The brace on Rosa's crippled leg clattered and dragged across the cobbles as her mother tugged her along in her wake.
“Hurry, Rosa!” her mother pleaded. “Please hurry, dearest, or Papa Szorny will catch you and gobble you up.”
"My legs ache, mama," Rosa said, though in truth only one of them did.
"Please, baby." Her mother hunkered down so their eyes were level. She primped the old shirt sleeve that was wrapped around her child's neck as a makeshift scarf and pulled Rosa's cap down tight over her bubbling, blonde hair. It had been madness to attend the midnight Mass when the city was so dangerous. "We're nearly home, Rosa. Don't dawdle or Papa Szorny will snatch you away for his supper."
Rosa giggled nervously. She was only six, but her mind was bright and agile, even if her body was lame. She didn’t truly believe there was such a thing as Papa Szorny, the horrible, creeping monster that visited the city every hundred years to take a life, but why was her mother acting so very afraid? Her mother's head jerked to stare back down the street. Rosa strained but could not see what had alerted her.
"Hush, baby," her mother whispered, taking Rosa's hand and hurrying away in the direction of the house where they shared a room. They had only gone a few yards when both heard a hard, raucous laugh. Her mother gathered Rosa up, so the child was left clinging to her as she ran for all she was worth.
Head bouncing off her mother's shoulder, Rosa saw the shadowy figure easily jog past and pull in front of them. Desperate to evade, her mother twisted away, and away again as the shadow reared before her each time. Fruitlessly turning and dodging, eventually her mother's legs collapsed under her and she sank to the ground, arms wrapped tight about her child. Her mother screamed as Rosa was pulled from her fierce embrace.
The child was sent skidding across the street, bumping off a wall where she lay motionless until her head had cleared. There were three of them set upon her mother. Soldiers. Most likely from a German mercenary band, judging by their ragged, once gawdy uniforms. One was huge about the middle, the other two lean. They spoke in guttural German, a language Rosa did not speak.
"Get it off, just pull it."
"No, use your knife!"
"You've cut her. Look at her squirm... do it again."
Rosa got to her feet, awkwardly patted her head. Her hand came away bloody, and there was salt in her mouth where she had bitten her tongue.
"Mama!" she cried, and ran to the men swarming over her mother.
"Run! Run Rosa!" Her mother screamed the words, interspersed with grunts and hollow gasps as her body was assaulted. "Run home!"
A foot lashed out and sent Rosa sprawling to the cobbles again. She buried her fists in her eyes and screamed to drown out the sound of her mother's torture.
An unknown age passed before she was jerked back to reality by a fist wrapped in her hair.
"What about her?" The words were nothing but ugly noise to the child.
"Spill her guts, or stir her guts, vermin. I'm going to have another go on the mother." The fat one prodded the corpse with the toe of his boot. Rosa's fingers clenched on the other's hand in her hair, knuckles white as her face. She gasped noises under the harsh gaze of the soldier, articulating her terror perfectly.
"That is mine." The voice spoke in cultured German, nonsense to the child, but the big mercenary's hand went to his sabre.
"Which?" the big man asked. "The child, or the body? Whichever, you'll only have my blade up your arse. Get away. This is- dear god..."
The stranger had stepped from the shadows into the dim moonlight where they could see his face. The huge bully's hand was glued to the hilt of his sabre. Likewise one of his companions did nothing but gape, while the other fumbled for his pistol while attempting to make the sign of the cross about his chest.
"This is my night," the stranger said. "And you have stolen the fear that is rightfully mine. I will take what you owe me."
The thunderclap peal and the rushing pressure of air slamming into her closed Rosa's eyes for an instant. When she opened them again, the stranger had the big man by the heel and was dragging his motionless body into the shadows. To one side of her was a groaning mercenary, snot bubbling through the holes where his eyes had been. On her other side the spasming of the other mercenary's limbs sent his lower jaw and whiskers skipping across the cobbles when his heel caught them just right.
Papa Szorny only ever claimed a single soul.
"Sweet dreams, little Rosa..." The voice trailed away to nothing even as the child fainted.
She was there waiting for him in that exact spot, sat in a fine old wooden chair at the side of the street. At some time in the intervening hundred years they had removed the crippled leg. Her head was high, her back straight, though she struggled with the pain she felt in her every bone and joint.
"I knew you would come back, Papa," she said.
"Have you waited for me all this time?" Papa Szorny asked, grotesque head cocked to one side.
"No, Papa. I have lived my life. I have raised a family. I have honoured the memory of my mother and of the deed you did that night. I have honoured you, Papa Szorny."
"So?" Papa Szorny stroked his chin. "And now you are here to.. thank me?"
"No, Papa. I know you must take a soul this night. I offer you mine, willingly."
Papa Szorny barked a laugh. "Are you ready for death, after so long a struggle against it?"
"Oh, Papa," Rosa said. "Every day is agony. Only the thought of sacrificing myself to you has kept me alive this past hundred years."
"Rosa, my beautiful child." He stroked the old woman's wrinkled face. "I will honour your promise. I will take you."
She clasped his hand. "Thank you, master!"
Papa Szorny brushed her hands away. "I will take you when the fear is strong."
"Fear?" Rosa's old face screwed up into a jumble of folded skin.
"Whenever you most fear that I will not grant your wish, that is when I will take you. Perhaps next century. Perhaps the century after that. Until then, sweet Rosa, relish your agony." Then Papa Szorny slipped away to the city, admiring the changes that time had brought to his old hunting ground.
Rosa would have cried, had she tears left to fall.