Marinette looked out the window of her tower and sighed. This was taking forever!
When her step-father, Lord Bourgeoise, had been willing to marry her off to the wealthiest knight in his court, she’d taken one look at that gaunt, somber face, those menacing eyes, and his cruel smile and decided that she was having none of it. She immediately packed a satchel with food, a few sturdy dresses, an extra pair of shoes, some cooking utensils, and of course her sketchbook and pencils; and then headed straight into the heart of the Enchanted Forest.
It was fortunate that she’d come across the old woman when she had. The poor dear had fallen into the stream just as Marinette came around the bend of the trail. She quickly fished the tiny lady out of the water and sat her on a nearby fallen tree. She got a fire going to warm the sweet little woman and dry off her clothes. Then put a metal cup near the fire to make a cup of tea.
“I don’t have much, but would you like to share a meal with me while your clothes dry?” she asked.
“Oh you sweet child,” the woman said as she gently pat her shoulder, her wrinkled face turning down in a small frown. “Don’t you think you ought to save that for your journey?”
Marinette shrugged her other shoulder. “I’m not offering you all my food, but it’s just not done to eat without sharing. The sun is high over head, I know I’m getting a little peckish, aren't you?” She spread a napkin on the log between them and set out bread, cheese, a small roll of dried meat, and added a few cookies to the feast. She pulled out her knife and cut slices of all the food before gesturing to her companion to begin. “Please share a meal with me. You still have some time till your skirts are dry.”
The old woman laughed and Marinette was sure she heard tiny bells ring as she did.
“You are a good girl and what kind of guest would I be if I turned down your sweet offer?”
She picked up one of the cookies. “Let’s start with dessert first. it’s been a backward kind of day. Might as well start with the end and go toward the beginning.”
Marinette smiled at her and picked up the other cookie. “I think you may be on to something.”
They ate in a peaceful silence listening to the chirping of the birds and the buzzing of the insects. Marinette felt herself relax as the sunlight made its way through the verdant foliage of the trees around them. She was finally free of her step-father’s house.
“That was a large sigh just now,” the woman said. “Would you like to talk about whatever has been weighing on your mind? Or if that is too much perhaps you’d rather talk of where you’re headed.”
“Oh,” Marinette was surprised a stranger would be interested in hearing about such things. She knew to be wary about giving away too much knowledge to strangers, but felt that she would feel better if she could discuss things with someone other than herself. “Well, I was promised in marriage to a cruel man, so I had to run away from home.” Her voice trailed off.
“Did your father know your intended is a cruel man?”
“The man who promised me is not my father,” anger tinged her words. “I was taken from my parents when I was eight, and if I were to go back to them the lord could both take me from them again and punish them for helping me escape.”
“Did they help you escape?”
The woman seemed intrigued with her situation.
Marinette shook her head. “I left without help from anyone, well no help that night. Some of the household staff have helped me put together the things I would need to escape. An extra blanket here, the sturdy pack that just needed a strap mended there," she seemed lost in thought as she added, "forgetting to take the flint and steel with them when they lit the fires for the day,” she stopped. “They risked a great deal to help me and were some of the kindest people. I owe them a great deal.”
“You owe them?” the woman seemed surprised at her attitude. “They helped you escape into a place where few who enter ever leave again.”
“They gave me the tools to survive on my own in a place that may have werewolves and ogres, but at least those kinds of monsters are upfront about their intentions, rather than the courtiers who use smooth words to hide tooth and claw.”
“Still, the Enchanted Forest is no place for the faint of heart,” the woman started.
“But you’re out here grandmother,” Marinette began to wonder about that.
“Ah, yes the edges of the forest are safe enough especially if one stays to the marked paths and is out only during the day. It doesn’t hurt to travel with a few companions, either. Those who venture deep into the trees are wise to take an enchanter or two in their party and keep themselves safe with iron and salt.” The woman looked her over. “Well you have an iron will and plenty of salt for your step-father’s house, so perhaps you’ll be safe after all.” She hummed a bit at Marinette’s laugh.
“It’s true I hold no love for that house, but I suppose the forest will test if my resolve is made of iron or not.”
“I suppose that’s what the wilderness is for,” the old woman sighed. “So where will you go now? Now that you’ve had to leave your home and that house behind?”
“I didn’t really have a destination in mind,” Marinette replied. “I figured that ‘away’ was the best course to plot, and once I was sufficiently far, I could worry about things like ‘where’ and ‘how to pay for it’ once I stopped to rest.”
“Well that’s certainly a plan, but I do at least have a suggestion for you as to where you could go for shelter sweetheart. If you can pass through the Dragon’s Glen without stopping or distraction (she gestured to the path heading straight into the heart of the forest), then there’s a little place where a turtle likes to sun itself on a rock next to a river. Catch three fish and feed the turtle, then he’ll let you ride on his back down the stream. When he gets out on the other side, you’ll meet a fox. It’ll ask you “tricks or treats”. If you choose tricks, the fox will lead in you circles and disappear on you. If you can give it a treat, it will lead you to an old wizard tower, where you can be safe from your step-father.”
“Are you sure the wizard would let me stay?” Marinette asked. “What would I have to pay?”
“The wizard is of no concern. He left the tower long ago, and put it into my care,” she explained with a wave of her hand. “I need someone to live in it so that the townsfolk at the bottom of the hill will stay out of the garden and not play in the house every time I’m gone. There’s a well that I’m constantly fishing young Wayhem out of every other month and I’m tired of it.”
“But, then, where will you live?” Marinette asked her brows drawn down in concern.
“Why in my cottage at the edge of the wood,” she pointed in a direction where the path split. “I’d invite you to come with me, but I’m sure it’s too close to your old house and I can’t defend it as easily as the tower, should your step-father or his knights try to come and get you back.”
Marinette thought the offer over. “And you just need me to live there?” she asked. “It sounds too good to be true.”
“Well, I’m hoping you can make it seem haunted or spooky or some such thing, to keep out the looky-loos,” the old woman replied. The twinkle in her eye was not missed by Marinette. “There’s a garden on three sides with high walls around it, and a road passes in front. The merchant who brought supplies to the old wizard comes by once a month, and she’ll gladly trade or barter for what you need. She was never scared off by any of the wizard’s scare tactics, seemed to see right through them, so she’d not be too frightened to stop by.”
“But I’ll have nothing to trade?”
“Oh, I’m sure you will,” he eyes wrinkled in mirth. “Fu dabbled in many things, but didn’t really stick to any one thing, except his garden, so there’s plenty of knick-knacks and projects laying about you could fix up or finish. There’s lots of garden journals and instructions for growing his plants-magical and mundane, too.” The woman reached out her hand and placed it on Marinette’s arm. “You must promise me you won’t plant or sell any beans.”
She nodded. “Beans.” Her voice became quite strained. “He gave some beans to the merchant telling her he needed an old cow to try and ‘youngerize’, and the merchant traded the beans to some boy named Jack for his old milk cow, if it was really his,” she added darkly. “The poor thing had dried up and was on it’s last leg, the perfect animal for my daft old friend.” The old woman sighed, gazing off not really looking at anything. “The instructions must have gotten mixed up somewhere because instead of being planted in the dark of the new moon and producing bean plants with pods as big as a sphynx’s tail, they were planted on a full moon. The next thing you know the stalk grew up until they bridged into the cloud kingdom of the giants.”
The old woman nodded. “Jack, the little thief, stole a couple of items from the king of the giants, and nearly brought war and ruin on us all.” She shook her head slowly. “Unfortunately one of the king’s sons tried to chase Jack down to get the stolen items back, but Jack cut the stalk as the lad was climbing down. The poor prince shattered most of his bones. It took wizards and engineers several months to get him fixed up and returned to his kingdom. The queen let it be known that if another beanstalk appeared it would be considered a declaration of war…”
“Definitely, no beans,” Marinette said her eyes still wide.
“That’s all I ask.” The old woman shook out her skirts that seemed to have dried very quickly. “This has been quite fun,” she declared. “So you don’t mind watching the tower for me?” When Marinette shook her head ‘no’ a bright smile broke out on the woman’s face. “Excellent!
“I suppose we ought to introduce ourselves if we’re to continue to know each other. You may call me Tikki,” she said as she reached forth a wrinkled old hand.
Marinette thought just a moment as she knew better than to give a stranger her name, but not wanting to be called after Lord Bourgeois she resolved to give only her first name. If Tikki was a fey creature with ill intent she wouldn’t be able to completely control her, but somehow she felt the woman could be trusted.
“You may call me Marinette,” she said as she shook the woman’s hand.
A breeze swirled around them and a lady beetle landed upside down on their joined hands. Marinette put a finger out to let the beetle right itself and smiled as it flew away.
“I knew it!” Tikki exclaimed. “I knew you’d be the perfect fit for the tower.”
Marinette smiled, “We can only hope.”
“Ladybugs are signs of good luck Marinette, and we’ve been blessed with good luck in our transaction,” Tikki said her face full of honesty.
“I know I’ve been lucky in meeting you, Tikki,” she conceded.
“Here, I have the key ring in my pocket.” She pulled out a ring with three keys on it. She held up a small brass key, “This is to the front door.” She held up a silver medium sized key, “This is to the garden gate,” she paused before adding. “You’ll find the cowshed and the chicken coops in a fenced off area just through the gate. There aren’t any chickens at present, but I’m sure Alya can get you some. The cow tends to come and go as she pleases. Don’t be alarmed if you see her jumping the fence or the wall. She’s trying to work up to jumping the moon. Heaven knows why all Fu’s experiments go snafu during a full moon, but there you have it.” She held up a large, heavy black iron key obviously for a very sturdy lock, “And this is for the well cover.”
The old woman waved Marinette off after they put out the fire and erased any signs of their being there. Marinette recited both the instructions she’d been given and the old lady’s parting warning as she walked.
When crossing the Dragon’s Glen,
Take nothing that was made by men!
Leave naught but prints upon the dew,
Touch nothing shiny, lest it curse you.
When the sun began to sink to the horizon, Marinette began to look for a good place to camp. She came upon an old oak, whose lower branches were close enough for her grab, and meekly approached the tree.
“Oh Grandfather Oak, I seek a bed for the night. Would you grant me the same privilege as the squirrel and owl, to make a nest in your branches? I promise no blade shall come upon you by my hand, I’ll not rend your limbs, nor disturb my neighbors.”
Soon the leaves began to rustle. Marinette noticed that none of the other trees’ leaves in the grove so much as moved.
“I’ll take that as a yes then,” she said as she made sure to secure her belongings before jumping for the first branch.
She hadn’t climbed trees in a very long time, but the branches were perfectly placed to make the climb easy. She found a spot close to the trunk of the tree where two limbs branched out. No other animal had claimed the spot, and it was high enough to be out of the way of land predators, and off the cold ground, there was a thick canopy of leaves overhead to keep off any rain, and it was on the leeward side of the tree so that no wind should freeze her in the night.She pulled out what was left of the bread and cheese, and ate a cold supper before arranging her extra dress as a cushion and pulling the thick wool blanket tightly around herself so that she could sleep. The previous night and day had been long and tiring enough that she found she could easily sleep in the arms of the ancient oak quite well.
Waking the next morning was a strange experience for Marinette. She’d dreamt that a family of squirrels had come to nest inside her wool blanket, helping to keep her toasty warm. She vaguely remembered something about a large panther like creature settling over her lap and keeping her quite safely up against the trunk. It’s low purr calming her fear of being unsafe in the night. The wind had rustled the tree leaves, but it was more like a lullaby sigh than a freezing gale. And there was something more, she could swear there was something more, but opening her eyes to the bright morning light all she could see were fresh green leaves and a low level mist hanging about the forest.
She quickly undid her preparations of the night before, stuffing her dress back into her pack and tying the blanket around her neck as it was still quite chilly. At the base of the tree Marinette bowed toward the trunk.
“Thank you Grandfather Oak for your hospitality for the night. I hope that you may yet enjoy many more centuries in the sun and the rain.”
A rustling sound was heard and the branches of the tree shook violently. A large branch fell to the ground near to where she stood. It was straight and stout and if she trimmed off a few little things here and here… she drew out her knife and went to work transforming the branch into-
“Ah, an excellent walking stick!” Thank you Grandfather for the gift of your branch. I have truly been lucky to meet you. Good day!”
And with that she started down the path that the little old lady-Tikki- had indicated.