Both snow and shadow blanketed the world. Tree branches bowed under the weight, and the shadows of their bark snarled. And, in the distant, a faint orange light glowed.
The girl tightened her grip on her brother's hand. This was a wilderness area— there should be no civilization here, and the light was too steady for that of a fire. She knew better, than to trust mysterious lights in the woods— her mother had taught her well, whispering to her the hidden secrets of the world before she had died.
She looked back at her brother. His cheeks were red and he stumbled over his footsteps more often than not. His coughing was a constant melody to their journey.
She set their path towards the light.
It belonged to the cottage. There should be no cottages in the forest— she knew well from her father, how thoroughly the forest was guarded. But there it was, warm with light.
"We're almost there," she whispered to her brother, encouraging. He nodded, just a small incline of the head.
She stepped onto the doorstep, and knocked on the door with her free hand. A few heartbeats later, the door opened.
A woman stood in the doorway, looking down at them. Her lips were very red, like pomegranates.
"We need somewhere to stay," the girl said, lifting her head.
The woman leaned against the doorframe, looking at her with lidded eyes. "For how long?”
"As long as you'll have us," the girl said.
The woman studied them for a long moment. The wind picked up, and her brother began to shiver. Finally, the woman spoke. "You can stay with me, but as for your brother... I'm afraid I don't have a spare room."
"Either both of us stay, or neither of us do," the girl said, fiercely, digging her nails into her brother's wrist. He sighed, a soft, tremulous sound. Could the woman not see that her brother was sick? she thought, anger filling her chest and making her warm again.
The woman placed her hand against the girl's cheek, and she shivered as the woman's long nails, painted crimson, drew against her skin. Still she stared up at the woman, her face set and eyes hard.
The woman's red lips curved up into a smile, lovely and slow. "What's your name, girl?" she asked.
"Gretel," the girl said, sharply.
The woman's smile grew, and she stepped back from the doorway.
"Come in," she said. "Both of you."
Steam bubbled out of the kettle. The woman made her way to the fire, lifting the kettle. Soon there were two cups of tea, the steam wisping up from the swirl of the liquid. She placed these before Gretel and her brother. There was no oven in her kitchen, no sign of modern technology at all.
Gretel did not touch her tea.
"What brings you to this forest, girl?" the woman asked.
"We're lost," Gretel said, shortly.
"Lost, or abandoned?" the woman asked.
Something in Gretel's chest tightened, and she stared at the woman with hard eyes, silent.
The woman smiled again. "I see." She turned from them. "You'll be staying with me. I'll set up your brother in the basement."
"Hänsel," Gretel said sharply.
The woman glanced over her shoulder. "Pardon?" she asked, her mouth forming the word as though it were something delicious.
"Hänsel," Gretel repeated, something harsh and determined echoing in her voice. "My brother's name is Hänsel."
"So it is," the woman said, her voice very soft.
When she left, Gretel took both cups of tea, and looked over them, the way her mother had taught her. The tea swirled, lazily, counter-clockwise, and she breathed out her relief.
"Listen," she said, turning to her brother and cupping his cheeks with both hands. "Until I say so, don't eat or drink anything she gives you.” She paused, sucking her breath against her teeth. “I don't trust her.”
Hänsel nodded, tired and slow.
"And what of your family?" the woman asked, when they had been there a while. She had not asked them to leave and so they had stayed. Still, Gretel watched her, suspicion clouding her eyes.
"My father's a lumberjack," Gretel answered, as short as ever. "And my mother's dead."
"A lumberjack? Your father shouldn't be logging here, girl," the woman said. Her eyes were very dark, almost black.
"And you shouldn't be living here," Gretel shot back, wondering how she knew that her father logged in these very woods.
The woman laughed, delighted. There was something lush and wonderful about the sound.
"I live here for the same reasons your parents came here, girl," the woman said.
"What do you know of my parents?" Gretel demanded.
The woman did not answer.
Hänsel stayed in the basement, mostly, and would hardly ever leave, not even when Gretel tried her hardest to coax him out. He just laid on his bed and read the books on aeroplanes the woman had left there in stacks— the only sign of technology Gretel had seen since coming to the cottage. His cheeks were always pale now, but Gretel could only pray her thanks that the fever had not returned.
She made the mistake of mentioning her concern to the woman, once.
"Leave him," the woman said as she brushed her hair. It was black and silky, twisting into elegant curls. "He'll come when he's ready."
Gretel wanted to punch her, to stain her soft, snow-white skin with the ugly purpling of a bruise.
"How old are you, girl?" the woman asked, one day.
"Fifteen," Gretel answered, watching her with cat eyes.
"Not a girl at all, then," the woman said. Her mouth twisted into another one of her lovely smiles. "Your mother would be proud."
Gretel held her jaw tight, but said nothing this time. The questions buzzed angrily in her head. "I'm taking Hänsel his food," she said, picking up his plate.
"How very devoted to him, you are," the woman said. "I wonder what your stepmother would say?"
Gretel clenched her fingers tightly around the plate, her skin turning white. She had never mentioned her stepmother. "Did Hänsel tell you?" she demanded.
"Tell me what?" The woman tilted her head.
Gretel exhaled, harshly. "What did Hänsel say?" she repeated.
"Nothing," the woman said. "Only that your mother was very sweet, and your father very strong. He seems to admire him very much."
"And the stepmother?" Gretel pressed, ignoring the ache that had flared at the woman's words. Hänsel had always been so stupidly devoted to their father— even now, when he had left them for dead, he missed him.
"Nothing," the woman said. "All I know of her, I have learned from your mother."
"My mother never knew her," Gretel hissed. Her eyes were wild. "And you never knew my mother."
"So you say," the woman said. Her eyes glinted. "I believe your brother is getting hungry, no?"
Gretel opened her eyes, unseeing in the darkness, but awake. The mattress lifted, and, a moment later, the door opened, and for one moment the woman was a dark silhouette against the new light.
She left. Once the sound of her footsteps faded, Gretel followed.
She stepped outside, not bothering to pull on shoes, the grass soft and gentle against her feet. She had only half-noticed the lengthening amount of time she and Hänsel lived with the woman, as the snow had melted into spring, and spring had grown into the lush grass of summer.
The woman was walking deeper into the forest, and Gretel followed her without a second thought.
They came to a grove, the trees so old that their branches had grown into each other, and their roots twisted above the ground, mingling with one another.
At the center of the grove was a stone; when Gretel drew close she saw that it was a tombstone, the words weathered by age.
"It is my mother who lies here," the woman said, and Gretel started, eyes wide. She had not realized that the woman knew that she was following her.
The woman turned to look at her with dark, lidded eyes. "She's been buried here for years, ever since she danced herself to death on this very spot."
"Danced to death?" Gretel asked despite herself. The stone was too old, and the woman too young— her words had to be a lie. It made no sense.
Yet, her father would have said that her mother's teachings made no sense, had he known.
Not for the first time since she had begun to live with the woman, she felt unsure.
"Yes," the woman said. "Such things don't happen anymore, I suppose."
Gretel stepped closer. She could not read the name on the tombstone. She asked, "What was she like?"
"I was to my mother as you were to yours," the woman said. "I learned much from her— it was almost a shame, when she had to die."
"Almost?" Gretel asked, catching on to the word with her teeth.
The woman smiled, and again, Gretel couldn't help but notice how very red her lips were. "I did say that she had to die, did I not?" the woman asked.
"Why?" Gretel demanded.
The woman closed her eyes. "That, my dear, is a story for another day, I'm afraid," she said, her words like silk. She opened her eyes, and her smile turned sharp. "Soon," she said. "Soon, I will tell you."
There was a cake on the kitchen table. Gretel drew near, curious— she had never seen sweets in the woman's cottage, in all the months she had lived there.
She pulled out a plate, and went rummaging for a knife.
"Careful," the woman said from behind her, plucking the plate from her hands. Gretel hadn't heard her coming. She rested her crimson nails against Gretel's wrist. "Sweets aren't good for you."
Gretel turned, mouth set in a fierce line. "Why bake it, then?" she demanded, pulling away and crossing her arms across her chest. It wasn't the cake— she had never loved sweets the same way her brother did. It was because it was the woman who said it, that she fought back.
The woman only smiled, a slow, slow smile. "Let's just call it a sacrifice," she said.
The snow came, and the fires began to blaze in the fireplaces once more.
"You are not a stupid girl," the woman said one day as they sat before the fire. "Not like your stepmother."
Gretel turned away from the fire to face her. It was just the two of them— Gretel had failed yet again in convincing Hänsel to leave his basement and books to join her.
"What do you mean?" she asked, frowning. She had never cared for her stepmother as she did her mother, but she had never hated her either, not until the day she had heard her suggest to her father that they abandon his children in the forest in the dead of winter.
"You know," the woman said, the words sliding out easier than air. "You know that there are things in this world that most people have forgotten to be true."
"Like you," Gretel said, her voice hardening.
"Like me," the woman agreed. "And like your mother."
"What are you?" Gretel asked, breath giving life to the question that had plagued her ever since she had seen that impossible light in the woods— the question that had only grown as the months went by, as she had seen none but she, the woman, and her brother in woods she had known to be plagued with officials, hunting for law-breakers. Like her father.
The woman looked thoughtful. She twisted a pipe between her fingers, although Gretel had never seen her smoke, let alone seen that particular pipe. "I suppose it's time to tell you about my mother," she said, finally.
"Who danced herself to death," Gretel said.
"In iron-hot shoes," the woman said easily. She didn't seem to be perturbed by her own words.
"What does that have to do with what you are?" Gretel demanded.
"Everything," the woman said. "I told you— I am to my mother as you are to yours, and I cannot tell you what I am without also telling you what I was."
"Tell me," Gretel said.
The woman let out a soft breath. "I suppose the best word for what I am is a witch."
"A witch," Gretel repeated in an odd sort of voice.
"My mother was a witch, and so I could not be anything but," the woman said, as if Gretel had not spoken. "But I was a princess first."
"There are no princesses," Gretel said. "Not anymore."
"Yes," the woman agreed. Her eyes were distant. "Not anymore."
"You're not mortal," Gretel said, not many days afterwards.
The woman turned to look at her. Her ebony-black hair cascaded over her shoulder. "Nor was your mother," she said, with something like approval in her voice.
Gretel stiffened. "You didn't know my mother," she finally said. "You know nothing about her."
"So you insist," the woman said, amused.
"She was mortal," Gretel insisted. "Like me. She wouldn't have died, were she not." She wouldn't have left me, she thought.
"You confused immortality with undying, my dear," the woman said. "The two are nothing alike, I'm afraid." She paused. "But you are partially correct. She was like you. Like me."
"My mother was wise, but mortal," Gretel hissed. "And I am nothing like you."
"Not yet," the woman murmured, placing her hand against Gretel's cheek. This time, she did not shiver, although the woman's nails pressed into soft skin. "You are a gangly thing— your legs are too long and your hair is too short. But one day, you will be beautiful, as your mother before you, as my mother was." She smiled, her teeth the white meat of an apple. "As I am."
"Because beauty has everything to do with immortality," Gretel muttered, voice dripping with sarcasm.
The woman laughed. "Soon," she said. "Soon, you will see. And you will understand."
The basement was oddly quiet. "Hänsel?" Gretel called, softly, just in case he was asleep. "Hänsel? I've brought you dinner."
She set down the plate on the little table he always ate at, and moved towards his sofa. Her breath caught in her throat.
Hänsel's eyes were closed, and his skin was so very pale. His arm flopped over the side of the couch, his favorite book on aeroplanes still lingering in his hand. She touched his cool cheek, then placed her hand over his heart.
Trembling, she turned towards the arm of the couch. Buttery crumbs lay scattered over the surface of a plate she had not brought him.
She checked the crumbs, as she had always checked his food.
When she went back up the stairs, her face was white, but her eyes burned wildly.
"What did you do to him?" she demanded as she stormed into their bedroom, practically spitting out her words.
The woman looked up from her book. Gretel had never seen her reading before, although the basement had been piled with books. "To who, my dear?" she inquired.
"Hänsel," Gretel spat, clenching her fists. "You brought him food when I wasn't looking— you poisoned him!"
He had never been able to resist sweets.
"So he succumbed," the woman said idly. She set the book aside.
"You killed him," Gretel said. She trembled, but whether it was from grief or rage, she could not say.
"I told you," the woman said. She curved her fingers around her arm, the crimson nails a stark contrast to the snow-white skin. "Soon, I said, you would understand."
"I understand nothing," Gretel hissed.
"He had to die," the woman said. "Otherwise, you would never be born."
"Stop speaking in riddles!" Gretel snapped. "Why did you kill him? Tell me!"
"I told you. You're as mortal as I am," the woman said, simply. "As your mother before you, as my mother before me— you were born to be a witch."
"I'm nothing like you," Gretel repeated, her teeth clenching together.
The woman ignored her words. "Your brother, unfortunately, was as mortal as his father— and before you could truly live, all your mortal bonds had to be cut. Your brother had to die." Her smile was brief, but sweet. "Just like my prince."
"My mother—" Gretel began.
"Did the same," the woman interrupted. There was something cat-like about her gaze. "Did you really think that she loved your father? She merely wanted a child— another girl, to raise in her place."
Gretel stood still for one long moment. "What do you want?" she finally asked, her voice very soft.
"To teach you," the woman said. Her eyes darkened with something Gretel could not name. "Do you accept?" The words rolled off her tongue, spiced like candy and cinnamon.
Gretel flushed. She turned, retreating back into the basement.
The woman did not follow, but her lips curved into a chesire smile.
Later, when the sky had grown dark and stars peppered the sky, Gretel took her brother outside, and offered his body to the snow, as her mother had taught her. Then, she sat there, her knees soaked and cold, her hand gentle against Hänsel's cold cheek.
"Is it true?" she whispered to the sky, covered as it was by the branches of the trees, reaching as all things did to the moon. "Were you a witch? Am I as well? Is— is it the right thing to do, to stay with her? To learn with her, even— even after what she did?"
The breeze strengthened, wrapping around her. She closed her eyes and breathed. Her mother was— everywhere. Her arms were the breeze, holding her tight, and the sharp scent of cold was replaced by the spices her mother had always baked with.
She whispered in Gretel's ear, the way she had always done when she had told her secret things, and Gretel sighed, long and slow.
When the breeze stilled, she opened her eyes. Her brother's body was gone, and the questions in her mind had finally quieted. Finally, she understood.
She stood, and looked at the moon one last time. Its light was her mother's smile.
She turned, and returned to the cottage.