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Posted on August 14, 2017 at 09:33:38 PM by aspelta
The world between the shadows was like a maze that the Duchess had a map through. If someone had thought to watch the shadows closely enough, they might have caught a flash of movement, a traveller too fast to make out, and gone before the mind had chance to process the disturbance. Duchess had another task to complete.
She moved through the shadows leaving a trail of sleeping bodies in her wake until a scream of spoiled indignation provided the location of the child.
Without a word, Duchess moved through the suite of rooms, sending sleep ranging out before her. She passed into the main bedroom and spotted the four-year-old passed out on the floor. Giving a second breath to her magic, the Duchess ensured the child’s continued to sleep and gathered her up into her arms. Although not particularly keen on children, the Duchess knew what trauma and loss felt like to a child. In an uncharacteristic move of sympathy, she twisted the girl’s dreams until they were nothing except pleasant. Leaving the teen meant to be minding child where she lay, the Duchess left the room behind her to reconvene with her ally.
It was late. Morgana lay awake staring at her bedroom door, listening hard, waiting for the final patrol of the evening to pass by. The silence that had descended over the castle had been hard-won, and the stillness sat uneasily with her. She felt sick and on-edge. It had only been hours since the pirates had swarmed through the halls, since Arthur had been killed, Tristan had fled and Nimueh had vanished. Morgana was the only one left, and she was back in her old bedroom like nothing had happened. Everything had happened; the world had been turned upside down.
The guards traipsed past, their boots thumping and squeaking. She remained still, waiting until the sounds had faded entirely, and then threw back her bedcovers. She pushed her feet into her slippers and grabbed her dressing gown from the back of the door. Then, collecting a roll of paper from the drawer of her desk she picked up her pen, scribbled a note and pushed it into her pocket. She crossed to the windowsill to wake-up Kraar. The raven’s beady black eyes snapped open as soon as she touched him; she wondered if he’d ever been asleep at all.
“Ask two of your brothers to meet me on the south lawn,” she told him urgently, “strong fliers. When you’ve done that I need you to come straight back here. Do not come looking for me.” Kraar ruffled his feathers indignantly, opening his beak to protest. Morgana jammed a finger against his beak and fixed him with a hard look. “Don’t let anyone see you. As far as anyone else in this castle knows you have been here on this windowsill all night.”
Morgana crept along the darkened corridors. The debris of the battle had been pushed to the sides, waiting to be cleared away in the morning. There were shields, broken spears and abandoned swords. The priority had been to clear away the bodies and to sort them between those deserving of a hero’s burial and those bound for a pauper’s pit. Anapa had been right; the body count had been high. Sidestepping a pile of abandoned helmets Morgana slipped down a narrow passageway behind the griffin tapestry and followed it to the narrow staircase concealed within the walls. The stairs turned sharply in on themselves, becoming more ladder-like after the first steps. She kept one hand on the wall, the other keeping her nightdress away from her feet.
Finally she arrived in the antechamber behind the great hall. Arthur’s most treasured possessions glinted back at her from behind the glass of the cabinet pressed up against the western wall. Excalibur was missing, but everything else was in its allotted place. Morgana removed her dressing gown, spread it out on the floor, and then removed the ring from her finger. She approached the cabinet and set the ring’s diamond against the glass pane.
There was no use in taking everything; a boy on the run couldn’t afford the weight, but there was one thing Tristan needed. Morgana reached inside the cabinet and removed Arthur’s crown. She placed it down on her dressing gown and carefully knotted the top to keep it safe. Then, holding it close to her chest, sllipped out through the side door into the foyer and out onto the lawn beyond. Her ravens were waiting for her in a nearby tree. When they saw her arrive they floated down to her and landed in the grass. Morgana held out the package.
“Take this to Tristan,” she told them in their own tongue, “and lose the robe somewhere no one will find it.”
Mordred sat at the king’s desk, pushed up against the large central window overlooking the courtyard. He glanced up as an owl hooted and took flight, following its path off into the night until its pale outline became lost against the whiteness of the moon. Returning his attention to the piece of paper in front of him, Mordred dipped his quill into the open ink pot in front of him and signed his name with a flourish: King Mordred. He smiled as he dusted it with sand to absorb the excess ink.
A single wilted leaf detached itself from the stem of the flower on the vase on his desk and came to rest on the tabletop beside his left hand. Mordred frowned at it, his gaze drifting from the leaf to the flowers. Moments earlier they had been fresh, open and bright, but no longer; the vase had run dry and the flowers wilted before his eyes. The air felt close, pushing in unpleasantly on all sides as if a storm were brewing. Mordred rose from his chair and peered out of the window. The moon stared back at him, bloodshot and furious. He smiled.
It was getting hotter. Mordred unfastened his jacket as he turned to face the door.
He wouldn’t be waiting long.
Mallos’ apartment was empty. Empty of people, empty of heart.
Paper and furniture scattered the floor in a various state of disrepair. He was dimly aware that everything had been perfectly neat and in its place when he arrived, but now the place looked like a bombsite. Had he done that? Ripped apart his own desk with his hands - or magic? It was hard to tell the difference sometimes. Especially when the world was tinted red.
He couldn’t focus, couldn’t see, couldn’t access any magic other than the most primal. With none of the clarity of thought required to pinpoint what he was looking for, he did the only thing he could and teleported directly into the place his adversary was most likely to be. The great hall was empty too. Mallos stepped up the dais, heavier-footed than usual, and sank down into the lonely throne. He pushed his head into his hands.
Try to think. Try to focus.
Mallos was never still, but in that moment he could have been a statue. He forced his breathing to slow down, loosened his grip on his hair and ignored the headache which had been pounding behind his eyes since he discovered the soulless apartment. If not here, where was the next most likely place a triumphant usurper would wait? It occurred to him at about the same moment that the temperature of the room became so intense, the wooden throne caught fire. Mallos stood, unfazed by the flames licking at his limbs, and vanished on the spot.
The room was warm and welcoming, scattered with rich fabrics of red and gold. The great four-poster bed stood with its covers folded back, its scarlet curtains skimming the patterned rug on the floor. The tapestries disguised the plaster of the walls, depicting a woven story of proud faced men, well-dressed women and woodland creatures entwined in vines and ivy. Mallos barely noticed any of it: his attention honed in on the man behind the desk.
Mordred leaned back against the table top, one foot crossed casually over the other. He unfurled them as he pushed himself into a standing position and shrugged off his jacket. The smallest of smiles played in the corner of his mouth as he draped it over the back of Arthur’s chair. Finally he settled himself, still and serene towards the centre of the room. Unflinchingly he lifted his blue eyes to meet Mallos’ thunderous gaze, and tipped his head in the direction of the bed. What was there nearly made Mallos’ heart stop. Lying stretched out on her back, face up, hands folded across her chest, was the still body of a four year-old girl. His four year-old girl. Before Mallos could process what he was seeing, she disappeared.
“I’d expected you sooner,” Mordred said in a silken voice, unconstrained now by its feigned uncertainty.
Mallos seemed to have forgotten how to speak. His eyes stayed fixed on the bed where Ángela had vanished, unable to contemplate how she could have been just there and now… It took a moment for Mordred’s words to penetrate, and even then, it was easier to keep looking at the bed than at him. If he looked at Mordred he might have blown up the castle, and that wouldn’t help Ángela.
He took a breath, pushing his clenched fists into his pockets.
“Where are they?” he said flatly, the sound of his own voice unrecognisable.
“I haven’t hurt them,” Mordred replied, “I just needed some space and a little…insurance.. They’ll find their way back to you. I just need something from you first.”
A heartbeat of silence. Mallos broke his gaze away from the bed and managed to look his son in his unsettling blue eye. The temperature of the room spiked; a bead of sweat appeared involuntarily on Mordred’s brow.
“I will kill you,” he seethed.
“Yes,” Mordred replied, bowing his head, “I thought you might say that.” He glanced deliberately back at the bed, “but if I go, I’m taking her with me. Play things my way, and no one else has to get hurt.”
“There is no way that this ends well for you,” Mallos warned him. “I play things your way today, I come back tomorrow and kill you.”
“Ah well, that’s just it. I’m looking to play a rather longer-term game than that.” Mordred reached into his pocket and with a flick of his wrist sent something shiny flying through the air. It landed on the carpet at Mallos’ feet with a weighty thunk. “Put it on, and I return your daughter. It’s that simple.”
The mysterious object offered a breath of relief; if Mallos had kept looking at the tiny smile curling at the edge of his son’s lips, something would have gone up in flames. Probably Mordred. With some difficulty, he unclenched one fist and held his hand out, palm down. The object flew upwards, startlingly cold despite the heat waves distorting the corners of the room. It looked like some kind of bracelet or cuff: it was made of a silvery metal, was a couple of inches wide, flat and undecorated. Beneath his fingers, the cool metal thrummed with power.
Mallos didn’t recognise the cuff, but he did recognise that the tables had turned. Whatever this thing was, Mordred was clearly confident that it could protect him indefinitely. Magic to restrain divinity was rare but not impossible. It was how the gods were usually bested in the old myths.
Maybe he could have found out what it did, if he could concentrate. The problem was, as soon as he tried, part of his brain started arguing that he could just use magic to locate Ángela. Then he was thinking about Ángela herself, still on the bed - then about setting Mordred’s desk aflame - then about Mordred’s crime of sitting in Arthur’s chair - then…
“Where’s Croe?” He demanded to know, his voice finding a sharp edge.
“Safe,” Mordred promised. “Put the cuff on and I’ll tell you exactly where to find her. I have no argument with you, or them. I have everything I need.”
Mallos gritted his teeth. “And what if I killed you now, tried your body on for size and demanded that the guards hand them over?”
“The guards don’t know,” Mordred smiled, “just me. I know how to keep my secrets safe.”
Kill him anyway, Mallos’ brain argued back. Or he could use telepathy to extract the information he needed from Mordred, if he could relocate the mood necessary for precision magic. But if he was going to do that, why not use a locator spell? The metal cuff was still so cold in his hand. What if he put it on and Mordred lied? What would happen to Ángela and Croe if he didn’t put it on? Where was Tristan? The clear image of Tristan’s face in his mind’s eye jarred against the vision of the room: bright green eyes, wood-brown hair against plush reds and golds. What was Mordred doing there, sat behind Arthur’s desk? How dare he be sat there.
Those thoughts, and more, flashed through his mind in a fraction of a second. It was like his brain couldn’t decide what to focus on and kept pulling things up at random and honing in on them, before dropping them in favour of something else. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t decide. The strongest part of his mind was the most primal: the screaming, insistent instinct to find and protect his child.
“I don’t always tell the truth, but here’s one just for you.” Mallos said quietly, running his thumb over the metal cuff. “It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow. It might not be directly, by my hand, or for any noble, just, or restorative purpose, but I will end you.” He made eye contact, “and then I’ll put in a word with Death to make sure you burn in hell.”
He withdrew his left hand from the pocket and used the right one to slip the cuff into place. It slotted neatly around his wrist and seemed to move into position of its own accord, like it was giving him a hug and forgot to let go. Mallos could feel the power of the thing pulsing against his skin, but there was no obvious, immediate reaction. He could still feel his magic, which wasn’t restrained by or at odds with the cuff at all. What the hell was this thing?
Triumphant, Mordred nodded. “I’d expected nothing less,” he said. He reached down into the pocket of his jacket and sent a scroll of parchment flying across the room. It hovered patiently in front of Mallos’ face. “Co-ordinates,” Mordred explained, “your girls will be waiting for you.”
It was hard to gauge depth by moonlight. Thoth pushed the centreboard experimentally and felt a wave of relief when, finally, it moved all the way down. At last, they were in deep enough water to sail properly. He took hold of one of the jib sheets and paused, glancing over his shoulder at his companions. Mace was sat up on the edge of the boat beside him, his puma familiar at his feet, both of them helping to counterbalance the wind with their weight. Tristan was crashed out on the wooden floor, his head and legs elevated by the lower bench. Celidon’s head was just visible above the water behind the rudder as he swam along behind. The stars glinted like fire in his eyes, which were fixed on his fairy.
Taking a firm hold of the sheets, Thoth put a tack in to re-angle his merlin rocket, the Akhet, in the direction of his familiar, whose head was bobbing above the surface to his right. Here was one command which Morveren understood and could follow: find the safest route. From her position in the water, the aqua-fox was better able to get a sense of the rips, tides and currents which could lead them astray. She swam out ahead, identifying softer currents to help push them in the right direction and avoiding dangers brimming beneath the surface of the water. Glancing back at Tristan again, Thoth pulled the sail in to try and keep the little boat as upright as possible.
A sharp chill had set in by the time Mace pointed to a spot on the coastline and suggested they pull in. Coming back in was harder than going out, since the receding waters were trying to pull the dinghy back out to sea. Thoth directed Morveren around the aft to swim alongside Celidon and cheated the last few hundred metres by creating a current beneath them leading directly to the shore. He released the jib sheets and let the boom go, ducking down so that it wouldn’t swing back and hit him in the head. Once the centreboard was fully up again, he swung himself over the side of the boat, grabbed hold of one of the grips on the hull and heaved it up the shingle. Mace followed his lead on the other side while Morveren and Celidon splashed into the shallows, dripping salt water. Tristan sat up in the boat but didn’t get out; his white knuckles gripped the rudder.
“We’ll need to hide this,” Mace told Thoth as he helped pull Tristan out of the dinghy, nodding towards it. It was the first time he’d spoken since he’d thrown Tristan on.
“Uhh, okay,” Thoth frowned. Why would they need to hide his boat? “Uhh, Morv? Hide.”
He gave the Akhet a shove and a burst of magic, sending it back out to sea. Morveren splashed back into the water. Presumably she was controlling the currents, because as she swam back out towards the horizon, the boat followed her. The knot which had formed in Thoth’s stomach as soon as he’d laid eyes on Mace tightened and he wondered if he’d ever see it again.
After a moment, he turned and followed Mace. The Captain of the Alliance had already started leading Tristan up the beach towards the forest, which Thoth vaguely recognised by moonlight as the Kingswood. Celidon, breathing heavily after his swim, was so close to his fairy that his haunches were touching Tristan’s legs as he walked. Thoth jogged to catch up and tried to fall into step beside Mace, which was harder than it sounded because the latter’s legs were so much longer than his.
“So, um…” he started, but Mace shook his head.
“Not yet,” He answered the unasked question, glancing briefly at the prince.
They tramped in silence for a while, guided by the light of the moon, which Thoth bent around the canopy. What the hell had happened back at the castle? Tristan looked shellshocked and Celidon’s fur kept twitching. Even Mace had an expression which Thoth couldn’t identify: a guarded, blank expression similar to the one he often saw Arthur wear. The longer the silence, the tighter the knot in his stomach. Thoth bit back the urge to recite encyclopaedic facts about all of the plants they were passing. He usually only fell back on his overly verbose tendencies when nervous.
The forest widened out, at last, into a clearing with a circle of standing stones atop a grassy mound. Mace paused while Josephine sniffed at one of the stones. Celidon detached himself from his fairy’s side long enough to circle the little hill, his nose pressed to the ground. He paused on its western side, his sniffing growing louder and more focused. A moment later, a shower of soil rained down on them all as the Cu-Sith starting digging, his great green paws making short work of the wet earth. Josephine left the stone on top of the mound and approached Celidon carefully, staring down at the hole he was making. She seemed to decide he was onto something and helped with the digging.
Finally, Celidon vanished and Josephine followed after him. Exchanging curious looks the three fairies circled the mound and peered inside. Almost immediately the roughly hewn hole dropped down, and opened out into a domed chamber of dry earth. Roots pushed in through from the surface, hanging down from the ceiling like streamers. Mace was the first to push his way after Celidon, hunching his strong shoulders to fit through the gap. Jo stood back to allow Tristan and Thoth inside before bringing up the rear. Skulls stared at them from the walls, packed tightly into the dirt. They immediately attracted Thoth’s attention. Was that homo erectus?
At the end of the main chamber the ground sloped steeply downwards, deeper into the earth. Mace looked down, trying to gauge the depth of the fall just as Celidon pushed past him and disappeared into the dark. Reassured by the Cu-Sith’s confidence, Mace jumped down into the lower chamber, landing with bended knees on the level below. He looked around as he straightened up. There were more passageways leading off the larger hall, smaller rooms, some of them glinting with the gleam of gold. Satisfied, Mace hopped back up into the first chamber to rejoin Thoth and Tristan. The prince had sat down, his back pressed against the far wall, his father’s sword in his lap. He was staring off into the middle distance, his right hand fiddling absently with the sword’s pommel. Thoth, meanwhile, was gazing at the wall embedded with skulls, his coffee brown eyes scouring the different shapes.
“Look at this!” He pointed to one of the ones lower down and squatted to get a better look. “That’s a burr hole. Trephining has never been practised in Shaman, so this cavern must be a lot older, at least Neolithic - ”
“Sit down, kid,” Mace interrupted him.
Thoth glanced at Tristan before obediently sitting down on the ground, his legs crossed. He remained silent, his face barely changing, while Mace factually recounted the events of the last few hours. As the tale petered to a halt, an empty sort of silence filled the cavern. Nobody moved or spoke.
“Oh,” Thoth said after a moment in a quiet voice.
It felt inadequate. Thoth wouldn’t process what had happened emotionally for several days; right now, his brain simply absorbed the facts as though they’d come from a book. He glanced across at Tristan, who hadn’t moved a muscle, and mentally pulled up every psychology textbook he’d ever read. In his mind’s eye, Thoth could see chunks of text breaking down the stages of the grieving process, identifying accompanying thought errors and listing suggestions for improving mental wellbeing. Should he repeat any of it? Somewhere, somehow, Thoth sensed that that was the wrong thing to do, but he didn’t know what the right thing to do was.
The silence dragged on. In lieu of knowing what else to do, Thoth pushed himself to his feet and hesitantly crossed the room. He reached his friend, sank to his knees and put his arms around his neck in a tight hug.
Tristan released his grip on Arthur’s sword, letting it fall into his lap as he returned his friend’s embrace. He buried his head in Thoth’s shoulder as the tears he’d been holding back for hours finally spilled out past his defences; silent and slow.
“I’m going to kill him, Thoth,” he muttered, “I swear to God, I’m going to kill him.”
Written by Merlin, Edel and Aspelta
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