Jeremy didn’t bother to show up until a little after noon. By then, Penelope had helped a princess turn her brother into a frog, a water nymph find four different strands of pearls, and fixed the love life of an elderly pair of trees.
This time, Jeremy was polite enough (or scared enough) to avoid trampling her flowers with his horse’s plodding hooves. Instead, he opted to leap over the fence and scare the weeping willow into hysterics.
Alarmed, his horse shied away from the crying tree, much to Penelope’s irritation and Jeremy’s absolute terror.
Penelope calmed the horse down with a sharp rap on the nose and gave the willow a large handkerchief to dry its teary eyes.
“Did you absolutely, necessarily have to?” she asked Jeremy reproachfully.
Jeremy shied away. “No,” he said meekly. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“Gah, can’t you just dismount outside the gate like a normal human and stop scaring the living daylights out of my plants?” she said sharply, patience already wearing thin.
“Yes’m,” he said meekly.
Jeremy quickly dismounted and followed the steaming witch inside.
“You’re getting jasmine tea today because that’s what I have in the pot.” Penelope’s tone brooked no argument. Jeremy slunk into his seat at the kitchen table and promptly leapt up again in shock.
“Ow!” he exclaimed as a fluffy cream-and-brown cat yowled loudly in dismay. “How many damn cats do you own?”
The cream-and-brown cat left its seat in disgust, swiping viciously at Jeremy’s ankles before streaking out of the house. Penelope glanced over at Jeremy while pouring steaming tea into two mugs. “Three,” she said. “Your horse’s friend, the black one, is Absalom. The one you just sat on, the cream-and-brown one, is Asmodeus. Somewhere in this cottage is the dozy one–a fat tuxedo–his name is Lawrence.”
Jeremy blinked. “Are they just pets?” he asked, accepting the mug of hot tea. “I’ve never known a witch to have so many.”
“None of your business. I see you have payment?” She nodded towards the fat pouch clipped to Jeremy’s belt.
Jeremy nodded and unclipped the pouch. “Will this be enough?” he asked. “I wasn’t sure, so I just brought everything I had.”
“This is more than enough,” Penelope replied. She removed two gold coins from the pouch and laid them in front of her. Then she folded her hands around her mug of tea and looked peacefully at Jeremy.
“What are you doing now?” Jeremy asked nervously, unable to detect what he thought was probably witchcraft in the works.
“Waiting,” she said simply. “Your travelling companions will be here soon. They have their own journeys, but your paths cross and merge eventually. I figured I would hurry the process along just a smidge.”
“What?” Jeremy cast an alarmed look at the witch. “You mean you’re not coming with me?”
“No. That would cost you more than you have. I have a very expensive upkeep. Instead, I’ll take a deposit for now and collect the rest later.”
“Then why do you need those two coins?”
“I need some way of making sure your travelling companions and you come back,” Penelope explained patiently, having realized that Jeremy was a rather slow lad. “Think of it as a deposit.”
“Ohhh,” Jeremy said, understanding.
So they waited.
They drank tea and chatted about mundane things. Penelope only left Jeremy to amuse himself twice, once to help a giant figure out why his armoire kept rattling (turns out a poltergeist had stored himself in there) and once to help a lost spirit find peace.
In that time, Jeremy also managed to make friends with Lawrence, a rather fat cat who had wandered in sometime between lunch and the spirit. It also began to rain, causing the other two cats to shoot back inside before they got too wet.
His companions appeared when the rain had slacked off into a misty drizzle.
“Hello?” A large, burly man considerably taller than Jeremy knocked firmly on the doorframe. “Chess and I would really appreciate if we could get out of the rain.”
“The door’s unlocked, dear,” Penelope called. She stood up and beckoned her finger. Seconds later, a pile of clean blankets landed gently in her arms.
The man walked in, drenched to the bone, followed by a girl who looked more like a half-drowned kitten than anything.
“Here, dry yourself with these,” Penelope said, handing them the blankets. “I’ll get another pot of tea going. Black, cinnamon, green, jasmine, elderberry, or ginger?”
The man looked at the girl. “Chess? What do you want?”
“Ginger,” she said. She looked at her wet clothes in distaste. “Do you have any of my clothes, or something I can change into?” she asked to not one particular person.
“Oh, sorry. I forgot.” Penelope drew the excess moisture out of their clothing with a hand while the other stirred the brown sugar into the tea. “Wouldn’t want you to catch a cold, now would we?” she asked cheerfully. “Now, what may I help you with?”
“Well,” the man began, “My name is Jake. This is Chess. We’re looking for a heart.”
Jeremy burst out laughing. “A heart?” he said, guffawing. “Who looks for a heart? You either have one, or you don’t.”
“Oh?” Penelope said dryly. “And you looking for a flower that may or may not be real is not as ridiculous?”
A muscle in Jake’s face twitched. “What is the flower for?” Chess asked, genuinely curious.
“My soon-to-be fiancée,” Jeremy said proudly. Penelope and Jake avoided all eye contact, for fear of laughing. Chess coughed lightly.
“Uhm, well, that’s very sweet of you. Unfortunately, the heart we’re looking for is a rather special heart.”
“Really? How so?”
Chess and Jake exchanged a look. “This heart,” Chess finally said, “is worth a lot more than a normal heart. In fact, it is not a heart at all. It is a reservoir of immense power that cannot be unleashed into the world. We are the key keepers. Years and years ago, this heart was stolen from its sacred chamber and no one has been able to find it. Every year, two people go on a search. Some come back, some don’t. Some devote their entire lives to finding the heart. Some go insane.”
Jeremy nodded dubiously. “Okay, but what does this have to do with me?”
Penelope shrugged. “Not much. But they were headed in the same direction, so I decided that you should join them. Beware, though, you’ll be joined by another somewhere down the road. Please, do everything in your power to avoid insulting him. I’d like to stay on relatively non-frigid terms with him.”
Jeremy nodded obediently. “Yes, Mama,” he said. Penelope smacked him upside the head.
“Call me that again, and you can forget about ever asking that city girl for her hand in marriage,” she said sharply.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeremy said meekly.
Chess and Jake smiled into their mugs of tea.
Penelope sighed and looked at the two new travelers. “You two may as well stay the night, as you’re in no condition to be travelling in this weather. Bedrooms are upstairs and are already furnished.”
Jeremy cast a wounded look in Penelope’s direction. “Don’t I count?”
“No. You have a room at the inn. Go sleep there. And come back before noon this time. You have a long road ahead of you and you may as well start early tomorrow morning.”
Grumbling darkly, Jeremy trudged out of the cottage and into the rain. Chess and Jake exchanged a look and shrugged. They left Penelope and walked upstairs to where she said the bedrooms were. Left alone, Penelope cleared away the empty mugs and poured herself another cup of tea. There was a long road ahead indeed.