After she had shown Clive out, she and Paul started laughing. There had been the odd time when the prospective coven member had as many questions of them as they had of her or him, and that was fine. In fact, they preferred it that way. That told them the applicant wasn’t trying to give them the answers she felt they wanted, just in order to get into the coven. But this time had been distinctly over the top.
It had begun to go wrong when he had asked Marnie if she was the author of the witch’s standard manual on love magic. That always made her a little defensive. Was he just trying to get into the coven because he felt that would give him some sort of kudos he could boast about to others? If so, there was no chance they’d let him in. So Paul had asked Clive why he wanted to know.
"Well, if you are Marnie Maltravers, I’ve always wondered whether you’d write it differently now. I mean, you were still in your twenties when it was published, weren’t you?"
Oddly enough, Marnie’s publisher had sent her an email about that only a few hours previously. He’d asked if she were willing to update her early books. She emailed back that would have a think about the works on love and protection but she’d pass on the self-development, thanks.
"I don’t know how I had the gall to write it," she admitted. "If I were rewriting it now, I think I’d want to dwell more on the pitfalls of some of the magic."
"Such as the divorce section, you mean?"
And then Clive had started discussing the other books. If he had only been half so engaging, Marnie wouldn’t have gone along with it. But it was also an excellent way of interviewing him. In the end, when she showed him to the door, Paul realised they’d been talking for three hours. He was astounded.
"Shall we say that one’s definitely a ‘yes’?" he asked his wife, as he put his jacket on to go over to Jen’s place to collect Ben. She’d want to know all about it, of course. They'd planned to collect their son together but the interview had run on so long that the girls would soon be home from school,
"Oh I don’t know," Marnie said. "He was awfully full of himself, wasn’t he?"
Paul opened his mouth to argue, then realised he was being had. "That’s true," he agreed, which made her begin to protest. Then they both laughed.
Marnie collected up the coffee mugs and took them into the kitchen. Clive would be an asset to the coven. He was far and away the best candidate they’d ever interviewed. In many ways, he reminded her of Martin, who had led the first coven she had joined and who had been a great teacher. She hadn’t thought of Martin in years and smiled at the memory. If only he could see her now! How very different from the girl she’d once been: the media star and bestselling author. The darling of the conference circuit. Now she was just a middle-aged housewife and mother, running a small private coven with a few friends. Someone that no one would look at twice.
Which was how she liked it.
She wondered how things would have gone if she hadn’t had her breakdown. Or if Jen hadn’t convinced her, finally, to lead a coven again. Not that she’d wanted to.
"You know those conversations we’ve been having about it being about time you woke up and started living again?" Jen asked, while they were out having a pre-movie meal.
"Living as in running a coven again, or living as in something else?" Marnie was wary.
"Either. Both. This might be a good time. Ian and I were thinking of having another before I’m too old."
"Thirty five isn’t too old to have another."
"You’re thirty five. I’m thirty eight. That puts me well into the zone for complications."
"Then go for it before it gets worse."
"We did. I’m four months gone."
Marnie laughed. "We ought to have a congratulatory drink. Shall I order some fizzy or are you being careful?" Not that the place they'd picked for their monthly treat would have anything decent. They'd be better off picking up something from Tesco on the way home.
"Leave the fizz for five months. I'll be happy to celebrate if I get through it all again, with nothing worse than backache and piles. There's something else, Marnie. We don’t think we’ll be able to carry on leading the coven after the birth. Not with John and Emma to look after, as well. And it’s time Elaine and Tim hived off to form their own coven. So Ian and I were thinking if you wanted to start again, we could give everyone a choice of you, or Elaine and Tim. If you're up for it."
"Or they might want to do something else," Marnie suggested.
"I don’t think they would. Do you?"
Marnie didn’t want to think about it at all. It was too soon. She might feel better now but that meant she wanted to concentrate on the girls. She wanted to be certain they were settled. The divorce and her breakdown had been terrible for them. The last thing she wanted was to go back to a situation when all her energy was going on other things.
"I’d prefer to spend time with Sophie and Jess," she hedged.
"They’re doing fine, now. Anyway, you were complaining that Sophie was nagging you to do stuff again. To get out of the house or find a hobby or something. Are you sure you aren’t being driven by mothering guilt?"
Marnie couldn’t be sure. But she knew how much responsibility a coven was. Ironically, she understood that more now than she had when she ran one. How on earth had she thought herself mature enough to do that? It might only be a few years ago but she had been so intolerant.
"I don’t know enough," she said.
Jen put down her cup and gazed at her friend. "Shall we try that again?" she suggested. "Marnie Maltravers doesn’t know how to run a coven? The famous Marnie Maltravers, who wrote the bestselling books on love and protection magic? The Marnie Maltravers who spent half her life in TV studios and on conference platforms?"
"I’m not Maltravers anymore," Marnie reminded her friend.
That was the first thing she’d done, once she began to recover. Changed her clothes; changed her hair; changed her name. She would have changed her house if she could. But that would mean the girls changing school and having to give Daniel his share of the value. It wasn’t that she begrudged him that as much as she wanted the girls to be able to have their own rooms.
Oh, who was she kidding? Of course she begrudged Daniel having any claim on the house, after he’d done his best to squander every penny she earned. But neither did she want that to eat at her. She could do without that sort of emotional tie to her ex.
"I was young and arrogant. You know what it’s like in your twenties. Come on, Jen: are you telling me you didn’t think you knew it all?"
Jen smiled. "We all did, didn’t we? If we’d had a smidgeon less sense we might have thought we could control the weather." She checked her watch. "Oops. The film starts in ten minutes."
They downed their coffees and departed to the cinema next door.
The film was based on Frank Clayton’s best-selling novel about the Society of the Nine Runes. It was all made-up, of course, but fun. They couldn’t resist, as the whole world except them seemed to have read the book. They decided to see what the fuss was about.
Afterwards, they found a decent winebar to retreat to and ordered a half bottle of fizzy to celebrate Jen’s pregnancy. "What did you think?" Marnie asked.
Jen sniggered. "Well, the Society building came straight out of a Tolkien film. And their passwords were just silly. But I quite fancied the Runemaster."
"He was dishy, wasn’t he?" Marnie agreed. "I wonder if he was written that way. It’s almost worth reading the book."
They looked at each other and burst out laughing. The idea was ludicrous. There were better things to do with one’s time than read trashy novels.
"If it’s such an ultra-secret society, how would anyone know about it?" Jen asked. "And that fantastic club house in the middle of New York! Wouldn’t someone notice it?"
"It’s disguised, remember?"
They toasted to the baby and giggled.
"Do you think it could exist?" Jen asked. "After all, there are all the rumours."
"’No smoke without fire’? I really can’t see it. If you want to be that secret, then why not lace everything up with geasa? Then no one who was involved could say anything. And I can’t see anyone putting a club house in the middle of a city. Just think of the effort involved in keeping it secret! Even if you disguise it as an apartment house, something will happen. There'll be a fire in the next door apartment, or some building regulations, or a car crashes into it… anything."
"But they'd ward that stuff off."
"And we both know how much work they'd have to put into that. Or maybe they were into human sacrifice. The real deal, rather than by proxy."
Jen laughed and they got down to the serious business of discussing the film's errors. "That stuff about the ninth rune being the secret that unlocked the rest was just silly. Didn’t the detective do any research? Otherwise she’d know runes were alphabets and you couldn’t have an alphabet with only eight letters."
"I’m not sure Clayton cared. He must have done some research when he wrote it because they referred to the elder Futhork. I think they were right that that was divided into three sets of eight but I’d have to check whether the runes they picked were all in the same set. I’m willing to bet they weren’t. And anyway, I’ve never seen anything that looked like that ninth rune. That looked more like a sigil to me."
"Or a bindrune," Jen suggested. "You’re right, it was far too complex in shape. And why would Bex betray them?"
"And how?" Marnie snorted. "If he were bound with oaths, there’s no way he’d be able to do that, just because he had found out the Runemaster was using the Society for his own ends. If a society has managed to last several hundred years in secret, you’d think they had worked out the checks and balances to regulate themselves so one person couldn’t do that. However dishy he might be."
Jen sighed. "Well, Bex was dishy, as well. It’s a shame they got so much of the magic wrong."
Marnie laughed. "Bex was far too racy for me. I rather fancied the deputy Runemaster."
"Reliable and boring?" Jen teased.
"Understated and intelligent," Marnie retorted. "He wasn’t going to play the games Bex and the Runemaster indulged in. Both of them could easily have destroyed the Society with their games. That’s abuse of power in my book."
Jen laughed. "It’s only a film. You don’t have to have them in your coven."
"Would you have them in yours?" That was an old game between them: picking your fantasy coven.
"What’s more interesting is which way people will jump between you and Elaine and Tim."
Marnie put down her glass. "I’m not a leader anymore, remember?"
"It’s just a game, Marnie," Jen said seductively. "I’ll bet Paul chooses you."
Marnie laughed. "He does not fancy me!"
"So you say. What about Helen?"
"Elaine and Tim. They’ll need support for the first year and she’ll want to help. Unless you were thinking of doing that?"
"Me? No! You know it’s bad practice. And usually ends in tears. No, Ian and I would be with you."
Marnie played the game but she wasn’t biting. Or she thought she wasn’t. When she told Sophie and Jess about the conversation, she wasn’t surprised by her elder daughter urging her to take the opportunity. What surprised her was that Jess said the same thing.
"Please, Mummy!" her younger daughter was unusually vehement. She slid off the kitchen chair and came round the table to hug her mother.
"I want to spend time you two," Marnie protested.
"It would be awesome if you ran a coven again," Sophie said. "But you won’t do TV, will you?"
"No TV," Marnie promised. "And no conferences. You really want me to try it?"
"Yes!" the girls chorused.
As Jen had predicted, Paul choose to come with Marnie. So did several others. She was surprised and flattered. During the breakdown she’d lost all confidence in herself. Rebuilding that had been a long and bitter journey. Though agreeing to run the coven made her realise how much she’d missed doing so, she still needed reassurance that people didn’t expect the Marnie of the past to be the person who was their new leader.
"As though we don’t know that!" Paul snorted. "You just continue to be the Marnie we know and love. Ignore the media construct. We know that’s not you."
Some folk changing their minds as others made their choices and others were persuaded by Jen and Ian, who were keen to ensure both new covens would begin with a balanced core. It came out even, much to everyone's satisfaction.
The next step was recruiting new members. But they could afford to take that at a measured pace. Getting the right person, and giving everyone time to find out if the ‘fit’ was right, was more important than numbers. So, in that first year, they only took on two others. The alarming thing was the number who applied to join, once word went round that Marnie Maltravers had a coven again. Although the change of name had done its trick with the media and outsiders, it had been impossible to keep the new name from seeping out into the ‘old guard’ witch community.
The long term solution might be to change it again. But, for now, the short term solution was to develop a rigorous selection process, with several interviews and working with the potential recruit two or three times, before making a decision. Even then, the coven retained a probationary period of a year and a day, to make sure everyone felt happy. After all, everyone needed to be able to trust each other. And the extra complication of some parts of the media willing to pay for tasty secrets about Marnie, or ‘spell and tell’ stories, made everyone doubly careful about inviting people in. So they ran a double layer of coven meetings, with the probationers only attending part of a session.
The second name change came about naturally when Paul and Marnie got married. And that led to the birth of Benjamin, as Marnie faced the same choice Jen had. Sophie and Jess were delighted with their baby brother and spoiled him terribly. Paul and Marnie found themselves rearranging their lives.
For one thing, it was back to Jen’s dilemma about running the coven. But Sophie and Jess were older than Jen’s children had been when her youngest was born, and Paul’s employer had always been fairly flexible about working times. Much more so than Marnie’s. And no one wanted to change things again in the coven, only a few short years since the division. If Marnie worked part time, it would give her and Paul enough money to manage on, so they could continue as leaders.
Which is when their problems began.
Marnie’s employer was willing to offer part time work but on seriously inferior terms. Marnie decided enough was enough and she would look for a more flexible employment elsewhere. After she handed in her notice, Paul’s employer went bust and he, too, found himself looking for work. The coven engaged in some serious magic to attract job opportunities to their leaders. And the opportunities came, though not in the shape anyone expected.
Paul was offered work he’d always hoped for, designing and making stage sets. But it was fewer hours and less money. At least for the foreseeable future. Marnie, on the other hand, was offered a full time position with British Fay & Magic, working locally. That meant less time travelling, better pay than her last job and better terms about leave for coven meetings.
"You have to take it," Paul said.
"One of us has to take care of Benjamin," Marnie pointed out.
"Then you take the job with BFM and I’ll stay at home and look after Ben."
"Paul, you can’t. You’ll never get another chance like this."
He shrugged. "There are always jobs for a decent chippie."
"But nothing like this. And not at our age. If you don’t take the chance now, it won’t come by again."
"Then so be it. Benjamin is more important."
"I won’t take the BFM job. I’m sure I can find something else."
"With that rate of pay and those conditions? And it’s on our doorstep. Marnie, it would be insane not to take it."
"Then we’ll have to give up the coven."
"We can sort it, darling. Really."
"We can’t work and look after Ben and keep our magical knowledge up to date, and come up with ideas for the coven."
"Then everyone will have to muck in, won’t they? And we could afford to use the nursery Jen recommended."
So that’s what they did. As a result, the dynamic between the members grew stronger. Marnie learned from that. And she and Paul found that, between them, they could juggle things. In fact, despite the hard work and all the days where she felt she was moving from pillar to post, she felt she had finally begun to come to terms with herself. She felt content and grounded. She started to meditate again, and her magic had a depth and potency she had never achieved prior to the breakdown. Her employer had merged with the Were Moot Association and she was learning to work with Weres, which was a fascinating experience. And now her publisher was offering her the chance to put right some of the things in her books that had most irritated her over the years.
She hummed as she washed up the coffee mugs and glanced at the clock when the doorbell rang. It was too early for the girls. She wiped her hands and went to see who it was. And stopped dead in the middle of the hallway, fear blunting her wits.
A symbol burned in the centre of the door. She felt she ought to remember it. It was fairly ornate, but non-standard. Then she realised it was the so-called ninth rune from that silly film, and relaxed. No one of any ability would use that for any serious magic.
Someone was playing with her. But how? Paul and she kept the house well protected. So did the coven, as they usually met here. Who had the power to simply cut through that?
Before opening the door she rescued her staff. She didn’t often use it but she needed something to stand guard between her and whoever had rung the bell. She put the chain on before she opened the door, and held the staff in front of her as a shield.
Her jaw nearly hit the floor.
Their front garden should have been on the other side of the door. Instead, she saw a large room lined with books. The ceiling and walls were all panelled with old wood. On the Oriental rug that covered the pale floorboards, sat sofas and coffee tables, with a few desks lining the walls and window seats laden with cushions under the windows. She wondered what those looked out on. Wherever this was, it was not medieval: it was far too light and airy. The light-coloured wood gave it a Scandinavian feel, and the sofas were cheerful and modern. It was just about the most attractive library she had ever seen. There was even a small kitchen area in one corner to make tea and coffee.
But of more immediate interest was the person who stood a few feet from her. The person who must have rung her doorbell. The person who must have written the absurd rune on the inside of her front door.
"Hello Martin," she said, though she didn’t put the staff aside, nor unchain the door. Too many foul things were capable of shape shifting. "Do you want me to ask you in?"
Martin smiled. He was older than she remembered, which wasn’t surprising. The last time she’d seen him was to wave him off at the airport, when he left for the first leg of his journey to Australia. Retiring to an English seaside resort was never his aspiration. He'd wanted to try living in the outback. That was long before Facebook, even if he'd liked modern technology. They'd lost touch.
"Have you got your front door key?" he asked.
She went to get it, being careful to shut the door first and lean the staff against it. When she reopened the door he was still there and still smiling. And apparently in the same room.
"I’m pleased to see you haven’t become incautious." If it wasn’t Martin, it sounded a lot like him.
"Do I just step in?"
"You’ll be safe. I promise."
At that moment she really wished she had the nose of one of her work colleagues. Izzy or Sam could separate the fair from the foul by smell. Well, she was going to have to go on instinct.
"Then you need to stand well back and keep your hands by your sides, please."
She put her staff down across the hallway so, if by some chance it was all a fraud and the thing that looked like Martin tried to get in, the staff should stop him from getting anywhere. Then she unchained the door, stepped through and shut it behind her. As the latch clicked, the door vanished.
Paul apart, she doubted there was anyone alive whose word she would have trusted enough to do that. Only her old coven leader.
"Are you still alive?" she asked him, after he’d given her a big hug of welcome.
"Just about," he laughed. He had a great sun tan. "These days I spend my life in the bush. Or fixing the house. Or in here."
She walked over to peer out of the windows. They overlooked a walled garden in which some people sat, chatting. The garden was intersected by water courses. Wisterias, clematis and honeysuckle draped the walls and the borders were a riot of colour.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"You tell me," he invited. "Be absurd."
"Really absurd? OK, then how about the Society of the Nine Runes?"
He shook his head and tutted. "You can do better than Clayton. You must have come across something."
It was a test. She needed to think. "It's the Society of the Ninth Rune, isn't it?"
His smile was broad. "Well done. And you are in the House of the Eight Runes. There is a reason for the difference in names. And now I have to ask you to accept a geas."
"I knew it had to be done this way," she said. "But I’ve already seen too much, surely?"
"We haven’t got that wrong in two hundred years. If there were the slightest doubt, I would have approached you a different way."
"Have you been keeping tabs on me, Martin?"
"It doesn’t work that way. Yes, there are people we think are possibles and one of us might take the opportunity to talk with them. A few of us have chatted with you over the last few years, since you stopped all that rushing around. But you weren’t ready. Then Bess interviewed you for that job and thought you might be ready now, so we sent Clive to check."
That explained a lot. "Does that mean he won’t be joining the coven?" she asked, with disappointment.
"I’m afraid so."
"Are you the Runemaster?"
"There is no Runemaster. That’s a fantasy. But shall we start with the geas, Marnie, dear? To forget everything, if you decline my offer; including me ringing your doorbell."
"What offer? Sorry. Yes. Geas first." She made the geas for herself and spoke it out loud, so he knew. He tested it to be sure. "I’m expecting the girls to arrive home soon," she warned him. "I may have to do this another time."
"There is no other time," he said simply. "And you’ll probably find no time has passed back there, when you return. Sometimes time passes but mostly not. And no, I can’t tell you if it will or not. That tends to be totally idiosyncratic, as far as any of us can tell. All we know is that no one enters the House if they are in the wrong mood; and we all return to the same place we entered from. The Eight insisted on weaving that into the fabric of the House. They didn’t wish it to be used as a form of escape."
Marnie nodded in appreciation. It was exactly what she would have done. "Who are the Eight?"
"The founders. Each one took a rune as their name. As they move on, the others invite one of us to take their place. And before you ask, don’t. Few know the original names of all of the Eight. They never identify themselves in that way and it’s considered rude to ask."
"That’s sensible. So what’s the ninth rune?"
"The symbol used to enter or leave the House."
She laughed. That made so much more sense than the purpose it had been given in the film. "You’re not telling me the film used the correct symbol? How did Clayton get hold of that?"
"No. I used that so you might recognise it and have a clue what was happening."
"You knew I’d seen the film?" For a moment she wondered if they had been watching her, despite his denial.
"I had no idea, Marnie. I was told that symbol was used in all the advertising, so it’s now fairly well known. I felt there was a chance you will have seen it. But no, it isn’t the ninth rune."
"So what is the symbol?"
"That depends on whether you accept the offer."
Back in her living room, waiting for her daughters to come home, Marnie stared out at her garden. It was past the time for wisteria, even if they had any. The clematis was in full bloom, though. And the dahlias and zinnias. No water courses, but a small wildlife pond. And a summer house.
Though Daniel had done his best to blow her hard-earned cash, she’d had the good sense to put as much as she could into the house. And she’d come out of the marriage with her share of that, at least. Paul had sold his own house to buy out Daniel; so he could go and piss it up against a wall, if he wanted. Though she’d made damned certain he’d tied up some of it for the girls, before she handed over the balance.
It was funny how life went. All that fame and fortune in her twenties and early thirties, yet she had known nothing by comparison with what she knew now. Yes, she had been well trained by Martin, and had had undoubted talent and ability… but no real stability. That was the time when, had the offer been made to her to join the Society of the Nine Runes, she would have taken it without a moment’s thought.
And that’s why the offer never came. Not then.
"I’m not sure, Martin," she had said. "I’m not sure I’m the right person. There’s a lot on in my life just now."
"You can come and go as you please. Everyone here understands about life issues. The only commitment is to help maintain the House and grounds, and to share your truffles."
"The best bits of your knowledge and understanding." He waved away her question. "Yes, we know about commitments. We all have relationships that mean there are things it would be a betrayal to share. We don’t ask you for those. And we expect you to grow into the Society. No one understands it at the beginning. I’m not sure any of us really understand it much, except the Eight."
She'd felt the pull, of course: the pull everyone felt: to be an insider. To have access to knowledge hidden from others. She’d love to do that but it wasn’t enough. "But what is it all for, Martin? Just to satisfy personal cravings?"
"Would it sound dreadfully corny to say it was in the hope of improving the world for everyone? Part of maintaining the House is to spend time with others working on projects designed to help. Often just in little ways but sometimes we can push something along to enable a major breakthrough, or save something good from destruction."
"Is there a probationary period?"
"You could say that our entire time as a member is a probationary period. You know you will have more geasa to take if you say yes?"
She understood the need for that. "I meant… can I use the probationary period to test whether it’s right for me?"
He smiled. "It’s nice to know how much you’ve changed."
Martin had shaken his head.
She sighed. She had kept no secrets from Paul. It was the one thing that really deterred her from accepting the offer.
When the doorbell rang she went to answer it, to greet her darling girls. This time there was no rune on the door. Nor would there be, unless she drew it. And, when she did, it would not be the figure used in the film.
For there was no ninth rune. Or rather, no fixed rune. Each person made their own symbol; and each symbol was unique to that person. In that sense, it was not the society of the Nine Runes, but the Society of the Thousand Runes. Or the Ten Thousand.
And now, the Ten Thousand and One.
©Alexa Duir 2015