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

Kimberly didn’t answer. There wasn’t much she could add. She knew the possible benefits and dangers as well as Maddock; even if the Ash Academy hadn’t existed when she was a kid, she’d grown up around witches without having particularly strong magic to call her own. She’d managed to survive, but how much of that had been luck? What if Keene wasn’t as lucky?

She simply wasn’t willing to leave her son’s safety to luck.

Maddock’s eyes crinkled with a gentle, knowing smile. It always felt as though he could read her mind. In truth, that was nowhere near Maddock’s talents as a member of the coven; his gift was in the earth, the plants, and in nurturing growth. That was why he provided almost all of the coven’s local produce and eggs. He had more than a green thumb. He practically had chlorophyll flowing through his veins.

He did seem to know Kimberly’s every thought, and that was simply because he was buried deep within her heart, closer to her than even Kimberly’s familiar. There was nothing magical about their bond, though they were handfasted. They were simply that close.

Maddock kissed her cheek again, and the mere brush of his coarse stubble against her soft cheek gave her shivers. “I think it’s time to call it a night. I need an early start tomorrow. How about you? Ready for bed?”

“In a little while.” Kimberly needed air. She didn’t do well between four walls for very long.

“Okay. See you soon.”

He jogged back inside, and Kimberly knew he would take a shower and probably be reading when she eventually got there, if she didn’t take too long. Keene was asleep in his bed, Thorn was falling asleep in his corner of the world, and everyone was fine.

Everyone was
fine
.

Kimberly hugged herself and went back inside.

3

K
imberly was flying
.

The wind was skimming off her face, her wings were tipping as she balanced against the currents in the air, and her feet were curled up close to her body.

She’d never felt so light and so solid at the same time.

The acuity of her vision was nearly as intense as the feeling of being up in the air. She could spy the slightest hints of movement on the ground even though it was hundreds of feet below her, and if she looked at a distance, she could make out land features for miles. She could easily make out where sea and beach turned into forest, which turned into roads, which turned back into forest, which gave a quick break for a river before continuing to the edge of what Kimberly could see.

If she’d had her normal voice, she would have laughed.

Flying was a novelty. It was freedom.

It was joy.

Pure, unfettered joy.

She wheeled around the tower of Castle Hallow, and bats exploded from the belfry, scattering through the moonlit sky. The night was the domain of the bats. Their seeking chirps bounced off of her feathers, and they stirred the finest of her downy feathers.

Her beak opened, and a responding cry came from her, greeting creatures of wing and sky as kindred.

They darted underneath her. She folded her wings to follow, dodging through the broken bricks of the tower, passing through the shadows, and emerging on the other side.

The bats enjoyed the game. They whirled and swirled around her for another moment before vanishing.

After enjoying the sheer feeling of movement for its own sake, she decided she was hungry. Kimberly scanned the ground, and with a moment’s decision, she was diving, wings against her body as she plummeted face-first toward the rapidly-approaching ground.

It should have been terrifying. But Kimberly had never felt more in control in her life.

She pushed out her wings at just the right second, reached her talons out, and snatched a mouse from the ground before it had a chance to run. She felt each moment like it took up an hour, but really, it was a blink of an eye before she was swooping up again.

The mouse struggled against her talons as she flapped her wings to gain more altitude. She tightened her grip. Her prey wasn’t going to go anywhere. She had it, and she’d fly to a safe spot and eat it, using her beak to get to the meat, content in the knowledge that her direct actions would get her flying again.

That was the entire meaning of life. Everything she did was in service of that one thing: returning her wings to the sky, where her heart belonged.

She closed her eyes and felt the air ruffling her feathers.

She opened her eyes, and…

…she was at home, wrapped in the blankets in the bed that she and Maddock usually shared. She was alone. The light coming in through their big window was bright, which told her that Maddock was out and at work.

The flying had been a dream. Of course.

What a shame.

She shook her head and sat up in bed. It had felt so
real
. Not that the vividness was anything new—she had always dreamed rather intensely—but the flight was different. For all that she had spent many of her waking moments with Thorn for many years—longer, even, than she had been joined with Maddock in blissful matrimony—she never dreamed of being like him. A bird of prey.

It had been kind of nice to be a part of the experience, really.

As she turned her head, ready to get up, she spotted something at the corner of her eye. She turned her head back, and…oh, a feather. It was large and golden and looked like something Thorn might have shed. A quick check of her awareness told her Thorn was nearby, but she doubted he’d come in the room. Well, stranger things than feathers getting stuck to her clothes had happened.

Kimberly reached out to grab it.

Her arm was covered in the feathers.

No.
Kimberly
was covered in feathers.

B
reathe
, Kimberly.

Kimberly did, squeezing her eyes shut so that she could focus on the expansion and emptying of her lungs.

One of the early rules of magic she’d learned was that there wasn’t any working that couldn’t be helped by taking a few breaths, and that had to be what was going on. Magic.

What else could it be?

She had feathers just like her familiar.

It looked like she had been shapeshifting.

No
.
Keep breathing, Kimberly.

Air in, air out. In, out.

Her eyes flew open when she heard a screech from elsewhere within the house. Her hearing was better than usual, too. So good that she could hear the spiders spinning their cobwebs within the walls, scrawny little legs rubbing against wood and stone.

The shriek she heard was so loud it nearly split her skull.

But Kimberly didn’t have hands to cover her ears to protect them.

She was frozen until loud, child-volume words followed the shriek.

It was just Keene waking up as he usually did. He was not a child who had any lulls in activity. Quietude was simply not within his genetics. Judging by the intensity of his sounds, he must have seized Poke and was flying him around the house. He’d probably seen Thorn outside the window and wanted to be just like him. It happened all the time.

That was why he was shrieking. He was mimicking Thorn’s cry. Nothing was wrong.

Nothing is wrong, Kimberly.

She forced her eyes shut again.
In, out. In…

No, Kimberly couldn’t wait around forever. Keene was awake and needed watching. It would just have to be okay.

She opened her eyes and looked down.

The feathers were still there.

The feathers.

Were
still there
.

Maybe the feathers weren’t the problem. Maybe she should have been embracing them, taking off and finding a safe place until she got her head on straight. Maybe—

Kimberly clapped a hand over her mouth to keep a pained cry from escaping. Those thoughts had been her inner animal, and she could still feel a beast stirring inside her.

Flying away was the kind of thing that…that had happened on that day so long ago, the day Kimberly had worked so hard to forget in the past.

It wasn’t going to happen.

I will not fly away
.

Keene did his best eagle cry not far from Kimberly’s bedroom door. It was followed by a quiet “oops” and not-as-quiet footsteps running away and probably back into the living room. Again, knowing Keene as well as she did meant she could reasonably guess that she was probably ten minutes away from something heavy crashing to the floor and very loud tears.

She needed to get up and take care of her son.

For the love of all the ghouls in Castle Hallow, Keene
needed
his mommy.

She had to pull it together. For Keene, if not herself.

Kimberly closed her eyes again.

The wind whipping across her face—

No. She breathed in.

—and the swoop in her stomach as she dived—

Kimberly breathed out again.

The images from her dream kept intruding, not helped by the occasional flash of sensation from Thorn. He had sensed her distress and was probing their connection. A shadow flitted over her window, suggesting the shape of a large, feathered body between her bedroom and the rising sun. He wanted to know if she was okay. She didn’t know what to tell him.

She couldn’t stop thinking about that dream.

But she knew that she must.

She pushed the images from the dream away with all the willpower she could muster.

Kimberly didn’t let them in. She
couldn’t
let them in. She kept breathing, and they grew further and further away until they were only faded fragments of memory.

Keene was playing, thumping around the house.

This was her life: not a life of wings, feathers, talons, and the hunt.

A life of maintaining her home, caring for her beautiful human child, helping Maddock around their farm.

A human life.

Kimberly let herself feel a quick pang of regret before stamping out the last of the emotions she felt from her dream. There was no room in her life for…whatever this was. There never had been.

Kimberly opened her eyes.

The feathers were gone, replaced by bare skin that looked like it had never been covered by anything other than faint, downy blonde hair, so much paler than the dark russet that tumbled from her scalp. She flipped her hands up and down a few times to make sure, but there was no doubt she looked fully human again.

She took a shuddering breath and hugged herself for a moment.

Not a single feather.

Keene yelled from the living room—no crash and tears, thankfully—and Kimberly ran out of bed to get dressed.

K
imberly emerged
from her bedroom to joyful shouts.

“Mommy!” Keene cried. He ran to meet her, and Kimberly bent down so she could hug him properly. It was one of the best things about her growing boy; he really knew how to give good hugs at his age.

As pleasant as it was, being assaulted by her child was a shock after what she’d sustained in the bedroom.

It was a much-needed cold splash of reality.

What Kimberly would have most liked was to speak with Maddock. Calm, rational, steadfast Maddock, who would have known what she should do.

But he was busy. Working.

Kimberly needed to push the feelings away for now.

She clutched Keene a little tighter and longer than usual, appreciating that her arms were arms rather than wings, and that the flesh that brushed against her son’s baby-soft skin had no feathers. She clung to him not to comfort him, but to comfort herself.

The touch of her son filled her ribcage with swells of warmth. He made her feel secure and real, mammalian rather than avian.

This was her young. Her baby.

Her reason for being a human rooted to the earth.

Of course, he didn’t tolerate the snuggling for long. The moment he started to struggle, Kimberly let him go, and he ran in circles around her as she got to her feet again.

“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Poke and I were flying!”

Her heart plummeted. She twined her fingers in his hair, letting the strands run across her palm.

Hair, not feathers.

That was how the world was meant to be.

“Flying?” she asked, forcing warmth into her voice that she didn’t feel.

“Flying really fast over the trees! Zoom!” He flapped his arms and jumped as he continued to circle, stomping his bare feet on the carpet. He was already dirty. He had gotten outside at some point when Kimberly had been struggling with herself.

She couldn’t parent like that. She needed to be there for him.

“Good morning, son,” she said, patting him on the head again during one of his circles. “Hungry?”

“Daddy made me eggs!” Keene made his eagle cry again, lofting Poke above his head.

“You know birds come from eggs, don’t you?”

Keene nodded as Kimberly went into the kitchen. “We eat chicken eggs! That’s what Daddy said. Some birds eat eggs, too. Like crows!”

He made a cawing sound that she imagined was meant to sound crow-like.

Kimberly hummed in agreement as she opened the pantry and reached up for her usual box of cereal.

“When can we go? Are we going soon?” Keene asked, walking Poke around on the counter near Kimberly. The bird was dirty, too. Both of them would need a bath later. Poke was well worn from his many baths with Keene, along with all the rough playtimes. Kimberly had stitched him back together more times than she’d had to apply bandages to Keene’s filthy knees.

“I don’t know. Did Daddy say we’re going soon?” Kimberly asked.

“No. But I thought I had to go to school.”

Kimberly froze, halfway to the fridge to get her milk out.

School. Of course Keene would want to go back. She hadn’t said anything about keeping him out where he could hear. It was bad enough when Kimberly had thought that he would get hurt, and a night’s sleep hadn’t eased her worries on that front by any means.

She made herself move, motions robotic as she took the milk from the refrigerator. “Do you…do you want to go to school?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice steady.

“Yes.” Keene nodded firmly. “It was fun, Mommy. Didn’t you think it was fun?”

Fun was knowing her son was safe.

There was nothing better than that.

Even though the fridge was cold enough that it kept the carton of milk cold, Kimberly couldn’t feel it in her hand as she brought it to the counter. Was that some kind of residual problem from earlier? Had turning partially into a bird kept her from feeling like an actual human again?

Or maybe she was in shock.

She poured the cereal. Her hands shook a little.

I think we can trust the coven about this.

If Kimberly had woken up, maybe, just maybe, Maddock’s reasoning might have had her swayed. But Keene was the only thing that had brought her back to herself, and if that wasn’t likely to last…no. Kimberly
had
to stay human. There was no alternative.

“We’re staying home today, Keene,” she finally managed. Keene hadn’t even been looking at her; she’d been quiet for so long that he’d gone into the living room again to run around.

“Oh.” He paused in place and let his head droop. “I wanna go to school.”

That would take him far someday, that ambition. Dreams were the fuel for hearts filled with fire. Kimberly needed to give him room to foster that fire in safety.

“Not today,” she said.

Someday.
Someday
.

His bottom lip stuck out. He rocked back on his heels. When he did that, he almost looked like a sweet little toddler again, rather than the leggy child he was rapidly becoming. “I’m so sad.”

“You are?”

Keene nodded, slow and mopey. He walked to the couch and knelt in front of it, setting Poke on the cushions. Well, he tried to set Poke down. Poke didn’t have very good balance, so he kept tumbling off. Before long, it turned into a game for Keene, and he giggled every time Poke bounced on the floor. It probably wouldn’t be too long before Keene got too excited and started throwing Poke around.

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