Stranger Than Witches (The Witches of Secret Hallow Book 3) (6 page)

7

K
imberly was flying
.

It was a low-level flight, a glide from tree to tree in a forested area surrounding a grassy field. This was not a day for the hunt. There were mice in the field, along with a few plump rabbits, but she was sated from the capture of her last prey.

It was just a nice day for flying, and even in the body of an eagle, she was human enough to enjoy the sheer act of movement without touching the ground.

She made a strafing run at the long grasses in the field. A flurry of motion signaled a gnome hill. Their tiny round bodies, dressed in bold shades of red, scurried across the dirt.

They were taunting her. They knew she couldn’t catch them.

Yet she also couldn’t resist the urge to give chase. The predator’s mind found such scampering irresistible.

She buzzed past them, talons extended. She didn’t so much as nick a red hat’s pointed tip.

Gnomes erupted in giggles when she whirled around, feet empty.

She flapped to gain altitude. She was not so dignified that she couldn’t enjoy the chase, and she would have giggled as well if she’d been capable.

One day she’d get her beak on a gnome. She wagered they’d be even more delicious than the bats—though probably even more elusive to boot.

The wind picked up, and she turned toward the sky, the sun bright overhead. Kimberly spread her wings, feeling the tips move almost like she would feel it when she spread her fingers apart as far as they would go. There weren’t many limits on her body. The sky felt absent of boundaries. She could turn to the blue and just…

Kimberly opened her eyes.

She was in bed again, the warm morning sunshine streaming in and reflecting off their white comforter.

Maddock’s side of the bed was empty, and her arms were spread to take up the space that he wasn’t using.

Her arms showed bare skin. They were completely free of feathers. She should probably be relieved about it, but she rubbed a hand over his skin and ached with their absence.

Thank the Hallows. Kimberly’s body showed no signs of attempting to shapeshift again.

Her heart was filled with emotion that resembled disappointment.

Keene shrieked outside. Kimberly shook off her glum reverie and climbed out of bed to feed him breakfast.

He greeted her with his usual enthusiasm, which was similar to saying that a train crashing into a hapless car stuck on the tracks was enthusiastic. It was about as quiet, too.

Still, Kimberly was happy to take the brunt of the impact. She ruffled his soft little hair. She petted Poke when instructed to do so.

And once she sat him down with a bowl of cereal and a spoon, Keene was having a pretty quiet morning. He didn’t seem sick or anything; he was just content to play with his cereal and talk to himself quietly. Kimberly probably wouldn’t be able to follow much even if she could hear what he was saying.

She could hear distant noise, loud enough for her to know it was Maddock working, but not loud enough that she could tell what he was doing specifically. All Kimberly knew was that he was out under the sun and the sky, and she could tell, from her connection with Thorn, that he was out in a field.

Thorn was gliding on the wind. Flying didn’t feel entirely like her dreams—even if there was truth in it, it was still dreaming and had a bit of an unreal feeling to it—and it wasn’t as direct as it had felt when she had been in Thorn’s head.

If she focused, she could feel the distance between Thorn and the ground, the sunlight on his feathers, the wind whipping past…

Everything she wanted to do.

Because she
did
want it.

She could admit that much. Maybe she had to.

If she were being honest with herself, she wanted to fly with Thorn much more than she wanted to spend another morning attempting to teach Keene his alphabet, a practice both of them found incredibly dull.

She let her eyes fall shut so that she could focus on her familiar.

Thorn tilted and swooped in a circle. It reminded Kimberly of her limited experience on a plane, when they would make it to their destination and circle before they were cleared to land. It was that feeling of being secure and solid where you were and also feeling like you were going to tip toward the ground at the same time.

Flying seemed to be full of those kinds of contradictions. Full of strength but being light enough for the wind to carry. Seeing everything below and nothing at the same time.

Scary but comforting.

“Mommy! Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…”

Kimberly jerked with surprise.

Keene wasn’t sitting in his chair anymore. He was standing in front of his mother and jumping up and down, and, judging by how flushed his cheeks were, he’d been doing it for at least a minute or two.

She couldn’t speak. She was too horrified to make the words work.

Kimberly had been so wrapped up in sharing Thorn’s joy of flight that she had completely ignored her sweet child.

The doorbell rang, and Kimberly couldn’t even be relieved. Her heart was pounding too hard. Keene ran for the door, and Kimberly rose from the table to follow.

Normally, she would be calling after him to wait until she got there to open the door, but she was as slow mentally as she was physically. She could soon hear Keene cheerfully greeting whoever was at the door.

Keene was just in his underwear, too, which she only remembered when she rounded the corner and saw him happily babbling to whoever was there.

“Oh, and here’s your mommy!” Rowan smiled Kimberly’s way. Siobhan was in the sling again, but she looked asleep.

Gemma was next to Rowan and Siobhan, and she waved her free hand. The techno-witch held a cell phone in the other.

A bright voice cheerfully added a “hello!” emanating from the device.

“It’s Fox,” Gemma said, turning the phone so that Kimberly could see Fox’s beaming face on her chat app.

FeistyFox was Gemma’s girlfriend who lived in Seattle. They had only been together for a few weeks, but there had been a marked improvement in Gemma’s overall demeanor. The two made each other very happy. Better still, Fox was a gifted witch in her own right. Though she was a solitary practitioner who preferred not to join the coven in Secret Hallow, she had added her wisdom and abilities to coven spellwork more than once.

Everyone was grateful to have Fox in the family, even distantly. Her presence on Gemma’s cell phone was so common now that it felt as good as the real thing.

“Hello,” Kimberly said to the phone. Fox waved excitedly at her through video chat.

“Can we come in?” Rowan asked.

Oh, right. People couldn’t stand on the front step forever. Kimberly nodded and vaguely waved them in. Rowan mussed Keene’s hair and said, “Excuse me,” slipping in beside him. Keene followed, bouncing his head and making goofy noises. It sounded like he might have been a rocket this morning rather than an eagle. It was difficult to distinguish the difference.

“I’ll call you later, babe,” Fox was saying brightly on Gemma’s phone, which Gemma had retracted enough so she could see, but still had tilted Kimberly’s way. “Nice seeing you again, Kimberly!”

Kimberly nodded after her, and after Gemma hung up, she entered with a sheepish smile.

Everyone helped themselves to where they needed to be in the living room. Rowan took a patch of carpet to stand upon, swaying in place to keep Siobhan asleep. Gemma sat on the couch, and Keene sat next to her, bouncing on the cushions and staring at her face from about two inches away. His breath probably smelled like pancakes.

“Keene,” Kimberly said, surprised for a second that she remembered how to speak. “Please give Gemma some space.”

“Oh, he’s fine!” Gemma looked nervous still as she played with part of her dress, but she often looked nervous. “How are you?”

Kimberly blinked. “Fine.”

“Good,” Gemma said, nodding. “Maddock’s working in the fields?”

“Yes. I understand he took Keene to see you yesterday.”

“He did,” Rowan said. “We wanted to talk to you about that since you didn’t seem fond of the idea.”

So this would be an adult conversation, filled with nuances that Keene the Roaring Space Rocket needn’t be privy to.

“Keene, why don’t you go play in your room?” Kimberly suggested.

Keene had half climbed onto Gemma, who, to her credit, seemed more relaxed after he’d done so. He looped his arms around her neck and hung his head backwards so that his frown looked like a smile. “I want to stay here.”

He was so cute that Kimberly could deny him nothing. “Come over here, then,” she said, waving him over.

He sighed, but he came over and hugged Kimberly like he hadn’t been reluctant in the first place.

“I confess that I have concerns about him attending a magical school,” Kimberly told Rowan and Gemma. “He hasn’t shown any magic, for one thing.”

“Some kids are late bloomers,” Gemma said.

“Or never manifest at all,” Rowan agreed, “and that’s okay. Your son is as much a member of the coven as you are, and he will always have a place at the Ash Academy. He’ll be safe. You can help us check the school and our precautions, if that’s where your worries are.”

Kimberly rubbed a hand over her eyes. “My magic isn’t much help for this kind of thing.”

“Maddock mentioned you were doing some kind of working yesterday,” Rowan said.

He must have been hoping to rally the other witches in order to provide emotional support to Kimberly.

Her heart fluttered. Her husband was such a considerate soul, and superhumanly compassionate.

If Maddock believed that Kimberly should be honest about her struggles with the coven, she would trust in his judgment. “I’m showing signs of developing shapeshifting abilities.”

Rowan’s eyes widened. “Oh,
wow
. That’s impressive.”

“What animal?” Gemma asked, leaning forward with eager interest.

“Eagle.” She could see the others deflate when Kimberly didn’t brighten at the thought. “It’s a little scary. I would rather not use the magic that way.”

Keene did his best eagle cry. He said, “Poke!” and ran out of the room. Apparently, he’d left his friend in his bedroom.

“Okay,” Gemma said, rubbing her hands together. “I see that this seems to be bothering you, so we could explore if there are other outlets for your magic.”

Rowan nodded immediately. “I mean, that’s what we do at the Ash Academy. We divert wild magic to more constructive pursuits all the time.”

“I’m a very late bloomer,” Kimberly said wryly.

“Never too late,” Rowan said firmly. “What do you think, cuz? Maybe you could experiment with funneling into other things. I’m sure that kind of magic could be extremely powerful if you can convert it.”

“Maybe.” Kimberly had a doubtful tone in her voice. She couldn’t help it. Her previous experiments hadn’t gone particularly well.

She’d practically flown away from the breakfast table just thinking about Thorn.

“We could do it together,” Gemma added. “You’d have other people backing you up, keeping an eye on things.”

It was probably the best possible solution. It certainly didn’t cost her much to finally say, “Okay”, especially when she saw how happy Rowan looked.

“We should go to the school for now, but we’ll be back to work with you soon.” Rowan bounced sleeping Siobhan in the direction of the front door just as Keene ran back in the room, Poke hoisted over his head proudly. “Do you want us to take Keene with us to the Academy?”

“Can I go, Mommy?” Keene asked, clasping his hands under his chin and giving her big, soulful eyes. “I want to see Fern!”

“Not today. We’re going to study here. At home.”

He wilted, head drooping. Gemma patted him sympathetically. “If you change your mind, you know where we’ll be,” she said, nodding her goodbye as she followed Rowan out of the room. “We’ll let ourselves out.”

Keene watched them leave sadly. When they heard the front door close, he turned toward Kimberly again.

“Can I play with Fern some other time?” he said, in a quiet sad voice.

“Maybe,” Kimberly said. That much wasn’t easy to say. She hated not being able to give Keene something he wanted, especially when it seemed so simple. But Fern was such a dangerous playmate for a mundane lad, particularly when his mother didn’t have the magical skill to protect them from each other. “Do you want to study your letters outside?”

He nodded sadly, but he did perk up as they headed for the back door. Keene was happy in the outdoors. Very much his parents’ son.

It was the strength of the blood in Kimberly that frightened her so.

8

T
hat weekend found Kimberly traveling
to somewhere she didn’t often go: the Samhain Grove, inside of the cliff that hugged Secret Hallow.

Reaching the Samhain Grove was a miniature gauntlet each time. At least, it was for Kimberly. It required traversing a narrow path through the cliff that made her feel claustrophobic, and even entering the wider Grove itself didn’t give her much open air in which to feel comfortable. There were many trees and vines around the Grove, and animals such as stags lurking in the edges of the gloom, where she couldn’t quite see them.

When she entered the Grove, even Kimberly, whose magic didn’t work quite like everyone else’s, felt its power like a shot of electricity.

The Grove looked as impressive as it felt, with sunlight streaming through cracks in the cliff to illuminate not only the river inside, but the trees on the grassy bank in the river.

The Elder Tree sat above them all, refreshed from Rowan’s efforts before Siobhan was born.

In the previous year, it had begun to shrivel and die, nearly taking all of Secret Hallow along with it. The ailing Elder Tree had baffled all of the coven’s witches. At the time, Rowan had been away at college, so it had been analyzed by everyone else. Even those with unrelated magical powers, like Kimberly, had taken a shot at cracking the Tree’s sickness.

In truth, the Tree had been aching for Rowan Middlebrook’s return. Her family descended from the Hallows who had founded the village and planted the Elder Tree in centuries past. Leading the coven was Rowan’s birthright, and her heritage was tightly woven with the magic of all of Secret Hallow.

As soon as she had returned to perpetuate the line—with little Siobhan, as it turned out—the Tree had flourished again.

No longer was the Grove shriveled and sick, on the brink of winter. Lush autumn had returned. It eternally snowed glimmering gold-and-orange leaves.

Speaking of Rowan, she was standing by the tree with Siobhan in her sling. Gemma was with them too, although Gemma was squinting on a tablet PC instead of looking around the place. When Rowan nudged her, she looked up and brightened, waving at Kimberly as she approached.

“I see you got my message,” Rowan called.

Kimberly nodded. Once she was in comfortable talking distance, she asked, “The Grove?”

Gemma read the rest of her question without her having to say it. “The wildlife,” Gemma said, gesturing behind the tree to where stags were gathered, grazing at the grass in an unconcerned manner. “We’re thinking that you might be able to safely channel your magic into them. If your abilities primarily rest in shapeshifting into an eagle, it should be harmless for you to connect with the stags of the Elder Grove.”

Rowan was aquiver with excitement. “Yes! In theory, you’ll be able to pour your magic into them without crossing over to your animal, physically or mentally!”

The “in theory” part did not comfort Kimberly very much.

It was true, though. The few shapeshifting witches she had heard about—and the one shapeshifting witch she had known, unfortunately, with great intimacy—only changed into one animal.

Gemma and Rowan were wise for suggesting this to Kimberly.

“You should be safe pouring your magic into the animals of the Grove. But if you need help,” Rowan said, patting at Siobhan, who was wriggling and objecting quietly, “this is also a good spot to piggyback on our power for safety’s sake.”

“And it’s a good place for us to piggyback, too,” Gemma added. “If you need help. Which I don’t think you will.”

Well, at least Kimberly had her vote of confidence.

“What were you thinking I should do with them?” she asked.

“Just communicate,” Gemma said. “The stags are animals, but they aren’t
your
animal, so to speak.”

Rowan nodded. “Close, but hopefully not too close. It’ll give you a little barrier if you’re nervous.”

It seemed as good an idea as any. Kimberly nodded and felt for her magic, staring at the stags as a concentration point. She could definitely feel her magic—and Thorn, who had flown in behind Kimberly and perched on a branch to watch—but she couldn’t seem to connect with the stags.

Hello
, she thought in the way that she did when talking to Thorn. It wasn’t a word, exactly, but it was a greeting and positive emotion.

She didn’t get an answer.

“Nothing,” she said aloud for the benefit of Rowan and Gemma, frustrated. “I’m going to try connecting to Thorn and see if I can do it through him instead.”

She faced her familiar.

He glared down at her with his usual furious stare. Thorn always looked angry just because of the way that his face was shaped, but she understood that he was never truly angry; he was neutral, as all nature was neutral.

She understood him, though. Kimberly always looked angry too. Maddock teasingly called it her “resting grumpy face.” But, like Thorn, she was almost never mad. Just…neutral.

Hello
, she cast in his direction.

Warm greeting radiated in return.

Their minds connected.

It was easier to sync their minds together than it had been the last time Kimberly had tried. It felt like going into a house for the second time; maybe she didn’t know where every room was, exactly, but it was easy to figure out where she was going.

The contact was electrifying. It flooded her with the feeling of life and energy.

Instead of pushing her magic through to join with Thorn’s mind, she tried sending her greeting to the stags again.

The stags lifted their heads to gaze at her through the trees.

What majestic creatures they were! Though stags weren’t predators the way that Thorn was, they had a similar gravity to their minds. They were neutral, too. Forces of nature. Powerful and serene.

The way that they looked at her made her heart race.

She studied their black noses, their furred chins, their strong legs. Their antlers mirrored the shapes of the tree branches. Some of the velvet was coming off of one of the younger bucks.

Kimberly could almost hear them responding to her. Almost.

“It’s working,” she heard Rowan whisper happily. Kimberly didn’t need Rowan’s input to know, however; through Thorn’s eyes, it was easy to see all their heads raise or turn as they sent back confused-but-pleased greetings.

The resonance of their response sounded kind of like Thorn, but not quite, which wasn’t particularly surprising. It felt
amazing
, though.

It took a moment to realize that part of the reason it had felt as intense as it had was because Kimberly was connected to the Grove as well. The Grove, the Elder Tree…she could even feel parts of Rowan and Gemma’s magic, and a little extra that felt like Siobhan’s budding magic, even if she wasn’t as connected to them as she was to the stags.

Kimberly had never felt anything like it. Her magic had seemed small and intimate her entire life, which suited her very well, but this…she hadn’t known this kind of connection and power was
possible
. It made her a little dizzy, in a good way. She felt like she could fly…

And in that moment, she could.

It took her a moment to realize what had happened because the embrace of magic had felt so natural, like it was a blanket made of sunshine.

She flapped her wings and got some air. It wasn’t until she saw Thorn swoop beside her that she realized
she
had changed, and she wasn’t in Thorn’s head again.

Kimberly had changed shapes.

Effortlessly and instantly.

No longer did she have arms and bare skin. She had feathers. Wings.

There was something long and orange in the bottom of her vision—a beak.

And her vision had become as acute as an eagle’s too. Everything beyond her beak was just as sharp as the beak itself, far into the distance.

She flexed her claws into the ground, stretched her wings, tossed her head.

Kimberly was an eagle.

Becoming an animal had scared her so much before. She couldn’t imagine why anymore. She was…she was
whole
, maybe for the first time in her life.

She was complete.

The stags had started to move deeper into the forest when she’d changed, as though inviting her to join them within the Grove.

A few flaps lifted her body off the ground.

Goddess, but she was strong and light! Movement was so effortless. Gravity didn’t weigh her down at all!

The stags didn’t seem bothered when she started flying above them. It was amazing how easily she could follow them, seeing glimpses of them between the golden leaves, and it was amazing how
fast
she felt.

Stag bodies flexed, muscles rippling under their coppery fur as they picked up the pace. They stretched their hooves far ahead of them. They chewed through the soil as they raced.

And she was above them: Kimberly, the eagle, matching their strides stroke for stroke with her wings.

Thorn was there too. He swooped alongside her, flying even more effortlessly. He had been an animal his entire life so he was far more graceful. But he hummed with praise, and Kimberly knew she was doing well despite being what he considered little more than a hatchling.

They made it to the top of the cliffs at the rear of the Grove, and it was better than her dreams had been. It was better even than jumping into Thorn’s head, which she wouldn’t have said a few days ago.

The wind, the sun, the distance from the ground…it was all better than she ever could have imagined. If she had been in her human form, she either would have been laughing non-stop or crying tears of happiness. It was that overwhelming.

She turned to get a better look at the stags as they circled closer to the Elder Tree, but they weren’t going the predictable path. Odd. They were purposely avoiding a certain area of the forest, and she turned her head toward that area to give her eyes a better chance of seeing it.

Even as an eagle, it took her a moment to see the wolves because they’d blended in so well and were keeping so still. Stag was probably good eating for them, and…

And…they reminded Kimberly of her mother.

The other shapeshifter.

The reason that Kimberly had never wanted to become an animal. Never. Not even once.

She only had enough time for a stab of horror to pass through her before she started falling. Her hands went over her head as she struggled to regain altitude, but…
hands
.

Just a glimpse of wolves, and Kimberly had lost control of herself and turned back into a human.

Kimberly tumbled.

Wind rushed around her, buffeting her unfeathered limbs. Her hair whipped around her face.

This wasn’t right.

The joy she had felt at flight and altitude, drifting atop thermals, was completely gone now.

Instead, she was only falling.

Her heart climbed into the back of her throat.

She didn’t even have time to scream as the trees rushed toward her, swelling in her vision until they were huge.

And then she was caught.

Something was cushioning her back as she fell, and she was still connected enough to the Grove that she could feel Rowan using the Elder Tree’s power to grab Kimberly. Her heart was pounding as she slowed even further, and even though her feet touched the grassy mound softly, her legs buckled on contact. She sank to her knees.

“Kimberly!” That came from Gemma, who was running over with Rowan. “Are you all right?”

Kimberly was unhurt physically, so she nodded to ease their minds. She had to take a few minutes to breathe before she stood up, though. To blink back the tears that had sprung to her eyes.

“That was wonderful!” Rowan exulted. “I’ve never seen such amazing magic!”

Gemma wasn’t cheering, though. She’d noticed Kimberly’s expression. She didn’t need to know the reason for Kimberly’s sorrow to sympathize.

The other witch rested a hand on Kimberly’s shoulder. Only then did the tears begin to roll down her cheeks.

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