(photo credit of the male Hen Harrier to Bernard Liegeois LPO Vienne)
Beguiled, Bewitched, & Broken will mark the close of the first *set* of Sister Witches books. The manuscript is in the hands of my editor and I’m busy plotting the second series! As you read through these early chapters, please remember this is an unedited, un-proofread draft 🙂
Chapter One is here.
Chapter Two is here.
I woke up after not nearly enough sleep to a muscular thigh wedged between my legs and Kostya’s fiery skin warming the sheets. The morning air sweeping into the room and over my bared shoulder was alpine fresh. Sleepy-eyed and stiff, I eased out from the sleeping demon’s possessive claim to my limbs and went to close the windows.
A golden-eyed harrier was perched on the ledge of our bathroom’s window. And on the sill at my elbow was a gnarled crabapple and a small, dead vole. The raptor nattered at me. Though I didn’t understand what the handsome creature was saying, I understood the gesture. I picked up the fruit and the rodent and thanked the bird. It fluffed out its wing feathers and took off into the shadows cast by the eaves.
“Looks like you have an admirer, Miss Beryl.”
“Looks like I’m calling Uncle Mal and Tía Mari,” I said, turning to Kostya and showing him my tribute.
“I think that’s a good idea. What’re you going to do with that mouse?”
“It’s not a mouse, it’s a vole, and I can’t throw it away. That’d be rude.”
“Put it in the bathroom. I’ll deal with it. Or maybe the castle has a cat.”
I set the falcon’s gifts into the woven basket under the oaken washing table. Aromatic hand soap got rid of the faintly gamey smell, and once I’d peed and brushed my teeth I was ready to crawl back under the covers. Kostya took his turn in the bathroom while I fixed the sheets and blankets in the hope that would keep me vertical.
“I think the others are awake,” he said, pressing his ear against the door to the hall. “Are you ready to go see the Crone?”
“I am. And you need to put some clothes on before you go out.” He glanced down his front, and mine, and suggested I do the same.
“Do you think we’re required to dress like our hosts?” I asked, rifling through the rustic, farmhouse-style armoire. One shelf held stacks of towels, and the other shelves held an assortment of the same drawstring pants, rough wool sweaters, and felted slippers we’d seen our guide wearing when we arrived.
“I think it’s a good idea. We’ll blend in better.”
“Clementine and I will blend in better. You and Laszlo will never blend in here.”
Kostya needed my help getting the neck of the sweater over his horns. “What, you don’t think we could pass for druids?”
I snorted. “See if you can find some pants that fit and let’s go. I hear knocking.” I was ready before him. Mostly. I had a slipper in my left hand and in my right, one of the boots I’d worn through the tunnels. I held up both for Kostya’s opinion. “Slippers or boots?”
“Boots. We’re in battle mode, babe. Got to be ready to head back into the fray at a moment’s notice.”
“Yes, but before I go into battle mode, I have to go into supplication mode. I’ve never visited a revered druidic elder before and I don’t know the protocol.”
“Clean clothes. A submissive demeanor. And a bottle of wine should do it.”
I swatted Kostya’s butt and unrolled clean, handknit socks over my cold toes. Boots on, curls dampened and slicked behind my ears, and wand in the pants’ handy side pocket, I followed Kostya into the hallway. Laszlo was closing his and my sister’s door.
“Are you ready, Beryl?” he asked. “Clementine and I were talking and—”
Clementine lifted her heels and interrupted Laszlo with a kiss. “And I think it would be better if it was just me and you visiting with the Crone, B.”
“I agree,” I said. “Kostya also suggested we bring her something, like a bottle of wine?”
“I think we should bring her something more personal, something from us.”
I patted my pockets and looked around the room. “The only thing we have is stories, Sissy. I didn’t even bring a pair of earrings to fancy myself up a bit, let alone something that could be given as a gift.”
Clementine grabbed me in a tight hug and said she thought that stories were perfect. The four of us followed the hall to the end and entered the room we were told would always have snacks and drinks. My eyes lit up at the simple spread. Kostya poured cups of coffee and passed them around. Needing more in my belly, I broke open a seeded roll and slathered on unsalted butter that tasted like it had been made that morning. Clementine copied me, adding dollops of strawberry jam to both of ours and we agreed it was one of the best breakfasts we’d ever had. Laz filled his plate and poked around in the shelves and cupboards. He found a dusty, unopened bottle of brandy and suggested that would be a suitable libation for an elder of any race.
“Brandy does goes well with stories,” I said, wiping the dust off with a cloth napkin and tucking the bottle in the crook of my elbow. I finger waved to Kostya and turned to leave. Nerves had me wanting to be first through the door and down the stairs. Clementine kissed Laszlo again and followed me out of the sitting room and down the hall.
“We’ve gone from hardly seeing each other since Mom died, to picking up the pieces she left behind. Kinda wild, huh, B?”
“Kinda wild, Sissy,” I said, threading my fingers through hers when we got to the bottom of the tower’s precariously narrow stairs. Kind of very wild. I pulled Clementine closer. Losing our mother was a shock I still wasn’t over. The recent loss of our father had a whole other tone to it. I would be having feelings like grief and loss if we’d had more of a relationship. But we didn’t—we hadn’t—and there had been no time to mourn in the days since he died, let alone affix an accurate label to what I was feeling. I chose instead to hang on to Clementine and Alderose and hope that when we were back in Northampton, we’d think long and hard about what to do with the tangible and intangible aspects of our legacy.
“Is this the orchard?” I was glad my sister had been paying attention to Tanner’s instructions. Fruit trees heading into dormancy dotted the uneven meadow to either side of the path.
“Mm-hmm. Do you think that’s where the Crone lives?” Clementine stopped us as we neared an old—ancient—squat hut. The branches of an apple tree reached up and out of what was left of the timber roof, and the walls of the round building leaned in slightly. “Because Tanner did say we should walk to the end of the path cutting through the orchard and look for the old building with a tree sticking out the top.”
A grass- and wildflower-covered knee wall circled what we could see of the hut. Up close, the entrance felt small, even for me. I raised my hand to knock.
“The door is always open for those with a gift and a question.” A raspy voice with a thick French accent sound from behind the door. Clementine and I darted glances at one another. She took hold of the old metal latch, lifted the handle, and pushed.
“The door will always close on those whose eyes would spy.” Once we crossed the threshold, the door closed of its own accord and the latch clicked into place. The tree wasn’t all that large up close, just curvy through the middle. Light filtered into the single room through jagged holes made by the branches, and the air was redolent of sun-ripened apples and dried lavender and the passage of time.
“Sit, daughters of Moira. What have you brought for me? Your mother always gifted me the prettiest bugs.” The voice seemed to be coming from behind the tree. While waiting for the Crone to appear, I turned in a circle. There was no place to sit and no sign of a working kitchen or bathroom or even a bed.
“We brought you a bottle of brandy, Madame du Blanc.”
The tree’s branches quivered. “That appellation belongs to my daughter, who seems to have forgotten I continue to live and breathe, and that I have ears and rootlets and can listen,” she hissed. The tree shook again and gave a long sigh. “Call me Grisette. Or Le Crone if you insist on something more formal.”
“Where would you like us to put the brandy, Grisette?”
One of the lower branches slowly reached toward us. My sister and I watched, wide-eyed and incredulous, as the bark on the branch crackled and split, revealing an older woman’s sun-weathered arm, all the way to her shoulder. Burnished gold bracelets lay flush with her skin. “Would you uncork the bottle first?”
“Did you bring a knife?” Clementine whispered, tipping the neck of the bottle in my direction.
“No,” I said. I patted my pockets anyway. I could do a lot with my wand but making a fine cut through the red wax covering the cork would be more in line with Alderose’s skill set.
“You will find a knife in the wall by the door. It has been there since the last time my daughter visited and I have lost track of when that might have been. It was probably when she needed something and I wouldn’t give it to her. C’est la vie…”
I fired up the tip of my wand and swept its light across the shadowed wall. There really was a short-bladed knife embedded in the wall at head height. I had to hand my wand to Clementine and grab the knife handle with both hands to pull it free of the wattle and daub construction.
“What’s she doing stabbing walls?” I asked, not expecting an answer from Grisette. I wiped the rust off the blade before handing it to my sister.
“I believe a modern healer would say Ni’eve has anger management issues.”
Clementine moved closer to the tree and pressed the long neck of the bottle into the Crone’s hand. As we watched, the narrow part of the trunk past the shoulder morphed into a neck and an upper chest. A cluster of what I thought were knots in the wood became an elegant, patrician face. Grisette smiled and pulled more of her human form, including long strands of thick gray hair, out of the tree. She grimaced, exhaled, and took a long swig of the brandy, not at all fazed by the alcohol’s burn.
“Thank you. That was a particularly fine blend of Calvados made from apples grown by some of our sweetest Keepers. Now, what may I do for you?”
“Ach, Tanner Marechal, un belle homme avec une belle âme. Tell me, what did that dear boy say?” She tucked our gift against the curve of bark where her chest would be.
“He said you knew our mother and that you might have something to—to tell us about her.”
“How long do you have?” Grisette asked, holding the brown glass bottle up to the light.
“Not long. We’re leaving soon to go back through the tunnels to Lionel Vigne’s fortress and rescue the rest of the Magicals he’s been holding captive.”
“As your mother did before you.”
“Will you come see me when you have completed this mission?”
Clementine and I darted glances at each other. “Sure.”
“There is one thing you should see which will provide you a little insight into your mother and the time we spent together. Here, please put this away.” Grisette handed the bottle back to Clementine, then pressed her lips together tight. “This used to be so much easier,” she said, “back in the day when my daughter and the other Keepers sought my council with regularity and thought my wisdom was a thing to be treasured, not trashed.” She closed her eyes, and a creaking sound erupted from where her trunk met the packed soil of the floor.
“See that board? Lift it up and go down the ladder. Follow in your mother’s footsteps. Better use your wand, little witch, for light.”
A crack in the dirt revealed the outline of a square trap door. I stuck my finger in the knothole, lifted, and set the door against Grisette’s trunk. Lucerna lumen, I whispered, holding my wand at arm’s length as I stuck my leg into the hole and felt for the promised ladder.
“Go all the way until the ladder ends.”
I lowered the intensity of the glow coming from my wand, stuck the handle between my teeth, and began to descend. Clementine waited until I was well on my way before she followed me down.
And down. And down even more. Until I stubbed my toe on more packed dirt, held tight to the sides of the ladder, and felt around with my foot. I let Clementine know I’d made it to the bottom.
“The bottom of what?” she asked. Her voice was muffled by the tube-like passageway.
“The bottom of the Hole to Nowhere,” I joked, making my voice scary. I held my wand at arm’s length and turned in a slow circle. The tip illuminated, then lit, candle after candle, all of them beeswax and all pulled from molds of flying bugs and butterflies.
“I think this is where Mom worked, or maybe where she stayed, when she was passing through here.” I shuffled to the side and gave Clementine room to stand next to me. She thwacked my shoulder and begged me to stop teasing her about dark places. I apologized.
The room was roughly the same shape and size as the one above ground, with a lower ceiling. A narrow cot was wedged against one wall, a trunk hunkered underneath the bed frame, and the three other walls supported a work table and two freestanding shelf and drawer units. Each piece of furniture was old—very old—and made from hand-hewn wood. Miraculously, there wasn’t a speck of dust.
“Look, B, all of the drawers are labelled.” Clementine lifted a candle shaped as a damselfly and started to read. “Dream Ease. Blood Cease. Loss Abatement. Fear Release.” She opened one of the drawers and withdrew a handful of items that looked like something to be inserted into the nose. “These were labelled ‘Breath Boost’. Do you think she wore them when she was in the tunnels?”
“That’s entirely possible, Sissy,” I said, peering over her shoulder. “It helps that nothing has a fancy name, just something simple. Obvious. She was bringing out Magicals who’d been through trauma. She had to keep them breathing, keep them moving, as she got them here. Do you think Grisette helped her? Or Ni’eve?”
“I have no idea, only a bajillion questions.” She turned and let me see what was in her palm. “What about bringing these to share? It couldn’t hurt to have something to help us breathe. We have no idea what going into the tunnels will be like this time. The fae know we’re here. They might have set traps.”
I picked one of the nose plugs out of the pile and slid it over the cartilage at the front of my nostrils. “It’s like one of those nose pinching things we used to wear at the town pool during swimming lessons,” I said, inhaling. “How do I look?” I crossed my eyes for an added dollop of sultriness.
“Goofy. But I say we bring enough for everyone just in case.”
“Anything else look like it would be helpful for today?” I swept my wand across the uneven ceiling and poked it into the corners by the bed.
“Beryl. Look.” My sister reached under my arm and slid a thin notebook out from one of the shelves. Across the front was a date.
“Open it,” I said. I lifted my arm and noticed my hand was shaking. I would have been fourteen when my mom wrote those numbers.
“The notebook looks like the kind you use,” she said, sliding the side of her thumb in between the cover and the first page. She tucked an errant hank of hair behind her ear, gingerly lifted the notebook, and began to scan the lines.
“What’s it say?”
“So, it looks like it’s information about Magicals she was looking for. Name of victim. Who was looking for them. Their race and type of magic. Physical description. When they were last seen, and where. And what they were wearing.” Clementine scanned the next couple of pages. “Basically, Mom took on clients whose family member or friend went missing. I don’t think any money changed hands—and look, B, this one was found. But not here.”
“Let’s take all the notebooks and read through them later. If we leave them in our rooms, it means we’ll have to make it back, right?” I collected the other four and held them close to my heart, then opened the drawer labelled Fear Release and felt around inside. Whatever had filled it was gone.
“We should go.”
I didn’t want to leave the little underground room. My sister and I were getting a glimpse into our mother’s world, the one she inhabited when she left us at home. “When did Mom come here, any guess?”
“I have no idea, and I’m not sure Grisette would be any help. It doesn’t seem like she has a firm grasp on linear time,” Clementine said, blowing out the candles and taking to the ladder. “But with Dad hardly ever home, who would have stayed with us? My memory feels really foggy, B. Maybe reading through these notes will help us.”
We climbed the ladder and set the trapdoor back over the shaft to the subterranean room. Grisette had her eyes closed, at least the one eye we could see. The other side of her face had become more tree-like and her human arm was resting against her trunk.
“Grisette?” I said, lightly touching her bark. “We’re going now.”
“Did you find anything that could be useful?” she asked, keeping her eyes closed and her arm limp.
“Notebooks. And a device to help us breathe in the tunnels.”
“Good. Visit me when you return. I will prepare tea. And may the Goddess go with you. You’re going to need her help.”
Clementine and I didn’t speak as we drew the door closed and made our way through the orchard. When we stepped onto the wider gravel path, my sister curled her fingers through mine and planted a brief kiss on my cheek. “C’mon. Lots of frightened Magicals out there need us, B. Starting with Rosey.”