Jason, a bronze sickle in one hand, glimpsed movement at the edge of the woods and straightened to peer above the golden stalks of barley. At the far end of the field, Dame Stilwell, his teacher, had emerged from the trees. There were no paths in that part of the forest, and she wore no cape, her full, black dress clearly unsuited for trekking through the woods.
“Dame Stilwell,” he called. Startled, she turned her face to him, but then smiled and began picking her way through the cut portion of the field, raising the hem of her dress to clear the stubble.
Jason hadn’t attended Circle since spring planting. No other boys his age went to school, but his father encouraged him, excusing him from some of the winter chores. “Maybe you’ll be a scribe, or a priest,” he said one evening at dinner. His brothers, who resented making up his chores, only smirked.
At the old guild hall, Dame Stilwell chalked words onto the walls, and Students read aloud or copied onto thin, black slates. Some days she even taught Kitheon, a beautiful but dead language. The first time he saw her hold a piece of chalk sideways and draw the graceful curves of Kitheon letters, the skin tingled on the back of his neck. Magic lurked within those words, he was sure of it.
Dropping the sickle, he strode across the field to meet his teacher. Burrs clung to the hem of her dress, and strands of hair had escaped the shell combs she always wore. He had never seen her in anything but immaculate garments, her hair coiffed, her collars starched. And she made it known that clean attire and bathing were required of her students. He suffered many a bath in the frigid creek in preparation for her class.
“What are you doing here?” Jason asked. The impertinence of the question embarrassed him, but the circumstances were so odd that the words tumbled out before he thought.
“Hello, Jason.” She hadn’t taken offense.
He nodded, hoping to make up for his abruptness.
“We’ve missed you.”
He grinned. “I can hardly wait for winter when I can start again.”
There was an awkward pause, and she gestured to the woods. “I… I was looking for mushrooms.”
His gaze fell to her empty hands.
“Oh,” she said, apparently seeing his glance. “I didn’t need a basket. I was just going to pick a few.”
One of her sleeves was torn. Only a snag, or perhaps something had happened? Jason squinted in the direction of the forest. A new order of monks had taken over the temple. Fanatics, he heard, and they stirred up the villagers against the old teachings.
“It’s so fortunate I found you here.” She lifted a small bag that hung from her belt. “I have something for you.”
“You were always so good at Kitheon. The language seems to — resonate with you.” She pulled out a tiny book hardly bigger than her hand.
He had seen two books in his life, the holy book at the temple, and another that Dame Stilwell, herself, had brought to the Circle. Each student got to read a page. This was not that book.
“Won’t you take it?”
The binding was tooled leather, stained dark brown. A small clasp held the fore edge. The title, now faded, was embossed on the front in graceful, flowing letters.
He extended both hands as if afraid he would drop it.
The book was heavy for its size. “Stosthopis ani Crenthopis,” he read. “Light and Dark.”
“Ah, you haven’t forgotten.”
Suddenly aware of the grime on his calloused hands, he held the book out as if to return it to her. “I can’t… People will think I stole it.” Again, he cringed at the bluntness of his words.
“Then best keep it a secret — just between us.” Her smile faded, replaced by a look that Jason couldn’t read. She opened her mouth as if to speak again, but instead turned back to the woods, leaving Jason in the field staring at his treasure.
“Thank you,” he said, after her retreating form.
She did not look back. When she reached the tree line, a partridge broke cover and flapped noisily into the sky.
At sundown, Jason shocked-up the stalks of barley he had cut and took the back trail to a remote storage shed. Barely able to see, but fearful of striking a light, he wrapped the book in bittercloth to keep the rats from it and wedged it among the rafters.
They caught Dame Stilwell the next day. She had made it to Cromley where a suspicious innkeeper had summoned authorities. Rumors flew through the village: witchcraft, blasphemy, corruption of children.
Three monks of the new order visited the farm a few days later, their faces shadowed in cowls. Jason was terrified they knew about the book, but instead they asked about the Circle. Had Dame Stilwell taught Kitheon? “I wasn’t a good student,” he told them.
“He quit,” his pa added. “He wasn’t going back.”
“Such learning is the gateway to great evil,” the monks warned, regarding him with suspicion.
Within a fortnight, Dame Stilwell was tried and the next morning dragged into the square, the entire village in attendance. Jason slipped away from his family to conceal himself in the back. She wore the same dress, now in tatters. As they lit the fire, she looked into the crowd. He knew she searched for him. In the end, she inhaled great gulps of smoke attempting a quick death. She did not succeed.
Deep snow had fallen before Jason had the nerve to slip away to the storage shed. The bittercloth had worked. The book was intact. His breath in the cold loft clouded the words, and he had to be careful in gloved hands to turn the pages gently.
Not the gateway to evil, Jason thought, but to power. They would regret what they did to Dame Stilwell.
Gerald Warfield’s short stories have appeared in many online venues and print anthologies including Perihelion, NewMyths, Bewildering Stories, Every Day Fiction, and Metaphorosis. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.