Kristin Lisenby Kristin Lisenby
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Gather round for a ghost story about the maiden, a thief of hearts, and the crone in the cellar…

As the maiden journeyed through the streets of October, she met spooky haunts and spectral tricksters, but it was the shadows of what could be that were the scariest of all.

Nevertheless, autumn has a way of casting its golden glow over everyone and everything, so the man didn't appear dangerous when he knocked at the maiden's door. His clothes were exquisite, and according to him, he'd recently purchased a grand estate. He boasted about his mansion, team of white mares, and vast orchards with every fruit tree one could name. The visitor offered this handsome future in exchange for the maiden's hand in marriage, and while the girl's parents were intrigued, the girl was not convinced. She knew her life would be more luxurious with this suitor, but the young woman loved her small garden and simple life. Plus, something about this man sent a chill up her spine. 

The girl's parents insisted her sinister feelings were nothing more than a case of cold feet, so the proposal was accepted, and the wedding planning began. The maiden tried everything to call her engagement off – from faking illness to running away, but the man wouldn't be deterred.

With the ceremony only weeks away, one day, the maiden declared, "Before we wed, it's only fair that I visit my new home." 

The man inspected his fiancée's face, then nodded. "I live in the woods," he said, "Next weekend, take the overgrown path through the trees. You will bring nothing with you," he warned, "but I'll leave a trail of ashes for you to find your way."

That following weekend, as the girl set out to find her future home, she filled her pockets with seeds from her garden. There was no reason for her to do such a thing, although her grandmother called it intuition. She followed the ash trail through the trees, dropping a lentil seed or flower pod with every third step. By the time she arrived at the man's door, her pockets were empty.

The man's estate looked nothing like he had described. In the main house, the windows were broken, the roof sagged, the stone pathway was crooked, and there was no sign of a single fruit tree. She knew she was at the right place though, because she spotted a team of white horses corralled in a tiny pen. At least that part of his story had been true.

When nobody answered her knocks, the maiden let herself into the house. There was not a single soul on the first floor, the second, or in the attic, but a voice sang to her from the cellar. 

Turn back, turn back, you young bride.
You are in a murderer's house.

The maiden made her way downstairs, where a caged bird hung on the dingy wall. Sitting next to the bird was an old woman. The crone was dressed in rags, and from her pale skin, the maiden guessed she'd been indoors for a long time.

After she regained her voice, the maiden asked, "Do you know my bridegroom? He planned to show me our new home today."

"Oh," said the old woman, "how sad. You think you are beginning a new life, but really, you're facing your death. The man you plan to marry is a murderer and collector of souls. Like he's done with all the others," she waved to the white horses on the other side of the wall, "he will take your heart and put it within a caged animal, that way you can never leave."

The girl chewed on this information until a crash on the floor above and pounding footsteps told someone was home. Without exchanging a word, the girl hid behind the stairs, and the woman returned her gaze to the caged bird, now silent. The man barged in, requesting supper.

Careful to stay hidden in the shadows, the maiden followed the two into the kitchen. She tucked herself behind a pile of empty bottles and bones as the crone stirred her cauldron. Disgusted, the girl spied on the man as he savored a stew of fingers and toes until one bite, when he spat out a digit wearing a golden ring. He tossed the jeweled finger at the old woman. It bounced off her head and rolled around the back of the bone pile where the maiden hid. 

"Your stew has cracked my best tooth, you old witch!" the man yelled. He ranted at the crone before pouring a few drops of the soup into a small vial around his neck.

In return, the crone said nothing to him. She just kept stirring her cauldron, whispering to the pile of bones.

Turn back, turn back, you young bride.
You are in a murderer's house.

When the maiden saw the man capture a white horse from that mysterious vial and add the steed to his herd, she realized she'd promised her heart to a wicked magician. She prayed and plotted from behind the bone pile, waited until he was asleep, and then, hand in hand with the crone, she snuck out of the murderer's den. It was stormy that night, and the trail of ashes had long been blown away, but luckily, the seeds she dropped had begun to sprout. The maiden and the crone followed the leafy path out of the woods, emerging from the trees as dawn peaked over the horizon.

The maiden didn't see her groom again until their wedding day. And when the priest asked if anyone knew why the two should not be married, the old woman stood. Amidst the guests' cries and the man's sharp tongue, the crone's speech proved short yet potent. She pointed to the blossoming walkway leading through the woods and to the man's deadly hideaway. She held up the bloody finger saved from the bone pile, still ringed in gold. She spoke of the man’s previous brides, their souls trapped, corralled, and restless. She sang about the plight of caged mares and maidens, and the dangers of bloodthirsty thieves, especially those who covet our hearts.


This ghost story was inspired by and reimagined from the Brothers Grimm folktale, The Robber Bridegroom.

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