“It was a dark and stormy night…”
“Oh come on Reynauld, we asked for a story not a cliche!”
The gamekeeper sighed, the beginning to his story wasn’t the only thing that was tired. He had only wanted to sit down with a pint after a long day, but the townsfolk had pressured him into telling yet another story about his time patrolling the forests or about his stint as an adventurer before he had settled down into his current role in their village, as they always did when he came into the tavern. He considered learning how to brew his own beer but the thought was interrupted by another call to tell a story — a good one this time.
“Sometimes stories really do begin on dark and stormy nights you know, especially around here,” Reynauld quipped back, casting a glance out the tavern’s grimy window at the clouded sky beyond. They weren’t bad folk, his neighbors, their lives were just boring, and so they looked to him for their entertainment. He hadn’t minded it at first, he actually thought it was rather flattering that they’d taken such an interest in him, but as the years went by their ceaseless questions and calls for tales of his adventures began to take their toll on his otherwise good humor.
“Alright fine, you want a story? A real one? A terrifying one? Fine, it’s a story you’ll get!” he said after a weighty pause. He was received with a hearty cheer, the assembled crowd eager to regaled with one of his many adventures. Reynauld chuckled inwardly, they might not cheer so much when he was done with his tale.
* * *
Lysette was happy. The sun was shining, the air was cool, and her mother said that her father was finally coming come. All she needed now was a pony, and all the little girl’s dreams would come true. She giggled at the thought, even at six years old she knew they were far too poor to afford a pony. They could barely even maintain the draught horse they kept to pull the plow or hitch to a wagon to go to market, and their farm was the one that produced most of what it ate! She pushed that thought aside. Now was the time for playing, not for thinking, and she frolicked out into the meadow past her family’s fields.
She frolicked for hours, even without friends her imagination provided all she needed. One moment she was a princess, every flower a servant at her beck and call, the next she was a knight and the flowers turned to brigands or beasts to be slain, a confused squirrel filling the role of a damsel in distress. She was so deep in her reverie that she didn’t hear her mother call her to supper, nor had she noticed that the sun was now low in the sky and darkness began to set in. She was jolted back to reality by a hand on her shoulder.
“Lysette! I said it’s time for dinner!” her mother scolded, “And it’s getting late, it’s not safe for a little girl to be outside at night.” Her tone softened. She didn’t mean to sound so harsh, but she was right. There were things living in the woods on the other side of the meadow, evil things, and even though her daughter had never gone close to them she was worried that that might not dissuade them when the cover of darkness fell.
The two hurried inside, Lysette having suddenly remembered her fear of the dark and all that lived in it. Once inside they both relaxed, aided by the delicious scent of the stew boiling over the fire.
“When does father return?” Lysette asked. He had been gone for so long she had lost count of the days. She was sure it had been at least a month, maybe more.
“Soon dear,” her mother replied, “he’ll be back soon.” In truth she didn’t know either. Her husband had been gone a year now, off to fight in some war for the Duke, or perhaps the King. She didn’t know, and she didn’t care, all she wanted was for him to come back alive.
At that very moment, there was a tap on their back window. Light enough not to cause damage to the thin glass, but heavy enough to be heard.
“Lysette,” her mother whispered, “get under the bed.”
“No buts, just do it.”
She did what she was told, and crawled under the bed as she watched her mother take the iron from the fire and slowly creep towards the window. They were both so busy watching the window that they both failed to notice the door slowly open, and a figure quietly slip inside. Too busy that is, until the figure accidentally stepped on a loose board with a creak that sent both girls screaming and a hot poker whipping towards his head.
“Wait! Wait!” Lysette’s father yelled while struggling to hold back laughter, “it’s me! Spare my life oh mighty warrior!”
“Father!” Lysette cried, bolting out from under the bed to hug him. Her mother was less enthusiastic.
“I almost died from fright you bastard! I have half a mind to brain you with this anyway!” she yelled, hefting the hot iron still in her hand, “What kind of trick is that to play on your poor family anyway? Didn’t the army teach you some manners?”
“Just the opposite actually, but they did teach me a few other things”, he added with a wink. Lysette had no idea what they were talking about, but she was just glad her father was home. She was less glad about how he smelled.
“Eugh, you need a bath,” she giggled. His outfit was filthy, and everything from his mail to his boots was caked in mud, dirt, and other substances she couldn’t identify but were probably the source of the reek overtaking their house.
“Aye, you do,” agreed Lysette’s mother, with yet another wink. Lysette didn’t understand why they were winking so much all of a sudden, although she knew enough about adults not to pry. Some things she just didn’t want to know.
“Go to bed now dear,” her mother said after a moment, “your father is tired and I’m sure you want to be well rested to play with him tomorrow”. Lysette went, reluctantly, to bed. She was too excited to sleep, she wanted to hear all about the adventures he had while he was gone, but she knew her mother was right. Her father did look tired, and besides he still needed a bath.
* * *
“Oh come on Reynauld, we wanted an interesting story not what most of us do every day,” the man interrupted again. Bergen was his name, a farmer like almost everybody else there. Though he was only about thirty winters old his hair was already showing signs of greying and his eyes were bagged and heavy, also like everybody else. Even Reynauld himself wasn’t as old as he looked, years of poor sleep taking its toll just as hard on him as it did on his neighbors and he grunted his displeasure at being interrupted again.
Bergen was right though, he had gotten too wrapped up in his story and was losing sight of the point of his tale.
“Alright Bergen, you have me there. Perhaps I could skip ahead a bit, get to the important parts,” Reynauld said thoughtfully to many murmurs of agreement, “I think it was perhaps a week or so later that things started to change…”
* * *
Lysette and her father had only been on the road a few hours when the boredom began to set in. Lysette began fidgeting uncontrollably, searching desperately for something on their cart to keep her entertained. Her father, sensing his daughter’s imminent transformation from girl to imp, concocted a game.
“How about you describe something you see, and I try to guess what it is,” he said with a smile. It took Lysette a few moments to figure out what he was talking about, but soon caught on that he had proposed a game and took the hook with relish. Travelling was so dull after all and she would do anything to alleviate the pain of having to sit still for hours before they got to market.
“I see something white and green that sways a lot.”
“Easy, a flower.”
“Hmm… Green and brown, and barely moves.”
“Wrong! It’s the crate of vegetables back here!”
“Ha! I knew I raised a clever girl. What next?”
“Umm… Let’s see… Oh! Black, brown, and silver and moves very fast?”
Her father hesitated, he had no idea what mundane object that could describe and the niggling suspicion in the back of his mind made him risk the wrath of his daughter by looking to see where she was looking.
“Bandits,” he muttered. He knew the recent war had left many desperate people, and that many of them turned to robbery to survive, but he never thought they would dare be so bold as to attack a wagon in broad daylight on the road to town. He spared them no second thought and urged his horse on faster, veering from the main road and on to a side trail. Lysette was confused by the sudden change of pace and went to speak, but a sharp look from her father had her taking cover under some blankets. He only ever looked so serious when she broke something, or when they were in danger, and she was sure she hadn’t broken anything.
The chase continued for almost a half hour until they reached the treeline and Lysette and her father hid their wagon under some hastily cut branches and hurried into the cover of the woods, hoping that their pursuers weren’t clever enough to notice and weren’t stupid enough to chase them into the forest that they themselves hesitated to go into.
“Now Lysette dear I need you to listen carefully,” her father said, more sternly that she had ever heard him speak, “No matter what happens, do not leave the trail. You will be safe so long as you stay on the path and do not take so much as one step from it into the forest beyond, even if it means surrendering to the bandits should they venture after us. A fate by their hands is far preferable to the one we would meet off the path”. With that he hurried off towards the forest’s edge, trusting that Lysette was trustworthy enough to heed his words.
Lysette knew better than to say anything, she knew her father knew much more about the world than she did and that to question him was to waste time. Instead she waited, crouching behind what appeared to be some kind of waystone made out of a pile of rocks. She waited, and waited, and just as she began to think that they were safe and the bandits had lost interest she heard the clatter of hooves and people shouting. Faint at first, the voices began to grow louder and louder and she realized that they were headed into the forest, likely having spotted her father and given chase.
She sat upright, considering putting the skills she had honed in her battles with the flower monsters to good use and rescuing her father, but ducked back immediately when one of the men looked in her direction. He began wandering towards her hiding place, no doubt to investigate the flash of movement he had seen there a moment before, but it wasn’t long after he had split from the group that the forest began to change. The shift was subtle, and neither of the two noticed it at first, but the shadows seemed to grow longer than they had been before and the very air seemed to warp in unnatural ways. The bandit continued on, oblivious to the now ominous atmosphere, until a faint and unsettling laughter began to drift from the treetops. He began to look around warily, but as the laughter became louder and shapes began to flit around at the corners of his vision he went into a full panic.
Calling for help from his comrades, he broke into a run back towards what he thought was the edge of the forest but instead tripped on an exposed root and fell into the dirt. As if on cue twenty or so small figures began to emerge, spindly, misshappen creatures no bigger than a man’s hand but with eyes filled with malice, wicked claws, and needle-like teeth. They moved slowly at first, regarding the prone man hungrily, but soon began to scuttle forward with earnest and swarmed the bandit. His calls became more frantic, alternating between desperate pleas for help and anguished screams as they began to burrow their heads into his flesh, eating him alive.
Lysette could take no more, terrified by the creatures before her, and began to scream. The noise drew their attention however and they began to surge towards her as well, their expressions shifting from demented hunger to a twisted mockery of excitement or curiosity as if they had found something particularly interesting while rifling through the attic. As her panic grew the distance between them and her shrank, but when they were within only a few feet of her they stopped suddenly as if they had hit a wall and their excitement faded to something akin to frustration. The horde of creatures began pacing back and forth, and while some made occasional lunges towards the girl they always stopped the same distance from the path as if some force held them back.
At that moment however, Lysette heard the sounds of metal clashing on metal from on the other side of the grove, and with her wits shaken by the sight of the nightmares stalking her she forgot about her father’s advice and rushed towards it in the hopes that she would find him and he would take her from this terrible place. She bolted from the path, to the clear jubilation of the horrors who tackled her the moment her feet left the safety of the waystone path and touched the forest loam. She screamed again, louder this time, though out of terror rather than pain. The creatures treated her much more gently than the had treated the tattered husk in front of her that had once been a man, but she was so afraid of them that she neither noticed nor cared about anything besides the fact that the things she now feared most in the world were covering her like flies on an overripe fruit.
“Lysette!” her father yelled back, turning his back completely on the highwaymen he had been previously fighting. They too had turned their gaze towards the nearby grove, and knew what the screaming that had come from there no doubt meant. Bandits they may be, they were not totally heartless and the two remaining outlaws rushed after her father to try to help the man avert his daughter’s, and perhaps their friend’s, no doubt gruesome fate. As the three men burst into the clearing, the creatures swarming Lysette retreated with a hiss and scuttled back up the trees or into small burrows in the soil.
“Did they hurt you, are you ok?” her father asked frantically as he scooped her up. She was too terrified to do anything but scream and burrow deeper into his arms, so he did a quick check of her arms and face and to his surprise he found that while she had a few scratches from the creatures’ claws she was otherwise unharmed. He made for the edge of the forest, flanked by the two highwaymen who remained alert to danger, but they only managed to make a few steps before the haunting laughter began to drift from the forest again and small winged creatures began to flit about the men’s heads, swiping at them and giggling unnervingly.
The onslaught was too much for one of the bandits, and in his attempts to bat the creatures away he dropped his sword and stumbled off away from the group. He hadn’t made it ten feet away when the spindly creatures from before reemerged from their hiding places and dragged him to the ground before carrying him off deeper into the forest, their low cackling mixing with the giggling of their flying cohorts and the shrieks of their victim. The remaining bandit gave his fading compatriot a pained glance, but couldn’t bring himself to give chase and subject himself to the same hideous end his friend would meet and so continued on, swatting at anything that got to close to him or his new victims-turned-allies.
The group made it almost to the treeline when one of the flitting nightmares got a lucky strike on the last robber, wedging a sharpened stick into his ear. The man screamed and swung his sword, crushing the monster against a tree trunk but sending himself careening into Lysette’s father and knocking her from his arms. As the three tumbled to the floor, a new, larger swarm of gangling terrors closed in to envelop them. The two men frantically fought the tide back but in the chaos Lysette was separated from her father’s side and, still petrified by the sight of the forest’s denizens, was grabbed by several of the creatures and began to be dragged away.
Unfortunately for them however her father noticed their plan and sprinted towards them, impaling several on his sword and crushing many more underfoot. The terrors redoubled their efforts, unwilling to be denied their prize a second time, and scores of them flooded into the space and up the man’s legs and body.
* * *
“Well? What happened then?” a woman in the back of the room asked excitedly, “You can’t leave the story like that!” The whole crowd was on the edge of their seats, eager to hear the conclusion to Reynauld’s tale, and several other people chimed in with similar sentiments. Reynauld turned his head towards them directly for the first time that night, exposing his empty eye socket to the crowd.
“The damned things ripped my eye out and hauled her out into the forest. I only made it out alive because one of the Duke’s patrols happened by on the road and heard the commotion. The beasts were willing to take on our small group, but not a whole company,” He said after a moment’s hesitation, his voiced tinged with both anger and sadness. The entire room gasped in unison, stunned by the revelation. They knew he had lost his family somehow, but he had never elaborated on how and even the most brazen among them knew better than to pry.
“They say the forest dwellers take a child as their leader, and once the old one dies they kidnap a new child to replace them with. I don’t know if I believe that but I do know she’s still out in that forest somewhere, just as terrified of them now as she was then,” he continued after he was sure the crowd had regained enough composure to hear what he was saying.
“T-that was just a story right,” a young man in the front row asked nervously, ” a tall tale like the kinds my uncle tells to make things more interesting? L-like how he tells people his bad leg is from a wolf attack rather than having been born like that?” He gestured towards Reynauld’s missing eye, to illustrate his point of what he was hoping the tale had been about.
Reynauld said nothing, but shared a glance with a haunted looking man sitting in one of the corners of the room, his head mostly covered by a hood but with one tattered ear still partially visible, a small nub of wood protruding from it. No sooner had the room fallen silent, waiting for an answer, than the shrieking from the woods started up again.