Breadcrumbs: An Appalachian Hansel and Gretel
Dedicated to my sweet pea DandelionSunset, who shares my attachment to child!Everlark.
Part One: The Woodcutter's Daughter
Once upon a time there dwelt on the outskirts of a large forest a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children.
– Hansel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm
When Jack Everdeen returned from town with the baker's wife and youngest son in his wagon, at first Katniss could not comprehend it. But when the words "new mama" and "big brother" left her papa's lips, she threw her milk pail to the ground and stormed into the woods, her black braids flying and her small face scrunched and red with angry tears.
Her papa found her, as he always did, and shimmied up the tree, agile as a squirrel, to join her. "It's coming on winter, catkin," he said. "She needs a man."
She'd had a man, of course, till recently: Janek Mellark, the beloved, broad-shouldered village baker, with his twinkling blue eyes, ash-blond curls, and gentle smile. He adored children, not merely his own, and made special little rabbit-shaped buns to give to every child who passed the bakery. Katniss had enjoyed no less than three of them this summer.
But the good baker had taken ill and died suddenly, a month ago now. His elder sons were apprenticed already, and his brother had taken over the bakery. The brother, Papa said, though a jolly sort, didn't much care for the widow – for her dry cakes or her sour manner, Katniss imagined – and sent her to her sister at the butcher shop, where her second son was apprenticed, but they didn't want her there either.
"She suffered enough at the loss of her man," Papa said. "You'd think her kin would show kindness in her grieving."
Katniss didn't know Widow Mellark, save in that she had cold eyes, a sharp voice, and a broom that she didn't hesitate to use on hungry children who pressed their faces to the bakery window, hoping for broken cookies or breadcrumbs or even just a glimpse of fresh cake to fill their bellies. But she suspected the woman's kin had the right of it, to turn her away.
"She's capable and comely, catkin," Papa told her. "And a woman's presence would be no bad thing for you."
Katniss tugged at the hole in the knee of her overalls. At eight years of age, she did just fine, living in the woods with Papa. They hunted and fished, gathering berries and plump mushrooms and the potato-like tubers of the plant that had given her her name – and of course, there was Lady, their spotted nanny goat, for fresh milk. They traded furs and firewood in town for those things they couldn't make or forage.
They did just fine without a woman, she thought, scowling. They had lost her beautiful fair-haired mama – and the baby girl she carried – a year ago in March. Mama had been a skilled herbalist and midwife – as good as the town apothecary; maybe even better – and sweet-tempered and gentle to boot.
The new Mrs. Everdeen, Katniss knew already, would be none of these things. "She's not as pretty as Mama," she told her papa sternly.
"No one's as pretty as Mama," Papa agreed.
The baker's youngest son was as golden and round as an apple dumpling, all fat yellow curls, pink cheeks, and a short, stocky body. Katniss suspected he would topple over and roll for miles if he leaned a little to either side.
Papa made them shake hands and call each other "brother" and "sister," which came far easier to the boy's tongue than her own. The boy – Peeta, he was called – was soft-spoken with pudgy, pinkish hands and ridiculously long eyelashes, and he smelled of soap flakes, cinnamon, and sugar. He was about her age, it seemed. He asked eagerly about their goat – he loved animals, he said – and Katniss begrudgingly showed him Lady's pen.
The new Mrs. Everdeen was the complete opposite of her son: tall and slender with very white skin and smooth strawberry-blonde hair – and not friendly in the least. She took one look around the cabin and announced that they would return to town as soon as possible for a featherbed she could share with her husband – in another room. The trundle bed, however, would have to suffice for the night, which meant Katniss and the round boy (as she couldn't resist thinking of him) would have to share the little drawer-bed at the bottom. She wondered how they would both fit.
Katniss went to bed cross and early, buttoned to her chin in her plaid flannel nightgown, with her hair brushed and re-braided by Papa. The boy came a little later, very shyly, his chubby legs peeping out from under his nightshirt, and carefully crawled in behind her. Katniss turned over in a huff and tugged as much of the quilt as she could over to her side of the little bed.
The bedside lamps were still lit, awaiting their parents, and the boy said suddenly, "This is my pillowcase."
"It is not," Katniss grumped, and pulled the heaped quilt tighter around her.
"Yes, it is," the boy persisted. "I had the set with birds; Luka and Marko had pups and kittens. Why are you sleeping on it?"
She remembers why then, and the memory makes her bury her red face in the pattern of embroidered larks.
It had been a little after Mama and the baby died, and Papa was in a bad way: spending their trades on liquor; not to carouse, simply to numb the grief. He sat in The Hob for an hour or more while Katniss stood outside with her empty basket, waiting to see how much money remained to buy bread and flint and soap.
Sometimes there was nothing left, and they returned to the cabin gray-faced and empty-handed. There was plenty to live on in the woods, of course, but some days proved leaner than others.
That day Papa had been especially long in the tavern, and Katniss's small stomach was growling like a sleepy bear cub as she lingered outside the bakery. If the baker was there, she could have had a rabbit bun, maybe even two of them, but he was away for the afternoon, and his wife was none too generous. Katniss watched wistfully through the window as the baker's youngest son pulled a pan of perfect little rabbit buns, golden and steaming, from the oven, but his mama cuffed him smartly when he tried to put them in the basket his papa carried around for handing them out. The baker's wife preferred to give the little buns to the children of paying customers, not hungry urchins in the street.
Katniss wasn't quite starving, but Papa's trades – and hunts – had been poor of late and she was very hungry, so she went round the back of the bakery to the wide raised platform the family used as a bird feeder. There was almost always something there – broken cookies, stale bread, burnt crusts – but that day there were only crumbs.
Buttery shortbread crumbs, though, and much better than nothing. Katniss was picking them up and stuffing them in her mouth, a pinch at a time, when the back door crashed open and the baker's youngest son came hurrying out with a pillowcase, half-filled with something-or-other, in his hands. He went straight to Katniss at the bird feeder, thrust the neck of the pillowcase into her hands, and ran back inside. Katniss heard a fleshy thump and a cry of pain from within, almost before the door had closed behind him, and she ran away as fast as she could.
She didn't dare to look inside the pillowcase till she was hidden in the alley alongside The Hob, and when she finally did her mouth fell open like a fish's. It was an entire batch of little rabbit buns, so fresh and hot that the pillowcase steamed when she opened it; a cloud of moist heat, smelling dizzyingly of honey-bread. Her stomach gave a ferocious growl, a bear cub's no longer.
Some of the little buns had stuck together; they were that warm and soft, but Katniss didn't mind two pins. She crammed three of them into her mouth in rapid succession, nearly burning her tongue on the doughy insides, then ran headlong into the tavern to find Papa, her pillowcase-sack held triumphantly aloft.
The grizzled old barmaid, Sae, had chuckled at the sight. "Reckon your girl's bagged a coon, Jack," she teased, taking away his empty mug.
Papa turned to Katniss at once, the liquor forgotten in his concern, for she'd never set foot inside The Hob before, but his concern quickly turned to astonishment when she showed him the contents of the pillowcase. "These are Mellark's buns," he said in wonder. "Did the baker give you all of these?"
"No, his boy did," Katniss answered, still confused by that part of the story. "I was eatin' crumbs from their bird feeder out back and he ran out and gave 'em to me."
Papa's face fell at that. "You were eating crumbs from their bird feeder?" he echoed sadly.
He never drank in The Hob again.
They rode straight home after that, singing silly old songs and eating rabbit buns all the way, and when they got there Papa went out and shot a proper rabbit for stew, with plenty of fat roots and spicy wild greens. He made Katniss drink as much goat's milk as she could, warmed with a little of their comb honey stirred in, and put her to bed early in the little trundle-drawer.
And all the while she clung to the pillowcase, even after it was empty. It smelled of soap flakes and fresh honey-bread. That smell was life, and the start of a new one for her and Papa.
Once Papa's drowsy lullabies turned to snores, Katniss sat up, tugged off her own pillowcase, and replaced it with the one from the baker's son, crumpled from several hours grasped in her little hands. She fell asleep that night, and many nights after, breathing in honey-bread and life, curled round the fragrant pillow as she slept.
The pillowcase lost its sweet bread smell after just one wash with their rough lye soap, but Katniss slept on it every night just the same.
"It's okay," said the boy in her bed quietly. "I still have this."
A chubby arm crept over her waist and dropped something in front of her before darting back again. A pomade tin, filled with jacks now, but smelling of earthy honey and lavender. That made her cheeks burn even hotter.
It occurred to Katniss the morning after the rabbit bun incident that nothing was for nothing, and if she planned to keep the pillowcase she ought to give the boy something in return. Only he was a baker's son – rich by the standards of their poor little mountain village – and there certainly wouldn't be anything in the woods that he would want.
Then she thought of how the first piping hot rabbit bun had burned her tongue. The boy had handled all of the little buns straight from the oven, so he might have burned his fingers.
She found an empty tin of Papa's store-bought pomade – he used it for Sunday services and the occasional walking-out with Mama in town – and quickly, if inexpertly, put together a batch of Mama's burn salve, with sweet beeswax and lavender and the last of their sunny orange calendula petals. Papa caught her at it, of course, and raised a curious brow, but he knew, even at seven years of age, Katniss did everything for a reason, and a practical one at that. When she asked to go to town that afternoon, Papa chuckled softly but hitched up the pony straightaway.
While Papa went off on the errands they should have seen to the previous day, Katniss went to the bakery and tapped at the back door. She was little and dark and quick, and she knew she could disappear if the baker's wife should be the one to answer her knock, but it was the baker himself who came, basket of rabbit buns already in hand. He handed her one with a grin and called over his shoulder, "Peeta! There's a lady come to see you."
The baker's son hurried out just moments later, his round face very red, and his papa ruffled his bright curls before going back inside, chuckling to himself.
Katniss thrust the tin at him, her eyes focused squarely on her shoes. "For burns," she said shyly.
The boy took the tin from her carefully, and she dared a glance up at his face. The area below his left eye was swollen and dark with a bruise, and she realized of a sudden what yesterday's thump-and-cry had been. She wondered if the baker's wife had simply been cross with the boy for leaving the kitchen, but she knew better. He'd been struck in the face for giving a whole pan of rabbit buns to one hungry little girl.
Without thinking twice, Katniss stood on tiptoe and kissed the baker's boy on the cheek, right on his bruise. Then she turned tail and ran to find Papa, and didn't go near the bakery again for three months.
"Thank you," said the baker's boy, lying snugly behind her in the narrow trundle-drawer. "It helped a lot with burns. I used it around my eye too, and it got better a lot faster."
"Do the pair of you mean to go on all night?" demanded the baker's wife – no, Papa's wife now – suddenly looming over them in her billowing white nightgown.
"No, ma'am," the boy said meekly, and she walked away to get in the upper level of the bed, amid many creaks and quiet curses. Katniss pulled a face in her direction.
Papa came into the room then, stripped down to his union suit. Katniss was sure she was silly for thinking it, but with his raven-black hair and whiskers and golden olive skin, Papa was handsome even in his faded old long underwear. "You two all right for now?" he asked.
"Yes, Papa," Katniss said,
"Yes, sir," the boy echoed, albeit a little braver than he'd answered his mama.
Papa crouched down beside the little drawer-bed to kiss them both good night. Katniss tried not to be cross as he leaned across her to kiss the boy's plump cheek. "You needn't call me Papa if you don't want to," he told the boy gently. "Your papa was one of the best men I've ever known, and I wouldn't like you to think you had to forget him now. You can call me 'Jack,' if you want."
The boy grinned from ear to ear. "All right, Jack," he said happily, and Papa chuckled. "Good night, Peeta," he said softly, chucking the boy's nose with his thumb, then he bent to give Katniss another, longer kiss on the forehead. "Good night, my willow catkin," he whispered.
Papa snuffed the lights, and the bed creaked more as he got in, then all was still and dark and silent. Katniss knew that wasn't usually what Papa and Mama's bed sounded like, but the idea of Papa and the baker's wife even holding hands was repellent to her. She strained her ears for kisses or whimpers or rapid, shallow breaths – and willed them not to happen all at once.
She heard one soft creak and a rustle of the covers, and Papa said, "It's a little soon, Raisa, don't you think?" Then all was quiet once more.
Katniss turned onto her back, peering up through the darkness at the silent mattress beside theirs. "You don't think they'll…kiss, do you?" she whispered, and realized she was directly addressing the boy for the first time since she'd kissed his cheek, over a year ago.
"I don't expect so," he whispered back. "Papa never kissed her, and they were married for fourteen years."
Part Two: The Baker's Son
They received their bit of bread…On the way to the wood Hansel crumbled it in his pocket,
and every few minutes he stood still and dropped a crumb on the ground.
– Hansel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm
Peeta Mellark loved his papa, the brawny gentle baker who smelled of bread and cakes and never once paddled his boys, no matter how many loaves of dough they stole pinches from. He had been beside himself when Papa took to his bed with a bad stomach and cried himself sick when the undertaker came the following morning.
But Peeta idolized Jack Everdeen, or would have, if he'd known the word for it. Like most boys in this little mountain village, Peeta had been raised on Jack tales. And it had taken all of two seconds for him to equate Jack Everdeen with his folk hero.
Jack Everdeen was tanned and lean as a whipcord, with coal-black hair and a blinding smile. He carried a bow and a dulcimer at all times, slung across his back, and was a deft hand at both. He knew twenty-three card tricks, brewed the best birch beer that anyone had ever tasted, and had a voice so beautiful it could silence the birds for miles around. He once gave Peeta his harmonica after the boy watched him playing it for ten whole minutes, enraptured, and it immediately held pride of place among Peeta's most prized possessions. He managed to produce a few bright hums with the magic silver box, to Mama's dismay and warning scowls, but nothing like the colorful melodies Jack had played.
Deep down, Peeta had never been particularly surprised that the apothecary's pretty daughter had chosen Jack Everdeen over Papa. He was disappointed for Papa's sake, of course, and a little sad for himself. Mrs. Everdeen (rest her soul) had been all honey and cream and lavender, sweet smiles, and cool, gentle hands. Even her name – Alyssum – was a flower. She'd have been a wonderful mama, far kinder than Peeta's own. But he couldn't quite fault her for marrying Jack Everdeen, who was far and away the most exciting man Peeta had ever met.
Not surprisingly, when Jack Everdeen came to their back door yesterday, hat in hands, to ask Mama to marry him, Peeta had been over the moon at the prospect of going to live in the woods with the handsome rover.
Of course, the rover's daughter hadn't hurt things one bit.
If Peeta idolized Jack Everdeen, he adored his daughter Katniss, with her skinny black braids and pinched little dark face. Ever since the morning her papa carried her around town, perched on his shoulders and trilling like a lark, Peeta's heart had been hers.
He would marry her, Peeta had decided at the ripe age of five. They would live in a cabin in the woods. Katniss would hunt rabbits for him and he would make her rabbit buns. It seemed a most sensible arrangement.
If you asked Peeta what he most wanted in the world, even now, the answer would be a resounding: Babies by the bucketload – with Katniss Everdeen! He fostered no misconceptions that Katniss would be rocking and swaddling all those babes, mind. Peeta loved babies; as the youngest in his family, without little siblings of his own, he was somewhat fascinated by them. He would cuddle the babies he had with Katniss and bake rabbit buns for them while she did the hunting. She was good at that, and Peeta didn't think he'd mind a housewife's lot at all. He spent most of his time in a kitchen anyway.
So when he rode up to the cabin in Jack Everdeen's wagon and saw Katniss walking through the yard in her overalls, braids dangling and the milk pail in her hands, there had been a certain feeling of homecoming.
On his part, at least.
"You like birds, don't you, Peeta?" Jack – Peeta's new papa now – asked over his shoulder as his red-faced daughter barreled out of sight.
"Yes, sir!" Peeta piped, his disappointment at Katniss's reception stepping aside for elation that Jack Everdeen knew something about him.
Peeta was the reason the bakery had a bird feeder. He'd seen sparrows pecking hopefully around their waste bins and one day asked Papa if they could put scraps out for the birds instead of throwing them away. Papa was no great carpenter, but between him and Peeta and his brothers, they'd put together a fine and sturdy platform behind the bakery. Peeta could see it from his bedroom window and delighted in the variety of birds that came to eat there. Sometimes he drew little pictures of them and colored them in with his paint-pots.
He was none too disappointed the day he saw Katniss Everdeen at the bird feeder, though he knew she must have been mighty hungry indeed to be eating the crumbs the birds left behind. The thought made him sad, and made the resulting blow from his mama entirely worthwhile, even before those precious gifts of burn salve and a kiss on his cheek.
Peeta drew pictures of Katniss too.
"You know how birds get protective of their nests, and are shy of strangers?" Jack Everdeen asked him.
"Yes, sir," Peeta said again. He knew plenty about birds – or, at least, as much as a town boy could learn from filling a bird feeder and watching out his windows.
"Well, my catkin is one such bird," Jack explained with a chuckle. "This cabin is her nest, and she's not altogether pleased to see new birds in it. I know you want to be friends – " he grinned, a flash of white teeth, and Peeta wondered just how much he did know about that – "but it's gonna take time. Think how you might befriend a bird: slow and gentle."
"With food?" Peeta suggested eagerly, and Jack chuckled again.
"Food certainly never hurts," he replied.
The next morning Katniss left the trundle bed early; impossibly early, thought Peeta, and he was a baker's son. He thought of what Jack Everdeen had said – he was still abed, and Mama too, lying side-by-side with more than an arm's length between them – and went to the cabin's little kitchen.
He had to improvise a little, of course. The Everdeens had wild duck eggs rather than the uniform brown hens' eggs used at the bakery, and their honey was still soaked in the comb, and their oven didn't look up to any sort of challenge, but Peeta made do, and by the time Jack came in, tugging up his suspenders and scratching his beard with a broad yawn, Peeta had a very passable pan of rabbit buns cooling on the stove. The ears weren't as perfectly rounded and golden as Papa's, but then, Peeta hadn't had as much practice and was still developing a steady hand.
"What's this, then?" Jack asked, ruffling Peeta's hair in a manner the boy was already coming to love.
"Breadcrumbs," Peeta told him happily. "I'm going to befriend a bird."
Peeta was a heavy boy and none too stealthy, but Katniss was milking the goat on a little stool and singing to herself when he found her, so he implemented his plan with ease. One rabbit bun just outside the pen, another a few feet beyond, and so forth, forming a trail. He had enough of them to make a little game of it, circling the cabin twice before ending at the little meadow, where he would be waiting.
He'd brought a makeshift picnic from the house: a soft goat cheese wrapped in mint leaves, the rest of the honeycomb, even a jug of birch beer. To his delight, there were several bushes at the edge of the woods, heavy with plump purple-black berries, and he quickly filled both hands with them. It was odd that neither Jack nor his daughter had harvested these already, he thought, since they were such skilled foragers. Maybe they were saving them for a special use? But it was October already; time and past for berry-picking.
Peeta considered for a moment whether the berries might be bad, but there were several birds in the bushes, gleefully pecking away at the juicy berries, so they must be all right. He laid them on the dishtowel he'd brought out as a picnic blanket and, on impulse, picked a handful of late dandelions for a centerpiece. Then he watched and waited.
After a while, he took out his little sketchbook – a birthday gift from Papa – and began a new picture.
Katniss left the goat pen, milk pail in hand, and froze stock-still at the sight of a little golden rabbit bun in the grass. Where on earth had it come from? Had the baker's son brought it from town? But no, they would've had them at supper last night if he had. Maybe it was the fairies, she thought with a grin. Papa was insistent that there were fairies in their woods, both good ones and naughty, who tipped over milk pails and tied knots in children's hair while they slept. The face on the little rabbit bun was certainly fine enough to be fairy work.
She picked it up, tucking it into a pocket of her apron for safekeeping (she had left her little bed far too early to dress for the day and had simply thrown on an apron over her nightgown), but she had scarcely taken three steps when there was another rabbit bun at her feet . Frowning, she bent to pick up that one too – and saw a third one ahead. And a fourth.
She quickly followed the trail, laughing a little as she finally gave up on her overflowing pockets and held her apron by the corners, with the growing pile of rabbit buns at the center. Only fairies would make a trail of rabbit buns, let alone one that rounded the house twice.
And then she looked up and saw the round boy sitting in the grass just ahead, with a dishtowel spread with sundries in front of him. Her little face tightened into a scowl.
"I thought it was fairies," she said crossly. "But it was only you." She stomped over to him in her overlarge boots, sloshing the precariously hefted milk pail in the crook of her arm, and poured the rabbit buns onto the dishtowel.
"I've made us a picnic," the boy said cheerfully. "Come eat."
She took in the spread in one impatient look and bent to scoop up his neat pile of berries. "Well, these are poison for a start," she snapped, and threw them off into the grass.
"P-Poison?" he whispered, his chin beginning to quiver.
"Did you eat any?" she demanded, grabbing his face none too gently with both wiry hands and turning it this way and that, seeking berry juice smears.
"N-No," he choked, his voice growing thick and stuffy. "But the b-birds were eatin' 'em, so I-I thought they were all right."
"I don't know why Papa brought you here!" she exploded, hurling a rabbit bun into the woods for good measure. "You're helpless! Five minutes on your own and you try to eat poison berries! That cheese was for Sunday dinner, and the birch beer's for Parson Abernathy – and you used up almost all the honey! I bet you used all the eggs too!"
The boy burst into tears. "I'm s-sorry!" he wailed, rubbing his wet eyes with both chubby fists. "I j-just wanted to do somethin' nice, cuz I like you! I d-didn't know about the berries!" He sobbed into his sleeve.
Katniss had never had much time for tears, except for the real sort, like when your mama died or your house burned down or the bank came to evict you. But the sight of this boy crying because of the things she'd said – plump, friendly Peeta, who had done all of this for her – broke her stubborn little heart.
And then she saw the sketch on the grass by his knee: a girl with two dark braids, perched on a little stool and milking a goat. It was one of the best pictures she'd ever seen; maybe the best, outside of Mama's picture Bible and Papa's fairy story books. And this boy had drawn it. Of her.
She crouched beside him and dabbed at his wet cheek with a corner of her apron. "I'm sorry, Peeta," she said in a small and very contrite voice. "I shouldn't have been so mean. You were just bein' sweet. I just…I'm not used to people not knowin' what's safe or…eatin' everything in the house at one go."
"I wasn't gonna eat it all myself," he sniffled, lifting his round red face proudly. "I brought it to share with you."
Katniss shook her head and dried his tears with her apron. Peeta was soft and silly and thoroughly helpless. Without someone to look out for him, he'd step in a rabbit hole or get bitten by a copperhead or fall into a ravine. He needed someone – he needed her. And deep down, that made Katniss almost ridiculously happy.
Papa didn't need her, not really. She'd helped him plenty over the years, but if she wasn't there to look out for him, he'd get on just fine. If she wasn't around to look out for Peeta, he'd be dead in the meadow, here and now, with a belly full of nightlock berries.
She looked at the fistful of wilted dandelions at the center of the dishtowel and threaded one into his buttonhole. "Do you like apples?" she asked.
Peeta gulped and nodded eagerly. "We have an old tree behind the bakery," he said.
"I'll show you where the wild ones are after breakfast," she told him, and plunked herself down beside him. "There are always some really sweet ones after the frost. Can you climb?" she asked, her gray eyes narrowing dubiously on his chubby form.
He lowered his face, beet-red once more, and shook his head. Katniss bit back the urge to chide. This was her brother now, and she was his keeper. "I'll teach you that too," she said shyly, and passed him a rabbit bun.
Part Three: The Baker's Wife, or The Witch's Tale
"Oh, ho! you dear children, who led you here? Just come in and stay with me, no ill shall befall you."
– Hansel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm
Raisa Mellark was not altogether fond of Jack Everdeen. He was common and earthy; a man who preferred the wilds to town and made his living on furs and firewood.
But for all that, he was powerful easy on the eyes, between his sleek black hair, dusky olive skin, and that perpetual shadow of a beard. In a more refined part of the country, he would have been considered dashing. But then, as a butcher's daughter, accustomed to guts under her fingernails and bloodstains on her cuffs, Raisa had never had much time for refined people, or places.
She liked Jack's face well enough – and his lean body. It had been a good long while since last she'd had a man between her thighs, and even then, there had rarely been pleasure in it. And she'd seen Jack playing his dulcimer a time or two, perched on a barrel outside The Hob, his long, slender fingers dancing over the frets. His were hands that could make a woman's body sing, and hers had known precious little of that sort of stimulation.
Jack Everdeen had been widowed well over a year now, and she was sure his hunger for bedding had wakened once more. Why else would he have proposed, save to secure a woman in his bed for the winter? So she'd ventured on their wedding night, or what passed for one after a few words exchanged before the parson, with their children in the trundle-drawer beside. She'd run a hand over one lean hip; none too innocently, but none too blatant neither, hoping he would take the bait – but too soon, Raisa, he'd said, and turned away from her.
Ah yes, she'd been widowed, hadn't she? She would have to allow herself to be consoled: a chaste little kiss here and there, a hand on her back that inched higher or lower as it lingered. She'd experienced little enough of such careful affections, but she'd witnessed them plenty, and she was fairly certain she knew how to prompt them from a man like her new husband.
It might be winter first, she allowed, but she looked forward to riding Jack Everdeen. To strong, slender fingers gripping her backside and a bearded mouth tugging fiercely at her breast.
Truth be told, Jack's utterly practical proposal – you need a man to look after you and the boy; my catkin needs a mama – had been far more romantic than her late husband's. She had come to Janek at eighteen, pregnant from their single frustrated coupling behind the butcher shop, and the blond baker's boy had proposed straightaway, half-mad with grief at his sweetheart running off to the woods to wed Jack Everdeen and desperate for the baby growing in Raisa's belly.
It was delightfully ironic that they should both be dead, Raisa thought, and her now wedded to the man who'd caused so much trouble. After all, that lily-lambkin Alys need not be the only one to have enjoyed them both.
Janek had been pleasant enough, she supposed, all that golden hair and broad muscle, but their marriage had been loveless and the bedding brief and infrequent – rare, really, save for those few blissful months after Luka was born. She'd grown softer – in body and inclination – after the birth of her favorite son, and it had drawn her husband like a fly to a honeypot.
But it had been near impossible to hide her resentment after the third boy, who was meant to be a girl. Peeta was really where everything had gone wrong, if one thought about it. Raisa had practiced a sweeter magic before him, and once he came along – the boy who should have been a girl; her own apprentice, as she'd never had opportunity to be one herself – her spells and charms took a decidedly darker turn.
It was amusing, she considered wryly, what you could get by with under the noses of such a close-knit, God-fearing community.
Raisa's experience of magic, as it were, started when she was sixteen, the night her brother died. Her sister Rooba was away at the slag heap, mounting her latest conquest, when their mother came into the parlor, her hollow face pale as ash. She'd always been a shadow of a thing – their father, the butcher, had been a brute with hammy fists, whose mere presence had sucked the life from his wife like marrow from a bone – but she never quite rallied, even after her husband died.
That night she was white as a sheet and yet terrifyingly calm as she sat in the rocking chair, bloody hands resting on her aproned lap. Your brother's gonna die, baby doll, she told Raisa, her pale eyes glassy. I saw it in the sheep's gut.
Luka was Raisa's twin, her mirror image, and, to a lesser extent, a brute like their father, but she adored him. He was utterly beautiful, lusty and rampant with life; a fitting namesake for her favorite son, years later.
She looked at her mother like she was insane and went back to investigate. The sheep carcass lay on the table, draining, with nothing out of the ordinary about it in the least, let alone its entrails. Raisa reluctantly finished the butchering herself, then coaxed her mother – who was still in the rocking chair, staring fixedly out the window – into the kitchen to wash up and eat a bit of supper.
An hour later, the lawman came. Luka, always a brawler, had picked a fight with two coal miners and taken a knife to the throat. Raisa cried till her heart hurt – Luka had been like her other half, even if he never thought so – but her mother barely shed a tear. It was as though she'd known well in advance and dealt with it already – and Raisa wanted to know how.
Six months later, when Rooba was out with another swain, Raisa cornered her mother at the butchering table and asked about seeing things in animal guts. How did it work? Did it always work? What kinds of things did you see?
Her mother raised a brow at the questions – the most expression Raisa had seen from her in years – but she answered with surprising clarity, and as she spoke her eyes grew less vague and her voice quick and intense.
It took longer to master than Raisa had expected, but one afternoon in November, the shoemaker's wife came in for a chicken, and the liver as good as told Raisa that her son Georgy would have a new sweetheart at the Harvest Festival and be wed by Christmas. It was a wholly ridiculous fortune – Georgy Cartwright was nice enough, but straw-haired and lumpy and unlikely to land a sweetheart ever – so Raisa kept it to herself.
The next time Mrs. Cartwright came in, it was to announce a wedding.
Raisa seized her sister's hand and dragged her back to the butchering table, explaining all in elated whispers. She'd seen other things in the meantime; smaller things, all of which had come true, and she and Mama could teach Rooba the art with ease. They could "open shop," as it were. Charge double for your meat if you wanted your fortune told.
Two young women with knives and a ready stream of entrails; it should have been a perfect arrangement, but Rooba had no time for it. Practice your granny-magic all you like, sister, she'd laughed. I'm happy to take life as it comes.
Raisa held her tongue and bided her time. Now and again she whispered to their customers of a "feeling" she'd had regarding their love, livestock, or financial status – only the positive omens, of course – and when she was proved right, as she always was, a little something made its way back to her purse. As months passed, people began to seek her out, very discreetly, for these "feelings," and soon enough demand exceeded supply. She could no longer simply butcher something for every fortune-telling request that came to her.
So she dabbled, less successfully, in stargazing and bird-signs and finally asked her mother about charms, specifically the sort to induce love, and found that many corresponded neatly with her butchering work. Swallow a rooster's heart for this, dry and powder a dove's heart for that. Gristle, feather, and bone; it seemed nearly every part of a carcass could be put to magical purpose.
And then the apothecary came in to order their finest cuts of beef for his daughter's betrothal party, and Raisa saw in her carving that Alys would leave her sweetheart – Janek Mellark, the baker's son – for Jack Everdeen before week's end. She told no one, of course, least of all the apothecary, and within a fortnight, Rooba was very nearly throwing her at a grieving Janek Mellark's head.
Raisa had always admired Janek, with his impossibly broad shoulders, ashy curls, and taut backside, but she knew better than to set her cap at him. He'd been in love with the apothecary's violet-eyed daughter since infancy, and the pair had been best friends since childhood and lovers for two summers now, as everyone with eyes and ears knew only too well. But since Alys' rejection – at their betrothal party, no less – he was downcast and wounded and, it seemed, ripe for falling in love with a new girl, and Raisa saw no reason why she shouldn't try her luck.
The next night Janek agreed, upon heavy persuasion from Rooba, to take Raisa out walking, and, leaving nothing to chance, Raisa donned her prettiest dress and awaited her caller in the kitchen, stirring a powdered dove's heart (she kept several on hand then) into a glass of lemonade for Janek's arrival.
Her sister found her thus and laughed. The boy feels wretched enough without moldering dove's heart in his gullet, she said, shaking her head. If you want his affections, get your hand in his trousers and your mouth around what he hides there.
Raisa was wholly innocent then, having never so much as kissed a boy before, but she'd heard plenty about this sort of thing from both her sister and her brother, and in far more explicit terms. She drank the dove's heart lemonade herself to give her courage – it would only enhance what she already felt – and threw herself at Janek in every shadow and alley, unbuttoning her dress to bare her breasts and rubbing a hand over the bulge in his trousers. You can have me, she breathed, feeling wanton and half-drunk with it as she tugged at his belt. You can't have her, but you can have me.
Janek's disinterest was painfully apparent from the first. He didn't kiss her, take her hand, or even offer his arm as they walked, and her clumsy attempts at seduction seemed only to annoy him. She tried doing what Rooba said – Rooba knew what men liked, maybe better than anyone in the village, never mind how bizarre it seemed to put your mouth there – but that only made him angry.
But she couldn't back down, not with her breasts on display and his trousers halfway to his knees. She stroked and coaxed and pleaded, and finally Janek braced her against the back wall of the butcher shop, held her thighs open, and drove into her with rough, angry thrusts. I don't want you, he grunted into her ear, over and over again, so she'd know he only consented to this out of frustration.
It hurt more than Raisa had ever dreamed it could. He was impossibly bigand thick and hard, and despite her behavior and enthusiasm, her body – that tender place between her legs – was in no way prepared for such a forceful invasion.
To his credit, Janek realized this almost at once. He was startled to find her a virgin and horrified with himself for treating her as he had. He tried to make it better, first offering to stop, then gentling his thrusts when she begged him, through her tears, to keep going. He even brought her a little pleasure with his fingers after he finished inside her, but she knew their precipitate coupling marked the end of any possible future with him. She had pushed too hard and too soon, demanding intimacy before they'd even consented to friendship. Janek neither liked nor desired her to begin with, and he could barely look at her afterward, for shame at what they'd done. He gave her his handkerchief to wipe her thighs, then he pulled up his trousers and turned for home, his handsome face white to the lips.
Raisa climbed the steps on wildly trembling legs, taking care to avoid her mother and sister, and soaked in the bathtub for an hour, soothing the soreness between her thighs and washing away her blood and tears, while the bitter dust of dove's heart lingered in her throat. She would have to avoid Janek after this, she knew. They weren't friends or even near neighbors, so it shouldn't be especially awkward. She would return to her charm-making, and soon forget this had ever happened.
And then Rooba came into the bathroom, her square, strong hands slick with blood and her face streaked with tears. She held a sheep's liver – the first and only one she ever divined – but Raisa didn't need to look to know what it said. I hope you have a plan, her sister whispered. You're carrying Janek's baby.
Rooba knew ways to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, of course, but Raisa couldn't bear to think of it. On the other hand, she entertained no foolish notions of Janek making her his wife simply because she was carrying his child. If all else failed, she would raise the baby (a girl, she hoped with all her heart) by herself in her mother's house. They ran one of the most profitable shops in town, after all, and could easily afford another tiny mouth to feed. She'd lose a little face because of it, but in a family of women running a butcher shop, a good measure of eccentricity was expected.
But Janek surprised them all and asked Raisa to marry him, and the butcher's daughter became a baker's wife. There were no entrails to divine in the bakery (which smelled like very heaven: yeast and vanilla and perfectly creamed butter and sugar instead of blood and disinfectant and offal), but she had little time for magic in those early days anyway, what with the baby coming. A girl, she wished and hoped – even prayed, to whoever was listening – as her belly grew swollen and heavy and tender, but instead she birthed a fat Mellark boy: Marko, the baby who was so large she swore he'd torn her womb in two.
She returned to charm-making after Marko was weaned, sourcing what she could from her sister's shop, but Janek didn't know of her witchcraft, and it was imperative that he never learn. So when happy, curious Marko ferreted out one of her charm bags and, in her panic, she struck him in the face to get it away, it was far better that she be thought an overwrought woman, even a cruel mother, than for her husband to guess at her arcane double-life.
Janek was a good husband, at least at first. If his affection was reserved for his fat, foolish son, at least he was never unkind in bed. His lovemaking was dispassionate, efficient, reserved for procreation – certainly not, Raisa knew, how he had been with his beloved Alys. On those nights she eagerly spread her legs as he thrust swift and deep, his strong arms braced on either side of her, sometimes pushing her legs even wider, and his eyes on the pillow over her shoulder. It never lasted long, and sometimes she tried to make it better, clutching the sweat-slick planes of his back or squeezing his buttocks, even winding her legs around his waist to shift his movements one tiny delicious degree, so he hit that sweet spot inside her. He didn't fight it – didn't deny her the chance of a little pleasure from the act – but he didn't return her caresses either.
He never kissed her – before, during, or after their coupling – until just after Luka was born. That had been an unexpectedly lush, exquisite interlude, which had led, very quickly indeed, to a third pregnancy. Marko was four then and content in his own bed, and Luka, her perfect boy, didn't mind overmuch if his papa followed the baby's midnight feedings with his own mouth on Raisa's breasts.
Janek had been like a new lover then, affectionate and languid, all warm hands and deliciously wet mouth, and after two babies and five years of marriage, Raisa at last began to understand what kissing was all about. She wondered if it was possible to bottle that sort of post-natal love magic, to sell or store up for a later need, and made many attempts, using vials of her breast milk and locks of her newly lush hair, combined with honey and cornflower petals, crushed strawberries and sweet fennel seeds.
These she sold dearly from the pockets of her apron when her husband's back was turned and found them in high demand, despite her price. When she discovered she was pregnant again, just four months after Luka's birth, she made a second potion as well, this one for fertility and conception, and many of the women who had purchased her post-natal bliss returned, blushing, to press bags of coins into her hand for the new formula, hoping for such a radiant pregnancy for themselves.
Janek grew even more attached then, and she considered that, to a man who had chosen his wife because he longed for the child she carried, said wife with one baby at her breast and another in her belly was quite possibly his vision of paradise. He rarely left her alone for long, which gave her little opportunity for potion-brewing, but she couldn't have cared less. She rarely spent the money anyway, and it was a small price to pay for a husband who embraced her from behind and kissed her neck, cradled her rounding belly, and stole every possible moment to lavish her milk-heavy breasts with his strong fingers, lips, and tongue. More than one balmy autumn afternoon saw her seated on the flour-dusted worktop, her dress open to the waist and Janek's face buried in her breasts, one big hand tangled in her hair and the other between her thighs, rubbing firmly against that place made even more sensitive by the hot flow of blood to her growing belly.
Her first true orgasm came on that worktop, just after the morning rush, with Janek's thick middle finger deep inside her, his thumb pressing relentlessly between her swollen folds, and his mouth sucking her breast no less greedily than Luka had an hour before. Without warning, her body ground itself hard against his hand, pushing his finger even deeper as something wild and fluttering overtook her, leaving her thighs slippery and numb and her breath short and shaky.
She was confused and a little terrified by the strange, almost violent sensations, magnificent though the cresting and aftermath had been, but Janek seemed delighted by her body's abandon and made many subsequent attempts to recreate the experience. Raisa hadn't minded that in the least – his successes or his attempts.
Meanwhile, she and Janek awaited their third baby with almost identical enthusiasm. Both wanted a girl this time, and both were sure they were getting one. He, of course, wanted a living doll to love and kiss and dress in lace, whereas Raisa wanted an apprentice to learn her women's magics one day, but she saw no reason why they couldn't both get what they wanted. She'd train the girl in secret, or wait till she was older to introduce her arts.
Then all at once it was a chilly sunset in March, filled with the now-familiar agonies of birthing, and Raisa pushed out the longed-for third Mellark baby with a triumphant scream. And Janek's mother, assisting as midwife, cried the fatal word, the death knell to all of Raisa's hopes and dreams.
Boy boy boy boy boy.
That would have been enough pain – far too much – but then she saw Janek holding him, cradled in his hands like a sticky kitten, bending down so their foreheads touched. He looked at the baby liked he'd never looked at anyone but Alys; not his other sons, and certainly never Raisa. Like nothing in the world mattered, or indeed, existed, except for that squashed little runt of a boy.
Peeta, his papa called him, and whispered it over and over against his tiny face. Peeta, my sweet boy.
The Raisa who liked kissing and believed in love magic died in childbed that night, and in her place was born a stronger, darker creature; more beautiful, even – but in a frightening way, she realized, when she saw herself later in a looking-glass. She nursed Peeta because she had to and hated every moment of it, every hopeful tug of his little mouth, as though she held a leech to her breast. She pulled him off earlier each time, long before he'd had his fill, and let Luka finish in his place, vigorously draining her breasts of their rich hindmilk.
Janek took to sleeping in the rocking chair with Peeta, his fingertip between the baby's lips to pacify his cries and the urge to suck. He never coupled with Raisa again – or even touched her, if he could avoid it.
As the weeks passed, Raisa discovered that any dough she kneaded would refuse to rise. Her cakes baked up dry, no matter how precisely she blended them, and any milk she handled in the bakery kitchen would be sour by morning. Being no fool, she went directly to the butcher shop in to speak with her mother, who was then little more than loose gray skin draped over thin bones and could barely lift a knife, let along carve a carcass.
The old woman cackled mirthlessly at her daughter's woes. Were life a fairy tale, I'd say this was the moment your prince chose another, she said. And all the worse that it should be your son: the baby you both loved so much that it almost overflowed into love for each other. You're becoming a full witch, my girl, she cautioned, turning against your own flesh and blood, and nature is turning against you in its turn. Next comes dark magic and blood magic, and nothing good lies beyond either. Think well on it, before you tread that road.
Raisa left the butcher shop without another word. She'd thought plenty already.
After that, she cut herself off entirely from her mother and sister – and, more importantly, their shop's steady supply of entrails. Instead, she devised snares and traps to catch and kill her own creatures, starting with blackbirds and crows and mice and moving up to songbirds and rabbits and stray kittens. She cobbled together her own spells and charms and made no guarantees if they didn't perform as expected – but they did, every single time. The new, darker Raisa was more skillful at witchcraft than even she could have guessed, and slowly word got around that she was no longer the girl to tell your fortune but the woman to make your fortune. Whether you wanted your brother's money, his house, or his wife, Raisa Mellark could make it happen. She didn't judge the requests she received, but she charged dearly for them. You didn't solicit the baker's wife with a half-hearted wish, and certainly not without your purse.
The face she showed publicly was a pleasanter one, but only just. She took particular delight in denying poor children the rabbit buns that her soft-hearted husband baked expressly for them, and she walloped Peeta but good the day he gave away an entire pan-full to an urchin at their bird feeder.
The bird feeder was the beginning of the end – what made her realize, sooner or later, she'd have to get rid of her husband – and as with most things, it was Peeta's fault.
Peeta was the reason his devoted papa built the bird feeder. He loved birds, plain and simple. Even his bedsheets were patterned with birds. He took care of the dazed ones that hit the bakery window, dropping water into their open mouths till they grew strong again, or crying over their limp bodies when they ceased to breathe. He noticed if one was missing from the feeder and had an uncanny knack of finding wing fragments and stray severed claws in the backyard after Raisa had made use of the parts required for her spells. Sometimes all she needed were the eyes, and Peeta cried his heart out upon finding those remains (and he always did): small dead sparrows and doves, their necks snapped and eyelids sunken over hollow sockets. He insisted on burying every last bird in the garden with his little spade, saying a prayer over it and leaving a pebble on its grave.
Janek hugged and kissed and rocked his precious boy after every bird burial. He told Peeta that dead birds were heartbreaking but unfortunately should be expected, what with all the cats in town.
Except there weren't that many cats around, not since Raisa had altered the elements of her spells, and one day she heard Peeta puzzling this over with his papa.
It struck her as mildly sad that she accepted the need for Janek's death without a second thought. He hadn't touched her at all – let alone intimately – since Peeta was born, though she neither expected nor wanted him to, besotted as he was with his youngest son. He was of no use to her any longer; entirely in the way, and the one likeliest to catch on to her increasingly dark spellcraft. Marko and Luka were apprenticed in other shops; only Peeta and Janek remained at the bakery with her, and Peeta she could handle. He knew she didn't love him. He was cowed by her anger, and wisely so.
Once Janek was out of the picture, she could practice magic without fear. Not openly, of course, in light of the sorts of charms she'd progressed into, but boldly enough in her own home. The bakery would be hers entirely, and Peeta at her mercy. A respectable shopfront – she'd need Peeta for that, she realized, since her bread and cakes persisted in being inedible – and a safe haven for magic.
In the end, she needed just one nightlock berry – half of one, really. She didn't want Janek to die at the supper table, after all. She minced the fragment of poison berry finely and spread it among the fat blackberries in the special tart she prepared for her husband (pie crusts, at least, still obeyed her). When Janek left the table early, complaining of chills and a pain in his stomach, she kissed his cheek and wished him good night.
Peeta followed his papa, of course, and brought him cups of water, read him stories, plumped his pillows, fluffed up his covers; anything an eight-year-old boy could think to do to help. He wanted to stay with Papa overnight, but even Janek urged him to go and get a good night's sleep in his own little bed.
It was as well that he did. In the last hour before dawn, Raisa stood over the bed where she had conceived Luka and Peeta and calmly watched her husband die. It was easier than she'd expected, save for the moment at the very end, when Alys Everdeen walked through the wall of the second-floor bedroom as easily as if it had been an open doorway. Her ghostly violet eyes were reproachful, as if to say I gave him to you, and this is how you show your appreciation? The specter twined her transparent fingers with Janek's and kissed his whimpering mouth – a kiss of reunion, not farewell – then their spirits departed together, leaving Raisa in a fiercely cold room with the gently smiling corpse of Janek Mellark.
She bent over him once to ensure that he no longer breathed and smelled violets on his lips – and a whisper of Alys Everdeen's sweet cicely perfume on his nightshirt. Good riddance, Raisa thought, to the pair who had made her wedded life a misery, then she slipped on her coat and went, calm as you like, to fetch the undertaker.
But Janek managed to foil her one last time, for when the will was produced, the bakery was not in any way in her name. He left it, as she should have guessed, entirely to Peeta, to be held in trust till his eighteenth birthday and run in the meantime by Janek's younger brother Marek, who had worked in the bakery for most of his life but found a position at the general store after Janek filled the rooms above the bakery with his own family. Marek returned to the bakery with pleasure and told Raisa, in no uncertain terms, that she and her "doings" were not welcome there – though how much he knew of such "doings" she could hardly guess. He told her that Peeta could stay on as an apprentice baker or she could take him with her to her new home, and though she briefly considered giving the boy to his uncle outright and being rid of him then and there, something tugged at the back of her mind. The notion that she might need Peeta someday; that his round, happy face might open doors that would be closed to her.
She tried her family next, but her mother was sick abed and Rooba wouldn't let her in the door. She let Peeta in, of course, and sent him to the back parlor for gravy bread with Luka, who was now apprenticed in the butcher shop. Then she rounded on Raisa.
If you did what I think you did, you're the greatest fool who ever lived, she hissed. If you killed the kindest man in the village for loving that sweet boy more than he loved you, well, it doesn't take sheep's guts to tell that you'll soon get what's coming to you.
Rooba sent them back to the bakery with a pound of lard for Marek and a cheerful reminder that Peeta would always be welcome to stay with her – even train to be a butcher alongside his brother, if he liked. Raisa wondered if she should have left him at the bakery when she had the chance.
Marek took the lard and, without batting an eye, gave her till the end of the month to be gone. She made delicate inquiries of former customers, particularly those who had benefitted financially from her charms and spells, certain that someone would have a spare room for a witch-in-keeping, but one after another, they all refused. No one would chance it becoming known that they had won their fortune, position, or wife through dark magic, and there was the further concern of Raisa's husband having died suddenly, and in a manner suspiciously like a romantic rival of one or two of her customers. The lawmen might not see the connection straightaway, but they would soon enough, and while witching was hardly a hanging offense in these parts, murder surely was.
She was on the verge of packing up and beginning the twenty-mile walk to the next village over, to try her hand and craft there, when Jack Everdeen came to the back door of the bakery and asked her to marry him. So he might give her and the boy a home, he said, and she could help look after his own little girl.
Once she passed the initial shock – she hadn't read entrails in years, or she would have seen this coming from a mile off – Raisa laughed inwardly with delight. A cabin in the woods, an hour's wagon-ride from town and completely isolated, with wildlife and herbs abundant – and a handsome widower in her bed. What was more, a hunter who traded in furs would not be unaccustomed to the tang of blood or a few fallen feathers on the ground. Not like in town, where her fat son wailed over the fragment of a dead bird's wing.
The only difficult part of the decision was feigning hesitation.
The daughter – a skinny little scowling thing, and dark as an imp – was hardly her favorite part of the bargain, but Raisa knew she could always throw Peeta at the girl for a ready distraction. Peeta would befriend anyone and anything, and unless Raisa missed her guess, he was already eyes-deep in calf love with Jack Everdeen's daughter. They'd be off in the woods like magnets, tubby Peeta following his oblivious sweetheart into caves and thickets and ravines, and the closer he got, the quicker she'd run away.
It was the perfect arrangement, Raisa thought to herself, watching through slitted eyes as Jack slipped from the bed and stretched in front of the window, the bold morning sun outlining all manner of tempting shadows beneath the thin cotton of his union suit. She just needed to bide her time.
He made her a breakfast of fried potatoes and strong coffee, then kissed her cheek, lingering a moment to tuck back a stray lock of her bright hair. This would be easier than she thought, Raisa decided, as he showed her about their homestead, one hand at her elbow.
And then she saw the makeshift picnic on the grass, and Jack's daughter throwing away handfuls of dark berries, shouting, "These are poison, for a start!"
Raisa's state of wedded bliss vanished in an eyeblink. Nightlock berries here, and the girl knew them. Of course she did, and Jack too.
And now Peeta.
She cast about wildly in her mind, trying to recall if the boy had been anywhere near the kitchen when she made Janek's poisoned tart. She had never left the precious berry unattended, that much she knew for certain, but had Peeta seen it on the cutting board, or minced beneath her knife's blade? At the time, he would have assumed it was just another dark berry going into a tart, but now that he knew they were poisonous, it was only a matter of time before he put together that she'd killed his papa and told someone who would listen, like that skinny little Everdeen girl.
She had to do something, and soon. She liked the idea of this cabin in the woods, of bringing her charms on their visits to town and selling them from her apron pockets while her husband peddled his furs and firewood. She most definitely liked the idea of Jack Everdeen in her bed, be it the featherbed she would buy when next they went to town or the creaky old trundle bed they shared last night.
But what to do about the children?
She drummed her fingers thoughtfully against her thigh and recalled that not all traps require springs and teeth. That more flies are drawn by honey than vinegar, and even stale bread brings birds in droves.
Peeta had a famous sweet tooth, as evidenced by his plump figure, and the little girl, she'd overheard Jack saying, had a particular attachment to gingerbread.
Raisa smiled slowly as a plan took shape in her mind and decided it was a very fine thing that she had been a baker's wife.
Part Four: The Woodcutter
Thus all their troubles were ended, and they lived happily ever afterward.
– Hansel and Gretel, The Brothers Grimm
Jack Everdeen wept openly at the sight of his children walking up from the lake: soaked to the skin, slightly singed about the edges, and smelling of burnt gingerbread. Peeta was markedly thinner, but neither of them was the worse for wear, and their overwhelmed papa fell upon them both, hugging one with each arm and covering their wet faces with happy kisses.
He wrapped them both in blankets – it was All Saint's Day, with a wind to chill your bones – and gave each a strong mug of hot milk and honey with a little whiskey stirred in. They told their adventure in shy, almost disbelieving whispers: a cottage made of gingerbread, a witch, a cage, a bone, an oven. Neither clearly identified this witch as the woman they had both briefly called Mama, but Jack put it together quickly enough. There had long been rumors of Raisa Mellark dabbling in witchcraft, though Jack had paid them little mind before now. And who but a baker's wife would build a gingerbread house as a trap?
It was poetic, he supposed, that she should end up in her own oven.
After their strange ordeal in the woods, the children were inseparable. Peeta was slower but proved surprisingly strong; Katniss was swift and limber but spindly as a newborn fawn. They complemented each other, in that and countless other ways.
Katniss showed Peeta how to harvest tubers of the plants that had given her her name and twined together a few of the spikes to make him a flower-crown. In turn, he threaded violets into her braid.
She taught him to bait fish hooks, which snakes to run from, and how to pick up toads. He taught her to bake bread and cookies and a pie crust that would melt in your mouth. While ever-impatient Katniss waited for the fruits of their labor to cool, he showed her how to coat pinecones with peanut butter and roll them in cornmeal, breadcrumbs, and seeds, then hang them outside the window for birds to eat.
Katniss toughened up the boy and he gentled her. It was backwards but surprisingly endearing.
Every night they sat around the kitchen stove after supper, and Peeta played his harmonica (better and better each day) while Jack accompanied on his dulcimer and sang old folk songs with Katniss, both lively and plaintive. Afterward, Peeta sketched or painted for a little while Katniss and Jack whittled beside the fire.
Jack snuffed all the lights after bedtime prayers and they turned in none too early, but still Peeta and Katniss lay awake half the night in their trundle-drawer, giggling and whispering.
Jack Everdeen considered that, for all that Raisa had been a witch, her idea of a featherbed behind closed doors had been a very good idea.
When Katniss first kissed Peeta behind the woodshed, shortly after her fourteenth birthday, Jack simply chuckled and remarked that he'd hoped for a son when he remarried but a son-in-law would do just as well. His daughter blushed red as a beet-root, but it didn't stop her from doing it again.
The fourth time, she kinked one leg around Peeta's waist and pressed her hips against his.
The fifth time, Peeta's hand crept inside her shirtwaist, and she gasped against his mouth as he palmed one tiny breast.
Jack Everdeen considered that it might be good for Peeta to spend some time in his uncle's bakery – his own, truth be told – in the near future.
Peeta took the news calmly, though his eyes grew puffy and red as he listened, and Katniss railed, though she helped pack his little bag the next morning and snuck in mementoes aplenty. Their goodbye was full of clumsy, teary kisses and attempts to wind themselves as close together as possible.
Jack Everdeen reminded himself that this would be best for all.
When he returned from town at dusk with an empty wagon, Katniss took the pillow with the birds embroidered on its case and slept in a tree.
Jack Everdeen considered that it might well have been too late for whatever he was trying to prevent.
He woke the next morning to the smell of burnt flapjacks and knew it was at least halfway deliberate on Katniss's part. After seven years with a baker's boy in the kitchen, she'd become a fine cook – nearly as good as Peeta – but she still hadn't mastered the honey-dough rabbit buns, and Jack Everdeen had a powerful longing for them. He wondered for the first time who this separation was meant to benefit, and resolved he would wait it out.
He'd lasted three excruciating weeks when he realized Katniss was going to run away. He knew the look of a girl who was prepared to do anything to get to her sweetheart, and he wondered exactly when the stocky baker's boy had become his fierce daughter's sweetheart.
He stalled Katniss for two days and finally went to town for Peeta himself.
The boy had a little fortune of his own now, courtesy of his papa's will and the steady prosperity of the bakery. When Jack arrived to collect him, he shucked his apron like a shot and ran to the shops, spending as much as he wanted on presents for Katniss: pretty calicos, peppermints, a silver locket, some fine new knives. Before they left town, he packed parcels of fresh bread and buns and sweets from the bakery too.
No sooner were they within sight of the cabin than Katniss came sprinting to meet them. Peeta leapt out of the wagon, his arms full of presents from town, and threw them all to the ground to seize her in a fierce, breathless hug. They crashed together and fell into a patch of dandelions, all happy tears and hungry, desperate kisses.
Jack Everdeen tethered the pony, then took the bow from his back and slipped quietly into the woods.
He returned an hour later to rhythmic creaks and gasps and little cries coming from the window above the trundle bed and conceded that it was probably inevitable. After all, fifteen was none too young in these parts, not for bedding, nor for wedding.
Still, he brought the bow in with him.
"Right," he said, tugging a chair alongside the trundle-drawer, which appeared to have been wrenched free from the bedframe by the weight and exertions of the tangled pair crowded into its narrow box. He cleared his throat and laid the bow conspicuously across his knees.
It gave him momentary pause that Peeta was flushed, not merely from embarrassment but from having been inside Katniss a moment ago. Both were far more dressed than Jack had expected to find, in light of what they had just been doing, but he reminded himself of similar stolen moments from his own life that had required little more than the loosening of trouser buttons and the eager hiking of a skirt.
"I'm on board with this," Jack said plainly, "but there's things that need doing first. A preacher and rings, for a start. Catkin, get your mama's blue calico from the chest and we'll go back to town."
Walking a little stiffly (for reasons Jack tried not to think about), Katniss changed into her mama's prettiest dress and brushed out her Peeta-mussed braid, plaiting it round the crown of her head like Alys had always done. Her husband would take it down for her tonight, Jack realized, and kiss her slim dusky neck as he did so.
Jack Everdeen wondered if this was why he had never thought to give Peeta his surname. Maybe he'd always anticipated the day the boy would give Katniss his own.
They returned to the cabin just before sunset, with Peeta and Katniss's left hands bearing Jack and Alys's rings. The young newlyweds moved shyly toward the bedroom, hands interwoven and eyes silently seeking approval. Jack shook his head and waved them on.
They didn't leave the trundle bed for a solid week, save for whirlwind trips to the outhouse and the occasional break for a bite of food. Jack preoccupied himself out of doors as much as possible, but judging by the perpetual vigorous creaking of the bed and the increasingly pleasured sounds drifting through the walls, whatever they were doing, they were clearly getting better at it.
He determined that Raisa's idea of a featherbed behind closed doors had been a very good idea.
Jack watched Katniss's braid grow glossy and thick, almost overnight, as her small belly swelled round and firm as a melon. He wondered whether he'd miscalculated slightly – whether, perhaps, his hunter's senses had failed him – and the wedding might not have been just in time.
He waited for Peeta to grow impatient or bored with a pregnant wife. Neither had quite reached sixteen yet, and one or the other was sure to lose interest in keeping house, let alone the baby to come, in favor of fashions and festivals and the goings-on in town.
But they didn't. Indeed, their routine scarcely altered: baking, hunting, gardening, foraging, dinner, music, bed. Katniss insisted on still climbing trees, and her lean legs grew even stronger from hefting the weight of her growing belly.
Once a day Jack found them in the meadow, napping in a sunny patch of dandelions, with Peeta's head on Katniss's belly, as though he'd fallen asleep listening to their child.
The scrunched-up, squalling thing with its thatch of sticky black hair arrived just before the violets, and it suited Katniss right down to the ground to name her after them. Peeta made no objection whatsoever, of course, having finally received the thing he'd longed for since he was five years old. He rocked and cooed and swaddled tiny Violet Mellark to his heart's content and surrendered her almost begrudgingly to her mama for feedings.
Jack Everdeen couldn't help but be fascinated by the wet, toothless mouth rooting at his daughter's small breast – or by the stocky baker's boy crouched beside their chair, contentedly nuzzling his wife's cheek as he caressed their baby's downy head. Jack wondered when his catkin had grown old enough to be a mama herself, let alone a wife and lover.
And he considered, with a small smile, whether he might not have wanted grandchildren all along.