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The Girls from the Hood

by Jim C. Hines

“Once upon a time,” Stepmama began, “a hunter named Roland made a very poor choice.”

The hunter in question rubbed bloodshot eyes and squinted. Empty bottles littered the floor around the cot in his small cabin. One balanced precariously on the belly of a stuffed possum, whose patchy fur suggested it had died of a particularly unpleasant disease. “Who—what are you?”

Stepmama’s short riding cape was thrown back, exposing the fringed black leather that covered her bosom and left her midriff bare. Matching leather trousers protected her legs, and a skirt of leather and steel provided additional armor for her hips and thighs. A short-bladed sword hung from one hip. Steel studs covered her shoulders and the bracers on her forearms. A blood-red leather helm topped the ensemble.

His attention went next to her tattoos. An image of her first mare, Water Spirit, was inked onto her left bicep. Three horseshoes decorated her right forearm. A blue snake circled her wrist, seeming to cool itself with the small fan gripped in its tail.

“The princess,” said Stepmama. “What did you do with her body?”

Roland reached beneath a sweat-stained pillow. Stepmama’s hand moved toward her sword, but he just pulled out a mostly-empty bottle, yanked the cork, and took a drink. “That’d be a nice costume on someone half your age.”

Stepmama let the insult slide past. From the gray sprinkled in his greasy hair to the wrinkles spreading like cracks in the mud through the skin by his eyes, he couldn’t have been more than five years her junior.

Roland’s cabin was as much a wreck as the man himself. Dead animals crowded the space, preserved in poses ranging from awkward to bizarre. A cross-eyed bear’s head with an irregularly-shaped bald spot stared from the wall. A fox stood in the corner with one leg cocked. A snake at the foot of the bed coiled in what was presumably supposed to be a threatening pose, but the effect was ruined by the long, stiff tongue lolling from the side of its mouth.

According to her sources, Roland was an excellent hunter. Maybe so, but he was a lousy taxidermist.

Roland frowned. “I know that costume. Didn’t the Red Hood Riders used to wear that helm and cape?”

“We still do.”

He belched. “We?”

A lumbering figure stepped out of the shadows in the corner, holding a dead raccoon with a lopsided snarl and no tail.

Roland jumped to his feet. “What in the name of Rumplestiltskin’s wrinkled balls is that?”

“That’s Goldie,” Stepmama said.

Goldie grunted, which was about as talkative as she got most days. She was a bear of a woman. Stepmama had once seen her smash a full keg over the head of a handsy barman. Her garb was similar to Stepmama’s, but her weapons of choice were the iron chains she wore around her hips and shoulders. The gold-colored padlocks made excellent bludgeons.

Roland reached for Stepmama. Goldie rammed the raccoon’s twisted jaws into Roland’s face. He brought his hands up to block the dead animal, and Goldie kicked him in the chest. He slammed into the wall and slid down onto a pile of old furs.

“The princess,” Stepmama repeated.

“You’re really Red Hoods?”

Stepmama simply waited. She had found that silence often worked better than threats.

“I didn’t—it was the queen. She ordered me to—”

“Yes, we know.” She flicked open her fan and waved it lazily in front of her face, trying to hide her turmoil. If she had gotten word just a few days earlier, they might have saved the girl. As it was, they could at least bring her back for a proper burial . . . where everyone could see what the queen had done. She would deny it, of course, but Roland’s testimony should—

“I didn’t kill her.”

She snapped the fan shut. “You brought her heart back as proof.”

“It wasn’t hers.” He closed his eyes. “I was told to kill her, but she was so beautiful. Skin as white as snow. Lips as red as blood . . .”

“She’s fourteen years old!” Stepmama smacked the side of his head with the closed fan. The outer slats were hammered steel, giving it enough weight and strength to make Roland cry out and clutch his head.

“I didn’t do nothing,” he squeaked. “I killed a boar. Brought its heart back to the queen. She didn’t know.”

“She’s clever. Are you sure?”

Roland paled.

“Let’s try this again,” said Stepmama. “We can either tie you up and leave you here for the queen, or else you can tell me exactly where to find the princess, and we’ll let you start running.”

Stepmama’s girls reacted as she had expected when they learned the princess was alive. Ash looked ready to ride off with her glass sword drawn, mowing down anyone and anything that got between the Red Hoods and the princess. She claimed to have inherited the enchanted blade from the ghost of her mother, and she was ridiculously enthusiastic about using it. Rumor had it she’d gotten glass slippers as well, but they were rather impractical for riding. Or anything else, for that matter.

Legs clapped her hands and grinned. She was the youngest of the four Red Hoods. Her black skin was unmarked, save for a single tattoo of a flounder on the back of her neck. The cut of her scanty armor—steel scale mail instead of the leather the others preferred—left most of it exposed. Legs had never really taken to clothes. She rarely left her horse, Triton, and when she did she walked with a limp, courtesy of the spell that had turned her human.

Regret sank its roots into Stepmama’s thoughts. Once, close to a hundred women had worn the red cape and helm. When they rode, the earth itself quaked. As did anyone who crossed them. But that was years ago, before the war with the Wolves had wiped out both gangs. It had taken years for Stepmama to recover enough to begin to rebuild the Red Hoods.

She stomped those memories into the ground like weeds. “She’s staying in the guild house of the Dwarf Miners, near the docks. We can . . . Goldie, did you steal that man’s weasel?”

Goldie was using a leather tie to secure the animal to the shoulder strap of her armor. The weasel’s body curved like an S, and the glass eyes were several sizes too big, giving it a permanently shocked expression. “Bear was too big. Porridge is just right.”

“You named it Porridge?” Stepmama rubbed her forehead.

“I’ll knit him a little helmet and cape, later.”

“What about Roland?” asked Legs. “We should cut open his belly, fill it with stones, sew him back up, and then throw him into the river to drown.”

Legs had a rather gruesome sense of justice.

Stepmama shook her head. “He didn’t kill the girl, and he told us what we needed to know.”


“Enough.” Stepmama pulled herself into the saddle of her courser, a silver dappled mare named Nana. She and Stepmama had been riding together for seven years now.

Their horses were all well cared-for, thanks in no small part to Ash. She had grown up talking to the mice and birds, and claimed to be able to understand them. To this day, Legs insisted Ash should have commanded the birds to peck out the eyes of her stepsisters for the way they had treated her.

It was mid-afternoon when they reached the Miners’ guild house, nestled behind a tavern within spitting distance of the sea. Chicken wire covered the windows. The doors were thick oak with a narrow, sliding panel at eye level. There was no sign, just a dwarven axe painted above the door.

Stepmama dismounted and hammered the butt of her fan against the door until the panel slid open. “Tell Doc that Stepmama of the Red Hood Riders wants to talk to him.”

Close-set brown eyes narrowed. “The Red Hoods are gone. Are you city guard?”

Stepmama sighed and stepped to one side, letting him get a better look at Goldie, Ash, and Legs. “Do we look like the guard?”

The door opened a moment later. Stepmama strode into the guild house like she owned it. She’d been in seedier buildings in her day, but rarely had she seen a gang’s guild house so clean. The air smelled of pipe smoke, but also fresh fish and lemon. The wooden floors were swept, the walls scrubbed.

The members of the Dwarf Miner gang were neither. They took the name from their founder, an undersized silver miner who had turned to the sea, where he decided smuggling was a safer and more lucrative occupation than crawling through unstable tunnels twelve hours a day. Safer, that was, until the day he fell overboard and got himself eaten by a whale.

Two men played dice at a nearby table. A trio hunched over their cards at another. Weaving between them, a tray of food in her hand, was the princess.

Snow White was the palest child Stepmama had ever seen. Either the girl had never set foot in the sunlight, or else she suffered from albinism, but how many albinos had hair as black as Stepmama’s leathers?

The telltale sound of clinking steel scales made Stepmama sigh. “Leave it on, Legs.”

The ex-mermaid groaned. “But we’re inside. You said—”

“I said you could make yourself comfortable at home. Your home. Not other people’s.” She offered an apologetic shrug to the Miners. “She’s still learning surface customs.”

None of the men appeared the slightest bit offended. Disappointed, maybe, but not offended. “How long until Doc returns?” asked Stepmama.

A heavyset man in a sleeveless shirt and leather vest leaned back from the dice table. His beard was a braided brown rope as thick as her arm. “An hour. Maybe two.” He wagged eyebrows like overgrown shrubberies. “Any of you girls want to play a game to kill the time?”

Stepmama stepped toward the card table. “Bring me a beer and deal me in.”

By the time Doc arrived, Stepmama had taken them for thirty gold, a pearl-handled dagger, and a sack full of Magic Beans, a mild hallucinogen that would have you hearing harps and chasing giants. Legs was enjoying her third helping of fish, with only the occasional complaint about how much better they tasted raw. Goldie was arm-wrestling one of the Miners while Ash cheered her on.

Doc walked straight up to Stepmama and clasped her wrist. She clapped him on the shoulder. “You seem to have done well for yourself.”

“Well enough.” Doc was an old rider, bowlegged from his time in the saddle, with a long, gray beard and a bare scalp baked brown by the sun. His leather vest struggled to cover his ample gut, but beneath the belly, the man was as meaty as a side of beef. Smelled like one, too. “How much have you won from them so far?”

“Another few minutes, and I’d have this one’s trousers.”

Doc chuckled and shook his head. “Resurrecting the Red Hoods? You should have gone home, Hase-Hime.”

It had been years since anyone used her given name. “It’s Stepmama now, and you know better. Would you give up life with the Dwarf Miners? Turn your back on freedom and independence?”

“Freedom’s one thing. Risking your hide to rescue a few royal brats is another. Especially in this kingdom.”

“You know why we’re here,” said Stepmama. “How would you like this to go down?”

Ash grinned and moved her hand toward her sword. Goldie stood and stretched. Throughout the guild house, the Miners rose from their chairs and clenched their fists.

“No need for that. Join me for dinner and we’ll work out fair terms for the girl.” Doc didn’t wait for an answer. “Hey, Smiley! Get your hairy arse down to the docks and pick up some fresh scallops.”

He scrawled a quick note on a scrap of paper and handed it to one of the Miners. “Smiley’s a good scrapper,” Doc explained, “but he’s got a lousy memory. Too many blows to the head. I once sent him to rough up a sailor who owed us money. He came back with a barrel of pickles and a used bridal gown.” He jerked his chin at Legs. “Who’s the kid?”

“She’s the one who will make it worth your while to give us the princess,” said Stepmama. “She has connections under the sea.”

“I’ve heard of her.” Doc circled Legs. “Gave it all up for the love of a prince, right? Then once she was transformed and he had what he wanted, he decided he preferred turf to surf.”

“Shut your beard hole,” Ash snapped.

Stepmama sliced a hand through the air, and Ash fell silent. “What would it be worth to you if the barnacles took a particular liking to your competitors’ ships?”

“Tempting,” said Doc. “But the boys have gotten rather fond of the young princess.”

“You’re wasting time,” said Ash. “They treat her like a servant, forcing her to cook and clean and who knows what else.” Given Ash’s history with her stepmother and stepsisters, it was no surprise she’d take this personally. “You know what these men will do to her. How they’ll use her. We’ve all seen it before.”

“Hey,” said a Miner. “Not all men—”

Ash backfisted him in the nose and continued like he hadn’t spoken. “The girl is not a thing to be bargained for.”

The bloody-nosed Miner started forward. Ash reached for her sword.

Oyamenasai!” None of Stepmama’s girls were fluent in her native tongue. They didn’t have to be. The tone translated perfectly.

Drawing steel—or glass, in this case—in another gang’s guild house meant war. A brawl was probably inevitable, but if Ash and the Miner could work it out without killing each other—

“Knock it off!” Doc glared at his Miner until the man backed down. “Sorry about that. Grouchy’s always been a bit of an ass.”

Stepmama frowned. The Miners were known for never walking away from a fight.

“I’m a businessman now,” said Doc, as if reading her thoughts. “There’s no profit in letting your girl and my man bust each other up. Have a seat. The princess makes a dish with limes and scallops that’s to die for. Takes a while to prepare, but it’s worth it.”

Tension choked the air like smoke. Goldie looked bored, which meant she was about ten seconds away from punching someone. Or setting something on fire. You never really knew with her. Ash was pacing, fists clenched.

The Miners looked as angry at Doc as they did with Ash. They didn’t understand why he had interfered either. Stepmama swore silently as the pieces fell into place. “You’re stalling.”

Doc gave her a too-broad smile. “What are you—”

“That note you gave Smiley. That wasn’t a list. You told him to send word to the queen.” She flicked four fingers downward, and the other Red Hoods moved into formation.

“Why would he wait until now to tell the queen about the princess?” asked Legs.

“The queen would have paid to get Snow White back.” Weariness and disappointment filled her words. “She’ll pay more for me.”

“Like I said, I’m a businessman,” said Doc.

“That’s a shame. You used to be a man.”

She didn’t bother going for the crotch kick. Doc was experienced enough to anticipate that. He shifted his hips to protect his groin the instant she drew back her foot. So she slammed the reinforced toe of her boot into his left shin. He cursed in pain, and then she rammed her knee into his stalk and beans.

A golden padlock snapped out to strike another Miner in the forehead. Legs took a punch on the jaw, blocked the follow up, and threw herself bodily onto her attacker.

A fist struck the side of Stepmama’s head. She stumbled sideways, arms raised to ward off the follow-up. Nobody had drawn blades yet. She prayed everyone would continue to show restraint, at least long enough to get Snow and the Red Hoods out.

A table flew through the air. That would be Goldie or one of the Miners.

Doc and another of his boys started toward Stepmama. “You knew the risks of coming into her kingdom,” he said. “Especially wearing those colors. That’s a death wish.”

So was fighting against these odds. Stepmama ducked another punch, twisted to take a kick on the armor of her hip instead of the gut, and searched for Ash.

There was a loud clunk. Doc stiffened, blinked at Stepmama, and toppled forward. The closest Miners paused to see what had happened. Snow White stood behind him, a greasy skillet gripped in both hands.

“I’d like to go with you, please,” she said timidly.

“Ash!” Stepmama’s shout sliced through the chaos. “Call Pumpkin.”

Ash wiped her bloody lip on her sleeve and nodded. Moments later, the door smashed inward, and Ash’s mare trotted into the guild house.

Doc on the floor and a horse on their side made for much better odds. Stepmama used the confusion to grab Snow and regroup with her girls. “Your boss ratted us out to the queen,” she said, hoping to forestall another round. She scowled at Doc’s unconscious form. “When he comes to, tell him we took the girl in payment, and we’re square.”

“Not quite.” Ash grinned and whispered under her breath. In response, Pumpkin stepped into the middle of the guild house and proceeded to relieve herself.

Some things never changed, and Ash’s warped and often gross sense of humor was one of them.

“Why would the queen want to get her hands on you?” Ash demanded as they rode toward the edge of town. The other girls looked equally upset. Even Snow, who was riding double behind Ash.

Stepmama sighed. They looked so strange with their telltale red hidden away, and a part of her hated having to hide their colors. “Because she used to ride with the Wolves. She and her man were part of the ambush that killed Grandma.”

Grandma had founded the Red Hoods to rescue young women and raise hell, not necessarily in that order. But their rivalry with the Wolves had destroyed both gangs.

“That’s why you wanted to save me?” asked Snow. “To pay her back?”

“No,” Stepmama said firmly. “Pissing off the queen was just the shine on the apple.”

“Ugh. Please don’t talk to me about applies.” Snow grimaced. “If not to slight my mother, why risk your life to rescue a stranger?”

Stepmama cursed at the sight of mounted guards at the end of the street. She urged Nana through an alley that led toward the shipping warehouses. “A long time ago, Grandma rescued me. She gave me the chance to have my own life. But I wasn’t there to save hers. That means the only way for me to pay her back is to pay it forward.”

Ash scowled. “Why didn’t you tell us about the queen?”

“Because you’d run off like a damn fool to attack her in her own castle, and like as not get killed for your trouble,” Stepmama snapped.

Ash opened her mouth to respond, paused, and then said, “I suppose that’s true enough.”

“It was a nice thought,” Legs said as another guard cut across the alley ahead of them. “Though I’d have preferred the suicidal attack on the castle to being hunted and killed like crabs in the sand.”

Stepmama took a long, slow breath. “This is personal between me and the queen. I’ll lead her men away while you take Snow—”


Stepmama turned to Ash. “Are you challenging me?”

“No,” said Goldie, before Ash could answer. “We’re helping you. The thing about rescuing someone is it can be hard to stop. We don’t need to be rescued anymore. Grandma gave you the chance to choose your own life. You did that for us. You don’t get to take that choice away now.”

It was the most she’d ever heard Goldie say, and Stepmama found herself without an answer.

“After Roland’s failure, my mother will have come along to make sure there are no further mistakes,” said Snow. “She won’t risk herself, though. She’ll probably be waiting with her guards outside of town.”

“Easier than taking on an entire castle,” said Ash.

Legs gave an exaggerated nod. She still had trouble with that gesture. “I say we take her prisoner, lock her feet in shoes of red-hot iron, and force her to dance until she dies.”

Snow stared at the former mermaid. “What is wrong with you?”

“All right.” Stepmama reached down to pull her cape and helm from her saddlebag. If they were going to do this, she’d do it properly dressed, by God. “Let’s not keep the queen waiting.”

Despite her misgivings, Stepmama found herself enjoying the chase. She and Nana hadn’t galloped together like this in a long time. Hooves thundered against the cobblestones, and Stepmama’s cape flapped behind her.

“They’re herding us like sheep,” said Snow, as a group of guards moved to cut them off.

Stepmama guided Nana with her legs.

“Not that lane!” shouted Ash. “It’s too narrow. Good place for an ambush.”

“I wasn’t going for the lane.” Stepmama urged Nana into the open doorway of the Golden Goose Tavern. There weren’t too many patrons this early in the evening, and she managed to squeeze past the bar, through the kitchen, and out the back door. Goldie had a bit of trouble following, but that was mostly because she stopped to snatch a pastry from the kitchen.

Nana was getting winded. She couldn’t keep this up much longer, but they were so close to the edge of town, and once they reached the fields and forest beyond, they could—

“Oh, whaleshit,” said Legs. At least ten guards armed with crossbows blocked the road ahead.

“Stick to the plan,” said Stepmama.

Legs and Triton galloped ahead, charging the massed guards. They raised their weapons, but before they could shoot, she began to bellow a chantey about a pirate captain with a crooked mast. Not the song Stepmama would have chosen, but it didn’t matter. The song of a mermaid had lured many a ship to its doom. It stunned the guards long enough for Legs to break through their line, and then they were wheeling around to chase after her, their orders forgotten.

All but two. In any group of men, there were bound to be a few who weren’t interested in the charms of a maiden. Ash shouted to those guards’ horses, who promptly bucked their riders to the ground.

They raced past to reach the open farms beyond the edge of town. From here, they might be able to simply outrun the queen and her men. How many times had Stepmama and the Red Hoods escaped the law in her youth?

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Ash. “But Nana’s tired, Snow and I are riding double, and Legs is off who knows where. Also, it’s been a long day, and I really want to stab someone.”

Stepmama nodded. “We finish this.”

They found the queen a half-mile up the road, surrounded by roughly a dozen guardsmen. Ash cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted. Birds swooped from the trees in response to peck, scratch, and of course, to poop. Ash had probably been quite explicit about that last bit. Mice, chipmunks, and other rodents scurried out of the weeds to bite exposed ankles and crawl up inviting pant legs.

One guard managed to raise his crossbow. Goldie ripped the stuffed weasel from her shoulder and hurled it into his face. It wasn’t much of a missile, but the sight of the unnaturally gaping weasel flying as if to bite off his nose made him cry out and raise his arms.

Stepmama drew her sword, a short, single-edged blade. Nana knocked the struggling guards aside, and Stepmama jumped to the ground to yank open the door of the ornately decorated carriage.

The interior was empty. Stepmama whirled, but it was too late. A second group of guards emerged from the woods, crossbows raised and ready. Goldie spun toward the closest, but a bolt punched through her shoulder, and her chain clinked to the ground.

“If they resist, shoot them, and then shoot their horses.” The queen emerged from the shadows. She patted the hand mirror hanging from her belt and gave Stepmama a mocking smile. “‘Mirror, mirror, at my side. Show me where the Red Hoods ride.’ You really thought you could hide your plans from me?”

“Mirror, mirror, made of glass,” said Ash. “Shove that thing right up your—”

Goldie punched her in the shoulder before she could finish. Good to know her uninjured arm still worked.

The queen was softer than Stepmama remembered. Gone were the worn, fur-trimmed leathers and metal rivets, replaced by velvet and silk. Her skin was almost as pale as her daughter’s. It was hard to imagine this pampered royal helping to kill Grandma all those years ago.

Stepmama dropped her sword.

“The knives too.”

She removed both daggers and nodded for the other Red Hoods to do the same. “What will you do to my girls?”

“Well, they’re not true Red Hood Riders, are they? Just children playing dress-up. But they did kidnap my daughter. I could order them executed, but I may just lock them away until they’re too old and withered to present a threat.”

She drew a short sword and walked closer. “You, on the other hand . . . I remember you.”

“Mother, stop!” cried Snow.

Stepmama opened her fan and used it to cool her face. “Is it true what happened to your man? They say he died breaking into a house. That he tried to sneak down the chimney and ended up falling into a pot of boiling water. What an embarrassing death for the leader of the mutts.”

The queen snarled and lunged. Stepmama snapped her fan shut and stepped into the attack. She jabbed the butt of the fan into the queen’s wrist, then struck the bridge of her nose. As the queen stumbled backward, Stepmama twisted the sword from her hand and brought the blade around to press against her throat.

“I wasn’t always a Red Hood.” Stepmama pulled the blade just enough to start a trickle of blood down the queen’s neck. The guards lowered their weapons. “I used to ride with another gang back home. In your language, the name translates to ‘Fangirls.’”

“And then what happened?” Legs demanded. She was furious about having missed the excitement.

It was Snow who answered. “Stepmama told me it was my right to decide my mother’s fate.”

“You should have shoved her into an oven and let her burn,” said Legs. “No, wait. Throw her into a tub full of vipers and toads and spiders.”

Snow stared.

“Don’t worry,” said Goldie, who was adjusting the stuffed weasel on her shoulder. Porridge was slightly worse for wear from being used as a weapon. “She’s an odd one, but you get used to her.”

“Yes.” Snow managed a weak smile. “Well, I decided she should be banished. We sent her away in a cargo crate on one of the Dwarf Miners’ smuggling ships.”

“This was fun.” Ash stretched her arms. “I just wish you would have let us go a few rounds with those guards.”

“They were only doing their jobs. Besides, what would father say if I let a gang of outlaw riders beat up his men?”

“Oh, I wanted some face-punching time with him, too,” said Ash. “How could he let your mother do that to you?”

“He didn’t know. And he’s been tired and weak for a long time. But without mother and her poisons around, he should recover.” Snow grabbed the hand mirror from her belt and studied her reflection. She pushed the thin, red headband higher on her brow. For now, she was only a prospective member of the Red Hoods, but Stepmama had no doubt she would soon earn her helm and cape.

Stepmama looked over her girls. They were still a far cry from the Red Hoods of old, but she imagined Grandma would have given them her blessing.

“Enough chatter. There’s a sleeping princess two kingdoms over who was imprisoned behind a hedge of thorns.”

“Oh, good.” Ash beamed. “I love jailbreaks.

Stepmama squeezed Nana into a gallop. “Let’s ride.”

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