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.

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.