EXCERPT: To receive the knowledge . . .

Romanov the Magician considered Vashti, the young girl who sought to learn the dark arts from him. He frowned. “I grow annoyed at this foolishness. The night is still young, not unlike yourself. I’m sure that you can yet find your way home by the light of the moon.”

No! It couldn’t end before it had even begun! Vashti thought quickly. “A test, then! Set me some task to accomplish that will prove I’m worthy to apprentice to you!”

Romanov sighed at the girl’s stubborn persistence. How could he rid himself of her?

“If I set such a task, you’ll agree to abide by its stipulations?’

“I would like to hear them first.”

Romanov shook his head. “You’re the supplicant, the seeker of knowledge – you’re not in the position to debate. Agree to the conditions I set forth, or abandon your desire to learn the magical paths. You can go back to the village and wive the blacksmith’s son.”

Or, if I agree, and I complete the task, I can come back to you. Vashti nodded assent.

“If you fail this test, you’ll accept it as true proof, not that you’re incapable of learning the hidden ways, but that you’re not destined to learn them from me. What say you?”

What choice did she have? Vashti took a deep breath. “I agree, Romanov.”

“Then hear your task. Go to the oak grove – I’m sure you’re familiar with it?”

Romanov knew that the grove was a favorite haunt of the youths and maidens of the countryside, when they sought a moment’s privacy. A kind of mystery still clung to the place, and drew them to it, although the holy rites that had once been performed beneath the boughs were unknown to them.

When Vashti nodded, Romanov smiled, and it was not kindly. Vashti’s ambition for things she couldn’t have, her desire for him, had indeed begun to grate upon his nerves. It brought back memories he didn’t want to relive.

“Build a fire and summon the enchanted animals.”

“The enchanted –?”

“If you have it in you to be my apprentice, the forest animals will come to your summoning. They will speak to you.”

“But how am I to –”

“Build a fire. Summon them. If they fail to show themselves – you pledge that you’ll vex me no further. This is your task. Do you accept it?”

With a heavy heart, Vashti nodded.

Romanov swept his arm in the direction of the egress. “Go, then. The night beckons. The grove awaits.”

“And what if I’m successful? If I summon the animals, then, can I return?”

Romanov chuckled. “I’m sure that in their hoary wisdom, they’ll enlighten you as to what should next occur. If they deign to appear to you.”

When Vashti made no further move to leave, Romanov’s amusement fled and he brusquely bid her goodnight. She meekly left the castle.

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