November in Muddy River

October and Halloween are always fun, but November and Thanksgiving make me think of all of my blessings and the things that I’m grateful for. And November makes me think about family. In Muddy River, friends are often almost like family, so Hester and Raven invite Birch and her new coven to their house for the holiday. And they get a special surprise.

A Thanksgiving To Remember
(Muddy River short story)
Judi Lynn
Something was scratching at our back door.  I straightened from rolling out pie dough to glance around the kitchen.  Claws was sprawled across the wooden floor near the archway to the living room, and Blackie, Raven’s hellhound, was stretched in front of the oven.  I swear, that hound was always under foot, especially when Raven and I were cooking together.
The noise finally made Claws curious enough that he rolled to his feet to investigate.  Sniffing, he turned to me and a low noise rumbled in his throat, telling me to open the door.
Grumbling, I wiped the flour off my hands onto my apron and went to see who…or what…was there.  Raven stopped wrestling the turkey into a cooler filled with brine and came to stand behind me.  I didn’t need protection.  Whatever it was couldn’t be an enemy or it wouldn’t have gotten by my wards.  I pulled the door wide and stared in surprise.  A mother cat—gray with a white chin and a patch of white on her stomach—gazed in at us along with a dozen kittens of all varieties, one an orange tabby, another a tiger with dark gray stripes, a calico, and even one that looked Siamese.  What the Hecate was going on?
When I stared in surprise, my ocelot raised his paw and pressed on the storm door to open it, inviting them inside.  With a flip of her tail, the mother cat strode past us and headed straight to the living room, where she and her kittens curled on the rug by the fireplace. I turned to Raven, too shocked to speak.  He looked as surprised as I felt and shrugged.  “They must have come for a reason.”
A stiff breeze pulled at the storm door and I yanked it shut, closing the door as I returned to our wooden table.  Claws padded past us and went to lie with the cats.  I blinked.  “I don’t get it.  Familiars all get along, but these cats don’t belong to anybody.  They’re strays.  And the kittens are too young to be any protection for anybody.”
My fire demon’s lips curled.  “Maybe Hecate sent them here to grow up safely.”
I couldn’t stop a grimace.  “Thirteen cats.  We’re going to kill ourselves tripping over something furry.”
He laughed.  “We’ve survived worse than kittens.  I think we’ll manage, but we’ll have to buy big bags of dry cat food.  If they want any meat, their mom will have to teach them to hunt.”
I watched the way Claws kept a close eye on them and shook my head.  “My familiar’s besotted.  He’ll probably catch food to bring to them.”  And I’d never have believed it, but I’d never seen Claws so protective before.  Even Blackie wandered into the living room to lie with them and tolerated the kittens climbing all over him.
Raven went back to tinkering with the turkey.  “Birch and her coven are coming to celebrate Thanksgiving with us tomorrow.  Thirteen girls, thirteen cats . . .”
“I thought of that, but kittens?  No one gets a kitten as a familiar when they come into their power.”
He shrugged.  “Times are changing.  Demons never get familiars, period, but Blackie decided to stay with us.”
“With you.  He chose you.”
“And now we’re one big, happy family.”  Raven chuckled as a kitten swatted at the hound’s ear.
I pressed a hand to the bag filled with herbs and magic that always dangled from the leather cord around my neck.  Hecate, help me.  First, she’d sent Blackie to Raven, and now she sent us kittens?  I already trained young witches.  Was I supposed to be a nursery for familiars now, too?
I huffed out my frustration and got busy baking pies again. 
My coven and I always celebrated Yule Eve together, but they celebrated with their own families on Thanksgiving, so this year, I’d invited Birch and her new young coven to our house for the holiday.  Birch’s parents had retired from Muddy River and left her to run their shop so they could move away.  And her coven was finally full.  She had twelve young witches who’d joined.  Most of them had graduated from my school of magic, and they were all talented, but not very powerful yet.  That would take time.
Mates were always invited, too, so Lir would be coming with Birch.  Most of the other girls were still single, living with their parents.  I expected eighteen people at our house tomorrow.  When I’d first moved into the old, yellow Victorian, I’d knocked down the wall between the kitchen and dining room, so that I had a big enough area to seat my coven and their families.  Now, all I had to do was cook enough food.
After I slid two pumpkin, a pecan, and a pear pie into the oven, I started on two pumpkin rolls—Raven’s favorites.  He loved to help me cover the sponge cakes with a cream filling and roll them up.  Then I started making the dressing while he cut diamond shapes into the ham to stud it with cloves.  We worked all day, preparing the rest of the side dishes, and by the time we’d done all the prep work we could, we reheated leftover chili for supper.
As usual, Blackie came to sit beside Raven and beg.  Claws wasn’t partial to people food, and the cats didn’t show any interest either, but a hellhound was just a big, overgrown dog, and Blackie whimpered for treats.  I shook my head and went to the pantry, returning with a ham bone.  Lots better than feeding a hound something spicy.
Blackie took it into the living room to gnaw on in front of the fireplace.  When I looked again, a dozen kittens lined up to chew on it, too. 
After dinner, we carried wine into the living room and tried to read.  Kittens crawled up and down us and jumped at our books, knocking them out of our hands, until my patience was gone.
“Enough.”  I shooed them all away, then called for a protective bubble to circle Raven and me.  Then we could read in peace.  I put another shield over the opening to the kitchen so that no one nibbled on any of the food we’d prepared.  And after we climbed the stairs to bed, I closed our bedroom door, locking them outside.
When we opened the door in the morning, the rejoicing was downright comical.  Everyone wanted attention.  The kittens tugged at our pajama pants, begging to be petted.  Blackie and Claws wanted outside.  When I opened the kitchen door for them, everyone followed them through the backyard to the river bank at the back of our property, looking for breakfast.
I shook my head, watching them hunt.  There was no breeze today, so the temperature felt almost mild.  “Nothing will be open today, but we’ll have to drive to town tomorrow to buy food for them.”
We got busy, loading things into the oven for the big meal.  Birch and her coven were coming at two.  We drank coffee, then sipped wine while we worked.  Birch and Lir were the first to arrive.  Lir stopped in the arch to the kitchen and sniffed the air. 
“It smells good in here.”  The aroma of roasting turkey mingled with the onions and spices I’d added to the roasted vegetables.  The mulled cider and wine added a fruity note.
Birch hung her jacket on one of the hooks by the back door and went to ladle some of the cider into a glass mug I’d put on the counter.  She frowned, glancing around the kitchen.  “Where’s Claws?  He always comes to greet me.”
I nodded to the river.  “He’s hunting with his new friends.”
“New friends?  You mean Blackie?” 
But before I could answer her, there was a quick knock at the door, and more people streamed into the kitchen.  We were lining up to fill our plates, buffet style, when Claws scratched at the door.
“Prepare yourselves,” I warned, letting him inside.  He was followed by the mother cat, sleek and white with green eyes.  She stalked directly to Birch, and I realized she was a perfect match for Birch’s white-blond hair and emerald eyes.  The kittens followed in single file, and each went directly to a girl with the same coloring they had.  The Siamese went to Alizon with her straight, sandy-colored hair and dark eyes.  A tawny kitten with blue eyes chose Opal with her creamy complexion and pale baby blues.  The orange tabby meowed for Allegra–with wild, carrot-orange, curls–to pick it up.  And the tiger cat sat on Selma’s shoe, claiming her with her streaked, highlighted dark hair and light brown eyes.
Raven shook his head.  “Hester sent kittens who were color coordinated for each girl.”
I smiled.  Familiars chose their owners, not the other way around.  But these kittens were handpicked by Hecate for the witches they’d bond with.  Even their powers matched.  These girls had a long way to go to reach their full magic, and the kittens would nurture them and grow with them.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Birch reached for the mother cat and pressed her to her chest, hugging her close.  “I was beginning to think I’d never get a familiar.  This is the best Thanksgiving ever.”
Laughter and purrs filled the kitchen.  Claws came to sit beside me, and Blackie nuzzled against Raven’s leg.  I let out a long, contented breath.  Hecate meant for this new coven to prosper.  Joy surged through me, and I pressed my hand to my pouch and whispered a thank you.
Raven wrapped his arm around my waist, joining in the blessings.  Then he laughed and called, “Time to eat!  There’s plenty of food for everyone, even familiars.”
Blackie raised his ears and hurried to Raven’s seat at the table.  Each person filled their plate, and a cat sat next to each of us, waiting for tidbits of our feast.  As I looked around the room, I knew this would be a Thanksgiving to remember.  One of the special ones.  Food and friends and blessings.  What more could a witch want?

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