Maggie walked down the hall, talking at the skull decorating the upper end of her long ash wood staff, including generous pauses for the responses no one else could hear. Then again, if you looked at another way Marigold Strub of the Wayfolk, Daughter of the Acker line moved to answer her father’s summons, conversing with a spirit called Justin, currently occupying the same space as the relic adorning the end of an ashen staff. The reality of the situation lay somewhere tangled up in the middle, but one gets used to that, dealing with Maggie.

If one could hear both sides of the conversation, the scene went something like this: Maggie was clearly unused to carry the staff. It had been cut and shaped to standard quarterstaff dimensions, while Maggie rose well short of middling human height. Without the bony adornment the staff reached over two spans taller than she. Even with the generous height of the hall ceiling, Maggie still nearly smacked skull to stone when she tried walking the staff along next to her left foot without tangling the one with the other. The squawks and muffled shrieks the spirit made at each close(ish) call only served to make her more clumsy, though one would expect to get used to the noise after a while.

Instead of hardening her heart against Justin’s melodramatic cries (It is not as if she carried his skull, and the original owner had no further use for it), Maggie tried carrying the staff parallel to the floor. That worked after a fashion, but the ends wobbled up and down as she walked. She had a bit of trouble with doorways, and an exciting moment or two when it came to turning a corner.

“I still do not understand why you insisted I find you a skull. You have been around as long as I can remember and you never seemed to need anything the like before,” Maggie said slowing down from her usual headlong pace that she adopted long ago to keep up with longer legged companions. Maggie carefully adjusted her grip until she found a comfortable balance to swing the bottom forward without lifting it so high. Very carefully she walked the staff along.

“Before you were a child and always had an adult or few around to look after you. Now you have come of age and are setting out on your first solo journey. A physical habitation, even one with such a limited cranial capacity as this one, expands my capacity to be useful,” Justin said and Maggie could tell that he was not telling her everything, just all she was going to get for the moment.

“I won’t really be journeying solo, though will I? I am supposed to meet a teacher almost as soon as I go through the Way Gate,” Maggie pointed out, caught between relief and disappointment.

“You will only travel with him as long as you need to, and you know it. He is going to teach you about spirits and how to deal with us. After that, your journeying will be your own, child,” Justin said, falling back into old habits. He tried to give up that ‘child’ when she came of age, but so far was having a hard time with it.

“I will still have you,” Maggie responded, batting her eyes up at the skull, just to irritate him.

For a being without a nose or breath, Justin managed a very creditable snort. Maggie grinned and returned to an earlier subject. “I grant you the skull, but why the jaw? Attaching it is proving a major trial, and it is not like you need it to talk to me,”

“I am uncomfortable going out in public without a jaw, all right? How would you like setting out naked with only one pigtail up?” Justin asked.

“You will get your jaw. Don’t get your vibrations in a bunch. At least, I did finally get all the teeth to stay in.” Maggie stopped outside a well-polished, heavy, wooden door and raised her voice to call through. “I just have the final touch to my staff and then I am ready to go, Poppa.”

A deep, warm voice responded clearly if somewhat muffled by the door. “Not quite, Maggie, my girl. Come in. I have something for you.”

Maggie leaned her staff against her shoulder so she could push the door open with both hands, and peek around the edge. “Not too big, is it? Momma’s already made me unpack and repack three times to swap out, leave, or condense things.”

“Your mother knew my chosen gift, and is sure to have taken it into account,” In spite of the depth of his voice Maggie’s father stood only a little tall and perfectly slim with long, fair hair bound at the base of his skull and a neatly trimmed goatee on his chin. He stood on the other side of the wide stone inlaid, wooden table in the middle of his study that served as his all purpose workstation for anything but writing letters. A worn, but very well kept, sturdy map case lay open on the surface, and he bent slightly as he leafed through the contents.

“Oh, you’ve got a map for me?” Maggie said, coming up to the table. “But people always say you can’t map Limbo.”

Maggie stopped a moment while her thoughts tried to catch up with her mouth while still running off in three directions at once which would be a trial to any mind. “How will I carry it so it won’t get damaged?”

“You can’t make ordinary maps of Limbo, but these are Wayfolk maps.” Maggie’s father closed up the case with the same care he always used with his collection, so Maggie could not say how she knew the move came reluctantly.

“I am giving you all the maps from my travelling days. This case kept them safe enough for me. It should do the same for you,” He brought the rectangular case with its shoulder strap around the table to her.

“I have already had the strap altered to suit you, and updated some of the older maps, but I fully expect you to have some new ones to show me when you return.” Maggie’s Poppa held the case out to her, but she could see a remnant of pain behind his smile, so she hesitated to accept.

“Are you certain, Poppa?” Maggie asked, laying one hand on the gift, but making no move to grasp it yet.

“You darn, perceptive child!” he said, with an entirely genuine laugh. “Of course, I am certain. I am just…not entirely happy with what it means. My exploring days are long done. I know this all too well, but, it seems, I never really accepted it.” Poppa looped the carry strap over Maggie’s head and released his grasp still smiling.

Maggie hugged her father tightly about the middle, since it seemed she would never manage to grow the top of her head higher than his shoulder.

“Get on with you,” Poppa said giving her a quick squeeze then a gentle push. “Your mother is waiting for you in her garden.”

Maggie bounced back a couple steps and curtsied neatly with her staff resting against her shoulder. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Maggie said quickly before disappearing out the door.

“That was very nice of him. These should be very useful,” Maggie said, adjusting the hang of the map case with her free hand. Walking with the staff went much more smoothly now that she stopped thinking about it.

“Do you have to try to fix everyone you come across?” Justin asked.

“What do you mean?” Maggie asked, turning her attention away from her new acquisition to look up at the skull and stumbling briefly over her own feet.

“You…I…he…,” Justin sputtered, stopping and starting several lines. “Nevermind!” He half shouted then started grumbling to himself, too softly for Maggie to understand.

“Are you okay?” Maggie asked, coming to a complete stop and turning the skull to face her.

“Aaargh!” the spirit yelled, though no one else heard it. Then in a much calmer tone of voice he went on. “Maybe binding myself into this skull was not such a good idea.

“Nevermind. Skip it. I do not want to talk about it. Your mother is waiting, and I want my jaw on.”

Maggie gave the skull a long look, then turned to go back to her room, instead of heading out the door at the end of the hall.

“Okay,” she said, drawing out the two syllables. “Why now?”

“Your father was one thing. He hardly acknowledges my existence, but ever since your mother found out that I am not just your imaginary friend, I can feel her looking at me. It is uncomfortable enough; I do not want to endure it half-dressed.”

“You would think she would have figured it out sooner,” Maggie said in a thoughtful tone. “I have been talking to you since I started talking, and she knows all about talking to beings most people can’t see.”

“Yes, but she could not see me, and you never mentioned any of her spirit friends,” Justin pointed out.

“Well, I did not see them. She never introduced them and they never talked to me or Poppa. How was I supposed to know the difference?” Maggie asked, not for the first time.

“Nature spirits and spirits of the dead are not the same thing,” Justin pointed out as Maggie sat on the floor binding his jaw in place.

“Well, obviously not, but I can hear you both just as easily and I can see neither.”

“You cannot see them without a spell because you lack that talent. You can’t see me only because I don’t want you to. I have been at this ghost business long enough to learn a few tricks. You see other ghosts just fine.” Then, as Maggie finally got the skull bound on securely, a faint blue glow bloomed in the depths of the eye sockets for just a moment, then quickly faded away.

“Ah, much better,” Justin said, and though Maggie’s eyes told her that the faint glow in the sockets comprised the entire display for the occasion, another part of her brain could swear that Justin yawned his new skull wide and shifted the jaw from side to side, trying out the only movable part of his new, oh so limited embodiment.

Before Maggie figured out how to ask about the duel impression, Justin reminded her, “Your Mother is waiting for you, and we have a journeying to start.”

“Right,” Maggie said. She hesitated just a moment, her mind still caught on the small mystery, but then her thoughts slipped free to run on towards the future. Maggie grabbed up her carefully weighed, packed, and adjusted backpack and shrugged it on over the strap for the map case. The heavier bag fit easily over the diagonal strap running from her right shoulder to her left hip where the case and her staff would interfere with one another as little as possible. She might as well start getting used to carrying it all. Without so much as a backwards glance at all the familiar comforts and security the room represented, Maggie bounced out of her room for the last time in what would prove a very long time.

Maggie burst through the small side door. Then she quickly took a few steps back to make certain to close the door properly, without slamming or standing it ajar. Maggie turned back to look across the wide courtyard which embraced her mother’s garden, though perhaps courtyard and garden gave the wrong impression.

The space was vast, built and cultivated on several levels with cliffs and streams and a miniature lake in one corner which smelled fresh on one side and salt on the other, somehow never mixing or growing stagnant. The resident nature spirits kept the environment shaped to suit themselves, so that the desert plants could thrive in their little area within yards of the small tropical rainforest which lay not far from the high altitude temperate glade, and so on. The layout roughly mimicked the geography of the lady’s favorite continent on her favorite world nestled between the four wings of offices, warehouses, and living quarters that formed the heart of Clan Strub’s trading empire.

Maggie found her mother in the damp, cool, shadowy grotto set in the roots of a fifteen foot cliff, where the sun never reached and the night creatures and underground things were comfortable all day.

She sat wearing a long, white robe, bound tight at neck, waist, and wrist, with green and gold cords, but cut loose and slashed in between so that she flashed a bare arm, shoulder, hip, or leg every time she moved. The outfit was very formal and a little silly, but as Maggie watched the water and fish of the pond rise up to caress Lobelia’s pale, outstretched hand, the woman looked as much a part of that natural scene as any of the plants, animals, or streams.

Maggie hesitated to intrude on the scene until she realized that the breeze pulling her pigtails and tugging on the hem of her skirt had to be Ha’sath, her mother’s primary spirit companion, trying to be subtle rather than the usual vagaries of wind and weather in that courtyard. (If Ha’sath wanted to be blatant it could just ask or pick Maggie up and place her where it wished.)

The wind settled as soon as Maggie started moving of her own volition, but when she approached the far edge of the pond, the aqueous pseudopod left Lobelia’s hand to flow over the calm surface to shadow Maggie’s progress like a great, featureless serpent gliding across the water.

“There you are,” Lobelia said when Maggie drew close enough for easy speech. She looked up from the pond’s fish to her daughter wearing a mysterious smile on her lips and a distant almost inhuman cast to her eyes. “Almost ready to go, then?”

“Poppa said you had a gift for me,” Maggie blurted and then blushed at how mercenary that sounded. Maggie still had trouble dealing with her mother when she sat (or rather stood) firmly enrobed in her role of Spirit Talker and, Nature’s Friend. Contrary to Maggie’s hopes, it looked like it would be Shaman Lobelia she took her leave of instead of Ellie, her mother.

“Not exactly,” Lobelia rose smoothly to bare feet and faced her daughter squarely. “There are five gifts, and none of them are truly from me, though I asked for them to be given.” The tone and words put together with the formal robe had the feel and sound of a ceremony, but Maggie did not know her proper responses, so she stood mute and ignored Justin’s faint sniggering.

“Hold out your staff, Marigold.” Lobelia directed.

“Uh oh,” Justin responded as his skull tilted forward into the Spirit Talker’s easy reach.

“Your father gave you a practical gift, something enduring to help from day to day, something for you to add to, so it grows in value as you use it. I choose to address the times of need, of emergency, times when you might appreciate a mother’s touch while you learn to help yourself.” Suddenly, Maggie could see Ellie’s grin shining out behind Lobelia’s mask, and she felt better.

A great, black raven with three white feathers on her breast glided out of the trees to land silently on the extended skull. A lithe shadow beast prowled along in its wake to settle, near invisibly, in Lobelia’s shadow. “I send with you five favors, three minor and two great from spirits who owed them to me. Each can be used only once, but they will answer across worlds, so long as what you ask does not exceed their abilities or the bounds of what is owed.”

Only when Lobelia reached up to take it, did Maggie notice the long, blood red ribbon in the Raven’s grasp, just the color of the bird’s wise, old eyes. With an intricate twist, Lobelia secured the ribbon around the end of Maggie’s staff, just below the skull so that one end disappeared within the bow and the other dangled several hand spans beneath. The shaman stroked the shadow beast from ears to tail tip and brought away a second ribbon the dark blue green of some pine needles, which quickly joined the first in dangling below Justin’s new abode.

Without apparent effort, Lobelia plunged her hand past the wrist into the dark earth at her feet and drew forth a third length in the same rich brown, both hand and shimmering cloth re-emerged perfectly clean. “These three are the minor gifts, information, scouting, messages carried, small items from not far, things of that sort. Simply grasp the ribbon and make your request.”

The playful breeze tugged again at Maggie’s pigtail, streaming the long, dark, loose curls out towards Justin’s skull until some of the hair seemed to pull loose and tangle among the bows. Only when the breeze died away did Maggie see the pale yellow ribbon now tied neatly with the others instead of strands of her dark hair.

Before Maggie could think of commenting, she saw the shimmering pseudopod of the water snake arch up from the pond’s surface towards the rest of the ribbons, growing thinner and more opaque as it stretched out to touch the mass of bows and intricate knots. When the water dropped away with a faint splash, a bright, deep water blue ribbon completed the set dangling there.

“The last two gifts are from older, wiser, and more complicated spirits. When you grasp their favors, tell them your problem, and they will tell you what they might do about it. Some negotiation is expected,” Ellie added wryly.

Maggie looked at the colorful array at the end of her staff with her mind running off in several directions at once. Each line of thought fought with the others for control, fighting over her tongue until it could not move over all the things that wanted saying. As she stood there, the crow flew away, the shadow beast blended back into a normal absence of light, and the water sank back to a placidly smooth surface, briefly ruffled by the departing breeze.

“We thought you would like these better than the more usual fetishes,” Ellie said, trailing her fingers through the ribbons. “If you go somewhere without your staff, you can always put the ribbons in your hair.”

Maggie gave up on finding the right words and darted forward to hug her mother tightly with one arm, holding the staff out to the side with the other. “Thank you.”

Ellie held her daughter close. Then she leaned back to kiss the pale forehead. “I will walk you to the gate. I imagine your father and some others are already gathered there to see you off.”

For reasons best known to herself, Ellie led them through the office wing instead of the house even though they both knew Maggie would leave through the family gate. At that time, on that particular day, the offices seemed abandoned, which never happened. They passed through without seeing or hearing anyone, and exited through a secondary door near the high stone wall that separated the smooth, formally landscaped lawns and paths of the office yard from the family grounds. They passed through an arch that existed only for family members in good standing with the clan, and cut through the neat rows of fruit trees that populated the corner of the family grounds between the arch and the gates.

A young, very well-mannered mob seemed to have grown up around the wide pair of wrought iron-inlaid, wooden family gates. It seemed to Maggie that every  Wayfolk with any connection to her family for leagues around must be collected there along with every person who had ever done business with or for the trading house, though there were probably nowhere near that many.

Maggie was hugged and patted, teased and warned, passed from person to person all patiently waiting a turn to wish her good journey and safe return. She did not notice when she passed through the actual gates as she went from person to person, but suddenly Maggie found herself standing on the far side of the crowd with just her Poppa and her Mother blocking the road.

“Good Journey, my little Flower,” Poppa said, squeezing her shoulder briefly before stepping to one side.

“Keep you well until we meet again.” Ellie smiled and caressed Maggie’s cheek before taking her position on the other side of the road.

“Until we meet again,” Maggie echoed. Very solemnly, she took three paces forward until she stood on the road beyond them, then, a big grin broke across her face and she spun, still walking away to wave both her empty hand and skull topped staff at all the people gathered to see her off with the ribbons an abbreviated rainbow streaming behind..

Maggie turned back down the road, settling into as long a stride as her short legs could maintain for long periods, warmed by their good will as their cheers followed after to wrap her ‘round.

“That was nice of all those people,” Justin said. “Do you know where we are going?”

“For now.”

“That will have to do.”