The German winters were always harsh on those that had settled in the peaceful valleys of the Wetterstein, a closed off mountain chain that was part of the Alps, but somehow they always made it through. The grandmothers would bleed chickens before preparing them for supper, mixing the blood with foxglove and barley to ward away evil spirits, while the men would go in groups to tend to the sheep and the cattle, or to hunt. The children would stay indoors with their mother’s and aunts and learn or play, or help with chores.
Josiah hated chores.
He hated chores almost as much as he hated the foul smelling goop his grandmother would smear on his forehead every night before bed, “to keep the Skratti away!” Josiah didn’t believe in the old fairy tales of imps and fairies, despite the fact that most of the men in the village claimed a small clan of dwarves lived close by, and to beware of entering their section of the wood.
Josiah looked up from his stool with his brilliant emerald eyes, where he’d been whittling away at a length of Maplewood a proper sword, to find his mother smiling down at him.
“Bed time!” She crooned, smiling widely as she scooped him up off the stool, into her big arms and bountiful chest. “Come on my little warrior, your sword can wait another day.”
Josiah didn’t argue as he was feeling sleepy… earlier in the day he’d asked his uncle to show him how to properly use a sword, and they’d spent three hours, Josiah holding a dulled dagger (he was but six summers old, not fit enough for a proper blade) with his uncle correcting his posture and stances as he had him hack away at a stump. He’d never before been so tired!
Snuggled beneath the leather pelt, he shied his head away from his grandmother as she made an effort at smearing the mixture of blood across his crown. For minutes, she tried, pleading with him to just behave and do as he was told until she finally gave up.
“Fine! Be a fool and take a risk!” She threw her hands in the air in disgust, stomping away to apply the admixture to the other children. Josiah merely smiled and drifted off to sleep, proud of his victory over the old hag.
Josiah awoke not to the gentle musings of his mother, nor the yelling of his younger siblings, but to the jostling of his mattress as someone climbed on. Emily, his youngest sister if four, would often leave her own crook and come to his bed on cold nights, so he thought nothing of it, holding up the blanket and whispering in the darkness for her to get under. She hurried beneath the pelt with a high-pitched giggle while Josiah merely rolled over to try and get back to sleep.
His last conscious thoughts were of the quiet crooning song being whispered into his ear not by his baby sister, but by some honey-voiced goddess…
“Hush young one,
To Eden, you’ll come;
Your days of life,
Will be undone.
The Skratti has need,
And only come by,
When invite is issued
By young girl or boy.”
The next morning was met with the shrieks and wails of Josiah’s mother and grandmother, as when they had gone to rouse him from his slumber, they’d only found a bloody mess where his bed had been, with a trail of smeared gore leading all the way to the far wall, as if a dead animal had been dragged. The grandmother, her gnarled hands quickly shucking away the ruined pelt, wailed even louder upon finding a small doll made of straw and hair, with twin pebbles for eyes the same color as Josiah’s.
The Skratti never took without payment, the grandmother thought bitterly as she looked at the rough jade stones lodged in the strange little doll. The Skratti were unlike man in that regard; while we had more food than we could handle, the Skratti had more rare gems and gold than they cared for. So they chose to trade it for their favorite food, so long as it was willing.
She just hoped the rest of the children would accept her protections from now on!