Huldra sighed as she sealed the portal behind her, leaving the camp of Legio II Aquila behind as she stepped onto the old creaking floorboards of Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed hut.
“Treating my lovely home like a damnable train station,” The Russian crone muttered as she eyed Huldra. “Were you at least successful?”
“They know the plan,” Huldra nodded. “I fear for Catarina though.”
“Fear for us first,” Baba said. “The powers you want to harness…that spell could unravel half of creation if you’re not careful.”
“It’s the only plan we have,” Huldra took a seat in an old moth-eaten armchair. “The Ginnungagap Rift spell…it is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Second craziest,” Baba Yaga shrugged. “First was letting that damn dragon out of its hole…oh don’t look at me like that you hag, you brought it up.”
Huldra settled her gaze back at the floor. “We’ll be on the run after this, no more big coven meetings for us for some time, centuries maybe.”
“All the better for it,” She shrugged, hunched over her cooking pot. “We witches aren’t the cooperative type normally, and when we do work together we start suggesting ideas like poking holes in reality. A penchant for toying with fate or not, that’s dangerous work.”
“Maybe you have a point,” Huldra sighed, sinking into the chair. “Though there is one thing still to worry over.”
“Our little fledgeling,” Baba Yaga never raised her eyes from her cauldron. “I half-expected you to whip Ceridwen with a switch when she came back and said she’d given her up to le Fay.”
“But she was fine,” Huldra said. “We took five witches to check on her and all signs point to her being perfectly fine. Morgan is playing a strange game.”
“It wasn’t her,” Baba said. “Morgan would have snatched that girl up like a hawk takes a rabbit if she had even half a chance. No, something stopped her.”
“You kept insisting on that and we saw no evidence,” Huldra said, fingers rubbing her forehead.
“Hecate agreed with me!” Baba rapped a wooden spoon on the rim of the cauldron. “There was something wrong about it. Something’s clinging to that girl and I don’t want a part of it, especially if it scared off a creature like le Fay.”
“A creature who has not shown her face for months,” Huldra said. “She’s gone to ground again and I don’t like it…she’s being far too silent for my tastes. She’s up to something.”
“She’s a True Witch, we’re all up to something,” Baba clicked her tongue.
“You know what I mean,” Huldra shot her a glance. “I want to know where she is and what she’s doing.”
Baba Yaga’s hand tightened on her spoon. “You know that’s just what the problem is, don’t you?”
“Excuse me?” Huldra sat up.
“You need to have your spoon in every pot, even if they’re not yours! You’re what the humans these days call a…a…”
“Control freak?” Huldra offered as Baba chewed on her tongue.
“That’s the word!” She snarled. “You need to have your nose and your hand in everything you do! Don’t think I haven’t noticed you checking in on all the other Witches while you think Hecate and I aren’t looking!”
“I’m coordinating,” Huldra said.
“We’re witches, we don’t coordinate well,” Nana’s crone face was twisted into an ugly leer. It would have been terrifying to just about any mortal on Earth. “Not to mention it led to-“
“Don’t you dare!” Huldra snapped but Baba Yaga continued.
“Possessed or not, do you think you would have delved so deep into Nidhoggr’s prison if you didn’t have your titanic ego and curiosity to satisfy? It might have been Nidhoggr’s evil that made you break the lock, but it was your desire to know, to learn everything about that forbidden power that sent you down there.”
Huldra rose to her feet, and somewhere outside the bird-footed house the thunder rolled.
“Watch yourself,” Baba had her spoon pointed at Huldra as if it were some terrible wand. Given the caliber of witch she was, it might as well have been. “Remember where you are, then remember who I am before you open your mouth.”
Huldra took a moment, drawing in a long breath before she spoke again.
“My apologies, Baba…you know how highly I think of you.”
“Oh, I know, though a reminder now and then couldn’t hurt,” She settled back at her cauldron.
Huldra moved to the door. “I’m going to find Morgan and what she’s up to. I’ll want assistance.”
“Ceridwen is free” Baba said, her tone still calm. “Anansi and Hecate too, though you’ll never find the latter if you go looking.”
“Believe me I know better,” Huldra said. “Alright, Anansi and Ceridwen then. That should be enough. Nimue? Where is she?”
“Who knows,” Baba shrugged.
Huldra frowned. She would have preferred Morgan’s opposite if there was the possibility of a confrontation.
“Thank you, as ever, for the hospitality, Baba,” She bowed her head.
“If you’re off to trounce that red-haired rat, give her a kick for me.”
“Of course,” Huldra smiled before exiting the shack into the cool Russian evening and vanishing into thin air.
Ceridwen was the easier to find. She was still on guard duty for Tegwen, now with explicit instructions to never leave Tegwen out of her sight.
“Nothing’s happened!” She all but shouted as Huldra arrived. “Honestly you’re worse than my mother!”
“I’m not here about Tegwen. I’m recruiting you,” She said sharply.
“Oh heavens, what now?” Ceridwen asked.
“We’re going to track down Morgan le Fay,” Huldra said. “And find exactly what she’s up to.”
“Well…I won’t mind a little muscle,” Ceridwen said. “You were missed last time I met her.”
“Not just us,” Huldra said. “You’re the second of three. Come on.”
Her voice was sharp and curt as she opened another portal in the air, standing wide enough for both of them to step through.
They stepped out into what seemed like an ocean of green. Vegetation and foliage stretched out around them in a curtain of emerald in a thousand different shades.
“Gods, it is hot!” Ceridwen groaned as she stepped through. “Where is this? The sun?”
“Ghana,” Huldra said sharply. “And we won’t be around long. I’m recruiting Anansi as well.”
“Oh!” Ceridwen perked up immediately, and Huldra noticed her heavier outer robes vanishing as her neckline plunged. “Lead on then.”
“Oh honestly…” Huldra rolled her eyes as she set out into the jungle.
“Anansi!” She called out among the trees. “It’s Huldra!”
“Aaah, a pleasure for such fine witches to come by for a chat.”
The shadows over them moved, and Huldra watched as the rough silhouette of something large with eight long legs crept through the foliage above them.
“And a shapeshifter to boot,” Ceridwen smiled, muttering to herself.
Huldra never got a complete look at the spider, but as it moved to a tree, a man in more familiar form dropped down to the ground. He looked as he had at their first meeting, a tall man of wiry shape but toned build with deep black skin and glittering eyes dressed in a loose robe of silver thread.
“One could say, Lady Ceridwen,” He smiled at her, her image reflected in his eyes eight times over. “That I am merely a spider in the shape of a man.”
Ceridwen smiled, eyes aflutter as Huldra stepped forward.
“Anansi, I could use your assistance,” She said, her tone politer than it had been with Ceridwen.
“I have little that needs my direct attention,” He said, “What did you require?”
“Morgan le Fay,” Huldra said. “I want to find her and learn precisely what she’s up to.”
“Ah, I’ve heard much more of this ‘Morgan’ than I have seen. Is that what she’s going by now? Or is it Morgause? I’ve been devouring your Arthurian stories since last you spoke of her.”
“Syncretization makes answering that question more confusing than it’s worth,” Huldra said. “Morgan le Fay, semi-human sorceress, enemy of Camelot, mother of Mordred, the Queen of Air and Darkness. All caught up?”
“That will suffice,” Anansi smiled. “I am interested in seeing the witch behind the story…why not? I will aid you. It should make for another interesting story to tell.”
“Thank you, Anansi,” Huldra smiled.
“Alright, problem number one.” Ceridwen said “Finding Morgan, how do we do it?”
“That won’t be too hard. It’s a lot like tracking game.”
“Find the trail,” Anansi smiled. “Witches follow familiar trods, after all.”
“Precisely. I’ve been keeping a close eye on everybody partially to track movement. If Morgan is plotting something, she’ll be orbiting wherever her plan is centered. Like an animal returning to their den, she’ll keep going back to that one place along familiar trails, even if she has to cut across worlds to do it.
Huldra dug deep, feeling the paths that her portals took, the hidden ways and cuts through time and space that witches of her caliber used to travel from one point on the World Tree to another, feeling them out like the tunnels of insects gnawed through wood, dirt, and stone until she found what she was looking for. A trail, well-used but unaccounted for, among the many that the other witches had left behind.
“Either I found where she’s been going,” Huldra said. “Or some other witch has been scurrying about the eastern waters of the North Sea.”
“That’s rather remote…” Ceridwen said. “Even for her that’s far from home.”
“Precisely where you’d go if you don’t want to be found,” Huldra said. “Come, let’s see what our wayward sister is doing.”
With a wave of her hand she opened a door in the air, a portal between their spot and wherever it was that Morgan was setting up shop. Without hesitation she stepped through.
Cold. The sudden shift from the tropical climate to the freezing north was powerful, and Huldra worked to summon a cloak about her shoulders. When she tried, however, she felt her shoulders still bare and the feeling of heavy iron shackles on her wrists.
“What is-!” Before she could finish the sentence, she felt herself drawn away from where she stood like a fish caught on a line. In a single instant she was dragged across a cold stone floor and into a bare cage of cold iron.
Huldra whirled around, and saw two other cages next to hers holding Anansi and Ceridwen.
“It seems…” Anansi’s voice was calm. “We were expected.”
They were in a colossal cave, a massive stone vault that served as a natural harbor to the North Sea. She could see the entrance open into the cold grey sky, wind whipping at the dark water. Their cages were placed on a natural sort of pier, a ragged stone floor rising out of the water.
“Well there it is, the witch was right. This little trap caught the intruding mice right up.”
A cold voice echoed around them, a cackle barely restrained by his words.
“Who goes there!?” Ceridwen shouted, but Huldra knew the voice. Her brow furrowed, teeth grinding as she stared at the tall figure stepping out of the darkness.
“Loki,” Huldra hissed.
Loki blinked in surprise before his grin split even wider.
“Well if it isn’t Frau Holda,” He said. “I daresay if you’d sent ahead, I would have sent finer arrangements. Spikes perhaps.”
“What is the meaning of this trap, Loki!?” She demanded.
“Insurance,” Loki shrugged. “Morgan insisted, and I quite agreed, that should you witches come sneaking along we should be prepared to…keep you out of the game for a while.”
He gestured idly to the cages.
“Keep us from what?” Ceridwen asked, but Huldra was already scanning the cave.
It was dark and difficult to see with only the distant light of the cave-harbor mouth, but in the water she began to make out the outline of something enormous. The wind whistled against the stone, but beneath it she could hear the sound of nails being hammered and building being done.
Loki. A ship. The eastern edge of the North Sea.
“You’re building the Naglfar,” Huldra looked at him, aghast. “Loki, you know what that will mean.”
“Better than most,” Loki’s expression soured. “But I have some insurance this time. And you being out of the picture just puts the odds more in my favor.”
“Did Morgan put you up to this!?” Huldra demanded. Loki’s fist smashed against the bars of the cage, hard enough to rattle the iron and throw her onto her back.
“I do not take orders from that witch!” He snarled before turning his back on them and storming away.
“The Naglfar sails!”
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa