Originally published in The Magikal Rite, October 2017.
Revised on November 11, 2017.
Take heed, children, and be mindful of your ma and fa lest you be lost like so many before you. Scoff if you will, you little skelpie-limmer, but there’s strange and terrifying creatures afoot in this wide world of our’n. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that such a terrible thing happened at the edge of our own Umgol Forest, deep and dense. ‘Twas three young brothers—Joreth the eldest, Jochen the youngest, and Jofrey in the middle between the two—that lived along the tree line in a small cottage with their mother and father.
Their father, whose name was Firman, was a woodsman and a hunter, tall and strong like an oak tree. Their mother, Cwen, was a clever and pretty lass. She often sold eggs from their hens and butter from their cows at the market right here in our small town of Umgol’fen. True, true, they were poor, to be sure, but they were happy. Together, Firman and Cwen earned just enough to provide the family with what they needed. There were always plenty of candles to sew by and wood enough to keep them warm on cold winter nights and that was enough for them.
Now, these brave folk made their home on the edge of the forest, which was just as dark and dangerous a place as it is now, being home to all sorts of terrifying creatures as many forests are—creatures like the Bucabogie that stalks the underbrush and lays in wait listening for the sound of little feet alone on the path that might make a good slave. And then, o’ course, there is Owd Goggie who, as everyone knows, likes to steal naughty children and then pinches them black and blue and pricks them with needles until they die. Wisps, too, are known to haunt the woods. Aye, they appear friendly at first, but they’ve led many a traveler to their deaths. The most frightening of all the forest fiends, however, to this day remains Black Aghy, for she loves the taste of young and tender flesh.
Sometimes at night when the wind howled through the trees and rattled the latches on the shutters, Firman would eagerly spin fanciful stories to entertain his family, reveling in the telling. Often the stories were lighthearted and humorous but sometimes they took a darker, more threatening turn. Joreth, Jochen, and Jofrey would squeal in gleeful horror when their fa regaled them with tales of lost youngsters forced to spend their lives enslaved to a nightmare or of the peculiar leather girdles that were favored by Black Aghy. When Firman had finished his tale, the boys would be bundled off to bed where they would giggle nervously and remind each other that it was just a story. After all, monsters didn’t really dwell in the cool darkness of the forest just beyond their shuttered window…did they?
While Firman may have taken such stories with a grain of salt, their ma felt quite differently. Cwen believed in the tales her husband told for she had lost a sister to the forest’s darkness. Fear of losing one of her precious sons to these terrible beings worried her something terrible and she often warned them to stay close and not to go playing in the woods. Yet despite her warnings, each day once chores were done they’d play their favorite game, Knights and Ogres, until the sun sank below the horizon. The rules of the game, invented by the eldest brother, required them to venture a short distance past the forest’s edge to test their knightliness. They would take turns sneaking beyond the tree line when they thought Cwen wasn’t looking. She would catch them, of course, ending the game and they would grumpily trudge back to the cottage.
One day as evening fell and Firman had not yet returned home from the hunt, the three boys were busy at play and being particularly rambunctious, as children can be. They darted in and out of the tree line, much to Cwen’s chagrin.
“Stay out of those woods or Black Aghy will get you!” she scolded them.
But no matter how many times she yelled, nor how horrible a punishment she threatened, they would begin the game anew once Cwen went back to her housework. Joreth, of course, led his two younger siblings in this revolt. After all, Black Aghy was just a story their father told them on windy nights.
This went on for some time until it happened one day that a young boy appeared in the forest, watching them closely with dark twinkling eyes as they went about their chores. He called himself Wyne, which means simply “friend” in the old tongue. So remote and removed from the activity of the town they were that Joreth, Jochen, and Joffrey rarely saw another child unless they went visiting or accompanied their ma into town, so they were delighted to have a new friend with which to play and for the next few days, everything went on as it always had.
On the sixth day, however, everything changed. As he had been wont to do since he first appeared, Wyne teased the young lads for doing as their mother bade them.
“I never do chores!” he said. “That’s for lesser folk than the likes of me. I thought you were knights but every morning I find you wading through pig’s mud, milking cows, and taking orders from your ma!”
“We are knights!” Joreth protested.
“Prove it, then,” said Wyne with a sly, toothy smile.
And with that, they were off. The three boys ran into the woods, following their strange friend, intoxicated by this new idea of freedom and ignoring nagging thoughts of what trouble might await them when they finally went home, chores undone. For a long time, they played, not realizing just how deep they had gone into the forest nor how late it had become. It was starting to get dark now that the dying sunlight was too weak to penetrate the canopy. Yet still deeper they followed Wyne as he weaved and bobbed through the trees, seemingly dead set on proving that the three “knights” were not clever enough to catch him.
Deeper and deeper into the forest they went as they followed the retreating sound of Wyne’s laughter while the sun set ever lower. Darker and darker the forest became until the three boys finally realized that they had lost their way. The comforting candlelight shining from the window of their parents’ cottage could not be seen and they could no longer hear their mother calling to them. To make matters worse, there was no trail for them to follow either as Wyne had led them far from any path a traveler might take. Not knowing what else to do, Joreth, Jofrey, and Jochen began to walk, hoping against hope that they might stumble across a trail or, better yet, a traveler that might be able to help them find their way.
After what seemed like hours, Jofrey saw a light up ahead. “It’s a house, I think! Perhaps they’ll give us a place to sleep tonight. Tomorrow, we can find the trail home,” he said excitedly.
“What if it’s a wisp?” whispered Jochen, afraid to speak too loudly lest his voice catch the attention of something unpleasant. The darkness here felt heavier than it had before.
“Nonsense!” hissed Joreth. He, too, felt a bit uneasy but hunger and exhaustion made it easy to push those feelings aside. “It’s nothing more than firelight from a hearth…and I’m starving! Maybe they’ll have something to eat.”
The sense of uncanniness increased as they made their way towards the soft glowing light. As they got closer, they were able to make out the outline of a small cabin of hewn logs. Out of the darkness, the faint sound of a boy’s laugh broke the silence.
“Wyne!” called Joreth but no response came from the blackness of the forest.
Drawing nearer to the house, they passed frames like those their father often built to tan the hides of the animals he caught. Most were empty but one was stretched with the skin of some strange, pale creature. The low porch creaked as the brothers stepped on to its planks. Candles burned in all of the windows, their shutters open and hanging at odd angles. Gathering up all of his courage, Joreth knocked on the ancient door but no living soul stirred within. When a second attempt roused no response, he pushed on the door, which swung soundlessly open. He tentatively stepped inside as his brothers huddled at his back.
“Hello? Is anyone home?” Joreth called out, but no one replied—just silence.
Taking in the strange surroundings, the brothers began to look around the cabin for signs of its owner or at least something to eat. They found nothing. Though candles were lit, it appeared as though no one had lived in the one room shack for a long time and there was little in the way of furnishings. A rusted set of leatherworker’s tools lay on a roughhewn table beside a rickety old chair. Spider webs and thick dust blanketed everything and the smell of rotten wood clung to stale air. The loft above was dark and the hearth was cold, its embers having shed their final warmth centuries ago. As they looked over the empty room, a new more terrifying feeling settled over the three but though they were frightened, they knew there was no hope of finding their way home in the dark, and so they decided to stay the night despite their fears.
“Whoever lit the candles will come back,” Joreth reassured his younger siblings. “When they do, we will just tell them what has happened. Surely, they will let us stay until morning. In the meantime, we should rest.”
“What do you think happened to Wyne?” Jochen asked quietly as he and Jofrey looked to Joreth for an answer. Joreth could only shrug and look at the floor—he couldn’t bring himself to tell them of the suspicions that had begun to grow in his heart or of his sorrow at having brought about what might likely be the death of them all. Why had he not listened to his mother? As the eldest, it had been his responsibility to protect them.
Resolutely, he led his brothers up the creaky old stairs into the shadowy loft where they found an ancient straw mattress and ragged woolen blanket. The same thick dust covered these too, creating a choking cloud as the brothers lifted the blanket from its resting place and huddled beneath it. Hungry and frightened, they tried to calm each other’s fears. They would feel better when the sun rose, they told themselves. All of their worries would seem silly in the warm light of dawn, they reasoned and, after a while, slumber soon overtook them.
BANG! The sound of a slamming door startled all three boys awake. Too terrified to move, they listened as heavy footsteps shambled slowly across the floor below. Every so often, the newcomer would stop and sniff the air. Then, speaking in a low, dry rasp, a voice said, “Who is in my house?” Silence followed briefly.
Gradually, the footsteps shuffled towards the steps to the loft. The sound of sniffing was followed by the first step groaning loudly under the weight of the creature. “I am Black Aghy. I can smell you, children, and I am so very hungry.”
The second step creaked…then the third…then the fourth. The boys cowered under the blanket, trembling and afraid to breathe. The final step creaked and within moments, a great shadow loomed above them. They could smell the fetid breath of the creature. The boys watched in terror as the shadow of a clawed hand reached for the blanket.
CRASH! The cabin door below swung open violently.
“Joreth! Jochen! Jofrey! Are you here?” It was their father!
Quick as lightning, Joreth threw the moldy coverlet towards the vile creature. He used all of his might to launch his younger brothers off the mattress and towards the stairs before quickly scrambling down after them, not caring if the monster was standing there ready to snatch them up and gobble them down.
Running straight to their fa, they buried their faces in his cloak, sobbing. As they clung to him, they began to explain everything that had happened but his gaze remained locked on the loft, his ears trained on the low moan that came from the inky shadows there. Horror stricken, they too turned to look up at the loft. The low moan soon became a piercing scream of anger. The windows shook in their panes as Black Aghy vented her fury at this unexpected interruption. And then, it was quiet.
Firman pulled himself free of his young sons. Drawing his skinning knife, he made his way to the foot of the steps. Shaking off the slivers of ice that had slipped into his veins, he climbed to the loft. On reaching the top, he found nothing—just silence.
The first rays of dawn began to seep through the trees. The light in the cabin began to die as one by one the candles in the windows began to flicker out. Terrified, Firman swiftly descended the steps to his children. With a strange edge to his voice, he scolded them half-heartedly for their disobedience as he shoved them out the door. Had they not been warned, after all? Crying, the boys swore that they would never disobey like that again and Joreth made a silent vow to himself that he would always protect his siblings.
Aye, listen well, little ones, and mind your ma and fa…lest you be lost to the likes of Black Aghy.