Thursday, February 28, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 8

Jean felt the High Coven’s eyes on her, and tried to avoid feeling nervous. She shouldn’t be, she realized--these were four young women, most of them around her age (and one of them almost certainly younger), who she could probably take in a fight. She solemnly twirled the pestle in her hands, while wearing an expression she hoped was impressive, while fearing it was instead merely ridiculous.

“So the pestle doesn’t reject her,” said Melissa Marshtreader. “That just means she’s of the blood. Still doesn’t mean she has the skills necessary to be Nemain…”

Jean took a deep breath, and shut her eyes. It was funny--the pestle seemed to… well, not speak exactly, but… feel at her. Just trust in your power, it seemed to say, and let me help. And that’s when she felt them out in the woods, and the perfect idea of what to do occurred to her.

Most of the High Coven was fidgeting nervously, as if underneath their blasé expressions was a growing realization that daring a du Lac to do something was not the terrifically wise course of action that they’d thought it was. A slight breeze blew past, and a few owls hooted. “Well, is that it?” said Melissa suddenly. “You’ll have to do better than…” And suddenly, they burst out from the woods--owls by the score, hooting and swooping by. Jean directed their flight, until they were circling around her. With a flick of her wrist, she sent them flying towards the High Coven Melissa and Urganda darted away, though Livia and Cait remained where they were as the owls flew over their heads.

“Admit it!” said Viviane. “She is the Nemain!”

Malina clapped her hands together. “Yay! Owls is neat!”

Maude Lynn nodded. “If I wasn’t supporting her before, I would be now.” The rest of the Grand Coven turned towards her. “What? Admit it. We are all thinking it.”

A dark chuckle filled the air. “A very nice trick,” said Mother Flint.

Jean turned and glared at her. “I’d like to see you do it,” she noted.

Flint chuckled again, her teeth striking sparks once again. “Not my sort of witchery, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry I’m not the expert at skulking around and acting all menacing that you so clearly are,” snapped Jean. The startled look from most of the Coven members suggested this might not have been a good idea, but by this point she was simply tired of acting cowed by the other witch.

Mother Flint simply grinned at her, something that looked so unsettling, that Jean began questioning her decision almost immediately. “My, my, such anger,” she said. “Perhaps our little Nemain-to-be would be best suited turning that anger towards a positive direction…” She glanced at the members of the High Coven. “Old Hedley Kow has been such a nuisance of late, hasn’t it?”

Melissa blinked and then raised her hand. “Yes! Yes! If your sister wants to be accepted as the Nemain, she must… deal with Hedley Kow! So speaks the High Coven.”

“What?” snapped Viviane. “You…” She growled to herself and turned to Mother Flint. “So this is what you were up to, ehh? I should have known. My mother always said, never trust the Flint witches…”

“And as a result my mother and granddam didn’t trust her, and look where that got them all, in the end” said Mother Flint. “But it’s a reasonable task, a task the Badb would be entrusting to the Nemain in simpler times, something that needs to be done…” She leaned forward, grinning, her teeth glinting.

“I’ll do it,” said Jean, with a shrug. “I mean, how hard can it be? Taking care of… well, what is Hedley Kow anyway?”

The assembled witches looked at her in surprise. “Oh my,” said Semele of the Shout.

Meg Mowton clapped Jean fondly on the shoulder. “It was nice knowing you.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 7

Roland Miller regarded the men--and two women--meeting with him in this small room with rather worried eyes. The people of Ulverrun were, he knew, at heart reasonable, pragmatic and decent. Still, semi-clandestine meetings in darkened rooms had a way of making you nervous. “Now,” he began, “to start, let’s not get hasty. We…”

“Have a bunch of accursed Sacristans setting up shop on the outskirts of town!” snapped Industriousness-Pleases-The-Holy-Light Smith, slamming his hand down on the table with surprising force. “It’s a menace!”

“What am I to tell our children?” said his wife, Blessed-Be-Those-Who-Obey-The-Precepts. She sniffled slightly. “All their lives--we’ve sworn they’d be safe from the Synod, and now… now their hatchet men are setting up shop next door!”

Roland took a deep breath. There was a part of him that wanted to see the pair as slightly ridiculous, that if half of what he’d heard was true, the Sacristans were presently as much in the Synod’s bad book as the Smiths were. But there was another part that remembered what the Mikhelites had endured over the years, and that part knew that you never quite got over the fear of living with the knowledge that armed men could burst into your home, carry you off and do this with the approval of the law. He was trying to come up with a proper reply to this, when someone did it for him.

“I agree with Mayor Miller,” said Lleu Longarm. The Goblin spread his hands. “I have no more reason to trust the Sacristans than you do--but they’re here by the permission of the Dark Lords. We mustn’t forget that. I don’t think the Badb is going to let them run rampant through the Marsh.”

Roland nodded quietly, feeling fairly certain that having a Nightfolk point this out would calm things down. And then of course, fate decided to put a crimp into things.

“The Dark Lords cannot be watching them always,” said Njal Hammerhand. The Ogre regarded the room seriously. “Perhaps this is a trick. My father always said, never trust the Holy Knights, for they are devious in their holiness.”

“That is largely speculation on your part, Hammerhand,” noted Roland with a subtle wince. It occurred to him that in many ways, the Emporium members who’d joined the town council for the duration of its contract with Ulverrun were fitting in quite well--committees being committees on both sides of the Murkenmere. Indeed, he was starting to think they were fitting in a little TOO well.

“Something should be done!” declared Gahaltine Clark, following his lifelong habit of joining whatever appeared to be the majority in the most noncommittal way possible--a habit that had convinced a good portion of Ulverrun of the man’s sagacity.

“Here here!” said Dorcas Spindletree, a Goblin weaver who apparently had made her way up the Guild by a similar mechanism.

As Roland looked over the room again, it occurred to him that he was dealing with some very nervous people, people who were on the verge of doing something foolish, and that how he handled this situation would determine how his tenure as mayor was remembered in Ulverrun. “Gentlemen--and ladies,” he said, “I must admit your concerns have moved me. Leave everything to me. I will visit the Sacristans, and attempt to iron out a solution to our problem.”

The councilors regarded him warily. “When will you visit them?” asked Blessed-Be-Those-Who-Obey-The-Precepts. “We need to know that we’re safe!”

“Then I’ll visit them this very night,” said Roland firmly. “And I promise you--I will handle things.” As the council began to exchange wary nods with each other, Roland realized how easy it was to get oneself further in trouble while trying to get oneself OUT of it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 6

As they approached the bonfire in the center of copse, Jean heard a voice chanting in the Dark Tongue. It sounded dangerous, and menacing, and full of menace, something the sight of four shapes striding in time around the fire only added to. And then Elaine burst out laughing. “You’re putting on the slipper?” she declared, cheerfully.

The four witches moving around the fire suddenly stopped. One turned. “The failed du Lac dares to speak? Here? Now? She DARES?” All of which, Jean decided, would have been far more impressive if the speaker’s voice, when not speaking the Dark Tongue, was rather high-pitched, and very young. And, she decided, as the speaker strode forward, if that individual was not a very short Marsh Erl, with a snub nose and hair done in a long ponytail.

“You speak thus to a child of House du Lac, Witch of the Coalo?” snapped out Grace Greenteeth, forgetting Viviane’s instruction to speak in her natural voice.

“INDEED I DO!” bellowed the witch--or rather, attempted to bellow, as her voice was not made for bellowing, or even a very rough approximation of it. “And the Witch of the Ruhl had better not try my patience!”

“Melissa Marshtreader,” said Viviane in soothing, patient tones, “do you really want to get on my bad side? I mean--really?”

Melissa did her best to stand tall and defiant. “Custom is custom, O Badb! And it is my shield, and my sword!”

“It is custom to defy our honored leader?” shouted Grace, pacing around the Witch of the Coalo.

“If she act in a manner that is worthy of defiance,” hissed Melissa. The pair glared at each other in a manner they doubtless thought was impressive but only succeeded in looking like a kitten and a puppy about to have it out with each other.

Jean glanced at Meg Mowton. “So, are they sisters, or something?” she whispered.

“Cousins,” answered the old witch. “The Coalo and Ruhl are rivers. Their witches serve House du Lac as heralds. In theory.”

Jean nodded. “And the reality involves lots of quarrelling and stepping on each others toes?”

“OWWW!” yelped Grace as her pigtails yanked back, seemingly of their own accord. She glared at Melissa, whose own hair likewise yanked back. The Witch of the Coalo shrieked in pain and alarm.

“Yes, but usually with more dignity,” stated Meg flatly.

“That is enough!” declared Viviane. She clapped her hands together, and the sound that issued from them was that of thunder. “I have not come here so that you two can waste our times with petty hexes! I am the Badb, Dark Lord of the Accursed Marsh, Queen of the Old Magic, and I am not pleased!”

Grace and Melissa both gulped and backed away from each other, retreating to their opposite sides. Melissa stepped behind a tall woman clad in a ragged robe, stitched together from a thousand little scraps, and a very young girl who held a metal staff topped with what looked like a stylized cat. A third witch stood nearby, a short woman, covered in what looked to be creeping insects. The girl with a staff took a deep breath, and stepped forward. “We do not doubt your power, Badb. Merely the succession.”

Viviane eyed her warily “Well, I see the true leader steps forward. Has the Witch of the Velvet Paws sunk so low that she must work through proxies?”

The witch seemed to shudder slightly, then tightened her grip on her staff. She stared at Viviane with measured defiance. “Your accusations are baseless, Badb. The High Coven meets as a body of equals. All speak with one voice.” She glanced at Melissa. “Even if some of us speak more than others.”

“Or more than is advisable,” noted the witch covered in vermin.

“Livia!” said the witch with the staff.

“Just saying what we were all thinking, Cait,” said Livia. She turned to Viviane. “But come now, Badb. The Witch of Velvet Paws. The Witch of Worms. The Witch of Rags and Tatters. And, yes the Witch of the Coalo. Not people you may freely ignore.”

“Are you sure about that, Livia?” said Viviane, crossing her arms. She glanced at the witch in the ragged cloak. “Urganda. I am surprised to see you siding with this… insurgency.”

Urganda glanced away. “I… I’m sorry, Viv, but… we need to be sure.”

Jean heard a deep chuckle to her side. Mother Flint was there, though Jean was sure she hadn’t flown with the rest of them. As Jean’s eyes turned to her, the strange witch gave another of her terrible smiles. Viviane took a deep breath, and turned to her sister. “Well, Jean--are you up to it?”

Jean shrugged. “Hey, it’s not like I have anything better to do now is it?”

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 5

Jean flew unsteadily on her broomstick next to Meg Mowton. She took a deep breath. “I do not get this broomstick thing,” she stated quietly. She coughed quietly. “Umm, not that you’re flying one, I notice…”

“The great spoon’s been in the Mowton family for generations,” noted Meg quietly. She gave the large wooden spoon an affectionate pat. “Quite potent. And you can carry a barrel on it.” Jean glanced at the small keg that lay nestled in the spoon’s bowl. “Fine cider, my Nemain. I could give you a tipple of it, if you’d like?”

“Maybe later,” said Jean.

Meg smiled. “It’s the finest cider in the Marsh. Old Meg doesn’t offer it to just anyone…”

“I said ‘maybe later’, not no,” said Jean quietly.

“Well, I’m simply hoping that this fine cider of mine doesn’t go to waste…” continued Meg.

“You’re determined to be the irascible old grandmother I never had, aren’t you?” noted Jean.

Meg considered that for a moment. “More or less,” she agreed.

Jean rolled her eyes. “Fine, I’ll have the cider when we land.” She raised an eyebrow. “Now--the broomstick thing…”

Meg shrugged. “Well, it’d help if you’d clarify what exactly you mean by that…”

“Why do we fly on broomsticks--non-magical broomsticks--when the damned thing are so hard to fly on?” Jean snapped out.

“Oh!” Meg chuckled. “That’s easy. Because witches fly on broomsticks!”

Jean would have slapped a hand to her forehead, if not for the fact that this would have caused her to lose her grip on the broom. “So… tradition, then?”

“Of course,” said Meg. “Tradition is power. Why do we inhabit roles and titles? Because there’s power in them--contracts and agreements and old bonds. Why do we meet at certain times? Because meeting at those times has worn a groove into the wyrd, so there is power then. Why do we ride broomsticks? Because countless witches have ridden them, and all know this to be so, so that it is easy for any witch to pick one up, and fly.”

Jean blinked. “Ummm… wow. That was… neat and… made sense…” She coughed. “So how do you think it started though? The broomsticks?”

“Who knows?” answered Meg. “Perhaps some witch, for reasons indiscernible to us, made a magic flying broomstick, and it became a fad, then a custom. That’s the problem with tradition after all--too much of it makes no damn sense. The important thing is--whether mortar and pestle, broomstick, or ash wand, it’s the witch that does the flying.” She nodded. “That’s the Copse, up ahead. We should land a little before it.”

Jean nodded and veered her broomstick down. The awful falling feeling came back, though she was slightly less terrified now. Once again, her feet touched gracefully on the ground. She turned to Meg Mowton. “I guess I’ll have that cider now.”

Meg smiled and handed her a cup. “Here you go. Finest cider in the Marsh.”

Jean lifted the cup to her lips and gulped it down. Five seconds later, she was doubled over coughing, with her throat on fire.

“Meg, are you giving my dear little sister your awful hard cider?” asked Viviane quietly as she approached the pair.

“It’s the finest cider in the Marsh!” protested Meg. She looked at the gasping Jean. “I admit it has something of a kick…”

“I’m--okay,” said Jean, breathing deeply. “I’m… okay…”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 4

Jean nodded in time to the song the Coven was singing in what she assumed was her honor.

Or more exactly she nodded in what she thought the time would have been if the Grand Coven weren’t mutilating the song. Not that she completely blamed them, as it was clear that none of them exactly remembered the damned thing.

“Moon on the rise….” they chanted endlessly. Most were singing quite enthusiastically, though Meg Mowton kept almost nodding off. Only Mother Flint remained silent, smirking to herself at the edge’s of the bonfire’s light. Something told Jean that she knew the words, though she also suspected that Mother Flint would never tell them.

Eventually, after an determined effort to look appreciative that should have won her sister a medal, Viviane clapped her hands together. “Enow! The songs have been sung!” Jean thought she saw a glimmer of relief on Viviane’s face as she said that. “Now--let us move on to important matters!” Viviane gestured to Jean. “The Nemain! Do you accept her?”

“Aye!” declared the Coven.

“Excellent,” said Viviane. “So, with that done…”

“Hurray!” said Grace Greenteeth. “Now we can finally get those splitters at… the High Coven to accept your authority.”

Viviane winced. “Yes. Right. That.”

Jean blinked. “What…?”

Viviane shook her head. “It’s really a minor thing. Just three…”

“Four,” said Maud Lyn. “Urganda joined.”

“What?” snapped Viviane. “They’ve got the Witch of Rags and Tatters now?” A sour look settled on her face, only to vanish. “Well, fine. Still just four disgruntled witches whining to themselves on the fringes…”

“As opposed to five happy witches singing your praises,” murmured Mother Flint. Viviane glared at her. “I’m only an onlooker,” answered Mother Flint striking her teeth together.

“Right, well, my point is that they really aren’t something to worry about…” continued Viviane.

“Which is why we must SMITE THEM!” declared Grace Greenteeth grandly. “Show them whose boss! Grind the rebels under your mighty heel!”

Viviane sighed. “That wasn’t quite what I was going to say, Grace, but I am… honored by your enthusiasm.” She gazed at the Coven plaintively. “Look--we’ve got a Nemain now. And I figure with that out of the way, the ‘High Coven’ will eventually get over themselves, rejoin us, and then we’ll be one big, happy witchery family that is related for the most part thing. Just like old times.”

Whistling Pell coughed. “Actually, Viv, Melissa sort of suggested that without the Coven’s approval, you CAN’T have a Nemain, no matter what. And that if you named one, she’d have the High Coven dispute it.”

Viviane stared at her, dumbfounded. “What? What gave her that… insane idea?”

Pell shrugged. “She says its traditional. Only, it fell to the wayside during the fighting, what with the whole… lack of heirs things, and the… other problems.”

“It did strike us as rather… convenient,” said Seleme softly.

Viviane nodded. “Right. They still meeting at the Copse of the Hanged Man?”

Maud Lynn nodded. “They had a fire set up there when I flew in.”

Viviane pursed her lips. “Well, that’s just… dandy. I think I’ll just head over there and… iron some things out.”

“Will there be smiting?” asked Grace excitedly.

“Might be,” answered Viviane, tromping over to her mortar.

Grace gave a triumphant leap in the air that would have been more impressive if she had been taller. “Yes!” She coughed apologetically. “I mean, your will be done, Badb.”

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 3

“Easy, men!” said the River Ox as he watched the longshoremen unload his cargo. The Ulver was flowing nice and steady this Messidor, the spring floods of Germinal and Floreal long gone. Good weather too, the best for trading in--warm, but not enough to cause a draught, with the occasional pleasant rain to keep things cool. Bad weather made demands for certain products, true, but it also shortened tempers, and made travel difficult. Better to have nice, calm weather, happy customers, and steady profits.

So far, this year had supplied plenty of the first, if nothing else. The River Ox took a deep breath. What would his father have said in these evil days? Give thanks to the River for what little good had come his way these days, and pray for better days to come, most likely. It seemed as good a plan as any to the River Ox.

Still, his father had also always warned against becoming too involved with the Dark Lords, which he most definitely was. And if his father knew the exact business he was transacting here tonight…

Well, Tall Tom of the Rapids had been a decent man on the whole, but his taste for obscenities could peel paint when his dander was up, not to mention his son’s tender ears.

“Ahh… Master Ox,” came the voice of an older man. The River Ox turned to a man who, oddly enough, reminded him of his father. Another thing that would likely have offended Tall Tom, who had very little kind to say about the Sacristans, and most of that involved the fact that they could occasionally die in amusing ways.

“Preceptor Rho,” said the River Ox with a grand bow--and as a large man, the River Ox could manage a grand bow indeed. “You have concerns to discuss?”

The old Sacristan shook his head. “No, no--nothing really. I merely wished to thank you for your assistance in our move.”

The River Ox shrugged. “Just paying an old debt.”

Maximilian Rho’s eyes narrowed in interest. “May I ask to whom?”

“Not you,” answered the River Ox.

Rho nodded. “Ahhh. So none of my damn business then. Understood.” He glanced away. “Well, you have my thanks anyway. This couldn’t have been easy. Especially at night.”

The River Ox smiled quietly. “Me and mine are used to it. River traders move quick and move when they must.”

“Still, it must be easier to work in day,” continued Rho, apparently unwilling to let this go.

“Night and day are one to us,” snapped the River Ox, glancing worriedly at Ulverrun. By the Murkenmere, does he want me to flat out say ‘your new neighbors don’t like you very much, and we don’t want to provoke them to anything rash?’

Maximilian Rho’s eyes glanced over to the small town. “Ahh. That is good to know.” He coughed, then turned to the Chateau du Lac. “So--this used to be the Badb’s home, eh?”

The River Ox nodded. “So I’m told.”

“Damned nice of her to let us stay here,” the Preceptor said. “Damned nice.” He blinked. “There isn’t a curse on it, is there? Or some such nonsense?”

“Not that I know of,” answered the River Ox. “But then, I don’t know the Badb that well.”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 2

“Are you sure this is the best you’ve got?” shouted Jean Crow du Lac over the wind, trying desperately to stay on the broomstick.

“Yep,” answered Viviane, piloting her mortar through the winds. “It’s a broomstick. There really aren’t any special broomsticks, Jean. They’re just… broomsticks.”

Jean glared at her sister. “Well--wait, you get a magical mortar and pestle, and I’m stuck with an ordinary broomstick?”

“An ANCIENT magical mortar and pestle,” corrected Viviane, “made from the rocky bones of the Titan of the Fangs and the wood of the Great Ash of the Shadow Woods, respectively.”

“Also allegedly,” added Elaine resting inside the mortar, Caladbolg nestled in her arms.

Viviane rolled her eyes. “Oh, not this again, Elaine.”

Elaine sighed. “I’m serious, Mom. The only evidence those things even existed is in du Lac records referring to the mortar and pestle…”

“Which are exceedingly OLD!” said Viviane. She frowned. “The mortar and pestle, I mean. Though the records are as well.” She smiled. “Which can be seen as MORE proof of my claims.”

Elaine shut her eyes grimly. “Sure, mom. Sure.”

“Oooo--ooo!” said Malina, peering over the side of the mortar. She gestured ahead. “There’s a big fire burning in the middle of a bunch of rocks! Is that the coven? Is that it? Is it?”

“I think so, Malina,” answered Viviane with a smile. She glanced at Jean. “So, let’s… Jean are you… pouting?”

“No,” said Jean, pouting. “Well--okay, yes. But for good reasons. You’re making me fly this awful broom, while you, and Elaine and Malina get to fly in the mortar.”

“The Badb always flies in the mortar, and carries the pestle,” said Viviane. “Unless she’s handed them to the Nemain. Which I haven’t.” She shrugged. “As for Elaine, she can’t fly at all…”

“But Malina can!” said Jean. “I mean--she’s got wings, da-rn it!”

“Devs aren’t very good over long distances,” said Viviane.

“An’ flyin’ when it’s all windy out is how you tear your wings,” said Malina. “An’ I don’t wanna do that, cuz it hurts. It hurts like ‘damn-it-all’!”

Viviane stared at her stepdaughter. “Malina!”

Malina stared back at her innocently. “What? That’s what Auntie Alse says!”

“Right,” muttered Viviane. She frowned. “She would.” She turned back to her sister. “Anyway, Jean--the important thing is, the reason you’re not in here is, you HAVE to fly in of your own power. It’s tradition--proof that you’re a witch in your own right, not just a child of a Badb.” She blinked and glanced at Elaine. “Oh, Elaine, I’m so…”

Elaine raised a hand. “No, it’s okay, mom. I’m over that whole… bag. Destiny has other things in store for me. Things involving magic swords. And killing Prince Amfortas. Possibly rekilling him afterwards, if that’s possible.”

Viviane almost seemed to smile at that. “Anyway, Jean, the important thing is, your landing that will be a sign that you are truly a descendent of Nimue. So come on, Sis! Do it for House du Lac! Wooo!”

Jean looked below. The fire seemed horrifically tiny from this distance, and it occurred to her that if she wasn’t careful, she could plunge into it. Or hit one of the rocks. Or… just hit the ground, really. She took a deep breath, and reminded herself that she had survived flying quite a few of Nisrioch’s lunatic contraptions. So, landing a broomstick without harm to herself should be a piece of cake. Or… pie, at the outside. She tilted the broom downward and gave a shout.

She had a vague impression of scenery streaking by her at a fantastic rate. It was vague, because the dominate sensation the young witch felt was wind howling in her ears, and the ground coming closer, closer, closer… I’m going to die, she thought. I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I, as in me, am going, as in having it occur, to die, as in cease to exist…. She pulled up suddenly on her broomstick.

Her feet landed on the ground with the gentlest of touches. Jean released the broomstick, which swiftly fell away. “Amazing!” came her sister’s voice. Viviane rushed forwards, and embraced Jean. “You are such a natural. A perfect landing! I… I’ll be honest, at my first Grand Coven, I hit a Dolmen.”

Jean blinked dully. “Really…?”

“Yeah,” said Viviane, gesturing to a shattered stone in the distance. “Poor thing. Standing there for generations, and then along came me.”

Jean gulped. “Ahh.” She heard the sound a small crowd coming towards them.

“Be it the hour?” came a voice trying its hardest to be grating. Jean turned to see its owner, a short, slender Marsh Erl girl, her light brown hair done in pigtails, who was rushing forward while making a very concerted effort to be grand, and instead came off as… well, for want of a better word, cute.

“That it be!” proclaimed Viviane grandly. “Hail to you, Mistress Greenteeth? How goes it on the Ruhl?”

Mistress Greenteeth beamed. “Well, my lady!” she said, her ‘nails on the chalkboard’ voice occasionally becoming soft and pleasant. “The river flows true and clean!”

Jean looked over the rest of the group of witches. Two pretty Erls of Viviane’s age, one with long brown hair, the other with short black, who seemed to hang rather close together--another one of Elaine’s age, with red hair to her shoulders, a pair of spectacles on her nose, and a watch in her hands--a short plump old woman of rather indeterminate species, who was the only one there who matched Jean’s mental picture of a witch, except for the fact that she was lugging a small barrel around with her--and keeping to herself, in the distance, another Erl of Jean’s age, rather pretty, with long black hair that hung to her waist. She was wearing a very severe-looking black dress, and… no shoes at all, for some unfathomable reason. Viviane seemed to glare at her, to which the strange Erl in black merely looked at her rather saucily and smirked to herself. And that was that. Aside from them, the Grand Coven was… six people. Most of them apparently around her age.

“It’s so good to see you all here,” said Viviane. “The Witch of the Ruhl. The Lady of the Grove. The Keeper of Cape Valse. The Witch of the Whistle, and the Witch of the Shout.” She turned towards the Erl in black. “And Mother Flint. This is a… surprise.”

Jean was thinking to herself of the inappropriateness of Mother Flint’s name--or title, whatever it was--when the young witch smiled. And then Jean gulped in quiet terror. Part of it was the fact that when she smiled, Mother Flint’s mouth was suddenly much, much too big, and you saw that her lips were withered and black. And part of it was the fact that her teeth were… flint somehow. Flint, burnished until shone slightly in the moonlight.

“What can I say, Badb?” murmur Mother Flint, talking in a low voice that seemed to go straight to your ear. “You do fascinate me so.” Her teeth ground together for a moment, causing sparks to shoot from them. She glanced over at Elaine. “The sprout’s found a sword, I see?”

Elaine glared at the witch, hand going to the Sword of Light’s hilt. “Flint, I am in no mood for your creepy crap, you got it?”

Perhaps the effects of being glared at by TWO du Lacs was enough to effect even Mother Flint, as she stopped grinning, and moved back to merely smirking insouciantly. “Oh, understood, Badb’s daughter. Understood!” She slinked off to the shadows once again, her eyes--black, Jean realized--remaining on Elaine and Viviane the entire time.

“Hi!” said Malina, rushing forward. “I’m Malina Cthonique, of Bridge Perryless!” She looked at the group. “Are you all really witches?”

“Ohhh,” said the brown-haired witch--Jean thought she was the Witch of the Shout, though she might have been the Witch of the Whistle--as she leaned forward. “How cute! Isn’t she cute, Sely?”

“Just adorable, Pell!” whispered “Sely”, moving a stray black bang out of her face.

“Come here, sweetling!” said the old witch, who was now sitting on her barrel. “Sit on old Meg’s lap so she can tell you pretty you are!”

“Okay!” said Malina, vanishing in a pop, and then reappearing on Meg’s lap. “I LIKE being told how purty I am!”

Meg chuckled and patted her gently on the head, managing to deftly avoid the little Dev’s horns. “She has her father’s nose,” stated Meg cheerfully. “It looks quite nice on her.” The other witches all cooed in agreement, save for Mother Flint, who continued to skulk in the shadows, and Mistress Greenteeth, who stood away, tapping her feet impatiently, and trying her best to look upset. Despite her efforts, her eyes would continuously dart over to Malina, and soften slightly. She kept trying to say something severe, and then stopping. Eventually, she mustered up the courage necessary to cough.

“Ahem.” The young--ish Marsh Erl looked over the group with the air of a grand dame. “Now that we have all… acquainted ourselves with the Badb’s daughter by adoption, let us return to the important issue of this Grand Coven, the heir of her blood!”

“That’d be me,” said Jean, raising her hand. The little witch’s tones were by now shifting from her bad attempt at being an aged crone to her actual voice and back again so constantly that it was all Jean could do to keep a straight face. “Jehannine du Lac, called ‘Jean Crow’, daughter of the Badb Elaine Blanchemains du Lac, sister of our beloved Badb Viviane du Lac, and her heir.”

The red-headed witch with the spectacles looked her over. “You’ve got a big nose,” she said. “Much bigger than I imagined you having.”

“Maud Lynne!” spat out Mistress Greenteeth.

“What?” said Maud Lynne. “We were all thinking it, Grace. Even you I bet. So I decided to get it out there early.”

Jean rubbed her nose idly. “Like Malina, I got it from my father. Apparently. Unlike her, it does not suit me.”

“I think it looks quite nice,” said Meg. “Very aristocratic.”

“And now that, that’s out of the way,” said Viviane, “let’s all go around the fire, and enjoy a proper Grand Coven.” She turned to Grace Greenteeth. “And Grace--I tried not to say anything about it, but I’ve reached my limits. Please--PLEASE--use your natural voice from now on. Again--please?”

“All right,” said Grace sulkily, as she trotted off to the fire.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Circles and Old Stones--Part 1

Grace Greenteeth stood at attention in the center of the circle of stones. “Be it the hour?” she intoned in a voice like a rusty latch opening slowly.

“Nope,” said Maud Lynne Douce, glancing at her pocket watch. “The Badb still has--another twenty minutes.”

The shorter, smaller witch stared at the taller one, as Maud Lyne continued to stare at her watch. “Ooooh!” Grace yelped, starting to hop up and down in frustration. “Can’t you ever let me have one moment, Maud? One moment?” Grace’s voice had shifted into tones that were infinitely more pleasant, and also natural.

Maud Lynne gave a slight nod, and shut her watch. “I just did. Exactly one moment.” She smiled at Grace. “Exactly.”

Grace pouted, and stared at the watch. “I hate that thing,” she stated. “It is bad, and wrong, and no self-respecting witch should be carrying one.” She pointed an accusing finger at Maud Lyne. “A proper witch can tell time by the moon, and the stars, and the sun, and the shadows.”

“What time is it, then?” asked Maud Lynne.

Grace looked away. “Why are you asking me? You were just looking at your watch. Your amazingly precise watch. Your precious, stupid, precious watch.” She shot another hateful glance at the device, as if half-expecting it to fall to pieces, with the other half expecting it to make a lunge at her and try to bite off a finger or two.

“Well, why are you asking if it be the hour if you can tell time by the moon and the stars, and… so on and so forth?” replied Maud Lynne.

“That’s traditional,” answered Grace, by now in a proper sulk. “You’re supposed to say that at a Grand Coven.”

Maud Lynne yawned. “It’s not a Grand Coven yet.”

Grace crossed her arms and turned away. “It is TOO!”

“No, it’s not a Grand Coven until the Babd, or the Nemain show up,” said Maud Lyn. She turned to the older woman sitting on a barrel next to a very large stone. “Back me up on this, Meg.”

Meg Mowton gave a single nod. “She’s right, Mistress Greenteeth. Up till then, it’s just a… gathering, I suppose.”

Grace attempted a growl--however, not being suited for such sounds, it sounded rather like the sound produced by a mildly cross kitten. “Doesn’t anybody care about tradition anymore?”

There was a sudden sound of stone grinding on stone, and a series of sparks shown in the shadow of a particularly tall Dolmen. “Depends on the tradition,” came a cold voice from that direction.

Grace gulped and turned towards the figure in the shadows. “Mother Flint,” she said in the quiet, hopeful tones one uses when addressing a person holding a very large, very dangerous object. “I… wasn’t sure you were going to make it. After… the last time…”

Mother Flint smiled, her teeth glinting in the darkness as the moonlight struck them. “Mmm… Didn’t have much to do tonight. So I thought--why not?”

Grace nodded several times in nervous agreement.

“Hey all!” said Whistling Pell, walking into the circle with Seleme of the Shout. “Sorry we’re late,” she explained, “But Sely couldn’t figure out what she shoul…” The witch paused as she saw the figure standing in the shadows.

“Mother Flint’s decided to grace us with her presence tonight,” said Maud Lynne. She checked her watch again. “Also, you’re not late. You’re actually early.”

Seleme of the Shout coughed slightly. “Oh,” she said softly. “That’s… nice.”

Saturday, February 9, 2013

On the Fangs of Stone and Iron

"Two Dominions linked by geography, by history, and by blood, and both shared and spilt, the Ironfangs and the Stonefangs are ruled by the Houses of Regni and Utgardi, ruling families of the so-called "high breeds" of Ogres.  Like the Shadow Woods, the kingdoms of the Fangs include smaller realms that have been absorbed by the two mountain crowns--though compared to the realms of the Chiaramontes and the Mongraves they are very small realms indeed.   The Aesir and the Vanir, for example rule over a handful of mountains each, and a few small valleys, kingdoms for which they have both been gleefully sending men to their deaths for generations...

"The feuds between the two realms make life in the Fangs hard--or rather harder.  Having only limited farmland life is often a struggle, and while the great wealth of the regions' mines can mitigate this, it does not for the poor souls who dwelve into those dangerous pits.  And the Stone and Ironfangs rival the Shadow Woods for the independence of their lords--many settlements are under the rule of barons who give only the slightest acknowledgement to their supposed masters.  It is region filled with bloodshed and death, even in times of peace..."

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Thursday, February 7, 2013

On the Vale of Tears

"A land of rich resources, and fertile farmland kept relatively safe from invasion by the Mountains of Sorrow (but as history has shown, not absolutely safe), the Vale of Tears is the hidden treasure of House Ashurana.  The wealth they acquire from it--especially from the great city of Albracca, the largest in the Lands of Night--pays for the Ashuranas armies, their magic, and much else.  But it was not always so.  Once, the House of Nibelung ruled here.  The centuries-long struggle between the two houses ended with the Nibelungen's defeat and exile, though they have made sporadic attempts to return...  By some accounts, the last heir to the house lives the life of a humble monk in a secluded monastery..."

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On the Mountains of Sorrow

"The so-called Mountains of Sorrow are in fact mostly foothills, with a handful of genuine mountains among them.  It is on the largest of these, Mount Kaf, that the Ashuranas built their mighty hall.  The first of them, Ahrimanes, is a figure of dim legend, said by his family to trace his descent to the region's winds.  Others say that Ahrimanes and indeed, the entire Dev race are the creation of sorcerers seeking to create a higher from of Erl.  Whatever the truth is, the Devs swiftly made themselves masters of the region, creating a system of Dev lords ruling over Erl and Trollish peasants, with all under the rule of the Ashurana.... 

"Despite this powerbase, the Ashuranas have often been under the sway of others, paying homage to the Khans of the Hordes, or the Kings of the South.  In a very true sense, the great talent of the descendents of Ahrimanes is not domination--it is survival."

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Saturday, February 2, 2013

On the Blasted Heath

"...Once the Kingdom of the South was perhaps the greatest of the Domains of the Lands of Night.  All that remains now is a handful of cities clutching a dying river.  Once the Ghouls were a force that rivaled the Kizaks.  Now they sit in their towns and try to keep the water from the aquaducts their ancestors built flowing into their resevoirs, as the Prince and the Prophet feud with one another.  This is the Blasted Heath, a land of great history and little else.  Wracked and ruined by evil magic, and brutal war, much of it the result of one man--Sutekh Amontides, who called himself  'the Supreme', who sought to shackle the entirety of the Lands of Night to his will, who burned books so that history might be rewritten, who desired to live forever and rule all that was under heaven, who tried to command the Dragon and perhaps even Mother Night Herself...

"All know his name.  His face is forgotten.  As it should be."

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night