This story is by Laura Cookson and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It had happened every Midsummer’s Eve since Fira’s grandmother had been a girl.
A beautiful woman would come walking out of the forest at dusk and take a single girl from the village.
“It’s an honour to be chosen.” The elders would say, but it didn’t seem that way to Fira. For no one knew where the girls were taken, and they were only ever seen once again: the following Midsummer’s Eve when it would be them walking out of the trees to take the next girl.
It also seemed strange that they were always impossibly beautiful when they returned, no matter what they had looked like before, and they never spoke a word. Not even to their family. In fact, they didn’t seem to recognise anybody.
Fira found it all very sinister, but still, every year the mothers of the village would dress their daughters in their best clothes and tie their hair with ribbons. Then they would lead them out to wait, hoping that this year the honour would be theirs.
That included Fira’s mother, and so on that fateful day, she found herself in the village square with everyone else, fidgeting at her mother’s side, hair braided tightly to her head. Her older sister Annette stood sedately at her mother’s other side, eyes intently focused on the tree line at the edge of the village.
As with every Midsummer’s Eve, the entire village had turned out and they waited silently as the sun slipped behind the trees, casting the place in a golden light.
The mother of last year’s girl could be seen at the front with the elders. She fidgeted as much as Fira, wringing her hands, and staring intently into the trees where her daughter would soon appear.
And suddenly there she was. A beautiful young woman, loping out of the trees, shining chestnut hair flowing behind her.
She was hardly recognisable as the Maggie Fira had once known. She was no longer the young girl who had been led into the trees the year before, but a beautiful woman: her childish freckles had smoothed out into creamy pale skin, her round face had become defined and angular and Fira could see the intense blue of her eyes even at a distance.
There was a blankness there though, Fira thought, as Maggie passed her sobbing mother without a glance, striding purposefully into the crowd.
No, Fira thought in horror, as Maggie began to walk towards her family. Everywhere people parted to let her through, and Fira prayed desperately that it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t them that she was making for.
Maggie stopped in front of them, a small smile on her unearthly face. She slowly reached out her hand to Annette.
“No, Annette!” Fira cried, lunging across her mother to try and get to her sister. Her mother hauled her back, hissing at her to be quiet. But Maggie didn’t so much as glance their way. She just stood, hand suspended in the air, until Annette slowly reached out and grasped it.
“Please…please, Maggie, don’t take her!” Fira begged. She could hear murmurs of shock and anger from the crowd around her, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t let her sister go.
But Annette seemed contented to go, turning and smiling and shaking her head at Fira as Maggie turned and led her back through the crowd.
‘It’ll be OK’, she mouthed, before she was swallowed up by the crowds. Fira screamed after her, hanging off her mother’s arm as she struggled to get to her. She knew she was breaking the unwritten rules, she knew she should let it happen, but this was her sister…she couldn’t lose her.
Her mother had her arms locked fully around her body now though, hissing angrily in her ear for her to stop.
“How can you let this happen?” Fira shrieked at her, trying to wrestle her way out of her grip.
“Because this is what’s meant to happen…this is how it’s always been.”
Fira kicked her hard in the shin and elbowed her in the stomach at the same time. With a low moan, her mother’s grip slackened, and Fira burst from her arms.
She pelted towards the tree line, accompanied all the while by horrified gasps. No one made to stop her though as she shot through the trees where the Maiden had disappeared and began to sprint through the forest.
She ran aimlessly in the general direction they had gone, stumbling over tree roots and skinning her knees, but always scrambling back up and carrying on. Eventually, she caught a glimpse of white ahead, and a little while later a flash of chestnut hair. To her surprise, she found she was catching up.
She slowed after a while and tried to listen for footsteps up ahead, but she heard nothing.
She kept walking, and suddenly a clearing opened up before her. She hurriedly ducked behind a tree at the sight before her.
The clearing was full of them: women of astonishing beauty, dressed in loose white dresses. Fira recognised some of them as more recent girls, but others must have been from before her birth, though none of them looked older than twenty.
They were gathered around, watching expressionlessly as Maggie led Annette by the hand towards them. She saw Annette’s back suddenly stiffen, and when Fira peered further round the tree, she saw what it was that she had seen: there was a decapitated horse slumped at the side of the clearing, blood pooling around it.
Fira shuddered, her hands shaking where they rested on the rough tree bark. She glanced around desperately looking for something, anything to help her. That’s when she felt it: a hand on her shoulder. She turned abruptly, and her blood turned to ice in her veins.
For standing behind her was a slim figure in a white dress, but rather than a human head protruding from the high neck, there was the hollowed out, yellowed skull of a horse.
Fira let out a strangled scream and tried to step back, but the strange creature snatched her arm in a vice-like grip and began to haul her into the clearing.
Annette turned to look at the commotion and blanched white at the sight before her. To Fira’s horror, she saw that behind Annette’s frozen form, the beautiful women’s heads were changing, elongating, their porcelain skin melting away and their silky hair blowing away on the breeze.
Each of them had become a skull-headed monstrosity, at varying stages of decay, from Maggie’s bleached white skull to one whose grey head was cracked and disintegrating.
Fira screamed for Annette to run. Glancing back, Annette cried out in horror and snatched her hand back. The creature that had been Maggie began to advance on her, the others following behind, in an unsettling procession.
Annette turned and ran, streaking towards Fira.
Fira tried to wrestle her way free from the monster that held her, but she knew there was no way she would be able to escape the grip of that pale, human hand.
“Leave me, Annette! Run!” she screamed, as Annette staggered towards them, the white figures fanning out behind her. Fira’s captor was physically dragging her towards them now, whilst Annette lingered, caught between the two parties.
“Run!” Fira urged her, and she hesitantly backed towards the tree line.
Meanwhile, Fira was slowly being surrounded. Annette gave a squeak, and when Fira looked behind her she saw that the monsters were parting to allow one to pass between them. This one was wielding an axe, slick with dark blood.
She looked back at her sister, her beautiful sister who had been so pleased to be chosen for this, as all those other girls had been chosen. Chosen to become a monster…
“Run Annette!” she screamed again conscious of the whistle of an axe being raised behind her, “Go back! Tell them everything! Tell them everyth-“
She was walking through the woods, and she was oh so beautiful. That was what they told her anyway, but on the inside, she was still just screaming into the empty skull of her head.
The only way to stop the endless screaming was to find a replacement, they had said, and she couldn’t remember a good reason not to.
So she walked towards the village, slipping through the trees, her white skirts trailing, only to lurch to a halt.
The village was silent, there were no throngs of people in their best clothes… It looked to have been abandoned for months.
She felt her many sisters manifest around her, giggling inside her head in their high, girlish voices.
‘Tell them everything’ you said…now they’re all gone…you’ll be forever screaming…forever screaming…’