How Eoin Macken Landed a Starring Role in “The Newbie”

Hawk's Happenings

…Even if he doesn’t know it yet. 😀

But seriously. Every so often, one of my readers asks where I got the inspiration for my characters. Because The Newbie began as Ghost Hunters fan fiction, Drac, Gabe, and the other Petery Paranormal crew are loosely based on the members of TAPS. Other characters, such as JoEllyn and Aunt Julia, are reminiscent of my own friends or family.

For me, Spook Steele’s development as a character has been the most interesting, surprising, and fun.

Spook showed up for the first time about three-quarters of the way through the fan fiction version of The Newbie, and I intended him to have a once-and-done appearance. At that point in the story, Kyr’s crush on Grant Wilson (Gabe Petery in the published novel) was intensifying, and Spook’s only purpose–as far as Kyr was concerned–was to act as an antagonist, bullying Kyr and pushing…

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The Knight and the Teddy Bear

Sir Gwaine raised his weary eyes to gaze blearily at the woods in front of him. The light was beginning to fade as evening approached, but the trees ahead seemed to be less dense, and he wondered if there might be a town or village up ahead. He hoped so. After a couple weeks of solitary questing, he could certainly go for a few tankards of mead, a hot meal that wasn’t a result of foraging in the forest, and a warm, comfortable bed.

The young knight snorted. A comfortable bed. What good was a comfortable bed when your slumber was broken by nightmares? Ever since Morgana’s latest attack on Camelot, during which he’d been captured and tortured for information–which, of course, he hadn’t given–Sir Gwaine had been tormented by hideous nightmares that jarred him awake in the wee hours of the morning, leaving him unable to go back to sleep. Gaius had given him sleeping draughts, but they had had no effect. Oh, of course, they had allowed him to fall asleep almost immediately after taking them, but the nightmares continued every night, leaving him so exhausted he could barely function the next day. Part of the reason he had gone on this quest was to get away from the castle and from Camelot to see if a change of scene would help his situation.

But it had not. Now he was on his way back to Camelot, his quest incomplete, and his sleep still tormented. He had no desire to face the taunts of his companions, no matter how good-natured, about his inability to complete even a simple quest. As his horse made its way out of the woods, he spied what he had hoped to see, a small town just up ahead. He let out a relieved breath, and even his horse perked up as though he knew that rest lay ahead. Sir Gwaine patted the animal’s broad neck and said wearily, “I see it too, Gringolet. We will rest well tonight.” At least you will, he thought darkly.

As he rode slowly into the town, many of the residents eyed him suspiciously, wondering if he came in peace and if he were alone. He nodded amicably, trying to reassure them, but most cowered into doorways or gathered their children close, hoping he would continue on his way. Suddenly a chubby little girl with straggling braids and a dirt-streaked face broke free from her mother’s grasp and ran to Sir Gwaine’s side. She tugged on his boot and then held something up to him and said sweetly, “You thleepy, you need teddy.”

Sir Gwaine smiled and took the thing the little girl offered. He looked at it curiously; it was the strangest thing he had ever seen. It resembled a bear, was made of burlap, and was soft like a pillow. He turned his eyes to the little girl and smiled before saying softly, “Yes, I am quite sleepy.” He held up the teddy and asked, “What is this?”

Just then, the girl’s mother rushed forward to snatch away the teddy and gather her child to her. She apologized to Sir Gwaine and chastised her daughter, “Now, Lydia, a knight of Camelot doesn’t need a teddy to help him sleep. Come away and don’t bother him.” She pulled her protesting daughter away from Sir Gwaine, afraid of offending him.

The Knight and the Not-Quite Lady, later chapter

One warm afternoon, Wynne sat alone in the solarium working her needlepoint after lessons. Her stitches were still large and uneven, but at least she had improved to the point where her work wasn’t marred by large knots and tangles. She sighed, thinking miserably that at least that small gain had come of her failed attempt at running away and then her fight with Gwaine. As she glanced up to look out the window and give her eyes a break from the close work, she thought about how much she’d give to have things as they were before. She shook her head and sighed again; it was no use to dwell upon it. even if Gwaine and Lady Retta weren’t courting, she had ruined any chance she had ever had with him. Blinking back tears, she bent her head to her work once more.

Wynne was so intent on her needlework that she didn’t hear the door opening and footsteps coming towards her. It wasn’t until the footsteps were a few feet away that her ears perked up. She looked up quickly to see Gwaine standing next to her, looking down at her seriously. “Hello, Wynne,” he said softly.

It took a moment for Wynne to find her tongue. She gulped and choked out, “Hullo, Gwaine,” before dropping her eyes to her lap.

Gwaine stepped closer and asked, “May I sit down?” When Wynne nodded, he sat down on the bench next to her. Her flesh quivered as she felt the heat of his body through her thin, summery dress. “Leon made sure I got the pie you baked. Thank you; it was delicious.” He longed to tease her about it needing improvement, but he thought the better of it.

“You’re welcome,” she replied simply. She didn’t miss the fact that he didn’t mention the pie needing more sugar or less cinnamon, and she took it to mean he was still angry with her. She swallowed hard, trying to force down the lump that had risen in her throat.

Gwaine nervously fiddled with the hilt of the dagger he carried in his belt as he searched for the words he needed to say. “Rumor has it that you think I hate you.”

Wynne’s eyes widened anxiously. She thought he’d make more small talk before getting to the point, but apparently he wanted to get it over with. So be it. “The thought had crossed my mind.” She cringed inwardly at the squeak in her voice.

“Wynne,” Gwaine sighed, and then waited for her to look at him. “I don’t hate you, lass. I never did.” He gave her a brief, tight-lipped smile. “I was angry. Quite angry, in fact.” Wynne looked away quickly, not wanting him to see the tears welling up in her eyes. “And I was worried sick.”

“Worried?” she asked, looking up at him hopefully. “About me?”

His eyebrows rose in disbelief. “Of course, you foolish girl!” he exploded, and then pinched the bridge of his nose. His voice softened. “Of course, I was worried. When I heard you’d run away, all I could think about was something horrible happening to you–Saxons, or Morgana. You were lucky that the worst thing to happen was falling in a hole.” Wynne fidgeted; she knew how lucky she’d been. Gwaine’s mouth scrunched up the way it always did when he didn’t want to say something. “Wynne, you mean the world to me. Besides Merlin, you’re my best friend at Camelot. If anything happened to you…” He didn’t finish his thought; instead, he gazed at her, his eyes bright with unspoken emotion. “I never hated you, even though I spoke so harshly.”

A small part of her heart soared. So he did care about her, even though he was courting Lady Retta. She smiled to herself as she suddenly realized that her father and brothers would have been just as harsh with her if she’d done such a thing. She cleared her throat and responded, “I’m sorry…again…for running away. I just couldn’t take it anymore–Lady Magdalen always finding fault, the others always taunting me, Anora and Boris always wanting to be alone together…” She glanced at him quickly, not wanting him to misunderstand. “I mean, I’m happy for them; I just feel so alone and left out.” Gwaine smiled and nodded understandingly. She poked at her needlework with her needle and blurted out, “And then seeing you and Lady Retta cuddled up all lovey-dovey together.” She cringed inwardly again; she hadn’t meant to say that. She hurried to cover herself. “I mean, that didn’t bother me (What a big lie!), at least not as much as hearing the things you two said about me behind my back.” She glared accusingly up at him.

Gwaine turned to her, his expression a mixture of confusion, amusement, and something he couldn’t quite decipher. His mouth worked wordlessly for a moment; there was so much wrong with what she had just said that he wasn’t sure where to begin. Finally, he blurted out, “What do you mean, ‘cuddled up all lovey-dovey?’ When was this?” He knew there had been times when he’d been drunk and done some things he couldn’t remember, but he doubted Lady Retta had ever been involved.

Wynne cocked her head, giving him a don’t-play-stupid-with-me look. “That day you two were sitting beneath the big oak tree, over by the moat. You had your arms around her, and she was lying against your chest.” Wynne recalled every detail of that day, from the weather, to what they were both wearing, to the awful things she’d overheard.

Gwaine looked away, searching his memory for whatever scene Wynne had witnessed. When he finally recalled something resembling what Wynne said she’d seen, he smacked his forehead and chuckled at her misinterpretation. “Wynne, lass, we were sitting beneath the oak tree, and it may have looked as though we were cuddling, but there was nothing lovey-dovey about it.”

Wynne stared at Gwaine, a mixture of irritation and confusion in her eyes. If sitting that close together wasn’t lovey-dovey cuddling, then what was it? “You mean…you’re not courting her?” she asked. She knew she had probably betrayed her affection for him, but she didn’t care; she needed to know.

“No, lass,” he replied, laughing. “We’re not courting, not even close.” His dark eyes sparkled as he searched her face. A part of him suddenly realized what his earlier indecipherable feeling had been. he had sense that Wynne was jealous over seeing him with Lady Retta, and to his surprise, that realization pleased him. He pushed that thought from his mind and continued, “Wynne, Retta and I grew up in the same village. Our parents were good friends, and so we became close friends as well.” He laughed shortly. “We had to suffer through formal dance lessons together, which is why we dance so well together; we’re each quite familiar with the way the other moves.”

That makes sense, Wynne thought, but it still didn’t answer the question that bothered her the most. “Then why were you…?”

Gwaine laid his arm easily across her shoulders and gave her a sad look. “Retta’s cousin Amelia…had died in childbirth a couple weeks before, and Retta had just gotten word of it that day. She was devastated to hear the news, and very upset that she had missed the funeral. We were sitting so closely together because I was comforting her.”

“Oh…” Wynne replied, feeling horrible not only for her misinterpretation of what she’d seen, but also for the unwarranted nasty thoughts she’d had towards both of them. Still, there was something that was yet bothering her, something that she couldn’t see how she’d misinterpreted. “Then why were you saying all those awful things about me? She said I’m clumsy as an ox, and you said you’ve never had such a horrible dance partner, and that your feet still hurt whenever you think of dancing with me…” As she listed the things she’d heard, she got angrier, and her voice grew louder until her chest heaved as she practically yelled, “It’s bad enough hearing those things from Lavinia and Reginald, but to hear them from someone I thought was a friend is…too much.”

Gwaine’s eyebrows came together, and his eyes widened as he sorted through her accusations. Suddenly, it clicked, and his shoulders began to shake with suppressed mirth, building up till he at last doubled over with laughter. When he straightened up, tears ran down his face as he looked at Wynne, whose eyes flashed with indignation. “Oh, Wynne,” he exclaimed, gathering her stiff body into his arms. “I can certainly understand how you thought that.” He drew back and kissed her forehead before explaining, “Those things we said weren’t about you at all, lass. We were reminiscing about Amelia. She took lessons with us, and she was a truly horrible dancer.” He couldn’t help chuckling at the memory. “Lass, you tell yourself what an awful dancer you are, but truly, next to Amelia, you are pure grace and elegance.”

Wynne couldn’t believe there was a worse dancer than she was. She smiled sheepishly and asked, “Really?”

“Really,” Gwaine replied softly, smiling tenderly at her. “Wynne, you remind Retta…and me…a great deal of Amelia. That’s part of the reason she’s taken such an interest in you as a pupil. For all your awkwardness and all the things you think are so unbearable about you, you have a good heart and such a sweetness about you that she and…others…can’t help but adore. Just like Amelia.”

Wynne looked away, blushing. If he and Retta knew half the things she’d thought about them throughout this whole misunderstanding, they certainly wouldn’t think of her as sweet.

The Knight and the Not-Quite Lady, ch. 6

Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin or its characters.

When Wynne and Anora reached the ballroom, they both stopped dead in their tracks with mouths agape. The other young ladies were already there, and to Wynne’s horror, so were the squires. Quickly realizing what was to happen, Wynne turned to Anora with bulging eyes and whispered, “The squires? We must learn to dance with the squires?”

Anora did not meet Wynne’s eyes, but she could see that her friend’s eyes bulged as well. However, instead of being glassy and anxious as Wynne’s were, Anora’s eyes sparkled with joy and excitement. Wynne followed the direction of Anora’s gaze and realized she was staring at two squires who were leaning casually against the wall. Wynne recognized her cousin Boris and her nemesis Reginald. Her lip curled involuntarily as she fervently wished her cousin had better taste in friends.

Suddenly, Boris noticed them standing in the doorway. A huge grin split his face as he left Reginald’s side and hurried over to them. Thinking he wished to speak to her, Wynne stepped forward to greet him. To her surprise, Boris walked right past her without even looking at her. He stopped inches in front of Anora and took her hands awkwardly in his as he smiled down at her. Anora’s cheeks grew rosy as she giggled and gazed up at him. “Hello, Boris,” she said softly.

“Hello, Anora,” he replied, a lock of dark hair falling forward into his eyes. Wynne had never seen him acting so…nice.

Realizing the two wanted to be alone, Wynne slowly walked towards the other side of the room to wait for Lady Magdalen. Anora and her cousin? She never would have guessed they had feelings for each other. While a part of her was jealous that her friend could be open about her feelings for Boris–not to mention the fact that he shared her feelings–another part of her was happy and excited for her friend, and for herself. After all, if they married, she and Anora would be cousins.

Wynne made her way to a bench by the window, where she sat watching Arthur and the knights as they practiced sword fighting. As the knights parried with each other in mock battle, Wynne silently critiqued their skills. Suddenly noticing that Gwaine seemed to be missing, she frowned in disappointment and turned her attention back to the ballroom, where the other ladies and the squires were enjoying each other’s company. Lavinia and Bronwyn, of course, each had two squires vying for their affections, and the others gathered in threes or fours, chatting amicably. Wynne glanced over to where Anora and Boris still stood holding hands and talking. Usually it didn’t bother her that she was by herself, but seeing her one close friend among the ladies paired off with someone suddenly made her feel sad and left out. She sighed and turned to look out the window once more.

“I’ll just bet you’d rather be out there with the knights,” a voice beside her sneered.

Startled, Wynne turned quickly and saw Reginald glaring down at her with his beady blue eyes. She narrowed her eyes at him and responded, “Maybe I would; maybe I wouldn’t. I can’t see why that concerns you.” Reginald’s mere presence made her wish she truly were by herself once more.

Reginald leaned down and brought his face close to Wynne’s, hissing, “It concerns me because when you forgot your place the other day during my training, you made a fool of me in front of the Knights of Camelot and my fellow squires.”

Wynne stood and met his eyes steadily; he was not going to intimidate her. “No, Reginald, I didn’t make a fool of you,” Wynne replied evenly. “You do that well enough yourself.”

Two red splotches appeared on the squire’s cheeks, and he clenched and unclenched his fists. “Make no mistake, Wyni-frog,” he growled low. “You may think your little performance impressed the knights, but you’re wrong; you’re nothing but a laughingstock. No one wants a lady who doesn’t know her place.” He looked down at her condescendingly. “Not that you’ll ever be much of a lady.”

Wynne pursed her lips, and her eyes flashed fire as her chest tightened till she could barely breathe. Unable to speak, she raised her hand to slap Reginald. However, before she could strike, Lady Magdalen swept into the room followed by Lady Retta and…Gwaine? Wynne let her hand drop and gave Reginald one final glare before shoving him from her mind and scurrying over to where the other young ladies had gathered. Gwaine was not wearing his chain mail, but was clad in his usual brown breeches and a crisp, clean white shirt that offset his dark hair and eyes and his tanned skin. She was drinking in his handsomeness so intently that for a moment she didn’t notice Anora had slipped in beside her.

Anora looked curiously at her friend’s odd expression–her rosy cheeks, her sparkling eyes, and the way she was nervously biting her lip. She followed Wynne’s gaze and realized who had captured her attention, and she smiled as a number of events from the past months suddenly made sense to her. Her best friend was obviously in love with Sir Gwaine. She glanced once more at the handsome, carefree knight, and she wondered if he knew Wynne’s feelings for him, and more importantly, if he shared those feelings. She hoped so; she wanted her friend to be as happy as she was with Boris.

Suddenly, Lady Magdalen clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention and then began, “Young ladies…and young gentlemen, today we will begin instruction in formal dancing.” Most of the ladies appeared to be pleased with this announcement, while most of the squires curled their lips and scowled in silent displeasure. “Formal dancing is an important part of courtly celebrations, as well as an indication of a well-bred lady or gentleman. Therefore, it is my sincere hope that you will all do your best to learn enough to make a good showing, not only at the Presentation Ball a few months hence, but also at any feast or celebration you may find yourself attending.” She turned to Lady Retta and Gwaine. “I have asked Lady Retta…” Here she paused to beam at her former prize pupil. “…and Sir Gwaine…” Her opinion of Gwaine was obvious in her expression of disapproval. “…to help me demonstrate some of the more common dances you will encounter.” Lady Retta gave them all a warm smile and a quick curtsy, and Gwaine gave them a curt bow and an even briefer tight-lipped smile, making it obvious that he would much rather be out in the courtyard wielding a sword.

Gwaine and Lady Retta stepped into a large open space before the group and faced each other, then looked to Lady Magdalen for instruction. “We will begin with one of the newer dances that is becoming quite popular throughout the southern kingdoms. This one is a simple, medium-tempo dance that you should all…” Her eyes sought out Wynne and fixed pointedly upon her. “…learn fairly easily.”

As Lady Magdalen began clapping out a rhythm, Gwaine and Lady Retta bowed and then came together, holding each other close, but still a proper distance apart. They glided together around the floor, one long step, two short steps, as Lady Magdalen hummed a tune and kept time by clapping. Every so often they would stop so Lady Retta could twirl out and back in again, and then they would dance gracefully around the floor once more. Their movements were so beautiful that Wynne couldn’t help swaying back and forth and humming as she imagined dancing through the ballroom–no, in the courtyard beneath a full moon–with Gwaine. Oh, how she yearned to excel at these lessons, especially if Gwaine were present. She still felt the sting of Reginald’s words, and she thought that if she could dance as beautifully as Lady Retta, she would prove Reginald wrong, and maybe Gwaine would dance with her at the ball.

When they finished, they bowed, first to each other and then to Lady Magdalen’s pupils. The young ladies applauded enthusiastically, while the squires rolled their eyes and clapped once or twice. Lady Magdalen applauded as well; as strongly as she disapproved of Gwaine’s laissez-faire attitude and his reputation with the ladies, he was without a doubt the most skilled of the knights when it came to courtly dance. “All right, ladies and gentlemen,” Lady Magdalen announced. “Please quickly find yourselves a partner, and we will guide you through the steps.”

The room suddenly came to life as the squires and the young ladies quickly paired off. Boris and Anora found each other, and there was a brief scuffle between Daffyd and Roderick over who would dance with Lavinia. Everyone else quickly found a partner, leaving Wynne glancing around in a panic. How humiliating it would be to be the only one without a dance partner! The only thing worse would be…

“I suppose I’m stuck with you, Wyni-frog,” said an all-too-familiar and irritating voice behind her. She could not hide her disgust as she turned to face Reginald. Honestly, she’d rather dance with her cousin, or even with one of the stable boys, than with Reginald. “Wipe that grimace off your face, you little troll,” he ground out, low. “I’m the one who should be disgusted. I’d rather dance with Lady Magdalen than with you.” A malicious smile spread across his face as he grabbed Wynne’s hand and pulled her roughly to him. “Actually, this might work to my advantage.”

Wynne struggled against him, but refused to show the sudden fear that gripped her at his words. She glanced helplessly in Anora’s direction, but she was gazing longingly at Boris and didn’t notice her predicament. A glance at Lady Magdalen’s stern face told her she would receive no help there; she stood ready to chastise Wynne for delaying the lesson by wrestling with Reginald. She swallowed hard, fixed her eyes over Reginald’s shoulder on a point on the opposite wall, and got into position, her spine as stiff as a board.

Lady Retta and Gwaine resumed their positions, and Lady Magdalen began, “The basic pattern of this dance is one long step followed by two quick short steps–one, two-three, one, two-three. We’ll worry about the twirling later. Now everyone try it.” She began clapping the beat as she hummed the song.

All the couples began moving at the same time, trying to emulate Lady Retta and Gwaine. A few seemed to pick up the rhythm right away, while the rest loped clumsily across the floor, though none so clumsy as Reginald and Wynne. Reginald was being intentionally rough with Wynne, and Wynne resisted his every attempt to lead. Lady Magdalen stormed over to them, still clapping the beat and humming. “Wynifred, you are a lady,” she sang to the tune she was humming. “You are supposed to let your partner lead.”

Wynifred opened her mouth to protest that Reginald wasn’t leading; he was bullying, but Lady Magdalen turned and walked over to guide another couple before she could say a word. She glared at Reginald and stopped pushing back against him, thinking that maybe he wouldn’t bully her so much if she allowed him control. Just as they turned and took a long step, Wynne accidentally tramped on his foot. “Ow, you clumsy oaf!” he cried, drawing everyone’s eyes.

“Beg pardon,” Wynne said, her cheeks flaming. She really wasn’t sorry at all, but she didn’t want everyone watching them. Having to dance with Reginald was bad enough; having everyone’s attention on them was more than she could bear.

As they turned again, she caught Gwaine’s eye over Reginald’s shoulder. His dark eyes sparkled with amusement as he winked at her. He knew she couldn’t stand Reginald, and he obviously thought her moment of clumsiness was deliberate. Wynne’s cheeks dimpled as she suppressed a smile; she didn’t care if he did think she did it on purpose. Unfortunately, because she wasn’t paying attention to her feet, she came down hard on Reginald’s toes once more, making him cry out again.

“Wynifred!” Lady Magdalen called from across the room, where she was showing Bronwyn how to turn daintily on her toes. “You must allow your partner to lead. If you are stepping on his toes, it is your fault!”

Wynne glanced up at Reginald, who was giving her a superior smirk. Obviously, he was using her clumsiness as a means to get her into trouble. She wanted nothing more than to slug the smirk right off his face, but she decided he wasn’t worth the additional trouble she would get in for doing it. In the next instant, Gwaine and Lady Retta danced in their direction. With a stern expression, Gwaine leaned in close to Reginald and instructed, “And if a lady does mistakenly step on your toes, it is in very poor taste to make a scene and draw attention to her.” As they danced away, Lady Retta gave Wynne a sympathetic glance of encouragement.

Wynne and Reginald did a number of turns without incident, and Wynne relaxed and allowed some of the stiffness to leave her spine. However, just when Wynne thought she might get the hang of dancing, she felt a foot hook around hers and give a quick jerk. Before she knew what was happening, Reginald let go of her, and she tumbled backwards, landing hard on her backside with a yelp of surprise and pain.

Amid the gasps and giggles of Wynne’s classmates, Lady  Magdalen, Lady Retta and Gwaine all descended on her and Reginald. “Wynifred, what is the meaning of this?” Lady Magdalen cried, horrified.

“Me?” Wynne sputtered, not caring if she spoke disrespectfully. “That clotpole tripped me! Deliberately!”

“Wynifred, you will mind your tongue!” Lady Magdalen chastised, before turning hawkish eyes to Reginald. “Young man, did you indeed trip Wynifred?”

Of course, all malice had fled from Reginald’s face, and he was the picture of innocence and hurt surprise as he gaped at her and shook his head. “N-no, milady. Why would I trip a young lady?”

Lady Magdalen put her hands on her hips and glared down at Wynne. “Shame on you, Wynifred, for blaming your clumsiness on your partner!”

Gwaine was not so easily fooled by Reginald’s act. Although he had not seen what had happened, he was familiar enough with Reginald’s behavior to know Wynne was telling the truth. His brown eyes blazed as he glared warningly at Reginald, and the squire knew that he would suffer the consequences at his next training. He didn’t care. It was worth it to see this little chit ripped to shreds by Lady Magdalen. Gwaine’s eyes softened as he looked down at Wynne and gave his hand to help her rise. He kept his voice stern, but he hoped Wynne understood his intentions when he growled, “Wynifred, perhaps you would do better with a partner who can keep you in line.” He bowed to Lady Retta and said, “With your leave, milady, I believe we should exchange partners.” Wynne indeed caught Gwaine’s intent, and for a moment, her heart soared.

Before Lady Retta could agree, Lady Magdalen stepped in. Recalling that Wynne was smitten with Gwaine, she misinterpreted not only Gwaine’s gesture, but also wrongly assumed an ulterior motive for Wynne’s clumsiness. “That will not be necessary, Sir Gwaine.” Lady Magdalen turned to the others and called out to the first couple she laid eyes on. “Boris, Anora, you will exchange partners. Boris, I am confident that you can keep your cousin in line.”

Boris and Anora exchanged a crestfallen glance before Boris bowed to her and replied, “Yes, Lady Magdalen.” His gaze lingered on Anora as they parted.

As Anora came to stand beside Reginald, Wynne caught her eye regretfully and whispered, “I’m sorry, Anora.” Anora gave her friend a tight-lipped smile in return. She knew Wynne was not at fault.

Boris took Wynne’s hand and got into position. His eyes were hard as he glared down at her. “Way to go, cousin. Why can’t you just do as you’re told for once?”

As the lesson resumed, and Wynne stumbled around the dance floor with her cousin, she watched Gwaine and Lady Retta gliding effortlessly around the dance floor. Tears filled her eyes and threatened to fall as she felt the disappointment of being denied a dance with Gwaine. She was certain that she wouldn’t be so ungainly with a skilled partner like him, but now she would likely never know. As she caught a glimpse of Anora and Reginald turning around the floor, the obvious misery on her dear friend’s face made her heart sink even lower, and she fervently wished for the lesson to be over.

Lady Magdalen taught them two more dances. Though Boris wasn’t as cruel as Reginald, he was still impatient and very critical whenever Wynne stumbled or stepped on his foot. Wynne tried her hardest to hold her tongue, knowing much of his ill humor came from being denied dancing with Anora, but after he’d snapped at her for what seemed like the hundredth time, she’d had enough. In the middle of the galliard, she pushed away from him and snapped back irritably, “I’ll bet you don’t criticize Anora like that!”

Boris threw his hands up in frustration and replied loudly, “I don’t have to; Anora doesn’t have two left feet!”

Wynne’s face grew hot as everyone else once again stopped to stare at her. She heard Bronwyn whisper loudly to her partner, “If you think she dances badly, you should hear her sing.” Wynne tried to act as though she didn’t hear as Bronwyn and her partner both laughed.

Lady Magdalen tapped her foot as she scowled in their direction. “If the two of you are finished, we will continue.”

Wynne suffered through the remainder of the lesson, keeping her jaw tightly clenched and her eyes unblinking so that the rising tears would not fall. When at last the lesson was over and Lady Magdalen dismissed them, Wynne pushed past Boris and darted out of the ballroom. Anora would have hurried after her, but Boris stopped her. Anora protested, “Oh, Boris, she is my friend, and your cousin. We should make sure she’s all right.”

“She’ll be fine, darling,” Boris insisted, pulling Anora close to stroke her cheek. “Wynne prefers to be alone when she’s upset. You can speak with her at dinner.”

Anora wavered, knowing she should follow her friend, but wanting to stay with Boris. “But she’s had such an awful day, first the singing lessons and now the dancing…” she argued weakly.

Boris sighed, “Poor Wynne never has been musically inclined. Or graceful.”

“And it was quite brash of you to point it out to everyone here.” Boris and Anora both jumped; they did not see Gwaine approaching. “Just because she is your cousin does not make it acceptable to be harsh with her or to make a fool of her. Reginald did enough of that, and I was under the impression you had a bit more character than he does.”

Boris hung his head in shame, knowing Gwaine was correct. Anora gave him a reproachful yet loving glance before taking his hand. “We should really go check on her.”

Gwaine grinned knowingly at her and replied with a wink, “I know you two young lovers want to be together. Why don’t I go check on her? I have a good idea where she may be hiding.”

As they watched the knight hurry out of the ballroom, Anora smiled to herself. Maybe Gwaine did know how Wynne felt about him, and maybe his concern for her was evidence that he felt the same way. She certainly hoped so.

Sir Leon, the Immortal, Chapter 2, Merlin fanfic

Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin or its characters.

Gaius!” Myron burst into the physician’s chamber so forcefully that the door hit the wall and bounced back to hit him in the face so that he saw stars.

For the second time in the space of an hour, Gaius was startled into dropping something he was measuring. He turned around, exasperated, and exploded, “Myron, how many times must I tell you not to do that? I am an old man; my heart can’t take such commotion!” Suddenly, he noticed the look on his young assistant’s face. “Myron, what’s wrong?”

Myron waved his hands in front of his face, still trying to chase away the stars dancing in front of him. At Gaius’ question, he shook his head and stumbled towards him, babbling, “Sir Leon…the sleeping draught…fainted…something not right.”

Gaius grabbed the boy and shook him, trying to get him to calm down. When Myron grimaced and clutched his throbbing head, Gaius stopped shaking him, apologized, and said calmly, “Take a deep breath and tell me exactly what happened.”

Myron closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then another, and then a third before he began, “I took the sleeping draught up to Sir Leon’s room. He must have thought I was Sir Percival because he nearly ripped my head off when I knocked on the door, although I can’t imagine why he’d be so angry at SIr Percival; Sir Percival is Sir Leon’s best friend…”

“Time may be of the essence, Myron,” Gaius interrupted, resisting the urge to shake the boy again. “Please just tell me what happened to Leon.”

“Oh, right,” Myron replied brightly. “I told him you’d sent up a sleeping draught and gave it to him. He said he’d take it later if he needed it, but I told him you wanted me to be there when he drank it…that is what you said, right?”

Gaius’ rheumy eyes almost bulged out of his head as he gave Myron another shake. “Yes, yes, now what happened?”

Myron reached up to scratch his head, recalling what happened next. “He took the vial from me and walked over to the bed; I followed him. He smelled the draught and asked me what you’d put in there.” Myron grinned at Gaius and asked, “What did you put in it?”

“Ague root, willow bark…oh, for heaven’s sake, Myron! That’s not important now!” Gaius cried, throwing his arms up in the air. “Get on with it!”

“Oh, of course,” Myron stammered. “He closed his eyes and swallowed it down in one gulp, just like when I take Mother’s tonic.” Remembering what happened next, Myron’s expression became frightened. “Sir Leon glared at me and told me to tell you your potions taste like wet, moldy…”

Gaius shook his head. “Like wet, moldy what?”

Myron’s face crumbled as though he would cry. “That’s when his eyes got really big and he just fainted dead away. I came running as fast as I could to tell you. Is he going to be all right?”

Gaius began pacing around the room, thinking. Something suddenly occurred to him, and he looked sharply at Myron. “You said he told you the draught tasted like wet, moldy…something?” When Myron nodded, Gaius put his hand to his chin. “That’s odd. This sleeping draught shouldn’t taste that bad. I’ve even given it to children, and they seemed to find it quite pleasant.” Remembering that he had some left, he hurried over and picked up the flask. He held it up to the window and assessed the color. Pursing his lips, he held the flask to his nose and inhaled. His eyes flew open wide and he sniffed again. “Oh, dear…” he muttered. “Oh, dear, this isn’t good at all.”

“What is it?” Myron asked, clutching the back of a chair so that his knuckles turned white.

Gaius looked up at him. “When you burst into the room while I was mixing up the draught, you startled me. I was measuring valerian into the flask. I must have put too much in by mistake.” He thought back to when he was holding it over the flame, how long it had taken to turn the correct shade of green. “Oh, my. This could be serious.” He looked at Myron and started for the door. “Come with me.”

Gaius hurried up to the third floor as fast as his arthritic legs could carry him, with Myron close behind, fighting the urge to plow past his mentor to get to Sir Leon. The younger man’s mind raced with fear and feelings of guilt; if he hadn’t burst in and startled Gaius, he never would have measured too much valerian into the draught, and SIr Leon wouldn’t be…whatever he was.

As they reached the third floor, Gaius grabbed a torch from its holder on the wall and burst into Sir Leon’s room, followed closely by Myron. He quickly assessed the unconscious knight before thrusting the torch into Myron’s hands. “Hold this so I can see what I’m doing.” He leaned over Sir Leon, laying his ear against the young knight’s chest. Yes, his heart was still beating, though faintly. He held a mirror just beneath Sir Leon’s nose and breathed a sigh of relief to discover that he was still breathing, though only just.

Myron looked down at Sir Leon with anxious eyes. Even with his lack of training, he could tell the situation was serious. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously and asked, “Will he be all right?”

Gaius didn’t answer right away, but stood staring at Sir Leon with his hand on his chin. He seemed to be searching his memory for something. Suddenly it seemed to register that Myron had spoken. “I don’t really know,” he replied with uncharacteristic uncertainty. “I have never had something like this happen before.” He turned to face Myron. “Come with me, Myron. We have some research to do.”

Back in Gaius’ chamber, the two men pored over books trying to find some kind of remedy for Leon’s condition. Actually, Myron was doing more fumbling than poring; the inexperienced man wasn’t entirely sure what he should be looking for. Three hours and a half dozen stacks of discarded books later, Gaius tossed aside his magnifying lens and rubbed his eyes. He looked across at Myron, who was paging through an ancient grimoire trying futilely to match up the negative effects of the herbs Gaius had used with counter active effects of other herbs. Seeing the look of hopeless confusion on Myron’s face, Gaius said, “Myron, I’m afraid this is beyond my abilities. I haven’t a clue what to do.”

Myron looked up at the sound of Gaius’ voice and blinked his blurry eyes quickly. “But I thought you could work anything out,” he replied reverently.

Gaius closed his final book and laid it atop a stack of books at his elbow. He chuckled at the boy’s words; he could be so naive at times. “I’m flattered that you think so highly of my skills, Myron, but you need to always remember that no one, no matter how wise, knows all things.” He picked up his magnifying lens and slid it back into its pouch before continuing grimly, “By all accounts, the potency of the sleeping draught…” He looked pointedly at Myron. “…should have killed him.”

Myron’s eyes widened, and he gulped audibly. “Why…why do you suppose it didn’t?”

Gaius sighed heavily, realizing there was much the boy did not know about events from Camelot’s not-so-distant past. “The reason Sir Leon is still alive is that he once drank from the Cup of Life.” Myron’s brows knit together in confusion, so Gaius related the story of how Sir Leon was mortally wounded in a skirmish but was then brought back from Death’s door when a Druid gave him water from the Cup of Life. “That is why he survived this fatal draught,” he concluded. “However, I do not know what to do to either awaken him or…” He gave Myron a pained looked. “…or allow him to pass on peacefully.”

Myron’s green eyes misted over with tears, and he was unable to speak for a moment. When he did, the wisdom of his words surprised Gaius. “The obvious answer is to find this Druid and seek his counsel,” he declared with a firmness and confidence that was unnatural for him.

Gaius smiled and nodded at the boy’s insight. Maybe there was hope for him after all.”I believe you are correct, Myron,” he agreed. “But first, we must inform the queen what has happened.” Looking out the window and noting the position of the moon, he continued, “However, the hour is late, and I see no need to waken her.” He rose stiffly from his chair and blew out the candles on the table before looking at Myron. “I am certain there will be no change overnight, but I still want you to stay with him. You can let me know at once if anything changes.”

And so Myron made his way back to the third floor and slept awkwardly in a chair next to Sir Leon’s bed. Sometime during the night, he heard footsteps coming down the passageway. They stopped in front of Sir Leon’s door before continuing on their way. Myron recalled Sir Leon’s reaction when he had knocked on the door earlier, and the knight had been angry because he had thought it was Sir Percival. He wondered again what the two had disagreed about, and he wondered how Sir Percival would react when he heard about his friend’s condition. For the briefest moment, he thought about running after Sir Percival and telling him the awful news, but he thought the better of it, knowing that Gaius would want to inform the queen first. He settled back in his chair and stared intently into the darkness till sleep overtook him once more.

Bright and early the next morning, Gaius seated himself in the Council Chamber before anyone else arrived so that he could speak privately with Queen Guinevere. The warm morning sun was just beginning to filter in through the windows when the queen entered the room. She was as beautiful as always, with her wavy black hair pulled back and secured with a simple gold and pearl comb, and wearing her favorite periwinkle-colored gown. Her confidence had grown during her time as queen, both during the time she ruled as Arthur’s consort and since his passing, and she carried herself regally, though never haughtily. Her dark eyes radiated wisdom, kindness and a touch of sadness that Gaius knew would never leave while she still breathed. Gaius rose from his seat as she suddenly noticed him sitting there, and she smiled as she greeted him. “Good morning, Gaius. You’re certainly an early bird this morning.”

Gaius smiled fondly at her, recalling the quiet, kind, and loyal servant she had once been and marvelling again at how much she had grown into her role. Taking her hands in his, he replied, “Good morning, Gwen. I wished to speak to you about…a delicate matter before Council meets this morning.”

Gwen’s brows came together in concern as she wondered what could be amiss. “Of course, Gaius. Please, let us be seated.”

The two sat down at the table, and Gwen asked, “What is it, Gaius? It’s obvious that something is troubling you.”

He raised his eyes to hers before looking away uncertainly, searching for the words to explain what had happened the night before. He worried about how she would take the news. She had already lost her brother and her husband, which had left her nearly devastated. Gwen and Sir Leon had grown up together; what would it do to her if she were to lose her dearest childhood friend as well? Knowing there was no way to get around telling her, he took a deep breath and began, “I am sure you have noticed that Leon has been…less than happy of late.”

A spark of sadness lit in her eyes as she nodded. “Yes, I have noticed that myself. I feel so bad for him, but I don’t know how to help.”

Gaius nodded. “Yes, and you’re not the only one who has noticed. Percival went to his room last night to urge him to come along with the other men to the tavern. He said he noticed that Leon had injured his hand again, apparently by punching the wall.”

Gwen sighed and threw up her hands in frustration. “Leon is so full of anger and regret over all that has happened. I fear he blames himself for much of it. He seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.” She looked at Gaius. “And I fear he doesn’t sleep much; he always has those dark circles under his eyes.”

Gaius closed his eyes, knowing that Gwen knew much more than he realized. “Yes, well, I have been watching him as well, and when Percival came to me last night, I thought…I thought I could at least help him get some sleep.” He looked at Gwen, and his lower lip quivered. He did not want to bring Myron into this, fearing she might blame the lad and punish him, so he bent the truth ever so slightly. “I fear I measured incorrectly, and I put too much valerian into the sleeping draught.” He paused, letting the weight of his words sink in.

Gwen’s eyes suddenly flew open. “Oh, Gaius! Leon isn’t…he didn’t…?” She couldn’t bring herself to say the words.

“No,” Gaius replied quickly. “He is not dead, but…you know the situation with the Cup of Life.” Gwen nodded, tears forming in her eyes. “Well, that has afforded him some protection, but it has also left him in an unconscious state that I fear I haven’t the ability to remedy.”

Gwen was silent for a long moment, obviously mentally preparing herself for what she was afraid her mentor would tell her. “So, what do you think we should do?”

Gaius sighed with some measure of relief. “It was a Druid–Iseldir–who brought him back from death with the Cup of Life, so I ask your permission to consult with that same Druid to see if by chance he may know what to do to either awaken Leon…” He laid his hand on Gwen’s. “…or to allow him to pass on.”

Gwen choked back a sob and bit down on her knuckle. After a long moment, she composed herself once more and nodded. “Yes, Gaius, I grant you permission to consult Iseldir and bring him to Camelot. You have my word that he will be under our protection. Why don’t you take Percival, and maybe Beldyn and Brandis. Go as soon as you feel ready.”

As she finished speaking, the doors opened, and the other counselors entered the room. Gaius bowed quickly to her and excused himself from the meeting, knowing that Gwen could competently handle making excuse for him and for Sir Leon. He had more urgent matters to attend to.

Sir Leon the Immortal, Chapter 1: Merlin fanfic

Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin or its characters. I also have not yet seen the final episodes of Season 5, so if I have certain details wrong, I apologize.

Sir Leon stood at the window of his chamber and stared out at the houses beyond the castle walls. He could see the faint glow of fireplaces through many windows in the deepening twilight, and he knew that the inhabitants of Camelot would sleep safe and sound this night, enjoying the hard-won peace that had cost Camelot so dearly. Morgana was dead and was no longer a threat to the kingdom or to Queen Guinevere. Sir Leon shook his head sadly, thinking once more of her tragic spiral into evil after finding out that King Uther was not only her guardian, but also her father, and that she had magic. Damn you, Morgause, he thought bitterly; if Morgana hadn’t gotten mixed up with her evil half-sister perhaps none of this would have happened.

His thoughts drifted to Arthur, his king and his closest friend. He was dead too, slain by one of his own knights in the last battle; many other brave and loyal knights died as well, not only in that last battle, but throughout Morgana’s quest to claim Camelot’s throne for herself. Sir Lancelot had sacrificed himself at the Isle of the Blessed to close the veil and defeat the Dorocha that Morgana and Morgause had released. Sir Elyan had been slain by an enchanted sword in the Dark Tower where Morgana had imprisoned Queen Guinevere after capturing her. Sir Gwaine had been tortured and slain when he refused to tell Morgana where Merlin had taken the wounded Arthur. Merlin. He too was gone, disappeared after Arthur’s death, never to be seen again. Was he dead too?

Of the original Round Table knights, only Sir Leon and Sir Percival remained. Sir Leon and Sir Percival had had to bring the tragic news back to Gaius and Queen Guinevere, and Sir Leon and Sir Percival–but mostly Sir Leon, having been the king’s right-hand man–had had to stand in support of the widowed queen as she learned to rule through her grief. Not that Gwen had really needed my strength, Sir Leon thought. True, she still grieved Arthur’s death and would do so the rest of her life, but she had risen to the challenge and was proving to be a very competent queen.

Which was part of the reason Sir Leon felt the way he did now.

He found himself thinking once more that he was no longer useful to anyone here, and he asked for perhaps the thousandth time, why couldn’t I have died along with them? Of course, he recalled bitterly, the Cup of Life. He was still alive because he had drunk from the Cup of Life. In a once-unusual, but now becoming more frequent flare of temper, Sir Leon suddenly and with great force punched the wall in front of him, splitting the skin on his knuckles so that blood trickled down his hand and dripped onto the floor. He grimaced momentarily at the pain, physical pain that did nothing to dull the raw emptiness and the guilt he felt deep inside at the loss of his friends. Cursing under his breath, he turned away from the window to find the scrap of linen he had used to bind his hand the last several times he had punched the wall.

After wrapping his hand to staunch the flow of blood, he threw himself onto the bed and lay on his back staring up at the ceiling. It would be full dark soon, and the room was growing chilly; still he didn’t light a fire, not really caring anymore. Sometime later–he wasn’t really sure how long; what did it matter anyway?–there was a soft knock at his door. Without taking his eyes from the ceiling, he called out flatly, “Enter.”

The door opened wide enough for a man’s head to pop in. Sir Leon could barely make out the man’s features in the torchlight from the passageway, but he knew it was Sir Percival. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” the young knight softly apologized, although he knew it was still quite early.

Leon laughed shortly. He hadn’t had a decent sleep in months, not since well before…he shook his head, trying not to think about it again. “No,” he responded simply. Sir Leon had always been a man of few words., but lately, he spoke even less. “Was there something you needed?” Right, he thought. Like anyone needs me anymore.

Sir Percival gave a slight shake of his head. “Just heading to the tavern with a few of the other men. Would you care to join us?”

Sir Leon closed his eyes miserably. He had gone with them a couple times before, thinking that being out with others would help him shake his morose mood, but he had been wrong. Being in that raucous atmosphere with all those laughing, talking people only made his loneliness and sense of loss seem so much stronger. How could they all move on so easily, especially Sir Percival? True, the large but quiet knight had felt the loss of Sir Gwaine more deeply than that of the others, but he had eventually come to the conclusion that his friend would have wanted him to go on with his life. Sir Percival still wore the necklace that Gwaine had always worn; he had taken it from his lifeless body and kept it to remind him of his fun-loving friend. Sir LEon had no such token to remind him of Arthur or any of the others; he was certain it would do nothing but remind him of his guilt anyway. Suddenly remembering that Sir Percival was waiting for an answer, he replied, “No, you go ahead.”

“Are you sure?” Sir Percival asked. “You hardly leave the castle anymore. Bloody hell, you hardly leave your chamber. A change of scenery might do you some good.”

Sir Leon sighed irritably. This wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation, and it likely wouldn’t be the last. “Maybe next time, Percival.” He rolled over to face away from his friend, letting him know the conversation was over.

However, Sir Percival didn’t take the hint. He marched purposefully into the room and sat down on the bed. “That’s what you said the last time, and the time before that.” His forehead showed lines of worry that he was much to young to be wearing.

Sitting up and facing Sir Percival, he replied irritably, “Then it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m saying the same thing again. I just don’t feel like being sociable.”

Sir Percival’s sharp eyes spotted the blood-stained linen on Sir Leon’s hand. “Leon, your hand. Again?” When Sir Leon wordlessly jerked his hand away and tried to hide it, Sir Percival continued, “Leon, you must talk to Gaius, or to Gwen, someone. You need to move on…”

“She is your queen; show her some respect and call her by her proper name,” Sir Leon spat angrily, startling his friend. “Please just go away. Go enjoy yourself at the tavern and leave me be.” He threw himself back down on the bed, facing away from Sir Percival once more.

After a moment’s silence, Sir Percival stood and walked to the door. He stood staring at the broken man on the bed for a moment, and then left, closing the door softly. He walked steadily down the passageway to hiso wn chamber, where he grabbed his cloak and pinned it on. He was about to leave the castle to join his friends at the tavern, but he could not get Sir Leon out of his mind. He turned and hurried down the back staircase into the lower level of the castle where Gaius’ rooms were. He knocked softly on the door and heard a cheerful young voice call out, “Yes?”

Sir Percival opened the door and stuck his head in. He saw Myron, Gaius’ new assistant, hastily sweeping the floor. “Hullo, Myron. Is Gaius in?” The boy’s eyes involuntarily swept to the side room, where Gaius often consulted books, but he said nothing. “Please?” Sir Percival continued. “It’s quite important.”

Myron was about to formulate an excuse when Gaius’ weary voice came from the side room. “It’s all right, Myron.” A moment later, Gaius appeared at the door. “Percival, what can I do for you?”

Sir Percival edged into the room and looked pointedly at Myron, who shrewdly took the hint, propped the broom in the corner and hastened out of the room. Gaius chuckled. “Nice boy. Reminds me a bit of Merlin when he first arrived here.” A brief look of sadness passed over his eyes before he cleared his throat and asked again, “Was there something you needed?”

Sir Percival, too, had a brief moment of sadness as he thought of the young assistant who had been so close to Arthur. Banishing the thought, he looked at Gaius and began, “I’m worried about Leon.” Gaius raised his eyes to Percival’s, obviously thinking the same thing. Sir Percival quickly related what had occurred in SIr Leon’s chamber.

When the young knight finished, Gaius stood silently for a moment, thinking. Finally, he shook his head. “I wish there was something I could do for him, but it seems some part of him has lost the will to move on.” He did not voice the thought he had that if it weren’t for the Cup of Life, Leon might have already succumbed to his grief and passed on as well.

“Isn’t there anything?” Sir Percival asked pleadingly. “He looks as though he hasn’t slept since…before the last battle.”

Gaius looked sharply at the knight. He doubted it was the answer, but what other course of action did they have? He replied, “Maybe I can mix up a sleeping draught for him. A good night’s rest may not solve all his troubles, but it certainly can’t hurt.” He nodded, dismissing Sir Percival, and turned to his bottles and potion books. He paged through an old dog-eared volume and quickly found what he was looking for. After scanning the ingredients, he went to his storage shelves and grabbed the bottles and pouches he needed.

A few minutes later, Gaius was at work measuring out ague root, willow bark, anise and chamomile into a large glass flask. Every few minutes, he held the flask over a candle and heated the mixture, shaking it gently. At last, he came to the last ingredient, valerian. As he was carefully measuring the powdered herb into the flask, Myron came bursting into the room, startling Gaius and making him unknowingly dump too much of the powder into the flask. “Myron, how many times have I told you not to burst in here like a pack of wild donkeys?” he asked in an exasperated voice.

The boy was immediately apologetic, making Gaius feel guilty for snapping at him. “I’m sorry, Gaius. Really, I am. I’ve just too much energy, I suppose.”

Gaius chuckled and waved away Myron’s apology. “Well, in just a minute, I’ll have something for you to take to Sir Leon. You can run off some of your energy going to the third floor.”

“Is Sir Leon sick?” the boy asked innocently, his shaggy blond hair hanging down in his eyes.

Gaius sighed; Myron was a nice enough boy, but he lacked any real insight when it came to people. Merlin was able to see beyond the surface, and he wished for the hundredth time that the young warlock was still here with him. “In a manner of speaking, he is,” Gaius replied. “He is heartsick, one of the most difficult illnesses to remedy.” He doubted Myron would really understand, but he tried anyway.

Gaius held the mixture over the candle for a few minutes. He couldn’t remember it taking so long to make this potion, but then he hadn’t had need of it for some time, and his memory wasn’t what it used to be. When the liquid in the flask finally darkened to the correct shade of green, Gaius took the flask away from the flame and allowed it to cool. When it reached room temperature, he measured some of the potion into a small vial, stoppered it, and handed it to Myron. “Take this to Sir Leon and give it to him. Stay with him until he’s drunk it down.”

Myron furrowed his eyebrows and asked, “But what if he’s asleep? I’d hate to wake him.”

Gaius sighed and looked at the boy once more. No, he certainly lacked Merlin’s insight. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he won’t be sleeping. This potion is to help him sleep.”

Myron’s mouth formed an “O” as he finally understood. He turned to go a bit too quickly and almost stumbled over a stool. He looked over his shoulder and grinned sheepishly as he dashed out the door and up the stairs. On the third floor, he hurried down the West passageway, trying to remember which chamber was Sir Leon’s. At first he knocked on a door, and Sir Afton, on his way out to patrol, greeted him and pointed him in the right direction.

Sir Leon’s door was tightly closed, so Myron hesitated before knocking softly. When he got no answer, he knocked a bit louder. An irritated voice from inside said something that he couldn’t quite make out, so he knocked again, even louder. This time he heard feet hit the floor and stomp across the room. The door suddenly flew open, and an angry Sir Leon growled, “Percival, I already told you…” Seeing Myron’s startled, apologetic face, he stepped back and ran his hand over his face. “I…apologize, Myron. I thought you were Sir Percival. Was there something you needed?”

Myron gulped, staring up at the tall, reddish-blond knight, and answered timidly, “Gaius sent up a sleeping potion for you. He..he said it might help.”

Sir Leon looked curiously at Myron, wondering how Gaius might have thought he needed something. Realization swept over him as he thought to himself that Percival must have paid Gaius a visit before he went to the tavern. He tried not to be angry; he knew that Percival was only trying to be a friend. He took the draught from Myron and thanked him. “I’ll take it later if I need it.”

As Sir Leon was shutting the door, Myron stammered, “Uh…um…begging pardon, Sir Leon. Um…Gaius wanted me to stay with you…to be sure you’d taken it.”

Sir Leon rolled his eyes, then let out a defeated sigh and motioned for Myron to come in. He walked over to his bed and sat down, then pulled the stopper out of the vial. He held the vial under his nose and took a whiff–he didn’t like to be surprised by a nasty taste on his tongue. Grimacing, he asked, “Bloody hell, Myron, what did Gaius put in this?” When Myron shrugged, obviously clueless, Sir Leon shook his head, closed his eyes tightly and drank it down in one swallow. He thrust the empty vial into Myron’s hands, coughing, and lay back on his bed. Glaring up at the boy’s apologetic face, Sir Leon muttered, “Tell Gaius his potions taste like wet, moldy…” He didn’t finish his thought before his eyes went wide for a second and he lost consciousness.

Myron blinked rapidly a few times, unsure of what had just happened. He had given people sleeping draughts before, but he had never seen one work this quickly. As slow as his mind could sometimes be, he knew something was amiss, and he hurried back down to tell Gaius what had happened.

School Spirits, Chapter 32

As Spook and I made our way back through town, we were both quiet for a time, each of us contemplating the shop owner’s story. While I was glad we finally had a large and important piece of the puzzle, I still couldn’t figure out how an alleged witch from the 18th century fit in with Professor Childress, Mary Bollinger, and whatever happened in the Appleton bell tower almost 200 years later.

Spook reached out to take my hand, drawing me out of my thoughts. I turned to face him and managed a smile. He responded with a tight smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Anyplace else you’d like to go, Kyr m’dear?” he asked.

I shook my head, no longer in the mood to stroll down Memory Lane. “Let’s just go back to the hotel,” I replied in a tight voice.

Spook nodded tersely, and we turned the next corner and headed down the side street that led back to our hotel. After we’d walked a couple blocks, he cleared his throat and said hesitantly, “I’m…sorry about what happened back there. Maybe I shouldn’t have started the…witch hunt.” He chuckled shortly at his own joke.

I gave him a half-hearted thump on the shoulder before replying, “I think it was my fault she flipped out on us. If I hadn’t mentioned Professor Childress and Mary…” I didn’t finish my thought.

Spook was quiet for a long moment before he nodded and agreed glumly, “Come to think of it, I think you’re right. It is your fault.”

I stopped walking, put a hand on my hip, and stared at him with my mouth agape. He stopped and turned to me, raising his eyes to mine. “You know, you didn’t have to agree with me wuite so quickly.” I tried to hide my hurt, unsure if he was serious or just joking around.

After holding my gaze steadily for a moment, a serious expression on his face, the corners of his mouth twitched and he burst out laughing. He pulled me close, and we continued walking. “I’m just giving you a hard time, Kyr,” he teased, gazing down at me with a sparkle in his eyes. “You’re so much fun to pick on; it’s so easy to get a rise out of you.”

When we got back to our hotel room, Spook flopped down on the bed and let out a long, weighty breath. Glancing up at me, he smiled and patted the bed next to him, so I sat down and relaxed into his embrace. I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply and taking in the scent of his cologne mixed with the warm aroma of his body. He leaned his head against mine and slowly stroked my back and my hair. As the tension left my body, I stifled several yawns before one finally escaped. Spook chuckled and said softly, “You’ve had quite a long day, Kyr m’dear. Why don’t we catch a few winks and then go down to the restaurant for some dinner?”

Gazing sleepily up at him, I smiled and murmured my agreement before snuggling up to him. Within minutes I fell asleep to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat and breathing.

Neither of us slept very long before our growling stomachs awakened us. After quickly washing up, we headed downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant. Surprisingly, only a couple other people were there. Everyone else, it seemed, had either eaten earlier or had opted to eat at the street fair. We chose a corner table in the back and looked at the menu. Although the restaurant was small, it offered a fairly diverse menu. Since I had splurged on the rich cheesecake earlier, I decided to eat light tonight, so I ordered a grilled chicken salad while Spook ordered a surf and turf platter.

As we ate, we chatted about everything except the one thing I knew was on both our minds. Just as I was going to ask if Spook what he wanted to do later that evening, Copa Cabana began sounding from my purse. Spook laid down his fork and raised an eyebrow in amusement as I dug my phone out and answered it.

It was Phil. “I’m not…interrupting anything, am I?” she asked, barely keeping a giggle out of her voice.

Honestly, she was as bad as JoEllyn. I felt a blush creeping up my neck and into my cheeks as I raised my eyes to Spook, who was regarding me with a smirk. “No, Phil, you’re not interrupting anything; wer’e just having dinner.”

Spook’s shoulders shook as he picked up his fork, speared a shrimp and stuck it in his mouth. Obviously he had figured out why I was blushing, because he said loud enough for Phil to hear, “If you’d been interrupting that, she wouldn’t have answered the phone.”

He and Phil both laughed as my face grew even redder. “WIll you stop?” I mouthed at Spook before attempting to ask Phil nonchalantly, “So, what’s up?”

Still giggling, she replied, “Ed and I were just wondering if you guys were going to the street fair fireworks tonigiht.”

I paused with my fork in the air. “They’re doing the fireworks tonight instead of Monday night?”

“Yeah,” Phil said. “They changed that about five years ago. Since most of the visitors leave before Monday night, they started doing the fireworks on Saturday. It also brings more people into the street fair.” She paused. “What do you think?”

I glanced up at Spook, knowing he wasn’t keen on going back into the crowds. “We weren’t really planning on going back down to the street fair,” I hedged. Spook raised his eyes to mine once more, suddenly attentive.

“No problem,” Phil said, and I could tell she was smiling. “Did you ever watch fireworks from the cemetery on campus?”

I laughed out loud. “From the cemetery? People still do that?” JoEllyn and I, along with a few other friends, had sat at the top of the cemetery hill to watch fireworks several times. To Spook, I asked, “Fireworks later?”

A slow grin spread across his face, and he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. When I let out a huff and turned away, he laughed out loud before responding playfully, “Oh, you mean those fireworks. Well, all right.” He jumped and laughed as I kicked him under the table.

I told Phil we were in. The fireworks were supposed to start around 9:30, so we agreed to meet in the Student Center parking lot around 8:45 so we could claim a spot as close to the top of the cemetery as possible.

Shortly before we left the hotel, Spook addressed the question I knew we’d both been thinking about since accepting Phil’s invitation an hour earlier: Would we let her and Ed in on what we had found out, and if so, how much would we tell them? I somewhat guiltily suggested that we say nothing unless they came right out and asked. Spook chuckled and accused me of being sneaky, although I could tell he agreed with my suggestion.

When we pulled into the nearly-empty Student Center parking lot, Spook looked around in surprise. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “I would have thought this lot would be packed.”

“Willow Lake always was a suitcase college,” I replied. Seeing his confused expression, I explained, “A lot of students go home for the weekend, especially a long holiday weekend.”

Spook shook his head, trying to grasp the concept. “That makes no sense,” he commented. “They pay how much for room and board, and then go home on weekends? And this is only the first week back.” I shrugged noncommitally, and he turned to me and asked, “Did you go home a lot?”

I snorted, “Are you kidding? I counted down the days till classes started again. I was only too happy to get away from home and be where I could do what I wanted and not feel like I was under surveillance all the time.”

Spook gave me a sidelong glance and laughed, “And here I thought you were a good little bookworm. Don’t tell me you’re a secret party animal.”

I looked away, feeling a bit silly, then laughed at the joke on myself. “No, I definitely wasn’t a party animal. I guess for the most part I still did what I would have done at home.” I glanced at him and gave him a crooked smile. “It was the idea that if I wanted to go partying, I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission.”

He rolled down his window and turned off the ignition before regarding me for a moment. Trying to hide a smile, he asked, “So did you?”

“Did I what?” I returned, looking at him curiously.

“Did you ever go out partying?” His expression was so smug, I almost wanted to smack him.

I crossed my arms and hesitated before answering, “I went to a couple parties, but it just wasn’t my thing.” I lowered my head and admitted, “I was the boring one who preferred things like poetry readings, theater performances, stuff like that.”

He chuckled, “Or walking alone along the river late at night.” He pulled me close and tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “You’re not boring, Kyr; you’re just you.” He leaned down and kissed me deeply.

A voice right next to Spook’s open window startled us. “I hope you two aren’t going to do that the whole time.” I jumped away from Spook, blushing. We hadn’t noticed Ed and Phil pull up beside us.

Spook smirked at her and quipped, “I don’t think so. I don’t find cemeteries particularly romantic.”

We got out of the car and climbed the stairs between the residence halls. I tried not to smile as I recalled the night we walked back from A Drop in the Bucket in the rain. Spook caught my eye and grinned, and I knew he was thinking about the same thing. He winked at me and squeezed my hand.

As we crossed the street, Spook turned to Ed and asked, “So, how many people watch the fireworks from the cemetery?”

“Not very many,” he replied. “Probably not more than a dozen. Most people either go downtown or watch from one of the dorms on the hill.”

“Besides,” I added, “Campus law enforcement usually comes by to chase people out.” I was hoping not to meet up with Officer Daly, even if he was one of the friendlier campus policemen. I giggled as I recalled, “We always had a lookout, and as soon as we’d see headlights coming around the bend in the road, we’d duck down behind gravestones till they passed.”

Spook turned to me in disbelief and laughed out loud. “So you didn’t go to parties, but you hid behind gravestones in the cemetery to avoid being caught by campus police?” I smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “What kind of woman am I dating?” he joked.

Phil laughed and informed me, “Law enforcement gave up on chasing people out. I guess they figured that students were going to be up here whether they patrolled or not, and heaven knows they’re not going to actually get out of their vehicles and walk through the cemetery.”

Ed added, “They still drive through to make sure no onei s drinking or vandalizing the graves, but they don’t bother anyone unless they’re acting suspicious.”

About three-quartes of the way up the path, we started seeing students sitting on blankets in between gravestones. We found an empty spot near the top and spread our sweatshirts on the grass. The sky wasn’t quite dark enough yet, so we knew we’d have to wait a while for the fireworks to start. Sounds of quiet conversations drifted to us from the others around us, and we could hear faint music from the bands at the street fair. I swatted at a few mosquitoes and wished I’d thought to bring bug repellent. Still, I felt relaxed and peaceful; as I’d told Jason once, I was completely at ease in cemeteries.

The peaceful atmosphere was suddenly disrupted as Spook’s cell phone went off loudly. He swore under his breath and scrambled to answer it. Laughter and joking cries of “Aw, man,” and “Really?” came from people around us. Spook glanced at the screen before he answered, “Hey, Grant. What’s up?” After a pause, he laughed. “Yeah, sorry I didn’t get back to you. We’ve been busy all day.”

Phil laughed and nudged me. “I’ll bet you were,” she teased.

I was glad for the darkness as I felt my cheeks growing warm. I glanced at Spook and saw him smirk before he responded somewhat uneasily to Grant’s question. “Uh, yeah, we found out a little more about it…actually a lot more, but we still don’t know how it all fits together.” Ed and Phil glanced at each other and watched Spook expectantly. He looked around, gauging the proximity of others around us, who didn’t seem to be paying attention anyway. He said, low, “We’re out in public, so I don’t want to go into any details. Let’s just say the mystery has its roots a lot further back than we expected.” Another pause, and he continued, “Yeah, this is becoming more of an involved mystery than a simple ghost hunt. I’m not really experienced with this kind of thing, and I’m sure you’re not either. We’re just not sure where to go from here.”

After Spook finished his conversation with Grant, he put his phone on vibrate and put it back on his belt. Ed, Phil, and I continued to watch him expectantly until he finally turned his attention to us. He gave me a tight-lipped smile, likely thinking, so much for saying nothing.

Before Spook could say anything, Ed grinned and joked, “We’ll, I guess we weren’t the only ones doing some research today.”

“But it sounds like you guys were more successful than we were,” Phil added, a slight edge to her voice. I got the feeling that Phil could be quite competitive.

Spook looked at Ed, at Phil, and then back to me before offering, “We did find some very significant details, but like I told Grant, we’re not sure yet how it all fits together or what to do with it.”

A sudden flash of color in the sky followed almost immediately by a loud boom signaled the beginning of the fireworks. Ed quickly leaned towards us and suggested, “Why don’t you come back to our place after the fireworks, and we can compare notes?”

We agreed to that plan and turned our attention to the fireworks. For the next twenty minutes, we enjoyed Willow Lake’s small but impressive fireworks display. After a loud and colorful finale, a brief burst of applause, cheering and whistling erupted around us, followed by people getting up and hastening out of the cemetery, likely headed to off-campus parties. “That’s it?” Spook commented.

I nodded and replied, “Willow Lake is too small for anything really impressive, but they do pretty well for a small town.”

We stood and gathered our sweatshirts to head out ourselves. As we made our way down the now-dark path, Phil glanced over her shoulder and remarked, “I didn’t notice a law enforcement drive-through, did you?”

The rest of us shrugged and shook our heads. Ed joked, “Maybe they decided to drive through the donut shop instead.”

We agreed, laughing, and kept walking. As we were about to cross the street, my eyes were drawn to Appleton. I did a double-take as I caught what I thought was a brief flash of light in the bell tower. I stopped and stared intently at the clock face and the side window facing us to see if it appeared again. “Kyr?” Spook asked, stopping too. “What’s wrong?”

Not taking my eyes off the tower, I answered, low, “I just saw a light up there.”

Ed and Phil had turned and were now also staring intently at the bell tower with Spook and me. After a moment, the light hadn’t reappeared, so Spook suggested we walk down past Appleton and cross at the other corner. We headed up the street at a leisurely pace, trying to keep our eyes on the bell tower without being too conspicuous. There was more traffic on Belle Vista Avenue because of people heading home from the street fair, and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves by stopping in front of Appleton to gawk at the bell tower. I reluctantly admitted that I might have imagined the light, or that it may have been a reflection, but I had a gut feeling that that wasn’t so. I was certain the light I saw had come from within the tower, and it resembled a flashlight beam.

We made it back to our vehicles, and Spook and I followed Ed and Phil back to their downtown apartment. While Spook and I made ourselves comfortable in the living room, Phil went into the kitchen for snacks and drinks, and Ed went to retrieve the notebook containing the information they had found. When we were all settled, Spook nodded towards the notebook Ed had brought out. “So what did you find out?” he asked, taking a swallow of beer.

Ed glanced at Phil to ask, “Would you like to do the honors?”

“Sure,” she replied, popping a few pieces of Chex Mix into her mouth and wiping her hands on her shorts. She picked up the notebook and flipped a few pages before laying it on the table in front of us. “We just started with some general research on the area’s history and found a few interesting pieces of information. We’re not sure yet how it ties in to Appleton’s haunting, if it ties in at all.” I leaned forward to glance at the notebook as she spoke. At her first words, my eyes snapped up to meet hers. “Did you know there was a small settlement just north of town that predates Willow Lake?”

Spook and I exchanged a look, and he shrugged and nodded. “We came across that too,” I replied. “What did you find out about it?”

“Well, not much, and nothing really concrete, since the settlement existed before anyone really started keeping records here,” Phil replied somewhat dejectedly. “Most of what we found talked about the Native American tribes that lived here before the town was settled.” She pulled out some photocopied maps and mentioned that a lot of artifacts had been found between the river and where the present campus stood. “As far as paranormal activity goes,” she surmised, “if any burial grounds were displaced when they built the college, that might have angered spirits and stirred things up initially, although it really doesn’t play into Appleton and Mary Bollinger.”

Spook shook his head and added, “I don’t necessarily buy into all the cursed Native American burial ground stuff myself.” Phil looked at him curiously, and he continued, “If you think about how many Native Americans may have lived around here, or anywhere the white man has settled in the past 250 years, I’d guess that a lot of towns, colleges or whatever could have potentially been built over someone’s grave. I just think curses and resulting hauntings are few and far between.”

“You have a point there,” Ed admitted, adjusting his glasses and flipping a page in the notebook. “And there didn’t seem to be much happening here before the fire in 1954, which there would have been if there were spirits angered by way of their graves being disturbed.” He fixed his eyes on Spook and added, “One thing we did find that seemed a bit odd was that this settlement seemed to have vanished off the radar for almost 200 years; did you notice that?” I glanced up at Ed and then over at Spook. He returned my look, and a slight chill ran down my arms.

Phil jumped in again, “The only reason anyone knows about the settlement was because a construction crew building a Wal-Mart found a handful of old building foundations and artifacts that predated the town of Willow Lake.” She curled her leg beneath her and sat forward, obviously warming to her theory. “Isn’t it odd that none of the Willow Lake histories mention a settlement that was supposedly here before the town itself? What happened to the people who lived there, and why was there nothing left but the foundations?”

Spook held up his hand, again making himself the voice of reason and skepticism. “Slow down, Phil,” he said calmly. “Don’t try to write a mystery where there might be none. Maybe the people from the settlement assimilated themselves into the town when other settlers moved in. You just said this place was inhabited by Native Americans; they may have decided to move closer to the town for safety reasons. There’s nothing mysterious about that.”

Phil threw her hands up in exasperation; obviously her mind was made up. “The settlers themselves may well have moved into the town, but what about their settlement? They didn’t take their houses, their barns. How is it that, what, ten or so homesteads were out there without anyone knowing of their existence until about a decade ago?”

Ed usually tempered Phil’s enthusiasm, but even he seemed to be following Phil’s logic on this point. “I think Phil has a point here. The area where these homesteads were found isn’t densely wooded or even that hard to get to, so it defies logic that any evidence of a settlement hadn’t been discovered by someone.” He leaned forward and took his glasses off for a moment. “My question is, why did it take a construction crew digging up the site to discover evidence of a settlement? Why weren’t there any above-ground structures? We’re talking about actual homes here, not just temporary campsites.”

Spook looked back and forth between Ed and Phil, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly. I could tell he either wasn’t sold on their theory or else wasn’t convinced that the settlement’s disappearance was important, but he seemed to sense that any reasonable argument he gave would be wasted breath. He cast a helpless look at me and siad, “Kyr? You’ve been relatively quiet; what do you think?”

My eyes widened, and I returned his helpless look. I hadn’t given much thought to the settlement’s demise or disappearance, and I wasn’t sure myself that it was important to the mystery we were trying to unravel. They were all looking at me, waiting for me to offer my input. I searched my mind wildly for a moment and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Did you find out about the witch bottles?”

Ed and Phil looked at me as though I had grown another head. “Witch bottles?” Phil asked. “What’s a witch bottle?”

“Wait,” Ed exclaimed, nudging Phil’s shoulder. “That one article said there were glass bottles found buried near the foundations of the houses.” He looked at me. “Is that what you mean?”

I glanced briefly at Spook, figuring we might as well put everything we had on the table. “Yes, those were the witch bottles,” I replied. I went on to tell them what we had heard from Mrs. Rutter and her mother about the archaeological dig and about the chapter in Biddlesbacher’s book about the Willow Lake witch, or as Mrs. Rutter put it, the supposed witch. “Mrs. Rutter thinks the idea of a witch is just superstitious nonsense, but it seems that witches were as plausible to the early setllers as Mary’s spirit is to us.”

Ed seemed to have regained his level-headed skepticism as he asked, “Do we have anything besides a bad corn crop and a few sick cows to base that claim on?”

“Great minds think alike, Ed,” Spook joked, setting his beer down on the table with a thump. When I gave him a dirty look, he smirked at me for a moment before becoming serious again. “Sorry, Kyr. As neatly as the book lady’s story fits into what we’re investigating, the fact remains that without any hard evidence, it’s just that: a story that has been passed down.”

Phil was looking back and forth between us, realizing that she and Ed were missing a big part of the picture. “Okay, I’ll bite. Who’s the book lady, and what story did she tell you that you two seem to disagree on?”

I let out my breath in a huff and scooted forward in my seat. “After we left Mrs. Rutter’s house this afternoon, we walked around town for awhile. We went up to the northern end of the downtown area, up past the movie theater, you know where I mean?” Ed and Phil both nodded, so I continued, ” We came across this ancient-looking book shop and decided to check it out.” I told them about our unsuccessful search of the local history section, followed by our conversation with the shop owner. Ed and Phil listened with interest as I related the woman’s tale about the witch settling near where the campus now stood after the settlers drove her out. “It seems that some of the settlers passed her cabin on the way back from hunting and witnessed her…” I looked at Spook, who wore his typical skeptical expression. “…conversing with the devil himself.”

“What?” Ed exclaimed, exchanging a look with Spook and shaking his head in disbelief.

Even Phil had a hard time swallowing that tidbit. “They certainly had no lack of imagination, did they? What made them think it was the devil and not just someone passing through?”

The Knight and the Not-Quite-Lady, Part 4

Part 4: Of Attitudes, Apple Pies, and Secret Admiration

Even though she’d not had nearly enough sleep, the next day promised to be much more pleasant for Wynne, as Lady Magdalen decided it was time for the young ladies to spend some time in the kitchens. “Some of you may be fortunate enough to have at your disposal enough servants that you will not have to trouble yourselves with food preparation, but you must still learn some basic cooking skills.”

This should be the easiest part of my training, Wynne thought to herself. While her father had employed a sufficient kitchen staff, Wynne had often spent time in the kitchens helping the cooks prepare meals. She found it soothing to peel carrots and potatoes, and she enjoyed experimenting with different herbs and spices to see what new flavors she could create. Truth be told, she could cook almost as well as her father’s head cook Deirdre, and even better than her mother. She was certain she would enjoy her lessons this day. However, a few of the young ladies from more privileged houses cast a dark cloud over it as they grumbled and protested at having to do servants’ work.  “Who wants to get all sweaty slaving over hot ovens all day?” Lavinia protested, fanning herself vigorously at the prospect.

“Ugh, I hope I don’t have to chop onions,” Rosalynde said with an unladylike grimace, wiping her hands on her dress. “My hands will smell of them for days.”

Bronwyn let out a shrill yelp. “Does this mean we’ll have to touch dead chickens?”

Wynne and Anora rolled their eyes at each other, trying to suppress their giggles, and Wynne consoled insincerely, “No, Bronwyn, of course you won’t have to touch dead chickens.” When Bronwyn sighed with relief, Wynne smiled sweetly and continued, “I believe Berte will be preparing fish today.”

Bronwyn let out a shrill, horrified shriek and buried her face in Lavinia’s shoulder. She couldn’t bear looking at fish, dead or alive; she hated their bulging eyes and their gaping, lipless mouths. Wynne and Anora collapsed against each other, laughing, until Lavinia pushed Bronwyn away and leaned towards Wynne with ice in her eyes, hissing, “I’m sure Wynifrog won’t mind preparing the fish. She’s at home with slimy creatures of the moat, after all.”

Wynne narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists as she took a step towards Lavinia. Lady Magdalen clapped her hands and chastised impatiently, “Young ladies, I will have none of this foolishness!” Her eyes lingered on Wynne as though she alone were responsible. “Even if you never have to prepare food yourselves, it is imperative that you learn how to manage the kitchens in your household. The only practical way to do that is to spend time in the kitchens observing the cooks and helping out in any way they ask.”

Because Lady Magdalen didn’t want to overwhelm Camelot’s kitchens with all her young ladies at once, she divided them into groups; she assigned Wynne, Lavinia, Bronwyn, and Priscilla to help with the midday meal and Anora, Rosalynde, Caitlyn, Bernice, and Theresa to help with the evening feast. Wynne was disappointed that she wouldn’t be with Anora, but she knew that Berte would keep them all busy enough that she would not have to listen to the others’ taunts.

Two hours before the midday meal, Wynne’s group left the sunny sewing room and headed down the passageway towards the kitchens. Wynne had hardly been able to concentrate on her embroidery that morning as she looked forward to her time in the kitchens. As soon as the ladies were out of earshot, Lavinia began complaining about Lady Magdalen. “I still don’t know why we have to waste our time in a hot, stuffy kitchen, learning to do servants’ work,” she argued snippily. “If I hire a kitchen staff, I expect them to know how to run a kitchen without my having to teach them.”

Bronwyn tossed her head haughtily, making her thick black curls dance around her shoulders. “My sentiments exactly, Lavie,” she agreed. “Why, if ever I’d have to step in to instruct my kitchen staff, they would find themselves seeking another position.”

Wynne shook her head at their arrogance and was about to add her two cents when Priscilla edged between them and linked her arms with theirs. Lavinia and Bronwyn were the two most dominant in the group of young ladies, and Priscilla, one of the younger ladies, always tried her hardest to ingratiate herself to them. She never hesitated when it came to taunting Wynne, but she was obviously incomfortable with being disrespectful to Lady Magdalen. Looking almost pleadingly between Lavinia and Bronwyn with her large blue eyes, she said apologetically, “Ladies, surely you can understand; if you don’t know how a kitchen is to be run, then how do you know how to hire a competent staff?”

Lavinia and Bronwyn turned simultaneously to face her, glaring pitifully at Priscilla’s obvious lack of common sense. Wynne almost felt sorry for her as Lavinia sneered, “Isn’t that obvious, Priscilla? If the kitchen staff can’t cook, you’ll know when you taste their cooking.” She stuck her nose in the air and shook her head contemptuously.

“B-but wouldn’t you want to know they were inept before you hired them?” Priscilla asked sensibly. “How scandalous it would be to serve guests an inedible feast prepared by an incompetent kitchen staff!” Wynne’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Although she was certain that even empty-headed Priscilla would know enough to evaluate a cook’s skills before allowing her to prepare a feast for guests, she hadn’t expected her to think about evaluating a cook before hiring her, and she nodded appreciatively. Maybe Priscilla wasn’t so empty-headed after all.

The two older girls were also taken aback by Priscilla’s comment, and both stopped dead in their tracks to stare at her in disbelief. Wynne thought that maybe they had realized the wisdom in Priscilla’s words, but she was proven wrong when Lavinia spoke. “So you think slaving in the kitchens all morning will be a good thing?” she asked disdainfully. Smirking maliciously in Wynne’s direction, she continued, “Really, Priscilla, you’re beginning to sound as unladylike as Wynifrog, the Maiden of the Moat. Next you’ll be dozing at the table with blueberries drooling out of your mouth.”

So it had been Lavinia who was responsible for that, Wynne thought. She felt her face flaming as Bronwyn laughed a bit more loudly than was proper and added, “You’ll be known as Priscilla the Pond Princess.”

Lavinia snorted her agreement, and both ladies jerked their arms away from Priscilla to walk briskly ahead of her as she lowered her head in embarrassment. Wynne saw the hurt in Priscilla’s expression as their eyes met briefly, and she tried to smile encouragingly at her. After all, she was used to their taunts, and Priscilla wasn’t. Priscilla almost smiled back, but then caught herself, raised her chin, and turned away in a huff, picking up her skirts to hurry after Lavinia and Bronwyn. When she caught up to them, she glanced back at Wynne and whispered something to the two girls, making them laugh. Wynne sighed and continued walking a few steps behind them.

Once they had gathered in the kitchens, they waited as Berte finished giving orders to a servant girl. Noticing their arrival, she bustled over to them and greeted them in her deep voice. “I bid you ladies a good morning. Lady Magdalen has decided it is time for you to learn the proper running of a kitchen.” Lavinia and Bronwyn wrinkled their noses at each other, and Priscilla quickly mimicked their action. “The first order of business,” she continued, handing each young lady a kerchief, “is to bind your hair.”

Bronwyn held her kerchief away from her body with her thumb and forefinger, behaving as though she were holding a skunk carcass. “Why would I tie this into my hair?” she asked peevishly.

Berte returned her look with disbelief mixed with disgust. “We bind our hair when we cook so our hair doesn’t fall into the food we’re preparing.”

Priscilla nudged Lavinia and said loudly enough for Wynne to hear, “Perhaps Wynifrog should have tied her hair back for last night’s feast.”

Wynne felt her face grow red as the other three giggled at Pricilla’s joke. Berte glanced sharply at Wynne, suddenly realizing why the girl had been scrubbing linens far into the night after last night’s feast, but she said nothing.

After the young ladies had tied back their hair, Berte took them on a tour of the kitchens. As she showed them pantries full of flour, sugars, and dried herbs; storage cabinets filled with plates, bowls, and serving dishes; and a side room containing cookware and silverware, she could tell that Wynne was the only one of this group of ladies who had ever seen the inside of a kitchen. She took them into the larder where various smoked meats hung from hooks. Bronwyn whimpered and cowered between Lavinia and Priscilla, and Wynne stifled a giggle as she imagined throwing one of the raw chickens at her just to make her scream. Finally she yanked open a trap door and took the ladies downstairs into the root cellar and the wine cellars. Wynne inhaled deeply, loving the aroma of the stored fruits and vegetables.

As she finished the tour with the wine cellars, Berte led the young ladies back out through the root cellars. As she rounded a corner to where the bins of apples and pears stood, a man in chain mail suddenly stumbled out from between the bins. Berte cried out in fear, throwing hera rms out protectively to shield the ladies.The young ladies cowered against each other and screamed, except for Wynne, who tried desperately to peer around Berte’s girth ot see what was happening. The startled man jumped and dropped several apples onto the floor. “Beg pardon, Berte. I didn’t know anyone else was down here.” Gwaine! Wynne would know that voice anywhere.

Berte grasped her chest and chastised, “Sir Gwaine, you scalawag! What are you doing down here?”

He bent down to pick up the apples he had dropped. “I was just getting a snack to nibble on during training,” he replied, giving Berte a grin that would light a moonless night. Wynne thought she would faint dead away, he was so handsome. She bit her lip to keep from sighing aloud and giving herself away to the others. Turning his attention to the ladies behind Berte, he said, “Ah, I see our young ladies are helping in the kitchens today. Will you be teaching them how to make apple pie? You know its’ my favorite.”

“Oh, be off with you, you incorrigible rascal!” Berte laughed, wagging her finger at him. “I should give you an onion pie for scaring me half to death.”

Gwaine’s laughter filled the small room, and he bowed to them and said, “Ladies,” before bounding up the ladder.

As Berte followed him up the ladder, Lavinia leaned towards Bronwyn and whispered, “He is such an ill-mannered lout.”

“Isn’t he, though?” Bronwyn responded, starting up the ladder. She shuddered and continued, low, “I hear he’s not even a noble. I don’t know why the king would even knight someone like that.”

As each of them emerged from the hole in the floor, Gwaine was there to extend a hand to help them. Lavinia and Bronwyn looked down their noses at him and gave him a “Hmph!” before stalking out of the storage room into the kitchen. Priscilla gave him a half-smile and a curtsy before scampering after her friends. Wynne made sure the others weren’t watching before smiling broadly at him and saying, “Thank you, SIr Gwaine.”

He rewarded her with another blinding grin and replied, “You’re welcome, lass,” before kissing her hand and winking at her. As he turned to hurry out the door, he leaned towards Berte once more and whispered, “Remember–apple pie!”

Wynne stared after him for a second and sighed contentedly before turning to follow the other ladies. As Berte shut the heavy trap door, she teased, “I suppose you’ll be wanting to bake apple pies for dessert?”

Realizing her feeling for Gwaine were written all over her face, Wynne raised her eyes to Berte’s, not knowing what to say. First Merlin, and now Berte had noticed her love for the hnadsome dark-haired knight. If the other young ladies ofund out–oh, good heavens! If Gwaine found out–she would be mortified. She had to work harder at concealing her feelings.

Berte assigned each of the ladies to one of her assistants for the lunchtime tasks. Lavinia helped with bread and rolls, Bronwyn and Priscilla helped prepare the venison stew, and Wynne helped with desserts. Soon the kitchen bustled with activity as everyone went about their tasks. As she expertly peeled, cored, and chopped apples, Wynne heard Berte givingi nstructions nad offering corrections.

“Really, Bronwyn, you can hold on to the carrots as you chop them. You won’t cut off your fingers if you’re careful.”

“Priscilla, dear, don’t mince the venison. The knights like chunks of meat in their stew.”

“Lavinia, you needn’t punch the dough quite so hard; you’ll make the bread tough.”

When she came over to check on Wynne’s progress, she found the servant standing back watching Wynne work. When Berte gave her a questioning look, she said apologetically, “I’m sorry, mum. She’s so quick and efficient that she needs no help. I’m…learning from her.”

She chuckled warmly and pinched Wynne’s cheek. “That’s my lass. If you weren’t noble-born, you’d be taking my place someday.” Wynne smiled and sighed, almost wishing she could be a cook–or even a court physician–instead of a lady.

When the midday meal finally arrived, Wynne and the other young ladies helped the servants carry the food into the smaller dining hall. Unlike the others, Wynne had truly enjoyed her morning in the kitchens. There were spots on her dress and streaks of flour in her hair, but she didn’t care; she felt she had truly accomplished something, and she grinned from ear to ear as she set the food on the tables.

Wynne and her group ate in the kitchen with the servants, returning to the dining hall every so often to retrieve empty dishes or to refill platters or soup tureens. At last it was time to take the desserts out. In addition to Wynne’s apple pies, there were fruit tarts, pears simmered in cinnamon butter, and rich sugar-frosted cakes. Wynne carried apple pies to the knights’ table and watched Gwaine’s reaction out of the corner of her eye as she set the largest pie right in front of him. His brown eyes widened, and he stopped talking mid-sentence to stare hungrily at the pie. Sir Leon and Sir Elyan on either side of him turned to him in amusement. “Will wonders never cease?” Sir Elyan joked. “I thought nothing existed that would make Gwaine stop talking.”

Sir Leon laughed and replied, “Perhaps we should pack a few pies on our next quest.”

Wynne stifled a giggle and hurried back to the kitchen. She wanted nothing more than to see Gwaine’s expression when he took the first bite, but she didn’t want to be conspicuous. She was so intent on getting back to the kitchen that she didn’t see Berte lean in close to Gwaine and whisper, “Wynne made the apple pies all by herself. Taught my assistant a thing or two as well.”

Gwaine smiled broadly as he took a huge slab of pie and sank his teeth into it. “Mmmmm,” he hummed delightedly as the flavors danced on his tongue. He quickly finished his slice and cut another. Each bite seemed more delicious than the last, and by the time he finished his second slice, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Sir Leon and Sir Elyan, too, had sampled the pie and found it delightful. They joked back and forth that Wynne was certainly not awkward and clumsy in the kitchen.

As Wynne was returning to the dining hall to finish clearing away dishes, the knights were just leaving to return to training. Gwaine sidled up to Wynne and said, “I hear you made the apple pies.” When she nodded breathlessly, he smacked his lips consideringly and continued, “It was…good. Not quite enough sugar, and a bit too much cinnamon.” He winked at her and finished, “If you want to keep practicing your baking skills, I’d be willing to taste your efforts.”

As Gwaine sauntered out of the dining hall, Wynne stared after him, all but devastated, till Sir Leon stopped beside her. “Pay no mind to him, Wynne. He’s just having you on. He all but licked his plate clean after eating half the pie himself.”

Sir Elyan added, “Leave it to Gwaine to find a way to get more apple pie. ‘I’d be willing to taste your efforts.’ What a dollophead!”

They turned to leave the hall, and Wynne’s heart soared as she carried dishes into the kitchens. She would gladly bake him an apple pie every day if it made him happy. Maybe someday she could even sit with him as he enjoyed it.

Crazy, Crazy Dreams

This is a post I wrote awhile back on blogspot. For some reason, I was thinking about this post today and thought I’d go find it and move it here to WordPress.

I had such crazy dreams last night, not sure why or what I might have eaten before bed to spark them, but holy crap, were they weird!

Let’s see, in the first dream I recall, I was on a ghost hunt with one of my Facebook friends.  We were in a place I don’t really recognize in my waking life, although I do have some ideas of the vicinity where this particular building was.  It was supposedly a Weis Markets, but when we got inside, it was a house I had lived in at one point in my childhood (although not in my real life).  We got all the equipment set up and started going through the house to do EVP sessions and such, but I got distracted by all the STUFF that was there, stuff that my parents had either made with their own hands or that others had made for them–furniture, paintings, wood clocks, all kinds of things.  I recognized all these things and wondered why my parents–or even my brothers–had gone away and left them behind.  So instead of ghost hunting, I started carrying all this stuff out of the building and loading it in the car.

At this point, another ghost hunting team came in, this one with TV cameras, and started bossing us around, telling everyone to get out of the way of their cameras.  They apparently saw me carrying things out of the house and called the owner, who came with her two cats Si and Am (yes, like the cats in Lady and the Tramp), except the cats weren’t real; they were mechanical.  The woman seemed to know who I was and said I could take whatever I wanted from the house.

I woke up from this dream very upset, trying to place where it occurred; I finally gathered that the road resembled the Carlisle Pike up past WalMart and heading towards Carlisle.  There are some businesses up that way, as well as some very run-down looking houses, but nothing that resembles what was in my dream.  Still, I feel strongly that that’s where I was.  Why does that matter?  I don’t know.

The second freaky dream happened as I was trying to get back to sleep after my son came over and woke me up.  This time I was in Gettysburg climbing around the rocks at Devil’s Den, something I like to do when we’re down there.  Well, I was in the process of crawling into one of the crevasses, when I noticed that King Arthur was sitting on his throne inside this crevass.  Sir Gawain was there too, ready to go on a quest–his quest was to clean up all the trash around Devil’s Den, which would be quite a feat for anyone.  Well, as he pushed past me, I saw a ghost of a Civil War soldier, who attacked me and did something that made me unable to breathe.  I woke up gasping for breath and sweating.  Yes, I know that was a case of sleep paralysis, but still a bit

The final dream again took place in Gettysburg, and it was based on something a bit odd (at least in my eyes) that had happened once when we were in the downtown area.  I had been on a ghost hunt (seeing a pattern here) with Grant Wilson, Jason Hawes, and Eoin Macken (what the hell was he doing there?), and we were just walking around looking at the shops.  Jason and Grant ended up going one way, and Eoin and I went another.  As he and I walked, I told him about this other odd experience I had had–it had to do with going in to this shop that had nothing but Christmas decorations; there was no one else in the shop while we were there, and although the doors were wide open, there were no store workers anywhere to be found in the whole 15 or so minutes we were there.  For some reason, that whole experience felt surreal and it kind of gave me the creeps.  I have been unable to even find that store anymore.

So we walked past the spot where I thought the store had been, and it wasn’t there; in its place was an herb shop.  We kept walking up the street a bit, and then came back down past the herb shop again–but it wasn’t the herb shop.  Eoin noticed it and said, “Is that the shop you were talking about? I thought that was an herb shop when we went past before.”

I  looked, and sure enough, there stood the Christmas decoration shop, doors again hanging wide open.  We decided to check it out.  Once again, there was no one else in the shop, and there were no store clerks to be found.  Eoin and I looked at each other and both felt creeped out.  We left, and started walking down the street again, just looking at each other.

We met up with Jason and Grant and told them what had happened.  They kind of looked at us like we were crazy, and we all headed back up the street to check it out.  When we got back to the place where the store had been, it was the herb shop once more.  Eoin and I looked at each other again, both freaked out.  Jason and Grant realized that something had to have happened the way our faces had gone white.

We decided to go into the herb shop to check it out.  The herb shop was really crowded, and there was of course a pungent scent of many different herbs.  As we looked around, I realized that my cross necklace had gone missing, and I said something out loud about it.  The store clerk came over to me and asked, “Did you say you lost a necklace?”

When I said I had and described it to her, she went behind the counter and picked up something.  She held up my necklace and asked, “Is this yours?”

I was shocked to realize that it was mine.  I asked where she had found it, and she told me that someone had found it lying on the floor just minutes before.  Very odd, seeing as we had not gone into the herb shop, but only the Christmas shop.

I took the necklace and thanked her, then had to ask, “What ever happened to the Christmas shop that was here?”

The clerk looked at me oddly and said, “There has never been a Christmas shop here that I know of.”

I got an eerie feeling, and we all went outside.  I asked Jason and Grant how that was possible.  Even if there would have been a Christmas shop there at one point, how is it possible for a building to be a ghost?  Buildings aren’t living things; they don’t have souls/spirits, so what was happening?  It obviously wasn’t my imagination since Eoin had seen it too.  They couldn’t tell me what had happened, and even they seemed a bit freaked out by the whole thing.

So those were my crazy dreams.  I guess I don’t have to wonder why I’m so tired today…..

School Spirits, Chapter 31

Spook and I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening strolling through downtown Willow Lake. Our first order of business was to grab a bite to eat since we hadn’t had anything solid since our sticky bun brunch. I kept my promise to Nance and convinced Spook that we should stop at Raymond’s Deli. I was determined to sample that decadent-looking cheesecake, so we split a ham and cheese cosmo, and he also ordered a bowl of hearty minestrone soup. Everything was as delicious as it was the day before, but my mind was on that cheesecake. When I finally had my dessert in front of me, I sat staring at it almost worshipfully before I picked up my fork and dug in. At the first bite, I let out a long, satisfied sigh as I slowly savored it. When I opened my eyes, I noticed Spook with his chin propped on his fist, watching me with amusement. “Are you eating that cheesecake, or making love to it?” he teased. He chuckled as my face grew warm. He picked up his spoon and held it out to my cheesecake. “May I?”

I jokingly snatched it away before wrinkling my nose at him playfully as I slid it back within his reach. He narrowed his eyes at me and gave me a crooked grin as he spooned up a bite. I watched as he took the cheesecake into his mouth. He finished the bite and laid his spoon down before propping his chin on his fist once more. I stared at him, unable to believe his indifference towards this heavenly dessert. Taking another bite, I asked, “Isn’t this to die for?”

Laughing out loud, he sat back, stretched, and replied, “Cheesecake really isn’t my thing, Kyr m’dear. When I eat dessert, I like a big slab of chocolate cake with a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream drowned in caramel sauce.” He leaned forward again, his eyes sparkling warmly, and said, “I’ll just enjoy watching you enjoy your cheesecake.”

I was tempted to eat it quickly because I was self-conscious with him watching me savor every bite, but it seemed wrong to wolf down that rich, creamy slice of heaven, so I ignored him and took my time enjoying it. When I had finished the last bite, I dabbed my mouth with my napkin and sat back, sighing with satisfaction. My eyes met Spook’s, and he grinned mischievously, holding out a pack of cigarettes. “Need a smoke after that?” When I curled my lip and tried to give him a dirty look, he quickly stuffed them in his pocket, giving me an apologetic look. “Sorry, Kyr. I know you don’t like that I smoke. Honest, I’m trying to quit.”

I returned his look sheepishly and replied, “I wasn’t going to say anything. I guess I didn’t have to. I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty.”

He chuckled and reached across to take my hand. “Well, you aren’t the only one,” he said, giving me a crooked smile again. “My parents have been on my case since I started. It was just another bad decision that came after the divorce.” I leaned forward to prop my chin on my fist, wondering if he’d ever give me the details of his failed marriage. He returned my look and read my thoughts. “I’ll tell you about it sometime, Kyr. Right now I want to enjoy our time together without dredging up bad memories from the past.”

After paying the check and leaving the deli, we strolled along the main street. Every so often I pointed out one of the buildings and shared my memories. I showed him where Doc’s Bar had been–“The one you didn’t know was haunted?” he reminded me playfully–and I pointed out Rita Rae’s salon and told him about my experiences living in the studio apartment upstairs. As we looked around, I felt a twinge of the wistfulness that had plagued me when I visited over the summer. I realized that only a few shops that I remembered from my college days were still here; many of the small mom-and-pop shops had either been replaced by big-name chain stores or the buildings just sat vacant, their empty windows emanating sadness and a longing for the past.

Spook sensed my change in mood and slipped his arm around my shoulders. “You suddenly seem less happy than you had been. Too much cheesecake, or is there something on your mind?”

I smiled at his joke, then looked down at the sidewalk for a moment. I didn’t answer right away, wondering once more if he’d think I was being a sentimental fool because of my attachment to this place. When I chanced a glance up at him, I saw sympathetic understanding in his eyes. Sighing, I replied, “You’ll probably think it’s silly, but I was just thinking about the way I remembered the downtown area. It always seemed so alive and had so much…I don’t know…character. Now a lot of those old places are gone, and so many of the buildings are either empty or being torn down…” I didn’t finish my thought. Spook had just commented that he didn’t want to dredge up the bad memories of the past, and now here I was lamenting what I was missing from the past.

Surprisingly, he didn’t laugh at me. “I guess I can understand that,” he said softly. “My hometown is the same way, with a lot of the places we used to hang out going out of business because of the big department stores moving in. I think Katie notices it more than I do.” He pursed his lips as though thinking. He glanced across the street at a vacant building that I recalled as being an ice cream parlor. “Since I’ve pretty much stayed there in my hometown, I see old places closing down and being replaced one at a time, so it doesn’t affect me as much. Then Katie comes home for a visit and comments about how much has changed. In a way it’s sad, but it would be strange if things never changed.”

“I guess so,” I conceded. I chuckled grimly and admitted, “I suppose it bothers me because my college years were some of the happiest of my life. I guess I’d like to think I can just come to Willow Lake and step back in time to those happy days.”

Sensing that my sentimentality was about to give way to sadness, Spook grinned wickedly and joked, “Well, you know, the old blowhard is still in charge at the college. That hasn’t changed.” When I laughed out loud, he pulled me close to kiss the top of my head and continued, “You know, I can think of one thing that has changed for the better, at least for me.”

I turned to look up at him, knowing what he was thinking. I slid my arms around his neck and stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “So can I,” I replied softly.

We crossed the street and headed up to the northern end of the downtown area where I had only gone once or twice. Besides the movie theater on the corner, there hadn’t been much of interest to me in this part of town, but I was feeling adventurous and wanted to explore. We were a block over from the street fair, and we heard the sounds of music and throngs of people and smelled the aromas of the various food vendors. I glanced up at Spook, knowing what he was thinking. Our eyes met briefly, and I smiled at him before we continued along the street.

In the middle of the block, we came upon an ancient-looking shop with faded blue siding and maroon paint peeling off the door and shutters. Beside the door hung a small hand-painted sign that simply read, “Old Books.” Cobwebs hung from the sign and around the door, and the window was devoid of any kind of a display, so I thought the shop must have gone out of business. Still, I noticed an “Open” sign propped in the corner of the window, so I looked up at Spook. He caught my eye and laughed shortly. “I take it they sell old books.” I giggled at his joke and went back to sizing up the building. He looked down at me with a smirk and commented, “Let me guess, this was one of your favorite hangouts?”

I looked at him strangely and replied, “Actually, I never even knew this shop existed.” Granted, I hadn’t come down this block more than a couple times, but I found it odd that a book shop, no matter how small, would have escaped my attention. The only explanations I could come up with were either that the shop hadn’t existed when I was in college or I simply hadn’t noticed it because it was so obscure.

Spook finally nudged me and teased, “Well, bookworm, I know you’re just dying to go inside.” He reached around me to tug the door open and motioned me to go ahead of him.

I slowly ascended the two steps and peeked inside. A musty, old-book smell greeted me, and if Spook hadn’t come in behind me, I might have turned around and left. I stepped inside the dimly-lit shop and was almost overwhelmed by the enormous wooden bookshelves lined up all the way throught the shop. There was hardly enough space between the shelvesfor one person to pass through, and I thanked the heavens I wasn’t claustrophobic. I quickly glanced back at Spook, recalling his dislike of crowds and wondering if he might be uneasy in the small, cramped bookshop. He gave me a tight-lipped smile and jerked his head to indicate that I should go inside and look around.

As I crossed over the threshhold, my eyes drifted to the side. In the front corner of the right wall, just beyond the window, was a small counter with an old-fashioned cash register. A sulky-looking teenage girl with light brown hair pulled up into a messy ponytail sat behind the counter with her pierced nose in a romance novel. Without moving a muscle, she raised her eyes to us as though hoping that if she remained motionless, we wouldn’t see her. I gave her a brief smile and murmured, “Hello,” to which she didn’t respond. I quickly looked away and ducked between the two closest bookshelves and began browsing book titles.

Spook also glanced over and caught the girl’s eye. I assumed she gave him the same don’t-bother-me look, but Spook wasn’t at all intimidated. He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, leaned against the bookshelf and asked, “Do you have any local history books?”

I slid a copy of Quentin Durward back onto the shelf as I heard the girl let out a huff and lay her book down. “Down on the lower floor, all the way in back. Stairs are over there.” I heard her pick up her book again before she leaned forward and called out, “Grandma! Customers coming down!”

She ignored our thank-you’s as we made our way to the stairs on the other side of the shop. As we passed the rows of bookshelves, my eyes were drawn to the hand-lettered signs indicating fiction, non-fiction, textbooks and children’s books. Several times I paused and leaned in to a row, just trying to glimpse a few book titles. For that reason, Spook reached the top of the stairs first and stood looking back at me, an impatient smirk on his face. “Making up for lost time?” he joked before turning and heading down the steps.

The rickety wooden stairs creaked loudly as we descended, and I thought to myself that it had been unnecessary for the girl to call down to her grandmother; the stairs seemed to announce our approach just fine. We reached the bottom of the stairs and found a room that resembled the upstairs shop. Like the upstairs, it was dimly-lit, with only a few bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling between the bookshelves. I was beginning to think the girl’s grandmother wasn’t down here at all when an older woman with short graying hair emerged from between two bookshelves, carrying an armload of books. She started slightly when she saw us and then squinted open-mouthed at us through thick, oversized glasses. “Oh, hello,” she chuckled. “I didn’t know anyone was here.”

“Your granddaughter called down to you when she sent us down,” I explained apologetically, feeling as though we were intruding.

The woman shook her head and chuckled, “I suppose her nose is still buried in that romance novel, so she couldn’t escort you down herself.” I wrinkled my nose and nodded hesitantly. The girl hadn’t been friendly, but she hadn’t been openly rude either, so I didn’t want to get her into trouble. The woman waved her hand and sighed. “I suppose I should be happy she’s reading, but I do wish she’d pick up one of the classics.” Finally remembering she had customers, she asked, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

I glanced over at Spook, and he stepped forward to ask, “Do you have any books on WIllow Lake’s early history? The earlier the better.”

She set her armload of books down next to one of the bookshelves and backtracked a couple rows, beckoning with her finger. “We don’t have many, as you might expect,” she said. “But what we have should be…” She paused with her hand on her lower lip. “…Right here on this shelf.”

Spook and I approached and looked up at the shelf where she was pointing. There were only about half a dozen books that looked promising. Spook smiled down at her as he reached up for the first book in the row. “Thank you for your help. We’ll have a look at what you’ve got.”

“Don’t mention it,” the woman answered, inching past us. “I’ll be a couple rows over if you need anything else.”

When we were alone, I looked up at Spook and asked, “So, what are we looking for…Spencer?”

I giggled as he bopped me on the head with the book. Flipping the book open to the table of contents, he drawled, “Well, Kyrie Skye, isn’t it obvious? I want to see if I can find any mention of Willow Lake’s resident witch.”

Although I doubted we’d find anything in any of these books, I pulled down the next one and began scanning the contents. It took only about fifteen minutes to determine that none of these books held the information we were looking for. As I slid the last book back into its place on the shelf, Spook looked down at me and shrugged. I slipped my arm around his waist and consoled, “It was worth a try.”

He nodded, and we began inching our way out from between the shelves. “It was,” he replied. “I guess I was hoping we’d come across a renegade original copy of Biddlesbacher’s book.”

I said nothing, but nodded as we made our way towards the stairs. As we passed the row where the shop owner was adding books to the shelves, I stuck my head in and said, “Thank you again for your help.”

She looked towards us, again squinting open-mouthed through her thick glasses. Noticing that neither of us had a book in our hands, she asked, disappointed, “You didn’t find what you were looking for?”

I shook my head apologetically. “No, I’m sorry.” I glanced at Spook before continuing. “We’re looking for what I suppose is some obscure information. I’m not sure it’s even recorded in any book.”

The woman gave us a curious look. “What kind of obscure information? I’ve lived here all my life, as did my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. If I don’t know the answer, I might be able to tell you where to find it.”

Spook and I looked at each other. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, thinking this would likely just be another dead end, but Spook jumped right in to ask, “Can you tell us anything about the Willow Lake witch?”

Her eyes widened momentarily, and I sensed that she knew something. For a second I was certain that she wouldn’t tell us anything; if her parents and grandparents had lived in Willow Lake, it was likely she knew something of Mary Bollinger and all the secrecy surrounding her death. She pursed her lips together, thinking, and then said simply, “Come with me.”

She shuffled towards the stairs and began to climb them, her arthritic knees popping every couple steps. We followed her up the stairs and past the counter where her granddaughter was still reading her romance novel. Her eyes moved to look at us, and then snapped to her grandmother as she said, “Carleigh, I’ll be back in the office with these customers if anyone comes in.”

The girl–Carleigh–nodded, and I heard her mutter, “Not like anyone ever comes in here anyway,” before she turned her attention back to her book.

We made our way to a small room in the back of the shop. The woman flipped on the light on her desk and moved a couple crates over for us to sit on. “I apologize for not having proper seats,” she chuckled, sitting down on a folding chair. We waved away her apology, not minding a bit. “So, you’re interested in the Willow Lake witch?” she asked.

Spook and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing, that it wasn’t really the witch we were interested in, but her role in the bell tower haunting. Still, we both nodded hesitantly, and Spook asked, “I guess the real question is, was she actually a witch, or was it all just superstition?”

Her eyes sparkled as she looked at us through those enormous glasses, and she responded, “Well, I guess that depends on who you ask.” I groaned inwardly, thinking once more that this would be another dead end, but then she continued, “I for one think there may have been something to it.”

Unable to contain myself, I sat forward quickly and exclaimed, “Really? Why do you say that?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Spook cross his arms and raise a skeptical eyebrow. I hoped he wouldn’t say anything to discourage the woman’s story.

“Like I said,” the woman began, eyeing Spook and noticing his skeptical attitude. “I grew up here, and my family has been here for generations, so I’ve heard many of the stories that have been passed down, stories you won’t find in those local history books.”

I shot Spook a glance warning him to keep his skeptical comments to himself and asked the woman, “What kind of stories?”

She pulled her chair closer and began, “You know about the settlement just north of town, correct?” When Spook and I nodded, she went on to tell us much the same story that we heard from Mrs. Rutter and her mother, beginning with the pre-Willow Lake settlement and ending with the settlers blaming their misfortunes on the newcomer.

Just as I feared this conversation was going nowhere, Spook leaned forward and argued, “Couldn’t these ‘misfortunes’ have had natural explanations? Crops fail because of weather or poor soil, animals catch sicknesses from other animals, people back then didn’t have adequate medical care. What evidence is there that this ‘witch’ was responsible for any of it?”

I turned quickly to him, raising my eyebrows and frowning to discourage his abrasiveness. He met my eyes steadily and unapologetically before the woman jumped in, “It’s all right, dear. That’s a fair question.” I deliberately turned my attention back to the woman as Spook shot me a superior smirk; she continued, “Of course, it’s possible that you’re right, but the old woman had a reputation as a healer. Having no doctors nearby, the settlers appreciated having a healer within the settlement.” She paused for a moment and shrugged. “Of course, when treatments didn’t work or when other misfortunes began to occur, superstition took over, and she was branded a witch and forced out of the settlement.”

I shook my head, somewhat understanding their suspicions, but also unable to believe they would send an elderly woman away into an unsettled territory by herself. “Where did she go? What did she do?” I finally asked.

Sitting up and motioning over her shoulder, she responded, “Legend has it that she settled where the Willow Lake College campus now stands.” My breath caught for a moment as an icy finger traced its way down my spine. I turned wide-eyed to Spook, who looked back at me with eyebrows raised and mouth agape.

Spook recovered his composure first and asked somewhat shakily, “Okay, so she was a healer who got a bad rap for the settlers’ bad luck. Is that enough to brand her as a witch?” I could see his argument, and I was interested to see how the woman would respond.

She nodded and chuckled as though she had expected that question, and then shook her head. “That was only the tip of the iceberg,” she said, looking squarely at Spook, who had his hand on his chin as though deep in thought. “My grandmother shared stories she had heard from her own mother and grandmother. There was one story where a couple hunters from the settlement were returning from hunting one moonlit night when they passed the witch’s cabin; this was after she had been forced to leave. They claimed to hear her chanting in some strange language, and then they heard another voice coming from the cabin, talking to her. Not knowing of another soul within miles besides her and those in their settlement, they crept over to peer in her window.” She paused, whether for effect or because what followed made her uneasy, I wasn’t sure. Her eyes met Spook’s and then drifted over to mine, and she finished, “What they saw, I don’t know, but they said she was speaking to the devil himself. She saw them peering in the window and pointed at them, yelling. They took off running, and something pursued them. One of them stumbled and was attacked by…something invisible. He got away, but he was seriously injured and died several days later. The other man told his family what they had seen, and soon afterward, they took measures to protect themselves against the witch.”

“The witch bottles,” I said, glancing at Spook. He returned my look grimly and nodded. I could tell that despite his stubborn skepticism, the story had unnerved him somewhat.

She told us a few other stories she had heard, mostly along the lines of passersby hearing her chanting in her cabin or encountering her in the woods. The strangest story she told us dated from a time when other settlers were coming into what would soon be Willow Lake. These new settlers came upon the witch’s cabin as twilight was descending. The door was ajar, and on the table was a lit lantern, small empty bottles, and a few dried herbs. A cast iron pot bubbled on the stove, and on the floor lay a thin book bound with thread. The travelers waited for the cabin’s owner to return and conducted a search, to no avail. “They set up camp close by the cabin, hoping to acquaint themselves with the owners on their return, but come morning, the cabin remained deserted. The witch was never seen again.”

Spook and I were silent for a long moment before Spook asked, “What became of the cabin?”

“Legend has it,” the woman said again. “That as other new settlers came in, some would often attempt to use it for shelter. Apparently, no one was ever able to stay the night.” Spook and I both sat up and gazed at her curiously. “It was said that the witch’s spirit remained, guarding her cabin and waiting.”

Uneasiness crept from my chest and into my throat. In a choked voice, I asked, “Waiting for what?”

She shrugged. “Granny never said what the witch might have been waiting for. Revenge, maybe. Some say she waited for someone to pass her powers to. In any event, one night some of the original settlers set fire to the cabin and burned it to the ground. Things seemed to settle somewhat afterwards, so they thought the witch’s curse was gone.”

I hardly heard the woman’s last words; my mind had grasped something she’d just said. “Someone to pass her powers to…”

Spook laid his hand on my shoulder and asked softly, “Kyr?” When I looked up at him with wild eyes, he wore the same concerned expression I’d seen at Mrs. Rutter’s house when I saw the picture of Professor Childress. “What’s wrong? What are you thinking?”

There was concern on the woman’s face as well, as I replied faintly, “Is that what Professor Childress was trying to do? Trying to access the witch’s power?” Spook’s eyes met the woman’s, and I continued, “It all makes sense–his interest in Willow Lake’s early history, his special projects, Mary in the bell tower with candles and a book…”

The woman gasped. “Mary? Mary Bollinger? Were you with the folks who were investigating Appleton bell tower?” When we nodded sheepishly, she shook her head and continued, “If I’d known that’s why you were asking…” Her eyes lost their squintiness as she looked sharply at both of us. “You folks don’t know what you’re getting into. PRofessor Childress…Mary Bollinger…what happened in the bell tower…there’s a reason those things aren’t written down in the history books. We don’t talk about those things; they need to be allowed to rest…”

Spook sat forward, his eyes blazing. “What people here don’t realize is that those things can’t rest if you keep burying them in secrecy. Mary’s spirit still haunts that bell tower, whether people are talking about it or not. Maybe if people in this town would let the story be told, she could be put to rest.”

Shaking her head almost wildly, the woman replied, “No. There’s too much…it’s too dangerous. The curse…no.” She stood, letting us know the conversation was over.

As the woman ushered us to the door, I noticed that Carleigh had laid down her book and was leaning over the counter, watching her flustered grandmother show us out. As soon as we were out the door, I heard the lock click, and saw the “Open” sign disappear from the window. Spook looked down at me, still obviously aggravated by yet another secret keeper. “Well,” he said through clenched teeth. “At least we got a decent chunk of the story before she caught on to us.”

“I suppose,” I replied as we began walking back towards the heart of town. “But why do I get the feeling that things just got a whole lot more dangerous?”