Honorary Witch

The next hour passed in blissful—well, not silence, but close enough for me. Children were so suggestible. Since I couldn’t exactly leave to run errands like investigating the powerful players here on the dead side while I was meant to be supervising the children, I went outside to do a little work on the garden. Assuming we ever got seeds, they wouldn’t do us much good while the entire plot was choked up with dead plants, dying plants, and a few still-living weeds.

Hmm, that was interesting. If the dying plants represented the short-lived dead like zombies and ghosts, and the dead plants represented the long-lived ones like the vampires, who did the weeds represent? The banshees and the spriggans, rejected by the living side? Well, that was hardly a helpful comparison. Now I felt bad for pulling out weeds.

“That’s a big job there.”

I looked up. “Jane. Hello again.”

“Margot.” She nodded to me. “Planning to do something with the space, or just working out your frustrations? I know my children can be a bit of a handful.”

I smiled. If it was a tad smug, well… “Norene and I are hoping to get some seeds so we can make a proper garden.”

“I hope you can.” Jane looked wistful. “I was told there wouldn’t be much space for growing things in the city, but I never thought it would be because we were stuck living on the dead side.”

“There are community gardens on the living side. But you’re right, space is definitely an issue. I suppose that’s one advantage to living here.”

Jane smiled. “Looking on the bright side, then. I suppose that’s really the only sensible way to manage things.” She peered up at the house, brow creasing in confusion. “Did Hugo and Merry run off on you? Usually I can hear them from several houses away.”

My self-satisfied smile returned. “Had you been here an hour ago,  that would have been true. But I talked them into playing quietly.”

“Well.” Jane looked startled. “That is a first. How did you pull it off?”

“Let’s just say I learned a few tricks from looking after a gaggle of witch cousins. In comparison, your children are charmingly well behaved.” I paused. “And rather suggestible.”

“Oh?”

“I invoked my great aunt Marianne, a powerful witch.”

Jane frowned. “But your caste mark—you were human, before.”

“I was.” I shrugged. “My immediate family’s all human, but after my mom died, my dad remarried into a rather…prolific family of witches, and they decided to adopt the lot of us. Witches put a lot of stock in family and bloodlines and all that, I guess.”

“So you could say you’re an honorary witch.”

“I guess.”

“Fascinating. You know, I’d never actually met a witch before coming here.”

I started to nod, then frowned. “Wait, Sarai said you came to the wrong gate and were turned as soon as you got here. When would you have met a witch? They’re all on the living side.”

Jane blinked at me. “I haven’t. Isn’t that what I just said?”

Well, no. She’d said before. “Oh, I see.” Probably just a slip of the tongue. “Anyway, you’re kids are inside, if you’d like to come in?”

Jane smiled. “Certainly.”

I stood, brushed my hands off on my now rather soiled trousers, and led the way to the door.

Advertisements

Dust Bunny Hexes

If my bedroom wasn’t sound proof, it at least did something to save my ears from the children’s screeches. In theory, anyway, but a theory with all the positive thinking I could throw at it to shore it up. It didn’t help my headache, but that was life. Or death, apparently. At least up here I was actually saved from cringing every time one of the children (and at this point, I considered Norene one of them) came near to breaking something.

When I heard small feet thundering up the stairs, I cursed myself for thinking I was even relatively safe. How had I ever thought Meredith was in any way sweet, precious, or at all amusing? Obviously it was hardly fair to judge a child by her appearance, but she was a literal corpse. Even so, she had a charming precociousness that had won me over, at least until now. If my witch cousins were horrendous little beasts to be responsible for, at least I had no illusions about them. I wanted to like Meredith, but this was difficult to manage while she and her brother were catapulting around the house I now lived in, the house that had been more or less falling apart before it had been invaded by a pair of rambunctious children.

I’d determined long ago that I was not the sort of person to have children of their own. How was it, then, that I still managed to find myself surrounded by them wherever I went?

“I think Margot wants to be left alone,” I heard Norene say.

I stifled a groan. If their presence outside my room was any indication, my wishes didn’t count for, well, anything at the moment.

“Ssh-ssshh!” I heard, followed by a giggle that sounded like Meredith.

“She’s boring,” Hugo whispered. “Boring people are fun to play pranks on.”

Great. I wondered how badly I’d injure myself if I tried going out the window. Probably not worth the risk, since the undead didn’t have the ability to recover from the such things the way the living did.

I heard the sound of flesh on flesh, followed by an “Ow!” from Hugo.

“Sshh!” Meredith (probably) commanded again.

Well. The window was out of the question, but I hadn’t spent so much time watching my little monster-witch cousins without learning a thing or two. Looking around the room, I spotted a particularly large and hairy-looking dust bunny. I picked it up with one hand that I then hid behind my back and stalked to the door.

I prepared my best terrifying glare and kicked the door open.

Meredith squealed in surprise and shot a glare of her own at Hugo. “You ruined it!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

“Did—”

“Enough!” I snapped, surprising even Norene. “You will go back downstairs. You will not scream, shout, or make any other loud noises. You will not—” I looked at Hugo, “—break anything. Is that clear?”

“Or what?” Hugo retorted. Meredith looked at me, curious but not afraid.

“Or I will hex your toes off, one by one. Then your fingers. Then your ears. And if you still don’t behave, I’ll take your tongue and eyes as well.”

Meredith squealed, but her expression remained more excited than frightened. Hugo merely looked skeptical.

It was Norene who spoke. “But you’re not a lich or a witch or anything like that. Zombies don’t have magic.”

“Don’t need to.” I moved the hand with the dust bunny out so Norene and the children could see it. “Do you know what this is?”

The children shook their heads. Meredith was finally beginning to look a little nervous, though Hugo was still determined to be skeptical.

“It’s an amulet, made for me by my Great Aunt Marianne, who was a witch.” I stared at Meredith and Hugo each in turn, to make sure they were paying attention. “A powerful one.”

“What does it do?” Hugo asked, now exhibiting more bravado than any actual lack of fear.

I gave him a cold smile. “Punishes those who cross me, of course.”

He gulped.

“I believe I mentioned removing your fingers and toes?”

“Uh-huh…”

“Now go!” At my shout, both children shot back down the stairs like bullets from a gun. Once they were gone, I dropped the dust bunny and brushed my hands off.

“That wasn’t really an amulet,” Norene observed. She looked impressed, but unafraid. Given her attitude towards things, I wasn’t sure there actually was anything that could really scare her.

I snorted. “Of course not. But they don’t know that.”

“Is your Great Aunt Marianne really a witch?”

“Oh, yeah, and powerful too, just like I said.”

Norene looked thoughtful. “So you could have an amulet to punish people you don’t like.”

I shrugged. “Well, if you put it that way…”

No Need to Worry…

I opened the door to my room, rubbing at the headache beginning between my temples. I had been right—two zombie kids had nothing on my witch cousins—but they did seem to enjoy challenging that assumption by making as much noise as possible. You’d think they’d have screeched themselves hoarse by now (and considering they were zombies, there was no guarantee their vocal chords would actually ever recover), but if anything, they seemed to get louder. Norene, on the other hand, didn’t seem bothered by this in the slightest. Maybe they were trying to prove they could out-scream a banshee.

That wasn’t a promising thought.

I flopped onto the bed, sighing as the springs groaned beneath me. Yes, broken bed springs were just what I needed right now. Something else to bargain for with the draugr. There had to be someone else who did business with the living side. Immortals or no, people had a way of getting around the rules whether they were dead or not. Now if I could just get funding from the appropriate sources, I’d have people with the means on the living side who would take care of such things for me, and I’d only have to go to the draugr for luxuries.

A loud crashing sound had me springing out of bed and racing for the stairs. Children. Just when you thought you had them handled, they just had to prove you wrong.

“What’s going on?” I looked around when I reached the bottom of the stairs, trying to figure out where Norene and the little monsters had got to.

“In here!” Norene called from the direction of the kitchen.

Great. Just great.

I marched into the room that had so recently been fixed up with running water, and glared around the room. “What happened? What’s broken?”

Meredith snickered, which only increased my concern. “Hugo’s in trouble,” she sing-songed.

“Wasn’t my fault!” the boy in question protested, crossing his arms.

“Was too!”

“Was not!”

“Was too!”

“Not!”

“Was!”

“Quiet!” I bellowed, drawing startled looks from Norene as well as the children.

“Ooh, she’s mad…”
I glared Meredith into silence. “Who’s going to tell me what happened?”

Meredith pointed at her brother. “He did it!”

Hugo stuck his tongue out, but didn’t actually deny it.

“Did what?” I directed this question at Norene, who appeared no less serene than she had while requesting breakfast from the Distribution Office.

“You don’t have to worry, Margot.”

This statement did nothing to ease my concern.

“The chair wasn’t very well made anyway.”

“Told you it wasn’t my fault!” Hugo crowed.

Meredith smirked when I glared at him. I turned back to Norene. “What chair?”

“The children already took it outside. Maybe someone will have a use for it and take it.” She smiled. “See? No need to worry.”

I took a breath. “And nothing else was broken, damaged, or otherwise disturbed?”

“Nope!” she replied, entirely too cheerful.

Right. Well, I’d just have to give the house a good look-over once Jane came to rescue us from her children. I nodded to Norene, gave both children warning glares, and headed back upstairs. How long had Jane said she’d be?

Babysitting Zombies (and a Banshee)

Unable to find any even halfway clean chairs, Norene and I had settled ourselves on the floor—recently swept by the sink cleaning crew—to plot our negotiations with the draugr. We’d brainstormed quite a list of questions and demands, making me wonder if there weren’t some other person on the dead side we could work with. It was never a good idea to get everything from one place, after all.

A knock on the front door interrupted one of Norene’s rambling monologues. We looked at each other. Who could it be now? Before I could get very far with that train of thought, however, Norene was already on her feet and headed for the door. I sighed, clambered to my feet, and followed.

When Norene opened the door, she was assaulted by a squealing bundle of zombie child. While I couldn’t tell if there were meant to be words contained somewhere in the cacophony she was making, I immediately recognised the enthusiastically loud creature as Meredith.

“Hello Norene, Margot.” How Jane Hawkins managed to make herself heard over her daughter, I didn’t know. Maybe it was a superpower granted only to mothers.

I waved from behind Norene, not even trying to attempt the same. For her part, Norene was too absorbed with Meredith to even notice that there was a second person at the door.

“I’m bored!”

Make that three.

“Meredith, hush now, I need to have a conversation with the adults.”

The zombie child pouted, but ceased the assault on my ears. “But Norene doesn’t count as an adult, right, so we can go play?”

I snorted. Jane looked amused, while Norene just looked bemused.

“Yeah, I wanna play,” the boy child fidgeting next to Jane whined. He also had the zombie X across his face, and given that, his age, and the company he came with, I guessed he must be Meredith’s brother. What had his name been?

“This is my son Hugo,” Jane added, answering my unspoken question. “And yes, Meredith, you may go play if Norene is amenable.”

“Me too, me too!” Hugo cried, and before Norene was given a chance to object, the children had seized hold of Norene’s hands and dragged her off further into the house. Somehow I doubted Norene had a problem with this.

“Did you want to come in?” I asked, turning back to face Jane.

“No, actually, there’s somewhere I’m meant to be.” An apologetic look crossed her face. “I hadn’t meant to impose, but the children are so excitable…” She shook her head. “I can’t take them with me to my meeting, so I was hoping you would keep an eye on them? Normally I wouldn’t ask, since Norene is…well…”

I smiled. “Norene?”

Jane returned the smile. It made her look younger, and I wondered if she was really that much older than me. I hadn’t chosen to have children, but if I had, they probably wouldn’t be too much younger than Meredith and Hugo. “Exactly. But you seem more responsible and…self-aware, so I feel safe leaving them with you, if you don’t mind.”

“Norene can keep them entertained, I’m sure.” I shrugged. “Which means all I have to do is make sure they don’t get into too much trouble, right?”

“I had hoped you’d say that.” The worry lines across Jane’s forehead shrunk. “Though I should warn you, they can be quite a handful…”

“I’m sure we can manage.” A family full of younger cousins had taught me well. Not that’d I’d been coerced into dealing with any of them in a long while… But even though Meredith and Hugo were both zombies, they couldn’t be worse than a gaggle of half-witch eight to twelve year-olds.

“Thank you very much. I shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours,” Jane assured me. Then she turned and left, quickly enough that she was probably worried I’d change my mind. I shut the door and turned toward the sound of shrieking children. It would be fine, but I should probably check in on them, just to be safe…

What Comes After a Shiny Sink

“Well? Are we going or what?”

I turned to see that Norene had migrated to the doorway without my noticing. Though I had been a bit distracted by the changes to the kitchen, so perhaps that said more about me than Norene.

“Margot!”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“You said we should visit Vidar again, so are we going?”

“I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to the draugr unprepared.”

“Okay.”

“I thought you wanted to go. You said it’d be fun.”

“We’re still going, aren’t we?”

“Well, yeah. I just…thought you’d be impatient. I guess.”

“But we have to have something to offer him, right?”

I really needed to stop underestimating Norene. “So…how much secret information do you know about the banshees?”

Norene’s smile was bright and innocent. “Lots more than I told him last time.”

I turned to face her fully. “You were stalling him.”

Norene just smiled.

“Oh, you’re good.”

“What do you mean?”

I laughed. “Of course.”

“So we should figure out all our questions now?”

I nodded. “Question one, is the water safe to drink?”

“Seeds!” Norene exclaimed. “For making the garden!”

“Hmm, maybe.” I thought for a minute. “But there might be a better way to get the seeds…”

“How?”

I looked around the room. “Are there any chairs around?”

“Somewhere…maybe…” Norene poked her head into the next room. “Well, there’s one in here, but I don’t think you’d like it.”

“Why not?”

She turned back to face me. “Lots of dust?”

“Right. Maybe that’s something else he can do for us. The crew cleaned up the sink nicely.”

“They made it shiny!”

I struggled not to laugh, and wondered for a moment why I bothered. Would Norene be offended? “Yes, they made it shiny.”

“Wait, what’s the better way to get the seeds?”

“What?” I blinked, backtracking to earlier in the conversation.

“I said—”

“Yeah, yeah. The seeds. Well, if I ever get a response to the letter I had sent, then seeds would probably be supplied by whoever I can convince to supply funding.”

“What letter?”

I sighed, and resigned myself to filling Norene in on all the things that had happened since I became a zombie and before we met. That, I didn’t actually mind. It was the questions I was dreading.

A Clean Sink in a Dirty Kitchen

“Margot! Maaaargot!”

I groaned. What now? Wasn’t I allowed to get any sleep?

“Margot!” A knocking sound came from my bedroom door. “Margot, wake up, the water’s working!”

The what is what? I rolled over, covering my ears.

“Margot, we have running water!”

Finally the meaning of the words penetrated my brain. Water. Running water, after two days of undead strangers coming in and out of the house at all hours and a seemingly constant banging and clanging that had given me a splitting headache.

I dragged myself out of bed and staggered over to the door in time to nearly get hit by it as Norene lost patience and decided to come in.

She grinned, oblivious to the fact that I was still about half-asleep and not in the greatest of moods. “You are awake! Did you hear me? The water’s—”

“—working, yes, I heard you. And no, I wasn’t awake, not until your shouting woke me up.”

“Sorry.” Norene looked sheepish for only a moment. “But the water’s working!”

“You said.”

“Isn’t it exciting?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “Shall we go test it out, then?”

“Oh! That’s a good idea. Why didn’t I think of that?” Norene continued to chatter away as she preceded me down the stairs. “You know, there are almost no other places on the dead side that have running water like this. As far as I know, anyway. The banshee compound, obviously, and the Distribution Office I bet, and probably some of the really old ones, but otherwise it’s just us! That makes us pretty special!”

“Only because you’re the renegade banshee with secret information to trade.”

“Oh, I’m not that special.” Norene pushed through the door into the kitchen and pointed at the sink, almost bouncing in excitement. “Look, look, look! They cleaned it too, it’s all shiny.”

“I should hope so.” I walk over to the sink to have a look. They’d done a good job. If the rest of the kitchen was still covered in a thick layer of dust, dirt, and who knows what else, the sink had been scrubbed until the stainless steel looked almost new. “Running water wouldn’t do us much good if it wasn’t clean.”

Norene frowned. “But it’s the sink that’s clean. The sink doesn’t make the water clean, does it?”

I looked at Norene in surprise. She talked so much about entirely random things it was easy to forget she was actually quite an intelligent and observant person. “I should have thought of that. Did that spriggan say anything about where the water comes from?” Having spent most of my life on the living side where access to clean water was a matter of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.

“No.” She paused. “I don’t think he knows.”

“Hmm. I guess we’d better go pay another visit to the draugr’s house.”

“Ooh! This’ll be fun, he’s interesting.”

Well, observant about some things.

Shenanigans and Consequences

“Meredith Ann Hawkins!”

I turned to see a woman striding down the street toward us; so much for getting a moment of peace and quiet. Her expression, already clearly angry, was only made more frightening by the zombie caste mark slashed across her face. It didn’t exactly take a genius to figure out that this must be Meredith’s mother.

“I thought she wouldn’t yell if you said you were with me,” Norene whispered, eyeing the woman with more wariness than she’d shown even to the banshees.

“I haven’t told her yet?” Meredith suggested, though even she didn’t look like she really believed it.

Norene sighed. “First Maeve, now your mum. I left the banshee compound so people wouldn’t yell at me.”

Meredith’s mother came to a halt, arms crossed and looking disturbingly like my own mother, several paces from us. “Well, young lady? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Meredith opened her mouth, paused, and looked at Norene a moment before speaking. “I was with Norene.”

“Here at her house?”

“…yes?”

“Nice try. It might’ve been more convincing if there hadn’t been a rather large group of people waiting for Norene to return home for the last half hour.” She gave her daughter a piercing stare. “The truth now, please.”

Meredith looked at her feet and mumbled something unintelligible.

“So I can hear you, please.”

“I was wandering around the city, then I ran into Norene and Margot, and they made me come back with them.”

“And you went along with this because…?”

I had to hand it to the woman: she knew her daughter well.

Meredith heaved a sigh big enough for someone twice her size. “Because Norene said she’d tell you I was at her house.”

Her mother shook her head.

“It’s not a lie!” the girl protested. “I am at her house. Now.”

“Is that supposed to make it better? Really, Norene, you should know better than to let my daughter drag you into her shenanigans.”

“It’s not Norene’s fault! It was my idea!”

“And while I’m glad you’re willing to take responsibility for your actions, I am nevertheless disappointed. Go home. You can join your brother in cleaning up the mess he made.”

“But mommy, it’s not my fault he broke the window!”

The stare Meredith’s mother turned on her daughter was one I’d seen many times, though on my own mother’s face, and usually directed at my sister Tabitha.

Like most children faced with such a look, Meredith wilted. “Fine,” she muttered, and shuffled off down the street, dragging her feet and generally going as slowly as possible while still actually moving.

Her daughter duly scolded, Meredith’s mother turned to me and closed the distance between us with one hand extended. “I don’t believe I’ve made your acquaintance. I’m Meredith’s mother, Jane Hawkins.”

I shook the proffered hand. “Margot Lucas. Norene’s invited me to live with her.”

Jane smiled. “Well. With any luck, you’ll have more sense than my daughter or Norene.”

“Uh, nice to meet you.”