The gauntlet, p.2
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       The Gauntlet, p.2

           Karen Chance
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Chapter Two

  Another pinch interrupted Gillian’s thoughts, this time feeling like it took a hunk of her arm along with it. “Stop daydreaming,” she was told tetchily. “And do as you’re told!”

  It wasn’t a request, and obedience to the elders was ingrained from birth. The requisite spell all but leaped to her lips. But the iron was corroded, or perhaps her power was fading, because it took a second application before the old hinges finally gave way. And by then, reinforcements had arrived.

  Gillian could hear them in the corridor, being hit with spells from the few witches still capable of throwing any. Someone screamed and a body crashed into the heavy wooden door, slamming it shut and momentarily interrupting the attack. But it would be a moment’s reprieve at best. And when the guards broke through, she didn’t think recapture would be their main concern.

  The Great Mother latched onto her arm with a strength she hadn’t thought the woman had. “There.” She pointed to a corner of the room that had emptied of prisoners. A splash of sunshine, mid-afternoon and richly golden, highlighted a patch of bare worn boards. They were old and slimy, scattered with rat bones and smeared with human waste. But unlike the roof, they were solid.

  “I can’t,” Gillian confessed. She knew without trying that she didn’t have the strength to destroy the floorboards. They were good English oak, as hard as the stones that made up the tower’s walls, and just as immovable. “We have to find another—”

  “Stop arguing,” the eldest snapped, cutting her off. “And take me.”

  Gillian took her. She didn’t know what else to do. They were trapped.

  Even worse, the vampire was standing off to the side, casually observing the chaos. She scowled; she should have known that sunlight wouldn’t kill him. If he was that weak, he’d have come at night. He’d retreated further into the hood of his cape, leaving him a long column of black wool, but otherwise appeared unconcerned.

  He didn’t move, but Gillian carefully kept the sunlight between them nonetheless. She pulled Elinor and the eldest along the wall, hoping the glistening beams would provide some kind of protection. His head turned, keeping them in view, but he said nothing.

  “In the middle. There!” the Great Mother gasped, and again Gillian followed orders, only to have her arm gripped in a steel-like vise. Cloudy blue eyes met hers, almost sightless, but somehow penetrating all the same. “In times like these, we do what is needful--what we must to survive, for us and our folk. Do you understand, girl?”

  No, Gillian thought frantically. What she understood was that the door was about to open and they were all going to die. That was pretty damn clear. “I do not think they mean for any of us to survive,” she said, her throat raw.

  The Great Mother’s grip became positively painful, arthritic fingers digging into the flesh of Gillian’s arm. “It matters not what they mean! Will you fight, girl, for what is yours?”

  “Yes,” she said, confused. What did she think? That Gillian planned to simply lie down and die? “But it is not likely to be a long one. I have little power left, and the Circle--”

  “You will find that you have all the power you need.”

  Gillian didn’t understand what she meant, and there was no time to ask. The door burst open, but she barely noticed, because the frail body on the dirty boards had begun to glow. Power radiated outward, shimmering beneath translucent skin like sunlight through moth wings. It flooded the ugly room, gilding the old bricks and causing even the guards to shield their eyes.

  Elinor made a soft sound and hid her face, but Gillian couldn’t seem to look away. For one brief moment, the Old Mother looked like an exquisitely delicate statue, a fire-lit radiance flowing under the pale crepe of her skin. And then Gillian’s own skin began to heat, the flesh of her arm reddening and then burning where the thin fingers gripped her.

  She cried out and tried to jerk away, but the Old Mother stubbornly held on. Her skin was shining through Gillian’s hand now, so bright that the edges of her flesh were limned with it. But she couldn’t feel her anymore. She couldn’t feel anything but the great and terrible power gathering in the air, power that whispered to her, wordless and uncontrollable.

  It exploded the next moment in flash of brilliant fire. Gillian threw her body over Elinor’s, trying to shield her from the searing heat and deadly flames she expected. But they didn’t come. And when she dared to look again, the old woman’s body was gone—and so was half the floor.

  The thick oak boards had dissolved, crumbling into nothingness like charred firewood, leaving a burnt, smoking hole looking down into the room below. Gillian crouched beside it for a moment, her heart pounding, knife-edged colors tearing at her vision. Until a glance showed that the guards had fled in fear of magic they didn’t understand.

  She didn’t, either, but she recognized an opportunity when she saw one.

  Elinor was clinging to her neck, hard enough to strangle. It was far from comfortable, but at least it meant she didn’t have to try to hold her as she lowered them onto one of the remaining rafters of the room below. It was the gatehouse, where a contingent of mages usually stayed to watch the front of the castle and to guard any prisoners in the room above. No one was there now, everyone having run up the stairs to secure the door or having scattered after the escapees.

  For a brief moment, they were alone.

  Gillian’s arm throbbed under the burnt edges of her sleeve, but she ignored it and started making her way along the beam to clear the pile of smoking shards below. Yellow sunlight struggled through the haze, enough to let her see stone walls spotted in a few places by narrow, arrow slit windows, a few stools and a flat-topped storage trunk that was being used as a table. The remains of someone’s lunch was still spread out over the top.

  There were no obvious ways out. The only door let out onto the ramparts, which were heavily guarded. And even if they had been able to fit through the tiny windows, the main gate was protected by two towers filled with archers. Anyone trying to leave that way would have to traverse a quarter mile of open fields, the local forest having been cut back to give the archers a clear shot.

  Gillian thought that she could just about manage a weak shield, but not to cover two, and not to last the whole way. And Elinor couldn’t help or even protect herself; she was barely seven and her magic had yet to manifest. The eldest should have saved her sacrifice, she thought grimly. They weren’t going to get out of this.

  “Could I be of assistance, at all?”

  Her head whipped up to see the vampire’s curly mop poking through the charred edges of the hole. She threw up a shield, silently cursing him for forcing her to use the power, and jumped to the floor. Shards of wood and a few old iron nails dug into her bare feet, but the pain was almost welcome. It helped to push away the gut-wrenching panic and let her think.

  A guard was sprawled on the floor nearby, half hidden by the fall of wood and debris. He wasn’t moving, and one hand was a bloody mess—he must have used it to try to shield himself. The other gripped a long piece of wood that was partially concealed by his body. She crouched beside him and started tugging on it, while keeping a wary eye on the creature above.

  “My earlier jest may have been…ill-timed,” the vampire offered. “I do not, in fact, intend to dine upon you. Or your lovely…daughter, is it?”

  Gillian’s head jerked up. “Touch her and they will never find all the pieces,” she snarled, pulling Elinor behind her.

  But the creature made no move toward them, other than to spread his hands, showing that he held no weapons. As if he needed any. “I assure you, I pose no threat.”

  “A harmless vampire.” She didn’t bother to keep the mockery out of her voice.

  “To you.” A smile came easily to that handsome face. “In fact, I work with a party in government charged with maintaining the security of these lands.”

  “You lie. Vampires work for their makers.”

nbsp; “Yes, but in this case, my mistresses’ interests align.”

  “And what would those interests be?” Gillian asked, not because she cared, but to buy her time to find out if the item in the guard’s hand was what she thought it was.

  “The queen’s enemies are not composed of humans alone,” he told her, as easily as if he carried on conversations upside down every day. Which maybe he did, she thought darkly, images of bats and other unsavory creatures coming to mind. “Ever since England became a refuge for the Silver Circle, she has been a target for the dark. And the assassination attempts grow with each passing day.”

  “And why should a vampire care about such things?”

  “We must live in this world, too, Mistress--”

  “Urswick,” she panted. Curse it—the guard weighed a ton!

  “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress Urswick,” he said wryly. “I am Chris Marlowe, although my friends call me Kit.”

  “You have friends?”

  “Strangely enough, yes. I would like to number you among them, if I could.”

  Gillian was sure he would. But while she might be a penniless thief, her coven ruined, her friends scattered or dead, neither she nor her daughter would be feeding him this day. “Don’t count on it,” she snarled, and jerked the slender column of wood free.

  It was a staff as she’d hoped, but not of the Circle’s make. The surface was satiny to the touch, worn smooth as stone from centuries of handling. The oil from all those hands had cured it to a dark mahogany, blending the black glyphs carved along its length into the surface. She traced one of the ridges with a fingertip and didn’t believe it, even when a frisson of power passed through her shields to jump along her nerves.

  Her fingers began to prickle, black fury rising in front of her eyes, as she stood there with a Druid staff in her hands. It wasn’t enough that they were persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered. The Circle had to steal what little of their heritage they had been able to preserve, as well.

  “At the risk of sounding discourteous, may I point out that you are in no position to be choosy?” the vampire said, right before the door to the room slammed open and half a dozen guards rushed in. And then blew back out as the staff turned the door and half the wall into rubble.

  “Perhaps I spoke too soon,” he murmured, as she pulled a white-faced Elinor through the red bite of heat and the smell of smoke to the now missing door.

  Outside, the castle’s walls hemmed them in on all sides, gray stone against a pewter sky. A battle was going on to the left, with the prisoners trying to get down the stairs. They looked to be holding their own, with one witch’s spell sending a guard flying off the battlements into the open courtyard. But that was about to change.

  Reinforcements were already running toward the battle from either side. And they were the Circle’s elite corps--war mages, they called them--instead of the talentless scum employed as jailers. The witches from most of the covens were well trained in self-defense, but their weapons had been confiscated when they were taken. Without them, they wouldn’t last long.

  Of course, that could prove true of them as well. A group of the Circle’s dark robed mages broke off from the main group and started their way. And in front of them was a lethal cloud of weapons, iron dark against the pale sky.

  Gillian didn’t try to run; there was no time and nowhere to go. Against the Circle’s harsh alchemy of steel and iron, she called Wind, and it answered far more quickly than usual. She was only dimly aware of a blizzard of debris behind her back and the mages’ squawks of alarm as their weapons went tumbling back at them.

  For a long moment, the roar of her element filled her senses in a heady rush, billowing out her tattered gown, matting her hair and blowing into her eyes. She didn’t bother to brush it away. It felt good. It felt like power.

  But it didn’t last. Within seconds, the wind was already dying. The staff was magnifying her strength, but she had so little left. And when it gave out--

  “My offer of assistance remains open,” the vampire said casually. He’d jumped down from the second floor and was leaning against the shattered wall, watching the chaos with the mildly interested glance of someone at a bear baiting with no money on the outcome.

  “It’s well known that your kind helps no one but themselves!”

  “Which is better than attacking and imprisoning our own, would you not say?” She didn’t see him move, but he was suddenly beside her, the wind whipping his curls wildly around his face.

  “Why should you want to help me?” she demanded harshly.

  “Because I need yours in return.”

  Despite everything, Gillian almost laughed. He stood there in his fine clothes, smelling of spices and sporting a jewel worth the price of a house. And she was supposed to believe that he needed anything from the likes of her?

  “’Pon my honor,” he said, seeing her expression.

  “You may as well swear on your life! Everyone knows that vampires are selfish, base, cruel creatures who only want one thing!”

  “And everyone knows that coven witches are weak, treacherous and easily corrupted,” he shot back. “Everyone is often wrong.”

  Gillian started to answer, but a harsh clanging echoed across the keep, cutting her off. A small group of witches had cleared the stairs and made a break for the gates. But the heavy iron portcullis guarding the entrance had slammed down before they could reach it, trapping them in the middle of a sea of enemy mages. Her hands clenched at their desperate cries for help, but there was nothing she could do but die with them.

  And she had Elinor to think about.

  She spun on her heel, brushing past the vampire and racing back inside the small gatehouse. The trunk was still there, with its bit of stale loaf. She brushed it aside and threw up the heavy lid, hoping for weapons--charms, potions, protection wards--anything designed to hold a reservoir of magic for use in times like these. But there was nothing, aside from a few scattered rat droppings.

  She slammed the trunk shut in frustration, wishing she had the strength to throw it at the wall. The guard must have taken the staff as a trophy. Because wherever the Circle was storing their weapons, it wasn’t here.

  “The other gate is still open,” the vampire said, from the doorway. “And I am skilled at glamourie. Let me inside your shields and I can hide you and the girl. We can walk out of here while the fight distracts the guards.”

  “Why should I trust you?” she demanded harshly, desperate for a reason, any reason.

  “What choice have you?”

  Gillian didn’t see that they had much either way. Getting outside the walls would do them little good if it left her drained and defenseless, and at the mercy of a creature whose kind were well known to have none. But with no weapons and her magic all but exhausted, staying here would mean certain death at the hands of the Circle.

  The vampire’s head suddenly came up, reacting to something beyond the reach of her senses. “Help me and I’ll help you,” he said urgently, holding out his hand.

  Gillian hugged Elinor against her, every instinct she had screaming that she was mad to put their lives in the hands of a creature who saw them merely as prey. But if her only choice was between dying now and dying later, she would take later. “If you betray me, I will use my last breath to curse you!”

  “I would expect nothing less.”

  Gillian licked dry lips. She didn’t believe him, didn’t think for a moment that he really wanted to help. But the wind had died and booted feet were pounding up the stairs, and she was out of options. She readied a curse, hoping it wouldn’t be her last. And dropped the tattered remnants of her shield.

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