"Daughter?" A middle-aged man stepped into the
small house, "Daughter? A parcel has arrived for you
from leB ... uh ... the cursed keep. I believe it is your
He smiled at her, wiping his hands on his green-felt jerkin
before running them through his salt-and-pepper hair. Having
had time to consider the ramifications and implications of
his daughter wedding Magnus, he reached the conclusion that
this was a better match than any he could ever have imagined.
The baker or blacksmith had both expressed an interest in
Sabrina's hand but had soon realised that, despite her beauty
and intermittent charm, her reputation for being something
of a hellion was well-deserved. Since then, they'd settled
down with two plump, docile blondes and were well on the way
to huge families.
He sighed, looking at his daughter curled up in a chair with
a novel in her hand. Her keen intelligence and perception
did not make her an ideal match in an age where women were
meant to serve as little more than a decoration or a breeding
"Go away." She looked up from her book briefly,
fixing him with a gimlet eye, "I am not going through
Anger filled him. How could this girl be so obtuse? Didn't
she realise that the curse still hung over their heads, kept
at bay only by the good temper and grace of the Mage Magnus?
Didn't she realise what a great honour it would be to become
the lady of the village, to take their protector as husband?
Moreover, if he was married to a local woman, it would act
as assurance that he never would leave.
"How can you be so selfish?" He pulled the book
away from her roughly, flinging it onto the floor, "The
safety of the whole village depends on you, yet you put your
happiness above everything else."
Sabrina stood, planting hands on her hips, eyes narrowing.
He could see her barely managing to keep her temper in check
as her breath became shorter and shallower. Something inside
him wrenched as he saw her mother's Gypsy temperament come
to the fore, as she fixed him with a look that was both infinitely
ancient and wild, something of the woods, paths and breezes,
something that still sang and danced to the tambourine and
zither. Alys, his wife, had been as lovely and as spirited.
"Daddy ... you don't understand. I can't."
"Why?" He asked, "You are a single woman of
marrigeable age - there are no legal barriers to your betrothal."
"I am not single," she retaliated, thrusting a
ringed finger in front of his face. The slender, gold band
caught fire in the light, highlighting the two engraved letters
in the metal.
"Stop pinning your hopes on that ... that..." He
flung up his hands in exasperation, "rogue highwayman.
Probably been killed by one of the good Mage's guards by now."
She smiled thinly, and her face became cold. Picking up her
book from the floor with affected nonchalance and dusting
it, "The Mage is the only one who is going to end up
"Hush, child. It's treason to speak like that."
"So what?! I'd rather be dead than live as his wife."
The outburst had done both of them good, he saw, the tension
of the moment had broken. Between his departed Alys and her,
he thought he knew how the eye of a hurricane felt, surrounded
by tossing winds and storm. More gently, realising how helpless
Sabrina must feel, her father pleaded: "Come. See your
wedding dress. Nancy tells me that it is fit for a princess."
The girl seemed to capitulate, although he could see the
tension in the tightness of her muscles and the thinness of
her mouth. "Okay. But it feels more like I'm going to
be wearing it to my funeral."
"Better that than the funeral of the entire village,"
he took her arm, leading her out of the small house.
"Yes. Much better." She sighed, "Much better
... Goddess of Fortune\Misfortune, Remy, I hope you come through
"This is useless. "We've passed this tree six times
already. I thought you said you knew the way," the highwayman
swung himself off the horse, slamming his fist against the
offending foliage. A shower of massive, yellow petals rained
down, like confetti, bringing with them the sweet-sour smell
of decay. Sweating from the heat of the day as much as the
exertion, Remy removed his dark cloak and stowed it in a bag
on the side of his saddle.
"I also recall saying that the journey would not be
easy," Ororo appeared distracted. Her white-silver hair
was plastered to her neck and forehead, despite being taken
up into a practical braid. Sodden with perspiration, her blue
chiffon robes clung to the hollows and curves of her chocolate
"Yes," Remy crossed his arms, leaning against the
guilty tree, "So? Are we lost?"
"No." She bent over some broken twigs, the furrow
between her eyes deepening "I believe we are trapped."
"Trapped, Ororo?" He raised an eyebrow sceptically,
"Don't see any bars."
"Trapped in time."
"What? That's impossible. The stuff of bard's tales
told to prevent children from running away from home."
"Not if we are where I suspect we are," she looked
around herself, shivering despite the warmth. The trees had
a depraved verdancy about them - leaves flourished on each
twisted branch, pocked with holes, black spots and bumps.
The few flowers around rotted on the twigs as they bloomed,
millions falling gently to earth. A sickly scent of decomposition
tainted the purity of their exotic, spicy perfume.
"The forest of the Lady Belladonna."
"Sounds like a plant." He snorted.
"Not quite." The sorceress straightened, glancing
around her nervously and sketching a few wards with her hands,
"She is both exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally
cruel. Fond of playing games with the lives of mortals to
alleviate her own immortal boredom."
"Now, my dear Ororo, is that any fair introduction?"
Her voice was as saccharine and as cloying as the scent of
roses which accompanied her. A fragrance somehow suggestive
of rot, as if these flowers like everything else were slowly
The woman was suddenly there. She was even more gorgeous
than Ororo had said with curves as luscious as an over-ripe
peach in her green silk-dress. Low-cut and tight, it left
little to the imagination, while her smirk implied that even
that much was unneccesary given time and privacy. Her long
golden hair, threaded with tiny white buds, cascaded down
to a slender waist and her violet eyes shone with a strange
combination of malice and love.
"And I see you are not alone?" she cooed.
As she stepped closer to Remy, leer broadening, the dying
roses became suffocating. With a finger, she sketched the
outline of his right cheek-bone, smile becoming grimace as
she seemed to realise something. Abruptly, she dropped her
hand to her side and turned back to Ororo.
"Why didn't you say he was the...?"
"He doesn't know himself. Leave us, Belladonna. He and
all his power will be yours in neither body nor soul."
"My power?" Remy mouthed at the Sorceress and she
brushed it off as unimportant with a gesture.
Belladonna ignored the remark, becoming business-like as
she regarded the man again. Ororo's sharpness had rubbed the
moss off her underlying granite, though, and flirtation had
given way to interrogation, although there was the hint of
a smirk in her eyes and slight moue.
"Can you not speak for yourself?"
"Of course I can - I usually just don't talk to snakes."
She laughed - a sound similar to a harp being played by a
beginner, contriving to be beautiful and grating all at once.
"I see she has already poisoned your mind against me."
Her smile grew more brilliant, "I am not half the things
that she would want you to believe."
"Don't see why Ororo would lie to me?"
"She is jealous. She always has been jealous."
Belladonna purred, voice velvety, "Caught up in her musty
books and dusty magic in her ramshackle house, never living
life except by proxy; while I am life. I embody the
spirit of the earth."
The buds in her hair opened briefly, emitting a rich and
dark scent. The incense of the Goddess of Love\Hate, Remy
thought, smelt like that. He had sneaked into one of her temples
once as an inquistive adolescent, having heard stories of
the hedonistic and decadent rituals that happened within the
vaulted, marble walls. Hidden behind a velvet draping, he
had peeped out of a hole in the musty fabric, nibbled by an
inquisitive rat. To his disappointment, the gossip had turned
out to be little more than folk-tales. A solemn monk, robed
in a garment that was half-red and half-black, had placed
wreaths of belladonna, or poison ivy around the neck of the
androgynous deity. Stepping back, he had lit sticks of fragrance,
chanting something that Remy privately thought sounded like
a cat being thrown into a river. It had smelt like Belladonna's
flowers - suffocating and tempting at the same time.
"Do not listen to her!" Ororo cautioned, "She
may be life, but she is also death."
The woman frowned, blooms wilting, "But, no, I sense
that it is not the words of Ororo you are listening to - but
the words of your own heart. Perhaps if I take a form more
pleasing to you."
The air shimmered around her, the scent of roses flared into
a coruscating blaze of perfume, the sky turned dark. Through
the dancing light that surrounded her, Remy could see her
body shifting hideously into one grotesquerie after another,
then reshaping, like clay in a potter's hand.
"Now is our chance..." The sorceress tugged at
his arm, "While she is distracted, we may be able to
"Wait." Remy said, transfixed by her transformation.
"You do not understand what a danger she poses."
"Tough luck, Ororo. It looks like you have lost."
Belladonna had disappeared to be replaced by a slender woman
who was both beautiful and familiar to the Sorceress. Green
silk had changed to the brown of homespun. Blue eyes were
green but no less malevolent. Golden hair was brown with a
single streak of white - the sign of the moon, the sorceress
wondered, given to the ... She nipped the line of thought
in the bud, unable to believe what eyes and mind told her
"Sabrina." He whispered, at the same time that
she exclaimed: "Impossible. She has not been carnate
Shaking her head to dismiss the notion as foolishness, and
the similarity of Remy's lover as chance, she concentrated
her attention on the very real danger that lay ahead of the
highwayman if he allowed himself to be tempted. She had heard
legends of what Belladonna did to those that succumbed - some
were frankly ribald, the others more sinister and probably
"I can promise you that that is not the woman you love.
Merely another of Belladonna's tricks."
"Don't listen to her, lover." The doppelganger
begged, twisting a lock of hair winsomely around a finger,
"It is me. You know that it is."
"Ororo - this is just crazy enough to be true."
He turned to the sorceress, pleading, "It could be her.
"Which is precisely what she wants you to think. This
is not your fiancee."
Tears fell down the other woman's face, "I've come so
far and you don't believe me. How can I make you believe that
it is me, not her?"
"Shhh, darling." He put his arms around her, "I
believe that it's you ... milady Belladonna."
The witch hissed and recoiled as she felt the point of a
dagger touch the base of her spine through the thin silk of
her dress. Remy smiled grimly as he shifted his grip around
her waist so that he held her more securely.
"So the old stories about fairies and iron are true?"
She chuckled coquettishly, "Yes, the slightest prick
from that accursed star-metal would kill me. Unfortunately,
I know quite well who you are and, as a result, you would
and could never do so."
"I am Remy leBeau," the man retorted, eyebrows
drawing together in confusion.
"You are also Charles ex Aviere, Mar'vell Brightblade
and Nate Askani'son," she whispered, voice become low
and sonorous, 'You are the..."
"Enough, witch, I had hoped it would not come to this..."
Ororo interrupted, gathering her power in the pit of her stomach.
Lips murmured ancient incantations as she weaved together
strands of power from the clouds in the sky and the moisture
in the earth, trees and flowers. Finally, she released the
tight cord in her abdomen in a white hot sphere of energy
which cleared the air of its sickly fragrance as it arched
through the air like a comet.
<<Pathetic>> She heard the voice say in
her mind, <<Could do better with one hand behind
<<Maybe so, maybe not>>
They rose from the ground, mossy and decomposing, bringing
with them the scent of rotting flesh, of funeral pyres, of
death. On their lips were the wails and curses of the unblessed
dead. Death-pale figures - Kings, Princes, Warriors, Peasants
- approached in a parody of a military formation.
"No." The woman cried, struggle to be free of Remy's
arms "Not them."
Hands grasping, snatching, tearing, Eyes wild with hate and
fear. Feet marching inexorably towards her. A single chant,
repeated over and over
again, through starved lips.
"La Belle Dame sans merci, thee hath in thrall. La Belle
Dame sans merci, thee hath in thrall."
"Non." She screamed, illusion shedding itself like
a snakeskin. Voluptuous, golden and luscious, Belladonna bit
and clawed at him, like the skinniest urchin on the street
caught scrumping apples. The thick fabric of his shirt began
to tear, revealing skin.
"Witch." Remy's eyes were cold as he looked at
her, "Would run you through myself, if I didn't think
that these people deserved their revenge more than I did."
"Please ... do not leave me to them. They'll kill me."
Belladonna changed tactics, pleading with him, cooing once
"And why do you think that you deserve to live?"
"I can help you." She said, suddenly crafty. "I
know more magic than that charlatan would ever be able to
learn. Besides which you never will escape unless I want you
to - this is my forest, remember?"
"She has a point, Remy." Ororo sounded tired, "Very
well, Bella. I however do not see why you need us if you are
as powerful as you claim."
"These people were my victims - they are beyond my powers
now." She sighed, slumping into Remy's arms who dropped
her indecorously on the floor. Picking herself up and dusting
herself off with a sour look at him, "Revenge has a strange
magic of its own. Protects you from the one you would kill."
"How are we to vanquish these spectres?" Ororo
asked, tracing wards with a finger to hold the advancing army
"Simple." A smile, glimmer-quick and fox-sly, crept
across her face as she sensed that she was out of danger.
"What's the one thing that death fears?"
"Life?" The sorceress guessed, impatient with the
other's guessing games and constant manipulation.
"No." Her violet eyes were impatient, "Death
solves the riddle of life - it doesn't fear something it can
"Love." Remy said, quietly, " Because it lives
beyond the grave."
She turned to him, a strange, sweet expression blossoming
on her face. Her eyes held an appeal that he knew he should
refuse, while knowing that he was unable to do so. That this
event had the importance of the cornerstone around which the
rest of his destiny was built. That if he did not go along
with her plans, something more catastrophic would occur.
"I understand." He stepped forward, closer to the
witch. "Do it."
"Are you sure you trust me?"
"Don't have much choice?"
"Hurt him and I shall..." Ororo threatened, fully
prepared to break all her healer's vows.
Belladonna placed a cold hand on his chest over his heart.
Remy gasped as he felt the tendrils of her power entwine themselves
in his psyche like a gigantic parasite, bleeding him dry infinitely
slowly. Drop by drop, he felt his blood grow cold and the
singing in his nerves grow fainter. Her voice when she began
to chant was slow and rhythmic:
"Life fleeting ends its dance. And I take that away.
Night breaking ends the light. And I take that day. Months
falling cold into winter. And I take that May. Love living
beyond dusty urn. And I take that away. Esrep sids senk radfos
ecrof! Tidnam moci evo lyb!"
The air shone with sudden brilliance, increasing in intensity
until it seemed as if it could become no brighter. The sweet
smell of death vanished, replaced by one of ozone. When Ororo
finally looked up, the glade was deserted, save for some bleached
bones lying on the green grass. One or two yellow soup-plate
flowers drifted down to cover them.
"Remy?!" She asked, looking around for the young
man. "Remy?! Where are you!?"
"He is no longer among us." Belladonna's face was
"What do you mean, witch?"
"I mean that the incantation required one life for a
life, one death for a death."
"He's dead?" she exploded, "You asked him
to give up his life on something he barely understands. That
is repugnant, even for you."
"Oh, relax." The woman stretched, a lazy, golden
cat, "At least, my problems have been solved."
"No, they have not." Ororo was furious, "There
must be a way to get him back! You know who he is..."
The witch turned to regard her in her bedraggled robes and
messy, silver hair as if seeing her properly for the first
time. In the same hideously calm voice, she replied:
"Yes, I do. I also know that the prophecy has to be
fulfilled - the Child of Light shall give up all for the...."
she hesitated over the word, crinkling her nose, "Succubus,
shall exchange lust for love, life for death and sun for shadow.
"You also know that it speaks of another sacrifice:
'and, touched by him, the beautiful woman shall set him free'.
How do you propose to do that?"
Belladonna was silent for a few seconds, twisting her flimsy
garment between her fingers thoughtfully. When she looked
up, her eyes were frightened, distant, haunted. Ororo swallowed:
if the fairy was scared, then the solution was worse than
any her fertile imagination had provided.
"There is an old prophecy that speaks of a way to save
the soul of one who has died."
"How does it go?" She asked urgently.
Belle's brow furrowed in concentration, "Man may go
beneath ... the ... ground to meet his master, Death ... Man
... may go where ... Death has trod ... to challenge as ...
Scherezade, he who reigns beneath the ... sod ... to spare
a mortal's breath. There! Are you happy?"
"Well and good, but how do we go 'beneath the ground'?"
"That, my dear Ororo, is easier than it sounds."
Belladonna paused, realising something, "'We'? You think
I'm coming with you?"
"You got him into this current predicament, you will
extricate him from it. Besides, you know as well as I do the
compulsion of prophecy. For the myth to be fulfilled and the
reincarnate God to be killed, he must be saved. If this is
prevented from happening and he is not present at the ultimate
confrontation, the universe will tip into chaos."
The woman looked resigned, "Fine, it doesn't seem like
I have a choice."
"So? How do we go beneath the ground'?"
Belladonna raised a slender eyebrow, "You aren't very
good at the whole omniscient thing, are you?"
"Save the taunts for later. There is too much at stake
for our own personal enmity to hamper us."
"The Well of Souls. Legend says that it is the bridge
between the two worlds, that it was created from the tears
of the Goddess of Love\Hate when she wept for her lost daughter
who died after being shot through the heart while wearing
the aspect of a nightingale. I'm not sure how true the legends
are, but the Well exists. It's a few leagues from here but
we can be there by nightfall."
Ororo nodded and followed Belladonna's lead through a grove
of putrescent trees. As they walked, their footsteps through
the forest were very quiet as they walked away, almost as
if both of them wished to surprise each other...
"Stupid Gramayre." Jubilation turned over another
thick, yellow page, sneezing at the dust cast up by the action,
"'Stay and study your Gramayre while I have all the fun,
Jubilation'. 'Be a good apprentice, Jubilation.' Yeah, right!"
She sighed, reading the runes out loud to herself and tracing
the arcane symbols with a forefinger. When she had first decided
on a career in magic, she had not expected it to be dull book-work.
Her parents' spells were all glitter, coloured lights and
ethereal chords, nothing like perpetual reptition of a long
dead language. "Evil, evol, eval ... but I am sure that
Ororo wouldn't object toooooo much if I came along. In fact,
she'd probably welcome the company. Besides which, it's probably
my duty as an apprentice to be alongside her."
She closed the thick, leather book, suddenly decisive. "Watch
out, Magnus, Jubilation Lee is on her way!"
Continued in Chapter
Disclaimer: All the obvious information.
Characters are Marvel's, prose is mine and comments are welcome.
;) The Scherezade verse comes courtesy of King's Quest VI.
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