Voices wound through the dense forest. Laughter, talking, and a bit of music. It was a far cry from the silence and privacy Agatha craved. The noise was an obnoxious blight on the majesty and beauty of the forests that should be unmarred from human interference. And gatherings were always interference.
But if she wanted enough supplies to power her potions for the next year, she had to deal with the annual witch’s gathering. She had dealt with it for the past fifty-five years. It was just one more.
Leaning on her gnarled walking stick, she stumped onto the path, following the obvious trails of what must be nearly a hundred other witches who had come through. The strands nearby hummed with activity—both reacting to the presence of so many, and their strength the reason this location had been chosen this year. The clearing was ringed with enormous oak trees, leaf-covered branches covering the space as though it took place in a green-tinged room despite being outside.
As she got closer, she made out the sights as well as the sounds. There was Elerin’s usual stall, filled with clippings of willow from the willow groves she lived near. The scent of salt came from a stall someone had set up, whoever it was clearly a witch from the coves of Saypish. Low chanting came from a tent, the strands resonating with the magic. A few merchants were here too, buying and selling and haggling with any witches who would deal with them.
Agatha shook her head. She had no interest in most merchants. She only needed saplings from Mairen, and sand from Tespajet, and fellow witches sold those. Then she could continue making the potions the farmers and ramblers who passed by her grove always bought, the ones that kept their livestock healthy and happy. It wasn’t glamorous. They called her the farm witch. But Agatha had always preferred to care for animals rather than people, even if her mentor had told her she would be more successful if she did more.
Agatha still missed her. She hadn’t known why Alaya had taught her, a lonely girl from a farm lost to a blight that had killed their livestock, but she had. When she asked why Alaya had taught her, she had just said “Sometimes you just know who needs your teaching.”
But her mentor had been gone for a decade now. And Agatha was content in her routine.
She limped past a merchant wagon, ignoring the man’s call about “decorated canes for the wizened witches among us!” How rude. She was quite happy with her stick, thank you.
She got halfway to her destination before someone called her by name. “Agatha!” She turned, leaning on her stick. “Nice to see a familiar face.”
“I’m only here for saplings and sand,” Agatha said to Denniren, who jogged closer. He was one of the friendliest witches she knew, even if she only saw him at the annual witch’s gather. She knew he was friendly because he would always talk to her, even when she didn’t feel like talking.
“Saplings and sand, I know, every year!” he said with a booming laugh. His hefty belly shook. “Well, I just wanted to warn you. Lila from Mairen is just over there, but there won’t be anyone from Tespajet. Sandstorms have been blowing all week, and waylaid Kayla’s journey.”
Agatha sighed in a mixture of fatigue and annoyance, muttering under her breath. “Of course. And of course no one told me before I left?”
Denniren raised a bushy gray eyebrow. “How would I have done that?”
“I wasn’t talking to you specifically,” Agatha grumbled. She had traveled for three days for this. A short trip compared to some, but still. She was too old to be wandering through the woods only to have wasted her time! And without the sand, she would have to ration her potions.
“Don’t look so down,” Denniren said. “There’s always young ones here looking to become apprentices. Why not watch their efforts? It’s starting now.” He pointed to where a group of people mingled, people varying in age from their teens to young adults. It happened every year at the gather—people who would come to the gathering to find a mentor to teach them the ways of witchcraft. They all looked like foolish children to Agatha. “It’s about time you got one.”
Another waste of time. “You know I have no interest in teaching anyone,” she snapped. Most apprentices would be descended from another witch, who would want to learn new skills from someone else. Some were ramblers or those from the cities who felt the call of magic, spoiled youths with no idea how the real world of the Between worked. “And it’s not like any apprentice would want to work with the farm witch.”
“I know you know more magic than just porcine potions,” Denniren said. “Your mentor was Alaya, wasn’t she? She knew the strands better than anyone.”
She was an expert in the strands as well, but that didn’t matter. “There’s no need for such things where I am,” Agatha said. “There’s need for potions for keep away mange, swine brucellosis, hoof rot and mad itch.”
“Not exactly glamorous,” Denniren said.
“Necessities rarely are,” Agatha sniffed. “It doesn’t make them any less necessary.”
“True, but the knowledge should still be passed down,” Denniren said.
“Someone will pass it down,” Agatha said. “Just not me.” With that she kept going, limping on her stick toward where Lila usually kept her wares.
She didn’t get far before the call went out. The first test of the apprentice choosing. It wasn’t officially organized by anyone, but always seemed to happen this way–a few tasks given to potential apprentices. It was different at every gather, and had only gotten more complicated over the years since it had started as a few potential apprentices trying to show off. Usually the tasks were things like potion making, singing, chanting or detecting the strands. Basic, simple things that no one with an ounce of magical aptitude would fail, but how they did the magic helped witches decide who they would work best with. It wasn’t the only way for an apprentice to find a mentor, or a mentor to find an apprentice, but the gather was a popular place for it.
Agatha had always thought it foolish. If a potential witch was so desperate to be an apprentice that they had to show off their skills at the gather, they were probably pretty lousy at what they did.
The first test, apparently, would be chanting to manipulate the strands. Agatha sighed and wished she had brought earplugs as the group began to chant. Some sang, some spoke, and then a voice rang out, sounding like a squealing pig that Agatha made potions for. The sound sent a crash of power through the strands, obvious to an expert like Agatha.
Chatter and speech stopped, and everyone turned to the source of the noise. A girl, hooded and robed, ducked her head.
Well, she was powerful, but that cacophony of a voice was unfortunate for her. By a merchant wagon, a man wearing armor decorated in the bones of wargs had his hand on his sword. Agatha sniffed. Merchant’s guards were getting jumpier every year.
She headed toward Lila’s booth, taking stock of the saplings. She needed a birch sapling, one she could manipulate to grow tiny and small. She would use the leaves to cure the itch in swine, and slather on horse’s hooves to keep them strong.
Something in the strands twinged again, a sense Agatha was expertly attuned to thanks to her departed mentor’s teachings. She turned, noting that some other witches did too. In the time she had spent looking at saplings, the prospective apprentices were making potions for their second test. A few cauldrons boiled over. A few glowed. And the one by the hooded girl poured fog, the strands reacting to the powerful magic of what was obvious to Agatha as a potion of restoration. Powerful, powerful magic. Agatha liked to use it to cure bloat in horses. The girl’s magic was sloppy, though, and that was likely why so many witches were staring at her.
Well, it wasn’t Agatha’s problem. She had found three saplings, and needed to pay and get them back home. She didn’t want to stay any longer than she needed to. Of course, transporting the saplings would be vexing. She had brought a travois, but now she would need to set it up.
She sighed. Maybe she would stay one night. At least camping in the clearing during the gathering would ensure safety from any unwritten.
“Unwritten!” someone screamed.
A hush went over the crowd, followed by immediate shouting. A few witches reached for potion flasks at their hips, likely concoctions of blinding or protection. Some ran, and at different stalls, people ducked down behind counters or dove behind arranged merchandise. Agatha just turned, too slow to move far before the hunter with the merchant dashed toward the source of the call.
Toward the girl, her hood and robes rolled up. Someone gripped her arm, revealing long claws, and scraggly, unnatural blue hair flowed down her shoulders.
“Unwritten!” the man gripping her arm called again. The hunter drew his sword, running closer toward the girl, who stood frozen, not fighting. Her eyes were wide with terror.
Agatha hummed, the sound low, stirring the strands. “Stop!” she commanded, her voice booming, and the hunter froze.
Sighing, Agatha stumped forward, leaning on her stick. “Let her go,” she said, her voice back to normal, no longer calling her powers. “She’s no unwritten,” she added, huffing as she got close. The magic of her shout faded, the hunter striding toward the girl, his sword still drawn. “She’s just a poor warped.”
The man holding the girl’s arm dropped it, backing away, disgust and pity mingling on his face. The hunter stopped, pointing with the sword. Agatha stepped in front of it.
“Out of the way, old woman,” the hunter demanded. “I should make sure of this. Unwritten can fool you!”
Agatha didn’t move. “Maybe they can fool you,” she snapped. Turning her back to the hunter, she spoke to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Sandra,” the girl said, her voice a whisper. Her throat was scarred—likely the wound that had warped her. It was unfortunate. But lots of unfortunate things happened in the world.
“Warped by a banshee, then?” the hunter loomed over her, the sword still drawn. “Why did you come here?”
“To…” her voice was so hard to hear. Agatha wasn’t an expert on unwritten, but she knew banshees. Their voices were their power, and the girl’s was clearly something she couldn’t control just yet. If she could, though…well, Agatha had already felt the influence on the strands, power she hadn’t sensed since her mentor died. Even if it was unrefined.
“Speak!” the hunter demanded.
“To find a mentor!” the girl said, just loud enough to hear. “I just wanted to find a mentor.” Her eyes darted over the crowd.
Agatha followed her gaze. The other potential apprentices had scattered, hiding. Witches nearby either pointedly looked away or regarded the girl with sad pity. None said anything. Not even the witches who had gathered near to watch the apprentice testing.
Of course they wouldn’t. No one wanted to work with a warped.
Fools, all of them.
Agatha sighed. Her mentor’s words echoed.
“Sometimes you just know who needs your teaching.”
“Leave her alone,” she demanded of the hunter. “Put that thing away. I’ve seen sharper blades in a cow shed.” The hunter’s eyes widened, and he looked like he would shout for a second. She didn’t give him the chance, turning back to the girl. Sandra.
“You came here for a mentor, right?” Agatha said. “Speak up. Be confident.”
“Yes,” Sandra said, standing straighter. She spoke louder, normal volume, the strands responding to her power.
An obvious choice. Not one she had ever wanted to make or imagined she would. But obvious. She was Agatha, trained by Alaya, an expert on the strands.
“Well,” Agatha said with a rueful sigh. “You’ve found one.”