The gauntlet, p.6
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       The Gauntlet, p.6
 

          
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Chapter Six

  Gillian stared at the vampire, who looked blankly back. She didn’t have to ask if he had any ideas. His face was as pale and tight as hers felt.

  Outside, someone’s spell smashed the barrel into a thousand pieces, but too late. There was a huge shout from the crowd as the witches realized what had just rained down on them like manna from Heaven. And then the fighting resumed, far more viciously than before.

  It was what she’d wanted, what she’d worked for. There was no way of getting Elinor out of here if the gate stayed closed, and no chance to break through without weapons. But the plan had been to ride the barrel back down before sending it off into the fray. Not to get trapped five stories off the ground with the Circle on either exit.

  “Master Marlowe,” the mage’s voice came again. “We know you are in there with the witch. Send her out and you may leave peacefully.”

  “Peacefully?” The vampire snorted. “Your men attacked me!”

  “Because you were protecting the woman. Cease to do so and we will have no quarrel with you. We promised your lady safe passage and we will honor that agreement.”

  Gillian braced herself, sure he would take them up on the offer. She had friends who would have abandoned her in such a situation, and she wouldn’t have blamed them. And this man owed her nothing.

  But he surprised her. “I have need of the witch,” he said, gripping her arm possessively.

  “Then you can petition the council.”

  “Would that be the same council that sentenced her to death?” he asked cynically.

  “Send her out, or we shall come in and take her.”

  The menace in the man’s voice made Gillian shiver, but the vampire just looked puzzled. “Why?” he demanded. “Why risk anything for a common cutpurse? She is of no value to you, while my lady would reward you handsomely—”

  The mage laughed. “I am sure she would! Do not think to deceive us. A common cutpurse she may have been, but the guards saw what the old woman did. We know what she is!”

  The vampire looked at her, a frown creasing his forehead. “What are you?” he asked softly.

  Gillian shook her head, equally bewildered. “Nobody. I…nobody.”

  “They appear to feel otherwise,” he said dryly. Sharp dark eyes moved to the table. “I don’t suppose any of those weapons—”

  “Magical weapons are like any other kind,” Gillian told him, swallowing. “Someone has to use them.”

  “And I’m not a mage.”

  “It wouldn’t matter. Two of us against how many of them? No weapon would be enough to even the odds, much less—”

  A heavy fist hit the door. Gillian jumped and the vampire’s hand tightened reflexively on her arm. It shouldn’t have been painful, but his fingers closed right over the burn the eldest had given her. She cried out and he abruptly let go, as the mage spoke once more.

  “Master Marlowe! I will not ask again!”

  “Promises, promises,” the vampire muttered.

  Gillian didn’t say anything. She’d pushed up her sleeve to get the fabric off the burn, but no raw, red flesh met her gaze. Instead, she found herself staring in confusion at an ancient, graceful design etched onto her inner wrist.

  Her fingers traced the pattern slowly, reverently. It wasn’t finished, with only two of the three spirals showing dark blue against her skin. But there was no doubt what it was. “The triskelion,” she whispered.

  “The what?” the vampire asked.

  She looked down, in the direction of his voice, and found him sprawled on the floor for some reason. Her head was spinning too much to even wonder why. “It’s the sigil used by the leaders of our covens.”

  His eyes narrowed. “A moment ago, you claimed to be of no importance, and now you tell me you’re a coven leader?”

  “But that’s just it, I’m not! At least…” Gillian had a sudden flash of memory, of the Great Mother’s hand gripping her arm, of how she had refused to let go even in death--and of the ease with which the elements had come to her aid thereafter. She had put it down to the staff magnifying her magic. But no amount of power should have allowed her to call an element that was not hers.

  “At least what?” he asked, getting up with a frustrated look on his face.

  “I think there’s a chance that the Great Mother…that she may have—” she stopped, because it sounded absurd to say it out loud—to even think it. But what other explanation was there? “I think she may have passed her position on to me.”

  She expected shock, awe, disbelief, all the things she was feeling. But the vampire’s expression didn’t change, except to look slightly confused. And then his head tilted at the sound of some muttering outside. It was too low for her ears to make out, but he didn’t appear to have that problem.

  “They’ve sent for a wardsmith,” he said grimly. “Before he arrives and they rush the room and kill us both, would you kindly explain what that means?”

  “They offered you safe passage,” Gillian reminded him.

  “And I know exactly how much faith to put in that,” he said mockingly, hopping up onto the table. “Now tell me.”

  She took a deep breath. “Every coven has a leader, called the Great Mother or the Eldest. In time of peace, she judges disputes, allocates resources and participates in the assembly of elders at yearly meetings. In time of war, she leads the coven in battle.”

  He’d been trying to press an ear against the ceiling, but at that he looked down. “And you agreed?” he asked incredulously.

  “She asked if I was willing to fight for my own,” Gillian said defensively. “I thought she meant Elinor, to get her out of this…”

  “So of course you said yes!”

  “I didn’t know she was putting me in charge!”

  “That is why the mages marked us,” he said, as if something had finally made sense. “I wondered why they were focused on you when there were dozens of prisoners closer to the gates.”

  Gillian shook her head. “They don’t want me, they want this.” She held out the arm with the ward.

  “For what purpose?”

  “The triskelion gives the Great Mother the ability, in times of danger, to…to borrow… part of the magic of everyone under her control,” she said, struggling for words he would understand. “It’s meant to unite the coven in a time of crisis, allowing its leader to wield an awesome amount of power, all directed toward a single purpose. It’s why the Circle fears them so much, why they’ve hunted them so--”

  She broke off as her voice suddenly gave out. The vampire frowned and pulled a flask from under his doublet, bending down to hand it to her. She eyed it warily, thinking of Winnie and her brew, but it turned out to be ale. It was body-warm and completely flat, and easily the best thing she’d ever tasted.

  He balanced on the edge of the table in a perilous-looking crouch, regarding her narrowly. “If the ward is that powerful, why did the jailers not take it off the witch once they had her in their grasp?”

  “They didn’t know who she was,” Gillian gasped, forcing herself to slow down before she spilled any of the precious liquid. “I didn’t even know. She was dressed in rags, her hair was dirty, her face was haggard--she must have been in disguise and was picked up in a raid.”

  “But do not magical objects gave off a residue your people can feel?”

  “Yes, but the ward isn’t like a charm—it holds no magic itself when not active. And non-magical items can occasionally be missed in searches.”

  “But if it’s so powerful, why didn’t the witch use it herself?”

  “She was gagged,” Gillian said, thinking of the disgusting scrap of cloth she’d pulled from the eldest’s mouth. “And by the time I freed her, she was too weak to fight. Goddess knows how long she was in there.”

  “So in return for your help, she saddles you with the very thing most likely to get you killed,” he said in disgust.

  “She
wanted to save her people, and she needed someone strong enough to use the ward!”

  “Then I suggest you do so. There are four guards in the chamber below and at least five in the corridor outside—and that is assuming no one is hiding under a silence shield. Above us is the roof of the keep, guarded by four more men who can be called down if needed. And then there’s the two below the window, who are doubtless hoping we’ll poke our heads out again and get them blown off!”

  “Fifteen men?” Gillian repeated, appalled. That was three times as many as she’d expected, especially with an escape in progress. What were they all doing here?

  “Fifteen war mages.” He smiled grimly. “There is a price to be paid for breaking into the most secure part of the prison.”

  “But…but how do we to get past so many?”

  “We don’t. I can take three, possibly four with your help. No more. We need a diversion to draw the rest away to have any chance at all.”

  Gillian licked her lips, staring at the blank space on her arm where the third spiral of the triskelion should have been. The ward looked oddly lopsided without it, the pattern disjointed and incomplete. Like the connection it was meant to make.

  “I…don’t think I can,” she confessed.

  “I beg your pardon?” the vampire asked politely.

  “This isn’t a complete ward,” she explained. “The triskelion should have three arms, one for each of the three great elements. And this has but two. The other hasn’t manifested, and until it does, the ward won’t function.”

  The vampire jumped off the table and grabbed her arm. “You’re sure it had three, when you saw it on the old woman’s wrist?”

  “Her title was Eldest and yes! They all do.”

  “Then where is the other one?” he demanded suspiciously.

  “Well, I don’t have it hidden in my shift!” she said, snatching her arm back. It throbbed with every beat of her heart, a pounding, staccato rhythm that was getting faster by the minute. But she couldn’t afford to panic. Not here, not now. She had to figure this out, and there was an answer—she knew it. Magic had rules and it followed them strictly. She just had to find the ones that applied here.

  The vampire must have thought the same, because he straightened his shoulders and took a breath. “How is the sigil usually passed from person to person?”

  “There’s a ritual,” she said, trying to concentrate. “The last time it happened in my coven, I was a child. My mother wouldn’t allow me to attend—she thought it too gruesome—”

  “Gruesome?”

  Gillian hugged her arms around herself. “The new Mother has to run a gauntlet, to prove her fitness to lead. She must summon each of the three elements to her aid, and each time she calls one successfully, that element becomes active on the sigil.”

  “What is shocking about that?”

  “If she fails, she dies,” Gillian said simply, her chin lifting. Her tone challenged him to denigrate the covens’ traditions as the Circle constantly did. Barbaric, they called them, and backward and crude. But it was for instances like this one that the ritual had been instituted. Only someone with a firm belief in her abilities and an utter devotion to the coven could pass the gauntlet, because only someone with that level of commitment could lead in times like these.

  That was the kind of woman the eldest had been, capable and strong, in spirit if no longer in body. But Gillian wasn’t that person. She wasn’t anything anymore.

  “And then what?” the vampire demanded.

  “Nothing, I…that’s all I can remember. Call the elements and the sigil activates.”

  “Well, you must have called two already,” he said, pointing to the two arms of the triskelion. “Which ones?”

  “I remember calling Fire,” Gillian told him. “It was in battle. I looked down because my arm hurt and saw the glyph glowing on the staff. I wondered why I was able to summon it when I never could before.”

  “And the other?”

  “That has to be Wind--my own element. It didn’t hurt, so I can’t be sure, but I think it came in when the Circle’s men attacked us the first time.”

  “When you blew their weapons back at them.”

  “Yes.”

  “Then which one is missing?”

  “Earth,” she whispered, her eyes going to the window as the full implication hit.

  His eyes narrowed at her tone. “Why is that a problem?”

  “Because Wind comes from air and I was standing right by a burning hut when I called Fire!”

  “And?”

  “And I need to be near an element to summon it.”

  His own eyes widened as comprehension dawned. “And we’re five stories up.”

 
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