A Little Spell of Death

by Jayne Leitch



Rating: R

Spoilers: through 'Sacred'

Disclaimer: AlMiles and crew came up with the (oh-so-English, even though they're in France) names and general shape of the characters/situation. DC owns kryptonite. The rest...I kinda have to say it's mine.

Notes: I did actual research for this, which would not have been as fun if I hadn't had Jeneva1 around to help me figure out random details (like the order of precedence of the French aristocracy in the late 1500s, for example). Thanks, Jen! Also, huge thanks to MaryKate, as always, for beta and reassurance and general encouragement of witchfic.

A LITTLE SPELL OF DEATH by Jayne Leitch

The direction of my life was determined within my first few hours, pathetic and tenuous though they were. My mother, fevered far beyond the midwife's experience, wailed and whimpered and begged the demons ravishing her body to grant her peace, while in my cradle across the room I lay much too quiet and much too still. Mrs Evans tended to us both, tight-lipped and silent until, having placed her palm on my shivering breast, she called for one of the attendant maids to hurry to her cottage and return with everything from the trunk in her parlour: "Do not waste time gawking and wondering. We may have lost one, but with skill and Providence we may not lose both." I do not know which of us she thought was lost at that moment, or which she intended to save.

When the maid returned, Mrs Evans sent her to inform my father of her efforts, and sent the others back to their usual duties. Once alone with us, she took six dull green stones from her stores and placed them in careful arrangement around my head and my mother's--three for each of us, at temples and crown. Then, as she ground herbs and mixed pastes, she sang--or chanted--and forced her potions between my mother's lips and rubbed her salves into my skin.

My father was not an impatient man; nor was he often subject to his passions. For hours he occupied himself in the stables or his rooms, sending the occasional maid to tap at the barred door and ask timorously for news--until, finally, the passing night and lack of definitive word wore his nerves too raw.

Bursting into my mother's chamber shortly before dawn, he found Mrs Evans tying the string on her large cloth bag, me sleeping peacefully in my cradle, and the bedcurtains drawn tightly closed.

*

Mrs Evans was a good Catholic woman, devoted to her God, her infant daughter Madeline and the memory of her late husband. My mother, always sympathetic to those of good family and unfortunate circumstances, had brought her into the household first to serve as midwife, then as governess; my father chose to abide by that arrangement, and left me entirely in Mrs Evans's care.

He would not have done so had he known the methods she had used to save my life. Father may have been wealthy, titled and well-travelled, but he shared ignorance and superstition with the most common of villagers. Fortunately, Mrs Evans knew the worth of discretion, and worked with all her considerable intelligence to keep herself and her more arcane knowledge and abilities from those who would judge her poorly. Thus, I grew up with her authority the chief influence on my development.

I also grew up side-by-side with Madeline. Together we learned how to read and write, how to dance, how to sing and play the harpsichord, how to speak proper French, English, Spanish and Latin. And after we had finished our lessons in the more conventional arts, Mrs Evans would take us to the cottage she and Madeline inhabited by the lake at the edge of my family's estate and teach us other things: how to identify useful plants and insects, how to prepare healing draughts and poultices, how to concentrate the mind and manipulate the body, how to recognize and tap sources of natural power for our own use. Where Madeline displayed some competence in our household lessons, I excelled far more in the cottage; it was as if my body was designed to respond to magic, and hummed like a tuning fork with the vibrations of power.

The first spell I cast alone was at five years of age, when I warmed the lake until it steamed so Madeline and I could wade comfortably one bitingly cold winter afternoon. It was a complicated charm, imprudent of me to perform at such a very early stage of my education; upon learning what I had done, Mrs Evans became quiet and stern, and sent me back to the main house to dry and warm myself before our lesson's scheduled end.

That evening she arrived at my rooms with a forgiving smile and a paper-wrapped parcel. "Your achievement caught me unprepared this afternoon, cherie," she said, kneeling before me and cupping her cool palm to my cheek. "I had not expected to give you this so soon, but your talent proves its necessity." Holding out the parcel, she let me tear eagerly through the paper to reveal a handsome leather-bound book, its cover darkly tanned, its pages thick and blank. "It is a spellbook," she whispered, her shining eyes darting between me and my reward. "In it, you must write the means and methods to all your spells. Record them faithfully and completely, consign them to the page in your own hand, and they will be yours to reference and perform whenever you need them."

I accepted the book, awed by its beauty and bursting with pride. Mrs Evans believed in me enough to provide me with the trappings of a real witch; it could not have been a better end to the day.

*

Living as I was under Mrs Evans's watchful eye, I nevertheless enjoyed considerable freedom: Madeline and I had leave to play throughout the grounds, the staff correctly regarded me as mistress of the estate, and my ever-increasing abilities were a source of constant fascination and pleasure. My more conservative studies soon became the sole provocation of discontent; aside from the Latin tutorials--simply a matter of intellectual accomplishment in their social context, but of crucial importance to me in the practise of witchcraft--I found my domestic lessons wholly useless. Why spend time pursuing the art of the finest needlepoint when I could be perfecting the Animus spell I had found scrawled on a bit of parchment Mrs Evans used as a placeholder in her Bible? The pages of my spellbook needed filling, a task to which I could not attend if all my time was spent conjugating English verbs and committing country dance steps to muscle-memory.

Fortunately, finding a solution to my problem took very little time. I had a sympathetic and willing accomplice in Madeline, who knew as I did how my natural talents were wasted on the mundanities of social accomplishment. Together, we conspired to use my advanced grasp of magic and her proficiency at our other assignments to make it appear to Mrs Evans that I was behaving as a proper student. It was a neat solution: practising magic that made it look like I wasn't practising magic, performing complex spells of time and appearance at times when I needed to appear as if I was doing anything but. With Madeline completing the assignments her mother set for both of us, I was able to spend entire days studying--and working--increasingly difficult and intriguing occult practises.

I did enjoy things other than magic. One particular pastime I welcomed as a distraction from witchcraft was riding; my father had stables full of magnificent horses, and one of the few matters over which he instituted his parental authority was that I learn to ride. Consequently, at a very early age I became almost as accomplished a horsewoman as I was a young witch, and took great pleasure in long, breathless excursions into the countryside with Ghislaine, my beautiful chestnut mare. These rides allowed me time to myself, free from Mrs Evans's authority and Madeline's chatter, when my only concerns were wind resistance and the horse's rhythm beneath me.

This simple pleasure came to an end during one such outing shortly after I turned seven. I had been riding for almost an hour, crisscrossing the gentle hills and pastures outside Montmiral, when Ghislaine became too carried away with the sunny afternoon and my lax hand on the reins. Approaching the stony banks of a stream, she ignored my attempts to steer her parallel to the water and instead galloped at it straight-on; though I made every effort to stop her, slow her down or change her direction, it became quite clear that she would try to jump--and while the stream was not overly broad, its banks were uneven and littered with large, loose rocks that made for a dangerous landing.

I made my decision in a heartbeat, and had already drawn breath for the spell when I felt Ghislaine's muscles tighten and bunch for her jump. I think she leapt at the very moment I cast--"Inclino!"--and for a moment I was both ground for the magic and weightless with the jump, and Ghislaine's body seemed to convulse against the air.

She landed badly, as if she had no idea where the ground was. I was thrown, but landed on the soft grass beyond the bank; the sudden violence of the impact stunned me, but I was otherwise uninjured. Ghislaine, however, had broken her front left leg; when I returned dazedly to where she had collapsed among the rocks, I found her foreleg snapped and driven straight through her skin. She was bleeding, screaming, her three good legs scrabbling frantically under her body, her broken one twitching and flopping at a grotesque angle. Her eyes rolled in her head as I approached.

Strangely--perhaps because of the shock from being thrown--I was not sickened by the sight. Instead, as I watched Ghislaine struggle and heave with mindless desperation, I felt a sense of my own power: at that moment I knew that I might have caused this suffering, and I might ease or prolong it...but I could certainly end it.

Mrs Evans did not teach those spells. They weren't in any of her books or letters, to be stumbled across while casually reading and learned in secret with a thrill of the forbidden in every moment. Nevertheless, the command of the spell rose like the sun in my mind, and lay heavy on my tongue for a long moment. Then, with another rush of summoning and expending power, I placed my hand on Ghislaine's damp forelock and spoke clearly: "Caducus."

The walk home was long and slow.

*

When I was eight years old, Mrs Evans introduced a third girl into our cottage lessons. Briana Withridge was the daughter of a local woman who was lady's maid to the Duchess of Beziers. Like many in the area of Montmiral, Madame Withridge was aware of Mrs Evans's medical skills--but unlike many of the others, she saw the potential value of her daughter learning midwifery. For her part, Mrs Evans welcomed the new student; Madame Withridge could not have suspected her intention to impart far more than simple, necessary medical knowledge. Briana herself was content to go where others sent her, and greeted us on her first day with a broad, haphazard grin and even broader, more haphazard curiosity.

The tone of that day's lesson was more sombre, yet also somehow more electric, than that to which Madeline and I were accustomed. Standing at the head of the sturdy harvest table where we girls were seated, Mrs Evans spoke of things she had only touched upon lightly in Madeline's and my previous lessons: the responsibility these studies demanded we shoulder, the awareness with which we must wield our power, and the way both those aspects of our craft, responsibility and power, flowed and fluctuated on the significance of numbers: "One is loneliness, independent and absolute. Two creates dichotomy: light and dark, pure and corrupt, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil. Three..." She swept her steady gaze over each of us in turn. "Three encourages balance. Between three there can be stability, support, cohesion. Three allows dimension; three allows focus." Drawing herself up until she looked to us as regal as a queen, she concluded, "You are now three. Let us begin."

Later that evening, as Mrs Evans walked me back to the main house, I asked, "The power of trinity--is that why you use three skystones in healing spells?"

It was then she told me about the night of my birth. "Even a single skystone has vast power," she said, "but in matters of life and death, one must prevail upon all the strength God has placed at one's disposal. The night I saw three embers streaking out of the sky, followed their path and found those green pebbles gleaming in their crater, I knew God had granted me a mighty gift. I believe the skystones--and my sole ownership, to my knowledge, of anything like them--are a sign of His blessing upon my work, and I am grateful each day for His trust." Pausing on the lane, she turned to me and continued seriously, "That I found those stones...that I was in attendance at your birth and could use them to save your life...that you have grown into your power with such ease...it is clear He has a plan for you, Isabelle. It is clear you have a destiny."

*

It is an odd truth that the moments of greatest import in one's life are usually the moments that pass with least comment, and are only recognized for what they were in hindsight.

Briana was with us a week before she told us, while we scoured the woods for milfoil yarrow, why Mrs Evans had chosen her to be our all-important third: "The Duchess has gone mad. She's become obsessed with an old fairytale about magical stones that give their owner limitless knowledge and unimaginable power. Legend says that hundreds and hundreds of years ago they were hidden around the world so no one but their rightful owner would find them and be granted access to their power--but the Duchess is trying to find them. Mrs Evans wants them, too. She took me on so I could tell her what my mother says about the Duchess's progress."

At first I was skeptical; by that time I had made a thorough study of Mrs Evans's magical library, and found not a word on such fantastic artifacts. Also, though Mrs Evans was a witch, she was a good Catholic woman even moreso, and would not allow herself to be snared by the temptations of power--particularly not one in the form of a heathen myth. That she could be involved in--much less manipulating--such a situation seemed almost laughable to me.

That night, however, as I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, the idea of the stones tickled my mind and refused to let me sleep. I thought of what it would be like if they did exist: if one person could have sole possession of boundless knowledge, and equally boundless dominion over the uses of such knowledge...and who such a person might be...it was a tantalizing possibility.

I kept my silence on the matter for a few days, content at first to simply contemplate whether Briana could be right and what it could mean if she was. Gradually, however, these musings became more and more consuming; the potential gnawed at me until finally, one evening after our formal lessons had concluded, I went to Mrs Evans and asked her plainly whether Briana had told the truth.

In response, she gave me a measuring look; then, adopting the tone she usually employed during lectures, she said, "'And He commanded him, saying: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.'"

"Genesis two, verses sixteen and seventeen," I responded automatically.

She nodded. "'And He said: Behold Adam is become as one of Us, knowing good and evil: now therefore lest perhaps he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.'"

I identified that correctly as well: "Genesis three, verse twenty-two."

Again she nodded and, lowering her voice, said, "There are tales throughout history and from all over the world of three stones, relics that were given to ancient civilizations by beings greater than man. Most of these stories are fiction, borne of barbarian cultures with no understanding of God--but hidden within all the myths and embellishments there is a kernel of truth: the stones exist." In the sunlight streaming through the window, Mrs Evans's eyes seemed to glow with fervour; I was entranced. "I believe they are the seeds of Eve's apple, the last remnants of the Garden here on Earth; they are God's knowledge, and I believe He intends them to be recovered by those of true faith and used, as we can use all His gifts, to return His people and His world to the state of perfection and grace we lost in the Garden."

I was severely struck by her words. All my life I had known Mrs Evans to be a woman of straightforward Catholicism and practical magic; learning that she harboured potentially heretical interpretations of the doctrines of her faith was a revelation. "So you are looking for the stones," I asked.

"I have wanted to look for the stones for years," she answered readily, "however, my circumstances have often been insufficient to the task. But now Providence has smiled upon me, as I have learned of the Duchess's similar quest." Her face darkened as she spoke of the Duchess, and her voice turned to a grave whisper. "She cannot be allowed to find the stones, Isabelle. She--and many like her--have selfish, evil designs on their power; I cannot imagine what she would do with the stones, but I know for certain it would not be God's work." Taking a sharp breath, she leaned closer to me and gazed unblinkingly into my eyes. "I had not told you of the stones before because there was no viable course of action available to me in attempting to recover them. But now that I am certain of the Duchess's involvement, and now that God has seen fit to provide us with Briana and her mother's cooperation...now, cherie, I have hope. With all the resources available to me, it is possible I can triumph over the Duchess's efforts." Suddenly lines of worry creased her pale face. "But was I wrong to tell you? Your abilities...I had hoped you would share my goal, Isabelle, because with you, I truly believe anything is possible. Will you assist me?"

My imagination was afire. Stones of knowledge, God's intentions, ultimate perfection, my abilities--my destiny--I felt in that moment the clarity of thought and rush of purpose that had accompanied my actions towards Ghislaine on the bank of the stream more than a year ago. I found myself nodding, meeting Mrs Evans's hopeful gaze with a level one of my own.

"Of course. Of course I will."

*

My father, as I have already said, was not a passionate man, and waited a full decade after my mother's death to remarry. The woman he chose was a waiflike thing from Paris, twelve years my senior, who tried to hide her constant nervousness under a haughty kind of expressionlessness and expensive paint. I made her uncomfortable simply by walking the same halls she did; thus she was often content to ignore me for days at a time. As my days were spent absorbed in conspiring with Madeline, Briana and Mrs Evans to hone our craft and find the stones, my life changed very little with Stepmother's arrival.

My stepbrother arrived two months before my eleventh birthday. Father had Mrs Evans usher me into Stepmother's bedchamber to peer at little Donatien, swaddled in his mother's lap, his tiny face purple with squalling, but after that momentary greeting I returned to my own pursuits and continued life as if I had no half-brother.

*

Mrs Evans was a devout Catholic who never forgot that her church opposed, with strict vehemence, many of the talents and practises by which she lived her life. Because of this, she insisted that I put my God-given abilities to good, Christian use; so it was that I was made to accompany her on visits to the sick of Montmiral, missions of charity designed to lend purpose to my powers and assuage Mrs Evans's feelings of guilt for instructing me in how to use them.

At first, I was not always truly welcome in the homes of Mrs Evans's patients, as the rules of society made many a struggling merchant and tradesman uncomfortable about welcoming a countess into their parlours. But Mrs Evans had a talent for putting people at ease, and by the time I was thirteen I had become established within the minds of the county as her able assistant first, and the local titled heiress second.

It was rather odd, then, when Madame Peverell seemed uneasy upon finding that both Mrs Evans and myself had come to minister to her husband. She hovered while Mrs Evans and I settled into Monsieur Peverell's sickroom, keeping up a stream of nervous chatter while her hands wrung and fluttered; she offered her own assistance, smiling worriedly and saying that if only we would show her what to do, she could save us the trouble of making return visits. Mrs Evans, who had intended this outing to be my first solo attempt at a somewhat complicated healing spell, answered this offer with a firm refusal--couched in impeccable, implacable manners--and turned all of her attentions towards manoeuvring Madame Peverell out of the room so that I might have the peace required for concentrating on the spell.

As she was Mrs Evans, she soon succeeded, and I found myself standing alone in the centre of Monsieur Peverell's dimly lit bedchamber. I settled in to work at once, unsure of how long my solitude would last.

Monsieur Peverell was a spice merchant, a successful one--or he had been, until he fell ill with the Venetian disease and became incapable of leaving his bed. Now he lay practically insensate, lesions clustered on his occasionally twitching body, requiring his wife's care and assistance to manage even the smallest task. As I set up the materials for the spell around his bed, I wondered whether Mrs Evans had intended our measures to benefit him--or if, as I did, she had more pity for his poor wife.

Finally, my preparations were almost complete, and I reached into my satchel for the final healing items: three of Mrs Evans's skystones. It was a rare thing, my direct handling of them, and as I wrapped my hand around each of them in turn and drew them out, I felt a tingle of apprehension run through my fingers and across my spine. To look at them, the skystones were hardly remarkable save in their colour: they appeared to be rough green rocks, each small enough that I could close my fist around them. But to feel them as I did at that moment...their power was unmistakeable, their otherness apparent, yet to me they also seemed as familiar as my own home.

Carefully, I slid Monsieur Peverell's pillow out of the bed; I set it aside, then placed the skystones as Mrs Evans had taught, with one beside each temple and the third just above the balding dome of his head. Then I dribbled the medicine I had prepared between his lips, settled myself at his side, and spoke the healing spell: "Consanesco."

It was a spell of Mrs Evans's, one she had devised and perfected years before I was born. It had come from her own power, her own mind, her own will; I could cast it, and I could feel its effect as it was channelled through the skystones and into Monsieur Peverell's body--but it contained only the tiniest fraction of the power I knew I had to offer. Even when I had cast it twice more, I knew it was of little consequence: my patient was far too sick, and this spell was insufficient. It frustrated me.

But as I sat at Monsieur Peverell's side, growing increasingly discouraged with each passing, changeless moment, I found myself staring at the skystone at the crown of his head: it was glowing. Perhaps it was a mere trick of the candlelight, but the incandescence that seemed to come from deep within the rock was enough to spark an idea. Immediately I closed my eyes and concentrated, trying not to think about how much time had passed already and whether Mrs Evans would be able to keep Madame Peverell away for the time I needed to make my attempt. Focusing all my attention on the man in the bed, I felt the power rise within me like a surge of clarity; I let it boil through my mind for a moment, let its weight press outward in my lungs as I drew breath. And then, riding the crest, I reached out and took hold of the topmost skystone and said, "Percuro."

The spell crashed out of my body like a tidal wave. For a moment I was swept along in its force, unable to find stability or control; I think I laughed, so caught up in the expression of my abilities that no other sound made even the smallest amount of sense.

And the next moment I returned to earth, to my body and the sickroom and the feel of blood on my hand where the skystone had shattered and sliced its shards into my skin. To the sight, when I opened my eyes and blinked away the afterimages of the spell's strength, of Monsieur Peverell sitting up and looking confused, with full control over his limbs and only the fading marks of what had once been the ugly brown sores on his body.

Triumph swelled within me just as the spell had. I wanted to jump up, run to Mrs Evans, tell her what I had done; I wanted to see the faces of the townspeople when Monsieur Peverell walked down the street as hale and hearty as if he had never been sick. I wanted the world to know that I had been born for this, for magic, and I wanted to feel the security of that certainty every moment I drew breath. The splinters of rock in my hand were painless and irrelevant, and when Monsieur Peverell turned his bewildered gaze on me I grinned with delight, and didn't notice the wild look widening his eyes. "You--" he stammered, staring fixedly and with an expression I did not recognize as mounting horror. "You--cured--I--"

I laughed again, and he flinched. "You are very welcome, Monsieur Peverell," I said graciously, sketching a partial bow from my seated position. I could freely take the credit; my powers insured my ostentation.

But he was shaking his head, his look growing ever fiercer, the expression in his eyes ever more aghast. "I did--I--I never thought--God save me, all those children--"

I was taken aback; clearly, he was only marginally responding to my presence. As well, he should have been the picture of physical health; instead, as I watched, he began shaking uncontrollably, his skin became mottled fiery and pale, and his eyes, though remaining more or less fixed on me, rolled crazily. Concerned, I reached out to place my hand on his forehead, forgetting momentarily about the rock shards cutting into my palm--but before I could touch him he had raised his own hand and grabbed mine in a desperate, squeezing grip.

At the moment of contact, I was transported. Suddenly I could see through Monsieur Peverell's eyes, feel the churn and strain of his mind, witness his thoughts and memories--and I was struck with vile revulsion by every second, every glimpse, every sensation of experience.

There were grasping hands and licking tongues. Sweat and tears. Cries and moans. Filthy bedlinens and dirt-covered floors. Teeth and fingers, calloused and smooth.

Little boys and little girls.

It was nightmarish, this parade of memories, and I was unable to escape. It was only when Mrs Evans pried his hand from around mine and pulled me away from the bed that the connection was broken; I came back to myself shivering and gagging in her arms, feeling more powerless than I had ever felt. My hand stung and burned, and I smeared my blood on Mrs Evans's sleeves as I clutched at her, fighting for balance.

Across the room, Madame Peverell was hovering over her husband. "He looks so much better," she said, half-turning towards us with a blank smile and terrified eyes. "His sores are gone and his eyes are open, but--but he does not see me. And he is...n-not awake?" Her hands wringing together in front of her, she stepped aside so we could see.

Monsieur Peverell lay flat on his back, his face slack, his body rigid. His eyes were indeed open, but they stared emptily at the ceiling. He did not blink. He did not twitch. His expression was one of frozen horror.

That evening, when I had recovered, I told Mrs Evans that I had cured him. "His body, perhaps," she replied, watching me with concern from the chair beside my bed. "But his mind, Isabelle..."

I thought of his confusion right after he came out of his stupor, and the wild despair and fierce disgust that had developed only with his greater awareness. I thought of how he had gone entirely catatonic only after having relived his memories with me.

"I cured him," I maintained.

*

A month after my visit to Monsieur Peverell, my father informed me I was to prepare for a stay at the convent in Albi.

Naturally, I was loathe to go. Leaving my craft, my friends, my responsibilities to Mrs Evans and the stones quest--it was untenable. If my experience with Monsieur Peverell had taught me anything, it was that I was growing into powers beyond expectation; the excitement of discovering the extent of those powers far outstripped any possible benefit I could conceivably gain from a year or more in cloisters. Besides, if I put my studies on hold for even a short amount of time, who was to say that I wouldn't lose the abilities I had already gained? Power, as Mrs Evans often said, was fickle; the obligation of constancy lay with those who would master it.

Unfortunately, my father had reason to be firm. Madame Peverell was not the sort of woman to disturb placid waters, and her husband's condition after my ministrations left her a freer woman than when he had been partially capable of interacting with his surroundings. Because of this, she said little as to how his new condition had come about--which left Mrs Evans and my reputations as healers, not witches, intact. However, the nature of gossip was such that the townspeople of Montmiral were soon whispering all manner of things behind their hands...and while Mrs Evans had been out of Monsieur Peverell's room for much of our stay, I had not. The rumours were harmless, barely a grain of truth to even the most conservative of them--but once they reached my father there was nothing to be done. Despite my attempts--and Mrs Evans's--to convince him I should be allowed to stay, the arrangements remained set, and my friends resigned themselves to my departure.

Two days before I was to leave, my father died. No one saw the accident; the hunting party had scattered itself throughout the densest copse on our estate, and Father had been alone when his horse apparently went mad, bucked him from its back and trampled him. The other members of the party, alerted by his shouting, came upon the scene in a tiny clearing: Father's horse stamped and brayed over his broken body, and behaved so crazily that it had to be shot before anyone could get close enough to determine that Father was beyond assistance.

After the funeral, I sought out my stepmother and informed her that I would not be going to the convent: "I am needed here. I don't expect you to understand; you didn't when you foolishly believed the nonsense stories that filtered to your ears from town, and you didn't when you convinced my father to send me away." I raised my chin, watching her face pale under its paint. "But if his death means anything to you, you will not oppose my decision to stay."

Mrs Evans helped me unpack that night. I felt the weight of her gaze even after she left.

*

The first man to share my bed was a labourer from Spain employed by one of the local farmers as a field hand. He was toiling near the road late one afternoon when Madeline, Briana and I walked past.

I came back for him at sunset. We walked to the estate in silence that lasted all the way to my bedchamber.

His skin radiated warmth from the day's sun. His hands pressed hard and brown on my white underclothes and pale skin. He smelled of sweat and wine, and tasted of dust. He moved raggedly. His mouth bruised my throat.

I was surprised by the pain.

When he left, our silence was still unbroken. When he was gone, I climbed out of bed and stood on shaking legs, pulling at the bedclothes until I freed the white sheet now stained with my blood.

The next day I cast a spell to try to locate the stones of knowledge. It was of my own design, and relied heavily on Mrs Evans's suggestion that the stones were the seeds of Eve's apple: the last remnants of pure knowledge and the vehicle of man's departure from innocence.

The spell did not work. I realized the stones had nothing to do with God.

*

Mrs Evans's illness came upon her gradually. A month before my sixteenth birthday, her chief complaints were of general weariness and a lack of concentration; largely unconcerned, she tied a skystone onto a bit of leather and wore it on her wrist, trusting that it would soon have her feeling well again. A month after my birthday, however, she had lost weight, colour, and the ability to leave her bed for more than a few brief minutes. The doctor could find no explanation.

The first day she found herself bedridden, she called me into her chamber. Propped against her pillows, she beckoned me to her side with an anxious smile and feverish eyes. "I have something for you, cherie," she said, taking a slender box from her night table and pressing it into my hands. Inside, I found a skystone polished to a shine and set in silver at the end of a thin chain. "I have perhaps been too incautious with my own health," she explained as I pulled the necklace free and let it dangle between us, "but you can still take steps to protect yourself. I commissioned this specially for you; wear it always, keep it close, and I believe all will be well."

I smiled indulgently. "But I am not sick, Mrs Evans."

She went quite still. "There are many kinds of sickness, Isabelle."

I wore the necklace. Mrs Evans continued to decline.

A week later, as I sat with her for an afternoon, she roused herself from a doze with the sudden question: "And how fares your spellbook, cherie?"

"What an odd question," I replied, setting aside the latest intelligence from the Duchess's estate. "It fares well."

"You have not let me read your progress in...oh, a very long time." Mrs Evans's voice was thickened by a tired rasp; she raised her hand to her mouth to cough, then let it fall to her throat where it clutched a little too needily at the cross on her necklace. Her smile fluttered on her wan face. "I should like to see that book. Perhaps together, we can sort out a remedy for this condition of mine."

"Perhaps," I said.

Mrs Evans worsened that night, so much so that in the morning she found herself unable to focus on detail work. As she had spent much of her confinement seeking comfort in her faith, she was severely disheartened to find that reading--even from her Bible--had become too taxing for her weakened eyes. In desperation she resorted to quiet prayer and meditation over her skystones.

It was I who read, perched at her bedside, the green stone she had pressed upon me with such hope hanging dull and pretty and of no concern at my breast.

*

As soon as it became possible for me to move into the cottage by the lake I did so, and lived there quite contentedly with Madeline and Briana. It was a beneficial arrangement for everyone involved: Madeline, who had been left in potentially dire circumstances by her mother's death, was able to continue living in the manner to which she had grown accustomed; Briana, whose social status had dictated that she should take a position of employment in another household, was allowed to remain among her friends; my stepmother, who had taken to hiding in her rooms with my stepbrother to keep a distance between us, was relieved to have me under another roof; and I could finally concentrate on searching for the stones of knowledge with my compatriots, without fear of discovery by those who would attempt to assert their authority over me.

We carried on our efforts unhindered for a number of months until, one morning, Madeline returned home from town ashen-faced, with news of a witch trial in nearby Montauban: "Sumner Scoville's niece was burned at the stake!"

Briana paled, and glanced about to make sure the servants were safely out of earshot. "But she was no witch!"

"Of course not. The Scovilles are the most pious and God-fearing family this side of the Pyrenees," I replied, without glancing up from my study of an inherited tome of Mrs Evans's. "Obviously, Clara-Marie had it coming."

My friends became increasingly fretful as Madeline relayed all the gossip on the matter from town, expounding upon the sensitivity of the local clergy to even the slightest suggestion of occult practises. For Madeline and Briana, whose magical skills were more than sufficient to invite trouble but not nearly enough to help them out of it, heightened suspicions and swift judgements among the local authorities were certainly cause for alarm. Finally, turning to me with anxious eyes and quavering voices, they suggested we stop our search for the stones of knowledge.

"Why?" I asked, without heat. "Because a handful of ignorant fools believes that magic is evil? That by using our talents, we are evil?" I stood abruptly; the others cringed away as if anticipating anger. "Do you truly believe that Mrs Evans--your mother," I added, nodding to Madeline, "taught us, encouraged us, to be wicked? Have you never thought?"

Briana took a half-step forward. "The trials, Isabelle--"

"Are the refuge of those too easily frightened by what they do not understand, and those too cowardly to accept it." I pointed at the book lying open on the table, filled with myths of the stones gathered from all over the known world. "We are better than those people because we have chosen to seek out the unknown, to take it in hand and claim it and bend it to our will. Once we have the stones, we need never fear that which we do not know because there will be nothing we do not know. And the power that will accompany such knowledge..." I smiled. "'God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.'"

"It was the serpent who said that," Madeline interjected, and I laughed.

"Precisely! And the men who try 'witches' like Clara-Marie Scoville claim to know who is good and who is evil!" Stepping close to Madeline and Briana, I took their hands in mine and gazed into their eyes with all the passion the idea of the stones kindled within me. "They know nothing. They have only the dimmest sense of how vast their ignorance truly is. In blind attempts to master their fear, they create words--words like 'good' and 'evil' with very precise definitions--and try to impose them on the chaos of their unknown. They try to use those limited, insignificant words to measure our actions, our intentions, even our souls. Good, evil...these are simple words with simple meanings created by simple men. When we possess the stones, what we've done will not matter: such pedantic definitions will be beneath us."

I could see the effect my words were having: Briana's cheeks were pinking with excitement, Madeline seemed to tremble with relief and possibility, and they both clasped hands with me tightly, as if anxious that letting go would mean being left behind. "Oh," Madeline murmured, "to be the betters of everyone in the world..."

"And to be free from all their merciless, joyless rules..." Briana said, awed.

Still smiling, I gave an elegant shrug. "Girls have been burned for less."

*

Given my previous resistance to the idea of leaving home, my stepmother was surprised when, at the beginning of my seventeenth year, I informed her that I had decided to spend a season or more at court in Paris. Of course, my reasons for wanting to go extended far beyond the desire for society and parties: Briana had long ago informed me that the Duchess's efforts had led her to commission numerous expeditions to places as far away as China and America, and now she was due to travel to Paris to receive their reports. Naturally, the success or failure of those expeditions meant as much to me as they did to the Duchess, and the most efficient way of learning their outcomes was to be in Paris when they were. As it was regular practise for young women of my age and station to join the courtly entourage in hopes of securing a husband--and as my true motives would certainly have given Stepmother pause--I felt no shame in pretending I was finally behaving as a young French countess should; how else was I to explain my sudden yearning for society?

Under her astonishment, my stepmother was clearly relieved to learn of my decision, and set about making arrangements immediately. Soon the details of my journey were set, including one of peculiar chance: as Stepmother loathed the very idea of being alone with me for an evening, much less an entire season in Paris, she had arranged for me to be chaperoned by another society lady, one who was familiar not only with Paris but with the usual members of court, one who conducted routine business across the country and would not balk at supervising a naive young countess on her first trip away from home.

In a singular stroke of fortune, I found myself chaperoned by Gertrude, Duchess of Beziers.

For all that my life to that point had focused on the Duchess, I had never before spoken with her, or even seen her close-to. When Stepmother introduced us on the morning we were to depart for Paris, I found her reserved, icily mannered, and almost painfully typical of her class and age. That such an ordinary woman would presume to consider herself worthy of the stones of knowledge...I maintained a veneer of the appropriate civilities, but inwardly I felt nothing but scorn.

The journey to Paris was uneventful; the Duchess conversed with me in a kind yet aloof fashion, and despite my attempts to gain details on her business in Paris, I learned nothing of particular substance. As I was sure she was entirely unaware of my ulterior motives, I set her distance down to general caution, and resolved to make better headway with the members of her expeditions.

Finally we arrived in Paris, settled ourselves in the Duchess's townhouse, and made our entrance at court--which proved to be quite as mercurially inane as I had anticipated. Fawning girls, arrogant men and opportunistic chaperones, all coated in perfumes, jewels and a patina of royal corruption; I played along, of course, laughing and flirting ebulliently while under the Duchess's eye, all the while waiting for opportunities to slip away and investigate her enterprises. Luckily, the Duchess seemed as disinterested in the goings-on at court as I was, and left me to my own devices after barely two weeks of playing her assigned role.

*

The first expedition to return to the port at Le Havre came from America, and to my knowledge--gained from subtle inquiries of the Duchess's servants, stealthy observations of her books and papers, and a certain amount of scrying--its voyage had been entirely unsuccessful. The Duchess's mood darkened considerably the day she met with that ship's captain only to send him away with an icily disappointed frown. Through my own discreet conversations with other members of the crew, I learned that the Duchess had sent them to the Spanish colonies to make a thorough search of the native peoples' temples and sacred places; however, they spent many months among the savage Aztecs and distrustful Spanish without finding more than the occasional odd symbol that only vaguely correlated with samples provided by the Duchess.

The intelligence I gained from the more obliging crew members allowed me to relax my guard somewhat: not only had the Duchess wasted a great deal of money on the fruitless American expedition, she was also no closer to obtaining the stones of knowledge. I, however, had learned of the mysterious symbols the men had been instructed to look for in connection to the stones; those who were able provided me with crude sketches, which I used to augment the spells of location and convergence that were the only possible search methods available to me.

We had been in Paris for almost three months before I met Maslin Egil in a low-ceilinged tavern near the Porte de Mot-martre. As I stood in the chill and darkness of the street and peered into the haze of brown smoke inside, I could just see him in the crowd around one table: he was a tall man, handsome, broad-shouldered and tanned, with dark eyes and an imposing ease and strength of movement. Beside him I seemed small, fragile--but I met his gaze and whispered in his ear and let my hands prove my strength under the table, and he clutched at me all the way upstairs to his room.

When we had finished, he dropped off to sleep--aided by the effects of drink and the charm I murmured as I rolled out of bed. I dressed quickly; then, standing in the centre of the cluttered and unclean room rented to the captain of the Duchess's expedition to China, I extended my hands and cast a finding spell: "Denudo lapis!"

It felt like standing in my bedroom, turning my head just so, and suddenly noticing the scene outside my window from an entirely new angle, or like reaching into a dark box and closing my hand around a cherished item I touched every day. It felt like a revelation of familiarity: the spell found a single ancient page filled corner to corner by a map painted in the elegant black strokes of an Oriental brush.

With a rush of triumph I took the map, noting the symbols painted along its edges, some of which I recognized as potent characters of magic. They sent a thrill of certainty through me, as if the familiarity of the symbols proved that I was now closer to my goal than I had ever been, as if the sensation of the spell proved that clearly it was I who was destined for the power of the stones.

I kissed Maslin before I left, and hungrily sucked the rotting acid taste of cheap ale from his tongue in celebration.

*

As was to be expected, the Duchess was greatly disappointed after her meeting with Captain Egil the next day. I had arranged to be at a hunt that afternoon--my victory would have been short-lived indeed had the captain seen me at the Duchess's house and alerted her to my whereabouts when her prize had vanished from his room--but my contacts among the servants were all too eager to report on their mistress's displeasure.

The Duchess informed me two days later that she intended to return to Beziers at the end of the week. She provided me with the option of staying in Paris--my charade of normalcy had been so effective that she was prepared to allow me to stay in her townhouse indefinitely--but naturally I declined, and requested instead to return to the south of France with her. Our return journey was characterized by the Duchess's sullen and silent introspection and my own--apparently aimless--impatient good cheer; it seemed interminably long. A fortnight later, however, I was reunited with Madeline and Briana, who shrieked and danced with delight when I showed them my trophy.

We set about trying to divine the secrets of the map right away. The temple depicted at its centre was clearly of Chinese construct, yet the symbols the Duchess had considered so important shared only the loosest similarities with the few examples we could find of Oriental writing in our books--and as the Duchess had told the members of her American expedition to look for similar symbols, it seemed unlikely that they were exclusively Asian. Although we began our study of the map with eager determination, the days soon passed into weeks without any reliable revelations, and we came to the inevitable conclusion: we had to travel to China and search out the map's location ourselves. It was a thrilling--and frightening--proposition, and we began planning at once.

We had barely begun making our inquiries when I started to feel unwell. Mornings were worst; the nausea came upon me almost as soon as I awoke, and while it did not linger as the day wore on, I felt persistently unlike myself. I developed a low tolerance for strong smells and tastes, and was prone to bouts of extreme fatigue, low spirits and ill temper.

I could have aborted the child, of course; its conception had been entirely accidental, and I had no aspirations to motherhood. But in the early months, my pregnancy did not interfere with our actions--in fact, it was nothing more than an occasionally irritating afterthought to our plans--and as I saw no truly convincing reason to terminate it, I let the matter stand. I would simply have to give birth during our journey. It would be an inconvenience, but perhaps having a child of my own flesh and blood would come to mean something to me someday.

But in the fifth month--two short weeks before we had arranged to travel to Le Havre and meet our ship--my condition worsened to the point that I could not leave my bed. I was weak, feverish; I bled, just enough to give me hope that the child was lost, but in the end, not enough.

Our voyage had to be postponed. My body had betrayed my destiny. I was furious.

Even though I was bedridden for the rest of my pregnancy, I refused to stop studying the map, my books, everything we had managed to scrounge on the stones, truth or fiction. Madeline, Briana and I spent days--and often whole nights--sequestered in my bedchamber, reading and scheming and performing whatever useless spells I could manage in my weakened state, trying again to unlock the meaning of the map without any real understanding of the terrain it might depict. When I exhausted myself, they would stretch themselves on either side of me and pet my swollen belly, their hands stroking reverently from my breasts to my hips, their mouths dropping kisses and murmurs of encouragement on my fevered skin.

The other way I spent my ample time was in devising an incantation that would force whatever governed the map to reveal its truth. To this end I studied, considered, and amalgamated many simple spells, carefully working out the qualities I required from each, creating from their components the necessary preparations and performance of the spell I needed. What I eventually created--each step, ingredient and technique listed and explained in excruciating detail in my spellbook--was a charm requiring far more power than I could access while pregnant, far more power than the combined efforts of Madeline and Briana could claim. The last month of my confinement felt more torturous than all the others together, as I was certain my spell was the key we had looked for so desperately, yet I was unable to cast it.

The labour pains struck during dinner one evening. Briana, her face flushed with excitement and a lopsided grin, hurried to the servants' quarters for supplies; Madeline, looking rather more solemn, crossed from her chair to my bed and took my hand in hers. "Please, Isabelle," she began hesitantly, catching her breath when I winced and writhed with a fresh wave of pain, "I know how strong you are, and I would not ask if you had not been so weakened for so long, but...let me bring you skystones for the birth."

"I am beyond them," I muttered, my mouth curled, my nails almost digging into her hand with the force of my grip. "You know that, Madeline."

"Of course..."

The pain lessened, eventually. As I fell back against my pillows, I blinked away unshed tears and saw the concern in Madeline's eyes, the paleness of her skin, the fragment of green stone she had taken to wearing--as nothing more than decoration, I had thought--after her mother's death.

I nodded, and was too distracted by a new, deepening ache to be disgusted by the speed with which she brought the rocks.

When my daughter was swaddled in a blanket and placed beside me shortly after midnight, every skystone was in slivers.

*

I took the child to the main house a week later; she fussed, making tiny fists and indignant noises as we waited in the front hall.

Stepmother met us after only a few minutes, her usual blank uneasiness informing her every movement. The bundle in my arms gave her pause, and for a moment not even the layers of paint on her aging face could disguise its look of panic.

"I call her Marie," I announced, holding out the wide-eyed child until Stepmother broke free of her paralysis and took her from me. "As long as you never send her away, try to prevent me from seeing her when I choose to do so, mistreat her, or teach her ill of me, you may call her what you wish."

I never wept for my decision. It was made more out of prudence than love, but one is no less a virtue than the other.

*

It was a clear autumn evening when we cast the spell I had created during my confinement. Madeline was unable to stand for more than an hour afterwards; Briana spent a similar amount of time shaking with fever and coughing blood into a basin.

I had never felt so exhilarated. The spell had required a massive expenditure of power from me as well as the others, but unlike them, I was exalted by the use of such formidable magic; my body thrived upon the act in performance, and afterwards I was left in a state of thrumming euphoria, as if my nerves were being constantly buffeted by the aftershocks of the power I had commanded. I could feel it behind my eyes, running through my veins, along my skin; I trailed sparks and glowing silhouettes on everything I touched for the rest of the night, and laughed with joy at the sensations--and the knowledge that I had succeeded.

I had mastered the power that governed the stones of knowledge. I had forced it to reveal the secret of the Chinese page. I had proved, yet again, that I was a product of destiny--and worthy of the great prize that destiny held in store.

I would travel to China and find at least one stone at the location depicted--not mapped, but depicted--on the page. That stone would be mine. And with time, so would all the others.

My rapture lasted well into the next day. Even as I was arrested, shackled and dragged to jail by the Magistrate's mob, I could not stop my laughter.

*

I was being held on suspicion of witchcraft. I was privileged with a cell of my own in Montmiral's tiny jailhouse; Madeline and Briana had to share theirs. Even as I had nothing to look at but the dank stone walls, and nothing to do but listen to the scrabbling of rats on the filthy floor, I felt a determined kind of serenity: I was certain that the situation in which I found myself was nothing more than another test, another challenge I was required to meet and overcome before I could resume my quest to fulfill my destiny. I had every intention of success. I simply had to find and exploit whatever opportunities presented themselves--or, failing that, make my own.

It was with great composure and a slight hint of graciousness, then, that I stood to receive the Magistrate when he finally arrived to deliver my formal charge. He watched me distrustfully as he spoke, his voice thick with loathing, his beady eyes darting over me in the flicker from the cell's lone candle.

There was to be a public trial--merely a formality--the next day. Madeline, Briana and I were to be presented as the wickedest of degenerates: immoral subversives, carnal temptresses of men and women alike, practitioners of the most unholy arts. There were witnesses willing to swear to my evil influence and predation on the poor, God-fearing citizens of Montmiral. There was evidence recovered from my home, not only of my sexual indiscretions, but of my magical consort with the Devil. There was no hope. I would be found guilty.

"There is but one way you can escape the pyre, Countess," he finished, turning to open the door. "If you care at all for your immortal soul, you will do as she asks."

I watched, perplexed, as he left. I had expected to be given a chance to renounce my so-called evil, to throw myself upon the mercy of the church and God, to beg for attrition in the cleansing lick of flame; the suggestion that my death was not necessarily the given outcome of these events was entirely unexpected. And who was this mysterious she...?

The entrance of the Duchess answered everything. The Magistrate, staying in the hall outside my cell, pulled the door closed behind her--not tightly, but enough that we were guaranteed privacy. I drew myself up, meeting her icy gaze with one of my own. "You told the Magistrate I was a witch."

She nodded. "And I can encourage him to be lenient if you tell me where you've hidden the map."

There seemed very little sense in prevarication. "How long has it been that you've known? Since Paris?"

"You are not as transparent as that." She offered me the barest curve of a smile. "I suspected I was unaware of your true motives for wanting to go to Paris, but I did not think to connect you with my own until a few days ago, when my lady's maid revealed in the course of idle chatter that you had given birth to a child, one that must have been conceived during your stay at court. As a matter of interest, I tried to remember your usual companions in an attempt to guess who the father might be--and it was then I recalled the story Captain Egil had provided to explain the loss of the artifact he had brought for me from China. I had requested a description of the young woman who had so easily seduced him; his inebriation that night prevented him from giving details, but the generalities suited you perfectly." She spoke with a mild kind of relentlessness, as if recounting the history of the world to an inattentive audience. "I had not even thought to suspect you at the time; with news of your pregnancy, however, I realized that perhaps I had been too trusting. A few casual inquiries enlightened me as to the rumours that have long been whispered about you and your friends, and I decided it was necessary to gain access to your home and belongings. Magistrate Wilkins was most attentive, and now..." She tilted her head in acknowledgement of our surroundings. "...here we are."

I nodded, and responded in the same mild tone. "And yet when you searched my home, you did not find the map."

"Give me time." She took a step closer. "Or give me the location of where you hid it."

Meeting her level gaze with my own, I said nothing. She would not find the page without my assistance, of that I was certain. The day I had been arrested, I had happened to glance out my bedroom window in time to see the Magistrate's rabble on the road to my cottage; the decision to hide the most important item in my possession--the page--was a matter of instinct, and I hurriedly magicked it into an old book I had taken from Father's--now Donatien's--library. The page now existed within a page of that book; its brushstrokes lay under the surface of the book's content, indistinguishable from the original illuminated text.

My silence stretched; finally, the Duchess's patience wore thin. "We found everything else. The Magistrate and the Bishop are in possession of your spellbooks and the instruments of your evil; I have every note you ever made on the stones of knowledge. There is no use in playing games, my dear. Tell me where you hid the map."

"If you have seen my spellbooks," I said, "you know the extent of my power. Arrange for my freedom, and I will not be forced to use it against you."

The Duchess wore her haughty composure as comfortably as she did her expensive gown and cloak. "I am a righteous woman, and will be made to fear no handmaiden of Satan."

I had hoped that I would not have to resort to magic to escape--at least, not the sort I was now trying to summon, which would leave no doubt as to the nature of my abilities and place me in an even more precarious position. But as I formed the incantation in my mind and drew breath to speak it, I found--to my great astonishment--that I could not access the power required to cast it. It was as if the source of my magical strength, which had always flowed with tidal force to my command, had been reduced to the barest trickle; I still possessed within me the necessary skills, but I had been cut off from the means of using them. I had never felt so powerless in my entire life; it was disorienting, bewildering--terrifying.

As I tried again and again to summon my powers, some expression or change of bearing must have alerted the Duchess to my growing consternation; her low laughter snapped my attention back to the cell. "I am a righteous woman," she repeated, raising her chin and peering down her nose at me with glittering eyes, "but I am also careful. Perhaps you did not hear me say that the Magistrate and the Bishop have your spellbooks?" When I continued to stare, she allowed a slow, harsh smile. "Or--can it be--you do not know that losing your spellbook to another's possession means the loss of your power?"

I was stunned. While the Duchess mocked my ignorance, all I could do was think of the evening so long ago when Mrs Evans had given me my spellbook: having witnessed the power I could wield with ease at the tender age of five, she must have been greatly alarmed--she had decided to take precautionary steps against me--by persuading me to write down my spells, she had tricked me into binding my power into an object that could be forcibly removed from my possession--or even destroyed--if she deemed it necessary. Madeline and Briana had never exhibited talents comparable to mine, and did not have books of their own--but having seen the closeness of our friendship and their ever-increasing awed loyalty to me, Mrs Evans must have concealed the true danger of spellbooks from them as well. Every day I had been reminded in some way of my natural superiority in matters of the occult; blinded by my own pride, I had faithfully made my treacherous transcriptions throughout the development of my abilities--and now that my book had been taken into the church's custody, I was left powerless.

The knowledge that Mrs Evans had been plotting against me almost my entire life was like a flame within me: it burned fast and hot and furious until I thought I could taste ashes on my tongue. She had to have known, even when I was five years old: without magic, I was nothing. I had nothing. No strength, no destiny.

No self.

The Duchess had stopped talking, and now watched for my reaction. As I looked at her across the cramped, shadowy space of the cell, I resolved that she would not have the satisfaction of provoking one; in the span of a deep breath I pushed my fury down, silenced its clamour, and forced calmness upon myself. In the span of another breath, I decided what I had to do.

When I finally spoke, my tone was pitch-perfect, inoffensive curiosity. "May I ask," I began, "why you have spent such large sums of time and money on your search for the stones?"

"You may ask," came her cautious reply, "but do not expect me to answer."

I regarded her thoughtfully. "Is it their power that entices you? You are a woman of stature: you are accustomed to having influence over others, having the ability to sway those of lesser station. I am the same; I understand how the having of power begets the desire for its increase. And I understand the limitless potential represented by the stones of knowledge." I stepped closer; then, veering slightly away, I began stalking a slow circle around her, my steps sharp and deliberate on the dirt-coated floor. "But what good is ultimate power, Duchess, if one lacks the capacity to use it? Ownership of the stones would be one thing, but...oh, being able to use them would be quite another."

My gaze remained fixed straight ahead as I crossed in front of her, but I could feel her eyes on me as she asked, "And how would you use them?"

"As they deserve to be used," was my immediate reply. "As befits the nonexistent boundaries of their potential. As they were destined to be used."

From the corner of my eye I saw the Duchess start, her head tilting intently in my direction. "You believe you and the stones share a destiny."

"I know it." Another step, and I came to rest in front of her again. I stood very close; our gazes locked unflinchingly. "And I might share it with you," I said softly, clearly, "if you set me free."

The silence before her answer pricked at my spine, my mind, my every nerve. I hated her, and I needed her; I dreaded the sound of her voice, but in my desperation to hear it I could almost convince myself that my offer was genuine.

Finally, she spoke. "You are a witch, Countess. It is God who must have mercy on you, not I."

*

From then on, everything I did was motivated by the certainty of my death. I told my inquisitors--in lavish, celebratory detail--about my evolution through magic and all it had allowed me to do. I reveled in telling fairytales of the stones, each more blasphemous than the others. I taunted my audience with the secret of what I had done with the Chinese page. I spat in the Bishop's face, refused to repent my sins and mocked his threats of damnation. I tried to seduce the Magistrate--I did seduce my guard--and received cuts and bruises on my back, thighs and face for my trouble.

For her success in finding such a formidable way to delay the fulfillment of my destiny, I cursed the Duchess and all her heirs, shouting condemnations from behind the locked door of my cell until my voice broke. My ravings, mad though they sounded, were meant to be taken quite seriously: though I could not have my retribution then, I would have it upon the Duchess's future generations--and with the passage of time, the fury of my revenge would amplify by magnitudes. Her line would, in the end, have a share in my destiny, just as I had promised.

My treacherous spellbook repaid a measure of its betrayal the night of my death. The Magistrate, in a final and foolish attempt to bribe my true knowledge of the stones from me, held it before me and even obligingly turned its pages until I was faced with the spell I needed. With the touch of my blood to that page, I was bound once more to my powers: it sealed the casting of both the curse upon the Duchess and the promise of my rebirth.

I was burned at the stake in 1604, barely a third of the way through my eighteenth year.

I died laughing to keep the mob from hearing me scream.

End.



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