Her mother was angry, at first.
Tag had expected it. She had gathered apples on the way back as a peace offering, but Mother was having none of it.
"Don't you dare think that makes up for your irresponsibility, Tagonda. All the worry you put me through, the chores undone, your sister having to do your share..." Mally was pretending not to listen. She wasn't smirking, not exactly, but she looked rather pleased.
But then Mother finished scolding and became concerned, and that was worse. "It's dangerous, Tag," she said. "There are wolves out there, and snakes, and what if the hunters come upon you? I don't want you to get hurt."
Tag looked away from Mother's worried gaze. "I stay away from the hunters, Mother. And the wolves don't bother me, and anyway they can't climb trees. It's nice in the forest."
Mother sighed, and gave her most of Mally's chores to do, and didn't look reassured.
That had only made it harder to slip away the next time. But after a few days, Tag rushed through some of her chores and left the rest undone. The forest was pulling her.
She remembered the way to the big oak tree, mostly. After a few backtrackings, she recognized the thicket where she had lost the witch the first time, and when she pushed her way through there stood the oak in all its glory.
She glanced around to make sure she wasn't being watched. The clearing, made by the spread of the oak's branches, was empty but for a few chirping birds.
She waited no longer, but scrambled up the branches to where she had seen the door. Would the witch be behind it? Or would she be out in the forest, well away? Tag didn't know which she hoped for.
The door was still there, still almost invisible against the bark. There was a bump of tree-skin halfway up that could be a handle, or at least something poking out enough to grab.
Tag grabbed it, and with her heart jumping, she pulled the door open.
The first thing she noticed was the light. The inside of a tree should have been dark, but the room before her was full of a soft glow that came from hand-sized spots in the walls, where the wood itself seemed to hold light.
The second thing she noticed was that there was a room, inside the trunk of this tree. It had clearly been constructed by some person, not just hollowed out by rot or animals. The floor was smooth, flat wood, and the soft light showed that parts of the wall jutted out into what could be a table and a seat before it.
Tag stepped inside, leaving the door open behind her. She felt as if she had discovered a fox's den or a squirrel's drey, a special secret place. Even in the oak's massive trunk, the room was tiny, but on the far side a dark opening dropped downward out of sight.
Tag ran her hand over the bare top of the table, then, holding her breath, touched the wall near one of the glow-spots. It felt just like normal wood, even when her curiosity got the better of her and she tapped one of the spots itself.
"You could have knocked," said a voice behind her.
Tag yelped and spun around. Standing in the dark archway that led downward was the witch, resting one glowing hand on the glowing wall, watching her.
To be continued...