Christmas Day was definitely going to be interesting.
After setting up the incredibly complex ritual on the floor of his chantry, Ethan had quintuple checked everything and then, too excited to sleep, he had spent the rest of the night practicing his new ritual as well as the seven new spells he had learned. By the time dawn’s sunlight came filtering in through the windows he had begun to feel woozy from all the magic he was using.
He was living in one of the five functional farm homes on the giant property Mitchell O’Brien had merged from the various small farms he purchased in the 1950s. Ethan was calling it “Sorcery and Stick Farm” until he found a better name and it stretched from Charlotte St all the way north up to the Interstate 95 containing all the space between the Bay City Dagger and Alberta St.
Not long after he took ownership of his property, he was practically given everything south of Charlotte St, everything save for the much smaller farm property owned by Jen Everson and her husband, by a lovely older couple named the Fleeces who had wanted to leave for years to retire with their friends in Florida. Unfortunately, the only offers that had come to them were those made by the Gurneys who they didn’t ever want touching any part of their land. It made Sorcery and Stick Farm the largest farm in the city by far, far larger than the Everson and Fuller Farms, which were considerable, and dwarfing the Gurney Farm, which was not.
Below the Interstate, the Bay City Dagger had an old lighthouse. It was on a hillside above the little inlet with the island that contained the Sea Crest Theatre, which he also owned, and somewhere around the 1940s, someone had built a house there and converted the lighthouse into an additional room. That was where Ethan intended to make his permanent home and was presently rebuilding the rundown parts while expanding the house a bit, including the fixing of the indoor pool, and further securing the lighthouse section, which he intended to be his permanent chantry.
Until then, he was living in a nice farmhouse called “the Barton property” just off Albert St on the west side and north of Charlotte Rd.
The doorbell rang at around seven in the morning and he walked dazedly over to the door and opened it wide to reveal Becky Masterson in her wheelchair with Judy Aberdeen pushing her up from behind looking very tired herself. He had never met her before but Darcy had mentioned her name once or twice.
“Are you alright?” Judy asked him.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“I slept just fine,” said Mickey from the center of his metal bird perch. Ethan had placed it behind the old red couch in a perfect spot for Mickey to watch television with him. At the present, he was watching the 3D animated film Valiant for something like the hundredth time.
“Shut up, evil bird,” said Ethan and he looked at Becky as she came inside.
Becky was a rather pretty, young girl with Darcy’s Hamilton amber eyes and long, silky auburn hair. She was wearing a dull-colored blue dress with a few plaid blankets over her very thin body and had a cute gold necklace with an “M” resting just above her breasts. When Ethan met her eyes, she looked up at him with a wide, love-filled expression.
“Howdy,” he said, a little taken aback by that look. “I’m Ethan Bartlett. Welcome to my home, Rebecca.”
“Becky,” she told him in a slightly curt voice but with a kind smile. “Call me Becky. Rebecca is too formal.”
“Okay,” he told her with a half-smile.
Judy shut the door behind them, rubbed her eyes tiredly for a moment and looked him over. “Have you been up all night too?” she asked.
“Sure have,” he replied. “That was one tricky ritual.”
“How long did it take to build?”
“About six hours,” he replied. “But when it comes to magic, once I get started I just can’t stop.” He found his face doing what he called “the twitching thing” which came from the overuse of slow-paced magic. Supposedly, it could get so bad one would start to hallucinate but he had never gone that far before.
The twitching thing was when he couldn’t stop grinning, tapping, or any number of other similar things unless he used magic again to calm it down. It was a drug-like coming down effect, which, unlike the overuse of quickly used magic, would not hurt him and simply give him a drunkard-like quality that some, including Ethan himself, called “hilarious.” If he went really far he would supposedly not only hallucinate but his eyes would start to glow or so he had read.
He smiled at Becky, who smiled lovingly back up at him again. “Merry Christmas, Ethan,” she said.
“Merry Christmas, Becky,” he replied and he could not seem to control his twitching.
“Are you okay?”
“Just tweaking on magic,” he said and she laughed. “This holiday season is really turning around for me, Becky. Nine days ago, I turned Grace O’Brien back into a little girl, which was awesome. She’s now really cute and blond and I am a millionaire.” Becky’s loving, adoring smile grew more loving. “Don’t look at me like that.” She bit her lower lip, looking mischievous. “You made her think I’m some kind of big ass teddy bear, didn’t you?” he asked Judy.
“Yes, I did,” she said and, after placing her white jacket and white winter hat meticulously on the hat rack, she leaned down over his couch like a sensual cat, took the controller and changed the television to cable.
“Hey!” cried Mickey.
Ethan noticed that she had grown very accustomed to her body and had heard that she had taken a real shine to gymnastics. It gave her body an incredibly toned look.
Ethan looked at her and thought about how she had just appeared on his doorstep yesterday.
She was there when he awoke just after the sun rose into the distance, up pacing out in his front yard with a large book in a plastic bag pressed against her chest. It was a cold winter day, about twenty degrees or so, the sky pristinely clear with the snow covering the ground everywhere.
The instant he stepped out of his house she said, “I told Becky Masterson who I was.” Ethan’s eyes drifted to the magic-sized book and twitched a few times. “You can just smell a magic book a mile away, can’t you?”
He laughed loudly for a moment, then frowned for another moment, then softened. As he walked up to her, he asked, “Did you really come out here on Christmas Eve just to tell me you ratted out your secret to some random girl you met?” He reached for the book gently and she gently pulled back.
“Yes and she’s not random. She’s your friend Darcy’s cousin and you know all about her and Lana. May I come in?”
He didn’t know what would happen if people came to know Judy Aberdeen was inside Lana Creed’s body but whatever it was, he was reasonably sure it wouldn’t be good. She knew that too so it rather startled him to find that she had just blurted it out to someone.
“Sure,” he said and she stepped past him and into the little farmhouse that he had made his temporary home. He looked over her body admiringly as she went by.
By that time, she looked completely different from Lana. The short time that had passed along with her own personality had changed her in subtle ways from makeup and hairstyle, which she had cut short in a sexy way that put her bangs hanging down past her chin, to her general physique. She was better at maintaining her athleticism than Lana was as she exercised with gymnastics every day, and then, of course, the more obvious way her clothes fit her less whorishly and were more ladylike. Even though Judy and Lana were like identical twins in his mind, he would not have confused one for the other had they been in the same room together in each other’s clothes trying to fool him.
Judy was also just incredibly adorable.
That morning she had been wearing white mittens, a white winter jacket wrapped up tightly against herself with its hood up with sexy fit jeans that wrapped over her supple legs and tall white boots. She rubbed her hands together cutely as she bit her lower lip and the way her feet had crunched snow walking up to the door added to the effect.
“You are so damn cute,” he had said as he shut the door behind them.
She pulled back her hood revealing a white band holding back her gold hair. “Thanks,” she said and then she turned to him. “I like your house,” she added after an awkward moment.
“Thanks,” he said happily. “It’s temporary. Too big for one guy.”
“It’s lovely,” she told him and then half held the book out to him. “Careful!” she cried when he snatched it a little too quickly.
Ethan took the book labeled McCaffrey’s Magic Spells out of the plastic and as he flipped through it, his lips curled into a wide, happy smile.
It had seven spells, five he knew of, as they were very typical if generally unavailable. Cure Disease and Remove Poison, which were self-explanatory, Fix Skin which could actually remove deep scars, even from burning and other imperfections, Cleanse Body, which removed general toxins, internal clogs, drugs and stomachaches, etc., etc. and a very good version of the Heal Spell, which he had been looking for, for years. The latter two spells, Walk on Water and Breathe Water, didn’t fit in with the five but he knew he was going to have the most fun with them.
Those were all known spells he would have paid a fortune for from the Irish Academy of Magic, which everyone called the Iam, but for that to work, he required membership either through graduation or yearly payments much like a country club and only after passing some kind of secret test. After Grace O’Brien’s cure, Ethan had almost become famous enough through feats of magic to get their attention and give them enough interest to accept his money. They told him he was “close” and that he should keep doing what he was doing.
He didn’t trust most other sources of magic, especially the Umm who were not to be trusted on anything, so until he had been accepted by the Iam, there wasn’t much he could do to get new spells except find knockoffs like his not-so-great version of a Heal spell or hope to stumble upon books somewhere else. The internet was a possibility but it was more likely left lying around over the ages in the utterly random of places such as trolls’ caves.
Then he saw that the last spell in the book Judy had handed him was a ritual and not one he had ever even heard of.
It was called the “McCaffrey Cure” and Ethan was shocked at its ludicrous complexity. Unlike the others, it was personally created by someone and insanely complex. His other rituals were like a 1980s digital watch and the new ritual like a modern digital laptop.
Why it was in there with such common spells Ethan could not say but he would be very surprised if that was the only magic book McCaffrey had ever written. The book was the right size but it was missing many pages.
Ethan was also very surprised, and suspicious, that it wasn’t coded. All the spells he was personally creating, so far with little success, were all coded. Secrecy was an unwritten rule of magicianhood, one the illusionists like Houdini and David Copperfield agreed with completely, which was described simply as, “A magician never explains his tricks.” A good spell caster never just writes his personal creations down like an encyclopedia, not until donating to the Iam or something of that nature on their deathbed, but McCaffrey apparently had for some reason.
“So what’s got you so hard?” asked Mickey.
“Shut up, you little monster,” he said and then he looked up at Judy. “Why are you giving me this?”
“I’m not unless you agree.”
“Agree to what exactly?” He couldn’t pretend to be surprised.
“To cure Becky Masterson.”
That time, Ethan didn’t have to pretend. His face twitched a little bit, then flipped open the book again and verified what he had read in that ritual’s description moments before. “You want me to fix her spine?” She nodded soberly. “With this ritual spell, yes?” She nodded again. “It requires a phoenix heart and fairy dust for any kind of serious injury.”
“I have both.”
Ethan’s eyes went wide and his face took on a few more twitches. “You know where a phoenix heart is? I stress the word ‘phoenix.’ ”
“I want your word you will help her and I will give both the phoenix heart and the fairy dust when you are ready to begin.”
Explaining that a phoenix heart was the most valuable ingredient in magic next to various dragon parts seemed unnecessary. She had an extremely determined look in her eyes. “Why?” he asked even though he suspected he knew why from the stories Darcy told him.
Judy put her hands on her hips in an angry kind of gesture but her face became very sad. “Lana pushed Becky down a flight of stairs,” she told him. “I am Lana now. I didn’t do it but her problems are now my problems and I want to fix them. Also, she’s my friend and knows who I am and—” her eyes became teary “—I need a friend who knows who I am.”
Ethan looked back down at the book. This could work, his mind told him. This Frankenstein of a magic ritual could work and I can do it. Never in his life had he seen such a powerful original ritual of any sort and he had believed until that moment, after what he saw surrounding that tower in the woods, that any original ritual he found around Bartlett Bay he would never wish to try.
The Iam might give him a full membership if he could prove himself with such a spell, although he would no doubt have to share it, and then he would get the really interesting spells.
Of course, it might only serve to give McCaffrey a membership since he was the spell’s creator but it might be worth a shot.
“Can you do it, you think?”
“I’m not sure but I’d really like to try.”
“I promise,” he said and when she smiled, she looked incredibly relieved.
“Can you do it soon?”
“If you have the ingredients for it, I can have the ritual done tonight and be ready by morning,” he told her. “I’ll set it up tonight and you can come by tomorrow on Christmas morning with Becky, the heart and dust, and I’ll do it.”
Tears ran down her face and she threw her arms around his neck. Then after a moment, she kissed him on the cheek and wept against his shoulder in relief. Surprised, he gently put his arms around her. She didn’t tell him why she was so relieved and he didn’t ask.
After she left, Ethan obsessed over the ritual much to the annoyance of his bird. He had worked on it over the evening because he had some business in town involving the businesses and buildings that he owned, which were numerous. He had only stopped working on the ritual to order and eat a pizza and then when he was done, he memorized and practiced his new spells throughout the entire night because he was too excited to go to sleep.
He was glad he had picked the next day to do the McCaffrey Cure even though it was Christmas. He thought if he had to wait a week to try this spell, he would go completely insane.
“Thank God you are all here,” said Mickey pulling Ethan out of his thoughts of yesterday. “Ethan is going batshit crazy over this.”
Becky bit her lip again and looked up at him again.
“He’s completely right,” Ethan told her. “I want you to know a few things about this spell. Firstly, I am pretty sure it will hurt. A lot.”
“I don’t care. I want to be able to dance again.” Her eyes took on a hazy, distant look as she spoke.
“You have to know, Becky, that there is no guarantee it will work although it does appear strongly that it will. You understand?”
“Yes.” She didn’t even blink at that.
“Secondly, when I say it hurts, I mean it will really hurt. Failed attempts at using magic to cure spines have resulted in seizures hard enough to re-break the spine in several places. Magic isn’t nearly as good as modern medicine when it comes to anything that isn’t a generalized wound. It is a popular thing to try, don’t get me wrong, but it can be dangerous for anything complicated, especially important organs and the spine.”
Magical healing was for simple flesh only, such as plain muscle tissue, slashes across the skin and the like, but severely injured bones, spectacularly important organs such as the heart, the spine and most especially of all, the brain, should never be tampered with magically. The fact that a bone could be knitted with a solid healing potion gave one false hope on the issue of a spinal cure. The very few times such attempts on the spine had succeeded had, over the course of time, became conjecture as it healed years after the fact making it debatable whether it was actually the magic, solid scientific medicine or blind luck as the reason for success.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes, Ethan.”
“Well, that’s good enough for me. ‘Come into my parlor, little fly.’” He stood up, walked around her, and pushed her chair toward his temporary chantry built out of an empty parlor. Mickey flew off his perch to land on his shoulder and casually made himself comfortable there.
“Do you need me, Ethan?” asked Judy.
“Maybe,” he said. “So Darcy’s your cousin, eh?” he asked Becky as Judy moved in line beside him.
“She and my aunt are my only real family,” said Becky sadly.
Ethan recalled what he knew of Becky’s family from Darcy and Judy.
Mrs. Masterson was a Hamilton, Darcy’s aunt, and was apparently very uncomfortable with her daughter’s disability. Her father was somewhat uncomfortable as well but to Darcy, he simply seemed more oblivious to Becky’s pain than anything else. They both tended to avoid her and left her most often in the care of a paid nurse.
Before her injury, all three of them had always had very active lifestyles. Things like mountain climbing, jet skiing, backpacking and the like, and for several months out of the year they were on some other land such Italy, China, Germany, Taiwan, Japan, England or God knew where else experiencing the activities the countries provided. The father owned part of an airline or something and could go wherever they wanted free any time of year.
The injury did not stop their activities but, being disabled as she was, she could hardly go with them. They tended to avoid the cities and touristy places that could accommodate her for adventurous out of the way rugged places that could not. She barely saw her parents as they gallivanted across the world without her.
The mother figure in her life was the youngest Hamilton sister of the middle generation, Cynthia. Her husband, who was rumored to be very abusive both physically and mentally to Cynthia, was so openly disgusted with Becky that she was never able to come by her aunt’s home even if he wasn’t around. He had even once said to her face that she should be “taken out to a shed and put out of her misery like Old Yeller.”
As for that Christmas, as per usual, her parents went off to New York City with her father’s extended family while she was going to spend it with her aunt who was going to pick her up later that day in the van Judy drove her over in. They might or might not visit the lavish Christmas party Jen Everson and her husband threw every year for the town, which Ethan was planning to go to later. Since Cynthia’s husband was not welcome there, she could be taken without Cynthia taking repercussions, provided he didn’t learn of it, of course.
He carefully placed Becky’s chair at the edge of the insanely magical ritual he had cast on the floor. The design was so complex that to the untrained eye it seemed nothing more than a nightmare of lines, straight and curved, circles, squares, diamonds and countless other shapes all hidden within other shapes. As one looked deep within the ritual, they would see the shapes going inward from the large outside circle big enough to house a large person to the center that was no bigger than a dime and every line of it was glowing with Ethan’s deep orange color.
The only thing that made any kind of sense was the shapes that indicated where the limbs ended, a large bundle of diagrams at the ankle and wrists with a larger one at the neck and a wider one at the waist. The diagram drawn of a person connected to the diagrams in McCaffrey’s book had reminded Ethan of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
He double-checked the diagram for the thousandth time and then with Judy’s help, he slipped Becky down onto her back carefully, moved her limbs into position over the small diagrams and cast the first of the ritual’s complicated spells. Instantly, orange lines wrapped over Becky’s ankles, chest, neck, and wrists and moved them slightly into position. “What’s happening?” Becky asked in a shocked voice.
“It’s going to hold you down,” he told her and then he placed a green bite stick he bought yesterday into her mouth. “You good?”
“Yeth,” she said through the bite stick. Judy then left the room and he finished making sure everything was in order while he waited for her to come back from wherever she had placed the special ingredients.
Judy placed a clear jar with glowing gold dust down beside Ethan where he was kneeling and then placed a small wooden box directly in front of him. He opened it and orange-red firelight and heat came out onto his face like a wind from the sun.
“Oh my God,” he whispered softly and then smiled.
The human-looking heart glowed like a well-burning fire and the heat that came from it was a powerful mix of magic and fire, the first of which emanated with such an absurd level of power it made him feel giddy. In Ethan’s estimation, the right buyer might pay around fifteen million dollars for one of those.
“Where did you get all this exactly?” he asked Judy.
“Does it matter?”
“If you stole it from someone, they will come looking for it so, yes, it does.”
“He or she won’t,” she said simply.
Ethan looked at her for a moment, trying to read her face but found it difficult. The fear and guilt she had on that first day were gone and Ethan found she was a much stronger person inside than he had originally taken her for. “Someday you’re going to have to tell me about this McCaffrey,” he said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” was her only reply to that. “If it’s okay,” she said, “I would like to go watch Downton Abbey. I noticed you had the first season on DVD.”
“You might hear screaming.”
“Sometimes that’s better than silence,” she replied.
“Dark,” he said and she shrugged. “You can try and take a nap in my bed if you want. It’s upstairs and she may not be so loud that she’ll wake you up there.” She gave him a strange, unreadable smile, and then turned and left. Ethan stood up, carefully placed his camera on its tripod that he had set up for the event, flipped it on, and turned back to her. “You ready?”
“Yeth,” she said again and so he began.
It was immensely complicated, difficult and laborious and for the first five minutes before he started to use the phoenix heart, he felt like a man who was trying to push a boulder up a hillside with a pointed top that would drop it any random direction. After the heart was added, it became much easier, but it still took all his energy and will to keep from making a mistake and losing control.
He had expected to use the dust instantly, it was not a necessary ingredient per se, and he was proud that he managed to skillfully avoid using it in the beginning.
Fairy dust was a magical tool that created a kind of buffer against failure with all forms of magic. It had a great natural balancer in it so that when it was added as an extra ingredient to any spell or ritual, it served to keep said spell or ritual from spiraling out of control by more or less fixing any minor to moderate errors the caster might have accidentally created in his failed casting. In that way, it could make any reasonably designed spell safe as long as the caster had enough dust and some skill. With a ritual like the one he was casting on Becky Masterson however, it could well be the difference between life and death.
By the time the real healing began, every single vein in Becky’s body had begun to glow orange. The pain must have been intense where she could feel it but she said nothing so it must have been tolerable. Her eyes were shut tightly, her teeth clamped down hard on the bite stick, and tears slipped out of her eyes but otherwise, she looked almost serene.
The ritual was designed for methodical and slow work, very potently healing a centimeter or so at a time, and each time it would cause whoever being healed to jerk in agony or so McCaffrey’s notes stated. McCaffrey recommended that if he began to fail or falter in the complex casting of the spell he should take some dust to keep him from accidentally killing her.
McCaffrey’s healing ritual went through her uninjured body quickly enough but then it reached the first small section of her neck.
Every muscle in Becky’s body jerked against the magical bonds. Her eyes went wide, glowing orange so brightly he barely could see her irises, and she started to say, “I ca’ ‘eel—” but then suddenly jerked again as he finished the section with a similar explosion of agony. She then wept but not unhappily.
“That was one part,” he told her and he felt covered in sweat from his exertion already. “There might be a lot of those.” She looked at him, her eyes filled with adoration, and he said, “It’ll be done when I can’t actually heal anything anymore because everything’s been healed. Could be two times, could be twenty. Now relax as best you can.” It didn’t matter what she said because once he started, he had no intention of stopping.
It actually took about fifty times for it to be completed and he tried ten more times from halfway down her back afterward just to be sure that he had succeeded.
* * *
Judy found she could only barely pay attention to Downton Abbey, which she was convinced after three episodes that it was the best TV series she had ever seen. When she thought about all the television shows that she had seen in the 1950s, only Alfred Hitchcock Presents seemed to have had the equivalent dramatic emphasis but then maybe that was only because it was scary.
She found the unpleasant thump sounds of Becky jerking every thirty seconds distracting so she made sure to watch an earlier episode of the show that she had already seen and further distracted herself by casually petting Mickey who had found a comfortable spot on her lap.
“Who’s a good birdy?” she asked.
“I am,” he said happily as she stroked his back. After a while, she put her arm under him and as he stepped onto it. She held him up to examine him. When he turned to face her, she felt the feathers on his chest and thought him a very beautiful creature.
For an instant, Judy heard the sound of television snow and both she and Mickey looked to see a flash something, an obese girl’s hateful, glaring face staring at them with narrow eyes in the foreground of Downton Abbey, and then it was gone. It happened so fast that she should have wondered if she had seen it but she didn’t and not even a little.
It was confirmed when Mickey looked back at up at her and asked, “Why did an evil fat girl suddenly flash across 1920s England?”
“I don’t know,” Judy said very softly and she looked over at the room where Ethan was healing her friend. She bit her lip and thought about her first meeting with Becky. It had been a strange encounter but since the day she had been kidnapped by the Black Cats, nothing had been even remotely normal.
Judy had begun volunteering at the Bay City Hospital to get some extracurricular activities to help fatten up her college applications. The people there were dubious and knew Lana’s history with Becky but Judy didn’t know it at the time and they sent her to help with Becky probably as some kind of joke or experiment.
“Hello,” Judy had told her when she saw her curious expression. “My name is Lana Creed and—”
“No it’s not,” said Becky suddenly but calmly, as if having known that for a long time. “I don’t know who you are but you’re certainly not Lana Creed.”
Judy smiled kindly but felt a distinct twinge of worry go through her entire body. “I can assure you that I am Lana Creed.”
“You’re in her body but you’re not her,” she said in that same calm voice.
Judy felt terror instantly crawl through every inch of her but luckily, no one was close enough to hear their conversation or see her expressions of horror. The girl was looking right at her like she knew her, truly knew her, and Judy didn’t know what to say or do. She pulled up a chair, sat down across from her and found it took almost a full minute before she could compose herself enough to speak. “I—Rebecca—”
“I like you,” said Becky with a strange smile. “Don’t get weirded out. I just get visions sometimes and I can sometimes feel who people are on the inside. Sometimes I can even see the future but those times are pretty damn rare. Basically, I’m psychic, whoever you are.”
“You might be good at intuition,” said Judy, “but you’re not psychic and no one knows the future.”
“I was confused until I saw you,” said Becky. “I had a vision, a strong vision, of Lana and my visions are rarely wrong. I’ve learned to tell the difference between them and a dream.” She laughed. “I was stunned for over a day drooling like a baby.” She laughed again. “It scared the shit out of my nurse.”
“What did you see?” whispered Judy. Although she didn’t really want to know, she couldn’t stop herself from asking.
“I saw her taken by a gang of boys. This was no surprise, I always thought a man or group of men would end up raping and killing her, but these boys were dead and have been for quite a while. In the vision, they made her dead too and put someone else in her place.” She looked into Judy’s eyes as if trying to find something there. “I dream about Lana at night sometimes. In it, she’s a fat girl from the 50s trying to rip out of her own flesh.”
That was far too close to the truth and Judy had felt goosebumps crawl up her arms and tears start to fill up in her eyes.
“You’re that fat girl,” said Becky whose eyes glanced down at the bumps on Judy’s arms as best she could without being able to move her head. “She’s in your place and you’re in hers.” Becky smiled widely at that and raised her eyes to Judy’s own. “You’ve made me very happy, friend. I’ve been waiting for years for that narcissistic bitch to get hers and having a fat ugly girl wearing her precious, sexy body suits me just fine.”
“Why?” asked Judy, her eyes wide.
“She’s the reason I’m sitting here,” Becky told her and when said that, she looked and sounded incredibly bitter. “She got jealous one day because I got the lead in a kid’s school dance so she decided to shove me down a flight of stone stairs. I wasn’t even going down them. I was just walking by, minding my own business when she caught me completely off guard and pushed me far too much in the middle to reach the rails. I snapped my neck halfway down and have been in a wheelchair ever since. Lana’s bitch mother managed to get her off like she always does, the lawyer-cunt.”
“I’m sorry.” She swallowed and felt a lump go down in her throat. She could not believe someone would ever do that for any reason but every single thing that she had ever heard about Lana Creed reinforced the notion that Lana could.
“Those two words alone would convince anyone who ever knew Lana Creed that you and she are not the same person.”
“Listen,” said Judy, “You can’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t,” Becky told her earnestly. “No one would believe me anyway and—” she paused a moment as if recollecting something “—and I think we could be friends. You’ve never had many friends, have you?”
Judy shook her head. “I’ve—never been—no. I don’t have any friends and I’ve never been good at making them.”
“What’s your real name?” Becky asked her.
“Judy. Judy Aberdeen.”
“Well, I like you, Judy,” said Becky. “I’ve got a good sense about people, probably because I’m psychic, and I’ve got a really good feeling about you.” Her face became worried. “But—”
“Well, there was another part of the vision I didn’t tell you,” she said. “I saw part of the future.” She pressed her lips together and then looked deeply into Judy’s eyes. “There will come a day when you and Lana meet face to face and it won’t be a happy one. I don’t know what will happen exactly but it will be bad.” Her eyes widened with fear. “It will be really bad.”
That had been the thing that Judy feared more than anything else.
Judy had become close friends with Becky since then but even if she hadn’t, she probably would have still tried to help her. She grew a sense of personal responsibility for Lana’s life, a feeling that Lana’s sins were hers to fix even though she had not committed them. It was a feeling that said it was more than their lives that were switched. That maybe part of their spirits had as well.
Another thought came later after she had collected the ingredients from their hiding place and broached the subject of the cure to Ethan to Becky. It was a simple one. One that haunted her even as Ethan went about his magic and would continue to haunt her until that one inevitable moment in some unknown time and place in the future.
When Lana finds you, you’re going to need all the help you can get.
“You know something about chubs, don’t you?” asked Mickey who turned his head up toward hers expectantly. She smiled sadly, poked him gently in the beak playfully, but said nothing.
She looked over at the door to Ethan’s chantry and noticed the steady thumps had finally stopped.
* * *
“That was the greatest magical thing I have ever done!” Ethan announced, drenched in sweat from head to toe.
His head was spinning and he was almost naked after tossing off his shirt, shoes and socks somewhere during the ritual but he felt like he could sprint for ten miles through the snow just wearing his black shorts. Of course, that feeling was not accurate to his present capabilities and an attempt would be disastrous.
In all his life, he had never cast anything close to that complexity and absolutely never with an ingredient even close to being as powerful as a phoenix’s heart. He could never have cast that as a spell and no one on Earth could. A ritual was designed to make things less difficult utilizing lines, shapes and runes and so on but McCaffrey’s ritual was so insanely above the average, it was literally impossible to cast outside of ritual and it denoted that he wasn’t just smart with magic but a genius with it. Ethan could not name a magician he had ever heard of who had ever created anything remotely close to that cure.
Well, whatever McCaffrey was or wasn’t, in the end, its complexity had calmed down and become mostly extremely labor-intensive. It was like picking up a very heavy rock and pushing it up to the top of a pointed hill and then catching it on the other side as it rolled over before it fell to the bottom. Each time it became harder and harder without rest, which he could not have without losing the phoenix heart’s necessary effects, but the use of fairy dust helped.
Unwilling to stop, he eventually reached the point he desired, the point where there was nothing left to heal. It had been so potent and powerful that it had even spread to the rest of her body giving her a sculpted, almost muscular, form.
Ethan felt great pride in how he managed this ritual and was equally proud in only using half his fairy dust. Of course, his eyes were probably glowing and he felt himself at an unstable level of wooziness, but curing a shattered human spine via magic wasn’t going to be just a walk in the park.
He unlocked Becky from the spell, the ritual’s glowing orange color starting to fade, and then knelt down beside her. She too was covered in sweat and her head had rolled to the side as she passed out, her hair sticking to her neck and her face.
“Hey you,” he said and she didn’t seem to hear him. He reached down, grabbed her right hand and pinched it hard.
“Oww!” she cried, instinctively turning her head toward his. Then she felt it, her eyes going wide, and she quickly spat out her bite stick, grabbed him by the face and kissed him. Then she became aroused, he sensed it in her kiss, and it was almost the first time since the first time because she had been very young before her injury. “You’re my hero,” she whispered softly and then breathed deep, felt his face with her hands and pressed her forehead against his.
“I’m no hero,” he told her and he saw that the phoenix’s heart was just a husk. It might still have alchemistic value but the use that made it worth millions was done with. He looked back, saw her eyes glaze over, and then stood up shakily. “That’s weird,” he said.
He had no idea why her eyes glazed like that but he didn’t have the energy to care. He was what someone had once called “stoned on magic.” He waved his hands out in front of himself, saw them leaving trails like that stupid effect one could on a computer mouse, and then looked back down at her.
She looked up at him. “A black knight—” Ethan felt his back stiffen uncomfortably “—Thrice Lived Man.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what it means. I’m psychic. I see and hear things sometimes.”
Ethan did not understand how but her words had somehow unnerved him. He tilted around, stumbled over to the mirror, and leaned down on the table in front of it. He looked into his face and saw that his bloodshot eyes really were glowing orange.
He felt a memory coming. Something to do with violence, swords, death.
“Walter?” He looked at his reflection and didn’t recognize himself for a moment. He found himself oddly attractive but he wasn’t, was he? He was lanky and unattractive. They called him the Black Fool but it wasn’t just that he was sometimes deemed stupid. It was that he didn’t fit in like the great handsome, noblemen of the court.
“Are you okay?” asked Becky. She clambered to her feet, laughed happily, and then approached him awkwardly. She touched his shoulder gently, felt the contour of the muscles there, and took in a quick breath of air.
He continued to stare into his own glowing eyes. “You aren’t the only one who has visions, Becky,” he said and then he felt it coming. He heard the sounds of blades, the screams of men, and then he saw—
* * *
—that it was a good day to die, Walter had thought earlier.
It was pouring rain, the sky an ugly gray, which was good for keeping the sun out of soldiers’ eyes, and there was deep fog everywhere around them. Men were going to die out there in that gloominess and perhaps that was what that kind of day was truly meant for. Walter felt no battle should take place on a beautiful day; a day best suited for lovers holding hands, children exploring woods, riders in the countryside or races, festivals and weddings. A day for living was no day to die.
Once in battle, however, he discovered the very high difficulty of maneuvering armies through fog and the different, but no less potently challenging, problem of trying to fire volleys of arrows accurately through a rainstorm.
James IV, King of the Scots, had come down into England with an army of twenty to thirty thousand men to defend his alliance with the French. Henry VIII, after his already famous Battle of Guinegate, mockingly called the Battle of the Spurs for the embarrassing French retreat he and his men had witnessed, was in northern France at that very moment either sieging or already inside of the city of Tournai.
Henry had made Queen Catherine his regent in his absence and if King James of Scotland thought she was the weak point in England’s armor, he had been very mistaken. When Walter had last seen her, her blue eyes had been lit up like torches and she went after the invader with the ferocity of a Spanish lioness.
James had managed to take the castles of Norham, Etal and Ford on his journey south but that journey was over. England’s forces had been waiting there for him and it was going to end, one way or another, near a small town called Branxton which itself was near or on Flodden Field in Northumberland on Friday, September 9th, 1513.
In the fog before him, Walter saw Lord Reid’s Scottish green and midnight black lightning striking out and he fought his way toward it. He had one chance in the battle to prove himself, to his peers, his homeland and his grandfather Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who seemed to have only half-bothered to bring him along. If he didn’t reach Lord Reid, that chance was wasted.
Lord Reid was a magician like him, a champion of Scotland, and it was generally believed that he was as dangerous in battle as he was in magic. Magic was the only thing Walter had over his betters and he desired deeply to find a place for himself amid the men of his life and his family, especially his grandfather and uncles who had found glory and honor on the field of battle for generations.
He was most in awe of his uncle Edward who had died, although some would say recklessly, gloriously battling the French at sea sometime after forcing a retreat at the Battle of Saint-Mathieu. He was killed when he attempted to finish them off quickly and dramatically by taking the flagship of the enemy by boarding it personally. He was forced over after his less heroic men abandoned him and there he drowned because of the weight of his armor. There was a story that he had impressed, or offended, his enemy so much with his gallantry that they searched out his body among the dead so they could take his heart as a trophy.
As for his grandfather, he found Surrey was a hard man to read even for someone who knew him. He was seventy years old, had been the veteran of many battlefields and served four kings. By then, Walter understood war was Surrey’s true nature and in battle, there were precious few things that could even disturb, let alone, frighten him. Walter’s mother adored her father and once said he had a face that would stay the same if Hell itself opened up before him.
Yet his recent rage could be read very clearly and it was caused by none other than James IV of Scotland himself. Above all things, his grandfather was a warrior and James IV’s threats to Henry VIII had forced his grandfather to stay behind in England like some tired old dog guarding a chicken coop while the young men found glory and greatness in France. Surrey did not mean to let that go unanswered now that he had James in killing distance.
Not that he confided anything personally to Walter, of course.
He had respected Walter’s paternal grandfather Edward Kent, an ally of Henry VII against Richard III, but like most of the Howards, he did not think much of Walter, his brothers or his father and often Walter felt that he regretted placing his daughter into the Kent family. It had been Edward Kent’s talent that had earned him a Howard daughter-in-law but, sadly, none of his children or grandchildren had lived up to Edward’s potential.
Not that any of that mattered anymore. Nothing mattered. Walter rode his destrier through the battlefield slicing through the battling Scots, steadily carving his way through the field to his target, and that was the closest thing to something that mattered.
All around him was anarchy and overall uncertainty. The thousands of Scots could take control and then murder them all or the English might do the same and have the greatest victory ever, all in mere moments. It seemed out there anything was possible and yet, at the same time, the entire world had shrunk to the size of a field.
He brought his sword down, hit a soldier, and a line of bloodshot into his face. The soldier shrieked, his face a bloody mess, and then he lost his footing and fell sideways into a pool of bloody mud.
Was this glory? Walter didn’t think so. A friend, the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus had been right all along. A favorite proverb of his was, “War is sweet to them that know it not,” and truer words had never been spoken. A personal quote that he often had told Walter and Henry VIII was, “The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war,” and Walter believed it finally.
He had just a killed a man and he had done the same to half a dozen men before him, and chances were they had done nothing to deserve an execution of such a gruesome nature. He was killing a man for no better reason than that he was commanded to do so by other men and, though all will claim righteously of God, king and country, Walter found the claim hollow.
But there was no time for philosophy on the battlefield. Once there, philosophy ended and the carnage that was truth began.
Lord Reid appeared from the mist, a brick of a man standing well over six feet, taller than Henry VIII even, fully armored and very muscular, mounted upon a giant black warhorse as terrifying as he was. One sight of him and Walter did not need to recall the warning of the man having more talents in war than magic.
Reid held up his right hand and the lightning bolt formed in the palm of his hand, then forked into three different bolts as it shot out and hit three English soldiers fighting Scottish soldiers as he went by. They jerked in agony and the Scotsmen stabbed them while they were distracted and then turned to cheer Reid as he continued his ride.
Reid saw Walter, turned to him, and fired his lightning bolt at him. Walter knocked it aside with magic, sending all three bolts up into the sky, and then Walter fired a fireball at him. Reid knocked it aside, sending it flying off through the mist to explode gently somewhere else out in the sky.
And then there were Scotsman and Englishmen between them. They both fought their enemies off, but Walter never lost sight of him and he, never Walter, and he fired his fireball into a small group of Scotsmen and they screamed, momentarily on fire, and Reid electrocuted three Englishmen, causing similar damage, and sending them to the ground with smoke rising from their bodies.
Suddenly, the two magicians were almost upon each other and with nothing between.
They charged but as Walter raised his hand and a half-hilted English longsword, Reid his large Scottish dionach, and they got within feet of each other something happened.
Walter saw Reid’s warhorse’s expression turn intelligent, grow a sneer, and threw its head down toward Walter’s destrier. Walter grabbed his saddle, ducked Reid’s swing, and prepared to be thrown from his horse.
He suddenly remembered the black unicorn, its dark, malicious grin, and its disturbing horsey laugh and he thought he heard it above the sound of the battle filling the air.
Walter’s destrier crumpled when the other horse viciously bit it in the perfect spot to send him rolling. Walter was thrown forward from his saddle and landed painfully into a large, muddy puddle half-filled with blood and guts. Nothing was broken, he hoped, and then clambered to his feet with his sword still in hand. He was fully armored, head to toe in black with gold inlaying the house of Kent on the front, but he was still hurt.
Three Englishmen threw themselves at Reid from his other side the moment he was distracted. One threw an axe at Reid, missed his leg and hit the saddle, another stabbed a spear at his horse’s side in hopes of sending him down as well, and the third raised a heavier axe with both hands at Reid himself. Reid fired his lightning bolt almost casually into the chest of the man attacking him directly using all three bolts before his axe could come down.
A separated bolt might not be powerful enough to kill him, Walter noticed, or otherwise, he would have just split it apart again and hit all three of his threats at one time.
The man dropped his axe, his chest on fire and his, eyes, ears, nose and mouth bled out for a moment before he fell backward into the grass, dead before he hit the ground.
Reid’s warhorse went down suddenly as an arrow hit its leg from who knew where and Reid split his lightning bolt into the other two men attacking him as he fell. He grunted when he landed and another arrow shot at him, missed, and hit his horse again. He seemed frightened but not for himself but for his horse.
That was the only opening Walter was going to get.
Walter scrambled out of the bloody mud puddle and started toward Reid. A Scottish soldier appeared screaming and he blocked the man’s sword swing, stabbed him through the leather armor, and then head-butted the man in the face with his helmet hard enough to smash his nose. The man cried as he went down and Walter stabbed his sword down into his chest hard in a kill shot.
When he looked up, he saw Reid was standing, his one chance at a quick victory lost, and watched as Reid pulled out a claymore from his downed warhorse’s side. An Englishman came at Reid and he knocked the man’s sword out of his hand with his sword, knocked the man forward with his shoulder so hard it stunned him and then he swung the two-handed sword in a wide, straight swing that took the Englishman’s head right off his shoulders.
Then he turned toward Walter.
Something like an understanding seemed to pass between them, a nod or near salute or something much like it and then they went at each other with Walter using his sword two-handed style.
The rain came down around them like the nightmare element to the climactic final fight where the good knight fought an evil one for his lady faire in some in a chivalric tale. The two met like two sledgehammers swung by masters, clashing fearlessly and violently on impact. Reid knocked Walter back several feet if he blocked instead of parried, very much stronger despite only being a little taller, and every time that happened, he moved forward in for a kill that Walter could parry with his lighter sword.
Natural lightning filled the sky, thunder followed shortly afterward, and the sound of that, men crying out in rage, fear and death, were almost loud enough to notice through the fear of Lord Reid who was knocking Walter around like a child in a practice yard.
Walter tried to wear him out with careful parrying but Reid sensed the trick and changed style to force Walter’s parrying into becoming more work so as to wear him out instead.
So, Walter instead threw himself forward into a more direct attack. The claymore was big and clumsy and he felt he should find an opening soon. Walter was a great swordsman, better than both his brothers and many men at court, but Reid blocked quite well and backed up carefully and calmly. When Walter tried something else, Reid shifted around to fight it in some new way trying to tire him.
Things went on like that for a while with Reid changing his style to match Walter’s almost casually. He was a brilliant swordsman.
It felt like an eternity for Walter and the two of them soon wavered in their abilities from exhaustion. Men were dying all around them but their fight was so vicious and harsh that no one attacked them or had no time to. Walter felt like time was slowing down, the seemingly long hours of battling Reid perhaps mere moments to others watching.
Walter suddenly got through and hit him in the neck at where it meets the shoulder through his armor somehow. Blood shot up into the air and Reid went down on one knee. Walter could not believe he actually got through and in that brief instant of surprised distraction, Reid had gone down, grabbed a small battle axe with a hook from some dead soldier near his feet and was back up again.
He slammed the hook part down into Walter’s left shoulder, close to the same spot on his own neck, and Walter screamed as the hook stuck in and blood burst out of his shoulder and painted the inside of his armor with his blood.
Reid yanked out the axe from Walter’s shoulder sending a stream of blood flying up into the air but dropped it as he overextended and injured himself due to his own wounded shoulder.
He screamed, grabbed Walter and then threw him to the ground. Walter landed in a pool of thick bloody muddy muck face first and before he could even register that it happened, Reid put his entire weight on his back and then, with his good right arm, shoved Walter’s head forward. Walter’s cry was filled instantly with liquid nastiness merged with the wet ground and he knew he was going to drown. The front of his helmet pressed against the dirt but his mouth and nose were below the water.
Panic set it. Reid was wounded, perhaps mortally and unable to swing his weapon, but before he lost his strength, he had put himself in a position where he wouldn’t much of it to defeat his opponent. Walter might have been able to push him off but he was wounded himself.
Walter felt his body convulse desperately for air. He controlled the panic as best he could, pushed up against Reid, failed, tried again, failed, and soon his mind was spiraling toward the edge. He readied himself for a final push, one last effort to save his own life, but then Reid’s hands slackened.
He threw himself up, breathed, and then jerked his head back over his shoulder at Reid. He was stunned to find that while trying to kill him, Reid had simply died himself.
He had lifted up his visor at some point while Walter was drowning, in agony from the wound he had been too slow to block, and Walter saw that he had a gray and white beard and was much older than he thought, as old as seventy perhaps.
“Good God,” Walter heard himself say. He heard Reid was old for a soldier but he thought forty, maybe fifty, at the most. That old man fought better than most men a third his age did without including the magic he was using. It was no wonder the King of Scotland favored him.
Walter pushed him off, found that his back and neck were in incredible agony, but surprised himself by actually managing to shamble to his feet.
Something came from the mist to his left. He looked over and he thought he saw the king of Scotland. James Stewart was fighting men out in the mist in the general direction of where Walter’s grandfather was. He fought competently, passionately and fearlessly. A king to be reckoned with.
The thought that Henry VIII should have been there somehow bubbled up in his agony-filled mind. The kind of glory that came from a battle between kings was something the king had been looking for all his life.
But then again, if he had been there, it wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Walter turned to the right, saw something else and was stunned out of his thoughts. He stared at it long confusion, his head tilted a bit, and then blinked and looked again.
It was a black knight riding for the Scottish or so it would seem. He wore all black armor, not unlike Walter’s own, but it was gilded in some kind of disturbing white bone material and the helmet had a stringy, white plum with a faceplate that looked like that of some kind of snarling demonic beast. He rode on a large black stallion, the breed unknown to Walter, and swung around a large black hand and a half blade. He was cutting through the Englishmen as he went by but the Scotsmen who saw him were backing away or fleeing in confusion and fear from him as well.
You don’t see that kind of thing in real life, his mind told him. It was too fantastic and imaginary. In real life, war was strategy, resources, diplomacy, politics and opportunity. Climatic tales of good against evil, knights and lady’s faire, were all just stories.
That being said, who was he? Where did he come from? And why? Why would anyone be the black knight when there was no glory or favor to be gained from secrecy nor was it particularly intelligent to make one such an obvious target on the field?
Walter turned from the knight when heard a sound, a loud monstrous scream of a horse. He turned and saw Reid’s horse had gotten up and was killing Englishmen, which it well knew the difference between them and the Scots, in some berserk rage. Spears and swords went jamming into it as it charged into the midst of a large group of English soldiers in some kind of suicide charge.
Then a crossbow arrow hit Walter in the same shoulder wounded by the axe and he fell to his knees. He looked up and saw the black knight had turned his head, two sides of helm gleaming white bone, and their eyes seemed to meet.
Then half a dozen Englishmen threw themselves at the knight and Walter forced himself up, turned and fled into the mist. An arrow shot across his back, barely missing him as he vanished into the fog, leaving the shooter and the black knight, whoever he was, behind.
Walter stayed alive albeit in absolute agony for the remainder of the battle. He picked up someone else’s sword, didn’t need to use it, and then tossed it away when it was over.
When Surrey saw him meandering back, he smiled with genuine surprise. “That man should have killed you,” he told him, having somehow heard his grandson defeated the Scottish champion in armed combat.
“If he had been but five years younger I think he would have,” Walter replied.
“Age is not as much a disadvantage as you think,” he said sharply.
True enough, thought Walter. Surrey was still alive and he was old or older than Reid had been.
“Is that serious?” his grandfather asked.
“Nothing vital was damaged. I just need someone to break the tip so I can pull it out.”
Surrey nodded and looked him over as if seeing him for the first time. He only met Thomas Howard a few times and it seemed then like he had not ever really noticed Walter before that moment.
When the tip was broken, he pulled the arrow out himself just to see if he could, and then he spent the night bandaged while Surrey had his men make camp. Men congratulated him, genuinely impressed, and he smiled and accepted it gratefully but a little uncomfortably. He had never been praised before by anyone.
The bodies were then stripped but since no one knew the king on sight, it actually took a few days to find James’s body. He had seen him and he had been heading toward Surrey, although it was doubtful he knew it, and he died within something like a sword or spear’s length of where his grandfather had been fighting.
James had been shot by an arrow, sliced across the throat and mutilated in the hand by some kind of blade. He died fighting, probably for several moments after being mortally wounded, and those who had killed him had not known he was the king or they certainly would have claimed it. They simply hacked him to death and then moved on to the next enemy.
So, Surrey had his vengeance and Walter would never forget how his eyes lit up as he stood beside his grandson and looked at the king’s corpse. “That was not as fun as the stories would have you believe,” Walter told him and Surrey laughed genuinely. Walter laughed too, carefully so as not to hurt himself, and looked back down at the Scottish king. Somewhat oddly, he felt only sadness at the sight of his corpse.
There lied the most powerful man in Scotland, the brother-in-law of his own King Henry VIII of England, the man who had conquered, almost easily it seemed, three fortified English castles on his way south to London.
But now he was dead. His child was fatherless, his wife, Henry’s elder sister, was a widow and his people were leaderless. Wherever he was, Heaven, Hell, wherever, Walter wondered if he believed it was worth it all.
As for the English, well, Henry had a victory in France, Catherine had a victory in England and Walter had a victory for himself. He proved himself for the first time in his life and he thought he could bury the Black Fool moniker with Lord Reid and the King of the Scots.
“Not bad for a third son,” he had told himself.
Yet, even with great victory, Walter found had no desire to repeat his experience with war especially under his king. Henry VIII, in some way or another, justified or not, botched an alliance issue with Scotland and France to create this incident. Henry had a habit of doing what he wanted without heeding any consequence, something that might be amusing in a child or a man without power, but not in a king. It made Walter wonder if there was going to be more battles like that in the future. More pointless battles.
“The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war,” Erasmus had told him once and looking at the corpses, he knew it to be true. Tournai was just one more conquered territory and that and a thousand more like territories could not bring back the lives of the men, friend and foe, who died for their leaders’ folly.
Walter recalled his last conversation with Erasmus had been unhappy. It seemed, though Erasmus did not say so outright, that his many years of tutorship of Henry VIII ended up with his ideals and beliefs largely ignored by the king. He was ill at the time, however, so it could be that he had just been speaking in unhappy, bad humor.
That was what Walter thought at first but eventually, he concluded Erasmus was not just upset with the king but disappointed. Like Thomas More, another great humanist Walter admired, he seemed to have had great hope, albeit far more reserved than More, for the king only to find it dashed when the first opportunity for primitive concepts of chivalric glory presented themselves.
Walter had brought some bottled wine he had when he heard Erasmus had lost his supply from France due to Henry’s war. Erasmus associated his illness with his forced drinking of ale, which he felt was both unhealthy and bad tasting.
He knew Walter through their mutual humanist friend and Walter’s first educator in magic, Faas Cuyper, who had been murdered a month before the new year of 1511 on his way to visit the newborn Henry, Duke of Cornwall. Cuyper had a great gift for magical healing and had successfully healed Katherine Tudor as an infant when all given up on her. Henry, taking no chances with his son and heir, immediately summoned the older Dutch magician from Sweden to Richmond Palace in case something was to happen and that gentle, kind magician had been murdered on the road there, stabbed to death a dozen or more times not long after landing on England’s shores.
Walter had often wondered what would have happened if Cuyper had landed London and not elsewhere due to storms. If Prince Henry had lived, he felt the entire sense of what England was feeling would have been changed dramatically. At the very least, he wouldn’t have found himself in those woods chasing that unicorn.
And seen that door.
The conversation he had with Erasmus eventually geared toward magic and their old friend Faas. Erasmus understood the laws of magic as well as Cuyper did and there were humanist elements to its uses and Walter listened to him closely. Some desired power, curses, manipulation, and destruction, the Umm came springing to mind immediately on that account, but Cuyper had been so opposed to that he was almost its literal opposite. He would never learn or condone the type of war magic that Lord Reid and Walter himself had. He had devoted himself solely to its uses of healing both the body and the mind.
A fireball could kill a group of men but then so could a trebuchet or a bombard or any number of like weapons but no doctor in the world could have healed Katherine Tudor.
At the end of their conversation, Erasmus told Walter he was writing an allegory about the war and Walter planned on purchasing a copy of it.
* * *
Ethan felt Becky’s hands feeling his torso and her head resting against his back when he regained his focus. “I need to take a shower,” he told her instantly. “Also, I have a bitchin idea.”
He quickly found his cellphone on the nearby table where he left it, made a phone call, and faced Becky. She was looking into his eyes curiously. “They’re glowing,” she whispered.
“You can see th-Darcy?”
“Hey Ethan,” she said on the other side. “Are you okay? You sound a little funny.”
“Oh, I am awesome,” he told her. “I just defeated a magician-knight named Lord Reid in armed combat when King James IV of Scotland invaded England.”
“When you were Walter Kent, right?”
Ethan laughed and it sounded a little crazed. “I forgot you know about that,” he said excitedly. “Yeah, I was Walter Kent and I was in the Battle of—Flodden?” He blinked. “Why did they call it the Battle of Flodden when it was near Branxton?”
Ethan shrugged and was about to say more but then he suddenly remembered Faas Cuyper when Walter was a boy and Ethan’s face filled with sadness at remembering his murder. It was strange but the more visions he had, the more he remembered things that weren’t in the vision themselves. He could not remember what happened after the farthest vision but the in between and earlier parts were filling up in his mind like an internet file being slowly downloaded. He recalled Christmases with King Henry and Queen Catherine as Walter Kent and hunting trips in northern Connecticut with his Uncle Andrew as Thomas Bartlett almost as vividly as very old natural memories that had simply faded with a sense of natural time.
Unfortunately, Ethan did not retain the skills or instincts Walter and Thomas had. He could not remember their magic spells specifically enough to cast them on memory alone but he could remember enough to recall casting them and learning them.
“Something you need, Viscount? I’m getting dressed.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said with a sudden grin. “I need the address of your Italian friend.”
“Why?” she asked with a note of suspicion.
“I want to give her a present.”
“Oh. That’s actually rather nice.” The Italian friend, Carrie something or another in Italian, had wanted to meet him for a while but she was shy. Her shyness wasn’t her normal state as it only arrived from some kind of incredibly nasty burn that covered half of her face. Darcy and Carrie had been friends since kindergarten and Darcy had not abandoned her like her other friends after what had happened to her. For some reason or another, she refused to tell him how Carrie had been burned. “What are you going to give her, exactly?”
“Something she wants.
“And that is?”
“A surprise,” he said.
“She doesn’t like surprises,” Darcy said blandly.
“She’ll like this one!” he said a little too cheerfully.
“You’re not doing something stupid, are you? You sound incredibly stoned.”
“I do?” He realized he was speaking in a rather higher tone than normal. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
“Hi Darcy!” called out Becky happily.
“Tell her I said, ‘hi’ and why again do you really want to meet my friend?”
“I’m going to give her a Christmas present,” he said. “I need to do it in person, though. She’s home, right?” He turned to Becky. “Darcy says, ‘Hi.’ ”
“Yes,” said Darcy. “She might come with me to the Christmas festival at the Everson Farm and she might not. She fights with her family so she’s not going with them this season. Why?”
“You’ll see,” he said. “So what’s the address?”
She hesitated a second and then gave him the address which he wrote down on his nearby writing pad. “Ethan, Carrie Crocetti is my friend. Do anything bad to her or I won’t ever forgive you.”
“Never,” he replied as seriously as he could make himself sound. “I’ll just get take a shower, get on dressed, head over, give her, her present and then vamoose to the Everson Farm. I’ll give her a ride if she wants to come. See you there.”
“Uh, oh-kay. See you there.”
He grinned stupidly as he hung up and then looked over at Judy who was staring over his body awestruck. “I’ve got to go—” she saw Becky and the two hugged tightly and laughed happily. Ethan could see clearly that the two of them were already very good friends.
“Guys can’t hug like that,” Ethan told them. “They’ll think we’re homosexuals if we do.” He cracked his neck left, then right, and found he was rather stiff. He took a deep breath, took three steps forward, and a hand shot out and snatched his left hand.
“Can you give me a ride to the Everson Farm?” asked Becky.
“Sure,” he told her. “Unlock my hand.” She bit her lower lip mischievously and let go.
“I’ll drop your van off,” said Judy and then she hugged Becky again, the two smiling in that sweet way girls do to each other, and then went to the door. “Have fun at the Christmas party, guys,” she said as she went back for her jacket and hat.
“Oh we will,” said Becky. She blocked Ethan with her hand without looking and watched Judy put on her winter clothes. Ethan sensed what was coming and waited patiently for the door to shut behind Judy for Becky to say, “Do you want to make love to me?”
“Alas, I always take a pass on women I help. Just like Bud White.”
“You’re actually a man of honor,” she said in a disappointed voice.
Mickey let out a loud ha from his spot on the perch.
“You can call it that if you want,” Ethan told her. “It’s actually more that I’m afraid you’ll fall in love with me out of gratitude and I would have to break your heart just to get away from you.” She gave him a hard look. “See that look,” he said. “If I had slept with you and told you I just wanted to be friends you’d be crying.”
“I’m—” her face fell “—I’m wearing a diaper.” She looked up at him again and that time her face was unreadable.
“I guess you get the shower first then,” he said simply and she kissed him quickly on the lips. She then grabbed a bag of clothes Judy had left nearby and rushed away. “Well that certainly was fun,” he said to no one in particular.
* * *
“Ethan Bartlett,” said Carrie when she cracked open the green door of her parents’ home. It was a beautiful green-topped white Victorian structure located in the upper left corner of Edwards Grove with a beautiful snow-covered lawn with a sign that said, “Edward Groves’ Lawn of the Month,” placed at a corner by the driveway. It was located in the upper west section of Edwards Grove.
As for the girl, all Ethan could see of her when she appeared was the right side of her face, which he found stunningly beautiful, looking out at him from the opening between the door and its frame. She had sexy, olive skin, full lips, high cheekbones, slanted dark sultry eyes creating a supermodel’s face framed in beautiful, long and silky dark hair. The description of a supermodel wasn’t just something he would say to flatter her, either. If he didn’t know the other half of her face was incredibly scarred, he would say the girl could model professionally for magazines and mean it.
She glanced at him with a mix of suspicion and curiosity and then just surprise when she saw Mickey wearing a blue Hogswart House Ravenclaw scarf that Ethan had found for a doll he bought somewhere online.
“Did Darcy tell you I was coming?” he asked.
“Damn it, I knew she did. I told her this was supposed to be a surprise.” He pushed open the green door and the chain caught. “Open,” he said.
Ethan was wearing a black winter jacket, a black scarf, black gloves, a long-sleeved dark orange t-shirt and black pants with his black boots. He looked himself over instinctively and then looked back at her. “How do I look weird?”
“Your eyes are glazed over.”
“Oh that’s because I just cured Becky Masterson,” he told her and he moved aside to show Carrie Becky trying to dance on the sidewalk. She slipped, fell onto her bottom, then laughed and got back up again.
She was wearing a dark purple jacket she borrowed from Judy, which was likely something of Lana’s. She also wore black gloves, black pants that clung to her legs, a purple hat that matched the jacket and black winter shoes too big and absolutely wrong for dancing. She was grinning like a Cheshire cat, her eyes closed, her arms outstretched.
“That’s not her,” Carrie said simply.
“If you say so,” Ethan replied and then added kindly, “I’ve come to give you something. It’s a surprise but it’s not stupid and it’s not mean and it’s not some kind of joke.”
“Why?” she asked suspiciously.
“Because I’ve had a real shitty Chanukah and I’m tired of having really shitty Chanukahs. If I can’t enjoy my holiday then I’m going to motherfucking make sure as many people who deserve good holidays can have them instead.” He pushed against the chain a couple of times. “Open.”
“Why?” she asked in the same tone.
“I’m Darcy’s friend, Carrie,” he told her. “You know you can trust me.”
“I know that,” she said. “It’s just—” she sighed and moved her left side out into the open so he could see what happened to it.
He didn’t exactly understand what it was he saw. It was a burning, acid kind of ruin filled with gaping scars like craters on the moon and he had no idea exactly what could cause that. It was really bad and created an effect that reminded something of Freddy Krueger but that was fire and he knew fire.
She saw his expression and tried to shut the door but he caught it and pushed it back. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
She had hidden her scarred side again and frowned up at him with her pretty half. “Did you know Julian Bartlett II did this to me?”
“No but I’m not particularly surprised,” he replied honestly. “He killed Linus Coughlan as a prank so his willingness to mutilate a pretty girl isn’t a great revelation to his character.” He reached in and touched the pretty side of her face and she seemed comforted by that. “I’m here to help you.” She looked up at him and her pretty, right eye had filled up with tears. “You’re folks around?”
“My father has shut himself off from me emotionally and my mother is only interested in looks so they don’t have a problem leaving me behind when they visit family. I can’t—I can’t be around my giant Italian family while they put me in a corner and talk about their stupid problems in Italian, all laughing and celebrating and bullshitting while trying not to look at me and pretending I don’t exist.”
He nodded, relating to that, and he saw a decision cross Carrie’s face. She looked at him for a moment then shut the door, pulled the chain open, and then opened it again. Ethan stepped inside and called to Becky, “You okay out there?”
“Just fine,” Becky called back and she tried to spin around in a ballet move on the sidewalk. He smiled and turned to the foyer of the house.
“What a lovely home,” he said. It was wonderfully clean and filled with pictures of countless family members, one of which he saw was an unscarred Carrie smiling brightly and dressed as a black and blue colored cheerleader for the Oliver Wolcott Private School. He picked it up and said, “You’re pretty.”
She quickly snatched it from behind.
Ethan laughed but when he turned back to look at her, his smile melted off his face. Both halves of hers were filled with abject loathing and there were tears leaking out of her eyes. “Are you fucking with me, Bartlett?” she hissed. “You very well might be, I think, because your family is full of more sadists than a maximum-security prison! Speaking of which, your pervert grand—whatever, should have locked in one or possibly a padded room probably before Eisenhower left office! That would have at least kept a dozen or more prepubescent girls from losing their virginity!”
“I know and thankfully he’s dead,” Ethan said in a cold voice that surprised her. “He was my granduncle, Carrie, and there is nothing on Earth Julian Bartlett I did to you that will ever equal what he did to me.” He reached for her face.
She repelled away, sneering. “What are you doing, Bartlett?”
“It’s a fucking surprise,” he said, suddenly feeling in a thoroughly bad mood. She took another step back and then he grabbed her face with both hands, acutely aware of the disturbing feeling of her scars against his right hand. “Relax,” he said as he forced himself to be calm. “Just—” he let out a breath of air “—relax.”
She tossed the picture onto the table roughly knocking over several other pictures and looked depressingly beaten. “Fine,” she said with a voice that sounded bitter and tired. “Just—fine.”
His hands started to glow orange as he started his Fix Skin spell and through it, he felt not just her scars but also the imperfections everywhere some of which were just normal skin oddities everyone had such as moles or birthmarks. Those could not be fixed with such a spell as they were part of the natural state of her skin but the scar tissue was over the right side of her face and over the top of her left breast were exactly what it was designed for.
He sent his magic through her and saw the right side of her face and scars, even through her baggy white sweater, were glowing bright orange. It seemed to sting and when she squeezed her eyes shut, a tear ran down either cheek into the space between his thumb and fingers. She made a fist and then punched him hard on his left arm.
“Ow,” he said. She hit him again several times the same way and each time he just said that one word until the fifth time when he added, “Stop that, Caroline.”
“My name is Carolina!” she hissed with sudden anger. “It’s Carolina Capricia Crocetti!”
“Well stop that, Carolina Capricia Crocetti,” he told her. “It’s making me morose.” Her eyes took on a strange look for a moment and he felt another vision boil up instantly.
* * *
“Look there,” said some lord that Walter Kent was gambling with. He looked up to see an older but very attractive woman walking with her husband. She turned her head toward his, shared a seductive yet somehow not seductive smile with Walter and continued onward arm in arm with her rather average-looking husband. He knew she was Italian, very exotic, very beautiful but he knew very little else about her as she and her English husband tended to stay away from court. Her husband had been an ambassador or something to Rome at one or another and it had to be there where they met.
“That Italian lady would have been lovely as a girl,” said the lord.
“She’s lovely now,” Walter stated.
The lord leaned over. “Before she married her dashing English lord they say she was a lover of Rodrigo Borgia.”
“You are fooling,” said Walter in awe. She had suddenly become, much, much more interesting.
The lord leaned closer. “They say in Rome she had made much such a scandal that with Rodrigo’s death, she had to get as far as way as humanly possible.” He gave him a sly wink. “And here she is.”
* * *
“Wild,” Ethan said with a smile.
“You’re Walter Kent?” she asked in a surprised voice.
“Yeah, that’s me,” he said. “Hey, why is that you and Claire Winters get to be gorgeous in both lives? Walter Kent and Thomas Bartlett were ugly to average. I had to suffer two lives of looking like dog shit with every pretty boy around me getting all the girls and you two get to be born supermodels twice. What the hell is up with that?”
“Walt—Ethan. I want you to let go of my face.” She was breathing quickly, her hands shaking. “Let go of it right now.”
She frowned, her lips pressing together. “Pretty please,” she said in a tight, hard voice.
“Of course, I will—wait—no.” He laughed, his forehead moving up against hers, and he grinned. “No,” he added cheerfully, “No, no, nooooooo.”
He could feel himself coming to the end of his spell. His spell was good but it was draining and complex. The phoenix heart was still affecting him for otherwise he suspected he would be using a lot more concentration and that it would take a lot longer. In fact, it might not even be possible for him to pull it off without it but, for the moment, everything he cast was something like ten times more powerful.
He heard the sound of a television and both he and Carrie looked over to see Becky was standing in a room watching television with Mickey on her shoulder. “How long have we been standing here?” asked Ethan.
“An hour,” she said and when Carrie looked back, he heard her take in a surprised gasp.
“Told you it was her,” he told her. The spell ended and he let go. “Cool, right?” Carrie, once free of the spell, casually stepped forward and kneed him in the groin. If asked before whether he thought he could feel such a hit that deep into the throes of magic he would have said, “Probably not,” as magic had a powerfully nullifying the effects of pain.
He would have been very wrong.
Ethan crumpled into the ground with a groan. “You bitch,” he hacked out and Carrie took a deep breath and then noticed something about her face. She instantly turned and rushed away. “I hate you, you evil Italian cow!” he cried.
“Are you okay, Ethan?” asked Becky.
“Oh he’s just fiiiiiine,” said Mickey sarcastically. “That’s why he’s crumpled into a ball on the ground and groaning in agony.”
Ethan rolled over onto his back. “Bitch knows what she’s doing,” he said and he groaned loudly. “I’m never surprising anyone again.”
* * *
Carrie threw herself into the nearest bathroom, threw on the light switch, and looked at her reflection. The left side of her face where she had been scared was covered in orange paper-like material. She quickly tore it off, saw what was underneath, and then, after a moment of awe, quickly removed her sweater and t-shirt and ripped off the remaining paper material everywhere else and stared at her face and torso with nothing on above her waist but a white bra.
Her upper body was entirely unscarred; her face, the tops of her breasts, everything that had been ruined was covered in smooth, flawless skin and there wasn’t even a hint at the damage that had been there in what felt like a few minutes but according to Becky Masterson, had been over an hour.
When the shock of it had passed, she burst into tears.
You’re a fucking slut, Julian Bartlett II’s voice said loudly in her mind after she had slapped him. You fuck every man in town and now deny me because I’m a Bartlett? Well, fuck you, you fucking cunt!
That’s not why I’m telling you to fuck off and I’m not a slut! she replied and slapped him again.
Carrie had a reputation for being a serial dater and Little Julian got it in his head she was easy. When he grabbed her ass at a party and asked her how much for a ride in a joking, but not really joking, way she slapped him across the face hard enough to almost send him sprawling. She didn’t like being called a whore and she hated him anyway because of how cruel he was to everyone, including his own friends and girlfriends.
Perhaps she should have known better. She knew he was vindictive and what followed was horrible but not entirely unexpected.
A month after that encounter, he caught her on her morning jog wearing a Kermit the Frog that couldn’t have fooled a moron and dragged her into the alley. He tried to cover her mouth but he failed and she screamed out like a banshee, seeing a policeman, whose name was Perkins she later learned, watch him drag her away and do nothing. He would later say under oath that he was in the area but had neither seen her nor her attacker.
Bartlett beat her into near unconsciousness and then placed a jar by her head. Using a heavy glove, he started to take out some kind of yellowish cream from it.
So two-faced you are, you little cunt, you, he had told her in a voice that she very clearly recognized and was brimming with indignation. You like comics? He put it over the left half of her face and she immediately felt the burning. Then as she started to scream, he ripped off her jogging top to reveal her breasts. They call you C.C. because of your lovely perfect and big but not too big breasts.
It was a derogatory nickname for her attributes utilizing her initials. She had never been particularly fond of it and would not date any boy who had the nerve to say it to her face.
He poured it out over the tops of her left breast and chest. Let’s see you get a man now, you little whore! He leaned over as she whimpered from the pain caused by her face and chest being on fire, stuck his ungloved fingers under her short jogging pants and pushed them inside of her. Still tight after all this time? he asked as if amazed and she sensed a wide smile through the face of a beloved character from her childhood.
She began to weep uncontrollably and thought she could smell her face burning.
No one ever wrongs me! he snarled and then he took his fingers out and stuck something else in. I’m going to break you, you little cunt! he told her and he said it several times as he thrust himself into her.
She wept uncontrollably as she looked at her reflection: a gorgeous, young girl with a face that people told her could make her a supermodel. The same girl who had taken her G.E.D. early so she wouldn’t have to go to school and face her classmates and dreamed about children and a kind husband when awake and then being raped by a psychotic in a Muppet mask when asleep.
Assisting Julian II’s death had helped but not as she had hoped but maybe that was because all she did was stand in the street when Peter Bartlett came driving along. She had half hoped he would kill her, even thought that her death might have been an indirect method of ruining them, and she embraced the idea, but Peter Bartlett got scared and crashed instead.
She fled from the street and Argyle Coughlan never saw her as he approached. From a hidden vantage point behind a tree, she watched him kill Julian Bartlett II, wishing it was a slower death the entire time, and then saw him chase Peter Bartlett into those damn woods. She never told anyone and she never would.
This all came when a mystery caller, a woman’s voice, had simply said over the phone, You want vengeance, just do as I say. It won’t fix your face and it won’t unrape you but Little Julian won’t even be touching himself by night’s end if you take my meaning.
Why Carrie believed her, she couldn’t say, but she had and the woman delivered. Little Julian was crying like a girl when Argyle had him. So much for all that big talk. No surprise there. Bartletts were never brave without their lawyers or pet policemen around to save them.
He had cried out in a whining, girlish voice, “Don’t hurt me! Please! I’ll do anything! Anything!” and then died as he had lived: a weakling whose only strength came from others. When they were gone, she walked up to his corpse, kicked him in the groin as hard as she could and spat in his face.
Ethan suddenly popped up behind her like a jack-in-the-box with his sleeves rolled up to reveal sculpted muscular arms. She instinctively stiffened like a board and looked at him through the mirror’s reflection.
“That wasn’t nice,” he told her coldly.
She turned her head up and looked at him directly and his face shifted. He knows, she thought to herself. He saw it in her face somehow.
His beautiful face took on a tone that was very different from Julian’s, who looked enough like him to be family. Regardless of the pain that she caused him, he looked genuinely sympathetic.
“Hold me,” she whispered and he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly from behind. “Don’t let me go.” When he didn’t she leaned up against him and looked at his face again in the mirror. He looked back at her the same way and she read his expression.
It seemed that he could see her whole story in her eyes and she could almost hear him telling it back to her. She was mutilated and raped in an alley, she tried to get the man who clearly did it punished as befitting a society of law and order, but he had false alibis, one of them a respectable golfing acquaintance of her father’s, a witness to his “absence” in said area and a member of Bartlett Bay’s finest.
So, he was let off completely free with friends cheering and the town newspaper claiming that his false charges were justifiably dropped.
While they called Julian a saint, they called Carrie a whore and a bitch and a temptress and a gold digger, one of whose thousand or more lovers finally had enough of her wild promiscuity and let her justifiably have it. They said everything short of “she deserved what she got” that they feasibly could.
They said she only accused Julian Bartlett II because he was rich and successful. The monster who really raped her couldn’t have had the money or the means to satisfy such a gold-digging cunt, so she was making a target of that poor and innocent lamb, that golden pillar of society, the great and wonderful prince of Connecticut. She would never forget how that lawyer of the Bartletts, that Satan’s emissary on Earth as her mother once called him, point at her and say, Now look at this. She would seduce her own brother if she thought it would get her a dollar and now she wants to blame my client for a crime he clearly didn’t commit, allowing the real culprit to escape, because— he raised a finger —her need for justice pales incredibly with her need to fill her wallet.
After the trial, Little Julian gave her a big, cocky “I win” smile.
Tears ran down her face. “Little Julian raped me,” she said and Ethan nodded, uncertain of what to say as all men were in such clearly defined feminine areas. He did touch her face kindly where he had healed her and she felt warm and loved for the first time she could remember, something she recalled only reaching at a distant closeness with sex. “I was afraid of talking to Darcy about it, afraid it would ruin our friendship, and I—I can’t be around my family because I can’t handle those contemptuous stares and them telling me what a whore I am every time they talk to me.”
Ethan nodded and said, “Merry Christmas, Carolina.”
She knew he was attracted to him, with her skin cured, few heterosexual men weren’t, and she hadn’t become overweight or anything since the incident, which would have, at least in the age she lived in, cost her some of her sexiness. She could tell in his initial touch easily enough although after he saw the look that told him her story he became far less interested in carnality.
“Do you want me?” she asked softly.
Ethan shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied and she kissed him on the cheek as if he was the big brother she had never had.
“Well,” he said a shrug. “I’m going to go the Everson Farm thing. Want to come with?”
She burst into happy tears and hugged him tightly but not sexually. He was the first man since Julian had mutilated and raped her that she could touch without a sense of overwhelming revulsion.
* * *
“Well, that was fucked up,” he told himself softly as Carrie drove Becky and him to the Everson Farm. Ethan left his car there and decided not to drive because he felt woozy, too far-gone magically and too emotionally drained with that unpleasantness, to want to risk it again. He sat in the back of Carrie’s Prius and looked out of the window.
He had expected to make Carrie happy and while she was happier, it was far from the scene of exquisite joy he had hoped to create. She seemed just merely pleased and not ecstatic as he had hoped. He suspected after what Julian did, nothing could make her happy, but he supposed this was as close as she was ever going to get.
“You don’t seem very happy even though you’re smiling,” Becky told her. “I can feel it. I’m psychic, you know.”
“Can you make a psionic sword?” asked Ethan softly.
Becky turned back from the passenger seat and looked at him. “Who told you about that?” she asked in almost a gasp of horror.
“I thought you said you were psychic,” he replied jokingly and she didn’t answer. Psychics, whether they had real powers or not, were undoubtedly a very secretive group but he had heard things in corners and whispers and often, though very quietly, a name: John Valentine. It was not a name they liked to hear spoken aloud.
Becky turned around after a moment, not pressing him for an answer, and the trip was quiet after that.
Ethan was tempted to ask her about Valentine but he decided against it since the one time he found a person he believed to be an actual psychic and mentioned that name he got such a silent, wide-eyed look of stark terror it was astounding.
When they arrived, he stepped out of the Prius at the house from almost the exact same spot where he had fought the hag earlier that year and he found himself smiling. He saw the sight of the many-colored tents off in the distance, the lavishly holiday decorated house with its reindeer and Santa Claus and the many cars of the townspeople parked all around in a happy manner.
Carrie wrapped one arm through his right, Becky through his left, and the two looked at each other in cute competitive ways that could be anything from genuine playfulness to sinisterly hostile, and then they walked him up to the door. They went to the front door of the house instead of the gated entrance where most of the normal people paid a small fee to a man in a little white booth to enter.
Mickey flew down out of the sky and landed casually on his shoulder with a happy smile.
Carrie had taken a shower, put on makeup, threw on sexy, elegant clothes that consisted of a dark green jacket that looked like a dress, black leggings, black shoes that looked far too formal for winter wear and her hair tied elegantly yet conservatively behind her head.
Becky moved ahead and pressed the doorbell happily, almost slipping as she stepped up the stairs, and the door opened to show Jen smiling brightly. “Ethan!” she called out happily. “Who are your—” her eyes wide “—Carrie?”
Carrie smiled brightly and showed her the left half of her face and the very tops of her breasts that were exposed only when she leaned forward, although the latter wasn’t done even in an obvious or purposeful way though it probably was.
This one is a master at the female arts, thought Ethan. Darcy was a warrior and beat men at their own game but Carrie was of the other side, the generally accepted alpha female side: the queen bee.
“Now me!” said Becky and Jen grunted when Becky threw her arms around her, hugged her tightly, and then started hopping down and laughing.
She turned to Ethan and mouthed the word “who.”
“Becky Masterson,” he said and her eyes went wide. “You know her, right? Cute girl, likes to dance—”
She pulled Becky back and looked at her face. “You’re walking!” she said with more surprise than any other emotion. “How are you walking?”
“He fixed my spine!” she told her. “He used a magic ritual, a phoenix heart and-what is it? What does that look me?”
Jen shook her head in stunned shock and gestured for them to enter. Once inside, they took off their jackets, and Carrie kissed Ethan on the cheek and went off into the house. Becky frowned at her, then kissed Ethan in the lips quickly, and wandered off into the house afterward.
The house was not for everyone, just for Jen’s personal guests, so it wasn’t crowded like her farm where half the city celebrated.
“So, did you make money off your familiars this year?” he asked her.
“Millions,” she replied casually and then she faced him. “Where in God’s name did you find a phoenix’s heart?” she asked with wide eyes.
“Lana Creed gave it to me to help Becky.” Jen’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I know you don’t believe it but it’s true.”
“I don’t believe anything good ever involves Lana Creed,” she said simply and then her face relaxed. “You look really tired, Ethan.”
“Hey, Mom, don’t forget about me you know,” Mickey said with a frown and she petted him without looking. “Oh, that’s the stuff.”
“I am very tired,” Ethan said. “You don’t happen to have a couch or something.”
“I do, actually,” she said and her eyes became filled with something he was unfamiliar with. It took him a minute to figure it that out might have been genuine affection not unlike the kind a mother might have for her child. “Are you alright, Ethan?”
“It was hard work healing those two and I am exhausted but it was definitely worth it. Look at that Italian beauty.” Becky heard and gave him a hard look and glanced over at Carrie who either didn’t hear him or pretended not to. “They’re both really cute.”
“You want to lie down, don’t you?”
She took his hand and led him the stairs to the upstairs den where he saw a large television and a long blue couch made into a semi-circle. “I have a guest room if you need one.”
“No, I’m good. Wake me for dinner if I sleep too long.” He took off his boots, slipped down across the couch, felt immense tiredness come over him, and as he drifted away, he felt a gentle kiss on his forehead.
“Where ever did you come from?” asked Jen kindly from what seemed like far away.
“I don’t know,” he said as he tossed off his shoes. “My mother, I reckon.”
“California?” suggested Mickey
“Yeah, there,” he said and he relaxed even more. Jen didn’t leave right away and he sensed her watching him quietly while Mickey found himself a comfortable spot on his chest.
“You could pet me while you’re standing there, you know,” said Mickey as he squatted down.
Jen then reached down and stroked Ethan’s hair softly.
“I said me,” Mickey told her and Ethan grinned.
“You’ve made this a wonderful holiday for those three girls,” Jen told Ethan. “You also saved four other girls, not including the mayor.”
“She’s a girl too,” he said softly.
There’s something out there in those woods that hates young and pretty women, Jen’s phantom voice said in his head from that day when he went out to fight the hag and save Sarah and Britney Wellington. The mayor was good-looking and, though not very young, she was certainly not old, and Ronald Merrick’s daughter definitely had been pretty.
She was right: all the victims were almost always pretty girls.
“Yeah, it’s a real—lady’s day,” he said and then he felt another vision coming. He took a deep breath and found himself uncontrollably drifting toward it. She was still there when he felt something sniffing him and looked over to see a dog’s nose an inch from his face.
“Go away!” hissed Mickey. “He’s my pet!”
“Never should have shown you 101 Dalmatians,” he said and Jen laughed aloud.
The dog was a black and brown cross between a lab and bloodhound. He sniffed at him again for a while and then licked his face. “Give me a name,” he said very cheerfully. “I haven’t figured out one I like yet.”
“He doesn’t like the names I keep trying to give him,” Jen said.
“Your new name is Paul,” said Ethan. “Now let me sleep.”
“I like it,” the dog said and he licked Ethan a few times on his face then jumped on the couch near his head and lied down.
“Cute dog,” said Ethan.
“Yeah,” said Jen and she kissed him in the forehead and left him.
“Don’t encourage him, you’re mine,” said Mickey.
“Mickey’s jealous,” said Paul.
“Shut up, dog!”
Ethan laughed and thought about two words “lady” and “day.” He felt himself drifting off to sleep and he knew the date was March 25th, 1516, the day they called Lady Day, a day devoted to the Virgin Mary, and it was the beginning of the new year in Tudor England and that year was especially wondrous because—
* * *
—I have a living child!” cried King Henry VIII exuberantly and proudly for the thousandth time.
Yes, the child was indeed alive and yes the child was indeed healthy but, sadly, the child was indeed also a girl, who he christened Mary.
The Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin was being celebrated more zealously than any year Sir Walter Kent could remember. It was three years after the Battle of Flodden and the court was once again enraptured with the queen.
To Walter she looked much like she had during Flodden, her face glowing and her beauty, though some say had been marred by childbirth and a growing waistline, had become something unearthly to him.
Walter realized she had become “alive” again. He had seen it only a few times before: when her son the Duke of Richmond had been born, when it was clear King James IV was going to invade, and most especially, when the bloody surcoat of King James IV was presented to her, which we later send to Henry. Walter had been there to be honored for his own victory over James’s champion and, upon Henry’s return, earned him a knighthood.
Her “alive” it had come when she had given Henry a surviving child and though she was not the son that he so desperately wanted, he still proclaimed that, “If it is a girl this time, boys will follow.”
He seemed confident enough but it never quite touched his eyes. Walter knew if he sensed it, Catherine surely did, because she was smarter than Walter and probably Henry too although to look in her pretty, calm face, one would never know. Most either didn’t sense it or didn’t care but since Flodden, Catherine had never been far from Walter’s mind.
Confident or not, Walter felt Henry was right about what he said. She was still young and, despite what others would have him believe, Walter did not think thirty was too old to bear children and she was still desirable. She had reddish-gold hair that looked like spun fire to him, stunning sapphire blue eyes, and a lovely, shapely form hidden under the sadly dull yellow mourning dress she wore for her father Ferdinand who had just passed away. It was true that she wasn’t as beautiful then as she was at fifteen but hardly made her ugly.
Sadly, she was in mourning alone. Henry had not forgiven Ferdinand for his numerous betrayals, which had angered him enough to give his sister Mary, calmly in public and screaming and kicking in private, into the marriage bed of the elderly King Louis XII of France. For this reason, King Ferdinand’s passing was treated more like a celebration than mourning although that may, or may not, have been due to princess Mary’s birth being celebrated coincidentally at the same time.
It came as no surprise to anyone but Henry that after Louis XII died, of possibly trying to get an heir, Mary secretly married the man she had long since fallen in love with, the dashing Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon. Henry knew she loved him, he had said so in Walter’s presence more than once, and yet even though he had promised she could marry who she pleased after Louis XII, he felt it so much more important that her marriage be to his benefit politically. Therefore, when their secret came out he was so furious and acted offended in such a way to indicate that they had both personally wronged him. So much so in fact, that he might well have had Brandon, possibly his singularly closest friend, executed for treason if not for the intervention of one Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, who had recently just become the Lord Chancellor.
Walter did not like Charles Brandon but he understood Mary’s feelings. He himself had married a woman named Lady Anne Chapman, a choice made by their fathers without their consent or even meeting, and it was clear from the first sight of him that Anne disliked his appearance and personality. She fought like a tigress to escape and Walter did his best to help, albeit less viciously, but Walter’s father wanted her dowry and Lord Chapman wanted the Kent’s Howard connections.
Anne had been young and beautiful and, like Queen Mary Tudor, she had her own dashing Charles Brandon sort of man that she was in love with. She did not like the tall, lanky scholarly sort of man that Walter was and Lord Edward Courtenay, a distant relation to Henry Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, was the man she had wanted to marry before him.
Walter had known he was still in her life somewhere. He suspected Courtenay would put the cuckold horns on his head from the instant their marriage began and he wasn’t particularly surprised when he did.
He simply waited until it happened and then had the loveless marriage annulled by pre-contract to some random lord somewhere instead of adultery, which would do much to protect her honor and his own by proxy. He had barely ever met Edward Courtenay and perhaps if he had known him better, he might not have earnestly believed he loved her.
He had never been so wrong in all his life.
Edward Courtenay had more interested in humiliating Walter than he had ever been in marrying Anne Chapman. Once Walter was gone, so was the fun, and shortly afterward, he abandoned Anne, friendless and pregnant, to the mercy of her family.
Her father had been furious but at Anne, not Courtenay, as he felt what happened between Walter and herself was her failure and as a final disgrace, he sent her to a nunnery to die alone. Courtenay himself made it subtly but clearly obvious in court just who wrecked Walter Kent’s marriage and he twisted the story so as to pass it off as proof of being “the better man,” while simultaneously painting himself as the victim of a she-wolf. Their child was almost certainly going to be abandoned by both families.
Walter had been in Ireland at the time mastering his art from the Irish Academy of Magic utterly oblivious to anything going in England as he had his own significant issues to deal with. He married an Irish girl, a merchant’s daughter, had a child, and then watched the wife die of childbed fever leaving him a singular parent of a daughter they called Alice while simultaneously studying, practicing, and then graduating from the academy. That entire section of his life opened and closed while Edward Courtenay destroyed Anne Chapman across the Irish Sea.
When he had left England, he was a hero of the Battle of Flodden Field, the slayer of the magician Lord Reid, and a budding magician himself of endless promise with fine marital prospects. When he returned, he was a cuckold who was a single father and an embarrassment to his family once more. People had even started calling him the Black Fool again.
Anne Chapman had a daughter too, Catherine, and Walter decided to adopt her. A sister was no substitute for a mother but at least Alice would have some close female in her life.
Anne had burst into surprised, happy tears when his decision had been broached to her and he would never forget how she wept and begged for his forgiveness. The sight of Anne, a lively vivacious girl broken and looking twice her age disturbed him and he mentally debated killing Edward Courtenay for what he had done. He decided not to in the end but only because the child he sired was going to be Walter’s daughter and he was worried killing her natural father would come to haunt him when she was grown.
But if little Catherine ever died, Walter would go after him. That he vowed.
“There is nothing to forgive,” Walter told her earnestly and she looked genuinely surprised. “You think I didn’t know I wasn’t meant for you. Our fathers did this. Yours thought I could draw him into the favor of the Duke of Norfolk and mine was greedy and thought I could never rise any higher. Our marriage was doomed from the start.”
It was a new trend to educate women and Walter, along with many others, including his uncle by marriage Thomas Boleyn, was already a believer. He didn’t like the idea of a stupid or uneducated woman and never had. As proper ladies, there should be something that separates from the rest of the female world. Otherwise, they would be no better than peasants in fancy dresses whose sole purpose was to breed themselves like cows.
Had Anne Chapman been educated like Boleyn’s daughters, she might well have known not to trust such a man as Edward Courtenay, history being littered with such villains after all, but all she knew were pretty, courtly tales of love. Such might well be the fate of his own daughters if Walter was not careful.
Anne had been overwhelmed with emotion when he had personally come to talk to her about Catherine that it was quite some time before she could compose herself. When she did, she was greatly pleased by his notion of education and his promise that he would have her daughter visit her, which he meant. Then he had left, thoughtful and sad, and mentally debated killing Courtenay some more but ending up with the same depressing conclusion.
Walter stopped his thoughts and looked up from the table and across the dancers in the hall to see Katherine Tudor speaking to Queen Catherine. Kate was thirteen, as gorgeous as her sisters and sister-in-law had ever been, with long, Tudor red hair and bright round blue eyes and full, kissable lips. She was promised to some Spanish duke in part of Henry’s campaign against the French before Ferdinand broke with him and would likely be tossed wherever Henry found it best to serve him in the next few years.
She looked radiantly happy to be an aunt and loved Queen Catherine as a mother. Her own mother had died giving birth to her, Faas Cuyper had not been able to save her, unfortunately, and Queen Catherine had become a mother to her in her absence.
Looking at the girl smiling he thought sadly, How long will that happiness last? When Henry marries you to some ancient Methuselah just so he can have an ally for another pointless war in France?
And why not? He had done it before and with his favorite sister no less, the one who had not killed her mother in being born, as he would so often remind Katherine. He packed the great beauty of Europe at eighteen years of age off across the sea to marry the aged fifty-two-year-old King Louis XII of France. It was a good match politically and he was a very happy man right up until the day he died almost three months later reputedly worn out in his exertions to get himself an heir, which, sadly, was without success. Mary had only gone through with the marriage with a promise from her brother to be allowed to marry whom she pleased afterward and Walter had personally heard him reiterate that promise.
Even Walter’s negativity didn’t go far enough to keep him from dumbstruck shock at that distance of punishment Henry was willing to go if not stopped and while he did not like Charles Brandon, he still defended him. He knew very well that if Henry executed him, he would come to deeply regret it and would subsequently turn on those he felt had talked him into it. He thanked God for Cardinal Wolsey who helped avoid this incredible catastrophe.
Henry was still incredibly furious but he finally did relent and let his sister and new brother-in-law off with just an incredibly heavy fine but he made an annoying show of throwing it away on stupid frivolities each time as if to emphasize just how he was the most cruelly and unjustly injured man in all the world.
So much for honor, thought Walter bitterly and he pitied Katherine Tudor.
Walter didn’t personally feel much like merrymaking for he had too much on his mind. He had two infant daughters, their education to be concerned with and business, which he decided would involve trade with Ireland, possibly France. He had some good Irish connections through his late wife’s family and he knew people in the French court via his own visits and connections through his paternal grandfather. The Kent animal was a fish, so why not go to the sea? The English were islanders, after all, and he absolutely loved boats and the ocean all his life.
Walter felt a desperate need to escape the court for something real after he had seen Ireland. He was sick of dancing and laughing all the time and trying to please His Highness all hours of the day and night. He was sick of balls and masquerades, and watching the pretty women pretend the man who was obviously the king was somehow not the king, a lame imitation of chivalric romances Walter felt no lowborn grown man should obsess over let alone the king of England. He was just sick to death of gasping in haw over every stupid thing Henry said as if it was written in the gospels and listening to the king’s favorites all snicker as they insulted him to all the beauties in the court.
With two children to support all Walter could really think about were what their education, necessary finances, what their dowry would cost and worse, and above all else, what he would have to tell them to avoid Anne Chapman’s fate, which went against all that the court projected.
When he looked up, he saw that Henry was dancing right then with a young, pretty girl, he knew to be a distant Howard cousin and he did it right in front of his wife. Again.
Kate Tudor did not look pleased but Catherine touched her arm and that look vanished as if it had never been there.
Henry VIII was something of an open adulterer but, surprisingly enough, he did not approve one bit of what Edward Courtenay had done and, for the moment at least, Courtenay was banished from court. He did nothing to help Anne Chapman, he blamed her equally if not more, but on one occasion, he did openly mock Walter after having too much to drink. The very next day, he said he felt incredibly sorry for what happened to him and the court seemed to sympathize although they were just imitating him. Walter explained the situation of forced marriages and Henry said he understood that plight.
That he understood love.
Considering how much he honored his promise to his sister, his treatment of his wife and the fact that nothing ever happened to Edward Courtenay beyond simple banishment that everyone knew was temporary, Walter rather doubted that.
Walter felt a hand touch his and saw his mother smiling at him kindly. He smiled back, a little nervously, and then looked back at the king with his distant Howard cousin and thought about how his life was changing in a rather different and unexpected way as well.
A week before Lady Day, he had arrived at London with both of his daughters and happily situated himself in his modest home. He had not seen his parents for a few years nor expected to for his father, Viscount Emingforde, had been infuriated by Walter’s unwillingness to support his favored brothers to the king after his knighthood and rising favor and almost seemed to have disowned him. He didn’t seem to understand what a bad idea it was to praise people that Henry loathed. His father had already been somewhat ashamed of him, as he believed magic was a coward’s weapon that went against the code of chivalry and degraded the Kent name.
After the annulment of his marriage to Anne Chapman and his marriage to an Irishwoman of less than the highest of noble blood, his father had been so furious by letter that Walter was certain he would never see his parents again.
Then one day his mother appeared.
Viscountess Emingforde, born Lady Jane Howard, simply showed up in his doorway completely unannounced and for no reason that he could think of. She was the dark-haired, beautiful, third child of Thomas Howard who had been the Earl of Surrey before the Battle of Flodden and after became the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. The star was rising in that family, that was certain, but Walter didn’t expect to gain much from it. His cousin by marriage to his aunt Thomas Boleyn very well might, that man was ambitious, cunning and talented, but Walter was less than that and didn’t want to get too involved. His mother’s appearance made him think he was about to, though.
“Mother?” he asked.
“Oh you recognize me,” she said with a smile.
She smiled and glided inside. Howard women often walked like queens and she was no different. She even smiled at him fondly which she had never done before, not even after Flodden, which his father regarded as a lucky fluke. “I hear I have a grandchild,” she told him happily.
“Yes,” he said. “Father seemed rather upset by that.”
“Really?” she asked with a smile. He was never quite sure who was worse when they wanted something, her elder brother Thomas or her. They were both better courtiers than he was by far, Thomas the smarter and with all the connections and power and she just absurdly cunning and his mother as well. “What was he upset about specifically?” she asked as if she didn’t know.
“Well—” from his less-than-successful courtier lifestyle to his unofficial title of the Black Fool to his annulment to his Irish daughter to his adoption of his annulled wife’s bastard to his scholarly pursuit of usable magic to lacking proper Catholic faith by missing mass to not properly adhering to the laws of God and chivalry “—pretty much everything. He was very detailed, Mother.”
She smiled and took his hand gently. “He will learn in time to be grateful for you. You are the hero of Flodden Field.”
“Your father is the hero of Flodden Field. I just killed a magician. Luckily.”
“I find humility in men ever so refreshing,” she told him with a different, more genuine smile and she walked on to his nursery where his governess was rocking little Catherine in her arms. “Which one is my real granddaughter?” she asked. Walter gestured to the crib with Alice in it and Jane Howard said briskly to the governess, “Leave us and take the bastard when you go.”
Walter nodded to the woman and she curtsied and left with Cate.
His mother smiled, went over and looked down at her granddaughter. She wasn’t asleep but was pleasantly satisfied and was calmly staring up out of her crib at nothing. “She has my eyes,” his mother told him.
He walked around the crib and looked at his mother uncomfortably. “Mother—” he began nervously.
“I came because I would like to see my son and granddaughter,” she said a little briskly. “Why are you questioning me?”
“Mother, Father was furious. He would not approve of you visiting me.” Of course, his father was controlled by his wife and all the court knew it. It was the main reason King Henry didn’t like him but also because he was old, didn’t have a sense of humor, and was incredibly boring but the first reason was by far the strongest. Henry didn’t feel a man should ever be questioned by a woman let alone actually be controlled by one.
Jane Howard just smiled at him. “Your father will come to regret his anger at you,” she said cryptically.
“Why?” he asked. “He never has before.”
“Well your brother Thomas is a gambler and Edward is a drunk,” she said simply and Walter became a little nervous about how blunt and bitter she had suddenly become. The woman did not typically drop her elegant courtier style of speech for that sort of talk, not even with family. “Your father has a tendency to overpraise them and has spoiled them both and now they are abysmal failures for men who have Howard blood. Had my husband been the man my brother is, he could have had a swift hand on them and made my sons my pride and not my shame.” She thought the world of her eldest brother and he could always count on her to take his side in virtually anything.
As for her sons, she wasn’t particularly wrong about their habits but Walter never had known or cared whether it was too far. After all, everyone drank and gambled in the court, and they were not the first idiots to do so to excess. His father had also made it plainly clear their greatest failures would never equal Walter’s most minor.
“Your star is rising, Walter,” she told him. “It is not a bright star but the king is starting to love you. Perhaps not a lot but it is something and your magic is useful. So few men can cast spells and the king ever so loves his tricks and shows.”
Walter was not used to being praised by either parent. When he was a boy, his mother had not thought much more about him than his father had. Evidently, something, Flodden maybe, had changed that in her although by later that day, after watching her rocking and singing to her grandchild, he realized it might have had more to do with his paternal nature and his belief in educating women. His proud talks of educating his daughters had an effect on her he would have thought previously unlikely to move her.
He thought that perhaps he did not really know his mother at all.
“What are you thinking?” his mother asked softly as he looked back over at the king dancing with that young girl in front of his wife.
Walter looked up at the queen and he thought that Catherine was wasted as a simple, dutiful wife. She could be much more useful as the kind of queen her mother Isabelle of Castile had been. She had proven it as regent and, while it might not do well for the king’s personal pride, it would certainly make the country much stronger.
“I’m thinking the king dances quite well,” he told her.
“Liar,” she told him with a half-smile that did not touch her eyes.
“This is a day for women everywhere!” called out the king suddenly and he looked extremely happy and exuberant. “And for my queen above them all!” He then drank his wine deeply, became suddenly serious and then added, “At long last, after so long, my curse is ended and my wife has succeeded in her first and only duty.” He swallowed, looked heavily relieved, took another drink and then looked even more serious and solemn, which was amplified by his being half-drunk and a bit sweaty. It served to make him even more beautiful than normal and the eyes of the women in the court were locked on him with lust and awe in equal measure. “Someday, I trust—” he let out a breath of air and looked both sad and moved with tears brimming in his eyes, “—someday, I trust her now to fulfill her duty in truth and give England the son and heir it deserves.”
There were murmurs of agreement, hear, hears and other sounds but all very solemn. Catherine smiled like it was a great compliment, unlikely to have missed his implications of her earlier “failures” and everyone looked at her in awe as if having a child was the greatest victory a woman could ever achieve.
“Her day is today,” Henry said again.
He’s wrong, thought Walter. Her day was in 1513, three years ago, when under her command Walter’s grandfather had destroyed the Scottish king and his army. She had proven herself as great a regal commander as any man could be, better he thought than Henry’s victory at Tournai, which was proving absurdly expensive, and certainly better than what Walter himself could have done.
The only woman who could do that was Catherine of Aragon, or maybe her mother who was just as rare, while any healthy woman anywhere could have a child.
That he realized was why she had looked so alive as regent. The queen’s face that she put on that Lady Day and most other days wasn’t her real face; just Henry’s wife’s face. That one year when Henry VIII wasn’t around to hold her down or steal her thunder, she held a country together, rode out pregnant to meet the soldiers before a great battle and killed a king without a husband to protect her.
Looking into her face during those moments were the only glimpses Walter ever had or ever would have of the true Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England.
* * `*
“‘Pastimes of youth some time among. None can say but necessary. I hurt no man, I do no wrong, I love true where I did marry, though some say that youth rules me.’” Ethan’s eyes stared up at the ceiling and he felt incredibly hollow inside.
“Are you on crack?” asked Mickey.
“No,” he replied. “I’m just thinking about how that beautiful, brilliant woman is going to be fucked over by her husband in the next fifteen or so years.” He could still smell the food, hear the musicians playing and feel Jane Howard’s hand on top of his. “It sucks.”
“Yeah, uh, oh-kay.” Mickey nestled deeper onto his chest and looked up to see Grace O’Brien wearing a dark green dress with white leggings standing over Ethan biting her lower lip. “Hi Gr-hey—” he cried out the last word suddenly as Grace tossed him off and then crawled onto Ethan’s chest. “What the hell, Grace?” cried Mickey as he flapped away.
There was a gasp from somewhere and then Ethan looked over to see Jessica Downs appearing around the end of the couch, wearing a pink dress also with white leggings with her soft red hair hanging down like waves around her shoulders.
“Oh hell no!” She instantly crawled over Grace, who cried out, and then squeezed in between her and the side of the couch on top of Ethan. “Hi, Ethan,” she said cheerfully.
“What’s uhhh—” he groaned as Paul crawled up onto the bottom of his legs and then Mickey landed onto his forehead, turned around and plopped his butt on Ethan’s face in his “I’m unhappy” position. He groaned loudly again and said, “Goddamn it, I’m trying to sleep! Get off, get off, get off!”
“Is that you crying out like a little girl, Ethan?” called Darcy from somewhere.
“Oh shit! Get off, get off, get off!” he cried but they didn’t listen, Grace and Jessica clinging onto him like he was a life preserver and Paul trying to get comfortable and Mickey trying to get Ethan to give him back his spot on his chest by making him even more uncomfortable. “Seriously, get the hell off of me!” he cried.
“Well, well, well,” said Darcy in an incredibly amused voice and Ethan groaned and felt himself turning red from embarrassment. “It looks like somebody is swarming with cute little things.”
“Yes, please, get these damn animals off me,” he said and Mickey flew over onto Darcy’s shoulder. “Also, while you’re at it, please remove the dog as well.” Jessica frowned and pinched him in the neck. “Ouch!”
Grace frowned at her and Jessica frowned back. “You can’t have him, he’s mine!” Jessica said and she then shoved Grace off the couch. She cried out as she fell to the ground.
“Careful!” Ethan told Jessica as he gently lifted her off his chest
“Bitch,” said Grace as she stood up.
“You want to do something about it, Briar Rose?” asked Jessica coldly as she was put down.
“Ladies, ladies, I am not a piece of meat,” said Ethan as he pulled his legs free of the dog. “I expect you to treat me like a gentleman and woo me properly.” They looked at him with two identical looks of displeasure as he sat up and started to put his shoes back on. “In case you’re wondering, I like long walks on the beach, films about romance and, of course, restaurants with funny, unpronounceable foreign names.”
They turned back to each other and, quite suddenly, grabbed each other’s hair and started to fight. Ethan groaned and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his left hand.
“Enough!” cried a voice and Jessica groaned as Jane Downs’s hand came down, caught her wrist, and angrily yanked her away. Ethan stood up, feeling shaky after his latest vision, and looked over at Darcy as she walked around the couch. She was wearing a dark red jacket, black pants, with tall boots and her hair was tied behind her head with her bangs hanging down past her chin. She had a sensual kind of smile on her face and her hands were on her hips when she stopped in front of him.
“Something you-ouch!” Darcy frowned at Jessica who frowned back jealously as she went by.
“No pinching, you!” said Jane Downs.
Ethan stood up and walked toward Darcy. “So, how are you—” Darcy wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek deeply. He grinned, kind of sheepishly, and then looked at her. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
Her heart sank. “Really? Then what the hell was that just now?”
She smiled at him, her lips less than an inch from his. “It’s called a friendly kiss,” she told him, her body moving even closer. “I saw my cousin and my friend on my way in. Those were good Christmas presents.”
“Yeah, so don’t pretend I’m not awesome anymore,” he told her and she bit her lower lip. “So who’s this Paul you’re dating?”
“He is absolutely gorgeous. A sexy, muscular underwear model which is what he actually is. He’s also gentle and kind and a great lover but—” she shrugged “—he’s as dumb as a pile of bricks.”
“I really can’t complain about that,” Ethan replied. “I’ve dated a fair share of sexy bimbos myself.”
“Yeah, I’ve met Nora Tan,” she replied with tight lips and then she looked down to see Grace looking up at her with incredible undisguised jealousy. “Don’t pinch me, Grace,” Darcy told her.
“I don’t pinch my friends,” she said. “Just like my friends would never steal a boy from me.”
“Gee, golly, wow, I got to go,” said Ethan and he slipped away and before Grace could follow, Darcy caught her by the shoulder and pulled her back.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Jen touched his arm to get his attention. “So,” she said, “Who is taking care of your farm these days? I hear you have a series of empty horse facilities.”
“Yeah, I’ll probably rent them out. Why?”
Jen gave him a strange smile and then took his hand and led him away. “Just curious and there is someone I want you to meet.” She found who she was looking for immediately, a man in a dark gray polo shirt, and she reached over and touched his shoulder. He turned around slowly to reveal an older man with a bald head and a short dark beard and strange, sad, hollow eyes. “This is Argyle Coughlan,” she told Ethan.
The sight of the two of them together caused a strange quietness in the room Ethan guessed had something to do with his cousin supposedly murdering Argyle’s son and a rumor of Argyle murdering his cousin although he alibis for that one.
Ethan and he reached out in unison and slowly shook hands.
“Ethan Bartlett,” he told him and he saw Argyle’s wife Alice come up to him on crutches with a sweet smile on her face. She was a pretty woman in her late forties but she looked rather sad which no doubt was entirely due to her son’s death but she didn’t have the same hollow look Argyle’s face had. “Well, I’m on a roll with helping women so I might as well keep going,” he said and he handed her a Heal potion.
“What is this?” she asked.
“It’s a Heal potion. Depending on what’s wrong with you it might or might not heal your leg.” She looked at it, shrugged, and drank it. She blinked a moment, felt her leg, and then smiled at him. She put weight on it and then moved around with it easily and smiled widely. “Hey Argyle,” he said and Coughlan looked at him. “You busy these days?”
“No?” he said like a question and looked warily at him.
“I know your family’s history with the cannery and that you’ve remained interested and on top of the cannery business even though you don’t have a cannery for many years. I own the cannery now and like to reopen it as a Coughlan Cannery and I need someone who knows what they’re doing, preferably a Coughlan and oh my God why is everyone staring at me like that?”
Everyone in the room was just looking at him with jaw-dropped surprise.
“I feel a sense of discomfort I cannot describe in the English language,” Ethan said.
Argyle’s face was caught between shock and just out and out wonder. His wife moved gracefully around on her legs for a moment, then touched Argyle’s shoulder and whispered into his ear. “Alright,” he told Ethan numbly.
“We’ll talk about it more sometime soon. For now, I’m going to flee this room and all these creepy staring eyes—” he jumped when a hand landed on his shoulder and he looked back to see who it was.
It was Jen’s husband, a tall, gaunt-looking man with wild-looking gray hair wearing a dark red polo shirt and khaki pants. “Hello, son,” he said and then he gave him a curious look. “Have we ever actually been introduced?”
“Maybe,” Ethan replied. “What’s your name again?”
“No, we have not,” he replied. “I think I would have remembered ever hearing your name?” He looked around and saw everyone going back to whatever they were doing, which included Argyle who was talking to his now uninjured wife.
“You never heard of me?” McCoy seemed surprised. “My family is kind of famous, you know. They went to war at the Kentucky West Virginia border with a family called the Hatfields.”
“You’re screwing with me,” Ethan replied. “There are lots of McCoys in the world.”
“I am not,” he said sternly. “My ancestor was Randal McCoy’s younger brother who settled here when the feud got hot. He thought he might end up getting killed in vengeance for Ellis Hatfield being killed as kind of an eye for an eye, brother for a brother thing.”
Ethan felt something like a vision swirl around at the back of his mind. He felt couldn’t handle another version and felt great relief it didn’t come.
“Did anyone ever tell you about what I find out in my fields sometimes?” Sylvester asked him.
Ethan then did recall a strange rumor about the eccentric husband of Jen Everson and all the farmers out in Bartlett Bay. “You find aliens,” he said. “You, the Gurneys and Sal Merrick.” Sal Merrick was Ronald’s eccentric brother and the most outspoken in his belief of aliens and conspiracies. He owned a small private airfield located above the interstate around the northern border of the city and was sometimes hired by the Fullers to help on their farms.
Ethan had heard similar stories from or about farmers all over the world.
Sylvester’s eyes suddenly went wide. “Yes,” he said seriously. “I have the heads of five out in my little lodge and I donated a sixth to my barber. The wife thinks it’s barbaric—”
“It is barbaric and no, I still won’t let you put one in my house,” Jen said from behind.
“She’s very serious about things,” said Sylvester with a sly smile and he leaned close. “The only times she lets me smoke cigars are when we have kids and I like to smoke so I had five. I never wanted children but I desperately needed a smoke.”
“I heard that.” Ethan and Sylvester laughed. “You are such a child, husband.” She went by, kissed her husband on the cheek, and went on. Ethan saw Alice pulling her husband outside eagerly, the crutches lying against the wall.
Sylvester’s smile vanished suddenly. “They’re creepy, those aliens,” he told him. “When we have crops of hay, sometimes we get crop circles. Looks like a magical rune or something.”
They weren’t runes. No one knew what they were or what their purpose was. All anyone knew is that they mysteriously appeared, usually following “mysterious lights” seen in the sky, and every once in a while someone shoots a creature that looks like a sexless gray alien from space although they might well be a form of fairy or goblin or something. They were most often found naked, sometimes in some kind of odd, shiny jumpsuit, but, like the lack of spaceship, they never had any science-fiction technology or anything like it that could prove they were some kind of space-traveling race.
Yet, still rumors stubbornly persisted that they did have said technology and some people even claimed to have actually been inside one of their ships.
“Want to see a head?” Sylvester asked.
“Yeah,” Ethan replied. He had slept for maybe a couple of hours and felt much better although he still didn’t feel particularly good. He felt he strongly needed to sleep some more but had a feeling if he tried someone else would find a reason to wake him.
So, they put on their jackets and left the house to the back door. Sylvester stopped by a group of people surrounded by children talking to Jen. “Those are my children by the way,” he said and one of the girls, a pretty thirty-something year old, gave Ethan a sensual sideways glance. “From eldest to youngest, it’s John, Martin, Natalie, Everett, and Francis.” Francis was a girl. “Those are the next generation of McCoys running around their feet.” He looked at Ethan. “Not one of them is a farmer or outdoorsman. Connecticut has utterly destroyed my red-blooded Irish roots.”
The pretty thirty-something-year-old girl walked up to Sylvester and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you, Daddy,” she said.
“I love you too, Natalie.”
She bit her lower lip, gave Ethan a long glance and then watched her father’s face grow suspicious. “I see you around, Ethan,” she told him and then she walked back with a sexy sway of her hips.
I’m doomed, he thought.
“So let’s go see that alien head,” said Sylvester. He pushed Ethan to the door and they stepped outside.
The backyard was empty and had a makeshift fence of rope with flags to keep people from wandering in. Beyond that fence, he saw the many tents of bright colors, the children and their family dancing around, and in the distance, someone had erected Santa Clause’s home where Santa Clause himself was sitting in his chair surrounded by reindeer and little kids who were all smiling exuberantly.
He knew Jewish kids had their own happy moments like that but he had personally never experienced them. His father never lost his Christianity and his mother never took him to any Jewish holidays in any memory that he had. His uncle had never allowed him to participate in any of them either and so, when he thought about it, he realized that he knew virtually nothing more about being Jewish except the stuff he memorized to get his bar mitzvah and what he saw in movies. The closest thing to a happy holiday came from the few Christian holidays his grandfather managed to make him a part of and those only lasted until he died when Ethan was very young.
Sylvester pulled him away and he saw what Sylvester called a “lodge” was in fact a small little building with only a single room with square windows on either side and a smaller storage room at the back.
“Built it myself,” Sylvester said proudly and he unlocked the door and then opened it with a flourish. As soon as Ethan stepped inside Sylvester flipped on the light. “I told you it’s an alien,” he said immediately.
Ethan looked at the walls to see the heads of all sorts of animals but none of them typical. McCoy only seemed to hunt the exceptionally dangerous and Ethan saw a wyvern’s head with a long bird-like beak that somehow struck similarities to a pterodactyl, a nilbog, which was a goblin about the height of a troll, a monstrous goat creature he didn’t recognize, and a few ogre heads. The heads of the aliens were at the back above the storage room door.
On an elongated skull with a pointed chin, the alien had six black eyes, two big round ones right around where a human being’s would be and smaller ones around the sides like an insect. Its face was nose-less with only a few vertical slants for nostrils and it had pale grayish skin and thin little lips the same color as their skin pressed together to make a slender slit for its mouth.
If it was part fairy, it sure didn’t look like any Ethan had ever seen pictures of or heard described and, unlike fairies, it was well known that their bodies contained no magical elements useful in alchemy.
“Look at that,” Ethan said. “That poor creature traveled millions of light-years just to end up on your Bluebeard room wall.”
McCoy laughed aloud. “Good times,” he said and then he looked at him. “Are you really going to open up the Cannery again?”
“And the fisheries which I also own.”
“Yeah, why not? This is a fishing town so why not have fishing things?”
McCoy nodded. “Why not, indeed? You’ll make a profit, I’m certain. This town lives and breathes fishing despite what—” his face turned to a hateful sneer “—Julian Bartlett thought.”
Ethan looked up at one of those aliens. “Did you ever get one of these things DNA tested?”
“Sure did,” he replied. “It’s some kind of plant-based creature like a dryad but I like to think of it as a carrot-like from the original version of The Thing that I defeated in combat. I think it’s from one of the moons of Jupiter. The one with water.”
“Neat,” Ethan said and then added, “This is cool but I’m going to go out and enjoy the festivities for a while. Dinner is—”
“Seven o’clock,” he told him.
“I’ll be there,” he replied. “I like the secret room, Sylvester.”
“Me too,” he said proudly. “Back when we had Halloween parties here and John the animator hadn’t retired to Florida, it was a hell of a lot of fun.”
* * *
Ethan drank some cocoa and wandered mindlessly between the tents for about an hour until he found a stage where couples were dancing to a live band and saw Argyle and Alice dancing together carefully. He leaned down on the fence, finished his cocoa, and looked over to this right.
Darcy, Becky and Carrie were talking in a group giggling about something. They looked incredibly happy, incredibly beautiful and incredibly alive. Mickey, who had been with Darcy, flew from her shoulders and landed on the rail beside Ethan where he petted him casually.
When he wasn’t looking, Alice Coughlan reached over, caught Ethan by his face and pulled his head close so she could kiss him on the cheek. “You are the sweetest boy ever!” she told him.
“Is he really?” asked Mickey.
Alice laughed and then went back off to dance some more happily.
Jen appeared then on his right side wearing a black jacket and gloves, her lips curled up into that deep, loving kind of smile again and a little distance beyond, he saw Jane Downs holding onto her daughter who had her eyes locked on him and was trying to precede toward him.
“Do you want to go visit Santa Clause?” asked Jane.
“No I don’t want to visit Santa Clause!” cried Jessica and she crossed her arms angrily.
Ethan laughed and turned to Jen. “So how do you know Jane Downs?” he asked.
“She used to manage my farm and horses after she fell out of real estate. Her father did the same thing for my grandfather when he was a young.”
“You sneaky woman,” Ethan said. “The Fleeces have been talking.”
“We’re old friends,” she replied with a smile. “Anyway, she knows what she’s doing and you need someone to help it.”
“I’ll think about hiring people when I’m more conscious,” he said and then she kissed him on the cheek. “Everyone’s kissing me like that today.”
Jen smiled in that loving way again. “My husband told me you’re going open the fisheries as well as the canneries.”
That was fast, he thought. “It’s an idea. Mitchell O’Brien had it.” His additional purchases in the 1950s were the reason why the O’Briens had been able to give Ethan so much of Fisher St. He had stopped with his plans when his daughter was put in a coma and after he died, they had never gotten around to selling what he purchased before Ethan had come wandering along.
“Dinners in a few hours,” she told him. “You’re going to be cool till then?”
“Cool as a moose,” he replied and she laughed, kissed him on the cheek again, and then left. Once gone, Ethan said to Mickey, “As nice as this is, I’m sure I’d get laid more if I treated women more like shit.”
“Pig,” said Darcy as she miraculously heard him while passing by.
Ethan groaned and Mickey laughed hysterically for several minutes so before he took a deep breath and then continued to laugh some more. “That was really funny,” he said when he was done.
“A little bit, yeah,” said Ethan and he felt a tug at his jacket.
“I love you, Ethan Bartlett,” a voice told him and he looked down to see Grace O’Brien looking up at him.
“Why does everyone love him all of a sudden?” asked Mickey.
“Well, then it’s a shame you’re not my mother,” Ethan told her, ignoring Mickey, and Grace frowned at that. “Want to watch A Christmas Story with me later. I like that one. My grandfather used to watch it with me every Christmas.”
“You shouldn’t say horrible things like that about your mother,” she said with a pout and then looked curious. “What is A Christmas Story?”
“You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s a pleasant movie about growing up in the 1930s. I guess that would be your generation.” She bit her lower lip and smiled mischievously. “What is that? What do you want? What are you up to?”
“You promised me a dance,” she said.
“Yes, well, I would just love to dance but I am a little tired and—” he cried out as she snatched his hand, pulled him out onto the stage, and started to dance. “Alright but only because I promised and—”
“Go for it, Gaylord!” cried Mickey at the top of his lungs.
Grace laughed and wrapped into him in a slow dance. He wasn’t far away from Argyle and Alice who looked extremely happy. He saw her leg was as fully graceful as if it had never been damaged.
“I heard you mention my father,” Grace told him softly. “He was a good man, you know.”
“I had a dream about him the night I gave you the youth potion,” he told her. In it, it was the 1950s or 60s and Ethan found himself in a hospital room with Mitchell O’Brien sitting next to an empty bed with an open book on the table. All Mitchell did in the dream was thank Ethan for what he had done for his daughter and then explained that with his daughter awakened and made young again, he could finally move on.
“Me too,” she told him and then she laughed as he spun her around pleasantly. “My sister hasn’t appeared has she?” she asked in a suddenly strange voice.
“No actually,” he said. “Who is your sister?” He knew she had one at one time but he had not met, seen, or even heard anything about her since he arrived.
“Betty. She’s bad. Please don’t ask me about her. I don’t ever want to meet her again. All I want from you involving her is a promise that you won’t give her a youth potion.”
“I don’t have any more but I promise you, just in case I’m lying.”
Ethan felt tired of depressing subjects and decided to change the topic. “I’ve been told I look a lot like a movie star,” he told her. “Specifically, a lot like Jeffrey Hunter.”
“No one ever told you that.”
“Well, maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but I could certainly seduce green women if I tried.” She blinked and looked up at him with suspicion. She had known Jeffrey Hunter, clearly liked him a great deal and apparently had no idea what he was referring to. “What day did you wake up?” he asked although he did not fully understand why. The question had just sort of popped out of his mouth.
“July 21st. Why?”
“No reason,” he said but that was a lie. Saturday, July 21st just happened to be the day after he came to Bartlett Bay, the very same day he killed the witch Agatha in the tower filled with the corpses of children and surrounded by those brutal magical runes.
So, it had been Agatha who had put Grace to sleep, or at least she was the one who had, in some way or another, been holding the spell over her all those years.
Yet, she could barely cast a fireball let alone a complicated sleep curse. The word that came back to haunt him, the word given to him by that body stealing ghost girl on Halloween, was “Saturnine.” Who was Agatha? Was she a member or just a link to them? Did they set her up to die so that there would be no trail to follow or was she some kind of gatekeeper for a much more dangerous enemy? There was a possibility that she was just a mediocre mage who had stumbled on dangerous magic and he might have broken the danger already.
Maybe but Ethan rather doubted it.
Unfortunately, Ethan couldn’t have taken Agatha alive. She almost certainly couldn’t have told him what was going on any better than Sheldon could have and without either of them being made to talk somehow. He had found no connection, magical or otherwise, to the Saturnine.
At least, not yet.