THE FALLON CURSE
The rain had stopped; the storm had moved on, marking its location by a soft echo of thunder. The ground leading into the grove of trees was extremely soggy, making motion difficult. Yet, someone was coming; their arrival was marked by the cawing of a flock of startled ravens and the heavy sloshing of many feet.
Two men dressed in rain cloaks, carrying muskets, were in the lead. They walked with a sinister gait. Their helmets and the armor under their cloaks indicated that they were soldiers or members of some Lord's private guard. Strangely, both of the lead men carried small kegs of ale strapped to their backs.
A well-dressed man with an artfully trimmed beard followed. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, but no armor. His rain cloak bore markings that indicated he was a Lord. Specifically, the markings indicated that he belonged to the Fallon family, who lived at the nearby manor. He wore a sword at his side, but he also had two flintlock pistols stashed in his heavy brown belt. He looked around apprehensively, as if to make sure there were no undesired strangers in the area.
Behind him, followed a party of four: two guards with a drawn sword in one hand and the end of a rope in the other hand, who led two women between them. The women were cruelly shackled by their wrists in chains and tethered together by a rope that contained fixed loops around their necks. Although they were in no danger of strangulation, the rope had already opened abrasion wounds on their necks.
Though both women were well-dressed, their clothing was soaking wet and was covered with mud and green stains. A tall brunette in a white dress was followed by a shorter blond in a very fancy brown dress. A large silver Celtic mandala hung from the blond woman's neck, attached to a necklace of black breads. When the brunette stumbled, the blond helped her.
"Keep moving; else I'll run you through, witch!" commanded the man arrogantly, who held the rear end of the rope. He menaced them with his sword, which caught the rays of the sun emerging from behind the clouds.
There were two more guards at the rear of the procession. Each, carrying a heavy pack, strained to carry a heavy pike angled upwards.
Soon, the soggy ground was replaced by a solid, nearly dry clearing, surrounded by several large oaks. However, the full rays of the sun only served to accentuate the ominous nature of what lay at the center of the clearing: five upright poles in the midst of hundreds of piled limbs from nearby trees. Such forbidden construction only served one purpose. It was a funeral pyre for burning witches.
Using tinder, one of the guards lit two torches. He stuck them into the ground beyond the outer reach of the piles of flammable branches.
The women were tied to two adjacent poles; then the bodies of the cats were dropped at their feet. Lord Fallon motioned to his guards to patrol the area for intruders.
"It is a terrible thing to do to innocent animals, who never harmed anyone but mice!" complained the blond bitterly; her piercing blue eyes seemed to radiate fire.
"Silence, witch!" yelled the Lord. "They were your familiars, but they will serve your evil schemes no more! This is your fate!" he cried, pointing to the torches.
"We have neither cats nor evil schemes!" she countered with extra sharpness in her voice. "There is evil afoot here, but it is you, not we, who carry it out!"
"As God is my judge, we will prevail on this day," he proclaimed, as he unraveled a scroll. "I, Edward, of the House of Fallon in Yorkshire, upon the authority vested in me by His Highness, King George, do hereby sentence this witch, Astrid, and her accomplice, Wendy, to death on this first day of Summer, in the year of our Lord, 1732."
"You have no authority; this is illegal!" yelled Astrid defiantly.
Lord Fallon began the standard list of questions, established long ago by the inquisitors for interrogation of witches. Astrid gave one angry response after another.
"What plagues of vermin and caterpillars have you raised?" he asked, near the end of the interrogation, as even he began to weary from the monotonous procedure.
"The only true vermin are men such as you!" cried Astrid, as she managed to pick up a clod of soil. She flung to at Lord Fallon.
At that moment, Lord Fallon tore the Celtic mandala from her neck. The sun vanished behind eerie, dark clouds, and the two torches became the only source of light, as the surrounding countryside turned as black as night. Strange, small flashes of lightning danced high above their vicinity.
"Who goes there!" yelled a distant guard, as he turned to face their rear. Lord Fallon ordered to him to investigate, but the guard returned shaking his head. Other guards also claimed strange sightings; they dashed about chasing phantoms.
"We are bewitched!" yelled a guard in the distance. "I was felled by a blow to my head. A witch struck me with a wooden staff!"
Quickly turning to look in the direction of his guard, Lord Fallon nearly stumbled. "Idiot, you are creating hysteria! Get back here! You probably hit your head on a tree branch. Everyone: come back to this circle!" ordered Lord Fallon, fearing that hysteria would soon take over. "These women have no power; see the shackles that bind them! They will both be dead in minutes. Come partake of the ceremony!"
Two last flashes of lightning showed faces wracked by tension and fear.
Lord Fallon paced nervously around Astrid. "Calling up your dark forces will not intimidate me; soon, you will be dead and forgotten! My father warned me about vile women such as you, just as his father taught him, in the days when they dealt with you people in a proper manner!"
"It is the Lord of Darkness, beckoning to your call, in the tradition of your depraved ancestors!" cried Astrid, as she looked toward the sky. "You are His agent, not I. We have done nothing to provoke you or anyone else; we are innocent! I will most assuredly die, you shall rue this moment, Lord Fallon, as you march to the gallows!" Her haunting voice made him twinge.
"When they hear of your death, they shall honor me, not execute me!" shouted Lord Fallon with hoarse laughter.
As they lit more torches, one guard whispered something to another, who shook his head. "I do not believe that," he muttered, as he took a knife and began to cut away Wendy's clothing.
"No, please do not do this. Let me die with dignity!" she cried.
"Abomination!" he yelled and jumped backwards, once she was nude. All the men stared in disbelief at the male penis and scrotum that was attached to her otherwise perfectly feminine body. "No! "No!" cried Astrid as an enraged guard aimed his pike at Wendy's abdomen. While Lord Fallon pushed the pike away, others threw torches onto the branches piled around her.
"She is my husband, a kind and gentle person, not someone evil such as you. I curse you, Lord Fallon, and all your descendants! None of you will ever forget me!" yelled Astrid, who kept struggling until one of her hands slipped from its shackle, freeing her to use her vast powers. The pupils of her eyes turned brilliant white. Astrid's penetrating gaze became terrifying, as the sky grew even darker, the flames of the growing fire became the only source of light.
Lord Fallon motioned to the one guard to finally use the pike on Wendy, while he drew a pistol and aimed at Astrid.
"Now you will die!" said Lord Fallon contemptuously.
Behind them, an eerie bolt of lightning suddenly struck and felled a tree. Everyone leapt backwards from the fire. Lord Fallon looked back briefly, but he snapped his head toward the pyre again. He did not want let Astrid out of his sight. Strangely, though the flames did not yet look deadly, both Astrid and Wendy appeared to be consumed. As a chilling breeze pervaded the clearing, a white aura surrounded their bodies; it was almost as if they had vanished into the surrounding flames. "I cannot abide witches or Scotsmen. Death to them all! Come forward all of you. Break open the ale and drink to this victory!"
* * *
Richard pushed open the creaky door to his parents' bedroom. The fourteen-year-old boy was the youngest of the four children of Edward and Beatrice of Fallon. His mother had sent him to fetch her favorite hair brush. His older sister, Victoria, had been caught by an unexpected rain storm without her rain cloak, so his mother wanted to brush out her tangled hair.
He sorted through the single drawer of his mother's vanity and quickly found the brush. He paused, as an old golden-chained locket caught his attention. He tried to put it back; after all, his mother was waiting for her hair brush. However, he found the locket so strangely compelling. He put the locket down and tried to leave twice, but each time he returned to the piece of jewelry, as if it were beckoning to him.
Finally, he gave in to an urge to place the chain of the locket over his head, brushing back his long trailing hair so that the chain touched his neck. He felt strangely pleased as he peered at the locket resting on the chest of his image in the mirror. Wearing the locket gave him a feeling of elation, which only increased the more he stared at his reflection.
Richard's reflection was overlaid by the image of a blond woman. She seemed to float like a phantom in air, yet she was not visible in the mirror. She was making a magic sign with one hand, while holding a similar locket her other hand. He looked down: no matter how hard he tried to remove the locket, it was frozen in place; it would not budge. The locket in the mirror began to glow, while the reflection began to change, but he hardly seemed aware. Soon, he gazed with total acceptance upon the image of a pretty, adolescent blond girl staring back at him, instead of the young boy he had observed just moments before. He smiled back at her with approval. "Oh, Richard," he said with a feminine voice, "mother will be angry if she sees a young lady so improperly clothed."
After quickly stripping off his inappropriate male clothing, he paused to admire his new figure in the mirror. Again, some unheard, inner voice or sense seemed to urge him on, as he went to his mother's closet and picked out one of her favorite dresses. Though he had never before worn women's clothing, he knew the size was correct and he knew exactly what accessories he needed.
* * *
"Here's your brush, mother," said a smiling Richard, as his dainty hand offered the brush.
"Who are you?" she screamed in reply. "She had never before seen the pretty blond girl, who was wearing one of her older dresses."
"I am Richard, your daughter," he replied with a curtsy, as if he had been doing it all his life.
"Edward . . . !" cried Beatrice as she ran to the next room.
Edward took one angry look at the blond girl; then he ran to fetch a pistol from a shelf above the hearth. He did not stop to think, as she aimed the weapon. Richard tried to run, but Lord Fallon tracked him and fired, "This time you will stay dead, witch!"
Beatrice put her hands to her face in horror as the pretty girl fell wounded. She rushed to the child's side. As Beatrice held her injured body, she soon realized that she was intermittently holding her son Richard and then the blond girl, both wearing one of her dresses. Amazingly, Richard had split into two people. The girl stood up. She looked down to watch Richard, the boy, close his eyes forever. It was eerie.
The girl put her hand on her mother's shoulder and spoke, "Weep no more, mother; I am dead, yet I live! I am accursed!" Beatrice was not listening.
Lord Fallon only stared. His son lay dead, but the image of Astrid, whom he had become, lived on.
"How could you!" she cried in utter hysteria. "You shot Richard. You shot my little boy," she sobbed. Her anguished mother's cries continued late into the night.
* * *
THE MARCH TO THE SCAFFOLD
Edward saw only strangers as he was led to the steps to the scaffold. Yet, everyone was angry at him. Not only had he slain two innocent women, as had recently been discovered, but he had also killed his own young son, Richard. No one could remember a more loathsome person. He most certainly deserved his coming fate, his sentence of death.
A thrown rock hit him in the left shoulder. He scarcely felt it. Stunned by all the recent events, Edward felt almost numb as he followed his executioner. Every woman he spied seemed to take on the characteristics of Astrid; he imagined her doing a dance of death around him. He also imagined that he saw his father and grandfather, cheering him onward to his fate.
A sudden chill swept through Edward's being, but it was not the chill of death. As he looked into the crowd of onlookers, he swore he saw a woman, with an arm around a young girl, who looked like Astrid's twin sister. He turned his head in anguish, but he could not ignore here. When he looked for her a second time, she was nowhere in sight.
"Please bring me a hood!" he pleaded, hoping to blot out Astrid's image. He willingly stood in place, as the executioner placed the rope around his neck and tightened the noose. Yet, Astrid still lingered in his thoughts; her image had become more terrifying than death.
There was a new sound in the background. Someone began to play a solemn dirge on bagpipes. Lord Fallon hated Scotsmen and their pipes. As the executioner placed one hand on a bible and another on the trip lever, as he began, "By order of his Highness, King George, I carry out this order of execution. You, Edward of Fallon, found guilty of the heinous crime of murder, are hereby sentenced to death on this day 27th in June, in the year of our Lord, 1732. May the Lord have mercy on your soul . . . "
* * *
"Your uncle Matthew, my brother, is an expert in these matters. He says you will escape the curse by journeying to America, but you must never look back, or think about your father dying, maybe at this very moment," said Beatrice to her second-oldest son, Terrance, as they stood on the dock; "our family is accursed!" she cried as she burst into tears.
"It does not seem right to leave you, to never be able to care for you in time of need, mother," he complained.
As Brian stood beside Terrance,Beatrice placed a hand on each of here daughters: Victoria, her original daughter, and Rochelle, as whom Richard lived on. She had had Rochelle's hair dyed black, but it had not affected the curse. "Brian, Victoria, and now Rochelle will care for me, but they and their descendants will be dogged by this curse. I want you to escape, to start a new and just life. You are very good with your hands; my cousin in Boston should be able to get you started in a business of your own."
"You must leave, lest you suffer my fate," urged Rochelle.
"They are hoisting the ready flag, so I have to board." In turn Terrance hugged Brian, Victoria, and then Rochelle. "Goodbye, mother!" he cried as he gave her one long, final hug.
* * *
THE SAGA CONTINUES
Mark Fallon was oblivious to his surroundings as he emerged from the customs holding area at London's Heathrow Airport, after arriving from Boston two hours before. He had short dark blond hair and wore a grey turtleneck shirt and black slacks. He almost six feet tall, but he looked a bit on the thin side for his height. He was plainly struggling, as he pulled two large suitcases on wheels, while he balanced against a long, tubular overnight bag that slung from his right shoulder. He was inadvertently on the right-hand side of the corridor, but the seemingly endless streams of people quickly pushed him toward the left-hand side. There was a brown raincoat draped over the overnight bag, which partially covered several magazines that had been stashed in a side pouch.
'They were so annoying,' thought Mark angrily.
Not only had the customs officers been slow and inefficient, but they had also extensively quizzed him about his case of special electronic gadgets. It was detection and measuring equipment that he used in his line of work, as a historian who documented old houses and mansions and their surrounding land.
Suddenly, Mark stopped and turned, as he realized that he had missed his contact.
'Left side . . . keep to the left,' he reminded himself, as he moved to the left-hand wall of the corridor and parked his luggage.
Looking back toward customs, he saw several signs being waved in the air. Not wanting to fight the onslaught of people coming his way, he took the time to catch his breath and rest.
As the number of people in motion thinned, the signs being waved gradually diminished, as people met their contacts. Soon, there was only one sign left. As Mark retraced his steps, he could see that it was being lazily held by a young woman, a pretty long-haired brunette, who was wearing a white and green floral print shirtdress.
'She is the best-looking one with a sign; I hope she is my contact!' thought Mark.
The young woman was leaning against a railing, over which she had flung her long, shiny tan coat. She had a fancy brown purse, which was partly concealed on the floor behind her equally fancy brown pumps.
A momentary tilt of the sign told Mark that she was his contact. He approached her and spoke softly, "Pardon me, but I think you're waiting for me."
With a startled urk, she backed into the railing and dropped the sign. Visibly embarrassed, she quickly regained her composure and spoke with a strong accent, "Mark Fallon? I be Cynthia Fallon, your distant cousin." She grabbed and shook Mark's right hand forcefully. "When I spied ye earlier, I was hoping it be ye; my intuition is usually not known to err."
"Happy to meet you, Cynthia," replied Mark.
'She's really nice looking!' he thought, while the inflection of his voice made his thoughts clear.
In her two-inch heels, Cynthia became the same height as Mark. "Tell me," he asked curiously, "is your father a Fallon?"
"Nay, his original last name was McDermott. He be dead now, but we have a family estate on Loch Lomond, in Scotland. It be traditional for the men to take the Fallon name, since male heirs are so scarce, at least here in England," explained Cynthia.
"Low birth . . . rate?" asked Mark curiously.
"Not really," replied Cynthia; " I have two brothers, who were sent to live at the estate in Scotland, as most of the others. As ye can tell by my accent, the Scottish influence be dominant now. It be a curious tradition, to send the boys away, one which my mother will not explain to me."
"What if they should refuse to go?" questioned Mark.
"I asked a cousin that, when I was a very young girl, and he said that he had been told the men vanish into thin air, never to be seen again, if they choose to stay. He was quite serious, as he went about packing. I visit him occasionally, but he shall never return home!" said Cynthia, smiling with amusement.
"Well, there's no scarcity of us male heirs in America. That's one of the reasons all the relatives pooled their resources and sent me to investigate this enigma. Can we get moving?" he asked, as he changed the subject. "It's been a long day; besides, I have to use the men's room."
"Just follow," she urged, "there are restrooms on the way to the railway. It be a long trip to North Yorkshire. But let me help ye," she urged as she grabbed his raincoat and overnight bag, which she slung over her left shoulder, opposite from her purse.
'She doesn't look that strong,' observed Mark to himself, amazed that she could carry his heavy overnight bag without any strain.
When Cynthia saw the astonished look in Mark's eyes, she explained, "I exercise with weights a lot."
* * *
The railway ride from King's Cross was long and boring. Due to the placement of the rails, it was difficult to see any interesting scenery in the London environs. As they sped Northward, dusk was approaching. Mark was beginning to feel the effects of jet lag; he could not keep his eyes open. He fell asleep several times, feeling somewhat guilty about being a poor conversionalist with his newly-discovered, pretty cousin. However, Cynthia was also tired, having stayed up long hours in preparation for his arrival. Halfway to her station, he woke up and found her leaning her head on his shoulder. She was confident and relaxed, which was not at all what he had expected her to be like.
'At least, she treats me like a person; everyone else I've met on this train acts as if I'm not here,' observed Mark to himself.
* * *
It was close to midnight when Cynthia helped him stuff his bags into her black Vauxhall. As the moon arose, the vehicle sped down a lonely, bumpy, meandering country road. "The estate be most beautiful in July," commented Cynthia.
'Good atmosphere,' he observed to himself; 'these must be some of the famous English moors.'
* * *
"Are ye married, Mark Fallon?" asked Cynthia abruptly, a half hour later, as Mark sleepily rolled his eyes.
"No, but I am engaged to a young lady named Jennifer Webster. How about you?" asked Mark.
"My mother wants me to marry a certain fellow in Glasgow, but I be much too spirited for the likes of him. I think I should wait for a man I can truly love, do ye not think so?" she asked wishfully.
"Definitely, and you certainly don't want to be bridled by some chauvinistic man!" observed Mark sincerely.
'She's very independent, much like Jennifer,' thought Mark.
"Thank you, cousin; it be so refreshing not to be patronized!" she replied.
Ahead lay the mist-enshrouded stonework of Fallon Estates. It was exciting. Mark could hardly wait to rest up, so that he could begin his research.
"We do not actually live in the old manor building," explained Cynthia as she steered toward the rear of the structure; "it be too expensive to heat such a drafty old structure to a comfortable temperature. Instead, we live in this two-story cottage in back!"
"Wow, what a cottage; it doesn't seem so small. How many bedrooms?" asked Mark.
"Eight in all, which be not extravagant, considering that the main estate has well over fifty rooms," replied Cynthia. "The cottage and tours be mostly shut down for a month, to allow you to do your research. We cannot afford to give ye more undivided time in the manor."
"I'm sure I can accomplish everything I am going to do in one month's time," Mark assured her.
'It's far more fantastic than anything I've ever seen in the U.S.,' thought Mark.
* * *
"This be your room while ye are here," explained Cynthia as she opened the all-white wooden door. She had insisted on carrying his overnight bag and one suitcase up the narrow staircase from the ground floor to the first floor. She placed the suitcase on the floor and gently laid the overnight bag on the full-sized bed; then she continued, "It has most of the amenities that ye will need: a large closet, a nice firm bed, and a private bath."
"This is really nice," commented Mark as he looked out the first floor window toward Cynthia's parked automobile. "It's functional and yet decorative, and probably more comfortable than the manor."
"It would be a cold and spooky night there, to be sure," added Cynthia. "If ye need nay further assistance, I wish to retire; it has been a most tiring day for me as well."
"I think I can manage," assured Mark. "Thank you, and it is a real pleasure to meet you."
"Aye, I think we will get along just fine, Mark Fallon. Mrs. Potter serves breakfast at 8:00 A.M. sharp. I will come to fetch ye; be ready! Goodnight."
'An outstanding woman,' thought Mark. 'Jennifer will never know of such temptation!'
* * *
"That be a curious device," commented Cynthia, as Mark helped her open the massive entry door to the manor.
"The is an ultrasonic tape measure," he explained. "If I point it at a wall or solid object, it will give me the intervening distance. That is why I have the notepad: so I can record all the measurements. I can use it to generate a floor plan on my computer."
"Fascinating, but follow me; I will show ye the den and the master kitchen," urged Cynthia.
* * *
"This be the way to the main hall," announced Cynthia, she and Mark entered a long, narrow hallway. "To the left, be the main kitchen and the den we have just left; to the right, are the old servants' quarters, which are now used for storage and for the electrics room."
"Wow," commented Mark as he brushed aside some cobwebs, "this mixture of stone work and wood work is really fantastic. Let me quickly dash in and measure these rooms."
As they entered the main hall, Mark paused to take measurements and stare in awe. A staircase descended upwards over wide, arched doors to a balcony high up on the first floor. Shields, swords, armor, and crests adorned all the walls, uniformly placed about ten feet above the stone floor. Outer walls had ornate, multi-pane leaded windows. Scores of pictures were mounted along the central inner wall at eye height. A twelve-foot-wide circular hearth stood in the center of the main hall. Its intricately-built, tapered stone chimney stretched upwards and out of sight through the heavy timbers in the ceiling.
'Cynthia really gives the tourists quite a show,' thought Mark.
"Wow, and I presume the pictures are next!"
"Aye," replied Cynthia, "this long wall be the gallery of portraits of our illustrious and lesser ancestors. The pictures are very popular with tour groups."
"Why . . . it looks as if they are all women," commented Mark, as he gazed along the line of pictures."
"Aye, they are nearly all women. Ye will not see men until the far end. In another room, be the portraits of many husbands of these ladies, but they came from unrelated families. It be an unintended benefit, for sure, that we are not plagued by the genetic problems of so many British families," observed Cynthia.
"It's helpful that they all give the dates of birth and death," commented Mark. He stopped and stared at a portrait.
'Another striking young blond woman, who looks curiously familiar,' thought Mark.
"I thought I had just looked at this woman!"
"That be Margaret, who died in 1924; this be her grandmother, Teresa. Further down, you will see the same likeness in Rachel, who was Teresa's great-aunt, and in Carol, a distant cousin. That look be a persistent family trait," explained Cynthia.
"A most-interesting family tree," said Mark. "Is this documented somewhere?"
'I've heard of facial features recurring every third generation,' thought Mark.
"Only in the family bibles," replied Cynthia. "Our ancestors were poor about publishing any documentation."
"I can't wait to see these bibles," said Mark enthusiastically.
'Suddenly, I'm becoming religious,' thought Mark.
"We must find them first; they were hidden away in the 1930's. No one has been able to find them since."
"That will be high on my list of priorities . . . ," said Mark, as he took a long pause when he came to Rachel. "Here's an empty frame, for Edward of Fallon. What happened?"
"It be said," Cynthia began, "that during one stormy night, Anne, Rachel's mother, tore the picture from the frame in anger and burned it in the central hearth."
'I can almost see it,' Mark thought, as he visualized a woman in eighteenth century garb ripping the picture out and then running to the hearth to burn it.
"This young man be Terrance, your ancestor, who went to America. I see the same eagle-like nose and narrow chin in ye, cousin Mark. This is Terrance and his sisters Victoria and Rochelle, who were painted together. And this," she said tearfully, "is young Richard, who was brutally murdered by his father Edward. There be two more ill-mannered members of the clan: Edward's father Richard, and Richard's father John. They dragged our family through scandalous witch-hunts. It was Richard who was granted the land and title, because of his service under Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, at the Battle of Blenheim. He bragged he personally slew the historical Frenchman D'Artagnan in hand-to-hand combat, but I suspect Richard murdered the poor man from his back side instead!"
'These guys were real losers . . . look at Cynthia's reaction', he thought.
"You don't like these male ancestors, do you," observed Mark.
"I be most sorry," apologized Cynthia, "but we must live in the shadows of these men, the bane of our family. Come, I shall show you the second floor," she said, changing the subject, as she pointed to the wide staircase that rimmed two adjacent walls of the main hall. A string of incandescent lights was hung on hooks above the wall-side railing.
'I'm sure these aren't Christmas lights,' he realized to himself.
"Why the lights?" asked Mark.
"It be too expensive to heat the manor, but we continually do battle with humidity. The lights help to provide lighting and moisture control throughout the manor," explained Cynthia.
"Has anyone ever reported seeing ghosts?" asked Mark, as he leisurely followed Cynthia up the staircase.
'This place looks so . . . spooky! The poor lighting creates shadows in every nook and cranny!' thought Mark.
"I would not spend the night; it be too spooky. There be nay proven sightings of human ghosts, but I myself have seen the ghost of Tom, a tabby cat who died in 1748. Strange, that a dead cat would carry on so . . . what pain could drive the poor animal for more than two centuries?"
'I really like cats, but only live ones,' Mark thought nervously.
Once they reach the first floor balcony, Mark scanned the first floor and the main hall with his electronic measure. "You say that there is a second floor, and also an attic?" he questioned.
'Without my measurements, I could never tackle this place.' thought Mark.
"That be true; the manor be a huge building," replied Cynthia. "But come; I will show ye the bedrooms."
"This afternoon," suggested Mark, "I would like to come back with my advanced equipment. I see many potential sites for hidden passages and closets."
"I look forward to helping ye. I will show ye what I know: five empty secret closets, and one passageway that goes nowhere. People have searched through the years, but nay others have ever been found," said Cynthia with a smile.
"I think that you are right that we will make a good team," commented Mark.
'Jennifer, I promise, it's still very platonic!' asserted Mark to himself.
* * *
"Ye have most unusual tools," observed Cynthia as Mark unpacked each item onto the huge antique table in the den.
Mark gave a brief explanation for each of the tools. "This is a very sensitive magnetometer, which will help me locate metalwork imbedded behind wooden panels. This is a converted fish finder, which uses sonar waves to search for hidden rooms and passageways. This is a doctor's stethoscope, to help me figure out complex latches. Then there are the lights, and my set of battery-powered drills and saws. I will only cut or drill if necessary, but there are times when secret mechanisms no longer work or else defy the best detective work."
"Do ye have an idea where to start?" questioned Cynthia.
'This place is really great! To think I was worried that it would be dull!' thought Mark.
"That's where this floor plan comes in," replied Mark, as he formed four grids from separate printed 8" x 10" pages. The grids mapped out the manor's three floors plus its attic. "There is space on all four floors that is not accounted for by the measured floor plan. Look, there appears to be another room of equal size adjacent to the master bedroom. For some reason, sometime in the past, I think the master bedroom was divided in two."
"Shall we start there first, cousin Mark?" asked Cynthia excitedly.
"No, I think we should begin at the known secret closet in the main hallway," urged Mark.
"Why that closet?" asked Cynthia curiously.
"Because I think there is another closet behind it, as suggested here on the floor plan. See, the known closet accounts for less than half the available space," explained Mark.
"Let that closet be first," agreed Cynthia. "Do ye need help carrying all this?"
"I'll start with the magnetometer; If I am lucky, I won't need anything else," explained Mark.
* * *
"These torches be weird," chuckled Cynthia, as Mark placed the headband on her head and adjusted the tension. A forward facing light was placed to either side of the headband, and the battery pack was placed to the rear, over the point of adjustment.
'Concentrate Mark! Pretend she's your sister, rather than your cousin,' thought Mark.
"They are almost to embarrassing to wear, but they work great," said Mark, as he switched on his lights and then Cynthia's lights.
Cynthia twisted the candle holder that opened the closet. Except for dust and cobwebs, and a dozen black hooks, it was bare. "Oh," she gasped for a moment, before she sneezed; then she entered first.
"Careful," warned Mark, "this old wood is often a good source of slivers."
Cynthia pushed hard on the wooden paneling at the back of the closet. When she let up, the front of her white dress was dirty. "Fortunately, my mother be in Scotland, else she would scold me for soiling my dress. Perhaps one of these be the latch," suggested Cynthia as she tugged at several of the hooks in succession.
'Now comes the tense part. I'm so worked up that I cannot bear to fail,' thought Mark.
As he ran the magnetometer past them all and observed, "They are nothing more than hooks." He continued to scan both sides of the closet. Near the lower left-hand side, directly over a knot, he got a strong reading. "I think this is the latch," he said, as he pressed on the knot, which easily moved inwards.
'That's it; they don't come much easier!' he thought.
There was a sound of movement behind the closet, of pulleys and chains in motion. Hidden latches in the back panel noisily released; then the entire back panel swivelled inwards and upwards to reveal the remainder of the secret closet.
"It be a real treasure trove, of bibles, books, records, and journals stored on recessed shelves," remarked Cynthia excited. She picked up one of the bibles, but it slipped from her hands and fell to the floor of the closet.
"Let me examine it where it lies," urged Mark, as he bent own to kneel over the bible. It was open to a page that immediately caught his attention. "I see something interesting, It says that Rachel Fallon was born on February 12, 1771, which matches the date on the painting. But wait, the name Rachel is written above another name which was crossed out. It looks like Robert! Why on earth would they have first named her Robert?" wondered Mark.
'Of course, parents have been known to lay all sorts of strange names on their kids,' thought Mark.
"Perhaps this will help; it be the journal of Rachel Fallon. We should move all this to the table in the den," suggested Cynthia.
"That's an excellent idea," agreed Mark, as he sneezed in reaction to some of the dust.
* * *
Cynthia rapidly scanned through the journal, but it spoke of nothing unusual until the last three pages, which she carefully read out loud, "The date be July 17, 1862. I am now very old and sick with the fever. It is Summer, but it is the Autumn of my life. Doctor Grimm has just left. He has gone to fetch my son and the vicar, because I am not expected to see the morrow. My husband, Henry, has been dead these many years. Even my beloved firstborn, Vicky, has proceeded me in death. Before I die, I want to reveal an unearthly secret. It often seems like a dream, but I know it to be the truth. I was born into the world as a boy named Robert, not a girl. It was a day like today, in the Summer of 1778, when my mother sent me to fetch her favorite dress. Seized by a strange whim, I put the garment on. When I gazed into my mother's vanity mirror, I saw a pretty blond woman, who was not in the room . . . she was not even in the mirror. She recited an unheard a spell upon the dress. I could not release my hold on the dress; it was soon too late. When her apparition vanished, it was revealed that I had changed from a boy to a pretty, young blond girl, in her likeness. My mother said it was the curse of the witch Astrid, a curse placed on our family for the misdeeds of our ancestor, Edward Fallon. My mother cried for an hour, and I cried with her, though I was not distraught. Save for the occasional nightmares of the burning pyre, I have always liked being Rachel. Now I shall soon be with the Lord, and the nightmares will be no more." Cynthia closed the journal.
"Where you born . . . ?" asked Mark cautiously.
'She is awfully strong for a woman,' he thought.
"I was born a girl, despite many contrary attitudes," assured Cynthia. "I understand . . . why the boys are always sent away. But look at the time! Mrs. Potter will be wondering why we are late for dinner. Come!"
"But there's so much to read, and I haven't even set up my copy camera yet," complained Mark.
'I don't want to stop now!' he thought.
"It will wait till morning, cousin Mark. It will soon be too dark to read here. Remember, I be as curious and excited about it as ye!"
"You're right, of course," agreed Mark. If I don't eat and rest, I'll never have all the energy required for tomorrow. I can hardly wait to tackle that master bedroom."
* * *
Mark and Cynthia returned to the den. After almost two hours of fruitless searching, Mark wanted to study the manor's floor plan again. The magnetometer and the sonar had both failed to reveal any secret path into the hidden room next to the master bedroom.
"I must be taking the wrong approach," admitted Mark.
'These tough ones drive me nuts!' he thought.
"There's no door through the adjacent bedroom wall, and no door from the outside hall, which does not even reach the wall of the other room anyway. The headboard of the bed is aligned against the wall, but the six-inch gap makes it easy to search for secret doors. The hidden room has two windows, but none of the windows in the master bedroom open more than a crack. I do not think the pathway is from outside the manor," observed Mark.
"The third floor area above the bedroom looks odd," observed Cynthia.
"It certainly does," Mark agreed.
'I should pay more attention to my own data,' thought Mark.
"It is totally unaccounted for above the hidden room, and one third of the space above the master bedroom, near the adjacent wall, is also unaccounted for. Hmm . . . the sonar images from the other side of the adjacent wall looked strange; I wonder . . . "
* * *
The ceiling of the master bedroom was divided into three unequal panels, placed between crosswise heavy wooden beams. The panel next to the adjacent wall was the narrowest. Mark slid over a massive wooden chair. He paused, while he asked, "May I use this?"
"I do not think you can damage the chair. Many people have climbed on it during the past centuries," Cynthia assured him.
"Aha!" cried Mark as he repeatedly moved and mounted the chair, while he scanned the ceiling panel. "There are all sorts of fittings on the other side. Maybe, if I can move the bed, I can get easier access."
Cynthia pushed on the bed, but it would not move. Both she and Mark pushed on it at the same time from the window side without any luck.
"What is holding this to the floor?" wondered Mark, as he knelt over and examined the bed on the opposite side. "It does not seem to be anchored. What is holding it?" he wondered again, as he gave it a sharp kick.
"It moved, cousin Mark! I saw it move!" yelled Cynthia.
Mark heard a noise from above and looked up. "Watch this," he urged, as he continued to push on the bed, pivoting the window side of the bed toward the adjacent wall. As the bed moved, half of the ceiling panel above separated and tilted downwards. It appeared to be hinged somewhere above the wall opposite the windows.
"It be a drop-down staircase," observed Cynthia. "The bed must be moved for it to properly touch the floor, and moving the bed makes it come down. That be most clever!" As soon as the staircase stopped, Cynthia dashed up the steps to the chamber above.
"Careful," warned Mark; "the area might not be floored."
"There be a solid floor, and more!" she yelled. A moment later, she appeared at the top of the staircase, swinging a heavy antique sword. "Catch!" she urged as she tossed Mark a coin.
Mark caught the coin and looked it over. It was a shiny English half crown, dated 1698.
"There be a chest full of them, and a rack of old swords and knives," informed Cynthia. "There also be another staircase on the other side. It be already lowered . . . " Cynthia's voice became fainter as she walked down the other set of stairs.
"Wait for me!" cried Mark as he excitedly raced up the steps after Cynthia.
'This old manor is a literal gold mine. When I publish my notes, I'll be famous, at last!' thought Mark.
* * *
Mark did not pause to look around, as he reached the top of the stairs. He stepped over the top of the wall and shuffled down the other staircase to the hidden room.
On the way down, he noted to himself, 'The other staircase cannot possibly fold up into the ceiling, because it is firmly fixed in place.'
"Cynthia, where are you?" asked Mark as he glanced around the room, which was filled with cobweb-covered crates and sheet-covered furniture. The sword Cynthia had been carrying was lying on top of one of the crates. There was a door on the opposite wall, less than three feet from the farthest window. Mark was about to go check the door, when he heard a noise from behind.
"Watch it, cousin Mark," joked Cynthia playfully, as she placed a wig on his head, "because I shall change ye into a girl!"
"Ah," cried Mark in return, as he quickly pulled the wig from his head and tossed it to the side, "don't scare me like that."
'Boy, my adrenalin is surging now!' he thought.
"And ye be wondering, as I, what be beyond that door," commented Cynthia.
Mark cautiously opened the door. "It appears to lead to another staircase, leading upwards. I guess it must have a door somewhere up in . . . "
Mark stopped talking because he heard a noise. It sounded like a muffled groan. Mark was about to step through the door, but he leaped backward when confronted by a loud hiss. He could feel his heart pounding, as a large silver tabby cat ran between his legs. The cat was last seen bounding up the staircase to the chamber above the master bedroom.
"Oh, that cat really startled me," admitted Mark; "I thought I had seen a ghost."
"That cat was a ghost," claimed Cynthia. "Tom ran through your legs and through that crate. He did not like ye, for ye be a male kinsman. Tom does not like male kinsmen."
"I don't want anything to do with Tom either," commented Mark, as he gazed around the room. "What strange piece of furniture is under this sheet?" wondered Mark, as he pulled the sheet away.
"That be a woman's vanity. It probably be the vanity of Lady Beatrice. Take care, cousin Mark; it most assuredly be associated with the curse," warned Cynthia.
"I should be safe; after all, this is 1995, and curses are sort of old-fashioned. Besides, I certainly don't feel any urge to put on a dress," replied Mark.
'Just stay out of the dresses, Mark . . . leave them to Cynthia; they fit her much better anyway.' he thought humorously.
"Oh look," said Cynthia as she opened a large trunk, "speaking of dresses, this be filled with many interesting old dresses." Cynthia pulled out a white dress and held it in front of her. "This be almost in style again; the medieval look be popular these days."
Mark ignored Cynthia's prize discovery. He was still visibly shaken from his encounter with the ghost of the cat named Tom. Absent-mindedly, he picked up the wig and set it on the vanity. He tried to turn away, but he found himself staring at the image in the mirror. He looked at the wig. It was trimmed in a page-boy fashion. Hardly aware that Astrid's face had appeared above his face in the mirror, Mark began to fantasize.
'If I put it on and pick up that sword, I'll look like Prince Valiant. The nice blond woman will help me!' he thought.
Following an impulse, watching Astrid cast her spell upon a similar wig, he raised the wig and aligned it over the top of his head.
"No!" cried Cynthia, seeing the face of Astrid, as she raced to Mark. She tackled him, knocking him to the floor, while she tried to pull off the wig. It would not budge.
"I thought I saw a woman's face," he commented, shakily rising to his feet. He noticed he was still wearing the wig. "I look ridiculous. But why won't this come off?"
"It be the curse!" cried Cynthia.
"Some curse! Is this supposed to make me look like a girl? he wondered.
Cynthia looked carefully at his face. She noticed that his cheekbones seemed to be growing and his chin receding. "Soon ye shall," she commented confidently. "Ye be a distant cousin, but a Fallon, nevertheless!"
"I feel really queasy," said Mark, as he continued to pull at the wig. "Grab hold and help me get this off!"
Cynthia placed an arm around Mark and pulled. The wig was still solidly attached as his real hair. Suddenly, as she felt a convulsion in Mark's chest, the wig slipped off without resistance.
Long, golden locks of hair unfolded in Cynthia's one hand, while she curiously explored the new, non-male features of his upper body with the other hand.
"What are you doing?" in a voice of varying pitch, that increased high into the upper register. "Let go; you are hurting me."
'What's happened to my voice? What's happened to me?' aksed Mark to himself.
As Cynthia stepped back, she got a full view of the person Mark had become, a shorter and more fragile, pretty blond woman, who looked quite out of place in Mark's baggy clothing. She gasped for a moment, wondering what to do next.
"What are you staring at?" asked Mark, as he got to his feet and stepped out of the pair of shoes that no longer fit.
'Why is she eyeing me?', asked Mark to himself.
"I be astonished, because I have never seen a boy become a girl," began Cynthia with a nervous laugh. "I see how it happens: the origins of Margaret, Teresa, Rachel, and Carol. I saw Astrid work her magic from the world beyond; yet, the spell still be a mystery!"
"What are you talking about?" questioned Mark curtly, as he appeared to examine his new appearance in the mirror, while holding up his drooping pants with his petite left hand. "These clothes are unacceptable!"
'How did I get someone else's clothes?' asked Mark to himself.
"Mark, ye be acting daffy!" scolded Cynthia, as she placed her hands on his shoulders. As she vigorously shook Mark, she shouted, "Ye be mesmerized by the spell. Please regain your wits, my cousin!"
"Stop it!" he yelled with an unexpected burst of anger. "It's that vanity," he pointed. A bright spark of light shot from his right index and hit the lower paneling of the vanity. "I...I burned a hole in the wood. I seem to be armed with photon torpedoes! And some intuition is guiding me." Kneeling on the floor, he managed to locate and open a secret compartment under the vanity.
'At least I remember something,' he thought with satisfaction.
A large silver object fell to the floor. It was attached to a broken necklace composed of black wooden beads. Mark stood up and stared at it, wondering why it seemed important.
"That be a Celtic mandala, a fine treasure," commented Cynthia, as she took the necklace from Mark.
"It's broken," replied Mark weakly.
"I can repair it," said Cynthia. Seizing the initiative, she pulled that pants from Mark's grip and let them fall to the floor.
'It's okay, they don't fit anyway. I feel so odd . . . ' he thought.
Mark's shirt hung past his crotch, which was now quite flat. Finally, holding Mark's wallet and keys in the hand with the mandala, she grabbed his left hand and led him from the manor. Taken with the irony of the situation, she observed that she was now taller and stronger than Mark. She was also in charge, which pleased her very much.
"You like being in charge," he observed.
"Always," she agreed.
As he followed Cynthia's lead and carefully watched where his sock-covered feet stepped, Mark was aware that many things had changed for him.
'I can't walk right; my hips sway no matter how much I adjust my gait, and my chest feels like it's filled with water. Colors don't look quite the same either,' he observed, as if he were seeing the world through different eyes.
'There might even be subtle differences in my senses of smell and hearing,' he added, to himself.
* * *
"...and as Mark peered into the mirror with the wig atop his head, Astrid appeared over his reflection, and the wig stuck. Shortly, he changed into a girl, in the likeness of Rachel and all the others. Seeing Astrid for the first time, I suspect they all were made in her likeness," explained Cynthia to Mrs. Potter, while they both examined Mark in the cottage drawing room.
"My goodness, this is most extraordinary," commented Mrs. Potter. Mrs. Potter worked for the Fallon family as their chief cook and housekeeper. She was a fiftyish woman, of average height, slightly overweight. She wore very thick-lensed glasses, which looked strange when combined with her babyish face. She had a penchant for brown dresses with black vertical stripes.
"I feel naked and exposed," said Mark numbly. "I need some clothes that fit."
'Since these are going to be women's clothes, I fear . . . .' he thought nervously.
"I probably need counseling too. Most of all, I need to reverse this spell, before this new body engulfs my mind!"
"Have spot of tea to settle your nerves," said Mrs. Potter, as she handed a filled cup to Mark.
"I don't really . . . hmm, I guess my tastes have changed too," commented Mark. "I've never liked tea, but this blend is really quite smooth."
"Perhaps the answer be found somewhere in the manor," suggested Cynthia.
"I just . . . can't bring myself to go back in there right now," admitted Mark, as he took another sip of tea.
'This is what Jennifer would call a really bad hair day!' he thought, taking care to use his male voice.
"We can arrange for a change of clothes right away," said Mrs. Potter, as she approached Mark with a measuring tape from her sewing kit. While she was measuring and noting Marks new dimensions, she mentioned, "I think there are many things in one of the wardrobes that will fit her . . . I mean, him. Oh, this is so unusual! I'll be back directly."
'This body demands that I sit,' thought Mark, as he picked a nearby chair, while Cynthia repaired the necklace he had found.
Even while sitting, he was aware of his wider hips and his unsupported breasts. As he tugged at his shirt to pull it down as far as possible, he accidently brushed his right hand against his crotch.
'I'll try not to think about what the flatness means. This just can't be me; I don't have such delicate hands and killer legs! At least, it doesn't hurt!' he thought.
"Do I look convincing? How do I sound?" he asked, while he experimented with the intonation of his soprano voice.
"Ye look and sound like a girl," replied Cynthia.
"Good," sighed Mark.
'But not exactly great,' he thought.
"I do not want to look like a freak, but this does present a problem, to say the least. Why do I feel so relaxed; I should be very angry that this happened? How are we going to explain this development; I don't even match my passport picture anymore? What if my fingerprints are different?" Mark wondered, clutching his wallet.
"To be sure," added Cynthia, "any publicity will attract attention. Our newspapers are famous for sensational journalism."
"I think I have to use the toilet," said Mark suddenly. "I was dreading this moment."
'I do not know how women do this!' he thought nervously.
"Right this way," directed Cynthia. "Please be warned: ye must sit down, lest ye make an embarrassing mess."
* * *
Mrs. Potter returned, carrying a large suitcase in each hand. As she placed the suitcases on the drawing room table and opened them, Cynthia announced, "Sorry, cousin Mark, but your inappropriate clothing must come off!"
"I have a friend who might be of help," offered Mrs. Potter, "but I do not think the name Mark fits any longer."
"That be true," agreed Cynthia. "Mrs. Potter, meet Rachel, my cousin from America."
"I don't know . . . ," pondered Mark, but both Cynthia and Mrs. Potter shook their heads in approval. "Okay, so I guess I am now Rachel," he agreed as Cynthia pulled off his black socks. His cheeks flushed bright red.
'Being a woman is different enough, but being a naked woman is very unsettling,' Mark thought.
"No need to be modest or embarrassed," said Mrs. Potter kindly; "you are definitely one of us ladies now."
"Ye certainly cannot impersonate a boy," observed Cynthia; "ye would never get away with it."
"I'm getting a little cold," complained Mark as Rachel, "and I feel like I'm going to tip over. I did not realize women had such unbalanced bodies."
'These breasts feel out of control!' Mark lamented to himself.
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Potter as she helped Rachel put her first brassiere on, "you just need to learn to carry yourself a little differently." Next came a pair of pink panties and a pair of shear tights. Rachel fumbled with the tights, so Cynthia showed her how to roll it up first. The white satin slip came next; then Rachel was ready for the dress Mrs. Potter had picked out.
"Hands raised upwards, please," requested Mrs. Potter, as she as she unfolded a narrow-skirted black satin dress. Once she undid the back zipper, she dropped the dress down over Rachel; then she tugged at the skirt until it fell into place. A quick motion closed the back zipper.
Mrs. Potter turned Rachel to face a full-length mirror, placed on the inner side of a drawing room closet door. The dress had a square neckline, short sleeves, and a beltless, form-fitting waistline. The dress fit so snugly, without being tight anywhere, that it appeared to have been specially made for Rachel. After attempting unsuccessfully to reach the zipper tab, Rachel commented, "I'm trapped in this dress, unless someone helps me unzip it, but it does look good on me."
'I look terrific . . . that's scary,' thought Mark.
While Rachel was entranced with her image, looking much like a girl Mark would have like to have dated, Mrs. Potter took a special tool and pierced both of Rachel's ears.
"Ow!" grimaced Rachel. "You could have warned me."
'I forgot that women wear earrings,' Mark reminded himself, still taking care to use a male tone.
"Sorry," apologized Mrs. Potter, "but it is best done when the subject is relaxed. Let me apply a little antibiotic; then we'll put on the starter earrings. I see Cynthia has a Celtic mandala necklace, and I have a nice gold-chained bracelet to complete your accessories."
Cynthia spied a pair of black pumps sitting in one of the suitcases. She picked them up and carried them to Rachel. "These should look nice. Try them on," she urged.
"I can't walk in these; they tilt too much," complained Rachel.
'No wonder women walk so slowly,' he thought, realizing that his mental tone was shifting upwards in pitch.
Mark as Rachel tried to take a few steps, but he almost lost his balance as his right foot twisted painfully to the side. In a brief fit of anger, another bright spark shot from his right index finger. It knocked a decorative porcelain plate off a shelf across the room. The plate broke into pieces when it hit the hardwood floor.
"Oh my!" said Mrs. Potter.
"Our Rachel has an anger-management problem," explained Cynthia. "Please practice more self-control. The heels are not much more than an inch high," scolded Cynthia. "It could be worse. Just walk carefully, in a straight line, and step on the heel and toe together!"
"Try these plimsolls instead," suggested Mrs. Potter.
"They're very comfortable," replied Rachel, after taking a few steps in the sneakers. She stepped up to the mirror again and carefully examined her image. Though she was visibly pleased, she also frowned. "They are not very fashionable, are they? I have to defy logic and pick the pumps. Being a woman is different.
'I'm feeling sort of crazy with this fashion thing!' thought Mark as Rachel. The mental pitch was still rising.
"That be true!" agreed Cynthia.
"My friend does not live far . . . just a way down toward Nottingham County; she might be able to help Rachel. Perhaps I could ring her up," suggested Mrs. Potter. "Her name is Irene, with the final e pronounced."
"I have heard of her. She be a white witch, correct?" asked Cynthia.
"I guess," confirmed Mrs, Potter in a hesitant tone. "I would advise against calling her such."
"Then ring her up," urged Cynthia. "A visit to Irene be an excellent public debut for Rachel!"
* * *
"How did you know it was going to rain?" asked Rachel, as she watched Cynthia dash to post her letter.
'I hope I don't have to walk in the rain dressed this way,' lamented Rachel.
"It was a feeling I had this morning," explained Mrs. Potter. "Of course, if it should not have rained, I would have felt embarrassed wearing the rain cloak and taking the umbrella. Oh, I should warn you: despite your circumstances, do not speak ill of witches; they are very sensitive and might take offense."
"I will try to be kind, but I do not think much of this poetic kind of vengeance," complained Rachel indignantly, as she clutched that small black purse that held Mark's wallet.
'I had better adjust my attitude; if they can do this, they must be able to do even nastier things,' thought Rachel.
"Your letter be on its way," announced Cynthia, as she sat down and closed the right-hand front door. "How much did ye tell your fiancée?"
"I made absolutely no mention of this situation specifically!" emphasized Rachel. "I just told Jennifer that my exploration of the historic manor had uncovered many discoveries. I told her I had a slight accident, but I was managing okay."
Cynthia started the motor and put the Vauxhall into gear. "We are on our way to meet Irene, but I do not know the way."
'So we're off to see the wizard . . . along the yellow brick road . . . to the masquerade ball!' fantasized Rachel to herself. "It's not difficult; just follow my easy directions," informed Mrs. Potter.
"These rolling hills, and the meandering roads with their many roadside stone walls: I've seen it somewhere before," pondered Rachel.
"All Creatures Great and Small?" questioned Cynthia and Mrs. Potter together.
"That's it!" replied Rachel.
"Tourists from America often mention it," informed Cynthia.
* * *
"Turn left to this yard," instructed Mrs. Potter, as they approached an intricate cast-iron fence. The fence contained many cast images of corncobs, whose painted green and yellow colors had faded. The house inside the yard looked somewhat like an old Tudor mansion. Much of its architecture was obscured by countless vines of clinging ivy.
"Welcome to Oz," Rachel continued her metaphor out loud.
While Mrs. Potter knocked at the front door, Cynthia helped Rachel maintain her balance while climbing the steep steps. Irene answered the door a spoke softly and sweetly, "Please come in, it is so nice to meet friends of Ida Potter."
It was difficult to say whether Irene or her home was the most visually stunning; they both looked like they belonged to some alien world. Irene had wide blue eyes. Her hair was long and stringy, and was dyed many shades of red. She looked much like a gypsy, wearing a red dress that was adorned with at least a hundred pieces of silver and gold jewelry. Jewelry even covered her short high-heeled boots.
"I do seldom get guests, and my husband is frequently away on business trips," explained Irene.
"Ye be a witch?" asked Cynthia curiously.
"Please, used the term mystic or mystic practitioner, thank you," instructed Irene. "The term witch has too much connotation with devil worship and the black arts! The name Wicca is also used, but again it is some else's word! We do not have a public relations agency, so everything printed about us is invariably lies!"
Tapestries literally covered the walls inside Irene's house. Some depicted historical English and European events, but most were covered with mystic symbols, witches, warlocks, and wizards. All the furniture looked even more antiquated than that in the Fallon manor. A really strange object caught Rachel's attention. It was a statue, apparently made by combining a unicorn with a dragon. It was made of a dark-gray metal and covered with tiny crystals.
"It is made from a nickel-iron meteor. But was unique, being covered with quartz crystals. It fell into this yard in the Summer of 1830," explained Irene. "It took a masterful spell to transform it thus. I do not think anyone can duplicate it today."
"Irene, this is my employer, Cynthia Fallon, and her cousin from America, . . . er, Rachel Fallon. Rachel has a problem," said Mrs. Potter.
"Happy to meet you," began Irene. "So, Rachel, you are afflicted by some kind of a spell?" she wondered as she curiously looked Rachel over. "You do look a little stiff."
"I'm not used to this body or clothing," said Rachel, as she reached into the bodice of her dress to pull on a brassiere strap.
'Irene's nice looking, but I'm looking at her the way a man would, while she's treating me as another woman,' thought Rachel.
"It happened this morning, in a hidden room of the manor," explained Cynthia. "Rachel be bewitched. It be the curse of Astrid, a curse on all Fallon kinsmen!"
Mystified, Irene asked, "Exactly what is the problem?"
"Do I look like an attractive woman?" asked Rachel.
"Yes, of course, but you know that; why are you asking?" questioned Irene.
"Because I'm not quite myself. Mrs. Potter and Cynthia dressed me up like this. I started out the day as Mark Fallon," she began, as she opened Mark's wallet to the driver's license, "and now I've been turned into my own slightly wicked sister, who looks like some witch named Astrid."
'Even my sister does not look this good,' thought Rachel.
"Really," squealed Irene excitedly, giving Rachel a hug at the same time. "So there really is a sex-change spell! You don't know how many men have asked for just such a thing! You must be very happy."
"I don't think so," replied Rachel. "Cynthia and I read the previous Rachel Fallon's journal. She started out as a boy, but the curse changed him into a girl, who grew up to lead a woman's life.
'I certainly don't ever want to get married to a man or have children!' thought Rachel.
"Apparently, I can't even prove I used to be Mark Fallon. I'm already plagued by mixed emotions, and I'm worried that I will have to endure terrifying nightmares during my sleep. I would like to have the spell reversed before I become emotionally attached to this new body!"
"Let's go to my study," urged Irene. "We'll look this up on my computer, to see if there might be some course of action. I do not personally know this spell. Even if I did know it, my powers are probably too weak to reverse it. Trina, would you please bring tea, darling?"
"What a pretty little girl," remarked Mrs. Potter, when she spied a girl, wearing a red and white floral dress, walk into the study carrying a blue tea set on a silver tray.
"This is my daughter, Trina. Be gentle with her; she is very reclusive," urged Irene.
"You are computerized?" questioned Rachel, spying the IBM compatible on the desk in Irene's study. "Thank you," she said, as Trina poured her a cup of tea.
"Our information database was computerized a decade ago," began Irene. "However, the details are kept secret. I have long tried to reduce the spell used on you, Rachel, to its theoretical set of elements."
"What is an element of a spell?" wondered Rachel.
"It's a lot like a cosmic program fragment, created aeons ago. I do not know how these fragments are created, but once created, they linger forever, and they can be invoked in various combinations to manipulate matter, energy, and organic structures."
"Witchcr . . . er, mystic arts be scientific!" Cynthia deduced.
"That's right, but having the right genes also helps," said Irene as she began typing. "I will search on the name, Astrid, to see what I can learn."
While Irene searched her database, Rachel glanced around. Many necklaces, similar to the one she wore, were hung on a nearby wall rack. She cycled through the beads of her own necklace, as if to pace off intervals of time.
"Oh my," commented Irene, "there is an extensive biography of Astrid. That's odd: she's not in the directory, but I found her with a search function. She was a very famous mystic, with vast powers. Astrid was uniquely vested with the power of physical transformation. She was murdered on June 12, 1732, by one Lord Edward of Fallon. That would be one of your ancestors, Cynthia and Rachel. That event is not historically documented, because the last official execution occurred in 1722, in Scotland. It says that her companion, Wendy died with her, but they were survived by one child. Now that is really odd!"
"That be not so strange," observed Cynthia, "because Mark now be a woman we call Rachel."
"But how do we reverse this spell . . . ?" Rachel began to ask, as a sharp rap at the front door interrupted her.
Irene greeted three women, who, by the expressions of their faces, were clearly upset. All the women wore gray, hooded cloaks over pastel-colored dresses that were ornamented something like Irene's outfit; however, they resembled stern matrons more than carefree gypsies.
"I think they are Irene's superiors," whispered Cynthia to Rachel.
"Are you divulging secrets to outsiders?" asked the older woman, as she handed Irene her cloak and then moved quickly to the study. Trina ran into an adjacent room, where she hid behind a large potted plant.
"Do not embarrass me by scolding me or my guests, Myra!" shouted Irene. "Rachel is afflicted with a transformation spell. I need to learn this spell so that I can help her."
"Rachel . . . which one of you is Rachel?" asked Myra, as she aimed her icy gaze in the direction of Cynthia, Mrs. Potter, and Rachel.
"I'm Rachel, but that's not really my name."
'Gosh, I'm even getting used to the new name! Will I even pay attention if someone calls me Mark?' wondered Rachel to herself.
"This morning, I woke up as my usual self, but I was caught off guard by the curse of Astrid," explained Rachel.
"You do not look like you are suffering very much, young woman," observed Myra.
"This morning I was a man, Mark Fallon, and now I am a biologically correct woman. I could not be much more changed!" said Rachel emphatically.
'But she is right: I am not really suffering very much. I can't believe how sensuous my legs look in pantyhose,' thought Rachel.
Myra beckoned with raised hands. "Zoe, Simone . . . come here! Were I not engrossed with my temper, I would have noticed. Behold, the likeness of Astrid has returned."
"I told you so," reminded the red-haired Simone. "I had a dream that she would come back before the Winter solstice. I saw her pass through a circle to retrieve Britta."
"Is it really the time of the prophesy?" wondered Zoe.
"What are you talking about?" questioned Rachel. "How am I going to counter this spell?"
'Ladies, please do something before I become one of you in mind too!' she thought, totally giving up on trying to hold down the inner pitch.
"You really do not want to do that," said Myra solemnly. "I could reverse the effect this moment, but you would die within moments, suffering fatal convulsions. Astrid's curses are tamper-proof."
"Come here, darling" motioned Irene, as she joined the others and spied Trina."
"I be Rachel's cousin Cynthia, and this be Mrs. Potter, my employee," began Cynthia, "but who be Britta?"
"Britta," explained Myra, as Irene placed her arm around her daughter, "is a child much like Irene's girl. She was the daughter of Astrid and Wendy, but she vanished after her parents were murdered. Many have sought her, but none have found her."
"You make her sound important, but she lived and died more than 250 years ago," complained Rachel. "What does she have to do with this curse?"
'We're getting way off on a tangent,' she thought, using her newly acquired pitch.
"What indeed?" asked Myra again. "Britta possesses enormous mystic energy, and whoever has her in their camp shares in this energy. Evil forces have also been seeking Britta. Someone snatched her up; we hope it was one of us!"
"Can Rachel make the journey?" asked Zoe.
"I presume so, being a twin to Astrid, but we must test her first," replied Myra.
"Journey? Test? What are you talking about?" wondered Rachel.
'Hello, we're still not focusing on the problem,' worried Rachel to herself.
"We are talking about a very dangerous journey through time, to the year 1732, back to the moment before Astrid died," replied Myra.
"You can send me back through time?" questioned Rachel.
'Will this line of reasoning do me any good?' she wondered to herself.
"We want Britta, and you want to be free of your curse. If your genetic pattern matches your appearance, you may have inherited some of Astrid's powers. However, Cynthia and Mrs. Potter must leave."
"Ye must test me also," demanded Cynthia. "I be descended from men transformed like Rachel. Rachel be from America and knows naught of early eighteenth century English customs. I know the history of these parts, and I have a black belt in the martial arts and self-defense!"
Rachel gave Cynthia an astonished glance.
"You make your point well," admitted Myra; "however, at the first sign of failure you shall be excluded from any further tests!"
* * *
"We are finished, "announced Zoe to Irene; "you may invite Mrs. Potter back into your house.
"It is a very rude way to treat one of my friends," complained Irene.
"Wait!" demanded Cynthia. "What about these sparks the Rachel shoots from her finger?"
"Sparks?" questioned Myra with definite interest.
"It's nothing; forget it!" insisted Rachel, who was somewhat embarrassed.
"It could be dangerous, so we must talk about it!" insisted Cynthia, who was purposely being extra annoying.
"Stop it! You're not my mother! If I get any angrier...." Rachel stopped speaking, as another spark shot from her finger. This one burned a hole through a pane in a nearby window and vanished out-of-doors.
"Both of you stop this, now! I am really astounded," began Myra as she turned to face Rachel and Cynthia. "Cynthia, you passed all but the last two tests. Rachel, you passed all the tests, and you possess the rare gift of Mystic Fire. Both of you could go far in the mystic arts, and you should both be able to journey back into the past to retrieve Britta. Rachel, you should reconsider ever wanting to be Mark again."
"If I stay this way much longer, Mark . . . I mean, Rachel, will certainly become dominant," admitted Rachel. "I have to change back as soon as possible. When do we leave?"
"You will journey back to June 12, 1732. That is a Julian calendar date. By our current calendar, it was June 22, 1732. It was the time of the Summer solstice and the new moon. To travel back to a previous Summer solstice, you must depart at the time of an auspicious Winter solstice. We are very fortunate that this December solstice also features a new moon."
"That's five months away!" complained Rachel.
'I'm already losing my male identity; I'm even starting to think in a woman's voice,' she lamented to herself.
"I'm supposed to be back home by that time. I told the customs officials that I would leave within sixty days."
"It is a dilemma that you must work out, Rachel," commanded Myra. "In the meantime, I want you and Cynthia to meet with us at my house for two hours each weekday. There are many things to be learned and many details to be worked out. I also suggest that you both go to a clinic of your choice to get the latest inoculations; the eighteenth century towns will be no place for the unprotected."
* * *
Myra's house, referred to as Cloud Haven, was so unique, that it was surprising that such an architectural jewel was totally undocumented, not appearing in an any tour books or tour routes.
It was not quite a house, and not quite a miniature castle. Though much smaller in scale than Fallon manor, it was far more atmospheric and interesting. It had originally been a Roman fort, built into a steep hillside overlooking Robin Hood's Bay. The Druids had added complex, intersecting berms of earth and stone to obscure the structure's size and identity. During the sixteenth century, the Mystic Order had converted it to a secret base, where they could escape the rising tide of persecution.
Myra, Simone, Zoe, Irene, Rachel, and Cynthia sat equally-spaced, in that order, around a large, ornate octagonal table that was situated beneath a star-shaped skylight. Both Rachel and Cynthia were somewhat awe-struck, since Myra claimed it was The Round Table of King Arthur!
"I had a bad dream last night, a really bad dream!" related Rachel in an annoyed tone. "I was being burned alive at a stake!"
"It is part of Astrid's revenge. If you follow your lessons, the nightmares will cease," assured Myra.
"What kind of lessons?" wondered Rachel.
"As part of your first lesson," began Myra, motioning to Rachel to act calmly, "you will learn basic concentration. There is no better place for developing the art of concentration than Cloud Haven. You will some useful mantras, which are designed to improve concentration and sharpen your senses."
"When do I learn some real spells?" asked Rachel impatiently.
"In good time . . . " Myra started to reply.
"Because I can't always rely on Cynthia for protection. I'm just a weak girl now; how can I possibly defend myself?"
"You are only weak if you believe yourself to be so!" chastened Myra. "The first step of a self-defense strategy is to purge yourself of such negative thoughts; then you will be ready for some helpful unspoken, kinetic spells. You need special help to control Mystic Fire, as well as your temper. Remember, spells work quite well during this age, because people no longer believe in magic. Using them in the eighteenth century, however, could get you beaten, or worse!"
A FUN DAY
"How does it look this time?" asked Rachel, peering into the vanity mirror.
'I feel . . . so theatrical. This self-improvement could get habit forming,' thought Rachel.
"One more try," said Mrs. Potter encouragingly. "You have too much shadow and rouge. Cosmetics should never be obvious. Here is the cold cream again."
"I only have time for one more session; Cynthia and I have to leave for the railway station in fifteen minutes," reminded Rachel with a slight giggle in her voice.
'I did it again. I never used to giggle between sentences,' she realized to herself.
* * *
It was noontime on Saturday when Cynthia and Rachel arrived at the walkway overlooking the expansive beach front at Brighton. It was a break from their intensive weekday lessons with Myra, and it was Rachel's first outing into the cosmopolitan world since her transformation a month ago. The two of them were dressed somewhat alike in stylish long-legged, tailored blue shorts, along with white sneakers and a red backpack. They both wore pastel T-tops: Cynthia's was white and Rachel's was pink, and they both wore narrow-brimmed dark red hats.
"No matter how hard I try, I sway my hips, and my breasts wiggle a lot, with even the simplest steps," complained Rachel. "If anyone asks for my passport, I'm sunk!"
'Look at the ground; I even have a female shadow. At least I'm not wearing heels and skirts, but I am becoming preoccupied with women's clothing,' she thought.
As they passed two young men, they were both given a very attentive glance. Cynthia returned the glance, but so did Rachel, much to her inner apprehension.
'Now I'm starting to size up men! Next I'll be having sex with them, instead of making them trip! That's not supposed to be interesting!' she thought nervously.
"Look, there be a ladies locker room and public convenience," announced Cynthia. "Come; we will change and go for a walk on the beach."
"Why?" wonder Rachel. "People might stare!"
'I can't take off my clothes around a bunch of strange women,' she thought.
"Correct!" said Cynthia as she clapped her hands. "Showing off be a part of being a girl. It be a lot of fun! The diversion will help take your mind off the tutoring and the nightmares. When we get back, we shall take the railway and then the Tube to London; I know several great clothiers!"
* * *
Rachel managed to undress while ignoring all the other women around them, who were not paying any attention to her and Cynthia anyway. She removed the swimsuit from her backpack. It consisted of a heavy-duty, dark-green bikini bottom with a matching halter-type top. As she grimaced, she spoke softly, "I realize that it's not a string bikini, but my mother would never let my sister wear something like this either."
'Thank goodness it has a sturdy top; these breasts are still out of control. I keep saying that; they're so hard to get used to; they are always right there, attracting attention!' she thought.
"It be modest enough," said Cynthia as she stepped into a similar blue bikini bottom. Once she had wriggled her matching halter-type to into place, she removed a tube of sun screen from her backpack and liberally rubbed the creme on her back, chest, and arms. Satisfied with a quick inspection using her hand mirror, she tossed everything into he rented locker and shut the door, which locked automatically. The key was attached to a chain, which she placed around her neck; then she stood back and watched Rachel struggle to finish.
Undressing in front of women who were strangers, looking like an attractive women in the nude, working her smooth hips into the tight bikini bottom, and struggling to fit her floppy breasts into the top all seemed unnatural and protracted to Rachel. When she was done, her cheeks were flushed in red again.
'I'm so agitated that I can't even enjoy peering at these women changing their clothes!' thought Rachel.
* * *
"I've got to turn back," complained Rachel; "just look at how my breasts stick out! All this cleavage is positively shameful!"
'How can women walk around like this?' she wondered to herself.
"It be part of being a girl," reiterated Cynthia. "Ye will get used to it. Come, let us walk down to the surf and back. It be a beautiful day; enjoy it."
"Well, no men had better come on to me!" warned Rachel.
'And I had better not come on to any men; I feel shameless!' she lamented to herself.
"Ye must learn to handle men. If ye do not give them a polite, yet firm no, they will persist. Please, avoid the Tripping spell, which ye inflicted upon those poor innocent boys in York.
"It is nice out: just the right combination of sun, heat, and wind. Are we going swimming?" wondered Rachel, changing the subject.
'A dip in the ocean might be a good tonic,' she thought.
"Unless ye want to spend time brushing your hair, I suggest wading only," urged Cynthia.
"This is fun," giggled Rachel as she ran through the surf behind Cynthia.
'I'm giggling again, and I think I'm getting some kind of cramp,' thought Rachel.
Suddenly her face looked pale, as she said, "I feel really strange, like I'm going to get sick. Let's go back."
* * *
Cynthia went to a machine on the wall, where she inserted a coin. A small package fell into a waiting tray. "This is what ye will need," explained Cynthia, as she pulled off the wrapper, "along with some pills that I take. Ye may use some of mine," she added, handing the bottle to Rachel.
"I need this stuff?" questioned Rachel with disbelief.
"Very soon," said Cynthia, leading Rachel to a toilet stall. Inside the closed stall, she whispered an explanation, emphasizing that a month had passed since the transformation. Rachel listened in stunned silence.
"If I have sex with a man, I could get pregnant," noted Rachel softly. "Then it is simple: I can avoid sex and not get pregnant!"
"If it were so logical, we would never be born" admonished Cynthia. Once they were both dressed, Cynthia added, "While in London, we shall stop at a chemist to get ye more tampons."
* * *
Halfway through the tour of London, Cynthia stopped at one of her favorite women's clothiers. Inside, she led Rachel to a rack of the latest summer dresses. "Come," she urged, "look for ones ye might like!"
"Pick out new dresses for myself?" she questioned. "Oh, I don't think so."
'Mrs. Potter has found all the dresses I'll ever need.'
Cynthia held up a fancy, dark-blue dress, that had a matching belt with a bow attached in the back. "This be very pretty."
"I don't think dresses suit me, especially not ones with bows attached!" protested Rachel.
'No thank you.'
"Ye will need them to help me conduct tours of the manor. Ye should make a most fetching guide!" envisioned Cynthia, who enjoyed exercising her new power to dominate Rachel a little.
"I am way too timid about shopping for women's clothes. Oh, I went shopping with Jennifer a couple of times, but I don't think I . . . hey, this one really looks sharp," she said, punctuating the sentence with another giggle, as she picked out a light blue summer dress. The dress had faint ornate patterns and a cuffed bodice that would have been off the shoulder, were it not for a pair of matching two-inch wide straps.
'My new hormones seem to be pushing; I can't resist. I must resist.'
"Pick out two more," urged Cynthia; "ye can change in one of those closets over there."
* * *
"This is different," remarked Rachel, "as she stepped out to get Cynthia's opinion of the first dress. "To think professional models are actually paid to do this."
'If only there were not so many little details in taking this clothing on and off,' she thought.
The third dress was designed to create the illusion of a being a short-sleeved blouse and a separate, narrow, slitted black skirt. Cynthia enthusiastically nodded, as Rachel tried to strut out like a runway model.
"Ye look best in the first and this one. Ye also need to pick out some foundation and more tights; we can get you a decent pair of dress shoes down the street," said Cynthia, pointing out the far window of the shop.
"How will I pay for this; I don't have enough cash. I certainly can't use my VISA card."
'I feel doubly helpless: as a vulnerable woman who has no legal identity!' she lamented to herself.
"Why not?" asked Cynthia. "Just say it belongs to your husband; besides, the cashier, Pamela, knows me."
Rachel was very nervous as the cashier rung up her purchases. Not only was this her first public outing, but she was also trying to pass herself off as a woman married to her male self.
Sensing that Rachel was being too quiet for a woman, Cynthia began distractingly, "Rachel be the married to my cousin from America. This be her first experience at a London shop."
"Really," said Pamela with a smile. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Fallon. Please have a pleasant day in our great city."
'Now I'm married to myself. What will I do for an encore?' scowled Rachel silently.
* * *
Once outside, Rachel complained, "I can't get away with that too many times."
'Once was quite enough, thank you!' she thought.
"This way," directed Cynthia, as she started across the next zebra crossing. In the distance, Big Ben chimed its familiar tune.
"What happens when the statement is collected by my mother along with my other mail? Don't you think she is going to wonder who this Rachel is?"
"That be a good question," replied Cynthia. "I guess she will be most curious."
* * *
"Rachel," continued Myra, "you are progressing well, but you must continue the concentration exercises. The manipulation of powerful forces can be dangerous, unless you sense their presence and interaction with all your being. All thoughts of Mark must be abandoned during any incantation; he is a man, and he will only drain your energy. If you continue to adapt to a woman's life you will prosper."
"I like being a woman, but I must change back to Mark; I do not really have a choice," claimed Rachel.
'I won't tell her that I'm slowly weakening. Is there a point of no return?' she wondered to herself.
"Please consider carefully when the time comes," said Myra warmly, touching Rachel's left wrist. "Power and destiny are a point of view, but it would be tragic to lose all you have gained, especially control of Mystic Fire! By the way, you should be aware of the rules of cause and effect."
"What does that mean?" wondered Rachel.
"The more you use the powers I have taught you," explained Myra with a hesitant gulp, "the more you shall become wedded to your female body."
"Oh, great," replied Rachel in a surprised tone.
'I'm damned if I do, and damned if I don't!' she thought angrily.
"Before you go again, summon the Mystic Fire!" ordered Myra.
As Rachel pointed her finger, a spark appeared just beyond the tip.
"Good!" encouraged Myra. "Hold it. Command it to stay within your cupped hands."
"It's not very hot, but it looks searing," commented Rachel as she obeyed Myra.
"You can changed the intensity and color at will. Do it!" commanded Myra again.
Rachel increased the spark to overwhelming brightness; then she reduced it to a dim glow. She was surprised that she could make it so blue or so red that it became hard to see.
"Excellent!" said Myra almost joyfully. "Now send it around the room. Vary the speed."
"This is almost fun," commented Rachel, as she guided the spark of light high and low throughout Cloud Haven's expansive meeting room. However, as she increased the speed, it became more diffcult to control. Finally, she gave up and let it crash through the spark shield into the fireplace. Rachel let out her forcibly-held breath in relief.
"Work on your concentration," lectured Myra. "Control is important, especially at Cloud Haven!"
* * *
"That's it," said Mrs. Potter helpfully; "keep your feet in a line, keep the shoes level, and swing your hips ever so gently."
"High heels look sexy," commented Rachel, letting out another involuntary giggle, "but they're a bear to walk in, and they're so noisy!"
'Another giggle, and I can't believe what I am doing and will continue to do in the name of fashion,' thought Rachel.
"I think you are ready to do the afternoon tour," added Mrs. Potter, as she walked around Rachel. "You ought to take a walk around the pond. It would be good practice, and you will be back in time for your tour."
"Sounds like pain, or pleasure, or both. But I know," sighed Rachel.
'Here it comes . . . ' she thought expectently.
"It is part of being a woman," said Cynthia and Mrs. Potter in unison.
* * *
Rachel practically danced around in her blue sun dress and high-heeled pumps, as she led a group of American tourists through the manor. While some had driven to the manor, most of them had arrived in one of three buses. Directing a tour was a pleasant diversion for Rachel, after a morning of rigorous tutoring by Myra.
'Cynthia was right: as a pretty girl, I can influence people with my mere presence, something that would have been impossible for Mark. I don't even need magical powers,' she thought.
"This is the grand hall of the Fallon manor," continued Rachel. It was the first part of the structure that was completed, late in 1709. The land and title were granted to Richard of Fallon, for his service in the War of the Spanish Succession, in 1704. Richard's father, John, served as sort of the general contractor, though he died in 1710, a year before final completion."
Rachel talked some about the shields, swords and coats-of-arms; then she moved to the portraits. She recounted many anecdotes, as she led the group by each of the portraits along the inner wall.
'So far, no giggles,' she thought.
"I see the family resemblance," said a young man, as he first looked at the picture of Margaret and then directly at Rachel.
"You will see my face again," explained Rachel, trying to sound convincing; "it runs in the family."
"Where are all the men?" asked a young woman from behind.
"Most of the men are in a separate room, but there are few even there. The Fallon name is maintained by matriarchal succession, because kinsmen are sent to live in Scotland or elsewhere. Most of the men pictured will be the husbands of the Fallon women, rather than kinsmen."
"Why?" asked the woman, whose voice sounded familiar.
Rachel turned and froze for a moment. She faced a woman dressed in black stirrup pants and a black and grey checkered top that hung below her belted waist something like a mini-dress. She wore fancy black, wide, three-buckle sandals, and her dark hair was evenly cropped all around, below her earlobes. The look and face was familiar.
'Oh no, it's my fiancée, Jennifer Webster. Does that make me a lesbian?' she wondered to herself.
Rachel took a gulp and explained, giggling twice, "There is a curse on the Fallon men, a curse which most would fear more than death." Rachel paused; then she decided telling the truth would work better. She began in a low, almost sultry voice, "When a man is caught in the snare of Astrid, he is instantly turned into a woman!"
Jennifer shook her head and waved Rachel off, while others gave amused chuckles and laughs. No one had really taken such an explanation seriously. Since there were no more questions at that moment, Rachel continued the tour. However, she never let Jennifer stray from her sight.
'Jennifer is here, so she is in for a shock; I see her searching for Mark at this moment!' realized Rachel to herself.
* * *
Two hours later, the tour was over. As people left the manor, Rachel moved somewhat aggressively toward Jennifer and took her aside, while asking, "Did you come with any of these groups?"
"No, I came alone," replied Jennifer in an annoyed tone. "I'm going to stay at the cottage."
"Then you've checked in with Mrs. Potter?" wondered Rachel, pressing in close to Jennifer.
'I must seem extremely forward,' she wondered to herself.
"Yes, but she was evasive about answering my questions. I was hunting for someone all the time of the tour," she answered, as she continued to look from side to side."
"You're hunting for Mark," stated Rachel bluntly.
"Yes! Have you seen him? Where is he?" she asked excitedly, as she touched Rachel's shoulder.
"You, I, and my cousin Cynthia will have to have a talk back at the manor. Mark has encountered a problem, which you are not prepared for!" asserted Rachel.
"You are quite a bold young woman, and you know more than you're telling me!" complained Jennifer. "I do not know who you are, but you do not sound very English to me!"
"I'm Rachel Fallon!" asserted Rachel.
'Now would be the worst time to introduce myself as Mark,' she thought.
"Tell me, Rachel, are you having an affair with Mark; you're the kind of woman he would go for? Why else would he let you use his charge card?" asked Jennifer with a hint of anger.
"I know I'm the kind of woman Mark would like, but we are not having an affair."
'Thank goodness that is impossible for my new, brazen body!' she thought thankfully.
"I'll meet you back at the cottage in a few minutes," Rachel assured Jennifer. "I have to get all others in the tour back to their buses and autos or to their rooms in the cottage."
'This is going to be good. If I can only convince
Jennifer, maybe others will believe,' she thought.
* * *
Cynthia and Rachel, still wearing their dresses they had worn for their tours, sat near each other, with their legs crossed, on a small couch. Rachel nervously changed the position of her legs about every minute or so.
"This is the big moment," whispered Rachel to Cynthia, along with more giggles.
Facing them, sitting on a similar couch not far away, were Jennifer and Mrs. Potter. Jennifer, being somewhat agitated, was continually looking around, in search of Mark. Rachel and Cynthia's vexing facial expressions served only to irritate Jennifer. It was plain by the expression on her face that she was growing angry.
"There's something wrong here," began Jennifer, "because Mark has sent hardly a letter to me or his family. Where is he, and why hasn't he come forward? Then there is the matter of his charge purchases at women's stores. I know Mark; I could hardly drag him to go shopping in the women's departments of the stores."
"Mark be here, but ye will not recognize him," said Cynthia with a smile.
"Why are you playing games with me?" wondered Jennifer in a perplexed tone.
"Do you remember my story of the witch, Astrid," began Rachel, as she then paused for several seconds, "of the effect of her curse upon kinsmen of the Fallon family?"
'I'm so excited, I feel like I going to burst out of my foundation!' she thought, realizing how silly that sounded.
"I remember, but really, turning men into women is really far-fetched," replied Jennifer. "Next, you're going to tell me that Mark . . . "
"He was turned into a woman within minutes of receiving the curse!" stated Rachel emphatically. Seeing the unbelieving look in Jennifer's eyes, she added, "And that leaves Mark with a severe identity problem, to say the least."
'The pregnant moment is nearly here!' she thought anxiously.
"I was there . . . I saw it happen; it be true!" said Cynthia loudly. She stood up and swayed her hands toward Rachel. "Mark changed into an attractive blond woman, and we named her Rachel."
Jennifer shook her head, first fast and then more slowly, staring so intensely that Rachel grew uneasy. "In the movies, a man can change into Ellen Barkin, but not in real life. Why are you fabricating such a hoax? Even if he were to turn into a woman, Mark would never wear dresses and heels."
"I have a different point of view, especially since I seem to have inherited an overlaid persona, as well as the obvious physical changes. I don't mind being Rachel, and I seem to rapidly adapt to the gender differences: even the dresses and the heels. I don't miss shaving, though I could do without monthly cycles. Ask me any questions . . . something that only Mark would know," urged Rachel.
"Where did Mark and I meet?" challenged Jennifer.
"Where didn't we meet?" Rachel reminisced. "We shared a fifth grade class; then your family moved away. We met again in a twelve-grade science class, when my high school district changed, but I never asked you out. We shared some classes in college, but you had married, so we only exchanged greetings. Less than three years ago, I ran into you on a New York subway. You were recently divorced and available, and I was not quite so shy anymore, so we started dating."
"Did Mark coach you on this? I'm starting to believe your story might be true, so I do not want to be the victim of a cruel trick!"
"I am still Mark inside, all appearances to the contrary," declared Rachel with nervous giggles, "and I may be able to reverse this spell."
"How!" scowled Jennifer.
"Rachel and I have been training to go back to the year 1732, to the time and place of Astrid's execution," said Cynthia almost casually. "We intend to alter the curse, rescue Astrid's daughter Britta, and then return to the present. It be a grand adventure!"
"No kidding!" gasped Jennifer, losing her breath as she dropped backwards onto the couch next to Mrs. Potter. "When you throw in the kitchen sink, I have to submit to overwhelming evidence. Rachel . . . Mark . . . let's go for a walk, so we can talk one-on-one."
* * *
"I don't walk so fast anymore; I have to watch where I step," confided Rachel.
'If I step on a crack . . . then I go splat,' she thought, while trying to concentrate on her steps.
"I notice your legs, your shoes, your outfit . . . even when I try not to," admitted Jennifer.
'That makes two of us!' admitted Rachel to herself.
"Heads often turn my way, but I'm getting used to it. Getting all dolled up like this and walking in these shoes is the easy part," Rachel emphasized. "It's the next steps that are going to be difficult."
'I guess our relationship has changed. Of course, women do relate differently with each other than men do,' she thought.
"I want to help . . . no, I must do something," said Jennifer longingly. Their walk around the wooded pond was nearly complete; the cottage was in sight again.
"I do not think Myra will be happy to see you, but I can ask. She lives in a really fantastic place on the English Channel. What I really need is to have you tell this story to my parents and the other relatives, who financed my trip here," said Rachel hopefully.
"I could try," said Jennifer doubtfully, "but they will think I am telling a tall tale!"
"Please try!" urged Rachel.
'I'll take all the support I can get,' she thought.
"Okay, I'll do it," agreed Jennifer, "but I do want to meet Myra, and I do want to come back in December."
"Thanks," said Rachel sincerely. She wanted to kiss Jennifer, but she hesitated.
Jennifer gave her a hug and a kiss anyway. "We're not men, so we can behave this way."
* * *
WINTER DREAMS, SUMMER WISHES
December 22, 1995 had finally arrived. The sky was overcast, and the air was brisk. Fine snow blew in the wind, and a few clumps had stuck from the snowfall the night before. Myra was in the lead, following a well-trodden trail through the grass. Rachel and Cynthia were next, followed by Simone, Zoe, Irene, and Jennifer. No men were present, nor would any have been welcome. The following rituals were reserved for female mystics and friends.
Myra, Simone, Zoe, and Irene wore wool leggings under heavy dresses and cloaks, while Jennifer wore jeans, a long-sleeved plaid shirt, and a down vest. Rachel and Cynthia looked out-of-place, wearing early eighteenth century brown rain cloaks and fancy, ankle-length dresses, and period hairstyles. Both dresses flattened the breasts, a feature that Rachel thought she might prefer. Rachel's dress was light-blue, while Cynthia's was a mixture of light-green and the plaid colors of her clan, the McDermotts. Both of them carried two heavy linen shoulder bags, the straps for which were made of twine.
Rachel approvingly checked her face in a small mirror.
'This snug dress makes me feel like I'm off to a costume ball, rather than a dangerous trip to the year 1732. My handicaps sort of dull the excitement, and I'm still dogged by this fear of failure,' thought Rachel anxiously.
"It be fortunate that this area be uninhabited," remarked Cynthia.
"We own this land," explained Myra. "We bought it from the Fallon family long ago, and we have kept it as pristine as in Astrid's time."
"These outfits are not really that warm," complained Rachel, uttering a brief giggle.
"You do not have to shiver long; it will soon be Summer for you girls," said Myra with a confident, commanding tone . "Hurry; we are nearly there! The site has already been prepared."
They passed between two old, barren and twisted oak trees, which looked much like two wooden sentries. It was the entry to a clearing, a very unnatural clearing that was surrounded by several concentric rows of trees and shrubs.
"Our mystic circle is in this clearing," informed Myra, pointing to a white circle that was about least twenty-five feet in diameter. A reddish heptagon, a fraction of an inch smaller, was centered perfectly within the outer circle.
"The departure time is close," warned Simone. "We must check final preparation."
Rachel and Cynthia lifted their skirts to reveal their zip-up, flat-soled, calf-high boots. Each boot contained a dagger and many small compartments to store matches, water purification tablets, antibiotics, emergency food, mystic potions and powders, silver and gold coins, and so forth. Rachel displayed her tranquilizer pistol, twenty-five tranquilizer darts, a tin of pellets, and extra CO2 cylinders, while commenting with another giggle, "The height of fashion for an eighteenth century girl."
Cynthia grinned at Rachel, while displaying her fold-up martial arts pole and num-chakas. Rachel and Cynthia quickly moved through the rest: clothing, food, water, blankets, compact utensils, stove, compact tent, a combination fold-up shovel and axe, battery-powered torches, all-in-one survival toolkits, and toiletry supplies. Lastly, Cynthia pulled out a compact 8mm camcorder, two extra tapes, and charged batteries. There was enough capacity to videotape six priceless hours of eighteenth century England.
Rachel pressed the buret in her hair and asked, "Can you hear me, Cynthia?"
"I hear ye, cousin," replied Cynthia, while she pressed her buret. "Our two-way radios work fine."
"I hope the anachronistic equipment will give you a needed advantage, but do not forsake your training," urged Myra. "Carry out your mission, and do not become involved with anyone but Britta and the one guide you may hire. Avoid the use of force, and do not kill anyone! Any paradoxes you create will hurt! Try to appear as proper ladies at all times; they will not take kindly to any liberated behavior in 1732."
Rachel and Cynthia looked at each other with broad smiles; then they glanced at Myra, sheepishly proclaiming their innocence.
Jennifer approached and embraced Rachel very intimately, vigorously compressing her breasts, that Rachel was actually shocked. "Good luck, my darling. All the family sends their love and wishes you luck."
"What if I can never be Mark again?" questioned Rachel.
"I have a backup plan," announced Jennifer a bit too slyly. Rachel decided not to ask about it.
Irene hugged and kissed Cynthia. Seeing that she looked apprehensive, she asked, "Are you feeling right?"
"I just wonder: how will we clear for the circle to bring us back?" asked Cynthia.
"Fear not," said Myra with her commanding tone; "upon your arrival, the clearing in 1732 will rearrange to match this one. When you return, the same amount of time will have passed in the present as in the past. Remember, you should return by the twenty-first day, else the magic binding the two circles will start to decay. One of us will always be parked nearby . . . waiting."
Rachel and Cynthia took their positions within the heptagon. Myra threw back her cloak and raised her arms. As she recited the Transfer incantation, Rachel repeated her words in a whisper. White, smokeless flames sprang from the circle, and the heptagon glowed bright red. Suddenly, utter darkness replaced everything outside the circle. Moments later, it was as if the sky rushed in to meet them. Light filtered through a cloudy sky to reveal trees in a dance of relocation; then the flames subsided. The air was pleasantly warm and the trees had leaves. In the distance, ravens cawed, as if in anticipation of the oncoming thunderstorm.
"This must be 1732," said Rachel as she turned in a circle. "George Washington was . . . is just a few months old. I do not see any major differences yet, but it sure is quiet. Never would I have ever imagined that, one day, I would be a girl walking around the English countryside in the year 1732."
'I feel somewhat . . . absurd.' she scowled to herself.
Cynthia ran to the edge of the circle of trees; then she quickly returned. "I saw the funeral pyre, freshly constructed. We must make camp and wait."
"Yes," agreed Rachel. "If today is June 12th, they will arrive after the coming storm has passed."
"Let us cover the circle and heptagon with branches; then we must pitch camp . . . away from the funeral pyre, of course, said Cynthia eagerly."
* * *
Rachel and Cynthia secretly watched Lord Fallon and his men drag Astrid and Wendy to the funeral pyre. They tensed as the women were tied to adjacent poles. They also sensed the emotional turbulence that Astrid, a fellow mystic, generated around them. Dishearteningly, they resolved to ignore her plight; their mission was to work with history, not to change it.
Astrid's words pierced the darkness, "You have no authority; this is illegal!"
Lord Fallon began the standard list of questions, as had been established by inquisitors long ago. Though the questions were banal, Rachel and Cynthia found the way Lord Fallon stated them to be chilling.
"How long have you been witches?" he asked in an accusatory monotone.
"We are not witches! We are mystics, and we use our powers for good, not evil! You are not empowered to be our judge!" yelled Astrid in return.
Relentlessly, Lord Fallon kept up the pace. Midway, he asked, "Who are the children upon whom you have cast a spell?"
"I love children; I would never cast a spell upon them!" replied Astrid sharply. "You, however, are different . . . "
At that moment, Rachel adjusted her Celtic mandala. Thinking, 'Here goes,' she carefully spoke the incantation of Darkness. Due to her lack of experience, she required much time to utter the mystic syllables. Night fell prematurely; then the two of them set out toward the funeral pyre. The only light by which they could see was provided by the torches in the distance and by airborne static electricity generated by Rachel's spell. Cynthia readied her martial arts pole, and Rachel rested her right hand on her tranquilizer gun.
'Will this weapon do me any good, if I have to use it?' wondered Rachel, taking a gulp of air.
"This is scary, and I'm nowhere near a strong as Mark. I must be out of my mind!"
"Caution," warned Cynthia; "someone be coming!"
Running blindly, a guard carrying a pike approached them. Before he could run into Rachel, Cynthia knocked him to the ground with her pole. Looking up, he spied Rachel's faintly-illuminated golden locks. He immediately abandoned his pike and fled.
At the moment the guard spoke the words, "A witch struck me with a wooden staff," Rachel completed the incantation of Immobilization. Instantly, Lord Fallon and all his men became frozen in place, unaware of the passage of time or the presence of Rachel and Cynthia in their midst.
'I did it! It worked!' thought Rachel thankfully. 'I trust that I won't need to use any more magic until the return trip.'
"She looks like you," observed Wendy as Rachel and Cynthia approached them. Cynthia held the camcorder at her side with the viewfinder pointing upwards. She could see enough of the bright image to aim the camcorder.
"That she does," agreed Astrid, struggling against her bonds, "and she also knows the Immobilization spell. Who are you?" asked Astrid. "What contraption does your companion carry?"
"I am Rachel, and this is my cousin, Cynthia. "I am a reflection of your image, and this device is capturing that image for posterity."
'No giggles; so far, so good,' she thought thankfully.
"We are glad you have come, but your words are strange and there is no sense in what you say," complained Astrid.
"I am really very sorry; we are not here to save you," Rachel warned, "but to strike a bargain. We will give you each a magic capsule to ease your journey and skip the pain of death. Time is short; we must work fast."
"I be Cynthia Fallon," began Cynthia. "Rachel and I have passed through the barrier of time to join you at this moment."
"A Fallon! I have nothing to say to any Fallon!" cried Astrid defiantly.
"I am Rachel Fallon!" announced Rachel. "Though we can't alter your fate, we do have a bargain to make."
"I shall make no bargains with Fallons!" scowled Astrid.
"Please hear us out! Your curse is going to be too thorough. Edward Fallon is evil, and he will pay for his crimes, but we are not evil. Please allow me to reverse this sex-change spell without dying! Stop punishing the innocent!" pleaded Rachel.
Astrid paused to reflect; then she spoke, "I understand now why you look like my sister. It did not occur to me that my curse would create such a replica of me. Tell me, why should I alter my curse?"
"Ye want to save your child . . . your daughter Britta," explained Cynthia.
"We understand that evil people are searching for her at this very moment," warned Rachel.
"Britta is safely hidden. I shall not reveal her location to anyone!" warned Astrid.
"We shall take her to the year 1995, where she shall grow up to be the most-exalted mystic of our age," assured Cynthia.
"Our girl is not safe," sobbed Wendy. "Your anger is blinding you; I can see it. I trust them. Who could fabricate such an elaborate lie? We are dead, my darling!"
"You say Edward shall pay for his crime? How?" demanded Astrid.
"In two days, his young son will be the first victim of your curse," explained Rachel. "Edward will promptly shoot him. During the brief trial, evidence of your death will be brought to the magistrate. Fifteen days from now, they'll hang Edward on the public gallows in the town square."
"Vengeance is mine!" cried Astrid; then her tone sobered, "But Britta must be saved."
"The spell be dissipating!" warned Cynthia. "Edward just closed his eyes. They shall all be stirring soon!"
"Hurry!" urged Rachel. "Where is Britta?"
"I shall tell you, but you must agree to conditions," replied Astrid.
"Okay, I'm listening," said Rachel hurriedly.
"Such odd words you speak," observed Astrid, as she prepared to state her demands. "First, you must loosen the right shackle, to free a hand for the incantation. Britta must be allowed to watch Edward hang! When you return to your age, you will be allowed to reverse the spell, but you must raise her as if she were your own!"
"Agreed!" replied Rachel hurriedly, not giving much though to what was being said. Cynthia gave her a very surprised glance, however, wondering how Myra would interpret such a long delay, and also wondering if Rachel had inherited some of Astrid's maternal instincts.
Reluctantly, Astrid gave Rachel and Cynthia the directions to find her daughter. Britta was hidden away in a cottage owned by a mystic named Rowena.
"I am giving each of you one of these capsules," explained Cynthia sadly. "Place it under your tongue. When the time comes, break it with your teeth. Death will be swift and painless!"
"We must leave!" ordered Rachel, as she pulled her lingering cousin away. It was not a happy farewell.
* * *
Rachel could not bear Astrid's final moments. The events were making her angry. The wind continued to blow her hair wildly about, as she walked toward the circle of trees that separated them from Lord Fallon. In defiance, she raised her right hand; then she lowered it and pointed. A fiery, but poorly-aimed, spark shot out and splintered a tree in its path. Before she could use the Mystic Fire again, Cynthia tackled Rachel and pinned her to the ground. Rachel struggled, but Cynthia was too strong for her.
"Let me up!" she demanded.
"Quiet, lest they hear us!" whispered Cynthia. "Ye must control yourself, or your magic will be no good!"
As Rachel gave up, her body relaxed, and Cynthia breathed in relief.
* * *
Well-hidden in their camouflaged tent, Rachel and Cynthia slept lightly. Lord Fallon had not been content to just murder Astrid and Wendy; rather, he and his men drank heavily and shrieked like madmen all night long, while continually adding wood to the fire of death. Neither Rachel nor Cynthia could remember having endured such a disgusting spectacle. Cynthia almost considered letting Rachel do her worst to them.
* * *
At the approach of dawn, Edward packed up and prepared to leave. Still half-drunk, he staggered about shouting orders, while still cursing witches and Scotsmen. Finally, he waved to all his men to join him.
The guard, whom Cynthia had hit, searched below the heavy mists for his pike. Once he had found it up, he crept closer to the trees at the edge of the clearing that contained the mystic circle. Plainly fearful about going farther, he pointed the pike forward and craned his neck in an attempt to see better. Suddenly, a startled raven flew past his head. Tripping twice, the guard ran as fast as possible to rejoin Lord Fallon.
Rachel and Cynthia left the cover of the tent. Peering through several layers of trees, they watched the last guard disappear from sight, accompanying Lord Fallon back to the manor.
"Good riddance," sighed Rachel; "now we can make our breakfast."
"Let us start our meal directly," urged Cynthia. "We need an early start."
* * *
"I'm ready to leave," announced Rachel. "Lord Fallon should be back at his manor by now."
'He's whooping it up, while we have to undo the damage!' she thought angrily.
"Aye! When we next see Lord Fallon, he shall have a deserved rope about his neck!" added Cynthia. "But we must leave the tent and much of this gear."
"Can we manage without it?" wondered Rachel, feeling uneasy and vulnerable.
"Unless me purchase horses and return, the extra load will be too much for us," said Cynthia warily.
"I don't know how to ride a horse," admitted Rachel.
'I think it's harder for women,' she thought.
"Ye may need to learn in a hurry," warned Cynthia.
* * *
"That sounds like gunfire," observed Rachel, seeing nothing ahead but virgin woodland.
'That's not a good way to start the day,' she thought.
"We must investigate . . . carefully, of course," urged Cynthia, picking up her skirts so she could move faster through the low ground cover. Rachel followed her in a similar manner.
'Slow down Cynthia; I can hardly carry this load, or breathe in this dress,' objected Rachel to herself.
At that moment, she tripped and fell, but she quickly returned to her feet.
'Now I've stained this nice dress!' she thought with genuine anger.
They reached a clearing that contained a well-traveled road. Another shot rang out. About three hundred feet West on the road, a lone, young Scotsman, dressed in traditional garb with a kilt, was single-handedly fighting several attackers.
"Those are some of Lord Fallon's henchmen," observed Cynthia.
Three of the attackers were down, but three were still in motion. The odds did not look good: one sword against three swords.
As Rachel and Cynthia moved closer, the Scotsman took out another attacker, but he was plainly tiring. Worse, the two remaining attackers were now coordinating their movements, sensing the Scotsman's developing weaknesses.
"How am I supposed to act around men?" wondered Rachel in a soft voice.
"Follow my example," urged Cynthia in a whisper. "Watch your backside!" she yelled loudly enough to throw the attackers off guard. The Scotsman hit the forward man with the handle of his sword; then he thrust the blade backwards, deep into the other attacker. The battle was over.
First the Scotsman checked each of his attackers, taking whatever money pouches he could find; then he picked up his cap and approached the women.
"I thank ye, miladies," he said, as he gracefully removed his hat and bowed. "I be Theodore McPherson, but what be ye about so far from town?" he wondered quizzically.
"I be Cynthia, and this be my cousin Rachel," explained Cynthia. "We are our way to town . . . on a great quest!"
One of the men on the ground began to awaken. Theodore readied his sword.
"He be one of the guards who helped Lord Fallon yesterday," observed Cynthia. "He be a murderer . . . take care; kill him if he acts contrary, Theodore," she urged.
Rachel gave Cynthia a disturbed glance and said, "We can use this man. You," she commanded with genuine anger, punctuated with induced telekinetic anxiety, as he became fully conscious, "you were at the murder of Astrid and Wendy, were you not?" she shouted, adding a faint giggle.
'Good melodramatic effect, here.'
When he saw Rachel, he thought she was Astrid. He spoke in a quivering, terrified voice, "Please spare me, madame; it was Lord Fallon's doing!"
"Of what doth he speak, and why doth he quake so?" wondered Theodore.
"Be quiet, and listen, please," urged Cynthia.
Theodore looked first at Rachel, and then at Cynthia with astounded, wide-open eyes.
"I've decided to spare you," said Rachel in an extra deep voice. "All you have to do is go into town and report Lord Fallon's crime."
'Lord Fallon, your goose is cooked!'
"Tell them that he has also slain his young son!" warned Cynthia, adding to her cousin's sense of poetic justice. "Hurry, before Theodore separates your head from your worthless body!"
As the guard ran, he cried without looking back, "I shall do it! Please, spare me . . . please spare me . . . oh Lord, have mercy on my soul . . . " Concentrating, Rachel pointed at the man and fired an invisible spark of Mystic Fire at him. With his rear end on fire, the man ran even faster. Within moments, the man's wounded chattering became too weak for any of them to hear.
"Where be ye bound?" asked Cynthia, turning her head toward Theodore.
"I be bound for the Fallon manor, where I shall finally engage and kill Laird Fallon in a duel. I encountered the rogue here, but the coward would not stop. Instead, he set his men upon me. He killed my brother, Donald, in a tavern last fall. It was not even a duel; it was murder. Murder cries out for vengeance."
"Ye should abandon these plans," urged Cynthia. "Ye shall never kill Lord Fallon; besides, he be scheduled for death shortly anyway."
"I cannot do that; it be a matter of family honor," protested Theodore.
"Forget your family honor," began Rachel vehemently; "it serves no purpose to fight a dead man. Serve us instead, on our quest. I assure you that, if all goes as planned, you shall witness Lord Fallon dangle from the end of a rope in two weeks!"
'I feel like a Shakespearean actor: a boy doing a girl's part,' lamented Rachel to hereself.
"Aye, join us," urged Cynthia. "We can pay you well."
"In all me years," he gasped, "never have I met lasses such as you. And ye be a Scotswoman?" he asked, turning to face Cynthia. Though she was a tall as he, Theodore plainly found Cynthia to be a very attractive woman.
"I hail from the McDermott clan. Our quest be too complex for ye to comprehend, and our natures shall appear most foreign to ye. It also be dangerous; we shall likely encounter others of Lord Fallon's bent!"
"I like a good fight," boasted Theodore.
Rachel removed a gold five-pound coin from her boot. She paused to examine it. With a worried look, she handed it to Theodore. "Please join us. Let us call this a . . . down-payment," she said with an unintentionally sweet intonation.
'Careful, Rachel; you don't want to sound like a Southern belle either,' she thought.
"I do not know why, but I believe ye, so long as Laird Fallon actually hangs. Let me fetch my horse," said Theodore, as he accepted the coin. He picked up his two flintlock pistols from the ground. "I must reload. Oh, I hope me pipes be not damaged!" he cried, hurriedly running toward his horse, which was browsing on the grass under a nearby oak.
"Hurry!" warned Cynthia. "The gunfire: Lord Fallon's guards shall come soon to investigate!"
"Cynthia," began Rachel in a vexed tone, as she pulled her cousin to the side, "we need to learn more about this man, before we take him into our confidence."
"We shall interrogate him along the way," replied Cynthia. "There be no reason to worry; we obviously get back to 1995!"
"Myra said that," explained Rachel sternly, "things would happen the way they happened. Tomorrow, we could be raped and left dying in a ditch, if that is what happens!" A chill fell over Rachel, as she envisioned a group rowdies attacking and overpowering her and Cynthia.
'Mark's vivid imagination is alive and well!' she thought.
"I be overconfident, for sure," admitted Cynthia.
* * *
Theodore marched along, playing a jig on his bagpipes, while Cynthia rode his horse side-saddle and Rachel walked along beside her. Cynthia kept giggling, and Rachel found her mood disturbing.
"He be a handsome rogue with great spirit," commented Cynthia softly. "He has rejected all the Presbyterian doctrine of his elders."
"He has apparently rejected all doctrine, entirely," warned Rachel, "and he is very much in need of a bath."
"He would never harm a woman, not even a witch," reminded Cynthia.
"You're not going to get romantically involved with this guy, I hope," scolded Rachel. "He must be almost ten years younger . . . just a boy, practically!"
"I find him most interesting," she admitted.
"He's an early eighteenth century chauvinist," Rachel noted.
'You may need to use your karate training at any moment,' she thought.
"He be young and attractive, and so manly," sighed Cynthia.
"Well, there is a slight problem, besides how uncomfortably this outfit compresses my breasts. I hope neither he nor anyone else examines that coin too closely," said Rachel worriedly.
"What be wrong?" asked Cynthia.
"Myra goofed slightly, because that coin is dated 1733!"
"Ooh!" replied Cynthia. "It be very fortunate that he cannot read."
* * *
Rachel and Cynthia, along with Teddy, as Cynthia affectionately called him, took lodging at an inn, at the edge of town, that catered to Scotsmen. Cynthia felt that it was cleaner than similar establishments in town, and that the three of them would be less conspicuous there. Rachel, having been hit hard by culture shock on top of gender shock, yielded to Cynthia's instincts.
Cynthia waited until Teddy left for his room, closing the door behind him. "We must speak softly, for these walls are thin."
"I did not realize how filthy the eighteenth century was . . . is," complained Rachel.
'What's that crawling on the floor?' she thought nervously.
"There's mud and manure everywhere, the road's are terrible, and simple junkets take hours. My gosh, without my skirt to cover me, the not-so-private outhouse would be embarrassing." Rachel dowsed the floor around her with blasts from a can of insect spray.
"Careful; it will not last long. We are spoiled in the modern world," observed Cynthia.
"Where are the baths?" wondered Rachel.
"We must manage with a basin, water, and a soapy rag," explained Cynthia.
"I don't know how I'm going to take two weeks of this," said Rachel with a frown.
'I don't feel right without a bath or a shower before bedtime,' she lamented to herself.
"I be astonished, that ye made such bargain with Astrid," reminded Cynthia.
"It seemed a good idea at the moment, but now I already regret it. I'm a lousy negotiator. I hope we can find Britta tomorrow," said Rachel with a longing gaze.
"I be sure we shall find her," said Cynthia hopefully. "Teddy be a reliable escort. Now . . . we must relax and prepare for bed."
"How do I undo this dress?" wondered Rachel.
'It must have scores of laces and fasteners.' she thought.
"Ye will need my help, as I will need yours," explained Cynthia.
Standing nearly naked, Rachel felt more comfortable. She was anxious to use the basin, no matter how primitive it was.
"Why are you looking at me that way?" she asked Cynthia.
"It be intriguing that you were a man, but are now a woman!" she observed. "It be most erotic!"
"But I'm hardly a man anymore," said Rachel, wondering what Cynthia was up to.
"You are the most interesting man I have ever met," admitted Cynthia.
"What about Teddy?" wondered Rachel.
"After Teddy," she added. She put an arm around Rachel and started to stroke her back. "I be not blind," she added; "you have wanted to hold me since we first met!"
"This may not be proper," Rachel suggested, knowing that she longed to hold Cynthia.
As Cynthia led her to one of the beds, she thought, 'Jennifer, I don't think this is cheating!'
* * *
"This York be very similar to the one I know," commented Cynthia. She, Rachel, and Teddy had just passed through the ancient Roman wall. Ahead, towering over the rest of town, dominating the view, stood the majestic York Minster, the town's thirteenth century gothic cathedral. Cynthia carefully turned, while the camcorder hidden in her shoulder bag panned the landscape.
"It be so wonderful," remarked Cynthia, "to see the city before the Industrial Age and the Blitz!"
Cynthia heard Teddy quietly mutter, "Blitz?", as he confusedly pondered her words.
"I am already lost," complained Rachel; "I thought the place was confusing when it had traffic and street signs. Are you sure you know where this Rowena lives?"
"She be down by the river, past the railway station," replied Cynthia without thinking. She annoyedly stamped her martial arts pole to the ground. She was using it as a walking stick.
"What be a railway station?" asked Teddy with a bewildered expression.
"Don't ask; you would not understand," warned Rachel.
"That be true; I do not understand," agreed Teddy. "Everything about ye be mysterious. I cannot recall ever meeting women with as powerful a will as a man, who speak so many words with no meaning!"
* * *
"That be the cottage!" announced Cynthia. "According to Astrid, the entrance be on the river side."
"It's a good thing you came with me; I would never have found it on my own," admitted Rachel, as she checked her golden locks in a small mirror. "I guess our quest is about over. I have seen no sign of any opposition forces either."
"Contrary," warned Teddy, "but we have been constantly under the gaze of others since passing through the Roman wall. They turn their heads on the street, or they peer from windows or doors, but they do watch us!"
"We need to develop a better sense of awareness and caution," admitted Rachel.
'Mark, I need your analytical mind,' she thought.
An redheaded woman answered the rear door. She was tall for a woman of the era. She was wearing a brown gypsy-type dress, much like the one worn by Irene. She was very excited when she saw Rachel, taking her to be Astrid, "Mistress, you have returned!"
"You are Rowena?" asked Rachel.
"Yes, but why . . . ?" wondered Rowena.
"I am not Astrid," explained Rachel. "I am Rachel; this is my cousin Cynthia, and our guide Theodore. May we come in; there world is full of watching eyes!"
"Hurry in! They are the agents of Morgana, a ruthless sorceress!" said Rowena with contempt.
"Morgana?" wondered Cynthia. "King Arthur's half-sister!"
"I do not know who she is," explained Rowena. "It is merely a name she adopted. I call her the Dark Mistress of the Shadows."
A young blond girl, looking much like a miniature version of Rachel, dashed across the room and hugged Rachel's waist. "Momma, momma." Sensing that there was something wrong, she gave Rachel a perplexed look. "I am very sorry child, but I only look like your mother. I am afraid . . . she is gone!"
'I never realized this would happen. I'm not the motherly type! Yet . . . ' thought Rachel.
During the time that everyone was focused on Britta, Rowena calmly circled Cynthia and then Rachel in turn. She peeked into their bags and even lifted Rachel's skirts slightly to examine her boots. She asked only one question, "What happened? When she did not come to fetch Britta, I feared for the worst."
"Astrid and Wendy died yesterday . . . at the hands of the infamous Lord Fallon. Justice shall be swift!" said Cynthia.
"We have come a long way on a quest, a quest to take Britta away with us. Before her death, Astrid gave her consent," announced Rachel, unsuccessfully trying to suppress a giggle. Without thinking about it, she placed an arm around Britta's shoulder.
"Rachel was transformed in the same manner as ye," said Cynthia, after carefully observing Rowena.
"You were once a man too, Rachel?" asked Rowena.
"A long time from now, until I ran into Astrid's curse," complained Rachel.
"Rachel and I are mystics in training," said Cynthia, with special emphasis for Teddy, whose face was stuck in astonishment mode.
"Long before I met Astrid, I wanted to be a mystic too. Astrid guided my way. Changes were necessary, but it was worthwhile," added Rowena.
"How great be Morgana's powers?" wondered Cynthia.
"She is more powerful than I, but less than Astrid. She has no powers within this cottage, for it is protected by one of Astrid's spells. Britta is trapped; she can go nowhere, and our provisions will not last long," lamented Rowena.
* * *
Rachel, Cynthia, and Teddy prepared to depart.
"We shall restock your provisions in five days," promised Cynthia. "Cloud Haven be too far, so Britta will be safest if left in your care, until the day of Lord Fallon's hanging."
"I shall use the time to rehearse useful incantations, which I will discuss with you upon your return," said Rowena.
"I hope what Astrid taught you and Myra taught us will be enough," sighed Rachel.
"I am sure the three of us can defeat her," said Rowena hopefully.
* * *
After ascending the steps from the river bank, the three of them reached a stone walkway. Teddy looked around; then he announced, "It be clear!"
He was wrong. Suddenly, a woman wearing a black, hooded cloak, flanked by three guards on each side, stepped out in front of them. The woman seemingly had no face. The guards were dressed in black, partially armored uniforms. Black scarfs made into masks covered their faces, and their heavy-looking jaws were without expressions. They carried no firearms, but each did sport a heavy, wicked-looking broadsword. Quickly, Teddy readied his sword and Cynthia gripped her pole expectantly.
'These guys look like zombie versions of Zorro, minus the capes, and she looks like a reject from a Walt Disney feature,' thought Rachel.
Rachel released the safety on her hidden tranquilizer gun. She tried several induced telekinetic spells, but they had no effect.
The woman spoke with a deep voice, "The girl is mine! Leave, or you shall all be buried here!"
"Wicked woman!" yelled Teddy, charging toward her. He swung at both Morgana and one of her guards, but the blade made no contact. Abruptly, the images faded.
"Next time, you shall not be so fortunate," warned the lingering, deep-toned voice of Morgana.
"Where did they go to?" wondered Teddy, turning in circles like a drunken man.
"The images were not real," explained Cynthia. She looked at Rachel expectantly.
'She's looking to me for leadership. What if I make a wrong decision?' thought Rachel nervously.
"Sort of an early eighteenth century holographic projection, a curious method for a powerful mystic," remarked Rachel. "But come, we have map our routes and plan our actions. Perhaps we need to hire more men."
"I can handle all comers!" boasted Teddy.
"Better to be careful than dead," warned Cynthia, giving him a gentle poke in the ribs.
"Well, I can . . . ," he claimed weakly.
* * *
FULL MOON AND SHADOWS
Edward of Fallon was due at the gallows soon. An old woman, stopped beside Rachel for a moment. "Killed his own son, he did . . . and two young women. Never have liked the Fallons, never will," she muttered, before moving on.
Another woman wrestled to bring her two boys under control, while the crowd grew in anticipation of the execution. A tap on Rachel's shoulder announced the arrival of Rowena and Britta. Rowena was wearing a black cloak over an unadorned red gypsy dress. Britta was garbed in a miniature version of Rowena's outfit. Rowena whispered, "We eluded Morgana's guards." Rowena and Britta had left the cottage late last night, despite the presence of a full moon.
A masked executioner, flanked by two guards, led Edward across the courtyard and up the steps of the gallows. Edward bore the look of a man astonished to be punished for his crimes. Once in position, the executioner placed the noose around his neck.
"Look," pointed Rachel, as she placed a hand on Britta's head, "so dies the man who murdered your mother. Stand in front; when he see's us, he'll be scared stiff!"
'I'm exaggerating, of course; I doubt that he could be any more scared than he already is,' thought Rachel.
Edward did give a terrified jerk when he spied Rachel and Britta. "I'm scared too, momma!" cried Britta, turning to face Rachel instead.
'I can't seem to explain who I am,' she sighed to herself.
"Time to move in our direction," came Cynthia's voice over the receiver in Rachel's buret. "Just follow the sound of the pipes."
Rowena lifted Rachel's hair slightly, while she examined the buret without comment.
"Time to join Cynthia and Teddy," said Rachel softly. Teddy had already begun to play a dirge on his bagpipes. The dirge was not being played for Edward; rather, it was being played in memory of his slain brother, Donald.
* * *
"It be over . . . finally over," cried Cynthia thankfully. "If ever a man deserved the death penalty, Lord Fallon be the one. Let us now depart; Teddy's men are holding the horses for us in the alley. Hurry!"
"I'm ready!" added Rachel, motioning to Rowena and Britta.
'Our ride to Cloud Haven on a horse was really not much training. Worse, they knew less about Morgana than we do,' thought Rachel.
Teddy's four hired Scotsmen were holding horses for them. Teddy and Cynthia bounded onto their mounts, and Rowena was almost as fast. After handing Britta to Rowena, Rachel struggled for a moment, as she practically crawled up the side of the horse onto the saddle.
'I'm certainly not going to ride side-saddle; the skirt of this dress has a lot of give. Hmm . . . this saddle is only a bit uncomfortable . . . for women. Maybe it won't be long, until I'm home and rid of this curse!' thought Rachel anxiously.
Teddy led the way, as the nine of them galloped in the direction of the Fallon manor, wildly dodging ditches, pedestrians, carts, and clotheslines along the way.
'I left my stomach back at the town square!" grimaced Rachel silently.
* * *
The road curved Northward. Soon they would reach the road to the Fallon manor. The stonework walls of the junction were visible in the distance, partially obscured by intervening trees.
"It be clear for as far as I can see!" shouted Teddy.
He was wrong again. Suddenly, Morgana, flanked by more than twenty henchmen on either side, blocked their path. No amount of coaxing could make any of the horses pass through such a barrier. The animals were terrified. As her horse reared upwards, Rachel could not hold on. She turned a backwards somersault and fell, landing square on her rear on the soft ground behind her mount.
'Thank goodness I have more padding,'she said to herself.
Gunfire rang out from both sides. Lead pistol balls whizzed through the air. The Scotsmen fired their flintlock pistols, reloaded, and fired again. Heavy black powder clouds drifted over Morgana's fallen guards. Morgana's guards did not reload their guns; yet, they continued to charge at the Scotsmen. Despite their heavy losses, their numbers seemed to grow.
Cynthia tried to pull her horse over toward Rowena and Britta, but, having been mortally wounded, it started to keel over on her. Rachel pulled Cynthia away before she became trapped.
"Come, let us end this battle," yelled Teddy, plunging forward after reloading. Four shots from his flintlock dropped four guards; then he drew his sword and charged. More of Morgana's guards arrived to join the battle.
"We must help them," urged Cynthia.
Rachel handed Britta and one of her bags to Rowena. Cynthia pulled out her num-chakas; then she dropped both her bags at Rowena's feet.
As Britta gripped Rowena's dress, Rowena concentrated and recited mystic phrases. Bright, curving filaments of energy surrounded Morgana's guards, distracting and confounding them. Morgana herself avoided the filaments, as if they were incompatible with her shadowy nature.
"I am going to find out how this works," mumbled Rachel nervously, pulling the tranquilizer gun from her bag.
'Morgana's powers do not seem to be so direct at those of the Mystic Order,' she thought.
After selecting a target, she switched off the safety, aimed, and fired. The first dart missed, so she reloaded and moved closer.
'The streamers have no effect on me, and Morgana's men mostly ignore me, as if they are focused on the men,' observed Rachel.
Resolutely, she stepped forward and shot one guard after another squarely in the neck. If any of them seemed a threat, she used the Burning spell, which caused their own bodies to heat up their swords and the metal in their uniforms. Within thirty seconds after being struck by a dart, the drugged guards began to stumble and fall.
As Cynthia rushed toward Teddy, on of Morgana's guards appeared directly behind him. "Teddy!" she cried, as a bullet struck Teddy in the back. Enraged, Cynthia struck the guard in the chin with her martial arts pole. In a continuous motion, she knocked three more to the ground.
"I have never seen a lass do such a thing," remarked Teddy weakly, as Cynthia propped him up.
"Oh Teddy," Cynthia lamented, "ye must not die."
At that moment, Rowena yelled, "Stop Morgana! Without her, the guards are nothing!"
"I have to reload," replied Rachel, as her spent CO2 cylinder dropped to the ground. She struggled to insert a new cylinder.
'This isn't going to work. I have to do more. This fracas must be brought to a halt!'
Teddy's hired Scotsmen charged at Morgana, but they were not able touch her. Meanwhile, more of her guards seemed to arrive. Rachel concentrated, shoving all thoughts from her mind, except the steps of the incantation.
'This magic makes my breasts push against the tight bodice,' she complained to herself.
Ignoring another pistol ball that whizzed by her head, she recited the Immobilization incantation.
"They are frozen," announced Cynthia, as she relaxed in relief.
The horses were still animated, but Teddy's hired Scotsmen and Morgana's guards were all locked motionless in place.
"You shall not stop me with useless tricks!" cried Morgana. "I know how to counteract your magic!"
Rachel ran toward Morgana and fired a tranquilizer dart. It passed through the sorceress as if she were not there. None of the basic telekinetic spells, not even Mystic Fire, had any effect on Morgana.
"A useless contraption!" responded Morgana defiantly.
At that moment, Cynthia charged, striking at Morgana's shadowy head with her pole. The martials arts weapon made a solid contact, knocking Morgana to the ground. At that moment, all of Morgana's guards either vanished or collapsed.
"She's out cold," observed Rachel, pulling back the hood of the dark cloak. "She sure is ugly: such old and leathery skin!"
"It must be the wood in the pole that did her in," suggested Cynthia.
"We must shackle her!" warned Rowena.
"We'll use these," said Rachel, as she pulled the num-chakas from Cynthia's belt. "Pull her arms behind her. It'll take only a little twine to hold them in place."
'Mark could not have done better, pants or no pants,' thought Rachel jubilantly.
"Morgana can do no more harm, so we must help Teddy," urged Cynthia. "Help him onto his horse; I shall treat his wound along the way.
"Up you go," said Rachel to a smiling Britta, as she lifted the girl to Rowena. "Hurry, we have rendezvous to make!"
* * *
"What happened?" asked one of Teddy's hired Scotsmen, shortly after the spell wore off.
"I do not know," replied another. "I do not see Theodore, the attackers lie dead, and the witch be bound. I did not see what happened."
"Nor did I," added a third man. "Our contract be ended. I say we flee this place."
All four men mounted their horses and rode away at a gallop, as Morgana angrily struggled to her feet. "This shall not hold me," she muttered, while she bent her knees and pulled a broadsword from the ground.
* * *
WINTER SHADOWS, SUMMER DREAMS
Rowena bowed her head in silence; then she cried. After two weeks, the funeral pyre was still smoldering. Her horse sniffed at some embers and sneezed in protest. Britta blankly stared. Abruptly, she screamed, "Momma!" Then she cried too.
"The others have tied their horses in those trees; we must join them," said Rowena sadly. "It is time for you leave, beloved child!"
"Help me clear the debris from the circle," urged Rachel, when Rowena and Britta arrived. "Cynthia is still fussing with Teddy.
At that moment, a dark cloud appeared in the sky, high over the circle. The cloud flexed through many shapes, until it reached a final form: the hooded image of Morgana. The light of day eerily shined through her empty eye sockets. "You shall not escape me! The girl is mine!" thundered her wrathful voice.
In the distance, trees swayed and leaves flew into the air. Birds and other animals, including their horses, fled the scene. Morgana was coming; her angry, expanded aura collided with everything in her path.
"She cannot enter the circle once it is ignited," explained Rowena. "It is time for you to depart."
"Cynthia, help me take down the tent. It's time to leave," urged Rachel."
"I must tend to Teddy's wound. He needs another shot of antibiotic!" cried Cynthia frantically.
"There is no time," warned Rowena again; "Morgana is nearly here!"
Rachel led Britta to the center of the heptagon within the mystic circle and commanded, "Stay there child, under all circumstances!" Then she turned to Cynthia, "We can't do anything for your Scotsman, cousin. You'll have to leave him behind."
"I'll not abandon Teddy!" she protested vigorously. "He needs medical care; there be a hospital just a bit down the road!"
"Yes, in two hundred fifty years. Myra would not be happy if we brought him with us!" asserted Rachel.
"Myra is not in charge. Ye be in charge, cousin! It be your decision!" pleaded Cynthia, as she helped Teddy to his feet.
"Okay, everyone into the circle; we've run out of options!" ordered Rachel. "Rowena, we'll take you, if you like!"
"I would like very much to leave this world, thank you," replied Rowena gratefully, as she stepped into the circle.
'Beam me up Scotty! Rewind! Once again, I have to forget my link with Mark,' thought Rachel.
Carefully repeating Myra's instructions, Rachel began the Transfer incantation. White, smokeless flames sprang from the circle. Rachel noted how everyone's eyes lit up. Morgana launched fingers of darkness to attack them. As the heptagon grew bright red, soil, rocks and organic debris were flung into the air outside the circle, completely burying Rachel and Cynthia's camping spot. Some nearby trees cracked and splintered, while Rachel continued to speak the mystic syllables.
Morgana appeared at the edge of the circle and threw her arms into the air, as a vortex of darkness engulfed everything. The light returned, but with it came an icy wind. The sun was notably lower on the horizon, and the trees were barren. The ground was cold and damp, but there was no snow. Morgana was gone, having been replaced by the friendly faces of Irene and Zoe.
"Oh, she's so darling," said Irene as she embraced Britta. "I'll make sure you that you have a good childhood."
"You brought others!" Zoe questioned Rachel sternly.
"Upon my personal authority as a mystic!" snapped Rachel back. "Rowena and Theodore are our gallant friends . . . welcome them, please!"
"Is there a motor car at the end of the path?" asked Cynthia impatiently. "Teddy has been shot!"
"Yes, of course," replied Zoe.
"I have a cellular telephone," said Irene, as she pulled the phone from a pocket in her cloak. "I can have an ambulance meet us at Zoe's car."
"Please!" urged Cynthia.
* * *
"It's okay; it's friendly," Rachel assured Rowena, at first sight of the ambulance, with its flashing lights and two-tone wail. "What is this all about? We got a call about an injured man," inquired the driver. He and his assistant were obviously taken aback by all the eighteenth century attire.
"Teddy has been shot," explained Cynthia frantically. "It was . . . an accident. We were rehearsing a play. Hurry!"
"You heard her, move!" said the driver to his assistant. "We have an injured man here."
"We'll follow you," Irene told Cynthia, as the driver closed the rear ambulance door behind her.
"You get your first ride in an automobile," said Rachel to Rowena.
'Our trip the hospital will be different, and I so hate attracting undue attention,' thought Rachel.
"I like it already," commented Rowena. "I like this new era a very much."
* * *
Irene brought more chairs for the octagonal table under the stellar skylight. Myra was the last to be seated: between Zoe on her right and Simone on her left. Clockwise from Simone, were Irene, Rowena, Rachel, Cynthia, and Jennifer. There was a gap between Jennifer and Zoe.
Myra and her assistants wore similar light-pastel, plain dresses. Irene wore her favorite highly-adorned red gypsy dress. Jennifer was dressed in a black, pleated skirt and a knitted gray top. Rachel wore the black satin dress that Mrs. Potter had first dressed her in, while Cynthia wore one of her favorite white shirtdresses. Rowena was the most noticeable woman present, because Rachel and Cynthia had taken her to London for a complete make-over. Dressed in her new red skirt-suit, bright red heels, and white camisole, along with long red nails and tinted and styled medium-length hair, she looked like a high-powered woman executive.
"I have called the debriefing," began Myra, "to discuss Rachel and Cynthia's successful mission and, shall we say . . . unorthodox complications. Rachel, you had no permission to bring anyone else back!"
"I had to make a decision, so I did it," stated Rachel bluntly, determined to resist any reprimand.
"Proper concentration would have eliminated such last minute decisions," scolded Myra. "Fortunately, there are no karmic complications. Cynthia has her young Scotsman, and I have another valued assistant. Welcome to 1996, Rowena York."
"Thank you, madame Myra. I look forward to serving you in this golden age," said Rowena sincerely.
"The golden age is yet to come . . . perhaps, in Britta's time. The child is all I had hoped, and more." Myra's tone turned more serious, "I had never thought that an ex-male, such as you, would one day serve me. Obviously, preconceptions are unwise. Remember that bit of wisdom."
"But I'm still a male," interjected Rachel.
"Not unless you once again become Mark," explained Myra. "Astrid gave you a totally female body, so a true female you are."
"That's why I made my request," reminded Jennifer. "Have you given it your consideration."
"What request?" wondered Rachel.
"It seems you made a vow to Astrid, Rachel, that you would take care of Britta as if she were your own," stated Myra.
"That's true, but it was made in a moment of haste," lamented Rachel.
"The Mystic Order takes all vows seriously," said Myra sternly. "Rachel, as a woman, it will be much easier to carry out your vow; Britta thinks of you as her mother. As Mark, you may not have the capacity for such a task, and you will certainly lose your emerging character and powers. Also, since you have been Rachel for so long that, as man, you may suffer health problems, as well as psychological problems for the rest of your life."
"I am willing to take the risk!" asserted Rachel stubbornly.
'As Mark, I sure hope I can give up this feminine role. If he still wants to wear dresses, there will be problems,' she noted het herself.
"Jennifer, has a counter proposal," responded Myra, pointing in Jennifer's direction.
"Mark . . . Rachel," began Jennifer, "after watching you, I don't think you'd ever be happy as a man again."
"I have to take the chance," replied Rachel. "Being, a woman in 1996 is certainly a lot more interesting than in 1732, but my mind is made up."
'I'm getting cramps. I hope it's from anxiety, not my next period,' thought Rachel.
"I have an alternate plan," continued Jennifer. "Ever since I've known Mark, I've noticed that his feminine side is very strong. I am the opposite: my masculine side is much stronger. When I was young, I often wondered why I was born as a woman. So, the solution seems obvious: turn me into a man; then I marry Rachel, and we live happily ever after."
"That's preposterous," objected Rachel.
'I wonder what that would be like? Have I been waiting all my life to end up as Jennifer's bride?' she wondered to herself.
"What if Myra can override this transformation anxiety that afflicts you," suggested Jennifer. "Maybe it's part of the curse."
"That is a possibility," admitted Myra. "Of course, as a man, Jennifer, you could never again visit us here again."
"Nonsense," chided Irene; "our husbands come here all the time for family functions."
"Our men are different than other men," asserted Myra. This statement caused a side conversation between Simone and Irene. As she looked up, she was startled to see Rachel standing on the octagonal table, staring down at her.
'Now I have her attention. This isn't easy to do in heels; at least I don't have to dance!' she thought.
"Relieve me of the nagging anxiety, the nightmares, and these relentless giggles, and I will consider Jennifer's proposal."
"If you will follow me in the sanctuary," motioned Myra, "I'll do it now." She was plainly overjoyed about Rachel's decision.
"Not yet; there is an unanswered question," said Rachel, who brushed her long hair over her shoulders; then she expectantly held her hands behind her back. "Who was Morgana?"
"Morgana," explained Myra, "is the reason that we are reluctant to grant mystic powers to males. Morgan was a great-uncle of Astrid. He sought the mystic arts from his sister, Eva, Astrid's maternal grandmother. Eva's power of concentration must have been poor, because Morgan's transformation went wrong, disfiguring him and thrusting him into a world of shadows. Able to use her vast powers only indirectly, Morgana became caught up in evil schemes, many of which were blamed on the Mystic Order, leading to countless witch hunts during the latter seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries."
"Why did she pursue Britta?" wondered Rowena.
"She hoped to capture Britta's youth, and possibly to take over the child's body," added Myra. "When you met her, she was already very old. Her powers were failing. If the fires of the Transfer circle did not consume her, she died and was absorbed by the shadows soon after."
"Catch me, my darling," urged Rachel, as she leaped off the table into Jennifer's waiting arms.
"I could never have held Mark this way," commented Jennifer. "We need to go for a walk . . . to talk things over."
Still resting in Jennifer's arms, Rachel replied, "Agreed, but I have one more question for Myra. Why didn't you warn us about Morgana?"
"I did not know," answered Myra, but Simone and Zoe shook their heads in contradiction. "I suspected, but I did not know for sure until I saw Cynthia's video images of Morgana. Remember, Rachel, proper concentration is far more important than knowledge in the mystic arts."
"When we get back from our walk, I want you to meet with us in the sanctuary," urged Rachel.
"Agreed," responded Myra with a smile.
* * *
A NEW LIFE
It was almost 9:00 A.M., when Jonathan and Rachel Brewster, along with their daughter Britta, arrived at their new home, located in an older, fashionable neighborhood in Salem, Massachusetts. The movers would arrive soon and begin unloading their van.
To outsiders, nothing was to appear unusual about the Brewsters. With the help of the Fallon and Brewster families, along with a mystic boost, their documentation was nearly flawless. Britta's birth certificate listed Rachel as her mother and Jonathan as her father. Britta's legal place of birth was listed as the Fallon manor cottage, in the Summer of 1990. As a gorgeous little bridesmaid, Britta had been the center of attention at two weddings: a very solemn affair conducted by Myra, and a family wedding in Massachusetts.
It was a warm August day, and Britta was full of energy, dashing about in her blue jeans, white T-shirt, and sneakers. She looked like other children, and she would soon learn to act like other children, but she was not like any other child. Rachel often said that Britta was a precocious, gifted child, in response to many comments about her unusually bright and perceptive nature.
Soon, Britta would start school. Rachel and Jonathan had been coaching her, so she would be better prepared for the reaction of her peers to her accent and to her many memories of the eighteenth century.
"Mommy, daddy . . . come and see," urged Britta, as she tugged at their arms. They followed her into the den. "Look!" she cried in a high pitch, pointing to a large tapestry, which had been hung on the wall over the fireplace mantle. The tapestry depicted a scene from the eighteenth century. The detail was so flawless that it gave Rachel goose bumps. Though not chronologically accurate, the tapestry captured those surreal moments, as they had encountered Morgana and her black guard, at the road to Fallon manor, on that day in June 1732. Morgana and her guards looked larger than life, as they battled Teddy's Scotsmen. Cynthia looked possessed, hovering over her wounded Teddy, as she defiantly held back Morgana's guards. Rowena stood to the rear, sheltering Britta, who was depicted with a radiant kind of innocence. In the midst of everything, surrounded by confused, frantic horses, and filaments of energy generated by Rowena, stood Rachel. Her hands were cupped, and her concentration was perfect, as she recited the Immobilization incantation.
"I think this is a gift from your aunt Myra," explained Rachel.
"It will certainly get remarks," noted Jonathan.
"Which means we will have to have a good story . . . " started Rachel. She was interrupted by Britta.
"The moving people are here . . . the moving people are here!" yelled Britta. Jonathan grabbed her and picked her up, before she could run out and get into trouble.
* * *
"Salem has really changed," observed Jonathan; "I understand that there are at least five household belonging to the Mystic Order on our block alone!"
"Oh, that was fast," commented Rachel, having been handed a bundle by the mailman; "our first batch of forwarded mail has arrived. Oh, we got a letter from Irene."
"What does it say?" asked Jonathan.
"Let's see . . . Cynthia is expecting," began Rachel. "The doctor thinks it will be twins. She and Teddy have only split up five times in the last three months, but she thinks the marriage will last. Hmm . . . Teddy wants to become an MP. They'll love him in Parliament. Myra sends her love. Oh, Rowena met a nice man . . . it says he is a member of the Beaumont Society, whatever that is."
"Must be one of those exclusive, stuffy English clubs," suggested Jonathan.
"Oh, here is a postscript," continued Rachel, "that says Irene has finally perfected the sex-change spell without any mystical aftereffects.
"Here come the movers with another load . . . " warned Jonathan.
* * *
Jonathan and Rachel took a break from unpacking, to walk hand-in-hand in the backyard, while Britta played in on a swing in the near the garden fountain. "We did it," he sighed, as they stepped onto their circular patio, "we've become middle-class suburbanites."
'Where did this patio come from? It looks familiar,' thought Rachel.
"But we are not actually middle-class suburbanites," reminded Rachel, still staring as the patio.
"Not when you burn out the engine of a passing drunk driver with Mystic Fire, like you did yesterday," he commented.
"He might have killed someone . . . I got him off the road," she replied. As they embraced and sensuously kissed, she asked, "Any regrets, Mr. Webster?"
"None, I like this new role. I make a much better husband than a wife. How are you taking it, Mrs. Webster?"
"I think being a woman and a wife is . . . satisfyingly pleasant, especially since I'm rid of Astrid's induced emotional baggage. But I do have one question, dear?"
"What is that, Rachel?" he responded curiously.
"Jennifer's clothes: you still have them. They don't fit me, so why do you want them?" she wondered.
"I was going to get to that, really I was, my dear. I asked Myra to make me fairly androgynous. Occasionally, I like to become Jennifer again. I can modulate a woman's voice fairly well."
"Do you mind?" he asked nervously.
"No, why should I mind," she replied sincerely. "I miss Jennifer. I think you will need her for emotional stability."
"Thanks," he replied with a kiss.
Suddenly, the patio began to glow brightly. Rachel pulled Jonathan away, saying, "Remember, we're only impersonating average American citizens."
"What is it?" asked Jonathan in an astounded tone.
"It's Myra and the gang coming for a visit. I think we are about to experience the housewarming of the century," replied Rachel with fond expectations.
"What will the neighbors think?" wondered Jonathan, looking around at the nearby houses.
"We will invite them all, making them sort of accomplices; especially since so many already belong to the Mystic Order," said Rachel with intentional melodrama.
"You've become wicked," commented Jonathan.
"Of course," agreed Rachel.