The keeper of the shed by the forest met us on the path. She was expecting us because it was Midwinter Eve.

“I have lit a fire in the grate and there are plenty of logs stacked up outside.” She was momentarily stopped by an unearthly sound from the forest but she paid it no mind. She noticed our reaction, though. “You must expect a bit of that from the forest, this night of all nights, but we who live this close…” She just shrugged and wished us a good night.

The forest itself was surrounded by a vast iron fence, a mighty work of our ancestors. Any attempt of the forest to outreach its bounds was dealt with straight away. Trailing roots or overhanging branches were cut; saplings were uprooted and burned where the forest should feel the heat.

Yet there were gates into the forest; one of them was here. And tonight it would be latched but unlocked. The trees looked pretty with their coating of snow but we knew that behind that surface they were dark and dangerous.

We settled down to play cards to pass the time. A night in a shed away from home with a pack of cards and a warm fire was the full extent of our Midwinter Eve celebration. And the cards were interrupted with stories. Berna told us again how she had got the better of the blacksmith’s son. The story was different every time she told it as it grew in the telling. That is the way of stories. Heidi excitedly told us all a completely new one about her grandmother’s run-in with a soldier which I half believed.

I had started to think about recycling one of my old tales when Magda began, in a formal tone, “A child was born.”

She looked at me.

“It had one thumb missing from the right hand and one one toe from the right foot. And its nose was deformed,” I continued.

Then Berna continued, “People who saw the face of the child said they could not bear to look on it again.”

Heidi’s imperious voice, the one she used for dealing with traders, broke in with, “The elders had decreed that a child with one defect might live so long as the defect didn’t make it useless. Even a child with two defects would be allowed to live if it looked strong enough to overcome its weakness.”

Magda took over, “And if there were three defects, why then the law was absolute. The child must die. When the child was brought before the Council of Elders they took their ceremonial staves and physically drove both mother and child into the forest. They stood guard over the forest gate.”

“They waited for one day,” I said.

“They waited for two,” chimed in Berna.

“They waited for three days,” finished off Heidi. She then looked at Magda to continue.

“They sent a body of men into the forest, large in number and armed against any danger that might confront them. They soon found the child. Its throat had been cut by the mother with the knife which they had given to her but there was no sign of the woman.

“They continued the search day after day in the forest from sun-up to sundown. They continued for nine days. They didn’t give up hope.”

Berna continued in a voice with an edge of danger in it, “Near the edge of the forest, in a place they had already searched, there lies a pool. It is surrounded by an almost perfect circle of silver birch trees. Their beautiful trunks are reflected in the water. And it was there that they found the woman we never name. She had no knife. She was naked but had already started to grow small white hairs all over her body. She would not take their food. She would not wear clothes or return to the village. And she would not, or could not, speak a word.”

Magda produced some wine she had been keeping for this moment. It was very potent, very dry and had so much body it was like food. She filled four goblets expertly from the flask.

“The guardian of the forest.”

We all rose.

“The guardian of the forest.”

After a few more drinks we were all a little light-headed.

Magda packed up the forgotten card game. Taking charge as ever, she said, “Well, it is time you three were off to bed. I am off to the forest.”

Suddenly we were stone cold sober. We knew that we were not to watch or to talk. We heard her open the door and her footsteps in the snow.

We went to bed and we slept as well as we could. In the morning we had to push the door open against the drift of snow. The whole world was blanketed but Magda’s clothes were strewn on the road to the forest. It seemed as if she had literally ripped them off. She had a rather nice blouse but I noticed ruefully that it was ruined.

The gatekeeper had already relocked the gate to the forest. As we made our way back to the village we heard an unearthly wail. The forest had a new guardian now.

Derek McMillan is a writer in Durringon in the UK. His editor is his wife, Angela. He has written for print and online publications in the UK, USA and Canada. His latest book is the audio-book Brevity which is available on eBay. Check it out. He also publishes a blog for flash fiction with the help of over 100 contributors,

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