Part 1 (written by Carolyn on the blog Nuggets of Gold)

She was thankful for the moonlight shining on her path as she made her way through the deep, dark woods. She jumped as she heard the sound of a branch snapping, and then she realized that it was her foot which had stepped on the branch and snapped it.

She kept walking as she listened to the sounds of the owls calling and of the Nighthawk. Oh how many times she had walked through these woods as a child. Back then if she had to travel through the woods at night the trees loomed over her and used to look so scary, compared to how they seemed in the daylight. Now though the woods spoke comfort to her soul. She felt peace being among the trees and hearing the familiar night sounds.

As the trees got less dense she could tell that she was getting closer to her destination. Her heart smiled as she continued to walk. She was looking forward to seeing the lake again, it had been so long. How many nights had she spent sitting by the lake as she had grown older and wasn’t frightened by the dark any longer? How many times had she come here just to clear her brain and think while she was growing up?

The moon’s reflection on the lake was just as beautiful as she had remembered it. She drew in a deep breath as she wondered again why she had stayed away from this peaceful place for so long. The sounds of the owls were behind her and now the bullfrogs were singing their song. She sat down on the soft grass, touching it with her hands, watching the ripples on the water.

As she stared out into the lake she felt something magical in the air. It had been so long since she had been to this lake, why had she come now? Why had she felt such a strong desire to drive several hours to get here tonight? She propped her head on her knees as she wondered.

The bullfrogs serenaded her and the moonlight danced on the water as she tried to quiet her mind and listen to her heart.

Part 2 (continued by Meg)

Somewhere across the lake, a rooster crowed. The sound carried clearly in the still air before dawn. She blinked, startled; the lake now reflected pale pink clouds instead of moonlight. It seemed that only a moment had passed since she closed her eyes, but somehow she must have dozed off without knowing it.

Rising to her feet, she brushed grass and twigs off her long, full skirt, which came down far enough to brush against wooden shoes fitting tightly over thick homespun stockings. But no, that wasn’t right at all—she had been wearing jeans and gym shoes when she walked through the woods to the lake.

When she turned around, she couldn’t see any path through the tall grass and midsummer wildflowers. Farther back, instead of the familiar patch of woods, a large old-growth forest loomed, with trees much taller and broader than she’d ever seen.

The air felt invigorating; it was fresh and pure, filled with the scents and sounds of nature. She turned back toward the lake, only then noticing how easily her body moved, without the aches and stiffness that she’d have expected from falling asleep outdoors at her age. Although she was in fairly good health at 67, camping in the woods would not have been on any list of her favorite activities.

The landscape on the other side of the lake had changed, too. Where was the new subdivision of expensive lakefront homes that she’d driven past, and the state highway not far behind them? Now there was only a small, tidy log cabin, surrounded by vegetable gardens and—yes, that was definitely a chicken coop.

“Hello.” The little voice came from a girl, also wearing an old-fashioned dress, who was walking across the grass to her left. “My name is Mabel. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

None of this could be real, she thought. There was only one sensible explanation—she was still asleep in the grass where she had dozed off listening to the bullfrogs in the moonlight. “I am in a dream,” she said, more to herself than to her young companion.

Mabel smiled, showing a gap from a newly lost baby tooth. “You’ll have to come and meet my Mama,” she declared, setting off toward the cabin, where a woman had just stepped outside with a wicker basket.

By the time they reached the cabin, the basket was full of freshly collected eggs. Mabel announced cheerfully, “Mama, this is my new friend, Miss Ina Drim. I found her on the other side of the lake.”

The woman had light hazel eyes and a kindly smile. “Good morning to you, Miss Ina. You can call me Nellie. Have you traveled far? You’re very young to be walking through the Wild Forest by yourself—why, you can’t be much over sixteen. And today, of all days!”

Her first reaction was to open her mouth in surprise, thinking that she’d better set matters straight as to both her name and age. But her hands looked young and smooth at the end of her long, billowing sleeves, with no age spots or swollen knuckles. How old was she, really? And what had her name been? The more she breathed this lovely fresh air, the harder it was to remember.

Seeing that she looked confused, Nellie clarified the last sentence. “I meant, today is the summer solstice. Folks say that the witches who live in the Wild Forest use their magic every Midsummer’s Eve to bring girls here from far away, so as to train them in the secret ways of witchcraft. The magic is said to be so very strong, the girls can be summoned from distant countries or even through time itself. They forget everything about their old lives.”

Ina, who by now couldn’t recall if she’d ever had another name, shook her head in denial. She couldn’t possibly have been summoned by witches, could she? No, of course not, that was ridiculous. She’d come here to the lake because of—something about family, and memories, and an old woman. Surely it would all come back to her soon.

“I was visiting my grandmother,” she said finally, not sure whether that was quite right, but concluding that it must be close enough. “And I lost my way in the woods.”

Nellie looked horrified. “Lost and alone in the Wild Forest all night—you’re lucky the wolves didn’t get you! Of course, you’ll have to stay here for now. It would be much too dangerous for a young girl like you to travel through the forest alone, especially today.” Her tone made clear she wouldn’t stand for any argument.

Although her first inclination was to argue anyway, Ina decided that was silly. After all, the invitation plainly was well-intended, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to leave just yet. She might as well stay for a little while—at least, until she could remember where she ought to be.

Part 3

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.

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.

Part 4

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.

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.”

Part 5

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.

“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.”

Part 6

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.

“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.

Part 7

“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.

“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.

To be continued…