Estimated reading time — 5 minutes
“Over the river and through the woods,
To Grandmother’s house we go.”
A great plague had fallen upon the land, and with it came famine. Many families had perished throughout this terrible season, and those who survived were subject to melancholy or madness. Not even my homestead escaped the plight of others, as the sickness had left me a childless widow. The reaper had seen to take the life of my husband; a woodsmen and a fair hunter. I thought myself damned to a cruel loneliness, that was, until the messenger brought to me a letter from my mother’s mother, who had in these grim times fallen ill in her cottage on the far side of the Black Forrest. In her note, she requested that I bring to her both medicine and provisions, as she was far too weak to tend to the farm. Although not outright, the words conveyed a sense of urgency, and being of able bodied kin it would be my duty to see to this task. With no other to call family, I studiously gathered necessities for my travels; food and medicines for my elder mother, as well as utilities to serve my own purpose, such as a torch for light and my late husband’s wood axe, under the prescience of what dangers may await me in the dark forest. Lastly, I donned my hooded cloak of red, which many of my village would often mention with envy. It would bring courage for the journey to come.
The first moments of my departure were measured in joyless footsteps. Although it was still daylight, the sky had gown dark with soft rain, making it far too wet to properly lite my torch. Never the less, I proceeded with haste towards the mouth of the vast Black Forrest. Few ever set foot into these woods, and even the bravest of men prefer to travel along safer paths. It has been said that the Black Forest is home to both thieves and fearsome beasts alike, and rumors of unmarked graves circle amongst the village tavern. The more superstitious of the townsfolk would often speak in hushed whispers of a witch’s curse placed upon the forest generations ago by a woman hung for devil-worship. I was never one to fall prey to such myths, but even still I bowed my head in silent prayer before entering the dreaded thicket.
It is worth note to mention that naming the Black Forest such was well placed. The tangled branches overhead obscured most of what little light remained, casting the ground in a pale glow. Bleak surroundings aside, I was able to make my way unhindered for the most part. The few brief moments I strayed from the path were of little consequence, and I was able adjust myself due East.
That was until nightfall.
Dusk came suddenly and without warning, but fortune had dried the air for my torch. I resolved to travel without sleep, taking only brief rest when fatigue took hold. ‘Tis a foolish folly to let down ones guard, even when thought alone. I made a small fire with my second torch, to keep my cold flesh warm whilst I enjoyed a modest meal of shortbread and jam. Under such woeful circumstance I managed to feel at ease for the first time since before my journey. I even began to scoff at the dangers that gripped so many others in fear, as I, a mere girl of nineteen, had traveled more than half of the Black Forrest in a single night. Other forces, however, saw fit to cut down my pride.
Not long into my rest I began to hear the baying of wolves in the distance, and sounds of some poor creature being torn into ribbons. Starvation had not been limited to man, and wolves were known to become extraordinarily vicious when deprived of sustenance. Knowing well enough not to stay in one place, I quickly gathered my belongings and moved on, putting as much distance between myself and those horrible noises. As the trees became dense, I lost track of the path at some point, but continued regardless. A thick fog was forming over the ground, and my brisk walk was matched by unsure footing. Many times did I stumble over some unseen root or stone, and my knees showed bruises as proof. As sore as they were, I could not halt my stride, lest I wished a brutal death. A shriek from above startled me, but ‘twas only an owl, and yet another reminder to train my ear. Moving my legs at a more rapid pace did little to mask my scent, as not before long I heard those feral beasts from behind, and the beating of war drums bellowed in my chest. Frantically I tried to outrun the howls, cracking twigs beneath my feet and wafting mist around my cloak. Sometimes the barks and growls fell from far off, other moments they came from just outside of sight. The twisting path of the splintered trees seemed to be what kept the snapping jaws at bay, because it was not until I slipped my footing into the clearing of a forgotten cemetery that they were upon me.
At first they simply circled around me, sniffing at the air and lapping their tongues. There were three in all, each large and fierce, but showing clear signs of malnourishment. My gaze met the largest of the three, its eyes glistening in the moonlight huge and wide, all the better to see me. It barred its teeth in a snarl, the others doing the same. I griped the sharpened axe of my lost husband and hoped that his spirit would see me to safety.
The first wolf lunged itself towards me, but I stepped aside and heard its pained yelp as it fell into a headstone. The second brute snapped for my throat, but I saw to it that it would only taste the heat of my torch. The fur of the beast had been caught aflame, and I lashed out with a kick to steer it away. Just as I turned to run, I felt an agony from my leg where one of the wolves had clenched its jaw, and I fell to ground, extinguishing my torch in the damp soil. As it began to drag me, I tightened both hands around the axe, and with swift vengeance I brought the blade down upon the foolish creature’s neck. At once its teeth released me, just before the last of the three leaped down. I stopped it a hair lengths from my face with the wooden axe handle, but its hunger was persistent. It drooled for the thirst of blood, its hot breath reeking of death, but I would not allow myself to become this monsters prey. With a forceful push I found myself liberated, and with another I buried the axe head into its spine. As it lay dying I heard a ravenous howl shrink to a soft whimper.
Victory was short, as I could hear another starving pack from a ways off. My travels would have to continue. I limped my body through a thornned brush, leaving the violence that was behind. Unfortunate that at this moment, my injured limb gave way to a hillside slope, descending me into an unwanted slumber.
I awoke just before dawn to the sound of crows. Perched in the trees those little devils awaited my untimely fate, but no carrion flesh would fill their bellies this morning. After tending to my wound I was made ready to further myself from the accursed wood. Resuming East, I found the path and exited the Black Forest before first light. In good time after I had reached my dear grandmother’s cottage. How overjoyed she would be when presented with medicine and good tidings! Not wanting to startle her with my already most unladylike appearance, I set down my sweet woodsmen’s axe and wiped the dirt from my brow.
It became apparent in a quick fashion that good tidings would do little for my elder, for when I entered the cottage I heard bangings and stifled grunts from her bedroom. When I opened her door, I felt a terror in my heart as I saw a thrashing beneath her sheets, and presumed a seizure had taken hold. Throwing away the blankets I learned that epilepsy was not the case, but rather, a wolf had broken through her window and was currently in the act of tearing my grandmother limb from limb. A ghastly sight indeed. The wolf took notice of my presence, and turning to face me, its blood drenched snout appeared almost a grin. The last sight I can recall was my own blood running across the floor boards, running as red as the hood it had soaked.
Credit To: Stephan D. Harris
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