Welcome to the first chapter! This is a fifth draft, and I’ve tinkered and re-tinkered based on reader feedback, as well as made updates to reflect events later in the story. If you love it or hate it – or more likely, have a reaction somewhere in between, please leave a comment! It’s easier to edit when a reader says, “You totally lost me here.”
Tildy sat upright in bed so quickly, her head swam. Eyes blinking in the dim morning light, her fuzzy brain struggled to comprehend where she was. She re-closed her eyes, trying to focus her thoughts and calm her heaving breaths. She was in bed. In her room on the second floor of the cottage.
She was glad to be awake. It was the dream again—that shadow in the tall tower. She’d been having the dream regularly for most of the last decade spent in her adoptive mother’s care. It thrilled and terrified her like a ghost story, and while she never really considered it a nightmare, she always awoke exhausted, as though it were less dream and more reality. She focused on the last image in her mind: had there been a crying baby? As usual, the details scattered like butterflies in a storm.
Yawning, Tildy scratched at her scalp; short, spiky hair staying wherever it was moved. Figuring that since she was awake and might as well get up, she slid out of bed and walked to the shuttered window. She inhaled the fragrant scents of the garden as she opened the shutters and looked outward. The sun had risen, but had not yet crested the trees.
The Forest of Eddlweld comprised the margins of her window’s view, glowing like an emerald treasure trove as sunlight filtered through translucent leaves of every verdant hue. In a clearing, however, the greens gave way to myriad flowering jewels that would have made any King’s Treasurer jealous: rich red poppy, orange marigold and golden sunflower, saffron, green chrysanthemum and blue borage, lavender and thistle, frumusetea, and white datura – all glistening with morning dew. Beside them, herbs and vegetables from tilled earth. Laden trees bearing fruits and exotic pods stood sentinel along the edges. Things blossomed in their own time in the garden of Dappledown, and sometimes more than once in the growing year. The entire garden had a wild, but tended look to it, thanks in part to the animals that ate the weeds and pruned foliage: deer, rabbit, and bird.
It was then she understood what had awakened her. The birds had probably woken an hour ago, sensing the coming dawn. They chirped and squawked and trilled with the enthusiasm of those that have known a long and bitter winter and can finally stretch cramped limbs. She frowned at the noise, cursing the disturbance that had interrupted her sleep.
Tildy stretched and yawned again like she, too, was waking from a long hibernation. Above an olive-skinned face, her hair glowed, light and flaxen in the morning sun, though it often varied in color. As dusk approached, it seemed to darken in the gloaming. It was far too short for the custom of other girls, though it suited her small pale face and button features. Outwardly, she was otherwise unremarkable in appearance as far as maidens went, much to the approval of her adopted mother, the witch.
Tildy looked down, noticing that she’d slept in her clothes again: her favorite plain brown dress with embroidered flowers and twisting vines all along the hems. Shrugging – and not changing clothes – she found her sandals and went downstairs, passing the pantry and rumbling stormcloset on her way to good-morning her adoptive mother. She heard the usual cricks and creaks of the walls and floors, what she’d called ‘the cottage’s talk-to’ as a little girl. The witch was not in the kitchen, the library, or other first-floor rooms. This wasn’t unusual. She slept little and could be found in the garden at any hour of the day, tending it as though it were another child.
Tildy grabbed a basket, catching a quick glimpse of the garden through the door’s clear fenestra before opening the cottage to the garden beyond. Springing lightly into the morning air with a smile, she paused, taking a deep breath that delighted and invigorated her. As she inhaled, her nose smelled many things on the morning breeze, all of them familiar, all of them enchanting. She couldn’t recall a finer morning this spring. Bright eyes surveyed the clearing, missing nothing, for they were sharp like the hawk’s, yet as kind as the doe’s. An older boy who fancied himself a poet had once described her eyes as ‘golden halos that descended through mahogany into blackness’, so she punched him in the mouth.
Birds continued their merry chittering, apparently having much to say this morning. To the witch, they were a choir by which she would know the weather, the time of day, and news of the woods. To Tildy, they were often an annoying storm of happiness that disturbed her slumber and against whom she waged a never-ending battle of wills. “You make more noise than hungry crows!” she called out to the trees, and the birds fell silent. She laughed. “Sulk, if you like. You’ll not be the clouds on a magnificent day like this!”
Tildy hummed to herself as she walked to the area of the garden where the spring bloomers lay. She examined the plants closely with her eyes, but did not touch any petal, stem, or leaf, as she’d been instructed by the witch years ago. “You’re still late. Another day, I think,” she estimated before moving to a different section. Everything seemed to be growing at a slower pace this season, which Tildy knew to weigh heavily on the witch’s mind.
She made sure to visit the pearset tree and to scrape away the barleyclengs that were trying to attach themselves to the bark again. “There are plenty of other barks to eat in the forest!” she chastised the scuttling gray creatures as they disappeared beneath a wayward bush that she’d staked down last week. She then pinched the berries of the rowan and shook her head. Also late.
The nearby winter apple tree was burdened with the pale fruit that grew during the winter and retained its coldness throughout the summer months. While there were plenty and more on the lowest branches, Tildy always claimed that the sweetest fruit grew from the upper limbs. She knew the witch suspected this was an excuse to ascend to the tops of the trees. And she was right, Tildy thought with a smile.
“Nish nish,” came a sound at her feet.
Tildy looked down at the nagweed. “Hush, you. I’m sure it’s safe.” The plant had the ability to warn against bad decisions, so the witch had strategically placed it around the garden when Tildy came to live with her. Unfortunately, willful child that she was, Tildy took its warnings as a confirmation that something fun was about to happen.
Still, she’d had a growing disquiet lately that frequently prickled the hairs on her neck. She listened, her ears picking up an animal rustle or two, but she was otherwise satisfied there were no strangers around. Very few creatures could sneak up on Tildy, which pleased her greatly and kept the witch’s mind at ease. She craned her head skywards and screwed up her face. At this command, two gossamer wings unfolded from beneath a hidden flap in her dress. Her smile grew into a broad grin as she took flight. Oh, how she reveled in this freedom! To break free from the ground and soar like a bird. Her aerial dance could alleviate any hurt or fear, and while she needed no such salve today, her spirit flew in the daylight, nonetheless.
After a few twists and loops, she returned to the tree, flying up through the bottom branches. Despite thick outer clusters of leaves, dark green but veined and limned with white, the interior was practically hollow when compared to other trees. At an early age, she had realized how easily she could maneuver her way inside the branches. Even a person on the ground below the tree would not have been able to see her flying amongst the sparse branches, something that had always appealed to Tildy.
The cool of the winter apples lowered the temperature within and Tildy’s breath fogged the air around her as she picked the fruit. Each white apple was nearly identical in size and shape, something Tildy found magical, despite the witch’s explanation that it was simply a characteristic of the seed from which the tree grew. To Tildy, an explanation made the thing no less enchanting.
The distant squeak of a door hinge indicated that the witch had emerged from the cottage. Tildy poked her head up from the top of the apple tree. As always, she was struck by how much the cottage resembled a gigantic tree stump, aside from the slightly askew chimney of spiraling brickwork, from which the gray breath of an untended fire drifted. Immense roots burrowed into the lush turf, which grew right up to the low windows that looked out at regular intervals. At the broadest break between the roots lay a door, dark green with a circular window of golden frame.
And before it stood the witch, Tildy’s adoptive mother.
She was studying the red-blossomed morning glory and shiny green ivy that covered much of the walls, roof, and chimney. The witch gently ran her palm over the foliage before plucking a flower and putting it in her mouth. The woman shook her head, which Tildy understood to mean that these flowers were also earlier in their growing cycle than they should be.
The cottage was dwarfed amidst the ancient trees of the forest, the branches of which sometimes buffeted the roof. As a little girl, Tildy had thought the trees were trying to remove the top of the cottage, something she also considered from this vantage point. To visitors, the looming trees and encroaching turf were sometimes interpreted as efforts by the forest to reclaim the cottage. Not that there were many visitors, and almost none of them were strangers. Now that Tildy thought about it, she couldn’t remember the last time an unannounced guest had arrived. The witch always seemed to know when anyone was coming.
She watched the witch approach. As usual the woman gave the cursed spot in the garden’s center a wide berth. Since Tildy’s path to the spring bloomers had led her in a different direction, she had not thought about the place until now. Even from this distance she could see the ring of scorched rocks, and within, the black grass that apparently twisted in agony before dying. The place had not changed in all the years Tildy had resided in Dappledown. No snow fell upon it – no rain cleansed it. Nothing within would ever grow and even the animals stayed away from the dead blemish in the living heart of the garden.
Odder still, was the witch’s refusal to discuss any aspect of it. Her responses ranged from dismissive to angry to completely ignoring the question when asked. All Tildy had ever gotten was a warning to ‘Leave the fallament alone, Tildeneth.’ At age seven, Tildy had finally learned to stop asking. But she never stopped seeking answers to her questions.
Having passed the fallament, the witch shaded her eyes as she scanned the trees for Tildy, who waved when she was finally spotted. The witch shook her head again. She had long since stopped chastising her adopted daughter for this behavior, but Tildy knew it didn’t please her. Always overprotective, Tildy thought, though there was no one spying on her now. The secret of her wings would remain hidden another day. Yet, the thought nagged at her and she descended into the tree branches, landing nimbly on a narrow bough. Dark green leaves, with their white highlights, rustled as she walked along the branch.
“I need four tip-top apples and a few sprigs of mint for breakfast,” called the witch from below. “Be a dear and collect them for an old woman.”
Tildy looked down, but could only see the witch’s tempestuous gray hair moving as she looked about the garden. “Halfway done, mother!” replied Tildy cheerfully, though she knew calling her that would make the witch frown. This didn’t matter when there was a beautiful morning in which she could fly. When soaring upon her wings, any chore was a happy one.
“And do not stay in the winter apple tree too long!” the witch said, transferring her displeasure. “You will catch your death of cold.”
Tildy dismissed the warning and picked the remaining apples she needed. When the eastern side of the tree began to glow in the morning light, she realized it was time for another morning ritual. She calmed her mind, floated to the summit of the tree, and perched impossibly upon a slender branch. Closing her eyes, she waited for the warmth upon her eyelids as the sun finally appeared above the distant edge of the forest. That way, she thought, East. The caravan had been headed in that direction when they were attacked. Perhaps, at the end of that road, also lay answers to the questions she’d been asking her entire life.
Where were they going and who had been taking her?
Why had they all been killed and only she survived?
Had her parents been with her?
Who was she, beyond a crying baby found in the bushes?
And then the moment passed. Grasping her laden basket, Tildy leapt from the tree before descending to the herb garden on delicate wings. Where before the mint plants had been mere sprouts, now stood tall shoots that seemed eager for her attention. With a small silver blade, she removed the needed quantity for breakfast. She also saw that the wynnthorne was blossoming, so she plucked a few petals for drying. She returned to the cottage with a full basket and a spring in her step.
Sunlight streamed through all the windows inside the cottage now, giving it an even cozier appearance. Cloudy the glass might appear from the outside, they were clear as a mountain stream when looking out. The delicate curtains were ever drawn aside, as though the witch wanted no obstruction to her view of the garden.
“I’ve brought what you needed,” Tildy announced, entering the kitchen. “Oh hullo, Elanor,” she said as a tawny cat greeted her. Tildy reached down to scratch the cat’s ears and was rewarded with a deep purring that vibrated every inch of the feline’s body.
“Good,” replied the witch, her back to the doorway. Her adoptive mother wore a similar brown dress to Tildy’s, though it bore many intricate flower-shaped patches, as well as tears mended with thick green thread. Under the needle of a person of lesser ability, the dress might have been an unseemly, patchworked mess. Tildy knew the witch prided herself on her threadskill, and each repair added to the loveliness of the garment.
A rope made of interwoven strands of brown, burnt orange, and deep red encircled her waist, and from it hung a variety of sheathed tools and leather pouches. There were many, and the witch interchanged them so frequently that Tildy doubted she’d ever seen the contents of all of them. The witch always had what she needed, and she joked that, if she were a woman of lesser girth, she’d never have all the appropriated supplies at hand. While she described herself as a butternut squash or upside-down strawberry, Tildy really didn’t think about the witch in those terms. Long ago, she had been taught, There is splendor in proportion, in symmetry, and even in perfection, Tildeneth. But they are not the only measures of beauty in the world, the witch would say. Look at any bird’s nest or mighty oak or cracked mountain. Delight in their imperfection and your own. This helped put Tildy at ease about her own imperfections, including her unpredictable weight changes and the livid birthmark upon her abdomen, which glistened crimson like a healing wound.
The witch’s garb reminded Tildy of the garden, as did the woman’s curly hair, which looked as though it had never been managed by brush or comb. Extending in every direction, it always covered her ears, yet never managed to obscure her eyes. This morning, the jumble of silver locks atop her head bounced as she ground something with a mortar and pestle.
The woman finally turned to greet Tildy, laugh lines visible at the edges of her smile momentarily before they smoothed out. Tildy looked in wonder at her adoptive mother’s face. She seemed at once old, yet ageless, as though time were not eroding her features like other people. No wrinkle could lay claim to her supple skin for long. Her eyes were dark gray, equal parts cunning and introspective. Once Tildy had heard a dwarf reverently say the witch had the presence of a mountain, which Tildy later learned to be a high compliment. At times, she understood what he meant.
“You inspected the chives, breesolay, and petaldowns?” the witch asked.
“Yes,” Tildy replied. “They’re all late.”
The witch made a skeptical sound. “The frondescence of Dappledown is never late. It grows as it should.”
Tildy didn’t know how to respond. It’s not like it was her fault that many of the flowers and herbs were growing slower this year. So she said, “I saw you checking the morning glory.”
“Yes,” the witch said vaguely as she continued busying herself. “Also late, also late. What does it mean?” she finished, more to herself than Tildy. She moved around the kitchen, collecting utensils and clearing space. “Well, that little mystery can wait until after breakfast,” she concluded, coming back from her thoughts. As she looked at Tildy, her brow furrowed in concern. A heartbeat later, Tildy doubled over in pain. Again! The stabbing pain. Again. Again! She gasped as the witch helped her into a chair.
“This illness. It is beyond chronic. Unnatural, I have always said.” The witch bustled to the herb panty and returned with some black fir needles. “Chew these.”
Tildy put the proffered remedy in her mouth and chewed carefully. A dry and bitter paste clung to her tongue and she had difficulty swallowing. The witch watched expectantly until Tildy managed a weak smile. The pain receded, but no slower or faster than the twenty other remedies the witch had tried over the years.
“Well, that might have promise. We shall see.” She returned to the breakfast preparation and spoke over her shoulder. “Now you just sit there whilst I quarter the apples and add the mint.”
“You know how I feel about you calling me that, Tildeneth” said the witch with one of her unhappier looks.
“One of us will get the better of this argument someday,” Tildy replied with a wan smile. They’d had this conversation many times. The witch always seemed to prefer a slight distance between them, doing parental things, but never fully accepting the role of mother. For several years, Tildy had thought this was because of the witch’s own abilities. Learned as she was in potions, special words, and other such things that humans called ‘magic’, she had never been able to explain – to her own satisfaction – how a human girl could sprout wings or appear to be another person, depending on the light. Abilities, seemingly magical in nature, did not just manifest themselves like this. And yet, had them Tildy did.
When the topic arose, Tildy often wondered aloud whether she’d inherited these abilities from her family, but the witch never thought so. No recorded lore spoke of such humans, and she thought it impossible to conceal these abilities from outsiders. Tildy never mentioned that the witch had done so herself for many years, and continued to do so with her adopted daughter. Deep down, however, Tildy thought the witch was right: humans were, as a general rule, people of swords and spears and very loud words, not transfiguration or magic.
The riddle seemed to trouble the witch more than most things, so Tildy never pushed the conversation as much as she wanted. She continued calling the witch ‘mother’, however. Sometimes out of love, sometimes irritation, and sometimes because she didn’t like using the witch’s name. Early on, she’d learned that one did not use a witch’s name – even in books – except in time of need. When Tildy thought about it, she simply didn’t have a better word than ‘mother’. Perhaps more importantly, it fit their relationship and gave Tildy comfort when her heart was stabbed by thoughts of a mother she’d never know.
Tildy now believed the witch had been keeping this distance because she wasn’t Tildy’s actual mother, as though she – the witch – felt she could never take the woman’s place. Sometimes, Tildy wondered if the witch was afraid of being supplanted if her birth mother returned, but that was ridiculous. The witch really was more of a mother than the one who’d given birth to her and died twelve years ago.
Tildy took the bowl of apples and mint to the witch. “I was thinking of picking some tildenethia today,” she said, adopting a casual tone.
“No,” said the witch, sprinkling some ground cinnamon into Tildy’s bowl.
That was not the response Tildy had expected, and she suspected that the witch knew her true motive. Yet, she continued nonetheless. “Our winter stock is nearly dried beyond potency. And since we don’t grow any here, I thought—”
“No,” the witch repeated, attending to her own bowl. “You wish to visit Caraban Losh, Tildeneth. You might not have realized it, but it has been growing on your mind, and your words have lately revealed a desire to return to the place where I found you.” While the witch’s words were said kindly, they were a bitter herb to chew. Tildy hated being transparent, and the witch always seemed able to see through her.
Regardless, Tildy was glad to drop the pretense. “As ever, you know my mind,” she said with a somewhat forced laugh. “It’s true, though both tales are true. We do need to replenish. And I’d hoped to look around a bit. Reminisce even.”
The witch snorted. “Reminisce what? Being found in the herb bushes?” When Tildy didn’t laugh along, the witch touched her cheek and said, “Oh child, I am not sure what you hope to accomplish, aside from withering this hope that has again blossomed in you. We have returned several times and you know the remnants of the caravan have long since rotted. Even the old road is overgrown. You will find naught but flowers and dew there today.”
“I know,” Tildy admitted. “It’s just, this was a long winter and I spent much of it pondering my past and longing for some connection to it.”
“And right now, that place is all I can offer you,” the witch said, nodding. “I understand the need, despite being able to foretell the outcome. Do you wish me to join you?”
Tildy thought about this a moment. The witch was always good company, and they had never journeyed together without Tildy learning something new, whether of herblore, history, or of the peoples that dwelt in lands far and near.
“No, I think I’d like to go alone.”
“Alright dear. Tuck into your breakfast and I will fix you a lunch to eat on the way.” She kissed Tildy’s cheek before adding, “Do not be too long. It is Heal’s Eve and we have much harvesting to do.
Tildy pulled her bowl of cream and oats closer, into which she spooned the apple and mint mixture. She was glad to be going, though it was difficult to feel happy when visiting the place where she thought her parents had died.
© Michael Wallevand, November 2016
- updated March 11, 2017