She shared a blurb and an excerpt from SPICING THINGS UP, followed by a Q&A. That was fun because she's an Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs fan, too. Here's the link. Hope you pop by to take a look: http://blblair100.blogspot.com/
I'm featured on B.L. Blair's blog today, and hallelujiah! She made me sound good:)
She shared a blurb and an excerpt from SPICING THINGS UP, followed by a Q&A. That was fun because she's an Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs fan, too. Here's the link. Hope you pop by to take a look: http://blblair100.blogspot.com/
This is the last chapter of Bruin's Orphans. I hope you've enjoyed it. Tomorrow, I'll be on B. L. Blair's blog for a short question and answer. If you're interested, I'll post the link tomorrow morning. I'm visiting a different blog each Tuesday for eight weeks. Answering all the questions was fun!
Lily ran to Gretel and showed her a crimson leaf she found on the forest floor.
“It’s beautiful.” Gretel clutched a thick wad of yellow and orange leaves in her own fist. “Let’s show Bruin.”
The girls ran into the stone cottage that stood beside the brook. They hurried to the back room and opened its door. A small room with a low ceiling and a dirt floor served as the bear’s part of the house. It had a separate entrance from the girls’ cottage.
“Bruin! Wake up!” Lily pulled on the bear’s fur.
Bruin opened an eye. Even in winter, when she yearned for hibernation, the bear was patient with the girls. They became her wards the day she took them into the village and confronted the townspeople. That was four years ago. Hard to believe, but true.
“The leaves are changing,” Lily cried. “The townspeople will come to the altar at the edge of the forest soon. They’ll bring us gifts.”
Bruin opened her jaws wide and yawned. Since the lumbermen had begun planting trees for the ones they cut, the animals in the forest could fend for themselves, as could she. But human girls were another matter. They needed oil for lanterns and wax for candles, wool for clothing and leather for shoes.
The girls were clever and hard-working. They sewed their own dresses and coats, knitted socks and mittens, and cut wood for the fireplace. Rusty provided them with milk and cheese, a few chickens and ducks with eggs. Their needs were few, but they were happy to meet them. And the townspeople supplied the rest. That was part of the bargain.
On the night Franz Wilhelm stood before the huge brown bear, he declared, “We killed her cub. From this time forth, the girls shall be in her care. She’s claimed them.”
“That’s it? That’s all?” Frau Hilda sounded pleased with herself.
“The town shall build a home for them deep in the woods, far from our houses. And twice a year, at the spring solstice and fall solstice, we shall take supplies to an altar for them.”
“What for? If the bear wants them, she should raise them,” Frau Hilda said.
Frau Gerhard turned on her. “You stupid, selfish woman! You’re getting off far easier than you should. As far as I’m concerned, you and your husband should be responsible for twice as much as the rest of us. You took the girls into your care and betrayed them. Instead of defending them and being their champions, you turned against them.”
“Exactly!” Kurt Hoffman agreed.
The bear strode toward Frau Hilda and bobbed its giant head up and down.
“I won’t do it,” Frau Hilda said.
Before her words died on her lips, a funnel cloud spun across the courtyard and picked up the Schlegels’ wagon, smashing it against the tree their horse was tied to. The horse whinnied, but was unhurt.
“I don’t think you have a choice,” Franz Wilhelm said coldly.
“We’ll do it,” Herr Gustav cried. “Just don’t take my horse.”
The winds died down, and the bear lowered itself to the ground so that the girls could jump down.
“Stay in the town hall with us tonight,” Franz Wilhelm told them. “Tomorrow, every able-bodied man will follow the bear into the forest and build a stone cottage for the girls wherever the bear chooses.”
“And the Schlegels shall donate two feather beds for the girls and a month’s supply of food,” Josef Brecht proclaimed. He rubbed the knot on the back of his head and glared at Hans Ulbricht. “Hans will supply four warm blankets and enough wood to last through the winter.”
Frau Hilda opened her mouth to argue, thought better of it, and shut her lips tightly. So did Hans.
“Every other family will donate a week’s worth of supplies for the girls,” Franz Wilhelm said. “We’ll do the same twice a year from this time forth.”
“And what will we get in return?” Rudolf Kleist asked.
As his question ended, the clouds parted and stars gleamed overhead, but the bear turned to growl at him.
“I believe you’d better bring two weeks’ worth of supplies with you,” Franz told him. “Or your farm won’t prosper as it once did.”
Rudolf balled his hands into fists and jammed them into his pants pockets. “Is that your idea of the bear’s?” he asked.
The bear rose on its hand legs and stared down at him.
“You decide,” Franz told him.
Taking a step backward, Rudolf nodded.
The bear grunted and plopped back down on the ground. It lowered its head and closed its eyes.
“Look at it!” Rudolf grumbled. “It’s not even worried. It sure has a lot of nerve.”
“Why should it worry?” Josef Brecht motioned to shadows moving behind the buildings in the town square. “One move, and the wolves would spring to protect it.”
Rudolf’s eyes grew wide and his jaw fell open. “They’ve all come.” He looked up at the yellow eyes of wildcats perched on the roof tops.
“I’ve tried to explain to you that the bear is the guardian of the forest,” Franz said. “If you wage war against her, it’s a battle you’ll surely lose.”
And that cinched it. The next day, every man from the village followed the bear deep into the forest. They lifted and moved stones until they built a tight, snug cottage for the girls with a cave-like room attached at the back. They cut trees to make furniture and left mountains of supplies so that the girls could survive the winter.
And the girls had never been happier. Occasionally, Frau Gerhard, Josef Brecht, Franz Wilhelm, or Kurt Hoffman came to visit them, and they enjoyed seeing them. But the forest was their new home, the animals their friends. And these friends would never betray them.
Bruin’s Orphans—chapter 18
Bruin in Town
Gustav Schlegel wrapped a thick rope around Gretel’s wrists. Then he wrapped the rope several times around a tree at the edge of town. Satisfied, he passed the rope to Hans Ulbricht, who tightened his grip on a squirming Lily and firmly bound her wrists, too. Eyeing their handiwork, the men decided that the girls could not escape.
“It’s almost dark,” Gustav said. “The girls’ coats will keep them warm enough. They won’t freeze. The rest is up to the bear.”
“We can’t wait here,” Hans said. “The bear will smell us and won’t come. She’ll think it’s another trap.”
“We’ll wait at the town hall,” said Rudolf Kleist. “We can come back to the tree in the morning.”
“Don’t leave us,” Lily sobbed as the men turned to tramp back to the village.
But Gretel knew better than to plead. The men were too happy to offer two orphans to the bear. It was better than losing more livestock. Frau Hilda might miss all of the work they did, but no one would miss them. And soon, Herr Gustav would hire a woman from the village to come and do the chores that she and Lily had done. Frau Hilda would be rid of them, and she’d still be able to sit by the fire and while away her days.
“What are we going to do, Gretel?” Lily cried. “Can you pull your hands out of the ropes?”
Gretel tried, but she knew that the men had tied them in such a way that the more the girls struggled, the tighter the ropes bit into their skin. Tears slid down her cheeks. “It’s hopeless. I’m sorry, Lily.” She leaned as close to her sister as possible.
Lily sagged against the tree trunk. “The bear will eat us, and Frau Hilda will be happy. I hate Frau Hilda, and I hate this town.”
“Josef and Kurt tried to save us. So did others.”
“They should leave this place. They should go far away. This village is wicked.”
How could Gretel argue?
Lily sniffled, trying to stop crying. “I hope we die fast.”
“Do you believe in heaven?” Lily asked.
“Yes, so did Mother and Father.”
“Do you think we’ll see them there?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Then nothing bad will ever happen to us again.” Lily’s voice wavered.
“Never again.” Even while she tried to comfort her little sister, Gretel let her mind work feverishly, trying to think of some way to escape, some way to save Lily. But this time, she feared her little sister was right. They were doomed.
They huddled together, leaning against the tree trunk, when they heard branches snap and leaves crackle. A big animal was moving closer to them from the woods.
A half-moon cast pale shadows on the ground. It was the only light. Clouds covered the stars. But at the edge of the tree line, the girls saw the large, dark shape of the brown bear. It loped forward, sniffing the air. When it was nearer, it slowed and moved closer.
Lily wedged herself between Gretel and the tree. “I’m scared.”
“So am I. I’m sorry, Lily. If I hadn’t snuck out to save Rusty or talked about the bear, maybe. . . “
“They’d have tied us out here anyway,” Lily whispered. “No one wants us.”
The truth hurt almost as much as the fear of dying. Gretel took a deep breath and looked at the bear. It turned its furry head and studied her in return. It gave a deep snort, moved forward, and showed its long teeth.
Gretel closed her eyes and every muscle in her body tensed. She felt the bear’s thick fur on her arms and waited for its teeth to sink into her flesh. When nothing happened, she opened her eyes to peek.
The bear was chewing through the ropes, just as it had for Rusty.
“Lily, it’s helping us,” Gretel breathed.
Lily pushed her head past Gretel’s shoulder. “What will the townspeople do if she doesn’t eat us? Won’t that make Frau Hilda really mad?”
“Does it matter?” asked Gretel.
“Who’ll take us in? We’ll freeze to death or starve.”
The bear broke the last cord of rope with her teeth, then stepped back and snorted at them.
“What does it want?” Lily moved farther behind the tree.
“I don’t know.”
The bear gave a low growl and lowered its head. It stepped toward them, and both girls cringed.
“Can bears climb trees?” Lily asked.
“Faster than we can,” Gretel said.
The bear bumped Gretel with its nose. Unsure what to do, Gretel reached out a shaking hand and petted it. The bear rubbed its face against Gretel’s body. Gretel threw her arms around the thick neck and patted harder.
With one quick snap, the bear lifted Gretel off the ground and tossed her onto its back. Then it moved to Lily.
“Nice bear. Nice bear. I don’t taste good. You won’t like me at all.”
“It wants you to get on its back,” Gretel said.
Lily patted the bear’s side gingerly. “I’d rather walk. Really.”
The bear slid its head under Lily’s legs and tossed her behind Gretel. Then it turned, with both girls clinging to its fur to hang on, and started toward town.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Gretel told the bear. “The men all have guns. They’ll shoot you. And who knows what they’ll do to us.”
The bear lumbered along, uncaring.
“We appreciate it that you saved us,” Gretel said, trying again. “Now let us help you. Turn around and hide in the forest. The village isn’t safe.”
The bear was at the first house at the edge of the village and kept going.
“We really are doomed,” Lily told Gretel.
If anyone had told Gretel that the men of the village would offer her and Lily to the bear as a sacrifice, she might have believed it. If they’d said that the bear would spare them, she’d have doubted it. But she couldn’t imagine the bear saving them and then taking them into the village, back to the men who’d tied them to the tree.
Lanterns burned brightly in the town hall. The doors were shut against the winter cold. The bear went to the large iron bell that hung from a heavy beam. It stood on its hind legs and swatted the bell.
The doors of the hall opened. Men swarmed outside. Gustav raised his rifle, and thunder clapped in the sky, clouds churned, and winds whirled in a dark funnel.
“Stop, you fool. If you shoot that bear, our village is cursed forever,” Frau Gerhard said. Otto’s mother went to stand between the men and the bear. “You’ve lost enough. Do you want to lose everything?”
Gustav lowered his gun.
She motioned to Hans. “Release Kurt Hoffman and help Franz Wilhelm and Josef Brecht out here. Josef can hardly walk from the knot you gave him on the back of the head.”
“What does the beast want?” Hans asked.
“How should I know? But Franz Wilhelm will. And this time, you’d better listen to him. It’s your last chance,” she warned.
Just wanted to let you know that there are only two more chapters for Bruin's Orphans, so I'll put one up tomorrow, and the last one up on Monday. Any comments or--I know comments take time--"likes"--you just push the button--will let me know if you enjoyed it or not. Thanks! And enjoy.
The town hall was crowded when Herr Gustav tied the horse to a tree and helped Frau Hilda from the wagon. The girls followed them into the meeting room.
Franz Wilhelm slowly made his way to the front of the room, leaning on his cane. “The animals have refused our offerings,” he said.
Herr Gustav jumped to his feet. “Did anyone else have a long funnel of wind attack their property?”
The room grew silent.
“Your property was punished again?” Franz Wilhelm asked.
“The wind tore up all of Frau Hilda’s pear and cherry trees and ruined the fences on both sides of the orchard,” Gustav said.
Franz Wilhelm puckered his lips in thought. “And Frau Hilda is very proud of her orchard, is she not?”
“Then the bear meant to punish her particularly this time. Did the darkness leave before or after the wind hit your farm?”
“After,” Herr Gustav said.
“Did the bear take your offering?”
“No.” Herr Gustav looked down at his feet, avoiding Franz Wilhelm’s gaze. “I put the goat out in the field, and the bear chewed through its ropes and slept with it during the night to keep it warm. It gave it to Gretel when she went to the barn in the morning.”
“It singled out Gretel once more.” Franz Wilhelm looked for her in the crowded pews and saw her. Then he frowned at Gustav. “Wasn’t this the same goat the bear spared before?”
Herr Gustav shuffled his feet. “Yes.”
“So you insulted the bear instead of showing it respect?”
“Definitely.” The old man shook his head. “And in return, the bear sent a wind funnel to your farm.”
Franz cocked his head to one side, deep in thought. The room stayed silent, waiting. Finally, he said, “But instead of taking your barn. . .”
“That would have hurt Rusty,” Gretel called from her seat.
“Aah, yes, I believe you’re right.” Franz studied Gretel. “And the bear didn’t hurt the house.”
“We live there,” Gretel offered.
“Yes, I believe that matters a great deal to our Bruin.”
“Bruin?” Gustav asked.
“The bear. Every guardian receives that name.”
Frau Hilda rose. “Why did the bear punish me this time?”
“The bear is wise. He’s no doubt discovered that your husband carries out your wishes.”
“Gustav doesn’t sit around and feel sorry for himself,” Frau Hilda said. “He takes what he wants.”
Franz Wilhelm cleared his throat. “No, Gustav takes what YOU want, I’d guess. Whose idea was it for him to start the lumber business?”
“We both wanted to be wealthier. We both wanted more.”
“But who thought of cutting trees AND working the farm?”
Frau Hilda crossed her arms in front of her. “I simply mentioned that there was a lumberyard downstream from our village that would pay well for any trees that our town sent to the mill.”
“When Gustav first started cutting trees, he worked alone and planted a seedling for each tree he cut, did he not?” Franz Wilhelm asked.
Frau Hilda made no comment.
“Who encouraged Gustav to hire more men, to cut more trees, and not to replace them?”
“I discuss my husband’s work with him. What wife doesn’t?”
Franz Wilhelm nodded. “And after you discussed the lumber business with Gustav, is that when he changed the way he operated?”
“So what if I did?” Gustav demanded. “I didn’t have to agree with my wife.”
“No, you didn’t. And the bear blames you as much as she blames Frau Hilda. But she’s decided you both should be punished. Not just one of you.”
“What about the town?” Rudolf Kleist asked. “Has the bear forgiven us?”
“Partially.” Franz motioned to the dim light outside. “We have a little sunshine.”
“It’s not our fault Gustav angered her again,” Rudolf complained. “We tried to please her with offerings. What are we to do now?”
“Give her the girls,” Frau Hilda said.
“What?” Franz Wilhelm turned to stare.
“The bear has a fondness for the girls. We’ve tried everything else.” Frau Hilda looked at Gretel with hatred. “The bear knows the girls belong to us and they help us on the farm. She’ll know what a sacrifice it is for us to give them to her.”
“That’s a brilliant idea!” Gustav cried.
Lily leaned into Gretel, and Gretel wrapped an arm around her.
“I hardly think if the bear spared your goat that she’ll want the girls,” Franz said.
“Maybe the goat wasn’t worthy enough,” Rudolf Kleist argued. “But humans! Two little girls. What more could the village offer?”
“Give her the girls!” Hans Ulbricht called. “The bear likes Gretel. We’ll be giving her what she wants.”
“No!” Kurt Hoffman jumped to his feet. “The bear spared the goat and refused to take it, then the funnel came. It spared Gretel, too. It could have attacked her and didn’t. You’ll only insult the bear again.”
“Gretel wasn’t a gift then,” Frau Hilda said. “Maybe the bear’s waiting to see if we’ll give her what she wants.”
“I won’t let you. It’s wrong!” Josef Brecht lunged out of his pew to grab the girls and protect them. As he hurried down the aisle toward them, Hans Ulbricht stepped behind him and hit the back of his head, hard, with the butt of his rifle. Josef thudded to the floor. Everyone else in the room sprang to their feet. Shouts rang out. Fists flew. Kurt Hoffman grunted when Gustav and Rudolf Kleist threw him against the wooden wall and shackled him to it with heavy chains, the same chains that Josef Brecht had forged for criminals brought before the council.
Hands reached for and grabbed the girls.
Gretel cried out. When men stormed to help her, they were stopped at gun point by Gustav’s workers.
Franz Wilhelm shook his head. “You bring shame on our village.”
“You’ll get over it once the bear eats the girls and this stupid curse is lifted,” Gustav snarled.
Gretel and Lily were tossed over lumbermen’s shoulders and carted out of the meeting hall doors.
Chapter 16—The Winds
Gretel slid under the blankets and closed her eyes. It would be a long time before Frau Hilda allowed them downstairs. Lily was still asleep. She might as well sleep, too.
Frau Hilda and Herr Gustav’s voices were raised in the kitchen. Gretel could hear their angry tones, but she couldn’t understand their words. She quit trying and let her mind drift. She was balancing in a nice, foggy haze when a new noise disturbed her. After days of a strange, unnatural stillness, the wind suddenly returned. It rattled the shingles on the roof, howled past the corners of the house, and whipped the leafless trees in the orchard.
A loud crack ripped the air, and the giant oak in the side yard crashed to the ground. The wind whirled to a high-pitched keen, and then everything went silent.
Gretel sat up in bed. This silence was different from the stillness of last week. It scared her. She chewed her bottom lip and reached to shake Lily.
Lily mumbled and turned to her other side.
Gretel gripped her arm more tightly, but before she could wake her, a loud rumbling started in the north and grew louder every second.
“Lily! Wake up! Something’s coming.” Gretel pulled her sister to her feet, threw her blanket over her shoulders, and tugged her toward the window.
The wind blew in a long, black funnel that sucked everything off the ground as it headed toward the cottage.
“Run!” Gretel heard Herr Gustav yell to his wife.
The kitchen door slammed, and the farmer and Frau Hilda raced toward the barn and its cellar.
“We have to get out of here!” Gretel cried.
She gripped Lily’s hand and pulled her down the stairs to the kitchen. “Grab your coat!” They threw their coats and scarves on as they ran out the door. The Schlegels had already pulled the cellar door shut and locked it. Gretel looked around frantically and tugged Lily across the pasture to the creek that ran beside the orchard. “Jump down!”
The creek’s water was frozen. The girls jumped onto the ice and hurried to the bridge that connected the pasture to the orchard. They hid under its heavy beams as the funnel of wind ripped across the field. It sucked up wooden fences and a small shed. The girls had to cling to the bridge’s foundation when the cycle of winds passed overhead. They listened as it thundered through the orchard, uprooting trees, tossing them high in the sky, then spitting them back to earth as twisted, splintered fragments. When it reached the edge of the barn and house, the wind died away. The clouds parted and a trickle of sun shone through. The light was feeble, but better than the terrible darkness they’d had for nearly a week.
Gretel and Lily hugged one another. “We’re alive.”
The cellar door opened, and the Schlegels climbed out of their hiding place.
“That’s it,” Gustav said. “The bear wins. I’ve lost my sheep. It took away the sun. And now this. At least it left us the barn and our house.”
Frau Hilda’s lips curved down dangerously. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m calling a town meeting. I’ll do whatever Franz Wilhelm says. This has to stop.” He strode to the barn to harness the horse to the wagon.
Frau Hilda watched him, her hands on her hips.
Gretel took one look at Frau Hilda’s face and knew she was not happy. At the same time, the farmer’s wife saw them.
“So? You’re still alive.” She did not sound pleased.
“We hid under the bridge,” Gretel said.
Frau Hilda threw up an arm, gesturing toward the ruined orchard. “Look at the path the wind took. That bear! It knew that the cherries were my favorites. And my pear trees. Not one left.”
“Do you believe in the bear now?” Lily asked, peeking out from behind Gretel.
Frau Hilda’s eyebrow rose. “Oh, yes, and this time it meant to punish me instead of my husband. But it’s made a serious enemy out of me. This time, the bear’s made a mistake, and it will regret it. I never forgive, and I never forget.”
Frau Hilda’s words kept ringing in Gretel’s mind on their trip into town. What would Frau Hilda do? Worse yet, what WOULDN’T she do?
I posted a new chapter--just scroll down to see chapter 15, but I also want to announce that my fifth Mill Pond romance is now on NetGalley.
It's available free if you're a reviewer. Miriam is a high school English teacher who can stop a rebellious teenager with one raised eyebrow. Take her seriously! Joel moves to Mill Pond to open a brewery. His daughter is nineteen, but will always be mentally twelve. He's given up hope of any woman wanting to take on him and Adele. Can beer and literature make a perfect blend?
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.
Bruin’s Orphans—chapter 14
No one talked as they left the building. Each person was returning home with serious matters to settle.
“I’ll give you a ride in the wagon as far as your houses,” Herr Gustav told the men with him. “I have my gun. Hilda has hers. We should be safe the rest of the way home by ourselves.”
No one argued. They piled into the wagon and pulled the wool blankets around them. Hans Ulbricht lifted his lantern and took the horse’s reins to lead it from town. Gustav stopped at Kurt Hoffman’s farm first, then at each man’s home on the way. When he came to Hans Ulbricht’s small cottage, he said, “Gretel, Hans must leave now. You girls can lead the horses. And let’s hope the bear likes you as much as Kurt thinks she does. Maybe then she won’t attack us on our journey home.”
Gretel and Lily walked to the front of the wagon. Each girl took the horse’s reins in one hand and held a lantern high in the other. Slowly, they followed the trail to the Schlegel cottage. It was a long walk, and the path was difficult to see. Gretel tripped over a tree root and nearly fell. Lily’s arm grew tired, and she dragged the lantern on the ground until Herr Gustav yelled at her to raise it into the air.
“If you break the lantern, it will be strips off your hide,” he warned.
Frau Hilda chuckled and pulled the blankets from the wagon bed to the seat and layered herself and her husband under more warmth.
The cold air slithered under the girls’ sleeves. The snowy ground stole the feeling from their toes. By the time they reached the cottage, Gretel thought that she might never be warm again. Her nose and lungs burned from breathing the freezing air. Her very bones felt frozen.
Herr Gustav jumped from the wagon and said, “Help me take the horse to the barn. We’ll see if your bear has come for a visit while we were gone.”
While they helped remove the horse’s harness and settle him in his stall, Frau Hilda went into the house and called out, “No bear. All’s safe. Kurt Hoffman worried for nothing.”
Going to the goat stalls, Gustav pulled poor Rusty from the barn once more. “Let’s hope you’re right and the bear doesn’t want her.” He laughed. “Then no one can say that we didn’t put out our offering. It won’t be our fault if the bear doesn’t take it.”
Gretel stared at him in disbelief. “But you put Rusty out the night you shot her cub. Won’t that make the bear remember and get mad?”
Gustav gave her a sharp slap on the back of the head. “You’ve certainly found your mouth, haven’t you, missy? Maye it’s time you remember to keep your opinions to yourself.”
“That’s better. It’s time to remember your place in life. Now get in the house and go straight to your room. We’ve seen and heard enough from you lately.”
“Yes, sir.” Gretel grabbed Lily’s hand and hurried to the house.
Frau Hilda’s voice followed them up the stairs to their room. “Stay up there, insolent girls. And don’t think you’ll share any of the hot chocolate I’m making to get warm. I’ll leave the pan in the sink for you to wash in the morning.”
Lily wiped tears off her cheeks and sank onto her bed. “Now you’ve done it. We’ll be treated worse than before.”
“I’m sorry.” Gretel, too, fell onto the mattress and pulled the blanket tightly around her. She might never be warm again. There was even a cold lump swollen inside her heart. Fear? Shame? She couldn’t tell. “I’ve ruined everything.”
Lily didn’t try to hide her tears. They gushed, and her shoulders shook. “It’s not your fault. No one would care about us anyway.”
Gretel wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “I care about you, Lily. I’m sorry I made you sad.”
“You didn’t mean to. You’re always trying to take care of me. But maybe this time, you won’t be able to.”
That thought made a horrible knot tighten in Gretel’s stomach. “We’ll do the best we can.” And the two girls burrowed deep into their feather mattresses with their coats and heavy wool dresses on just to get warm. The night was too dark to watch for the bear. And soon, their eyes closed for sleep.
The men went to the barn to hook the horse to the wagon. When the horse was harnessed and the wagon ready, they piled into it and drove to the house to get Frau Hilda.
“What about the girls? You can’t leave them here,” Kurt Hoffman insisted. “Not in the dark. It’s not safe.”
“They have the same lanterns for light that we do,” Frau Hilda argued.
“But what could they do if the animals attacked again? What if the bear tried to come into your house this time instead of the barn?”
Frau Hilda cast a cold glance at Gretel. “We’d be rid of two ingrates.”
“What would the townspeople say?” Kurt demanded.
“All right, all right, we’ll take the girls if you shut up about it,” Hilda said. “Enough townspeople are mad at us already. I don’t want to make matters worse.”
So Frau Hilda sat on the front seat of the wagon with her husband, and the girls piled in the back with the men. This time, Herr Gustav brought heavy blankets for everyone.
Herr Gustav had attached two lanterns to the front of the wagon, but the glow of light barely lit the trail that led to town. The trees at the edge of the frozen path were swallowed in an onyx void. Not one familiar bush or curve of the road was visible. The horse shook its head and whinnied. Herr Gustav leaned forward, straining his eyes, but it was impossible. He couldn’t see far enough ahead to steer the wagon.
Hans Ulbricht leapt from the wagon bed to the ground, grabbed a lantern, and went to the horse. “I’ll lead us into town,” he said. He pulled on the horse’s reins, holding his lantern high in order to see.
Everyone in the wagon huddled close, listening. The night was too still. Not one wisp of wind blew. Not one branch rattled. No animals scurried.
When they finally reached town and made their way to the meeting hall, everyone gave a sigh of relief. Once inside, sitting beside Frau Hilda in the front pew, Gretel felt her shoulders relax. She realized that she’d been tense, ready to leap and run, for the entire trip. Lily slid her hand into her sister’s, and Gretel knew that she felt the same way.
Rudolf Kleist rose to his feet first. “Herr Gustav has to fix this. I’ll lose everything if the sun doesn’t show itself soon. He got us into this trouble, he can get us out.”
Gustav leapt to his feet. “And what exactly should I do? I tried to kill the bear. I couldn’t find it. I sure can’t find it in the dark.”
Doctor Theobold took the floor. “Perhaps, for a change, you might listen to reason.”
“And I suppose that means you think you have all the answers?” Gustav demanded.
“No, but our town doesn’t have a wise man to ignore him,” Theobold said. “He’s given you his opinion over and over again. You chose to ignore it. Look where it’s gotten you. And us.”
Gustav sneered. “There were plenty who agreed me with at the last meeting.”
“That was then. This is now.” Rudolf Kleist shrugged. “We could at least try what Franz Wilhelm wants.”
Hans Ulbricht rose. “You didn’t agree with Franz before, Rudolf. You wanted revenge on the bear, too.”
“That’s when I thought lumbermen knew how to hunt. Karl and Martin shot at dried leaves and twigs. They didn’t use any skill at all.”
“Then why didn’t you? You never fired your gun,” Hans said.
“I was looking for tracks, for signs of the bear. By the time Karl and Martin quit blasting, the bear would have to be stupid to show itself.”
“It showed itself,” Hans said. “It chased me up a tree and charged Kurt when he came to rescue me.”
Rudolf frowned at Kurt. “The bear charged you, and you live?”
“Thanks to a lock of Gretel’s hair.” Kurt touched his chest. “I held it up like a talisman. The bear sniffed it and spared me.”
“Is this true?” Franz Wilhelm asked, pushing himself to his feet unsteadily and leaning on his cane.
“Yes,” Kurt told him.
Franz turned his watery blue eyes on Gretel. “Why did you give Kurt the lock of hair?”
Gretel swallowed hard and looked down at her hands.
“Come, come, girl. You’re not in trouble. You can answer me.”
Gretel’s voice sounded small and timid when she answered. “Kurt helped me with my chores. I wanted to help him.”
“And why did you think your hair would help him?” Franz asked.
“The bear could have hurt me and didn’t. I think she likes me,” Gretel said.
“Very good, girl. That, indeed, might be our town’s salvation.”
“Why is that?” asked Doctor Theobold.
“It means the bear distinguishes between the people who respect the forest and nature from those who only plunder it for themselves.”
“Then there’s hope?” asked Josef Brecht, the blacksmith who stood beside Franz to support him.
“I think we have every reason to hope,” said Franz.
“Enough talk. What should we do?” Rudolf Kleist snapped.
Franz Wilhelm frowned, deep in thought. “We must make peace with the bear. We’ve angered her. We must make amends. The animals have suffered with no sunlight, too. We must make it clear that every man and woman of the village will respect them and pay homage from now on.”
“How do we do that?” asked Rudolf.
“Tonight, every farmer must tie out one offering for the animals of the forest.”
Gretel’s heart sank. She loved the farm animals as much as she loved the wild ones.
“That’s easy for you to say,” Rudolf argued. “You’re too old to keep many animals. All you’ll lose is a chicken or goat. I’ve already given the bear my workhorse. That should be enough.”
“Then spend the rest of your days in darkness or leave this village to try to find sunlight,’ Josef Brecht said.
“And what are you going to give the bear?” asked Gustav. “You’re a blacksmith. You don’t own any livestock.”
“I have two horses,” Josef said. “To pull my wagon. I’ll give her one of those.”
“And the rest of the townspeople?” Gustav asked.
The grocer whose shop was a short distance away stood. “We’ll ALL put something out for the bear. None of us would want you to be more burdened than the rest of us.”
Frau Hilda sniffed. “We’re already more burdened. The bear took every one of our sheep.”
They were about to argue more when Frau Gerhard rose from her pew. The room immediately grew silent.
“The bear took my son,” said Otto’s mother. “He went with the men on the hunt and lost his life. I blame no one. Not the men. Not the bear. And I’ll gladly give her one of my cows. We started this. We must atone for it.”
“Have you any argument for that?” Franz asked Rudolf and Gustav.
“Good, then it’s decided. When we leave this hall, we’ll each go home and tie an offering outside our homes for the bear and the animals she protects.”
The girls stepped out of the barn and watched in amazement. Lights bobbed on the lane that led to the farmhouse. The tiny rays flitted up and down like fireflies in an everlasting night.
Gretel held her lantern high and took a step forward. The side of her head still hurt.
“Hello. Herr Gustav?” a voice called to her.
“No, it’s me, Gretel!” She recognized Hans Ulbricht’s voice.
“We’ve come to see Gustav,” Hans called, and as he came nearer, the girls saw that a group of men had come from town, armed with lanterns and guns. “No one wanted to come alone. Not with the terrible blackness and the animals hungry and mad.”
“So we decided to come as a team,” Kurt Hoffman said. “Safety in numbers. If the animals attacked, we’d at least be able to take out a lot of them before they got us.”
“The animals don’t hate us,” Gretel said. “They just want us to respect them.”
Kurt Hoffman bent low to study her in the lantern light. “What makes you think that?”
“I saw the bear the night you tied Rusty out as bait. After you killed her cub, I ran out to the field to set Rusty free. The bear was there. She was angry that you’d killed her cub, but she just watched me. And she was glad I cared about the goat.”
“Have you told Gustav this?” Kurt asked.
“No. Frau Hilda would be angry or laugh at me.”
The men shuffled their feet.
“She’s right about that,” one of them said.
Kurt Hoffman got on one knee and spoke softly. “Tell me, Gretel, why do you think the bear has come to Herr Gustav’s twice and killed all of his sheep?”
“Because the bear knows that Gustav owns the lumber business that’s ruining the forest. She knows that Herr Gustav is the one who won’t plant new trees when he cuts down big ones.”
“So is it a war?” Kurt asked.
“I think so.”
Hans Ulbricht gave Kurt a shove. “Come on, man. You’re listening to a little girl. We have business inside with the Schlegels.”
Kurt pushed himself to his feet. “Be careful, Gretel. It’s too dark for little girls to be outdoors.”
Gretel nodded and took Lily’s hand and hurried inside. They quickly hung their coats on the pegs by the door and put their shoes in the corner. It they tracked in mud, they’d be the ones to mop it up. Then they scurried upstairs to their attic bedroom, so they’d be out of sight when the men entered the house.
“What were you thinking?” Lily asked. “You always tell me that we’re lucky to have a roof over our heads and today, you talked back to Frau Hilda and now you told the men you snuck out to let Rusty loose and saw the bear. Are you trying to get us in trouble?”
Gretel chewed her bottom lip. “I should have kept quiet. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But Frau Hilda made me so angry when she talked about Mom and Dad that I couldn’t stop the words from coming out. And I’m sure the bear doesn’t hate us. The men are being stupid.”
“It doesn’t matter. Grownups are usually stupid,” Lily said. “It’s our job to stay out of their way.”
Gretel looked out the attic window at the pitch-dark sky. “I don’t know if we can stay out of their way this time.”
Lily grabbed her arm. “Don’t say that. That’s bad. That means trouble.”
Gretel nodded. “I think the trouble’s already here. The grownups have brought it. I don’t know if we can fix it or not.”
Lily sank down on the feather mattress. “If grownups need our help, we’re already doomed.”
“Let’s go listen at the top of the steps,” Gretel said. “Maybe they have an idea that will make things better.”
But the men had only come to summon the Schlegels.
“There’ll be another town meeting tonight,” Hans Ulbricht told them. “We’ll stay with you until it’s time to go to the meeting hall. You and Frau Hilda might not be safe without an armed guard.”
“You think the bear hates us, too, don’t you?” Herr Gustav asked.
“Yes,” Hans said simply. “Everyone does.”