by Chris Pearce
“The Erlking’s got you.”
This was true, though I didn’t know so then.
“Oh, to be killed by a phantom,” I said, turning over in my bed.
“A perfect fate for such a wicked boy,” my father said, rising from his chair and walking towards the door of my room. “You should pray. Pray that God will protect your soul from the Devil and his children.”
And with that he left me, alone in my bed. I heard the click of the lock on my door, and I sighed. If I was going to die, I was not going to die like some old woman sick with the fever. Of course, he always forgot the window.
The first thing that I thought as I climbed down the side of my house was that if the Erkling didn’t kill me I would never return to my bed. The town was far too wonderful at night, dark and quiet and empty and covered in snow. The darkness illuminated all the opportunities in the place.
As I stood there in the snow, I wondered where I needed to go. I was going to die after all; I knew that. I suppose that I needed to find the Erlking, but I had no idea where he might be. Father had said that he galloped along lonely roads, looking for the lost and the foolish. As I stared up at the sky, watching the stars in the sky, I heard the sound of hoof steps, and—
I turned around and saw behind me—not a horse, or the Erlking or the Host of the Wild Hunt or any other thing that I was looking for—just another boy, standing in the shadows.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
“Oh. You don’t remember. I am Nick,” he said, pulling back a cloak from his face. “Are you looking for the Erlking?”
“Do you know him?”
“I do,” he said, smiling and revealing rows of crooked white teeth—they reflected the light of the moon and were the only part of him I could see. “If you’re looking for him, I can help you find him. Is he trying to kill you?”
“He might be trying, but he isn’t going to succeed,” I said. Nick laughed at this, a deep braying sound that made me shiver. “How do you know him?”
“Oh, everyone does, where I come from,” he said, stepping out from the shadows and into the light of the moon and the stars. He had antlers like those of a deer or an elk, each with seven silver tines, and instead of feet he had hooves. He wore no cloak—what I had seen was his hair, long and brown and matted, mixed with twigs and leaves. In fact, he wore no clothes at all—just a few hides draped around his shoulders and the light of the moon on his skin. As the darkness retreated from him, I smiled, and stepped forward. “Are you not afraid?”
“Why would I be afraid? I’ve always dreamed of meeting one of the Good Neighbors. My father says you’re all quite wicked. Is that true?”
“Indeed,” he said, drawing himself close to me.
“Good,” I answered, stepping back with a flourish and bowing. “I am quite wicked myself, you see.”
“Oh you are? Well, we will see about that,” he said, circling around me. As he took my hand in his—they were rough hands, even though they looked smooth—he asked me “And what is the name of this wicked human?”
“So, Erich, you’ve never seen one of my kind before? I’ve never seen humans before, either. You aren’t what I expected.”
“What did you think humans were like?” Nick was exactly like I expected on of the Fair Folk to be. He seemed so different—and so familiar. My hair was short and blonde, his was long and dark. My eyes were blue—his were black, I suppose. I am tan, or sunburnt more often, and he looked as if the only light that had ever touched his skin came from the moon. He looked like no one I had ever seen before in any way, even if I ignored his horns and hooves. And yet I had seen him before, when my Father talked of the Wild Hunt or the Fey Dances or the City beneath the Sea. I had seen him in the dreams I had during the day, when the pastor talked of the monsters that lurked beyond the town’s walls.
He simply shrugged my shoulders at my question.
“I don’t suppose I know. Well, Erich, do you want to find the Erlking? I can help you find him.”
“Where is he?”
“Oh, I don’t know, exactly. No one really does anymore. But I have a general idea—“ He pointed north, towards the rising moon—“that he is in that direction, beyond the mountains, or something like that. But you’ll never make it.”
“I can try, at least,” I said, furrowing my brow and pushing past him.
“But you can’t,” he said grabbing my arm. “You don’t have much time. You know that. You’ll die tonight, one way or another, so you can’t waste any time.”
“But how can I get over the mountains any faster than walking?”
“By riding, of course,” he said, and pulled me into the shadows.
“Ride? But we don’t have a horse!” I said, as we raced along, between the buildings, and I realized that he was gone, and in his place was a horse with a mane long and brown and matted, mixed with twigs and leaves, with antlers like those of a deer or an elk, each with seven silver tines. He was gone, and I was upon his back, riding through the city streets towards the darkness beyond its walls. As we rode, he spoke to me. “I can get you to Erlking before dawn, but you’ll owe me.”
“What?” I asked, laughing as the wind blew back my hair.
“You’ll owe me a favor. Anything I ask, whenever I ask it, and whatever I ask, you can’t refuse it. Do you accept?”
I would have given him anything at that moment, and I was certainly willing to give him a promise. “Of course,” I said, and we galloped along, jumping up over fences and then roofs and then over the walls of the city itself, into the forest that surrounded it, towards the mountains.
And then we stopped, and rode no longer.
“Is this where the Erlking lives?” I asked, peering up at the sky. There was no light here; the city had vanished behind the trees and all I could see where the moon and the stars.
“No,” said Nick. I could not see him, and it seemed as if he whispered to me right by my ear, but when I reached for him, he was not there. “No, but we’re getting closer. You still haven’t left the mortal world yet. You must do that before I can take you to him.”
And then, down from the sky, came the stars. But these were not stars—they were insects, fireflies, more than I had ever seen in one place. They flew through the air, spiraling into one place—and then I could see Nick, standing before me, holding a gnarled wooden staff, upon which the fireflies rested, although a few still wafted through the air.
“I thought,” he said, smirking and again revealing his crooked white teeth, “that you might like to be able to see where you’re going before you go there. Are you ready to leave your mortal home behind?”
“Of course,” I said, moving forward into the light. And then I saw where Nick was standing. He was within a ring of mushrooms, each capped bright red. I hesitated, half remembering words spoken by father, my pastor, by children singing old songs whose meanings had been forgotten hundreds of years ago.
“Are you afraid?” Nick asked. His smile had vanished, replaced by only the slightest off frowns.
“Why would I be afraid?” I asked, swallowing hard and stepping forwards, but not yet into the circle.
“Do you not fear the fairy ring? Do you not fear that you’ll be snatched away, only to return a hundred years hence, when everything you know has grown old and died and only you remain?”
“No,” I said, and I closed my eyes and stepped within the circle.
When I opened my eyes again I found that nothing had changed. Nick still stood before me, holding his living lantern that illuminated the empty forest that surrounded us.
“We haven’t moved.”
“No,” he said. “Take my hand.”
I did, and he led me out of the circle, into the woods. A cold wind blew through the trees; I coughed at this sudden chill, but Nick seemed unaffected.
“You don’t like the cold, I see,” he said, arching an eyebrow. “But you only have a little bit longer, now. Here, let’s rest. We’ll have to wait for him anyways.”
We sat upon a mossy rock by a quiet stream, and for a moment, we were silent.
“Are you hungry?” Nick asked me. I was. I hadn’t realized it, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten. I hadn’t had an appetite in so long, and it came rushing back to me the moment he asked the question. My stomach growled, answering the question for me.
Nick leaned towards me, and I saw that he was holding a handful of golden leaves. He passed the leaves from one hand to another, moving them so quickly that they became almost impossible to see. He then held his hand up to me, and I saw that where there once were leaves there was now a loaf of golden bread.
“Here,” he said, smirking at me and holding the bread close. I could smell it—it smelled as if it had just been removed from an oven at the bakery. But—
“It’s just leaves,” I said, pushing the bread away.
“You are afraid,” he said, pulling the bread back to his chest.
“I’m not. But—it’s just leaves.” He shrugged his shoulders in response.
“Is it?” he asked, pulling off a piece of bread and eating it. “You’re right. It is just leaves. But, does that matter? It’s just an illusion—a trick of our minds. But an illusion is real, too—you can see it, and you can smell it, and you can imagine that, if just for a moment, that it is real, can’t you?”
I didn’t know if I could. I thought of everything that I knew was real—I thought of home, and I thought of my father. But I also thought of Nick and his fire fly lamp, and I thought of everything I had imagined beyond the walls of the city. So I took the bread from his hand, and I bit into the loaf. It tasted of leaves and branches and dirt, but also of wheat and the oven and flour and sugar. I quickly devoured the leaves, and left nothing remaining.
“You are a fool,” said Nick, lifting himself from his repose, and taking me by the hand, he pulled me towards the stream. “But you are brave, so that is fine. Only fools can meet the Erlking, after all. Are you ready?”
I was. So I did not resist as he pulled me into the stream, even as the cold waters soaked right through my clothing and my skin, right to my bones. My fingers went numb and my lips turned blue from the water’s kiss and my lungs screamed out for air. I saw my death—and then Nick pulled me from the water and back onto the forest floor.
“It’s alright,” he said, pulling me from the water.
“The water’s freezing,” I said, looking up at him. “It’s freezing—so why am I not cold?”
He shook his head in response. “You’re dying. It’s like I said—you won’t survive past the sunrise. Dreams never do.”
I looked at my fingers—I did not see the touch of frostbite, but that was only because I felt nothing in my fingers at all.
“When we first met, you said I didn’t remember you. How could I have remembered you? I’ve never met you before.”
“Think,” laughed Nick. “Think. Think of me, and only me.”
So I thought. I thought of lessons in the schoolhouse, of memorizing line and formula. I remembered the schoolhouse, sure—but not Nick—not of looking out the window and into the outdoors where the sun was shining. I thought of the cathedral, where the priest warned us of the temptations that dwelled within our hearts—of swimming with the other boys when summer came, of waiting for when the adults were gone and of racing heartbeats and baited breath. I thought of the only reason that I came to school each day, the only reason that I memorized my lessons—of sneaking to the bookseller’s stall, of peeking while no one watched.
“Yes—but do you know why you forgot?”
I did not.
“It doesn’t matter—not yet. We’re so close, but the moon is almost empty. Do you think that you can make it, just a little longer?”
My clothes were beginning to freeze, and I was shivering violently, even though I felt as if my insides were alight. I looked to the sky—Nick’s words were true. The silver white of the moon was draining out, leaving only a dark circle hanging in the sky.
“I don’t know.” I was ashamed, and I turned away from him, burying my face in my hands. But then I felt his own hands upon my shoulder, pulling away my soaked tunic and wrapping his arms around me. They were strong, stronger than I expected, stronger than the slender white arms seemed when I first saw him. But I looked upon his arms and I knew that they were exactly as they should be—in fact, they were exactly as I remembered them. They were the strong arms of a boy who had worked in the fields or as a blacksmith’s apprentice—familiar arms, after all. I did not resist as his arms moved lower and started to pull away at my pants.
But then I had a memory. Or it may have been a vision—I don’t really know. I remembered father screaming and warning me of the dangers that lied just beyond the town’s walls. The priest came, and he warned me of what awaited in Hell. He spoke of deserts where fire rained eternally from the sky on all the sinners below, who wandered looking for comfort in each other’s arms but can never find it. That, he said, was what awaited those who trespassed in the forest. I thanked him for this mercy, for sparing me from hell and not simply casting me out to the fate I deserved. I must not betray his kindness—not here, not now.
“Wait—wait—this isn’t right,” I said, scrambling away from him.
“You aren’t afraid,” said Nick, looking at me with watery eyes. “So, then, why are you running away? What have I done to offend you so?”
“You’re one of the Fair Folk,” I said, looking at him, my back resting against a tree. It was late, and I was tired, and the numbness creeping up from my fingers and my toes seemed so inviting.
“Yes,” he said, rising to his feet and sauntering towards me. “But, I thought that you wanted to see the Fair Folk—to see me. The Otherworld is a wonderfully wicked place, you know, and—“
“Yes,” I answered, moving towards him but keeping my eyes distant. “Yes, it is wicked, just like me. That’s why the Erlking is coming for me, isn’t it? To take me away to Hell.”
Nick frowned. “Why do you think this?” he asked, a quick breath of air escaping his mouth that sounded almost like a laugh. “How can something so wonderful lead there? How can something that originated within you be the road to Hell?”
“That’s exactly why!” I screamed, rushing away from him. I came to the stream, and I stared down at my own reflection. I knew that I was crying—I could feel the tears pouring down my face—but they did not seem to be reflected in the water. I heard Nick approaching me, heard his attempt to mask the sound of his approach. I did not turn to face him.
“You have to tell me,” I began, still staring at the happy face in the water. “Why is the Erlking coming for me? Why do I have to die tonight?”
“You are going to die tonight,” Nick began, not approaching any closer to me. “Simply because you are ill. You have a fever, and the winter’s cold has made you weak. That is the easiest explanation. But that is not why the Erlking is coming for you.
“Then, why?” I choked, as I reached out to the reflection in the water—but Nick stayed my hand.
“You’re dying,” said Nick, pulling me up from the stream and into his arms. I wanted to struggle, to pull away from him, but I did not. “Not just your body, but your soul, and we—and I don’t want that to happen. The Erlking is dying too, because you don’t visit us anymore—so the Erlking isn’t coming for you. Not really. But he needs you, and I need you, not to leave us.”
And then he sighed, long and deep, before he spoke again. “But the price will be high. You are sick, after all, and the cost of saving the King of the Elves will kill you. Can you accept this price.”
And as I looked into his eyes, I saw that I did remember him. I had missed him, after all this time—and I was ready to save him. “I am,” I said, drawing myself close to him.
“Then let us go,” he said, pulling me along, away from the stream that I had seen in his eyes. He took me deep into the forest, where the trees grew long and gnarled and wide, to the point where the moon and all the stars in the sky were blocked out, and the darkness would have been complete were it not for the fireflies that followed us. We came at last to a great maw of a cave, were even the fireflies would not go. I knew what lay within, and I was ready to face it.
“Here we are,” said Nick with a sigh. “This is your last chance to turn back. Part of you is going to die tonight, but the cost need not be this great. You can still go home.”
I shook my head. I wanted to die. I need to.
So we entered the Erlking’s chamber, deep within the earth, where the dead dwell. The gray stone of the cave quickly gave way to deep brown soil, held up by hundreds of tangled roots. Nick’s fireflies did not follow us here—but now, I no longer needed them.
And here was the Erlking, enshrined upon his throne wrought from the stone and soil itself. His cloak was a dull gray, stitched together from the shadows that lined this place. Up from his head grew horns made from the roots of trees that winded their way out of his skull and into the earth above us. He had no face—only a mask of silver. He made no movement, and his shriveled brown limbs looked almost as if they had grown into the throne that held him.
“Wait!” said Nick, as I started towards my final goal. “Wait—not yet. You still have my promise.”
I turned back and looked at him.
“I know what I want from you. I want for you to turn back, and go home. I want you to leave the forest, and climb back in your bed. I want to watch you age, I want to watch you become a man and take a wife and have children. I want to watch you grow old and die. That’s what I want. That’s how you can fulfill your promise to me—and I promise you, if you do this, then you will not die today, but the Erlking will, and you will have nothing to fear from the fairies again. Please, do not break my promise. Please, do not break my heart.”
I turned back and walked towards him. He smiled, but then I shook my head. I pulled him close to me, looking in his eyes that were beginning to pool with tears. I saw within his eyes a stream, babbling with the waters born when the snow of winter gave way to spring. And I saw my death, clear and beautiful. I kissed him, and then I left him behind.
“I’m sorry,” I said, when our kiss finally ended.
“Thank you,” he said, and then he pulled away from me. I turned away from him, but I looked back one last time. It was too late—he was gone. So I walked up the steps to the Erlking’s throne, ready to at last die at the hands of the King of the Elves. He was dead, or sleeping. I reached up to his mask, and I pulled it away from his face. The body beneath crumbled away, leaving only the dark gray robes and the mask that I held in my hands. So I sat upon the throne of the Erlking, and placed his mask upon my face.
And so the Erlking killed me, and I was no more.
* * *
Chris Pearce is an aspiring writer of fantasy and horror fiction. His works have appeared in Sanitarium, Mirror Dance, Tales from the Lake, and Werewolves versus Music. You can find him on twitter @chrispearc1.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Almost anything can turn into a story if you sit and really analyze it; you just have to let yourself think and work out the possibilities. I’ve found inspiration in places like mythology and literature but sometimes it can be something as mundane as seeing the light on in a newly built house or a passing reference to something on a TV show.