by Geraldine Harris
Old women whisper that the Dream Witch sleeps in a great cavern under a distant mountain. When she turns over in her sleep, the earth quakes. Some say that the only way to wake the Dream Witch is to let all the bells in all the towers in all the kingdoms of Sarrat ring at once. Others say that this would be a very bad idea. They believe that if the Dream Witch ever woke up, the world would end.
In the town of Finzach, in northern Sarrat, lived an old man and his granddaughter. Granfer Charlock had looked after Arva since she was a little girl. Charlock was a cobbler. He made the most comfortable shoes in the whole of Finzach but he didn't make much money. Everyone knew that the finest shoes were the ones that squeezed your toes so hard they made your feet look two sizes smaller. Charlock's shoes never pinched and they made women's feet look exactly their real size, so they weren't very popular.
Arva's father had come from a rich family called the Griggles, but they refused to speak to him after he married a cobbler's daughter. Arva's parents had seven years of pure happiness, which is more than most people get. Then they were lost in the Whistle Wood. For a long time, Arva kept on hoping that her parents would come back. Charlock knew that they never would.
"If you hear the Whistler," he said, "then it's time to go. There is no turning back."
Arva and her grandfather lived together in his little house behind the cobbler's workshop. Charlock earned enough to support them both by mending other shoemakers' shoddy work. One day, when he was working on a broken heel, Charlock clutched his left arm as if he felt a sudden pain there. His face went grey-white. He gasped for breath. Arva ran to put her arms around him. "What is it Granfer?"
"Nothing, nothing. Just a twinge of cramp. Don't fuss me."
From that day on, Granfer Charlock was never quite well again. The pain kept coming back. Sometimes in his arm and sometimes in his chest. He began to grow weaker. Climbing the stairs to his bedroom made him out of breath. He could no longer spend hours hunched over his work.
"Don't fret," he told Arva. "I'm just a bit tired."
But Arva did fret. She began to miss school to help her grandfather with his work. She kept on at him until he went to a doctor. He came back grumbling that doctors were useless. The medicine the doctor had prescribed for Charlock certainly didn't seem to help him much.
One morning, when Charlock grunted with pain as he hammered nails into a sole, Arva couldn't stand it any longer. When her grandfather wasn't looking, she took some coins from the savings that were hidden in an old boot. Arva told her grandfather that she was going to school. Instead, she went to Bozzel Street.
The houses and shops in Bozzel Street had signs up promising to answer all questions, solve all problems, and cure all illnesses. Arva began to feel hopeful. She walked past the man who promised to make you rich by re-arranging your furniture, and went into a Tincturist's shop. He was busy serving ladies who needed something to help them feel less tired after a long day of doing nothing. Arva looked at the jars of dried herbs labelled with strange names such as `Devil's Claw', `Flea Pepper' and `Grandmother's Toenails', until the Tincturist was free.
"Well, young miss, what can I do for you? Some Flatterdock to clear up spots? Some Caprifoy to make your hair grow longer?"
"No thank you. I need something to make my grandfather well and strong again."
She described Charlock's symptoms.
"That sounds like a nasty case of Old Men's Woozard," said the Tincturist. "He should be taking Bloodwort and Cruppany Grass."
Both these herbs turned out to be cost a lot.
Arva made a horrid-tasting tea with the Cruppany Grass and persuaded her grandfather to drink it. She added the powdered Bloodwort to the soup they had for lunch each day. It didn't change the taste, but the soup gave Arva and her grandfather hiccups. After two weeks, when all the herbs were used up, Charlock didn't seem any better. Arva took a few more coins out of the boot and went back to Bozzel Street.
Arva wondered whether to consult the woman who foretold the future from the shapes she saw in the froth of a capuccino, but her coffee was very expensive. Next door, lived a Manipulist. According to his sign, he had cured many famous people of their aches and pains. Arva went in and told a man wearing white pyjamas about her grandfather.
"Crake-Feet must be his problem," said the Manipulist, "or Keek-Legs."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with Granfer's legs."
"All illnesses start in the feet and legs, so that's where you need to treat them. Rub your grandfather's feet with this pot of Fleam and he'll soon feel better. That will be one gold coin."
After a great deal of grumbling, Charlock let Arva massage his feet. He said that the Fleam made his toes feel warmer. It also made them smell like boiled cabbage. Each day, as she rubbed on the Fleam, Arva watched her grandfather carefully. He seemed more and more short of breath and his colour was getting worse. Arva took another handful of coins from the boot.
In Bozzel Street, Arva paused outside the house of a man who promised to make you feel better by squirting hot wax up your nose. She didn't think her grandfather would stand for that. Arva was drawn to the shop of a Rainbowist by a dazzling display of crystals in the window. Inside, she was met by a large woman wearing a flowing dress striped with all the colours of the rainbow. Arva had hardly started to describe Charlock's symptoms before the Rainbowist cried,
"Off-colour? Ah-hah! Your grandfather probably has Red Rot, or the Yellow Crazies."
"He does look a bit grey sometimes," began Arva doubtfully.
"Ah-hah! A sure sign of the Yellow Crazies. He's still in the early stages."
She sold Arva a purple crystal for her grandfather to wear round his neck.
"That should have him back to his right colour in no time."
Charlock didn't want to put on the glittering crystal.
"Wear this snapjack? I'd look like a Rapper-Dandy!"
Finally, he agreed to wear the crystal under his vest, where no-one would see it.
Arva kept watching her grandfather's face to see if he was getting his old colour back. He wasn't. His face was still grey and his fingers were going black.
"Why do you keep looking at me, child?" asked Charlock. "Have I got a fly on my nose?"
"Then stop staring and polish those shoes until you can see your own nose in them. Tommy Tottles will be coming in for them soon."
Arva rubbed fiercely at the black leather. After a few minutes silence, Charlock said, "I've been thinking Arva. This is no life for a bright young girl like you. Perhaps I should write to your Granfer Griggles. He has no other grandchildren. If he took you in..."
"I won't live with the Griggles! I want to stay with you."
"I know you do, my lovage, but I'm an old man. One day, maybe sooner than later..."
"No!" Arva was frightened to think about any day that didn't have her grandfather in it. "The shoes are polished. I'll take them to Mr Tottles. I know where he lives."
As she left the workshop, she took the last of the coins from the bottom of the boot.
When Arva had delivered the shoes, she hurried to Bozzle Street. She told each of the three healers that her grandfather wasn't any better and asked for her money back. The Tincturist told her that she hadn't given Charlock a strong enough dose of Bloodwort and tried to sell her some more. The Manipulist said that Charlock must have Witherscrips as well as Crake-feet and that he needed to come for a massage every day. The Rainbowist claimed that Charlock was making himself ill by thinking grey thoughts. None of them would give Arva her coins back.
In other shops along Bozzel Street, people offered to sell Arva some hope but they wouldn't give it away.
"If you've no money left," said a Starsign reader, "only the Dream Witch can help you."
"Where do I find her?"
"It's just a saying, dearie. I don't know where the Dream Witch sleeps but I've always heard that if She comes to you, you'll never wake up again."
No-one else on Bozzel Street would tell Arva more about the Dream Witch but a boy delivering a stack of boxes called out, "Try Wise Woman down end of street. I hears she's too soft to charge folk."
Arva couldn't see the errand boy's face behind the boxes marked `Adders' Eyes' and `Monkey Mouths' but she shouted her thanks.
At the very end of Bozzel Street was a wooden shack. It was leaning to one side and some of the roof-shingles were missing. A faded notice outside read: Tuzzy-Muzzy, The Not Very Wise Woman. All Problems Thought About. This didn't seem to promise much. In very small letters the sign went on Warning - advice may contain traces of truth. It had started to rain, so Arva decided that she might as well go in.
The shack only had one room and most of it was covered with dusty piles of books. There was a large kitchen table in the middle of the room. On it stood half a stale looking loaf and rather a lot of empty wine bottles. Between the door and the table water-worn pebbles had been laid out in a spiral pattern.
Arva bent down to look at the pebbles and realized that there was a woman sitting under the table. The Wise Woman was mid way between young and old. Her hair, skin, and clothes were all the colour of black tea taken with a dash of milk.
"Why are you under the table?" asked Arva.
"The roof leaks when it rains," answered Tuzzy-Muzzy, "and anyway, I think better down here."
Raindrops were already coming through the gaps in the roof and plopping onto Arva's hair.
"Come and sit beside me, dear," invited the Wise Woman, "but mind the leverets."
The Wise Woman gestured at two baby hares cuddled up together in a nest of rags.
"Their mother forgot about them. I expect she had other things on her mind. I know how she feels."
As Arva crawled under the table, she saw that Tuzzy-Muzzy's eyes were different colours. The right one was an ordinary brown but the left one was bright green. Her shoes didn't match either. One was a sensible low-heeled lace-up. The other had a very narrow toe and a very high heel. It was made in sky-blue satin patterned with silver moons and stars. Granfer Charlock had taught Arva to judge people's characters by the shoes they wore so this was a puzzle.
"You're a Wise Woman," began Arva, "you must know a lot of things..."
Tuzzy-Muzzy shook her head, dislodging several ladybirds from her hair.
"I mainly know what we don't know, and it has taken me a very long time to learn that."
"What use is not knowing things?"
"You'd be surprised."
"Yes I would," said Arva rudely. "I need someone who knows what is wrong with my grandfather."
"Old men often get cranky when the world seems to be changing too fast, or melancholy when their friends start to die off, or..."
"Not that kind of wrong! He's ill."
Arva described her grandfather's symptoms and Tuzzy-Muzzy listened with her head tilted to one side. When Arva had finished speaking, the Wise Woman leaned forward and moved one of the darker pebbles so that the pattern changed shape.
"From what you say, my dear, your grandfather has `Death-Come-Quickly'. If so, all the potions and lotions in Bozzel Street won't help him."
Arva struck the floor with her clenched fist, rattling the bottles on the table above and startling the baby hares.
"There must be something that can cure him or someone who can save him! What about the Dream Witch?"
"Shh! Never say Her name too loudly. Yes, She might help you, Arva."
"I was told that you might know things about the Dream Witch."
"I know that you can't always find Her by looking for Her."
"Go away and let me think about it." Tuzzy-Muzzy covered her brown eye with one hand. "I will visit you tomorrow, or maybe the day after."
Arva backed out from under the table.
"How much will that cost? I don't have any coins left."
"Wise Women lose their powers if they take money. Would your grandfather happen to have any cowslip wine in his house?"
"I think so."
"Then a glass or three will be my fee."
Tuzzy-Muzzy giggled and pointed the toe of her blue shoe at Arva.
"Off home with you now. You may take one pebble with you."
"Thank you," said Arva, though she didn't see the point.
She picked up a small grey pebble from the centre of the pattern.
"An interesting choice," murmured the Wise Woman.
She bent over the spiral and began moving pebbles around. Arva decided that Tuzzy-Muzzy was probably mad and left with even less hope than she had arrived with.
In another of the kingdoms of Sarrat lived a young man named Vervain. His father had died when he was a toddler, so Vervain was the Count of Yarr. He was also Baron Carlicups and the Lord of the Black Blegs, though no-one could remember where or what the Black Blegs were. Vervain lived in a large castle on the edge of the sea. From a distance, Castle Eringo looked very grand. If you came closer you saw that the walls were crumbling away and there were gaps in the roof that let the rain in. If you went inside, you would find the castle cold and dark. Most of its one hundred and twenty-three rooms were unused. The only servants left were two old people who had nowhere else to go. Vervain's grandfather had spent all the family wealth building Castle Eringo. Vervain's father had borrowed gold from a dragon to furnish the castle. When he couldn't pay the interest on the loan, the dragon had eaten him.
Countess Lizzory, Vervain's mother, didn't want anyone to know how poor the family was. She used what little money was left to buy fine clothes, so that she and her son would still look like rich people when they went out. The Countess told Vervain not to worry about the future because he was so handsome that he was bound to marry a princess. Then all their troubles would be over.
One morning, Vervain and his mother were having breakfast in the kitchen, which was the only warm room in the castle. Samphire, the ancient butler, had been out gathering gulls' eggs from the nearby cliffs. This was a job he hated. The angry gulls pecked at his bald head and he usually came back covered in gulls' poop and regurgitated fish.
Samphire gave the eggs to Mrs Beldrum, the housekeeper, and bowed to the Countess. "Your newspaper, my lady."
It was only a week-old copy of The Chronicles of Sarrat borrowed from the local inn, but the Countess smiled graciously.
"Thank you Samphire."
Vervain wrinkled up his nose at the white and green stains on the butler's jacket. Countess Lizzory pretended not to notice the awful smell. She read the paper while Mrs Beldrum overboiled the eggs.
The Countess always turned to the `Court Announcements' page first.
"Let's see now. Royal Christening in Argave; Court Wizard needed in Yarroway... Ah, here we are. Quest announcement. `On Midsummer Day, Princess Coraseena of Affodil will set a quest. The winner to receive her hand in marriage and half the Kingdom of Affodil. Applications from princes, nobles, and youngest sons of merchants who have lost their fortunes, should be made in writing to the Lord Chamberlain."
"Coraseena? Which one's she?" asked Vervain, through a mouthful of burnt toast.
"Oh, I've read all about her," put in Mrs Beldrum, who got to look at the papers after the Countess. "She's very rich and very thin and always dresses in silk."
"She sounds perfect," said the Countess. "Since she is so rich she won't need to marry for money. She will choose the handsomest of her suitors, and that will be you my darling boy."
"But what about the quest? It's bound to be something difficult and dangerous."
"Don't you worry about that, my humpy-scrumples," said Mrs Beldrum, who had been Vervain's nanny. "Girls know how to get what they want. When the princess has made her mind up, she'll set the suitor she fancies a nice easy quest. Like capturing a Lesser Snapdragon... Oh, beg pardon my lady."
Countess Lizzory could not bear the D-word to be mentioned.
"I'm not scared," protested Vervain. "I just wanted to be well prepared. I can take father's sword."
The Countess was looking worried but she just said, "Never mind about swords, the important thing is to get you some new clothes."
"With matching boots," suggested Mrs Beldrum, "and a hat with feathers."
"And a decent horse to ride," added Samphire.
"I shall have to sell my pearls."
The only jewels the Countess had left were the pearls she had worn on her wedding day. Later, when she was alone, Lizzory would shed a tear for each pearl, now she smiled and said, "I've been saving them for this day."
A letter listing Vervain's qualifications as a suitor was sent off to Affodil. It wasn't long before a messenger-pigeon brought the reply: an invitation to Princess Coraseena's Quest Ball. They celebrated that night with pigeon pie.
The next day the ladies got to work. The Countess charmed the local cobbler into making several pairs of boots on credit. Mrs Beldrum might be bad cook but she was very handy with a needle. She sewed Vervain a velvet cloak made from old curtains and two shirts cut from the best of the linen sheets. She told Samphire to go out to the gull roosts to gather some feathers. She dyed these, and her hands, purple with hag-berry juice and sewed the feathers onto an old hat.
Vervain didn't help with any of the work because he was the Count of Yarr. He wandered about feeling bored and getting in the way.
"You just be your handsome charming self when you meet the princess," said his mother.
"Handsome is as handsome does," muttered Samphire, but he lent the Countess all of his savings to buy a colt for Vervain to ride.
When a gypsy brought the shaggy black colt to the castle, Vervain wasn't impressed.
"He doesn't look like a nobleman's horse."
"Say he's a rare breed from the Black Blegs," suggested the Countess. "No-one will know any better."
The gypsy grinned at this.
"That's right your ladyship. He's a rare horse indeed, and his name is Spurge."
The colt made a noise in the back of his throat which sounded like his name and rolled his eyes at Vervain.
The night before he was due to leave, Vervain discovered that the Countess had hired a knight to be his bodyguard during the quest. She could not afford a Black Knight so she had settled for Sir Claver. He was known as the Grey Knight. His horse was grey. His armour was grey. His axe was grey. His eyes were grey. His hair was probably grey too but you couldn't tell because he never seemed to take off his grey-plumed helmet. If he needed to eat or drink or speak clearly, Sir Claver just lifted the visor of his helmet.
At dinner, Sir Claver ate Mrs Beldrum's seaweed stew without flinching, which showed that he was brave. He didn't say much until Vervain asked if Sir Claver had ever fought a giant. The Grey Knight spent the rest of the meal talking about giant-slaying techniques in gruesome detail. He used a candlestick and an apple to demonstrate the best way to smash a giant's kneecaps. Countess Lizzory turned quite pale and Samphire, who was supposed to be clearing the table, had to have a quiet sit down.
The next morning, after a breakfast of leathery omelettes, Vervain and Sir Claver got ready to leave. The Countess wept into her last lace handkerchief. Mrs Beldrum hugged Vervain to her large bosom and called him her humpy-scrumples again. Samphire tried to whisper the only two things he knew about women into Vervain's ear but got them mixed up. The young Count was left with a vague impression that women liked to eat flowers and be compared to chocolates.
There was a delay while Verain struggled to mount his shaggy colt, who kept shying away and making noises as if he was about to be sick. Once Vervain was firmly in the saddle, he blew a kiss to the Countess.
"Goodbye mother. I'll be back in no time with a beautiful princess."
"A beautiful rich princess. Don't let him do anything dangerous Sir Claver."
"I won't, my lady."
"Speedwell!" chorused Samphire and Mrs Beldrum.
Spurge seemed to take this as an order to gallop.
It was some minutes before Sir Claver's grey steed caught up with Spurge.
"That colt is faster than he looks," remarked the Grey Knight.
"He's a special breed from the Black Blegs," gasped Vervain, who had only just managed to stay in the saddle. "They're bred for speed."
"Good. If we meet anything dangerous, you gallop off and leave me to deal with it."
"Now look, I didn't ask mother to hire you. I'll fight my own battles and...ouch!"
Vervain had to stop because Spurge was rubbing him against a tree trunk.
"I have my orders," said Sir Claver.
He closed his visor and rode off.
It would take Vervain and Sir Claver three days to reach the Summer Palace in Affodil. On the first day, they met nothing more dangerous than a patch of Strangleweed and a few Boggart-flowers. The Grey Knight led them around the Strangleweed and slashed the heads off the Boggart-flowers before anything came out to trouble them. To save money, they camped in the woods. Sir Claver chopped up some fallen branches with his axe and told Vervain to get a fire going while he went hunting. Vervain didn't know how to, but was too proud to say so.
Sir Claver came back with a rabbit, to find Vervain still rubbing two mossy logs together. He fetched some dry grass and then showed the young Count how to use a knife and a stone to make a spark. When the fire was alight and the rabbit was roasting, Sir Claver said, "You wear a sword. Let me see how you use it."
Vervain drew his father's sword. There were swirly black patterns all along the blade where the dragon's breath had scorched it.
"A good weapon," said Sir Claver. "Swords tempered by dragonfire never break. Defend yourself."
He brought his axe crashing down onto the sword, knocking it out of Vervain's hand.
"Hey! I wasn't ready!"
The Grey Knight advanced on Vervain swinging his axe. Vervain stumbled backwards, caught his foot in a tussock of grass, and fell on his bottom. The axe blade sliced through the air until it reached the tip of Vervain's nose. Just as he opened his mouth to scream, Sir Claver turned his axe around and tapped Vervain's forehead with the handle.
"Ready or not, you just died. Do you think evil will meekly wait until you are ready? No. It will slice you in two before you've even noticed it."
Vervain rubbed his nose, to make sure that it was all there.
"The world is darker than you know, Lord Vervain."
"Is that why you became a knight? To fight against evil?"
"I fight for whomever pays me. I've been paid to get you safely to Affodil, so put your father's sword away before you cut yourself."
Vervain sulked all through dinner. Then he tried to find a comfortable patch of ground to lie on. The Grey Knight just closed his visor and sat down with his back against a tree-trunk. Vervain lay thinking about the princess. What if he didn't like her? Then he remembered the holes in the roof and Samphire and Mrs Beldrum's unpaid wages and his mother having to sell her treasured pearls. Vervain vowed that he would marry Princess Coraseena whatever she was like.
In the village of Petty Mugget, in another of the kingdoms of Sarrat, lived a miller's daughter called Rosebay. She was the youngest of three sisters and, as she often pointed out, the prettiest. For many years her father, Cusk the Miller, had worked hard grinding corn in his ancient water mill to make white flour for people to bake into bread. Cusk couldn't afford to pay any helpers, so his wife and his two little daughters had to work in the mill. He didn't even make enough money to replace the worn out millstones. As time went on, the quality of his flour got worse and worse. His daughters, Dindle and Cambie, spent long hours sifting the flour, but most of it was still full of brown specks. When a third daughter came along, the miller began to worry about how he would feed his family.
A few months after Rosebay was born, Cusk set out for market driving a cart laden with sacks of flour. He hoped to get a good price for his few sacks of pure white flour, but the rest would have to be sold cheap. Plenty of other people were driving or walking along the same road but when they came to a small wood near the marketplace they all stopped to stare at a remarkable sight.
Hanging from the lowest branch of a thorn tree was a gnome. His long red beard was caught in the thorns and however much he waved his arms and kicked his legs, he couldn't get free. The gnome was very angry and his shocking language was turning the thorn tree bright blue.
"Blugga!" yelled the gnome, "Get me down, you pummy clatter-cloggs!"
"Why is no-one helping him?" asked Cusk.
"He spat at Ned Cullion for asking how he got caught there," answered a goosegirl.
"The spit made holes in my new staw hat," said Ned. "Just look!"
The gnome, whose name was Scrab, had been lured to the tree by a trail of fairy gold. At daybreak the gold coins had turned to wet leaves in his pocket and the thorn tree had caught him by the beard. The gnome knew that he had been as stupid as a human to be fooled by such a trick and that made him even angrier.
"Untangle my beautiful beard you twaddgers, or I'll give you all the Jaunders!"
"I could cut you free," offered a knife-grinder.
"If anyone cuts a single hair of my beard, I'll wippul his squip!"
"Stay there then," said the knife-grinder.
He and the goosegirl began to move off.
"Wait!" called Scrab, "I'll reward anyone who untangles my beard."
"Don't listen to him," advised Ned, "rewards from such as him always turn sour. What isn't fairly earned, never does a man good."
The others all went on towards the marketplace but Cusk saw two carrion crows fly down into the thorn tree. He couldn't leave the gnome there to have his eyes pecked out. The miller drove his cart under the thorn tree so that the gnome could stand on the highest sack. Then, very gently, he began to untangle the red beard from the thorns. It took a long time and the gnome was not patient or quiet. The miller began to turn as blue as the thorn tree. When the beard was finally loose, the miller felt that he had earned some reward.
"Now that you're free, will you give me whatever I ask for?"
"I'm sure you've broken every hair in my beard," grumbled Scrab.
"No I haven't," said Cusk.
"What is it you want then?" asked the gnome, "You humans are always so greedy. Do you want to marry a princess?"
"Certainly not. I've a fine wife already. All I ask is a bit of advice on how to make more money as a miller."
Gnomes are tricksy creatures but they never lie about money. They take it far too seriously. The gnome opened some of the sacks in the cart and asked what price the miller was charging for his flour. When Cusk had told him, the gnome said, "You wanted a bit of advice, well here it is. Ask three times as much for the brown flour as the white flour."
"But the brown flour is cheap because it's got all those bits left in."
"People don't value what they get cheaply. Charge a high price for your brown flour and people will buy it."
"But why should they?"
"Make up a reason, you gowk!"
The gnome jumped down from the cart and stumped away towards the rocks where he lived.
Cusk drove on to the marketplace. By the time he got there his skin only had the faintest blue tinge but his tongue was still bright blue. He marked the sacks of white flour with his usual price but asked three times as much for the brown flour.
"Why is this speckled flour so expensive?" asked a merchant from a nearby town.
For a moment, Cusk couldn't think of an answer, then the words just seemed to trip off his blue tongue.
"Why because it's so much better for you than that pale white stuff. Anyone can see that. All the goodness has been left in." `And a fair bit of dirt and dust too,' added the miller, but only to himself.
The merchant bought three sacks and by the end of the day Miller Cusk had sold all his brown flour at a fine price. From that time on, he didn't bother sifting and bleaching his flour. He wrote `Brown is better for you' on every sack. People saw these words so often that they thought it must be true. The miller became quite wealthy. He built himself a fine new house and his wife and daughters no longer had to work in the mill. Cusk's only worry was that his tongue never did go back to its proper colour. He had to be careful not to open his mouth too wide when he smiled.
Almost sixteen years after Miller Cusk met the gnome, his wife and daughters were sitting in the parlour of Mill House. Dindle still lived at home but she ran a kennels and bred wolf hounds. Rosebay complained that her oldest sister always smelled of wet dog and left dog hairs on the furniture. Cambie had become a skilled weaver. She could even weave golden cloth out of straw. It fetched a good price in the nearest city, where people liked to pretend that they were living in farmhouses.
Rosebay had never had to work like her sisters. When she wasn't out shopping, or gossiping with her friends, she was looking through the Chronicles of Sarrat. She liked the pictures of dashing knights and beautiful princesses. She adored the stories of persecuted youngest daughters who, after extraordinary adventures, ended up married to princes. Rosebay longed to be rich and famous like the people she read about.
It was early on May morning. Old people said this was the one day of the year that the Dream Witch might show a girl her future husband's face. Ettle, the miller's wife, told her daughters what they needed to do. Cambie and Rosebay got ready to go out into the woods.
"I'll stay here with mother," said Dindle. "I'd rather live with a dog than a husband any day."
"Just as well," put in Rosebay. "No husband would want you, the way you look and dress and smell..."
"Don't talk to your sister like that!" cried the miller's wife.
Dindle just laughed. "Dogs don't judge by looks but they know who smells right and who doesn't."
"Off you go then girls," said Ettle, "and don't talk to any strange..."
"Gnomes, goblins, or gnashicks," chorused her daughters. "We know."
"And speak Her name softly."
The two sisters walked to the nearest wood. They found a small dewpond near a thorn tree that their father had always warned them to be wary of. Cambie whispered, "Dream Witch, Dream Witch, show me the face of the man I will marry."
She took off her favourite necklace, a string of wooden beads that her father had carved for her when she was little. Cambie dropped the necklace in the pond and stooped over the ripples that followed the splash.
"Oh, it is Billy!"
Rosebay peeped over her sister's shoulder but all she could see was her own reflection.
"What Billy Buttons from down the lane? Who'd want to marry him?"
"I would," said Cambie. "As he's too shy to ask me, I shall ask him. Now it's your turn. What gift did you bring?"
"These," said Rosebay, holding out a pair of sparkly pink earrings. "I never wear them now. I don't know why I made father buy them." She knelt at the edge of the dewpond. "Dream Witch, Dream Witch!" Rosebay spoke more loudly than she should have done and a shiver went through the wood. "Show me the one I will spend my life with!"
She dropped her earrings into the dew pond.
The earrings seemed to float for a moment as if the pond didn't want to take them. Then they were gone and Rosebay saw a young man smiling up at her. He was wearing splendid scarlet and gold clothes and a dashing hat with feathers.
"What? I can't see anything but the thorn tree."
"He was there. A wonderful man. So much handsomer than Billy Buttons. From the way he was dressed, he's a rich lord. Maybe even a prince. And he's going to marry me!"
"Where would you meet a prince?" asked Cambie, "Or even a lord. The only lord around here is Baron Baldmoney and he's fat and fifty."
"I'll meet a prince because I'm the youngest of three. Everyone knows that the third child gets all the luck. My prince will fall in love with me as soon as he sees me..."
Cambie wasn't listening. She was thinking about Billy Buttons. She ran back through the wood. She ran down the lane and into a farmyard. She found Farmer Buttons milking his best cow. Before the pail was full of milk, Cambie had asked and Billy had said yes. When they told the miller and his wife, Ettle cried and
Cusk smiled so much that he forgot to hide his blue tongue. Nobody wanted to hear about Rosebay's prince.
Midsummer's Day was fixed as Cambie's wedding date. Rosebay couldn't understand why everyone was making such a fuss over her sister marrying a great clod of a farmer. Her father was soon too busy paying wedding bills to have any time for Rosebay. Her mother kept sending her on errands. Her sister Dindle made her help groom the wolfhounds, who were all coming to the service. Worst of all, the bridesmaids' dresses were being made out of Cambie's scratchy straw cloth. Rosebay was sure that she would look ridiculous in hers. By the week of the wedding, she couldn't stand it any longer. Rosebay decided to run away to look for her prince.
© Geraldine Harris Pinch 2010