My son, if you’re reading this, then it’s your turn and I’m not around to take your place.
But despite the pleas I’m sure you’re hearing now, urging you to hurry and join the rest of the hunters, I beg you not to follow them, not yet, not until you read this. For in these pages you’ll find something you’ll need if you are to survive the night in the woods, if the spirits and monsters don’t devour you first.
I beg you read these words, and beyond that I urge you to believe every word in these pages. I’ve tried to prepare you for it, to teach you to keep your mind and spirit open to things most can’t see. I know that at times you suffered for my beliefs and the things I said, and I know a part of you must have hated me for it. I know because it was the same for me, and I hated your grandfather for what I endured because of him…but his teachings kept me alive and I hope they’ll do the same for you.
A few centuries ago as it is today I’m sure, the Kingdom needed wood. But where today our town has a healthy trade with various parts for what we take from the forest you now prepare yourself to enter, at the time our family was just another in a small tent in the mud, with very little to their name and hoping for change.
It was then she appeared, coming with the early summer breeze. Hair like gold, my great grandfather used to say, one eye of amethyst and the other emerald and a smile that caught your sight and the air in your throat. My great grandmother was very jealous of her, but even with her husband visibly drooling over the stranger, they opened their home to her, a simple and beautiful traveller. The rest of the town wasn’t as warm to the newcomer, most of them barely surviving.
She didn’t stay long, only for a few days but in her wake the soil became fertile, fish and game was plentiful and every woman in the new village became pregnant, and every child was born strong and healthy. It’s all probably fantasy, but my great grandfather swore it to be true. The only thing I do believe is she took a medal with her, my great great grandfather’s, for distinguished military service to his lord, but that’s a story you already know and we don’t have that much time.
My grandfather didn’t meet her and he didn’t believe his father’s tales, nor did mine. But then we came under attack. We’d spent decades taking from the woods and it didn’t like it. I know you never believed it, but the woods are alive, son. There is something in there, beneath the canopy, that doesn’t want us here, and sometimes it sends its monsters our way to prove that point. Now, anyone else would’ve packed up and left, but I don’t have to tell you we’re all a very particular kind of stubborn in this town and we have very short memory. Well, most do, our family makes sure to tell the tales, even if no one believes us.
The first hunting party had your grandfather and his friends. Their families are still around, but their boys didn’t make it home back then. The forest took them. Werewolves, goblins, ogres, satyrs, dryads and many more things came after them the moment they stepped away from the sun’s light and into the shadows. Some managed to escape the first onslaught, but then the more mundane predators took them.
It’s how the woods work son and you need to know it. If the monsters don’t get you, and yes son, the monsters are very real and waiting for you, then the animals will. Be careful of the wolves, they smell blood for leagues.
Your grandfather ran from them, trying to reach the village, but the woods wouldn’t let him, not while the hunt was on. He ran for miles, and even though he couldn’t see them, he knew they were there, laughing at him. The wood has many monsters, some of them just out of sight, but they take pleasure in human suffering. It’s a game to them, son. Maybe they’re evil, maybe they just don’t understand our pain, but they are definitely cruel.
He prayed, pleaded and begged. He cried and wept. He did everything you will do, and everything I did. He cowered in the dark, weak and hungry, the growling coming near, their red eyes shining between the trees.
But as they approached, a shaft of light pierced the gloom and there she was, the visitor, her golden hair and her eyes like gemstones. She stood on the threshold of a simple cabin, which hadn’t been there before. She smiled her radiant smile and bid my father, your grandfather, inside.
She warmed and comforted him, healed and nurtured. She taught him of the forest, and why it attacks. She showed him the little dancing men, the flowing women marching in the breeze, the little girls of the trees and all the other faerie creatures in the woods, their gentle yet eerie laughing burning itself in his mind.
Then, when he was ready, she opened her door and bid him farewell. He readied himself for the horrors of the woods and the strange alien creatures he’d seen. But instead he found himself leaving the edge of the forest, returning to the village as a hero, the sole survivor of the latest hunt.
I didn’t believe much of what he said at the time, nor did my mother. After all, a cabin just appearing in the wood, with a gentle woman there to take care of his wounds, teach him of the best and worst of the woods and then send him back home? It sounded too far-fetched, but every hunt afterwards the same would happen. He would find his way home, even after others died or deserted him. He would always return, his wounds taken care of and a bit wiser about the darkness in the forest.
And then it was my turn, my boy. I was barely sixteen, but my father was dead, as I am if you’re reading this. The predators caught up with him. We both escaped death a time too many, but I didn’t know it then.
It was as my father told me, the darkness in the woods all consuming. As the trail left the edge of the wood, the shadows engulfed us and we could no longer see the way back. I don’t know if we slept, or if the magic in the forest did something to us, but we were lost and surrounded. I could see the eyes glinting between the trees, from the shrubbery and heard their cries above and below us. But more than that, I could feel it, the malice hanging in the air, the force controlling the forest. My father had been right about that.
The earth trembled, the air stood still and I could hear our frantic heartbeats in my ears, but they didn’t move. They approached slowly, filling the spaces between the trees, their bulky frames barely visible but their unblinking red eyes glinted with hunger.
I don’t know who was first, but someone ran, and then we all spread and that’s when they lunged at us. They waited for us to break ranks, to break up the party so they could pick us out one by one. I heard screams and the wet sounds of flesh tearing. Even I was hurt, with slashes and bites covering my arms, legs and back. I ran for as long as my burning legs would let me, then hobbled and then I dragged myself across the ground, my blood leaving me and drawing in the horrible wolves.
Much like my father, it was then I saw it, the cabin in the woods, bathed in a golden light even though it didn’t stand in a clearing. It glowed ethereally, and standing on its threshold, wearing a dress of the purest white and an azure cloak, I saw her, the Witch of the Wild, as my father had once called her. The way they had described her to me didn’t do her justice, son. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on, and her smile filled me with warmth.
I dragged myself to her. She helped me up and took me inside. I looked back and saw the wolves at the edge of the cabin’s mysterious glow, the red in their eyes slowly vanishing, as if whatever controlled them had given up the chase.
My father returned to the village a day after his forest incursion. I didn’t. I had nothing to return home to. I didn’t have a family of my own and my parents were long dead. So I remained with the gentle woman of the forest, a companion to her lonely life in the woods. At first she urged me to return to the village, but as the days passed, we grew accustomed to each other and I could see in her eyes how much she appreciated the companionship.
A few days turned to weeks, then months and even years. I learned of the forest, the best times to explore and when to lock up the doors. I learned of her life, her origin and her place in the dark woods. She had arrived looking for family, but found nothing but disdain yet she remained, a part of her hoping to find acceptance one day. The Lords of the forest hated her for her humanity, but also feared her because of it, though she wouldn’t explain what that meant.
Then one night, I noticed the medallion my great grandfather always spoke of, the one the visitor supposedly took after her short visit and we realised how much our family’s fate had been intertwined with hers. She was apologetic and I felt the guilt on her, though it wouldn’t be until much later that I understood why. That night, I consoled her and then…well, a few months later you came along, a little bundle of screams for our little cottage.
I brought you out of the forest when you were but a babe, barely a year into your little life. We had to escape the forest. She was gone, disappeared in the night, the cabin feeling empty when I woke. I knew she wouldn’t be back, but I understood when I grasped the medallion, still warm with her touch. She had to leave to give us a chance.
I finally understood her guilt of that night. Every time she saved us, every moment our family spent with her, it marked us, it made us the enemy of the forest lords, each time the urge to kill us becoming greater. It’s why your grandfather died, so many times saved, so vicious the retaliation.
But she was gone, so they let us do the same.
My son, I urge you to believe my words, I implore you accept the truth. Tonight you’ll brave the forest, and because of who you are, because of your heritage from the Witch of the Wilds, as everyone calls her, the monsters will seek you out, perhaps even more than those like me, who have merely been touched by her.
But fear not, for there is something that will keep you safe.
Tonight, you will face horrors, creatures of the darkest depths of the forests and some of their masters. They’ll hunt you and hurt you, but as long as you hold onto the medallion I left on the mantelpiece, the same medallion your mother left us, and believe in her, the cottage will be there for you. It’s your birthright and your home.
Your mother left us years ago, but she’s still out there, she’s still alive, I know that for certain. I hope your paths cross, my son, for she is truly special, a wonder of this world.
They called her the Witch of the Wilds. She preferred Half-Fae Sorceress. But for me, she was just Madeleine, my Madeleine.
I love you son and I know she’s watching over you.
Note: This story is inspired by a character, a Fae-blooded Sorcerer from a Pathfinder campaign I played a few years ago (if you know the setting, you’ll know where the story takes place). A friend of mine, Cruz Diego Acuña played her. A couple of weeks ago I heard of his passing. I only knew Cruz for a short time but the memories of this RPG campaign I’ll keep with me forever, for he was one of the best players a GM can ask for, the type of player so expressive that you know when you’re doing things well. He was also one of the most talented artists I’ve ever met. Within minutes of us starting the game he had already sketched out the entire party. But beyond his skill in the game and in his art, he was an extremely fun person to be around and cared deeply for his friends.
He’s gone now, sickness took him in his 20s, but in my mind and in my heart, he lives on as Madeleine, Fae Sorceress. I think he would approve.
My original version had conversations between the characters, but I can’t talk to my friend anymore, the only thing I have left are memories, so this story became about that, memories.