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A supernatural short story by Erika M Szabo
Generations upon generations Blackmire Forest was the favorite place of the witches of the Enchanted Maple Coven to search for their ingredients—herbs, barks, leaves, and flowers. Their paths were clearly marked by the coven’s sigil that had been painted on the tree trunks.
Camilla Highmore and her fellow young acolytes in their late teen years, Sarah and Xavier, reached the knoll and found the witches’ path. Their long years of apprenticeship was over, and they were expected to perform the final test before they’d be considered as fully trained witches.
They had to find the woodruff iris needed to brew the potion as their last test, and the instruction had been very clear. The woodruff iris flower thrived on the sweet sap the snag maple trees provided. Dead yet still standing, snag maple trees were a rich source of nutrients as well as magical ingredients for both thanomancy and biomancy. The rare flower had to be plucked exactly when the sun barely kissed the horizon and prepared before the last rays of the sun vanished into the cloak of the night.
Upon finding the flower, they only had one hour to rush back to the coven and add the flower as the last ingredient to their prepared potions. If they’d be unsuccessful, they’d have to remain apprentices and try again the following year. The pressure weighed heavily on them all.
The trio walked in silence keeping an eye on the trees with the sigil that marked their path. Suddenly, a raven appeared above Camilla and let out a raspy kraa sound. She shivered as the black bird flew away. She looked after the bird as it flew higher and higher and disappeared from view. When Camilla lowered her eyes back to the trees, she spotted her grandmother’s small, spiral symbol with a pentacle in the middle carved into a majestic pine tree. She had a strong feeling that she had to follow the path the raven showed her. She hesitated for a minute but soon made up her mind. “I’m going this way,” she called out to her companion and pointed toward the narrow path by the tree.
“We were told to follow the witches’ path,” Sarah said, feeling annoyed. Her red, curly hair flew off her shoulders as she shook her head and rolled her green eyes. Always a strict follower of rules, she often disapproved when Camilla questioned or sometimes even broke the rules. “Why do you always have to break the rules?” She questioned looking at Camilla.
“I’m not… Okay, I do… sometimes. But my spirit guide…” Camilla stuttered like a scolded child but then her confidence returned. “Oh, never mind that. I’ve been here before with my grandma when I was very young, and I remember seeing dead maple trees in that area. Do you want to come with me?”
“No way,” Sarah said, firmly shaking her head.
“I’m staying on this path as we were told. You shouldn’t wander off either,” Xavier warned. His chocolate brown eyes reflected genuine worry.
Xavier was in love with Camilla since they first met, but his sense of duty and obedience kept him from revealing his feelings. When he confessed to his father, he got angry and told him that he was destined to be a witch and follow the footsteps of his ancestors, and a strong-willed, often disobedient girl didn’t fit into his future plans. Xavier agreed sadly and accepted his father’s decision. He kept his feelings to himself but couldn’t erase his love for Camilla from his heart.
Camilla stubbornly shrugged and strode off the well-worn dirt road. It made her heart race with excitement every time she followed the ancient path with her grandmother but going alone made her a little nervous. The Raven is my spirit guide and it’s never wrong. She thought, trying to calm her anxiety. It has a good reason to lead me off the usual path, and besides, my grandmother had marked this path for a reason.
The twisting path led her deep into the forest. Fallen leaves crunched under her boots, and she heard the rustle of small scampering creatures under the fallen branches and leaves. She tightened her grip on her gray knitted shawl as she continued along the path, her eyes automatically searching for the maple snags that woodruff iris preferred.
She still had about ten minutes before the sun began to sink below the horizon. Golden light filtered through the canopy of tree branches above her and the chilly wind cut through the rustling leaves making them dance. Camilla felt goosebumps rising on her skin triggered by the energy coursing all around her. More than anything in the world, she wanted to learn how to tap into that energy and wield the magic of nature.
The spotted an ancient, dead maple tree that stood just off to the side of the path. Beautiful even in its decay, its bare branches stood out against the bright late afternoon skies. Armfuls of woodruff iris in full bloom waved gently in the wind as they clung to the snag.
Camilla took a deep breath, bowed to the ancient tree, and to the scurrying creatures it still supported and took a step towards the patch of flowers to wait until the exact time for harvest.
As she took another step, suddenly, her foot crashed through the layer of dead leaves that had so perfectly hidden the tangle of thick roots and the warren between the path and the tree. She let out a sharp scream and the golden light of the world above her was thrust into shadows as she crushed through thin branches and roots, falling into a deep hole. She landed hard on the packed dirt in a deep, spacious room below the maple tree’s roots.
Leaves floated peacefully around her as she stood up, groaning, brushing the leaves from her long hair and the dirt from her jeans. She moved her arms and legs carefully. Nothing is broken. She thought, sighing in relief. Light poked down through the hole above her head, enough so that she could easily look around in the underground room.
Camilla turned to examine the large, square, carved stones put together with precision to make the walls of the room. The stones were covered with moss and a thick layer of dust, but in the darker corner polished stones with runes carved into them caught her eye. “What is this place?” she whispered and shivered. How am I going to get out of here? She thought looking up at the hole in the ceiling, ten feet above her head.
Her stomach tied into a knot. It was a mistake! Why did I follow the Raven? A scream rose in her throat, but she managed to stay quiet. It’s no use. Nobody will hear me. They will come looking for me when Sarah and Xavier go back to the coven without me, and grandma will know where to find me when they tell her I followed her sigil. The thought of getting help calmed down as her curiosity rose.
She glanced at her watch and cried out, “Oh, no! There’s only five minutes until sundown. I’m not going to get the iris and… well, at least I’ll know where to find the flowers next year.” She shrugged and took a step closer toward the back wall. She could barely see the runes carved into the dark gray stones. “I wish I’d brought a flashlight” She sighed.
“Whoa!” Camilla exclaimed and stumbled back in fright as the room turned bright. “What the… what’s going on here?” She cried out but her curiosity was stronger than her fear.
She could see the carved runes clearly. I wish I could read them. As soon as the thought entered her mind, eerie green light illuminated the rune letters.
Ye who was born to possess the sight
Brings light into the night.
What is this? Camilla’s legs turned to jelly and sat down. I can read the runes. Is this place like a ‘your wish comes through cave’ or something? “I wish I could get out of here!” she said out loud.
She felt lightheaded and closed her eyes for a few seconds. When the dizziness passed and opened her eyes, a strange sensation filled her body and mind. She felt the energy around her and watched in fright as the pile of dead leaves that had cushioned her fall stirred and gathered around her gently lifting her back up through the gap.
“Whoa!” a surprised scream erupted from her chest as she steadied herself at the edge of the gaping hole. This place is magical! I’m going to show it to grandma. She thought dreamily but quickly came to her senses. Glancing at the horizon she knew she didn’t have a second to waste if she wanted to harvest the flower of the woodruff iris.
Watching every step carefully, she walked to the beautiful patch of flowers. She knelt, took her athame out of its embossed leather sheath, and waited, blade pressed against a blood-red stem. As soon as the sun touched the horizon, Camilla made the cut. What if the others can’t find the flower? There is plenty here. She thought as the plants shivered, and she held three perfect blossoms in her hands. She allowed herself a few moments to admire the delicate black petals before tucking the knife back into its sheath, and gently placed the flowers inside the leather pouch that hung on a thong around her neck.
After bowing her head for a minute and thanking the plant for letting her harvest its delicate flowers, she stood up and raced back on the path, following her grandmother’s sigils with a satisfied, happy smile on her face.
She anxiously waited a few minutes until finally, she spotted her fellow acolytes walking back on the witches’ path with shoulders hunched and gloomy expression on their faces. As they stopped, Camilla noticed their hands were empty. Her heart twisted.
Xavier glanced at her sadly and sat down on the carpet of leaves, looking defeated. “No luck,” he sighed. “Somehow, we got off the path and by the time we found the flowers, the sun was sinking into the horizon and the petals closed up. We were late…”
“We’re not going to be accepted,” Sarah muttered. “What rotten luck! We’ll have to wait another year.”
The words died on her lips when she saw Camilla opening her pouch and holding the precious black flowers. “No worries. Neither of you has to wait,” she said simply. “I have three flowers.”
Sarah stammered, “And you’d share it with us?”
“Of course! Let’s go. We only have half an hour to get back to the coven and fifteen more minutes to add the flowers and finish the potion.” She smiled.
Xavier leaped to his feet as Sarah rushed to embrace Camilla in a tight hug.
The spicy-sharp autumn air of Blackmire Forest smelled of pure magic as the apprentices hurried toward the coven.
They rushed back to the coven and under the watchful eyes of the High Priestess and Elders, they added the woodruff iris to their prepared, murky looking potions. They stirred the dark grey, thick liquid in their cauldrons and yelled out in surprise when the potion turned into ruby red, glowing liquid.
“You have passed your last test,” the High Priestess announced and looked at the acolytes with warmth in her eyes and smile on her lips.
Sarah glanced at Xavier with a sad expression in her eyes, and when Xavier nodded, Sarah looked up at the High Priestess. “We have a confession to make.”
“Oh? What is it, child?”
“We…” Sarah started and cleared her throat. “Xavier and I didn’t get the flower. We were unsuccessful in finding it and Camilla took two extra flowers and gave them to us.”
Xavier looked at Sarah and added in a shaky voice, “We don’t deserve to be witches, only Camilla does.”
“I know, my messenger told me,” the High Priestess admitted and glanced at raven sitting on the windowsill. “I was just waiting for you to admit it.”
“So, we have to wait another year, right?” Sarah asked and sighed.
“No, child. You don’t have to wait. The three of you passed the test because of Camilla’s loyalty. She could have taken only one flower, but she took three because she has a good heart, and she’s loyal to her fellow apprentices. Being the member of our coven is not about competing with each other and outdoing each other. It’s about love and loyalty to each other, and helping one another.”
After the initiation ceremony a week later, Camilla and her grandmother went on a journey to discover more about the room that had been hidden for centuries. The spicy-sharp autumn air of Blackmire Forest smelled of pure magic as they followed the path to the ancient maple tree that guarded the sacred place deep in the woods.
Erika M Szabo
Author of urban fantasy, magical realism novels and children's books,
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