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Authors: Shirley Damsgaard

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The Seventh Witch

BOOK: The Seventh Witch
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Shirley Damsgaard
The Seventh Witch

An Ophelia and Abby Mystery

In memory of Rosey Harrison Damsgaard and
William C. Damsgaard, from your grateful daughter

Contents

Prologue

The clock on the top of the rough hewn dresser…

One

The mountain sang to me and I heard its song…

Two

Abby and I crossed the kitchen like two little kids…

Three

Abby and I trudged back to the small bedroom we…

Four

The shaking finally stopped. My hand didn’t even tremble as…

Five

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. The cousins seemed…

Six

“Would you look at this mess?” I exclaimed, grabbing one…

Seven

The next morning after breakfast dishes were finished, I stole…

Eight

I forced myself to relax and enjoy the afternoon. Abby…

Nine

The drive back to the house began in silence. I…

Ten

Abruptly, strong arms grabbed me from behind and hauled me…

Eleven

Snakes under the bed, runes that didn’t work, rival witches,…

Twelve

News of Oscar’s death spread quickly throughout the valley, and…

Thirteen

For the rest of the day my conversation with Great-Aunt…

Fourteen

“This is weird,” I mumbled to myself in my sleep.

Fifteen

While Tink ran for help, I stayed with Dad and…

Sixteen

My shield held, but the weight of whatever lurked in…

Seventeen

I clung to my resolution to let the past stay…

Eighteen

On the way back to the house I stopped at…

Nineteen

I was still sitting on the bed when Lydia rushed…

Twenty

“I don’t believe it,” I cried, shooting to my feet.

Twenty-One

Our little council of war reached a stalemate. It had…

Twenty-Two

The rider placed both feet on the ground, his long…

Twenty-Three

When I entered the house, I was relieved to see…

Twenty-Four

After settling Abby and Lydia at a nearby café and…

Twenty-Five

The next morning, once I was reassured that Abby had…

Twenty-Six

Disheartened, I made a move to leave. “It was nice…

Twenty-Seven

As I neared the house, I caught Lydia coming out…

Twenty-Eight

I turned sideways in my seat. “How did you know?”…

Twenty-Nine

Once I’d gotten past the way Cousin Elsie looked and…

Thirty

Staring out the window, I thought over all the things…

Thirty-One

As we scrambled behind the nearest tree, the adrenaline rushed…

Thirty-Two

After we went over the documents with Mr. Robinson, the four…

Thirty-Three

Dappled moonlight covered the forest floor as we made our…

Thirty-Four

Ethan and I parted at the edge of the trees,…

Thirty-Five

“You’re kidding me,” I exclaimed. “You don’t think I’m capable.”

Thirty-Six

Dressed in white cowled robes borrowed from Lydia, our little…

Thirty-Seven

I thought the pain in my heart would kill me.

Thirty-Eight

Two days later I walked into Ethan’s hospital room to…

 

The clock on the top of the rough hewn dresser ticked away the final moments of the old woman’s life. It had been a long life—a life full of struggle and loss. But she’d be joining the one who’d died so many years ago, leaving her alone to raise three rowdy boys. Even though she’d brought them up to be tough and mean, only one of those boys had survived the wild ways of their youth. He now sat, surrounded by kin, in the corner of the small bedroom. With his head down, he studied the shadows cast by the kerosene lamps across the planked floor.

Would he be finally free, free from the old woman’s control once she crossed to whatever reward waited for her on the other side? No. It was his curse and his punishment to spend his life under a woman’s thumb. Next it would be the one who waited to take his mother’s place as head of the family—his niece, the daughter his mother never bore, his mother’s heir. She shared the way of the mountains with her grandmother. She understood things he could barely comprehend. Resentment snuck through his thoughts. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right to always bow to a woman—he’d been forced to do it for over sixty years. He could try and wrest the power from her, but like everyone else, he’d grown to fear
her
as much as he did his mother.

The sudden whisper of cotton dresses and the muted sound
of heavy work boots sliding across the bedroom floor made him raise his head. His niece strode into the room with easy, confident steps. Her straight brown hair framed her thin face while her dark eyes burned into those gathered around the bed. With heads down, they all backed away from the bed, leaving his niece as the only one at his mother’s side.

She knelt and lifted his mother’s frail hand from beneath the homemade quilt. Wrinkled eyelids flew open and eyes hard as stones searched the younger woman’s face. Fingers twisted with arthritis grasped her hand with a strength that belied the spirit slowly oozing from the old woman’s body.

“Do you see it?” croaked the ancient voice.

“Yes.” The younger woman’s eyes burned hotter as she gripped her grandmother’s hand. “What do you want me to do—tell me and it’s done.”

“Revenge,” gasped the old woman.

“Granny, the death price was paid over fifty years ago.”

The white frizzled head, lying on the down pillow, moved back and forth in a slow pattern. “Not enough…more.” A tear leaked from the corner of the old woman’s eye. “So much lost…husband…sons…power that should’ve been ours.”

“I know, Granny, I know,” his niece replied, her voice low and soothing.

“I failed,” the old woman wheezed as her thin chest rose and fell in her struggle to draw air. “Protect you…I had to protect you.” Her hand gripped the younger woman’s. “Your legacy…”

“Hush, Granny.” The younger woman stroked her grandmother’s gnarled hand. “I
won’t
fail…I promise.” The dim light reflected in her eyes, turning them black, and the shadow of her kneeling body seemed to grow as if the spirit fleeing the old woman’s invaded hers. “They’ll pay…” Her voice trailed away while the ticking of the clock filled the room. “They’ll pay with blood.”

At his niece’s words, his mother’s eyes drifted shut. One last breath and her chest stilled forever.

His niece stood, placed a soft kiss on his mother’s wrinkled cheek, and quietly crossed the room to the dresser. Taking a shawl, she draped it across the old wavy mirror hanging on the wall. Then she opened the glass door of the clock and stopped the swinging pendulum. A heavy silence suddenly fell upon the room. She turned, and with one last look at the quiet form lying in the double bed, she marched out the door.

The mountain sang to me and I heard its song with my heart. Each sound—the early morning birdsong, the stream rushing over stones as it hurried down the mountain, the whisper of the wind through the pines—reverberated deep in my soul.

Standing on the outcrop of rock and looking out over the valley, I watched the sun streak the clouds with gold, pink, and lavender while the morning mists swathed the rolling peaks in blue. Below me, clusters of houses littered the valley once owned by my many times great-grandfather, Jens Swensen and his wife, Flora Chisholm Swensen. The houses all belonged to various cousins who could trace their line-age back to Jens and Flora. I easily spotted the red tin roof of Abby’s childhood home gleaming in the early morning light. A thin plume of smoke rose from the fieldstone chimney, and even at this distance, I could smell the faint tang of wood smoke in the fall air. A smile tugged at my lips as I imagined my elderly Aunt Dot bustling around the kitchen, in her cotton housedress, her blue hair frizzed around her head, firing up the old woodstove to prepare breakfast.

After arriving so late last night, I’d been reluctant when Abby first suggested we hike up the mountain at this ungodly hour, but now I was glad we had. I felt peace, a sense of belonging, standing here as the first rays of sunlight warmed
my chilled face. Hugging myself, I closed my eyes and let the knot that had been firmly lodged in my stomach since we left Iowa dissolve.

It wasn’t that I didn’t
want
to come to North Carolina for Great-Aunt Mary’s 100th birthday, but the idea of spending an extended amount of time in her presence made me ill at ease. The woman was spooky. Her pale blue eyes had the habit of focusing on a spot right behind you, and it made the back of my neck prickle. I had to fight the desire to whip my head around and take a look. But I knew if I did, all
I
would see would be empty air. Great-Aunt Mary is a medium, and I’m not. I’m just a psychic with a talent for finding things, not seeing spectral images. With Great-Aunt Mary, I could never shake the feeling that at any moment a ghostly hand might suddenly reach out and grab me. The whole thing gave me the heebie-jeebies.

I opened my eyes and scanned the houses below. My parents were staying in the house with the gray roof. The image of my mother sleeping peacefully beneath a hand-stitched quilt made the knot start to form again. I loved my mother, I truly did, but Margaret Mary McDonald Jensen was a woman who’d never had a question she was afraid to ask. To call her assertive was a gross understatement. And since I’d adopted Tink, she’d become an expert on child rearing. Forget that she only raised one child. It appeared she was reading every book ever written about the care and feeding of teenagers and could quote them chapter and verse, which she did, often. I’d already received several doses of her advice via the telephone, and I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like being one on one with her during this visit.

A light touch on my arm interrupted my thoughts. I turned to see Abby watching me with a bemused smile on her face. Dressed in an old flannel shirt and jeans, her silver hair was still braided from the night before and draped over her shoulder in a thick coil. Green eyes sparkled as her smile widened.

“Don’t worry so about your mother, dear. She’s simply trying to help,” she said in a voice that gently carried the rhythm of the valley.

Rolling my eyes, I exhaled slowly. “Read my mind, did you?”

She lifted one shoulder in a careless shrug. “It was hard not to,” she said. “You were thinking so loud that I couldn’t tune you out.”

“Peachy,” I replied with a snort. “Since most of the cousins have some kind of talent, is everyone going to be eavesdropping on my thoughts the entire visit?”

Abby chuckled. “That depends on you. They won’t poke around in your head uninvited, but when someone’s feelings are so close to the surface as yours are now, it’s hard not to pick up on them. It’s going to be up to you to keep your mind shielded.”

“Great…well at least the gift passed over Mother.”

She chuckled again. “Don’t sell your mother short. She might not be psychic, but she’s intuitive, and she can read you like a book.”

Not what I wanted to hear
. I kicked a small stone and sent it tumbling down the mountain. It bounced and clattered through the bushes, startling a bird resting there. His indignant cry of “Drink your teee” rang out over the valley.

“A towhee,” Abby said with a wistful smile. “I haven’t heard one of those for years.”

Her eyes took on a faraway look.

“See that road that winds up the next mountain?” she asked, pointing to the distant slope. “It brought your grandfather to this valley. He came to do the surveying for the road.” She waved a hand at a spot just below us. “Those bushes, where the towhee’s hiding…they’re wild blackberries. Every summer, my mother and I would hike up here and fill our baskets.” Her smile deepened. “She made the best blackberry jam.”

Just look at her, I thought. This visit is important to her, so quit it. Forget about spooky Great-Aunt Mary, your
overbearing mother, and being surrounded by psychic cousins. Enjoy this visit, and enjoy spending time with her and Tink.

Throwing an arm around her shoulder, I gave her a quick squeeze. “Thanks for bringing me here, Abby.”

“This was my special place,” she said, leaning against me. “I always felt like the queen of the world, standing here looking down on the valley. It seemed like nothing bad could happen here,” she murmured as memories seemed to roll over her, “not like—” She abruptly stopped.

I cocked my head and glanced over at her. “Huh?”

Straightening, she moved a step away from me. “Never mind.” She turned and her green eyes narrowed. “I brought you up here for a reason…I have a few things that I need to discuss with you.”

“Like what?”

“I think it’s time you took my journals.”

“What?” I exclaimed, taken completely off guard by her statement. “Why do I need your journals?”

A slight frown puckered Abby’s forehead. “You know they’re always passed down to the next generation. It’s been done that way for over a hundred years.” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “And each new witch has added her magick to them.”

“Sure, but why give them to me now? You’re still writing your journals, aren’t you?”

“Yes, and you need to start yours. If you had the journals that were passed on to me when Mother died, you’d have more of an opportunity to study what others have written. They might inspire you to begin telling your story.”

I thought about the leather-bound notebook Abby had recently given me. I
had
started writing in it—I’d written about the day only a couple of months ago when the old Ophelia had been stripped away. Old fears, old doubts, had been torched as fire seemed to tear through my soul. It had been scary, yet exhilarating, and for the first time in my life I finally felt at peace with who and what I was. I had finally
started to embrace my gift instead of fighting against it.
But
I didn’t want to be responsible for the journals.

Abby sensed my reluctance and shrugged. “You’re supposed to have them…you might as well take them now.” She paused. “And while we’re on the subject, there are other things that have been in the family—my mother’s mortar and pestle; my grandmother’s cast-iron kettle; a bag of crystals that once belonged to Flora—I want to make sure you have those someday, too.”

“Why are you bringing this up now?”

“I don’t want them to leave the family. They’re possessions we’ve had for years,” she said softly, “and they carry with them the energy of all those who’ve gone before…the hopes, the dreams…it’s fitting that they should be yours, and after you, Tink’s.”

A tickle of fear shivered up my spine. “Abby, is there something you’re not telling me?”

“No,” she replied as a shadow of a smile played across her face. “It’s just…we never talk about these things, and—”

“I don’t like talking about this,” I jumped in, cutting her off. “It makes it sound like you’re not going to be around.”

“Oh, my dear girl,” she said, lifting a hand and tucking a stray strand of my brown hair behind my ear, “I’m not going to be here forever, and I worry about you…you’ve had such a hard time accepting your gift—”

“I’ve accepted it,” I said, interrupting her again.

“I know, but you still have a lot to learn. The journals will help.”

I shifted nervously. “Okay, so I’ll take the journals, but why bring up the mortar and pestle, the cauldron?”

A shutter seemed to fall across Abby’s eyes. “No reason.” She turned her head away from me and stared out over the valley. “Returning to the mountain has caused a lot of memories to surface. I remember when my mother gave the journals to me and the talk we had. She passed a mantle on to me. Time’s approaching for me to do the same.”

As Abby talked, I studied her profile. When had those crow’s-feet around her eyes deepened? And in the growing morning light, her hair seemed more white than silver. A realization hit me—Abby was getting older, just like everyone else.
No,
my mind screamed, refusing to accept what was before my eyes,
Abby’s timeless
.

“I don’t want any mantles. I still have a lot to learn, and I need you to teach me,” I insisted.

“Ophelia,” she said in a stern, strong voice, “don’t let your fears blind you to the natural progression of life.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “I don’t care,” I said, knowing I sounded like a petulant child. “I don’t want to talk about this now.”

She sighed. “All right.” Looking at me, she smiled. “We’ll discuss it when we’re back home.” Tucking her arm through mine, she steered me back toward the path leading down the mountain. “Let’s go help Aunt Dot with breakfast.”

As I fell into step beside her, I felt the rightness of it all—me and Abby together—that was the way it should be, and that was the way I intended it to stay.

 

The aroma of fried ham and fresh coffee hit me as soon as we crossed the porch of the old farmhouse. The two fat, tabby cats lazing on the windowsills smelled it, too. As soon as they saw us, they jumped down from their perches, followed us to the door, and waited hopefully for it to open. What a couple of mooches, I thought, smiling down at them.

Much to the cats’ dismay, I stopped at the door and saw Aunt Dot standing at the stove just as I’d imagined her, cooking. I watched as she grabbed a pot holder and used it to grasp the battered enamel coffeepot. With a sure hand that belied her ninety-one years, she poured a bit of its contents into the cast-iron skillet, stirring and scraping the pan as she did.

“Red-eye gravy,” Abby whispered to me.

Hmm, ham drippings mixed with coffee. That should be an interesting taste combination.

Abby once again read my mind and gave me a poke in the ribs. “Shh, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It’s good. You can either pour it over a slice of ham or on your grits.”

Grits? Another Southern dish I hadn’t tried. Ground corn boiled until it reached the consistency of wallpaper paste. Yum, I thought sarcastically. I didn’t know if I wanted to try them, either, but not eating what was served would be rude. I didn’t want the Southern cousins to think I was some kind of uppity Yankee. I’d eat what was placed on the table and at least pretend to be thankful for it.

Tink stood next to Aunt Dot, chattering away as she slathered sweet-cream butter on a mound of toasted bread.

“How many different kinds of fairies are there, Aunt Dot?” she asked.

Fairies and Aunt Dot…go figure. I still doubted their existence in spite of Aunt Dot’s insistence.

Abby made a move to open the screen door, but I stopped her. I wanted to listen in—one of my less attractive habits—on their conversation. I cocked my head.

“Ack, there are many, many different sort. And fairies are just like people—some are kind and helpful, but others want nothing to do with humans. You’re wise to stay away from those.” She paused to move the skillet to the back of the stove. “Some live in the hills, in caves; some live in trees.”

Tink turned toward Aunt Dot and leaned against the counter. “Why haven’t I ever seen one?” she exclaimed.

’Cause you’re too young to drink elderberry wine, I snickered to myself, answering Tink’s question. Aunt Dot’s sightings always seemed to occur after she’d drank some of the lethal elderberry wine that she and Great-Aunt Mary bottled up every year. The one with the secret recipe containing moonshine. It was just another reason that I wasn’t totally convinced that fairies existed.

Oh yeah, sure…I
had
seen those lights that seemed to follow Tink around on a midsummer’s night, but they
could’ve
been really big lightning bugs.

Aunt Dot faced Tink and, raising her hand, laid it gen
tly on the top of Tink’s blond head, as if in a benediction. “Don’t fret, Titania,” she said, using Tink’s real name. “Your mother had a reason for naming you after the Queen of the Fairies. You’ll meet them when it’s time.” A smile brightened her wrinkled face. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll see our Nisse this visit.”

I shot a questioning glance at Abby.

“Scandinavian house fairy,” she whispered. “He protects the homestead.”

“I didn’t last time,” Tink grumbled, “and I sat up all night waiting. I even had a bowl of grits with butter and brown sugar for him.”

“The bowl was empty the next morning, wasn’t it?” Aunt Dot asked.

“Yes,” Tink answered reluctantly.

Aunt Dot chuckled. “Ack, he’s a clever one, our Nisse. He waited until you dozed off before gobbling it down, but don’t worry, child. He’ll remember your kindness.” She picked up the platter of ham and made her way to the table. “If you two are done eavesdropping,” she called out in a loud voice, “breakfast is ready.”

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