Authors: Susan Carroll
To the Monday ladies:
Gina Hinrichs, Sheila Burns, Trudy Watson,
and Stephanie Wilson.
For movies, Chinese food, and friendship.
I would also like to acknowledge both the Bettendorf and Moline public libraries for aid with research and for providing me with a cozy corner for writing. And a special thanks to all the staff at the Moline Panera for nourishment and encouragement.
HE COMET BLAZED AGAINST THE NIGHT SKY, BRIGHTER THAN
any star, its ghostly head trailed by a streak of fire. It had hovered for the past week, like a sword suspended over the earth, spreading fear and wonderment across France.
The cluster of women atop the rugged Breton cliff all trained their eyes skyward, their forms concealed by flowing gray mantles, hoods pulled forward like monks shrouding themselves from the temptations of the world. Silhouetted against the leaping flames of the bonfire, the women presented a sinister aspect, the eeriness of the scene enhanced by the haunting rhythm of the surf pounding against the rocks far below.
The women drew in a collective breath as they stared up at the comet, oblivious to the fact that they themselves were being observed.
Flattened on her stomach, Catriona O’Hanlon found what concealment she could among the sparse brush and straggling trees that rimmed the clearing. The Irishwoman was petite, but her size was deceptive, her slender frame imbued with a wiry strength, her tautly honed limbs clad in masculine clothing, fustian breeches and a leather jerkin that helped her fade into the darkness.
A strand of fiery red hair escaped from her cap, but she did not dare brush it aside for fear the slightest movement would betray her presence. Especially while the women she spied upon were so silent.
One of them spoke at last, her voice so low Catriona had to strain to hear.
“The comet is clearly a sign, my sisters. The omen we have all been waiting for.”
Yes, a sign that your wits have gone a-begging, Catriona thought contemptuously. Like so many other superstitious fools trembling in awe of a great gob burning in the sky eons away.
True daughters of the earth should know better than to subscribe to such nonsense. Since the beginning of time, there had been wise women who struggled to preserve the light of learning in an ignorant world, especially the knowledge of healing and white magic.
But there were others who succumbed to the lure of the darker arts, seeking power instead of wisdom, more intent upon spreading chaos and superstition than knowledge. Such were the women that Catriona observed gathered about the bonfire. They called themselves the Sisterhood of the Silver Rose, fanatical to the point of being dangerous.
Catriona inched her hand toward the scabbard, fastened about her waist, her fingers closing over the hilt of her rapier, taking comfort from the length of steel strapped to her side.
She liked a good scrap as well as any of her countrymen, but if it came to a scuffle, she might be a wee bit outnumbered. Besides, the orders from her chieftain had been quite clear. Do not engage the enemy. Just discover who had resurrected the dread coven of the Silver Rose, the identity of their new leader.
Perhaps it was the taller one who now addressed the group from the depths of her cowl.
“Comets have always been portents of great change, the death of the old, the birth of the new.” The woman gestured skyward with one white, graceful hand. “That one burns for our Silver Rose, heralding her glory, her long overdue triumph as she assumes her rightful place as the ruler of France and lands beyond.”
“We have to find her first,” someone demurred.
“And so we will.” The tall woman rested her hand solemnly upon the shoulder of the one who had spoken. “I promise you that. I have finally discovered that our young queen was taken out of France.”
“Out of France!” one of the coven wailed in dismay. “But that increases our difficulties of finding her tenfold.”
“No, Megaera shall be rescued, I swear to you. And then we shall punish the rogue who dared snatch our queen away from us.”
“Yes, death to the villain!” Other voices piped up in shrill agreement.
“Show the bastard no mercy.”
“Make him regret he was ever born.”
“Destroy the fiend who abducted our Rose.”
“Death to the Wolf. Death to the Wolf!”
The chant swelled louder and louder until the first woman called for silence. She spoke again, but this time her words were too soft for Catriona to hear. Apparently some sort of command had been issued, for the group ranged itself around the bonfire. Catriona narrowed her blue eyes, straining to close the distance, obtain a glimpse beneath the leader’s cowl.
The keenness of Catriona’s sight even on the darkest night, combined with her agility and stealth had long ago led her own people to nickname her Cat. At least before her clan had cast her out and taken to calling her something else.
Her banishment was mostly owing to the malice of Banan O’Meara, the man who had married Cat’s mother. Cat wished she had her stepfather with her tonight. She’d show the great dolt what a real witch looked like.
As the leader reached up to draw back her cowl, Cat held her breath.
“That’s right, darlin’” Cat coaxed the woman silently. “Take off that hood and give me a good look at your crazed, evil little face.”
But as the woman’s cowl fell back, Cat bit her lip to keep from swearing in disappointment. The woman’s features were hidden behind a silk mask, the kind ladies wore to shield their complexions from the sun. Cat could make out little beyond the delicate line of her chin, the golden glint of hair pulled back in a severe chignon.
As the others drew back their hoods, they were likewise masked. Only one face was bared, a young girl with a mass of raven hair. She stripped off her mantle entirely, revealing that she wore nothing beneath except a white chemise. The chit was a novice to the order, about to undergo the ceremony that would proclaim her a full-fledged devotee of the Silver Rose.
Cat suppressed an impatient sigh, having no desire to witness some demented initiation. She already had a cramp in her left leg from lying immobile on the cold ground so long, but she had no choice but to remain where she was and hope when they’d finished with this blather, they’d get on with discussing their plans regarding the missing Rose. And perhaps when they were done and finally melted away in the darkness, Cat might get a chance to corral the leader alone, get a blade to her throat, force her to strip off that mask.
The woman was all but lost to Cat’s view as the head of the coven bent down to heat a dagger over the fire. The rest of the group commenced a toneless chanting in what they probably imagined was some mystic tongue, but which was nothing but a load of shite, Cat thought derisively. She herself had been well-schooled in all the ancient languages, thanks to her old gran, and this taradiddle resembled none of them.
The dark-haired girl swayed in time to the chanting, a dreamy detached look on her thin face, perhaps the result of being drugged with some opiate or a healthy dose of brandy. For the girl’s sake, Cat hoped that was the case, as she guessed what was coming.
Yet it was she who shuddered and not the girl as the novice calmly extended her hand, exposing the soft white skin of her forearm. Two of the witches laid hands on the girl, gripping her arm to hold her in place lest she change her mind as the leader approached wielding the hot blade.
Cat was not squeamish, having witnessed many gruesome sights in her twenty-seven years. But she lowered her gaze, bracing herself for the girl’s inevitable screams, no matter how much poppy juice the poor fool had swilled.
But the sound that disrupted the night was the sharp crack of twigs snapping, the dislodging of pebbles beneath heavy boots. And it came from behind Cat.
She twisted around, startled. So absorbed had she been by the scene being played out atop the cliff, she had failed to realize she was not the only one tracking the witches.
Shadows loomed up around her, a large troop of men, a dozen at least charging up the path toward the clearing. Witch-hunters? Cat was tempted to shout out a warning. She loathed the idea of any woman falling prey to a witch-hunter, no matter how misguided or evil the woman had become. Daughters of the earth should dispense justice to their own kind, not some pompous priest or grubby mercenary who earned his bread through torture and murder.
But it was too late for any warning and unnecessary. The coven had already taken alarm, some of them emitting frightened cries. Cat caught a blurred impression of burly legs, thick boots, and the glint of drawn swords as the men surged past her hiding place. She rolled to one side, barely avoiding being trampled.
The women shrieked, falling back about their leader. Cut off from the cliff path, there was nowhere to retreat except for the sheer drop to the jagged rocks far below. Some of the women unsheathed knives and swords, but they were badly outnumbered, no match for these hefty brutes. Fearing she was about to bear witness to a terrible slaughter, Cat scrambled to her feet.
Cat unsheathed her weapon. Despite her chieftain’s orders, she could not just stand aside and—
The brusque command from the captain of the troop caused his men to freeze and Cat as well. She remained unnoticed in the shadows as the man stepped forward, the glow from the bonfire enabling Cat to make out his features. Handsome with a sandy-colored beard and softly curling hair, he was far more polished than his collection of rough-hewn men.
“Ladies,” he said, sweeping the huddled women a courtly bow and flashing an amiable smile as though he were at a ball and intended to invite one of them to dance.
Cat experienced a shock of recognition. She knew that all-too-charming smile that masked a cold assassin’s heart. Ambroise Gautier. He was no witch-hunter, but something far worse.
He continued, his silken voice sounding almost apologetic, “My dears, I regret I have to interrupt your little satanic rituals, but I am obliged to place you all under arrest. I have no wish to harm any of you, so I must request, most courteously, that you put up your weapons and come quietly.
“I am sure you can see you have but two options. Surrender or die.”
One of the women gave a choked sob, the young noviate perhaps. But the leader of the coven appeared quite calm as she moved forward.
“You are mistaken, monsieur,” she said. “There is a third choice. We can all simply disappear.”
“Indeed, mademoiselle?” Gautier’s teeth flashed in a grin as he inquired politely, “And how do you propose to do that? Leap onto your broomsticks and vanish into the sky?”
“No, in a puff of smoke.” The witch whirled quickly and flung a handful of something into the fire.
The effect was startling and immediate, a loud boom followed by a shower of sparks that caused everyone to duck for cover, including Cat.
One glowing ember landed on her sleeve and she slapped it out. Whatever the witch had flung in the fire produced a cloud of black smoke that spread rapidly, fanned by the breeze.
Cat heard Gautier swear and command his troops to charge. Chaos erupted, the cliff top rapidly engulfed in an acrid haze of shouts, screams, choking, and cursing. Someone was down, but whether it was one of the coven or one of the men, Cat could not tell as her own eyes began to sting.
Clapping her hand over her mouth and nose, she sheathed her sword and beat a swift retreat back down the hill. Half running, half stumbling, she reached the place where she had left her mount tethered, relieved to find Red Branch still there, the roan gelding undiscovered by Gautier’s men.
Cat reeled from her recognition of the cold-blooded mercenary, but less from fear of the man than of the one who had sent him, the one Gautier served.
Catherine de Medici, the Dowager Queen of France, but better known to other daughters of the earth by a far different name
…The Dark Queen.
As Cat untethered Red Branch and swung up into the saddle, she cast a frustrated glance in the direction she had come, where all hell was breaking loose. As far as diversions went, the witch’s trick with her exploding powder had been a stupid one, the smoke enveloping her coven as well as the guards.
Cat would not have given good odds on all of those women escaping. Perhaps none of them would. If Gautier’s men captured even one of the coven, hauled her back to face Catherine, if the Dark Queen learned the truth about the Silver Rose…
Cat’s blood ran cold at the possibilities. Still, there was nothing she could do but hasten back to Faire Isle and warn her chieftain.
“The devil’s in it now and no mistake,” Cat muttered as she wheeled Red Branch about. Cat dug in her knees and raced off into the night as though the fate of the world depended upon her.