The House in the Woods
a Town Musicians of Bremen fanfic
Notes: Written for makiyakinabe in the Trick or Treat 2015 exchange.
There is a tale they tell in Bremen, of a haunted house in the heart of the woods. No one who dares venture there has ever been seen again.
Some say a band of robbers have claimed it as their den. Some say that demons hold dark rites within its walls. Many wild rumours are whispered, but no one knows the truth.
One day, a young man came to Bremen to seek his fortune. His name was Thomas, and he was an orphan with no connections or prospects, only his own quick wits.
"If I banish these spirits for you," he said, "will you grant me a reward?"
"You will never return alive," the townsfolk warned him, but he was set on his course.
"After all," he thought, "without risk there is no reward! And I daresay these spirits will not be expecting me to come knocking at their door."
He sang to himself as he walked through the woods, for he had a fine voice and a bold heart. But soon enough, the shadows darkened, and the birds stopped singing.
His path led him to a clearing where stood a ramshackle house, with a sagging roof and a crooked chimney.
"Surely this cannot be the house everyone fears," Thomas thought. "Why, it looks as though a stiff breeze would blow it over!"
Light shone from within, but when Thomas peered through a windowpane, he could see nothing past the grime. So he went up to the door and knocked three times. It swung open at his touch.
Thomas expected the house to be abandoned, but a cosy fire burned in the hearth, fresh straw carpeted the floor, and a table was laden with bread and meat. A small grey cat watched him from her place by the fire.
"Hello there," Thomas said, crouching down with a friendly smile. He was astonished when she answered.
"And who might you be?" the Cat said. "Have you come to steal from us?"
Thomas recovered swiftly from his surprise. "Of course not! I am an honest man, passing through these woods. My name is Thomas."
The Cat licked her paws with deliberate swipes of her pink tongue. "Then welcome, Thomas, to our home." Louder, she called, "Come out and greet our guest!"
A moment later, in strode a large dog, black as midnight. "Welcome," the Dog said, in a gravelly voice, taking his measure with a solemn gaze.
Following him, in strutted a proud cockerel, with a bright red crest and a glorious golden tail. "Welcome!" the Rooster crowed.
Last of all, in slinked a donkey, with a curious patchwork hide. "Welcome," the Donkey said, with a sideways glance. "Won't you join us for dinner?"
Thomas accepted their invitation, and they all gathered around the table to dine. After a while, it did not seem so strange. He had been braced to meet robbers and demons. Why not talking beasts?
"How did you come to live here?" Thomas said. For he thought that their master might have died and left them this house as his heirs.
"We travelled a great distance seeking a new home," the Dog said. "We finally found it here."
"When did you come to live here?" Thomas said. For he remembered the townsfolk had said the house had been haunted for generations.
"A long time ago," the Rooster said. "We do not count the years anymore."
"Your pardon," Thomas said, "but I take it that you did not build this house. What happened to the folk who lived here before you?"
"Evil men," the Donkey said, with a smile that showed his teeth. "We drove them away."
After dinner, they insisted that their guest stay for the night. "It is far too dangerous to venture out after dark! There are many perils in the woods."
Thomas readily agreed, for he was not done with uncovering the mysteries here. So they led him up a staircase, past many doors, to a small room with a comfortable bed. There, they bade him goodnight, before returning downstairs to sleep.
Thomas lay in bed, wide awake, until the house settled into silence. Then he rose and crept along the corridor, with a candle to light his way.
"I cannot rest without answers," he thought. Indeed, beyond the doors, he found room after room of marvels.
The first room he entered was full of scrolls, written in a language he could not decipher, and painted with scenes of planting and harvest, feasting and worship.
The second room he entered was full of provisions: clay pots holding grain and wine, alabaster jars holding oil and perfume.
The third room he entered was full of furnishings: golden lamps and ivory chests, silk tapestries and sandalwood chairs.
The fourth room he entered held four great statues, each taller than a man, seated on carven thrones. He had never seen anything so wondrous and strange, for they were part human and part beast.
The first statue had the body of a woman and the head of a lioness. She bore a spear in one hand and a shield in the other.
The second statue had the body of a man and the head of a jackal. He bore a pair of brass scales, on which balanced a feather and a heart.
The third statue had the body of a man and the head of a falcon. He bore an amulet shaped like an eye, wide and unblinking.
The fourth statue had the body of a man and the head of a truly bizarre creature, with a long curving snout and long rectangular ears. He bore a scythe with a sharp and wicked blade.
The longer Thomas looked at the statues, the harder it became to look away. They seemed dreadful and awesome and ancient. Fantastic as these beast people were, they somehow seemed more real than him, as though they were substance and he was shadow.
As he stood there, out of the silence rose a haunting melody. Note by note, it filled the air. The statues were singing! Their song was wordless, but it was a song that yearned, a song that burned. Thomas clutched at his head and fell senseless to the floor.
He woke at dawn, back in his own bed, shaken but whole. He wondered if he had dreamed it all. But the candle beside his bed had burned down to a stub.
He went downstairs to look for his hosts. He found them standing at the windows, gazing out at the rising sun. As he watched, they lifted their voices in chorus: the Cat hissed, the Dog howled, the Rooster shrieked, and the Donkey groaned. It was a cacophony fit to wake the dead.
Unable to endure the noise, Thomas began to sing his own counterpoint, harmonising with them wherever he could. He wove their voices together as the sun rose and their shadows stretched long behind them.
When the song ended, the four beasts turned to him as one. There was something in their eyes half longing and half hunger.
"You'll stay with us, won't you?" the Cat said, her eyes glittering. "You'll stay with us and sing for us, forever and ever?"
"Of course," Thomas said, unable to look away. "I'll stay with you and sing for you, for as long as you wish."
And indeed, he was true to his word! For he never left the house again.
- fin -