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.

To read Part 9, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

The sliding glass door closed smoothly behind her. Steam rose from the coffee mug on this pleasantly cool morning. A forgotten corner of the back garden beckoned. She had been meaning to get it cleaned up for ages, but she never had gotten around to it. The bench still needed a fresh coat of paint and was overgrown with so many roses that sitting down wasn’t much of an option. Even so, looking at its riotous, unkempt beauty on this lovely morning, she couldn’t help but to smile. All was right with the world.

Garden bench with roses and other flowers.

The tranquil birdsong was interrupted, a moment later, by the sound of someone crying. The terrified sobs sounded like a frightened child. She took a step back from the roses, and the garden abruptly faded to blackness around her.

Ina sat up in her bed in the dormitory; another dream, gone. Something about roses—there were always roses in her dreams, and a quiet, peaceful house. Lighting the candle on her nightstand with a casual flicker of thought, she turned toward the shuddering girl in the next bed.

“Wake up, Phoenix. You’re having a nightmare again.”

Big dark eyes blinked, reflecting the candlelight.

“It was the same place.” Hands trembling, Phoenix tugged ineffectually at the heap of covers that had gotten tangled around her. “Some ugly, grimy building like a dungeon, and they were whipping me again. Maybe I was a slave or a prisoner before I came here. I can’t remember any of it clearly, and I don’t want to know. When Mother Ocean took away my memories, she did me a kindness.”

Farther down the row of beds, another pair of eyes gleamed in the flickering light. Firefly sat up, leaning against the headboard as she twisted back an unruly lock of hair that had escaped from her nighttime braid.

“I dreamed about a goat doing handstands in a field of daisies,” Firefly said, in what sounded like a valiant effort to shift the conversation to a more cheerful topic. “Or maybe that would be front hoof stands, don’t you think? Because goats don’t have hands, of course.”

“Yes, hoof stands, I suppose so,” Ina said absently, still trying to recall at least a few details of the roses in her disappearing garden. Large blooms, an old bench—of that she was fairly sure. And somewhere nearby, a low wall—had it been brick or stone? And was ivy growing on it? Tendrils of ivy danced in her thoughts, mocking her inability to put together a clear image.

After a minute or so, Ina gave up, committing those meager scraps of information to the imaginary shelf in her mental library that held the fragments of a now distant life. She held onto a small, half-formed hope that if she gathered enough of them, one day they might come together into a pattern that made sense. Her lessons had been like that sometimes, made up of little snippets that eventually grew into a coherent whole.

Firefly was still chattering about goats, or something else just as unimportant. Ina hadn’t paid enough attention to give any meaningful response to it.

“Do you ever remember, Firefly? Anything?” Without knowing what had come over her, Ina suddenly found herself asking the one question that the girls never discussed.

“Remember, you mean—before?” Firefly’s usual cheerful expression turned into a ferocious scowl. “No, and I don’t see any reason why I should want to, either. We have a very good life here. It’s fascinating to learn about the creatures of the forest, river, and prairie. Being a peasant girl in some filthy little village would be awful—working in the fields all day, having to marry some nasty man just because he paid the bride price, and then being pregnant all the time. Ugh!”

Her words were spoken with such unexpected vehemence that Ina suspected there might be some memories lurking behind them, despite the denial. Whether or not that was so, it was plain that this conversation was over—even before Firefly turned her back to Ina and pulled the covers up over her head. Phoenix had closed her eyes, probably not asleep, but doing a creditable imitation of it.

Now it is time to rest, Ina communicated to the candle’s small flame, which obediently quenched itself. Staring into the darkness, she found herself quite unable to take her own advice. Her mind was anything but restful as an endless parade of questions stormed through it. Who had lived in the house with the roses and the old bench? Did she have a family waiting for her to come back? Were they grieving her loss? Would she ever find her way home to them again?

Click here to continue to Part 11.

To read Part 8, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Dry leaves on the forest floor, dappled in late-afternoon sunlight, crackled underfoot on the dusty path. Ina barely noticed them because the crickets trilled so loudly, announcing the change of seasons. Sunlight glinted, also, from the silver clasp that Luz always wore in her glossy dark hair.

Soon the path took a right turn beside the river, winding ever upward. Water tumbled over moss-bright rocks in the shade of a narrow ravine. Thick ferns jutted out of the banks, with trees clinging to the slopes above.

Photo of a river tumbling over dark, mossy rocks.

They had passed Daphne some time ago, standing as still on the riverbank as if she had been a tree herself. Her eyes were closed and her face blissfully serene.

“She is becoming one with the moss as it grows,” Luz had murmured, in a voice so quiet that it almost could not be heard over the constant background sounds of the crickets and rushing water.

Climbing higher, they had passed Phoenix as well, gazing out from a ridge toward the half-moon on the horizon. Luz had given a brief explanation for that, as well. “She is listening to the moon’s song.”

The path narrowed, taking another turn through a dense stand of laurels before coming out on a stony rise. Only one tree grew here, a majestic oak with a wide-spreading crown that overshadowed the low bushes and grass around it.

“Five hundred years old, at least,” Luz said, following Ina’s gaze toward the tree. “We’ve come far enough; now you must begin your task, which is to feel the storm in the air.”

The sky ahead was clear to the horizon. The cool, crisp air held no hint of rain, and Ina felt only the lightest breeze at her back. She turned her head to glance from one side to the other, perplexed.

“But there isn’t a storm.”

Luz only smiled.

Turning all the way around to look back down the hill they had just climbed, Ina saw a distant line of pale gray clouds. That didn’t look much like a storm to her, but it seemed to be the closest thing she was going to find. The breeze coming from that direction grew stronger as Ina focused her attention on it. Her long sleeves flapped in a sudden gust. Yes, now that was starting to feel more like a storm. The clouds were darker than they had been a minute ago, and definitely closer. The air had gotten thicker and heavier. It was unsettled and full of potential…

Ina felt the lightning strike an instant before she saw it. Although the sky overhead still looked perfectly clear, a huge bolt crackled through the air, striking the old oak tree and splitting it down the middle. The halves, both burning, fell into the dry underbrush. Flames leapt hungrily into the grass and shrubs nearby.

“Oh! I didn’t mean to do that—oh, the forest will burn, everything is so dry.” Ina stood helplessly wringing her hands in dismay as the fire went on spreading, driven by gusty winds that continued to grow stronger.

“You must put out the fire, Ina, now.” Luz cut through her confusion and fear with a brisk command. “Remember all the days you practiced in the library this summer, putting out candles with only your thoughts. Bringing a forest fire under control is within your power, also.”

The roaring flames swept farther into the dry forest, not in the least resembling the tame little candles on the desks in the library. Ina tentatively reached her awareness toward it, feeling its greedy delight as it consumed brush and trees, casting sparks high into the air. The fire felt her presence, resented her interference; it wanted her gone. It snarled in her thoughts, angry as a bear interrupted while gnawing on a fresh kill—and it turned to attack her.

Sensing the change in the storm before it happened, Ina already had leaped backward by pure reflex before a powerful gust lifted a blazing branch from the ground and flung it viciously in her direction. She shrieked, unable to help herself, overcome by terror; but Luz, who looked as calm as ever, made a small hand gesture that sent the branch falling harmlessly into the charred grass.

Ina took a breath of the smoky air and tried to compose herself. The air still felt thick and heavy, and the sky overhead was getting darker—not just with smoke, most of which was still blowing in the other direction. Was it night already? But no, those were thunderclouds above her; she had felt them earlier, just as Luz had instructed, and she had brought them here.

The clouds were so high above the ground that the fire’s intense heat could not reach them. Instead, the swirling wind carried with it the heaviness of the clouds cooling as nightfall approached. Ina searched her thoughts for the word that described this process: condensation. Small droplets coming together, growing larger and heavier until the clouds could no longer bear their weight.

She felt a raindrop on her face, and then another. All at once it was pouring, the rain coming down so heavily that Ina wouldn’t have been able to see Luz, only a few paces away, if the woman’s faint silhouette hadn’t been backlit by the orange glow of the flames. But that glow soon faded; and the rain stopped, just as abruptly as it had begun, leaving a gorgeous orange sunset and a forest that was mostly intact but for a small, soggy blackened area.

“I’m s-sorry,” Ina said through chattering teeth, folding her wet arms across her soaked clothes. She felt that whatever she might say was nowhere near adequate. “I didn’t want to kill that beautiful old tree.”

“It is nature’s way. Everything that lives must die.” Luz turned away from the tree’s charred remains, taking a step toward the path that led back down the hill. “We care for the forest and the world as best we can, but nothing endures forever.”

Click here to continue to Part 10.

To read Part 7, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Water trickled peacefully down narrow channels cut into the stone walls of a room which, Ina found herself thinking, was the principal’s office. A drain in the far corner, with a moss-covered iron grate, collected the flow. Lush ferns and lilies seemed to grow directly out of the walls, but a closer look revealed that they had been planted in clay pots carefully shaped to fit niches in the stone.

Yellow lilies with a dark background.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Three square windows across the top of a wall let in the midmorning light. Along with it, Ina observed, several blue dragonflies had found their way to a roughly cut crystal of the same bright blue, which was displayed on a shelf about halfway up the wall opposite the windows.

Sitting at an oak desk in the middle of the room was the principal—and Ina shook her head in frustration when she couldn’t think where her mind had come up with that word, or even remember what it meant. Something here was not as it should be, despite the peaceful surroundings.

The desk’s occupant was a tiny, ancient-looking woman with thin silver hair in a neat bun. Her skin was so pale as to be almost colorless, and she had soft blue eyes set into a deeply wrinkled face. She nodded twice, without speaking, as Luz stood beside the desk telling her the details of Ina’s outburst in the library. Ina remained standing, as well, although the room had two chairs for visitors.

“Thank you, Luz. I’ll take care of it.”

The old woman’s voice sounded raspy but also gentle, like dry brown leaves rustling in an autumn wood. Luz gave a slight bow in acknowledgment, clasping her hands, and promptly left the room.

“Do sit down, Ina, dear,” urged the woman, her thin-lipped mouth curving into a smile. “The name suits you. In many languages, it means authentic or pure. You feel a strong need to express yourself and to make sense of any conflicts you encounter.”

That clearly wasn’t a question, and Ina sat down without replying. The chair felt very soft and comfortable. It was upholstered in a thick green fabric, and the cushion appeared to be down-filled, to judge from the tip of a white feather poking out of a small tear along one side.

“You may call me Thalassa or, if you prefer, Mother Ocean. We begin our lives here with only one name, but sometimes—as the years pass—we find that it has acquired more richness along the way.”

Ina gazed down at the smooth skin of her hands, which still didn’t feel as if they properly belonged to her. Seeing the rip in the cushion bothered her, for reasons she couldn’t express, and she arranged the full skirts of her new dress to cover it. Arranging her thoughts took more effort. As she looked up to meet Thalassa’s eyes, she finally managed to articulate the question that had been with her since last night’s arrival.

“I want to know why you took me from,” and after a rush of jumbled thoughts and impressions failed to come together into a place-name, Ina finished the sentence more simply by saying, “where I ought to be.”

“That question is far more complicated than you know, Ina, dear heart. It is the work of our lives to determine where we ought to be.”

As sunlight slanting through the central window touched the blue crystal, it began to hum almost imperceptibly. The dragonflies soon lifted away and gathered around Thalassa’s hair, which was held in place by long hairpins tipped with fragments of what looked like the same kind of crystal. Both the hairpins and the dragonflies now glowed a silvery blue.

“I can answer you only so far,” Thalassa continued, “as to say that you were chosen because Mother Earth needs your uncommon talents. The world is in great need of healing, and we have vowed to serve to the best of our abilities. To become fully attuned to the magic that dwells in all things, we must clear our minds of distracting thoughts and memories. You are finding this difficult because you fear a loss of identity.”

Ina gave a slow nod in response, as the blue crystal came fully into the sunlight and its hum grew louder. One of the dragonflies broke away from the group and landed gently on Ina’s right hand, as if wanting to comfort her.

“Nothing is truly lost, Ina; it is only hidden, and only for a short time. For now, you must work on crafting a joyful soul with the strength and wisdom to answer Mother Earth’s call. That you were chosen for this work is both a great challenge and a great privilege.”

Click here to continue to Part 9.

To read Part 6, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

“Don’t think of it as learning how to control fire with magic.”

Glass beads on the instructor’s dress tinkled softly as she spoke. Luz was a short, heavyset woman with black hair, which she kept pinned neatly in a silver clasp, and large dark eyes. She stood near the back of the library, facing a row of desks. Oil lamps along the oak-paneled walls gave plenty of light and a pleasant, woodsy fragrance.

Each of the desks had a shelf with a small candle resting in a dish. Luz had lit the candles with a glance upon entering the library, along with the oil lamps. She had put the candles out again just as quickly, after telling Ina to sit down. Ina was her only student this morning; the other girls had gone off with different instructors after breakfast.

lit candle

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

“It’s more about allowing fire to learn how to work with you,” Luz went on. “Imagine that you are training a dog or other animal. It wants to play with you and have fun, but you can’t just let it do whatever it wants—you need to set firm expectations. For today, you’ll start with this candle on the desk in front of you. See the fire in your mind, send it loving thoughts, and tell it what you want it to do. When it lights the candle, praise it as you would a good, obedient puppy.”

Ina took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and pictured herself lovingly telling a small flame that she wanted it to light the candle. Nothing had changed when she opened her eyes again. She tried once more, but she still had no success whatsoever.

Her attention wandered. The library felt stuffy, with no windows. Wouldn’t it be much easier just to say a magic word or two? If this was a library for witches, then shouldn’t the books be full of spells? But the aisle closest to Ina’s desk looked like it had books of poetry on one side and histories of ancient civilizations on the other.

“Okay, no spells,” Ina said under her breath, wondering where she might have gone wrong. What had she done to catch lightning last night? She hadn’t said anything to it, had she? No, the lightning had simply flashed, and she had reached toward it without any conscious intent.

After the lightning-fire had come to her, it had wanted to play, like a puppy—just as Luz had described. Was all fire so playful? Ina turned her attention to the nearest oil lamp, with its flame shining brightly inside the glass. Did it want to do something more? Would it like to hop over to her desk and spend a little time exploring the candle?

The flame inside the lamp bobbed toward her as if agreeing that, yes, it would. A moment later, the candle on Ina’s desk came to life, burning strongly.

“Nicely done!” Luz beamed. “Now you must praise the fire, like a well-behaved dog, for doing as you told it.”

“Good fire,” Ina said, now starting to feel rather silly, “good boy.”

“That was the easy part, you know,” Luz continued. “Persuading fire to burn is easy because that’s what it naturally wants to do. Putting fire out by magic is much harder. Then you’re going against its natural instincts. You are asking it to trust that you will take good care of it and that, when the time is right, you’ll let it burn again. That takes a lot of trust.”

A memory flashed into Ina’s mind. A small golden-brown puppy sat on a carpet, with a treat not far away. His tail quivered with excitement, but he dutifully sat still. Late-autumn light slanted through the windows. Ina heard her own voice saying “Wait, stay…”

Where had that place been? Why couldn’t she remember—and why had she been taken from that place? Surely the flame on her desk must share those feelings. She had taken it from the oil lamp and invited it to come on a new adventure; it didn’t know why. Now it was expected to snuff itself out meekly, just because she said so? Why on earth would it be willing to do that?

Tears came into Ina’s eyes. Of course the fire would resist. Of course it would! All at once she was crying out, with no idea whether she spoke for herself or for the fire. “How can I trust anyone when I don’t even know why I am here!”

The flame in the candle kept on burning—until one of Ina’s tears fell directly on the wick. Then it went out, with a faint but very final sizzle of betrayal.

Click here to continue to Part 8.

To read Part 5, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Birds chirped in the trees outside the kitchen window on a pleasant summer morning. The two plates laid out on the table for breakfast had a border of pink roses, as did the matching coffee cups. Eggs were frying in the skillet, bread was toasting, and in just a minute her daughter would come in and sit down.

Photo of trees outside a square kitchen window.

(Photo credit: Joanna Bourne)

“Awwwwk!”

A particularly loud, harsh cawing jolted Ina out of a sound sleep. She blinked in confusion at the cool whitewashed stone of the walls and ceiling. Where was she? And where had she been just now, while she was dreaming? All of it had looked and felt so real—there was a window, a big square window letting in plenty of light. It wasn’t at all like the high, narrow slits in the otherwise bare wall above the wooden bed where she now found herself. Elaborately carved animal figures decorated the bedposts.

The dream faded as Ina sat up and looked around. Her bed was on the end of a row of five, and it was the farthest from the door. On the other side of the room there were tables, chairs, a freestanding wardrobe, and two dressers. The furniture was a dark and well-polished hardwood, which reflected the gleams of sunlight coming through the high windows. Thick mats made of reeds in geometric patterns lined the central area of the stone floor.

There was a small partitioned area—a changing room—on the wall directly across from Ina’s bed. She had used it last night, by candlelight, to put on a comfortable nightdress that she’d found neatly folded on her bed. At present, a closed curtain showed that the room was occupied, apparently by Daphne, given the fact that Phoenix was still asleep and both Violet and Firefly were already dressed.

A side door next to the changing room opened onto a high-walled courtyard. Ivy covered the walls so thickly that Ina, making her way toward the latrine at the far end of the courtyard, had no idea whether the walls were of stone or another material. Branches of spruce and fir had grown thickly together overhead, letting in a cool, filtered green light. Their cones and needles carpeted the otherwise bare ground.

It occurred to Ina, after she left the latrine and started walking back toward the dormitory, that anyone who happened to pass by would never see the courtyard. Like the rest of the witches’ compound, it was very well hidden from curious eyes. As far as she could tell, the nearby villagers rarely ventured into the Wild Forest anyway; but it was plain that everything here had been designed to avoid chance encounters.

When she went back inside, Daphne had finished changing and now had on a blue-green dress with brown threads scattered throughout. In the morning light, the fabric shimmered like a river’s surface. The other girls also wore clothing that matched their personas. Violet wore a deep blue, shading into purple at the hem, and Firefly was in black with a sparkling multicolored sash. Phoenix was just now walking into the changing room with an armful of something red and orange.

Ina opened the wardrobe and found that the one remaining dress was white, mostly, with jagged vertical streaks of silver and bronze. The fabric was soft and pretty; but as she touched the dress, Ina felt instinctively that something just wasn’t as it should be.

“That’s a beautiful dress. It will look perfect on you!”

She turned around to see Firefly smiling at her. The cheerful look on the girl’s freckled face had Ina returning the smile and saying “Thanks,” before she’d had time to work out what was bothering her.

Everyone else had gotten dressed by now, and they hadn’t come to any harm from it—or at least, any visible harm. Maybe there was nothing wrong with the dress, and she was just nervous about being in a new place. Carrying the dress into the changing room, Ina tried to sort through her feelings, but she couldn’t make much sense of them.

The white dress did indeed fit her slim figure perfectly, as Firefly had said. She found a hand mirror on top of a dresser and inspected the results. The metallic streaks in the fabric seemed well suited to the young face looking back at her, with its hazel eyes, light brown shoulder-length hair, and smooth clear skin that showed some redness from yesterday’s farm work in the sun. What had gone wrong, Ina finally determined, was that the face itself somehow didn’t match the reality of who she was.

How could that be possible? Ina hadn’t come close to reaching an answer when she heard footsteps and turned to face the doorway, putting the mirror back down where she had found it.

“Good morning, everyone!”

A tall woman in a red dress entered the room. She wore a hat of the same color, embroidered with clusters of green leaves, over brown curly hair. Her nose was thin and slightly hooked.

“I am called Rowan, and I’m very pleased to meet all of you! First we’ll go to breakfast, and then it will be time to get started on your studies.”

The words stirred a vague memory in Ina’s mind, but she couldn’t quite place it. Without thinking about it any farther, she found herself asking, “Will we have lesson plans and classrooms?”

Rowan seemed surprised by the question, and the other girls looked as bewildered as if Ina had suddenly begun speaking a foreign language. After a long and awkward moment, Rowan finally replied in a brisk tone that suggested some disdain for the topic.

“Oh, no—that’s not something we would ever do here! Everyone learns differently, after all, and we have different interests and strengths. Forcing every student along the same path would be a sad waste of potential. What they do in the timeline you came from—well, never mind. You’re here now and not there!”

With that oblique fragment of an answer, Rowan promptly turned away and began leading the girls down the corridor to breakfast.

Click here to continue to Part 7.

To read Part 4, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

The wide stone hallway leading into the hillside looked warm and inviting. The torches lining the walls burned steadily, without noticeable smoke or flickering. Ina had already taken a step toward it before she realized what she was doing. The other girls moved forward with her.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

“Do come in, dear girls,” urged the black-cloaked woman, who was now standing just outside the doorway. “I am delighted to welcome you! My name is Petra, and I am the guardian of this sacred threshold.”

The red-haired girl standing to Ina’s right, who was looking more confident than a minute ago, took another step toward the door in response. “Uh, hello ma’am. I’m Firefly.”

“You are indeed!” Petra declared, looking appreciatively at the swarm of blinking fireflies hovering around the girl. “Your tiny companions have done well, leading you safely through the forest. They have completed their task and are now free to depart with our gratitude.”

At her words, the fireflies immediately began to disperse and soon flew out of sight into the forest’s depths. The red-haired girl entered the doorway as Petra approached the tall girl on Ina’s left.

“Your name will be Violet, my dear,” Petra announced even more cheerfully, extending her arms as if to embrace the glowing purplish moths that surrounded the girl. “To be sure, your little friends are exactly the color of a lovely patch of violets in a meadow on a sunny afternoon. Many thanks to you all, dear moths, and you’re now at liberty to leave.”

The moths began lifting away into the darkness, just as the fireflies had done. Violet, now without escort, took a few steps into the stone hallway and then stopped to wait next to Firefly.

“And you’re Phoenix, of course. Your companion is free to leave with much appreciation for work well done,” Petra informed the dark-haired girl standing next to the fiery bird. Just after Petra spoke, there was a crackling noise like a burning log suddenly falling to the ground in a campfire. Sparks flew up from the bird, and its outline perched on the granite boulder became indistinct, fading into the night air. Petra calmly picked up the flickering orange egg that remained atop the boulder and slipped it into a pocket of her cloak.

“That’s just her way, disappearing like that,” Petra said reassuringly. “No harm done. She’ll hatch again when the time is right.”

The dark-eyed girl in the moss-covered cloak took a deep breath and blinked, but did not speak, as Petra turned to her.

“You’re a dryad, how delightful! Or perhaps a naiad, with this lovely river moss. I shall call you Daphne. We can release the moss now, with our thanks; you won’t have any need for it indoors, and even river moss has a life to which it longs to return, as simple as it is.”

The glowing patches of moss separated from Daphne’s cloak and flowed smoothly to the ground, oozing away in the general direction of the river. Daphne threw back the hood of her cloak, which was now a nondescript fabric of a muddy color. Thick vine-like braids were pinned neatly on top of her head.

Petra then turned to Ina.

“My dear, you have a rare talent. The lightning serves you like a faithful hound. I’ll call you…”

“Ina. My name is Ina.” She knew the interruption sounded surly, but letting herself be renamed without any say in the matter—well, that just wasn’t happening, not tonight.

As if reflecting her sentiments, the hovering ball of witch-fire that Ina had plucked from a lightning flash suddenly burst. It crackled through the air in a bright, arcing bolt, complete with thunderclap, and then dissipated into the night sky. Unlike the other magical guides, it hadn’t waited to be granted leave to depart before it vanished.

Petra looked somewhat taken aback but quickly regained her composure. Turning from Ina toward the girls in the doorway, she clapped her hands briskly. “Come now, my little ducklings, let’s go indoors. You must all be tired after such a long day. A light supper for you, and then it’s off to bed! Tomorrow will be very busy.”

Click here to continue to Part 6.

March 29, 2020 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

To read Part 3, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Beneath the Wild Forest’s thick canopy, the raging thunderstorm soon lost its force. Ina hadn’t yet taken five steps among the majestic old-growth trees before the pouring rain began to sound distant and muted. Even the lightning, bright as it was, barely reached into the forest’s dark depths. After a few more steps, Ina had left the storm far behind and could feel only the warm, humid night air. Her soaked dress seemed to be drying with unnatural speed. An occasional drop of rain still came through the trees, but by now Ina would never have known there was a storm going on if she hadn’t just walked through it.

Photo of a dark forest with a smoky blue glow.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The hovering ball of witch-fire stayed close to her now, illuminating a narrow path that had not been made by human feet. Every now and again there was a hoofprint in the soft ground; probably deer tracks, Ina thought, but she couldn’t see them clearly. Once she came upon pawprints that looked like a large dog’s—but no, it was much more likely they had been made by a wolf.

She found herself wondering, in a strangely detached, abstract way, how she could walk without fear here. Wolves roaming the forest, witches scheming to mysterious ends—surely, there was danger at every turn. And yet Ina knew, with a certainty that went beyond ordinary knowing, that she would come to no harm.

The path narrowed even farther as it began sloping downward. From the thick brush on either side, brambles caught at the hem of Ina’s dress. Water was flowing somewhere off to the right, and Ina thought at first that the path might be leading her back out of the forest, into the storm. Then, as she turned another bend, the witch-fire illuminated a fast-rising brook that was very near to overflowing its banks.

Twisting away to the left, the path began to rise out of the valley, winding its way toward a rocky hillside where lights flickered softly. As she came closer, Ina could see that they were not simply candles or torches but had magical origins, just like the fire that had been her guide.

Four teenage girls were standing near the base of a cliff. A bright swarm of fireflies hovered around the nearest girl, who was short and had freckles and red hair. A taller, dark-skinned girl with cascading black curls was surrounded by a cloud of luminescent moths in bluish-purple hues. Another girl with straight dark hair and broad cheekbones stood next to a large bird whose feathers glowed like fiery embers; it perched atop a granite bounder and had the fierce beak of a hawk or eagle. Rounding out the group was a dark-eyed girl whose hair could not be seen beneath the heavy hood of her cloak, the fabric of which was thickly coated with multicolored patches of gleaming moss.

All of them turned to face Ina as she approached, and the tall girl with the cloud of moths gave her a tentative smile. Nobody spoke, though, and Ina decided she’d better introduce herself and try to find out what was going on here.

“Hi, my name is Ina.” She gave her new acquaintances the friendliest smile she could muster. “Ina Drim. I came from the lake, just a few minutes ago, after the thunderstorm started.”

Instead of giving introductions in return, the girls just stood there looking perplexed. Finally, the red-haired girl spoke in a hesitant tone.

“I am—well, I guess you can call me Firefly. I’m not sure what other name I might have. I’ve been in the forest all day, I think. Maybe.”

The other girls now looked even more confused. The girl standing next to the fiery bird shook her head wearily, as if giving up on the whole idea of speech. Then, as if responding to a signal that no human could hear, the bird broke the silence by cawing once, loudly.

A scraping sound came from the cliff face as a door set into the rocks, which had been invisible until now, began to slide open. It revealed a wide passage, well lit with torches on each side, in which a middle-aged woman stood with arms outstretched in greeting. She wore a black cloak and a wide-brimmed hat—not quite pointed, but close to it. Graying hair tumbled over her shoulders.

“Welcome, my dears. We have been joyfully waiting for you.”

Click here to continue to Part 5.