So, awhile back, when Witch Eyes was nominated for the 2011 Debuts awards, I said that if it won, I’d write a short story and gave you guys the options to suggest what you wanted to see. Now, along with all this craziness, there were edits and drafts, and all kinds of real life stuff. But! I did not forget that I owed you all a story. So here it is, as a thank you to you all.
The prompt I selected was something that struck me the moment I read it. I knew it was different story than what the request had in mind, but I also knew that it was right. So here it is, all about how a teenage Catherine Lansing fell in love, and what that meant for Jason Thorpe and Belle Dam itself.
Love and death had always been entwined in my life.
Before I had even graduated from college, I’d already fallen in love, learned of my birthright, entered a loveless marriage, and manipulated a man’s death. After college, the husband I liked but didn’t love nearly died, my son nearly died with him, former friends have become enemies, and former enemies have become ghosts. And although my true love always eluded me, I’ve never forgotten it.
“Catherine, look at this,” Jason said, pushing the volume in front of me. His eyes were burning, excitement and passion so brilliant it almost hurt to look at him. Jason rarely let the mask fade, rarely showing any emotion at all on his poker face. When he did, it was too much, like staring into the sun.
We were supposed to be rivals, enemies. And I think we were, in our way. Challenging each other had forced us both to hone our abilities, to anticipate what the other would come up with next. The student body president elections were tumultuous: clean campaigns that turned dirty overnight, spells and counterspells and enchantments so thick that the school was nearly bleeding with magic. I gained the presidency, but lost Homecoming Queen to the girl that Jason convinced to run against me. That was our way, gains and losses in equal measure.
But somehow, we were still friendly. Maybe not friends, but not yet the enemies that our fathers expected us to be. For us, high school had been a testing and training ground. We pitted ourselves against each other, even as we pushed each other into new heights.
I think Jason hoped for more than friendship. It was hard to tell with him. But I much preferred Jonathan. He was only a year apart from us, but the brothers were as different as land and sea. John had a laugh that made you want to laugh, and a light that never died from his eyes. He couldn’t use magic nearly as well as either Jason or I, but there was still something enchanting about him just the same.
But when I am to marry, it could never be with someone who was my equal. I was a Lansing, and I always would be. There would be no taking of my husband’s name, or dwelling in his shadow. I would marry, and continue my family, but I would do so on my terms.
If I could have chosen between the brothers, it would have been John. But even if it was what I wanted, it could never be. There had never been a union between Thorpe and Lansing, and god willing, there never would be.
“What am I looking at?” I asked, hiding my thoughts behind a veil of exasperation.
“Right here,” Jason said, pointing to a paragraph halfway down the book. It was an older volume, likely something out of the library’s special collections. He was always investigating something, but he’d never reveal what. More Thorpe secrets, I assumed.
The origins of the Key Festival are hard to decipher, I read, but the town knows enough to attribute it to the Widow. Her secret treasure, never seen and never touched, was said to be hidden away behind doors that no key could open.
“Bennett pointed it out.”
Bennett Armstrong was not one of my favorite people, but he was the only other one who understood what it was like to live in Belle Dam. Each of our families: Thorpe, Lansing, and Armstrong, had existed here since the beginning. The city was ours. But Bennett was not like us. Most magic slid off of him like water, leaving us unable to defend ourselves if we needed to. He was too wild; uncontrolled.
A journal from one of my great-aunts had described the Armstrongs as: the spirits of a thousand animals shaped into a ghost of a soul. Bennett could take the form of any animal he could conjure up, a shapeshifter who could also control the animals themselves. It made me nervous, sometimes, when I saw birds hanging around outside, or when a stray cat turned up just as I was leaving a friends. Was it Bennett, spying on me?
“There must always be an Armstrong in Belle Dam,” Father had said, once when he was deep into his cups. But he would never tell me what he meant, and I had mostly shrugged it off as more Belle Dam superstition. Like how you never walked into a bathroom with a candle, lest the Grimm sneak through the glass and steal the secrets from your head.
I did not trust Bennett. He was older than us by almost three years, married to a girl before either of them were even eighteen.
I looked up at Jason, not mirroring his excitement. “We’ve all heard the legends. A secret Lansing treasure, hidden away by the Widow Witch, Grace. So?”
“Bennett thinks it’s a spell. The ‘door no key can open.’ And a treasure that has never been seen or touched? I think it’s some kind of power. Like an untapped mine.”
Magic was just another form of energy, but there was only so much to go around in Belle Dam. If Jason was right, and there was a hidden source of power in the city, how powerful was it? And what would the Thorpes do if they got to it first? “Do you think we could find it?” I asked, still trying to gather my thoughts together.
“There’s a reason why no one’s ever found it before,” Jason said in reply. “I think maybe it’s because it would take all of us to find it.” All of us, meaning himself, Bennett, and I.
“I…see.” That might make some sense. It would certainly explain Father’s insistence about ‘always an Armstrong in Belle Dam.’
“If we’re right, and it is a spell, then we should be able to find it, don’t you think?”
Why was Jason telling me any of this? Why not strike out on his own and try to find it first? Regardless of how he did or didn’t feel about me, a lifetime of tradition didn’t just disappear overnight. Of course. He already had. And failed. I was surprised that this realization chafed a bit. I wouldn’t have thought Jason’s betrayal would ever affect me. “How long have you been searching for it before you got tired of failure?” I asked.
The mask slid firmly back into place, and Jason’s jaw tightened. As I thought, he’s bringing this here as a backup plan. Now I had to worry about the pair of them, Jason and Bennett. How long had they been cutting me out of their little investigation?
If there was a Lansing treasure, it was mine by rights. Not Jason’s. Not Bennett’s. I was the Widow’s heir. And I couldn’t trust what either of them would have done with the power if I didn’t claim it first.
I remembered the visit from the lawyer, only a few days ago. Our conversation had grown thorns in my mind, refusing to sink far from my thoughts. “You’re friends with the Armstrong boy, aren’t you?” he asked silkily, like he knew secrets I didn’t.
“He might call himself my friend,” I countered with an indifferent shrug.
My father always spoke so highly of the lawyer. Fallon. Even though he worked for the Thorpes, and always had, Father never gave up hope that we could draw him away with the right incentive. “Imagine it, Cat, all the knowledge trapped in that mind of his. Secrets we wouldn’t even know to ask,” he had said, once.
At the time, I’d wondered why he approached me. Why he was asking me questions about Bennett. What he wanted from me. But I hadn’t come up with any easy answers.
“Aren’t you concerned for your safety?” the lawyer asked. Did he know something I didn’t? Rumors said the lawyer was a spirit, and sometimes knew things. Did he know something about Bennett? “You’ve seen him when he loses himself.”
I had. The Achilles heel to Bennett’s power was the animal instincts that could overwhelm him. He was especially vulnerable after having shifted, especially if he’d chosen a form known for its predatory nature. Only a week ago, he’d lost control in front of Marjorie, his wife, and I. There was a spark in his eyes, a glint that said he liked the way Marjorie screamed. That he liked the way her fear smelled.
At the time, I’d confided in Jason that Bennett didn’t scare me, not exactly, but he worried me.
Maybe it was time to extricate myself from the boys. High school was almost over, and we were almost adults. We could never associate the way we did, once we were in the real world. There were expectations of the Lansings and Thorpes, and I knew my duty as well as anyone.
I leaned forward, affecting just a hint of nerves. Jason would never buy that I was truly afraid. He would understand caution, though. Caution, and just a touch of uncertainty. “I’m worried about Bennett…” I began. If I was careful, by the time this played out the divide between Jason and Bennett would be irreparable. “Marjorie’s terrified of him. And you know that’s not good for the baby…”
Sometimes, love wasn’t a person. Sometimes it was a piece of a puzzle, the only thing in the world that would make you whole again. The only thing that you could truly say took precedence over all other things.
If there was a secret power in Belle Dam, it would be mine. I would do anything, sacrifice anything, to make it so.
Even someone that thought me a friend.