Stranger Than Witches (The Witches of Secret Hallow Book 3) (2 page)

2

L
uckily for Kimberly
, Keene was easily distracted. His disappointment over leaving school prematurely was soon forgotten. As soon as they returned to the Leif Farm, he was absorbed in his usual favorite pursuits: climbing over the biggest rocks along the path, splashing in puddles left by broken pipes in the irrigation system, and kicking leaves along the road.

He is such a happy child
, Kimberly thought wistfully as his laughter drifted across the acres, ricocheting off of the trees and fading into the sapphire sky.
Much happier than I had ever been
.

And too happy for her to risk that happiness by exposing him to witchlings whose powers presented a threat far beyond his ability to protect himself.

She simply couldn’t resist the urge to scoop him into her arms after that thought. He smelled of little boy stink, the muddy and mossy things that grew under rocks, the wet sticks that drifted in off the ocean which he used to poke at the shells of dead crabs. She nuzzled his neck and he giggled.

“I wanna go to school, Mommy,” Keene said.

Perhaps he hadn’t forgotten about the Ash Academy as quickly as she’d thought. “Tomorrow, mayhap. We shall speak to your da.”

“But I wanna play with Fern!” He thrashed in her arms, and it was more difficult to hold on to him than it used to be, emphasizing just how big and strong he had become. It seemed as though his lanky limbs were nearly as long as hers.

“Tomorrow, mayhap,” she said again in a measured tone with a degree of patience she could only muster for her beautiful child.

He frolicked through the vegetable garden as she gathered supplies for dinner. Some fresh kale, a butternut squash, tomatoes so ripe that they oozed cherry-bright juice from the stem when she snapped them free.

Her basket was filled long before Keene was done bouncing along the fence posts. Kimberly watched him through the kitchen window, allowing him freedom to continue dancing among the leaves as she prepared food.

Maddock, Keene’s father and her hero, her husband, her best friend, was laboring in the back acres near the edge of the forest. He was too far away to see more than the shifting sparkles of his magic against the darkness of tree trunks, though. She satisfied herself with Thorn’s report: that Maddock was fine, that he was busy, and even that he was humming cheerfully to himself.

He would return by the time dinner finished cooking. Maddock had a near-preternatural sense for when food was available, particularly his wife’s stews.

Kimberly flicked her fingers at the cabinet. Pots hurtled off of their storage hooks, landed on the burners, and began to heat. Another flick brought her a wooden spoon. Yet another carried the basket of vegetables to her side, and made the knife begin chopping.

Unfortunately, that was the extent of Kimberly’s magic: a few kitchen tricks, which dimmed in comparison to the glory of those such as Nana Winterblossom. She was not much of a witch. That was most likely why Keene showed no inclination toward magic at all. She was fine with that, though. She cooked well enough with manual labor, and she much preferred not to have as much magic as her family. Especially her mother.

Keene came in on his own when the sun dropped. He hadn’t inherited his father’s sense of impending dinner. He was just getting a little chilly.

Who could blame him? Mud smeared his face and arms. His clothing was soaked. He had been burrowing through the garden like a little piglet rooting for truffles. Judging by the red smears around his mouth, he had been eating Kimberly’s tomatoes, too. They were delicious right off the vine, but they left him too sticky to sit at the dinner table.

“Wash up, sweet baby,” Kimberly said with a slight tinge of admonishment, scooting him toward the bath that she had filled while cooking.

“Don’t wanna!” he protested.

“You don’t have to bathe if you don’t want to eat.” She wafted a basket of biscuits toward him. The sweet biscuits with honey butter were among Keene’s favorites. His little eyes with their long, luscious eyelashes went wide.

He dived into the bath.

Of course, Keene enjoyed himself as soon as he got into the tub. He was immediately splashing around joyfully, using his duckies to squirt water at the wall.

Maddock swooped in just as the timer
dinged
to announce that Kimberly’s stew was done.

“Woman!” he roared, wrapping his arms around her. “You’ve made me food! It smells amazing!”

“Yes, I cooked all this food just for you,” she said dryly. She had made a giant pot of stew, and another giant pot was simmering for the next day’s lunch. It would be even more aromatic than what they ate tonight once it had a chance to be infused with herbs.

Maddock was only pretending at being a caveman, but he did it well. He kissed her passionately and plopped down to sit at the table.

He was dirty from his long day working, and that was how Kimberly liked him the best. She admired his stocky body coated in a sheen of soil and sweat. He was a man of the earth, a witch whose strength came from nurturing things even though his muscles made him look as though he could break a human in half if he so desired. But Maddock would never desire that. He was strong but gentle, as unyielding as the face of a mountain.

Tonight, he wanted her food.

“Come out of the bath, Keene!” Kimberly called.

“No!” Keene called back, as he was often wont to do.

“Great,” Maddock said loudly. “Then I will eat all your food! These biscuits look delicious!”

Keene appeared at the table dripping wet within instants.

“Darling bear,” Kimberly said, incapable of withholding her fondness for him. She feared that her approval of Keene’s sassy behavior would only make him more defiant, but it was difficult not to express such appreciation. She adored him and everything he did, even when he was a challenge.

She bundled him up in a towel. Keene giggled as she dried his face, swaddled him in clothes, and set him at the table.

“How was school, son of mine?” Maddock asked.

“Great!” Keene said.

How could he evaluate school as “great”? He had been knocked over by an elemental witch of incredible strength. Kimberly’s guts were still knotted with fear from the memory of it.

Keene’s eyes were filled with honest delight when he turned his gaze upon her, though.

“Mommy, can you please get me some food?”

Kimberly grabbed one of the dishes on the table, and when she showed Keene that there were pasta noodles inside, he gave her a toothy smile and nodded, holding up his plate for her to scoop food onto.

Naturally, she gave him several biscuits.

Keene’s smile made her heart feel as though it might shatter into a hundred million pieces.

Dinner in the Leif house was a generally subdued affair with just three of them, but there was plenty of food and the smells of fresh vegetables and grains in the air. Maddock liked to make sure the table had some kind of decoration as well, and the centerpiece that night was an arrangement of corn and gourds, the pale straw color of the corn husk setting off the darker oranges and greens of the gourds. The plates holding the stews and breads were colorful as well in a variety of shades and had obviously been well-used; the oranges and browns were a bit chipped and faded, but still very beautiful.

“Did you go with him today, wife of mine?” Maddock asked, taking a roll from another plate. “You said you were going to, right?”

Kimberly nodded.

“There was a big
field
,” Keene said happily. “And Bronson was there! We played together.”

“Oh yeah?” Maddock said. “That sounds like a lot of fun.”

She resisted her urge to tell Maddock that Fern had pushed Keene over with magic. Her mind spiraled through the horrible things that could have happened from there, though—all the terrible injuries that could have befallen her beautiful child.

Keene went on for a while, which was impressive considering they had maybe been at the school for half an hour. He mentioned Gemma and some of the kids he’d played with, but not Rowan and Fern. Kimberly stayed silent throughout the meal, but besides a single concerned look from Maddock, he let it drop.

Conversations soon turned to more pleasant topics, and dinner passed blissfully. Keene finished before his parents and wandered away.

Kimberly and Maddock cleaned up the kitchen while Keene talked seriously to his toys in the living room, occasionally breaking away from the area he had the toys grouped to shriek and run around in circles.

His joyful shrieks had an impressive effect on Kimberly, somewhere between panic and love.

“Indoor voice, Keene!” Maddock called, not for the first time. To Kimberly, he said, “Sounds like he had an exciting day at the Ash Academy.”

Kimberly nodded in agreement. It was easier than trying to elaborate on his frightening interlude with the elemental girl. “I’ll put him to bed as soon as we’re done here.”

She left it there, and again, Maddock didn’t push. She almost wanted him to push for more information, to force her to speak about it, but she didn’t quite know how to ask. One of the perils of being with a man who usually spoke before she had the opportunity to ask, she supposed.

After everything was clean, she helped Keene through his bedtime activities: brushing his teeth, using the potty, and snuggling in bed with Poke, who was the stuffed-animal clone of Thorn. Poke was much chubbier, though.

In reality, Thorn was quite the impressive bird: huge, sleek, and intimidating. But he was incredibly gentle with Keene. There was a time that Thorn had groomed Keene’s fine baby mohawk with his beak and hadn’t left a scratch. That had been many years past now, though. Thorn had better things to do than groom a small child. Keene’s affection for Mommy’s familiar had never faded, though, and he adored his stuffed familiar as much as the real thing.

Keene did the obligatory bird swooping and eagle cry noises while Kimberly read him a book—even though the book had no birds, some things just had to be in every story—and when Kimberly read the end, he swooped Poke to settle in for the night. He snuggled the stuffy under his arm.

“Good night, son,” Kimberly said, kissing him on his forehead.

“Night…” Keene yawned, forcing his eyes open when he was done. “G’night, Mommy. I can’t wait to go back to school.”

Her heart shattered, as it had been threatening to do all day.

Kimberly had been pulling away from Keene’s bed, but she froze in place. Keene didn’t notice. He was too busy humming to himself and pulling his covers up, ready for sleep.

Ready to dream of a school Kimberly didn’t think she could send him back to.

O
nce she left
Keene’s room, Kimberly went out to the back porch.

The night was cool and, like earlier, just on the edge of crisp. A breeze whirled leaves between the house and the barn and brought a quiet little howl along with it. Everything in Secret Hallow had spirit, even the weather. It was as though the wind were whispering through to apologize for the incident between Fern and Keene earlier.

It would take much more than a few meaningless murmurs of comfort to make it all better.

Kimberly could sense the wind whistling through Thorn’s tree, too. He didn’t roost at the farm because he liked his space, but he wasn’t too far away, either. He always remained near enough that Kimberly could contact him. They didn’t speak, really—not with anything that resembled actual words. She communicated with her familiar via vague sensation. She was always aware he was nearby, somewhere in her periphery, like the way she felt soft curls of hair brush along the small of her back.

When she thought of Thorn, he thought of her in return. Their minds brushed. She knew he was ruffling his feathers and flexing his talons on the branch.

He must have felt what she did, too. The kiss of wind, the anxiety knotting within her belly.

The moon was full enough that she almost didn’t need lights to see at the farm, but there were lanterns around for Maddock’s benefit. He had already moved outside to resume work. Many farmers worked long daylight hours, but Maddock didn’t allow his time to be limited by silly things like being able to see.

Kimberly’s vision was excellent. Her gaze carved across the fields to her husband, where Maddock was stacking hay just outside the barn, but she didn’t call out to him. It was nice seeing him work in so many ways. Mostly, it was comforting—if Maddock was working, things couldn’t be too bad in the world—but it was also attractive, if she was honest. She couldn’t quite see with the distance and the darkness, but she knew what he looked like with a sheen of sweat on his skin and his muscles flexing as he used his pitchfork.

Her mind drifted to the time they had met, when Maddock had been a young lad working others’ farms. He had always dreamed of this future for himself—for them—where he would toil over his own land, land that belonged to them, nurturing the fruit of their labors.

It didn’t take long for Maddock to notice her eyes. He put down his pitchfork and waved, and when she put up a hand in return, he jogged over. She could definitely see the sweat from up close. She leaned in for a kiss as he came up.

“Oh, hon, I’m gross,” he said.

“I don’t mind,” she said.

He grinned and gave her the kiss, pulling her close. She relaxed—not much, but a little—for the first time all day.

“You were awfully quiet at dinner,” he said, pulling back. It wasn’t judging coming from Maddock’s lips; it was an observation. “This school thing getting to you?”

Kimberly sighed. She’d told him a little bit when they’d gotten home, but she hadn’t gone too much into it because Keene had been around and still had had a lot of energy to burn.

“You’re not wrong, you know.”

“About?”

“Keene being around all that magic. It’s scary when he doesn’t have any of his own.”

Kimberly shivered a little. “He’s still so little. He doesn’t know to listen to warnings.”

“Which is one thing he would learn at school, if he were given enough time to adjust.” When Kimberly looked his way, he held up a gloved hand. “You’re not wrong, but I think we can trust the coven about this. There have been plenty of generations of kids in this town who don’t have powers. He will be safe at the Ash Academy. Rowan and Gemma would never allow him, or any other child, be hurt in their care. You know that as well as I do.”

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