"How did you do it?" Tag asked, still giddy with her sudden freedom. "I didn't think Mother would ever let me go into the forest, not without getting mad."
"I pointed out to your mother that it's safer than she thinks," said the witch. "As well as being useful to both you and the village, you'll be with me instead of off on your own."
"With you and Kirchai, right?" Tag ducked around a branch, trotting after the witch through the forest. "Mother liked that a lot, when you mentioned him. I don't think she thought I'd be much better off with just you. But who is he? Are you married? Mother thought you were."
"Ah, Kirchai! We're almost there, and I'll be glad to introduce you. I think you'll like him."
The underbrush opened up, and the great oak tree stood before them. The witch sighed. "Here we are at last. Your mother isn't going to insist that I come fetch you in the future, is she?" She ran her hand over the bark.
Tag shook her head. "She promised it was just this first time. I'll come by myself from now..."
She trailed off, gaping at the tree. With a quiet cracking, a section that looked just like all the rest of the bark was bending and peeling itself away. It settled in a roll at one side, leaving a dark doorway into the hollow center of the trunk.
The witch looked over at Tag and smiled, a swift smile that crinkled her eyes. "The lower entrance is hidden by magic, not just camouflage, as you may have noticed." She ducked inside.
Tag followed, blinking in the dark. The door rolled closed behind her, and the next second, spots of light bloomed on the walls, casting just enough light for her to make out her surroundings. It was much like the first room she'd found, but bigger and more cluttered. Bunches of plants hung from the ceiling, dangling just over her head. More were piled in baskets and on shelves.
The witch bent over a corner, gently moving baskets aside. She beckoned Tag closer. Peering into the shadows, Tag saw a curve of fur, pitch black, with white on the edges that smoothed into a stripe as it reached the head...
She squeaked and jumped backward, sending a basket rolling. The witch chuckled.
"No need to worry. He's much more even-tempered than I am." She gathered the skunk into her arms and turned to Tag. "This is Kirchai. He won't mind if you pet him."
"This is—" Tag clapped a hand over her mouth, but a giggle escaped. "And Mother thought you were married!" She edged forward and stroked the black fur. The skunk drowsily laid his nose on his paws.
"An unfortunate misinterpretation. It's just the two of us out here. You've heard of witches' familiars, surely? He's mine."
Tag pulled her hand back. "Really?" Familiars were special. Magical. Powerful. She wasn't sure she should be petting one.
"He's not the most usual, I know, but we suit each other very well. He'll be more lively this evening." The witch bent and tucked the skunk into his corner. "Back to sleep, Kirch."
Tag watched her return the baskets to their places. "What's your name?" she asked.
The witch straightened. "I never did say, did I? I'm Samira. Now, let's see those leaves you brought me."
Tag had forgotten about that. She fished them out of her pouch, the bunch of red leaves from the bushes by her house. The witch took them in expert hands, peering closely.
After a moment she shook her head. "Not quite what I was hoping for, but useful enough as setter." She heaped them in one of the few empty spaces on the shelves.
"What were you hoping for?"
"There's a certain spell for which I need a certain plant—similar to this, but—well, I'll show you the difference, young Tag." She tapped the wall, and stepped through when it rolled aside. "We're going hunting."
"Hunting?" asked Tag in dismay, following her into the forest.
"Hunting for herbs, for plants, but hunting it is." Samira gave her swift smile. "It's time for you to learn a few things."
To be continued...