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Maleficium

Cobblestone Press LLC

Heat Rating: SIZZLING
Word Count: 52,000
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For an Icelandic witch, Arisa’s life was mundane. Between accepting offerings from citizens in the town nearby in return for magic, and living in the middle of nowhere, Arisa had little to no social life outside of her mother and her cat Baldúr. Until Ren.

Ren, attractive and arrogant, forces Arisa outside herself and sets them both on a path far from home. Even if Arisa can learn to understand Ren while on their journey, the outside world threatens to split them apart since not all magic is good and witches aren’t the only ones hiding in the wood.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Mistaken Magic

The sun crept beneath the curtains and Arisa groaned. “Curse you, you ball of fire. Curse you and your stupid brightness.” She buried her face in her pillow to snuff out the light. “Ah, sweet darkness.”

Arisa was on the edge of sleep when four paws found her back and kneaded at her spine. “Baldúr, get off of me!” She swatted her hand backwards, blindly, to no avail. “Damn cat, I knew you were siding with the enemy.” She glanced at the light coming through the window and rolled over. “You’re like a bad penny.” Baldúr repositioned himself on her lap.

The crack of an opening Baldúr created in the doorway widened. “Oh, good, Arisa, you’re awake.” Her mother stood in the open doorway and her blue eyes wrinkled at the corners with a smile. “Offerings were left this morning. I want you to take care of this one.” She tossed a pack of cigarettes with a note attached onto her daughter’s lap.

“Great, more tobacco.” Arisa yawned and opened the note, tossing the cigarettes into the trashcan beside her bed. “Why couldn’t our ancestors have asked for something more useful when they started this whole witchy-assistance business? Food would have been nice, or gold.” She scanned the note.

“Móðir,” it began, “I bring you this offering in hopes of finding love and mending my broken heart. Thank you, Henryk.”

“And why must they always address it to mother? We aren’t all moms. I’m barely old enough to drink.” Arisa folded the note back up.

“Arisa, stop complaining and just answer the request.” Her mother shook her head and her dark ponytail swayed. “It’s not like he’s asking for world domination. Put together a love potion and give it to the boy.”

“You know, I bet Baba Yaga gets more than a sorry pack of cigarettes.” Arisa swung her feet onto the cold wood floor.

“Well, I’m sorry you weren’t born Baba Yaga’s daughter. Get dressed and get to work.” Her mother walked away and Baldúr pranced off behind her.

Arisa dressed in a pair of black nylons, matching V-neck sweater, and jean shorts with coordinating knee-high socks and brown leather boots. Her hair was a mess of waves, so she tied it off into a rushed fishtail braid, letting it rest over her slender shoulder. “There,” she declared to herself.

Arisa was convinced she didn’t look anything like a witch, not in the way fairytales depicted, anyway. No hooked nose or warts. Sure, she had dark hair in a nation full of blonds and a cat, but that was about as close as she came to the stereotype. She looked normal and she wanted to be normal. Instead, she lived in a tiny cottage out in the middle of Hallormstaðakogúr forest, surrounded by Iceland’s reindeer. What a life.

* * * * *

In the kitchen, her mother sat at the table and sifted through letters left at their door. To the outside world, there was no cottage, just the Witch’s Tree, where offerings were left in exchange for a witch’s favor.

“Anything interesting?” Arisa removed mason jars filled with tealeaves from the cupboards.

“Same old, same old: heal the sick, help my business, make me a better lover.” Her mother took a bite of toast.

“Of course.” Arisa looked to the leaves and recited forgotten tongue as she glided her fingers over them. Their dried green color dissolved to red and she placed the leaves in a cotton pouch before stashing them in her pocket. “Well, if you find anything super exciting, let me know. I’m off to help Romeo find himself a Juliet…or Mercutio, who knows.” She grabbed the toast from her mother’s plate and headed out the door.

Arisa took a few steps down the grassy hill and whistled sharply in the silence. She waited a moment, swallowed a bite of toast, and pulled the note from the offering out of her back pocket. She heard rustling in the brush nearby and turned to see an arctic fox approaching her. His ears were perked and gray.

“Hello there, friend.” Arisa knelt down to meet him and offered him her last bite of bread. She held out the note so he could catch any lingering scents from its author. “Can you take me to him, please?”

The fox turned back the way it came and she followed.

Arisa was young when she’d learned she had the power to communicate with animals, but her dreams of woodland creatures doing her chores were quickly extinguished when the birds pooped all over her room in the process.

She followed her guide for about a mile when they came across a young man lying in the grass. Having done his job, her fox friend scampered away.

Arisa took a step forward. “Are you Henryk?” It wasn’t the first time she’d been sent out on a request, so she was used to being forward and to any possible skepticism. In most instances, she tried to find ways around a direct approach, but the people in town scarcely knew she existed and even if they did, they’d welcome a witch with open arms. That was just how it was. Magic was real and people wanted to believe it. The young man who rested on the grass in front of her—with his head on his arms and legs crossed—was slow to respond so she double checked the note to make sure she got his name right.

He looked over at her and raised a brow. “Who wants to know?”

“Odin’s beard,” she thought.

His eyes were a pale green, sharp around their edges, and set beneath long, full lashes. Faint freckles adorned his cheeks, as if the gods meticulously placed them to add a level of innocence to his dangerously attractive features. His hair was a mess of layers, the longest hanging just past his earlobe, and bordered the line of blonde and white. A pink tint to his skin kept his fairness from washing him out. He was beautiful, which meant one of three things: he was an asshole, his looks intimidated others, or he was insecure and shy. Why else did he need help in finding love? Arisa pushed back her thoughts.

“I got your note.” She held the paper out to him and he looked puzzled upon taking it. “You asked for help finding love, so I’m here to fulfill your request.”

“So…that means what?” He looked at the note and back to her. He didn’t stand to meet her; he just looked up from his relaxed position on the ground. “Do you normally pick up guys in the woods or is this a new thing you’re trying out?”

“What? No!” She objected without hesitation. “You wrote that, right? I got your offering for a witch’s favor so I’m obligated to help you, not date you.”

He stood with a sigh and dusted grass from his jeans. He was a head taller than Arisa so he looked down at her when he spoke. “Hold on a minute. So you’re telling me you didn’t just find this note and decide to hit on me once you saw how gorgeous I was? But what you are telling me is that you’re some kind of witch?”

It was always a possibility for people to leave gifts but reject a witch’s existence when presented with it—that Arisa was used to. What she wasn’t used to was his attitude and obvious ego. She resisted the urge to pull at the silver hoops cuffing the cartilage of his ear—the way a mother would pull at her child’s ear when scolding them, only with more leverage.

“Look, buddy, just because you’ve got a pretty face doesn’t mean everyone is going to drop their panties the moment they lay eyes on you.” She took the pouch of tealeaves from her pocket and forced it into his hand. “You want someone to love you, just give them those. Upon ingestion, she or he will be consumed by the thought of you. Believe it or don’t believe it. I don’t care. End of story. You’re welcome.” She turned to walk away.

“Hold on a minute, woman!” He caught her wrist. “What if I have questions? You can’t just impart that kind of information on someone and walk away. It’s rude.”

“Said the pot to the kettle!” She yanked her arm from him. “And my name isn’t woman!”

“Okay, lady.” He looked at her with a smug grin before opening the pouch. “So these leaves…if I get someone to eat them, they’ll fall in love with me? Like, hopelessly in love with me?”

She swallowed her frustration in hopes that cooperating meant being done with him sooner rather than later. “As long as you’re the first person they see after having them. But they don’t have to eat them necessarily. You could put it in a drink and they’d never know.”

“That’s kind of messed up.” He poured the leaves into his palm and inspected them. “So, by that logic, I could eat these and fall in love with you.”

“Well, yes, you—” Arisa stared in disbelief as he chewed the leaves. “Are you an idiot? What are you doing?” His Adam’s apple shifted when he swallowed.

“I would be an idiot…if you were telling the truth. The only thing I feel is sick from eating those.” He frowned and looked at the remaining few leaves in the bag. “How disappointing.”

Had she made an error in her incantation that morning? She racked her brain, but before an answer came to her, Henryk collapsed to the ground with a thud.

“Hey, are you okay?” She panicked, afraid she had somehow mixed spells and killed him. “Can you hear me?” She knelt down beside him and shook his shoulders. “Henryk, wake up!”

* * * * *

Minutes passed when, finally, his eyes flew open and he looked at her. He said nothing, but reached his hand to the back of her skull, tangling his fingers in her hair as he sat up. In an instant, he wrapped his other arm around her, pulling her down into him. His lips found hers.

His kiss was soft, warm, and unexpected. Arisa launched her hand up and out, and pushed him back to an arm’s length distance. Her cheeks were hot from embarrassment, frustration, and confusion. “What in the nine realms do you think you’re doing?”

He shifted his mouth against her hand as he muffled an apology, and she retracted her arm immediately.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I don’t know what came over me. It’s like my body was on auto pilot or something.” He looked around, puzzled. “When did I get on the ground?” He narrowed his eyes at her, a smirk on his full lips. “Were you trying to take advantage of me?”

Arisa shook her head hard, whipping her braid from her shoulder. “No! You collapsed after eating the tealeaves.” She stood, trying to shake off the feeling of his lips. She hadn’t kissed anyone before. She hadn’t ever been close enough to anyone to kiss them before. Her face was warm and her heart fluttered. It was like a nervous type of sickness and she rambled. “Well, at least you’re not dead, sorry about that. Faulty incantation, clearly. I suppose you won’t need my services after that. All right? Okay. Goodbye.” Arisa sped through the words. She felt like running, but she turned at a normal pace and walked as if her body didn’t know how to escape the awkwardness. Right hand first, then left foot, followed by left hand and right foot. Was she marching?

“Hey, wait, don’t leave!” He called after her and shuffled to his feet.

“Just keep walking. Don’t look back. Nothing to see here,” she whispered to herself. She was convinced if she could just get away from him that she could forget the whole thing and breathe.

“I said wait!”

He trapped her hand in his and she halted. Arisa squeezed her eyes tight to blackout the world. It was a dream—just a regular, embarrassing dream that she’d wake up from—but she felt the warmth of his palm against her skin and she heard the unmistakable sound of his voice when he whispered from behind her.

“I love you.” The words just slipped out. His voice was low and serious in comparison to his earlier casual demeanor. Was it love? He wondered. Had he fallen in love with her because he’d eaten the tealeaves? Was he under her spell? It had to be. People didn’t just fall in love. Real life didn’t work like that. He pushed the thoughts away. Spell or not, he couldn’t deny the tight feeling in his chest he had at the thought of her leaving. The anxiety scraping at him had ceased when he touched her. Maybe he was in love, and she was the only one who could help him figure it out.

“You what?” She looked back at him, wide eyed.

He searched her eyes as if all his answers were hidden in the color of her irises. Once again, he confessed feelings he couldn’t believe. “I love you, um…I’m sorry, I never got your name.”

Her name fell from her mouth. “Arisa.”

“Arisa, of course,” he said to himself. “My name is Søren.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it lightly. His questions were beginning to disappear. It was as if he’d always had feelings for her, as if he’d known her his whole life. Nothing else mattered to him anymore but her. He was surprised she didn’t pull away from him but the distant look on her face made him think her thoughts were elsewhere. He waved his hand in front of her face. “Hey, you in there?”

She flinched and looked up at him. “Yes, hi Søren,” she answered. “Nice to meet you too. Wait…Søren? I thought your name was Henryk.”

“Oh, no, Henryk is my younger brother. He’s the one who wrote the note.” He laughed, unfazed. “He got rejected by some girl at school and was all broken up about it. He’s not old enough to purchase cigarettes, so I picked them up and brought the offering on his behalf. Sure, I didn’t believe in it, but he did. I figured it would help him feel better. Guess he was right; just wait until he finds out.”

“You idiot! Not only did you lie to me, but you used magic that wasn’t even yours to use because you thought it was a joke!”

“You’re adorable when you’re angry.” He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “But to be fair, I didn’t lie to you. I never said that I was Henryk—you assumed that. And how was I supposed to know your witch-roofie would work?”

“Why would I make something like that up?” Her hands balled into fists.

“I don’t know—because you’re a crazy girl in the middle of the woods?” He shrugged. “Now, can’t we just move beyond all this and make-out?” His feelings for her had changed but his personality had remained the same. He’d never loved anyone before, so he just acted as he did with every girl he had before. It’d always worked in the past.

“No! Absolutely not! I don’t even know you!”

“But you can get to know me.” She was going to be a harder case to crack than he thought. She was stubborn. Different. He liked that.

“The only thing I’m going to do is reverse this spell, so I can forget any of this ever happened. Come on.” She beckoned him to follow.

“Where are we going?”

“To my house.” Her response was curt.

“Oh, I like where this is headed.”

“Don’t be a pig.”

“I’ll be anything you want me to, baby.”

“How about quiet?”

Chapter Two

Raufarhöfn

The walk home felt like an eternity. Arisa needed a minute of silence to gather her thoughts and figure out how she was going to deal with the mess she was in, but Søren, or Ren, as he insisted she call him, never stopped talking.

“Finally!” She breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of home. She snatched up Ren’s wrist and pulled him toward the cottage.

“Hey, we’re about to walk into that tree. Hey, are you listening?”

She turned the knob to the front door he could not see and yanked him through the threshold.

“Whoa.”

Arisa let go of his wrist and slammed the door as Ren looked around.

“We just walked through a tree.” He strolled around the kitchen, touching everything he saw. His eyes beamed with new and unexplored excitement. “Ooh, a kitty.” Baldúr brushed up against Ren’s leg, purring. Ren reached down to pick Baldúr up and scratched behind his ears.

“Don’t touch anything.” Arisa went to take Baldúr away from Ren but the cat swatted her hand away and snuggled deeper into Ren’s arms. “Ugh, fine then, stupid cat.” Arisa turned her attention back to Ren. “Sit down and stay still.” She pushed him in the direction of the dining room table. “Mom!” She called out and waited for her to round the corner.

“Yes? What’s all the noise?”

Her mother stopped, looking from Arisa to Ren. An outsider had never stepped foot into their home. Arisa was sure there would be a lecture.

“Who’s your friend?”

Stunned by her mother’s calm response, Arisa opened her mouth to respond, but Ren answered on her behalf.

“My name is Søren. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs.…?”

“Katarina. Please just call me Katarina.” She approached the table with a smile. “What brings you to our humble little home, Søren?”

“You can call me Ren. After all, I’m gonna be your son-in-law one day.” He grinned like a moron. His smile was wide, revealing his sharper than average canines, and with his eyes shut, he tilted his head into his smile. Baldúr curled up on his lap.

“Is that so?” Katarina looked at her daughter. “Arisa, honey, how come you never told me you had a boyfriend?”

“Because I don’t! This…this jerk, ate the love potion I made!”

“Oh, dear.” She laughed lightly and it frustrated Arisa.

“This isn’t funny.”

“It is a little funny.” She glanced over at Ren who was sitting with his chin against his hand, looking at Arisa. “Just look how smitten he is, it’s cute.”

“Don’t encourage him.” Arisa headed into the kitchen and shifted through the index cards of spells. “How do I undo this?”

Katarina sat at the table with Ren. “Well, it’s really not that difficult. If you know the enchantment you cast, it’s the same lyrically—you just need different ingredients. Instead of tea leaves you use spleenwort.”

“Great, where do we keep that?” Arisa looked through the cupboards excitedly.

“We don’t have any.”

“What?” She nearly dropped the jar in her hands. “Then where can I get it? In town?”

“Oh, no. Spleenwort is a rare vascular plant, and it only grows in the north. The closest place that would have any is probably Raufarhöfn.”

“But that’s over a hundred miles away! How are we supposed to get there?” Arisa turned to Ren who had been silently staring at her. “Please, tell me you have a car.”

“Nope.” He smiled and Arisa wished he’d stop smiling at her as if she made the world go around. “So, unless you fly around on broomsticks, I guess we’ll be walking.”

“That will take weeks!”

“It’s either that or you accept my undying love for you.” He held one hand over his heart and reached the other out to Arisa dramatically.

She smacked his hand away as she passed by. Arisa stopped and looked at her mom. “At least Baba Yaga has a flying mortar!”

Katarina rolled her eyes and looked to Ren. “I apologize for my daughter’s attitude.” She glanced at Arisa. “You seem like a nice young man.”

“That’s all right.” He turned from Katarina to Arisa with a smile. “I like a woman with passion.”

Arisa threw her hands up in defeat and groaned. “Fine. I’ll get my things.” She stormed out of the room.

* * * * *

Arisa gathered the necessities for the trip into a small bag sewn from magic tools to allow for larger storage so her luggage wouldn’t be so cumbersome. It had been a gift to Arisa’s mother from neighboring trolls when Arisa was born. It was like a black hole for her belongings. It looked and felt as though she’d packed nothing, but everything they needed was in one small backpack.

She was about done packing when she heard the chatter in the kitchen die down and in walked her mother.

“Are you done making friends?” Arisa pulled the drawstring on the bag shut.

“Hey, I don’t care if you’re twenty or a hundred, you’re still my daughter, and I can’t have you leaving with some stranger for weeks without knowing a little about him.” She sat on Arisa’s bed. “He seems like a nice boy, and considering the incantation he’s under, I think you’ll be all right.”

“Physically, sure, but I can’t say the same for my sanity.”

“Try to be nice.”

“Really?” She threw the bag over her shoulder. “You seem to be more concerned with his feelings than mine.”

“That’s because I know no matter what happens you’ll be fine. You’re a strong, young woman, Arisa, and I get you’re irritated, but that’s the worst of it for you.” She leaned back onto her palms. “Normally, with infatuation spells, the initial effect wears off over time as their affections are returned and their own emotions act as magic.”

A sinking feeling hit Arisa’s stomach. “What if their feelings aren’t returned?”

“All magic can be harmful magic.” Katarina’s voice was soft but sharp, the way it always got when she was serious. “I’m not saying you have to love the boy, but try to not be so mean. There’s no way to know what negative effect it might have until it’s too late, so be careful. I don’t want something to happen that you cannot undo. That’s all.”

Arisa’s irritation quelled and was replaced with guilt. Sure, Ren was the idiot who ate the tealeaves, but she should have delivered them to him in a different manner. Instead, she allowed her impatience to override her judgment. She had been careless. “I’ll do what I can.”

“That’s my girl.”

* * * * *

Ren and Arisa set out, stopping by his home on the way so he could gather his things and leave a note for his family. His home was small, with little decoration beyond a vase of flowers that sat on the kitchen table. She was surprised by how plain it was. The atmosphere was almost sad when she’d stepped through the door with him.

“What are you going to tell them?” Arisa leaned over his shoulder to try to make out his writing.

“Nothing really, just that I’m going on a trip with some friends. If I told them the truth, they’d think I was crazy. Henryk’s the only magic believer in the family. If they need me, they’ll call.”

He signed his name, whipped around, and slammed into her. The weight of him knocked her back, but he was quick and caught her at the waist before her head crashed into the corner of the kitchen table. He hooked his arm around her, and the lower half of his body pressed into hers as she remained suspended just above the table.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were so close.”

For the first time his words seemed sincere to Arisa, like they were his own and not derived from magic or teasing. Her chest was tight as she looked up at him. She quickly found her balance and pushed away from him. When she looked back at him, his gaze was far away…lonely and sad. Her mother’s words echoed in her head. “All magic can be harmful magic.”

She tried to right her abrasive actions. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m just…I’m not used to being so close to someone.”

His attention returned to the room and he smiled at me. “Oh, I get it, you’re a virgin.”

Did he have any kind of filter? Arisa couldn’t believe she had felt sorry for him. Magic or not, he still exuded arrogance. “Shut up. If you’re done here, let’s go.” She turned away. Her earlier embarrassment mixed with frustration.

“It’s all right if you are, you know. I promise to take things slow.”

“I said shut up and let’s go!” She quickened her pace and increased the space between them.

“Hey, wait up! I wasn’t trying to be offensive.” He hurried after her and quickly changed the subject. “Are you sure this is all I need to bring?” He gestured to the bag on his back. The autumn foliage crunched beneath his boots.

“I told you, I have everything else. Don’t worry about it.”

“But your bag is so small, how can you possibly—”

“Magic, dummy.”

“Oh, I see. So, that’s how Link must do it.”

“What?” She took small steps as they headed down a steep hill. The last thing she wanted to do was fall.

“Link, from The Legend of Zelda? It’s a game, and the main character, Link, he always has a ton of items on him. I always wondered how he traveled with all of it. He must have a magic pouch.” He laughed.

“It’s fiction, I don’t think you’re supposed to read that much into it.”

“But that’s part of the fun.” He nodded. “I haven’t played a videogame since I was a kid. Feels like forever. Did you play any games growing up?”

“No.” She was still bitter about earlier, so her conversation was minimal despite his trying. Arisa stared off ahead, trying to gauge how far they could get before the sun went down. The sun neared the edge of the tree brushed horizon. The day was half-gone.

“Hey, Risa?”

“It’s Arisa,” she corrected.

“I know, but Risa and Ren sounds so much better than Arisa and Ren.” He grinned like a child full of innocence and adventure. It was almost charming until Arisa remembered he was a pervert. “I was wondering, what’s it like, being a witch? Do you know a lot about the outside world?”

“I know enough. I’m a witch, not a hermit.” She laughed slightly at his naivety. “I go into town from time to time to get things for home, so I interact with people like everyone else.”

“Oh, I see. Do you have any friends in town?”

The question almost stopped her on their path but she powered through it and swallowed the loneliness as she always did. “No, not really. I didn’t go to school like you probably did. I grew up with my mom and she taught me everything there is to know. Someday, when she’s gone, I’ll take over the traditions started by our ancestors long ago. I’ll watch over the town, accepting offerings in return for a witch’s favor, but on my own.” She glanced at Ren from the corner of her eye and noticed he was watching her.

“That seems rather lonely.”

She quickly shifted her sight away from him, as if it would cloak her feelings and his ability to read her. Of course it was lonely, but it wasn’t an opinion she voiced; not to her mother and not to him. She tried not to think about it.

“Risa?”

She wanted to tell him to stop calling her that, but she began to understand that when he decided on something there was no changing it. “Yes, Ren?”

“Would it be all right if I held your hand for a while?”

She stopped walking and looked at him.

“You just…you seem sad now, and I want you to know I’m here for you, that’s all.”

Ren stood tall and offered her his hand and with the light reflecting off the white of his hair, it was like he’d been blessed by the gods—glowing and ready to ascend to Valhalla.

Arisa’s heart slammed against her chest and loosened the constricting sadness that had formed. He appeared kind, and maybe it was just the effects of the infatuation he was under, but she accepted it.

“Sure.” She shrugged. “But try anything and I’ll curse you.” She placed her hand in his but looked away to hide her blush.

He laughed. “Yes’m.” He entwined his slender calloused fingers with hers.

What story does this hand hold? she wondered. Her already flustered heart raced at the mere thought of Ren. She looked back toward the horizon. Day was dwindling and soon night would come.

“Let’s go.” She pulled at his hand and led them forward.

* * * * *

They arrived at the edge of Lake Lagarfljöt when it was too dark to continue and set up camp. The autumn air was icy and unrelenting. Even sitting next to the fire felt cold, so Arisa bundled under a blanket while she waited for the pot of stew hanging over the flames to finish.

“Listen, Ren, in order to make up time we’ll need to wake early tomorrow and head around the lake.” She watched him stir the pot.

“Why not just cross the lake, that’s much faster than walking around it.” He took a sip from the ladle before serving.

“Are you crazy? I’d rather walk around the lake than deal with the lake’s monster.” She took the bowl he handed her.

Ren sat beside her and laughed. “Don’t tell me you believe in the Lagarfljöt worm.”

“Of course I do! And it’s not a worm, it’s a serpent.”

He shook his head. “It’s a worm.”

“It was a worm, but legend has it, a girl was given a gold ring and in order to profit from it she was told to place it under a Lingworm.” Arisa tasted a bite of potato from the stew.

“And so she did,” Ren continued the tale, “and when she put it on her linen chest it grew so large it broke it. Terrified, she tossed the Lingworm and the ring into the lake.”

“Exactly, and it continued to grow! I’m not going into a lake with a monster that spits poison and kills people!”

Ren laughed so hard his shoulders shook. “Even if the legend is true, its head and tail were tied to the bottom of the lake. So, I think we’ll be okay.”

“How can you, knowing that witches exist, not believe in monsters?” She looked him straight in the eye, determined to convince him. He’d been stubborn about the tealeaves and look where that had gotten them. She wouldn’t test their luck.

“That’s just a little too farfetched for me, I guess. I didn’t believe in witches until I ate those tealeaves, so I suppose I won’t believe in the Lagarfljöt worm until it gets me with its poison.” He gulped down his remaining broth before grinning at her. “I’m just stubborn that way. So, I guess I’ll take a bath in the lake and find out.” He stood and began to lift his shirt over his head.

“Stop it!” Arisa grabbed his shirt and pulled it back down. “Don’t be stupid, lake monster or not, that water is freezing cold, you could get sick!”

Ren’s smug grin softened into a small smile. He grabbed the blanket that had fallen from Arisa’s shoulders and wrapped her in it. “Concerned for my well-being, are we?”

She looked away and puffed out her cheeks. “No, it would just be really inconvenient, that’s all.”

He didn’t say anything at first and wrapped his arms around her. She was the one being stubborn now.

“I knew you were secretly sweet.”

“Shut up.” He was warm against the cold night air. “And no touching.” She didn’t push him away.

Ren pulled back and slid his hands up and down the sides of her shoulders. “You should get some rest; we have a long way to go tomorrow. And I’m sure today’s been tiring for you. I’m a lot to handle, I know.” He placed his hand on the small of her back and nudged her toward her tent.

“What are you going to do?” She turned to look at him as he pushed her forward.

“I’m going to look after the fire for a bit, you go on ahead.” There was a gentleness to his words that made her want to believe she was seeing the real him and not the effects of a spell. His personality was so diverse at times, it was hard to tell. But she wanted to know this side of him…for once in her life, she wanted to know someone.

“All right. Goodnight, Ren.”

“Goodnight, Risa.”