“I want to learn about our parents,” Amber announced one day in the middle of studying at Willow’s place. Her shop had come to be a sort of meeting place for Amber, Ash, and Jack, and they often used one of her back tables to practice new spells and read from Brooke’s spell book in a controlled environment. Willow’s shop was a convenient setting, seeing as how she’d often supply them with whatever herbs or tools they needed. Plus, Willow made them hot chocolate.
Ash seemed to be uncomfortable with the announcement. “What do you want to learn?”
“What happened to our dad, and why mom really left the town,” Amber said. “And why she got sick.”
Ash stayed quiet. Willow glanced between the girls, noticing the disparity.
“You’re mom’s sick?” Jack asked.
Amber shook her head, growing a bit more subdued herself. “She died. A little over a year ago.”
“Oh,” Jack said, shifting in his seat awkwardly. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
Amber shrugged noncommittally, and Ash stood up. “I’m going to go play outside,” she said, and walked quickly towards the front door. Amber watched her go, biting her lip.
Willow sighed. “Honey, I think it’s good you want to learn more about your parents, but I don’t think Ash is ready for that yet. You’re older than her, Amber, more mature. She’ll need some time.”
Amber nodded, feeling a little ashamed for bringing it up in front of Ash. “Sorry. But I just thought… maybe you’d know something?”
“Me?” Willow sucked at her cheek, thinking. “Sorry, hon, I’m afraid I was only about your age when all that drama was happening. I didn’t really know much at the time. Have you talked to Nan about it?”
“Yeah,” Amber said. “But she didn’t know much either. Just that my mom and dad fought a guy named Bast because he was jealous. And then after that she left.”
“Bast,” Willow mused, drumming her fingers against her lips. “Bast… I swear I’ve heard that name.”
“Uh,” Jack said, glancing away from the girls uncomfortably. “I know who that is.”
“You do?” Amber said, sitting forward. “What do you know about him?”
“Well I never met him myself,” Jack said, “but he was my uncle.”
Ash decided she wanted to go back home, so after dropping her off Amber and Jack went back over to his house. Tabitha, Jack’s mom, was happy to see Amber again. Since saving Jack from the mud magic, Amber and Ash had visited his house a couple times. His mother was always very excited for the company.
“Ah, my brother,” Tabitha said, giving Amber a sympathetic look after the girl explained why she’d come over. She ushered them into the living room, where they all took a seat. “He was seven years older than me, so I was never very close to him. He and your mother were always out doing something together, though. They were very close… before your mother started to grow up. I’m not sure Bast fully matured. Which is probably why it didn’t work out.”
“Do you know what happened to him? And my dad?” Amber asked. “Nan told me they all fought. With magic, I think.”
“So far as I know, no one else was there,” Tabitha said. “Whatever happened that night stayed between those three. However…” Tabitha hesitated.
“What, mom?” Jack said, just as intrigued by the story as Amber. Apparently she hadn’t spoken much about her brother to Jack.
“Well… none of us were there,” Tabitha said, “but we could feel it. The spells they used were some of the most powerful I’d ever felt. Even at a distance, anyyone with even the slightest inkling of magical inclination could feel the waves of their attacks. It must have been something fierce to be there.” Tabitha paused.
“Magical siblings have a special sort of relationship,” she said. “The more you grow into your abilities, the more you’ll be able to sense those closest to you. I was always good at that with Bast – being able to tell when he was in one of his moods, so I could avoid him. Even after he left Greensburrow, after your mother had ended their relationship, I could still, distantly, feel his emotions. So you see, even though I wasn’t there that night when he fought your parents, I still have some vague idea of what happened. And though I can’t speak for the fate of your father, I am certain Bast wasn’t killed.”
“What?” Jack cried in surprise. “But you’ve always told me he’s gone!”
Tabitha looked at her son sadly. “He was not a good person, Jack. Not a good uncle. I haven’t lied to you, however – Bast is gone. At least, any recognizable part of him.”
“So he’s alive?” Amber asked. “He’s out there somewhere?” Amber suddenly felt a lot less safe, remembering Nan’s story about how he had tried to kidnap her and Ash when they were toddlers. What if he knew they were back? Would he try to hurt them again?
“Alive… in a sense,” Tabitha said. “But certainly not wandering free. That night Bast used powerful curses against both your parents, but he fell to their spells as well, and I felt when his powers became sealed away. Later, too, I felt his influence on your mother, when she came to see me before she left.” Tabitha grimaced, glancing away from Amber for the first time. “It’s why, I believe, she decided to leave at all.”
“Why?” Amber pressed. “I don’t understand.”
“I am not sure if the spell was placed by Bast, in an attempt to keep her, or by Brooke, in an attempt to weaken him,” Tabitha said, “but the magic that was wrapped about your mother was a very powerful spell of binding. A spell that… links two souls together. It is a dark magic. Should the souls remain close they can draw power from one another – but should they grow apart then both of their magic will weaken.”
Amber was staring at her hands. “So…” she said slowly. “Mom left… to make him weak?”
“And keep him contained within whatever prison she and your father created,” Tabitha said. “I must admit there have been times when I have thought about seeking him out to see what state he has been reduced to… but nothing good could come of my visit, and honestly I think it is probably for the best that-”
“And that also means…” Amber started, unaware she had interrupted. After her last comment, she hadn’t been listening to Tabitha. “That means… the spell probably was what killed mom. She was too far away for too long. So she got weak.”
“I’m so sorry, dear,” Tabitha said, reaching out a hand to comfort Amber. Jack sat very still and very quiet, clearly not sure how he was supposed to act. Amber let Jack’s mom pat her on the knee, then looked up at her with a weak smile.
“It’s okay,” she said honestly. “I just wanted to know the truth. And I guess, I wanted to know that what hurt mom won’t hurt Ash or my dad. Um, Peter, I mean. I wish I knew more about my original dad.”
“He was a good man,” Tabitha assured her. “In the short time I knew him he helped me with my garden – a very talented floramancer you know.”
Amber smiled. “Ash is a floramancer, too. She might be happy to know that. Thank you for telling me everything,” Amber added.
“Oh course, dear,” Tabitha said with a kind smile. “Now, you should probably be returning to your family. And if you’d take one bit of advice before you go, I just want to remind you that these dark things concerning your family are all in the past. You’ve got a wonderful family in the present, however, and it is these people who you should spend your energy being concerned over. Make sure to be there for each other.”
“I will,” Amber said, thinking of Ash and how talk of their mother had made her shut down. Amber decided she had best apologize, even if she didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. Tabitha was right, Amber realized. As long as Ash was happy and safe, that was all Amber really cared about.
The black cat watched as the town readied itself for the Midsummer Festival. It was not a big town, so the festivities were not extravagant, but it was the second biggest festival celebrated throughout the year, (the first being Halloween.) There were times, it was said, when magic was stronger or weaker than others, like the waxing and waning of the moon. Midsummer’s Eve was one of those times; it was a celebration of the summer solstice, the sun, growth and bountiful harvest. It was celebrated, of course, with a feast, but also in Greenburrow with a display of magical shows put on my the town’s residents. Decorations in the shape of suns and stars and woven plants were strung up throughout the town, and the black cat watched all of this with great interest.
The Wicker girls couldn’t wait for the festival to arrive. It promised to be an evening of wondrous magic like they’d never seen before, and they were certain they would be able to learn something new and exciting to try out for themselves. Jack also seemed eager for the festivities, and he enjoyed telling Amber and Ash all about the different traditions entailed in the celebration. Their mother, they were told, had also had an act she’d performed when she was younger, involving painting pictures in the sky with burst of lightning and other light magics.
Perhaps the only person in the town who was not excited for the festival was Peter, who regarded the whole event with a sort of disbelieving bemusement. The town was abuzz with talk of magic, and it seemed to him that they actually believed in it. His girls would often notice and point out things invisible to his eyes, and by and large he chalked this up to their imagination; however there was a strange nagging sensation that pulled at him every time talk of the festival was brought up, and it often caused him to turn the conversation to other subjects.
Then there was that cat which didn’t seem to belong to anyone, and who no one else seemed to notice. Peter had the distinct impression it was following him; but that silly. It was just a cat, after all. He tried, against every instinct warning him to stay away from the creature, to ignore it. So long as it didn’t go near his girls – and they didn’t decide to adopt it – he reasoned, it was doing no harm.
It was just a cat.
The evening of the festival was warm and pleasant – unusually so for mountain weather. The girls were all too happy to leave their jackets off (though their dad made them bring them anyway, so they kept them tied about their waists,) but Jack had shown them how to make little flames to keep themselves warm in case of an emergency. Amber and Ash dragged their father to town, chatting excitedly about all the magic they’d learned along the way. Nan had told them that on days like this the line between the natural and supernatural became blurred, and sometimes those without magical inclination were able to sense and see magic that would otherwise be invisible to them. The girls had decided this would be the best time to show their father what they could do, and the townsfolk had agreed there we be no harm in allowing Peter to take part in their traditions.
It was just before dusk when the family arrived, but already the town was lit with a myriad of light. Small fires, purple and orange, burned harmlessly among the branches of the trees, shining between the leaves like a canvas of stars. The girls oohed and ahhed at the lights, pointing them out to each other, though their father didn’t seem quite as impressed.
“Pretty lights,” he commented when his daughters prompted him. “Must have taken a while to put up.”
Ash sighed heavily and shook her head. “He’s hopeless.”
“We’ll see,” Amber said. “I brought the adder stone, too. Maybe he can try it again later tonight.”
“Hi guys, hi Mr. Wilson,” Jack said, waving as he approached the group. “Have you had anything to eat yet?”
“We just got here,” Peter said, looking around the square. With everyone in the town out at once it seemed like a lot more people lived there – even some their family hadn’t met yet. “Where do you suggest we start?”
“My mom has a table,” Jack said. “You can get some cookies there! We shaped them like crescent moons and birds. Every time a real bird caws, the cookies flap their wings! Isn’t that neat?”
“I would feel bad eating them,” Ash said.
“Aw, it’s just a charm,” Jack said. “Come on, Amber can get Dusk to caw and I’ll show you.”
“Cookies after dinner,” Peter said, stopping them. “Let’s get something more substantial first.”
“Hmm,” Jack considered. “Well I think Mary has some cornbread, and Nan was making her famous screaming stew-”
“Screaming?” Amber asked. Jack grinned mischievously.
“Yeah! Let’s go there first.”
The screaming, to the girls’ disappointment, was metaphorical rather than literal, and was named due to the chili peppers that gave the stew its heat rather than the more vocal qualities the girls had been hoping for. Their father had finished off Amber and Ash’s portions once the soup proved to be too spicy for them and, now that they had eaten (at least a spoonful of dinner) they decided treats and dessert were in order.
“Heard you were looking for something more magical,” Willow said as with a wink as she passed the girls by. She was carrying a tray of drinks, and passing them out to anyone who would take one. “I’ve got just the thing. Here you are.” Willow balanced the tray with one hand and her hip, using her free hand to add some chocolate sprinkles to the girls’ mugs. “It’s hot, now, don’t drink it too fast,” she warned. “Well, not Nan’s screaming stew kind of hot, but you know. How’s it going, Peter?”
“Just enjoying the evening,” Peter said, accepting a cup from Willow as well. Amber giggled and elbowed Ash as they stared into their cups and the chocolate sprinkles came alive, skittering across the surface of the chocolate which had been designed to look like spider webs. Ash made a face of horror and leaned her head back. Jack burst into hysterics.
Peter smiled at the kids, taking a sip of his own drink. “Ah, wonderful brew as always, Willow. What is it?”
“Just a mocha of my own design,” she said, shifting the tray back over her head as some other townsfolk squeezed by. “Gotta say it’s great having some younger folks around these part – seems like everyone around here takes their coffee black. I get to have fun with you and your girls. Oh, don’t worry – they’ve just got cocoa. The adults get a little something more,” she said with a wink.
Peter nodded his head in thanks. “I also wanted to thank you for looking after the girls when I’m busy or down in the city. They seem to love hanging out in your shop.”
“No worries,” Willow said. “I love having them. And you seem to be pretty busy, so I don’t mind at all.”
“Well, not so busy,” Peter admitted. “Still just sending out resumes, the occasional interview, and so on. Most days…” Peter hesitated, then frowned. “Most days… I…” He stopped again, rubbing his temple.
“You alright, there, Peter?” Willow asked.
“Dad!” Ash interrupted, sticking her mug in his face. “You try it first! The spider sprinkles are gross!”
“Excuse you,” Willow said, sticking her tongue out at Ash. Ash giggled and stuck her tongue back.
Peter took a sip of Ash’s cocoa. “Mmm. Tastes good to me.”
“Ewwwww,” Ash said, looking back down into her drink. The sprinkles were still crawling all over the surface.
“It’s not so bad, Ash,” Jack said. “They tickle as they go down.”
“Ewwww!” Ash cried, making as if to throw the mug of cocoa at Jack. In fact, the cup did slip from her hand, but before the hot liquid could spill over the boy Willow made a sharp gesture and the drink and mug flew back to Willow’s tray and landed unperturbed.
“Don’t do that,” Willow said, giving Ash a disapproving look. “My drink’s made to be drunk, not thrown on people.”
Ash looked down sheepishly while Peter looked about in a confused manner, blinking as if something had been caught in his eyes. Amber waited for her dad to say something about the magic Willow had just displayed, but Peter simply shook his head and looked away.
“I think I’m going to grab some more stew,” Peter said absently. “You girls behave now.”
“We will,” Ash said. Amber raised an eyebrow at Willow.
“It’s not really that he doesn’t see it,” Willow tried to explain as Peter left. “It’s more that his minds try to make sense of it. He’ll remember it differently in hindsight. I think it might be that the magic doesn’t want to be noticed – which is why it can work in such subtle ways, even to those of us who are sensitive to it. But he’ll come around eventually, I think.”
“You think so?” Amber pressed. “I want to show him everything Ash and I can do… but he’s got to believe in it first.”
“That will come,” Willow assured her. “If the magic is obvious enough – big enough – that the mind can’t reason it away, the memories will stick. And just him being here – surrounded by magic – should help some of it rub off on him in time. Remember, you girls lived here for several years – he’s only been here about a month. Just try to be patient.”
“I guess so,” Amber said. Ash was already bored of the conversation, and tugging at her sister’s arm. Willow noticed her impatience.
“But the important thing for tonight,” Willow said, “is to have fun. Why don’t you go try some of Tabitha’s crow cookies. The show should begin in about an hour. Go enjoy yourselves in the meantime.”
The sisters brightened at talk of treats and the show.
“I’ll show them!” Jack announced, and began to weave into the crowd. “Come on, we gotta make sure we save the best seats, too. There’s some great ice cream you have to try as well. And Mary makes lanterns…” Jack continued to chatter away as the children went on to explore the stalls of the street festival, magic dancing all around them.