Chapter 4 (These chapters now have titles in the new version.)
It was a long night.
The carriage jolted her backward, her spine slamming painfully into a bar behind the footman’s bench. Gretel sent a pointed scowl toward the cabin of the carriage. Hansel rode inside, cozying up to the man in the velvet waistcoat.
When the arrangements had first been announced, Gretel had opened her mouth to ask why Hansel was allowed to ride inside while she was forced to endure the chilly night and the stranger’s goons on the footman’s bench, but she closed her mouth quickly before a sound came out; she did not really want to hear the answer to that question.
The stranger eyed Hansel with an interest that made Gretel squirm.
Gretel thought of the man in the velvet waistcoat as a stranger, even though now she knew his name was Orlick and he served as an emissary of sorts for a wealthy landholding lady in the next county. He had bought the twins as slaves for the lady’s household, leaving a hefty purse in Lilith’s outstretched hand as the overgrown manchildren Orlick called Fitch and Dobbs hauled the twins out through their father’s front door.
Lilith watched them go with a light in her fierce blue eyes, cradling the purse to her chest as she might a newborn baby.
The carriage lurched again and Gretel swung into Fitch’s thick arm. She stiffened and grabbed the edge of the bench, sliding her fingers over on the painted wooden slab so that the next time the carriage jolted she wouldn’t end up in Fitch‘s lap; he smelled oddly like boiled cabbage and reminded her of Gunther on a bad day.
Grit dug into her eyes as she rubbed each, and her shoulders complained from the long night of bumping and shaking. Late summer crops lined the road in even fields laid out like the squares of a quilt, occasionally interrupted by a cluster of forest left beside the road like an afterthought. As the sun bleached the sky in the east, the scenery shifted. The trees thickened and eventually hugged the road so tightly they threatened to choke it.
The carriage navigated slowly over what turned into a muddy backwoods path, Gretel heard the rise and fall of voices through the lacquered casing of the carriage; Hansel and the stranger were awake.
Orlick shouted something at Dobbs and the carriage rolled to a stop. Gretel jumped down immediately, swatting at Fitch’s hand as he reached to assist her. Her bare foot scraped on a sharp rock embedded in a dry strip of packed dirt and Gretel swore under her breath. Stepping down from the cabin, Orlick scowled at her. Gretel scowled back, but Orlick ignored her as he turned around and reached up to help Hansel. Her brother’s fingers curled over Orlick’s, and Hansel blushed at Gretel’s dark, disapproving glare.
“Good morning, Sister,” Hansel’s voice broke into a squeal, and he cleared his throat. “Orlick was just telling me that we are almost to Madame Avery’s estate, or, really we are there because she owns these woods, but we’re almost to her house.” Hansel’s blush deepened and Orlick patted her brother’s hand, which, Gretel noted with a shudder, Orlick was still holding. “She’s rich,” Hansel finished.
Gretel sighed tiredly. She was too hungry and exhausted to pick a fight over the creepy way Orlick doted on her brother. “I hope her Madame Ladyship doesn’t mind that I piss on her lovely trees,” and Gretel pinched up her skirts and picked her way across the deeply rutted and muddy carriage path. The dark forest floor was cool and slightly damp, shadowed by the thick leaves that quaked above her.
When she returned to the carriage, Fitch and Dobbs waited at each end like living gargoyles, their shoulders set sharply in dark overcoats and their hands clasped behind them. Gretel wondered where one found large, ugly, and perfectly obedient henchmen. Probably some country close to Hell.
Orlick waited patiently beside the carriage doors, blinking at her in the growing light. Gretel avoided his eyes as she stiffened for Fitch to pick her up like a porcelain figurine and set her very gently on the footman’s bench.
“Thank you,” Gretel said in a low voice to the ugly, overgrown man. “That was very unhenchman-like.”
Fitch grunted and raised himself up to join her with a single step. Gretel scooted to the edge of the bench and gripped tightly just as the carriage heaved into motion.