The Gauntlet

       Karen Chance / Fantasy / History & Fiction
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The Gauntlet
The Gauntlet

Karen Chance


Copyright 2010 Karen Chance



The Gauntlet

The 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.
She smiled grimly and let her head fall back into her arms. It wouldn’t work. Even after two days, she hadn’t become inured to it: the thick, sickly-sweet odor of flesh, unwashed and unhealed.
“Some are strong enough to curse a man to hell otherwise,” the jailer informed him, spitting on the ground.
“Show me the strongest,” the stranger said, and Gillian’s head jerked back up.
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.
If 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 happening.
“What about this one?” A hand with a square cut ruby ring caught Gillian’s chin, turning her face up to the light.
“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.
Vampire.
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 the woman is my affair.”
“Ahh. 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, still.”
“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 delicious.”
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 prosperous.”
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 me.”
“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 of sound—anything.
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 speak.
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 with Elinor.
“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 covens.
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.

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