There was more than one way to spy. You could do it the easy way — hire some skilled, but ultimately expendable men, the type who claimed they could get into and out of a triple-locked, booby-trapped treasury without so much as a scratch on their robes. You send them into the territory, tell them what they were supposed to find or watch out for, then sit back and hope they returned — or if they didn’t return, hope they had the grace to not get caught in such a way that led them back to you.
And this was the easy way — hiring was the most difficult part of it, at least for the person who ultimately wanted the information. Once you did that, all you had to do was cross your fingers and hope for the best. Easy.
Morgan was spying the hard way. But she was also spying in the way that made the most sense to a witch of her caliber, and which conformed to the most ancient and well-worn bit of witchy wisdom:
If you want something done right the first time, do it yourself.
She traced her finger along the surface of the water that filled the shallow scrying bowl, shifting the image this way and that. Arthur wanted more information about the camps just along the border. Well, he was the king, it was his job to want to know things like that. Morgan generally preferred to stay out of it, holding that magical power was more than enough for one person and ought not to be mixed with politics. But now … well, it was different now.
Her niece was out there somewhere.
Morgan had been searching for her in the scrying bowl for months, ever since she had first learned that Jessie was missing. She’d not been able to find her. There were spells blocking her from looking. That was a good sign. People who were dead or otherwise overpowered magically generally couldn’t cast those kinds of spells. The spells in question seemed like Jessie’s handiwork. So she must have been alive and functioning, magically speaking.
But she didn’t want someone to see where she was. That was … more troubling.
Morgan suddenly gasped and stopped her finger’s aimless wandering. She leaned closer to the bowl. She saw — something —
A guard. Or a soldier.
He was … Morgan squinted and flexed her fingers outward, making the image in the bowl bigger. Yes, he had a scrawny young man in rags by the collar. He tossed the young man into a circle of other refugees and bellowed — something. Morgan muttered some choice words safely in the confines of her head. She wished she could figure out some way to be able to hear with this damned thing, but no, scrying bowls were only for seeing.
Still, she would have given a lot to know what the guard was yelling about. It wasn’t just thief-taking, since the scrawny man was being comforted by the other refugees. And the guard kept pointing his sword at something — something behind him. Morgan shifted the image to have a look. It was —
The Albionese border?
What the hell?
It was at that moment that her magical wards started to buzz — loudly. Not in undue alarm, but —
Unfamiliar witch! Morgan’s head snapped up and she hurried from the bedroom, where she kept the scrying bowl.
She nearly banged into Accolon on the landing. “Morgan! There’s — the wards!”
“I heard.” She was already heading down the stairs, pausing only to switch the buzz off in the twins’ room.
“And I saw — from the kids’ room — there’s a whole party of people coming!”
Morgan stopped dead; Accolon almost banged into her — once his muscles got up to a good turn of speed, they were hard to stop. “A party?”
“At least three. No horses!”
“Did you catch what they looked like?”
“Too far away — they were just blobs on the road.”
“Blast,” Morgan muttered. No horses — and her home was awfully far from any habitation that could be truthfully called “pleasant walking distance.” Especially on a day like today, chilled with the last of winter’s blast, snow blanketing the ground for miles. Nobody in their right mind would be out for a cheerful walk today.
Except, perhaps, for a witch … who could use spells to warm her … but Accolon said there were three of them …
The wards hadn’t sensed any malevolence. Morgan would take comfort in that. All the same, she grabbed her cloak from its hook at the bottom of the stairs before she left the house. After all, if she was going to have to defend her territory, there was no use in wasting valuable magic to keep herself warm.
But she barely got more than a few steps out the door before she stopped dead.
She knew who the unfamiliar witch was. It was the one in the back, with the dirty dress and the long, straggled dark hair. But the wards didn’t tell her that. Her eyes did. Because she knew the other two members of the party.
Still, only one name made it from her lips: “Jessie!”
Jessie looked up with a grin that said more about her and Will’s trip here than any number of hours recounting all the gory details.
Morgan couldn’t help herself, she vaulted across the courtyard to catch her niece in her arms as soon as she mounted the last step. Accolon followed as best he could, grabbing Will’s hand and shaking it, probably so the poor boy wouldn’t feel left out.
“Jess!” Morgan gasped, closing her eyes and drawing Jessie closer — or did Jessie come closer of her own accord? She couldn’t tell. She didn’t care. “Where — how — when –”
Accolon said it much better. “Welcome home, kids. You look like shit. What the hell happened to you?” He seemed to catch sight of their companion and added, “Sorry. Zombie, no filter.”
“Er …” was the first word Morgan heard Jessie and Will’s traveling companion say. The voice sounded somehow … familiar, though Morgan couldn’t place the face.
Besides, she had — briefly — more important things to worry about. “Accolon!”
“What? I already apologized!”
“Not to Will and Jess!” She finally pulled away from Jessie, absently smoothing a stray curl from her face, as she’d smooth the hair back from Ravenna’s face. “Forgive my husband. He knows not what he does.”
“Understood,” Jessie replied, with as close to a real smile as Morgan expected to get out of her.
“But come in, come in! You must be starving — freezing!” No, not freezing, they had spells for that. “Exhausted!” They surely looked the latter. “Come on …” Morgan hooked her arm through Jessie’s, thought better of it, and passed her to her husband. “Accolon, bring them all in, won’t you? I have … business …”
Jessie shot her a grateful look as Accolon ushered them into the house. She needn’t have, but at least it showed that she understood. After all, Jessie and Will both had parents who would want to be informed that they were back. So Morgan conjured two servanti and two parchments with a simple message — They’re home! — and sent both of them off, one to Camelot and one to Avilion.
Then she hurried inside, after her guests.
“Morgan, they say they’re not hungry!” Accolon murmured as he met her in the vestibule, following in her wake as she hurried into the dining room — probably picked as the receiving room because it was the only one in the house with six chairs.
Morgan could only shrug at him as she hurried into one of the open seats.
It was the one open next to Jessie, Will having taken the other. Not that she blamed him. If she and Accolon had had half as harrowing a journey as Will and Jessie looked to have had, she wouldn’t have let him out of her sight for long. Nor would he have let her out of his sight. Accolon seemed to be keeping her in his sight even as he took his seat at the opposite end of the table, and she had been at home all morning.
But she was right next to their companion, too, who was watching Morgan with a mix of apprehension and curiosity. Jessie was the first to remember her manners. “Penelope, I’d like you to meet my aunt, Morgan le Fay –”
“How do you do,” Morgan murmured.
“– and Morgan, I’d like you to meet my … friend Penelope. Penelope Argent.”
Morgan’s gaze jerked to face Penelope’s, who smiled sheepishly. “Argent?” she replied.
Penelope turned a tired smile her way. “Aye, my lady.”
“Please — please, don’t. There will be no standing on ceremony here. Not for family.”
Penelope opened her eyes, blinking them in the light. Morgan looked closely — but no, they weren’t the silver that gave the Argent family their name. Instead they were a dark brown. Not that Morgan could complain; she hadn’t gotten the silver eyes, either. But all of the original Ravenna’s surviving children had. She had been married off to a busy knight at the court, and though all of her children could have gotten the surname of the place where they were born — they were all born in different places, as the court had moved around in those days, and Ravenna and her husband Cador had moved with it — somehow “Argent” was the name that had stuck for the silver-eyed children, especially Cador gained an estate and title of his own and chose that as the official name for the family.
“So … so your father would be …?” Morgan questioned, wondering which cousin she was looking at.
“Margh,” she replied. Morgan blinked, she couldn’t imagine that Margh — the oldest of the Argent siblings, the one who had married her mother off to Gorlois and then thrown her into the court again just after she’d given birth to a daughter — would have a daughter that young. “Son of Pasco.”
Morgan blinked. “I never thought Pasco would have named one of his sons Margh. He and Margh fought like cats and dogs, that I remember.”
“My father was the fifth son,” Penelope smiled. “And my grandmother’s father’s name was Margh. I think Grandfather may have been running out of excuses.”
“I’m amazed it took four sons before he did,” Accolon replied. “Now, not to be rude … but what happened to all of you?”
There was no escaping that questioning stare, except by passing it off to someone else. Penelope passed it off to Jessie. Jessie passed it off to Will. And for the first time, Will spoke. “You … you all know what happened to Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus?”
“Assassination,” Morgan replied.
“Or murder, if you prefer to be a plain-spoken man, as I do,” Accolon answered.
Will sagged, veritably sagged, in relief, but Jessie … Jessie watched Morgan’s face. Morgan, having no idea what she was looking for, could only offer what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
Jessie frowned, clearly not at all reassured.
“Aye … so … when that was over, Jessie and I … left the palace.”
“By broom,” Jessie filled in. “Via the roof.”
“Not taking any chances, eh?” asked Accolon.
“I — I saved Lord Antonius’s life,” Jessie murmured. “With magic. We — we didn’t want to find out the hard way that people wouldn’t like that much.”
“The magic, or saving Lord Antonius?” asked Morgan.
“Both,” Jessie muttered.
“So we tried to get as far away from Ludenwic as possible,” Will continued, picking up the thread of the tale. “But the broom barely got us out of the city proper — it didn’t like carrying two.”
“And we were a bit … conspicuous, in the court clothes. So we had to find a secondhand clothes shop …” Jessie sighed.
“But we did — and we got some horses, too, and other supplies — and then … then it got worse,” Will added. “Our first thought was to make for Port Graal, try to buy passage on one of Baron Ferreira’s ships out of there — but no sooner had we gotten to the city than a royal edict did, ordering the port closed. And …” Will rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s one of the best ports in the country. Francis of Lothario — the leading man of the bastards — he laid siege to the city.”
“Weren’t they all marching on Ludenwic?” asked Morgan.
“He took a detour,” Jessie muttered, shaking her head.
“It had good strategic value,” Will replied. “A port like that — he could have sent to Reme for military aid. He could have gotten it, too, if he already had Port Graal. It was a sensible target, especially while all the other armies were converging into Constantine of Caernavon’s path. But the garrison was well-armed, and the city guards weren’t about to give up without a fight …”
“And yet nobody — nobody in authority — would hear of opening the port up to send for aid.” Jessie leaned forward, head in her hands. “They could have sent for reinforcements — for food! Food and water! They were running out of both when we left …”
“You got out? Before the siege was lifted? How?” asked Morgan.
“Broom,” Will and Jessie said in unison. “We were there a month,” Will added. “We thought — we thought Francis would lose interest quickly. We were … wrong …”
“All the royal soldiers who had been sent to guard the city were guarding the docks instead,” Jessie murmured. “Anyone — anyone who got too near the boats — they hanged. Without a trial! I don’t understand!”
“Honey …” Morgan murmured, preparing to explain to her niece that not all kings and leaders were as sensible as her father, and that war seldom brought out the best in men …
But Will interrupted her. “We wanted to get out before the city militia revolted and started a fight with the royal men-at-arms. And they did. Three days after we left.”
“Who won?” asked Accolon.
“Francis of Lothario,” replied Will. “Somebody opened up the gates, and his troops swarmed the city. We heard … stories …” Will shook his head and swallowed. “But — after that — we knew we’d have to make our way overland. So … we headed north, and tried to stay out of the way of roving armies. And that’s how we ended up in Llamasmount.”
Llamasmount? Morgan’s eyes bulged. That — that was where the first Ravenna was born —
“Where we met Penelope,” Jessie added, shooting a smile in Penelope’s direction.
Morgan swerved to face Penelope. “Llamasmount? What — what were you doing in Llamasmount?”
“Researching our … history,” she replied. “At least … until the villagers found I was a witch. Then …”
“Oh, Lord,” Morgan whispered.
“They found my broom,” Penelope continued. It was then that Morgan placed her voice — low and sweet, calm. Just like her mother’s had been. “That — that made things ugly. I … I was besieged, shut up in the old church tower, where I took sanctuary. I …” Penelope ducked her head and laughed the laugh of the close to despair. “I fired off some spells from the tower — silly spells! Near harmless! I made an old man dance, I shot off some sparks — and they feared me! Because I was doing it from the church! They didn’t dare break in and try to take me!”
Accolon snickered. “What?” he asked when everyone turned to him. “Come on! A bunch of idiot yokels being scared because a witch shoots off sparks from a church? If that isn’t funny, what is?”
“Not if you were the witch,” Morgan glared.
“They burned my broom,” Penelope continued, staring at the table. “As soon as they found it. Else I would have called it to me and flown from there. And I … I didn’t know how long I could last up there. I could magic up food, keep a fire at bay if they tried to smoke me out, but if they got their courage and stormed the tower … I didn’t know what to do. And then Jessica and William came into town, and once they figured out what the fuss was …”
“We left town,” Jessie said, picking up the tale, “at least, Will did — and once it was dark, I flew back, caused a bit of a, um, distraction in the town square, and got Penelope out of the tower.” Jessie went quiet, then added, “There were burnings in five of the towns we passed through. When I — when we found out they had an actual witch holed up in Llamasmount …”
“Leaving her there was out of the question,” Will finished.
“And you managed to outrun the angry villagers?” Morgan asked, impressed.
“No,” Will replied. “We camped in the woods, hidden — set up wards around our camp — and let them overshoot us. We stayed in the woods until the last of them gave up and came back.”
“That only took a fortnight,” Jessie added. “Then we started for the border again. We — we only had the two horses, so that was … slow. Weeks. We were constantly having to evade … well, what passed for armies, and bandits …”
“And the Llamasmount villagers circulated my name, and my description,” Penelope added, “so we had to watch out for that.”
“Bloody hell,” Accolon murmured.
“Aye,” Will replied. “And then … we got to the camps outside the border … and that was …” He sighed. “Its own adventure.”
“You sound less than enthused, Will,” Accolon replied, sardonic grin firmly in place.
“More royal men-at-arms,” he sighed. “Backed by … church-paid soldiers.”
“What?” Morgan yelped. “Arthur contacted the Church! They said they’d be happy to let the refugees cross over to Albion!”
“Ah, yes,” Will said. “They said the same thing to us — provided we could prove we were legitimate refugees, that is, and not serfs on the run from their rightful lords.”
“Are. You. Joking?” Morgan hissed.
“I wish,” Jessie sighed.
“Because the vows of fealty, you see,” Will continued, something — something hot, and angry, trembling underneath the smooth words, “apparently only go one way. If the serf fails in his obligations to the lord, then the lord is free to cut him loose or punish him in any way he pleases. But if the lord fails in his — to protect his people — and his lands are sacked, razed, his people dispersed — well, apparently they are still his serfs, and not free to make their own life even after the old was was destroyed.”
“It’s not all the lords’ fault,” Penelope argued. “They can’t have wanted their lands sacked. I’m sure they tried their best. And …” She bit her lip. “The church was offering … resettlement, for those who didn’t care to wait for the guards to confirm their stories and see if they would be allowed into Albion.”
So in other words, the Church figured out Arthur’s plan to steal workers and artisans right from underneath Glasonland’s nose … and decided they’d do it instead of him. Morgan sighed. And with all of those refugees in the Camford zone, and the spring planting to begin soon … oh, they could get so many lords with ravaged lands, lords who need to rebuild and need hands to do it with, eating from their hands.
Arthur was going to have a fit when he heard about this. Morgan made a mental note not to tell him, and to try to prevent Will and Jessie from telling him, for at least a day. Let him have the unalloyed joy of their homecoming before reality intruded.
“We were stuck there for three weeks,” Jessie sighed, “Before …”
“They let you through?” Accolon asked.
Will shook his head. “Broom again. It was the only way past the guards that we could determine. However, we had to make two trips … so we waited for the dark of the moon.”
“Last — last night,” Morgan replied.
“Aye,” Jessie agreed. “And we left everything in the camp — everything. Except for what we had on our backs. Because we knew your home was so close to the border. We could come here and … and …” Jessie started to sag against the table. “Be home.”
“And you are,” Morgan replied, squeezing her niece’s shoulder. “You too,” she added to Penelope. “Mi casa es su casa, as the Simspanish say. Here — let me get you all some tea. You probably need it. And …” Morgan hesitated. “Well, somebody ought to be here soon — one set of parents — to figure out how to get you to your real home. I sent servanti.”
“Thank you,” Will murmured — quite impressive, really. Jessie must have told him about servanti. But Morgan didn’t give much thought to it. Instead she hurried to the kitchen, her only thoughts for the kettle and which of her herbal teas would be best …
Until she heard footsteps behind her, closing the kitchen door as soon as she entered. “Morgan?” Jessie murmured. “We need to talk.”
Morgan blinked. “Oh — oh?”
“It — it’s about Lord Lucinius’s and Sir Septimus’s murders. Morgan …” Jessie ducked her head. “There was — magic involved.”
“How involved?” Morgan asked. Jessie’s head snapped up. “Look, magic … in the court of Glasonland, it’s not as unusual as you might think …”
“It was Dark magic, Morgan. The place stunk of it.”
“Yes, but …” Morgan sighed. “Magic’s always been available in Glasonland. For a … price.”
“You’re not worried?”
“Jessie …” Morgan began. She would have gone on to explain the uneasy relationship between Power and politics in Glasonland, the fact that a certain amount of magic was always tolerated if it was useful — unlike in Reme, where politics distrusted Power because it was too afraid of it. What happened to Penelope … well, that was all part of the balance, too, unfortunately. You couldn’t keep the witches and wizards in line and serving you if you didn’t keep them scared.
But Morgan never got the chance. For the door to the outside flew open — she heard the slam — and Morgan heard an older man’s voice cracking as he called out, “Will! Thank Wright!”
And then was a very, very young voice — “Gwampa? Where we?”
Jessie’s eyes went wide, and she ran from the room.
And could Morgan blame her? For, as Morgan saw when she followed her niece out of the kitchen, there was Lancelot. And Guinevere. And in their arms were Corentin and Celeste.
But not for long.
No, Will and Jessie didn’t let an unnecessary second pass before they made damn sure those twins were back where they belonged.
And Morgan? She sauntered to the stairs, trying to stay out of the way, tea forgotten. Politics forgotten. Everything but the shouting reunion forgotten.
After all, she had far more important things to worry about — and everything else?
It could wait.