Chapter 1 – Spring in Dappledown

Welcome to the first chapter! This is an eleventh 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.”

Mike


Tildy woke as something struck her forehead. Eyes blinking in the clean morning light, her fuzzy brain struggled to comprehend where she was. She closed them, trying to focus her thoughts and calm her heaving breaths. Something hit her head again. She rolled over and opened her eyes, seeing her bed several feet beneath her. “Not again,” she groaned. She’d been flying in her sleep.

She fluttered back down, gossamer wings flapping noiselessly. As she settled upon her bed, they disappeared within a hidden flap in her dress. She rubbed her head, recalling the dream that had come yet again. The shadow in the tall tower had been visiting her dreams regularly throughout her childhood. It thrilled and terrified her like a ghost story, and while she never considered it a nightmare, she always awoke exhausted, as though it were less phantasm 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 before the storm.

Yawning, Tildy rubbed her olive-skinned face and scratched at her scalp, her short spiky hair staying wherever it was moved. While far too short for the custom of other girls, for which she had not a thimbleful of care, it suited her small face and button features. In the dim interior of her bedroom, her hair held onto the shadows of dusk. However, as the sun rose her hair would glow flaxen in the light. Outwardly, she was otherwise unremarkable in appearance as far as maidens went, much to the approval of her adoptive mother, the witch.

Deciding that she was awake for the day, she slid out of bed and walked to the shuttered window. She inhaled the fragrant scents of the Garden of Dappledown as she opened the casement and looked outward. Her wooden mourning chimes clitter-cloottered melodiously from from the eaves, giving voice to the day’s greeting.

From her second-story window, she saw the Mother Sun had risen, but had not yet crested the trees. The Forest of Eddlweld comprised the margins of her 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: rich red poppy, orange marigold and golden sunflower, saffron, green chrysanthemum and blue borage, lavender and thistle – all glistening with morning dew. Beside them, herbs and vegetables burst 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 place had a wild, but tended look to it, thanks in part to deer, rabbits, and folivory grouse that ate the weeds and pruned foliage. Their favorite was a plant the witch called “dratted sweem”, which kept invading: the vanguard of a forest that wanted to reclaim lost territory.

Outside, the birds chirped and squawked and trilled with the enthusiasm of those that have known a long and bitter Winter and can finally stretch cramped limbs. However, Spring had broken weeks ago and she frowned at the noise, cursing the disturbance that interrupted her morning. Tildy stretched and yawned again, feeling like she, too, was waking from an extended hibernation. She noticed that she’d slept in her clothes again: her favorite plain brown dress with embroidered flowers and twisting vines all along the hems. That explained how her wings escaped. None of her nightdresses had the flap. Shrugging – and not changing clothes – she found her sandals and went downstairs to the kitchen, where she assumed the witch would be.

She passed the pantry and rumbling stormcloset, but since her adoptive mother was not there to good-morning, nor in the library, Tildy meandered through the never-ending warren of small yet cozy rooms toward the back of the cottage, along passageways that seemed more growing tree than crafted wall. Even after all these years, she marveled at how the dwelling appeared larger within than it did from without.

She heard the usual cricks and creaks, what she’d called the ‘talk-to-me’ as a little girl. Tapestries, old and woven new, billowed in her wake, while knotholes displayed curiosities and oddments. Stonework had been cunningly laid, in hearth and arching doorframe, fashioned to give the appearance of bark or other natural growth. Sometimes, she imagined the slow petrification of the house, but mostly, she liked to think it worked the other way: the cottage’s living wood was healing itself, all wounds lignifying the foreign materials that had dared invade.

Here and there, potted plants and slender treewisps filled niches in the uneven walls, and feathered ferns sprouted from cracks, their roots filling spaces like mortar. As a young child, Tildy had believed the witch had simply opened the doors and let the Garden in.

The witch was not to be found in any of the first-floor rooms. This wasn’t unusual. Tildy knew she slept little and could be found outdoors at any hour of the day, tending it as though it were another child. However, she had learned to never, ever, refer to it as such.

She grabbed a basket near the door, catching a quick glimpse of daylight through the circular window of golden frame. Opening the cottage to the world beyond, she sprang lightly into the morning air with a smile, pausing to take a deep breath that delighted and invigorated her. As she inhaled, she smelled many things on the breeze, all of them familiar, all of them enchanting. She couldn’t recall a finer morning this season. Bright eyes surveyed the clearing, missing nothing, for they were sharp like the hawk’s, yet as kind as the doe’s.

Birds continued their merry chittering among the oak and ash, 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. She had spent twelve years in the witch’s care, embroiled in a losing contest of wills and wits with them. “You make more noise than hungry crows!” she called, and the birds fell silent. Grateful for this small victory, 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, 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 with a shake of her head before moving to a different section. Everything seemed to be growing at a slower pace this season, which she knew to weigh heavily on the witch’s mind.

She made sure to visit the pearset tree to scrape away the barleyclengs that had attached themselves to the bark again. “There are plenty of other barks to eat in the forest!” she reprimanded the scuttling grey 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 ice months and retained its coldness throughout the Summer. 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 treetops. 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 warned against bad decisions, so the witch had strategically placed it around the Garden when Tildy came to live with her. Willful child that she was, she took its warnings as confirmation that something fun was about to happen.

Still, she’d had a growing disquiet lately that prickled the hairs on her neck. She listened, her ears catching an underbrush pitterpation of a small animal or two, but she was otherwise satisfied there were no strangers around. Very few creatures could sneak up on her, 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, her delicate wings unfolded from beneath the hidden flap in her dress. She loved this secret ability, this unique quality that made her feel special in a world where she was often alone and outwardly unremarkable.

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 her.

The cool of the winter apples fogged her breath as she picked them. Each white fruit was identical, something she found magical, despite the witch’s mundane description of symmetrical growth. To Tildy, an explanation made the thing no less enchanting.

The distant squeak of a door hinge caused her to poke her head out through the leaves. On the threshold to the front door stood the witch, her adoptive mother and the only parent she’d known. She studied the red-blossomed morning glory and shiny green skyvy that ran up the walls and circled Tildy’s window before climbing the rickety chimney. She gently ran her palm over the foliage before plucking a flower and putting it in her mouth. She shook her head, which indicated these flowers were also earlier in their growing cycle than they should be.

As always, Tildy was struck by how much the cottage resembled a gigantic tree stump, aside from the roof and askew chimney of spiraling brickwork, from which drifted the grey breath of an untended fire. The irregular foundation burrowed like immense roots into the lush turf, which grew right up to the low windows that looked out at regular intervals.

The cottage lay planted beneath the ancient trees of Eddleweld, the branches of which sometimes buffeted its roof. As a little girl, Tildy had thought the trees were trying to remove the top of the cottage, something she again 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. As she 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 her adoptive mother silently approach on feet rarely shoed. As usual, she gave the cursed spot in the Garden’s center a wide berth. Even from this distance, Tildy could see the ring of scorched rocks, and within, the black grass that must have twisted in agony before dying. The place had not changed in all the years she had resided in Dappledown. No snow fell upon it and no rain cleansed it. Nothing grew within 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. The most Tildy had ever gotten was a stern warning to “Leave the fallament alone, Tildeneth.” At age seven, she had finally learned to stop asking. Her curiosity remained, of course, and she knew she’d have the story in time.

Leaving the spot behind, her adoptive mother shaded her eyes as she scanned the trees for Tildy, who waved when she was spotted. She had long since stopped chastising her adopted daughter for this behavior, but it still displeased her. Discovery had been a primary fear for so long – both herself and the baby in her care – that she ever erred on the distant side of caution. Even in her own Garden.

Over the years, a new worry had developed. Learned as she was in potions, special words, and other such things that many called “magic”, the witch had never been able to explain, to her own satisfaction, how a Human girl could sprout wings or mimic another person. “Abilities,” she would say, “seemingly magical in nature, do not manifest themselves like this.” And yet, had them Tildy did.

To Tildy’s mind, however, she already knew their origin. Or thought she did. It seemed obvious that she’d inherited these abilities from her family. It wasn’t like some magical being had appeared from thin air to bestow them upon her.

The witch disagreed. No recorded lore spoke of such a thing in Humans, and she always argued that it would be impossible to conceal from history, of which she seemed to know an awful lot. Tildy would then tease her about remaining hidden for years in Eddlweld, getting only a familiar “Hmph,” in response.

Deep down, Tildy thought she was right: Humans were, as a general rule, people of swords and spears and very loud words, not transfiguration or magic. Nevertheless, this riddle vexed the witch more than other problems.

“I need four tip-top apples and a few sprigs of mint for breakfast,” the witch called from below. “Be a dear and collect them for an old woman.”

Tildy looked down, but could only see her tempestuous grey hair moving as she looked about the Garden. “Halfway done, mother!” replied Tildy cheerfully, though she knew it would make the witch frown.

“And do not stay in the peyvillow tree too long!” the witch said, redirecting her displeasure. “You will catch your death of cold.”

Tildy dismissed the warning and picked the remaining apples she needed. When 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, the Eastwen Road. The caravan appeared to be headed toward it when they were attacked. Perhaps, at the end of that road 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?

The moment passed. Grasping her laden basket, Tildy leapt from the tree before descending to the herb garden on delicate wings. The demure mint sprigs stood upright, ready for 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, giving it an even cozier appearance. Cloudy the glass might appear from the outside, they were clear as a mountain lake 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 longcat greeted her. She 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.

She could hear the crunch of a pestle against mortar, along with a familiar click-clacking of wood – the sound of the wooden bangles that adorned the witch’s wrists. On the left, fragrant cedar, striped ebony, and greenswood covered with symbols Tildy didn’t know. On the right, yellow yew, red muninga, pale ash, and mahogany half-wrapped with black thread. She’d always associate the sound with happy times in the kitchen, when she soaked in a lifetime’s worth of herblore and cookery.

A rope made of interwoven strands of brown, burnt orange, and deep red encircled her adoptive mother’s 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 joked that, if she were a woman of lesser girth, she’d never have all the appropriate supplies at hand. In a rare bit of self-deprecation, she’d describe herself as a butternut squash or upside-down strawberry, though Tildy didn’t think about her adoptive mother in those terms. Long ago, she had been taught, There is splendor in curved proportion, in symmetry, and even in perfection, Tildeneth. But they are not the only measures of beauty in the world. Look at any bird’s nest or lightning-scarred 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 breastbone, which glistened crimson like a healing wound.

The witch’s garb reminded Tildy of the Garden, as did her curly hair: a bramble’s thicket never managed by brush or comb. It always covered her ears, yet never managed to obscure her eyes. Somewhere within the tangle hung a pearl bead, hair threaded through it. Much like the cursed spot, her adoptive mother refused to talk about it.

She set the pestil beside her favorite herb grinder and finally turned in greeting, laugh lines momentarily visible before smoothing out. Tildy looked in wonder at her 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 bright silver with flecks of dark grey, equal parts cunning and introspective. Once she had heard a Dwarf reverently say the witch had the presence of a mountain, which she 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. “One cannot force the frondescence of Dappledown to bloom.”

Knowing better than to respond to something that sounded like an unfair accusation, she said, “I saw you checking the morning glory.”

“Yes,” the witch said vaguely as she wiggled her fingers to click rings of stone, wood, and metal against one another. “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 shall wait until after breakfast,” she concluded, coming back from her thoughts. She looked back, brow creased in concern. A heartbeat later, Tildy doubled over in pain, the stabbing pain in her abdomen returning once again. She gasped as the witch helped her into a chair.

Her mother tutted. “There has always been something with you and sickness, since you were a baby. Unnatural, I have always said.” She bustled to the herb pantry and returned with a handful of black fir needles. “Chew these.”

She 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 she managed a weak smile. The pain receded, but no slower or faster than the thirty 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 sit there whilst I quarter the apples and add the mint.”

“Yes, mother.” Seeing the witch momentarily stiffen, she added, “One of us will get the better of this disagreement someday.” They had danced around the topic as long as she could remember. The witch always seemed to prefer a slight distance between them, doing parental things, but never fully accepting the title of “mother”. Tildy wondered if she feared being displaced if her birth mother returned, but that was ridiculous. The witch was more of a mother than the one who’d died twelve years ago.

Nevertheless, she continued using the word. While she sometimes said it in irritation, it did give her comfort when her heart was stabbed by thoughts of a mother she’d never know. Most of the time, however, she used “witch” like everyone else. Obviously, she couldn’t call her by name. One did not use a witch’s name – even in books – except in time of great need.

Tildy changed the subject, adopting a casual tone. “I was thinking of picking some tildenethia today.”

“No,” she said, walking over to hand Tildy a bowl of cream and oats. Her hand came up from one of her pouches to sprinkle a “witch’s pinch” over the mixture, which added a vibrant flavor to any meal.

That wasn’t the response Tildy had expected, and she suspected her true motive had been guessed. Yet, she continued undaunted. “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 this has been growing on your mind. Your words have lately revealed a desire to return to the place where I found you.”

While the words were kindly said, they were a bitter herb to chew. Tildy hated being transparent, and the witch could see through her at the most inconvenient times. Regardless, she was glad to drop the pretense. “As ever, you know my mind,” she replied with a somewhat forced laugh. “You’re right, 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?” Seeing Tildy’s crestfallen face, she reached out to touch her cheek, saying, “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 today, 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?”

She thought about this a moment. Her adoptive mother 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 overlong. It is Heal’s Eve and we have much harvesting to do.”

Grateful for permission, Tildy felt a doleful expression crossing her face as she spooned apple and mint into her bowl. It was difficult to feel happy when visiting the place where she thought her parents had died.


Chapter 2 – Flowers and Dew and Something New

© Michael Wallevand, November 2016

  • updated March 11, 2017
  • updated November 3, 2017
  • updated July 17, 2019