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.”

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 pale pink dress entered the room. She wore a hat of the same color, embroidered with green leaves and very realistic ladybugs, over long curly hair of a warm oaken brown. Her nose was thin and slightly hooked.

“I am called Rosa, 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?”

Rosa 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, Rosa 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, Rosa 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.

Long ago, in a cabin deep in the forest, there lived a woodcutter’s wife who imagined on Christmas Eve that she saw an angel through the fog outside her window. That was, at any rate, how her husband described it when she told him about it.

“You’re imagining things, Lindy. It’s only a trick of the light reflecting from the snow,” he said impatiently. There were chores left to do, as always. Time couldn’t be wasted with foolish daydreams.

When Lindy looked again, nothing was there in the twilight but snow and fog. “Yes, that’s what it must have been, George,” she conceded, as she began closing the blinds.

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright. The only angels to be seen were the statues at the church and the ornament atop the tree. After church, Lindy had a busy day preparing the holiday meal with help from her daughters, who were grown and married with small children of their own, but lived nearby.

After the roast beef had been eaten and the gifts exchanged, Lindy wasn’t expecting to see anything besides a happy family around the tree. When she stepped outside on this frosty evening, she had in mind only to say goodnight to her departing children and grandchildren. Standing on the front walk, however, she distinctly saw a silvery figure with glowing wings in the moonlight.

“I saw the angel again just now, George,” she declared, as she stepped back into the cabin’s warmth. “At the edge of the clearing, where the road leads into the forest.”

“Hmph,” he snorted. His muscular neck rippled under his graying beard. “Nonsense. It’s probably the change of life—doesn’t that give women strange thoughts sometimes? You’d best come with me into town in the morning, so that you can see the herbalist while I deliver wood. Maybe there’s a potion for what ails you.”

Although Lindy hadn’t been feeling at all poorly, she supposed there couldn’t be any harm in seeing the herbalist. She felt certain that George meant well; he was a sensible man and a good provider. And, however distinct the figure might have looked to her, seeing angels surely was out of the ordinary.

“I’ll come along with you, George,” she agreed.

They rode into town early in the morning with a cartload of wood drawn by their brown ox, Ralph. Strong and well trained, Ralph had been a dependable beast for many years. When they reached the town’s narrow, cobblestoned streets, Lindy hopped down at the corner where the herbalist’s small shop stood. She crossed the street, being careful to hold her long dress up out of the half-frozen muck.

A bell jangled when Lindy pushed the door open. Candles gave off a pleasant apple-spice fragrance, illuminating shelves full of jars and sacks. The herbalist, a kindly woman named Kate who was short and round-cheeked, asked Lindy what had brought her to the shop on this fine winter’s day.

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Lindy confessed, taking in a deep breath of the apple-scented air. “I saw an angel outside my cabin—twice. George says that I’m only imagining things, and he wanted me to ask if you have a potion for that.”

“For angels?” Kate’s friendly laugh was melodic, blending with the high chime of a clock that had started to strike the hour. “Most likely, you just have a touch of the winter blues. No cause for worry—a good tonic will soon have you feeling right as rain.”

Lindy left the shop with a small stoppered flask, which Kate assured her would remedy most winter ailments. She dutifully took her afternoon dose when she returned to the cabin with George. It tasted of mint, among other things. When no angels appeared for the rest of the day, Lindy went to bed thinking that perhaps she’d been cured.

She woke long before dawn the next morning, jolted out of a sound sleep by howling winds that shook the cabin ferociously. George hurried to hitch Ralph to the cart by lantern light. Tiny particles of swirling snow left no doubt that a bad storm was coming; today’s wood needed to get delivered right away, before it got worse.

“Stay indoors after you collect the eggs, Lindy,” he warned. “Don’t wander off chasing angels. It feels like there’s a blizzard on the way.”

Lindy nodded in agreement. She didn’t need any convincing; the wind-driven snow stung her face bitterly, even through a thick scarf. After George drove away, she plodded out to the chicken coop, head down, with no thoughts of anything but getting back inside the warm cabin. It wasn’t until she reached the coop that Lindy raised her head and saw the angel standing, large as life, only a few paces away.

“Who are you?” Lindy asked, looking into the angel’s shimmering silver eyes as the otherworldly figure loomed above her, wings outstretched as if about to take flight. “What do you want from me?”

The angel only smiled, extending a hand in invitation. When Lindy took a step closer, the angel, hovering just above the frozen ground, began to drift slowly back toward the forest. Lindy felt compelled to follow, even though George had told her to go back inside after getting the eggs. She hadn’t yet collected them, after all; so she wasn’t exactly breaking a promise.

Soon Lindy found herself among the trees. Dawn brought only a weak light, barely enough to see a path that was quickly becoming obscured by new-fallen snow. The angel still gleamed brightly, not far ahead of her.

Footsteps crunched to her left, and Lindy turned her head. She recognized her son Peter mainly by his tall stature and nimble gait, rather than by his face, which was covered against the biting wind like her own. He carried a sack over his shoulder, from which a beaver tail protruded.

“What are you doing out here in this storm, Mother?”

“I saw…”

Raising a hand to gesture toward the angel, Lindy looked in that direction again, only to find that the silvery glow had vanished. The path she had been following sloped gently downward, barely visible through the thickening snow.

“Nothing,” she said quietly, as much to herself as to Peter. “I must have imagined it.”

“Mother, go home now. Whatever you saw, this is no day for anyone to be out of doors. I’m going back to my cabin as soon as I check my last trap.”

Without any argument, Lindy turned back toward home. She made her way along the path as much by memory as by sight; the whirling snow blotted out every landmark. When she got home, she collected the eggs right away and went straight indoors, as George had told her to do. No more foolish visions of imaginary angels for her.

It was much later in the day when George returned, shivering and covered in snow. Lindy took his coat and hurried to pour him a mug of hot cider while he stood by the fireplace warming his numb hands.

The empty cart had overturned in a strong gust, George told her, not far from home. The harness had snapped. Ralph the ox, spooked by the crash of a tree falling close by, had bolted into the forest. His tracks had disappeared almost at once in the blowing snow, and George had not been able to find him anywhere.

“I’ll have to go back there right away and search for him again, Lindy. We can’t lose our only ox. If he’s not found soon, he could freeze to death or be taken by wolves.” George drained his cider, handed the mug back to Lindy, and reached for his coat. “Keep an eye out—it’s possible Ralph may come back on his own.”

After George trudged back out to the road, which couldn’t be seen at all by now, Lindy went to take a look around the outbuildings. There was no sign of Ralph, but of course that didn’t mean much; the snow was falling so heavily that Lindy couldn’t have seen the ox unless he came within arm’s reach.

Muttering about how useless this was, Lindy turned a corner of the barn and found the angel standing directly in front of her. A radiant, benevolent smile graced the angel’s smooth features. Lindy, however, was in a very uncharitable mood by now.

“Just what are you doing here, you horrid thing! Are you trying to get me killed in this blizzard?” She advanced on the angel, waving her fists furiously. “You’re not real—and even if you were, I don’t want you interfering in my life! What good are you? It’s all your fault that my husband thinks I’m crazy—and I may very well be losing my mind, talking to you when you can’t possibly be real! And now the ox is lost, and without him we’ll have no money to buy food this winter, and, and…”

Lindy had been taking angry steps toward the angel with every few words, not realizing what she was doing. All at once she noticed that she wasn’t standing next to the barn anymore. Instead, snow-covered trees surrounded her. The angel had led her into the forest without her being aware of it.

“Now I’m sure you must be trying to kill me!” Lindy shouted, turning on her heel to go back to the cabin. She had lost all sense of direction by now, though. It wasn’t possible to retrace her footsteps, which already had disappeared under the thick snow; and nightfall was coming fast.

After she blundered around for several minutes without coming back to the clearing, Lindy saw the angel with open hands, beckoning to her.

“And just why should I follow you,” Lindy demanded, “when you’re responsible for getting me lost? I have no reason to trust you. Less than no reason!”

The angel silently beckoned once more and then glided away through the trees, leaving Lindy alone in the deepening gloom without any idea of how to get home.

“Wait, wait, don’t go away—I didn’t mean it!” Now starting to panic, Lindy hurried to catch up to the angel’s fading glow. Rocks underfoot, snowbanks rising on both sides, and indistinct shapes of trees looming high overhead came together in Lindy’s mind, showing her where she was. The angel had led her into a ravine not far from her cabin.

Just ahead, an animal bellowed in fear and pain. It was the lost ox. Ralph had gotten his forelegs tangled in a pile of fallen branches and could not move. Although most of the branches were too large and heavy for Lindy to pick up, she found a smaller one that would work as a lever to shift the others. After a few minutes, she was able to free the ox. Ralph had a few cuts and bruises but was not much worse for wear.

When Lindy looked up, she was not surprised to find that the angel had disappeared. That was all right; she knew how to get home. The storm had almost ended, and the setting sun’s faint rays helped Lindy to find her way. Ralph obediently limped along beside her.

George came home soon afterward, while Lindy was in the barn tending to Ralph’s injuries.

“He was in the ravine,” Lindy said, rubbing more liniment on the right foreleg.

Looking puzzled, George asked, “How did you find him in the storm? The snow was so thick, I walked in circles for hours and couldn’t see a thing.”

“The angel showed me where he was.”

“Hmph.” George looked as if he might have wanted to say more, but then—evidently thinking better of it—he closed his mouth again. Lindy finished tending to the ox and went back inside the cabin with George.

——————————

The Crone’s knitting needles clacked busily away as she finished a row of her scarf-in-progress. Leaving it in her lap, where it had been when she started telling me this story, she picked up a gingerbread cookie from the plate on the end table.

“Did Lindy ever see the angel again?” I asked.

Taking a bite of her cookie, the Crone chewed meditatively for a moment before she gave the question back to me.

“Well, what do you think—did she?”

“Yes. Maybe.” I paused to arrange my thoughts in a more sensible order. “If she had a reason to. If something happened and she needed help.”

“Indeed.” The Crone gave me an encouraging smile before she went on to say, “Wayfinding is much easier when we trust that help will be there for us, even if it doesn’t always come as we might expect.”

This is the second story in a series. Click here to read the first.

At first glance, the tiny speck circling high above the white stone walls of the Romanian castle might easily have been taken for a hawk or an eagle. I had come here in search of something else, though; and I wasn’t at all surprised when the long, scaly wings of a dragon became visible.

Dragon next to a white stone castle, with water pouring down.

(Image by Philip A. Benyola, Jr.)

The castle, built on high ground above what once was a medieval town in the Transylvanian hills, had been converted during the communist era into the municipal utility building. It now served as both the waterworks and the control facility for a hydroelectric power station. Or, to be more precise, those had been its functions until the sudden appearance of dragons had sent its workers scurrying away in a panic.

“Well, Chris, at least it’s not a nuclear power plant,” my companion Shay observed, as we stood beside the flooded main road into town. The wide-open sluice gates must have been letting massive amounts of water flow past the castle for days. A truck engine started up and then roared away—again, not much to my surprise—as the town official who had given us a ride from the Bucharest airport evidently had second thoughts about sticking around.

“Small mercies,” I agreed, glancing down at our dusty suitcases, which held our fire suits and other dragon-wrangling gear. Shay and I had gone into business three years ago in Tennessee as Dragon Control, Inc., after the skies above Knoxville mysteriously filled with dragons one evening. Nobody had ever discovered why. Until now, we’d thought Knoxville was the only area affected—and then we learned otherwise last week when we got frantic phone calls from Romanian officials pleading for our services.

They had wired us a generous amount for expenses, with the promise of much more if we succeeded in ridding their country of dragons. Shay and I hadn’t needed much convincing to take off for an international adventure. We had been training a few assistants in Knoxville who could handle things well enough—we hoped—in our absence.

The road curved steeply upward through a thick forest, which didn’t seem too creepy on this bright, sunny afternoon until I heard rustling leaves very close behind me. I spun around, alert for danger; but there was only a tiny old woman climbing slowly onto the road from a path.

She wore a long multicolored dress that looked like something out of a medieval fairytale, with thick stockings and heavy shoes. Curly gray hair, which seemed to have a mind of its own, tumbled over a colorful shawl. Her face was deeply lined, and the hands leaning on her walking stick were gnarled and spotted.

“Be welcome here, dragon slayers,” she said in accented but understandable English. “Your arrival was foretold in the ancient prophecies and has long been awaited.”

I figured this was a roundabout way of complaining that we’d taken forever to get here. If so, it seemed unfair, considering how far we had traveled. Deciding to ignore it, I answered what she’d said first.

“Ma’am, we appreciate the welcome, but we are not dragon slayers. We are modern animal-control specialists, licensed by the State of Tennessee, and we capture and relocate dragons humanely.”

She just kept on nodding, as if she’d been so certain of her description that nothing would change her mind. Then again, maybe what I’d said just didn’t translate well into her language, or she didn’t know enough English to make sense of it.

“You are the one chosen to travel through the sorcerers’ portal,” she declared, staring fixedly at me with wide hazel eyes as if she’d totally forgotten Shay was here. “You are the Hermaphrodite, the one who is neither female nor male, drawing upon all the powers of the earth and sky.”

My first thought was that she must have been reading too many fantasy novels. Even in a forest in Transylvania, who really believed that stuff? And hadn’t she ever seen a genderqueer person before?

Shay, bustling around by our suitcases, saved me the trouble of having to reply when he spoke. “Uh, Chris, you might want to put on your fire suit now. That dragon is heading straight for us.”

I grabbed my gear from Shay, who was already suited up. Sure enough, the dragon was very near the treetops and coming this way fast. It was much bigger than we had expected. Most of the dragons we’d captured in Knoxville had been about the size of the steers that Shay wrestled in the rodeos, but this one easily could have swooped down on an elephant and carried it off.

Tugging my visor into place, I looked through it, finding the view not at all improved. Daddy Dragon was bearing down on us like a tornado, and he didn’t look any smaller. He probably could’ve carried off two elephants, one in each front claw.

I stood there without moving, as did Shay. Out local visitor didn’t run away either, which did surprise me. Wearing our fire suits didn’t actually make it much safer for us to stand facing down this behemoth, given the fact that he could squash us flat no matter what we were wearing. But at least we looked like well-equipped professionals. Not soon-to-be-dead ones, I hoped.

Just as the dragon’s shadow fell over the road, he disappeared.

Literally. Disappeared. Meaning that I had been looking directly at him, and an instant later he wasn’t there.

I turned my head from side to side. Nothing. The Romanian woman was still standing right next to me, placidly nodding, like vanishing dragons weren’t anything new around here.

When I took off my headgear for a better view without the visor, that was when I saw the sorcerers’ portal. Or at least, that was what I assumed the woman had meant when she used that term. Just above the road, extending for a short distance above the trees on either side, a square of blue sky flickered like a poorly streamed video.

Shay, who was also bare-headed by now, stared at the portal for several seconds before he said what we both were thinking.

“No way either of us is going through that.”

The factory doors gaped wide on this hot and sticky Tennessee afternoon, without a worker in sight. Someone had taped a BEWARE OF DRAGON sign crookedly to the outside wall before heading for the hills. I parked my truck and walked through the doors, well protected in my fire suit as I searched the rafters for the troublesome dragon.

Yup, there she was, busily building a nest out of boxes and pallets. Her golden-green scales gleamed in the harsh light from the fluorescent tubes. She was about the size of a small horse, with broad, flaring wings. Evidently, she wasn’t at all happy with my intrusion on her nesting space. She turned her head toward me, hissed angrily, and shot a thin stream of flame in my direction.

Green dragon in side view.

(Picture from publicdomainpictures.net)

I wasn’t always a dragon catcher. Three years ago, I was working at an Amazon warehouse with my buddy Shay when we heard there were dragons all over downtown Knoxville. At first we thought it was a hoax, but then some of our friends said they had seen the dragons, for real. So we drove into the city after work. Sure enough, there they were, roosting all over the rooftops like a flock of oversized pigeons.

Nobody had any idea where they’d come from. The most popular theories were secret government experiments or an alternate universe. But however they might have gotten here, nothing was being done about them. The Feds just wanted to send biologists to study them. Tennessee’s politicians were gleefully seeing dollar signs from dragon tourism. Most folks in Knoxville were totally freaking out, needless to say; but the Feds weren’t letting anyone shoot the dragons, and the animal control officers’ union was threatening to strike if anyone ordered its members to capture them.

“What a bunch of wusses, threatening to strike,” I said to Shay, who had grown up on a ranch in Texas and was a regular competitor in the bull-riding and steer-wrestling events at the rodeos. “I bet you could catch a dragon, couldn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure, Chris. No problem. They’re just animals, right?” Shay scratched his bushy red beard. “You gotta show ‘em who’s boss.”

The next day, I asked a guy at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce to help me write a business plan. He was so thrilled to find someone brave enough to start a dragon-control business, he practically wrote it for me. When I set up a crowdfunding page, contributions from the long-suffering citizens of Knoxville poured in. Shay’s cousin Wanda designed a fancy logo with a hog-tied dragon thrashing and spitting fire.

In all honesty, most of the time it’s not that hard to catch a dragon, once you’ve learned how to go about it. When I went after that dragon building a nest in the factory’s rafters, I ignored her warning flame and took another step forward. Then I tossed down what looked like a big, juicy steak on the concrete floor. I took an aerosol can from my pocket and sprayed some raw-meat scent, just to make sure the dragon would notice.

“Chow time!” I announced cheerfully. “Fresh meat! Come and get it! Yummy, yummy!”

Slowly taking a few steps backward, so as to give the dragon some space, I kept a close watch on her. Most dragons were impulsive enough that they went for the bait quickly, and this one was no exception. Spreading her wings, she glided toward the floor, opening her jaws wide to snap up the steak.

Of course, it wasn’t really a steak. Just as the dragon was about to snatch it, I pressed a button on a remote control, and a finely woven mesh net popped up and settled over the dragon’s head. She could breathe just fine, but she couldn’t see anything, which prevented her from flying away; and although dragons are dumb animals, they usually have enough sense not to breathe fire with their head in a bag.

All she did was sit there on the floor, making pitiful whining noises like a whipped dog and pawing at the net. Shay (who also wore a fire suit, just in case) didn’t have any trouble getting her outside and loading her into the custom-built cage on our trailer.

“Not much different from loading steers for market,” Shay observed in a satisfied tone, after we’d merged onto Interstate 75 and were heading north toward the dragon study facility up in the mountains. Passing drivers gawked, snapping photos with their cellphones. The dragon, with the net still over her head, mostly had settled down by then, although we still heard the occasional high-pitched shriek from the cage. Just another ordinary workday for us.

This is the first story in a series. Click here to read the second.

This is Part 23; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
 

Reluctance to help was one thing; a flat refusal was quite another. Woods couldn’t make any sense of it. Although he did not actually say so, it must have shown on his face because Hioki gave an exasperated sigh. Sitting back down in his desk chair, Hioki turned it to face his visitor and indicated with an abrupt hand gesture that Woods should take a guest chair in the corner, which he did.

“Quit looking at me like I just kicked a puppy. I’m trying to save your silly idealistic ass, Woods—and mine too, while I’m at it. Yeah, okay, we’re supposed to be explorers serving the greater good of science, and all that. And you know, I don’t even disagree that being the first to communicate with a sentient alien species would be amazing. It’s not going to happen, though, for a very practical dollars-and-cents reason. Think about it. What happens if we make a public announcement that we’ve found intelligent life on Europa?”

This was about money? Woods felt even more confused now. Why would the agency not want to spend money studying sentient aliens after it had paid for this exploratory mission? Wouldn’t success mean a lot more government funding? Not having any idea what Hioki was getting at, Woods simply put together a response to the question he’d been asked.

“Well, first of all, the linguists would get to work on translating their language accurately, and other scientists would study their biology and culture. I suppose government officials would negotiate a treaty of friendship and send an ambassador to Europa. Maybe Tiny Leaf,” and Woods paused to reorient his thoughts, just now remembering that Hioki didn’t know the name by which he called the alien traveling aboard their ship, “er, I mean the one here—she might become an envoy on Earth for her species.”

Hioki gave an impatient nod, running a nervous hand through his carefully sculpted hair without even noticing how rumpled he made it. “Right, and would there be any tourists going to Europa? Anything like what we have on Mars?”

“Tourists? No, that certainly wouldn’t happen—or at least, not for a long time. We couldn’t interfere with their world by building hotels all over it. Maybe sometime in the next century, if a treaty allowed for tourism, but of course it would be very limited…”

Hioki interrupted with a loud snap of his fingers, startling Woods. “Bingo. And who stands to lose trillions of dollars by not being allowed to build those hotels?”

That question made more sense to Woods; after all, only one company had successfully brought tourists to Mars. Nobody else had the know-how and the resources. He started to answer while still thinking through the implications.

“That has to be Splotz—but, if everyone knew that Europa had intelligent life, what could Splotz do? Even if they could somehow avoid an outright ban on commercial activity, public opinion would be so strongly against any sort of exploitation that just mentioning tourism would likely cause millions of angry people to stop buying their products.”

“Exactly.” Hioki leaned forward, elbows on knees, his tone low and earnest. “And that’s why they would do everything in their power to prevent such an announcement from being made.”

“How could they? Even if Splotz had, I don’t know, mafia enforcers or something, we’re traveling through space many thousands of kilometers away. There’s nobody on this ship but a few scientists and astronauts. You don’t seriously think any of our crewmates would harm us on orders from some corporate boss, do you?”

“No, they wouldn’t, or at least not physically. What I’m saying is no more than you already know. If you tried to make a report like that without solid proof, it would be discredited and your sanity questioned. Splotz would see to it. Even though Rita Mastroianni looks nice and friendly, she was a company doctor for many years, and you can be sure that’s where her loyalties still lie. You haven’t told her anything about—well, any of this, have you?” Hioki sat up straighter, and his voice took on a note of worry.

“Not really.” Woods glanced down at the tablet he was still holding in his right hand. “I asked her if there were scientific ways to test the existence of telepathic communication. She didn’t seem to take it seriously—told me a story about her aunt who talked to cats, and then suggested that I keep my notes about telepathy in a journal…”

“You’re keeping the notes on this tablet? Not in your official log, and not backed up in the ship’s system? Good. That’s very good.” Hioki reached out a hand that showed evidence of recent nail-biting. “Let me have your tablet for a few minutes. I’ll encrypt the notes for you, so that if Mastroianni does any snooping through your personal things, she won’t find them.”

That sounded at first like a reasonable suggestion made out of friendly concern, and Woods had almost started to hand over the tablet before he thought more about it. Then he pulled the tablet away. “No, you might destroy them.”

Sitting back in a more relaxed posture, Hioki laughed as if he had just heard a good joke. “Not quite as innocent as you seem, are you, Woods? I have to admit that yes, it did occur to me. On second thought, erasing your notes would be pointless because you could easily create them again. So, I’ll just warn you once more to be careful. And to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Splotz or anyone in its management is evil. My parents work for the company, after all. It’s probably no worse than any other. But I will say this much: Growing up on Mars taught me that if you do anything the company wouldn’t like, you had better keep it hidden because if you don’t, there will be consequences.”

Woods looked down at his tablet again while a few possible replies came to mind, most of which had to do with courage or the lack thereof, and the fact that it had consequences too. He knew all too well, though, what could happen to anyone who did not conform to expectations. Letting his thoughts settle for a moment, he gave a mild answer while reminding himself that most decisions were better made after reflection and without judgment.

“I learned 35 years ago that there can be other ways besides hiding.”

July 6, 2018 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

To read Part 2, click here. All parts of this story are consolidated on one page here.

Lightning flashed again, dimly visible around the edges of heavy oak shutters. Ina, wide awake on a straw pallet in a corner of the small cabin, counted to six and then heard the distant rumble of thunder. The cabin’s other occupants all slept soundly—Nellie and her husband John, their daughter Mabel, and little Godfrey in his cradle.

Ina felt that she ought to be sleeping soundly too, after a long day of farm work. She had cleared weeds from row after row of corn and other crops, swinging a hoe till her hands got sore and blistered. Then, after lunch, she had filled a few baskets with early vegetables and sweet black raspberries before helping Nellie to cook and clean until dinner. She’d expected to be fast asleep by now—but instead, something called persistently to her. She felt it at the edge of her thoughts, an elemental energy as strong as the storm that had by now started spattering the cabin with loud, heavy raindrops.

What was out there in the storm, waiting for her? Ina couldn’t see much of her surroundings. The cabin had been dark since Nellie, while reciting a prayer for protection from evil spirits, had latched the shutters and barred the door before blowing out the candles—hours ago, it seemed like. Although Ina could hear the door and its thick wooden bar rattling in the gusty wind, she couldn’t make out the shapes.

Lightning at night.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Light—she needed light to find her way. The next time the lightning flashed, and without thinking about it at all, Ina reached toward the shuttered window and caught the fading glow between her hands, like a child capturing a firefly. It flickered and then brightened, much as a candle would, when she opened her hands to let it hover above them. The tiny flame’s warmth felt good on her blistered palms—but no, there weren’t any blisters to be seen now. All at once, Ina’s hands had healed completely.

The flame rose higher and made a bobbing motion toward the door, like a playful puppy hoping to be taken for a walk. A memory teased at the back of Ina’s mind—it had something to do with a pet she’d once had, but it slipped away, elusive. The flame bobbed again, more insistently. Ina took a few steps toward the door and located her shoes, which were neatly lined up with the family’s shoes on a mat beside the wall, underneath some pegs from which hung thick cloaks.

A sense of being watched came into her awareness. Turning to her left, she found little Mabel standing in a nightgown, with wide eyes reflecting the supernatural glow.

“You’re a witch,” Mabel said softly, in a matter-of-fact voice that held neither question nor fear.

Ina turned the word over in her mind, letting it settle into the empty space where a now-distant identity once had been. It seemed like it fit reasonably well. “Yes, I suppose I must be,” she answered, in the same calm, descriptive tone.

Mabel glanced up at the hovering light, which had by now floated over to the door. Rain pounded steadily on the roof, but everyone else in the cabin still slept without stirring. “Can you teach me how to make witch-fire like that? It’s pretty.”

Putting on her shoes, Ina considered the question. Had she made the fire, or had she simply come upon it already existing in nature, waiting to be found? And was anything about it a skill that could be taught? She had no answers.

“I don’t think so, Mabel. It’s not something that I know how to teach.”

The little girl nodded as if she hadn’t expected anything more. “That’s all right. Mama probably wouldn’t want me to do it anyway. She says witches are evil. But the fire doesn’t look evil, and you don’t either—so maybe, sometimes, Mama could be wrong.”

“Maybe witches, like other people, are not all one thing or the other,” Ina suggested. She couldn’t feel anything evil in the magical firelight or in herself—but then, how would she know what evil felt like? It might seem okay at first glance, like a tree that looked healthy but had rot or insects hidden under the bark. She remembered ash trees dying from the borers, their dry bare branches outlined against a crisp, clear autumn sky. Where had that fragment of memory come from?

She wouldn’t find any answers here. It was time to get going.

Ina lifted the heavy bar, setting it carefully into its slot beside the door. The flame danced eagerly out into the storm when she opened the door a crack. The rain wasn’t dimming its light at all. Ina was about to follow when it occurred to her that Mabel wasn’t quite big enough to put the bar back across the door. She lifted the bar partway, told Mabel to hold it there for a moment, and pulled the door shut behind herself. Although she was instantly soaked through, the rain felt invigorating. The bar clattered into place, and Ina thought she heard a little voice saying “Bye,” as thunder boomed again.

The bobbing firelight already had moved several paces ahead of Ina, in the direction of the Wild Forest.

Click here to continue to Part 4.