Book Three in the Alchemy of a Witch is now out!
You can grab your copy here: Enjoy the Prologue below, and at the end there's even a free first chapter!
PROLOGUE (PRIORESS MARGUERITE)
The Prioress Marguerite—Marge to her dearest and oldest friends--was known far and wide as a woman of wisdom; the wisest of all women, it was said, nearly on par with a man. One only had to look into her iron-blue eyes--crisscrossed by a web of fine crinkles--to glimpse the depth of her experience and knowledge. Yet, few sought out her wisdom, preferring to keep a safe distance from the prioress, as one would a hearth, spewing off hot embers. Marguerite favored their cool distance as well, as it allowed her time alone with her thoughts--a rare luxury in a priory so busy and large.
Marguerite was old. How old, she did not know. The only record of her birth was kept by the elder women of her former village, long dead now. With them went the entire oral history of her land and people. The prioress was one of the few remaining links to that rich treasure of knowledge--kept alive not through words, but through pen and parchment and secrecy. Mostly secrecy. It was ironic, she thought, that in order to preserve the truth, one often had to hide it. These days were dark, certainly, but she held comfort knowing there were others out there who still kept the ‘old-ways’, and the light of knowledge burning. Though for how much longer, she had no guess, wise as she was.
It was only at night that she allowed herself to remember—remember who she was and how she’d gotten here. And those she’d left behind. Days were reserved for prayers and chores and the endless ringing of bells, announcing this or that; but at night, while the others slept, Marguerite sometimes slipped into her private garden and simply remembered. It was a rare luxury, but one she relished whenever she could manage it.
It was the eve of the next scheduled arrival of pilgrims, just after the witching hour, when she found herself pulled towards the garden again. A wave of nostalgia took hold--a sense of an impending ending to this chapter of her story, and the beginning of a new one. Sitting cross-legged on a pad of green grass, Marguerite stared at her reflection in the crystalline pool in the center of her garden, her peacock, Phil, with its bright plumage, posturing behind her.
When did I get so old? She wondered.
The moonlight softened her image, but didn’t entirely blur her silver hair or the strong lines etched in her face. It seemed only yesterday that her hair was the color of sunshine, her skin like summer peaches, and her body strong enough to challenge her siblings to a race, or a handsome boy to a dance.
Sighing, the prioress sat up straight and laced her hands over her folded legs, burrowing her bare ankles down into the grass. Her siblings were dead now, and she hadn’t danced with a man since early womanhood, but she felt as connected to that phase of her life as she did to this current one. Maybe more. She was authentic then, not playing a part in a play without an end.
There was a stillness in the garden not found anywhere else on the priory grounds, even during those holy days when the nuns took vows of silence. The utter peace of her private garden could make one almost believe there was no plague ravaging the land, or women being burned for superstition, for faith, or political favor.
A lily pad floated across the glass pond, languidly making its way to the other side. “No hurry,” Marguerite whispered. For what would the pad do once it reached the other side? Stay there and stagnate? Float back and repeat the lesson? Or, perhaps, finally, yield an inevitable surrender to the depths of the pool?
Marguerite looked towards the fading moon, noticing the bright dot of light beyond it. It wasn’t a star that created such a spectacle, but the conjoining of two planets. She blinked, almost disbelieving. She knew from lore that a conjunction of this magnitude was rare, not seen in centuries. When it appeared, the conjunction heralded big events--and great change. It was said this ‘star’ appeared just before The Great Deluge destroyed the lands. Did this foreshadow more change? Or was it just an acknowledgment of changes that had already transpired?
“Marge…” A nervous hand tapped the back of her shoulder.
“Yes, Sister Joy?” Marguerite asked calmly, turning at her friend’s voice. Sister Joy rarely came into the garden unsummoned—claiming it was haunted. She wore a troubled look.
“We received a rather long message from Lady Avaliene’s pigeon,” Sister Joy began, twitching her thumbs.
"Lady Avaliene?” Marguerite sighed, unlacing her hands. “What does she want now?”
“Her Nobleness requests roast pig for supper.”
“She might as well request a castle,” Marguerite said. “Unless The Lady is bringing one herself?”
“I don’t think so.”
“No pig, no problem. Anything else?”
“She doesn’t like sleeping in the stables.” Sister Joy added through clenched teeth.
“But she doesn’t want to sleep with the nuns either, as I recall.”
“She claims the nuns' snore. She requested that she sleep in your cottage. Alone.”
“She said it’s God’s work…“
Marguerite’s left eye ticked. “Sister Joy, this isn’t about Lady Avaliene’s comfort or ‘the Lord’s’ work,” the prioress said, feeling her cheeks flush as she stood. “This is about The Lady’s status—the only thing that woman truly cares about. She wishes to oust me from my cottage to demonstrate her status above me. Put her in the stables. And if she doesn’t like it, she can sleep outdoors, with her soldiers.”
“Yes, Marguerite,” Sister Joy said, her back bowed and her thumbs still twiddling.
"Sister Joy, I have known you my entire life, and you only use my full name when you disapprove. I know you don’t wish to cross The Lady, so I shall make it easy on you.” Marguerite wrapped an arm about her friend’s shoulder, as Phil nestled in close, too. “Tell Avaliene that I have prayed on it, and it is important she set an example of humility for her followers. And if the stables get too smelly or uncomfortable, she must cling to her faith, like she does to her cross.”
“You want me to write all that on a pigeon note?” Sister Joy asked, wringing her hands.
“No. You can speak to her in person when she arrives. Offer her a bottle of our wine as you tell her. We must demonstrate that, while our working arrangement is gracious, this is still our priory.”
“As you wish,” Sister Joy said, scuttling off along a path lined with flowers, counting out her prayer beads as she disappeared.
Once her friend left, Marguerite breathed deeply, letting her annoyance with Avaliene fall away. It took several moments and a crushed willow leaf under the tongue to ease her throbbing temples, but soon she felt rebalanced. Something would have to be done about Avaliene, however, who was beginning to look at Morning Bell Priory as her own private holding. Her requests were becoming more brazen, bordering on outlandish. Even so, some bargains had been struck, in order for Marguerite to complete her work.
She strolled through the garden, followed by her peacock, making observations of every vine, hedge, flower, and tree along the way—as if seeing them for the first and the last time. The collection was no small feat, requiring much effort and numerous enquiries, cured from all around the world.
As she wandered, the sound of busy nuns beginning their morning chores began filtering in; though to the untrained ear, the women were silent as worms as they worked. But Marguerite’s ears were quite trained, and she heard the muffled footsteps as the nuns made their way into the fields, then, the thrashing of wheat and the feeding of pigs and other livestock. And their songs—there were always songs, even this early, most of them full of longing. The nuns were especially busy this early morning, as they prepared for the pilgrim’s arrival sometime later that day.
“Stay here, Phil,” she said to her peacock, who seemed content to peck red berries from a tall hedge. Ducking beneath an arcing tree branch, she came to her sacred space--an area not even Sister Joy dared to enter, an area Marguerite had cultivated and arranged it herself. It was a clandestine spot where her ancestors and the saints both spoke to her, though it wouldn’t stay hidden much longer if she didn’t work fast.
“Hello, little tree,” she said, passing through the small grove and mirroring pool, which guarded the young sapling and the fruit it bore. The small pomegranate tree briefly glowed at her greeting, bending towards her as if to be petted.
“You look well, too,” the prioress cooed back, tickling the underside of a thin branch. Then, Marguerite carefully inspected the small tree, looking for signs of rot or blight. A small black spot on a leaf caught her attention, and Marguerite waved her hand over it, blessing it away. Good as new, she thought. For now.
She paced before the tree, cupping the cross on her neck in her palm. “I’ve been feeling something in the air,” she said. “A feeling of change. I believe it has to do with the group arriving today. Let us pray it does not pertain to Lady Avaliene and her terrible requests. Though I can heal your blight, she is wearing me down, and I cannot cure my own.” The prioress looked at the spots on the back of her hand, sure that several weren’t there before The Lady imposed herself on Marguerite’s world.
The prioress crouched, stirring the mirroring pool with her index finger three times forward, three times back. The tiny colorful fish in the water scattered and the pomegranate tree bowed further, as the image of a pair of bare feet came into focus—women’s feet.
With moon runes on her heels.
It can’t be!
Marguerite attempted to discern the words inscribed on the runes, but the image dispersed too quickly. It was nearly as rare as a planetary conjunction for a child to be born with full moon runes on both heels, and only a fated few survived long, once they were discovered. There were no witch’s marks so damning, and none more accurate. Surely, this couldn’t be Avaliene’s feet?
She heard the word ‘no’ clearly, as if Sister Joy were standing right behind her. Clearing her mind, she allowed the whispers of Saints and Ancestors alike to come to her—A Daughter--a Daughter of Anum Lee—coming here?
But The Daughters of Anum Lee had all died out, hadn’t they? Fallen away to myth as other legends had. How had one remained hidden so long? Was she coming here as a captive? No—Jaffrey would never allow one of this bloodline out of his sight, even for a night. They were far too valuable. He either did not know she existed or did not know her whereabouts.
This new circumstance exacerbated matters, and Marguerite pursed her lips, deep in thought. All she wanted for the priory was peace—but a Daughter of Anum Lee most certainly didn’t herald peace—but rather an upheaval.
Rising from the pool, she patted the tree, promising to return soon. She hurried to the iron gate, passing her hand along the lock rather than using her key. It clicked open. Normally she was more careful with her gifts, but if one of Anum Lee was making her way here, every moment was precious.
“Good morning, Sister Katelyn,” Marguerite said, greeting a young nun watering flowers just outside the gate. Katelynn was a new initiate, whose wealthy father had sent her to the priory in hopes of heavenly favor for himself and his sons.
“Good morning, Prioress,” Katelyn said bowing her head. “It looks to be a nice day for the visitors--a day for miracles.” “Indeed,” Marguerite answered curtly. She despised small talk, and Katelyn would learn that soon enough. “Good day.”
Marguerite continued, following the circular lanes leading to her cottage at the back of the priory, nodding to the other nuns along the way. “Wonderful job,” she observed aloud, as they pruned and picked and prayed over the fruits that made Morning Bell Priory wine famous across the land.
Entering her cozy stone home, she locked the door three times behind her. One of her cats meowed a sleepy greeting before collapsing back into its nap. Marguerite scurried to a short bookcase at the back of the room where the hymnals were kept. Pushing deliberately against the spine of one book that had long since fallen out of favor, while simultaneously leaning against the bookcase, she managed to slide it open, revealing a low secret door.
“It’s been a while,” she said, lighting a small torch from the hearth. The prioress stepped through the low doorway, inhaling the familiar scent of parchment, dust, mold, and knowledge as the door slid closed behind her. The stubby corridor proceeded down an earthen ramp, opening to a cavernous room built by an unknown hand long ago, now filled with books, scrolls, and tablets from all over the known, and unknown parts of the world.
She had very little first-hand knowledge of The Daughters of Anum Lee, beyond the few things she’d read, and the old legends her elders once told: a group of magickal women had escaped a sunken land at the end of The Great Deluge. Most had offspring, which carried on their bloodline, diluted over the years until their moon runes were practically invisible. The return of a full Daughter meant something—but was it good, or ominous?
“Prophecies… prophecies… moon runes and prophecies...”Marguerite cast her lamp about the columns of titles, moving past books on fae folk and forgotten gods and secret societies. Every writing held its own energy--some were dark and beckoning, others light and promising. But she sought one in particular— one regarding the descendants of Anum Lee and the breaking of the world.
Where are you?
Tuning in, she felt its pull and followed the energy to a high shelf with books so old most had rotted through. It was a thin, cracked scroll, stuffed into a cracked clay jar, so brittle Marguerite feared touching it. She gingerly pulled it from the pot, laying it flat on a table filled with ink wells and maps, careful not to further agitate its crumbling edges. Holding her candlelight over the scroll, she squinted to read the nearly indecipherable words.
Marguerite felt a chill in her bones when she finished her reading. The scroll said that the arrival of a Daughter heralded a ‘bridge between worlds’—and ‘the destruction of time.’ Who was this woman and why had she come now? The prioress had to meet this woman herself, and determine what course of action to take. Prophecies were meant for only one thing--as a warning. A knock at the door startled Marguerite, and she tipped her candle, dropping a bit of wax on the scroll.
“Hello? Marge? You there?” Sister Joy called down the ramp. Marguerite hastily returned the scroll to its spot and scrambled back to the door. “Yes, Sister Joy?” she asked as she reentered her room, pushing the bookcase back into place and smoothing her robe.
“I have dreadful news,” Sister Joy said. “Hellhounds have been spotted in the woods! Hellhounds! After all these years. It is true then, isn’t it? We are in the days of a Great Trial? Darkness comes. What shall we do?” Marguerite went to one of her windows, peeking through the curtains. “Darkness has been coming for a long time, Joy,” Marguerite said, watching two ragged women being marched into the Supply House, where they would be pricked for witch’s marks later that morning. She looked at her lifelong friend. “We do what we have done since the beginning,” she answered, twisting a gold ring on her finger. “We make deals, for the greater good.” Get Alchemy of a Witch--Part Three here! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FZTGZ3C Download Alchemy of a Witch--Part One FREE here! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08BY5T4P4