Perhaps the fourth time through will work, thought Nevanthi. She had taught many charges through the years but this one demonstrated clear signs of disconnection: while she was quite versed in herb lore, this student seemed to lose the thread during invocations.
Keeping her gaze averted so as not to unnerve the apprentice, Nevanthi quickly proceeded through a second Wrapping to keep winter food stores fresh. Across the room, another sigh escaped the young girl’s lips as she reattempted the 19th step; the ebb of magic flowing away as a wisp of morning mist. Nevanthi joined her apprentice at the work bench.
‘How goes the transmutation?’ asked Nevanthi.
‘I am perturbed. The third-last of the 21 steps eludes me. Perhaps the hazel leaf was not picked at the correct hour,’ Hilda said.
Nevanthi plucked the leaf from the table and allowed it to drop; the leaf floated down in a spiral. ‘It seems suitable for this process. May I ask what happened at home last night?’
‘What makes you ask?’ Hilda glanced up at her aged teacher.
‘Magic of the Wren is tied to the home; your proficiency in these arts is acceptable; the leaf is untainted,’ Nevanthi was short and stout but always let her apprentices know she was in charge.
‘I dropped my Ring of the Gates at the eighth hour. Despite my retuning attempts it is irregular still,’ Hilda’s shoulders dropped uncharacteristically.
The girl ought never to have attempted incantations with a charm in that condition! Such a disconnect! ‘Come,’ Nevanthi said, ‘we might solve this riddle in the shade of the ash’.
‘Yes, Nevanthi. I shall tidy these items away,’ Hilda said.
Nevanthi watched. Clever, gracious and focussed, this student demonstrated elemental wren characteristics, but she was not always so dexterous —
‘Oh!’ Hilda’s elbow knocked a candle into the cauldron.
I do hope the ash provides insight as to Hilda’s disconnection. There is more going on than a mere dropped ring. Nevanthi looped her travel bag across her shoulders. Outside the protection of the oaks, wild creatures may tarry. Better safe than sorry.
Hilda joined her at the threshold clutching her own travel bag.
‘May I suggest you remove the ring to your bag? It’s disharmony may distract your focus.’
‘Yes, Nevanthi. My apologies,’ Hilda said.
‘Never you mind that,’ Nevanthi said with a smile as they donned their cloaks and left for the forest.
The two women seemed to emerge from the trees themselves. The shrine was built within a copse of ancient oaks and the un-dyed hemp cloaks kept the women obscured in the dappled underbrush. Nevanthi seemed to hover over the ground with the lightest of foot-falls and although Hilda strode through the forest, her gait was not quite enough to keep up with the old teacher.
Perhaps the girl needs more training, Nevanthi thought. Perhaps she can connect better out here, on the move, and allowed her apprentice to pass. However, Hilda made two left turns and one right, rather than three right turns and one left: she was leading them in the direction of the hamlet.
Nevanthi’s concentration was suddenly broken by a wolf’s howl.The younger woman whipped her head about but regained her composure quickly.
‘The sun is setting!’ Hilda said.
Nevanthi took the lead and dropped charms from her bag while chanting protection spells. As they wove their way forward, Hilda failed to orient herself.
‘Teacher, where might we be headed?’ Hilda said.
‘We must make for the caves. Somehow the wolf is tracking us. Focus on our path.’
Pushing her anxiety to the side cost Hilda more with each stride. She allowed the scent of the underbrush, the sounds of the leaves, birds and insects to guide her focus back to connection: the paws of the wolf were gaining! She leapt up the rocks toward the mouth of the cave.
‘In we go.’ The older woman seemed to pour through the opening and made a space. Hilda clambered inside and squatted beside her teacher.
‘Your ring.’ Nevanthi’s hand waited, poised.
The moment the ring left her fingers Hilda felt her awareness return: the ways through the underbrush, the wolf seeking them out, driven by some human desire —
‘It is a man-wolf!’ Hilda gasped.
Silencing her with a look, Nevanthi assembled some small stones on the cave floor, creating a small container, and dropped the Ring of Gates into it. Completing the ring’s enclosure with a larger rock, Nevanthi wove a ward of distraction, then placed obfuscation charms just inside the cave entrance. They folded themselves into their hemp cloaks and curled against the rock. The cave held them, embraced them.
The clear chattering of a Wren just outside the cave pinpointed the wolf. The women tensed. A snout poked through the cave entrance and snuffled. Black eyes and pointed ears followed. One paw inside; the next raised. The white horror yelped! It spun and snapped at the tiny birds harassing it from behind.
The women recovered as the man-wolf bounded into the forest under assault.
‘The wrens saved us. This ring must be disposed of.’ Nevanthi was grave.
‘Is there no way to retune it?’ Hilda asked, her hand poised to take the ring from its stone container.
‘The wolves have moved closer than ever today. There are greater forces in the world pushing them hither. This ring allowed them to sense us.’ Nevanthi realised Hilda had no perception, no broader view of their world. ‘Hilda, changes come’.
The apprentice felt a deep jolt: they had just escaped death.
Nevanthi plucked the ring from the rocks and dropped it into her bag, ‘We must dispose of this’.
They rose and left the cave.
The ways seemed to indicate where to go; the underbrush seemed to point toward the copse of ash; the copse seemed to gently pull them closer. The wolf had vanished from senses and Hilda felt the trees confirm safety. Almost dusk, the cool autumn evening settled around them.
Arriving at the copse, Nevanthi pulled the ring out, placed it between two trunks and began to chant. Hilda felt the Ash slightly pull away from the ring.
The chanting stopped. ‘There was a flaw in the making of this ring. Dropping it caused the flaw to erupt.’ Nevanthi’s creased face was calm in trance.
‘May I ask what can be done?’
‘Neither cleansing nor repair may restore it.’
Hilda deflated with the note of finality.
‘Unfortunately, the flaw became connected to you.’ Nevanthi broke from trance sadly.
‘Would you care to dispose of this ring? I do not recommend you touch it again.’
Hilda picked a twig from the ground and slid it through the ring.
‘We may place it in the spring —‘
Hilda suddenly slipped it back on her thumb and crumpled to the ground. Nevanthi snatched the ring off with her sleeve and dashed toward the spring. She flung the ring still 80 paces from the water. The ring sailed through the air in the dark. Through the underbrush a splash reached them.
‘My ring.’ Hilda’s grief flowed into the murky dusk.
‘Come, child. Darkness is no time for us to be out.’ Nevanthi lifted her from the ground. ‘We need to get you home.’
They stumbled through the twilight forest.
Where am I…? Hilda felt very disoriented. An old short woman was helping her along a path in the dark. Err, Nevan? Her mind started to wander. She tripped over roots and stones on the path. She fingered a groove around her thumb where a ring should have been.
‘I shall have you home soon, dear child.’
The old lady seemed kind and was very strong for such a small woman. Seemed somehow familiar, too.
‘Thank you for helping me. I must have tripped over.’ Hilda said.
‘I saw you running from a wolf. You are very lucky.’ The old woman glanced sideways but never met her eyes. ‘I know your village. We should be there soon.’
‘Thank you, ma’am.’ Hilda felt a sense of affinity. Suddenly her stomach rumbled. ‘Oh, I must be hungry,’ she said.
The old lady pulled a leaf from her pouch and handed to her. Hilda took it and slowly put it in her mouth. ‘This is cattail.’
‘Correct, child. You seem to have skills in herb lore.’
‘Yes. It seems I do.’ Hilda remembered hours of study with plants, mixing them and creating remedies. Her mother always needed remedies for her headaches and her younger brother for his rashes. I haven’t seen them in so long.
Through the underbrush Hilda could see some firelight, sounds of men’s voices drifted through the trees, starlight twinkled beyond the clouds. It’s so good to be home!
‘Who goes there?’ a man called out as she approached the gates.
‘My name is Hilda. I ran from a wolf. This is my home.’ She said, stepping alone through the hamlet gates.