5 min read

Chapter 9: Spores

Saffron studies the strange mushrooms
An image of mushrooms in the forest is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 9: Spores"

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The morning air was crisp as Saffron stepped outside. The leaves hadn’t started changing colours yet, but the grass of the meadow was drying out and all the flowers were going to seed. She pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders and promised herself a big cup of tea when she got back inside.

She wasn’t going far today: just to the little garden shed out back where she stored her tools and, more recently, where she grew her mushrooms.

She’d kept a sample of the fungus from the house and started to spawn them at home for study. She kept them in a corner at the back of the shed, thoroughly warded to prevent anyone but her getting at them. She’d never forgive herself if Bear or any other visitors got a mouthful of that dreadful poison.

The first of her experiments had reached maturity, so it was time to start studying it. She wasn’t sure there was anything to be gained from it, but none of her other leads had panned out yet. No one had responded to her letters or her signs, and she hadn’t found any clues anywhere else. The mushrooms were all she had to go on.

Once she was inside the shed, she pulled on her heavy canvas gloves, said a word to dismiss the wards around her mushroom plot, and carefully plucked out the mature mushroom, wrapping it up in a piece of scrap fabric. While she was there, she sprinkled a little water over the soil to keep it moist for the remaining mushrooms. Then she stepped back and brought her wards back up.

She took the bundle of fabric to the door of the shed and sat in the sun where she could see what she was doing. With her gloves still on, she unwrapped the mushroom. She held it up in front of her and spent several long minutes studying it, taking notes in a little journal with her free hand.

It was hard to believe something so beautiful and delicate could be so deadly. The cap was a deep, rich orange with a slight sheen to it in the morning sun. The stem, so smooth and elegant, was a pure white. And the gills, the perfect fragile gills, were the light violet of spring lilacs.

After she’d studied it and taken all the notes she could, she picked up her knife and sliced off the stem, setting it aside. She had a sheet of paper ready to take a spore print, but first she brought the mushroom level with her eye, taking a closer look at the gills.

She tried to count them, but only got to twenty before she felt a tingle in her nose. She tried to pull her face away, but it was too late. She sneezed.

Spores, delicate as the gills themselves, rained out of the mushroom, falling gently through the air like sparkling snowflakes. It was beautiful.

Saffron only had time to admire it for a moment, because her body’s instincts took a deep breath after she sneezed, and her nose, throat, and lungs soon felt like they were on fire.

Remembering the horrible reaction the mushroom had caused in Anna, she knew she only had a few minutes to act. Trying to suppress the cough racking through her chest, she bundled the mushroom back up and tossed it into the corner where it would be protected by the wards. She stripped off her gloves and apron and dropped them there too, safely out of reach. She locked the door to the shed so no one else could get into the spores, and she rushed to the house.

There was a pot of water by the fire already. She stoked the coals up and hung the pot over them. Bear jumped off the bed with a loud meow as she slammed into the cottage.

“Yes, boy, you’re good. I’m sorry, I only have a minute…” She trailed off as she hurried to the pantry and started rummaging through her supplies. She pulled out the same herbs she had used for Anna and started to mix them up for herself. She lit her candles, already whispering healing prayers. It felt selfish, begging the goddess for her own health, but she reminded herself that if anything happened to her, the villagers and the creatures of the forest would be left without a protector. Her safety helped everyone.

Bear paced anxiously at her feet as she mixed her herbal remedy. Saffron tried to soothe him, but her words were choked off in deep, painful coughs.

When she had everything assembled, she grabbed a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around herself, sitting in front of the fire. It was her strongest element and staying close would help her draw power from it. Her throat was in agony and her head was starting to swim. She knew she wouldn’t have time to make any other preparations. What she had would have to be enough. She pulled the blanket around her shoulders, poured the herbs into her mug, and added a ladle full of hot water, stirring it slowly. She took sips of the drink between coughs. The pain in her lungs and airways did start to ease, but her head only felt heavier and heavier, and her vision began to swim.

She laid herself down, pulling the blanket over her, still doing her best to draw strength from the fire and the healing candles.

She sent up one last prayer to the Goddess as her mind slipped out of consciousness.

She fell into a feverish sleep, haunted by dreams that could be memories or visions or nothing at all.

She was back at the Academy, sitting in class, while spiders swarmed up the walls, onto the ceiling, and rained down on their desks. She flicked one away with her pen and kept taking notes on the uses of calendula.

Her sister sat in the corner, taller than she’d been when Saffron saw her last, watching in silence while she measured out tinctures.

She was walking through the village, watching the buildings go up in smoke, one by one, and all of her spells were powerless to save her friends trapped inside.

She was at home with her mother, gathering herbs she’d never seen before, with properties that were beyond belief, stuffing her satchel until it was overflowing with a riot of unnatural colours.

She was here in the cottage, and something was scratching at the door to come in. Something big, so big the walls rattled and the thatched roof shivered. Something else roared, and she watched through the window as the two silhouettes faced off, growling and sparring until one of them lumbered off. The other shrank smaller and smaller until she couldn’t see it through the window any more.

When she awoke, Bear lay curled between her feet. She was still on the floor and her fire had gone out. Her throat was parched and her head was groggy, but otherwise she felt alright.

She drained two cups of water, made herself a cup of tea, and curled up in her rocking chair to nibble on a slice of bread.

When her head had cleared and she’d regained a little strength, she stood and stretched and made her way to the door. By the angle of the sun, it was morning again. She hoped she’d only missed one day.

A bluejay called across the meadow as she stepped outside. Something crinkled under her foot and she looked down to see a letter sitting on her doorstep. Bear, following her out, sniffed the envelope with great interest.

Saffron opened it up and scanned over the note inside. It was unsigned, but she knew Professor Burton’s writing well. The letter itself was just one line:

All of your questions lead to the centre.

Saffron frowned. What was the professor getting at? Clearly she knew something. Couldn’t she give a little guidance?

She sighed and rubbed at her tired eyes, setting the letter and all her questions out of her mind for the moment. She sat down on the doorstep and pulled Bear onto her lap to enjoy the beautiful morning together.

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can find her on twitter or instagram.