“Let us in,” said the children. “We are cold, and hungry. Let us in.”
They knocked their fists against the window panes, the doors, the walls, scratching with brittle fingernails until they splintered like wafer on the brick.
Still the old woman left them to endure the elements, drawing the bolt fast across the front door to keep them out.
They would find their way in eventually, still. Blood drinkers, eaters of households, the siblings would creep with cunning and craving into the homes of any they came across in the forest, by night, and even the rule of entry only upon invitation would not hold them for much longer.
The old woman sat in her chair behind the boarded up windows, and considered what she knew of their weaknesses. The creatures misliked daylight, but could still walk beneath it, if they must. They feared the symbols and blessed water of the New Religion, which the old woman did not follow, and thus could not claim as her power.
Stakes and silver could kill them, it was told, but the old woman had seen with her own eyes what had befallen those that had attempted such, before. To approach the children was almost certainly to die— yet the old woman was not yet ready for death, though she heard its call, at times, like screams smothered to indistinction by a storm.
If she was to fade in the years to come it would be on her own terms, she had decided, her saddle on death’s back, riding out into fathomless night. But down the throats of the hungering children the old woman would not go, not if they picked at the walls of her house with their pale hands for a decade or more.
So the old woman turned to the books written by her ancestor, who was of the Wise Folk, and knew the ways of spirits and devils, and how to drive them out. The old woman could not read well, and so it was many days of toil until she learned a fact that she might use against the house eaters, such as she called them.
Morning till night she followed the Wise One’s accounts with her withered fingertip, mouthing the letters until they formed upon her tongue as words.
By light and dark the siblings circled the house, begging, and crying, and knocking until their knuckles bled.
“Let us in, Nan,” they cried. “We want of food and shelter.”
Their voices—to one who’d had, or lost, or ever wanted children—were sweet as candied peel, and soulful as stranded ghosts. Yet the old woman had long cultivated her solace in the black woods, and so their moans were naught but a nuisance to her. She was glad enough when, at last, she turned a page amidst her ancestor’s scribbles and fell upon the answer she sought.
Tired as she was, the old woman rose early the following morning and set about baking gingerbread, the scent of it so saccharine that all manner of birds and little creatures were drawn towards the house in hope of a taste. In time the brother and sister came, also, lurking in the dappled shade of the great trees to observe the house.
Should the old woman open door or window to feed the animals they would surely follow, taking their invitation from the action alone.
Yet without this, or her word, she was safe, still.
Patient, the old woman set her baking on a tray to cool, yet her oven she kept warm.
Under the firs the children loitered, whispering together, their hands entwined like roots. Beautiful, they were, but for their eyes, all ash and empty avarice.
The old woman had heard tales of how they had come to be about the forest. Some said that they were born hollow, dark spirits creeping into the cavity pure souls should have inhabited, had the Gods thought to remember them.
Others told of a wandering vampiress that had killed the mother of two children, enchanting their father so that he took her to wife, and did not know his offspring cold and direly changed.
What became of the man and the wretched stepmother no one knew. Likely the father had awakened to his new wife’s hunger, and so had killed her; wrathful, then, his son and daughter wrought the blood from his thin throat.
From there the two had scourged like famine through the village and beyond, making more of their own sort where they walked the crepusculous wood. The old woman had long felt their shadows from afar—this sense she had retained of her ancestry, and knew from all her years to trust.
When the gingerbread was cold she ground it between her fingers until it became but many crumbs in her chapped hands. That done, she scattered it about the kitchen in a winding path towards the oven, pressing the last of it upon the door, as if further morsels might lie temptingly within.
Then, at last, she called out to the siblings in the wood, glad to see them weak and ailing through their hunger and the daylight.
“Come in, children,” she said. “I will sate you.”
Lapping their crimson mouths, the brother and sister skipped across the threshold, their steps light with the prospect of feasting. Yet upon seeing the gingerbread crumbs upon the floor they paused, and bent down to examine the trail.
“Go on, then,” said the old woman, who had read of this very trick in her books. “Count each grain you find there. You cannot help but do it, until you know their number.”
The house eaters ignored her, too absorbed in their work to pay any mind to the hag moving about the room. As they counted the grains the old woman opened the oven door and waited beside it, patient as all the decades she had lived allowed her.
Bit by bit the siblings came close, their claw-crowned fingertips tap-tapping upon the floor.
“Two hundred and three, two hundred and four…”
Their counting was chant-like, as of children at play, yet there was nothing young in the tenebrefic darkness of their eyes, nor the way their shadows seethed and agonised the walls.
Step by step they approached the oven, unseeing, unaware of the old woman at their backs, guiding their path to its lusting flame. Only when the last crumb of gingerbread was counted did the brother and sister rise, the final number stalling on their lips as they gazed deep into the belly of the oven.
“Cold of kin,” said the old woman, against the backs of their necks. “You bloodless dead. You’ll feed no more.”
And into the heat she thrust the house eaters, one after the other, and held fast the oven door upon them until their teeth were soot, and their screams were naught but sweet smoke upon the air.