Authors: Victoria Lamb
When the power falls on me, it buzzes in the warm, dark spaces of my skull. It stings like nettles at the tips of my fingers.
Meg Lytton has always known of her dark and powerful gift. Raised a witch from early childhood, concocting spells from herbs and bones is as natural to Meg as breathing. But there has never been a more dangerous time to practise the craft, for it is 1554, and the punishment for any woman branded a witch is death.
Sent to the isolated palace of Woodstock, Meg discovers her magic is of interest to the banished princess Elizabeth, who is desperate to claim the throne. But Meg’s life is soon thrown into turmoil by the ruthless witchfinder, Marcus Dent – and the arrival of a smouldering young Spanish priest, Alejandro de Castillo.
The first pulse-quickening book in a bewitching new series.
For my daughter Becki,
whom I hold entirely responsible
for turning me to the dark side.
Much suspected of me,
Nothing proved can be:
Quoth Elizabeth, prisoner
Reputedly scratched on a window
at Woodstock Palace, 1554
WHEN THE POWER
falls on me, it buzzes in the warm, dark spaces of my skull. It stings like nettles at the tips of my fingers. The power is a fever I have felt since early childhood, a heat in the blood that leaves me flushed and unsteady, dreaming in daylight. My aunt once told me the power came from being born on the spring equinox under the martial sign of the Ram, with baleful Saturn rising. And truly my power is often strongest when Mars and Saturn clash in the heavens, as they did the day I was sent to serve the imprisoned Princess Elizabeth. Yet on that occasion I was unable to influence my own fate.
I felt the power that evening of the full moon in June though, sitting cross-legged in the ruins of the old palace at Woodstock. I stared across the candlelit circle at my aunt’s narrow, slant-eyed face and
to be a witch, just like her.
Aunt Jane leaned forward, her fair hair wild and unbound about her shoulders. With her witch’s dagger, a black-handled athame, she cut a jagged gash across a dead lamb’s belly.
‘By Hecate,’ she chanted under her breath, widening the gash with her fingers until the lamb’s entrails began to
bloodily onto the floor, ‘by our Lady of the Forest, strengthen our spell tonight. Let this dumb creature answer the question:
Shall the Princess Elizabeth be Queen?
Beside me, Elizabeth shuddered. The lamb had been dead three days and the smell from its innards was disgusting. Her pale, bejewelled hand gripped mine compulsively.
Though the princess was five years my senior, tonight I knew more than her, for this was her first attendance at a moon ritual. Elizabeth looked younger than her twenty years, even if the dark shadows under her eyes suggested otherwise. Yet she held herself very regally considering her recent stay in the grim Tower of London, accused of conspiring with the rebels against Queen Mary. Half-sister to the Queen, Elizabeth always looked as though she were holding court in one of her own great houses, when in truth she was little better than a prisoner in this ruined old palace in the middle of nowhere. Her gown of black velvet, no doubt splendid when new, looked worn and dowdy as she kneeled in the dust beside me. Yet the princess did draw the eye with the elegant length of her neck, and her hair – fair, though with a strong reddish glint – which peeped out from under her hood.
Her small dark eyes, hooded like a hawk’s, were staring fixedly at my aunt through the smoke. Her mouth was also small, pinched at the corners, and her high forehead spoke of tremendous learning, though she knew little of the witch’s craft her own mother had been accused of practising.
‘Is the magick not working?’ the princess demanded, her voice sharp with frustration.
‘Hush, my lady, give it time.’ I looked back at my aunt, the fine hairs on my neck rising in horror. My head was spinning in the fragrant smoke from the candles, my mouth uncomfortably dry. Already I could see the blank stare of my aunt’s eyes as the spell worked its magick on her. Soon Aunt Jane would fall into a trance and there would be no chance of questioning her after that. The princess squeezed my hand again and I spoke, catching her urgency. ‘What do you see in the lamb’s innards, Aunt Jane?’
‘I see a coronation,’ my aunt replied in her hoarse voice. Slowly, with delicate, bloodied fingers, she probed the slimy coiled intestines of the lamb. Its liver glistened in her hand and she bent over it, staring. ‘I see good fortune following bad, and a reward for long years of patience. I see the Lady Elizabeth walking through a great doorway with a crown on her head, and all the people on their knees.’
‘But what of my sister?’ Elizabeth demanded. The exiled princess sat back on her heels, her face pale and tense, her usual caution abandoned. ‘Is the Queen going to die? When will my coronation come to pass?’
My aunt did not reply. She trembled, swaying where she sat, lost in the grip of prophecy.
‘There is danger for all of us,’ she managed at last. Her voice grated in the silence. ‘No one is to be trusted. Beware a traveller who comes over water, over land.’
Elizabeth and I both stared at her in horror, unable to move. Danger for us all? Then something tugged at the far edges of my hearing and I stiffened.
Turning my head, I caught the echo and scrape of booted footsteps downstairs in the old palace. Then the sound of a man whistling to keep away the spirits of the dead.
The Lady Elizabeth had heard him too. She looked round at me apprehensively, her eyes darker than ever. ‘It must be one of Bedingfield’s guards, making his patrol. We must leave at once. I can’t be seen here.’
‘Better to wait until he’s gone, my lady.’
‘The fire!’ My aunt suddenly gasped, terrifying me. ‘The fire . . . it burns me!’
The vision in her head must have changed, for her thin face had contorted with horror. My aunt’s watery blue eyes were no longer staring at the bloody coiled innards, but over my head. She lifted her shaking finger to point, as though someone were standing behind me in the shadows. I glanced back over my shoulder, unnerved. But the three of us were alone in the dusty room.
Then my aunt gave a sudden, high-pitched cry and fell backwards on the soiled floorboards. She began flailing about and shaking as violently as the village idiot in one of his fits.
I gawped at her like an idiot myself, momentarily lost for what should be done.
‘Keep her quiet!’ the Lady Elizabeth urged me, her eyes wide with panic. ‘The guard will hear us!’
Tripping on the hem of my gown, I scrabbled round to where my aunt still lay thrashing, spittle on her lips, her eyes almost white in the shadows.
‘Hush, Aunt Jane, for pity’s sake,’ I told her urgently, my heart thundering at the possibility that we might be discovered. I stroked the hair back from her face, hoping to comfort her, and leaned close to her ear. ‘One of the princess’s guards is downstairs. He may hear you.’