The full moon, hard and white, lit the stark countryside of Gollmoor from within its icy ring high in the south, as the silhouettes of two hags astride a stick sank behind the naked twigs of a spreading burr oak. The frozen grass crushed flat under their feet as they stepped off their staff, breathing out frosty plumes of moonlit breath as they stiffly found their balance. Screech owls hither and yon shivered and wailed. Far away, dogs barked.
"Well there's Castle Goll, yonder."
"Yea. A right good piece to walk, Grandmother. It's frigid out. And we should've
been here a month ago."
"You know good and well that had you not overseen their mourning as Great Goddess Fnadi-yaphn, we'd 'ave had an uprising on our hands, Spitemorta, particularly since they died following you. Good thing I only let you have two hundred of 'em..."
"Yea? Well, it still wasted nearly a month," she said as she glanced up at the moon with a shudder from between her clouds of breath. "I miss Abaddon..."
"You're quite something," said Demonica as she gathered her shawl under her chin with her gnarled hand and looked all about her, "I've been going to great lengths to cooperate with your whims, dear. You wanted to fly the Staff to avoid being bounced around in your condition, and that meant not being recognized, so we landed out here, and I haven't seen a soul, have you?"
"No, but it's a long way to walk in the freezing cold, crippled up with your glamouries," said Spitemorta as she steadied herself with the Staff. "We not only look like dried up old hags, we move like them. You expect me to stumble along as a hunchback for a good half mile, keeping my balance with this belly? Look, we're off the Staff now, so why can't we change back? Who has ever seen a pregnant dowager? Wouldn't that attract unwanted attention?"
Demonica threw back her head with a volley of laughter, puffing out clouds of breath like a tea kettle as she braced herself on her knees. "Very well," she said as she rubbed her eyes and sobered, "I'll change you back as soon as we cut across that frozen pond, yonder..."
"You're wanting to see me fall."
"Hey, that would be fun! It's not like you don't deserve it, or anything," she said, erupting with laughter all over again. Her laughter stopped at once as she turned without warning and put her hands on Spitemorta's belly. "There ye be. You're back. All lovely,except for that oversized belly you're haulin' around. Are you sure you want that handsome man of yours to see you so out of shape?"
"I'm not out of shape. I'm pregnant."
"Yeap. And twins will stretch you out of shape, right smart, Rouanez Pouezus," said Demonica as her shawl slid back to reveal her resumed beauty.
"You mean you need me to tell you? Why else would you be this huge this soon? Just be happy it's not from overindulging."
"Of course I've not been overindulging, Grandmother. Now, do you mind if we just go? It's the middle of the night, and I could be enjoying a wonderfully warm bath by now."
"Can you handle the pond, dear? It would be far quicker," said Demonica as she stepped through the cattails, holding out her arms to keep her balance as she lunged forth into a tentative slide across the ice.
Well across the pond, the outer curtain of Castle Goll rose up before them, just beyond the frozen moat. "Hey, cwn hithau!" hollered out the guard from above the portcullis as he stifled a yawn. "Know what time it is? It's time to get out o' here and come back in the morning!"
"No!" barked Spitemorta as her voice rang out in echoes along the wall. "It's time for you to recognize your queen and let her in while she still allows you to live, fool!"
The guard immediately leant out from the embrasure and began wailing out a frantic apology.
"What kind of death are you begging for?" she shouted. "I want in now!"
He wheeled aside at once and called out in a squeaking falsetto for the raising of the portcullis.
Spitemorta summoned servants and had her bath first thing. At last she dried off, slipped into her favorite silk robe and headed straight for the nursery to peek in at her beloved Abaddon before going to bed. She carefully opened the nursery door to find the heavy velvet drapes pulled back, flooding Abaddon's empty and neatly made bed with pale white moonlight. She threw open the door in alarm to see that he was nowhere at all in the nursery. She flew to the nanny's door. When there was no response, she rushed in to find her gone as well. Dark thoughts of abduction and foul play set her heart to pounding as she steadied herself against one of the nanny's bedposts and caught her breath.
"James!" she cried, as she rushed out to find him.
She stormed into his apartment, through his sitting room and into his bedroom where she viciously jerked back the curtain of his bed. James immediately grabbed her by the wrist out of the shadows and yanked her toward him across the bed, wrenching her arm behind her back.
"Let go of me, you idiot!" she screamed out from the rumples of his quilt. "It's me! Spitemorta!"
James let go at once and sprang out of bed to begin lighting candles. "Idiot might apply to you, Spitemorta," he said between his teeth. "How about some kind of warning like calling out or knocking? If I'd had a knife under my bolster, I'd have stuck you before we ever got around to speaking. I wasn't expecting you."
"Abaddon's missing!" she screeched. "Call the guard! I want him found now!"
"Get hold of yourself. I know quite well that he's gone."
"And you've done nothing about it?" she said, throwing her feet off the side of the bed in preparation to stand.
"I sent him away, sweetheart."
"What?" she cried, springing up.
"Sit!" he shouted. "You heard me perfectly well," he said in a suddenly calmed tone as he ran his hand through his tousled hair. "Please have a seat."
Spitemorta sat down with a stiff bounce and stared hatefully at him.
James drug up a chair to the bed with a screech and hesitated, studying her before turning aside to pace the room instead of sitting. "Spitemorta," he said, turning to her with a resigned sigh, "what utter evil have you been teaching our son?"
"What you are talking about, James?" she snarled. "This is madness! Where's my son? Tell me this instant!"
"Our son...!" he said, speaking up peevishly.
"Our son then if you must," she said, making a face. "Where is he? Where's Abaddon?"
"Somewhere safe, Spitemorta. Rest assured," he said, crossing his arms and glaring at her. "And there he shall stay until I get some answers from you."
"James, I don't think you really want to play this game with me," she said with a polite chuckleas she suddenly assumed a calm demeanor. "I thought that you'd finally
realized right before I left that I'm a truly powerful sorceress, yet you seem not to grasp what kind of fire you're playing with. So James, I'm out of patience with you. Now, tell me where my son is before I make you regret it."
"Sorry," he said with a calm shake of his head. "If you do anything at all to me, Spitemorta, you'll never see Abaddon again."
"You'd harm your own son?" she said with a flash of her eyes.
"You certainly have, so why would you object?"
"What? I've never so much as raised a finger to Abaddon, nor would I!"
"Not with your hands Spitemorta, but you've been right harmful all the same...you and that awful grandmother of yours...and your lapdog, Samuel."
"James!" she said with a gasp of shocked innocence. "You've gone mad! It seems my absence was more than you could handle. Making allowances, I could overlook some of this since you obviously care about our son in spite of how misguided you may be. But I will not tolerate slurs against myself, my family or my personal aide!" she shouted, furiously springing to her feet. "I give you one last chance to take back what you've said, beg forgiveness and tell me what you've done with my son!"
"Sit Down!" he roared.
She sat with a wide-eyed bounce.
"I'm not done," he said, studying her momentary speechlessness. He shook his head. "No, I'm not about to take back anything. I'm furious, but I'm quite aware of what I'm doing. If it helps, I'm not about to harm Abaddon. I merely said that you might not see him again. And from what I've seen, he'd be better off out of the reaches of a mother like you."
A look of fury flashed in Spitemorta's eyes. "How can you say such things to me, James?" she said, suddenly looking down at her belly in wounded disbelief. "Here I am about to give birth to our twins and you accuse me of being a horrible mother."
"Fates help them," he said, turning aside at once to look through the doorway to his sitting room.
"So just what is it, exactly, that you imagine I've done to our son, James?" she said softly.
He turned quickly to find her on her feet, right behind him. "Do you know what Abaddon likes to do nowadays for fun, Spitemorta?" he said, looking squarely into her cold eyes. "If he can't find any of the servants' children to frighten or hurt... He is the most cold blooded bully. Can you believe, I actually caught him putting out a puppy's eyes! Beatrice's little girl got a new puppy for her fourth birthday. Abaddon said she didn't deserve a birthday and punctured the poor thing's eyes! He was giggling...giggling! But that's not the least of it. He likes to sneak away, down to the dungeon to watch your henchman, Samuel torture the prisoners."
"That's ridiculous," she said as a hint of a smile flickered across her face. You're making that up and Samuel is not my henchman."
"This amuses you?"
"No! You're crazy! You're imagining things! Just like you're inventing all this!"
"No sweetheart, I am not making it up!" he shouted, thrusting his face toward hers. "I found him in the dungeon, grinning and bouncing for all he was worth, just like he was about to win something, just as though someone had finally given him a gift he'd been yearning for, as he watched Samuel stretching Lance on the rack." He stepped away from her, turned a tight circle and came back. "You've been having Samuel torture people behind my back. It was my following Abaddon down there over and over that let me know. What? You didn't think I'd find out? Ha! I can see by the look on your face that you did not! Well, guess what else I've learnt about you? You murdered my father!"
"James," said Spitemorta, in a tone of voice fit for helping him up after a fall down the stairs. "You've lost your mind. I'm sorry I was gone so long. Let's get you settled and then I'll go for a physician. You need something to help calm you. I'm sure that with the best healers and given time, you'll recover completely."
"Very clever of you to stab him after you'd poisoned him," he said, vehemently resuming as though she had not spoken. "I guess you realized I'd not so likely make connections between father's death and the murder of your parents."
"What kind of babble is this, James? You know very well that your father was stabbed to death by Myrtlebell. There was a witness, remember? Florence Dustben was her name, I believe..."
"More of your lies, Spitemorta. Florence Dustben is a made up name. My parents never had anyone with a name like that in their service. But there was indeed an eyewitness to your crime. I know every last detail about how you poisoned my father and then laughed at him and watched him die as he begged you to send for his physician."
James stopped wide eyed at the sight of Spitemorta's quivering lower lip as her composure crumpled. "I did it for you, James," she said in a low monotone. "You were so bloomin' oblivious to what was going on with your father and his stinking crwydryn. Had I not done something you'd be no more than joint ruler of Goll. Myrtlebell had a baby on the way James, and she and your father had every intention of removing you and putting their new little bastard on the throne of Loxmere."
"Right wise of them," he spat, "trying to make sure that you'd never rule Loxmere!"
Spitemorta drew back like an asp. "Enough!" she shouted as she lunged past him into the echoes of the dark hallway. "You will regret this James!"
James stared after her only long enough for her to vanish. "Time to leave, time to leave," he said, turning at once to his wardrobe to hurriedly grab at clothes. "Maybe 'way past time."
Lance shifted on his saddle in the thick whirling snow and gathered his collar over his muffler as he peered from under his hat at the top of the mountain. "Well Abaddon," he called out cheerfully over the wind, "we'll be over the top directly and we'll be getting out of this weather!"
"My momma's goin' 'o kill you for stealing me away from her," said Abaddon with a baleful snarl. "And when I tell her all about it, she'll hurt you a whole lot for a long, long time before she stops your heart."
"Oh, she'll have to catch us first," said Lance buoyantly, as a shudder ran through him.
"She'll catch you, all right! Oh, yes she will! And it'll be a lot of fun!"
After five long days in the cold, it's a mercy we won't have to sleep out in this,thought Lance with another shudder as the unicorns stepped their way up, crunching loose shards of stone through the new layer of snow. Having grown up here, he was familiar with the sudden fierce winter storms up in the Pitmaster's Kettles. He glanced aside at Abaddon. In spite of how good he'd always been with children, the boy unnerved him. I'll do it for James, he thought, wishing he did not have to. Abaddon looked up at him with a red-eyed glower, as if he knew exactly what he had just been thinking, giving him a sudden bristle of goose flesh. He quickly turned away. Surely he doesn't read thoughts. I've never heard that Spitemorta does. He looked back again to suddenly feel guilty for thinking all of this at the sight of Abaddon looking right at him with the innocent smile of a boy on an adventure. He smiled back and began searching for the path over the top. "Here we go!" he called out. "Right yonder! Just keep Sheba close to Stepper and we'll soon be out of the weather in the heart of this ol' mountain!"
"What do you mean? You don't mean we're going clean inside it, do you?"
"Sure do," said Lance with a nod. "This is a vulcan mountain. Its top was once a cauldron of melted red-hot rock. If it weren't for the snow, you'd see frozen rivers of rock running down it's sides from long ago. That's what all the black rock between the trees was, 'way back down below, before we ever started up here. The top of each one of these mountains for miles and miles is a deep pit. that's why they're called the Pitmaster's Kettles. And here we are." He slapped his hand onto his hat in the furious wind at the very top of the slope as his unicorn hesitated between a pair of boulders on the rim, stepping restlessly from side to side before finding his first steps of the steep decent beyond. "See out yonder? the whole top of this mountain is naught but a giant deep hole. And here we go, on the path right down into the mountain, but you watch out and keep Sheba close behind. I don't want you falling off the side. It's a long way down."
"I better not fall. My momma would kill you even worse if I did."
"Yea, and your dad wouldn't be too happy either."
Abaddon gave a contemptuous snort, but quickly donned a look of excited expectancy in spite of himself. Soon they were below the wind, carefully finding their way down the narrow path, knocking loose rocks to go skittering and bounding off into the depths. He anxiously peered down into the crater, but strain as he might, he could not see the bottom. "Hey," he demanded. "It's gettin' darker and darker. How are we going to see? In fact, what's going to keep us from falling off?"
"Stepper and Sheba. The unicorns see a lot better in the dark than we do and they're completely sure-footed if you don't rush them. They'll find their way. Besides, it'll get lighter before long."
"You're crazy. It's been getting darker and darker."
"Well, when you get down far enough, there's quite a lot of glow lichen growing, though we're not far enough to tell it yet. Have you noticed it getting warmer?"
"The wind's died down is all. It's not any warmer."
"Well, what do you suppose happened to all the snow, Abby?"
"You're not allowed to say things like that! You're supposed to call me 'Your Highness!'"
"Well, maybe when you earn it..."
Abaddon drew a breath for a furious shout, but fell silent with a gasp at the sudden sight of a faint glow, far below in the blackness.
James frantically threw on his girdle, scabbard and sheath, hands trembling as he fitted in first his saber and then his dirk. Withdrawing and seating them each again with a smack, he huffed out a resolute breath. "She's not back yet," he said, as he threw on his cloak. "Maybe I'll get out of here after all." He grabbed up his panniers and charged out the door, knocking Spitemorta flat onto the floor in the hallway.
"Ow!" she shrieked, kicking him away from her with all of her might before rolling aside in a wide-eyed horror to grab for the Staff where she had dropped it on the carpet. "James! You idiot gnoff! You great stinking oaf! Help me up at once!"
James stopped rubbing at his cheekbone and went wide-eyed himself, just in time to lunge forth and tramp down on the Staff with all his weight. Though he had never seen it before, one look at her face had told him that it was a tool of magic and mortal power. He gave the shudder of one who has just pinned a venomous snake and grabbed up the Staff and held it aloft in one hand as he fended off her grasping lunges with his other. At once he sprang away from her as she heaved herself to her feet to glare at him with rage.
"James," she said, suddenly as gentle as if she had merely been offering him a bowl of soup by the fire all along, "how can you treat the mother of your children so horribly? Can't you see that I'm weary from travel and frantic about Abaddon? Have you no feeling left at all for the woman who carries your twins?"
James barked out a sharp one note laugh. "What sort of fool do you take me for, Spitemorta?" he said, gasping with a face of wide-eyed incredulity. "Here you are, knocked flat on your way to do me in for taking away Abaddon, and now that I've got your magic stick away from you, you come wheedling to your 'idiot gnoff' for overlooking your exalted motherhood. Twins. I rue wasting two lives by putting them at your mercy. I no doubt shall pay for it for the rest of my life. I defile my own breath by even talking to you. I'm leaving and you're on your own." He hefted the Staff.
"No!" she yelped, flinging out an imploring hand. "You can't leave me, James! I'm great with child, with your very twins. Surely you don't mean this? You're distraught. I understand how you might be, but surely you truly know that I could not possibly have done the things you think I've done. You know very well I'd never teach Abaddon to do horrid or cruel things. It had to be Samuel's doing. It was a mistake for him to be my aide. I foolishly thought that since he had been born here in this very castle and his family had always served my parents well that he could be trusted. Can you blame me?" She held out her arms piteously as she took another step.
James wheeled away in disgust, setting off down the hall, firmly holding aloft the Staff.
"James!" she cried, as her voice rang down the hallway. "I'll prove it! I'll make Samuel tell you the truth with his awful mouth! I'll order his execution myself!"James stopped short and turned back. "Don't bother, sweetheart."
"Why?" she cried, hurrying after to shrink back at the sight of his cold eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I've heard Samuel's tale already, and it's just the opposite of yours."
"Of course. What did you expect? He just wanted to save his neck. He needs a bit of his own medicine. I can make him..."
"Oh, we doctored him up right smart with his own medicine, dear. He earned that for what I caught him doing to Lance, and even more for encouraging Abaddon to follow around and watch."
A sudden grin stole across Spitemorta's stunned look.
"You revolting witch!" roared James. "How could you look so smug! Whatever is running through your heart is some version of pure evil! I did not enjoy it! And thank the Fates it didn't take much at all. Bullies crumble all at once when it's their turn."
"You fool," she sneered. "Samuel told you what you wanted to hear and you fell for it, you weakling."
James shook his head with a wave of exhaustion at the thought of how foolish he'd been, staying here instead of going with Lance and Abaddon. "Nay. You're the fool, sweetheart, if you think I didn't know what he'd do well before I started with him..."
"Then you've no proof at all for your accusations, James. They're utterly groundless..."
"And you interrupted me. I was about to say that spineless as Samuel is, his story was entirely verified by a source that even you would consider impeccable..."
"And just who was this?"
Spitemorta jerked as if slapped. "You lie!" she shrieked.
"No, no. You do," he said crisply as he turned on his heel and sped away, clutching the Staff, knowing in his very bones that if she did not get it back, he might manage to leave Goll on his feet instead of in a coffin.
The growing greenish yellow light below was far too exciting for Abaddon to maintain his defiance. He sat up with keen interest and strained to watch it grow as they ambled down to meet it. "It's sure getting a lot warmer down here than I thought it would, Lance," he said, speaking up, calling Lance by name for the first time.
"Well, we are a very long way down," said Lance over his shoulder above the echoing crunch of cinders under the unicorn's hooves. "Be careful if you take off any wraps. Drop something and you'll never find it again. The heat down here is due to a big hot spring. You won't need a waist at all when you're all the way down."
"This is an awful place! I want to go back home and see my momma. She's goin' 'o be really, really mad if anything happens to me down in this stinkin' hole."
"Well now, here you had me thinking you were starting to get interested in what was down here," said Lance as he gave a sigh and set his jaw. It wouldn't be half bad if I could see a particle of James in the little curse, he thought. But I certainly don't. It's as though Spitemorta waved a wand and created him all by herself. James sure has his job cut out for him.
"Yea? That's 'cause you're stupid. You stole me away, remember? I didn't come here because I wanted to. So what is this place, really? The entrance to the Pit or what?"
Lance threw back his head with a laugh. "And just what would a foul natured little whelp like you know about the Pit?" he said, turning around to look at Abaddon's face in the growing light.
Abaddon scowled, obviously stung by Lance laughing at him. He drew himself up and glared. "I know enough," he said, haughtily.
"Well, this mountain we're down in is called Bedd or Mount Bedd. The name comes from Bedd Chwiorydd Tair."
Abaddon seemed not to be listening. He was busy looking from side to side as if he were memorizing every inch of the way. "What's that bright glowing stuff on the rocks? Is it what's making the light?"
"That's exactly right. They call it glow lichen. It's some kind of plant I think, but it's alive anyway, and it is indeed what's lighting up everything down below. You'll see it everywhere before long."
Soon they reached the bottom, a floor of fallen boulders and twisted ropes of stone, like a colossal bowl of taffy. The unicorns clopped and scuffled in the echoing ambience, slowing to little lunges and careful steps over the uneven surface across the expanse to the first of three huge tunnels, well lit with glow lichen, which opened into walls of the crater. Lance drew Stepper to a halt and motioned for Abaddon to stop at the sight of some dark furry something scurrying and leaping from stone to stone across the floor.
"A giant rat!" cried Abaddon with a gasp, as the little beast hurried forth with its rat feet and long naked tail to halt before them and rise up on its haunches. "It has a man's face!"
"Hoy there Rodon," said Lance with a polite nod. "What tidings bring you from the Ladies?"
"Wolcome agayne, of cours," he said with a chuckle and a dignified bow. "Thaire Ladyschipes kneu hit was thou the moment thou sterted doun. They anxiously awaite thee and thy yonge companyoun wythinne thaire grotto, Lance." He turned at once with a most rodent-like wiggle of his nose to study Abaddon.
"Thank you Rodon," said Lance with a bow before turning to Abaddon. "We need to dismount. We're walking the rest of the way..."
"I don't want to get anywhere near that thing," said Abaddon.
"You'll dismount!" said Lance sharply. "And you'll apologize to Rodon when I have the time to see that you do."
Abaddon folded his arms and obstinately shook his head.
Lance got down with a swing of his leg and in two strides swept Abaddon firmly off his saddle and hauled him kicking and screaming to the ground.
Rodon sat up on his haunches. "Ich shal haste forth and telle thaire Ladyshipes thou comest anon," he said with a twitch of his nose as his dark eyes darted about anxiously. He hesitated and then raced away into the nearest tunnel.
Lance nodded to Rodon and turned back to Abaddon who was now kicking him in the shins and swearing like a seaman. He immediately turned Abaddon over his knee and gave him a half-dozen smart swats, stood him on his feet and grabbed him by the shoulders to look him in the eye. "You shall obey me or suffer the consequences, whelp! You were put in my charge by your father and therefore it's my job to correct you, which I will do every time! Do you understand?"
"You shall call me 'Your Highness!'"
"Not until you're man enough to earn it," he said, giving him a shake.
Abaddon stared into Lance's eyes with blistering defiance, chin out, refusing to nod. Lance pointed him smartly in the direction which Rodon had gone and gave him a shove between the shoulder blades. Abaddon tramped forth, the very picture of resentment, as Lance took the reins of both unicorns.
The nearest tunnel was an enormous lava tube from Mount Bedd's last eruption, aeons ago. It was quite well lit by glow lichen that fairly covered its walls in some places. Soon Abaddon was studying the brightly phosphorescent plants as they walked. "So just what was that rat thing, anyway?" he said, forgetting his huff. "Is that what lives down here, more rat people?"
"No, actually Rodon is the only one of his kind. He's enchanted."
"Yea? Well I wondered. So what was he to begin with, a rat or a man?"
"Oh he's a man, a Fairy actually, but that's his story to tell if he so chooses...or perhaps theirs" said Lance, as he looked up and nodded toward three ancient women who were just appearing from a grotto off the tunnel, just ahead.
Abaddon stopped short, planting his feet. When Lance gave him a nudge, he wheeled about. "Where have you brought me?" he shouted. "Those are the Pitmaster's hags of doom! If they touch you, your soul is theirs to keep and they can make you do whatever they want." With that he dashed around Lance and ran with echoing footfalls down the tunnel the way they had come.
With a short hard sprint, Lance grabbed him by the arm. "What's the matter with you?" He said, flinging him around. "Who's been filling your wee head with such nonsense? Those old ladies are no more harmful than Stepper or Sheba."
"Let me go!" wailed Abaddon as he twisted and pulled against Lance's grip.
"Yis, Lance," said a delicate voice, unexpectedly by his side, "Do lette hym ga. Al wol be wel."
"Celeste," said Lance turning with a start to smile at one of one of the old ladies, her brilliant green eyes full of gentle compassion. He let go of Abaddon at once. Abaddon bolted away like a shot only to be jerked to a halt by something invisible and smartly spun about to gape at Lance and the three old ladies who now stood on each side of him. He gasped in shock when he saw that each of the three had bright iridescent green hair to match their sparkling emerald eyes.
"A! That better ybe," said Celeste as she stepped fluidly forth to study him with one eye like a bird.
Abaddon shivered at the sight of her pointed ears and wrinkled alabaster skin, but he could neither speak nor flee.
"Ich ywondre," she said as she caressed his cheek with her warm and dainty gnarled fingers, "who tolde thee that shepes dung aboute the Pitmaisteres hagges of doom?"
"Nana Demonica!" he spat, jerking back from her. "And she's a great sorceress, so she knows about it!"
"Demonica?" said Celeste, as she straightened up and shared a wide-eyed look with the other two. "Razzorbauches Demonica?"
"Who beth this child, Lance? Hee hath a derknesse about hym."
"I'm not surprised," he said. "Demonica is his maternal great-grandmother."
"Why, I do believe we're going to make it, Dewr," said James, leaning forward to pat his unicorn's withers as they approached the castle gate. "Open for the king!" he boomed, as he sat upright and called out to the guards above him on the wall walk.
"Aye, Your Majesty!" they cried, saluting smartly in the frigid night air as they turned at once to the gatemen.
"Halt!" shrieked Spitemorta out of the black shadows cast by the westering moon as her echoing footfalls hurried into the open. "The king has committed treason against Goll and must not be allowed to escape!"
"No!" shouted James as the portcullis came back down with a rattle of chains and a resounding clang. "It is the queen herself who has betrayed Goll! Raise it! If I can't leave this minute, all of Goll is doomed!"
One guard turned wide-eyed to the other as he motioned for the massive grating to come back up. At that instant a searing crackle lit the courtyard bright as midday, as a pair of ruby red bolts shot forth from the Heart in Demonica's hand, blowing the guards to pieces with a thundering concussion.
James jerked with a wince, dropping his reins. He looked up to see Demonica on the wall walk, her maniacal face still lit by the glowing red crystal as she threw back her head with a peal of laughter. He grabbed for his reins and discovered to his horror that one of Spitemorta's sergeants had a fast grip on them and that he was already surrounded by a good score of her soldiers. He held aloft the Staff as a surge of fear swept through him.
"Stop now, James," said Spitemorta, as though she were offering a kind ultimatum to a school boy, as she stepped forth from amongst her men, "and you could live for a little while."
"Why? So that you and your grandmother can amuse yourselves with my torture and execution?"
"Well now," she said softly with a shrug, "that would depend upon you, of course." She patted Dewr on the neck, ignoring that he shied with a wicker at her touch. "So dearest, be so good as to hand it over." She reached up, nearly lunging.
In spite of tiring from holding it aloft, he had nearly forgotten that he still had it. "Sorry dear, I'll keep the stick. However, you might talk me into returning it after I've gotten as far away from here as I want."
"That kind of errantry shall not be allowed, James. Grandmother would not like for the Staff to be out of her sight after she has spent all those livelong years searching for it. In fact, your only hope now is to hand it over this instant and begin repentance, the like of which you've never known in your life. You'll need to completely relearn how to take your place at my side."
James smiled as he suddenly brandished the Staff, seized by the impulse to point it at her, making her gasp and step back wide-eyed. "I see that the gatemen got the portcullis up enough to ride under before she got the guards. I'm going. Have your men step aside if you don't want me harming you," he said, glancing up at the wall walk. He was relieved that Demonica was no longer up there.
Spitemorta glared at him insolently.
"Now!" he roared.
She took another step back and nodded at two of the men as one of them dropped Dewr's reins. At once the soldiers backed aside, leaving a path to the gate.
"I'll just be on my way then," he said, shifting the Staff to his hand which took the reins as he grabbed the brim of his hat. "I wouldn't send anyone after me, if you want your stick back, especially your old witch grandmother who did her best as nanny to ruin Abaddon."
Suddenly someone on the other side of him yanked away the Staff. With a wave of white-hot horror, he wheeled 'round to see. "Demonica!" he gasped.
"Quick, aren't I?" she said, as she tossed the Staff to Spitemorta. "And you're slow, Roue Bihan."
James did not hear the portcullis come down with a bang that could be felt through the earth. You idiot! he thought as his heart pounded in his ears. I could've been gone. Demonica. Fates forbid! She had made him feel as if he had unclean things crawling around inside him, long before he ever figured out Spitemorta.
"Shall I kill him for you, Rouanez Bras?" she asked with twinkling eyes of obsidian, as she gave his cheek a tender pat.
"Not yet, Grandmother. He refuses to tell me what he's done with Abaddon."
"Well. In that case mightn't we be more comfortable discussing our business in the dungeon, dear?"
"Lovely idea," said Spitemorta buoyantly.
James felt himself turn to jelly at this, but mustered up every bit of his strength to keep from collapsing. Spitemorta signaled her soldiers to escort him, but he went willingly, head held high. He carefully found his way down a step at a time. He was certain that the braver he was, the quicker he would die. He tried to think of some clever way of infuriating them, but his mind was as jellied as his strength, particularly when at last he saw a rat scurry along the edge of the rack and leap to the floor to run away.
"James!" shouted Spitemorta after repeatedly speaking out his name.
He looked up and nodded.
"I said to either lie down on the rack or we'll do it the hard way."
"Then there's nothing to decide," he said with a smile, "Hard for you fools is the only way it'll be."
Demonica thrust out her jaw and gave both fists a shake, violently flinging him onto the rack and snapping fast the shackles to his wrists and ankles with such fury that they began bleeding at once. His head was already awash in red agony. He hoped he would pass out right away.
Spitemorta gave his hair a merciless yank. "Now tell me, my love," she snarled between her teeth, "where's Abaddon?"
"Somewhere you'll never find."
"Wrong answer!" she shrieked, smashing his head against the rack again and again, making him see ripples of purple and showers of stars before she stood back for a moment to allow him to regain his senses.
Suddenly she had him by the hair again. "Where is Abaddon?" she screamed, spraying him with spittle.
"I said: somewhere you'll never find. But I reckon you're too stupid to catch it the first time."
Suddenly the rack went taught, pulling his wrists away from his ankles enough to cause shooting pains in his spine and shoulders. This was much too slow for any sort of tolerable death. Eventually he would either have to make up something and hope that they believed him or he would have to admit that he had no idea at all where Abaddon was. How could he decide? He was already well past being able to think.
"Yunker soper yleyde out in oure kaave ybe," said one of the other two green haired women, as they turned as one to glide back to their grotto, motioning for everyone to follow along.
"What did she say?" said Abaddon, as Lance turned to bring him. "What does she want?"
"Nothing terrible, Abby. Her name is Alvita and she's the best cook in the world. She just told us that she has supper laid out in their grotto. The other one is Nacea. Are you coming?"
"Oh, you will anyway in spite of your big lip!" said Lance, turning aside to offer a wink and his arm to Celeste as though asking her to dance. "Shall we join the rest, old mother?"
She smiled with her perfect white teeth and a twinkle in her eye and gave a merry nod as she took his arm and stepped forth, pausing at the last moment to give an odd flick of her fingers in Abaddon's direction, drawing him right along behind in spite of himself. It was not many steps before he was coming willingly, for he had just gotten a rich waft of inviting aromas, and after Lance's meager travel rations and a single lank rabbit, he was indeed hungry. By the time Celeste seated him next to Lance, his resistance was only an act.
And what an incredible meal it was. The gleaming board was heaped with roast beef, mutton and goose and baked blind fish, steaming mushrooms, carrots, salsify, turnips and kale and great loaves of hot dark bread with real butter, cottage cheese and honey to put on it. There were bowls of huge polished apples, the like of which Abaddon had never seen, and how he loved apples. Still, he was going to resist. "What if this food is magic?" he thought as his eyes grew wide. "What if it puts me in a spell?" His stomach rumbled loud enough for all to hear. "What if I just had a bite or two?"
"So," said Celeste, leaning toward him across the table with kindly eyes. "Ich wolde rekene thou beth absolut ravynous by now, yonge man."
Abaddon sat up with a start when he saw that the hag of doom was speaking to him. He looked aside uneasily and could see at once that Lance not only expected him to reply to her, but that he wanted him to be prompt and polite about it as well. He nodded slowly, trying to ignore Rodon as he scurried to and fro about the room, fetching this and that to the table. "Yes madam," he said, stiff as can be, "I've not had a proper meal since Lance stole me away from my momma." He flung a sullen smirk at Lance, pleased for the chance to be making a dig.
Celeste paused to raise an eyebrow. "Wel thanne," she said, grandly spreading wide her arms, "ete thy fill, yonge man."
"Thank you madam," said Abaddon, polite only because he was at a loss for words.
"Be hit that thou already trusteth us ynough to tellen on Lance, thy maister, thou needest not suffre to callen us by madam, Abaddon. Thou mayst use oure names, thogh Ich gesse thou didst not heere hem whan they were first y-yiven. Agayne, my name be Celeste and this my suster Nacea on my lyft ybe and this be my suster Alvita on my right. And the ratte who hast been flitting arounde ylayenge out this fine feste for us be oure derre brother, Rodon."
In spite of how young he was, Abaddon caught something in her tone of voice that struck him as though she bore far less regard for Rodon than she did for her sisters. He wrinkled his brow at this, then he nodded politely to each of the sisters before nodding to Rodon, who paused to give his own nod, but obviously had missed altogether what was going on.
"Wondreful," said Celeste with a bright smile. "Now that we al be frendes, lat us ete, shal we anon, whyle oure soper yet warm ybe?"
Abaddon needed no further encouragement. With the first bite, he forgot all his dark thoughts about the food and ate ravenously, eagerly helping himself to more of everything. When he was round as a melon, he pushed away his trencher and asked to be excused.
Celeste, Alvita and Nacea beamed and nodded as Celeste motioned to Rodon. "See oure younge geste to hise quarter and make hym confortable," she said, cutting him short as he anxiously bobbed and twisted his tail in his hands before scurrying off to see to Abaddon.
Abaddon threw a hateful look at Lance before sliding off the bench and following Rodon. "They're getting me out of hearing so they can talk about what to do with me," he thought. "If I could get away from Rat Man, I could slip back in and listen to their stupid plans."
He had never felt such pain in his life. From time to time the excruciating pain actually seemed to vanish, but the instant he thought about it in any way at all, it all came thundering back in on him like avalanche upon avalanche of agony. When the pain became far more than anything he could endure, it would suddenly seem as though it wasn't there.
"James," purred Spitemorta. "Are you enjoying this as much as I am?"
Presently he realized that his eyes had been closed and he opened them to behold a hideous look of bug-eyed ecstasy on her face. She was so revolting that he squeezed them shut with a wincing shudder. At this, she slapped his face, making him cry out at the searing pain which slammed down the length of his spine to his hips. "Sooner or later she'll put me out," he thought. "Sooner or later Abaddon truly will be safe from her."
"James," she said, giving a hoarse whisper in his ear, "this is the very best time I've had with you, ever."
"I don't doubt it. It's all you seem capable of..." he said, blacking out at last, as she yanked on the lever of the rack's winch.
Spitemorta and Demonica laughed uproariously.
He opened his eyes.
"James," said Spitemorta with a pout, as she cooed in baby talk. "you're about to become quite crippled. Won't you be a good boy and tell me where to find my son while you're still able to walk around and feed yourself? We'll have to bathe you and put food in your mouth and laugh at you every day. Can't you tell us? You truly don't have to suffer so."
James paused to squeeze shut his eyes and then open them again. "Well, we all lose this one, don't we dear?" he said, gasping between his words as he summoned all of his strength to force himself to smile. "It simply happens to be that no matter what you do to me, I can't possibly tell you what you want to know, for I do not know myself. So just get on with your impotent madness and kill me."
Immediately she donned a scalding look and dealt him a furious backhanded blow to his temple with everything she had, knocking him unconscious.
"This is starting to get boring," said Demonica with a sigh as she sprang to her feet from her stool and paced in a quick circle before leaning upon the rack to study James up and down. "If it were me, I'd either liven things up a bit by carving on him for a while (a good hour long death with lots of screaming might be about right) or perhaps even better, we could leave the rack set just as it is and have him stay here to feed the rats. Rest assured that he'd be much the same sort of nuisance as an invalid as he has been as a pet king."
"No!" barked Spitemorta, smacking the rack with both fists at once. "I have to know where my son is! Use the Heart, Grandmother. Make him tell me where Abaddon is."
"My. Why weren't we thinking?" she said, immediately drawing out the red crystal from her kirtle. "That's a splendid idea, Rouanez Bras. Razzorbauch swore that it was impossible for anyone to lie or to withhold information if the Heart was pressed up against his throat. Too bad you didn't suggest it earlier. You could have spared us all this inconvenience before we killed him."
"Do it then, Grandmother. But I guess we'll have to wait for him to come around..."
"Not at all, dear. I can wake him up in a snap not even using the Heart," she said as she leant over James and pressed the Heart against his throat.
"Wha...?" he said, coming to with a jerk as the Heart began throbbing with pulses of ruby light.
"Oh, you're still quite fast, dear," said Demonica, sounding like a nurse. "I've just taken away your pain in the same way that I can take away your life if you don't tell me all about where Abaddon is. But don't misunderstand me. This is no way out. Death by the Great Heart will make your agony on the rack seem like child's play. So dear, it's time to tell me everything."
"I cannot possibly tell you!" he croaked. "I have no more idea than you do where he is!"
Demonica stood up with a stunned look and stepped back from the rack with the Heart, letting James have the full force of the pain she had halted. He blacked out at once."Well," she said, stepping back to his side. "He's no more use to us at all. How shall I kill him, dear, quick or slow?"
"Stop, Grandmother!" she cried, lunging at the rack to bat aside her hand. "He may yet be useful for finding Abaddon, even if he doesn't know where he is. There must be more to it all, somehow. Maybe Lance kidnapped Abaddon for revenge without James knowing."
"Yea?" she said, pocketing the Heart. "So why didn't he just say that Abaddon had been kidnapped in the first place?"
"James is right fond of Lance, far more like friends than they should be. Maybe he was trying to protect him..."
"At the cost of Abaddon's safety?"
"Very well, I see that that doesn't make sense either, but I can't help feeling that there's something we've overlooked, and until we know what it is, I want James alive."
"Fine. Doesn't matter to me. Shall I have the guards haul him back up to your apartments, then?"
"Hardly. He needs to rot a while right down here in the dungeon. Maybe he'll be more reasonable when I talk to him again."
"Well then," said Demonica with a grand smile. "In that case, isn't it about time for breakfast? A brisk little torture always works up my appetite."
Book 4 of Heart of the Staff, Chapters 1-3