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Author's note: This is based upon the poems "Erlkönig" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1782) and "Erlkönigs Tochter" translated by Johann Gottfried von Herder from an older Danish folk ballad.



Erlkonig

Günther was sick, yet for all the herbs and remedies Hugo’s wife, Heidi, had learned from her grandmother, Günther made no signs of recovery. The small boy would wail into the night and beads of perspiration trickled down his clammy cheeks, which were Hellfire to the touch.

“Father,” whispered he one night upon waking from frenzied dreams, “the Elf-King speaks to me in my slumber.”

“My son,” Hugo coaxed while wiping Günther’s brow with a rag wetted and warmed, “’tis but a tale to keep the children from playing alone in the hills. There is none here save your mother and I, with your brothers and your sisters dozing in their chambers.”

“But father, I’ve felt his breath upon my cheeks, and felt his lips upon my hand as he sings pretty words in my ear.”

“Günther, even if fairy tales were real, they would have to face my wrath before they could lay a single hand on you.”

Günther blinked and fell back into his pillow, while Heidi caressed his pale face.

“Hugo,” she said, “our child needs a doctor urgently.”

“I know. But it is late, and Günther is ill. I would not want the night cold to take his life.”

They sat by his side all the night, taking their turns for sleep, as Günther grumbled and groaned of the Elf-King and of the Elf-King’s daughters. In the morning, Heidi woke the other children and had them attend to their chores, while Hugo prepared for the long ride to town. When the horse had been saddled and with his cloak about his shoulders, he shook Günther, who moaned and covered his eyes.

“Günther, we ride today, so that we may see a doctor for your ailment.”

The boy uncovered his eyes and grasped his father by the sleeves of his coat and rasped, “Father, please do not make us tarry within those plains and vales, for that is where the Elf-King lies. That is where Sir Olof befell upon the Elf-King’s daughter, who struck him down with pestilence, as with Olof’s bride and mother.”

“My son, please, the tale of Sir Olof is nothing but that: a tale. Now you need treatment, and we must avoid the winds of night lest you succumb to the angel of death.”

Günther cried and buried himself into the blankets wrapped about his body, his eyes cast to the windows.

“But the Elf-King waits for me in the fields, father. He has watched the cottage these last few nights, and eagerly awaits our arrival. Please, do not bring me out, for he shall claim my body for his.”

Hugo could not bear to see his son in such distress, so he let his youngest retire and fretted about the day’s work, casting wary eyes between the house and the fields. But that night, when the other children had been put to bed, and he and Heidi were ready to resume the night’s vigil, Günther suddenly awoke with eyes in the back of his head and spit foaming at mouth. Hugo and Heidi cried aloud and held down the boy’s flailing arms, and soon he was asleep once more.

“Hugo,” Heidi gasped, “we’ve no time to wait. I know night has befallen the land, and that the wind raps against the walls, but you must take him now to the doctor, for he’s little time left on this Earth. Take him now, and ride into the night, so that our son may see the daylight once more!”

Hugo quickly gathered up the afflicted child and raced out to the stables where he mounted the horse, with Heidi’s lantern casting long shadows over their fretful faces. He pulled about his cloak and turned towards her weather-worn face. There’d not even been enough time for her to change into her evening attire.

“Please,” she urged, “hurry, my love, for Günther is fevered and may not last ‘till the ‘morrow.” She picked up the shivering young boy wrapped in blankets and handed him to Hugo, her eyes deep and tearful.

“My love, I shan’t rest until I have reached the court and have medicine for our child. I pray that we soon return, but until then, ask God to watch over us.”

The father and son then headed out away from the cottage and into the distance, the night dark and the wind wild, but the father held the boy tight against his body, keeping him warm and safe from the perils that lurked in the darkness of the fields they passed.

“My father,” the boy rasped, awoken from his daze, “will I be seeing the angels tonight?”

“Of course not, my son. They will have what you need. Now rest your weary eyes, for dark is the night and cold is the ground, and we’ve yet to meet our travel’s end.”

Günther put his head back against his father’s breast, feeling the beating heart and warmth of his blood as Hugo held him snug. On they went, with the wind biting at the horse’s heels and the darkness soaking their eyes. With the child held in one hand and the reins in the other, Hugo had not been afforded enough arms to carry with them a lamp, nor had he time enough to toil with hanging one from the saddle.

The fields flicked by, and the mist grew thick, glowing under the silver rays of the moon. On they rode, never stopping, with the father and child both perspiring for fear a life be lost that night, taken by the cold pallid hands of Death come in the form of pestilence.

Hugo noticed once they passed a stream that Günther cowered low his face against the wind and groaned aloud with dread.

“My son,” he asked, “why cover, shiver, shake and moan against the night?”

Günther whimpered and replied, “Do you see the Elf-King in the fields?”

Hugo cast his eyes about, though he saw nary but fog and grain, and shook his head.

“He is near us!” Günther cried. “The king of elves with crown and train!”

Hugo gave a hollow laugh and ascertained, “My son, the mist is in the fields.”

Though he tried to lighten Günther’s heart, Hugo felt it weighing down their dampened spirits. So, he reached his hand beyond and pointed to the trees ahead.

“Do you see, my son, the trees so near? There is no need to have such fear, for if the Elf-King lived in the plains, he would not venture beyond the brush.”

“But my father, would he not delight within the thickets thick?”

Given this, the father gave not a response, but held the child tighter, keeping fevered dreams at bay. For that was all they were: illusions of the ill.

Past another creek they went, while through the canopy above the moon illuminated fog-covered foliage they wound between along the twisted path. The wind around them whistled in the leaves and echoed amongst the hills, and Hugo could not help but to imagine the wind whispering to him in playful tongues. Though, against his liking, Hugo could not keep the words from the sighs.

“Sweet lad, o come and join me, do!” the wind eerily crooned. “Such pretty games I will play with you; on the shore gay flowers their color unfold, and my mother has many garments of gold.”

“My father, my father!” Günther cried with eyes pried wide and cheeks bone-white. “Can you not hear the promises the Elf-King breathes in my ear?”

Hugo shook his head, but his jaw was tight as he replied, “Be calm, stay calm, my child; lie low. In withered leaves the night-winds blow.”

Hugo urged the horse to gallop faster, while the trees whipped past and the road grew darker. Up ahead, he could see a cluster of willow trees that shimmered in the moon’s marquee. He could not quite tell, but he could almost see fevered figures dancing in the grove. He then noticed there below the branches’ reach three bodies lying still as stone. The wind began again to holler. Hugo felt it almost sang against his ears, but he adhered to his belief that it was a trick of the hollows.

“Will you, sweet lad, come along with me?” it breathed. “My daughters shall care for you tenderly. In the night my daughters, their revelry keep; they’ll rock you and dance you and sing you to sleep.”

“My father! My father! O can you not trace the Elf-King’s daughters in that gloomy place? Can you not see Sir Olof and his bride and mother underneath their chase?”

The wind nipped at Hugo’s face, but he batted tearful eyes and failed to stifle shudders from the lullabies. From their sides, he surmised rustling leaves that raced alongside their steed, who whinnied, snorted, and writhed with eyes wild and pried.

“My son, my son, I see it clear, how grey the ancient willows appear.”

In his arms, Günther whimpered and wheezed, while the hoofbeats kept pace with their heartbeats’ fleet. Shadows shimmered in the trees, and the wind blew the leaves. The moon now disappeared, the branches grew ever near and caressed their tender tears. Hugo’s cloak was flapping in the breeze, and he could almost feel dreadful fingers snatching the hem to bring him sprawling to his knees. The maelstrom of leaves flew fervently, and his mind perceived demonic faces laughing at his plight, yet he gave it little heed, for Günther was in need of treatment for his blight, lest he die in Hugo’s arms that night.

“I love you,” the leaves and shadows cooed, “your comeliness charms me, my boy! And if you’re not willing, by violence I’ll take joy!”

“My son! My son!” Hugo screamed. “Have heart, for we are near the forest’s extreme!”

He felt the body of the boy struggle in his arms, but he held his child tighter in his grasp, lest he fall and come to harm from the trample of the horse’s lash.

“Now father, now father, he’s seizing my arm!” Günther gasped, his eyes glazing past. “Elf-King has done me harm.”

Hugo shuddered, suppressed a shriek and pushed beyond the leaves and over the streams, urging his steed faster than he could think. They soon broke through the forest wall, while beyond, the town was seen with the church’s steeple tall. The moonlight glistened, while the wind began to fall, with leaves aground, not hitherto.

“Günther, Günther!” Hugo cried, joyful at last. “Look beyond, for we’ve now reached the pasture, our troubles have passed! You’ll be sick no longer, now let us go yonder.”

There was silent reply from Günther’s lips. Icy chills ran down the father’s spine like daggers and sticks.

“Günther, please. Have you slipped into a doze? If so, then please awake to let me know.”

Alas, when the father heard not even a sigh, he righted his son and was morbidly surprised.

For in his arms, the child was dead.

Hugo’s blood ran cold, and he gripped his fingers tight around the blankets. The child’s lips were blue, and his green eyes gazed at the stars. Hugo brushed a strand of hair from Günther’s hollowed face and whimpered as his chest heaved and his chin trembled. But he’d barely let out a single tear before he heard a chuckle from near.

Turning his head, Hugo saw a small shadow of the dead. Standing above it was a lanky figure stroking its hair. The tiny phantom despaired and reached out a hand, but the larger writhed and snatched it away, shooting Hugo eyes of firebrand. Before they disappeared, the father caught a glimpse of the tall spectre’s finger, cold and rotted to the bone.

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Written by Banned In CP
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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