Spitemorta lay in Demonica’s bed, listening to the cries of gulls out her window as the first rays of sunlight lit the wall behind her. She threw back her covers, sat on the side of the bed and nearly fell when she tried to stand up. She hobbled to the tea table and ate some of the cheese and corned beef she had found in one of the larders while hunting skinwelerioù. She had forgotten all about eating for some time and discovered that she was quite hungry. At last she decided to get dressed. The broadening daylight made her want to hurry.
“Well, it’s back west to Niarg before rejoining Coel and Cunneda,” she said as she stepped into her black kirtle, “but I’ll never be able to straddle the Staff for the entire way across the Orin Ocean. I’ll just have to pick a place where I can vomit when I get there.”
She laced up her bodice, grabbed up the Staff and turned her dress deep vermilion. She put the strap of her bag across her shoulder and sat on the bed with her skinweler. “Now just where is it?” she said as the swirling colors in the skinweler gave way to images. “Show me the manor house at Peach Knob. So that’s where Mother grew up with Auntie Min and Grandfather Razzmorten. Why would it be so dark? Very well, let’s find some place out of the way, around back.”
Suddenly she was on her hands and knees in a pandemonium of terrified chickens, squawking and flapping dust and old feathers all about her in the dim light of dawn as she retched and heaved her breakfast onto the floor between her hands. “Aangh!” she cried, catching her breath and sitting back on her heels as the chickens crowded round to snap up tidbits of her cheese and corned beef.
She grabbed up the Staff and sprang to her feet to pound with her fist along the chicken house wall until she found the door and threw it open. “My dress!” she wailed, waltzing into the pigweed with her arms held wide. Just then it occurred to her that she was holding the Staff and she quickly used it to make herself as clean as she was when she was first dressed. Suddenly she stopped short with a scald of alarm at the sight of her second sunrise in one day. “No!” She shook her head. “No way it’s Demonica. It can’t be anything but the traveling spell.
“There’s the house,” she said, looking uphill beyond the big orchard. “And that was my very last traveling spell ever, ever, ever, I swear.” She started walking up the grassy lane between the rows of peach trees. An oriole gave a bawdy whistle. Up the lane, a kingbird chased away a pair of grackles. She could hear a tinkling of bells as sheep came running.
“Hoy!” she thought she heard someone holler. She looked back beyond the sheep to see a stooped old man wave. She turned away and made for the house. The summer kitchen reared up before her as she came out of the trees. She got a whiff of steak and eggs as she heard someone bang a skillet. She stopped and looked up at the manor house behind the kitchen. “Good for gentry,” she said. “At lest it’s temporary.”
A heavy set woman appeared in the doorway of the summer kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “Good morning to you, mistress,” she called out with a smile. “You look bewildered, a-coming up on us out o’ the orchard, that a-way. I’ve just fixed breakfast and I already set out an extra…”
“Oh I know exactly where I am.”
“Well now I’m Bethan, but should I know who you be?”
“It makes no difference who you are. But it’s always best to know your new queen, particularly when you work on her manor.”
“Peredur,” said Bethan as the old man appeared behind Spitemorta. “did you hear what she just said to me?”
“No, but I can’t begin to imagine what she was doing in the chicken house.”
Bethan folded her arms and looked Spitemorta in the eye. “Well since I can’t begin to believe what you just told me, dear, why don’t you be so kind as to tell him what it was?”
“It’s quite simple. I’m queen and you’re in my house.”
“Minuet is queen, and I’m queen mother. I raised the queen and her two children. This is my house. Razzmorten and the crown gave it to me.”
Spitemorta let out a whoop of laughter and stopped. “Minuet is dead, dead, dead and you may be lucky enough to be the hired help in my house, if you don’t get carried away,” she said with a satiny rustle as she stepped into the doorway and pushed past Bethan.
“Now look ‘ee here, child! Queen Minuet and Razzmorten saw us just days ago, and she certainly was queen then…”
“Yea? My soldiers found them dead of the plague when we destroyed Castle Niarg, what, yesterday? And my mother grew up in this house, so it’s mine.”
Bethan went apoplectically wide eyed. “You’re Queen Spitemorta!” she gasped.
“It is Bethan’s house,” said Peredur as he steadied himself, stepping inside, “and I’m to live out my days here, too.”
“Which could be up any moment from what I see,” said Spitemorta as she picked up a piece of steak and took a bite.
“That won’t hold up before the Bench,” said Peredur.
“Queen’s Bench,” said Spitemorta with a cherubic smile and another bite.
Bethan caught his eye and shook her head.
“If you’re a willing part of my loyal service, you’ll be alive to wait on me when I come back to stay.”
“At your service, Your Majesty,” said Bethan with a heavy curtsey.
“At your service,” said Peredur with a bow.
Spitemorta stepped out into the grass and mounted the Staff. “Ta-Ta,” she said and flew away into the morning sky.
“My word!” said Peredur as they watched from the doorway. “That witch! What have we got into?”
“Something you and I are going to live through, that’s what.”
Ch. 5, The Reaper Witch, book five of Heart of the Staff: The Complete Series
Carol Marrs Phipps and Tom Phipps