Smoke from the badly vented fireplace fills the inn's common room, but at least it drives off the flies that might otherwise have gathered on the scraps of food that are just barely soaked up by the sawdust covering the floor. It also makes Gretel's eyes water. She blinks them to clear her vision and turns to slide between two benches full of men, her hands full of empty flagons.
She's right between the men, almost brushing against them, when a rough hand grabs her rear. The flagons go clattering to the floor and she spins, seizing the offending hand by the wrist and slamming it to the table. The owner just grunts, so Gretel snatches the belt knife he'd been eating with out of his other hand and drives it through the one she's holding captive, pinning it to the table. That makes him scream.
He chokes it off into gasps all too soon. "Fucking whore," he grates out, glaring up at her through lank hair even as he fumbles at the knife, clearly uncertain what to do about his hand. "Innkeeper!" he shouts.
Jakob is already pushing his way between the tables to where they are standing. Gretel squares her shoulders and crouches to gather up the flagons. She straightens up, once she has them, and tilts her head back to look Jakob in the eye. He's a big, round man, his face florid from drink and his beard rough but short. He looks at her and shakes his head, then looks at the man with his hand still pinned to the table. He must want the innkeeper to see it.
"She's not a whore," Jakob says, and Gretel swallows a relieved breath.
The man at the table scowls. "It was a handful, not a whole fucking meal."
"I don't sell handfuls, and Lyse doesn't sell bread," Jakob says. Lyse is the madam who runs the whorehouse on the edge of town. "Take that knife out of your hand before you lose it." He turns and walks away.
Gretel hurries into the kitchen, dumping the flagons in the pile to be reused. She leans over to peer out of the back door, open to vent the heat from the oven, but there's no movement, and she relaxes, because if Hansel had heard he'd be in here by now. The cook, Anna, looks at her and smiles. "Don't worry, girl. Your brother's mucking the stables. He won't have heard."
Leaning against the rough wooden table where the cook is shaping crusts for meat pies, Gretel nods her thanks. "He means well, but Jakob doesn't need the trouble." Truthfully, they don't need the trouble, but Anna will be more sympathetic to Jakob's problems; she's his wife.
"He's not much trouble," Anna says. "Still such a stringy boy, even those he's almost a man."
Hansel, at fifteen, is a year younger than Gretel, but he's not 'almost' a man. He is a man. He has been since he was eleven and she was twelve and they learned why children shouldn't gorge themselves on sweets. When the cook opens the oven to slide freshly baked bread out and meat pies in, a memory of fear and triumph sparks through Gretel. "He wants to take care of me," she says aloud.
"He's a good brother," Anna agrees, shutting the oven door. She wipes sweat from her forehead with a rag and sets about breaking a wheel of cheese into chunks. "We could use a few more of those."
There's something about her voice that makes it more than a casual comment. "Oh?" Gretel asks. Something goes tight and hard in her chest.
"Reitz Kniess's son, Konrad, was supposed to be helping his little sister gather herbs while Reitz was hunting three days past," Anna says. She shakes her head as she breaks the chunks of cheese down into smaller pieces. "The boy set about daydreaming and Engel wandered off. Reitz has been out searching every day, with no luck. He might be doing better if the fool boy would give up insisting a witch took her and tell his father where they were when he lost her." Anna shakes her head again.
Gretel freezes. A witch. She presses a hand to her chest and feels her heart pound against her palm, but doesn't speak for a moment. She and Hansel quickly learned that most folk don't believe in witches, or don't want to believe, anyway. They don't like to think that they're so vulnerable; they'd punished the siblings often enough for suggesting it. "A witch?" she asks instead, turning away from Anna and gathering a double handful of flagons to fill with ale. "That's quite a tale."
"Says she stopped him talking and froze his feet in his tracks with a word and carried off the girl," Anna confirms. "I like a story as much as anyone, but words don't have that kind of power."
"Perhaps," Gretel says, pouring ale into the flagons, "someone did take her, and his feet and mouth were stopped with fear."
"You're a forgiving one, Gretel," Anna replies with a sigh. "The boy's father is a skilled tracker. There was no sign."
Flagons full, Gretel forces herself to wrap her hands around the cluster of handles, rather than racing straight out to the stables and Hansel. Jakob has been fair, and they need the roof over their heads and the food on their plates. "I'll pray for Reitz and Engel," she says, and sweeps back into the common room.
It's late before Jakob releases her to find her bed in the hayloft with her brother. They could sleep by the fire in the inn, but neither of them trust the customers not to trouble them in their sleep, and Jakob bars the inn's door at night; Hansel doesn't like having a bar between him and outside. Gretel is glad for the privacy of the loft now, even if it's cold. She scrambles up the ladder and finds Hansel already tucking one of their blankets around a pile of hay. She darts forward and seizes his wrist, tugging hard. "Hansel!"
He drops the blanket and takes her other hand, worry creasing his brow at her tone. "What's wrong?"
Gretel forces herself to take a deep breath. "Have you heard that Reitz Kniess's daughter, Engel, is missing?"
Hansel nods. "Reitz came to borrow a horse so that he could search further; Jakob let him have it free until tomorrow midday."
Gretel lowers her voice into a bare whisper. "She's not missing. A witch took her. Konrad Kniess says a witch came and made him still and silent with just a word and carried Engel off."
"And no one believes him." Hansel's mouth draws down into a scowl. "Reitz is gone tonight. We can go talk to Konrad."
Gretel blows out a breath and can't help but grin at her brother. Reitz was looking in the wrong place, but they wouldn't be. They'd find the witch, and Engel. "Come on!" Gretel hisses, hiking up her skirts and turning to climb back down out of the loft.
The boy, Konrad, is careful at home; he doesn't open the door right away, instead calling questions through it until he's sure he knows who they are, which makes Gretel glad the inn is well known. The noise makes her look warily towards the neighboring houses, but it also makes her that much more sure that Konrad isn't lying about the witch.
It takes a while to convince him that they believe him, but once he starts talking, the words spill out in a torrent, all the parts about the word that froze him in place and more. Tears streak his face when he's done. Gretel sets her jaw. "We're going to find your sister," she says, reaching out to grip Konrad's hand tightly. "I swear it."
"What about the witch?" Konrad asked wetly, wiping at his cheeks.
Gretel trades a fierce grin with Hansel. "We've killed a witch before," she tells the boy.
His eyes go wide, but he nods. "What do you need?"
"You said that the witch spoke some words to hold you fast," Hansel says quietly. Konrad nods. "Then I think we need something to stop up our ears."
"We have some soft wax," Konrad ventures. Hansel nods and the boy runs to get it. When he returns, he's also holding a long gun. "My father took his bow looking for Engel," Konrad says. "He said the gun doesn't always work so good in the morning, when it gets damp overnight."
For the first time, Gretel feels uneasy. They didn't use a gun before. She's not sure how. But the boy holds it out and he looks scared enough for the three of them, so she just smiles and takes it. "We won't be gone that long," she promises him, and his shoulders relax some. They use firewood, rags, and lamp oil to make torches, since they know fire works. Gretel wishes they had a good set of knives--there's always a use for knives--but Konrad and his father have none, beyond Reitz's belt knife.
Konrad leads them to the place where the witch took his sister and points out which way she dragged the girl, but they make him go home after that, because he's just a boy and Reitz has already lost one child. When he's gone, Gretel looks at her brother, barely visible in the light of the waning moon, and whispers, "When do you think we ought to put the wax in?"
He frowns a moment. "Now," he replies. "She found them here. Her house probably isn't far away, and if we get caught without it, it'll be too late."
That makes sense. Gretel takes the lump of wax out of her pocket and works it in her hands a moment before dividing it into four pieces and handing two to Hansel. They push it into their ears, and when Gretel speaks to make sure it worked, her voice is distant and strange in her own head. Hansel shrugs, and when his mouth moves all she can hear is an indistinct murmur. Good.
They set off in the direction Konrad pointed, moving slowly through the forest underbrush. Gretel can't help but finger the two torches hanging from a couple of tears in her skirt, and she winces every time she feels a twig snap under her feet, though she can't hear it. She'd imagined sneaking right up to the witch's cottage and stealing in through a window, but they're not being quiet at all.
It seems like hours before there's a break in the forest. They lurk in the trees at the edge of the clearing and peer into the open space.
Except it's not really open space. There aren't any trees, to be sure, but the ground is gnarled with brambles and short, thorny bushes and strange plants that Gretel recognizes not at all. In the center of the clearing is a house. It's not a tempting house, like their witch's candy home had been. It's a crouching, angry shack, its windows clouded and its door twisted out of shape like a snarl. They'll never get across all that uneven, dangerous space without being seen, and Gretel half thinks that the house might raise an alarm all by itself if they pry at those windows.
She turns to look at Hansel, which is why she sees it: a flutter of cloth in the dark, and a bone white hand.
Her scream echoes in her head, but she brings the gun up, swinging it like a club because she doesn't know where the trigger is and can't remember if she loaded it. The barrel strikes the witch's wrist and knocks her hand aside. Hansel scrambles back behind Gretel, yanking his torches from his belt.
Gretel's gaze follows the witch's hand up past the tattered black and gray cloth swathing her body and inevitably meets dead white eyes. With eyes like that, the witch should be blind, but in the breathless moment that they are frozen a step or two apart, Gretel knows that the witch is staring back at her.
The witch smiles, slow and vicious, and Gretel's skin crawls. Thin, bloodless lips move to shape words, but the wax does its job; Gretel's body remains her own. The witch frowns and speaks again, maybe shouts, from the way her hands slash the air, and anger sparks in Gretel's belly. She will not have her mind toyed with. She will not have her body stolen. Her hands tighten on the stock of the gun and she swings it with all her strength before the witch's lips even stop moving.
The barrel strikes the witch in the temple with a crack that Gretel feels more than hears, the force of it radiating up her arms. The witch stumbles backwards but doesn't go down, and Gretel plants her feet and turns the gun around in her hands, gripping it by the barrel this time, because the stock end is heavier.
Snarling, the witch crouches, digging her pale fingers into the soil. Light flares behind Gretel even as the witch leaps. She's fast, inside Gretel's guard in an instant, and she strikes Gretel's chest and bears her down to the forest floor, gun slipping from her fingers. The fall knocks the air out of her, and the witch cackles. If she had the breath, Gretel would laugh, too.
The witch has forgotten Hansel.
Hansel, whose torch has finally caught, who casts them into a pool of warm, dancing light for a bare second before thrusting the flame right into the witch's long, tangled hair. It goes up with a flare and a horrible stink and the witch screams so loudly that Gretel can hear it through the wax. The witch beats at her burning head with her own hands and tumbles aside easily when Gretel pushes her off. Hansel, mouth set in a hard line, darts in and drives the torch into the witch's belly, where her clothes catch fire, too.
The screaming is so shrill it makes Gretel want to close her eyes, to hide from it, but she forces herself to use the light to search the ground instead, looking for the gun. She finds it just a foot or two away. There's time, now, with the witch writhing in the grip of the fire and Hansel keeping watch, so Gretel checks to see if she loaded it--she did--and finds the trigger before walking back to her brother and the witch. The shot is almost unheard amidst the screams, and the silence after makes Gretel's ears ring.
They stand watch as the body smoulders, carefully stamping out any tendrils of fire that spread too far. No point burning down the whole forest.
When there's nothing left but char, Gretel carefully digs the wax out of her ears. Hansel does the same, but he stares at the blackened corpse while he does it. Gretel waits for him to look at her. When he does, he's frowning. "Is it wrong that I enjoyed that?"
Gretel doesn't have an answer for him. "We need to find Engel," she says instead.
She lights one of her torches from Hansel's and together they pick their way across the clearing to the twisted hovel. The plants shy away from them, and when Gretel lays a hand on the door it swings open; whatever protections the witch might have put on it have faded with her dead. She and Hansel trade a wary look, but they go inside.
The hovel is full of gnarled roots, and it takes awhile for Gretel to realize that they're forming the shape of a bed. There is no other 'furniture'. In the corner, Engel is pinned against one wall by roots curled around her wrists and ankles. Another covers her mouth, but they can still hear her sobbing. Gretel rushes across the room and strokes the girl's hair back from her face. "It's okay," Gretel murmurs. "It's okay, we came to get you. The witch is dead, and we're going take you out of here."
Engel only sobs harder. Gretel trades a helpless glance with Hansel. Maybe getting her free will help.
They have nothing to cut the roots with, but between the two of them, they manage to break them. Engel screams as each root snaps, and the skin they covered is dotted with dozens of tiny beads of blood, as if the roots had been growing into the child. After they pull the last root away, Engel throws herself at Gretel, who hugs her tight and fights back tears.
Gretel lifts Engel into her arms, Engel's small legs wrapping tight about her waist as she presses close, and looks at her brother over the girl's shoulder. "No," Gretel says, rubbing her hand up and down Engel's back. "No, it's not wrong at all."