My students looked happy to see me the next day. They’d enjoyed having substitutes, but even they were ready to return to our old, comfortable routine.
At reading circle, Ashe asked, “Did Witch Birch tell you how good we were?”
I nodded and raised my voice so that everyone would hear. “I saw her last night, and she had nothing but good things to say about all of you.”
The students smiled, happy with themselves.
“She made you sound so good, I thought we’d do something special after lunch if we get all of our morning work done.” That motivated them enough that our reading, writing, and arithmetic went faster than usual. I’d thought it might. So, after lunch, since Yule was only two weeks away, I brought out craft supplies and showed them how to make different witch symbols to hang on their trees at home. We started with a pentagram. After we glued popsicle sticks together in the shape of a star, I showed them how to glue those onto a clear plastic circle. While they worked, I explained in more depth what each point stood for.
“The bottom four points symbolize air, water, earth, and fire. The top point symbolizes divinity, and the circle represents wholeness. Our magic is a unity of the physical and spiritual worlds. Harmony is when the two become one.”
I showed them how to use translucent paint to make blue waves in the upper top. left space. Swirls of clouds decorated the top right, then green leaves went on the lower right, flames on the bottom, and a night sky with stars on the bottom left.
When we finished the pentagram, I passed out heavy foam board, and we cut out the symbol for the triple moon, then painted it golden yellow. As they worked, I explained, “For us, the triple moon represents the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth or the Triple Goddess. The crescent moon facing left symbolizes the maiden—beginnings, love, and purity. The full moon in the center represents the mother or divine love, and the crescent moon facing right, the waxing moon or the crone phase where we reach spiritual wisdom, the Goddess at the height of her magical abilities.”
By the time we finished the triple moons for them to take home, we’d reached the time to practice spells and chants each day. I pointed to the chalkboard. “There are your practice sessions for today. Tomorrow, each of you will make a witch’s knot to take home, and I’ll explain its meaning.”
The next hour flew by. The oldest students were practicing obfuscation spells while the youngest worked with their wands to levitate small items. Again, I had to summon a clap of thunder to get their attention to send them home. Claws opened an eye to give me an evil glare. He didn’t like thunder, but even he had lost track of the hours. He was usually pacing around the room by now or lying by the door to hurry us home. The students walked out of the building, laughing and talking with each other, proudly showing their ornaments to their parents when they slid into cars. We’d had a good day.
I picked up my wand and quickly tidied the room, then grabbed my coat and started for home, Claws running ahead of me. Raven’s car was gone when I got there, so on the spur of the moment, Claws and I got into my SUV and drove to town. I parked behind Birch’s boutique on Main Street, right across from Raven’s office, and walked inside. Birch stood behind the counter, alone.
“No parents today?” I asked.
She grimaced. “They’re letting me run the shop more and more. That’s why I couldn’t make it to your school this afternoon, and I wanted to. They’re tired of the snow and cold and want to retire some place warm.”
I couldn’t hide my surprise. This was the first I’d heard of that. Would Birch move with them? So much for my idea of having her head a young coven. “Are you going to sell the shop?”
“I don’t want to. I don’t want to go. They’re talking about leaving it to me. I’ve already hired Allegra to work here part-time in the evenings.”
Allegra had graduated from my school in the same class as Birch. She was pretty and sweet but not very powerful. She was a hard worker, though, and she’d married a man who was one-fourth vamp last year. I’d heard she was looking for a job.
I pressed my lips together, unsure of myself now. “When do you have to decide if you’ll stay or go with them?”
Birch studied me. “Does it matter?”
I smiled. She was a smart girl. She knew I’d come here for a reason. “I was going to ask you to lead a new coven of young witches for Muddy River, but that will take time. I’m not happy that most girls stop training once they leave my school. You didn’t, and look how much more you’ve learned. You come to every monthly meeting.”
She blinked, surprised. “If I started a new coven, could I still come to train with you and your witches? I don’t want to stop.”
“If would be even better if you stayed with us. You could pass what you learn on to the new witches.”
Her green eyes lit up. “I’d love to lead a new group, but does Muddy River even have enough witches to make a new coven?”
“Maybe not right away, but once you get established, more will come. You’ll probably end up with more than twelve, but that’s all right. You can practice with all of them, but pick the witches you want to make the final thirteen, including you. My coven’s so old and established, we intimidate some of the younger girls.”
Birch came out from behind the counter and began to pace. “If I stay here, I can buy my parents’ house and run the shop. And I could make Muddy River stronger, even safer.”
I wanted her to take her time and to think it over carefully. “Leading a coven is a serious responsibility. You don’t have to decide right now. Talk to your parents about it, then let me know.”
“I want to do it.” She stopped walking and faced me. “But you’re right. I should talk to Mom and Dad first. And I still want to visit your school once or twice a week to help the older girls train.”
“Works for me.” I started to the door. “And you don’t have to rush anything. Give me a call either way, though, when you decide, will you?”
She nodded, returning to her spot behind the counter, her forehead crinkled in thought. I glanced across the street, but the closed sign hung in Raven’s window. He must be meeting with someone today. Since I was in town, though, I decided to stop at the grocery store on my way home. When I walked in, Faiza glanced away from the customer in her check out lane, saw Claws and me and started to smile. But then, when no Raven strode in behind me, the smile crumpled.
I shook my head at her. “My hottie demon isn’t with me today.” The girl has a crush on my husband but is content just to look at him and drool. I swear, if the entire town of Muddy River burned to ashes in a fire and if Faiza could only rescue one person, it would be Raven.
Claws padded to the young Fae and rubbed against her thigh. She reached down to scratch him under his chin. In Muddy River, familiars accompany witches everywhere, and they choose favorite people to nuzzle.
I left Claws to it and went to the meat case. I’d decided to make a quick stew for supper tonight since we were staying home. I bought a flat-iron steak to cut into bite-sized pieces instead of stew meat that I’d have to cook for hours to make tender. I added the usual potatoes, carrots, and onions to my cart, along with the greens to make a salad, then went to Faiza’s line to pay. I’d glanced in Sugi and Noira’s bakery when I passed it and was glad to see it was open. I’d buy a crusty loaf of bread there and a dessert. My demon loved his sweet treats.
Faiza likes me, even though Raven had chosen me as his mate, so I asked about her family.
“We’re all fine. My parents are starting to badger me to find a mate, though. At this point, I think they’d even be happy with a mortal. They’re starting to worry I’m going to stay single forever.”
I laughed. “No one around here has caught your eye?”
She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “It’s a small town. I’ve known everyone since I could walk. I see them come and go at the store every day.”
“Have you thought about visiting Drago’s market once the weather’s nice again? He has as many types of supernaturals living there as we do. Maybe you could meet some cute Fae to flirt with.”
She grinned. “Not a bad idea. If I work up the nerve to go, will you go with me?”
“Sure, but do you need a chaperone? Won’t I get in your way?”
“I won’t be brave enough to go without you.”
“Then in spring, we’ll plan a road trip.” I left her happier than she’d been when I came in. Next, I went to Sugi and Noira’s. They were stringing Yule decorations around the ceiling of their bakery. A giant gingerbread house sat on their glass counter, and gingerbread men were for sale in the case.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to bring anything on Christmas Eve?” Noira asked as she rang up my bread and chocolate noel log cake. Claws had gone behind the counter to get lovies from Sugi, who always fussed over my big cat.
I shook my head. “You bake six days a week for everyone else. I’ll have plenty of cookies and candy for Christmas Eve.” I started to the door. I usually stayed to visit with them, but they were busy today, and I wanted to get home. Claws reluctantly left Sugi to hop in the SUV, and we drove home.
Raven’s Lamborghini was in the garage when I got back. When he saw my grocery bags, his tawny eyes sparkled. “I see a bakery box.”
We shared the events of our day as we unloaded groceries and started supper. While I made the stew, he worked on the salad.
“Brown and I spent the entire day digging up facts on the towns south of Muddy River. We made a list of supernaturals who live in each one—the mortals too. Then we found out the occupations of every single supernatural and highlighted the ones who travel for their businesses, even if it’s only occasionally. Now that we have their names, we’ll start calling them tomorrow.”
I turned to look at him. “That had to be a lot of work.”
“It was. I don’t know why we’ve waited this long to do it. After we find the voodoo priest, we want to do it for the entire area we patrol. This is the second time something like that will come in handy.”
I told him about visiting Birch, Faiza, Sugi, and Noira, and then sat down to eat. We took a short break after that, and then we pulled out all of the ingredients to get started on baking Christmas cookies. By the time we quit, we’d made snickerdoodles, chocolate chip cookies, and peanut butter cookies. Once they’d cooled, I stored all but half a dozen of each and took them to the freezer in the basement.
Contented with what we’d gotten done, Raven aimed a finger at the yule log and set it ablaze, then we snuggled on the long sofa and sipped our wine. The voodoo priest would have to wait. I felt sorry for the witches he’d kidnapped, but we’d done all we could. Hopefully, we’d find another tattoo soon or some other clue, but in the meantime, we sat in front of the fireplace to enjoy the holiday spirit.