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Chapter 1: Legacy of the Witch

--Kirsten Weiss


Of all the life-ruining mistakes I’d ever made, being late was not going to be one of them.


I double checked the campus map. My advisor’s office should have been directly ahead of me. Instead, there was a wide swathe of grass dotted with crimson leaves and way-too-young students.


At least they seemed too young to me. They had to be too young, because the alternative was that at forty-seven, I was too old. Too old to start over. Too old to rid myself of my growing collection of ghosts. Too old to get a degree. Too old to use that degree as a springboard for my dream business and dream life and dream whatever the hell I was doing.


But I couldn’t think that way. I had to have hope or I’d be stuck in the purgatory of widowhood.


I crumpled the campus map in my gloved hand. What was I doing? Everything was shifting—inside and out, above and below, and—


“You lost?” A man who could have been in his twenties grinned, attempting a covert up and down glance. At least I still warranted the occasional masculine appraisal.


“I’m trying to find the Heritage Building,” I said. And I hated being late. My usual timeliness came from the Penn German in me, though I’d never lived in Pennsylvania before now.


He pulled a phone from the rear pocket of his ripped jeans, tapped the screen. The man nodded past a maple, its remaining leaves splashes of fire. “It’s thataway.”


I grimaced. “Thanks.” Duh. I could have used my phone to find the building. But I’d grown up on paper, not screens. “You’re a lifesaver.” Stomach churning, I trotted across the damp lawn.

“Any time,” he called after me, and I gave him a wave without looking back.


I’d only been on campus a few days in the last year—quick flights in and out. Most of my folk art program was online. Until now. Today would be my first in-person meeting with my thesis advisor.


Ghosts of disappointments trailing behind me, I jogged across the pavement to the three-story brick building dotted with cupolas and white-painted eaves. I pushed open a door and hurried inside the high-ceilinged foyer, its pointed arches adorned with elaborate wood carvings.


The campus wasn’t as grand as the bigger colleges and far from Ivy League. But Babylon College was up and coming. More importantly, it had the degree I wanted in the area I wanted to be.


Though it hadn’t come cheap, it didn’t come with an Ivy League price tag either. Still, at the thought of the expense, guilt tangled with my anxiety, and suddenly, I found it hard to breathe. The life insurance had been there to get my life back on track after—


“It was supposed to be an investment,” my husband whispered. “A safety net.”


My throat tightened. I shook my head, trying to dislodge the echo of David’s voice. The past was past, and this was present, and present wasn’t the time for ghosts. If I didn’t focus, I’d be late for my future.


Office 302. Third floor. I glanced at a cluster of students waiting outside an elevator. Jogging past them, I climbed the wide, wooden stairs.


I huffed down a hallway, my low heels click-clacking on the linoleum. How late was I? I skidded to a halt in front of room 302. A brass nameplate glittered on the door:


DR. EZEKIAL STOLTZFUS


The air molecules in the hallway compressed, my ghosts squeezing closer. My father, skeptical. My mother, curious. My husband, sardonic. Not for the first time, I wished I could see rather than just sense them. If I could see them, I’d know they were real.


Forcing myself to breathe, I reached for the door.


It opened before I could touch the knob. An auburn-haired woman in a navy jacket looked back over her shoulder. “Nonetheless, if you think of anything—” She plowed into me, and we stumbled apart.


“Whoops,” she said and laughed. “Sorry. You okay?”


She was a little shorter than me—maybe five-seven. Her hair was darker than my true, pale red. And of course she was younger, somewhere in her late thirties. A professor? Another not-too-young student?


“No harm done.” I straightened the front of my forest-green blazer.


A man with thick, dark hair streaked with gold loomed over her shoulder. “April?” he asked. He wore a navy suit with faint, gold pinstripes, his white shirt open at the collar.


I nodded, and he broke into a grin. He had a lovely, even smile, the outside corners of his brown sugar eyes crinkling, and my stupid heart jumped. “You’re right on time,” he said. “Come in.”


The woman sidled past me.


I was definitely not right on time, but I wasn’t going to argue the point. “Thanks for seeing me, Dr. Stoltzfus.” I walked into the office.


“We’re too old for titles. Call me Zeke.”


My mouth pinched. I wasn’t that old, and my advisor couldn’t be over fifty. But Zeke was less of a mouthful than Stoltzfus.


He shut the door behind us and motioned toward a cluttered wooden desk. “Have a seat.”

Bookshelves lined the walls. Spider plants lounged on a windowsill overlooking the lawn I’d just raced across. Behind the glass, students scurried, heads bent, across the thick grass.


I pulled back a rolling chair and sat, tugging off my gloves.


My advisor walked around his desk and dropped into the executive chair opposite. He gusted a breath and motioned toward the closed door. “Sorry about that. It was another of those witches.”


I blinked. Ah, what? Had the college’s folklore program expanded to witchcraft? “Witches?”


He pulled a tie from the pocket of his suit jacket and dropped it beside a stack of papers marked in angry red ink. “You’ll come across a share of them in your research. Braucherei is hot in the witchcraft world these days. American witches are looking for western magic so they can’t be accused of cultural appropriation.”


My gaze clouded. “You mean... powwow?” It was old Pennsylvania Dutch faith healing. Silly stuff, superstition. I was surprised the practice still existed.


“There’s some controversy over that name,” he said. “Not that the Penn Dutch care. They’re in their own world. But the pagan community and the academics do.”


I glanced back toward the closed door. “And she was a witch?” I asked, twisting the gloves in my lap.


“Has her own online mystery school, if you can believe it,” he said cheerfully. “But let’s talk about your thesis proposal.” His brown eyes grew serious, and his chin lowered. “Tell me the truth. Why are you really studying Pennsylvania Dutch folk art?”


I froze in my chair. Dammit. He knew. How did he learn about my plans? I’d only told a few friends, and they were far from Pennsylvania. I cleared my throat.


“Why?” I repeated stupidly.


“Yes,” he said patiently and flashed that Hollywood smile again. “Why?”


I hesitated. I couldn’t tell him the truth, that I wanted to start a business selling modernized versions of Penn Dutch décor. He’d think I wasn’t serious about my masters.


Though I hadn’t been a student long, I already knew the drill. Real researchers were doing the research for its own sake, not for crass commercial purposes. Women like me, women who wanted a degree to bolster their credentials after decades with no work history, were unserious.


I pasted on a smile in return. “My parents were Penn Dutch. They moved to California before I was born, but we spoke Penn Dutch in the home—”


“Right, I remember reading that you spoke it. That’s a real advantage in this work. Aside from me, there aren’t many people on campus who speak the language.”


“It’s been super useful,” I said dryly, and he chuckled. Only 300,000 people spoke the language, a High German mashup. Penn Dutch was a dying tongue. At the thought, an ache pinched my chest. There wasn’t much I could do about it, but I hated to see the old culture vanish.


I cleared my throat. “Anyway,” I continued, “I love painting—”


“Most folk artists do.”


I shifted in my chair, its wheels squeaking on the linoleum. Artist. The word sounded pretentious—at least when applied to me. “I think of myself more as a craftsperson. Anyway, I fell in love with the primitive style, with the folk art, but I wanted to make it my own.”


“The mark of a true artist.”


My face warmed. Flattery will get you everywhere. “But I realized if I was going to make it my own, I needed to first master the original forms. Which is why I’m getting this degree.”

It wasn’t a lie. I did want to know more, to be better. There was always so much to learn.


“Those are all good reasons,” Zeke said. “Maybe that explains your proposal.”


The office darkened, a cloud passing before the sun. In the window, the spider plant’s green stripes seemed to fade.


I glanced down at the gloves in my lap. “What do you mean?” I’d thought my proposal explained itself. After all, it was a proposal.


“What you’re proposing to research is old ground, I’m afraid. You’re going to need to find something new.”


Oh come on. I mustered a smile. “But... it’s folk art. It’s history. It’s all old ground.”


“Then find a new angle on it. Maybe look at how other local artists are re-interpreting the folk art.”


My stomach plunged. I didn’t want to study modern artists. I didn’t want their work to influence mine. Worse, what if a technique or idea lodged in my subconscious, and later I came to believe it was mine?


Zeke cocked his head. “Actually, that witch may have done you a favor. Apparently, someone’s been putting up odd hex signs in the woods.” He chuckled. “It’s causing a minor panic. It’s probably just a prank, but who knows? Why don’t you look into it? It’s folk art. It’s new. It’s interesting.”


I relaxed. Hex signs. I hadn’t planned on selling them, since they mainly went on barns and my shop would focus on interior decor. Hex signs could work. “I’ll look into it.”


“Not that you have to do hex signs,” my advisor said quickly. “It’s just a suggestion.”


“No, no,” I said. “It’s a good one. I’ll check it out.” Though I was a little annoyed I’d have to. I’d liked my old proposal.


“Unfortunately,” Zeke said, “the only hex sign manufacturer, Zook, went out of business during COVID. But there’s a local farmer who’s painting hex signs in the modern style. You might want to chat with him...” He scrolled through his phone. “Here’s his contact info. What’s your cell number?”


I recited it to him. A moment later, a contact pinged into my texts.


“There you go.” He rose. “I hear you got one of the king’s cottages?"


“The what?”


His smile broadened. “Mr. King, our local philanthropist. I heard you got a scholarship to stay in one of his cottages. I hope you got one close to campus.”


“Not exactly. I’m up in Mt. Gretel.” It was about a thirty-minute drive—reasonable given the low rent.


“Oh.” His voice lowered as he drew out the word. “They stuck you in the haunted forest.”


Haunted? I shifted in my chair, and my gloves whispered to the linoleum floor. I bent to retrieve them. “The what—?”


He lifted a well-manicured hand. “No, it’s not really haunted. It just seems that way off-season. Mt. Gretel’s lovely, if a little lonely this time of year.”


Far off or not, I was lucky I’d got the cottage. Mr. King had made them available to only a few grad students. And the woods were gorgeous in October, when the leaves were turning.


We said our goodbyes, and I made my way back to my Honda. Hex signs.


The colorful round signs actually had nothing to do with hexes or witchcraft. A guy who’d written tourist books in the 1920s had gotten confused, saying the signs were used to ward off curses and bad luck. Later, enterprising folk artists had realized that the supernatural sells and had run with the idea.


Scowling, I pulled onto the highway. New ground. Why did it always have to be new ground in academia? Why couldn’t I just prove I knew my stuff and move on?


The highway narrowed, gold and crimson and tangerine branches blocking out the weak sunlight as I rose higher into the hills. My Honda crested a ridge, and the highway sloped downward.


My grip loosened on the wheel, and I rolled my head. A few droplets of rain splattered my windshield.


I stopped at a supermarket for supplies then continued on to Mt. Gretel. Haunted. I snorted. If the tourists were too dumb to come to Mt. Gretel in the fall, that was their problem. The resort village was gorgeous any time of year.


I drove past 19th century Gothic Revival and Queen Anne cottages. Thick fall foliage partially hid the homes’ faded pastels. Slowing, I passed in front of an old yellow meeting house and turned onto a narrow road.


I spotted the squat driveway to my temporary home, Cornflower Cottage. Painted a soft blue, the cottage was built into the hillside, with parking at the mid-level. Beside the porch steps was the stack of fallen branches I’d cleaned up after yesterday’s storm.


I’d have to figure out what to do with them. They were too wet for firewood.


I stepped into the cheerful entryway, my hobbit-door keychain swinging in the lock. Extracting it, I kicked off my shoes, and walked toward the open kitchen with my paper bags.


Something brushed against my ankle, and I yelped, lurching away at the touch. A black cat hopped onto the wooden dining table in front of the stone fireplace. Unblinking, she gazed at me, her eyes golden.


My pulse steadied, and I laughed unevenly. “Who do you belong to?” I set my bags on the nearby kitchen counter. The room was open plan, the high, gray granite counter dividing the kitchen from the front entry and dining area.


The cat yawned, displaying razor teeth. It was an appropriate response to an inane question.


“Well, you don’t belong to me.” I moved to pick her up. The cat deftly evaded my grasp, hopped from the table to the rag rug, and scampered out the open door.


I shrugged. The cat probably belonged to a neighbor. Though she hadn’t worn a collar, she had looked too sleek to be a stray.


“Okay then.” I closed the door behind her and unloaded the bags, filling the modern fridge.

Though Cornflower Cottage was historic, it had a modern kitchen and baths. I climbed the stairs, careful to duck before I hit my head on the low overhang. Some wag had taped a handwritten reminder on it that simply read:


OUCH.


The second to highest step groaned theatrically at my weight. I walked down the narrow hall to my cramped bedroom. Its floors bowed, angling downward toward the four walls.

I dropped onto the bed, and the mattress squeaked a protest. A cat. I flexed my foot. Maybe a cat was what I needed.


I hadn’t had a pet since I’d married David. He’d said we moved around too much to be fair to an animal, and he’d been right. He was always right. It had been about as annoying as you’d expect.


I switched from professional clothes to jogging gear. I’d followed David on his jobs across Europe and Asia. Wherever we’d gone, there’d been two consistencies in our lives: The Lord of the Rings, and my jogging.


Alas, a shared love of Tolkien had not been a solid foundation for a marriage, and David had hated exercise. He’d claimed it wore the body out sooner. I hated running too, but I’d kept it up to be contrary. Stop thinking about David.


I locked the cottage when I left, though there seemed little point. My advisor, Zeke, had been right. The village was mostly deserted, the windows dark in the cottages I passed. Haunted. The oaks shivered in a sudden gust, their dying leaves fluttering to the pressed stone.


I consulted my trail map, then folded it into my jacket pocket. Jogging down the leafy road, I cut down another lined with pines and found my way to the King Railway Trail.


According to the tourist brochures, my patron, Mr. W. King, had been the driving force behind turning a disused railway track into a hiking trail. The track was now gone, replaced by a pavement and pressed stone trail that ran from Babylon to Mt. Gretel.


I liked the idea of the trail. I liked the hopefulness behind it, of taking something disused and turning it into something new and beautiful and loved.


At the trailhead, grasping branches arched above the sign. Curtains of spiderwebs hung from the bushes and rippled eerily. Insects—prey—hummed in the thick bracken. Resolutely, I pulled my thoughts from Tolkien’s dark forest and its giant spiders, and I checked the map again.


Start Here➤


Jamming the map into the side pocket of my thick leggings, I started off. My running shoes drummed a heavy beat on the pressed stone dotted with damp, yellow leaves.


David, David, David. My heart heavied. He didn’t like how I was spending his life insurance money. Though his opinion now shouldn’t matter. David was gone. And though he’d never really approved of my interests, somehow, it still did matter.


Through the oaks, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of a distant cottage. A shudder of droplets plopped from sodden leaves to the ground. I glanced between the snare of branches at the mercury sky and hoped any serious rain would hold off.


I didn’t pass anyone. The trail was as deserted as the village, and the muscles between my shoulders loosened. I put on more speed, driving out thoughts of the past, the future, my thesis, my imaginary business.


A creek chattered, invisible, in the woods. It could have been ten feet away or a hundred. It was impossible to tell from my vantage on the trail.


I rounded a bend. A low ring of stone, about ten feet in diameter, stood beside the trail. I slowed, curious. The circular structure was too big to be an old well.


Panting, I walked toward it. The stone ring had a pagan feel, reminiscent of ancient stone barrows. Something bright and yellow and slick peeked from the undergrowth inside the ring.

I propped my foot on the stone ledge, bent to stretch my hamstring, and gasped. My hands turned clammy.


A rain slicker. It was a rain slicker.


And there was someone inside the yellow coat. A silver-haired man.


For a moment I thought it was a bad joke, he wasn’t real. Then, heart banging, I hopped over the stone ledge.


Heedless of the brambles tugging at my clothes, of the muck squelching beneath my shoes, I stumbled to the supine man. He lay staring with one broad hand pressed to his chest. Blood stained his neck and pooled in the hollows around him.


“Oh my God,” I breathed, fumbling for the phone in my jacket pocket.


His head turned toward me, and I yelped.


I dropped to my knees beside him. “You’re alive. It’s okay. I’m calling for help now.” What had happened to him? Had he tripped and fallen? But what had he been doing in the circle?


“Can you put pressure on the wound?” I asked. If he couldn’t, I’d need to. I’d need a cloth, something to staunch the flow.


But first, help. Hands shaking, I called 9-1-1.


He lifted a hand and pointed toward the trees. “Look beneath,” he whispered. “The brotherhood.”


“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m calling now.” I pressed the phone to my ear. “I’m calling...” My voice faded.


His blue eyes grew as cold and impersonal as the Atlantic, and he stared without seeing at the sky. A thick dullness fogged my chest. I was too late. He was dead.


Keep reading Legacy of the Witch! This metaphysical mystery novel is available for pre-order at the links below.



Book Cover: Legacy of the Witch

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