The Return of the Witch
By Paula Brackston
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Paula Brackston
All rights reserved.
MATRAVERS, FEBRUARY 2014
Willow Cottage appeared pleasingly unchanged, looking so very much as it had the day I made it my home nearly six years before. February winds had brought abundant snow, so that the entire village was thickly coated. The storm had moved on; the air was clear and the sky free of clouds. Morning sun glinted off the white ground. Standing at the gate that marked the boundary of the garden, I noticed the holly plants I had used to fill gaps in the hedge had grown well, adding their prickly strength to the protective border around the front of the house. Beneath the layer of snow I could discern the familiar shapes of sturdy shrubs and winter plants, and to the side the willows themselves were still graceful, even in their unclothed, brumal state. On the roof bare patches of slate gleamed wetly where the heat from the chimney had melted the snow, and a steady plume of pale smoke suggested seasoned wood was being burned on the Aga in the kitchen. My heart tightened. I could so clearly picture the cozy stove, the worn furniture mellowed by age, rows of jars and bottles on the aged oak dresser, the low window over the sink looking out to the vegetable patch at the rear of the house.
But I was remembering the way things were when I lived there. When Willow Cottage was mine. Now it belonged to Tegan. Would she have altered the interior? I wondered. Would I find things displaced, new furnishings, a different mood to the place, perhaps? Of course, Tegan had every right to do as she pleased with her own home. I had given it to her completely, without condition, precisely so that she might find a sense of belonging that seemed to have always eluded her during her somewhat rootless childhood. And how would she receive me? There had been times when I had longed for this moment to come, but now I found myself reluctant to open the gate, walk up the narrow garden path, and knock upon the front door. I had visited her in her dreams on several occasions during the past five years. I had sought to give comfort and encouragement when I could. And I had tried to warn her. I was satisfied that she had heard me, and I believed I understood her well enough to know that she did gain solace and reassurance from that tenuous contact. To stand before her again, however, solid, earthbound, returned as if from the dead, well, that was another matter entirely. She would be shocked. She might well be frightened. Would she be angry with me for leaving her? Had she forgiven me? Would she comprehend the reason for my coming back, uninvited, into her life?
A low sound from beyond the house caught my attention. Muffled by the snow, the noise was rhythmic, workmanlike, coming from the kitchen garden. Sweeping, I decided. Tegan. I pushed open the gate and followed the path around the side of the house, happier that our reunion was to be outside, beneath the cheerful sun and the soft blue of the sky. At shoulder height, a blackbird flew as my escort, its song alerting everyone to my arrival. As I rounded the building the noise of sweeping ceased, and there she stood, leaning on a handmade besom, head turned to see who it was who called upon her. I stopped in my snowy tracks. Willow Cottage might have altered little, but Tegan was transformed. The slight, awkward girl I had left behind had grown into a strong, beautiful, young woman. She was warmly clothed against the winter's cold, with a woolen hat and gloves and a bulky padded coat. Her Wellington boots looked a size too big, and her legs were still slender, but she had an adult shape to her now. I studied her face, trying to read her expression, eager to gauge the impact seeing me would have upon her. She gasped. For what seemed an age, she neither spoke nor moved. My heart lurched beneath my breast. I could only imagine what turmoil her own must be in. Would she trust the evidence of her eyes? I am not sure that I would have done so, had our roles been reversed. I forced myself to speak, to say something, anything, to break the unbearable tension of that moment.
"You should not leave your sweeping unfinished," I told her, pointing at the flat stones of the pathway about her feet, which were still smeared with snow. "Come evening that will freeze. An old woman could slip and break her bones."
Tegan straightened, her grip on the broom handle tightening minutely.
"I see no old women here," she replied, her face still inscrutable.
And then she screamed. It was a cry of pure delight. Throwing the broom down, she ran to me and flung her arms around me, pulling me to her so tightly she fair knocked the breath from my body.
"It's you! It's really you!" she cried, pulling back to look at me before hugging me again. "I can't believe it! Well, I can believe it. I mean, I must! Because here you are. But how can you be? Well, why not? Why wouldn't you be able to? ... And I know I'm gabbling, but what did you expect? I mean, turning up, just like this. And looking, well, just like you!" She was laughing and crying now, and I was aware of my own tears mingling with hers as she kissed my face excitedly. "And you're exactly as you always were. Look at you. Oh, Elizabeth, I knew you'd come back! I just knew it. Even though it doesn't make any sense." She paused to sniff and wipe her eyes with her gloved hand. "Here you are."
I nodded, smiling as I stepped back to look at her once more, taking her gloved hands in mine. "Here I am, but where is the skinny child I remember? Who is this woman, all grown up and sensibly dressed, for once?" Now I noticed that it was not merely her physical exuberance that I had felt. There was something else. A different manner of strength.
"Am I so different, really?"
"You still chatter as much as you ever did, which is to say a great deal!"
She beamed. "How you must have missed that."
"Almost as much as I missed your cooking."
"Ha! Now I know you are confusing me with someone else." She laughed.
We fell silent and simply stood, looking at each other. The morning air around us seemed to thicken, the day itself began to grow heavy with questions, with unspoken thoughts, with hurt.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" I asked.
She shrugged, a little uncertain. "It's your house," she said.
"No, Tegan. It's yours."
She jammed her hands in her pockets, grinning. "The kettle's on," she said as she led the way to the back door.
Once inside she stepped out of her boots and I did the same, leaving them to dry on the mat. I confess I was touched to find the kitchen unchanged. The Aga sat as it always had against the far wall with the same kettle whistling softly on one of the hot plates. The cream enamel of the old stove was a little more blackened and worn in places, but it gave out a welcoming heat. The ramshackle collection of chairs, tables, and rugs remained, as did the dresser. I could not resist inspecting the bottles on the shelves. Jars of preserved fruit and pickles from the garden. Dried herbs. Flower oils and infusions, all neatly labeled.
"Oh! You continue to make these?" I picked up a dark blue bottle of lavender oil, removing the stopper to inhale the uplifting fumes. "This is very good. Very good indeed."
"Should be," said Tegan, fetching mugs for tea. "I used your recipe. And your plants from the garden."
"But you made it. It is your creation, not mine."
She clattered on with mugs and spoons, taking milk from the fridge and generally busying herself. After her initial excitement at seeing me, she now seemed subdued in my presence. It was as if in those first few moments her guard was down, and her genuine delight at my return was revealed. Now, however, she had reined in her emotions. The barriers were back up, and she would not let me so close again. Not yet, at least. I reminded myself how much she had been alone in her life. I ought not to expect instant forgiveness or an immediate connection. I had left her. I would have to earn her trust once more. What worried me was that we did not have the luxury of time in which to reforge our friendship. The danger was very near and very real, and I must prepare her for it.
Tegan took off her coat and hung it on the back of a chair. As she did so, there was a movement in the top pocket and, to my astonishment, a small white mouse wriggled out. He looked at me, whiskers twitching, bright ruby eyes holding me with a firm stare.
"Is that ... is that the mouse I gave you?" I asked.
Tegan casually reached out a hand and the tiny creature hopped onto it, ran up her arm, and settled on her shoulder where it evidently felt most at home. "Yup, same one," she said, pausing to give it a quick scratch behind its ear. "Still going strong, aren't you Aloysius?"
"But, that would make him, what ... nearly eight years old? Rather an ancient age for a mouse."
Tegan stopped what she was doing and leaned back against the Aga. She folded her arms and stared at me.
"When I met you, you were three hundred and eighty-four years old. You showed no signs of aging or dying the whole time we were together. You disappeared off in a puff of bloody smoke to what you told me was some sort of witchy heaven, and now you pop up here again, calm as ever, telling me how to sweep snow off the path, as if you've just been down to the shops for five minutes, and you have a problem with a mouse with an above-average lifespan?"
"Not a problem, no ..."
"You're not the only one around here with any magic in you, you know. Aloysius was with me that night in Batchcombe Woods. The night it all kicked off. He was in the thick of that chaos, with spells and curses and fire ... Something kept him alive then." She turned to kiss the mouse. "It's kept him alive ever since, I guess."
"I'm glad," I told her. "I'm glad he's been with you."
She put the tea things on the table and we sat down. As soon as she opened the biscuit tin Aloysius positioned himself next to her mug and neatly took crumbs of shortbread from her. I wanted to reach across the table and take her hand. Wanted to tell her how wonderful it was to be with her again. How much I'd missed her. How much I loved her. Perhaps I myself had spent too many long lonely years guarding my feelings, keeping myself shut away, turning from people instead of toward them. Or perhaps I simply knew Tegan was not yet ready to forgive me. Not yet ready to risk being hurt again. I warmed my hands around the mug of tea and took a piece of shortbread. It tasted wonderfully homemade and for a moment I was utterly taken up with the novel sensation of eating again. I had learned many things during my five years in the Summerlands. Things about the craft and about myself, not the least of which was how much I cared for being in the physical world, and how much I missed simple pleasures such as eating a biscuit.
"Now you have really surprised me, Tegan. This is delicious!"
She did not smile at my allusion to her youthful cooking failures this time. Instead she frowned.
"OK, snowy paths, lavender oil, now shortbread. Let's stop dancing around the elephant in the room, shall we? No one is supposed to leave the Summerlands. You and I both know you didn't come back to see if I'd learned to keep house."
"No, you're right about that."
"So, let's have it. I'm not a child anymore, you can't hide things from me because you think I won't like them. Why, Elizabeth? Why now, after all this time? Why are you here?"
"I needed to speak with you."
"Ha! Do you know how many times I've needed to speak with you the past five years? No, course you don't; how could you? You weren't here. You left me."
"Tegan, I'm sorry, I had no choice."
"We always have a choice!" she snapped before regaining control of her temper. Aloysius, clearly sensitive to the abrupt change of mood in the room, scuttled into the pocket of her sweater. "Look, I've learned a lot since ... since you went. I've traveled. I've studied the craft all over the world. I've sat at the feet of witches and shamans and I've listened. The things they taught me ..." She looked at me levelly now. "I'm not the same person I was."
"I can see that. I'm so proud of you."
"And you know the biggest thing I learned? After all that wisdom, with all that studying, the single most important thing I got was this: The buck stops here," she said, jabbing a finger at her chest. "We have to take responsibility for our own lives. Our own choices."
She looked away again, but not before I had glimpsed the tears in her eyes.
"Tegan, I was always with you, as much as I could be ... And I'm here now because I don't want you to be on your own. We will face this together."
Her body tensed. I let my words sink in. Let her make the connection. Let her reach the only logical conclusion there was to be reached. Without looking up, she asked, "How did he do it? How did he get away?"
I had thought so carefully about how I would tell her, and yet still I faltered, and my words seemed inadequate.
"It could not have been anticipated," I told her. "When I took Gideon to the Summerlands it required the combined magic strength of myself and several of my sister witches, but the transfer was successful. He was captured and kept secure. Or at least, we believed so."
"No one has ever been able to break free of their bonds and leave the Summerlands before. It is simply without precedent."
"But Gideon managed to do it."
"He cannot have acted alone. He must have had assistance from someone."
"Who? Did one of the other witches help him?"
"No! No witch would do such a thing."
"So who, then?"
"I don't know. None of us does. It is not the most important thing. What matters is that he was able to leave, to return to this time. To this place."
"To this village?"
"To Batchcombe Woods."
"Oh, well, that's at least, what ... ten miles away? We're all right here then, aren't we!" She was blustering to hide her own fear. I wanted to reassure her, to tell her that there was nothing to be afraid of, but she was right; she was no longer a child, and she deserved to know the truth.
"He would have to return to the point from where he was taken. That much we do know."
"So where is he now?"
"We don't know. Not exactly. My sister witches and I, we have searched as best we are able, but he has cloaked his whereabouts."
Tegan gave a dry laugh. "Well, I think I can help you out with that. Just hang around here long enough and he's bound to show up." She shook her head slowly. "Which is why you are here. You know he'll come after me. You expect him to. So, have you come to save me, or to catch him? Which is it?"
"They are one and the same thing. Except that, to be perfectly honest with you, catching him is not an option. Not this time. This time we must not leave him with the opportunity to return and do more harm. This time we must finish him."
"I seem to remember that was what we failed to do the first time we faced him."
"Things are different now. You are different now, Tegan. Your own gift, you've worked so hard. Together ..."
Tegan got to her feet and strode over to the sink where she made a show of rinsing her tea mug. The set of her shoulders, her brisk movements, her poorly hidden tears, all told of her very real fear. And she was right to be afraid, and that thought caused within me a choking sadness. I stood up and went to her.
"I'm sorry, Tegan. If there had been another way, anything, to spare you having to face him again ... I am sorry, truly I am." I placed my hand lightly on her arm.
She hesitated. "So you'll stay?" she asked at last. "You'll stay and help me?"
She touched my hand with her fingers, a tentative but meaningful contact. The instant her skin met mine I experienced the unmistakable tingle of magic. Tegan's magic. The strength of it took my breath away. Over the years I had been in the presence of many witches, but even with such a brief connection I could tell that what I was feeling, what Tegan held inside her, was something quite extraordinary. Such unexpected power, such an alteration in what was fundamental to the witch that Tegan had become, left me shaken.
If she noticed my shock Tegan chose not to show it.
"I've got to feed the chickens," she said, looking up at me with a brave smile. "Want to come and see them?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Return of the Witch by Paula Brackston. Copyright © 2016 Paula Brackston. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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