Today is a good day to fail
Part 2 of my “12 Short Stories” for 2023
Based on a prompt by Mia from deadlinesforwriters.com
Lillian stomped along the forest path, the snow crunching under her heavy boots. It was still early morning, and from the fast pace, her breath made clouds in the air. Her long brown cloak billowed behind her, and to the left and right of the path, small animals appeared to stare after her.
She had expected the last task to be difficult, but this? Even after spending three years in the apprenticeship, she had still been surprised when she had broken the seal on the letter and read Etta’s instructions. They were not supposed to talk about it among each other, but the assignments the other two had received had been nothing like Lillian’s.
She wiped a stray strand of wavy brown hair out of her face and reminded herself to slow down so she would not arrive overly dishevelled and sweaty. When she came to the clearing where their community hall stood, she paused for another minute to take deep breaths until her heart beat slowed down to normal. She also wanted to observe for a bit.
Most of the older healers were already there, huddled under the thatched roof. Some smiled and waved at her, some just looked, their faces unreadable. The two other students paced back and forth a short distance away from the wooden building. Ruby had her nose in a book, while Wilma was quietly talking to herself.
Then something in the air changed. The cold breeze stopped for a few seconds and birds stopped chirping as a slim figure entered the clearing. She was clad in faded black, her silver-grey hair pinned in a tight bun. From afar, Etta looked taller than she really was. Not for the first time, Lillian wished she knew the trick behind it.
Etta took a big key out of her skirt pocket and opened the door to the hall. Everybody rushed in behind her, greedy for the warmth of the fire burning in the hearth but still making sure to keep a polite distance from their superior.
“Let’s see this year’s harvest then!” Etta turned on the spot and motioned for the students to sit on three chairs separate from the rest.
Ruby went first, and Lillian was not in the mood to pay too much attention. When she heard applause, she remembered to smile at her friend. After that, it was Wilma’s turn. Again, Lillian listened just closely enough so she knew when to grin and show her two thumbs up.
“Apprentice Lillian, please come forward and present your potion!”
This was it. She rose from her seat, straightened up, and took a long breath. She strode towards the centre, took a flask from inside her cloak, and put it onto the table with a very quiet click.
“It‘s purple,“ said Etta.
“One would expect a potion containing blossoms of sapphire quill to be light blue. If it had been prepared properly, that is.”
“Yes, one would, wouldn’t one?” Lillian conceded. “I did not use sapphire quill for this potion, though. Anyone with any herbal expertise would know that they only bloom during summer. I replaced them with morla berries and dried quill leaves from my pantry. Not only are they available now, the result will be much more potent in healing damplung. It will also be lower in possible side effects.”
Etta’s mouth was now a thin line. When she spoke next, her voice was deep and quiet: “Did it say anywhere in your letter that you were allowed to stray from your instructions? Did you pay any attention to Wilma’s exam just now? She followed her task to the letter. So did Ruby. Did you notice?”
“I noticed. They both prepared very tricky potions and passed. I am very happy for them.”
Etta folded her arms in front of her. In reality, she was shorter than Lillian, so at least with both of them standing, she could not look down her long, thin nose at her student. Etta made an effort nonetheless.
“I had high hopes for you, Lillian. We all had. You could always be counted on to fulfill your duties, carry out your assignments, read all the books. All of your charms were spot on, and you have an efficient touch with people and animals alike. That is why we chose this particular challenge for you.”
Her and Lillian stared at each other silently, until Etta went on: “There has even been a betting pool going on.” Her gaze shifted to a red-haired woman in the audience who did not even have the grace to look guilty. Instead, she grinned and winked. Etta shook her head and rolled her eyes, then looked at Lillian again.
For a while, Lillian had almost forgotten about the other healers in the room with her. So they treated her as a source of fun and entertainment on top of everything else? She was baffled. They had always seemed to get along well, and this was disappointing. She had assumed that they liked her.
“So you decided to give me an impossible task because I made an effort to be a good student?”
“I didn’t say that. And your task was not impossible. I am surprised that you would think us so mean.”
Lillian wanted to shout but used all the training she had had to keep her face relaxed and her voice neutral: “Nobody would have been able to find sapphire quill in February. I know it. You know it. And you know what else? I don’t care that you are going to fail me.”
Etta raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Why is that?”
“Because over the last three years you taught me well and you taught me a lot. So did the forest. And so did my patients. I am going to go back to my cottage and my village. And I am going to be a healer with or without your approval.”
In the silence that ensued, you could have heard a mouse scratch its nose. If it had been reckless enough to move right in that moment. The red-haired healer no longer grinned but leaned forward in her seat, her eyes wide and her mouth open. Ruby’s face was as white as the chalk on the walls.
“Hm,” said Etta. “Is this supposed to be a challenge? Do you really want to antagonise me? Your teacher?”
“No. This is not a challenge, and it has very little to do with you. This is about me. Today, I refuse to be defined by this assignment. Or by anyone betting money on my failure. I am grateful for your training, for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. At the same time, today I make my own destiny.”
For a short moment, Lillian felt like she finally had a grasp on the trick of looking taller than you were. Then she saw Etta’s folded arms and her knitted eyebrows and wilted again, even if only a tiny fraction.
“Your last word? You are willing to leave this hall, this community? You believe you can go healing without passing your exam?”
“My last word.”
The corners of Etta’s mouth rose higher than Lillian had ever seen them do. It was not clear however, if this was a grin of malice. Finally, the old healer winked and spoke:
“Thank you very much for helping me win a tidy sum of money. I knew that today would be the day for you to shine. Well done, and congratulations, healer Lillian!”