Things in Morwen's house did not generally dare to misbehave (unless they were of the feline persuasion, anyway, because as everyone knows cats are wont to do whatever they like regardless of rules), which made her door opening to the bedroom instead of the cellar a most unexpected occurrence. The first time might have been a fluke, but when subsequent attempts took her to the pantry, the garden, and the room Telemain had unofficially adopted as a workroom, she knew something strange was going on. Her house hadn't had any such malfunctions before, not even during the years Mendanbar was trapped and things in the forest had rather fallen apart; while there had been an upswing in the number of really strange visitors, from the unusually bright peasant girl in love with a fearsome beast to the confused young fire-witch looking for his real mother and his birthright and who'd decided that a ginger-haired witch living in the Enchanted Forest might not be a bad place to start, nothing had really gone wrong with her house besides the perennial nuisance of the step that never quite got fixed.
Luckily (or not, depending on whether you were Morwen or Telemain), that last failed trip to the cellar did send her to the most likely solution and one of the rather more likely causes of the problem. The room had been a little-used guest room, and since Morwen's only frequent guests either lived close enough to go home at the end of a visit or didn't fit into the guest room to begin with it had mostly only housed dust bunnies (and cats and the occasional confused fire-witch who would not be told that Morwen had not got any children and was not interested in taking and apprentice and was not actually a witch of that variety anyway, but those didn't really count as guests so much as necessary nuisances). So no one had missed it when Telemain started moving his things in. He was only a likely cause and not the most likely one because the spell enlarging the guest room turned workshop had been in place for six months and it had never interfered with anything before. Quite to the contrary, the steps had seemed rather better behaved, as if the presence of a man in the house and thus the possibility some home repairs might be done had frightened them into behaving. Thankfully, steps were not intelligent enough to realize that Telemain was rather unlikely to engage in any home repair that didn't involve magic mirrors or enchanted rooms that seemed much larger than they were or doors that would take you anywhere you needed to go.
Telemain's additions to the house's magic were often unnecessary, but they were rarely harmful. This was something else.
"Morwen," her husband said, actually paying attention for once in his life, "you're just in time! I need another focus for this, and the cat just isn't working. The blasted thing won't stand still and cooperate."
"You were casting a spell on one of my cats?" Morwen asked. She could feel a headache coming on, and wondered fleetingly if she should have signed one of those prenuptial agreements that were so in vogue with socially liberated princesses and queens now. Except that this one would have stipulated that there would be no casting of spells on Morwen's familiars, no matter where in the workroom or how irritatingly they were lurking, rather than anything financial.
"Of course not, as if one of them would put up with that," he said, gone rather vague again as he went back to setting up whatever spell he apparently was not casting on one of her cats. He uncorked a vial of something green and poured it into a pewter censer; it smelled like basilisk bile, which meant it probably had something to do with the house magic. Surprisingly good for working magic on stone foundations, basilisk bile, and it was a shame its rather unsavory reputation as a murder weapon made it so expensive to obtain. Perhaps she hadn't been so off base in thinking Telemain was mucking around with her door, after all. "That mottled one won't leave me alone, so I thought it could be useful. I need a second focus for this because reflecting a locating spell around the matrix in the room failed. The next best way to determine gaps in the matrix, after Mendanbar's clever echolocation principle, is to anchor the search on a mobile locus of control."
"So you thought you'd anchor the spell on Briar and have her search the room, since you'd have to stay there and keep refreshing the spell instead of walking the room," Morwen concluded, her irritation abetting a bit as the cat in question jumped up onto her shoulder. Briar Rose was just as uppity as her grandmother Scorn had been, and Morwen rather suspected she'd gotten her sassy streak from her grandfather; one didn't get to be the cat of a fire-witch without being saucy, and Horatio was probably no exception to that. "That's one of your more logical ideas, I'll give you that."
"As if I'd help him," Briar sniffed. She needed to stop spending so much time with the Grand Inquisitor; she was getting just as insufferable as he could be, which was bad even by feline standards.
"Some honest work would do you good," Morwen informed her, and then turned her attention back to her husband. "What went wrong that you couldn't use an ordinary spell, and what in heavens' name is wrong with the house to begin with?" Sometimes, as much as she would never admit it (because it would make Telemain so insufferable she'd never be able to deal with him again), it was very handy not to have Kazul or Cimorene or anyone else who didn't understand the complex technical workings of spells around. Conversations went much faster when Telemain didn't have to be prodded to speak plainly and it was perfectly all right for him to assume everyone knew that basilisk bile meant he was working a spell on a stone foundation and thus there was something wrong with the house, and faster conversation meant the problem was solved that much faster.
"The matrix around the extradimensional space in this room keeps shifting with alarming irregularity," Telemain said, impatience getting the better of him as he put aside the basilisk bile and began sprinkling silvery-white powder into the censer. He needed to slow down with the oak ash or he was going to add too much. "Since your creature won't cooperate and neither a basic locating spell nor Mendanbar's echolocation will work I have no choice but to expand the repair spell over the entire matrix and hope it remains concentrated enough to fix the problem. I've already lost three bookshelves today!" That last bit was more indignant than impatient. So that was it; his workroom was shifting and he was losing his things. They would probably turn up nearby in a day or two, but they'd have to be careful. Extradimensional space tended to get cranky when it shifted too much, and if they were unlucky the bookshelves would turn up down the well or in the garden during a rainstorm.
"How general was this repair of yours?" She asked, because while it was unlikely he had damaged her door with that it was at least possible, especially if he was throwing around oak ash like that. Her door, after all, had a wooden frame.
"Haven't you been listening, I haven't done it yet! I've spent the last hour trying to pin a tracer locus to your cat!" Telemain stood up, and narrowly avoided tipping over the censer.
"In that case, I don't think the problem is in here. My door isn't working properly, either, and you can stop whining about Briar and your lost bookshelves right now," She said firmly. Morwen knew it would get his attention away from his lost books (hopefully they weren't the more irreplaceable volumes, like the ones he'd managed to get black market from the Society of Wizards or the Cathayan ones, because she would never hear the end of it if they were) because he'd enchanted that door years and years ago when she'd first moved into the house. Actually, now that she thought about it, it was rather strange he hadn't come to her first and asked about the door; he had a tendency to know when spells he set went wrong. That was, after all, how he'd first gotten tangled up with Mendanbar and Cimorene and run into her again for the first time in a decade in the first place. The fact that he hadn't noticed meant that either something had gone extraordinarily wrong with his extradimensional space and he honestly didn't feel the spell going wrong, or he was very, very upset about losing those three bookshelves and determined to get them back before he did anything else.
Wonderful. He probably had lost the Cathayan ones.
"That's impossible, I would know if the portal attenuation had degraded!" Telemain sounded positively offended that she could think otherwise, and for once it was almost warranted. He did usually know when those things happened. "The core of the teleportation shuffling mechanism is inherently stable and if anything strong enough to upset it was at work, both of us would know."
"I always hated the phrase shuffling matrix," Morwen said, and stepped aside as a rather heavy book fell down precariously close to her. The title was written in Cathayan. "It makes my door sound like a deck of cards. And it had best not begin raining Cathayan books in the rest of my house, or we will have words about this little extradimensional space of yours."
"That's it!" Telemain said, banking the fire underneath the censer and going to pick up the book. "Of course, Cathayan magic works under a similar principle! The question remains, though, is why a Cathayan sorcerer would be in the Enchanted Forest, let alone this part of the world, and why he would be casting a masking spell on the house." Then he paused, actually looking a bit guilty. That was a very rare occurrence, almost a first, which meant that he must have done something very stupid indeed when he was studying in Cathay. "Unless he's-- no, he couldn't be, he never did have a sense of direction. Even if he did come after me to get that book back, he would have ended up in the Swamp of Penultimate Sorrow. I know, he did try to get to the Enchanted Forest once when I was working with him and that's where he ended up."
"Telemain," Morwen said, and what did you know, that headache was coming back. "Do you mean to tell me that you stole one of these missing books of yours from a Cathayan sorcerer while you were there, and he is doing strange things to our house to get it back?"
"No! You know me better than that." He opened the book and looked through the first few pages. "I bought the book from him. He had second thoughts about selling it, but I wouldn't give it back. All sales are final, it said it right there in his bookshop, and that sort of thing has to go both ways if you want any kind of trust with your customers at all. And I know he's not here mucking with the house because he couldn't find his way around a village with a map, an armed escort, and three of your cats, which I know because something astonishingly similar happened once. I say similar only because they weren't your cats, you see, they were a fire-witch's cats near the border between Cathay and Catalonia. And even if by some miracle he had managed to get here, he wasn't anywhere near as incompetent with his magic as he was with directions or knowing what books to sell and what books to keep. This," he closed the book and held it up for her to see again, "is the book I bought from him. If he tried to get into my extradimensional space, he would have ended up with the correct book and not three shelves' worth of books he had no use for. I mean to tell you that I don't think there's actually anything wrong with either spell, your talking about cards and Cathayans made me think of it. It's an enchantment on the same principle as an invisibility or glamour spell, except that it's cast on the house and not on us."
The sad thing was, Telemain's anecdote about lost Cathayans and fire-witch's cats and his theory that someone had gone and cost an illusion spell on their house was probably the most sensible thing he'd said in weeks. The entire train of thought as to why his Cathayan rival wasn't in the forest was perfectly logical, and she had to admit that the door believing she was asking to go to all of those random places and Telemain's workroom believing it was supposed to change its dimensions made perfect sense. It also went a long way towards explaining why he hadn't noticed anything wrong with either of those spells, too: there wasn't anything wrong with them at all. They were behaving exactly as intended, just in regards to instructions that neither of them was actually giving. It was rather ingenious-- and in the Enchanted Forest, likely totally accidental. Some enchantress or fire-witch had probably done something not far from here (not uncommon, since enchantresses weren't particularly keen on respecting the boundaries of the territory of other women, and a lot of fire-witches didn't respect the boundaries of anyone regardless of gender or anything else).
Neither of them got any further along in the theory just then, though, because there was someone at the door.
"I hope that's not your Cathayan friend," Morwen said, and went to answer it.
Quite frankly, Morwen had thought it was more likely to be that persistent fire-witch than anyone else (it had been years, but apparently he hadn't found a better prospect and refused to give upâ (or he just wasn't that bright, since intelligence was hardly a prerequisite of being the one sort of witch you were born as rather than learned to be, which was generally the most irritating thing about them as a whole), but she still half-expected to find a very confused Cathayan on her doorstep with three bookshelves' worth of volumes he already had or didn't need. How angry he would be largely depended on how those books had landed; if they'd fallen as haphazardly as the one Telemain still had, he'd likely be in a bad temper indeed. Morwen certainly would be if that had happened to her. But when she opened the door it was neither a red-haired boy looking like a lost puppy nor an angry sorcerer.
It was a he, certainly, but he was a knight. It was obvious from the armor and the shield and the lance, not to mention the gleaming white warhorse with silver barding tethered at the gate. Not only was he a knight, but he was also obviously quite a high-ranking or important or at least wealthy knight (because one who hadn't earned a horse like that could have certainly bought one if his father had enough money for it) if he owned a horse of that caliber and in such obviously good shape. Knights tended to be hard on their horses and armor unless they were good enough to avoid getting hit, noble enough no one dared fight them, or rich enough to never need to fight in the first place. He was young and dark-haired, which meant he was probably of the first variety, a hedge-knight lowborn enough to have dark hair. The son of a woman married above her station was another possibility, but those almost always turned out as blond as their noble fathers. (Personally, Morwen thought going to any royal court besides Mendanbar's was dreadfully boring not because of the awful banality of the conversation or the traditions, though those certainly didn't hurt, but because everyone in them looked almost exactly the same.) And being lowborn meant that he was almost certainly in the forest on a quest.
"Can I help you?" Morwen asked, because it couldn't hurt to be polite. Particularly not to the poorer sort of hedge knight; those sorts of boys tended to be respectful, particularly to witches. Being raised in a forest or a small village tended to engender a respect for witches that people from royal courts just didn't have.
"I'm afraid not," he said, politeness edged with frustration. "I'm sorry, ma'am," and that confirmed he was indeed a hedge knight on a quest, because only farm boys turned knights by mysterious twists of fate called women they met during their travels 'ma'am' instead of 'noble lady,' or perhaps 'foul witch' in Morwen's case. "It's just that I'm trying to get to the Ford of Whispering Snakes, only my horse keeps getting turned around and ending up in strange places. I only came up and knocked because he-er, well, he sort of took a bite out of your sign, ma'am." That had him flustered, ashamed of the fact that his horse had the bad manners to try and eat the painted sign on Morwen's gate. "It's just that he's not a real horse most of the time, so he hasn't quite got the hang of what he should and shouldn't eat."
"Morwen, I've finally isolated the pattern interrupting the thaumaturgic waves of the teleporter's shuffling matrix! It's fractal, which means it's a curse pattern, and it's outside, which means-oh, my." Telemain was looking right at the horse, disbelieving. "That is definitely not a Cathayan sorcerer looking to ransack my library."
"No, he's apparently a not entirely real horse that's just eaten my-Briar!" Briar jumped from Morwen's shoulder to the knight's far shinier one. "Get down from there. You're supposed to be the one with manners."
"I like him," Briar said. "He's shiny."
Sometimes Morwen thought that Briar had got more than a sassy streak from Horatio, because no one in Scorn's lineage had any such ridiculous tendencies.
"Is that a soapstone charger?" Telemain asked, moving past all three of them to get a better look at the horse. "It must be; a living creature can't anchor a misdirection curse on an area. It would just make the horse terribly confused, and certainly wouldn't overlap a longstanding enchantment."
"Did you just say my horse was cursed?" The knight asked in dismay, latching onto the one word in the explanation he'd actually understood. "The queen is going to be cross with me if I managed to get her horse cursed."
As it turned out, the knight's name was Sir Valerian and he had indeed been a farm boy before a series of complicated circumstances led to his rescuing the youngest princess of his kingdom from some bandits that were camped not far from his family's farm. Being so lowborn meant that he was usually sent on the distasteful or ridiculous quests no one else in the court wanted. This, though, was his first truly important quest: to acquire serpent venom from the Ford of Whispering Snakes for the royal physician, who had run out some time before. No one's life was at stake, but they were expecting a rather nasty flu season in their kingdom and whispering serpent venom was a major ingredient in the cure. The queen had loaned him the use of a soapstone charger from the castle armory because even as a knight he couldn't afford much (and had to spend most of what he did have on keeping his armor immaculate, because no one would send a knight in rusty plate on a quest of any kind), but it had never gotten him to quite the right place.
"I figure he was confused, but he's getting the hang of being a horse again. Since he got me to the Enchanted Forest, at least," Sir Valerian said, completely in earnest. It was almost endearing. Almost.
"Pure chance, I'm afraid. Shallivaran!" The nonsense word turned the warhorse to a tiny soapstone statue that fit into the palm of Telemain's hand. "The pattern of the magic is very stable. Fractal patterns of thaumaturgy are the most pernicious, and this one has been in place for centuries."
"What?" Valerian asked.
"That horse was cursed when you got it, and will be very hard to uncurse again," Morwen translated. "It's got a spell on it, sending it in the wrong direction whenever you try to go somewhere. He said earlier that it shouldn't do anything to living creatures, so if you go on foot you should reach the ford just fine. And I would be wary of this queen of yours, if I were you. She probably knew it was cursed. Telemain, give the boy back his horse; it will be impossible to take care of it here, with it confusing your instruments. If you keep going past the ford, Valerian, you'll find the royal castle. If anyone can take that curse off your horse, it's King Mendanbar."
Morwen liked anticlimactic endings. They were quieter, less messy, and didn't cause any damage to property. In fact, besides Briar's contrary mood and the fact her sign now read NONE OF THIS NONS, things were just fine. Her door even worked again, and no more books came close to falling on her head. Some people would have preferred an epic quest, but she liked the fact that her entire day wasn't wasted and she could go back to picking out which apples were going to go into the cider. Telemain's bookshelves were still missing, but that was a consequence of using alternate dimensions for storage space. Hopefully Telemain would consider it a lesson learned and keep his remaining irreplaceable Cathayan books in this dimension.
"Hello, learned disciple of witchcraft." It was far, far too early in the morning for a Cathayan man in an immaculate, gold-embroidered red robe to be standing unannounced on her doorstep.
There were three bookshelves behind him.
"Telemain," she called over her shoulder, "your friend is here with your bookshelves!" She turned back to the brightly dressed man and gave him a stern look. "Just don't make a mess of my house."
Then she went through her now-working door to get her apples out of the cellar.