The Queen’s Witch – Karen Chance

Light from inside the weather-beaten structure leaked out through the shutters, striping the plank of driftwood over the door in flickering bands of gold. There was no name on the sign, but most of the tavern’s clientele couldn’t read anyway. And the image it bore was really quite good enough. The corpse-green paint was starting to peel, adding to the gruesomeness of what appeared to be a rotting body surrounded by waving tentacles. In fact, the Dead Spaniard was named after an unfortunate sailor who washed ashore while it was being built, wrapped in seaweed like a shroud. I’d always thought the name appropriate, considering the tavern’s reputation as the best place to get a knife in the back in London. Not that anyone was likely to bother stabbing me. Two days in a stinking gaol and another three on the run had left me looking like a beggar, with the filthy gown, dirty face and staring eyes of a madwoman. Anywhere else, I’d have worried about my reception; here, I fit right in. I skirted a puddle of sick, ducked under the low hanging sign and pushed open the door. Ahead was a small hallway that let out into a big main room dimly lit by fire and rush light. It was more crowded than usual, because a new rogue was being admitted into the company of thieves who used the tavern as their base. A young man with a thin face and bleary eyes stood on a chair, grinning gamely as his brothers in crime dumped a massive flagon over his head. At least it might kill a few lice, I thought, and started forward–only to have a staff catch me in the belly. “Wot’s the word?” the old man holding it demanded, while his pet monkey watched me with round, black eyes from a perch on his shoulder.

“I was in gaol last week; I don’t know the word,” I said, trying to push past. The staff was removed from my flesh only to be slammed into the wall in front of me, hard enough to drive another dent into the pockmarked wood. “Then ye don’t get in.” “You know me!” I said impatiently, but I didn’t attempt to remove the barrier. Solomon le Bone didn’t look like much. His hair was a wispy yellowish gray–what little he had left of it–his hands were twisted and gnarled from age, and one of his eyes was milky white and unseeing. But his magic was as strong as ever, whereas mine was all but depleted. “Don’t matter. Ye need the word.” He squinted at me suspiciously through his good eye.

“Could be one of the demmed Circle, under a glamourie.” He was referring to the ancient group of light magic users which had recently established themselves as the guardians of the supernatural community–whether it liked it or not. “They’re the ones who threw me in prison!” I said heatedly, pushing limp red hair out of my eyes. “Aye. And when they take somebody, they don’t come back. Yet here ye are.” Sol said it with the air of a senior barrister making a brilliant closing argument. Fulke, the old man’s son, shot me a sympathetic glance from behind the counter, but made no move to intervene. Clearly, I was on my own. I stood there trying not to sway on my feet, because showing weakness here was a good way to get a knife through the ribs.

Or to lose one’s purse. I felt my belt suddenly get lighter, but before I could react, the damned monkey was back on his master’s shoulder, chattering at me in what sounded suspiciously like laughter. I made a grab for him, but missed when he performed an impossible acrobatic maneuver and ended up hanging by his tail from a rafter. He managed to twist his neck so that his head was upright, allowing him to watch me smugly while dangling my purse just out of reach. “Give that back!” I ordered. His only response was to show me a withered arse before beginning to paw through his prize. I glared at him, wishing I had enough strength left for one good immolate. He’d always been a flea-ridden, smelly, evil creature with a habit of throwing feces at anyone who displeased him. Everyone had breathed a sigh of relief when he finally died three years ago. The relief hadn’t lasted long.

Old Solomon had just enough necromancy to bring the little horror back, but not enough to make him look like anything more than what he was—an animated sack of fur and bones with, if possible, even more of a bad temper than before. That was demonstrated when he managed to get the purse strings untied. He stared at the pebbles in his paw for a moment, before chucking them contemptuously at my head. I lifted my staff —I might not be able to throw a spell, but I could at least club him with it–but he flipped back onto the beam, skittered along its length and leapt onto a table, upsetting a patron’s trencher as he made his escape. The man mostly looked relieved, as anyone who had ever tasted the tavern’s fish stew could understand, and the miscreant vanished into the shadows at the back of the pub. “Useless thing,” Sol said, frowning. “I’ve trained him better than that.” “I should damned well hope so,” I said, surprised to get even that much of an apology out of the old man. “He ought to know the difference by now between a purse o’ coin and a bag of rocks,” he finished tetchily. “Where do y’keep the real one?” “I don’t.

Thanks to the Circle, I don’t have a penny for a pint right now!” “Another reason not t’let ye in,” he said complacently, tipping his stool back against the wall. I fished a ring out of my real purse, a pocket sewed inside my kirtle. It was set with a large square cut ruby of a deep blood red hue, a good stone. It should be enough for what I wanted. “Not a penny,” Sol mocked, as I handed it over. “Not in coin, no. I took that off a vampire.” “Best be careful, girl,” he told me, fishing a jeweler’s loupe off a string around his neck. “Stealing from their kind is a dicey business.” “That’s the only good thing about being locked up,” I said bitterly.

“There’s not much more can be done to you.” Sol cackled delightedly. “Ye stole it off him while in gaol?” “I needed travelling money.” “And what was a vampire doin’ in a mage’s prison? I thought they policed their own.” “He wasn’t a prisoner,” I said shortly, wanting to hurry this up. I could almost feel the Circle’s noose closing in. And considering how many people they’d lost in the escape, a noose is exactly what it would be as soon as they caught me. But Sol didn’t appear to feel the same. Usually terse to the point of rudeness, he must have had a pint or three before I arrived, because tonight he was almost chatty. “Then what was he doin’ there?” he asked again, taking his time examining the jewel.

“I don’t know. Some damn fool story about working for the queen and wanting my help.” “Wanting ter help himself to dinner, more like.” I didn’t reply. I also didn’t touch the spot on my throat, under my shift, where he’d bitten me. The interlude had been a strange one, and I wasn’t sure what I felt about it. Not that it mattered; I’d never see him again. If I was lucky, I’d never see anyone in England again. The thought sent an unexpected pang through me, but I shoved it away. “You’ve seen it,” I said impatiently.

“What’ll you give?” But Sol’s beady eye was no longer fixed on the ring. The legs on his stool hit the floor with a thump and he wheezed out a breath through his missing front teeth. “Where did ye get that?” He was staring in disbelief at the staff in my hand. The long piece of wood was ebony dark, cured by centuries of careful handling. It felt satiny smooth under my touch, with a faint tingle where my fingers rested. I couldn’t blame him for his surprise; it wasn’t every day that an ancient Druid weapon was spotted in the hand of a dirty thief. Of course, until a few days ago, it had been in worse ones. One of the mages serving as gaolers had taken it from its rightful owner, a leader of one of the great covens. He had died soon thereafter, in the fighting that had led to my escape, and I’d somehow ended up with it. I was a thief, but this I would have returned, had there been anyone left with a right to it.

But the Old Mother had died in gaol, and the covens were scattered and broken, their leaders dead or in hiding. Like the staff, coven witches were becoming a rarity in England. “The Circle confiscated it from one of their prisoners,” I said tersely. “I confiscated it from them.” As usual, Sol didn’t ask for specifics. “What’re ye wanting for it?” “I’m here to trade for the ring.” “I c’n buy rings anywhere. I want the staff.” “You’ll take the ring or nothing.” “Nothing then.

” He carelessly tossed the ring back at me. “I’ll go elsewhere,” I warned. “It’s a good quality stone, no visible flaws. Plenty of people —” “Will turn ye into the Circle and collect the reward, which is more than the ring is worth,” he finished for me. “Ye’re a wanted woman, Gillian. Not one ter be making threats.” And they called me the thief. The staff was a treasure of my people; it deserved a better fate than this. But I didn’t have a people anymore, nor a family, save one. And her safety was worth any price.

“What’ll you give?” I asked harshly. “What’ll ye take?” I’d have preferred to discuss that somewhere other than the doorway, but the ribald party going on inside made that impossible. I waited while a couple of men came in. One was promptly allowed inside; the other, a curly-haired sailor type, paused just beyond the thresh hold, cursing and wiping the remains of someone’s dinner off his boot. “A license to travel, for me and Elinor,” I said quickly, referring to my daughter. “Money— enough to make a decent start elsewhere. And safe passage to the continent.” The wily old man contemplated this for a minute, while I watched the patterns the firelight painted on the floor and tried not to look as desperate as I felt. Despite what he seemed to think, this wasn’t the only place in town to make a sale. But I didn’t know how many of those establishments the Circle’s men might be watching.

“The money’s no problem; safe passage neither,” he mused, lighting up a long pipe. “But the license, that’s another thing. We don’t need ‘em.” “But humans do. And that is what I must appear to be. I was almost recaptured twice on the way here.” I glanced over my shoulder, but all I saw was the sailor who’d stepped in the puddle of sick. It had somehow smeared onto his hose, too, which he’d stripped off a hairy leg. Now he was balancing precariously on one foot, hose in one hand and boot in the other, looking bemused. It looked like he’d started the night’s revelry a little early.

“Aye. ‘Tis the way of the world, lass,” Sol said, with the air of someone imparting great wisdom. “Power shifts and we have to shift with it, if we want to keep our heads.” “Thank you for that,” I said, through gritted teeth. “Now can you get me a license or not?” “I can. But I’m thinking ye’ll not be needing it where ye’re going.” It took my tired brain a vital few seconds to catch up. Then I glanced at the counter, where Fulke should have been, and found it empty. Goddess teeth! I sprang for the door, cursing Solomon’s filthy hide, only to have it slam open and a group of mages rush in. Fulke’s traitorous hulk was visible just behind them and there was no question where he’d been–or why.

The Circle’s men would have had me before I could turn around, but the sailor took that moment to pass out on the lintel, causing the mage in front to trip. And the others ran into him in their eagerness to get at me. The accident bought me a precious moment and I turned toward the main room, intending to run out the back. I might have made it, if Solomon hadn’t kicked my legs out from under me. I rolled and brought the staff up, only to have Fulke leap from the doorway and make a grab for it. “No!” Sol screeched. “Don’t touch it, ye idle-headed lout!” Fulke was not the swiftest thinker, but he’d spent years suffering under his father’s lash for the smallest infraction. He jerked his hand back as if burned and I whirled on Sol, who dove for the door in a move that belied his age. He scuttled behind one of the mages, a young sandy-haired blond, who surged back to his feet and grabbed the staff. I hadn’t uttered a spell, hadn’t even formed one in my mind, yet power pulsed under my fingertips before spilling down the wood like liquid.

The mage froze as it flowed onto his hand, spread up his arm and covered his body. And then he started screaming. I jerked back, but he didn’t let go. Instead, his hand came away with the staff, in a stringy, gooey mess that in no way resembled flesh any longer. The small, pale finger bones melted through the slimy mess and rattled against the floor. I stared in horror from the shining arm bone hanging out the end of his flapping sleeve to his face, where round eyeballs lolled in fleshless sockets as the skin dripped down his bones. He stopped screaming about the time he collapsed into a heap of clothes and spreading ooze. But I could still hear it in my head, a high-pitched, half-hysterical sound that I vaguely realized was in my own voice, and then someone grabbed me. I looked up to see the sailor, who had apparently sobered up quickly. “Run!” Sage advice, had there been anywhere to go.

But the appalled silence of a moment before had disintegrated into utter chaos, as the drunken patrons of the bar met the small contingent of mages in a tangle of thrashing limbs, shrieks and curses. One of the latter shot by my face, close enough to singe my hair, and caused the sailor to jerk back with an oath. Having been in more tavern brawls than I cared to recall, I hit the ground and started crawling. The Spaniard was built on a slant to match the bank of the Thames, with an extra story on the river side. The lower level was used for storing whatever illicit merchandise Sol was dealing in this month, and had a convenient ramp leading down to the water. If I could get to the staircase, there was a chance I could get out before the Circle noticed I was— A curse sizzled over my head before exploding against the wall in a shower of sparks. It looked like they’d noticed. I picked up the pace, only to catch sight of Fulke waving his arms and looking panicked. “No! No fire spells, no fire spells!” he bellowed, loudly enough to be heard over the din. No one else paid him any attention, but then, they didn’t know what Sol had downstairs.

I didn’t, either, but when Fulke picked up the monkey and ran for the entrance, leaving the till behind, I decided I didn’t want to find out. I reversed course, hoping to slip out the front door in the chaos. But my hair had come loose from its fastenings and someone stepped on it, slamming my head down into the rough hewn boards and making my ears ring. And then someone else’s boot made contact with my ribs, hard enough to knock the wind out of me. Worse, it jolted the staff out of my fingers. I scrambled after it, through a forest of legs and spilled ale, and managed to get my hand on it— And looked up to see a mage leveling a flintlock at my head. I stared at it stupidly, still stunned and breathless. I had the staff, but didn’t have the energy left to use it. And this man was either better versed in Druid magic than the other, or he’d seen what had happened to him. Because he carefully kept out of reach as he prepared to blow my head off.

But then his face paled and the gun dropped from his fingers, his eyes going dead before he hit the floor. I stared past him at the sailor, whose hand was outstretched but didn’t hold a weapon. And then he grabbed me around the waist and hurled us at one of the windows. “No,” I gasped, “there’s no—” I cut off as we crashed through the old wooden shutters and out into thin air. A few dizzying seconds later, we landed hard on the ramp Sol used to roll barrels up from the water. Only we rolled down it, straight into the slimy waves lapping at the bottom. That turned out to be fortunate. The side of the tavern blew out a moment later, in a rush of heat and noise that sent blazing boards scattering far into the night. The sailor cursed and ducked under water, although most of the pieces went flying over our heads to flame out against the Thames. “—land down there,” I finished.

I gazed numbly at the merrily burning building–for a brief moment, until a heavy hand grabbed the back of my neck and I was jerked to within an inch of the sailor’s face. But it wasn’t his any longer. It suddenly smeared, like someone had taken a cloth to a dirty window. Parts of it became streaked and blurry, while others went missing entirely. In their place were bits and pieces of another picture: the jaw line became stronger, the cheekbones became more pronounced, and the unkempt beard was replaced by a neatly trimmed goatee. But the cap of dark curls and the outraged expression remained the same. “You,” the vampire told me viciously. “Had best be worth this kind of trouble.”

.

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