Title: Never Let
Characters: Gretel, Hansel, OFCs
Summary: (Do no harm, say her sisters, in her dreams, but she’s surrounded by blood and fire, and the power arcing across her fingers is not white — or at least, not only.), PG, 4700
Twelve years old, and they're alone in the woods. (don't go into the woods my love). They're not quite twins, but they're not quite anything else, either. (How did Adrianna know to have a son? Surely no witch believes that her first daughter would not be able to carry her blood on her own?)
Twelve years old, for a few nights, at least, and Gretel is the older by not quite a year, and Hansel is already the best accident that his father never expected. (Adrianna knew, though — a witch always knows.)
The moon is dark, the stories will later say, but this is a lie. The moon is as bright as they come. Gretel could have found her way back so easily, three times over, their father's footsteps still gleaming like white stones under the moonlight. But there were stones in her feet, too, a warning against turning back. She could not have said how she knew, but there was no question — turning back would have been walking willingly to her own execution, leading her brother to his, and she's always been a fighter.
She has never told her brother that she could have led them back, but she suspects that he already knows.
(He wouldn't have gone, not after that first night, not after he truly understood that they were abandoned out there. His heart is more like a wolf than he would care to admit — violent and loyal and utterly vicious when betrayed.)
She was innocent, the stories say, when they were taken by the witch of the candy cottage, and they mean, She was a virgin, with a nod and a wink because, You know what those isolated backwoods families are like. She was twelve when they were abandoned in the woods, and she celebrated her thirteenth birthday on the candy-crystal doorstep of her destiny, a sliver of enchanted sugar in her right hand, her brother's hand clenched tight in her left.
She was not innocent. She'd butchered a brace of pheasants for the pot, and she'd set snares for rabbits, and she'd wrung the necks of countless pullets, with her mother guiding her hands, her ruthless strength a sharp contrast to her gentle murmuring, Do it quickly, Greta. Never let a creature suffer if you can help it.
This was the most important lesson her mother imparted to her. Never let another creature suffer.
Three more witches. It's always three fucking witches.
Some nights, Hansel wonders what will happen to him when Gretel finds her two sisters.
There's rarely any mention that she's beautiful, and she's grateful for that. Gretel can count, and she knows the years do not add up. Thirteen and three and twenty-four more, even if the broadsheets and criers didn't catch wind of them for a half-dozen of the latter.
Some nights, she can hear her brother turning in his sleep, fretful and afraid. She puts out her hand for him, and tells herself that a little bit of soothing never hurt anyone, that it might be witchcraft, but having a name for it now doesn't mean she hasn't been doing it for years, and neither of them are the worse for it. She'd stop if she could — she knows he'd want her to stop as soon as she recognized it was a bit more than the touch of her skin that settled him back to sleep — but she can't stop.
She can watch evil writhe in the fire, burned alive when there is no other way, but she can't sit and watch while her brother tosses and turns in his sleep. Never let another creature suffer if you can help it.
This is the story they don’t tell: they were there for nearly three years, under the thumb of the witch of the candy cottage, before the power began to shift.
The witch made Gretel give her brother the injection, the first time he collapsed, stood over the both of them, while Gretel cried and struggled, until the witch reached down, fingertips crackling in a rare display of power, and forced Gretel’s hands to move. She screamed — she thought she was killing him — and the witch let Gretel see her brother lying still and silent under her hands, before she knocked her out.
(The list of lessons she learned from the witch of the candy cottage is brutally short. It comes down to her hands on her brother’s clammy, blanched skin, her fingernails torn and bleeding from struggling. It comes down to, Death is not an option.)
The apprentice that her brother picked up in Augsburg doesn’t last long. For all that he’s a good marksman and a nearly unrivaled loremaster, he is not cut out for hard living on the road, and before the year is out, he’s fallen in love with a merchant from the desert cities, with sharp eyes and sharper wit, who promises him a life of both travel and comfort.
“This will be the last time I lose my lunch over a dismembered body,” he observes, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
“If you’re lucky,” Gretel says dryly, but she relents enough to offer him a damp handkerchief.
“We’ll miss you too, kid,” her brother assures him, but Gretel doesn’t even wait to retrieve her handkerchief before shouldering her crossbow and going to light the pyre.
When they arrive back in town, smelling of oily smoke and covered in black gore, the merchant accosts Gretel and presses a small bag into her palm. It rattles with gemstones — unearned payment that Gretel tries to hand back, but the merchant just shakes her head. Her name is Nemaiah, and she wears voluminous, jewel-colored robes even under the blazing desert sun. Her uncovered hands are callused in strange places and richly adorned with all the rings and chains and bangles of her high status.
“Consider it a token of my gratitude,” she tells Gretel. “For bringing my husband with you across the ocean and the desert to me.”
“That’s just luck,” Gretel protests. And mostly her brother’s fault, on top of that.
Nemaiah the merchant shrugs, gazing across the piazza to where her young husband is regaling a rapt group of children with tales of valor, and, mostly, lies. “I believe that value should always be compensated, no matter where you find it.” Her expression is strange and soft as she watches him reenact a fight, playing three parties at once. “You are the source of my good fortune, and I hate to be in anyone’s debt.”
“Consider it an even trade, then,” Gretel says, holding out the bag again. It’s made of richly embroidered purple silk that matches Nemaiah’s headscarf, and it looks out of place in Gretel’s grimy hand. “You’re doing me a favor, taking him off of our hands — that’s all the payment I need. Besides, I don’t really wear jewels.”
“I know,” Nemaiah says. She reaches out, but only to fold Gretel’s fingers back around the bag. “But, sister, you will find a use for these.” With that, she goes to collect her husband, leaving Gretel with a handful of rocks and a headful of unanswered questions.
(Later, she tips the gems out into her palm, nine perfect rubies, all of them an odd, asymmetrical round-teardrop shape, and Edward the troll looks askance at her, asks, “does your brother know?”
A year ago, she might not have known what he meant, but the gems are warm as an enchantment on her palm — a witch’s jewels — and Nemaiah had touched her hand, smiled at her, called her sister.
Gretel thinks about the way her brother had stood at the wedding, feet apart, hands open at his sides, ready for a duel, about the way he’d looked right at Nemaiah, level and grave, and told her, “Take care of him,” as if it were the only thing he could think to say that wasn’t a curse.
“He knows,” she tells Edward. He just chooses not to see.)
There are three witches in Diomira. Three in Tamar. Three more in the long, barren desert between the Thekla and Adelma.
There are three white witches in the marble city of Levant. They are old, ancient, and they smile in unison; they move like one mind in three bodies, six hands in perfect accord, and they ask Gretel to stay and chat for a while. They look right through Hansel with three sets of pale eyes, and they will not even call him by name.
There is so little street crime in the city of Levant that a man can collapse drunk in the pristine gutters, and still have his wallet right where he left it when he wakes. It's just Hansel’s fucking luck that in the city of Levant there's no place to get a decent drink.
She was cruel, says Hansel, On her word we were abandoned in the woods. We were children.
She was right, says Gretel, To teach us that we can stand against the world, so long as we stand together.
“Well-meaning or not,” says Gretel, fierce as any promise, “Human or not — if they touch you, I will destroy them.”
Outside, the crowd’s chanting reaches a fever pitch, and Gretel can all but feel the heat of their torches crawling up her spine. It happens, sometimes, when they are too late, finding only bones instead of children, and the townspeople, deprived of a witch to burn, start seeking others to blame. Edward is long gone, hiding prudently in the woods, more than a mile outside of town.
When she was young, her mother told her that nothing would ever be so important as the blood she shared with her brother. Until this moment, it had never occurred to Gretel that her mother might not have been talking about familial relationships. There’s witch ichor and thrall gore drying under both their fingernails.
“That doesn’t sound like white witch talk.” Her brother’s tone is wary. She doesn’t blame him; he knows only two kinds of witches, and if she is not one, she must be the other.
Do no harm, the three old witches in the tower told her. They used their power to gently brush a crawling bug out the door and into the garden, they used their power to stay her hand when she would have squashed it and have done with it. First, harm none.
Gretel’s mother never said such a thing to her; the first rule of white witchcraft is as alien to her as any dark spell.
“You’re my brother,” she tells him, which is true, even if the only part that matters is mine. “I’ve killed for you. I will die for you. It’s different.”
Her brother scowls. “Don’t say that. Die for me — it’s not a fucking joke.”
Gretel says, “I will,” truth settling like a stone in her stomach.
“You’d better not,” he snarls, terrified, teeth bared and fingers crooked to grab hold.
They say a witch knows how she will die. Gretel clasps her brother’s hand tight in hers as they leap out of the window and run towards the treeline, and she thinks, but I will come back for you.
She leads. They share their burdens equally — the blood and the hate and the fear and the flames — but she leads.
She’s nothing pure, nothing fair, nothing sweet nor kind nor gentle. She is sympathetic and just, but those things are gray at best. The mantle of white witch does not fit her, the same way a man’s clothing lies ill about her body; it serves its purpose, but it will never truly be her own.
There are wolves in the northern town of Colbrun, a bustling winter fort where the snow thaws for a couple of months out of the year, and the town is surrounded by a high wall of rough-cut logs. The witch is a shapeshifter, and she leaps for the throat, snarling, and Gretel returns her snarl with interest, swings a borrowed soldier's sword, while her brother sees to the thrall. And when they leave the witch's den, the remainders of the pack are cowering at Gretel's feet.
The alpha bitch growls and snaps at her, teeth red where she'd bitten the hunters, but Gretel lunges forward, impossibly fast, a speed born purely of hunting and survival, grabs the wolf by the scruff, and throws her to the ground. The alpha bitch yelps and growls and scrambles to right herself, but she backs off.
An adolescent pup tries to follow them on the way back to town, and her brother makes a joke, but Gretel gets down on her knees and sinks her fingers in hard under its throat, and she says, I've already got a wolf, sweeting. Dangerous as they come and loyal as anyone could ask for; I don't need you. Go home. The wolf whines, and grovels, but he goes. She looks up at her brother, who's standing by, gun in hand, watching her with steady, clear eyes. The wolf turns its head in his direction once, before it goes. Gretel shoos it towards the trees, thinks about her brother with blood on his face and in his hair and under his fingernails, grinning with all his teeth showing, his wolf’s joy bright as sunlight on snow.
(You’re my brother. It’s different, she says.)
(He looks the other way, again and again, closes his eyes rather than watch her trace her sparking power over the raw lines of his wounds.)
There are two white witches living in the empty stretch of plains and sparse woodland between Terimor and Golgarith.
"This is Anh and this is Drecia," says Gretel. "They've offered to teach me a few things."
They are as beautiful as sunrise and sunset, respectively. Hansel smiles until his teeth hurt.
Drecia tuts when she sees the state of Gretel's hands, knuckles bruised and raw, palms callused, and fingernails haphazardly cleaned. The little finger of her left hand is slightly askew, never healed straight after the witch of the candy cottage. Drecia covers Gretel's hands with her own, warm with enchantment, tells her, "There's no evil in knowing your own beauty," but she doesn't protest when Gretel jerks her hands back before Drecia can straighten her little finger.
Anh watches with respectful interest as Gretel prepares her brother's injection, right up to the moment when Gretel reaches out to pour it into the ampoules for storage. Anh puts two fingers on the rim of Gretel's mixing bowl before she can tilt it, asks, "That's it? No blessing?" and when Gretel only stares at her, at a loss, Anh holds her hands out for the bowl, says, "I know just the incantation." Her golden skin gleams with power and protection. Gretel shakes her head and turns away slightly, blocking Anh's view so she can't see when Gretel pricks her own finger and lets a single drop of blood fall into the bowl before she measures out each precise dose.
(Gretel knows her brother hates the thought of having magic in his veins; the least she can do is make sure it's her own and no one else's.)
It’s his own fault, Hansel knows.
Every time they come back from a hunt, it seems like Gretel has a new trick, a healing cantrip or a useful spell.
She lights their way through the witch’s lair with a white globe of light floating at her shoulder, crossbow in one hand and a knife in the other, instead of a torch. Hansel never knew he’d miss the smoky, flickering light of the flame so much.
When they come back, Gretel reaches for his hand, for the sluggishly bleeding wound where the witch sliced him open with a fish-gutting knife. Her hands on his skin are steady and hot as a brand, and he can’t watch, but he can see, afterwards, that she hasn’t even left a scar behind, not a mark, not a memory.
I will destroy them, she said to him. He still dreams of the first witch, with her claws in his wrist, forcing him to eat, fattening him for the fire.
Hansel touches his fingertips to the spot, and he feels the fear struggling to climb out of his throat, clawing at his chest.
He can’t imagine what must show on his face, but he knows that when he looks up at Gretel, she’s watching him too closely, judging him, and whatever she sees makes her face close up like shutters at nightfall.
She’s still his sister — he knows it in his bones — for all that she’s never looked at him like this before, cold and closed and impossibly, inexplicably distant. The fear subsides, and he reaches out for her, but it’s too late. He’s already said too much.
She takes her things and she walks out into the bright night under the full moon, never once looking back. She moves in with her sisters.
There are three witches living in the little cottage between Terimor and Golgarith. Hansel has no one to blame for this but himself.
Drecia takes Gretel into the wooded area around Golgarith, deep into the dark forest, and shows her how to make a stag come to her hand, meek as a fawn. Gretel lets him lick the salt from her palm, watches the regal sway of his huge antlers warily. She thinks of her fingers dug deep into the warm fur of the alpha bitch back in Colbrun, blood on her teeth, her feet breaking through the thin icy snow crust, solid in the ground, about the flex of her muscles in the cold air and the kind of power that's nothing but speed and strength and hunting instinct.
Anh shows her how to soothe a frightened songbird, how to heal the most delicate hollow bones, and how to grow a garden in a day, drawing life out of the ground and from the sun. Gretel dreams of her brother's flesh and bone laid open under her hands, about his nighmares under her fingertips, about the steady-handed precision required to find his vein while under magical attack. She catches herself humming her mother’s lullaby to soothe the little birds, and feels unaccountably ashamed.
Gretel has learned so much from her sisters. The magics of healing and mending and growing things. She can walk through a forest now, and feel the trees down to their roots and up to the highest branches. She can trace the paths of the living things beneath the earth and through the air.
Her sisters keep telling her that she should expend her power on the good, and she won't feel that crackling fire anymore at her fingertips — that she should heal and grow, and she won't feel the urge to lash out. She plants and grows a whole garden in a day, collapses into bed at night, utterly exhausted, and still she can feel the distant thunder in her head, in her heart, barely banked.
(Do no harm, say her sisters, in her dreams, but she’s surrounded by blood and fire, and the power arcing across her fingers is not white — or at least, not only.)
Every week, as regular as clockwork, there is a new set of vials at Hansel’s doorstep.
And two months later, when the witch he’s hunting flings all this gear into an impassable ravine, there’s a fresh batch of the injection in the well of his campsite, syringe and all.
He brushes the crust of blood from his hands before he goes to pick it up. He turns the silver syringe over in his hands, careful, careful, looking for traps. He touches the sharp point of the needle, and he looks again, over the tube. He finds the little sigil she’s carved into the side of the thing, the flame and the bullet. Then he smiles, a crooked, wry little smile, and he salutes the empty air. He tilts his head back, to the icy sky, to the trees, the air like knives in his throat, he says, “Coulda left me a fucken’ coat, too. Gonna freeze my ass off come nightfall.”
There’s no answer, no coat. But his fire burns bright the whole night through, never needing to be fed from his meager supply of firewood, as fresh in the morning as was when he went to sleep.
“Get rid of this,” Anh tells Gretel, holding up the silk-wrapped bundle that contains the Grand Witch’s wand.
Drecia looks up from where Edward is helping her pound the bread dough and bend iron charms into warding shapes. She flinches back, her fingers sinking deep into the dough, making a mess of it, when the silk wrappings fall away.
Gretel had wrapped it with a spray of sage, for protection, had left it at the bottom of her pack and left it alone, half-ashamed of her own unwillingness to either be rid of it, or use it.
She couldn’t have explained why she hadn’t thrown it on the fire with the rest of Muriel’s things. She thinks she can explain it, now.
“This is dangerous,” Anh says, breathless with worry. “If there was ever a good use for fire, it would be to burn this.”
“It’s powerful,” Gretel replies. “It’s no more good or evil than a knife, or a crossbow.”
“It was made to destroy things!” Drecia exclaims in dismay.
“I can use it to protect people,” says Gretel.
“People? You mean humans,” says Anh, shaking her head. “You’ll learn, sister, that people don’t last. The only things that stay with you are the principles you live by.”
“Humans come and go,” Drecia tells her, “Even your sisters will cycle out of your life, eventually. Nothing lasts but growth and destruction.”
“People come and go; I know that,” Gretel says, “Life moves through and death follows in its wake. But the stories you leave behind, those last — beyond life and beyond death. Centuries from now, long after my name is forgotten, people will still tell stories of my aegis.”
“Stories are human things,” Anh says, gently.
Gretel knows. Her mother was burned and her father hanged. They died at the same time, two lives flickering out in the same cold wind.
“Yes,” says Gretel. “That’s kind of the point.”
Another Grand Witch rises to power in Terimor, and she decides to counter Gretel’s scourge by holding her brother hostage. Gretel finds out too late.
Edward catches up with her as she’s leaving the witches’ cottage, her weapons loaded for Grand Witch, Muriel’s wand a sanguine light tucked into her vambrace.
He knows better than to block her way, but the desperate way he looks at her, eyes darting from the wand to her face, makes her stop short, and demand, “What?”
“She will kill you,” Edward growls, making little effort to enunciate around his trollish teeth.
“Not if I kill her first,” Gretel snarls in kind, feeling the wand heat against her skin. Her vehemence makes him avert his eyes. “I’ll come back,” she assures him, more gently.
“No,” he tells her, shaking his head in frustration. “You will not be what comes back.”
Gretel is aware of the wand digging slightly into the soft skin of her wrist, right where a sea witch once dug a crooked nail into her flesh, where there was a wound that healed smooth and perfect. “She has my brother.” This is the only thing that matters.
Edward the troll falls into step behind her, but she shakes her head.
“You need to stay here,” she says, enough conviction (compulsion) in her voice that he halts, rooted to the spot.
“Trolls. Protect. Witches.” Edward howls in protest, reaching towards her and falling short.
“Then protect my sisters!” Gretel commands him. “They will not protect themselves, and someone has to.”
He swears at her in trollish, but the curses roll off her skin, the feeling so familiar that she can’t help baring her teeth as she goes.
She loses the wand before she can use it.
The Grand Witch proves too fast for her, and she dies, her own crossbow bolt through her chest. And when she closes her eyes, she dreams of nothing at all.
She wakes with a heavy pulsing weight on her chest, warm and wet, and even as she can feel the life seeping back into her, she becomes aware that it's a heart, making hers beat again.
“Where is my brother?” Gretel asks, receiving only a gasp in response.
(I will die for you, she told him, once.)
Drecia stands over her, her face a mask of horror, a grayish cast to her skin. There is blood on her fingertips.
Anh is in the doorway, whimpering and being sick into the plants outside. Her left hand is white-knuckled on the doorframe, and her power forms a trembling nimbus around her shoulders. Her right hand clutches the richly decorated purple silk pouch, the one that Gretel has been carrying with her since the desert.
I believe, says Nemaiah the merchant, in Gretel’s memories, That value should always be compensated. One good turn deserves another. Faith will be rewarded.
Gretel’s embroidered pouch now contains eight enchanted, heart-shaped rubies. And if the power that’s crackling in her blood is more than white, well, she understands now what that means.
When she leaves a second time, the white witches do not protest, and Edward the troll doesn’t attempt to follow.
The town and the woods are lush with the expenditure of her powers, but the Grand Witch has taken her brother, and she doesn't think twice, just slides into red and goes to him, thinking about the power of human blood, about the power of a thrall's hand.
Gretel wades through the forest, and she doesn't know that she's leaving a swathe of destruction in her wake. She can feel them falling and dying and she can feel the trees pulling away from her, and she doesn't assign any meaning to it, until she sees her brother fleeing through the woods, and he stops at the edge of the clearing, shaking like a startled deer. She can see, uncannily, the reflection of herself in his eyes, and she's on fire, lit with deep sanguine flames, licking across her skin and clothing, burning what she touches. She can see, even at this distance, the way his hands clench convulsively around the butt of his pistol, and for one long, terrible eternity of a moment, she's sure that he will finally turn on her, that he'll kill her. That he'll run.
He runs, sure enough, but towards her. Gretel should have known better than to doubt him, than to doubt his wolf's heart. He runs to her, head down and desperate, and when he touches her, he cannot burn. He says her name, over and over, and when the Grand Witch comes out of the trees after him, he holds his gun steady, and Gretel is waiting with her fire.
“Greta.” Drecia nods and smiles when they stop at the little cottage on the way back. Gretel only meant to collect her things and go, but the white witches welcome her with open arms and open doors and an open hearth — though Anh and Edward stand over her and watch, eagle-eyed, as she burns the Grand Witch’s wand this time.
After dinner, after a heavenly slice of peach and pear pie, and warm mulled wine, Gretel curls against her brother’s side, in the flickering light of the hearth fire, and murmurs, “Thank you.” She’s a little ashamed that it sounds exactly as bewildered as she feels. Her brother is already asleep, warm weight at her side, breathing deep and even.
“You’re welcome,” says Anh, tucking her head against Drecia’s shoulder. “You are always welcome.”
“This is what it means,” Drecia tells her, gently, “To have sisters.”
I am a witch hunter, Gretel wants to say, but she’s surrounded by everything and everyone she loves, and if they’re willing to accept the stubborn line of blood under her fingernails, then so is she. “I killed a witch today,” she says, instead, and Drecia’s lips press together at the mention of killing, but Anh, says, “You protected two cities from certain destruction.”
Never let another creature suffer, her mother had said.
“Thank you,” Drecia says, softly.
Gretel smiles, feeling the comforting scratch of her brother’s shirt under her cheek, and she lets herself slide into sleep.
written as a kind of fix-it, since I was so appalled by how much this movie didn't understand its own story.