The young girl knew that the Shrieks of the Black Forest came in the night and stole children. This was why mother fastened the shutters and father barred the great doors of the courtyard and wrapped an iron chain round the bar. “Trust in iron,” he’d say, “and let evil burn”.
Out in the countryside there were strange men, lean and desperate. Some of them came begging. They were starving, ragged and weak. Father ordered the servants to take them out bread, fruit and hot porridge. The girl would hand round the steaming bowls herself and father would tousle her red hair and say: “Bless all God’s ragged ravens, and feed them. Never forget them.” But at other times, the ragged men grew surly and mutinous, demanding more and still more. Then father called on Saint John the Wrathful, took his great musket to the gates and fired it and the skies shook and the ravens squawked and the little girl’s ears rang afterwards. “Away with them, rascals and thieves,” father said.
The young girl didn’t fear the rascals and thieves because of father’s musket, but the Shrieks of the Black Forest were another matter. Sometimes she would get up in the night and tiptoe into the kitchen. A few coals still glowed in the hearth and she could light a tallow candle from one. Then, by its smoky light, she could make her way through the sleeping household and into the yard, right up to the big gate. She would put out her hand and touch the iron links wrapped round and round the big oak beam that barred the doors. They were so very cold. Reassured, she would creep back to bed.
It was like that the night the Shrieks came. It was Walpurgis Night. It was the night of the Witch.
The girl woke suddenly and listened. From her pallet, she could hear mother’s breathing, a breath scented of apples. There were no snores from father, but that only meant he was asleep in his workshop before the furnaces there, surrounded by pistol balls and flint wheels. The night was cold with the damp of a wet spring. It was still. Even the yard dogs slept.
She lay for a long time, thinking of witches and Shrieks. Would the iron keep them out? On this night, would iron be enough?
She reached under her pillow for the candle stub she kept there and slipped out from under the sheet. It was dark in the shuttered room, but she knew her way to the door, lifted the string latch and slipped into the passage leading to the kitchen where a dim glow marked the main hearth.
The kitchen wasn’t empty. There was a boy there.
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