Idana raced through the ancient forest, leaping over roots and ducking under low lying branches that sought to trip or ensnare the unwary. How long had it been since she had felt the brisk southern wind or the sun on her face? For days she had been cooped up next to the hearth, brewing potions and mixing salves for the clients that would be lined outside the door when winter reared its ugly head. It had been sheer luck that she had managed to sneak out of the cottage and she thought it best to take advantage of what freedom she had before her master noticed her absence and hauled her back home.
These brief fleeting moments, feeling the mud squish between her toes and watching her hair flail into a right mess, were worth the punishment. And, perhaps, if her luck still held, she might be able to reach the glen. It lay deep in the forest, hidden away from prying eyes. Idana had found it during her previous foray for ingredients.
It had seemed like a scene from a dream or the stories about fairies that she had loved so much. The shafts of light that had braved the canopy and the cheerful bubbling brook. Closing her eyes, she could see it – picture perfect – in her mind. What would she give just to find it again?
Of course, her master had not seen fit to let her out of the cottage after that incident. What had he expected of her? She was young and nearing fifteen. Acting with decorum was a thing of the past.
Idana felt a red flush creep over her cheeks at the memory of Lacet stumbling upon her in the embrace of the lanky goat herder. Still, it was not as if any clothes had been removed. It had been, after all, early afternoon in the central plaza. They had only been kissing. And quite chastely, too.
She was pulled from her thoughts when a hoot sounded behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, Idana spotted a great horned owl glaring at her as it soared through the foliage. Idana muttered a curse under her breath. She could continue her mad dash and hope to lose her master's familiar, Minerva. Or, she could capitulate and admit defeat.
Another warning hoot behind her was enough for Idana to decide on her course of action. She tossed a foul gesture behind her before darting right. If there was one thing Idana knew above all others, it was that there was more to life than rules and stuffy old books. Life was meant to be enjoyed!
Out of breath, Idana allowed herself a short reprieve when she reached a small clearing. Looking behind her, she scanned the trees for Min's distinctive amber eyes. Nothing. Grinning from ear to ear, Idana stepped out from the shadows, stretching her arms up toward the sun that was peeking through. Even the usual autumnal drizzle would have been divine. She had got away.
"I thought you would be somewhere nearby. How many times do I have to drill it into that skull of yours so that, for once, you might actually listen Idana?" said an exasperated voice beside her. Idana startled and whirled around. Standing at the edge of the clearing was a paunchy man. His straw-coloured hair had thinned quite a bit over the years and he had a visible bald spot that Idana tried very hard to keep quiet about. "You've made Minerva quite distraught with your antics. It'll take hours for her to calm down."
"I'll apologise," she promised, feeling guilt bubbling in her gut. Surely, it was not so bad. Still, Min had always been easily agitated. "But it was just a spot of fun! Really!"
Her master arched a brow. "Strange. I always thought shirking your duties and disobeying a direct order was a display of active rebellion. Need I remind you that the last time you absconded from your duties we were all but run out of the village."
A retort rose to her lips but any courage she had felt quailed at the intense look Lacet threw her way. His dark eyes narrowed in a challenge. One, Idana knew, she would not win. Well, I actually finished all the assigned tasks," she said, finally, as the silence lengthened. "Truly. And I packed anything dangerous away. I just thought…you know…that it would be a shame is all not to enjoy the day."
He sighed, squeezing the bridge of his aquiline nose as he did so. "Despite what you may think, Idana, there is a rhyme and reason to all the rules I've set. Please. Without causing a fuss, would you kindly start making your way back home."
The disappointment cut far more sharply than if he had yelled. Anger was much easier to react to. For years she had challenged his authority and tested the boundaries he had set. The past year, in particular, had been incredibly difficult. Idana missed the days when she could freely roam the streets of the towns and villages they visited. It felt as if she was trapped in a cage – her only solace, in captivity, the magic that came so naturally to her.
Her spirits dashed, Idana begrudgingly obeyed, dragging her feet as they made the long hike back to the cottage. "I did make sure that not a soul saw me, you know. Cloaked myself from curious eyes."
"And yet both Minerva and I managed to find you within an hour."
Idana felt the tips of her ears grow hot as she swallowed the rejoinder that sprung to mind. "That was because I thought it no one would care to look here in the forest," she finally admitted. When Lacet said nothing, she glanced askance through her hair, hoping to gauge his expression. But it was like trying to read a stone wall, his face revealed nothing beyond a vague disappointment. "None of the villagers come here. They think it's haunted," added Idana.
Lacet stopped in her tracks and finally turned towards her. "That's no excuse, Idana. You're almost fifteen and you act like a child still."
She bristled at his words, intimately familiar with the chastisement. Before she could stop it, her anger surged to the fore.
"Perhaps I might listen better if you would just trust me and let me help out in the shop. I already know how to brew the potions and mix salves. Why not teach me other magics to aid you around town? Something substantial, like the ones you learned in the Academy? I'm sick and tired of the silly little rote charms you have me perform. Please, master. I know I can do this."
Something dangerous flashed in Lacet's dark eyes. "Yet, here you are. Abandoning your duties to frolic out in the woods. How can I give you more responsibilities when the moment I take my eyes off you, I find you where you are not supposed to be? No, Idana. This is not open to debate."
"Well, if you won't nurture my gift then I'll find someone who will. I've seen those letters you burned when you thought I was asleep," she accused. "They were from the Academy, weren't they? Why not let me go? All you ever do is hold me back!"
Too late, she saw her mistake. Lacet stilled. Silence washed over the ancient forest. First, the birds then the chattering insects. Until it seemed even the wind had quieted to a whisper.
Yet the expected explosion never came. Instead, Lacet turned on his heel and within seconds, had vanished from view.
Idana stared at the spot where her master had been for a several crucial moments. She was at a loss of what to do. Was it wiser to chase after him or wait and see if he returned? Best hurry back home, she decided finally, chewing on her lip. She had never seen her master so livid. Focusing on the cottage and the magic that suffused every atom around her, Idana muttered the incantation, weaving her hands through a complex string of motions. Almost immediately, she felt the familiar pull in her navel. A heartbeat later, she was plopped onto her favourite rickety stool.
A tired hoot greeted her. Min sat perched atop the mantle of the unlit hearth, her feathers all ruffled from her frantic flight. It seemed as if she had just returned as well.
Knowing that it was her fault that Min could barely muster up a baleful stare in her direction, she fished out some treats, which Lacet kept in a small tin next to the door, and offered them to the owl, hoping to coax her down for a proper apology. It was the least, Idana decided, that she needed to do to start on her reparations.
For several minutes, Min studied the mice Idana had laid out on the table before she swooped down and snatched one up, tearing into it with her sharp beak. Relief flooded through Idana as Min fluttered over to the armchair beside her and acquiesced to a quick pet. If only her master would be so quick to forgive.
It was nearing dusk when Lacet finally returned. His hands were dark with blood that was not his own. Yet he said not a word as he stumbled through the entranceway, drained and exhausted. No doubt he had been out in the village, aiding any who needed a healing hand.
Despite the lump in her throat and trepidation she felt for what was to come, Idana handed him a bowl of hot broth. He took it and sniffed it suspiciously. Satisfied that the chicken had not been poisoned, he drained it in one massive gulp. She supposed it was warranted. The last time she had cooked anything, it had been a ploy to escape the confines of the cottage. It had worked marvellously. Lacet had been asleep for two days straight before she had found the antidote.
Hunger sated, Lacet seemed ready so speak when an agitated hammering sounded at the door. Idana let out the breath she had been holding, thankful for the brief respite. She had dreaded Lacet's return ever since their argument earlier that afternoon.
There were not many things that frightened her. With magic at the tips of her fingers, it was difficult to muster any sort of fear if a simple thought could counter the threat with ease. The bond between her and Lacet, however, was not physical. At the age of fourteen, Idana still found it difficult to separate her emotions from a given situation. Particularly when it came to her master.
Perhaps it was because he had always been there for her. She had never known her parents. And for whatever reason, Lacet had kept her with him, always. The clockwork toys he had made for her when she was younger still sat on the sill of her window – each one cherished far more than she cared to admit.
Bowl in hand, Lacet turned towards the door, his lips set into a grim expression. Just as he reached the door, it burst open and the bell atop it tinkled lightly in response. A dazed young man stood just beyond the entrance to their cottage. He was wringing a bowler hat in his hands, seeming at a loss for words. Before the man could utter a word, Lacet had set his empty bowl aside and was in the midst of donning his coat.
"Minerva, if you would be so kind as to keep an eye on Idana. I know this may be a difficult request considering what happened earlier today but this simply cannot wait."
"Let me go with you! I can be a second pair of hands. Please Lacet. I want to prove to you that I'm ready. And that my gifts can be used for something even greater!"
Idana waited on tenterhooks as Lacet weighed her words. A part of her was terrified. She had never been so bold. Not when it was clear that something dire had happened. But the conversation from the afternoon and her master's dismissal had woken a desperate need that had been hidden deep inside.
It demanded that she push back her shoulders and straighten her posture and lift her chin up high. Today, she would not be so easily pushed away. This time, she would allay any doubt he might have about her abilities.
Still, that did not prevent her from closing her eyes and whispering a short prayer to Amoleth as she waited. Every passing second was like a century. His refusal would make things difficult, true, but Idana had decided earlier that should her master not see her talents, she would simply have to prove him wrong. She was stubborn like that. Always had been.
"You will follow each and every single of my orders to the letter. You will not argue or complain. Should you wish to discuss alternative methods, keep your arguments logical and rooted in evidence," Lacet finally said. "Is that understood?"
Her jaw dropped open as she gawked up at her master. For a moment, Idana could barely comprehend what had just transpired. Was this a dream? Has she fallen asleep while brewing potions? It would not have been the first time that such a thing had happened.
"Well?" prompted her master. "Are you coming or not? If you would rather spend your time reading through chapters thirteen to thirty on the Fundamentals of Sorcery that can be arranged."
Hope flared bright in her chest. This was her chance! Excited, Idana let out a high-pitched squeal as she grabbed her satchel that hung on a peg near the hearth. But when she reached the door, the bubbling inside her was tempered by the resignation she read in her master's face. It was a far cry from what she had expected. Yet, ever since the letters from the Academy had arrived, she had noticed how his temperament had become surlier and much more circumspect.
Her request, it seemed, was just another burden he simply had to shoulder. Idana did not know whether to feel guilty or outrage that her master saw her as a heavy weight around her neck. If he would only tell her what was on his mind, Idana just knew that everything could be resolved. Yet he was so stubborn!
But it was not her place to question him. The years she had spent with Lacet had taught her that there were some topics that should never be broached.
Besides, there was a job to do. Judging from the state of the man and how quickly her master had dressed, it was clear this was a matter of urgency. Idana was satisfied, at the very least, that she would be there and able to help. If there was one thing Idana prided herself on, it was the fact that she knew almost everything there possibly was on healing the sick. How could she not, serving as an apothecary's apprentice?
Eyes heavy, Idana suppressed another yawn. Cradling her head on her arms, she glanced to the girl resting on the cot. Her breathing had eased considerably over the past half hour. Better still, the bleeding had finally stopped. There had been moments when all Idana had been able to do was pray. Perhaps it had been divine grace from Amoleth but her master had been able to staunch the bleeding just when they had feared the girl's heart would give out.
Yet even now, there was every chance the girl could slip away.
Despite the odds, Lacet was rifling through his bags, looking for his last bottle of replenisher that he was certain was buried down deep. An apothecary to the bitter end.
Idana risked closing her eyes. Just for a few seconds, at most. There was still so much to do, least of all the packing.
What had surprised her the most about the experience was how different it had all been from the books she had studied. Everything she knew about magic had been completely useless. In the throes of all that was happening, the things she had painstakingly memorised had completely escaped her. Pandemonium had reigned when they had pushed through the door. Their first moment of peace had come several hours later as they were dabbing the sweat away.
Worse was knowing that healing spells could only go so far. It was something Lacet had lectured her about all those weeks ago when she had tried to revive a wounded bird she had found. The energy around them was finite. The magic at her fingertips, while seemingly all-powerful, had its limits. To attempt something powerful meant having to give something reciprocal in turn. She could just as easily lose her own life or expend what precious resources the patient had left.
Watching the girl plead and beg had also been simply gut-wrenching. This was no customer coming to their cottage and purchasing a fresh-brew of sleeping draught. There had been no easy solution to take away the pain she was in or make her hale and hearty with a click of the fingers.
A loud exclamation jolted Idana from the jaws of sleep. Blearily, she blinked towards her master. Already, he was at the girl's side, coaxing her to swallow a good third of replenisher. Amoleth willing, she would recover before long.
And then they would be back at the cottage. Idana could slip into bed, knowing she had done something remarkable, and all would be well. The thought was pleasing and after a particularly fraught night, Idana was glad to go home.
"Have her take this twice daily," said Lacet, handing the young husband a flask filled to the brim with a yellowish liquid. "Keep her hydrated and properly fed. She might be stable now but should her condition worsen, send for me again. I'll come by the day after tomorrow with another potion to help flush the remnants of the fever from her system, should nothing untoward happen."
"Your coin, Lacet. And our gratitude." A hefty coin purse landed on the table. The loud clink caught Idana's attention and she perked her head up. How many things could they buy with all that money? They would have food for weeks and ample supplies for any experiments that could help explore the extent of her magic.
Her delight, however, was replaced by dismay as her master pushed it back towards the man. "I cannot take this."
"But why?" asked the man, echoing Idana's own thoughts. "You've done our family a great service. Please take it. The coin is good. It will be some time before I can repay it all, but for my darling wife, I would pay any price."
"What kind of man would I be if I were to charge for saving the life of another? I made an oath, with Amoleth as my witness, that I would help those in need. Besides, the coin you have would be best spent elsewhere," replied Lacet. His tone brooked no further argument. "No. I think it best that Idana and I depart. The hour has grown late and there is much to do."
Idana offered them a kind smile as she helped Lacet gather up their supplies. As they left, Idana glanced over her shoulder at the husband and his wife. The coin purse still sat at the end of the table, unclaimed – a prize far greater than she had ever known. She had heard many a tale where an apothecary that would charge an arm and a leg for the poultices as well as salves that they so freely bestowed upon any that knocked at their door. There were times when she wondered why Lacet did not do the same. At the very least, it would allow them to live more comfortably than they currently did.
The thought stayed with her even as they trudged up the familiar and well-worn path to their cottage. As the door swung open, Min greeted them with an exasperated hoot before swooping through and into the night. It would be dawn before she returned, pecking at their windows until they opened it.
Idana gently set down the hooded lantern she had been carrying and let out a loud yawn. If she was lucky, she might be able to squeeze in a quick bath before heading to bed. The thought of laying her head on the soft goose feather pillow was heavenly.
"I will admit, Idana, you far exceeded my expectations," said Lacet as he shed his coat.
She preened at the praise, all notions of sleep escaping her mind as she flashed her master a grin. "See, I told you! Now when are you going to stop treating me like a child and teach me something more advanced? Like golem creation! Or what you use to power those toys you keep making for the children. I'd like to be able to do something that would bring a smile to someone's face."
"Just because you managed to impress me does not mean that you have been forgiven," Lacet said sternly. He ran a hand through the remans of his straw-coloured hair that he had nearly tied back. "But I will think on it. You will have my answer tomorrow," he added just as she was about to protest. "Now get some sleep. You've earned it."
Though it was not what she had hoped for, Idana reluctantly complied. This was not a battle she could win. Lacet held all the cards and she would be a fool to push him any further.
When she was finally clean and tucked into bed, Idana found it difficult to fall into slumber. Frustrated, she stared up at the ceiling, tracing the cracks in the plaster. An entire treasure trove of what-ifs floated through her mind. A part of her was excited for the days to come and showing off what she had gleaned from what she had discovered during the long hours of idleness when her master was out helping the townsfolk. Another smaller, but more vocal part feared that nothing she did would be enough.
Troubled, Idana turned to her side, screwed her eyes tight and willed for oblivion to take her.