Hans stopped eating long enough to smile. He had a red berry ring around his mouth which made him look like a toddler. Greta got so mad at him, she felt like wringing his neck, but she also managed a smile for the old woman.
“My name is Aruna,” the woman said, hesitantly.
“I’m Greta,” she said. “And my pig’s name is Hansel.” She turned to her brother. “Stop, Hans. For Heimdahl’s sake, stop eating the poor woman’s food.”
“It’s quite all right,” Aruna said. “The old ones won’t be coming today, alas. All my baking was for nothing, unless you enjoy it. I would much rather it be eaten than thrown out.”
“The old ones?” Greta asked.
“Yes, Gretal, child. But come now, eat what you like. I am especially proud of my tarts. Come, come.”
Tarts were her favorite. Greta had not noticed any until the woman mentioned them. She picked one up, carefully. It reeked of magic. “Thank you,” Greta said. “Tell me about the old ones.” She pretended to eat and the pretense appeared good enough for the moment.
“How did you come to live alone in the forest like this?” Greta asked, stalling their progress.
“Now, that is another long story,” Aruna said. “It would be much better told inside where the sun is not so bright and hot. I have worked hard this morning and I would love to rest my weary feet.”
“Yes, work,” Greta said, not giving up. “How did you manage a field of ripe grain this early in the spring?”
Aruna handed her a sweet pie and indicated that she should help herself. “A gift of the gods for this poor, old woman,” she said. “No matter how much I cut in a day, by the next morning the field is full and ripe again.”
Greta happened to know the ancient gods were no longer available to make such gifts, and they had not been around for nearly a hundred and fifty years. “Which god should be so generous, if I may ask?” Greta tried to sound pleasant and conversational. Aruna frowned.
“Abraxas,” she said, drawing the “s” out in a true serpent-like manner. He was not one of the northern gods, nor any of the gods that Greta knew, and yet the name sounded vaguely familiar. Had she come across the name in the writings in Mother Hulda’s barn? While she puzzled, she took a bite of the sweet pie without thinking.
“Good,” Aruna said. “Now poor Hansel is getting very thirsty. Isn’t that so?”
“Yeah I am.” Hans spoke with his mouth full.
“Come in. It is still early spring and gets dark early.” Aruna said, and Greta almost believed her. “You don’t want to get caught out doors at night with the wolf prowling about.”
“Dear, no,” Greta said and put down her pie. Aruna struck a chord there that Greta could not deny.
The minute Greta stepped inside, she knew what was wrong but she did not seem to have enough power to do anything about it. In her mind’s eye, she saw a dirt floored hovel with stones and stumps for furniture, and no great artifacts of any kind apart from the tremendous oven; but then she saw a quaint, wood-floored home with a nice table and chairs, flowers in a vase, a neatly made bed in the corner, a fireplace in place of the firebox, and above it, where the oven had been, two small beds in a little loft, just right for her and Hansel.
“Old ones?” Greta thought if she talked it might help break the spell, but that became a mistake.
“Quite right,” Aruna said. Her voice sounded so kind and enchanting, it drew them in more deeply. “A little conversation helps grow the appetite.” She began to reach into all sorts of cupboards, cabinets and pantries and she pulled out roasts that were steaming hot, fresh baked bread, still warm, every kind of cheese Greta could imagine, greens and fresh fruit that paid no attention to the season, and of course, every kind of sweet that might appear on anyone’s menu. “My,” she said. “We have quite an appetite for children.” But Greta felt the woman referred to their imagination, not their eating habits. She suspected that she saw one thing, Hans saw something else, and only the woman saw what was real.
“Old ones,” Greta said. She hung on to that thought, and she would not give it up, even when Aruna looked at her crossly. Aruna smiled again and poured Greta some tea in a porcelain cup, though for a moment it looked like dirty water in a chipped crockery bowl.
“Drink up dear Gretal child,” she said. “You will like this tea. It is a special blend from my own garden.” That did not inspire Greta to drink. Greta still resisted, and Aruna knew it. Greta looked up with some insistence in her eyes.
“All right, dearie,” Aruna said, and she started to talk to take Greta’s mind off fighting the spell. “The old ones were the first people in the land. They lived here long before the yellow hairs came.” Greta understood there were people in the area going back to the stone age, but there were certainly people around before her own Dacians. In truth, her people took the land themselves barely two hundred years before Trajan brought up his army. Maybe three hundred years, but it remained recent history, just a blink in time. She believed, though, that the earlier inhabitants had long since been driven away or assimilated with her own people. She could not imagine a whole enclave of them living apart for so many years.
Aruna stroked Greta’s long, light blond hair. She would have stroked Greta’s cheek if Greta had not pulled back, sharply. Aruna let her hand drop and went back to speaking. “They live in the forest, dear,” she said, as if reading Greta’s mind. She wove a twisted tale. “I am a widow of the rebellion. I married on the very day hostilities broke out. My dearest love was killed before we could even share our wedding bed. I wanted to die, too, but I did not have the courage to take my own life. Instead, I ran into the forest in such tears and grief I thought the agony would never go away. But here, I thought, in this haunted land, some demon or beast would kill me quickly and my misery would be at an end.
“In this place, my great god Abraxas found me. He began to heal me in ways I never imagined. And then he brought the old ones to find me, and they fed me, but kept a close watch on me to be sure I came to no harm. I prayed to Abraxas every day. He is the great god who shines light in the darkness and shows the darkness hidden in the light, and I grew stronger every day, until at last, I could go about without fear. I could not go home, because everyone I knew had died. And yet, I did not belong in this place, either. The old ones left me here, half-way between their world and the outside world, and I have lived here to this day.”
Greta sipped her tea and thought what a sad and tragic story. Hans shed a few tears. This poor old grandmother had lived such a hard life, it would only be right and fair to show her some kindness.
Don’t miss R5 Greta, the Fire and the Dark. It may be time for the oven.
Happy Reading, while you can…