"Please forgive the interruption, Sorceress," said Budog, as he and the other guard hove their captive onto the slippery stone floor, "but he's back again."
"You and Mazhev had better...'' said Demonica, turning aside from her prisoner on the torture table, writhing in his irons. "This had better be important." Her ageless face seethed with fury in the wavering torchlight.
"This thing says he has some real information for you, this time," said Budog, nodding at his captive.
"Oh, yes, yes!" pleaded the captive, as he sat up on his haunches. "This time I do have. This time I truly have what you want to know, Demonica, my love."
"Never address me in that manner again!" she shrieked, as she kicked him in the gut, doubling him over to lie straining, cheek down on the clammy floor.
"Forgive me, Mistress!" he shouted, heaving in his first breath with a gasp.
"Please! I quite forgot myself! I meant no disrespect! I swear!"
"Very well, Yann-Ber!" she barked, as she lunged at his face and spat. "What do you think you have to tell me?" She stood back to study her saliva, glistening on the mass of boils swelling his face. "You'd do well to hope you aren't wasting my time, dearest."
An agonized moan from the man on the table caught Yann-Ber's eye. He shuddered at the sight of him, envying the wretched fellow's nearness to death. Soon he'll be free of this, he thought, and maybe I shall be free as well, if what I bring suffices...
"Out with it, you vile kaoc'h ki du!" she screamed, flinging her knee into his face to crush his nose with a resounding pop.
Yann-Ber wailed out in pain and clapped his hands over his face, his eyes still bearing the strength to give his wife a look of hatred. "Your daughter is dead," he sputtered from between his bloody hands. "And your granddaughter has ascended the throne of Goll..." He closed his eyes for a moment and reeled, coming to grips with his pain. "They say she's got her hands on the Great Staff, you know, the Staff of Power, though no one seems to think that she uses it."
"Just how sure are you?"
"I wouldn't dare aggravate you with anything I was unsure of, Demonica."
"So how do you know, Yann-kaoc'h?" she said, suddenly lifting her knee as though she were going to strike him again. He winced and fell sideways, catching himself on his elbow. She threw back her head and made the halls of the dungeon ring with her laughter. "You stinking pomander of pustules, just how is it that you manage to know this?"
"A few still deny that she has the Great Staff at all," he said, pulling himself upright, "but she certainly had no staff of any kind when she came to the throne, and then she suddenly had one, right when her mother died. Too many reliable people have seen it. And you said..."
"This time you've actually learnt something, Yann-Ber," she said, suddenly brandishing a high spirited gloat. "So. Back to Norz-meurzouar it is again." She turned to Budog and Mazhev. "And you two finish up this mess for me," she said, waving her manicured hand at the man on the torture table. "I have far more
important business waiting on the Northern Continent." She swept past Yann-Ber without a glance, heading for the door.
"Wait! Demonica, please!" cried Yann-Ber, lunging after her on knees swollen huge from boils, only to tumble forward onto his hands from the pain.Demonica stopped in the doorway. "I don't have time for this, Yann-Ber.""The curse!" he shouted through the blood on his face, as he rocked back and forth, coming to grasp with the pain in his knees. "You promised me! You gave me your word that if I found out the whereabouts of the Staff, then you'd end this curse. And she does have it. You'll see. Please, Demonica! Have mercy! I'm your husband! You cared for me once. Please!"
"Are you certain you want that, Yann-Ber?" she said with a light in her eyes, as a ruby lipped smile spread across her face.
"What else could I want?" he rasped.
"So be it," she said, making several signs in the air before turning crisply and walking out of sight.
"Demonica!" he shouted. "Nothing has changed! I still live! What treachery is this?"
The stony echo of her footsteps halted, then began again and stopped as she came back into view. "On the contrary, Yann-Ber, your death has been irrevocably scheduled, in spite of how slow and agonizing you may think it." She threw her head back with a peal of laughter. "You see, dear heart, I always keep my promises."
"But, so do I."
"Ah! Ah! Ah! But not to me. Remember that it was your faithlessness to me that earned you your nightmare spell of boils. So, as I was saying, I do keep mine, and you will most assuredly be dead within the year, though it will seem such a long time to someone with your lack of patience," she said, glancing at the crimson toes of her shoes as she adjusted the pleats down the front of her gown.
"I'll kill myself."
"You can try, Yann-Ber," she said with a demure smile, "but unfortunately it will never work." At once she turned and strode into the hallway, here and there erupting into laughter as her reverberating footfalls passed beyond hearing.
"You witch!" he screamed as he tottered onto his feet, only to be seized by the hair and thrown flat onto the floor by Budog who pinned him mercilessly with both knees, yanking his arm around backward until it snapped, making him wail out in pain.
"Hurt your little armsie, stinkfish?" he hissed through his rotten teeth. "Too bad that's all I broke." He yanked Yann-Ber to his feet by the hair and pointed him toward the torture table. "Thing is, you stink so much, I can't concentrate on my work here." He shoved him flailing for balance towards the door. "Now. If Mazhev or I even see you again, we'll play with you awhile like that fellow on the table."
***The hurried staccato of Demonica's footfalls silenced as she crossed from flagstone floor to carpet on her way to the dais of her audience chamber, where she kept her scrying crystal on a pedestal beside her seat. She whisked away the heavy red velvet covering and gazed at once into its translucent depths. A fiery glow whirled away its murkiness. Glimpses of other places took shape. At last she nodded with satisfaction. "So, dearest Granddaughter," she said, raising her brows. "You have done right well, but not so very well that you wouldn't benefit enormously from having me as your new nanny for that fine young son of yours." She flung wide her arms and spun around once, suddenly riveting her stare back into the crystal. "I'm so sorry, dear, but your present nanny is about to have such a horrible accident."
She paused, studying certain particular details in the orb before scooping it into her robe. At once, she raised her staff, made some magic signs and vanished.
"Yes, that's supposed to be their habit, all right," said the older woman, on a brindled grey unicorn in the deer path behind her. She lowered the hood of her cloak and looked about overhead before giving a shrug. "So?"
"So I don't like them watching us. I still say we should've used a traveling spell to come here. We'd be spending our morning back in Goll instead of here in the Chokewoods being spied on by cannibals."
"You're as skittish as Nightshade, there," said the elder with a calmness that Spitemorta found nettling. "I don't understand why you people up here waste your patience on cyflymder unicorns. Roudennegs like Gwenole, here, are as steady as the rock my keep is built on. I'm right glad you managed to find her for me. Now listen: I wouldn't worry so much if I were you. You look altogether like your mother did when she
first arrived here, so I can't imagine the dorchadas being anything short of terrified by you. Besides, malicious parties can make good allies. You never know when they might be useful."
"I am indeed out here in this place on the strength of what you've said, Demonica. But there are times when I can see that I'm being advised by my son's nanny. You seem to forget that I'm queen and that I have this..." she said, suddenly drawing forth the staff from across the tops of her panniers and shooting out a lavender flame from the end of it, sending a dorchadas plummeting to the ground in a ball of flame. The dorchadas kicked a time or two before the flame went out.
Spitemorta rode forward and prodded his crumbling cinder with the staff. "This is my forest! I am queen!" she called out, addressing the huts and the dangling skulls in the treetops. "Many of you must fancy yourselves brave. So if anyone amongst you wishes to contest this, come forth!"
The forest canopy was quite silent as scores of obsidian eyes stared out from the late summer leaves with indigo-black cat faces bearing lemon-yellow manes. "Good!" cried Spitemorta. "Then you'll come to my service at my bidding, knowing that you will die if you refuse!" Joy surged through her. She could see their helplessness. She rode forward, head held high.
They rode in silence along the deer path under the twisted boughs of the choke oaks until they seemed well beyond the outlying grounds of the dorchadas. "Well done, dear. Everyone was quite impressed," said Demonica at last, "but it was unwise for you to leave your back open to attack."
"Oh come now, Grandmother," she said, wheeling 'round to ride alongside her.
"Just as you said, those heathens were terrified. They thought Ugleeuh had risen right up out of the Pit and returned to reclaim her perverted realm."
"No doubt. But the dog most likely to bite you from behind is the one who's too afraid to come at you head-on."
"You forget that I've been queen of two realms for better than five years. I've had no problems. What have you done to learn to command others besides be a governess?"
"Not much. I've only been the most powerful sorceress in the world for something just short of three centuries..."
"Well, as I said before,'' said Spitemorta, interrupting to hide her faltering aplomb, "a traveling spell would have saved us from all this...this inconvenience."
"You chose to ride the high-strung cyflymder, dear. As for traveling spells, those are another problem altogether. It seems that when my daughter gave you the staff, she must have led you to believe that they are appropriate for any sort of traveling."
"She didn't give me the staff..."
"How'd you come by it?"
"...I took it."
"Well. That's my granddaughter," said Demonica, stopping Gwenole in the path and leaning aside to look squarely into Spitemorta's face. "By that, I gather that she showed you nothing at all about traveling spells, aye?"
"Yes she did. How else would I know how to cast them? Ugleeuh showed me weeks before I ever got my hands on the staff."
Demonica's eyes shot open at this. "So, she was obviously with you when you first used a spell..."
"And that, of course, was the only time you traveled before you got your hands on the staff..."
"Oh, no. I used a spell to go from Castle Goll to find her at her candied cottage, here in the Chokewoods. She wasn't there, so I used another spell to travel from the cottage to where she was on the beach with Gastro."
Demonica dropped a rein. An apoplectic look came and went on her face. The unicorns sauntered on, side by side, erratically trading turns walking in the narrow path.
"Well?" said Spitemorta. "Weren't you asking me something?"
"I was about to say," said Demonica, snapping to as if jostled out of a dream, "that even the most powerful and experienced use that mode of transportation only with the greatest care and restraint."
"Pooh, Demonica. I've been using dear Mother's traveling spells for the past five years and have never had a problem. Perhaps you're not quite the sorceress you claim to be if you've had problems."
Suddenly, Spitemorta found herself trapped in the hollow trunk of an enormous choke oak. She could not move her arms or her legs. She could move her head around easily and she could see out through a hole in the trunk well enough to peer down the outside of the tree to see one of her legs sticking out through another hole below. Demonica and the two unicorns were nowhere to be seen. She drew a breath to cry out to her grandmother only to give a wail of terror at the sight of the ground below as it became a swarming vermilion carpet of hundreds upon hundreds of smallies, surging forth to close around her tree. Now she could see their indigo eyes full of hunger. Hair rose on her neck and forearms. "They really do look like wee devils," she gasped. "But how can they have mouths so very full of teeth? No wonder they eat their pray alive in moments." Her heart hammered in her ears and pounded in her chest as the nearest smallie ran up to her
deerskin riding boot. "Where are you, Demonica?" she screamed. "Demonica! I'm sorry!"
And there she was, sitting calmly astride Gwenole, holding Nightshade's reins, just as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, just as if she were merely out for a Sunday afternoon ride. The smallies were nowhere to be seen. Spitemorta felt faint, as Demonica opened the tree as though its front were a door to a wardrobe and helped her onto Nightshade.
"Well then. You're learning, I see," said Demonica, as Gwenole and Nightshade sauntered through the crisp, prematurely fallen leaves back onto the path. "Now, as I was about to explain before your rude remark, traveling spells are dangerous because the inexperienced might find himself landing inside a rock or a tree. One could end up out in the air beyond a cliff or under water. I can see Ugleeuh never told you any such thing. Right?"
"Well, no..." said Spitemorta, as she studied the gnarled and twisted trunks of the choke oaks, "but I can't imagine it being dangerous in the least to travel by spell if you'd been to the exact spot before. There'd be no way you'd end up inside something solid or any sort of disastrous spot."
Demonica removed a glove and tugged at the bridge of her nose before leaning aside to intrude on Spitemorta's stare. "You still don't see, dear. Unless you had just been to a place moments earlier, you'd not be certain. What if a raging flood drowns the place where you intend to land? Suppose an earthquake opens up a chasm? What if someone with special powers anticipates your coming and arranges a trap for you? People do learn on their own, and none of this has occurred to you yet because you've scarcely used the traveling spell at all during your five years of 'experience.' Right?"
Spitemorta jogged on, sitting up quite straight on her saddle.
"Am I not right?" said Demonica, catching up alongside.
"Very well, Grandmother. Traveling that way made me so horribly nauseated and ill. Not the first time, not when Ugleeuh showed me, but every time thereafter, when I used the spell by myself. Even when I took the staff and used the spell to return to Goll, I got terribly sick. I only tried it once more, just to see, and it was awful then too. Maybe it wouldn't have been bad if you and I had used the spell together."
"There is a great deal that I'm afraid that I need to show you. And as far as traveling spells go, just remember that when you try to go back into the past, you land in the future, and just how well you resolve that depends on skills that you have yet to develop."
"You have made your point, Demonica," she said, tightening her slender hands into white-knuckled fists on the reins as Nightshade turned his ears back and then forward again.
The sun was climbing in the east, but it only cast a somber light through the boughs of the choke oaks, even though they were already losing some leaves. The woods seemed haggard, resigned in their stillness, though from time to time one could hear distant ravens croaking. They wended their way in file most of the time, since the unicorns seemed to prefer the path to the brush on either side of it. Spitemorta followed her grandmother for a good while. Sorceress for nearly three hundred years. She doesn't look much older than me. She's gorgeous. I wonder just how old she really is? she thought.
"Demonica," she said, riding alongside in a clear space. "You're absolutely certain that dear departed Uncle Razorbauch told you the right location of this crystal?"
"You try my patience, girl," she snapped, making Spitemorta shudder with recollections of the insides of choke oaks. "You question my very judgment. And maybe not. And if not, what possible reason would I have for journeying to this vile forest with someone who not only doubts my motives, but even my knowledge, abilities and judgment, except to retrieve what we came for?"
"I'll not bother with deciding whether or not that remark was sarcastic, my dear, but once we get the heart you will see. Rest assured."
"Very well," she said, reaching back to touch the staff where it was tied behind the cantle of her saddle. "I suppose my problem has been all along that I'm not altogether convinced I even need this crystal. The staff wields tremendous power as it is. Wait until you see all the strange things Ugleeuh created in her part of the forest. The water is chocolate and even insects can talk. The woman was crazy. Why didn't she do something useful with all that magic? She didn't even conjure a decent place to live in."
"This matters to you?" said Demonica with a shrug. "Who can ever know the answer to such a question? Besides, people who live a long time in seclusion are known for growing eccentric and doing strange things. What does matter to us here is that what she changed happened to be all that she was able to change, and it didn't amount to much since she did not have Kalon Bras, the crystal Heart of the Staff. When the staff is
complete with the heart, the one who wields it has the very power of creation."
"But Ugleeuh created her crazy peppermint forest without the crystal, Grandmother..."
"Oh, no," said Demonica, holding up a finger. "Your mother changed things with the staff, but she created nothing."
"Very well, but why didn't all her magic vanish when she died? I watched her die and the only thing I saw was her ridiculous crow turn back into a parrot."
"She must have changed the parrot to a crow without the staff. The moment she died, so did her magic. As I said before, the staff's power greatly amplifies a person's own magic. Things changed with the staff take much longer to return to their original state, but they do. Gradually they do, and they start the moment that person dies."
"Then what about the Chokewoods and the smallies and the dorchadas? Didn't Razzorbauch do all of that with the staff? What kind of time are we talking about here?"
Demonica sucked in a deep breath and let it go. "Razzorbauch used the heart, dear girl," she said with a tinge of impatience. "His forest will not fade. Ugleeuh never had anything at her command beyond the staff, just like you. All she did has either returned to what it was or is on its way. If she'd had the heart in the staff, neither Razzmorten nor anyone else could possibly have kept her confined to Chokewoods."
***"Grandfather, you're not kidding," said Rose, wide eyed, as she shared looks with Lukus. "So the magic in the Peppermint Forest is really failing. But why would that be
happening now, after all this time? Nearly everything was still exactly as Ugleeuh had left it when we visitedthere and got the unicorns, right after her death. You said back then that things she conjured by herself went right back to the way they were before, the moment she died, like Hubba Hubba did, and you said the things that didn't were undoubtedly changed by her, using the staff."
"I'm not completely sure I understand it either, but I know what I saw," said Razzmorten, pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. "There are probably as many choke oaks in there now as there are peppermint trees. I don't remember seeing a single choke oak back then. I saw Spark, and he's getting worried about all his friends in the forest. They're in danger of becoming ordinary woodland creatures, of course, but he's really worried about them being eaten by smallies and dorchadas."
"Spitemorta," said Rose, swatting the imaginary something which she had just drawn with her finger on Razzmorten's table. "She's got something to do with this. I knew that sooner or later she'd be up to no good with the Great Staff. I stood there and did nothing while I watched her grab Ugleeuh's broom and vanish."
"Oh go on, Rose," said Lukus. "We all stood by stupidly and watched her do that."
"But what does she even care about the forest?" she said, going back to drawing imaginary pictures. "Nothing in it is going to come out and...Whoa!" She smacked the table and pivoted round on the bench to face Razzmorten. "Sukere. She wants the sukere the dragons have cultivated. In fact, she undoubtedly intends to get Razzorbauch's sukere plantation up and going again and wants to add the Peppermint Forest. But why in Niarg bother changing it back into more Chokewoods?"
"Maybe. Maybe. Maybe," said Lukus. Razzmorten nodded. "You've thought of a good possibility, Rose," he said, "but the changes in the forest may have nothing to do with Spitemorta. Possible but unlikely. You said it yourself: why change the Peppermint back into more Chokewoods, first?"
A sudden fluttering of wings caught their attention, as two parrots landed softly on the window sill. "So," said the yellow headed one. "You're back, Wiz. What's the latest news from the sweetest place in the world? Did Spark and Lipperella's eggs finally hatch?"
"Not yet, Hubba Hubba," said Razzmorten, "but I believe there's more to worry about in the Peppermint than dragon's eggs."
"Hey, eggs are a big deal," said Hubba Hubba, as he leant forward like a compass needle drawn to a nail. "So what's up? You went to visit Spark just to see about his eggs. Must be something thundering big." He ran his beak down a flight feather and let it go with a snap.
"The magic in the Peppermint Forest is failing. That's what," said Lukus. "Hey, what's everyone looking at me for? You all think that was indiscrete? Hubba Hubba and I go 'way back, at least far enough that we give it to each other straight. If I fiddled around trying to spare his feelings, he'd want to shake it out o' me."
Hubba Hubba gaped at Lukus, then at Rose and Razzmorten. He came to when his red-headed mate gave him a light peck on the head. "Thanks, Pebbles," he said, looking at her gratefully. Then he clamped shut his beak and stared resolutely back at the three.
"So Wiz, when do we leave?" he said with a thorough shake of his feathers.
"Well, you're obviously going back to the Peppermint, and you've obviously come back here to get volunteers and I'm volunteering."
Pebbles pecked him on the head again, but this time she gave a bunch of his feathers a smart twist. "Not without me," she said. "I've not been there."
"She's got an empty nest," said Hubba Hubba, jerking back his head. "Correction Wiz. We're going with you."
"And so are we," chorused Rose and Lukus with a nod.
"Good, good, then," said Razzmorten. "I only hope it won't leave Hebraun and Minuet short handed with these troubled times for the kingdom of late."
"Such times are more of Spitemorta's work," said Rose. "How can she have convinced so many people of her vile lies?"
"It does seem astounding that a woman who not long ago was a favorite mockery of gossips has managed to make the populace doubt your mother and father who have always been known as fair monarchs for the people," said Razzmorten, standing up to circle the table with his hands behind his head. "The crop failures no doubt play some part. People fear famine this winter, and with this blight, it's a real fear. If the crown doesn't solve their problem, there'll be hysteria. It doesn't help that we have no idea what to do about it, yet."
"I find it appalling that the people can hold the crown responsible for an act of nature...if that's what it is," said Rose, rising to do some pacing of her own.
"Well there you go," said Razzmorten. "If it is an act of nature, the crown is responsible for feeding everyone. If it is not an act of nature, someone is responsible. Desperate people are always lightning fast to find someone to blame, and the timing is perfect for Spitemorta to sew her seeds of discontent. You've heard the latest whispers that the crown is secretly involved in sukere trade, I suppose?"
"But Mother and Father have passed the laws they voted for which banned the stuff. How can they turn around and accuse them of trading in it?"
"Yea," said Hubba Hubba. "They even banished a member of their own family because of it. Sort of."
"Indeed, 'sort of!'" said Razzmorten from under hoary brows, as everyone turned to the bird. "As far as the public was concerned, yes."
"That's what I meant, Wiz. Ugleeuh trying to poison the king and queen was hushed up, I knew that. I was talking about the part that they did know about and were wanting to lynch her for: the dragon slayer getting fried by the dragon because she was keeping him all sukered up. Hey, it's you humans who are always forgetting the details."
"Right you are, Hubba Hubba," said Razzmorten, "but get this: I've just found out that Spitemorta is using Ugleeuh's exile for sukere for her own ends. She has started saying that the whole affair was a ploy to point suspicion away from the crown. She says that the king and queen were secretly in the sukere trade with Ugleeuh and that they sent her to oversee their hidden sukere operations in the Chokewoods, pretending to oust her for her misdeeds. That's only half of it. She says that Ugleeuh was murdered by Hebraun and Minuet when she threatened to expose the entire enterprise if her name was not cleared so she could leave the forest and be shed of the whole affair."
Rose thrust her fists straight down at her sides and stared out the window of her grandfather's tower at the late afternoon countryside below. "What I can't fathom is why she's doing this," she said, suddenly wheeling round to face him, just as he had come up to the drapes to have a good stare out himself. "She has James, so she can't possibly still have designs on Lukus, and I'm certainly no threat to her. She and James have the rule of two countries and have amassed an astonishing amount of wealth in their five years
together. They have even started a family of their own. Why is she so intent on destroying the House of Niarg?"
"Maybe just because she thinks she can, Rose," said Lukus, as he stretched out along the length of the bench she had been sitting on. "Well think about it. What reason did she have for telling you Myrtlebell's little story that you were actually Ugleeuh's daughter and only adopted by our parents? She didn't make up the story and she wasn't doing you any favors by telling you. She just plain got a kick out of it because she could get away with doing it."
Rose opened her mouth and shut it.
"Point," said Lukus with an exaggerated grin. "Evil needs no reason, Rose, it just is. Spitemorta's sport. I also think she favors her dear mother, Auntie Ugleeuh, and it would be like her to think we owe her for who knows what. I'm right glad they didn't arrange to marry her and me. I'd 'ave fled the continent."
"None of this is solving our problems, I'm afraid." said Razzmorten. We need to tell your parents what we have in mind. The sooner we sail, the better."
"Oh, Father?" came Queen Minuet's voice from the vestibule, "I know you're here somewhere. I don't mean to intrude." She rapped on the door she was already pushing open, smiling with brown eyes darting round to each person in the room. "I'm sorry..." she said, taken aback at the surprise on everyone's face. "I just got word of your return, and since I had a few free moments I thought I'd save you the trouble of coming all the way down to the throne room to tell me how you found things in the Chokewoods. I can come
back..." She turned aside as if to go.
"Hey Queen, it ain't your birthday, so what else would we be plotting in secret?" said Hubba Hubba, taking flight to land neatly upon her shoulder. "You took us by surprise because we were on our way down to see you ones."
Minuet looked up to see looks of confirmation from everyone while Hubba Hubba shamelessly thrust out the ruffled nape of his neck for a scratch.
"He's like that," said Pebbles.
"This is your job, then," said Minuet returning Hubba Hubba to the window sill and giving both birds a scratch.
"Very well, out with it, Father," she said, turning round with her hands on her
hips. "What sort of plot is this?"
"What sort of family do you think you have?"
"A right clever one," she said, giving him a bracing hug to welcome him home. "And I wouldn't have it any other way. So. Let's all go down to the throne room. Hebraun's still there, listening to the last dissatisfied citizen before supper time."
They found him, the very picture of exhaustion, staring off down the avenue of his concerns. Hebraun abruptly stirred, then eased at once at the sight of her taking her seat beside him. "Razzmorten," he said, standing up to shake his hand. "How was it? Have the dragonets hatched?"
"They hadn't yet when I was there, though they probably have by now. Needless to say Spark and Lipperella were both anxious. I expect that once the gaggle arrives, they'll have their talons full enough that they might wish them back in their shells."
"A truer statement never passed your lips, Wiz," piped Hubba Hubba, as Pebbles pecked him on the head.
"Yes... Well, my trip was indeed disturbing," said Razzmorten. "The magic in the Peppermint forest is quickly fading. At the rate things seem to going, the Peppermint might cease to exist as anything but Chokewoods before the year's out. Of course, that's how it was before Ugleeuh was there, but we need to know for certain if her magic is dying away or if there is tampering afoot."
"Not to mention," said Lukus, "we have friends in the forest whose lives will be in jeopardy if the magic there vanishes."
"There, 'way yonder," said Spitemorta, above the frying chorus of insects in the waning light, as she shifted about on her saddle to see. "None of this around here looks quite right to me, but that has to be it."
"You've been saying that," said Demonica. "Why's that?"
"Well, the air is quite minty here, but not at all like I remember it. It's about as woodsy as anything. I came to find Ugleeuh about this time of year, and the air was so strong with mint that it made my nostrils cold just to breathe in sharply. And these trees, better than half of them are oaks or something. I'd swear that every single tree had red stripes on its trunk, back then." They meandered on through the brush, dodging briars and bending aside willowy branches. "I'm certain, now," she said. "That cabin is her old hovel, all right. Bad as it is, I suppose it would do for place to have a bite to eat and a chance to get off of these saddles for the night."
As they drew near, they saw that the front door and one of the shutters were off their hinges. Three small raccoons stared furtively at them out of the doorway from the far side of the fallen door, while a much larger one stood up and glared at them from the chimney where it had been lounging as the others finished their raid. It dropped off the far side of the sagging roof, as the small ones humped away to the nearby trees.
"Kenavo warc'hoaz!" called out Demonica, throwing her leg over Gwenole's rump.
"Oh, just good bye to the creatures...which, by the way, appeared ordinary enough to me. I do believe Ugleeuh's enchantments are indeed failing if you haven't exaggerated their extent."
"Absolutely not," said Spitemorta. "Nor was my account of how many Peppermint trees there were at the time I visited your wretched daughter. Too bad you didn't come to Goll sooner so you could've seen it all with your infallible eyes."
"I'm surprised that you credit me, Rouanez Bras. After all, you scarcely find me trustworthy to take you to the Heart. But too bad I wasn't here sooner..."
"What's 'Rouanez' supposed to mean?"
"You dear. It means 'Big Queen.' They'd call you that in Pennvro if they knew who you were."
"Yea? Well, no one here knows Head as 'Pennvro' either. In fact, unless they've got some schooling, they don't even use 'Head.' They just call everything down there
'Dark Continent.'" she said as she hitched Nightshade to the porch railing, then suddenly stood straight at the sight of one of the raccoons which had returned for a peep around the corner of the house. "Those 'coons could have been spies."
Demonica followed her onto the sagging porch and into Ugleeuh's little cabin. She looked around quickly, her shrewd eyes missing nothing, even in the failing light. "I'd guess it unlikely that your mother ever entertained a small child, dwarf, or any other wee person," she said as she picked up a little shirt and a pair of breeches, strewn across the floor.
"I can't imagine it."
"Then it looks like somebody was squatting in her house. That," she said, wagging her finger at Spitemorta, "does not mean that anyone has been here, including the raccoons, who was after anything other than a free place to be."
Spitemorta gave an impotent glare. "Very well, Demonica, but just what if we are being watched? What if someone guesses what we are after just when we are about to recover it? I told no one, including James. He thinks we're off to our summer palace on the coast to discuss trade agreements with some ambassadors from the Eastern Continent."
Demonica shook her head and went out the door, pausing briefly to study the evening before walking unhurriedly to Gwenole to begin sorting through one of her panniers. "I never told you that this venture would be without risk, dear girl," she said when she heard Spitemorta behind her. "If you've become too faint hearted, go back now. But if you do, you'll probably never amount to more than you do now because you'll throw away the one chance in your life to recover Kalon Bras, or the Stone Heart if you must." She found her stirrup and mounted. "Better choose now, because I'm out of patience trying to impress upon you the power that you have near to hand."
"The Staff is mine. I'm here for the Heart," she said firmly. "But what about rest and food?"
"We can eat some of that dried fruit we brought with us as we ride. And you just had all the rest you're going to get until we reach the cave where Kalon Bras is hidden."
"Let's find this powerful artifact then, if it still exists," she spat, giving Nightshade a hateful smack with her reins before furiously digging in her heels, causing him to bolt forth at full speed.
Demonica shook her head and followed in earnest in the darkening woods. Soon Spitemorta slowed again to a walk, allowing them to travel side by side. An owl wailed and was answered by another far away through the timber. "If we ride through the night we might reach the cave by sunrise," said Demonica, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.
"Smallies are supposed to hunt in force after dark, aren't they?" said Spitemorta. "Could we conjure a mage light? I've heard they fear fire and anything that appears to pass for it."
Suddenly, a bright ball of light the size of an orange appeared above Spitemorta's head, lighting the path for twenty rods, staying with her as they rode. "There you be, dearie. Of course, if there are spies about, we certainly have set them a right fair beacon."
"Better alive and watched than dead and forgotten."
"Whee! You're loosening up," cried Demonica, throwing her head back for a laugh. "Keenly profound. I don't reckon it dawned on you that being watched by the wrong person could also get us dead and forgotten? Only moments ago that was your main concern."
A sudden rending and popping of timber off the path beyond the light caused both unicorns to rear up in fright. It was all they could do to keep them from bolting. "Let's go," said Demonica. "I've got to see this." At once the mage light winked out.
"I certainly can't see anything this way!"
"Just give it a minute, dear."
"Over there," said Spitemorta, "It sounds like a tree being pulled in two." Before them in the blackness they could make out the motion of something huge.
"Let's go," said Demonica, riding into the brush. At once the mage light came on away ahead in the trees where they had seen the motion. They rode up directly under the light.
"I don't see a thing but this oak, Demonica."
"Choke oak. No, I don't either, but this is exactly where we saw the commotion."
"Well, we both couldn't have imagined it."
A rending creaking and popping like gargantuan new leather riveted their attention high up in the choke oak. The final pop, loudest of all, showered them with dozens of plummeting pieces of something large. Demonica dismounted in a frenzied whirl and pounced on the largest piece which she saw. It was clearly bark from high in the choke oak which they were standing under. She turned it over several times in her hands, then smelt it. "Here," she said, tossing it to Spitemorta. Look at it, smell it and tell me what you think."
"Why, this is peppermint bark, not choke oak. It's bright red and white and smells like mint."
"Yea, and you saw as well as I where it fell from," she said as the choke oak popped again, flinging more bits of bark. "This tree has just now lost the enchantment Ugleeuh put on it with the Staff and has twisted up and become a choke oak all over
again. Now we know for sure that it is the failing of your mother's magic that explains the appearance of the choke oaks here."
"But you already said that Ugleeuh's magic would fade."
"Good. You're paying attention. And now we have absolute proof that it has begun."
"Well, the sooner the better. This place is a disgrace to anyone with magical ability."
"Don't worry, Spitemorta," said Demonica with a smile, as she gracefully mounted Gwenole. "I doubt that a single soul would blame you for Ugleeuh's eccentric work. Only a tiny number of people even know this place exists."
"It's those amongst that tiny number who bother me the most."
"Oh, I know any number of ways to silence wagging tongues, my dear Rouanez," said Demonica with a giddy grin as she urged Gwenole back onto the path. "You can certainly put your mind at ease on that count. Now come. Time's getting away from us."
Soon they were making good time, guided by the mage light, since the path had widened in places enough to allow the unicorns to walk abreast. Here and there they heard owls of different kinds. They fell silent, listening to the leaves in the light breeze which began stirring after midnight. "Do you still think we will reach this cave by sunrise?" said Spitemorta. "I'm exhausted."
"Maybe not too long after that. And we can set up a few protective spells around the entrance and get some sleep before starting back."
Spitemorta was relieved, but she could only manage a nod as she plodded along behind.
"Momma! Momma!" called the little tow-headed boy as he ran into the cave where Myrtlebell sat, mending a pair of his breeches.
She laid her sewing aside just as he ploughed into her, hugging her knees with all his might. She smiled as he looked up with clear blue eyes and giggled. "So, Edward. Is there a reason you rushed in here," she said, ruffling his blond curls, "or did you just think I needed an emergency bear hug?"
Edward gave her an adoring look. "You always need emergency hugs," he said as he continued giggling, "and even though we live with a bear, I'm the one who has to give you all the hugs. But this time I'm here to tell you and Uncafuzz that the ratcoons are back and they're all excited."
Myrtlebell glanced at Fuzz, sitting at the table, listening attentively as he whittled a toy sword for Edward's birthday, a few months away. "That's raccoons, sweetling, not ratcoons," she said with a smile. "Now, do you know what they're so worked up about?"
"They wouldn't tell me," he said, shaking his head solemnly as he looked from his mother to Fuzz, "but they said they had to talk to you or to Uncafuzz right now."
Fuzz put down his whittling and calmly ambled on all fours to the mouth of the cave. "You stay in here with your mom, Edward," he said, heading outside. "I'll see what this is all about."
"Let's go have some of those strawberries we picked yesterday," she said, putting her arm around Edward. "We'll put some of Uncle Fuzz's honey on them."
Edward's eyes lit up and he dashed to the table, climbing up on the stool Fuzz had made for him to await his most favorite treat for now.
They had just gotten a good start on their strawberries when Fuzz dashed back in and hoisted the startled little boy onto his shoulders. "Myrtlebell, grab your wraps and follow me," he said, wide eyed. "I'll explain as soon as I can."
Myrtlebell was behind Fuzz and Edward with two cloaks before they had gotten outside. They dashed across the clearing in front of the cave and into the woods just as Fuzz heard the sound of hooves. Myrtlebell's gown caught on a thorn bush. Fuzz looked apologetic as he grabbed her skirt and yanked it free. "It was much nicer as a lemon drop bush," he said as he took her hand and ran until they were quite out of breath.
"There's the cave," said Demonica, with sudden effervescence. "Just through the clearing."
"Yea?" said Spitemorta sullenly. "How's it different than the last half dozen others we've seen since it got light?"
Demonica ignored her comment, urging Gwenole to speed ahead. They were out of the woods and across the clearing and had already dismounted by the time Spitemorta and Nightshade appeared in the open. Spitemorta quickly reached the cave and slipped off of Nightshade.
"Someone has been living in this cave," cried Demonica in a panicked voice. "and the Heart is gone!"
So, you're expecting to sail right back to the Chokewoods for a closer look, then, aye?" said Hebraun, exchanging glances with Minuet.
"Yes, actually," said Razzmorten, "but I will delay if you want me to start work at once trying to find a solution to the blight. However, I might add that it's possible that there is a connection between happenings in the Peppermint Forest and the blight here, particularly when it affects wheat, barley and rye instead of just one of them."
"Hey, King. You could do both," said Hubba Hubba with a dignified ruffling of his feathers. "Pebbles and I could go instead. We'd be with Rose and Lukus, and nobody in this room knows the Peppermint better than I do."
"That is truly a comfort, Hubba Hubba," said Hebraun, trying to glance at Minuet without grinning. "That's a right honorable gesture. No doubt that having the two of you patrolling the air will indeed make it much safer for Rose and Lukus."
"Yea. Don't worry about a thing. I'll make sure nothing harms them."
"That's one reason why we want you to go," said Hebraun. "You also should be indispensable in determining which things have changed since you were there..."
"So, are you ready to determine what sort of magic is at work, causing the Peppermint Forest to change?"
"Uh..." said Hubba Hubba, suddenly preening under one wing.
"Well, that's why we want Razzmorten to be along," said Hebraun. "Perhaps what you all find there will indeed help figure out the blight when the five of you get back."
Spitemorta raced to Demonica's side, forgetting her complaints altogether. "What do you mean?" she said, casting about angrily. "We came all this way for nothing? But you certainly haven't searched everywhere in this pit."
"Didn't have to!" snapped Demonica, brushing aside a lock of black hair. "Razzorbauch showed me exactly where he hid the Heart. See this cubby hole?" She pointed to a recess in the cave wall. "He carved out the compartment and then he fit this slab over it. See? Who would notice? How anyone would figure it out without prior knowledge, I can't fathom."
"Well, obviously someone did fathom," said Spitemorta, turning away at once to scour the cave for any sort of clue. "Maybe Razzorbauch moved it and didn't tell you."
"No! He never would have done that. He was my... He and I were very close. He kept nothing from me."
"Yea? But truth to tell, Grandmother, the Heart's just plain not here."
Demonica went livid. "If Razzorbauch did move the Heart, he would have told me, but was slain by that droug-penn King Hebraun before he'd the chance."
"Right," said Spitemorta with a shrug. "That must be it then. I think we ought to do a thorough search of this cave in case we get lucky, though I certainly doubt it."
Demonica flung her a scathing look, but began passionately rifling through everything, dumping out drawers and overturning boxes to meticulously comb through every inch of Fuzz's den.
"Myrtlebell!" shouted Spitemorta from one of the side passages, causing Demonica to drop and shatter the vase she was shaking out. She furiously raced out with a small elegantly bound book that she shoved into Demonica's hand. Demonica raised an eyebrow at Spitemorta.
"That wench has been hiding here all along!" screeched Spitemorta. "And she had the nerve, the unmitigated gall to give King Edmond another son. Not that it will get her, or that child anything, of course. After all James is the eldest, and therefore the rightful heir. Still, she's up to something, you can be sure of it." She snatched the book out of Demonica's hand. "Perhaps she gives herself away in her diary. Ha! She never expected me to get my hands on it."
"I don't know or care what you are going on about," said Demonica, grabbing her by the shoulders, "but make no mistake Spitemorta, nothing, nothing is more important than finding the Stone Heart. If you want vengeance against this Myrtlebell, fine. However, it simply must wait until we have the Heart. Once Staff and Heart are one, the revenge you take on this wench will be exquisite. You have no idea at all what power you will wield."
At once Spitemorta's took on a dreamy lustful gloat as she pictured herself with the power Demonica suggested. She would be a goddess. She would crush Niarg and the Elven Realm. She would rule the world.
"Hey Rouanez bras. Let's finish our search."
Spitemorta snapped to, tucked away the diary in her belt pouch and eagerly resumed combing Fuzz's den.
By noon, they were thoroughly convinced that the Heart was nowhere to be found in the cave. Spitemorta brushed away a hodgepodge of flotsam dumped out of drawers and stretched out on the sofa, while Demonica sank into Fuzz's deeply cushioned chair. "Suggestions or opinions?" she said.
"Firstly, I'd say by the looks of things that Myrtlebell and whoever else lived with her left the cave right before we got here."
"Yea, strawberries and honey in bowels and not yet spoilt, a toy sword in a pile of fresh shavings and under my feet there's somebody's mending: a pair of little breeches. Also, everything was neat as a pin before we went to work..." said Demonica, flopping her arm across the arm of the chair as she rocked her head from side to side, studying the ceiling. "I agree, but so what?"
"So, if we find Myrtlebell, we'll find the Heart. That's what."
"You just might have something there," said Demonica, sitting straight upright to look right at Spitemorta. This Myrtlebell, has she magic?"
"Not a whit."
"Then we track her down," said Demonica with a snarl.
"Absolutely," said Spitemorta as her eyes drooped shut. "Right after we get some sleep."
Still carrying Edward on his shoulders, Fuzz led Myrtlebell as quickly as she could manage to the far end of a huge wooded dell, closed at both ends. In the middle of the dell was a long, narrow clearing filled with brush and sedges growing out of a dark spongy sod. Not a bit of wind stirred, and though the nights had been getting quite cool, the midday sun in the cloudless sky was uncomfortably hot for traveling out of breath. A sparrow with a black bib and a white crown called from high in a willow before dropping like a shot and winging away over the tops of the sedges. A chat scolded. Edward was hard at work springing aside branches and twigs to help them see. Myrtlebell's flaxen hair was plastered to the sides of her face with her sweat. No one spoke. From time to time, Fuzz would stop to listen above Myrtlebell's breathing.
In time they came back into timber. A cuckoo called. the land began to rise steeply as Fuzz led them straight up the slope. A parliament of crows far above finished a rattling debate amongst themselves, exploding into a flurry of caws as they took to the air. Ahead rose a sheer rock prominence. Here he stopped climbing and led them aside through a thick stand of trees and candied heath to a completely hidden rock overhang with a cavity running back several rods. "Well it isn't home," he said, "but it'll keep the rain off and keep us from being spotted from below or from above."
"You think Spitemorta rides around on a broomstick the way you said her mother did?" said Myrtlebell as she found a place to sit.
"I have no way of knowing, of course," he said as he gently laid the soundly sleeping Master Edward across her lap, "but I do know that she took Ugleeuh's broom and vanished with it before anyone had the wits to stop her, and it would only be prudent of us to consider the possibility that she might."
"I quite agree. Spitemorta is truly a nasty piece of work, Fuzz. Even as a child she was endlessly doing hateful things to people. You could tell. She truly enjoyed watching the pain she inflicted on others." She paused to admire her sleeping son. "I had my faults, too. I was self-centered and snotty. Thought I was better than some..." she sighed, "better than a shameful lot of people. And I loved being in charge, even if I stepped on people to have it that way, but I never made a sport of causing pain like Spitemorta. I'm not sure she's entirely sane."
Fuzz sat down heavily. "I've heard Rose and Lukus say much the same things about her," he said, sighing as he stretched out his legs.
"As would anyone who knows her at all. Guess what she did at the tender age of twelve? She'd had a terrible row with her governess, I don't remember what about, but she decided she'd have some fun, making the old girl pay for yelling at her. She was the sweetest little old lady who had no family at all, just her cat. She talked to that cat just like it was a child and it meant more to her than anything. Anyway, Spitemorta caught the cat and killed it. Then for good measure, she dressed it and took it to one of the cooks in Castle Goll, telling her that it was a rabbit one of the guards had shot, and as he had no wife, she wanted it cooked for him. Well, the cook was as obliging as she was thick, so she actually cooked it. When the cat was cooked, Spitemorta took it to her governess and told her she had brought her a meal to make up for her awful behavior. The old lady was touched and ate as much of the 'rabbit' as she could.
"When she missed her cat and started searching, a little girl said she thought Spitemorta had been playing with a cat that morning. She pulled Spitemorta aside and asked her if she had seen her cat. Spitemorta went to laughing and called her an old witch for having just eaten it for supper. The governess vanished from the castle, certain enough, but there were all kinds of rumors about what else happened. Some say she fled the country. Some even say she killed herself. No matter what really happened to the old lady, Spitemorta was certainly evil for a twelve year old."
"Whew! That's a horrible tale, Myrtlebell," said Fuzz. "If you have any more like that, please, I don't want to hear them. And you know what? I grew up with Spitemorta's father. In fact, he was my best friend. Never could you find a better, kinder soul. I am right grateful that he never had to know that he'd sired such an evil child."
"You think Spitemorta and her companion are following us?" she said, as she carefully eased herself from under Edward and covered him with her cloak. She brushed aside a stray curl from his forehead, then looked up at Fuzz, who obviously had more to say.
"The last word I got from Razzmorten was that the combined governments of Goll and Loxmere had a reward out for your capture or information leading to your capture," he said, rearing up onto his hind legs to begin pacing. "If Spitemorta is actually out after you and has gotten to the cave, there's easily enough evidence there to tell her that she's on the right track. However, I find it right odd that she would be out after you, rather than her soldiers."
"That's not much comfort, Fuzz."
"I know, and I'm sorry, but let's think about this for a minute. Why would Spitemorta, ruling queen of two countries, take the time to personally hunt down her missing mother-in-law who was being sought on the trumped-up charge of murdering her husband, the late King ofLoxmere? You've been missing for five years, after all. You should be completely out of the picture. Unless James or Spitemorta were suddenly being accused of his murder, why go to the trouble?"
"But what other reason could she have for being here?" said Myrtlebell as she sat down and drew up her knees. "She showed up at Ugleeuh's cabin, where Edward and I were until you graciously took us in, and then at your den. I mean, it's not like you have something incredibly valuable hidden away that she could be after."
"Maybe I have Myrtlebell," he said, sitting up as if something had bitten him. "Or at least I did."
"I've no idea what you could possibly be talking about, Fuzz. You do have a verycomfortable den, but I can't imagine that any of your personal possessions are nearly valuable enough to bring her all the way here."
"I'm talking about something I found several years back that someone like Spitemorta could put to very good use to the detriment of us all, if she ever got her hands on it."
"You aren't making much sense, Fuzz. What exactly did you find that could make Spitemorta more dangerous than she already is?"
Fuzz shook his head. "Please understand that I trust you implicitly, Myrtlebell, "he said, "but it is truly best if you don't know."
"I'm completely bewildered, but I do understand, Fuzz. What do we do now?"
"I think we need to go to the dragons. Spark may have a way to contact Razzmorten. It would be best to get you and Edward to a safer place for awhile."
"All right, but what about you?"
"Hey. I'm just a fuzzy old bear with no hair. Spitemorta isn't likely to give me a second look."
Demonica made some signs in the bright morning air, found her stirrup and settled herself comfortably astride Gwenole. She turned to see if Spitemorta were ready. She was, and they sauntered off, following the tracks of one human and one bear into the woods.