Sudden Guests Can Really Just Throw off Your Whole Day
“You could rest.”
“I just got up three hours ago.”
“I didn’t say sleep.”
“I could sleep.”
“Or you could rest.”
James gave Ron a look. “I’ll be fine. I’m just sick of spellbooks.”
“Are witches allowed to be sick of spellbooks?”
“I can do what I want. I’m a rebel.” James sighed, put his heavy book on the table. “I can’t find anything in here that’s going to help with the roots.”
Ron nodded. James had been trying to find a way to put the forest around the house back to normal for the last little while. That wall of tree roots was a bit imposing. “What’s the problem? It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard.” If James could kill the chokevine with a snap and bring it back with a touch, it shouldn’t be that big a deal to shrink some crazy trees.
“It is,” James said, rubbing his eyes. “Growth only works one way. It’s extremely difficult to encourage plants to shrink without hurting them, and I don’t know how to do it for something that big. I might have to ask Grandma for help.”
Obviously James was planning on doing this without killing the trees, which Ron figured was fair enough, since they were his friends. “Let me know if I can do anything.”
James nodded. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” he said.
Ron was sweeping. “Eventually the floor will be clean.”
A chuckle. “I meant being there. That’s all I…” James trailed off, looking up at the window with hand raised as if to strike something.
“Something out there?” Ron asked, going still.
James nodded. “Get dressed. I’m not sure what it is. Someone’s about to teleport in.”
Ron dropped the broom, headed for the bedroom quickly with James behind him. “How do you know they’re about to teleport in? Did they knock?”
It was at times like these that Ron remembered he didn’t know how magic worked at all. He felt light on his feet, and not in a good way.
“No. Someone is divining us, and I can feel a push behind it. It means they’re trying to find the door so they can open it.” James smiled. “Sorry, I know that doesn’t make sense.”
“No, I get it,” Ron said, stepping into his pants as quickly as he could. “You’re good at dumbing it down for me.”
James made a face as he changed into his coat. “That’s not it. It’s not about smart and dumb, just what words you use to explain it. Listen, if they’re going to attack us, they’re going to use magic. Let me handle it.”
Ron took a breath. He didn’t like that. “Okay.” He couldn’t fight a magic practitioner and he knew it. “Do you think it’s an attack?”
“I don’t know. But I know whoever’s coming in isn’t a witch, which means it’s not somebody I know.”
Ron nodded, and the two of them finished dressing. Sweat was beaded on James’s head. “Are you worried?”
“No, I’m just keeping them out until we’re ready is all,” James gave a smile. “I’ll let them in now.” He made a gesture, and though Ron didn’t hear or see anything, James frowned. “Oops.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” he said, heading out to the main room and for the front door, to grab his staff and Ron’s sword, which he handed off.
“They ended up in the river. They’ve got bad aim.”
Ron chuckled. “Let’s hope they’re not too mad.”
James nodded, and held the door open for Ron.
They went outside, and headed for the garden. There were two people on the bank of the river, climbing out. The water that seemed to be everywhere suggested that maybe whichever of them was the magic-user—maybe both were—had been surprised by the wet landing.
There were two of them, a dark, southern guy about Ron’s age helping a younger boy out of the water. He was dressed in black and grey leather, a sword in a nice scabbard belted at his hip. The boy was in fancy velvets in crossing patterns, dark blue and red. He was cursing. “Probably did that on purpose. I’m going to fucking…”
“Sam,” the older guy said, looking up at James and Ron, who’d come to a halt about ten paces from them.
“Watch out,” Ron told them, watching as the younger boy straightened, took a calming breath. He was looking at the ground. “That plant there will trap you if you’re not careful.”
The guy in black looked down at Charlie the chokevine and took a step to their left, gently urging the boy, Sam, that way as well, towards the ficklebushes.
James was looking right at Sam, which Ron guessed answered the question of which of them had the magic. “This isn’t how I’m used to receiving visitors.”
Sam had a skin tone a bit darker than James’s, a pointed face and longish hair that hung in his eyes, which Ron saw now weren’t focused on anything. He was slight and the way his wet clothes hung to him made him seem more so, but he was broad-shouldered and long-legged in a way that made Ron assume he’d be tall when he was done growing. He was quiet for a minute before answering, and his friend gave him a subtle squeeze on the arm. “No doubt. Are you Joceyln’s son?”
James blinked, and went still in a very noticeable way. “Yes. Who are you?”
Sam smiled. “My father was friends with your mother.”
“Solomon,” James said quietly. “You’re Solomon’s son.” Ron put his hand on his sword, noticed Sam’s friend do the same. James didn’t stop him.
“That’s right. I want to talk to you. I think we have some things in common.” Sam was standing very still as well, Ron noticed, but his fingers were twitching a little.
James watched him for a minute, then looked at Ron, obviously thinking hard. “Okay,” he finally said. “You look cold. Why don’t you come inside and we can have some tea to warm you up.”
It wasn’t a question, and he turned and headed for the house without letting Sam answer. Ron followed him, and Sam and his friend, after a second of whispering, followed. “What’s going on?” Ron asked quietly.
“I’m not sure. But he’s not here to attack or he would have already.” James bit his lip. “I’m going to ask you to stay out here while I talk to him.”
“James, no.” Ron shook his head.
James nodded, though. “I don’t want him near you. And you can keep his bodyguard there under control while we talk. It’ll be fine, he’s not going to hurt me.”
Ron would have protested, but James made that last line into a promise, so he nodded. “Okay. But yell if you need me.”
“I will,” James promised. “He has a sword too, maybe you two can bond over that.”
“You mean I can make sure we know which of us is a better fighter?” Ron asked.
“That too.” They got to the door and James smiled at Sam, opening it. “Come on in. Ron, why don’t you stay out here with Sam’s friend and show him around?”
“Sure,” Ron said, nodding as if they hadn’t already decided that. Appearances mattered, after all.
“It’s fine, Henry,” Sam said, waving his friend into silence. He put a hand on the doorframe and stepped carefully into the house. James followed him in and, with a smile at Ron, shut the door.
It was quiet for a second out here, a stillness coming between Ron and Henry, and Ron took that moment of stillness to get a good look at Henry, try and get a read on him. He was a strong-looking guy, muscular in a way that looked built to Ron. His clothes looked too tight and though he wasn’t moving at the moment, he gave off the impression that he could be. His sword was too long for him. He was looking worried as he watched the door.
“James isn’t going to hurt him,” Ron promised, giving a reassuring smile. “If he wanted to, you’d know by now.” He hooked his thumb at the wall of tree roots.
“He did that?” Henry asked, eyeing them. He had a southern accent too, thicker than Ron had heard before.
“Last time he wanted to hurt someone. I’m Ron.”
“Henry. I’m not worried about Sam getting hurt.”
He probably should be. “You’re worried that he’ll hurt someone?”
Henry was quiet, and when it was clear he had no plans to answer, Ron shrugged. “Want me to give you a tour? Though you’ve already seen most of it. The garden is there, and there’s some grass and stuff over here. Lots of trees.”
Henry snorted a bit. “It’s a nice place.”
“Yeah,” Ron agreed, heading over for the lawn, Henry following.
“Just you guys out here?”
“In this house, yes. Except when James’s faery friend stays over. James’s family is around,” he said vaguely, waving his hand at the forest. Not his fault if Henry decided to assume there were more than four of them. Though if he and Sam knew James’s mother, they might already know that. “And there are some centaurs and goblins and what have you in the forest.”
“But no other people?” Henry asked.
“No other humans,” Ron corrected. “Where did you two magic in from?” Henry was a southerner through and through, and Sam had some of the colouring and the eye shape that one of his parents must have been, but if they could teleport, they could be from anywhere.
“We, uh…live on the Fury Plateau,” Henry said, sounding unsure.
Ron nodded. So he’d been right. Actually, that was just south of the forest here, though a good distance and with a big lake and some mountains in between if he wasn’t mistaken. “That was on my list of places to visit when I was younger,” he said, conversational.
“I wouldn’t,” Henry muttered.
That was unusual for someone from there. “I probably won’t, now. I left home to see the big world, got as far as James’s place and stopped.” He smiled.
Henry looked at him for a second. “Me too,” he admitted. “My big adventure stopped when I met Sam.”
“Funny how that happens, huh?” Ron asked, stretching. “You love him, right?” It was kind of obvious.
But Henry made an affronted face, shaking his head. “What? No, God. Sam’s…” He stopped himself from whatever he’d been about to say. He sounded almost disgusted.
“Sorry,” Ron said, surprised. “I just thought…well, it doesn’t matter. My bad.” Henry had been so careful in the way he touched Sam, had been so worried about leaving him alone.
“It’s fine, I get it. But I…I work for him. That’s all.”
That was a lie if Ron had ever heard one. “Work for him doing what?”
“Same stuff you do working for James, probably.”
“I do a lot of gardening,” Ron joked.
That got a smile out of Henry. “Maybe not the exact same stuff.”
Henry was uncomfortable talking about this, Ron could tell. And that was strange, and it had Ron wondering. He’d obviously misinterpreted some of their earlier signals, and he wondered what exactly they meant now. If they weren’t together, it must be something else.
“You want to spar?” Ron asked him, gesturing at the field of grass. The training dummy was there, but Ron ignored it. “I don’t know about you, but I never get any real people to practice with out here.”
Henry gave half a smile. “Sure. Go easy on me, I’m a bit out of practice.”
Ron nodded, drew his sword. “I don’t have any practice swords, unfortunately. We’ll just have to be careful.”
“I know a thing or two about being careful,” Henry said, looking over Ron’s shoulder. “What’s that?”
Ron glanced, saw his training dummy getting up, moving to the side. He blinked at it. “My usual partner. Must be moving out of our way.” He hadn’t known it would do that.
“Where you’d get an anatomically correct training partner?” Henry asked, apparently amused. “Or at least, anatomically correct to the shoulder.”
“Long story,” Ron muttered, readying his stance and pretending not to blush. At least Henry didn’t know that was his dick on full anatomically correct display. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” Henry drew his blade as well, moving his legs apart. “Let’s go.”
Henry was good, probably a little better than Ron, if Ron was honest with himself. But he wasn’t wrong about being out of practice, or at least that was how it seemed. His reaction time was a bit slow, and every now and then he’d overcorrect by a mile to avoid a lunge, but he moved better than Ron did, for the most part. Ron chalked part of it up to the fact that he was unused to fighting in clothes and was finding his movement more restricted than he’d expected. He’d have to do something about that. Henry was also left-handed, which put Ron at a disadvantage.
But Ron didn’t want to make excuses. Henry was good, and that was that.
They didn’t get to spar for very long. After just a few minutes, they broke apart, panting. “You’re good,” Ron told him.
“Thanks. I was well trained. So are you.”
“Thanks.” Ron had only just warmed up, which he suspected was true of Henry as well. But behind Henry, the door to the house clicked open and Sam stepped out, James following him. “Henry,” Sam called.
The way Henry stiffened, quickly composing himself before turning, got Ron’s attention. “Here,” he answered, starting over there.
“Okay. Nice to meet you,” Henry said to Ron.
“You too. Henry.”
Ron lowered his voice, eyes on Sam now. “Is he hurting you?”
Something unreadable crossed Henry’s face. He shook his head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re afraid of him.” Ron was sure of that now. That was what all the other signals he’d been getting had meant.
Henry got a stern look on his face. “I wouldn’t still be with him if I was, Ron.”
“You’re a bad liar.”
And Henry walked over to Sam, putting his hand on Sam’s arm. “You got what you needed?”
“Yeah, let’s just go.” Sam sounded irritable, and he pulled Henry away from the house, hand moving rapidly.
“Nice to meet you, Sam.” James said, staff in his hand. “Come back sometime.”
Sam elected not to answer. He waved, and there was a twist in the air and he and Henry were gone.
James watched the spot where they’d disappeared as Ron came over to stand beside him. Then he took a breath, held his staff up and slammed the butt of it into the ground. Ron felt a ripple move through everything. “What was that?”
“A new ward. I never want that to happen again.” James sounded tired. Tired and worried.
“What happened? Did he try to hurt you?”
“Yes, but he changed his mind. He wanted something from me. I gave it to him, though I don’t think he realized it.”
“What did he want?”
“Help. The stone that his father had is bound to him, and he’s scared of it. I don’t blame him. His father’s dead, and it sounds like a lot of his allies are pressing on Sam to get him to do what they want.”
“I assume that would be bad,” Ron said, following James into the house.
“Yes, I assume so. But my impression of Sam is that it would be just as bad to let him do whatever he wants.”
“He’s hurting Henry.”
“He told you that?”
“No. He just is.”
James nodded, setting his staff haphazardly against the wall. “Get me the focus.”
“Sure.” Ron got on a stool, got it down and put it on the table.
James didn’t waste any time. “Grandma,” he said into it.
Not a second later, the reflective surface of the copper plate was replaced with James’s grandmother’s living room. “James. Unusual for you to call me. Can I guess it has something to do with your visitor?”
Ron didn’t even waste time wondering how she’d known. She probably knew everything.
“Solomon’s son,” James told her. “The late Solomon.”
“Ah. Oh, dear.”
“Yeah. I’m calling a Coven meeting.”
Ron felt his eyebrows creep up and his stomach drop. Obviously this was even more serious than Ron had realized if James was going that far immediately.
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Josephine was clearly surprised through the focus. “Very well. I’ll contact the members and set up…”
“I’ll contact them, don’t worry about that,” James said, smiling at her. “I’m just warning you. I have to give two weeks’ notice, is that right?”
“Ten days. We shortened it after the Endwan fiasco.”
James nodded. “I’ll see you in ten days, then. Sorry to spring this on you.”
“It’s fine, James. I’m glad to see you taking a proactive role.”
James smiled, glancing at Ron. “Ignoring my problems has never done anything but make them worse. I have to call the Coven.”
“I shall see you soon, then. Sometime it would be nice if you visited without bringing the entire Coven with you,” Josephine said, in a chiding tone.
“I’ll stay for a few days after the meeting. Love you.”
“I love you too, dear.”
James waved a hand over the focus and it went back to reflecting the kitchen ceiling. He took a breath. “God,” he whispered. “What am I doing? Cameron.”
Just as quickly as Josephine, Cameron’s aged face came into view. “James, this is a surprise,” she said, sounding entirely unsurprised.
“I know, I know. I’m calling an emergency Coven meeting in ten days.”
James didn’t sound panicked or worried or even upset, but Ron was slowly getting to all of those things. All of this was extremely out of character.
“My goodness,” Cameron arched an eyebrow expertly. “Who died?”
A frown. “And where did you hear that?” She actually sounded like she hadn’t known that.
“From his son. I’ll explain at the meeting. I have to call the others.”
“Very well. I shall see you in ten days, James.”
James nodded, but Cameron was already gone from the focus. He sighed. “That was the easy one. The rest are going to want answers.”
“I will at the meeting,” James said, looking up and smiling at Ron. He put his hand over Ron’s on the table. “It’s okay. Everything’s fine.”
“You’re not acting like everything’s fine.” Ron couldn’t keep the worry off his face or out of his voice.
James nodded, squeezing Ron’s hand now. “It’s important, but the world’s not ending or anything. I have to tell the Coven about Solomon, and that Sam has that stone bound to him.”
Ron gave James a look. “You could write them a letter. What’s this really about?”
James smiled, reached up and pulled a flower petal out of Ron’s hair. “I can’t keep anything from you, can I? I’m worried someone on the Coven was working with Solomon and my mom. Something Sam said to me. Suspicion is dangerous, so I want to find out either way. A meeting is the fastest way to do that.”
“Okay.” Ron nodded. The prospect that someone on the Coven was secretly evil seemed like it occasioned a little more concern to Ron, but James seemed to be on top of it. “What can I do to help?”
“The same thing you always do,” James said, giving Ron a kiss. “Just be here for me.”
“Then we’ll be fine. I have to call Cassiopeia.”
Ron nodded, moved his hand so he could grip James’s in it. “I’ll stay here until you’re done.”
“Thank you, Ron.” James gave him a pure smile. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d do fine.”
It was only a few seconds before she appeared on the plate. “James, this is unlike you. Can I assume the world is ending?”
James gave Ron a side-smile and a hand squeeze. “Not yet.”