enacted a miracle.
I ran to meet her. “Where is she? Did you see her? What’s happening?”
“Let me get inside, child.” Her voice was tired, and she looked older than she ever had before.
Inside the cottage, my hands shook as I made us some tea. Auntie Rosa’s fingers wrapped around her mug as if she hoped it could warm her soul.
“Your mother…” Her eyes were fastened somewhere on the floor by the fire. “Your mother is on trial for killing a grundwirgen.”
“That’s impossible,” I said instantly.
Auntie Rosa didn’t answer.
“No, Auntie, that’s not possible,” I said. “She would never mix up—you know! They should just talk to her; they’ll see!” Tears of fury prickled my eyes. To accuse my mother of murder was one thing; to malign her skill at the hunt—it was ludicrous. Insulting.
“They say she knew,” said Auntie Rosa, her eyes still on that same spot near the fire.
The air vibrated. My hand dug into the back of a chair where it was keeping me upright. “They say she knew… and she still took the shot?” The words made no sense.
Auntie Rosa finally took a sip of her tea. “Sit next to me, child. It’s time you knew about your mother’s past, before you hear it from the rest of the kingdom.”
“Your grandfather was a merchant,” Auntie Rosa began. “A wealthy one for a time, from what I understand. He traveled from the East regularly with his ships, making deals with the kingdoms here. On one such journey he was shipwrecked and lost all his goods. He’d taken payment for the cargo already, and faced debtor’s prison in a strange land, where he thought himself like as not to die in chains.”
She paused, lost in the past, her hands tight on her mug of tea, before she said softly, “He made a deal to sell your mother to a grundwirgen prince. She was ten years old.”
My breath felt too thick. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“Yes, you do.”
Images collided in my mind: my mother, a young child, forced to sail to a far-off country, sold into marriage to pay her father’s debts… sold to a man who was not a man at all. I didn’t want to understand.
Auntie Rosa sipped her tea, and continued. “The grundwirgen prince had been cursed for refusing aid to an injured traveler. That traveler was a witch, as it happened.” Her lips curved in a bitter half-smile. “She did not know enough of his nature. She should have done far worse than transform him into a beast.”
“And my mother?” I forced myself to ask, when Auntie Rosa had not spoken for a few long moments. “What happened?”
“The grundwirgen needed a woman to break the spell,” she said. “If I ever find that witch, I will kill her for making that the condition. The prince needed a woman to break the spell, one nobody would care to rescue from a monster. So he bought himself a foreign bride.”
I’d sat down at some point. I couldn’t remember when. My hand clenched the edge of the chair so hard my fingers ached. “Did my mother kill him?” I asked.
“She escaped,” said Auntie Rosa. She stared into the fire, and her voice dropped to barely a whisper. “She escaped. Isn’t that the important part?”
Auntie Rosa went into the city every day, and came back ever grimmer as more details of my mother’s case came to light. The remains of the grundwirgen prince had been found more than a generation ago, my mother the assumed perpetrator. For many years her life of quiet anonymity had kept her safe, until a chance remark about a woman from the East of about the right age had fallen upon the ears of a distant relation to the long-dead prince. My mother’s foreignness was proof enough of her identity, and no one had any doubts as to her guilt.
After a week of pleading at the courts, bullying and prodding and lobbying as I am sure only she was capable of, Auntie Rosa returned to say she had finally been granted one request: they would allow me to visit my mother in prison.
“Just me?” I said, my heart thumping faster.
She turned her face away. “They say I’m not family.”
So the next day I journeyed with her into the city. Auntie Rosa came with me as far as the King’s Men would let her, before they crossed their spears in front of her and kept her from passing on. I picked my way down the stone stairs to the dungeon without her, flanked by unspeaking guards, my booted steps echoing off the dank stone walls.
We hiked to the far end of the dungeons before the lantern light fell across one more barred cell and I saw my mother.
She sat huddled on a pallet of filthy straw, her clothing disheveled and her black hair coming loose from its neat braid. Seeing her so alone in so much darkness, so untethered from the world she owned—my world—the air wrung out of my chest, my heart turning in on itself until it hurt. I broke from the guards and ran up to the bars, gripping the cold metal as if I could melt it by force of will.
My mother flew up to meet me, her fingers closing on my arms so hard I was certain I would bruise. I didn’t care. “Mama. Mama. Are you all right?”
“You mustn’t believe what they say about me,” she said, tight and desperate, the intensity more alien on her than even the prison cell. “You mustn’t, you hear? Whatever happens, promise you believe me, at least. Promise me.”
“Mama, Auntie Rosa told me…” I didn’t know how to finish. The story of her past seemed so personal, my knowing it almost a violation. “If you were defending yourself—Mama, they have to say that’s okay. They have to.”
“They don’t have to do anything.” My mother’s forehead creased; her fingers loosened on me and she stepped back, her sharp eyes searching my face. “Rosa thinks I—?”
I didn’t know what to say.
My mother took a deep breath. Exhaled. “Tell her I didn’t do it,” she said softly. “Please. I need both of you to know—I didn’t do it.”
“I’ll tell her,” I said.
The King’s Men permitted me to visit my mother once a week. We had no word of when she might be called before the court, and the unknown pressed down on us, heavy and smothering. But I think we were all secretly glad of the wait—we all knew trials in this kingdom were swift and executions swifter.
I didn’t know whether my mother would be better off saying she’d killed the grundwirgen prince to escape, or whether she should continue to claim her innocence. I didn’t know that either would save her. Everyone who mattered had decided her guilt before she was arrested, and by law the grundwirgen prince had been her husband—you don’t escape from a husband.
I had a sudden horrible thought, in the middle of the week when I couldn’t ask my mother about it. I was determined to keep it to myself, but Auntie Rosa caught on within minutes and ordered me to spit out whatever new worry plagued me.
I fingered the rich crimson afghan draped over the armchair. “My mother never told me…” I couldn’t finish. “My father. Was he… ?”
Auntie Rosa’s face went slack with surprise for a moment, and then she laughed. “Child, is that what’s eating at you? Did we never teach you sums?”
My cheeks flamed at her reaction. My mother and Auntie Rosa were not young, and Auntie Rosa had told me my mother had escaped when barely older than I was now. My father could not be the grundwirgen prince. “Who was he, then? My father?”
“Ha! Another prince, if you would believe it. But a human one. A charming cad.”
“I’m the daughter of a prince?”
“I suppose so, though don’t let that give you airs. Your father was off in the wilderness with his men, traveling to seek his fortune as young men do. He met your mother. It turned out he had a weakness for black hair and white skin, and didn’t mind kissing first and learning names later. Your mother was fine with that at the time, the saucy wench.”
I thought of my mother’s moon-pale skin that made her look so odd to the people of this country, and the curtain of jet-black hair she always braided away from her face into a long queue. The prince must have thought all his dreams realized, to find her. “But wait,” I said. “You and my mother—you’ve been—for decades, I thought.” My face burned hotter. Auntie Rosa was right that I was bad at sums; I’d never put the fact of my birth together with that before.
“Yes, we were, but I wasn’t going to get in the way of your mother having a bit of fun with a man when it came her way.” She reached over and tucked my hair away from my face affectionately. Sadly. “The world’s a large and complicated place, child. You’ll learn.” Too fast, she didn’t say, but I knew both of us were thinking it. Fifteen was too young for me to see the world judge my mother and take her away from me.
I didn’t make the connection until the following day, but when I did, I started packing immediately. I would wait to see my mother one more time, and then I would leave to find my father.
When I tried to broach the idea to Auntie Rosa, she flew into a rage.
“How can you be so senseless, child? Of all the times for insipid flights of fancy!” She tore my clothes out of my bag and flung them to the floor. “Your mother may be facing execution, do you understand that? And you would leave her? Alone?” Her voice cracked. The King’s Men still had not permitted her to see my mother.
“I’m going to save her,” I insisted.
“How? This is what the world is. They tell us what we can and can’t do, and they don’t listen, they don’t care. There is nothing you can do!” She yanked at the whole quilt, upending everything I had piled on the bed with a violence I’d never seen in her. “The one thing you can do, the only thing, is be here.”
I started picking up my things, carefully, one by one, as if I would break if I moved too quickly. “You’re the one who told me my father was a prince,” I said. “Maybe by now he’s a king. Kings have power.” So much of my world had collapsed into confusion, but the power of a king was one thing I was still certain of. “He’ll help, I know it. We’ll save my mother.”
“He’d as like have you killed,” Auntie Rosa spat. “If not him, then whatever wife he ended up taking, worried about her children’s inheritance. Or any one of his enemies. Royal bastards stay anonymous or they die.”
I took out my three rifles in their cases from under the bed. I could sell two of them to give myself some money to travel on. I unbuckled the case my first rifle was in, the one Auntie Rosa had given me when I turned seven; it looked so small now, but was still smooth and shiny, gleaming and well-cared for. Parting with it would wrench me.
“I won’t tell you where to go,” Auntie Rosa said. “I won’t tell you where he is.”
“I’ll ask my mother,” I answered.
My mother wouldn’t tell me, either.
“Your auntie’s right,” she said. “Your father—I wish she hadn’t told you. He was a pleasant dream, and we both kept it that way.”
“He won’t want you to die,” I insisted.
She reached through the bars and grasped my hand, entwining her fingers with mine. “He didn’t want complications,” she said. “He’ll want them even less now. And that’s what you would be to him. A complication.”
“How do you know?” I said. “Maybe he’d want to meet me. Maybe he’d want to know.”
Her eyes softened. “Maybe. It’s not worth risking your life over.”
“But this is your life,” I tried to argue. “It is worth it. I want to take the risk.”
Her fingers squeezed mine. “I’m sorry.”
No matter how I tried to cajole or persuade her, it was useless. She would not tell me which kingdom my father hailed from—if she even knew herself. Short of traveling the world and asking which king had an eye for pale-skinned women, I had no way to find him.
I’d leave anyway, I decided. I’d start in the city—ask questions, stick my nose in everywhere I could. I’d find out which kingdom had the snowiest queen with the inkiest hair, and sell my rifles to find the money for passage there, and shame my father into demanding my mother’s freedom from our king.
I burst back through Auntie Rosa’s door filled with determination, only to find my bag and rifles gone from my room. “Where are they?” I railed at Auntie Rosa, who sat knitting in the armchair by the fire. “Where are my things?”
“I’ll give them back to you when you give up this foolishness,” she said.
“I’m trying to save my mother’s life!”
“You’re trying to do the one thing that would kill her. You do not understand the folly of your plans. Your mother needs to know you are safe.”
“My mother being executed will not make me safe!” I was shaking with rage. “You can’t do this. You’re doing just what that grundwirgen prince did—not letting me leave until you get your way!”
“That’s ridiculous,” snapped Auntie Rosa. “You’re my—” She clamped her mouth down on what she’d been about to say.
“You’re not my mother,” I said, as coldly as I knew how. “My mother is in prison. And I’m going to get her out.” I marched into the bedroom and slammed the door.
I lay awake that night, wrapped in furs and red blankets and staring up into the darkness. I knew where Auntie Rosa had put my things. Only one room in the house was locked, and she’d taught me to care for my rifles too well for her to have left them outside somewhere.
So where was the key? I’d been through the house so many times—she couldn’t have hidden it inside anywhere. She must keep it on her person. I slid my bare feet to the floor and slipped out of the bedroom.
The fire had burned down to embers, limning the shadows in vermillion crescents. Auntie Rosa slept beside it, her breath rising and falling deeply.
I crept forward.
My heart pounded as I stood above her, guilt flaming in my stomach, my hands cold with sweat. This was wrong, what I was doing.
But she had done me wrong, too, stopping me from taking the only chance we had. I thought of my mother, thin and alone in her cell. I didn’t have a choice.
I lifted the edge of the blanket, intending to check her pockets first, and the firelight gleamed off a silver chain.
I’d seen the chain before, so many times, but I’d never noticed it—it was just something Auntie Rosa always wore, some type of necklace under her clothes. Of course. I stretched my hand forward, holding my breath, and my fingertips grazed her collarbone as I pinched the chain and eased it out from under her night dress. A wrought-iron key dangled in the light of the coals.
I walked my fingers down to the clasp and unfastened it. The key fell into my palm, cool and heavy.
Almost unable to think, I hurried to the locked room and shoved my prize into the keyhole. It turned, and the door swung open.
The room was pitch black. A fur rug kissed the soles of my feet, but my eyes were useless. I raced for a lantern, lighting it as I dashed back into the forbidden space. As expected, I saw my bag and rifle cases immediately, stacked neatly against one wall.
I crouched to retrieve them. Should I leave now, in the night, before Auntie Rosa could awaken and try to stop me? Before my own courage could fail?
The rest of the room caught my eye, distracting me. I turned and raised the lantern.
Confused, I paused and stared. The room was filled with furs… which made it no different from the rest of the house. Why would Auntie Rosa bother to keep it locked?
The pelts were tossed across each other with little regard for aesthetic. And there was something odd about them. I lifted the light.
The rugs and blankets I was used to were the soft furs of game animals. These were all—odd. Odd creatures to hunt, still odder to skin. Three bear skins from progressively smaller beasts were the only ones that looked like they belonged, and the enormous wolf pelt beneath my feet might have been an animal Auntie Rosa had killed to protect herself or the home, but others—the white-tipped tail of a fox dangled off one pile, and one fur looked like it had come off a large domestic cat. A pure white bull skin was a hide a tanner might have been proud of, but was out of place for a hunter. There was a snakeskin, stretched out and dried, from what must have been a magnificent serpent, and something feathered… the preserved husk of an eagle, or, no, a swan.
I stepped farther into the room.
The lantern light fell on the far wall. Pegged against it was the sagging pelt of what had been some beast of unbelievable proportions, twelve feet tall and massive, with wicked claws and a gaping maw that now showed only the wood behind it.
“I would ask what you’re doing in here,” said Auntie Rosa behind me. “But I suppose that’s obvious.”
I spun around. “It was you. You killed the grundwirgen prince.” I stumbled backward, the lantern swinging wildly. My arm brushed the bearskins; I flinched away, my skin crawling. My toes curled against the wolf pelt filling the floor as if I could stop touching it. “Were these all… ? They were all… ?” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Come sit. Let’s talk.” Auntie Rosa reached for me. I jerked back, and she let her hand drop. “The world is complicated,” she pleaded.
This room was closing in on me, sickening, the air fracturing, so many murdered souls smothering me, and my mother—
“Were you going to let my mother die for you?” The words burst out of me, rising almost to a shriek.
Shock rippled across her features. “No. Never. I—” She put a hand to her face. “I thought, as long as the punishment had not been set, that there was hope, that maybe—and I could have faced the King’s Men, told them my crimes a thousand times to save her, but—but the thought of your mother hating me—that even if we all walked free, that I would lose her, I couldn’t…”
The truth dawned. “She doesn’t know you killed him,” I said.
The look on her face was my answer.
I sat at the table. Auntie Rosa sat across from me.
“Your mother knows about the rest,” Auntie Rosa said, her eyes on her hands. “She knows what kind of woman I… was.”
“And what kind of woman is that?” I asked coldly.
“I killed my first grundwirgen when I was eight years old.” She spoke simply. Factually. Her gaze strayed to the open door of the secret room, to the massive wolf pelt filling the floor and spilling against the doorway, and she gathered her red robe more tightly around herself. “He attacked my grandmother, then me. I saved myself. I couldn’t save her.”
“I thought your grandmother was killed by a wild animal.”
“She was, as far as I’m concerned.”
“No. No. You taught me—” I couldn’t reconcile it. Grundwirgen were the same as humans. Killing a grundwirgen was no different from killing a man.
“I hope I could have shot him if he had been a man,” Auntie Rosa said, as if she had read my mind. “I hope I would have.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“It is as I told you. Not all grundwirgen are evil. But those who are—” She coughed. “The ones who have been cursed into creatures, often they have been cursed for a reason. And those with the power to shapeshift at will can use that ability for crimes so despicable—the viciousness they have at their disposal in animal form, if they choose to use it—well. I was a very good hunter.”
“You went around—you hunted—” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. An assassin. My auntie was an assassin. My auntie who sat slumped across from me in her red-draped cottage, looking very tired and very sad and very old.
“Do you still do it?” I asked.
“Not for many years. Your mother changed me. Gave me something to live for, other than my hunt for justice.”
“But she still doesn’t know you killed her…” Prince? Captor? Husband?
“These things are so complicated.” Auntie Rosa folded her hands against each other in her lap, one gripping the other as if to anchor herself. “I came to rescue her, you see. I’d been seeking the grundwirgen who held her, and came to slay the beast and free the princess in the castle. But the strongest chains that trapped her were in her own mind.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“It had been seven years. He’d had her locked in his castle for seven years.” Her speech strained over the words as if she’d lived the sentence herself. “He was a master at…”
She trailed off, struggling. I didn’t help.
She found her voice again, the explanation dragging out of her one syllable at a time. “He knew what to do. How to control. He played with your mother’s emotions with kindnesses, was a perfect gentleman between bouts of temper—and even then he never physically touched her. He convinced her that he cared for her, that she should care for him. Guilted and shamed her. He told her if she left him, he’d die.” She took a shuddering breath. “She didn’t want that. In time, I think she would have forced herself to believe she loved him.”
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to hear this.
“As far as I was concerned,” said Auntie Rosa, “what he was doing was ten times more evil than the grundwirgen who had attacked my grandmother and me. Buying a child and locking her away without any—with no human contact—” Her voice trembled. “He needed someone to love him to break the spell. He didn’t care how he got that love.”
I wasn’t sure who I hated more: my grandfather, for selling his daughter; my auntie, for being a murderer and then allowing my mother to go to prison for it; or my mother herself, for daring to have a past that was threatening to consume all of our lives. And the grundwirgen prince, of course; but there was no use hating him; he was dead.
“I was the first human she’d spoken to in seven years,” Auntie Rosa continued. “We became close, so quickly. She realized she had to leave; she knew in her soul what he was doing to her. But it was hard for her, so hard, and she… she made me promise not to kill him.”
“But you did.” The words scraped in my throat.
“I did,” she said, so low I could barely hear it. “He was a grundwirgen, but still a prince; no one was coming to stop him. He would have done the same with another girl, another time. I was older than your mother; I’d been hunting monsters for more than a decade by then. It had to be done.”
“And you never told her,” I said.
“It was the only promise to her I ever broke,” said Auntie Rosa, “and he was the last grundwirgen I ever killed.”
I stood up. “You’re a coward.”
“She’s in a cell. She thinks she’s facing execution. That should be you.”
Her face tightened in apparent pain. “I never would have let it come to that.”
“You never should have let it come to this.” I went into the bedroom and shut the door, leaving her sitting at the table, alone.
I had the evidence I needed to prove my mother innocent now. All I had to do was go to the city, march the King’s Men back to Auntie Rosa’s, and tell them to break into her secret room.
That was all I had to do.
It’s what she deserves, I told myself, staring up into the predawn dimness, sleep never having come for me. She did it. She killed him. She killed all of them.
Hunting monsters, Auntie Rosa had called it.
How would I feel if I had found a room full of human trophies, and Auntie Rosa had claimed it had to be done, they were all bad people? This was the same. Grundwirgen were not animals.
It was the same.
I found Auntie Rosa already awake, wrapped in a red shawl and waiting by the door.
“Where are you going?” I demanded.
“You were right.” She stretched one arm to the wall as if to steady herself. “I was so… I was so selfish. I’ll go now. Today. They’ll have to release your mother.”
A wave of emotion slammed into me, threatening to drown me. I’d spent the entire night wrestling with whether to turn her in, and now—now—
Auntie Rosa reached out a hand, slowly, tentatively, as if she was afraid I would flinch away from her. I didn’t.
She tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. “I love you, Xiao Hong. Don’t ever forget that.” Her hand was shaking. “Please.”
It would be better, Auntie Rosa told me quietly, if I was back at my own house when she brought the King’s Men to hers. I wouldn’t be alone long. My mother would be meeting me soon enough.
I nodded, not speaking.
She helped me carry my things back over the hill, back over the well-worn path. Helped me start a fire and set the house to rights, sweep out the dust from our weeks-long absence, lay in some extra wood. She brought over food stores from her own cottage, too, breads and cheese and cured meat. I stared at it.
“I never ate them.” Her voice broke. “Child, what you must think of me…”
I put the food away.
Auntie Rosa brought her gear over, too, her packs and knives and nicest rifles.
“I don’t want those,” I said. Not after what they’d been used for.
“Your mother might. Ask her?”
I took the rifles. My mother was an unsentimental woman. Maybe practicality would stir her to keep them.
Auntie Rosa adjusted her shawl around herself. She tried to say goodbye, but the words faltered away when I didn’t respond.
She took nothing with her, only the red shawl wrapped around her head and shoulders, a bright scarlet figure bobbing down the trail with her walking stick marking the paces as she hiked toward the city. It was late in the day; she wouldn’t arrive there till long past dark.
And then she’d turn herself in to the King’s Men. They’d probably escort her back to her cottage, or arrest her and then tramp back without her to investigate. With Auntie Rosa’s confession in hand, they’d release my mother.
Unless they didn’t. I wrestled down nightmare fears that they would think my mother had been in league with her, that I would lose them both.
Lose both my mothers.
“Auntie Rosa!” I called.
She was almost out of sight. The bright red figure stopped. Turned.
I grabbed her best rifle, the one she could splinter a coin with from a thousand yards away, and raced down the trail. I thrust it into her hands.
“Run. Disappear. I’ll bring the King’s Men back tomorrow. I’ll tell them you fled when I found the room.”
She stared down at me, uncomprehending.
“Go,” I said.
“I don’t want you involved,” she pleaded. “I’m old. I don’t have much time left. I can—”
“Go,” I repeated. “For me. For my mother. Please.” I didn’t know what was right—maybe I never would—but I suddenly knew what I didn’t want, what I couldn’t bear.
She fingered the rifle. “Tell Mei I’m sorry.” The words were rough and quiet. “I’m so sorry.”
I went into the city the next day. Bringing the King’s Men back was a confused jumble I could never quite remember afterward—answering their questions, waiting outside as they shoved through Auntie Rosa’s cottage and broke down the door of her secret room. Red fabric fluttered to the floor as they tore the cottage apart, as if the little house were bleeding.
They insisted on keeping my mother until they had a trial. After a long, terrifying day before the throne, during which I had to talk, to lie, about what had happened when I found the room, the King declared my mother innocent, and they allowed me to bring her home. She didn’t speak for five days, just sat by the window and fingered the edges of the tablecloth. Red. I didn’t know if Auntie Rosa had given it to us, or if my mother had gotten it to please her.
On the fifth day she cried.
I sat down across from her, unsure what to do. My mother never cried. She reached out and held my hand as she had in her cell, the tears seeping down her white face unchecked. “You must hate me,” she whispered. “For putting you through this.”
I squeezed her hand. “I could never hate you, Mama.” It turned out I couldn’t hate people even when they were murderers. Emotion welled up in my throat. “I’m glad you’re back.”
Her breath caught. “I never wanted you to know. My past, how I was a… I was so ashamed. But now, I find—I find I’m glad she told you.”
My mother had never spoken to me with such naked emotion before.
“I miss her,” she said.
I swallowed. “I do, too.”
We sat together holding hands, gazing out the window as if hoping we would see a bright red figure bobbing up the walk.
But the sun set, and no one came.
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