(photo: “Leaves”, Susan Coffey, shot by Emily Tebbetts)
The air in the forest was thick, heavy with moisture, the earthy smell of leaf mould slowly, inexorably turning to soil. Avaran pushed aside a low hanging pine bough, hoping a better view lay behind it. The cottage was but a hundred yards away, the trees thinning from here on to the clearing where it stood, a thin tendril of smoke rising from its chimney. Unsure how to proceed, Avaran paused for a moment to consider how to approach.
“So,” came an amused voice from behind with a sparkling chuckle, “she has finally sent you to me.” A pause, and a change of tone. “Or, perhaps, she does not know at all that you have come here?”
Blushing in embarrassment at having been caught out, Avaran turned slowly to find the person he had hoped, and half dreaded, to find. She didn’t seem to be anything like what Sarya had described with her tales of a rigorous taskmaster. Destra, of course, was always rather more forgiving, but then Destra had always had much more interest in learning where Sarya would rather be planning ridiculous escapades.
“Did you expect to find me at home on such a fine day as this?” she continued. One finely drawn hand waved absently through the damp air, referring to the overcast sky that still looked as if it threatened to continue the gentle assault of light rain that had returned off and on through the afternoon. She laughed with more lightness than Avaran might have expected.
“While I admit that would be much more comfortable than getting my feet wet, my needs don’t get taken care of by themselves, you know. Especially not since she left. I have work to do, always.” She waved the bundle of gathered herbs she was holding at that last to emphasize her point. Avaran felt her measuring gaze, and could not have said how long she watched, or what it was she had seen in him, but eventually she nodded.
“Come then, girl, if you wish.”
Avaran blushed again, to be called so, although it wasn’t the first time someone had made that mistake. In this case, however, Avaran realized that it was said pointedly. She moved past, then, and Avaran was puzzled at how gracefully she seemed to float across the forest floor without a sound, wondering if it was a skill he could learn. Her deep golden hair caught an unexpected sunbeam, and Avaran noted the reddish highlights while tracing the light back to its source in the now patchy sky.
“You have a name,” she said as the trees melted away and they reached the rough grass that lined the clearing. It was a strange way of asking that question, he thought, and as he opened his mouth to answer, found his mouth suddenly dry, so his response came out as more of a whisper.
“Avaran. Avaran Carasel.”
She turned her head over one shoulder at that, and gave him another look of bemusement, this time with one tawny eyebrow raised. “Really? I rather think not,” she replied, and returned her eyes to what lay ahead. She laughed again, saying “The name of Avaran Carasel I already know. Why don’t you try that again?”
Avaran cleared his throat first, this time, willing his voice to comply with more delicacy.
“Avaïa. Avaïa Carasel. Ma’am.” That came out a bit more hesitantly than was the plan.
“Now you see, isn’t that much better? To be truthful to others, as well as yourself? And your voice is quite musical. Very well done. It must be your aunt’s influence. She always did have such control over her instrument, even if she was never comfortable with singing in public,” she noted as they passed her garden and reached, finally, her home.
“Do come inside,” she invited pleasantly, “I’ll make us some tea, and then perhaps, you will understand why you are here. One thing, though. Do not under any circumstances ever again refer to me as ‘madam’. It makes me feel frightfully old, even if I am older than I might appear.
I would say its magic, but as I have a feeling I know why you have come looking for me, I will not lie to you. It is the benefits of my practice, only. I get to keep all the best salves for my own use, especially the ones that require such rare ingredients that I could never make enough to pursue a business selling them, anyway, and I do good work, if I don’t say so myself. You’ll see for yourself, never you fear, if I guess correctly.
In any case, you are free to call me Mírë. I insist upon it, actually, since so few dare, anymore. Oh, but listen to me going on so! Please, sit, make yourself comfortable. I shall be only a moment.”
Mírë disappeared into the kitchen to prepare the tea, leaving Avaïa to mull over everything she’d just said. It was quite a lot, actually, and more than a bit overwhelming.