They asked him if it was the coldest winter he remembered. He remembered worse, much worse, but they didn’t want to know about it, they wanted to believe it had never been colder. And, although he did remember weather more cold, this was too cold for an old man to survive if the angered youths chased him out of the village. So he told them what they wanted to hear.

Then he found out why they needed to hear it. It helped them in encouraging each other, for they could not stay near the hearth, they had to go into the dark and ice to find a child missing. A little girl. His little granddaughter Feya.

He was horrified when he heard. Not because Feya disappeared, but because he knew what was going to happen once they found her.

If a boy disappeared in the middle of the winter, they’d call him fidgety and the entire village would be looking for him. A missing girl? She must be foolish, nobody needs such a girl. Girls should be sitting at home. Nobody looked for missing girls, unless they suspected fairies took them. And his Feya was small in size, fairy-like, there were even rumors about who her real father was – for how could such a big, shapely man get a girl so small, instead of a big girl capable of pulling a tail out of a cow, the way they usually were, able to work and to give birth? Something was not right there.

And you can’t let fairies steal human children. You have to kill the one who took the child and the child itself, as unclean.

The old man was listening until the chase left the village. Then he quickly dressed and sneaked out of the house. He was old, true, but he remembered the shortcuts the younglings never even heard of, let alone walked them.

Fairy shortcuts.

He had no doubt at all that the fairies took Feya; it wouldn’t be the first time they took a human child once they realized its own family didn’t want it, that they were beating it up, humiliating it, that the child was unhappy. They rarely had children of their own; the human ones, those they brought into their homes, they’d raise as their own, and give them everything, especially love such children craved.

He hurried up. He had to reach them, to warn them about the chase, help them if needed. And misdirect the chase, too, if necessary. Let them kill him like an old dog, as long as quiet Feya with almond-shaped eyes gets a home she’ll be happy in. Where they won’t laugh at her when she sings the old songs, not just the vulgar ones people laughed at. Where they will teach her to dance, to be happy, where she won’t be of a lower rank.

He entered the forest. He was hoping it would shield him from the wind, but even so he barely felt his fingers and toes. He remembered a fairy-boy he found one winter, colder than this one, when he was but a boy himself; he managed to save him, but the fairy-boy lost the tips of his pointed ears and a half of his little finger. He shuddered and hurried up as much as his frozen legs and old body allowed.

Soon, he’ll get to the old oak, fairies passed it by quite often, they’d bow, and then went on on their way. He will recognize if the fugitives with his Feya already passed it, he’ll wait for them if necessary, or hurry up after them.

There was nobody near the oak, but he felt they passed that way. He made a small smile and felt his lip cracking. He restrained himself from licking it, he ignored the pain.

It was his gift, to feel if they were close, where they went, when, was everything all right with them. The younglings had no idea about his gift, and he had no intention of telling them. They’d kill him immediately, or chased him away into the winter.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to move, the frozen limbs disobeyed. But he had to keep going, no matter the cold. For Feya.

He still felt them being close, a vibrant feeling, like silverish music. The feeling was getting stronger. He tried to hurry, but his legs didn’t listen. Doesn’t matter. If he doesn’t catch up with them soon, they made it to the safe ground, no man would chase them on their own territory. They wouldn’t be allowed to go there anyway.

He found them. One of the fairies, stretched in the snow, his neck bent in unnatural angle. It must have been the deed of his daughter’s husband, people were saying a bear fathered him. His deed were probably the fairy’s ripped out ears too. There wasn’t much blood, not in this cold.

The girl was a bit further away. He didn’t have to look in order to know. Eyes taken out so she couldn’t look at fairies, tongue ripped out so she wouldn’t talk to them or enchant someone, fingers cut off so she wouldn’t cast a spell. All of it while the child was still alive, so that she suffocates in her own blood afterwards.

He fell on his knees next to the little one. He couldn’t even cry. He didn’t blame the fairies; they lessened in number and did what they could. He didn’t blame his own people either. All he wanted was to lay next to the little girl and die. Let the cold kill him. So he’s gone for good. It probably wouldn’t even take long. He’d probably just fall asleep and never wake up.

After a time seeming like eternity to him, time which couldn’t be more than a few moments, he got to his feet with difficulty and started a long, staggering way home, where the fire at the fireplace would make him warm.

The End

Ivana Milakovic

Born 1976. in Belgrade. Graduated dramaturgy at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade in 2000.

Published short stories in Serbian and English in weekly paper Grad, in magazines Gradina, Naš Trag and Omaja, on websites Art-Anima, Horrorfind, Screaming Planet, Helly Cherry, in fanzine Emitor and in theater newspaper LUDUS. She also worked on educational TV-series for children (“Kocka, kocka, kockica”, “Čuvari osmeha”, “Globus autobus”, “Piši briši”) as a screenplay writer, dramaturgist or associate.