A brown tawny owl peered through the thick forest shadows, watching and waiting. Unlike the other owls out prowling, though, Lottie looked up toward the night sky, sparing the critters below her a predator for the night. When she finally spotted the glimmer of a broomstick on the horizon, she puffed up her body and let out a disgruntled hoot. It startled a nearby nest of chickadees who had long since settled in for sleep, but did little to help the disgruntled** familiar. She dove from her branch abruptly to glide easily into the bulls-eye window of the tree house home she shared with Ren.
The other woman was putting the final touches on a stew she’d made to serve the visitors: Zinnia, a witch in need of a meal and a bed on her journey South to the coast, and her familiar, Havoc.
It was the snotty feline familiar that ruffled Lottie’s feathers the most, though she didn’t find the other witch especially interesting or fun either. Stuffiness she could forgive, though. Havoc’s attempt to have her for dinner many years ago– An honest mistake, he’d sworn after transforming from a large black cat into his human form — she could not. It had taken her weeks to feel comfortable again in the small tittering night bird form that came most naturally to her.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” she said grumpily, suddenly sulking on the couch in her human form.**
Ren smiled at her as she stirred the pot on the stove, but her eyes were stern. “You’d better behave yourself, my Lottie,” she said as she walked over to the fireplace near where her familiar pouted, the girl’s frown in place and hair half covering her face. Ren sprinkled a mix of herbs into the cauldron bubbling there and continued, “It’s just one night. They have journeyed far and have far to go, and they’ll be bringing our salves to people who need it.”
Lottie’s jaw tightened as she looked away, unwilling to argue but equally uninterested in admitting the pair of visitors might serve any purpose other than to annoy her. Finished with her mixing, Ren sat on the couch next to her beloved companion and took her chin in her hands, forcing the girl to make eye contact.
“One night,” she said again. “They’ll be gone by breakfast tomorrow.”
“Okaaaay,” Lottie said, resisting the urge to pull away. Ren searched her eyes for a moment, then released the girl’s face. She wasn’t entirely convinced they had a pleasant evening ahead of them, but what would be would be. They weren’t her favorite guests either, but it was one night**. She stood, planting a kiss on top of the silver haired creature’s head, and returned to the kitchen.
~ ~ ~
They almost made it to bed without incident, but after dinner coffee** was Lottie’s undoing. All through the meal she’d remained quiet, ignoring the way Zinnia pushed her thin glasses up the bridge of her nose with one finger before over-explaining some basic witchery, tolerating the way Havoc laughed too loudly at his own jokes, swallowing her more cutting remarks when either of them said something she considered foolish.
Yes, Ren had squeezed her thigh under the table once or twice, and perhaps Lottie had noticed the reflection of a stern look in the window a few times. But overall, things had been agreeable, if boring, right up until Havoc wandered over to the slow-bubbling cauldron. “Perilla?” he said, sniffing disdainfully. “I didn’t know anyone still used the stuff.”
Although he hadn’t said anything outright, the condescension in his voice made Lottie’s fist clench, and she started to say something. Ren closed the few steps between them, resting her empty hand on the small of the girl’s back, and interjected pleasantly, “It’s actually a blend I cultivated myself. It’s a bit more delicate than the wild plant most healers use.”
Lottie’s eyebrows went up as she made eye contact with the slinking familiar across the room. For a brief second, she considered the pleasure she would get out of sinking her talons into the top of his head. Even in his human form, he seemed to prowl** around the small space. Once a cat, always a cat, Lottie thought with a sneer. Lost in her own imagination, she almost missed his next barb.
“It’ll be a wonderful back-up,” he purred, smiling directly at Lottie.
The comment pulled her back to the room, and she snapped, “You’re going to need more than a healing potion if you can’t keep your mouth shut.”
Zinnia glanced over from where she had been looking at trinkets on the pine shelf on the wall. “Havoc,” she admonished mildly, but she didn’t follow it with anything else. It was clear she agreed with her familiar’s assessment, even if she didn’t outright say so.
Lottie turned toward the other witch, her outrage encompassing her now, too. “If you knew anything about healing potions, you’d be making them alongside Ren, maybe learning a thing or two. Instead, you’re just the realm’s couriers.”
“Lottie,” Ren said quietly in her ear, her hand still resting on the familiar’s back.
But it was too late. Every slight she had suffered in silence from this arrogant pair had been cataloged precisely in her sharp mind, and now they came flitting through her memory and her rage only grew.
“The only reason you’ve a place to sleep tonight is because of Ren’s generosity! No one else would have you! You’re rude, and patronizing, and one of you is half-witted.” She pointed her gaze directly on Havoc at this last bit, her eyes filled with her fury.
His eyes gleamed in the firelight and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “My apologies,” he said magnanimously. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Lottie’s jaw dropped, practically swaying on its hinge, and she stared at him. Before she could gather herself enough to say anything else, Ren spoke. “I believe we are over-tired. I’d like to get us to bed soon, and I know you have an early start tomorrow. We’re more than happy to have you here, tonight and any time you need food or lodging.”
Somehow the fact that Ren didn’t apologize for her made Lottie feel especially small and out of place. “Sorry,” she said quietly, and it wasn’t entirely a lie. She could feel the tug of Ren’s embarrassment so strongly that it became her own, and she really was very sorry for that. Heat rolled off of her face and she was afraid to turn her head and look at the witch beside her.
“We will take our rest,” Zinnia said, her voice as bland as ever. She turned toward the Library, the only door in the tree house besides the exit and the restroom. It was enchanted to become many different rooms as needed, but most often it was a library, and so the name stuck. When the visiting witch opened the door now, there was a guest room fitted as she and her familiar required. Moments later, Ren and Lottie were alone.
Slowly the girl turned, chewing her lip nervously, and faced her companion. Ren’s hand had never left her back, so she spun in the woman’s arm. “Sorry?” she said again. “Oh but Ren, he was at it all night, you saw that didn’t you?”
Ren peered at her familiar, then said quietly, “We’re going to talk about this tomorrow, when Zinnia and Havoc have gone. I meant it about bed, my Lottie.”
The girl looked away from the witch, her eyes finding her favorite round window and gazing into the dark mournfully. She wanted to return to her branches and forget about her outburst, and Havoc, and tomorrow. Instead she hung her head, letting herself be nudged toward the bedroom side of the cottage. They got ready quietly, then settled into bed. The small knot of shame that had begun to form in her stomach continued to grow, shrinking only when she felt Ren’s arm encircle her as they lay together on the soft mattress. She linked their fingers, wondering if sleep would come.
Much to her surprise, it did.
~ ~ ~
Lottie rose naturally with the dawn when she was in human form, just early enough to listen for the last hooting goodnights of her owl brethren. This morning, Ren rose with her. In the quiet, she told her familiar what to expect when their guests left. This included a detailed description of the spanking Lottie could expect,** including a word about the hairbrush and the girl’s bare bottom. It made for a much subdued young woman at the breakfast table. She found herself wishing, however reluctantly, for something to delay their guests’ journey and with it her impending punishment.
It was not her morning for wishes. They left with little fanfare, bags packed with healing ointments and a noon meal. Lottie made her goodbyes politely, if not warmly. She was tempted to take flight along with them; Zinnia sat astride the stick of her broom while Havoc curled up on the bristles. He yawned, stretching his long black legs, and settled down again. In a matter of moments, they were a speck along the horizon.
Ren stepped up behind her familiar, much as she had last night, and said in her ear, “Find yourself in the corner, please.”
Shoulders slumping, pout firmly in place, Lottie did as she was told. She slipped her hands under her tunic as she crossed the room, thumbs finding the bands of her leggings and underwear. Once in place, she shoved them down to her knees, and then after a moment of hesitation, down to her ankles. She folded her arms behind her back and pressed her nose into the corner. She’d been here often enough that she could almost convince herself that it was much too routine a process for her to be embarrassed by it any more. It never took more than a few moments of standing there, bare and awaiting discipline over the knee of her companion, to understand that this would never feel routine.
Still, there was something meditative about the sounds of Ren behind her fixing tea. In the mugs was a reminder that there would an after, a time where she was back in the witch’s good graces, where her debt was paid and she no longer had to carry this guilt. Thinking about guilt gave Lottie the urge to wiggle, but she resisted. She found herself tumbling between feeling deeply embarrassed by her outburst and completely justified, maybe even forced into it.
She was deep into her rationalizations when she was called away from her corner. She kept her hands folded neatly behind her and her eyes on the wall ahead as she shuffled over, trying not to think about the hairbrush on the table nearby.
“What went wrong last night?” Ren asked her, voice firm but not unkind.
“It wasn’t fair,” Lottie said instead of answering. “He was so… so wrong about everything he said! And so snooty about it! And he provoked me! All night he… he poked and poked. He made jabs about you and about us and… and…”
Here the girl faltered. It wasn’t because she’d run out of things to say. No, she could go on about Havoc for some time, and she had a fair bit to say about Zinnia as well. But she’d glanced down to see Ren’s narrowed eyes, and her voice had faltered.**
In the silence, the witch spoke: “I know all about Havoc. And were I Zinnia, I’d have some things to say to him. In fact, if it were my place, I’d have some words for Zinnia as well.”
Lottie tucked her chin into her chest, sullen, and Ren continued, her voice becoming more stern with every word. “I do not know why they act as they do. But it is not mine to carry. Nor is it yours. It was my job to give them food and a bed. For one night.”
“But Ren–” Lottie said, her arms falling to her sides as she dropped her stoicism and began to whine. She was cut off before she could finish her thought.
“There will always be those looking to provoke you, young lady. You are not in competition with Havoc, though. Nor am I in competition with Zinnia. Whatever confidence they lack in their capabilities, I have no such issue. And you, my Lottie? Is there something Havoc has that you wish for?”
Lottie felt butterflies erupt in her stomach and heat rush into her cheeks. “No, what would I wish for from Havoc?”
“Is he smarter than you?” Ren pressed.
“Of course he isn’t,” Lottie scoffed, and Ren smiled in spite of herself. The girl was right to be indignant. It was a ridiculous question.
“Then tell me,” Ren said gently, “what happened last night? Why are you getting this spanking?”
The familiar’s eyes found the floor, but after only a moment of silence she answered. “Because I… I let him get the best of me. Or the worst of me. I moved toward him instead of away. And it didn’t make me feel better. And it embarrassed you, and I am really sorriest about that part.”
Her frowned deepened as she spoke, and Ren looked affectionately up at the girl as she took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you,” she said. “All will be well in short order.”
With that, she gave Lottie a tug. The familiar groaned as she draped herself across the waiting lap, settling as much as she was allowed before the spanking began. There was no further warning between this moment and the first smack of Ren’s hand on her bottom. Lottie gasped and felt her knee twitch with the impulse to kick at the floor. In a matter of minutes, she gave in to the reflex and her toes drummed helplessly at the carpet while Ren spanked her hard and fast across her bare bottom.
Lottie worked to still herself, and eventually she was always able to do so. Then came the portion of the punishment marked mostly by grunts and whimpers under the steady onslaught of sharp smacks. “I expect you to be able to maintain your composure, even in the face of extreme provocation, young lady. They won’t be the last disagreeable creatures we have to work with, and we’ll be lucky if snobbery is the worst of what we see.”
Lottie groaned in the following pause, grabbing the rung of Ren’s chair as she felt the woman reach for her hairbrush. “I’ll do better next time!”
“You will,” Ren said, beginning to bring the wooden implement down on the girl’s already throbbing bottom, “because next time I will not wait for the morning to deal with you. I’d rather not give them that sort of show, but I believe I have been clear.”**
She emphasized her next line with several particularly harsh swats to the familiar’s sit-spots: “My expectations for you are not adjusted for the circumstances we find ourselves in. You’ll behave, or you’ll be punished.”
“I understand,” Lottie wailed, her hands doing their usual dance among the chair, the floor, and whatever bits of her companion’s leg she could grasp. There was very little talking after that aside from a few more murmured pleases and sorries. The brush connected time and again, each swat a clear statement on the witch’s disapproval, each forcing Lottie closer to confronting her own part in the way things had unfolded.
Her legs stretched and her noises became more plaintive, but Ren was un-rushed. She applied the brush with singular purpose, every painful oval landing deliberately and without sympathy. She finished with a flourish, concentrating her energies on a series of severe swats meant to keep the girl sore for more than her time here horizontal. By the end, Lottie’s eyes were wet with tears and she struggled for several minutes after to return her breathing to normal.
In the aftermath of the punishment, the girl was soothed with soft touches, affirmations, and warm tea. It was so early that Ren decided a nap before the midday meal would do them well, and Lottie found herself unable to argue. She’d abandoned her leggings in the wake of the spanking; they’d only hung on by one ankle in the end anyway. Now laying in bed, she realized that even the light pressure from quilt covering her was enough to renew the throbbing in her bottom. And this time when Ren’s arm circled her waist, the tug backward brought a cry of pain along with the comfort it provided.
Lottie remained still, though, glad to be captured. This time, she had no doubts that sleep would find her quickly. Along with it came dreams of flight, of a vivid journey over a mountain lake on a cold winter’s night. She rested well, and woke feeling much more at peace.