December is a month of frantic baking at the Homestead. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day I usually bake between 12 and 20 different types of cookie. These are all immediately frozen and hidden away, only to be brought out a few days before the holiday, divided into many, many boxes, and delivered to people we like.

I will be posting frequently on the progress of our big bake off, and also including posts on the homemade presents I’ll try to sneak in (so much alpaca yarn, so little time). We’ll go to our favorite tree farm to cut a tree (coming this Saturday, weather permitting), and doing the house up in its holiday finery.

And now, as promised a month ago, here’s a short excerpt from the steaming pile of words I cranked out over the last month:

Journey to Castlerock: a tale of rite and wrong
by Allison Coffin

In the deepest part of an ancient maple forest, near where the rambling creek made a sharp bend around a circle of standing stones, there stood a little cabin nestled among the roots of a venerable maple tree wherein lived a witch named Abigail Downey, though most visitors to her home called her the Lark of the Wood. She was far older than the thirty or so years she appeared to have, and many of today’s older folk recall their great grandparents saying that she was an established feature of the wood in their own youth.

The Lark was something of a mystery to the villagers of nearby Bexley Upon Bramble, but one they greatly appreciated having so near their small hamlet. She was beyond the ken of most clever women, or so they said, and travelers from near and slightly farther often came on pilgrimage to seek her counsel in matters of fertility, business, and medicine. The steady flow of witch-seekers had sprouted a small but reliable tourism industry which supplemented the more traditional Bexley Upon Bramble industries of maple-milking and berry harvesting. The witch did her part to see that the tourists went away satisfied, if a little disquieted, by their magical experience in her woodland cabin, and so the tourism trade remained steady but did not grow beyond comfortably manageable levels.

In general the villagers did not bother their good witch neighbor with the silliness of their daily difficulties, seeking her help only for matters of conception and difficulties in birth–the usual womb blessing and baby turning for which all witches are exceptionally skilled and highly valued by their neighbors. On the rare occasion, however, things about town would go a bit more off than usual, and then someone would be dispatched to seek an audience with the Lark on behalf of the entire community. It was on just such an occasion that Thom Bagley found himself walking through the woods alone headed towards the deepest heart of the maple groves.

Thom was the owner and proprietor of Bexley Upon Bramble’s finest, and only, inn and tavern, The Dancing Hart, and he had been chosen by lottery (again) to ask the Lark of the Wood to lend her wisdom to the desperate townsfolk in a matter they considered most urgent. He did not look forward the job, preferring the comfort of his warm tavern to the wildness of the wood, but once chosen one could not lightly refuse the honor. At least the Lark was a fine figure of a woman to see, and she usually provided him with at least a decent snack as well as fodder for his imagination when he came to visit.

She was waiting for him, of course, with a pot of tea ready to pour and a plate of his favorite sandwiches laid out in her parlor though no word had been sent ahead to advise her of his impending visit. She settled him into a comfortable chair in her sitting parlor, and settled herself into an uncomfortable looking chair that seemed something like a well-polished bird’s nest grown together out of interwoven saplings, and watched him with those piercing eyes in silence. He sipped his tea awkwardly and looked around the room at the various tools of her trade: jars of bark and herbs and feathers; polished stones and balls of crystal; sliver mirrors and polished dark platters for scrying; candles in every hue imaginable; mysterious decks of colorful cards; and more than a few skeletons of creatures big and small. In short, he looked everywhere but at her.

She flipped her soft brown hair over her shoulder and spoke in a voice that brought to his mind the sound of wind caressing fresh spring leaves and ferns unfurling in the new warmth of spring, which always flustered him a bit. “Would you appreciate a few moments of the small talk and chit chat, Thom Bagley? Or I shall just jump right to the part where I make you a little uncomfortable by telling you why you are here rather than waiting for you to get around to telling me?” Abigail’s tone that implied that a wise man would do well to skip the small talk nonsense and get right on to business.

“I, um.” Thom stared down at his lap where his fingers were busily trying to tie themselves together, still afraid to meet her eyes. Hamish Goodwin had told him just last night that if the witch saw into his eyes, she could read his mind, and his mind had been thinking things about her on the way here that he would rather not share. “There’s been some, um, fighting and such in town among the lads, and we’re worried that it’s going to scare off the tourists, which would be bad for many of the businesses in town.”

“Such nonsense again,” she said, flipping her hand as if swatting away a small gnat. “The town council wants to know what to do about the sudden and dramatic feud between that Hayman boy and Ralph Ogden’s son, yes? Their little spats may be a nuisance, but there’s nothing supernatural about it. It is plain that they are competing for the affections of one Miss Schellden, but they do so in vain. That little harlot has already given herself, body, heart, and soul to that rotten Cudney kid, the one with the rakish scar and sloppy hair who loafs about all day, and she is merely playing with the other two for her own amusement. You should need no witch to sort that out; in fact a tavern keeper like yourself is better set to handle that than I am.”

Thom nodded. “Yes, M’am. Thank you. I didn’t know about Bill Cudney’s involvement, as it were, though I had suspected there might be that lass at the heart of it all myself. I perhaps can help the other two boys to see things clearly after a few pints together in the tavern now that I know for sure.” Thom reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small jingling bag, which he held out to her. “The village offers this silver as payment for your aid,” he said formally.

Abigail eyed the bag for a moment, then tilted her head to one side and caught his eyes before he could look away. “Not this time, Thom. The payment is not acceptable.”
Thom’s eyes widened in a panic. This was the way it had always worked, and he had never heard so much as a rumor of the Lark ever refusing the town’s standard payment of silver. A witch must be paid for her services or else, everyone knew that, and he had no interest in learning what else was. “It’s the same as always, I swear! I watched them count it out myself. Ten silver pieces, all pure as the moon. I…wait. You don’t mean to say that Sam messed with the silver when he cast it? That this isn’t the really silver we paid him for?”

“No, the coin is genuine, as always. Nevertheless, it is not acceptable.”

“But then…but why…I can’t leave without giving you payment,” he stammered.
Abigail’s smile suddenly seemed hungrier than he had ever seen it. “You could leave, Thom, but that would leave the town in my debt, and I doubt they would thank you for that.”

“I have brought nothing else to offer, though!”

“Indeed, haven’t you, Thom Bagley?” She shifted her weight slightly in her chair, and suddenly he was even more aware of her the curves of her body beneath her witches gown. “Though I may look youthful to your eyes, Thom, I have reached the age where a witch begins to think of passing her skills on to an heir, but there are no suitable maidens in yon village. Most are just as rotten and stupid as young Miss Schellden, wasting so much energy on their hair and dress that they have nothing left for learning. So I have entertained these tourists, as you all call them, allowing them to come in a steady trickle, hoping to find one among them worthy of being brought under my wing. I have found none, only a stream of vapid witch-seekers wanting their fortunes told and wombs blessed, but none seeking true knowledge. If I want an heir, it seems I will have to raise one myself, and that is where you come in.”

Thom thought back to the fairy tale stories of his youth, wherein the evil dragon or greedy warlock would demand tribute in the form of local virgin maids. He had never before heard of a witch making such a demand, but perhaps that was the only way the Lark could find an apprentice. “What? You can’t expect me to bring you a child?” he burst out in surprise.

Abigail laughed aside his shock. “No, you thick-skulled man. I can bear my own child to raise as my heir. It is not ideal, but it is acceptable when no worthy girl can be found by other means. A daughter of my own will have the spark required for learning magic, but this I cannot begin alone. A seed is needed to start any new life, even one such as mine. I need you to provide the seed that I may have a daughter. You will bear no responsibility for the girl, though. While I may need help to sow the seed, I can grow the tree to maturity myself. If you are agreeable to this arrangement as payment for my services, then all I will require this time is an evening of your life.”

“But why me?” he asked, trying to buy himself time to think, as if he were capable of thinking of anything beyond the curves on display before him.

“Because the look of you pleases me. Because there are few others who I find fit to do the job. Because I know you have no desire for a child of your own, and so you will leave me to raise the girl in peace, without mooning about and hoping for a fatherly role. Because you have a head for business and the ways of people that I think will benefit my heir as the world changes and more travelers from afar seek her out. And because I already know that you will agree.”

She rose gracefully from her nest and cast off her robe. “And so do you agree?”

He swallowed hard then nodded, perhaps a little too vigorously.

When he emerged from the woods much, much later, in the small hours of the morning, he had only the vaguest haunting memories of wings and feathers, no idea how the time had passed so quickly, and the knowledge that the father of a certain Miss Shellden needed to be told some rather unpleasant news about his trollop of a daughter.

A few weeks later, a tourist who had just spent an afternoon visiting with the Lark of the Wood was enjoying a pint at the bar and prattling on about the wonderful experience of meeting such a clever witch. Thom had heard this sort of nonsense often enough before, but took offense for some reason when the tourist commented on the two golden eggs he had seen nestled in the witch’s charming nest-like chair. Thom was quite insistent that there should be only one egg, though when pressed for his reasons he found himself unable to elaborate further.