When the centuries-barren orchards of Berrie-on-the-Wyn suddenly bear fruit, it is clear that something strange is afoot — and something fey, for this is no ordinary harvest. To partake of the fruits of Faerie is to be changed for good, but not necessarily for the better.
From whence come the golden apples, the moonlit silver pears? Who is the motley piper who walks the streets of Berrie, drawing forth magic and mayhem with his music? And how can half of the town vanish into thin air?
There may be chaos aplenty in Berrie, but all that’s needed to set things straight is a touch of the right light — and maybe just the right pair of Boots…
The Disappearance of Berrie-on-the-Wyn (half of it).
Towards the end of a long, hot summer, when the scents of fading flowers hung heavy upon the air, Mistress Clarimond Honeysett plighted her troth to Tobias Dwerryhouse.
The betrothal was a sedate affair, for neither was in the first flush of youth. Tobias was the publican of The Moss and Mist, the oldest inn of north Berrie-on-the-Wyn. He had whiled away his youth travelling far beyond the borders of the town, though when pressed, he would never say where he had been. ‘Far enough away, and farther still,’ replied he in his deep, calm voice, with a wink of one dark green eye, and never a word more would he speak upon the subject.
Mistress Honeysett was the widow of old Mortimer Honeysett, of Hereweald farm. Clarimond had been his second wife, and upon her husband’s death the farm passed into the hands of Edmund Honeysett, her stepson. Left in possession of Thistledown House, her own comfortable dwelling in the southern half of the town, Clarimond had lived in quiet comfort these three years past.
Upon the subject of their approaching nuptials, the citizens of Berrie were as divided as the town itself. There were those who held that Mistress Honeysett had lost her senses, for what business had she leaving the respectable comforts of widowhood for a second alliance? And to go north over the Wynspan, too! For that matter, Dwerryhouse ought rather to focus upon the business of innkeeping, being now past his fortieth year. Had he wanted to wed, he ought to have done so sooner.
Others observed that Tobias was a genial man, and well deserving of a wife. Clarimond, some distance into her thirties and of a disposition to match, was just the woman to suit him. And perhaps she would not go north over the Wynspan. Perhaps Dwerryhouse would come south over the river to her.
It did not suit the town to consider that the betrothal might be a desire of the heart, for two such souls, at a respectably sedate time of life, could have no business falling in love. Being both in comfortable circumstances, however, there was much sense in uniting their separate holdings. This must be reason enough.
Not that there was so very great a distance between them, reflected Clarimond. Standing at her parlour window one bright morning, she received a clear view over her flourishing gardens, bejewelled and fragrant with the last flurry of summer blossoms. Where her garden ended, the river began, and on the other side of that rippling span of clear water she could just see the chimney pots of the Moss-and-Mist peeping over the tops of its attendant birch trees. In the autumn, the mists for which the inn was named would come rolling off the river in great wreathing clouds, and hide the far bank from her sight. But here at the end of summer, she could still stand at her window, or wander through her gardens, and watch for Tobias from afar.
There was but one bridge over the River Wyn: the Wynspan, near on a mile away, westwards along the shore. But Tobias possessed a neat little boat with a curving prow, a craft he manned alone with admirable ease. Few dared traverse the clear waters of the Wyn, for it was tricky and prone to mischief. But nothing daunted Tobias. Every day of that long, hot summer he had rowed over the Wyn to Thistledown House and taken tea in Clarimond’s good parlour. Every morning she had stood and waited and watched for him.
Even now, a pot of moonflower tea brewed at the table behind her, a plate of her best rosewater and honey scones waiting beside. Mordaunt had laid claim to one of her elegant wing-back chairs and lay curled in sumptuous comfort, his thick white fur sleek and fresh from a vigorous grooming. His low, thrumming purr softly broke the silence of the parlour, soothing Clarimond as she stood, waiting and hoping for Tobias yet seeing no sign of his approach.
She was troubled today, for her mother lay upstairs in the back bedroom, sweating her way through a swift and brutal summer fever. Little could be done for her, for she would eat nothing, and had to be coaxed to drink anything but water. Clarimond sat with her all the day through, bathing Clover’s perspiring face in cooling waters and wishing futilely for a respite from the heat of the season. Her only absence was taken when Tobias was expected; then kind Maggie Muggwort, her maid, sat with Mrs. Waregrove abovestairs and told her stories, while Clarimond sat with Tobias below, taking heart from his presence even as she took tea from a fine porcelain cup.
The apothecary had been sent for, two days gone, and had little to offer. ‘Keep her cool, if you can,’ said he, and so Clover had been moved to Clarimond’s own bedroom at the back of the house, where the sun shone less fiercely through the day and the winds whispered soothingly through the windows at night.
‘Is there nothing more we may do?’ said Clarimond in dismay, for she had hoped for a cure.
‘Give her water,’ he replied. ‘Mix a little honey into the glass, for ‘tis the only sustenance she may presently take.’ With which words he had doffed his hat and gone on his way, leaving Clarimond with naught to do but beseech her drowsing bees for a share of their bounty.
There was, she thought, only so much waiting and watching a person could reasonably bear.
In spite of his unpromisingly minimal advice, she had thoughts of entreating Mr. Amberdrake to attend upon her mother once again, for her condition was undoubtedly growing worse. She was now too weak to rise at all, and had ceased every attempt to speak. Every day she grew thinner, her cheekbones standing sharp in her wasted face and her eyes glazed with fever.
Clarimond was frightened, for her mother had ever been frail. Could she, in her advancing age, survive a fever which had carried off many a younger and stronger soul?
If she could but see Tobias, even for a few scant minutes! He was a calm lake to her troubled waters, and nothing unsettled him. He brought peace into her quiet parlour, a peace she gratefully took into her own heart, and paid for with tea and pastries and smiles. But the morning marched on, and he did not come.
Footsteps disturbed her wistful reverie, pounding upon the back stairs in a clatter of foreboding urgency. Mordaunt woke with a start and a disgruntled yowl, settling only when Clarimond laid a soothing hand upon his head as she passed his chair. She reached the parlour door just as Maggie Muggwort appeared, pink-cheeked in the heat, her dark hair escaping from beneath the cap she wore to neaten it.
‘It’s Mrs. Waregrove, ma’am!’ said Maggie breathlessly, and paused to gasp for air.
Clarimond’s heart contracted. ‘Yes? What is it?’
‘She be talking.’ Maggie pointed upstairs, helpfully confirming that the lady in question had not abruptly bestirred herself from her sickbed and gone a-wander.
Clarimond lifted her skirts and ran, abandoning her dignity. She clattered up the same staircase which Maggie had come helter-skeltering down, her heart alight with hope.
But the woman she found upon entering the back bedroom looked sicker than ever, her skin pallid and sweating and her parched lips cracking with fever. Her hair, corn-yellow like her daughter’s, lay lank upon the pillow, and her thin breast rose and fell with shallow, too-quick breaths. She fixed protruding eyes upon her daughter and said in a weak voice, ‘When I am gone, Clarimond, you are to have all my possessions. It is important— that you—’ Here she was obliged to leave off, for her voice failed and she fell to panting.
Clarimond took the chair by her mother’s bedside and tried to take her hand as well, but Clover made no move to permit it. ‘Mother, pray do not talk so,’ she chided, trying to smile. ‘You are not to leave us yet, I make no doubt.’
‘My hour approaches,’ panted Clover Waregrove, shaking her head with feverish determination. ‘I feel it. Do not be sad, child, for you shall benefit by my passing. Only you must not waste it! So many years of work — your father’s inheritance — it is all to be yours and you must promise me.’
‘Calm, mother,’ said Clarimond softly. ‘By what means could I possibly squander it?’
‘I know your foolish heart.’ Clover’s stare turned exasperated, even baleful, as she eyed her attendant daughter. ‘You will give half of it away, with narry a thought!’
‘There are many in need, mother—’ Clarimond tried, but was interrupted.
‘They may make their own way to prosperity, as your grandfathers did! And you may do better than the landlord of a public house, besides. Wedded to a rich farmer, as you were! A landowner! And then to so throw yourself away!’
Clarimond said nothing, for the subject had been exhausted before, and nothing could reconcile Mrs. Waregrove to a Tobias Dwerryhouse.
Her mother did not appear to require a response, for she lay quietly panting for some minutes, her laboured breaths rasping loudly in the still air. ‘My dying wish,’ she said at last, and Clarimond’s heart contracted, for she knew what must come next. My dying wish is for you to give up Dwerryhouse.
But no. ‘An apple,’ said Mrs. Waregrove, and Clarimond blinked in surprise.
‘An apple, mother?’ she faltered.
‘Just one,’ whispered Clover. ‘One sweet, fresh apple, dripping with juice…’
Clarimond could almost wish that her guess had been correct, for at least that lay within the bounds of feasibility, if not desirability. ‘Mother, there are no apples hereabouts,’ she said quietly. ‘Nor anywhere nearby. There have not been for generations.’
Clover’s eyes narrowed. ‘I am dying,’ she snapped. ‘I do not have to be reasonable. An apple, Clarimond! Get one for me, and I will…’ she drifted off into rasping breaths once more, and it took her full a minute to recover air enough to finish her sentence. ‘I will give my blessing to your marriage with the publican.’
‘You need not offer such an inducement, mother,’ said Clarimond, feeling the first touches of irritation. ‘You may be sure I would seek to grant any wish of yours were it within my power, without requiring a reward. But apples! It cannot be done.’
Clover’s eyes shone with a feverish zeal which could only alarm her daughter. ‘It need not be fresh, then!’ she amended. ‘Bring me an apple, be it withered and dried! Preserved in sugar! Infused in brandy! I do not much care, only let me taste it once — just once before I die.’ She lapsed into dreamy silence, a faint smile touching her cracked lips as she fell to imagining the probable delights of the long-lost fruit. ‘I dream of them,’ she whispered.
And Clarimond was left in consternation, for not a syllable more would her mother speak. Soon afterwards she fell into a restless slumber, half-formed words tumbling incoherently from her lips. Clarimond half hoped that she had been raving when she spoke of apples, a mere delusion brought on by her sickness. But it was a faint hope, for Clover had seemed full lucid enough.
She was glad indeed to hear Tobias’s low, deep voice speak from the parlour below not five minutes later. She did not wait for Maggie to return to her station upstairs but departed at once, passing her maid on the stairs below. ‘She has talked a fair deal but now she sleeps,’ she said in a rush, her heart soaring with delight at Tobias’s near approach. ‘Do not wake her, Maggie, I beg you! And do not mind the nonsense she whispers in her dreams!’
Then she was gone into the parlour where Tobias stood, his hat set aside and his strong arms folded as he surveyed the abandoned tea spread out upon the table. ‘Here I find all the delights of the morning awaiting me, save only the best of them,’ he said, and made Clarimond a little bow. ‘Madam, no quantity of rosewater scones may make amends for your absence, as delightful as they are!’
‘But look, I have laid out extra, in hopes you would not notice.’ She gestured at the plate with a winning smile, and spread her skirts in an answering curtsey. ‘I did most faithfully await your arrival, my good sir, but I was claimed by my mother.’
Tobias’s merriment faded at once, and he kissed her hand with gratifying sympathy. ‘How does she fare?’
‘Poorly,’ said Clarimond, her joy fading too as her mind returned to her mother’s plight. ‘I fear she will not last the night, Tobias.’
Tobias took both of her hands, and squeezed them tenderly. ‘I will bring Mr. Amberdrake. He will know what to do.’
‘He has little advice to offer, I fear, but of course he must be consulted. Thank you.’ But as Tobias turned to go, she prevented him with a murmured, ‘Stay a moment.’
Tobias turned back.
‘I fear I will sound half mad to you, to pose such a question.’ Clarimond looked into his steady, loving face and hesitated.
‘I cannot know,’ replied he, ‘until you ask it.’
She sighed, softly, and spoke again. ‘In all your travels, have you ever come upon an… an apple?’
Tobias blinked and his eyebrows rose. Clarimond thought that a touch of wariness entered his expression, though why should it be so? ‘An unexpected question,’ he said. ‘Why should you ask it, my own?’
‘It is my mother’s fancy,’ said Clarimond with half a smile. ‘She dreams of them, she says, and claims it as her dying wish.’
Clarimond inclined her head. ‘In any form such a thing may be found.’ She did not share with him the rest of her mother’s request, nor the promise that came with it.
Tobias thought. ‘Once, have I encountered such a fruit,’ he said. ‘But under no circumstances that can be of use to you. ‘Twas far off, and if she suffers as you say, no urgency could bring it back in time.’
Clarimond’s hopes rose at his first words, and sank away to nothing at the rest. She tried for a smile, but her face would not form the expression. ‘Ah, well,’ she said softly. ‘If you know of no nearer source, I must abandon the hope.’
‘She is not to be satisfied with honey, or nectar? Here there are flowers and bees aplenty, more than enough to please.’
‘It will have to be enough,’ said Clarimond, though she knew it could not be so.
‘I will fetch Amberdrake,’ said Tobias again, and departed. Clarimond was left to regret the cooling pot of moonflower tea untouched upon the table, and the loss of peace and harmony it signified. Quietly she returned to her mother, there to resume waiting and watching until the apothecary should come.