by M.D Schultz
In the shadow of the whispering throne, the daughters of the hunt want to play a game.
|Isabella was only twelve years old when she traveled to the sleepy hollow of Fairweather. There wasn’t much special about that town, to be honest. The homes were abandoned, save for the one with the broken window guarded by the crooked-nose woman, spitting in the dirt as she passed.
She and her father must have looked quite a sight with her silver dress and his golden tunic, each embroidered with a weighted scale heavy with coin but outdone by an ivory tower.
“A roof overhead is greater than coin in hand, but neglect that which clinks, fail to plan, and you will have neither hearth nor helping hand.”
That was their family motto, and she was sick of hearing it. Her father would spend his days at the market trading coin like bread. They say he was famous, but what would a child know of such things?
Isabella wished for simpler times. She wished for the straw roof, the dirt floor, and the smell of muddy rainwater. She wished to be in her mother’s arms once more like the gentle warmth of a red sun. She wished for when her father would return from work, hands rough like sandpaper, dropping but a pence upon the kitchen table and kissing them both on the cheek.
It was just enough for them to get by. Just enough to sleep another night without worrying about tomorrow.
What the hell happened?
Not far into town, they came upon an inn with a sign that hung lopsided and the paint peeling away like a snake’s skin.
From the inside, the place was rundown with dirty windows, a rusty call bell, and a nook with an old man playing dice and drooping hound perched on a chair nearby.
“We will take your best room for two.” her father said, tapping the bell, which clunked like rusty iron.
There was a time when the two of them would have called a place like this home. Even their best rooms barely had enough space for two beds. They were lucky to have that one drawer, which Isabelle swiped dust an inch thick from the bottom.
Her father sighed, dropping his bag with a thud and ripping off his bed’s stained top cover before sitting and pressing his fingers to his temple.
Isabella carefully placed a small goblet-shaped vessel atop the drawer. It was lighter than her bag but the heaviest thing she had ever carried nor will ever carry.
“Don’t bother,” Her father said as she opened her bag and smoothed the wrinkles from her favorite skirt. “We will be leaving first thing in the morning, don’t get comfortable.”
She sighed, putting her clothes back and taking her seat just opposite of him, folding her hands in her lap. Isabella never pitched fit, kicked her feet, nor misplaced a tear. She was a good girl, anything to hear her father say the words once more.
He never would.
After a time, while her father napped, Isabelle gazed out of that lonely window in the corner, cradling her cheeks.
This place was strange. It wasn’t just how empty the village was; it was the weather. How would anyone know that tonight was the winter solstice? There wasn’t a drop of snow, she could wear her summer clothes, and the trees still carried their leaves.
Perhaps that was the most unsettling part, the trees. That village sat on the edge of a great forest; Some folk called it the whispering woods.
It gave her the creeps.
No matter how brightly the sun showed, the world beneath that thick canopy was dark and as cold as a proper winter chill. Suddenly, she saw something upon the forest clearing that waved at her. Whatever it was, it moved in a jerking motion that reminded her of a dancing doll before vanishing beneath the trees. Inviting, yet unnerving, her skin crawled.
Perhaps she needed something warmer than her summer clothes after all.
Of course, it had to be at night. That was the eve of the winter solstice. That was the time when Saint Iranol glowed brightly in the night sky. She could see it clearly, second only to the sun and outshining even the moon’s brilliance.
A man once told her that Saint Iranol was larger than the sun itself, for what else could be near its equal at such a great distance? It was a sign of prayer and healing and, for followers like Isabelle’s mother, there was no time of greater significance.
Her father woke her late that night; she had fallen asleep with her head in her arms draped over the top of her bed. She didn’t even get the chance to change before they left, Isabella carrying the little goblet like a mother hen watching over an egg.
If she thought the village was strange during the day, at night, her opinion only soured. The empty homes, once lonely and distant, were now sinister and haunting. The broken windows were like jagged eyes, and the creaking floorboards called out like some foreign animal, a foreign hungry animal.
Isabella pressed close to her father, who pushed her way, mumbling that she should grow up.
Stifling her tears, she looked up to the stars; she looked to Saint Iranol, the northern light. Indeed, it was brilliant, like a bright blue spark in the night sky.
“Should you ever lose yourself, let the brightest star be your guide. Saint Iranol will show you the way.” Her mother would say.
Towards the other end of the village was a babbling brook that ran from the dark wood’s mouth. The tree’s bent like a bow forming an oval passage into the deep dark of the forest proper; this was the place.
“Are you sure?” Isabella asked.
“I’m sure.” Her father replied.
Like tiptoeing through broken glass, she lifted the small lid of the goblet as a humid wind lifted the contents like sand on the beach. It drifted in the air, a heavy gray fog that coated the brook.
With one last look, she spread a layer of ash across the water, making sure it flowed far from those woods.
“Goodbye, mom,” She whispered. “I love you.”
It was her final wish, after all. She wanted to come home and be spread upon the water under the watchful gaze of Saint Iranol.
“I hate you.” Her father murmured before turning away. “Isabella, we’re leaving.”
“Yes, father.” She said but couldn’t leave just yet.
Lifting the corners of her dress, she stepped into the water, which felt like ice against her toes. She leaned over and scooped up a bit of the gray water into the empty goblet.
“Just so a part of you will stay with me.” She said, closing the lid and stepping away.
At that moment, she looked into the mouth of the whispering wood and saw something waving in the wind.
It was like a white bed sheet but much thinner. It caught the light of Saint Iranol and glowed like fluorescent snow.
“Dad, what is that?” She asked, but no one replied.
“Dad?” She asked again, a chill running down her spine.
When Isabella turned around, she screamed.
Her father was gone.
All around her was the twisting, broken bark of the dark wood, the canopy thicker than soup. She was no longer near that babbling brook nor the sleepy village with the empty houses.
She was in the heart of the Greatwood, the heart of winding darkness.
“Dad! Dad!” She cried out, feeling her way through the abyss. She felt something wriggle beneath her feet and yelled out. “Please, please, anyone help me!”
“Are you lost, little one?” Came a voice from above.
Isabella stepped back, tripping over a branch and landing on her back.
“Clumsy little thing, isn’t she?” Came another voice to her right.
“Who’s there?” She called out, rubbing her eyes, which started to adjust in the dim light.
There above her, sitting immodestly on a broken tree, was a woman in a long faded gown who appraised her like a lion sizing up its prey.
“Who’s there?” Came the voice to her right again. “This mouse barges into our home and demands to know who WE are?” Said a younger woman in a white gown wearing strange spectacles with lenses that flipped up and down.
“Calm down, sister. She didn’t know this was our home.” Yet a third woman was perched upon branch nearby, her dress covered in roses and her eyes like piercing thorns.
“Begone with you, girl, come back when the candles are lit, and maybe we will hear your desires.” Said the woman with spectacles.
“But I don’t know how I got here! Please help me find my way back.” Isabella pleaded, finding her feet.
The two younger sisters, of roses and four eyes, looked at each other and then back at the eldest with daggered sneers.
The immodest woman stood and shrugged her shoulders. “Okay, I brought her here.” She said, stepping down from the tree and walking the bark horizontally. “What? I thought a little after-dinner entertainment was in order.”
Isabella started to step away; something was very wrong here. The way that woman moved, stiff like wood, sliding back and forth like a cart on rails. She could almost make out the tiny white lines that stuck to her arms and back, guiding the marionette towards her, its head twisting to an impossible angle.
“You should have seen the poor thing. Spreading her mother’s ashes, holding back the tears as her father abandoned her.” The woman clapped her hands together; they even sounded like wood. “So, I thought, let’s lighten up the mood.”
“Oh please, sister. Not another game.”
“Quit being a stick in the mud.” She shot back. “I liked you better when you had all of your eyes.”
“Huh, bitch.” The woman with glasses stood skittering up a tree and out of sight. “You two enjoy your games. I have more important things to do.”
Isabella took another step back further away from the bickering sisters.
“Now then, what game should we play?” Said the eldest.
“How about hide and seek?”
Again she clapped her hands together. “Excellent idea.”
Close to the forest’s edge, Isabella turned to flee, but the older woman was in front of her. She felt the woman’s arms about her shoulders, which felt sticky and slid across her dress like a slug.
“Are you afraid?” She said her breath like aged wine.
Isabella shook as a warm liquid passed down her legs and stained the forest floor.
“We’re going to play a game, okay?” The woman held her chin. “Hide and seek, little girl. I know you know how to play.”
Isabella nodded almost mechanically.
“If you win, we will let you go.” She tilted her head to the side, inspecting her cheek. “But if you don’t, I will lay your ashes next to your mother.” The woman laughed, being tugged away by an unseen force above the canopy.“
“Hide, little girl; we’re coming for you.”
Isabella had never run so hard in all of her life, kicking up dirt and leaves; the branches cut her cheeks as she passed. Yet, no matter how far, she still heard the voices in the wind.
“We hide and seek; we promise not to peak.”
Her heart pounded in her chest as the wind picked up and branches groaned in agony.
“We will never quit because we’re it.”
She found a hollowed-out trunk, but it was too small, and she slipped on the branches getting a mouth full of dirt.
“One, two, three, it’s time to flee.”
“Four, five, six, across the river Styx.”
“Seven, eight, nine, soon we will dine.”
“Ten, eleven, twelve, in those caves you should delve.”
“Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.”
Isabella cried out, running faster, running harder, but the wind never died.
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty.”
This was all a joke; there was no place to hide all along. Those twisted demons were the forest, and it answered their call.
“Twenty-one, and now we’re done. Ready or not, here we come.”
The forest trembled with the last word as something big collapsed amongst the trees, and she felt the rhythm upon the forest floor.
They moved fast, fast like a raging river or the howling wind.
There was no time to catch her breath, and so she pushed her legs to the limit, but she wasn’t alone.
Soon, the forest came alive with all manner of things that crawled. Centipedes, scorpions, rabbits, and mice; all ran to escape the horror that broke the vine and bent the trees.
Isabella could hear them now, the sounds of many legs crashing against the earth like a boat scored against the rocks. She didn’t even notice the young birds that clung to her shoulders.
She then saw a light peak through the canopy, a blue torch that lit up the night sky like the dawn. It was Saint Iranol.
“Should you ever lose yourself, let the brightest star be your guide. Saint Iranol will show you the way.” Her mother would say.
In a last-ditch effort, Isabelle turned towards the light away from the fleeing critters. They ran deep into the forest while she fled from the crowd, following that torch until her feet went numb.
“How dare you!” The wind screamed. “He is our eldest father! Not yours!”
She never stopped, she never looked back, and eventually, she did break through the forest proper.
Isabella spilled out of the mouth of whispering wood collapsing upon the babbling brook where her father was yelling out for her.
“Where the hell have you been!” He shouted at her, but she never stopped.
No, Isabella ran until she reached the inn in that empty village, which was now more comfort to her than any other place on earth.
Her father would have to pry her from this place, clawing and screaming at the floorboards as a demon-possessed.
They would never return to this place, and upon a hill near a babbling brook lies a goblet-shaped vessel filled with gray water.
Isabella left her mother behind, and she didn’t care.