sound of a key turning in the rusty old lock had everyone scurrying
forward with hands outstretched, begging for food, for water, for
life. Gillian didn’t go with them. Trussed up as she was,
she could barely move. And there was no life that way.
The burly jailer came in carrying a
lantern, with two dark shapes behind him. To her surprise, he didn’t
immediately kick the women aside with brutal indifference.
Instead he let them crowd around, even the ones who had been there a
while, whose skeletal hands silently begged with the others.
“This is the lot, my lord,” he said. “And a sorry one it is, too.”
“Why are some of them gagged?” The
low, pleasant tenor came from one of the shapes she had assumed to be a
guard. The speaker came forward, but she couldn’t see much of
him. The hood on his cape was pulled forward and a gloved hand
covered his face, probably in an attempt to block the stench.
“Some are strong enough to curse a man to
hell otherwise,” the jailer informed him, spitting on the ground.
“Show me the strongest.”
The jailor grumbled, but he ordered his men
to drag the bound bodies that had been shoved to the back of the room
to the forefront. The stranger bent over each one, pushing
matted, filthy hair out of their eyes, as if looking for someone.
Gillian didn’t watch. She concentrated everything she had on
biting through the remaining mass of cloth in her mouth, her eyes on
the open door behind the men.
The guards came only once a day, doling out
water and a thin gruel, and she didn’t know what kind of shape she
would be in by tomorrow. Even worse, she didn’t know how Elinor
would be. She glanced over at the child’s huddled form, but she
hadn’t moved. Not for hours now, a fact that had Gillian’s heart
clenching, part in fear, part in black rage.
those whoresons let her daughter die in here, she’d rip this place
apart stone by stone. Her arms jerked convulsively against the
shackles, but they were iron, not rope. If she couldn’t speak, she had
no chance of breaking them.
It didn’t help that she hadn’t had water in
more than a day. The guard assigned to that detail last night had
been one of those she’d attacked on arrival, in an aborted escape
attempt. He’d kicked her in the ribs as he passed, and waved the
ladle under her nose, but not allowed her so much as a drop. If
he’d followed orders, he might have noticed what she was doing, might
have replaced the worn woolen gag with something sturdier.
But he hadn’t.
“That one’s dead,” the jailor said, kicking
a limp body aside. He quickly checked the others, pulling out one
more before lining up the remaining women at the stranger’s feet.
Most were silent, watching with hollow, desperate eyes above their
gags. A few struggled weakly, either smart enough to realize that
this might be a way out, or too far gone to understand what was
“What about this one?” A hand with a square
cut ruby ring caught Gillian’s chin, turning her face up to the
“You don’t want her!” the jailer said, aiming another kick at her abused ribs.
“The agreement was, in good condition,” the
stranger said, blocking the booted foot with his own.
Gillian barely noticed. Up close, it
was obvious that she was in even more trouble than she’d thought.
The fact that the stranger was dead wasn’t a good sign. That he was
still walking around was worse.
They stared at each other, and he smiled
slightly at her start of recognition. He had a nice face—young,
as if that meant anything—with clear, unmarked skin, a head of dark
brown curls and a small goatee. The last would have been amusing under
other circumstances, as if he was trying to make his pleasant face
appear more sinister.
She wondered why he didn’t just bare his fangs.
“I don’t see as it makes a difference, if
you’re aiming to feed off her,” the guard said, angry, but smart enough
not to show it.
Those liquid dark eyes swept over her. “What I do with her is my affair.”
“Ah. Some sport beforehand,
then. I’d not risk it, meself. One of my men tried the
night she was brought in, and the bitch cursed him. He’s in a bad way,
“How tragic.” The vampire sounded amused.
The guard must have thought so, too,
because his already florid features flushed even darker. “See if you’re
laughing with a pillicock the size of a pin!” he spat.
The vampire ignored him and put a hand
beneath Gillian’s arm, helping her to stand. “I’d let you out of
those, but I’m afraid you’d hex me,” he said cheerfully, nodding at her
cuffs. “And I like my privities the way they are.” He
glanced at the guard. “Tell me about her.”
“One of them that’s been operating out of
the thicket,” the man said resentfully, referring to Maidenhead thicket
on the road between London and Bristol, where Gillian’s group had had
some success relieving travellers of their excess wealth.
“Ah, yes. I met a robber there
myself, not long ago.” The vampire smiled at her. “He was
Gillian just stared. Did he always talk to his food this much before eating it?
“But I must say,” he commented, his eyes on
her worn gown, greasy red hair and dirty face. “For a member of one of
the most notorious gangs of thieves in England, you do not look very
Maybe I would, she thought furiously, if I didn’t have to spend most of my time avoiding people like you.
Once, she’d had protection from his
kind. She’d been a member of one of the Druid covens that had
ruled the supernatural part of the British Isles for time out of
mind. But that had been before the arrival of the so-called
“Silver Circle,” an ancient society of light magic users who had
brought nothing but darkness to England.
They had arrived in force ten years ago, as
refugees of a vicious war on the continent. The religious
tensions that culminated with Spain launching the Armada had offered an
opportunity to one of the Circle’s oldest enemies. A group of
dark mages known as the Black Circle had joined forces with the
Inquisition under the pretense of helping to stamp out heresy.
And by all accounts, they had been brutally efficient at hunting down
their light counterparts.
But their suffering hadn’t made the Silver
Circle noticeably gentler on anyone else. They had but one goal
in mind—to rebuild their forces and retake control of magical
Europe. And they intended to start with England.
Gillian’s coven was one of those who had
refused their kind offers of “protection,” and preferred to continue
determining their own destiny. In return, they had been subjected
to a witch hunt mightier and more successful than anything the
Inquisition had ever managed. By the time they realized just how
far their fellow mages would go to support the idea of a unified
magical community, the covens had been decimated through deceit,
betrayal and murder.
But they haven’t killed all of us, Gillian thought viciously. Not yet. It was a fact that would someday cost them dear.
The vampire had been watching her with
interest. She didn’t know how he could tell anything past the
folds of the gag, but apparently he saw something that amused
him. His smile became almost genuine.
“See my man about payment,” he told the
guard, his eyes never leaving her face. “I’ll take this one with
“Take her?” The guard’s scowl became more pronounced. “Take her where?”
“That is my affair,” the vampire repeated.
“Not if ye’re planning to make off wi’ her,
it damn well isn’t! No one will much care if she doesn’t last
long enough for the rope, but it’s as much as my life is worth to let
her go beyond these walls. She’s dangerous!”
“I do truly hope so,” the vampire said oddly.
A beefy hand fell on his shoulder. “If ye
want to make a meal off her, that’s one thing. But all the gold
in yer purse won’t save me once they discover—”
In an eye blink, the guard was slammed
against the wall, held several feet off the floor by the slim hand
around his throat. “Perhaps you should be more concerned about
your immediate future,” the vampire said softly.
Gillian didn’t wait to see who would win
the argument over which one would be allowed to kill her. The
soggy threads finally came apart in her mouth and she spat them
out. But with no saliva left, and a throat still throbbing from
the elbow blow it had taken days ago, she couldn’t speak. She
swallowed convulsively and concentrated everything on making some kind
An incantation rolled off her tongue.
It was a dry whisper, but it was enough. With a rusty creak, the
shackles parted around her wrists and ankles, and she was free.
Her limbs were stiff and uncoordinated, and
her head was spinning from the power loss. But then she caught
sight of Eleanor and nothing else mattered. She lurched forward
in a scrambling crawl, making it a few yards before rough hosed legs
blocked the way.
“Where d’ye think you’re going?” the other
guard demanded, grabbing her by the back of the collar. She slung a
spell at him, but the angle was off and it missed, exploding against
the low ceiling of the room.
Had the roof been in proper repair, the
spell would have either dissipated or ricocheted back, depending on how
much power she had been able to muster. But whoever owned this
heap of stones before the Circle had skimped on repairs, and the once
stout wood had seen one too many winters. What felt like half the
roof suddenly rained down on their heads, sending her stumbling back
and burying the guard under a pile of weathered beams.
Gillian clutched the wall, blinking in the
wash of brilliant sunlight that streamed through the ruined roof.
It was blinding after two days of almost complete darkness, and the
struggle with the guard had disoriented her. She was no longer
sure where Elinor was, and when she tried to move forward, she was
battered by screaming, panicked women, on all sides.
“Elinor!” she yelled as loudly as her parched throat would allow, but there was no answer.
Her eyes finally adjusted and she caught a
glimpse of her daughter’s slight form huddled against one wall.
She was rocking slightly, staring at nothing, her hands bound to an
iron ring. Gillian crawled over and started to work the leather
bindings on her wrists off. They were so tight that the
circulation to her hands had been partially cut off and her small
fingers were swollen like sausages.
Elinor didn’t fight her, although she
couldn’t have seen much through the glare or heard her mother’s
whispered assurances over the din. She was trembling from a
combination of exhaustion, shock and fear. Dark blue rings
stained her eyes and her beautiful blond hair hung limp and lifeless,
like her expression.
The last stubborn strap came loose and
Gillian pulled her daughter into her arms. She started to rise
when one of the bound figures on the floor rolled into her, struggling
in vain to throw off her bonds. The old woman was in irons and
gagged, as Gillian had been, with no chance to escape if she couldn’t
Gillian pulled a disgusting scrap of cloth
out of her mouth, to give her a fighting chance, while scanning the
room for any way out besides the door. “Release me,” the woman
gasped, on a rattling breath.
“Release yourself, old mother,” Gillian
told her distractedly. “I need what strength I have left.”
She could already hear soldiers on the run,
thudding their way up the tower’s wooden steps. There was only
one way down—and it was the same path the guards were taking up.
She might make it alone; she had that much pent up rage. But not
“Mind your manners, girl!” she was told,
right before wrinkled, age-spotted fingers reached out and gave her a
pinch. Gillian grasped the woman’s hand, intending to pry it off
her flesh. But then she looked down--and stopped cold.
Crisscrossed by delicate veins and almost
buried under a layer of grime were faint blue lines, etched onto the
woman’s inner wrist. Gillian stared at the curling, elegant
pattern, one older than the walls that imprisoned them, older than
almost anything else in these isles, and felt her skin go cold.
The three pointed triskelion was worn only by the leaders of the great
A cannon ball had landed a dozen yards from
her once, and it had felt like this, like being knocked flat even
though she hadn’t moved. She had never really believed that it
might work, this plan of extermination. The covens could be hurt,
but they would come back, as they’d always come back, through every
war, invasion, and black time that littered their past. But if
the Circle could reach even to the heart of them, could reduce one of
the Great Mothers to this…
They could destroy us, she thought blankly. They could destroy all of us.