Seriously, this basket gets heavier every time. I enter grandmother’s cottage without knocking. Ten years ago, when I started bringing her food, she told me to just come in. I don’t argue with grandma, and it’s a good thing, considering what happened with the wolf.
“Grandma.” I place the basket on the kitchen table. The cottage hasn’t changed much. It’s still dark wood and old-style charm. Pans pile atop the woodburning stove in anticipation of a home-cooked meal. I inhale, and aside from the fresh bread I brought, pine and oak season the air. No matter how old I get, this place will always smell like home. “Grandma, it’s me, Genni. I’m here.”
“Be right out, sweetie.” Grandma’s voice, as old-style charm as the house, drifts from somewhere in the cottage. She says something in a softer tone.
I halt halfway to getting my red cape off and hung on a hook by the door.
Budding beanstalks, grandma has a visitor. Grandma never has visitors, except for me, Mom, and that guy she met at the Elder Cottage Living group two months ago.
I strain to hear. Whoever’s back there is quiet, which means it isn’t the Elder Cottages guy, and of course, this is the one time Grandma keeps her voice low.
I hang my cape and go back to the basket.
Two sets of footsteps approach. Grandma enters the kitchen. Her white hair is in its signature bun, and she’s wearing her white dress with the red-check pattern.
“Hello, sweetie.” Her face wrinkles with a smile and stays wrinkled as she directs a glare over her shoulder. “Oh, for giant’s sake, get in here. She doesn’t bite.”
I freeze. Who does Grandma need to reassure?
The person in the other room sighs. A scrawny guy who’s about my age and lucky if he has any muscle steps through the doorway. He’s dressed in shades of brown and green. Dark hair frames his stark-white face. He’s familiar from his blue eyes to his black boots, but I’m too mesmerized by his narrow arms to give it much thought. They’re so small.
“That’s more like it.” Grandma claps her hands. “Hutson, this is my granddaughter, Genni. Genni, this is Hutson Gunderor, Gunter Gunderor’s son.”
“Oh.” No wonder this kid is familiar. Gunter is the hunter—Gunter the Hunter, wow—who saved Grandma and me ten years ago. Hutson is the spitting image of his dad, except his dad is built, well, like a hunter. I hold out my hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Hutson doesn’t respond. He’s eyeing my hair as if it’s going to come alive and flambé him.
I finger the strands. Naturally, my hair is auburn, but since I turned fourteen, I’ve dyed it with various shades of reds and oranges. The result resembles flames.
Grandma steps on Hutson’s foot.
He yelps and shuffles away from the dangerous old lady.
“Nice to meet you, too.” His tone suggests he’d rather be burned alive by hair-fire. He takes my hand for the wimpiest shake ever before dropping it and making eye contact with the floor.
What is this guy’s problem?
“Very good,” Grandma says in her I-have-news voice. Nothing good ever follows the I-have-news voice. “It’s about time you two met. The arrangements were made ten years ago, and Gunter asked if I would do the introductions.”
What is she talking about?
“You two are betrothed.”
The world goes away.
Did another wolf barge in and swallow me whole?
I blink a bunch of times until reality comes back. The words future and husband flit around in my skull like a fly trying to break free of a jar. I heard wrong. Or maybe Grandma’s going nuts in her old age.
“I’m sorry, what?” I say.
Grandma beams. “You two will be wed. Well, not right away, of course, but isn’t this exciting for the two of you?”
Hutson’s face turns a paler shade of green.
I can’t blame him. Betrothed? It’s so archaic. Besides that, betrothed to Hutson Twig-Arms? Absolutely not.
“Well?” Grandma lifts her foot to step on something, most likely someone else’s foot.
Possibly my foot.
“Great.” My voice is flat.
To be fair, Hutson’s face is still green.
“Wonderful. Well, if you’ll excuse me.” He shuffles toward the front door and mumbles something about having to meet his father.
“Of course, dear.” Grandma rushes to let him out. “Give your father my best, and tell him we will begin preparations soon.”
Hutson mutters something else before darting out of the cottage and down a path.
“He’s a lovely young man.” Grandma closes the door.
“You can’t be serious.” My inner whiny twelve-year-old takes over the second the latch clicks home. “Him?”
Grandma nods, somber. “Yes, sweetie. You didn’t think Gunter saved us out of the goodness of his heart, did you? Hunters have to eat, too. He came calling for his payment, and I didn’t have it.”
A fire to match my hair blossoms in my chest. “So you offered me instead?”
“I did not.” Grandma straightens to her full height, a few inches shorter than mine. Even so, she’s almost wolf-scary. “I bartered everything I could think of, but nothing was enough. Gunter said he would accept a betrothal of you and Hutson. I had no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” I fling my hands up. “Like, for example, I could choose not to marry Mr. Stick Figure. He’s a hunter’s son. He couldn’t lift a toothpick, forget an axe.”
“It’s Jenni.” Ugh. Why does she have to use my full name? “And I’m not changing my mind. I don’t need a man to protect me. I’m capable. Besides, what good will he be around the house? And what if something does happen? What do I offer my father-by-marriage in return for a second rescue? My first born?” I gag on the words.
Oh man, get that image out of my head, now.
Grandma doesn’t waver. “I am certain things will work out. Unless you have fifteen gold pieces.”
My inner fire snuffs out, and the horrible images vanish like mist. Fifteen gold pieces? No one has fifteen gold pieces, except maybe kings, and those don’t hang around the woods too often. “These are the only choices?”
“Yes. If there were any other way, I would do it in a heartbeat.” Grandma deflates and crosses to the table, uncovering the basket. “But there is not. Thank you for the bread.”
M. T. DeSantis lives in a small city on the U.S. eastern seaboard and writes full-time. When not working, she can be found practicing yoga, attempting to answer trivia questions at restaurants, and plotting her next adventure.
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