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“You won’t find gold here.”

Maleficent stood abruptly from her crouch among the bushes. A man stood several paces away, notched arrow pointed straight at her heart.

The man’s eyes widened. The bow shook. “What are you?” he whispered, staring at her face.

Ah, yes. Her green skin and pointed horns. At least he hadn’t immediately called her Devil like the people in the nearby settlement. She could only wish to have that much power.

“It is not often someone has the skill to sneak up on me, warrior. For that you have earned my name. I am Maleficent.”

The warrior’s hands steadied again. “You won’t find gold here. Be gone.”

“I am not looking for gold.” She swept her hand toward the bush she’d been examining. “I require this plant, which does not grow in my homeland.”

The warrior’s eyes narrowed. “That is a poisonous plant. Why do you strangers insist on harming us?”

“I do not wish to harm you. The plant is poisonous as you say, but I believe that it can be made inert and then used for medicinal purposes.”

“What kind of medicinal purposes?”

Images of Aurora, waddling around their tower with increasing difficulty, filtered through Maleficent’s mind. “To ease difficult births.”

The arrow tipped toward the ground. “That is useful knowledge. But you cannot take without proper thanks. I can teach you the way, if you will teach me how to use the plant as you say.”

Maleficent considered. She could blast this warrior from her presence and go about her business. But the plant samples she’d already taken lay wilted, rendered useless no matter what method of harvesting she’d tried.

“Very well. Show me, warrior.”

The man slowly unnotched the arrow and strapped the bow to his back, keeping a wary eye on Maleficent. He approached the bush and knelt.

“My name is Kocoum,” he said quietly. He waved his hand toward the tree a few paces away and told her its name, along with the names of the bush and the other plants nearby. “Everything has a name and a spirit. Kneel, Maleficent. Understand what you do when you take. If you have proper respect, the earth will give of itself gladly for you.”

Maleficent refrained from rolling her eyes—she preferred to take what she needed regardless of permission—but the dead branches weighed heavy in her bag. She mimicked Kocoum’s position.

Kocoum remained silent. Maleficent breathed in, committing the names he’d shared to her memory. To her surprise, she felt a tingle of magic she’d never experienced before. She focused her senses, but it remained frustratingly at the edges of her comprehension.

“Do you understand?” Kocoum asked.

“Not fully.”

Kocoum nodded. “You must open your mind and your soul. It is very difficult for outsiders to do. But you have tried.” He plucked a knife from his side and cut several branches. “It is satisfied and gives of itself.” He held the plant out, its greenery still bright and vibrant.

Maleficent took it. “I am grateful.” She explained how to boil away the poison in the sap, leaving the medicinal properties in the leaves themselves. “Remember, I have not tested this method. I do not know if it will succeed.”

“I understand. Thank you. I will share this knowledge with our healer.”

They both stood. “Farewell, Kocoum.”

“Farewell, Maleficent.”

Maleficent waited until he had disappeared from view before transforming herself and taking flight. She couldn’t deny that the tingle of unfamiliar magic she’d felt was intriguing. She’d learned something, even if she didn’t quite know what it was. Perhaps, she thought as she started on her long journey home, she might benefit from listening to others more often.