Shasta was wrong when she thought life would get back to normal again after Granny’s intervention. Leonardo still watches over her like a hawk and she only leaves the house accompanied by him or their butler. Her bump doesn’t seem to grow as much as during her last two pregnancies as she can’t keep anything down and thus keeps losing weight. Her exhaustion grows for every day that goes by, so when Granny suddenly shows up for a short visit and proposes to let Rowan spend the summer in the Bayou, even Leonardo agrees.
Granny is worried, but she can’t feel anything wrong when she touches her daughter’s belly.
‘It’s a girl,’ she states with satisfaction.
‘I know,’ Shasta answers. ‘I can feel it.’
‘I’m sure it’s a boy,’ Leonardo mutters from behind the Financial Times, but both women ignore him.
Leonardo is his usual charming and attentive self, opening doors, pulling out chairs and making Granny visit. She spends three days with her grandson, who is certainly spoilt rotten by his father, but who seems to have inherited the latter’s charming attitude. As usual, he wraps his stern grandmother around his finger in no time.
But he isn’t happy about leaving – he’s worried about his mother and he’s absolutely not ready to share his parents with some stupid baby.
‘You’ll have fun in Fairview, Rowan. And you’ll be back in September, just in time for the baby’s arrival!’ Shasta says, absentmindedly caressing her belly.
‘The baby, the baby… Always the baby. Can you move over – it’s time for the professor’s adventures.’
Shasta obediently clears her son’s view of the TV behind her. ‘I’ll go see if your grandmother needs anything…’
‘She has everything she needs, cara. In fact, she is discussing recipes with James.’ Leonardo has arrived. He bends over and kisses his son’s head. ‘Come vai?’
‘Bene! Can you stay and watch the professor with me? Mom, too? Per favore!’
Leonardo and Shasta’s eyes meet over their son. It will be the last time in a couple of months, so why not humor him?
The three of them are soon watching television with varying degrees of attention. Shasta gently rubs her belly, an absentminded look on her face. Leonardo’s eyes stray towards his wife with concern. She is attractive and elegant as usual, but she seems empty within. There is no spark, no will to fight. She is like a beautiful tropical flower that blooms just one night, and then fades. He wonders if the demon she is carrying is sucking the life out of her already. She is a witch, she is supposed to have the strength to bring the demonic pregnancy to term. But what if there is no way to save her?
‘Did you see that, papà?’
Leonardo is grateful for his son interrupting his brooding, but he can’t help feeling a stab of the same angry helplessness he felt when his father told him on his deathbed about the Di Grisogno’s pact with the demon.
The next morning is busy. Leonardo has an important meeting, so he won’t be able to drive his mother-in-law and his son to the airport in Pisa. He gives Rowan some last-minute recommendations.
‘You’re a di Grisogno, figlio mio. And as such there are certain rules that must be followed…’
‘Sì, padre. Capisco.’
Rowan does his best to memorize what being a count implies concerning behavior. But there are too many rules in his opinion. As long as he can have ice-cream at the airport, he’s pretty happy with being a normal little boy. It is the first time he takes such a long trip and Granny had promised he’d get toys and lots of fun stuff from the hostesses. And Granny is usually right.
A last hug and they are off in a taxi. Rowan refuses to talk, looking straight out the window as if trying to save everything he sees.
Granny assures him he will soon return, but Rowan just glares at her. He knows in his mind that as soon as the baby is there, they will probably forget about him and leave him with Granny – just as his mother has done with Taïga.
He refuses to sit down on the seat, standing on his knees and looking out of the rear window until a last turn downhill makes it impossible to see the citadel anymore.
Shasta stays on the upper terrace until the taxi vanishes out of sight. She slumps down on the edge of the soft summer couch and wrings her hands. Leonardo sits down next to her.
‘Alone – at last! I thought your Mother were settling in,’ he complains, mostly to break the silence.
‘Leonardo! She only stayed three days… And I think it was kind of her to take Rowan back with her for the whole summer.’ Shasta briefly closes her eyes, trying not to cry. ‘Do you think we did the right thing?’
‘Si, cara mia.’ He puts a soothing hand on her shoulder and Shasta steels herself not to draw back.
‘Now we shall concentrate on getting you healthy again. It’s important for me that the baby is fine…’ He gestures to the butler to step forward with a glass filled with something vaguely looking like lemonade.
Shasta doesn’t have the strength to refuse. Ever since her mother’s last, secret, visit, she has been afraid Leonardo would discover that she is no more a witch. She even paints on her Grey mark in black ink every morning, as it is slowly fading and its absence would give her away.
If Taïga was surprised to see Missy, and not her grandmother, coming to pick her up at the airport, it is nothing compared to what is waiting for her at Bayou Oaks Manor. Missy has been fretting about some big, insisting on big, surprise during the whole drive home. But Taïga knows her great aunt by now and even though she can’t wait to find out about the secret, she can’t help tormenting Missy by not asking. Jetlagged, she falls asleep during one of her aunt’s monologues and doesn’t wake up before they bump over the grass in front of the old manor. Taïga rubs her eyes and fumbles for the handle, eager to get out and greet Valkyria. She can hear the dog barking at a distance and jumps out of the car.
‘Oups. I must have forgotten to close a door in the haste.’ Missy pulls off her hat and fluffs up her hair, looking a little contrite about letting the dog out.
‘Valkyria! I’m home,’ Taïga shouts, setting off towards the sound. Her dog is in the meadow behind the house, but she is not alone. A big horse is stomping with its ears flat against its head, snorting menacingly.
Taïga squeals with delight at the sight and rushes towards the fence.
‘Be careful, the Muller’s brought him here yesterday and I’m not sure about him being reliable,’ Missy warns.
Valkyria stops barking and trots over to greet her mistress. Laughing Taïga pushes the dog away, trying to avoid being licked on her face.
‘Enough, Valkyria!’ The dog finally calms down and Taïga hugs her, caressing the smoth fur. ‘I love you to bits and I have missed you so much.’
She looks up at the sound of a low snort and discovers the huge flaxen chestnut standing at the railing, trying to reach them over the fence. Taïga stands up, but she still feels tiny next to the big horse.
‘His name is Duke, and he is retired from the work on the farm. He used to carry the drums on the 4th of July parade in Fairview, Mr. Muller said. Here, I got you some carrots. Mr. Muller told us to avoid giving him sugar…’ She hands Taïga some carrots fresh out of Granny’s early plantations, still with earth on them. ‘Well. I leave you to get acquainted… But stay out of the meadow. I think he looks a little sneaky and I don’t want to have to explain an accident to my sister.’
Taïga nods eagerly, feeding carrots to the old horse. ‘You want another carrot, Duke? Here…’
Valkyria follows her gestures with attention, whimpering a little until Taïga scratches her behind her ears between carrots. She realizes her dog might be a little jealous of the old horse and the attention it gets. She must surely be the luckiest girl in the world, to have a horse! Even if it isn’t really hers. She looks back towards the house. She should be able to see the meadow from her bedroom…
The next morning, she is up at dawn. She pulls on her favorite old denim overalls, happy they are still her size. Once outside, she grabs some carrots from the garden and shakes the earth off them while running barefoot in the humid grass towards the meadow. Duke is at the far end, grazing leisurely. She can hear his teeth grind the grass in the silent morning. Missy has said there is a thunderstorm brewing, and she wonders if that is why the birds are silent.
She ducks under the railing and shakes the carrots in the air, whistling and smacking her tongue. Duke stops grazing and looks at her, his ears moving. He chews slowly, finishing the grass hanging from his mouth. Taïga advances further into the meadow, wondering if the horse has not seen the carrots. Maybe he is not only old, but blind as well.
Suddenly he sets off in a rapid trot towards her, his head held high. She backs off, throwing the carrots at him, but he doesn’t stop.
She can feel the earth tremble under the massive hooves, and she closes her eyes. He will surely run her down.
But instead, he stops right in front of her and nudges her softly. She opens her eyes. He nudges her again and she scratches his forehead, under the thick mane.
‘You scared me, you know,’ she says softly, breathing in the familiar smell of horse. But Duke just snorts and walks over to where she had thrown the carrots.
Taïga wipes her brow. She is very at ease with Jalouse and Jupille, but this big horse is in another league. She looks down at her bare feet. Jalouse had walked on her toes once. The bruise had lasted for weeks – and she had been wearing boots.
She decides she must take it slowly with Duke. He is not mean, but he is so big he might hurt her without wanting to. She rushes back in to get some shoes…
During the next days, she spends her time in the meadow, getting to know the old horse. She is usually accompanied by Minuit who seems to have taken a liking to the horse and Valkyria, who jealously stays at a distance.
The huge horse is very delicate with his new friend. He is curious about the little girl who spends time brushing him and feeding him carrots. When she hugs his leg, he doesn’t budge, just carefully smells her hair and face, making the little girl giggle at the touch of the long bristles on his nose.
She stays until Missy calls her in for lunch, usually frozen pizza she has to help her aunt heat in the oven as Miss is an expert at burning all sorts of food.
Valkyria waits patiently for Taïga to hurry inside to eat before adventuring into the meadow herself. It must be something special about the huge animal, as her mistress spends more time hugging its long legs than hugging her, Valkyria.
She struts into the meadow, approaching the horse carefully. It is even bigger up front. How come Minuit dares to nap on its back, all the way up there?
Duke ambles forward, stopping at a distance, judging the dog. Valkyria whimpers and lies down, wagging her tail to show that she doesn’t mean any harm.
As if the huge animal had ever felt threatened…
Duke stretches his neck towards Valkyria as much as he can without actually moving forward. He recognizes the smell of the little girl on it. Judging it safe, he blows carefully on the dog who whimpers happily.
That is how Taïga and Minuit finds them after lunch. Now they are three, competing for the horse’s affection.
Two days later Granny is back from her urgent business in Italy. To Taïga’s surprise she is not alone.
Granny beams, pushing a young boy in front of her. ‘Look who I brought for the summer holidays!’
Taïga doesn’t answer. She just stares from the boy to her grandmother and back again.
‘Hi, sister!’ Rowan waves.
‘Hi,’ she answers curtly.
‘It’s Rowan, don’t you recognize him?’ Granny prods.
Taïga crosses her arms on her chest. Rowan has grown, but of course, she recognizes her half-brother. That doesn’t mean she has to be happy about him intruding in her universe, does it?
‘But Granny!?! What is he doing here?’
‘Taïga. In my study. Now!’ Granny stomps up the stairs to the porch and past Missy who has arrived to greet them.
‘Good day to you too,’ Missy lances at her back, looking at Rowan with curiosity.
With a last malevolent glare at her brother, the intruder, over her shoulder, Taïga grumpily follows her grandmother back into the house, leaving Rowan with Missy.
Granny explains the situation to Taïga who switches from jealous to ashamed of herself, then back to jealous again.
‘… and your mother is not feeling well… … so she needs calm and quiet… …the baby is due in a couple of months and…’
Taïga listens with her head bent. So Rowan is here to stay – at least during the whole summer. That means she will have to share her grandmother with him and-
‘Granny, where will he sleep?’ she asks even though she knows the answer.
‘I thought you could share your room. It is only for the summer…’ Granny looks at her with pleading eyes.
Taïga doesn’t answer, she just sighs demonstratively.
‘Now, listen to me, young lady. It is not an option to be grumpy about this. I have told you that your mother is pregnant and is not feeling well.’
‘Being pregnant is not an illness. Philippe said so, his mother is pregnant and she is still working with the mayor.’
Granny pulls up the other armchair and sits down face to face with her grandchild. ‘It might be time I told you how things work for witches in general and for us Grey witches in particular…’
After listening to her grandmother’s not so very pedagogical explanations about the dangers of pregnancy for a witch, Taïga runs upstairs to her room and out onto the balcony where she finally lets her tears flow.
‘Please let Mom be OK soon, please please…’ she hiccups.
Rowan can hear her crying from where he is hiding in the French garden with his beloved ragdoll, Peaches. Missy had waived him off with a breezy “go explore, dear, but be back for dinner at seven”, making him feel abandoned by everyone. He hugs Peaches, as usual emptying his heart to the understanding ragdoll.
‘I don’t feel welcome here, Peaches. I miss mom and dad and our big sunny house! I knew it would be like this. Taïga doesn’t want me to stay here. Nobody wants me around – not my parents, not my “sister”… I guess Granny only asked me to be kind… Nobody loves me…’
He looks at the limp ragdoll in his arms. How stupid of me, I’m talking to a rag doll – it’s even worse than talking to myself!
Later in the afternoon, Taïga takes Valkyria for a walk.
‘We’re just going the usual round,’ she explains to Missy. ‘Bye!’
‘Where are they going?’ Rowan looks after his sister and the long-legged dog.
‘Just for a stroll through the forest. Valkyria needs to run a little, even though it’s terribly hot.’ Missy waves a hand in front of her face. ‘Let’s return to the porch. A cold lemonade and the fan turning at high speed should help us suffer through the afternoon.’ She doesn’t wait for his answer, just turns on her heels and heads for the relatively cool house with Miezul Noptii in her arms.
‘I want to walk Valkyria, too!’ Rowan sets after his sister. ‘Are you going to take off her leash? Can I hold it? Where are we going?’
‘We’re going to Silver Sands, Valkyria loves swimming there.’ Taïga decides to answer just his last question.
‘Sure! I’ll get my things!’
‘No! Wait! Don’t tell them or they won’t let us go,’ Taïga shushes her brother.
‘But I don’t have my trunks,’ he complains. ‘And I want to swim, too.’
‘We are not going swimming, I said Valkyria is – not us. We’ll play in the sand, and I can show you where there’s crayfish. There won’t be anyone at this hour of the afternoon. The teens will show up later, around sunset, so we have the place to ourselves for a couple of hours…’
TThey continue chatting and the tension between the two siblings soon vanishes as they leave the main road and starts on the shortcut to Silver Sands. Taïga tells him to stomp his feet to scare away snakes, and she is secretly pleased to see he gets a little scared when she describes the Cottonmouth that might hide in the underbrush. Rowan proudly gets to walk Valkyria, but when the dog suddenly barks and sets off towards the river, the surprised boy lets go of the leash.
‘We mustn’t let her out of sight,’ Taïga shouts, sprinting after her vanishing dog, Rowan close behind.
Panting, they stop on the only sandy beach in the vicinity. Valkyria is exhausted after chasing away a couple of cranes that were hunting for fish in the shallow water and now, she is drinking, her front paws in the cool water.
Rowan looks around. ‘I want to swim.’
‘Well, you can’t.’
‘Why not? I’m pretty good at swimming, you know.’
Taïga looks at him, her brows furrowed in a thoughtful frown. ‘I am not even supposed to go here on my own, you can imagine the drama if we go swimming all alone. And it might be dangerous…’ She thinks of Missy’s tales about alligators lying in wait for tasty children.
‘I won’t tell. Do you think my shorts will have the time to dry before we get home again?’
She stares at Rowan who has thrown his T-shirt on the sand, closely followed by his shorts. He wades out into the water wearing only his underwear, gasping with pleasure at the relief from the heat.
Taïga hesitates, but she is warm, and damp and she would love to freshen up in the water. And she can’t really keep an eye on her brother if he is in the water and she is not. She sheds her dress a little self-consciously.
‘Hey! Are you wearing a bra? What for?’
‘It’s not a bra, it’s a brassiere,’ she points out.
‘Whatever. You’re flat as a pancake!’
She looks down at her brassiere. He’s right. But all the girls in her class wear one, and it makes her feel a little grown-up and important.
‘Can we jump in from that rock over there?’
‘Sure!’ Taïga sets off towards the big rock, happy to get the attention away from her lack of breasts. ‘Catch me if you can!’
The deep water in the shadow of the huge boulders is cold. And the only waves are those created when they screaming jump in. But they have fun playing in the river, searching for crayfish but not finding any. They throw branches in the water to Valkyria who seems never to get tired of swimming out and bring them back. They even see a rare Gopher Tortoise, but Taïga stops Rowan from catching it, explaining it is an endangered species.
Rowan asks if she can show him an alligator and Taïga realizes she has totally forgotten about the dangerous reptilians. Missy is always exaggerating, but even Granny had insisted they stay out of the water. She looks at the menacing dark water under the boulders. Maybe it is time for them to go back home…
The summer goes from warm to hot and the temperatures soar. Duke spends his time in the shadows under a tree, his head hanging with closed eyes and his tail lazily sweeping the insistent flies away.
Granny insists on Rowan taking a nap in the afternoons which leaves Taïga with some time to herself. She likes Rowan a lot, but he is still so much younger than herself and he can be a real pain. She decides to spend some time with poor Duke, who seems to be as bored as she is. She gets a few carrots from the kitchen and hurries to the meadow where she scrambles up onto the railing, clicking her tongue and waving the carrots.
Duke ambles over, his ears twitching. Taïga chatters with him while feeding him the carrots and scratching his head.
She does not know where she gets the courage from, but suddenly she is sitting bareback on the big horse. He seems a little surprised, turning his head and looking at her, trying to nudge her plastic boots. Taïga giggles and leans forward, hugging his neck. The big horse shivers as if she was a fly on his back and she giggles even more, just happy to be up there.
Suddenly he throws his head up in fright, shying away. Taïga grabs his mane, suddenly scared.
But not as scared as Granny who is doing her best not to scream in fright when she catches sight of her granddaughter on the huge horse.
She tries to walk towards the snorting, stomping horse as calmly as possible, afraid that it might throw off her granddaughter. But the old horse recognizes the stern woman who sneaks carrots to him when nobody is looking. He nudges Granny’s ivory skirt, leaving grassy stains on it. But Granny doesn’t mind getting dirty. She is concentrating on getting Taïga off the horse.
She reaches out her arms, admonishing her granddaughter, ‘You almost scared me to death, child. Don’t you understand the danger? This is not a pony, mind you. Don’t you dare do this again!’
Taïga is intimidated by Granny’s anger, and she must admit that she had been scared when Duke suddenly moved.
‘I promise, Granny. I won’t do it again. But…’ She lets her grandmother help her down.
‘Well, I don’t think he would hurt me, it was all my fault.’
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying. You should know better than to ride such a big horse as Duke. And with no saddle at that.’
‘So, with a saddle it would be OK to ride him?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘No, but you said-’
‘Never mind what I said about a saddle. You should not ride that horse unaccompanied.’
Taïga and Rowan spend all their time together. Taïga shows him her secret places and even though they get into an argument over almost everything, they have fun together. After Taïga told him about the treehouse in Bigwood Falls, Rowan decides they should have one in their garden. He even points out the perfect tree, but as there is no one to help them they settle for a straw version instead. When they have finished their little hut out of hay bales, Rowan decides it is time he ups his sister’s stories with something extraordinary of his own.
‘Promise me you won’t laugh?’
Taïga rolls her eyes. ‘Cross my heart.’
‘OK…’ Rowan takes a deep breath. ‘I’ve got an imaginary friend!’ He pauses, looking for a reaction, but Taïga just shrugs.
‘Lots of kids have imaginary friends.’
‘Well. Mine is special.’
‘Uh-huh. It’s a ragdoll. I mean, it’s not really a ragdoll. Well, Granny gave it to me and the other day I just put it down and well, it was real! You don’t believe me, do you?’
‘I’m not laughing but you didn’t say I had to believe you!’ When she sees his crestfallen face she feels sorry for him. ‘C’mon, I do. Believe you… I’ve got a ragdoll too, it was our mother’s, maybe it also becomes real if I put it on the ground?’
Rowan’s expression brightens. ‘Yeah! Let’s try it!’
They both run off to get their ragdolls before meeting up behind the hay bales again.
Reverently they put their dolls on the ground. ‘Look! Buddy is already standing! Is he magical?’
‘Wait. Look at Peaches-’
‘Peaches? You call your ragdoll Peaches?’
‘What’s wrong with Peaches? You call yours Buddy and I don’t comment on that!’
‘Yeah, but Peaches is plural. It’s like I call mine Buddies.’
The children are so busy glaring at each other that they don’t notice what’s happening to Peaches. Suddenly the ragdoll unfolds, growing rapidly until it is standing tall behind Rowan’s back. He swirls around at the sight of his sister’s expression and looks triumphantly at her.
‘See? Told you so!’
‘Wow.’ Taïga can hardly believe her eyes. Peaches is just as tall as they are, but he, or she, still looks like a ragdoll.
Nobody notices little Buddy puckering for attention by changing position. He sits down, hanging his head from the effort of standing for so long.
‘This is incredible! Does it move? I mean, can it walk? And talk? Does it understand me, or is it only you who can communicate with it?’
‘Yeah… He talks. Don’t you Peaches?’ Rowan says.
But Peaches doesn’t have the time to say anything. Valkyria turns the corner of a hay bale. She stops and sniffs the air, a menacing growl escaping her.
Before anyone has the time to react, Valkyria attacks the gangly ragdoll. Peaches sets off in a sprint, closely followed by the barking dog and the two children.
‘Wait! Valkyria! Don’t hurt him! Heel!’ Taïga shouts, rushing after her dog.
But for once Valkyria doesn’t obey.
Peaches zigzags through the French garden, jumps over the low hays and barges through the flowerbeds. They rush out again, passing Missy so closely they almost send her spinning off her feet. She shouts angrily after them, but no one stops. The children are soon outdistanced, marveling at the ragdoll’s speed.
‘Oh my! Those two will be my death… Didn’t you see them? Running like madmen after that dog!?!’ Missy complains to her sister who is planting some new specimens of flowers.
Granny looks up at her sister with a little smile. ‘No, I didn’t see them… But I sure heard them. And you!’ She laughs.
Missy watches Granny go about her business, digging holes and putting seedlings in them. Finally she speaks. ‘Ahem. Do you think everything is all right with Rowan?’
Granny stops what she’s doing and looks inquiringly at her sister.
‘Well,’ Missy continues. ‘I’ve seen him talking a lot to himself lately.’
‘You do that a lot, too,’ Granny points out, flattening the earth around a fragile plant.
‘It’s not the same thing! He’s not just talking, he’s having a conversation… with himself.’
Granny doesn’t comment on that, she just rolls her eyes out of view of her sister.
‘Do you think there is… err… insanity on the Di Grisogno side?’ Missy continues.
Granny frowns and proceeds to put another seedling in the soil. Is it possible that he has succeeded in making the ragdoll become an imaginary friend? Extraordinary… Shasta couldn’t and Taïga neither. Well, Shasta never really played with her ragdoll so the magic didn’t have a chance to work. And Taïga was probably too “old” when she started playing with “Buddy” anyway… and the ragdoll hadn’t been destined to her, so there were never any bonds to be created… She sighs and pushes a strand of hair off her forehead with the back of her gloved hand.
‘I don’t think there is anything to worry about,’ she finally says. ‘It’s probably just a phase he’s going through.’
Yes, being far away from his mother, getting a sibling…’ She lets her words trail.
Missy nods, but she doesn’t seem convinced. Muttering to herself she walks back towards the manor.
‘Where are they?’
Taïga and Rowan stops a beat, looking at each other. Then they start hollering again.
‘Peaches! Valkyria! Where are you?’
‘Look! Over there,’ Taïga points towards Valkyria who is turning around the chicken coop. They jog over, out of breath. Valkyria sits in front of the entrance, her tongue hanging and what looks like a grin on her face.
‘Take the dog off of me!’ The trembling voice comes from inside the chicken coop.
‘I got her. Maybe it’s best you don’t put Peaches on the ground when Valkyria is around,’ Taïga shouts over her shoulder as she drags the growling dog off towards the house.
Rowan loves to play pretend, especially cowboys and Indians. Granny had bought him a rocking horse a few years back, and stashed it in the attic as Taïga never paid it much attention. Rowan loves it. He has named it Bandido and drags it around the old mansion on a leash, pretending it is real. Granny has resolutely carried it out onto the porch as the rockers ruin the parquet, telling him a horse is not made for living indoors. That reflection makes him think. He rocks on Bandido, watching old Duke half asleep in the shadows under his favorite tree in the meadow.
‘We have a real horse outside. Why can’t we ride on it?’
‘Because we can’t bring him inside!’ Taïga laughs at her own joke.
‘Very funny. Haha. But seriously. Why can’t we?’
‘Because Duke is too old. He’s retired! And, he’s not ours.’
‘I do.’ Missy puts down her magazine and slams down the glass of soda so it stains the table. ‘The old fleabag belongs to the Muller’s. I’ve already told you both he’s… err… Retired. If a horse can be retired, that is… Anyway. He’s outside, having it nice and calm and darn it if I should have to retire to get some peace and quiet in here.’ She looks sternly at them. ‘Take that dog of yours and go play outside!’
Rowan grimaces, rocking harder. ‘We’re already outside – on the porch,’ he says arrogantly, making the stuffed toy horse advance a few inches.
‘I mean outside. Over there. Far away, out of earshot.’ She gesticulates vaguely towards the door.
‘OK. Horse or no horse…’ Rowan jumps off the rocking horse. ‘You’re pretty darn close! Close enough for me to catch you!’
He grabs for Taïga who dodges him. Screaming with glee they run outside, followed by a happily barking Valkyria.
Every morning the children pays Duke, the old horse, a visit. They feed him carrots and pet him.
They often stay and play in the meadow. The old horse looks at them from a safe distance, enjoying the company. He placidly follows them around, carefully nudging them for treats and caresses.
‘I know I can get up there,’ Rowan says, gesturing towards the horse’s back. ‘If we only could maneuver him towards the fence, I could use it as a ladder…’
Taïga stops scratching Duke’s large head. Rowan can be so stubborn. When he has something on his mind he doesn’t let go. ‘You know we shouldn’t-’
Duke pushes Taïga with his head, begging her to continue.
‘C’mon, Taïga. He won’t even feel us on his back. It won’t hurt him, I promise! And I saw a bridle in the garage the other day!’
Taïga doesn’t answer. She remembers when she last got on a horse without authorization – in Italy – and this time Granny has strictly forbidden her to ride the old horse on her own. But she’s not alone, is she? She’s with Rowan.
‘Don’t you want to try before going back to school? I know you’ve been thinking about it,’ Rowan tries again.
‘You know Granny has told us , not to-’
‘She’s not at home, and she won’t know about it. If you don’t tell, that is.’
‘Of course I won’t tell!’
Rowan looks triumphantly at her.
‘OK. But I’m holding the reins. You’re sitting behind me.’
‘Why? It was my idea.’
‘You said it yourself that I had thought about it, so, in fact, it’s my idea.’ She can’t tell him she has already ridden Duke.
‘That’s not fair!’
‘You want fair? Let’s draw straws about it…’
Soon they are peacefully hiking around the meadow on Duke’s large back. Rowan is holding the reins as Taïga drew the short straw. She is not happy with it, she is the one who can ride after all. But the sheer pleasure of sitting on a horse again makes her forget she is riding shotgun, as Rowan puts it. The makeshift bridle is more of a halter with reins as there is no bit. But they can steer the horse, nudging his neck and unconsciously changing their weight from one side to another. Duke seems happy to walk around with the two children laughing and singing on his back and with Valkyria trotting beside them, worried and curious at the same time.
But Rowan soon gets bored at the slow pace. He wants to ride like a real Native, galloping across the prairie. ‘Hold on, Taïga!’
Whooping, he kicks his heels into the horse’s flank and Taïga almost falls backward when the big horse breaks into a rolling gallop.
Duke settles into a relaxed loop.
‘This is so much more comfortable than Jalouse,’ Taïga shouts. She can’t stop smiling.
‘Yeah, it feels a little like my rocking horse,’ Rowan laughs back.
‘What are you two doing?’ Granny’s voice pierces their happy bubble, and even Duke seems to understand that the fun is over. He stops so abruptly the children almost fall off.
There is nothing they can say to redeem themselves, and that night Granny sends them off to bed deprived of dinner.
‘You think better about your wrongdoings on an empty stomach,’ she admonishes. ‘And tomorrow you are coming with me to visit the Muller’s to explain what you’ve been up to.
‘Will we have breakfast first?’ Rowan asks, but he only gets a stern look before the door closes on them.
The next day, after a sturdy breakfast, they all drive to the Muller’s farm. Missy insists on coming along to gloat but the encounter doesn’t really end as she had expected. The children present their excuses and promise solemnly never to do it again. Mr. Muller hears them out, but then he asks them if they would mind spending a little time officially taking care of the horse – grooming it, and eventually riding. But only in the presence of an adult.
‘Duke has always loved being around children, and sometimes retired horses could become depressive without anything to do,’ he explains.
Granny is first doubtful, and Missy snorts about the depression thing, but finally they give in to the children’s pleas and agree on taking care of the horse.
As soon as Rowan is napping, Taïga starts working on Granny to get permission to ride.
She follows her grandmother around, trying her best to be helpful. Her grandmother sees through her scheming, though, and after having drunk a third glass of the homemade lemonade Taïga insists on bringing her while she is tending to the bougainvillea, she resolutely stares at her and says ‘No.’
‘Yes, you heard me. You will not ride that horse on your own.’
‘Could you help me ride him, then? Please, Granny? Mr. Muller said I could.’
Granny weighs her options; Taïga could be very stubborn and is it really worth it having the annoying child around her all the time, whining about riding? She sighs.
‘I don’t have much time…’
‘Please, Granny?’ Taïga tries her best to look pleading, and it seems to work.
‘We’ll see tomorrow. Now, go get Rowan and do something not dangerous together.’
Taïga hugs her grandmother.
‘Thanks, Granny! I’ll get my helmet!’
‘I said that we’ll see tomorrow.’
But Taïga is already gone.
A few minutes later she is back, her helmet fastened and a huge grin on her face. The poor girl looks so happy Granny cannot refuse. Grumbling, she gets the halter and a tether. Taïga is already in the meadow, chatting softly to the old horse who seems to be sleeping. His ears are twitching, acknowledging Granny, but he doesn’t protest when she puts on the halter and hoists her granddaughter onto his back.
Confidently, Granny starts walking, the tether in her hand, but is pulled to a stop. Duke doesn’t budge. She tries again, but the old horse only stretches his neck forward, his massive hooves firmly stuck to the ground. Granny scratches her head, pulling a little and clicking her tongue.
‘Why aren’t we advancing, Granny?’
‘You should know, you are the rider in the family,’ Granny mutters. ‘Try to kick him a bit with your heels,’ she adds a little louder so Taïga can hear her.
Taïga looks down. The ground seems to be miles below her. She wonders if it would hurt to fall into the water trough just next to her. She squeezes just a little, bending forward and grabbing the mane, just in case.
‘Harder, dear,’ Missy shouts from the balcony where she has been observing the scene, hoping for some action.
‘I don’t want him to dash forward,’ Taïga shouts back.
Missy looks at the horse. He doesn’t seem like he is about to dash anywhere.
‘I’ll bring you a stick!’ Missy shouts and claps her hands.
Duke turns his head and looks up at her, then he starts walking. Granny walks next to the horse’s head, holding the tether, but after a few minutes she gives it to Taïga. She stays close, ready to grab it if the horse shows any sign of nervousness.
‘Do you think he understood what she said?’
Granny thinks it was the clapping, but who knows? ‘Don’t worry, we won’t use a stick on him ever.’
Only two days left of the summer holidays. Taïga has to prepare her things as she is leaving for France again. It feels like the summer has vanished in a blink, she has not had so much fun since she left Bigwood Falls. She thinks of the friends she has been forced to leave, wondering what they are doing now. She has not had any contact with Teddy and Derek for ages, and she wonders if Mitchell, Jen and Leann finally showed up again in Vulturu. They don’t answer her messages, and she has more or less given up trying to contact them again.
She looks at her red suitcase by the door. Geez. She has to pack this morning. She hates packing. And Granny will go over it anyway and rearrange everything, adding and discarding clothes and personal items. She can’t understand why her grandmother insists on her packing on her own… Where to start? She picks up her voodoo doll, thinking about Clotilde and Louise.
Rowan stands in the doorway. ‘Don’t bring that. You’ll scare off that boyfriend of yours!’
‘Yeah. Louis. Oh, and don’t pack that pajamas either – it will definitely scare him off!’
Taïga turns around and throws her voodoo doll at him. Laughing, Rowan dodges.
‘And you’re supposed to put needles in it – not throw it on people!’
‘GET OUT! Don’t you have some packing to do?’
‘Nope. I’m supposed to stay until the baby is born…’
For a fleeting moment Taïga wishes she could stay, too. But then she thinks of Agnès and Jeanne, and of Jalouse and how much she has missed them. Then she remembers that Jeanne won’t be there this year, and her eyes brim with tears. Jeanne was good at soccer, so she has been accepted at a sports program somewhere close to Paris, and she seemed very happy about it. Art was never something she enjoyed.
She realizes Rowan has been talking to her.
‘-but I guess I’ll have to start school here if Mom doesn’t pop out the baby soon.’
‘Yeah. Sure.’ She steers him out of their shared bedroom and closes the door behind him.
Rowan stays behind the door, chatting non-stop about how well he will take care of Valkyria and Duke, but instead of reassuring her it only makes her unhappy. She starts singing to shut his droning voice out and opens the suitcase. Her uniform is neatly folded in it, fresh from the drycleaner’s. She is tempted to leave it be, less clothes to fold, but Granny has asked her to try it on to make sure it is still the right size. She attaches her hair with a pin and starts going through the effects.
She won’t try on the pantyhose, she knew the old ones were definitely too small so Granny has bought her new ones and they are still wrapped in plastic. The skirt is also OK. Granny has done a good job letting down the seams, it hardly shows. But the jacket strains uncomfortably. She pulls on the sleeves and holds her breath so she won’t pop a button. Taïga knows the money is scarce since the renovation of the mansion, so she finally decides on keeping it buttoned only when absolutely necessary.
She can see Rowan outside on his way to the meadow and she realizes she has not even heard him stop talking. She’d better hurry. She doesn’t like him being alone with her horse. It is with relief she gets out of the tight uniform and into some oversized, but comfortable, denim overalls.
She hastily puts her uniform on the bed to fold later and starts throwing random clothes into the suitcase. She looks around the room to see if she hasn’t forgotten something. Her eyes rest on the blue wand.
I can’t take the doll but my wand, yes. I sure won’t leave it here for Rowan to fiddle with during my absence… I’m not supposed to bring it, but what if I’m sharing the room with Clotilde and Louise this year? She picks it up and frowns, imagining what she could do to Clotilde if only Granny would let her use it.
The telephone rings downstairs and she can hear Granny call out, ‘Can somebody answer!?! I’m cooking!’
Taïga won’t have the time to run downstairs anyway, so she stays in her room, picturing Clotilde with her. ‘So what shall it be, Clotilde? A snail? A frog?’ She grimaces. ‘No, something more… A fish!’ She looks at Nemo, the little clownfish Rowan won at the summer festival.
‘Don’t worry, Nemo. I’ll never transform her into a cutie like you.’ She addresses an imaginary Clotilde again, ‘I’ll make you become a… a tragic clownfish!’
She waves the wand to underline her words and green sparkles erupt.
A movement in the glass bowl draws her attention. Nemo seems to have grown. But when Taïga approaches she is crestfallen. Her little Nemo is wearing some kind of yellow collar, a tear is painted on his cheek and he has a big, red clown nose. Valkyria whimpers behind her and she swallows.
‘Err… I have to make this right again…’
Miezul Nopţii jumps up onto the bedside table and looks at the clownfish with interest gleaming in her yellow eyes.
The telephone has started ringing again, the shrill tones echoing through the old manor.
‘Can somebody please answer the dang phone? The ringing is getting on my nerves.’ Granny pours milk into the bowl and looks over her shoulder for someone to answer her plea.
Missy hurries past her baking sister. The kitchen is smelling divinely good from her creations, making Missy’s mouth water. There are already a lemon curdle pie and a blueberry pie on the counter, and she can see something vaguely looking like an apricot pie in the oven.
Hoping it is Juan Darer calling her about the treehouse she picks up the handset of the old rotary dial telephone, a breathy ‘Hello, the Grey residence’, on her lips.
‘Hold on, please…’ Disappointed, she covers the mouthpiece with her hand and calls out in direction of the kitchen, ‘Tara, it’s for you!’
‘I can’t take the call right now. Ask them to leave a message and I will call back later, when I’m done here.’
Missy sighs. She is nobody’s secretary. ‘My sister is busy right now, but if you leave a message she will be happy to get back to you. Soon,’ she adds for good measure.
The woman with the horrible French accent says something she doesn’t quite get. ‘Could you please repeat? … When? … Oh…’
Without a word Missy hangs up.
‘Who was it?’ Granny puts the newly baked pie on the counter before she shoves the next one into the oven. She turns around and dries her hands on the apron, concerned about her sister’s silence. But when she sees the look on Missy’s face she goes livid.
‘I think you should sit down, Tara.’
Like in a dream Granny listens to her sister tell her about François’s fatal accident three weeks ago, and about the new board’s “no scholarship” policy. The new Headmaster has decided to only take in aristocrats and very wealthy students – no more scholarships are to be granted, no matter how talented the student is…
With a heavy heart she heads upstairs to tell Taïga she won’t go back to boarding school this term, or ever again…
They sit on the bed and Taïga excitedly tells her grandmother about what Miezul Nopţii just had done.
‘-and before I had the time to do anything, Minuit just jumped up and grabbed Nemo. Like this,’ she mimes the scene, ‘-and then she ate him! Rowan will be devastated, he loved Nemo!’
Granny thinks it was doomed to happen sooner or later. ‘I think it would be better to have a real aquarium if you want to keep fish. Like that they will be safe from the cat.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Taïga throws a glance at Miezul Nopţii who is licking her paws and purring with satisfaction. She is grateful to the cat for saving her from the dilemma of explaining her grandmother about the unauthorized use of magic
Granny fiddles with the hem of her skirt, assembling her forces to explain in a calm way about the phonecall. ‘I just had some upsetting news, Taïga.’
Taïga looks at her grandmother who continues. ‘It was a call from Saint Simon’s. About your next term…’
Taïga listens silently to her grandmother, then, when Granny stands up and leaves, she starts to unpack, a strange feeling of guilt overcoming her. She had wished she didn’t have to go back, but she had never wanted someone to die. But then again, the accident was three weeks ago, so it can’t have been her fault…
Like a robot Granny walks into the bedroom she shares with her sister. Carefully she shuts the door behind her. She leans her forehead against the thick wooden surface, closing her eyes and feeling them burn. She walks over to her bed and slumps down on it, staring at the opposite wall with unseeing eyes. The pain overwhelms her and she gives in, letting the tears flood her eyes and roll down her cheeks. She doesn’t know for how long she sits there, crying silently over the man she had cared about so much and both hers and Taïga’s lost opportunities to a safe, stable future.
A few days later, Taïga and Rowan start at Twallan’s Preparatory and Middle School in Falls Harbor, all expenses paid by Count Di Grisogno. He always wants the best for his son, and couldn’t very well let his son start in a better school than his “step daughter”.
Rowan can’t hide how happy he is that Taïga doesn’t leave. He hates when she cries, though, and she has cried herself to sleep the last three nights. She has sent letters to her friends, trying to explain why she can’t continue at the Academy. It is with apprehension she gets on the yellow school bus for the half hour long trip into the City. It feels good to have Rowan with her, she has to be strong for him and take care of him. It gives her the strength she needs to face yet another new school.
A shadow detaches itself from the high marsh grass. Someone has been hiding in the dark, patiently waiting for the children to finally stop playing and get to bed. By now everyone in the huge mansion are supposedly asleep.
Starlight gleams over pale skin and a shock of blond, immaculately styled hair. It is Magnus Darkling, Taïga’s father, who has finally found the Grey’s new abode. He avoids the front of the Manor as there is no point in knocking, the two old spinsters would never let him in anyway.
In the absence of moonlight, he quickly dashes unseen over the lawn and jumps up onto the railing on the porch.
He climbs without effort up to the first floor and sneaks forward, close to the wall, his silhouette almost undistinguishable in the moving shadows.
Catlike, he jumps from one balcony to another, the only sound a slight whoosh in the air.
He stops to listen, making sure he can only hear the slow rhythmical breathing of four people inside the manor.
He stops in front of an open screen door, a faint night lamp lighting up the interior of a bedroom. Old blue wallpaper, a painting of a young Pan and there she is, his daughter…
But she’s not alone. He had not expected her to share her room with anyone, let it be what looks like her brother. Shasta’s son. He licks his lips. Maybe it is time for a little vengeance snack. But Taïga would never forgive him if she wakes up next to the ravaged body of her little brother, finding out it is her own father who is responsible. No. It would probably be a traumatizing experience for a human child. He’d get back to Shasta some other way…
Magnus hasn’t come this far to turn around. Carefully he touches the doorknob… it turns easily in his hand. He frowns. Anybody could climb up here with a knife and cut through the screen and then harm his child. The witches should at least lock the door. But maybe Tara has thrown some spell, preventing anyone from entering…
He pushes up the door and hesitates for a brief second before nudging forward with his foot, expecting the painful jolt of a threshold he has not been invited over. But he doesn’t feel anything special. No throbbing, no sensation of electricity.
So clever of the Greys’. They have not paid for their new residence. He chuckles. The mansion must still belong to that old spinster – what’s her name again? She’s dead anyway… With a slight smile he steps over the threshold…
Magnus stares in awe at his daughter. She is slightly tanned, with a sprinkle of freckles over the tiny nose and her cheeks are a healthy pink from playing outdoors. Her dark hair is fanning out over the pillow, a tangled mass of curls, just as he remembers her mother’s. But her eyelashes are, if possible, longer than hers and the beautifully formed brows look like a swallow’s wings. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, analyzing and memorizing her scent. Carefully he approaches his hand to touch her smooth skin, but she mumbles in her sleep and he holds his breath. He realizes he has spent longer watching the sleeping child than he first intended. He has to do what he came for – before she wakes up.
He fumbles with something in his pocket, holding it up and letting it catch the faint moonlight. It is his most precious belonging, handed down to him from Yggve Darkling himself. An incredibly rare item, a moon cut soul piece – the only thing that can cure a vampire from a werewolf’s bite.
But Taïga is not a vampire. He hesitates. He can feel the body heat radiating off her, the rush of blood in her veins and her the beating of her heart, thudding rhythmically. Maybe he should just take her with him? But is he ready to take on the education of a child? Even if it is his…
She mutters in her sleep, ‘… I know, Granny, there are no such things as werewolves…’
Silently he puts the jewel on Taïga’s bedside table before backing out of the room.
With a last glance over his shoulder at his peacefully sleeping child…
… he jumps down onto the lawn.
Silently Magnus vanishes, swallowed by the dense vegetation.
Part I – End of Chapter 59
Thanks to k2m1too for their very useful Kapow! poses and the Ondisplay set I seem to use all the time! And Jessesue, whose so sensitive family poses I have become addicted to! Of course there are other fantastic creators, I link back to my poses page so you can visit their sites!