After years of wanting to do a “trailer” I finally came up with something I like. Okay, it’s not technically a trailer, but it is informative and it shows all of my cool covers.
Christmas shopping in Salem, Massachusetts has always been one of my favorite holiday rituals. Basir was perched on my shoulder, his talons digging into the thick acrylic fur on the collar of my coat while he looked around at the other shoppers with an air of superiority.
“That’s not a very cheerful look. Perhaps this will help you get in the spirit.” I pulled a small red and green collar out of my pocket and slipped it over the brown and white feathered head of my companion. He swiveled his head around to look at his reflection in a shop window.
“Who!” He exclaimed in a horrified tone.
“You look more festive already.” I laughed, reaching up to adjust the small golden bells that were sewn onto the points of the collar. I stroked his sable and white feathers with one of my faux-fur mittens as he glared at me with as much menace as he could muster. Christmas in Witch City is such an odd mix of Santa meets the occult that a great horned owl dressed like an elf doesn’t get me as many strange looks as you might think.
The shops were decked out in the traditional colors of red and green with a random ghoul or vampire thrown in to the mix – some in Santa hats, and three Dickens-type carolers sang under a poster for the Yule Ball. There were other traditional symbols of the pagan holiday Yuletide right next to manger scenes and menorahs.
Silver bells tinkled and shoppers strolled along the pedestrian mall laughing and peering into the festive displays in the shop windows. I shifted my packages in my hands and continued across the brick walkways toward Derby Square. One of my favorite shops was just off the main street and I never passed up an opportunity to poke through Magic Past Times.
A woman with long blonde curls turned the corner and we exchanged a polite smile and wave. I knew her name, but that was the extent of my experience with Caly Mendelsohn, one of the local psychics in Salem. She knew me because she was a huge fan of my grandmother, Wilhelmina Zatavichnova, a world renowned psychic. I knew her because I was often tempted to stop in at Foretold, a psychic parlor where she worked, to have her read my Tarot Cards. We wished each other a generic “Happy Holidays” and continued on our separate journeys.
The front window of Magical Past Times blazed with multi-colored lights and a giant wreath decorated with ornaments which were not your average Christmas decorations. Miniature cauldrons bubbled in the corners of the window, sending up wisps of red, green, and gold smoke which twined in long tendrils around the wreath. A few pentagrams glittered with crushed glass and others sparkled with silvery glitter. Mistletoe, the plant sacred to my Druid ancestors, hung in graceful bunches around the wreath alongside vintage glass ornaments. Everything was festooned with glittery ribbons inscribed with spells and magical symbols.
“Whoo!” Basir called and dug his talons into my shoulder at the same moment as I felt the prickle of magic against my cold cheeks. I saw the flicker of movement on one of the ornaments and a sense of urgency uncoiled beneath my breastbone.
I stepped back and then forward again, searching for the source of the magical charge in the air and saw a flicker of movement on the large round ornament again. I spun around to see if someone else had walked behind me and it was just a reflection, but I was alone on the street.
“Whooooo.” Basir cooed, urging me forward toward the window with a small flap of his wings.
We peered through the window, watching intently so we wouldn’t miss it. The surface of the ornament seemed to swirl and shift and hazy figures appeared and disappeared on the pearlescent glass. I tilted my head to the side and saw the faint image of white feathers and large amber eyes on the top of the ornament.
“Is that a snow owl?” I asked, peering into the window.
Basir clicked his beak once and I saw in our reflection that he had tilted his head to the side as well, trying to get a better look. It was also likely he was trying to figure out a way to wiggle out of the elf collar.
I studied the ornament for a few more minutes before deciding the surface shifts weren’t just a product of my imagination or the lighting. The ornament was definitely enchanted, and I was fascinated.
Without needing any more encouragement, I pulled open the door to the shop. The warm air billowed out, carrying the scents of cinnamon and sandalwood into the cold December afternoon. I glanced around at antique copper spell pots, hand blown glass bottles in various colors, mortars and pestles made from exotic materials, and myriad occult-related doodads. All the items had been used by spell-casters and potion makers for generations before winding up in an antiques store specializing in magical items. I could feel the residual magic inside the store and my own magical senses perked up and added to the faint thrumming in the air.
“Blessed be.” Called a man from behind the counter. He had woven bits of ribbon and gemstone beads into his short red beard and he had a black cape slung dramatically around his shoulders. The ends of his mustache were waxed into elaborate curls which gave him a slightly kooky look.
I cringed and smiled politely. The propensity of the shop owners to give the standard witch phrase of greeting to all the tourists drives me nuts. As a genetically- wired witch I find the greeting trite and vaguely insulting. Witches don’t necessarily use the phrase and it had become somewhat of a cliché. My chic wool and faux-fur coat was stylish, my red beret was cheerful, and my tiny protection amulet was safely tucked into my coat pocket. I don’t announce my magic with a costume or a phrase.
“Same to you.” I replied with a thin smile. It wasn’t my job to wage a personal war against the over use of the traditional Wiccan phrase, but I wasn’t going to pretend that it delighted me. A simple good afternoon would have sufficed, unless he knew me to be a fellow practioner.
“If you don’t see what you’re looking for, just ask. We have some other items in the storage room that we haven’t put out yet.” He said, pulling a cinnamon stick out of a steaming cup of water and laying it on a chipped saucer.
“We’ll let you know, thanks.” I replied, heading down the aisle nearest the window with a vague wave. As I walked, the tiny pulse of magic beat against my exposed skin and I felt excitement skitter up my spine. There was something very special inside the shop, and my skin shivered with the energy.
Basir shifted on my shoulder as we approached the window and I put my hand on his feathered chest as I leaned forward to get a closer look at the pearly white ornament. It was about the size of a grapefruit with a silver filigree cap to cover the stem of the ball. The metalwork was intricate and a few tiny stones were set into the center of flowers which gave the cap a Victorian elegance.
The surface of the ornament itself shimmered as if lit from within. Scrolling along the bottom and sides of the ball were intricate designs and scenes which were masterfully painted in muted tones that were nearly invisible unless you looked closely. It looked like porcelain with the subtle shimmer of pearls. Tentatively, I reached out a finger to touch it.
“Whoo!” Basir warned and I pulled back with a start.
“It’s just an ornament.” I whispered, but even though the words were out of my mouth, I knew I was lying.
“It’s a fine piece of art, actually.” The shop owner said with a note of smarmy salesmanship. He had been lurking at the end of the aisle and I’d been so transfixed I hadn’t noticed him. My usual senses must have been overloaded by the other items in the store. Maybe it was some sort of magical interference.
“Uh huh. It’s very pretty.” I replied, stepping back and feigning disinterest. With a flourish, he stepped toward the window and plucked the ball off the wreath. In huge hands he held it out to me for inspection. In the lights of the shop, I could see the designs which were so faintly painted on the glass shimmer and flicker like holographic images. The price tag was flipped over the man’s hand and I glanced at it quickly and nearly yelped.
“It’s on commission from the Sage family.” The man said, with a note of apology.
The confused look on my face prompted him to add more. “Captain Daniel Sage was a prominant sea captain and one of the earliest settlers of Salem. His family still lives around here and every once in a while they send an heirloom to one of the shops in the area on commission.”
As a child, I had lived in Salem for a few years. I knew of the Sage family, and I had heard the rumors that Mrs. Emily Sage, wife of Captain Tarquil Sage, was believed to be a witch. During the witch trials, it was whispered that Emily was spirited away on the ship of another captain so she couldn’t be tried for witchcraft. She never returned to Salem and history held that her husband was driven mad with grief and lived out the rest of his life in the family home, too distraught to continue sailing.
Their oldest son, Daniel, took over for his father and became a famous local figure; effectively taking the focus off his much maligned parents. In addition to his mother being accused of witchcraft, it was rumored that Tarquil was a vampire, so poor Daniel worked very hard to build a stellar reputation as a captain and as the family fortune and status grew, most people forgot the ugly rumors. Most people – but not all.
A twelve year old witch with a passion for history and a library card stumbled upon the diary of Jane Sage, the oldest daughter of Tarquil and Emily. Jane had some interesting memories of her father’s plan to keep her mother safe from those who accused her of witchcraft.
“Were they a family of witches?” I asked, with wide-eyed innocence.
“They’re not now.” The shop keeper replied with a note perplexity. “I think it’s the symbols on the glass that made them send this antique to my shop. See this one?” He held a thick finger on a small pentagram which was woven into the silver filigree. I nodded. “It’s an arcane symbol. There’s more mysterious symbols on it, too, but I’m afraid I don’t know what they’re all called. It’s a strange thing, really. Every time I pick it up I notice something that I swear wasn’t there yesterday. Like this picture here…” He pointed to the yellow eyes of the snow owl. “I swear that wasn’t there yesterday.” He cast a suspicious look at my own owl and I felt Basir dig his talons into my shoulder a little harder than necessary. The man’s eyes widened and he nervously looked away from Basir. Three and a half pounds of irate bird can intimidate almost anyone.
I felt my heart racing and my breathing was suddenly shallow. I held my mittened hands out to him. “May I hold it?” I asked, hoping the layer of synthetic fur would shield my own magic from mingling with that of the ornament. The man nodded and leaned over to place it in my waiting hands. The minute the ball entered the electromagnetic field of my body, I saw the images on the pearly surface shift and swirl. I held my hands out to prevent the shop owner from giving it to me. “Never mind. I’ll take it.”
The words were so rushed that the owner blinked twice in surprise before breaking into a wide grin. “I’ll wrap it up for you.” He said, sounding pleased.
Although the cost of the ornament was more than the combined value of every single holiday decoration in my house, I paid in cash and hurried back onto the street with my parcel tucked inside a shopping bag. The owner of the shop had looked reluctant to take my cash and I wondered if that was because the Sage family had asked to be notified of the purchaser’s name and address. Given what I suspected to be the truth about the ornament, it seemed logical that the Sage family would want to know where the ornament went.
What I had seen in the glass while the owner held it out to me told me that the ornament was no simple occult item and what I remembered from reading Jane’s diary in the dusty library so many years ago made me giddy with anticipation. I smiled to myself and hurried across the pedestrian mall, waving to Caly Mendelsohn as I passed by her outside of Foretold. Basir and I had a mystery to solve, and I couldn’t wait to get home and get down to work.
I hurried to the parking garage and stored my packages in the trunk of my tiny red car. Basir perched on the back seat as I pulled out into traffic and immediately took my first wrong turn, getting instantly lost on the way out of the city. It never failed that I could not successfully navigate myself into or out of Salem on the first try. Getting lost was just part of the journey for me, despite the fact that I had lived in Salem for many years as a child. No matter how many times I visited the city, no matter how many maps I had bought, even with the annoyingly confident GPS voice giving me directions, I had never made it to the highway without getting utterly lost and wandering through side streets and shopping malls while desperately seeking a road sign that would put me back on Route 128.
It took us nearly two hours to get back to our home in the Berkshire Mountains, and by the time I had parked in the old tractor bay beneath our converted barn, I was practically drooling with the eagerness of ripping into the box which contained the ornament.
I hurried up the old ramp and to the front door with Basir flying ahead and through the doggy-door I had installed high in the roof for his convenience. As I pushed open the bright jade green door to our home, I felt a tingle of delicious anticipation. Inside the barn, I toed off my furry boots and hung my coat and beret on the hook before scooping up the box which contained the prize we’d found. With great ceremony, I placed it in the center of the kitchen table.
Basir perched on the back of a chair with his ear tufts raised to full attention. Ka’Tehm, a water spirit who took the form of a blue beaver sauntered out of the bathroom to see what the excitement was all about. I pulled out a chair and sat in front of the box with my hands spread to test the vibrations coming off the object. I felt small sparkles of magic against my skin and something which might have been interpreted as hope blooming in my heart.
Ka’Tehm floated through the air and sat in the middle of the table, leaving tiny sparkling drops of water on the wood surface.
“I think it’s a witch ball. What do you think?” I whispered to my companions as I pulled up the cardboard lid and exposed the layers of bubble wrap and tissue paper beneath. Luminous blue and golden amber eyes watched as my fingers peeled off the layers of wrapping. I unrolled the bubble wrap while I recounted its discovery to the blue beaver. Basir stared intently at his other companion and I had the odd feeling that they talked to each other in ways I didn’t understand.
I slipped the ball out of the last of the packaging and once the ornament rested against my bare flesh, I felt the cool sandy texture of the glass and little tendrils of giddy energy skated along my nerves. Dusk was gathering outside the windows and I pulled the shades down and flipped on the overhead light. In the warm glow of the kitchen, the pearly surface of the ornament began to shift in subtle ways that had the three of us clustered around, transfixed by the magical surface of the ball.
“Witch balls were supposed to attract evil spells and trap them inside.” I shifted the ball and noticed a faint swirl on one side of the surface. I pointed to it. “Inside the ball are tendrils of glass or other material, like threads or twigs. I think this one has some sort of organic material. Maybe silk?” It was a guess, but a rather educated one. Captain Sage imported silks from the east, and since silk was an organic material, it didn’t seem far-fetched. “I need something to hang it on…” I said as I glanced around the room. Basir flapped his wings and hooted before flying off into the other room. I cradled the ball in my palms until the owl returned with a wooden candle holder. I set it into the grooved top of the holder and sat back to watch the shifting images on the glass.
The silver filigreed cap which fit over the stem of the ball was inscribed with magical symbols woven into an elaborate floral motif. I could make out a pentagram, as well as the elemental symbols for air, fire, water, earth and another symbol I didn’t quite recognize. I pointed to it and Basir narrowed his eyes at me.
“I should know that, huh?” I asked, tapping my fingers on the table. I named off the other four and studied the symbol again. It was a round circle. “The sun?” I ventured.
Basir rolled his eyes. “Moon?” I tried.
More eye rolling. I hated it when the bird made me feel stupid. “There are only four elements, Basir.” I groused.
One wingtip shot out and pointed to the center of my chest. “Me?”
He blinked once.
“So I’m the fifth element?” I snorted with laughter, but then considered the implications. “Of course! Spirit, right? The fifth element is the spirit of the one who channels the power of the other elements.”
Basir blinked once and clapped his wings together half-heartedly.
“Wise guy.” I groused, smirking and stroking his feathered head. “It’s not like I have an extensive magical education.” I stated in my own defense.
Basir opened his beak and wagged his black tongue back and forth. He had good reason to laugh, because our entire foray into the magical world had been a series of learn-as-you-go moments; some with comical results, some quite hair-raising, and some which proved to be very lucrative.
I turned my attention back to the ornament and studied the luminous surface of the glass. The pale yellow eyes of the snow owl glowed, and soft feathers appeared. Beneath that was a tonal portrait of a woman in a fur hood, her features regal and delicate. The fur of the hood seemed to shift as if blown by a cold breeze. A frame emerged from the surface of the glass, encasing the portrait in an elaborate filigree oval. Around the portrait, four smaller ovals appeared, hazy images forming inside each. The woman’s face faded into the glass, replaced by the spiked fur of a tiny critter with black eyes and a tiny black nose. The critter was holding a tea cup in his tiny rodent hands.
“What is that?” I whispered, leaning closer. Basir fluttered to my shoulder and looked hard at the ornament.
“Whoo Who.” He said, snapping his beak.
I grimaced. I know he expected me to catch on immediately, but his limited vocabulary really made that difficult. I looked again at the image on the glass and tried desperately to come up with the name of the animal.
“Whoo. Who!” Basir said again, slapping me in the back of the head with a wing.
“Two syllabils. Um…hmmm…it’s a…um…what do you call those? It’s a rodent, right?” I looked again at the small black nose and spiky fur.
“Hedgehog! It’s a hedgehog!” I slapped the table and looked up at Basir who rolled his whole head around and nodded grudgingly.
“But why is a hedgehog drinking tea?” I asked, tapping my fingers on the table. I knew the hedgehog was a clue, but it wasn’t connecting in my brain yet. “Well, it makes sense that a sea captain would have brought back tea, right?” It made sense, but I was pretty sure the sea captain angle wasn’t the only answer.
The image morphed again, this the lines of the hedgehog straightened to become a sprig of apple blossoms before the lines shifted again, revealing a frozen lake. The whole miniature animated movie started over again, in a different order. The woman morphed into the hedgehog drinking tea, the steam from the tea froze into icicles which were then melted by a fire made from apple blossoms and the woman’s face appeared again.
Basir hopped onto the table and looked at the back of the ornament. His eyes got wide and he flew out of the kitchen. Ka’Tehm and I exchanged puzzled glances and I heard a crash from the bathroom followed by wild flapping.
“Are you okay?” I called.
“Whooo.” Came the irritated response followed a few seconds later by Basir flying in and dropping a small makeup mirror into my lap. I caught the mirror and looked up at him.
“Do I have something in my teeth?” I asked, bearing my teeth at myself in the mirror.
Basir snapped his beak to get my attention and pointed to a spot behind the ornament. He hopped across the table and nudged the poinsettia center piece into place behind the ornament. I propped the mirror up against it and I could see a shifting pentagram on the back of the ornament while I watched the images on the front change from woman to hedgehog and back again.
The five points of the pentagram glowed softly as the picture on the front altered. The woman’s image lit up the top point, or spirit location, of the pentagram. The hedgehog image lit up the earth point, the frozen lake lit up the water point, the apple blossom lit up the fire point, and the tea cup lit up the air portion.
“Ah…I think it’s like a spell formula.” I said, letting a smile spread across my face. “In order to unlock the ornament, we have to follow the recipe.”
I glanced out into the dark yard and saw my small fire pit was outlined by the silvery moonlight. “I think we better do this outside. Just in case.” I managed a weak smile and Basir nodded in agreement. Ka’Tehm scampered to the door and turned around to look at me.
“You’re going out?” I asked, surprised.
The blue beaver blinked once at me and I shrugged. If he wanted to go out, I wasn’t about to stop him. I opened the door and watched him scamper across the lawn before disappearing into the forest. I felt a pang of fear for him, but knew that the magical blue beaver could just mist out of existence if he needed to. He’d be fine, I assured myself as I gathered up some other supplies to work the spell.
I pulled the long fireplace lighter out of the end table in the living room and grabbed the copper kettle off the top of the wood stove. I turned around to say something to Basir, but he’d flown out his doggy door and I was alone in the house. For a moment, I thought of how crazy it was that I was going to try and work a strange spell that I found on an ornament in a magic shop, but the vibrations from the pearly white object all felt positive and somehow…lost.
I was obligated to work the spell, because I had found it and I knew instantly what it might be. I had the history, the ability, and the materials to do it. It was like that ornament had been waiting in that little shop for me to come along and recognize it.
That thought sent slimy little drops of doubt into my gut, so I examined the coincidences further and decided that the ornament could have been picked up by anyone. Had it been a black magic item, it would have either over-ridden my doubt or given me the heebie-jeebies. The fact that I had doubt wasn’t a bad thing; it proved that the ornament wasn’t compelling me to work the magic. I could resist it but I didn’t want to. It just didn’t feel like a bad idea. My companions weren’t worried about it, either.
I felt like we were doing something that should have been done long ago. I thought about the hedge hog again and opened my spice cupboard. I pulled out a clear apothecary jar with a cork stopper and read the name of the herb aloud.
“Raskovnik.” It was a rare magical herb from Eastern Europe and I had spent a week trying to track it down before stumbling across a patch in the woods of Czechoslovakia last month. I had gone looking for the herb so I could give some to my mother for Christmas. My mother had an old grimoire which was magically locked and no matter how many spells and potions she tried on the iron lock, she couldn’t open it. Raskovnik was said to open any enchanted lock, and it was one of the few gifts I could think of for the woman who had everything.
I thought back to Jane Sage’s diary. She had copied her family tree inside the front cover. Jane’s maternal grandmother, Helena, was Romanian, and the legends of Raskovnik originated with the Slavic people. One Romanian source claimed that the only way to find the herb was to trick a hedgehog into finding it for you. I had used an alternate method to find my stash; a tortoise with a locked wooden box strapped to his back was just as effective, mainly because I couldn’t find a hedgehog when I went hunting for mom’s present.
I pulled a small bit of the herb out of the jar and dropped it into the copper kettle. At the front door, I stuffed my feet into my boots and shrugged my heavy coat on. Lugging my tools out into the garden, I set them down on a stone bench and began stuffing junk mail under some sticks in my fire pit.
Basir dropped a branch onto the papers and flew off again. I picked up the dried piece of apple wood and inhaled the faintly sweet scent. I laid it carefully on top of the pile and set an iron grate across the pit. Next, I placed the kettle in the center of the grate and sat back to wait for the rest of the materials.
Ka’Tehm sauntered toward me, making an odd tinkling noise. I noticed icicles hanging off his blue fur. He stopped next to the kettle and I watched as the icicles evaporated into tiny crystals which were suspended in the cold night air. The crystals began to float toward the kettle, plinking softly as they hit the metal bottom. I peered into the kettle and found a pile of icy snow coated the inside of the pot. I reached a mitten covered hand out to stroke the blue fur of my other magical companion.
“Nice job.” I said, adjusting the kettle and placing the lid on top of it. Basir returned with another two sticks of apple wood and I arranged the sticks and lit the paper. Fragrant smoke drifted up and I turned my attention to arranging five bamboo poles into a teepee over the fire pit. I returned to the house and took the ornament from the candle holder, threading a wire hook through the cap before returning outside and suspending the ornament over the fire.
I settled in to watch the flames and listen to the crackle of the wood and the sizzle of the frozen water inside the kettle. Loose tendrils of steam began to rise and I smelled the woodsy aroma of the steeped Raskovnik on the crisp air. Basir and Ka’Tehm both sat on my lap and I pulled my coat over the two of them, snuggling them close to me while we waited.
The steam rose higher and I heard a faint tinkle, like ice cubes cracking a glass of warm water. I watched in fascination as the ornament burst into a million tiny pieces, sparking in the night like stardust and blinding me temporarily with their brilliance. When I blinked and opened my eyes, a woman formed out of the sparkling lights. Her hair was piled atop her head and she wore a long fur coat which I thought was probably mink. Under the coat, she wore a plain white cotton nightdress, as if she had been pulled from her bed, yet dressed for any weather conditions.
“You broke it.” The woman whispered.
“I believe that was the point.” I said, a bit more defensively than I intended.
“I didn’t think anyone other than Mother would be able to do it. She told me to expect to be someplace else, but I thought she’d be here.”
I smiled. “I’m going to guess that you are Emily Sage?”
“I am.” She turned around in the moonlight, looking perplexed. “Where am I?”
“You’re in the Berkshire Mountains, Mrs. Sage. My name is Arienne and I am an Archaeologist, witch, and Druid. I believe your husband and your mother arranged to hide you in the witch ball when the trials began.”
Emily Sage looked at me and tilted her head to the side. “Yes. The men came to the house and Tarquil tried to keep them from coming upstairs, but mother said they would take me away. She worked the spell, but Tarquil didn’t know.” She shook her head and a tear slid down her cheek.
I opened my coat and Basir and Ka’Tehm climbed off my lap. I stood and crossed to Emily in the moonlight. “I believe he did know, Mrs. Sage. Your daughter knew as well. When I was a young girl, about the same age as Jane was, I read her diary in the library in Salem. After your mother worked the spell, she fell ill and didn’t have the energy to undo it. For years, your family tried to free you from the witch ball, but nobody understood the materials or the process.”
“Years?” She asked and I felt myself grimace. Emily Sage had spent almost two hundred years trapped in a witch ball and I was going to have to break it to her. I realized with a sinking feeling that I didn’t think about the consequences for poor Emily.
Emily didn’t notice the look on my face and she continued speaking, as if the words would keep the reality at bay for a few more moments. “My mother brought the ball with her from Romania. I did not know what it was until she showed it to me that evening. She said the only way to unlock it was to brew the special tea. She said that because Tarquil was English, he would understand tea.”
I smiled. I was sure Tarquil did understand tea, but I was equally sure he didn’t understand what hedge hogs had to do with tea. Helena really didn’t understand her audience. Then again, I wasn’t much better at that.
The gong on the front porch sounded and I felt fear creep up my spine. Headlights pierced the darkness and I backed into the shadows, realizing too late that there were ways to find someone without a name and address; my whole idea of paying cash hadn’t accomplished what I hoped. Emily seemed to freeze, her mind paralyzed by the suddenly alien world of the twenty first century.
I heard a Coyote howl in the woods and I drew in a deep breath as a sleek luxury sedan slid to a stop in my driveway. The door opened and a man slid gracefully out of the car. He was gaunt, but beautiful under the silvery moonlight.
“Tarquil!” Emily breathed with a slight hitch to her voice. I watched as she turned and ran toward the man, her fur coat streaming behind her and her breath making icy plumes in the night air.
The man caught her in his arms and I noticed that although Emily’s sobbing breaths caused white trails in the moonlight, Tarquil made no such display. Over the moonlight garden our eyes met and while I’m sure mine showed deep fear, his only showed gratitude and relief. He stepped from his wife, leaving her in front of the car, still as a statue as he crossed my gravel walkway.
I backed up a step and felt hands on my shoulders. “I wish you’d tell me when you’re having company.” Coyote breathed in my ear. His words drained the tension out of my body and I leaned against him as the graceful and gaunt man approached in near silence.
He drew a breath and his voice was low and soulful, like a midnight deejay on a love-song station. “It has taken centuries for one to undo this. There are no words to express my gratitude.”
I nodded and cleared my throat. “Um…you’re welcome. She has no idea how much things have changed.” I grimaced and tried to keep my eyes focused on his, instead of staring at his mouth. I was failing at that task until I felt Coyote’s fingers dig into my shoulders a little more. I pressed my lips together to keep from smiling. “I think you’re going to have a little explaining to do.” I said, feeling a bubble of hysterical laughter rise in my chest.
Tarquil Sage stepped back and regarded me with an amused expression. “Pardon?”
“She’s been away a long time. You’re going to have to explain about cars and computers and ATMs.” Coyote said with a wave of his hand. I opened my mouth to add something to that list, but Coyote clapped his hand over my mouth and continued speaking. “It will all be quite a shock.”
The man pulled an envelope from the breast pocket of his suit and dropped it on the stone bench. “I am refunding the money you paid as well as giving you a token of my gratitude.”
“It’s not necessary.” I said from behind Coyote’s hand. It sounded more like “Iff no newassy” but Tarquil understood and smiled without showing his teeth.
“I assume I will quickly forget this encounter?” He asked the man behind me.
“By the end of the driveway.” Coyote agreed.
I watched as Tarquil Sage placed his wife into the passenger seat of the sedan and slowly drove back down my driveway.
Coyote let go of me and I spun around to face him. “He was a vampire, wasn’t he?” I asked.
The mythical trickster spirit, Coyote, in human form grinned at me. “It’s the wrong season for vampires, my little witch.”
The above story is my contribution to the holiday anthology A Cup of Christmas. The proceeds from this book are being donated to First Book – a wonderful charity which provides books to needy children. There are several other lovely holiday stories, poems, and recipes in the anthology so why not give a gift to a friend and do some good at the same time?
Have a wonderful, blessed Holiday Season
R. Leonia Shea (Leigh)
After I click “publish” and sit back to watch my book soar to number one (which, by the way, is overly optimistic) – I’m left with a frantic feeling that I should be doing something to push sales along. Well, something other than obsessively checking my amazon rankings and email. One thing indie-authorhood has taught me is that those weeks following a release are filled with angst and self-doubt instead of optimism and joy. The reason is this: Once the first wave of books purchased by my fans is over, those all-important rankings begin to dip lower and I feel a crushing pressure to share, sale, tweet, tweak, link and post – all things I really, really, really don’t want to do – partly because they’re boring and time consuming and partly because shameless self-promotion feels icky.
But shameless self-promotion is sometimes required, so I give in to the urge to engage in it with abandon. For two weeks. Then it’s back to business. Since promotion seems to take so much time from the main task (which is writing – in case you’ve forgotten), I have started to condense the marketing tasks into smaller chunks that feel more manageable. The first thing I’m doing is writing a short story which will be included in an anthology of works by other indie authors. That’s a task that’s way more than 10 minutes per day, so I’ve had to choose this weeks marketing strategy based on how much “extra” time I have left.
The winner this week was this: Change my categories on Amazon to get new readers.
That took about 10 minutes to research what categories other books similar to mine are listed under and maybe two extra minutes to go in and change the categories on my own books to match those. If I were not such an avid reader in my genre, I might not have known which categories to select – but since I read so much, it was a pretty easy task. For the next two weeks, the first book in my series will be listed under humor as well as contemporary fiction. At the end of the two weeks, I can decide if I want to move it back to just fantasy (debatable, since my books are funny – just read the reviews!). Ten minutes might net me a whole new group of readers – we’ll see!
I stayed up all night researching the history of Abbotshire. I looked into papers Dr. Ash had published, read through countless articles on the history of Great Britain and no matter how many notes I took, I couldn’t find a connection between Ash-hole and Ray besides magic – and that just wasn’t logical given what I knew about Dr. Ash.
With a dramatic sigh of frustration, I pushed myself to my feet and began pacing the floor. Basir and Ka’Tehm watched me with bored expressions. The more I thought about those photos, the more obsessed I became. I ran my hands through my hair and gritted my teeth. There was just no graceful way to get more information on the dig. If I called any of my former colleagues out of the blue and told them that I had seen an article and suspected something was afoot, they would think I was a bit wacky.
Hell, even I thought I was losing it! I sat on the couch and held my head in my hands. “I need to let this go.” I groused, feeling utterly exhausted. I stood up, feeling resolved in my decision and walked back to the kitchen. “Who wants breakfast?” I called to my companions.
I rounded the kitchen island and pulled the refrigerator door open. I grabbed bacon and eggs off the shelves and set about making breakfast while trying to get my mind off the mystery on the other side of the ocean. I scrambled and fried like a mad-woman, whipping up a pile of frittatas while I contemplated the facts and filled in with a little conjecture.
We had just finished eating in silence when the copper gong on the front porch sounded a loud tone. I glanced at my companions and a shiver ran down my spine. Nobody visited our nearly-converted barn in the woods, and the wards I had set around the property were generally strong enough to discourage even the most determined religious missionary from venturing down the long driveway.
I looked out the window. Sure enough, a car was rolling slowly toward our house. I didn’t recognize the small car, and I peered out the window as Basir landed on my shoulder.
“We have company.” I said, stating the obvious.
“Whoooo.” Basir replied.
“Well I don’t know yet.” I quipped and ducked as he slapped at the back of my head with his large wing. Owls have no sense of humor about their limited vocabulary.
“You better go take a look. I don’t like unexpected company.” I said, reaching up a hand to stroke his soft feathers. He nipped my ear affectionately and soared up to the peak of the roof and through the small door.
I watched from the safety of my house as Basir passed in front of the car and looked in at the driver. He veered out of the way of the moving vehicle and landed in a tree where I could see him. I held my breath and let it out in a whoosh when he lifted his wings in a joyful gesture. He flapped wildly in the air and returned to the house.
I felt myself relax and I pulled open the kitchen door and peered out as the car eased to a stop. Basir’s reaction meant I’d be pleased with the visitor, but I still didn’t know who it was. The person inside the car took forever to shut the engine off and open the door, but when the old man swung his feet to the ground and stood leaning against the driver’s side door I gave a shout of delighted surprise and ran out to greet him.
“Pops! What are you doing here?” I laughed, hurrying toward the car with my black flip-flops slapping a quick rhythm against my heels.
“Chicken!” He called, fumbling with the key fob to pop open the trunk. “Can’t a man visit his favorite grandchild without a reason?” He asked, smiling brightly.
“I’m your only grandchild and you don’t need a reason to visit. I’m so happy you’re here!” I said, meaning it with every fiber of my being.
I helped him pull his small suitcase out of the trunk and watched while Basir landed on the porch railing, waiting for his turn to greet my grandfather. After much excited hooting and affectionate beak snaps, the three of us chattered happily and walked into the house.
“I see you’ve done a few more things since I was here last time.” My grandfather said, looking around at the kitchen cabinets that were hung, the hardwood floors that had been stained and varnished, and the solid surface counter that I had considered a necessary extravagance when I’d bought it – even though it completely shredded my budget.
“It’s coming along.” I agreed, having long since come to the conclusion that refinishing that old barn was going to be my life’s work. “Where’s Nan?” I asked, thinking it odd that my grandmother didn’t come along.
“Oh, she’s out visiting that worm of a brother she has in New Mexico. I never cared much for him.” My grandfather announced.
“And she let you jet off without her?” I said, suspiciously.
“It’s not like I’m sneaking off with some tart, Arienne. She’s visiting her brother and I’m visiting our granddaughter. After sixty years of marriage, we don’t need to be joined at the hip and I don’t need to see that worm she’s related to.”
Pops had a point. Uncle Bert was a worm, and I wouldn’t drive across the street to see him, never mind fly halfway across the country if I had a choice. Nan had never given me that choice, though. I’d spent more than a few vacations in the burning sun of New Mexico. When I wasn’t dodging scorpions and Uncle Bert’s mean old cat, Pops and I had trudged through the desert looking for Native American sites and traces of old magic.
Pops looked around the house while he continued his story.
“Seems as if the worm is having a hard time with his son…your Nan went to give him some advice.” Pops waved a dismissive hand in the air and grinned at me with sparkling blue eyes. “I don’t suppose you have a cold beer in that fancy refrigerator?”
“What sort of girl do you think my mother raised? Do you want imported or domestic?” I headed to the fridge and pulled out two bottles before grabbing two glasses and an opener. “Have a seat in the new and improved living room.” I said, gesturing past the kitchen.
The house had improved in comfort and completeness since his last visit. I’d managed to replace my thrift store couch with a comfy sectional in a rich chocolate micro-suede. One wall was painted a pumpkin color and the threadbare rug had been upgraded to a modern shag in shades of cream and copper. The small television I’d rescued from the dump still stood in the corner; it was next on the list of things to be replaced when I had enough money to justify the expense.
Pops sat on the sofa and eyed the twig patterned throw pillows. “Pretty plush, isn’t it?” He asked, eyeing the faux leopard fur throw on the back of the couch where Basir perched. He stroked a large hand across the seat of the couch and winked at Basir.
“Whooo.” Basir agreed, shaking his wings and strutting around like he was royalty.
“I was going for cozy.” I said, sitting next to him and placing the two glasses upon the coffee table.
“It’s nice. You have good taste.” Pops leaned toward Basir. “She gets that from me, you know.” He swiped a bit of silver hair out of his eyes and grinned at me.
“Whoo!” Basir blinked once and pointed to himself with a white wing tip.
“You did not pick it out.” I disagreed. “You picked out that…” I said, pointing at the large oil painting of autumn trees, “…and that…” I said, gesturing toward the rug, “…but the rest of it was mine.”
Basir swiveled his head around and raised an ear tuft, looking pointedly at the large carved wood branch sculpture next to the windows.
“Oh yeah, you picked that out. Not like you had an ulterior motive or anything.” I said.
Basir swooped to the sculpture and landed on it gracefully, folding his wings and looking regal on his perch. The wood was carved walnut, lovingly shaped into a gnarly form and polished with beeswax by a local artist. Tiny little lights were strung beneath the branches and at night, it cast sparkly light all around the room when we lit it up. It was a beautiful sculpture, and I wondered what its creator would think to see a real owl perched on his art. I had to admit, as stunning as the piece was it looked even better adorned with rich sable and white feathers fluffed out with attitude and sass.
“So tell me about your business, Arienne. How do you like gardening?”
I shrugged. “It’s not archaeology, but it’s kind of fun.” I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks and I sipped my beer to hide my discomfort. Why did I choose those words?
“Oh, chicken.” Pops said with a note of sympathy. “I’m just as proud of you if you’re a gardener as I would be if you were winning some fancy award in archaeology.” He shook my knee with his gnarled old hand and smiled warmly at me.
“An award isn’t very likely, is it?” I snorted. Without warning, I felt hot tears sting my eyes and I blinked them away, a flutter of panic in my gut. “Be right back.” I said in a shaky voice as I escaped into the bathroom and shut the door behind me.
Where did that come from? I thought frantically. For heaven’s sake, Arienne – GET A GRIP! I stared in the mirror at my sage green eyes and gave myself a stern but silent talkin’ to. You’re fine. You’re doing well. You’re not homeless. You have a nice barn, a good business, Basir and Ka’Tehm. You’re doing fine! What in heaven’s name is WRONG with you?
I felt a spattering of cool water on my lower legs and I looked down to see luminous silver eyes staring up at me with concern.
“Oh, Ka’Tehm. Everytime I think I’m over it…” I whispered, sitting down on the thick bath mat and looking at the spectral blue beaver. He had waddled out of the kiddie pool to check on me. “I don’t know why that happens out of the blue. I’m happy most of the time!” He looked at me and rolled over on the mat to dry his fur. I pulled the thick towel I kept draped over a stool for his use into my lap and closed my eyes, thunking my head back against the vanity in frustration. “He didn’t even say anything and there I go acting like a fool and getting all emotional for no reason. Jeez! It’s ancient history. No pun intended.”
Ka’Tehm looked at me and blinked once; at least he agreed with me. He nudged my hand with his cool nose and I passed the towel over his fur lightly. Since Ka’Tehm consisted mainly of water, I didn’t want to dry him off too much for fear that he’d just disappear. I don’t know what magic enabled him to stay on the same astral plane as me, but I was glad for his sympathetic ear.
“I need to get a grip.” I said, stroking my hand over his shimmering fur. “I’m not an archaeologist anymore. End of story. I’m a landscaper, and I’m pretty good at it. Sure I use magic to make the plants grow, but that’s my little secret. I’m supposed to use magic – I’m a witch. The only profession where magic got me in trouble was archaeology. I mean seriously, if those monks meant for that demon to stay banished, they shouldn’t have carved those words on the stone, right?”
Ka’Tehm blinked again and I squared my shoulder. “Pops is here, so you should go out and say hello. I’ll come out in a minute.” I said, bending down and kissing his water vapor head. I stood and opened the door, watching the blue furred critter saunter toward the living room. I turned and faced my reflection in the mirror. I squared my shoulders and looked straight into my own eyes.
“Now, Arienne Cerasola. You get a grip on your sorry self. You can’t change it and it wasn’t fatal. You were fired. It happens. Big freakin’ deal. Move on!” I looked back at myself and nodded as if to emphasize my point.
It had been more than two years since I collapsed that cathedral in Ireland. Since then, I’d located a magical healing tree and saved the magical community from a variety of ailments. I’d rescued Boston from a loose Cemi that left chaos and destruction in its wake. I’d done real magic; I’d improved my ability to control it, and I’d managed to gain a few grains of respect by saving one of the top members of the United Coven and Alliance…and the fact that he was really more loyal to the opposition than the Alliance made me feel even better about it.
I was a witch, damn it, and I needed to stop beating myself up over my past mishap. Just because Pops was the legendary archaeologist, Dr. Christy O’Flynn, didn’t mean that I had shamed him because of my antics. Just because no academic institution would hire me didn’t mean I wasn’t a good archaeologist. I was. I had made money finding magical artifacts that nobody else could have found. I just wasn’t your typical archaeologist and that was my new reality. Being ordinary was way over-rated, anyway.
Feeling better, if a bit ashamed of my overly emotional reaction – I squared my shoulders again and headed back to the couch. Pops was talking to Basir and Ka’Tehm in a hushed voice and I felt a prickle of unease.
“I guess I’m tired, Pops. You know how I get when I don’t have enough sleep and I was up almost all of last night.” I grinned and sat back down, sipping my beer and trying to remember my optimism. I decided not to mention why I didn’t get enough sleep. That was my little obsession and I didn’t want to rile Pops up over my suspicions.
“Sure, Chicken. I understand. If you think about it we’re sort of in the same boat. Neither one of us is using our fancy degrees these days.” Pops sipped his beer and his blue eyes drifted out over the driveway. I watched him for a second, thinking that he looked as if he were waiting for someone, but that didn’t make any sense. I relaxed when he spoke again.
“So tell me about your business.” He prompted, facing me and putting his elbows on his knees.
“Well….” I began, looking for something to say. “I did a pretty cool pest repelling charm for rose bushes.” I explained the charm’s origin and how it evolved from super electric bug zapper to the present perfect form.
Pops stared at me with his blue eyes wide with what looked like astonishment as I finished my description.
“What?” I asked, narrowing my eyes as he leaned toward me with his brows knitted in disbelief.
“You tweaked the charm to only work on bugs of a certain weight?”
“Yeeess….” I drew the word out because it seemed like the obvious choice. “I didn’t want a pile of dead birds and squirrels around my gardens. That would be bad advertising.”
“Your charm works?”
“Yup. There’s probably a lady bug crawling over the plant right now and she doesn’t feel a thing.” I nodded, proud of that little victory.
“That’s quite an accomplishment.” Pops said, raising his glass in a salute to me.
“And I’m working on some new landscaping plans that I’m going to put in one of the local nurseries. It should be good advertising for those people who don’t know what plants they should put together.”
The gong sounded again and Pops looked sheepish when I peered out the window to see another unfamiliar car coming down the driveway.
“That’s odd. I wasn’t expecting anybody…” I said, watching Basir fly out though the owl door to scope out the new visitor.
“Um…I think I might know who that is…” Pops’ voice trailed off as I turned and gave him a questioning look. He stood and walked quickly past me, avoiding my gaze. I watched him go and had a fleeting thought that perhaps Pops wasn’t just visiting because Nan was in New Mexico with Uncle Bert.
Basir hooted from outside and I turned my attention back to the small black vehicle. I suppressed a groan when bright orange sneakers appeared below the open car door. One end of the white shoestring was frayed into a large fuzzy ball that was apparent even from the house.
“Dr. Froehlich?” I asked, hurrying toward my grandfather with a confused look pasted on my face.
“Ezra and I go way back, Arienne. Surely you know that…” Pops gave another vague wave of his hand before hurrying by me and down the steps to greet the half-mad archaeologist from my last magical adventure. I hadn’t seen my nearly eighty year old grandfather move that fast in years, and I suspected it was more to avoid my growing realization that I had been set up, than to help Ezra out of the car.
I didn’t exactly like the way the little surprise visit was going, but I had a nagging feeling that the two old men were up to something that I’d be neck deep in before sundown.
The kitchen table was cluttered with plant catalogs and the improved landscaping plans for a job I was hoping to get. The latest drawings were more professional looking than the previous versions and I decided that I wasn’t half-bad as an artist. My training as an archaeologist had given me some basic skills and the more plans I drew the better the results looked. I’d just learn as I went. That approach to life had worked pretty well, so far.
It was early and I had a few hours before Basir woke up so I went back to my colored pencils and my drawings. I was new to art and gardening, but that didn’t stop me from running a landscaping business. A girl has to earn a living.
A ladybug flew by me and I watched it land on the potted rose bush. Carefully, I stood up while keeping my eyes on the bright red insect as it crawled along the glossy leaves.
“Yes!” I whispered as I gave into the urge to fist-pump the air. The charm on the rosebush had worked! The tiny bug didn’t set off the zapper charm.
It had taken me weeks to tune the electric charge to only work on large bugs, like the dreaded Japanese beetle that was the bane of my existence as a landscaper. Using witchcraft to make my landscaping business more successful that the competition probably wasn’t ethical, but as long as my magic was subtle it would go undetected. Since my whole financial life depended on my new business, I was willing to use any advantage I had – including magic.
My latest anti-pest charm was only triggered by heavy bugs. Large insects that landed on the plant would be instantly stunned before they could inflict any damage, but smaller bugs would go unharmed. If a human touched the plant, the charge would be imperceptible. It was a delicate balance and I smiled with pride as the bright red bug continued exploring the buds of the rosebush.
I glanced at the small box of peat moss disks that I was using as the carrier for the charm. I had taken organic gardening to a whole new level by tapping my earth witch powers and I was pretty darned pleased with myself. I had developed a whole line of charms that could be activated with a subtle burst of earth energy. Nobody would notice me doing it. Working spells with verbal incantations or wild gestures in public would get me a one way ticket to the crazy hotel but a trunk load of charmed peat disks and a fist full of business cards would keep the mortgage paid.
I was turning into the best bug-proof landscaper in town. Instead of calling myself a “dark green witch” I used “organic gardener” and watched my little business grow. If things stayed on track, I’ might even need to hire someone to help me next year.
I flipped a page in the seed catalog and stared at the lovely little plants, trying to figure out a way of working some nice bright red bee balm into my current plan. My stomach growled and I looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost noon, so I opted for a light lunch and a peek at the news on my laptop. Sunday was made for loafing, and I’d done enough work for a while.
With a salad and a glass of iced tea, I sat at my computer and began surfing for the latest news on archaeological expeditions around the globe. I still missed my former career as a field archaeologist, but I realized that gardening had some similarities that I really enjoyed. I was still able to be outdoors, still digging in the dirt and feeling the energy of the earth flow through my magically tuned senses. All in all, I hadn’t made a bad second career choice – even if the term choice was a bit of a stretch.
Owning my own business meant I couldn’t get fired and I wouldn’t have to watch my reputation being torn to shreds by ignorant fools. Who ever heard of a blacklisted gardener? I flipped on my laptop and went to the science section of an international news organization. As I forked a bite of salad into my mouth I scanned the headlines.
Ancient Celtic Dig Begins at Sanderdowns Abbey in Abbotshire. Residents of the quaint English town of Abbotshire are hopeful that the latest archaeological excavation of the stately monastery ruins will shed some light on the area’s past. Dr. Stanley Ash, leader of the expedition…
The coughing fit that ripped through me after the cherry tomato became lodged in my throat had me doubled over at the kitchen table, gasping for air. A gut wrenching cough caused me to spit the tomato clear across the room and I sucked in a large breath of fresh air. When the coughing subsided, I reached for the glass of iced tea and gulped a large amount of it down, feeling the cold liquid burn as it ran through my still-spasming esophagus. Iced tea bubbled out of my nose and I tasted the faint hint of lemon all the way in my sinus cavity. My eyes watered as I hacked and gasped a few more times.
When my vision cleared I found Basir perched on top of the paper towels I kept next to the sink with his yellow eyes full of concern. I waved my hand to indicate my confidence that I would not need the Heimlich maneuver or 911 and I sniffled and mopped my face in the bottom of my black tee-shirt.
Basir flapped his wings and clicked his beak in what I thought might be agitation.
“Fine!” I gasped trying to stop the coughing reflex. I had intended it to be reassurance for him but it only made him fly closer and peer into my face from the back of the empty chair.
When I could breathe, see, and was reasonably sure I wasn’t going to hack up a lung, I glanced at the owl. His beak was open wide and his black tongue was wagging back and forth. He tottered on the back of the chair and my hand shot out to catch him. The last thing I needed was my best friend and partner – a three and a half pound owl – needing a vet because he fell off the chair laughing at me.
“Nice. Me nearly choking to death amuses you.”
He blinked his eyes slowly and made the head movements he normally engaged in right before he hacked up an owl pellet.
“Oh, gross!” I moaned, making a face at him. He swiveled his brown head around and looked pointedly at the cherry tomato lying on the varnished wood floor.
“Give me a second to enjoy breathing and I’ll pick it up! Sheesh!” I groused before tossing the tomato into the trash.
“Ash-hole has nearly killed me a second time and all you’re worried about is the stupid tomato.”
“Who!” He hooted and flapped his wings.
“That son-of-a-motherless-whore Ash-hole!” I grumbled, leaning back so I could see my computer screen. “Look at this, Bah. He’s on some big dig funded by the Historical Society.”
Basir fluttered onto my shoulder and peered at the screen as I scrolled down, reading the article aloud to him.
…hopes to find some confirmation that Abbotshire had a central role in the development and prosperity of Southern England.
“The residents here have a rich history that just may prove that Abbotshire was a very important town from Roman times right through the dark ages. I’m confident I will discover some priceless evidence of this lovely town’s incredible history.” Dr. Ash stated at the press conference to mark the beginning of the excavation.
“I’m planning to use some of the locals to assist me on this exciting journey into the town’s past. The residents will be trained by my fine students so they can have the exciting task of screening soil and cataloging the finds. This is a great opportunity to get the young people of this area excited about archaeology.”
“And find a new crop of minions to hang on his every word…” I muttered before continuing with the article.
The dig is expected to last only six to eight weeks, unless something extraordinary is uncovered. When asked what he was hoping to find, Dr. Ash, a well respected academic in the United States as well as Europe, offered an enthusiastic response. “The excitement of archaeology lies in finding the unexpected. I have an uncanny ability to find exciting things in the most ordinary places. I’m sure Abbotshire and Sanderdowns Abbey will not disappoint.”
The article was accompanied with photos of Dr. Ash with the usual cadre of eager graduate students who flocked around the arrogant imbecile. The article mentioned his long and distinguished career as a preeminent archaeologist.
“Huh. A preeminent archaeologist, who doesn’t read the ancient languages, can’t do anything but give orders and wants to discover simpering graduate students who will hang on his every word. I guess they have a different definition of preeminent.” I said with more than a smidgen of bitterness.
Basir clicked his beak in irritated agreement and nuzzled the side of my head.
I reached a hand up and stroked his back. “I’m fine, Bah. It doesn’t matter anymore.” I lied. “We wouldn’t have this nice house and life if that idiot would have listened to me.”
Nope. If Stanley Ash-hole had listened to Dr. Arienne Cerasola, archaeologist, witch and druid, he would have watched as I released a nasty demon right into a bunch of graduate students. The ancient demon would have possessed one of the students just like it had possessed generations of monks and then driven him or her insane before moving on to the next victim.
If I had been given the leeway to explore the ancient writing on the pillars of the monastery, I would have added a little carnage to the disaster area. Generations of monks lived with the demonic entity at St. Cieran’s Monastery. Eventually, those monks managed to contain the demon and things would have been fine if I didn’t decide that the ancient writing in the ruins should be read. Aloud. By a witch. My bungling released the demon and then I had to fix my nearly fatal error – fast.
I managed to contain the entity – once I realized my mistake, but I had to collapse the sixteenth century monastery to do it. That disaster had lead to Stanley Ash firing me and smearing my name all over the halls of academia – there wasn’t a respectable archaeology department in the civilized world who would even let me handle a dustpan and whisk-broom. My arrogance led to a disaster and a whole new career, in gardening. It’s hard to get hired on an archaeological dig when you’re personally responsible for destroying a national treasure.
Really, Stanley Ash was jerk, but it was my own incompetence and impatience that ruined my career. No matter how many times I blamed him, I couldn’t escape the facts. Yet reading about his important dig in the United Kingdom made me burn with resentment and more than a smidgen of jealousy.
I returned to reading the article aloud to my faithful companion, but deep inside a thought began to nag at the back of my brain.
“Do you get the impression he’s looking for something specific, Basir?” I turned my eyes toward him and he blinked slowly at me. His feathered facial disks of deep sable brown made his large yellow eyes more expressive. I continued talking, encouraged by Basir’s response. “So then it’s not just my imagination that he has an agenda of some sort.” Basir blinked twice and lowered his eyelids to tiny slits.
Call me suspicious, but Stanley Ash never did anything without expecting a good deal of glory to follow. The Abbotshire dig wasn’t any different.
I scrolled down the page and found a video clip with Ash-hole’s smug face staring out at me. I clicked on the play icon and listened to the announcer interview the man who had helped end my career.
I snorted and made random sarcastic comments during Dr. Ash’s portion of the clip and paid closer attention when the announcer trudged around the site, pointing out the areas where the dig would begin. The camera panned around to show the early stages of the excavation, complete with grad students and field archaeologists swarming the site and setting up the standard grids.
“Who!” Basir vocalized from my shoulder as he pointed a wing tip at the screen. We had seen it at the same time and I hit the pause button and zoomed in on the image to take a closer look.
“What in Heaven’s name is he doing there?” I asked, feeling a knot form in my stomach.
The image of Raymond Swift Fox, Shaman, Liar and Thief was frozen on my screen.
“It can’t be.” I said, shaking my head from side to side as if that would make Ray’s image disappear.
We watched the rest of the video, looking for another glimpse of Ray, but we were disappointed. With trembling fingers, I zoomed in on every still photo in the article, but only turned up that one glimpse of Ray. I managed to screen shot his face and I stared hard at the image. I was certain it was him.
Basir’s talons dug into my shoulder as I opened a search engine and began looking for more articles on the Abbotshire dig. He was obviously as tense as I was. I found a few small articles on the dig but I hit pay dirt when I found the town’s website.
There was a page devoted entirely to the project, and I looked at every photo until I found one with a clear image of Ray speaking with Ash. I zoomed in and focused on the expression on Ray’s face.
He looked somehow furtive and irritated at the same time. I could almost picture his raised eyebrows and a sarcastic smile settling on his face. Whatever he was discussing with the lead archaeologist wasn’t making him happy. Serves you right! I thought to myself.
“What would that thief be doing on a dig?” I wondered aloud, tapping my fingers on the table. Basir clicked his beak thoughtfully.
“Let’s see what else we can find.” I said, clicking around the page for more information. There were a few preliminary maps detailing where the team would begin to dig. The site map looked more like they were sampling the area than they had a clear plan for the dig. I would have expected a much more organized grid plan if they were excavating with a real purpose.
A nice graphic overlaid an aerial map of the town. A few dig sites were marked, most were centered around a building that was identified as a twelfth century monastery.
“Great. More dead monks. That is Dr. Ash’s specialty.” I said, zooming in and looking at more detailed maps.
“Whooo.” Basir hooted softly.
“You think there’s something to that?” I asked, turning toward him.
He blinked slowly one time, but the single raised ear tuft made his affirmative answer somewhat questionable.
“Maybe.” I agreed, opening the link for Sanderdowns Abbey in the Abbotshire History section. I read the history aloud to Basir, finding nothing useful. “What’s he looking for?” I asked, feeling a growing certainty that not only was Dr. Ash digging for a particular relic, he was digging for something no respectable archaeologist would look for. Scientists certainly didn’t believe in magic.
I stood up and paced to the fridge, and filled a glass with ice water. I dumped part of it into a small ceramic bowl I kept on the counter for Basir. He hopped down and flicked his black tongue into the dish. I paced a little and leaned against the granite-topped island, alternating between staring at the computer screen and out the kitchen window.
I sighed and stalked back over to the computer. “Let’s see what else is going on around Abbotshire.” I said, searching for a local paper that was available on the web.
“Well, Rufus Albrecht is still missing. Don’t know who Rufus is, but it seems he was a local historian in Colton. Colton’s right next door to Abbotshire.” I shrugged and Basir raised his wings and settled them higher on his back. “You’re right, it’s probably not connected. Still, we’ll make a note of it.” I pulled a sheet of grid paper from my landscaping notebook and wrote down the name and date. Poor Rufus had been missing for nearly six weeks.
I made a few other notes about things I doubted had any connection to the Abbotshire dig, but I felt a growing need to discover everything I could about Dr. Stanley Ash and Raymond Swift Fox’s activities in the United Kingdom before I decided if I was going to do anything except stew about it.
Afternoon slipped into evening as I searched for everything that could be remotely connected to shady excavations and nefarious motives. I ate dinner while watching an online news clip about the sleepy little corner of England where the dig was beginning.
By the time Basir flew out of his doggy door in the high peak of the barn roof, I had filled four sheets of paper with random bits of information and my irritation was growing. They were definitely up to something; and I was frustrated as hell that I couldn’t figure out what.
I glanced at the doggy door and smiled. I had installed that door myself because it was hard to explain to a carpenter that I needed a special exit for my pet owl. I did a lot of the work around the house myself because of my unusual roommates. While the old barn wasn’t completely finished, it was warm and cozy with plenty of room for me and my magical companions.
We had managed to carve out a pretty nice life in western Massachusetts, but I still missed our nomadic life style. When I worked as a field archaeologist, Basir and I had traveled the world looking for adventure and ancient cultures, but we’d never had a home of our own.
I turned my attention back to my computer. I was maybe a teensy bit jealous over the Abbotshire dig, but the curiosity about the possible connection between Ray and Ash-hole was killing me.
There were people I could ask, but I didn’t want to sound like a paranoid stalker and there was no way I could call Ray’s cousin and ask him what Ray was up to without giving exactly that impression. Besides, I was through with magic – except to further my landscaping business.
I pushed myself away from the computer and headed into the bathroom. Maybe a nice hot shower and a few hours in front of the television would give me some distance from the mystery. Maybe I just needed to let it all go and get on with my life.
Ka’Tehm, the magical blue beaver who was my other housemate floated in lazy circles in the kiddie pool that I kept in the downstairs bathroom for his comfort. He blinked luminous silver eyes at me at I turned on the faucet to let the water warm up and I pulled towels and a soothing herbal charm from the linen closet.
“You don’t know what Ray’s doing in Abbotshire, do you?” I asked the beaver. He blinked twice at me and shook cool water droplets from his spectral fur. Ka’Tehm appears to be made mostly of water held together by some ancient magic that I don’t understand, and he’s not much on conversation.
There was a lot of that in my life, if I were being honest. There are no internet dating sites where I could put my ad: “Petite but curvy red-haired witch in hiding from the United Coven and Alliance seeks male companion with good job and no connections to the magic police for quiet dinners and conversation about past mistakes and wasted Ph.D.s. Must like owls and beavers.”
Witchcraft wasn’t exactly a quality most people looked for or even believed in. After my genetic ability nearly destroyed my life, it had offered salvation and stability, and I had come to terms with its practical and prudent uses – while still resenting the hell out of my lack of control over it. Magic and I had the ultimate love/hate relationship and it was growing more complicated every day.
I motioned for Ka’Tehm to turn around as I stripped and stepped into the claw foot tub I had rescued from the tractor bay downstairs. I dropped the herbal charm into the water and pulled the curtain closed, letting the hot steam carry the scent of honeysuckle and sage into my sore throat.
After I mentally rehashed the internet article for the third time, I felt like an obsessed fool. Raymond Swift Fox was on a magical adventure with Dr. Stanley Ash. They were two of the biggest frauds I knew and yet I wanted nothing more than to find out what they were up to. There was no way to convince me it wasn’t something bad, and no way to convince me to ignore it. I hauled myself out of the tub and wrapped the towel around me. Instead of being relaxed and ready for bed, I was more determined than ever to discover what was going on in Abbotshire.
Ka’Tehm swam around the pool and rearranged his collection of driftwood into yet another elaborate structure. He glanced at me and I swore I saw a faint smile on his furry face. I couldn’t get my mind to stop turning over the possible reasons Ray could be involved in an archaeological dig with Ash-hole. I didn’t feel good about any of the possible explanations.
I’m uploaded and saved as “draft”. I’m going to revise the cover (so I don’t spoil the cover reveal!) and make Legendary Magic available for pre-order! Then I’m going to have a glass of wine and take a nap!
I’d love to have you add your email to my list – this is for my readers and I’m excited to be able to begin building a list so I can share free short stories and advanced notice of new releases! Come on…you know you want a free short story…
It’s only March and already I can tell 2014 is going to be a busy year! Legendary Magic has gone through the first edit and just needs a few revisions before it goes through the second round. I’m planning on a June release. I just checked the links for Elementary Magic on the Amazon UK site and I have two five star reviews – that is so awesome and as usual, I got a little misty-eyed when I read them.
My foray into an entirely different genre – historical fiction – will also be released this summer. The Servant of the Flame is the title of that book and I have a draft cover that I think I love – but I’d really like your feedback on it. Here it is:
I’m also working on a series of short stories based on the characters in The Servant of the Flame. I did a lot of research for this book and stumbled across some great stories and events which I wanted to tell. I’m going to post those stories here, but who knows? Maybe they’ll become a separate book of short stories. I’m also going to put up some links for ancient Roman history that total Roman geeks like me might appreciate. If you’re interested in the topic, Amazon has a great selection of FREE books on the topic like Livy, Dio, Plutarch, and a whole raft of other historians who deal with the every day life of the people in Republican Rome.
I’m going to work on the book blurbs for Legendary Magic and the Servant of the Flame and when I get the published on this site, I would greatly appreciate it if you could share them around with people you might think would be interested. I’d like to create a little “buzz” for them before the release and I know my book sales rely on word-of-mouth. Thank you in advance.
Oh, one more thing: If you’re reading this site and you’d like to contact me – drop me a note, message, or comment! I’d love to hear from more readers – that’s what makes me a better writer!
Arienne Cerasola – disgraced archaeologist, defective witch and diluted Druid – woke me up at 6:00 this morning to insist that I get back to work on the Relic Hunter series. Actually, I’ve been drafting the book – usually at night before I go to sleep – and it’s time to start building the outline in pixels so I can avoid the frustration of twisting a plot up so badly that it takes me MONTHS to untangle the threads I knotted. Right now, Unplanned Magic – the beginning of Arienne’s story – is up for free on this website so when you’re done reading this, you should hop over to that page and familiarize yourself with that story. Here’s the draft cover for Legendary Magic – It helps me to have a cover before I start writing:
I’m going to try something different this time – I’m going to post about the process while I’m writing – how those plot twists get unraveled, what sucks the ambition right out of me – and I’m also going to post some interesting links to sites that are “nearby” the location of this book. I’m very interested in archaeology and mythology so for fans of those subjects I want to post a bunch of links to articles that might interest them.
Anna Cerasola pushed one more table against the tall bookshelves that lined the room and held her arms out from her sides to gage the space. It would have to do. She sent a critical eye toward the polished shelves and the beautiful selection of books on display in her tiny bookstore. Even in Rome, there were large chain bookstores that pushed independent shops like hers to the brink of extinction, but the Italian love for cozy old spaces had kept her business going.
Well, that and a rare collection of ancient grimories.
The public shop would be doing much better in the near future, thanks to the sulfurous stench that had closed the glamorous chain store. That unfortunate event meant the publisher of Culinarily BeWitchery had to scramble for a new venue for a major book signing event. Somehow, Anna’s little shop had received the frantic call from the publisher’s office and she had immediately agreed to host it. Even with all of the work she’d have to get done to host the event, it was a bargain – the publicity alone would keep her bookstore buzzing for weeks.
Anna considered herself uniquely qualified to host the signing. Not only was she an accomplished cook, she was an accomplished earth witch as well. The publisher had no way of knowing that well-hidden secret, but coincidence was a wonderful thing and Anna smiled to herself. A mainstream book signing in a shop that held magically protected vaults in the basement. Who said life was boring and downhill after fifty?
Simon LeCress, celebrated author and chef, was scheduled to appear at ten o’clock that morning and Anna still had so many things to do to get her space ready. There were stacks of books to move and tables to arrange so the people could stand in line and get a signed copy of the new bestseller about healthy cooking based on the unlikely marriage of ancient herbal magic and gourmet cuisine. Anna laughed at the thought: magic was coming to the 21st century on the coattails of celebrity chefs.
Magic had found a new identity in the modern world. Once, the practitioners of earth magic who brewed potions and spells in cauldrons over open fires were burned at the stake or dismissed as charlatans. Celebrities like Simon LeCress were now considered modern messiahs who had tapped into the ancient wisdom that the masses had pooh-poohed in favor of hard science. The wisdom of the earth witches was making serious progress with recipes to cure a cold or guarantee a romantic evening. What a difference a few centuries made.
A delay in shipping to the other bookstore saved the boxes of Culinary BeWitchery from exposure to the sulfur. The boxes had been diverted to Anna’s store late the previous night and she had spent the evening stacking them under tables and creating a rather stunning display in her front window to lure the customers in. The publisher had arranged for an article to appear in the previous evening’s paper and on all over the internet, alerting the public to the change of venue. Anna had printed it out and pinned it to the wall behind the cash register. It was quite a stroke of luck for her.
The crowd started forming two hours before the culinary genius was to arrive. Anna watched as people queued up, and opened early to let the fans in to browse and purchase the copies they hoped to have signed. As she’d hoped, people began milling about purchasing not only LeCress’ book, but others on magical topics and herbal remedies as well. Anna was poised for a record-setting sales day.
The publisher had sent over three interns to help with the crowds and Anna quickly assigned tasks to the eager young workers. They were enthusiastic and helped new customers with such charm and efficiency that Anna wished she could hire them all.
“Lovely little shop.” The tall woman said in English, laced with a German accent. She handed several euros over the counter to Anna. “I’ll have to tell my friends about it.”
“Please do! If there’s anything you’re looking for, I can order it for you in any language.” Anna replied in Boston accented English. Rome was such a wonderful mixture of languages and culture. For Anna, the daily practice of switching between her native tongue and Italian or French or German was exhilarating and it kept her mind sharp.
A murmur started near the doors as Simon LeCress swept aside the crowd with a dramatic flair, entering into the bookshop amid a small entourage of harried looking assistants. He flicked his hand vaguely in the air, to acknowledge the whispered awe and quiet applause. His white chef’s coat gleamed in the tiny store, and he looked with disdain at the antique library table Anna had set up for him.
Anna pushed out from behind the sales counter with her arms folded in front of her. Her navy blue shift dress made her look taller and more imposing than her five feet three inch height would suggest. Her black hair was shot through with streaks of stunning silver and her jet eyes flashed in challenge at the arrogant chef.
LeCress sneered at her and his muddy brown eyes fell on the hard backed chair she had set up for the guest of honor. He shoved the chair to the side with a shudder, as if it were filthy. Anna felt a jolt of electricity snap in the air around her and she forced herself to resist the urge to smack the sneer right off the man’s face. It was rare that someone could set her teeth to grinding within five seconds, but LeCress had somehow managed it.
His white hair was curly in the way that reminded her of wool – steel, not lamb. His face was lined in a permanent scowl that shouted disdain for lesser mortals. His brow was even creased with a single deep slash right between his eyes. No doubt LeCress spent most of his time with his white brows drawn together in disdain.
Anna met his sneer with a scowl of her own and LeCress turned toward an intern to growl an order of some sort. Anna watched the poor girl dart out the door at the command. A tall man with a hawkish nose leaned toward LeCress and whispered something. Instantly, the brow crease subsided on Chef’s face and he tried to look more approachable and arrogant. Anna held back a snort. She stalked closer to the man, her curiosity over his attitude getting the best of her.
With a snap of his stubby fingers, LeCress beckoned a young woman to his side.
After a few whispers, which LeCress seemed to growl in the woman’s ear, she scurried off behind Anna’s register and retrieved the leather chair Anna herself had been sitting on before the Chef arrived. Anna couldn’t resist passing her fingers over the chair as the harried assistant wheeled it passed her with an apologetic look. The younger woman shoved it behind LeCress. He sat and gave a small jolt of surprise followed by a shrug of concession. The chair would do, provided nothing else was available. Anna hid her smile; the jolt had gone unnoticed by the old fraud.
Anna crossed her arms in front of herself and studied LeCress for a moment. She was certain there wasn’t anything special about the man. He hadn’t even greeted her, as if she were one of the hired staff; there only to serve the grand chef de cuisine. She felt her hackles begin to rise, but after a few deep breaths she focused again on the lines of women waiting to make purchases. Revenue was better than retaliation.
The publisher had supplied waiters and they wove their way through the crowd, presenting the fans with small crackers and herbed cheeses on great silver platters. One server swooped by Anna and she swiped a chunk of bread spread with creamy goat cheese and a variety of herbs. Anna sniffed at the cheese, trying to identify the herbs, but before she could lift it to her mouth something banged against her legs, knocking her into the sales counter. Anna looked down and found the soft brown eyes of a large blackish dog gazing back at her. The dog grinned and flicked its ears.
Anna gasped in shock as the dog lunged at her. A large paw connected with her wrist and the crostini slipped from her fingers. It fell to the floor, and when Anna bent to pick it up, the dog batted it away again and dove after it. The bread skittered across the terrazzo tiled floor and slid under a bookshelf. The large dog dashed after it, tail wagging and nails scraping on the tiles.
“Is that your dog? Does he bite?” One of the assistants asked Anna, in a worried voice as customers were nudged and jostled by the animal.
Anna shook her head and smiled at the assistant who looked suddenly panicked. Anna didn’t need to see the dog to know his location. The gasps of surprise and enthusiastic utterances of “good dog” in three languages, let her know that the dog was meandering through the shop, greeting the customers and acting like a big, friendly oaf. Anna waved the assistant off and offered a cheerful “I’ll take care of him.” She patted the woman on the arm and followed the ill mannered dog through the crowd to the front door.
Holding the door open, Anna leveled her gaze at the dog. “Shoo!” She commanded, pointing out to the street. The dog grinned at her, tail wagging enthusiastically, and exited the shop in the most obedient way. Anna watched as the animal padded down the Via Conti and disappeared from view. With a sigh of relief, Anna wove her way back through the crowd.
The murmurs of the waiting fans seemed more subdued, and the air inside the shop had taken on a fresh aroma. Anna glanced at the faces of those waiting for LeCress to sign their newly purchased cook books. She noted their slightly dilated pupils and flushed skin.
A server proffered the tray of cheese in front of Anna and she politely shook her head. Magic my ass! She thought.
She approached LeCress from the side, leaning in to him and brushing his arm with hers. Through her leather soled shoes, she channeled her energy into the wooden floor at the exact moment of contact. She had expected a bit of a jolt of energy from him; it was what happened when magic met magic. Instead, only a faint ordinary buzz of humanity emanated from him. Magic met very weak magic in that brief touch and LeCress obviously didn’t feel Anna’s diverted energy at all. Chef was a complete fraud posing as a powerful earth witch. Anna picked three books out of the box beneath the table the guest of honor was using smiled politely at him.
“We’re selling so many, I want to keep the display full.” She offered, patting his arm and feeling no tell-tale energy from him.
“Of coarse you are. I’m surprised so many people have come to….this…” Chef waved a dismissive hand at Anna’s shop as if it were beneath him. He tried to smile at her, but his cold brown eyes didn’t change. He was used to people doing things for him, and Anna imitated his snide smile. Weasel, she thought, figures a real witch wouldn’t be flaunting magic like this jerk does. Time for a demonstration of real power.
Anna headed into the back of her shop and when she was certain nobody was looking, she snipped a bit of moleskin off a small pad and slipped it into her pocket.
Due to the large crowd and the constant flow of shoppers through her little shop, Anna remained open throughout the traditional break in the middle of the day. The remainder of the day passed in much the same way. LeCress snapped his fingers at his assistants, and pretended to be the mystical chef who knew how to infuse gastronomic excellence with medicinal spells and charms.
An elderly man was one of the last customers to have his copy of the book signed. There was something familiar in his hobbled steps and hunched shoulders, but Anna could not place him. She watched him purposefully graze his hand across the author’s, before he shuffled out the door, pausing to pet the large black dog which had taken up residence, thankfully outside Anna’s shop, in the gathering twilight.
LeCress and his small entourage left the shop and everyone save Chef thanked the owner. Anna smiled in what she hoped was a simpering manner as she grabbed LeCress’ hand and slipped a small square of moleskin on the inside of his chef’s coat. She smiled and wrinkled her pert little nose and said with as much sincerity as she could muster: “I do hope you’ll remember my little shop for a very long time.”
With a bored nod, Chef walked out into the night. Anna watched and her face broke into a wide grin as he reached a hand up to scratch the back of his neck. By the end of dinner, Chef would need to consult his own book to find an herbal cure for the worst case of hives he’d ever have.
Night had fallen, and Anna’s stomach growled. She would close up shop and treat herself to some good pasta down the street at Ancones. Maybe even stop for a little gelato while she took her nightly stroll. Even after being on her feet most of the day, a walk sounded like a good idea. Anna wasn’t used to spending so much time inside her shop, and the thought of fresh air and a nice treat was too tempting. Before she locked the door, she set the wards to keep unwanted intruders out of her shop. Despite the high-tech security alarm supplied by a local firm, the magical wards were necessary protection against non-traditional thieves.
Murmuring the incantations, she went from corner to corner of the room, a bundle of burning sage in her small hand. To check her work, she glanced up at the glowing blue light above the door. The fairy light glowed reassuringly that the enchantments were invoked. Ann then took the money out of the till and stored it in the back room, well concealed under an invisibility charm.
When Anna left the shop, she was disappointed to discover the dog had wandered off while she tidied up. Home to his master, Anna thought as she walked toward the piazza.
Ancones was still busy as the waiter showed Anna to a small table inside the restaurant. Between greeting friends and neighbors and answering questions about the great Chef in the most diplomatic terms she could manage, Anna forked down bits of gnocchi and sips of a rich red wine. A few times, she thought she saw the form of a large dog across the piazza, but animals wandering about Rome weren’t unusual, so it probably wasn’t the same dog.
After dinner and a passeggiata with pistachio gelato, Anna returned to her shop. The faint blue glow of the fairy light signaled all was well. Had the light turned to an ugly green glow, Anna knew she’d find burglars inside the shop, fast asleep because of the wards. It was a neat spell she had perfected decades ago in New Jersey. When someone broke in, the wards would immediately trip. Since any witch worth their weight could disable an electronic alarm by sending a burst of power into the system, the wards were necessary protection against supernatural thieves.
She inserted her key into the lock, eager to be home. As she twisted the key, a low growl sounded behind her, causing her to swing around, key brandished in front of her as a weapon. The growl came again, and Anna pushed the door open behind her, hoping to make a quick escape into the safety of the shop.
A crackle of energy zipped across the pavement, making a loud sizzle as the current met with the dampness of the pavement. From the corner of her eye, Anna saw the movement; a rushing black form streaked toward her, claws aimed at her shoulders. There was no time to duck, and the great beast hit her with incredible force.
The wind was knocked out of her, and Anna stared up at the still form of the beast which had crashed into her and sent her flying through the open door and into her shop. Two men were running across the street, headed for the open door. Anna heaved herself from beneath the dog and slammed the door right before the men leapt onto the sidewalk. She shouted an incantation to electrify the door handle as she flung the deadbolt on.
Through the glass door, she stared at the men for a moment before she murmured another spell and waved her hand. A thick grey mist formed on the inside of the windows and door, concealing Anna from the men who had tried to attack her.
She had managed to escape from the two men, but the big dog that had knocked her was inside the shop with her – sound asleep because of the wards. The ward would have worked on the two men as well, but better safe than sorry. Anna would have preferred the dog remain outside, as well.
The mist she had formed over the glass widows had given away her ability as a spell caster, but since the two men had used magic first, Anna wasn’t worried about her own display. Obviously the knew what she was, and that little fact made her stomach flutter. She’d taken great pains to make sure nobody but the most trusted practioners knew of her shop in Rome.
Until the signing with Simon LeCress. Anna groaned inwardly. Of coarse it had been too good to be true. Somehow the United Coven and Alliance had found her and sent LeCress to her little shop for the signing. Once inside, they had no doubt learned the secret of the vaults in the basement. Anna had been so preoccupied with determining LeCress’ magical ability that she had completely ignored the assistants and the customers; any one of them could have been an Alliance agent. Anna spat a sharp curse into the dimly lit room. It had all been a set up to discover her little underground grimoire business. She’d been a fool to fall for it.
The wards would keep the dog asleep, so Anna quickly made the rounds of the rest of the building. Wards were still set in the back storeroom. She flipped the lights on to the cellar and could see the vast wave of electricity that kept the vaults safe. It was also intact. Upstairs, her living quarters were untouched, the wards there holding as well. Anna leaned against the wall and bit her lip. It had taken them years to make a move. So long, in fact, that Anna believed she had reached an uneasy truce with the United Coven and Alliance. All that had ended when the two warlocks had tried to zap her with an energy snake.
Slowly, she descended the stairs, checking first the blue fairy light, then the sleeping dog. Either the dog had attacked her, or had managed to save her life. She thought for a second about the dog batting the cheese out of her hand. Maybe he had saved her life twice.
She rummaged around behind the desk, pulling twine from one of the drawers and a length of good, sturdy rope, from another. Gingerly, she bound the dog’s two front paws together, and then the two hind legs together. She made sure the dog could be in a comfortable position, but would be unable to stand. Next, she looped the sturdy rope around his neck and tied him fast to the radiator in the corner of the shop. When she was satisfied with her work, she walked from corner to corner, pulling down the sleeping wards inside the shop, but leaving the ones in tact on the windows and doors.
As if on cue, the dog lifted his massive head and blinked at her. Anna regarded his eyes in the dim light cast by the bobbing globe she had generated while pulling down the wards. Cautiously, she inched closer to the dog, keeping her tone soft.
“Nice doggy. You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” She inched a little closer and felt somewhat reassured when the dog lay his head back down and flicked his ears a little in response to her voice.
Anna reached a hand out and cautiously stroked the thick fur. No jolt of energy greeted her pale hand, just the usual life force of another living creature. The dog watched her with solemn brown eyes. He made no growl or objection to her touch. She continued to stroke his head, speaking in soothing tones and inching closer and closer. In the dim light, the dog lifted his head and hitched himself around until his head rested on her ankle.
“What is your name?” She asked, in a hushed voice.
The dog blinked, and yawned.
“You’re a very brave dog, aren’t you? You saved me.” She stroked the thick fur and tried to calm her racing heartbeat. “You knew about the bad men across the street.” She breathed the last words and rolled her neck around, realizing the tension that had crept into her shoulders. “Those wards have held off some of the nastiest warlocks and witches in Rome, Pal, so those two amateurs out there don’t stand a chance.” She whispered, glancing at the door.
“They’ll give up soon.” She said, realizing it was more of a wishful thought than a known fact. The dog lay his head back down on the floor and snuffed agreement.
Anna reached out again and patted the dog’s head. He gave a short whine of protest as he struggled a little against the restraints.
“I’ll untie you if you promise not to bite.” It was a silly statement, because the dog had let her pet him without snarling or showing teeth at all. Still, Anna wasn’t sure if the dog was friend or foe, so the restraints gave her time to contemplate the dog’s status.
He lifted his head again and draped it across her ankle. She let her hand stroke along his flank and he snuffed a little before closing his eyes. Feeling braver, Anna stroked along his shoulder and the dog nudged her arm with his nose. She continued speaking to him, and after a few minutes of petting, the dog’s long pink tongue gently licked her hand and he whined again.
Anna smiled. “Okay, I’ll let you free. Be a nice dog, or I’ll have to defend myself.” She stood and retrieved the scissors from her desk. Quickly she snipped the bindings and the dog bounded to his feet, shaking himself and wagging his bushy tail. He pulled back against the final restraint which kept him tethered to the radiator. He lifted mournful eyes to her and Anna smiled.
“Oh, the puppy dog eyes…so sad, but you shouldn’t complain. You could have broken my hip when you knocked me down. I’m not a young woman. You being tied up for a few minutes is nothing compared to the bruises I’ll have tomorrow.”
Anna patted his head as she unknotted the make shift leash from around his neck.
The minute he was free, the dog scampered off under one of the library tables she had pushed up against the bookshelves earlier that morning. He rutted around inside one of the boxes which contained copies of Culinary BeWitchery, before coming out with a parcel wrapped in a filthy piece of oil cloth and tied with twine. He dropped the package at Anna’s feet and pushed it toward her with his nose. The dog sat down and watched her with ears pricked forward and head tilted slightly to the left.
“This just keeps getting more and more interesting…” Anna said, leaning against the sales counter and crossing her arms in front of her. “I don’t suppose you can speak?”
The dog looked at her and wagged his tail. “Woof!”
“Right. Not what I had in mind. You’d like me to open this package?”
The dog stood and pounced on it, causing it to slide toward Anna.
“I have a feeling I’m not going to like this.” She said, shaking her head and picking the scissor up from the counter. With a heavy sigh, she snipped the twine. A leather bound manuscript was revealed when Anna pulled the oilcloth away. The dog whined.
Carefully, she ran her fingers over the cover, feeling the two intersecting lines surrounded by a perfect circle. As her fingers traced the cover, she released a faint bit of electricity, causing the symbol to glow slightly in the dim light.
Anna dropped the book and stood quickly, her back against the wall.
“No.” She said, emphatically. “I don’t want that here.” She pointed at the still glowing book.
The dog whined, and padded to the manuscript, pushing it toward her with his nose.
“I said no. I don’t know who you are to bring that here, but I won’t have it. You can go and tell them that. I want no part of this anymore.” Hot tears stung her eyes, and she trembled slightly. Although she didn’t even want to look at it, she could not tear her eyes away from the worn leather cover. The manuscript brought back too many memories, most of which were unpleasant.
“No.” She whispered again, shaking her head.
With a wave of her hand, she dissipated the fog that concealed the street from view. With her foot, she moved the manuscript to where it couldn’t be seen and peered out into the night. The two men were gone, and the street was deserted, except for an old man who hobbled toward her shop, leaning on a walking stick. In the faint glow of the streetlights, he looked up and even in the darkness his eyes met Anna’s.
She gasped, and murmured an incantation that immediately frosted the windows in an opaque glaze of ice.
“Damn it.” She hissed, glaring at the dog. “You get out there and tell him to go away. Take this filthy thing with you, too.” She kicked the book toward the door and pointed emphatically at it. “Go!” She commanded, and with a flick of her wrist the door swung open and crashed against the wall.
The dog stood staring at her. His ears drooped and his head lowered. His big eyes moved from Anna to the door and he sat down with a thud and trembled.
“I said go!” Anna commanded again. She pointed out the door and felt her own hand shake. The man across the street continued hobbling toward the shop and Anna held up her hand.
“Don’t even think about it.” She warned, her voice deadly calm.
“Anna.” He said from the dark street. “Just listen for a moment.” His voice was soft and instead of coming in on the night air, it sounded as if he spoke the words directly into her ear.
“You have nothing to say that I’d be interested in.” She replied, her voice quivering. She hated that sound.
The man kept walking toward the shop and while Anna was not afraid of him, she dreaded seeing the look in his dark blue eyes. She didn’t want to hear the reasonable tone of his voice. The dog stood and walked to Anna’s side with his bushy tail tucked beneath him. He sat next to her and faced the man in a subservient manner.
“You’re the only one who can help. You know that.” The old man’s voice was so patient, as if he were speaking to a small child.
“I helped once before.” She replied, watching him approach. “I think we all remember how that turned out.” Her tone had become bitter, and old tears threatened to well up in her eyes. She would not be intimidated into helping again.
“It was part of our bargain, though.” He said, standing in the doorway and glancing into the shop.
The dog wagged his tail beside Anna, brushing her leg with it. When Anna glanced down at him, he gave her a great doggy grin, ears laid back in a hopeful look. “So then you’re part of all this.” She said, stepping away from the dog.
The dog sat and regarded her with one ear raised and the other sticking straight out from the side of his head. A ‘who me?’ look if ever there was one.
The man from the street stood in the door way. “I’d prefer it if we could speak inside, Anna.” He said, gesturing to the blue fairy light. “It would be much better than chancing our conversation being overheard.
Anna waited for a few moments, contemplating her options. With a resigned shrug and a hard set to her jaw, she waved at the fairy light and growled a few words of Latin. The man stepped quickly across the threshold, and with a great gust of wind blew the door closed with a loud bang. Immediately the stoop was gone from his shoulders and a great mane of silver hair appeared beneath the plaid cap. The glamour fell away and his regal features sharpened.
“You always did like to show off, Kingston.” Anna said wearily, turning away from him and sitting down heavily on the stool behind the counter. “So what honor are you bestowing on me this time?” The sarcasm was thick and her throat hurt from unshed tears.
Kingston shook his head sadly. “I’d prefer to think of it as a favor. Between old friends.”
Anna’s harsh laughter earned her a puzzled look from the dog.
“Rufus here went through a great deal of trouble to make sure that book got to you.” Kingston approached the dog and ruffled the fur on the animal’s neck affectionately. “It was a long journey, wasn’t it, old friend?”
The dog regarded the older man with weary eyes. With a low whimper, the dog lay down and placed his large head between his paws. Kingston pulled up a chair and sat down at the table where LeCress had signed his books. He gestured to another chair, inviting Anna to sit next to him. He rested arms on the table in a relaxed pose.
“Rufus?” Anna inquired, rubbing her temples and trying to concentrate. There was something familiar in that name; it tickled her memory somehow. Anna sat wearily in the chair and looked from the dog to the man next to her. Kingston Pon was never a man to trifle with. The relaxed and casual pose he maintained did nothing to stop the pounding of her heart and her head. Anna needed to think.
“You remember Rufus Albrecht, don’t you? Marco would know him.” Kingston settled back a little in the chair and shrugged.
Anna felt her features harden into a mask. “Marco knew a lot of things. He knew he’d never live to see his daughter grow up, for instance.”
Kingston sighed and cast a glance at Rufus. “Rufus knew that he had to get that book to you, Anna. You’re the only one with the connections and powers to hide it. You’re one of the last guards.” Kingston smiled a humorless smile. “Maybe the only guard left.”
Anna felt the dry laugh escape her, like twigs scraping against glass. “Not the only one left, Kingston. You know that as well as I do. There are others who will hide your precious little book for you, yet Rufus brings it to me; the only one who wants nothing to do with the organization. Ever.”
“Which organization, my dear?” Kingston asked, a smile playing around his mouth.
Anna shrugged, “Either one. The CCO or the Alliance. Which ever one you’re here to plead for.”
“I would never plead for the Alliance, and you know that. Perhaps if you are not interested in the CCO, I could call back those two agents from the Alliance who were here earlier. I’m sure they would gladly take the book. It would take some doing to get them back, though. You see, I have no idea where I sent them, so if you wish to speak to them I’ll have to find them first.” He examined his nails and feigned indifference.
“I bet you sent them safely home, Kingston. Safely back to the Alliance with no memory of tonight. Isn’t that usually your style?”
“Usually. It’s best to keep them that way. If they remember things, then it’s only a matter of time before they find your little shop or one of the others.”
“So it’s a public service you provide now?” Anna shook her head in
disbelief. “You get my husband killed, and then spend the rest of your life ‘protecting’ his family? Isn’t that the story you’d like me to believe, Kingston?”
“You can believe whatever you wish, Anna. The truth remains that the Alliance has not approached any member of your family in many years. I have lived up to my part of the bargain.” Kingston said, leaning closer and peering at her.
“I’m still not taking your book.” Anna said with a cold smile.
“I only want it hidden, Anna. Rufus went through great trouble to bring it here for exactly that purpose. Look at him, Anna. He’s a dog, for Merlin’s sake!”
Anna glanced at Rufus who regarded her with a bored expression.
“What did he used to be?”
“An agent of the CCO. An independent contractor of sorts. He was a guard of the book you so carelessly pushed aside. Now, he’s been changed into this form and none of us know who did it or how long it will last.”
“How’d he get changed?”
Rufus’ ears perked up and a low growl issued from him.
Anna shook her head and glared at Kingston. Her voice was harsh when she spoke. “Did you send him here?” She demanded.
“Then the Alliance did.” Anna said with certainty. “They sent that incompetent fool here so they could get an agent inside my shop. I’m going to have to close up now. Again.” Anna felt her blood pressure begin to rise.
Kingston held up a hand. “The Alliance was here? How do you know?” The concern in his tone made Anna shudder.
“The two agents. LeCress was supposed to be at the big chain store but there was a chemical problem – sulfur, if you can believe it – I mean could they be more obvious? Yesterday, the whole place smelled like rotten eggs so they moved the public appearance here – of all the bookstores in Rome, they managed to pick my shop to host it. I was a complete fool to not see the connection.”
Rufus looked from Anna to Kingston with his ears pricked forward and a giant doggy grin on his furry face. His tail thumped wildly on the tile floor. Kingston looked down at the beast and a grin split his regal features.
“I think he has a confession to make.” He said, pointing to the dog.
Rufus leapt up and spun in a joyful circle, wagging his tail and woofing happily.
“The dog?” Anna asked, incredulously.
“He was a guard, Anna. Give Rufus some credit. I think he managed to find a way to get the venue changed and to get that book delivered right to your shop.”
“How do you know so much about this?” Anna asked, hearing the suspicion in her own voice.
“When Rufus disappeared, those of us who are left began looking for him. As luck would have it, LeCress was in town when Rufus disappeared. I’ve been following LeCress for months now, thinking he had something to do with it.”
“That incompetent fool? If Rufus Albrecht got turned into a dog, there’s no way LeCress is responsible. He couldn’t pull off a trans-species alteration spell.” Anna gestured to the dog and shook her head. “You’ve been chasing a coincidence.”
“And yet that coincidence led me to your shop, where Rufus is; after LeCress has left for the day and you were attacked by two Alliance agents. I’d say I was chasing the correct coincidence.” Kingston retorted, leaning back in his chair.
Rufus gave a low growl and lowered his head.
“I think Rufus disagrees.” Anna replied, crossing her arms in front of her.
The dog turned his eyes toward her and issued a short bark.
“See?” Anna said, feeling vindicated.
“Then you speak dog?” Kingston asked, folding his own arms across his massive chest.
“My daughter has an owl as a familiar. Feathers or fur, it’s all the same.” She replied, holding a hand out and chucking the dog under his chin.
“Then you can interpret Rufus’ reaction to my theory for me.” Kingston said, crossing his ankle over his knee. “I think someone caught up with Rufus and tried to get the book. When Rufus put up a fight, he somehow got transfigured into the form of a dog.”
Anna glanced down at Rufus who blinked at her with a bored expression.
“Try again.” Anna said, flicking her silver brows at Kingston.
“Then someone tracked Rufus down and when they tried to steal the book Rufus turned himself into a dog.”
“But who tracked you down?” Kingston asked the dog.
A high pitched whine issued from the beast.
“Did LeCress have anything to do with it?” Kingston asked.
Rufus laid his head on Anna’s knee and looked at her with a mournful expression.
“Nope.” Anna said, stroking his fur.
“I’ve been following LeCress for months, trying to find that book. He comes to your shop and Rufus shows up. What else could possibly be happening?” Kingston said, looking completely frustrated.
Rufus whined again and walked out in front of the table and sat down on the floor with a hard thud. He stared expectantly at Anna and Kingston.
“I think we’re going to play charades.” Anna said, leaning her elbows on the table and facing the dog. “Ready?” She asked.
“LeCress was in town.”
“Someone tried to steal the book.”
“Someone who worked with LeCress tried to steal the book.”
Whimpering, Rufus lay on the floor and looked at them.
“You brought the book to me to guard?”
Anna sighed and turned toward Kingston. “This is going to take some time to figure out. As much as I’d rather not, I think we should go upstairs to my apartment and feed Rufus. After he’s eaten, we’ll try again.”
Rufus stood and turned in a circle, looking very excited. Kingston sighed and stood up. “I know you’re not going to like this, but I’m afraid you’re on your own with this for a few days. Those two agents who attacked you are probably at the airport, wondering what they’re doing there. I hit them with a memory spell and sent them there because I’m booked on a flight back to Boston tonight and I’m going to take them with me. There’s something going on back in the States with a former agent who’s gone rogue. I really need to focus on that and keep those two agents busy so they don’t remember you or your shop. Can you guard the book and work on getting Rufus’ story until I can come back?”
Anna looked at the dog and then back at Kingston. Rufus turned mournful eyes to her again and tilted his head to the side.
“How long will you be gone?” Anna asked, shooting a pointed glare at Kingston.
“A few days. Maybe a week.” The man replied, looking at his watch. “My plane leaves in two hours.”
Anna sighed and shook her head. “Typical. You come in here and drop a great stinking mess in the middle of my shop then you jet off on another job. You never change, do you?” She placed her small hands on her hips. “Can you guarantee that nobody else from the Alliance will show up?”
“Since I wasn’t expecting the two who were here earlier, I can’t promise anything. I will keep them with me, though, so you should be safe.” Kingston reached into his pocket and pulled out two business cards. One with his name and a cell phone number and another with McGilly’s Dry Cleaning printed in large black letters. “If anyone shows up and you can’t get a hold of me, wet this card down and call the number on it. It’s my business partner Evan’s card. He’ll help you.”
“I’ll agree to keep your book for one month, Kingston. After that, we’ll have another conversation about where it goes.” Rufus whined but Anna shot him a hard look. “Don’t you even think about it.” She wagged her finger at the dog and he sat down with his ears pricked forward. “You brought me into this mess and I’ll help you if I can, but I don’t want to be part of it for the rest of my life. In my experience, the C.C.O. isn’t any safer than the Alliance and I like my quiet little life. Got it?”
Kingston took her small hand in his larger one. “I will owe you again for this, Anna. I’ll be in touch once I clear up this other situation.” Without warning, he leaned down and kissed her lightly on each cheek. “Marco knew what a brave woman you are.”
With tears stinging her eyes, Anna watched Kingston walk out the door and into the dark streets of Rome. He’d be on a flight back to America by the time she’d fed the dog, added the small leather book to the collection in the vaults, and re-set the wards. All she’d wanted was a little publicity for her little book shop, and what she’d received was a full time job guarding an ancient magical text and a whole lot of danger. Not the bargain she’d been hoping for.