An enchanting voice vibrates through the dark the woods surrounding me and I freeze; as still the animals that now fall silent at the same moment. The singing continues and my mind races on what I have for available options. The villager’s strange words now hit me differently. Hair black as ebony, lips red as blood, skin white as snow. My skin ripples with goosebumps, my dark hair whips around my face as a slice of wind cuts down the path. I try to calm my breath, before taking a single step in the crunching snow, my mind solely focused on getting off of the path and into the covering of dense tree trunks for some attempt of protection. I hold my breath when the singing cuts off at the sound of that step. My heartbeat races and I have to remind myself to not overreact. It was all just the words of a few old men, right? I shake my head trying to dislodge the fear that had started to seep into every fiber of my body. Rolling my shoulders to release some of the tension from carrying the bottles of mead, the whole reason I found myself alone in the woods, I continue down the snow-packed path, humming aloud. Trying to focus on the vibrations of the act to soothe my nerves; it helps temporarily, but my intuition flickers in the back of my mind, making my steps quicken of their own accord. The woods continue the oppressive silence, aside from the wind shuffling the frozen tree limbs; the animals are all hidden and soundless in their scattered, hidden holes in the woods. I feel myself being watched and I whirl around to face whoever it is. The soft white powder flies free, kicked by my feet from my panicked shuffle.
“Hello?” My breath hits the icy winter air with a puff of fog, my eyes dart around the empty path my surroundings. There is no one there. You are just being paranoid. I take another deep breath to try and settle my nerves, wrapping my cloak closer around me, and turning back around to continue my route to my Uncle’s cabin.
I had moved here only a week before, my father had sold our own home. A year ago, my mother had taken ill, before quickly passing away. My father had been at war during that time and for many years, and when he, at last, returned home, he had never been the same. Slowly our family fell into debt, then poverty and finally despair; evermore changing our lives. Only ten days before, my father had sold our meager cabin and informed me that I would be relocating from my home country of France to the countryside of Germany to assist my uncle, with any of his needs. My uncle had always possessed a firm fist, and a proclivity for mead. My two older brothers would be accompanying my father to Italy, where the Medici’s had been reestablished in their seat of power in Florence and were starting to rebuild. As a family of carpenters, it was a potential gold mine of opportunity. However, this meant my brothers would not be there to protect me from Uncle’s fits of rage. My father had given me no reassurance before dropping me off at the small, dark cabin deep in the Black Forest. The same forest I now found myself walking through, with the sun dropping below the tree line, dusk draining the light from the world. I had been excited that morning when Uncle had mentioned a need for a trip into the closest village for supplies; mainly spirits. He had not thought twice about allowing me to go the many miles by myself. Uncle was not very social and preferred the solitude of the quiet woods where he had ended up building the cabin. That is how I ended up alone at the small dirt-floored tavern, once again refilling the bottles that Uncle had sent with me. At first, I had kept my head down, a feeble attempt to conceal the now fading bruise on my cheek, my back turned against a trio of men gathered in the corner of the derelict building. Only when I heard mention of the forest, combined with the taint of fear, was I drawn into the whispered worries that were the topic of their tense conversation. I move a step closer to hear more clearly.
“-another body. Just like the last one, drained of all life.” The tall, silver-haired man in the center continues.
“How far away this time?” Says the man, a priest, from his garb. The third man, a mercenary or soldier from his dressing responds with a thick Scottish brogue.
“Near twenty miles to the north.” He downs the remainder of his frothy pint, wiping the spillage from his beard with his filthy sleeve.
“That is even closer than the others before.” The tall man mutters under his breath, fear plain on his face. The Scotsman signals the barmaid for another pint, “How long are people going to let these deaths continue before we fight??” His volume rises and the priest looks around worried at disturbing the other tavern visitors. That is when they spot me. Each of their eyes widen perceptibly, this was clearly a topic they didn’t want spreading around in the town gossip. Fear is contagious and more deadly than any other disease. I realize that my covert listening was over and I step closer to the men, questions filling my mind and my mouth, threatening to overflow and spill out. I bite my tongue, it was not my place to ask questions. But the Scotsman calls out to me and I slowly turn to face them once more.
“You are not from here, are ya lass?” I shake my head and the three men exchange a nervous look.
“Ya best get going back home before dark. Do you have a long way to go?”
I don’t answer him, instead, after a long pause, I return with my own question.
“Is there a monster out there?” This time it is the priest that responds.
“Whether it be an animal or a demon, it is the work of the devil and you best get home before dark.” The silver-haired man who had been quiet up until now, choosing to just absorb what the other two men say. Under his breath, he forces out through his clenched, few teeth.
“We all know the rumors, and we all know it is no damn animal!” He spits, filled with contempt, onto the floor. The other two eye him, angry, at his impropriety of using such language in front of a woman. I glance around and don’t see anyone else in the sparsely populated bar looking in our direction, and I feel emboldened by the simple fact of them talking to me at all.
“What do you think it is then?” I inquire, this time my question directed at the silver-haired man. The priest stares without an answer at the chipped and filthy table. Only the Scotsman looks disturbed and opens his mouth to interrupt. Not soon enough. The silver-haired man replies with a crooked grin, revealing gaped, yellowed teeth.
“A demon woman. A Succubus, if you believe in that.” He hocks another wad of spit onto the floor. But I step in closer anyway, drawn in against my better judgment.
“Listen here, you’re not to be spreading more gossip and lies.” The Scotsman glares at the other man in anger, but the warning tone is disregarded by the two of us.
“What does that mean?” I ask, my voice dropping to an awed whisper. This time it is the priest that answers me.
“It is a dark daughter of Lilith. They steal their victim’s life and youth to survive. It is said to be like the draugr, that has hunted the Nordic people, in the same tellings that they are said to be beautiful, but ruthless and evil. Any woman and children are at risk as well, but its favorite prey, are men.” It is then the silver-haired man chimes back in, now almost gleeful that someone was willing to talk about such a terrible and fearful topic.
“There is one now hunting in our very own Black Forest, beginning about a year ago. So far 10 men and 1 child has been found, only a dry husk of what they was.” He pauses then to lean in and I take another step in to catch his words when his voice drops even further.
“There was one survivor, watched his old man be lured away. All he would say when he stumbled, half-frozen, into the nearest village was, the she-devil had hair black as ebony, her lips was red as his father’s blood, and her skin so white it looks like the first snow of winter..” he chortles, laughter mixed with his racking cough. A slam echos through the bar and I jump, startled at the sudden noise.
“Here you are!” The barmaid slides the jugs full of fresh ale onto the countertop and I pay what is owed then grab a jug in each hand.
Before I go, I turn to see all three men watching me, anxiety on each of their faces. The Scotsman says one last thing in parting.
“Hurry home, girl. And don’t stop for anyone.” I nod, but the moment I step out the tavern into the sunshine, immediately lightening my mood.
“You ninny, getting drawn into conversations with men that are obviously quite mad.” I say out loud, laughing at myself. I shift the jugs in my hands to relieve some of the weight already pressing hard and cold into my palms before starting down the path filled with only my earlier footprints.
It was only a mile into my walk home, I heard the haunting voice coming from the dark shadows of the deep woods. Each second of the walk back to the cabin grows longer, only my footstep’s pace grows faster with each step. The voice has, at last, stopped its singing, but that only sets me more on edge. I inhale deeply trying to reset my heartbeat’s rhythm, but it doesn’t help. In the silence that now fills the forest, I hear haggard breathing and despite every urge to run, I instead freeze where I stand. I slowly spin to face the noise, only to not find the footpath that should be behind me. No. Instead, I find a clearing that, in the center, rests a glass casket. An empty glass coffin. I gasp, my fear now palpable enough that it makes my hands tremble and I drop my load with a shatter of glass when it connects with some exposed stones. But I can’t bring myself to care when I find an old crone draped in black, gliding into the clearing with me.
“Are you hungry child?” The crone asks me with her croaking voice. From the folds of ragged fabric covering her body, she pulls a basket filled with things too vibrantly colored for the current whitewashed surroundings. At last, I find my voice, not nearly as confident as I would like it to be, yet stronger than I would have imagined for my situation. I can hear the voice of my mother instructing me on the etiquette a lady that one must always follow. High up on that list was a definitive: always obey and show kindness to elders. Yet even with that voice reminding me what I should be doing, I can not bring myself even a single step closer to this woman. And I know the exact reason why. The men’s voices in the tavern still ring through my head. That coupled with my strange surroundings, is enough to make me forget my manners and I have no urge other than to get as far away from this woman as I can. However, I still find myself responding with a polite, yet firm tone.
“Thank you, grandmother. But no. I am quite alright. Have safe travels.” I begin to step backward, not wanting to let this figure out of my sight, and definitely not wanting to turn my back on her. I hear the crunch of glass, and feel my balance shift and slip backward, tumbling me to the ground. I hiss in pain at the feel of a sharp slice torn open on my palm from a large piece of wayward glass. I glance back to the crone and my heart stops when I see the clearing once again transformed back into the solitude of the path. My breathing quickens and I push to my feet, grabbing my skirts and breaking into a run. Only to be stopped at the sight of the fruit basket, the very same one that had been held out to me only a minute earlier, now instead of resting in the middle of the path. The same direction I must take to return to my Uncle’s cabin. My heart continues its rapid pattering in my chest when the eerie singing shatters the silence, and I choke out a sob. Where can I run? It appears that what the men said was true. This is an unnatural creature from hell. How do I defeat what many other men could not? I am distracted briefly by a dripping sound and only then recall the wound on my hand. The voice halts again and I can hear a deep inhaling from my left, not far into the growing shadows intermixed with the darkening trunks of the surrounding trees.
“Are you hurt, my dear? Come here, let me help you.” The words that come from behind the tangle of trees is now one of a young woman, but familiar enough that I still know that it is the crone who is calling out to me. I don’t give myself a second guess, I take off at a run, as fast as I can go, despite being held up by inches of snow coupled with my heavy ice leaden skirts. I pass the basket, giving it a wide berth; yet to stay on the small footpath, I still come too close for comfort. Lone on the woven basket bottom rests a single apple, rotten and withered, yet somehow still vibrant and red. A deception, just like whatever it was that is hunting me through the woods. I know I am being chased from the glimpses of black I catch, and I know it is playing with me when it picks back up its melodic singing. An evil serenade that grows louder the lower the sun drops behind the trees. At last, I come into view of the cabin and I cry out in a panic for my Uncle. That distraction is my undoing. With my concentration broken from its previously sole purpose of surviving, I trip on one of the multiple layers of my skirt and tumble into the heavy snow just as the sun disappears below the skyline. The crone steps out from the trees behind me and I can only continue to gasp from my exertion and terror. I do not call out for my Uncle again. I know at this point there is nothing to be done. The figure in black kneels before me and cradles my hand in her own. I feel the chill of dead, wrinkled flesh and I am unable to withhold a gag. Before my very eyes, my blood begins to float upwards, like a trail of smoke from a dying campfire, until it vanishes into the darkness of the tattered hood. I begin to feel faint and the grey world around me swirls with disorientation, but I force my eyes to stay open. At last, the woman releases my hand and though still pale, it is now blemish-free, porcelain hands that grip the hood of the cloak. She pulls it back and I stare into the face of a beautiful young woman who is smiling at me, now more fitting for the voice that I had been hearing sing to me.
“Thank you, child. That was delicious. Might I have some more?” Her voice is so enchanting and lulling that I feel myself nod in obedience before I understand her request. I don’t get a chance to change my answer, not that it would do any good anyhow; she grips my face with one hand a lifts me up. Her strength is immense and even though I try and fight against her, I can not win and find myself raised into the air above her head, looking downwards onto her fair face. From a distance, I realize the visage I am looking at is at that same moment changing; growing more and more youthful and alluring. I kick helplessly, trying to connect with any part of the creature holding me up. When that doesn’t work, I attempt to bargain, my voice raspy and choked from the pressure of her grip.
“Please, you have enough. Please let me go.” But the woman only cackles and tightens her grip. I catch sight of my own hands now, shriveling and aging before my very eyes, now more similar to the crone. Finally, the hand releases me and I drop to the snow, unable to see through my foggy eyes.
“What did you do to me??” I scream at the woman who kneels once again beside me.
“You were never my victim. You were chosen. Now you must feed. On the thirteenth death, you will be free from hunger, free from pain. You will be faster, smarter, stronger. It is your turn now, to restart the cycle. Every thirteenth person will be added to our sisterhood. Until then, this is how you will appear.” She drapes the black cloak over me now and holds up a polished silver mirror so I can gaze at the hag whose form I had now taken. Through my glossy eyes, I can see my reflection, an exact replica that I had been so terrified of in the woods. With the wave of her hand the glass casket and basket, once again filled with fruit, appears once again.
“It is your turn, now. Hunt at night, return to the sanctuary by day, and after the thirteenth and your transition; you will never have to be afraid again.” The woman caresses my face where it previously held the fading bruise, before returning to the impenetrable black of the forest.
“Why me?” I croak out, wincing at the gravelly sound my voice now made. Without turning back the woman calls over her shoulder.
“You were chosen all the way back in France. I simply had to find you once again.” I gape, silent at this new revelation.
“Chosen by who?” I am able to ask at last, desperate since the woman is now only a step away from disappearance. She gives me one last piece of information, one that sets my life on a whole new path.
“Did you truly believe your mother died?”
I then hear the cabin door slam open, and the slurred voice of my Uncle calling out to me for his refill of mead. It doesn’t take me long to decide.
After this, only twelve left. I think with a smile, pulling the cloak over my wiry gray hair and pick up the basket filled to its brim with thirteen fresh scarlet skinned apples.
“Hello, sir. Would you care for a treat?”