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Queen of Berries

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The most famous festival in Wootton Major was the Twenty-four Feast, held but once every twenty-four years. But the other twenty-three years did not lack for festivals and fairs, dances and games, Bonfire Nights and Midsummer Days and the Hunting of the Wren. And for every one, there was a special dainty made by the Master Cook, in addition to a lavish spread of excellent but more ordinary fare. For the Twenty-four Feast, the Great Cake; for Goose Fair, roast goose stuffed with rabbit; for Moon Dark Eve, pitchy pudding, flavored with violets and darkened with blackberries and a pinch of powdered charcoal.

Nell’s favorite of the dainties was the petal cake served at the dressing of the wells; it was a simple white cake covered in candied flowers sparkling with sugar, and it reminded her of the dazzling cake at the Twenty-four Feast, when she had sat down next to the quiet boy whom, ten years later, she was to marry. But her favorite of the festivals was the Berry Race.

All summer the girls of Wootton Major cultivated blackberries and gooseberries, raspberries and bilberries, strawberries and currants. On the day of the Berry Race, they plucked the most delicate, juicy, and perfect of their berries, and, holding only so many as they could carry in their two cupped hands, ran to the village green, cheered on by merry crowds, careful not to bruise or drop their prizes. The girl who arrived within the allotted time with the most and best berries, as judged by twelve town elders, was named Queen of Berries and given a coronet to wear for the day, made of intricately carved dark wood and jeweled with amber teardrops like white currants.

Nell had never won the Berry Race. At first her berries had been poor; later, she had a better knack for gardening but not enough grace to keep from crushing her fruit as she ran. But now Nell was nineteen and six months married, and determined that Smith, who had faithfully cheered her on in every race, would see her crowned Queen of Berries.

Before he had departed to travel to Faery, he had promised that he would return for the Berry Race. It would be her last; next summer she would be twenty. Nell was used to his journeys, but it was his first since they had been married. She had always known she could never accompany him, and thought herself lucky to hear his stories of Faery, and luckier to have him at all.

But as she watered her raspberry canes and set out saucers of beer to trap hungry slugs, she was seized by a desperate, melancholy longing for things she could never have, sights she could never see, and roads she could never walk. She wondered if Smith ever paused in his travels, gazing at some vista of heartbreaking splendor, and wished he was back home with Nell beside him. Then she wondered if, surrounded by the strangeness and awe that he loved, he ever thought of her at all. She dashed away a stray tear, and it landed with a tiny splash in the beer saucer.

“He will return soon,” said a gentle voice.

Nell looked up, startled, and saw Alf, the new Master Cook.

“I know,” she said. “He always keeps his promises. But I wonder if he’ll be glad to return. His heart is always half in Faery, even when he’s here in Wootton Major.”

“And half in Wootton Major, when he’s in Faery.” Alf lifted a raspberry on the tip of one finger. It shone like a ruby. “Those who journey are sorry to leave, but glad to come home. There is much to love here that cannot be found in Faery.”

At the edge of the Faery market, Smith had little on his mind beside his fleet-footed, gentle-handed, raspberry-lipped Nell. It came to him to buy her something from the market, some exquisite Faery trinket she could wear for luck when she ran the Berry Race. Not a crown, he thought; she had one waiting for her already, of dark wood and amber drops. A necklace, perhaps.

The Faery market was thronged with merry elven maidens and laughing elven lads, and with some stranger folk: shy children with leaves in their hair, slim women whose greenish hair dripped water, young men with black hair and sharp teeth. Some market stalls were similar to those of the fairs at Wootton Major, selling pies or bolts of cloth or farm tools. But others sold bows of ice and arrows of fire, or rainbow-furred mice and winged salamanders in silver cages, or shafts of sunlight that could be wrapped up and carried away. And when Smith looked more closely at the pie stall, he saw three elven girls nearby, sharing a single pie. No matter where they put their forks, the golden-haired girl was eating a cold pork pie, the slim black-haired girl was eating a steaming steak-and-kidney pie, and the plump black-haired girl was eating caramel custard.

Smith stopped at a stall selling books bound in gilded leather. The woman behind the counter had a resounding voice and a face like a windfall apple.

“Books of any story!” she called out. “Stories of adventure and heroism, stories of magic, stories of love and sorrow! Picture books, illuminated books, dictionaries! Poetry! Books of maps! Books of dragons!”

Smith picked up a book. The golden letters on the cover twisted, shuffling and re-shuffling: The Book of Dragons. The Book of Maps. The Book of Faery.

Unnerved, he almost dropped it. The red-cheeked woman clucked at him. “Open it, open it, Starbrow.”

Smith opened it, cautiously. The pages were blank and white. Then words appeared, and he began to read: Nell was nineteen and six months married, and determined that Smith, who had faithfully cheered her on in every race, would see her crowned Queen of Berries.

His gaze jerked away from the page, but not before he saw thorny vines twine themselves up the margins, laden with shiny ripe berries.

The woman beamed at him. “You never get tired of a book of any story. It’s different every time you open it. And for you, Starbrow, I have a special offer.”

He put down the book and fumbled in his pockets, though he was sure that nothing he had could pay for such a marvel. The golden letters brushed themselves into a new title: The Book of Nell.

The woman shook her head at his hesitantly offered coins. “We take no such payment here. I ask a small thing, considering what this book is worth: only the skill of your good right hand.”

Smith drew back in alarm. He could not give up his hard-earned skill as a blacksmith, not even for a magic book. “It is too much. But thank you for showing it to me, madam. It is a wonder.”

“So is your hand.” She shrugged and turned away, raising her voice. “Books of any story! Stories of wizards! Stories of warriors! Stories of the well beyond the world!”

Smith passed by a stall selling crystal wind chimes that rang out elegant and complex melodies, a stall selling small hedgehogs dressed as tinkers and jesters, and a stall which seemed to sell nothing at all, and yet customers stepped up, bargained, came to agreements, and left looking satisfied. Then he came to a stall twined with wild roses and morning glories, and he knew that he had found the one that could give him the gift he sought… if he could afford the price.

The stall was tended by a tall man with very brown skin and very red hair, dressed in leaf-green. His colors made Smith think of Nell's raspberry canes. The stall itself was a woodland thicket transformed into a jewelry box, displaying rings, necklaces, circlets, bracelets, anklets, and earrings, all made of flowers and berries, leaves and twigs, each one seemingly plucked only a moment before.

“These flowers will never die.” The man had a voice like a spring wind rustling new leaves. “They do not wither, and they cannot be crushed or torn. Try, Starbrow.”

He handed Smith a bracelet made of living violets, sweetly scented and beaded with dew. The petals were soft; his finger slipped over the dew as if over ice. It was a lovely thing, one that any woman would treasure, but it was not the gift for his Nell. Smith handed it back with thanks, and picked up a necklace of red and white currants, with a tiny wild strawberry as a pendant. It might have been mistaken for a necklace of ruby and topaz if it had not been for the absurd little strawberry, so obviously a strawberry, with its seeds and cap of green. It was perfect for Nell, his Queen of Berries, who was beautiful and loved to laugh.

“What is your price?” Smith asked, fearing the answer.

The tall man did not hesitate. “Your skill with the harp.”

Smith first wondered if the man was joking, then had the greedy desire to agree and get the necklace for free. But he had never been a dishonest man, and even less could he bring himself to cheat anyone in Faery, the land he could only visit because of a gift given freely. “I have never played the harp. I have no skill.”

“And if you trade it to me, you never will,” replied the man easily. “But if you ever pick up a harp and learn to play, you will set the bards of old to shame.”

Smith remembered the woman with the books of every story, and the price she had asked of him. He knew now that she had not meant his skill as a blacksmith. If there was any one thing that the inhabitants of Faery loved beyond any other, it was music. Smith got great joy from singing, though his voice was merely a good man’s voice; what greater joy might he get from a gift of music that was coveted even in Faery?

The man reached for the necklace. “Go home and try if you doubt me, Starbrow. I will be here again next market time. Though this necklace, perhaps, will not.”

“Nell loves my voice. And she will love this.” Smith held the necklace in his left hand and offered the man his right. “Take it.”

The man’s cool hand folded over his. Smith heard a rippling chord of harp music of heartbreaking beauty, and felt a rush of wind against his body. He staggered, and tears came to his eyes.

With a smile, the man released his hand, wrapped up his necklace in oak leaves, and tied it with a sprig of marjoram.

The windows of his cottage were golden with firelight and candle light. Nell opened the door before he could knock, and for a long time they embraced in the doorway.

He took out the necklace, let her stroke and admire it, and then clasped it around her throat. “I thought it would bring you luck for the Berry Race.”

Nell’s eyebrows quirked at him, and then she laughed. “You can tell me all about it as we eat. I’ve made all your favorites.”

She had: roast pork, braised onions and apples, and fresh-baked bread. As they ate, he told her his stories, and, with some hesitation, what he had paid for the necklace.

“You shouldn’t have!” Nell exclaimed.

“I missed you so much,” he said. “And you can’t come to Faery. I wanted to you to have some of Faery here in Wootton Major.”

Nell ran her fingers over the necklace. The scent of wild strawberries wafted through the room. She went out, and returned with a summer pudding, the tart red essence of every berry in the garden. Nell poured fresh cream over it, and Smith fell to.

“I’ve never tasted anything this good,” he said. “Not even in Faery.”

Nell smiled. “Then it was worth it. I can’t run the Berry Race this year. All my best berries went into this pudding.”

“You shouldn’t have!” Smith exclaimed.

After a moment, they both laughed. Nell poured them glasses of cowslip wine.

“To Faery,” she said.

“To Wootton Major,” said he.

Nell ran the Berry Race with her hands cupped full of clear water from their well, and a shining necklace of berries around her throat. Smith and Alf cheered her on. Fleet-footed, graceful, she spilled fewer drops than most of the girls spilled berries, and poured it out in a sparkling waterfall at the feet of the judges on the village green. The judges applauded, but gave the crown to Archer’s Peggy.

All day long, Smith and Nell ate and drank and laughed and sang and danced on the village green. When twilight fell and they rose to go home, Alf stepped softly out of the shadows and gave Smith a traveling cloak and Nell a crown of woven twigs, jeweled with white currants like drops of amber.