The snow felt dry and soft, like sugar dust, beneath her feet as Penelope ran through the wildflowers. The gleaming crescent of the waxing moon hung high in the sky, offering scant light as Penelope danced across the open fields of Marmalade’s sequestered glade and into the thickets of the Faewood.
Penelope squealed with glee as she found vines and brambles parting easily before her, revealing paths free of snow amongst the glimmering underbrush. Moonflies clung to the undersides of gold and mauve ferns, illuminating the gossamer web of veins threading the translucent leaves.
Caressing the foliage as she passed, Penelope could feel the pulse of life, the dancing flit of awareness, in each plant. Each tree, each insect, each critter rustling through the canopy, had its own distinct pulse. But the symphony, oh, the humming beat of the forest life in concert was the most exquisite thing Penelope had ever felt.
As a young girl she had felt something of this song, this vibrant rhythm of life, as she wended the forest paths. At those times, in the quiet and the solitude of her own wanderings, she had felt the barest echo of this sacred chorus. Something grand and tantalising, calling for her to join.
But this… the harmony of trees communing through the roots beneath her feet, the swirling clouds of honeygnats and gleaming moths as they chased the taste of pollen, the flash of sharp wings as starlings hopped from branch to branch in search of winter berries… each movement had its place in the thrumming waltz of the Faewood.
Penelope truly understood then, in a way she had never quite comprehended before, that the Faewood was its own entire creature, alive and aware. And Penelope was a part of it, this beating green and gold and winter heart of creation.
She was no intruder merely treading through the forest. She was of the forest. She knew Faewood, and it knew her. The way opened before her, like the eddies of a forded stream, guiding her through the rippling brush.
Wind whistled and giggled through the canopies, lifting winter blossoms through the air and laying them at Penelope’s feet. Penelope smiled as she gathered them, cradling flowers of glistening silver and starlit midnight in her palms, breathing in the gift of their fragrance. Like cold plums and sweet storms.
Tucking them into the pockets of her dress, Penelope paid no mind to the frantic calling of a witch and her companion far behind as her feet took her deeper and deeper into the dark night of the woods. She was in no danger. Here, she was treasured. Here, amongst the falling blooms and iced bark of opal trees, she was beloved. A daughter of the first garden, chasing her own feet home.
The promise of dawn was glinting along the eastern clouds when Penelope emerged from the Faewood’s depths to spy a familiar crumbling wall of stone. Her cottage garden lay before her, ferns and flowers spilling over plots of pressed earth.
“Hello, darlings!” Penelope whispered to the defiant faces of blue pansies pushing their way through the cracks of Sister Rosin’s retaining walls.
Penelope skipped through the quiet garden, newly fallen snow blushing in the chill light of winter morning. Creeping across the cold porch she rapped on the wood of the back door in a cheery staccato, announcing her return.
As Penelope entered the kitchen, there was a commotion from above as the Sisters woke and thundered down the stairs.
“Good morning!” Penelope called as she stepped with muddy feet down the hall to the foot of the staircase. The Sisters halted, nearly tripping, halfway down the flight as they beheld her appearance with comically round eyes. A chain of coral poppies was threaded about Penelope’s neck. Bright flowers bloomed from the coils of her hair. Her dress was snagged with heather and curling ferns. Moss and blossoms spilled over from her laden pockets. Fistfuls of gleaming river stones were clasped in both her hands.
Penelope grinned at the Sisters, still frozen on the staircase, as reprimands and prayers of mercy died on their tongues.
“Penelope!” called a familiar voice from the sitting room. Rising from the cosiest chair by the dying embers of a golden fire was a tall and lanky form dressed in one of Penelope’s night gowns.
With wild brown curls falling across heavy brows knitted with worry, Penelope almost didn’t recognise him until he grinned at her, joy and mischief lighting his treacle-brown eyes.
“Steph?” Penelope murmured, her vision beginning to blur as the figure approached. As he stumbled around the small fireside table, Penelope noticed it was littered with teacups and plates of half-eaten cakes, evidence of a cosy evening tea.
Penelope was suddenly parched.
Rushing past Steph to the table, Penelope dropped her collection of rocks into an empty cup. Lifting the nearest teapot, she gulped down the dregs of cold and exceedingly bitter greenleaf directly from the spout.
“Steph?!” Marmalade called as she tripped down the hallway with Marmot, both gasping for breath. Marmot collapsed on the stone floor, splaying out on his furry belly as Marmalade stepped around him.
“Marmalade! Marmot!” Steph said, striding forward to embrace the small, wheezing witch, lifting her off her feet.
“WHAT—? WHO?? WHERE IN ALL THE CURSED REALMS OF—” Sister Heely’s shockingly uncouth shouting faded to a ringing hum as Penelope, done with the teapot, swayed on her feet.
“Flowers…” she whispered, grinning around at everyone, and promptly collapsed.