When Merry inherits a bookshop from a grandmother she never knew existed, the last thing she expected was to be transported to another world. But while claiming her inheritance, she accidentally triggers a spell that takes her to Tirana; a world where magic is real, and where her grandmother left behind powerful enemies.
Now those enemies are after Merry, and she has to return home before they catch up with her. With the transportation spell broken, and mages and enforcers on her tail, she flees with her grandmother's familiar, Sadie. But the black cat can't save her when she draws the attention of the guild. On the run and searching for a way to remake the spell to take her home, Merry encounters dangers that may prove costly to both worlds.
Merry must learn to wield elemental powers of Air, Earth, Water, Fire and Spirit to have any hope of returning home. If she fails, she will be stuck in Tirana forever, while an ancient enemy may gain the foothold it needs to rid the world of magic for good.
Read the first book in a magical portal fantasy series now and get Spell Struck with Merry.
Release date: July 18, 2020
Print pages: 164
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Shelley Russell Nolan
Merry held her breath as she pushed open the door to the solicitor’s office with one hand, the other clutching the letter that had brought her here. The letter stated she was a beneficiary to her grandmother’s estate.
A grandmother she hadn’t known existed until today.
She grimaced at the memory of the scene with her parents after she’d gone over to their house to show them the letter the day before. Her father insisted his mother had been crazy and Merry should “accept nothing from that woman.” Her mother lamented naming their only child after a woman who had abandoned her family.
It had taken a bit to calm them down to get the full story. Even then Merry wasn’t sure she had it straight. Her grandmother had disappeared when her dad was a child and had been presumed dead, and his father had died three years later, leading him to become a ward of the state. Then, when Merry was five, his mother had turned up and claimed she had been trapped on another world, had used magic to return, and now wanted to be part of the family again. Her father was shocked to find out she had been alive all along, and furious about the ridiculous excuse she’d offered. He’d forbidden her to have any contact with him or Merry and kicked her out of the house, never to be seen or heard from again.
Merry didn’t blame him for being mad, and it helped her to understand why he had never let her read what he called “airy fairy” books when she was growing up and why he’d declared any movie or television show that featured magic to be off limits. She didn’t like going against her parents’ wishes, but she was in desperate need of money. She’d lost her job two weeks ago, and a day after that the flat she’d rented for the last year had been sold. Thanks to an error with the original paperwork, the new owners did not have to honour the rental agreement and had given Merry until the end of the month to move out. If whatever her grandmother had left her meant she didn’t have to move back in with her parents and kept her going until she found another job, the ensuing drama would be worth it.
Inside the air-conditioned foyer of the solicitor’s office, she stood in front of a gleaming black and silver reception desk, smiling nervously at the immaculately groomed woman standing on the other side.
‘Ah, hello, I’m Merry Meadows. I mean, Meredith Meadows. I’m here to see Mrs O’Neil.’
The perfectly made up receptionist lifted her nose as she looked Merry up and down, pursing her lips when her gaze took in the long purple hair. From her disapproving expression, the receptionist would agree with Merry’s parents about it not being an appropriate colour. Her decision to have her pale blonde hair dyed to help raise money for cancer research had gone down almost as well as the arrival of the solicitor’s letter.
‘Take a seat, please, Miss Meadows. I’ll let Mrs O’Neil know you have arrived.’ The receptionist turned around, her heels not making a sound on the plush carpeted floor as she headed to a door set in the wall behind the reception desk.
Merry perched on the edge of a red velvet lounge that was even more plush than the dark grey carpet. She hadn’t anticipated needing to dress up for a simple appointment, but her black shorts and shirt and her favourite pair of ankle boots were out of place in her current surroundings.
The lounge was edged with gold trim, while gold scatter cushions were artfully arranged, making her hesitate to get comfortable. She eyed the rest of the furnishings in the reception area, taking in the fresh bouquet of flowers on the main desk and the thick stack of current upmarket magazines on the coffee table in front of the lounge. Everything was opulent and clearly expensive. They even had an enormous chandelier, with hundreds of teardrop shaped crystals, to light the foyer. She couldn’t begin to guess how much it cost to have Mrs O’Neil as her solicitor, but it had to be a lot. Had her grandmother been rich?
She shouldn’t be thinking this way after just finding out her grandmother had recently died, but if she were to inherit a small fortune it would mean all her problems were solved. Besides, it wasn’t as though she had even known her grandmother existed until the day before.
She heard the swish of a door opening and looked up to see the receptionist pointing in her direction. At her side was a motherly looking woman with her hair in a messy bun and wearing a dress in a purple two shades brighter than Merry’s hair.
The woman wore a huge smile as she approached and stretched out a hand covered in gaudy rings studded with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. ‘Oh, my dear, it is so good to meet you at last. Your grandmother spoke about you so often it almost felt as if you were one of my own grandchildren.’ She clasped Merry’s hand between both of hers and didn’t seem inclined to let go. ‘You look so much like her. You have the same striking blue eyes. It’s as if a young Meredith has come to visit me.’
‘Ah…’ Merry looked to the sleek receptionist, seeking inspiration. All she got was a raised eyebrow before the receptionist moved to take her place back behind the desk.
Merry pulled her hand free and stood up. ‘You knew my grandmother well?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Mrs O’Neil, still beaming a wide smile. ‘We were wonderful friends.’
‘Hmm, great,’ said Merry, not sure how good of friends they could be if the solicitor wasn’t aware that she hadn’t even known her grandmother existed before today.
She didn’t want to be pushy, but the way the woman kept smiling at her made her want to get out of there as soon as possible. ‘Your letter said something about me being a beneficiary of her estate.’
‘Yes, of course.’ The smile dimmed slightly, and then returned even wider than before. ‘Why don’t we go to my office and we can go over the details of exactly what you have inherited.’
Merry followed Mrs O’Neil to an office that was even more opulently fitted out than the reception, the bright purple of the solicitor’s dress clashing with the red, black and silver decor. Once the door closed behind them, Mrs O’Neil urged Merry to take a seat in front of a steel and smoked glass desk.
‘Now, before we discuss your inheritance, I will need to see some identification, to make sure I am dealing with the right person,’ said Mrs O’Neil, eyes fixed on Merry. ‘I do love your hair, by the way. Purple is my favourite colour. Your grandmother’s favourite too; one of the many things she and I had in common.’
Merry managed a slight smile. ‘Thank you,’ she said, the solicitor’s overly friendly manner setting her teeth on edge as she rummaged in her shoulder bag.
The letter had detailed the need for identification, so she had brought her birth certificate, driver’s licence and passport. Mrs O’Neil scrutinised all three and jotted down the numbers in neat handwriting on a sheet of paper, and then pulled a manila folder out of a red metal filing cabinet that sat behind her desk. She placed the folder on the desk and Merry saw a white sticker on the front with her name written on it in black pen. Or was that her grandmother’s name?
Mrs O’Neil opened the folder, pulled out a white envelope and handed it to Merry.
‘Your grandmother requested I give this to you, once you were notified of her death. It contains the deed to her bookshop, Merry Magic, as well as the key. As per her instructions, no one has set foot on the premises since she passed so all her belongings are still there. As the sole beneficiary of Meredith’s estate, everything she possessed now belongs to you to do with as you wish. The bookshop is located in the locality of Belwich, and there is a small residence above the shop where your dear grandmother resided prior to her death.’
Merry’s eyes widened as she clutched the envelope. ‘Is that where she died? At her bookshop?’ She couldn’t imagine having someone die on the premises would be good for future business.
Mrs O’Neil gave a sad sigh, though her wide smile never wavered. ‘Your grandmother spent her last days in Belwich Hospital. She did not die at her home. Your home now, if you so choose.’
Merry shook her head. Belwich was a tiny town, probably too small to be even classed as a town, two hours south of Werranton. While her inheritance might offer her a place to live, the job prospects there would be even worse. But maybe the bookshop was making enough money that it would be worth her while to move to Belwich?
Before she could figure out a tactful way to broach the subject, Mrs O’Neil said, ‘I’m afraid your grandmother’s shop was not doing as well as it could, before she had to close it due to her sudden illness, and what savings she had were used to cover her medical expenses and for her funeral. Even if you were to find someone who wanted to buy her clothes and everything she owned, it would not be enough to keep the shop running for more than a week or two.’
Merry hid her disappointment as she digested the words. ‘She’s already been buried?’ She’d have thought they would have had to notify her father prior to burial at least. He was her next of kin, and he hadn’t seemed to be aware of her death when she’d shown him the solicitor’s letter.
‘According to your grandmother’s wishes, you were not to be contacted until after her funeral. She did not hold with what she viewed as exacerbating the grief of those left behind. She wanted no fuss, and to merely take her final resting place in the town she loved best.’
Mrs O’Neil clapped her hands, making Merry jump. ‘Now, I am sure this is a lot to take in, but there is one other matter I need to discuss with you. One I believe you will be very interested in.’ She reached back into the manila folder and pulled out several sheets of paper stapled together.
‘Soon after your grandmother passed away, I was contacted by a client who wishes to purchase the bookshop. They have made a very generous offer and I really think you should consider it.’ Mrs O’Neil gave an indulgent smile. ‘A young lady like yourself would not wish to be stuck in such a small town as Belwich or running a shop that is unable to even cover the operating costs.’
Merry frowned. While the idea of being stuck in a small town did suck, she didn’t like the patronising way Mrs O’Neil was looking at her. ‘If it’s not making any money, why does your client want to buy it?’
Mrs O’Neil’s lips firmed in a line. ‘I believe their intent is to repurpose the space in a more fitting manner than a bookshop. They have made numerous offers to your grandmother over the years, but she refused to sell, even though it was clear her mental faculties were, shall we say, not at their best. They are hoping you’re more willing to see reason than she was.’ She circled a section of the first piece of paper in red pen and then shoved it over to Merry.
Merry looked down, eyes focusing on the amount that was circled. She gasped.
That would more than see her through until she could find a new job. No more worrying about being able to pay the rent on a new flat or waiting to qualify for unemployment benefits. She’d be free to start over, without debts.
She looked up at Mrs O’Neil, who wore a smug expression as she held out a black pen. ‘Just sign and date on the pages I have marked for you and I will take care of everything. I promise, you will never receive a better offer.’
Merry’s eyes skimmed over the first page of the paperwork, not understanding half of what she was reading, except that it was a contract for the sale of Merry Magic.
The name tugged at her.
Her nickname. Maybe even the same nickname her grandmother had been known by.
‘Once you sign, all your financial troubles will be over, my dear.’
Merry frowned at the eagerness in Mrs O’Neil’s voice. She put the pen down. ‘Do you mind if I take some time to think about it?’ At the very least she needed to read over the contract, preferably with a legal dictionary handy. There were so many clauses and big words on the first page that Merry could be signing anything. This was all happening so fast. She needed to stop and think about it.
‘What’s there to think about? You need money, and my clients are willing to pay handsomely.’
Merry stiffened. ‘How do you know I need money?’
Mrs O’Neil gave a start and then covered with a little laugh. ‘You’re nineteen years old. All teenage girls need money.’
Merry stood, stuffing the contract and the envelope with the deed and key to Merry Magic into her bag. ‘I would like to take some time to consider this offer before I make up my mind.’
Mrs O’Neil stood and gave Merry a smile that looked forced. ‘Don’t consider it too long. The offer is only valid to the end of the month. The utilities have also been paid up until then. After that, you’re on your own.’ For the first time, the tone of her voice was hard, almost threatening. The stare the solicitor gave her was just as hard as her tone.
Merry ducked her head and exited the office, clutching her bag tightly as she wondered if her crazy grandmother’s inheritance was going to prove to be more trouble than it was worth.
During the drive home, she puzzled over the strange encounter with Mrs O’Neil. The way the solicitor had looked at her, as she’d left without signing the contract, had been chilling. A far cry from all the gushing and smiling and talk of how wonderful friends she and Merry’s grandmother had been. Her manner had been very off-putting as had been the pressure to sign the contract there and then. As if anyone, on learning they had just inherited a business, would sign it away without first checking if the offer was a good one or not.
When she reached the flat, she let herself in, made her way to the kitchen and placed her bag on the dining table. She reached inside and pulled out the envelope containing the deed and key to Merry Magic. She opened it up, only to find they were not the only things inside.
Written in a shaky hand, on pale purple paper, was a letter addressed to her.
To my darling Merry,
I can never tell you how sorry I am that we never got to meet in person. I have watched over you through the years and you have always been in my thoughts. Please don’t be mad at your father for keeping us apart. He had his reasons, as did I in respecting his wishes to stop trying to contact you until now, when it is far too late for us to have the relationship I have long dreamed of.
I can never make up for missing out on being a part of your life, but know that I have always loved you, and I named my shop for you. While we may share the same first name, no one has ever called me Merry. I hope Merry Magic brings you as much happiness as it did me, and that it makes up in some small way for my absence in your life.
Until we meet again in the next life, may the magic of the world shine upon you.
Merry wiped a tear away as she reread the letter, wishing she had been given the chance to know her grandmother. It was hard not to feel anger at her parents, her father especially, for keeping them apart. Then again, if her mother suddenly disappeared only to turn up years later talking about magic and other worlds maybe she would feel the same.
Either way, there was no way of knowing how she and her grandmother may have got on.
Had her grandmother really been crazy?
The letter didn’t read that way, and she’d named her bookshop after Merry.
Merry pulled the contract out of her bag and placed it on the dining table. $125,000 was a lot of money. An offer too good to be passed up, Mrs O’Neil had said. Maybe.
Merry had no idea what the market price was for bookshops, especially one that wasn’t making any money. For all she knew, the place could be worth twice as much and Mrs O’Neil’s claim it was going broke might be a lie so she could earn herself a fat commission by brokering the sale. No way was she going to trust a solicitor she had only just met. She had no idea who it was that wanted to buy the bookshop, or if Mrs O’Neil was right in saying it was the best offer she would ever get.
It was time to see if the solicitor had been telling the truth.
She scooped up her bag and the paperwork, headed to her room and switched on her laptop. While she waited for the laptop to boot up, she read over the contract, trying to make sense of the legal jargon. On the last page, she saw the name of a corporation listed under the line marked as buyer.
Merry frowned. The name sounded familiar. Where had she heard it before?
She typed the name into the search engine and scrolled through the first page of hits, but nothing jumped out at her. She clicked the link titled “News” and one article came up, listing a recent purchase by Huntington Inc. of a commercial property. She scrolled down until she found the address, gasping when she recognised it.
207 Quay Lane.
The same address as the shopping centre that housed Bling and Baubles, the place where Merry had worked since finishing high school, until it was sold and the new owner evicted all the tenants thanks to a legal loophole. Huntington Inc. was the reason Merry lost her job, and now they wanted to buy her grandmother’s bookshop from her. She scanned the article and a chill swept over her when she saw the date the sale had gone through. The same date her grandmother died.
It couldn’t be a coincidence.
She looked to see if there was an address listed for Huntington Inc. but all that came up was an email address and a phone number. She dialled the number and got an answering machine. She hung up the phone without leaving a message, undecided as to what to do now.
If they were so keen to buy the bookshop that they were willing to go to such lengths as to put her out of work, there had to be a reason. She intended to find it out. She had less than a month to make up her mind as to whether to sell the bookshop. She was going to use that time wisely, starting now.
Merry stuffed the contract and the keys to Merry Magic back into her bag. Then she raced to her car and set her phone’s GPS for Belwich. With the bland tones of the GPS giving directions, she backed out of the driveway.
Alone with her thoughts, Merry spent the two-hour drive trying to come up with a plausible reason that did not involve some company scheming to buy her inheritance. The closer she got to Belwich, the more she wondered if she was overreacting. She was almost tempted to turn around, but she’d come so far already. Besides, didn’t she owe it to her grandmother to at least visit the bookshop that had been named after her?
When she pulled up in what appeared to be the main street of Belwich, it was late afternoon. There were few cars or people on the streets, but those that were about turned to stare at Merry and her purple hatchback as she drove by. She grimaced, sure they had noted she was an outsider. In a town this small, everyone probably knew each other and what kinds of cars they all drove. She pushed that thought out of her mind as the GPS announced she was nearing her destination.
There, a splash of colour among the other plain shopfronts stood out, and she parked in front of it and got out of the car, letting her eyes take it all in.
A colourful design, shimmering in blues and purples, showed an open book from which magical sparkles danced above the page. It was beautiful, as were the words written above the image of an open book in the centre of the display - “Merry Magic - Where an adventure awaits on every page.”
Merry hadn’t read many physical books since she had finished high school, moved out and been able to sign up for streaming services to binge watch all the television shows and movies her parents had never allowed her to watch. She’d made up for it by listening to audiobooks while she created jewellery to sell in Bling and Baubles. That shop was now closed, thanks to Huntington Inc.
Merry hunted in her bag for the envelope containing the key as she stepped towards the wooden front door, smiling to see that it had been painted to resemble a magical portal. The care her grandmother had made with the outside of the shop made her eager to see what awaited her inside.
‘Excuse me, are you Meredith Meadows?’
Gasping at the question posed in a male’s voice, Merry spun around, a hand going to her throat when she spied a strange man standing a short distance away. There had been no one in sight when she got out of her car. Where the hell had he come from?
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.’
Merry shook her head. ‘It’s fine.’ She ventured a smile towards the stranger standing at the kerb in front of her car. He held a briefcase.
The smile died as he stepped closer. Okay, maybe it wasn’t fine.
The guy was tall, with greying brown hair that was shaved almost to the scalp. His skin was so pale it washed him out, and his light blue eyes were rimmed in red. Sweat gleamed on his brow and he used the sleeve of his white shirt to wipe it away when he came to a stop too close for Merry’s liking.
From the damp look of his sleeve, he had been sweating copiously for some time.
Was he ill?
Merry took a step back, pressing against the bookshop door as he leaned his head towards her.
‘You are Meredith Meadows, the granddaughter of Meredith Meadows?’
‘Ah…’ Merry scanned the street to see if anyone else was about. This guy gave off a weird vibe, his reddened eyes narrowing as he stared at her, thin colourless lips firming into a line.
‘You must be her granddaughter. No one else has come near the place in weeks; certainly none that looked like you.’
Merry stiffened when he looked at her hair, his lip curling in a sneer.
She pushed aside her unease to glare at him. ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
He smoothed down his shirt and lifted his chin, all the better to sneer down his nose at her. ‘I represent Huntington Inc. I understand you have been informed of our offer to purchase this place.’ He waved a hand towards the bookshop’s window without taking his eyes off Merry.
Seriously? Her unease returned at having him turn up out of the blue. Maybe she wasn’t paranoid to think they had caused the closure of Bling and Baubles just to put her in a position where she had to sell them the bookshop.
She narrowed her eyes. ‘Mrs O’Neil mentioned something about that, yes.’
‘Excellent.’ He rubbed his palms together and an oily smile settled on his thin lips. ‘I am sure, now that you’ve seen the place, you are ready to sign the contract.’ He delved into a pocket of his dark grey trousers and pulled out a pen.
‘Do you have the contract here with you?’ He leaned closer, an avid look in his eyes. ‘I am authorised to sign on the company’s behalf. I also have a copy of the contract in my briefcase, if you did not bring yours.’ He sniffed. ‘This should have all been taken care of in the solicitor’s office, but no matter. We can cover the essentials now. All I need to know is if you would prefer a bank cheque or payment direct into your bank account?’
‘Whoa, hang on a minute.’ Merry held up her hands, palms out, when he tried to hand the pen to her. ‘I didn’t come here to sign the contract.’
What the hell was wrong with him? No way she was signing anything.
‘I’m sure once I have properly explained our offer, you will change your mind.’ He gave a condescending smile as he waved the hand holding the pen at the locked door to Merry Magic behind her. ‘If you invite me inside we can take a seat while we talk this through. You do have the key with you, don’t you?’
His eyes narrowed as he waited for her response.
Merry gripped her bag tightly, hugging it to her body. ‘Actually, I came here to pay my respects to my grandmother, at her final resting place.’ She side-stepped around him. ‘So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and do that.’ When she reached her car door, she looked back to find him hovering just behind her.
‘I’ll wait here until you return, then,’ he said.
For the first time, a flare of alarm sizzled through her. How far was Huntington Inc. willing to go to get her to sell? No one knew she was here. She’d visited her parents yesterday, and her decision to go against their wishes and see what her inheritance entailed meant they may not try to contact her for a few days.
Merry scanned the street and was relieved to see a woman pushing a pram come out of a shop two doors down from Merry Magic and head their way. She did not want to be alone with this guy a moment longer.
She gritted her teeth and attempted a sincere smile. ‘There’s no need for you to wait for me. I’ll be heading home as soon as I leave the cemetery.’ When he stepped even closer, she held up a hand. ‘I’ll contact Mrs O’Neil when I get back to Werranton, to discuss the contract. Until then, I have nothing further to say on the matter.’
Merry shot him a glare, grabbed her keys out of her bag and unlocked her car. Once she was inside, with the door closed, she hit the button to lock all the doors. The guy was giving her the major creeps. She wouldn’t put it past him to open the passenger door and climb into the car so he could continue to badger her about signing the contract. She quickly got the car started and reversed out of the park. She drove off down the street, with no idea where she was going, just needing to get away from him.
She had no intention of going to the cemetery; in case he followed her. She just wanted to go home and forget Belwich ever existed.
A pang of guilt went through her at not even making it inside the bookshop. Her grandmother’s note had made it clear she had loved the shop and from what Merry had seen, her grandmother had done her best to make it a magical place. She would never get to step inside it if she let Huntington Inc. scare her off.
Still, she had until the end of the month, four weeks away, before their offer to buy it expired. Just because she hadn’t gone in today didn’t mean she could never go inside. Maybe she would be able to get one of her friends to come back with her, a whole carload of them even. That way she wouldn’t be alone if Mr Creepy showed up again.
When she turned the next corner, she slowed as she scanned the street and spotted the Belwich Cemetery on her left. This was the place the grandmother she had never met was buried. The place she had just told Mr Creepy that she had intended to go to next. He wouldn’t really follow her, would he?
Without conscious thought, she pulled into the tiny carpark and turned off the engine.
Hand still on the keys in the ignition, ready to flee if necessary, she scanned the street behind her. There was no sign of Mr Creepy, or anyone else. She should be fine to quickly jump out and find her grandmother’s grave to pay her respects. She’d come all this way. It would be a shame to go home having allowed Mr Creepy to scare her off from the cemetery as well as the bookshop.
The cemetery was quite small, same as the town, so it shouldn’t take her long to do what she needed to do and get out of there.
Merry straightened her shoulders and got out of the car, ears pricked for any sign she was no longer alone. She wouldn’t let Mr Creepy sneak up on her again.
A chill wind swept through the cemetery, creating goose bumps on her bare arms and legs. She reached into her bag to grab out a gauzy black wrap and draped it around her shoulders. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. She needed to find her grandmother’s grave and get out of there.
Lush grass lay underfoot as she moved through the first row of graves. The plots were all tidy, well-tended, many with small ornaments and floral arrangements on them, dates on the tombstones showing these were from the last decade. She scanned among them for her grandmother’s name but couldn’t find it.
A line of trees separated this section of the cemetery from the rest and she headed that way. The shadows were deeper when she stepped into the tree line and her boots crunched on dried leaves. Merry stopped a moment to get her bearings. The graves on the other side were all much older than those closest to the carpark. The tombstones were weathered, though the plots were as well maintained here as in the newer section. On the off chance her grandmother was among them, having perhaps purchased a plot decades before, she searched down each row. She reached the last of them, still without finding her grandmother’s grave.
Had the solicitor been mistaken, or did Belwich have another cemetery?
For a town this size, surely one cemetery would be sufficient?
Merry scanned the cemetery one last time, her eyes following the path that led to a one storey brick chapel. She set off that way, the chill wind rising and whipping her long hair around her face, but she didn’t want to stop to hunt in her bag for a hair tie. The closer she got to the chapel, the darker it seemed to get. Trees lined either side of the path as it wound around the side of the chapel, and soft shuffling noises came from the leaves that had fallen to the ground. At first, she put it down to the wind, but then she caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye.
Something was in the cemetery, keeping pace with her. She stopped and peered into the underbrush but could see nothing. The noise had ceased as soon as she’d stopped walking.
Was it a snake?
The thought of one slithering across the path made her shudder, and not just because Australia had a large number of venomous snakes. Creatures that slithered or crawled gave her nightmares and, despite the shadows, the day was still too bright for whatever had made the noise to be a possum. She hurried down the path, casting quick glances left and right, but the noise was not repeated.
She reached the back of the chapel and saw a section that contained three rows of graves, with empty land beyond them. She stepped up to the first row, scanning the tombstones, the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck rising, sure she could feel the presence of someone, something, watching her. She stopped walking, looking back at the chapel, unable to see anyone. Yet that sense of being watched never faded. If she had a nightmare tonight, it wouldn’t be on account of some creepy crawly. She’d be stuck in a haunted graveyard for sure.
Maybe this hadn’t been a good idea. What if Mr Creepy really had followed her? Merry swallowed down a lump in her throat at the thought of being confronted by him in the middle of a deserted cemetery. She should go back to the car, drive home, and sign the bloody contract. Who cared if the solicitor was pushy and the company representative creepy? The money would give Merry her life back.
She tensed, intending to leave, but the flash of movement came again, this time from the other side of her.
She spun around and froze.
A small black cat sat on a tombstone one row back, staring at her with its gleaming yellow eyes. Relief surged through Merry as she realised it was the cat that had made the noises. It must have been what she’d sensed watching her, as well.
‘You scared me, little kitty,’ she said as she moved towards it, a hand stretched out to touch its shiny coat.
The cat bounded away before she could touch it, winding its way through the last row of tombstones, taking a perch on top of one that had a statue of an iridescent angel reading a book on top. Merry followed the cat, somehow sure of what she would find when she got close enough to read the inscription below the angel.
Sure enough, it was her grandmother’s grave, though a chill swept over her as she read the name, Meredith Meadows.
Not that many people other than her parents ever called her Meredith.
She was Merry to her friends. Still, it was weird to see her name on a tombstone. She pushed that feeling aside as she knelt down and gazed upon the grave of a grandmother she had never known existed until the day before.
She gave a sigh. ‘I wish I’d had the chance to meet you. It doesn’t seem fair that you could have lived only two hours away and I never knew. But you knew. You even named your shop after me.’
Tears pricked Merry’s eyes. How hard must it have been for her grandmother to know Merry was so close but to be forbidden to contact her. Was her grandmother really crazy, as her parents had said?
She would never know the answers to these questions. All she had to go on was what she’d been told. Though maybe there was someone here in Belwich who could tell her more about her grandmother. Surely the locals, who had to know everybody in their tiny town, could shed some light on the woman who was buried here?
Something soft brushed against her leg, and she looked down to see the cat rubbing up against her. This time the cat let Merry pat it, the fur silk beneath her fingers. The cat began to purr, butting its head against her hand.
A soft clink came, and Merry saw something shiny dangling from a silver collar around the cat’s neck. With slow movements, so she didn’t startle the little cat, she used her other hand to slide the collar around so she could see what it was.
A small metal disc, with a name engraved on it gleamed against the black fur.
‘Sadie,’ said Merry, and the cat stopped purring and gazed up at her. ‘That’s your name, huh? It’s pretty. I like it.’
The cat bounded away a few steps and then stopped to groom herself while Merry got to her feet, conscious of the spreading shadows in the cemetery.
‘Well, Sadie, I guess it’s time for me to go home.’
The cat didn’t even look up from its bath as Merry started walking towards the path that led around the chapel. By the time she reached her car, it was almost six o’clock, and Merry’s stomach was rumbling. Lunch had been a long time ago. She should have packed a snack before she left home.
She had no money to buy anything, so it would be two hours before she had a chance to feed her hunger. Although, maybe she didn’t have to wait that long. Mrs O’Neil had said no one had entered the bookshop since her grandmother had died, and the residence above it was still filled with all of her grandmother’s belongings. Maybe that would mean food too. Food that, along with everything else, now belonged to Merry. Besides, Mr Creepy had to be long gone by now, so there was nothing to stop her checking out the bookshop while she was in town. If she did decide to sell, she would never have to return to Belwich if she visited the bookshop now and figured out what, if any, of her grandmother’s things she wanted to keep.
Decision made, she drove back to the main street and once again parked in front of the bookshop. This time, no creepy stranger lurked nearby so she quickly grabbed the key out of the envelope and let herself in, smiling again at the feeling of entering a magical portal inspired by the painted wooden door.
She locked the door behind her, just in case Mr Creepy did turn up again, and then felt on the wall beside the door for a light switch. She found it and turned it on, and then gazed around her in wonder as sparkling fairy lights lit up the interior of the bookshop.
A small counter was set against the wall to the left of the door, while shelves filled the right side of the room. Two small couches in front of the window, just waited for readers to curl up with their selections, while figurines of fantastical creatures shared shelf space with books. Bright paintings of fantasy scenes hung on the walls and there was even a children’s reading nook comprising a castle cubby filled with colourful cushions.
As much as it was lovely and inviting, there was no food here to stop the grumbling in her stomach. She would come back down here to explore once she’d had something to eat.
Merry headed towards the back of the bookshop, winding between shelves to a doorway covered with a shimmering purple curtain. She pushed the curtain aside and stepped into a small office space. There was a door on the other side, nestled between a desk and a filing cabinet. This door led to a narrow hall with an equally narrow stairway at the end of it.
The wooden treads of the stairs were worn but clean and a light beckoned at the top. Merry slowly made her way up the stairs and into the place where her grandmother had lived.
A lamp sitting on a side table beside a plush recliner had been left on and it illuminated a small but neat lounge room. A couch that matched those in the bookshop sat against the wall opposite the recliner, with doorways on either side of it. One led to what looked to be a kitchen, so Merry headed in that direction, switching on the lights as she went.
The kitchen was as small as the lounge, with a round table and four chairs nestled in one corner. The appliances were old but clean and Merry moved towards the wall that held a large cupboard and a refrigerator.
One glance in the fridge told her that whatever was in there was out of date, and she quickly closed the door, hand waving away the smell of vegetables left to rot. Then she turned to the pantry, her stomach rumbling in appreciation when she spotted an unopened packet of sweet biscuits.
She grabbed the packet from the shelf and ripped it open, taking out a biscuit and stuffing it in her mouth even as she turned around, intending to see where the other door off the lounge led.
She stopped, biscuit congealing in her mouth, at the sight of a small timber box with a brass lock sitting in the middle of the table. The box was roughly the size of a hardcover book, and it seemed to glow with a soft light.
That hadn’t been there before, had it?
Swallowing the remains of her biscuit, Merry moved closer to the table, sure she would have remembered seeing the box when she first entered the kitchen if it had been there. Or had she been so focused on finding food her eyes had skimmed over it?
She’d made it halfway to the table when a streak of black intercepted her, dashing between her feet.
Merry stumbled forward, dropping the biscuit packet as she tried to avoid stepping on the cat from the cemetery, arms flailing as she sought to right her balance. One hand came down on the box on the table, the edge of the brass lock cutting into her palm.
‘Ouch!’ Merry grabbed the back of a chair and finally managed to steady herself even as a roar, like a rushing wind, came from nearby. She turned around, seeking the source of the noise. And where the hell had the cat come from? Had it followed her from the cemetery and found an open window somewhere to get inside?
A meow came from behind her and she spun back around to find the cat sitting on top of the timber box. She lunged forward, even as the sound of the wind intensified. One hand touched the cat’s back as the other grabbed hold of the timber box, the roar of the wind all she could hear.
But now the wind was there in the kitchen, pushing and pulling at her.
Merry cried out as she felt herself being lifted, hair whipping around her face as she was flung into the air. She screamed, sure she was going to slam into the ceiling, but all she met was empty air.
The wind whirled her around, the sound of it drowning out her screams as she was spun over and over. She kept screaming until the breath was ripped from her lungs and blackness swept over her.
Ears ringing, head pounding, Merry forced her eyes to open. She quickly closed them again when what she saw did not make sense. Instead of the ceiling of her grandmother’s tiny residence above the bookshop, she had looked up at a cloudless blue sky, large trees helping to shade her from the sun’s rays. It should be the moon’s turn to shine.
A light weight landed on her chest and something soft poked her chin.
She opened her eyes and found herself staring into the yellow gaze of the little black cat, Sadie. The cat stood on all fours staring intently at Merry.
Merry groaned as the cat sat on its haunches and began to groom itself. She heaved out another groan as she struggled into a sitting position, dislodging the cat in the process. With a squawked meow, the cat leapt aside.
Was that really necessary? The voice was tart, filled with indignation.
Merry gasped and looked around, unable to see who had spoken. She scrambled to her feet, heart pounding as she pushed hair off her face.
She swayed when she was upright, dizziness swamping her, and stumbled a few steps to place a hand against one of the trees trunks to steady herself. Tree trunks definitely did not belong in her grandmother’s kitchen. Or was she still in the cemetery? Maybe she had encountered someone or something more dangerous than the cat while searching for her grandmother’s grave and the trip to the bookshop had been a hallucination brought on by trauma. If she’d been attacked and left unconscious on the ground all night, it would explain why it was now daylight.
You were not attacked and have only been unconscious a few moments. Your body is merely reacting to your first instance of portal travelling. It can take some getting used to, but the effects will wear off soon, and you will adapt to the different time.
Portal travelling? Different time zones? What the hell?
Merry scanned the nearby trees. ‘Who are you? Where are you?’ She still couldn’t see anyone, and all she could hear was the soft whisper of wind through the leaves of the tree she was leaning against. A tree that still should not be there.
What the hell was going on?’
I would have thought it would be obvious. You triggered the spell your grandmother used to transport herself between worlds. The voice was dry. As for who I am, I am Sadie, your grandmother’s companion.
Merry looked downward to see the cat sitting near her feet, alert gaze fixed on her.
The wave of dizziness from before returned tenfold, taking the strength from Merry’s legs. She slid down the tree trunk until she hit the ground, all with the cat, Sadie, watching on. The cat didn’t move; didn’t blink.
Merry swallowed against a sudden dryness in her mouth as she tried to process what the cat had said.
A hysterical laugh threatened to erupt at that.
The cat had spoken. About portals, spells and other worlds.
‘I’m crazy, aren’t I?’ The question didn’t require an answer. Of course she was crazy. Or she hit her head when the freak wind whipped through her grandmother’s kitchen. A wind that had appeared out of nowhere. Just like the small timber box that had appeared on the table.
The cat narrowed its eyes, tail flicking from side to side. We don’t have time for this, so I will say it only once. You are not crazy. You are a witch, with the potential to become a mage just like your grandmother, and you have transported us to the world she and I were born in. Tirana.
Merry slumped down even more, chin down, eyes closed.
Her parents had said her grandmother was crazy, talking about magic and other worlds. This must be what it was like. Would her father refuse to have anything to do with Merry, now that she was also crazy? Was craziness inherited? Or maybe the kind of crazy her grandmother had been was contagious. It had to be, for her delusion, hallucination, whatever this was, to deal with the same type of things as what had afflicted her grandmother. Hallucinations had started minutes after she’d set foot in the bookshop.
A sharp pain shot through Merry’s wrist and her eyes snapped open in time to see the cat leaning back.
‘You bit me. Why would you do that?’
The cat gracefully lifted one paw and licked it, and then placed it down before looking at Merry. As I said, we don’t have time for this. It is my duty to introduce you to your true heritage.
Merry pushed herself up and stood, glad to see the dizziness had worn off and she no longer felt her legs were going to collapse beneath her at any second. ‘I didn’t bring us here, wherever here is. It’s not even real. It can’t be real.’
‘Ouch!’ Merry glared down at the cat, and then bent down to rub the fresh bite mark on her ankle. ‘Stop biting me.’
The cat jumped to its feet, tail swishing from side to side even faster. Do you think I like biting you? Humans taste dreadful. But I need you to stop your whining and listen to me. We need to get you back to your world before someone sees you. Your grandmother had many enemies who will not be pleased to have one of her bloodline showing up in Tirana.
A cold shiver swept over Merry as she scanned the trees, waiting for said enemies to jump out. But they were alone. Then she shook her head, half convinced she was dreaming, even if the bites on her wrist and ankle were still stinging.
Maybe it would help her get out of this dream, hallucination, or whatever it was, if she played along. ‘Okay, cat, you win. How do we get back to my world?’
The cat glared up at her, eyes narrowed to slits. My name is Sadie, not cat, and we return the same way we came. We use your grandmother’s spell box.
Spell box? She must mean the timber box. The one that had suddenly appeared on the table in her grandmother’s kitchen. She had cut her palm on the brass lock and remembered clutching it and the cat when the wind had lifted her up.
Merry scanned the ground near where she had been laying. ‘Where is it?’
The cat’s head… Sadie’s head, swivelled as she looked around the small clearing. I don’t see it. You must have let go while we were travelling through the portal. She turned back to fix a hard gaze on Merry. For a cat, her face was very expressive. Lesson one, a witch must never let go when they trigger a spell box.
‘I’m not a witch. How was I supposed to know?’
Sadie gave a snort. If you weren’t a witch, and one of your grandmother’s bloodline at that, the spell would never have been triggered. It was your blood on the chest that brought us here.
Merry stiffened as she rubbed at the wound in the centre of her palm. It had stopped bleeding, but the sting started up again at the reminder.
If we’re lucky, the spell box will not have landed far away. Sadie’s voice was cool as she poked her nose into the bushes beside one of the trees. If we’re not lucky… well, let’s not worry about that until we have to.
‘How is it that you can talk?’ Merry asked as she checked behind the tree trunk she had used to steady herself on. A cat’s vocal cords were not designed for speech, not human speech anyway, and she hadn’t noticed Sadie’s mouth open when she spoke.
A companion is able to project her words directly into the mind of her witch.
Merry left the statement she was a witch alone for now. ‘Why didn’t you talk to me before, back in Belwich?’ Not that any of this could be real. Magic only existed in books, and so did talking cats.
Your magical nature was dormant until you touched the spell box. I would have been able to converse with you then, but you transported us here before I could do so. The tone was cool, with a hint of rebuke. Now, less talking and more searching. We can discuss the differences between our worlds once we are safely returned to Belwich.
With a shake of her head at being reprimanded by a cat, Merry continued her search. After checking in the rest of the bushes scattered among the trees on the other side of the small clearing she turned to Sadie. ‘It’s not here.’
Mild alarm pushed through her as the cat also reported no success. There was no reason to get all worked up. None of this was real. Couldn’t be real. Yet the longer the hallucination lasted the more real it felt. The rough bark of the trees and the way the leaves crinkled as she’d brushed them aside had felt very real. Sure, there were plenty of people who believed they were witches, and Wicca had roots all over the world. But it wasn’t possible that touching a timber box could have transported her to another world, one where a cat was capable of talking via telepathy.
The talking cat in question swivelled her head, nose twitching as she did so. This way. She bounded through a small gap in the bushes between two trees, sleek body sliding easily through.
Merry hurried after her, bushes catching on her hair as she squeezed past, and followed the little cat as she wound her way between even more trees. These looked nothing like the ones that commonly grew in Central Queensland where she had grown up. Merry was accustomed to seeing trees devoid of leaves, the grass straggly and brown thanks to lack of rain. The trees around them were covered in leaves in various shades of green, while the thick grass underfoot was soft and springy. There was also a crispness to the air, and a silence broken only by the occasional call of a bird. There was no sound or sign of distant traffic or anything else that signalled the presence of civilisation. They could be in the middle of nowhere, for all Merry knew.
To distract herself from the differences in her surroundings, she focused on learning more about the cat. ‘You said you were my grandmother’s companion. Is that like a familiar?’ She knew many stories about witches featured black cats as familiars.
Up ahead, Sadie’s lithe body stiffened, though she did not stop. Familiar is the term used by the guild, but I prefer to think of myself as a companion. A familiar is expected to be subservient, whereas I, as a companion, follow my own path. That path happened to coincide with the path your grandmother was on.
‘Do all witches in Tirana have a black cat as their familiar or companion?’
Many species of animals are capable of becoming a familiar, though few witches are powerful enough to hear them. Familiars only bond with those who have mastered one or more elements and have gained the status as mages. It is far more difficult for a familiar to become a companion. I do not know of any other cat, black or otherwise, to have attained that distinction.
Merry stifled a snort. Sadie sounded as if she didn’t think any other cat would ever meet her standards. But then, from her experience with non-talking cats, most of them had also been assured of their own importance.
Oh dear. This is not good.
Merry pushed through a gap between two bushes that were as tall as she was, and looked ahead to see Sadie standing still, peering down at something. She hurried to join the cat and found herself standing on top of a sloping hill, looking down over a lush valley of rolling green hills. But it was not the view that caught her attention. It was a black-haired woman in a flowing emerald green dress at the base of the hill that caught her eye.
The woman was crouching, the distance making it hard to see what it was she was doing. As Merry watched, the woman stood up, holding something, and strode off in the other direction, away from the hill.
Hurry. She has the spell box. We must catch her before she makes it to Dryton. Sadie started down the hill at a fast pace.
Merry, trusting the cat had far better eyesight than her, headed down the hill after Sadie.
The slope was not all that steep, but Merry’s leg muscles began to burn before they were halfway down. Sadie appeared to have a much easier time of it, bounding forward and quickly outpacing Merry. By the time she reached the bottom of the hill, Sadie had disappeared in the same direction as the woman who had picked up the spell box.
‘Sadie, wait for me.’ Panic thrummed through Merry at the thought of getting lost in this strange world. Some of her doubt it was not real, that it was some kind of hallucination, was wearing off. What would she do, if she lost both Sadie and the spell box? How was she supposed to get home then?
This was all so surreal. Her father had cut all contact with her grandmother because he’d believed she was crazy, talking about magic and other worlds. If what Merry was experiencing now was real, her father had been wrong.
Her breath caught.
Her grandmother had disappeared for years. Had she been trapped in Tirana all that time?
How sad to think of how long her grandmother had been estranged from her family, all because no one had believed her. Would they think Merry was crazy too, when she returned and told them what had happened?
That was a problem for another time. First, she had to find Sadie and the spell box.
A rustle came from the bushes to one side of Merry and she gave a sigh of relief when Sadie appeared.
The cat looked Merry up and down. We have a problem. The girl has headed to Dryton, as I suspected, so we will have to follow her. But you are going to attract attention, dressed like that.
Merry looked down at her shorts and black t-shirt. She was still wearing her flimsy wrap, too, though it was not as cold here as it had been in the cemetery. The woman they were following had been wearing a flowing dress that covered her from neck to toe, with long sleeves.
Yes, she was going to stand out.
‘Is standing out going to be a bad thing?’ What were the odds one of her grandmother’s enemies, the ones Sadie had mentioned, would spot her? Even if they did, how would they know Merry was her granddaughter?
Sadie snorted. Your grandmother is well known throughout all of Tirana. You look very much like her, except for your hair colour.
Hair that was still hanging around her shoulders. Merry reached into her bag and found a hair tie, quickly twisting her hair up into a messy bun and securing it. She didn’t have a hat, but she draped the wrap over her head and wrapped it around her neck to partially screen her face. She couldn’t do anything about her clothes, so this would have to do.
Then she had a thought. ‘Can’t you go into Dryton to find the girl and the spell box?’
Sadie twitched. I am not her companion, and her clothing marked her as a witch, not a mage. She will be unlikely to hear me.
Merry’s mouth dropped open. Did that mean Sadie was her companion now?
Before she could ask, Sadie spoke again. We have to risk taking you into Dryton, but you are to keep your head down and talk to no one. All going well, we will be able to sneak through without anyone seeing us.
‘How big is the town? What if we can’t find her?’
The girl wore a green dress, meaning she is an Earth witch, and most likely a healer. I will be able to find her. Sadie turned around and moved off.
Merry followed, finding the going much easier on more level ground, though she had to dodge around bushes and low obstacles the cat climbed over or under with ease. After an hour of walking, the valley narrowed and a worn path appeared in the trees. Merry was able to walk beside Sadie, and to ask a question that had been bugging her.
‘Why does my grandmother have enemies?’ What could she have done that would make people distrust or dislike any from her bloodline?
She went against guild orders, refusing to allow them to control when and where she employed her magic. A warrant for her arrest was issued, and to avoid capture she fled to your world. She returned here years later, hoping the guild stranglehold on all witches and mages had eased, and that she could return with her son, only to find out they were even more in control. She was betrayed by another mage, and subsequently imprisoned by the guild. It took many years before she could free herself and return to your world.
Sadie’s mental voice was matter of fact, but it still gave Merry a chill. This explained why her grandmother had gone missing when Merry’s father was a boy. So sad to think she had been prevented from returning. All their lives would have been very different if this guild had not interfered. Before she could ask more questions, about the guild and why they had imprisoned her grandmother, the path joined with a wide dirt road. On the other side of the road was a small town, though the buildings were nothing like what Merry was used to.
They were all relatively small, made of grey bricks, many of them with tiled roofs that peaked in a cone shape. They had small windows, and wooden doors with brass hinges. A cobbled road wound its way between the buildings, but Sadie veered to the left, towards the back of the nearest building.
I will find you somewhere to wait out of sight, while I find the healer. The less you are seen, the better.
Merry kept her head down, as she followed closely behind Sadie. There were people in the street to her left, the women wearing long dresses in drab colours, and the men in equally drab shirts and trousers. Their attire was all browns and greys, with some cream. Nothing like the emerald green dress of the woman Sadie had said was an Earth witch.
‘You there, stop in the name of the Fairweather Guild.’
Merry hunched her shoulders and quickened her pace, hoping the booming voice was not directed at her.
Despite her best efforts, Merry’s feet stopped moving. She made to flee, but nothing happened. She could still move her upper body, but her legs and feet were frozen in place, as if some unseen force had clamped around them. Heart thudding in her chest, she looked for Sadie. The black cat was at the edge of the building, out of sight. The cat’s eyes were wide, back arched.
In the periphery, Merry could see a young woman with dark brown hair and a pronounced widow’s peak storming towards her. The woman had one arm raised, hand clenched in a fist and pointed at Merry. Unlike the other townsfolk, she wore a fitted red robe, with silver and black braided trim around the cuffs and hem. Merry twisted her upper body to face her, not liking the avid way the woman stared at her. This woman’s robe appeared to be made of a finer fabric than the clothes the other people in the street wore, and a silver sword pendant dangled from a thick chain hanging around her neck.
All the people in the vicinity had stopped whatever they’d been doing and now watched with matching looks of trepidation on their faces as the woman, who appeared to be a few years older than Merry, barrelled up to her.
A smug smile curved the woman’s face. ‘Meredith Meadows, did you really think this ridiculous costume and wearing a glamour to make you appear younger would stop me from recognising you? Enforcers are required to memorise the likeness of all guild traitors in their first year of training. I would never forget your face.’
Merry’s eyes went wide. ‘Ah, no, sorry, you’ve mistaken me for someone else.’ She shook her head vehemently. ‘I’m not who you think I am.’
The woman’s brown eyes narrowed. ‘I’m not stupid. Though you must be for coming back here. Whatever your reason, I can assure you, you will not escape a second time.’
Merry held up her hands, palms outward. ‘Look, I get that you think you know who I am, but you really don’t. I’m new here. I haven’t betrayed anyone or escaped from anywhere.’
The woman leaned closer, stretching the hand that was not clenched into a fist towards Merry. ‘Don’t be-’ her voice cut off when she touched Merry’s face. A puzzled expression replaced the smugness of before as she snatched her hand back.
She tilted her head on the side as she unclenched her fist. ‘You’re not wearing a glamour.'
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