Tara seems like a perfectly normal person. She works two jobs to cover the rent. Her boss and her co-workers exploit her good nature so she ends up working even more. And of course she constantly studies so she can pass into the next circle of witchcraft.
Then a stranger visits Ye Olde Magick Shoppe—not the tourist section at the front of the store, but the section at the back that only the real witches and beings of power use. He carries with him the smell of the river, the sound of the gulls, the taste of salt air.
And the feel of wet ropes, dragging Tara down beneath the water.
Circle of Air—the first book in the urban fantasy series The Witch's Progress—brings you into the slightly twisted heart of old Portland and the magical battles that happen even among friends. Be sure to pick up all four books in this completed series!
Leah Cutter writes fiction in every genre, but she seems most at home with urban fantasy. Her fantasy stories are set all over the world, but for this bundle, we give you an exotic look at a place familiar to me…Portland, Oregon. It's always nice to see it through magical eyes, which is what Leah conjures here. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The smell of rotten wood and wet plaster permeates the streets of Portland now that the flood waters have receded. Mold, too, covers every surface that had been underwater, black inky lines that look like a child gone mad with charcoal. More bloated bodies have been discovered in the first floor rooms of some of the buildings. The cost of lives, livestock, and goods is absolutely astonishing. Though I objected to being brought in to build the next bridge so early, my superiors at the Pacific Bridge Company were correct: I needed to see this damage so I fully understood what the consequences of failure might bring.
Wilson Evermore, Civil Engineer, 1894
Tara watched, delighted, as the bright green hummingbird flitted around the feeder she'd set up earlier that week. The blue glass feeder swayed slightly on the metal stand jutting up from the cold iron handrail of the balcony. The hummingbird—one of the local Annas—rested after circling a few more times, dipping his head into the bright red-glass flower and sipping the nectar contained inside.
She hadn't been certain that she'd get any birds. The apartment she rented was close to the train station in downtown Portland, not in one of the neighborhoods that was full of greenery and parks. While the waterfront below her held a lot of blackberry bramble, there weren't a lot of trees.
Underneath the feeder, pressed up against the low balcony wall, stood a long bench covered in her potted plants: rosemary, English lavender, spearmint, variegated marjoram, basil (three varieties), curly-leaf parsley, purple sage, borage, French sorrel, to name just a few. Tara kept the plants well-trimmed or they would have spilled over the sides of the bench, then tried to take over the rest of the balcony.
She needed the herbs not just for her salads and teas but for her magical potions as well, so none of the leaves she clipped ever went to waste.
The balcony of her shared apartment faced northeast. Below, she could see the Willamette River. It was the main reason she'd agreed to rent this place, so that she could be on the river. (Well, both the view and the big balcony.) Tara had always tried to live close to the water ever since she'd moved to Portland fourteen years before, when she'd just gotten out of college and foolishly followed her college sweetheart across country, moving from Wisconsin to Oregon.
If Tara could afford it, she'd buy herself a house on a riverbank. But she already had to work two jobs in order to pay her share of the rent of the two bedroom apartment. And she expected the rent to go up again in about a month's time, when their current contract finished.
That Friday, Tara had the afternoon shift at the shop, so she got to sit on the balcony and enjoy the peaceful morning air while sipping her tea. Today, she'd used a beautiful black Assam for the base, to which she'd added cocoa nibs, some dried apple bits, a splash of vanilla, and two freshly picked apple mint leaves. It was one of the smoother teas she'd created, and a regular favorite.
It wasn't that quiet, as usual—too much city traffic seeped up from the busy streets behind her, the constant hum of cars across the Steel Bridge almost soothing. As summer had yet to take a solid hold, the air was chilly, and Tara wore a soft, gray cotton work shirt over her T-shirt and jeans.
Tara didn't wear any makeup—she considered herself pretty enough with wide-spaced blue eyes, soft brown hair that fell to just below her shoulder blades, and clear white skin that would freckle in the summer sun. Yes, she carried more weight than what was considered popular these days, primarily around her middle, but being almost six feet tall, she carried it well. Plus, a lot of that weight was actually muscle from swimming and yoga.
"Ewww. What's that thing?" said Sharon, stepping out onto the balcony and chasing away the tiny bird. "It's not going to shit all over everything, is it?"
"No, it won't," Tara said with a sigh. She picked up her tea mug from the wrought iron table beside her. Damn it. Empty already.
At least that gave her an excuse to leave and get out of Sharon's way, despite the fact that Tara loved spending her mornings out here and would sit on the hard iron chairs all day, watching the river and the traffic going up and down it.
The hummingbird buzzed by the feeder. He made a loud thrumming noise as he passed.
"Get away!" Sharon said, shaking her hands frantically in front of her face.
"He isn't about to attack you," Tara said mildly.
"How do you know?" Sharon said, glaring over at Tara. "Those things are vicious."
"It's more scared of you than you are of it," Tara said, not wanting to point out that the tiny bird wouldn't even take up a third of Sharon's meaty palm.
"You don't know how scared I can get," Sharon said stubbornly.
Tara just shrugged. That was true, actually. Tara didn't know how frightened Sharon could get, though Tara suspected that if she tried, she could brew up a concoction for Sharon that would cause Sharon to be utterly terrified.
Just for a moment, Tara let herself imagine what that might look like. Sharon had blonde hair straight out of a bottle that she wore poofed up around her face, a modern take on a 1950s bouffant. Her gray-green eyes looked tired that morning, and the makeup on her pale white skin did a poor job of hiding the dark circles—staying up too late reading or watching TV, probably. Sharon wore her typical work outfit, a nice, lightweight black jacket over a short-sleeved white blouse and black slacks—office wear for the wannabe manager. Sharon worked as a technical writer and so didn't need to dress so formally; however, she had her sights set on her boss's job.
Could Tara rig up a potion that would make Sharon's hair stand on end? Like one of those cartoon figures who'd just touched an electric wire? The fear would make Sharon's face grow ashen and no amount of makeup would bring color to her cheeks. How huge would her eyes get, if she was truly frightened? How wide would her mouth stretch with screams?
Tara shook her head, banishing the image. She wasn't like that. Wasn't that type of witch, though she'd originally trained under exactly that sort of witch when she'd first discovered her powers here in Portland.
The hummingbird buzzed the small balcony again.
"You see!" Sharon said. "Mean, nasty thing. It's going to keep me from enjoying the balcony this summer."
"No, it won't," Tara said, though now she wasn't sure. Maybe the hummingbird had the good taste to dislike Sharon and would try to chase her away.
"Fine," Sharon said. "But you're the one who will have to clean all the bird shit off the chairs."
Tara nodded rather than say something, as she wasn't certain she could stay polite.
Sharon stomped off, slamming the sliding glass door leading to the living room of the apartment behind her.
The hummingbird very politely flitted by the feeder again, landing delicately on the stand, cocking his head from one side to the other while looking at Tara, making a click-click-click sound.
Huh. Maybe he really didn't like Sharon as he was no longer dive-bombing the balcony.
"I don't care much for her either," Tara told the bird softly. "But she has the largest bedroom, with her own bathroom, and so pays the majority of the rent. I can't live here without her."
The hummingbird clicked at her again before going to feed, as if he was an old aunt, tsking at her bad fortune.
It might not be Tara's problem for too much longer, if the rent really did get raised an astronomical amount next month.
She'd just have to find another place to live, close enough to see the water. But with housing prices rising so fast, leaping higher than her wages, that might become impossible.
The buzzing of her phone brought her out of her morning meditation. It was Patricia.
One of the advantages to living so close to downtown was that Tara didn't own a car and could walk to work.
The disadvantage was that anytime something went wrong, Patricia, the owner, tended to call Tara first.
"Tara, darling, I'm so sorry to bother you! I hope I'm not waking you," came Patricia's breezy tone.
"Am awake. Mostly," Tara said truthfully. It would be another hour or so before she was fully "there." Tara enjoyed what she called a slow roll in the mornings rather than jolting herself up and having to run at full speed.
"You know that normally I wouldn't ask, but Han Su just called and asked if she could have part of the morning off," Patricia said. "Something about registration and paperwork."
Tara sighed. While she adored the sly humor of her co-worker, Han Su tended to not understand deadlines. Those were for other people, not free spirits like her.
"I can come in early," Tara said slowly. "But—"
"Thank you! Thank you!" Patricia said. "I knew you'd come to the rescue. I'd work the shift myself but I already have so many things scheduled!"
"Patricia!" Tara said loudly before her boss could hang up.
"Yes?" Patricia asked with just a hint of impatience in her voice, as if Tara was the one calling for a favor now.
"That will put my hours into overtime for the week," Tara said.
A quiet sigh came across the line. "You could just not work next week…"
"We've tried that before and it's never worked out like that," Tara reminded her.
"Fine, I'll authorize the overtime," Patricia said.
Tara could tell that Patricia really wanted to say something more, or even warn Tara to not let it happen again. However, it wasn't Tara's fault that she'd ended up working so many hours this week. Between Han Su and inventory, there wasn't much else that Tara could do.
Plus, she needed the money.
"See you later," Tara said breezily, cutting the connection before she could hear Patricia complain.
It wasn't as if Patricia couldn't afford it. She wasn't dependent on the shop's income. Patricia was independently wealthy and lived in one of the mansions in south Portland with her two long-haired ragdoll cats.
The hummingbird came back to the feeder again, choosing a different red flower to sip from before flitting off to do its business.
Tara rose to her feet and stretched her arms over her head before leaning over and brushing her fingers against the cool concrete floor. The backs of her legs were still a little sore from the yoga class she'd taken the day before.
She didn't like to think how much more effort it took to stay in shape now that she was thirty-eight. Maybe she'd have to take up bike riding or something.
She shuddered at the image. Of course, she'd tried it, more than once. She lived in Portland, after all. But it had never suited her, not even as a kid.
Swimming though—she could stay in the water all day long. She'd actually planned on heading down to the Y and taking a swim later that morning. Then maybe spending some time studying, memorizing the Latin names of plants, as well as their traditional medicinal, culinary, utilitarian, and magical properties.
Tara was a witch of the first circle, the circle of thought. She had a lot to learn before she could pass within, to the next circle, the circle of breath, also sometimes called the circle of air.
However, all her plans had just flown away, as quickly as the hummingbird who had just taken off. Now she had to call her coworker Han Su, find out when she needed to come to the shop, then probably pack both a lunch as well as a dinner.
Maybe the store would be quiet and she could spend more time studying…
But Tara doubted that her luck would be that good. Particularly on a Friday afternoon at the start of the summer. Tourist season was just getting started. The store would be incredibly busy from now through the end of October.
Tara nodded to the hummingbird who'd returned for just one more sip before heading inside to start her day.
"Ye Olde Magick Shoppe" was a popular tourist destination in the heart of the Pearl District in downtown Portland. It was a storefront that had been built into a converted warehouse, so the walls were new but the floor was the original scratched up and scarred wood. The ceilings were eighteen feet high, giving the room an airy feeling. Though no direct sunlight could shine into the tall front windows, they still let in an incredible amount of ambient light, even during the rainy winter months.
The front of the shop wasn't that big, about twenty by sixteen, with the counter smack in the center of the room. Shelves lined the walls and contained a variety of "magical" items, such as sparkly wands for kids, "blessed" candles in every color and scent, books about the ghosts and haunted places in Portland, crystals and geodes, wooden pyramids, and copper-lined bracelets.
Many wannabe witches dropped by, exclaiming that the shop had a good feel to it, a presence—frequently stating that they'd been drawn there. They would tell Tara stories about the charms they were creating, the spells they'd cast, even the sightings they'd had of ghosts, UFOs, and various other things.
While Tara tried to be sympathetic, her co-worker Han Su was shameless. She'd speak to tourists in a heavy Asian accent with broken syntax, then hand sell one of the most expensive geodes or crystal balls to the customer, going on and on about her Chinese ancestors.
Never mind that Han Su was actually Vietnamese, third generation, raised in Portland, and spoke perfectly good English.
The tourists paid good money for trinkets then were on their way, a constant stream of knickknacks flowing out and money flowing in.
However, the front of the store was literally just that, a front, for the actual magic shop in the back.
In the far right corner of the back wall stood an open door to the second room. Patricia called it "hiding in plain sight." Most of the tourists who came in never even poked their head in the room.
Those who found the room had power, whether they knew it or not.
The back of the shop resembled a modern apothecary, or maybe even an expensive tea shop. Dark wooden shelves stuck out from the bright white walls. Precisely placed cream-colored porcelain containers lined the shelves—the kind generally used to hold coffee beans. Handwritten signs listed the various dried herbs, roots, and spices.
A long counter ran the length of the room, in front of the shelves, at the perfect height for Tara to work at (while Han Su complained about it being too high all the time, as she was just over five feet tall). An old-fashioned balance scale dominated a corner of the counter, used for precisely measuring out quantities of dried herbs. It had a large scoop on one side of the balance and a flat metal disc on the other. Underneath the scale, a pyramid-shaped case held all the various weights.
Two large stainless steel refrigerators hummed against the wall to the right, containing all the fresh herbs.
And today, Tara's lunch, as well as her dinner.
Tara carefully slid the large stalks of basil and lemongrass to the side as she placed her lunch and dinner on the top shelf. Han Su was still standing behind her, thanking her profusely for taking the remainder of her shift.
"I don't know what I was thinking!" Han Su said again. "I really thought the deadline for signing up for summer classes was next week, not this week."
"It's okay," Tara said. She shrugged and gave the other woman a conspiratorial grin. "I need the overtime."
"Ooooh, you got overtime this week?" Han Su said.
Though Han Su was twenty-four, it was easy for Tara to see the old Asian grandmother that Han Su would eventually turn into. Han Su kept her long hair primly tied back into a neat bun at the back of her head. She wore an old-fashioned apron while she worked in the store, one made out of beige duck cloth, meant to help convey the image that she wasn't fully American. Under that, she had on a modest peach-colored short-sleeved shirt and gray slacks.
"I earned that overtime," Tara gently reminded Han Su.
"I suppose," Han Su said, nodding. "You work too much."
Tara snorted. "I don't live with my family," she pointed out. She had to work more than just at the shop in order to pay her rent.
"It's tradition!" Han Su protested.
Tara opened her mouth then shut it again. She'd met Han Su's parents. They'd both been born in America and were effortlessly chic. Probably the only reason why they'd agree for their bohemian daughter to continue living at home while trying to complete her fifth (sixth?) attempt at a college degree was so that they would continue to have the opportunity to tame her.
Good luck with that.
"Why are you taking summer classes anyway?" Tara asked as they moved to the front of the store. Only three customers browsed the shelves at that point, but Tara was expecting a complete rush in about an hour, right around noon, when one of the local Portland tour buses disgorged their passengers half a block away.
Despite her high society leanings, Patricia was a sharp shopkeeper. She stayed on top of the inventory and always seemed to understand the trends before they began, stocking the latest gimmick just before it was discovered by the masses. (She'd stocked a whole collection of notebooks with birds on them one week before the show about "put a bird on it" aired.) Plus, she'd chosen the perfect location for the store in terms of walk-by customers.
"Don't tell anyone," Han Su said, staying on the customer side of the counter and leaning over while Tara took her place behind it, "but there's a new playwriting class that I'm taking."
Tara tried not to roll her eyes. Han Su really wanted to be a writer (as did Sharon, her flatmate). They frequently got into long debates about the virtues of outlining versus writing into the dark, what various markets were hot at the time and writing for them, as well as sharing tidbits about their very different writing styles.
However, Han Su tended to take class after class instead of actually sitting down and writing. Sharon wrote more, or at least pretended to, as she was on her social media feeds most of the time when she was supposed to be writing.
Tara had no desire whatsoever to be a writer. Writing up descriptions of the stock always fell to Han Su or Patricia, as Tara tended to just look at the thing and then baldly describe it. ("It's a candle and it smells pretty.") It was Han Su who came up with the various notes around the store describing the merchandise, talking about the primeval power of the pyramids, the healing abilities of the cooper lined bracelets, the mystical enchantments of the crystals.
"Go sign up for your classes," Tara said, shooing Han Su out of the shop as a customer approached the counter.
"I'll see you at the party tonight, right?" Han Su said as she untied the back of her apron.
Tara nearly groaned. She'd forgotten that the "party"—basically, a meeting of the coven—was tonight. "I can make an appearance," Tara said. "I won't be able to stay late."
Han Su pouted. "You never stay late. You work too much."
Tara merely raised a single eyebrow at Han Su, silently pointing out that Tara wasn't even supposed to be working at this time.
"Okay! Bye! See you later!" Han Su said brightly, waving as she left.
"How can I help you?" Tara said, smiling as she turned to the customer waiting patiently.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly, a steady stream of customers and questions, with barely enough time for her to sneak in drinks of the homemade smoothie she'd brought for lunch. Fortunately, it was really tasty, so she kept going back for more. Today, it had fresh golden raspberries, spinach, kale, bok choy, cucumber and celery for the veggies part, along with homemade coconut milk yogurt as well as coconut milk, vanilla, and protein powder.
Right around six o'clock came the usual dinner lull, and Tara was able to dig into the mason jar salad she'd brought. She'd cut up just a few leaves of the variegated marjoram and mixed those in, along with some basil, borage, and French sorrel. They gave a nice tang to the various lettuces and cabbage. Plus bacon, of course, and hard boiled eggs.
After the dinner lull many of the local witches stopped by for supplies for the weekend and for the solstice next week. Tara spent at least half her time in the back, measuring out ingredients and bagging them for her customers. A dozen internet orders came in as well that Tara was able to box up, ready to drop off at the post office in the morning. Kyle came by early in the evening, then promised to return later to give Tara a lift to the coven meeting.
Just as Tara was getting ready to close up shop, an older gentleman showed up. Tara was surprised—she hadn't heard the bell ring when the front door opened. She just looked up, and there he was, in the backroom with her.
She tried to get a good look at him; however, it seemed as though he stood in shadows which made his expression and features indistinct. She had the impression that he was shorter and rounder than she was, but not soft, no, he gave off a feeling of granite. She assumed he was white, as his face did appear fairly pale. He wore not only a fancy brown wool suit coat, but a vest and pants as well. His white shirt was the brightest thing about him, held tightly together at the collar with a string tie. He doffed his bowler-like hat to her as he stepped closer to the counter.
"Can I help you?" Tara asked, blinking and trying to see his face. It wavered as if it was underwater. Then again, he also smelled of the sea, of kelp and salt.
"Maybe," the man said, cocking his head to the side. "Tell me, do you have any dried purple heather? Calluna vulgaris?"
"We do," Tara said. She reached for the jar on the shelf behind her.
Opening the jar filled the room with the scent of a warm summer hillside.
"Tell me, what are the properties of heather?" the man asked.
Tara suddenly felt as though she stood in front of her first teacher, Miss Lucy.
"Protection, luck, and peace," Tara replied. "Carry it in a sachet to protect against violence. Hang it from the ceiling in the northeast corner of the house to promote peace. Tie it together with dried clover for luck."
"It also brings rain," the man reminded her.
"Yes, yes of course," Tara said. "Burn it with sword ferns to cause it to rain."
"And what are the real properties?" the man asked.
"I…I don't understand," Tara said purposefully. As part of her lore learning, she'd had to memorize both parts of every herb, the traditional, old-fashioned magick as well as the true magical properties. Sometimes they overlapped, often they didn't.
However, Tara didn't want to start listing off the hidden, secret parts of her learning. She didn't know this man. She was certain he was human, as the hairs on the back of her neck didn't stand and warn her of some sort of other.
Yet, there was something off with him, and she didn't know him.
"Heather is used by the head, to clear the thoughts of the practitioners before the start of a prayer circle," the man admonished her.
"Yes," Tara said slowly. "And by the lungs, to promote deeper breathing," she added, wanting to show that she wasn't completely stupid.
"Exactly!" the man said with a nod. "Six paths to the light," he said. "Six circles to pass through. Head, lungs, heart, stomach, and sex, until finally, anima."
Tara nodded. He used the older terms for the tenants of witchcraft, but he knew the true path, where the real magic lay.
However, instead of making her more comfortable, possibly acknowledging that he was a witch like her, it just made her more wary.
She didn't trust this creature, and more and more he was starting to change from man into other, though physically he retained his human-like form.
If only she could see his face clearly!
Silence held the pair of them taut, staring at each other.
What did he want? He seemed to be searching for her soul.
Tara tried to look away from his piercing eyes, but she couldn't. Suddenly, she found herself immobile, held like an insect in a spider's web.
Cold air whipped around Tara, blowing like a storm across an ice-laden river. The man in front of her grew darker. The strong smell of wet sisal rope filled the space.
Tara jumped when the bell over the door of the shop rang, the weird binding that had held her abruptly breaking.
"Excuse me," she said, slipping out from behind the counter and practically racing into the other room.
It wasn't another customer, but merely Kyle, who had returned for he like he'd said he would.
"I'll be just a minute," Tara assured him, though a part of her wanted to go and throw her arms around him.
He wouldn't have taken that well, however. Kyle was uncomfortable with any physical contact, even handshakes.
Tara turned back to room full of herbs, bracing herself before stepping back inside.
The room was empty. The container for the heather was back on the shelf.
Tara quickly turned around. No one besides Kyle stood in the shop. How had the man slipped out?
"Did you see anyone else here in the shop?" Tara asked.
"Not a soul," Kyle said seriously. Then again, he was usually serious. Only a few people, and Tara felt herself lucky enough to be included in that group, knew that Kyle could be a goofball as well, his white teeth practically shining in his black face. He kept his head shaved smooth, and regularly oiled it, giving him a regal appearance. He was taller than she was, a six-foot-three wall of walking muscle. Over his plain T-shirt and jeans he frequently wore a funky vest. Tonight, it was a red-and-white bold print that had its roots in Afrofuturism.
Kyle had a timeless quality to him. He could have been as young as twenty or as old as fifty. Tara had only recently learned that he was actually forty-four.
"There was a man in here, when you came into the shop," Tara said as she stepped into the backroom. She still smelled the river in there, could still feel the wet ropes and hear the cawing of seagulls.
"There's no one here," Kyle pointed out. "And no one came by me."
"And the jar he'd asked about is back on the shelf," Tara mused. She went and opened the heather, the fresh scent banishing her impressions of the river.
Though instead of just bringing the scent of sunshine, an undercurrent of rain was mingled with it.
Tara shook her head, but the scent of rain remained.
While Tara might be many things, overly imaginative wasn't one of them. She closed up the jar and thought for a moment before looking back to Kyle.
"I don't know if he was here or not," Tara admitted. "But something just happened."
"Maybe you fell asleep and dreamed about him," Kyle said. "Do I need to be jealous of your dream man?"
Tara snorted. "More like a nightmare man," she assured Kyle. "No need for jealousy." It wasn't that the pair of them were a couple—far from it, as Kyle preferred men. However, Kyle had stood in as Tara's beard at least on a couple of occasions, and their pretend dates had always gone well.
"I will protect you," Kyle said gallantly, taking a heroic stance, as if he wore a cape or something.
Tara rolled her eyes. "Goof," she said. "Come on. Or we'll be late."
Still, she checked the stockroom before she left as well, making sure that they were truly alone, before she closed the shop and locked the door.
Whoever that man was, whatever he was, she hoped she'd seen the last of him.
She feared, though, that this was just their first encounter.