Greta stopped their progress around ten. She needed to rest, eat, and try to get oriented. “How come we’re not following the Sylvan River?” Hans asked. “Everyone says, if anyone was foolish enough to go into the forest, that is the way they should go. They say since the river enters the woods in the North and exits near Boarshag, that is as near as you are going to get to a road through the demon woods.”
“Think Hans,” Greta said. “We are trying to get to Ravenshold in three days in order to arrive ahead of Darius, or at least to arrive about the same time. Now, where does the river enter the woods?”
“East?” Hans shrugged, and Greta realized since he had never seen a map he had no real clue.
“It comes out of the northern hills and enters the forest twenty miles north of Ravenshold,” she said. “Besides, we have no idea how many twists and turns the river might take within the woods. It bogs down in many places or it might run through a gorge that is impossible to climb and impossible to cross. Instead of a short cut, the river might take longer. We don’t know.”
“Twenty miles?” Hans sought confirmation
“Yes.” Greta nodded. “And no easy road to Ravenshold once we get out of the woods.”
“I understand,” Hans agreed.
“Good,” Greta said. “So, climb this tree. Not too high, now. A broken leg or even a sprained ankle would be the worst possible thing for us. Just get high enough to check the sun’s position. If the sun is still in your eyes, your face will be looking east. That is the way we want to go.
“Right.” Hans set down his bread and scooted up the tree like a monkey. Despite her cries to be careful, he climbed right to the top and acted like a bit of a showoff, besides.
“Hey!” He shouted down. “It’s like a whole other world up here.”
“Oh, be careful,” she shouted up.
“Hey! I see an open space, like a meadow. We can get our direction from there.”
“Is it east?” Greta asked.
“Mostly,” he said, but she could tell he did not think about direction. “I see a hill in the distance. We are going to have to do some climbing, and, Hey! I see smoke.”
“Fire?” That thought frightened Greta, terribly. Hans came down.
“No, like a house,” Hans said as he dropped the last few feet and Greta gasped lest he twist his ankle or something. “Like chimney smoke and right beside it, it looked like a field of grain, ripe and ready to harvest.”
That did not sound right. The winter harvest came long ago. Any field should be turned and only the green shoots of spring should be sticking up. “A house in the forest?” The whole idea sounded unlikely.
“Here.” She tossed him the last of the bread he had been gnawing, and he started right out, like he knew exactly where to go. Greta felt obliged to follow him, though she did not like the idea at all.
In a short way, they came to the meadow and Greta confirmed they were headed in the right direction. “Come on.” Hans urged her toward the house, or at least the chimney smoke, but Greta decided to dig in her heels. She would not move until they made an agreement.
“It is on the way so we go by,” she said. “But we don’t go in unless I say so. And if there are people there, keep hidden and say nothing unless I say it is all right.”
“Come on,” Hans said.
“Agree,” Greta insisted. “Or I will go way around it.” She felt tempted to avoid the house, regardless.
“Okay, I agree,” Hans said. “Now will you come on. Maybe we can get lunch.”
“Grr.” Greta let out a little of her frustration, but followed, thinking that Hans was much too trusting a soul.
When they got to the edge of the clearing, Greta pulled Hans down behind a bush while she examined the house. The poor house had only one room, she judged, with a small front deck, not unlike Mother Hulda’s front porch. The chimney, by contrast, shot way up beyond the roof, high as the trees, and it bellowed black smoke as if the homeowner burned only moss and fir. No wonder the smoke could be seen for miles, Greta pictured a moth being drawn to the flame.
Hans started to get up, but Greta pulled him back down and quieted him.
“But don’t you smell it?” Hans whispered.
“Yes,” Greta said, but presently, her eyes were fastened on the field of grain. It looked ripe for harvest as Hans had reported, but that felt severely wrong. Hans took advantage of her inattention. He sprang up and ran for the house. He picked up a honey cake cooling on the porch railing and popped it into his mouth.
“Hans!” Greta whispered as loud as she dared. She did not want to arouse anyone who might be inside. The aroma of all the baked goods—berry pies, cakes, pastries and sweets—all cooling on the front porch smelled overwhelming, but it also smelled of enchantment. Greta had decided this was not the place to stop, but Hans merely smiled at her. The stinker was not about to return from the porch, and he had no intention of keeping his promise. He stuck his finger in a pie and licked it clean with great delight. Greta would have to fetch him.
She got up slowly and looked both ways to be sure the coast was clear before she walked sternly toward Hans. She had every intention of grabbing him by the ear and dragging him back to the woods should that prove necessary. Unfortunately, at that very moment, an elderly woman stepped around the corner of the house and spied them both. The woman’s eyes got big for a second in a very strange sort of way, but then she put her hand to her chest and spoke.
“Oh, my children. You startled me so.”