A Gathering of Crones Sample

by Lydia M Hawke

Chapter 1

The crows were back.

Three times they circled the clock tower before settling onto the roof of the Village of Confluence’s hundred-year-old limestone town hall. An entire murder of them. Silent. Waiting. Watching me from across the sweep of treed lawn and the wide main street where I stared out the window of the Java Hut coffee shop.

“Are you even listening to me?” My son Paul's voice cut across the background chatter of the other patrons, his tone impatient. Peevish.

Much like his father’s had been all the years we’d been married. The thought slipped into my mind before I could guard against it. Similar thoughts had been surfacing regularly, ever since...well. No need to dwell.

I sat up straighter on my stool—why couldn’t coffee shops provide decent seating anymore?—and turned my attention back to Paul. But not my full attention, because I’d learned from experience that silent, watching, waiting crows did not bode well, especially if these were the kind I thought they were.

My gaze strayed briefly to a tall, bearded man lounging against the streetlight outside the window. If you didn’t know him, everything about his demeanor would seem casual—from the fingertips tucked into pockets to the easy slouch of his powerful shoulders.

If you didn’t know him.

I did.

I knew that he could shift like smoke from a human into a wolf, leaving his empty clothes in a pile at his feet. That he could transition back just as fast. That he would be naked when he did, and that the man-bun he wore would not survive the change. I knew that he would die to protect me, and that nothing had moved on the street—in any direction—that he hadn’t noticed, wasn’t tracking. Except he hadn’t once glanced at the town hall’s roof, which meant I was right. These were the kind of crows only I could see. My own personal harbingers.

Which meant someone—or something—was coming. The goliath again? Icy prickles crept over my skin at the thought of the monster that plagued my nightmares. Paul growled under his breath, and I wrenched my gaze back to him.

“Sorry,” I said. “I got distracted. You were saying?”

Something about how concerned he was about my well-being, I suspected. Again. It had become a familiar and unaltering conversation every time we’d spoken in the six weeks since the ... incident. My brain shied from the memories, the loss of control, the devastation I’d wreaked.

The casualties.

Paul frowned. Peevish he might be, but the concern in his brown eyes was genuine. “Honestly, Mom, I’m getting really worried about you. Ever since Edie—your house—you just haven’t been the same.”

I held back a snort. Goddess, he had no idea. I injected a reassurance into my voice that I decidedly did not feel. “I keep telling you I’m fine, Paul, and I am. I promise.”

“Liar,” an inner voice accused. It was the one I’d come to think of as my Claire-voice, one of three that lived in my head—voices, not Claires, because oh, goddess, I didn’t think I could live with three of those. A second voice belonged to my departed best friend, Edith James, better known—or formerly so—as Edie; and the third was a mysterious voice I hadn’t heard since it had urged me to summon water in my battle with the fire pixies. I’d briefly considered the possibility that one might be the Morrigan, but it sounded nothing like her harsh rasp—assuming that really had been the goddess I’d met that night, and not just a fever-induced hallucination after the gnome bit me.

I wondered what my already-worried son would think of the voices, especially if he knew how the Claire and Edie ones were constantly at odds with—

“Mom.”

Shit.

“Yes.” I sat up straighter and tightened my clutch on the cup of cold coffee before me, using it to anchor myself to the present. The here and now. A few tables away, a group of women laughed uproariously at something. I used that as an anchor, too. “Yes. I’m listening.”

My son scowled. “But you’re not,” he snapped. “We’ve been having this same conversation for weeks now, and you haven’t heard a thing I’ve said. I’m worried about you, damn it. You refuse to tell me where you’re living, except that it’s with that Lucan character”—he jerked his head toward the man on the sidewalk outside—“you never come to visit us anymore, you’re avoiding your friends—you didn’t even go to Edie’s funeral, for God’s sake. You’re not just distracted, Mom, you’re freaking evasive. This isn’t you.”

I sighed. I supposed that from his perspective, he had a point. But from mine, the person I’d been before seemed more foreign to me than the one I was now—even when I factored in my insecurities and flat-out terror at what lay before me.

Paul reached across the polished wood table and put a gentle hand over my wrist. “Listen, I talked with Dad, and we think—”

“Excuse me?” I pulled away, crows and voices forgotten. “You what?”

Brick red crept up Paul’s neck to stain his cheeks. “He’s not the enemy you think he is, Mom. He still cares about you.”

“Right. Which is why he’s a living cliché, married to his assistant and starting a new family at his age.” I waved away my own words even as the sound of them died away, not wanting them to be misunderstood. “And I’m not saying that because I want him back, believe me. I’ve more than moved on.”

“Given you’re living with a man half your age, it would be hard not to believe you.”

I ignored the snipe. “The point is, your father is no longer part of my life, and you have no business discussing me with him. At all. For any reason. Ever.”

A part of me would have liked to know how the conversation had gone between Paul and my ex-husband—specifically, what Jeff had said—but a greater part of me was smart enough not to ask, because I really had moved on from that part of my life. How could I not, after my entire world had been turned inside out and upside down?

I glanced out the window at the town hall roof and the crows still perched there. The prickles along my skin returned. Something was coming, but what?

“Except Dad knows you better than anyone,” Paul said, “and—”

I gave a sharp bark of laughter. “You’re kidding, right?”

He leaned back in his chair, running impatient fingers through his hair. “Christ, Mom, how can I get through to you? I don’t know what to do with you anymore.”

Do with me? What was I, a slab of meat? I held onto my patience with both hands and attempted not to glower at my son. “You could try having a cup of coffee and a simple conversation with me,” I said, my voice tart despite my best efforts. “Maybe tell me how Natalie and Braden are doing? How work is going?”

I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips. Wrong direction, Claire. Definitely the wrong direction.

“And maybe I wouldn’t have to tell you if you’d come see them for yourself.” Paul leaned forward again, elbows on the table and shoulders hunched. “Don’t you get it, Mom? That’s why I’m worried. You used to come by two or three times a week at least, if not more, and now we get nothing but excuses from you. We haven’t seen you since your house burned down and Edie—” He broke off, visibly regrouped, and tried again. “Braden misses you. I miss you. Hell, I’m lucky if I get a call from you once a week, and it was like moving a mountain just to get you to meet me today.”

Because it’s safer that way. I slanted a glance at the crows and the wolf-shifter waiting for me. Willing to die for me. Because you have seen me since then, but you don’t remember. Because I almost lost all of you, and now something else is coming, and I don’t know enough yet to keep you safe. I might never know enough to keep you safe. Not from the Mages. Not from a god.

Not from me.

“For God’s sake, Mom, talk to me. Tell me what the hell is going on.” The peevishness had returned to Paul’s voice, but it was underlined by worry. Love. Pain.

My heart squeezed in on itself, and it was my turn to place a hand over his. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t know what to tell you, Paul. You can see for yourself that I’m fine. Lucan and Keven take good care of—”

“Keven?” Paul gaped at me. “Who in God’s name is Keven? You’re living with two men? What the actual hell, Mom?”

Despite the startled glances directed our way from the other patrons, I almost laughed at the questions tumbling from him—and the utter shock on his face.

For a brief moment, I wished I could tell him everything, but it would have just made matters worse. Goddess, if he thought his quiet, mild-mannered, sixty-year-old mother taking up with two men was surprising, what would he do with the truth? The knowledge that Keven was a walking, talking, living gargoyle from Camelot itself. That Lucan was a Knight of the Round Table turned wolf-shifter by Merlin, who’d been possessed by Morok, god of darkness and deceit. That Merlin-Morok was here, now, in this lifetime, trying to open a portal back to that final battle of Camlann, where half his powers remained because the goddess Morrigan had caused them to splinter, trapped in a piece of the world itself. That over the centuries since, the Morrigan’s magick had been wielded by four Crones who had continued to split Morok’s powers—and the world—again and again, creating the multiverse theorized but unproven by science. That another split might destroy the planet and all on it.

That I’d discovered six weeks ago that I was the Fifth Crone, tasked with separating Morok from his stolen mortal body and sending him back to the god-world, and the crows were back, and now—now something was coming, and honestly? The idea of me living with two men, even if it were true, was the least of Paul’s concerns.

Across the street, the crows lifted from the town hall roof as one, becoming a black, swirling cloud against the otherwise clear blue autumn sky.

“Shit,” I muttered, and Paul’s jaw dropped because the woman he wanted me to be wasn’t supposed to swear, either.

Shit, shit, shit.