Penelope opened her eyes to the chill light of mid-afternoon. She sat up, struggling against the weight of several layered blankets, to find herself on the lounge in the sitting room.
She groaned as the movement caused a sharp ache behind her eyes, a pain she’d not felt since Sister Rosin had once allowed Penelope to indulge as much mead as she had wanted. Once had been more than enough for that particular lesson.
Penelope stumbled down the hall into the bathing room. Swallowing down a roiling feeling of nausea, Penelope splashed water on her face. The shock of cold was rousing, yet her eyes remained bleary and unfocused as she inspected herself in the mirror.
With a sigh, Penelope set herself to a brisk wash, scrubbing the caked dirt from her skin.
Feeling distinctly foggy, Penelope recalled her adventure from the previous night. A near-delirious patchwork of memories from the deep forest swirled through her mind, vibrant fragments of imagery and sensations.
Smiling ruefully, Penelope still thought the experience quite worth the resulting ache now clanging in her bones.
Ablutions completed, Penelope donned a thin robe, fumbling to knot the belt around her waist. Though the winter air was frigid, Penelope felt feverish, her skin warm and flushed.
Shuffling further down the narrow hallway, Penelope entered the kitchen to find Sister Heely pouring tea, Marmalade seated cross-legged in a chair at the kitchen table, Marmot scrabbling into an open cupboard, and Steph reclining against the counter as Sister Rosin sliced pieces of afternoon cake.
Everyone looked up as Penelope entered, scuffing her socks over the stone floor.
“Afternoon there, duckling,” Sister Rosin sang, plating the cakes as Steph placed them on the table. “How’re you feeling, then?”
“Why are you shouting?” Penelope rasped with a pout as she collapsed in the nearest chair at the table’s end.
Sister Rosin chuckled and ruffled her curls as Marmalade leaned forward with interest.
“What are your symptoms?” the witch asked.
“Um… hot… bothered… pain… imminent death, I’m certain,” Penelope whined, resting her head on her arms, allowing her hair to cloud about her face and block the harsh light.
“Death?!” Sister Heely hissed.
“She won’t die,” Marmalade interjected with a low laugh. “But some discomfort is to be expected, perhaps for a day.” Penelope clenched her teeth with an audible click. “Maybe two.”
Penelope felt gentle fingers petting her hand and hummed at the touch. “Your hands are cold.”
“Sorry,” Steph said, withdrawing his hand.
“No! Continue, cold is nice,” Penelope commanded, sighing in relief as Steph resumed his petting with a huffed laugh.
“So. Wild chases through the streets… near drownings… boat rides with strangers… DRAGONS of all the fool things… and intoxicated, bare-footed wanderings through the dark snowy forest… have I left anything out?”
Penelope grimaced at Sister Heely’s clipped, furious tone and raised her head, squinting at the light. Sister Heely’s lips were pressed into a thin line and her gaze was flinty with contained anger.
“Ummm… there was a magic token, too… pretty sure it caused at least some of the mess?” Penelope confessed, screwing up her face against Sister Heely’s disappointment.
“MAGIC TOKEN? For the love of hellebore, Penelope, we left you on your own for ONE afternoon, and THIS—”
“Love,” Sister Rosin interrupted with a firm tone. “We talked about this, perhaps not the best time to lose our temper?” Sister Rosin glanced pointedly at their company. Marmalade was digging at her cake with a tea fork. Steph’s expression was alternating between concern for Penelope, discomfort at the tension, and bemused amusement at the general situation. Marmot was huddled amongst the crockery, watching the scene warily.
Penelope felt awful. Her head was pounding, her joints were aching, her mouth felt dry as spun wool, and her chest burned with shame.
Penelope withdrew her hand from Steph’s grip, surprised to find she had twined her fingers through his, and clasped her hands together.
Meeting Sister Heely’s unyielding gaze, she said, “Sister Heely, Sister Rosin, I’m so sorry. Truly, I am. I didn’t mean for any of what happened to occur. But I know I made some terrible choices, and worried you both something awful.” Penelope swallowed against the lump growing in her throat, pressing the heels of her palms against her eyes to prevent tears falling. She sniffled as the tears fell anyway. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—“ Penelope cut off with a hiccup and let her head fall back into her arms.
Penelope felt Steph’s hands pet her hair, and the tender comfort of it made her cry all the harder.
“Oh Penelope, we were just—we’re so glad that you’re—young man, WILL you keep YOUR HANDS to YOURSELF—we’re just glad you’re home safe now.”
Penelope felt Steph snatch his hand away and regretted the loss. She simply nodded as Sister Heely and Sister Rosin embraced her from each side, the warm weight of Marmot curling about her leg.
“How about I make you a nice feverthistle tea and we can get some proper food into you, hm?” Sister Heely’s anger seemed to have dissipated into weary concern. Penelope nodded, and squeezed Sister Heely’s hand in thanks as she left the kitchen, headed to the small workshop in the front room of the cottage.
Penelope wiped her face and turned to Steph with a weak smile. “So, how did you find yourself here, then?”
“Oh, I’m your governess’ hostage.” Steph seemed remarkably cheerful about this fact.
“What?!” Penelope turned to Sister Rosin, who looked smug.
“Well, we were already worried when you didn’t meet us in the garden on time. So when a strange man carrying your coat and bags and such turned up claiming you’d nearly drowned in the river trying to rescue a water rat and had subsequently absconded with a forest-dwelling vagabond—“
“I didn’t phrase anything at all like that—”
“I had no choice but to take hostage of the messenger in case of sinister shenanigans. I figured if he was really implicated in your disappearance, the trees would wring it out of him… or eat him.” Sister Rosin smirked as Steph looked a little uneasy.
Penelope stared in open-mouthed shock at the banter between Steph and Sister Rosin.
“Our trees do not eat people,” she stage-whispered to Steph. At this, Marmalade and Sister Rosin laughed darkly, raising Penelope’s hackles and wiping the uncertain smile from Steph’s face.
“They… they don’t… do they?” he murmured.
Suddenly Penelope wasn’t so sure herself. Disconcerted, she narrowed her eyes at Sister Rosin in a mock glare. “So you’ve kidnapped poor Steph, then?”
Sister Rosin grinned and Steph looked delighted by the idea. Marmalade simply looked amused at being called a forest-dwelling vagabond, while Marmot sulked.
“Won’t your family be worried that you’ve up and vanished?” Penelope asked, rubbing her temples.
“Oh, no, I’ve got too many other brothers for my parents to worry over much about the middle child. Besides, they’re used to me going off into the forests around the Village for a few days at a time.” Steph waved his hand in a dismissive manner, belied by his rather self-satisfied grin.
“Well, alright then.” Penelope nodded, falling to lean against the back of her chair.
Sister Heely’s footsteps clipped down the corridor. Entering the kitchen looking sheepish, she said, “I’m afraid we’re out of feverthistle.”
“And silver shrillbark.”
“Well, griddleshock poppycock,” Penelope cursed with a grumble.
“I don’t know what any of those things are,” Marmalade enthused.
“We didn’t know what near anything was when we arrived here, so we made up our own names as we found new plants.”
“Remarkable,” Marmalade stared up at Sister Heely with respect. “How are you still alive?”
Sister Heely floundered at that, opening and closing her mouth, while Penelope interjected, “Well, the mufflecaps and shrillbark are out of season, but feverthistle grows through winter…”
“If you describe it to me, I can go fetch some?” Marmalade offered.
“May I come?” Steph asked, standing eagerly as Marmalade nodded.
“I have an illustration, one moment—“ Sister Heely bustled out of the room, returning with a hand-bound book filled with thick pages. Flipping through them, Sister Heely pointed to an ink drawing of a scraggly-looking weed with yellow flower buds.
“I—” Marmalade peered closely at the book, knitting her eyebrows. “I don’t know this plant. Why don’t I know this plant?” she muttered, almost to herself.
“Oh, you have to sing a little song to find it, I made it up when I hit my head falling from a tree and needed something for the pain… erm… I think it was something like… beaver whistle, feverthistle, sweet crusty bread, find me a plant to help with my head.”
Sister Heely nodded, pointing to a section on the next page where she had transcribed Penelope’s doggerel rhyme.
Everyone was quiet for a moment, before Steph burst out laughing, bent double with mirth. “Oh this place is charming, you are so charming, I think I want to stay here forever.”