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With both the Great Staff of Power and the Stone Heart in their hands at last, it seems that nothing can stop Demonica and Queen Spitemorta from crushing Niarg and conquering the entire world. King Hebraun of Niarg is dead and not a single Elf is left alive in the Jutwoods.
Spitemorta’s husband, King James, tries to ride out of Castle Goll with her Great Staff of Power, but is tortured by Demonica and her and locked away to die in the fleas and fetid straw of the dungeon. He manages to escape across the Great Barrier Mountains, just as the army and people of Niarg are sent out into the countryside by Queen Minuet and Wizard Razzmorten, who flee to the Pitmaster’s Kettles in time for Spitemorta and Demonica to effortlessly destroy Castle Niarg. Is this the end of everything?
Book 4 of Heart of the Staff, Chapters 1-3
The full moon, hard and white, lit the stark countryside of Gollmoor from within its icy ring high in the south, as the silhouettes of two hags astride a stick sank behind the naked twigs of a spreading burr oak. The frozen grass crushed flat under their feet as they stepped off their staff, breathing out frosty plumes of moonlit breath as they stiffly found their balance. Screech owls hither and yon shivered and wailed. Far away, dogs barked.
“Well there’s Castle Goll, yonder.”
“Yea. A right good piece to walk, Grandmother. It’s frigid out. And we should’ve been here a month ago.”
“You know good and well that had you not overseen the trolls mourning as their Great Goddess Fnadi-yaphn, we’d ‘ave had an uprising on our hands, Spitemorta, particularly since they died following you. Good thing I only let you have two hundred of ’em…”
“Yea? Well, it still wasted nearly a month,” she said as she glanced up at the moon with a shudder from between her clouds of breath. “I miss Abaddon…”
“You’re quite something,” said Demonica as she gathered her shawl under her chin with her gnarled hand and looked all about her, “I’ve been going to great lengths to cooperate with your whims, dear. You wanted to fly the Staff to avoid being bounced around in your condition, and that meant not being recognized, so we landed out here, and I haven’t seen a soul, have you?”
“No, but it’s a long way to walk in the freezing cold, crippled up with your glamouries,” said Spitemorta as she steadied herself with the Staff. “We not only look like dried up old hags, we move like them. You expect me to stumble along as a hunchback for a good half mile, keeping my balance with this belly? Look, we’re off the Staff now, so why can’t we change back? Who has ever seen a pregnant dowager? Wouldn’t that attract unwanted attention?”
Demonica threw back her head with a volley of laughter, puffing out clouds of breath like a tea kettle as she braced herself on her knees. “Very well,” she said as she rubbed her eyes and sobered, “I’ll change you back as soon as we cut across that frozen pond, yonder…”
“You’re wanting to see me fall.”
“Hey, that would be fun! It’s not like you don’t deserve it, or anything,” she said, erupting with laughter all over again. Her laughter stopped at once as she turned without warning and put her hands on Spitemorta’s belly. “There ye be. You’re back. All lovely,except for that oversized belly you’re haulin’ around. Are you sure you want that handsome man of yours to see you so out of shape?”
“I’m not out of shape. I’m pregnant.”
“Yeap. And twins will stretch you out of shape, right smart, Rouanez Pouezus,” said Demonica as her shawl slid back to reveal her resumed beauty.
“You mean you need me to tell you? Why else would you be this huge this soon? Just be happy it’s not from overindulging.”
“Of course I’ve not been overindulging, Grandmother. Now, do you mind if we just go? It’s the middle of the night, and I could be enjoying a wonderfully warm bath by now.”
“Can you handle the pond, dear? It would be far quicker,” said Demonica as she stepped through the cattails, holding out her arms to keep her balance as she lunged forth into a tentative slide across the ice.
Well across the pond, the outer curtain of Castle Goll rose up before them, just beyond the frozen moat. “Hey, cwn hithau!” hollered out the guard from above the portcullis as he stifled a yawn. “Know what time it is? It’s time to get out o’ here and come back in the morning!”
“No!” barked Spitemorta as her voice rang out in echoes along the wall. “It’s time for you to recognize your queen and let her in while she still allows you to live, fool!”
The guard immediately leant out from the embrasure and began wailing out a frantic apology.
“What kind of death are you begging for?” she shouted. “I want in now!”
He wheeled aside at once and called out in a squeaking falsetto for the raising of the portcullis.
Spitemorta summoned servants and had her bath first thing. At last she dried off, slipped into her favorite silk robe and headed straight for the nursery to peek in at her beloved Abaddon before going to bed. She carefully opened the nursery door to find the heavy velvet drapes pulled back, flooding Abaddon’s empty and neatly made bed with pale white moonlight. She threw open the door in alarm to see that he was nowhere at all in the nursery. She flew to the nanny’s door. When there was no response, she rushed in to find her gone as well. Dark thoughts of abduction and foul play set her heart to pounding as she steadied herself against one of the nanny’s bedposts and caught her breath. “James!” she cried, as she rushed out to find him.
She stormed into his apartment, through his sitting room and into his bedroom where she viciously jerked back the curtain of his bed. James immediately grabbed her by the wrist out of the shadows and yanked her toward him across the bed, wrenching her arm behind her back.
“Let go of me, you idiot!” she screamed out from the rumples of his quilt. “It’s me! Spitemorta!”
James let go at once and sprang out of bed to begin lighting candles. “Idiot might apply to you, Spitemorta,” he said between his teeth. “How about some kind of warning like calling out or knocking? If I’d had a knife under my bolster, I’d have stuck you before we ever got around to speaking. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Abaddon’s missing!” she screeched. “Call the guard! I want him found now!”
“Get hold of yourself. I know quite well that he’s gone.”
“And you’ve done nothing about it?” she said, throwing her feet off the side of the bed in preparation to stand.
“I sent him away, sweetheart.”
“What?” she cried, springing up.
“Sit!” he shouted. “You heard me perfectly well,” he said in a suddenly calmed tone as he ran his hand through his tousled hair. “Please have a seat.”
Spitemorta sat down with a stiff bounce and stared hatefully at him.James drug up a chair to the bed with a screech and hesitated, studying her before turning aside to pace the room instead of sitting. “Spitemorta,” he said, turning to her with a resigned sigh, “what utter evil have you been teaching our son?”
“What you are talking about, James?” she snarled. “This is madness! Where’s my son? Tell me this instant!”
“Our son…!” he said, speaking up peevishly.
“Our son then if you must,” she said, making a face. “Where is he? Where’s Abaddon?”
“Somewhere safe, Spitemorta. Rest assured,” he said, crossing his arms and glaring at her. “And there he shall stay until I get some answers from you.”
“James, I don’t think you really want to play this game with me,” she said with a polite chuckle as she suddenly assumed a calm demeanor. “I thought that you’d finally realized right before I left that I’m a truly powerful sorceress, yet you seem not to grasp what kind of fire you’re playing with. So James, I’m out of patience with you. Now, tell me where my son is before I make you regret it.”
“Sorry,” he said with a calm shake of his head. “If you do anything at all to me, Spitemorta, you’ll never see Abaddon again.”
“You’d harm your own son?” she said with a flash of her eyes.
“You certainly have, so why would you object?”
“What? I’ve never so much as raised a finger to Abaddon, nor would I!”
“Not with your hands Spitemorta, but you’ve been right harmful all the same…you and that awful grandmother of yours…and your lapdog, Samuel.”
“James!” she said with a gasp of shocked innocence. “You’ve gone mad! It seems my absence was more than you could handle. Making allowances, I could overlook some of this since you obviously care about our son in spite of how misguided you may be. But I will not tolerate slurs against myself, my family or my personal aide!” she shouted, furiously springing to her feet. “I give you one last chance to take back what you’ve said, beg forgiveness and tell me what you’ve done with my son!”
“Sit Down!” he roared.
She sat with a wide-eyed bounce.
“I’m not done,” he said, studying her momentary speechlessness. He shook his head. “No, I’m not about to take back anything. I’m furious, but I’m quite aware of what I’m doing. If it helps, I’m not about to harm Abaddon. I merely said that you might not see him again. And from what I’ve seen, he’d be better off out of the reaches of a mother like you.”
A look of fury flashed in Spitemorta’s eyes. “How can you say such things to me, James?” she said, suddenly looking down at her belly in wounded disbelief. “Here I am about to give birth to our twins and you accuse me of being a horrible mother.”
“Fates help them,” he said, turning aside at once to look through the doorway to his sitting room.
“So just what is it, exactly, that you imagine I’ve done to our son, James?” she said softly.
He turned quickly to find her on her feet, right behind him. “Do you know what Abaddon likes to do nowadays for fun, Spitemorta?” he said, looking squarely into her cold eyes. “If he can’t find any of the servants’ children to frighten or hurt… He is the most cold blooded bully. Can you believe, I actually caught him putting out a puppy’s eyes! Beatrice’s little girl got a new puppy for her fourth birthday. Abaddon said she didn’t deserve a birthday and punctured the poor thing’s eyes! He was giggling…giggling! But that’s not the least of it. He likes to sneak away, down to the dungeon to watch your henchman, Samuel torture the prisoners.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said as a hint of a smile flickered across her face. You’re making that up and Samuel is not my henchman.”
“This amuses you?”
“No! You’re crazy! You’re imagining things! Just like you’re inventing all this!”
“No sweetheart, I am not making it up!” he shouted, thrusting his face toward hers. “I found him in the dungeon, grinning and bouncing for all he was worth, just like he was about to win something, just as though someone had finally given him a gift he’d been yearning for, as he watched Samuel stretching Lance on the rack.” He stepped away from her, turned a tight circle and came back. “You’ve been having Samuel torture people behind my back. It was my following Abaddon down there over and over that let me know. What? You didn’t think I’d find out? Ha! I can see by the look on your face that you did not! Well, guess what else I’ve learnt about you? You murdered my father!”
“James,” said Spitemorta, in a tone of voice fit for helping him up after a fall down the stairs. “You’ve lost your mind. I’m sorry I was gone so long. Let’s get you settled and then I’ll go for a physician. You need something to help calm you. I’m sure that with the best healers and given time, you’ll recover completely.”
“Very clever of you to stab him after you’d poisoned him,” he said, vehemently resuming as though she had not spoken. “I guess you realized I’d not so likely make connections between father’s death and the murder of your parents.”
“What kind of babble is this, James? You know very well that your father was stabbed to death by Myrtlebell. There was a witness, remember? Florence Dustben was her name, I believe…”
“More of your lies, Spitemorta. Florence Dustben is a made up name. My parents never had anyone with a name like that in their service. But there was indeed an eyewitness to your crime. I know every last detail about how you poisoned my father and then laughed at him and watched him die as he begged you to send for his physician.”
James stopped wide eyed at the sight of Spitemorta’s quivering lower lip as her composure crumpled. “I did it for you, James,” she said in a low monotone. “You were so bloomin’ oblivious to what was going on with your father and his stinking crwydryn. Had I not done something you’d be no more than joint ruler of Goll. Myrtlebell had a baby on the way James, and she and your father had every intention of removing you and putting their new little bastard on the throne of Loxmere.”
“Right wise of them,” he spat, “trying to make sure that you’d never rule Loxmere!”
Spitemorta drew back like an asp. “Enough!” she shouted as she lunged past him into the echoes of the dark hallway. “You will regret this James!”
James stared after her only long enough for her to vanish. “Time to leave, time to leave,” he said, turning at once to his wardrobe to hurriedly grab at clothes. “Maybe ‘way past time.”
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