The cell was dank and miserable. It had been built underground in a dug cellar, with stone-and-mortar walls, floor, and ceiling. There were no windows; the iron grill that made for the front wall offered the only view to the outside, and that was just into the oblong jailor's room, barely more than a cell itself except for its two small ventilator-like windows near the ceiling, the dully-burning lantern, and most importantly the stairs that led up to the main floor of the meetinghouse. The only amenities offered were filthy straw strewn on the stone floor, a bare plank bed bolted to the wall that served as a seat and a bed, and a stinking bucket in the corner for a chamber pot.
Margarita sat on the plank-bed, knees drawn up to her chest, her head sagged forward to rest on them, shivering in the cold and damp. Her surroundings were miserable, but that meant almost nothing to her. Neither the physical discomfort of her cell nor the sentence of death that hung over her, though, were what made for the hot tears that streamed down her face. These things were uncomfortable and frightening, but she had, at least a little, been prepared for them. Mr. Lemon's plan assumed such things; she'd known she would face them.
It was the other part that so affected her, the reaction of the villagers. These were people she'd known her entire life, had grown up alongside. She'd seen this fear before, their hatred of witchcraft, when she'd first discovered her power, when she'd first met Mr. Lemon. It had frightened her then, had served to drive her to learn the basics of magic so she could control, not be controlled by her abilities.
But then, it had never been directed at her.
In her innermost, secret heart, Margarita hadn't actually believed that people would turn on her the way they had. Oh, perhaps the ones she didn't know well, those who were merely fellow-villagers, but not her family and friends. In her conscious thoughts she had tried to steel herself for what had come, but her armor crumbled away as soon as it had faced reality. Like the house built on sand in the parable, her defenses, her preparation for the ordeal had not had a solid foundation. They'd started to crumble at the very start, when her own father had been among those who crashed into the schoolhouse, when she saw the abject horror in his eyes.
Father Braastad had always been a zealous and ardent preacher, the kind who talked more of the wrath of God upon the sinner than the forgiveness and salvation offered to the penitent. It was one thing, though, to hear the sermon of a stern but Godly man, and another to be faced with the virulent hatred of a fanatic who believed that you were in league with devils to corrupt and destroy decent folk. The sheer hatred in his voice as he performed the rite of exorcism that purged her stored mana—insuring that the witch-prisoner could not cast spells from her cell—made her cringe; each word was like a whip-lash driving her from the community, forever outcast.
Then came the trial, when she was dragged up from the dungeon and into the courthouse. There was her mother, who'd always been so strong and so supportive, turning away from her in shock and fear, burying her face against her husband's chest, clenching her fists in his shirt and sobbing. He'd closed his arms around her, stroking her back tenderly, then over her shoulder directed a glare of such bitter fury and revulsion at Margarita that the young magician recoiled almost by reflex.
Julie Mint, the magistrate's daughter who'd been her closest friend since they were in leading strings, had shrank from her in terror, cringing and looking away when Margarita's gaze fell on her. Perhaps it was fear of some witch's curse to be delivered upon one who'd had a close relationship with her—didn't devils, after all, try to creep near to their victims? Or, even less charitably, could it have been fear of being tarred with the same brush, of being believed to be a possible witch as well?
It had been universal, this bone-deep fear of witchcraft and deviltry and the anger and hate it spawned. The closest thing to a friendly face was Julie's mother, the magistrate's wife, who'd been as harsh in her denunciations as any of the other villagers but whom Margarita had known hadn't meant it. Mrs. Mint, too, was a magician and one of the Archmage's followers, and it had been she who'd recognized Margarita's talents and called for her associate, Mr. Lemon, to come teach her. Margarita knew that she could hardly offer comfort and support, not where prying eyes were watching and the witch's taint could be assumed to spread at the least suggestion.
Locked in her cell, Margarita could only imagine the hysteria that had gripped the village. It had been bad enough five years ago, when only the suggestion of witchcraft was involved and the magistrate and sheriff had kept a tight rein on things. Now, though, there was an actual example, witches caught in the act by sober, reliable, official witnesses. The villagers would be casting suspicious eyes about, wondering if anyone else was involved, who else among them might be the Devil's minion.
What happened to them? Margarita whimpered to herself. Were they always like this? They were less like people and more like a mob of animals, she thought, maddened with pain and fear.
In two days' time, she would be dragged from her cell by Sheriff Bailey and one or more others deputized as constables. They would march her into the village square and bind her to a massive wooden pole. Split logs would be heaped at her feet, then topped with kindling just as if they were building a proper hearth-fire. Magistrate Mint would ponderously and portentously read the sentence of the court, Father Braastad would offer a prayer for her soul and, most likely, a thundering denunciation of witchcraft like the one he'd given as a witness at the trial...and then the sheriff would press a torch to the kindling and set the fire alight.
Would her parents be there, Margarita wondered? Would they stay home, unable to watch her terrible fate? Or would they be there in the crowd, screaming, shouting gleefully with the rest of the villagers? Cheering as the power of the diabolic was driven from their midst?
This was the world that the Archmage had fought against. The world where fear and ignorance could make loved ones turn on each other was something that had to be fought, and if the laws permitted innocent people to be sacrificed like this, then no wonder a war had to be fought to change those laws and overthrow those unjust rulers who made them.
Wasn't that the case?
She had to wonder why Gammel Dore would turn on his old friend Calvaros and support the kingdom instead. Was he blinded by power, perhaps? After all, he was now the master of the Silver Star Tower. Or had he been so powerful for so long that he had forgotten what it was like to be at the mercy of people who looked at you and saw a monster rather than a person, as if "magician" was the only thing that mattered, drowning out all human qualities.
Perhaps, Margarita thought, she understood a little better now why people like Mr. Lemon and Mrs. Mint worked so diligently to try and find a way to free the Archmage's spirit. Seeing first-hand the terror that awaited her otherwise, she was more ready than ever to go through with Mr. Lemon's plan. The village was no more a home for her than was this cold, damp, stinking prison.
But then again, it wasn't as if she had any choice, anyway.
~X X X~
There was a knock at the door of the suite. Grand Magician Gammel Dore looked up in anticipation. It had been a long day, and the wizard was looking forward to his supper. He set his quill back in the pen-rest, slipped the ribbon mark back into his journal, and closed the book, clearing a space on the desk before he rose.
Hopefully, he thought, the serving-maid would not be shaking so badly that she spilled half the stew. He knew that he was an imposing figure, a tall, broad-shouldered man with a flowing beard that nearly reached his waist and a sharp, almost hawklike nose. It was not his appearance or the wealth and influence implied by his elaborate robes, though, that unnerved the commonfolk—and more than a few nobles and officials—that he'd met on this trip through Caithwood.
No, the kingdom's northwesterly region tended to be sharply conservative in its attitudes. The local culture was conservative in dress, conservative in politics, and conservative in religion. Foreigners were sharply distrusted, "cosmopolitans" from other parts of the kingdom drew suspicious glances, and magicians, well, they were wished to the devil and sent there as speedily as possible.
This was the point of Gammel's trip. Her Majesty was a strong supporter of bringing magic into the mainstream of society and had enacted policies to begin pushing back the suspicion and doubt that had plagued the profession for centuries. However, long years of belief could not be changed in an instant and the Queen had to move slowly, as politics would allow, to avoid an all-out war with the Church or inciting her more fractious nobles (some who were genuinely conservative, others who would just seize upon the excuse) to rebellion. A licensing process had been put in place for magicians, and those who had been examined for proficiency and moral character were granted the right to practice their craft throughout the kingdom. The local authorities, however, retained the right to grant or deny such licenses, and to establish criminal punishments for unlicensed magic use. The transgression, in places like Caithwood, was generally punished equally with trafficking in unhallowed arcana, the practice of genuinely black magic.
By burning at the stake.
Permitting these harsh regulations was Her Majesty's concession to the peace of the kingdom and the beliefs of the conservatives. But in return, she expected her own extensions of the law to be honored as well. More than once she had been forced to condemn a local magistrate for persecuting a properly licensed magician out of bigotry and ignorance, and once even to sentence a particularly recalcitrant count for treason for his witch-hunting activities. Hence Gammel's tour of the region. To a certain extent it was to investigate the records of magical administration, but for the most part it was simple intimidation, a reminder to the nobles and officials of Caithwood that Her Majesty's eye was on them.
Gammel found it all to be an extremely tiresome business, but such was the lot he had to deal with. When he had accepted the position of master of the Silver Star Tower, it too had come with compromises. While he would much rather have spent his time teaching the succeeding generations of magicians to build upon what he and his colleagues had accomplished, politics were a necessary evil. Thus he played the Queen's emissary, the Grand Magician, the man who had defeated the Archmage, quite probably the only magic-user capable of winning the grudging respect of the folk of this region.
Most of the time. He hoped that his supper hadn't been poisoned again. That had been a tiresome business three days ago, finding the would-be murderer and making sure he hadn't been acting under orders rather than just a crazed hatred of "witches."
He opened the door.
"Good evening, Professor Gammel."
The voice did not have the country accent he expected, and the woman holding the tray was definitely not a serving-maid.
"And who might you be, madam?"
"Aren't you going to invite me in?"
He wasn't actually sure. The woman spoke in refined, educated tones, and she wore a hooded cloak of good quality wool, pinned with a silver clasp, and the dress that showed through the gap in front was likewise of fine quality through plain design. The question was, what was she doing there? He scented a trap of some kind, perhaps a plot to attack his reputation.
Gammel's hesitation seemed to warn her of his suspicions, because she added, "It's urgent, Professor. A life is at stake."
He stepped back, making his decision, and allowed her to come in. He shut the door behind her and turned the key in the lock to prevent sudden intrusion, while the woman walked over to the desk. She set the tray down, then turned and pushed back her hood to reveal the face of a woman in her forties, with light brown hair and refined, patrician features.
"My name is Abigail Mint. As you probably have already guessed, I bribed the maid to let me bring up your dinner. That and the hooded cape have probably given the staff all the wrong impressions, but it serves me well enough. If they suspect a common, vulgar intrigue, they'll have no idea of why I'm really here."
"And why are you here, Ms. Mint?" Gammel asked.
"May I sit down?"
He gestured to the desk chair.
"Please, make yourself comfortable."
She sat, settling herself into the chair with the straight-backed posture of a gentlewoman.
"I am the wife of the magistrate of a small village, about two days' travel from the town. I'm afraid that in coming here like this, I am betraying my husband as much as if this truly was an affair, though it is obedience rather than chastity I am defying." She looked down for a second, as if nervous about the betrayal. "But I can't just stand by quietly, not when a girl I've known all her life could be killed."
"That is the second time you have mentioned a life in danger. But why come to me? Why not approach your husband, or the Baron if need be?"
"The girl has been sentenced to burn as a witch."
"You believe that she has been falsely accused?"
Mrs. Mint shook her head.
"No, Professor, at least not in one sense, which perhaps ironically only makes the situation all the worse."
He raised his eyebrows, surprised.
"I should begin at the beginning," she said, rising. "And you, no doubt, would like to be able to eat your supper. Why don't you do that while I tell you the story?"
"Very well," Gammel said. He sat down at the desk. While his guest in turn seated herself on the edge of the bed, he surreptitiously passed his right hand over the tray, but the unicorn-horn ring on his finger did not react with the telltale prick that would indicate any of the food was tainted. At the least, this was not an elaborate distraction to get him to eat or drink something that had been drugged. He took up his spoon and began to address himself to the trencher of beef stew while Mrs. Mint began her tale.
"You've probably already realized that I'm not a native of this part of the kingdom. In fact I was born and grew up in the capital, and only came here when my family suffered financial reverses. The point is that I have a bit more familiarity with magic than most of the people in the village and I do not share their fears and prejudices against it. Of course, this is not an attitude I make a point of sharing, as I have no desire to be accused of being in league with witches or of being one myself. A single voice has little chance of affecting anything, let alone to stand in the way of a tide of fear."
She sounded to Gammel like a woman trying to convince herself; he would wager that she did feel some guilt over not speaking up, regardless if she could actually have made a difference. He refrained from passing judgment one way or another; it was not his place and he knew almost nothing of the facts.
"I'm telling you this," she said, "because it explains why I have a somewhat more objective view of the proceedings, and why I've come to you for help, Professor."
"Go on," he invited between bites of the indifferent stew.
"As I said, my husband is the village magistrate. Last week, he assisted in the arrest of a sixteen-year-old girl on charges of practicing witchcraft. She'd been taking lessons with our schoolmaster, you see, having apprenticed herself to him four years ago." She allowed herself a thin smile despite her apparent concern. "It seems that she was his apprentice in a different craft, as well."
Gammel regarded her calmly.
"The administration of local justice is quite outside my authority. Particularly as you suggest that the young lady was actually practicing magic."
Her head snapped up sharply.
"I didn't say anything about—" she began, then stopped and shook her head. "No, of course you would understand at once why I am here. Why else would I tell you all this?"
"Why else indeed, Mrs. Mint?"
She let out a long sigh.
"The girl's name is Margarita Surprise. She had been my daughter's closest friend for much of their lives. I have known her for as long as she's lived; there is no evil in her. Yes, she was practicing magic in contravention of the law and so, by its strict interpretation, should be put to death. But you cannot actually believe that, can you?"
"Professor Gammel, whatever fears have gripped my adopted home, whatever their prejudices, my husband ran an honest trial, even though in this case he himself was one of the witnesses. This was not a case where someone's cow dies and they claim their disliked neighbor hexed it, or that they contract a fever and their hysterical dreams are used to accuse some old woman. The sheriff, the reverend, and the girl's own father all offered sober, detailed accounts, slightly different in the particulars as is natural but only so much as indicated that they were not offering a rehearsed story. Margarita was in fact casting a Rune in that schoolroom. I recognized the description even if they did not. A symbol writ in glowing green light before the girl on the schoolhouse floor. I need not tell you what that signifies."
He inclined his head. It was true; she did not need to explain that the green light of the Rune indicated that it had been one of glamour magic, that field which was the most morally innocent of the four types (although still capable of misuse, like any source of power, Gammel hedged to himself). Indeed, he actually saw a bit more than he thought she realized, for the use of a proper Rune implied something else, that even had the girl been dabbling in sorcery, she had not been doing so via ritual practices that were justly forbidden.
"What is this child accused of doing with her witchcraft?"
Mrs. Mint let out a long sigh. Her emotion was plain: it was a sigh of relief. Gammel fully understood that he had given himself away in asking the question, that by seeking more information he'd revealed that he was at least considering taking action.
His eyebrows rose.
"Oh, there are rumors all through the village blaming witchcraft for everything from the too-rainy summer three years ago to William Ruffino's youngest boy running off to seek his fortune in the city to the quality of Goodwife Royal's guest-room bedding. Mostly that kind of thing is blamed on the schoolmaster, though, who'd believed to have 'corrupted' Margarita. I can see why he ran, of course, but to leave a child behind like that..." She shook her head.
"But in terms of legal charges, she was not accused?"
"No, the only actual charge was of practicing witchcraft—that is, unlicensed magic."
"Which it appears that she was genuinely guilty of doing."
"And is that supposed to make it right?" Mrs. Mint's temper flared. "An innocent child about to be put to death because she had the bad luck to be born into a town of fanatics who see the Devil in every shadow?"
The truth, Gammel knew, was that she was lucky to have made it that long. While it took training to perform magic, the enhanced senses of those with magical potential came unbidden. The girl would have been aware of things in her environment that others could not see, which too often led to such people being condemned as witches if what they saw was understood, accused of being mad if it was not, and sometimes even slipping into actual insanity from the strain of seeing what they believed to be hallucinations. This schoolmaster had likely done Margarita Surprise a great favor in teaching her the basics of magic use.
"Calm yourself, please, Mrs. Mint. I am merely observing what you yourself have already said, that in technical terms your Miss Surprise is guilty of the crime, which makes the situation worse. Were she falsely accused, I could probably intervene as part of my review of the administration of the laws concerning magic use in this region. With the facts as you have outlined them, I am powerless to take official action."
Again, Gammel's visitor displayed quick wits.
"Meaning that you intend to act unofficially?"
"Meaning," he corrected her, cautious that the walls had ears, after all, "that from what you have told me, this matter appears to have taken place within the law, and this I cannot order the execution stopped. And when, may I ask, is this execution to take place?"
"In two days from now, at dawn."
~X X X~
It was a solemn duty, Sheriff Bailey thought, the overseeing of an execution. The taking of a human life was never something to be done lightly. Even though the crime in this case was witchcraft, trafficking in the unnatural powers sent by the Devil to tempt humans, he still did not find it to be an easy task. The laws of man and God both, though, demanded that the evildoer be cut out of the body of society in order to preserve the whole, so it had to be done. Nonetheless, his heart was as heavy as the tread of his boots on the stairs as he and his deputy descended to the dungeon.
Bailey scowled angrily as he stepped out into the ill-lit room.
"Kriek!" he barked at the jailer, who was slumped in his chair over the table, head resting on his arms. "Get up, you cursed slugabed!"
The man did not so much as twitch in his sleep; furious, Bailey marched over to him. To fall asleep on duty—and while guarding a prisoner who'd been condemned! He rammed the sole of his boot against a back leg of the chair, kicking the seat out from under the jailer. Kriek wasn't jolted awake cursing and complaining, though. Even as the chair clattered on the stone floor the guard's body slumped limply after it, without waking him.
Bailey bent over the body of his man, suddenly terrified. Kriek was breathing, praise God, but would not wake. The sheriff shook the man's shoulder roughly, but nothing happened. There was no smell of alcohol on Kriek's breath, and Bailey feared the worst. He swiveled around to the witch's cell.
It was empty.
Bailey grabbed up the lantern and marched to the cell door, letting its rays play through the grill into every nook and cranny of the room, in case Margarita was merely cowering in the shadowy corner. She was not there. Bailey seized the door and pulled; it was firmly locked, just as the door upstairs had been—and while Kriek had a key to the cell, he didn't have one to the upper door. A "natural" escape—stealing keys, drugging the guard, unlocking and relocking doors—would have required outside help. And there were no signs that it had taken place.
And besides, who would want to free her? Even Margarita's parents were God-fearing people, properly concerned for the state of their child's soul, not her life. They'd want to free her, not see her damn herself. No, there was only one person he knew of who'd want to see her released.
"He came back for her," he growled under his breath.
"Mr. Bailey?" the deputy asked.
"Lemon, that damned wizard. He got away from us at the school, and we couldn't find him when we hunted for him, but he came back. He used his cursed witchcraft to spirit her out of here while our backs were turned."
Furious, he crashed his fist against the cell door. It did not rattle, for it was firmly fixed, its very solidity mocking him.
"Come on; we'd best get the hue and cry after them, though I doubt we'll have much chance. Who knew how long of a head start they have, which way they're going...or what unnatural mode of travel they're using, after all?"
~X X X~
Margarita shivered as she clung to the dragon's saddle. The Grand Magician's power was truly astonishing to the village girl, even though she'd been studying magic herself and had—or at least, she'd thought she had—a more realistic understanding of what could be done with it. How wrong she'd been! To cast a sleeping spell on the guard, well, that was straightforward enough, but the way he had caused Margarita's own body to be transmuted from physical substance to astral form so that she could be brought, ghostlike, through the solid bars of her cell and then the window to safe ground outside was something else entirely.
He'd taken the time to speak calmly to her and ease her fears—and although she had expected something of the sort to happen, her days of imprisonment and the impending execution had done a good job bringing Margarita very genuinely into a state of fear. As Mr. Lemon had told her, she was risking her life, and her relief at being delivered from the dungeon had needed no acting. She'd clung to Gammel's robes, her body shaking, tears streaming down her face, and he'd gathered her, helping her hold back her cries so that she did not rouse the village.
"There now, Miss Surprise, you are safe now. I won't let these people execute you just because they are scared of your magic."
"But...who are you?" she'd choked out. "Did Mr. Lemon send you?"
"He's Gammel Dore, the Grand Magician."
Margarita turned towards the deep, rumbling voice.
"Surely! You're all right!"
"Your familiar assisted me in your rescue, helping to identify your location and the means by which you were guarded."
Of course Surely was not her familiar; rather he was a fellow-conspirator, for not all of the Archmage's minions were human. He would play the role, though, though, giving her additional support in her mission.
"Unfortunately, Master Lemon is not here," Surely continued. "I believe he has fled the witch-hunters."
"It was another friend who told me of your case," Gammel continued. "I won't tell you now, as protection for if something goes wrong, but once you are safely away I'll let you know. You deserve to know who is still on your side, even in the face of such accusations."
"Thank you," she said, knowing he meant it as a kindness. "But...you say, away from here...but to where? The whole village has turned against me, Mr. Lemon has been driven off, and I don't have anywhere to go."
Gammel rested his hand lightly on her shoulder.
"You are a student of magic, are you not? You have already learned the basics of casting Runes?"
"Then why not continue that study? Have you heard of the Magic Academy at the Silver Star Tower?"
"Mr. Lemon told me about it," Margarita said, nodding.
"Then what would you say to going there, where you could continue your studies in peace, learning from the best teachers in the kingdom, and have the chance to at last become a great magician, making a bright future for yourself?"
It was that last line which had sobered Margarita, helped her steel her heart for what had to be done despite Gammel's kindness. The Grand Magician was a kind man—indeed, Mr. Lemon had even said that he was a good person, despite having been the key figure in bringing down the Archmage. This goodness was his tragic flaw, for it made him loyal to the monarchs he served, and to a rule of law that condemned his kind, and it made him unable to accept that sometimes force was needed.
Conjuring this dragon on which Margarita now rode was only the smallest sliver of the kind of power Gammel Dore could summon, but she would dare opposing it. He had saved her with that power, but was unwilling to use it so that others like her wouldn't need saving.
So Margarita, in turn, would save someone who was.