This story is by Denise Steinbach and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lia knew that venturing out at night violated her father’s rules, but she was drawn to the darkness, and there was plenty of it in the forest. No light, not even a candle, accompanied her as she had left hers back at the castle. The moonlight guided her as she cautiously entered the unknown depths where the forest guardians, the Waldgeister, lived. The sound of twigs broke the eerie silence, snapping beneath her feet, sending a shiver down her spine. Would King Lukan, her father, notice her absence? Would he come searching for her like he had done the last time she defied his orders?
Lia was no ordinary princess. After all, the king himself had trained her in combat. She was destined to rise above royalty, and as far as she was concerned, she would succeed at her father’s ultimate quest, capturing a Waldgeist. So, armed with a dagger and a shield displaying their family crest—the symbol of House Lukan—Lia had embarked on this mission without telling a soul Despite the encroaching darkness surrounding her, she remained resolute in proving herself worthy to her father by finding and capturing this forest spirit.
King Lukan held power and influence as ruler over lands and seas alike, but his thirst for more was insatiable. He sought to control a Waldgeist as it would grant him authority over those who dared to venture into his territories. These ethereal beings possessed the ability to lead people astray, ensnaring them in an endless journey through the woods that only a Waldgeist could reverse. As humans wandered, their bodies gradually gave in, eventually collapsing onto the forest floor where nature reclaimed them.
Among these spirits, there was one with the power to command all the Waldgeister: Queen Thalwyn. Lia didn’t want just any Waldgeist; she knew capturing the queen was imperative. Though many had failed in their quest for Thalwyn’s capture, Lia was determined to succeed and bring her home. Her driving force stemmed from a longing for her father’s approval, no matter the sacrifices it entailed.
Lia knew why others had faltered before: the queen of the spirits never appeared during the day. Lia knew she had to go at night, a time when most people shunned the forest. Waldgeister were notorious for obscuring paths, and many who dared to journey into the darkness at night never returned. She was strictly forbidden from entering the woods after sunset. The last time she defied this rule, her father tracked her down within an hour. This time, though, Lia was confident she would find the spirit before her father caught up with her.
She had thoroughly researched the matter. She had listened to accounts from travellers. She had heard tales from the maids, who all spoke of lost goods meant for delivery but mysteriously vanishing along with the trade caravans. Based on these tales, she had marked the spot on a map, within the heart of the forest and was determined to reach it.
Her white gown shimmered under the moonlight that served as her guide.
As she went deeper into the forest, darkness enveloped her, and her steps turned into stumbles as her earlier confidence gave way to uncertainty. The hair on her arms started to rise like little soldiers readying themselves for what was to come, and she felt a wave of icy needles rushing through her body.
“Just a little further,” she whispered to herself. Her legs began to tremble, barely keeping her upright. But Lia refused to let fear overpower her. This was what she had been trained for. She was a vessel tasked with executing her father’s plans.
Despite the fear that gripped her during this nocturnal march, it made her feel complete when nothing else could, not even her father’s praise. It was almost like an escape.
As she continued, the hooting of owls grew louder. Suddenly, dizziness overwhelmed her, and her heartbeat quickened. Shadows danced alongside the tree trunks, and she sensed they were more than just shadows. Wolves?
Her heart pounded against its ribcage, trying to break free as she gasped for air.
“Take a breath,” she reminded herself. “Stay calm, you’re alright. You’ve come prepared.” Her grip tightened around the dagger, and she pressed her arm against her chest, pulling the shield closer.
Then the shadows began to sway and twirl, and soft white lights pierced through them like floating candles blending into the dance of darkness. It seemed as if the forest spirits were weaving their magic.
“Waldgeister!” she called out. “I’ve come for your queen!”
In an instant, the dancing shadows and lights froze in place.
Lia held her breath as they closed in on her like claws, but she stood steadfast, ready to face whatever came her way. Just when the shadows and lights were about to swallow her up, they halted mid-air.
From their midst emerged a flame that hovered above Lia before descending gracefully to eye level.
“Thalwyn?” Lia asked with a small voice.
The voice that answered was many different sounds at once—the singing of a bird, the rustling of leaves, and the gentle dripping of a brook. It was soothing, and Lia’s heart calmed, the tension seeping from her body.
Lost in this moment, Lia forced herself to remember why she had come here. She willed herself to think of her father and broke free from the spell the eerie light had cast over her.
“I’m taking you back home with me!” Lia declared, brandishing her dagger as if to intimidate the entity into submission.
But the light only flickered softly, seemingly undisturbed.
“You’re already home, Lia,” Thalwyn’s voice echoed in her mind.
Lia shivered as if a chill had cursed through her back. She took a breath and pressed her dagger closer to the radiant glow. It felt comforting and warm, but she shook off the thought.
“Thalwyn! I have you captive now. You must obey me, or…” Lia’s empty threat hung in the air.
“Lia, you were born into darkness and discovered the light. Your true purpose isn’t to imprison me…but to be me.”
Startled, Lia felt an urge to retreat. It was already too late. Her body was slowly transforming into a vessel for the blue spirit. Yet her mind remained in turmoil. Inside her head, she screamed, No!—for she had a task to fulfil, and she could not fail. Was this why no one had returned after searching for the Waldgeister? Did they all meet such a fate?
A warmth unlike anything she had ever experienced began to envelop her as the light entered her body. It felt like a calling, a sense of belonging that had been missing from her life until now. It had finally found its way home.
Lia understood why the queen had chosen her. She grasped the significance of the destiny bestowed upon her by these spirits, concealed from the awareness of mortals. It was about restoring balance—a seed that had been quietly sprouting within her since birth and now bloomed under the rain of circumstances tied to her father’s thirst for power.
With one final sigh escaping her lips, Lia ceased to breathe.
As time passed, Lia found solace perched on a fallen tree trunk, feeling a sense of unity with the ancient woods. It was as if she had always belonged in this form, seamlessly blending with the trees, and sensing the network of communication woven through the forest. From her vantage point, she would observe wanderers who had strayed into her woodland and send them on their way. She was the guardian of the forest, a Waldgeist, and she had found her true home and purpose in the darkness of the night.
One night, she heard the march of humans, their presence announced by crackling twigs. A man with a grey beard and his group of battle-worn soldiers approached Lia. There was relief in his voice when he said, “Lia, my daughter. Thank goodness we’ve finally found you. What happened to you?”
Lia tilted her head, trying to understand the man’s way of speaking. The man appeared more gaunt, weathered, and disoriented than at their last encounter—when the soldiers were more numerous.
This marked the third occasion he had passed her. Lia had already lost interest in fleeting human affairs. With a wave of her hand, she gestured for them to continue their journey through the forest until only the faintest whisper of their presence lingered in the air.
On those nights when the moon shone brightly, Lia sat in her white dress on her fallen tree, her dark hair cascading down its trunk, as she waited for humans to cross her lands.