Flies buzzed around Sir Morrigan’s face, and he had lost all will to swat them away. They settled in the sweat that beaded on his brow and dribbled down his temples, leaving streaks of dirt in their wake. He had long since closed his eyes to the dappled, persistent sun shining through the forest canopy. Instead he favoured the fancies he could construct within the vault of his mind. He was at peace there, in his make-believe world. He sat on a chair padded with silk cushions, his gleaming sword lain on the stone surface of an immense, round table in a room with buttressed ceilings. It was far more satisfying than the reality.
Sharp, intelligent eyes the colour of cooling, molten amber shifted in the dregs of the summer evening sunlight. Morrigan had been avoiding their stoic observation, keeping his own watery gaze riveted on the blood seeping steadily down his arm. It ran unhindered across his bare skin, oozing from between the cracks of his fingers and dripping into the dirt at his feet. It splattered on the mossy ground. When he finally looked up to the branch where the magpie had been perched, surveying his situation with keen interest, the bird had gone.
Morrigan didn’t know where his horse had gotten to, but he would have put money on the creature having wandered on to find water to quench its thirst. The mere thought of it was enough to make his mouth burn with desire. He couldn’t remember exactly when his flask had run dry, and that lack of memory frightened him. But not as much as the searing pain in his arm did. It felt as though his flesh were afire, needled by the hot coals of infection. Morrigan grunted and rolled, ignoring the persistent flies.
How he had managed to let the wound get into such a state, he could not say. He supposed he had thought it a flesh wound to begin with; a scratch, and nothing more than a temporary inconvenience. But untended scratches could fester just as readily as doctored gashes. That the blood was red and flowing freely could seem like a disaster, but given that the wound itself was three days old only gave Morrigan the dare to hope for some measure of recovery. Or at least, that there would be recovery, providing he could manage to get some Haresfoot compacted into the cut and bring down the swelling surrounding the fledgling infection.
It felt good to take the pressure off of his wounded arm. He ground his teeth together, wrenching his knee upwards to steady himself. Pain ripped through him, radiating from the wound itself. For a moment after elevating it, the agony abated. Relief was his, and he gulped the warm summer air and relaxed. But as soon as he let the tension melt from his shoulders, the pain took him up in its grip again. Unprepared for the fresh assault, Morrigan screamed.
The sound echoed through the woods, muffled only slightly by thick vegetation. It echoed into the shallow part of the valley near the forest, where his horse had gone to find sweeter, juicier grass. The beast lifted its head in concern, ears pricking forward, until further silence seemed to negate the possibility of a threat. The scream even echoed to the tops of the great trees that made up the inner forest. Another creature there bore witness to that cry full of suffering, and decided to take pity on a dying man in his last moments.
Morrigan heard the sound – the rush of motion in the air, measured in time with the lagging beat of his heart – before the shadow passed over the closed lids of his eyes. He squinted slightly against the strange experience of the light being momentarily surpassed, before the flicker of movement became too much for his curiosity to bear. Slowly, excruciatingly, he lifted a hand up to shield his eyes and only when they were protected as much as possible from the light of day did he open them.
There, perched keenly on the knee that he had raised, sat a large magpie.
Its glossy feathers were patterned in the most splendid fashion, lending it the appearance of wearing a royal mantle. As he heaved himself up off of the dirt for a moment, it cocked its head to the side and peered at him with bright, inquisitive eyes.
“What do you want?” he asked it peevishly, annoyed that in his dying moments he should be bothered with an audience. “Go away. Go on, shoo!” With what little strength he could muster, he flapped a hand at the bird in the hope of dislodging it.
It hopped in place, wings rustling, but did not leave him. Instead, it offered him a mildly reproachful caw.
Horrified, Morrigan grunted as he sat up. “Be gone, bird! Take your grim song to another funeral. I won’t have need of you for a while yet.” He brandished his arm again, and the bird took flight.
Knowing that it was gone, Morrigan again tried to find some measure of peace. He shifted so that his back was against the tree behind him. A reluctant sigh escaped him as he lifted his arm closer to his chest. Laying his head back against the rough bark, Morrigan breathed deeply of the pine scented woods around him as he drifted off into a feverish sleep.
Before long, he was in the throne room. His mind recalled every detail with perfection, from the immense stone columns that bordered the plaza to the richly carpeted dais where two ornate chairs – both equal in opulence and stature – sat side by side. It was empty as he made his first few steps across the time-worn flagstones, but with each stride more people materialised into the room around him. They shimmered in the air like ghosts, faces all turned to him as he made his approach to the royal seat.
Perhaps ten paces from the dais, his King and Queen began to take form. They flickered like mirages, perfect in their rendered beauty and just as stately as his memories could craft. As he came to a halt before them, Morrigan could feel the weight of their eyes on his form. He gave in readily to the pressure of expectation, and sank respectfully to his knees. When he looked up, his beloved rulers had rather interesting smiles on their faces. The Queen, in particular, was pressing her lips together quite tightly and looked very much like she wished to laugh. Morrigan’s eyes darted to the King, as he released a pent-up chuckle.
And that seemed to be the catalyst. Everyone else in the throne room began to laugh – the assembled nobles, courtiers, and maids – their voices carried, echoing up to the high, stained glass ceiling of the hall. The mocking sound beat its wings against the glass, trying to get out into the world proper.
Morrigan woke with a start, the afternoon having grown dark around him. Shadows shifted around him, but it wasn’t until the rattling sound of wings too close to his head made Morrigan sit up, ducking down on instinct to protect his eyes and ribcage. The magpie flew low overhead, circling more than twice. At length, it dropped a small sprig of leaves from its claws. The greenery landed almost directly at Morrigan’s feet. He reached for it gingerly, ignoring the fresh spurt of blood that made a new warm, wet trail down his arm. It was Haresfoot.
The magpie was watching him steadily, head tilted with concern. Holding up the Haresfoot, Morrigan tore the soft, leaves into pieces before popping the peppery herb in his mouth and began chewing it to a paste. As soon as he had it to a fine enough consistency, he spat it back into his fingers and began pressing it into the wound. Stinging like hellfire for a moment or two before it began to work its magic, the Knight was relieved when the heat began to subside. Not the kind of man to look a gift-bird in the mouth, he took stock of the magpie, again sitting serenely on the dead branch of the tree nearby.
“I thank thee, Lady Magpie,” he said gracefully. “You’ve saved me today, from a lingering danger. I’ll not forget your kindness, and shall repay it with a kindness of my own.”
Morrigan dug in his pack for a hunk of thick, bread that would be stale in another day or so. Without pretence, he began to pick it to small pieces. These pieces, he then began to scatter to the wind for the magpie.
“There,” he said, pleased, when he was done. “Fill your belly for the long days ahead, and know that you have given me life.”
Knowing that the Haresfoot would work better if he had something else in his stomach besides, Morrigan began to slowly eat the rest of the bread. He watched the magpie as he chewed, noticing the way the late afternoon sun shone like liquid gold on its mottled wings. It pecked daintily at the bread he had offered, breaking it into smaller pieces for its feast.
The sky had already begun to put on her velvet cloak. Stars glowed on the horizon like fireflies on a blanket of fine silk, luminescent and magical. The fragrant herbs added to the perfumed air, mingling with the smell of the wheat and the earth. His own scent lingered on the air, sweat cooling in the light breeze that blew up the hill from the valley. But there was something else there now, aromatic and tempting. It was the scent of ripe apples and wild honeysuckle, yet it was more than just that. There was a musky note to it that stirred a sense of unbelievable longing in him.
And then it was as though the shimmering mirage from his strange dream had come true. The air around the magpie looked as though it were affected by some kind of intense heat, but there was another quality inherent in it. An iridescent sheen of magic was apparent. The magpie seemed to notice it as well, opening out its wings and stretching them wide before flapping them experimentally. Then, before his very eyes, Morrigan watched as the magpie started to change.
The wings were first, the feathers falling from limbs that were elongating and a body that was growing in size. Black and white, the down fluttered to the forest floor but even though he was tempted to watch their delicate descent he was mesmerised by the fact that the magpie was no more. In its place was a naked woman, with long black hair that hung in luscious curtains over her shoulders.
Morrigan gaped at her, his mouth open in disbelief. His guts had tightened with a strange sense of anticipation, and whether it was due to the Haresfoot or the ideas starting to form in his mind, the pain in his arm was momentarily forgotten.
“Holding them in your hand won’t do you any good,” she said in a rich voice, glancing at the herbs he was holding tightly in his fist.
Startled out of his shock, Morrigan cleared his throat and replied. “I suppose not.”
The woman stood boldly in front of him, her shoulders back and her head held proudly. There was no attempt at modesty on her behalf, and though he fought valiantly against his instincts to keep his eyes on her face, Morrigan failed miserably.
“How did you do that?” he asked, at last.
“Magic,” she replied mysteriously, a coy smile quirking one corner of her sensuous mouth.
Instinctively, Morrigan grinned at her response. “Obviously.”
The woman’s smile simmered into a less committed expression. She shrugged a shoulder, taking a step towards Morrigan. “A curse,” she added, getting closer to him
“Ah yes, I know the one,” Morrigan nodded sagely, his eyes lifting to her face as she approached him. “Magpie by day, maiden by moonlight?”
“Not every night.” He raised an eyebrow, and she glanced away. “I am only a maiden on the nights when I have been shown true kindness.”
Morrigan had fallen silent. Magpie knelt on the moss beside him, her skin pale in comparison to the soft, rich green carpet. Without pretence, she took his dagger from the scabbard on his belt. Morrigan was left with little more to do than watch with wide eyes as she deftly cut a strip of material from the bottom of his tunic. “What happened to you?” she asked.
He tilted his head back, drinking in the sight of her. “I fell off my horse, and hit the rock. I’m fairly certain you can determine the rest for yourself.”
That same small smile returned. She took the strip and began ripping it into two thinner pieces. “Why were you out here in the first place?”
Morrigan shrugged slightly, and then winced from the pain it caused in his arm. “I was taking a shortcut. Returning home after an impossible quest.”
She shuffled closer, until her bare knees were touching his thigh. She leaned over him, her cool hands feeling like salvation on his boiling arm. He lifted it for her, holding it up when he realised she meant to bandage it. Her long hair trailed across his chest. He could see the pert shape of her breasts beneath the dark tresses, but the glory of their appearance was hidden from him.
“Oh?” she asked, but there was a catch in her tone that followed a heartbeat later. “It can’t have been too impossible, if you’re returning.”
Impressed with her audacity, Morrigan grinned. “Maybe I’m just that good.”
She raised a sceptical eyebrow. She folded one of the pieces of material and pressed it onto the wound. Morrigan hissed in pain, but she ignored him. “What sort of quest was it?”
He waited a moment, his teeth ground together. When she had begun to wrap the wound with the other strip of material, he spoke to distract himself from the pain. “I was charged by the King to fetch for him the Dragon-sapphire of Ahmrai.” At this, he managed to sound somewhat proud of himself. Lifting his chin, Morrigan glanced at her down the length of his nose. “Upon presenting it to him, I shall be made a knight of his closest circle.”
“Will you?” she asked, fake surprise colouring her tone. “A knight of his closest circle. I see.” She tied the tail end of the makeshift bandage securely before turning her dark, seductive gaze on his face. “And did you fail to fetch it? Is that why you’re returning from your impossible quest?”
He watched her for a moment, as though weighing something in his mind. At length, he reached past her for his pack. As he retrieved an item, his hand brushed against the creamy skin of her abdomen. He didn’t care to look up to see whether or not she’d blushed.
“See the colours? The fire of dragon’s breath, mingled with the clarity of the sapphire.”
Her eyes had gone very wide. Seeing that she was transfixed by the stone, Morrigan had taken the chance to look at her. He could see her perfection, mirrored in the many faces of the stone.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
“Yes.” He let his eyes linger on her, until she looked up at him. She smiled but held his gaze with a determination that fascinated him. With a gentle smile, he prodded for information. “Is that why you were cursed? Was the witch jealous?”
Instead of answering him, she lifted a cool hand and pressed it to his cheek. Morrigan felt a jolt of electricity run through him, and knew it had very little to do with his fever.
“Why are you not already a trusted knight,” she muttered softly, her fingertips exploring his neck and chest as she leaned closer, “if you’re so very capable?”
“Ah,” he managed, his voice husky. “They are jealous,”
“Naturally,” she smiled slowly, tilting her lips to meet with his.
“She cursed me because I stole her gold,” she confessed, her hair fanning out over the moss like black silk. “Not because I was poor, with a starving family to feed. Not because I was in need of it for some heroic purpose. I just wanted it.” Her eyes shone in the dim moonlight. “Do you think less of me?”
“No,” he said instantly, and for the most part it was true. He lay on his side, his head propped up by his good arm. “I understand the pull of desire well enough, I think.” Morrigan offered her a small, wry smile. “The King sent me on this quest to prove – at least in part – that I was capable of thinking about something other than beautiful women for more than a few hours strung together.”
She blinked, then. Just like that, the watery film that had covered her eyes was banished. That dangerous smile came slinking back. “I’ll wager that I can prove your quest truly is impossible,” she said slyly.
“I’ll take that bet,” he replied with a crooked grin, as he shifted toward her.
The morning air felt cooler, and not just because of the crisp dawn. Morrigan knew before opening his eyes that his fever was gone, and a sigh of relief escaped him before his memories came flooding back. The raven-haired beauty came instantly to mind, and he sat up slightly to steal a glance at her exquisite form. But there was no gentle, witty maiden on the moss beside him and he realised that with the dawn came the resurgence of her terrible curse. There was no magpie’s caw, ghosting through the forest. He had to assume that she had moved on.
It reminded him that he had a quest to be getting back to himself. Glad that his arm felt much better, Morrigan reached for his pack, intending to give the Dragon-sapphire a polish before making the last leg of his journey. When his hand did not immediately close around the stone at the top of his pack, he began to dig amongst his things. It wasn’t long before he upended the pack altogether, scrabbling through his belongings on the lusty moss. The stone was gone, and so was his hope at being accepted at court. It was only then he realised that he should have given a great deal more care as to why the witch had chosen to imprison the woman in the form of a magpie.