To read Part 13, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Hamburgers sizzled on the backyard grill. The roses hadn’t yet overgrown the garden bench this year, but they were on the verge of reasserting their claim. For now, her daughter sat comfortably on the bench, with the Goldendoodle puppy in her lap. In a far corner, the bright green leaves of a Japanese maple cascaded over mossy stones like a galaxy of tiny stars.

Japanese maple leaves in sunlight.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

“Mom, I’m feeling so blessed to be here with you and Dad today. Traveling abroad last month was fun, and I’m very glad to have had the chance, but there’s nothing like coming home. Happy birthday, Mom!”

She was just about to answer when the beautiful sunlit garden suddenly went dim. The breath she had just taken swirled dizzily through her, and she struggled to stay upright.

“Mom? Mom!”

The panicked shout sounded very far away as she fell.

Her own voice crying out was the next thing she heard. “No!”

Ina woke abruptly, her heart thudding. It wasn’t totally dark in the dormitory—a faint gleam under the door told her that the hallway torches had been lit, which meant that it was not long before dawn. Soon Petra’s raven would caw, telling the women it was time to rise for their morning meditations.

In the next bed, Phoenix stirred sleepily. “You’re all right, Ina. Whatever you were dreaming, it wasn’t real.”

“No.” The word came raggedly, in a half-sob. “No, I’m not all right. And it was real—it was!”

She had thrown her feet over the edge of the bed and made her way to the door, still in her nightdress, before she gave a moment’s thought to what she was doing. The stone floor of the hallway felt cold under her bare feet, but she wasn’t about to go back for her slippers. Without a conscious plan, she made her way through the familiar passages toward the meditation room.

Candles burned softly in wall sconces, their herbal scent filling the room. Mother Ocean sat cross-legged on a cushion beside the wall, with two other women close by. Although Ina’s bare feet made no sound as she crossed the smooth floor, Mother Ocean’s eyes opened with no apparent surprise, as if Ina’s arrival had long been anticipated.

The meditators always observed strict silence, but Ina had a strong feeling that wouldn’t be the only rule she was about to break.

“You tore me away from a loving family and home.” After nearly a year, the words finally came to her, certain and precise like a string of hard, polished stones. “Why?”

Mother Ocean got to her feet, slowly, with one wrinkled hand on the wall for balance. She did not dispute the accusation as she looked up to meet Ina’s gaze.

“Walk with me, Ina.”

To read Part 12, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

The old stone classroom felt hot and stifling on this sunny May morning, although it had been built into the earth of the hillside and had three spacious windows just above ground level. The still air almost had Ina dozing off where she sat, trying her best to look interested during another of Petra’s interminable lectures on the ethics of witchcraft. Leaves outside the nearest window swayed slightly in the faintest of breezes. A common yellow butterfly rested on the tip of a branch, fanning its wings. Ina would have liked a fan, too…

Common yellow butterfly on a leaf.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

“Pay attention!” Petra thundered, pounding the podium.

Ina flinched, wondering if she had gotten herself in trouble for letting the butterfly distract her. After a moment, however, it became clear that the exhortation was simply part of the lecture and was not directed to anyone in particular.

“We must always be vigilant—always!—lest we stray from the path of service. We face many choices every day. Some are trivial, some consequential—but in all of them, we must ask ourselves: Are we serving with love or reacting in fear? If we are honest, the answer can be found quickly. The greater challenge is to recognize the need to make a decision soon enough to ask the question.”

Petra paused to wipe her face with a plain homespun handkerchief before she brought the morning’s lecture to its long-awaited conclusion.

“Very soon, your apprenticeship year will come to an end. Then, you will go forth into the world as journeywomen. You must cultivate the habit of asking, in all that you do: Love or fear? Remember, at any time, you may suddenly be put to the test.”

With class dismissed (mercifully, in Ina’s view), it was time for lunch, followed by midday chores. After eating her bread and cheese, Ina walked with Daphne and Phoenix to pick up empty baskets from the storehouse beside the kitchen. They would be gathering dandelion greens and wild strawberries, both of which grew in abundance at the Wild Forest’s edge.

A light wind had started blowing, and the shade under the trees felt comfortable as the girls walked along the path. After a while they came to a meadow dotted brightly with dandelions, which Phoenix began to gather. Ina and Daphne continued walking toward the strawberry patch, not far ahead.

“Do you think Petra meant it seriously when she told us that we’d be put to the test?” That unwelcome idea had just come into Ina’s mind, although she couldn’t have said why. She elaborated on it further as she and Daphne walked around a gentle curve in the path. “And what happens if we fail whatever has been planned for us? Do we get sent away as unworthy?”

Daphne took a few steps into a clearing to the right, where she set down her basket next to a large clump of ripe strawberries. “No, of course not. You’re being much too dramatic, Ina. She meant only what we knew already: unexpected events often happen, and we must be prepared to make decisions wisely.”

When Daphne knelt down and started humming, Ina’s first thought was that she had been dismissed. Almost at once it became clear, however, that the melodic sound had nothing to do with Ina and was directed toward the strawberry plants. The leaves closest to Daphne’s hand lifted up, swinging their plump berries into her palm and gently releasing them. The pitch of the humming changed, as if to express thanks. Daphne put her berries into the basket and moved on to the next plant.

Lacking any such ability to converse with vegetation, Ina started picking berries the old-fashioned way. Pinching the stems between her fingers, she found herself wondering whether harvesting a crop hurt the plant. As she picked the next strawberry, she could almost imagine that she heard the broken stem shouting in agitation.

No, she had in fact heard a shout, not far away—soon followed by another one. The voices came from the path where she and Daphne had been walking earlier. The sound of running feet came from that direction, also. A wild-eyed Phoenix came tearing around the curve at full speed, breathing hard, with her long skirts bunched up in both hands to allow more freedom to run.

The voices were distinct now, very close by.

“The witch went that way! She’s heading for the river!”

A rock came whizzing along the path, narrowly missing Phoenix, and a crowd of villagers burst into view. Ina and Daphne, holding their baskets, crouched behind a stand of low shrubs. Phoenix ran past them, taking a steep descent toward the river at what looked like a very unsafe speed.

“There she is! Kill her now!”

Nellie, the farmwife who had given Ina shelter after her arrival in the Wild Forest, charged to the front of the mob while brandishing a large stick.

Putting a foot wrong on the narrow, stony path, Phoenix stumbled and fell headlong toward the river. She landed with a muffled shriek, and even at this distance Ina could see the unnatural angle of her left leg. Howling in triumph, the villagers rushed forward, waving their sticks—and then there was a gleam of metal as one of them held up a hunting knife.

Overcome by fury, Ina half-rose from her hiding place behind the bushes. Fiery anger pulsed within her. Like a lightning bolt, it was ready to strike. It would char those ignorant villagers to ashes…

“Na, na, na. Ooh, na, na, na.”

Daphne crooned softly beside her, swaying with arms clasped together as if cradling a baby. One elbow brushed Ina’s hand—ever so slightly, but it was enough to ground the roiling power within her nonetheless. A tiny crackle ran along Daphne’s sleeve and dissipated.

Tendrils of moss reached up from the river, wrapping Phoenix in a tight grasp and turning the bright orange fabric of her dress to the same muddy green as the bank where she had fallen. Branches reached down from nearby trees. Ina thought she saw a flicker of motion as the branches lifted Phoenix from the ground, passing her from one tree to another. By the time the villagers reached the riverbank, there was nothing more to be seen.

“She was here! Right here!” Nellie shrieked in frustration, beating the bushes with her stick. A startled rabbit leaped away, and a few small birds took wing.

“She must have used her magic to disappear.” The man who held the hunting knife sheathed it again. “We’ll never find her now.”

Nellie flung her stick at the nearest tree. It bounced into the river, landing with a solid splash.

“I hate those witches worse than anything! They lurk in the forest, working their evil spells and stealing children. Next time I see one sneaking around, I’m going to make sure it’s the last thing she does!”

With shouts of agreement, the villagers began walking back the way they had come. Ina and Daphne stayed motionless behind the bushes until the forest fell silent again.

As they stepped onto the path leading toward the river, a huddled shape came into view under the low branches of a spruce tree. The murky outline slowly regained its original bright colors as the moss that had hidden Phoenix released its grasp.

Ina stopped suddenly, all at once feeling unable to take another step.

“I failed.”

“Whatever do you mean by that?” Daphne glanced back over her shoulder.

“The love or fear test that Petra told us about. I wanted to set those villagers on fire and kill them all. If you hadn’t stopped me, I would have done it.”

“I did nothing, Ina. Your thoughts and choices were your own. I had no way of knowing what was in your mind. When you withheld your power, it was because you made the right decision—without any help from me. Condemning yourself for a stray thought makes no sense, and I don’t want to hear another word of it. Now, let’s go and help Phoenix to get home.”

After delivering this rebuke in an even tone, Daphne turned away and started making her way carefully down the stony slope. Just past her, on the riverbank, the birds that had flown up in alarm only a few minutes earlier were settling back into the bushes. They chirped calmly, as if nothing worth remembering had disturbed their peace.

Ina didn’t find it as easy to forgive herself.

April 21, 2022 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

This is the fifth story in a series. Click here to read all parts from the beginning.

I wouldn’t have thought the sky could get any darker and gloomier above the dirt road that was, apparently, Main Street in downtown Dragonopolis. I was wrong, of course. Maybe not literally wrong, but everything around me looked darker through the visor of my fire suit than it had upon my arrival.

Now that I wasn’t running for my life or hurrying to get my fire suit in place before any dragons could swoop down and roast me, I had time to look more closely at my surroundings. They didn’t seem to offer much in the way of escape routes, unfortunately. Behind me was the lake or bay I’d come from, with its hungry sea serpents. Sheer cliffs full of dragon caves rose up on both sides of the road, which led only to a tunnel entering the mountain. Light gleamed faintly from deep within the tunnel as it curved to the left.

Photo of a tunnel entrance on a dirt road.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Other than the tunnel, nothing else broke the stark expanse of the cliffs at ground level. Well, unless I wanted to count a few dragon dens barely low enough to be reached by a climber more intrepid than myself. As a professional dragon-control specialist, I had climbed up to a nest on occasion to retrieve hatchlings after capturing their mother, but it hadn’t been my idea of fun.

A wisp of smoke curled up from the nearest of the low caves, off to my right. I heard a scrabbling of little paws, and then a fledgling dragon emerged from the den, eyeing me with curiosity. Spreading golden wings, it glided down to the road, only a few steps from me.

The fledgling wasn’t a threat—its head didn’t quite reach my knees. I was a lot more concerned about avoiding a close encounter with its mother, who surely had to be nearby. No more smoke came from the den, so perhaps she had gone in search of food.

Beating wings and a screech from behind me confirmed that guess. Mama Dragon, gripping an ugly snout-faced fish in her talons, went into a steep dive. I took a quick step toward the far edge of the road as she landed with a thud and a cloud of dust, halfway between me and Junior. Then she hissed at me, almost like a goose protecting a gosling—not that a goose would’ve breathed fire or been the size of a large cow. I was lucky she hadn’t decided to squash me.

I kept on walking toward the tunnel, slowly enough that I wouldn’t look like fleeing prey, and without taking my eyes off Mama. She watched me just as closely for a minute or so before turning to chatter angrily at her offspring. I was pretty sure this couldn’t be anything but a lecture on staying away from strangers.

After a few more steps, I started breathing a little easier. Mama and Junior went back into their den to chow down on the fish. The tunnel was closer now, and there was enough illumination to show me that no dragons lurked inside the entrance. Of course, there was no way of knowing what else might be in there, but I reminded myself that I didn’t exactly have a long list of choices.

Especially when I heard more wings beating above me. Dragons came out of their caves on both sides of the canyon, all of them flying in my direction. Turning around, I took a quick count—at least two dozen of them. Bad odds if they chose to attack; my fire suit wouldn’t last long against their sharp teeth and talons.

Staring up at the nearest dragon, I hissed as loudly as I could, trying to imitate the sound of a protective nesting mother. The dragon didn’t turn away, but it landed on the dirt road—followed by the others—and paused for a few seconds before advancing slowly toward me.

I hissed some more, bringing the dragons to a standstill again, and backed a few paces toward the tunnel. That went on for several minutes—hissing and backing, hissing and backing—until the rocky walls of the tunnel’s entrance rose around me. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that the tunnel appeared to be empty of life.

An icy wind blew toward me along the tunnel. I backed up a few more steps, until it became clear that the dragons weren’t following, and proceeded to walk normally around the bend. The tunnel ended in an ordinary-looking door with a round metal knob. Or rather, the door would’ve been ordinary if it hadn’t been about three times the size of a human-built door. It obviously hadn’t been built by dragons either, given the fact that they didn’t have hands with opposable thumbs. Sunlight—but no warmth—came from a window set into the top of the door, which was far above my head.

I reached up and put both of my hands on the knob. It turned easily, and the door swung outward to reveal a very different landscape.

This is the fourth story in a series. Click here to read all parts from the beginning.

I was just about to turn away from the dead-looking lake when I noticed a small ripple forming along the horizon. Tiny wisps of fog started to rise from it. At first, they were so faint that I wondered if I might have imagined them. A few seconds later, though, I heard a whumpp sound, and a thick vapor boiled up to form a looming cloud in what had been, until then, an unbroken gray sky.

Just below the cloud, a wave started rolling toward the shore where I stood. It moved at a steady pace, like the tide coming in at the beach. Rising higher, it finally crested and began to curl as if breaking over unseen rocks. I might’ve been looking at ordinary surf—except that, as it came closer, the outlines of scaly blue-green heads became visible all along the wave’s crest.

Wave cresting under a puffy cloud.

(Image credit: Johnny Jungle)

I found myself wondering, in a strange moment of detached curiosity, whether sea serpents could breathe fire like their dragon cousins. But obviously, the situation called for being more concerned with self-preservation, and I wasn’t about to stick around long enough to find out what they could do.

Tossing my now-dry fire suit over my right shoulder, I took off running across the stone, trying (without much success) not to think about the fact that it was really a troll’s head. I listened the whole time for the sound of that wave hitting the shore, but the unnatural silence persisted. All I could hear was the sound of my own shoes slapping against granite.

After I crossed the stone and came out onto a road made of hard-packed earth (or at least, something that looked and felt like it), I slowed down just enough to take a quick glance behind me. Although I expected to see a few of those scaly heads reaching my way, I was wrong. Once again, there was no sign of life or motion anywhere near the lake. It had gone back to flat, dead-looking water. Both the wave and the cloud had totally vanished.

The sulfurous smell of dragons was much stronger here. Steep cliffs loomed on either side. Ahead, the road narrowed, leading to a dark tunnel cut into the mountain. Cave openings at regular intervals—much too regular to have formed naturally—suggested this might be the home of a primitive cliff-dwelling tribe. No paths led up to the caves, however, and some of them were on sheer rock faces that didn’t look anywhere near being climbable.

I’d already started putting on my fire suit in response to the obvious conclusion before my conscious mind caught up to it: Those cliff dwellers were very unlikely to be human.

Twas the night before Christmas, and the children were all snug in their beds in the tiny houses of Channelwood village. A mouse was stirring, with visions of cookies dancing in his furry little head. Although Ella’s pet mouse, Darcy, was supposed to be asleep in his basket at the foot of Ella’s bed, he was just pretending. As soon as Ella dozed off, up he jumped, intent on getting to that plate of cookies he’d seen Sara leave on the kitchen table. He was in such a rush that he didn’t even stop to shake off the ridiculous red cap that Ella had put on him.

Usually, the children were tidy enough that Darcy wouldn’t find much besides a crumb or two for a midnight snack. Ella conscientiously fed him a healthy mix of homemade kibble; but of course, no self-respecting pet would be content with that. Not when there were cookies left unguarded!

Scurrying toward the kitchen, Darcy heard the sound of tinkling bells. He didn’t think much about it until he discovered an intruder—a big fellow in a red suit, with a bushy white beard—standing next to the kitchen table and EATING ALL THE COOKIES! Furiously, Darcy stood up on his hind legs and chittered something not at all nice in mouse language.

Mouse in a Christmas hat.

“Well, hello, little fellow! A very merry Christmas to you!” The intruder gave a jolly laugh and bit into the last cookie.

Darcy shook his tiny fists and screeched something even nastier.

“Well, now, this won’t do. Naughty mice don’t get presents. If you want a piece of this cookie, you’re just going to have to ask properly.”

That didn’t seem fair to Darcy; after all, he was the one who lived here. But his greed soon got the better of his pride, and he chirped something that sounded at least somewhat contrite. The white-bearded fellow reached down, with a chunk of cookie and a hearty “Ho, ho, ho!”

Darcy took a big bite. Yum, oatmeal! He closed his eyes in bliss. When he opened them again, the intruder was nowhere to be seen. Outside the kitchen window, bells tinkled again, and the faint shape of a sleigh vanished into the clouds.

Snuggling back into his cozy basket in Ella’s room, Darcy tried to tell himself that he had dreamed it all after eating too much of a very tasty cookie. He couldn’t quite manage to convince himself, though.

Because I still had a little unscheduled vacation time needing to be used before the end of the year, I decided to take off Thursday morning and Friday afternoon from work. Earlier in the week, the weather forecast for Thursday predicted a warm day without much chance of rain, and I thought that perhaps I could go rowing with my husband around noon if it wasn’t too windy.

Although the morning was indeed quite warm for December, the wind was gusty enough that we decided a lunchtime row wouldn’t be much fun. Friday’s forecast looks much better for rowing. I spent a little time doing yoga and exercising on the rowing machine, but mostly I just lazed around, feeling indecisive about what sort of image to put on my digital art display. The morning started out sunny, but clouds were blowing in fast. I finally settled on a lake with a blue sky and some passing clouds.

A lake in winter with tall brown grass in the foreground.

(Photo credit: Antonio Garcia Campos)

The dry brown grass along the shore made plain that winter was near, as did the bare trees across the lake. When I pictured myself taking a breath of the cool fresh air, it felt pretty comfortable; there was almost no wind. The tiny structures on the other side of the lake settled into a recognizable pattern as the outbuildings of Channelwood, the imaginary village inhabited by several of my younger selves.

I heard a bit of splashing, and a stone skipped into view across the water. Turning to my right, I saw Peter, who was me at five years old when I really, really wanted to fly away to the Neverland and enjoy a new adventure with the fairies every day.

“Did you come here to play?” Peter took a step toward me and held out a flat chip of dark gray slate.

I gave it my best effort but didn’t have much success, given the fact that skimming stones was something I hadn’t done in decades. Peter politely refrained from commenting as my stone sank without a bounce.

“Well, playing wasn’t actually on my mind,” I had to admit. “And not much else was, either. I’ve been feeling low on energy because I trained so hard to row faster at regattas this year.”

Peter stopped skimming stones and looked thoughtful for a minute.

“The Lost Boys felt like that sometimes, when they’d had a long day of adventures and had been working hard to learn new flying tricks. Wendy said they needed more sleep, and she tucked them into bed early and told them stories.”

“That’s good advice, Peter. But my mother can’t tuck me in and tell me bedtime stories because I grew up and don’t live in the same house with her anymore.”

Peter thought about it a bit more.

“I’ll have to pretend to be your mother and tell you a story, then. It’s not bedtime yet, but you can lie down in the grass over there next to that tree, and I’ll tell you a naptime story.”

I found a place among the tree roots that wasn’t muddy. Peter gallantly contributed his green jacket for my pillow and gave me a moment to get comfortable before starting the story.

——————————

Once upon a time, on a lake very much like this one, there was a duckling who was full of energy and always wanted to play. Instead of staying in line and following Mama Duck like the other ducklings, he wanted to dance on the water, flapping his wings and turning in circles. When he got too far away, Mama Duck quacked at him and Papa Duck pecked him, but he still wouldn’t behave like a proper duckling.

“Little one, you need to do as you’re told,” quacked Mama Duck. “There are hawks, dogs, and cats everywhere, and they don’t want to see you dance—they just want to eat you!”

Of course, he went on dancing anyway, and it wasn’t long before he got too far away from his family again. Trying to find his way back to them, he passed a hawk sitting on a branch overhanging the river.

“Good afternoon, Madam Hawk,” said the duckling (he had, at least, properly learned his manners from Mama Duck). “I would like to show you my new dance, but my mama says that you don’t want to see it and that you just want to eat me. You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

The hawk fluffed her feathers. “Your mama isn’t wrong that I am a predator, but I wouldn’t have any interest in eating a scrawny little duckling like you. I wouldn’t get much more than an annoying mouthful of feathers. A nice fat rabbit would be much more to my liking. So, you may dance for me, young duck, and I promise not to eat you.”

The duckling happily performed his latest dance, and the hawk clapped her wings, cheering.

Just around the next bend in the river, the duckling saw a spotted dog lying on the shore in the sunshine. The dog blinked, half asleep, as the duckling hopped out of the water and came closer.

“A good day to you, Mr. Dog, and may I show you my new dance? My mama says you only want to eat me, but that isn’t really true, is it?”

The dog yawned, showing a large mouthful of sharp teeth. “I might eat you if I felt like getting up, but right now I am too lazy and would rather lie here in the sun.”

Once again, the duckling danced, and the dog applauded with a wagging tail.

Walking farther along the shore, the duckling came across a black cat fastidiously licking a paw. The cat watched with curiosity as the duckling approached.

“Hello, Madam Cat, would you like to watch me dance? You wouldn’t eat me instead, would you?”

The cat blinked once, as if uncertain, and then began grooming the other paw. “Hmm. A duckling might be a tasty little treat, but my owner just fed me, and I’m more bored than hungry right now. Watching you dance might be more interesting than eating you—maybe.”

The duckling gave one more performance and then, seeing that the cat was starting to look hungrier, scooted back to the river in a hurry. It wasn’t long before he found his family again. After giving him a loud quacking lecture on his bad behavior, Mama Duck just shook her feathered head in despair and turned to Papa Duck.

“He’s sure to come to a bad end one of these days.”

——————————

I wasn’t far from dozing off as I listened to Peter’s naptime story. That seemed to be all there was to it, though, as Peter turned away and sent another stone flying over the lake, skimming it lightly across the water with perfect technique.

“Did he?” I asked.

Peter turned back to me, looking as if he had forgotten all about the story. “Did who?”

“The duck. Did he come to a bad end?”

“Yes, of course he did.” Peter shrugged. “He grew up.”

July 18, 2021 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

This is the third story in a series. Click here to read all parts from the beginning.

To all appearances, the Transylvanian forest had returned to normal immediately after the dragon’s departure. Birds chirped peacefully, branches stirred in a gentle summer breeze, and the sound of water steadily flowing nearby would’ve been soothing if I hadn’t known the road was flooded ahead. And if the flickering square of sky that the Romanian woman had called a sorcerers’ portal hadn’t still been parked, ominously, right above my head.

I looked around for the woman, but she was long gone already. For just a moment, I caught a glimpse of her bright dress and shawl through the trees, moving a lot faster than I’d have thought possible for an old lady with a walking stick. That set off my mental alarm bells, but I had no time to act. Only a fraction of a second later, I heard a shout from Shay, who was standing a few paces away.

“Chris, watch out!”

A huge shadow fell over me. Of course, my first thought was that the dragon had swooped back down through the portal and that I was about to be roasted, since I’d taken off the headgear of my fire suit. But no, the shadow was mostly round, not dragon-shaped.

The shape reaching toward me resolved into a giant hand, apparently connected to an arm on the other side of the portal. Its dull grayish-brown surface looked like stone rather than flesh. Before I could run away or do anything halfway sensible, the hand grabbed me firmly and lifted me through the portal into the sky.

Except that it wasn’t sky on the other side—it was water. And it was clear enough to see that I was just above the rocky bottom of a lake or bay. For an instant, the green forest flickered beneath me, and then it winked out as the portal closed. There was nothing besides rock under me now.

The hand raised me smoothly through the water and then deposited me, gasping for air, on what looked like the top of a granite boulder forming part of the lakeshore. When I looked down, though, I realized it wasn’t a boulder. The outline of a stone troll was clearly visible in the water, and the hand that had captured me was now resting on the bottom of the lake. I was standing on the troll’s head, under a dark and gloomy sky, with jagged mountains behind me and cliff dwellings cut into the rock.

Image of a stone troll crouched on the bottom of a lake.

(Image credit: Philip A. Benyola, Jr.)

And it was HOT. Wouldn’t you think a lakeshore with low, heavy clouds would have a cool breeze? Well, maybe that would’ve been true back home in Tennessee; but this sweltering, stagnant air felt like it came straight out of the gates of hell. It even smelled faintly of sulfur, which meant that there had to be dragons not far away.

I didn’t see any dragons close by, though, which was about all that had gone right today. My fire suit, with the headgear unfastened, was now full of icky lake water. Taking the suit off to shake it out, I kept careful watch for dragons or other potential perils. There didn’t seem to be anything alive nearby, except a few clumps of straggly brownish grass pushing up through cracks in the rock. When I looked more closely, I realized that the cracks were wrinkles in the skin of the troll’s head and that there were ridges running through the granite like veins. The grass was hair growing out of the troll’s mostly bald dome.

My fire suit already was almost dry in the unnaturally hot air, as were the rumpled business-casual shirt and pants I’d been wearing underneath it. That didn’t leave me feeling much better. I stomped savagely on the nearest clump of grass and then yanked it up by the roots. Although I would’ve liked to say this was a brave, calculated plan to provoke the troll into throwing me back where I’d come from, it was nothing of the sort. I just hadn’t thought about the much more likely possibility of the troll smacking me like a bug.

What actually happened, of course, was nothing at all. The troll never moved. Smelly ichor dripped from the twisted roots of the grass clump I was holding, and in disgust, I threw it as far as I could into the lake. There wasn’t even a ripple in the still water when it sank. Everything around me, including the troll’s massive figure in the water, looked and felt dead.

I only hoped that I wasn’t about to end up stone troll dead, too.

To read Part 11, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Breath, in. Heartbeat, slow and regular. Bringing joy into the heart. Infinite joy. Breath, out. Sending love to all. Love to the self sitting on this cushion, to the women gathered in this room, to people everywhere, to the world. Itchy shoulder, noted; gently releasing it from awareness. Breath, in…

A bell rang twice to signal the end of the meditation session. Ina opened her eyes, surprised; hadn’t she just sat down a few minutes ago? But no, daylight was streaming into the room now, and the session had started before dawn, as always.

Stacking her cushion on the shelf with the others, Ina walked through the broad stone corridor that led to the dining hall. She filled her breakfast plate with rye bread, cheese, and an apple from the serving platters on a long table beside the wall.

Ina’s usual instructor, Luz, who was wearing the striped apron of those on kitchen duty, set out another pot of porridge. There were no servants here, and never had been, according to Petra’s historical accounts—which went back hundreds of years. Everyone took turns doing the chores, with no distinctions made for status or seniority. Just yesterday, Ina had seen Mother Ocean down on her knees with a plain kerchief over her silver hair, scrubbing a latrine.

Taking a step toward the round dining tables in the center of the room, Ina saw the flash of a smile beneath Rowan’s brightly colored hat. Rowan was the chief healer, and Ina didn’t often have lessons with her; but, somewhat to Ina’s surprise, Rowan gestured for Ina to take a seat across the table.

“This morning, Ina, you’ll be going out with me,” Rowan said, handing an empty porridge bowl to an apron-clad Daphne. “I’ll show you how to find healing plants. They often grow in places you wouldn’t expect. Nature is wonderfully inventive! And although our library has many books of herb lore, nothing can take the place of hands-on knowledge.”

Ina finished her breakfast quickly and put on a light cloak over her winter dress before joining Rowan outside. Only a few days after the spring equinox, the sun was already high in the sky. Yesterday’s dusting of snow had melted almost entirely, leaving a muddy forest floor with hints of green here and there.

Moss-covered trees with leaf buds opening in a forest.

(Image credit: Guillaume Roux)

Rowan took the familiar path that led uphill beside the river. She carried a sack over her shoulder, made of a green fabric embroidered with a design of red berries. Every few minutes she stopped to put something in the sack with a few words of explanation to Ina, such as that willow bark was often used for relieving pain and that it was best harvested in the spring, after the sap started to run.

After a while, Ina’s attention began to wander. What was the point of gathering herbs, she thought, if healing could be done just as easily by magic? Why not use magic all the time—just as Ina herself did when she lit candles, now that she knew how.

She kept the question to herself at first, as she didn’t expect Rowan would want to hear it. After all, it sounded like a complaint, and Ina knew she’d likely be told that she ought to be grateful for the chance to get outdoors and enjoy the fresh air. Such as it was; the breeze felt pleasant enough, but Rowan had just gone tromping into yet another icky bog full of skunk cabbage, some of which she’d already put into the sack while cheerfully expounding on the plant’s many medicinal uses.

“What do we need herbs for, anyway?” Ina finally couldn’t help herself. “I know you can heal people just by laying hands on them, Rowan—I’ve seen you do it.”

Lifting her gaze from the murky puddle she’d been examining, Rowan calmly responded with another question. “Why did we need to eat breakfast this morning, when instead we might have used magic to draw our energy from the sun as plants do?”

Ina was still pondering her answer when Rowan, with a smile, returned to the path. Ina soon followed her up to a hilltop that was at once familiar and very different from when Ina had first seen it months ago.

The wreckage of the old oak tree still lay on the stony ground, cleaved neatly in half by the lightning bolt that Ina had unwittingly brought down. Around it, winter-brown grass was giving way to bright spring growth. Rowan approached the dead wood and pointed out a fungus growing on one side.

“This has valuable healing properties,” she told Ina, “and it grows only on the largest dead oaks—those that had lived hundreds of years. So you see, this tree’s death was not wasted; Nature made good use of it, as part of the harmony of being.”

Ina took a deep breath of air that, all at once, felt wonderfully fresh and full of life. “That’s why we gather herbs and eat breakfast, too, isn’t it? Because we’re part of the harmony.”

Rowan’s smile grew much broader. “Exactly.”

Father Time had a problem. Today was New Year’s Eve, and the world was more than ready to say goodbye to 2020—but Baby New Year wasn’t in a mood to cooperate.

Cartoon image of a baby with a Happy New Year sash.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The photographer only got one good picture before Baby New Year threw his creamed spinach at the camera. That was after he had tossed his toys all over the floor, pulled the dog’s tail, and unrolled every sheet of carefully hoarded T.P. in the closet.

“Son, you need to settle down,” said Father Time. “We’re only a few hours away from the big moment.”

“I don’t care!” Baby New Year wailed, kicking a plush unicorn with a chubby little foot. “It’s not going to be any fun. There will be no crowds in the streets, and no parties—or, if people have parties, then they’ll spread the virus, and I’ll get blamed for it. Even though I am just a baby, everyone will say it’s my fault when grown-ups don’t want to be responsible. Oh, it’s all such a mess, and so unfair. Why did I have the bad luck to be Baby New Year 2021, instead of a better year?”

Father Time stroked his silver beard thoughtfully as he considered how to answer. Pacing from one end of the kitchen to the other, he stepped on a Cheerio. This misfortune was to both his annoyance and that of the dog, who had been just about to nab it.

“Well, son, you’re right that it is unfair,” he finally replied. “Many New Year’s celebrations have been better—but some have been worse, such as during the world wars, or plagues that happened before people knew how to make vaccines. No matter how bad it got, though, everyone just kept on going as best they could. As time went on, there was more to celebrate. That’s how life goes.”

Baby New Year still looked sulky. “Well, okay, if I can’t throw this year back and get a different year instead, how about returning the world and ordering another one?”

“No, you can’t do that either. Absolutely not,” Father Time declared firmly. “I think you’ve gotten some very unrealistic ideas from all the online shopping we do nowadays, son.”

To read Part 10, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Ina slid easily down from the white gelding’s back and tied his reins to a nearby branch, which was still wet from the morning’s light snow. The temperature had been rising steadily all day, and the snow had melted hours ago. Gray clouds hung low over the bay, not quite obscuring the hills beyond the far shore. A narrow spit jutted out, with a lighthouse occupying its tip.

Lighthouse on a cloudy winter day.

Dismounting somewhat more carefully, as might be expected given her advanced age, Thalassa tied her dun mare beside the gelding and turned to look out upon the bay.

Although Ina had taken short journeys with other instructors fairly often, this was her first time traveling in the company of the venerable Mother Ocean, who rarely left the witches’ compound. That had worried Ina somewhat, as their mounts’ hooves clopped softly over the forest’s damp and muddy paths. Was she seen as a poor student in need of remedial work, or perhaps as a troublemaker?

That line of thought had sent Ina into a mental loop of replaying what felt like a long list of deficits. She’d gotten upset in the library on the very first day of instruction; her carelessness had been responsible for starting a forest fire and killing an ancient oak tree; and she still felt unsettled about not knowing her origins, unlike the other girls, all of whom seemed much happier with their new circumstances. Maybe she had been judged unworthy and was being sent away.

When Thalassa spoke, however, there was nothing critical in the older woman’s voice, but only a simple question.

“Look at the bay. How many ships do you see?”

Ina turned her head to peer farther in both directions but still saw only empty waters. “No ships are nearby, just the lighthouse.”

“Indeed—but there are ships about to enter the bay, and the lighthouse will guide them when they arrive. In much the same way, we have an inner sense of direction that guides us when our eyes cannot. So close your eyes, Ina, and look again. How many ships are entering the bay?”

Ina had no idea where the entrance to the bay might be; this journey, which had taken much of the day, was farther than she had ever traveled from the Wild Forest—or at least, farther than she could remember traveling. With the little shake of her head that had become her habitual response to such thoughts, Ina brought her attention back to the question of what might lie beyond her closed eyes. She felt water dripping down the back of her cloak and heard one of the horses softly nickering to the other; that wasn’t much use.

Widening her inner focus, she brought to mind the cloudy expanse of the bay as it had appeared on her left. She couldn’t sense anything in motion there besides a few tiny specks flitting about on the periphery of her consciousness, which she guessed might be seagulls or fish. Still, not useful. The lighthouse cast a warm glow in Ina’s imagination, welcoming the new arrivals—wherever they might be.

Mentally following the rays of light as they spread out over the water on her right, she became aware that there was something larger moving her way. Two somethings. No, they weren’t things, not really; instead, they were clusters of feelings and intentions. They were people, in fact, two distinct groups of them, moving calmly and purposefully as they went about their work.

“Two ships,” Ina said, keeping her eyes closed as she responded to the question she’d been tasked to answer. “But what I’m sensing is their crews, rather than the ships themselves.”

“Yes, Ina. The world is full of things, and some of them are quite large; but much of the energy lies in the tiny points of consciousness that we call our lives. You may open your eyes now.”

Ina blinked, entirely losing her awareness of the ships’ crews as a distracting thought came to mind. “Was that how you found me and took me from…”

Once again, she couldn’t bring forth either the name or a clear mental image of the place that had seemed, for just a moment, to be within her mind’s grasp. Roses, Ina told herself, almost as if repeating a mantra. Roses, and a warm and welcoming home.

Thalassa’s faint smile held a touch of sadness. “All in due time, my dear.”

Click here to continue to Part 12.