The Snake and the Mirror

Duel of Witches

 

Surveillance duty, Ceridwen decided, was tremendously dull.

The other witches of the gathering, Huldra, Hecate, and the rest of the malevolent brood, had oh so kindly decided that Ceridwen would be in charge of watching over the fledgling witch-girl Tegwen due to their relatively close proximity. Ceridwen, being a patient and humble soul, had kindly agreed out of the kindness of her heart (and so as not to earn the wrath of as many witches as could be stuffed into a chicken-footed house). With every passing day, however, she was regretting her decision more and more.

Tegwen was a strange girl, which was unsurprising, but the manner of her strangeness was entirely alien to a classic witch like Ceridwen. She talked and talked and talked, more to herself than to her odd new companion, about things that made little sense to her. She liked to stare at mushrooms and trap small animals to study. She didn’t make potions from their body parts or chant spells as she worked. She simply sampled and observed and recorded and moved on.

And it was all so boring.

Tegwen’s companion at least proved to be somewhat more interesting. She was a Morgen, a fiendish little water spirit who went by the name of Meredydd that had been bound to Tegwen’s command. Ceridwen almost pitied the aquatic maneater; the witch at least could leave Tegwen now and then to get away from her incessant babbling. She wouldn’t be surprised if Tegwen talked in her sleep.

Still, the method by which Tegwen had taken control of Meredydd was some small source of interest. Ceridwen had been away when Tegwen had acquired her magic scepter, a device Ceridwen could not identify or scry the source to. It was a black hole in her knowledge, which was a worrying sign considering Ceridwen prided herself on her almost total knowledge of everything in Wales. The discovery of the artifact had also been a little too convenient. In the single hour Ceridwen had been forced to leave, Tegwen had found the thing and bound Meredydd to her service. Ceridwen, like most True Witches, did not believe in coincidences, and she’d kept a sharper eye on Tegwen ever since.

At the moment she was about a mile away from Tegwen, watching her through a scrying bowl placed on a lone treestump, filled with water that projected the hazy image of Tegwen into the air so Ceridwen could watch her actions. Ceridwen herself was knitting, one of eighteen hobbies she had picked up to pass the time, one eye always on the fledgling as she stooped down low to look at yet another ‘fascinating’ bit of fungus. This girl is going to be intolerable when she becomes a True Witch, Ceridwen thought idly to herself before letting out a sharp laugh.

All True Witches were intolerable to be around in one way or another.

“Find something amusing, Mother of Awen?”

Ceridwen’s knitting needles vanished as her eyes darted around for the source of the voice. Appearing through the trees and into the clearing was another woman, dressed in robes of silver and black with a raised hood that failed to hide her curled red hair or shimmering green eyes. Ceridwen’s brow furrowed; it was precisely the face she knew would someday show up.

“Morgan le Fay,” Ceridwen’s voice was only a bit higher than a growl. “What brings you to darken my doorstep today?”

“Oh you know, just shopping around, looking for that special something that will put a little more ‘oomph’ into my spellwork. You know, something like a unicorn’s tears, or hair from a toad…or the soul of a fledgling True Witch.”

“I’m afraid we’re fresh out of all those things,” Ceridwen said. “The third one in particular has already been bought.”

“You’ll find me quite persistent, Ceridwen,” Morgan said. “Now you and I have gotten along rather swimmingly in the past, why can’t we just keep that going?”

“Swimmingly?” Ceridwen scoffed. “As I recall the last time we met you referred to my son as an ‘ill-begotten ape’.”

“Well in my defense,” Morgan said, though even when trying to be placating her voice all but dripped with malevolence. “Your son was a brutally ugly man, even you can’t deny that.”

“At least he is my trueborn son, and though he might have had a demon’s face he had a poet’s soul. Not to mention it saved him from a violent death at the Battle of Camlann. Now tell me, Morgan, can any of that be said for your own misbegotten spawn? My womb at least produced something other than destruction and death.”

There were very few souls who had seen Morgan’s façade break, even if it was nothing more than eye that twitched with fury, fewer still had lived to describe it.

“I see then you will not be moved on this, Ceridwen,” Morgan said, her voice as steady as it was dangerous.

“True Witches are like cats, Morgan,” Ceridwen said. “We only move when we want to.”

“Then do the smart thing and decide to move before we see just how many ways there are to skin a cat,” There was fire in Morgan’s eyes, and Ceridwen rose to her feet.

“What will it be then, Morgan? Are we going to go about this like primitive mages and fling fire at each other until half of Britain is ablaze? I trust you’re at least a little more sophisticated than that.”

“Two of our kind haven’t had a duel for over a thousand years,” Morgan said. “Not since I defeated Nimue, rather handily I might add. And she had all of Merlin’s power at her disposal, what do you have?”

“I have a challenge for you,” Ceridwen said. “We shall play the second-oldest game. The Game of Shapes.”

Morgan eyed her testily. Ceridwen was well-known for being one of the finest shapeshifters of their unofficial coven, but Morgan was proud, and more than that she was angry. If she took the bait…

“Very well,” Morgan said. “A Game of Shapes, until the loser forfeits or is killed.”

“The winner stays,” Ceridwen said. “And the loser shall leave the fledgling be forever, at least until she takes full form.”

“Agreed,” Morgan said. “Challenger takes first form.”

“Very well,” Ceridwen said, dismissing her scrying bowl as she smoothed out of her robes. “Then it’s your move, Morgan.”

Morgan pulled down her hood as she whipped her robes around herself, her long furred cloak growing and covering until it wrapped around her entirely, her form shifting from a statuesque woman into that of an enormous brown bear.

“King of the forest lands am I, greatest and most ferocious of mundane beasts,” Morgan the Bear roared.

Ceridwen smiled, she loved it when they went big. Instantly she began to shrink, smaller and smaller as her form twisted, her robes expanding around her into a pair of gossamer wings.

“Big and fierce with sharp teeth and claws,” Ceridwen the Horse Fly smiled. “But what claws and teeth can save you from a thing you cannot catch?”

The small fly whipped around the bears head, biting painfully at the sensitive skin of its inner ear and the wet lids of its eyes. All Morgan could do was swat wildly through the air before her face twisted once again.

Morgan became small again, though not quite as small as Ceridwen. She became a sparrow, swift and powerful as her blade-like wings cut through the air in pursuit of the succulent fly. But Ceridwen knew birds far better than Morgan did, and in a moment’s notice the form of the fly had changed into that of the fearsome shrike.

With a single swoop the shrike had the sparrow in its claws, and impaled it upon the thorns of a nearby bush. But Morgan was as clever as she was resilient. The sparrow’s form melted away as vines of holly grew upon the bush, great spears of thorny wood shooting from the branches to impale the shrike in turn. But Ceridwen knew birds, and the shrike had nothing to fear from thorns as her form darted gracefully between the branches. Idly she pecked at the hardening holly wood. Morgan would need to do better.

Irritated, the holly receded, and from the bush burst forth the great green mouths of some foreign carnivorous plant. Ceridwen darted away but she had little fear; exoticism would not save Morgan. Ceridwen decided to have a little fun at her expense and, in the blink of an eye, became a cow, munching idly on the leaves of the carnivorous plant.

Neither of them kept the form for long, Ceridwen knew that many things could kill a cow, and Morgan was likely to pick one of them. She was proven right as Morgan turned into a wolf and Ceridwen in turn took the form of a large stag, antlers at full size.

“You would bring a deer to battle a wolf?” Morgan snarled.

“What is the wolf without its pack, Morgan?” Ceridwen shot back. “The lone wolf is a failure, in concept if not in idiom.”

Morgan charged, fangs bared, and Ceridwen moved to meet her, antlers slamming against the hide of the wolf and goring the soft hide before sending Morgan flying with a swing of her brawny neck.

“Perhaps you overreached yourself,” Ceridwen said. “There are none better than me at the Game of Shapes, save perhaps some Classical god.”

“Then perhaps it is best to default to your earlier suggestion,” Morgan briefly reverted to her human shape, robes tattered where the thorns and antlers had impaled her various shapes, but only for an instant before her form seemed to dissolve once more.

“Fire.”

Morgan’s very being became a pillar of uncontrolled whirling fire, flames blazing out in all directions as Ceridwen rushed away, taking the form of a falcon to escape the onrushing blaze. She could have taken the form of a river or a waterfall to crush the spout of fire, but Morgan had cheated, pouring her energy into this pillar of flame to create something magical from outside reality, a storm of magic fire no mortal fire could extinguish.

Inwardly Ceridwen cursed. Morgan had cheated.

She was pushed back, forced to retreat for the time being as the fire singed her feathers. She would need to find the others and come back to face Morgan. If the Queen of Air and Darkness was willing to throw this much power around, Ceridwen wanted back up. Loathe to leave her charge but seeing no other option, Ceridwen fled.

When Morgan was sure the other witch had truly fled she retook her human form, brushing the soot from her robe as she stepped through the once-lively clearing, now scorched utterly to ruined ash.

Quiet as a shadow she moved through the forest, drawing closer and closer to Tegwen like a wolf stalking its prey. The Morgen spirit would be easy enough to destroy, and the fledgling was still unaware of the extent of her powers. It would not be hard to trap her and then…

Morgan stopped dead in her tracks. Tegwen was in view, clear as day as she stood by a river, refilling her canteen as Meredydd rested in the cool waters. Neither of them had noticed Morgan’s presence.

But something else had.

In the trees around her, so numerous she had at first mistaken them for leaves, were hundreds upon hundreds of crows. All of them stared with black eyes down at Morgan in watchful silence, waiting, daring her to strike.

Morgan swore inwardly, not daring to make a sound in the face of such a show of force. Ceridwen, she had assumed, was Tegwen’s only protection, surely the only one the other witches would have sent. But this…this was something beyond her power to deal with right now. She had beaten Ceridwen, but now she needed to retreat as well.

With one last spiteful glance at Tegwen, Morgan le Fay retreated silently back into the woods and out of sight.

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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