“No!” Penelope shouted, chasing after the bushy-tailed creature as it scurried across the road, weaving through the traffic, and then fled down a narrow lane.
“Wait, Penelope!” Steph called as he chased after her. Penelope ignored Steph as she darted between horses and carriages, sprinting towards the lane.
“C’mon! I can run faster than this!” Penelope growled as her legs grew more leaden the faster she tried to run.
She clenched her fists into tight balls as she ran, making sure not to drop the fate token still clutched in her hand.
“The cobble stones…” Steph huffed behind her. “They’re enchanted to… slow beasts… and thieves!”
“Well, that thieving beast is still getting away!” Penelope shouted, huffing in frustration as the creature darted down yet another alley.
“He doesn’t mean… any harm… I’m sure!” Steph called out. Penelope didn’t respond, instead focusing on the tail whipping in and out of sight as they turned corners, narrowly dodging other pedestrians and street stalls.
“Tell… I have… grass… biscuit!” Steph wheezed out, though Penelope could barely hear him as the wind carried his words away.
“What? I don’t know what that—oh, never mind,” Penelope charged onward, tuning out Steph’s strange remarks behind her.
She realised she was at least able to keep pace with the creature, hindered as they all were by the cobblestones’ enchantments. The critter led them through a winding maze of roads and laneways, all tilting down hill until…
“The docks!” Penelope puffed out. “It’s headed to the river!”
The cobble path ended in a grassy hillock. As soon as the creature’s paws hit the grass it tumbled, head over tail, rolling halfway down the hill before finding its feet once more.
Penelope nearly tripped over her own feet as she hit the grass and strength returned to her legs. “Aha, I’ll get you, you ridiculous overgrown water rat! Come back here!” Penelope sprinted as fast as she could without losing her footing down the hill. Years spent wandering the wilds of the Faewood had given her a nimble step.
The creature squeaked in alarm, spitting up several coins, as Penelope closed the distance between them. It scarpered towards the shore, dashing across a short pier and onto a small wooden boat docked at the end of it.
Penelope came to a halt at the end of the pier, gasping for breath. Steph skidded to a stop beside her, doubled over and panting.
With the chase finally over, Penelope tucked her fate token safely into her pocket before tearing off her gloves and rolling up her sleeves. Feeling hot from exertion, the chill winter mist rising from the river was welcome against her skin.
“Um… excuse me? Hello?” Penelope called as her breath returned. The Great Fall waterfall thundered further upstream, and Penelope raised her voice to be heard over the din. “Is there anyone on this boat?”
“Hummm?” A short woman with flowers braided into her copper hair appeared in the cabin doorway.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, and I don’t want to cause alarm, but a large rat has just run aboard your boat. It stole my coins, you see, and I rather need them all back, so is it alright if I—”
Penelope jumped as the woman yelled out, “Marmot? What have you done, now?”
Penelope gaped as the furry creature peered around the edge of the cabin, its cheeks puffed out with a mouth full of coins.
“Marmot, have you taken this young woman’s coins?” The woman demanded of the creature. Penelope watched, flabbergasted, as the creature glared warily between Penelope and the strange woman, before opening its mouth and dropping a slobbery pile of coins onto the deck.
“Oh, Marmot, we’ve talked about this!” The woman admonished, treading across the wooden deck to pick up the pile of coins, much to Penelope’s disgust.
She turned to Penelope. “I’m so sorry, he does these things sometimes. Here—”
Before Penelope could recoil, the woman skipped up to her, grasped Penelope’s hand, and dropped the whole wet pile of coins into her bare palm.
“Thanks…” Penelope said, suppressing a gag. Kneeling at the dock’s edge, she plunged her hand and the fistful of coins into the icy water, rattling them gently to clean them of the critter’s saliva, then added the pile back to her coin purse.
Steph laughed beside Penelope. “Hullo, Marmalade. Sorry we’re late, the baker at Silver Court tried to haggle us, then we got… sidetracked in the concourse gardens.” Steph ran a hand through his curls, smoothing them away from his flushed face.
Penelope turned to Steph, “Wait, you know this creature?” she asked as Steph crouched down and withdrew a biscuit from his apron pocket. It appeared to have blades of grass poking out the sides.
“Grass biscuit… Oh, I see,” Penelope laughed weakly, shaking her head as Marmot darted up to sniff at the treat.
Steph handed it to the creature, who sat down with a heavy thump, feet splayed, and happily crunched through the biscuit.
“This is Marmot,” Steph said. Marmot glanced up at Penelope, chewing the last of his treat, spraying crumbs across the deck. “And this is the wood witch Marmalade, finest baker in all of Faewood,” Steph said with a flourish of his hand. “Marmalade, Marmot, this is Princess Penelope of…” Steph puffed out his cheeks, looking sheepish. “Where are you princess of, exactly?”
“Starwood. I’m Princess Penelope of House Starwood.”
Steph gaped. “Starwood? Truly?”
“I suppose it’s more of a technicality at this point,” Penelope muttered, gaze on her shoes as she drew her well-worn coat about her.
“Sorry! I didn’t mean—It’s just, Starwood is famous for some of the finest alchemical bases and all,” Steph said, looking a little starstruck. “Hey, how do you know where to find the fruit of—”
“A pleasure, Princess Penelope of Starwood,” Marmalade cut Steph off with a smile at Penelope.
“You as well. And just Penelope is fine,” Penelope smiled nervously. “Um. Did you say baker in the Faewood? You’re the baker in the Faewood! I smell your pies all the time but I’ve never been able to find… you’re a wood witch? But that’s wonderful! Maybe… might I ask you a question?”
“You live in the Faewood, too?” Steph asked, wonder in his voice.
“Yes, my governesses and I live in a cottage in the south.”
“Could I visit sometime?” Steph asked with a wide grin and bright eyes.
“I, oh, um—”
“I’m sorry, that was very forward of me. Forget I asked. I just have never met anyone else who actually lives in the Faewood. It’s such a fascinating place… but dangerous, isn’t it? You actually live there? Aren’t you afraid?”
“Dangerous..? Afraid? When I was little perhaps, but I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous per say… I mean, if you fall from trees, maybe. Or get lost. But I’m sure you can do that anywhere—”
“You had a question, dear?” Marmalade prompted, as she began unwinding her boat’s tether from the dock.
“Oh, right, yes, um,” Penelope said, feeling flustered.
Penelope withdrew her fate token. “If you’re a witch, I was hoping you might tell me how to use this token properly… the enchantress who gave it to me only said to keep it close, but so far I’ve been knocked to the ground, injured, and had all my money taken by a… by Marmot. Am I doing something wrong?” Penelope asked desperately.
Marmalade pursed her lips and regarded the token seriously. “The Enchantress… of Daisy Lane? She gave you that?” Marmalade asked, sounding curious.
“Yes. I mean, I got a love token at first but I asked for something stronger and she gave me this—“ Penelope cut off as the boat creaked, and realised it was detaching from the dock.
“Please, do you know how it works?” Penelope called out as Marmalade and Marmot began to drift away from the bank.
“I’m sorry, dear. That isn’t the kind of magic one can easily control. If you don’t want it… you should bury it.”
“I—” Penelope began to call back, but the current had caught the boat and it was swallowed by the mist as it began drifting downstream.
“Dammit,” Penelope muttered. Steph was staring at Penelope with open awe and curiosity. Penelope stared back before blowing out her breath and kicking at a pebble on the dock.
Feeling cheated, bruised, exhausted, and altogether unhappy, Penelope glared at the fate token. On a frustrated impulse, she drew her uninjured arm back and hurled the coin into the misty river.
There was a bright flare of orange light as it disappeared into the fog. Penelope heard a small splash as the coin hit the water, followed by a much larger splash and a cry of alarm from Marmalade.
The sound of frantic splashing and Marmot’s squeaks of distress echoed over the flowing water.
“Oh, no, he—” Steph murmured.
“Jumped after the token!” Penelope cried.
“Marmot! Hold on!” Marmalade shouted. “I’m coming!”
“I’ll get the shore guard!” Steph turned and sprinted back up the pier before Penelope could say a word.
Penelope heard Marmalade’s boots stomping across the wood of her deck as she hurried to turn the boat around.
But the boat was already further downstream, carried on the strong current, and Marmot was gasping for breath.
Dropping her gloves and purse, Penelope shed her coat, dumped her small shoulder bag, and kicked off her boots, tearing at the laces with her good hand.
Penelope hesitated for only a few seconds, bracing herself at the edge of the dock, then jumped into the frigid waters.
The cold shocked the breath from her body, and Penelope forced herself to breathe evenly, in and out, as she waded through the icy water towards the sounds of Marmot’s splashing.
It was taking too long, and Penelope’s limbs were already fatiguing from the cold. Gasping in a large breath, Penelope dove her head underwater before she could second guess herself.
The cold was achingly painful, and then it felt like nothing as her body became numb to it. Under the water, Penelope could see a small orange glow. She kicked herself towards it, gliding smoothly through the grey waters, fighting against the drag of her skirt.
The water was deep. Penelope lost sight of the rose reeds that grew along the bottom as she followed the glow towards the middle of the river.
Her lungs now burning, Penelope kept kicking her way towards the light, which had begun sinking down towards the dark.
As she drew close, Penelope saw the round silhouette of Marmot, motionless and curled in a ball about the glow.
Propelling herself the final few feet, Penelope reached out to grab the heavy weight of Marmot. For a terrifying moment, she didn’t think she was strong enough to drag them both up to the surface.
Penelope exhaled the last of her air in a furious burst of bubbles and kicked as hard as she was able with numb, cramping legs, struggling against the undercurrent.
At last she broke the surface, spluttering and gulping in air. Penelope hefted Marmot until his face broke the water.
“Here!” Marmalade shouted. A ring of inflated leather tied with rope landed with a wet thud in the water nearby. Penelope reached for it, her grip slipping on the slick leather until she looped her arm through it, gritting her teeth against the pain in her sprained wrist.
She clutched Marmot as tightly as she could about his middle, aware that he appeared to not be breathing, as Marmalade drew them to the boat.
With a strength that belied her small stature, Marmalade hoisted Penelope and Marmot over the railing and onto the deck. Penelope’s arms were cramping fiercely as she clutched Marmot in one, and the ring in the other.
Penelope lay sputtering and shivering on the deck as Marmalade rolled Marmot onto his back.
Penelope heard Steph yelling from the shore, his voice lost in the mix of several new voices.
Penelope couldn’t quite make out what they were saying over a ringing in her ears.
After a few moments, Penelope heard Marmalade call out. “No! No, we’re okay, now! It’ll be alright once I treat them!”
Penelope flopped her head to the side and saw Marmot was breathing again. Wet and shaking, his breaths came in frantic puffs of mist. In his little, sodden paws, he clutched Penelope’s fate token, its glow fading to dark obsidian.
Penelope felt the boat lurch as it was caught in the rush of the downstream current once more. Succumbing to the fatigue in her shaking limbs, Penelope’s awareness faded to black.