With a sudden and audible sigh, the leaves circling Rowan’s head continued their journey, sailing onward to the ground. Mystified as to what craft it was by which they behaved this way, he focused his attention on the impending confrontation. With a scowl practiced to perfection distorting her face, there was also something unusual regarding her approach as she made her way through the garden. Her physical progress appeared incongruent to the effort made. Each step that she took covered yards of distance, almost as if she were collapsing the space between.
Even Wan Lo, the most accomplished of their gardeners, was forced to slip through, sidestep, or dip a shoulder to avoid stripping the late blooming flowers of their petals, but not her. Advancing directly through hedges she disturbed nothing in her path, presenting the illusion of passing through the bushes like an insubstantial ghost. As the air around him began to hum with excitement, it occurred to Rowan who this strange woman might be.
To reprieve Rake from tedium, at regular intervals Rowan would walk down the hill. Arriving at the farm of Wei Po, the farmer who tended to the stallion while its master was away, he would outfit his companion so that they might ride out together through the open fields. Not one to miss an opportunity to gossip, several times the farmer had mentioned a mysterious woman who frequented the surrounding mountains; a woman he called the witch of the grove.
According to Wei Po, the art of this supposed sorceress was covertly benign. By his accounting, she was responsible for healing his cousin Mie Li of a persistent and virulent rash. Although he couldn’t give an exact location of the bamboo hut in which she was rumored to dwell, nor say with any certainty how long she’d lived in the valley, he did claim that she’d been among them performing similar services since he was a child.
It was an intriguing account, but even a witch must age and the vision approaching him was no hag. If anything, she was the epitome of youthfulness. This was the first time he’d actually seen her and her exotic appearance was certainly deserving of more than a cursory inspection. A simple glance was sufficient to decide that the rumors of her beauty were not so greatly exaggerated.