The Erlking’s Window – An Eerie Winter Tale
Prepare yourself for a chill and read The Erlking’s Window, the fabulous winning short story for our Waterstones short story competition.
THE ERLKING’S WINDOW
There was a window in the woods and it always stood open, waiting and welcoming.
It had always been there, a curious thing made of thick branches intertwined with an empty space in the middle, just right for jumping through, but Martha had never dared. Nor had the other children for their mothers had forbade it, spitting through thumb and forefinger as they cursed the place and the frozen earth beneath it.
“No human child ever crossed it and lived,” said the mothers. “At least, not unchanged.”
A mother had once passed her newborn through it in the hope that he on the other side would bless it with good fortune, but when it came back she found that there was nothing in the baby’s shawl but a withered root that screamed when it was buried in the ground. Or there was a girl with golden hair whom the Erlking invited to sit upon his windowsill, and when she did so he pushed her through it and had his way with her. All that could be found of her afterwards was strands of her shining hair hanging from the branches of the trees.
Each story mentioned the Erlking, for it was he the window belonged to and to enter it was a deadly trespass. However, this did not stop the village children from playing in the surrounding wood although as the darker months stole in even they kept away. Yet Martha was drawn to it, for she knew not what manner of creature the Erlking was and dreamed he might be beautiful and take her for his Queen. Such foolish thoughts are death dressed in silver paper and they kill each day, for little girls hold them too closely to their hearts for grown-ups to ever imagine that they are there until it is too late.
It was while playing hide-and-seek with her four brothers one day that Martha went to the Window alone. She had been hunkered down behind the same tree for hours, numbed with cold and boredom, and apart from the occasional distant call there had been no sign of her brothers since the game began. Martha was just bracing her palm against a tree trunk in order to rise when she heard a whispering behind her, soft as frost trodden underfoot.
“I see you, pretty girl,” it said. “I’ve found you.”
Martha stood up so sharply that she almost hit her head on a low branch as she turned to face the thing that had spoken. It was taller than Martha, and its limbs possessed a delicate, moth-like fragility, or appeared to be, from what little she could see of it. The creature had completely enveloped itself in a crimson cloak which wound away, seemingly without end, into the shadows of the trees.
“I’ve found you,” said the creature, again. Although it stared at her intently it appeared to have no eyes, only a smooth brow on which rested a crown that Martha first thought was made of woven birch twigs but was, on second glance, white bone, growing from his skull as naturally as antlers from a stag.
“You’re the Erlking,” said Martha. Then she added, “I wasn’t playing with you. I’m not allowed.”
The Erlking put one long finger to its lips and whispered, “Shh. Who will know?”
“My brothers will, if they can’t find me,” said Martha.
As she spoke, the faraway voice of the seeker filtered through the wood and hearing it the Erlking shuddered.
“Forget them,” he said to her. “And I will dress you in frosted silver and make you my Queen.”
“No,” said Martha, for she was afraid of him and his ugliness, but when she glanced down she saw a gown of shimmering gossamer twisted through his slender fingers and was enchanted by its beauty. She reached out to take it from him, too slowly, for at once he snatched it away.
“Come to my window,” he said. “Then you shall have it, and more.”
Martha tried to recall the warnings her mother had given her but the Erlking’s words rung clearer, feeding her youthful greed. She followed him through the wood until the twisted frame of the Erlking’s Window stood before them. It was the only thing in the forest that remained untouched by snow as if it were afraid to fall there. Suddenly Martha remembered her fear and wanted to run, but her feet held fast in the earth.
“Pretty girl, see what I have for you,” said the Erlking, and with one slender hand he touched the window’s empty pane. As he did so Martha heard her brothers calling again, but now their voices were raw with terror and despair and so close that she gazed about in bewilderment that she could not see them. Then the Erlking drew his wasted arm away from the window and in its place were her four brothers, beating piteously on the non-existent glass. Their wretched faces were black with frostbite, and as their tears fell against the window they froze solid and fell into the Erlking’s palm.
“Here,” he said. “Give me your hand.”
Martha tried to resist but the Erlking moved quickly, and in a moment she felt something cold slide up her finger and lock fast upon her flesh. It was a silver ring, set with four jewels as precious and perfect as tears.
“My Queen,” said the Erlking, and with arms not so frail as they seemed he gathered up his bride and carried her through through the waiting window.
There is a window in the woods, the mothers tell their children, and a girl who kneels in the snow beside it, weeping, as she twists a silver ring round and round her finger. But they must never stop to speak to her, for if she turned towards them they would see that her face was smooth and eyeless and could no more weep than the dead.
Waterstones Short Story Competition Winners
- The Erlking’s Window by Rachel Halsall (winner)
- We Are Not Supposed To Be Awake by Lucy Middlemass (runner-up)
- The White Lady by Danica Green (runner-up)
The short story entries for this competition were inspired by the cover of ‘The Mistletoe Bride’ by Kate Mosse: Available in Waterstones and other good bookshops now.