Gretel awoke. Her head rested on an old almanac, and the barkeep had laid his apron over her before retiring for the evening. Gretel rose, groaning as her muscles protested. The sky through the window was bright blue, and the birds screeching outside tweaked at her pounding headache. Gretel replaced the almanac on the bookcase, the apron on the hook by the door that led up to the barkeep’s apartment, and downed the shot of moonshine that had been left on the bar for her.
She clomped over to the door, her boots feeling heavy, but her head feeling lighter. She unlocked the door and opened it up. A bright smile greeted her.
“Ugh,” Gretel said, offended by such unabashed cheerfulness this early in the morning. The kid looked familiar. The hair was braided instead of pigtailed, and the poofy dress was a different color, but the sparkly red shoes and the tiger-ish amber eyes were the same as the brat who’d been sitting next to her the night before. “What do you want?” She was started to feel persecuted by the child’s persistent friendliness.
The girl’s smile widened. “I’m here to help you!”
The girl’s voice chirped sweetly like birdsong and was equally annoying. No, it was more annoying. At least the birds left Gretel alone. Gretel snorted. “Alright,” she said. She shut the door to the bar and brushed past the kid. She strode toward the woods at her usual pace.
The kid had to run and skip in order to keep up, but she didn’t seem to mind, much to Gretel’s irritation. About a mile into the woods, Gretel started following the breadcrumbs she and Hansel had left for their father, so many years ago. The trail was so familiar to her by now that though the trail wound intricately around ancient oak trees like a labyrinth, the crumbs were no longer necessary. Still, they were a comforting presence, and the longer Gretel followed the trail, the stronger and more determined she felt.
The crumbs led to an oak tree so huge and old that an archway had been carved through it. The archway rose several feet above Gretel’s head and more than an arm’s breadth wide, but the tree was so massive that the size of the opening in the middle of its trunk didn’t affect the sturdiness of its structure.
No matter the distastefulness of Gretel’s destination, passing through the tree felt like a head-to-toe hug. She walked out of the other side of the tree, her scalp still tingling pleasantly.
In her younger days, Gretel had attempted to bring people through the archway with her. Grown adults with axes of every size, shape, and sharpness who had pledged to help her rescue her brother. Every one of them had been able to pass through the archway, but had instantly lost track of Gretel once on the other side. Gretel had tried holding hands, piggybacking, and even chaining herself to these people, but every time, she’d ended up on the other side of the archway, alone.
She was so accustomed to the idea that nobody could pass through the archway with her that she’d mentally dismissed the child who had promised to help her. Therefore, she was startled, a few minutes later, by the sound of crackling leaves and snapping twigs on the trail behind her. She turned, and for a moment wondered if she was dreaming. The little girl stopped skipping, and looked up at Gretel expectantly.
Gretel’s knees felt weak and she half-fell, have sat down on in the middle of the path. The girl followed Gretel’s lead, sitting down in front of Gretel and criss-crossing her legs.
“Who are you?” Gretel asked.
“I’m Aura,” the little girl said, holding out her hand.