Chapter 24: Passing judgment
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
“Pass judgment on us all.” This is more or less what I planned to do all along. Well, on Miranda and Tara. But my plan didn’t exactly work out. And I didn’t expect Honoria to hand the responsibility back over to me. I’m taken aback, and so say something stupid. “You can’t be serious, can you?”
In a dead level voice, Honoria says, “It’s your call, all of it.”
Riiight. I demonstrate my quick mental uptake by asking, “Even you?”
That brings a smile to Honoria’s face. “Even me. I trust you’ll be merciful.”
I turn to Cindy. “You OK with this?”
Cindy gives me a searching glance, looks over at Honoria, and smiles at me. “I trust you’ll be merciful.” She giggles and adds, “Just kind of go easy on prescribing pills for me, OK?”
That almost gets me laughing. To gain time, I walk away from everyone else into the field a ways, and then come back. I suppose I could ask Asenath if this is all right by her, but I am beginning to suspect that in many ways this is more her show than mine. Asking her would be redundant.
And thinking of Asenath, I realize that I may need some help enforcing any judgments I pass out. So as I reach Honoria, I kneel down until we’re looking at each other. In a whisper, I say to her, “Look, I may need to have a spell or two put on people here to enforce any judgments I make. Can I get Asenath to do that?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Honoria whispers back, “Asenath, or the dragon, or the both of them together will devise whatever spells you require. Unless you ask for something really bizarre.”
Great, but . . . “And you know this because?”
“We’re standing in Asenath’s domain. She can hear every word we say and is telling me what I can commit on her behalf.”
“Oh.” Another piece of a puzzle falls into place. “Then she probably knows what I’m going to demand from you after this is over.”
Honoria looks blankly at me for a moment, turns to look as Asenath, and gives me a bemused look. “She does, but she’s not going to tell me.”
Yeah, bemusement is right. Thank you, Asenath, sort of. I kind of figured you have to be reading my mind. So I walk back from Honoria to where I stood, beside Cindy.
Judgment. Okay, let’s start with the easy one. “Can Pluto be restored?”
I expect Honoria to answer but Asenath handles this one directly. “No. He’s just a dog now. And I think it would be a mercy to let him stay one.”
I nod. Pluto had said much the same thing about wanting to be a normal dog. “Okay, he stays as he is. Somebody’s going to have to adopt him, though.”
Honoria speaks up. “Pluto’s known me for several years. And he is here beside me. I’ll take on responsibility for him.”
With regret, I say, “I’d like him myself, but I doubt my mother wants a dog in the house. So that’s settled.”
Now to the next step. “I have no quarrel with Cindy, the dragon, Honoria, or Asenath. With the exception of Honoria, you’ll all free.” None of them protest. An odd smile flashes across Honoria’s face, as if she has figured out just why I’m making her an exception.
Then to the lesser of the two evils. “Release Miranda.”
The dragon’s tail whips away from Miranda, sending her spinning around until she falls. She takes a few seconds to get up, and gives the dragon an ill look. “You did that deliberately,” she accuses him.
The dragon blinks. “Who, me?” It does what I would call a yawn, sending a blast of warm air across all of us, and then gazes at Miranda again. “Of course I did it deliberately. You gnaw on my tail, trying to get free, what do you expect?”
Miranda clenches her fists, mutters something under her breath, and then turns to me. She puckers her mouth a bit, looking at me, and then says, “Somehow I don’t think I’m getting a free lunch out of this, even though I came here to help you.”
“No, you’re right about that, Miranda,” I tell her. “I don’t really know what the quarrel is between you and my Aunt Tara, or whatever her proper name is. So I can’t really say who’s at fault. And I really don’t know what to make of you, either. As you say, you’ve helped me, and not just this once. And you’ve helped Cindy. At the same time, you’ve made it clear you’d rather I just dropped down a well or something, and even scared the daylights out of me the first time we met face-to-face. I don’t know if the good and bad you’ve done cancel out or not.”
I take a deep breath. Have I thought this through enough? No, but it’s the best I can do right now, and sometimes that has to be enough. “So in your case I’m going to forget about the past and just think of the future. Your fight with Tara-Hestia-whatever got me into this trouble. No more. The two of you can’t get within a mile of each other or do magic against each other for the rest of my life . . . which neither of you can use any means to shorten.”
Miranda turns and gives Aunt Tara an ill look, shrugs, and turns back to me. “That it?”
“Not quite,” I reply. “You did try to help. So I’m sentencing you to help some more. You’ve got to spend the summer here in Netherfield helping to train Cindy on how to use her magic.”
Stereo “What?” from Cindy and Miranda. Cindy turns to me. “I’m not accepting help from that one.” Miranda hears that and smirks.
“Well in that case, Cin, Miranda’s going to get off easy,” I tell her. “But I’m doing this for your own good. So think hard about it.” Turning back to Miranda, I say, “That’s it. And if Cindy doesn’t want your help, that’s her problem, not yours, Miranda.”
Miranda nods. To my surprise, she looks amused. She glances over at Cindy, shrugs, and turns to point to the dragon. “You, she didn’t say anything about you. So you keep your distance. I’ll deal with the girl, but you stay out of my way.” That’s my Miranda!
The dragon makes an expression that I think substitutes for a smile. “Just remember, ‘child of fear,’ I’m not bound to respect your welfare, either.”
This is going so well. But I’ll let them sort it out. It’s not my job to solve every problem here. And there’s one last person to be judged. “Release my Aunt Tara.”
The dragon doesn’t do so immediately. Instead, he asks me, “Can I drop her from a great height when I release her?”
“Is she gnawing on your tail, too?” I retort.
“No, just trying to scratch me with venomous nails. Stupid idea, really. My scales are too tough and snake venom can’t hurt me.”
“Well, she’s not actually hurting you, and Asenath has forbidden the shedding of blood here, so I guess dropping her from a great height is pretty much out.”
The dragon complains. “I suppose crushing her almost to death is out, too. I could do it without her actually bleeding.” The frown on my face is enough. The dragon sighs and says, “Okay, I won’t drop her from a great height.” And with that, he uses his tail to lift Aunt Tara about six feet in the air, flips her over, and drops her head first on the ground. I give the dragon an angry look, but all he does is say, “Oops.”
Aunt Tara sits up, rubbing her head. She gives me a stare that is just brimming over with hatred. I remember that she can control me with her eyes, but before I can do anything about it, I hear Asenath’s voice in my head, telling me I’m safe on her land. With that assurance, I say to Tara, “You know what really sucks, Aunt Tara? You put this curse on me to kill someone else. I was just some tool as far as you were concerned.”
“Oh, shut up and get on with it, you little bitch,” Aunt Tara replies. “If you’re looking for me to suddenly break down in tears and confess what a bad auntie I am, you’re fat out of luck.”
Hmmm, Asenath forbade the shedding of blood. Maybe the dragon had the right idea. Is there some way I can kill Aunt Tara that doesn’t involve shedding her blood? I put the thought aside. I’m supposed to do right here, and I really don’t know Tara any better than Miranda. For all I know, Miranda likes to pick on Tara, and she’s just fighting back as she can. Yeah, right. I doubt Tara’s a paragon of virtue. But all I can do here is pronounce on what she’s done to me and the others here. And for that, I know what to do. To Tara, I say, “You’ve already heard part of your sentence: you can’t fight with Miranda for the rest of my life. You can’t hurt me or anyone in my family, or Cindy or anyone in her family, or Honoria and anyone in her family. And you owe me, Aunt Tara. There’s damn little you can do for me, but there is something you can do that will make me feel better. Got any magical equipment, books, spelled objects or stuff like that with you?”
Aunt Tara looks angrily at me and says nothing. After several seconds, Asenath says, “Yes, she does.” Aunt Tara glares at Asenath. Asenath pays no attention.
“Good,” I say. “Cindy’s going to get training from Miranda, so it’s only fair she get all the magical paraphernalia that you brought with you, Aunt Tara.”
Aunt Tara looks ready to object, and then shudders. Asenath speaks up. “She will turn these things over, all of them.”
“Oh, one other thing, Aunt Tara,” I add in my sweetest voice, before changing to a more hostile tone, “I want to see as little as possible of you before you leave Netherfield, and don’t come back while I live here. Got it?”
Aunt Tara looks almost beside herself with rage. And then, it’s as if the rage is transformed into something else. She gets a crafty smile on her face. “Sure,” is all she says. And then she walks to the stone wall, climbs over, and heads back the way we came.
Everybody else has gone their separate ways. So it’s just me and Honoria walking through the woods back toward the dam and our homes. Well, me, Honoria, and Pluto, who already seems to regard Honoria as his owner. That Honoria is walking at all is surprising. I guess Asenath must have used some magic to heal her broken leg.
As my final condition before leaving the field, I bound Honoria to answer any questions I have about this whole business. I suppose I should be putting them to her. But I’m not sure where to begin. Honoria looks so cheerful and nonchalant as we’re walking, that I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that she is somehow in control of this situation now, just as I think Asenath was before. Although, now that I put those two thoughts together, they don’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe I’m paranoid. Well, I’ve had a death curse on me. I think I’ve earned some paranoia.
As if she senses my frustration, Honoria comes to a stop, looks over at the stone wall that parallels the path right here, scoots over to it, and sits down. She lays the dragon-headed walking stick in her lap and then pats the wall on her right. “Come have a seat, Jane, and ask me all the questions you’ve been dying to ask since we met up this morning.”
I sit down beside her. It’s funny, now Honoria looks so grave, and yet so young. I don’t know why that occurs to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t really know Honoria at all. I’ve told her much more about myself than I’ve ever asked her about herself.
Let’s start with basics. “What really went on back there, Honoria? Who was really running everything?”
Honoria leans back, closes her eyes, and then sits straight up and looks straight ahead, back to the path. “That doesn’t have a simple answer, Jane.” She turns to me, and smiles. “So let me start with an explanation of something else, something that should clear up a few mysteries in your mind. You’ve read Miranda’s book about Netherfield. You know Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell was a descendant of Asenath’s, don’t you?”
“Well,” Honoria goes on, “What you don’t know is that I’m a descendant of Rebecca’s, and hence a descendant of Asenath’s as well. It’s mostly through the female line, which is why I don’t bear the same family name as either of them. Ever since I was eight years old, I’ve had two missions in life: the cure of souls, and understanding the magical history of my family.”
“But you told me you have no magic,” I point out.
“And I don’t,” Honoria replies. “Being descended from witches doesn’t make you one. But it does explain why Asenath and I are in each other’s confidence.”
Which explains how you knew what I was up to. And how you had a grimoire connected to the Farnsworths. And why you’re here in the first place. And probably a few million other things I can’t think of at the moment. “I’m a fool,” I announce.
Honoria smiles again. “No more than the rest of us. And the plan you devised to deal with Hestia Desroules was actually pretty good.”
“Yeah, right, it almost got everyone killed.”
Honoria shakes her head. “Not exactly your fault. Hestia didn’t know for sure her plan would work, either. She was lucky. Most of the breaks went her way. The one thing Asenath and I were really concerned about was whether she had the walking stick or not, because short of that there was no way she was going to be able to take on the dragon when you summoned it.”
“You knew I had arranged to use the siren to summon Cindy and the dragon?” I’m feeling stupid again.
Honoria laughs. “Again, not exactly. Give us a little credit. We knew you weren’t sure whom you could trust. It made sense you’d try to keep some of your arrangements secret from Asenath. And I couldn’t believe you’d leave Cindy out after all you’d told me. So we figured you had arranged something.”
I think about what Honoria’s said. And that walking stick is sitting in her lap. It’s a bit creepy in ways that the actual dragon is not, weirdly enough. “And you knew you could take the walking stick away from Tara . . . what did you call her, Hestia De . . . ?”
“Hestia Desroules. That’s her name. Long story about how I know that, forget it for now.” Honoria’s grin turns wry. “I kept pretending I didn’t know her name just to annoy her. Petty, I know, but there’s something loathsome about her. And it was quite the surprise that she was your Aunt Tara, let me tell you. Anyhow, in truth, Asenath and I were fairly sure Hestia had no right to the walking stick, but we weren’t so sure that as one of Rebecca’s descendants I could take it from her. Turns out we guessed right.”
“And what if you guessed wrong?”
“Then Hestia would have won, I suppose.” That doesn’t seem to bother Honoria very much. Guess she figures our side was due at least some of the breaks.
But there is something bothering her: the walking stick. Honoria looks down at it, clearly puzzled. “I’ve done more research into this walking stick than anyone else alive, even Miranda, mainly because I’ve had access to some accounts that got handed down in the family. And yet what I’ve seen today indicates that there’s more to this thing than I thought.” She looks back up at me, more serious than she’s been so far. “So to answer your original question, no one was in control today. Oh, Asenath could have done what she wanted once we were standing on her farm, but that’s about it.”
I think it over. I can’t really argue with Honoria’s conclusion. But before I can ask her another question, she says to me, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Fair is fair,” I say. “I got one, I guess you deserve one. Ask away.”
“Why didn’t you punish Hestia more severely? She almost killed you.”
My turn to look up at the sky. “Because I don’t really know why she and Miranda fight each other, just like I said. Because I don’t understand magic, really, despite that book you gave me. Because all I really wanted was to get that curse lifted and get her out of my life.” I look at Honoria. “I’d thought about asking her to divorce Uncle Jeff, but for all I know Uncle Jeff is in love with her, and I didn’t want to deprive him of that. So I guess I decided it was more important to preserve the innocent than punish the guilty. Maybe. I don’t really know, Honoria.”
Honoria screws her face up into a half-smile. “Well, as a Christian minister I shouldn’t say this, but you were more merciful than I would have been. Miranda’s self-centered, and your ordering her to help train Cindy is kind of a just punishment, because she’ll have to think about someone else’s needs for a change. But Hestia is downright evil. At least I think so. Mark my words, she’ll find some way to strike back at you before she leaves.”
“How can she? She’s spelled not to harm anyone in my family, or Cindy’s, or yours for that matter.”
“I don’t know, Jane,” Honoria replies. “I don’t know. But I bet she’ll find a way.”
End of chapter twenty-four
(Now I’m not the superstitious type, but a closing line like that one is a giveaway about what will be in the next chapter. Right?)