Willow Creek, Virginia
There was wildness in the air.
I tipped my head back, breathing it in. The languid summer heat hit my bare throat.
Mine, the magic whispered.
Yes, my soul whispered back. Yes, all things wild and sacred, all things born of the goddess’s womb.
Long blond hair fell across my face. I untied the swath of white ribbon fastened at my throat and secured it in a loose ponytail at my nape.
My hand shook as I withdrew it, damp with moisture from the back of my neck.
It was the summer heat, I reasoned. Nothing more.
Not Nathan’s letter, not the memory of his harsh, accusatory voice.
Not the dreams that followed, the fear that I’d turn a corner or open a door and see my hulking brother’s form looming over me.
Not the words he’d written that were seared into my brain—words that others might take as a plea but I knew to be a command.
The tremors raked my body again, an old fear of magic caged.
Willow Creek was home. My coven was home. Buttercup Diner, where I waited tables and wiped greasy hands on my red apron, that was home.
That little white house in the Georgia mountains, where I could look at the forest but never enter it? That attic bedroom where magic stalked inside my soul like a carnival’s caged lion, muscles primed but never able to pounce, aching for release?
That was not home.
I’d watched the Summer of Love and Woodstock come and go. I’d watched both the upheaval and freedom. But I’d been a bystander. In this world. In my life.
I wasn’t anymore.
Nathan would make me one again.
My breath quickened.
I didn’t know how my brother found me—didn’t care. I hadn’t thought he or my parents cared enough to look. But I knew Nathan was on a mission from Mama, and that meant soon enough he’d be pounding at my door.
I smoothed my damp palm across the cotton fabric of my knee-length eyelet dress—handmade. Continuing to make my clothes by hand was one of the few remnants of home I allowed myself. The whir of the sewing machine, its rhythm a reassuring beat. The tug of needle and thread until my fingers bled.
Good discipline, my father said.
Keeps her mind off things, Mama always agreed.
Just because the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket doesn’t mean you have to.
Nathan’s words, pounding in my head. I burnt the letter before one of my coven-sisters could see it. I spoke words of release, trying to free myself from the past.
It wasn’t enough.
I could feel the blood that connected us, pulling me toward him—toward my past.
And from my fear, this spell emerged.
If I dug deep enough in my magic, I could summon the Guardian of Willow Creek, Virginia. She could block Nathan’s path.
She could stop him from dragging me back to that place where I was barely half-alive.
I exhaled, the sound almost sharp in the sleepy forest, the way a drop of water in a cave is magnified.
Ginny, my high priestess, my mentor, was back at the farmhouse she called home, a scant half-mile hike across wooded hills and neatly tended rows of crops. She’d been at her sketchpad when I left her house, her blond hair in a careless braid as she drew the pattern for her next quilt.
Her eyes locked with mine for a split second, a glint of caution in them. “Be careful.”
I’d felt her gaze on me as the screen door squeaked shut behind me.
I felt it still, the magic of the coven a thread gently tugging on my own magic.
I pressed my palms to rich, dark soil. I knelt against the forest floor, not caring about the stains on my dress.
Inhale. Balmy summer night, scent of sunbaked earth and Virginia pine.
Exhale. Release the past.
Open my eyes. Look forward.
I struck a match, hand’s tremble lessened now but still there. The scent of freshly struck sulfur stung my nostrils. Upon the matchhead danced a wisp of a magical creature, its body living flame—salamander, elemental of fire.
I pressed the match to the waiting black votive candle, made by one of my coven sisters, Tricia, and watched as the flame took root on the wick. The salamander stretched out tiny arms, dancing—beauty, magic, fire personified.
“Bless this space, element of fire,” I whispered to her.
I took up a feather, one I found shortly after the summer solstice. Ginny told me it was from a barred owl. “The barred owl is a familiar of the Guardian,” Ginny remarked. “She’s got a close eye on you.” Serious, those words—and her tone a little curious.
I moved the feather up, down, diagonal, forming the shape of a pentacle in the air.
“Bless this space, element of air.” I felt, not saw, the moment the sylph arrived—for air was my element, my magic. A witch could work with any elemental magic, of course, but she—or he—always had a close affinity for one. Air was mine.
The sylph hovered behind me, the beat of her wings stirring the air, but she didn’t show herself. “Caution, lovely witch. There are silver wisps of magic stirring around you this night. What you work brings deep change. Tread lightly.”
Magic tingled across my skin like falling glitter, and then I felt her retreat.
Riddles. Elementals, when they spoke at all to mere mortals, always spoke in riddles.
Next, I took out a small mason jar and poured the water in a slow circle around the lit candle, careful not to disturb the flame, though the salamander had vanished back to her realm. The water was from Willow Creek, which formed the westernmost boundary of Ginny’s farm, and for which the town itself was named.
“Bless this space, element of water.” None of the undine appeared, and I didn’t expect them to, though sometimes I heard a hint of their song drifting on the air.
But only silence reached my ears this night.
I shook away the sense of foreboding. It was only the rising magic, I reasoned, that made the temperature seem to drop. It was only my lingering concern over Nathan’s letter that made my stomach queasy.
Without looking, I reached into the familiar wicker basket and withdrew the last item—the most important.
The Guardian of Willow Creek was at her heart a being of earth. That much I knew, though I knew little else about her—save that she was powerful, temperamental, and did not suffer fools.
Was I such a fool?
Ginny’s warnings about the Guardian almost stilled my hand, but I clutched the bag of silvery green moss harder. There was no going back. Not now, after two years of freedom. I’d run from home the night of my high school graduation, buying a bus ticket to New York City with money saved up from some sewing jobs I’d done for Mama’s friends.
New York City, I figured, was as far away from that little farmhouse as I could get. It was a big enough place to vanish into the crowds. And in that anonymity, I’d reasoned, I could find freedom.
Turned out, I found it in this small Virginia town instead.
And I’d risk the Guardian’s wrath before I’d risk being dragged backward.
I carefully encircled the black votive with the moss, pressing it against the waiting earth. Tendrils of magic snaked into the earth, in hues of amber brown and leafy green.
“Bless this space, element of earth.”
“A witch in time saves nine.”
I smirked slightly at the gnome’s garbled rendition of the familiar phrase. “A stitch in time saves nine,” I corrected.
“Not this time.” There’s a gentle rustle, and I feel the elementals, having blessed the space, all retreat.
The scent of earth was heavy now, even for the forest. Maidenhair fern’s spice. Mushrooms pungent aroma. Damp stone’s musty scent.
The ground underneath me seemed to tilt and sway.
I rose on unsteady feet. An unseen force slammed me in the tree behind me.
I crumpled against the thick trunk, stars dancing in my vision. The candle went out.
I fell, though I was already lying on the forest floor. The ground gave way, and I fell.
Torches’ flames danced. Above me, quartz crystal points in their many forms—clear as glass, smoky gray, the yellow of citrine, the purple of amethyst and pale pink of rose quartz—jutted from the earth below and cavernous ceiling above. Silver moss dangled. The eyes of unseen creatures peered from the shadows, hidden by swirling silvery mists.
The mists before me parted, revealing a throne carved of dark, twisting wood, as though the tree from which it was carved were still alive, still sentient, still growing. Green crystals poked out here and there. Behind it was a wall of dark green vines speckled with red roses the size of small cabbages.
But it was the figure who sat in that throne—and such a chair could only rightly be called a throne—who sent my jaw dropping.
“Cassandra Anne Gearhart.” Full lips, a deep, plum purple, almost black but glistening as though they’d kissed the stars, turned upward in a dark, sinister smile as they hissed my name.
I stepped backward, but a wall of vines pressed against me, halting any retreat. “Yes?”
Her eyes were silver like the mists, but bright as the coldest of winter stars. Her skin was bronze as though stained with earth, her hair a twisting mass of light brown braids filled with moss and twigs.
She rose. I was short—a mere five-foot—so most people seemed tall to me, but she was purely a giantess. She towered over me, her robes the same near-black purple of her lips, threaded with green, amber, and teal threads. I almost reached out to caress the billowing fabric, to test its fibers under my fingers. Instead, I curled my fingers into my palms.
She reached out with bony fingers and tilted my head upwards, until I strained backwards to meet her glinting gaze.
That smile again. Wise and wicked. “I will grant your wish.”
“You’ll…” I sucked in my lips. It was too easy. I shouldn’t have done this. “You’ll make sure Nathan can’t find me.”
She nodded, each bob of her head deliberate, decisive. “Yes. But there’s a price.”
“What would you ask of me?” The words came out a little too high, too desperate. Never a good position when one was facing such a powerful being.
“I see far more than you, and I am not obligated to tell you all that I see,” she snapped.
I lowered my gaze back to the wall of vines. “Of course, my lady.”
She released my chin from her bony clutches, and I sighed with relief. “One day, you will awaken. You will sleep for many years, and, when I need you, you will awaken.”
“I don’t understand. How does that stop…How does that grant my wish?”
A gust of wind shook the cavern. “I do not owe little mortals explanations.” She tilted her head, as if listen to whispers the wind carried. “He’s here, you know. Your father is sick. Do you want to go home?”
“I want to stay in Willow Creek.”
“Then you’ll stay. I can make that so. Do you agree to my terms?”
“I don’t understand your terms.” I inhaled, wishing I could suck the words back in, swallow them.
To my surprise, she chuckled. “You don’t need to. If I release you this night without granting your wish, he will find you. Or you can accept my offer. But I’m not a creature of patience, immortal though I might be.”
That attic bedroom. Those woods I couldn’t enter.
What fate could be worse than magic caged?
She nodded. “Then as I will it, so mote it be.”
Ribbons of magic twisted in the air, wrapping around me, tugging me back up through the earth.
“I know she’s here, bitch!” My blood ran cold at those words. I tried to crane my head, to see where Nathan’s voice came from, but every muscle was stiff, frozen.
“Don’t you dare speak to me that way. Get off my land. This is private property.” Ginny’s voice, madder than I’d ever heard her.
Nathan came into view. He’d grown a beard since last I saw him, and even in the moonlight I could see how red his face was. “Where is she? Cassandra? Cassie!”
I’d seen my brother angry before and, not for the first time, I feared that in his rage he’d hurt me. I tried to run, but my feet were rooted to the earth.
He glared down at the candle, pointing at the now extinguished flame. The spell was over, the magic cast.
What had I done wrong? Why hadn’t she saved me?
Why couldn’t I run?
Ginny got in Nathan’s path, blocking him. She was tall for a woman and matched his height. “Boy, unless you want an ass full of birdshot, get off my farm. Do you hear me?”
Nathan strode off into the woods, calling my name. Why hadn’t he seen me? I was standing right in front of him.
The tension in me eased as he stomped off, the sound of him yelling my name growing more distant.
Ginny knelt down and picked up a handful of moss and the owl feather. She shifted them from palm to palm, as if testing the weight of the spell’s remnants in her hands. “Cassie. Miss Cassie, what have you gone and done?”
She gasped. Her eyes flew open, the moss tumbling down, the feather fluttering toward the ground. She spun to face me. She reached out and raked her hands against my cheek, but her touch was distant, as though through layer upon layer of papier-mâché. “Oh, child, sweet Cassie. Why has she done this to you?”
I tried to speak, to ask her what she meant. I tried to shift my weight, to meet her gaze. Nothing. I was rooted.
Then I realized.
I was, indeed, rooted in the earth.
A tree. The Guardian had made me a tree.
I tried to open my mouth to scream.
All those years, my magic trapped inside.
And now, again, in my haste to maintain freedom, I was trapped again.
“Shush, child.” As though she felt my pain, Ginny smiled a comforting smile. She sat in on the forest floor, cupping the candle in her palm, and began to sing.
“Where the undine sings her sweet, wild song
I met my beloved there.
Where the willow drapes her green, green hair
I met my beloved there.
Where water flows over tumbled stone
Where magic meets the earth
Where the willow drapes her green, green hair
I met my beloved there.”
Long after her voice grew hoarse, she sang. They weren’t songs I’d ever heard before—not as we shelled peas, sipped sweet tea, chatted long into the night on her porch. Not as the coven-sisters gathered and worked magic under the moon. Perhaps, she wrote them this night, lyrics plucked from the ether just for me.
Eventually, my heart grew light, enveloped in song like a sleepy child wrapped in a downy comforter. Somehow, the magic of her simple melodies was like a draught of peace.
Willow Creek, Virginia
The scent of rain hung heavy on the air. I leaned against the porch rail and took another swig of my iced tea. Though I’d worked since the morning on the farm, the tension in my neck wasn’t from hard labor. I was twenty-three, and plenty of years before farm work hadn’t yet left me with arthritis like Gran. It wasn’t my body that feared the rain, the thunder, the lightning’s jagged tongue.
It was my heart that was sick, my heart that remembered.
That was me, Nick Felson, the only witch the torrent left behind.
Bile rose bitter in my throat.
That’s why I was leaving, going somewhere no one knew who the hell I was.
The harvest for tomorrow’s farmers’ market was already picked and stored in the barn to protect it from the gathering rain. Soon enough, this place wouldn’t be my problem anymore.
This place. Home.
It was a weight too heavy to bear alone. Not the work—the memories.
Gravel crunched under car tires, and I turned to see a silver sedan, sparkling and new, pulling into the driveway.
The driver’s door open, and a foot clad in a stiletto heel popped out. Mary Jo Grayson, a perky sixty-something with a slender physique and chin-length gray hair, emerged, her precariously thin heels seeking purchase on the gravel.
I set my glass beside the porch rail and jogged over, offering an arm. Mom and Gran worked hard to teach me manners, after all.
“Thanks, Nicholas,” she said with a breathy laugh.
“Thanks for coming, Mrs. Grayson,” I said, echoing her formality.
Once on the more even flagstone pathway leading to the house, she stepped back and stared up at the yellow farmhouse. It wasn’t much. Peeling yellow paint needed to be scraped and repainted. And the house, built in 1920, had been generously sized at the time but was small by modern standards.
But it wasn’t the house that made Saunders Farm such a prime catch. No. It was the land. Surely there was someone out there who hadn’t heard about what happened here that night last year, some developer who wouldn’t care about the whispers of tragedy that lived here.
Mary Jo adjusted the strap of her red leather tote bag over her shoulder. “Why don’t you show me around?”
I managed to mumble a response. Folks were used to me mumbling. My brother, Evan, got all the charisma and swagger. “You’re serious, like your granddaddy was,” Mom always said. I never met him—he died in Vietnam when mom was a baby.
My breath caught, but I’d learned to calm myself so I didn’t make a spectacle. I’d never had a panic attack a day in my life until that night.
I led her into the house, trying to do what the article I’d read online said and talk up the small farmhouse’s features. “Up-to-date kitchen, original woodwork, lots of natural light…” Mary Jo nodded, occasionally jotting something down on a yellow legal pad, her voice bubbly and effusive with praise over the house.
Far across the Virginia mountains, thunder rumbled.
There’s magic in these hills, Nick. Gran’s words, rich with country accent that flowed like raw clover honey, echoed.
And her eyes, blue like my own, in my mind.
I can’t, Gran. I just can’t anymore.
Mary Jo sat at the table, flipping through some documents she’d pulled out of her tote bag with its shiny gold logo.
“So, I’m curious, what made you decide to sell?” The phrase, “after all this time” hung unspoken, like a wisp of smoke curling in the air.
I swallowed, ignored the first splash of rain against the earth. “I got an offer from a friend of mine out in Arizona for a job.”
“Oh.” Mary Jo raised an eyebrow. Small town downfall. Everybody knew—or wanted to know—everybody’s business.
“Yeah.” I shoved my hands in pockets of my battered Levi’s. Soon enough, I’d be covered in desert dust, watching tumbleweeds and photographing grip-and-grin photos of ribbon-cuttings of playgrounds and hair salons for a struggling newspaper. It wasn’t anybody’s dream job. It was just…not here.
“What kind of work?”
I sighed. Give people the bare minimum. Just enough to shut them up but no so much everybody knows everything. “Newspaper photographer.” It was for a small-town paper—population 5,000. The work was only part-time, but it was a place to start to get my life back on track. And I could live off the money from the sale of the farm while I tried to start fresh, away from a place where everybody had their own version of what happened that night, where the girls I dated touched my hand in pity.
Mary Jo nodded. “Good for you. That’s what you studying in college, if I recall. And weren’t interning at the Morning Glory Gazette, before—” She clamped her mouth shut over the words, her eyes widening. She shook her head, fumbling for a pen in her impossibly large bag. “Just sign here. This is just a document saying you’ve authorized me to represent you in the sale of the property. I’ll pull some comps and we’ll come up with a decent listing price.” The words were a little more compressed than before. Nervous.
That didn’t take long.
I took the pen she offered, saying nothing about her near slipup.
Lightning flashed. The pen tumbled out of my hand, skittering across the oak farmhouse table and onto the hardwood. Wordlessly, I scooped it back open and scrawled a sloppier-than-usual signature across the bottom of the page.
“All set.” Mary Jo tapped the papers against the table and slid them into a manila folder, her smile a little too kind, as though she’d softened it just for a poor soul like me—a twenty-three-year-old man afraid of a little thunder. “I’ll be in touch soon. The market’s strong right now. Shouldn’t take long to sell a property like this one.”
She reached the back door, her hand on the knob.
“Do you want to wait out the storm?” Damn, but even I heard the desperate quiver in my voice.
“No. I’ll stay safe.” She met my gaze, hers softening. Again, that damned pity. “Don’t worry. I’ll swing by soon with the comps.”
As the back door closed, the scent of the storm wafted in, along with another scent. Damp soil. Bonfire. Candle wax.
The scent of magic.
But it couldn’t be. Because no one had worked magic on this farm in almost a year.
Mary Jo walked carefully through the rain-splattered gravel, climbed in her sedan, and I stared transfixed at her taillights as she drove away in the dim light of the storm. Only after they’d vanished did I realize I should’ve walked her to her car.
Thunder cracked, promising a long night ahead.
And the scent of magic lingered. I rubbed my neck, where fine filaments of hair prickled, my own magic stirring in response. I gritted my teeth and tamped it back down.
To distract myself, I turned on the TV, some dumb reality show, anything to drown out the sound of the storm.
In my head, I repeated my mantra, the words that kept me sane for eleven—now almost twelve—months.
You can go the rest of your life without doing magic.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Nick and Cassie’s story. Visit your favorite ebook retailer to continue reading Tangled Roots!
Excerpt from Tangled Roots, published May 14, 2019, by Sage & Shadows Books. Copyright 2019, Denise D. Young. No unauthorized reproduction, except brief excerpts in reviews, without written permission from the author.