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Authors: Laura Anne Gilman

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BOOK: The Shadow Companion
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Y
ou can’t be serious. Ailis, didn’t we talk about this? Morgain is not to be trusted!”

They had stepped away from the fire, where Morgain’s image still flickered, beautiful and impatient. It was Gerard’s worst nightmare, in so many ways: Ailis being called back by Morgain and Ailis being tempted.

Newt, too, was feeling the same concern.

“She lies, Ailis,” he said to her.

“She has never lied to me. When has she ever lied to you?”

Newt had to think about that. “All right. But she doesn’t tell the truth, either. She’s using you! Manipulating you, and your desires…”

“Who hasn’t?” Ailis looked at him, then Gerard. “What adult hasn’t said to us, ‘If you do that, we can
give you this’? Merlin has done nothing
but
manipulate us to his own ends. Arthur, too. We’re simply tools to them all. Morgain, at least, offers me the chance to become more than a tool. Merlin? Arthur? Sir Matthias? What have they ever given us besides ‘not yet’ and ‘go do this, as well’ as a reward? This Quest, this journey—it isn’t a reward. It’s just another thing they need for us to do. Do you think I didn’t know Merlin wanted to use me as bait here?”

The two boys avoided looking at each other, effectively confirming that they had known.

“You can’t lie on the astral plane,” Ailis went on. “Not effectively; not if you’re not paying full attention to the lie, and Merlin never has his full attention to give to anything.

“But Morgain…She’s never lied to us. She’s been honest, in her own way, with us. Is she the enemy? Yes. But…I don’t think she always was. I don’t think she always has to be.” Ailis was remembering things Morgain had said to her while the girl was held hostage in the sorceress’s castle.
This is my land. My blood is pure—purer than Arthur’s. My family ruled long before the Pendragon came here and raised his flag, and it should have been
mine.
But when my father died…Uther the King decided that my mother would
be his bride. And there was nothing she could do to stop him. Arthur came of that union. A boy, and because he was a boy, all the power and the glory went to him. Not the girl-children my mother had borne before. Not the ones with the true power, the magic, the Old Ways in their blood.

“If she says that the land needs us…I have to at least listen to what she wants to say.”

“We barely escaped last time, Ailis!” Newt protested. “Both times, we barely got away! And you want to step directly into the fire and go back into…go back to her? Into her clutches?”

Ailis stood her ground.
“Yes.”
She stared Newt in the eye, then relented. “She
needs
us now.
We
have the upper hand.”

“She wants us to
think
that we have the upper hand.”

They sounded ready to go back and forth all night, so Gerard said the only thing he could think of. “Sir Matthias will never allow it.”

“And that is why I’m not going to tell him,” Ailis said.

“Ailis!” Gerard couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You cannot just leave the Quest like that!”

“You mean I can’t just ride off on the word of a
strange female without telling anyone—least of all Sir Matthias—where I am going or why?”

Gerard’s first reaction was to retort, “That was different.” He managed to bite back the words before they doomed him to one of her wicked glares, or worse. He didn’t
think
that she knew how to turn him into a frog yet…but he wasn’t willing to risk it.

“Besides,” she went on, reassured that neither he nor Newt had any comments to add. “I won’t be riding off—Morgain’s offered to make a portal…and I won’t be going entirely without a word. You two will be here to explain.”

Ailis turned her back on them and walked back to the fire. “I’m ready,” she said.

No sooner were the words out of Ailis’s mouth than a ring of flame appeared over the fire, growing in size until it was an Ailis-sized oval rising out of the embers, crackling and snapping silently in the air.

As magic went, it was simple, but no less impressive for it. And without a single glance back, Ailis stepped through and disappeared.

“I don’t know about you,” Newt said. “But I’m not staying behind to explain this.”

In two strides he was at the fire. With a third, he was through.

Gerard hesitated half a breath, then checked to make sure his sword and dagger were firmly attached to his belt, and followed.

He had no sooner gone through than the portal closed, almost on his heels, with a cold whoosh of air followed by an audible
snap
.

In the silence that followed, the small fire flickered once, as though someone had stirred the flames, then died.

 

“Ailis?” In the distance, within the cool stone walls of Camelot, Merlin lifted his head from his work, and sniffed the air like a hound scenting a new trail. “Huh.” He shook his shaggy head and returned to the complicated spell he was waving, muttering, “I could have sworn I heard her….”

 

“All three of you. There’s a surprise.” The sorceress’s tone indicated that it was anything but a surprise to her.

They were in a small room with cream-colored stone walls. The air was cool and still, and off in the distance he thought he could hear the sound of water.

Ocean tides. They were back in her keep, in the Orkneys.

He still didn’t like using magic. He didn’t trust this kind of travel. But, now that they had learned how to go through without landing in a pile of bodies on the other side, he had to admit there were advantages to it.

“You called us, Morgain. So please talk. Or we’re turning around and going right back.” Ailis might have been bluffing—once in Morgain’s stronghold, anything she tried would be overwhelmed. Only she didn’t
sound
like she was bluffing, to Newt’s ear. That frightened him almost more than Morgain.

The sorceress didn’t seem to take Ailis’s words as a threat. From the flicker in her dark eyes, Newt would have sworn that she was pleased. Like a mother cat when a kitten brings home its first mouse.

“Are you certain that you can open a portal here? One that I do not first allow?”

“Are you certain that I need your permission to do anything?” Ailis countered.

There was absolutely obvious satisfaction in Morgain’s gaze, Newt was certain of it.

Morgain was dressed somberly in a dark green dress, her hair braided in a crown around her head.
The great black cat they had seen at her feet before kept her company again, sleeping by the stoop of the single door, guarding the exit.

Or was it guarding the entrance? Newt suddenly wondered. Unlike the previous times they had encountered her, Morgain did not seem to be entirely the mistress of her world. Now he could see that there were faint creases around those glorious dark eyes, and her mouth, rather than curving in a mocking smile, was pressed into a narrow line.

“Morgain…” Ailis was clearly losing patience.

“I have made an error,” Morgain said, clearly having to fight to get the words out. “My life has been…I was raised to lead, not follow. I am my father’s daughter, as well as my mother’s.” Her father, Gorlois, had been a warlord of note before he died in battle, riding with Uther, Arthur’s father.

“Your point?” Ailis pressed, all but tapping her boot-clad foot in impatience. They had come here for answers; not drama.

“She wanted her share.” Gerard didn’t come right out and yawn, but he looked ready to do it. “The only threat to Britain, Morgain, has been you. So why are we here again?”

The sorceress’s eyes flashed angrily at his words,
with actual sparkles of magic forming in her frustration. “If I had wanted to kill you—if I had wanted to kill Arthur—I would have already.”

Gerard bristled in reaction to that, and snapped back, “And you would have found nowhere to hide, had you murdered your brother. Even those who support you—”

“Murdering family members occurred with great regularity in this island’s history, as recently as my parents’ time,” Morgain said, then waved one elegant hand as though to dismiss the threat, bringing the tension in the room back down.

“I had my reasons for what I have done. I still have my reasons. I do not apologize for them.”

“Your point, Morgain?” Ailis said again, heading off another explosion of outrage from Gerard.

“I began my current project with the intent to shake Arthur, to make him acknowledge me as his peer, perhaps even as co-regent; certainly as heir.”

That was not unheard of, to have a sibling—even a half sibling—take the throne, especially as Arthur had no acknowledged children.

But Newt doubted, quite strongly, that Morgain would ever be accepted within Arthur’s court, much less as a potential queen. He knew better than to voice
those thoughts, certainly not within her own keep. Morgain might seem subdued and apologetic this instant, but that was to be trusted as much as a fox’s smile—not at all.

“My…ally promised to enhance my power, to make me stronger, and more able to take on Arthur, to bring him to the parley table.”

To bring the king to his knees,
all three of them mentally translated. They knew Morgain now. Not one of them believed she was interested in any negotiations she did not control.

“And now?” Ailis asked.

“And now the price of that promise has been revealed in full. It is a price that, upon consideration, I am not willing—not able to pay.”

“Reneging on her agreement…what a surprise,” Gerard said, and got a kick in the shins in response. When he glared at Newt, the other boy made a gesture that told him to keep quiet.

Morgain ignored the boys, focusing on her onetime, would-be student. “Do you remember what I told you, witch-child, about my bloodlines?”

Ailis did. “That you were tied to the land, magically, in order to better care for it and the people living there.”

“A simplification, but the heart of the matter, yes. Some of those ties involved rituals, ways we were bound ourselves not only to the earth but the very soul of this island. As our fortunes went, so, too, did the land. And as the land went, so too did we.” Her face took on a faraway expression of longing.

“It was no terrible burden, no thing too hard to bear. My bloodline
is
the land, after all. Every handful of soil, every drop of water…Even now, this England, this unified-under-Christ England my brother dreams of, my blood is what feeds all these lands. I love it beyond passion. Beyond logic. Beyond my own life. I have no choice.” Morgain stared wistfully over Ailis’s shoulder.

“My ally…does not love this land,” Morgain continued. “I did not understand that until last night. Until it was, perhaps, too late. Under the calm it shows the world, there is a seething madness.”

She shook her head, then looked at Ailis, the haze that had fallen over her eyes finally clearing.

“It has created a spell, a form of sympathetic magic.”

Ailis nodded, indicating that she understood, but the boys looked lost. Morgain explained. “Take a map, for example. Shape it as closely as possible to the
actual land it covers. Then burn it, and fires will ravage the land itself.”

“It has created such a map?”

“Of Albion, yes.”

Albion was the name Morgain used when she was thinking of the Britain of her mothers, before the Romans came; the
magical
Britain, not the one Arthur ruled.

“My ally used my own flesh and blood in the making, claiming that it will allow me to manipulate spells more effectively. All I need to do is activate the latent magic within. But I fear what it truly plans to do with the map, should I touch the spark within my blood and create the spell.”

“So don’t create the spell,” Newt said, all practicality. It seemed straightforward to him.

“If I do not…” She paused. “We have gone too far at this point. When I called my companion, it granted certain permissions I may not revoke. The ramifications of doing so, of breaking that agreement, would run back along the lines of magic and destroy me.”

“And we care about this?” Gerard sounded as cold-blooded as Newt in this matter. “I’m sorry, Ailis, but seriously. Arthur doesn’t want the blood of
his sister on anyone’s hands, but if she brings it on herself…”

“My death will serve the same purpose as if I were to ignite the map myself,” Morgain said. “All those years of tying ourselves to the well-being of the land is a dual-edged sword. As the land goes, so does my strength, my power. And the return is true as well.”

Gerard looked puzzled as he tried to figure out what she meant. Ailis understood it right away. “If you die…”

“Without a child, preferably a girl-child, to carry on the line…” Morgain’s expression turned cold, like the gray clouds of a storm gathering. “If I die, so, too, does the land, unless a successor has been chosen and marked with the blood and soil of the land; vows made must be witnessed, and sealed.”

Gerard started to protest, and Morgain turned her cold face to him. “Did you not understand? In so many ways, I
am
the land. As Arthur could have been—as he feels the urge to be, but he has chosen to rule differently. And he has no child, as yet, to placate the land.

“Without that, without one of my line to offer ourselves in service, to
be
the land—crops will fail,
wells will run dry, the hunting and fishing returns will decrease, year after year.

“If my ally manages to drain my power into itself, it will control the rise and fall of our fortunes. This land, under its maddened whim…it does not bear thinking of.”

“What can we do to stop it?” Ailis asked.

“Against the companion? Nothing. You do not have the power. Only
I
can do that.”

“But you said…” Gerard protested, shaken by the idea that she had told them all this merely to leave them helpless.

“I said I need your help, that the land needs your help. And we do.”

Morgain got up from her chair to pace. The giant cat by the door opened its sleepy green eyes to watch her pass, then went back to sleep.

“In my increasing frustration at Arthur’s narrow-mindedness and his failure to take up the old ways, I called this ally to me, at the Well of Bitter Water.”

BOOK: The Shadow Companion
13.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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