What Strange Things in Darkness Dwell
Emma walked backward into the house, unable to pull her gaze away from the wasted figure standing motionless in the road until Mama, still outside, closed the door. Warm air with the scent of garlic and baking potatoes did little to ease her nerves. Emma kept going up until the edge of the table hit her back, bumping it hard enough to knock over an unlit candlestick. Emma whirled toward the clatter, but gasped at finding her grandmother close behind her.
Nan stroked her gnarled fingers over Emma’s hair. “What’s got your blood hiding? You’re pale like a banshee.”
“There’s a sick lady outside. Mama told me to help you.”
“Well, now Emma. Sick people don’t often scare you.”
“Uhh.” Emma gave her grandmother a helpless look. “Something’s wrong. She felt strange.”
Wisps of Nan’s white hair drifted to the side, draped over her black shawl. The wailing wind seemed impart a chill to the house despite the glowing orange fire. Emma shivered. Nan leaned her head as if to peer out the wall like a window, milky eyes widening.
“She’s alive,” said Nan. “Go wash your hands.”
Emma ran out the back door and over to the pump ten paces away. She worked the lever until a spurt of water came out and rubbed it over her hands and arms. A sprawling meadow filled the land between the rear of their house and the tree line where Widowswood curved around the village. Bugs of all sizes zoomed and fluttered above the grass. A large, white butterfly meandering in a drunken spiral caught her attention, stark against the distant forest. She froze, water dripping from her fingers. The puddle around her feet turned cold in an instant. For no reason she could explain, she found herself staring at the forest again.
Something unseen among the trees watched her.
She darted back into the house, slamming the door hard enough to knock Da’s spare riding tack from a peg on the wall, and leaning all her weight into it as if her little body might make the difference between the monster getting in or not.
“Emma!” shouted Nan, clutching her chest. “What’s gotten into you?”
Her heart raced. Emma looked at the door, at Nan, back at the door, and then at the bit, bridle and gloves at her feet. She felt silly for being afraid of the dark. “Nothing. I’m sorry for making you jump.”
The eeriness faded. She scolded herself for acting like a little girl. After she hung Da’s things up, Nan guided her to the table and slid a bowl of dough in front of her before dropping a cloth next to it.
Emma dried her hands and set to task without protest, kneading. Tam sprawled on the floor closer to the bed, his stick-knight battling a shrub-dragon. She smiled, watching him play while she worked for a few minutes in silence. Nan portioned out various spices and herbs for the rest of the baking.
Minutes later, soft thumps on the porch approached the door. Emma looked up, hoping to see Da. Whatever lurked in the woods wouldn’t dare try anything with him home.
I’m being childish again. Emma sighed at herself.
Mama rushed in. She didn’t look at anyone, hurrying to gather a few items from Nan’s cabinet, the one they forbade her from going near. Emma froze, forearm deep in dough, watching her mother collect a few pouches. Without a word, Mama ran back outside.
“Nan? Who do you think that lady is?”
One of grandmother’s few remaining teeth peeked out of a grin. “Oh, Emma… nothing you’d believe. I shan’t waste my breath on it.”
Emma continued kneading gooey dough between her fingers while Nan poured herbs into the mass. She gave it two squeezes before puffing a strand of hair out of her face and staring. “Nan.”
“Fine, fine.” The old one settled into a chair. “Her name is Hannah. Before today, the last anyone saw of her was ten years ago.” Nan rocked back, tapping a finger to her chin. “I believe she vanished only two weeks after you were born. She was about Tam’s age then.”
At the sound of his name, the boy perked up. Sensing an imminent story, he scampered over and scrambled up to lean his elbows on the table, knees on a chair. Emma took more pinches of herbal seasonings, adding them to the dough between folds.
Shouts rose up outside, the din of a growing assembly of cheers and praise to various gods, mostly Rhiannon the Matron or Baragen the Harvest Lord.
Emma rushed to the window, holding her hands up to keep from smearing dough all over. Smooth glass chilled her forehead as she strained to peer toward town where a crowd had formed. Hannah shivered at the center, wrapped in a bright blue cloak of the kind worn by the town watch. It seemed as if everyone had come out to welcome the lost daughter of Widowswood home. A wobbly, heavyset woman with a shock of white in her chestnut hair required the aid of two men to avoid collapsing.
“Em, you’re making Nan not tell the story!” yelled Tam. “Come back.”
“Hannah! My daughter!” shouted the large woman before breaking down in sobs. “Are you really here?”
“We thought you dead,” cried an elderly man.
Numerous people burst out in cries of joy or wails of sorrow.
“Why isn’t she speaking?” yelled a youngish male voice.
“What’s happened to her? Oh, my Hannah!” A man older than Da, but younger than Nan, lifted the girl off her feet into a desperate hug.
Hannah’s mother grabbed and pawed at her, as if searching for injuries.
After a moment of hanging limp, Hannah raised her arms and held on to him. Seconds later, she lifted her head and looked at everyone.
At that, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Mama made her way into the group of villagers, took Hannah’s hand, and coaxed her to drink from a small bowl.
“Em! Em! Em! Em!” Tam chanted her name while slapping his hands on the table.
“Alright.” Emma sighed and trudged over.
She took her place by the bowl, jamming her hands into the dough while trying to peer out the window.
“Well, most everyone thought she wandered off into the woods. But nobody could find her.” Nan finished the chopping Mama had started, and shoved everything into the cauldron. “I can see that distrustful look in your eyes. Just like your mother was at your age.” She winked.
Emma folded and mushed the soon-to-be bread. “A child wouldn’t come back from being alone in the woods. That’s why you don’t let me an’ Tam go there.”
Wrinkles accented Nan’s grin. “Do you think someone took her?”
“Goblins!” blurted Tam. “Goblins got her.”
Nan chuckled. Emma rolled her eyes.
“Not goblins, I’m afraid, Tam. Goblins would have put her in the stew.” She pointed a curved finger at him, wagging it. He laughed. “This… No, this was something worse.”
“Worse?” Emma made a face. “She’s still alive. That’s not worse than being goblin stew.”
“Emma, you don’t believe in this sort of thing, so I won’t waste what few breaths I have left on it.” Nan dropped the metal lid over the cauldron to end her sentence.
“Nan, you’re not gonna die,” muttered Emma. “And there’s no goblins and no monsters. Just bad people. I bet bandits had her, and made her cook and wash for them. When she got sick, they let her go home.”
“Sounds like you’ve already got the world figured out.” Nan picked out seasonings for the soup, dropping them in pinch by pinch. “Don’t need me ruining it for you.”
“Story!” yelled Tam, before he gave Emma a raspberry.
“No!” Emma leaned over the bowl to shield it. “Don’t do that near food.”
“Please tell me, Nan.” Emma grunted at the dough, her arms already tired.
“Do you believe in goblins?” asked Nan.
The boy nodded.
Emma shook her head. “Of course not.”
“Uh-uh.” Emma glared at nothing in particular. “That’s all stuff to scare little kids with.”
Nan leaned back, drawing a soft creak from her chair. “Dragons, elves, wizards?”
“Dragons can fly!” added Tam.
“No, no, and no.” Emma tried to blow a stray bit of hair off her face. “You’re being silly.”
Halfway between anger and laughter, Emma’s expression made Nan chuckle.
“What about magic?”
Emma sighed. “There’s no such thing.”
“What of the wizard in Calebrin? Your father met him when he was a boy.”
Tam waved his hands at her, making plosive noises as if he were some great wizard throwing fireballs.
Emma shrugged one shoulder out of her dress. “Probably an alchemist with some trick fire to scare people. Stop it, Tam. Don’t spit in our food.”
He stuck his tongue out at her. She sighed, unable to stay angry at that face.
Emma waited for a moment, but when Nan didn’t say anything more, she looked up. The old one seemed to have gone still in her chair, with no trace of her usual wheezy snoring.
“Nan?” asked Emma.
The elder didn’t react.
Emma crept closer. “Nan?”
“Nan!” shouted Emma.
Her grandmother didn’t move.
Emma grasped her by the shoulders. “Nan?” Emma shook her. “Nan!”
“Calm down, girl.” Nan’s eyes popped open. “I’m not dead. You’re not trying to rush me into the ground, are you?”
“No!” She sniffled. “You scared me. Why did you fall asleep like that?” Emma pouted and took two steps backward.
“I wasn’t asleep, dear.” Nan winked. “Hannah was taken by a Banderwigh.”
Tam’s eyes widened, his little hand slipped from his chin as his mouth gaped. “Bander wee?” He clearly had no idea what sort of creature that was, but appeared frightened.
Emma trudged back to the bowl, more than a little annoyed at Nan for teasing her. She picked up the glop of dough, spun it over and flung it back down. “Banderwigh? Is that another one of your faerie monsters?”
Nan’s dry chuckle turned into a cough. “Indeed. I’ve only known of one person who’s ever claimed to see him. Though, I think it is more of a they than a him. They’re fairly rare, never more than one around a place, you see.”
“I still think it was bandits,” said Emma, patting the dough into shape.
“Bandy-wee!” belted Tam, cheering.
“They are solitary things. The Banderwigh lives in the darkest parts of the forest and feasts upon sadness.” Nan leaned forward, raising her claw-like hands over the table. “It walks the land under cover of night, taking children away from hearth and home to lock them in a little place where no one can find them.” Her stare grew eerie. “There, in the dark, it makes them sad and drinks their tears to feed itself.”
The boy shivered, and scooted under the table to cling to Emma. She frowned.
“Don’t listen to her, Tam. It’s just a story to scare little boys inside at night.” She sprinkled some flour on a pan and dumped the unbaked bread out of the bowl. “If this monster takes people, why is Hannah back? Doesn’t it eat them or something?”
Nan clucked her tongue as she stood to grab the pan. “The Banderwigh eats sorrow, child. It drained poor Hannah of all her tears. The girl must be dead inside now, a mere shadow of a person.”
“That’s silly,” said Emma. “Monsters don’t make people go nutters. Livin’ by herself in the woods made her go nutters. She’s so skinny ’cause all she had to eat was nuts and berries. What does this monster look like?” She kissed her brother atop the head. “It’s just a scary story, Tam. No one’s ever seen one.”
“Are you so sure?” asked Nan, with a scary gleam in her eye. “A man, older than your father, covered in shaggy black bear-fur and unshaven”—she waved her open hand around her face—“with wild hair and a giant woodsman’s axe. His eyes burn with the yellow light of the Netherworld. He’s neither dead nor alive. Some say cursed.”
Emma frowned at the dough, prodding it with her fingers. Nan’s words were scary, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe such fancy. The old woman being so serious about it only convinced her Nan tried to give her a fright. Despite thinking it a silly story, she found herself holding on to the table to keep from shaking.
“Probably just some poor old man who lives alone in the woods that people are afraid of for no reason.” Emma made a face at her flour-coated hands. “People always make up stories when they’re scared, or they don’t wanna do something.”
Nan smiled, stood with a grunt, and ambled to the stove on three legs, two living and one wooden. She hooked her cane in the crook of her arm and opened the metal oven. After putting the bread inside, she closed the door and added another two hunks of wood to the fire. Emma wiped her hands on a rag. Nan wobbled closer, leaning two shaking arms on the stick to prop herself up as she fixed Emma with a stare.
“How likely do you think it to be for a girl of six to survive on her own in Widowswood? Do you think bandits would keep a pauper’s daughter for ransom? What of the wolves, or the goblins, or the emerald creepers?”
Those, Emma believed in—spiders half the size of a horse, with bright green hair. She believed in them because she’d seen one once. Dead, on the back of a merchant’s wagon, but real. Two weeks’ worth of nightmares came from that, but she’d been only five then. Nan mentioning them made Emma imagine being six and running into one alone in the woods—one that wasn’t dead. She crossed her arms over her chest, shivering, giving Nan an accusing look for making her think such thoughts. Tonight, her dreams would be wrapped in spidersilk.
Nan chuckled. “Emma, come help me—”
The door flew open and smacked into the wall.
Emma gasped, grabbing the edge of the table with both hands. Da walked in amid the clatter of light brigandine armor and a broadsword tapping his leg. All thoughts of giant spiders and child-stealing monsters with axes fled her mind.
Da started to smile at her, but sighed. “Em, it’s high time we got you some proper clothing. You look like a beggar girl.”
She pulled the dress out to the sides, appraising it. “But Da, Nan made this…”
“Yes, she did. Two years ago, and you’ve worn it to death. It’s falling apart.” His steps thudded over the floor as he crossed the room to hang his cloak on a peg and lean his weapon against the wall. “Tomorrow, we’re going into town.”
“Yes, Da,” she said, staring down at her dirty feet.
He rounded the table and put hand atop her head, drawing her into a gentle, but brief hug. He picked Tam up, spun the giggling boy around twice, and set him back in the chair. Emma smiled as he moved into the back room remove his armor. Nan tapped her cane on the table. “Come, Emma, help your old grandmother finish supper.”