“At this point, I would fucking pay a witch to teach me a spell to stop the Curse of Exploding Bowels. I don’t even care what kind of spikes I’d grow out of my face if I could do that. Or to at least make sure it gets pointed in a different direction. I’m pretty sure I need to get a new bodice and leggings. Again.” Something squelched when Gretel pulled herself up onto her horse. She made a face.
“Well,” replied Hansel to his sister, as he strapped his shotgun to the saddle of his horse and hoisted himself onto it, “we can bury your clothes once we’re out of town, and get what you need at the next market we find."
“I think I’d rather burn these.” She actually would rather have ripped them off where she stood, but it wouldn’t do her reputation as a stone-cold bitch any favors, if a villager happened to see. This fucking town. She and Hansel were never beloved heroes; they were used to being treated like corpse-bearers, collecting the plague-ridden dead without bothering the living. But in Tondorf, where everyone seemed to be related to each other somehow, it had been more personal. They had needed witch hunters, yes, but that didn’t mean they had to refrain from judgment on the ones who came, apparently. “Maybe burn them on somebody’s thatch roof, see what happens next."
“Remember what happened last time when you burned them? Let’s not burn them. I think the stench killed some sheep."
Gretel sighed, but tilted her head in Hansel’s direction, acknowledging his point. They’d come out of Freschen having caught the full force of the curse of the hunger for crawling things as well as the curse of exploding bowels. Gretel had always had a strong stomach, ever since pushing a witch burn to death in her own oven, but even she had felt queasy; Hansel had vomited from the smell that burning the leather garments had produced. He wasn’t particularly delicate either, but it had been enough to make week-old corpses smell like lavender fields in comparison.
This particular witch-hunt hadn’t been as bad as Freschen, but Tondorf had little to attract any more powerful witches; this one had just been hiding on the edge of town, grabbing the occasional farmer to turn into her mindless drone and farm her garden of poisonous herbs. After enough farmers died of it, the town had gotten together the money to fix the problem.
Hansel had voiced his opinion that they weren’t as much tired of the farmers going missing as they were of those farmers coming back, as shambling empty-eyed men armed with pointy farming implements, and possessing a tendency for their blocked guts to explode, usually at the front steps of the Rathaus. Unfortunately, as they’d discovered, the witch had booby-trapped her cottage with more of her little helpers. They’d just gotten an effective blaze going on the hut and the poison garden around it when a dozen men had stumbled up to them; what happened next seemed like a rather literal interpretation of the description of shit hitting the windmill.
They were an hour away from Tondorf when they found a good place to stop, where there seemed to be no traffic on the road through the forest. The sound of running water led them to a stream out of sight, and Hansel tied up the horses while Gretel found a stick to dig with. She pulled off the stained and stinking leathers, dropped them in the hole she had dug, and covered it with a rock. “Keep watch?” she asked Hansel as she straightened up, wearing just her shift and boots. He finished injecting himself with medicine for his sugar sickness before nodding.
“On it,” he replied.
She picked her way down to the stream, and removed her boots and left them on a mossy rock. She stepped into the cold water, still wearing her shift, and paused a moment to shiver before taking a deep breath before wading deeper. When it came up to her hips, she plunged beneath the surface, submerging completely, and her shift billowed up around her; she pushed it over her head while under the water, and held it from drifting downstream as she rose.
“I meant keep watch on the road,” she called over to Hansel, who had perched on a rock overlooking the stream, “there’s nothing to see here that you haven’t seen before."
“Yeah, but I gotta make sure you don’t drown yourself. Only witches float, remember?"
“You are so full of shit, don’t even repeat that."
“Fine, just don’t bitch at me when you go and drown. Here lies Gretel, I will say at your funeral, famous witch-hunter and scourge of the coven of Pfalzerwäld; she was feared by witches everywhere and she tragically died trying to take a bath, may she rest in peace."
“Then at least I’ll smell good when I go,” Gretel shot back. “Look, no one’s nearby and you stink to hell anyway, so you might as well come keep me afloat.”
“Hey, I got behind a tree, before those guys exploded. I wasn’t the one wringing liquified shit out of my hair."
“Oh, so then you just reek for natural reasons."
Hansel rolled his eyes at her, but unlaced his boots anyway. He left all his clothes but his shirt on the rock, and pulled some old clothes out of the saddlebags on his way to the stream— a (somewhat) fresh shirt, and for Gretel, her other shift and a well-worn wool dress. He placed them next to Gretel’s boots on a rock beside the stream, and, bracing himself for the cold, threw himself into the water with her.
Only a second later he launched himself back up again, spraying water in every direction. “Fucking mother of God,” he swore. “Think my balls just tucked themselves back up inside me, I’m not sure but I think I might be a woman now."
Gretel punched his shoulder. “Don’t worry, you still have your looks, you wear your shirt wet and see-through like that and the girls will come running. And then running away, but you can’t have everything."
“At least I still have you, sis. And the easier tavern wenches."
“Yes, Hansel, at least you have me,” she assured him. He reached over and tugged her braid.
“You want help with your hair? I can get my knife…"
“I was actually thinking of not chopping it off as a way to get it unmatted, but thanks.” Gretel turned her attention to her shift, and rubbed at the stains before trying to rinse it out again. Hansel followed her laundry-minded example and pulled his shirt over his head. They were both accustomed to cleaning their clothes when they could; they weren’t lucky enough in every town to find an innkeeper’s wife they could pay to actually use hot water and soap.
When their undergarments were spread on a rock in the sun to dry, Hansel turned his attention without prompting to gently loosening the tangle of Gretel’s braid. She leaned back, letting herself float and look up at the sky, and the trees hanging branches over them. Their world was almost entirely dirt and blood, death and darkness, and the everlasting smell of gunpowder, but sometimes, she could almost let herself forget. It wasn’t a sunny day she needed; it was just the solid, reassuring presence of Hansel. When he was there, she didn’t need to keep her eyes open and looking out for danger. She only truly slept when she could hear him breathing or when he was curled around her, and she lined up shots with careful aim when he was guarding her back.
The priest in Tondorf had told her (while eyeing her figure, and bearing an expression too close to a leer for a man of the Lord) that they were an abomination in the eyes of God, and he hadn’t meant it in reference to them consorting with witches for the purpose of blowing said witches into little pieces. He hadn’t even had the guts to do it when Hansel was around, but had waited for her brother to leave. Gretel was not the sort to respect the authority of God or man if he wasn’t going to respect her, but just then a farmer had exploded, and she didn’t have the time to punch the priest in the throat.
She wished she would have. That man knew nothing of abominations: not the kind where a mother and father would put their children out in the woods like an unwanted dog, nor the kind where witches took power by hurting the weakest people they could find. She and Hansel had shared everything, every triumph and every pain, and he was as much her own to keep as she was his, no matter what that looked like. No matter what they did together.
Hansel’s fingers massaged her scalp, freeing the last of the filth from her hair and letting it float around her like a halo, reflecting glints of copper when it caught the sunlight.
Gretel ran her fingers through her hair, and reached back to hold Hansel’s hands. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he replied, because that is what they did in such moments, when they could rest; when they could look at each other, instead of standing guard with their backs together and crossbow bolts aimed at the rest of the world.
“Hey, I can float,” she added.
“Yeah, best not let that get around, I hear some people think only witches float, we wouldn’t want them getting any ideas about us.”
“No, we couldn’t have that,” Gretel said, rolling over and pulling Hansel closer, to press her lips to his.