In the woods called the Kyrzenwold, the pangs of hunger tread through the deep, deep snows. The Longest Night approaches, and the lonely Vogel work diligently to set the farthest candles. The searing shriek of the winter wind, as though mocking the frailty of mortal homes, tears through otherwise silent midnights. The people of Kyrzenwold, no strangers to winter and danger, huddle around their hearths, coddling their children and their lovers– this is like any other winter in the woods, they whisper. It is a time to truly fear the things that creep in the dark.
As people watch for the bloody arrow of the Hunter, so too do they hold warmth in their hearts. They have known freezing winters, and they have known bitter nights. They gather their families and friends around hearths, and place candles in the windows. “Even in the deepest hunger of winter,” they quietly intone, “Light the way for those lost in the silence.” And the candles, flickering in the panes, bound and sway gracefully over the snowfall.
And, on those lonely nights, the people of Kyrzenwold tell their children the old stories. As unruly girls squirm in their laps, parents admonish and delight them with tales of the ancient and ugly nightmares that roam the land, and, on these coldest of nights, prowl the frigid turf.
In a small cottage…
…a woman curls up with her two children. She pulls her oldest, a girl thin from too little food, against her chest, and, smiling, kisses her temple. A little boy, his once rosy cheeks now wan and flat, wraps his arms around his sister. The wind, fierce and freezing, rips at the barred shutters. The little girl, clutching around her mother’s neck, shrieks.
“Quiet now, Esfir. It’s time to sleep,” the woman strokes her daughter’s forehead, but the girl pouts, and shakes her head petulantly. The woman, despite herself, smiles, and, once more kissing her daughter, says, “Don’t you know what happens to little girls who don’t go to sleep?”
The girl’s eyes widen in mock terror– she knows these fairy stories, and, giddy with fear, she stares at her mother.
“Well, when little girls don’t get to sleep,” the woman murmurs in a low voice, “then Gryla gets them!”
The girl inhales sharply and whispers, “Not Gryla.”
“And you know what Gryla does with the bad little children?” the woman grimaces in feigned disgust. The girl says nothing, and cuddles into her younger brother. “When Gryla gets the bad little children, she puts them in her oven, and bakes them until they’re golden brown!”
The girl giggles and welps, pounding her small fists against her mother. “Does she eat them, Mama?” she asks breathlessly.
“Well, of course she does!” the woman answers, kissing both her children’s heads. “No sense in wasting perfectly roasted children!” Demy, the younger boy, cackles– like any good Kyrzenwolder child, he has heard this story many times. “So you ought to be good, and not naughty!” The little girl rolls her eyes at the warning. “Demy,” the woman asks her son, “do you know what we do to trick Gryla?”
Demy nods, and his sister, bubbling, cuts him off, “We bake cookies!”
“We do! Since all little children are sometimes wicked, we have to distract Gryla from stealing away our children,” the woman pauses for a moment, “so we bake that evil fairy cookies! We decorate the cookies like wicked people, and leave them out for her to find– then she takes them away, and eats them. Afterward, she thinks she has had her fill of naughty children.” Both children giggle, though Demy has started to drift into sleep.
After a moment, the little girl looks out the window. In the distance, she sees the candlelight and profile of a Vogel. The Vogel walks to the edge of their property, and, catching the girl’s gaze, salutes. The Vogel places a candle in the snow, and, after a moment, retreats to the depths of the woods.
In a cozy Katzen townhouse,
…a grandfather huddles with his only surviving grandchild– the little boy, seven years old, can already wield a sword, but still cannot read the old stories. He relies on his grandfather, a man who has always been a quiet man of learning. In his youth, the old man says, he even studied with Old Fritzie Diedrich.
“Pity you can’t read, Gim,” the old man says, though not without a hint of fondness.
Gim says nothing. He has been scared of books ever since he heard of haunted tomes in old estates.
“The old stories of Kyrzenwold,” the grandfather continues, stoking the hearth, “they’re really something.” He feels his grandson’s attention sharpen, and, quietly, the old man smiles to himself. “One of my favorites was about Papa Schlacter and Mama Perchta. Two old nightmares, or fairies… or maybe both– who knows? They were married– long, long ago. But they were both such awful people, they couldn’t stand to be together.”
Gim smiles. He has heard this story many times.
“Papa Schlacter was a terrifying creature– teeth like knives, and hands the size of ham hocks. He prowled the forests, they say, with meat cleavers and a butcher’s apron.”
Gim continues the story, “And Mama Perchta lived far away from people– she had no love for any of the human folk, claiming the animals of the woods as her children. However, she had a duty. On the longest night of the year, she would stalk the villages, peering at the windows– searching for naughty children whose hearts were full of wickedness.”
“Ah, you remember,” the old man grins, and picks up where the boy left off. “And Papa Schlacter followed behind her, looking for the children whose minds were full of hatred. He found them, after his wife had passed them over, and stored them in his meat cellar. He butchered them, casting their wicked flesh to hungry wolves.”
“And Mama Perchta found the hard-hearted children, and, stealing them away, punished them. She ripped out their wicked hearts, and stuffed the holes with ice, until they were frozen just like her,” Gim laughs– still a boy, the gory bits cling to his memory.
“‘This ice,’ she would whisper, ‘is worth more than your wicked heart!’” the old man crescendos into a bellow. “And what’s the way, Gim, to let Mama Perchta know your heart is full of love?”
“My mother always used to say that I should cut out a paper heart–”
“–and write the name of someone you love on it.”
Gim grunts, “Seems stupid.”
“Well, the old stories always seem stupid, Gim. Stupid until you meet one of those old beasts, may the Hunter spare you.” The old man coughs drily, and wrap his furs around himself. Through the window of his Katzen home, he sees a lone Vogel approach- her face and frame is lean, and she braces herself against the wind. She leaves a candle outside his doorway and, quickly, departs.
Around a roaring fire, in a Cornynshire farmhouse…
…an older girl grins perniciously at her younger sister. “What do you mean you’ve never heard the story of Belsvinter?”
The younger girl, recently turned six, sticks out her lower lip defiantly. “Mama didn’t believe in the old stories. She said they were just stupid fairy stories to scare children.”
The older girl rolls her eyes, and, exasperated, retorts, “So you never asked Baba about them?” Her sister says nothing, and, so, the girl continues, “Well, of all of those old nightmare fairies, Belsvinter is most reasonable.” She pokes at the fire delicately. “Belsvinter comes out on the stormiest and coldest week of the year– remember what Baba used to say? When the winds were iciest, she would say to watch out for Belsvinter’s switch.”
“What’s a switch?” the youngest girl asks.
“Something you hit naughty children with,” the oldest answers with a meaningful glance. “Belsvinter comes out during the winter, offering either switches or treats. Smart, talented, good children get treats. Stupid, clumsy, naughty children get switches.”
The younger girl flinches slightly “How does he know if they’re stupid?”
“Well, he tests them first. He asks them a question, and they have to provide a smart answer.” She thinks for a second, and then says, “For example, ‘At night I come without being fetched, and by day I’m lost without being stolen. What am I?”
The youngest girl has a sudden pang in her chest, thinking of star-gazing with her father- a Lyriker long lost to the depths of the woods. “A star,” she answers in a small voice. The older girl touches the younger one’s shoulder. The younger one then, too quickly, asks, “How does he know if they’re clumsy?”
“Well, he has them do a test of skill. Sometimes he makes the children fight one another, and sometimes he makes them sing songs– he rewards the most talented with treats.” The younger girl remembers the pretty Lyriker siblings, with their sad songs and wide eyes- shadows of exhaustion dancing over their faces. She remembers how, emphatically, they told her why it is perfectly reasonable to be scared of the dark. She remembers the unflinching glance of the Vogel behind them- silent as he kept his eyes on the woodline.
“And how does he know if you’re naughty?” the youngest one asks.
The oldest one thinks again. “I’m not really sure– remember what Mama always said about good Corbynshire girls?”
The youngest one nods, a little sadly, and answers, “Good Corbynshire girls should be smart, strong, skillful, and dutiful.”
“I never understood the clean part,” the youngest one admits.
“Baba told me that if you wear dirty clothes, then– do you remember the story of Gryla?” The youngest nods. “Well, Baba always said Gryla had a fairy cat, named Slecthekat, and during the winter Slecthekat would find all the children in dirty clothes.”
“What would he do when he found them?”
“Eat them, I guess. I never really understood that story, but Baba told me that I should always wash my face and clothes, otherwise the Slechtekat would eat me.”
The little girl shudders, and mumbles, “I never liked fairies.”
Deep in the woods of Kyrzenwold…
“Try it again, Lada” the huntsman chides the small girl. “Imagine that you’re aiming straight between its eyes.”
The tiny girl sighs, and, once more, aims the bow at the target her father has painted on a pine tree. She pulls back on the bowstring, and, with a persistent twang, the arrow hits just off-center of the target.
“Better,” her father answers gruffly, “but you have a lot of work to do.” He looks at her arms, and chews the inside of his cheek. “You’re going to need to build up your arms, or they’re going to keep shaking like that.” The girl doesn’t respond, but shuffles on her feet. They’ve been practicing for three hours now.
“Alright,” he says, noticing her attention is fading, “lunch.” He sets out his pack, and, a bit guiltily, scrounges up a meager serving of dried venison and hardtack. The life of a hunter is, he admits to himself, a tidily scarce one. “Set to making a fire, Lada. I want to see if you can do it by yourself.”
Lada nods, and, from her own pack, pulls some dry kindling.
“No, Lada,” he corrects gently, “there’s some drybrush here. Only use that when the snow is wet and heavy, or you can’t find anything suitable.”
She nods again, though says nothing. He knows she’s hungry, and, despite himself, grunts, “Alright, I’ll do it this time. You sit down.”
In a short time, there is a small wood fire. The huntsman boils snow in a small pan, and crumbles his portion of the hardtack and jerky into it. It bubbles into a stale, murky porridge. The hunter takes a third for himself, and gives the rest to his daughter. He tells her to save her hard tack for later in the day, but to eat her venison now. As they eat their meal, the girl, uncharacteristically, breaks the silence.
“What was that old woman talking about in the village?”
The huntsman pauses, and looks up from his porridge. His weathered, thin face has a hawk-like hardness to it. “You mean about Belsvinter and Gryla and all that?”
The girl nods.
“Fairy stories,” he responds gruffly, and goes back to his food. “What did your mother tell you, Lada? Pull your hair back when you eat.”
The girl pushes her chestnut-colored ringlets, half-heartedly, out of her face, and responds, “So they’re not real then? Those stories?”
Her father laughs, a bit too meanly. “Stupid people don’t believe in fairies, Lada. Those stories may not be completely truthful, but they’re certainly real.”
“What are real?”
“I’ve told you about the Hunter of Consequences? The Rye Mother? The Lady of the Fallow Field? The Frozen Queen?”
“Well, not all fairies are beautiful and stately. They’re like people. Some are violent, ugly, and nasty.”
The girl thinks of her mother, who knew the stories of the ancient fairies. “Like the nightmares Mama used to tell me about?”
The huntsman nods. “Wolves and bandits aren’t the only thing you need to worry about in the woods, Lada. You know that.”
Looking into her porridge, cupping the wooden bowl nervously, Lada asks, “Papa… will you tell me the story Mama used to tell me?”
He frowns, pain registering in his jaw and at the corners of his eyes. “Of course,” he finally says, and tentatively, he starts. He has never been good at telling her stories.
“Long, long ago, there were wicked fae. They were the stuff of nightmares, and, because they were so wicked, they were locked deep away…”
Long, long ago, there were wicked fae. They were the stuff of nightmares, and, because they were so wicked, they were locked deep away– they were locked deep away so that they would never hurt anyone.
At least, those are the stories of the ancient times.
Those of the woods know better. They know of the magic underneath their feet, and the terrible truth of waking dreams. The know that the fae of dreams and nightmares exist everywhere, not just in the woods… though, for whatever reason, the woods calls to them.
We know winter, the old people warn, and we know that the old ones still live. Covered by the silence of winter, they stalk hungry through forests, and, looking for the lights in cottages, they punish the wicked. Only by the grace of goodness, can you evade them. But the old ones still live.
The stories say there were those ancient fae, the nightmare dwellers and child snatchers, who escaped the lock-and-key. They say there are those of the Frozen Heart and Bloody Knives that found their own power and meaning. Such fae fled, and hid themselves away. They hid for thousands of years, and waited. Waited for the way things are now. The visages of these creatures have filled the terrible dreams of those wise to the darkest nights of winter.
And one of these creatures, one who calls herself both ruler and servant, waits by the light of the candles, and readies herself for her audience.