Eckard placed a split log on the crackling fire in the hearth of his cottage. Behind him, settled in their beds, his children slept soundly; their breathing as light as the flurry of snow outside. They had gone to bed hours ago, thankfully untroubled by nightmares. Usually they were plagued by them, these inscrutable shadows of terror that haunted their minds. Eckard understood where they came from and why there were dancing around his children still, and yet it worried him whenever either of them woke with a start in the middle of the night.
It had only been one year since their mother passed, and though time had buried her, the wound was still fresh.
Eckard peeked back at their sleeping forms.
“They have been good, Mila.” He stated simply.
Sometimes, when Hans and Greta were asleep, he would talk to her - though she wasn’t there. He believed in some small way, she was always present. Still watching them, still whispering in their ears at night. He swore that he could even feel her kiss his cheek - the familiar, cool press of her lips against his warm skin. It was a comfort he never knew he needed, especially during a time when she would be most missed.
Krume would soon be celebrating Yule.
The festivities were a week-long cherished tradition. The village folk worked hard year-round, but when Yule came, they somehow worked harder. Though Krume was small, it was without measure. They decorated trees, and lit candles all day and through the night. They feasted together, one savory pig held over for the villagers courtesy of the butcher. It would be the same this year as year’s past, only it would be without Mila - his wife, and their mother.
How different it would be without her smile to guide them.
She had an eye for the best Baum, certain that it could always be found at the edge of the wood and not at its heart.
“The light reaches them better here.” She had said on their first Yule together. Their courtship had been anything but traditional. Mila had no living family, she was a recluse. But Eckard loved her anyway.
So when she had wanted the greenest tree in the bunch at the edge of the woods, he had cut it down immediately. It was a practice they had carried out with their children, as everything had been done with them since the moment they could stand upright. Greta, once she was of age, was handy in the kitchen. She helped her mother make stollen and batches of lebkuchen. It was their baking that they brought to the village feast - rather, what was left after Hans and Eckard had eaten what they could without getting caught.
“My favorite part of your baking,” Eckard spoke aloud, closing his eyes, “Was your insistence to give those little ginger-men faces.”
A cold sweep brushed past and tickled his nose. Eckard swiped at it slowly and smiled to himself. There you are.
He had teased her too often about the silly-looking lebkuchen and their lopsided grins. In life and in death, she could not ignore him. He wondered if Greta would enjoy baking with him, too, and if Hans would still eat them as he would when his mother made them. They had not yet picked out their baum either, though neither of his children had expressed any desire to go looking for one. Their expressions had been so sullen for so long that they had replaced the smiles and laughter he once remembered.
Could I... make them smile again? He thought, glancing toward the small space where Mila used to work. A year ago, there would have been fresh bread and cheese waiting to be eaten, but now there was nothing but clutter. His hunting pack and broken arrows lay strewn across the surface of the table.
A phantom hand squeezed his shoulder and he reached up on instinct to cover it with his own. There was nothing there.
“I know,” he said quietly. “I know. I have things to do.”
There was a deep blue cloak that needed mending, a gift for Greta that would replace the old one. A new knife for Hans that needed sharpened, and a few other accoutrements that had gone untouched since Mila died.
Perhaps...perhaps it’s time... before the fire dies... his thoughts trailed off as he stood up and got to work.
In a matter of hours, Eckard had pulled together a cloak and a knife, wrapped neatly in discarded sheepskins too small for any other use. He placed them at the door in their shoes, and went about clearing the table for later baking. He would need flour for the cookies and the dough to make Christbaumgeback to decorate their tree.
And by the time he finished, the children were yawning and stretching against the morning light. Greta’s golden head bobbed over sleepily, rubbing at her eyes. Hans, not one to fall behind her, stumbled from his bed after her.
“Good morning, Papa.” She mumbled.
“Good morning, Greta,” he nodded toward her as he clapped the flour from his hands. “Good morning, Hans. Did you sleep well?”
“I could sleep more,” Hans whined, his eyes half-closed.
Eckard chuckled. “So you could.”
“Papa, what are you doing? Why are you so messy?” Greta asked, moving closer to the table. Her nostrils twitched at the smell of ginger and flour. Here eyes widened and sparked with new life. She was excited.
“I have tried to make lebkuchen,” he gestured to the doughy mass before him, “The way your mother used to.”
“Really?” Hans practically jumped onto the table. “It smells the same, too. Can I taste it, Papa? Mama would let me!”
“In a moment, my boy. Perhaps you should check your boots--” But before Eckard could finish, Hans was dashing for the door in a mad rush. Eckard followed, watching as Hans pulled the knife and a whittling stick from the sheepskin. His face could not have been more full or more bright.
“Thank you, Papa! Thank you!” Hans cried, bouncing on his feet.
“You’re welcome, Hans.” His eyes shifted then to the boots and unopened gift next to Hans. “Greta?”
A loud sniffle came from behind. Eckard glanced back at the table where Greta chewed and wiped at her cheeks. She turned her watery eyes to him and fought against a grimace.
“Oh, Papa,” she almost cried. “It tastes just the same… the same as Mama’s.”
Eckard held open his arms for her, beckoning with a small wave of his hands. Greta came to him and they embraced for a long moment. Her little tears were wet against his neck as he patted her tousled blonde hair. She was less like her mother and more like him in expression, but it was the hair and shape of their face that she shared with Mila.
“Hush now,” he whispered, pulling her face gently away from his neck. He cupped her cheeks in both hands, swiping his thumbs across stray tears. “You have a gift. Go on and open it.”
She nodded silently and knelt with ease before her boots. The overjoyed look on her face as the blue of her new cloak unfolded in her lap was unmistakable. She lifted the cloth and held it tight to her chest.
“It was your mother’s cloak,” he paused and took a breath, “From when she was just a girl. About your age, too.”
Greta’s lip quivered and Hans, being the feisty thing that he was, pulled the cloak from her arms and lifted it high. “Come on then, Greta! Put it on.”
Eckard clapped as he stood. “You should both dress warm.”
They looked up at him, a question in their eyes.
“We’re going to pick out a Baum.” He said with a smile. “The finest Baum in all of Krume. Your mother will show us the way.”
“How can Mama--?” Their voices rose in unison.
Eckard kneeled again, closer to them, and placed a gentle finger against each of their chests; just above their beating hearts. “She is here, and if you listen closely, she will show us the path we need to take.”
Without another word, the children readied themselves in their warmest attire - Greta’s newly mended cloak a perfect match against her blonde hair. Hans tucked his knife into a leather pouch and patted it proudly. Eckard looked on as they trudged through the snow, his children guiding him; hands firmly holding the other’s. Two halves of a whole.
Thank you, Mila. He thought to himself. His chest felt less heavy than it had the day before.
If they are happy, healthy, and together at the end of my life, I will have been granted the greatest gift of all. My Hans, and my Greta; our children.
This short is based on the world of The Shrike and the Shadows by A.M. Wright and Chantal Gadoury. The Shrike and the Shadows is slated to release with The Parliament Press on March 3rd, 2020, and is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and soon on The Parliament Press website! Enter the woods of Krume, and add it to your TBR here on Goodreads!