Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Patricia C. Wrede. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: "The Affairs of Dragons" was written for Femgenficathon IV, to prompt #68: The world is round, and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning. -- Ivy Baker Priest. I've incorporated bits of my personal backstory for Morwen, but the story should still be perfectly comprehensible to anyone who's read Patricia C. Wrede's books... and, hopefully, even to people who haven't.
Thanks to uminohikari and sirenalune for the lightning-fast beta!
Summary: In which Morwen loses her house, meets a princess and a knight, does a favor for the king of the dragons, makes a new friend, and finds a new home.
The Affairs of Dragons
The village of Tolchester lay on the banks of the Debatable River, just where it became navigable after the confusion of its underground journey through the Caves of Chance. Perhaps because of the oddness of their river, the people of Tolchester were extremely hidebound, insular, and defensive. They lived the same way their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had lived, and they considered themselves much superior to any outsiders.
In retrospect, Morwen should never have agreed to be their village witch. But she had wanted so much to be like her Aunt Grizelda -- wanted to be out in the world, doing something useful, instead of hiding in the Academy or a remote tower and doing arcane research like Telemain -- and Tolchester had seemed so much like her home village of Splot that she'd refused to listen to her second and third thoughts until it was far too late.
Morwen landed her broom in a wide, shallow valley between two mountains and stretched, trying to work out the kinks and cramps of a nearly nine hour flight with only minimal breaks. Immediately, eight cats boiled out of the carrying baskets tied over the back of the broom, leapt to the ground, and flowed over the rocks and wildflowers, complaining in a cacophony of yowls and hisses.
A ninth cat uncoiled himself from Morwen's shoulders and began washing his cream and silver fur. "Please say we won't have to do this again tomorrow. I don't think I've ever been so miserable in my life, and I know Trouble and Scorn will raise havoc if you try to get them back into one of those baskets."
Morwen looked around with a critical eye. A small stream tumbled and meandered through the center of the valley, some of the plants were wild carrots, and the cats seemed to be enjoying themselves chasing rodents of some sort. She wouldn't want to live here -- for one thing, she had only a vague idea where 'here' was, and it was never wise to move into a new country without at least knowing whom it belonged to -- but it would do nicely as a camp for a few days.
"We'll have to fly on sooner or later, Jasper," she told the cat, "but not tomorrow and probably not the day after either. You can give the others the good news while I set up the tent."
Jasper dashed off at lightning speed.
Morwen unhooked the baskets from her broom and reached inside the left-hand one. They didn't look nearly large enough to hold four cats each, let alone anything else, but magic was wonderfully useful at circumventing physics. She fished around, concentrating, and pulled out a long, lumpy roll of canvas. Then she pulled out a bundle of metal poles, a coil of rope, four long stakes, and a hammer.
Morwen was a firm believer in being prepared. Camping in the wilderness was not something she'd ever wanted to do, but when the Tolchester village council had delivered the eviction notice two days ago, she'd refused to waste more than one hour on annoyance and worry before planning a way to leave that kept most of her possessions intact and that didn't involve begging her aunt for help.
Unfortunately, setting the tent up was more difficult than she'd expected. The cats drifted back, listened to her fuming at the fabric, the poles, and the stakes, and made sarcastic commentary. Morwen put up with them for nearly ten minutes before her temper snapped.
"If you don't have anything better to do, why don't some of you go hunt something that I can make into stew?" she asked, brushing sweaty hair from her face and glasses. She grimaced; she hated looking less than tidy.
The cats exchanged a complicated network of glances, and then all of them except Jasmine and Murgatroyd -- a small ginger queen and a black-and-white tomcat, respectively -- drifted away again.
"You should have transported the whole cottage instead of buying this thing," Murgatroyd remarked, lashing his tail as he stalked around the half-erected tent. "It's ridiculous."
"The cottage belongs to the village," Morwen explained as she twisted one of the collapsible poles, trying to get the two sections to join properly. "That's part of what it means to be a village witch -- you get a free house and free food in return for providing free spells, potions, and advice, and not turning your neighbors into mice."
"I still don't think that's fair," said Jasmine, ambling over to sniff at one of the corner stakes. "You lived there for over two years; that made it ours. Wherever we end up, you should buy a house instead of letting someone else have any hold over us."
"Believe me, I have no intention of working for anyone but myself ever again," Morwen said. That sort of bargain might work for some witches and some towns, but clearly Morwen was a failure compared to Aunt Grizelda, even accounting for the differences between Splot and Tolchester. She banged on the pole with her hammer until the two parts slid together with an audible click. "Ha! That's the last of those. Why don't you two tell the others I should have this finished in half an hour or so, barring any interruptions."
Jasmine coughed and twitched her tail. "We're in the Mountains of Morning and people have camped in this valley before -- Fiddlesticks found someone's old rubbish pile. If we don't see at least one knight or dragon by tomorrow evening, I'll eat rabbit food for a week."
She and Murgatroyd strolled off, leaving Morwen to the sinking feeling that her departure from Tolchester had been much less well-planned than she'd thought.
"Well, it can't be helped now," she muttered, shoving the pole into the ground. At least a dragon attack wouldn't be boring.
Dinner was rabbit and carrot stew -- the cats were surprisingly amenable to vegetables once they'd been cooked and disguised by broths or sauces -- after which Morwen settled down on the grass in front of her tent to check her maps. The clear, bluish light of summer evening slanted through the valley, striking glittery flashes from the stream and the mica chips in the stones. The lacy carrot blossoms waved in the warm breeze and a pair of indigo butterflies danced from flower to flower, tracked intently by several cats.
Morwen spread three maps out on the lumpy ground, trying to get them overlapped so they would show the whole mountain range and the surrounding kingdoms. The scale was off, and the cartographer who'd drawn the northern mountains had clearly imagined a good deal of terrain out of whole cloth, but it was remarkably difficult to get good maps of dragon lands. Human cartographers had a distressing tendency to be eaten, since the dragons weren't pleased at the idea of people being able to find their homes and hoards.
"Have you figured out where we are?" Jasmine asked, hopping into Morwen's lap and resting her head on her front paws.
"Possibly. Tolchester is here," Morwen said, pointing to the southwestern edge of the Mountains of Morning, "and we left at seven in the morning, flew steadily with a slight tailwind, and headed as close to due north-northeast as I could manage, so... somewhere in this region." She traced one finger over a ten-inch swath of paper in the middle of the range, just on the western side of the central peaks.
Jasmine stared at the maps with slitted eyes. "Hmm. You do realize that Linnet claims the main entrance to the Caves of Fire and Night is somewhere in this region."
"The dragons don't let anyone but dwarves and a few wizards in there," Jasmine continued.
"True," Morwen agreed. "But we're not going to look for the caves and I'm perfectly willing to swear any oath testifying to my lack of interest in them, so I think we shouldn't have any trouble. I'm more worried about the giant hawks that MacAulay claims live in the passes through the central mountains. They'd eat you in one bite. If the young birds haven't left the nests yet, they might try to kill me as well."
"This is when you tell us to be grateful we're stuck in baskets while you fly, isn't it," Jasmine grumbled, kneading her paws on Morwen's thigh.
"Curses, you've discovered my wicked plan," Morwen said, absently scratching the cat behind her ears. "Make yourself useful -- once we cross the mountains, should we head south toward Linderwall or north toward Kaltenmark? Kaltenmark is more friendly toward witches and non-traditional folk, but Linderwall is bigger, warmer, and has better food and libraries."
"Which has more fish?" Jasmine asked, raising her voice.
"Fish? Who has fish? Can I have some too?" A slim brown cat bounced through the flowers, his tail raised like an exclamation point, and peered at the maps. "Jasmine, this isn't fish, it's only paper."
"I know, Fiddlesticks," Jasmine purred, "but there might be fish in the stream. Why don't you try to catch some? I'm sure you're smarter than a fish, so it won't be too difficult."
Fiddlesticks drew back in distaste. "And get wet? No thanks! I can catch those funny little not-quite-mice without getting wet, and they taste almost as good as fish."
"They're called pikas," Morwen said as Fiddlesticks bounded off again. "And that wasn't nearly as amusing as you thought it was," she added to Jasmine.
The cat purred smugly, and then said, "How traditional is Linderwall? If it's like Tolchester, not even good libraries will help."
Morwen frowned and glared at the maps. "I'm not honestly sure. On the one hand, I've never heard much about it one way or the other, which tends to imply that it's a boring country. On the other hand, maybe they're simply good at hiding any oddness."
"Do you want to be hidden?" Jasmine asked.
Morwen's frown deepened. "I'm not sure about that either. I do not want to be bothered at all hours of the day, like we were in Tolchester. But I don't want to be anybody's dirty secret." She sighed and poked her finger at the maps, shifting their alignment. "I wish I'd gone into research like Telemain instead of trying to imitate Aunt Grizelda."
Jasmine opened her mouth, but whatever she might have said was drowned by an outraged yowl from upstream. "Someone stepped on Miss Eliza's tail," shouted Trouble, a battered gray tom, as he raced downstream toward Morwen. "I think it's a princess!"
Morwen scrambled to her feet, shifting Jasmine to her right shoulder, and jammed her pointy black hat onto her head, trying to look stern, responsible and completely adult. She hated the hat, but it did tend to short-circuit some arguments about how a young and pretty woman couldn't possibly be a witch.
A young woman about Morwen's age dashed over the lip of the valley, between a granite outcropping and the rushing stream. Her golden hair was long and loose, her silk dress was sky-blue with pearls and silver embroidery for decoration, and a tiny white enameled crown was pinned to her hair. She wore a green enameled locket around her neck and a large canvas bag tied to her girdle.
The princess glanced over her shoulder, nearly slipped on the damp rocks, and then hurried down into the valley. After another dozen paces she finally noticed the angry cats at her feet and Morwen waiting ahead of her. She stopped, wobbled, and sank to the ground in a billow of damp fabric and tangled hair.
"Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" she asked, in a voice that chimed like silver bells.
Morwen hid a wince at the effect -- there was no telling what went through the minds of some fairy godmothers -- and straightened the sleeves of her black robes. "That depends on whether you annoy me," she said. "What brings you to the Mountains of Morning?"
"Stupidity?" Trouble offered. Morwen prodded him with her foot, hoping he would take a hint for once in his life.
"Initially, a dragon," the princess said, managing to sound wry despite the ethereal chimes. "But at this specific moment, I'm afraid that I brought myself. You see, I'm running away from my captor."
"Definitely stupidity," Jasmine murmured into Morwen's ear.
"This is not the time," Morwen muttered back, and then smiled brightly at the princess. "I see. And your captor would be...?"
"Kazul," the princess said. "She's quite decent as dragons go, but we argued a lot and I got tired of not being in charge of my own life. I finally found a knight worth the cost of his armor, and he defeated Kazul, but for some reason she refuses to let me go." The princess slumped further, golden hair falling to shadow her heart-shaped face. "She surprised us in the Pass of Broken Hawthorn and Andovan threw himself in her way to let me escape. Now I can't think of any way to rescue him without getting captured myself."
She sighed musically. "I don't suppose there's anything I could say to persuade you to help me?"
Morwen closed her eyes and counted to ten while the cats laughed. This was precisely the sort of complication she didn't need when she was trespassing on dragon lands without most of her usual resources. She shouldn't agree to help. She was obviously no good with people, or she wouldn't have failed in Tolchester. This could only end in tears.
But it was almost certain to be interesting.
"Fine," Morwen said, walking over and offering her hand. "Come have dinner and tell me all the details. I'll see what I can do."
"Sucker," said Trouble.
"My name is Thelistra, and I'm the seventh child of the king of Veritand," the princess explained, between mouthfuls of stew. "I have three older brothers and three older sisters, so everyone except my grandmother overlooked me most of the time. That suited me; I'm not terribly fond of most people. But on my eighteenth birthday, my parents decided that since they couldn't find a good marriage alliance with any neighboring kingdom, it would be best to have me kidnapped by some villain from whom I could be rescued."
Morwen, who had heard several variations on this story during her years at the Academy, nodded and made encouraging noises, while subtly motioning the cats to help out. After a long moment, Miss Eliza Tudor sauntered across the tent and curled up at Thelistra's side.
"You owe me for this," she said, and began to purr.
"Kazul happened to be in the northwest corner of Veritand at the time -- I'm still not certain why -- and she agreed to take me on in return for three bags of assorted treasure and eight books from the court wizard's collection," Thelistra continued. "It wasn't all bad, being a dragon's princess, but she expected me to cook and clean and I'd never learned how. I wasn't even much use at organizing her library, since I kept getting distracted and reading the books. We tried to get along -- we're both interested in books and magic and history, so it seemed as though we should have been friends -- but we never managed more than a week or two without a screaming argument. Unfortunately Kazul had promised my parents to keep me until she was defeated, so we were stuck with each other."
Thelistra sighed and began to stroke Miss Eliza's white hair. The cat leaned shamelessly into the petting.
"I met Andovan three months ago. He's quite hopeless as a knight -- he has two left feet, to be honest -- but he's a good man, he's clever, he has a lovely smile, and he treats me like a person instead of a decorative sofa cushion or an irritating teacup poodle." Thelistra's smile was a touch watery, but genuine; apparently this was true love. "I asked Kazul to throw their fight. She refused, since no one is supposed to interfere with honorable combat during a ceremonial battle... but she pointed out that there are no rules against knights getting outside aid before the battle."
"I believe I see where this is going," Morwen said. "Cider?"
Thelistra set down her bowl and took the mug gratefully. "Thank you. Yes, I found a needlework charm that makes its bearer invincible in battle. The catch is that it can't be reused and I didn't think to make more than one, so when Kazul found us this afternoon, Andovan stood no chance against her. And I don't know why Kazul is chasing us, since all the terms of her contract have been fulfilled! I thought I was finally free, but now she has Andovan and I don't know what to do."
Thelistra began to sniffle, a few tears rolling down her nose and dropping into her cider.
"At least she doesn't cry diamonds or flower petals," Trouble said. He stretched luxuriously, batting at the tent flap.
"Fairy godmothers are all crazy," agreed Scorn, looking up from washing her tail. "Look, she's going all red and blotchy."
"You hush," Morwen hissed to the calico cat. She stuck her hand into her left sleeve, concentrated, and produced a large handkerchief. "Here, Thelistra. Blow your nose; you'll probably feel better."
Thelistra obeyed, with a sound like a rather melodic, chiming foghorn. "Sorry," she mumbled.
"Don't worry about it. Anyone would be upset after a day like yours," Morwen said, awkwardly. She'd never been much use at comforting people. Why had she thought she could deal with a whole village's problems? Why did she think she could help Thelistra?
Well, she'd agreed to try; she couldn't back out now. She poured herself a mug of cider and tried to think logically. "As I see it, you have two problems. First, rescue your knight, and second, find out what Kazul wants. Or rather, first, find out what Kazul wants and second, trade that for your knight. That order might be more effective."
Thelistra looked doubtful. "I don't have anything to trade -- just my clothes, my sewing bag, and my grandmother's locket. There's no reason for a dragon to want those." She held up the canvas bag and the lumpy green enameled square as if to demonstrate their worthlessness.
"Well, we won't know until we ask, and we can't ask until we see her, so there's no use speculating, " Morwen said. "And since it's already sunset and I have no intention of walking through the Mountains of Morning at night, I suggest we turn in and wait for tomorrow. Kazul will probably stay nearby until she finds you, and I'm sure everything will look more manageable in the morning."
"I shan't sleep a wink until I know Andovan is safe," Thelistra insisted, but she allowed Morwen to make a slapdash bed from a pile of blankets and a spare pillow, and she lay down with her back to the center of the tent. After a minute, she began to sniffle, quietly.
"Are we quite sure she's all right?" asked Jasper, oozing in under the back wall of the tent. His voice was slightly muffled by the dead pika in his mouth.
"She's young, she's just lost her lover, and she's clearly not used to being on her own," said Miss Ophelia, a rather spiky tortoiseshell cat. "I don't expect you'd be all right if you were her."
"But we aren't her. We're not stupid enough to let anyone tell us where to live, not even Fiddlesticks," said Scorn.
"Hey!" Fiddlesticks said. Everyone ignored him.
"If my mother had tried to sell me to a dragon," Scorn continued, "I'd have scratched her and run off even earlier than I did. Are you going to share that mouse-thing, Jasper?"
"It's a pika," said Fiddlesticks, "Morwen said so. And Jasper caught it, so I don't see why he should have to share. You and Chaos didn't share that trout with me this afternoon."
"That was different," Chaos put in, eyeing Jasper's pika with great interest. He inched forward, until Jasper swiped a paw at him, claws unsheathed. "Yow! Even if you don't want to share, you don't have to be so rude about it."
Trouble and Jasmine snickered, and Scorn bent her ire on them. Morwen tuned out the bickering with the ease of long practice, extinguished the fire under the stewpot, shuttered the will-o-the-wisp in her lantern, and rolled herself up in her blankets.
She had a dragon to meet tomorrow, and Thelistra was counting on her. She needed all the sleep she could get.
Thelistra woke at the first gray light of false dawn and tripped over Miss Eliza in her attempt to get out of the tent. This woke Morwen, who decided that they might as well wash up and eat breakfast. Unfortunately, breakfast was nothing but cider and dry toast.
"I would cheerfully murder someone for a bit of cheese," Morwen said as she shoved a second slice of bread onto the poker and held it over the fire. "I'm obviously not nearly as good at packing as I thought I was."
"You're much better than I am," Thelistra said, nibbling on a crust. "I didn't think to bring anything except my sewing bag." She looked somewhat more composed this morning; her hair was neatly brushed and braided, her crown was pinned at a better angle, and her face wasn't blotchy anymore. Her dress was surprisingly unwrinkled, but then, she did know some fabric-based magic.
"You didn't expect to end up on your own," Morwen said, wondering if Thelistra would share her anti-wrinkle spell. "I'm sure your knight has food in his saddlebags."
Thelistra's face twisted into a mix of sheepishness and annoyance. "Yes, well, he most likely did, but he lost his horse in a tourney two weeks ago. I've been sneaking him leftovers from my own meals."
Morwen stared across the tent. "You must be joking."
"You're burning the toast," said Jasmine.
Morwen yanked the poker back from the flames. "Thank you, Jasmine."
Thelistra blinked. "Are you talking to your cat?" she asked, setting down her empty mug. "Wait, you're a witch; they must be your familiars. Of course you can speak with them. That's fascinating -- how does the spell work? Can anyone learn it, or is it a secret of your magical tradition? How effective are they at helping you focus and manipulate spells?"
Chaos attempted to cover his ears with his forepaws. "Morwen, make her stop. She's as bad as that magician!"
"Worse!" said Trouble. "He didn't chime."
"There is nothing wrong with being like Telemain," Morwen said, reflexively. Then her mind caught up to her mouth and she added, "Well, in moderation. And she can't help her voice. But anyway, Thelistra, they're quite effective when they feel cooperative."
"Effective enough to help us fight Kazul?" Thelistra asked. She tucked a stray wisp of golden hair behind her ear and looked hopefully at Morwen and the cats.
"Do we look stupid enough to fight a dragon?" Scorn demanded. "That's insulting."
"Speak for yourself," Trouble said, speculatively. "It might be fun to try." His ragged ear twitched and his tail curled in anticipation.
"Maybe for you, but you're crazy," said Scorn. "Morwen, tell her we're not fighting her dragon."
"I'm afraid defeating a dragon is a bit beyond me," Morwen said, pulling her toast off the poker and juggling it on her fingertips. "Let's try diplomacy and see where that gets us. We'll move on to dirty tricks if we have to, but I'd much rather not get on a dragon's bad side." Aunt Grizelda would never let her hear the end of that.
"That's all very well for you," Thelistra said, "but I'm already on Kazul's bad side, and I don't much care what she thinks of me so long as I rescue Andovan and don't have to go through this again."
Morwen swallowed a bite of toast and pointed out, "The less she dislikes you, the more chance you have of a successful escape. Would you like some more cider?"
"No," Thelistra said, and proceeded to mope, quietly, until Morwen had finished eating and brushed her teeth. "Can we go now?"
Morwen checked the contents of her sleeves, twisted her hair into a bun, pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, grabbed her broom (in case she and Thelistra needed to make a quick escape), and settled her pointy hat firmly on her head. "Yes. Let's go rescue your knight."
They followed Thelistra's trail back upstream, over the lip of the valley and into a narrow, moss-lined gorge. There was scarcely any dry ground beside the stream, and the two women spent half the journey stepping carefully from stone to stone midstream, trying not to fall into the water.
The cats complained every inch of the way.
After nearly a mile, the gorge opened into another valley, which led upward toward the shoulder of a towering peak. "That's the Pass of Broken Hawthorn," Thelistra said, pointing along the narrow path. "Kazul's cave is about five miles beyond, not far from the Pass of Silver Ice."
"I've heard of that one," Morwen said, wringing out the hem of her robes. "Why not go that way? You'd have reached human lands much sooner."
"Yes, but the Pass of Silver Ice leads down into Raxwell, and my sister Penelope is married to the crown prince. I didn't want my family to know where I'd gone, since they wouldn't approve of Andovan," Thelistra said. "We didn't expect pursuit, so the extra two days' travel shouldn't have mattered. We were thinking of settling in Kaltenmark or the Border Duchies around the Enchanted Forest."
"Aren't the Border Duchies a bit insular?" asked Morwen. "I've always heard that strangers tend to complain about being shut out, and they mostly leave after a year or two."
Thelistra shrugged. "So long as I have Andovan, I wouldn't mind being shut out, and if nobody talks to strangers, my family would have no way to find me. It seemed like a reasonable secondary plan. But I prefer Kaltenmark -- it should be easier for us to make a living in a larger town. I'll sell charms and Andovan can train horses or find a job as a clerk. He's hopeless with a sword, but he's excellent with words and numbers."
For someone who'd been raised in a castle and had most likely never needed to do an honest day's work in her life -- at least until she'd gone to live with a dragon -- that wasn't half bad as a plan. Morwen approved.
"Well, Andovan can't go anywhere until we rescue him," she said, and began walking up the path toward the Pass of Broken Hawthorn.
"That is definitely a dragon," said Murgatroyd. His tail lashed from side to side as he peered around the bend in the path at the far side of the pass. "And that's definitely a knight, even if he has lost his sword and armor."
"Thank you for your excellent observations," Morwen said, venturing a glance of her own. The Pass of Broken Hawthorn opened onto a wide, flat ledge with a nasty drop-off on the left and jagged heaps of fallen stones on the right. Kazul was a large, green presence several yards away, curled up with her head propped on a foreleg as she contemplated a lanky, ginger-haired man whose wrists were tied to a scraggly tree. She seemed to be questioning him; her sharp teeth glinted in the morning sunlight when she spoke. A sword and a pile of dented armor lay at the knight's feet.
Morwen ducked back into the pass. "I don't think we can sneak up on her. We'll have to be straightforward."
Thelistra smiled conspiratorially and fished a tangle of silver embroidery floss out of her sewing bag. "No we don't. I have an invisibility charm. The catch is that it only works on one person, and it doesn't hide your shadow."
"You might have mentioned that sooner," Morwen said, tapping her fingers against the granite wall of the pass. "Hmm. In that case, you wear the charm and take my broom. Sneak towards your knight while I'm talking to Kazul. If the negotiation goes badly, untie Andovan and fly away; I'll distract Kazul long enough for you to get a good head start."
Thelistra took the broom and hugged Morwen. "Thank you! Thank you so much!" Then she frowned. "But you'll be stuck in the mountains. I can't do that to you."
Morwen waved one hand sharply. "Don't worry about it. I have a jar of flying ointment. If I need to, I can make some sort of transportation out of the tent poles. The important thing to remember is that you can't untie Andovan unless Kazul refuses to see reason. If you untie him too soon, it will make me look dishonest, and we may lose our chance at a peaceful solution."
"Yes, yes, of course," said Thelistra, who was practically dancing on tiptoe. "Can we start now? Please? I have to see him!"
"Shush, or Kazul will hear you. And yes, I'm going. Jasmine, Murgatroyd, you come with me. Jasper and Miss Eliza, you stay with Thelistra. The rest of you, keep watch." Morwen ignored Trouble's protests with the ease of two years' practice, adjusted her hat and glasses, and stepped out onto the ledge.
"Hello," she called. "I offer you greetings in the name of myself and my companions, and I wish you good fortune on this day. I'm Morwen; may I have the honor of knowing your names?"
Kazul swung her head around and examined Morwen, while the ginger-haired knight tilted his head in curiosity. "Greetings to you, too," said Kazul after a moment. "I'm Kazul and this is Sir Andovan of Taliss. I assume the cats are the companions you mentioned?"
"Of course we are," said Jasmine, leaping to a nearby rock and then to Morwen's shoulder. "Do you see anyone else around?"
Morwen closed her eyes and counted to ten, very rapidly, but fortunately Kazul laughed. "I don't see anyone else, but you never can tell with witches. Speaking of which, what are you doing in the Mountains of Morning? You need the king's permission to visit the Caves of Fire and Night or to settle here."
"I'm only passing through," Morwen assured her, moving forward into more comfortable speaking distance; she felt silly shouting across the whole length of the ledge. "I... left my home a bit suddenly, and I decided to spend a few days in the mountains while I decided where to go. I thought it would reduce interruptions." She looked over at Andovan and raised one eyebrow. "Possibly I was wrong. Would it be rude to ask what's going on here?"
"Not at all," Kazul said, settling back down on her haunches. "Andovan and I were discussing poetry while we waited for a guest. He has a much higher opinion of de la Mare's epics than I do, and was attempting to persuade me by reciting the duel of wits between Charmian and Teleute."
"I admit the heroic couplets can be tedious at first," Andovan put in, "but one grows accustomed to the rhythm, and de la Mare's wordplay and pacing are brilliant. And he's one of the few poets who bothers to write intelligent women."
"I'll grant him that," agreed Kazul, "but I don't think it makes up for the rhyme scheme. It always reminds me of spells and that jolts me out of the story."
Morwen blinked. This friendly conversation -- even allowing for Andovan's bound wrists -- was not what Thelistra had led her to expect.
"Um," she said. "You do realize that Sir Andovan is tied to that tree, right?"
"Do we look blind?" Kazul asked.
"No, of course not," said Morwen, "but it seems odd to tie a person up just to have a conversation about poetry. Am I missing something?"
"A house, a library, a broom..." Murgatroyd muttered, stalking around her feet.
"You hush," Morwen said, and looked back up at Kazul and Andovan. To her right, a dry leaf crunched and a shadow moved behind a low screen of rocks. Thelistra was moving in.
Kazul and the knight exchanged a meaningful glance. "This is mostly for the look of things," Andovan said after a moment, "but it's also... well, I'm a trifle clumsy, you see, and I nearly fell off the ledge yesterday evening, so I asked Kazul to give me an anchor overnight. I rather forgot about it, to be honest."
"I also wanted to make sure he didn't wake up in the middle of the night and run off looking for our guest before I had a chance to talk with her," Kazul added. "He's a trifle forgetful as well." She smiled. Her teeth were very sharp.
Thelistra's shadow flowed out from behind the rocks, nearly with arm's length of Andovan, and Morwen realized things were getting out of hand.
"I apologize for this," she said, bowing to Kazul, "but I didn't know all the details at the time, and I'd appreciate not being eaten until I know what's really going on. Thelistra! Stop! This isn't what we thought it was!"
Kazul reared up and Andovan spun wildly, tangling himself in his cords. "Thelistra? Where? Darling, we have to talk!"
"I smell her," snarled Kazul, little tongues of flame slipping between her teeth and falling to the ground. "You silly goose, what are you trying to do now? Why can't you ever talk to me before jumping to conclusions?" She leaned toward the pile of rocks, sniffing loudly.
Jasper and Miss Eliza flowed around the other side of the stones, looking sheepish. "I tried to make her wait," Jasper said as they hurried to Morwen's side, "but it's hard when she can't understand us. Sorry."
"It's not your fault," Morwen said, wondering frantically what she could do if Kazul lost her temper and tried to fry someone. She didn't know any fireproofing spells.
Kazul lashed out with one foreleg, two claws pinching together on a fold of invisible fabric, and hauled Thelistra forward onto the main ledge. "Make yourself visible! I want to see you when I'm talking to you."
Thelistra's shadow moved, one hand reaching toward her torso, and then she faded into visibility as she unpinned the knot of silver embroidery floss from her bodice. "What conclusion am I supposed to reach when a dragon flies overhead and breathes fire at me and my love?" she yelled, anger nearly drowning out the chimes in her voice. "I thought we were done with each other. Why won't you leave me alone?"
"Because you have something that belongs to the dragons," Kazul said, shaking Thelistra back and forth, "and you ran off before I could explain and try to bargain like civilized people. And I was not breathing fire at you -- I was warning off a giant hawk that was stooping to carry you away as dinner for its nestlings. I've told you and told you, you have to pay attention to what's happening around you instead of getting lost in your books and your stitching."
"Um," said Morwen, stepping forward, "this might work better if you let go of her and if you both stopped yelling."
Kazul and Thelistra glared at her like eerily mismatched reflections, one spitting flame metaphorically and the other literally. "Don't interrupt!" Thelistra snapped.
Morwen raised her hands and backed off. "Fine, yell away. Don't mind me, I'll just go back to my tent."
"That's the first sensible thing you've said all morning," muttered Jasmine, digging her claws into Morwen's shoulder. "Standing in front of an angry dragon is just asking for trouble."
"No, stay here," Kazul growled. "You were trying to trick me, but you stopped Thelistra before she did anything irreparably stupid. Maybe you can help us negotiate." She let go of Thelistra's dress and shuffled back toward the drop-off, giving the humans a bit of space. "Thelistra, do you trust this witch?"
"With my life," Thelistra said defiantly. "She's been nothing but kind to me. Even if she did give me away, I'm certain she had a good reason." She dropped Morwen's broom and hurried over to untie and untangle Andovan, caressing his wrists as she worked. "Andovan, darling, are you hurt?"
"Not in the slightest," he assured her, gathering her into his arms. "Kazul has been a most gracious host and I swear the rope was only to make this look like the aftermath of a battle, so no other dragons would interrupt us while we waited for you. I really think you should listen to her, because this whole situation seems to have been a misunderstanding."
Thelistra looked skeptical but didn't argue out loud. Morwen took that as a hopeful sign.
"Since we all know more or less who we are," she began, sitting on a handy chunk of granite, "why don't we start with explanations. Kazul, what do you think Thelistra took from the dragons, and why do you think she has it? She told me she didn't take anything from your caves, not even food or blankets."
Kazul sighed a small gush of flame. "That's a long story. It starts nearly sixty years ago, with the old king of the dragons. Murzig was... eccentric, to put it mildly -- that's the trouble with letting a magic stone choose our kings -- and he... well, bluntly, he fell in love with another dragon's princess."
There was a long moment of silence, broken by Miss Eliza. "That sounds awkward. How on earth did they manage?"
"Murzig was an expert at transfiguration," Kazul said, flushing slightly. "We've never been sure if he made himself into a human or her into a dragon, or something even odder, but the fact remains, something was going on, and Murzig had stopped paying any attention to his duties. The other dragon, Gaurim, did everything she could to get rid of the girl, and finally managed to lose a fight with a prince. Murzig couldn't stop the prince from taking the girl away, and Oraun, the queen, persuaded him that nobody would support him if he attacked the prince's kingdom in revenge. "
She paused and looked contemplative. "I've always wondered if Murzig was behind the idiot knight who tore Oraun's wing a few years later; the timing is suspicious. But that's not the point.
"The important thing is, Murzig gave the Box of Shadows to the girl as a parting gift. It's an iron chest that holds powdered shadows from the Caves of Fire and Night, and it's part of the king's official regalia. Nobody noticed for years since it's of no practical use, but when Murzig died and Tokoz took the crown, we couldn't find the box."
"But that's nothing to do with me," Thelistra interrupted. "I don't have any iron boxes. I think I would have noticed."
"Shush," said Morwen. "You'll get your turn in a minute."
Kazul pointedly ignored them and continued her story. "The girl married the crown prince of Veritand. Tokoz asked me to find the Box of Shadows, which is why I was in the kingdom when your parents wanted to get rid of you. I accepted the contract because I hoped the box might be in the treasure they gave me, or that one of the court wizard's predecessors had written about it. It took me a year and a half to find the right entry in those eight journals, but I finally did. And you do have the box. It's been right in front of me the whole time."
Kazul pointed one claw at Thelistra's enameled locket. "You see? I did say Murzig was an expert at transfiguration."
"My locket? But it can't be a magic box," said Thelistra, clutching her hand around the lumpy green locket. "For one thing, it doesn't have any shadows inside, just a bit of my grandmother's hair, and for another, even the best transfigurations leave a magical resonance. I would have noticed that once I started learning spells. Besides, I don't believe you. My grandmother would never have done something as... as mad as carrying on with a dragon. She loved my grandfather!"
Kazul looked skeptical. "Are you sure? As I recall, she was fanciful and headstrong, like you, though she was a much better cook. She fell for Murzig as fast as you fell for Andovan."
"The details of Thelistra's family history aren't relevant at the moment," Morwen said before Thelistra could start yelling again. "The important thing is the locket. We just need to test it to see whether it is or isn't this Box of Shadows." She held out her hand and stared pointedly at Thelistra.
Slowly, Thelistra pulled the chain over her head and handed the locket to Morwen. "If you so much as scratch it..." she began.
"But I won't," said Morwen. "You see, if this is the Box of Shadows, I think I know what happened to it. A transfigured object always has a residual hum, true, but what most people don't know is that the resonance can be masked by the presence of another spell." Thank goodness for Telemain and his insistence on theoretical research -- back at the academy, she'd helped him transfigure a teaspoon into a salt shaker, and they'd managed to disguise the change by casting a spell to keep the salt from sticking. They had received excellent marks for the project.
Morwen hoped she could do an equally good job stripping the masking spell from Thelistra's locket, without getting tangled in either the transfiguration spell or whatever magic was necessary to keep shadows in powdered form. She pulled a mirror from her sleeve and set it on the ground. "Jasper, go fetch the others. I might need their help."
"Others?" asked Kazul. After a moment, six cats swarmed out of the Pass of Broken Hawthorn and joined the three already at Morwen's feet. "Ah," Kazul said. "You have an unusual number of familiars."
"I like cats," Morwen said defensively. "And they're very helpful with complicated magic. Anyway, Thelistra, I suspect your grandmother or her court wizard knew about the masking effect of layered spells, which is why your locket is enameled." She set the locket in the center of the mirror.
"There's nothing odd about enameled jewelry. It's the national style of Veritand," said Thelistra.
"Yes, and that helped the disguise, but this is the wrong kind of enamel," Morwen said. "Your crown and your rings are done in white with gold and silver accents, but this locket is done in green--"
"It's the exact shade of Murzig's scales, come to think of it," Kazul said.
"--and it's a very sloppy job," Morwen continued, after a pause. "A professional jeweler would never have let this out of the workshop. I think your grandmother was trying to hide her gift and chose a color preservation spell as the masking layer. If you give me five minutes, I can find out for sure."
Thelistra frowned, but Andovan ran his hands over her shoulders. "There's no harm in being certain, darling," he said, "and this will solve our problem with Kazul either way. Let the witch do her spell."
"Thank you," Morwen said, reaching into her sleeves for the rest of her emergency spell supplies. "By the way, would anyone like some cider while I work?"
"That's definitely transfiguration resonance," Kazul said, staring down at the locket. It sat on the surface of a mirror, glistening damply with a mixture of water and salt and speckled with flecks of ground unicorn horn. To anyone sensitive to magic, it seemed to hum on a particularly high, grating note.
Thelistra poked the green enamel with her finger and winced. "I suppose I can't argue. Bother. I liked that locket. It was the one thing I had left of my grandmother, and she was the only one in my family who understood me properly."
"If she was moon-struck enough to love a dragon, I'm not surprised," said Scorn, ambling away from the mirror now that the revealing spell was completed.
"Now now, she was at least sensible enough to manage a good magical concealment," Aunt Ophelia said, "even if she was no good with enamel."
"She was good enough to fool me for over a year," said Kazul, scooping the locket up between her claws and spinning it in the air. "What do you want in return for this, Thelistra?"
"I don't want to trade it in the first place," Thelistra said, leaning back into Andovan's arms and glaring at Kazul, "but if I keep it, I doubt you'll ever give me any peace. Fine. Take it. I don't need anything from you. Just leave me alone from now on and I'll count it a fair trade."
Morwen sighed. "You're being short-sighted again. Kazul, do you have anything Thelistra and Andovan can use as transportation? They're heading for Kaltenmark but they hardly have any supplies and it's a five- or six-day journey from the Pass of Silver Ice, which means it's probably at least four days from here."
Kazul slipped the locket over her head and shook herself until it settled at the base of her long neck. "I could give you directions to Ballimore's castle," she said with a considering air. "She'll feed you and put you up for the night, and I think she and her husband have some flying carpets they can lend out."
"That sounds excellent to me," said Andovan. He bent down to speak into Thelistra's ear. "Darling, what do you think?"
"I think there must be a catch," Thelistra said, still glaring at Kazul.
"No catch," Kazul assured them, "unless you have something against giants."
Thelistra sighed. "Not particularly, no. Fine. Give us a note and some directions, and hopefully we'll never have to see each other again. It's not that I'm ungrateful for the experience, but I'll be quite glad to get out of the Mountains of Morning and back to human lands."
"I imagine I'd feel the same way if Tokoz had made me an ambassador instead of asking me to find the Box of Shadows," Kazul agreed. "Does anyone have pen and paper?"
Morwen produced both objects from her right sleeve, whereupon Kazul wrote out directions and a note of introduction in a large, round hand, holding the pen delicately between two claws. She pointed Thelistra and Andovan back toward her caves. "You'll want to cut right at Dilzip's cave and head straight north along the cliff path for a mile," she said, "and then follow the directions on the page. You should reach Ballimore's castle by sunset if you hurry."
Andovan bowed while Thelistra gathered his discarded sword and armor. "Thank you very much," he said, "and I hope there are no hard feeling from our battle."
"None at all -- you and Thelistra were very clever about it," Kazul said, nodding her head in return. "I wish you well in all your endeavors."
"Likewise, I suppose," said Thelistra. "And thank you so much, Morwen. This could have been quite unpleasant without you." She curtsied, dumped Andovan's sword and armor into his arms, and led him off along the ledge.
Morwen watched them go with a mild surge of envy. Thelistra and Andovan might be bad at practical details, but they seemed to be managing well enough, they knew where they were going, and they had each other. She was floundering and... well, she wasn't alone -- nobody with nine cats could ever entertain that illusion -- but familiars weren't the same as friends, and she had no idea what to do with her life.
Sighing, she began to put away her magic supplies.
"She's right, you know," Kazul said, interrupting Morwen's thoughts. "This could have been a huge mess without you to keep us from arguing. Thelistra and I have always rubbed each other the wrong way." She held out an empty mug. "Thank you for the cider as well; it was excellent."
"I make it myself," Morwen said, tucking the mug back into her left sleeve. "I was a failure as a village witch, but I've always been good with potions and plants. Cider is just a sideways application of those skills."
"Do you really think you're a failure?" Kazul asked, sounding surprised. "You seem perfectly competent to me. You figured out the concealment spell and broke it, you kept me and Thelistra from sabotaging each other, and you seem very clean and well-fed for someone camping in the middle of nowhere on short notice."
Morwen flushed. "Thank you," she said, "but even if I'm good at magic and common sense, I'm not usually good at dealing with people. Otherwise I wouldn't have been kicked out of Tolchester."
To her astonishment, Kazul laughed.
"It's not funny!" Morwen protested, waving her broom for emphasis. "I tried so hard, and nothing went right! That's nearly three years of my life utterly wasted, and now I have no idea where to go."
"But it is funny. Tolchester hasn't been able to keep a village witch for more than three years for generations," Kazul said between bursts of laughter. "They snatch young witches before they've heard the rumors and wear them out -- most of their witches don't even last one year. If you managed nearly three, you must be amazing."
"But... but that can't be true. I would have known. My aunt would have told me. Wouldn't she?" Aunt Grizelda wouldn't have let her waltz blithely into such a mess without at least warning her, right?
"Oh, I don't know. Sometimes children need to go out into the world and make their own mistakes," Kazul said. "I know my children did some awfully stupid things when they were young. It was hard to sit back and watch them flail, but they wouldn't have learned anything if I'd tried to smother them in safety or rescue them before they could rescue themselves."
"She has a point," said Jasper, winding around Morwen's ankles. "And you really did do everything anyone could reasonably expect from a witch. It's not your fault the people of Tolchester are so impossible."
"Oh, you shush," Morwen said, sitting heavily on her rock. "You're sure about Tolchester?"
Kazul nodded. "Of course. And if you want somewhere to go, why not stay in the Mountains of Morning? We can always use a few humans with common sense and who are willing to stand up to us. I could probably talk Tokoz into hiring you. Would you like to be the royal witch of the dragons?"
Morwen ran her hand absently over Jasper's back as she thought. On the one hand, working for the king of the dragons would almost certainly be interesting. On the other hand, she didn't want to be beholden to anyone, not after Tolchester. And there was a fine line between 'interesting' and 'dangerous' -- living with dragons might cross that, unless she found a good fireproofing spell.
"Thank you, but no," she said eventually. "I need to find my own way."
"Fair enough," said Kazul. "Have you considered the Enchanted Forest?"
Morwen blinked again. No, she hadn't. And why was that? The Enchanted Forest was more welcoming than the Border Duchies, much less boring than Linderwall, and warmer than Kaltenmark. It didn't have any libraries, but it did have a lot of semi-reclusive witches, magicians, enchantresses, sorcerers, and so on, who might be persuaded into reciprocal lending agreements. And if any place on earth wouldn't blink twice at a witch with nine cats who refused to grow warts or let her house go to cobwebs, it would be the Enchanted Forest.
"Do you think I could manage that?" she asked. "I've always heard the Enchanted Forest can be dangerous."
"You stood your ground in front of me in a temper," Kazul said, dryly. "I think you can manage a bit of shifting scenery and some light-fingered elves. Just mind your manners and you should be fine."
Morwen thought about the Enchanted Forest for another minute. She could build a cottage and start a garden. She could catch up on her research, without people bothering her all hours of the day and night for things as silly as hangnails. She could even help people now and then, since a lot of quests seemed to go through the Enchanted Forest.
"I think I'd like that," she said.
Kazul smiled. "Good. I'll take you through the Caves of Fire and Night this afternoon; I think you've more than earned your passage. And once I know where you live, I can drop by for more of your excellent cider, if it won't be too much trouble."
"No trouble at all. Friends are always welcome," Morwen said. "Speaking of which, why don't you come have lunch with me before we go? I don't have all that much, but I'm sure I can manage a light snack for you."
"That sounds lovely," Kazul said, and followed Morwen into the Pass of Broken Hawthorn.
The next day, the king of the dragons got his Box of Shadows back, a seamstress and a clerk landed in a small town in Kaltenmark, and the Enchanted Forest welcomed a new witch. And they all lived happily ever after, as much as anyone ever does.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.
Also, a few minor canon points, tongue somewhat in cheek:
1) Wrede never mentions what color Murgatroyd is, so I have taken the liberty of making him a jellicle cat -- black and white, in patches.
2) By the time Cimorene meets her, Morwen doesn't wear a pointy hat, but I figure that she may well have used one as a prop when she was younger and less self-confident. (This is my excuse and I am sticking to it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my secret conviction that pointy hats are the epitome of cool. Really.)
3) Kazul did indeed keep another princess sometime in the months or years before Cimorene's arrival. All we know about her is that she made do with inadequate kitchen supplies, and Cimorene therefore had a low opinion of her. (She presumably also failed to organize the library and treasure rooms, unless Kazul managed to completely mess everything up again between her departure and Cimorene's arrival, which seems unlikely.) The way Thelistra and I see it, being bad at cooking and cleaning doesn't mean you're a useless person. It just means you're paying attention to more interesting things. +grin+