Madame Avery’s house soared in turrets and spires above the surrounding forest. Gretel viewed the expanse of the mansion’s façade as the carriage pulled around the far side to a portico trimmed in manicured climbing roses. Late summer blooms opened brightly against dark, red-veined leaves. This time Gretel accepted Fitch’s assistance getting down from behind the carriage, her foot bruised smartly from landing on the road earlier. Orlick and Hansel repeated the scene from that morning, Orlick’s hand lingering on the boy’s until Hansel blushed under Gretel’s scrutiny and slipped his hands awkwardly into his pockets.
“Welcome, twins, to the humble home of your new mistress, Madame Avery LeBlanc.” Orlick gave a sweeping bow. “I shall order breakfast to your rooms, where you may, eh-hem, clean up just a bit before I present you to the Madame. Shall we?” Orlick offered his arm to Hansel, but Hansel reached for Gretel instead.
“Can you believe it, Gretel? Look at this place!”
Gretel stared dumbfoundedly at a pair of intricately carved double doors swirling with vines and curlicues. When Orlick reached the first step, Fitch nudged her with a thick finger. Gretel swallowed, nervous fear clinging to her throat like a stubborn cherry pit. She couldn’t decide if this was a nightmare or a dream, or whether or not she wanted it to be real. When she stepped over the threshold and smelled the rich sizzle of bacon fat and heady steam of fresh blueberry loaves, Gretel’s knees buckled with hunger.
“There, there, come upstairs,” Orlick grabbed her arm and pulled, Hansel on his other side. “We have to go through the kitchen. Perfectly unfair to a pair of starving urchins such as yourselves. My deepest apologies.”
“I thought we were perfect specimens at the ‘peak of youth,’” Gretel’s growling stomach made her grouchy, not that she had any inclination to be nice about their situation. “Now we’re starving urchins?”
“Her ladyship likes her household a little on the plump side.”
“Then she sure missed the mark with the henchmen. Did you find Fitch and Dobbs like you found us? Or did they come with the house?.”
Orlick ignored her and hauled the twins through the double kitchen doors, heavy wood swinging on large hinges. The kitchen was large, a wall of ovens, another wall of deep sinks, sausages strung from corner to corner with strings of meat intersecting and twisting. Bacon sizzled in an iron pan over a flame, fat and steam tracing a ghostly path toward the dark ceiling. Orlick pushed the twins against one wall, steering clear of the butcher block covered in flour and blueberry juice. They passed a black, dull metal door with a small window in it. Gretel peeked in as she passed. She glimpsed something white, like a stick with a rounded, knobby end, embedded in a cushion of gray and black ash.
An oven, big enough to fit a person in it standing up. Gretel wondered what a household would need such a large oven for. Whenever her father brought home large game, they roasted it on a spit outside.
Gretel’s curiosity was interrupted by Orlick dragging her to the bottom of a long staircase. She recognized its curve from one of the turrets outside.
The older man scaled the stairs rapidly, pulling Gretel onto the next landing so hard he tore her sleeve at the seam. Three times they reached a landing, twisting left and then right, and three times Orlick dragged them as quickly as he could to the next stretch of stairs.
The fourth flight of stairs turned back on itself tightly and ended with a creak at a faded gray door. A tiny window winked out over the back lawns and the stables, midmorning light slanting into the narrow stairwell. Orlick released the twins, fumbled in his pants pocket, and pulled out a solitary brass key on a nondescript ring. His hand shook slightly as he fitted the key into the lock and turned it a half-turn. The door swung in to a small but nicely furnished attic bedroom. Orlick stepped aside and ushered the twins inside. Hansel crossed the threshold buoyantly onto a plush antique rug. Gretel followed hesitantly, awed by their strange fortune but unwilling to trust it.
Without saying a word, Orlick closed the door. Gretel noted the click of the lock and Orlick’s even steps retreating down the creaking staircase.
“Gretel, it’s like a dream,” Hansel said as he bounced on a small bed covered neatly in a tapestried bedspread. Another bed waited patiently across the room from its twin, covered just as neatly in an identical bedspread, and arranged under a tailored canopy. Gretel walked to it and sat down.
“Yes, a very odd dream,” she studied the room and her brother’s face, lit up like it had been on Christmas morning when they were young children waiting by the tree for their father to pass out the presents. Gretel smoothed her hands over the bed and inventoried the rest of the room. A small bookcase separated the two beds under the slanted attic roof, and a large chair and a table sat in a dormer window off the foot of the bed Hansel bounced on. The last item in the room was a small dresser, tucked in an odd space across from the dormer with its table and chair.
Gretel fingered the stitching that ran through the quilt. “What did you and Orlick talk about in the carriage? I thought it was very, um, nice of him to let you ride inside.” Gretel watched her brother pull off his shoes and stretch out like a cat on his bed, folding his fingers behind his head.
“Oh, he told me about this place. Said that the Madame has ‘a rich family history’ and all that stuff. Made her sound all fancy. Talked about—” Hansel yawned, “the town and—”
“Town?” Gretel’s eyebrows shot up. “We didn’t pass any town. All I saw were fields, mud, and lots and lots of trees. And,” she leaned across the gap between the beds, “I had a wide open view from the back of the carriage next to Goliath’s baby brother.”
Hansel closed his eyes. “Yeah, well, we came in the back way. Her ladyship likes to keep people out of her business, Orlick says.” He yawned again. “What was it he said about breakfast?”
“Maybe you should go find him and ask.”
Her brother’s eyes shot open, “Yeah,” he pushed himself up on an elbow, “I‘ll go find out.”
“Whoa there, big boy,” Gretel scowled at her brother’s telling enthusiasm. “Orlick locked the door. I don’t think they want us wandering about on our own.”
Hansel’s face fell, “Oh, yeah. I guess not.”
The room fell to silence. Gretel twisted a loose thread that floated out of the bedspread.
“Did you see that oven? The one we passed in the kitchen, with the door and the little window?”
Hansel shook his head, “I didn’t notice anything in the kitchen except the food. Did you see those sausages? They stretched from the ceiling for miles! And the smell of that bacon? Wow…” Hansel trailed off, “I’m starving.”
“It had something in there, in all the ash, that looked like a bone from a finger, Hansel,” Gretel’s eyes grew large, “A human finger.”
“You’re paranoid. Why can’t you just let a good thing be good?”
Gretel chewed on her lip and looked at her brother. Her stomach growled and her mouth watered. Maybe things would be better. “Just…be careful, Hansel.”
“Well,” he stretched back out on the bed, “wake me up when the food gets here.”
Typical. Gretel rolled her eyes and tucked her feet up on the bed under her skirt. Low snores rolled from Hansel, and Gretel’s shoulder’s sagged. The night’s ride on the back of the carriage had left her exhausted.
Neither of them heard the key in the lock when the food arrived.
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