I've been whiling away the winter on my blog with a serial story--"A Cold Spring." Episodes 15 and 16 are below. We are rushing toward the conclusion, but you can catch up with previous episodes HERE. (You'll find a Groundhog Day present there, too. *Hint: Two Bonus Episodes.)
“I see why they call a group of crows a murder,” mutters Mayebelle. “If I could get my hands on them, I’d wring their necks.”
She tosses a clump of mud at the impudent birds. The projectile falls to earth with a soggy splash, stirring up the flock. They wheel and kite, screaming epithets and curses with renewed vigor.
One particularly large and particularly vocal crow dives at Mayebelle, raking her head with sharp talons. Another tries the same with me, but I send a spark of green magic into his feathers. Maddock’s old fire spell smolders in the soft down beneath the coarse plumage. The crow retreats hurling curses at me from the safety of the thick fir trees.
“Let’s get inside the croft before they come back.” Mayebelle fingers the scratch on her head, limping toward the door. “The devil’s in all animals today. Even Pyewacket refused to eat a perfectly good bit of baked chicken. He snaps with static every time I touch him.”
Pyewacket the black cat watches us from the windowsill. His amber eyes focus on something behind me. In a fluid motion, he rises on his toes. White teeth flash and black fur fuzzes to spiky heights.
A flutter of feathers near my ear and sharp claws on my shoulder bring me up short. A crow--not the pushy young one who attacked Mayebelle--but an old crow with notched wings and rheumy eyes perches on my shoulder.
“Stand still, Allium,” cries Mayebelle. “I’ll fetch the besom and make him regret the day he visited our garden.” She disappears inside the croft.
The crow’s claws bite into the meaty part of my arm, but he’s standing on only one foot. He clutches something in the other. I hold out my hand, coaxing him to release his burden. He winks a bright bird eye and drops an object onto my open palm.
“I bring you this in remembrance of one who saved my nest many years ago.” The bird speaks slowly, making sure I understand. “A La Croix he was. You have his magic.”
Before Mayebelle returns with the broom, he flaps his moldering wings and soars out of sight.
I squeeze my fingers around the crow’s gift. I don’t have to look at it to know what I hold.
On the night Lucia and Maddock disappeared, I’d put it on the table in front of me. Through that last dinner, I enjoyed the dark mystery of the witch stone, felt the subtle pull of its magnetic aura.
When Lucia appeared, Maddock hurried me out of the castle before I had time to grab it. That’s the last I saw of it.
“Allium, you can’t go.” Mayebelle flattens herself against the door as if she means to stop me with bodily force.
“That stone was inside the castle, Mayebelle—Inside.” I jam a blanket into my worn duffle bag along with underwear and woolen socks.
“It’s such a long way, and you won’t be able to travel quickly. Not in your condition.”
“I can be in Highmoor Valley in four days.” I pick up a sweater and push it into the bag.
“We don’t know what might be out there. Beyond the boundary.” Mayebelle casts a fear-filled eye out the window. “Maddock would come here—if he could.”
“He may be hurt. He may need help.”
“And just what are a cripple and a pregnant woman going to do about that?”
After Mayebelle found me babbling on the road, we lingered in Highmoor Valley for weeks––hoping the castle would pop into existence again. At last, Mayebelle convinced me to return with her to her home. I had just enough sense left to lay a protective boundary just beyond the fringe of trees encircling her plot of land. Neither of us has ventured beyond it since.
I always intended to go back. As little Petunia, Lavender, or Felicity grew, I abandoned the idea of returning until she was born.
The witch stone simmers in my hand, warm and pulsing with energy. I can’t wait any longer. I string it with a jute cord and slip it over my head. The stone nestles between my breasts.
“I’m going, Mayebelle. You don’t have to come. I know how hard it is for you to go . . .outside. I understand.” I settle the stiff woolen poncho over my shoulders and hoist the duffel bag.
“What if the baby comes while you’re on the road?”
“I’ll be back before then.” I waddle out the door, muffling the raw spring wind with a scarf around my face. Little Abbie or Betty or Celeste taps softly beneath my rib cage––encouragement, I think.
The sun is already westering, but I have to get started. Before I reach the gate, Mayebelle’s hoarse voice calls from the door of her cozy croft.
“Alright, you stubborn gobshite. You can’t go alone. Wait while I pack. You’ve run off without provisions and I’ll have to leave food for Pyewacket.”
To my over excited senses, Mayebelle wastes precious time. She moves as slowly as sap while I dance with impatience.
“I’m not waiting. You can catch up.”
The garden gate, damp and swollen, refuses to open. I yank it with both hands, suddenly desperate to escape this safe, stagnant place. Why did I delay? What if I’m already too late?
The gate opens with a creak of wet wood and I do my best to hurry along the gloomy, rain-drenched road. The gate latch snaps behind me and padding footsteps grow louder.
Mayebelle catches up to me easily, despite her twisted, ice-burned legs. She limps to my side and puts a supporting hand under my arm. “At least I won’t slow you down. You can’t go any faster than I can.”
I’m glad the scarf hides my face. I would hate for her to see how happy I am she’s with me––how relieved I won’t be alone when I look down on Highmoor Valley once again.
A black crow rides the cold wind beneath the lowering clouds. His harsh cry, distant but clear, falls with the mist of rain.
“Hurry,” he calls. “Time is changing.”