As originally published on Medium and in The Magikal Rite (October 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. Father was a woodsman and a hunter, tall and strong like an oak tree. Mother, a clever and pretty lass, sold eggs from their hens and butter from their cows at the market in the small town of Umgol’fen. They were poor, to be sure, but happy, and together they earned just enough to provide them with what they needed. There were always plenty of candles to sew by and wood enough to keep them warm on cold nights, and that was enough for them.
The forest around them was a dark and dangerous place just as it is now, home to all sorts of terrifying creatures as many forests are. Creatures like the Bucabogie, who stalks the underbrush, lay in wait listening for the sound of little feet alone on the path that might make a good slave. And then there is Owd Goggie who, as everyone knows, likes to steal naughty children, pinching them black and blue and pricking them with needles until they die. The most frightening of all the forest fiends, however, is 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, father 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 each 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 father 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.
While father may have taken such stories with a grain of salt, their ma felt quite differently. She 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, 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 and they would take turns sneaking beyond the tree line when they thought mother 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 father 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 mother’s chagrin. “Stay out of those woods or Black Aghy will get you!” she scolded them…but they would not listen, no matter how many times she yelled. 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. Once mother went back to her housework, the game began anew and every time she would look for them, there they’d be, chasing each other back and forth through the trees. Several times, she told them to stop and each time they’d just go back to the game when she wasn’t looking.
After a while, she began to get angry. “I’ve told you several times to stay out of those woods! One more time and I’ll tan your hides good!” she yelled. With the well-being of their backsides thus threatened, the boys reluctantly went inside for the night.
The next day, the same thing happened all over again. The brothers played their game, sneaking into the woods while their parents were busy with work. When evening came and the sun began its preparations for bed, mother was once again calling for her sons to come inside for the night but once again they refused to listen.
After one final threat to come inside, Joreth turned to his brothers. “I’m tired of being told what to do. We can play for as long as we like,” he said.
At that, the three boys ran off into the woods, intoxicated by this new idea of freedom and ignoring nagging thoughts of what trouble might await them when they finally went home. For a long time they played, not realizing just how dark it was getting in the forest now that the dying sunlight was too weak to penetrate the canopy. They could still hear their mother calling them, her voice now frantic, but they ignored her desperate pleas.
Deeper and deeper into the forest they went as the sun set ever low lower. Darker and darker the forest became until finally the three boys realized that they had lost their way. The comforting candlelight shining from the window of their parents’ cottage could no longer 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 they had unknowingly wandered too far. 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. Frames stretched with the hides of strange animals stood not far from a low porch that 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. 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. 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.”
Climbing the creaky old stairs into the shadowy loft, the boys found nothing but an ancient straw mattress and a 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 as it leaned over them. 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 off the moldy coverlet. Using his siblings as a springboard, he pushed himself up, causing Jochen and Jofrey to fall backwards. He had hoped that his flailing brothers would distract Black Aghy long enough for him to escape but the two youngest brothers quickly righted themselves and ran. In terror, they scrambled down the stairs, 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 soft, wet sounds of sucking and smacking that came from the inky shadows there. The boys looked up from their father’s cloak and suddenly realized that their eldest brother Joreth did not stand with them. Horror stricken, they too turned to look up at the loft.
The hunter pulled himself free of his young sons. Drawing his skinning knife, he made his way to the foot of the steps where the sounds were slightly louder. Shaking off the slivers of ice that had slipped into his veins, he climbed to the loft but on reaching the top he found nothing — just silence. Gone was his eldest son and gone the monster that had taken him. As the pain of loss gripped his heart, the light in the cabin began to die as one by one the candles in the windows began to flicker out.
Pale and sick, he swiftly descended the steps to his remaining 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, partly from fear and partly for the loss of their brother, the boys swore that they would never disobey like that again. As the first rays of dawn crept through the trees, they made their way home to mourn.
Aye, be mindful, little ones, let you be lost like young Joreth and others before him.