Marmalade stirred the last of the frayfern into her simmering cauldron, turning to her recipe with satisfaction. Just an hour more to brew and a day to decant—
A familiar squeaking told Marmalade this couldn’t be anything good. Almost afraid to turn around, Marmalade spun to find Marmot upside down in the hearth soot, and her almost perfect potion turning a rather alarming shade of red.
“Marmot!” Marmalade cried, unhooking the cauldron and upending its ruined contents into the sink. “For the last time, you are not my apprentice!”
Marmot chittered mournfully and shook ash from his fur, clouding the kitchen with dust as he ran out the door.
Later that evening, Marmalade went to her deepest rooms, far below the roots of her tree. She had rummaged through four chests and a dozen boxes before she re-emerged, victorious.
Approaching Marmot’s burrow behind the crystal berry patch, Marmalade called gently over the sound of honks and sniffles.
After a moment, Marmot emerged from beneath the earth, clutching one of Marmalade’s finest silk handkerchiefs to his dripping wet nose.
Marmalade held out a rather strange tangle of twine and seashells and glasswood. “I’m going away for a few days to fetch more frayfern stems. I have a special project for you. If you’d like.”
Marmot nodded, dropping the handkerchief into the dirt. As he sniffed the tangled clump, the glasswood glowed a brilliant blue, and the pile unspooled itself into something resembling a jellyfish made of rope and river scraps.
The light from its glimmering body reflected from Marmot’s wide eyes as its tendrils of twine and knotted shells unfurled.
“This is Jellyjen, my very first companion clockwork,” Marmalade said, twisting a copper key set into Jellyjen’s body. ”Do you think you could look after her until I get back?”
Marmot squeaked eagerly, circling the clockwork as it rose into the air, floating like a creature caught in shallow currents.
And so, with Marmot sufficiently entertained, Marmalade set off into the forest deep.
A few days later, Marmalade returned, laden with fresh herbs, to find her tree in chaos.
There were holes in the garden. Several pots lay sideways by her doorstep, earth and stones spilling across the welcome mat. Weeds had been gathered and strung in ugly, decaying clumps from her staircase bannisters. And Marmot was in the kitchen with Jellyjen, cheerfully making tea and grass pies.
Marmalade sighed. It had been worth a try.
Marmalade removed the weeds and strung up tidy bundles of her frayfern to dry. In a moon’s turn, she could attempt her potion once more.
As the weeks passed, Marmot and Jellyjen became inseparable. With the sparkling of spirits contained within her glasswood body and strands of pearly shells, Jellyjen only encouraged Marmot to more nuanced mischief. Marmot was happy to oblige.
They pressed scavenged flowers between the pages of Marmalade’s heaviest books, staining the pages cobalt and teal and lavender. They scribbled nonsense on scraps of paper and released them to the wind, wheeling away to who-knew-where. They returned from ventures to the creek with baskets and caps filled with quartz and green river stones, piling them into little heaps on Marmalade’s windowsills.
All in all, it could be worse.
One windy day between the seasons, Marmot returned from the river carrying a torn tangle of knotted twine and broken shells.
Marmot wailed as Marmalade gathered the broken clockwork from his paws, its blue spirits starting to sputter, the key missing from its body.
“Oh, hush now, little one, hush,” Marmalade whispered through her own tears of sorrow for her oldest creation. “No, you haven’t failed, darling. Come now.”
Marmalade cradled Jellyjen in one arm and Marmot in the other as she brought them both to her workshop below the tree roots.
With a wistful sigh, Marmalade fetched all her tidy bundles of dried frayfern. She showed Marmot how to braid them, just so, twisting twine ends together. She showed Marmot how to knot his most prized river stones into brand new tentacles, alive with revitalised magics and the spirits of pressed flowers.
Together they mended and weaved, until Jellyjen glowed and wrapped herself tightly about Marmot as he danced.
“And now, the final touch.” Marmalade fashioned a new key, placing the small piece of brass in Marmot’s paw. So very gently, Marmot twisted the key. Jellyjen shone all the brighter with each turn, her glasswood body a swirling riot of floral lights.
Unable now to brew her potion, Marmalade instead baked sapling scones, which were swiftly eaten by her fine and eager apprentice.
Together, Marmalade, Marmot, and Jellyjen dozed by the fire until the coals went out, and the only light remaining was the gleeful glimmer of a clockwork companion.