The Witch's Circle

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Chapter 5

“So how long has Marionette been indebted to you?” Douglas asks, popping a chocolate, caramel-drizzled candy into his mouth.

“I prefer the word allying.” Keelie says, taking a sip of her tea. “She didn’t serve me, despite what she said. She was my ally. And it was about, six months, close to a year.”

She’s still dressed in that dressing gown of hers, still barely aware of how the folds seem to fall open, exposing a darkened glimpse of her peaked breast. The red, curly-haired servant brought a fresh change of clothes shortly after for Douglas. Comfy clothes: a sleeveless shirt of satin and matching pants that stop at the ankles.

After seeing Marionette down in the bowels of the estate, he and Keelie walked back up to the warmer levels above. With the winter slowly starting to recede, and that their closer to Tamarak’s borders, summer might as well have arrived. Although aboveground now, it still feels like the winter’s chill dances around those halls.

They trekked to her rooms in a comfortable silence, Douglas occasionally tickling Keelie’s fingertips. A couple of comfortable breaths of a laugh were exchanged before they reached her rooms. The clock reads ten at night. Still only been a day since they landed here at the estate in the woods.

He didn’t want to admit it – and thankfully, he didn’t have to – but he didn’t want to go back to his own room, just yet. Keelie didn’t hesitate when she casually offered him a tray of snacks, the servant having knocked on the door with the tray only seconds later. She must’ve ordered it beforehand, and him being here was just a convenience.

Still, after seeing Marionette, even after having closure with her death, seeing her leave again, leaving him again in this world, the thought of being in his spacious suite seemed ironically suffocating.

And yes, a part of him didn’t want to leave Keelie, now that Marionette deemed her to be trustworthy. And after she had given him such a wonderful gift. She still needs to divulge some of her, plans, to him; but at least now he’s more comfortable in letting her tell him what she deems appropriate. Still that doesn’t mean he can’t ask, maybe demand it if he feels irritated enough.

“I was wondering what was taking her so long. She said she had a plan to try and get information from the guards, but it wasn’t until she told me about you that she started really fulfilling her assignment.”

He would ask if everything she did was only to get information and to infiltrate the castle, but he knew better. He isn’t stupid.

“How often have you talked with her during . . . everything?” Douglas asks, accepting the tea Keelie pours him. He tries not to wince at the hollow taste.

“Beforehand, it was only through magic. Small butterflies made of paper with her reports. She had gotten herself captured because it was my order, but I thought she had rallied her strength by then. I guess not, considering the state you found her in. Once you had given her some freedom, we met once a week.” Keelie helps herself to a chocolate covered vanilla chip. “Afterwards, I only spoke with her once, here. I couldn’t risk it at the castle in the Iron City for obvious reasons. I was so focused on you.”

He forces a smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. Keelie adjusts herself so she’s leaning into the large mound of pillows that seem as though they’re swallowing her from how she sinks into them. “So, what’s to happen now?”

She slides her legs under the covers, her dressing gown bunching up to almost reveal the apex of her thighs. “Mastering your magic is number one. Mortal or immortal, mastering your magic should be the upmost importance for you.”

“And who will be my teacher?” he asks.

Keelie considers his question, biting another candy in half. Douglas tries to ignore the string of caramel connecting from the candy to her lips. “I’ve considered Ira. She doesn’t really possess fire magic like you, but she’d be an interesting counterpart.”

“Meaning you think she’ll be able to piss me off enough to get me to try?”

“She does have a great gift of a silver-tongue.” Keelie says grinning like a fiend. “But I have been training with her for years, and she does have some interesting methods. And they work.”

Douglas sighs through his nose, but still reaches for another candy and his glass of water. “What am I in for?”

“Not going to lie, you’re going to call her an ass, and possibly worse things once you start.”

“Why can’t I train with Luke?”

“Luke has a very small understanding of your magic abilities, as well as its limits. Shifting is different from other magic, as I know he’s told you before.”

“And Ira does understand? What kind of magic does she even have?”

“I don’t know.” Keelie pauses for a long moment, her fingers rippling along the side of her teacup. “Of the hundreds of years I’ve flown, fought, and lived with her, I never really know what power she has, but I know she has it. It’s something . . . different. Not even special, just – different.” Keelie adjusts her legs beneath the cover of the bed. “Although sometimes, I’ll see her eyes shift, in a way.”

Douglas tilts his head to the side in confusion. In truth, it’s Ira’s hair that first takes notice, for him and assumingly for anyone else upon meeting her. Then yes, her eyes do catch the attention afterwards, but it only registers as another piece of weaponry that is their immortal armada of beauty.

“Her eyes I’ve always considered like a stone-grey. As cold as one as well. But there are days – usually when we’re among the other clans and the other heirs – that I see it shift. It churns into almost a silver. It’s like . . . ice so cold is burns. Ice and yet . . . fluid like flame. Or flame made of ice.”

Douglas takes a sip of water, despite the food that has now become lead in his stomach. “If you don’t know what . . .” He quickly contemplates his words, “powers she has, what made you entitle her as your Second?”

“You really have to get to know her to see it, to understand it. Something different prowls beneath her skin. Everyone says we are nothing but beasts wearing human skins; but Ira . . . she’s something else. Something worse than brutal, cold-hearted witches. Her skin is more like a prison of flesh and bone, and if she ever finds a way to shed it . . . Goddesses’ help us all.”

Though it feels stupid to ask after what she had just said, Douglas asks, “I just assumed her duties as Second was to protect you, and I thought you chose her because she was the strongest in magic and such.”

“Which she is.”

“You know what I mean.”

“But whatever she is, it will be a very last resort if things are to go to shit.”

War. If things are to end badly with this civil war among the clans, and the war with the humans, Ira is supposed to be Keelie’s last means of defense. Or of attack. To unleash her upon the world.

“I think it’s death.” Keelie says quietly. “I think the power is death – death made flesh.”

Douglas only rubs his jaw, weighing, thinking. “If anyone was to not only conquer Death – but pillage it, she seems like the kind of female to do it. Well, thanks for that butter-up for when I’m supposed to train with her.”

Keelie gives a too-casual, dismissing wave of her hand. “You’ll be fine. She’s fiercely loyal, and she knows how I, feel, about you.”

He’s taken aback by her confession. But, in a way it really isn’t. He and Keelie have been seeing one another, to his unknowing. But it feels like those feelings were a different person ago. It’s only been a long day and night. Perhaps after sleeping on it he will be more, open to accepting.

Keelie seems to read his face as she exaggerates a stretch. “Well, it has been a night. You should probably get some sleep.”

He fights the disappointment tickling his heart. “Will you be here in the morning?” He asks, slipping off the mattress.

Keelie looks to him as she sets the empty tray on her nightstand. She nods. “I’m not due in Tamarak for some days. This may be a sort of, holiday for most of us. I know my members appreciate the relaxation.”

Douglas nods, unsure of what else to say. So he sticks his hands in his pockets and saunters over to the door. He pauses at the threshold, placing a hand on the wood. He looks over his shoulder to Keelie as she settles into her bed. A bed that seems too large for one person.

When she notices his stare, she lifts her brows in question. He says, “Thank you. For everything you’ve done, and for what you’re still doing. Just know I appreciate it more than you’ll never know.”

Keelie presses her lips into a line, folding them in when she gives her nod of answer. “Of course.” She adjusts herself again, fiddling with the blanket between her forefinger and thumb. “I told you, everything we had was real. I wasn’t doing it just to use you, or for my own adgendas. I do . . . care about you, a lot, Douglas.”

For a moment, he can see it. See her. See Keelie as she is, not Kelsey. Not the masks she puts on for her grandmother, or for him anymore. He takes pride and appreciation in the fact that so very few may have seen that face.

“I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

Keelie gives another nod. “Goodnight Douglas.”

“Goodnight, Keelie.”

He closes the door behind him without looking back.

Every step towards his rooms feels tight, restrained. As if there’s an invisible line connected to his heart, and to Keelie’s bedrooms; and it just keeps tugging and tugging, growing taut with every step he takes away. When he arrives at his rooms, they already feel too big, and his bed feels too cold without someone to share it with.

But he knows himself, and he would’ve taken her to bed if it weren’t for her dismissal.

A line. A safe line for now, she has drawn in the sand. And she will wait for him to step over it when he is ready. She’s leaving everything up to him. And while he’s a little annoyed by it, he understands and more importantly appreciates it more now. After having deceived him, it’s the least she owes him.

Bundling down beneath the blankets of his bed, Douglas sleeps soundly through the night.

It’s the first night he’s slept in since, well, since he started training to be on the guard.

And he immediately regrets it.

By the time he wakes up, it’s already noon. Yet still no matter how much he mentally screams at himself, his body moves sluggishly to the bathroom to bathe and brush his teeth. He’s surprised that no servants came to wake him, yet the tub is steaming with water and smelling of vanilla and cinnamon. It doesn’t take him long to realize it might’ve been because of Keelie. No doubt she gave the orders to everyone to let everyone sleep in today.

Scrubbing himself squeaky clean, and smelling like a candle, he trudges back into his rooms as sunlight pours in through the many windows. He opens the wardrobe and pulls out whatever seems to match decently – a jade green shirt, some beige pants and his black leather boots.

He runs into plenty of servants as he makes his way towards the dining room. They each spare him a polite smile and nod, continuing on with their own work.

Guilt briefly pinches his heart when he finds the dining table cleared, the only indication of a gathering being the silk robes draped over pulled out chairs. Following his natural sense of direction, he finds the kitchen, awing at the design and of course, the space.

A large island sits in the center, set with stools and a rack of pots and pans dangling above. A breakfast booth is tucked into the corner by a bay window, the granite counters and white-wood cabinets snaking all along the far wall, with another window over the porcelain sink. Double glass doors lead out to a large veranda, and Douglas can see some members relaxing in the sun.

He can’t help but track the number of windows there are in this estate. As if any bit of darkness in this house would be abhorrent. As if to chase it away.

All the while, the dark wood floors and a color of grey-blue walls make this kitchen seem merry, set with memories of stories around the table, conversations at the island and an overall sense of, family within.

He’s observing the detailing so closely that he practically yelps when he bumps into a membranous wing.

Great, beautiful, brutal wings dark as night and strong as hell.

The amazing monstrosity flutters and twitches, looking much like a bat’s, before tucking tightly into its wielder’s back.

The tan-skinned, long-dark-haired male looks over his shoulder to Douglas. His feral expression ceases immediately, as if he was about to give the verbal thrashing of a lifetime until he realized who made the error.

Behind him, four other members sit amongst the furniture, steaming cups and empty plates sprinkled across the counter and tabletops.

Hunter, that’s his name. His facial tattoo being the only indication Douglas has to remember him by. The sharp whorls of white ink decorate Hunter’s right eye before two thin lines trail across his nose to underline his left eye, then they fall to the middle of his cheeks. Then one thick line trails down the middle of his lips.

The male feels twice the size with those wings, even if tucked in tightly to his back. There Douglas also sees a wicked looking blade strapped tightly to flush with his spine.

As before the male wears no shirt, only the straps of his weapons and a large belt where the buckle conceals his abdomen. His pale-yellow eyes remind Douglas of the amber sap from the pommel of his sword.

Hunter spares Douglas a terse nod of acknowledgment before walking towards the doors leading to the veranda. He ties half of his hair up before adjusting the sword at his back.

Douglas watches in awe as the wings spread to their fullest extent, the sun haloing the veins and setting the leathery texture glowing with subtle color. Then a few booming wing beats has Hunter in the air and vanishing into the sky.

He finds the silver-haired male and the witch with pink and periwinkle hair sitting at the breakfast booth with empty plates safe for the pools of syrup. Eartha and Agony sit in the stools of the island, steaming cups of tea in front of them.

A feminine voice flutters behind him. “He’s just going to check the perimeter.” Douglas turns and almost thinks it’s Raven due to the hair of midnight black.

But it’s eyes of peridot green and not gold that make him pause. He blinks as the female giggles and smiles, showing a row of white teeth. Her skin is smooth like porcelain, flawless and fresh with color, her cheeks rosy. She would seem so mortal had it not been for her skin, seemingly glowing from within. Her hair rippling like liquid midnight.

“He loves to show off his wings whenever he can.” She says, continuing her smile. She extends her hand, her purple manicured nails catching the sunlight. “I’m Arabella.”

Douglas looks between her and her hand for a heartbeat before taking it, accepting the shake. When he smiles, it’s not so forced.

Arabella steps past him over to the stove where she pours herself a cup of tea from the still-steaming kettle. The thin-strapped, silk nightgown matches her eyes and clings to her toned body, barely covering her well-shaped bum.

Though he should’ve known by now that witches don’t care much about public-decency, it still surprises him how nothing seems to, trouble them. Guest he may be in this house, him and his family aren’t going to stop them from wearing what they want.

“There’s some coffee in the cabinet if you don’t want tea.”

“Please.” Douglas says, allowing himself to smile as he follows where her finger points. The smell from the canister alone makes him moan from pleasure.

Arabella refills the kettle and Douglas folds his arms, leaning against the counter. His eyes scan the five members in the kitchen, then the three sitting out on the veranda.

He’s come to learn Agony from her short, auburn hair and piercings; Eartha having tan skin and golden hair that tickles her shoulders. Sitting at the island, Agony is ranting about something while Eartha seems more enwrapped in the thick tome of a book she’s reading.

The male and female he still doesn’t know. But he does remember the female from dinner last night. Dressed in more . . . modest night attire, her rose-pink, short-sleeved shirt hangs loosely, but still the nipples of her well-sized chest poke through. The silver-haired male is dressed in a tunic and pants of simple, but fine make.

Turning back to Arabella, pouring the coffee through a filter, Douglas asks, “Forgive me for asking, but are you and Raven related?” A pathetic attempt at idle talk.

Arabella looks to him with a smirk, “Because we both have black hair?” Douglas shrugs, not wanting to fall into that trap of answering. Arabella laughs it off to his relief. “No, we’re not. But I wish I was.”

She hands Douglas his cup and he mumbles his thanks. Taking the first sip, he sighs, feeling his breath plume before him. Arabella turns off the stove, and joins him leaning against the island counter.

“So, do you mind telling me who is who, around here?” He tries his best to feign innocence, not wanting to be chastised for not knowing everyone’s name yet.

Arabella shrugs, unbothered, her wavy hair falling over her shoulder. “So the silver-haired male who looks like he ought to be in theatre is Keith.” The male looks over and nods in response. “And the pink-and-periwinkle cupcake over there is Vitrina.” The female mimics Keith’s response. “And you know Eartha and Agony.”

Douglas nods to the two female as they lazily wave hello. “At least we make remembering us easy.” Agony says with a smile. Her thin braid behind her ear sways with her movement.

“I would take that as a racist insult,” Eartha says, peeling her eyes away from her read long enough to five Agony a withering glare. “But considering Astrid has been trying to train you for the past five-centuries, I don’t expect her to make any promise.”

“Hey, you say that now, but later, it’s my kind of stubborn shit that will save us all.”

A small curve, edges Eartha’s lips. “Perhaps. You may just shit-talk the matrons long enough that they’ll just kill themselves.”

“I’m more insulted you think of me as a busybody.” Agony mocks, placing a hand on her chest. Eartha merely rolls her eyes.

Keith gets up from the booth, Vitrina following. Keith leaves the kitchen while Virtrina dumps her remaining tea down the sink. She claps her hands and hops up on the counter, crossing her ankles. Arabella fetches some eggs from the cooling box, nudging it shut with her hip. Douglas tries not to look as it pushes her gown higher up, revealing more of her bum.

“Do you all have the day off?” Douglas asks.

The females all exchange a look and a shrug of shoulders. “In a way. And we’re going to enjoy the hell out of it.” Agony answers, ruffling her bangs.

“And for me, that’s taking refuge in the library.” Eartha says. She slaps her book shut, eyeing Agony ruefully before snatching an apple from the fruit bowl. She takes a large bite before leaving the kitchen.

Douglas takes another sip of his coffee. “Have any of you seen my family wake up today?”

“If they did, they made sure to come down when we weren’t here.” Says Vitrina, leaning her head against the cabinet to her right. “I could smell that they were in here, very briefly. But I can’t say where they went. They treat this place like they’re walking around a lion’s den.”

“We can’t blame them.” Arabella defends, tying her midnight hair back, braiding quickly and efficiently before grabbing a pot just over the island, above Douglas’ head. “They’ve lost their home, they’ve been forcibly exiled – or perhaps their story got twisted into kidnapping – and forced to live in a house filled with predators they’ve been trained to believe are their enemies.” Realizing her own words, she looks to Douglas and gives an apologetic wince.

“Technically we still are their enemies, if it weren’t for Keelie.” Agony chimes. Her eyes flick to Douglas. “Or for you, I guess. Since we know you.”

“I mean, Luke and Raven know me. Everyone else is more, acquaintances for now.”

“Fair enough.” Agony shrugs. She adjusts the sleeve of her top as it bunches to her armpit. Douglas is puzzled when he sees Arabella and Vitrina look to them with shock. The two females exchange the glance as Agony takes another sip of tea, not noticing – or not caring.

He wonders how rare it might be to have Agony agree with you, or to not have her rip you to shreds when she doesn’t.

“So, when Keelie goes back to Tamarak, is she going to pick and choose who she wants with her, or will she leave the choice up to you?” He gestures to all three females.

Arabella cracks an egg into the pan he didn’t see her oil, but the egg starts to pop and sizzle immediately. “It’s a little bit of both. There are certain members she has to have with her –” Ira and Luke “– everyone else, it is up to us. And usually since we can’t make up our minds, she usually chooses for us.”

Vitrina and Agony join Arabella as she laughs. “Most likely she’ll want the majority of us here, watching over Douglas and his family.” Vitrina says, fiddling with the dyed ends of her periwinkle hair. “I wonder if she’ll make the males stay.”

“I’m indifferent either way,” Agony says, swigging down the last of her tea.

Douglas takes another slow sip of his coffee. “I apologize if babysitting feels demeaning for you ladies.” Another unified shrug of their shoulders makes him pause. “None of you seem as, motivated as I had expected. I thought you guys would be more fighting Keelie on who has to protect her while she’s in Tamarak.”

“Believe me we are,” Agony says, reaching for a peach in the fruit bowl on the counter. “But the last time that we all got into an argument, we left her previous estate in shambles. Nothing but rubble and soot.”

The other three witches nod in confirmation. Arabella begins to swipe the yellowed egg around the pan, sprinkling it with salt and pepper.

“We all want to go,” Vitrina chimes, hopping off the counter. “it’s just a matter of time on who Keelie assigns to where.”

“But I thought you were all supposed to be strong, independent. Not awaiting her commands like dogs.” The three women immediately pause and look to him with stares as cold as steel. He quickly adds, “I thought you would all be, out and about, or something.”

“We are doing something. We’re enjoying our day off, as should you, Douglas.” says Agony, rising from her seat at the island. “At least before you have to deal with Ira’s training.”

“What powers do you think she has?” He blurts before he can stop himself.

The three women look to one another, the soft crackling of Arabella’s egg the only sound. They all look out to the veranda where he can see the pieces of red hair draping over the side of one of the hammocks. Along with an arm and a leg, where the foot is gently rocking it back and forth.

“No one knows,” Arabella finally says. “We’ve each given and example of our power; we’ve each tried to connect with her on the magical ground level, but neither of us could feel a tug from the other end.”

Agony says, “She’s something else. And frankly, I don’t want to get my ass incinerated just for being curious. Not matter how much it nags at you, Douglas, I would keep your curious questions to yourself.” She then disposes the core of her peach into the garbage before leaving the kitchen. She only offers a salute from behind.

Vitrina shrugs her shoulders before walking over to the counter and taking off the lid of a jar to pull out a cookie. She grabs another four, and a fifth in the mouth, before she waves goodbye with a pleasant hum.

Gods, whatever Ira is, whatever powers she possesses, it’s enough to make the others not want to talk about it entirely. Did Keeile ever tell them what she thinks Ira is?

Douglas takes a seat at the vacant bar seat, pushing his mug to the middle, having finished his coffee. Arabella dumps her scrambled egg onto a plate before accompanying it with some bacon leftover from the breakfast the servants made, some orange juice, and a blueberry muffin set next to the cookie jar. Without word, she pours Douglas another cup of coffee. He nods his thanks. She sits down next to Douglas, offering him a muffin, which he graciously accepts.

“I hope my company is okay.” He mumbles. He’s unable to think of better topics after Ira, but his family and friends adjusting is as good as he can get. As well as maintain distraction from having to tell Ira she’s going to be his new training coach. “Vitrina says they were here, but where did they go?”

Arabella takes the spot beside him at the island. “Probably exploring the estate. I know they’re still around here, they’re just trying their best to avoid us. Which reminds me,” she takes a quick bite of the scrambled eggs. “Don’t wander off of the estate property. Now that we’re close to Tamarak’s borders, we risk them wandering on the land.”

Douglas manages to maintain his composure enough to not choke on his remaining coffee. “What about Tamarak’s border?”

“The border is built to prevent humans from getting in. That doesn’t mean it stops our creatures from getting out. There are holes in the shield, none big enough to let anyone in, but perhaps some things may be able to slip through. And since we’re pretty close to the border, I wouldn’t put it past a few of them to come wandering onto the property.”

“Well at least now I know what I’m doing for an hour.” Douglas says as he stands from his seat to set his mug in the sink.”

“Which is what?”

“To find and warn my family to not wander too far.” He strides towards the veranda doors, his hand on the gold knob. “If I don’t find them, could you, or the other members tell them for me? I still need to talk to Ira about training. Maybe she’ll cut me an hour to try and find everyone.”

Arabella nods, giving a two-finger salute. “Not a problem. But at least eat something before you go.”

He turns in time to catch an apple she aimed for his head. He pouts to her but spares a dip of his chin before opening the doors and stepping out onto the veranda.

The fresh afternoon air brushes his face, ruffling his hair. The first time he’s noticed it’s grown longer throughout the months. He had meant to cut it but getting kidnapped by a coven of witches seems to have delayed his appointment.

The veranda is done in polished dark wood, guarded by a black metal railing with three steps leading down to a garden with a gazebo, then behind that is a small hedge maze with a spewing fountain at the center. He can see the sprouting water from here; most likely a point of reference.

Hammocks and hammock chairs of macramé, crocheted, roped and quilted are spread throughout the veranda, dangling from the pergola above. Within them, he can see a couple of members lounging in the sun, warming their skins.

Luke being one of them in shadow leopard form, lounging atop the railing, tail swishing back and forth. The male lifts his head, those green snake eyes blinking slowly at him. Douglas smiles and waves, Luke lowering his head with a huff. Another blonde-haired female witch sits in one of the macramé hammock chairs, her legs tucked in, a quilt covering her legs, eyes closed. Her braided coronet extends down one shoulder, loose strands making it look effortless. She wears a thin, long-sleeved tunic. He doesn’t doubt she’s not wearing any pants.

Sensing his stare, her eyes flutter open and look to him. Eyes of meridian blue stare back at him. Keelie had said that Ira’s eyes shift color, but this witch’s – he can see colors of greens and purples, blues and pinks rippling within like the surface of a lake at twilight.

He gives a small smile. Thankfully the witch appears indifferent, blinking twice before leaning her head back and resuming her nap.

He finds the hammock Ira is rocking herself in, her hair draping over the edge. Her leg hangs off, the toe of her foot pushing against the wood. She looks so relaxed, her eyes slightly drooped, she small smile on her lips, perfectly content to be in her own little world. She’s even needlepointing; a detailed blue jay on her canvas.

Before talking to her about training, he takes it upon himself to explore the garden. Stepping down onto the grass, he can smell the fragrance of flowers, looking to find a beautiful garden that undulates around the veranda, stopping just at the entrance to the hedge maze.

The sound of shifting dirt makes him look closer to find a young woman among the flowers, tending to the garden. He steps closer, thinking it’s a servant whom may have seen where some of his company had wondered off to, but instead, he’s surprised to find Astrid rooting out a weed.

She looks up at the sound of his footsteps and smiles, her pinned-up hair rippling. Beneath the shade of her large, floppy hat, her ember eyes shine like fire. She smiles at him.

“Good morning, Douglas!” she says with genuine cheer. “How did you sleep?”

He blinks at the simplicity of her muslin gardening dress. Her cheeks flushed from the sun and labor. Somehow, with her beaming and content, it makes her prettier than the formal dress she wore at dinner last night.

“Very well, thank you.” He says, returning her gesture. Beside her, he can see trays of different blooms. A large, empty stack sits to her right.

She notices his stare and smiles brightly. “These bulbs are from the southern most part of Springgrove. For miles and miles there are nothing but these flowers along the fields. So beautiful.”

“You must’ve been jubilant to see the gardens there.” He says. Astrid nods, patting the rich, dark soil. “The servants must be so glad to have you helping them.”

“Oh no, this garden is mine. Every bloom and shrub had been picked and planted by me.” She lowers her gaze and speaks quieter when she says, “I don’t allow anyone else to take care of it. Even the weeding and watering I do on my own.

He can’t believe what it is he’s seeing . . . The warriors of the most feared, powerful, and brutal coven in all of Tamarak’s history are here lounging about gardening, making breakfast, and needlepointing. Palore would be beside himself in shock.

Who would’ve thought the Wind Riders had hobbies?

“You wouldn’t have happened to have seen any of my friends, or family, would you?”

Astrid shakes her head as she plunges her little shovel into the ground to dig out a weed. “Not since this morning. I came down here for breakfast and saw your siblings eating. Of course, they got up and left as soon as I entered. But at least they were kind enough to spare me a terse nod.”

He cringes, kneeling down in the grass beside Astrid. “Forgive them – they’re adjusting. They aren’t as, open-minded as me.”

Astrid shrugs her slim shoulders. “I take no offense. I can understand. But I will admit it’s nice to have some other company here. This house feels so big sometimes, and most of us are always busy. This is the first time we’ve truly relaxed in a few decades.”

Something tightens in his chest. “Does Keelie not let you rest?”

“Oh no!” Astrid pulls out another bloom, its petals a dark fuchsia pink at the ends, then fading to white at its center. “She gives us plenty of time to rest and relax; I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just this house is starting to become more like a war meeting area than a home. Course she has other homes across the entire continent, but this one is always my favorite.”

War meeting . . . possibly the growing civil rebellion within the clans.

Her eyes look over his shoulder and Douglas follows to find Luke having shifted back into his immortal form, now standing by a gnarled mulberry tree, looking over the flat expanse of the lands.

“I love country homes. Keelie only has a few that are safe. Everything else is always townhomes, cottages, other manors.”

Douglas takes it upon himself to hand her the next flower in the tray. Astrid continues to work without missing a beat. “Her grandmother allowed to invest in all of those?”

Astrid seems to pause her weeding. “As long as Keelie doesn’t embarrass her and continues her persona of being merciless, brutal and obedient, her grandmother doesn’t care what she does.”

“Persona? Like putting on an act?”

“We all knew Keelie was different – her grandmother did too. At first, she sought to it as a threat, and tried to dispose of her by burning her. But then Keelie, she crawled out of that burning stake, roaring like a . . . creature of power. Undefeated, unbroken, and still willing to fight.” Douglas blinks, his blood going cold. “She does act, per say, but how she is with the clans is just a mask. With us – her family – we have the honor of seeing who she really is. It makes us feel special; to see who she really is, and that she trusts us enough to show her true self. I know it is something rare for her.”

Douglas folds in his lips and yanks out a weed nearby. “She recommends I train with Ira, do you agree?”

Astrid giggles and goes back to weeding. “It’s a bittersweet adventure. But you have to remember, overall she’s training to keep you alive.”

Astrid is about to say something else, but she turns and frowns at a small bud that has yet to bloom. A white lily, from the looks of it. The brown edging the sepal suggests it might’ve died from dehydration. Douglas thinks it’s dead – not a big deal; but as he goes to reach for it to throw it away, Astrid gently bats his hand away. She takes the small bud out of the tray and removes her gloves.

She scoops up the bloom and with a wave of her flawless hand, her perfectly manicured nails tickling the head of the flower, Douglas watches as the petals stretch open, the seeds within twitching and opening, as if the flower is taking a long stretch after a nap. The petals smooth themselves out to reveal their blue and black-dotted center.

Douglas blinks stunned as Astrid places the bloom into her garden. “You can control nature?”

Astrid flushes, giving a bashful smile. “A Naturalist. We’re known for our ability to control plant life.”

“I’ve never heard of such a power existed.”

“Actually, it really doesn’t. It’s seen as a useless power.”

“How? I can think of a few ways you can slay enemies.”

“I’ve proven myself, don’t worry about that.” Astrid gathers a pile of weeds into a paper bag. “It’s more of where I get it from that once made me the target of the clan.” She looks to Douglas, who only raises his brows in question. “My mother was a nymph. My father had witch-blood. Of course, he left once he knew my mother was pregnant with me.”

Nymphs, female creatures of the forest. Well known for their delicate beauty and association with woodland creatures. Some are benevolent: aiding travelers and explores, trading baubles and trinkets for natural remedies. However, there are others who thrive on the misery and fear of weary wanderers, leading them to watery graves, trapping them in caves, or suffocating them in mud and quicksand.

It would explain why her beauty seems less harsh compared to the others. Where theirs feels derived from ancient and cunning power, Astrid seems soft and lovely as a summer’s day. Her voice laced with sweetness, youth and kindness, almost untouched by Tamarak.

“Did she survive the birth?”

Astrid nods. “We lived in a cottage at the edge of our village – whose name I have forgotten – there she would lead me to the woods to learn about my magic. She loved me and protected me with a passion I see in Keelie. You know how humans can always find ways to abuse magic. Sons of farmers and other suiters lining up at our door, my mother needing to envelope the door with thorn vines just to keep them out.”

“So how did someone like you end up out here?” With Keelie, he didn’t need to add. She could’ve spent the rest of her life in peace. Nymphs have the capability to be immortal as well; just as the elves and faeries.

“My mother lived well into her older years, passed away in her sleep surrounded by her children, and her children’s children. When I had the house to myself, I maintained everything my mother taught me – including keeping suitors from me. The one day, I heard the wind calling my name. A sound that beckoned; that led.” Her shovel pauses, the flowers she had planted leaning towards her, their leaves tickling her knuckles. “It led me to Tamarak, to home. I walked through the border and established myself in Keelie’s coven.”

“It couldn’t have been that easy.”

“It wasn’t. But I won’t dampen your morning with such talk.” She claps her hands, her tone brighter. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to grab a watering can.”

Without giving him a chance to ask more, she stands up with square shoulders and walks back towards the house, as graceful as a doe.

With nothing else to do, and frankly not wanting to be seen in the flower garden alone, Douglas stands and dusts himself off. Walking back to the veranda, he locates Ira still relaxed in her hammock.

She continues to rock herself even as her eyes lift to him upon his approach. She offers a relaxed smile and a long stretch. “Good morning, Douglas.”

“Morning, Ira.” He says rather stiffly. He tries not to concentrate on her eyes; to see the shift and feel the ancient power that dwells beneath.

“Something I can help you with?” Her knowing smile almost sends him running. Observing like a cat watching a caged canary.

“I was hoping to talk to you about training.”

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