Part 1 – Stars In The Wind
The tree bark tore rough scraps from her skirt as Penelope hoisted herself into the upper branches of her favourite tree.
The feathery tendrils of the willow’s foliage brushed against her freckled cheeks as the young princess inched her way along the boughs.
Though small for the age of ten, the wood creaked beneath her weight as Penelope gathered all of her daring to reach the end of the thick branch.
Clinging tight with hands calloused by rural domesticity, her brown skin bearing faint scratches from today’s climb and countless others, Penelope reached into her front pocket and withdrew a folded star of rough paper.
Within its pointed folds and hidden pockets were scribbled pieces of news of her latest adventures: her bravery collecting poison caps at midnight; her courage to collect the clearest quartz from the fastest flowing tides of Faewood’s narrow streams; her strength in fetching pail after pail of rich and mossy earth from the darkest shadows of the Faewood for making frilled plums grow in their singularly strange cottage garden.
With a kiss to the folded page for luck, Penelope tossed the star to the wind, very nearly losing her balance. With a gulp, Penelope inched back along the bough. The ground was so very far below.
Penelope watched her star wheel away, unsteady on the currents of a late autumn breeze. She imagined it arriving spectacularly, arcing gracefully through the throne room to land neatly on her mother’s lap, or perhaps in her father’s outstretched and eager hand. Perhaps they would read the letter aloud to the whole of Starwood court.
Grinning at the thought of all their admiring faces, Penelope shimmied down the tree, tugged on her socks and boots, and dashed through the forest towards the cottage she didn’t expect to be calling home much longer.
This time, they would change their minds. This was the letter that would prove her brave enough to finally return home.
Morning after morning passed with Penelope waiting by her window, staring south across the gold and mauve canopies of the Faewood forest.
Far beyond the distant horizon lay the realm of Starwood and, farther still, in the cradle of the south east of Edenwood Valley, stood Starwood Palace. Penelope’s first and truest home.
Yet each morning, Penelope trod downstairs to breakfast disappointed that no letter had appeared in the post box on her window sill. Over the years, she had made a habit of checking it so frequently for news of home that Sister Rosin had simply lifted it from its place by the cottage gate and installed it amongst the flowers of Penelope’s window planter box.
This morning was no different. The small box, painted blue with twinkling stars of silver ink, was empty. Dejected, yet resolved, Penelope chewed her toast with vigour as Sister Rosin and Sister Heely exchanged concerned glances.
“Where are you off to today then, puppet?” Sister Rosin enquired around a mouthful of honeyed crumpets, earning her a playful smack upside the head from Sister Heely.
“Manners, love,” Sister Heely admonished as Sister Rosin mocked a pout, her lips covered in crumbs.
“Sometimes manners are overrated,” Sister Rosin said in a stage whisper, winking at Penelope, who giggled into her napkin.
“I’m going out to fetch some water from that little pool I found the other day, the one with all the pink coral cap toadstools around it. I have a good feeling it might help the tomatoes grow better.”
“And just how deep into the woods is this pond again?” asked Sister Heely, arching a thin grey eyebrow and peering down at Penelope in suspicion.
“Not very far…” Penelope lied. “Just a little beyond the tree with the frog face and the log with the blue dragonflies…”
“Mhmmm,” Sister Heely sighed, relenting. “Just be sure to be home before dark this time.”
“Yes, Sister Heely,” Penelope exclaimed as she kicked back her chair and washed her breakfast plate.
“And wear your winter scarf, you’ll catch your death in this cold.”
“Yes, Sister Heely,” Penelope replied as she shrugged into her jacket, winding her scarf beneath her thick spiralling curls.
“And keep your shoes on, child, for Fate’s sake!”
“Yes, Sister Heely!” Penelope called, tugging on her boots and racing out the kitchen door into the sprawling tangle of their cottage garden.
“Tomatoes will be nice though, eh?” Sister Rosin muttered cheerfully as Sister Heely scoffed and sank into a chair.
“She’ll be alright, sweets. That girl knows the forest better than we know the elemental charts.”
Sister Heely sighed, enclosing Sister Rosin’s short, thick fingers in her own slender grasp. “I suppose you’re right… but I worry all the same.”
“C’mon, I’ll make us more tea before I head to market.” With a kiss on the top of Sister Heely’s soft silver hair, Sister Rosin stomped about the kitchen until Sister Heely could no longer stand the threat of shattered stoneware, and rose to take over the task.
Part 2 – Bravery
Unaware of the Sisters’ concerns for her safety, Penelope skipped over wet stones and mossy fallen logs, jumping over snarling roots and scrabbling up steep ditches, all the while cradling her water pail.
Today, she intended to go as deep into the woods as she had ever dared, where the canopy grew dark enough to make twilight out of a summer’s noon, and the glowing eyes of unnamed critters leered from the cavernous hollows of creaking trees.
As the noises of the forest became damper, muffled by mist and thick carpets of fallen leaves, and the sweet chirping of sparrows gave way to the croak of black toads, Penelope slowed her pace.
“I’m not afraid. I’m not. I’m brave. I’m not scared…” Penelope whispered to herself as she forced her feet to tread the narrowing trail. “I won’t run away, I won’t.”
Penelope stepped over shards of black shale and around the glowing skeletal forms of coral mushrooms, setting her brass water pail by the edge of the small pool she had sought.
Within its inky depths glimmered the lights of small flitting fish and jagged clusters of quartz.
Penelope traced the mirror-still surface of the pool, causing ripples to spread and the fish to flee deeper. Penelope could feel the whisper of power in the waters, promising growth and the pulse of new life.
“With my pail, made of brass, I ask these waters, clear as glass, to lend me magics for my garden, and of the fuss I ask for pardon.” Penelope rapped her knuckles three times on a nearby stone, completing her doggerel ritual, before solemnly filling her pail with water.
As Penelope left the dark of deep Faewood behind, she sighed in relief, wiping her brow with her sleeve. She grinned with pride in herself all the way back to the cottage.
That evening, after Sister Rosin’s failing tomatoes had been watered and the embers had been swept from the hearth, Penelope sat at her small wooden desk and began to write a new letter.
Dear Mother and Father,
Today I went really deep into the Faewood and fetched water to help the garden grow. It was dark and scary, but I didn’t run away this time.
I was quiet and careful. I minded my decorum like the palace books say I ought. I even did a ritual!
I’m better brave now. I’ll be good and quiet at the Seeing Ceremonies, I promise. If I’m let back home, I’ll be better brave.
Princess Penelope of Royal House Starwood
P.S. I found a flower in Mother’s favourite colour. I don’t know what it’s called, but I pressed it for you. I hope you like it.
Penelope placed the small pressed flower in the middle of her letter and folded the page in precise, careful creases until she held the shape of a star in her hands. Tomorrow, she would once more climb to the top of the feathered willow and send it on the wind.
The following morning, the air was icy and her fingers cramped as she climbed to the top of the willow tree. Releasing her letter to the updraft, Penelope watched it wheel away and out of sight into the grey sky.
As she climbed back down, her bare foot slipped on a patch of mossy bark and she fell to her knees. Exclaiming in pain, Penelope cradled her ankle, caught in the twist of a tree root. Unable to pull on her boots for the throbbing ache, Penelope wrapped her foot in sodden broad leaves tied with feathery strands of willow ferns. Clutching her boots and socks, Penelope hobbled the muddy paths all the way back to the cottage.
“Fate’s fiddle, what happened?” Sister Heely cried, dropping a bundle of dried flowers to the floor as she rushed to Penelope’s side.
“I’m alright,” Penelope said, her lower lip trembling. “It barely even hurts, honest!”
“Oh, child, come now, we’ll get you sorted out right quick.”
Bundled in a warm robe, sitting in the cosiest chair by the lounge fire, Penelope sniffled into a cup of spiced cocoa as Sister Heely bandaged Penelope’s ankle.
“Just a sprain, but be sure and keep off it for a week. Just read your books and keep to your needleworks, alright? No sneaking off to the woods, at least not until you’re better again.”
“Yes, Sister Heely. M’sorry,” Penelope sniffed.
“Nothing that can’t be fixed with a bit of rest and hot chocolate.” Sister Heely touched Penelope’s reddened nose with a gentle finger as the woeful princess smiled.
Part 3 – Into The Storm
Penelope spent the week re-reading all her books on royal etiquette and learning a new type of stitch for embroidering sun flowers onto squares of cloth.
Each morning, she anxiously checked her post box. Finding it empty day after day, she limped downstairs to breakfast.
Concerned by Penelope’s growing dejection, the Sisters made every effort to cheer her, and Penelope made every effort to thank them graciously for their small gifts of flowers and home-made inks, hating to make them worry.
The first snow was falling when Penelope’s ankle was healed enough to venture back out into the wood.
Still no letter had come from her parents. No words applauding her bravery, nor welcoming her back home to the palace, where she belonged.
Growing desperate, Penelope roved further and further into the woods, enduring darker shadows, sharper stones, narrower trails, and colder waters, all in an effort to prove herself braver and braver.
She hid her scrapes and pains from the Sisters, even as she wrote of her adventures in great detail, sending letter after letter flying to the sky, bound for home.
One morning, as the winter sky was dark with the clouds of a gathering storm, and her post box was once again empty, Penelope had had enough.
Gathering up every last scrap of messenger paper she could find in the writing drawers and book shelves, Penelope marched out into the cold.
Determined as she was, she forgot her winter scarf, warmed instead by the frustration of her parents’ silence all the way to the foot of her willow tree. Kicking off her shoes and tearing off her socks, Penelope climbed to the very top of the feathered willow where the branches were thin and swayed alarmingly in the winter winds.
One by one, Penelope tore off long strands of feathered vine. She wrapped a messenger page about her left forearm and bound it in place with awkwardly knotted ferns. Penelope stretched out both arms, flapping them gently to test for a difference. She thought her left arm felt lighter.
Encouraged, Penelope continued wrapping herself in messenger paper, balancing precariously amongst the swaying branches of the tall willow.
Swaddling herself from head to foot, and winding shreds of the final page through the spirals of her hair for good measure, Penelope felt ready. She could feel the magic of the paper lifting her from the boughs. Clutching the tree trunk for purchase, Penelope took a deep breath and looked down. The distance to the ground made her vision spin.
Heart pounding in her ears, Penelope instead looked skyward towards the distant south. Dark clouds roiled across the horizon as flocks of birds silhouetted the sky, seeking shelter from the approaching storm.
Staring at the thick banks of purple clouds, Penelope began to second guess her spontaneous plan to post her own self homeward. It would be smarter—surely safer—to wait for clearer weather. To untie all the vines and fold away the messenger papers eager to carry her to the sky. To climb down from the tree and return to the cosy haven of a cottage fire and her doting governesses.
Penelope’s fingers began tugging at the clumsy knots. Unbidden, memories of the night everything had changed flooded her mind. Penelope had fled her very first Seeing Ceremony, frightened by the glowing violet of her mother’s eyes as she scried the future, the alien formality of cloaked strangers standing amongst trees of silver and crystal, her mother’s primal howling as she witnessed visions no one else could see.
Penelope’s cowardice had cost her everything, for soon afterwards she had been sent away with the Sisters into the deep Faewood. It had been nearly five years since she had last seen the faces of her parents as they waved goodbye from the palace steps, while Penelope was carried away in a polished carriage.
Her parents didn’t write. They didn’t visit. All she had been told was to stay with the Sisters in the thatched cottage in the Faewood. To dedicate herself to her learnings.
Penelope was sick of the Faewood.
She missed her parents. She missed her grand room in the palace filled with books and toys and beautiful dresses. She missed playing hide-and-seek with the palace guards and the kitchen staff. She missed the powder blue ceiling of the grand hall, painted with pearlescent clouds and sparkling constellations that glittered more brightly than the night sky itself.
She missed the smiling faces of the court ladies, all dressed in the most beautiful gowns, dancing like fish in an aquarium of gold and glitter.
Most of all she missed her parents’ laughter as they indulged her songs and games of play pretend, their soft voices reading story books, her father’s gentle hands carrying her to bed when she fell asleep beneath the buffet tables at royal dances.
She ached for her father’s smile, his midnight skin rich and warm. She longed to smell his cologne of spice and sage and mint as he held her tight and told her she was safe.
Furious with heartache and regret, Penelope crouched low amongst the twiggy branches. Coiling her courage within her like a spring, she kicked herself into the sky, her howling cry lost in the first crack of rolling thunder.
Part 4 – Flight & Fall
Turbulent winds whipped at her hair and dress as Penelope tumbled head over heel through the air, wheeling about just like one of her countless paper stars.
The messenger papers kept her just aloft of the treetops as she flew south, gaining speed as she went. Flailing in panic, Penelope stretched her arms out to her sides and began to find balance as she passed directly over the thatched roof of the cottage.
Exhilarated at her success, Penelope whooped as she soared, straight as an arrow, arms spread like wings.
Then the rain hit.
Shielding her face against the icy sleet and small beads of hail, Penelope lost balance once more. Losing height, Penelope tumbled through the upper canopy of the Faewood, the branches tearing at the paper keeping her in flight.
The more she struggled to right herself amongst the snagging branches, the more the sodden pages tore away. Before long she was crashing down through the boughs, landing with a hard thud amongst a cluster of berry-laden shrubs.
Groaning, Penelope sat up. Her left wrist was ablaze with pain. Icy rain dripped down the back of her neck. She was covered in soggy tangles of frayed vines and shredded paper. Her dress was caked in mud, and her hair was filled with leaves.
Tentatively stretching out her legs, Penelope rose slowly to standing. Only her wrist seemed injured, save for a few scrapes and bruises on her face and knees.
Feeling utterly miserable at her failure, Penelope began the trek back to the cottage through the rain, following a barely visible track of mud. Thunder rumbled overhead, and Penelope grumbled along with it.
Soaked to the bone and freezing cold, Penelope sobbed in relief as the warm glow of the cottage windows came at last into view. Pounding on the door with her uninjured hand, the Sisters found Penelope standing on the doorstep, shivering, weeping, and covered head to foot in muck and sodden paper.
“What in all the realms—!” Sister Heely exclaimed, ushering Penelope through the door and towards the bathing tub. Sister Rosin filled the tub with water and warming stones. Together, the Sisters peeled away Penelope’s ruined clothing and washed away the dirt, plucking the leaves from her hair as Penelope told them what had happened through forlorn wails.
“They don’t—want to see me—they don’t—hiccup—even write,” Penelope cried as Sister Heely wiped Penelope’s cheeks with a soft cloth. “Even though I’m brave now—I won’t—ruin another Seeing ritual—I promise.”
Sister Rosin wiped tears from her own cheeks as she hushed the distressed princess with gentle nonsense.
“Don’t fret, little sweetling, I’m sure the king and queen know you’re brave. Hush now, it’ll be alright. You’re home now.”
“But I’m not,” Penelope wailed. “I’m NOT! I want to GO HOME! I want to go back to Starwood Palace. I’ve done everything—everything…”
“Sssh, I know, little duckling, I know,” Sister Rosin whispered, smoothing a hand through Penelope’s hair until the girl’s sobs subsided.
The Sisters exchanged pained looks as Sister Heely dressed Penelope’s broken wrist in silence.
“Why can’t I go home?” Penelope asked in a small voice as Sister Rosin pulled a clean night dress over her head.
With a weary sigh, Sister Rosin crouched down to meet Penelope’s watery eyes. “We don’t know, pumpkin. We were told to keep you here in the Faewood, to keep you safe. Make sure to keep up your learning. We were told it was very important for you to be here.”
“I know all that,” Penelope sniffed. “I know. But why?”
“We don’t know that,” Sister Heely said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Penelope, we just don’t know. But we do know it must be a very good reason, because your parents adore you, and they miss you terribly. Of that, I’m dead certain.”
Penelope simply nodded as the Sisters tucked her into bed. Too exhausted to protest further, she fell into a restless sleep.
Penelope awoke in the dark to the sound of low, angry voices coming from the Sisters’ bedroom across the hall. Creeping carefully across the floorboards, skipping over the spots Penelope knew to creak, she listened at the door.
“—absolutely ridiculous, they’re breaking that girl’s heart,” Sister Rosin yelled. Sister Heely’s reply was too low to hear through the thick wood of the door.
“I don’t care what we promised them, what promises have they kept to us? To her? They’ve reclaimed the carriage and horses, our allowance is almost nothing, not nearly enough to patch the shambles this cottage is becoming, that’s for damn sure—”
More inaudible mumbling from Sister Heely interrupted Sister Rosin’s increasingly loud tirade.
“Treason? Pfah! It’s treason to keep a princess living in bloody squalor is what it is, and I don’t care that the queen herself asked this of us. I’m taking her back to the palace tomorrow. I’ve had enough.”
“They told us this wouldn’t be easy, Rosin!” Sister Heely shouted, finally loud enough for Penelope to hear. “They told us we would question them, they told us that it’s absolutely imperative for Penelope’s future, for Starwood‘s future, for her to stay here, with us, in the Faewood.”
The Sisters were quiet for several moments, save for the thud of Sister Rosin’s agitated pacing. “It isn’t right. This isn’t right! I can’t stand to keep her here anymore, Heels. She’s heartsick, lonely, and monstrously unhappy. And frankly, so are we. What’s this even worth anymore?”
Sister Heely mumbled some more, unintelligible through stifled sobs.
“Yeah, they might cast us out, but we’ll figure it out, love. We’ll figure it out.” Sister Rosin sighed with uncharacteristic exhaustion, her thunderous voice falling quiet so that Penelope had to press her ear against the key hole to hear. “Let’s just sleep on it, alright? We’ll talk it over in the morning… c’mon, love…”
The Sisters’ voices trailed off, and Penelope crept back to bed, unable to sleep again until the pink light of dawn crested the winter sky.
Part 5 – A Letter From Home
Waking to the sound of bird call several hours later, Penelope sat up, groaning with pain and fatigue. Padding over to her window by force of habit, Penelope reached her hand into the small post box, expecting to find it just as empty as usual.
Penelope gasped as her fingers closed around paper. Withdrawing the powder blue star of a folded letter, Penelope’s heart leapt into her throat. Hastening to open the page one-handed, Penelope devoured the words written in her father’s elegant script.
Dearest Penelope. Our little north star.
Your mother and I know you are confused. We know you are hurting. We are sorry for that, treasure. We know how brave you are. You don’t need to prove that to us, little love. We are so very proud of your progress with your studies, and all the new things you are learning in the Faewood.
However, you need to keep yourself safe, little one. Be patient as you are smart. Be mindful as you are brave. Apply yourself to your crafts with all the diligence, resilience, and ingenuity we know you to be capable of, and you will find your way home. In time, you will understand.
Please now, courageous little princess, we need you to be brave in a different way. No more wandering off at midnight. No more running barefoot over sharp stones. No more leaping flights from trees.
Stay with your remarkable governesses, and they will steer you right. Stay in the Faewood, and in the cottage. Keep learning.
We are so very proud of you. Be good for the Sisters.
All our love,
Mother and Father
P.S. Your mother loves the flower you sent. She pinned it to the wall of Princess Clarity’s nursery, so she can see it every day!
Penelope read and re-read the letter several times. Wiping away tears, she flung open her door and raced down the stairs.
Sister Rosin was packing books into baskets as Sister Heely sat, ashen-faced, by the cold hearth.
“What are you doing?” Penelope asked.
“We’re taking you home, duckling. Back to Starwood. Back to your parents.”
Penelope swallowed the lump growing in her throat and watched as Sister Rosin tossed books atop bundles of fabric and spools of thread.
She was being taken home. After all this time, she could finally see the faces of her parents again. She could meet her baby sister, Clarity. She could wear fine dresses and dance through the marble halls.
She could simply tear up the letter. Pretend she hadn’t checked her letter box that day. Pretend she’d never found it. Within a day or two of travel, she’d be standing in her parents arms again… and saying goodbye to the Sisters. Perhaps forever. That thought caused a bruised feeling deep within Penelope’s chest.
Her parents would be so disappointed that she hadn’t been brave.
Tears spilled down Penelope’s cheeks as she clenched her fist and handed the letter to Sister Rosin.
“We can’t. I can’t. We—I have to stay here. We can’t leave.”
The Sisters stood shoulder to shoulder, reading the letter together as Penelope sat in an overstuffed armchair.
Once they were done, Sister Rosin knelt down and cradled Penelope’s chin in her hand. “You truly want to stay here? Truly? Because if you don’t, I will take you home this very minute. If you ask it, we will take you away from this place and back to the palace, no matter what your parents have asked.”
“But…” Penelope bit her lip, flushing with guilt for having eavesdropped. “But you’ll be… cast out.”
Sister Rosin scrunched up her face as Sister Heely pressed her hand to her mouth and turned away.
“You listen to me, Penelope Starwood. Don’t you fret for one second about us old ducks. We know how to look after our own selves, alright? Now. What do you want?”
“I want…” Penelope frowned at her hands, her left arm bandaged from wrist to elbow. She thought of what she wanted most of all. To see her parents and her sister, certainly. To return to her place in the grand airy palace, of course. But even more than that, she wanted to keep her parents’ pride in her. For the Sisters to be happy, and to remain her governesses.
“I want to stay,” Penelope whispered.
“Are you sure?” Sister Rosin said, her gaze serious beneath her furrowed brow.
Penelope took a shaky breath and nodded.
“Alright. Okay, pumpkin. We’ll stay. For now.” Sister Rosin glanced up at Sister Heely, who was still facing the empty fireplace, her thin shoulders quaking.
“If you change your mind, we’ll take you back, alright? Just you say the word.”
Penelope nodded again, knowing she would never ask that of the Sisters. She would never cost them that much.
Sister Rosin pulled Penelope into a strong hug, mindful of her wrist, and held her until Penelope’s eyelids grew heavy and she fell once more into sleep.
When she awoke that afternoon, the books and fabrics and spools of thread had all be replaced on the shelves. A golden fire was dancing in the grate, and Sister Heely was setting a tray of biscuits and tea on the small lounge table.
Penelope curled her feet up on the chaise lounge and snuggled between the Sisters as they drank their cups in silence.
As Penelope’s wrist healed, she took up her needlework again. She dedicated herself to tending the sprawling wilds of their garden. She read her books and studied her royal histories. She made flower crowns for Sister Rosin to sell at market, and helped Sister Heely strain oils infused with Faewood flowers.
Penelope continued writing letters to her parents, but no longer sent them wheeling to the sky from the top of the feathered willow. Instead, she folded them into neat little stars and tucked them safely away into a secret box beneath her bed.
Sister Heely taught Penelope how to brew cosmetic salves and healing balms. Sister Rosin taught her how to whittle tools from fallen sticks. Penelope taught herself to embroider stars and flowers on scarves and simple dresses.
As winter thawed to spring and new buds began to unfurl, Penelope gave names to all the strange flowers growing from the patch of failed tomatoes and cabbages. She sang made-up rhymes to moss covered trees before collecting their berries. She cradled baby birds in roughened hands and told them stories about what it felt like to fly.
And she pressed flowers between the pages of her palace books, keeping faith that one day, she could pin them herself to her baby sister’s wall. When it was time to return home.
Continue the tale…
Continue the tale below with chapters of Marmalade’s Love Potion, an ongoing web novel following an older Princess Penelope’s chaotic (mis)adventures as she prepares to attend the Dark Moon Ball, hosted by the mysterious Royal House of Grimwood.
It may be her last chance to find true love, prove her worth to the family who abandoned her, and leave the isolation of deep Faewood to finally return home.
As Penelope desperately seeks the arcane to ensure her destiny, her journey sees her tread roads of crystal, traverse fae forests of luminous wonders, cross paths with a mysterious wood witch and her incorrigible companion, and confront the secret magics of her heritage.
Yet she is unprepared for the cost of chaos…