So this is my first story on here. This story is something which has been percolating in my mind for a long time. Its sort of a homage to a combination of influences; primarily Larry Niven and Dianna Wynne Jones with a hint of Miyazaki's steampunk airship concepts thrown in. But basically I'm writing a story I would like to read, hopefully someone out there will want to read it too. I appreciate any and all feedback.
This chapter is basically to set up the world and characters; let me know if it has too much exposition. Someone says there is, so I cut a lot out; let me know if this flows better. Chapter 2 is where the action starts!
I also have some fanfiction up on the sister site to this one under the same name, so if you enjoy this, look me up there :)
Thanks for reading! Please let me know what you think, even if you think its terrible!
Fern shifted her weight, lying face down on the cold stone. Edging forward, she stopped with her face just over the edge of the cliff. Far below her, layers of mist roiled and billowed, while the small dark shapes of birds whisked in and out of closer threads of cloud. The air was dank, sending misted droplets cascading past her face every time she moved. This was her favorite game, and had been for years; lying face down over the Edge, fantasising about what was underneath the clouds.
A small pipit fluttered up from the Edge and looked at her curiously, before darting off in search of insects. Fern sighed, and dragged herself up to a sitting position. Now high overhead the sun warmed the flat rocks around her, and she felt her mist-damp clothes and hair steaming. Thyme would be waiting for her to help with the baking.
Scattering scree around her as she bounded down the slope to where lichen and moss turned into short cropped grassy meadows, Fern wondered if anything in the valley would ever change. Now she was passing the occasional goat or yak, and the trees lost their stunted look. She could see the smoke from Thyme's oven ahead, even though the little house was hidden below the slope of pine trees. Beyond lay the waving gold ears of mountain wheat in the small fields. Others harvested the wheat to make flour, but they all brought it to Thyme's bakery to be transformed. Fern sighed again; her younger brother Ash would be hard at work already, and would probably give her evil looks for being late again.
In spite of her frustrations, her heart swelled with love as the sight of the turfed roof hove into view, with its thick-paned glass windows, and moss-covered brick. Her feet slapped on the earth, and the chickens stopped pecking to leap out of her way with a squawk.
"I'm here!" she yelled as she flung open the solid wooden door, hearing the jingle of the little bronze bell to notify Thyme of customers.
"About time!" she heard Ash's shouted reply from the back. Clattering down the steps past the shelves of warm bread and pastries, Fern grabbed her apron from its hook on the wall, and came to a halt behind her brother as he drew out a fresh batch from the oven. The blast of heat sizzled away the last of the morning mist from her hair. Ash turned and stifled a laugh, while Fern tried in vain to smooth down her red frizz, wishing once again that she had inherited Thyme's straight black glossy locks instead of her uncle's puffball mop. Thyme had been the odd one out in their family; most of her relatives had dandelion hair, red and wild, defying gravity.
"You're late," observed Thyme, walking in the back door with a bag of flour, "I need you to deliver some cakes to Seven Cedars down by the mountain trail. Mayor Robin's daughter is getting married today, and those cakes are for the reception." Thyme had an aura of quiet pride; it was well known all over the mountain valley that her baking was superior; why else would the mayor order cakes from her when Seven Cedars had its own bakers?
Fern started to sigh and then stopped herself at Thyme's expression. It would take all day to get to Seven Cedars, and it was hard going walking back up to the higher slopes at night, even with the handcart empty. Obediently she followed Thyme out to the back, stopping on the way to take the large cake filled boxes out of the icebox. Even half frozen, the cakes emitted a sugary aroma of vanilla and lavender, which made her realise she'd forgotten breakfast.
The back area had a paved square surrounded by vegetable gardens, and joined to the larger dirt track by a stone-cobbled path. Fern could see the line of the dirt road twisting its way down the valley into the distant haze. Sometimes she forgot how large the mountain valley was, although she never lost sight of the surrounding mountains fencing it all. Their bakery nestled at the upper Western end, and the U shape of the valley meant that it was all downhill on the way.
Thyme handed Fern a small satchel of food and drink and guided the handle of the gaily painted handcart into her hand. When uncle Elm had still been around he had made paints, and Fern had helped him and Thyme paint the cart with blue and gold curlicues. Even a decade later the paints had stayed bright, and Fern wondered briefly, as she always did, if Elm was putting his many skills to good use far way, or whether he had died trying to get over the mountains.
"Pasty and some water for you in there," said Thyme in her matter-of-fact way, nodding to the satchel. Fern settled the cake boxes in the cart, "Thanks, I'll see you soon." She answered. She leaned on the cart a little to start it in motion, and was soon pushing it down the path towards the track.
Seven Cedars nestled at the bottom end of the valley, close to the jagged mountains which cut it off from the outside world. If Fern squinted, she could just see grey wisps of smoke rising against the green of the grass and the steel blue of the mountains. She settled into a steady rhythm, not too fast, not too slow, trying to conserve energy while making sure she got there on time. She'd made the journey enough to know exactly how long it would take her, and had already planned where she was going to rest for lunch.
The air was brisk, the sun bright as she walked along the winding track; the slope was steep enough to warrant these cut backs, even though it made it longer to get anywhere. Not that there was much to get to, thought Fern a little sadly. There were only a few hamlets besides the main village of Seven Cedars, and maybe a dozen farms and houses scattered around apart from that.
A small cluster of sparrows flew out of a bush as she passed it, whirling and chattering as they relocated to a copse of trees on the other side of the track. Fern shook herself, trying to dismiss her gloomy thoughts. She would get more excitement than she knew what to do with in Seven Cedars; the whole village would be out for the wedding, and that was more people together than she was usually comfortable with.
Somewhere around midday, Fern stopped and left the cart by the side of the track while she brushed through long lush grass to the large solitary ash tree a little way off. She sat in the shade underneath it, although the air was still cool, and ate her pasty with her knees drawn up. Off in the distance a small herd of brown and white cows chewed the grass and watched her thoughtfully. After she was done, she took a gulp of water, and then walked back to the cart, sighing as she pushed it into motion again.
Now the sun was hazy and warm in the afternoon sun, and the dotted trees and meadows turned to open woodland as she continued her path down to the village. A small stream appeared and followed parallel to the track, leaping and bobbing over its stony bed before veering off again into the trees. A deer crossed the track, turning to look at her before bounding away.
Eventually the wood thinned and now Fern could see the rooves of Seven Cedar with their spiralling grey smoke; red shingled instead of the golden green turf of Thyme's cottage. In the center of the village rose the town hall, bigger than any other building in the valley, with its stone walls and high clock tower. In front of it was the market square, its usual cobblestone grey bright with streamers and bouquets.
The slope was steep from the wood to the village, but here the dirt track was replaced by cobbled flagstones fitted tightly together, again winding back and forth to lessen the grade. Fern braced herself against the handles of the cart to make sure it didn't decide to veer off and spill its precious cargo all over the grass. As the houses of the village grew larger she could see the out buildings, barns and storage warehouses.
Floating up from the square below came the sounds of music and song, interspersed with laughter. She was close enough now to see the gaggles of people in their finery dancing and eating. It reminded her with an embarrassed flush of her own faded trousers and shirt, brown and green rather than the flower coloured dresses the girls below were wearing. Mirrors were rare in the Valley, but Fern knew that her long frizzy red hair and pale freckled face were considered odd rather than beautiful. Her eyes were green rather than the usual blue, and although her face was delicate, it didn't resemble most of the snub-nosed ovals of her peers.
Oh well, she hadn't come to dance or make eyes at boys; she was working. She told herself that made her more important really; all those people, waiting for Thyme's cakes. It only sort of worked, and she found herself cringing a little inside as she reached the level ground of the outskirt of Seven Cedars and pushed the cart along the cobbled main street, its wheel clattering on the stones.
The streets were empty apart from a couple of wandering goats and several sun-bathing cats, and Fern experienced a slight sense of surreality as she trundled along, as if everyone had suddenly disappeared and left the village empty. Which was nonsense of course; she could hear the sounds of the party getting louder with every step. Suddenly she rounded a corner and the square was in front of her; its edges lined with long benches weighed down with food and drink. A raised stage stood at one end with musicians on it. Fern felt that same shrinking feeling as she stared at all the people; laughing, drinking, eating, talking, dancing. She stood there in awe, not entirely sure what to do.
"Finally, you're here!" exclaimed a voice, breathless with laughter, but with a tinge of bossiness. A plump hand grabbed her shoulder, and Fern snapped out of her thoughts to stare at the short round woman who confronted her. She was middle-aged, but there were still signs of the beauty of her youth in her braided golden hair and wide blue eyes over high cheekbones; Fern recognised her as the Mayor's younger sister Iris. She was wearing a cornflower blue dress with white and gold embroidered flowers.
"Fern? Snap out it, girl! You're here with the cakes, yes?" Iris gave her arm a small shake to punctuate every sentence.
Fern nodded dumbly, still feeling overwhelmed by the crowd.
"Well, come over here then." Iris beckoned her as she slipped around the edge of the crowd towards a table that stood back from the edge of the square. It was piled with packages and boxes, and Fern manoeuvered the cart until it stood beside it. Iris cleaned off a large space, and then rolled up her sleeves and delved into the cart, taking out the first cake box.
"Mmm, I do love your mother's lavender cake." She breathed, smiling up at Fern, her round cheeks dimpling as she did so.
Fern blushed, and bowed her head to help lift the fragile boxes out of the cart. The biggest one, which all the others had nestled around, required both her and Iris to lift, and as they very carefully set it down on the table, the older woman's eyes lit up with anticipation. She stood on tip toe to open the box and peered in, letting out a squeal of happiness as she saw what was inside.
"Oh, this is lovely, Violet will be pleased." She breathed, clapping her plump hands together.
Suddenly the bright sunshine dimmed, and a frown crossed Iris's face. "Bother, they said it wasn't going to rain!" she complained, glancing up. The glance became a stare, and her mouth dropped open as her eyes widened.
Wondering what was going on, Fern followed her gaze, and took an involuntary step backwards. High above the village was a dark cylindrical shape blotting out the sun. As she watched, it moved past the shining orb and she could see that it seemed to have some kind of cradle hanging below it. Around her she could hear the change in the crowd's noise; there was a sudden dip as everyone stared, and then a babble of anxious and curious voices. The cylindrical shape dropped lower, causing the crowd to cry out, and then a booming voice floated down to them.
"Good people of the Valley, I have returned!" exclaimed the voice, huge and echoing as it reached them from above. The cylindrical shape dropped lower still, passing over the rooftops of Seven Cedars. Fern found herself drawn to it; abandoning the cart, she started to run in the direction the shape had gone. Behind her she could hear the slapping footsteps of others following.