Monday, October 29, 2018

Year 2018 - "The Indigo Jewel"

Dedicated to my friend, Cathie Duvall,
the true Queen of All Hallows Eve.

If it means battling the armies of Hades,

I will fight to the death for you.”

                                         — Richelle E. Goodrich

I could see Thaddeus mentally weighing his chances of getting near enough to snag the magic jewel from the chain around my neck. He was hesitant to act, aware that I would fight like a cornered animal to keep my memory fully awake. Taking advantage of his indecision, I scooped up a handful of items from off the table, unable to gather more than four lying nearest each other; it was all I could hold in one hand. I ended up with the pair of spectacles, the square cut of cloth, the dried flower, and a thin vial half-filled with unidentified contents. I was betting the objects might prove useful to me if they were indeed enchanted.
“Put those down, Catherine, they don’t belong to you.”
I wrinkled my nose at the futility of his command as well as the hideous name he insisted on using. I was no longer his puppet wife—every emotional string had been severed by whatever liberating power the indigo jewel possessed. I gestured at the various odds and ends scattered across the table, certain they were charms of sorts.
“Are these your mother’s?” I asked. “Are these what give her the power to inflict evil curses on others?”
Thaddeus managed a hint of smugness with his response. “These are mere toys compared to the innate powers possessed by a real witch....or warlock.”
He was reminding me of his true nature. He had inherent powers. I’d been subject to them before—unpleasant incidents I now recalled clearly. I tried to show no concern.
“Then you won’t mind if I borrow a few,” I retorted, “for nonmagical persons like myself.” As tempting as it was to grab a second handful of trinkets or vials or whatever was small enough to carry in my fist, I knew I would need a free hand to wield a weapon I was familiar with. My silver sword. I thought of the words the old witch had used to summon the sword on previous occasions. While stepping backwards with the intent of putting the table between Thaddeus and myself, I voiced the spell aloud.
“Grim dettarias, ee Duvalla swen areir!”
My trusted weapon appeared from out of nowhere, the hilt grasped tight within my fingers. Without delay, I pointed the tip of the blade at my enemy.
“Move away from the door and let me leave this place.”
“Oh, Catherine…”
“Don’t breathe that wicked name again!” I angrily ordered. Thaddeus closed his mouth, and his eyes scrunched the slightest bit, never shifting from me.
“I’ll cut out your tongue if you mutter that awful name one more time,” I threatened. I interpreted his frown as a sign that he believed I would make every effort to carry out that threat.
Using the sword as an extension of my arm, I gestured with a flick of the wrist, signaling for the swine standing between me and freedom to move aside and clear the exit. He failed to comply.
“Where will you go?” he asked, allowing no time for an answer. “Anywhere but here is unsafe. There’s no other sanctuary in which you can hide. My mother will sense the awakening of her gemstone; she will seek it out the moment you exit these walls. And if she and her loyal gargoyle slaves are not threat enough, then consider your cruel fairy godmother—the sorceress responsible for the violence that left you unconscious in a pool of your own blood. She will no doubt come after you again if you leave these shielding walls.”
His words made me shudder. I had to stop and think. “Are you implying that for some reason they can’t enter this house?”
Thaddeus shook his head, agitating his thick, curly mane. “No, no, anyone can enter if they dare, although few have ever found the place. It hasn't been disturbed in years. What they cannot do is sense your presence here, nor the life in that stone you wear. You are hidden from danger as long as you remain inside this house. Most importantly, our child is safe here. That alone should be reason enough to stay put.”
A wave of nausea shot through me, sickness brought on by the mention of my pregnancy and the understanding of how thoroughly I had been violated over recent months. I flashed a fierce look of loathing at the man who dared to use my unborn child as a pawn in his twisted game of manipulation. I spat my detest at the floor and growled at my enemy.
“Step aside or I will cut you down where you stand.”
Thaddeus looked shocked. He had apparently expected a very different reaction from me. “Cath…” he began until I swung my blade through the air fast enough to make it sing. He flinched the slightest bit but refrained from speaking that horrid name. “My dear,” he began again, “you are safe here.”
“I’m a prisoner here.”
“Not so, you are free to roam about the house. It’s my heart you hold captive, ever since you became my wife.”
This time, I was the one to appear shocked. The earnest, even desperate look about him was unsettling. I was beginning to think that maybe he too had been deluded by his mother’s charade. Did he actually believe what he was saying?
“I am not your wife,” I hissed.
“You are my wife, and you’re carrying our child. My child!”
“Conceived against my will!” The sword in my grasp became a pointing finger jabbed repeatedly at the lying, conniving opportunist. “You stole my memories and warped my sense of self to make me an imposter! You turned me against my true family! I am not your wife, and you are not my husband; what you are is a fiend! An unscrupulous fiend!”
“You didn’t feel that way earlier.”
“I was delusional!”
“You were happy. Admit it, you were perfectly happy…and you can be so again. Just take off that necklace. Set it aside. It’s a burden of troubles and sorrows and regrets you don’t need to carry. Let it go.”
I sliced my sword through the air, letting a shrill, spine-chilling ring be my answer.
“Get out of my way.”
Thaddeus sighed heavily. Disappointed. He didn’t budge.
“Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”
Refusing to move, he instead seemed to grow taller with confidence.
“My dear, I’m afraid you stand no chance of escaping this place.”
His challenge made me grip harder at the hilt of my sword. My courage wavered a degree. Though it was a well-known fact that I had beaten Thaddeus time and again in physical challenges within the walls of Tarishe, in each case he had held back, pretending to be a common man. There was no reason for him to restrain his powers now. Against all-out sorcery, I was uncertain if I could prevail. I would fight for my freedom nonetheless.
“If you won’t move, then I’ll move you,” I stated boldly. I caught a glimpse of humor in a brief smirk. It was his only response.
I was quick to consider my next move, concerned about the magic he would use to counter an attack. Glancing across the table in front of me, I scanned various items, clueless as to the enchantments they possessed—if any. My eyes landed on a taller jar, and I chose to act swiftly. In a single move, I skirted the table and swung my sword, hitting the jar. It flew toward Thaddeus, surprising us both with what happened next.  
The glass container—filled to the top with dead, brown moths—poured out its contents while in motion, yet not a single moth fell to the floor. Instead, a hundred wings spread apart, colors bleeding across their tiny, overlapping scales. The moths increased in size and fluttered like mad, a kaleidoscope of brilliant wings that swarmed Thaddeus, covering his hair and face, effectively blinding him to me. He faltered on his feet, stumbling rearward, flailing his arms in an effort to swat at the many-colored wings. I stole past him, able to slip sideways through the doorway, and tore down the hall toward the spiral stairwell.
Midway descending the stairs I lost all source of light, but my feet fell on each step without error. At the lower portion of the stairwell, I encountered a faint, blue glow that reached from flickering torches lining both walls off the attached hallway. At the foot of the stairs I turned right. I knew the opposite direction would lead me to the room in which I had first awakened. Thaddeus had left me alone in that room, so I assumed it was central to the house, nowhere near an outer exit. He wouldn’t have wanted me wandering outside, which was now my primary goal.
I ran the torch-lit stretch of hallway, passing more than twenty closed doors. The house seemed to extend the length of a creek until finally veering at a sharp, right angle to the left, ending at a closed door directly ahead. This discovery was extremely disconcerting. I had expected to find a foyer or a lobby or some access to the outdoors since the other end of the house led to enclosed rooms with no discernible exit.
I reached for the knob and twisted, relieved when it rotated in my grip. I could see nothing beyond the door after shoving it open; the room was blacker than a moonless night. If any windows existed, they were entirely covered, edges and all.
Wasting no time, I tucked the handful of charms down the front of my shirt and grabbed the nearest torch mounted in the hallway. I then entered the room. It turned out to be a long, open space entirely windowless and empty of furniture. A few more steps inside made me wonder if it wasn’t actually a wide corridor.
I noticed right off that the walls were painted black, the ceiling and wood floor as well. There were cobwebs interwoven in every corner, both overhead and at the base. The air was musty and dry like an old, dirty attic that lacked adequate ventilation. Anxiety gnawed more intensely at my stomach, and for a moment I considered backtracking, but the thought of running into Thaddeus, who was surely not far behind, urged me to press forward. I hoped for the best and locked the door at my back, a simple act that caused the illusion of a shrinking room. At least I hoped it was only an illusion.
I hurried straight forward past three, dark outlets to the left, only to discover that the path ahead ended in a solid wall strung heavily with cobwebs. I swiveled around to return to the first outlet and stuck my torch inside. A solid barrier blocked it off after a few feet. It was the same with the second one. The third, however, led to an actual passageway that I quickly hurried through. After a short stretch, it veered sharply to the right and extended straight forward again. I found another barred outlet and then a second that I thought was a dead end until further inspection revealed an accessible curvature to the left. I followed it, fearful that reversing my course meant confronting Thaddeus. When the passage crooked around another corner, straight forward, and then around a further corner followed by a sharp bend, I began to feel like a rat in a maze. It didn’t take many more sharp turns and dead ends for me to understand that I was indeed a human rat stuck in a black, walled-off network of narrow corridors. What kind of sick mind created a dark, confining labyrinth in the heart of a house? For what purpose? A trap? A dungeon? A coffin? It felt like all three. I feared Thaddeus had anticipated I would end up in this place.
After following a curvy stretch of wall, certain I was futilely walking in circles, I tried to backtrack to the beginning of the maze with no luck. I had effectively lost my way, yet standing still seemed like a form of surrender; there was always a chance of stumbling upon an exit path. I turned to skirt a different wall that hooked in the opposite direction when I remembered the spectacles in my possession. Switching my sword into my other hand, somewhat clumsily gripping both the hilt and the torch as one, I dug the eyeglasses out of my shirt. I was about to slip the frames over my nose when I let out a little scream. Paying no attention to what was in front of me, I had nearly walked into the literal skeleton of a man, deceased for ages by the looks of his dust-coated clothing. Somehow, his skeletal remains were still standing, his shoulder and arm pressed against the wall together with two hands and a foot. He seemed stuck as if he were glued in place, his ragged clothing hanging off his bones. I froze for a moment, my mind racing with possible scenarios as to the history of his final days.
I was about to walk around the unfortunate fellow when a face appeared from out of the dark, this one more hideous than the hoary skull. It was Thaddeus. Where had he come from? How in the dark abyss of Tartarus had he found me?
In my haste to avoid him, I lunged rearward and knocked my arm against the wall. Up to that point, I had avoided contact with the channeling walls and their stringy veils of cobwebs. The moment my skin pressed against the cold surface, I suffered the strangest sensation, like thousands of minuscule hairs were fastening onto me, drawing my arm to the rock. It felt similar to suction holding fast to my skin. My fingers were free to wiggle, so I wrapped them around the spectacles, hoping Thaddeus would not notice. Despite constant attempts to yank free, my arm remained fixed to the wall. I was beginning to comprehend how miserably the poor man across the way had ended his days.
“I have a good mind to leave you right there,” Thaddeus threatened as he planted both hands on his hips. He apparently felt confident beyond the reach of my sword.
“Go ahead. Leave me,” I taunted, hoping he would do just that. At least my mind and memories would remain intact.
“Given your foul disposition, it’s tempting.” He smirked as if honestly considering my advice. “Oh, but what kind of husband would that make me?”
“A thoughtful one,” I quipped. I continued to fight the wall to no avail. Thaddeus took a step toward me, and I instinctively dropped the burning torch in order to raise my sword and prevent his approach. “I don’t want your help, pigeon.”
“I don’t intend to give it to you, mongrel.”
His insult stung, despite my loathing for the man.
“As soon as I have my wife, Catherine, back with me—which will be momentarily—I shall come to her immediate aid. And I assure you, she will be most grateful.”
“That pitiful creature is dead.”
“No, no, she is merely sleeping. And when she awakes, she will recall a most vivid and disturbing nightmare. I, of course, will assure her that it was nothing more than a terrible dream. One she will easily forget.”
Rage burned in my chest at the thought of being so easily duped. When my would-be master made a move at me, I slashed my sword crosswise, reaching to my full extent in the hopes of, at the very least, scarring his skin with the tip of the blade. The wall held securely to my arm. I barely kept from backing further into it when Thaddeus conjured up a small sphere of violet lightning that flashed and quivered between his hands. He made a sweeping gesture that shot a bolt of light at the face of my blade and ripped the hilt from my grasp. I heard the weapon clank against the floor and skid a short distance off.
Unwilling to succumb without a serious struggle, I curled my fingers into a fist. Thaddeus dodged a swing at him and forced my arm down with little effort. He then grabbed at the indigo jewel. My heart pounded wildly as my tense muscles screamed for a fair fight. Every cell in my body cried out in protest, trembling and afraid.
Fully aware of the miserable existence I would be compelled to embrace against my will, I went to kick at my attacker but discovered my legs had gone stiff. Things happened so fast after that, I had no time to make the slightest sound of objection. The jewel dangling from my neck came to life in a single pulse, emanating the most beautiful blue fire from within its core. The instant Thaddeus touched it, a swell of energy shot from the gemstone and threw him across the way where he crashed into the standing skeleton, breaking a few dry bones while entangling himself in others. When he tried to stand up, he could not. His hair, skin, and clothing were glued to the wall. My heart leapt, thrilled that for the moment, at least, I remained my true self.
Intent on getting away, I forcibly wiggled my arm, thinking I might manage to slide it along the wall and follow wherever it led. It failed to budge. Perceiving an increase of violet light in the dark space, I realized Thaddeus was attempting to free himself using sorcery. It occurred to me right then that I too possessed a type of magic inside the indigo jewel. But how could I draw it out?
Desperate, I grabbed the jewel and touched it to my shoulder, as close to my arm as the attached chain would reach. I tried to think of what to do, hoping by some miracle I might summon an ounce of useful magic. I rubbed the stone on my shoulder but nothing happened. Meanwhile, a surge of brightness made me squint, and I glimpsed across the way a glowing image of Thaddeus, his large form violet and sparking as he peeled himself off the sticky, fibrous resin covering the walls. His escape left fragments of skeleton bones hanging haphazardly like macabre artwork. I squeezed on the indigo stone in my hand, still alive with radiance, and brought it to my lips. In a whisper, I begged for the magic to work.
“Free me! Release me! Please, do something!”
To my great astonishment, the gemstone responded to my plea. Tiny sparkles traveled from the source, across my shoulder, and then down the length of my fastened arm. All at once I was loosed. I turned and ran, scooping up my silver sword on the way. Having brighter light from the jewel to illuminate my path, I forsook the torch. I was darting around corners, careful to avoid contact with walls, fearful of running into a dead end, when I remembered the spectacles in my hand. I put them up to my eyes and peered through them, discovering multiple walls between me and the outdoors in each direction. It appeared I was closest to the southeast side of the house, the path blocked by only three solid walls. Wondering if it was possible, I brought the indigo jewel to my lips and whispered to it once again. The blue fire inside amplified in brilliance, nearly blinding me. Blinking back the light, I realized it was sunshine in my eyes. I was standing outside in the exact spot I had viewed a moment earlier through the enchanted spectacles.
“Thank you,” I breathed in earnest before tearing into the surrounding woods as fast as I could run.
I raced past unfamiliar trees that grew much taller than the woodland timbers outside the Tarishe village. Thick, towering trunks were predominant. They smelled fragrant rather than mossy and seemed to prefer coiling their dense roots atop the soil, creating hurdles for me to either jump or sidestep every few feet. I hurried into the thicker woods, hoping to evade my pursuer, having not the slightest idea how far away or in what direction home lied. As soon as I reached a safe distance, I planned to stop and get my bearings. High above, the sun shone in a nearly cloudless sky, but its rays didn’t warm the air. Winter intended to dominate the weather for a few more weeks. I was lucky no snow coated the ground; my clothes were hardly winter attire.
“You need to go back.”
I skidded to a halt. Thaddeus stood directly in my path, proving that escaping him wasn’t going to be easy. His expression had lost the hint of smugness it wore earlier, now utterly determined.
“It is foolishness to be out here where you’re vulnerable; you put yourself and our child in danger. Cease this stubbornness and return to the house where it’s safe and warm.”
“Stop thinking you can tell me what to do. I’m not your puppet, and I will not go back to that death trap.”
“It’s not a death trap; it’s a sanctuary.”
“Ha! Is that the line you fed to the poor man who died glued to the wall?”
“That poor man was a thirsty vampire.”
I was momentarily speechless, repulsed by the mention of a vampire. Those few foolish bloodsuckers who had encroached upon my family in the past had suffered far worse fates at my own claws. The knowledge that I had unwittingly put my trust in Jovani under the influence of a mind-muddling curse sickened me. I would never have cooperated with the likes of a murderous vampire had I been myself. And I certainly wouldn’t peel one off an ensnaring wall if I found him stuck there.
“I brought you here to protect you, Catherine, can’t you see that?”
I glared daggers at Thaddeus for voicing that wretched name. “You brought me here to continue your sick charade.”
“No, love, you’re wrong.” His denial was too affectionate. Too adamant. My face screwed up with disgust, refusing his lie.
“Try to understand, there are forces combined against you. Mother is finished toying with the werewolves. That’s why she ordered Jovani to slaughter them, threatening Evadine’s life if he failed. She was preparing to end your life as well. If it were not for the fact that you are now carrying my child, she would have confronted you already.”
I wondered if his words were true. After fourteen years, had she grown weary of her game of retribution?
“Mother hates that I’ve developed feelings for you, that in the unlikeliest of places I actually found happiness. I don’t care how she feels about it. After grieving my family’s losses, contending with our enemies, retaliating against humans and werewolves in the name of justice for so many years….I've felt nothing but loathing for our pitiful lives. Mother’s pain and sorrow caused her to believe the world is void of pleasure or happiness, an outlook I adopted as well. But no longer. I've proven her wrong. I found it—real happiness. I found it with you, and I do not intend to lose it.”
Hearing him admit tender feelings toward me made my stomach roll. I was not about to accommodate his fantasy.
“Your happiness is based on a lie, Thaddeus. It’s pretend and it can’t continue.”
“Our child is neither pretend nor a lie. If you are harmed, our child will be harmed as well. That is reality.”
“I can take care of myself.” I stepped sidelong, attempting to get on my way. Thaddeus barred the path.
“Not if my mother or her henchmen find you. And what about Vallatrece? What if that sorceress comes at you with another brutal attack?
He was trying to scare me for his own selfish reasons. I refused his warnings.
“She won’t attack again.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do.”
“How could you possibly know for certain?”
I attempted to walk off in a different direction but was blocked yet again. Thaddeus raised his voice, demanding my attention.
“Listen to me! I am the only one who wants you alive—the only one who hopes to protect you!”
I scoffed at the scheming warlock. “You are a far cry from a noble protector! My pack and my family are the ones who remain loyal to me, just as they have throughout all the miserable years you and your mother tortured us for the sake of revenge! Don’t you dare stand here now and try to play the compassionate hero!”
“Your pack is gone. There is no one left for you to return to.”
“Again, you lie. I know they live; I saw them in that misted orb inside the house.”
Thaddeus scrunched his eyes taking in news that was apparently surprising to hear.
“Jovani will see to it that they don’t live for long. Evadine means more to him than a village of werewolves. He will destroy your pack to protect her; you know how vampires are.”
“Then let me go so I can save my family before it’s too late.”
“Stay here and save your family yet to be born.”
I tried to set out in another direction only to have the way blocked.
“Move, Thaddeus.”
“Is there no reasoning with you?”
Thaddeus locked his jaw at my definitive reply. I readied myself and endured a stretch of silence while he contemplated his next move. I only hoped the indigo jewel would continue to help me against his magic.
“You leave me very few options, my dear.”
“I’m leaving you no options at all. Just walk away and forget me.”
“I won’t do that.”
I considered the few items tucked in the front of my shirt: a square piece of cloth capable of autonomous dusting, spectacles that allowed the wearer to see through solid objects, a dried flower that had yet to produce any magic, and a vial of mysterious liquid. None seemed particularly useful for self-defense.
I barely felt the ground tremble as it caved in and I fell—not far, maybe five feet down. A pit formed when an area of oversized tree roots separated beneath me. I landed on my feet in a crouch and looked up where my sword had fallen, balanced on a ledge of interwoven roots. Glancing about at dirt walls, I gauged the likelihood of scrambling out without assistance. The soil appeared soft and loose, I feared it would give way easily. While scanning for any natural footholds, I noticed a length of rope fall from above, tossed into the hole. One end landed at my feet. I looked up but saw no one. Cautiously, I reached for the rope and gave it a firm tug. There was no give.
“Thaddeus?” I said, expecting an answer. I heard nothing. No response. No movement.
In a bold, decisive move, I pulled on the rope, giving it all my body weight. Hand over hand, I climbed out, breaking loose a landslide of dirt from the cavity wall. Thaddeus received me with a smirk as I crawled over the edge. I scrambled to get to my feet and was about to lung for my sword when both knees locked. Unbeknownst to me, the tail end of the rope had slithered up from behind to encircle my legs. It speedily worked its way upward, binding me from calves to shoulders. I couldn’t bend, afraid of falling over like a heavy log.
My captor wore a sly grin on his face as he regarded my predicament. When I tried wriggling an arm free, the ropes tightened around me. I groaned because of the discomfort.
“You’re hurting me,” I said.
“I am not.”
“You’re hurting the baby,” I amended—a desperate ploy. He seemed to consider the possibility for a split second.
“You force me to use drastic measures. If you would simply cooperate...”
I spoke over him with a growl. “I will never cooperate with you.”
Thaddeus frowned at me and then turned aside. He squatted to pick up my silver sword.
“Don’t touch that!” I barked. “It’s not yours! Put it down!”
He said nothing as he approached with my weapon. My heart sped up, anxious. The gears in my mind were whirring, worried about his intentions. When he tapped the tip of the sword against the enchanted gemstone and suffered no ill effects, I understood exactly what his plan was. Purposefully, I leaned over and fell to the ground. The hard landing made me grunt. Before Thaddeus could crouch down beside me, I rolled flat onto my stomach, protecting the indigo jewel beneath my chest.
A hand landed on my back and another on my hip. Thaddeus tried to turn me over, which meant the sword was no longer in his possession. Out of desperation, I voiced a string of magic words learned ages ago.
“Grim darrsa, ee Tarishe svellnarishe. Grim dettarias, ee Duvalla swen anon!”
The sword vanished.
Thaddeus groaned to communicate how pathetic he deemed my efforts to be. Again, I tried wriggling an arm free, only to feel the rope constrict even more.
“Ugh, this hurts!”
“It can’t hurt more than throwing yourself onto the ground.”
Grumbling under his breath about my stubborn nature, he went to the nearest tree and picked up a fallen branch. It was a narrow stick, dry of leaves. I rolled away when he went to touch the indigo jewel with it.
“Quit moving,” he demanded. With the sole of his boot, he shoved at my hip and pushed me onto my back. His stick went for the necklace. When his boot came down on my shoulder to keep me anchored in place, I screamed that he was causing me excessive pain even though the pressure he exerted hardly effected my shoulder at all. Nonetheless, he let up enough that I was able to roll over. This time I nearly choked because his stick caught in the necklace. He yanked up on the chain to slip it over my head, but I lowered my chin to my chest, hollering words of protest. Repeated tugs with the stick caused me to twist in the dirt, working to keep the chain about my neck.
“Hold still!” The heavy weight of a boot landed on my back.
“Stop it, Thaddeus! Get off me!”
He yanked hard on the chain again, making me gag. The jewel caught under my chin, and I clamped down on it. Desperate, I breathed a wish.
“Make him stop.”
All at once the necklace slackened, alleviating the sensation of choking. I heard a dull rat-a-tap as the stick fell and drummed against the ground. Rolling onto my side, I glanced up to see Thaddeus bent over, reclaiming the tool he had dropped. His eyes flickered my way, communicating a potent look of concern that affected me for the brief time we locked gazes.
“If you want to remain alive and safe, stop fighting me. Catherine, I’m the only one who can save you from certain death. All I want is to protect you and our child.”
I couldn’t allow myself to be deceived, no matter how convincing his performance was.
“Go away.”
“Catherine…listen to me…”
“Be gone!”
A blue surge of light swelled so bright, my eyelids were forced to close. When they fluttered open, Thaddeus had vanished. His stick prattled against the ground and then lay still. I marveled at it, unable to fathom what had become of him. Was he alive, whisked away to some unknown place? Or had the last living son of the Tarishe witch been erased from existence? I feared that I had ignorantly used magic to destroy the man. Regardless, I was not about to regret acting in self-defense. The pigeon should have backed off.
With the warlock’s disappearance, his spell dispersed. The cord binding me fell slack, and I was able to wiggle free with no difficulty. After retrieving my silver sword for safety’s sake, I took a careful look at my surroundings, hoping to recognize a distant landmark that might point me in the direction of home. Every towering tree and snow-white mountain peak was entirely unfamiliar. I wondered how far away the werewolves were camped. I wondered what Kresh was doing. I imagined him with our children, holding Natasha and Nehemia in his arms, keeping them safe and loved. The thought was bittersweet. Kresh had seemed especially somber and discouraged at our last encounter. I worried how he would receive me, knowing I carried the child of another man.
With an anxious heart, I took the jewel in my hand and put my lips near its glowing crystalline face. I whispered a heartfelt desire.
“Take me home.”
The thick, lofty forest appeared to smear into shades of brown and green at my every side, transforming and rearranging shape before refocusing in my sight. I found myself surrounded by aspens, the slender trees coated in moss. I breathed in the smell like a drink of water and caught another familiar scent, that of werewolves. My pack was nearby.
Turning in the direction of camp, I hurried through the trees, driven by eagerness to make my presence known. My brothers and sisters would certainly be relieved to find that my mind and will were again my own. I was considering taking on werewolf form—knowing the natural identity of a wolf would be more readily received—when the wrist attached to my free hand turned cold, clamped by an icy fist. The force applied was almost crushing. I brought my blade around, but my striking arm was stopped mid-swing and each finger peeled from the hilt faster than I cold comprehend. At last, I recognized my captors.
Traïsean and Vada held me by each wrist while other members of their vampire clan stood as stock-still as ivory pillars planted in a half-circle facing me. Their burgundy eyes burned rays of hatred through linear slits, yet no one breathed a vile word. I was about to speak when an imposing laugh commanded our attention. I spoke the name of the woman to whom it belonged.
“I’m already here, wayward one. There’s no need to call for me now.”
I watched her approach, hips swaying shamelessly with each leisurely step that brushed her black skirts against low-lying shrubbery. Her dark lips were shaped in a mischievous grin that dimpled only one cheek. She came as close as the nearest tree and then flicked her pointed nails in a half-hearted gesture at Traïsean and Vada. The vampires released me but remained as immobile as fence posts at my sides. I rubbed my sore wrists; I could feel an onset of bruising. A tsking sound came from Vallatrece and drew my eyes to her humored smirk. Her head shook loosely back and forth in a discontented manner.
“You must be lost. Your quaint Tarishe village sits miles from this part of the forest.”
“I’m not lost, and I didn’t call for you.”
Vallatrece cocked her head the slightest bit. Flecks of gold twinkled in her chocolate eyes. I feared this woman, more than the several members of Jovani’s clan standing by her. That fact angered me. I gestured at her cold, pale henchmen.
“I think your friends here are the ones…”
“Servants,” the sorceress cut in to correct me. The demeaning term didn’t appear to bother any of the vampires.
“Your servants are lost,” I said. “They have no business in werewolf lands—especially in the daytime when blood-suckers normally wither under sunlight. Why are they not hiding in a cave somewhere?”
Vallatrece laughed loudly, throwing her head back as if something I’d said was exceptionally amusing. “These sensitive creatures were granted a wish from their fairy godmother. The sun no longer torments them.”
“Are you everyone’s fairy godmother?”
“Of course not, Catherine.”
“That is not my name,” I hissed.
A pair of chocolate eyes observed me sternly. “You know who you are. How is that possible?”
I swallowed back a wave of concern as her focus jumped from my face to the indigo jewel at my chest. The blue light in the heart of the jewel glowed only faintly. A yank on the braided chain made me lurch forward and I heard Vada cry out in pain. When I looked, the vampiress was cupping her hand as if it hurt. I then understood what had happened: she had attempted to grab the enchanted gemstone and it had shocked her in the process. I flashed an accusatory glare at Vallatrece.
“Do you mean to steal from me?”
“Apparently no. It seems the stone has chosen you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Well, it’s mine—that I do know. You can’t take it from me. No one can.”
“How many have tried?”
I refused an answer to the question. My silence was undaunting.
“Where did you get that pretty trinket anyway? Who gave it to you?”
“No one gave it to me; I found it.”
Vallatrece scrunched up her face, communicating that she didn’t believe me.
“And now that I have it,” I continued, “I no longer require your services.”
“You no longer require my services? Is that so?” Again, her cheeks dimpled with amusement at my words.
“Yes, it is so. And I want you to release the young werewolves who naïvely agreed to enlist in your growing army. The deal is off.” 
“Oh, oh, is it now? How terribly independent and demanding you are!” Vallatrece clapped her hands, derisively applauding my performance. “I must say, I am impressed! Such tenacity! Indeed, you are a brave queen.”
“I am responsible for the young werewolves who were tricked into joining you. They belong to my pack. Release them.”
Vallatrece’s countenance turned dark in an instant. “You presumptuous ingrate.”
“The deal is off, you have no right to keep them,” I argued.
“The deal I made with your mongrels is in full force so long as I carry out my end of it, which means they remain in my service….now and forever.”
“We don’t need your help anymore.”
“Because you wear that precious trinket? Has its influence gone to your head and made you carelessly bold?”
I didn’t answer, uncertain if there was some truth to her statement.
“What do you think will happen when someone removes it from your neck? What will become of you and that wimpy pack of wolfhounds when a clever, powerful, determined soul claims that pretty gemstone? I’ll tell you what will happen: you’ll run back to Tarishe and cleave to your enemy because every shred of your identity will fade away to nothing.”
“No. That won’t happen.”
“You would take such a daring chance when the odds against you are obviously insurmountable?”
“Yes, I will take that chance.”
“Foolish werewolf! Your arrogance will land you back in the arms of that idiot warlock before the sun sets.”
I shook my head to the contrary. “He’s gone. I can never go back.”
Vallatrece raised a sharp eyebrow, acting highly curious about my meaning. “Why do you say he is gone?”
I failed to reply, wary of letting it be known that the blue jewel had performed significant magic for me. My self-appointed fairy godmother pressed harder for an answer.
“Where did he go? Is he dead? Did you kill him?”
“I don’t know. Not intentionally.”
My words made her brow line furrow, and she mumbled loud enough to be overheard. “The idiot is not so incompetent that he would permit a sword to touch him.” She looked straight into my eyes. “You will tell me exactly what happened.”
Locking my jaw, I refused. The next thing I knew, my mouth opened and my tongue began wagging, confessing the truth against my will. I blurted out how Thaddeus had been trying to reclaim the necklace in a physical struggle that ended with me uttering a desperate command that was followed by a dazzling reaction from the indigo jewel.
“And then he vanished into nothingness,” I confessed. “Gone.”
Vallatrece laughed mockingly. “He’s not gone for good! You assess too highly your abilities. Luck and only luck can be credited for what happened. You stumbled on words your stone responded to—that’s it. Tell me, what were you thinking when Thaddeus vanished?”
“I was thinking that I wanted him to leave.”
Vallatrece rolled her eyes at my apparent incompetence. “When you said the words ‘be gone,’ where did you picture him in your mind?”
I had to think back for a moment. I always pictured him in the same place, whining to his mother inside her hut in Tarishe. I told this to Vallatrece.
“Then that’s exactly where he is, which unfortunately is very bad news. I foresee terrible, frightful plans in the making. Now more than ever you need my help, Catherine.”
“I am not Catherine!”
“You will be….if you refuse my help.”
Without any consideration I rejected her offer, believing Kresh was right when he tried to warn the others that making a deal with Vallatrece was the same as trading one scheming curse for another.
“We will face whatever comes our way on our own. My pack has an advantage now with this stone, a powerful advantage we never had before. It will protect us from curses and dreadful magic like yours.” I pointed to the red gemstone she kept about her neck. It was impossible not to attribute similarities to our jewels. “Mine will do for me as yours does for you.”
Vallatrece laughed so boisterously at my assumption that a few vampires cracked a hint of a smile. She ended her cackle on an unattractive snort. “You haven’t the slightest clue what’s in your possession, nor is there time for you to learn. Without proper training, your enemies will overpower you in a heartbeat! Defeat is inevitable….unless you let me help you.”
Again, I refused. “Release my brothers and leave.”
“You are turning out to be a grave disappointment. Nothing like the sensible creature Jovani painted you to be.”
“Jovani isn’t exactly an authority on good sense.”
Vallatrece smirked wickedly and for the first time turned her eyes on the semicircle of vampires fixed like ivory posts. “Have you no pride, my warriors? Are you going to stand there and let this ill-bred mutt insult your comrade without consequence?”
My back hit the ground faster than lightning streaks across the sky. Instinct took over and transformed my body into a werewolf with fur as black as a moonless night. I swung my claws, ripping through the skin of multiple vampires, leaving gashes in those who had pinned me to the ground. With their recoiling, I was able to scramble onto all fours and flash my razor-sharp teeth. A growl swirled deep in my throat, but the bloodsuckers ignored the warning, bent on punishing me for my insult. An arm clamped onto my hind leg and held tight until my teeth sank into the attached wrist. Snarling, I looked right and left, unable to keep every vampire in view. I was outnumbered, but not powerless.
Unsure if I could coax any magic from the indigo jewel without speaking human words, I tried to focus on banishing the vampires using concentrated thought. I wished them gone, imagining their collective disappearance in my mind’s eye. Though I pictured them hunkered down inside a dark cavern far from werewolf lands, my enemy remained about me, taking daring grabs at my limbs while trying to avoid the sting of my claws and teeth. Afraid that I would soon be pinned down again, I looked for an escape. That’s when I caught sight of the square cut of cloth. It was lying limp on my discarded clothing. The other charms were buried within my garments; I could see the stem of the dried flower sticking out.
Using my snout, I tossed the square of fabric through the air at a vampire named Althea. The cloth snapped open before her eyes, startling the entire group for a split-second. That instant of guarded hesitation allowed me opportunity to duck into the trees while the enchanted cloth attempted to wash Althea’s face, whacking at hands grabbing for it. I might have laughed at the amusing scene if not for the horrific circumstances I was fleeing.
My paws skid across the ground when I put on the breaks, nearly slamming into my wicked fairy-godmother. She appeared from out of nowhere directly in my escape path. I bared my teeth and growled lowly, retreating just enough to keep out of reach. She watched me through a near-constant mask of amusement. It seemed everything was a game to her. A cruel, manipulating game.
Her hands rose, fingers together, and she performed a sudden twist of the wrist. It was accompanied by a red spark of light from the gem at her chest. The forest came alive with movement, scrub brush rustling behind the sorceress’ black skirts. I watched with wariness until I noticed familiar faces push through the brush. The young werewolves who had sworn themselves to Vallatrece gawked with wide-eyed wonder when they spied me, stunned to see their queen in wolf form and without a hair of silver on my paw. When they realized it was the queen of werefolk standing before them, my beloved brothers dropped onto their forelegs and bowed. This show of reverence ruffled the black crow feathers worn by Vallatrece. She snapped at the werewolves.
“Get up, you fools! You are my servants, and you will bow only to me.”
Each wolf turned his eyes on the sorceress, finding in her stare a bubbling lake of molten gold. The wolves stood up, glancing furtively at me. I understood their inner struggle as they comprehended the conflict of loyalties to which they had ignorantly committed themselves.
“Choose wisely, my children, or it will be the last choice you make.” Vallatrece was daring them to oppose her, threatening their lives if they did. She smirked her vile delight at a mortal game of manipulation. I reached out to the wolves telepathically.
(I understand the position you’re in. Don’t defy her unless there’s no other option.)
(Queen Duvalla, how can it be you? How did you manage to break the curse?)
(It’s a long story for another time.)
(But we were preparing to free you; we were ready to kill the Tarishe witch. Did you destroy her on your own?)
(No. And none of that matters right now. The bigger threat stands before us.)
(Vallatrece. She promised to help; she said she would free you.)
(I know.)
(We only followed her to save you—to save the pack.)
(I know.)
I could feel remorse press heavy on their hearts. They remained at the side of their new mistress, anxiously waiting. We all waited, vampires too, as the center of attention grinned wide, confident in her control. All I wanted was to be left alone with my pack, to be allowed to live our lives in simple seclusion. I was angry with Jovani for seeking out this arrogant witch who clearly showed more interest in entertaining herself than assisting anyone.
“Are you ready to admit you need my help?”
I made no agreeable gesture, though it was plain to see I would not be leaving without her forcing consent from me. I was outnumbered, and I feared for the lives of the young werewolves. It appeared I had very little choice.
Vallatrece uncurled her slender fingers and reached toward me with an open palm.
“Give me the stone, and all will be forgiven. I will keep my promise and kill the Tarishe witch, and you will forever be free of her curse. No one will come after you in search of the trouble that dangles like a beacon from your neck; they will seek me out instead. My offer is generous. Your consent would be wise.”
I didn’t agree. Relinquishing the enchanted jewel would transform me into the gullible werewolf-hunter, Catherine. I refused to voluntarily return to that hideous life for even a few minutes.
“Don’t give it to her.”
The command carried through the trees, loud and firm. The voice made my heart race. I would recognize it anywhere. Twisting my neck, I peered into the surrounding woods and spied Kresh, his tall, athletic, human form a daunting picture. He glared straight ahead at Vallatrece, his golden-brown eyes simmering detest. A flickered glance at me turned soft for only a moment.
“Leave our lands, witch. You have no business here.”
Vallatrece gave her full attention to my husband. She seemed pleased by his arrival, eager to involve a new player in her game.
“I have much business here, mongrel.”
Kresh stepped out from the darkness of the woods. His hair was longer than I remembered, his face more bearded than bristly.
“You are gravely mistaken. Go now. Leave us alone to care for our queen.”
Vallatrece opened her palm to him. “Hand over the gemstone and I will leave without argument.”
“No. You’ve taken enough from us. We won’t give up anything more. Now go away!”
The sorceress curled her sharp-nailed fingers and formed a fist. She stood silent for a moment, darting a glance at me before speaking up again.
“I will have that stone regardless, mongrel. I always get what I want.”
“Not this time.”
My attention jumped to the surrounding trees as an army of werewolves silently appeared from the shadows, making their presence and their numbers known. At last, there were more standing with me than against me. I hoped the sight was intimidating enough to cause our unwanted guest to be reasonable and back down. She didn’t even hesitate to consider the consequences of her actions when she shouted out a merciless command.
“Kill them all!”
The vampires swooped like vultures on the werewolves. Hisses and snarls intermingled with the sound of gnashing teeth. I heard an echoed snap followed closely by a pained yelp that made my heart ache with compassion.
A warm body bumped against me, covered in umber fur. Kresh had transformed while hastening to my side, ready to fight with me—to defend me. I yearned with every atom of my being to pause time and greet my mate tenderly, to hold him in possessive arms and feel his strong embrace receive me home. My heart had been too long deprived of its burning desire. I feared this desire would forever be denied me. My fear escalated when a drove of hideous trolls rained from the tree branches overhead, wielding wooden bludgeons covered in black, sticky tar. These repugnant creatures had been summoned by a red glow of sorcery. They stunk worse than vampires, but their characteristic slowness gave us an advantage of speed against crushing strength. A physical battle raged on, the numbers evened by the outpouring of trolls.
It was the strangest sensation standing in the midst of it all and yet finding ourselves spared from the conflict. Somehow, Kresh and I were within an inner circle untouched by violence. With us was Vallatrece and the young werewolves sworn to her. They seemed especially nervous, unsure of what to do, afraid to fight for either side. I sensed the witch’s eyes on me, waiting for my full attention. As soon as I met her gaze, she began a performance meant to shatter my heart.
Using her magic, she shoved the young werewolves in my direction and ordered them to attack. For the life of me, I couldn’t comprehend what was driving her to act so cruelly. Why torment those who would be loyal to her under most circumstances? I could see no reason for her malice other than assuming her delight was to taunt and persecute the vulnerable.
“Attack, you worthless mutts!”
The young werewolves looked to me without fear. Without enmity. Their eyes held only one emotion—shame.
They would not attack their queen.
I knew it.
Kresh knew it.
Vallatrece knew it.
I dreaded what she intended to do after seeing their refusal to carry out her command.
The deep, quiet rumble of a growl caught my ear. Kresh was crouched low. He meant to attack our tormentor. I couldn’t let him try alone. Encompassed by the beastly sounds of battle, we prepared to leap. Kresh was tossed aside like a rag doll in one direction while I flew off in the opposite, landing in a skid on my side. I was hopeful when a swell of light increased inside the indigo jewel. I anticipated it coming to life and saving us from the vile Vallatrece, but nothing magical or remotely helpful happened. Focusing once again on the sorceress, I watched the young werewolves come together in purpose to attack as a group. I was horrified when my silver sword appeared in the witch’s hand, and I screamed in protest, a sound that came out as a distressing howl. It stopped the young wolves in their tracks.
(Retreat! Retreat!) I cried, knowing one strike of the blade would prove deadly to them. (Run! Get away from her!)
As the wolves attempted to flee, Vallatrece swung my sword, making it sing with her swiftness. She cut down a wolf who was unfortunate to be within her reach.
“Traitor,” she hissed. “I have no use for you.”
Her sword came around again, this time extending from her fingers as though an invisible anchor kept it linked to her. The blade reached to slice through two more fleeing warriors. I yelped as if the blade had pierced my own body.
Kresh darted towards the evil enchantress, intent on sinking his teeth into some part of her, but he was once again cast aside like a leaf caught in the wind. He slid to a halt mere yards from me.
Meanwhile, the remaining young wolves were making their escape. For an instant, hope dangled a rabbit’s foot in front of me. Vallatrece was apparently aware of my thoughts because she caught my eye and flashed a smile as wicked as death.
“Should I let them live?” she asked. It was pure torment intended to cause me anguish of soul. I wanted to scream out “yes!” To plead and beg for her to spare their innocent lives. But I couldn’t. Even if I had been in human form possessing a voice capable of beseeching mercy, I was not allowed the time to speak.
The silver sword sang its piercing battle song as it left her fingers and flew at ridiculous speeds. I noticed the blade was coated in an aura of scarlet that matched the enchanted gemstone guiding it. As if the weapon were a trained huntsman, it circled the area and cut down every remaining warrior. Not just the young werewolves who had betrayed Vallatrece, but every other werewolf as well. The sword then turned on the vampires and trolls, spearing all who had fought loyally in the battle instigated by their mistress. The final life taken was my mate’s. Kresh lay in a pool of his own blood, staked to the ground by my blade. Vallatrece had done what Jovani had refused to do.
I hurried to my husband’s side, faltering on my paws, changing into human form as I tumbled in a grieving heap over his blood-soaked fur. I grabbed at his beautiful umber coat, sobbing the word “no” repeatedly. When Vallatrece approached and withdrew the sword from his chest, I didn’t care. My naked body spread like a blanket over my mate. I was prepared to die with him. I wanted it. Without Kresh, my fight was gone.
When the blade failed to fall on me, I twisted my neck enough to check for the presence of our slaughterer. She was standing at my back, regarding me with harsh eyes. My garments were in her hand, and she threw them at me.
“Put those on. Do it quickly, there isn’t time to waste.”
I pushed up from the body of Kresh enough to cast her an incredulous and dumbfounded expression.
“You would sooner be dead, is that what you’re thinking? Believe me, I’d accommodate you if I could.”
My arms instinctively rose like a shield when she swung my silver sword downward, aiming it to slice right through my torso. I expected to be cut up, but the blade was impeded by a barrier that didn’t appear to exist.
“That trinket you wear will not allow any weapon to touch you. If I wanted you dead, I would have to devise a creative plan to carry it out. Lucky for you, I could care less about your miserable life. All I want is that stone.”
Surrounded by fallen werewolves, part of me was tempted to strip off the necklace and hand it over in exchange for a swift death; however, I doubted the cruel woman would grant it to me.
“Why?” I asked. It was the only word my mouth would form.
“Because I can.” It was a demon’s reasoning. “And because I wanted you to see how vain your resistance is. You can’t defeat me. Surely, that is obvious to you now.”
I turned back to slump over the body of my love. Vallatrece kicked at my feet and demanded that I rise.
“Put on your clothes.”
I cringed, feeling her breath close to my ear.
“I am still your fairy godmother.”
“You are a—”
She cut me off with louder words. “I can grant your wish.”
Hatred consumed my broken heart. I detested her compulsion to inflict torture upon torment. No sorceress, no warlock, no magic spell could bring individuals back from the dead. I turned to glare at the monster, her face in mine.
“You lie.”
“On many occasions, yes, but not now. Give me the stone, and your pack will live again.”
I looked down at the indigo jewel, staring at its inner glow. “Can this stone bring them back to life? Can it raise the dead?”
“No.” Vallatrece rolled her eyes and held out her hand impatiently.  
“Then how can you bring them back?”
“Give me the gemstone.”
I continued to stare at the magic in my hand, wishing I knew how to summon its powers. “If I give it to you, you will kill me.”
I caught the sly rise of her eyebrow confessing the idea had crossed her mind.
“We are running out of time.”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
Vallatrece exhaled a gust of frustration. I got to my knees and picked up the garments she had tossed at me. “Bring them back and I will discuss relinquishing the stone.”
“To me.” Wisely, she demanded that clarification.
“To you.”   
I slipped into my clothing and stood up. Caught within the material of my dress, I discovered the small, thin vial of liquid; I was careful to keep it hidden. The square of cloth, the spectacles, and the dried flower were all missing. When Vallatrece presented me with the shriveled flower, caution kept me at a distance. She was grinning from ear to ear as if her fingers held pinched between them the greatest secret in the world. I wondered what sort of magic she could draw from a dead flower.
“Place your fingers on either side of the stem,” she instructed. “Be sure not to let go—that is vitally important.”
Reluctantly, I obeyed.
“We must roll the stem between our fingers. Go slowly. It will only grant us the previous twenty minutes of time, so we should hurry.”
“Do as I say before it’s too late.”
On her command, we began to roll the dried flower between our fingers. I could feel something strange happening to the stem. With every tiny turn, it became a bit thicker, stronger, softer to the touch. I watched as the dullness of dead petals took on vivid color, deepening in shades of red until the whole was crimson. Each petal lost its crinkled, brittle texture. Layers came alive, soft and silken in full bloom. With an additional roll against my fingertips, the flower began to close up, folding its fragrant petals snug together. The marvel ended when the rose in our hold appeared as a new bud. The wonder was hardly worth noting compared to the real miracle perceived all around us. In mere seconds, the hell I had lived through rewound before my eyes. Like the undying flower, every tragic event reversed in time to twenty minutes prior. When the pace of life returned to normal, the trolls were gone—having yet to rain from the trees. Only the vampires and the young werewolves remained. When time started forward again, I heard Kresh repeat the same words he had growled at the sorceress twenty minutes earlier.
“…taken enough from us. We won’t give up anything more. Now go away!”
Vallatrece grabbed the flower before I thought to claim it. I noticed it was drying out rapidly, back to its dull and shriveled state. She tucked it in her garments and cheekily repeated the same words she had said to Kresh earlier.
“I always get what I want.”
“Not this time.”
I peered into the surrounding woods and saw an army of werewolves. They stepped out of the shadows making their presence and numbers known. It was déjà vu only for me and Vallatrece.
“Shall history repeat itself?”
Vallatrece observed me strongly, her confidence boiling over in a brazen smirk that dimpled only one cheek. I was being offered the opportunity to save the lives of my pack. Casting my eyes about, I experienced a powerful swell of gratitude for every living, breathing life renewed. My gaze landed on Kresh—my love, my soul mate, my world. His golden-brown eyes were swimming with concern for me.
“No,” I whispered to my evil fairy-godmother. “I wish to rewrite history.”

Copyright 2018 Richelle E. Goodrich

Friday, October 27, 2017

Year 2017 - "Haunted Mansion"

Dedicated to my friend, Cathie Duvall,
the true Queen of All Hallows Eve.

Sweet revenge always turns bitter eventually.”

                                                     — Richelle E. Goodrich

I could hear Thaddeus calling for me, worry and desperation communicated in his voluble tone. He was alone, standing outside the town hall in the middle of the street. From where I was positioned, I could see him turning about in search as he hollered my name. Something in my chest—a potent wave of concern for his feelings—moved me to respond quickly. I reacted by shouting out to my husband.
“Thaddeus, I’m up here! On the rooftop!”
His dark eyes flashed up to find me watching him, and I noticed a flustered sigh of relief cross his lips. He motioned for me to climb down. I took the easiest route to the ground, which consisted of leaping over a narrow alleyway onto the catwalk that ran along the fortress walls of Tarishe. From there I descended an attached ladder beside the front gates of our village. Thaddeus met me at the bottom rung.
“Catherine, you made me worry. Why are you out here? You should be inside where the fire can keep you warm; you’re going to catch your death of cold.”
I experienced a swell of appreciation for his concern. Even though our marriage was closing in on its second month, it continued to affect me tenderly when Thaddeus fretted over my well-being. It wasn’t something I was accustomed to, but I found it remarkably satisfying to have him express genuine care for me on a regular basis.
“You’re smiling.”
I nodded in agreement with his observation, and my smile broadened.
“I take it you’re feeling better.” It was a statement, although his bushy eyebrows arched high enough to question me.
“A little,” I replied honestly. My grandmother’s stubborn animosity toward our marriage would never let my heart rest easy.
“She will come around,” Thaddeus said as if he could read my mind. “Give her time. She has no other choice but to accept our union; there’s no going back. We’re family now.”
I nodded and smiled again, a grin that crept higher every second I considered the word family. I thought about my curious visitor, Vallatrece, and the happy news she had given me. I was with child. A boy. But how could she know?
My husband cocked his head a degree. His thick brow-line pulled low with concentration as he tried to read my expression.
“What’s on your mind, Catherine?” he eventually asked. I saw his eyes cast a wary glance up at the rooftop before landing on me again. I wanted to tell him. I wanted so badly to blurt out everything right there in the middle of the street.
“Nothing,” I muttered, turning to face the direction of home. “I’m hungry. Are you hungry?” I didn’t wait for an answer but stepped forward towards our house. Thaddeus followed me, kicking up dirt with his boots.
“It’s a bit early for supper,” he said. The sun was still visible above the fortification walls.
“But quite late for lunch,” I reminded him.
“Oh right.” He seemed to remember that neither of us had eaten since our bowls of porridge and milk for breakfast. “I’m sorry, Catherine, I must have lost track of time between that petty property dispute and the butcher’s grievances over his dwindling wood supply. I might need to send a party out to collect logs specifically for his smoker.”
“It’s fine, Thaddeus, I know you’re a busy man. People rely on your advice and leadership; I respect that.”
He seemed to fan his feathers at my words, straightening up beside me, actually raising his feet higher with each footstep rather than skimming the soles of his boots over the ground as we walked. He looked to be as proud as a peacock. I laughed, but he didn’t seem to take offense.
We spent the remainder of the day at home, warmed by a crackling fire in the hearth and deer stew that filled our bellies. As much as I wanted to tell Thaddeus about the strange happening that had taken place above our town hall, I refrained. I wasn’t sure he would believe in a fairy godmother. I wondered if he would react well to her news.

“I’d sooner be picking off worthless squirrels than killing myself with this back-breaking monotony. At least there’d be the fun of a moving target. We’ve been swinging at these dern trees all day and I ain’t yet had a branch swerve one inch to try and avoid my hatchet.”
I laughed at Dompier’s constant string of complaints. He and I and about a dozen others who normally brought home meat for the villagers were spending the afternoon searching out and cutting down trees worthy of the butcher’s smoker. There were no fruit trees in the forest, but we had managed to find an open area invaded by red alders. Alder wood produced a smoke that added sweet flavor to most game meats.
“I don’t know why you didn’t try to convince that man of yours to let half of us track down a good-sized moose for the smoke house. We spotted three bulls on the west hills, you know. It’s a waste not letting a soul go after ‘em.”
“Oh, Dompier, what does it matter? Surely your gallant nature would have forced you to send your friends on the hunt while you volunteered to take their place at this back-breaking job.” I was teasing the man; I knew better than to think he would be so gracious.
“In a rat’s eye,” he grumbled, confirming my theory. My big friend swung his axe again and let it stay wedged in the slender trunk of an alder some twenty meters tall. A few more swings and the tree would fall. He stood up, rolling his spine straight, stretching out tired muscles.
“My turn,” I announced, reaching for the axe handle. Dompier stepped aside and let me have at it. His hands cupped around his mouth when he bellowed “timber” as the tree cracked. The sound of collapse echoed for a great distance.
“You’ve a knack with sharp edges, Cat. That you do. Nicely done.”
I flashed him a grateful smile, obscured somewhat by a doubtful scoff. “You did all the hard work, Dompier. I just gave it a shove.”
The man made two fists as he raised both arms, flexing his thick biceps and grunting like an animal. “Aye, that I did, woman! That I did!”
I rolled my eyes in an exaggerated manner and tossed the axe at him, fully confident he would catch it by the handle. He grabbed it out of the air one-handed.
“Start chopping, you big show off,” I told him, doing my best to appear less amused than I truly was. Locating a shorter hatchet fixed in the side of a tree, I prepared to section off the fallen log, but before I could begin, my friend asked a question. His axe was resting on his shoulder. It seemed he wanted a longer breather and would chat with me awhile to obtain one.
“How’s married life been treatin’ you so far? Everything right as rain?”
“Yes,” I nodded affirmatively. “Things are good.”
A gust of wind sent the chill of winter between my layers of clothing, so I pulled a wool poncho tighter around me, adjusting the hood to protect my ears. Dompier observed my actions with interest.
“You could have stayed home and hovered near the fires,” he said. “Why didn’t you sit this one out? The boys and I could’ve felled these trees ourselves.”
My eyes glanced up at a blue sky unmarred by a single cloud. From the direction of Tarishe, smoke rose in white, billowy columns that expanded high up. A hawk squawked from somewhere above.
“I don’t mind the cold. It’s nice out here—outside the walls,” I admitted. “Even in the middle of the woods, it’s less confining than home. I feel like I can spread my wings out here.”
“Aye,” Dompier agreed with a single nod. “Is that why you perch yourself on the rooftops? You think those wings’ll let you fly off someday?”
I smiled vaguely at the imagery, partly wishing it were possible. “Don’t be ridiculous, Dompier. Besides, where would I go?”
“Now, Cat, I know it’s tempting to want more than what you got. It’s natural to think there’s something better outside of here. I think it too, sometimes, but then I say ‘don’t kid yourself; life is life.’ No matter where your feet are planted, it rains and the sun rises and the sun sets and day-by-day you grow up and you grow old. It’s all the same, Cat, here or there.”
“I know.”
“You do?” He looked at me with some skepticism.
“And you’re happy here.”
“I am.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yes, Dompier,” I said with a laugh, “I’m very sure.”
“Alrighty then.” He seemed downright satisfied. I shook my head with wonder, grinning at him.
“You worry too much for me.”
“And that’ll never change, Cat,” he declared with a wink. “You can bank on it.”
I felt honored. And I did bank on it—often. Since our first hunt, I recalled a comfortable comradery between us. He was a listener, ears always open and willing to hear me out. I could tell him anything without fear of harsh criticism or judgment. And his advice had never steered me wrong. I was lucky to have such a true friend.
“I think I’m pregnant.”
I wasn’t sure who between the two of us was more surprised by how I blurted out the news. Reasonably, my husband should have been the first person with whom I shared this announcement, but I wanted reassurance that Thaddeus would react positively to learning he was soon to be a father. Becoming a first-time parent meant his responsibilities would be greatly added upon. It also meant that the nature of our relationship would be forced to adjust. It meant a great many changes.
“You’re pregnant, eh?” Dompier repeated, somewhat dumfounded. Then his brow arched vaguely. “You’re certain?”
I nodded and shrugged at the same time. “I’m reasonably certain.”
I watched the shock in his face bloom into enthusiasm. Even though it wasn’t Thaddeus reacting to my news, Dompier’s exuberance was a relief.
“Well, congrats, Cat! You’re gonna be a momma again; that’s great! And Thaddeus, a pa! I can’t believe he didn’t crow about this before he opened the gates this morning.”
“Uh…well….he doesn’t exactly know yet,” I said sheepishly. “I wanted to tell him earlier, but…I’m not sure how.”
“How to tell him? You just look him square in the eyes and say ‘Man up, hubby, because you’re about to be a papa!’”
I groaned and took a seat on the length of timber we were supposed to be sectioning into firewood. “I’m not going to tell him like that.”
“So why announce it to me first?”
I shoved my hands in the front pouch of my poncho, delaying an answer. “Because…I wanted someone to be happy for me, and I knew you would be.”
“Ah, Cat, Thaddeus’ll be happy; he’ll be ecstatic!”
“And I was kind of hoping for some advice on how best to break the news to him. Good advice, that is.”
Dompier chortled, his whole form shaking with amusement. “Alright, I can help you out there. In fact, the best way to tell him is to not say a word. Give him an obvious sign, and let him figure it out for himself—like my missus did with me when our little mouth-to-feed came along.”
He had my curiosity. “What exactly did she do?”
Dompier scuttled over and—using his hatchet like a cane to help lower his weight—took a seat on the log beside me. “She cooked up my favorite supper and set it out hot and tempting on the dinner table. I was in good spirits anticipating a thick rib-steak in my belly, but for some odd reason she had gone and covered my plate with a napkin. Scooting up to the table, I whipped off that piece of cloth to find not one morsel of food but a pair of the tiniest fur boots I’d ever seen. It took me a minute or two to figure it out, that I was gonna be a pa—the proudest papa of one hefty, young boy.”
“You’re a good father, Dompier.”
I watched his face flush at the compliment until he turned his head aside, feigning the need to cough.
“Yeah, well….you’re welcome to borrow those little boots if you want. I’m sure Thaddeus is a bright enough fellow, he’ll figure out what you’re telling him. And don’t worry, Cat, I’m certain he’s no fool. He’ll be happy for you—for himself, if I know the man.”
I was beginning to feel better. “Thanks, Dompier. You’re a good friend. And yes, I would love to borrow those little boots.”
“Well then, they’re all yours. In fact, consider ‘em a gift.”
“Thanks, Dompier.”
“You’re welcome.” He gave my thigh a friendly pat before offering some additional advice. “We’ve been friends for some time, Cat. Good friends. I know you—probably better than you know yourself. I’ll always be here for you, don’t get me wrong, but you’re a married woman now. I think it might be best to start confiding in that man of yours ahead of me. You need to get in the habit of talking to him. Thaddeus has a right to know if you’ve got concerns; he’s your husband. There can be no secrets between you. That’s how a good marriage ought to be.”
“No secrets,” I murmured, doubtful that complete and honest disclosure was entirely possible. Apparently, my uncertainty came across in my voice.
“No secrets,” Dompier insisted. He slumped down to meet me eye to eye, hovering in a slouched position to stare into my face with strong regard. I failed to keep eye contact. My big friend groaned a sound of disappointment.
“I’m not keeping secrets,” I snapped before he could accuse me. “I just haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet, that’s all.”
“About the baby?”
“Yes.” I rolled the word with a hint of delay. Dompier didn’t miss a thing.
“What else?”
Hesitating, I frowned.
“What are you hiding, Cat?”
With a sigh of resignation, I spilled the beans. “Apparently, I have a fairy godmother. She’s the one who told me I was pregnant, although I have no idea how she could possibly know such a thing unless she was simply guessing or she actually is some sort of fairy godmother or a sorceress or something…”
“A sorceress?” Dompier cut in, his voice tight with concern.
My palms turned to the sky as I shrugged. “I don’t know for certain, but this woman showed up out of nowhere and then disappeared in the blink of an eye. It wasn’t normal.”
My big friend concentrated hard on me. “When did this happen? What did she say to you?”
“It was yesterday. I was on the roof of the town hall, thinking, waiting for Thaddeus to get done with his meetings. I was just sitting there when this tall, striking woman appeared. I didn’t see where she came from. She said she was my fairy godmother. I know it sounds bizarre, but she didn’t do anything other than talk to me.”
Dompier was watching my expressions closely, his eyes tightening into dark slits. He looked skeptical, angry, worried—all three mixed together.
“Are you certain she didn’t do something to you? Think hard, Cat.”
I tried to recall every moment of our brief encounter. “She touched my head,” I remembered aloud. “I asked her why. She said it was to learn things about me.”
“What sort of things?” Dompier growled. I felt myself take offense to his tone. He seemed upset with me, but I had done nothing wrong.
“I don’t know!” I barked. “What the devil is there to learn about me anyway? My life is the same dull, daily grind! I do nothing extraordinary. I’m no one special.”
My outburst was enough to make the big guy back off. His features relaxed to a large degree, but I could tell his mind was tangled up in troubled thoughts.
“Who do you think she is?” I asked, wondering if he had knowledge of this mysterious woman. His behavior suggested he might, but he shook his head, offering no information. I hazarded a guess of my own.
“What if she’s the sorceress who gave me this sword?” My hand moved to rest on the weapon always strapped at my side. “What if she came back to check on it?”
“It’s not her.”
“She could have changed her appearance.”
“It’s not her.” The statement was growled with conviction, which to me seemed unfounded. Standing abruptly, Dompier hefted his axe with both hands, ending our conversation. “We best be getting this wood cut before the sun sets.”
He went to work, swinging his blade with powerful, hurried strokes. I couldn’t help but think he was the one keeping secrets.

The sun had set. The house smelled of sweet, musky alder wood. I was sitting across from Thaddeus at the dinner table, watching him tear off pieces of fried bread before dipping them in his stew and shoving the sopped bits into his mouth. He was clearly hungry, as was I, but the butterflies in my stomach were keeping me from digging into my meal as voraciously as my husband. I took a sip of herbal tea and cleared my throat, knowing it would grab his attention. His dark eyes darted right to me, and he smiled.
“This is delicious,” he said, his mouth partially full. He swallowed and took a swig of water. “I think the stew tastes even better the second day, don’t you?” Scooping up a chunk of meat with a portion of flat bread, he leaned over his bowl and inserted the entirety into his mouth. I forced a smile which he returned, his one cheek rounded like a stone.
Before he could make more small talk, I blurted out the memorized lines that for over an hour I had repeated in my head. It was my intention to make Thaddeus aware of my condition without the aid of Dompier’s offered baby boots. Having remained aloof and untalkative the whole time we were chopping the alder log into stackable firewood, my hunting friend had vanished as soon as a party of men and horses had arrived with a drawn wagon. I decided right then to forgo the “boots for dinner” idea and came up with another way to let my husband know I was pregnant. I had devised what I thought was a clever alternative.
“Thaddeus, there are some things I’ll be needing from my grandmother’s house. I thought that perhaps you could go get them for me, since you prefer I keep my distance from her for the time being.”
I watched as curiosity adjusted the features on my husband’s face. He put his bread down on his plate. “I’d be happy to go get what you need, but I thought we already gathered up all of your possessions.”
“Not all of them,” I disagreed. Again, I studied his face, wondering if he would recall the few items left behind in my old room. He didn’t.
“What did we forget?”
I hesitated with an answer, noting how his bushy eyebrows remained raised and patient.
“Oh…um….” My heart was flitting faster than a hummingbird’s wings. What was wrong with me?
“Catherine, are you alright?”
I nodded rapidly.
“Okay then…what do you need from your grandmother’s house?”
“Just a couple of items. Things I made, actually. One I carved from a large cedar log. It was months ago. A couple of years ago. I haven’t needed it…until now.”
My eyes were wide—I could feel them—watching my husband, begging him to figure it out. He was thinking; the gears in his brain turning behind a crinkled forehead.
“You could grab a couple of smaller blankets too. I’m sure my grandmother won’t mind. I mean, why would she have need of little blankets? Right?”
“The creases on his forehead suddenly vanished. Thaddeus zeroed in on me, his eyes as big as my own. I was certain he had worked out what I was trying to tell him, but what would his reaction be? I held my breath, my face expressionless.
“Are you…” He seemed uncertain of what to ask. Or, perhaps, if he should ask it. “Catherine, are you….” He pointed at my face before lowering his finger and aiming at my stomach. “Are you….with child?”
“I think so.” It felt like a confession. It made me want to cry. He wasn’t smiling. And then suddenly he was. A wide, glowing, beautiful, goofy smile.
Relief washed through me like cleansing rain. Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes and I laughed.
“Catherine, this is wonderful!”
I laughed louder—giddily—thrilled to see he was happy.
“A baby! I’m going to have a family! We’re going to have a family! This means I’m going to be a father! A father! Ha ha!”
In a flash, he was out of his chair and beside me, picking up my laughing form and twirling me around. We hugged and we kissed. Then we danced as he sang out in merriment, referencing Boy Blue and his bugle, Jack and Jill, Mary’s clingy little lamb, and other silly children’s rhymes.
The evening transpired in blissful celebration.
Life felt perfect.

I was asleep when I heard the door close with some force behind it. The thump woke me up. A cold breeze sneaked in from outside and roused me to consciousness even faster. When my eyes flickered open, Thaddeus was pacing the floor, all but biting his nails. He was clearly upset about something.
I sat up in bed and leaned against the headboard, wondering if he had spoken to my grandmother. The conversation must have gone poorly. I couldn’t understand why she found our happiness so unbearable.
“Thaddeus?” I said softly, acquiring his immediate attention. His dark eyes darted to me, and for a long moment he seemed to look right through me. His lips refused to smile.
“What’s wrong?” I finally asked, certain I knew the answer.
He turned to face me full on and straightened his spine until it was perfectly rigid. His chin nudged up a degree as a frown indented each corner of his mouth.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He stood there, staring, demanding an explanation with his body language. My clouded brain, still muddled by sleep, found his question vague. Confusion twisted up my features.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked again with greater stress on each syllable.
“Tell you what?” I was honestly puzzled until he spoke his next words.
“You believe you have a fairy godmother, do you? A vile fairy godmother!”
I dropped my gaze. Dompier—the rat. He had denied me a chance to talk to my husband first. It was a betrayal of friendship, something I had never suffered regarding him. Why had he not held his tongue?
“I don’t understand, Catherine; you didn’t mention one word of this to me. Why? You should have informed me the moment this dreadful woman approached you! This sorceress—this wicked creature—could be a serious threat to you and our unborn child! What were you thinking keeping it a secret?”
“You have no proof she’s a threat,” I said before wondering, “do you?” He ignored the question in favor of interrogating me.
“Have you any idea who she is?”
“Have you any idea why she came to you?”
I shook my head.
“None at all?”
“No, Thaddeus. She said she was my fairy godmother—I know it sounds crazy. I didn’t really believe her, but she said I could make a wish.”
“A wish?”
“Yes. I told her I didn’t want to make a wish; I didn’t want anything from her.”
My husband breathed a weighty sound of relief. Apparently, he found me to be wise in that regard.
“What else happened?”
“Nothing, really. She touched me—my head—with her hands. I didn’t feel anything. Supposedly, it was to find out more about me.”
“She wanted to know more about you?” This news seemed especially bothersome to my husband. “Like what?”
I shrugged my uncertainty, which earned a groaned note of frustration.
“She said she could tell I was a strong woman, that was it. Then she left. Vanished.”
I nodded to signify it was true.
“What did she look like? What was she wearing? What was she holding?”
“She wasn’t holding anything that I remember. Her dress was tight and black and decorated with feathers and lace. She was gorgeous,” I said, recalling her flawless, chilling beauty. “Even her hair and lips were black. And she wore a red jewel about her neck. It glowed faintly.”
My husband pursed his lips, portraying a great deal of concern.
“Oh!” I exclaimed, recalling an important fact. “She told me her name! Right before vanishing, she whispered it to me. Vallatrece.”
Thaddeus mouthed the name, thinking hard. He didn’t appear to recognize it. He looked at me again, carefully gauging my behavior and expressions. “Have you ever come across this woman before? Even in a dream? Tell me the truth.”
“No. Never.”
His shoulders drooped forward slightly, and he rubbed his forehead while giving my story serious thought. At last, he decided to hope for the best.
“It could have been a chance encounter, I suppose. The woman may have been traveling through the forest and noticed you on the rooftop in clear view. Perhaps she approached you out of curiosity.”
“Let’s hope it’s nothing more than that.” Then he added with a growl, “I swear to you, it will be the death of her if she shows up here again.” I was shocked he would threaten the life of a stranger.
“Thaddeus, you don’t even know who the woman is!”
“She’s bad news; I can feel it in my bones!”
He was being unreasonable. Overprotective. Maybe because of the baby. I refused to say more, and kept two facts to myself: first, that the mysterious Vallatrece had promised to return at some point, and second, that before her vanishing I had uttered a last-minute wish in the desperate hope of protecting my unborn child.
Thaddeus remained in a foul mood throughout our morning meal. He insisted I stay within the walls of Tarishe (which was no big deal because I didn’t care to be in Dompier’s company anyway) but then he went on to bar me from the rooftops. My face turned red with anger when he voiced these commands as if I were a child in need of admonishing, yet when I went to verbalize my objections, my tongue twisted up and my thinking stuttered, leaving me mute, unable to argue. I felt like a kettle of boiling water with no spout to let off steam. The most I could manage was a groan and a narrow glare which Thaddeus ignored by turning his back on me. He left the house with a pot of porridge wrapped in insulating rags for Grandmother. I was more than happy to see him go.
An hour later, he returned home empty-handed, making me wonder if he had mentioned a word of my pregnant condition to my grandmother. At his insistence, I slipped on a poncho and accompanied him to the butcher’s shop where he lingered long enough to accept tokens of gratitude for the supply of alder wood he had lifted no finger to gather. I followed him to three other residences, hearing out petty complaints and requests before we ended up inside the large meeting room of our town hall. I was directed to sit near a fireplace, along with three other women, where we were given a barrel of pine straw to weave into storage baskets.
The chore was meant to keep me occupied.
The women, meant to provide company.
Both proved especially irritating.
After a few curt replies to their attempts at small talk, I was ignored by my fellow basket-weavers who seemed happy enough to engage in persistent chatter with one another. Their fingers showed signs of callouses, acquired over time from the frequent pricking of sharp, dry pine needles. My hands were no less suited for the job, though the product of my efforts lacked the artistic appeal woven into the other ladies’ baskets. I attempted a polite “thank you” when they paused to offer me crafty advice that went ignored. Who cared about the pathetic rules of basket weaving? My mind was caught up in an inexplicable mystery!
I had changed, and it bothered me. Not like a subtle adaptation one would deem a nuisance, but vitally enough to eat at my gut. Like a snake slithering out of its old, scaly skin, I had somehow shed my previous self—a person whom I feared was my better self. How had this happened? And so fast! So drastically!
I recalled the years before our marriage very clearly, the numerous occasions when Thaddeus and I had sparred with words, often provoking one another to shouting arguments. The worst encounters had ended with us drawing blades. I had not forgotten the previous Hallows Eve when I nearly slit the man’s throat! That was less than a year prior! Somehow or other, my world had upturned since then. My own emotions seemed bent on cramming happiness down my throat while my mind, perhaps prone to madness, was insisting this was wrong. Something was very wrong. For me to endure insult and not protest—to fail to stand up for myself with words of reason—against the man whom I had outwitted hundreds of times in the past…
Something was terribly wrong.
I felt an increase of guilt churn in my stomach, a reaction to my very thoughts. They were causing me great anxiety. I was a married woman now, the wife of a successful civic leader. Soon I would be mothering a new, precious baby boy. Who in their right minds fought against the kind of joy I felt at simply thinking about my enviable situation? I was fortunate. I was comfortable. I was happy.
And I hated it.
Because it made no sense for my heart to be clinging to this overwhelming contentedness. My feelings seemed genuine, yes, but how could they possibly be? What was wrong with me? No sane person went from loathing their rival to adoring him overnight.
I glanced across the room at Thaddeus seated at a long table within a group of shop keepers, and I contemplated him strongly. My heart leaped in my chest at the mere sight of him. I felt myself overcome. The acts of kindness and sweet attention and gratifying moments of passion afforded me by this man since the day of our marriage were purely pleasing. To be loved was a desirous affair! It was the aim of every beating heart! I nearly cast aside my concerns and allowed myself to be consumed by these agreeable sentiments except for one thing: I could not forget how stripped of power and dignity I had felt that very morning. Thaddeus had essentially commanded me to sit and stay like a dog. And I had heeded my master without so much as a growl!
This was not me. No one stayed me.
I watched those at the table grow more intensely involved in the details of a trade agreement I cared nothing about. Such business bartering was always selfishly motivated. When it appeared that my husband’s attention was engrossed on a point of aggressive negotiation, I excused myself from the weaving party and slipped out the back door. I turned down the alleyway and hurried to a crumbling chimney flue that was easy enough to climb. Almost immediately, a fit of anxiety gripped at my chest, and I felt as if a war was being waged in my gut—a battle between my desire to protect what harmony existed in my marriage and the selfish want to reclaim an ounce of the independence I had lost. This painful struggle nearly persuaded me to reconsider my childish act of defiance. Why was I stupidly jeopardizing my marriage? For what purpose? To stand upon a rooftop in sheer rebellion? Was I really that needy? That proud?
I could hear my husband’s command echoing in my mind—no kind persuasion, but a strict order to keep my feet on the ground. I understood his cautious reasoning, and I didn’t doubt he was acting out of concern for my safety, but I was not some fragile, incapable, defenseless creature in need of a controlling overseer. What irked me most was how my natural defenses had failed me. And the only way I could see to restore my confidence was to prove I had not lost the courage and ability to make my own choices and carry them out. Perhaps this act of defiance was childish, but it was remedial as well.
After stepping off the chimney flue and onto the roof, I heard my name spoken by someone from behind. At first, I thought it was my husband or someone he had arranged to catch me in the act of sneaking out. Then I recognized the voice. It was female. Casual. Glazed with a touch of humor. Vallatrece.
I turned around to face my self-proclaimed fairy godmother. Her black lips were smiling, reinforcing the amusement perceivable in her tone. She eyed me up and down, giving no hint of approval or disappointment. I was the first to speak, stating the obvious.
“You came back.”
Her smile slipped crookedly to one side. “Yes. I told you I would.”
“I know, but….why have you come back?” I braced myself when she started toward me one leisurely step at a time. I felt no fear—she made no threatening moves, nor had she led me to believe she meant any harm. Nonetheless, knowing Thaddeus believed this woman to be bad news gave me pause to wonder. When her sauntering form was nearly at arm’s length, I took a step reward, signifying that I wanted her to keep at a reasonable distance. The raven sorceress didn’t hesitate to close the gap between us. She continued flaunting her impish smile. It made me nervous but not afraid.
“I would prefer that you not touch me,” I said when her hand moved as if she intended to comb her long nails through my hair.
“I’m afraid it can’t be helped,” she replied. Her fingers passed close to my ear as they divided my straight lengths into sections and lifted the whole away from my face. There was a brazenness to her smile for a moment. She then released my hair, letting it fall onto my shoulders.
I swallowed back a rise of anxiety, wondering if Thaddeus was right to fear her.
“I need you to come with me.” Her fingers clamped onto my wrist, and I automatically tugged against her hold.
“No, I can’t leave…”
“Nonsense. Of course you can.” She held fast to me and studied my face, watching as if my reaction was of interest to her.
“My husband will be upset,” I argued, wanting very much to remove her fingers from my wrist. Again, her grin thinned with humor. Her dark eyes seemed to laugh as they peered directly into my own.
“On the contrary. I think he will be pleased to see you.”
Confusion tightened my stare when I noticed a rapid increase in the glow emanating from the red jewel hung about her neck. My eyes dropped to look at it, watching the light swell and dim in an instant. When my gaze shot up again, the smiling sorceress was outlined by a mass of pine trees. I glanced to each side and discovered we were indeed situated inside a forest, no longer high up on a bare rooftop.
“How in the world…?” I began to ask until a man’s voice sounded at my rear. He uttered only one word. A word that fell from his lips with grave emotion.
I turned completely around to find myself staring at a half-clothed muscle of a man owning dark, wild hair that hung to his chin. His eyes were wide and fixed on me.
“Duvalla?” He repeated the word like a hopeful question. I shook my head the slightest bit, uncertain what it was he wanted to know. His critical gaze then jumped to the sorceress, Vallatrece.
“Why have you brought her here?” he asked. His tone was both harsh and demanding. I could tell my fairy godmother found his reaction humorous….as she did most things, it seemed.
“I brought her so we could negotiate, of course.”
The man growled his disapproval in his throat. “We will not ally ourselves with you—there’s nothing to negotiate. Just leave her alone.”
Vallatrece smirked at the angry man. “You speak as though you hold the mantel of leadership over your pack.” Her hands gestured toward each side of us, directing my attention to the trees where I spotted wolves, their watchful eyes gleaming out of the darkness.
“Werewolves!” I gasped, comprehending our situation. We were surrounded. My eyes shot up worriedly at the man. “You’re a rotten werewolf!”
I snatched my sword from its sheath and held it before me, ready to fight. I couldn’t fathom what we were doing among these vile mongrels. This woman had promised to protect my unborn child from them. What was she thinking? My empty hand moved instinctively to my abdomen as if it could shield my baby from harm.
The sorceress let a trill of laughter escape her throat before gesturing that I should lower my sword. Angry and baffled, I refused. She spoke to the werewolf man while stepping close enough to touch my stomach with a patting hand.
“She’s afraid for the little one, Kresh. You wouldn’t try to harm her innocent baby, now, would you?”
Upon hearing his name, I experienced a flicker of recognition. Something stirred deep inside me as if I ought to know him. But I didn’t. The way his features cringed with emotional agony affected me a great deal. I was distressed by his reaction for no reason I could fathom.
“You’re with child?” he asked, looking straight at me. The hurt in his face pained my heart. I looked at Vallatrece, seeking answers. She merely grinned, entertained by what I didn’t understand.
“I want to go home,” I told her in a quiet voice.
“And where would home be?” she asked, arching her perfectly painted eyebrows.
“Stop tormenting her!” the werewolf growled. He made a daring advance forward, behaving as if he meant to grab the enchantress and manhandle her into submission.
Vallatrece didn’t so much as flinch. The man stopped short of her—of me. His strength of will seemed to deflate as if the very last drop had drained from his soul. My heart ached seeing it, an empathetic reaction that confused me.
Kresh swatted his hand at the air, waving us off. “Just go. Take her back.”
“Oh, so you don’t want her anymore?” the sorceress asked.
Daggers flashed in the werewolf’s eyes. “That’s not what I said, witch. Don’t put words in my mouth.”
I was concerned by the conversation and unable to make sense of it.
“So you do want her, just not the child. We can negotiate for the child…”
“What?” I squeaked. My interruption didn’t stop her black lips from continuing.
“I have a new proposal for you. In exchange for ending your curse, I no longer seek an alliance or your forces to join my own. You can simply promise me the babe as soon as he’s born.”
I was stunned by her dreadful offer, and equally stunned when Kresh and I shouted the same word of refusal in unison. “No!”
I stared at him, my expression incredulous.
“You leave her child alone!” he roared. “Leave her alone! I will not promise you anything! Now get out of here!”
I was utterly confounded and could do nothing but glance helplessly between the witch and the werewolf. Every sign of humor had vanished from the enchanter’s lips. Her dark eyes flashed a glint of gold around the pupils as they narrowed.
“Fairy godmother, please,” I begged, “take me home.”
Kresh groaned a sound of disgust. “That witch is no fairy godmother.”
“And you are not the true leader of these werefolk,” Vallatrece countered. “You have neither the guts nor the wisdom to choose well for them. It’s time I negotiate with your queen.”
I looked past her through the trees, half-expecting the infamous ebony wolf with the silver paw to emerge from the shadows, but that didn’t happen. I sensed the collective attention of the werewolves turn to me as the sorceress placed her rounded fingers on my head, setting them on my hair like a crown. From the corner of my eye, I saw the werewolf named Kresh start toward us until Vallatrece hissed at him.
“Don’t touch me, you fool, or you’ll be sorry.”
Just then, a sensation of weight seemed to lift from my mind as a swirl of images danced at the back of my eyes. Lights, pictures, emotions all buzzed inside my brain—a commotion of memories attacking my recall. Some I owned. Others were unfamiliar. Seconds passed as the chaos settled. My eyes opened wide when my life became mine again. I could perceive reality through clear, untainted senses.
I was the queen of werefolk.
Looking at my mate, my true husband, I began to tear up.
“Duvalla?” Kresh once again spoke my name like a hopeful question. This time I understood what he wanted to know. I nodded most assuredly that I was indeed myself. He reached to touch my cheek, and I broke down.
“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry, Kresh. I never meant for any of this to happen.”
His head fell forward as my words seemed to worsen his pain. I hated myself.
“I was an idiot for taking a chance, for putting a thread of trust in that double-crossing gargoyle. You were right; I should have listened to you. Instead, I failed you. I betrayed you.” Tears rained from my eyes. Kresh washed them away with his big fingers. He spoke to me far more kindly than I deserved.
“No, Duvalla, no, not you. You haven’t betrayed me. You never would; I know that. It’s the witch’s spell. You’re under the influence of a curse; it’s not you. You can’t be blamed for anything.”
“But this would never have happened if…”
He placed his thumb on my lips, stopping me from assuming the rightful blame. “You took a chance. You had to. Things would have gone our way had Baron kept true to his word.”
“But he didn’t. He betrayed his brother.”
“Yes. And now Jovani has again betrayed us.”
My guilty, teary eyes dared to look into the face of my mate. “What do you mean? What has that bloodsucker done?”
Vallatrece piped in to answer the question, her magical hands still crowning my head. “Jovani has only tried to protect you. He spared the lives of your pack at great risk to his own family, and then he sought out the one solution to your mutual troubles. You, werewolf, are the one who insists on betraying dear Jovani.”
I watched Kresh look up to glare past me, but the fingers pressing down on my head kept me from seeing the sorceress myself. I imagined a wry smile on her lips.
“Jovani is a wise leader. A man of excellent reasoning,” she went on, “which, after the unfortunate yet inevitable disaster you barely survived, led him to a logical fact: the only way to destroy a master of sorcery is to find a mightier master of sorcery. Consequently, your friend, Jovani, found me.”
“He did no one any favors,” Kresh grumbled through gritted teeth. I was starting to understand what had transpired in my absence. I made a presumption from their earlier dialogue.
“You were brought here to help us…but for a price.”
“It’s hardly a pittance,” Vallatrece laughed. She then exhaled an impatient sigh through her nose. “This is most annoying—I can’t even look you in the eye.” I felt the weight of her hands leave my head, and I objected at once, terrified of becoming the impostor, Catherine, again. Kresh removed his warm touch from my face and stepped away. I understood why, but the rejection was heartrending. A near-sinister laugh trilled in the witch’s throat.
“Hardly a pittance!” she repeated, keeping one hand on my head. It allowed her to pivot and move into my view. My mind remained unclouded. I was thankful. “It is a small thing I ask in exchange for your permanent liberation from a living hell that tortures both you and your pack. What I offer is freedom for the werewolves as well as for Jovani and his clan. What I ask amounts to almost nothing in comparison!”
“You want our allegiance,” I said, recalling what Kresh had sworn to deny her.
“What I want is strength in numbers.”
“What you want is to see us trade the persecution of one witch for that of another,” Kresh growled. “We will not do your bidding. You have those bloodsucking fools to do that.”
Vallatrece flickered a harsh, golden glare at my mate before turning softer eyes on me. “Jovani spared your pack, Queen Duvalla, for your sake. He told me that the Tarishe Witch demanded he exterminate every last werewolf or risk the death of his mate—the poor, wretched, disfigured Evadine. But Jovani couldn’t bring himself to carry out that order, despite risking his true love’s very life! He felt he owed you for the deception of his brother, Baron. After all, it was Jovani who convinced you to put your faith in the gargoyle. Consider his sacrifice. If that is not the act of a genuine friend…”
“I am worse off for trusting him. My mind is not my own; my will and emotions have been sordidly manipulated. His so-called brother did this!”
“Your mutual enemy—the Tarishe Witch—did this. Jovani and I offer you a sure escape, your deepest desire! I will destroy the old woman who keeps you under her spell.”
“What if you can’t? What if you fail?”
Vallatrece chuckled as if the idea were preposterous, yet I had seen confidence fail us before.”
“If that were to happen, you would be no worse off than you are now.”
It seemed she was right.
“Trust me. I can erase your curse forever, leaving you free to return to your pack. Jovani’s mate will reclaim her former beauty. Neither of you will have anything left to fear.”
“Except whatever wicked curse you intend to inflict upon us.” Vallatrece and I both looked at Kresh as he voiced his belief. I could see he would not be convinced otherwise.
“I could curse you this very instant, wolfhound.”
Unafraid, Kresh thrust his face forward. “You’re threatening me? Yet you hope to convince us to join your forces and participate in some mysterious cause you refuse to divulge? And you call me the fool…”
“Stop it,” I breathed, fearful of what a mad witch might do if amply provoked. “Vallatrece, why do you want our strength in numbers, as you say? What can we possibly do for you that you can’t accomplish through sorcery?”
A grin that conveyed more eagerness than amusement crept across her face.
“I want an army. My own army.”
“An army. For what purpose?”
“To fight for me, of course.”
“To fight whom?”
“Whomever I choose.”
I wondered at her enduring glow of excitement. “Do you intend to start a war?”
Smiling like a huntress eyeing a twelve-point buck, she admitted the truth. “Many wars, darling. And I will win them all.”
I paused, stunned, allowing a moment for her outrageous goal to sink in. “And Jovani agreed to this? To joining you?”
“Naturally. He grew sorely irritated when your werewolf husband refused to do likewise.”
“So if you have Jovani and his entire clan agreeing to fight in your wars, why not release his mate from her curse? Let the vampires fortify your army.”
The sorceress tsked her disapproval at my suggestion. “Queen Duvalla, how one-sided and terribly unfair! You know very well that lifting Evadine’s curse would lift yours as well, allowing the wolves to gain tremendous benefit from the efforts and sacrifices of others. No, no, no, you must see that nothing can be done until we come to a just and acceptable agreement. And we will come to an agreement. You know Jovani will resort to anything to save his mate.”
Kresh jumped in, snarling. “That bloodsucker will fail if he tries to force our pack to fight for you. He’s sadly mistaken if he thinks he can overpower us.”
Vallatrece gestured that Kresh might be right. “Perhaps. But the result would still be a bloody battle. If you continue to deny Jovani his only desire, you might keep in mind that my allies reap the benefit of my personal protection.”
“Do not try to manipulate us, witch!”
Kresh had grown intolerant. It seemed as if my zealous fairy godmother was about to strike, for her eyes flashed wide, and the two faced off directly in front of me. I thought to put myself between them, hoping to be a voice of reason, when our attention was collectively seized by an unexpected announcement.
“We volunteer.”
The three of us looked to the speaker. He was a young man, a strong and handsome werewolf, who normally wore a thick coat of sienna fur. He was stepping out of the trees, bare-chested, a hide wrapped about his waist. Six other young werewolves of equal stature joined him. They stood together, nodding in agreement when the young man repeated his message.
“We will enlist in your army in exchange for a permanent end to the curse that manipulates our queen.”
The enchantress nearly dropped her hand from my head, causing a cloud of confusion to kick up in my mind. It evaporated as her fingers pressed down on my scalp. Her lips pulled askew at a new distraction.
“Well, isn’t this interesting?”
Kresh immediately forbade the young werewolves, addressing a few of them by name. “No, Aiden, Malachi, you will not do this. Tennyson, it is madness.”
I had to agree. “You are all very brave to step forward, but the pack needs you here. They need your strength here.”
“The pack needs its queen,” Aiden boldly argued, “and to have the huntress, Catherine, destroyed before she does any more damage.”
I was aggrieved by the truth of his words, reminded of the death and suffering I had brought on my own people. Kresh squeezed my hand, seeing my pain.
“Not this way,” he told the young werewolf.
“Then how?” Aiden asked. His urgent inquiry begged for an answer.
Kresh repeated the same words with stronger emphasis. “Not this way.” He jerked his head toward the darkened forest, gesturing for the young wolves to return to the shadows. “Go home. Join the pack.”
Aiden lowered his gaze and twisted partway around as if he would obey. He stopped when the roan-haired werewolf beside him dared to speak his mind.
“We swore to protect our queen. We took an oath to do so. It is our duty.”
“It is,” Kresh agreed. “Malachi, you know we do what we can.”
“Then why not this? We can do this, and it will save our queen.”
“No. It puts you at risk which puts us at risk. This witch would have us bound to her bidding, released from one curse to suffer another. The consequences outweigh what might be gained here.”
The stubborn young man clearly disagreed. He turned to Vallatrece and addressed her directly.
“We are young and strong and able to fight. Will you accept us as your warriors and let the rest of the pack go free?”
“No, Malachi! Stand down!” Kresh started toward the stubborn werewolf. I imagined he meant to usher him away, but Vallatrece had another idea. In the heart of the jewel worn about her neck, a dark form of light pulsed crimson. I felt my head spin as the sorceress’ magic seemed to hiccup. The sharp fingernails on her free hand made a flicking gesture that resulted in Kresh halting in his tracks. Discovering he was physically unable to put another foot forward, he went to protest vocally. His hands felt at his throat when, despite every effort to shout, no sound came out.
“What have you done?” I gasped. “Release him!”
The sorceress flashed an irritated scowl at me and then pealed her hand from my head. I panicked, wide-eyed and afraid. A mental wall of fog poured in until the confusion was debilitating. I glanced about, aware that things had transpired while I was consciously oblivious. Werewolves were facing me, having emerged from the forest. I was unsure as to when; ignorant of what was going on.
My fairy godmother spoke to one of them. He nodded in response. The one called Kresh kept still; he did nothing. I could hear everything that was said, but it made little sense to me.
“Are there more willing to step forward? I’ll admit you are an impressive collection, nevertheless, seven is so few.”
One by one, ten other strapping, young werewolves emerged from the shadows. They took on human form, covering their nakedness with wraps of cloth and hide.
“That’s better. And you all agree to the proposed terms?” Vallatrece asked.
There was a shared nod between them.
“You’re prepared to leave your pack behind?”
One wolf spoke for the rest. “Our parents are dead. Our siblings are either here among us or dead too. That is why we volunteer.”
A saw a clever smirk take form on sable lips. “Very well, I accept.”
One-by-one these seventeen werewolves held out their wrists to be scarred with an “X” that bled and then healed in an instant. When the last soul was marked, my fairy godmother turned a victorious smile my way and announced, “It is done.”
“What is done?” I asked, expecting no clarifying answer. And I got none.
I felt my arm secured in a tight grip, sharp nails pressing against my skin. In the blink of an eye, every werewolf as well as the surrounding forest vanished. I was standing on the roof of our town hall again, minus the silence I normally sought in this spot. I could hear my name sounding from multiple directions at once. A number of people were hollering for me. Thaddeus’ voice carried loudly among them. A jolt of anxiety moved me to rush to the ledge where I might see my husband below and reassure him I was fine. My intent, however, was prevented by the enchantress who held fast to my wrist. I looked back at her with an incredulous expression. Why would she keep me from my husband?
“He’s worried about you,” she said, flashing an unfitting grin. “That is good.”
I turned back to the front of the building and hollered in reply to the echo of my name. It was eating at my stomach that my husband sounded especially concerned.
“I’m here! I’m up here!”
Vallatrece yanked on my arm, effectively pulling me to her. I couldn’t understand the malicious satisfaction in her face. I was convinced this creature was more wicked than any true fairy godmother could be.
“Let go of me!” I demanded, tugging against her hold. She responded with a single laugh. My hand automatically moved to the hilt of my sword and hovered, hesitating. Gold-flecked eyes stole a glance at the weapon I was threatening to unsheathe.
“You would dare attack me?” she asked.
I agreed it was a futile notion and dropped my waiting hand. “Please, let me go,” I begged.
Her dark lips smirked. “As you wish.”
The sound of crumbling brick drew her attention toward the chimney. Someone was climbing up, but no form could be seen past the rooftop yet. Vallatrece narrowed her eyes and turned them on me. “Let’s give him a good reason to worry for you.”
Her red jewel burned dark within, casting an enchantment that transformed her long, black sleeves into fur. It covered her entire arm and hand. Her nails grew long and slender like the claws of a werewolf. They slid across my wrist, drawing blood. I screamed out in pain. Thaddeus called my name. The sound of scrambling and crumbling brick carried from the chimney. He had to be near the top.
The claws that had cut my wrist took a swipe across my chest before I could grasp that I was in serious danger. Blood flowed from parallel gashes that penetrated layers of clothing and skin. I could feel warmth and stickiness begin to travel down my front, saturating the fabric that hung open. I sensed my body going into shock. Reflex and training managed to draw my sword and brandish it for self-defense. It sang a note of warning as I swung the blade in front of me, warding off danger. The enchantress, who now appeared as a black werewolf, proved faster in her ability to duck my swings. I was clawed once more, leaving multiple cuts across my cheek, spilling blood that ran warm along my neck. The wolf bared its teeth at me as if grinning.
“Why?” I asked, holding my sword like a shield. I could fathom no reason for this vicious attack.
My head was spinning. Blood loss and shock were making me faint.
The sleek, black werewolf turned on its heels and ran across the rooftop, jumping over the alley below to catch the elevated wall that encompassed Tarishe. I watched the creature slip over the top and disappear. As I fell to my knees, blood seemed to pool everywhere. My blood. The thud of footfall approached, and Thaddeus caught my sinking form, exclaiming words of distress. My lips made a feeble attempt to utter a sound, tasting blood in the process. My eyesight blurred just before I blacked out.

I awoke in an unfamiliar place with just enough light to appreciate an elegance in the vastness about me. I was in a room both high and large, made from stone walls and an elevated ceiling that reached well above an open second floor. From midway up, clear around, stood shelves stacked with books. Thousands of books. More than I had ever imagined the whole of published authors to have written. A railing about chest high fenced in a narrow floor that ran along each wall of bookshelves, leaving a great, square hole in the center through which I was able to look from below.
My gaze dropped to sweep across the lower room which was mainly a collection of fine furniture arranged in sociable clusters. Every piece was cushioned in soft, ornate fabric, the legs and arms showing off intricately-carved details. Tapestries hung on each wall while carpeting covered the entire floor.
As I raised up enough to lean on my elbows, my eyes jumped to the only source of illumination—a fire maybe six feet from the bed. A soft, feather bed was my support, as comfortable to sleep on as one might imagine a billowy cloud would be. The fire burned inside a hearth formed from cut stones of massive proportion. Secured above the mantel was a coat of arms bearing unusual symbols. This curiosity should have kept my attention, but the glow of the fire I found more intriguing, for its flames were entirely blue. The heart of it burned in altering shades of violet unlike any natural fire.
Slowly I sat up, uncertain of my condition. I had a vague memory of being hurt, although a full recollection of the actual injury evaded me. I remembered blood. My own, and lots of it. A glance down at myself, my hands and arms, found no trace of bloodstains. I recalled a cut. Several. And severe pain on my face. My fingers automatically went to check. There was no scarring. No stitches. My skin was smooth to the touch. Perhaps it had been a dream.
An image of Vallatrece in her feathery, black gown slammed to the forefront of my mind. I could see her black lips set in a sinister smile. It was a harsh recollection, as if my subconscious demanded I not forget the unprovoked attack on me and how the smug enchantress had done it—transforming herself into an ebony werewolf and clawing through my veins. I looked at my wrist but saw no trace of a gash.
“I healed your wounds,” a familiar voice informed me.
Glancing up, I observed a man emerge from the shadows—a trick of dim lighting, no doubt. It was Thaddeus. His dark curls were pulled away from a face which showed no readable expression.
“How did you do it?” I asked, amazed by how fast and thoroughly my cuts had healed. Unless it had not been so fast. “How long have I been unconscious? Where are we?” My eyes darted about our elaborate surroundings.
Having made his way to my bedside, Thaddeus dropped onto the edge of the mattress, facing me. “You’ve been asleep for a couple of days. You lost a lot of blood,” he explained, “but don’t worry, you and the baby are fine.”
I was certain of it; I felt fine. His words were still a relief to hear.
“It would be wise for you to continue resting. You’re safe here,” he assured me. “Our little family is perfectly safe here.”
“I can’t believe what happened,” I said in a dour murmur. Guilt drew my gaze downward, away from my husband’s scrutiny. I was certain he blamed my foolish act of defiance for the savage attack. “I’m sorry I climbed up on the roof…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Thaddeus cut in. “They would have come after you no matter what. It seems those wretched werewolves have grown bolder in their vengeful efforts. I’m shocked they would turn on you.”
“Turn on me?”
“I uh….I meant turn at you…and attack without sufficient numbers. I never thought a solitary wolf would take a turn at you. That was too daring, too dangerous. And I can’t believe the savage beast actually climbed the fortress walls! All this time—we were never safe from them in Tarishe. Never.”
I eyed my husband skeptically. “My attacker wasn’t a werewolf, Thaddeus. You do know that, right?”
“Of course it was a werewolf. It was a black wolf—I saw the beast with my own eyes. It caught you off guard; tore you up and then raced off, descending the walls before escaping into the forest.”
“It wasn’t a real werewolf. It was the sorceress, the one who claimed to be my fairy godmother. She came back.”
Thaddeus stared hard at me, staggered. “The sorceress?”
“You didn’t see her transform?”
“No. No, I did not.” He looked angered by this news, and stewed over it for few moments.
“Those vile mongrels have allied themselves with that witch! If those demons think they’re going to gain anything from this other than another bloody curse…!” I watched his flash of anger snuff out as if it were a leaping frog he grabbed by the neck and shoved back into his pocket.
“In any case,” he grumbled, “it doesn’t matter. All the more reason for us to remain here where we’re safe.”
“Where is here?” I asked again.
Here is my grandfather’s house. The place is secluded, a forgotten sanctuary. We won’t be found here, not by werewolves or witches or anyone.”
“Your grandfather’s house,” I repeated, glancing at the immensity of the room we occupied. His words reminded me, “What about Grandmother? Did you bring her here with us?”
“No.” His answer was curt and unapologetic. It shocked me.
“No? Why not? Who will look after her? How far from Tarishe are we?”
“She’ll be fine, Catherine. Dompier will see to her.”
“Why didn’t you just bring her here? How hard could that have been?”
“My priority is to keep you and my child safe.”
“But she’s my grandmother!”
“Yes, I know but….she didn’t want to come.”
I was certain he was lying. “She doesn’t even know we left the village, does she?”
Thaddeus pursed his lips, refusing to answer my question…which was answer enough in itself.
“Catherine, she’s in good hands. Dompier will see to it that she’s safe and warm and well. You can trust him.”
I knew that to be true—excepting secrets. I would never trust my hunting friend with another secret.
“You should have brought her here,” I murmured. Abandoning the woman who had essentially raised me felt cold and heartless.
“The wolves are after you, not her. Having your grandmother here would put her in greater danger. She’s safer in Tarishe.”
His logic irked me, but it seemed sound. “Maybe you’re right,” I conceded. There was nothing I could do about it anyway.
“I am right.” Thaddeus inhaled deeply and then exhaled while rubbing his hands together. It was a sign that our conversation was over. “I’ll bring you some soup. You must be hungry.”
I nodded to the affirmative. Before he could walk away, I asked another question. “Thaddeus, will you tell me more about your grandfather’s house while I eat?”
A reminiscent smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “I’d be happy to.”
The soup was an aromatic mix of herbs, mushrooms, and dumplings that tasted delicious. Thaddeus brought me two bowls, which I finished while he shared old tales of a family mansion that sounded more and more haunted with every added detail.
“You’re telling me that your grandfather lived here for over one hundred years?”
“That’s right. He roamed the halls of this house all his life, as did his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather and so on.”
I could feel skepticism crinkle up my nose while I tried to judge the sincerity of my husband’s claim. Was he making up a tale to entertain me? “One hundred years is a long time for someone to live,” I pointed out.
“For some. My ancestors, however, enjoyed healthy lifespans well past a century.” Thaddeus laughed at my continued skepticism. “Honest, Catherine, I’m not lying. This house was owned by extended generations of family. Technically, it still is, but my mother refuses to live here.”
“Your mother is alive?” This was news to me; the woman didn’t live in Tarishe. I had always assumed his parents were dead. “You’ve never mentioned her before.”
 Thaddeus looked at me for a long moment, silent and still as if he had slipped up. I wondered if he and his mother didn’t get along. At last he provided me with an answer.
“Yes, she is alive, but we are of different opinions on a number of things—like this house, for instance. She would hate knowing I was here. In fact, on the day we left this place, she forbade me to ever step foot in it again. I was a child then. Some terrible things happened inside these rooms.”
A look of anguish contorted my husband’s features before he turned his head toward the fire. I wondered what sort of bad memories haunted him. Curiosity ate at me, yet I didn’t want to force him to relive harsh trials through their retelling. My eyes were drawn to the fire too as I contemplated what to say next. The flames burned high, just as before, and just as unusual in their blue and violet glow. I noticed for the first time something else peculiar. There was no smoke. No wood burning. No ashes in the pit. All I could see was a hearth filled with self-sustaining, warming, blue flames.
“The fire,” I uttered with bewilderment. “Thaddeus, the fire—there’s no wood. No smoke. How can that be?”
He turned to me, a slightly-humored smile meeting my puzzled gaze. “There’s magic in this house, Catherine; there always has been. People once believed this place to be haunted. Such rumors kept curious visitors away for the most part—that and the fact that this house sits miles from any village. Our haunted house was of little concern to the outside world. My grandfather posed no threat to outsiders. I’m not certain why that changed, but one day someone took an interest in him. In us. My grandfather had never ventured out; he never sought attention. Nor had his sons or daughters or grandsons. Life here was content—even for the young boy that I was. I and my two older brothers played for hours on the grounds and inside the many rooms. We had plenty of adventures. Unfortunately, those who feared the rumors, those who believed these walls to be haunted, developed a hatred for us. They called the house evil. Gossip spread that it was possessed by unholy spirits, and we, apparently, were the vessels for those unholy devils.”
Thaddeus paused in his speaking. His face was a tight, angry picture. I could only imagine the awful images playing through his memory. When he spoke again, his voice fell low and heavy.
“They stole inside in the middle of the night while we were asleep. I don’t recall how many there were. Enough. They killed my grandfather in his sleep, my aunt and uncle and two cousins and my oldest brother as well. Then they slipped silently into my parents’ room and stuck a dagger through my father’s heart. He must have made a sound because it roused my mother from sleep. Her screams woke me and my other brother. We ran to her room, but she had already dealt with the murderers. None of the guilty made it out alive; my mother saw to it. She wept bitterly over her losses. We mourned for days—the three of us who survived. When we left this house, we didn’t turn back.”
“She forbade you to,” I uttered. “I’m so dreadfully sorry, Thaddeus. I had no idea. What a horrid nightmare.”
“It was,” he agreed. Breathing in deeply, he forced a lighter mood. “That was long ago in the distant past. I don’t believe this place has seen a living soul since then. My father and the others rest in peace out back in the family morgue. All their belongings are still here, everything as it was.”
“You took the time to bury them.”
“Of course.” Thaddeus shot a stern glance at me as if he thought I deemed him either incapable or heartless. I didn’t.
“That must have been a very difficult chore for you. For all three of you.”
A nod was his only reply. I watched his fingers fidget with the edge of my blanket as his mind lapsed back to that awful day.
Curiosity made me dare a sensitive question. I was certain there were no worse secrets than what he had already divulged. “What happened to your mother and your older brother?”
Thaddeus looked me in the eye, and a crooked grin pulled his lips askew. His stare lingered for a few moments. “My brother died over fourteen years ago. A werewolf killed him.”
“How awful. And what about your mother?”
“She moved to a small village where she wastes away her life brooding over her losses. I had a great deal of compassion for her at one time, but I’m done now.”
My husband rose abruptly from the bed and proceeded to gather up my empty soup bowls. I didn’t try to string the conversation along any further, even though my head was swimming with additional questions. He had endured enough.
“You should get some rest,” he told me. “It would be good for you and the baby.”
I laid my head on a velvety pillow and sank into its plumy softness. Thaddeus pulled a blanket up to my chin.
“Sleep. I’ll wake you when the sun rises.”
I reached to squeeze his hand. “Thank you.”
“Yes, now sleep.” Before he could cross the room, I called out to ask one more question.
“What really keeps the flames burning in that fireplace?”
My husband smiled cleverly with his answer. “Gases.”
So it wasn’t magic after all.

It was impossible to say how long I slept before my eyelids refused to remain closed. I woke up in the same soft bed near the same blue fire that continued to burn high and smoke-free as it had earlier. I felt well-rested and strong but hungry. The soup had not lasted in my stomach.
Ready to rise, I sat up in bed and glanced about for a visible sign of the hour. There didn’t appear to be windows on either level of the house where I was, making it impossible to tell if it was morning or night.
“Thaddeus?” I called out tentatively. Waiting, listening, I heard nothing; however, I imagined he was near.
I slipped out of bed and started toward the adjoining wall, wondering how far the blue firelight would illuminate my path.
“Thaddeus? Are you in here?”
I crossed the floor without difficulty, repeatedly glancing at the massive library that surrounded the upper portion of the room. The carpet beneath my feet gave way like fleece, plusher than a moss-covered meadow. When I spied a wooden door recessed in a partial foyer off the far-right wall, I headed for it, eager to find out what was on the other side.
I discovered it was a heavy door that creaked irritably on its hinges when pulled open. At first, I saw nothing but blackness outside the room, and I dared not duck through the doorway. Then a string of torches came to life along a stretch of corridor wall, and the same blue-violet flames danced in miniature on mounted torch stands. They led straight ahead to a choice of three outlets.
I ventured forward, eyeing tapestries of exquisite beauty that portrayed medieval scenes—dragons, castles, knights, wizards, and winged monsters too bulky to fly if such creatures were in fact real. The carpet beneath my feet lost its plushness, transforming into a flat, threaded, red runner nearly as elaborate in design as the wall hangings. A continued lack of windows made it feel like the dead of night.
At the end of the corridor, I stopped to decide which way to turn. To my right stood another closed door. Straight ahead, a stairway disappeared into the dark unknown. I wondered if perhaps it led to the library above the room from which I had come. To my left stretched additional hallway that broke off into other rooms and corridors.
I tried the handle on the door, curious to see if it was locked. It wasn’t. Pushing it partway open, enough to peek inside, I discovered what appeared to be an unusual storage room. There were multiple shelves holding lidded canisters and jars, some labeled. The unlabeled containers I could clearly see through. A few caught my eye right off, namely a jar filled with dead moths and butterflies; one with the remains of bat wings; and another holding the dry skulls of some small type of rodent. I quickly closed the door upon sight of a jar of spiders, not because of the creepiness of a collection of eight-legged crawlers, but because I swore a few of them moved. My brain told me it couldn’t be so. Spiders would surely be dead after years in a sealed jar. I decided it was my imagination toying with me, though I didn’t care to check.
Turning away from the door, I looked as far down the adjacent corridor as I could see, noticing nothing of interest to draw me in that direction. My choice was made, and I grabbed one of the torch lights from off the wall before starting up the stairs. It was a steep ascent that veered to the left, up and around like a corkscrew. There was no carpeting to soften the cement steps, and not one tapestry decorated the walls. With only a blue flame to light my way, I grew steadily anxious with every passing minute. I nearly turned around, ready to escape the empty narrow spiral, when a sliver of actual daylight beckoned me to continue upward.
The steps deposited me in another corridor, this one twice as wide as the one downstairs and boasting painted portraits evenly-spaced on both walls. Each painting was of a dark-haired, broad-faced, thick-browed, smirking individual—the group of them unmistakably related. I didn’t take time to closely examine the portraits because my greater attention was drawn to the splinter of daylight seeping from beneath a closed door at the end of the hallway. I was certain this meant it was morning outside, and I wanted to look through a window and see the neighboring landscape for myself.
The door turned out to be another heavy structure of exquisite craftmanship. I turned the knob carefully and uttered my husband’s name, just in case he was in the room enjoying the morning light. When I peeked inside, the chamber was empty. More peculiar was the fact that there were no windows anywhere to be seen. What shone like daylight was in fact a golden glow emanating from a round, reflective, glass ball. The sphere sat in a nest of what looked like metallic thorny brambles the color of mahogany. What a curious light it was, ebbing and waning in intensity as if something breathed at the heart of it.
With my eyes glued on the mysterious play of light, I entered the room and approached a long, oval table which held up the glowing orb. I felt my gaze drawn to it, captured by a scene that played out void of sound. I became more intrigued upon recognizing some of the characters as werewolves in their human form—the same ones I had been forced to confront with the enchantress, Vallatrece. I observed the scene closely, trying to understand what sort of argument was taking place. It was difficult without the aid of sound, but it appeared that the oldest werewolf—I recalled his name as Kresh—was standing his ground against the younger, male wolves who were joined by other persons with visibly unique features. These others kept as still as statues, their skin as white and smooth as porcelain. Their crimson eyes sent a shiver down my spine. All of them were staring at the lone wolf, their faces hard and determined. His words, desperate in delivery, seemed to have no sway on the hearers.
Curious about how a glass ball could show me such things, I placed my fingers on the orb, meaning to pick it up and examine it. There was an immediate reaction to my touch that erased the vision in a swirling shroud of graying mist. Inside the ball, the mist turned black while shards of jagged light streaked mutely through the clouds inside. It was like a miniature lightning storm in the dead of night with the exception of no heralding thunder. I took a step back as the metallic, thorny brambles came to life and reached around the ball, slowly concealing it from my view. It was a most peculiar sight to witness.
Having no desire to touch the thing again, my attention turned to the other items strewn about the table. There was a large old book, thick with yellowed pages. It lay open near the middle, coated in an accumulation of dust. Hesitant to touch the pages, I blew a forceful exhale over the top—a foolish mistake that caused a cloud of fine particles to attack my sinuses. Coughing and sneezing while waving my hands about to clear the air, I automatically reached for a square of cloth lying near the book. The handkerchief—or so I thought it was—tugged away from my fingers until I let go, surprised by a living piece of fabric. The cloth then twisted itself, forming wing-like appendages at two corners that fell on the book and cleaned the pages, magically sweeping a new cloud of dust away from me. When the job was complete, the square of fabric fell limp onto the table. I stood there frozen and utterly amazed.
The words my husband had said earlier echoed in my mind: “People believed this place to be haunted.” I could understand why.
While inspecting the pages of the old book, I realized the script was foreign to me. I was certain I stood no chance of deciphering any of the unfamiliar letters, not that reading my own alphabet was an easy chore. There were accompanying pictures, however, one on each page. I scrutinized these drawings more closely. The first was of a full moon the color of blood sitting low and large in the sky. I recognized it as the Hallows Eve moon that always preceded the gathering of killer werewolves to the village of Tarishe. The second drawing depicted a silver sword that owned the same type of hilt and the same thin, gold line down the center of the blade as my own sword. It was the only weapon I knew to be deadly to werewolves.
“What is this I’m seeing?” my lips muttered aloud.
At that very moment, I was startled yet again when another item rose from the table and flew through the air toward me, stopping to hover directly before my eyes. I flinched away, gasping, before recognizing it as a set of spectacles. Apparently, it wanted me to look through them. Cautiously, I moved my face close enough to see into the lenses. I expected to view a stone wall, for that was exactly what the lenses were facing. My jaw dropped when what I actually observed was the landscape on the outside of the building. The magical, floating glasses were allowing me to see through walls!
I grabbed the spectacles out of the air and slipped them onto my face. Reaching out, I approached the wall and touched its stone structure, running my fingers over a coarse texture that proved it was there. My eyes, however, continued to observe things beyond the barrier—a forest of conifer trees outlined by an early hint of dawn. There was a small yard below, just before the forest, made of field grass and purple wild flowers. If I waited much longer, I would witness the autumn colors of a sunrise behind the trees.
I was feeling excited by my magical discoveries, wondering what they were for, to whom they once belonged, whether or not my husband was aware of these enchanted heirlooms. Setting the glasses down on the table, I reached for another, a dried flower that seemed to do nothing at all for the entire time I held it. Pinching at the stem with two fingers, I wiggled and waved the stiff flower, but nothing happened. At last, I determined it was just a common, dried flower.
My eyes glanced up at the open door when I heard my name called from a distance inside the house. Replacing the spectacles on my face again, I looked in the direction of the sound and saw Thaddeus through two walls and a portion of flooring. My husband was making his way up the spiral staircase. He would reach my floor in a matter of seconds. Again, he called out my name, so I took off the magic lenses and placed them where I had found them. Then I went to circle the table, meaning to meet my husband at the top of the staircase.
While skirting the room, I glanced over a number of intriguing items—things I hoped to investigate at another time. One in particular was a sizeable jewel attached to a braided, silver chain. It reminded me of the red jewel Vallatrece wore about her neck, except this one was dark indigo in color and dull; it lacked any inner glow. My hand curved around it, to feel at the smooth surface, when my mind burst wide awake. Every tender emotion I had felt for the man approaching from down the corridor withered to nothingness. I heard him call again for the vile creature, Catherine. The name—the identity forced upon my clouded mind—was a sick, twisted fraud. I was not her. I knew with perfect clarity who I was.
Queen Duvalla.
A werewolf.
The wife of Kresh.
The Tarishe Curse had been dispelled. A forgetful cloud no longer tricked my brain. My hand continued to cup the blue jewel, and I realized that this was the magic that had freed my heart and mind. I picked it up just as Thaddeus walked through the door. Our eyes met, and I watched the smile on his face disappear when he comprehended the depth of hatred staring back at him. His gaze jumped to the jewel in my hands, and we both watched how the stone pulsed, glowing a deep, dark indigo. I could read a great deal of concern—even fear—in his features as his eyes locked onto mine.
“Put the necklace down,” he said as cautiously as if I were holding the tip of my sword to his throat.
I scowled, conveying fourteen years of pent-up anger, and then I slipped the chain around my neck. "Come and make me, pigeon."

Copyright 2017 Richelle E. Goodrich
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