The Alder King
Don't go out to the woods alone. It's the first thing children are told in that village, as soon as they're able to climb out of the cradle and totter a few steps. Don't go out to the woods alone. You'll never come back.
Their parents have good reason. There are wolves in the woods, and bears, and blizzards whip up a moment and anyone caught out in them freezes to death in minutes. Oh yes, and there's the Alder-King.
He lives in those woods. And he steals cows and goats and children if he can. And no one ever sees them again.
Mary knew all that. She was very young, only eight. She was a tough little thing, strong as a pony, her father said, before he died and left her in the hut at the edge of the wood with her mother and baby brother. She worked every day in the field behind the hut, scraping potatoes out of the black soil, drove the thin goats up the hill on her own, she could fight with her fist or her big hunting knife hard as any boy. As some of the men with children of their own. But she was no fool. She did not go out to the woods.
That winter was cold. The snow piled in great drifts before the door. Mary had to break the ice in the well every morning with a stick, and came back with her hands raw and her lips blue. The wolves howled in the hills, then came down in the evenings to the village and howled there. Once a great bear lumbered right up to the door of the hut and sniffed around out-side.
They lost many goats that winter, to the cold and the wolves. But when Mary went out to the little field behind the hut in the evening, to take the goats into the cabin, with its sturdy log walls, for the night, and saw the pile of corpses, she knew it was the Alder King.
The goats were half covered by snow, their stomachs torn open and their throats ripped out. One or two had been partially eaten, but most just lay glassy-eyed and stiff, with the snow piling over them, in pools of their freezing blood.
No wolf did that. This was the work of the Alder King. The bloody trial led deep into the woods to his lair, glistening between the trees.
"Mother," said Mary. "The Alder King has killed half of our goats."
"We'll eat nettle soup then," said her mother, looking up from the stove.
They ate nettle soup that night, and the next night, and the next. And again and again, the Alder King came.
He snatched at least one animal from each family that winter, but Mary's hut was nearest the woods and they lost most.
He was hungry this winter, the villagers said, he was getting bolder.
Slowly, as the winter dragged on, as these bitter forest winters always did, the villagers began to starve.
In early January, when the dirt in the yard was frozen like a rock, the ice in the porch was sharp enough to cut her hands, they lost their last goats. The nanny goat lay dead in the yard, the little kid, who had been tethered to the nanny's neck with a rope, was nowhere in sight. The rope was broken and the little bloody hoof-marks led off into the woods.
The sky was ice grey, the trees in the woods were silent, waiting, teasing. Nothing moved. Nothing lived but Mary.
There was no food in the house. Their neighbours would feed them for as long as they had food to give them, but how long would that be?
When Mary went in and told her mother that they had nothing to eat, she didn't say anything, but later Mary saw her holding the baby and crying silently.
What could she do? She was young, but she understood as well as her mother what starvation was, that the village would not survive the Alder King much longer.
So she did the only thing she could do. Waited until night, then took her knife, lit a branch from the dying fire on the hearth and went out into the woods to kill the Alder King.
The snow was thinner, here. The trees caught most of it and in hung on their branches, dropping cold on Mary's shoulders out of the dark if she brushed against them. She went deeper into the woods, to where the trees were thickest, pushing away the branches which scratched her hands, until she realised that she had no idea which way she had come or how to get out and could barely see her hands in front of her face, and only then did she realise that she had no idea where the Alder King lived. Then she felt something cold move behind her and she knew that he would find her.
She could see nothing at first, only feel the cold growing around her as if it were a living thing. Something was there, moving. She couldn't see it, but she could feel it. Almost living, but… not.
Deeply, deeply wrong.
She gripped her knife tighter.
She felt the Alder King circle her, like a wolf circling a wounded lamb. She turned, but he was no longer there, she turned again and spun, helpless, the trees around her indistinct and menacing. He was hunting her.
But she was hunting him. She gripped the knife tighter and walked deeper into the trees, to where a patch of deeper blackness hovered. It moved away, slid behind a tree, left her alone in the woods in the dark.
So she walked on, and felt the Alder Kings eyes boring into her, like a knife of ice on her neck. Who was following whom, into the dark?
She stumbled into a clearing, where the snow shone white on the ground, crisp, clean and even, except for the trail of red-black blood which trailed across the clearing, leaving deep gauges in the snow, where the Alder King's victims had dragged themselves in agony to their deaths. Mary raised her eyes to the Alder King's grotto of bones.
She shut them instinctively, in horror, but not before she had seen more than she wanted to, or would ever be able to unsee. Grinning horse heads on either side of the gap in the rocks, like macabre gate-posts. Sheep-skulls, cow-skulls, strange little rodents from deep in the forest stared at her with sightless eyes, but worse were the human skulls, and human bones scattering the ground.
When she opened her eyes, the Alder King was staring right at her. He looked nothing like a king, or even a man. He was utterly bestial, loathsome, repellent, like a thing barely alive. But she never got a good look at him, she couldn't stop looking at his eyes, or where his eyes should be, but there were only two black, gaping pits, which could somehow see, see right into her, down into her soul, and she looked back into them and saw the cold, dead, ancient evil deep in the gaunt, immobile face. She stood there for a moment, or perhaps an hour. The cold washed over her like a wave, the blood rose swirling before her eyes and she felt herself fainting.
She seized control of herself and raised her knife, slowly. Her arm barely moved, it felt slow, heavy. The knife suddenly looked horribly feeble.
The Alder King lunged, teeth gnashing. Mary jumped back, sick not just with fear but something worse than fear, the absolute certainty that she was doomed, that even as her heart pounded so hard she thought it would burst through her throat, even as she lashed out wildly, instinctively fighting for her life, she was going to die. Her skull would join these others on the walls of the Alder King's lair.
He hissed. It was a horrible, completely inhuman sound. She felt his hand brush against her cheek, stone-cold, bone-dry. She shuddered, her arm dropped weakly and she felt the knife slip from her fingers and land on the earth floor.
It was those eyes. She could have fought him, could have won, if it weren't for those dreadful eyes.
He reached for her throat, with long, grasping fingers, and she tripped on a stone—or perhaps on a bone—and fell, right on top of a human skull, which grinned up at her with sickening cheerfulness. She choked, nearly retched, for a horrible moment she felt as if she were falling right down into the eye sockets of the skull, as if they were swallowing her up, she tried to move but could not, then collapsed almost gratefully into a faint, sprawling on the rock-hard frosty earth.
Somewhere, she heard an owl calling, the only living thing in the wood apart from her. She heard the Alder King pacing towards her, felt his eyes on her, but when she tried to move, her limbs fell back at her side. She could only lie here, frozen and shivering like a rabbit before a hawk, and wait for death. She tasted blood in the corner of her mouth and realised vaguely that she had cut her face. She also realised that she was praying.
When the Alder King seized her arm, dragging her up-right and slamming her against a tree, the prayer died on her lips and she almost fainted again, but as the darkness closed over her, she saw two pairs of huge dark eyes staring at her out of the dark.
The torch had gone out, the only light now came from the moon. But Mary could see a thin, fragile form in the dark, like the figure of a little girl.
The Alder King's daughter. Of course, everyone knew that he had a daughter, a little elf maiden who danced through the woods laughing, with the blood of slaughtered men round her mouth.
She looked, really, almost human. There was no evil in her eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of her baby brother, but in terrible, terrible pain. No wonder, she was tied to the tree with chains of bone.
Help me. It was her last hope.
It was her last hope. Not just for her life, but for her family, for the village.
Her fingers found the handle of the great hunting knife.
The Alder King's fingers tore at her, sharp as a wolf's claws, her limbs were numb and slow, she knew as he dragged the strength out her that she could never fight him.
But she didn't have to. She raised the knife and threw. As she collapsed into the Alder King's arms, she saw his daughter catch the knife and hold it as if she had never seen the like.
Her eyes dropped shut, as if from a very long way, she felt her throat being ripped with long, wicked claws. Then she felt herself dropped. She banged her head on the hard ground, rolled over and over on the rocks. When she gathered her strength, it could have been minutes or hours later, the first thing she noticed was that she was bleeding. Hot blood was pouring out of her neck and chest and freezing on her shawl. More trickled into her eyes, salty and stinging.
On the ground, the Alder King was dying. His terrible eyes were bleeding, his body was shaking, crumbling, fading.
His daughter was standing over him, clutching the hunting knife, staring at it in wonder. Then, very slowly, she began to smile.
"Thank…" Mary tried to say, but her lips were numb and trembling. "Thank…"
But the Alder King's daughter wasn't listening. She dropped the knife on the grass, shook out her beautiful feathered wings and soared up into the moon-light.
Mary stumbled back to the village with the dawn. She was bleeding, feverish, still holding her bloody knife, with wolf fur clinging to her shawl. She never talked about what she had seen that night, her eyes only glazed over and she shook her head and shrugged.