“To sow the seeds of education is a bitter chore, but the fruits harvested from your work are always sweet.”
-Motto above the entrance to the Library of Ayers Loft
Taja couldn’t sleep. Thoughts of the magic woman skittered through her mind. The wonderment of the bird the woman had conjured had affected her. She needed to learn more. Her father and mother were out cold after a long night of celebration. The spirits contained in their empty wineskins left Taja to find them still, lying atop their bedrolls.
She seized the opportunity.
Taja slipped into her leather boots and donned one of her dark performance cloaks before tucking the motionless bird into one of its pockets. Then, she tiptoed her way past her parents, her eyes glued to their sleeping bodies for any sign of awareness. Seeing none, she smiled to herself, slid through the crack of the closed tent flap, and disappeared into the darkness of the night.
The waning flames from the camp’s bonfire popped, startling her, but when she saw no one around the firepit, she glided between the tents in search of the woman.
The darkness of the night slowed her first steps when she finally made the main trail that led into town. Thoughts of being alone in the dark and away from any adult gave her pause. In her desire to find the woman, she had forgotten how late it really was. And without a lantern or the campfire to guide her way, it was darker than she expected.
Her mind began to race, swirling with thoughts of monsters and goblins hiding at every turn in the path. Her eyes adjusted to the distant glow of the town ahead, and she scanned the overgrowth for any signs of danger. She recalled watching the woman’s carriage as it departed the performance, rattling off toward the town and decided she would head that way to find her, but it was there her ill-conceived plan had ended.
Then, she felt a soft rustling in the folds of her cloak. She reached into her pocket and found the bird stirring back to life. Her eyes widened, and with great care she removed it and held it up to the starlight.
The bird shuffled in her hand and fluffed its feathers but appeared no worse for wear. She sighed, relieved that it wasn’t hurt, when the bird cocked its head to one side.
“Taja, what are you doing my dear?”
Taja gasped and spun, cupping the bird with two hands to protect it. She saw no one, save for her own long shadow running along the lonely path. Then reality came crashing down. The words spoken to her were in a language she understood. But how?
“Look to the bird, Taja,” the delicate voice continued, but this time, Taja felt the words in her head. The touch was subtle, but cold. She felt a dampness that made one of her eyes twitch. She opened the palm of her hand to discover the bird looking back at her. It didn’t try to fly or leave. Instead, it stared back, waiting.
“How?” Taja managed in her mind, but before she could say it, the voice replied.
“Magic, my dear. Would you like to learn how?”
Taja’s hands began to tremble, but the presence in her mind never left and spoke to her as if someone stood in front of her. She steadied herself and took a deep breath. Her eyes teared, but wandered back to the bird in her palm.
“Magic?” Taja responded, staring at the bird.
“Close your eyes,” the voice told her.
Taja flinched and dropped the bird. Fear chased the presence from her mind and the touch dissipated, Taja’s mind frozen in uncertainty.
The bird, however, flapped its wings and circled before landing just steps from her. A slight radiance encircled the bird and Taja felt the presence of magic, just like when it was conjured by the woman hours earlier. Light from the magic rose, its gradual warmth reaching Taja’s face. Her fears melted away with the darkness, and she found herself standing amongst a small globe of golden rays.
A brief flash blinded her, and when her sight returned, the bird was gone, replaced by the woman she sought.
“I am the Lady, Tarot Ranseur,” the woman said, this time aloud but still in Taja’s native tongue. “Perhaps the bird was too much, too soon for your senses to bear.”
Taja stood stiffly, her face gawking at the spectacle.
“And what is your name?” Ranseur smiled and approached her. “Your real name, that is. Not the one given to you by the Flynne’s.”
“I…I don’t remember,” Taja stuttered.
“Would you like me to call you Taja then?”
The girl managed a nervous grin and shifted back and forth on anxious feet. Was this a dream?
“No, this is not a dream,” revealed the woman. “You did want to learn more of my magic, did you not? That is why you were braving this road alone, at night?”
Taja looked Ranseur over and took a deep breath. She summoned the courage to nod in agreement.
“Very well, then,” Ranseur motioned for her to join her. “Come, I have all night to show you.”
Ranseur placed an assuring hand on Taja’s shoulder. “Here, sit with me.”
The globe of light that had enshrouded them disappeared as they stepped from the road. A few paces into the woods the two found a clearing, and Ranseur gestured for her to sit on the ground across from her.
The girl watched Ranseur settle into a seated position, legs folded with hands resting on her knees. She mimicked Ranseur, and closed her eyes when Ranseur did the same.
Moments passed. Taja peeked across at Ranseur when a feeling like sinking into water suddenly came over her, and her eyes flew open. She knew she could not be in the ocean, but suddenly it looked as though she was. The grass around her waved slowly as if underwater, and when she moved her head, she found that her hair floated. With surprise, she realized that Ranseur’s eyes were open too. She smiled at her.
Ranseur smiled back and said something Taja could not understand in her warm voice. Her voice was deliberate, and Taja somehow knew she could pull back from the effects if she wished.
The woman reached forward and took Taja’s hand, overlaying it with her own. She spoke a syllable, then looked at Taja, as if waiting for her to answer. Taja said what it was in her own language, but Ranseur shook her head and said the syllable again.
“Hand,” Taja echoed back to her, and Ranseur smiled in a way that lit up her entire face.
Things went on like this, with Taja repeating back words that Ranseur demonstrated to her and then moving on to phrases for an interminable time that stretched even longer. Taja never felt herself grow hungry or thirsty, and only rarely felt any need to rest. Her mind was like a sponge, eagerly absorbing all of the information Ranseur taught her. The moon hovered in a single spot in the sky, never moving, a mantle of clouds hanging around it.
Taja hardly noticed.
“And now you can speak to others in your camp, your family,” Ranseur assured her. “What sorts of things will you say?”
The young girl beamed brightly. “I wish to thank them, and tell them hello, and good morning, and let’s sing now.”
The mage looked at her sidelong. “Taja, it may be best that you don’t tell them that you learned to speak some of their common tongue overnight. Or how you learned it. You understand why?”
Taja paused in thought. “I understand about secrets,” she said. To her, it felt the same as it did when her first foster-father, whose name she had never learned, had kept her out of the way of visitors and watched her with mingled joy and deep worry whenever she went out to the shore to sing. “I know how not to share a secret thing.”
Ranseur grinned, her nose crinkling. “Clever girl.”
“I want to learn more.”
“You will Taja, but you have learned much tonight. Perhaps if you’re good, I will teach you some different things next time.”
Lights winked around her hand, and Taja watched, spellbound. Then Ranseur spoke an abrupt word, and the grass began to move quicker, the wind returned and the moon shifted in the heavens.
Taja blinked and drew back, her eyes having to adjust to the sudden increase in motion around her.
“Go on,” said Ranseur, not moving from her seat, her eyes falling closed again. “Get back to your tent before your parents find you missing.”