October is over but that won’t stop the short stories, I’ve got lots more witches planned for you. This short story is spoiler heavy for Phantom and Rook and appears in the novella When Witches Sing.
I stand at the threshold between pebbles and forest, unsure whether to invade the Hedge Witch’s private moment. A violin married to an electronic beat produces a calm and distracting presence that rests in my ear drums. I hum along to the tune, fingers twitching with indecision. I’m sure he knows I’m here, I’m the definition of not subtle.
I tap the side of one ear bud, silencing the music.
Laughter and music echoes through the woods behind me, a distant reminder of the day’s celebrations that are taking place without us. It’s the first Game since Thatch disappeared, or rather the day it would’ve been if the Game still existed. No one has mentioned it, or Thatch, and thus far have smoothly referred to the festival taking place on the mainland by its new name.
The Min Festival.
I close my eyes and breathe, envisioning what waits for us.
Witch House has red and orange banners decorating it and candles burning in every window. Gourds and pumpkins decorate the backyard, those of the painted and carved variety. We grew them ourselves, well, it was all Felix mostly. He has a tendency to bring life to anything he touches.
Buffet tables full of crockpots and random tupperware dishes wait in the backyard too, with a big bonfire that perfumes the woods, accompanied by our family and friends. In a few hours, when dusk hits, we’ll tell stories around the fire. Stories of my family’s life, and the history of where we live, who crafted the earth and watched over the people living upon it.
After a year, that word still stumbles in my mind, trips up my tongue.
I open my eyes.
Arlo hasn’t moved from his vigil with the stone by the river.
I take a step forward. My shoes crunch through dead leaves, twigs, then fall upon pebbles and squish into stinking washed up seagrass. Before coming to Arlo’s side, I press my forehead to the pillar composed of bedrock and fossilized life. An ancient energy courses through my cold veins, electric and intense and overwhelming.
But another energy, one that is younger and warmer, all safe and love and home intertwines with it. I swear that the whisper of ‘please come home,’ escapes through the cracks in the stone. Perhaps the words were poured into the pillar in hopes of reaching someone across space and time, but the universe is rejecting the plea.
I don’t comment on it.
Instead I place my palms upon the cool, craggy stone on either side of my head. Through the fringe across my eyes, the icy blue glow surrounding my hands is plain to see. I exhale, relieved to leave behind some of the frantic energy trapped inside me. Parties, or rather any gathering with lots of people, especially kids, is a guarantee for chaos to ensue.
I ensure to soften the magick pouring into the stone with an intent of ‘hello we are here, we are waiting for you.’
I breathe deeply, leaving the stone where it has stood for thousands upon thousands of years. I turn to Arlo, who has not moved other than to turn his head. He watches me with a soft smile, and his magick touched emerald eyes are glistening.
I stand by his side, and we watch the river.
A loon calls from a small island across the way. Otters disturb the water to the east of us, flipping and playing and chittering. Felix reminds me of an otter, and I’ve told him so. Even if I could forget things, I would never be able to forget how red his face got and how much he smiled despite the fact he didn’t want to.
A small tree limb unwillingly follows the soft current wrapping around the island, drifting to the east, to the otters. The smaller of the two finds it, and it’s not long before they’re both submerging the branch until its leaves flutter under the water, only to let it pop above the surface.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Arlo watching the empty sky. There’s a few storm clouds in the distance where the ravine lies, but otherwise it’s the perfect day for an outside celebration. Sunny, but chilly enough to need a few layers. The breeze is something that caresses you instead of assaulting. It’s when a flock of black necked geese and a protective pair of shepherding wyverns fly overhead that I have a guess as to what he’s thinking.
“Do witches have more than one familiar?” I ask, keeping my gaze trained on the birds.
Arlo chuckles softly, but there’s no humor in it. “Hm, I’m not sure. I don’t know any witches who outlived theirs, but then again, Bosko and I found each other much later in life than most do. He lived a good life, he deserves his peace.”
I nod, tapping my thigh rapidly. Bosko passed in his sleep on the last day of October, a few days ago. While Arlo says it was old age, there’s something that itches my brain, insisting that he’s lying. But why would he lie?
“Are you okay?” I ask in a strangled rush that scrapes my throat. My voice will be a constant reminder of my first family. Arlo has taught me sign over the past few months, which I prefer, usually.
Arlo smiles, lifting a shoulder. “I’m fine. Just thought I’d wait here awhile. In case, you know?” He laughs then, shaking his head. “Pretty silly, isn’t it?”
“No.” I say, using more force than I intended. I soften my tone, or atleast, the best I can. “I’ll wait with you.”
And I do.
We stand together for a long time, then settle for sitting cross-legged on the grassy banks where Thatch’s den once lay hidden. It’s still there, but devoid of its contents. I swing my feet over the shoreline’s edge, trying to think of what to say.
“He’s coming back,” Arlo says, interrupting my train of thought with three barely spoken words that are still somehow infused with a firm confidence.
I nod. “I know.”
“You should go back to the party, they’ll be missing you.” Arlo gestures over his shoulder. “I’m surprised Felix hasn’t showed up yet.”
I don’t tell him that Felix is the one that sent me after him. “And you. They’ll be missing you, too.”
Arlo smiles. “I’m just going to wait a little bit longer.”
When I make it back to the cottage, Felix accosts me immediately. He doesn’t come right into my personal space or say anything, but he practically vibrates with excitement whilst awaiting an update.
I dip my chin. “He’s waiting.”
Felix lets out a breath, swiping a hand through his golden hair which hangs around his ears now. His gaze sweeps across the party, at the witches younger and older than us, and the Misfits who are watching us with intent. Tobias tilts his head and long strands of pink catch the breeze.
Out of everyone, Felix’s gaze turns back to me when he asks, “What do we do?”
My lips push together and I hum deeply, fingers twitching as I contemplate the decorated and well lit cottage. The pumpkins, hanging lanterns, tables of food, red and orange and home. I give the witches my attention briefly, then look back to Felix.
I say, “We wait with him.”
Twenty minutes later I find Arlo in the same spot, overlooking the river and bruised sky. His brow is furrowed and jaw is set tight, his deep thoughts obscure my arrival. I clear my throat before the raucous group approaching startles him.
He jumps to standing anyway, eyes wide as he takes me, and the rest of us, in.
“Silas, what …” Arlo starts, then is reduced to a loss as magick permeates the air, thickening the warm fall evening with ozone and rightness.
Tobias, Felix and the others orchestrate tables, decorations and gourds through the air. Candles dance in the atmosphere above the celebration unfolding on the beach, waiting for a place to land. Kitt and Lindsey set to work on organizing the area, whilst Quentin and Loch are in charge of corralling the children. Doc hauls a massive pumpkin that has yet to be carved on one shoulder and holds their wife’s hand with their free paw. Gowan and Iris crouch before the stone pillar.
Caspian wheels over to us, a wreath of flowers in his lap. Arlo stares down at his best friend, mouth open and hands shaking. “What’s this?” Arlo asks, eyes unable to stop moving between the gathering, Caspian, and me.
“We wait together.” I say, promptly ducking my chin into my shoulder. I rub, the fabric against my cheek distracts me from the unpleasant feeling crawling throughout my nerves.
Caspian nods, offering Arlo the flowers. “Silas’ idea. We should’ve thought of it sooner.”
Arlo’s cheeks flush and he takes the wreath with trembling fingers, sparking green eyes. He releases a shuddering breath, caressing the buttery yellow petal of a sunflower. He stares at it for a moment, then lifts his head and smiles at me. “He’s coming back.”
And we wait together.