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.
A Muddy River Halloween
Realistically, there’s only a full moon about once every nineteen years for Halloween, or what we refer to as Samhain. This was one of those years, and I was as excited as all of the other witches in Muddy River.
“You lived with Celts for a while, didn’t you?” my mate, Raven, asked. Samhain was their holiest festival, the beginning of a new year. The time when nights grew longer than days.
We were sitting on the front porch of our Victorian house in the evening, watching the sun set. Raven knew the important blips in my life history, but we’d both lived a long time. We’d only touched on the big things in our pasts. “I was born when the Celts settled in Ireland, around 500 B.C.”
He was older than I was. Lillith had sucked out his last breath and blown her own into him, making him a demon, long before that. I could understand why she’d turned him. Who wouldn’t want a few centuries to enjoy him? Hopefully, we’d be partners even longer than that.
“But all witches celebrate Samhain, don’t they?” My fire demon had battled witches many times, ones gone bad, but had never lived with one. He didn’t know as much about us as I’d expected.
I nodded. “We follow the pagan traditions.”
“How long did you stay in Ireland?”
“Until the fourth century when the Anglo Saxons began to invade. Then we moved to Europe. When the witch hunts started there, we moved to the New World, thinking we’d be safer. We weren’t.” I was the only one of my entire family who’d survived Salem.
“Do you still believe the old pagan ways?” He stretched his long legs. Raven’s six five of pure muscle. When he stretches his legs, they reach all the way to the porch railing.
I took a sip of my wine. “Even witches study science in school, but science doesn’t really explain magic, does it? Our Hecate is goddess of the moon and hunt, so we always celebrate a full moon and the solstices.”
“But Samhain isn’t a solstice, and there’s rarely a full moon.”
“No, it’s a night to celebrate the last harvest. It’s the start of our New Year. The entire town parties—all of us—witches, shifters, and vampires. We’ve lived long enough to remember the old ways. In old beliefs, the veil between the two worlds thinned. We use it to honor our dead ancestors. When a full moon and Samhain fall on the same night, it’s a really special occasion.”
His lips quirked in a smile. “So Muddy River’s going to go all out for this?”
“Of course.” Claws padded onto the porch to join us. My ocelot/familiar had spent enough time prowling the river bank at the far back of our property. He sprawled at my feet and closed his eyes. “We’ll have to leave a saucer of milk out that night.”
Raven frowned. “Why? Claws doesn’t like milk.”
Fire demons obviously didn’t share our rituals. “It’s tradition, like hanging a Christmas stocking. Cat Sith, from Celt mythology, is a black cat with a white spot on its chest. If you leave her a saucer of milk, you’ll be blessed. If you don’t, you’ll be cursed.”
“Like trick-or-treaters?” he asked. “If you don’t treat them, they trick you.”
I nodded. “Cat Sith is said to be a witch who can transform to a cat and back nine times in her life.”
“Hasn’t she used those all up by now?” he asked.
I smiled. “No one wants to risk it. I personally think she can shift back and forth at will.” If I could brew potions to aid every Were in Muddy River to easily shift, I’m sure she could, too.
With a chuckle, he stood to go inside and bring us fresh drinks. When he returned, the horizon was turning a deep rose, and the sun blazed a bright orange as it sank out of sight. The night air held the scent of rich earth and harvests and the tang of the river. I’d picked most of the herbs from my witch’s garden, and they were hanging from the rafters of my attic, drying.
We sat in silence until stars twinkled in the black sky. Then finally, we went inside. This year, Samhain would be even more agreeable than usual, happening on a Saturday. This weekend, tables would line Main Street, filled with food families carried in. One table would be set, holding sweets and treats for the dead who came to visit us. Each member of my coven, including me, had already hung autumnal wreaths on our front doors.
When we climbed the steps to bed, Raven threw the curtains open so that the moon could beam in on us. It was already bright. Soon, it would shine enough to light our festivities in town. The Harvest moon was a sight to behold.
The next few days flew by with people busy decorating Main Street with pumpkins, their orange representing the vitality of life to offset black tablecloths, symbolic of death. On the actual night, candles and lanterns were lit everywhere to the light the way for the waning sun. Before the feast began, every door I saw had a bowl of cream sitting beside it.
Raven, as Muddy River’s enforcer, announced the beginning of the festivities. People laughed and talked as they ate. Then the music started. Shifters, in their various forms, whirled their partners onto the street to dance. When the last notes ebbed, they’d leave to race toward the woods surrounding the town to hunt. My coven performed a cleansing spell for the entire area and then chanted for Hecate to bless us with her silver beams. We all ate, drank, and danced until I was too weary and went to find a chair. Raven joined me, and we were watching our fellow citizens when I noticed a black cat, padding from one building to the next, taking one lap of milk from each bowl set out. Until it reached Red’s gas station. Red was an enfield shifter—part fox/part eagle. He sat at the end of the last table, alone. Typical. The man was almost a recluse, who lived a simple life with simple needs. He could fix anything, a wonderful mechanic, with a quick mind and nimble fingers. Five ten, with a stringy build, red hair, black eyes, and a sharp nose, he even looked clever. But he hadn’t put out any cream.
The cat stopped at the door of his station with its small, attached house. It turned to scan the people partying, and its golden eyes stopped and stared at Red. The full moon shone on the small white spot on its chest and I offered a quick chant that Cat Sith wouldn’t curse Red. Too late, the cat turned to stalk away, and a long tree branch crashed onto the roof of Red’s house.
For weeks after that, once Red fixed one problem, another showed itself. I liked Red. He should have put out cream for Cat Sith, but I didn’t think he deserved all of the curses that plagued him, one after another.
I almost dreaded driving to town on Saturday, afraid to hear what had befallen him this time. I was delivering a new batch of potions to Prim for her magic shop when I saw a young witch, maybe only six or seven, trudging tiredly down Main Street on her way through town. Her clothes were tattered, her red hair dirty and matted. She stopped to stare longingly into Noira and Sugi’s coffee shop at their glass counter, filled with baked treats. I was walking toward her when Red opened the door of the shop to leave. He stopped when he saw the small girl with her nose pressed against the glass.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. She was the most bedraggled thing I’d seen for a long time.
Cringing, she took a step away from him.
“No need to be frightened. I was going to go back inside for another cup of coffee. Would you like something? My treat? I hate to eat alone.”
Really? The man usually avoided company. The girl stared, clearly thinking of bolting, but then pressed a hand to her stomach and nodded.
Red opened the door and motioned her into the shop. “Order whatever you want. Everything these girls make is wonderful.”
By the time I followed them inside, the girl had a slice of quiche, two donuts, and a cream puff sitting in front of her with a glass of milk. Red was sipping at his coffee. He nodded for me to join them. “Hester, let me introduce you to my friend. She seems to be alone, and I have no idea where she came from or where she’s going. She’s not the talkative type.”
I sniffed the air. Clearly witch magic. I studied the girl, then tried a smile. “Does your family live around here?”
For such a young girl, she came across as worn and tired. She tilted her head, clearly taking my measure, then asked, “You’re an old witch, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “I’m the leader of Muddy River’s coven, and I teach young witches at my school for magic.”
Another long pause, then she said, “I don’t have a family. My dad said my mother was a witch, but she left when I was a baby and I don’t remember her. Dad got sick and died. I buried him and stayed in our house as long as I could, but all of the food ran out, and I didn’t know where to go.”
Red stared at her. “You don’t have any aunts? Uncles? No one?”
Chin high, she shook her head. “But I’m strong and a hard worker. I can earn my keep.”
“Earn your keep?” Red looked appalled. “You should be in school or outside playing with friends.”
“No time for that,” she said. “I need to eat, to find a place to stay. I came here to find a job.”
He turned to me. “I need an assistant. My house isn’t big, but it has two bedrooms. Can she go to your school?”
I forced down a smile. Red had always managed before. “My classes have already started. She’s behind, but I’ll help her catch up.”
He frowned at the girl. “There you go then. You have a home if you want one. I can offer you that.”
She shook her head. “The old woman told me to go to this town’s gas station. I’m meant to try there first.”
Red’s jaw dropped. “Why is that?”
“If the man’s kind to me, we’ll both be blessed. If he isn’t, his curse won’t lift, and she said to find Hester.” She looked at me. “That’s you, isn’t it?”
I nodded and pointed to Red. “And Red’s the man who owns the gas station.”
It was the girl’s turn to look surprised, then her whole expression lit. “She sent me to you.”
Red lowered his eyes. Voice small, he said, “She’s being kinder than I deserve. I forgot to put out cream.”
When the girl frowned, confused, I said, “Red will explain. If everything’s settled here, I need to get going. Raven will be home soon.”
On the drive out of town to our house on Banks Road, I remembered a lesson my grandmother often repeated. “The cream we leave for Cat Sith is really a reminder to be kind to our fellow beings.” Red might have forgotten to put out cream, but he’d taken in a small orphan. And that act of kindness would enrich not only her life but his as well. Cat Sith had blessed them both. A happy ending to a special Samhain.