Got through the second chapter, which is the original 2&3 combined into one chapter since I didn’t think the original content of Chapter 2 needed its entire own scene. I started with the chapters as separate as they are in the first draft, but I found myself dragging out the conversation just to get to the part where Orlick and Lilith tell the twins that Hansel is going to Madame Avery’s and Gretel is not.
While I don’t usually stress too much over chapter word length while I’m drafting, it is a good gauge of how long the overall piece will be. My novels, which are 75,000-80,000 words long, my chapters range from 1800-3700 words each and I have close to 30 of them. For this novella, I’m shooting for about 22,000. My original version is 14,000. I’ve got some room to make the story better. I’m choosing my length based on another one I wrote after Hansel and Gretel, when I knew more about storytelling and plot arcs and the rest of the good stuff.
For Chapter 2, I’m going with the title ‘Broken.’ Chapters 2&3 of the original version were 2257 words combined. The new Chapter 2 is 1874 words long. If I can accomplish the same critical things in a story with fewer words, that’s usually an improvement.
But what do you think?
“You’re choking her, Gunther,” Lilith said evenly, like she was talking to a tailor about a seam in the drapes.
The hulking gargoyle lowered Gretel onto the thick dining room rug, his fingers still clenched on her collar. She curled her fingers inside the neckline and stretched the fabric away from her throat enough that she could gasp in a few breaths.
Next to her Hansel hooked his thumbs inside his suspender straps. They angled sharply back from his shoulders and Gretel guessed that Gunther held the straps in his other meaty paw.
At least now she could touch the ground. It made it easier to glare at Lilith. 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. From the edge of her vision, Gretel watched as Orlick smoothed his waistcoat as well and offered Hansel a warm smile.
Her stepmother smoothed the light blue silk of her best gown and glared back at Gretel with icy eyes. “The girl is the troublemaker. The boy won’t cause you any trouble by himself.”
Gretel scowled. “The ‘girl’ and the ‘boy’ have names.”
Lilith cleared her throat to speak, but Orlick interrupted. “Yes, indeed.” He placed a jeweled hand on Lilith’s bare shoulder, his skin well-tanned next to her milk-white throat. “I am Orlick, the humble servant of her ladyship Madame Avery LeBlanc.” He bowed.
“Gretel,” she tried to curtsy, but her collar was still being held by Gunther and caught on her throat, “the mistreated stepdaughter of this lovely but freakishly evil woman.”
When Hansel didn’t follow her lead and introduce himself, Gretel glanced at him. He stared at Orlick, his eyes glazed over as if in a trance and his face slack. Reaching over, Gretel pinched the soft flesh between his forefinger and his thumb and twisted.
“Ouch!” He jumped, his suspenders sitting straight on his shoulders. Gunther had let Hansel go, but Gretel still felt the tug of the overgrown oaf’s fingers at the back of her dress.
Of course. She glared even harder at Lilith. Because I’m the trouble maker.
“H—” Hansel started, then cleared his throat. “Hansel.”
Her eyes flitted back to Orlick, watching his white streak in the candle light.
The man’s eyes, however, were focused solely on her twin. “He’s as perfect as you promised, Lilith. About sixteen? The peak of youth, truly. My mistress shall be quite satisfied with the arrangement.” His lips moved smoothly over teeth as white as fresh snow, his syllables clean and subtly clipped. He smiled at Hansel. “You will have a good life with Madame Avery. She owns a castle and vast lands. You will be well-clothed and well-fed, but she will expect you to work. I am buying you to be her stable boy.”
“Buying?” Gretel asked, her eyes flitting from Orlick to Lilith and back. “But Lilith doesn’t own us. She’s our stepmother.”
“I’m sorry, dear girl, but there is no ‘us.’” Orlick reached his hand above his shoulder and flicked his fingers. Two men as large as Gunther melted out of the shadows that still cloaked the parlor, their faces not as ugly as Gunther’s but identical to each other and set in scowls. “I believe your stepmother already sold your soul. I’m only here for the boy.”
One of them set a bag in Orlick’s waiting palm and the other stepped between Madame Avery’s humble servant and Lilith and grabbed Hansel’s arm.
“No!” Gretel reached for the man’s fingers but Gunther wrenched her back, her collar cutting off her scream.
“Gretel!” Hansel called back as he was pulled into the parlor shadows toward the front door.
Gretel’s fingers scrambled at her collar as Gunther adjusted his grip and threw her over his shoulder. She kicked and pounded and screamed, but Gunther hauled her up the stairs one tread at a time as if he carried nothing more than a sack of wheat.
He dumped her on her floor the same way, slamming the door behind him. Gretel scrambled to her feet, her fingers curling around the knob in time to hear the lock click.
That man took Hansel. She crossed the dark room to the window in five desperate steps and threw it open. “Hansel!” she screamed.
Her voice echoed off the yard below. The night glowed with the silvery light of the moon, a light breeze stirring the late summer leaves of the surrounding trees. The henchman who had grabbed Hansel now stuffed her brother into a carriage. The other hopped in the front and snatched the reins while Orlick gripped the sides of the carriage door and pulled himself inside as if he were going to church.
As soon as the carriage door closed, it lurched into motion. The second henchman did a running hop onto the bench at the rear and waved to someone on the porch before the carriage disappeared in the darkness of the trees.
No. Gretel’s heart pounded. She gripped the window sill so hard that the weathered edge cut into her fingers. Hansel, you promised.
Behind her, Lilith’s voice was like a whip on her soul. “It was the only way.”
Gretel spun to face her in the dark. The moonlight followed the silk of Lilith’s dress as the woman found a match on the dresser and lit a candle. Lilith straightened, cradling Orlick’s bag of money to her chest.
Money for Hansel. Gretel’s anger snapped and she smacked the bag onto the floor. Coins scattered, their metallic singing background music to Gretel’s rage. “You can’t do this. You’re not our mother.”
The slap came a heartbeat later. “I’m the only one you have left.”
Pain bloomed in Gretel’s cheek and she tasted blood as she looked at Lilith through watering eyes. The only one I have left. She thought of the day her Father said goodbye, then the carriage driving off with Hansel. Empty. Except for the nightmares. She focused on the pain in her cheek and the sting in her hand from smacking the bag of coins, gathered the hurt like armor. I will not cry.
She sucked in a trembling breath. “Then I wish I was dead.”
Lilith’s eyes flashed in the candlelight and she took a step forward. Gretel steeled herself for another blow, but the woman stepped past her to the window and closed it.
Even though Lilith stood behind her, Gretel could still smell her stepmother’s perfume.
Lilith’s white fingers brushed her cheek and she spoke softly over Gretel’s shoulder. “I’m sorry he didn’t want you.”
She means Orlick. But Gretel thought of her father, and Lilith’s words stabbed at the wound left behind by his absence. She fought tears, the heartache washing over her.
Lilith played with a piece of Gretel’s hair that had come loose from its braid when Gunther hauled her up the stairs. “Sit down.”
Warily Gretel sat on the stool in front of the dresser and faced the mirror. She looked at her reflection dispassionately, matted strands of dark hair framing sharp cheekbones and a hollow expression. Her eyes were the same color as Hansel’s, a blue like a summer lake, but Hansel’s shone with life while hers didn’t even seem to reflect the candle flame that danced on the dresser less than a foot away.
Behind her, Lilith glowed. Her hair was a pale gold and her eyes were the color of the ice that edged the river in January.
Beautiful, Gretel thought absently. A devil in angel’s clothing.
“I mourn for you, Gretel. Such a child.” Lilith picked up a brush from the dresser and pulled it through Gretel’s hair. “You still hope your father will come home someday, with gifts in his arms and stories of grand adventures. Do you think you are the only one he left behind?”
The brush caught on a matted tangle and Lilith wrenched it through. Gretel added the pain to her armor and her tears dried.
Parting Gretel’s hair into pieces, Lilith continued. “I was not supposed to be the stepmother.” Each word was punctuated by a tug and pull as Lilith wove Gretel’s hair into a neat braid. “I was supposed to marry a good man and have babies, keep a warm house and watch my children grow up while I grew old in the arms of my husband. I was supposed to have a happy ending. Now nobody wants me because of you.” She picked up a strip of cotton fabric from the dresser and tied it on the end of the braid.
Gretel met her stepmother’s eyes in the mirror.
Lilith smiled. “That gold you threw on the floor? No more begging for breadcrumbs, Gretel. No more shame.” She leaned over to speak in Gretel’s ear, her cleavage weighing down the lace that edged her neckline. “No more baggage.”
What does she want from me now? Gretel’s heart pounded as Lilith moved beside the dresser to face Gretel.
“Madame Avery didn’t want you, but Hansel is exactly what she wanted. Young, unsoiled. Thanks to your desire to protect him from knowing the truth about you, he’s worth the gold scattered on your bedroom floor.” She clasped her hands at her waist.
Gretel’s heart sank. I made her promise to keep the nights at the tavern a secret from Hansel. Now he’s gone and I’m alone with this witch. Alone…
Leaning close, Lilith put a cool finger beneath Gretel’s chin. “Do you think he would still love you if he knew?”
The emptiness where the nightmares lived churned in Gretel’s heart. She leaned on the dresser and hid her face in her hands while the pain that had been her armor was replaced with the echo of grubby hands and unshaved faces, the smell of belched ale, the rough feel of unwashed homespun sheets.
A chill ran down Gretel’s spine and dug into her gut. The rabbit she had eaten with Hansel threatened to come up. She clenched a hand over her stomach and met Lilith’s eyes once more.
She swallowed. “I never asked to be your baggage.”
A cruel light glinted in Lilith’s eyes. “Oh, you won’t be my baggage any more. The tavern made me a generous offer. It seems like some of their customers have been waiting eagerly for you to return.”
Frozen, Gretel watched as Lilith left. She slumped to the floor and curled up on the floor. A coin dug into her shoulder and another into her cheek, but the sensation seemed far away as a numbness washed over her. Thinking of Lilith’s threat, she understood vaguely that she should run away or fight back. Maybe even kill Lilith in her sleep and drag the body out to the woods where wolves would eat everything except her stepmother’s angelic bones.
But lying there on the coins that had taken her brother away, Gretel could only think of Hansel.
Do you think he would still love you if he knew?
No one can love me. Gretel closed her eyes against the reflection of candlelight on the gold. I’m broken.