“This will go much better for you, Morgause, if you surrender now,” Morgan said, her cold and clear voice cutting through all the night-sounds. “Arthur will be fair with you.”
Morgause blinked, then she smiled. “Arthur? What has Arthur to do with anything, sister?”
“Morgause, please,” Jessica replied. “We know what you did.”
“What I did? I don’t –”
“We know about the little boy,” Jessica interrupted. “Da–Father knows about the little boy. Everybody knows about the little boy.”
“The little boy?” Morgause’s eyes narrowed. “My dear. You simply shouldn’t believe everything my daughter my daughter tells you. I know you are young and innocent and want to love your cousin, but she’s simply not stable.”
“Garnet didn’t tell us anything about Thorn,” replied Morgan. Morgause barely stifled her gasp.
She could not stifle her gasp when Morgan continued, “He told us everything we needed to know himself.”
“He …?” Morgause croaked.
“He’s alive,” said Jessica, quite unnecessarily.
“So it’s all up with you, Morgause,” Morgan replied. “Give up now, before things have a chance to get worse.”
The boy? Alive? Impossible. Even if somebody had found him — and who could have? — there could have been no saving him. She had sucked every bit of unspent life she could from him. She hadn’t been able to use the plant to convert that life from him into youth and beauty for her, but she knew she’d perfected one half of the equation. The boy had only enough life within him to whimper a bit before he finally expired.
But if the boy, somehow, against all odds, was alive …
Then, unless she could get out of here, she might very well not be, at least not for long. Arthur had peculiar notions of fairness.
“Sister,” Morgause crooned, “now what, in all of our years of acquaintance, ever gave you the impression that I would … how is this usually said? Ah, yes. Come quietly?”
“Honestly? Nothing at all.” Morgan’s too-white teeth flashed in the moonlight. “But hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?”
“You’ve been hoping for revenge for how many years now?” Morgause asked, fishing her wand from her sleeve.
“Revenge? Morgause, I got my revenge. When I found Accolon and spirited him out from under your nose — when we got married — every happy moment we’ve had since and will have in the future? That’s my revenge.” Morgan’s teeth flashed again as she stepped forward, around Jessica. “However, I will admit that I’ve been looking forward to the day when you would no longer be a menace to this kingdom for quite some time now.”
“Funny. I could say the same thing as you,” Morgause snarled, the red tip of her wand poking out of her sleeve.
“Give it up, Morgause. You can’t get away,” Jessica said as her own wand came out.
“Are you really going to chase me on –” Morgause started. And stopped.
She heard something.
It was not the rustling that told her that something was amiss. Far from it. A rustle in the woods at night could be the wind, an animal, a piece of fruit dropping from a branch. Anything, in other words.
No, it was the jingle that told her something was wrong. For if somehow showed Morgause a woman born and bred among the nobility, the daughter and sister and wife and mother of knights and lords, who could not distinguish the distinctive tinkle of chain maille from a thousand other metallic sounds …
Well, Morgause would show that someone a deaf woman.
“We are not alone,” Morgause asked, “are we?”
“Does it matter?” Morgan asked. But it was Jessica — suddenly frozen as a startled rabbit — whom Morgause watched.
“Oh, aye, it does. It matters a great deal. Who is it, Morgan? Your husband? Our brother?” Morgause stalled, waving her wand from side to side. Jessica’s eyes remained locked on the red tip.
“There are witnesses. That’s all that matters. Now, if you’d care to face us like a true witch –”
“Her husband?” Morgause asked, and was rewarded by her niece’s barely-stifled yelp.
“As I thought,” Morgause smirked. “Well. Let us … smoke them out, shall we say? And don’t worry, Jessica. I can fix whatever happens to your husband. The same way I fixed Accolon. In –”
Morgause spun back around to point her wand at her leaping niece.
“Jessie, NO!” Morgan shrieked.
“Evola!” Morgause shouted, and pointed her wand at her niece’s chest.
For a moment, all hung still as the fiery magic lit the night.
Then Jessica flew back across the clearing until her body slammed into one of the pines. For half a second, she seemed to hang there, held up by nothing but air.
Then she dropped.
If Morgause needed any more confirmation that there were others hiding in wait for her, she got it from the masculine yelp and obvious scuffle that sounded from the bushes to her left. If Morgause needed any more confirmation that her sister was a fool who couldn’t take an opportunity if you handed it to her on a silver platter, she got it when Morgan ran for Jessica and crouched by her motionless niece’s side.
Or perhaps she was not such a fool after all. “She’s fine!” Morgan shouted over her shoulder and into the bushes. “Just knocked out.” She murmured a spell of protection and rose to her feet, dusting her skirts off as if she had no more care than that she might carry a bit of unwanted bracken into her laundry.
“Such cowards the men of this kingdom are!” Morgause laughed. “Not to come to the aid of a lady in distress!”
“The difference between the coward and the wise man,” Morgan replied, her wand out and an all-too-gleeful grin on her face, “is in hearing.”
“Meaning, sister?” Morgause asked, pointing her own wand at Morgan.
“You didn’t hear what I told them I would do to them if I didn’t get my chance at you first.”
“You can only do that if you’re alive,” Morgause asked as she combed through her mind for spells.
“And so I shall be,” Morgan promised. “And so will you be, if I have anything to say about it.”
“We shall see about that. Frange!”
Green light and blue shot through the clearing. Had Morgause’s spell hit, it may well have broken every bone in Morgan’s body — or at least a few important ones. But Morgan’s spell, a reflective charm much favored among practitioners of the Light, hit her green sparks head-on, and Morgause was hard-pressed to dive out of the way. The tree that her spell rebounded into was not so lucky, and it shattered into splinters.
That was only the beginning.
Morgause shouted every spell she knew — every spell to cut flesh, break bones, stop a heart or brain from functioning. She even stooped to spells that caused no damage, just pain, hoping to win a few moments of distraction.
Morgan — damn her eyes — managed to dodge every last one of them. Sometimes she used her reflection charm. Sometimes she used other shielding spells. Sometimes she just danced out of the way with the athleticism of the very young or the addicts of Elixir of Life.
And not a spell did she cast that would do worse than visit unto Morgause what Morgause would visit upon her.
If there was anything that would have infuriated Morgause more than that, even she didn’t know it.
But why? Why did Morgan insist on playing this slow, tiring game of cat-and-mouse? And why did she insist on playing the mouse? Practitioners of the Light were permitted to use offensive spells, after all — they had to had some defense from the Dark. They couldn’t break all of a Sim’s bones in one go, or cause the entrails to leap up the throat and strangle a Sim, or explode a heart, but there were plenty of other things they could do.
They could bespell a Sim’s cloak and dress to trip her and tangle her. They could charm the very leaves and grass to wrap around a witch’s legs and feet and bring her down that way. They could send the rocks and stones from the ground to pelt their opponents. They could conjure flashes of the brightest light to stun and blind. But Morgan did none of these things.
She had a strategy — she must have had a strategy — at least, the fact that she used her referi spell only when Morgause launched something particularly damaging or deadly indicated that she had a strategy. The smile she wore, too, told Morgause that she was falling into some master plan. But what could it be?
There had to be a reason why Morgan refused to go on the offensive. If only Morgause could piece out what it was!
In the meantime, Morgause was growing winded from jumping from side to side — sweaty from running — thirsty from all this movement —
She was taunting her — that was it! She was deliberately trying to tire Morgause out. She was flaunting her youth and her boundless energy. That was her scheme; she would conserve her strength and her power until Morgause had spent hers. And then she would strike.
Well, there were ways to even those odds.
Morgause waited for a lull — and a lull would come. She waited until she had cast a spell to boil the blood, Morgan reflected it, and Morgause dodged the reflected spell (though it sounded like a bat didn’t fare so well). As she suspected, Morgan did nothing, waiting.
Morgause silently cast her spell.
It was insult to use such an elementary spell against a witch of Morgan’s talent — for Morgause would admit that her sister had talent; no mere dabbler could have reflected so many of Morgause’s most powerful spells — but desperate times called for desperate measures. Besides, Morgause was in the mood for insults.
Morgan only narrowed her eyes and watched the green sparks … at least until the servantus appeared.
Morgan sighed and rolled her eyes. “Really, Morgause? This?”
“What’s the matter, sister? Do you share your niece’s … weakness for my dear friend? Your other niece, that is. Although perhaps when I finish with you, I shall see how dear Jessica likes these.”
Morgan only grunted as she stuffed her wand back into the safety of her sleeve.
“What, you aren’t even going to try to banish it?”
“I think I can handle your invisible friends without needing to resort to that.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll fly away as you fight it?”
“Not particularly. I know you.” Morgan looked up with a smirk. “You’ll want to see me squeal.”
Morgause hissed, then shouted, “Get her!”
The servantus got her.
The dust and scuffle was enough to make Morgause send up a cheer — and the rustling from the bushes enough to make her laugh. So, the brave menfolk wanted to help the poor, weak woman, did they? Let them try. Morgause would boil their blood and strangle them with their own veins before they could take five steps out of the bushes.
But no armored men appeared. How disappointing, she sniffed. Ah, well. She could handle them well after Morgan was defeated. For, after having her strategy — tire out Morgause until Morgan could finish her off — so rudely turned on its head, it would not take Morgause long to defeat Morgan.
Unless, of course … Morgause crept around the writhing body and not-body. No, Jessica still lay silent and prone under the trees. And if she had come around at any point during the fight, surely she would have joined in. No, she was no threat … not yet, at any rate.
If she became one, there were always plenty of servanti to go around.
But in the meantime, while Morgan shouted and tried to pin the servantus, and the servantus concentrated all its power and all its strength on causing Morgan pain, Morgause dealt with the second reason why she had called the servantus. She summoned her broom and with it, the blue checkered cloth containing her one remaining flask.
She might not be able to make herself less tired or soar, but she could at least make herself less thirsty.
She popped the cork and drained the flask in one long swallow.
It wasn’t until she was done that she noticed how slowly and how sluggishly the wine went down — more like a syrupy potion than good wine. Blah! What did Mordred put in the cellars? Foolish boy, I can’t —
The wine started to burn.
It started in her stomach and spread outward — burning through every vein and capillary, every muscle, every organ. It was not like the cheerful home fire of the hearth, or the slow and angry fire under her cauldron, or even the vicious fires to which some still fed witches.
Those fires burnt slow. And messy. This one — didn’t. This was the fire of the sun, or the cold stars. It burnt fast. And it left nothing behind, not even ash.
And her power … it was searching for her power —
It was half a miracle that Morgause found the will left in her to scream.
Her shriek, let loose, flew up the sky and spread out among the trees, shaking branches and setting bats and owls and even innocent starlings to flight. For a moment, it drowned out the sounds of the fight.
Still Morgause stood transfixed, feeling the searching fire spread through her veins and arteries, dance across her nerves, find its way to her spine —
Up, up, up it traveled to the base of her skull, then higher — the brain, where magic was kept —
No! thought Morgause as she started to fall. Better death than this …
But before blackness finally and utterly descended as the burning reached her brain, Morgause saw two last things.
The first was Morgan kicking the servantus to the ground, defeated, and wiping her hands together as a peasant might after a dirty job well done.
The second was Morgan looking up, seeing her falling, and grinning.
“Lady Morgan, she’s not — she’s not saying anything –“
“I know, Will. Relax. She’ll be around in a minute. Keep stroking her hair.”
“My lady –“
“Will, just — just be quiet and do what the nice witch says.”
The nice witch? Who on earth could that be? And who was this she who was not coming around quick enough?
The very questions made her head hurt. Morgause groaned, and her head hurt more.
“Morgan, do you want to take a look at Morgause?” Her brother’s voice. She would recognize that anywhere. But what was her brother doing here.
“Not particularly. Unless you want me to leave your daughter alone?”
“Not really, but if she still has power –“
No power? Morgause’s eyes popped open.
She focused across the clearing first. Morgan — Jessica — Jessica’s husband — Jessica’s father-in-law. Jessica’s husband held her close to him and stroked her hair with a shaking hand.
“Now tell me if you feel any lumps or bumps, Will,” Morgan was saying.
Checking for a concussion? How touching. Morgause reached for her wand to blast them all to pieces.
But her wand, when she found it, did not leap and spark to life as it always did when it hit her hand. If she hadn’t known better, she would have called it a lifeless lump of wood.
“Morgause. You’re awake.”
And Morgause saw what was right in front of her.
She shook her wand out of her sleeve and pointed it at her brother. “Sanguis aestua!”
A man whose blood was boiling would often scream in agony as he burned from the inside out. Arthur only raised his eyebrow.
Morgause pointed her wand at the next man, the blond one — Christopher Tower, the prison warden. “Strangula!”
The warden narrowed his eyes. “Majesty, is she — is she –”
A man being strangled from the inside wouldn’t be able to speak. Tears suddenly springing to her eyes, she pointed her wand at Lord Pellinore. “Emorior!”
Dead men did not blink and sigh. Lord Pellinore did.
“No,” Morgause gasped. “No, no, no –”
“Help her up, gentlemen,” Arthur sighed, and before Morgause could protest strong arms had locked around hers and dragged her to her feet.
“Morgause of Orkney,” Arthur said, “by order of the King — which is to say, myself — you are under arrest for the kidnapping and attempted murder of one Thorn Michaelson.”