Writing

The Witches House

The following is a fragment from something that I’ve been working on, which is a kind of steampunk retelling of a very old children’s book. Fairy tales are worked through many of the scenes; this one is a bit more broad than most.

CHAPTER 22: THE WITCHES HOUSE

When they came closer, they saw that the house was made of bread, and the roof was made of cake and the windows of sparkling sugar.
– The Brothers Grimm, Hansel and Gretel

“Blimey,” said Tyler, staring after him in amazement. “Did he actually have -”

“I think so,” Maia said. She caught site of Toby’s white and brown form lying very still against the base of the wall. “Toby!”

They both ran to Toby and crouched by his side, stroking the little dog’s wiry hair. Gradually he woke and lifted his head with a wince. “What happened? I feel as though I was run over by a carriage. Everything hurts!”

“Can you get up?” Maia said, offering a hand.

“I think so – doesn’t feel as though anything is broken,” the Dog said, gingerly finding his feet and standing up. He felt a bit dizzy and shocked but there seemed to be no permanent damage. Tyler handed him his dagger and he slid it into the sheath pocket on his coat. “Let’s go.”

Tyler turned to the door in the wall and rapped it with the hazel staff. The door didn’t open immediately, as though considering the request, and then slowly creaked open. They exited into the quiet, dark streets of South Kensington near the Royal Albert Hall and walked down a side alley toward a light that they could barely see.

The light turned out to belong to a small cafe, and the smell of sausages and toasting teacakes floated down the darkened street to them from the doorway. It was the most wonderful and welcome thing that any of them had ever smelt. A sign over the door said “Gingerbread Cafe and Tea Shoppe” in peppermint-striped script.

A small bell tinkled over the door as they opened it and they walked into a pocket cafe with three rickety tables and chairs that left just enough room to thread one’s way between them without knocking one over. A counter filled the back of the room and hand-written signs on the wall behind listed heavenly things such as “Sausages & Eggs,” “Slab of Gingerbread Hot or Cold, w. Cream” and “Hot Bacon Baps.” Maia swallowed, her mouth suddenly running with an extremely unladylike amount of saliva; Toby was drooling unashamedly and she elbowed him to behave himself. Tyler tapped the small silver bell on top of the counter and a very small and bent old woman came through from the kitchen behind.

She wore a drab black dress and a knitted shawl was draped over her shoulders. Her grey hair was knotted tightly behind her head and her long nose almost met her pointed chin. She smiled, and stepped up onto a footstool so that she could see the children over the counter.

“How may I help you, young Sir and Miss?” she said in an oddly accented voice. “Not many customers this hour, very glad to see you.”

Maia and Tyler had been conferring, and after pooling all of the coins that they possessed between them, they only had enough money for tea. Maia tried to ignore the heavenly smell of broiled sausage and baking cakes and said “Two cups of tea, if you would be so kind. May we keep our little dog here with us? He has been knocked over and had a shock.”

“Ah, the poor dearie,” said the old woman in a sentimental tone. “We’ll fix him right up, but let’s get you fed first. I happen to have some lovely sausages still warming that never sold and I’m sure that you and your brother could find space for them. Might be one or two for your lovely dog in his smart coat, as well. Go sit yourselves down.” She flapped her hands at one of the tables, and then disappeared through the door at the back.

Tyler and Maia gratefully sat down at one of the unsteady little tables and Toby hopped up on one of the chairs. “Toby!” Tyler hissed. “Sit on the floor, please, and don’t say anything!”

“Humph!” Toby grumbled, but seeing the logic in Tyler’s request he complied (muttering “La-di-dah, it’s all right for some” under his voice).

The old woman returned from the back bearing a tray loaded with plates of plump sausage and egg, slabs of gingerbread swimming with cream, and huge mugs of tea. There was more of the same for Toby, who tucked in sharpishly, getting egg yolk on his grand coat. They ate and ate, and both swore that they had never had food which tasted as good. When they couldn’t swallow another bite Maia and Tyler sat back in their chairs, replete and feeling much better than they had for ages. Maia slipped her last chunk of gingerbread down to Toby, who never seemed to get full. He burped under the table and Tyler nudged him with a foot.

“Much better than rat stew,” Tyler whispered to Maia, who grinned at him.

“Come, my dears, bring your little dog back here into the kitchen and we can have a look at him where there is more room,” the old woman said, swinging up a section of counter so that they could pass through.

The kitchen was huge and Maia wondered why the old lady didn’t expand the dining area a bit. The walls were stone and there was a huge table in the centre with a butcher knife stuck into the wood of the surface. A fire large enough to roast half an ox warmed the room to tropical temperatures and huge enamelled oven doors were set into the wall. It was a kitchen fit for a large bakery, which seemed quite odd.

The old woman lifted the terrier onto the scrubbed pine table and began to check each leg and his back. “I grew up on a farm, you know. I’m quite good with animals,” she told the children. “He seems fine, just a little sore. He’s in very good flesh, nice chubby dog with plenty of meat on his bones, no worries there.” Toby looked at her with affront. “Yes, I do like a bit of nice, fat dog when I can.” Quick as a flash she grabbed Toby by his red leather collar and slung him into one of the ovens, slamming the door shut, and then pulled the butchering knife from the table.

“I think you can both stay a bit longer,” she said, throwing off her shawl and advancing on the children with the knife held in front of her. “Such sweet, juicy little children, nothing like those scrawny street rats and mudlarks. You’ll do quite nicely.”

Tyler pulled back from her grasping hands and brandished the hazel staff at her. Small as she was, she was more than a match for Tyler and all of a sudden he was very afraid. This wasn’t just a crazy old woman. “Maia, use the crystal!” he said.

Maia pulled the crystal pendant out, cupped it in her hand, and breathed onto the surface. She kept the table between herself and the woman in black, but Tyler was in imminent danger of being captured. She spun the crystal and watched it flare to life. The room and the old lady changed.

The proprietress of the cafe elongated, becoming even skinnier and more humpbacked. Her mouth stretched wide and sharp teeth could be seen inside her goblin grin. The hands in which she held the butcher knife -now a long, curved black knife- were long and bony, tipped with filthy claws. The tidy, warm kitchen had changed as well. Now there were heaps of clothing in the corners, haunches of something bloody and unmentionable hanging from the ceiling on iron hooks, and everything was filthy. Rats and cockroaches scurried in the shadows and the room stank of rotting meat. The homespun smell of sausages and baking gingerbread was gone.

The witch stumbled back with one hand flung up in front of her eyes to shield them from the light of the crystal. Seeing her discomfort, Maia advanced on her with the crystal held high.

“Quick, Tyler – get Toby!” Maia said, pushing the witch back towards the ovens. Tyler broke and ran behind the old woman and by jumping high enough managed to flip the handle on the oven door up and release Toby. The dog leapt out of the oven with a snarl and ran to Maia’s side, followed by the boy. The witch had her back to the open oven, still trying to shield her streaming eyes from the blinding light while she swung the curved knife in half-circles in front of her, trying to slash the children. Tyler took his staff and used it like a barge pole, thumping the old woman solidly in the centre of the chest and pushing her back into the oven. She fell in with a flurry of grey underskirts and bony ankles and Maia slammed the oven door shut, latching it securely. The oven was already getting hot.

“Let’s get out of here!” The children left the grisly kitchen at a run and entered the cafe, which had also changed. The broken front window let in darkness, and there were tumbled chairs and spiderwebs everywhere.

“Don’t look at the plates,” Maia said, swallowing convulsively and pushing Tyler past their table. “Oh, god, don’t look.” She pushed him out of the gaping front door and then was thoroughly sick on the sidewalk. She would never feel entirely clean again.

“I think we should go back to the park,” said Tyler. “I didn’t feel right about leaving in the first place, and we need to find Malenka and the Huntsman. We need to get to the Tower.”

 

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