The path was narrow, branching off from the road to wind this way and that through the forest. It crossed over a rushing little brook beneath a rude wooden footbridge, danced around one last bend, and ended in a clearing dominated by an ancient oak tree, huge, at least fifty feet across, hung all over with swaying ivy. As Thea drew closer, she could see, nestled between two giant roots, a narrow door, painted a cheerful red, set into the trunk. Next to it hung a bright bronze knocker in the shape of an acorn. Hesitantly, she picked it up and let it fall. Silence. She knocked again. Brandish fluttered up to perch on her shoulder as they waited.
Now she could hear brisk footsteps, and a creaky voice calling, “Coming! coming!” The door opened to reveal an ancient lady (well, first a long nose, then more nose, and then the rest) with bright blue eyes. She peered up at Thea. “Yes? What is it, child?”
Her face was a landscape of wrinkles, wrinkle upon wrinkle, with a smiling mouth, a few tenacious teeth still holding firm, and bright sparkling eyes. She wore a dusky purple cap with a few silver curls peeking out from below and a patched faded cotton dress. Over this she wore an apron with a dozen pockets from which all sorts of things protruded - a quill pen, a piece of licorice, a small glass bottle, a carrot stick and a roll of paper. With one hand she reached up absently to stroke the head of a chipmunk who perched on her shoulder. Thea stared a moment, then gathered her wits and spoke.
“Ma’am, my name is Thea. I’m - well, I guess you could say I’m new here. People told me you might be able to give me some advice.”
The old woman leaned forward and peered more closely into Thea’s face. Then she gave a start. “Oh, my goodness, is it today? I’ve been waiting for you, child! Welcome, welcome!” She hobbled forward, her face shining, took both of Thea’s hands in her own gnarled ones, and leaned forward to give her a kiss on the cheek. She smelled like lemons and chocolate and talcum powder all in one, and Thea felt something tight inside her unravel as her fear slipped away.
“Well, come in, come in!” Then she stopped and peered at Thea’s shoulder. “And is that Brandish I see? You old rascal, I might have known I’d see you here! Always in on the action!” She laughed. “Whether it’s a cart broken down on the road or a bear in some farmer’s beehives, you can always find our fine feathered friend, right there in the midst of it all! Someday your curiosity is going to buy you trouble!”
Brandish laughed too, a bright cackle, as the old lady led them into the tree. Thea ducked her head and stepped hesitantly into the cool dimness. Before her was a sturdy little wooden staircase with a banister of solid ivy vine, winding down into a space lit by glass lamps and candles. As she moved down the stairs she could see the walls of the old tree’s rough bark around her, and then a maze of huge roots, some as big around as her waist. She could see, in the flickering light, little creatures running on the roots or sitting watching her - mice, it looked like, though they sure weren’t like the mice she was used to. She saw one brushing its teeth, and another in a little rocking chair, reading a book. It glanced up at her and waved cheerfully. Brandish chuckled.
Down the stairs continued, and the space opened up until the roots became a sort of roof, and she was in a neat little cave. At the bottom of the stairs was a woven mat to wipe her feet, so she did, gaping at what she saw.
There were books everywhere, in shelves built into the curving walls and in piles on every surface. Not just books: there were cuckoo clocks and statues and bouquets of wildflowers, a goldfish bowl filled with jelly beans and an owl snoozing with its head under its wing. There were framed samplers with odd sayings like “No time like tomorrow” and “You never know where you are till you haven’t been there yet”. Herbs hung from the roots above in bunches, and she was sure she saw, in one corner, a mirror that seemed to reflect an entirely different room.
There were rooms and halls extending back on every side. She could see a neat little bed covered with a patchwork quilt in one alcove, while in another stood a table covered with bottles and notebooks. A third seemed to hold a large plant that seemed to be - really? yes it was - knitting a scarf, while yet another held an armchair where a lovely blue cat sat regally, washing its face, while two frogs seemed to be playing a game of chess on a nearby table. A broom was sweeping busily in a corner, while a dustpan playfully evaded it, hopping from side to side.
A neat little wood stove sat in the main room off to one side, giving off a red glow of comforting warmth in the coolness, and the old lady was bustling about setting out a teapot and a plate of cakes on a table between two cozy armchairs. “Well, come in, come in!”, she beckoned to Thea. “You must be hungry!” Brandish fluttered to a nearby hatstand, and Granny gave him a cracker. “Thanks, old one!” he croaked. “Polly want a cracker, indeed,” she heard him mutter, but at a glance he subsided into silence.
Thea sat and gratefully brought her hands close to the fire. Then she started - through the grate she could see a little face peering at her, bright orange and flickering. “Don’t mind him,” chuckled Granny, “we don’t get visitors too often! Now, dear, let’s have a chat. When did you arrive?”
It all spilled out then. Thea told her all about the storm, the lightning, the farmhouse, the strange words Sarah spoke. “They talked about some prophecy, like I’m someone - I don’t know - special. But Andrew wouldn’t tell me any more. He said maybe you could help.”
The old lady gazed at her thoughtfully. The blue cat sauntered up and crouched next to the old woman, and then suddenly hopped up into her lap. She stroked it softly and the cat began to knead her legs, a rusty purr filling the silence.