Joa glided on skis through pristine snow, glowing softly in the moonlight. She was nearly home; at the top of the next rise, the village would come into view. She slogged up the slope, weighed down by a basket slung over her shoulder brimming with clippings from trees and fungus and withered autumn berries. She would be busy tomorrow preserving ingredients and preparing tinctures, but now she just wanted to be safe in bed.
Panting and red-faced, Joa rested on her poles at the overlook. There was Revel, candles flickering in windows, gables like saw teeth, barely visible against the night sky. A leisurely glide down the path and she'd be at her doorstep. As she prepared to pivot down the slope, she noticed a crowd forming in the town square. More and more villagers streamed in with their belongings. She stared in confusion. It was well past dusk, the villagers should have had their evening meal and be retiring to bed.
As a sense of dread crept through her bones, a gigantic figure stepped into the faint light cast by the villagers' lanterns. Its boots alone were taller than a mounted man, and the pom-pom on the top of its fur hat loomed over the most ancient pines. The giant had a great white beard and a red coat that barely covered its prodigious gut. This could only be the Sinterklaas. As a child, Granny Sorre told her that children wandering alone in the woods were sometimes scooped up by the giant and cooked in a pie. Joa was frozen in fear. Everyone knew someone who had an encounter with a mischievous elf in the woods or a relative's ghost, but to see the Sinterklaas with her own eyes set her heart racing.
A twinkle in the giant's eyes grew into a glow that bathed the village in an eerie yellow light, and it emitted an unintelligible rumble that reverberated in her chest. Then, it turned around and began to lumber into the woods. The villagers followed, meager belongings on their backs, pulling sleds carrying the young and old.
Joa was terrified. She might have been something of an outsider in the village, with no living family and an occupation that was needed but not fully trusted, but nearly every person she'd ever known was leaving. It was clear that she had no other option but to follow.
Once the last of the villagers were just out of sight, Joa pushed off down the path on her skis, scraggly tree branches whizzing over her head. She let momentum carry her through the center of the village, past darkened windows of recently abandoned homes. After the last of the houses, Joa came across the shack she inherited from her grandmother, nestled between the noisy brook and a copse of apple trees. She kicked off her skis and rushed in the door. It was a single room with a cot, a small table, two chairs and a hearth. Sprigs of this and that hung from the rafters, requiring her taller clients to stoop to avoid a face full of dried medicinals. She gathered a hunk of crusty bread, some cheese, and apples from the cellar and threw them in her pack, along with a few common remedies.
Joa's eyes snagged on a patterned wool blanket hung over the chair. It had been payment for treating her friend's father. Almost a year ago, Sacó brought in the old shepherd. He'd fallen ill after working in the freezing rain, and had a high fever and a cough. Joa had been able to ease his suffering, but little else, and Sacó's father passed the following evening. She and Sacó hadn't spoken much since then. Maybe if she'd saved his father, things would be different.
She grabbed the blanket and threw it around her shoulders. She then walked out the door, hopped on her skis, and began skating after the villagers.
Joa flitted between tree trunks, always keeping the strange procession in view. The villagers walked as if asleep, following the Sinterklaas, its every step shaking the forest. They started on the road that connected the village to its northern neighbors, but they took frequent offshoots and she quickly lost her bearings. Given the orientation of the stars, she expected that they'd meet the Dalu River within an hour or two, but they crossed only a few brooks in that time, and eventually even the stars became less familiar. The villagers took several breaks - long enough to take a drink of water and swap those who needed to rest onto sleds - but there was little talking.
As they traveled, the forest thinned and the trees, ensconced in snow, acquired grotesque silhouettes. The sky began to lighten, casting the alien landscape in a faint purple light. Joa feared that she'd be detected, but if anyone noticed they didn't show it. Finally, they came across a clearing. In it was a village of sorts. At the center was a house, bigger than Joa had ever seen. It had several stories, massive glass windows, and edges intricately frosted with lilac lattice-work. The front door itself was massive, as tall as three men stacked on top of each other. Surrounding it were houses appropriately sized for non-giants, painted in a variety of pastel shades and constructed in diverse styles.
Joa stayed at the edge of the clearing and observed nervously. The Sinterklaas led the villagers to the large house and knelt down to crack open the door. The villagers then filed in, leaving their possessions outside. Joa panicked, wondering if she should try to sneak in behind. In the end, she stayed in her hiding spot, afraid to risk attracting the giant's attention. The Sinterklaas closed the door, and sat down cross-legged, nearly obscuring the entire facade with its bulk. Its eyes closed and life drained from its face, leaving it with the appearance of unfired clay.
Joa waited for what felt like an hour, but the only movement was from wood smoke rising from the house's central chimney against the dawn sky. Joa was tired, and was losing feeling in her hands and feet. She couldn't stay out in the elements for much longer. She wondered what was being done to the villagers. Were they being dropped in a pot of boiling water? Or perhaps they were being fit for manacles and brought down to the basement to mine. The situation felt hopeless. She didn't have the energy to make it back home even if she knew where to go. She was frustrated and scared. She felt tears rolling down her wind-chapped cheeks.
Within a few minutes she was able to compose herself. Joa knew she had to do something or she would freeze to death outside. Slowly at first, she skied from tree to tree at the border of the clearing. Once she could no longer see the giant's eyes, she raced on her skis towards the village as fast as she could. She kicked off her skis and pulled open the door of the first house she came across - a yellow, two-story cottage with a steep roof. It was cozy inside with a kitchen table, a large brick hearth, and a day-bed by a window. The shutters were drawn, but the window itself had glass panes. Whoever owned the house wasn't there, but they were surely wealthy. In Revel, only Werne the Merchant could afford such a luxury. Finally out of the elements, it was all she could do but to sit on a chair and wrap herself in Sacó's blanket.
Joa was shaken from her sleep by the front door creaking open and the chattering of cheerful voices. She stood bolt upright in a panic, the blanket still around her shoulders. The intruders stopped their conversation, finally noticing that someone was there. "Oh, ho there, Joa! We were all wondering where you’d got to! We're glad you’re here though," a stout man with a graying beard said cheerfully. It was Bati the Cooper, his wife Ni, and their two little daughters.
Joa was left speechless. She was surprised to see that the family was no longer in trance, and even more so by their friendliness. It's not that she and they had an acrimonious relationship, but the villagers rarely socialized with the lonesome apothecary.
Bati continued his one-sided conversation, "What are you doing in the cold? We'll put a fire right on and get you a cupa tea, now won't we."
This jolted Joa out of her reverie. "Oh, I'm sorry for intruding! I’ll be out of your way," she said in a rushed and apologetic tone.
Ni jumped in, "Nonsense! You're in no state to be out there! We'll have you for a meal and then you'll be right to bed, you will."
Ni was right, she couldn't go anywhere. She was so stiff from a day and a night of skiing that she doubted she could walk. Joa nodded, but inside she was squirming. What had happened inside the giant's house? She didn't dare ask lest it endanger her temporary safe haven.
Bati and Ni bustled around, building the fire and finding places for their few belongings. The children scrambled up and down the stairs, squealing with excitement, never having had a room to themselves before. Soon the fire was lit, a kettle was put on to boil, and Bati helped Joa to a chair by the hearth. Joa dozed for a bit in the warmth until she was handed a mug of tea that she gratefully accepted.
She took a sip of the steaming beverage. It warmed her insides pleasantly and had a wonderful flavor… a flavor that she wasn't familiar with. That wouldn't be unusual for a random villager, but as a trained apothecary she hadn't expected to come across something new. She mindlessly took another sip and felt a lovely calm spreading through her.
"Say, Ni, what's in this tea you gave me? It's very nice," Joa cheerfully inquired. She hoped her disquiet didn't show.
Busy at the kitchen table chopping vegetables, Ni turned to her and said, "Oh, I wouldn't be knowing that. That was a welcoming gift from the Mistress!"
This should have concerned her, but it didn't even slow her consumption. As she continued to drink the tea, waves of warmth and comfort rippled through her. It wasn't long before her eyes began to flicker.
"The Mistress is quite lovely she is - you'll be seeing her soon I expect," Ni murmured in the background as her eyes finally closed, and Joa was drawn inexorably into a deep slumber.
Joa began to stir. She was warm and comfortable, surrounded by soft sheets. The air was perfumed by baking pastry. She let her eyes close, and allowed herself to drift for a while longer. She eventually woke to the clatter of pots and pans, and softly sung verse in a language she didn't recognize.
Joa peered over the side of the giant cushion that cradled her. She was in a kitchen. It was enormous, at least three times the size of the average Revel home, and lavish too. It had slate floors, a roaring hearth in light tile, a massive kitchen table with chairs, a wash basin, and white walls with colorful flowers painted on them. A giant woman stood at the basin washing dishes. From the back she had a full figure and dark hair with streaks of gray gathered in a large bun. She was wearing black clogs, loose red pantaloons, and had a shawl draped around her shoulders with a floral pattern that complimented the walls.
Joa was very afraid. She put her head down and pretended to be unconscious, forcing her breathing to slow. The tea - whatever was in it - must have put her to sleep. Years exploring the woods around Revel taught her to think quickly. With the giant occupied at the washbasin, Joa quietly made her way down from the pillow and across the slate floor. She was about to reach a door when she heard a "Mrrrp?" Before she could scream, a beast tackled her to the ground and mauled her with its terrible claws.
When the shock wore off, Joa realized that she was uninjured. The beast had only pummeled her with its paws. Its whiskers tickled her face as it sniffed at her.
"Molli! What do you have there?" the giant woman said in a kind voice. "Oh, our friend is awake! Bring her to me, you silly girl."
After prodding her on the forehead with its cold nose, the enormous feline picked Joa up by the back of her collar and happily padded towards its owner. It carefully let her down at the giant's feet and looked up expectantly. The giant kneeled down to ruffle the cat's ears, and then scooped up Joa and held her in its arms.
Joa's body was frozen and she was hyperventilating. She was too shocked to struggle and reeled from the height.
"Shhh, little Joa, you're safe," the giant woman cooed. Her voice was gentle but powerful; it reverberated through her body. She was held against the giant's chest, fully immobilized by her generous bosom. Soon it was over, and the giant laid Joa down on a plush potholder sitting on the white painted surface of the kitchen table. She laid there gasping, trying to calm herself. Her captor pulled up a white wooden chair and sat down, hands cradling a keg-sized cup of tea. She had a timeless, beautiful face. Her skin had a youthful glow, but her smiling green eyes had crow's feet at their corners. Joa managed to sit up, hugging her knees to her chest.
"Who are you? Why am I here?" she asked with a hint of panic in her voice.
The giant woman sighed, and responded in a soothing tone, "I know this must be confusing, little one. I am known as Airmid, but you can call me Mistress. I brought the villagers of Revel here to help me help your world. There is much pointless strife and suffering. My talents can … persuade people to come together in peace and joy, but I cannot do this alone. Your neighbors will help me with this work, but in return they will be happy and healthy."
"I want to know what I am doing here, now, on this table," Joa replied firmly.
Airmid chuckled good naturedly. "Well, I didn't have the chance to meet you yesterday! And I have a proposal for you. But first, you must be hungry! Have this tart while we talk," she said as she picked up a plate between her thumb and forefingers and placed it in front of Joa.
She knew that it was dangerous to eat food made by the fae, but it could also be dangerous to refuse. Stuck on the tabletop with no way down, she decided to try the food. She was quite hungry after all. She picked up the slice of tart with her hands. It had a golden flaky crust and a filling that appeared to be made of cheese and herbs. She took a small bite and immediately another larger one. It was delicious; the crust was buttery and tender, and the filling was rich with a vegetal spiciness.
"Why don't you tell me about yourself, Joa? You learned the art of herbalism from your grandmother, did you not?" Airmid proffered.
In between bites, Joa responded with suspicion, "How do you know that?"
"Oh, well I had a conversation with your wonderful friend, Sacó, last night! He's resting now on the countertop."
Joa swiveled around her head incredulously. Indeed, Sacó was splayed out on a cushion, covered with a blanket and gently snoring.
"My heart broke when I heard about his father - I just couldn't bear to leave him alone," she murmured, eyes downcast.
Joa did her best to ignore this strange revelation while continuing to eat. Usually this would stop her from sharing her thoughts, but for some reason she felt comfortable telling her story to the giantess. "When I was an infant my father disappeared while hunting, and my mother succumbed to the plague not more than a year later. My grandmother was my only family, so it was left to her to raise me. It wasn't easy, and we rarely had enough to eat, but she taught me the art of finding medicinal components and treating illnesses. She passed when I was fourteen, and I've been surviving by my own effort since."
"That must have been so hard," Airmid commented. The empathy pouring off of the giantess was palpable. "You've been strong and clever and you've hung onto your wonderful spirit."
Joa's heart soared at the compliment. Knowing that Mistress Airmid liked her warmed her inside.
"I see that you've enjoyed the tart," she said with a gentle smile. "Why not wash it down with some tea," she said as she poured a steaming beverage into a relatively tiny teacup. "Now drink up," she encouraged, handing it to Joa. "You, see, I am a herbalist myself. I know how to heal flesh wounds and broken hearts. How to put one to sleep or keep one awake. I can even turn enemies to lovers," she said with a playful smile. "I would like you to stay with me. I will care for you and teach you some of my secrets. You would be my dearest assistant."
As Joa sipped the tea and listened, something about the Mistresses' words sunk to her core. Nothing else mattered but her gentle voice.
"Would you like that, Joa?" the giantess said, staring into her eyes, "To be my little helper, to be held and loved and protected?"
Joa slowly nodded her head, falling into the green walled tunnels that were her Mistress's eyes.
Airmid sighed contentedly. "I'm so glad that you've accepted my proposal. I'm sure you feel so happy and wonderful too."
And she did.
Eventually, Mistress stood up and gently plucked Joa from the potholder she was sitting on. She cradled her to her chest affectionately, and gave her a kiss on her forehead with her wonderfully soft lips. "We'll start our mission together soon, but for now you must rest. Just relax and enjoy the fire," she commanded. She walked over to where Sacó was dozing, lifted the blanket, and placed Joa next to him. Stirring a little, Sacó happily greeted her, "Hello Joa," and pulled her into a lazy embrace.
From her sideways viewpoint, Joa watched Mistress put away cleaned bowls and spoons. She sighed from the feelings of comfort and security. She didn't know whether these feelings were real but it hardly mattered. This was the way it was supposed to be.