Marmot hastened to smooth the woven grass table mat into place. Lady would be home any moment now with her basket of berries and apples and all the things Marmot hated to eat.
Since Marmalade had taught him to bake, he had only set their burrow on fire twice. Yet Lady had not been impressed when their den had filled with smoke, and had chittered angrily at him as they waited on the hill for the fumes to clear.
She had been even less impressed when Marmot had produced a tray of burnt scone cakes, garnished with grass still alight with embers. But he was improving. Lady would be so delighted with Marmot’s feast when she returned. He chirped happily as he stoked the flames of the stove.
Lady arrived home just in time to smell the smoke billowing from the small oven Marmot had crafted from scavenged pots and metal scraps. She dropped her basket, sending strawberries tumbling through the dirt.
Clasping Marmot by his bushy tail, she dragged him out of their hazy burrow. Marmot was still clutching a lumpy, and only slightly charred, muffin as they sat sprawled on the grass in the evening summer air, catching their breath.
Delighted at his success, Marmot tore the muffin in half, offering the larger piece to Lady. She stared for a long moment, before snatching the treat and hurling it with both paws at Marmot’s head. She chased him all the way to Marmalade’s tree, squeaking with rage.
Marmalade the wood witch was pouring herself a cup of golden tea when she heard a feral commotion outside. Setting the pot down, she flung her door open to find a snuffling Marmot on her doorstep, the retreating silhouette of his Lady a speck on the twilit horizon.
Marmalade ushered the distraught creature across her threshold and went to fetch a second cup for tea. Marmot sniffed and wailed, honking into the brand new embroidered handkerchief Marmalade offered him.
Marmalade didn’t have the heart to send him back out into the night with nowhere to go, nor, later that evening, to prod him from her bed when he curled up by her head, occupying most of the feathery pillow. She watched the stars rise as Marmot snored.
Marmalade awoke with the light of sunrise to find her bedchamber asunder. Her finest scarves and beads were strewn across the floor. Drawers had been pulled open and their contents upended, the bookshelf was an utter disaster, and her writing station was smeared with inky pawprints belonging to one Marmot who was in very deep trouble.
Yet, when Marmalade answered a knock on her door later that afternoon to find a very dejected Marmot clutching all of her missing trinkets—gifts intended, no doubt, for Lady—she didn’t quite have the heart to scold him. Tomorrow perhaps.
Marmalade set her treasures away as Marmot sat in the cosiest armchair by the fire, lapping at tea and wheezing with heartbreak.
For several days, Marmot took heart at Marmalade’s rather firm suggestions to instead try gifts of flowers and scavenged berries to win back Lady’s affections. Yet each afternoon he returned, rejected and depressed, only to slurp tea by the fire as Marmalade consoled her small friend.
However with each evening, as Marmot made himself more and more at home in her bed, Marmalade’s patience wore thin. That night, as Marmot tossed and turned, snuffling and snorting with his little wet nose pressed against her cheek, Marmalade had had enough. “That’s it, I’m fed up!” she cried, sitting bolt upright in bed, startling Marmot as he fell to the floor with an indignant thump.
Marmalade donned her dressing robe and set to work that very moment. She picked moon flowers from her garden and ground crystal berries to powder. Marmot watched as she paced her kitchen, tossing diced herbs and crushed petals into a simmering iron pot.
Marmot stepped forward to help, only to retreat with a petulant squeak when Marmalade brandished her spoon at an out-of-the-way corner. For several hours Marmalade worked as her brew sparkled with diamond light, simmering to pink by dawn, and finally to a soft gold by sunrise.
With the steam settling as the pot cooled, she funnelled the liquid into a small glass bottle. “Now,” Marmalade huffed, wiping sweat from her brow. “It’s time for tea.”
Marmalade set the tea tray atop the kitchen bench. “What this is,” she explained to a wary Marmot, “is a love potion. Of sorts.” Marmot trilled and made to snatch the bottle. “Oh no, this isn’t for Lady,” Marmalade chided. She beckoned him to the table. “It should only take a drop or two…” she murmured as she tilted the potion over Marmot’s teacup.
Marmot sniffed the liquid, taking a tentative lick before his pupils grew wide and he downed the cup. Marmalade held aloft her favourite hand mirror, showing Marmot his own furry face. He stared, transfixed, at his reflection. “Do you see?” Marmalade asked. “You’re wonderful, Marmot, just as you are. You don’t need Lady to make you happy.”
Marmot sighed as he gazed into the mirror. His fur was exactly the right shade of brown, like dry wild grass, and his nose glistened smartly in the light of the kitchen hearth. He admired his front teeth, a particularly distinguished shade of yellow, and—finally—gazed into his own eyes.
Within them he recognised the love he carried for Lady. For his forest home, and his unique snacks. For his good, kind friend Marmalade. And, to his own surprise, for himself.
Marmalade barely caught the mirror as Marmot flung it into the air, scrabbling into her lap to fling his paws about her neck and press his cheek to hers. “Now then,” Marmalade whispered as she cradled her woodland friend, “how about we build you a new burrow, hm?”
That afternoon, Marmot set about to digging his very own burrow in the back corner of Marmalade’s flower patch. Marmalade watched, amused, as he disappeared beneath the earth to scratch out the shape of his new home.
Marmalade brought him a small table and stool, a mat for his bedding, and even her own pillow, now covered with Marmot’s bristling fur. Marmot clutched it happily and scurried into his den, setting everything in order just exactly right.
Returning to the surface just as the first stars rose, Marmalade called to him, “I have a surprise for you.” She led Marmot to a brand new outdoor oven. Half-sized just for Marmot.
And paved with a wide, decidedly fireproof hearth.