The Witch and the Stag
The McKinley Women Book 1
by Victoria Rogers
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Maddy felt the cool air on her nostrils, and the rising and falling of her chest as she deliberately regulated her breath. In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four.
Her mind’s eye focused on a circle of light dancing on the backs of her eyelids. With practiced discipline, she kept her focus and her stomach settled as her spirit rushed dizzily up her astral cord and to the astral plane.
The park was quieter here, in this space. Gone were the sounds of barking dogs that should have been on a leash but weren’t. Gone were the children’s squeals and parents’ plaintive shouts to be careful. Instead, there was a sea of glowing green grass and grayish blobs she knew to be playground equipment. Her inner eye searched carefully for the telltale sign of the poltergeist. This one would be brown. Or maybe red, she thought to herself. Come out, come out, wherever you are.
In the end, she heard the sound before she saw it. It let out an ear-piercing screech and rushed at her from behind. The poltergeist stopped just short of the circle of salt she had drawn around her, its shrill voice hitting decibels her physical ears would never have been able to detect.
She winced. I bet every dog within two miles is howling now.
The thing clawed at the invisible barrier separating the pair of them. Maddy took in a deep breath and pulled on the iron bell she had clipped onto her belt. “Silence now, my wayward soul. Rest, I bequeath to thee. Silence now, my wayward soul. Rest now, so mote it be.”
She rang the bell three times. At each clear ring, the poltergeist screamed into the plane and raked at the salt barrier. She flinched at the ferocity of it. Unconsciously, she reached for the locket filled with protective dill she wore around her neck. She swallowed and firmed her jaw. “Silence now, my wayward soul. Calm, I bequeath to thee. Silence now, my wayward soul. Calm now, so mote it be.”
By the time she rang the bell twice, the poltergeist charged the barrier with such force that Maddy fell backward and out of her protective circle.
“Witch!” it accused, throwing itself at her.
She used the impossible physics of the astral plane to her advantage and pushed off the poltergeist with her feet, flying away from it. She managed to ring the bell for the third time before it was on her again. Its cold talons raked across her spirit form. Down in the grass, her physical body shuddered.
“Silence now, my wayward sou --” Maddy screamed as it slashed at her astral cord. An intense cold radiated through her. She held up her locket in front of her and the poltergeist hissed and backed away. “Silence now, my wayward soul. Quiet, I bequeath to thee. Silence now, my wayward soul. Quiet now, so mote it be!"
The spirit retreated farther away from her, sneering. “Witch! Witch!” it cried.
She rang the iron bell three times, and with each melodious chime, the poltergeist shrank in size until it was nothing at all, its cacophonous wail fading with its form.
Maddy’s spirit slammed into her body as something bashed against her cheekbone. She blinked back stars and held her face in her hand, shocked more than anything. The poltergeist wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. In all her twenty-eight years of life, she had never been physically hurt by a poltergeist before. What happened? What was that?
“By the gods, are you all right?”
Maddy opened her eyes and saw a bright red Frisbee lying on the ground next to her. A Frisbee? She had been hit by a Frisbee? She touched her cheek and frowned at how puffy it felt. Of all the damn things that could happen while she was putting a damn poltergeist to rest, she was hit in the face by a Frisbee.
“Yeah,” she said without looking at the speaker. She picked up the Frisbee and shoved it in their direction. “Watch where you’re throwing the damn thin --” She stopped short when she looked up. A shirtless man -- a shirtless muscular man -- crouched next to her. He wore blue Serenity State joggers, silver aviators, and one hell of a smile. His dimples were --
“Ouch,” he said, interrupting her thoughts. “I really got you there. I’m so sorry. I’ve got a first aid kit in the car, if you just wait here, I can run over and grab it.”
Maddy stared at his plump bottom lip. “Uh… What?” she shook her head. Get a hold of yourself, Maddy. “Oh. No. No, thank you. That’s fine. I’m right around the corner.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, his brows furrowed in concern. “The car is right there.”
It was true. The parking lot was only a hop, skip, and a jump away. She shook her head again. “No, thank you. Just… be careful, huh?”
He stood up and offered her a hand. Hesitant, she took it. His grip was firm but not overpowering. For that brief second at the top of the pull, they were so close she could feel his breath on her forehead. She stepped back and held out the Frisbee.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to --”
“It’s fine,” she said, waving her hand. It wasn’t fine. Not really. It hurt. A lot.
He nodded, gave her a small wave, and left her to pack her suede crossbody bag with her exorcism implements. They didn’t amount to much. She had never been one for pomp and ceremony, just like her mother, and her mother before her. The McKinley family was a straight and unbroken line of solitary practitioners known for their efficiency, knowledge, and speaking their minds.
She put away the rosemary incense, a crystal salt cellar, and her bell. Luckily, it was only a five-minute walk to her shop, Ceridwen, which was situated on a cobbled, pedestrian-only side street smack dab in the center of downtown Serenity.
The jingle of the wind chimes on the front door alerted Felicity, Maddy’s only employee (she worked half days twice during the week and all day on Saturdays), of her arrival. Felicity was a full head shorter than Maddy but made up for her lack of size with the number of words that came out of her mouth. The sight of Felicity’s gorgeous blonde curls piled effortlessly atop her head made Maddy pull her hair down from its pineapple so it would fall in rich mahogany waves about her shoulders. There. Less rumpled.
“What is that?” Felicity said almost immediately coming out from behind the counter.
Maddy frowned, letting out a hiss from the movement.
“What on earth happened? Did you get mugged? Tell me you didn’t get mugged.” She leaned in as if she were about to touch Maddy’s face.
Maddy waved her aside and continued to the back of the store to her office. She dropped her purse onto her chair, pulled open the bottom drawer of one of the tall gray file cabinets, and grabbed the first aid kit.
“I didn’t get mugged,” she said as she flicked on the desk lamp for more light in the windowless room. “Got hit by a Frisbee.” She finally looked into the mirror hanging crookedly on the wall. “By the gods, he did get me, didn’t he?” She peered closer and poked at it, wincing.
“Well, what do you expect if you poke at it?” Felicity said from the doorway.
Maddy rolled her eyes and continued to examine her cheek. “Just a bad bruise. Doesn’t look like the skin was broken at all. Guess I’ll just look like I was in a fight for a while.”
“I bet those kids learned their lesson.”
Maddy glanced up at Felicity. “Not kids. Grown man. Early thirties, I bet.”
“Oh! Even better. What’s his name?”
Maddy put the first aid kit back in its drawer. “No idea. I was too busy trying not to tear into him.”
“Oh, come on, Maddy! You need to live a little. You can’t just stay in here or that tiny little box you call an apartment all your life. You shoulda got his number.” Felicity arched a brow and shook her head in disappointment.
“Home. I call it home.”
“Whatever. It’s a rectangle above your store.”
“I own that rectangle. It’s my home, Felicity.”
“I still think you should just rent that place out and get a house.”
“I don’t drive. I like it here. It’s convenient. Everything I need is within walking distance. I’m fine. Isn’t your shift over?”
Felicity grinned at the reminder. She grabbed her purse from its hook in the office and walked back to the storefront with Maddy.
“Anyway,” Felicity continued, “All I’m saying is you need to go out on a date once in a while. Next time a guy comes barreling into your life like that, you should take the chance the universe is giving you.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” Maddy sat down on a stool behind the counter and began to shuffle through the day’s mail.
“I’m serious, Maddy. Promise me you’ll do something tonight, eh? It’s Friday.”
This month’s utility bill was higher than last month’s. She frowned. They hadn’t been doing anything differently. This summer was cooler than usual. It couldn’t be the central air.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked, to get Felicity off her back. If anything could sidetrack Felicity it was getting her to talk about her own love life.
“Date with Nate.”
“Nate… I don’t remember a Nate.” Maddy sighed and tossed the bill onto the counter. The next piece of mail was from her old alma mater, no doubt trying to sell her insurance.
“You wouldn’t. First date. How’s my teeth?”
Felicity nodded and grinned wildly, bearing her pearly whites for all to see. “He’s a dentist. I’ve been using those whitening strips all week.”
“I’m sure if you floss, you’re fine.” The rest of it was junk mail. Coupons to the shawarma place a couple of streets over, an internet provider flyer, and an optometrist brochure.
“Yes, good idea.” Felicity turned around and headed toward the door. “Go and make me proud tonight!” she called over her shoulder as she left.
* * *
Maddy lay on her overstuffed microfiber sofa, one leg hanging off the edge while the other rested comfortably over the cushioned back. Her eBook reader propped on her chest, she reached for the bowl of buttered popcorn on the wood plank coffee table. She grabbed a handful and stuffed it into her mouth, popcorn falling down her T-shirt and into her bra. As she fished out the rogue popped kernel, Felicity’s parting words came resonating in her head. She snorted. Somehow she didn’t think reading romance novels and pigging out on popcorn would count as ‘doing Felicity proud.’
Maybe Felicity was right. Maybe she was boring. Here she was, twenty-eight years old, single, attractive and… lying on her couch in her PJs on a Friday night. Even in her younger days she never would have had the stamina to keep up with Felicity’s party life, let alone now. Bars were where she had escaped her randy dormitory roommate and did her reading homework. Growing up in a large family had conditioned her to loud spaces and being able to read in a crowded bar came naturally to her. She had found it nice to take periodic breaks from studying to chat with the bartender or whoever sat down next to her.
Maybe she could go out to read? A change of scenery might be nice. There was that cute new bar with the black-striped awnings that opened up across the street a few weeks ago. She still hadn’t gone to check it out. Its opening night had been a rowdy one and kept her up through half the night. The hubbub had thankfully died down in subsequent weeks as the newness of the place wore off.
Maddy glanced at the old analog clock on the wall. It wasn’t even eight. It wouldn’t be too busy at this hour, which was perfect for her.
Right, then. To the bar! Whatever its name was. The Stag and the Fox? The Fox and the Stag? Something like that. Maddy heaved herself up off the couch and frowned down at her buttery tee. All right. Shower first.
She showered, put her wet hair up in a quick two-strand twist, and put on minimal makeup: winged liner, mascara, blush, and a pale red lip gloss. She avoided foundation. Nothing was going to hide her shiner, no matter how hard she tried. After she puckered her lips in the mirror a few times, she threw on a white linen sundress, cute leather gladiator sandals, and tossed on a dangling silver necklace with a beautiful chunk of amethyst hanging off the end. There. She had put in an effort. She took a selfie for posterity and texted it to Felicity with the words, Ok! Ok! I’m going out!
A series of emojis came flashing on her phone. Three hearts, heart eyes, and lips. Maddy didn’t think Felicity ever used actual words in a text. At least, she had never experienced words in Felicity’s texts, even when she was calling in sick for work.
She looked at the clock dominating the far wall of her loft apartment. Eight-thirty. All right, she made good time. She grabbed her faithful suede crossbody, dropped her eReader in, scooped up her keys from the pottery dish her sister had made, and headed out.
It was a warm evening. The sun still hung on the horizon washing everything in indigo and orange. All the outdoor tables at the bar were full, so she pushed open the door and went inside, fearing it would be packed in there as well. Surprisingly, it wasn’t. A few tables were full of late diners, but the bar was nearly empty. The inside was just as cute as the outside with its awnings and wrought-iron tables. Wood and leather dominated the décor, and while it was decidedly masculine, it was warm and inviting. Not a single television on a wall, she noted, grateful that she wouldn’t be regaled with sports. Not that there was anything wrong with sports. It just wasn’t her thing. Unless it was yoga. Or Pilates. She doubted she’d ever find those activities on bar television screens.
She made a beeline to the wood-and-iron bar and took a seat on an unoccupied stool off to the corner and away from the other patrons. She eyed the beer on tap. She didn’t recognize any of them.
A young woman, maybe twenty-two or three, dressed in low-rise skinny jeans and a Fox and the Stag T-shirt wandered over.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked.
Maddy squinted at the beer labels. “What do you have for a pilsner on tap?”
“We carry only local microbrews, so right now for a pilsner, it is the Locomotion Czech.”
Microbrews. Of course. Maddy smiled to herself. “Sure. I’ll try that. I’ll start a tab,” she said, sliding her credit card onto the bar top.
The bartender picked it up and nodded. “You got it.”
Maddy got out her eReader and tapped the screen awake. Time to settle in.
It took nearly forty minutes before someone interrupted her. That was impressive. A woman reading a book in public usually meant interruptions every five minutes.
“What’re you reading?”
Maddy looked up over the edge of her reader. The man had slicked back graying hair. Far too much gel, dude. “A romance,” she mumbled. She counted to three in her head before he came back with the expected reply.
“Why read about romance when the man of your dreams is right here in this bar?”
“Oh, is that right?” She hid her smile in her pint.
“Why don’t I buy you another?”
“Oh, that’s kind of you, but I --”
“There you are! I was looking for you,” entered another male voice.
Maddy looked up at the approaching man. It was the same guy who hit her with the Frisbee! He wore a shirt this time -- a formfitting, blue button-down with a pair of dark wash jeans. The color brought out his brown eyes. He looked good, though truth be told, he looked better when shirtless. She kept her surprise in check when he slid in between her and the creep and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. Okay. That was forward.
“The Frisbee really got you, didn’t it?” His fingers brushed the bruise lightly.
“Mmm-hmm,” she got out. He wore a wonderful cologne, not too overpowering as she found most to be. His boldness, while a bit frightening, was boiling hot. Hoo boy, Maddy. Get it together.
“Is he gone?” Frisbee guy whispered.
Maddy glanced over his shoulder. Her would-be suitor was sidling away toward the other end of the bar. “Yes, he’s gone.”
Regretfully, Frisbee guy pulled away. He waved at the bartender who immediately began pouring a glass of bourbon. Top shelf. Maddy arched a brow. The bar had only just opened, and he was already a regular, was he?
“Do you always perform exorcisms in the park?”
Maddy choked on her beer. “Only at lunch,” she said, wiping her mouth with the napkin she had been using as a coaster.
Her remark got the hoped-for laugh. “I’m really sorry about that. I hope the ghost didn’t get away.”
“Poltergeist,” she corrected automatically. “And no. I got it before the uhh… incident.”
“I’m glad. Even so, I know that would have been a rude awakening coming into your body like that. I’m really sorry. The least I can do is get you another beer.”
So, he knew about astral projection. Maybe there was more to Frisbee guy than she’d originally thought. She was just about to focus on his aura when a light through the front window caught her eye.
“What the --” She squinted past the patrons and watched in horror as a flashlight, or something like it, flashed in the paned windows of her store. “Someone’s in my shop!”
She shoved her e-reader in her bag and hopped off the stool.
Frisbee guy grabbed her arm. “You can’t just go over there. What if they’re armed?”
“So what? That’s my store they’ve broken into. It’s probably just kids.” She pulled her arm out of his loose grip and rushed toward the exit.
“I’m coming with you,” he said.
Fine. Whatever. He could come in handy. She wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
She marched out the front door, across the cobbled street, and straight to her shop door. The window was dark. She fumbled for her keys and unlocked the entrance. Strange. No sign of a forced entry from the front. Maybe they came in through the back of her office?
Maddy took in a sharp breath from her nose, steeling herself for what was to come. Frisbee guy’s presence reassured her as she wasn’t going into this alone.
She threw open the door and hit the light switch. “Got you!” she yelled, not really knowing what she was saying. Got you? What are you doing, playing peekaboo?
There was nothing there. Not a thing was out of place.
“What the hell? I swear someone was in here.” She walked to the back and hit the switch in her office. The office door was bolted as usual. No one there either. Well, this was embarrassing. She turned around and faced Frisbee guy. What was his name, anyway?
Blushing, she shrugged. “I don’t know what to say. Someone was in here.”
He smiled and stood aside for her to pass him in the doorway. Her hip brushed his thigh. She felt the heat rush up to her cheeks.
“I believe you,” he said.
“Even when the evidence says otherwise?”
Something whizzed by their heads. A cellophane-wrapped tarot deck crashed into the doorframe.
An ethereal and raspy hiss filled the room. A light flashed near the standing display of a selection of tarot and oracle decks. “Wiiiiitchhhhhhh!”
Another tarot deck went flying toward them. Frisbee guy was ready this time. He pulled her against him just as the deck would have connected with her head. She felt his chest expand as he filled his lungs with air.
“BEGONE!” he boomed, throwing out his hand toward the poltergeist. His hand glowed a pale yellow for a moment before a rush of light radiated from his palm.
The poltergeist squealed and fled through the window in a brownish flicker. Maddy swore it was the same poltergeist she had banished in the park. But it had worked! Her exorcisms always worked. Maybe being hit in the head had interrupted things after all.
“Are you all right?”
She nodded into his chest. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Good,” he said resting his hands on her shoulders and gently separating the two of them.
She shook her head. “Who are you? What was that? Not the poltergeist, I mean what you did. That wasn’t witchcraft.” That was some powerful magic he had demonstrated. She would have needed to complete a ritual in order to have done what he did with one command.
His phone buzzed. He glanced at the name on the screen and chuckled. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to get back. You’ll be safe. It won’t come back. Not for a while, at least.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He slipped out a card with his thumb and pressed it into her hand.
“Thank you for the interesting evening,” He paused as he picked up one of her business cards from the holder next to the cash register, “Madeline. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.”
Bewildered, Maddy looked down at the card in her hand. Cedric Bligh, Fox and the Stag, owner. And that was definitely a cell phone number.
Victoria Rogers is an award-winning podcaster, game designer, and storyteller known for their immersive worlds and strong female characters.
Witches, warlocks, gods, and spirits fill their dreams and stories. Consent and healthy communication are two major aspects of their work – after all, you can’t have what you want unless you ask for it.
Victoria can be found in the garden and in the kitchen making fruit wines, brewing beers, and infusing spirits. When not feeding friends, they attend tabletop gaming conventions and sit on storytelling and world-building panels, teach about online marketing, and produce live events.
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