As the group left the clearing and strode deeper into the forest, Sister Rosin shared a bag of roasted nuts and dried fruits.

They munched on these and Penelope tossed the nut shells high above her, which were caught by swooping rain wrens. Steph and Penelope made a game to see how many wrens they could lure from their hidden hollows, trailing tiny sparking storm clouds. Marmot crunched berries, nuts, and shells indiscriminately, leaving a trail of debris in his wake.

When they came upon the Feathered Willow, Penelope greeted it like an old friend, dancing about the trunk and embracing the long vines of opalescent feathers as they tickled at her face.

Marmalade placed a hand on the trunk in a gesture that seemed rather solemn.

The ground was littered with large, soft feathers that shimmered in the midday light. Penelope stooped to gather some into small bundles, tucking them into her pack before Sister Rosin marshalled them for lunch.

Sitting in a patch of soft grass free of snow beneath the hunched boughs of the willow, they passed breads and cheeses and small egg pies between them, until they were full and groaning with aching stomachs.

“I can’t get enough of these,” Steph lamented, reaching for the plate. Sister Rosin smacked his hand away, snatching up the last egg pie.

“Wha—! Isn’t there some rule about guests and hospitality and letting them have the last pies?” Steph grumbled as Penelope laughed.

“Gotta be quick in this family, love,” Sister Rosin smirked.

“Are you alright?” Penelope murmured, turning to Marmalade as Steph and Sister Rosin continued to banter. “You seem… sad.”

Marmalade smiled and looked up at the tree, its branches fanning out and feathers lifting in the chill breeze. “This tree reminds me of an old friend.” Marmalade sighed, but didn’t elaborate. Penelope studied Marmalade’s face, drawn to the witch’s wild beauty as she had been the night before.

She thought of their kiss. Or, rather, the kiss Penelope had bestowed whilst euphoric with potion. Though embarrassed by her inebriated audacity, Penelope wished she could kiss Marmalade again. Especially now, when the witch seemed so wistful. Though she wasn’t certain Marmalade would welcome it.

“I’m sorry for kissing you like that yesterday,” Penelope started, feeling as though she ought to at least acknowledge it. “Though, I didn’t want to kiss you because of the potion. I mean, well I did only kiss you because of the potion, but I would have anyway. Well, no I wouldn’t have, probably, but I would have wanted to, but…” Penelope trailed off feeling flustered, her cheeks flushed.

“It’s alright,” Marmalade assured her, smiling in amusement. Though the smile was kind instead of mocking, and Penelope felt the writhing nerves twisting in her stomach begin to ease.

“Oh, good,” Penelope breathed, unsure what to say next.

“You let Penelope kiss you?” Steph interjected, turning to Penelope. “Marmalade let you kiss her? She’s never let me kiss her,” Steph conspired in mock anguish.

“I— well— It wasn’t quite like that— Not that I didn’t want—”

Marmalade laid her hand on Penelope’s arm and she fell silent, rubbing at her nose bashfully while Steph and Sister Rosin looked on, clearly amused.

“Lovely as you are, Penelope, you’re simply much too young for me.” The witch leaned back, but squeezed Penelope’s arm before letting it go.

“I’m nineteen!” Penelope flushed, feeling a little indignant.

“Well then,” Marmalade smiled. “Perhaps we can revisit this discussion in another century or two.”


“And I don’t kiss you, little honeybelle,” Marmalade continued, looking over at Steph, “because we met when you were four.” Marmalade laughed, her easy humour diffusing the faint sting of rejection.

“I was six! And a half!” Steph huffed, crossing his arms in theatrical protest. “And I’m twenty-one now, besides.”

“Oh, my very grave error, that changes… nothing at all,” Marmalade teased. Steph laughed and flopped back on the grass.

‘Little honeybelle’, that is so sweet,” Penelope said, scrunching her nose at Steph, who grinned.

“And here I thought your first kiss was going to be with the prince of your dreams,” Sister Rosin teased, waggling her eyebrows as she mimicked the words of a much younger Penelope.

“First kiss?” Penelope snorted. “Oh. Erm.”

“Do tell,” Steph urged, settling back on one elbow and thieving several more nuts from Sister Rosin’s pouch before she could stop him.

“Oh, let me guess!” Sister Rosin leaned forward, tapping her chin. “Was it that girl from the market, with the rainbow braids, whatsername—“

“Julia,” Penelope supplied. “And no. I did kiss her, but she wasn’t the first.”

“Then it was the boy with the guinea pig and the big teeth?”

“Big teeth?” Penelope laughed, squirming under all the scrutiny. “Joshua? No. I mean yes, I kissed him too, but it wasn’t all that nice, and it wasn’t my first either—”

“So we both lost, then. Ah well, at least I don’t owe Heels a Pidge,” Sister Rosin muttered.

“You bet on who my first kiss would be?” Penelope exclaimed, not actually feeling very shocked at all.

“It’s of no consequence,” Sister Rosin made a haughty shooing motion as Steph cackled in the grass beside her. “Go on then, who was it?”

“Prince Tristan of Heartwood,” Penelope confessed, pressing her cold fingers to the heat of her blushing cheeks.

“The one who pushed you in the dirt?” Sister Rosin accused, aghast.

“The very same,” Penelope sighed. “I was maybe seven? This was back when I was still sometimes invited to the royal soirées,” she explained to Marmalade and Steph. Steph had flipped onto his stomach and was cupping his chin between his hands as he listened with rapt attention. Marmot settled down beside him, likewise splayed on his soft belly.

“I had the biggest crush on little Prince Tristan, he had such shiny hair, you see—”

“Understandable. Important qualities and all,” Steph interrupted, ignoring Penelope’s glare and motioning her to continue.

“So one day we decided to exchange flowers, you know, how they say it’s done in the courtship books. Though we stood too far apart, had to bend at the waist to even kiss. Then he handed me a rose and I gave him a foxlace—”

“An excellent choice, much more creative than a rose.” Steph was grinning ear to ear, while Sister Rosin cuffed him playfully upside the head for interrupting again.

“Only,” Penelope continued, ignoring them both, “I didn’t know you were supposed to cut flowers at the stem, so the foxlace still had all its roots, with whole clumps of dirt sticking to it.” Penelope rubbed her cheeks with a groan as everyone laughed.

“He took one look at it, threw it on the ground, then pushed me down as well, took back his rose, and stomped away.” Penelope laughed, shaking her head in mortification. “I was heartbroken for a whole week about it.”

“You didn’t say you kissed him! That little toadwart!” Sister Rosin looked outraged.

“I was too embarrassed about it all, to be honest,” Penelope chuckled, rubbing her neck and feeling self conscious.

“Prince Tristan, you say? I think I’ll remember that name,” Steph said, smirking with a rather vicious gleam in his eye.

Marmalade leaned forward on her knees to wrap her arms around Penelope’s shoulders in comfort. “I’m sorry Prince Toadwart Tristan hurt your feelings,” she said. Marmot hastened to wrap himself around Penelope’s arm, and Steph moved to wrap them all up in a big hug from behind as Penelope started laughing uncontrollably.

“As adorable as all of this is, I reckon it’s about time we headed on home. Collected everything you needed?” Sister Rosin asked Penelope.

“Almost,” Penelope replied, standing with a groan. “If we’re lucky we might find some freckled ferns and the feverthistle on the way back.”

Brushing grass and soft downy feathers from their coats, they packed away the last scraps of lunch and turned for home.

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