A cold cell. The boy shivered. The witch had brought him a bowl of cold stew 3 times during the day. He had been afraid of who might be in it, but he ate anyway. He had barely had anything to eat in days since leaving his house.
The house outside the cell looked warm. A high fire was under a cauldron in the center of the room. The witch bustled about adding spices and various ingredients to the boiling water. She had no pluming in the house, and had to fetch it from a pump outside.
Every time she went for a fresh bucket, the boy searched all around the cell for a way to escape. He had found none. There was a barred window he was able to see out of when he stood on tiptoe. He had heard an occasional passing car during the day, but now that it was night, the world outside was silent.
“Almost time,” The witch said. “Past time, really.” She was staring up at the clock. “No matter, though. The greater the hunger, the greater the meal.”
William said nothing. She banged on the cell bars with her broom stick, causing him to jump. The witch laughed at his fear.
“Don't eat me,” the boy said plainly. He was running out of arguments. He had tried pleading and bargaining. A simple request was all he had left.
The witch came close by and put her hands on the bars. “Maybe. . .” she said, pressing her forehead against the cold metal. Her long nose protruded into the prison. “Maybe I won't,” She said. “But I'll still cook you, either way!” She yanked her head away from the bars and guffawed at the ceiling.
“The scarecrow wouldn't like what you're doing, you know. He was trying to protect me before I came here.”
“So, you know the scarecrow, eh?”
“He's my friend.”
“Oh, yes. The scarecrow makes so many friends every year. I wonder how many of them end up like you. If he was really your friend, wouldn't he tell you not to go out in the dark?”
“He did,” the boy said quietly.
“He would have told you to be afraid.”
“He didn't say it. . . but I think he tried to show me.”
“Didn't listen!” The witch said, banging her broom on the bars again. “Didn't listen!” Bang went the broom. “Didn't listen! Now you're for me, and whoever wants to sample my stew. Fire's almost ready.”
William ran across the cell and leaped to the window. Grasping the bars with his hands, he thrust his face through and screamed for help. Someone would come now. How far could the scarecrow be? Jack was always out somewhere. Henry Talbot prowled this road-- William had seen it for himself. Time was ticking away, and now would be the perfect time for them to show up, if they weren't here already, plotting how to get him out.
Then he heard the cell door open behind him. She was coming in.
Then he heard it: Footsteps outside in the dark. They were coming closer just as the witch neared from behind. William looked over his shoulder at his approaching adversary.
“My friend is here!” He yelled at her. “You better leave me alone!”
She stopped in her tracks, but only to laugh.
William turned back to the window and saw who had come to rescue him. Pale face, top hat, a tight-lipped expressionless mouth surrounded by a black beard. The coffin man stared in at him without emotion.
William dropped from the window. Fear threatened to paralyze his body, but he couldn't let it. It was his last chance. No one had saved Hansel and Gretel. They had shoved the witch into her oven themselves.
He charged across the cell and threw himself at the old witch. All he had to do was hit her just right-- just right and she would tip over backward, stumble, and the witch would be her own stew.
William landed perfectly, his arms wrapped around her neck, his feet firmly planted against her torso. And the witch laughed. She didn't move an inch. She turned in place, instead. Over her shoulder, the boy saw the coffin man still staring in at them.
Just as William had been told, the second time he saw the coffin man, this time, there would be no choice. The old woman peeled William off of her body with one hand. She held him by the scruff of the neck high in the air. He could feel the steam from the boiling water dampening his pants. He couldn't stand to look at the old woman's hideous face, so he made eye contact with the coffin man instead.
And then she dropped him.