The Trouble With Witches – Kristen Painter

Countess Amelia Marie Antoinette Marchand left the warm embrace of her Egyptian cotton sheets to pull her velvet robe around her. She slid her feet into matching tasseled slippers, then sat on the edge of the bed for a moment. Age was a terrible thing. With a wave of her hand, she brought the fireplace to life. That was better. A little light and a little heat. Shadowvale’s spring mornings still held a chill that seeped into her bones. She walked to her bedroom windows and drew back the heavy silk drapes to look out at the front of the property. Another gray, sunless morning greeted her, fog rising off the ground like a host of specters come to haunt her. But that fog was nothing new. Neither was the gray, sunless morning. In fact, she took comfort in how firmly Shadowvale’s magic held, just as it had for the past seventy-five years. She stared out at the world she’d created. The town she was responsible for. She studied the enormous live oaks fringed in Spanish moss that guarded the drive up to her home, Indigo House, and beyond the trees, the elaborate wrought-iron fence that bordered her estate’s property lines.

Then the street that ran past. The fog hid most of it, but then, it always did at this hour. And over it all, the perpetual gloom. The permanent dusk that only really disappeared when night fell in its entirety. Then, and only then, did the clouds clear and the sky become discernable. Always. Every night. To Amelia, it seemed like the visibility of the stars was one of Shadowvale’s ways of making up for the constant haze overhead. Oh, the sky lightened considerably during the day. More than enough to show the passage of the sun that was hidden but indeed still present.

But that solar beacon was forever filtered through the eternal, enchanted curtain that shrouded Shadowvale. But perhaps gloom wasn’t the right word. After all, this place had been painstakingly created as a gift of love. A safe haven for the man she’d treasured beyond all else. The man she’d traded her life to protect. The man with whom she’d expected to spend her eternity. It wasn’t the town’s fault that Pasqual had chosen to break her heart and reject her gift, leaving her a captive here. She’d known what she was getting into. Understood the deal she was making. She just hadn’t imagined he would grow tired of life here so quickly.

Or at all, really. And then turn his back on her the way he had. She put her hand on the windowpane, a little melancholy at the memory, but that soon turned to anger. Then resignation. This was her town now. And it was a good place to live. The glass warmed under her touch. Yes, her town. Her home. Her life.

“Good morning, madam…” She turned. Beckett stood at her bedroom door, eyes straight ahead. Of all his questionable qualities, he was at least a gentleman. Her warden, in a sense, but generally a polite one all the same. She waved her hand, using her magic to bring the chandelier above the bed to life. “Good morning, Beckett.” “Breakfast is ready.” She wasn’t hungry. She rarely was. She would eat nonetheless.

That was just the way of things. “Thank you. I’ll be down shortly. Where’s Thoreau?” “In the garden pool.” She nodded. The pool was kept heated for him whenever the temperature dropped. “Did you feed him?” “A side of beef. And his vitamins.” “Good. Thank you.

I’ll take my breakfast on the garden patio, then.” Beckett nodded and left. She imagined he waited in the kitchen with her tray until she was seated at the small café table where she ate whenever the mood struck her, which was usually when Thoreau was in the garden pool. He was quite something to see. She dressed as she usually did. A long-sleeved top and leggings beneath a custom-made caftan from Rajani Bhatt’s shop in town. She paired that with silk slippers and a jeweled turban that was so much easier than coiffing her hair. The look was a bit eccentric, perhaps, but it suited her. Pasqual would have hated it. Too theatrical for his taste, but she was a witch of considerable age, although she didn’t look it, and great power lived within her.

She would dress however it pleased her. And for the past several decades, it had pleased her to dress the way her grandmother, Pavani, had. Even after years of living in the southeast of France, the only change Grandmama Pavani had made was to give up her saris for caftans. Amelia had loved both for their bright colors and sparkling adornments. That thought put a smile on Amelia’s face. It lasted all the way down to the garden patio, where the sight of her only real love these days greeted her. Thoreau whuffed out a low, throaty noise from where he was reclining in the shallow end of the garden pool. Mist rose off the water, making him appear like something out of a maharaja’s dream. “Hello, my darling boy.” Even in the watery light of a Shadowvale morning, his orange and black stripes were a gloriously brilliant spectacle.

Proof that even Shadowvale’s perpetually overcast sky could not diminish the natural beauty of things. She walked toward him, her slippers silent on the grass, but the crushed blades brought the reaffirming scent of green earth to her nose. Already, the morning’s chill was wearing off. It would be a pleasant day in Shadowvale. The kind where she could keep the windows and doors open to let in fresh air. That made her happy. Once at Thoreau’s side, she crouched and gave him a good scratch behind his ear. The velvet of his fur under her fingers was a privilege that gave her pause every time she experienced it. He leaned his enormous head into her hand as he stretched his dinner-plate-sized paws out in front of him, rippling the water. Then he slow-blinked at her.

She returned the gesture. “I love you, too, my angel.” The affection of a beast so great and mighty was all it took to fill her heart these days. Thoreau was enough. He had to be. As for Pasqual…she couldn’t help but wonder what had become of him. Had he met the sun in some cruel twist? Gone to ash with the morning’s rays? She’d probably never know. It wasn’t that she wanted him back. Not in the slightest. But she didn’t exactly wish him ill either.

After all, she had this place because of him. Even if it had cost her everything. “I have to eat my breakfast now, my darling.” She patted Thoreau’s big head, stood, and went back to the patio. Beckett was coming out of the house with her morning repast. She took a seat at the small table and draped a napkin over her lap, her gaze on the pool again. Thoreau was fixated on a dragonfly. For all his size and majesty, he was at times just an overgrown house cat. Beckett put a covered dish in front of her. “Will there be anything else?” She glanced at the table, then frowned.

“The paper?” “Coming right up.” She sipped her tea, leaving the plate covered. It was steel-cut oatmeal with raw wild honey and Ceylon cinnamon. The same thing she ate every morning. Chef could make anything, but Amelia had become such a creature of habit that she seldom took advantage of the highly trained cook she employed. Beckett left to get the paper. She amused herself by watching Thoreau until her warden returned. With great pomp, Beckett held the paper over his forearm like some grand prize. “The Vale Messenger, madam.” She gave him a look as she took it from him, just to let him know she wasn’t impressed with his theatrics.

He seemed amused nonetheless, and that amusement led to him dropping all pretense of formality. “What do you have planned for the day, Amelia? Perhaps a drive into the country yonder? A picnic in the sun, maybe?” “If I want sun, I’ll go to Nightingale Park.” Because she wouldn’t be venturing beyond the gates of Shadowvale any time soon. She narrowed her eyes at his nonsense. This game never got old for him. Apparently. She flicked the paper open, ignoring his ludicrous suggestions. He chuckled as he went back into the house. She could possibly take a trip out to the mines to see how things were going, but if there was a problem, the manager would contact her. Those mines, deep in the mountains that surrounded Shadowvale, had never failed to produce a steady stream of gems.

And those gems were what supported this town, so they were important. But her presence there was never required. She went back to the paper. Just a few thin pages, which was typical. There was only so much news a town like Shadowvale could produce on a daily basis. Most of it was meeting notices. The chess club, the quilters circle, the coven, the wolf pack, the gardening club, the curse support group. But it was news just the same, and she read every word of it every morning. Keeping tabs on things was important. Gracie Evermore was listed in the birthday column.

Her twenty-fifth. Amelia stared at the number. She’d been that age when she’d met Pasqual. But Gracie had three older brothers to keep her from a similar fate. Amelia made a note to send a gift. There would be a party, no doubt, but parties weren’t really Amelia’s style anymore. And attending could…dampen the festivities. She knew the effect her presence had on such events. Some perceived her power to be greater than it really was. Some feared her because of her power.

Some would do anything to get her to use her power to help them. Regardless, she was treated differently than other citizens. It wasn’t enjoyable. All that fawning and flattery in hopes of swaying her to help. All those favors promised. Favors she didn’t want or need. Help she couldn’t usually give. But no one believed her when she tried to explain. She finished the paper and set it aside before turning to her breakfast. Thoreau was out of the pool now and sleeping in the grass at the edge of the patio.

She lifted the cover off her oatmeal and gave the porridge a stir. Was this really her life? The same breakfast, day after day. The same routine. The same everything. Maybe she should go to Gracie’s party. It would be a change, that was for sure. She ate her oatmeal and sipped her tea, lost in her thoughts, as she was most mornings. By the end of the meal, she had convinced herself the party was something she might actually attend. She glanced down into her cup. Fragments of tea leaves settled as she watched, forming a pattern that was undeniable.

She blinked, then swirled the cup again. The same pattern formed. She set the cup down and looked at Thoreau. Her breath felt tight in her chest. Maybe the party wouldn’t be necessary after all if a change in her routine was what she was after. Thoreau lifted his head as if sensing his mistress’s unrest. She met his gaze. “She’s coming. How can that be?” * * * There had been more than enough flashing blue lights in Emeranth Greer’s life lately, but she could handle the ones in her rearview mirror. She hoped.

Em handed over her license and registration to the cop who’d pulled her over. Please don’t let me get a ticket. She hadn’t thought she was speeding, but the twists in these little country roads had a way of hiding speed-limit signs. Especially at night. She hadn’t been sure if it was fifty or forty-five through here. As it turned out, it was forty, and she’d been going eight miles over. Not any kind of real crime in her book, and she knew real crime well enough to compare it, but she was also smart enough not to make a fuss. He stared at her documents. “Where are you headed, Ms. Greer?” “To see my aunt.

” Great-aunt, really. Em had never met her, so she was taking a big chance that the woman would let her stay, but Em needed a fresh start so badly she could taste it. Her aunt had to let her stay. Had to. “And where’s she live?” Em peered at the cop through the open window that was letting the car’s heat escape. He was the color of midnight with arms like cannons. Seemed very no-nonsense. Not that she was about to offer him any. His badge said Baker. Please don’t give me a ticket, Of icer Baker.

“In Shadowvale? I’ve never been there, but it’s supposed to be right off this road and—” “Ma’am, I see by your out-of-state license that you’re not from around here, so I wouldn’t expect you to know this, but no one lives in Shadowvale.” Except her aunt did. Em had the woman’s address. She’d found it in her mother’s ancient address book, the one with the leather flaking off the cover and the pages yellowed with age. “I…I’m not sure what you mean.” “I mean no one lives there. Shadowvale was a private community a long, long time ago. But now…” He shrugged and handed her documents back. “It’s just an abandoned place. All shut up and forgotten.

Owners ran out of money is the story. Not sure it ever even took off. Or who owns it now. No one I’ve met even remembers it being a going concern. What I do know is that the gates have been locked for more years than I’ve been alive.” She rubbed her arms to warm them up. That was the most disappointing news Em had heard in ages. Maybe since the last disappointing news she’d had, about her mother’s string of cons finally landing her in jail. Em sighed and took her license and registration back. Please don’t give me a ticket.

Please. “Thanks for the information.” He gave her a strange look, shining his flashlight on her for a moment. “Since you’re from out of town, I’ll just give you a warning. Keep it to the speed limit.” “Yes, sir, Officer Baker. Thank you.” No ticket. That was great. She couldn’t afford it anyway.

“Drive safe and have a good night.” He nodded and walked away. She rolled up her window and cranked the heat up. It made a whining sound, then the air started coming out cold. Perfect. She sat there until Officer Baker pulled back onto the road and disappeared. The GPS app on her phone was still showing Shadowvale 2.2 miles ahead. And despite what the cop had told her, she was too stubborn not to want to see for herself. Maybe she’d just drive through and have a look at where her aunt used to live.

Then she’d have to find a safe place to park for the night, because her car was going to be her bed this evening. Even without heat. A hotel room was too big of a luxury at this moment in her life. Especially if the aunt she’d been counting on to take her in was no longer around. She checked her mirror, then headed down the road, driving a few miles under the speed limit and watching carefully for a sign that would point her toward the remains of Shadowvale. The distance ticked away on her GPS, but no sign ever appeared. Maybe it had fallen down. The cop had made it seem like Shadowvale had ceased to be in operation long enough for that to have happened. But the last few feet came and went, and no sign ever appeared. She slowed down, crawling along the road as she tried to see any indication of where the town might be.

Not easy on a country road with only the moonlight and her headlamps to go by. She turned around and backtracked, following the GPS to the exact spot it claimed Shadowvale was located. “You have arrived at your destination,” the computer voice said. “Thanks,” Em answered. “But there’s nothing here but trees and weeds and…” She peered closer. Then shook her head. How had she missed that road before? It was a little overgrown, but it was plainly visible now that her headlights were shining right on it. Too bad it wasn’t lit. A couple of streetlights would make it a lot less creepy. But she’d come this far.

She wasn’t stopping now. She turned down the narrow road. The trees were thick on both sides and dripping in moss. Creepy was right. But it was also kind of pretty. Like a film set. For a movie where everybody died. She came to a gated entrance. The metal gates were set in wide stone columns. They were twice as tall as she was and wide enough to let two cars pass, but they were also thick with vines and caked with rust.

And closed. And locked. The cop had been right. No one had been through them in many, many years. She stared at the gates, leaning on the steering wheel to see the name Shadowvale spelled out in the wrought iron at the top. She sighed. Well, she was in the right place. Too bad she was years too late. She stared a few moments longer, then decided she might as well get a picture to prove she’d been here. To whom, she wasn’t sure, but she needed some kind of proof that she’d made the attempt.

Maybe for herself, for the future. As a reminder that she’d at least tried for a fresh start and hadn’t failed for lack of ambition. She grabbed her phone and hopped out of the car, then positioned herself in front of the gates, held her phone out, and snapped a couple shots. The air was dry and cool, but scented with some kind of night-blooming flower. What kind of flower bloomed this early in spring? The South was a mystery to her. Spring here happened in a very different way than she was used to. Even the insect life was thriving. But the soft buzz of their wings almost sounded like a lullaby, reminding her she still had to find a place to park and sleep. She scrolled through the pics she’d just taken to see how they’d come out. Decent.

Although she looked a little tired, and her smile seemed forced. Which it was. She’d been driving for two days. Only to discover it was all for nothing. A faint creaking broke overtop the subtle hum of the evening. She looked up from her phone, unsure where the sound had come from. Nothing new that she could see. And thankfully, it wasn’t her car rolling back toward the highway. Some bug, maybe? Or a frog? That was probably it. She decided on one more selfie.

One in which she looked a little more genuinely happy. One that might help her see the future in a brighter light. She raised the phone again, smiled her best smile, and took the shot. She looked at it on her phone to see if it was better than the first ones. She stared at the image, trying to understand what she was seeing. With two fingers, she zoomed in. Was that right? How could it be? She turned around to look. The gates were open.

.

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