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And without further ado.
Shrike [shrahyk] : any of numerous predaceous oscine birds of the family Laniidae, having a strong, hooked, and toothed bill, feeding on insects and sometimes on small birds and other animals: the members of certain species impale their prey on thorns or suspend it from the branches of trees to tear it apart more easily, and are said to kill more than is necessary for them to eat.
“Papa!” a young boy cried. “Papa! Papa!”
A flame came to life on a bedside candle, sparking a tiny light in the one-room cottage where the boy slept with his sister and father.
“Hush,” a deep voice replied from one side of the room. A tall man approached the young boy and knelt beside his bed, the little flame lighting every line of his tired face.
“Hush now, Hans. I’m here.”
The little boy cried, wiping away big tears as they rolled down his warm cheeks. “I had a bad dream, Papa.”
The man’s thick brows creased. “Tell me.”
“I saw Mama,” he sobbed quietly. “She tricked me, Papa. She told me she had a surprise for me.”
The boy’s father’s frown deepened. “Mama would have never tricked you.”
“But she did, she did!” he insisted. “We were in the woods... and you and Greta... you were dead, Papa. And then Mama tricked me!”
“Shh, your sister is sleeping,” his father chided gently. “How did Mama trick you?”
“She had a thing in her basket,” he choked out hurriedly.
“It was beating, Papa. It was red—”
His father pressed a finger to his lips. “That’s enough. You’re all right, Hans. And so is your sister. We’re here.”
Hans whimpered as tears spilled over the spots where others had dried. “It was a bad dream.”
“So it was,” his father nodded in agreement. “You’ve had a long day. Perhaps too much to eat?”
“Maybe.” Hans sniffled.
“I know you’re ten now, but you still need your rest, my boy. Go back to sleep.” His father patted the cot with a gentle hand. “I’ll be here beside you.”
“Promise?” His lip quivered, threatening more tears. His father was right. He was ten now, and so was Greta. He had to be braver than the bad dreams that came to him at night.
His father snuffed out the flame. The only light left in the room coming from the dimly-lit hearth. And so, Hans closed his eyes as his father’s warm hand brushed against his forehead.
A scream pierced the morning sky, jerking Greta upright in her bed. Her head spun with the suddenness of the motion, and so too did the room. The rush of her waking might have made her more alert, but her eyes were dry, and she felt the vibrations of the scream that woke her working through her nerves still—striking each slumbering muscle like a match against another.
“Hans…” She rubbed at her eyes, spying from between her fingers the clumps of straw scattered about her. “Did you hear that?”
No one answered.
She licked her lips and swallowed. A bead of sweat rolled down her temples and cheeks as she darted her gaze around the small hovel of a room. It was quiet, the early morning having settled over the stillness and made it new with day again. Greta pushed the blankets away from her knees and swung both legs carefully around until her bare feet touched the cold ground. It served its purpose, the cool touch racing up through her toes and to her spine.
“Hans?” Greta stood in one languid movement, stretching her arms high above her head and reaching upward on her toes. “Wake up.”
An old, darkened sheet hid him from view. It separated them in their one-room cottage, granting each a semblance of privacy. Long ago, sometime after their father passed, Greta had strung it up between them. She pulled it back now, sucking in a deep breath; the bed was empty.
Where was her brother Hans?
Her heart leaped to her throat as the realization of what the earlier screaming meant.
Please, not Hans, she thought, begging softly to herself. Not today.
She ran to the front door of their home breathlessly. Her trembling hands yanked on the latch as she swung it open, revealing nothing but a dirt path. What she thought would be waiting, was nowhere to be found. Which meant that Hans was safe—for now. She grasped at her stomach, the knot of sickness that had taken her unclenching itself. Greta could have wept, but another scream broke out across the early morning, like a crack of thunder just before a storm.
Only, this time, it was followed by a wallowing cry.
Shackles of worry wrapped themselves around Greta, wrenching her away from the perfect illusion of safety they had grown into. A scream like that could only mean one thing, and she was certain of it.
The Shrike had come again in the night.
Greta ducked back inside, racing to her discarded dress at the foot of her bed. She slipped it on over her nightdress, the bulk of the layers sitting uncomfortably on top of each other. She twisted her hair to the side and secured it with a length of twine from the tiny table beside her bed. It took her three tries to steady her shaking hands long enough to tie it, and by then, she was too anxious to care if it fell out.
Nearly tripping over own two feet, Greta scrambled back to the door and grabbed her heaviest cloak from a wooden peg. She slipped on her boots, threw the cloak around her shoulders, and pushed out the door once again. The autumn air was chilly, almost cold enough for her to see her breath. She bit back against the sting of it along her nose and cheeks. Winter would not keep them waiting long.
I should find Hans first, Greta thought, rubbing her hands together beneath her cloak. She quickly started down along the only road that led to Krume from their cottage. The dirt path she took had been trodden down by years of walking and rolling carts into town. But still it stood the test of time, always there to guide her back into the world. A world where the village was just coming to life, and would no doubt be shaken as well by the screaming.
“Hans! Where are you?” she called out, momentarily cupping her hands around her mouth.
For as isolated as they were, and how little people came to visit, it should have been easy to find her brother. But he was sly, and he had his hiding places.
“Greta! Greta, wait!” someone called from behind.
She stopped hard and turned quick, spying Hans a little way down in the pasture. He leaned against a pitchfork and wiped at his forehead, which was slick with sweat. Piles of dead grass were stacked in neat piles behind him. Greta squinted at him from afar. How had she not noticed him out there before?
“Where have you been?” Greta asked, crossing her arms in a forbidding manner.
Hans dropped the pitchfork and abandoned his field. He started across the pasture toward his sister and shouted back, “Chores!”
As far as Greta could see, he looked healthy—rosy-cheeked and grinning. He was there, whole and himself. Light brown hair, moppy, wind-blown, and messy, and his hazel eyes—which matched her own—fresh from a good night's sleep. He was as old as she was, and yet, he retained some of his boyish features. A common trait that most of the girls in the village doted on.
Hans pushed himself up the small hill and joined her. “What’s wrong? Someone ruffle your feathers?”
“You should have woken me,” she said with a dour expression, ignoring his comment. “When you disappear like that, it frightens me.”
Hans raised his hands in mock defense. “Last time I did, you nearly bit my head off.”
“Then you should have come back! Didn’t you hear the screaming?” She pointed toward the village. “It’s happened again.”
“But—we thought it was over…” Hans’s eyes followed her to the village. They were distant, and yet she could see fear in them.
The Shrike, they all knew, only came for young boys and men.
Greta looked back to the path. “I know, but this has happened before. Remember?”
“I do.” He swallowed.
The wind picked up, as if pushing the twins toward the town. Loose strands of Greta’s blonde hair billowed around her, lighter still than Hans’s brown. She reached up and pushed them back, away from her face. It tickled her skin, like warm kisses or the light fluttering of butterfly wings. Unlike her brother, she was fairer and more like their late mother. Apart from their eyes, which they shared with their father, they did not look much like one another.
“I was going to see for myself,” Greta said aloud, as if trying to convince herself that it was a good idea.
“Then we go together.”
“Thank you.” She nodded, knowing that it would be better for the two of them to go together. They had been taught to always stay together, no matter what the circumstance. There were too many dangers in the village and in the surrounding forests. It was the finest rule their father had ever given them. It stuck with them throughout their childhood, never failing to rescue the other from something terrible. Be it stray dogs or the other village children, one was always there to protect the other in their time of need.
“How long has it been since... Well, the last one went?” Hans asked as they walked.
Greta pulled her cloak nearer. “A month, maybe two? I think it was before the fall harvest.”
“I thought we might have been safe from it.”
“And I thought it might have been you this time,” she said curtly, eyeing him from the side.
“Don’t think I can outwit an old witch?” he asked wryly, a full smirk in his expression. He was a mite too confident concerning dangerous matters—then again, he never really showed her more than that anymore. If he was afraid, he would never admit it. There were glimpses of it, small breaks in his humor, that betrayed him. But much like the curtain in their home, there was always something to hide them from the other.
“If she came to you promising sugar and sweets, you would be on her dinner table the very next day.”
Hans frowned and waved his hand dismissively. “I’m not a child. My tooth is anything but sweet these days.”
“So says the boy who ate all my peppernuts just yesterday.” Greta snorted.
Hans huffed, but he did not argue further.
Instead, he picked up his speed. Hans held the lead; he was taller, and by nature, faster than Greta. She kept up, though, unbothered by the brisk run or the chill in the air. As they breached the first cottage in their village, they were met with a crowd of townsfolk. They all seemed to have greeted the morning in a similar fashion. The sound of the alarming scream sent them all running.
They all mirrored Greta’s wide eyes and tired expression. Jumped from sleep too soon, before the rooster crowed.
“Can you see?” She looked to Hans, whose head towered over most.
Around them, the villagers gawked and whispered to each other. Greta couldn’t catch a name in the fuss, just small bits about ‘another heart’ and ‘the Shrike is still hungry.’
Someone else had made a comment about ‘sinning with lewd women at night’ and the victim ‘deserved it.’
“Where is the priest? Someone fetch Father Emory!”
Greta’s stomach lurched at the mention of the priest’s name.
“What about the apothecary?”
Another loud wail followed, sending the crowd into a flurry of nerves. Greta was rethinking their trip into the village. It had not occurred to her right away that they would call in Father Emory. Her feet buzzed with the notion to flee, but Hans caught her hand before the words could fall from her mouth. “This way,” he said.
His voice was a whisper only she could hear as he led them to the side, where the crowd was thinnest. Greta thought to resist, if only to avoid Father Emory, but Hans’s curiosity was insatiable; and at the back of her mind, so was hers. They managed their way through until they were close enough to see the damage.
A woman held her two confused, startled children. Their heads were bowed, and their bodies shook with light sobs. Like the other villagers, they wore their nightshirts and nothing else to keep them from the cold. Greta thought to offer her cloak, but her courage caught in her throat. On the stoop of their cottage, a heart as red as an apple rested in a fine pool of dried blood. They all knew what bad omen it presented. The heart was the Shrike’s calling card, her signature on the letter she wrote back to the men’s families, to the wives whom she had condemned to grief.
“Dietrich Wagner,” Hans whispered.
“How awful,” Greta whispered back in reply, squeezing Hans’s hand more tightly. She dreaded the day that she might find Hans’s heart on the doorstep of their hovel. To be the one to scream out into the morning’s light.
To suddenly be so lost… so empty.
“Make way! Father Emory is coming,” a villager called out, breaking the dismal strain of hushed conversation around them.
A tall man broke through the crowd then, and flanked on each side were two other men.
Greta’s stomach twisted painfully at the sight of him, once again lurching downward. She felt herself flush as bile rose to the back of her tongue. At first glance, Father Emory was no more intimidating than a fowl. He was lanky and pale, unlike many of the others, with matted hair coated in a thick layer of grease. While his robes were always crisp and white, the black cape he wore around his shoulders gave him a foreboding presence. The material that made it was as black as his eyes, as if the darkness in Father Emory had spilled out like ink and stained it.
Greta had seen his darkness once, and it had marked her, too.
It was no secret that the Father enjoyed friendly and jovial visitations with his flock, but it had been a shock for Greta when he had first come around their home. No one came to visit them, except for their late father’s one remaining companion. The first morning he came happened over a fortnight ago. It was short and meaningless; Hans had been ruffled up by the whole affair. The twins’ father never kept any religious relics. He had been against it.
“On my next visit, I shall read to you. We can hear God’s word together,” Father Emory had said, his eyes hinged on Greta. After he left, she never could shake the feeling of his gaze roaming over her body.
Watching him now as he made his way to the front of the crowd, Greta could hardly keep herself from falling into the unpleasant memory of his forced attention.
It had been late at night, Greta remembered.
Hans had not returned from the village, no doubt drinking from a day spent out in the fields. He had come to the door of the hovel to deliver another one of his ‘messages from God.’ By now, due to rumor, Greta knew better than to turn the priest away. She had witnessed what happened to the women of the village who turned their backs on the church. Ridicule, humiliation, and often outlandish accusations of witchcraft would follow.
It was one of the many reasons why Greta had forced herself and Hans to attend his sermons regularly.
And on that night, without any doubt in her mind, she knew in her gut that the Father was not calling on her for anything spiritual. His visit had purpose—it had held a hidden intent, shrouded from her by his unusually cavalier confidence. There was something hidden in his smile.
“It’s late, Father,” she had said. “What brings you to our home? Is it Hans? Is he okay?”
Father Emory had laughed, and it had made her uneasy. “No, no. Nothing like that, sweet girl.”
“What brings you about, then?”
“Might I come in? We can sit beside the hearth and pray together.”
Greta had frowned. She remembered how he had responded to that as it had burned in him a fire lit by sudden rage. “Let me in, Greta.”
And she had.
“I am not above temptation, dear girl. It is how God tests my faith,” he had started, casually removing his black cloak and hanging it on a peg. Greta had moved away from him and closer to the middle of the hovel. “You know well the sins of the flesh, yes? And I know it is not your intent, but I can feel your need. You are lonely, and God does not want you to be lonely.”
“But I’m not alone.”
His eyes had fallen hard on her, and like an axe arcing overhead with a powerful swing, his gaze came down and split her in half. Like wood for kindling, she would be thrown into his fire.
“You are. God has said so. He sent me here this night so that I may satisfy your needs.”
He cleared his throat then, beads of sweat falling from his brow as he tugged at the collar of his robes. “God will forgive us this one night.”
“I’m not sure I understand your meaning, Father. Do you—”
Father Emory was quick to close the distance between them, locking Greta in an iron-tight embrace. “I am the shepherd and you are my keep.”
Greta had felt foolish as his wet mouth covered hers. She had tried to resist him, pushing his hands away from her skirts, moving her face away to avoid his kisses. She could have screamed, but no one would have heard her, and then like a light flickering to life, she had a thought. Greta bit him.
The moment she had heard his yelp, she also tasted his blood in her mouth.
“You bitch!” He stumbled away from her, just as Hans burst through the door. Greta had been overwhelmed to see him. He had never had better timing than that very moment.
“Greta? Are you well?” Hans’s voice pulled her back to the present.
She looked up into his hazel eyes and felt a rush of gratitude for him. “I am. I was distracted.”
His gaze did not break away from hers. “He’s just a man, Greta. He won’t hurt you while I’m around.”
“I know,” she whispered, her own voice tight with unshed tears. What a miserable morning.
The twins turned their attention back to the scene, which had unfolded dramatically. One man held out a handkerchief to the Father, who took it generously. He knelt before Wagner’s wife and whispered something in her ear. It was indecipherable, but it appeared to calm her long enough for her to stand. Father Emory then reached with the kerchief to pick up the bloody heart, bringing it to his nose before he addressed the crowd.
Greta wrinkled her nose at that.
“The witches of Krume are wild with fury.” His voice shook with rage. “We are being tested! Only God’s righteous message will deliver us from this evil. We must protect our families, my good people. We must remain vigilant, for God has challenged our faith, and we must fight the evil that which plagues us!”
Then, Father Emory presented the organ, raising it high above his head. Gasps and then a hush fell over the crowd as the blood stained the Father’s hands.
“But Father, the Shrike—”
Father Emory’s eyes blazed with a new fire. “The Shrike?”
“Yes, the Shrike. The witch in the woods,” one villager scrambled to explain. Greta could not make them out in the crowd, though she felt sympathetic. No explanation, besides the one the Father gave, was acceptable.
“Stay thy tongue! To question me is to question God, for I uphold His word, and He has spoken.” Father Emory tightened his grip on the heart.
“What is it then, Father?” a voice asked.
“Has God really spoken?” another voice added.
The hum of conversation buzzed as the townsfolk looked to each other for answers. Greta could not contain her distaste and rolled her eyes heavily, still shielded by Hans’s tall figure. The fear of the Shrike had been around longer than the fear of God. The villagers knew what the witch was capable of, and her wrath was real. It surprised Greta that the people were always so keen to fall victim to Father Emory’s threats.
“He has.” Father Emory took pause. “He has told me there are witches among us. Witches who have spawned evil in this village. They have cavorted with the Devil, and thus, brought sin upon us.”
Father Emory took that as a sign to continue. “The witches would have you think it is this Shrike that is doing the Devil’s bidding. But I can see the lies and the liars. Too long have you been blinded by the deceit of your own people—too long, I say. Together, we will find the source of the witchcraft and shed our village of its evil. What say you?”
For a moment, Greta felt the air shift around her. She could feel the townsfolk—their fears—suddenly brought to life. The palpable beating of their combined hearts, thrumming against the deft confliction coursing through their veins. Krume had always been a quiet village, undisturbed on the countryside of a greater continent. One generation after another, dating as far back as anyone could remember, had known about the woods. They had all at one point shared in the fear of the Shrike. Some might make it out to be a bedtime story—a folktale told on the road by traveling merchants.
Yet, no one had ever thought to question their beliefs.
Not until Father Emory. As the steady rise of one voice after another joined in a cheer, Greta could see them now as if they were on their knees, begging God to save them. Witches? The Devil? As if the Shrike could have been anything less than their imaginations. As if the witch that had taken more men and boys than she could count, could have been explained away so easily.
And by what? A man with a unbeating heart in his hands.
“Tonight, we shall bury the heart of Frau Wagner’s deceased husband and pay our respects to the dead.” The Father looked from face to face, his brows drawn seriously.
“Tomorrow, we shall prepare ourselves for battle. We will clothe ourselves in prayer, brothers and sisters—”
Hans reached back and squeezed Greta’s hand, muttering under his breath, “I’ve heard enough of this nonsense.”
“Come, we’ll bid Brugg a visit.”
Greta looked at the familiar faces of the frightened townsfolk. It was only ever in nightmares where the monsters lived, never at the foot of a neighbor’s door; ready to steal a beating heart from a warm chest. Their raw fear was ruled by the powerful shock of Father Emory’s words, and she knew that he would lead them into ruin. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, a man made out to carve himself a place in their homes. She knew what he was, and yet the hope in the villagers’ eyes were bright like the morning sun. They would do anything for him.
She could see it in their faces.
Greta followed Hans’s every step, mimicking his feet as he weaved through the crowd. A visit with Brugg would serve to calm her nerves, she thought. He always knew what to say in situations like these. Once they broke through the thick of it, Greta looked back over her shoulder only once, catching Father Emory’s dark eyes with her own. From far away, they were black as coal, his pupils consuming his irises like an eclipse. With the shadows cast across his face, spilling down to his feet, she thought he looked very far from being ‘holy.’
Her stomach curled uncomfortably.
“If only they knew what he really was,” Hans growled when they were far enough away.
“They never will.” Greta frowned.
“Let’s hurry. I want to be as far from that fool as we can get.”
They moved like two small field mice through the village. The predator was at their backs, breathing down their necks as it circled from above. There were only two known places safe from Father Emory’s gaze—their cottage and Brugg’s home, which sat at the very edge of the woods. They used to frequent the elder’s home with their father when they were younger, but the trips had grown less and less over time.
Still, they remembered how to find it, and happily enough, Brugg was waiting outside the door for them.
Waving with one small, wrinkled hand, he said, “You’re early.”
Thank you so much for reading the first chapter of "The Shrike and the Shadows." AM Wright and I hope you enjoyed!
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