Story art by Shareen Mann.
From the author: Short story (2700 words) – In the shadows of Schwartzwald, the Black Forest, lived a powerful king known as Erlkönig, King of Alder. He stood over seven feet in height and was easily as majestic as any tree in his domain. His robe was the blue-gray color of mist. On his head he wore a crown of leaves, of a kind never found on any tree, perpetually held in the bright tints of autumn.
Long ago the Earth was more wild, and the forest of the world held great power over humankind. The face of the world has changed, but some of this remains true.
In the shadows of Schwartzwald, the Black Forest, lived a powerful king known as Erlkönig, King of Alder. He stood over seven feet in height and was easily as majestic as any tree in his domain. His robe was the blue-gray color of mist. On his head he wore a crown of leaves, of a kind never found on any tree, perpetually held in the bright tints of autumn. He carried a staff as tall as himself, and although it could have been an imposing weapon, it was never needed. Erlkönig was one of the fair folk, and while human children saw a grand figure, their parents could see only an old gray willow, battered by the elements.
Alone in his vast forest, Erlkönig might have become quite lonely. Spotted woodpeckers, red deer, and badgers could participate in conversation on only a limited number of subjects, even such creatures as have been surrounded by magic. Foxes served him by choice rather than fear or obligation. Of humankind, the children were the most like him. They alone could laugh with abandon, and found pleasure in the simplest of things. Alas that human children grew up and took on the world’s troubles as responsibilities, extinguishing the spark within and blinding their eyes to his visage. It was the tragic fate of the human born. Their lives were short, and they lost all joy in the world so quickly. But he had a solution.
When a boy entered the forest with his father, Erlkönig knew. When a girl child traveled the narrow roadway, he was aware. He decreed that children trespassing within the bounds of Schwartzwald between dusk and dawn would never leave. The red fox carried the proclamation to all ends of the forest, but humans were ignorant of the true language of the wild.
When a child came under the shadow of the mighty trees, Erlkönig visited as soon as night fell. Perhaps it was unfair. No child could refuse him, and they rarely even considered it. Most quickly forgot to fear him as a stranger, ran into his arms without question, and never looked back. He was more handsome than anyone they had ever seen, and they could not turn away once he had caught their eyes. His gentle voice coaxed like the fairest music. Sometimes he sang, other times he lured them with promises of all the marvelous things they would do together. He did not lie.
In his forest, where he was strongest, around those he loved the most, his power enabled him to bind the vital essence of the child, forsaking his or her first form to become one of his own; fey children who would never have to understand the weeping of the world.
“Who rides through my forest so late this night?” Erlkönig asked as he stood at the edge of the well-traveled dirt road. He could hear the pounding of a single horse’s hooves, though it was still a great distance off.
“It is a father with his son,” the red fox whispered. “He holds the boy close to keep him warm.” He smiled up at the Lord of the Wood. “How considerate of him to pass through so close to winter, when few choose to travel with their kits.”
Erlkönig bent and caressed the fox behind the ear. “How right you are.” He straightened and stepped into the road, gathering his glamour about him like a cloak. The rider and his precious burden approached. Closer and closer they came. Erlkönig saw the travelers long before they could see him. To the father he was little more than a shadowy cloud of fog, haziness in a low spot under the trees. The horse slowed, then shied, keeping to the far edge of the path.
The boy let out a faint gasp of surprise, and turned his head to watch as they passed Erlkönig. His mouth was open, but no words came out. His round cheeks were pink from the wind and chill. His hat and scarf were free of threads and snags, suggesting that they could not be mere cast offs from an older sibling. In an age when most children went unshod, fine leather boots were visible under his blanket wrappings. He was a treasure, cradled in the arms of the man.
Erlkönig smiled. “You lovely child, come away with me,” he whispered. In Schwartzwald his voice carried to the ears of all children, be they near or far, if he wished it. “Many are the games I will play with you.”
The horse continued down the road, and the father forcefully turned the boy’s head to face front. The child became restless, squirming in his father’s grip. It was a common reaction when someone tried to hide Erlkönig from a child who had already seen him. Such young ones were already smitten, enthralled by the king who spoke so kindly and looked so beautiful.
On swift feet Erlkönig moved ahead of the horse and riders, and again waited for their approach. In his forest he could move wherever he wished as quickly as necessary. He was not bound by the rules that restricted humans. His eyes were keen, and he could see the boy thrashing, half-hidden beneath his father’s cloak.
“I will show you many colorful flowers, and dress you in golden raiment,” he said. The child saw him then, and stopped struggling. Erlkönig held his staff in his right hand and reached out with the left. It was important to him that the child came willingly, despite the fact that there was no choice. He did not intend to harm the boy with force, and fear was hurt enough to grieve Erlkönig. He worked his magic patiently, knowing he had all the time he needed.
Again, the horse spooked, sidling away as he came near. “Father?” the boy whispered in confusion as he leaned out to touch his hand to Erlkönig’s. The human child went limp in his blood father’s arms, his body quickly going cold. When the man checked, he would find his son dead. But standing in the middle of the road, holding the hand of Erlkönig was the same boy, turned fey. There was a healthy pale blue glow to his plump cheeks, and the light in his black eyes was brighter than it had been when they were hazel and he was yet a human child.
“Father?” the boy asked, reaching out with his free hand to grasp Erlkönig’s robe. “Were you calling me?”
“It’s late,” Erlkönig said gently. He raised the end of his staff to the sky. “The moon will soon take flight, and we’ve hardly had the chance to play.” Hand in hand they walked into the woods. “Let us leap to and fro, merry as we dance our way home.”
The boy laughed with delight and slipped loose to run ahead, free. Like a deer, he bounded over fallen trees and low-lying dips, spinning when he landed, and giggling when he fell into a pile of leaves and pine needles.
“Are you happy?” Erlkönig asked, easily keeping pace.
“Oh yes,” the child replied as his feet splashed through a puddle so small that it could scarcely bathe a star. He paused and stared at Erlkönig. “I love you, father.”
Erlkönig smiled. “And I love you, my stolen child.”
The mother was bereft. She knelt beside the body of her daughter and howled, an almost inhuman sound of unmeasurable suffering. Again, she grasped the prone child’s shoulders and shook her, begging her to wake. Her words were inarticulate and frantic, uttered in the desperation of one who knew it was too late. Holding the cold girl to her breast, the woman turned from despair to rage. She tipped her head back and shrieked her promises of revenge into the treetops.
Erlkönig was beyond her ability to curse.
He turned away from the road, following after the flighty child he had stolen. In sparing her the impoverished life she was destined to lead, he had done what was best for her, and that was what mattered. She would know no sorrow, and he would derive great joy from her happiness and freedom.
Over the decades and centuries, Erlkönig’s family grew. Visitors to Schwartzwald heard the echoing laughter of children high in the tops of the trees. The sound was faint, as if far away, yet the voices were clear and undistorted over the distance. Some said the forest was haunted, and others claimed it was bad luck. Others still, perhaps guided by some extra sense or exceptional wisdom, insisted it was a holy place not meant for the likes of humans.
Villages grew and expanded, cutting down more of the forest and splitting it, first in two, then four, shrinking woodlands, separate entities that were one in spirit. The roadways were widened and covered with gravel. A pungent black surface followed. Carriages were replaced with motor cars made with the death metal Erlkönig couldn’t penetrate or approach, even in his own domain. They spewed noxious fumes into the once pristine air. Many of the trees, his meek and defenseless children, grew sick. The animals became fewer. But Erlkönig refused to let his children suffer or worry because their playground had become smaller. He grew faery rings, allowing them to jump to the amputated portions of old Schwartzwald without nearing the dangerous roadways.
Over time, the tales of the haunted forest and the children who died there dropped into the realm of legend. Parents grew careless. Cars occasionally broke down, leaving the passengers stranded in the dark night. Boys and girls wandered off, looking for a convenient place to relieve their bladders, or simply meandering out of boredom. Away from the cold iron they could hear Erlkönig’s voice and see him in all his glory.
Then the forest stopped shrinking, and the air improved. It seemed that humans had discovered the folly in destroying everything that inconvenienced them, whether or not they understood it. While this made his home a safer place, Schwartzwald had been forever changed. Although some humans were more enlightened than those the Erlkönig first encountered, as a whole their progress was minimal. Many held little pleasure in the world or in their short lives. It seemed the world was a more tearful place than ever before. There were countless tragedies, crimes, and miseries, and upon reaching a certain maturity, humans were destined to accept guilt and responsibility for things they had no control over. They lost the spark that made life worth living. He would spare them all, if he could, but his power was bound to the forest and did not extend beyond the shadow of the trees.
The girl sat, unmoving, on a half-rotten log. Her father, a bare score paces away, was swearing from underneath the hood of his vile motor car. He offered periodic apologies and reassurances that they would soon be on their way, before turning back to the machinery that had failed him so completely.
She couldn’t have been more than ten, yet her expression was oddly adult. Exasperation mixed with the effort to control her temper. The fingers of one hand explored the cracks in the log. “It’s all right,” she called back to her father. “We’ll just have to be late.”
“I think she’s ready to cry,” the red fox said, then shook her head. “She’s all dressed up for a party. Look at those ribbons in her hair. And she’s accustomed to disappointment. You can see it.” She turned away. “I can’t stand it. I’m going home to my kits.”
Erlkönig brushed her tail with a finger as she fled. She’d become quite sensitive in their association, and understood his plight better than any of her predecessors. He watched the girl a little longer, puzzled by her ability to stay so still. She didn’t address her father again, although she occasionally turned her head, ever so slightly, pointing an ear in his direction. Then the Lord of the Wood realized her luminous gray eyes never moved, and he understood. He hoped it wasn’t too late; that she hadn’t already taken on too many burdens as a result of her blindness.
“Come away my child,” he whispered, relieved when her face turned in his direction. “Come to the wild.”
She looked both puzzled and awed, as she stared at him. Two small hands came up to cover her mouth.
She could see him.
He smiled, but took only the smallest step closer. “My fine girl, will you come away with me? My daughters await your arrival with great anticipation. Together, you will dance and sing.”
She turned toward her father, then back to Erlkönig. Because she saw him with pure sight, not human vision, he was the only thing she would see until she abandoned her imperfect physical form. Her beautiful face showed confusion. She frowned.
Never had one hesitated so. She was so near to losing her spark that she could consider her options and choose. “I love you, my child,” he whispered. He had to convince her, to save her from the fate her kind faced. While he knew he could use force, make her stay, the very idea repulsed him. “I wish for you to walk Schwartzwald at my side.”
As she gazed at him, her expression turned wistful. Finally, she stood and took clumsy steps in his direction. She held her arms out in front of her, as if expecting to run into something, as if disbelieving the one thing her eyes had ever shown her.
“Carefully, my dear,” he cautioned. She stepped in a hole and lurched forward. He caught her hands on the way down, pulling her gently from her human body.
She stared at him a moment longer before discovering she could now see everything around her. She flung her arms around his neck, burying her face in his silvery robe. She trembled and would not let go.
He carried her deeper into the forest, away from the road, and soon she calmed. They sat together on the damp earth of the forest floor, and she couldn’t stop looking about, running her fingers over the things she could now see. At last, her eyes settled on Erlkönig. “What have I done to deserve this gift?” she asked, her voice no more than a whisper.
“You came to me,” he said, patting her hand. “It is the only way I could have done it.”
The red fox and her four young kits scampered by, and the girl smiled. “Everything’s so beautiful. Especially you, father.” She looked at him again.
“Everything within my kingdom is wondrous fair,” he said as his long fingers tucked the black strands of hair behind her ears. “And you are in my kingdom.”
She blushed, her cheeks momentarily going a brighter blue, then her dark eyes went wide. “But I don’t even know what I look like.”
Erlkönig smiled and stood, holding one hand down to her. “We can find a pond for you to admire your reflection, and I assure you, you will be pleased.”
Together they walked through Schwartzwald, gathering his other children in a large entourage. “I love you, my father,” the girl said.
“And I love you,” he said. “I love all my stolen children.”
She looked straight at him. “Yes. But you will love me best.”
Humankind has dominion over much of the Earth, but the forest still has power over it. For Erlkönig of Schwartzwald is not unique to the forest of the world, and some of his kin have less kindly motives. The end of this story is unknown, and only time will determine who will live happily ever after.
This story originally appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated issue 29, edited by Eric M. Heideman and published by TOTU Ink in November 2008. Reprinted in the anthology Practice to Believe in 2015..