Stranger Than Witches (The Witches of Secret Hallow Book 3)

Stranger Than Witches
Nora Lee
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imberly Leif dreams of flying
. Not on a broomstick, like the other witches of Secret Hallow occasionally do (usually after drinking way too much hard cider), but on wings. She chalks it up to having Thorn, an eagle, as her familiar…until she wakes up one morning covered in feathers.

Plenty of witches have special talents, but shapeshifting shouldn’t be one of them. The only other witch who’s ever shapeshifted was Kimberly’s mom. And the last thing Kimberly wants is to be like the woman who abandoned her as a child.

She has a son of her own—Keene—who may not have a whit of magical power in him, and he needs a grounded mother who can guide him through a mundane life among witches. Not a mom who’s going to fly away as soon as the wind shifts.

With Thorn’s help, Kimberly must get control of her urge to fly. Not just for her sake, but for her little boy’s chance to have a complete family, too.


t was
another perfect fall-like day in Secret Hallow as Kimberly Leif walked her son, Keene, to his first day of school. There was the slightest hint of crisp all around: crisp smells as trees shed their golden and red leaves, crisp sounds as Keene shuffled his way through the leaves on the ground, the crisp edges of slightly bared trees reached for the sky, and it was just chilly enough to be considered crisp.

There were hints at a cycle of renewal, though. There were new buds on many tree branches, and as the day wore on, there would be more warmth in Secret Hallow.

Spring was coming. Spring was quite different in Secret Hallow than in other places, but Kimberly had been there long enough to sense it nevertheless.

Kimberly couldn’t quite hear the sound of her eagle familiar’s wings, but she knew Thorn was gliding in the currents about their heads just as she knew that spring was coming. If she closed her eyes, she could easily recall the image of his glossy feathers, his scaled feet, the cruel turn of his beak that belied his gentle nature. As gentle a nature as a bird of prey could have, anyway.

Yes, he was spiraling above, and he was likely on the hunt.

It was simply his nature: a predator must feed, just as a witch must immerse herself in magic.

What a view of the town he must have had from high above!

But Kimberly was firmly rooted to the ground as she held Keene’s hand and guided him toward the Ash Academy.

There was already a decent presence on the lawn when Kimberly approached. The two main teachers at the Academy, Rowan Middlebrook and Gemma Ash, had a small cluster of children with them. Gemma was doing most of the chasing. Rowan had birthed a babe not many moons past, and she showed fatigue from long nights nurturing her wee one. Kimberly adored Keene, but she was certainly glad he was beyond the need to be fed from the breast every other hour all day and all night.

“Merry meet!” one little girl sang out when she saw Kimberly and Keene.

A smile blossomed over Kimberly’s lips. It was her son who responded with great enthusiasm. “Merry meet!”

Kimberly stopped mid-step to keep from getting run over by the children. All children of all persuasions were bundles of frenetic energy, but none more so than little witchlings, who had boundless, uneducated magic fueling their squirmy wiggles.

Many of them were running around in place or playing tag with Gemma’s familiar, a large and usually somnolent dog named Bronson. Kimberly was certain that Bronson would only rouse for two things if given the choice: food, and a warmer bed. Unlike Thorn, Bronson was not a familiar interested in participating in magic—or walking very far unless dog cookies were involved—because his title as “familiar” was mostly Gemma and sister Enid’s way of making it sound like their Saint Bernard was occasionally useful.

Today, Bronson was doing a decent job keeping up with the children. He was a marvelous nanny dog, even if his preferences ran toward the unconscious. Kimberly had seen him run circles around Keene before, and Keene took energetic to a new level. Useless in spellwork he may have been, but Bronson’s true power rested in child wrangling.

He was a great help where Rowan couldn’t jump in. He snagged more than one child back from escaping out the doors of the Ash Academy with his gentle teeth.

“Good boy,” Rowan laughed, ruffling the fur around his neck. He drooled appreciatively on her thigh. Rowan didn’t have much time to enjoy Bronson’s affection. She lurched to her feet. “Fern!”

Her attention was focused on one particular child, Fern Westerly, who was lobbing gusts of wind around the Ash Academy. She giggled with each gust of wind she tossed, putting her hands to her mouth after each time. Her cheeks dimpled. Her eyes crinkled. She glowed with joy.

Kimberly was initially taken aback by the destructive force that Fern was putting out. It took Kimberly a minute to see that most of the gusts were stopping well before the trees at the edge of the grassy field. Most of the time, the leaves didn’t so much as twitch.

Fern Westerly’s impressive elemental powers were being well-contained by a combination of Rowan’s attention—even if she did seldom move from the chair—and the magic embedded deep within the walls of the Ash Academy.

It had been difficult to rebuild the Ash Academy. They had struggled over it for months. The original founder, Emilia Ash, had been among the most powerful witches of her generation, if not all time.

Her magic had been woven into every brick of the building. The physical structure had collapsed over the years, as building standards of the past had not been able to keep up with magical wear and tear, but Emilia’s warding spells had stood strong. She’d all but salted the earth with her power. It had made it next to impossible to rebuild the structure magically.

However, they had been successful after much effort—and with help from Gemma’s girlfriend, Fox, a witch who lived in Seattle. Now the Ash Academy was strong enough to handle the most difficult of witches, including sweet little Fern Westerly.

Gemma spotted the arrival of the Leifs. She jogged over.

“Keene! Kimberly!”

Keene leaned against Kimberly’s leg, staring wide-eyed around them. Gemma had been at the edge of the field, watching the other children with a computer on her lap, but she’d put it down to come say hello. A high compliment as far as Gemma Ash was concerned.

“Hiya auntie!” Keene said from behind Kimberly’s leg, struck by a sudden bout of shyness.

The Leif family was not actually related to the Ash family, so Gemma was not, in fact, Keene’s auntie. The Ashes had been in Secret Hallow as long as the Hallow family, but the Leifs had transplanted barely a decade before. However, everyone in Secret Hallow was as good as blood, and they helped each other raise their children, work their farms, and nurture their hearts.

“Ready for your first day, kiddo?” Gemma asked, ruffling Keene’s adorable scruff of ruddy hair.

Keene wasn’t listening. He was too busy staring at the other kids and tugging on Kimberly’s hand. “Mom
,” he said in a loud whisper, dragging out the last syllable to a whine. His singsong voice prompted Gemma’s smile to widen. “Can I go play with them?”

Kimberly turned her gaze to Gemma. She already knew the answer, but it was good practice for Keene to see her taking Gemma’s rules into consideration.

Keene had never been to school. He was only three years old, a precious wee one that had seldom wandered off the Leif farm. He had to learn to acknowledge authority that didn’t come from his ma and pa.

“It’s okay with me if you play among the children, darling little bear,” Kimberly said aloud. “How do you feel, Gemma?”

Gemma nodded, looking deeply grave in the way that only worked for children. “Just be careful, okay?”

Just like that, Keene was off like a shot.

He yelled an “Okay!” over his shoulder in a cursory show of paying attention, but moments later, he was so engrossed in the game of tag and Bronson’s wagging tail that Kimberly wouldn’t have known he’d been glued to her side when they’d arrived.

Kimberly watched him with a fond smile playing over her lips.

It felt like it had been only days—nay, hours—since Keene had been learning how to roll over from his tummy onto his back among the prickly vines of the pumpkin patch. Hadn’t it been only that morning when he had taken his first toddling steps across the kitchen, reaching his chubby hands for his father’s fresh-baked pecan pie cooling on the windowsill?

Yet there he was, sweet little Keene, no longer so little. He didn’t allow his father, Maddock, to call him a bairn anymore. Keene would firmly insist, “I’m not a baby! I’m a big boy!”

And he was. He truly was.

A big boy racing after all the other big children of the Secret Hallow village, steady on his feet, smooth as he darted around Bronson, laughing and shouting with the joy of a child without a care.

Kimberly hoped that his childhood would remain so blessed that he would have no idea the alternative was possible.

Gemma was watching him too, and she was chuckling. “Looks like darling Keene has a busy day ahead of him. Are you sticking around for a while, pal?”

Kimberly nodded. Keene had been around children plenty of times before during coven events, but she figured being around for a day or two while he got settled in at the school wasn’t a bad idea.

“Great,” Gemma said. “I’d love the opportunity to chat with you anyway. I was hoping I could talk to you about the upcoming Beltane sabbat. We’re putting it together and we need to choose which location where we wish to hold it. Can we have everything at the farm?”

“Yes,” Kimberly said with a firm nod. They’d held many coven events at the Leif farm, and Kimberly considered it an honor to do her part to host and give the coven space whenever necessary. “Just let me know what you need.”

“I definitely will, and…” Gemma’s eyes widened. “Keene! Please stay out of Fern’s space!”

Kimberly looked over. Bronson had been running well clear of Fern and Rowan, but Keene had done a bigger circle than the other kids, and a gust of Fern’s power had flattened some of the grass not too far where Keene had been running.

Keene darted aside. He nimbly dodged the elemental girl’s power.

One did not grow up among too-strong witchlings without learning a thing or two about evading magic.

“Anyway, what was I saying?” Gemma asked thoughtfully, cradling her temple in one hand. “Right. The sabbat. We don’t have any specific plans yet, but we know we’ll need a lot of room—”

She was cut off by a shriek, and Kimberly was moving before she’d fully registered that it had been Keene who had cried out.

Maternal instinct had her moving in a heartbeat.

Even a heartbeat wasn’t fast enough.

Keene was on his back in a bed of leaves, face screwing up as he prepared to cry. Fern stood to the side, looking confused.

Kimberly was far from the only adult converging on the scene of the collision. Rowan was running over as well, and she had been closer, so she reached Keene first.

“Are you all right, Keene?” Rowan asked, helping him back to his feet.

Now that Keene’d had a moment to consider the incident, he had decided that he was in considerable amounts of distress. He began crying hard, face red, and reaching out in Kimberly’s direction.

Kimberly yearned to fill his arms with her body. To hold him against her heart, protecting him with proximity in the way she hadn’t been able to since he’d been born of her womb.

She took him in her arms the second she was close enough to do so. His cries in her ear broke her heart, but she patted at him gently, and he didn’t seem to be hurt.

time, anyway.

“He’s okay,” Rowan said, like she was reading Kimberly’s mind. “Just got a little scared, huh, buddy?”

True or not, he might not be “a little scared” next time. Fern Westerly was truly a force of nature. And Keene was…well, Keene. A big boy, yes, but still little more than Maddock Leif’s precious bairn. He felt so small within Kimberly’s arms.

No. He couldn’t start at the Ash Academy.

Not yet.

“I’m taking him home,” Kimberly said, scooping her son off of the ground.

“What?” Rowan asked, but Kimberly was already walking across the field, holding Keene close to her as she went.

Gemma was jogging to meet Kimberly. “It’s okay to stay here,” she tried to say, holding up her skirts so she could keep up. Her coppery brown skin shined in the autumnal sunlight. “Rowan had a handle on Fern’s power. Keene just got a little startled. Children play roughly! It’s how they learn their physical and magical boundaries!”

Kimberly didn’t slow down or stop to look at Gemma, but she said, “He doesn’t have any magic. He can’t stand up for himself against the students here.”

Whether Gemma didn’t have a good defense for that or she just didn’t want to leave the school property was hard to tell, but after Kimberly spoke, she slowed and let Kimberly pass.

Soon, Kimberly and Keene were alone outside of the Ash Academy. She let him down to walk, since he was squirming in her arms, but they were on their way back home even faster than they’d been on their way to the school.

He wasn’t as much a big boy as he thought.

Kimberly couldn’t let him go to school yet. She simply

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