To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month.
Winter has finally come to North Germany. And since winter is also traditionally the season for spooky stories, this month’s free story is a wintery tale of historical horror called The Ghosts of Doodenbos.
So let’s travel back in time to the Spanish occupied Netherlands of the year 1571 AD, where the young widow Ann and her little son Florentijn have a close encounter with…
The Ghosts of Doodenbos
“Never go into the woods, especially not alone.”
Like everybody in the Dutch village of Doodenbos, Ann had grown up with those words, had heard them since she was old enough to walk.
“Don’t go into the woods alone or they will get you.”
Ann didn’t know who “they” were. No one else did either, since no one had ever seen them and lived to tell the tale. All she knew was that something fearsome and terrible lived in the woods that surrounded the village of Doodenbos.
Oh, the road that led to the neighbouring villages and the nearest market town was safe enough. Though even on the road, it was safer if you travelled with a caravan or armed guards and never ever by night.
But take one step off the road and you were doomed. Like Jan Renneboom, who’d gone into the woods on a dare and never returned. Or Dineke de Boer, who’d followed a runaway cow into the woods and never came back and neither did the cow. Or so many others from the village who had ventured too close to the woods and had been taken by the creature that lived there.
Ann didn’t know whether any of those stories were really true. But better to stay safe and keep to the village and the roads. So Ann had been told since she was a small child.
She was no longer a child. Ann was a grown woman now, a mother herself and — at twenty-six — a widow before her time. Her husband Martijn had gone off to fight for Willem of Orange, fight to throw the Spanish oppressors out of the Low Countries. He had never returned.
But at least he’d left Ann a gift to remember him by, the child she’d carried under her heart when he left, her little son Florentijn. He was three now, a pudgy golden-haired boy who was the joy of her life, her sun and her moon, her everything.
Once the mourning period ended, there had been other suitors. Widowers from the village, looking for a wife and mother for their orphaned children. Farmers in need of a wife and even the occasional merchant passing through. But Ann had turned them all down. For even though it had been three years now, she still wasn’t ready to forget Martijn, still wasn’t ready to move on and find someone else. Maybe she’d never be ready.
After all, there were stories of men who’d been thought lost in war or at sea and who’d nonetheless returned home, after years or even decades. What if Martijn was still out there, still alive, languishing in a Spanish prison, hoping to escape and return to her someday.
“It’s not good for a woman to live alone,” one of her would-be suitors, a widowed farmer named Pieter Ten Bos, had said, “Especially not in a house that’s so close to the edge of the woods. You know that they are out there, waiting, hunting.”
“Yes, they’re out there, in the woods,” Ann had replied. Sometimes, she thought she could see them, strange shapes moving around between the trees at dusk, watching and waiting. “Not here, not in the village, not in my house. I keep the fire and the lanterns burning all night, so we’re perfectly safe.”
And besides, she wasn’t alone. After all, she still had Florentijn.
This story was available for free on this blog for one month only, but you can still read it in The Ghosts of Doodenbos. And if you click on the First Monday Free Fiction tag, you can read this month’s free story.