When Fenn left the Mapmaker’s Guild, the first thing she did was retrace her steps—but only insofar as they would lead her back to Mossy’s Inn. Only from there did she have the faintest idea of how to find Old Moll’s.
After that, she found the milliner’s easily enough. It stood out, painted bright red and green, with an iron sign in the shape of a hat swinging above the door. Hatter’s, it read. The legion of hats lining the windows was striking.
She turned left as she’d been told. As her path took her farther from the Hillock and the Duke’s castle, and the road canted sharply downward. Quality of life declined as well. Shingled rooves were replaced with thatch ones. People’s clothes grew worn, and everything was covered in a layer of permanent grime.
Thanks to her high vantage point, Fenn could see in the distance that the road led out of town and into green fields peppered with farmhands and plow horses. Long before she reached it, she was pleased to discover that she could smell baking bread—just as Old Moll had promised.
The aroma grew stronger and stronger, and Fenn was sure that at any moment she’d come upon the bakery. Except she didn’t. Eventually, the smell began to fade, and Fenn began to worry. Soon, the city gate was ahead of her, and Fenn found herself walking the last line of buildings, each more ramshackle than the last. Fenn knew she must have made a mistake.
There was an elderly man dozing in a rocking chair in front of one of the houses nearby, in the shade of his thatched roof. Fenn approached him.
He snorted and twitched, and one eye slowly opened, staring vaguely out for several seconds before it focused on her. The other followed.
“I was hoping—that is, could you tell me where I might find Old Moll’s?”
The man tipped his head toward back the way she’d come. “See those two trees, o’er yonder?”
Fenn nodded. There were two large oaks a ways up the street, a few yards apart, towering over the houses around them. Brought to her attention, she realized that they were a bit out of place. There weren’t a great number of trees in this part of the city. And they really were frightfully tall.
“Head on through there and you’ll find her, sure ‘nough.”
“Thank you,” said Fenn, dipping in a little bow and turning to follow his instructions.
“If yer after anything mor’n a loaf a’ bread, think long n’ hard ‘fore you make any promises.”
Fenn nodded slowly, not quite comprehending. “Thank you… I will.”
The old man gave her one last nod and his eyes drifted closed. He was snoring before Fenn had gone more than a few feet.
She crossed the street and approached the trees, noticing as she did that there was a small black cat sitting next to the nearer one. Green eyes watched her as she approached and a feline tail twitched.
“Hello,” she said. The cat blinked languidly up at her. She knelt down and scratched under his chin, peering through the gap between the trees. It led between the two houses on either side, and then apparently out onto another street much like the one she was on.
Wouldn't it have been easier just to say ‘go one street past the milliner’s’ in the first place?
She glanced down at the cat, who’d closed his eyes and was leaning into her hand affectionately.
“You ought to be careful,” she said. “There’s a Beast about.”
The cat seemed unconcerned. She rose, and it was then that she noticed, carved roughly into the tree trunks, a series of odd looking sigils. She examined them. They certainly weren’t letters. They like anything she’d ever come across before.
“I don’t suppose you know what those…” she said to the cat. Only to look down and discover he was gone. She peered up and down the street, but could find neither hide nor hair of him.
“Strange,” she murmured. “I wonder where he’s gone off to.”
She shrugged, took a step forward—and found herself suddenly buffeted by a powerful wind. It lapped at her face and tossed her hair. She scrunched her eyes against the ferocity of it, holding out her hands for balance.
It passed as quickly as it had come and she stumbled forward, compensating for a force that was no longer there.
“What on Earth—? Oh!”
The cat was back. He sat a few feet before her. Green eyes watched her and a feline tail twitched.
“Now where did you come from?”
The cat blinked languidly up at her.
“I suppose you must be a witch’s cat,” Fenn said. “That would explain the queer behavior. “Although come to think of it, most cats are a little bit qu…
Something was definitely not right.
Fenn peered left and right out of the corners of suspicion-narrowed eyes. Two oak trees with wide trunks thrust up out of the ground to tower leafily over her, precisely where they ought to be. She half-turned to look over her shoulder. The street she’d come from was exactly as it had been, rutted with sun-drying mud, peopled by working folk, and lined with tumbledown homes. If she leaned far enough, she could see the old man dozing by his door.
She looked ahead. This was where things grew odd. She was on a narrow path, patched with dewy green grass tickled by a breeze that had not been there before—lined not with houses but blackberry bushes, and beyond them trees.
Twenty or so yards ahead the path opened onto a little clearing, speckled with wildflowers, in the middle of which sat a small cottage. Smoke rose from the chimney and a short line of people extended out the door.
As she stood there wondering what to do, the cat rose and rammed its shoulder into her shin, making a tight circuit of Fenn’s legs before scampering off in the direction of the little house. He stopped a few yards away and glanced back over his shoulder at Fenn. She realized she was supposed to follow. So she did.
The cat led her to the end of the queue. Townsfolk. Each, she realized, carrying some object for bartering with. The woman in front of Fenn held a basket of eggs, and the man in front of her had bottles of fresh milk in each of his hands. The line went through the door, eight people in all, ending at a low counter.
The smell wafting through the door was wonderful, and if Fenn hadn’t already eaten it would have made her ravenous. Follow your nose, indeed.
“Peter!” called a familiar voice from within. “Come in now!”
The cat blinked up at Fenn one last time before trotting between the legs of the waiting customers and vanishing inside. Soon after, a man squeezed out, his arms full of warm, linen-wrapped baguettes. The line inched forward, and Fenn with it, anxiously awaiting her turn to meet the Witch.