The downside to sharing a psychic connection with my witch was that when I went to hope and pray she was far away I would occasionally find that she was right outside the door instead and ready to tumble into her enemy’s clutches.
Iona went to answer the knocking at her door and I sent a flurry of “Run Away!” to Penny, but I felt a warm wave of reassurance come back in response. I wondered for a second if she’d lost her mind in the brief time we’d been apart but the Iona opened the door and I saw that it wasn’t just Penny waiting for her on the other side of the magical hedge row.
“Hello dear,” Grandma Apples said. “We heard you had a bit of trouble that needed to be cleared up.”
Along with Grandma Apples were Penny, Akemi and everyone else who’d come with us. Of them all only Grandma Apples seemed to register as a threat in Iona’s eyes and I saw her cast a glance to the side of the room where a gnarled staff sat against the wall.
With a hiss, Iona called the staff to her hand and tried to blast the door closed with a gout of green fire.
Grandma Apples ignored the sudden display of pyrotechnics and caught the fire with a wave of her hand before stuffing it into a small bottle.
Iona leapt back and tried to bring the staff to bear, but Grandma Apples stepped in following her and said “now, now, there’ll be no need for that kind of shenanigans.”
Iona ignored the warning and swung her staff at the older witch’s head but rather than bludgeoning the old lady to the floor, the staff seemed to hit an immovable object before it struck Grandma Apples. A moment later it burst into a cloud of pink smoke and fell from Iona’s hands in the form of a tiny twig.
“Feeling better?” Grandma Apples asked.
Iona looked far from better. The manic fury that had jumped onto her face drained away leaving behind an expression of horrified defeat. She stared for a moment at the twig that remained of her staff and then slumped as though a puppet string that was holding her up had been cut.
“The changeling is here too,” Akemi said, from outside the house. I couldn’t smell anything like that, but then that wasn’t one of my jobs.
“Why don’t you see if you can find her and set her free then,” Grandma Apples said as she guided the stunned and silently weeping Iona to one of the chairs in the room.
I scampered across the the floor and jumped into Penny’s arms when she bent down to pick me up. Her embrace was warm and comforting and exactly what I needed to settle my heart, which had been racing at a million beats per minute without my noticing it.
I nestled into the feeling for a long moment and tuned out the events of the world around me. I was safe again, or at least as safe as I needed to be.
“He’s going to take her,” Iona said. It was the first thing that caught my attention after I’d calmed down enough to listen to what was going on.
Peeking up from Penny’s arms, I saw that everyone was sitting in Iona’s room, including a strange faceless person who had the general outline of a young girl.
“Your daughter?” Penny asked. “Is that who you’re protecting?”
Iona sat silent and distraught, wringing her hands together in powerless desperation.
“Your neighbors said you never married, and that you had no children,” Grandma Apples said. “They were only right about one of those weren’t they?”
“I’ve failed her,” Iona said, still staring ahead blankly. In breaking her staff, I guessed that Grandma Apples had done more than shatter a piece of wood. I couldn’t guess how helpless she was at this point but I had to imagine that most of her magic had been undone in that simple exchange.
Which made sense as I thought about it. Iona wasn’t an extremely powerful witch. If she was, she wouldn’t have had to risk kidnapping a young girl like Penny. A lot of witches were like that. Good at a few things, but not great movers and shakers in the world.
“What’s her father going to do to your daughter?” Grandma Apples asked.
“Sell her,” Iona said. “I kept her hidden from him all these years, but he knew about her anyways and now he’s going to come and sell her to payback the power that he borrowed long ago, and I have no one else to give him in her place.”
“You were going to have him sell me instead?” Penny asked.
“He wouldn’t have known,” Iona said. “He’s never met her, he just saw the signs on the night she was born. Any witch girl would have served his needs, and he would never have come looking here again.”
“And Miriella?” Grandma Apples asked, indicating the changeling that stood in our midst.
“She would have taken the sacrificed girl’s place,” Iona said. “No one would have known.”
“That’s a foul plan,” Grandma Apples said. “And you knew it. Knew it so well that both your Shadow or your familiar mare sure it would never come to pass.”
“I know,” Iona said. “But it was the only hope I had.”
“No, it’s not the only hope,” Penny said. “You’re not alone, and we’re not going to let your daughter be taken by her father.”
“If you stop him, he will kill us all,” Iona said, her voice empty of feeling at last.
“He’s not going to harm you or anyone else,” Grandma Apples said.
“You can’t catch him, no witch’s spell can track him” Iona said. “And once you stop looking, he’ll come back here for his revenge.”
“I’m no witch,” Akemi said. “And he will not escape me.”
“He’s not going to escape any of us,” Grandma Apples said. “What’s important now though is that we get you and your daughter out of here and to someplace safe. Will you come with us?”
“Do I have a choice?” Iona asked.
“Yes, you can be brave for your daughter and tell your story in full and true to the Inspectors who can help you, or you can go into hiding again,” Grandma Apples said.
Iona’s Shadow moved closer to her.
“If you hide though, we won’t stop looking for you,” I said. “Not until I find what happened to my mother.”
Iona looked at me and smiled, a faint expression, edged with tears.
“Then I’ll be brave for my daughter,” she said. “And maybe she’ll grown up to care where I am too.”