It will take a Yuletide miracle—and love—to break a witch’s curse.
Anders left the woman he loved to join the king’s army. On the way, a vicious storm forced him to seek shelter with a witch.
Don’t strike any bargains. He was familiar with the stories. Thought he knew how to keep himself safe—how wrong he was. A curse left him howling at cruel fate.
Alva promised to wait for Anders. He’d asked her to be his wife, but before they could marry, he was determined to prove his worth. Years passed with no visit. No word. Hope faded, and realization set in. Anders was not coming back, but could she move on?
Guntar would like her to—with him. He’s been courting her since his return, but she is leery of giving her heart. A decision made more complicated when she is forced to deal with the witch of Briar Forest - and possibly ruining her chance for a happily ever after.
Once upon a time, two young men went into the woods on their way to join the army. Their small town had no use for two more boys. The current needs of the town were met. They had a miller, a baker, even a candlestick maker. And so many woodsmen, the forest was suffering; the animals sparse from over hunting.
On the cusp of manhood, Guntar and Anders knew that in order to make their mark, they had to leave home.
Anders especially needed it. Life at home hadn’t been great of late, his mother grumbling even more than usual.
“Look what I brought for the trip.” Guntar withdrew a flagon from his cloak and shook it with a grin.
Not much of a surprise. Guntar often brought along something belly-burning. “When your father realizes you took it…” A warning left unfinished.
“Usually, he’d curse me out then buy another. But this time, my friend,”—Guntar lifted the alcohol—“he gave it to me.”READ MORE
“Gave?” Anders arched a brow.
Guntar’s father, whom everyone called Captain, was strict with his son. “You have to earn it,” was something often barked.
“A reward because the captain,”—whose children didn’t dare use any other title—“got what he wanted. We are going to be good soldiers for the king.”
“Which one?” Anders muttered. In the past twenty years, they’d gone through three and an evil queen.
“It’s the one with the daughter.”
That caused Anders’ eyes to roll. “Don’t they all have a princess?”
“Yes, they do. Can’t wait to meet one,” Guntar said with a wink as he passed the flagon of alcohol to Anders.
“Never happen.” Princesses were for wedding princes and kings, or as prizes for a valiant hero to vanquish some kind of threat. Dragon being the most common. Anders didn’t need to slay any monsters to have the woman he loved.
“You have so little faith.”
Anders eyed his friend, whom the girls all claimed was handsome. He didn’t see it. Neither did his heartmate. “I wish you luck finding a princess. I don’t plan to be in the army that long.” A year. Two at the most. Long enough to build a bit of a nest egg. Something he could point to and say: “I earned this.”
“You and your plan,” Guntar groaned. “Drink!”
A swig had Anders holding his breath. He’d accidentally choked on a drop once. Thought he was going to die, he’d coughed and heaved for so long. Didn’t stop him from having the next sip, though. He couldn’t resist the fiery, mouth-twisting ball of heat that spread rapidly.
“Good stuff,” he said, handing back the flagon.
“Only the best for my father,” Guntar drawled. He and his sire had not always seen eye to eye. The commanding man didn’t believe in coddling a son. Men should be strong. Never show or act out of emotion.
Guntar’s idea of rebellion was constant pranks and laughter. His father hated it. And yet, Guntar kept doing it.
“Don’t complain. Even if he’s a dick, you’re lucky to have a father.” Anders had lost his some time ago. So long, he no longer remembered his face. But his mother still cried because he looked like him, and that hurt her.
Another reason to leave home. Anders couldn’t listen to the recrimination. It was his fault that she couldn’t remarry or just pick up and go.
“Yeah, I’m lucky. Especially compared to you. How ugly was it when you left with your mother?”
“Not that bad.” When he’d claimed he was leaving, his mother initially reacted with joy.
“Get, you. About time you left.”
Then it’d turned to anger.
“That’s right, leave me to fend for myself after ruining my life.”
And, to end it like it always did: tears.
“I’m sorry. I love you. Don’t leave me.”
Anders had been eager to walk away, and the guilt of it ate at him, even as relief soothed.
“Your mother really needs to remarry. Surprising she got no offers,” his friend remarked. “She’s a fine woman.”
She was. Pretty of features and figure. He knew she got offers. But she never accepted any of them. Could she actually still mourn her late husband? Hard to tell, given he was either a saint or evil incarnate, depending on her mood.
“My mother is complicated.” And, hopefully, better off without him making her upset just by existing.
“Speaking of complicated, how did Alva take the news about you leaving?” Guntar asked.
The baker’s daughter. They’d known each other since childhood, became lovers in their teens, and always knew they’d get married when they became of age. This past summer for Anders, but Alva wouldn’t be old enough until the spring. Not that far away given they were close to the Yuletide.
“She took it well for the most part. She knows I have to do this.” He wouldn’t marry her empty-handed.
A glance at his feet reminded Anders of why he had to leave temporarily. The shoes he wore bore stitches and patches over more patches, a rag-tag mess, and no match for the weather. How he envied his friend his fine boots. As a soldier, Guntar’s father provided well for his family. He also spent months away from home. But no matter where he traveled, his military pay arrived without fail to support those in his care. When the captain returned home, he received a hero’s welcome. It seemed like a good exchange.
And it wasn’t forever. Just long enough that he could look Alva’s father in the eye and say, “I am worthy of your daughter.”
Alva didn’t like Anders’ plan to enlist, but she clasped his hands tight and said, “I know you’ll come back to me.”
“Always.” And then, since the moment was right, he’d dropped to a knee.
Anders told Guntar, who was taking a swig, “On my first leave home, she and I will marry.”
“Whoa.” Guntar spat out the alcohol and choked. When he could breathe again, it was to wheeze. “You idiot. Why would you marry her so quick?”
“Because I love her.” Anders held out his hand, and it was his turn to drink the liquid fire.
“Exactly the problem. You love her, and now that she’s said yes, you’re going to try and be faithful because you’re that kind of guy.” Guntar shook his head.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“We’re leaving this place for the big, bad world. I, for one, am glad I won’t have to deal with someone bothered by my adventures.” Guntar did a shimmy of his hips and laughed.
“Is that what you are calling it now?” Anders snorted. The woods around them began to darken noticeably, despite the fact that it was early afternoon still.
“Getting dark out here.” Anders tilted his head to glance overhead, seeing the darkening sky through barren branches.
Guntar followed suit with a squint and muttered, “Storm clouds.” He took a swig and belched. “That sucks.”
“Sucks? What kind of verbiage is that?” Anders asked.
“Army talk. You’ll have a whole new vocabulary soon,” Guntar promised.
“Does that vocabulary have a word for this is going to get ugly?” The sky didn’t just swallow all the light, it began dumping thick snowflakes that didn’t melt when they hit the ground and foliage. But worse, it obscured the path ahead.
They were in the woods, far from home or the next town. Increasing their pace made no sense, and yet, they both began walking faster, talking as if they were out for a stroll.
“I can’t believe you’re going to get married soon. Won’t be long before Alva spits out some babies.”
“I guess.” Anders hadn’t thought that far. His first plan was to make enough so they could marry.
“At least you’ll be making enough to support Alva in style. You’ll need a house. You should get one close to mine.”
“A house?” he repeated dumbly.
“You can’t exactly live with your mother.”
He grimaced. “That would be cruel to Alva. But then again so was her suggestion.”
“What has Alva said about where you should live?” a curious Guntar asked.
“She thinks I should move in with her parents and become a baker.” No hiding his dislike of that idea.
Guntar winced. “That sounds respectable and cozy.”
“Not to mention I’m not a baker.”
“No, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to inherit a business. After all, she is an only child. I changed my mind. I think it’s smart of you to convince her to wait for you.”
“That’s not why I asked!” He couldn’t hide his indignation at the suggestion.
“Says you. Don’t care. In just a few days, we’ll be taking our place in the ranks. And it’s going to be grand. Fighting and then coming home for the heroes’ celebration. And fucking. So much fucking.” Guntar’s tone was vulgar, and Anders imagined he leered.
He couldn’t actually see his friend’s face. He couldn’t see a damned thing in front of him. All sense of direction and light had disappeared.
“It’s awfully dark for this time of day. I can’t see shit,” Anders declared, stepping in front of Guntar to stop him.
“So, it’s not just me? I was worried I was drunk.” Guntar squinted, his face inches from Anders but barely visible.
“How do we know we’re going in the right direction?”
“Maybe we should stop and hope the storm blows by quick.”
Guntar disagreed. “Not here. We’re too exposed. We need to find shelter. A decent-sized tree to provide a windbreak at the least; a thicket would be best.”
“What about a house?” Anders murmured aloud. “Is it me, or do you see a light over there?”
“Where?” Guntar exclaimed, only to gasp. “It is light. Let’s go.”
Anders could hear his friend huffing as they went through the woods, weaving around trees that suddenly cropped up to smack them, the storm whipping at their exposed skin. The cold permeated every inch of him to the point he felt nothing in his limbs. A bad sign. He’d be lucky if he got to keep all his parts.
As they neared the light, the storm relented, but only enough that they could see that they trudged towards a house. Brightly lit windows flanked a door, and a stable was attached.
Anders took a step closer, and the blowing snow ceased whipping. He froze in place and gaped. At the edge of the clearing, the storm turned gentle, the flakes falling softly, pleasantly.
Unnaturally. Which led to him growling.
Anders jumped out of the sorcerous clearing in front of the cottage. He wouldn’t be tainted.
Guntar stood inside the calm zone, arms crossed, brow arched. “What are you doing?”
Anders stared at his friend. “Everyone knows nothing good comes of magic.” They had been taught the adage from a young age.
“That is small-town thinking. Better open your mind if you’re going to survive the big, bad world.” Guntar headed for the door.
“What are you doing?”
“Looks warm inside.”
“You can’t go in there,” Anders insisted. “The witch lives here.” He should have realized what they’d found the moment they saw it.
People spoke of the witch of Briar Forest in whispers. Everyone knew she lived in the woods, even as no one could say exactly where. People went to visit her when they needed a special kind of help. But her aid always came with a price.
“She’s a witch, not Satan’s handmaiden. We need somewhere to get warm and dry.” Guntar showed no qualms as he stalked to the door.
As Guntar rapped, Anders approached slower, eyeing the swirling storm that stopped at an invisible barrier, leaving the cottage and yard amid an uncanny, gentle snowfall. The house had a solid appearance to it with its mortared river stone walls. A thatched roof held a layer of snow through which a chimney peeked. Anders could smell smoke.
Which meant warmth. He also scented—
“Food!” Guntar groaned. “I am so hungry.”
So very, very hungry. The need hit Anders hard, and he was at Guntar’s shoulder when the door opened.
Heavenly scents spilled out. Heat, too—the kind to seep into cold, wet muscle and bone.
“Oh, goodness. What have we here?” The matronly figure in front of them was at least two handspans shorter than them both and much rounder. Her hair was a frazzled mess pulled back into a bun. Eyes bore crinkles that matched the happy ones by her mouth.
“Sorry to show up unannounced. We were caught by the storm.” Guntar, gallant as ever, poured on the charm. Women loved it and his blond looks.
Not Alva, though. She loved Anders.
“It’s nasty outside. Won’t you come in where it’s warm?”
Guntar had no issue. “Thank you.”
Anders hesitated. He couldn’t help recalling the miller’s wife’s words the time she’d sent Anders and her son, Pietro, into the woods for mushrooms. “If you ever accidentally come across the Briar Forest witch, keep in mind whatever it is she offers, the price will always be too high.”
Guntar beckoned. “Get inside. She’s not going to hurt you.”
“Me?” The woman giggled and looked about as dangerous as a mouse.
Wind slapped Anders as the calm disappeared. The sudden influx of cold had him tightening.
The woman looked grave for a moment as she said, “Best come in. Looks like the eye of the storm has passed on.”
Eye? Plausible and not at the same time. Yet what other choice did he have? Die of exposure or enter the lair of a seemingly benign woman who might be a witch?
He took a step over the threshold and noticed the signs that she celebrated the Yuletide. The evergreen wreath wound with pinecones and berries on the wall by her door. A potted tree, the branches hung with candied fruit.
His eyes widened and then almost escaped his face as he beheld a table with platters mounded with meat. Bowls with vegetables and other things he’d never imagined. A feast.
“I’ve been expecting you.”
“Who are you?”
“Call me, Grandmother, Anders.” Her eyes flashed with a bright blue flame.COLLAPSE