A decade of shavings covered the floor of Lewys’s carpentry shop. He didn’t bother sweeping any more, although he probably should — wood without magic produces a drab dust that desiccates the throat, shrivels the lungs. He coughed and gulped from his flask, stepping back from his work. Carving the finishing scrollwork on yet another hope chest for the latest bride-to-be in town did nothing to fill his own hollowness.
“Wait for me,” she had whispered in the wytchen grove so many years ago, her berry-scented breath caressing his cheek, “I will come back to you.” She’d taken magic with her, in the wytchen dust glinting in her sunlit hair as she waved goodbye from the newly-carved wagon. She took his heart as well, but left hope in its place.
Over the years, hope had drained into loneliness, empty and aching, present in the sound of his saw’s jagged edge, the taste of his own cough-strained, stale breath, the starkness of his bedroom above the shop. No chance of a bride now, for him, in this small town where he had spurned all coy glances sent his way, waiting for his true love to return.
He wished he hadn’t waited.
Still coughing, Lewys threw open the window shutters. He gulped fresh air. Delighted cries of children entered with the breeze.
A pageant wagon creaked into the town square outside his shop, horseless, shedding curls of magic onto the cobblestones from its warped wytchen beams. Children dropped coins into a box attached to the wagon’s carriage and scrambled for seats. Eyes widening in shock, Lewys unconsciously dug his fingernails into the windowsill. The wagon’s wood was peeling, its stage floor crooked, but it was still the same one. The only one.
As the threadbare curtain opened, more wood peels and sparkling dust showered the stage from the covered wagon’s rafters, a natural emission of the enchanted wood, once cut and carved. A princess puppet slumped against a painted forest backdrop. She wore a gown the deep blush of sunset, the falling wytchen dust creating a net of crystals in her golden hair. With the clack of wooden joints, she began a light, graceful dance. A troll, lumbering in from stage right, tore a gasp from the children.
Lewys saw what the audience did not know to look for: The shadow of the puppet master’s hands weaving along the stage floor. These puppets had no strings. The wytchen wood itself conjured the play, the magic within the wagon and the carved puppets animating them, their movements directed from above by the puppet master’s hands.
After the princess outsmarted the troll, she befriended a dragon, its velvet tongue unfurling like a panting dog. Adults and children alike cheered when she saved a village from a witch.
The curtain closed; the crowd dispersed.
Lewys grabbed his jerkin and dashed outside.
The wagon’s damage looked even worse up close. Red rope secured the corners, but it was a temporary bandage for the cracked joints which exposed the wood’s inner pith.
The old puppet master emerged from behind the curtain. “Master Lewys, look how well your craft weathered the years. Although, I must admit, some repairs are needed.”
“Master Rhodri, you take me for my father,” Lewys replied. “He is gone these last ten years. I have his carpentry business as well as his name now.”
Hobbling towards him on gnarled joints as the stage boards shifted and groaned, the old man squinted at Lewys. “Aye, I remember you,” Rhodri said, beckoning the carpenter to follow him into the narrow living space behind the stage backdrop.
“Is your daughter here?” His lips were dry; his heart constricted with a bare remembrance of hope.
A slow smile deepened the lines on the old man’s face. “You remember Roselyn?”
The first time Lewys had seen Roselyn, she was sitting on a stump in the wytchen grove, her hair a curtain over her face and lap. He was passing through on his way further into the forest, hatchet slung over his shoulder. “My lady?” he said, approaching carefully, as he would a hare in a thicket, “Are you well?”
She looked up then, and instead of a face smudged with tears as he expected, he saw one smudged with ink from the parchment and quill in her hands. Her eyes were startled, as blue as an open sky. The sun blinked through the branches and transformed her hair into spun gold.
Lewys caught his breath.
“Indeed, I am very well,” she replied. “Do you like stories?”
“What? Uh…yes. Doesn’t everyone?” he stammered.
“Good!” She jumped off the stump and pocketed an inkwell that had been lying in the grass. “This one is finished. You can be our practice audience.” She grabbed Lewys by the wrist and he let go of his hatchet in surprise, dropping it behind him. He spluttered a weak protest — he was supposed to meet his father for work — but the girl tugged him away, into the stand of birch trees that bordered the road into town.
“Audience for what? You don’t even know me!”
“Of course I do. Father!” She shouted as they came upon an old wagon pulled into the grass on the side of the road. “The carpenter’s son has agreed to see the new play!”
Lewys recognized the man sitting in the grass in front of a small fire, stirring the contents of a pot hanging from a tripod. He was an itinerant toymaker; every girl in the village had at least one of his wood and cloth dolls. Lewys himself had a painted jester on a stand, cleverly rigged to somersault when a button was pressed. It was still on a shelf above his bed, even though he was too old to play with it now.
Master Rhodri looked from his daughter to Lewys and back again. “Roselyn, are you sure…”
She pulled her father to his feet and thrust the parchment into his hands. “Look, I finished! It’s the perfect story for the new puppets! Oh, be careful, it’s still wet.”
“All right, then,” Rhodri said, pulling a handkerchief out of his vest pocket to wipe his fingers, “but only if the young man does not mind.”
Lewys did not. Roselyn showed him where to sit in the grass beneath a tree, the gentle push of her hand through his shirt sending thrills along his skin. She was a flurry of activity, her bright hair and patched dress swinging to and fro as she fetched the puppets and whispered to her father as he studied the parchment. The puppets were exquisitely carved, like all the dolls Rhodri made, but these had moveable joints and strings, each attached to a cross of wood. Their hair was tangled yarn and their clothes multi-colored swatches of fabric.
Roselyn and her father climbed into the wagon and lowered the puppets into the grass below. The wooden figures clacked as they began to move, and within minutes Lewys forgot about the strings connected to the pair in the wagon above, their hands moving the crosses gracefully. A curtain lifted in his mind.
The story unfolded, wordless but spoken through the puppets’ movements. Within Lewys’s eyes, the wagon turned to mountain ranges, the grass to a river ford, so real that he could feel the cold wind in the high cliffs and hear the rush of the river. He was immersed in the hardships the brothers faced as they searched for each other. His heart leapt at their final happy reunion. When the puppets bowed, the story’s spell over Lewys’s mind broke, and he returned with a jolt to his seat in the grass, cooled by the shade of the tree. Roselyn’s pleased face smiled down at him from the wagon. He broke into spontaneous applause.
“That was well done,” a voice called from further back in the trees. Lewys turned and sprang to his feet. His father approached with his two apprentices. “No wonder my son has shirked his duty for the day.” He held out the hatchet. Lewys took it as his father said more quietly, “I was afraid something happened to you, lad.” Lewys’s face reddened.
“It’s my fault,” Roselyn said, as she gathered the puppets up. “I did not give him much choice. Please do not be angry with him.”
Rhodri came down from the wagon. The carpenter shook his hand, then looked up at the girl, his eyes squinting against the high sun. “Well,” the Master Carpenter said, then turned sharply to Lewys, whose color deepened to scarlet. “I can see the appeal of such a play.” The apprentices, a few years older than Lewys, grinned and elbowed each other.
“The puppets,” he turned back to the toymaker, “are they a new crafting?”
“Yes. My first two. My daughter has great plans for me to make others. She wants a dragon and a witch in particular. And a girl puppet, of course.”
The elder Lewys rubbed his chin, dark with beard. “There was something about that play, something quite powerful. I forgot where I was for a while. And I realize that I am long overdue for letters to my own siblings.”
“My daughter wrote the story,” Rhodri said proudly. “First I had the puppets in mind as another toy, but it was Roselyn’s idea to perform plays with them. Do you truly think others will enjoy such entertainment?”
“Truly, but you need a proper stage — a pageant wagon, perhaps, so you can still travel as you do.” The carpenter hesitated, glancing at his apprentices, then looked up at Roselyn again. He seemed to make up his mind, and continued, “There is a special wood that I use only for certain projects. I would like to build a pageant wagon for you with this wood. I never take payment for wytchen,” he added quickly, when Rhodri blanched. “As I said, it is only for special creations. And I believe this project, and your work, is worthy of it.”
Lewys looked at his father in shock. He vaguely remembered the wizened man, passing through town, who had shown his father how to cut wood from the strange trees that no axe could fell before, how to craft an object — for him, it was a staff — with tools and words.
His father had used the wytchen only one other time, as far as Lewys knew, to build a cradle for their neighbor’s infant born two months too soon. It was a gift that his father carved in haste, neither eating nor sleeping, in order to finish it by dawn the day after the birth. Within hours after a peaceful nap in the cradle, the child stopped struggling to nurse, and thrived thereafter.
“Come with your daughter to my workshop tomorrow,” the master carpenter continued, waving away Rhodri’s stammering gratitude. “I’ll draw up the plans and we can talk about them over supper.” He gestured to Lewys as he turned, a slight smile on his lips. “Let’s go. Enough stories for today. Back to chopping wood, lad.”
The aged puppet master did not answer Lewys’s question, but he did not have to. There was no sign of his daughter among the clutter of tools, wood, parchment, and ink pots on the table. Clothes spilled out of a trunk, child’s dresses with snippets removed. A torn blanket lay rumpled on the floor. Lewys’s heart sank.
How foolish he had been to wait.
The puppet princess was sitting upright in a cabinet with the troll, dragon, and witch on a shelf beneath her. A pile of bedraggled puppets lay at the bottom.
“I’d like to commission you for repairs.”
Lewys looked at the rafters and walls, sunlight spearing through the gaps. Rhodri added, “I have the coin to pay you, whatever the cost.”
“It’s not that, sir.” He tried to control his tone, but anger still sharpened his words even after all these years. “There are no wytchen trees left.” One of the apprentices, addled with mead in the tavern, had broken his oath and spilled the secret of the grove; news that the master carpenter could release the trees’ magic had spread like fire afterwards. The townspeople turned on his father when he refused their foolish requests for wedding rings, pendants, furniture, even an entire house made from wytchen. But the final demand, a flagship, had come from the duke himself in his manor on the coast, delivered with a subtle threat on the carpenter’s son’s life.
The entire grove was consumed. His father had fallen ill during the ship’s crafting and died soon after it was completed.
“But surely you can repair the existing wood?”
Lewys regarded the puppet master, with his bent back and knotted bones, and said kindly, “All due respect, Master Rhodri, but perhaps a warm hearth in a home without wheels would serve you better now.”
The old man nodded. “It probably would. But,” he gestured to the puppets in the cabinet, “I must continue to tell her stories.”
The puppet princess was as finely crafted as porcelain, the warm scent of beeswax polish lingering on her milk-white skin of peeled wytchen wood. Lewys slipped his fingers along the gold cascade of her hair, a silken balm over his callused skin. He had touched Roselyn’s hair this way, shyly, so many years ago in the wytchen grove, as his father cut and shaped the wood for the pageant wagon. The elder Lewys murmured words under his breath as he worked, words that he whispered in Rhodri’s ear when he handed him small blocks of wytchen.
Coaxed by his daughter, Master Rhodri had fashioned them both toy swords out of plain oak. Lewys and Roselyn pretended they were heroes, fighting trolls and witches, befriending dragons, crafting their own fairy tales from shadows at the forest’s edge. Lewys was awkward and reluctant at first, feeling as if he were too old for this play, but Roselyn’s earnest imagination captivated him. And it was worth the teases of the other apprentices just to sit close to Roselyn afterwards, their heads touching, as she penned their play into stories for the puppets.
Her lips were always stained blush from the wytchen berries they were not supposed to eat, the red berries marked with stars that she hid in her dress pocket. When the pageant wagon was completed, oiled and shining like the moon, Lewys watched as it rolled away from the grove without need of a horse, Roselyn blowing kisses as she peeked out from behind the curtain. When it was gone, he ate the berry she had slipped into his hand with a whispered promise.
It had flooded his mouth with bitterness, the taste surprising him after her sweetly-scented breath.
Lewys finally asked the question he had been dreading. “Roselyn is happily married, then?” He tried not to sound bitter, but her name was no longer sweet in his mouth either.
“No. She is not. I wish…” Rhodri took a deep, shaky breath. “Her heart just…stopped.” The words were a hammer blow to Lewys, leaving him cold and numb, his mouth drier than bone. His fingers, still caressing the puppet’s hair, froze. “One minute she was reading aloud her new story and the next…. It was soon after we left the grove. I don’t know what happened.”
The old man paused, wiping his eyes with a grimy handkerchief from his pocket. “My wife had died when Roselyn was an infant. My daughter was all I had. My heart lies in that grave with her. To keep living, to keep going….” His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “I wanted to save her, to bring her back to life. Impossible I know, but a father will do anything for his child…at least, like this, she can live on in her stories. The stories that she loved, that she lived to write. Her legacy.” He reached out and touched the puppet’s hair also. “Roselyn and her mother had the same color hair. It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
Lewys snapped his hand away, stumbling over the puppet detritus spilling out from the cabinet’s bottom.
“You must understand — I could not let her go! But she grew so cold…her hair was the only thing unchanged. It was the only thing still her.” The old man twisted his hands, choking back a sob. “Everything I did, all my carving, was for my daughter. She was the meaning behind my life’s work. She still is. And I have to give her what life I can.”
Master Rhodri’s struggle to contain his grief echoed in Lewys’s own hollow chest. After a moment, he said, “I do understand.”
Slowly Lewys collected the puppets from the floor, a mess of small swords and fractured oak limbs. All princes. “Can I fix these for you?” he asked.
Composing himself, shaking his head, the puppet master replied, “They were my gifts, to commemorate her birthdays.” He cleared his throat again. “She never got the chance to create a story of true love. I thought perhaps I could write one for her. But the words never came, and the princes never worked right. And I’d find them damaged the next day. If they were made of wytchen, perhaps it would be different, but I used all the blocks your father gave me. Nevertheless, I keep trying, every year.”
Lewys was silent for a while, his hands cradling the broken princes. Wytchen dust drifted down from the wagon’s ceiling, glittering bright as a promise that had not been broken after all.
I will come back to you.
“I will do something for you, Master Rhodri. And for her.”
Back in his room he packed a satchel with a flask of water and food from his meager pantry, then secured a hatchet to his belt. Walking through the bare patch that had once been the grove, he glanced behind him, making sure he was alone before entering the thick forest beyond. He had released the apprentices after the flagship was completed; his destination was a secret only he knew, now.
After an hour, the woodland sloped upwards as the pine trees thinned. He came to a ledge where a single tree grew, slanted trunk and low, leafy branches thriving against the crisp sky: The wytchen sapling that Lewys and his dying father had transplanted here, hidden from human greed. It was larger now, although not as thick and full as the ancient ones in the grove had been. Another sapling, perhaps a year or two old, grew in a sunny spot near its parent. Lewys swallowed the sudden lump in his throat.
He poured water on the roots as an offering, giving some to the sapling as well, and tied a red ribbon around a thick branch as he had seen his father do. Then he sat, the trunk pressing into his jerkin, thinking of what could have been, while the sun painted the sky the color of the princess’s gown, of Roselyn’s lips, which had never touched his. As the sun descended into the dark forest below him, he hefted his hatchet and spoke his request to the tree.
He hoped he was worthy.
When Lewys came back to the wagon Rhodri was snoring in a corner, blanket wrapped around him and tucked under his grizzled chin. He used the old man’s tools, peeling and smoothing the small branch the wytchen had granted him, carving a face, body, and limbs, whispering his father’s words to the wood for the first and last time. Rummaging through the trunk, he found the remnants of a white shawl which he cut with a pair of silver scissors to make a doll-size tunic and pants, needle and red thread moving as deftly as when he sewed patches into his own clothing. He painted the eyes and mouth.
Lewys took the puppet princess down from her shelf, arranging her carefully on the work table next to the newly carved prince, staring at her for a long time. He touched her hair again. Leaning close, his lips almost touching her cheek, he breathed deeply. As his lungs filled with her wytchen wood scent, his heart returned, brimming with magic and love as when they had been younger. “Roselyn,” he murmured, “I kept my promise too. I waited.”
With the scissors he cut his own hair off, and stitched the dark locks to a small felt cap. Uncorking a bottle of pine resin, he brushed the thick glue on the cap and attached it to the puppet prince’s head.
Wooden hands twitched, clacked against each other.
Lewys’s joints buckled and he flopped to the floor.
His name, whispered against his cheek. A whiff of familiar berry.
Lewys opened his eyes. He was sitting in the old wytchen grove under one of the trees, crisscrossing branches spread out above him, and for one disorienting moment he thought the branches were the rafters of the pageant wagon.
Someone was sitting next to him. He turned, and Roselyn’s smiling face filled his vision. Reaching out, tentatively, to touch her cheek, he whispered, “Are you real?” His fingers felt strange, stiff.
She laughed. “As real as you,” she replied, standing. A pile of berries cascaded from her billowing silk skirts. She pulled him to his feet, and his joints cracked loudly. Lewys pushed the aches in his body aside — Roselyn was here, in front of him, alive and looking more beautiful in a sunset-colored gown than he had ever beheld. Her hair was a curtain of golden strands over her shoulders, a net of crystals holding the strands away from her perfect face.
“I am glad you are finally here, with me, my love,” Roselyn whispered, standing so close to him, her eyes sparkling. Lewys folded her into his arms, his heart overflowing, seeking out her lips with his own.
“Not yet,” she said, placing her fingers over his mouth. A loud roar sounded from the depths of the forest. Roselyn broke from his grasp. “Father wrote us a story. I don’t know all the details, but I know it has a happy ending. We have to work to get there, of course.” She gestured to the sword buckled at his hip and, when he stared at it dumbfounded, unsheathed it for him and put it in his hand. The blade was etched with runes. “You’re a prince, Lewys.”
She pulled a matching sword from a concealed fold in her gown. “I found this one hidden in a wytchen trunk before you came.”
Another roar, closer this time, shook the leaves of the trees. Both sword blades began to glow.
“An enchantment! But do you know why?” Prince Lewys asked.
“No,” Princess Roselyn said excitedly. “I suppose we will have to figure it out! Remember that friendly dragon? Things aren’t always what they seem. We must be clever as well as brave.” She smiled up at Lewys, and he had never known such happiness, such excitement.
“We have a new life ahead of us, my love,” Roselyn said, and Lewys ached to kiss her. “Are you ready for adventure?”
Magic fell in curls and crystals from the wytchen wood above them. Strange shadows began to move beneath their feet. Lewys took his true love’s hand, and together they turned to face the beginning of their story.