The town of Pemblebury had settled down to silence after the bustle of market day. Only the taverns still rattled with the noise of drunken traders being pushed out the door after last drinks. Decent citizens were safely home tucked up in bed because the nights were no longer safe.
The king’s guards roamed the streets, occasionally looking up at the stone castle perched on the hill overlooking the town. None of them were game to go near it even if they could. Some soldiers had tried in the early days of the king’s reign and their burnt bodies were later found in the woods. The king himself had decreed that the castle be left to rot—nobody was to go in, nobody was to come out.
The grassy parkland surrounding the castle had grown lank and weedy. To the west the woods were still wild and untamed. To the north was the crystal clear water of Pemblebury sound. The town of Pemblebury surrounded the eastern and southern edges of the castle.
The captain of the guard stood at the edge of the town square and watched a couple of drunks staggering home. A curl of red hair crept out from under his hat. The darkness hid the cruel smile on his lips. He would have some fun with those two later, just like he usually did. Nobody would ever miss peasants like that and if a body or two turned up in Pemblebury Sound in the morning nobody ever asked any questions.
But right now he was scouring the streets for signs of magic. There were still pockets of witches hiding amongst the villagers. The captain of the guard prided himself on the ability to smell witchcraft. It left behind a tang that was disgusting to him. He barely remembered the night his mother died giving birth to his younger sister but he could still remember the tang of magic left behind as the healer tried to save her life. She failed, though, and ever since Aran had hated witches until he could feel it boiling inside him. It was that hatred that had made him flee to the north, away from the rule of the witch queen and her blasted magic goodness.
Aran spat on the ground. He was only ten years old when he had reached Glaston Rock and fallen in with thieves and murderers. Then he was taken one night by the prince’s recruiters and trained to be a killer. His hand stroked the sword attached to his side. He loved nothing more than killing witches—killing drunks just kept him in practice and satisfied his thirst for blood.
A burst of light hit the street as the tavern door opened again. A few more drunks stumbled onto the cobblestones. Sailors this time. Aran could tell by the way they walked, as though they were bracing their drunken legs against a rising deck.
Aran never missed anything that happened on the streets usually, but he didn’t notice the figure in the dark cloak pausing at the end of the alleyway. Even when he turned his head and looked toward where the figure was standing in the shadows he saw nothing.
The cloaked figure waited until Aran turned his head again and then it melted back into the darkness. Leaving the town square, the figure paused again by a row of workers cottages. The face was obscured by the cloak but its head turned as though it were sniffing the air. Then it moved quickly toward one of the cottages in the middle.
Aeilin and her husband were fast asleep. Neither of them heard the latch on their cottage door unfasten and the door creak slowly open. Only the sound of the husband’s snoring carried through the tiny room.
The cloaked figure waited a moment and then moved toward the sleeping child. Alyce pulled back the hood to reveal her long silver hair plaited into a knot on top of her head. She hesitated. Guilt ran through her body. Could she do this? Then she remembered her sister and silently knelt by the child’s bedside.
With her healing talents it was just as easy to steal a child’s magic as it was to cast her own magic. Alyce pressed her hands together until they were warm and then lowered them to hover above the child’s heart.
Instantly Alyce could feel the tingle of the little girl’s magic running through her fingers and up her arms. It felt so good.
She kept her hands steady until she could feel the magic start to wane. Suddenly she realised the girl’s eyes were staring at her in horror—but what disturbed Alyce the most was the vacant look in the girl’s eyes. They were empty.
Alyce’s heart was racing as she quickly ran from the cottage and melted back into the night. She didn’t stop until she had safely reached the secret entrance to the castle. She paused and looked up at the full moon. It was shrouded in dark cloud.
She started saying a prayer to the goddess but an image of the young child’s eyes popped into her mind. She stopped praying. Then she remembered how good it felt as the magic ran up her arms.
She needed so much more.
Alyce swept through the secret door of the castle.
The moon disappeared completely behind the clouds.