Saying Goodbye

This illustration is a bit of a tear jerker from me, and marks the growth Gretchen has made in her life throughout the series. From the hopeless witch who could barely cobble together a reliable potion without burning her house down, she has transformed into something else entirely.

The thread of Aunt Esme has dangled throughout the entire series, and I like to think that Gretchen didn’t find her missing aunt until she was ready to let her go. It’s a pretty symbolic moment, and one we all face at some point in our lives.

The illustrator, Rod Savely has been a pleasure to work with on these images, and they will be included in the complete collection print edition on each title page.

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A Resignation to Remember

Nora bit back a curse as Steward left her workroom with a disdainful sniff. She didn’t need to be told the baron was in a foul temper, or what reason he had for summoning her at such a late hour. He was still stewing on the imagined—or perhaps unimagined—slight from the Lady Bishop, and it was up to Nora to talk him off the wall.

Not deigning to dress properly for the occasion, Nora only wrapped a shawl around her nightdress and pulled her pointed hat on her head to show people she meant business. While she was notoriously known as the baron’s resident witch and master of hexes, she felt her proper business was that of an advisor. That, or a nursemaid to an overgrown toddler with a proclivity to tantrums.

The most direct route to the baron’s apartments was through the dank dungeons, and Nora shivered as she left the warm embrace of her hearth. Muttering about foolish grudges and imbeciles who wouldn’t let go, the servants of the estate gave her a wide berth as she stomped down the hallways and up the stairs.

The baron was pacing in front of his own roaring fireplace when she slipped into his rooms, the double doors to his boudoir shut. It didn’t mean much—she knew the baroness kept her own apartments as far from the man as the estate allowed, and he wasn’t inclined to parade floozy’s around.

“You wished to see me?” Nora kept her tone dry and clasped her hands in front of her. The baron halted and clenched his fists.

“That woman must answer for her disrespect.” The baron’s face was a nasty shade of mottled red which creeped up over his shiny bald pate.

“Woman?” Nora cocked her head as if this was the first she’d heard of it. It was taking a chance on riling the man up even further, but sometimes he had to be handled with an air of disinterest.

“Don’t play coy with me, Nora.” He held up a warning finger. “You may think you can worm out of doing my bidding, but I can take you off the accounts ledger whenever I wish.”

Beyond petulance, then, Nora mused. This kind of foot stamping display was worse than the usual sort.

“I only caution you to think through the eventualities,” Nora sighed. “Blast around hexes willy nilly and one will surely come to bite you on the backside. Think smaller. A nasty itch, perhaps. Or something that will make food turn to ash in her mouth for a few weeks. Court politics are fraught. You wouldn’t wish for anything so permanent if there is a chance—”

Lady Bishop is my inferior in every sense of the word,” the baron roared. “I don’t mean to chastise her. I would have her chased out of high society for good. If she’s pressed to wear a wig, the very accessory she seems to find so amusing, she wouldn’t dare show her face in fine company.”

Except Nora wagered that Lady Bishop wouldn’t wear anything as gaudy as the bejeweled and inordinately tall abomination that the baron strutted around in. In all honesty Nora was a little in awe of the woman, who as a stranger to the court from a distant land showed equal measures of grace, humility, and charm. She was a rising star among the bluebloods, and had shown Nora kindness when other nobles sneered in her direction. No, she wasn’t going to make the poor woman bald on account of a pint-sized nitwit who couldn’t see how absurd he looked traipsing around in heeled boots and a top hat of curls.

“When I signed on, I agreed only to bothersome hexes.” Nora kept her voice low with an undercurrent of steel. “Every time I send bad energy out into the world I risk disrupting the order of things. I must refuse you in this. Think of something else.”

The baron’s eyes boggled and his face went from red to purple. He strode over to shove a finger in her face, and though he tried to look menacing Nora stood a full head taller than him. 

“Everyone tells me you’re more trouble than you’re worth, Nora Brightstar,” he spat. “Lying around either drinking your fill or sleeping off a headache most days in my employ. And when I finally have need of your services you dare deny me!”

Something in Nora snapped. People muttered all the time about how good she had it at the baron’s estate, but not one of them could fathom how much the puny little man grated on her soul. It was high time he learned the consequences of his actions. Leave him prone without protection after years of settling petty squabbles with hex magic. She would like to see how long it would take for him to be plucked from good favor in the court and ridiculed openly.

“Have you considered that Lady Bishop’s words only held up a mirror with a likeness you find unfavorable?” Nora bared her teeth. “That sooner or later the court would mock such a tiny man with an over inflated sense of himself? That by covering up your flaws, you are only waving a banner to invite people to stare? Without my protection, you watch them laugh openly!”

The man stood dumb with his jaw hanging, until rage flared in his eyes.

“That’s it!” he roared. “You are done for, Nora. I will not be insulted by the likes of you in my own home. Not when I have gone to great expense to keep you in comfort all these years. I hereby cast you out! Go beg for your scraps elsewhere.”

“With pleasure,” Nora snarled. “I shall take great pleasure in seeing your demise, you pathetic imbecile. When you’re ready to grovel, you better make sure it’s on your knees.” 

He only drew ragged breaths and pointed at the door. Nora took the moment to collect herself and stand at her full height.

“I shall be gone on the morrow. My workroom is my own. Enter at your own peril. I will have my things collected in due course.”

Not waiting for a reply, Nora turned on her heel to march out of the apartments. After slamming the door behind her, she swallowed down the excitement in her stomach. She’d wanted to say those things for years. And more. It was high time she moved on from the likes of him and to more notable pursuits. 

And if he crossed her… Nora curled her lip, frightening a maid she stalked past. He’d pay dearly.

Well, that didn’t go down well

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Unwelcome News

The draft horse better suited to plodding along behind a cart heaved as Jurgen pulled into the city stables. Sliding off the sweaty beast, he thrust the reins into a stable lad’s hands with a coin and rushed off without a word. The boy’s face was frozen in shock—Jurgen imagined it wasn’t every day a troll galloped bareback into the city—but there was no time for explanations. Old Henry would be fine after a good fill of hay.

While not a frequenter of the city, and certainly not the witches academy, Jurgen knew which lanes to slip down to get there as directly as the winding roads allowed. She had to be there. If the message with that bat was anything to go by, Gretchen must have thought she was being particularly clever about her sudden disappearance.

Ignoring those who shrank from him in the street or openly pointed, Jurgen plowed onward, and took the academy’s steps two at a time when he arrived at the looming building. Piper would be in class. He had no other option than to ask for Gretchen directly, or go snooping around to find her.

But the girl who stood behind a desk in the lobby wouldn’t have any of it, despite her face paling on seeing him.

“What do you mean she’s not here?”Jurgen barked.

The girl’s lip trembled and she held a hand to her chest, reminding Jurgen to keep from snarling with his fangs out. “She’s wanted by the constabulary,” she blurted. “There’s no way she would return—”

“Her sister then,” Jurgen clenched his fists behind his back to keep from frightening her. “Cordelia. I must speak with her at once.”

The girl opened her mouth as if to protest, but must have thought better of it. Clearing her throat, she turned to a wall with pipes opening into some kind of mouthpieces, and Jurgen began pacing the marble floors.

Burned to the ground. The only remnants left were broken stone walls, scorched cauldrons, and a fireplace. The culprits had long since ridden away— Jurgen had noted the mess of hoofprints in the lane— and the last of the roof beams smouldered as he poked around the perimeter. He’d searched the surrounding countryside for any sign of Mulligan, but the little scamp was nowhere to be found. Jurgen had a terrible feeling that—

“Master Jurgen.” A crisp voice carried across the vacant room and Jurgen halted to turn toward the stairs. Cordelia Murkwood, Vice Chancellor of the Witches Academy stood on the lower landing with her hands clasped in front of her. Her face was unreadable, and Jurgen swallowed as he realized the cottage must have been her home too once.

“Vice Chancellor.” Jurgen approached and chose his words with care. “I’ve come bearing most unwelcome news.”

Cordelia’s eyes swept the foyer and she held up a finger. “Come.”

Jurgen followed her upstairs in a bewildering set of stairwells and curved mezzanines. How witches got anything done with all the twists and turns was beyond the troll, but he kept the notion to himself. Cordelia said nothing as they ascended toward her study. Jurgen wondered if Gretchen would have his hide for blabbing about her circumstances to her.

But when Cordelia opened the door with a nod for the troll to enter, he sagged with relief as he spotted a wicker basket in the corner, with an unmistakable purple ball of fluff inside.

“Mulligan!” Jurgen rushed over to sink to his knees and the sleepy cat blinked his eyes open. He gave the familiar a scratch behind the ears with a wide grin before recalling Cordelia was waiting on his account. Clearing his throat, he stood and turned, his face somber. “Vice Chancellor, I’ve come from your sister’s cottage in Edgewood. I’m afraid…” he heaved a deep breath. “It’s been razed to the ground, madam.”

Cordelia, who Jurgen knew from previous encounters was an unflappable sort, gasped and pressed a hand to her mouth. Her eyes glittered with emotion, and Jurgen wrung his hands uncomfortably. Mulligan, who’d evidently decided he was happy to see the troll, threaded his way around Jurgen’s legs. Absentmindedly, Jurgen stooped to pick up the scraggly feline and nestled him in the crook of his arms.

“It was—”

“I know who it was.” Cordelia’s voice was strangled, and she leaned against her desk to rub her eyes. “Even so. This is well beyond the reach of the arcane constabulary.”

Jurgen wasn’t sure what to say, and whether he should enquire after Gretchen, but Cordelia saved him the trouble.

“I don’t know where she is, and that’s probably for the better.” She poured a measure of a clearish purple liquor from a decanter on her desk and offered it to him. Surprised, Jurgen juggled Mulligan to accept the offer, though he wasn’t a fan of witches brew. “You must know at least something if you’ve come here. Best not to exchange information. Information can become a liability.”

The woman’s eyes were haunted, and Jurgen threw back the dram as she poured her own and gulped it down. It tasted of herbs and brimstone, with a fiery burn which Jurgen knew from experience would be uncomfortable later.

“I don’t know where she is either.” Jurgen met the Vice Chancellor’s eyes. “But I want to help. She is coming back, isn’t she?”

Cordelia huffed bitterly and poured another drink. “Who knows with my sister? She’s been in tight spots before and came out the other side unscathed. But this? This is something else.”

“Piper?” Jurgen arched an eyebrow.

“Safe.” Cordelia nodded. “Though she threw quite the fit when she realized Gretchen had left her here. You won’t tell her about the cottage, will you?”

Jurgen appraised the woman, who he’d previously concluded had little regard for anyone without a title, and decided he had the wrong end of it. Piper would throw a bigger fit when she realized Jurgen had kept the news from her, but he could see why Cordelia wouldn’t want to upset her any further. Jurgen couldn’t begin to fathom what trouble Gretchen had gotten herself into this time, but trouble seemed to be a close companion of hers.

“I’ll stay in the city.” Jurgen stroked Mulligan and set him back in his basket. “To be on hand if you have need of me. Gretchen has stuck her neck out for me on more than one occasion. It’s time I repay the favor.”

Cordelia chewed her lip, and seemed to come to some conclusion as she nodded slowly. Circling her desk, she rifled through a drawer and pulled out a purse. She crossed the distance between them to press what he presumed was coin into his palm and stared up at him with the severity he was more accustomed to.

“Stay at The Swine and Claw. I’ll get a message to you if I have news. Cross my sister, and I’ll unravel whatever enchantment has you upright and talking.”

Swallowing, Jurgen acknowledged the threat with the barest of nods, pardoning it already as a show of familial protectiveness. “Understood.” 

Gretchen losing her cottage was a big moment

But in the story itself we didn’t get to see the ruins or the initial shock. While Cordelia shows an unusual amount of sentiment over the ordeal, it’s this little story which shows how much it rocked her. Haven’t read The Kingmaker’s Sword? No problem, you can check it out here.

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Bottom of the Bag

Okay so when I ordered this illustration, I made a (rather large) error when communicating with the illustrator, Rod Savely. When describing Gretchen’s pouch I mentioned Mary Poppins bag and the first image I got back had a floral carpet bag instead of this trusty leather pouch. I was tempted to keep it, as I thought it made things look that much more humorous, but hey, the pouch in the Gretchen series is an important weapon of choice.

Haven’t read The Kingmaker’s Sword? No problem, check it out here.

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Dragon Rant

So at the end of A Kingmaker’s Sword, Viragh keeps Gretchen off the hook for the murder of Grand Wizard Morath Nightstaff by sending a message to the Wizard’s Guild to claims his kill. Of course, as a master of the performing arts, we know this dragon has crafty words in abundant supply, and I thought I should include the message here on the blog. No wonder Gretchen was getting bored at the round table!

Thought it might have something to do with goats!

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Last Words

Sir Jack was thrust to his knees in the stark cobbled courtyard, though there was no living assailant at his back. Chairwoman Zita Goldworthy loomed over him, but his gaze froze on the far wall where his stallion Hengreon stood tethered. 

“Oh, your precious nag, is it?” Zita clucked. “Perhaps you will be moved to make amends for your crimes on account of its flea bitten hide.”

Crimes, Sir Jack thought. Trumped up charges, more like.

“You overstep, Madam.” Sir Jack snarled. “The King’s men will be here any moment to demand my release. Do you think he will stand for hags deciding the fate of nobility?”

The old woman cackled and leaned toward him with a sneer. “Do you think the King will stand for his noblest of knights being a known rapist?”

Sir Jack’s blood boiled, and though his hands here bound behind his back he clenched his fists. “Filthy lies. You sent that temptress after me. I wasn’t even capable after drinking away the night in the king’s hall.”

“And yet, she was seen leaving your chamber in tears.” Zita flashed a nasty grin. “I wonder which of you will be believed.”

Sir Jack ground his teeth as he recalled waking from his stupor to an empty bed. He’d wondered then if he’d been duped in some way. “I’ll die before marrying your niece. Not after this treachery.”

Zita only shrugged and turned toward Hengreon. “As you wish.”

The lurching monstrosity which was Sir Jack’s captor, a vacant suit of armor, drew his sword and clattered toward Sir Jack’s mount. The horse screamed as the blade thrust into his chest, echoed by Sir Jack’s cry. He’d broken the stallion in himself, and he was truly a friend.

“What say you now, Sir Jack?” Zita pressed her lips together, and Sir Jack caught sight of a shadow in the stone archway beyond her. Evelyn, he vaguely recalled.

He could just say yes. Get out of the academy’s walls and go to the king. But the Chairwoman was right. Sir Jack knew she would stop at nothing to drag his name through the mud. And witches had something more potent than honor in their favor. Filthy magic and it’s corruption of truth and justice.

“Never. You will go down in history as a murderer and a tyrant, Zita Goldworthy.” Sir Jack lifted his chin. “The truth outlasts us all. It will be your kin who wear the mantle of your disgrace.”

Zita snapped her fingers and the suit of armor crossed the square. Fear held Sir Jack in a deadly grip, and even as he shook, he held the old woman’s eye.

“Very well,” she said. “But death is only the beginning. My Evelyn’s prospects are now ruined, and so shall your afterlife be.”

Sir Jack didn’t have time to puzzle over the words. The sword swung through the air, and he drew one last breath before it landed.

Grisly stuff

But I suppose it shines a light on what really happened all those years ago. Haven’t read The Head of the Horseman? No problem, check it out here.

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Beyond Freedom

“She won’t eat us.” Bertie threw up his hands and rolled his eyes. “All she’s done since I climbed into her pouch is help!”

“Then what are all those cauldrons for, hm?” Terrence, the eldest of their party grumbled. 

Bertie sagged against a terracotta pot and bemoaned having the same argument day and night with his newly-released peers. “She’s a wisewoman. One who sells cures. We are safe here. I’ve no wish to return to the Arctic where we’ll only wait to be recaptured by slavers.”

Any mention of slavers brought about a fragile silence, and Bertie pressed on with what he knew would lift their spirits. “But Piper! She is our champion. So long as we are near her, we won’t come to harm. The witch listens to her. Does almost everything she says.”

Terrance nodded reluctantly, as did the rest of their party. “I suppose that’s true,” he conceded. “These big folk are strange. I can’t understand why it seems like the little ones are in charge.”

Nettle laced her fingers in Bertie’s, and though she was usually the quietest among them, she spoke up. “I believe she is a child prodigy. Powerful beyond all others. You saw what happened. The witch was captured almost as soon as she arrived. In a cloak of invisibility, the young one achieved what the witch could not.”

“But the head witch—Cordisomething—ordered her about.” Soren argued. “She can’t be that powerful.”

“Ah, but it was only after closeting herself away with Piper that she agreed to take up our cause.” Bertie held his finger up. “Young Piper must have bewitched her.”

“A witch bewitching a witch?” Terrence huffed. “That’s absurd. I’ll take my chances with a yeti before throwing my lot in with such strange folk. I haven’t done a day’s honest work since arriving here, and idle hands make for an early grave. Besides, I don’t trust that cat. He’s been stalking us all week.”

Nettle blinked up at Bertie through long eyelashes and swallowed. “I don’t like the cat either.”

“Then we get jobs!” Bertie exclaimed. “Find our place in this world. We know our craft. And with the leathersmith out of business people will need someone to mend holes in their boots and broken belt buckles. We could start our own enterprise.”

“Where will we get the money, Bert?” Soren rubbed the bridge of his nose. “A workshop, supplies, lodging… and who would buy anything from our kind?”

“Well…” Bertie took a deep breath. “It won’t happen overnight, certainly. But give it some time, and make ourselves useful to the witch perhaps, and—”

“I’ll not stir that woman’s cauldrons and bottle her brews.” Terrance made a face. “Have you seen what she puts in there? Never mind what she eats. This morning I believe it was pickled liver on toast!”

“Piper then.” Bertie gave them all a level stare. “We make ourselves useful to the little one, and she will lead us to prosperity and good fortune. Unless of course you want to start walking to the Arctic. I hear it’s a long way whatever the method of travel.”

“Do we have to swear allegiance?” Nettle asked.

“If she asks, I’ll be first to bend the knee.” Bertie lifted his chin in the air. “And you lot would be fools to decline such an offer.”

Nettle squeezed Bertie’s hand and the others grumbled an agreement. Bertie knew the argument would start all over again tomorrow, but for now their assent was enough. He was sure Piper would come through with something soon. Even as he was chipping away at his brethren’s icy veneer, she also championed their cause.

A messiah of Elves, huh?

I’m not sure Piper saw that one coming. If you haven’t read An Elvish Sweatshop you can pick up a copy here.

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Keeping in Touch

Nora gave Gretchen an enchanted notebook way back in episode 7, The Troll and the Minotauress. It’s kind of like an arcane smartphone of sorts, and they communicate regularly through it. While Nora wasn’t around for The Kingmaker’s Sword, we knew she was off on her new appointment releasing cursed souls. But afterward, those two caught each other up on recent events.

Haven’t read The Kingmaker’s Sword yet? No problem, you can check it out here.

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A Useful Tradition

After a few days of snow, Gretchen thought it would be a good idea to show Piper another new Christmas tradition, and set about building her annual snowman with full witch regalia.

“Why does a snowman need a broomstick?”

“Well magic or no, you still need something to sweep the paths with.”

“It actually sweeps?”

“Only when you’re not looking. It might look small now, but after a few weeks it’ll look like a snow monster.”

“How does it work?”

“I’ve had that hat and cloak for as long as I can remember. It’s been handed down in the Murkwood family for generations. All I know is I don’t have to shovel snow when this guy is out in the yard. The broom can be any kind. But if it doesn’t have one, nothing happens.”

“You don’t even wonder how it works?”

“Kid, there’s something to be said for graciously accepting help from wherever it comes from. Particularly housework. You go asking too many questions and you risk upsetting the harmony of things.”

Haven’t read A Very Krampy Christmas yet? No problem, you can check it out here.

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Immortal Love

Agelada, the minotauress with the soul of a poet, captured the heart of an enchanted troll with her words and their shared love of literature. I thought this poem was fitting, and of course it was adapted from the well known work of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, How do I Love Thee?

Haven’t read The Troll and the Minotauress? No problem, you can check it out here.

Or if you’re looking for more bonus content, you can find it all in the one place on the episode page.