Stranger Than Witches (The Witches of Secret Hallow Book 3) (5 page)

“So you need someone to help keep an eye on Keene.”

“Would you?”

Maddock smiled. “I’m also his parent, hon. I mean, it’s nice that you’re asking, but he’s just as much my responsibility. It’s not like I’m a babysitter you need to book.”

“The farm…”

“Can stand a few hours with less attention. There’s a reason I channel my magic into it, you know.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “You can take some time for yourself.”

Kimberly cringed, but ignoring the problem and trying to tough it out likely wouldn’t make it go away. She had to take it seriously, and her husband was giving her the space to do so.

Still, it was one of the hardest things she’d ever done to say “Okay” and walk out into the rest of the house, taking a half-filled trash bag with her.

5

K
imberly and Maddock
followed Keene outside, arms linked together, and hearts joined by the reminder of the bond they had cherished for so many years together. That was also where Maddock and Keene would stay while Kimberly worked with Thorn. Maddock liked the outdoors too much to stay cooped up inside with Keene, and frankly, it was a better idea for Keene to get more fresh air. Especially with the school situation up in the air.

“I’ll stay close,” Kimberly told Maddock, pointing toward the tree line that marked the beginning of the forest. “If you need me.”

Maddock nodded. “Love you.”

“Love you,” Kimberly said, kissing Maddock on the cheek. She ruffled Keene’s hair as he ran past, and he shrieked, recoiling playfully. He recoiled again as Maddock growled and crouched, and Keene ran off with Maddock at his heels.

They were fine. Kimberly was fine. She was just going to step in the woods for a moment, and she was going to come back.

She would
always
come back.

And she would be human the entire time.

Kimberly squared her shoulders and turned toward the woods.

Thorn flew overhead as she walked, leaves crunching under her boots. Her magic responded instantly to his presence and with more intensity than she’d ever felt before. It shook her enough that it took her a moment to realize she’d stopped walking.

It’s just the woods
, she thought. She went in there all the time, with Thorn and Keene and Maddock and even the greater coven. There was no reason this time would be any different than before.

Thorn was patiently circling overhead. His presence was steady and calm, as reassuring as Maddock’s.

Also like Maddock, he knew what she needed without being told.

As familiar to a witch who had—until that night—displayed very little propensity for magic, Thorn was seldom called upon to offer his services as familiar. Kimberly could count on one hand the times they had performed spells together. She simply wasn’t that kind of witch.

Even so, they fell together easily into the typical pattern of witch and familiar. It wasn’t give and take, necessarily. Both of them gave as much as they had. They were equal partners.

In a way, Kimberly was as much Thorn’s familiar as he was hers.

Today, though, she was the one who needed his assistance. She leaned upon his steadfast calm as she stepped into the forest, and he offered it to her with the same silent fierceness that he did everything.

Goblins, but she loved that eagle.

“Okay,” she whispered, and she walked forward with more confidence in her step than she actually felt.

She crossed into the woods. The light was more golden inside the trees since the forest around the farm tended to go more yellow than anything, but it was also a bit darker and cooler. Kimberly pulled her sweater closer as Thorn settled on a steady tree branch not too far from her and let the breeze swirl around her, making the trees whistle and creak the slightest bit.

Thorn was not a pet, so he didn’t bother coming near enough for Kimberly to make a physical connection. They were too alike to seek comfort in such contact. All she needed was the weight of his gaze, his presence nearby, the brush of his mind against hers.

She looked over her shoulder. She could still see Keene jumping around not too distantly, and that more than anything made her relax. She could get back home in a minute whenever she wanted.

Even now, in the forest outside her home, she
was
home. She hadn’t really left.

As soon as she explored her inner magic, determining its boundaries, she could go back to the other men in her life.

That was Kimberly’s only plan at the moment: now that she knew what her magic might look like, she wanted to sense the shape of it within. She wanted to figure out where it sat within her soul and how deeply it was embedded in her heart. It would be easy to find these things with Thorn, if she was supposed to have shapeshifting magic that made her a bird like him.

And then once she found it, she would lock it away.

Never again would Kimberly become feathered, whether it be awake or asleep.

“Ready?” she asked up at Thorn. She didn’t need to specify what she was doing. He would walk the same magical paths along her side, unrelenting, calm, and patient.

He looked at her steadily and ruffled his wings a bit by way of answer.

Kimberly took a few breaths and let her eyes flutter closed.

Her magic was very easy to sense, easier than it had probably been. It was actually slightly harder to find her bond with Thorn, not because it was buried or anything, but because she was so overwhelmed by the magic that she found herself fumbling a bit. But it was there in her mind, the sensory equivalent of his golden feathers, solid and as strong as ever.

She took hold of the magic. Well, as much as she could. She’d never tried anything quite like it before, where she tried to channel the feelings the magic gave her into her bond with Thorn. The sensory elements were the way she tapped into her magic, and that day, it was an itch.

More than anything, Kimberly wanted to
fly
.

She had intended to turn those intense feelings inward. She had only wanted to explore the deepest recesses of her soul from the solitude of the forest. Yet she couldn’t resist to turn her urge to fly toward her bond with Thorn, and—

Kimberly wasn’t on the ground anymore. Her feet were keeping her balanced on a branch, and she could see, not too far above her head, the top of the trees.

She was seeing through Thorn’s eyes, and Thorn was feeling her urge to fly, which didn’t bother him in the slightest.

Both of them wanted to fly.

They were eagles. That was what eagles were supposed to do.

Kimberly felt Thorn spread his wings, waddle on the branch a bit until he was in the exact position he wanted, and take flight.

He fell a bit at first, as gravity was strong and the wind was slight among the shelter of the forest. Thorn wasn’t worried. He glided on the air for several feet until there was a clear patch in the trees, and once he was in a good spot, he turned, flapping his wings to make his way free of the trees and get up into the sky.

The entire time, Kimberly rode within his mind.

It was as amazing to fly with Thorn as it had been to fly in Kimberly’s dream.

No, it was
more
amazing with Thorn. He circled up above the farm, which looked completely different from an aerial view, and glided out to the rest of the town.

Most of the houses and shops were at the base of the cliff, and they looked tiny from Thorn’s view. Everywhere popped with color, thanks to the houses painted brightly and the roofs with colorful tile and the red-and-gold trees dotted around the city, but it seemed to be
more
color than Kimberly could see with her own eyes.

If she hadn’t been in Thorn’s head, she might have cried a little. It was so
beautiful
.

She felt distant from the town as well, but it wasn’t in a bad way. The town was near her home. It was where her family lived. But Kimberly had little interest in its places on the ground, the matters of those bound to the earth below.

Kimberly liked having her space, and getting a bit further back meant she could see the town as a whole. She could see the activity of everyone living there, less from person-to-person, and more like the town was its own person with people moving through its veins. Nana Winterblossom’s house seemed the busiest of all the places around, which made her the heart. It was fun to see.

Thorn started circling, and it wasn’t until she saw crumbling black walls that she realized he was going around Castle Hallow.

Kimberly wasn’t sure she’d ever been this close to it outside her dream, even though they were still a fair distance. Her imaginings of its tower had been shockingly accurate. The colorful ivy stood in stark contrast to the dark, decaying frame, but there was texture in the darkness as well; the belfry, for instance, had some movement thanks to the bats roosting in there.

Thorn was interested in the bats. Very interested. The companionship Kimberly had shared with them in the dream didn’t exist here. Thorn mostly believed that they would taste good, though they were generally too fast and tiny for him to catch. He smacked his beak while imagining the flavor.

Kimberly wasn’t exactly interested, but she wasn’t repulsed either.

Thorn seemed to have no interest in landing within Castle Hallow at the moment. It was one of the most heavily-magicked places in Secret Hallow, third only to the Ash Academy and the Samhain Grove. He had encountered its protective magic before and had no urge to do it again.

That was too bad, but maybe in the future, Kimberly and Thorn could…

Kimberly stopped that thought in its tracks.

Would she ever go flying with Thorn like this again? She had been trying to
rid
herself of the urge to take to the sky, and look what she was doing.

She shouldn’t have been doing this.

Maybe Thorn was reading her impulses because he was circling back to the farm. Probably for the best. Their little outing had probably bought Kimberly some time, at least, and she could take that time to think of some alternatives. And really, the thought of being away from home at all, even for a few minutes, wasn’t a comfortable one.

The farm seemed much like it had a few minutes before. The fields were all right, and Maddock was with Keene, and…

Actually, Maddock was taking Keene to his pickup truck. He opened the door and was putting Keene in his car seat, and—

Kimberly was back in the forest in a split second, the feeling of standing on the forest floor overwhelming and heavy after flight. She tried to shake it off and ran out of the trees, making her way back to the farm proper as fast as she could.

She could hear Maddock’s pickup truck rumble, but even as Kimberly ran, the rumble grew more distant.

Maddock was taking their son off the farm, and Kimberly was alone.

6

K
imberly returned to the house
, closed the curtains, and sat on the couch.

She was as still and calm in her husband’s living room as Thorn had been on his branch in the forest.

It seemed a rational retreat on many levels: she wouldn’t have the urge to fly away if she was surrounded by walls, she could finish tidying up Keene’s room once she was calm, and she wouldn’t see where Maddock or Keene should have been to worry about either of them. All very good things.

She needed to trust that Maddock would only take Keene somewhere fun. They loved spending time together. They were safe as a team.

But Kimberly couldn’t shake the feeling of emptiness that clawed within her breast.

It felt as though Keene had been ripped from her arms and that she’d been missing him for days already—which was absurd, of course.

Equally absurd was the fact that she’d ever thought she might be able to pretend she was fine while the two were gone.

Kimberly ended up pacing the length of the living room instead while she tried—and failed—to not worry, but she thought the attempt at doing the right thing was worth something. And if she had been working, she might not have been grateful to hear the doorbell.

Someone was at her house.

She opened the door and was greeted by three people: Rowan, who waved cheerfully when Kimberly looked her way; Garrett, partner to Rowan, who was the most mundane person to have ever stumbled upon Secret Hallow; and baby Siobhan, who gaped at Kimberly from where she was sitting in a sling Rowan wore.

Siobhan was growing rapidly, fatted on a mixture of magic and milk that made sure her rolls had rolls. Thigh rolls, armpit rolls, foot rolls. She also had multiple chins. Her gawking was terribly cute. The sight of such a precious baby only made Kimberly’s ache for her son more intense.

“May we come in?” Rowan asked. She held up a bag. “Beltane preparations.”

Kimberly had forgotten she’d agreed to host the coven’s ceremony. “Yes,” she managed, stepping aside so they could enter.

“Hello, Kimberly,” Garrett said pleasantly, even as he hovered protectively over his partner. He was loaded with several bags of his own and couldn’t have carried Rowan’s, but he looked intent on trying to figure out how to change that. “Rowan, there are plenty of people in the coven who could pick up the slack. It’s not to say you still couldn’t take part—”

“Thanks for your permission!” Rowan strode purposefully toward the kitchen, and Kimberly followed them back. Rowan had been in the house frequently enough that she knew where everything was as well as Kimberly. Possibly even better. “It’s really good to know that my husband wants to dictate how much I can be involved in my own coven with my own magic!”

Garrett groaned. “I wasn’t trying to say that, Rowan!”

“That’s how it came out.” Siobhan made a noise, and Rowan patted her back. “Don’t worry. Daddy isn’t that much of a meanie, sweetheart.”

“I’m just saying you didn’t have the baby that long ago,” Garrett said, circling around and putting a hand on Rowan’s shoulder. “I’m sure Kimberly and Maddock could handle everything.”

Kimberly blinked. She’d drifted into listening from the doorway—her favorite position in any argument that shouldn’t have involved her—but she didn’t see what any of this had to do with her.

Rowan made a frustrated noise. “Could you actually try asking before you assume?”

“Right.” Garrett turned to Kimberly, wincing apologetically. “Would you be interested in leading Beltane as high priestess? And
then
Maddock could be high priest!”

“What?” Kimberly asked, looking back and forth between the two of them quickly.

It was Rowan’s turn to look sorry in Kimberly’s direction. “I don’t know where he got it in his head,” she said, bouncing a bit in place when Siobhan fussed quietly. “But he thinks it’s too soon after I gave birth to run a major ritual. I don’t know
why
, since women in this coven have been doing just that for
centuries
—”

“Modern medicine has also advanced since then,” Garrett said, crossing his arms over his chest. “We know more about childbirth now!”

“—but there you go.”

“So what do you think?” Garrett asked. “Might be nice for Keene to see his parents in action, right?”

Kimberly flinched. “No. I don’t have enough power.”

That was only the surface of the issue, but it was the easiest explanation. It certainly wasn’t a lie. Until she’d woken up feathered, she had truly believed she was too weak a witch to lead a coven.

The power was there. It had just come in a form she had hoped that it wouldn’t.

The thought of connecting with her magic again, when it had been acting up in such weird ways…Kimberly shivered, and not in a pleasant way.

Doing something like that in front of the coven would be
terrible
.

She was aware of Thorn flying over the house, their connection as solid as ever. She knew he didn’t like how the conversation was unfolding, but she couldn’t really help her emotional reactions. She projected comforting vibes his way, and he seemed mollified for the moment.

Her silence and distant gaze was typical behavior. Neither Rowan nor Garrett were put off by seeing it. Kimberly often drifted off into the sky with Thorn, mentally speaking.

They quickly abandoned dragging her into the argument and refocused on bickering with one another. Rowan and Garrett were unpacking what they’d brought for Beltane, and their volley continued.

“—trust that I know my own body and what I’m doing,” Rowan was saying in a voice much calmer than Kimberly would have probably managed. But then, Kimberly wouldn’t have been in that situation. Not only did Maddock know magic as well as she did, and maybe better, but they didn’t really talk in the same way.

“I
do
trust you,” Garrett said in a voice that told Kimberly this was in no way over.

She sighed and walked into the kitchen. She might as well get a snack while this continued.

K
imberly was halfway
through her snack at the kitchen table, Rowan and Garrett’s disagreement a hum in the background, when she heard the rumble of Maddock’s pickup.

She sat up instantly.

“I’ll be right back,” she said aloud during a moment’s pause in Rowan and Garrett’s conversation.

It was odd enough for Kimberly to speak up that the arguing couple were momentarily silent.

Rowan had her mouth open like she was going to say something, and she paused and said, “Okay,” pleasantly.

Garrett nodded with a smile her way as well before snapping his head back to look at his wife.

Kimberly would have normally been happy to have an excuse to leave. Instead, her heart was pounding in her ears as she jogged out to the barn, where Maddock was climbing out of his pickup truck. He must have seen her coming with the rearview mirror because he looked neither surprised or unready to meet her. If anything, he looked preemptively apologetic.

Keene was not in the pickup.

The aching emptiness she’d been struggling to ignore roared huge within her soul.

Her darling bairn wasn’t there. She had gone flying with an eagle, returned for him, and yet
he wasn’t there
.

“You took Keene to the Ash Academy, didn’t you.” Kimberly stopped several feet shy of him. She didn’t speak with a questioning tone in her voice.

Maddock nodded.

“You took him
away
.”

Maddock nodded again.

“And you weren’t going to tell me.”

“I told you last night—” he began.

That didn’t count, and he knew it. Kimberly held up a hand to silence him.

He sagged like she’d said it aloud. At least they knew each other well enough that she didn’t have to say it all. “I know,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. I knew you would be mad, and I knew I should’ve talked to you about it, but…but I thought it might be easier on everyone this way. It’s certainly easier for Keene not to have his parents pushing and pulling in all directions.”

Kimberly crossed her arms over her chest, but she didn’t say anything or try to stop Maddock from speaking.

“You need time to focus on yourself. You’re going through something big, wife of mine. My magic wasn’t anything like that. I had plenty of people around to help me, but for you, it feels like you’re alone and this was the only thing I could do to help. Keene’s in good hands, and…”

He cleared his throat, and Kimberly heard the unspoken
and Keene won’t hear his parents fight
. Kimberly wasn’t entirely sure she agreed with that part of keeping him out of it. She was learning through her relationship with Maddock that everyone disagreed and had to find ways to come together on things. But Keene
was
only three. He would mostly find their argument confusing, as they seldom bickered the way Rowan and Garrett still were.

When Kimberly and Maddock disagreed—which was rare—their so-called “fights” were quiet, respectful things. Both of them knew that they were on the same team, pulling for the same goals. They only took a stance because they believed that it was worth fighting over to improve their relationship.

It was more difficult for a three year old to understand the subtleties of an adult relationship as complex and enduring as his parents’. Better for him not to hear it at all, for now.

Kimberly’s son would grow up with a peaceful, joyful childhood, very much unlike the one that Kimberly herself had endured.

“Thank you,” she said to her husband, and she meant it.

They rocked together, embracing tightly.

“Keene’s safety is as important to me as it is to you, wife of mine,” Maddock said. “Gemma’s with him, and I told her to call if she thought Keene seemed even the slightest bit off.” Maddock smiled. “She will, you know. She texted my cell while I was driving back and wanted to check again when we’d be picking him up.”

Kimberly couldn’t dispute that.

Maddock, seeming to sense that Kimberly was relaxing, stepped closer. “There is another reason that it’s worthwhile to trust our son in the loving hands of the coven. I want to be here for you, too,” he said in a quiet voice, holding his hands out low. “You have my full attention, if you want my help.”

“Maddock…” Kimberly couldn’t resist a small eye roll. “Of
course
I want your help.”

She took his hands, and he breathed out heavily. That said a lot about his choice; he’d obviously known Kimberly wouldn’t like it, but he’d felt sure enough about what he was doing to go through with taking Keene to school.

There was only one part Kimberly didn’t feel good about.

“Just
warn me
when you’re going to do something like this,” she said. “Don’t wait until my back’s turned and just do it. We are a team.”

Maddock nodded. “I will. I swear.”

Kimberly stepped back, and she held her arms open. Maddock gladly stepped into her hug again, and she had to admit, she relaxed with him close to her again.

Being sheltered within Maddock’s arms was as peaceful as the forest in many ways, and just as much home for her.

Thorn radiated approval from a distance. He liked when his witch was taking care of herself, and this seemed to qualify.

Kimberly felt it when he dived for another mouse. His satisfaction tripled when he caught it.

Part of her wished that she could taste the fruits of his hunt, too.

A voice ricocheted across the farm, shrill and piercing. “
Excuse
me?”

Maddock jumped free of his wife, head whipping around so that he could stare at their house. “Who’s
that
?”

“Rowan.” Kimberly shook her head. “She and Garrett came over to set up for Beltane, and he actually asked me if we could run the ritual.”

“Instead of Rowan? Why?” He didn’t give her time to answer. “Because she just had the baby.”

Though it had been three years since Keene’s birth, the memories of the time he’d been a newly born bairn—little more than a hatchling, in his way—were fresh within their minds. Both recalled Kimberly’s frailty in the postpartum healing period.

It was tradition for witches to take months of rest after birth while the rest of the coven cared for them, bringing them cups of water, cooking them meals enchanted to increase milk production, and cleaning their home. Traditionally, a witch was meant to do nothing but nurse her baby, rest, and heal in those early days.

However, witches were the fiery sort, and none of them did well taking time off—and Kimberly had been no exception. The entire village had risen up to help around the farm, yet she had been out there with them within days, canning peaches for later consumption with wee little Keene strapped to her back in a cotton wrap.

Rowan was similar. She had been taking some of the help graciously, but she was a high priestess to her core. The coven was her birthright and passion, in much the same way the Leif farm was Kimberly’s.

Garrett was playing with fire by trying to restrain his partner in such a way.

Maddock whistled. “He knows he’s going to lose that battle, doesn’t he?”

Kimberly couldn’t help but smile faintly. “There did seem to be a desperate edge to his side of the argument.”

“Too bad I don’t have popcorn.”

Kimberly could hear a distant “Sorry!” repeated over and over again, and she snuggled closer to Maddock as she waited for Rowan and Garrett to reach some kind of end to their disagreement. Then and only then would she return to their house.

For now, she remained at her home within Maddock’s protective embrace.

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