By the end of the first day, Tag's head hurt from holding all the new things the witch had told her.
Nightshade, burdock, yarrow... the names of the plants all ran together. She said so, she said she didn't think she could learn all this, but Samira just looked at her.
“It will stick,” she said. “Eventually.” And she walked on, pointing out a patch of something she called frog's ears.
The part Tag liked best was when they stopped, deep in a grove of tall trunks and little undergrowth, and became very quiet and still. She hugged a tree to keep herself from moving. Samira just stood there and looked like part of the forest, and Tag couldn't tell if it was magic or the skill of long practice.
The animal sounds came back into the quiet around them, like they always did when she was still. Birdsong, which had never stopped, was joined by the buzzing of insects and a chittering from somewhere overhead. Then, through the trees some way in front of where they stood, a pair of turkeys stepped slow and stately, bobbing their heads. Tag grinned.
Samira moved forward, smoothly enough, but still the turkeys scattered. Tag sighed. She wished animals wouldn't always run away from her. She wasn't the one that hunted them; that was the men.
“See there?” Samira asked her, pointing, and Tag saw that the turkey's disappearing tail feathers were glittering gold. “It will wear off within a day, but in the meantime it will leave a trail for me to follow. A useful bit of magic.”
Tag's mouth opened. Part of her was awed, but another part blurted out, “That's cheating.” She could track animals without using any glittery magic, and she knew the hunters could do it better.
Samira laughed. “Maybe. But it's very helpful, especially when they fly. It's hard to track through the air.”
Tag nodded. She had to admit that was true. “Why are you tracking them anyway?”
“Animals know things,” said Samira. “Where to find the foods they like. And a few of those plants I can use, for food or medicine or spells.”
Tag began to catch a glimpse of how gathering plants might be a lot more like hunting than she had thought. That was good. She liked watching animals.
“Today, though, we're heading back. I can follow the trail next time I'm in this part of the woods.”
When they neared the oak tree, Tag finally asked, “How did you do it, anyway? How do you cast the glittery spell, or any spell?”
The witch took her time answering. It wasn't until the bark door had rolled aside for them that she said, “Magic is all around us.” She stepped through the doorway. “It's hidden in plants and animals, and can only be found if you know how to look. If you know what to use, what to combine, what to say, how to shape it.” She reached into one of the pots on the shelves and sprinkled a pinch of dust into the air. The walls lit up with their spots of light as the door closed. “Sometimes the right shape, the right mixture, the right words make something specific happen. Sometimes that's magic and sometimes it's not. And sometimes, it makes a kind of magic that you or your familiar can keep and use later... for water-raising, or glittering turkey tails, or something else.”
“Oh,” said Tag. “No one in my village... you mean they could, if they knew how?” But they had never been able to use magic, and Samira made it look so easy...
“Many people don't want to know.” Samira shrugged. “What do your villagers think of witches?”
“They're scared of them, mostly,” Tag admitted.
“That's a pity. There's no luck with the spells I use, no requirement that you be born with magic. If there's someone to teach you, and if you want to... anyone can learn, Tag.”
To be continued...