Penelope passed the time staring out the cabin windows as Marmalade’s boat coasted down the river, occasionally passing other merchant boats along the way.
Marmalade had given Penelope a thick wool coat, fleece gloves, a knitted scarf, and a pair of mushroom leather walking boots, as there was some distance to cover on foot to reach Marmalade’s home in the woods. The shoes were narrower than was strictly comfortable, but otherwise fit reasonably well. Penelope felt more calm now she was properly dressed again.
Before long, the trees began to thin, and the dim green of the canopy above began to lighten.
“It should be safer now to go back up on deck,” Marmalade said, scrutinising the landscape through a port side window.
The three emerged from the cabin into frigid air that smelled of damp earth and sweet greenery. Penelope stepped into the crude circle of warming stones laid out atop the deck. The cold vanished, but the rich scents of the Darkwood remained.
Further downstream the canopy seemed even more sparse, with small patches of the mauve evening sky showing through.
“We’re almost at the Tears… Should we cut straight across?” Marmalade murmured to herself, checking her watch. “No, there should be time… safer to follow the shoreline around. Once we reach the Sweetwood River it shouldn’t take us long to reach my tree.”
Marmot chittered at Marmalade. “I know it will take longer along the shore, but we have snacks right here, you won’t starve by teatime,” Marmalade chided.
“Wait, we’ll be sailing right by the mouth of Starwood’s river that way!” Penelope said, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “I know how to get home from there if you’re able to let me off on shore?” Penelope tapped her chin, thinking. “It’ll have to be the wrong side of the river to avoid the edge of the Darkwood… but I know where the bridge is… Yes, that could work! Could we do that?”
Marmalade thought for a moment. “Yes, we’ll have time for a quick stop off by the shore. Though it’s the middle of winter, and we’re nearing on dusk. I’m not certain it’s safe for you to go traipsing off through the Faewood on your own in the dark.”
Penelope waved a hand, grinning with relief at the thought of getting back to the cottage. “Oh, I’ve been out collecting herbs for Sister Heely past midnight during snowfall before. If I can get clear of the Darkwood border quickly then the Faewood at night is no problem. Besides, I know a few paths that should have me home before the moon even fully rises. Though, if I may…” Penelope looked down at the circle of stones about their feet.
“You’re welcome to take some warming stones, as many as you need,” Marmalade said, nodding at the glowing crystals. After another moment’s consideration, Marmalade relented. “Alright, we’ll pull into shore near the mouth of the Starwood River, opposite bank to the Darkwood.”
“Oh, thank you!” Penelope gathered up a few stones, placing them in her skirt pockets. “You’re really very kind! I promise I’ll find a way to get all your things back to you once I’m home.”
“It’s no bother at all,” Marmalade smiled. “Though I think you ought to leave your fate token with me, just to be sure you won’t run into unexpected trouble on your way. I can soothe its magic once I’m home.”
“That would be for the best, thank you,” Penelope agreed, huffing in relief.
As they spoke, Marmot’s chittering and squeaking became more incessant, until finally he thumped his tail against the deck with an angry squeal.
Marmalade turned to glare at him, her face ashen. “You what?”
Marmot squeaked and clicked his teeth. “You’ve had muffins baking in your oven. Since dawn this morning. And you wanted to take them out by dusk.” Marmalade said incredulously. “I’m sorry, my dear, but they’ll be clumps of charcoal by now. You can start again when we get home.” Marmalade sighed. “It’s a good thing I made your oven fireproof,” she muttered.
Marmot thumped his tail again, squeaking sulkily.
“Yes, I know potions can take a day to brew, but what—?”
“Fireflakes. You put FIREFLAKES and PICKLEGRASS in your muffins? Together? For FLAVOUR?”
Marmot nodded, seeming pleased Marmalade finally understood.
“Change of plans,” Marmalade said, springing to action. “We’re cutting straight across the lake.” Marmalade ran about the deck, unknotting ropes to unfurl all sails from the mast.
Penelope sputtered. “Wait, but aren’t we still—? What do you mean cutting straight across the—?”
Marmalade ran to the bow of the boat, muttering as she took command of the wheel.
“Hold on!” Penelope exclaimed. “If we cut straight across the Tears, you won’t be able to drop me off.”
“Sorry, love, no time for that anymore. We’re making straight for my tree and hopefully it’s not a pile of cinders by the time we get there. Fireflakes and picklegrass… truly, what were you thinking of, Marmot?” Marmalade shook her head and gripped the large wooden wheel. The symbols carved into it began to glow as the boat picked up speed.
Marmot chattered away, a little petulantly Penelope thought.
Penelope clung to the rail as the wind whipped her curls about her face. Marmot squealed loudly, digging his claws into the deck as the boat charged forward, clearing the river mouth and spilling out onto the still waters of the Tears.
Penelope blinked in the brighter light of the wide winter sky. It was disorienting to be surrounded by so much open space after the eerie green and dim enclosure of the Darkwood.
The sun was close to setting, turning the deep waters of the lake midnight blue. Pale lights glimmered along the crests of rippling waves as the boat broke the glassy surface.
Behind them, the shoreline of the Darkwood was rapidly shrinking. Before long, the shorelines in any direction were barely visible on the horizon, and the waters were growing darker as they approached the middle of the lake.
“Marmalade?” Penelope called over the wind.
“Why did you say it would be safer to follow the shoreline?” Penelope had heard stories of the creatures said to live in the deep and dark waters of the Tears. But they had just been myths. Scary stories told over hot cocoa and roasted mallow puffs.
As Penelope clutched the railing, she peered over the edge. The water below was clear for almost a field span below the surface. Countless schools of gleaming fish spiralled downwards like constellations, layer by layer, until the inky black of the deep waters swallowed the lowermost clusters from view.
“Let’s just say, if we didn’t want to attract the notice of the lights in the Darkwood, we want even less to attract the notice of what lives in the Tears.”
Feeling a little ill at that thought, Penelope pulled her gaze away from the mesmerising swirl of fish below. As she was about to ask just exactly what lived in the Tears, Penelope felt intense heat radiating through her skirt from her right pocket. Puzzled, Penelope withdrew a warming stone, but the heat in her pocket flared again.
Penelope reached in once more and pulled out her fate token, which was glowing fiercely and felt hot, even in her gloved hand.
“Oh. Oh, this can’t be anything good.”
“What’s that, dear?” Marmalade called.
They had reached the centre of the Tears. Above them the sky was pale indigo and the first stars were showing. The sun was sinking in a blaze of pink and orange along the horizon ahead. A long dart of waves trailed behind the boat as it sailed unwaveringly on.
“Um. I think… I think something might—”
A blink of light caught Penelope’s attention. Peering back over the railing into the water, the deepest black was punctured by a cold spot of pearly silver. Almost as if a star had burst to life deep within the lake.
“Um… Marmalade…” Penelope squeaked, alarm constricting her throat.
As Penelope watched, the light grew rapidly bigger. As though the star were rising.
Marmalade appeared by Penelope’s side, taking in the glowing token in Penelope’s hand, and gasping in horror at the cold light searing upwards through the black of the lake.
“What in the seven realms did you wish for on that token?” Marmalade cried before dashing back to the wheel. “Hold on tight!” the wood witch shouted as she pulled a small crystal from her breast pocket and cracked it against the wood of the wheel. Penelope shoved both warming stone and token back into her own pocket and clung to the railing.
Even gripping with all her strength, Penelope nearly fell as the boat lurched forward with greater speed, the wood groaning as veins of gold light laced through the deck, mast, and railings.
Unable to help herself, Penelope peered back into the water and stopped breathing. The schools of fish had scattered. The waters appeared empty except for a large something spiralling upwards, larger and larger, closer and closer. Glowing with translucent pearly light and moving with unnatural grace, it was so beautiful it hurt to look at. Penelope felt weak with panic.
The wind had stilled around them, though the boat was moving faster than ever. There was no sound, though the waters began to ripple outwards in circles, as though a bell had been struck in the deep.
Marmalade looked as though she were shouting. Marmot looked as though he was screeching. Penelope couldn’t hear them. Penelope couldn’t even hear her own breath. Just the sound of her racing heart beating like a drum in her chest, flooding her with terror.
The light from beneath grew piercingly bright. Penelope shielded her eyes and watched, frozen against the railing, as the ghost of a dragon soundlessly erupted from the waters behind their boat.