Ch. 16.1 The Gingerbread House — After days of trudging through the trees, Janine was relieved to come upon a clearing in the woods. A couple of goats grazed on the emerald grass that spread out before a cute little cottage. Chickens cackled as they pecked in the dirt and among the flowers under the window. Inside a low picket fence, neat rows of vegetables grew in a garden free of weeds.
A delicious aroma came from the walls of the house, which were smooth and brown, decorated with colorful objects, and trimmed in white house. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Mmmm. Janine’s stomach grumbled.
She crept closer. With a start, Janine realized what she was looking at: a gingerbread house, decorated with candy and white icing. Oh, it smelled so good. She walked towards it, unable to resist.
Her mouth watered. She longed to break off just a tiny triangle of gingerbread. She was so hungry. But then she remembered a story she’d read about a witch who lured children to her gingerbread house in order to eat them. Yet there didn’t seem to be anyone about. The garden was empty. Birds sang in the trees. She reached out her hand towards the edge of the roof.
Janine snatched back her hand. “What is it?” she whispered.
“Someone’s here.” He trotted around back of the house.
A gray-haired woman lay on the ground, moaning. She had a swollen, purple lump on her forehead, and blood dripped from a gash above her eye. Her brown dress and white apron were stained with blood, and she held her arm close to her chest. She smelled like cinnamon.
Ch. 16.2 Janine to the Rescue —
Freddie trotted back and forth with his nose to the ground, sniffing and growling. “The bad man was here.”
Janine rushed over and knelt beside the woman. “What happened?”
The woman moaned again. “My arm.”
Janine ran her fingers along the woman’s arm. She had helped Old Bob when one of the hounds had broken a leg, so she knew what to do. “Lie still. I’ll be right back.”
She went into the cottage and began to hunt through the drawers in the kitchen.
Freddie, who had followed her inside, pointed his nose to a jar on the counter. “That smells like the medicine Old Bob puts on cuts.”
Janine put the jar in her pocket. She poured water into a basin and grabbed some clean dish towels, which she ripped into strips. Outside, after cleaning the woman’s wounds, she applied the ointment from the jar and bound her forehead with cloth. Then she splinted the woman’s arm, using two sticks and more strips of cloth. The woman hissed in pain but didn’t cry out. At last Janine finished.
“Thank you, dear.”
“Who did this to you?”
“A tall man with an ax. He demanded to know if I’d seen a little girl with a dog wandering in the forest. When I wouldn’t tell him anything, he took a swing at me. Broke my arm and knocked me out.”
“That’s Paul. He used to be the Royal Kennel Master of Saltonia. Now…”
“Now he’s after you.”
“He’s a bad man,” growled Freddie.
The woman sat up and groaned. “He’s a day ahead of you, heading east. You’ll have to be careful. I’m Connie, by the way, but you can call me Granny, like everyone else does. I’ve lived out here in the Tulgey Woods for fifty years, and I thought I’d seen it all. Obviously, I was mistaken.”
Ch. 16.3 Tea With the Gingerbread Witch —
Janine helped Connie to stand and then to walk into the cottage and sit on a chair. She then made tea.
Connie dabbed at her eyes and nose with an orange handkerchief. “You’ve been very kind. What’s your name, child?”
“You look hungry. Pour another cupful and slice some bread. Sausages and cheese are in the pantry. Warm gingerbread is on the stove.”
“Thank you, Granny.” Janine obeyed. She gave Freddie the sausages but devoured the rest. All the while, she watched the woman for signs of evil. But Connie seemed to be a good person.
After lunch, Connie took off the bandage around her head. Her wound was gone.
Janine stared in amazement. “Are you a witch?”
“Yes, but my talents lie more in cooking than in regular magic.”
“Did you heal yourself with magic?”
Connie pushed the jar of ointment towards her. “Miracle Mix. Invented by the wizard Colin. He used it to save the lives of the two youngest children of King Francis and Queen Natalie. For his troubles, he was thrown in prison.”
Connie shook her head. “That’s why I live in the Tulgey Woods. For all its strangeness, it’s safer than living among regular people.”
Janine scooped out some fragrant ointment from the jar and rubbed it on poor Freddie’s face. The quills dissolved, and the swelling went down.
“Ah, that’s better,” said Freddie. After a moment, he curled up at her feet and went to sleep.
Connie’s bright blue eyes studied Janine, as if she could see down into her soul and dig out her deepest secrets.
Janine squirmed in her chair. “I didn’t eat your house.”
“I know that, dear. Thank you.”
“Are you going to eat me?”
Connie frowned. “I don’t eat children. That was my great Aunt Tammera. She gave all of us Gingerbread Witches such a bad name.”
Janine sighed in relief.
“However, it wouldn’t be safe for you to stay here either. I get a lot of visitors, and you’d be discovered. Once Zelda finds out you’re still alive, she’ll send more people after you.”
“How did you know?”
“It’s not hard to put two and two together.”
Connie sipped her tea. “Your best bet is to change your name and go further into the Tulgey Woods, even over the mountains into Wonderland. I’m sure a nice girl like you could find work — the Queen of Hearts is always looking for new servants. She’s fond of chopping off their heads, you know. The White Queen’s last kitchen maid went up a rabbit hole.”
“Don’t you mean down?”
“Things in Wonderland don’t always work the same as here.”
Ch. 16.4 Farewell to Granny Connie —
Janine considered her options. “Isn’t there someone on this side of the mountains who needs help?”
“What do you know how to do?”
Janine thought about Old Bob’s warning. “Well, not much yet. I’m only ten years old, but I can read well. I’ll work hard and learn to do whatever they need.”
“Hmmm.” Connie brightened. “Fritter was just telling me the other day that his master had fired yet another servant. Now that’s one young gnome that could use some help.”
Connie frowned as she tapped her fingernails on the table. “No, it wouldn’t do to send you up there. You’d be eaten by Bandersnatches before you even got to the mailbox.” She scratched her chin. “You could try my neighbors – Col and Bee. They moved here about ten years ago. They live up the valley a ways.”
“Just follow the stream until you come to the Tumtum tree. Next to it is a cute yellow house with white shutters.”
“Thank you, Granny.”
Connie stood up and brushed off her apron. “Now, old Mr. Dumfries should be along any moment with the mail, and you don’t want to be seen. That man never could keep a secret. Come back and visit me anytime, Janine. And here, before you go.”
She opened her cupboard and pulled out another jar of Miracle Mix and a handful of lollipops. Then she wrapped some large chunks of gingerbread in a napkin. “Keep the ointment for emergencies and give the lollipops to Bee. She just loves my new recipe. The gingerbread is for you when you get hungry.”
Connie bustled Janine out the door and waved merrily. “Goodbye, dear. Stay safe.”
Janine intended to follow the stream, but she couldn’t find it. She was soon lost again.