Ophelia’s expectations of what she would find as decor in the house Morag was occupying was vastly different to the reality. She had expected the epitome of horror, for it all to be in keeping with the Queen’s aura—one large torture chamber for seeking the pleasure of human pain. She’d expected to hear the ripping of skin as a cat-o-nine-tails slashed across a person’s back; the very echo of the sound in the siren’s mind caused her to flinch. Instead, in reality, she had knocked on the door and been greeted by a young girl with long dark hair, who had invited her inside, taken her coat and asked her to wait inside the foyer for Her Majesty. And instead of a torture chamber, the foyer was large and decorated with walls of grey wood panelling and a chequered marble floor, and surrounded every which way with doors. It was a sparse area, but somehow the lack of things made it more appealing.
“You say you are not that demon’s lapdog, and yet here you are doing her work.”
Ophelia kept her features neutral as she turned in the direction of the voice. The witch queen stood leant against the banister on the half-landing, in a dress that appeared to be fashioned entirely out of the feathers of either crows or ravens. With her face devoid of war paint, Ophelia observed that the witch looked quite youthful. “Ariadne wanted to avoid any arguments and keep the peace,” the siren said, “so I am here in her place.”
Morag inspected her nails. “She could have merely sent a letter instead.”
Ophelia was inclined to agree to the statement.
“Though I do suppose,” Morag continued and flashed a smile, “that Ariadne was not expecting her dog to have been drinking before attending her meeting. I can smell the whiskey on you. A little Dutch courage, perhaps?”
Ophelia shrugged. “I do not need alcohol to be confident.”
Morag raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
The siren nodded. “Yn sùr sértan!” Absolutely.
The witch queen laughed. “How very Cornish you sounded then!”
“The accent appears more when I speak my native tongue.” It was the sound of storm waves crashing against the cliff-face, the wind whistling through the trees and shrubs lining dusty country roads, so unlike the pristine accent that was no accent that she commonly used. She hadn’t spoken in her natural accent or her native language in a long time.
“A bheil Gàidhlig agad?” Do you speak Gaelic? Unlike Ophelia’s, Morag’s accent stayed exactly the same—a warren of rough terrain and harsh rain.
“Tha, beagan. Chan eil aon chànan gu leòr.” Yes, a little. One language is never enough. “But enough of exchanging pleasantries through language exploration, we are here for a reason—to establish a deal for the exhumation of your witch’s body.”
“A waste of a trip, I’m afraid; there was no need for you to come and speak to me for the sake of avoiding arguments—my answer is yes.”
Ophelia glowered. Had she really come all this way, cut short her time with Mary, to only have to be in this house for a few minutes? This meeting was the sole reason she had bothered to get dressed; Mary would not have cared if the siren had shown up in her nightdress. “Why agree to a meeting when you could have simply sent a message?”
“Then I would have passed up an opportunity to see you.”
Ophelia crossed her arms. “I suppose I should be flattered, but you are not the type of woman I would court.”
Morag merely laughed. “I suppose I should be offended, but I am not one partial to carnal pleasures in regards to any sorts of genders.”
“A lack of that certain attraction or celibacy?”
“I have known quite a few people who do not experience attraction of the sexual variety, some were indifferent to the act and others were repulsed by the sheer thought. I once knew a young man who did not experience the desire and was indifferent to it—he saw no want to commit to an act he was not attracted to and thought himself abnormal because of it; I cannot count the amount of times I reassured him he was the opposite.” Though she spoke calmly, with a dismissively neutral facial expression, the last section of speech sent a sharp pang of pain through her heart—she did her best to ignore it, to push it down. She knew better than to let her weaknesses show. Especially here, with an ally of the Matron so close.
Morag seemed utterly disinterested in all Ophelia had said; she glanced up from the inspection she had undertaken regarding the feathers of her dress whilst the siren had spoke and said, “What about you?”
“A woman experienced in all attractions with both men and women.”
“How bold you are to say that! The humans would proclaim you have a disease and lock you in inside a mental institution.”
“I’m a thousand years old, I don’t care for human prejudices—love is love, that’s all there is.”
“Humans are vermin.”
Ophelia blinked; it was strange to hear such a phrase be said by a voice that was not her own, and whilst she had said many synonymous words in regards to her opinion of humankind, she doubted she had ever said they were vermin. “That’s quite a strong statement.”
“Do you disagree?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“So you agree?” Morag smirked.
“To an extent.”
The smirk turned into a scowl. “You either agree or disagree; there is no middle ground to be had in opinions.”
How could Ophelia describe her stance, approach, upon the subject? It was true that she hated humans, homogenously found them to be petty and inferior due to their discrimination ... but she had loved a few of them; she had been privy to the bright, optimistic souls that had attempted to fracture the cynical armour around her heart. She supposed it could be seen as hypocritical, to speak of hatred of all humans but confess to loving a small number of them.
“I have placed my heart in the hands of humans twice … they both died as a result of it,” Ophelia decided to say. She could have opted to mention the pain that came with unrequited love ... but to love and be loved and have it all shattered hurt more than loving and being unloved in return ever would.
“Arachne was right,” Morag started. She glanced down at the siren, and her stare seem to bore right down into the centre of Ophelia’s soul and witness the secrets long hidden there. “You have grown soft during your time on land.”
At that, Ophelia White was nothing short of offended. “Having feelings for a few hardly constitutes having ‘grown soft’; I’ve been the butcher, the harbinger of death, to hundreds more than I ever loved.”
“You make love to men and then you kill them,” Morag said. She gave a small, breathy laugh. “You should have been a black widow.”
“If I had been born a spider, I would be Arachne and not Ophelia. Or Arachne’s sister.”
Another laugh, only this time it was accompanied by a sly smile that seem to suggest the witch queen was about to divulge some information, some terrible secret that would shake the siren to her core and tear apart everything she had ever known; something impossible like saying that Arachne was her sister. Instead, she merely shook her head and said something completely unrelated: “Would you care for a drink?”
It was such a sudden change of topic that Ophelia blinked in surprise. “Um ... no. I do believe I have had enough for today.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pity,” said the Northern Witch, “Here I was hoping to have you become in such an inebriated state that your loose tongue will speak any and all of your secrets.”
“You hardly need to have me drunk to know my secrets ... I was under the impression you knew them all, anyway.”
Morag smiled. It was a cold and callous smile. “Come, sit with me in my study, we shall talk comfortably there.” She turned around and headed up the stairs.
Ophelia stayed where she was. “All I want to know is just what you know about me, what secrets my Matron divulged.”
Morag’s voice floated down the stairs, loud and disembodied. “I’m feeling generous, so I will answer your questions regarding what I know about you ... but only if you come with me.”
Ophelia sighed and started up the stairs. When she turned the corner, Morag was leant against a doorframe. “Are you trying to trap me so that you can use me for your wicked witchy work? I don’t particularly fancy becoming a sacrifice to your god or gods today.”
“Goddess,” Morag corrected, before she turned and disappeared into the room behind her. “Why would I want to use you as a sacrifice? The act would be futile; I cannot kill you, for I am not Arachne.”
So she obviously knew about the curse; Ophelia could not bring herself to care, not when she had told Ariadne. Her curse was not exactly a secret. “That is reassuring to know; it would have been rather inconvenient for me to be dead before I have accomplished what I came here to do.”
Ophelia walked into the room. In the recesses of her mind she had once more been expecting skulls to be lining shelves, a rotting body pinned to the wall, and once more she was surprised to find the interior to be bright and airy. The walls were decorated with floral paper, and the furniture was an assortment of pale wood cupboards and tables, and rich fabric settees and chairs clustered around a wide fireplace. At the end of the room was a large desk covered in parchment. It was more of a study-cum-drawing room than a simple study.
“And what have you come here to for?” Morag asked from her place in front of the drinks cabinet. There was the clink of ice hitting glass.
“Reasons,” was all Ophelia said.
For a moment, the only sound was that of liquid being poured. Then the witch queen said, “You do keep yourself coiled in mystery, don’t you? I bet you have secrets harboured so deeply that you no longer know them yourself.”
Ophelia frowned. “You told me you would speak of just what you know about me if I came here. So, just what amount of information do you truly know surrounding me? You said you know exactly what she has done to me, but I wonder whether you know why—”
“Oh,” Morag said. She turned to face the siren. A smile cracked her face in two, all pearly teeth and red lips and multi-coloured eyes—she was truly a wicked thing. She took a long sip of the drink in her hand, before lowering the glass with a theatrically slowness onto the table. “I know about the boy.”
Ophelia visibly stiffened. Her blood turned to ice in her veins but hammered loudly in her ears. Her chest felt suddenly tight, her heart the victim of shooting, sharp stabs as the walls came tumbling down in her soul and mind. A ragged cry escaped her lips. She found herself clutching, clinging, to the back of a settee to keep herself from sliding down. “That ... that ... you shouldn’t ... you shouldn’t know about him,” she managed to choke out, just before she gave up her shaking hold and slid to the floor. “T-that was not ... for Arachne ... to tell of.”
“I did not find out about him from her.”
Ophelia’s eyes widened. Her heart was beating beneath her ribs with the speed of a hummingbird’s wing. “Then how?”
“I recognise the sorrow in your eyes, little fish; there’s a specific sadness in that sea of gold that I have seen in the eyes of many others—I am familiar with the meaning, the experience behind it ... not myself personally, but I know of it.” Morag walked forward, slowly as if she were moving towards an injured foal caught in thorns, and knelt in front of the siren. “I apologise for how I breached the subject, I am not well endowed with kindness. Truly I simply guessed gender ... I merely wanted to gage your reaction, and a blank one it could have been. But I guessed correctly. It does appear time is not the healer of all wounds.”
Ophelia blinked back tears. She would not cry here. She raised her head and stared at the witch queen, gold meeting multi-coloured opals. “Have you ever experienced death? Not dealt it, we have both done that, we can both scatter corpses in a belt around the world who knows how many times ... but have you ever witnessed it? Seen someone you hold dear, love, die?”
Morag was quiet for a long moment, before she said, “I have.”
Ophelia swallowed the lump in her throat. “Then you know what it feels like?”
A shadow passed across the witch’s face. “It feels like nothingness.”
Ophelia scrubbed her hands over her face, harsh enough that when she dropped them into her lap her forehead and cheeks were a stark red. Blood on snow. Her breathing had begun to calm. She was beginning to get over the initial shock of Morag’s words. “My sole companion in life is Death.”
“There are worse companions to have.” Abruptly, Morag stood up, as fast as a striking viper. She held her hand out for Ophelia, who hesitantly took it and allowed for herself to be pulled to her feet. “Samhain must have you setting many plates at your table—” She paused then and pursed her lips in a manner that reflected pensiveness. “Do you observe Samhain or Allantide?”
“Samhain,” Ophelia answered immediately. “Though it would seem more fitting to observe Kalan Gwav, I prefer Samhain—I find I can celebrate it better, I have, like you said, many plates to set at my table.”
Morag walked back to her glass of some red liquid Ophelia would have not been surprised to find to be blood. “You should take time out of your schedule and travel to the Highland’s to witness our bonfires—they are spectacular.”
“I’m sure they are,” Ophelia said. Externally and, for the most part, internally she had calmed down from her shock, but under the surface still laid the threat of the composure breaking once more. “However, I have too much to do here to consider leaving—even temporarily.”
“Pity.” Morag brought her glass to her lips and took a long drag. As soon as she placed it back down she continued: “If you did come, you would be able to see just how well you would fit in our society.”
Ophelia laughed and shook her head. “I was beginning to wonder whether you would broach this subject again. My answer remains the same: no. Though I am quite curious as to why you are wanting me to join your clans so much?”
“You have so much potential in you, yet that petty demon is content to mould you into her docile pet. Why let yourself be tamed when you can be what you are—wild?”
Ophelia snorted. “I am hardly wild, nor do I have potential; I am merely exiled and cursed to this sorry land. Now, if you could break my curses, if you could convince that spider to give me back my tail ... but you cannot, and therefore you have nothing to give or offer me. I do not belong in clans, either, witch queen, not anymore; I am a nomad, abandoned by my sisters to walk alone across the earth. I walk alone.”
“So you have no home. That’s rather ... tragic.”
“I have been away from my home for so long that I fear returning would leave me wilting with a feeling of alienation,” said Ophelia. This notion had played on her mind ever since she’d reached her fiftieth year of exiling: how would the Cornish sea feel if she ever returned? —would it be the same as it was before everything, or would the events there have caused such a permanent taint that she would not be able to even conceive living there again? Where do you belong when home no longer feels like home?
“What are the chances of you ever returning to Cornwall?”
The reality behind that question weighed on the siren more than the fear of home becoming a foreign concept. “Quite non-existent,” she admitted. She raised her eyes to meet Morag’s, and knew that within them was a tidal pool of despair and fatigue. Underneath the anger and the sadness, underneath the callousness and coldness, she was so very tired. Tired of moving, tired of not belonging, tired of having her life dragged out and becoming a catalogue of death simply for that sea spider’s amusement. Simply tired right down to her bones. She’d long since mastered the art of smiling, and playing the happy being in all but her eyes.
“Unless Arachne was to die, of course ...”
A muscle jolted in Ophelia’s jaw. Her gaze shifted seamlessly into one of steel, and the fatigue became anger. Oh, how contradictory and unpredictable her moods were. She flashed a smile to the Northern Queen that was all teeth and no warmth. “Are you offering to tear out her heart and rip her apart limb by limb? Though I do suppose that would be a kindness.”
“I cannot kill her, Ophelia,” Morag said. Her fingers tapped a rhythm against her desk. “Even if I was able, I do believe that right can only be offered to you, but you are in no position to act out what you speak of.”
“I scarcely believe I will ever be in a position to do so.”
Morag gave a laugh. “You truly want her dead.”
Ophelia knew it was not phrased as a question, but still she said, “Perhaps more than I want anything—you can meet her and tell her that.”
“I’m quite sure that she already knows.”
“Then remind her instead.”
“If you so wish me to.”
Ophelia nodded. “Arrange a meeting with her when you return to your home and use it to remind her of my deep loathing of her.”
“When are you returning to Scotland, if I may ask? Is this exhumation to take place before or after?”
“Before. I make to leave immediately after Elizabeth’s body has been taken from the ground. The hearse, however, will not arrive in this dreadful city until two days’ time, so it shall be then.”
“Very well, I shall let Ariadne know of the date when I return to the house,” Ophelia said. “I’m sure you are aware that she wants to inspect Stride’s body beforehand for a mark—”
“The initials OC—she wrote of it in her letter. That princess will not touch Elizabeth’s body, not even with gloves; the purity of a witch’s being shall not be contaminated with a demon’s touch or anything that demon owns.”
“Very well,” Ophelia repeated with a nod. “I shall take my leave now.”
“Are you sure?”
Another nod. “Quite. I have other calls to make.” That was an out-and-out lie, but being the subject of that multi-coloured stare was a little unnerving. She also had to get out of this house and truly, fully compose herself before returning back to the house or else she’d be met with a questioning demon.
“Ah. Well, I do suppose the dog has to return to her mistress at some point.” Morag made a dismissive gesture of the hand. “Until the twenty-forth, then.”
Ophelia said nothing. Instead she merely walked to the door. She was about to turn the handle when Morag spoke her name. Ophelia half-turned and looked at the witch. “Yes?”
“For all it’s worth, little fish,” Morag said, “I am sorry about what Arachne did, no one deserves that.”
A sharp pang jabbed once more at the siren’s heart. She gave a smile and left the room. The witch who had taken her coat was waiting at the bottom of the stairs when she descended. Ophelia shrugged on her coat, exited the house, and bundled herself into the waiting carriage without a word or acknowledgement to the driver.
Luckily, he did not ask what the matter was, but simply stirred the horse into movement and joined the parade of traffic clogging the roads. Ophelia reached up for the up-and-over window and pulled it down on top of the folding doors, before drawing each curtain to leave her in isolation. Content to be alone in the darkness, the siren leaned back against her seat and placed a hand over her face.
She’d been emotionally shaken by Morag’s words. She had succeeded in temporarily staving off the shock, but now, alone, the memories she’d squashed and crammed down into the very depths of her heart were playing against the back of her eyelids. The beach, the sun bearing down, the wall of magic keeping her from stopping the event in front of her. In her ears she could hear clearly his cries, her cries, her screaming, her futile pleading to stop, please, I beg of you. In her legs she felt the phantom pain from when her tail had been ripped from her, leaving her with legs that had been agonising to walk on for centuries (they still dully ached, but she had become so used to it that she rarely felt it anymore). It had been four-hundred years, but some deaths were impossible to fully mourn.
Ophelia scrubbed her hands over her face to dash away tears.