Tag couldn't think of anything to say.
"You could have knocked, m'dear," said the witch again. She glided into the room as silently as she'd appeared. The glow faded from her hand, leaving the spots on the walls for light.
"It wasn't a knocking kind of door," Tag blurted. "I mean, I'm sorry. I didn't think of it."
The corner of the witch's mouth twitched upward. "Didn't you now."
Tag relaxed a little, seeing the almost-smile. "I would've knocked if I thought of it."
"I'm sure. And what brings you here, o curious climber of trees?"
"I followed you from the pond," Tag admitted. "A few days ago. I saw you raise the water. Why did you do that? You're a witch, aren't you?"
The witch's tilted her head. "I certainly am. I didn't particularly want that to be known, though, and I was sure there was no one near the pool when I was practicing. The animals were calm."
Tag couldn't help grinning in pride. It had taken a lot of practice, being quiet and still enough that the animals wouldn't run away.
The witch was looking at her now, studying her. "What's your name, m'dear?"
"Where do you live?"
"The village. Netten, at the edge of the forest."
"In which cottage?"
"The one on the square, across from the well. It has red bushes next to it." Tag blinked. "Why?"
The witch sank into the small chair and folded her hands in her lap. "When you come back tomorrow, Tag, I would like it if you'd bring some of the leaves from those bushes. And I'll show you the rest of this tree."
"When I—I'm coming back tomorrow?"
"Only if you want to," the witch said, an oddly warning note in her voice.
"I do want to! I would, but... Mother would be really angry. I can't come that soon."
"Your mother doesn't like you going into the forest?"
Tag shook her head. "She'll be mad today, too."
"I will think on that," said the witch. "No need to come tomorrow, then. Will you tell your mother that you met me?"
Tag hadn't thought about that. "I don't know. I never had anything to tell about the forest before, that she wanted to hear.... but Mally will know something happened, I bet. I'll have to tell her."
"Suppose you don't tell them exactly what happened," suggested the witch. "You could say I'm an herb gatherer, and not mention the pool."
"You mean lie?" said Tag, startled. She'd never had to lie about the forest before. Mother knew where she had been and what she was doing.
The witch smiled a real smile, not just a twitch of her mouth. "It's not a lie. I assure you, I gather many herbs and plants. That's why I want you to bring me leaves from the bushes by your cottage."
Tag turned it over in her mind. "I guess that's what I'll say, then," she agreed reluctantly.
"Good." The witch stood and opened the door to the outside. "I think it's best if you return now, so your mother has less cause to be upset."
"She'll be upset anyway," said Tag, but it was the witch's tree, so she stepped out onto the branch, turning to look back.
The witch had her hand on the door, already swinging it closed. "I look forward to seeing you again, Tag—whenever we next happen to meet."
To be continued...