A Wreath of Laurel
Long ago in a distant land, there was a young girl named Laurel. Every morning, she rose with the sun and gathered wildflowers among the crags and cliffs and dotting the meadows. And each day she wove their stems into wreaths with her small hands.
One day after many such days, Laurel rose with the sun. She dressed quietly, braided her hair, and walked from the cottage into the misted morning.
Her father paused in his wood chopping to wrap his discarded cloak around her. “It’s not so warm yet, wild flower.”
“Not so cold either, father,” said Laurel.
He kissed her forehead and sat her down on a block of firewood. He wrapped his calloused hand around hers. His eyes held her attention. “The old ones call me, little one.”
“If they wish to see you, let them come here instead.”
He gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “You must promise me that when I’m gone, you will find your mother in her home beyond the woods. Promise me.”
Laurel gave him her word and smiled warmly. “I will speak with my friends, the daisies and the old oaks. They will convince the old ones to let you stay. You’ll see.”
With that and a hug, Laurel skipped off. All her friends—from the smallest budding blossoms to the towering oaks—all promised to convey her request to the old ones.
Spring warmed to summer as the trees filled with leaves and the meadows with flowers. Laurel stepped into her father’s workshop where the air was heavy with the scent of wood shavings. She quietly watched her father fit doors onto an ornate wardrobe. Intricate patterns wound seamlessly beneath its burgundy lacquer. He stepped back to survey his workmanship.
“It’s beautiful,” said Laurel.
Her father hugged his arms around her. “It is indeed.”
The finality to his voice made Laurel twist around to look at him.
He cupped her face in his hands. “Promise me, little sunflower, that when I go to the old ones, you will search out your mother among the willows and the reeds.”
“I will, Father,” promised Laurel, “but my friends argue on your behalf and will convince the old ones to let you stay. You’ll see.”
Laurel hugged him tightly and left for the solace of the meadows. She whirled under elderly lindens flush with yellow. All assured her the old ones would grant her request. Laurel thanked them graciously for their kindness and gathered an armful of fragrant flowers. Her fingers deftly wove the stems together one by one until the flowers formed a blooming wreath. Her father placed it at the head of his bed, as he always did, so that he might think of her as he drifted to sleep.
The weeks passed and a chill gradually returned. Leaves littered the ground as the sun hung weakly in the sky. On one such morning, Laurel woke to the quiet of the cottage. No warmth seeped from the hearth. No sound broke the stillness. She padded barefooted to her father’s room. Morning light brightened the wreath she had given him the day before. Its withered flowers had shed their curled petals onto her father’s pillow. Laurel hurried to his side and took his cold hand in hers.
“Father...,” she whispered.
Heavy lids dimmed the brightness of his eyes. “Promise me, Laurel, that you will find your mother and remember me.”
“Please don’t speak like that!” cried Laurel.
“Promise me, little one.”
Laurel nodded as his sight drifted into darkness. She kissed his forehead and placed his limp hand next to him. “I will find her, Father.”
Laurel secured the wreath within a bundle of clothing and retrieved a loaf of bread and a waterskin for her journey. She dressed quietly, pulled back her hair, and wrapped herself in her father’s cloak. Laurel set off to the well-kept path that wound through the tall, leafed spires. She followed the trail deeper and deeper into the forest, traveling all day and into the night until she sank down in weariness. Laurel nibbled a chunk of bread as she stared at the luminous moon.
“Why are you here?” came a voice from above her.
Laurel glanced up the tree. A squirrel eyed her from a branch. “I seek my mother.”
The squirrel cocked his head. “Where is your mother?”
“Beyond the woods, among the willows and the reeds,” answered Laurel, “but I don’t know how to get there.”
The squirrel moved down the tree to her shoulder. “Who is your mother?”
Laurel remained silent.
“Who is your mother?” repeated the squirrel.
“I don’t know.” Laurel gave the squirrel the bread she no longer wanted.
The squirrel took the morsel in its mouth and scurried back up the tree. It paused on a branch above Laurel’s head. “Follow the path but do not stray,” chattered the squirrel.
Before Laurel could thank it for the advice, the squirrel disappeared among the branches and leaves. I will do as the squirrel said, thought Laurel. It must know the way better than I. Comforted, Laurel wrapped her father’s cloak more closely around her and fell asleep.
The next morning, she continued along the path, confident she would find her mother. She walked hour after hour, each step taking her further into the forest. The path wound unendingly. The dense brambles soon pressed in upon the path and a billowing canopy of leaves veiled the open sky. Sunlight wavered among the patches of shadow.
Laurel walked on until the path lay hidden in darkness. No pale fingers of moonlight broke through the foliage to guide her. She sat down on the path, for the tangle of trees and bushes on either side made it impossible for her to do otherwise. Laurel ate her meager meal in silence. Only the twittering of unseen birds filled the quiet of the darkened forest.
Laurel rubbed her eyes and sighed. It was answered by a ballad of birdsong. A nuthatch fluttered to the ground in front of her, cocking its head this way and that as it regarded her. The birds hidden amongst the trees hushed to a murmur.
“Why are you here?” whistled the nuthatch.
“I seek my mother,” responded Laurel.
“Where is your mother?” piped a tree swallow as it swooped above her.
Laurel watched the swallow settle into the tree and be lost in its dark depths. “She lies beyond the woods among the willows and tall reeds. I was told this path would take me there, but I have walked for many hours and have not found her,” said Laurel.
“Whoo...who is your mother?” inquired a horned owl, its luminous eyes upon Laurel.
Laurel shook her head. “I don’t know who my mother is.”
A great cawing swept through the wilds surrounding her. Laurel covered her ears, but the woods fell silent once more.
“Follow the path,” pecked a woodpecker.
“But do not stray,” twittered a titmouse.
“Tears will lead you,” cooed a morning dove, “to where your heart lies.”
A sudden gust of wind battered against the brambles. The birds went aloft in a flutter of feathers. The plumes fell like snow around Laurel. Surely, thought Laurel as she wrapped her cloak around her, surely I will find my mother tomorrow. But try as she might, she could not lift her heart from sorrow.
When Laurel awoke the next morning, the path behind her was dim and that yet before her ever dark. But she took heart. She would find her mother that day if she would find her at all. The further she followed the meandering path, the darker it grew. Brambles pushed in upon it and threatened to overtake it. Still, Laurel pressed on. Branches snatched at her clothing and thorns scratched her face. Her hands grew raw from fighting through the living wall of timber. On and on she pushed, until the brambles spanned the path and she could go no further.
“My path is at its end, Mother,” cried Laurel, “and nowhere can I go but back.”
She sank to the ground and wept. Where each tear fell, small shoots nudged their heads up through the soil, winding into vines. They grew to enormous length and twined around the branches blocking the path. So strong were the tendrils that they slowly pulled the dense copse further and further apart until the opening was large enough for Laurel to pass.
Laurel jumped to her feet and hurried through. With each step forward, the brambles closed behind her. She hurried all the more, fearful it would close upon her. All about her, the leaves and trees whispered, urging her onward.
Before long, Laurel emerged into a pleasant glade. From among the brambles, a gurgling stream fed into a lily-covered pond where willows wept their heavy boughs over the water and tall reeds lined the shallows. Laurel walked to the edge of the pond. Broken reeds hummed a somber song in the gentle breeze that seeped along the stream.
A woman, cloaked in every shade of green, stepped from under the willow bows. She regarded Laurel with eyes as brilliant as jade.
“Why are you here?” asked the green woman.
“I seek my mother,” replied Laurel.
“Where is your mother?”
“Beyond the woods, among the willows and the reeds. I’ve walked the path and beyond for many hours. I fear will not find her.”
“Who is your mother, child?”
“I don’t know.”
The woman lifted Laurel’s chin. “You’ve found whom you seek.”
Laurel threw her arms around her mother’s neck and wept for joy. Yet she remembered her father and took his dried wreath from her bundle. She passed it to her mother.
Her mother took the wreath and flung it to the center of the pond where it floated. As Laurel watched, the shriveled flowers burst forth with young buds until the whole wreath was in bloom. Water churned around the wreath as it grew in size. It drifted toward the pond’s shallows of its own accord and came to rest among the lilies and reeds. Slowly, ever slowly, a hand emerged from the center of the distended wreath, followed by another, struggling to raise their owner into the upper world of light and air. The wreath gave way, releasing a man of equal grace and agelessness as Laurel’s mother.
The green-clad woman took Laurel’s hand and led her to the pond’s edge. The man reached out to them. Laurel hesitated, but her mother grasped the hand affectionately. Laurel peered into the man’s eyes. She felt herself swept into calm waters, clear and blue, where a reflection rippled of a man she so dearly loved.
“Father!” exclaimed Laurel.
She clasped his hand and, together with her mother, helped him from the water’s embrace. Her mother laid her green cloak around her husband’s shoulders as she lead him under the soaring willow.
Laurel followed behind her parents, but nothing greeted her under the boughs except for a canopy of trembling foliage. A suffocating tightness welled up in her chest. Laurel sank to the scented ground and wept. And she knew, as never before, the desolate feeling of being alone, devoid of family, and trapped within the dense copse from which she knew no release. The willow shimmered green above her as a hushed birdsong filtered through the purl of the stream and the thrum of the crickets. Laurel rose to her feet and drew back the willow bows. To her astonishment, the sight that greeted her was not the glade, but a grassy plain. It stretched out beneath the hill upon which she stood. Of the expansive stand, the hilltop yielded no evidence.
At the edge of the plain, the lights of a cottage winked bright against the encroaching nightfall. Laurel waded through the tall grass toward the welcoming glimmer. As the daylight faded, she quickened her pace until she found herself running. The bright beacon grew closer and closer until Laurel, at last, stood before the cottage door as the sunlight was doused by night.
Laurel knocked on the door. “Hello?”
Several moments passed before the door eased open but a crack.
“What do you want?” came a gruff response.
“Please,” said Laurel, “I’ve nowhere to stay and the night grows cold.”
The door nudged opened slightly. A woman, bent and gnarled, squinted at Laurel.
“I ask for shelter and the warmth of your fire, just this dark night,” answered Laurel. “I have no means to pay for such kindness except by the work of my hands.”
“That is payment enough, child,” said the old woman swinging the door wide. Warmth and light ushered Laurel into the cottage. The old woman sat Laurel before her blazing hearth and ladled soup full of lentils from her bubbling kettle into two bowls. She handed one bowl to Laurel and kept the other for herself.
“Eat, child,” she urged as she handed Laurel a spoon.
Laurel nodded in gratitude and hungrily ate the stew. Her eyes drooped heavily as she wiped the bowl clean with the remains of her hearth-softened bread.
“Come, child. You’ve traveled long,” whispered the old woman as she led Laurel to a small side room occupied by a bed. “You may sleep here.”
“I give you my thanks,” mumbled Laurel as she settled into the yielding down of the bed. She felt a warm blanket pulled over her shoulders and slept.
The next morning, the sweet aroma of baking bread roused Laurel from her sleep. She freed herself from the bed-covers and tiptoed to the door. Laurel peeked into the main room.
Near the fire, the old woman gently rocked in her chair, humming as her crooked hands deftly sewed. Laurel watched intently as fanciful birds emerged amid the finely woven cloth gathered upon the old woman’s lap.
Laurel glided from the doorway and sat at the old woman’s feet, watching her work. The old woman smiled, but continued sewing. After a while, she let the fabric fall to her lap and gently wrung her hands. She handed the cloth to Laurel.
“Now, child,” said the old woman, “show me the work of your hands.”
“But I don’t know how to sew as finely as this,” objected Laurel. To ruin such beauty seemed undeserving of the kindness given her.
The old woman took Laurel’s smooth hands into the gnarled grasp of her own. “Then I will teach your mind what your hands already know.”
Days passed into weeks and then to months as Laurel studied the old woman’s craft in the cottage at the edge of the plain beneath the willow. Silence sang in the voice of the birds and trees where once there murmured words. Only her father’s fragrant woodshop and his skilled, gentle hands lingered beyond doubt. Years passed and Laurel grew into a woman of singular grace, the enchantment of her childhood as distant and intangible as a dream.
One evening as Laurel sewed near the hearth, the old woman bound up a parcel, neat and small, and motioned Laurel to her.
“Yes, mistress?” asked Laurel as she knelt beside her.
“Tomorrow,” said the old woman, “you must deliver this package to the Duke.”
“To the Duke?” It was not the first such package, but never before had her mistress entrusted one to her. “Surely you...”
“Child,” interrupted the old woman. “I am old. My legs would fail in carrying me to his estate and we can afford no such a delay. The Duchess died this morning and has need of her shroud. No, Laurel, you must go in my stead.”
“Yes, mistress,” nodded Laurel.
“To bed with you then,” ordered the old woman. “You must leave early on the morrow.”
Laurel bade her mistress goodnight and left for the comfort of her bed, where sleep quickly closed over her. With the first light, Laurel rose quietly and dressed. She plaited her long hair and tied it with a ribbon, bleached white and worn. Stuffing an apple into a pocket, she left the cottage, the Duke’s parcel tucked safely in the folds of her cloak.
Mist clung to the air as Laurel skirted the apple trees to a familiar and worn path behind the cottage. Beyond the fields flush with grain, the path met a road well packed from traffic, animal and wagon both. She joined the heavily laden carts plodding into the modest hamlet and navigated the press of people, carts, and animals through the heart of the town to the gateway of the Duke’s manor. Laurel stared at the buildings within, simple and hip-roofed, all but the private chapel. It sprung resplendent from the manor’s side, its steeple reaching seemingly into the very clouds.
A heavy hand fell on Laurel’s shoulder.
“What’s your business here, girl?” asked the gatekeeper.
“I’ve come with a package for the Duke from my mistress the seamstress,” replied Laurel. She held out the package for him to inspect.
The gatekeeper took it, turning it around in his hands. “What is it?”
“The death shroud for the Duchess,” said Laurel.
The gatekeeper solemnly nodded. “I will take you to the Duke.”
“To the Duke,” stammered Laurel, “himself?”
The gatekeeper returned the bundle to her. “Surely your mistress wishes to receive payment for her handiwork and that the Duke will do only if the shroud honors his Lady.”
“Yes...of course,” agreed Laurel in embarrassment.
The gatekeeper wove a path to the manor through the bustle of people in the courtyard as he expounded the virtues of the late Duchess. Laurel followed in silence, having no opinion on the subject and not taken to gossiping. The tapestry-hung halls and gleaming sconces of the manor itself told more of the Duchess’ disposition than his words. Practical and well-tended, yet a visual feast. Laurel barely noticed when the gatekeeper left her to wait in the solitude of the great hall. The hearth fire greeted her with a feeble hiss, its crescent dimly lighting the room. She stoked it higher. It licked at the cool air and sent shadows dancing across the empty hall. Laurel blinked back its slumbering trance as light footfalls found their way to the room. A comely man, simply dressed, entered in the hall.
Laurel straightened. Can this be the Duke?
“The seamstress is as timely as ever,” he said.
“Then you are...”
“...the Duke?” he finished. A weary smile danced in his eyes. “No. I’m his nephew, Owen, and have come in his place. You have the shroud?”
“Let me see it.”
The kindness in his voice softened the order, but Laurel hesitated. Her mistress had said nothing other than to deliver the shroud to the Duke, yet a personal audience seemed unlikely even in the best of circumstances let alone a house in mourning. She placed the package in his outstretched hand.
He unbound the parcel and lifted the shroud from its wrappings. Its intricate pattern of vines and doves wavered to life as firelight trembled behind the gossamer material. A sigh escaped his lips, one of sadness and delight. His fingers traced the intricate design that Laurel had sewn into the fabric.
Laurel looked away, embarrassed by the pleasure his admiration of her work gave her.
“With this,” he whispered, “you honor my family and the Duchess.”
Laurel bowed her head, his praise sweet to her ears and her face flush with more than warmth.
The Duke’s nephew weighed a pouch, dark and plump, in his palm. He considered for a moment before pressing the coin purse in its entirety into her hand.
“It is too much,” protested Laurel as she attempted to restore it to him.
He closed his hands around hers. “Take it as payment for the shroud and for another like it, though more cheerful, for my bride. I have already spoken of this to your mistress, but she left it to you to accept my commission. Will you do this for me?”
“It would be an honor,” said Laurel.
“I have but one condition,” he said, freeing her hands. “You must bring me the veil in the spring when the apple blossoms open.”
“As you wish.”
“Then,” he said with a nod, “my family bids you thanks and good day.”
The Duke’s nephew hurried from the hall, leaving Laurel before she could bid him likewise. Laurel found her way to the gate and hastened through the village, glad to escape its motley drone. Her pace slackened as she left it behind and retraced her path back to the cottage, a welcome sight in the cool twilight. The old woman greeted her with a meaty broth and a crusted cake. Laurel stifled a yawn as weariness, more compelling than hunger, enticed her.
“Go, Laurel,” said her mistress, her gentle hand on Laurel’s shoulder. “Rest. Your tales can wait for another day.”
Sleep filled Laurel’s eyes as she wrapped herself within the shelter of the eiderdown.
The next morning and the days that followed found Laurel early as she readied for the coming winter and tended to their daily needs. The delicate handiwork her mistress could no longer manage fell to Laurel. Of her journey to the manor, only the promised veil was of any consequence. Laurel worked away the quiet evenings as the snow gathered outside, her practiced hands coaxing a floral ballad from the fabric. Birds darted among the flowers and trees, caught within the confines of the veil’s border.
Snow gradually gave way to rain. Shoots pushed from the soil and buds dotted the trees. Behind the cottage, the small orchard blushed with apple blossoms against the failing light.
Laurel sat bare-footed at her mistress’ bedside, a gnarled hand wrapped in her own.
“I will not go tomorrow,” said Laurel.
“You must fulfill your promise,” whispered her mistress.
Laurel shook her head. “You’re ill. You need me here.”
“Things must come and go in their own time,” replied the old woman. “You mustn’t worry over me, Laurel. I will always be where I am right now. That I promise you, but now is your time. I would not have you pass it by, not even out of concern for me.”
Reluctantly, Laurel yielded and left her mistress’ side for the warmth of her bed. When morning came, she dressed quietly and bound the veil into a small parcel. Laurel hugged it against her cloak as she walked from the cottage. The path guided her past fields dotted green and opened into the muddied roadway that led to the village and beyond to the Duke’s manor.
“You bring a gift for the Duke’s nephew I suspect,” said the gatekeeper upon her approach.
“His lady’s veil, I suspect,” replied Laurel, her attempt at humor dull to her ears.
The gatekeeper chuckled and escorted Laurel not to the great hall, but to the private chapel. Stained-glass windows ringed the circular chamber and soared within a few spans of the vaulted ceiling. A kaleidoscope of sunlight bathed the room.
A young girl watched Laurel from the doorway. “Glorious, is it not?”
Laurel nodded. “All nature’s colors framed within glass.”
The girl grinned. “You must be the seamstress. We were wondering when you might come! Have you brought the veil with you?”
“When the apple blossoms bloom...as the Duke’s nephew requested.”
The girl glided to Laurel’s side. “Might I see the veil? Only for a moment?”
Laurel hesitated, wanting to deliver the parcel and return to her mistress.
The girl noted her reluctance. “Please.”
Seeing no harm in it, Laurel unbound the package and draped the veil over her arm for the girl to see.
The girl beamed in admiration at Laurel. “My cousin shall be greatly pleased! Yet it must be more glorious still when it is worn as it is meant to be.”
Before Laurel could object, the girl took up the fabric and cast it over her. The veil settled gently upon Laurel’s head and shoulders.
“It is most beautiful,” said the girl.
“It is indeed,” came another voice from the door.
Laurel quickly drew the veil from her head as Owen strode toward her. The girl giggled and scurried from the chamber.
“She asked to see the veil.” Laurel folded the veil to avoid his eyes. “I should not have indulged her.”
“The Duke’s daughter is of a...capricious nature,” replied Owen. “But I must submit to my cousin’s judgment. The veil must be worn to witness its artistry in full measure.”
He lifted the veil from her hands and draped it again over her head.
Laurel stared at her feet, silent and still.
The Duke’s nephew gently took up her hands. “Truly I see my bride before me.”
Laurel stiffened. She drew back and pulled the veil from her.
“Please.” He caught her hand again. “I would have you as my wife.”
Laurel shook her head. “I cannot.”
“If I must ask for permission...?”
“There is no one to ask but me.”
“Your heart is for another, then?”
“Yet you will not agree to be my wife.”
“My duty to my mistress must come first.”
“Even if our marriage is what she wishes for you?”
Laurel frowned. “I...don’t understand.”
“The seamstress has spoken of you often,” said Owen, his brown eyes studying her gently. “Surely she made some mention of me...of her intentions?”
Laurel stared at the veil clutched in her free hand. Why had her mistress said nothing?
Owen gently lifted her chin. “Then I suppose I must court you properly then.”
Laurel met his gaze briefly before glancing away, suddenly all too aware of the warmth of his hand. Her voice was constricted to silence by the drumming of her heart.
“If my supplication is unwelcome..?” He let the question hang between them.
Laurel struggled to quiet her warring emotions. “I...I need time...”
“As much as you need,” said Owen.
“Thank you.” Laurel gave him a tentative smile, which he answered with one of his own. She draped the veil over the chapel’s prie-dieu. “I should go. My mistress is not well.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “Forgive me. I didn’t know.”
He leaned on the altar railing and fingered the veil beside him. His silence was of such length that Laurel shifted uncomfortably at his apparent dismissal. “You should be with her. You belong with her, especially now. I will impose upon you no longer.”
“Thank you...for your understanding.” Laurel turned to leave.
“Laurel, wait.” Owen removed a silver ring from his smallest finger and slid it onto hers.
Laurel started to object, but something in his eyes stopped her.
“A simple token, nothing more or less,” said the Duke’s nephew. “But know this. Where you go, you take my heart with you. Neither time nor distance will change that.”
His words writhed knots in her stomach as surely as her leaving did him, but Laurel hurried from him nonetheless. She noticed little of the village or of the greening fields in her haste to return to the cottage, her mistress’ failing health as much a concern as her need to distance herself from the prospect of marriage. Laurel feared the outcome of both. Her steps brought her quickly to the cottage where her mistress sat in the doorway, the light from the cottage spilling around her.
Laurel hugged her cloak around her. Light played across the silver ring. “You knew.”
“But why?” The sense of betrayal stung deeply.
“He’s a good man. A kind man,” whispered her mistress. “I would not have you live your life as I have. My path is not yours.”
“So you would make this decision for me...one that I never gave you leave to make.’
“I am not a child. And my decisions are my own.”
“True enough,” said her mistress. “I have always thought of you fondly and treated you with kindness. And you have served me well these nine years, but you have no more need of me. You know this as well as I. You are the seamstress. It’s time to make your own way.”
Laurel searched her mistress’ face. “What would you have me do? Leave? Marry?”
“As you said, the decision is yours to make, but you cannot stay here.”
“But who would care for you?” asked Laurel, kneeling beside her mistress.
The old woman gave Laurel a weak smile and cupped her face in her gnarled hands. “I will not allow you to waste any more time on me. I should not have hesitated for so long, child, that this alone binds you to me.”
Laurel sat down on the stoop as her mistress left her to her thoughts. She scanned the plain stretching out before the cottage toward the willow tree at the hill’s summit. It swayed darkly in the gloaming. Not even the light from the cottage could hold back the darkness. Laurel looked at the cottage, her home of so many years. Her answers would not be found there. It was time to go home.
Laurel entered the cottage and closed the night behind its solid door. At first light, Laurel dressed with deliberate care, her hair pulled tightly in a single plait. She gathered her belongings and sewing articles into a tight bundle inside her father’s old cloak. A bulging coin purse waited for her near the hearth along with a bundle of bread and a brimming waterskin. She smiled. Her mistress always knew. Money and provisions secured with her belongings, Laurel left behind the pained quiet of the cottage as the breeze littered the orchard with petals.
From the cottage path, Laurel met the main road. She hesitated only a moment before heading the direction that would take her away from the cottage and hamlet. Days passed into weeks as Laurel searched for her old village by the sea. Many a kind farmer offered her a ride on his cart, but few could offer her direction. Still, she walked on, ever hopeful even as she fought back the despair that dogged her.
Sparse woodlands soon closed around the open countryside. One night after many such nights, Laurel stared at the dark sky through the knit of branches. Wrapped in her cloak, only silence stirred in the foliage as sleep drifted over her.
When Laurel woke, she plucked free the leaves clinging to her cloak and rose, her legs stiffly protesting. She glanced at the path behind and before her. The woodlands continued on as did its path, but beyond the timber stockade stretched a plain. Laurel left the path behind and trampled a passage through the clearing. Grass twined around her legs and ankles, but she fought forward, resisting the strands as much as her hunger. It was then that she heard, amid the gentle whishing of the grass, the murmuring crest and swell. It swept through the countryside, unassuming and subtle. Her spirit surged with it.
Laurel followed the rolling pulse. It brought her to a cliff edge where the breeze played the heath against her. Beyond, a bay as vast as it was grey drowsed in the breeze, broken only by the antics and caterwaul of gulls. Far in the distance, a tall ship made for port. Laurel shivered, her breath paralyzed in her chest. Have I forgotten so much? Could I be so near? She ran along the cliff’s edge for several lengths before turning inland once more. A grove rose up between the headlands and the open fields. She dropped her bundle of belongings as she reached the first of the trees. Laurel rested her hands and head against a twisted and towering oak.
“I’ve come home.” Her breath brushed the split bark.
Only silence answered.
Laurel pushed back from the tree and glanced at the other trees, straining to hear, but all were silent. None gave voice to her presence. She sank down the unyielding column of oak. They were gone from her. Laurel traced the rough furrows in the oak’s bark, watching the canopy of leaves above her quiver in the breeze.
Retrieving her belongings, Laurel trekked the familiar path to her father’s cottage. Weeds and bushes clogged the doorway and windows, and odd growths sprouted from between cracks in the wood. She pushed through to the door and eased the weathered panel open. Yards of cobwebs stretched across the interior and debris occupied the rooms in heaps. Although abandoned, surely someone had a more current claim to the cottage than her. Laurel paused in thought as she studied the building. The widow Anne would know. She always knew such things.
Laurel tugged the door shut again and made her way through the tall weeds to the worn path that led passed the widow’s cottage. The baying of ewes came to her before the widow’s plot came into view. Laurel hung back as a young boy scooped millet for the hungry sheep. He was much too young to belong to the widow. Perhaps she no longer lived there. Laurel pushed the thought aside. The farm’s new family still might know.
She brushed off the dust that clung to her dress, smoothed her hair, and stepped from the road. The boy noticed her as she drew near. He stood tall on the planked gate of the pen.
“Hullo,” he said.
Laurel smiled. “Hello to you.”
He jumped down from the fence. He barely came to Laurel’s waist, but there was something familiar in his face.
“Do you know the widow Anne? Does she still live here?”
The boy grinned and took her hand, tugging her toward the cottage.
“Grandma!” called the boy as he led Laurel inside.
“No need to yell, boy. I can hear just fine,” replied a grey-haired woman as she emerged from a side room, her hands dusted with flour. She stopped dead she saw her guest. “Laurel?”
Laurel nodded, her words having abandoned her as the boy ran back outside.
“Dear girl.” The widow Anne wiped her hands on her apron and embraced Laurel. She stepped back and took a long look at the younger woman. “Look at you. All grown.”
Laurel grinned, feeling like she was eight years old again. “It has been some time.”
“Aye, some time indeed,” chuckled the widow. “We thought you lost, girl. Gone like your dear father.”
“Not gone,” said Laurel as the widow Anne sat her down. “Just away. A promise made to my father. I never thought I’d be away for so long.”
There was curiosity in the widow’s eyes, but she didn’t pry.
“I’ve come about the old cottage. I thought you might know to whom I should inquire.”
The widow Anne patted Laurel’s hands. “That would be my son, Nate. You remember him? That’s his boy you met. He should be back anytime.”
“Then I shall make myself of use while we wait,” said Laurel as she set about helping the widow with her baking until the widow’s son returned. He paused in the cottage doorway when he saw Laurel with his mother.
“Hello, Nathaniel,” greeted Laurel. There was no mistaking who he was for he looked just like his father.
“Come, boy,” chastised his mother. “Surely you remember Laurel.”
“Aye, I do,” he said. He studied her at a full measure, taking note the silver ring. “It’s been a long while.”
Laurel nodded. “It has.”
The widow Anne cleared her throat. “She’s come asking about that old cottage, the one that belonged to her father.”
“You’re to stay a while then?” asked Nate.
“Yes,” said Laurel.
“And you can make the rent?” The widow scowled him.
“I’m a seamstress.”
“No doubt a good one by the look of that dress,” commented the widow.
“The cottage is yours for the renting then. The roof and chimney might need fixing, and it needs cleaning, but it was built well and sturdy.”
“Aye, her father’s fine handiwork,” said the widow Anne. “Tomorrow, you can get to work on putting your home in order, but tonight you’ll stay here with us.”
Laurel thanked them both and settled on the lease with the widow’s son. The next day, Laurel hugged the widow in farewell and returned to her father’s cottage. She put aside her belongings and worked the shuttered windows open. Eddies of dust swirled in the morning light. Laurel tugged the scraggly brush from the outer walls and fashioned a crude broom from the snarled gorse. She cleared the chimney of rubbish and whisked the timbers free of webs and the floor of leaves. As nightfall approached, Laurel kindled a fire in the old hearth and worked on until weariness at last settled upon her, the crackling wood lulling her to sleep.
As the sun rose the next morning, Laurel set out for the village. New faces greeted her as did those aged in her absence, but the modest hamlet remained unchanged. Laurel smiled, the drone of voices a familiar timbre. She nudged her way through the throng to a cloth peddler. Laurel fingered a course fabric, its texture loose and thin. The old peddler studied her attentiveness, taking in the practiced handiwork of her clothing as she examined each bolt of cloth at his booth. Laurel tapped a bolt of sturdy material. The peddler beamed in approval as she placed a single silver coin beside it. Laurel hugged the roll of cloth to her chest as she waded through the assembly of people, pausing only to purchase a brace of fowl and a few provisions.
The days passed into weeks and then months as Laurel made a place for herself in the village by the sea. Under her accomplished hands, fineness emerged from even the coarsest material. None equaled her skill, yet the hushed trees tempered her good fortune. Summer ripened across the countryside and, before long, leaves began to curl and drop as the days darkened and cooled. Laurel foraged along the forest’s edge and among the crags and cliffs for berries and nuts. Every morning she did the same until the first snow blanketed the ground. Alone but warm, she worked her way through the cold months as word of her diligent handiwork spread.
Snowmelt trickled into still pools and birds soon heralded in the spring. Laurel wrapped her cloak around her and stood in the doorway of the cottage, listening to the crisp trills that sang out from among leafless trees. In the failing light, everything beyond the cottage ebbed into shadow. The spring festival the next day would be her first since her father died. Her first now that she was grown. Laurel gently closed the door, shutting out the night, and busied herself with her meal to still her anticipation.
Morning rose quietly and Laurel with it. Dressed in a festive, yet simple dress and her hair looped in plaits, Laurel swung her cloak around her shoulders and set off for the village festival. By mid-morning, the main streets were filled with people. Giggling children darted in and out of the throng in search of tumblers and puppet shows—a crusade Laurel remembered well. She surveyed the wares offered at various stalls as she slipped through the crowd, every now and again coming across a minstrel or troupe of gaudy performers. By late afternoon, the festivities gave way to revelry in the town’s center. Young couples whirled in dance as Laurel and the other villagers clapped with the music.
Laurel felt a tugged on her arm as the minstrels struck up another tune. She turned, silently wishing she had worn shoes better fit for dancing.
A young boy no more than 10 years old stood at her elbow. He held out a bouquet of blue forget-me-nots to her. “These are for you.”
Laurel reluctantly accepted it. “Are you sure you have the right person?”
The boy nodded. “A man in a blue cloak paid me to give ‘em to you.”
“Man?” said Laurel. “Where?”
The boy pointed across the square as he dashed back into the crowd.
Laurel strained to see the man amid the mob of people opposite her. She could just make out a figure in blue before it was swallowed up by the assemblage. Laurel worked her way around the ring of onlookers, but the man in blue was gone when she emerged on the other side.
“Pardon me?” A man dressed in fine, tailored clothing stood before her. “Are you Laurel, the seamstress come lately to our town?”
“I am,” replied Laurel.
“Ah, excellent,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’ve come representing the merchant Leland Vardone. He’s greatly impressed by your work and desires to commission some finery for this daughter.”
“I’m honored by his consideration.”
The man smiled again. “No more so than he, should you accept his commission. Have you time tomorrow to meet with my master?”
“Yes, of course. Perhaps mid-morning?”
“Excellent! He will be pleased to hear this, seamstress. You know the way?”
“The merchant Vardone’s house is known to me.”
“Then we shall see you tomorrow. Good day, miss.” He bowed his head to her and then set off down the street.
Laurel stared after him. The merchant Vardone was the region’s principal importer of fine cloth and silk. That he had taken notice of her handiwork was almost beyond belief. And a possible commission! Her spirit surged with the music. She let the dance pull her into its elation.
The next day, Laurel dressed in her best clothing and plaited her hair again in loops. Sewing box in hand, she made her way to the home of the merchant Vardone. Her hand hesitated on the knocker. She took a deep breath and rapped on the door.
The doorman admitted her and bid her wait in the foyer while he informed the merchant of her arrival. With little else to do, Laurel admired the deep mahogany of the wainscot and that of the open staircase that gracefully swept to the second floor. Delicate carved vines wound up the stair posts and hugged the underside of the railings. Laurel smiled to herself as she traced a leaf with her fingers. She knew of no one but her father who could work wood so cleverly.
“It would appear that such skill runs in your family, seamstress.”
Laurel turned to find the merchant studying her. She fought to hide her embarrassment.
“No need for modesty here, girl,” said the merchant Vardone as he took her elbow and led her from the foyer. “Your father was a man of great skill. And, from all accounts, you’re skill is no less than his, simply of another sort. You would not be here otherwise.”
“Yes, of course,” replied Laurel, struggling to regain her composure.
The merchant patted her hand fatherly. “Rest easy, Laurel. Like yourself and your father, I rose to my current station by virtue of my skill. I value and admire that above all else. Although I could do well to learn from your modesty.”
He ushered Laurel into a sensibly furnished room that no doubt served as his study. He sat her in a burgundy leather chair across from his desk.
“Now,” he said as he eased himself in his desk chair, “before you meet with my daughter Ellen, we should agree on the terms of the commission.”
“I would expect nothing less,” said Laurel. “Your terms, sir?”
“Three dresses must be completed by the harvest festival and, being the fine cloth merchant that I am, I will provide the fabric from which you and my daughter may choose. Any fabric remnants, you may keep as you wish.”
Laurel nodded. “This is acceptable. And the terms of payment?”
“A third up front, another at the first fitting, and the remainder upon completion.”
“This too is acceptable.”
“Excellent!” said the merchant Vardone. “We need only settle on the amount of payment then. I warn you, though, I am quite adept at negotiation.”
“Then it would appear,” said Laurel, her eyes dancing, “that we share a skill in common.”
The merchant Vardone chuckled knowingly and set about testing her skill. They quickly settled on a price acceptable to both parties.
“True to your word, I think I have met my equal,” replied the merchant as he rose from behind his desk. “If all goes well—and I expect it will, there will likely be more work for you in this house and I welcome the opportunity.”
“As do I,” said Laurel, following him out of the room and up the foyer staircase.
The merchant paused at the top. “You will find my daughter quite amiable, more so than many in her station. However, she is rather excitable at present, due to the recent return of my son. His absence left her quite melancholy and I fear she has resolved to make up for it.”
The merchant nodded appreciatively, and led Laurel to a bright solarium where an auburn-haired girl sat reading. She glanced up as they entered.
“Ellen,” said the merchant, “I bring you the seamstress Laurel.”
“A pleasure,” said the merchant’s daughter. She put aside her book and gestured for Laurel to sit with her.
“Ellen will show you which fabrics she fancies,” said the merchant Vardone. “Those you chose will be delivered to your workshop by day’s end.”
With that and a nod, the merchant left Laurel to her business.
Laurel returned home after several hours with the merchant’s daughter, the dress designs firmly set in her mind. And true to his word, the bolts of cloth arrived shortly before nightfall. Laurel caressed the outer layer of the uppermost bolt, the lush green velvet a perfect complement to the younger girl’s green eyes. The other fabric in her workshop, though of moderate quality, was a poor companion to the merchant’s wares. To work such fineness would be a privilege itself. Laurel tucked the fabric taunt and draped a protective linen over the bolts as she left the workshop to prepare her supper. Her work would find her early enough in the coming morning.
In the days and weeks that following, Laurel worked away her mornings transforming the fabric, only briefly returning to the merchant’s manor in mid-summer to confirm her initial measurements with a trial fitting. The merchant’s daughter could barely contain her pleasure, even though the dresses were unfinished. The girl’s compliments put Laurel at ease. She could ill afford to muddle the commission.
By summer’s end, three dresses waited in Laurel’s workshop, ready for their final fitting. She stood in the doorway, studying her handiwork one last time. Weak candlelight wavered across the velvet, sending ripples shimmering along folds and contours. She would soon learn her success or failure in the eyes of the merchant’s daughter. Yet the dresses reveled in her skill, an accomplishment to everything she had learned of her craft. Laurel closed the door on her labors and settled into bed. The crickets quickly lulled her to sleep.
The next day, Laurel rose with the sun and dressed simply but with care, her hair bound in a single braid. She carefully gathered the dresses as she set off. Walking swiftly, Laurel soon came to the merchant’s home where the doorman admitted her as he had done twice before.
“Laurel!” greeted the merchant Vardone. “I expect you know the way.”
“I do, sir,” said Laurel with a nod. She climbed the stairs her father had made, reaching the top just as the merchant greeted a visitor cloaked in blue. Laurel pushed it from her mind as she entered the daughter’s solar. She rested the bundle in her arms on a table, undid the binding, and gently peeled back the wrapping. The younger woman hovered at her side, her face flushed in unabashed expectation as Laurel removed each dress.
“Shall we see how these fit on you?”
The merchant’s daughter nodded and stripped down to her chemise. Laurel helped her into one of the elaborate dress, minding the remaining pins and temporary seams. She worked through the morning and most of the afternoon, checking her seams and sewing new ones until each dress hugged the younger woman’s petite form to both their satisfaction. Laurel stuck her needle into the pin cushion on her wrist and stood back. The merchant’s daughter whirled in the last of her dresses. It wrapped around her as she suddenly stopped. The girl beamed in delight.
Laurel mirrored her pleasure. “No doubt you will succeed in catching the eye of a certain gentleman.”
“That I already have,” said Ellen, blushing. “He does, however, need some inducement on the subject of marriage.”
Laurel began packing up her sewing equipment. “For some, such topics come easily.”
The girl grabbed Laurel’s hands, commanding her attention. “Then a certain gentleman has wooed you?”
“In a fashion.” Laurel glanced at the silver ring on her finger and fought the smile it brought her lips.
The merchant’s daughter didn’t miss the connection. “Such a token is not given for nothing. Nor, I warrant, was is wholly unwelcomed on your part.”
“Perhaps not,” shrugged Laurel as she gently reclaimed her hands, “but such things fade over time...and distance.”
“Likely so,” agreed the girl, “yet your skills alone would lure many a fine man any distance even if you were not so comely.”
“Not all appreciate skill in a woman.”
“There are those like my father who value all skill regardless of where or with whom it lies, and I don’t doubt that your suitor does as well.”
“Perhaps.” Laurel closed her sewing bag. “Shall we show you off to your father?”
The merchant’s daughter put her hands on her hips in mock frustration at Laurel’s deliberate change of subject. “I suppose we must.”
They walked from the room together, down the stairs, and to the merchant Vardone’s study. He stopped working at the sight of his daughter. He rose and held her at arm’s length before embracing her. “So much like your mother.”
“You have exceeded even my expectations,” he said to Laurel. “A feat few can claim.”
Laurel bowed her head. “I thank you for the opportunity to prove my skill.”
“It was never in any doubt.” The merchant Vardone freed one hand and retrieved a money pouch from his desk. He handed it to Laurel. “The agreed upon final payment.”
“If there is nothing else..?” said Laurel.
The merchant gestured to the door in answer. “We will speak again soon I suspect.”
“I would be honored, sir.”
Laurel left them in each other’s company and returned to her cottage. Quickly tucking away her belongings, she walked to the headland that overlooked the bay. Sunlight seeped over the waters as she sat herself among the tasseled grasses. She unbound her braid to let the breeze play the hair loose as she absently wove the stalks together. A hushed rustle announced someone’s approach. She squinted through the fading light as a form emerged from the shadows. It was the merchant’s blue-cloak visitor. Even now, the hood obscured his face.
“Finish the wreath for me?” he asked softly.
The familiarity of his voice gave her pause, but Laurel did as he requested. Her fingers deftly twisted and knotted the remaining stray stalks and stems into the garland until the circle was unbroken. She extended it toward the stranger. He lifted it from her hand only to slip it gently over her wrist. As he did so, he pushed back the cloak’s hood. It was the Duke’s nephew.
Laurel pulled back but found her hand still in his.
“Please.” He fell to his knees before her. His gaze searched her face. “Don’t send me away now that I’ve found you again.”
Laurel remained still, but she avoided his eyes. “I can’t force you to go. But please understand, my home is here. My heart is here.” Laurel absently brushed back the hair falling across his brow. “I will not leave my home again...not even for you.”
He caught her hand and kissed her palm. “And I would never ask it of you.”
“But the Duke...your home...?”
“My home has always been here.”
Laurel shook her head not comprehending.
Owen squeezed her hand. “The merchant Vardone is my father.”
“Father?” stammered Laurel.
“I stayed with my uncle, the Duke, while I conducted my father’s business there,” explained Owen. “I never intended to stay as long as I did.”
“You stayed because of me?”
“You gave me a reason, yes, although I provided a different one to my father.”
“Then he doesn’t know.”
“He didn’t. He hired you for your skill, not because he knew of your hold on my heart.”
His gaze drifted to the bay over her shoulder as his fingers intertwined with hers. “After what happened that day, I went to speak with your mistress, but found she had passed during the night and you were gone. I spent months trying to find you or hear word of your skill. Eventually my father called me home—whether from concern or need, I’m not sure.”
Laurel studied the trampled grass around them. “I needed to find who I was.”
“And have you?”
Laurel searched the depth of his eyes for the answer she knew would not be found there. She looked back toward the distant grove, dark against the dusk, and squeezed her eyes shut, their silence an enduring ache. Her hair played around her face and heavy tassels stirred against the night. The air itself thrummed in her ears as a rustle whispered in mild greeting.
Laurel opened her eyes to him and smiled.