Hansel and Gretel–Chapter 12

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Chapter 12
The sun hung high in the south, its midday rays cutting through the chill of late autumn. Gretel settled her cloak around her on the horse and checked the clasp. Hansel pulled his horse next to hers, a tall chestnut with a wide chest and proud ears. Gretel’s little mare pranced beside the larger horse, and Gretel stroked her dark neck to settle her.

Anna, Dobbs, and Fitch stood patiently in the autumn chill, their own cloaks wrapped closely around them. Gretel squeezed her bare heels into the mare’s flanks, then turned for a final wave before she and Hansel disappeared into the trees, following the cart path out that Orlick had brought them in on.

A few paces and the horses settled into a rhythm. Gretel stopped hers and turned. The grand mansion was now nothing but a heap of rotten planks and tarnished metal. Everything within the estate was twisted and blighted, except the stables and an outbuilding where Fitch and Dobbs slept. Gretel took a deep breath and turned back to the road.

They traveled in silence, pushing the horses to cover the same distance in half a late-autumn day that the carriage had traveled in a full summer night. Gretel recognized fields after the woods thinned and the cart trail widened to a road.

The twins stopped for supper just outside of the last small village before home. Hansel unwrapped a milk cloth full of food packed by Anna. They ate honey cakes, cold mutton, and shared a flask of ale. As they brushed off crumbs from the honey cakes, Hansel gave Gretel a wary glance.

“What are we going to do about Lilith? She’s going to go crazy over the horses, not to mention the gold and jewels.”

Gretel gave him a steady look, “I’m not afraid of Lilith, Hansel. She’s not a witch.”

With nothing more to say, they both mounted and turned their horses off of the road and onto the carriage path that led home. The sun set quietly among the thickening snow clouds, leaving the twins to pick their way over the wooded hill that hid their childhood home from view of the road.

As they crested the hill and broke through the final line of trees that circled the manor grounds, Hansel caught his breath.

“Gretel,” her name made her look up, “is that…”

“Father!” Gretel cried out down the hill.

The man on the manor steps raised his face from his hands. Tears streaked his cheeks in the glow of the porch lantern. He stood and peered into the darkness through the first swirling flakes of snow.

“Gretel?” he questioned so quietly that only the darkness heard him.

Horses pounded toward him outside of the realm of the lantern’s glow.

“Gretel?” He asked more loudly, forcing his voice to carry.

“Father!” Gretel pulled her mare up short and leapt down, her cloak billowing out behind her as she leaped into her father’s arms. Hansel followed a heartbeat later, embracing them both in a crushing hug.

“Oh, my children, my children,” Father cried over and over.

The snow flurried more rapidly, building toward the intensity of a determined winter storm. Father gathered his children in his arms and led them into the parlor. He spoke briefly to Gunther and the giant lumbered out to take care of the horses.

Gretel stood by the parlor fire, drops of melting snow glistening on the fibers of her green wool cloak. Hansel took his cloak off and handed it to a young maid he’d never seen before. She took it away into some other part of the house.

“My dears,” Father hugged them each in turn, his fingers lingering on Gretel’s cheek. “I came home after so many months away to find you gone. Lilith told me you ran away.”

Gretel’s eyes were hard. “Lilith sold us, Father, to a witch. Come,” Gretel grabbed his wrist, “ask her. I don’t think she’d dare lie with us standing as witnesses.”

Father’s head fell, and he looked shamefully at his feet. “Lilith,” he began through tears, “died yesterday afternoon. I—I didn’t know. I was going to search for you, but…the storm…”

“We’re here now, Father, and I can’t pretend to be sad that Lilith is dead. She deserved it.”

“I—” Father faltered. He dropped his eyes and went to the kitchen, then returned to the parlor and offered them each a steaming mug of spiced ale.

Hansel blew on his and then looked at his father and Gretel.

“Can we forget about Lilith? Father, will you tell us of your travels? Did you find riches? Meet new people? Dine with royalty?”

Father grinned. “Well, I don’t know about all that, but,” he put his mug down and went to rummage through a strange chest sitting in the corner of the room. “I do have something for each of you.”

Gretel sipped on her ale, grateful for the warmth of the spiced brew, and the parlor fire, and her father.

“First,” Father presented Hansel with a thick, leather bound book. Hansel squinted at the scripted title.

“It’s, uh, not to be discussed in the presence of ladies,” Father stuttered. “We’ll talk about it later.”

Hansel flipped the book open, “Oh,” he flushed and quickly closed the volume, “I see.”

“And for you,” Father raised his eyebrows at Gretel, hiding something behind his back, “Shoes.” He produced a pair of green leather slippers.

Gretel set down her ale and cradled the shoes in her lap. In turn, she looked each over, admiring the fine, precise workmanship.

“Father,” Gretel breathed, “they’re beautiful.”

“Well, try them on.”

Gretel slipped them onto her calloused bare feet and stood, pulling up her skirts so she could see them. The smooth dyed leather dimly reflected the firelight.

“Perfect,” Gretel looked up at her father, tears in her eyes.

“I guessed you might be the same size as your mother, Gretel. And you are so very much like her, in many ways.”

Gretel stepped into her father’s arms and sobbed, all of the grief from the day her father left until this moment soaking into his shirt sleeve.

“Thank you,” Gretel managed between sobs, “Thank you.”

The End

***

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