7 min read

Chapter 1: Snow

Saffron checks on some of her wards after a snowstorm
A background image of snow-covered trees overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 1: Snow".

Saffron’s eyes snapped open when the first snowflake hit the ground. The change in the weather struck something in her heart. She shifted Bear off her legs and rose to stand by the window, looking out at the fields around her cottage. The first flurries were dancing down to the ground.

She wrapped an extra wool blanket around her shoulders and sank onto the window seat to watch the snow. Her familiar stretched and yawned before hopping off the bed. He crossed the room and jumped into her lap, rubbing his head against her neck.

“Hey, boy.” She scratched him under the chin. “Looks like it could be a bad one.”

Bear only purred. Saffron sighed and leaned her head against the window. She watched the snow come down until she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore.

The next morning she rose early and after a breakfast of toast and tea she prepared to go out. She dressed in her warmest wool dress, her fur-lined winter boots, her heavy coat, and the hat and scarf that Meg had knitted for her last winter. She checked that she had everything she needed in her satchel and slung it over her shoulder.

The snow had drifted up against the door and when she opened it, a tiny avalanche slid into the cottage. She swept it out as best she could, then took a step outside.

The whole world was white. The fields, the trees, and the cottage were all blanketed in snow. Its sharp scent was masked by wood smoke from the chimneys of the nearby town.

The snow crunched under her feet as she trod away from the cottage and down the path into the woods. Bear followed behind her, jumping from one of her footprints to the next.

Under the canopy of trees, the snow wasn’t as deep. Saffron followed the path through the woods, occasionally reaching into her bag for a handful of seed, scattering it as she walked. Now and then, she heard a flutter of wings behind her and looked back to see a sparrow or a chickadee swoop out to take a mouthful.

After a few minutes, she paused by a familiar fallen log and carefully scooped away some of the snow around it. Bear hopped onto the log and watched her work. When Saffron had uncovered the small hole that led down to a den, she took out a sachet of powdered herbs and blew a pinch of the powder into the hole.

“Stay warm, my friends.”

She rose and continued on her way, stopping now and then to repeat the process for other dens, sending a warming spell in to keep her animal charges warm for their winter slumbers.

Where the woods met the mountains, there was a small cave she knew was filled with hibernating bats. She stood near the mouth of the cave, listening to the shuffle of leathery wings. She blew in a larger pinch of powder here, and used a stick of chalk to refresh the protection sigil she’d drawn above the entrance.

When she’d completed her rounds, she followed a stream out to the edge of the forest. Though a thin layer of ice had formed along its banks, it wasn’t frozen over completely, and the open water in the middle still bubbled happily along. The dark water stood out starkly against the snow and ice that covered everything else.

Bear pawed at her legs and she picked him up.

“Your paws getting cold?” Saffron asked, checking them. Although he followed her everywhere no matter the weather, even his thick grey fur wasn’t always enough to protect his sensitive paws. She lifted him up to his favourite perch on her shoulder and he hooked his claws into her coat for balance.

Before long they reached the edge of the forest. The trees gave way to fields, and the snow around Saffron’s feet grew deep again. The sun was higher and brighter now, and it set the whole world to sparkling.

Saffron knocked on the door of the little house that stood just outside the forest. “Mister Payton?” He was the only local resident who lived even farther from town than her.

She heard footsteps inside and the door opened a crack. “Ah, Saffron. Come in, come in.” He opened the door and she entered. Walking into the house was like wrapping up in a blanket. It was so warm and cozy that Saffron’s limbs started to thaw almost immediately. A hearty fire crackled in the hearth and the whole place smelled of freshly toasted bread.

“Come in, come in, have some tea,” her host invited her, his thin face almost entirely taken up by a smile.

“Oh, I can’t stay. I just wanted to check in on you after the storm.”

“Now Saffron, I may be old but I’m not that old.”

“Old or not, you’re awfully far out here all by yourself. Do you have enough firewood? Is there anything I can bring you from town?”

“No, I’m all set, dear, thank you. I hired the Caplan boys to fill my wood pile at the beginning of fall, and I just got provisions from town three days ago. Now are you sure you can’t stay? I’ve got something for you. And for you, too, Bear.” The cat had leapt down from Saffron’s shoulder and was twining himself between Mister Payton’s feet.

“I suppose we could stay a few minutes.” There were a few people Saffron wanted to check on in town, but it could wait. They had more neighbours and weren’t so far from civilization. Mister Payton seemed glad of her company, so if that was the help she could provide him today, she was happy to stay.

She shrugged out of her coat and boots and padded into the house. Bear had followed Mister Payton to the pantry, where he pulled out a piece of dried meat and broke off a small piece for Bear.

“There you go, you little brute,” Mister Payton cooed affectionately as he placed the treat on the floor in front of the cat. Bear mewed his thanks before turning his attention to the food. Mister Payton petted him until he finished, and then they joined Saffron in the main room, where she had taken a seat on the small sofa next to the fireplace.

Mister Payton crossed to a small bookshelf on the other side of the room and pulled a volume down from the top shelf. “I was going through my books the other day and came across this one. Plumb forgot I had it, but I thought you might have some use for it.”

He handed her the book: a slim volume bound in green cloth. The cover bore the title A Working Lady’s Compendium of Common Mushrooms. Saffron opened it carefully. Every page was devoted to a different mushroom, and each one had a drawing, a description of its features, a list of common uses, or warnings if it was poisonous.

Saffron flipped through a few pages, stopping to run her fingers gently over one of the drawings, admiring the tiny details that made each one immediately identifiable. “It’s gorgeous,” she said.

“Belonged to my grandma. She did a little healing around town when she was younger.” Mister Payton settled into the rocking chair opposite Saffron. Bear jumped into his lap, pressing his head under the old man’s hand.

“I never knew that.”

“She passed long before you moved to town, rest her soul. It’s a real shame, too, I think she’d have liked you.”

Saffron blushed. “She sounds like a lovely woman.”

“Anyway, I have no use for the book, so you might as well take it.È

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly. I’d like to borrow it to copy some notes if you don’t mind, but I can’t take it. You should keep it to remember your grandma by.”

“I’ve got all the memories I need,” Mister Payton tapped a finger to his head and then to his heart, “here and here. It would make me happy to see the book go to someone who could use it.”

“If you’re sure,” Saffron conceded. “Thank you.”

They lapsed into silence for a time, watching the crackling flames in the fireplace and the snow blowing down from the trees outside the window. Then Mister Payton offered her tea, and a scone, and Saffron decided to accept, and before she knew it she’d spent the whole morning eating and chatting with him.

When she realized that it was almost noon, she shook some life back into her limbs. “I really must be going. I’ve got others to check up on. But thank you for the lovely morning. And for the book.”

“Of course. You’re more than welcome. I didn’t mean to keep you so long though.”

“Not at all, it’s been a pleasure.”

Saffron bundled back into her warm things as Bear purred his goodbyes to their host, and then the two of them walked back out into the snowy world outside. The bright sun had warmed the air and taken off the cold edge of the morning. The snow was starting to go soft already, and a few of the trees were starting to drip.

She paused on the edge of the woods and stopped to mutter a quick protection spell over the house. She didn’t take anything for free, if she could help it. It wasn’t the witch’s way.

When her spell was finished, she turned and walked back into the forest, following the stream bed back to the path, and then turned her feet to home, Bear on her shoulder and the book tucked safely into her bag. She had others to visit, but first it was time for lunch, curled up with Bear, a blanket, and a new book.

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, and literary stories. You can find her on twitter or instagram.