Dreams of Darkness, page 1
OF DARK FAIRY TALES
D.L. Pitchford - Cassidy Taylor - Sonya Lano
Kat Stiles - Cassandra Mogan - Eleanor Wyatt
Michaela L. Cane - Chandra Laraine
Alegra Sterling - T.L. Thompson
Copyright © 2019 Dragon Storm Press
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Edited by: LTT Editorial Services and Cassidy Taylor
The Witch of Eisenwald Forest by Cassandra Morgan
About the Author
Girls Like Me by D.L. Pitchford
About the Author
Of Blood and Tears By Sonya Lano
About the Author
Mara by Kat Stiles
About the Author
The Thirst by Chandra Laraine
About the Author
Dreams and Shadows by Eleanor Wyatt
About the Author
Emerald Bound by Michaela Cane
About the Author
Daughter of the Forsaken by Alegra Sterling
About the Author
Rebirth by T. L. Thompson
About the Author
The Host by Cassidy Taylor
About the Author
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The Witch of Eisenwald Forest
by Cassandra Morgan
Elsebeth wiped the sweat from her brow and pulled the wooden plank of loaves from the oven. Seven perfectly golden-brown loaves sat before her, ready for sale in the morning. She glanced out the window. The sky had not yet begun to turn the pale orange that announced its intentions to set. She still had time to cook a few pies if she hurried.
Her fingers worked nimbly, easily transitioning between the dashing and sprinkling of herbs and spices and the kneading of the dough. She placed the crusts in the oven, turning her attention back to the filling. She diced the cronks she had collected that morning before Nikolaus had risen from his sleep. There was little meat to be had. The livestock had borne no calves or lambs since the forest turned dark, and had long since been sent to slaughter. But Elsebeth knew which mushrooms were safe, and which were not. These cronks, diced large and thick, would give the illusion of meat to whoever purchased the pie.
As she worked, she hummed softly to herself, a tune that had come to her when she first came to Eisenwald.
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.
There was a gentle knock on the door. Elsebeth stopped humming, her brow furrowed behind a stringy curtain of dark hair. No one came to visit Elsebeth, the wild outsider who had come to Eisenwald with her herbs and remedies. No one save for those who sought a cure for their ailments beyond the prayers they whispered at their bedsides. 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 whose belly was 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 and cast a worried glance over her shoulder at the town that was beginning to settle in for the night.
“Anna.” Elsebeth held the door open for her. “What are you doing here, dear?” She led the young woman to the rocking chair beside the hearth and held the woman’s hands in her own. They were cold and clammy. Her cheeks were flushed, but the skin beneath the red was ghostly 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 looked at the floor between her feet. “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.”
Elsebeth set a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Morning sickness is perfectly normal. It is no curse of the forest.” She released Anna’s hands and walked behind her counter where a wooden cabinet hung on the wall. Inside stood an array of little glass bottles filled with herbs and spices. She pulled one from the shelf and shook the contents into a tiny bag. She handed it to Anna, who had risen from the chair now.
“Here,” said Elsebeth. “This is called ginger 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 you some more when next I go to Drokenstein.”
Anna looked at the bag in her hand, her tongue still clamped tight to the roof of her mouth. “How much?” she whispered.
Elsebeth sighed. Ginger was not easy to come by. “A word of advice,” she said.
“What?” Anna asked. Her eyes flashed toward the little window beside the door. It was almost dark now.
“I’m going to need advice when I’m with child of my own. You’ll help me, won’t you?”
Anna smiled and laid a hand on her tiny belly.
The front door opened wide, and both women jumped. 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 began to tremble. 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 and terrifying face and saw the corner of Anna’s cloak disappear through the front door into the night.
Nikolaus slammed the door shut and covered the distance between them in two strides. Elsebeth trembled 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 and dripped onto Nikolaus’s arm.
“Oh, you know what I think? You don’t even know what you think.” Nikolaus released Elsebeth, 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 though it were the curse of the forest itself.
“They aren’t spells, Nikolaus,” Elsebeth whispered. She wrapped her wrist in her apron, the pounding of her heart pulsing at the ba
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.
“No?” Nikolaus seethed. “Then explain what happened to that burn on your arm? 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. Just one. 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 science.”
“Science.” The word hung on Nikolas’s lips with a sneer. “We’ve had this row before. Don’t make me 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 science that was yet to be understood. But Nikolaus wouldn’t listen. He’d never listen.
He stepped toward her again. 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. 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 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 science, simply a practice of knowledge, and Elsebeth knew 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 and crept toward the bedroom, waiting for what the dark would bring that night.
Elsebeth lay awake that night, the silence around her deafening. No crickets or frogs sang in the darkness since the forest turned. No bats chittering, no owls calling. Not even a crackling fire from the other room. There was nothing to hide her sobs. Not since the forest turned against Eisenwald all those years ago.
And so, she swallowed her cries, and swallowed the blood that seeped around her gums from Nikolaus’s dominance. He slept quietly beside her, his breath coming deep and slow, making his muscular chest rise and fall in time. He had once been tender with her. The fire in his eyes had once burned with passion, not anger. But each day the forest seemed to turn his heart as black as the boughs and sap. Each day that he ventured toward the forest, ax in hand, she knew a small piece of the man he once was would be hacked away with the encroaching trees.
She carefully slid from beneath the covers, avoiding the creaking floorboard by the door, and crept slowly into the kitchen. Each step seemed to take a lifetime. With each step, she risked Nikolas waking. Finally, she stepped behind her counter and opened the cabinet with the little glass bottles. The white of the moon filtered through the tattered curtain, lighting the room with just enough glow to see by. Though Elsebeth didn’t need it. She knew the bottles and vials by feel alone.
She pulled one from the shelf, the rosemary tincture, and worked out the stopper very slowly to avoid the little popping sound. Then she let the contents fall into her hand and rubbed the liquid into the bruises she felt rising on her throat. She felt her skin begin to tingle, and the pain subsided. She exhaled a long slow breath.
Once she bore a child, Nikolaus would love her again. That’s what she told herself. It’s what she had to tell herself. Because what else would she say? Where else would she go?
A shadow passed across the moonlight. Elsebeth froze, her eyes widening, trying to see through the darkness beyond the strip of light. The blackened leaves of the Eisenwald forest that had fallen around the little house rustled. Elsebeth felt her feet move, though her heart willed her to stay. She pulled aside the tattered curtain, and peered through the window, dingy and caked with smears of black sap from the forest. She couldn’t see anything. She heard the rustling again, this time closer to the door.
It was foolish. Foolish beyond imagining, but still. She pulled the bolt from the door and opened it. The stillness of the night was as unnatural as the silence. Not a leaf shifted. No breeze brushed across her skin. Yet the hairs on her body stood on end. She stood framed in the doorway, staring out into the darkness. There was nothing. But there had been. She knew it. She had heard it. And she could still feel it. Something in the air held her fast, her eyes scanning the forest line slow and deliberate.
The blackness of the trees stood out against the backdrop of stars and moon. It had not always been this way, or so the whispers in the town had said. One day, the Eisenwald forest turned a sickly gray-black against the bright blue sky of summer. The leaves, still fleshy between the fingers, were as black as death. The hum and song of life beneath the once trusted boughs became silent and barren, for Barren is what they called it. The Womb-Barren Curse.
Elsebeth blinked, and her thoughts returned to the softness and warmth of the bed that waited for her. Finally, when she was sure there was nothing, sure she had imagined it all, she lifted her foot to step back inside. Then, she saw it. A figure, darker than the darkness, standing at the edge of the Eisenwald forest. It hunched like a crooked old woman against a black staff of wood, its eyes reflecting white in the moonlight. Elsebeth held her breath as she felt the eyes find her. She didn’t move, watching as the figure swayed back and forth.
Who are you, Elsebeth thought. The silence of the night pounded in her ears in time with the beating of her heart. A sudden breeze ravished her skin beneath the thin nightdress. Elsebeth could have sworn she heard words carried on the gale.
I am the hunger that growls in the belly of the wood. Hunger. Hunger for flesh and forgiveness. I am the darkness that infests the forest. Dark. Dark that comes from greed. I am that which reflects the night. Which. Witch.
“The witch of Eisenwald forest,” Elsebeth breathed.
The figure blinked out of sight, and a scream broke through the silence.
Elsebeth heard Nikolaus’s feet hit the creaking floor plank, but she could not move. The force that had once carried her against her will to the door now held her fast. She could not tear her eyes from the spot where the witch had disappeared. She felt a strong hand yank her out of the door frame, and she fell to the floor. Air filled her lungs again, and her breath came in short gasps.
“Nikolaus,” she breathed, though
“What have you done?”
She followed his gaze to the vial still clutched in her hand.
“No, it’s not – I heard…” she looked out the open door. The figure was most certainly gone.
Nikolaus’s strong hands lifted her from the floor, carrying her back to the bedroom, he tossed her on the bed and slammed the door shut, shrouding them in darkness once more. He hovered over her, his breath hot against her face. “Did you take Anna’s child?” he demanded.
“What?” Elsebeth’s hands found his chest inches from her. She pressed her hands into his muscles, trying to push him away to no avail.