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Authors: Jenni James

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BOOK: Hansel and Gretel
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“Hansel, do not go about killing yourself over a little tree,” commented Gretel as she approached him with a tall jug of fresh milk. “Here. Drink. Enjoy. Be calm. ‘Tis good for you.” She smiled at his rolling eyes as she handed over the pitcher.

He leaned the axe against the trunk. Gratefully, he took the proffered drink and gulped down rather large mouthfuls of the perfect stuff. Wiping his mouth and then his hand on his shirt, he said, “Why must women be so interfering? Why can you not come out to enjoy the day and hand me a drink without the silliness of believing a little tree like this is causing me commotion?”

She raised an eyebrow and grinned that annoying, superior grin of hers. “I might have believed you had I not come out here just as you shouted down the rafters.”

“The rafters? The rafters? My word, woman.” He shooed her with his sweaty arm. “Be gone with you. Go fetch some chickens and find yourself in the kitchen where you were meant to be.” There, he thought. That ought to get her riled up.

“The kitchen?” Gretel placed her hands on her hips. “ As if that is the only place I was bred to be.”

Yes, she was riled up all right. Hansel grinned. “What? I thought all women preferred to be one with the fire and to build up the grand feasts for us men. You know, ‘tis true it is us who do the dirty work anyway.”

Gretel gasped.

He chuckled. “You cannot tell me that what you do in the kitchen is dirtier than what I do out here.”

The girl walked toward him, her golden braids glimmering in the sunlight. She had been with them ten years and had grown from a darling child to a very pretty young woman, though Hansel would rather chop off his right arm than tell her so. Her sharp eyes were usually sparkly and bright sky blue when she was happy—now, though, they were crisp and cold.

“Take it back, swine,” she hissed at him.

Hansel had been teasing her too much lately, mostly because he liked to see her irritated. It reminded him that they were nearly brother and sister. He needed that reminder sometimes, like the other day when he became angry for no apparent reason as Fidel took her out onto the floor to dance the Sassamer Trot. It was the same dance Hansel had taught her when she was eight years old and they had danced it together every festival since. Until Fidel. He grimaced. There was no basis for his reaction—she should dance with whomever she pleased. And she should look at any of the other men in the village and laugh with them and speak with them and bat her long blonde lashes at them. Those same lashes barely concealed the irate gaze behind them as she glared at him now. He had almost forgotten what he said this time to get her in such a mood. Then he remembered. Kitchens, chickens, and dirt.

Hansel knew as well as she did that nothing was dirtier than plucking and gutting a chicken. Nothing. But he refused to take back his words. No, she should be kept well out of reach so he would not worry who happened to like her that day and who did not. It should be no concern of his whom she chose to dally with.

“No.” He smirked. “I will never take it back. You are a woman. You are the lesser sex. It is time you remembered your place around here.”

He did not see the movement, it came so quickly, but he definitely felt the tug of the pitcher as it left his hand and the feel of creamy milk being dumped all over his head.

“That, Hansel, is to help you remember that women will always be smarter than men. And you will forever be a foolish boar!” She spun upon her heel and marched back into the cottage.

Hansel grinned through the filmy white substance. He would endlessly pay for her feistiness, but there was something so very satisfying about the fact that she never let him dominate her and continuously put him in his place. If only the other girls in the village would do the same. Then perhaps, maybe, just maybe, one of them would capture his notice.

He sighed and shook out his hair, brushing it this way and that—streams of milk flying everywhere. Picking up his axe, he continued the laborious chore of chopping, this time really putting his back into it. She would forever plague him if he did not get this tree down quickly and begin chopping it into firewood to dry.

His father had chosen this tree so close to the house because he was afraid the next storm would beat it into the attics. Good grief—as if this tough thing could fall at all. The irony made him chuckle as he stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow. He thought of the past ten years with complacency. He had done so well hiding the fact that Gretel was truly a princess—albeit the enemy. There were days, weeks, months when she would forget as well. This truly was the only life she could remember now.

But there was a fire in her—a spark bred into her that spoke of royalty, of enchantments, of wealth. He could not quite put his finger on what, but anyone who spent as much time with her as he had this past decade would have known she was of royal blood. Perhaps that was what drew him to her—the knowledge that she was royalty.

Nay, it was more than that. There was something about her that made him fiercely protective. Now that she had grown older and become so much more beautiful, he found it quite distracting as well. She possessed something none of the other maidens did—an awareness, a vitality, a loyalty.

He would die for her. Though he would never let her know that, it was true. It was as true now as it had been ten years before when he was just a lad, a strong lad who thought he knew all he could possibly know. His pa always said he had an old soul. Mayhap he was right. All Hansel knew was that if any of the guards had gotten wind that Gretel was who she was, he would have faced them—anyone who tried to take her away. He would have faced them until the death.

Still to this day, when someone spoke of the greatness it was to have that enemy kingdom burned to the ground and the royal family hanged, he would choke and imagine his Gretel hanging there beside her parents and siblings. No one knew she existed. No one had tried to claim her back—at least, as far as he could tell.

Gretel used to speak of a family sorceress, and that woman was the only one who would have recognized the girl. She was a witch who claimed to be good, but clearly brought that family to ruin. Gretel spoke of her quite frequently, and Hansel and his father even wondered if the witch had been part of raising the child, perhaps as a nurse or some such. But it would seem she was lost in the fire or hung with the rest of them. She must have been, for she never did come claiming the child for her own.

Not that Hansel would have let her—he had decided years ago that he would destroy anyone who tried to take that girl. Anyone.

The tree cracked and swayed. Finally. With another great whack, he felt it officially give. He stepped back and allowed it to fall with a loud crash onto the ground. Then he sighed. That was probably his problem right there. He could not bear to see Gretel fall. The thought of one of those village lads winning her heart and then dropping her—no, he would sooner face all of Hades than to see her hurt.

He thought of the milk now sticking to his skin and grinned. Unless, of course, it was he who caused the pain—then all would be well.

CHAPTER THREE

GRETEL STORMED INTO THE kitchen and tossed the empty jug into the water basin. Ooh, Hansel could be such a menace at times. At others, he could be quite sweet and endearing. But it would seem that as soon as he was halfway decent, he would flip personalities and become a fool again. She sighed as she washed her hands and began to prepare the evening meal. Father would be home soon—he always came back from the market famished, and so she would attempt to have the food ready to be eaten the moment he walked in the door. To make him wait for his meals would be torture to them all. Heaven knew he liked to be fed, or he would become a grouchy bear.

She chuckled to herself as she began to put together the dough for the meat pies. The filling had been created earlier from meat left simmering in the pot on the stove.

This was a quaint little cottage—definitely not the shabbiest, nor the wealthiest, but just somewhere in between. There was something so snug about it, so welcoming and warm that had always made her feel right at home.

Those first few months—oh, how she had cried. They did not know it, but she did. She tried to find quiet time alone to let her tears fall, usually at night when no one else was awake. Hansel had given up his room and had slept out in the front room until their father had remade the attics into a nice-sized loft and then eventually a bedroom. When she was alone at night, with the scratchy wool blanket they had originally used to dry her, she would curl into a ball and remember the days when she slept on a soft bed in the same room as her sisters and they ate bowls of Larkein candy together, laughing and giggling. She had missed her family so very much. These days, the pain was nonexistent, though there were a few glimmers of memory she had been able to keep fresh in her mind, especially from her last night in the castle.

They had all been scared. She remembered that—it was one of the few memories she had left of the life she once knew, the day she lost everything. She remembered the fright that hung in the air. She remembered her mother kissing them all and packing up bundles for them, telling them she would send them away so they would be safe. She remembered hugging her father and seeing his fear when the castle doors swung wide as if she were in the main room waiting for the invasion, but that could not be right. Could it?

Gretel cut into the pastry with a knife and began to add the necessary water to lump it together for rolling. Why would a child be in the front room just before an invasion? She closed her eyes to chase the memories away. Some things still plagued her, but they were better off left unsorted.

Adale—her father, as he preferred her to call him—said the rumors reported that all her family had been killed. But why was she not? How did she slip away? She had no recollection of getting into the rock crevice where Adale had found her. None at all. And yet, she was there, shivering and soaked through when he saved her.

Thank the graciousness of all good that he managed to find her and keep her. She sighed. She did remember distinctly that he did not want her when he first heard her speak, and she knew it was Hansel who pled for her.

Hansel
. She pounded the dough onto the wooden board and began to roll it out. That man deserved to have
two
pitchers of milk poured on him. She might have poured two if it had not been such a chore to milk the cows in the first place. Gretel groaned as she cut the thinned-out dough into squares. It truly was his saving grace, the fact that he had been so kind to her at the beginning and pled for her life. She could forgive him anything when she remembered she was in this lovely place because of him. But there were days, there were certainly days when she wished she could do more than dump milk on him. If he were not so strong and tall, she might very well toss him over her shoulder and throw him into the ravine.

She grinned as she collected spoonfuls of meat and placed them in the center of each square. Then, folding the dough over to form triangles, she pinched the sides closed and set them on the large iron skillet to be baked in the oven. Oh, what a surprise that would be to Hansel to be thrown. She giggled to herself as she set the last triangle on the pan and opened the door of the oven. How she would love to behold his shocked countenance as he went flying over her head down the jagged slope to the river below. It would be worth it to witness the confusion and perfect fright on his features.

The imbecile.

While the meat pies baked in the oven, she fetched a few carrots and began to peel and slice them to serve alongside the pastry.

It was a matter of minutes to get the table situated and the dishes washed once all was ready. She had heard the felled tree crash some time ago and could even now hear Hansel’s grunts as the last of the logs were being chopped and stored. He would more than likely be hungry as well. She grinned.

Mayhap she would tell him she had no food for ungrateful wretches today. Being a woman in the kitchen, she was so preoccupied with all her chores that she did not have a spare second to cook something for him.

She checked the oven and saw there were still a few minutes left. It had been such a nice surprise to receive the large iron oven from their neighbors. They were one of the very first families in the whole land to have their own stove. It had been a gift of thanks for all her pa had done for the Andersens while their father was ill that past fall. The oven had come to the Andersens as a sort of inheritance payment from a long-lost uncle, and it had quite set the village on its ear to see the thing rolling in on the huge donkey cart.

Though the Andersens were grateful, they truly did not have room for such a large oven and they felt they should repay her father for all his hard labors in keeping their crops up, which was how Gretel ended up with it. But goodness, was Adale hardheaded about taking it.

Smiling, she untied her apron and hung it on the peg. She had never known a more generous man in all her life, and he kept repeating over and over, “I did not help the Andersens just so they would give me their expensive stove. I did it because it was the right thing to do.”

How she loved him. How so very grateful she was to have such a fine example of a man in her life. Unlike Hansel. She groaned and checked the oven again.

This time the pies were ready. Clutching a cloth, she pulled the skillet out and quickly set the piping hot pastries on the dinnerware, then placed the carrots on as well and set the dishes on the table with a wedge of cheese.

Hansel despised it when she rang the triangle, so she did it as a last-minute annoyance while she stood at the front door, with him not twenty feet away, and banged upon it loudly with the wand. “Suppertime! It is suppertime!” she called out as if he were hundreds of yards away.

Hansel looked up as she first began to beat upon the thing and rolled his eyes. “Thank you,” he said calmly. “Now my ears may ring for a good several minutes.”

BOOK: Hansel and Gretel
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