Chapter 2 (In the new version, this chapter is titled “The Girl & The Boy.”)
Twilight etched the manor house into a shadowy silhouette. It sat on a low hill, above the summer cooking cabin, away from the heat and the smell. Soup sloshed noisily in the cauldron as Hansel and Gretel hauled it in through the back door. The manor had a kitchen on the main floor, with a great stone hearth and a large pantry, but her stepmother insisted that Gretel cook in the small, claustrophobic cabin because she was afraid the house would catch on fire.
As they lowered the cauldron to a large iron trivet on the floor, voices hummed along the smooth planks that ran into the kitchen from the manor’s formal dining room. Gretel focused on the door, concentrating. Her stepmother’s voice rose in a sultry laugh, underscored by a man’s baritone chuckle. The twins exchanged a surprised look, dark eyebrows raised into wary arches.
Their stepmother occasionally entertained visitors, wealthy men in silk blouses with gold watch chains and wigs. When they saw a horse or carriage in front of the house, the twins stayed away.
Hansel glanced at his sister, “There was nothing when I came home, not a carriage or a horse or anything.” Gretel’s eyes widened in fear. “I swear, Gretel.”
“Hansel, where did you get the rabbits?” Gretel hissed.
Her brother shrugged, “The only place you can get rabbits. I poached them off the prince’s land.” He added quickly, “But I swear nobody saw me. Nobody.”
Gretel’s brow drew down into a scowl, pinching into a line above her nose, and her lips pressed together, turning white. The man’s voice carried through the door, “Not any inconvenience at all, Lady. But when should I expect to see the, ah, merchandise?” While his laugh had sounded pleasant, his voice carried a warning.
Hansel loosened his fingers from where they still gripped the thick ring on the side of the cauldron and gestured toward the back door. Gretel shook her head, and motioned for him to wait.
“My dear Mr. Orlick,” Stepmother’s voice soothed, “they are here somewhere, lugging in a pot of hot water the girl calls soup. They are late, in fact, an oversight demanding punishment. But any discipline shall now be at your discretion, my lordship.”
Gretel glared through the door, imagining her stepmother’s low curtsy, her calculated cleavage framed in lace and heaving in full view as she finished ‘my lordship.’ Hansel looked at his sister and they exchanged a desperate look.
“She said ‘they.’” Gretel took Hansel’s hand. The twins crept backwards, Hansel’s boots scraping whispers against the floorboards, and Gretel’s bare, calloused feet making no sound at all.
The back door sighed as Hansel pushed it open, feeling behind him for the narrow stone steps that connected the back of the manor to the tangled mess of bramble that was once the kitchen gardens. Gretel bumped into him, her urgency growing at the scent of clean, fresh air. Twilight had deepened into the inky blue of early night, a faint ribbon of shallow light pulsing on the western horizon. The air tasted sweetly of evening primrose as Gretel filled her lungs and turned to run.
Air exploded in a short, clipped scream as her collar rode up sharply against her windpipe. Rough knuckles dug painfully into the back of her neck and Gretel kicked at the air and scratched uselessly at her throat. Hansel swung next to her, a boot catching her shin as he flailed several inches off the ground like one of his snared rabbits.
“Where ye‘ goin‘, littluns?”
Even though she couldn’t see Gunther, Gretel’s memory drew a perfect image of rotted, uneven teeth and suppurating lips.
“I guess ye’s jes lost, eh,” his voice scraped on her eardrums, like gravel grating on bare knees. Gretel, choking and swinging, shuddered against the sound of Gunther’s mocking.
“Well,” the tall, lurching man threw Hansel down on the steps and halfway in the door. Hansel barked and grabbed at his throat, scrabbling into the kitchen as Gunther tossed Gretel on the steps behind her brother like a rag doll. She yelped as her shin hit the edge of the stone, then flinched as the cool night air burned its way into her lungs.
“Time fer dinner,” Gunther grinned. The smile reached up to his bulging yellow eyes, squishing them out past his eyelids where they glowed in the final seconds of twilight.
Hansel took his sister’s hand and tugged her into the kitchen, pulling her past the steaming cauldron of soup and well out of Gunther’s reach. The caretaker was awkwardly strong, but not very quick, and he lacked a certain ability to think for himself. He was, as Gretel called him behind her stepmother’s back, Lilith’s three-hundred-pound lapdog.
Uneven flame painted shadows on the walls of the large formal dining room, twitching and spitting light upon the delicate golden features of Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother. She smiled at them with full, dark lips, revealing a thin line of perfect white teeth, but her eyes bore into Gretel with a warning.
Behave, Lilith’s blue eyes said, or you’ll pay, little girl.
Gretel stubbornly ignored her stepmother, clenching her jaw to keep it from quivering, and looked up into the soft shining eyes of a perfectly beautiful stranger.
“They’re of the perfect age, Lilith, as you promised. About sixteen? The peak of youth, truly. My mistress shall be quite satisfied, I believe, with your arrangement,” his lips moved smoothly over teeth as white as fresh snow.
Gretel glanced at her brother, his mouth set but his eyes gawking at the tall gentleman. She followed her brother’s gaze back to the stranger, and studied the man warily. Everything about him oozed perfection. He stood upright, proud in a maroon velvet waistcoat and neatly pressed black wool trousers, his starched dress shirt spilling white lace above the first button. His dark hair was cropped fashionably above his ears and slicked back from a high forehead. He was handsome in a cool, masculine way, and seemed completely at ease with himself.
Gretel stared at a ribbon of white that streaked above his right ear. Mr. Orlick, Lilith had called the man.
Hansel continued to stare, too, his face slackening into a sort of trance. Gretel slid her hand out of his loosening grip and pinched the soft flesh inside his thumb and twisted.
“Ouch!” he jumped.
“Now there,” Lilith smiled nervously at the gentleman, “a bit of sibling rivalry. I promise,” she looked at the twins, “they will not be any trouble.”
The man smiled warmly, “I enjoy children of this age,” he looked at Hansel pointedly, “I’m sure it will all go smoothly.” He looked at Lilith again. “Shall we go? Do the children have anything they need to pack?”
“We don’t have anything, sir,” Gretel responded. “Literally.”
“What she means,” Lilith rounded the room and settled her hand lightly on Gretel’s shoulder, “is that they have only a few small items, sentimental mostly. I’ll take Gretel upstairs and help her with a small trunk. I’m sure their new mistress will be more than generous in providing for their needs.”
“New mistress?” Gretel asked. Hansel stood mutely, his hands fidgeting in his pockets, his eyes darting back and forth from the skittering shadows to the man in the maroon velvet waistcoat.
The stepmother’s hand pressed down hard on Gretel’s slender shoulder. Gretel ignored the warning and pinned her stepmother with a stare of open hatred.
“Does my father know about this?”
Lilith glared at her. Watch your mouth, little bitch.
“You can’t do this. You’re not our mother. You have no—”
It came without warning. Golden curls bounced over Lilith’s shoulder as she cradled her smarting palm, rage boiling pink under her fair skin. Coppery blood choked off Gretel’s retort, and she swallowed hard once, twice. Lilith’s slap had cut her cheek on her teeth.
“Sis!” Hansel grabbed Gretel’s shoulders and pulled her away from Lilith before the fight turned nasty. He pulled her into his chest and wrapped his arms around her protectively.
“Now, now,” the man gathered Lilith’s hand in his and delicately smoothed her shiny, golden curl behind her shoulder, tracing her collarbone with his cool fingertips. “No need for such discussion. I shall explain it all as the children and I travel.”
Lilith’s breathing deepened and her cleavage heaved, a new emotion quickening her pulse and coloring her fair skin with a warm flush.
Gretel opened her mouth to argue, to defend her father’s right to know what Lilith was doing, but Hansel shushed her and covered her bloody teeth with a clammy palm.
“Calm down, Gretel. She’s just trying to upset you. Besides,” he whispered so low only Gretel could hear him, “I don’t imagine any place could be worse than here.”
Gretel met his eyes. There were worse places Gretel had been, but Hansel didn’t know of them. He lifted his hand from her mouth, and kept his arms around her.
“Stepmother,” Gretel began sweetly, but glared out from under a scraggle of long, dark hair, loosened fully from its braid by Lilith’s hand. “Let’s go pack my things.” She unwound from Hansel and took Lilith’s hand.
Lilith eyed her warily, but turned a smile to Orlick. “We’ll only be a moment.”
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