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Authors: Laura Powell

Burn Mark

BOOK: Burn Mark
5.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub






This book is for Benedict Whitehouse, who shared the author’s early adventures as a pirate, bandit, deity and witch.




Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39


The Starling Family Tree


Author’s Note



The walls of the Burning Court were high and white-tiled, its ceiling one giant chimney. If the young witch at the stake had been able to look up the funnel, she might have glimpsed a distant pane of sky.

Instead, she stared ahead. There was a glass panel in front of her, and the shadowy shapes of the inquisitors behind. One of them would have his hand on the switch, ready to light the fuse.

She couldn’t speak or move. Her body had been frozen rigid by the drug they’d given her so that she would be numb and immobile throughout her execution. Her reflection in the glass was calm. Everything was quiet and orderly, exactly as it should be.

In which case . . . should she be aware of the coarse material of her prison shift, or sense the chill coming off the shining tiles? Propped up in the centre of the pyre, she was newly conscious of the weight of its wood.

The witch’s heart began to stammer. This wasn’t right. Something must have gone wrong. The drug wasn’t working properly. She had to let them know before it started. She had to tell them, she had to explain –

But her tongue didn’t move. Her eyes were locked open, her mouth was locked shut. The fear was suffocating, but she couldn’t gasp for breath. Her face in the glass gazed peacefully back, while every nerve, every muscle, every pulse of her heart and brain screamed

The wood sparked.

No, wait, please wait –

A thin yellow flame wriggled into life, then danced upwards. Smoke rose with it. Heat blossomed, intensified.

Behind the blurred glass, the unseen audience was waiting.


Tendrils and coils of fire. Her eyes stung from its smoke. Her pale hair was already rippling into flames. At any second they would be eating into her flesh. She was screaming and screaming now, soundlessly –

Chapter 1


In bed, Glory was screaming too, her body thrashing into wakefulness in the moonlit room.

A tall shape blundered through the door. Light flooded in after him.

‘It’s over,’ her father said, coming to the bed, wrapping her in his arms. ‘Hush now. You’re safe; it was just a dream.’ He pushed a sweaty strand of hair off her face as she shuddered and gasped.

‘Was it the Burning Court again?’

Glory nodded. She was eight years old and had been having the same nightmare for as long as she could remember. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. Thumps and grumbles could be heard through the walls as the building’s other residents resettled themselves.

‘There’s nothing to be sorry for, baby-girl. Nothing to be frightened of either. I’ll chase the bad dream away.’

But in the end it always came back. As Glory got older, she learned to control her waking outbursts and no longer disturbed the house with her cries. The terror didn’t diminish though. The dream was so vivid; immediately afterwards, she could swear the scent of smoke clung to her hair.

Her father believed she’d grown out of it. In the early years, he tried to get her to describe it properly, and talk about what might bring it on. But even as a little girl, she was embarrassed by her weakness, refusing to revisit the panic of the night. And the Burning Court dream was bound up with two secrets that her father mustn’t know.

The first was the image in the glass panel. In the dream, Glory was the witch at the stake, yet the face she saw reflected was her mother’s. She recognised her from photographs, not memory, for Glory’s mother, Edie, had disappeared when she was three.

Edie Starling’s farewell to her husband and child had been a single line on a postcard, dropped on the doormat the morning she walked out of their lives – and perhaps her own – for ever.
I love you, but it’s better if I go. Forgive me.
That was the last they or anyone else heard of her. ‘She’ll have run off with some fancy-man,’ the neighbours speculated. ‘Done herself an injury,’ said others. ‘Too flaky for family life,’ declared the rest. Any of this could be true, but whatever else Glory’s mother was, she was also a witch. The illegal kind: unregistered, unlicensed and hunted by the Inquisition.

For this was Glory’s second secret fear: that the dream of her mother’s burning felt so real because her mother had been caught by the Inquisition, because it was true.

Yet despite this, once the nightmare was over, after she’d been soothed and petted and her tears had dried, she’d wait until the house was quiet again. Then she would climb out of bed and go to her attic window. She would look over London’s jumbled rooftops, the ghostly glow of the street lights, the darkness above. And Gloriana Starling Wilde would lift her chin, take a deep, defiant breath, and say the same prayer she had said ever since she could remember.

Please, God . . . when I’m grown-up, make me a witch.

Chapter 2


The first time Lucas saw a witch burn, he was ten years old. Britain hadn’t held a public burning for over three years, and the case dominated headlines for weeks on end. ‘Disgusting rabble-rousing muck,’ his father had muttered, sweeping yet another lurid newspaper supplement off the breakfast table.

As Chief Prosecutor for the Inquisitorial Court, Ashton Stearne had been instrumental in bringing the guilty witch to justice. Lucas had looked forward to saying at school, ‘You won’t see it in the news, but my dad says . . .’ However, his father remained tight-lipped about the details. The case had taken its toll on everyone involved. Death by balefire was reserved for the worst witchcrimes (first-degree murder, treason, terrorism), and this was a particularly horrific one. Bernard Tynan had used witchwork to lure a young schoolgirl into his house, where he’d murdered her.

Ashton Stearne was one of the officials who would oversee the burning at a secret Inquisition prison. It would be filmed so the public could watch it live on open-air screens. Even though his father hadn’t forbidden Lucas from watching it, Lucas knew he wasn’t supposed to. This wasn’t because Ashton thought his son was too young or too delicate, but because he disapproved of public executions on principle. They pandered to the worst of the mob, he said.

It was true people queued for hours to get a viewing space. Balefires weren’t televised and were only shown in the cities, on a limited number of screens. Their audiences were heavily policed. Of course, almost as soon as filming started, somebody would manage to upload an illegal video of it on to the web. But watching some fuzzy pirated version would be cheating, Lucas felt. If he was going to witness a balefire, he wanted it to be as part of the official event, with all the sense of occasion attached.

And when his friend Michael invited him to watch it in Trafalgar Square, in a prime spot on the roof of his father’s office, the opportunity was too good to resist.


A car picked the two boys up from school on Friday afternoon. Both were excited and nervous, and trying to hide it.

Michael hadn’t invited anyone else from their class. He and Lucas weren’t especially close but when a secretary led them up to the insurance firm’s rooftop terrace Mr Allen welcomed him like an old family friend.

‘Aha! Master Lucas!’ he boomed. ‘Here you are!’ He turned round to his assembled colleagues and guests. ‘It’s his father we have to thank for today’s burning, y’know. This is Ashton Stearne’s boy.’

The other men looked admiring. ‘Your old man deserves a knighthood for this,’ one said. ‘You must be very proud,’ said another.

Mr Allen clapped Lucas heartily on the back. ‘He’ll soon be following in the family footsteps, I’ll be bound. Eh?’

Lucas nodded. He was going to be an inquisitor one day, just like his father and his grandfather before him, and every man in his family before that – all the way back to the seventeenth century and John Stearne the First, Cromwell’s own Witchfinder General.

It was flattering how attentive they all were, these grown men with their expensive suits and important, well-fed faces. They asked Lucas questions about the case and his father’s job, and although he didn’t have anything new to tell them, they still seemed interested in what he had to say.

‘Well, I’m sure you’ll make a grand witch-burner,’ said one of the few women present.

‘Bloody hags,’ said somebody. ‘Burning’s too good for them.’

‘Here, here,’ said somebody else, raising a glass.

This made Lucas uncomfortable. ‘Hag’ was a word you weren’t supposed to use – like ‘harpy’ or ‘hex’. His father got very cross if he ever heard him saying it. Lucas thought how strained and irritable his father had been the last couple of days, almost as if he wasn’t looking forward to the balefire.

BOOK: Burn Mark
5.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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