"I'm back, Miss Myrtle!" Wisteria calls cheerfully as she pushes open the wooden door of Myrtle's cottage, mindful of the overflowing basket on her arm. She's spent the afternoon in the forest that surrounds the cottage, foraging for supplies for Myrtle, as she has done every day since her parents gave her to Myrtle as an apprentice, many moons ago.
Myrtle, the nearby town's herbalist and apothecary, comes out of her smoky kitchen to greet Wisteria, wiping her hands on her apron. She is well advanced in years, but her step is sprightly and her eyes are bright and sharp.
"It's good to have you back, dearie. Oh, and I see the basket is full! Bring it in, bring it in," Myrtle exclaims. Wisteria follows Myrtle into the kitchen, where a pot of something syrupy-smelling simmers on the stove. "You've found a green pinecone?"
"Sticky with sap and green as the summer maple leaves." Wisteria pulls the pinecone out of her basket. Myrtle seems really excited about something, she observes, but she decides not to comment on it.
"And yew berries?"
"Picked the bush clean. They're tied up in handkerchiefs, there, to keep them from getting everything else gooey."
"Perfect. And the webcaps?"
"Yes, there. I wove a little cage together from sticks and honeysuckle vine, to keep them from being crushed. You said you wanted them whole."
"And so I do, so I do! Thank you so much, Wisteria. These are all perfect." Myrtle tucks these specially requested items into pockets of her apron, humming a strange little tune to herself. "I'll just need this and that...and a few of these," she continues, taking a couple of jars from the shelves on the north wall and a bundle of dried herbs from its hook on the ceiling as she speaks. "Wisteria, be a dear and get some fresh candles, a good sharp sewing needle, and a tinderbox for me. I'll be in my workshop. Join me there."
"You want me to...come into the workshop?" Wisteria asks, hardly daring to believe her ears. For as long as she's lived with Myrtle, the small room at the back of the cottage that the older woman calls her workshop has been strictly off-limits to Wisteria.
"Yes, of course, dearie. It's time you learned a new part of my craft. Hurry up!" Myrtle is already in the workshop, and Wisteria scrambles to collect the needle, the tinderbox, and as many candles as she can carry from around the cottage. Equal parts excitement and trepidation, Wisteria approaches the workshop door, which is standing open, inviting her inside.
The workshop is a small, windowless room, and would be dark as a crypt without the light from the open door. Myrtle kneels on the smooth stone floor, crushing yew berries and using them to draw something. This is very different from the rest of the cottage, Wisteria muses, glancing involuntarily over her shoulder at the wooden interior and many windows of the home she and Myrtle share.
"Ah, good. Set about lighting those candles, and the others in the room, would you, dearie?" Myrtle directs as Wisteria's shadow obscures her floor drawing from the light of the doorway. "You'll find stands and things for the ones that need them. Things are just scattered all over."
Wisteria finds that Myrtle is right; the workshop is larger within than it initially appeared to be, and even with the meager light she has no trouble locating candle-stands and the like amongst the clutter at the room's edges. She is quick and sure in her work of candle-lighting, though she cannot help but wonder what Myrtle is doing.
As soon as Wisteria lights the last candle, Myrtle shuts the workshop door, but there's plenty of candlelight for both women to see their surroundings well enough. The smashed yew berries have yielded an intricate circle on the floor, with five smaller circles spaced equidistantly around its border and a sixth small circle at the large circle's center. Myrtle has deposited the green pinecone, the webcaps, and the dried herbs in three of the peripheral circles. As Wisteria watches, she takes what looks for all the world like an eyeball from one of her jars and places it in the fourth peripheral circle. Wisteria wants to ask what it is, what Myrtle is doing, but the words won't come. She's always been kind to me. She took me in when my parents wouldn't care for me, Wisteria reminds herself.
Meanwhile, from the other jar Myrtle produces a desiccated arm of some small creature and places it in the final peripheral circle. Then she takes the needle Wisteria has pinned into the hem of her own apron.
"What are we doing?" Wisteria asks finally. Myrtle's excited secrecy and the strange objects from the jars have frightened her.
"Don't be afraid. I've taught you all I can teach you myself. Now you must learn from the ones who taught me," Myrtle explains cryptically as she pricks her finger with the needle. She catches Wisteria's hand and pricks one of her fingers, as well. Wisteria yelps involuntarily.
"Each of us lets one drop of blood fall in the center of the circle," Myrtle directs.
She's always been kind to me. This must be for the best, Wisteria tells herself sternly, forcing herself to follow Myrtle's instructions while trying to stop herself from shaking. She holds her pricked finger over the central circle and squeezes it, imitating Myrtle beside her.
At the same instant, their respective drops of blood fall to the center of the circle, splattering the cool grey stone. Myrtle starts to chant something, words Wisteria doesn't know, in a spooky, rhythmic, rhyming cadence. A wind springs up out of nowhere, making the candles around the room flicker.
Wisteria bites her tongue to keep from gasping as the yew berry goo of the circle on the floor starts to pull the items placed in the peripheral circles toward the center. The wind in the room also comes to the center of the circle, swirling into a small whirlwind that sucks up the material that seemingly summoned it.
This is too much, Wisteria thinks, and she turns to flee the room, but Myrtle's hand catches her wrist and clamps down hard, keeping her there even as her chanting continues.
Wisteria looks back to the whirlwind to find that it has spun together a small leafy creature, no taller than the average house-cat but seemingly comprised entirely of leaves and vines and bark. Two eyes like shining red berries gaze out at Myrtle beneath the plume of foliage on its head.
"What is it you seek, mortal?" the creature asks. Its voice sounds like a summer breeze stirring the branches of the trees, and Wisteria trembles. It looks like it's too small to be any danger, she tells herself. But I've never seen anything like any of this before! How could I live with Myrtle all this time and not know--
"I seek for my ward to receive the gift of the forest, just as I did long ago," Myrtle tells the creature, jerking Wisteria forward.
The creature's crimson eyes look Wisteria over, taking in her terrified expression and trembling limbs with something like compassion. "She must be willing."
"Of course she's--"
"What do you mean, gift of the forest?" Wisteria asks tremulously. Frightened though she is, she cannot deny that she is intrigued. Who is this small creature? How did Myrtle know how to summon it?
"To see things unseen, and walk paths untrod. To know what the trees know, and hear what all creatures that shelter amongst the trees would say," it answers her cryptically. Somehow, its breezy voice soothes her. "But in exchange for this knowledge, you must never stray from the forest, and you must protect it until your dying breath. If you break your oath, the forest will consume you. Though you try to leave, the forest will never leave you."
Suddenly Wisteria is not in the workshop but floating above a road somewhere, a small distance from a wood. A woman walks along the road, away from the wood, and suddenly cries out as her feet stick fast at the road's edge. Bark encases her ankles and creeps up her body as she twists and contorts, her arms stretching skyward and fingers and hair extending into gnarled branches. In mere moments she is no longer a woman but a wizened tree, alone at the side of the road.
Then Wisteria is back in the workshop, panting, her eyes fixed on the small leafy being that she and Myrtle summoned.
"Well, child?" Myrtle prompts her. "This is what I've been training you for."
Wisteria considers the question for a moment. Myrtle helps people, everyone who comes to her, from this cottage in the woods. And since my parents left me here I've felt more at home amongst the trees than I ever did in town.
"I am willing," she finds herself saying. Her eyes meet those of the summoned creature. It studies her again for a moment, and then it nods.
"Give me your hand," it directs. Instinctively Wisteria offers the creature the one that Myrtle pricked in the summoning ritual. The creature's small hand touches her pricked finger with a thorn of its own, and then--
Wisteria's eyes snap open to see the thatch ceiling over her bed in Myrtle's cottage.
"Wisteria, dearie, it's time to wake up," Myrtle is calling from the kitchen. Wisteria sits up and rubs her forehead with one hand as the visions of the small leafy creature fade from her eyes. Her gaze falls on her other hand. Around the base of the finger that was pricked, a green wreath of tiny leaves is etched into her skin.
It wasn't a dream, Wisteria realizes.
"Coming, Miss Myrtle," she replies, getting out of bed and making herself presentable.
"I seem to be short of blackberries for breakfast, Wisteria. Would you mind going into the forest and fetching some?"
"Right away, Miss Myrtle." She ties a scarf over her head, grabs her basket, and walks out the front door as she has hundreds of times before.
"I wonder what new things the forest will show me today?" she murmurs to herself, walking eagerly into the embrace of the trees.