Gretel woke. She couldn’t tell whether it was morning or night. Everything was always dark now. She and Lily had fallen to sleep in a heap on their narrow beds. With the mattresses pushed together, Gretel had balled herself into a tight knot to keep warm, and Lily’s head rested on her legs. Everything ached—her head, her arms, her thighs, and her calves.
Gretel tried to ease herself out from under her sister. Lily mumbled in her sleep, pulled her blanket closer, and returned to her dreams. Gretel went to the window to look out. Darkness. She went to the clock on the floor by her bed. Frau Hilda had sent it up with her, so that Gretel would know when to start her chores. She held it to the lantern. Five o’clock. Early morning.
She thought of Rusty tied in the pasture. Was she still alive? Was she frozen to death? Eaten by a wild beast?
Gretel tiptoed down the steps and went to the kitchen door. Slipping on her shoes, she lit the outdoor lantern and went to the meadow. The rope was chewed through, and Rusty was gone. Tears blurred her eyes as she held the frayed edges of the rope to her face. Rusty couldn’t have chewed through the rope herself. It was too thick, too strong. Only something with big, sharp teeth could have bitten the rope into two pieces.
Shoulders sagging, Gretel trudged to the barn. She was just about to unbolt the heavy double doors when an animal scampered to her side. She turned. Rusty leaned against her, shivering.
Gretel fell to her knees and hugged the goat. “You’re alive!”
Rusty turned her head to stare at a dark shadow at the side of the barn. The shadow shook itself and moved. The giant brown bear lumbered to its feet and, with one backward glance, loped toward the forest.
“She came to cut you loose and keep you warm.” Gretel pressed her gloved hand to her throat. “She didn’t want you to freeze in the pasture.”
Rusty nudged her head against Gretel’s thigh, and Gretel petted the old goat. She opened the barn doors and led her to her stable, filled with straw and protected from the winds. Lantern light glowed softly, and Herr Gustav’s horse whinnied a welcome to Gretel and the goat. Rusty ran to greet her. They touched noses, then Rusty went to her own stall and knelt in the straw for warmth.
Gretel fed the animals and gathered the few eggs from the hens and ducks before bolting the barn doors and returning to the house. Herr Gustav was waiting for her in the kitchen.
“Well?” he asked.
“The bear chewed through Rusty’s rope and laid with her to keep her warm. When I went to the barn to feed the animals, the bear went back to the forest.”
“The bear mocks me!” Gustav pounded his fist on the kitchen table. “Now the villagers will talk. They’ll say that is was my fault the bear didn’t take our farm’s offering. If the beast had eaten Rusty or stayed away, no one would have thought a thing about it. But what did she do? She saved the goat’s life. I hate that bear!”
Frau Hilda pulled her heavy bathrobe tightly around her and came into the kitchen to see what her husband was cursing about.
“I’m sure this pleases you,” Frau Hilda told Gretel when she’d heard the news. “Go to your room and stay there. There’ll be no meals for you until we call you downstairs.”
“Are you sure we should punish the girl when the bear seems to favor her?” Gustav asked.
Frau Hilda shot him a dangerous look. “Don’t question me. The girls will stay upstairs until I call them.”
Herr Gustav nodded. No one disobeyed Frau Hilda. Not even her husband.