The Witch of Eisenwald Forest
The past holds secrets darker than Hansel & Gretel could ever imagine
Gothic Fairy Tale Horror Short Story
Featured in Dreams of Darkness Anthology
**This book is no longer in print, and Cassandra is working on expanding this short story into a novel**
Please enjoy this sneak peek at the NEW Chapter One below!
Three times knock upon thy chest,
When moon is waned and ravens nest.
Three times cross the sign of God,
When townsmen show their face a fraud.
Three times spit upon the graves,
For deserters that thy God won’t save.
Three times is the time for luck,
When children play and run amuck.
Three times is the sum of sin,
When neighbors turn upon their kin.
Three times you shall be betrayed,
And fall before the deathly shade.
Seven perfectly golden-brown loaves sat before Elsebeth, ready for sale in the morning. She wiped the sweat from her brow, pulling the wooden plank of loaves from the oven, and glanced out the window. The sky still hung with streaks of amaranth and amber before the sun had set. She still had time to cook a few pies if she hurried.
Her fingers were nimble, like her mother and grandmother before her. She easily alternated between the dashing and sprinkling of herbs and spices, and the kneading then braiding of the dough. She placed the crusts in the oven and turned her mind to the filling.
The livestock of Eisenwald had borne no calves or lambs since the forest turned dark, and that was long before Elsebeth came. Instead, the farmers and shepherds did their best to prolong the lives of their flocks, but even they had long since been sent to slaughter. There was little meat at all to be had since the forest turned.
But Elsebeth knew which mushrooms were safe, and which were not. The little home she shared with her husband, Nikolaus, stood on the edge of the dark forest, and she rose early in the morning before he or any of the townsfolk woke, to collect the cronks that grew just inside the tree line. These cronks, diced large and thick, would give the illusion of meat to whoever purchased her pie.
As she worked, she hummed softly to herself. It was unlike any of the songs she’d learned growing up in the highlands and semiarid plains of her homeland. No, the tune had come to her when she first stepped foot in Eisenwald, and it never left her.
Forest dark and forest deep
Forest doth thy secrets keep.
Secrets wreathed in starry nights
Nevermore to see the lights.
Eisenwald in darkened glade
Whisper of the child plague
From the earth you only take
Until the forest doth awake
A knock on the door broke Elsebeth from the trance of her song. Her brow furrowed behind her curtain of dark hair. No one came to visit Elsebeth, the wild outsider who had come to Eisenwald with her strange herbs and remedies, and even stranger appearance. No one save for those who sought a cure for their ailments beyond the prayers they whispered at their bedside. And those were few and far between, too fearful of the wrath, the fire and brimstone that had been promised them in the wee hours of Sunday morning mass. She wiped her hands on her apron and crossed the sitting room of the little house to the front door.
On the doorstep stood a rosy-cheeked and red-haired young woman, her belly just beginning to show beneath her skirts, a belly that had progressed further in its pregnancy than any had in Eisenwald for years. She smiled nervously at Elsebeth, casting a worried glance over her shoulder at the town that was beginning to settle in for the night.
“Anna,” Elsebeth said and held the door open for her. “What are you doing here?” She led the young woman to the rocking chair beside the hearth, holding her trembling hands between her own. They were cold and clammy. Her cheeks were flush, but the skin beneath the red was ghost white. A line of sweat beaded around her forehead, and Elsebeth saw the tell-tale sign in her jaw that Anna’s tongue was clamped to the roof of her mouth. “Morning sickness,” she said before Anna could answer.
Anna hung her head. “It’s constant now. I have no reprieve. I cannot eat. I barely sleep. I – I fear the forest is coming for me, that God will set his curse upon my child.”
“Morning sickness is perfectly normal, even if it lasts longer than just the morning.”
Elsebeth gently squeezed her friend’s hands, kissing the cold fingers before releasing them. “It is no curse of the forest.”
Anna smiled against the nausea and watched as Elsebeth made straight for the little wooden cupboard that hung on the wall beside her oven. Inside an array of little glass bottles, filled with herbs and spices, remedies and some said poisons, were set. She pulled one from the shelf and shook the contents into a tiny paper envelope.
“Here,” said Elsebeth. “This is called ardraka root. It comes all the way from the East country, and they’ve been having morning sickness there for longer than we have. Put a little of this in your tea every morning. If it helps, I’ll get more when next I go to Drokenstein.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
Anna’s desperation was palpable, but Elsebeth just smiled, her teeth pearly white against her honey-colored skin. “Then I will scour the whole of Drokenstein, Fürstenweil, and beyond until I find what will.” She took the mother-to-be, the only person in all of Eisenwald who still showed her any compassion, any love, into her arms, and held her tight until Anna broke the embrace.
“How much?” Anna whispered.
Elsebeth sighed. Ardraka was not easy to come by so far west. “A word of advice,” she said.
“What?” Anna asked.
“I will need someone to turn to when I am with child. You’ll help me, won’t you?”
Anna smiled and laid a hand on her tiny belly. For a moment, she seemed to break away from the hold the sickness held over her, her thoughts seeming lost to the dreams of motherhood.
“Did you hear what happened to John?” Anna asked, sitting back in the rocking chair and setting a piece of the ardraka on her tongue.
“John Tanner? Gerta’s John?”
“We were all at his funeral. Is there more to tell?”
The paleness behind Anna’s blush seemed to lessen, and her eyes brightened.
“The reason they would not show his face at the service was because there was no face to be seen.”
Elsebeth leaned against the counter, her jaw slack with disbelief. “No face? How can that be?”
“My Klaus, he was there with Pastor Heinrich. He said the forest grew through the window, though the glass was still whole. It twisted itself around his head, and –” Anna clapped her hands together with a loud pop.
Elsebeth gasped, and instinctively touched two fingers to her forehead, the custom to ward away evil among her people, before remembering herself and continuing the cross of God as Nikolaus and Pastor Heinrich had taught her. She looked up at Anna, and the two women began to giggle. Not because the curse of the forest upon Eisenwald or the death of the dwindling townsfolk was any jesting matter, but because there was little joy left beneath the shadow of the black and twisted trees. Laughter in this moment was preferred to crying or cowering.
The laughter died away as quickly as it had come, both women feeling shameful for taking ill of the dead.
“I recall stories Gerta once told me when I was a little girl,” Anna said. “She said the forest was once beautiful. Peaceful. Kind.”
Elsebeth nodded. “I have seen beautiful forests in my travels, slept beneath the lush green boughs as birds flitted among the branches pecking at the fruit there.”
“I was just a babe when the forest turned. The last of the littles before the womb-barren curse took hold. I wish I could recall the forest as Gerta said it was.” Anna looked mournfully out the window. It was nearly dark, but the silhouette of the trees was still visible in the dim light. “I wish I could have known it.”
“You may again one day, Anna.”
Anna turned away from the window, her eyes lingering on Elsebeth’s stomach, not yet with child, then placed a protective hand on her own belly. The future of Eisenwald’s existence hung heavy in the air between them, heavy on their shoulders, and on their wombs.
The front door opened wide, and both women jumped to their feet. They stood still, staring at the silhouette wreathed in darkness and dusk who stepped into the light of the oven fire. The flames reflected in his eyes, showing the fire that burned within, and Elsebeth felt Anna shrink away.
“What’s going on here?” Nikolaus’s voice filled the entire room.
Elsebeth felt herself begin to tremble as her husband stepped forward and tossed his ax into the empty wood trough beside the fire. She followed his gaze across the kitchen to the open cabinet door and the little glass bottle still sitting on the counter.
“I – Nikolaus –” Elsebeth dared a glance away from his twisted face and saw the corner of Anna’s cloak disappear through the front door into the night.
Nikolaus slammed the door shut, covering the distance between them in two strides. Elsebeth jumped at each booming footstep. Her breath hitched as he grabbed her wrist, yanking her close to him.
“It’s not what you think,” she whispered, trying to pull her hand from his grasp. Nikolaus’s hand tightened, threatening to twist and snap her wrist like the once-greenwood twigs of the Eisenwald forest. His fingernails, covered in the deathly black sap of the wood, dug into her skin. Blood seeped from the cut, dripping down Nikolaus’s fingers. Elsebeth wanted to cry out, but terror held her tongue and rooted her to the spot.
“Oh, you know what I think? You don’t even know what you think.” He released her, and she fought the instinct to run. “I warned you about your little spells. Your potions and now blood magic, I see.” He wiped Elsebeth’s blood on his black-streaked shirt as if he did not know he had been the one that cut her, as though it were the curse of the forest itself.
Elsebeth wrapped her wrist in her apron, the pounding of her heart pulsing around the wound as she ducked behind the counter to put the bottle of ardraka root back in the cabinet.
Nikolaus rounded on her, his blond hair falling across his face, casting shadows in the firelight that made him even more frightening. The trees must have fought back more fiercely today, their curse tightening around his heart, twisting him more and more each day into only the husk of the soul who had once fallen in love with Elsebeth. He pointed to the wooden cabinet behind his wife. The little glass bottles reflected in the dancing light of the still burning oven, their contents coming alive with the movement of the flames. Wormwood. Lavender. Sage. Cinnamon.
The people of Eisenwald had never heard of such things as healroot or monkshood before Elsebeth came to them. But as the Eisenwald forest loomed over the town, its blackened branches reaching like tendrils toward the homes each night and chopped back each day by people like Nikolaus, they found themselves desperate and desiring.
“They aren’t spells, Nikolaus,” Elsebeth whispered.
“No?” Nikolaus seethed. “Then explain what happened to that burn on your arm last week? Or how Thomas’s cough suddenly disappeared? People are talking, Elsebeth.”
He sat in the rocking chair and untied the laces on his boots. Though he no longer loomed over her, Elsebeth felt more vulnerable than ever. His eyes still shown with anger in the firelight, and his own hands trembled with a fury Elsebeth knew all too well. “We took you in, accepted you out of kindness and mercy. We thought you, an outsider, would be the one to break this curse the forest placed upon us. I’m warning you, Elsebeth, we will not have a witch in Eisenwald. The wedding broom that hangs above that door has barely begun to collect dust. You give them every reason to cast you out. I am the only one protecting you, but I will not condone or protect such devil work.”
Elsebeth’s jaw trembled. She wanted to scream. She wanted to run. “It’s not magic. It is medicine.”
“Medicine.” The word hung on Nikolas’s lips with a sneer. “We’ve had this row before. Must I knock sense into you again?”
Elsebeth’s cheek gave a phantom throb, remembering the bruise that had come from trying to explain her ways to her husband before. Magic was simply the work of nature that was yet to be understood. Even Elsebeth’s people knew this. But Nikolaus wouldn’t listen. He’d never listen. Not anymore.
“No,” Elsebeth answered, placating Nikolaus with the demur demeanor the church told her made the perfect wife. “But I wish you would love me again. The way you once did.”
For a moment, the shadow seemed to lift from Nikolaus’s face. He beheld Elsebeth with the same adoring eyes she remembered when she first stepped foot in Drokenstein. The same eyes that followed her movements as she danced in the firelight for her coin and a hot meal. The last thing on his mind that night was the forest.
Elsebeth looked up at Nikolaus through her lashes, her lips slightly parted. Before she could speak, to draw her Nikolaus back to her, the shadow descended again. The darkness of the forest that twisted the hearts of those brave enough to hack back the trees each day had wrapped around his heart again, pushing out his love for her.
He stepped toward her again, eyes shimmering not with affection, but rage. Trapped behind the counter, Elsebeth lowered her gaze.
“Put out that fire. Save the wood for another day. And have yourself ready in bed by the time I’ve cleaned up. Your cycle has passed. It’s time to try again.” He looked her up and down, a sneer pulling at his lips. “What good are you to any of us if you can’t even bear the child you promised?”
Elsebeth stood still until she heard the door to the washroom slam shut. She gave a rattled exhale, holding back tears and a sob. She looked down at the mushroom pie still sitting on the counter, and saw her blood had continued to drip, the crimson a stark contrast against the white cronks and raw dough. She picked out the soiled pieces of pie, and quickly put out the fire, placing the remainder of the pie at the far end of the oven, hopefully out of Nikolaus’s sight. The heat from the logs would smolder all night, slowly cooking the pie. She lifted the blood-stained pieces of mushroom to her lips. She hesitated. Magic was the work of nature, simply a practice of knowledge, and Elsebeth’s mother had taught her the strength of word. She set the piece on her tongue and whispered,
“Forest dark and forest deep, forest doth thy secret keep. Bring to me a child dear, help me end this life of fear. With this bite of blood and flesh, heed these words on fated breath.”
She finished chewing the bloody cronk, the metallic taste of harkening back to the taste of fresh meat. It had been so long since she’d tasted meat. She licked her fingers and crept toward the bedroom, waiting for what the darkness would bring to her bed that night.