Today’s flash fic is going to be an excerpt from a potential future story that’s kind of a retelling/sequel to Hansel & Gretel: Three children set out to find their father, who disappeared 2 years before. Along the way, they meet a hobgoblin who agrees to help them.
Nine-year-old Marta’s hazel eyes darted from one cluster of dry foliage to up at the blackened, leafless trees. It certainly fit the description Aunt Gretchen had given of the forest she and Papa got lost in as children.
It was also where her three-year-old brother Tobias had gone missing while she and her other brother, seven-year-old Karl, had been arguing over the map.
“Hey, Marta! I see a bridge!” Karl shouted. Marta followed him through an overgrown brush, batting at the branches that snagged her dark braids and green cape.
Once they were out, they spotted the fair-haired child they were searching for in front of a stone bridge arched over a calm, nearly silent, stream.
“Tobias!” Marta ran over and tugged him back despite his trying to go back. “Tobias, stop it! You’re in big trouble right now!”
He crossed his arms and glared at her. “What are you giving me that look for?” Marta said. “You know you’re not supposed to wander off! Mama doesn’t want you getting lost!”
“But we’re all lost now,” Karl said. “Maybe we should go looking for breadcrumbs.”
“That’s not a good idea,” Marta said, taking Tobias’ hand. “We don’t want to meet any witches. Besides, we’re not lost, we’re at the Riddle Bridge, and we might as well cross it. Papa said that’s the way to the city.”
They marched over and stopped. Marta leaned forward to read the riddle posted on the bridge for the day. After a moment, she cleared her throat.
“Is it a swan?” Karl asked, having read it too. The bridge groaned and lowered a foot.
Marta huffed and prepared to answer. A twig snapped and she glanced at Karl. “Did you do that?”
Karl shook his head.
“That was me.” A deep voice spoke behind them and the older two stiffened. Tobias turned around, then reached out and tugged Marta’s cape. She looked down at him and he pointed.
Marta and Karl turned. Their eyes widened.
“Ma-Marta, it’s a-it’s a-” Karl started to hyperventilate.
“A hobgoblin?!” Marta grabbed her brothers’ hands and tried to step onto the bridge. A force pushed them back onto the ground and the bridge sunk another foot.
They bolted to their right. Marta and Karl were yanked back by their collars and raised a few inches in the air. Not surprising, considering hobgoblins were usually a foot or two taller than the average human man.
“Now, hold on here,” the hobgoblin said, looking between them and Tobias. “What are three human children doing out here alone? Where are your parents?”
“Put us down!” Marta said. She and Karl started to wrestle their way out of the hobgoblin’s hands. He set them down before they succeeded and crossed his arms.
“There. Now, answer my question.”
“Why do you care?” Marta said, putting her hands on her hips. “You’re a stranger and we’re not supposed to talk to strangers!”
The hobgoblin sighed and pinched the bridge of his large hooked nose that seemed to stick out an inch. “Just tell me, will you?”
“Our mama is at home and we don’t know where our papa is,” Marta said. She stepped in front of the boys and brought herself up to her full height. “What are you doing here? Hobgoblins are supposed to live underground!”
The hobgoblin raised a hairy eyebrow. “Says who? Red Riding Hood?”
“Says…um…” Marta gulped. “You’re not going to hurt us, are you?”
“Why would I do that?” The hobgoblin adjusted his patched vest, which, along with his shirt, hung over his near-skeletal shoulders. His trousers stopped at the knees, and his feet were bare. The brim of a worn hat almost covered his bright green eyes.
Marta shuffled her feet. “Wilhelmina said that hobgoblins steal naughty children and take them underground,” she said. “Is she wrong?”
“Yes, she’s very wrong. At least for me.”
Marta cocked her head. “What’s your name, mister?”
The children burst into laughter. “That’s a silly name!” Karl said. “Why would your parents name you that?”
“I don’t have parents.”
“You don’t?” Marta asked.
Karl scratched his head. “But everyone has parents!”
Knut shrugged. “Well, I certainly don’t know mine,” he said. “You still haven’t answered my question from earlier. Why are you three out here? This isn’t the safest forest to be in.”
“But it’s got the Riddle Bridge in it,” Marta said.
“And there’s two paths. You took the one that’s through Ashwood. Don’t you know the story of Hans and Gretchen?”
“Of course! They’re our papa and aunt!” Marta said excitedly. Her grin faded as she and Karl looked back. “Wait, was that the forest they got lost in?”
“Unless there’s another plague-infected forest out there, then yes,” Knut said. He scanned the children from head to toe. “Looks like you all could use something to eat. And then we’ll find a messenger swan so he can take you back home.”
“We can’t go back home!” Karl said. “We have to find Papa! He’s been missing since Tobias was a baby!”
“Sad, but if he’s been gone for this long, he’s probably dead,” Knut said. “Especially if he went missing in Ashwood.”
“But he said he’d come back home!” Marta and Karl insisted in unison. “And Papa doesn’t break promises!” Karl added.
Knut sighed. Of all the things he didn’t want to do today, it was taking wayward children home.
“We have to find him,” Marta said. Her chin wobbled. “We want Mama to be happy again, because she misses him a lot.”
“We all do.” Karl’s green eyes filled with tears. “Papa promised.”
Knut looked from the older two to the youngest, who hadn’t screamed in fright at seeing him as a child that young was prone to do when they saw him. What was his name again? Thomas?
“And Tobias doesn’t remember Papa, but he wants to, right, Tobias?” Marta said. Tobias nodded.
Knut sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Aw, fine,” he said. “I’ll help you find out what happened to him, and then you’re all going home to your mother, understand?”
They nodded, eyes bright. Marta and Karl sniffed and wiped their eyes. Knut motioned for them to follow him to the bridge. Marta blurted out the answer and the bridge rose the two feet it had sunk earlier.
Over the bridge they went, this time into a forest as lush and green as the children had ever seen in their lives.
©H.S. Kylian 2019
(Critiques are welcome and appreciated!)