Bared Magic by Sara R. Cleveland

 

CHAPTER ONE

In which Goldilocks discovers a bed that is "just right."

The cottage was tucked sofar back in the woods that she almost missed it. A cheeky ray of sun dared to pierce the thick canopy, bathing the structure’s thatched roof in a wash of inviting, golden light. In that moment, it seemed a sign from the heavens. Wynne veered off the trail, her feet pounding a mad rhythm as she dove through the underbrush. Her hand was just brushing the handle when the sound of her pursuers came crashing down the narrow forest path. She muttered a prayer and pushed on the door.

To Wynne’s immense surprise, the door swung inward with ease. She darted inside and drove the bolt home. Then she pressed her back to the door and listened. At first, it was hard to hear anything over the pounding of her own heart and ragged breaths. She forced herself to take long, slow pulls of air until some of the tension seeped out of her.

“Think the witch went inside?”

All the tension snapped back into her muscles, and Wynne stiffened against the door. She wondered how much protection the stout oak with its iron hinges and its flimsy latch would truly offer. She held her breath as the door suddenly pressed into her back before rattling back on its hinges.

“Door’s latched,” the same voice said, much quieter this time. Wynne could picture the thug’s cruel leer with its yellowed, crooked teeth. He was missing some, if she remembered correctly. Reminders of more than a few barroom brawls. She could almost imagine his ale-soaked breath on her neck as he added, “And I don’t see no keyhole.”

Wynne’s eyes darted around the room, taking it in for the first time. Some spare amount of sunlight filtered in through the gaps in the shutters, which—she noted with some relief—were latched from the inside. In front of her, to the right, was a round dining table with three stout chairs. Beyond that, in the gloom, she could make out an iron stove and shelving that spoke of cooking and herb work.

The wall to the left featured a quaint hearth of river stones with a roughly hewn mantle. Three stools with tripod legs were scattered about a thick rug before the fireplace. There was what looked like fishing gear piled in one corner while a curio cabinet filled the other.

Directly opposite where Wynne stood was a doorway. A woven tapestry featuring a hunting scene blocked the room beyond from view.

“Go check around back,” the thug’s muffled voice whispered to his companion. “There might be a door.”

Panic flooded Wynne’s veins. She forced herself to move towards the tapestry that hid the back of the house. What if there was another door? What if there were open windows?

The room beyond was as dark as the front, perhaps darker. The shutters here were better fitted to the windows. Wynne waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. Three large shapes that might have been beds were backed up against the far wall, which thankfully did not appear to have a door.

Wynne’s ears tracked the sounds of the other man creeping around the back of the house. He was quieter than the thug who had tried to grab her at the tavern. His image wasn’t as clear in her mind, but Wynne remembered a vague impression of a weasel. When the small noises of his exploration started back around to the front, Wynne crept back to the door to listen.

“No door. Windows are shut tight, too.” His voice was raspy, like he hadn’t had a drink in a week. “Either she’s in there, or the inhabitants are taking a nice nap.”

“You go back there in case she tries to sneak out a window,” her would-be captor ordered. “I’ll break down the door and drag her out.”

“Are you insane?” his companion hissed. “Do you know who this cottage belongs to? They find out we broke in, and you won’t have to worry about what the chit stole because you’ll be worm food in a shallow forest grave.”

If her heart wasn’t already in her throat, Wynne would have choked on it. Who was the owner of this cottage that they could terrify murderous malefactors like these? Was she jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire?

A guttural curse was followed by fading footsteps. Wynne didn’t believe for a second that they were giving up. She crept to a window. The crack between the shutters and the sill was just big enough to peer out. Both men were visible, standing several yards away and conversing quietly. Periodically, one of them would glance up at the cottage. Finally, they separated, each finding a tree and sitting down with his back to it, eyes glued to the cottage.

“Damn.”

The curse escaped with her exhale, and Wynne jerked away from the window. Clearly, they were willing to wait for her or the return of the cottage’s mysterious owners—whichever came strolling into the clearing first.

Wynne crept to the kitchen and examined the contents of the shelves. Perhaps she could learn something about her unwitting benefactors. Maybe she’d get lucky, and the owners of the cottage would forgive her trespassing under the circumstances. It could be that they even had a soft spot for desperate young women. After all, tucked away in the woods like this, the cottage could very well belong to a couple of capable hedge witches. Real hedge witches, the kind with the power to turn those sick bastards outside into frogs.

Nothing on the shelf indicated that anyone more interesting than a talented apothecary was in residence. Ordinary kitchen staples took up most of the space. A bag of flour branded with the mark of the local mill slumped against the wall. Another bag with the same branding proved to be filled with potatoes.

As her terror gave way to curiosity, Wynne noticed a familiar aroma wafting through the whole cottage. Her nose led her to a pot resting on the iron stove. A thick leather mitt lined with quilted fabric sat on the shelf closest to the stove. Wynne slipped it on and lifted the heavy lid from the pot. An initial gust of steam made her recoil, then lean in, breathing deep—venison stew.

Her stomach grumbled.

“In for a penny, in for a pound,” she muttered, setting the lid aside. She whipped off the mitt and turned back to the shelves to see what crockery was available. Three distinct sets of earthenware dishes, each glazed in a different color, sat in a neat row. Each set had a large plate, a bowl, and a mug stacked in that order. A set of cutlery poked out of each mug. Wynne took the bowl and spoon from the stack with a rich forest green glaze.

She took her pilfered meal to the bedroom. Somehow she didn’t think she’d want to be sitting at the table bold as you please eating her unsuspecting hosts’ dinner when they walked in. At least back here, she’d have a chance at hiding the evidence until they agreed to hear her out.

If they agreed to hear her out.

Wynne used one hand to guide her way along the bedroom wall while the other, swaddled in the oven mitt, cradled the piping hot bowl. She felt her way to the furthest bed to the left. It was hard to tell with almost no light, but Wynne thought the bed was a bit wider and longer than a single cot. It was certainly taller. Her hand sunk into the mattress. Featherbed. What an odd luxury to find in a cottage in the middle of the woods.

As soon as she sat down, a strange weariness sank into her like a weight, pinning her in place. Her eyes dropped immediately to half-mast. The bowl in her hands seemed unbearably heavy.

“Maybe I should just…” The thought was cut off by a yawn, and Wynne found herself falling sideways. Her head hit the goose-down pillow at the same time the bowl hit the floor. She should clean that up. She should…

“I can’t wait to crawl into bed and sleep.”

Callum snorted. Brodie would do nothing but sleep if their eldest brother, Alasdair, didn’t threaten to beat the lazy out of him on a near-daily basis. Once, when Alasdair was barely more than a cub, he’d dumped a bucket of ice water on a sleeping Brodie around midwinter. The two of them had almost wrecked Momma’s favorite chair in the ensuing fight.

“You can sleep when the working’s done.” Alasdair strolled into the clearing as if summoned by the very mention of Brodie sleeping. Moisture darkened his tawny hair, and his clothes clung like he’d put them on while his body was still damp. Two nice strings of trout dangled from his meaty fist.

“We’re working while you’re off playing,” Brodie grumbled, plunking another log of deadwood onto the stack he was supposed to be tying up to carry back.

Alasdair raised one bushy golden eyebrow.

“We’re just about done here, Al, don’t worry,” Callum put in. He cinched the knot he was tying for emphasis. He had a nice, healthy bundle of deadwood to take back to the cottage. And if it was a little bigger than Brodie’s? So be it.

The three of them made their way home in companionable silence that was occasionally punctuated by Brodie attempting to goad Alasdair into another sparring match. For a man who was supposedly so exhausted all the time, Brodie was awfully keen on a good brawl.

Callum paid them no mind. It seemed Brodie had been born for the special purpose of annoying Alasdair, and Callum had been born to ignore them.

Oh, but what he wouldn’t give to be able to sleep like Brodie. Callum let himself daydream a bit. Early this morning, before even Alasdair had jumped out of bed, Callum had snuck out of the cottage. An old hedge witch lived a few miles away—nothing Callum couldn’t run in an hour—who specialized in charms. Mostly love charms if the villagers’ rumors were true. Callum didn’t need a love charm, but he did need something that would let him get just one blessed full-night’s rest. The little sachet had cost him a pretty penny, but the old witch had promised it would get him the rest he sought if he but placed it under his pillow before bed. She strongly advised him against looking inside it, however.

He’d stuffed it in the designated hiding place before either of his brothers could see it, his nose twitching from the stink of the witch’s magic. Callum hoped that neither of them would notice the scent and remark upon it. At least not until he’d gotten that night’s rest he’d paid so dearly for. If this insomnia went on much longer, he just might go insane.

Callum nearly collided with Alasdair’s back before he realized his brothers had stopped walking. Both of them were motionless, taut as bowstrings. Callum tensed and sniffed the air cautiously. The heavy scent of male sweat and chewing tobacco hung in the air. There was something else—something more delicate—underneath the acrid aroma, but Callum couldn’t quite tell what it was.

“It seems we have company,” Alasdair growled. He handed the trout to Callum. “I’ll circle around to the west. Brodie, you go east. Callum, you know what to do.”

Man melted into beast, and where the eldest brother had stood, a brown bear sat on its haunches.

“Excellent,” Brodie said, dropping his bundle of firewood. “I love company.”

Even in bear form, Alasdair managed to roll his eyes. Then two bears lumbered off into the forest, leaving Callum alone on the path with the firewood and the fish. He sighed and picked up Brodie’s bundle. It wasn’t far from the cottage, and stars knew when Brodie would come back for it.

Callum trudged the rest of the way to the cottage by himself, still very much a tall human man. This was their usual tactic. One brother would approach the trespassers as a man to determine their purpose. If necessary, back-up would come crashing in with claws swinging. Callum didn’t mind being the bait, but he was starting to think his brothers thought he was a pack mule instead of a werebear.

Two men scrambled to their feet when Callum trudged into the clearing around the cottage. They seemed vaguely familiar, but he didn’t think he knew either of their names. They were just people he passed by when errands forced him into town. Callum walked right past them. Exposing his back was a calculated risk. He dropped the firewood by the front door and hung the stringers of fish from a peg in the wall.

“Can I help you, gentlemen?” he asked, turning back to his uninvited guests.

“We have reason to believe a thief has barricaded herself in your cottage,” the taller man said. He was a big-boned man with bad teeth who liked to keep his scalp shaved to show off his tattoos. And probably to hide a receding hairline, Callum thought uncharitably.

“Is that so?” Callum made a show of folding his arms and studying the cottage for signs of anything amiss. “And what makes you think so?”

“We were tracking her. The trail led us here. The door’s barred from the inside; she’s barricaded herself in your home and probably robbed you blind in the process.”

“Do you make a habit of trying other people’s doors?”

“What?” The big man looked dumbfounded. Apparently, this wasn’t the direction he’d expected the conversation to go. The smaller man glanced nervously at Callum. Then his beady eyes darted away to scan the surrounding woods. Callum took as deep a breath as he could without being obvious and almost gagged. Wereweasel. Well, that simplified things then.

“Go home, weasel. And take your friend with you. My brother’s asleep in the house, and he won’t be amused if we interrupt his nap.”

The big man looked ready to argue, but the wereweasel put a restraining hand on his arm.

“It’s not worth it, Clint,” he muttered, risking a glance at the werebear. Callum graced them with a wide smile, showing off his unusually large canines.

“That’s right, Clint. Go home. Or go chase after your mystery girl, I don’t care. Just do it away from here. My brothers don’t like trespassers. They won’t be as friendly as I am.”

The two shuffled from the clearing and back towards the path. The wereweasel’s eyes still scanned the trees, but the man named Clint kept throwing nasty glares over his shoulder at the cottage. When they were out of sight, a big brown bear ambled out of the woods. Callum could tell from its size and the golden-brown of its fur that it was Alasdair. The bear stopped at his side, eyes trained on the path the strangers had taken. It stood up on its hind legs. In a blink, Alasdair stood in its place.

“Brodie is following them to make sure they head into town and don’t circle back.”

“Did you catch all of that?”

“Enough. So we have a third visitor, eh?”

“So it would seem.” Callum turned back to the cottage, studying the door. “I told you we should have gotten one of those fancy new locks.”

“So one of you idiots can lose the key in the forest? No thanks.”

The door was indeed bolted from the inside. Callum pushed against it half-heartedly before stepping back to eye the hinges critically. It wouldn’t have taken much for those two to break down the door. It must have been the wereweasel’s fear of reprisal that kept the louts out. He raised his fist.

“What are you doing?” Alasdair asked. Amusement colored the question.

“Hoping our guest will see sense and unbolt the door. I’d rather not have to replace it if I don’t have to.”

Callum gave the door several sharp raps with his knuckles.

“Hello in there!” he called. “It seems you’ve mistaken our home for yours. Think you could let us in? I’d hate to break this door down.”

Both brothers paused, ears pricked for even the slightest sound that would indicate movement.

Nothing. Callum knocked again, hard enough to make the door shake.

“Hey, you really don’t want us coming in there angry. Open up.”

Alasdair laughed.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy, Baby Bear. Step aside.”

Callum rolled his eyes but got out of the way. He’d been body-slammed by Alasdair enough times to know he pitied the door. Alasdair backed away to get a running start, charging the door with his shoulder forward. The flimsy hinges and lock caved, and the door popped open beneath the big man’s weight to hang crookedly inside the cottage.

Which was empty.

“Think they went out a back window?”

Alasdair shrugged. “Not many places to hide in here.”

Callum breathed in the familiar scents of home. The venison stew they’d left simmering on the stove dominated the room, but he could pick up notes of drying herbs, fish guts on Alasdair’s tackle in the corner, and the distinct musk of bear. Yet, there was something new in the bouquet. Something almost floral and very, very feminine.

“Well, there was definitely a woman here. I can smell her.”

Alasdair took a deep whiff and nodded. He gestured towards the doorway opposite them. Bedroom?

They followed their noses. It was odd, but the smell of stew got stronger. Each stood on either side of the bedroom door. Alasdair pressed a finger to his lips, then held up three fingers. He slowly put one finger down at a time in a silent countdown. When he got to zero, he ripped the tapestry from its tacks. Sunlight from the open front door brought some illumination to the room.

The first thing Callum noticed was his bowl lying on the floor in a puddle of congealed stew. Its rim was chipped, and a new crack ran down its side. The second thing he noticed was a decidedly feminine hand dangling from the edge of his bed.

The light wasn’t great, but Callum didn’t need much to know she was beautiful. Hair like summer sunshine was spread out over his favorite pillow. Freckles danced across the sun-kissed skin of her nose. Callum had the mad urge to kiss every one of them. He wondered what color her eyes were. Blue, perhaps? Whatever they were, it didn’t matter. She was stunning. She was snoring.

She was snoring.

A low moan of regret escaped him before he could stop it. The woman had used up his sleeping charm. Three practically identical beds in the room, and the fool woman had to choose the one that belonged to him.

Alasdair poked her cheek with one blunt finger. Her brow furrowed a bit, but she didn’t otherwise stir.

“Amazing. She sleeps harder than Brodie.”

Callum sighed and reached under the pillow. He opened his hand to reveal the sachet to his brother.

“She doesn’t have a choice. She’s going to be zonked for at least eight hours. I bought this off Old Fiona this morning.” He scratched his head sheepishly. “I knew you wouldn’t approve, but… I just had to get some decent sleep.”