There was someone else in the forest, there below her, walking through the trees.
Tag stared. There was never anyone else in the forest, not unless the men were hunting, and she stayed far away from them when they were. She only saw animals out here.
But this was a person, a woman, wearing a cape the same color as the tree trunks. Tag caught a glimpse of her face, enough to be sure she had never seen her before. The woman passed right below Tag and stopped at the edge of the pond.
She raised her hands very slowly, higher, higher, above her head.
Tag was watching the woman, and it took her a moment to notice that the water in the pond was rising too, lifting in a tall column. It rose high enough to touch the lowest overhanging branches, and steadied there. A fish burst out of its side and fell back into the pond with a splash.
Then the column collapsed, and the woman slumped back down. After a moment she straightened up and walked smoothly off, moving out of sight among the trees.
It took Tag only a moment to decide what to do. She scrambled down the tree, and being as quiet as she could, followed the woman.
Just like trailing a deer, she told herself. She knew how to be quiet. The woman had left a trail through the undergrowth, easy to follow, and every once in a while Tag caught a glimpse of her up ahead.
The villagers talked about people who could control water like that, who could make things move without touching them, and brew drinks that made you fly, and change the weather. Witches, the villagers called them, throwing glances at each other, awed or nervous.
Tag had never seen one, until today.
The witch led her into an older patch of trees, tangled oaks and beeches. Tag lost sight of her through a thick patch of brush, and when she had wended her way out, the trail had disappeared.
She raised her eyes and scanned the forest around her. The witch was nowhere in sight, but the most massive oak tree Tag had ever seen stood proudly before her. Its spreading branches were so layered and thick with leaves that no sunlight touched the ground below. Birds whistled from somewhere overhead.
Tag patted the tree, impressed. She hadn't come here before—she would remember. She stepped back from the trunk and searched again for the witch or any sign of her. There was nothing.
She sighed. She was sorry to lose the witch, but she wouldn't have known what to do if the witch had seen her.
And now she was lost again. She got lost a lot out here. By now, with all the times she had run off to the forest, she felt silly when she forgot to keep track of the direction of home, but she always found her way back. She'd better start back right now, or Mother would be really mad.
First she had to find out which way to go, which meant getting up high. The oak had such thick bark that she could use the cracks and ridges for handholds. Once she reached the first huge branch, the climbing was easier. Up, and step, and grab the next branch, and she clambered onto a branch wide enough that she could walk out on it, far enough to get out from under the leaves, and look out over the forest.
A sea of leaves lay at her feet, shifting and rustling in the wind. Over to her left rose the hills, which meant the village should be—yes, smoke curled over the treetops to her right. She felt like she could walk out on the green sea, but she knew she would fall right through. Instead she turned to climb down.
There was a door in the trunk of the oak tree.
She blinked, and it was gone. She tilted her head from side to side, and there it was again. It reminded her of the spotted shade in the forest, when she'd look, and look, and only see trees, and then she'd glance back one more time and see that a deer had been there the whole time, standing perfectly still, blending in with the forest.
The door wavered like that. The crack around it followed the lines in the bark, wiggling up to a rough arch at about her head height. It looked just like the rest of the knobbly brown bark.
She bounced on the balls of her feet, eager to see what was behind it, nervous that it might be the witch. And she had to get back to the village.
She reached out to the door, brushed it with her fingertips, drew her hand back. She was so curious she could almost taste it. But Mother was waiting.
She spun and hopped down to the next branch, climbed all the way down to the ground before she could change her mind. The thought of the door trailed her all the way through the forest, and by the time she reached the village she was sure that tomorrow, or some day, the next time she could get to the forest, she would go back to the oak tree. And she would open the door.
To be continued...