We’ve barely tipped our toes into December, but before life gets too busy, I thought I’d share a Muddy River Christmas short story to put you in the mood. Even when life gets dicey, magic can happen:
A MUDDY RIVER CHRISTMAS BY JUDI LYNN
Snow covered the ground in a white blanket. As I looked out my kitchen window, I watched my familiar, Claws—an ocelot—make his way to the river bank at the back of our property. The cat didn’t like snow, but he liked staying in our old Victorian house day in and day out even less.
I heard Raven’s Lamborghini pull in the driveway and make its way to the garage. A short time later, I listened to my fire demon stomp his feet on the door mat near the back door, and a minute later, he made his way into the kitchen. His black hair was messed by a sharp breeze. The cold air had colored his cheeks and his amber eyes gleamed. He looked more scrumptious than usual.
Sniffing the air, he put the bags he’d carted inside on our wooden work table. “The kitchen smells good. The ham and roasts make my mouth water.”
I nodded. Eight pies sat on the countertop, ready for our guests tonight. I invite my entire coven and their families to our house to celebrate Yule every year. Witches have no qualms with Christmas. We just celebrate it for different reasons than most. December twenty first is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Which means, from now on, each day grows a bit longer. So we eat and toast the birth of the Sun God, the Turning of the Wheel—our calendar. We put a Yule log in our fireplace and even decorate an evergreen tree. Of course, the stars on our trees stand for pentagrams, not the star of Bethlehem. And most of us exchange presents to rejoice in the flow of positive energy into our world, friendship, love, and peace on earth.
I already had a sweet potato casserole in the oven, roasted green beans with hazelnuts and feta, plain and oyster dressings, and a Waldorf salad. A few of my coven—not all of them were cooks—were bringing dishes to share, too. At the last minute, Raven had decided that wine and beer weren’t festive enough and had run into town to buy champagne.
Raven beat whipping cream while I glazed the ham. And then cars started pulling into the driveway. Sugi and Noira, who own the coffeeshop in town, arrived first. They’d offered to bring something, but they bake all the time for their shop. I’d told them to take a break and just bring themselves. Meda and Brown strolled in next with a large pan of scalloped potatoes. Chloe and Archer came with the famous mac ‘n cheese he serves at his carryout barbecue restaurant. The people and food just kept coming.
We were all raising our glasses in a toast when a burst of energy exploded near the archway to the living room and a man with a gun aimed at something popped before us. We stared at him, and he stared at us. I sniffed. A mortal. Then he turned the gun our way.
How in Hecate had he gotten here? My coven and I had protected Muddy River with wards. No enemies or mortals could pass them. But he had, hadn’t he? Someone had transported him to us. I raised my hand and chanted a shield.
“Stay back, or I’ll shoot,” he warned. He looked to be in his late twenties—a thin young man with wavy brown hair. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a tweed jacket.
Raven scowled, and fire danced around him in a flaming halo. “I wouldn’t pull that trigger if I were you. If it hits Hecate’s shield, it could ricochet.”
The man’s eyes practically bulged from his face. Then he glanced at Archer whose fur was beginning to sprout. Chloe’s bear shifter didn’t like to be threatened. The shooter’s hand trembled, and he had to grip the gun with both hands to steady it. “Don’t take one step toward me, or I swear, I’ll take out as many of you as I can before you get to me.”
“We don’t want you here.” I frowned. “Who sent you?”
“Sent me? A minute ago, I was standing in front of a house where an old woman lives. She’s a witch, I know it. Owls come and go from her house. Green smoke drifts out of her chimney. Since I moved next to her, nothing’s gone right. She’s hexed me is what she’s done. I looked it up online. The only way to break a hex is to kill the person who sent it, but I couldn’t do it.” His shoulders slumped. “Who knows what will happen to me next? Maybe she’ll turn me into a toad.”
I stared at him. “Do you live in Pennsylvania?”
He jerked, caught off guard. “How did you know?”
Raven frowned at me, raising a dark eyebrow in question, and I explained. “My dear friend, Carlotta, lives there. She prefers everything old-fashioned, won’t buy a cellphone, so sends owl messages instead.”
“But Carlotta. . . “ Raven’s frown deepened, confused.
“Aurel’s wife is named that, too.” He was a vampire friend of ours. “But my Carlotta is ancient. We meet every once in a while at solstice festivals.”
“Solstice?” The man scanned us nervously. “Are you all witches?”
Raven grimaced. “No, but none of us are mortal.”
He stared, unsure what to make of that.
“What’s happened to you since you moved next to my friend?” Carlotta was a white witch, like me and my coven. “She wouldn’t curse anybody.”
His gun hand dropped to his side. “What hasn’t happened? My girlfriend dumped me. My publisher dumped me. And I found out I have cancer. Twice now, I’ve caught my neighbor stirring brews in her backyard and sending the smoke to my place. How do you fight a witch?” He winced at that and grimaced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you. But. . . “
I shook my head, smiling at him. “If Carlotta made brews for you, she was trying to help you.”
Rubbing his forehead, he sounded frustrated. “I like her. She was always nice to me. At least, I thought she was. Until. . . “
I interrupted. “She must like you, too, but it sounds like she couldn’t cure your cancer, so she sent you here.”
He raised a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose before settling his glasses back in place. “Is that what happened to me? I was in front of her house, then everything blurred, and then I was here. She sent me to you?”
I hesitated a minute. “She knows lots of different supernaturals live here, not just witches.”
“Why does that matter?” Raven narrowed his eyes, studying the man.
“Witches might not have a cure for cancer, but if a vampire or a shifter bit him, their immortality would wipe the disease out of his system.”
“Bite me?” He stared. “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea.” He backed toward the door. “Then what would I be?”
“One of us.” Raven gave him a level stare. “And we’re not so bad. You probably couldn’t see your family again, though.”
“They’ll age,” Raven said. “You won’t. They’ll wonder.”
The man ran a hand through his hair, upset. “This was a bad idea. Can you send me back?”
“If that’s what you want. What’s your name anyway?” I asked.
“Jason. And I appreciate what Carlotta was trying to do. At least, I think I do, but I love my family. I don’t think I could choose to never see them.”
Archer spoke up. He was back in his mortal form—big and brawny like the grizzly he shifted into. “How far has the cancer progressed? How long will you see them anyway? And do you have good insurance? What will it cost for them to watch you die?”
Jason winced. “I’ve already decided not to fight it, to only take meds for the pain.”
Meda’s husband, Brown—a deputy sheriff who worked with supernaturals and mortals—gave him a sympathetic look. “Raven and I could fake your death, something fast, so that your family would think you died in a car accident and your body burned to ashes. In some ways, that would be kinder to them.”
Jason’s eyes went wide, clearly shocked. “You do that?”
“We’ve done it before.” Brown glanced toward Raven, who nodded.
The poor man looked so overwhelmed, I took mercy on him. “We’re not trying to pressure you into anything. Carlotta must think you’re worth saving, or she wouldn’t have sent you here. But we won’t harm you, and neither will she. She can even concoct brews to take away your pain. They’re better than meds. This isn’t an easy decision, though, so take your time.”
“I don’t have much time.” His shoulders drooped.
I sighed. “You have to decide. Until you do, we can send you back to Carlotta. And for Hecate’s sake, lock that gun away.”
He looked embarrassed. Then he looked at our Yule meal. “Can I stay to eat with you?”
No mortals were allowed in Muddy River, but this was Yule time, after all. We could make an exception. Raven went to get another chair and I put another setting on the table. Then we all raised our glasses again, and this time, we did toast.
Jason filled his plate and listened to us talk. He smiled now and then but didn’t join in. I got the impression he was a quiet, thoughtful man. No wonder Carlotta liked him.
Finally, when we were finishing dessert, Meda looked at him and asked, “If you have a publisher, you must be an author. What do you write anyway?”
He blushed, the red creeping all the way to his hairline. He pushed his glasses further up his nose, mumbling, “Mysteries solved by witches.”
She burst out laughing. “And you make us the good guys?”
“No wonder Carlotta likes you.” She raised her glass to clink it against his.
“Do you have a big family?” I asked him.
“No, only my sister, mom, and grandmother. They live close to each other in California.”
“How often do you see them?” I’d been close to my family before they all died in the Salem witch trials. Sometimes, I still missed them.
He looked down, embarrassed. “Probably only once or twice a year, not as often as I should.” His gaze slid away from us and he grew distant. We left him to his thoughts. When everything was winding down, he finally spoke. “All three of those women are strong. They can weather anything. And I’m too young. I don’t want to die. If I decided to be a shifter, could I be one that turns into an owl?”
Brown grinned at him. “So that you can visit Carlotta? You can do that, can’t you, Hester? If I bite him and you rush magic into him at the same time?”
I nodded. “I’ll get him a potion that helps him shift easily, too.” We’d lost too many young Weres during their first shift, so I’d bespelled a brew to remedy that.
Jason took a deep breath and let it out with a gust. “Then let’s do this. Then I can fly to spend New Year’s Eve with Carlotta, can’t I? If she lets me in her house, I can shift where no one will see me. Maybe she’ll let me stay with her a while until I get used to the new me.”
I smiled but didn’t comment. If he moved in with Carlotta, he’d probably never leave. She was like that. Brown looked around the table. “I’ll wait to bite you until after everyone leaves. It’s going to hurt. A lot. But Hester can remove the pain once it’s done.”
It wasn’t until everyone said our goodbyes that we led Jason to the attic where I stored my books of spells. I looked up the correct one, and when Brown and Jason were ready, I wrapped Jason in my magic. Brown hadn’t exaggerated. The attack wasn’t pleasant, but I immediately eased the pain when it was finished. Half an hour later, Jason’s body transformed into an owl.
I went to the window at the back of the room and opened it. “Fly to Carlotta’s, tell her the news, and when you’re ready, drive your car back to Muddy River. Brown and Raven will do the rest. You might want to wait until after the holidays, so your family can enjoy them.”
With a nod, he stretched his wings and flew into the darkening sky. Brown and Meda watched him before saying their goodbyes. Then Raven helped me clean the kitchen, and we settled in front of the yule log in the living room. Its last embers would die at midnight.
Raven shook his head, stretching his arm across the back of the sofa to rest it on my shoulders. “This was a Yule to remember.”
I had to agree. “A perfect night for rebirth. Jason’s life will just get longer and better, like the days.”
Tired of company and celebrating, Claws stretched across our feet, purring loudly. The hand on the mantel clock ticked one-minute past midnight, and the log went out. Time for bed. Tomorrow, the day would be filled with a little more light.