Following a shadow through the night is more difficult that it sounds and Iona’s Shadow in particular was in too much of a hurry to take time to make the trek easier. With a speed that only comes naturally to cats when we’re in either full flight mode or hunting truly exasperating prey, Iona’s Shadow and I speed across rooftops, and through the pitch black stretches of tangled forest at the periphery of the Fair Fields.
A human would likely complain of branches whipping them in the face and roots reaching out to grab their ankles. That’s largely because their eyes are severely underdeveloped for night work and they’re born with a congenital clumsiness that makes it a wonder the entire species didn’t trip itself to death at some point in the distant past.
That’s not to say that racing over uneven ground in the deep of the night was a fun thing for me either. With the speed we were making, I had to focus my senses on keeping up with my guide and had very little attention left over to stay alert for the inevitable trap that I was half sure she was leading me into.
Like all good things though, that panic-preventing distraction came to an end all too soon.
“We’re here,” Iona’s Shadow said. “Be silent once we go in or Iona will noticed I brought you back here.”
“And where are we?” I asked, looking at a thick hedge of brambles.
“This is her refuge. Nobody but her knows where it is, and nobody can find it either. Not with the spells she’s woven to keep it safe.”
I liked the sound of that. It was the kind of place I’d have to see if i could get Penny to setup. If I knew anything about magic though, it was that perfect safety was never a thing you could actually achieve.
“If no one can find her here then what’s she worried about enough to do terrible things to prevent?” I asked.
“She’s not worried for herself,” Iona’s Shadow said. “Come in and see!”
She slipped through a break in the hedge that I was certain hadn’t been there a moment before. I was also certain it wouldn’t be there longer than a moment or two more.
I went through it anyway.
I didn’t have time to think. Even though my brain was screaming at me what a bad idea it was to walk into a witch’s refuge uninvited. I didn’t have time to be afraid. Even though I terrified beyond the capacity to form coherent sentences. In the end what I couldn’t do didn’t matter though I guess. I had to protect my witch, and I had to find out what had happened to my mother, and so I went in.
Iona’s refuge was a much cozier place than I’d imagined it would be. The thorny brambles outside it turned to softly polished wood that reflected the bobbing candlelit inside the small house so well that it seemed to glow.
“Where have you been?” Iona asked her Shadow. I was safely behind a couch before she could notice me, but given where I was “safe” seemed like the farthest thing I could imagine being as I listened to the witch speak.
“The time of the sacrifice has been moved up,” Iona said. “We need the little witch tonight!”
“No, we don’t,” her Shadow said. “We don’t need to do this at all.”
“It’s too late to turn back now,” Iona said. “We have the changeling, we have the ritual site arranged, we have everything we need except for our replacement witch.”
“You’re not going to get her,” her Shadow said. “Not tonight.”
I moved with my best sneaky skills towards the other end of the couch so that I could see Iona and maybe work out more of the details of her plan. There were two squeaky boards in the floor, but only someone much heavier and more senseless than I would have stepped on them.
“And who’s going to stop me?” Iona asked. “You can’t turn traitor on me. Not like that ungrateful familiar of mine.”
I let out of a squeak when I heard that. It was a tiny little squeak. Not something fit for a cat to utter at all, and certainly much too soft for human ears to pick up.
“We have a guest?” Iona asked. I didn’t dare look out to see if she knew where I was but a second later the question was rendered moot as I felt invisible fingers grab me and lift me up from behind the couch.
I struggled against them, but Iona had experience holding unhappy cats in the grip of her magic I guess because I didn’t land even a single claw on the magical hand that had grabbed me.
Iona didn’t look ancient or withered. She wasn’t a terrible hag, or a nightmare of warts of sagging skin. She was a normal looking middle-age woman. A little heavier than Penny’s mother but there was a hardness in her eyes that said none of the weight she carried made her soft.
“And who are you to sneak into my house so cleverly little black cat?” Iona asked.
I stayed silent. Nothing I could say would help me at this point, but a lot of thing could probably hurt me quite a bit.
Iona smiled at my silence and I saw a cruel joy flare to life in her eyes.
“Oh, don’t think you can fool me,” she said. “I know just who you belong to. You’ll lead your witch right to my door, and then I’ll have everything I need.”
“You’ll never catch my witch,” I said. “She’s long gone and far away from here. Now what did you do with my mother?”
I glared at her and wished as hard as I could that my words about Penny would prove to be true.
Then I heard someone knocking on the secret hedge door.