Penelope woke to the comforting sound of hot liquid being poured into stonework. She was enveloped by a cosy warmth, and imagined for a moment that she had drifted off by her hearth fire, and one of the Sisters was pouring tea.
This notion was dispelled by the loud slurping and gulping that followed. Penelope sat up with a jolt. Marmot was wrapped in a thick woollen blanket clutching a steaming mug of cocoa, his snout ringed with chocolate.
Marmalade smiled, holding out a second cup for Penelope. Penelope accepted the mug with a bewildered thanks, and stared at their surroundings.
They were sat on the deck of Marmalade’s boat, encircled by amber warming stones. Penelope realised that her thick skirt was almost dry.
Marmalade cradled a small copper kettle, topping up Marmot’s cup before setting it down on a glowing stone plate.
Mist spilled over the river, seeming almost alive as it curled up the leafy banks. Overhead a high canopy of deepest green obscured the sky.
Penelope had never seen woods like this.
Layer upon layer of dense foliage enfettered the boughs of enormous, ancient trees as they arched, intertwining, high over the waters.
Their thick, silver trunks were barnacled with moss and luminescent structures that resembled the corals Penelope had once found in pools deep within the Faewood.
The trees grew thick along both banks of the river, though Penelope caught the occasional movement of light and shadow through the gaps between them.
Icy panic flooded Penelope as she realised she had no idea where they were, where the boat was going, or how far from Grimwood they had travelled.
“Where are we? I need to get back to the Sisters!” Penelope exclaimed, launching herself upright on unsteady feet. “I was supposed to meet them back at the fountain, they must be so worried, I—”
“Shhhh, it’s alright,” Marmalade whispered, standing with far more grace than Penelope and taking the cup of cocoa from Penelope’s shaky grasp.
“Everything will be alright, but I need you to sit back down. And speak more quietly. Please.”
Penelope regarded Marmalade. The wood witch didn’t seem fearful per se, but something in her stance, and the way her eyes shifted from Penelope’s face to scan the trees behind her, made Penelope nervous.
“What is this place?” Penelope whispered as she sat back down on the deck, her neck prickling as she glanced behind her. A shadow darted between the silver trunks.
“We’re coming up to the heart of the Darkwood,” Marmalade murmured.
Penelope wanted to ask more questions but chewed her tongue to keep them from spilling out and attracting the attention of whatever was moving through the trees.
Marmot, finished with his cocoa, drew his blanket about him and shivered by Marmalade’s side. Penelope reclaimed her own mug from Marmalade and sipped. The chocolate was rich and laced with sweet spices. Penelope drank more deeply, grateful for the warmth.
“That was a very foolish thing you did earlier,” Marmalade said, her tone light and quiet, though her eyes continued watching, lingering on any movement in the trees.
Penelope drew a heavy breath, nodding as she sighed. Keeping her voice to a whisper, Penelope turned to Marmot.
“I’m so sorry for getting you into trouble. I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. Are you alright?”
Marmot cocked his head to the side, then nodded, emitting a happy chirp.
“Well, that seems in good order. Though I meant you diving into the river. I am grateful you retrieved my companion. But you almost drowned yourself.”
Penelope nodded again, rubbing her eyes. “I’ve been… reckless today. I don’t really know what’s come over me. I was very foolish as a child, certainly. I used to rush into anything and everything that could cause me trouble. I should know better by now…”
Penelope trailed off as Marmalade held up the fate token, examining the copper tracings within the obsidian.
“Fate… she works by inspiring our impulses. It seems the raw impulses you’ve spent years suppressing have given her quite a lot to work with.”
Marmalade seemed amused as she passed the token to Penelope. Hesitating for a moment, Penelope accepted the token with a resigned huff.
The boat creaked as it rocked gently over the water. The trees alongside the river creaked in an eerie ripple, a seeming echo of the boat’s passage.
Perturbed, Penelope asked, “Are we safe..? What are those shadows moving in the trees? And the lights… they look like the singing wisp…” Penelope knotted her fingers together at the thought.
“Singing wisp…?” Marmalade’s brow furrowed, then her eyes widened in shock. “You mean the ferifae? You’ve come into contact with one?” Marmalade asked, alarmed.
“I— yes, once. Years ago.” Penelope grimaced. “I was exploring the woods beyond my cottage, and I… went too far. There was a fox laying by a small pool. It must have died days before I found it. But, it was still… yipping. At least, I could hear it. Or I thought I could…” Penelope shook her head. The memory of that disembodied chittering still disturbed her.
“I went to see if there was another fox nearby, maybe a baby. But then the singing wisp… the ferifae, appeared.” Penelope took a deep breath. Even now, the memory of the strange encounter awed her.
“It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Glowing like a moon, but smaller than a pearl. It had a cloud of shining mist around it and it… sort of danced? Or maybe it was a song? It was like a bell, a ringing sort of feeling. Deep in my chest. Like it was calling out. Or maybe like I was calling it. It was so sad. And so sweet…” Penelope shook her head, frustrated. “Words don’t really do it justice. But the yipping stopped. And the wisp vanished.
“It was so mesmerising, I tried to find it again. I ran into the woods, deeper than I’d ever been. I don’t really remember much… time was a blur and the forest was almost like a ghost around me.
“Eventually I tripped over a tree root and kind of… snapped to my senses. It took me the rest of the night to find my way back home. The Sisters were furious.” Penelope winced at the memory, recalling the flush of shame and fear she’d felt as the Sisters had scolded her even as they’d helped bathe her and tend her scrapes.
Penelope had never seen the Sisters so afraid as that night. “I never went that far into the woods again.”
Marmalade, Penelope, and Marmot sat in silence for a while, listening to the birdsong echoing from the twisting boughs far above them.
“What are they? Are we safe?” Penelope asked again.
Marmalade was quiet for a few moments, seeming to choose her words before speaking.
“We’re safe enough, if we pass quietly and keep to ourselves. The shadows, well. Some of them are just curious critters. Others… we don’t want to attract their direct attention.
“The ferifae are… something else. The magics of the Darkwood are wild and dense. This wood likes to hold on tight to its spirits. The ferifae come to claim them back.” Marmalade paused as another light flared between the trees.
“We do not want to cross their path if we can avoid it,” Marmalade breathed. “In fact, now you’re both awake, let’s get below deck.”
Penelope hurried to follow Marmot and Marmalade through the small cabin door, down a narrow wooden ladder, and into an unexpectedly luxurious cabin space filled with plush cushions and swathes of embroidered silk.
Marmalade lit a small golden fire in the potbelly grate which stood in the middle of the cabin, filling the space with light and warmth.
Penelope eased onto a cushioned bench set beneath a row of small, circular windows.
“There!” Marmalade said in her normal voice as she closed the cabin door. “We should be alright to drift until we reach the Tears.”
“That far?” Penelope gasped. “Can we turn around? I need to get back to Grimwood. My governesses, they don’t know where I am, they’ll be worried sick!”
“I’m sorry, my dear, but I can’t spare that time,” Marmalade said, inspecting a small clock on the wall. “I have some rather rare ingredients that will spoil if we retrace our steps now. But—” Marmalade held up her hand to fend off Penelope’s panic, “Once we reach my tree I can store my ingredients, and then we can help you find your way back to your governesses. I have some messenger paper at home so you can send them a note and let them know where you are.”
Unable to think of an alternative, and unwilling to venture alone on foot back through the Darkwood, Penelope nodded glumly. “Thank you. I would be most glad of your help and messenger paper—oh! My messenger papers! I’ve left everything at the docks!”
Penelope buried her face in her hands, groaning at the mess she was in. No purse, no shoes, no coat, no clackstones or messenger papers or beauty products, and en route to parts unknown with two of the strangest characters Penelope had ever encountered with only a cursed token to show for the day’s efforts.
“Why don’t I make you another cup of cocoa,” Marmalade said kindly.