Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
Servants fled; dogs hid under furniture; somewhere, a baby cried. There was a witch in the once-holy household of the de Ganises, chaos and fear rippling from her with every step she took through the sunny halls. Strangely, the only people who seemed unaware were the family. Not even the one who had summoned her knew that she was present, for when she heard of the emergency, the witch had mounted her broom and taken the short way to the de Ganis château, leaving young Squire Elyan to ride home at the mere pace of horses along a twisting, rock-strewn road.
Their ignorance, however, was about to change.
The shouting led the witch to where she needed to be — the shouting, for no servant was brave enough to show her the way and announce her presence. It was doubtful that any lowly servant would even be heard over the din in any case. The witch, on the other hand, intended to make herself heard, one way or another.
She burst into the music room, ready to let all and sundry have a piece of her mind —
Son of a bitch, she thought, have they all gone mad?
If Claire and Bors between them had been making all of the noise, Morgan would have understood. Claire was beyond the point where she could regulate her volume to a reasonable level, and if Morgan had a husband like Bors, she would be shouting too — anything to drown him out. As for Bors … well, from what she had been able to determine from various sources, there was no hope for Bors.
But what of those who should know better? Guinevere, Claire’s champion? Why was she shouting? And Arthur, Morgan’s own brother? Surely, he had more sense than that!
Lancelot was the first to notice Morgan; one look at her face and his blanched. He pawed at Arthur’s sleeve. “Arthur — Arthur –”
Arthur barely seemed to hear him; he did not even move to remove Lancelot’s hand from his sleeve. Unless that was what his hand moving up, finger pointing toward Bors, was meant to accomplish.
Morgan cleared her throat. “Ahem.”
No response. From anyone. Lancelot sent her a panicked glanced.
Morgan tapped her foot twice. “A-hem.”
All right, then, no more Ms. Nice Witch!
“What the hell,” Morgan demanded in a magically-amplified voice, “is going on here?!”
That got their attention. Even Lady Claire’s sobbing stopped, broken off with a gasp and a hiccup.
Morgan took a deep breath and prepared to give the tongue-lashing —
Bors was too quick for her. “Who let her in?” he bellowed. “Who was it? Answer me!”
As Morgan could had predicted, no servants shuffled out of the woodwork to answer the charge.
“Oh, shut up, Sir Bors, I opened the door by myself — after your son sent for me!” Morgan interrupted. “And considering what I saw when I came here –”
“How dare you, woman, tell such foul lies about my son!” Bors demanded; jumping before Morgan.
Oh, for goodness’ sake, must we? Must we?
“Bors,” Arthur growled. It would be a very stupid boar indeed, not to notice the note of warning in the bear’s snarl.
By the way Lancelot cringed and Guinevere’s half-anticipating, half-apprehensive lift of an eyebrow, Morgan guessed that Bors’s closest relatives expected him to be very stupid indeed.
“You can exit! Now! I will have no witchcraft practiced under …”
Morgan briefly wondered how he would react to a silencing spell, but decided against it — Wright only knew what he would do, and what she would have to do to him in return. “Sir Bors,” Morgan interrupted in her best teacher-voice, “I fail to see how implying that your son was rightfully concerned about his mother’s health, and did what seemed to be, in his opinion, the best thing for her, counts as either foul or a lie.”
“My son would never think running to a witch, and to a wh–” Alas, he was not entirely stupid, he glanced over his shoulder at Arthur and chose his words more carefully. “To — to a woman who had borne a child out of wedlock!”
“I assure you, had Accolon not been captured by my sister — who is the real witch around these parts — the latter part would have never happened.”
It was quite pleasant to watch Bors turn red and start to sputter. “You — you know what I mean –”
“No. I don’t.” Morgan let her eyebrows rise and fall, and her gaze go briefly to her brother. “Go ahead, Sir Bors. Say what’s on your mind.” She didn’t actually say, I dare you, but it would take a man even more tone-deaf than Bors not to pick up on it.
“You — you –” Bors looked again over his shoulder, to the bear — Morgan’s brother — who looked ready to strike at any moment — before he managed to say, “You lay with a man before you wed him?”
“So?” Morgan asked, waving her hand before her.
She had the pleasure of watching Bors’s jaw neatly detach itself from his skull. Even Arthur’s eyebrows had gone up. “After all,” she remarked while Bors tried to put his mouth back into working order, “I fail to see how that disqualifies me from being able to give your wife the care she needs.”
“A sinful woman –”
“Sir Bors, if you were my confessor, I might — might — let you lecture me about my sins, but you are not. From what I can see, you are heir to no particular holiness, no kind of sainthood — so by what right do you presume to examine my conscience?”
“How — how dare — you don’t — you can’t –”
She allowed him to stammer for a moment longer before twisting the knife and asking, “I’m sorry, my lord, did you not understand what I said? Should I use smaller words?”
“Morgan!” Arthur snapped. “Enough is enough! As king, it is my duty to observe that all duels are conducted fairly — and you, sister, are fighting the unarmed!”
“I’ll explain later, dearest,” Guinevere whispered, patting Lancelot’s hand.
“Of course I am unarmed, my liege!” Bors shouted —
And that was when Claire’s fragile grip on quiet broke.
The wail that came from the meek lady’s mouth was enough to make Morgan shudder, and Bors’s jaw fell open once again. Morgan prevented anything unpleasant from coming out of it by means of a quick spell of silence, before she turned her attention to Claire.
She dared not use any magic on the lady; there was more magic in the old Glasonlander families than practically anyone cared to admit, and if Claire should happen to have gotten a hint of magic slantwise, from a great-grandfather or great-great-grandmother or something like that, there was no telling how a spell aimed in her direction might affect her. So Morgan was forced to rely on her eyes and ears, and what her eyes and ears told her was nothing good, even if Claire’s wails did devolve into sniffles before a few moments had passed.
“Majesty — Alison,” Morgan murmured, “why don’t you and Lady Guinevere take Lady Claire upstairs, and try to calm her down?”
Alison nodded, and though Guinevere made a face, one look at Claire’s relieved expression kept any comments she may have made locked in her mouth. The two of them guided Claire to the door.
No sooner, though, than had the swishing of heavy skirts ceased than there was another, quicker set of swishing. Alison stuck her head into the door. “I thought I ought to mention,” Alison murmured, “that — that the reason why Lady Claire is so upset, is because Sir Bors removed the strings from her piano.”
If Morgan had not been fairly certain that Claire was still in earshot, she would have recommenced the shouting. As it was, though, she did her best to glare loudly at Bors.
Bors, meanwhile, tried to glare back, but he was too busy shaking with rage as his lips moved, and moved, and moved, but no sound came out.
“Sir Bors,” Morgan told him, after taking a deep breath, “I would berate you for that moment of absolute idiocy — your taking your wife’s last remaining link to some semblance of sanity — but I have orders from the King himself not to duel the unarmed. And, owing to your — fortunate inability to speak at the moment, you are indeed unarmed.” Even if your normal state of readiness in duels such as this is the equivalent of taking a butter knife to a wizard’s war. “So, it is only fair that I allow you to speak. However, I do wish to warn you, that if you do not keep your volume to a reasonable level — so as not to upset Lady Claire, of course — I will have no choice but to put the spell on again, and if you annoy me further, I may forget to take it off for a few weeks. Do I make myself clear?”
Bors mouthed something that looked suspiciously like, The King will never let you get away with that! but since Arthur, standing behind him, was giving the kind of grin that might require him to seek medical attention in the near future, Morgan figured she was safe enough on that score.
“If you wish to shout at me later, Sir Bors, you will be more than welcome to do so,” because if he starts the duel, it’s his own damn fault if I pick the weapons, “but I would like to keep your wife from having a second mental breakdown in one day, if that’s at all possible.”
Bors bit his lower lip, but after a moment, he nodded. Morgan removed the spell.
Much to her shock, Bors did not speak immediately. Morgan even had time to move to Arthur’s side before Bors was beaten to speaking by Lancelot.
“Bors,” he inquired quietly, stepping up to his cousin, “why would you do something like that to your wife? That was cruel — and you’re not a cruel man.”
Morgan rolled her eyes.
“Cruel?” Bors scoffed. “How is it cruel to bring my wife back to her duties — to my children? She’s the one being cruel!”
“Bors, I don’t think you understand –”
“What’s there to understand? Would you put up with Guinevere neglecting her children — infants! — to go and play music?”
“Sir Bors,” Arthur sighed, “the circumstances are not at all the same –”
“Well, actually, Arthur, they sort of are,” Lancelot replied. If he had not been wearing some kind of absurd chain mail headgear, Morgan decided, she would have smacked the back of his head. “Guinevere’s always had her books. Her writing. Trying to take that away from her would be … well, cruel, really.”
At least Lancelot had the sense to employ the verb trying.
“Cruel? How? She’s a woman! What excuse has she — have either of them — to shirk their duties?”
“But it’s not about being a woman or a man, Bors, it’s about being a Sim. How would you feel, if someone told you that you couldn’t be a general anymore? If someone took your sword away from you? Your horse?”
Bors’s mouth opened, then shut again. “It’s not the same thing,” he murmured.
“But it is.”
“It’s not! It — it can’t be. If — look, it was one thing for Claire to teach the girls the girls to, to sing and to play, but … but she can’t be — it’s not the same!”
Arthur sighed and turned to Morgan. “This will probably take several hours.”
Arthur bit his lip. “Morgan, what do you think should be done? For Claire, I mean.”
Morgan had no need to hesitate. “I think she needs to go someplace that is away from that husband of hers.”
“Hmm.” Arthur stroked his beard. “How are we going to get her husband to agree to that?”
“A befuddlement spell?”
Arthur glanced at Bors, who was still trying to deny any hint of responsibility for the state in which his wife found herself. “It may,” Arthur sighed, “yet come to that.”
Approximately one hour and several threats of toad-, newt- and mortification later, Morgan managed to walk into the master bedroom, where Alison and Guinevere had brought Claire.
She looked much better now — if looking catatonic could be viewed as an improvement over looking hysterical. Alison and Guinevere had been carrying on some kind of stilted conversation that ended as soon as Morgan walked into the room, but Claire barely seemed to note her presence.
“Lady Claire?” Morgan asked.
Claire did not look up. Alison laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and nudged her.
Claire glanced up and blinked. “Lady Morgan? You … you’re still here?”
“Indeed I am. Somebody …” Had to threaten your husband with all sorts of horrid transformations in order to get him to admit to the sense he’s finally starting to see. “Well, somebody had to try to make some arrangements. How … how would you like to go on a bit of a rest?”
Claire tilted her head, confused. “A … rest?”
“Well, it’s not really a trip, or a vacation — just someplace you could stay for a while, and … well, rest. Until you’re feeling better, of course.”
“You want — you want me to go away with you?” Claire asked, sounding almost — hopeful?
Morgan wished she could answer yes, but Bors had refused to hear anything of the kind. “Er — no, dear. You see, I — I’m afraid I haven’t the room for a long-term guest. But the nunnery would love to have you stay for a bit.” A runner, sent by Arthur via Lancelot to the nunnery while Bors was still ranting and raving about his refusal to have Claire stay in the house of a witch, had returned in record time with Mother Julian’s enthusiastic invitation.
“The nunnery,” Claire murmured. “He means for me to take the veil?”
“Oh, no, Claire, of course not! He wouldn’t dare!” Alison replied, and by the tone of her voice, Morgan got the impression that if Arthur was having any thoughts about letting Bors take such a route, he would very shortly be re-thinking them.
Her brother, however, was far more inscrutable than Sir Bors, and so Morgan could swear that the thought of annulment had yet to cross Bors’s mind. “No, no, of course not, dear,” Morgan replied. “At least … well, your husband is, as far as I can determine, willing to call himself your husband for as long as you are willing to be his wife.” And probably longer.
“I see,” Claire murmured. “But the nunnery.”
“Yes. The nunnery.”
She bit her lip. “Would — would I see Angelique?”
If Mother Julian could be so cruel as to deny Claire access to her daughter — which Morgan doubted — then Morgan would consider all the conditions met in regards to her personal rule about striking members of the clergy. “I’m sure you would. And I’m equally sure your other children would come to visit you, as well.”
“And — and could I play?”
Guinevere spoke up. “From what I hear, Claire, the chapel has the best organ in Albion. I’m sure nobody would mind you playing when they weren’t using it for services.”
“That would be …”
“Most of the day, I’d imagine,” Morgan replied. “We are fortunate enough to live in a kingdom with so few nuns and monks that they are all kept far too busy to be singing services all the livelong day.”
“So … so I could play a great deal, then.”
“Yes, yes, you could.”
Claire looked up. “Then — then I can go?”
In answer, Morgan pulled Claire up and folded her into an embrace. “It’s not just that you can go, Claire,” she whispered, “I think it’s the best thing you could possibly do.”