The gauntlet, p.4
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       The Gauntlet, p.4

           Karen Chance
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Chapter Four

  So much for my knight errant, Gillian thought, watching her rescuer getting beaten up by a half-roasted bird. She was about to go rescue the creature when one of the war mages dove off the side of the ramparts, flinging a curse in front of him. She acted on instinct, dropping her all-but-useless shields and throwing up a declive instead. It took most of her remaining strength, but it worked; the protection spell acted like a mirror, reflecting the caster’s magic right back at him.

  It caught him in the middle of his leap, popping his shields and sending him crashing headfirst into the cart. The vampire had landed on the other end, and the two hundred pound mage smashing down at the edge of the cart caused him to go flying, chicken and all. And then she didn’t see any more, because strong arms clapped around both of hers from behind, lifting her completely off the ground.

  She tried to mutter a curse, but found she couldn’t draw a breath. The guard—and it had to be a guard, because she was still alive--was doing his best to squeeze her in two. She couldn’t aim the staff with him behind her, so she brought it down on his foot instead, as hard as she could. The man bellowed and dropped her, and Gillian scrambled away, only to be dragged back by the ankle.

  She rolled over to try to free herself, and then had to roll again as a knife flashed down, ripping through her gown and missing her by inches. As he wrenched it out of the ground, she caught a glimpse of Elinor behind him, her face pale and her eyes huge. And then the guard dropped his knife and started screaming.

  Gillian scrambled to her feet, ready to grab her daughter and bolt, assuming he’d been hit by a stray spell. And then she realized—it was a spell, but it hadn’t gone astray. A coiling ribbon of reddish gold flame had snaked out of a burning hut and hit the man square in the back.

  At first she thought Elinor must have done it, despite the fact that it was years too early for that. But a searing pain in her arm caused her to look down, and she saw the fire glyph on the staff glowing bright red. She stared at it in disbelief, because she couldn’t call Fire.

  All coven witches had to specialize in one of the three great elements—Wind, Fire or Earth—when they came of age, and hers was Wind. She’d never been able to summon more than one; no one could except the coven Mothers, who could harness the collective power of all the witches under their control. But she could feel the drain as her magic pulled the element through the air, as she called it to her.

  She just didn’t know how she was doing it.

  And she didn’t have time to figure it out. The guard had made the same assumption she had and spun, snarling, on Elinor. Gillian had a second to see him start for her daughter, to see his fist lash out—

  And then she was looking at the hilt of a knife protruding from the burnt material of his shirt.

  The smell of the charnel houses curled out into the air, mixing with the tang of gunpowder and the raw-lightning scent of spent magic. The guard fell to his knees, the blood gushing hot and sticky from a wound in his side, wetting her hand on the hilt of his blade. She let go and he collapsed, a surprised look on his face and blood on his lips. And then Elinor was tugging her away, shock and pride warring on her small face.

  Gillian didn’t feel pride; she felt sick. She wiped her sticky hand on her skirts, feeling it tremble, like her the breath in her lungs, like her roiling gut. But the guard’s death wasn’t the cause. She pulled her daughter into her arms and hugged the precious body against her, her heart beating frantically in her chest. She’d almost lost her; she’d almost lost Elinor.

  She crouched down beside a nearby well, the only cover she could find that wasn’t burning, and stared around desperately for some opening in the crowd. Panic was making it hard to think, but she shoved it away angrily. She couldn’t afford weakness now. Weakness would get them killed.

  A group of nearby witches was attacking the stables, but Gillian couldn’t see the point. The horses’ faster pace might get them beyond range of the archers before their shields gave out, but that was assuming they made it out at all. And while the portcullis wasn’t completely down, a mob of guards and who-knew-how-many protection spells stood in their way.

  No. No one was getting through that.

  But they might cause a great deal of commotion trying.

  She blinked, her heart drumming with sudden hope. She stared from the battlefield to the high, gray walls surrounding it. And then she scooped up Elinor and took off, weaving through the remaining sheds and outbuildings that hugged the castle walls.

  She stopped when they reached the far side of the castle, squatting beside a wagon piled with empty barrels and breathing hard. She didn’t think they’d been seen, but she couldn’t be sure. There were guards here, too, although not as many. Most had joined the fight and the rest were staring at it, as if watching her people be slaughtered was great entertainment.

  She probably had a few minutes, at least.

  She tugged Elinor behind the wagon and started working on the ropes holding the barrels, tearing her nails on the tight knots. “What are you doing?” Elinor was looking at her strangely.

  “Getting us out of this place!”

  “There’s no door here,” Elinor said, staring past her at the carnage.

  “Don’t look at it,” Gillian told her harshly. “And no door doesn’t mean no exit.”

  But not getting one of these barrels loose might. The knots must have been tied before the previous night’s rain and they’d shrunk. Try as she might, she couldn’t get them loose, and while it would be easy with magic, she didn’t have it to spare. She was ready to scream from frustration when she spied a little barrel on one edge of the cart that no one had bothered to strap down.

  She rolled it onto the ground and stood it on its end, glancing about. She didn’t know if she could do this once, but she certainly couldn’t manage it twice. The moment had to be perfect.

  It came an instant later, when the guards on the ramparts above them reached the farthest end of their patrol. It left a brief window with no one on the walls directly overhead. Gillian stepped back, pointed the staff at the barrel and cast the strongest levitation spell she could manage.

  For a long moment, nothing happened, the small container merely sat there like a stone. But then, as she watched with her heart in her throat, it quivered, wobbled slightly and sluggishly lifted off the ground. She breathed a brief sigh of relief and jerked the staff towards her. The barrel followed the movement, but slowly, as though it weighed much more than empty wood should. But she didn’t start to worry until it began to shake as if caught in a high gale.

  And then to start cursing.

  A stumpy little leg suddenly poked out the bottom, with a big toe sticking out of a pair of dirty, torn hose. Then a plump arm pushed through the side and a head topped by wild red curls appeared where, a moment before, the round wooden lid had been. The head was facing away from her, but the barrel was slowly rotating, so it wasn’t but a second before a small, furious face came into view.

  It had so many freckles that it was almost impossible to see skin, but the militant glint in the hard green eyes was clear enough. “Goddess’ teeth! I’ll curse you into oblivion, I’ll gouge out yer eyes, I’ll cut off that bald-headed hermit twixt yer laigs and feed him to—” She paused, getting a good look at the woman standing in front of her. “Gillian?” Her gaze narrowed and her head tilted. “Wot’s this, then?”

  “Winnie,” Gillian said hoarsely, her brief moment of hope collapsing as the barrel resolved itself into a stout, four-foot-tall woman in a green Irish kirtle. “I didn’t recognize—”

  “I should demmed well hope not,” Winnie said, flexing her small limbs. She gently floated to the ground while rooting around in her voluminous skirts. “’Ere. You sound like you need this mor’n I do.”

  Gillian took the small bottle her friend proffered and downed a sizeable swallow before realizing it wasn’t water. Now she couldn’t talk and she couldn’t
breathe. “What?” she gasped.

  “Me special brew.”

  “Didn’t they take it from you, when you came in?” Elinor asked suddenly. Seeing a familiar face seemed to have done her good, and she had always liked Winnie.

  “Naw. Made it look like a growth on my thigh, I did. Hairy.” She nodded archly. “Lots o’ moles. The guards din’ want ter get too close.”

  Elinor looked suitably impressed.

  Gillian gave Winnie back her “brew”--her wits were addled enough as it was—and she tucked the possibly lethal concoction away. “Right, then. Wot’s the plan?”

  “The plan was to levitate one of these and ride it out of here!” Gillian croaked. “There’s about to be an assault on the front gate. If it draws enough attention, we might be able to slip away while the guards are—”

  “Don’t matter,” Winnie broke in, shaking her head. “The Circle’s got charms on the walls, don’t they? Try ter go over and poof,” she gestured expressively. “The spell breaks and ye fall to yer death. Saw a witch try it a minute ago.”

  So much for that idea, Gillian thought, swallowing. But Winnie’s wouldn’t work, either. “They’ll check for those in hiding,” she said, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. “As soon as they’ve rounded up those who chose to fight!”

  “Aye,” Winnie said, imperturbably. “And mebbe they’ll find me and mebbe they won’t. But fightin’ war mages is nothin’ but a quick death—if yer lucky.”

  “If we had our weapons, they wouldn’t kill us so easily!” Gillian said passionately.

  “But we don’t. They’re up there,” Winnie pointed at a nearby tower. “And ain’t no reaching ‘em.”

  “What?” It took a moment for her friend’s words to sink in. And then Gillian turned her face upwards, staring at the massive cylinder of stone that loomed above them, blocking the sun. “They’re right there?”

  “Don’t go getting any ideas,” Winnie told her, watching her face. “I know how ye are about a challenge, but this one’s a beggar’s chance. There’s a mass o’ guards on the door and probably more inside. I heard a couple talkin’ about bein’ kept on duty to help secure the place.”

  “That’s never stopped us before,” Gillian murmured, feeling a little dizzy at the sudden return of hope.

  “This ain’t a job, Gil,” Winnie said, starting to look nervous.

  Gillian rounded on her, eyes flashing and color high. “No, it’s not a job, Winnie. It’s the job. Our last, if we don’t do this!”

  “But we can’t—”

  “It’s just another robbery! Only we need this one more than any gold we ever took.”

  Winnie put a small hand on her arm. “Gil, stop for a minute. Stop. Yer’re not gettin’ through that door.”

  “Oh, don’t worry,” Gillian told her, staring upwards. “I’m not planning on it.”

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