Tag Archives: Fairy Tales

Free Fiction Friday: The Way Home

Sometimes the way home isn’t obvious.

The braid went slack in his hands, and the prince knew.

He’d been deceived.

In the moment before he fell, when he hung suspended in the air, the prince confronted the thorns that would steal his sight.

He refused to blink.

The pain was an exquisite brightness, the blood hot and wet. He clambered to his feet, drew his sword, and swung blindly.

The cackle of the witch’s laughter echoed in the air.

The prince stumbled across the countryside, sword unsheathed. He whirled in panic at the cries of birds and rustles in the underbrush. And always, as he walked, the faint whisper of the witch’s laughter followed him.

At last, his feet found a crossroads. The earth was smooth here, and his boots met nothing other than small stones and gentle ruts. He paused and sniffed.

A ripe, earthy scent rose up, warmed by the sun, the air filled with promise.

The marsh beckoned. The prince turned and left the road behind.

He was days into his trek when the cries of an infant accompanied his walk. His legs were weak with fever, and so too, the prince reasoned, was his head. Whatever promise had led him into this marsh eluded him.

The prince sank into the muck only to hear a startled cry moments later.

“My love? Is it really you?”

His lips were so dry that he couldn’t utter her name. Rapunzel knelt beside him, her tears bathing his face, easing the pain in his eyes. He raised a hand to stroke her cheek and missed.

He saw nothing but brightness and shadows. Of all the sights the thorns had stolen, he would miss the intelligence in Rapunzel’s gaze the most.

“Come,” she said, “come with me now.”

“I can’t—”

“Can’t what, my prince?”

“I can’t rescue you.”

“Can you walk?”

With her words, his legs found their strength. “I can walk.”

“Then come meet your son … and your daughter.”

With time, the prince’s feet learned which paths to take in and out of the marsh. His fingers became adept at finding and patching holes in the thatched roof of their little cottage. His children grew, and although he couldn’t see them, his son smelled of lilacs and morning dew, his daughter like wild roses and rain.

Each day, he ventured farther from the cottage, all in hopes of finding the crossroads once again, of finding rescue, and what that might mean. A true marriage. Proper schooling for the little prince and princess. He could resume his place in the kingdom.

It was the king’s own counselor who found him, standing in the center of the crossroads one hot, summer day. Despite his blindness, the prince recognized the king’s most trusted advisor, and the man rejoiced to have found the long, lost prince.

His feet knew the marsh so well that the prince raced to the little cottage without care. He found Rapunzel and swung her around, then hoisted the children to his shoulders.

“We are saved!” he cried. “We can go home.”

“Home?” the children echoed.

“To the palace, where we will live the way we were meant to.”

Rapunzel remained strangely silent.

“My dear,” he said. “Are you not happy? Haven’t you only ever wanted to escape?”

“Yes. Escape.” Her words were soft and hollow, and the prince barely heard them over the clatter of the carriages arriving to bear them to the palace.

Was it the noise that struck first, or the stench? Both swirled around him like a thick, damp cloud. So many voices, and all of them demanding something of him. So many smells. Waves of perfume. The dank scent of mildew. The hint of refuse that never left the air no matter where he ventured in the palace.

Nursemaids commandeered his children. Ladies-in-waiting swept Rapunzel away. The king prattled about diplomacy and trade routes and political alliances.

At their welcome home feast, in the clatter of dishes and hearty toasts ringing out, the echo of the witch’s cackle rose thin and high, a taunt meant for his ears only.

The prince knew.

This time, he’d deceived himself.

That night, he ran his hands over every inch of his chambers. His thoughts fractured each time the witch’s cackle sounded in his ears. Even if he could escape, how would he rescue Rapunzel and the children?

What caught his attention first? The scrape of leather on stone? The delicate gasp of exertion? He knew the moment Rapunzel burst through the window, landing with a soft thud on the stone floor.

“Come,” she said. “Your children are waiting below.”

“How is it you—?”

She silenced his question with a gentle finger to his lips. “Your children have stolen all the silk sheets from the royal beds.”

If he could not see the glint of intelligence in her gaze, he caught it in her tone.

“My father’s included?”

“And I have braided them into a ladder, your father’s included. Do you remember, my prince, how to scale a tower wall on a braided ladder?”

Indeed, he did.

“Come,” she said.

He let Rapunzel take his hand. At the window’s ledge, he cupped her cheek.

“I have been so blind.”

In answer, she merely kissed him.

And yes, his hands did remember how to grip a braided ladder.

Together, they raced through the palace grounds, into the forest, until—at last—they reached the crossroads.

The prince stood there with his little family, the warmth of the sunrise touching his face. Something earthy and ripe rose in the air. He turned toward its source.

The marsh beckoned.

The Way Home was first published at Long and Short Reviews.

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Free Fiction Friday: Straying from the Path

It wasn’t an ailing grandmother that tempted Red into the woods that day …

It was a wolf, rather than an ailing grandmother, that tempted Red into the woods. All day his cries echoed, small, plaintive-sounding things that filled the forest. By the time she found him, night had fallen and the blood on the snow looked black.

By moonlight, she pried his paw from the rusted jaws of the trap. He ran from her. And why wouldn’t he? It was her kind that set the trap to begin with. The wolf limped through the underbrush, tail between his legs. Later, if you asked her at what point she fell in love, she would’ve said that night. At the time, all she knew was how his injured gait made her heart lurch.

Later that night, Red spied his yellow eyes from well beyond the woodpile at the edge of the forest. The next evening, she left a meat pie on the lowest stack of wood. By morning, the tin had been licked clean.

And so went the winter. As the days grew colder and her supplies dwindled, she cut back on her own portion of meat. She could go without, but the wolf was still healing. Now when she walked in the forest, she never feared brigands or the overly-friendly woodcutters. When men called on her, they found the howl of a single male wolf so unnerving that they left their teacups half full, crumb cake uneaten.

When at last the snow melted, and the sun heated the earth, Red took to bathing in the stream behind the house. No one dared disturb her. Every night, she set out a meat pie. Every morning, she collected the empty tin.

Except for the morning she didn’t. Flies buzzed around the soggy crust, the filling, chewed and pilfered by tiny mouths and claws. She threw on her cape and ventured into the forest—alone.

The trail was easy enough to follow. Drops of blood, tufts of gray fur. The farther into the forest she walked, the slower her steps. What was done was done. All she could do was delay her own knowledge of it, spend a few more minutes free of a world where, every time she closed her eyes, all she saw was matted fur and severed paws—far too many to count.

That night, for the first time in months, she did not bake a meat pie.

The scratching came when the coals in the fireplace were mere embers. There, at the door, sat her wolf, bloodied but no weaker for his fight. He cocked his head as if to say: Where’s my meat pie?

She threw her arms around him, buried her face against his neck, and cried until the dirt in his fur became streams of mud.

When the townsfolk came, bearing axes and ropes, she threw open the door for them.

Why no, she hadn’t seen any wolves at all lately. In fact, she’d stopped her treks through the forest for fear of them. Instead, she now cared for her grandmother here, in her very own cottage.

The men tiptoed from the room, not wishing to wake the old lady. The women rubbed their chins, hoping old age would not bring such a crop of whiskers.

After that, suitors stopped visiting. Although Red always sent them on their way with a meat pie, they found her grandmother’s beady eyes unsettling.

People forgot about Red, her grandmother who, while always ailing, never departed this world for the next. But on moonlit nights, townsfolk stumbling from the tavern swore they heard a woman’s laughter mixed in with the howls echoing in the night air.

First published in Flash Fiction Online and Cicada and in audio at The Centropic Oracle.

And yes, Little Red Riding Hood is one of my favorite fairy tales to retell.

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Free Fiction Friday: Cheating Death

Sending you over to Corvid Queen this week for a retelling of Godfather Death.

From the editor:

Read on for a patient, compassionate, and surprisingly calming version of Death.

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Free Fiction Friday: A Most Marvelous Pair of Boots

Ah, yes, they’ve all been duped by a cat. But haven’t we all been, at one time or another?

It was during the wedding feast, when the air was heavy with roast goose and red wine, that Mirabella realized they’d all been duped by a cat.

Her new husband, the Marquis of Carabas, was sitting to her right, his teeth tearing goose flesh, grease coating his lips. She shuddered and pushed away thoughts of the marriage bed. Her father, the king, was well into his cups and tore at his food as if to mimic his new son-in-law. He slapped the marquis on the back and praised heaven that—at long last—Mirabella had found herself a husband.

At long last, indeed.

Near the end of the table, the cat was lounging, booted hind legs crossed. With a paw, he wiped goose fat from his whiskers. Mirabella fixed her gaze on him until he raised his yellow eyes and took in her full measure.

Then, the creature winked.

She sat back, a flush heating her cheeks, traveling her neck, and ending somewhere near her décolletage. She sighed, not in the mood for wine, song, or her new husband. True, the marquis was handsome. A point in his favor, to be sure. A goose leg slipped through his fingers, and he stopped its descent with one meaty hand. Mirabella cringed and again shoved thoughts of the marriage bed from her mind.

She turned to her new husband and asked, “More wine?”

Without waiting for an answer, she filled his goblet to the rim. He’d barely spoken since they’d exchanged I do. Come to think of it, the lad—for he was hardly older than she—seldom spoke more than a word or two at a time. Mirabella leaned forward and, once again, trained her gaze on the cat. This time when he winked, she didn’t flinch.

Oh, there was no Marquis of Carabas. She’s stake her somewhat tarnished reputation on it. Certainly, if this lad were nobility, he would’ve curried her father’s favor long before now. Not only that, but he was untouched by palace gossip, which was rife with rumors about her improper relationship with her tutor. In her defense, the relationship hadn’t been at all improper.

Well, maybe a little bit improper.

But thanks to some rumors and a fast-talking cat, her father was now praising the heavens and had shoved this lad into her arms and her bed. Would he care to know the truth about the marquis? Of course not. A married daughter was one less burden, especially a daughter with a somewhat tarnished reputation.

The splash of wine against her chest forced a gasp from her. The red liquid soaked into the bodice of her gown, the spot resembling a sword wound. Her new husband stared at his empty goblet as if the wine had sprung forth of its own accord. Her father pounded the marquis on the back, his hearty laugh filling the banquet hall. And, at the end of the table, that damn cat winked.

* * *

Her new husband’s snores filled the bedchamber. From her vantage point on the balcony, Mirabella could see the outline of his form on the duvet. Make no mistake, it was a fine form, despite the drool.

“You admire my master, then, Princess?”

Ah, that damn cat.

“There is more to admire in a man than form or face, Master Cat.”

The cat trod along the balcony’s edge, feet whisper-soft against the stone, even with the boots.

“What is it you wish?” he said.

“I fear my wishes matter not to man or cat.”

“I did not ask that.”

Mirabella glanced into the bedchamber. Yes, assuredly, her new husband would not wake until noon, if then. “Tonight’s wish has already been granted.”

Could cats grin? Well, this one could, and did, twirling long whiskers with a paw. “And tomorrow’s wish?”

Yes, the crux of the matter.

“I cannot simply un-marry, Master Cat, and I doubt my new husband will appreciate his rival.” She gestured toward the telescope at the balcony’s far end. She had yet to peer at the night sky this evening—or rather, morning. Of course, at this moment, the only view was of a cat’s tail, which was swishing in front of the lens.

Still, the urge to lean over the telescope remained. For a few hours, she could pretend that Sebastian was still at her side, imagine his fingers lighting on the back of her neck, hear his ardent whisper. “Do you see it?”

The night spent with her tutor fueled court gossip even now. That the two of them had gazed at the stars and not into each other’s eyes was of little matter. As she ran a hand along the telescope, the skies were clear, but her mind was clouded with thoughts of the upcoming tour of the kingdom. The grand celebration of her marriage meant visiting people she didn’t much care for and receiving gifts she certainly didn’t need. But the real question was: pack the telescope or leave it behind?

“You’ll be traveling light,” the cat said.

“Unlikely, Master Cat. Have you never seen a royal entourage take to the roads?”

“I have, Princess. It’s all part of the plan.”

“What plan is that?”

“Do you not wish to see your Sebastian again?”

Her hand stilled on the telescope, her fingers ice. Damn palace gossip, and damn that cat besides. How could he know her heart?

“You keep a great many unsent letters beneath your bed.”

Oh. That was how.

“Would you like to be free? Study with your tutor in peace?”

Mouth dry, Mirabella nodded.

“Then, trust me.”

“I shall do no such thing, Master Cat.”

“But what if you could un-marry, Princess?” the cat asked. “Would you trust me then?”

“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” Mirabella replied. “Even cats know this.”

Ah, yes, cats could grin. “Oh, Princess, have you not noticed? I am certainly no man.”

* * *

The carriage bumped over never-ending ruts. A week on the road, and the only sign of the cat had been this morning when he had slipped a wineskin into Mirabella’s hands.

“Hold it beneath your cloak,” he said. “Just so.”

Only thoughts of her studies, of Sebastian, compelled her to comply. She cradled her burden and settled in for another long day.

A cry rose up outside the carriage.

“Brigands!” a guard shouted.

Swords clanked, and then the carriage door flew open. The cat sprang past her, a single claw piercing the wineskin. Red bloomed beneath her hand, the wine soaking her gown. The marquis took one look at the stain spreading across her bodice and crashed to the carriage floor, face-first. Never mind that she reeked of her father’s finest vintage (come to think of it, so did the marquis); she was, in everyone’s view, fatally wounded.

And with death came freedom. Un-marry, indeed.

Before she could leap from the carriage, a paw tugged on her sleeve.

“You’ll need this, Princess.” The cat proffered a dusty cloak, ragged along the hem. He dropped a small canvas sack at her feet. “And, of course, you’ll need these.” He pulled the boots from his hind legs.

He crouched, then sprang through the carriage window, and Mirabella swore his final sentence was more caterwaul than words. She pulled on the boots, the leather kissing her legs, the soles cupping her feet. She held one leg extended, turning it to study the boot. How was this possible?

No matter. They fit. She jumped from the carriage. The boots carried her through sword clashes and rearing horses. No one called out. No one stopped her. Except for a cat that wove between her ankles.

“Master Cat?”

His tail twitched, and he blinked slowly, but that was all.

She nestled him in her arms, the cloak shielding them both, and took to the road.

That night, she tugged the boots from her feet and placed them far enough from her campfire that no spark would reach them.

“Master Cat, would you like to take a turn in your boots?”

Within moments, the cat was standing before her in all his booted glory. He surveyed their surroundings.

“Seems safe enough,” he said. “I shall fetch dinner and return shortly.”

Mirabella pointed to the pot simmering over the fire. “I have dinner.”

“I shall fetch us a decent dinner, then.”

She huffed but couldn’t argue. Her skills with a telescope far surpassed anything she could manage with a cook pot.

“I shall almost regret finding Sebastian,” she said to him later, over stew and a loaf of hard-crusted bread from a nearby village. “I will miss these marvelous boots.”

“Why not commission another pair?” the cat asked, strutting about, the leather boots glowing warmly in the light of the fire.

“How will I do that, Master Cat? I will be a scholar and a somewhat impoverished one at that.”

“Haven’t you guessed, Princess? Who do you think gave me these boots to begin with?”

“Not the marquis?”

“Hardly.”

“But then—”

“Princess, you know their creator. Intimately, if I dare say so.”

“But … Sebastian is a scholar. He studies—”

“The mysteries of our world—and he has mastered a few.”

Mirabella sucked in a breath and blew out a stream of air rather than harsh words. After all, what was there to say?

With a paw, the cat twirled his whiskers, and then strode off into the night. So, it had been Sebastian all along.

And, of course, that damn cat.

A Most Marvelous Pair of Boots was first published in Timeless Tales, January 2014.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty

Continuing with the  fairy tale retellings. This week, a different take on Sleeping Beauty.

“Try it,” my cousins say. They are the perfect princess trifecta, all in pink, peach, and plum.

I hesitate. I don’t trust myself. Not around things that are sharp. My mother, the queen, has banned all things pointy—embroidery and knitting needles, even crochet hooks, but the object in the corner of my room is different.

“Come on,” Plum says. She holds up her cell phone, ready to take a picture while the other two urge me forward. “You know how she is.”

I do. So does my mother, who always intones, “Never trust a woman whose only goal is to look as young as her teenage daughters.”

My aunt’s gifts have a way of backfiring. Last year, she gave me an elixir that makes your lips red like cherries and your cheeks glow like apples. I refused even to try it, but my cousins guzzled it down. At that evening’s ball, fruit flies swarmed around them the entire time.

What I really want for my birthday is a baseball bat and glove. I want to round up the pages, cajole the scribe into keeping score, and play until the sun hovers low in the sky and it’s too late to bathe for a formal dinner, never mind the ball afterward. But my cousins tremble; if they don’t get proof that I’ve at least touched the present, their mother will rage. Pity compels me forward. Besides, compared to last year, a spindle is downright practical. I reach out. Plum’s cell phone camera clicks.

Three seconds before I hit the stone floor, I think: my finger is going to hurt all day long.

Chaos roars around me, but I can’t wake. A narcoleptic slumber is no way to spend your sweet sixteen. My mother thunders at my cousins, and they cower, all quivering tulle and satin.

My finger still hurts.

The sobs subside. Yawns fill the air. Courtiers sink to the floor. Page boys slump against the wall. My cousins, too, sleep. My mother tucks a blanket around me and kisses my forehead before taking to her own bed.

For one hundred years, we lie dormant. This wouldn’t be so bad except my cousins, they snore.

Heavy boots stomp. A sword rattles. The door crashes open. The scent of blood and sweat fills the room. Something looms above me, something I think means to kiss me.

I worry about one hundred years of neglected dental hygiene. But really? He’s the one with dragon breath. Volumes have been written about epic first kisses. This one? I’m not sure it rates a Facebook status update.

My eyes spring open, that kiss the living embodiment of caffeine. A boy I don’t recognize kneels by my bed. I worry about being nearly one hundred years older than he is. We will have to rename the village. Cougarville has a nice ring to it. First, we should probably get to know each other.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Charming.”

I blink. I’m sure he’s many things. Clearly, he has mad skills in the sword-wielding department. But I was on the receiving end of that kiss. Charming?

Not so much.

“Shall we marry at sunset?” he asks as if he already knows the answer.

Shall we … what? He squeezes my hand. Pain shoots through my finger, and I yank free. Marry? For real? I’d rather swing a baseball bat … or a sword. And Charming does look tired. (I hear dragon-slaying is kind of stressful.)

After all this time, the spindle still sits in the corner of the room. I point to it.

“Can you bring me that?” I ask, all princess-y innocence. I should feel bad about this, but I don’t.

Charming only manages a step, spindle in hand, before he crashes to the floor, armor clanking loud enough to wake the dead. But everyone sleeps on, and Charming’s snores blend with my cousins’. It’s a fairytale match. They can fight over him once everyone wakes up.

I fashion a new notch in his belt, and then I attach the scabbard and blade around my waist. I pull on my own boots and pick up his shield. It feels good in my hand. I tuck a pillow beneath Charming’s head and leave the room.

My finger no longer hurts.

In the master suite, I pause next to my mother. A serene smile lights her face. I tuck the comforter around her shoulders and whisper, “I’ll be back.”

After I’ve slain a few dragons.

The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty first appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects, Volume 1 and in audio at Cast of Wonders.

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Weekly writing check-in: of wolves and viruses

So, this past week started off with a nice surprise. My flash fiction piece, Crying Wolf, was the Monday story over at Daily Science Fiction.

Then Wednesday happened. I woke up with all the classic symptoms of the coronavirus. On April Fools’ Day. Because, why not?

I’m much better. My chest is still tight, my lungs hurt a bit, and I’m short of breath. However, I’m not having weird, random pain in my lungs. I sneezed on Wednesday, and it felt like someone lit a match in my chest cavity.

I’m taking it slow, being careful, alert to any possible secondary infections. I wasn’t sick enough for the hospital, so for now, I have no idea whether it was the coronavirus or just some other random virus that decided to mess with my week. I wish I knew. Once I’m symptom-free, if I’m immune, I could go into the community and volunteer. But, of course, I don’t know for sure.

So. Not a lot of writing. I have been able to read, so that’s been a nice respite.

Be well, everyone.

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Free Fiction Friday: Crying Wolf

This month, it’s all about fairy tale retellings. First up, a retelling of … well, you can probably guess.

Sending you over to Daily Science Fiction today for my story Crying Wolf.

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Weekly writing check-in: interesting times

What a difference a week makes, no? Schools here are closing, I’m planning to work from home, and my story work this week went out the window.

However, I did get a little bit done. Not only that, but I spent yesterday publishing a large print version of Straying from the Path. It’s already up on Amazon (because they’re speedy like that).

It was surprisingly absorbing and relaxing, and something I’ll probably be doing over the next few weeks here.

And now I’m off to FaceTime a Girl Scout meeting.

 

 

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Free Fiction Friday: The Goblin and the Pixie

It wouldn’t be February without a pair of star-crossed lovers.

Everyone knew that pixies were cruel. Those teeth. Their words.

A conversation with one was like dying from a thousand tiny cuts. You might think: one or two scornful remarks won’t matter. But they added up, faster than you could count.

That was why Renate kept her distance. That, and because she was a goblin. And not one of those flashy lime green ones, or one a delicate shade of violet. She was brown, like the bark on the trees of the forest she called home.

Practical, but dull.

But the pixie? Oh, he would dazzle you—lithe, sultry. His talent was the piccolo, as Renata soon learned, but he could sing and dance and execute all manner of acrobatics. His wings were a glittery sapphire while his skin was the icy hue of a January sky.

He was so beautiful, his features elegant and lovely, even those razor-like teeth. Renata felt a bit chagrined for her admiration. It was shallow, wasn’t it? It made her shallow, didn’t it? She didn’t even know his name. Pixies seldom confessed such things, not even to a lover.

If you knew a pixie’s name, the saying went, then you knew their entire heart.

But never, in all the annals of history, had there ever been a goblin-pixie pairing. So Renata dreamed her unattainable dreams safe in the knowledge they were only that.

Until the day the pixie fluttered down from the sky and landed on the forest floor in front of her.

His feet barely whispered against the carpet of fallen leaves. His wings hummed, and the sound was warm and soothing, like a lullaby.

“Why do you stare at me all day long,” he asked.

Renata knew she didn’t have quick wit—if this were a conversational trap, then she would walk right into it. So she saw no reason to be dishonest.

“Because you are the most beautiful being I have ever seen.”

With those words, heat burned her cheeks, her skin so hot she might set the forest aflame.

The pixie tilted his head. “Do you like how I play the piccolo?”

“I do, very much.”

He twirled, a perfect pirouette, and landed gracefully. “And my acrobatics? What do you think of them?”

“They are lovely.”

For a long moment, he scrutinized her. Then, he nodded once and took flight.

Odd things happened after that. Sweet music—that of a piccolo—accompanied her trek through the forest. The tune changed depending on what she was doing. Slow and thoughtful for rooting out mushrooms. Lively and quick for picking berries.

When she was helping a doe birth twins on a slushy spring morning, a warm buzzing sounded above her, shielding her and the doe from rain. Renata glanced up, but all she could see was the furious beating of pixie wings.

On clear nights, when she peered into the sky, her name would sparkle among the stars.

She searched for hidden cruelty and found only kindness.

The next time the pixie landed before her, stepping lightly across daisies and buttercups, Renata could do little more than clutch her hands beneath her chin.

“Why do you always brighten my day?” she asked.

“Because you brighten mine.”

“Me?” This she could not fathom. “How?”

“You know which of the forest’s bounty is edible, and which is not.”

“Don’t pixies know this?”

He flushed, a delicate pink spreading through his entire body. “It’s a good thing pixies have strong constitutions. I only know what to eat from watching you.”

“I can teach you.” Such boldness! Renata almost swallowed back the words.

But he inclined his head and continued. “You care for the forest creatures. You care for our home when the rest of us enjoy it, use it, but far too often disregard it.”

“I love the forest and everything in it.” It was as close as she dared come to confessing her feelings for him.

He took one step closer. “And you have the eyes of a doe and the skin the color of a wise oak tree. You are beautiful.”

She was about to protest or shake her head when he took another step forward.

“I am Simon.”

Oh? Oh.

“You know I’m Renata.”

“I do. May I kiss you, Renata?”

She didn’t think twice, although perhaps she should have. She knew of the teeth, of the cuts, of the pain. Kissing a pixie was something a steadfast, ordinary goblin like herself should never do.

Renata stepped forward.

She closed her eyes.

The kiss was warm, steeped in magic and honey. When the quicksilver taste filled her mouth and blood ran down her chin, Renata gasped. She felt no pain, had no cuts.

It wasn’t her blood.

It was his.

Simon had sliced through his own lips as to not injure her.

But a steadfast little goblin such as herself had a salve for that. She tended to his wounds, and by nightfall, he was healed enough to play the piccolo.

It took until winter, with the snow piled high around Renata’s little cottage, until they discovered a way to kiss without incident.

Neither one minded.

The Goblin and the Pixie was written especially for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.

Miss a story? Check out the titles here.

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Free Fiction Friday: Gretel and Hansel

January’s stories will be a mix of sibling love, surprising friendships, and cautionary tales of workplace romances. I hope you enjoy them!

We kick off the (Love) Stories of 2020 project with this fairytale retelling. If you were ever curious about what happened to Hansel and Gretel after they returned home, this might answer that question.

Hansel wanted to go back.

Even after endless weeks in a cage, even after Gretel scrubbed and swept and scoured for the witch, even after she pushed the frog-skinned crone into the oven, Hansel wanted to go back.

They stood at the edge of the forest, where the grass grew wild and sharp; brambles grabbed at their skin. The trees above reached their branches toward the ground as if they might scoop the two up and carry them away.

“She’s dead,” Gretel said to him.

Hansel stared into the woods.

“I killed her.”

He shook his head, the movement so slow that at first, Gretel didn’t take its meaning.

“You didn’t kill her,” he said, his words as dead as the witch should’ve been. “She’s alive.”

Could she be? Gretel stretched her hands in front of her, palms skyward.

These hands. They’d shoved from behind. They’d murdered. The crunch of bones, the sizzle of hair and flesh. The thick smoke that had filled her mouth and throat, the plumes laced with the stench of rancid meat.

No one could live through that. No one, perhaps, except a witch.

“Why do you want to go back?” she asked.

A smile lit his face, the same sort of look she’d seen their father cast toward their stepmother, the same look Millie gathered from men in the tavern. True, some men reserved that gaze for the pint of ale they held in their grip. When Hansel licked his lips, Gretel hoped he wouldn’t answer.

He didn’t.

Every year, on the anniversary of their escape, Gretel would find Hansel at the edge of the forest. She’d stand with him while the sun dipped below the horizon, the slanting light flickering against the trees. The branches appeared to elongate as if beckoning them to step inside the wood.

Every year, she took his hand—a limp, clammy thing—and tugged him from the edge. With each step, her legs ached. Only the feel of Hansel’s hand in hers kept her steady on the path home.

But maybe she was wrong. Hansel lived as if his heart, his soul, still resided deep in the woods, in a gingerbread house. She’d catch him licking his lips, and she knew. She’d tasted the sugar too. It had left them both empty—she without her brother, he without his heart’s desire.

The year they turned sixteen, Gretel climbed the path to the woods only to find Hansel’s spot empty. Pulse fluttering in her throat, she bent low. Her fingers skimmed the dust trail. In the dim light, she barely made out a boot print. It was enough to go on.

Gretel scampered down the path, grabbed her cloak from the hook inside the cottage door, and raced back up the hill. Before she could catch her breath, before she could gather enough courage to venture into the woods, a hand gripped her wrist.

“Stay back, girl. Don’t go after him.”

The voice was lilting, filled with sorrow and knowledge. Not her father, then. Gretel turned to confront Millie from the tavern.

“I have to,” Gretel said. “He’s my brother.”

“He hasn’t been yours for a very long time.” Millie tugged on her wrist, a gentle, coaxing move that had Gretel stumbling forward. “It’s too late. Once the witch has you, she doesn’t let go.”

“Yes, she does.” She wrenched her wrist from Millie’s grip and held up her hands for the woman to see. “I did it once. I can do it again.”

Gretel pulled her cloak tightly around her and plunged into the forest.

Brambles wielded their thorns like daggers, their sharp points shredding her cloak. Branches grabbed at her hood. Eventually one plucked it from her head, the force choking her until she undid the drawstring.

On she ran until the woods opened onto a stream. The stream led to the gingerbread house. Gretel halted, letting the fringe of trees around the clearing conceal her.

The path to the house was covered with brittle, the air perfumed with spun sugar and melted chocolate. Even from this distance, desire churned in Gretel’s belly. Yes, she’d tasted the sugar. Yes, she’d thought of returning. But after that unbearable sweetness, the cream curdled in her mouth, the sugar scorched her tongue. She’d purged, not far from here, next to the stream while Hansel had continued to consume the treats as if they were the only thing that could sustain him.

The witch stood in the entryway to her house, but this was not the frog-skinned crone of Gretel’s memory. The witch glowed like spring itself, her skin the color of a pale crocus stem, her hair flowing, as white as lily of the valley and as soft as spun sugar.

Hansel lounged against the rail, a candied apple in his hands, the fruit so big and bright it glowed in the night. The witch curved a finger beneath his chin, and with no more than that, urged him inside.

Gretel threw herself forward, but the rock-sugar fence that surrounded the house barred her way, new segments sprouting across her path. She flung herself against the fence, again and again until her palms stung. She watched the blood, black in the moonlight, drip between her fingers and onto the ground.

“I’ve failed him,” she said, to the forest, for every creature to witness.

“Whoo?” came the soft call of an owl.

“Me. I have failed my brother.” Gretel studied her bloodstained hands. Certainly, this was proof of that.

“Whoo.” The call came again, a lullaby rather than an admonishment.

One by one, feathers dropped from the night sky, floating downward until they landed on Gretel’s palms. Each feather soaked up its share of blood before disintegrating. When a lone feather landed against her cheek, she sank to the forest floor and fell asleep.

The blaze woke her hours later, the gingerbread house lit with flames. The odor of burnt sugar and charred sweets filled her nose, her mouth, her throat, the stench so caustic it felt as if a noose had tightened around her neck.

“Hansel?” She called his name, again and again, her cries too thin to cut through the thick smoke that billowed from the house. “Hansel?”

Near dawn, the fire burned itself out, the rock-sugar fence a slag that oozed its way through twigs and leaves. Only the witch’s oven remained, squat and low to the ground. It was from here a figure emerged, movements tentative as a newborn calf.

Gretel leaped across the slag and ran to her brother.

Hansel took her by the shoulders, his fingers thin and tight. “I had to go back. I had to be the one to kill her.” He shook her as if that would help her understand. “Me, not you.”

His blond hair had turned ashen. If she brushed it from his eyes, Gretel thought it might crumble to dust against her fingertips. He reeked of burnt sugar and acrid smoke, but when she turned his palms skyward, they were clean and pink, like a child’s hands.

She took him by one of those hands and led him to the path that would take them home.

Gretel and Hansel first appeared in the August 2016 issue of Deep Magic.

If you enjoy fairytale retellings, you might like Straying from the Path.

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