6 min read

Chapter 4: Poison in the Woods

One of Saffron's wards stumbles into something dangerous
A background image of a mushroom is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 4: Poison in the Woods"

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Saffron stood up and stretched, taking a deep breath of the fresh spring air. It was a little early to be working in the garden, but she was eager to be outside, and figured she could at least start clearing away the winter debris.

Bear lay in a patch of sunlight nearby warming his grey belly. In the forest behind them, birds sang and squirrels chattered. Everyone, it seemed, was ready for spring.

She carried the armload of sticks and leaves she’d cleared over to the edge of the forest, where they could become part of a creature’s home, or decompose back into the earth where they belonged.

Hurried footsteps pounded through the woods. Someone was running fast. Saffron smiled when she saw the young Hendricks girl racing down the path toward her. It was good to see the children out and about again after a long winter cooped up indoors.

“Miss Saffron! Miss Saffron!” she was yelling, and something in her voice brought Saffron to attention.

“Flossie? What’s wrong?”

The child had almost reached her and struggled to get the words out between her panting breaths.

“It’s Anna. We were playing in the woods and we found mushrooms and I told her not to eat them but she said it was fine and her brother did it all the time but then she collapsed and she’s not talking and you have to come quick, please!”

“Let me get my bag.” Her stomach dropped at the girl’s description of her friend, but she forced her voice to remain calm. “You catch your breath, I’ll just be a second.”

Saffron rushed to the cottage and snatched up her satchel of healing herbs and spell components, slinging it over her shoulder. She was about to hurry back out the door when she remembered the mushroom book that Mister Payton had given her. She grabbed it from the shelf and tucked it into her bag. She tried to know every plant and fungus within her domain, but there were limits even to her knowledge.

Flossie was sitting on the pathway, still panting from her run. Bear sat a few feet away, his tail twitching slightly as he watched her.

“Where is she?”

“We followed the stream toward the bat cave but turned at the big rocks.”

Saffron nodded. That was enough to get started with. “You follow when you’re ready. Bear, stay with Flossie.”

The cat stuck his nose in the air but did as he was told. Saffron left them behind as she ran into the woods.

She ran as far as the path would take her. When she arrived at the stream, she turned, slowing down a bit due to the rougher terrain. She had to get there as quickly as she could, but if she sprained her ankle on a slippery rock, she wouldn’t be doing the girl any favours.

As she rushed along the edge of the stream, she considered all the mushrooms she knew. Several were very poisonous, but she couldn’t think of any that would knock someone out that quickly. Regardless, the cures for most of them were similar. She started running over the ingredients in her mind, mentally preparing to concoct the potion she would need.

She soon reached the big rocks that Flossie had mentioned: a pair of boulders that stood on either side of the stream. She’d said they turned at the rocks, but which way?

Farther into the forest. It had to be. There was a big tree with low-hanging branches that would be irresistible to two young girls with adventurous spirits. Not to mention how the woods deepened and darkened and the rocks grew moss-covered and mysterious.

“Anna!” she shouted as she went, eyes scanning the forest floor for her patient. “Anna!”

There was a strangled moan off to the right. Saffron followed the sound until she found her patient. Anna was very pale and her breath was shallow. Blue veins stood out at her temples and throat. She looked like an image of Snow White after eating the poison apple from an old book of fairy tales Saffron had seen at the Academy.

“Anna, can you hear me? Can you speak?”

The only answer was a hitch in the girl’s shallow breath.

Saffron rummaged through her satchel. A dose of boiled black cardamom to induce vomiting and get the fungus out of her system before it could do any more damage. She gently tipped it down the girl's mouth, rubbing her throat to make her swallow. Then she rolled her onto her side so she wouldn’t choke on what came up.

She kept an eye on Anna as she prepared the next few herbs. Lobelia to stop the spasming of the lungs and help her breathing return to normal. Turmeric and ginger to reduce the swelling. Anything to keep the girl alive and breathing.

Once the herbs were administered, Saffron scanned the area for the offending fungus and found it not far from Anna’s body. It was a bright orange, with a delicate purple underside. A perfect half moon had been bitten out of its cap. It was very pretty; she could see how it would tempt a child to take a bite.

But she didn’t recognize it.

She flipped through the mushroom book, scanning the drawings for anything that matched the specimen in her hand. Before she’d gotten halfway through, it became clear that Anna was going to need more attention. Her breath choked and, if anything, shallower than before.

Saffron frantically searched her bag. Her magic couldn’t remove the poison coursing through her veins, but if she could give the healing herbs a boost, maybe the girl would stand a chance.

She placed an amethyst crystal on one side of Anna and her healing candle on the other. She broke off a piece of the mushroom and held it in the flame until it ignited, symbolizing the destruction of the poison and its cleansing from the girl’s body. As she did so, she invoked the spirits of the forest to bestow their healing gifts on the child.

There was a rustling behind her and she turned to see Flossie coming through the woods, Bear at her side.

“Flossie, stay back!” She didn’t need to see her friend like this.

But she had already seen, and her hands came up to her mouth. “Is she dead?”

“I’m doing everything I can for her. Don’t look, Flossie, stay back.”

Bear, meanwhile, approached Anna’s still body and sniffed her. He licked her hand. Saffron considered shooing him away, but she had bigger issues to focus on.

They sat like that for several long minutes: Saffron in supplication to the spirits, Flossie at a distance facing away from the scene, and Bear licking Anna’s hand. The sick girl’s thin breathing wove into the rustle of wind through the leaves of trees above, as though she was becoming one with the forest.

It’s not her time, Saffron insisted. Don’t take her yet.

The girl coughed. Saffron’s heart jumped. Anna seemed to choke for a second but then her breathing eased and grew stronger.

Saffron sent up silent thanks to the spirits and went to Anna’s side to check on her.

Later that day, after she’d returned both children to their parents with dire warnings not to eat anything they found in the woods, Saffron returned home and curled up with Bear and a cup of tea.

The remains of the mushroom sat on the table in front of her, and the mushroom book was spread on her lap. She was determined to learn what this thing was, but it didn’t match any of the sketches in the book.

At the very back of the volume, the blank pages before the back cover were filled with scrawled notes in a variety of hands. The teachings of healers who came before her. She had skimmed over these the first time she perused the volume, but now she read them more closely in case there was anything important.

Most of the writing documented what parts of the forest contained which varieties of mushroom, as well as common recipes, spells, and cures that used the mushrooms.

On the last page, tucked into the margin, one note in a heavy hand read:

‘Ware the fungus at the heart of the realm;

Jacinthe on its cap and lilac beneath its helm.

Its poison is vicious and will not rest;

The beast who bears it is your greatest test.

Saffron considered the mushroom in front of her. Jacinthe orange on the top—its cap—and lilac purle on the undersides—beneath its helm. Could this be what she’d found? But what was the beast? And what did it mean that the poison would not rest?

She would check on Anna daily, she decided, until she was certain the poison was gone from her system. Just to be sure. Twice a day, maybe, would be better.

“In fact,” she said aloud, “I’ll go back tonight.”

Bear meowed his agreement and licked her chin. Saffron’s mind settled a little, having that decided. Anna would be fine. It was just an old rhyme to help remember a rare mushroom. There was nothing to worry about.

“You’re right, boy,” she cooed to Bear, rubbing behind his ears. “Everything’s going to be fine. Now how about I find us some lunch?”

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P.S. If you enjoy my writing, check out my story “Cultivation” in the latest issue of Cloud Lake Literary .

Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, and literary stories. You can find her on twitter or instagram.