The Distant Past
Sasha Benbridge ran through the forest, her brown hair tumbling from its pin curls and unfurling down her slender back. Light on her toes and nimble with youth, she rushed towards the spot where she had seen the silver cord of lightning strike the earth just minutes before. Excitement threatened to swallow her up as she raced towards her destination. Her mother had prophesied that she would find her tree today, and Sasha had never known her mother to be wrong, at least in matters of witchcraft.
“Hurry,” she whispered aloud, though her voice was lost to the wind that whipped through the endless forest around her. She quickened her pace, leaping over the debris that shrouded her path. She couldn’t risk losing her tree. At twenty years old she had waited too long already. But today was the day she would take her wand and come into her full power as a witch. She just knew it.
She heard the rush of water and could make out snatches of sunlight ahead of her. She must be near a meadow. Good. Though she was a daughter of the woods she wanted a clear view of her surroundings before she performed the ritual.
To Sasha’s right she glimpsed a large, dark shape crouching among the trees. She could only hope it was a bear. There were more frightening things in this forest than wild animals, and until she had the wand in her hands, she wasn't sure if she could match the worst of them. She touched the amulet that hung around her neck and said a brief spell of protection. The shape slunk backwards and disappeared.
At last the forest opened up into a wide clearing, cut through the middle by a swift-moving river that disappeared into the woods on either end. There were many rivers in and around Dark Root, but the waters here looked deeper and more treacherous than any Sasha had seen before. This one fed on the lesser tributaries of the region, she thought, devouring them whole on its journey towards the ocean.
In the center of the meadow, on the top of a slope just feet from the river, stood a solitary tree: a thirty-foot-tall willow with moonbeam-colored boughs that fell to the earth in smooth, clean arcs like half-formed rainbows. The earth around the tree was wet, and Sasha approached it carefully. One misplaced step and she could slide into the river.
The branches wafted in the wind like long, sinuous fingers beckoning her forward. Sasha lifted several of the lower boughs and ducked into the tree’s canopy. It was darker in this secret chamber but she could still discern the smooth trunk from which the boughs sprang. Sasha crept towards it, one hand gripping her amulet as she reached forward with the other. A witch only gets one wand and she had to be certain. When her hands found the trunk she felt a jolt of electricity, a small jolt that nearly stopped her heart. A wide smile crossed Sasha’s face. Her mother’s prophesy had been correct. This was her tree.
Satisfied, she left the tree’s cover and stood before the willow. The sun had settled behind the mountains to the East but the tree was still aglow, lit up by the soil from which it grew. Being the only willow in the region, Sasha knew it had absorbed all the magic rich nutrients reserved for trees of its kind. Her fingers tingled as she pondered the possibilities.
“Blessed tree,” she began, kneeling before the willow, her arms outstretched. “My name is Sasha Benbridge and I have come to ask your permission to take a bough in order to create my wand. I am pure of heart and will not use its magick to inflict harm to others.”
Sasha waited, watching for a response from the tree. At last the boughs began to bob, as if to say yes. Sasha stood, retrieving the small knife from her garter, concealed beneath her white cotton dress. She displayed the knife to the tree, giving the willow a moment to reconsider. When it did not move, she stepped forward.
“I'm sorry if this hurts,” she whispered as she carefully sawed off branch the length of her forearm. The tree flinched and she stroked it until it calmed. Finally, the branch fell from the tree. “Thank you,” she said, encircling her palm around its severed limb. Within seconds the warmth of her touch healed the tree.
In her peripheral Sasha noticed a shape emerge from the woods: a tall, lank figure in a scarlet cloak. Sasha turned her head to the figure. “Larinda, were you following me? I suppose you will run to mother and tell on me? Well, she knows I’m here and…”
“Dear cousin,” Larinda interrupted. “You misjudge my intentions. I’m only here because I was worried about you. It is getting dark and I saw you run off into the forest. What possessed you to run off so far into the woods on the night of the Solstice?”
Sasha held out the branch. “At last, I have found my wand.”
Larinda threw back the hood of her cloak, revealing hair as black as the night and skin as pale as the moon. Her thin red lips curled up, somewhere between a snarl and a smile. “You have waited so long, already, dear cousin. What makes this branch so special?”
“It is from a willow. The only of its kind in Dark Root. And,” she said, her eyes sparkling, “it was kissed by lightning. Doubly blessed!”
“A willow? Will you devote your life to the healing arts then?” Larinda’s face could no longer contain her contempt. “Perhaps you will become a nurse, walking the battlefields like Clara Barton.”
“Perhaps,” Sasha answered, her eyes fixing on her wand. “But theres so much more. Don’t you see Larinda, with this wood, and the magic that runs through our blood, I can live forever if I choose!” She raised her face to her cousins, waiting for Larinda to grasp the implications.
“You mean…” Larinda turned her attention on the willow tree.
“Yes. As long as the tree remains alive, so will I.”
“But willows don’t live that long.”
“In Dark Root they do.” Sasha ran her fingers over the sleek wood in her hands. “And I can give it a little help.”
Larinda charged at the tree, yanking at one of it’s limbs. “I want that power. I didn’t know about it. It isn't fair.” But the branches pulled back and Larinda could not touch a one.
“You have your wand,” Sasha said. “And it is a good wand. Illusion is a powerful magic.”
“Nothing is as powerful as the gift of eternal life,” Larinda said. “You get everything and I get nothing.”
Sasha placed her hand on her cousin’s shoulder to comfort her. “You are my blood. I will use the wand on you as well. All of our family. We will be young forever, together. Now, help me protect the tree. We must keep this to ourselves. Promise?”
“If you promise to always take care of me.”
“Yes, my darling. Now we must hurry back. Tonight is the solstice and mother says we need to perform a ceremony to keep out those who wish to use the magic of Dark Root against us. And then, she will pass the circle onto me.”
The two women turned back towards the forest. Larinda gave the tree a final glance. “Sasha. What will we do with eternal youth?”
Sasha smiled, lifting her chin towards the waning sun before entering the darkness of the woods. “I’m going to travel. Become an actress. Have a million lovers. And be famous. Maybe change my name to something more theatrical. After all, what good is magic if you don’t use it?”