Authors: Jenni James
“Gretel?” he called as he padded across the floor in his wool socks. “Gretel, did you see that storm? It came out of nowhere, and it was as dark as the day we found you.”
He paused a moment, glancing around.
The house was eerily still.
“Gretel?” he hollered this time, his frantic steps taking him up the wooden staircase to pound upon her door. “Gretel! Are you there?”
“Come in,” she called from inside the room.
Relief poured over him. She was here—everything was fine. Taking a few breaths, he willed his heart rate to slow down as he turned the handle and said, “Thank goodness you are all right.” The door swung wide. “For a moment I thought something terrible had…”
It was Cora.
“Where is Gretel?” His chest went cold. “Why are you in here?” he asked the woman sitting upon Gretel’s bench.
She smiled a smug smile and stretched her legs out in front of her, her bright green skirt arching before her. “Your sister will not need this room anymore, and so I have decided to occupy it.”
His hand clenched upon the wooden frame of the door. “What do you mean?”
“I find it is necessary for every woman to have her own room as well as the one she occupies with her husband. It allows for certain freedoms and thinking that would be impossible otherwise.”
“Where is Gretel?” he snapped. “I do not care for your reasoning; I want to know where she is!”
“My, my, are not we the agitated elder brother.” Cora put a long hand in front of her face. Wiggling her fingers, she admired the immense emerald ring sitting upon one of them.
“Do not toil with me. What have you done with her?”
She sighed before pushing herself up from the bench. Standing in front of him, she placed one hand upon her hip. “I sent her away. It was for the best.”
She shrugged. “Hours ago.”
“Why not? It seemed just as good a time as any other.”
A deep, throbbing rage began to pulse through Hansel’s system. He did not know whether to strangle her or pounce upon her and rip her to shreds. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, his temper began to mount as he asked, “Why? What is your purpose for removing her from this house?” When she did not respond, his irritation snapped. He banged his hand upon the doorframe and shouted, “Where did you send her? What did you do to her? Does she have a place to stay? Where is she?”
Cora did not even bat an eyelash. “What does it matter?”
“Because she is my sister! And we did not save her life to see you toss her out the second you moved in.” He stepped toward her. “Where is my father? I will speak to him at once. You may believe you own this home now, but let me remind you, family is more important than your designs. You will not stand. Father!” he hollered.
“Keep your voice down, boy. He is not here. It is he who drove her to a secluded section of the forest where she will wander for several days until she is ravaged by the wolves.”
“You did what?”
She grinned. “The poor girl simply could not do all that was expected of her. She has no reason to live, and I will not have her getting in my way. I anticipate Adale home from this errand any moment now.”
“My father would never leave Gretel alone in the forest like that, nor would he take his cart and horse out in such a storm. You must be mad!”
“Interesting, then.” She raised one dark eyebrow. “For that is exactly what he did.”
Hansel took the last few steps to her. “What did you do to him? He was sane until he met you.”
She laughed, a melodiously husky sound, and said, “My dear boy, I did the exact same thing to your father as I did to your sister. And if you do not behave, I will do the same to you as well.”
His eyes bore into her emerald gaze. “I would like to see you try!”
Instantly, the door behind him flew shut with a bang. He turned to see if someone had come in, but they were alone. Anger coursed through him like fire. How dare the woman perform magic in front of him? “You are a witch!” he hissed.
She smirked. “And you will soon be a toad if you do not do what I say.” She pulled the vial from her pocket and held it out to him.
The enchantment! He snatched it from her grasp.
“Now, would you like to know what really happened to your sister?”
He flinched, hating being a pawn in her game. “I thought you told me she was lost in the forest.”
Cora laughed. “Yes, well, I had to make sure I could distract you long enough so I could shut the door. We certainly cannot have you running away.”
He stepped back with the vial in his hand to guarantee he had an advantage. “I do not know what sorcery you are about, but I will have you hanged and tried as a witch when this all over.”
“Do you know why your little Gretel was taken from the home?”
“If you have something you wish to say, then say it! I will not fulfill whatever pantomime script you have written in your head as the puppet or player you expect me to be. I care for one thing right now, and that is the safety of my sister.”
Flinging her skirts around in a large arch, she presented her back to him and walked to the window. “Your foolish temper will see you killed, boy. I suggest you play the puppet, or you will lose more than you could ever imagine.”
“Where is she?”
“When you in your idiocy decided to show her that vial of mine, you became a key player in this farce. For it is because of your inane ability to let things alone that I needed to remove her from this house.”
She whirled around, her green eyes flashing a bright yellow. The long locks of her raven hair lifted around her head like a dark halo. Her voice, though soft and barely above a whisper grated and grinded, sending the deepest, vilest chills throughout his heart. Clearly she was livid.
“I will not have my plans upset by a boy in love with my Gretel!”
Cora stepped forward, her hands reaching out and curling around the air in front of her.
His throat instantly tightened and he gasped for air.
“Drink it. Drink it all, now, or you will die.”
LIGHTNING LIT UP THE rain-filled sky above them as Gretel leaned over and pushed the streaming water out of her eyes. She quickly tied a scrap of fabric to a long branch as the cart lurched forward through the pouring rain. They moved slowly up the overgrown road. Every so often she would attach another ripped piece of her apron to the branches reaching out into their path. She prayed Hansel would find the fabric later. Thank goodness the rain had slowed them down as much as it had or she did not think she would have been able to leave a trail of markers of any kind.
Father had not spoken one word to her from the moment Cora had him pick her up and place her in the cart until now. He simply stared directly ahead and continued to drive leisurely through the storm as if he were in a trance.
“Pa?” she hesitantly asked after a few more minutes. When he did not reply, she tried again. “Pa? Can you hear me?”
Leaning forward, she clutched another long branch and rushed to loop a scrap of fabric around it.
“What are you doing there?”
The shout came as such a surprise, Gretel nearly toppled over the edge. “You startled me.” She gasped as she righted herself, pushing off the wooden sides.
Adale pulled on the reins and stopped the horse. “Aye, girl! Get yourself sitting fully in that cart now! No more leaning forward! You are not jumping out that easy! And do not go about tying things to the branches either, you hear me? ” He climbed down and walked the few steps over to the branch, yanking off her soggy fabric as he did so. Bringing it to her, he continued to shout through the rain, “If this is how you think to repay me and my wife, then I am done with you! I will make sure you do not tie another piece to any of these branches again.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
He reached down under the cart and removed a large wooden plank from the underside of the seat. “This.” His eyes raged a dark, awful color as he approached her, the wind and sleet making him very frightening.
“Pa, wait!” she called out as he raised the plank above him.
“No! No one will find the likes of you ever again! This stops now.”
He swung the wooden beam wide and she ducked, but not quickly enough. She felt the sting of the plank as it cracked against her head. Dazed, Gretel slumped to the cart floor, her cheek sloshing in a puddle of rainwater before her eyes drifted shut and she forgot all else.
GRETEL AWOKE WITH A throbbing headache, her back upon something cold and hard. She was not sure where she was, but the smell of candy was strong. It was everywhere, permeating the air. Slowly, she opened one eye to face near blackness before risking a peek with the other. Blinking, she attempted to ease the ache within her head as she cautiously sat up.
It was too dark and too cold to make out much of anything.
She brought her knees to her chest and dropped her head upon them, closing her eyes again. The pain was unbearable. What had happened? Where was she? And more importantly, how did she get here? She could not remember anything. Her last memory was of being at home and preparing for tea.
Groaning, she sat there for some time before she opened one eye again. She blinked until she could focus on the ground below her. It looked to be hard dirt. Perhaps it was stone; it was all a sort of muddled gray. Following the floor with her eyes into the darkened shadows around her, she peered, trying desperately to see what she could not see.
As she lifted her head from her knees, the room began to tilt and spin. It was too much. It was all too much. She lay back upon the ground and curled her knees into her. This pain must stop.
The wretched smell of sweetness was so overbearing, she was afraid she would be ill soon. And the thought of casting up her accounts upon the ground did not bode well with the megrim she was facing now.
Please do not be sick. Please do not be sick.
She slowly breathed and breathed and breathed until she fell back asleep again.
The next morning was much better for her. At least the pounding in her head seemed to be gone. The smell was not quite as strong, or perhaps she was more used to it. Whatever the reason, she was grateful not to have the overwhelming scent distracting her. She was also very happy to feel the warmth of sunshine upon her skin. She opened her eyes a crack and saw the beams streaming into the place. Waiting for the headache to reappear, she paused a bit before braving the glare and opening her eyes fully.
There was a window right above her, and from the angle of the warm light it would appear to be much closer to seven than her usual waking time of five in the morning.
Where was she?
She sat up and looked all around the little cottage she found herself in. It was indeed tiny, a fraction of the size of Adale’s home. It was an odd little house, brightly painted and quite lavishly decorated. Vibrant blues, reds, yellows, greens—so many colors pinged and danced their way through her vision. Never before had she seen a place so childlike in its brightness and décor. Was this reality? Was she perhaps dreaming?
She blinked several times before deciding it was indeed real. The layered colors had a distinct sheen to them, glossy and pretty. Slowly she stood and approached one of the multicolored walls. Instead of the gray stones and wood a typical cottage would have, each individual rock seemed to be painted a separate color from its neighbor. Walking closer to inspect the shiny stones, she reached one hand out and was surprised to find a hardened shell-like rock instead of the dense mineral she expected. It was the tiniest bit sticky, not quite fully dry and smooth. This was definitely not paint, but the actual stones themselves were this color.
Looking at her fingers, there were no signs any substance had come off onto them, but it would seem definitely that material would dissolve if completely wet, almost as if it were a food of some sort. Something she would have in the kitchen.
She furrowed her brow. How odd. Why would anyone go through the trouble of building a home if it would not last? It was almost clear as well, as if she could partially see into the colorful stone. Were these an odd type of gemstone, perhaps?
Leaning closer to a bright red one, she was surprised to smell the distinct aroma of cherry. She pulled back. Cherry? That could not be right. She approached the stone once more and sniffed. It was indeed cherry, and it smelled delicious. Almost like—candy. Blinking, she stared at the rock for a very long time.
Who would build a house of candy? Could it be? She stepped forward and this time licked a small part of the stone. It was indeed!
And it was so good. She took another taste and then another. Glancing at the blue stone next to her, she quickly abandoned the red and smelled it. Blueberry!
It was only a moment before she tasted that. Then lemon, raspberry, grape… every different-colored stone did she try. It was truly a magical house.
Glancing around the small, one-roomed cottage, she looked at all the furniture, the slightly tinted windowpanes, the floral centerpieces, the curtains—all of it! It was all candy.
My good, great heavens
. How was anyone to resist so much temptation as this? Gretel had never seen the likes of such glorious confections before. And oh, how she truly loved sweets. She had missed them dearly when she first came to Adale and Hansel. They constantly chided her about that sweet tooth of hers. But now, now it was like she was at the castle all over again. Memories of bowls of candy and goodies flooded forth. How wonderful it was then to reach in and take a few of them here or there. The castle had never run out of such treats, and all the children loved dipping their greedy fingers within the bowls.
She giggled a very childlike giggle and walked toward the small table in the center of the room. Picking up a licorice whip folded and twisted into a beautiful flower, she began to nibble on it. She groaned—this was heaven. This was perfection. She sat down upon the only proper place in the room, the actual stone floor, and began to eat. Fast.