When a girl goes into a haunted wood to rescue her brother, she finds she is not alone.
They’d all heard the stories about the Bramblewood. They were the stories told by their mothers to keep children from wandering too far in. Stories told by older siblings just to scare them. Stories told by friends as they dared each other to venture just a little farther from town. The Bramblewood was haunted, they said. Or cursed. Or sometimes both, depending on who was doing the telling.
Terrible specters lived among the trees, the stories went. When the woods were shrouded with fog they called out in melodic voices to their victims, luring them past the line of standing stones never to be seen again. Monsters lived within, too. Werewolves, usually, but sometimes it was elves. They also came at night, but only if there was a full moon, snatching children from their beds and taking them away forever. So many stories, so many terrible things for one forest to hold.
Elsa couldn’t get enough of them. Ever since she’d been old enough to speak she’d been asking questions about the Bramblewood. When she’d heard them all she begged the local priests to teach her how to read. They’d given in, eventually, and armed with her newfound understanding she’d all but lived amid dusty tomes and yellowed parchments for the better part of a year.
The townsfolk, her relatives and neighbors, seemed to be of two minds about her. Some said, mostly when they thought she couldn’t hear, that she was odd. That no boy would take an interest in a girl who knew more about reading than cooking. Others, like Elder Hermann, used words like “scholar” and “historian”, and seemed all too happy to encourage her odd habits. But all Elsa cared about were the mysteries of the forest.
And then, one day, they became more than stories. Her younger brother Gavin disappeared while playing with a group of children near the standing stones. They’d dared each other to go further and further into the trees as the sun went down. His friends claimed they saw a dark shape take him, that he hadn’t simply wandered off and gotten lost. Nobody believed them. Nobody but Elsa.
Her father had been a soldier in the King’s army. The things he’d seen must have scared him, because he’d made it a point to teach Elsa how to hold a sword before he died. That way, he said, she could defend herself and her family if anything happened to him. She told herself he’d be proud of what she was about to do. While her mother wasn’t looking she stole her father’s sword, wrapped a cloak around her shoulders, and headed for the standing stones.
She hadn’t intended to get lost, but then she supposed nobody ever did. It was daylight when she started out, with more than enough time left for her to search the area where Gavin had disappeared. Somehow she’d lost her way, gotten turned around, and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t find anything that looked familiar. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know how to find her way. If the sun was there, the town must be that way. Only it wasn’t.
Darkness descended far too quickly, erasing any hope Elsa had of finding her way back. She tightened her grip on her father’s sword and tried not to panic. She’d just have to wait until morning, that was all. Maybe build a fire and find some moss or leaves to make a bed out of. Not a problem. Neither of those plans worked out as well as she would have hoped, and before long Elsa found herself sitting against the base of a tree with neither fire nor bed.
The specters found her just as she was drifting off to sleep. They appeared as lights from the depths of the forest, bobbing and floating in lazy patterns towards her. At first she thought they might be torches carried by villagers, but it quickly became clear they were something else entirely.
“What is it?” a whisper reached her ears.
“A girl,” the other whispered back.
“Here? At night?”
“She has a sword.”
Elsa brandished the weapon at the two specters as they closed in on her, circling in ever tightening spirals. “Stay back,” she warned.
“A brave one,” the whispering continued.
“Brave ones never live long.”
Despite her warning they got close enough that she could reach out and touch one if she wanted. “Get back!” she shouted, and the sword swished through the air. Its keen edge passed right through one of the specters with no visible effect. The one she’d tried to wound reached out and put a glowing hand on the weapon as if to push it away.
“Why are you here, brave girl?” it whispered.
“You took my brother,” she told it angrily, throat tightening with emotion. “I want him back.”
“Then who?” she demanded. “Where is he? Tell me!”
“Hush,” they warned.
“Please,” she pleaded. “Tell me where he is.”
“No, it’s too late.”
“Yes, too late.”
“Turn back now and you might live.”
“Leave this cursed place.”
“I’m not leaving without him,” she insisted.
“Should we tell her?”
“Perhaps we should.”
“Follow the moon,” the whispering specters instructed.
“Left at the stream.”
“Up the rocks.”
“In the tunnels.”
“Wake not the guardian.”
“Find us when you’re dead.”
Without another word the specters floated away from her, bobbing and weaving through the trees, whispering to each other all the while. Elsa watched them go, sword slowly lowering. “Thank you,” she whispered after them. She looked up at the moon as it arced lazily overhead. “Follow the moon,” she recalled. “Well. Lead the way.”