Authors: Jenni James
She gasped. “It really is an enchantment, is it not?”
“I do not know. But it would seem that way, yes.”
He ran one hand through his hair again, parting it this way and that. “This is the piece I do not understand. Something here does not make sense, and I cannot find the source of such confusion. She wants something, something in this house, and she will stop at nothing to get it. Even marrying Pa.”
Was Hansel right? Could all of this be some sort of evil coming to them? “Do you truly believe so?”
“Why else would she choose Adale? If this is indeed an enchantment of some sort.” He lifted the dark glass vial and turned it from side to side. The maroon liquid glistened eerily in the light cast from the oil lamp on her dresser.
“How will we know if it is one?”
He shrugged, and then popped the cork off the top of the curved container. Bringing it to his nose, he sniffed slightly and grimaced.
“Does it smell bad?”
“No. It is quite sweet.” He sniffed again and made the same face.
She chuckled softly. “Then why do you look like that?”
“Because I am already feeling the effects of the thing.”
“What is happening? Is it truly magical?” She leaned closer.
“I do not know what to make of this. It is extremely powerful.” He sniffed again. “And it almost smells like… like candy.”
“LIKE CANDY?” GRETEL ASKED. “Are you sure?”
Hansel brought it to his nose again. “Certainly candy.” He pulled away. “It is definitely strong, though.”
“What do you feel?”
He groaned and shook his head. “Stuffy, or something. I do not understand. It is almost like being asleep.”
“Do you think she is putting Pa to sleep?”
“No. Yes. Maybe. I have no idea. However, I would be very terrified to taste a drop of this liquid.” He smelled it again. “Though it is very tempting.”
Gretel’s chest went cold. “It is?”
He grinned. “Yes, very. I wonder what it would taste like,” he said, his words beginning to slur a bit. “I bet it would be very sweet.”
She watched in horror as he placed a fingertip over the bottle and turned it upside down. When he brought it upright again, there was a small red drop upon his finger.
“I do not think it is a good idea for you to mess with such a thing.”
“I will not taste it; I only wanted to see it.” He grinned again. “Have some faith, little one.”
“Do not bring it too close. We cannot tell if Pa had one drop or several.”
His eyebrows rose. “Good reminder. This is true—we do not know if he is under the enchantment from a single droplet, or if she has continuously poisoned him every day.” He held it toward the oil lamp on her dresser. The murky substance seemed almost solid, sitting there upon his fingertip.
“It shimmers in the light, do you see?” she asked as she slipped off the bed and knelt in front of him.
“It is a very pretty potion.”
She pulled his hand toward her. “I have never seen one up close before.”
Hansel shook his head and asked quietly, “If she has come by this, or created this, what else has she done?”
Gretel’s gaze locked with his. “My good, great grief. What has Father got himself into?”
Hansel pulled his hand away and wiped it upon his shirt, quickly stopping the bottle back up. “More importantly, what has she planned to do with him?”
“It makes no sense. What does he have that is of any worth or value?” She held her hand out. “This cottage, while comfortable, is quite simple and quaint. There are a few acres of woodland and good farmland, but at what cost?”
“She does not seem the type of woman who has enjoyed the art of living a simple life.”
“No, she does not.” Gretel sat back on her heels.
“So what is of worth here? What would be more important and powerful than anything else?”
“It is greatly puzzling.”
“’Tis. Though I aim to sort it out as soon as possible.”
“It would have to be something that is priceless or unique or—”
Hansel gasped. “You.” He reached down and clutched her hands. “It is you, Gretel. It is you she is after!”
“No, you are mistaken.”
“Why did I not think of it before?” He stood up and walked a couple of paces away.
“She despises me. She wishes I would leave.”
“It is perfect.” He smiled and turned toward her. “She must know you are the Larkein princess!”
“You are not listening. She has told me she would force me to leave if I did not do all she has asked.” She stood up. “Truly, the woman hates me.”
Hansel tilted his head and rubbed his chin. “No…” he said slowly. “No. It is ideal. You do not see. She is forcing you out of the house, away and alone, so she can…”
“She can do what?”
“I do not know, but it must be something grand. Perhaps she is hoping to rebuild the Larkein throne.”
“But why would she wish to do that?”
He paced a few steps and then stopped. “Mayhap she is the witch who was involved with the kingdom before. If she knows who you are, we could be in very deep with this one.”
“What do we do?”
“I do not know.” He paced some more. “Whatever we decide, we must wait and watch first. Gretel—” He spun around. “You must tell me everything that happens in this house while Pa and I are away. Every single word she says to you. You must. Do you understand?”
Gretel nodded. “She has already been saying things.” Taking a deep breath, she whispered, “Before you came in, I was contemplating leaving.”
“No! You must not. Whatever happens, do not leave this house. Why would you think to do so?”
“She has threatened many times in the past few days to force me away if I do not do this or that. It has become so miserable, I realize now that I will have to leave. I will have to run and hide in the woods.”
“But what if she demands that I go?”
“If she forces you, then you…” Hansel searched her eyes. “We need a plan. We need to come up with something in case Father or I cannot get to you. We need to be prepared for the worst.”
Gretel thought about it for a moment and then asked, “Hansel, what if I left a trail of some sort? Could you find me if I left something upon the ground? Would you come for me?”
“Good. Those woods get awfully dark and a traveler can become lost after a few steps in. I would not wish to be alone for long.”
Tugging on her hand, he pulled her gently to his chest, his hand pressing her head onto his shoulder. “I would always come for you. Even if you left me nothing to follow, I would still search and search until I found you.”
She sighed, her arms wrapping around his back. She felt so safe right then. “Thank you. I was worried you despised me.”
“No.” He kissed the top of her head. “No. I have never despised you. I have tried not to like you as much as I do, but I have never loathed you.”
“Hush,” he murmured near her brow. “I want to discuss this first, while I have you so close. You do ascertain the seriousness of the situation, do you not?”
She snuggled in a bit closer, loving the feel of his broad chest against her cheek. “Pa has been enchanted. She most likely wants me. And will stop at nothing, so you say.”
“Not most likely, little one. She
want you. She is evil. I believe she is a harm to those she is closest to. Already she has threatened and abused you.” His voice became more tense. “Stay alert. Stay calm. Do anything she asks until I can form a better plan about what we must do.”
Suddenly Gretel felt numb. She knew she was being irrational, but Hansel was scaring her a bit and her mind could not help it when it jumped from one thing to the next. “You believe she wants the throne, but what if—what if she wants to kill me? What if she wants to get me away from the house so I may die and not be a threat to her?”
His hands tightened around her. “I did not think of that. My word, Gretel, listen to me. We will solve this riddle. We will get our pa back and you will live.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, loving the tingly feeling of his fingertips brushing lightly across her back. “Thank you.”
THE NEXT DAY, GRETEL paid particular attention to Cora and all she did. Hansel had warned her to act as if she knew nothing, but that was not quite as easy to do as she would have liked. Was Cora truly a witch? Did she really want Gretel dead? Was that vial a potion, or was this all the imaginings of two grown children trying to make sense of the world around them?
Gretel shook her head and chuckled a bit to herself as she washed up the last of the dishes. It would serve them both right if all was fully well in the home and they were merely making mountains out of nothing.
She glanced up as her father shuffled through the door. And it was most definitely a shuffle—a mere shell of the confident man he once was. All was not well. How could she believe otherwise, even for a moment?
“Hello, Pa,” she called as he wandered into the kitchen. “Are you hungry? Would you like me to fix something quick?” It was only three, too early for supper.
Adale glanced a moment in her direction. “What did you say?” he asked, his eyes scanning the counter of clean dishes and then the table.
“I asked if you were hungry.”
“Hungry?” He looked confused before shaking his head. “No, no, I am not hungry. I am fine.” He turned to leave.
“Pa, wait!” His growing lack of appetite was disconcerting.
He continued to walk away as if he did not hear her. She tried again. “Father, what did you need? You came in the kitchen with me. Did you need something?”
He stopped and glanced over before mumbling, “Nothing. Just Cora. She will help me. You cannot.”
She walked forward, clutching his elbow as he began to move again. “Father, please, do not—”
He yanked his arm out of her grasp. “Do not touch me!” he suddenly shouted, acting so very childlike. “Cora says you cannot touch me. Do not!”
Gretel stepped back a few paces, her heart lurching at the fear she saw within him. “I will not harm you.”
“No, you will not!” he snarled, fierceness coming out in his surprise anger toward her. “You will not harm me or my wife, or you will know what true pain is!”
She flinched and scurried back until she bumped into the stove. What was happening to him? How much worse would he get? It was almost as if he did not remember her at all.
Adale seemed to be satisfied with her retreat. He smirked and then blinked, his eyes all at once taking on a faraway stare again as he turned and slowly made his way out of the room.
Gretel waited until she heard his bedroom door shut. She hurried past the living room and out of the house. She needed to speak to Hansel and tell him how much worse Father was getting. They would have to intervene soon, or all would be lost.
As she went around to the back of the cottage, she came flush up to Hansel. “Forgive me!” she gasped. He must have been heading home.
“Yes,” he said as his eyes sparkled in the sunlight. “I see how you are—a typical woman, never looking where you are going.” He reached out to touch her, but she quickly sidestepped out of his reach.
“Ooh! You will not begin this nonsense about men and women today of all days.”
He chuckled. “Whyever should I not?” Looking up toward the sky, he said, “Today seems as fine a day as any.”
She placed her hands on her hips. “You
believe so! And here I was positive you had become nearly gentlemanly in your manners, but now I see I was most likely mistaken. You are just as big a nuisance as always!”
“Did you come all the way out here to pick a fight with me, or did you have other things you wish to discuss, my shrewish sister?”
Outraged, she glared at him. There were things she wished to say, of course. But how could she get past his flippant mood to the truth of the matter? With a tilt of her nose upward, she brushed past him, determined to go somewhere and sort her fears out on her own. Who needed to deal with men at a time like this?
She had made it a whole five steps before she felt Hansel’s arm on hers.
“Gretel, wait. I apologize.”
She was about to push his arm away when she paused and slowly turned toward him. “What did you say?”
“No, after that. What did you say?”
“I apologize.” He took a deep breath. “I should treat you better, I know this. But there are times when old habits are hard to break. Please forgive me.”
Her jaw dropped. “Hansel?” She searched his gaze.
“You seem so stunned that I would beg your forgiveness.” He stepped forward and removed a wisp of hair from her brow. “Have I never done so before?”
“No. Never.” She let out a short laugh. “Well, at least not for some time.”
He held her shoulder with one hand as the fingers from his other hand leisurely traced her arm up to the other shoulder, and then around her neck to cup her head.
Her skin vibrated with the trail of perfect sparks his touch had created. Biting her lip, she attempted to stop the trembling his nearness caused.
Hansel looked at those lips, and then his eyes met hers once more. “I promise I will do better. Please have patience with me as I learn how to speak to you properly. I am sorry.”
It was all too much. He was too close. All at once, everything she thought she believed and knew about him came crashing down in a muddled heap in her mind. This was the Hansel she remembered. This was the Hansel she cared for. This was the Hansel she loved. Gretel quickly pulled out of his arms.
“Thank you,” she said as she reminded herself to breathe normally. “I am concerned about Father. He was not acting as he should. It was worse than usual.”
Hansel placed his hands behind his back and began to walk toward the great tree some yards away. It was their spot, where they had gone to chat and dream when they were younger. Gretel followed as he said, “Tell me everything. And we will see what can be done.”
A FEW DAYS LATER, Hansel wiped his boots upon the metal scraper near the door and then walked into the house. He shucked off his wet jacket and hung it upon the peg closest to the window. It had been quite a rainstorm, something he had not seen for some time, and he was grateful to be back within the home. He tugged off his boots and set them near the entrance as well. As he looked around the room, he noticed that Gretel was not standing in the kitchen as she normally did.