Sample Chapters from
Little Hood

Chapter One

The sun was bright on this September afternoon as Blanche strolled along the country lane. Four empty baskets hung on her arms. She wished her deliveries took longer. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply, soaking up as much of the walk home as she could. Hopefully it would be enough to last her another dismal night at home.

            She pulled her mouse-brown braid over her shoulder, her keen blue eyes on the trees. Brown leaves curled along most of the branches. If only there had been a good cold snap. She remembered the way the leaves had changed last year. Yellows, oranges, reds—the color of the gold found in a dragon’s lair, the brilliant orange sunset across distant mountains, or the bright red of a cross on a Crusader’s shield. As long as she was out here, everything was possible.

            Her best friend, Helene, trotted beside her in prim and proper fashion. Her hair, only a few shades lighter than Blanche’s, was parted precisely and fell in curls on either side of a petite half bun. She stepped daintily, skirt lifted as if the dust could singe her pale, freckled skin. “Next time could we sit and talk inside?”

            “Shh.” Blanche held out her hand. “I’m trying to enjoy our walk.”

            “Enjoy this heat?”

            “I’m not wringing out someone else’s laundry or kneading a batch of dough or filling the water pot for the fifteen thousandth time. I refuse to let a little heat ruin the moment.”

            Helene dabbed the sweat streaking down her neck with a small embroidered handkerchief. “Can we at least walk faster? Just because you don’t mind getting in trouble doesn’t mean I want to.”

            “Oh, please. Mama isn’t going to send me to bed without supper because I stopped to pick dandelions.”

            “You took ten minutes to pick which ones to pick. Admit it—you’re stalling.”

            “Wouldn’t you?”

            “No. I’d hurry home so I could help my mother. That way the work would be done faster, and we could both enjoy a little relaxation after dark.”

            “Helene, my mother never relaxes. If she isn’t in bed, she’s working.”

            “Then tell her you want to enjoy some quality time with her. She can’t say no to that.”

            “But I don’t want to spend a whole night sitting around thinking of things to say.”

            “I guess you’d rather be making up adventures you’re going to have when you grow up and leave.”

            Not this conversation again. Blanche was grateful to have someone other than her mother to talk to, but Helene could be downright annoying when it came to Blanche’s dreams.

            Fierce barking ahead caught Blanche’s attention. It was coming from Monsieur Bernier’s fields across the lane. It sounded like the shepherd’s dogs were trying to kill each other. “What on earth is going on over there?” Blanche asked.

            “That would be our cue to hurry up.” Helene walked faster.

            Blanche hung back, studying the fenced pastures. The shepherd’s dogs got along fine, and they were both friendly with most people. “There’s got to be some kind of danger,” she said.

            “Blanche,” Helene called from up the lane, “what are you doing? Let’s get out of here.”

            Ignoring her friend, Blanche walked up to the fence. The sheep were running around the field in groups, their bleats more like screams for help. Suddenly, another head appeared among them—teeth bared, ears back—then another, and another. “Wild dogs! They’re going to kill all the sheep.”

            “Fine!” Helene yelled back. “Monsieur Bernier can handle it. Let’s go.”

            The middle-aged shepherd and his teenage sons were just now rushing to the scene, brandishing pitchforks and shovels. The herding dogs snarled and growled at the wild ones. Teeth snapped and shone. Then the dogs ripped into one another. Monsieur Bernier swung his pitchfork with a yell. His sons went after the third wild dog, but they were clearly terrified. Blanche’s heart beat faster.

            “Blanche! Let’s go!”

            Blanche was about to turn around when she saw an old rusty shovel leaning up against the fence. It wasn’t that far from her, and the shepherds looked like they needed help. She glanced back at Helene.

            Her friend was already shaking her head. “Blanche, I am begging you. Do not—”

            Grinning, Blanche dropped the empty baskets and slipped through the fence.

            Helene ran toward her. “Blanche, don’t you dare!”

            Blanche raced across the pasture wielding the rusty shovel. The flock rumbled past her, the third wild dog nipping at their heels. The shepherd’s gangly younger son was running after it when he saw Blanche. He tripped over his own feet and went rolling through the grass. Blanche would have giggled if she weren’t so busy figuring out what to do.

            The sheep had wheeled around and were now caught in the corner of the fence. The wild dog was darting among them, nipping at heels, tearing wool coats. Gulping air down her dry throat, Blanche cut across the pasture toward them. Monsieur Bernier called her name. She kept running. She was almost to the sheep.

            Then the dog saw her. It froze, eyes locked on hers, blood dripping out of its fang-filled mouth. Blanche’s heart dropped. She couldn’t move. The dog ran at her with a snarl.             Screaming, Blanche closed her eyes and swung the shovel. The blade missed, and the force threw her to the ground. The dog shot past her. A bang and a thud later, she opened her eyes to see the dog lying behind her—dead.

Blanche gasped for breath, trembling, heart pounding like it wanted out of her chest. The shepherd reached down and hoisted her to her feet. The other two wild dogs had been chased off. And the shepherd’s dogs were busy trying to contain the crazed sheep.

            “Whew!” Blanche giggled. “That was crazy.”

            Monsieur Bernier was staring at her, chest heaving from running.

            Blanche propped one hand on her hip and leaned proudly against the shovel. “Good thing I stopped by, huh?”

            The man wiped his face with the back of his hand. “What in this whole blessed world is wrong with you, girl?” he demanded.

            Blanche’s confidence wavered. “I . . .”

            “You could have gotten yourself killed!” yelled the shepherd. “Did you not think we had enough on our hands without trying to keep you alive too?”

            “We’re so sorry, Monsieur Bernier,” called Helene, who now stood by the fence, twisting her hair nervously. “And thank you for saving her life.” She glared at Blanche and mouthed, “Let’s go.”

            Blanche rolled her eyes. “I was trying to help. Don’t I at least deserve a thank-you?”

            “Children shouldn’t throw themselves into dangerous situations.”

            Dropping the shovel, Blanche folded her arms. “I guess it’s a good thing I’m not a child anymore.”

            The shepherd shook his head at her. “Blanche Travers, you’re twelve years old, and you’re the only family your mother’s got. Throwing yourself in here like that, you were fairly well asking to get mauled. You should be ashamed for being so selfish. Now you get home to your mother. And next time leave the animal wrangling to the adults. Understand?”

            Heat crept up Blanche’s neck into her face. She nodded silently, letting her arms drop to her sides, then walked over to the fence and slipped through to where Helene was waiting for her. The shepherd and his sons went back to dealing with the hysterical sheep and the dead dog while the two best friends headed back to the road.

            Blanche’s stomach churned as she picked up the baskets.

            “That was the most humiliating spectacle I’ve ever seen,” Helene whispered, glancing back at the shepherds.

            “You were humiliated?” Blanche scoffed and scooped up her baskets. “I’m the one he yelled at.”

            “What did you expect? You nearly got yourself killed. Just because some stupid adventure book made you think you aren’t important unless you’re out slaying dragons.”

            Blanche ground her teeth. Many responses came to mind, but they were all rude. It was probably best to just keep walking.

            A horse neighed, and the two swung around to see a gentleman astride a well-groomed bay standing just down the lane. Blanche groaned. Not Monsieur Burke. The man chuckled and signaled his horse to walk toward them. His raven-black waves were combed to perfection beneath a wide-brim hat pinned on one side with an enormous feather.        His chiseled bronze face was freshly shaved, revealing a perfectly clefted chin. Emerald eyes sparkled in the sun. And his lanky frame swung confidently in the saddle as he brought his horse to a stop in front of them.

            He raised a gloved fist to cover a coughed. “Well, that certainly was quite the display back there. I doubt your mother would have approved. By the way, how is your mother?”

            Blanche gave him a sticky-sweet smile. “Happy you’re not lurking around our house.”

            Helene nudged her.

            Shaking his head, Burke sighed. “For being such a remarkable woman, your mother has failed at making you into any kind of lady. I wonder if it would be different were your father alive.”

            Blanche breathed in sharply through her nose. That was sacred ground he was treading on. He had better be careful.

            “Perhaps that will change when you get a new father.” Burke smirked knowingly.

            Blanche forced out a laugh. “As if any man in the entire county could live up to Mama’s standards.”

            Burke shrugged. “Desperation has a way of making people see common sense.”

            “There’s no amount of desperation in the world that could make my mother see that kind of common sense.”

            Burke’s smile tensed but didn’t fade. Before he could reply, another horse came cantering toward them. The man who rode it wore the embroidered vest and plumed hat of the mayoral guard. “Monsieur Burke,” he called out.

            “What is it?” Burke replied.

            “I’ve been looking for you all day.” The man pulled his horse up to the little group, ignoring the girls completely.        “Monsieur Ferrante asked me to get you to the mansion at once. They finally found it, and he wants you present.”

            “Found what?” Blanche asked.

            The guard squinted down his nose at her but didn’t reply. Instead, he turned back to Burke. “Unless you want to lose your position in the mayor’s good graces, I’d suggest you spend your time with your mentor instead of cooing at local infants.” This said, he spurred his horse and rode back the way he had come.

            Blanche gripped her baskets. What made him think he was so important?

            Burke looked equally miffed. “Weaseling little . . .” He glanced at Blanche. She shot him another smug smile. Scoffing, he turned his horse around and rode after the guard. “Give my regards to your mother!” he shouted back at her.

            “I promise, I won’t!” she shouted back. Then her smile switched to a scowl. “I hope he falls off his horse and lands in a wasp’s nest.”

            “Blanche!” Helene grabbed her arm and started walking. “You shouldn’t say things like that.”

            “It’d serve him right for being such a horrible person.”

            “What’s he ever done to you?”

            Blanche thought a moment, then shrugged and replied, “Well, there’s got to be some sin that covers being the most annoying person in existence.”

            She stopped walking. Her mother, Severine Travers, stood across the grove of trees to the left. Her hands were on her hips. Her frazzled black hair was falling out of the sloppily pinned-up bun. Her sun-kissed skin clung to her narrow, bony frame. Little wrinkles lined her eyes and mouth. As always, she looked tired.

            “Were you going on a holiday?” she asked.

            “No, ma’am,” replied Blanche, gaze lowering to the ground.

            “Well, without you home, I had to hang the laundry myself. Do you know how many hems I could have sewn instead? That would have been money in our pocket, Blanche. Or do you not want to eat anything but boiled squash?”

            Helene took a step back. “I told you we should have hurried,” she whispered. Then she waved faintly at Blanche’s mother and walked quickly on down the lane.

            Sighing, Blanche dragged herself to her mother’s side. “I’m sorry, Mama,” she muttered.

            Severine pressed her palm against her forehead. “I know you know how important these clients are,” she said, her voice softer now. “Can’t you just do your work instead of dragging your feet everywhere all the time?”

            Blanche shrugged, keeping her eyes down.

            Her mother put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her toward the hill. “Come on. We might as well eat some supper while we’re waiting for those loaves to bake. Then we need to pack tomorrow’s baskets.”

            The words weighed like iron chains on Blanche’s soul. More work. Always work. Shoulders sagging, she walked with her mother over the little hill to their home. Might as well get it over with.

Chapter Two

Blanche’s home sat on a long, wide hill. The hill itself was beautiful at the peak of spring when the grass was bright green and there were wildflowers everywhere. In this extended summer, however, the yellow-brown slope was as depressing as the house.

            It was a two-room house with the living area downstairs and a lopsided loft upstairs. The worn gray boards and hole-riddled thatched roof perfectly matched the broken-down fence beside it. A laundry line ran from the side of the house to the short squat tree Blanche had grown up climbing.

            Matilda, the family goat, and a handful of hens wandered around the yard. The fattest hen rushed over and started pecking at Blanche’s bare feet. “Not now, Clucky,” she whispered, nudging the chicken away with her foot.

            She gazed southwest, beyond the forest. There stood the mountains, tall, imperial statues of splendor. That was where adventures happened—where dragons had lairs and trolls had caves and evil lords built underground palaces to hide their golden hoards and the monsters that protected them.

            She imagined ten knights approaching, lances at the ready, shields up. But that wouldn’t protect them from the dragon’s rage. It was rearing back, spewing fire on them. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, a young maiden landed on its back and plunged a pike right through it! She held on for dear life as the beast roared and clobbered around. Then its life faded out. It sunk to the ground.

            The maiden tumbled off its back, landing perfectly on her feet. The knights’ jaws dropped. Then they all took to one knee in reverence for the fearless warrioress who destroyed the beast and brought hope back to the land. Then the king sent for her. He prepared the gold that was promised as a reward for the slayer of the beast. The maiden rode her fearless steed, a bold chestnut mare named Zahira, down the city streets as the crowd tossed rose petals into the air and chanted her name. “Blanche! Blanche! Blanche!”

            “Blanche!” Severine nudged her. “Hello?”

            Blanche jumped. “What?”

            Sighing again, Severine dropped her arm. “Where’d you go this time?”

            “Sorry,” replied Blanche. “I was just . . . thinking.”

            “Mm. Let’s just hope we haven’t lost too much daylight.” Her mother grabbed an empty basket from the doorway of the shack and traded Blanche for the four smaller ones. “Vegetables, patchwork, supper.” She gave Blanche a decisive nod. “Hop to it.” As Blanche slowly turned to go, she added, “And save the daydreaming for your sleep, huh?”

            Blanche flopped down in their little garden. All that was left were pumpkins and squashes. And the pumpkins weren’t quite ripe yet. The prickly squash leaves poked Blanche’s hands, making them itch.

            She sorted the prettiest squashes into a basket for customers and the ugly ones into a basket for them. Everything good went to customers. Even the eggs were off-limits unless there were more than usual. And with winter coming, they’d be lucky just to keep up with their customers’ demands. Blanche braced herself and trudged inside.

            The heat inside was worse than outside with no breeze to stir the air, and it always smelled of boiling squash and baking bread. Stuffed in the corner were her mother’s pine needle mattress, a rocking chair, and a pillow made of burlap and pine needles for Blanche. In the middle of the room stood the table and a bench. On the other side of the room sat the fireplace and a tiny beehive-shaped brick oven. In the exact center of the room was a little ladder that led upstairs to the loft.

            As her eyes adjusted to the dim indoor lighting, Blanche saw her mother sitting at the table, one hand sunk deep in her black curls. The other hand pushed one coin after another across the table. A shaky sigh escaped Severine’s wiry frame as she whispered to herself. 

            Blanche hated seeing her mother like this. She worked harder than Blanche did in this heat, and all day for that matter. All that and only those few coins to show for it. No wonder she was always stressed out.

            With soft footsteps, Blanche made her way to the table. “Mama, are you all right?”

            Severine shoved the coins into a little wooden box. “There you are.” She lifted her gaunt face. Guarded resolve buried any emotion other than irritation beneath a fading sunburn. “Let’s get to the patchwork.”

            Blanche looked at her mother closely. Were those tears? It was hard to tell with the beads of sweat dripping down Severine’s face. Sniffing hard, Severine marched over to the pot at the fireplace. “Get to it then,” she said.

            Blanche sat on her little pillow and picked up her homemade sewing box. It wasn’t anything fancy, but she liked to pretend it had been crafted by wood gnomes who had given it to her as a thank-you for ridding their little forest of an ogre.

            As she sat there stitching a patch on a farmer’s shirt, Blanche glanced at the empty basket by the door. “Mama,” she said, “can I stop by Grandmama’s on the way home tomorrow?”

            Severine’s mouth twitched, but she kept her eyes on kneading the bread. “You’d have to promise to be home by noon, which means an early start and no wandering around with Helene.”

            “I can do that,” replied Blanche. “Although it’d be quicker if I went through the forest.” Her mother gave her an exhausted look. Blanche squinted her eyes in earnestness. “Please? It’d take at least ten minutes off my walk one way. And I could be back by—”

            “We’ve already talked about this.” That was always the answer.

            Time dragged on. The afternoon passed, then the evening. The two forced down their bowls of boiled squash. Then came the night, with the nearly full moon shining brightly down on their home. A yawn escaped Blanche, and she set the quilt aside. Her mother was still working furiously on her needlework even though her eyes were getting red and puffy. “Mama?” Blanche said. “Can we be done for the night?”

            Severine stifled a yawn of her own. “Of course. You go on up to bed. I’ll be done shortly.”

            A likely story. She’d probably be up for at least another hour, trying to fit in the last of her work. Oh well. That wasn’t Blanche’s problem. She jumped up from the pillow, tossed her sewing to the side, and planted a giant kiss on her mother’s cheek. “Good night,” she declared, then raced up the rickety stairs before her mother could reply.

            Up in the loft, amid the piles of materials for sewing and baking, Blanche finally felt at home. There was her little trunk with all her worldly possessions: an extra dress, a pair of holey shoes, a coat for the winter, and a small selection of trinkets she had either found discarded along her routes or traded with neighbors’ children for nuts or apples.

            She plopped down on the pine needle mattress. It was far too hot up here for the scratchy old blanket, so she changed into her one and only nightgown and cuddled up beside the wide-open window. Somewhere in the forest, a wolf howled at the moon. Severine was probably getting chills at the sound. Blanche didn’t understand her fear of the animals. She thought the sound was beautiful. If only her mother understood that she wasn’t afraid, then Blanche could use the forest road and get to her grandmother’s much faster. She could visit her every week that way.

            Her eyes were already drooping as she picked up her little book. Technically, it was on loan from her grandmother. It would have been charity otherwise, and Severine would never have allowed her to take it. But since her grandmother had said she probably wouldn’t need it for years to come, Blanche claimed it as her own.

            She could barely keep her eyes open. But she took the book, her fingers caressing its worn pages, and turned to a dragon story. She was probably one of the only children in the county who could read, and she had her grandmother to thank for that. Through drooping eyelids, she drank in the rich words. Courage, honor, renown. Her lips moved as she read the story she could have quoted from memory.

            Only a few paragraphs in, her eyes failed her. She slumped over on the wood floor, her arm cradling her head, the book pulled tightly to her heart. Someday. Someday she would get out of here. She would put all this drudgery and monotonous work behind her. She would become a real adventurer, one that everyone loved, whose name was known across the land. She would become someone whose life finally meant something. She stretched and curled up again. Slowly, she drifted into sleep, the wolf’s howl the only sound she could hear in the night.

Chapter Three

The haunting howls echoed in Blanche’s mind the next morning as she raced through her deliveries. She was soon finished and heading toward her grandmother’s house. When she came to the forest, she took the road to the right, as always. It curved southward around the forest. The main road ran straight through, but no one ever used it. Blanche wondered why they mayor didn’t take some of that money he was always fining people and change this into the main road.

            The trees rose beside her with the grandeur of a cathedral. Their wood was aged, their branches clawlike, and the tangled mess between them was so thick she couldn’t see into the rest of the forest. The sweet scent of honeysuckle and fermenting apples tantalized her senses. A dozen different kinds of birds sang as they flew between treetops, and from deep within came the faint trickle of a woodland creek. There were no signs of goblins or ghosts. Blanche scoffed. The farmers were so gullible.

            Finally, she reached another fork in the road, winding northward into the forest. This part was less tangled, and the cottage was only a little ways in. A strange damp coolness surrounded her as she entered the shade. She breathed it in deeply. It was worlds better than the stifling heat outside.

            Her grandmother’s cottage sat in a clearing surrounded by the grand trees. It was short and square and made of gray stones with crooked windows and an even crookeder chimney. Moss draped from the edges of the tan thatched roof, and the wood accents were dark brown. The stone steps led down to a stone pathway, and around the whole property sat a white picket fence. Flowers filled the yard and climbed the cottage walls, refreshing the eyes with their shades of purple and yellow.

            Blanche walked around to the back. Here was her grandmother’s true pride—her garden. In the middle were rows of vegetables. Around this was a miniature orchard of fruit and nut trees. And there was Claudette on her hands and knees weeding the pumpkin patch.

            Blanche had always marveled at how closely her mother resembled the white-haired woman. They had the same long face, the same wiry build, and the same almond-shaped eyes, although Severine’s were blue and Claudette’s a colorless gray. Claudette had taken such good care of her skin and stature, she sometimes looked like she could be Severine’s older sister instead of her mother. The biggest difference was the smile. Blanche had never seen her grandmother without one. Severine never smiled.

            “Hello,” Blanche called.

            “Well, look who it is!” The older woman gave her that great smile. “I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to visit again.”

            “It’s only been two weeks.”

            “Well, two weeks is too long if you ask me. Did your mother send any bread?”

            Blanche held up the baskets. “Two loaves.” As she lowered them, she added sheepishly, “They’re a little too brown for the customers. Hope that’s all right.”

            Claudette shrugged. “Still better than anything I can bake. How long can you stay for?”

            “Mama said I could have lunch with you.”

            “Good.” Claudette carefully stood, then dusted off her hands. “Let’s get inside then. Snag a few apples on your way in, will you?”

            Blanche stepped up to the nearest apple tree. Great orbs of rich fruit dangled temptingly from the branches. Almost all of them were so big she could barely fit her hand around them. Clumsily, she twisted and tugged until she finally snapped the apples off the tree, then she dropped them into one of the baskets and followed her grandmother through the back door.

            Immediately, Blanche knocked her knee on an open cupboard. Clenching her teeth, she closed the cupboard and limped around to the chair on the other side of the table.

            “How is your mother doing?” Claudette asked.

Blanche watched her grandmother pull out glasses, plates, and cloth napkins, leaving every cupboard and drawer open.         “Same as always, I guess,” she replied. “You could just ask her yourself, you know.”

            “I’ll be happy to ask her as soon as she lets me.”

            Shrugging, Blanche pulled out the apples and started cleaning them with a nearby cloth. “I finally had an adventure the other day,” she announced. “You would have been so proud of me.”

            “I’m always proud of you, dear.”

            “Yes, but this was special.”

            Claudette pulled out a knife and began slicing the bread. “Well, do tell.”

            Taking a deep breath, Blanche began. “I was walking home with Helene, and when we got to the shepherd’s farm, we heard very loud barking. I thought it was just their dogs at first, but it still didn’t seem right. So I went over to investigate. It turned out to be a pack of wild dogs.” She paused for effect.

            Her grandmother raised her eyebrows but didn’t interrupt.

            “Monsieur Bernier and his sons were trying to fight them off, but they obviously needed help. So I stepped in.”

            “And by stepped in, you mean . . .”

            “I grabbed a shovel and ran after those dogs myself.”

            “Mm.” Her grandmother nodded and went back to making the sandwiches.

            Impatiently, Blanche leaned over the table. “I nearly got eaten. This one dog locked eyes with me, and there were sheep trampling every which-a-way. So I swung at it. But it dodged out of the way. So Monsieur Bernier hit it.”

            “I thought you said they needed your help.”

            “Well, Monsieur Bernier didn’t think so. He yelled at me and gave me a lecture. I thought he’d be grateful. I was trying to help.”

            “What did your mother think?”

            Blanche cocked her head to one side, thinking. “I completely forgot to tell her.”

            Chuckling, Claudette picked up the tray. “Come on, dear,” she said. “Let’s have our lunch in the tearoom.”

            Blanche followed her grandmother through the kitchen door into a little nook on the other side. A small table with two cushioned chairs made a cozy place for relaxing. And the bookshelf, draped with doilies and lace, always made Blanche’s heart ache. What she wouldn’t give for a home full of books.

            As soon as she sat down, Blanche shoved a big sandwich into her mouth. The creamy cheese and salty pork made her taste buds tingle. She sat back and sighed with delight. “You know,” she said through the mouthful of food, “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it at first. But once I got in there, it was like my adventurer side took over. That was the most thrilling thing that’s ever happened to me. I can’t wait to get out in the real world and start doing that for a living.”

            “You’re planning on chasing wild dogs for a living?”

            Blanche blinked hard. “No. I meant adventuring. Saving people from grave threats. Defeating villains. Destroying monsters.” She took another bite. “I bet if I’m as brave out there as I was in that field, it won’t take long before I’m famous. Pretty soon, I’ll have enough money to buy Mama a real house, and I could come back to visit in between adventures. And then—”

            Claudette cleared her throat. “Forgive me for interrupting,” she said. “But I don’t understand. Why are you leaving?”

            “To be an adventurer. I thought I told you that before.”

            “Why can’t you be one here?”

            Blanche snorted. “Why would I want to stay here?”

            Smirking, her grandmother replied, “I can’t say it’s the most agreeable place. In fact, it would be about two mishaps from disappearing off the map if it were on one.”

            “Exactly.”

            “But if any place ever needed a hero, it would be here.”

            Blanche shook her head. “Everyone here is too worried about me being safe, or I’m busy working for them, or they just ignore me ’cause I’m still a kid.”

            “So prove them wrong.”

            “But all I can do is work. All I ever do is work. There’s nothing adventurous about laundry and baking.”

            Raising an eyebrow, Claudette added in an undertone, “I wonder if those books I lent you have gotten the wrong notions in your head. Now you listen—whatever it is you think you’re going to find out there, I can guarantee you’re the only one who can give it to yourself. So stop looking for a distraction and start asking yourself what it is you really want.”

            Blanche focused on her sandwich. Clearly, her grandmother didn’t understand.

            Claudette nibbled at her sandwich, studying Blanche with those piercing gray eyes. “What about your mother? You know how she is. Even with help, she buries herself with work. If you left now, she’d probably work herself to death.”

            The thought sobered Blanche. She set the sandwich down. “I know. But what am I supposed to do? It’s not fair that I have to stay just because she’s determined to be miserable.”

            Her grandmother frowned at her. “Blanche.”

“It’s true. She never stops working, not for anything. If I weren’t working with her, she wouldn’t have a reason to keep me around. Except that I’m her daughter and she loves me, I guess.”

            Claudette was quiet for a moment. “I suppose it would be different if she had something in her life that made her happy besides you.”

            “Well, good luck trying to find out what makes her happy. Any time she sees something fun, she runs in the other direction. And she hates everybody but me.” Standing, she took one long drink out of the glass and set it aside. “I’d better be getting home.” She stuffed the rest of her sandwich into her mouth and grabbed the second one.

            “Blanche,” said Claudette.

            Blanche paused.

            “Your mother loves you, and I love you. You know that, right?”

            Blanche nodded, still unable to speak with all the food in her mouth. She scooped up her baskets and whacked the bookshelf. Something fell from the top, landing with a clink on the floor. She gasped. “I’m so sorry.” She scurried to grab the item from the floor.

            “I’ll take that,” said Claudette, holding out a hand.

            Blanche examined it. It was a small silver apple, barely the size of her thumb, discolored with age.

            “Blanche?” Claudette reached for it. “I said I’ll take that.”

            “What is it?”

            Claudette snatched it away. “Nothing you need to worry about. Now get on home, and give your mother my regards.” She buried the trinket in her pocket, giving Blanche a smile that was sweeter than usual.

            Eyeing her suspiciously, Blanche gave her a quick kiss and hug and headed for the door.

            “And be safe, dear,” Claudette added. “Caution is an adventurer’s best friend.”

            Blanche gave her grandmother one last wave and stepped out into the woods.