This story is by Peter Schaeffer and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The crows came at dusk. Gertrude watched from the window as thousands of the creatures fluttered overhead like a plague against the violent reds and oranges of the setting sun. She grabbed her staff and stepped out from the warmth of her small cottage and watched the crows fly towards the village. The church bell sounded in the distance which caused a chill to slither up her spine, what a strange thing, she thought, mid-day services have long passed, the bell never sounds at this time. She shivered despite the mild weather and wrapped her shawl tighter around her torso. Her thoughts of bad omens and divination were broken by the realization of a strange silence which seemed to engulf the nearby forest. She strained her ears and leaned forward, listening for the familiar and comforting sounds of the forest, but was met with deafening silence. It was supposed to be mating season for the cicadas, she should be able to hear them, she thought. Her thoughts were broken by a loud metallic and deep animalistic moaning coming from the forest which sent her reeling backwards with a loud yelp. Landing on her back and gritting her teeth she rolled to her side gasping. Digging her gnarled fingers into the dirt, she forced herself up. She stood frozen, staring at the treeline. She brushed her sweat plastered gray hair out of her face and tried to steady her breathing. The treeline seemed darker than normal and she had trouble picking out the shapes of individual trees with everything seeming to blend together in darkness. She took a cautious steps backward. She jumped when the animalistic moaning came again, louder and closer, her heart thumping out of control. She turned and began to run towards the village. She felt shooting pain in her back with each step and for a fleeting second she prayed that nothing was broken. The deep screeching sounded louder and closer, and she could see a vague figure moving rapidly out from the treeline with uneven steps. She stumbled backwards and let out a faint mewling gasp. Turning on her heels, she pushed herself as quick as her knobby knees would allow. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes as she ran towards the village. The moaning sounded close behind her now but she dared not look. She tried calling for help, but her voice caught in the back of her throat and came out in shrill, unintelligible gasps. Strange wet thumping footfalls sounded a short distance behind her, almost like something was running in rapid dragging and squishing half steps. The village seemed deserted, front doors open, candles still lit, like everyone just dropped everything and left. Where are they? She thought to herself, almost tripping due to her soup like legs; panic threatening to overwhelm her. She heard screams and loud cawing as she ran towards the church bell. She turned the corner and saw pandemonium in the town square in front of the old church. The crows were swooping down to peck and scratch at the screaming villagers who were fleeing towards her sister Agatha who was propping the door of the church open and beckoning wildly, bonnet displaced and scratches covering her face. The hair on the back of Gertrude’s neck stood up, it was right behind her now. She could almost feel it’s presence, the wet snapping footfalls thumping and gaining ground behind her. Squish…sssnap..squish. Sssnap. She pulled deep and sprinted towards the church, screaming unintelligibly all the while. Agatha gesticulated, seeming more irritated than anything which in a fleeting hysterical moment almost made her want to laugh. “Hurry up you old fool!” Agatha spat as the last of the villagers made it inside. Gertrude lunged the last final steps into the church and heard the stiff footfalls of her sister behind her, followed by the dramatic latching of the door.
Agatha stood over her sister and rested her hands on her hips, “well well, look what the cat dragged in.” Gertrude struggled to her feet with no help from her sister, her knee almost giving out as she straightened. “Did..you see it?” She asked between gasps.
Agatha rolled her eyes and strode past Gertrude, beckoning silence to the nervously chattering villagers. “Indeed. The lord is sending the very forest against us as punishment for tolerating your heathen ways.”
Gertrude wrinkled her nose and approached Agatha who was now straightening her bonnet, tucking loose gray hairs out of sight and looking at Gertrude with disdain. Gertrude approached her, resting her hands on her hips, “the same heathen ways which were taught to us by mother?! Perhaps the forest is rising against us from your own callous disregard for the old wa..”
“Hogwash!” drops of spittle flew from Agathas mouth. Crossing her arms, she pursed her lips and stared at Gertrude who had her hands on her hips and her jaw set firmly in a deep frown. Both women jumped at a sudden crash which came from outside, at the back of the church. The villagers started to panic loudly. Another crash came, to the side which shrank the villagers into the center of the church. Gertrude wiped the sweat off of her forehead and gave silent thanks to the crude but sturdy and windowless nature of the church and looked towards the front door with Agatha. Both women jumped when the crashing came again louder, shaking the door on it’s hinges.
“Into the cellar!” Agatha cried and beckoned to the hatch in the floor. The loud crashing sounds came from multiple directions at once now, but her focus remained on the metal latch on the door of the church which groaned and shook with each crash. The villagers poured down the wooden staircase like slime, screaming and shouting incoherently all the while with a few grabbing lanterns from the alter along the way.
“Enter not into the house of the lord demons!” Agatha screamed. Gertrude grabbed Agatha’s arm and begun dragging her towards the last of the villagers fleeing into the cellar, but was shaken off and given a stern glare. The door splintered and shook, draining the color from Agatha’s face. They fled into the dimly lit cellar, latching the door behind them.
“That won’t hold them for long.” Gertrude said, wringing her hands and staring towards the crashing. Sharp gasps filled the cellar. The two women turned towards the villagers who had gathered at the far corner of the cellar, gasping and pointing at a strange, freshly dug tunnel at the opposite corner of the cellar. Gertrude moved towards it, picking up a dropped lantern and squinting her eyes. She leaned forward and looked into the darkness. Violent screams filled the room as a dark shape entered into the edge of the light at the mouth of the tunnel. Agatha flattened herself against the far wall with the rest of the villagers, face white and mouth moving wordlessly. Bile rose in her throat and she willed herself to move, or run, anything. In the dim light she made out the vague form of an impossibly tall and hunched over woman. Is she made out of wood? Gertrude thought incredulously
“w..what do..” Her voice caught in her throat and she could hear her sisters frantic prayers at the far side of the cellar. The woman made a beckoning motion, revealing a long arm made out of thick ropy branches which led into a knot of gnarled roots. The villagers had begun praying synchronistically, voices attempting to rise above the crashing above.
“I..I don’t think she’s working with the others.” Gertrude stammered “I think she wants us to follow her!”
“Lies! Follower of the foulness beset before us.” Agatha screeched. The door the the church caved in and loud, stumbling sounds moved inside the church above.
“There’s no time! We must follow it is our only chance!” Gertrude shouted. The villagers looked to Agatha who had loudly begun to pray again and followed suit. Gertrude silently cursed her old fool of a sister and entered the tunnel. Her knees wobbled like jelly and goosebumps covered her arms. She forced herself forward. The last thing she heard was the loud, collective prayers of the villagers and the violent crashing above.
She tunnel sloped upwards and narrowed, forcing her onto her knees. She blinked dirt from her eyes and ignored the growing pain in her joints. She lost track of time, feeling hopeless as she dug her hands into the dirt of the seemingly never-ending tunnel. The tunnel eventually led her out and onto the hillside near the old bridge which led across the gorge, and away from the village. Her eyes widened as she looked down towards the church. Flames filled the building and had begun licking through the roof. She saw no sign of the strange creatures which filled her with dread. Her lip quivered as she stood transfixed by the fire. The flames soon engulfed the entire church. A distant mumbling from the tunnel snapped her to attention. Her heart begun beating out of her chest, and she gasped as she saw the villagers emerge from the tunnel. The villagers emerged without Agatha. Gertrude dug her nails into her arm as the villagers told her of her sisters decision to stay behind and burn the church down. “She wouldn’t leave the house of the lord.” One of the villagers said, “she told us that she would buy us enough time to find you and flee.” Gertrude bit her lip and fought back tears. She swallowed loudly and motioned for the villagers to follow towards the bridge. The night was silent, which frightened her almost as much as the creatures themselves did. They increased their pace until they got across the bridge. The forest woman from the cellar stepped out from the brush and moved to the support columns on the other side of the bridge. The villagers backed away slowly and without taking their eyes off of her. She wrapped her thick ropy wooden arms around the support column and begun to jerk her body backwards. Once the column creaked and snapped, she got the work on the other one. Awkward shapes moved towards her in the distance, causing her to jerk violently until the second column snapped which caused the bridge to crumble into the gorge below. Crows soon filled the air along with the loud metallic screeching. Gertrude led the villagers away, glancing back to see the forest woman being overtaken by the large awkward figures. The crows dove in pursuit of the villagers but were scattered by a different screeching, still metallic but more high pitched. The crows scattered and soon the only sound in the air was that of frantic footfalls.
Gertrude led them on the long nights march to the main road. she walked at the front, desperately hoping to find help on the main road, and thinking of her sister and the strange creature who saved them. She hugged her arms close to her chest and wondered if they deserved to be saved.