Authors: Jenni James
Until that moment, she was not fully aware of how hungry she had become, or how much she had missed such wonders. It was simply bliss.
She chewed and gnawed and devoured the little flower quite quickly. Not once did she wonder again how she had gotten to such a place. Not once did she remember her dear Hansel and Pa. Not once did she even think to be homesick. No, this was too much, too wonderful, too perfect, for Gretel to think of anything else.
The more she ate, the more immune to her reality she became.
And the more the enchantment took hold of her heart and mind and wove its way through her to capture the great Gretel Elsie Margaret, Her Royal Highness, the Larkein princess, would-be queen.
THE WITCH SMILED AS Hansel let out a yelp when her hands curled around his neck. This time she loomed above him. This time she would force the potion down his throat whether he wished to be drugged or not. The day before, in Gretel’s room, he had thrown the small bottle against the wall while she used her witchery to cut off his air supply. Never again would she be so foolish. Hansel would pay for that bit of nonsense.
How upset she had become! How livid once she saw the contents of her precious vial scattered in droplets and oozing down the yellow wall of Gretel’s room. She screeched out a curse and instantly, Hansel had frozen. His arms, legs, neck—all stiff and permanently held in place.
“You will suffer for what you have just done!”she had hissed as she walked toward him. His gaze widened as her snarling face neared. “Yes. You can only move your eyes now, and they are all you will be able to move for some time.” She ran her long fingers over his face as she tried to regain some composure. It was not like her to become so very upset. Then again, there were few people actually foolish enough to disobey her. “I suggest you use this time wisely to think over all your actions today, boy, for you are not allowed to treat me and my things with such disrespect. If you do, you shall be destroyed.”
She smirked. “I see by your eyes that you wish to do so much more than just stand there and look at me. You wish our roles were reversed, do you not?” She grinned. “Oh, you foolish, foolish boy. If you know me to be a witch, then why tempt your life in toying with me? For do you not know that witches always win in the end? Though you may attempt to thwart our plans, there is greatness in our design that allows for a completion of all our hearts’ desires.”
Patting his cheek, she continued, one brow rising in disdain. “And do you know what I desire most? Do you? In all your inner thoughts and ponderings over what I could possibly be doing to your family now, have you figured it out?” She stepped back. “Oh, ho! I see by that flash in your eyes that you have. Yes, boy. It is Gretel. Do you know why I want her? Why I would need such a filthy, monstrous, dimwitted thing? No? Should I enlighten you?”
She chuckled and walked slowly around his frozen form. “My, my, my, you do make an awfully interesting statue. Perhaps I will not bother with the potion. Perhaps I shall just place you in my rose garden at the new Larkein castle. Mayhap that would be best. I believe you would set off the tulips to perfection with such an angry stance as that.”
Stepping forward and to the side of him, she whispered, “Of course, if I allow you to become a permanent garden ornament, you might be able to see your precious Gretel from time to time.”
He looked away from her.
“Hansel, have you sorted out why I would need her? Why I would need the princess back upon her throne, to become the queen she was destined to become? Have you?”
When he glanced back, she said simply, “Freedom.”
“Freedom. I want release from this perpetual role of cottage maiden, always living on my own or attempting to blend in with the other villagers. I was made for grander and greater things and I will not be forced into this life any longer. There was a reason I left that girl in your father’s care, a reason I chose you two specifically—I knew your soft hearts would keep her safe until the time was right. She is of age now. Sixteen allows her the rights and privileges to the Larkein kingdom and I will not sit back and allow all this time of waiting to go for naught. I need my kingdom rebuilt. I want to live in splendor and beauty again.
“What is that you are attempting to say to me?” she mocked. “Oh, little Hansel, shall I release your mouth for a moment to hear the words that will no doubt ensure my immediate wrath? Or shall I protect you from your own folly and allow you to stay silent?” She put her hands on her hips, the skirts of the green dress fanning out beneath them. “What shall it be? Two blinks and I will release that confounded mouth of yours. One, I will allow you to stay as happy as you are right now.”
He blinked twice.
“Are you certain?”
Two more blinks.
She sighed. “Very well. I shall do as you wish until I am bored of such nonsense.” Snapping her fingers, she said, “Release.”
Hansel worked his stiff jaw a bit. “Thank you,” he muttered.
“You are welcome. Now.” She curtsied before his frozen form. “What would you like to say to me?”
“I beg your pardon.” She smirked. “Did you honestly command me to come to you?”
Grinning, she took a step forward, shaking her head slightly. “What are you going to do? Shout in my ears?”
“Come here, please,” he said again. “You are a strikingly beautiful woman, and I wish to see you closer.”
Throwing her head back, Cora laughed to the ceiling, but decided to humor the poor sap. “Do you not see very many women who look like me, then? You mean to say no one in your village holds a candle to me?”
“Not one. Come closer.”
She stepped all the way up to him, their noses nearly touching.
“Release my neck,” he whispered.
Cora gasped. Her curiosity about his forward behavior caused her heart to beat quite erratically. There was too much happening. It was too daring—she had to continue. She whispered back, “Release.”
His neck inched forward, and Hansel captured the witch’s full mouth with his own.
CORA MOANED AND KISSED Hansel back.
“Release me,” he murmured against her lips. “Allow me to move about freely.”
She did not answer as her mouth explored his.
Truly, the woman must enjoy kissing. “Cora, let me put my arms around you and hold you as we connect this way.”
“Release,” she muttered into his mouth.
Instantly his arms were free and he wrapped her up against his chest, his hands winding around her back, and she melted. This was too easy. Way too easy. He deepened the kiss before pausing for breath and stating, “I would love to hold you as I wish. Help me by releasing my legs as well so I may balance better.”
She pressed her lips to his again and they stayed like that for some time before he attempted once more. “Cora, let me come with you. Let me help you on your quest. There is nothing I desire more than to see the Larkein kingdom returned to my sister. I will be your ally. Let us do this together.”
She pulled back and looked at him. Hard. Then she whispered, “Release.”
His legs gave way and he immediately stepped free of the stiffness. “Thank you.”
“Why?” she asked, folding her arms. “Why do you wish to help me?”
“Was I not clear enough a moment ago?”
“If you make one false move, I will kill you. You do realize that, do you not?” She leaned up and kissed him again.
“And you are not afraid of death?” she whispered.
Pulling back, her eyes skimmed Hansel from head to toe. A grin formed upon her pretty mouth. “Good. You may prove to be very useful. Now follow me.” She brushed past him and opened the door.
Hansel turned and watched her walk out of the room. As quickly as possible, he wiped at his mouth and then followed her. His hands shook slightly from the ease it was to outwit her. She was vain, very vain, and as long as she believed him to be infatuated with her, she would be quite easy to manipulate.
He paused at the foot of the stairs when his father opened the door and walked into the cottage. Cora brushed past her husband and out the door without saying a word. Adale looked shattered and lost. His clothing was visibly soaked through and he would most likely catch an illness from the effects of being in such a storm. “Hello, Pa,” Hansel murmured as he stepped forward to catch the man’s quivering arm. “Let me get you dry.” He knew the witch expected him to follow her, but he simply could not leave his father in such a state.
Adale swayed a bit under the pressure of his son’s hand, but Hansel was able to remove the worn outer coat and hang the dripping thing on the peg near the door. When he came back to his father, Adale merely blinked at him before asking, “Hansel? Is that you?”
Hansel’s jaw twitched. What was the woman doing to this man? How dare she mess with his mind so? “Yes, Pa. It is I, Hansel.” He glanced at the open front door and whispered, “Where have you been?”
His father blinked again and stared blankly ahead. “I do not know. I went somewhere far away.”
Hansel clutched his arms. “Was Gretel with you?”
Confusion flitted across Adale’s features. “Who?”
“Gretel. Your daughter. Remember? Where did you take her?”
He nodded and pulled out of his son’s arms. “Nowhere. I did not take her anywhere. It was not Gretel—it was someone else. Someone bad who would hurt us both.”
“No, Pa. It was Gretel, and she is not bad. What did you do to her?”
“I did nothing to her!” Adale snapped. His eyes blazed before settling into a stupor again.
“Then who was in the cart with you?”
“I do not know!” He spun about and stumbled to his chair. Collapsing into it, the poor man began to cough violently. “Leave me be,” he gasped. “I did what was best for us. Now leave me be.”
“Hansel!” Cora hissed from the doorway. “Stop meddling with things that do not concern you. We must leave at once.”
“No. I must take care of my father first.”
She laughed, a long cackle. “Your father will be dead in a week—I will make sure of it. Now, if you do not want to lose your life too, I suggest you hurry with me, boy.”
Incensed, he stood there for several moments, weighing his options. He still had no idea where Gretel was. His father clearly needed to be warmed and fed and sent to bed—but the idea of Gretel out in the cold somewhere, in the same predicament as his father, pulled and tugged at him. Where was she? How afraid and alone must she be? It was getting late already—the sun had begun to fade. His father would not care for his help, and Cora knew where Gretel was—un less this was all some elaborate hoax to get him away from the house as well.
She clicked her tongue in irritation. “Do not make me regret unfreezing you. I will do so again in a heartbeat if I must. Now come, and you may live to see your sister again.”
He stepped toward her. A strange, overwhelming urgency to stay put conflicted with his need to see Gretel. He took another step, and the urgency only increased. What was she planning to do to him if he followed? Or could it be worse—if he left, would his father surely die? “Forgive me. I will go with you as soon as possible, but right now, I must attend my father.” He turned his back toward her and walked over to the man.
He heard a hiss and the front door slam shut. “Stand back! You will not touch my husband!”
Adale did not even flinch at the commotion. His glazed eyes stared straight ahead.
“What have you done to him?” Hansel ignored the witch’s command and lowered himself to tug off his father’s boots.
“If you do not stop this, boy, you will be sorry. Why must you persist in irritating me?”
Hansel slipped off the first boot. “You have not answered me. What are you doing to him? Why is he only a shell of the man he once was?”
“I do not answer to anyone!” she screeched. “Now leave him be or you both will cease to exist this moment!”
HANSEL PULLED THE BOOT off his father’s other foot. He could feel a tingly awareness of Cora as she approached him.
“You would not be so bold as to disobey me,” she snarled in response to his defiance.
“Please, I must attend my father. We may leave shortly, I promise. Just let me see that he is comfortable first.” His skin began to crawl as she drew even closer to him. He could see the shadow of her form creeping over him, caused by the fading light at the window. Her hands drew upwards and he heard the same familiar muttering of gibberish she used to freeze him coming from her lips. Instinctively he whipped around, one hand snaking out to clutch at her ankle. Without a moment’s hesitation, he yanked her foot forward while his other hand pushed against her knee, forcing the witch to lose her balance and slam to the ground, her head cracking against the wooden flooring as she did so.
In just a little over a second, she had been completely knocked unconscious.
Shaking, Hansel jumped to his feet. What had he done? He leaned over the prostrate form of his stepmother and gasped. Was it truly that easy? Picking up one limp arm, he allowed it to collapse to the ground. The overwhelming sense of urgency came again—but this time it was to run. Now.
As quickly as possible, he urged his father to take off the rest of his clothes and tucked him into his night attire, helping him between the covers of his bed. Then, grabbing a few essentials from the kitchen, Hansel dashed out of the house, leaving the powerless witch upon the floor. Who knew how long she would be in such a state—who knew how long it would take to find Gretel. He simply could not wait another moment.
Running into the stables, he saddled his father’s horse and took off down the lane. Thank goodness the mud held the tracks of the cart within it. He followed those tracks for several miles before he came to a fork in the dirt road and could not make out which way they had come from. It had grown much too dark.
Was it left or right?
He decided to take the road to the right first. After he had gone several hundred feet, he swung the horse around to try the road on the left. As he was about two hundred feet down the left-hand road, he passed a branch with a piece of cloth stuck to it.