Marmalade set a brisk pace that both Marmot and Penelope struggled to match as they followed the small witch along a snaking path of teal quartz through the mauve underbrush of the Faewood.
The sky was dark as velvet and filled with the cold glitter of rising constellations. The teal crystals crunched underfoot. Faintly luminous, the quartz allowed the three to tread the path without stumbling.
The surrounding forest was further lit by the dim, lunar glow of small mushrooms and star-shaped flowers clinging to rough-barked trees.
“How come,” Penelope panted as she strode, “I’ve never been able to find your home?”
Marmalade turned her head but walked ever faster.
“I’ve tried to… follow the scent of your pies… so many times as a child,” Penelope huffed. “But I never found you. Kept going… round and round in circles.”
“Hmm,” Marmalade mused as she stepped over fallen twigs and skipped across polished stones. “Would you have stolen one?”
“Of course not! I would never—” Penelope winced as she thought back to her ten year old self. “You know… maybe.”
“Well, there you have it. The forest shields me from sticky-fingered little princesses,” Marmalade smirked. “Though, less so sticky-fingered little Marmots…” she muttered.
Penelope laughed while Marmot chittered in protest.
As they rounded a final bend in the wild path, Penelope spied a thick column of orange smoke billowing from the clearing ahead, carrying ferocious looking sparks up and away into the frigid sky.
With a feral growl, Marmalade charged ahead at an impossible pace, leaving Penelope and Marmot puffing in her wake.
As they broke through the foliage into the clearing, Penelope stood in awed shock at the scene before her.
Marmalade was throwing a bucket of hastily gathered earth into the maw of an oven set into the side of what appeared to be a large red tree, which also seemed to serve as a house.
Penelope had never seen anything like it. Wildflowers grew in vibrant, luminous clusters around the tree’s roots, and spilled from pots cluttering a set of stone steps leading to a bright purple door set into the belly of the tree.
Several sets of crystalline chimes rang from the boughs, which were laden with icy crystals and rustling, evermauve foliage.
Small windows of various shapes and sizes were set into the tree’s trunk at such strange intervals that Penelope couldn’t begin to guess how many levels or rooms the tree contained.
Warm light glittered from their frosted panes, creating a picture of enchantment at complete odds with the violent flames spewing from the small oven.
A loud crack and belching roil of smoke shook Penelope to action. Dashing to Marmalade’s side, Penelope scooped up an empty flower pot, packed it with icy soil from a nearby mound of earth, and tossed it into the oven as Marmalade refilled her own pail.
Choking on the acrid fumes of what Penelope guessed to be Marmot’s fireflakes, she and Marmalade together managed to subdue the flames to a steaming smoulder.
Penelope sank to the ground, absolutely exhausted, and only then noticed Marmot was screeching and kicking dirt at her.
“Hey, what are you doing? Marmot—“ Penelope protested, shielding her ash-coated face as Marmot kicked a clod of mud into her mouth.
“Yuk!” Penelope yelled, spitting out the dirt. “What on EARTH ARE YOU DOING, YOU LITTLE BEAST?”
“Oh, that mound over there is his burrow. You just scooped out his roof,” Marmalade flapped her hand at the mound, which now had a sizable hollow where Penelope had dug out fistfuls of earth.
Marmot dove into a small hole near the base of the burrow. Penelope could hear his muffled squeals of rage as he kicked dirt from his den.
“Oh… whoops! I’m so sorry, Marmot!” Penelope called out, unsure if he had heard her over his own shrill chittering.
“Um, should I perhaps help?” Penelope asked Marmalade, who was scraping glowing lumps of charcoal from the small oven, dumping them into her bucket.
“Don’t fret about it. He’ll work best on his own.”
Marmot re-emerged, pointedly smoothing the outer walls of his burrow.
“I’m sorry, Marmot. Is your burrow ruined?”
Marmot sniffed indignantly, but shook his head and skittered to Marmalade’s side.
Sticking his snout into her bucket, Marmot wailed as he beheld the ruined masses of muffin-shaped charcoal.
Marmalade was inspecting the back of the oven.
“Nearly ate through the wall! That’ll require some heavy patching…”
Marmot dropped the crumbling ashes of the muffin he was mourning and huddled into a ball, clutching his tail.
Penelope held her breath as the small witch rounded on the critter, waiting, perhaps, for Marmalade herself to breathe fire.
After a tense moment, Marmalade simply sighed, shook her head, and trudged around the tree towards her door. Marmot and Penelope sat side by side, bewildered and filthy, until Marmalade called to them from inside the tree.
“More tea, then?”
Glancing at each other in relieved consternation, the two bedraggled creatures rolled to their feet, stomped through the flowers, up the stone steps, and across the threshold of Marmalade’s door.