THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

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 was already 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 stood, straight and tall, and closed his eyes so he could feel everything around him, the way his gran had taught him. He’d never been very good at it; the magic in his family had mostly passed him by. He could feel emotion, intent. As he breathed in the earthy smells of the forest and the decaying leaves under his feet, the coin continued to glow bright. There was no malice in it that he could tell. There was a sense of sadness, of straining for something, but also a sense of adventure. He opened his eyes and stared at the coin again. It hadn’t moved, just waited patiently beside him, like a faithful hound. It could take him anywhere, but it wouldn’t harm him.
 
“Alright,” he whispered. “We’ll do it your way.” He adjusted his pack on his shoulders and tightened the straps across his chest. He pulled his hat tighter onto his head and made sure 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, not rushing the motions, but hoping the familiar actions would help his heart slow and his breath even out. The man at the Aga stayed still, seemingly speechless. Andrew darted glances at the rest of the cottage even as he kept the strange man in view. There was no one else there and the man hadn’t advanced or threatened him. He took a calming breath and 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.
 
Yes, cocky and confident was the way to deal with this situation. Thank you, Dad. Andrew pocketed the coin, using the motion to take a deep, calming breath as he looked around again. 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.” Andrew’s stomach grumbled. It had been a long time since his last meal.
 
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the man as he stalked Andrew. He patted his pockets, pulling out a scrap of paper, but couldn’t seem to find a pen. “How did you get in here?” The upper half of his body swayed slightly when 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. There were four doors and two windows in the room. The table he sat at was next to one window. Outside was a verdant meadow with a meandering wild-flower edged path. A door with a small leadlight arch above it nestled in a tiny alcove beside the window. A couple of pairs of shoes rested haphazardly in the alcove. Another window graced the far wall, a small orchard of fruit trees visible through it. Three closed doors ranged along the same wall as the Aga. One door had clear glass in the upper half through which Andrew saw an extensive vegetable garden, with a pig pen, chicken pen and garden shed at the far end before the forest took over. Andrew assumed the other two doors led to a bedroom and bathroom.
 
He turned his attention back to the tall man. “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. His dad always said if he was going to be thrown out or killed, or whatever, he wanted it to be on a full stomach. For the first time, Andrew understood why. “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.
 
“This is good,” he said around his third bite. 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. And you probably need a few lessons on kneading and rising.” 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?”
 
“You don’t know me?” The man’s shoulders straightened. “I’m Thomas, Mistress Osborne’s apprentice—the only one she’s taken in a hundred years.”
 
Andrew glanced around the room. “Is Mistress Osborne that crazy witch that lives beyond the Troll Bridge?” Thomas nodded. “Why are you here instead of there, studying?”
 
Thomas’s shoulders slumped, then straightened again, his scowl once again in place. “I’m more powerful than she is.”
 
“So, you’re here by choice? But can’t get out?” Andrew looked around again. “Why would you do that?”
 
“I’m not here by choice! She’s trapped me here because she thinks I’m going to drain her magic and take over her business.” Thomas’s fingers curled into frustrated fists.
 
“I didn’t think you could take someone’s magic without their permission.”
 
“You can’t.” He twisted your fingers. “Not really.”
 
Andrew narrowed his eyes. “Not really?”
 
Thomas waved a dismissive hand. “It disrupts the balance; there’s always a backlash. The more magic stolen—even if it’s cumulative small amounts—the bigger the backlash. For example, if you steal magic while someone is asleep, you probably won’t sleep for years.”
 
“And if you killed someone?”
 
“You probably wouldn’t die, but you wouldn’t get all the magic either. A violent death releases the magic too quickly for another wizard to absorb. It’ll sort of float around—” Thomas waved his hands vaguely around his head—“until it chooses another vessel.” Thomas turned in an agitated circle. “If you cause pain, you’ll probably feel that same pain for the rest of your life.”
 
“Without dying yourself,” Andrew clarified.
 
Thomas shrugged. “Probably.”
 
“So her thinking you’ll take her magic is what—paranoia?”
 
“I think she wants my magic but up to now the risk to her hasn’t been worth it. If she can reduce the backlash, she might yet decide to slip a knife between my ribs.”
 
Andrew couldn’t imagine what would make someone think feeling a knife slide into your heart for the rest of your days could ever be worth it. He shuddered and slid his attention away from that gruesome reality. “If you’re stronger than she is, how can she keep you trapped here?”
 
Thomas’s shoulders slumped. “She didn’t cast the spells. Her pet gremlins did.”
 
“Are gremlins more powerful than wizards? I thought they were cute little things that looked like children even though they’re ancient.”
 
“They’re not more powerful; they have different magic that wizards can’t control.” Thomas spoke through gritted teeth. “Yes, gremlins look like children at a cursory glance.” He curled his hands into fists on the table. “Now tell me who the hell you are that you could circumvent all the spells surrounding this place and waltz in here?”
 
Andrew grinned and settled more comfortably on his seat. For all his growly scowling, Thomas wasn’t a threat to him. “I’m Andrew,” he repeated. “I’m a baker.” His grin widened at the expression on Thomas’s face. Winding Thomas up was almost as easy, and way more fun, than teasing his five-year-old sister. He held the coin up for Thomas to see, then put it on the table and slid it closer to him. “This is what brought me here.”
 
Thomas scowled at the coin and slowly reached over to touch it with one fingertip. He jumped back as if scalded. “It’s mine.” He glanced at Andrew before returning his attention to the coin. As he picked it up it glowed, just as it had for Andrew on the path. Thomas closed his fingers around the coin. His eyelids slid shut and he hummed, a deep, resonant sound that echoed through Andrew’s body. Every part of him responded to that hum—some parts more than others. He shifted awkwardly on his seat, trying to get his dick into a more comfortable position without touching it and drawing Thomas’s attention to his predicament. The hum continued until Andrew felt he had to say something, if only to remind Thomas he was there.
 
Before Andrew could do more than open his mouth, Thomas’s eyes popped open. “I didn’t think the spell worked.” He opened his hand and let the now dull coin drop onto the table.
 
“What spell?”
 
“When I first arrived here and worked out what was keeping me here, I tried to cast spells out into the world so someone who could circumvent the gremlins’ magic could come and rescue me. I didn’t think any of them worked.”
 
Andrew nodded at the coin. He knew he should be smiling and agreeing with Thomas that Andrew was there to rescue him, but the best he could manage was a grimace. “It didn’t work. I’m a baker. I don’t have any magic.” Not like his father and some of his siblings.
 
Thomas’s shoulders slummed even further than before. “Then I’m stuck here forever.” He glared at Andrew. “And so are you.”
 
Andrew’s father and brothers were experts at getting out of places they weren’t supposed to be able to. The only place his father couldn’t escape from was the jail and that was because the magic that locked it was so ancient, it predated even his family. Andrew was reluctant to attach the word Fae to his family because that would bring all sorts of trouble down on them, but there was nothing else that would allow them the power they had. Some of them. Andrew had never shown any magical ability whatsoever, no matter how much Gran insisted he did. All he could do was bake.
 
“That might be it,” he murmured, his mind racing. There had to be a way out of there. His father’s blood ran in his veins; there had to be something of it that Andrew could use. Perhaps he could get it to manifest through his baking, especially if the wizard helped him. He got up and walked over to the Aga.
 
“What might be it?” asked Thomas as he turned in his seat to keep Andrew in view.
 
“Where did this come from?” Andrew asked.
 
“It’s a stove. It came with the house.” Thomas stood and joined Andrew in staring at the black cooktop. “What might be it? Might be what?” He jammed his fists on his hips and turned to glare at Andrew.
 
The Aga was hot, the radiant heat warming the entire house. Andrew had moved the bacon pan off the boiling plate when he’d made the sandwiches but hadn’t lowered the lid to preserve the heat. He did that now, then opened each of the ovens, bending to put his face close to check the heat in them. “Perfect,” he murmured.
 
Thomas grabbed Andrew’s shoulder so he had to look at him. “I want answers, and I want them now. You appeared in my house bearing one of my spells, took over my kitchen and told me nothing.” Thomas shook Andrew a little. “You ate my bacon! Now tell me what you are talking about.”
 
“The gremlins visit regularly, don’t they?” Thomas nodded so Andrew continued. “Gremlins love gingerbread.” Andrew grinned.
 
“Everyone knows that. That’s how Mistress Osborne coerced them into working for her. She gives them gingerbread rations.”
 
Andrew clapped his hands together. “That means they’re used to getting gingerbread regularly, but not as much as they want.” He eyed the Aga again with glee. “Do you know what else they say about gingerbread and gremlins?”
 
Thomas crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. “My studies haven’t included anything but the basics on gremlin sociology.”
 
Andrew twirled once then settled. Now wasn’t the time to be excited about baking and working out quantities and times. He turned back to Thomas, knowing his grin would look slightly manic. “If a gremlin eats too much gingerbread they literally go into a gingerbread coma and while they’re in the coma, their magic is weakened. I don’t know if it would be weak enough for us to escape, but we’d certainly be able to contain them and make them release us.”
 
Wild hope bloomed on Thomas’s face.
 
Then just as quickly, it died. “I don’t think it weakens them. I think it’s more of a feel-good kind of thing. There’s no way we’ll be able to do it, whatever you have in mind.”
 
“You’re very fatalistic, aren’t you?” Andrew settled back in his seat at the table. “I’d have thought with your skill level—”
 
“They never come into the house, and I can’t go outside more than a few steps while they’re there. Do you think I’m going to stand at the door and hand out cookies like some trick or treat monster?”
 
Andrew shook his head. “Thomas, Thomas, Thomas. You really need to stop blindly following the rules.” He jumped up and flung open the front door.
 
A narrow path meandered between two fields of wildflower-dotted grasses. A warm breeze wafted across the landscape, wriggling the grass and flowers and making the leaves in the trees tinkle and jangle. The path petered out between two tall, narrow pines and disappeared into the undergrowth. The mystery of it tugged at Andrew and he had to suppress the urge to skip down the lane and see where it led. Instead he took five large steps outside and turned back to look at the house.
 
The low-set cottage sat in the small clearing as if it has grown up from the ground. Ivy covered the southern wall except where the windows sat, and stopped neatly at the corner, exposing the pale stone wall across the front. The door was thick wooden planks, secured by leather hinges that looked new. The gutter surrounding the tiled roof was simple and functional but Andrew easily imagined what it would look like in white and green lacework.
 
“The roof tiles would look amazing with scalloped edges, graduating from pale gray to forest green. I could do olive and blue-gray lacework with white tips, like snow, along the gutters. The walls could have a cream glaze. Rose pink and white windowsills and shutters would add sweetness. I could build a low fence across the front, and cover it in flowers, all the colors of the rainbow.” As he talked his way through his plans, Andrew wandered around the house, mentally estimating measurements and calculating how much gingerbread he’d need. When he stopped, he was back at the front door. Thomas stood in the doorway, waiting for him.
 
“It’s going to be a big job and take some time, but as long as you have enough ingredients, it’s doable.”
 
Thomas scowled at him for a few moments before pursing his lips and sighing. “The house responds to my needs. If I need four cups of flour, there’ll be four cups of flour in the bin. If I need ten, that’s how much there’ll be.”
 
Andrew grinned. The quicker they got started, the quicker he would get out of here and be able to buy his bakery. He rubbed his hands together. “Let’s get started.”
 
The pantry remained fully stocked. Andrew was amused to notice that whenever he wanted something, the container of it appeared front and center in the pantry when he opened the door, and the next time he opened it for something different, that item was right in front of him.
 
“It would be so easy to get used to this,” he said as he brought out a bag of brown sugar.
 
“Get used to what?” asked Thomas as he cracked eggs into a bowl. A small box of eggs sat beside the bowl, a new egg appearing every time he removed one.
 
“That.” Andrew pointed at the eggs. “Everything you want is automatically there when you need it.”
 
Thomas looked around the kitchen, a confused crease between his brows. “Isn’t it always like that?”
 
Andrew laughed, shook his head, and continued measuring ingredients.
 
An hour later, Andrew had fifteen trays of gingerbread slabs in the oven that never seemed to fill up. Whenever he wanted to test a particular tray of gingerbread, it was always the one front and center in the oven. He and Thomas worked solidly until the light began to fade. Andrew gusted a sigh and collapsed into his chair. On the table nearly a hundred trays of gingerbread were stacked with a couple of inches between for air circulation. It still weirded Andrew out to see the trays hovering in the air, but his inner freak had calmed down a lot throughout the course of the day. He regarded the stack critically, tilting his head back to follow the pile of trays up to the ceiling. “That’ll probably be enough to cover the siding on this part of the wall.” He waved his hand in front of him to the section of the wall with a large window in it.
 
“Is that what you’re going to do? Cover the house?”
 
“Absolutely. The gremlins will be suspicious if we try to lure them inside, but they won’t be able to resist tasting the gingerbread if it’s outside.”
 
It took them two days to clad the front of the house with gingerbread slabs. Andrew spent the next two days climbing up and down a ladder, adding the lacework that would turn the rustic cabin into a fairytale gingerbread house.
 
Inside the house, Thomas scribbled frantically on small pieces of paper. As Andrew came inside after completing the lacework, Thomas tossed the papers in the air and whispered a few words. The papers exploded, blue flame and smoke momentarily obscuring Thomas before a clanging thud echoed through the room. When the smoke cleared, a cube of bars rested on the floor a few feet inside the doorway. The four corners of the cage were tied with knotted rope that looped over one of the heavy beams in the roof.
 
Thomas grinned at him. “How’s that for being positive?”
 
Andrew was helpless to do anything other than grin back.
 
Whistling woke Andrew from a restless nap in front of the fire. He opened his eyes at the call of a voice.
 
“Hansel! Stop eating it. We’ll never find our way back.”
 
There was a muffled choking sound. “Look! Gretel, come and look at this!”
 
Andrew rose and tugged on his clothes. He met Thomas at the door.
 
“Where did it come from?” Gretel’s voice was filled with awe.
 
“I don’t know, but it won’t last long.”
 
“Do you think we should? What if it’s a trap?”
 
“Who’s trap?” Disdain filled Hansel’s voice. “He has no power over us, not while he’s trapped here.”
 
Within seconds, the sounds of gingerbread breaking off and quiet crunching, and louder moans of delight, filled the darkened room. Thomas reached for the door handle.
 
“Wait,” Andrew whispered. “You stay here.” Andrew sidled in front of Thomas. “I’m not a wizard, so even if they run this time, they’ll dismiss me.”
 
Thomas caught his arm. “No. You have no defences against them.”
 
“Nor do you. Your magic doesn’t work on them.”
 
“Inside this house, it does,” said Thomas as he opened the door and slipped outside.
 
“They’re not inside, you idiot,” Andrew said as the door closed in front of him. He rushed to the window and peered through a gap in the curtains. One of the gremlins broke off a piece of windowsill and chomped on it. A look of pure bliss flooded his features. Andrew felt a grim satisfaction wash through him. His gingerbread really was that good.
 
“Well, well.” Thomas’s dry voice drew Andrew’s attention. Thomas stood a few feet from the door, feet planted firmly on the stone path, arms crossed over his wide chest. “You’re eating my house.”
 
“It’s gingerbread!” replied Hansel through a mouthful of crumbs.
 
“Do you like gingerbread so much you’re willing to eat all that stale stuff?”
 
“Stale?” Gretel paused with a chunk of icing lacework in front of her open mouth.
 
“Of course. It’s been there for days. The fresh batch is inside. As soon as it’s cool, I’m going to put it on the door and ice it with a scene of forest creatures.” Thomas sounded so reasonable, Andrew almost believed him.
 
“It’s still warm?” Gretel swung to Hansel. “Hansel, it’s still warm!”
 
Hansel shoved the last chunk of windowsill into his mouth and darted over to Gretel and Thomas. “Bring it here. We’ll eat it first, then the rest of this.” He swept his arm around, indicating the cottage.
 
“The trays are too hot. I can’t move them until they cool.” Thomas turned back to the house. As he walked away from them, he said, “Come in and get it if you want it that much.”
 
Andrew continued watching through the curtain just long enough to see Hansel and Gretel stare at each other, then he rushed to the rope in the corner. He unwound the rope from the hook in the wall and took the weight of the cage Thomas had built in his shoulders and thighs.
 
Thomas entered the house and walked directly to the Aga. He kept his eyes lowered, not acknowledging Andrew at all.
 
Andrew leaned back as much as he could, his muscles shaking at the strain. Above the door, the cage swayed. Would the gremlins take the bait? He couldn’t see out the window from where he was. They could have left completely and he and Thomas would have to wait until they came again.
 
Thomas turned from the Aga, a mug of tea in his hand. He stared steadily at the open doorway. The corner of his mouth tugged in a suppressed smile.
 
Dark shadows crossed the threshold, swiftly followed by two small children, Hansel a couple of steps in front of Gretel. Andrew hesitated. The gremlins were so convincingly children, his instinct was to protect them, not harm them.
 
Gretel turned and saw him.
 
She took a half-step toward him, her mouth opened in a snarl that revealed small, sharp teeth. She lifted her hands, fingernails elongated claws with dripping red tips. As she snarled, Hansel also turned.
 
“Andrew!” Thomas took a step forward, but Hansel spun back to him. A lightning bolt of power shot from Hansel’s fingertips and froze Thomas in his boots.
 
Gretel lifted one arm, and Andrew knew he, too, would be frozen. He released his hold on the rope as the lightning bolt arced across the room.
 
Pain sliced through his chest, sudden and shocking. The breath froze in his lungs, his jaw clamped shut. Blood filled his mouth as pain radiated from his tongue.
 
The cage dropped.
 
Andrew fell backward, overbalanced after dropping the rope and being frozen in place. He landed with a painful thud to his head, his arms raised above his body, fingers still curled as if just letting go of the rope. Pins and needles skittered across his skin. Every breath he took deepened the pinpoints of pain. He groaned. Above him dust motes floated in the afternoon light slanting through the gap in the curtains. After several seconds of stunned silence, through which the clanging of metal against the floor reverberated through Andrew’s aching head, Gretel began to laugh.
 
“Did you see him, Hansel? He just toppled over backwards. Look at his hands. It’s like he’s trying to catch a baton or something.”
 
“Who is he?”
 
Gretel didn’t answer.
 
“Thomas is still standing,” continued Hansel. “Look at his eyes. It doesn’t matter how angry you are, wizard, there’s nothing you can do against our magic.”
 
“There’s the gingerbread! And there’s a bowl of icing next to it. I’ll bet he lied and it is cool enough to eat.”
 
Andrew rolled his eyes, straining every muscle to try to turn his head so he could see what was happening, but it was no use. All he could see were the rafters above him and ragged cobwebs dancing in the breeze and every attempt at movement increased the tiny stabbing pain. Disappointment pricked his eyes. It didn’t work. The gremlins were happy and eyeing off the gingerbread. Andrew must have miscalculated when he had to drop the cage, and they’d escaped.
 
He and Thomas were done for now. Not only was Andrew’s presence exposed, but so was their plot to capture Hansel and Gretel. He was sure retribution would be swift. At the very least, he’d be stuck here forever, never to become the baker he’d trained so long for.
 
He wondered if they were stuck here, together, just him and Thomas…
 
A rattle of metal on metal was accompanied by an outraged roar. “Gretel! It’s stuck. Fix it. I want that gingerbread.” The rattle came again.
 
“Stand back. I’ll blast the lock.”
 
A flash of light followed, then an electrical sizzle filled the room, sparking overhead and leaping from rafter to rafter like a wriggling blue-white worm.
 
“Ow! Ow! Stop it. It hurts!”
 
The light died but the room still pulsed with residual power.
 
Thomas watched in horror as Hansel and Gretel flung out their spells toward him and Andrew. He’d hoped they wouldn’t notice Andrew at all and be captured in the cage as it fell, but nothing went the way they planned.
 
Andrew lay motionless on the floor, perhaps alive, perhaps dead, Thomas couldn’t tell from where he stood. His feet were stuck to the floor and his body frozen. He could breathe, but shallowly, as if there was a vice squeezing his chest. He could blink, but not swallow. A dribbled of saliva trickled and cooled on its way down his chin.
 
In front of him, securely in the cage, paced Hansel. Gretel, after her one disastrous attempt at freeing her brother, was at the table, stuffing her face with gingerbread. She tore each piece roughly off the slab, dipped it in the icing glaze, then stuffed it into her mouth with the rest of the half-masticated sweet.
 
“Gretel! Get over here and let me out,” yelled Hansel.
 
Gretel shook her head. “Can’t.”
 
“He has no power over us. Of course you can.”
 
“He’s not doing anything to us,” Gretel said through a mouthful of food. “He’s controlling the cage. Inside this house. His domain, his power.”
 
Stinging tingles attacked Thomas’s fingertips. About bloody time. The urge to move rippled through him but he contained it. He wanted to be fully in charge of his faculties before he let Gretel see the spell was wearing off. He flicked a look at Andrew, still on his back, his arms raised, hands cupped. As he watched one of Andrew’s fingers twitched. Thomas wanted to yell at him, tell him to stay still, but he still couldn’t even swallow. The movement stopped and Thomas breathed a long, soft sigh of relief.
 
“You have to do something,” said Hansel whined.
 
Gretel glanced at Thomas as she shoved more gingerbread into her mouth, then began to fill her pockets. When she could fit no more into the folds of her skirts, she lifted a large slab of gingerbread from the table and took it over to Hansel in the cage. As she slipped the gingerbread between the bars, she said, “I’ll go back and get the mistress. She’ll be able to release you.”
 
“You’re leaving? What about these two?”
 
“You said yourself they have no power over us.” She gestured at the gingerbread Hansel was already eating. “That’ll keep you from getting hungry before we get back, and them at bay.” Gretel rummaged in her bundled skirt and popped another piece of gingerbread in her mouth, then she waved and sauntered out the door.
 
Thomas noted that she went around the cage on the opposite side to where Andrew was lying, his arms now by his sides.
 
It wasn’t long before the tingling in Thomas’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,” Thomas 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.
 
Thomas 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.”
 
Thomas 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 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 Thomas 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 Thomas well, but Mistress Osborne pinches us dreadfully when we’re kind to him.” The simper turned into a whine.
 
Thomas rolled his eyes. The gremlins might be as bound to the mistress as he was, but 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, Thomas 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 Thomas smile.
 
Andrew watched Hansel’s antics with the cushions for a while, a smile growing, then he turned back to Thomas. “What’s going to happen when Gretel gets back here with the mistress?”
 
Thomas 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 now 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?”
 
Thomas 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.
 
Thomas 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, a book propped against his fat little tummy, the bowl of gingerbread beside him. “If you have both of them, could you break free?” he asked on a whisper.
 
Thomas grinned.
 
Thomas passed the next day pouring over his spell books, frantically writing notes that would be used to create a new spell to free Hansel and Gretel and trap Mistress Osborne forever. He didn’t think either Andrew or Hansel noticed he was still in the house.
 
Andrew baked all day. He made gingerbread and, to give himself something different to cook, he also made ginger cake, ginger biscuits, even a ginger and chilli stir-fry. Hansel spent most of the day groaning in ecstasy while he ate gingerbread and breathed deeply of the heady ginger fragrance throughout the cottage. He didn’t eat any of the non-gingerbread foods.
 
After lunch, the stir-fry having dragged Thomas away from his books, Thomas watched Andrew roll another batch of gingerbread.
 
“That’s the key,” said Thomas as he stared at the latest batch of gingerbread men. “We need to finish cladding the house.”
 
Andrew frowned at him. “What’s the point? Both Hansel and Gretel know they can get as much gingerbread as they want if they just come inside.”
 
“They do, yes,” said Thomas with a grin. “Mistress Osborne doesn’t know anything about it, and I’ll bet Gretel doesn’t tell her about the gingerbread either. She won’t want the mistress to know there’s an alternative source tempting her gremlins away.
 
“How can she not know? Won’t Gretel tell her all about how we trapped Hansel?”
 
“She won’t mention the gingerbread,” said Hansel from his prone position amongst his cushions. “That’s our secret weapon.”
 
“Exactly,” enthused Thomas. “So, when Mistress Osborne arrives and sees the house completely covered in gingerbread—”
 
“Minus the bits we ate,” interrupted Hansel.
 
“—minus the bits you ate, she’ll go completely mental.” Thomas clapped his hands together. “She’ll storm in here, flinging spells around all over the place, and won’t notice what’s really happening.”
 
“Yes!” Hansel jumped out of the cushions. “She won’t know what’s going on until it’s too late.”
 
Thomas and Hansel grinned at each other.
 
“What will be going on?” asked Andrew into the triumphant silence.
 
“Er…,” said Hansel.
 
“Um,” said Thomas.
 
Andrew sighed as he placed another tray of gingerbread on the table. As he slid it farther onto the table, the other trays lifted to make room for it. Within seconds the hovering tower of trays stabilised.
 
“Why is it so important that the house be covered in gingerbread?”
 
Thomas smiled again, back on secure footing. “She uses gingerbread to control Hansel and Gretel. If she thinks they’ve found an alternative source, she’ll want to destroy it.”
 
“What’s stopping her from just burning the house down?”
 
“She’ll want to make sure whoever is making the gingerbread can’t start over somewhere else.”
 
“That would be a given if she burns the house and us with it.”
 
Thomas scowled at Andrew. His fatalistic, simplistic attitude wasn’t helping. “She won’t burn the house down until she knows that’s all it would take to stop us. To be sure of that, she’ll have to come inside and assess the situation.”
 
“You seem pretty confident that she’ll actually want to know who’s doing it, rather than just kill us.”
 
“I worked with her for four years. She needs to know what causes everything because that’s the only way she can make sure she controls it. Destroying the house would only be a temporary measure, and she’d be losing a potential source of gingerbread with which to control the gremlins. She’ll storm in here and try to intimidate you, then browbeat you into supporting her.” Thomas leaned back in his seat, triumph bubbling through him. “It won’t even occur to her that you might say ‘no’, particularly as coercion spells are her forte. And there’s a pretty good chance she’ll totally forget that her magic won’t work inside this cottage.”
 
Hansel nodded in agreement. Andrew sighed. “Okay. You two know her better than I do.” He pulled a chair out and sat at the table. “Tell me what we need to do to free you and the gremlins, and stop her from hurting anyone else.”
 
Hansel giggled as he bounced on his bed. “This is going to be so good. Tell him about the oven, Thomas.”
 
***
 
Andrew changed out another tray of cooked gingerbread with another one going into the oven. A crease deepened between his eyebrows as the tower of cooling gingerbread shifted to accommodate the new one. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “She won’t burn the house down straight away because she’ll have to come inside to find out who’s responsible, even though by burning the house down, she’ll remove whatever threat we pose.”
 
Thomas nodded agreement.
 
once she’s inside, her power will be reduced because the gremlins rule here.”
 
Again, Thomas nodded.
 
Andrew continued, “These are the same gremlins she’s been controlling for years and she doesn’t want them to have any power over her.”
 
Thomas nodded but a scowl now darkened his features.
 
“Do you see where the problem is?” asked Andrew.
 
“You don’t think she’ll come inside the house,” said Thomas.
 
“Everything we’ve planned relies on her coming inside, but why would she, when coming in would mean her risking everything? She’ll know you’re inside, because you can’t leave. All she has to do is burn down the house with you in it and she’s done.”
 
“She can’t burn the house down.” Hansel still lounged amongst his cushions, his expression still blissed-out from the gingerbread.
 
“Why can’t she burn the house down?” asked Andrew.
 
“It’s protected,” said Hansel. “If she wants to burn it, she has to come inside and set the fire from here, without using magic.” He scrambled out of his nest of cushions and stood. “Also, she can’t destroy Thomas’s magic like that.”
 
“If he’s dead, he won’t have any magic,” said Andrew, not understanding how anything else would be possible.
 
“Thomas’s magic will protect him. If she wants him dead, she has to come in here and kill him.”
 
“If she does that, my magic will be free; it won’t automatically go to her.” Thomas joined the conversation as he sat at the table. “The Magical Council will feel the jolt of my magic being released even though the Seat is over three hundred miles away. They’ll know I’ve died by violence and come to investigate. They’ll recognise the gremlins’ signature all over the place and she’ll be held accountable because the gremlins can’t act without her permission. She’ll be stripped of her own magic and cast out.” He sat back and crossed his arms over his chest.
 
“She won’t risk that,” said Hansel.
 
Thomas nodded at Hansel.  “No, she won’t. She can’t burn the house down to kill me and can’t kill me outright. She’ll know the gingerbread isn’t my doing so she’ll have to come inside to find out what’s going on.” He leaned forward and grinned at Andrew. “That’s when we’ll have our chance.”
 
“Our chance to do what?” Andrew sat in the seat opposite Thomas. “You keep telling me how powerful she is. She trapped you here. How are you going to defeat her?”
 
Hansel scoffed. “She’s not so powerful. She didn’t trap Thomas here; Gretel and I did that.” He came close to the bars but stopped before they could burn him again. “We felt Thomas’s power as soon as we stepped inside. He’s spent the last two years studying and is now much more powerful than she’ll ever be.” Hansel preened. “And you have me,” he said smugly.
 
“You’re a prisoner,” retorted Andrew.
 
Hansel picked up another piece of gingerbread. “How do you think we replenish our powers?” He puffed a breath onto the gingerbread, then slid it between two bars and slowly moved it to the side. Red light hummed as the gingerbread came in contact with the bar. When the light dimmed, Hansel’s hand, with the gingerbread was on the other side of the bar. The gingerbread had passed through the bar, cutting it neatly so a slice of air, exactly the width of the gingerbread, was clearly visible between the top of the bar and the bottom. When Andrew and Thomas jumped to their feet, Hansel waved his hand at the bar and it joined together again.
 
“You could have escaped at any time!” said Thomas.
 
Hansel grinned. “That was the last bar.” He waved a negligent hand and all the cushions and gingerbread disappeared, leaving Hansel alone in the cage with a pile of dirty blankets. “She’s coming; be ready.”
 
Andrew’s alarm grew as Thomas’s expression morphed from concerned to terrified. Thomas fumbled in his pockets as he asked Hansel. “How long do we have?”
 
“Gretel’s clearing the woods now; the mistress is behind her.”
 
“Shit,” said Thomas as he rushed over to his desk and started sifting through the piles of paper fragments there. Andrew joined him.
 
“I thought you were ready,” he said. His fingers itched to gather the papers together into tidy little piles, so he took a half step back. Thomas wouldn’t thank him for destroying whatever system he had any more than Andrew would tolerate anyone reorganising his spices.
 
“I am,” insisted Thomas as he fumbled his fingers through the mounds of papers. He tossed another scrap aside, paused, grabbed it up again. “I am ready.” He held the scrap up triumphantly then strode back to the table and placed all his pieces of paper together, like a jigsaw puzzle.
 
“Hello boys. I’m back!” Gretel’s sing-songy voice floated inside.
 
Andrew shivered. “That doesn’t sound good.” He looked around, unsure what he was supposed to do. He sidled closer to the Aga, needing the warmth and comfort.
 
Thomas paused in his rearranging of the papers, then continued again, mumbling to himself as he worked.
 
Hansel’s brows furrowed and he shifted restlessly on his mound of blankets. One hand snaked out from under the blankets and he popped a sliver of gingerbread into his mouth.
 
A shadow fell through the door, swallowing the bright morning sun that had been streaming in. Andrew shivered in the dim, cool air remaining. As the shadow shrank, Gretel’s voice grew louder.
 
“Mistress Osborne has come to get you out of that cage, Hansel.” As Gretel stepped through the doorway, Thomas straightened, the papers clutched tightly as he shoved his hand in his pocket. The mumbling had stopped although his lips still moved; tiny movements like little air kisses.
 
Gretel strode in, tossed her long, golden hair over her shoulder, grinned, and winked at Hansel.
 
On her heels came what Andrew assumed was Mistress Osborne.
 
Mistress Osborne was the singularly least attractive person Andrew had ever seen. She stood easily at six and a half feet, had broad shoulders, narrow hips and spindly legs sticking out from her ¾ length skirt. Shiny black boots with thick red laces and two-inch platforms adorned her feet. The upper part of her body—the broad shoulders, huge, bulbous breasts and prominent collar bone—was barely constrained by a dirty white peasant blouse printed with small red skulls. Her face was a mix of reasonably attractive features: straight Romanesque nose, large almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, square jaw, wide mouth. Unfortunately, the features sat on a long, skinny face with a high sloping forehead, giving the appearance of peering at Mistress Osborne through a fish-eye lens. Her best feature could have been her hair: long, dark and curly, but it was so sparse around her face that, at first glance, it looked like her hairline began on the top of her head.
 
She took in the scene at a glance: Hansel incarcerated in a hovel, bereft of even basic comforts; Thomas hovering near the table, hands shoved into his pockets, an air of trembling submission about him; Andrew, standing tall and straight near the Aga, hoping his fear wasn’t showing on his face.
 
Mistress Osborne raised her arm and pointed at Andrew. “It was you! You’re the one who’s done all this. I could feel your power as I walked inside.”
 
Mistress Osborne strode forward, the clack of her boots on the wooden floor and the soft susurration of her underskirts the only sounds in the room. As she passed the cage, Hansel stood, his eyes bright, almost glowing in the shadowed darkness of his face against the brilliant light streaming in through the doorway.
 
Thomas watched her, taking a step back when she passed him, moving out of her reach. Once he was behind her, he removed the small pieces of paper from his pocket and held them aloft.
Andrew stepped to the side so he stood directly in front of the Aga, his right hand hovering over the handle for the baking oven.
 
Hansel stood, still inside his cage, but close to Gretel.
 
Just as Mistress Osborne raised her hands to strike Andrew, Thomas began to speak.
 
“Mistress Osborne, you have been negligent in your training, a direct violation of the apprenticeship agreement you signed with the Magical Council. You have left me with no option other than to report your actions.”
 
Mistress Osborne swung to face Thomas, took in his stance and sneered. “You idiot. You have to get out of this house before you can cast any spell against me or summon the Magical Council. Do you think I didn’t think of that when I put you here?” Her gaze raked him from head to toe. “Look at you. You’re so scared of me you’re trembling.”
 
“You’re right,” said Thomas as he slid to the side, working his way around the table. Andrew smirked as he realised Thomas’s movements drew Mistress Osborne’s attention to him alone, leaving Hansel and Gretel unobserved. “I am scared of you. I have been since my first day as your apprentice. I knew, even then, that I had to hide most of my power from you or you’d bleed me dry.” Hansel stepped through the destroyed bars of the cage and joined Gretel, their hands clasped, eyes glowing.
 
“Most of your power?” Mistress Osborne sneered. “I’ll admit you have some talent, particularly with transmography, but it’s nothing a thousand other wizards don’t have.”
 
Thomas smiled, and Andrew wondered how Mistress Osborne didn’t quaver in front of him. “That was the case two years ago, Mistress. Things are significantly different now.” He once again held his scraps of paper above his head. In a deep, sonorous voice, he said, “Mistress Osborne, you have made it impossible for me to perform my duties either as an apprentice or as a wizard. You have spent the last several years consuming the magic of others.”
 
“And what?” she sneered.  “Are you going to strip me of my powers, little apprentice? Do you think you can really do that when half your apprenticeship has been here?” She swept a dismissive hand around her, indicating her disgust for the Gingerbread House.
 
“I have no need of your powers,” said Thomas calmly. “I have my own, developed right here, inside a gremlin-controlled house.”
 
“Have you no idea, silly witch,” said Hansel, making Mistress Osborne swing around and gasp at his freedom from the cage, “what it means to learn wizardry within the bosom of gremlin magic?” He pointed to Thomas. “His magic has grown as it would always have done, until it’s much stronger than yours. But it’s been infused with our magic too. He doesn’t need the paltry spells you know; he can create his own.”
 
“You won’t be leaving here until the Magic Council attends and hears your case,” said Thomas as he tossed the papers toward her.
 
“This house can’t hold me, you fool.” She batted aside the papers. Each one she touched flared bright around the edges then sank into her skin. Mistress Osborne shoved the table toward Thomas, distracting him, then she charged at Andrew, the remaining papers zooming after her and clinging to her hair where they flared and disappeared.
 
Andrew gripped the oven handle, swung the door open the shoved against Mistress Osborne. She tumbled into the oven, Andrew pushed her feet in and slammed the door closed, cutting off her screams. He panted and his hands trembled. He hoped Thomas was right and she wouldn’t die. He didn’t want to be a murderer, no matter how evil the person was.
 
Gretel charged forward. “Why did you do that? You can’t COOK her. You can’t destroy a wizard.”
 
“Of course not,” said Thomas. “But transmography is my thing, isn’t it?”
 
“What did you change her into?” asked Hansel, a small smile hovering around his mouth.
 
Thomas grinned at him. “Something you’ll appreciate.”
 
A timer dinged and Andrew opened the oven door, reached in and slid out a large tray. On the tray lay a human-sized gingerbread man, complete with current eyes and icing smile and clothes. As Andrew placed the tray on the table, the gingerbread man jumped up and ran to the door.
 
“You can’t keep me here,” it yelled, Mistress Osborne’s voice high and squeaky. She ran out the door and down the path.
 
Andrew joined the others at the window as they watched her run. “I don’t think that was as successful as you think it was,” he said. “She got away.”
 
As they watched, a fox darted from the trees, cut across the clearing and entered the wood where the gingerbread man had disappeared.
 
“Maybe,” said Thomas with a grin. “But then again, maybe not.” He picked up his satchel and gestured to the gremlins. “Let’s go home.” At the door, he paused and looked back at Andrew. “Are you coming? There’s a great kitchen and an outhouse that can be converted to a bakery.”
 
“What’s going to happen to the house?” he asked as he looked around the small space. In the short time he’d been there, he’d grown to like the place.
 
“We no longer need it,” said Hansel. “It’ll come back when we need it again.”
 
Andrew flicked the dials on the Aga so it would burn itself out safely, then grabbed his pack and followed. As they entered the wood, a hot, crackling whoosh blew through the clearing. Andrew turned to see the gingerbread house aflame. Another whoosh brought the roof down. A third one turned the house to white ash that drifted away on the breeze. Where the house stood was green grass, just long enough to be attractive to forest animals.
 
“If you don’t want to stay with me, I’ll make sure you get to where you were originally going.” Thomas stood beside him, near enough to touch, far enough away to give Andrew space to make his own decision.
 
Andrew smiled at him. “You promised me a bakery of my own.” He linked arms with Thomas and, together, they followed the two gremlins through the wood. 

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