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It wasn’t long before the tingling in Tristan’s hands stopped and he could finally move. He staggered over to help Andrew onto his feet.
“How’s your head?” he asked as he gently probed Andrew’s skull. “You hit it pretty hard when you fell.”
Andrew brushed him off. “I’m fine.” He reeled, tripped over his own feet and made a lucky landing on one of the chairs. “Fuck. What did she hit me with?”
“Petrification spell. It’s a gremlin specialty. They’ve probably been practising it since they learned to walk.” He glanced at Hansel as he spoke but the gremlin was still staring, fuming at the door his sister walked through. He nibbled on gingerbread, each bite cutting into the scowl on his face so that his expression swung comically from anger to ecstasy with each piece. “We got one of them,” he said, although one was as useless as none.
“Does that mean you can break the spells and escape?” Andrew filled a glass with water from the ever-present jug on the table and drank as if he’d been in a desert for years.
Tristan spun his glass around, the rocking of glass on wood loud in the silence. “No. I can’t even weaken it.”
Andrew’s shoulders slumped. “So everything we did was useless.” He glared at the cage. “Can he use his powers?”
“No, that’s holding. He’s as helpless as any human in there.”
“And just as useless.” Andrew’s glass clattered against the table as he slammed it down. “We might as well let him go, then.”
Tristan leaned forward, his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his hands. “We can’t.” He peered at Andrew through his fingers. “Gremlins have terrible tempers. If we release him, he’ll attack and there’s nothing I can do to protect us.”
“Won’t your Mistress’s spells stop him hurting you? Doesn’t she control the house?”
“We broke the rules when we captured him. The house will still provide for us but it won’t protect us from him anymore since we wronged him.”
Andrew stood, his chair clattering to the floor behind him. “So what was the point of all that? You still can’t get out and you’ve lost whatever protection you had. And we have to keep him prisoner.”
A low growl emanated from the cage and Tristan and Andrew swung to find Hansel glaring at them. His arms were shoved through the bars, fingers extended, reaching for them. His chest bumped against the bars and fizzing light arced through the room. Hansel jumped back with a howl.
“You bastard. Just you wait until I get out. You’ll fry!”
“What was that?” Andrew’s voice was filled with awe. Or perhaps that was fear.
“Lightning spell. Gremlins don’t like it.” As he spoke Hansel batted at his shoulders. When he finished, his shirt had two vertical black burns, exactly where he’d touched the bars.
“Holy shit. It burned him.”
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt either of us: it’s specifically designed for gremlins.”
“I get that they’re nasty buggers but why would anyone design spells that only work on gremlins. Apart from the whole wanting-to-fry-you thing, he seems nice enough.”
As Andrew spoke, Hansel’s face morphed from a bad-tempered scowl to an ingratiating smile. “That’s exactly right,” he simpered. “I know we haven’t always treated Master Tristan well, but Mistress Osborne pinches us dreadfully when we’re kind to him.” The simper turned into a whine.
Tristan rolled his eyes. The gremlins might be as bound to the mistress as he was, but he knew they enjoyed their work. He broke off a large piece of gingerbread and tossed it to Hansel. The gremlin caught it deftly as it sailed between the bars, sat and began eating ravenously.
“Shouldn’t you give him something a bit healthier to eat?” asked Andrew.
“Gingerbread is the best thing for them. It has all the nutrients they need to maintain good health. That’s one of the reasons Mistress Osborne rations them. With every bite, they grow stronger; she doesn’t want either of them in a position to overwhelm her if her hold over them fails.”
“Why feed him so much then? Isn’t he going to be stronger than ever when he finally gets out of the cage.”
“The way I see it is he’s stuck there for the duration. It wouldn’t matter if we starved him, once he left the cage, I still couldn’t fight against his type of magic. The only way to truly control gremlins is through blood magic and I won’t do that. Whatever happens afterwards, the least we can do is make his stay as comfortable as possible.” As he spoke, Tristan gestured. Inside the cage, there appeared a small white bed piled high with fat cushions and fluffy quilts. A matching nightstand popped up beside it, with several books piled on top. In one corner of the cage, a deep enamel bath materialised with a pile of soft towels beside it. In the middle of the cage a small firepit sputtered to life, along with a small table and chair. On the other side of the nightstand, an overstuffed armchair with a fluffy throw appeared with a soft pop.
Hansel looked around the space and cried out with delight. He surged to his feet and took a flying leap at the bed. He bounced once onto the cushions then burrowed his way underneath. The sounds of joy that burst from the moving mound made Tristan smile.
Andrew watched Hansel’s antics with the cushions for a while, a smile growing, then he turned back to Tristan. “What’s going to happen when Gretel gets back with the mistress?”
Tristan waved his hand one last time and the remaining gingerbread in front of them disappeared and reappeared on Hansel’s little table. The gremlin squealed and shot out of the cushions. He landed neatly on his feet, like a master gymnast, and raced to the table.
“Mistress Osborne won’t come here, regardless of any argument Gretel puts forward.” At Andrew’s confused look, he continued. “Her magic is the same type as mine. Once she enters this house, we’ll be on equal footing. She’ll have lost her advantage. She won’t take the chance that I’ve become stronger than her, and she won’t risk the chance that the gremlins will support me and turn against her.”
“Would they do that?”
Tristan shrugged. “Possibly, if I could guarantee that Mistress Osborne’s hold over them would be broken.” He leaned against the table, his hip close to Andrew’s shoulder. He wanted to slide closer, but held his position. If Andrew was interested, he could move.
“Will Gretel return on her own?” asked Andrew, sitting back in his seat, putting more space between them.
Tristan released a tiny sigh of disappointment, then dragged his mind back to the topic. “Of course. Hansel is her brother. Her magic is halved without him. The mistress will insist on it too. She wants access to their full powers.”
Andrew stood and surveyed Hansel who was now lounging against the cushions on his bed, the bowl of gingerbread beside him, reading a book. “If you have both of them, could you break free?” he asked on a whisper.