The Child in the Forest

Submitted into Contest #96 in response to: Write about someone welcoming a stranger into their home.... view prompt


Fantasy Horror Drama

It was Midautumn when father found the child. The girl that would change my world. My father was a hunter and had gone out with three other men from the village to hunt boar. The leaves had all but fallen from the trees already and there was a chill on the wind that seemed to press down on the village, forcing everyone to stay in their homes huddled around their hearths and bundled in their wool and furs. The harvest was over, and the lord in his stone keep on the hill had gotten his due, despite the village barely having enough for the winter as it was. At least that's what mother told me as she complained of the thin, watery stew we ate to conserve our stores that day. Father had been gone nearly four days and finally returned as mother and I supped near the hearth, trying our best to stay warm.

The door opened with a howl of frigid wind and father rushed inside, closing it behind him quickly so as not to let the chill in. It seemed to seep in with him anyway. He held a bundle in his arms and carried his pack on his back. He set his pack down, and without a word, he waved mother over to his side as he stomped the dust off of his favorite boots. She rose, as I continued to eat and scurried over nervously. I could hear them whispering for some time about something but I was too young to care at the time. 

"Just take it to the keep," I heard mother say, their voices rising as they argued.

"Lord Morland will not take her. He will have me give her to the wolves. Would you have a child's death on your hands?" Father argued back, his voice both firm and pleading. I peeked up, trying to get a view of what he held in his arms. I could see the bundle moving slightly, tiny hands grasping at the air. A baby, I thought, it must be a baby girl.

"We cannot feed her, Roland. We barely have enough for ourselves after that pitiful harvest, and you want to give us another mouth to feed?" Mother complained.

"The others," father said quickly, "Gerald, Mathew and Adam, they have agreed to help us. We will not sell meat from our hunts this year at market, but save it for our own. Everything will be alright, you will see," There was a long pause as mother stared up into father's face. 

"Do as you will, husband," she said softly, "and may God save us for helping this child,"

The winter was hard that year. I was hungry all the time and riders came down from the keep often, taking food from the village for the lord and his knights. Father was gone from the village much of the time, hunting with the other men to try to keep the people from starving. 

My new sister's name was Persephone. Mother said she was a queer child. She did not seem to ever cry or fuss like the other women's babes. She was always calm and quiet and still. Some of the older women in the village told mother that Persephone was bewitched while we were at market together one day. Mother scoffed and shrugged off the allegations but I saw her giving the baby suspicious looks often from then on. 

As the end of winter neared, the hunting parties began coming back with less and less food. Mother said some of the older folk in the village would die, but no one did. Not from lack of food anyway. The knights from the keep on the hill hanged a family in the square for refusing to pay their tribute to the lord. They looked hungry too, like the rest of us. When Spring finally came and the village began planting the crops for the next harvest, it seemed as though everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

One summer, five years after father had brought Persephone home, a plague of buzzing insects swept over the village. Locusts, father had called them, though they did not seem to eat the crops like he thought they would. They just buzzed and screeched and left hollow little shells clinging to trees. After a few weeks, the insects began to die off harmlessly. 

Persephone liked the bugs. I saw her, one afternoon, sitting in the dirt next to our house, playing with them. A dozen or so of the creatures flitted about and marched and crawled around as she giggled to herself. I was puzzled, as I looked on to see several empty shells, crawling about among the other insects.

"I did not know the shells could still move," I said, squatting down next to her as she played.

"They do," she said, making a little buzzing sound. One of the hollow shells flew past her face, silent. "If I tell them to,"

I sat and watched a while as Persephone played with the bugs. They moved as though they had been trained, marching in orderly rows or tracing patterns in the air as they flew around, Persephone buzzing along all the while. I tried to make one of the bugs do what I asked, but it would not listen to me. Only my sister. 

In the winter of the eighth year since Persephone was brought home by my father, a man arrived at the village. He scared me. He seemed to scare everyone. He came riding on a black stallion and wore a suit of black enameled plate armor. His white and gold cloak flowed behind him on the wind as he arrived. His face and hair were both clean shaven down to the skin, and scars of all kinds covered his flesh. He had fierce, angry eyes and wore a longsword at his hip.

The villagers quietly scattered in the wake of this new stranger, shutting their houses up and putting out their candles. The silence was deafening as the stranger went door to door, pounding on each one with a gauntleted fist. When he arrived at our door, mother told me to take Persephone outside through the back, and hide in the pig shed with her as quietly as we could. I did as I was told and my sister did not whine or argue. We sat with the pigs until long after night fell. We heard shouting from outside, but still we sat and we waited until we saw the orange glow of flames in the distance. I told my sister to stay and be silent, and I crept out from our hiding place. I snuck around the side of our cottage, and was about to peek out into the village square when I heard a shrill, piercing scream. My heart jumped and my stomach clenched up in fear. I peered around the side of the house and saw it.

At the center of our village, stood a large wooden post. At its base, a pyre of dry timber, branches, and leaves had been hastily constructed. The pyre burned brightly, the flames creeping slowly up toward the post at its center. Then I saw my mother. She had been shackled to the post with iron manacles, stripped naked, and beaten bloody. The bruises looked black in the bright red light of the flames that licked hungrily at her flesh. A gag had been shoved into her mouth but her wordless screams still escaped as she began to burn.

"Now, know this!" The man in the black plate announced to the village, all of whom had hidden inside of their homes. He circled the pyre slowly, his armor clanking with each deliberate step, "Our king shall not tolerate the practice of witchcraft upon his lands! Not this day, nor any day hence! This monster consorted with devils and demons, and now it pays the price, along with those who protected it!" He motioned with one hand to the large oak at the edge of the square. Four bodies hung there by their necks. Cloth sacks covered their faces, but I knew my father's favorite boots, even from this distance. Each of them wore a wooden board with the word 'heathen' painted on it in blood around their necks. Tears streamed down my face as I knelt, helplessly and watched my mother burn alive, her shrieks of agony stabbing at my heart. What was I to do? I was only a boy.

The man with the black armor and the black heart left as soon as he was sure that mother had died in the fire, leaving it burning as he rode off into the night.

The village folk steered cleared of my sister and me from that night on. I was old enough to hunt small game and raise a meager crop on my own, and I provided for my sister as well as I could. I had begun to notice queer happenings around the village, though. No one ever seemed to died of age, like they did in other places, nor of disease. There were some fatal hunting accidents, mishaps during construction of the new well and once there was even a murder during a tavern brawl, but no natural death ever seemed to happen within our village.

It was five winters after my mother was burned and my father hanged, that the man in the black plate returned, this time accompanied by a dozen or so others, wearing black leather armor and hoods, and wielding spears and shields. Just like before, the villagers scurried back to their homes and slammed their doors shut. Persephone and I knew that he had come for us, however. We fled. We left the village and hurried, past the cemetery, up the hill, and into the woods where we hid quietly and watched.

Just as before, the man knocked on each door, talking to the owner of each home for a brief moment before moving on. He got through four houses this way when he got what he had come for. The owner of the fourth home pointed across the dirt road at our house. The man in the armor looked curiously at our door, then handed our neighbor something and crossed the road. 

He knocked once. Twice. Then, without warning, he drew his blade and kicked our door off of its hinges. He went inside, followed by two of his men. Even from the hilltop, I could hear them tearing the place apart. Searching for my sister and me.

When they did not find us, the men began breaking down other doors and dragging people out into the street. Several of the leather-clad soldiers began putting the torch to the thatched roofs of people's homes. I could hear screaming and pleading and begging as the man in the black armor began executing the village folk.

That was when my sister reached her breaking point. She stood, a fierce determination shining in her eyes, and began marching down the hill.

"Persephone, no!" I called, "They'll kill you! They'll kill us both!"

She either did not hear, or chose not to. Her arms raised in front of her, she strode down to the hill past the village graveyard. A cold wind began to whip at me as I tried to chase my sister down the hill. To stop her from going to her death. Half way down the hill, I saw them, human shapes shambling along to join Persephone in her march. I heard a man scream and saw chaos erupting in the village. Bells rang in the distance and I saw riders coming down from the keep, banners flowing from their lances. What was happening? Persephone had reached the edge of the village now, joined by a stream of shambling bodies that boiled out from their graves. I could see the man in the black armor in the town square. He was surrounded by his own men, their faces covered in blood. They brandished their spears at him as he tried desperately to fight them off. Soon, he was no longer visible as his own men tore him to pieces.

I continued to follow my sister at a distance. She was going up the opposite hill now, facing the riders coming down from Lord Morland's stone keep. The riders fell upon my sister, but seemed to pass right through her, into the crowd of lurching and writhing shapes now following her up the slope. They, along with their screaming horses, disappeared into the mass of bodies quickly. Blood flowed down the hillside like rainwater.

Bells continued to ring in the keep, soon drowned out by the sounds of screams and death, then nothing, silence. 

I dared not set foot in the keep, but stayed at the foot of the hill, watching, waiting for my sister to return. I did not understand what had happened. What had she done? What was she? I never found the answers. She never came out of that place again.

Folk say that the dead still walk the halls of Morland Castle. That a heathen god has taken up residence there. Some say it is a witch. Others say it is the Devil himself. Only I know the truth of it though. Only I know that it is only my sister. Just a babe, left to die alone in the forest.

June 04, 2021 17:49

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