While Carius the Uncanny prowled lea and dale in search of monkshood and belladonna for use in various nefarious concoctions, he spied a site far more pleasing to his lecherous eyes than any blossom or berry. A young maid of exceptional beauty tended a small herd in high pasture. Surrounded by an aura of innocence and purity that drew men’s hearts like the mystical lodestone attracted iron filings, the lass knew little about the more dangerous nature of womanly allure. She blissfully sang the strains of an old folk tune about valiant heroes and true love as she went about her business, at first unaware that she had caught the attention of the region’s most notorious practitioner of the dark arts.
Passion’s fire burned in odd places as Carius watched the maid skip from cow to cow. He grinned crookedly as a leg flashed from beneath linen skirt and flaxen hair bobbed upon pretty head. The wizard yearned to make the maid his. To corrupt such a pure soul would be quite a feather in his pointed cap, but he also knew that his arcane powers might fail against such innocence. To sprout in another’s mind, his enchantments needed a seed of darkness planted in fertile ground. Carius decided to use subtler charms against the maid, to enthrall her body and spirit through flattery, and more.
“Good day,” Carius grunted as he approached the object of his desire.
“Good day to you, sir,” the maid replied. Wary of the hoary stranger, she looked down at her toes as she spoke.
“I am Carius the Uncanny,” the wizard proclaimed with a flourish, certain that his reputation preceded him. “Who might you be? The goddess Aphrodite mingling amongst us mortals, perhaps?”
Although she wasn’t quite sure who Aphrodite was, and was leery of the old man’s reputation for foul misdeeds, Hilde let the smallest of smiles break upon her face. She appreciated the apparent compliment. Besides, her mother had always told her to be kind to even the strangest of strangers. Otherwise, she would have bolted from the pasture to escape the wizard’s repugnant stare.
“My name is Hilde,” the maid said. “I am a mere milkmaid, nothing more.”
“Modesty and beauty together, what a truly rare quality!” Carius exclaimed as his bushy brows knitted together in an expression of mild surprise. “My dear, you are more than mere milkmaid. I have wandered this plane for more moons than I care to remember. I have seen many wonderful sights, but none compare in grace and comeliness to the one I see before me now. You are purer than mountain snow, more awe-inspiring than a sunset sky aflame, and more exquisite than a string of mounted pearls. You are, simply put, the loveliest thing I have ever laid eyes upon.”
Hilde wished to say that Carius was the ugliest thing she had ever seen, with a face as cragged as the snow-capped peaks that rose high above that little mead, but she held her tongue. Instinct told her to say as little as possible in hope that the wizard would take his unwholesome interest elsewhere. She merely stated that she was no goddess.
“Ah,” Carius cooed as he sensed an opening, “You could be. Beauty such as yours should grace tapestried court, not dung-filled pasture. As a goddess amongst men, you could whisper wise advice in a king’s ear, instead of reciting foolish ballads to a herd of cows. You could garb yourself in robes of velvet and cloth-of-gold, instead of being forced to wear that wretched homespun kirtle. You could have the power of the gods. I could show you how, if you but let me.”
Visions of lofty towers, glittering halls, and gaily attired nobles drifted through Hilde’s dreamy head. She imagined herself a princess in one of those old tunes, rescued from a dragon’s hungry jaws by a handsome knight. She envisioned herself marrying her gallant champion, and living an idyllic life in his gleaming castle.
For the briefest moment, Hilde seriously considered the wizard’s offer. Simple sense then prevailed, and the thought quickly passed. Amused by her momentary lapse of good judgment, she twittered like a springtime warbler newly returned to its summer roost.
“That is not the life for me,” Hilde chuckled.
“The world could be yours,” Carius growled. “Consider my proposal carefully, child. I do not make such offers lightly, and to refuse such a gracious gift would be a great insult.”
“If I were to accept, what must I give in return?” Hilde asked. She reasoned, based on her knowledge of old tales, that such things were rarely given without some burdensome cost attached.
Carius smirked sinisterly. He suspected that his prey teetered on the edge of his trap, and needed just a nudge to tumble headfirst into the pit.
“The power and knowledge of the ancients, the grace and wealth and nobility, would all be yours, if you would but be mine,” the wizard replied. His icy blue eyes flared menacingly.
“That sounds too high a price to pay,” Hilde muttered. She shifted about nervously, unable to pull herself free from the wizard’s preternatural gaze, but unwilling to give in to his unpalatable proposal. She wished for a real rescuer.
“Is this person troubling you, Hilde?” a lad’s voice called out, breaking the spell.
Gunther the Shepherd stood at the ready, with rowan staff in both hands and growling dog at his side. He had seen Carius take an unnatural interest in Hilde, and left his flock grazing the hillside to protect a more distressed soul. His own fondness for the pretty maid was well known, but Hilde had never shown the shepherd much affection in return. More often than not, she would avoid Gunther’s clumsy attempts at conversation. Now she beamed at the sight of the rough shepherd in his sheepskin coat and leather leggings.
Carius seethed, thwarted in his lustful designs by a simple rustic. Whether through accident or design, Gunther’s choice of material for his plainest of weapons deftly countered the wizard’s diabolic sorcery. Plus, the sharp teeth of the shepherd’s loyal companion proved a powerful deterrent against further action.
“I am troubled no longer,” Hilde said. Somehow, she knew that the wizard’s terrible will had suddenly waned. With bolstered confidence, she turned toward Carius. “You ask too high a price. I am sorry if you are insulted, but I decline your offer. For the sake of my heart and soul, I must say no.”
“You may just be sorry, my dear,” Carius snarled.
“Be gone!” Gunther shouted as he brandished his staff over his head. His dog barked fiercely. “Leave this maid alone, or by my maker, I will crack open your rotten skull!”
Rebuffed and threatened, and unable to act against the natural power of rowan wood, Carius backed away. Besides, for all his mystical wizardry, he dared not risk physical confrontation. A swift blow, or jaws about his throat, could end a fight before he uttered a single incantation. And such magic would be useless anyway while the shepherd carried his staff.
“Come, Hilde”, Gunther said as he offered the maid his arm. “I will walk you home.”
“That is an offer I will accept.” Hilde said. “Right now, I would feel much better walking home with you at my side, than being on my own amongst the cows.”
Hilde headed, arm-in-arm with Gunther, down the hillside toward her family’s farm and the secure embrace of her father and three brothers. The shepherd and his dog both kept a wary eye on Carius the whole way, but Hilde never looked back.
“If I cannot have you for my own, no one will,” Carius grumbled to himself as he watched the two youths depart for friendlier surroundings.
Back in the dim seclusion of his cluttered wizard’s den tucked away in the shadowed hollow of a rocky spur, Carius plotted. By the smoky light of tallow candles mounted in human skulls, he poured over his arcane tomes and mystical scrolls. The wizard searched for just the right vehicle for his revenge. He decided that the maid must die, but how? Potions and poisons required close contact, something he was reluctant to hazard again. Hexes and incantations worked from afar, but could be countered by protective symbols, holy charms, and even natural defenses. No, he required something that could slither in undetected, and yet possess the strength to perform the deed swiftly and surely. He needed something more potent, something more elemental.
Carius found the answer within the cracked parchment pages of an old book bound in faded red leather. Translated into Low Latin from a long-forgotten tongue, the treatise detailed the lore surrounding the dwarfish alpe, servants of the ancient gods. Partly gods themselves, these blood-thirsty, shape-shifting beings once patrolled sullen forest path and misty mountain pass. Feared by men for the harm they did in the names of their cruel masters, the alpe guarded sacred sites and wild places against mortal intrusion. They also wrought magical arms in subterranean halls, weapons used in the ultimately futile war against human encroachment. Driven deep underground by a new faith, cut off from their former lords by fading beliefs, they eventually became the stuff of nightmare and legend.
The work went on to say that, through the use of black arts, the dreaded alpe might be drawn from their dark lairs and sent forth to plague mankind once more. At the behest of an individual of great skill, they may spread disease and bad dreams. They could even be used as instruments of death, eagerly consuming a victim’s life-blood.
Determined to set the alpe upon Hilde, Carius prepared the necessary spells. He slit a vein in his arm with a ceremonial blade and let a copious amount of blood drip into a stone bowl carved with runes. After he bandaged his arm with cloth strips steeped in a powerful healing elixir, he took up the stone bowl and stirred in a pinch of dirt from an alpine glen. He then spoke a binding incantation over the crimson mixture. Grabbing a piece of chalk retrieved long ago from a distant shore, Carius drew a circle on the flagstone floor. He then unrolled a scroll of summoning and studied the letters intently before reciting the words that would call the alpe.
“As if a god of olden days, I command the alpe to come to me,” Carius intoned. “In the names of deities now lost to time, I summon thee! Those who once waited upon timeless divinities, come to me. With blood and soil, with words of power, with thoughts and deeds, I summon thee! Forsake your place snuggled within Gaea’s cool embrace, and come to me. Alpe, I summon thee!”
An unnatural wind blew through the wizard’s den, rattling the many weird metallic devices that hung from the rafters. This cold draught carried the dusty scent of rock and earth. Wispy shadows swirled in the agitated air. Dusky shades murmured strange chants as they took on more solid shapes. Smoky strands coalesced into arms, legs, and torsos. Soon a belligerent horde of hairy little men surrounded Carius.
Each alp was clad in leather breeches and wore a wide-brimmed scarlet hat. Grime matted their unkempt beards. Deep furrows lined their ugly faces. Pinpoint embers of malice burned in their coal-black eyes as they glowered at their summoner. They stomped their feet and spat curses as they tried to break the wizard’s magic circle, to no avail.
Carius remained calm, confident in his ability to control that rowdy rabble. He placed the bowl containing his own blood outside the chalk circle.
“Please, partake of my offering,” the wizard said as he gestured toward the bowl. “Take of me, and perhaps give something of yourselves in return.”
The alpe greedily descended upon the bowl, eagerly lapping up the blood. They passed the vessel around amongst themselves, each one taking his share, until it was licked bone dry.
“As a god of old, I called you, and now I control you!” Carius declared. “With your element and my blood, I bind you to my will. Now, go. Use the uncanny abilities given you by your past masters and find the maid called Hilde. Make her pay for rejecting me. Take from her until you can take no more!”
Bound to the wizard’s will by the spell of blood, the alpe were forced to obey. With a nod, each alp transformed itself into a black-winged butterfly. Then the fluttering cloud drifted up the chimney and into the night.
Safely tucked into bed, Hilde slept fitfully on her straw-filled mattress. Frightful dreams disturbed her rest. A lecherous dog chased her through a murky wood. As she fled the baying hound, and plunged deeper and deeper into the forest, she heard an unearthly voice call her name. A tall, muscular figure sporting antlers atop his head stepped out of the mist. Hilde tried to run, but she could not move. The fearsome being grabbed her and demanded possession of her body and soul. Hilde tried to refuse, but she could not speak. The dark entity ravaged the maid while dreadful dwarfs danced gleefully around the brutal scene. Then the brute tossed her down a bottomless pit.
As Hilde found herself trapped in the clutches of her terrible nightmare, a bevy of ebon butterflies entered her room through the unglazed window. They alit upon her heaving breast and pierced bedclothes and skin to drink her blood. Instinctively sensing life ebbing away, endlessly falling through a lightless void in her dream, Hilde screamed.
“Hilde!” Gunther cried out as he leapt into the room through the window. Being the protective sort, and thinking the wizard might assail Hilde during the night, the shepherd had posted himself outside the maid’s window. Drowsiness and darkness had dulled his attentiveness, and he hadn’t seen the diabolic insects pass right over his head.
The butterflies arose from Hilde’s bloodied bosom. Irritated at having their meal interrupted, they swarmed around Gunther. They pricked him with their oddly sharp snouts. They darted and dodged as he tried to strike them with his staff. He hit a few as he swung, and the swarm pulled back. The alpe then metamorphosed into their true forms and renewed their attack upon the shepherd. Pointed teeth tore at Gunther’s flesh as lapping tongues licked his oozing wounds.
Hearing the commotion, Hilde’s father and brothers burst into the room. Knowing of Gunther’s vigil outside Hilde’s room, they had kept their own watch inside the cottage, with rustic weapons at the ready. Hilde’s father grasped an iron-tined hayfork, while her brothers brandished broad knives.
The sight of cold steel glimmering in the moonlight that poured through the window drove off the alpe. They scurried over the sill and scuttled across the rocky hills, swiftly disappearing into the darkness. None of the mortals cared to follow.
“My rescuer,” Hilde declared as she wrapped her arms around Gunther’s neck and kissed his tanned cheek. She then slumped back down onto her bed.
“This was that devil wizard’s work,” the shepherd groaned breathlessly, exhausted by the encounter, and the loss of blood. “I am sure of it.”
Hilde nodded weakly. She knew a little something about the darker tales. She had heard roving storytellers whisper about the alpe, and knew those fey folk could be summoned and enslaved by fell witches and foul warlocks.
“Where do you think they have gone?” Gunther wondered.
“Back to their homes beneath the mountains,” Hilde said. “Or back to their master.”
Just prior to dawn’s break, Carius heard a furious rapping and vile cussing at his door. The oaken boards began to creak and groan under the pressure applied by his rudely insistent visitors. Suspecting that his new-found servants had returned from their nightly foray, Carius undid the iron latch before they battered down the door. The alpe tumbled over the threshold in a tousled mass. Their filthy faces twisted into savage scowls, and their eyes blazed, as they gathered around the wizard.
“So, have you carried out my vengeance?” Carius asked the throng of angry, and still very hungry, alpe. “Is the deed done?”
The alpe spoke not a word, but turned on their summoner. Hairy forms swarmed over the wizard’s frame, wreaking their own kind of vengeance. Unsatisfied until they drained every single drop from the man’s veins, the alpe took their master’s blood, and his life. They then returned in a flash to their secret homes in dark hollows deep within the roots of the mountains, leaving Carius’s dried husk behind as warning to all who might tempt a similar fate.
Copyright © 2010 Richard H. Fay
Story originally published in Hungur, Issue 11, All Souls’ Night 2010.