It’s Halloween 2022; we’re supposed to post scary stuff, right? Well, this is about as close as I’m liable to get. Yes, I know it’s a bit long, but I think you’ll like it.
The Crown and the Crone (Encore)
“It’s time for a name change,” she said, smiling at herself in the mirror from behind long, raven tresses. “The old Magda is dead.”
She slipped into a lacy undergarment which somehow, free of magic, supported her bountiful cleavage; it would take some time to adjust to her new dimensions. The lingerie bordered on perfect needing only a pinch here, a pull there. Satisfied, she placed a graceful hand on her shapely hip and turned toward the window. Her smooth and freshly bleached flesh would benefit from a bit of sunlight.
“Perhaps I should become a Heather,” she mused then glanced at Filch, an associate from the old days. The feline gave no hint he’d even heard her question. She assumed he was an associate no more, thanks to her agreement with the warlock. Such is life, she thought, then turned her attention back to the question of a name change. “No,” she told herself, “Heather won’t do.” The name reminded her of the color green and ridding herself of that had cost too much.
“Fawn, perhaps?” She turned her head from side to side admiring the reflection of her now tiny nose, and the soft, mole-free contours of her formerly knobby chin. Her teeth were perfect, her tummy flat, her butt tucked, and her feet dainty. She was, unquestionably, the most desirable witch who ever lived. “But Fawn? No. Too dainty.” And beneath her new exterior she remained anything but dainty.
Still admiring her image in the full-length mirror, she relaxed. Names were silly things. She’d find the right one in good time, and if not, Magda would do.
“The old saying holds,” she said, quoting it, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
And she would prove it. “Look out, Prince Charming, you asshole. Magda’s coming!”
King Laurence had been ill for months, and turmoil threatened the land.
Everyone from Lord Evan, the High Chamberlain and the King’s closest advisor, to the lowest scullery maid assumed the great monarch was the last of his line. The once formidable presence had outlived every known heir. The search for a successor had been intense, but fruitless. The other lords of the realm petitioned the crown for permission to conduct their own search, one limited to the nobility which had served Laurence during his family’s long and peaceful reign.
Though it pained him, the king acquiesced. “So be it,” he whispered to his Chamberlain. “With any luck, I’ll be dead before those jackals choose my replacement.”
In the kingdom’s dark past, several of the families had battled ferociously to gain the throne. Laurence’s grandfather had found a way to subdue them all and established a bountiful peace which lasted for generations. That the land might be thrown back into bloody turmoil had everyone from lord to lackey fearing for the future.
Then, as if decreed by the gods themselves, a whisper of hope arrived in the guise of a young man who claimed to share King Laurence’s bloodline. The High Chamberlain agreed to judge the claim and summoned the youthful petitioner who marched straight through his quarters, ignoring the high ceiling, the massive windows, and the lavish furnishings.
Stopping before the official seated behind an expansive desk, the new arrival took a breath, summoned all his courage and focused on projecting the proper image. Anything less could spell his doom.
“I’ve heard your claim,” said the Chamberlain. “Why should I believe you? Why should anyone believe you, for that matter? You come unannounced, unaccompanied, and unknown. I don’t even know your name.”
“You may address me as Prince Harmon, milord. King Laurence is my father.”
The official regarded the young man with undisguised skepticism. “Your father?”
“How odd he never mentioned you.”
“He and my mother spent very little time together.”
“Enough, evidently, to generate an heir.” The High Chamberlain drummed his fingers on the heavy desk. “Can you prove your lineage? Where is this woman with whom you claim the King dallied?”
“Alas, she’s no longer among the living,” Harmon said. “She succumbed to a swamp demon.”
“A what?” The High Chamberlain laughed out loud. “What would a noblewoman be doing anywhere near a swamp?”
“The best she could, milord; she did the best she could.”
“This is absurd!” The Chamberlain slapped his hand on the desk. “I should have you thrown in irons!”
The young man merely smiled and offered his hand for inspection. “Do you recognize this ring?”
The King’s premier bureaucrat stared at the ring with the gold-encrusted gem on the youngster’s middle finger. “How? Who? Where did you get that?”
“T’was a gift of gratitude from the King to my mother.”
“That ring has been missing since the reign of Laurence’s grandfather, King Stefan.”
“Missing?” The young man chuckled. “My mother and I have known its whereabouts all my life. I cannot speak for anyone else’s.”
“Remove the ring. I’ll take it to the King. If he acknowledges it, I’ll accept your claim as genuine. If not, well, you’ll find the accommodations in our dungeon to be less than pleasant.”
“Sadly, that’s not possible,” Harmon said. “My mother bade me swear to never take it off.”
“You’ll simply have to take the ring, and me, to see the King.”
The Chamberlain’s growl spoke volumes about his displeasure at such an impertinent suggestion. “I could simply have your hand removed.” He scissored his fingers in the air.
“You could,” said Harmon with a shrug. “And if the King acknowledged the ring, he’d likely have something of yours removed. Your head would be my guess. Are you willing to take that chance?”
The official grumbled an acknowledgment of his defeat. “You leave me little choice. Just know that I can—and will—summon the royal executioner if you’ve bothered the king over nothing.”
“I’ll settle for that,” Harmon said suppressing a shudder. I had hoped to leave you no choice at all.
Despite the stunning image Magda knew she projected, approaching the castle grounds still gave her pause. So many things could go wrong. With the King ill, tempers among the nobles flared quickly. Fights had broken out everywhere, some between rivals who had lived peaceably for years. Keeping that peace, however, was no longer Magda’s job. It ceased to be her concern the day the swamp slut’s son stole her ring.
She had been a fool to think the youngster possessed an ounce of integrity, let alone a shred of honesty in his finely formed body. She’d watched him grow from toddler to teen and beyond. He had the looks and bearing of someone born to the upper classes, and in truth, his sire might have had a drop or two of lordly blood. But if any of it still coursed through his veins, the nobility had long since been diluted to nothing. His mother’s niche in the social hierarchy could not have been much lower. She would sleep with anyone, man or beast, who could afford to share a bed and a bowl of grog. It was through just such a union that she claimed a stake in the swamp‑side tavern where she birthed the brat.
The tavern had previously been run by a man of equally questionable caste, but Harmon’s mother somehow wormed her way into his trust. When he died, an event fraught with unanswered questions, she claimed an inheritance. Magda suspected that event had inspired the boy to seek even greater rewards for his own treachery.
She recalled the times the boy had been good to her, had earned her trust, and thereby induced her to lower her guard. She had no doubt he was the one who snuck into her room in the tavern’s shabby guest quarters and slipped King Stephan’s ring from her hand. Who else could have given her a sleeping potion? Who else had access to the cooking grease with which he oiled her finger? Why else would he have fled in the night?
With the thief gone, Magda’s wrath fell on his mother. She had raised the boy after all, and taught him how to cheat and lie, how to take advantage of others to advance himself. Magda killed the harlot quickly, much as she had those who previously threatened the peace of the kingdom, for that had been the arrangement she’d struck with the old King. He had given her his ring, the greatest single symbol of his reign. In exchange, she agreed to use her powers of enchantment to halt anyone’s efforts to upset the peaceful tenor of the realm. If someone attempted to stop her or interfere in her affairs, she had but to produce the ring and invoke the power of the throne. The bargain had been beneficial to all for the better part of a century. Best of all, she secured for herself a lifetime supply of gravas, the kingdom’s most valuable export. Gravas—the liquor of the gods.
But then, along came Harmon.
Blissfully unaware of the calamity he engineered, he forced Magda to take steps she would otherwise have never considered. The most egregious of these was the trade she struck with Rathbone, the grand warlock. She traded her entire store of magic power for a meager pair of skills: the ability to change her appearance and the power to disguise the appearance of others. There were side effects, of course, but she felt comfortable with them since they offered her no personal threat.
Finding the warlock, striking the deal, and perfecting her image had taken time, but she wasted no more in tracking down the monster who had ruined her life. She knew where he would go, and she was close to catching him.
The walls of the castle keep loomed ahead. Shifting the unaccustomed weight of her bosom to better display her cleavage, Magda approached the guardian of the gate with a smile and a wiggle of her hips. Such movements, once foreign, now felt entirely natural, and she liked the way men responded to them. Such simple creatures, they had no idea how easily they were manipulated. In her natural guise, men shunned her. Now, they groveled at her feet.
“Prince” Harmon sucked a grape from the bunch held above his mouth by an accommodating serving wench. He’d had his choice of the lovelies available in the King’s manse, which, if all went well, would soon be his, along with the rest of the kingdom. He laughed to himself at the memory of his one brief encounter with the ailing monarch. The High Chamberlain had crept into the royal sickroom with Harmon in tow, flanked by a pair of brawny guards, one of whom kept a sword tip nestled in Harmon’s back.
“Your Majesty,” the Chamberlain began, his posture a study in obeisance, “I’m loathe to disturb you, but I had no choice. It appears you may have a son.”
The aging king opened one eye and gradually focused on the Chamberlain who motioned Harmon forward, ring hand first.
Harmon’s heartbeat reached a crescendo but he somehow managed to keep his fear and excitement hidden.
The King’s eyes went wide when he saw the gaudy ring, and his sharp intake of breath launched a coughing fit. When it finally subsided, the Chamberlain continued. “This man,” he said, gesturing toward Harmon, “claims to be your son.”
The King, however, could not take his eyes off the gold-encrusted jewel on the supplicant’s hand. “My… My son—” he began, then collapsed back onto his pillow, unable to utter another syllable.
To Harmon, the King’s words sounded like a question rather than an acknowledgment, and he shifted his focus to gauge the Chamberlain’s reaction. That worthy, however, ignored the King’s words and instead raced from the room in search of a physician. The two guards ushered Harmon from the chamber and kept their weapons drawn while they waited for the Chamberlain and the doctor to arrive.
That had been nearly a fortnight earlier, and the King had yet to awake. Harmon dreaded that moment, and when he wasn’t busy bedding the younger members of the great noble’s female staff, he prayed the man never would wake up.
Magda’s efforts to reach the false prince had not gone well. It seemed everyone she met made it their business to delay her, if not rape or seduce her. In the process, however, she learned a valuable lesson about taking care of herself. More than one overly aggressive guard had found himself walking into a bedroom with a winsome wench only to discover she had turned into a hag of the lowest order. This unexpected conversion usually left them more than a bit stunned, and Magda was only too willing to put that hesitation to good use. Though she lacked the mystical powers with which she had once policed the kingdom, she had no trouble using her fists, her feet, and a measure of rage to disable any undesired paramours.
It’s not that she had little interest in casual liaisons; she merely preferred to focus such efforts on men of noble blood, even though her primary target had none. The side effects about which she’d been warned would make a perfect reward for that miscreant, provided she could get close enough to take him to bed.
To Harmon’s great relief, King Laurence never awoke and therefore never said anything beyond, “My… My son—” Fortunately, the two guards who had been in attendance were called upon to testify and both recited the late monarch’s exact words. Firmly backed into a corner, the High Chamberlain had to declare Harmon the one and only legitimate heir. As soon as Laurence was laid to rest, the lad would be crowned King.
The new king’s first order of business was an immense coronation ball. Every single female in the kingdom, regardless of social status, was summoned to the castle to stand for the Monarch’s Review. Those younger than sixteen or older than thirty were excused, as were any with health issues. According to the decree, the King would select a dozen ladies to form his coterie. Though not specifically stated, most believed the King would select one lucky member of the group as his Queen. Despite a short timeline, the competition promised to be fierce.
Magda heard the proclamation since the new King ordered it read throughout the realm. The whoreson had given her the perfect means to breach his defenses! With the powers she possessed, no one else stood a chance. And while her age was older than thirty by at least a century, no one would guess she was other than she appeared. She would soon own the little sod and make his life as miserable as he deserved. Her passion for revenge would be sated, and her place in the kingdom’s history would be assured. And, if there were truly any justice in the world, she’d once again be served all the gravas she desired.
Laurence’s funeral preceded the coronation ball by a matter of days, and the city’s population swelled in response to the King’s summons. Despite the limits the sovereign placed on his order, far too many of the women who answered the call failed to meet his restrictions. Guards were assigned to question the respondents and group them by height, weight, age, and hair color. King Harmon drew up additional limits for each category. Though fewer than one female in ten passed the screening, there were still more bodies available than ballroom space to accommodate them. Harmon opted to organize multiple affairs.
The nobility responded with outrage. Not only had the new king stepped outside traditional boundaries, he had trod them into oblivion. The High Chamberlain maintained order, but with a profound impact on the state treasury. King Harmon remained unconcerned and claimed the kingdom would never again run the risk of lacking heirs; something he vowed to take care of immediately. His logic seemed unassailable though his methods drove the nobles to the brink of rebellion. Only the history of what happened to those who sought to challenge any of the last three kings kept them in check. Those punishments, though absent lately, had been swift and gruesome, with the results typically displayed for all to see, though who performed the executions remained a mystery.
Magda would likely have been selected on the strength of her enhanced appearance, but she took no chances. She surveyed the field of beauties surrounding her and selected several she thought would draw the most attention. Moving casually but consistently, she approached each one and cast a minor spell to temporarily obscure their finest features. Harmon would never see those attributes. Hers, of course, would be spit-polished.
The results were exceptional. Magda not only made the first cut, she stood at the head of the entire cadre. When the final ball ended, King Harmon had assembled fifty potential queens, only one of whom claimed noble status. Magda felt a title would give her the additional edge she needed, especially since the Chamberlain was in a state of extraordinarily high dither over the hurt feelings of the nobility. Perfectly willing to be magnanimous, Magda promoted herself from mage to minor member of the aristocracy.
It made little difference as Harmon was so taken with the raven-haired beauty that he paid little attention to the rest of the contestants for the throne. And, after a single passionate evening spent with Magda, he dismissed the rest and married her.
Slipping silently toward her own quarters, Magda could not have been more pleased as she left the imposter king behind, sleeping. With a wave of her hand, she revealed the early effects of their union—a touch of green and a bit of mottling on Harmon’s face, a discoloration that would grow more profound over time. Even more pleasing, she’d never need to bed the bastard again.
Harmon, however, was anything but pleased. Magda heard his anguished cry from the adjoining room and reached the distraught ruler even before his servants. “What is it, milord?” she asked sweetly.
“My skin! Look at it.”
She pretended to examine him as carefully as a child might inspect a captured butterfly. “It’s definitely green,” she said, hiding her joy as best she could. “And a bit scaly.”
He leaned closer to the mirror and verified her observation. “By the gods!” he groaned. “What’s happening to me?”
“It’s but a taste of what you deserve,” Magda said. She gestured with two fingers, and the discoloration instantly went away.
“What do you—” Harmon went silent. “It’s gone. Look! The green is all gone.”
“For now,” Magda said.
Harmon’s brows dropped into a sharp V as he stared at her. “I don’t understand.”
A handful of retainers entered the room and interrupted their conversation.
“I’ll explain later,” Magda said.
Harmon gave her the evil eye. “Damned right you will.”
The court physician could find nothing wrong with his new sovereign, despite the latter’s claim that he was turning green. “No, my liege, I assure you; you’re mistaken. Your complexion is perfect. You have nothing to fear.”
Armed with this knowledge, Harmon hurried to the Queen’s chamber. “Ha!” he barked as he burst into the room. “If there’s any color on my cheeks, it’s merely the flush of youth. The Royal Physician says I’m in perfect health.”
“And you probably are,” Magda said, “except for your wretched hide.” Once again, she wiggled two fingers at him. “See for yourself. My mirror stands ready.”
Harmon pushed his face close to the reflecting surface and examined his features. In the bright light of the Queen’s chamber, he could easily see his skin had taken on a subtly darker shade—distinctly olive. “What witchery is this?” he cried.
Magda set aside the tall glass of gravas she’d been sipping and yawned. “It’s actually quite basic witchery. Nothing fancy at all.”
“And nothing less than you deserve. But know this, the color will only grow darker. And you’ll soon begin to see a few other delightful features as well.”
“What are you saying? Have I been bespelled?”
“Of course, you have, you idiot. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
While he pondered her words, she allowed her appearance to shift from that of the stunning young woman he’d wed to that of the vile crone he’d robbed near the swamp. Magda quivered with joy at his horrified reaction.
“You!” he whispered, his voice thin and shaky. “I’ll have you cut to pieces and fed to the hogs! Such treachery—”
“Treachery?” Magda broke into a peal of laughter. “You dare speak to me of treachery?”
“Guards!” screamed the young king.
Magda casually consumed her beloved gravas. “Just remember, my dear king, I alone control the way you look. Kill me, and that control is gone; everyone will see your true colors evolve. They’ll watch you change, and in a matter of weeks, you’ll resemble a prodigious toad. How long do you think the nobles will let you occupy the throne looking like that?” She laughed at a new thought. “Imagine the names they’ll have for you: King Croaker! Monarch of the mud! Sovereign of the swamp!”
Harmon waved his guards back as they swarmed into the room. “Never mind!” he yelled. “Go away.”
“That’s better,” Magda said when they left. She restored his appearance with a flick of her fingers. “Y’know, I think I’d like you better in a shade of emerald.”
He ignored her. “I’m surprised the guards didn’t attack you when they saw me in the company of a witch.”
“They saw no such thing,” she said. “You’re the only one who sees my true self.”
He covered his eyes with his hands. “Must I see it all the time?”
“Oh, indeed you must. Especially when I enter your chamber at night. I want you to see exactly who you’re making love to.”
Harmon gagged. “That will never happen.”
“It already has, my sweet. That’s how you’ve come to look the way you do. Consider it my gift to you.”
He appeared on the verge of tears. “If I give you back the ring, will you go away and leave me alone?”
She shook her head and made pouty lips at him. “That’s no longer an option. I no longer need the ring. You can swallow it for all I care.”
As he scrambled to leave her room, Magda finished off the bottle of gravas she’d opened that morning. It would be a lovely day; she just knew it.
Several weeks passed, and the loathing Magda and Harmon felt for each continued to deepen. When forced to be in the same place, typically in some official capacity, their bickering quickly reached a boiling point, but the High Chamberlain always intervened before they hurt each other. One day, however, he summoned them for a meeting that had nothing to do with their positions as royals.
Seated in a room once reserved for councils of war, the two sovereigns and their chief functionary faced each other across a narrow table. It sported a pitcher of gravas and two goblets. As soon as they were seated, the royal couple each grabbed one. Magda took two swallows for each one of Harmon’s, but they eventually drained both glasses.
“That’s the last of the gravas, by the way,” the Chamberlain said. “It came from my own private stock.”
The look on Magda’s face registered shock. “It’s gone? All of it?”
He nodded. “By a crown decree. The King ordered the royal stock sold to replenish the treasury.”
Magda turned on Harmon. “Are you completely insane? What will we do without gravas?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m not the one who can’t stop drinking it.”
“Swine!” Magda said with a snarl. “I’ll—”
“Please! This constant quarreling must stop,” the Chamberlain advised. “It’s wreaking havoc on the kingdom. For the good of the people, and for yourselves, you must find a way to end it.”
Harmon eyed the official with disdain then let his eyes wander the length of the room, taking in the pikes, swords, daggers, and other tools of war on display. “Kings listen to the advice of subordinates. We do not take orders from them.”
“Ordinarily, milord, I would wholeheartedly agree. But we face two grave threats to the peace and safety of the realm.”
“Only two?” Magda asked, her tone falsely innocent as she continued to stare daggers at the King. “What might they be?”
The official took a deep breath before responding. “Despite our sovereign’s heroic efforts at procreation, there’s not a single female on or near the castle grounds who’s with child.”
Magda’s wrath softened to a chuckle. “He has the need but lacks the seed.”
“Silence, woman!” Harmon growled, then in a softer voice addressed the Chamberlain. “What’s the other issue?”
“It’s a plague of some kind,” he said. “Thus far it has afflicted over half the noble families. The male heads of households all report the same symptoms.”
Clasping his hands in helpless angst, the Chamberlain answered, “They’re turning green, milord. Green and scaly.”
Harmon turned on Magda in a fury. “You’ve done this!” he cried.
Magda ignored him and walked the Chamberlain to the door, closing it once he’d left the room. She turned and faced the King with a smile of satisfaction.
“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” he asked. “You stand accused of infidelity with proof aplenty, and yet you smile at me like a fool?”
“I’m not the only one guilty of infidelity. Or did you forget you’re my husband?”
“Is it? You’ve taken to bed nearly every female within walking distance of the castle! I’ve at least restricted myself to a higher class of lovers. And, if you must know, the worst of them was still far better than you.”
Harmon seethed and jumped to his feet, snarling, “Harlot!”
“Bastard!” Magda yelled back. She, too, stood upright, her face flushed with anger.
“Fraud!” Magda emphasized the point by throwing her goblet at him.
He dodged the missile and threw one of his own.
In short order, the warring royals had cleared the table of projectiles and worked their way toward the weapons standing racked and ready around the room.
Though untutored in the art and tactics of combat, they knew enough to hurt each other and did so. Thrusts and parries were awkward and ill-timed, but occasionally effective. Pausing to catch their breath, the combatants quickly assessed the damage they’d sustained, then went back on the attack.
Magda drove a pike into Harmon’s belly eliciting a sharp, high-pitched wail, but the wound wasn’t immediately fatal. He countered with a downward stroke of a battle axe which split Magda’s skull in two. As she dropped silently at his feet, Harmon landed in a chair at the table and quickly bled out. He was dead before he slid from his chair and joined his dead queen on the hard, cold floor.
The High Chamberlain stood just outside the aptly named war room and waited until the sounds of battle from within subsided. It hadn’t taken nearly as long as he thought it might.
The potion he’d procured from Rathbone, the warlock, mixed easily with the gravas and worked as advertised. Anyone who drank it could be driven to a state of uncontrolled rage over the most innocent of remarks. Nonetheless, the Chamberlain made sure his remarks were anything but innocent, and the royal couple had responded with anticipated vigor.
Finally, the kingdom stood a chance of survival. The warlock had also provided a cure for the green plague, which the Chamberlain used as a bargaining chip to secure the support of the nobility when he soon declared himself King. In exchange, Rathbone accepted the role of Royal Enforcer and the lifetime supply of gravas that went with it. All in all, the arrangement bode well for the realm.
Harmon and Magda were buried side-by-side in a remote corner of the royal cemetery.