This story is by Shantel Brunton and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The gnarled deformed trees hold me captive with their wicked claw-like branches. They’ve torn my cloak and dress, but even worse they eviscerate my dwindling hope.
They have faces and twisted hollow mouths. “Don’t worry Scarlett,” they say. “You’ll never leave us, you and your lover will be here for all eternity.”
“Ignatius,” I scream. He went into the Whispering Woods to save us from the witch hunters. He said he could find a wand here and it would keep us safe forever. There would be no more temporary protection spells, and this would be permanent. However, it’s said that no witch or warlock has ever returned from the woods. Ignatius left at dawn and didn’t return. Even with the shadows lurking all around me, I couldn’t leave him there alone.
Now, I’m as lost as he is, but no one will come save me. We only have each other.
“You have us,” the trees say. “You’re not leaving.”
I stand in the middle of a clearing, shaking, and trying to prevent the little warmth I have from leaving me, but it’s no use. My clothes are too torn. Wind howls through the clearing, and the cold seeps into my bones. I want to run, but I can’t compel myself to move.
The scream of a horse fills the air, and is as chilling as the cry a human might make. The wind joins in with the screaming and whips my crimson hair in all directions obscuring my vision.
I listen for the sound of another scream, but now the woods around me are silent.
“Scarlet,” someone says. It’s him. I want to sob with relief, but I still can’t see him, and I’m not leaving without him.
I know this isn’t the trees. It’s his voice. I wait for him to speak again. I never wanted him to come here. I knew it was far too dangerous, and all I want is for us to escape together. We have no need for this dark magic. My energy is being leached away, and my legs are shaking. I want to sink to the ground below me, but I fear if I do, the woods will drain me of all my lifeforce, and I’ll be as dead as the wicked trees trapping me.
My throat burns, and my voice is faint. “Please, if you can follow my voice, please come back to me.”
He doesn’t answer me, but the horse screams with even more fury than before. Its raging hooves echo like thunder, and before I can run, the horse and its rider are upon me.
The rider’s head has gray bark where the flesh should be. The eyes and mouths are hollows like the trees surrounding us. Wild branches reach up to the sky where the hair should be.
A scream makes its way up my throat, but it cannot escape. My mouth hangs open, but no sound comes out other than a gasp. The rider wears a red tailcoat, woolen pantaloons, a dark cloak as tattered as my own. His cravatte is stained with blood. I clutch my neck, as if that can help me keep my head where it should be. What did the woods do to him?
The horse comes closer to me, and towers over me. Its mane is long and tangled. Its eyes are inches from my face. At first they are as dead and unlit as the carved eyes on the pumpkin, but then they flare up, and glow blood red. I try to back away, but the tree branches shove me back to where I was. I stumble, and fall forward grabbing the horse’s reins to stop myself from falling.
I look up to the rider’s pumpkin head.
The rider is a demon, a monster, a horrid creature of the woods, but there’s no denying he’s wearing Ignatius’ garments. Dear gods and spirits, what has become of him? He holds up a blazing wand. I know in an instant this is the Wand of Whispers. The wand that grants whatever its user desires.
Why would Ignatius desire such a thing?
I take his arm, and he looks down at me.
“Ignatius is this you? Is this really you?”
“My sweet Scarlett,” he says, and strokes my cheek.Warmth fills my cheeks, and I tell myself my sweet Ignatius can’t be dead. His hand is still warm as if he is alive. His voice isn’t distorted in any way even though it comes through the monstrosity of a tree head. “I found the wand and now no one will ever kill us. We will never burn, and we will never feel the hangman’s noose. We will live forever.”
“What happened to you?”
“There’s a price,” he says.
I tried to warn him there would be a price. Nothing from these woods is ever free.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt much. You give up your head, and become one with the woods.”
“You’re safe here,” the trees say. “We’ll protect you.”
“No, Ignatius we can’t do this. We can’t haunt these woods. How can we pay this price?”
“You’re free to leave,” he says, and wrenches his arm from mine.
The branches on the trees part and all their cavernous eyes stare straight into my soul.
“You can go,” the trees say. “This is the way out.”
“If you leave,” Ignatius says, “You are on your own. The witch hunters will come for you. You will suffer at their hands, or you can stay here with me, but your old head cannot stay. You need to have a new one.”
“No,” I say. My heart is beating out of my chest. How did it come to this? How could he be alive this morning, and now by nightfall he’s become this creature? I don’t know how to live without him, but I know this isn’t really him anymore. Tears stream down my face.
“Please,” I say. “I beg of you.”
“What do you beg of me?”
“Be who you once were. This isn’t magic we’re meant to embrace. We aren’t evil, and we don’t practice this.”
“If you don’t wish to accept this gift then you may go. No one is stopping you.” Ignatius says.
I walk along the new path, but my heart breaks as I think of a life without Ignatius, and I imagine dying all on my own.
“I love you Scarlett,” he says. With my back to him, I hear the voice of the man who possesses my heart and soul. We gave so much to one another. Our hearts beat as one.
I continue down the path, walking in the direction of my supposed freedom. but I stop. The moment of hesitance is brief,but I know there is no life for me without him.
I run back to where he’s waiting, and try not to look at his pumpkin head. He reaches down and pulls me onto the horse. “Don’t worry it will scarcely hurt to receive your new head.”
He takes me deeper into the woods, and we come to a pitch black tree surrounded by blood red light. I cover my nose to block the stench of death. Ignatius dismounts, and helps me off the horse. He strokes my hair and urges me forward. “Everything will be alright. We’ll be together for eternity.”
The tree beckons to me with a branch resembling a human hand.
“Come child,” the tree says.
I step forward, my legs move on their own. The tree grabs me by the neck. I scream as the searing pain overwhelms me. I try to pry the branches from my throat, but they dig deeper and deeper into my throat. No, I don’t want to do this, I can’t do this. It’s lifting me off the ground, and I’m clawing at the branches, but the tree binds me with unimaginable strength. The branches look weak but they become unbreakable bonds, as the tree straps my arms to my sides. More branches snake down and seize my legs and ankles. No it’s going to tear me to pieces. Pressure courses through my body, and then races to my neck. The tree forces my head back in one forceful movement. A horrifying crack echoes in my ears.
When I think I can bear no more, the pain ceases, and there’s nothing but darkness. I fall to the ground, and search through the abyss. No, no, no, this void can’t be my life now. I touch my chest, and my heart continues to beat. I’m alive, but am I alive? The emotions rise, but there is nowhere for them to go. I have no mouth to scream, and no eyes to shed tears from.
Has Ignatius abandoned me? Was this all a cruel trick of the woods?
“Don’t worry,” Ignatius says. “I’m here and I have your head here.”