The old witch stood in the doorway of the cottage when Farryn emerged from the forest and hastened into the yard. Farryn didn’t bother to pause and open the kitchen garden gate, but vaulted over it and trotted swiftly down the narrow path between plots, her bare feet padding on the well-packed dirt, her staff lifted high so that it did not drag and slow her down.

“You’re back so soon!” she called out as she drew nearer to the cottage and her waiting mistress. “Mistress Venda had an easy labor, then?” She tried to flash an innocent smile at the old witch, but judging by the witch’s expression, the result was not very convincing.

Mother Ulla tapped her fingers against the doorframe. It was unlikely there was ever a time even in her youth when she had been what anyone might call pretty. Such petty concerns as mere prettiness had no place in a life like hers. Time and experience had hardened her face into a wrinkled brown mask, hard as a walnut shell, set with eyebrows that seemed to have a life of their own and a nose that could, in a pinch, serve double duty as a bottle opener. As a child, Farryn had always imagined witches wearing black, trailing robes and tall hats, but Mother Ulla had swiftly disabused her of that notion. Witches wore whatever cast-off garments their ward-folk gave them in payment for their services. If those cast-off garments didn’t quite fit, a witch was clever enough to know how to pick them apart at the seams and make whatever adjustments necessary. The result, in Mother Ulla’s case, was a patchwork overdress of different shades of brown and beige with a little bit of green thrown in there, so often repaired and re-sewn, that whatever the original garment had looked like was long since lost to antiquity.

Her feet were bare. No ward witch worth her salt ever wore shoes.

Ulla twisted her thin lips back, revealing the three teeth still remaining to her. They were unexpectedly white, strong teeth, like ancient monoliths of an older, prouder era, set in the open expanse of her very red gums. Ulla was proud of them and flashed them at every opportunity, be it in grin or grimace. She was definitely grimacing now.

“Lazy chit!” she growled as Farryn came to a halt in front of her. “Back so soon, she says, as though I ain’t been gone a good twenty-four hours tendin’ to poor Venda’s needs, working my poor old hands to the bone.”

Farryn blinked. Twenty-four hours? No, there had to be some mistake. No more than an hour or two could have gone by since she’d written the rune-circle and entered the dream-world. Right? She hadn’t ventured that deeply, and when she’d woken up . . . when she’d woken up . . . .

Was it possible the world had jumped a full twenty-four hours, dropping her back into her own reality one day further along than when she’d stepped away?

Mother Ulla was still in full rant mode Farryn realized. With an effort, she dragged her mind back to the present moment. “And what has the girl gone and done with herself while I’m away?” the witch was saying, and drummed her fingers a little faster on the door frame as she spoke. “Traipsed off. Gally-vanti-fying in the woods, playing her little games, playing with her little spells, and leaving my south plot to fester in its own ruin!”

It was never a good sign when the old ward witch referred to her apprentice in the third person even when speaking to her directly. Farryn opened her mouth, half-wondering if she ought to explain herself. But if Ulla knew she’d been exploring into a strange dream—exploring so deeply that she’d lost an entire day and a night without realizing it—she would go all still and terrible. Then, in a sudden rush of emotion, she would buzz with such an energy of rage that the air around her sizzled, and it would all come bursting out, and Farryn would suffer worse consequences than a mere tongue-lashing for laziness. If worst came to worst, the old witch might break off her apprenticeship and send her home. She’d threatened it on more than one occasion.

So Farryn kept her explanations and excuses to herself and let the tirade wash over her. When Ulla finally ran out of breath and turned away, stumping into the cottage, Farryn followed, her head bowed in an attitude of a chastened submission. The ward witch took a seat in her old cane chair by the cold fireplace and waved a vague hand without offering comment. But after four years, Farryn had learned to interpret even the vaguest of Ulla’s gestures, and she immediately got to work putting a pot of tea on to brew. She also emptied the sack of birthing implements and set them to soak in a bucket of lye soap and vinegar. Ulla had yet to bring her apprentice along for a birthing, but Farryn had certainly seen and cleaned up enough of the aftermath to not press the issue. That was a side of witchery she wasn’t too keen to learn.

Her haranguing temporarily paused, the witch maintained a cold silence until Farryn finally pressed a wooden cup of spicy, bitter tea into her old hands. She took a sip, closed her eyes, and sighed. A wave seemed to pass through her tightly-wound old body, relaxing each muscle and joint by turn, so that she sagged fat and limp in her chair. Even her old, gnarled, dusty old toes splayed like a cat’s then relaxed, propped up on the low stool Farryn pulled up to support her big, callused heels.

“I’ll hand it to the girl,” Ulla said after another sip or two, “she makes a descent cuppa.”

Farryn smiled and turned back to the bucket of birthing implements, rolling up her sleeves to start the laborious scrub. Before she’d plunged her hands into the foul water, however, the old witch made a snorting, bark-like noise. “None of that, now! You gots another task today what needs to be seen to first.”

Farryn paused, glancing the old witch’s way. “I’ll get the south plot done today, Mother Ulla. I promise,” she said grudgingly. She did not enjoy tending the witch’s garden, which was habitually full of unpleasant surprises. “I was going to have it done before you—”

“No time for that,” Ulla replied, prying a long finger off her cup and pointing it Farryn’s way. “You gots to go into Sydale. Whilst I was tending to Mistress Venda and her babe, word come to me—the young Conall girl is dream-plagued. Aye, and a bad case of it too or so I’m given to understand. Something nasty has been getting into her mind, and she’s gone all pale and wan, quite useless to her folks as a result. They wanted me to have a look-see, but I told ‘em dreams ain’t the work of witches. I told ‘em to call for the Miphato instead.”

“The Miphato?”

A sensation like a vibrating tuning fork struck suddenly inside her chest made Farryn catch her breath. There hadn’t been a Miphato in these parts for several years. Not since Old Mage Wysamenor had passed away. But everyone knew that Lord Leocan’s second son had gone to study at the Miphates University with the expectation that he would return and take old Wysamenor’s place at Roris Towers.

Farryn’s head spun. Surely he couldn’t have finished his training so quickly. Surely he couldn’t be back in the county already. Surely she would have heard something of his return . . . .

“Aye, the Miphato,” Ulla continued, quite unaware of the affect her words had worked on her apprentice. “Young Master Kellam has come back to these parts, it would seem. Mage Leocan, as we’re to call him now. Set up his residence in Roris a week ago, they tell me, and is already strutting around the countryside like some vain young peacock, flashing his fine robes and refusing payment for his services. Miphates. Bah!”

With this last impassioned remark, Ulla spat between her teeth, leaving a dark splot on the dusty floor. She blinked rheumy eyes as though surprised at what she had done and motioned impatiently for Farryn to clean it up. Farryn suppressed the urge to role her own eyes, snatched up a rag, and got down on her hands and knees, scrubbing furiously. “So,” she said, valiantly keeping any trace of trembling out of her voice, “you recommended they fetch Mage Leocan to help Ayda Conall?”

“That I did,” Ulla said. “But Old Man Conall says they can’t afford such expensive services, and he done begged me to come see to his girl. Truth be told, he don’t trust that high-born mage magic. And rightly so! Witch work is better for folks like us around these parts.”

“Did you help Ayda then?” Farryn pressed, sitting back on her heels and looking up into the ward witch’s face. It was difficult to catch the old woman’s eye through the density of wrinkles, but Ulla raised one bristling brow high enough to fix a one-eyed gaze on Farryn’s upturned face.

“Not I!” she said. “You, girl. I told Old Man Conall I’d be sending you down to look in on Ayda. You got the knack for dream-magic, I told him, and might be that you could help . . . and save the family a coin or two.”

“Me?”

“Mind you don’t come back without something for your efforts, though. We gots to live same as everyone else, and the price of sugar just keeps on rising now don’t it?”

Farryn’s mouth gaped. The old witch’s stream of talk rolled over her, but she scarcely heard it now. She sat with the rag in clutched in her hand, at first too shocked to think straight. Then a slow, eager smile spread across her face. “When . . . when am I to go?”

Ulla paused in her prattle. “At once!” she said, and leaned forward in her chair to flick Farryn between the eyes with one blunt-nailed finger. “If your lazy hide can be prevailed upon to bestir itself, that is. I told Old Man Conall—”

Farryn didn’t wait to hear the rest. She sprang to her feet and was at the cottage door in less than a breath, snatching up her witch’s staff from where it leaned at against the wall as she went.  She paused in the doorway, looking back at Mother Ulla, wondering if she’d forgotten something or if she ought to ask for some last-minute advice. She’d never gone out on a calling by herself before, certainly not for something like this. She opened her mouth.

But Ulla waved her on before she could get a word out. “Be off with you, girl!” she growled. “I want you back soon enough to get that south plot cleared out before day’s end. Go!”

Stifling the urge to shout an eager thank you, which Ulla would certainly not have appreciated, Farryn spun on heel and sped away, crossing the kitchen gardens and vaulting the gate once more. She took the path to Sydale Village and ran the whole way.

*****

Mother Ulla’s wardship covered three villages and one town, all of which stood no more than a mile from the edge of Whispering Wood. The position of ward witch was not an official one; it wasn’t a posting granted her by Lord Leocan, who served as county magistrate, and she didn’t receive compensation for her work from the lord’s own purse. But it was a traditional position, and in these parts, that often counted for more.

No one wanted to live so near Whispering Wood without a proper ward witch in residence at the cottage. Who would protect the common folk from everything that lived in the deeper reaches of the forest?

The answer to that question was, of course, the local Miphato. For generations, the lords of Leocan had paid a pretty penny to support the mage living in Roris Towers, and they claimed the mere presence of such a highly trained magic-user should be more than enough to keep at bay any of the more otherworldly denizens of Whispering Wood who might take it into their heads to prey on defenseless mortals.

It was a fine theory insofar as it went. But the Miphates were as strange in the eyes of the local folk as anything that might come out of Whispering Wood. A ward witch, however, one of their own local lasses, was a different story. She was connected. She was the daughter or sister or cousin or, at the very least, friend of everyone. She knew her people and she cared for their needs and she and she never, never over-charged for her various services, either magical or practical. She was herb-woman and midwife and dentist and gossip and veterinarian all rolled into one.

And when the shadows of Whispering Wood crept a little too close to hearth and home, the ward witch was always there to chase them back again.

Mother Ulla’s cottage stood a mere quarter of a mile within the borders of the wood, but stepping out from among the trees into the open countryside beyond always felt rather like stepping from one world to the next, Farryn thought. She drew a deep breath, and the very air tasted different to her, more earthy somehow, more real in the lungs. Not necessarily better. She’d grown rather used to the air of Whispering Wood. She rather liked it, truth be told.

Still, she strode down the path, swinging her arms and her witch’s staff as she went. It wasn’t often that Mother Ulla let her venture alone to any of the villages, save for her one day off a month, and that was always taken up with a visit to mum and dad up at Adelhill Village four miles north of here. But this . . . this was a proper calling. This was what being a ward witch was all about. And not just to see to a sore tooth or a bung-toed cow. This was true witch’s work.

What kind of dream trouble beset young Ayda? Farryn tried hard not to speculate as she went. After all, it might be nothing more than a simple fadefallow—a mild disturbance of sleep patterns, hardly magical at all.

“And for poor Ayda’s sake, you shouldn’t hope for something worse!” she reminded herself firmly. But what if it was worse? What if it was a maratrod—a dream-curse sent from a mara beast’s den? Or maybe a norolos—a stray shadow-dream, caught on the currents of magical reality and somehow tossed out into this world where it landed at last in a mortal mind and festered? Farryn shook her head and hurried up the way to Sydale. The sooner she reached the Conall’s house, the sooner she’d know.

Soon enough the rooftops of the village came into view, and she redoubled her pace. The folk of Sydale recognized her as she made her way along the narrow center street. Some of them nodded, others even called out a friendly greeting, while still others ducked their heads and looked away quickly, nervous in the presence of one known to dabble in magic. Farryn didn’t take offence. Plenty of folk were scared of Mother Ulla too, but there wasn’t a soul in the whole county who dared speak a word against her. All were glad enough to have their ward witch on hand when the uncanny crept into their lives.

Farryn knew the way to the Conall’s house. As a girl, she’d sometimes trotted over to Sydale from Adelhill to sell mum’s eggs, and Mistress Conall was one of her best customers. Ayda was close to her age as well, and they’d played together on many an occasion. Farryn took the turn in the road at the old smithy, expecting to see the familiar cottage appear in her view.

She stopped short.

“Seven gods blast it!” she muttered, shifting her staff from one hand to the other.

There, parked in the road and looming so large that it quite blocked the humble Conall’s cottage from sight, was a grand carriage pulled by four white horses. Bright fresh paint depicting a brilliant gold shield flanked by two rampant panthers crowned in oak leaves and acorns gleamed on the dark door—the Leocan family crest. But this was not Lord Leocan’s carriage, of that Farryn had no doubt. No, she knew full well to whom this fine carriage belonged.

The new Miphato had already come to stake his claim on the neighborhood.

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