THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE
Premise:Wizard trapped in an oak/house, waiting for someone with power to release him. Apprentice master merchant, rushing to purchase his first permanent stall (his final exam before qualification) becomes trapped by the same spell that caught the wizard. The only way he can break the spell is to lure the two goblins who cast the spell back to the scene of the crime. The goblins are masquerading as two children: Hansel and Gretel.
Andrew stopped abruptly, the steady crunch of leaves that had accompanied him all morning, fading into the silence. In front of him, above the narrow path was a cedar clad wall. There was a gap of a couple of metres under the rough-hewn cladding and Andrew could just make out the gleam of steel stumps nestled in amongst the trees on either side. The path continued, wider and less grassy under the building, but uninterrupted. He peered through the leaves into the darkness under the hovering building but couldn’t see where the path emerged once again into the green light of the forest. He moved to the edge of the path, his heart thumping in counterpoint to his steps, and peered along the line of the building, but the forest grew too close and he couldn’t see a way around it. The other side of the path told the same story.
Andrew swallowed at the chance he was going to take. There might not be anyone who would miss him if he disappeared, but he had plans. As long as he stayed on the path, the trolls or whatever inhabited the house wouldn’t be able to touch him: that’s what the old tales said. He looked back the way he’d come, knowing there wasn’t another fork in the path between there and the village he’d stayed in the night before. He took two steps forward. He didn’t have time to find another way; he needed to be in Eden before the equinox or Borog would sell to someone else.
Andrew inched closer, trying to look everywhere at once. More than his footsteps had ceased when he saw the wall. The forest was silent; not even the soft drip of water through the leaves broke it. He wiped the nervous sweat from his upper lip and took a deep, slow breath.
“This is a really bad idea,” Andrew said as he took two more steps. “A very bad idea,” he mumbled as he put his head down and ran.
The light dimmed. The air chilled. He focused on the path ahead but his nerves twitched at every creak and groan from above him.
“It’s just the floorboards,” he whispered to himself. “Wood creaks when the temperature changes.”
An eerie chuckle echoed in the deepening darkness around him. His stomach clenched as the sound crawled up the back of his neck. Andrew ran faster but still couldn’t see where the path came out into the forest again. He was breathing heavily, sweat trickled down his back and dampened his shirt. As he ran, something glinted at his feet in the dim light. A coin. He ran on.
The third time he passed the coin, he stopped, chest heaving, sweat pouring down his face and back, steam wafting from his body in the cooling air. He stared at the coin, despair tightening his throat and fear clenching his fists. He looked around.
The forest was dim, the air thick with damp earth and decaying wood. Somewhere to Andrew’s left, water dripped. Everything else was silent. The birds he’d listened to throughout the morning no longer sang. The path ran under his feet in a straight line through the forest in front and behind. When he turned to his right, the path ran there as well, still straight. The same when he turned to the left.
Andrew’s heart pounded and he clamped down on the urge to spin in a circle in a desperate attempt to find a way through. He already felt disoriented enough to be unsure which way was forward and back.
At his feet, the coin glowed eerily in the low light. Not a normal coin, then. He bent down and reached for it, drawing his fingers back from touching it at the last minute. What had his gran told him about touching magical things? He couldn’t remember, but nothing good, that’s for sure. Gran’s stories of magic and magical beings were the main reason Andrew decided to become a baker.
Sweat prickled his spine. He was still breathing fast from his dash under the house, as if he’d been running an hour or more. The sun-dappled forest appeared only a few feet away. Andrew took three slow steps. With each step, he drew closer to freedom, only to have it slip away as soon as he put weight on his forward foot. The coin remained resolutely beside his left foot.
Andrew stopped, his shoulders slumping. He’d lost the ability to make any other choice when he decided to make a run for it rather than go around. He adjusted his pack on his shoulders and tightened the straps across his chest. He pulled his hat tighter onto his head and made should everything in his pockets was shoved as deeply as possible. Then he crouched and took a few deliberate, deep breaths. Finally, as prepared as he could be, he took a deep breath and held it as he lifted the coin with his fingertips.
Thunder rolled as the coin left the ground. When it settled into his palm, warm and getting hotter, lightning flashed. The ground began to spin, faster and faster, falling away under him, and Andrew closed his eyes against the growing nausea. His lungs burned with the need to breathe and he slowly released some air, trying to fool his body he’d breathe in again soon.
He landed with a thump, falling to his side and knocking all the remaining air from his lungs. He gasped and opened his eyes, spots swimming in the flashing after-images from the lightning. The rich forest smell was gone, replaced by the scent of bacon and onions. Andrew looked toward the sizzling to find a tall, thin man, wooden spoon in hand, mouth agape, staring at him.
Behind the man was a huge, ancient aga. A deep pan sat on top, gently smoking as the bacon and onions continued to cook, unsupervised. Andrew pushed himself to his feet, checked his hat and backpack were still in place. He patted his pockets, reassured at the familiar lumps and bumps. He held the cooling coin up by the edge so the tall man could see it.
“You called?” Andrew said, pleased his voice showed none of the heart-pounding, trembling terror racing through him.
The man’s mouth moved, like a fish gulping, but no sound came out.
Andrew pocketed the coin, using the motion to take a deep, calming breath as he looked around. No one else was in the rustic room. There was only a small table with two chairs and a large bed piled high with quilts and cushions. Amongst the nest appeared to be a mound of wool with the points of several knitting needles poking out. The bedside table was almost buried under teetering piles of books.
The wooden spoon clattering to the floor brought Andrew’s attention back to the man. A fierce scowl greeted him. “Who are you?” He strode toward Andrew. “How did you get in here?”
Andrew slipped sideways, staying out of reach of the scowling man. “Is that any way to greet a guest?” He fished the coin out of his pocket. “I can’t be that unexpected,” he said as he held the coin aloft again. “You did leave your invitation lying around for me to find.” As he rounded the table he glanced at the pan on the stove. “Hmm, bacon smells good, but you might want to take it off the heat before it burns.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough for two in the pan. Andrew’s stomach grumbled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the man as he stalked Andrew. “How did you get in here?” The upper half of his body swayed slightly as his feet stopped as if stuck to the floor. “Can you get out again?” The scowl fell from his face, replaced by boyish hope. He looked around wildly as if a portal was about to open in the middle of the room.
Immediate violence apparently averted, Andrew grabbed a ladle from a hook above the Aga and quickly stirred the bacon and onion mixture before moving the pan off the heat. No sense in letting perfectly good food be burned. He checked on the tall man before spying a loaf of dense bread on a shelf next to a small stack of plates and bowls. Swiftly he lifted items off the shelves and assembled an impromptu stack of bacon and onion sandwiches. He deliberately placed on plate in front of himself and the other at the far end of the table.
“Sit, sit,” he said jovially. “You can tell me all about yourself.” Andrew pulled his chair out and perched on the edge, trying to make his upper body appear totally relaxed while his feet and legs were positioned for quick escape. “I’m Andrew,” he said expectantly as he picked up one half of his sandwich and bit down. He hoped he’d have long enough to eat it all before the tall man attacked.
To his surprise, no attack came. The tall man glanced around the room once again and, appearing disappointed, pulled out his seat and collapsed into it. “You can’t get out, can you?” he asked despondently as he prodded a finger into the heavy bread in front of him.
Andrew chewed through another bite of his sandwich before he responded. If he was going to be thrown out or killed, or whatever, he wanted it to be on a full stomach. “I haven’t had bacon this good in ages.” Probably never. This much salty goodness wasn’t something his family ever got. He could remember only twice he’d had bacon at all. One of those was a sample from the butcher at the markets. The other was a packet his brother had lifted from somewhere. They’d eaten it all in one sitting and used the drippings in a pudding for the next day, in case the coppers came looking. It had taken longer to get the smell out of the house than it had to dispose of the evidence.
“I’m Andrew,” he said around his third bite. “This is good.” He wasn’t sure if his words had been intelligible. He was mostly moaning over his food, his stomach cramping in joy that the first food it was given in three days was so good. “Pity about the bread.”
“What?” The tall man dropped the sandwich he’d just picked up. “That’s the best loaf I’ve ever made.” He picked up his sandwich again and took a large bite. His cheek bulged and he grimaced as he struggled to chew the dense lump.
“You’ve got the balance of ingredients mostly right; a bit heavy on the yeast.” Andrew squeezed the remnants of his meal before popping the morsel into his mouth. “I’ll show you how to fix it.” He poured himself a mug of water from the carafe on the table, then sat back and sipped. “What’s your name?”
“Oh.” Strawberry pink suffused the tall man’s cheeks. “Sorry. I’m Thomas.”