Disclaimer: Not based on real events during WW2, any similarity to real events or history is unintentional by the Author.
“Don’t go into the forest!”
His mother warned as he left the family home, skis wobbling over his child-sized shoulder.
Kal smiled at the warm memory. His mother had been gone for quite some time now. The war rationing was not kind to a woman in her later years. He kept her memory in his mind as he prepared to disobey her. He chuckled a little, imagining her scolding a grown man in his uniform for wandering into the woods.
His mother’s words of warning and his father’s morbid fairy tales had bred a deep fear of the snow-covered forest. When he joined the militia to fight against the Soviet incursion, he was expected to use the forest and his skis as a vital part of combat. At first, he had a hard time hiding his shaking hands and panicked breathing as he followed his commander into the thickest parts of the endless tree cover.
Two years later he was hardened and felt at home in the snow-covered trees skiing through miles of forest to deliver messages from one commander to another.
He stopped skiing for a moment to check his bearing. Pulling his hand out of a thick mitten, already clasping his compass. It was easier to keep the compass in his mitten, so he spent less time fishing for it elsewhere. His exposed hand tingled as he checked his direction, due south. He was on target to reach the southern encampment. He jammed his hand back into the mitten, relieved it was still warm, and skied on.
He kept himself occupied with his parent’s old folk tales and memories of happier times. As he skied along, he imagined being in the cabin. He could see his father and his crystal blue eyes, sitting in the old wood Viking style chair his grandfather made long before he was born.
“You should be kind to everyone you meet Kal. Do you want to know why?” His father said under a bushy blond beard.
They were sitting around the fire, Kal was wrapped in a wool blanket on his father’s knee.
“Let me tell you about the Black Blooded Prince.” He said with a twinkle in his eye.
This sounded like a scary story. He was thrilled.
“Long ago, there was a small village in the middle of a forest. It was a peaceful village, and all the local rulers agreed that this village was to be spared all squabbles and wars between their peoples. In return, the village helped heal the wounded or sick and fed the hungry from other villages.”
Kal’s father paused to take a long drink of beer.
“One of the local kings had a son who was known as the black prince. The black prince had waged many battles and brought back a sword that would be the emblem of their house; a long and delicate blade decorated with ivory and gold.”
“The prince was obsessed with treason. He believed everyone was plotting against him. When his father died, he took power and villages suffered under his rule as he ‘weeded out’ those who were not loyal to him. For a long time, it was rumoured that the village in the forest used magic for their cures. The prince worried it was black magic, and that the village in the forest would use that black magic against him. He called his mercenaries and marched into the village. They spared none, not even women and children.”
Kal’s father’s voice grew grim to add drama to the story. Out of the corner of Kal’s eye, he could see his mother shaking her head disapprovingly.
“You’ll give him nightmares Joseph!” She warned.
His father chuckled “It’s a moral tale dear. It’s supposed to scare him.”
Kal twitched with excitement. He loved scary stories.
“That night they dared to camp in the town they massacred. Having a feast on the town’s plentiful rations. Some say forest sprites or the Queen of Faries herself took pity on the villagers; others say it was God or Jesus Christ who heard their cries. Whomever it was, granted them one final act of vengeance. They rose up from their graves…”
“Joseph that’s enough! He’s too young for that one.” His mother snapped.
Kal never got to hear the end of the tale. When he was in his teens his father passed. Despite not finishing his story, his father frequently joked that if Kal went into the forest at night he could be snapped up by the undead villagers.
Looking forward through the trees he was a little worried. Normally on this trail, the trees began to get thinner the further south he went. Instead, the stretch before him was thick. He pulled the compass out again, cursing the strong burning sensation as the icy air attacked his exposed skin.
It displayed south. Was it broken?
The sun was low in the sky, and already beginning to send purple, orange and yellow over the clouds. He wasn’t sure he was heading in the right direction, but he had no choice but to ski on until he found others. Camping in the forest was a good way to freeze to death.
The growth of trees opened to a grouping of cottages. This confirmed he was off course. There were no villages on his usual path. It was eerily quiet in the clearing like time had frozen with the air. Kal felt uneasy; there was no light coming from any of the cottage windows.
He walked up to the door of one and found the door slightly ajar. He braced himself, he had seen houses left like this before.
He called out “Friends, I’m sorry to disturb you. I am a Finn lost in the woods.”
The house replied with silence. It was almost black as coal inside, so Kal pulled out his lighter and pushed the door open, he realized there were deep gashes and grooves in the doorway like someone had taken an axe to it. The cottage was one room, with furniture neatly grouped into a kitchen area and bedroom. Children’s toys were scattered about, left on tables and chairs. Kal breathed a sigh of relief. No bodies.
It was possible the families living here abandoned their homes because of the recent incursion of the Soviet military in this area. Kal hoped that was the case and lit a fire in the tiny hearth to warm himself.
He couldn’t help but look around the cottage. He tried to insist in his mind that the family must be elsewhere, probably with extended family in Viipuri. However, his eyes wandered to the table, where a bucket of washing was still full of water and clothes. A neat bundle of wool socks was stacked on the little one’s bed.
He tried to focus on warming himself and getting ready to sleep.
The family’s thick wool coats were still hanging on metal hooks by the door. Boots were neatly tucked beneath them.
The back door of the cottage creaked open, as though it was calling to him. It was hanging on one hinge deep gashes running long the side…
Come look. Look at where they are…
Kal swallowed. He knew he couldn’t sleep. Something had happened here. He walked over to the back door. The moonlit the snow well, and he could clearly see a trail of footprints leading into the other side of the forest clearing. The path was wide, possibly 4 or more people all walking clustered together. He put his skis on and began following the trail into the forest.
The path wound for about 10 minutes before Kal saw a figure slumped against a tree trunk. He froze and waited. After a minute passed and the figure didn’t move, Kal realized the figure was covered in a light dusting of snow. Kal moved closer to reveal the body of a man dressed in a wool sweater and underwear, his feet bare and burned black by the cold.
Tears welled up in Kal’s eyes. “I’m sorry brother. Rest easy. You’re suffering is done. I will tell our people about your sacrifice.”
Kal carefully pulled a pin off his uniform. It was a decorative pin he bought in Helsinki a while back. He pinned it to the dead man’s sweater. It was all he could do in lieu of burial.
He continued to follow the footprints, now noticing that many footprints were barefoot. He began finding small items like ribbon, pieces of shoelaces, and a small woodblock. Each artifact, lightly buried in snow was like a knife in his heart.
An animal-like cry made his blood run cold. Kal turned wildly, trying to see where the sound came from. He spotted a figure in the woods, on foot and clawing madly at the snow. He watched as the figure stumbled and screamed wildly… and came toward him.
Kal turned and tried to ski away as quietly as possible, but the man was fast, bumping into Kal suddenly full force.
“Augghhh! God!” He screamed.
Kal and the man struggled and flailed in a heap before they managed to separate from each other. Kal, now thoroughly flushed with adrenaline, was able to see the uniform in the dim moonlight reflected off the snowbanks.
“Brother it’s another Finn! I’m a soldier as well!” Kal breathed.
The man stopped screaming. His eyes were red and full of tears that were already freezing on his face. He had piercing green eyes.
Underneath his scarf that was still tightly wound around his mouth, bits of blond whiskers poked out.
“Oh, thank God. What is your name? I’m Juho.” The man asked as he leaned against a tree.
“Kal. You are lucky I tried to run instead of drawing my weapon.”
“Kal we need to move, back to the cabins. This isn’t a village, it’s some sort of strange nightmare.” Juho breathed.
“What do you mean? What happened to the people in the village?” Kal struggled to his feet trying to untangle his skis.
“I came with my troop to establish a camp here and we were attacked. We all had to run, these things came right through the village and…” Juho didn’t get to finish his story.
Out of the 1-meter-thick snow on either side of the men emerged hulking forms. They were draped in heavy and long clothing, and against the moonlight looked like blackened ghosts.
The men made a mad scramble, and before Kal could call out, Juho had run in a completely different direction, off the footpath that made it easier for Kal to ski. Kal had no choice, it would take him too long to undo his skis to run so he made for the cabins. The forms followed him at an inhuman speed, twitching and running on all fours like dogs. His heart pounded, he skied so hard he broke out in a sweat, something he was taught never to do in freezing temperatures.
If he could make it back to the cabin, he could barricade himself inside.
He was horrified to find a long spindly hand was able to grab his uniform and he was yanked back, crashing into the snow. His skis tangling on branches found in the underbrush. He could see his attacker now, and he felt sick with horror as he desperately tried to grab the rifle buried in the snow underneath him.
The figure was clothed in an old Viking wool tunic, dyed a dark colour. The figure itself was a dried husk of a human body, the skin pulled taught like an animal skin on a tanning rack. It was black as night, clearly eaten by the frost. The skin on the face was pulled back and hardened as well, so the Viking had a sinister permanent smile. Kal managed to kick one foot free of his ski, breaking the laces he had used to hold his boot onto the ski. As he used his free foot to kick the risen corpse, he noticed a sword hanging off the thick leather belt, with a white handle etched with gold.
“It can’t be!” Kal found himself mumbling wildly out loud.
He managed to get to his feet and began desperately hobbling away from his attackers, but his other ski was caught fast in some branches. He fell face first and waited to feel the cold grasp of the undead on him. Instead, a strange screaming and sucking noise came from behind him. Kal rolled over to see a group of frostbitten people rising around the Viking corpses and were now pulling them down into the snow, biting and tearing at them. The Viking corpses howled and flailed wildly. The people were gaunt but wearing modern wool sweaters and dresses, some women still had aprons on. They tore at the Vikings with no fear, making horrible wailing noises.
“You haunted us for generations… “One woman whispered, small clumps of brown hair still clinging to her skull. “Now we will haunt you!”
Kal was able to undo his other ski and scramble to his feet, making his way back to the cabins as wails, screams and otherworldly screeching filled the air. He turned in time to see the corpse of the black prince being torn to shreds, the villagers pulling the bony arms off, the dried flesh snapping. Kal scrambled faster, fighting the urge to be sick.
As he entered the clearing, he heard Juho’s voice.
“Kal! Here!” Juho was already in a cabin.
Kal ran over and helped him throw firewood, furniture, and anything else they could find to barricade themselves in. Exhausted and sweating they made a small fire in the hearth, expecting to hear hoards of undead at the cabin door. Instead, they sat in uneasy silence. Kal held his rifle at the ready, in case the corpses got through their barricade, but it proved to be unneeded.
Eventually, Juho found enough strength to tell his full story.
“The villagers did a strange ritual every night. They blocked off their doors and sealed themselves inside the cabins before the sun went down. They said evil things come out of the forest at night.” Juho hung his head.
“It’s our fault they’re dead. They told us not to camp outside but we insisted. We thought they were just being superstitious. They said people left out at night attracted the dead. They were right. We were asleep when they started dragging men into the woods. Soon they began hacking open the cabins. The villagers had no choice but to run. It happened so fast.”
Kal didn’t know how to comfort Juho as he cried.
“It wasn’t your fault; how could you have imagined this would happen? This is something out of a folk tale.” Kal managed.
“I don’t know how it’s possible… I don’t understand.”
They sat for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the sun rose, and light began to shine through the cabins.
“Do you think it’s safe to go out?” Kal asked.
“The village did normal things during the day, so I think so?” Juho said nervously.
Pushing aside the barricade, Kal and Juho wandered outside. Kal’s rifle at the ready. They were greeted with silence. They paused, reluctant to leave the safety of the cabin, but also eager to leave the village in the forest behind them. The two men slowly made their way toward the centre of the village, and Juho pointed out a road his troop had taken to get there. It was a small road, not wide enough for vehicles, but clear enough the men could travel without skis. Shaken and exhausted, they walked into the growing daylight hoping to find Juho’s main camp… and safety.