All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Nellie stopped in mid-screech when she got close enough to see her daughter’s slack, unconscious face and the bloodstains on the child’s torn skirt. The rolling pin that she had been brandishing fell from her hand, landing with a dull thud on the wet ground. Next to it, a cobweb quivered atop the grass, catching the light in spiraling reflections.

Photo of a spiderweb in wet grass.

(Photo credit: Liz West)

Going down to her knees, Nellie raised Mabel’s skirt just enough to see the large scar that had not been there earlier, from an injury that could have been healed only by magic. She shook her head twice slowly, as if dazed, and then lifted her head and met Ina’s eyes.

“Did you…”

Nellie’s speech trailed off raggedly, as she mustered the courage to go on. She bit her lip and tried again, her voice so faint that Ina, standing a few paces away, could barely hear her words.

“Did you bring her back from the dead?”

Ina took a step closer and replied just as quietly. Although Mabel did not yet appear to be regaining consciousness, it was possible she might hear, and Ina did not want to frighten her.

“No. But it was close.”

Biting her lip even harder, until a drop of blood could be seen, Nellie lowered her gaze again. Her face had gone paler than the child’s as she watched the slow rise and fall of Mabel’s chest. She gathered the little girl into her arms and rose to stand.

Only then, glancing warily back and forth from Ina to her house like a frightened animal getting ready to bolt to its den, did Nellie appear to take in the details of Ina’s bare, scratched feet and sopping wet dress.

“If you, uh, want,” Nellie stammered, her bitten lip twitching as she looked into Ina’s eyes again, “there’s hot tea in the house—I was brewing it just now—and fresh scones. I have a clean dress that you can put on until yours is dry, and ointment and bandages for your feet.”

While that wasn’t an apology or even a wholehearted invitation, Ina supposed it was the best she could expect, given Nellie’s fear of witches. Even if begrudging, it was an offer of hospitality, and it felt like one that should be accepted. Although she couldn’t have explained why, Ina had a sense that there was something more she needed to do here.

This is the 12th story in a series. Click here to read all parts from the beginning.

My feet dangled like a small child’s from the oversized chair when I sat at the table to chop vegetables for Ira’s stewpot. He had given me an odd choice of knives: most were crudely made from bone or obsidian, but one looked like stainless steel, with a cracked and discolored plastic handle. I took a bone knife because it was the smallest.

Even more incongruous was the dainty floral-pattern teacup, complete with saucer, in which Ira had poured me some hot cider. Taller than a beer mug—and with a noticeable amount of alcohol in the contents—it sat on the table next to the rough wooden platter that held the veggies.

Teacup and saucer with a blue floral pattern.

I didn’t mind helping to get dinner started, especially since Ira had given himself the much nastier rat-butchering chore. He was sitting on the front steps—out of my sight, thankfully—and whistling like it didn’t bother him at all.

Another swig of the cider gave me enough courage, or perhaps foolishness, to start questioning him about what the heck was going on here.

“So, Ira,” I began, as cheerfully as I could manage under the circumstances, “how did you learn to be a sorcerer?”

The whistling stopped, and something landed in Ira’s bucket with an icky splat.

“My mother taught me to read the ancient runes. But we have no more sorcerers; they left our world long ago. My spellbook has simple household charms, such as for preserving flowers and vegetables.”

Just my luck, I thought, as I picked up another lumpy vegetable that did indeed seem to be unnaturally well preserved. I could’ve used a powerful sorcerer to send me home, but it looked like what I got instead was a Sasquatch script kiddie.

“Magically teaching me your language in my sleep was more than just ordinary household stuff,” I observed, not quite ready to give up on the possibility. “Does your book have any spells for traveling to other worlds?”

“No. Most of the spells are simple and practical, as I said. There are a few—such as the language spell, and the friendship charm that I spoke over yesterday’s dinner—that once were useful but now have little value. They came from a time when my people lived in great cities, speaking different languages and often going to war. Now, because of the curse, we are few, and the old languages have mostly been forgotten. I never had occasion to use the language spell before last night.”

I chewed on that answer for about a minute (along with a thick glob of fruit peel in the cider) and came to the conclusion I was lucky I hadn’t been turned into a frog by accident. Or an operatic winged rodent. Another of them had just started singing, not far from the door. I was glad Ira didn’t go for his slingshot this time.

“Okay. Can you tell me about the curse?”

“Very long ago, the cities were vast.” Ira’s voice deepened into a storytelling cadence. “The people fought over land and food. Their machines befouled the air and water. Their great boats stripped the seas bare of fish. Left hungry, the dragons destroyed fishing boats, snatched livestock from farms, and set forests ablaze. The people fought back with powerful weapons, but the Last War had no victors. The world was left in ruins, and the sorcerers created portals to escape it. Before they left, the sorcerers cursed us to diminish until we learned how people and dragons both could live in the world.”

Ira carried his bucket inside and dumped the contents into the stewpot, together with my chopped vegetables, some mushrooms, and a pailful of water. He hung the pot over the fireplace and went back outside for wood.

“But I don’t know what the sorcerers might have meant by that,” Ira continued, once he had a good blaze crackling. “The Last War ended long ago. People and dragons have left each other alone for many generations, yet we have not ceased to diminish. The cities still lie in ruins. We scavenge in the rubble like insects. When my mother settled here, she believed that there might be another spellbook hidden in the tunnel under the mountain and that she could learn from it how to break the curse—but she never found it.”

Scowling, Ira stirred the stew with his huge ladle before he turned toward me and spoke again.

“I think it doesn’t exist, and the sorcerers just left us here to die.”

This is the 11th story in a series. Click here to read all parts from the beginning.

I stomped through the slush on my way back toward Ira’s cabin, mentally rehearsing how I would demand that he explain his sorcery. Distracting me from my thoughts, the cheerful trilling that I had taken for alien birdsong sounded again, much closer. I glanced to my right and saw a bird perched on a snowy branch. It resembled a cardinal, but it was larger; and the song I’d just heard did not sound at all like a cardinal’s distinctive notes. Whatever the differences might have been, the bird’s bright red feathers reminded me of holiday cards and winter travels.

(Image credit: The Graphics Fairy)

This wasn’t a trip to a vacation resort, my grumpy subconscious informed me again. When I saw Ira standing in the doorway holding up a white fur coat, however, it did almost look as if I had acquired my own personal Sasquatch valet. Scraps of fur littered the dusty wooden floor under the table where he’d been cutting the coat down to my size.

For a moment, I hesitated, wondering if he might have put an enchantment on the coat. Common sense told me it was much more likely he just didn’t want me to freeze, given my obvious lack of both winter clothing and furry skin. Besides, I wasn’t interested in freezing; so I held out my arms and let Ira put the coat on me. It came to my ankles, comfortably warm, with no weird magical effects—or at least, none that I could notice.

“The coat belonged to my mother,” Ira said in a soft tone, looking past me toward the forest. “She has been dead for three winters now.”

I bit back the complaint I’d been going to make about sorcery, not wanting to sound like an ungrateful jerk.

“I’m sorry, Ira.”

“She was gathering mushrooms on a misty autumn day, and a warhagalla got her.” Turning to look inside for a moment, he gestured toward the big pelt on the floor by the fireplace. “They don’t often range this close to the mountains. Even wild animals can feel the curse.”

I couldn’t feel anything but the warmth of the fur coat, honestly. The bird didn’t seem perturbed either, to judge from the happy chirping. I glanced in its direction and was surprised to find it sitting motionless on the branch, with its beak closed. What other creature, I wondered, might be doing the singing?

Then the bird opened its beak and produced a screech so hideous that my first impulse was to cover my ears. I wasn’t sure if Ira might consider that rude, so I kept my hands at my sides. But evidently, he wasn’t a great fan of the noise either. A stone from his well-aimed slingshot hit the bird right in the middle of the chest, knocking it into the snow.

Without a pause, the angelic singing continued. I saw something moving behind the tree, and then a large flying rat came into view, its mouth wide open as it warbled. Its fur was a silvery gray, and its ears and wings were a rosy pink. A large tail curled over its back.

I didn’t have time for more than a quick glance before another stone flew.

“Hey,” I complained, as the rat thudded to the ground. “I’m sort of a tourist here, you know. Couldn’t you let me discover the wildlife before you start killing it?”

Looking perplexed, Ira was silent for a long time as he tried to sort out my meaning. Finally, he gave a practical answer.

“You’ll be glad enough of the meat when it’s time for dinner.”

All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Ina stepped on another jagged fallen branch, tearing what little remained of her stockings farther into shreds.

She had lost her shoes in the lake rescuing Mabel, and she hadn’t even realized it until she started carrying the child home. Although Mabel’s family lived very close by, Ina was starting to feel as if she had been walking forever on scratched and bruised feet. No, it had been only a few minutes, she told herself sternly, and she could manage a few more.

Staggering under the young girl’s weight, Ina flinched when a green snake passed in front of her. She couldn’t see it clearly in the long grass. Most snakes are harmless, Ina told herself as she took another step, repeating the words as if they were a calming mantra in her morning meditations. Still, she was glad when the snake slithered out of sight into a tall stand of cattails.

(Photo credit: Jason Dean)

The storm had blown through quickly, and the humid air of early June felt heavy and warm. Wild roses, thick with blooms, gave the meadow a pleasant fragrance that Ina would have appreciated much more if she hadn’t been so focused on avoiding their thorns. The hem of her sodden dress kept getting caught; she’d torn it in several places already. Just one more step now, she told herself, trudging along with her head down. And another step.

When she looked farther ahead for a moment, the little cabin where Mabel’s family lived was much closer. Perhaps Nellie, looking to see where her daughter had gotten to, would notice Ina struggling under the child’s weight and come running to help. Then she would understand Ina wasn’t evil after all, and whatever grudges she might have held would be set aside.

Having distracted herself with a fantasy in which the villagers all shed their prejudices and lived forever in neighborly peace with the witches of the Wild Forest, Ina didn’t even notice when Nellie stepped out of the cabin. It wasn’t until the woman came rushing toward her, with something held high overhead, that Ina snapped back to reality.

“What are you doing with my daughter, you horrible witch!”

Ina blinked, not quite believing what she saw. Yes, that really was a rolling pin that Nellie was brandishing. It was still white with flour from the apricot scones Mabel had mentioned.

Dropping to her knees, Ina very carefully set the little girl down in the grass. Then she backed away a few steps, taking just as much care to maintain a calm and unthreatening appearance. Once, in the forest, she had come too close to a wolf den and had been delighted to see the tiny cubs at play, until she’d realized her peril a moment later and stepped cautiously away. She’d learned not to frighten wild creatures or to get between them and their young; and sometimes people, she thought, weren’t all that much different.

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

Dragons wheeled and dove in a clear sky, their mouths open as if screaming in anger, but producing neither sound nor flame. Following the flight of the nearest, I turned my head to the left, and something crinkled under my ear. I was just lucid enough to notice it wasn’t a pillow as the dream faded. The thick fur that had been put over me wasn’t exactly a blanket, either.

I sat up, finding myself still on the bearskin (or whatever kind of animal it was) rug in the cabin where I had fallen asleep. Embers still flickered in the grate, but there wasn’t much heat or light, either from the banked fire or from the sun coming through dirty windows. On second glance, the windows were not only quite dirty, but looked as if the streaked and yellowed glass might be hundreds of years old.

When I became uncomfortably aware of bodily needs, that didn’t come as a surprise after last night’s rodent stew dinner. The cabin evidently had no plumbing, and I didn’t see anything that might be intended as a chamber pot. Presumably Ira, being a Sasquatch or caveman or whatever, didn’t mind going outdoors in any weather when nature called.

With a sigh, I reached for my shoes and started putting them on. Ira, who was sitting at the table sewing some kind of white fur garment with a bone needle, gave me an inquiring look.

“I was just looking for a toilet,” I muttered, feeling rather foolish.

After that uncreative sentence came out of my mouth, I realized that I hadn’t been speaking in English. The words rumbled in my throat like Ira’s mysterious chanting yesterday.

Putting aside his sewing, Ira obligingly opened the door, gesturing toward a line of tall conifers just past the snowy clearing. He replied calmly in the same language. “The necessary is over there, behind those trees.”

Photo of trees in winter.

Taking that to mean an outhouse, I stepped onto the porch, shivering a little in the wintery chill. It wasn’t nearly as cold as last night, though. The wind had died down, and the snow was already starting to melt in the midmorning sun. Slush splattered over my shoes.

Had I really slept that long, or were the nights here shorter than on Earth? A warbling melody interrupted my thoughts, and I saw what might have been a flutter of wings behind the nearest tree. No birds were in sight, however, when I found the narrow path into the woods.

Unfortunately, there was nothing as civilized as an outhouse. There was only a shallow trench, half filled in. A heap of dry leaves, some loose dirt, and a rusty shovel provided the bare minimum for sanitation. Not having any better alternatives, I did my business and shoveled some dirt over it. With a little luck, the makeshift T.P. wouldn’t turn out to be the local equivalent of poison ivy.

Turning back toward the cabin, I considered what I was going to say to Ira, now that he had contrived for me to speak his language. If Ira had anything to do with the sorcery that had literally snatched me out of my world, then it was high time he started explaining himself.

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

While Ira washed the dishes, I took off my shoes and folded my dragon-protective suit into a neat rectangle. It made a reasonably comfortable pillow on the rug in front of the fireplace. I stretched, yawned, and listened to the cozy sound of the flames crackling as I watched Ira put the dishes away.

My self-preservation instincts nagged me again that I’d better stay on my guard. After all, this cabin wasn’t a vacation resort; it was an oddly oversized building on a strange planet, currently occupied by my Sasquatch host and whatever small creatures were squeaking in the rafters. For all I knew, they might be vampire bats, just waiting for me to doze off before they pounced.

I couldn’t muster enough energy to do more than turn my head, following Ira with my gaze as he opened another box. He carefully removed a book that looked ancient, with discolored pages. On top of the book, a bright pink flower had a weirdly lifelike appearance, as if it had just been picked.

Image of an old book with a pink flower on top.

(Image credit: The Graphics Fairy)

Setting the flower back down in the box, Ira carried the book toward the firelight. He thumbed slowly through the pages, holding the book wide enough that I could see it wasn’t in any alphabet I recognized. Neat vertical columns filled the pages.

When he found his place, Ira began reciting the words in a slow, measured tone, moving a thick finger beside the letters as if he wasn’t much in the habit of reading. His voice felt soothing to me, although I couldn’t understand the words. After a minute or so, though, I started to pick up a few flickers of meaning. One word that he repeated three times sounded as if it meant “stranger,” and I understood another word as meaning “magic.”

At that point, the warnings at the back of my mind turned into clanging alarm bells. I had come to this world through what I’d been told was a sorcerers’ portal, which meant it was a reasonable assumption that there were sorcerers in the vicinity. And, of course, sorcerers had spellbooks. Ergo, Ira was casting a spell on me.

Before I could collect my muddled wits enough to decide what to do about it, the spell took effect, and I fell soundly asleep by the fireplace.

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

I hadn’t been walking much more than ten minutes before I saw a cabin through the trees, but by then it was nearly full dark. The two moons, which had taken on a greenish hue after sunset, had risen enough that they no longer seemed perilously close. Their light helped me to stay on the path when Ira, with his much longer stride, got well ahead of me with his lantern. Snow had started falling and already coated the frozen ground near the cabin, where the trees were sparse.

Photo of a snowy cabin at night with a greenish sky.

(Photo credit: US Bureau of Land Management)

The word “cabin” seemed to suit Ira’s house because it was a simple wooden building with the dimensions and general appearance of a hunter’s cabin, although sized for giants. The doorknob, which was barely within my reach with raised arms, came to shoulder height on Ira’s sturdy Sasquatch-like body, leaving me to wonder what sort of people might have lived here originally.

Inside, the cabin felt wonderfully warm after my sojourn in the frigid woods. A fire burned brightly in the large stone hearth across from the door, and a stewpot hanging above it gave off an enticing aroma. I hadn’t eaten since grabbing a quick breakfast at the Bucharest airport in what seemed like another lifetime, and I sternly reminded myself that I’d better keep my focus on looking for potential dangers.

Nothing looked ominous when I surveyed the one-room cabin. The furniture, all made of wood, consisted only of a table, two chairs, and a footstool. Boxes of various sizes were scattered along the walls. A rug covering the floorboards by the fireplace was the pelt of a large animal I might have taken for a brown bear, except that its paws were absurdly oversized and had seven toes. In a corner, another rug on a raised platform apparently served as Ira’s bed. It all looked spartan in the extreme. I heard squeaks and flapping wings from somewhere far above in the darkness of the rafters, but otherwise there seemed to be nothing of concern. Walking across the room, I held out my hands to the fire’s cheery blaze, trying to get some warmth back into my icy fingers.

Ira picked up one of the smaller boxes and the footstool, setting them down next to me and gesturing for me to sit on the box. When I did so, the footstool came to a reasonable height for a small table. Rustling around in the other boxes, Ira took out two chipped ceramic bowls with mismatched patterns, two dented metal spoons, and a ladle that I thought at first might be a shovel. I brushed some dried mud off my makeshift table while Ira ladled stew into the bowls.

When he put a bowl in front of me, steam rose from the bubbling stew in the firelight. Mushrooms were recognizable, and there were chunks of a red root vegetable that looked like beets, along with the mystery meat. No, rodent meat, I corrected myself, noticing part of a tail. Doing my best to look on the bright side, that at least meant Ira probably wasn’t a cannibal.

I hadn’t quite gotten up enough gumption to start eating my big helping of alien rodent stew when Ira, now seated at the table, spoke. Although he was looking directly at me, his voice had the cadence of a ritual chant. Guessing that he might be saying grace, I stayed still, politely waiting for him to finish. Not having grown up in a religious family, I then mumbled awkwardly, “God is good, bless this food, amen.” I picked up my spoon and silently added a more fervent prayer that it wouldn’t kill me.

Ira’s chant had left me feeling calmer, though, as if his words—even though I couldn’t understand them—had somehow brought peace to the cabin. I managed to relax enough to eat the stew like it was an ordinary meal. It didn’t taste half bad, honestly. I wasn’t adventurous enough to eat the tail, however, and left it at the bottom of the bowl. So that Ira wouldn’t feel insulted, I rubbed my belly and let out a loud belch to make clear that my skinny little body had been very well fed.

Chuckling, Ira gathered up the remains of the meal, took a pail of hot water from the hearth, and poured some water into a basin to wash the dishes. The familiarity of that simple chore left me, for just a moment, nearly forgetting that he wasn’t human.

All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

The lake wasn’t very deep where Mabel had fallen from the tree. Ina could stand up easily; the water didn’t quite reach her shoulders. It was murky enough that she couldn’t see the bottom, however, and rain had started to fall. She looked for bubbles or other disturbances, but none were apparent.

Photo of rain falling on a lake.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Mabel couldn’t be far away, but Ina’s foot touched nothing when she swept it in a broad circle. Taking a deep breath, Ina plunged under the water, reaching more widely around herself. Still nothing, and below the surface it was literally too dark to see her hand in front of her face.

With burning lungs, Ina came up for air. She blinked the muddy water out of her eyes and looked again, feeling increasingly frantic; still, there were no bubbles nearby. Was Mabel dead already? Had Ina failed, yet again, incapable of something as simple as finding a little girl who surely had to be right here

A voice spoke in her thoughts—Mother Ocean, from a lesson months ago.

“Ina, close your eyes. What do you see?”

Forcing herself to shove away the rising panic and take a calming breath, setting an intention on the breath out—let Mabel be safe and well—Ina obediently shut her eyes.

There, just to her left, a tiny pinpoint of life energy. So faint, so terrifyingly faint—but she could feel it. Ina reached down again and touched the soft fabric of Mabel’s dress almost at once. She got her arms around the child’s torso, heaved Mabel over her shoulder, and waded up out of the lake.

The rain was coming down in earnest now, huge sheets of it. Ina set the motionless girl down in the sodden grass. Her hands moved almost on their own, as if they knew what to do without need for guidance from her half-panicked mind. Compressing Mabel’s chest, she forced out a big gush of lake water. Had the child started breathing now, or was that only Ina’s imagination? Her skin was so cold, so pale. It was hard to believe she could still be alive.

The pouring rain hadn’t washed away all of the blood on Mabel’s dress where a sharp branch had pierced her leg. Most of the branch had broken off when Mabel sank into the water, but some was still in there. Ina took hold of the splintered end and tugged it out, feeling a gush of blood over her hands.

That means Mabel is alive, Ina told herself, grasping for a tiny shred of reason. Dead bodies don’t bleed; they don’t have a beating heart to push blood out. Fumbling in her pocket for the cloth sacks she’d been carrying, Ina wrapped one of them around Mabel’s wound, and then another. The blood kept seeping around her fingers, however tightly she held the makeshift bandage in place. Maybe it had slowed, just a little…

“This won’t be enough.”

The voice in Ina’s mind was her own this time, but it held the same certainty as the earlier fragment of memory. Of course, a bandage wouldn’t be enough. Even if the bleeding stopped soon, Mabel was chilled through and half drowned, and her unnaturally pale skin showed that she already had lost a dangerous amount of blood. What she needed was a skilled healer, along with shelter, dry clothing, and warm blankets.

None of which Ina could provide right now. Although Rowan had tried to teach her the ways of healing, she hadn’t made much progress. Healing magic felt beyond her reach—unlike fire magic, which Ina always pictured as dancing joyfully, eager to play. If she could call upon healing magic in the same way, it would leap from her fingertips and dance along the child’s injured leg, sparkling with heat and life.

The bandage took on a sudden warmth under Ina’s hands, though she hadn’t consciously invoked magic. Dissolving into a glowing cloud, it first had the deep red hue of blood, shading almost at once into orange and yellow like a leaping fire. Ina felt the heat going into Mabel’s wound, bringing the torn flesh together and mending the damage. It faded into a pinkish mark like a healing scar, and then the glow moved up Mabel’s body to settle in her chest for a moment before fading away entirely.

Moving her head just a little, the child breathed more deeply and normally, as if asleep. She hadn’t regained consciousness, but her cheeks now held a trace of color. Now, she needed to be gotten out of the rain, without delay. Ina tried to control the storm and make it stop raining, but she couldn’t muster up more than a tiny flicker of magic after so much of her energy had been drawn into the healing work.

Ina still had the normal strength of her body, though, and the cabin where Mabel’s family lived was just across the lake. Carrying the child that distance would be manageable. What to do about her mother, Nellie, who hated witches “worse than anything,” might prove more difficult.

One problem at a time, Ina told herself, picking Mabel up again to carry her home.

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

As the lantern came closer through the forest, I couldn’t quite make out who—or what—held it. The shadowy figure loomed above the height of any human; but even so, my best choice seemed to be asking for hospitality, if at all possible. I had no cold-weather gear, and the already-frigid temperature was dropping fast as the sun sank toward the horizon.

Light coming through a forest in the evening.

(Photo credit: Stephen Bowler)

When he came clearly into view—”he” was my best guess as to gender, due to a long and bushy beard—I couldn’t decide whether he looked more like a Sasquatch or a caveman. He wasn’t as much of a giant as the huge door in the tunnel might have led me to expect. Eight feet tall, maybe, and hairy all over like a Sasquatch with caveman-style clothes roughly made from animal pelts.

I figured I’d better hurry up and say something friendly when he held the lantern higher, tilting his head one way and then another, looking baffled to find a scrawny little alien like me suddenly appearing. To give him a better look, I took off my hood, trying—without much success—not to shiver when the wind hit my face.

“Hey there, Sasquatch. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Lovely planet you’ve got.”

Well, maybe it could be called lovely if one were inclined to overlook such minor details as dragons, trolls, and sea serpents. On the plus side, nothing had tried to eat me (yet) in this forest.

I plastered a big smile on my face and then said, “I’m Chris,” pointing toward myself and speaking slowly and distinctly. “Chris.”

My newfound companion beamed delightedly and echoed, in a booming voice, “Cree-iss!” Then he poked me in the chest with a thick, stubby finger—hard enough that I had to brace myself not to stumble backward—and pointed toward his own chest while saying something that sounded like, “Irawaddagummygolly.”

“Glad to meet you, Ira.” I made myself smile even more broadly.

I was pretty sure he hadn’t understood a word I’d said, but he seemed willing to offer hospitality anyway when he turned back the way he’d come, gesturing for me to follow. By then, it had gotten dark enough that I had to focus on making my way carefully through the trees as I trailed along behind him. That was just as well because it distracted me from thinking about other possibilities, such as that Ira might be a cannibal with plans to roast me for his dinner.

I shivered again and told myself, firmly, that it was just from the cold.

All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.


Ina had tensed to run before she consciously knew it. The voice had come from somewhere on her right, high and excited. Had a mob gathered to attack her already, in just the few moments she had been standing here in open view?

Turning, she saw only the high grass and bright wildflowers of the meadow. Bees buzzed placidly among the tall blossoms of purple clover. The lake spread out beyond, its muddy surface rippling in a steady southwest wind. Sycamores along the shore reached spidery branches over the water.

Photo of sycamore branches reaching into an overcast sky.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The branches swayed in the wind, in harmony with the lake’s ripples—but no, farther up in the canopy, a limb shook more vigorously. A small head came into view, framed by rustling branches.

“Hello, witch!” The little girl gave a cheerful wave, leaning out precariously along a quivering branch. Ina recognized her at once; this was Nellie’s daughter, Mabel. The child had been the first person Ina had met, right here in this meadow, almost a year ago when…

“Mama is baking apricot scones. My favorite!” Mabel announced, distracting Ina from a memory that teased at the ragged edges of thought. “We have enough to share. Come and visit with us!”

Ina fumbled for words, pondering how she might give a kind refusal without telling this innocent child her mama would more likely try to kill a witch than offer hospitality.

Without waiting for a reply, Mabel dropped quickly from one branch to another, the pace of her descent quite alarming. The wind gusted, shaking the tree even more; it wouldn’t be long at all before the approaching storm arrived.

“Be careful,” Ina started to say—just as Mabel lost her grip and fell.

The sycamore overhung the lake there, on a slight rise. Mabel had climbed down enough that she wasn’t far above the water. Ina expected to hear a splash as the child fell below the level of the bank, just out of her view. Instead, she heard a thud, followed by a scream of equal parts terror and pain.

The scream continued as Ina ran toward the lake. Just beyond the bank, a large dead tree limb, with several smaller branches attached to it, jutted out of the water. Mabel had fallen directly onto it, impaling her right leg on a spiky branch. A frightening amount of blood had soaked through the little girl’s skirt in just the short time it had taken Ina to run across the meadow.

Then, with a sharp crack, the branch broke, throwing Mabel into the lake. The scream stopped abruptly as the child sank beneath the rippling surface. A moment later, nothing but a few bubbles could be seen.

Ina, keeping her eyes fixed on the spot, flung herself into the water.