Northern England, 1390
A scream erupted from Clare’s lungs before the guard carrying her clamped a hand over her mouth. Two men dragged her along the halls of the dank castle in her nightgown, their hands bruising her arms as her bare feet struggled to find purchase on the cold stone floor. They’d dragged her out of bed from the servants’ quarters, not speaking a word to her as they wrestled her away. They came to a heavy dark wood door—Clare recognized it as the entrance to the duke’s study, though she’d never been on the other side of it—and one of the men released his hand over her mouth and shouldered it open.
The duke’s study was dark as the night sky outside, with bookshelves looming over her. The duke stood by a priest, whose eyes darted to her filled with worry.
“Please, sir, I’ve done nothing wrong!” she cried as the duke met her eyes. Tears streamed down her face, now flushed with heat at the thought of these men seeing her in her flimsy white nightgown. The guards threw her to the ground, and she yelped as her knees hit the stone floor. She caught herself on her hands, pale and trembling in the darkness of the study.
She looked up at the duke as the guards yanked her upright. Her shins ached under her, pressed to the cold stone as she wiped her sweating palms on her nightgown.
“Sir?” she began. He ignored her. The duke was not a kind man, but not cruel either. He had little patience and a short temper, but he treated his servants fairly enough. Clare had caught him eyeing some of the girls who worked for him, though she’d only rarely been the target of his predatory gaze. So why was she here, in his study, in the middle of the night? And with a priest and guards at her back?
She looked down at her knees, gripping the thin lace of her nightgown in her fists; underneath her, thick painted lines crisscrossed along the floor. Glancing over her shoulder, she could make out five points painted within the circle that surrounded her. Black candles as big around as her bicep stood at each point, unlit. She recognized the symbol on the floor under her from attending Mass, the warnings of Hell drilled into her. She’d seen it in murals depicting sinners and vagrants being tricked by cruel monsters clawing their way up from cracks in the earth.
Her heart pounded in her chest. A pentagram.
Outside the pentagram, the guards poured salt in a ring around her; it dug into her hands as it bounced across the stone. The duke stepped forward, clasping his hands behind his back. Clare stared up at him, her eyes wide with fright.
“Let’s begin,” he said. His eyes stayed on her, but the priest stepped toward the duke, opening a leather-bound book. Nervously, the priest spoke, something in Latin that Clare could not understand. As he went, Clare’s trembling worsened. She clasped her hands on her lap with white knuckles and bent forward, her hair spilling in a curtain to the sides of her face. She shut her eyes, quickly muttering the Lord’s Prayer through a throat that ached closed with sobs. Her prayer helped minutely to drown out the wary Latin the priest spoke. He held a crucifix in one hand, the rosary beads wrapped tightly around his fingers.
Clare’s breathing turned shaky as she muttered the prayer over and over, wishing she had her own crucifix and rosary beads in her hands. The guards had neglected to get it for her when they’d dragged her from her bed.
The priest finished, and as she continued to murmur, a heavy silence fell over the men watching her. Slowly, the candles at the points of the pentagram began to burn, the flames starting small. Clare didn’t notice beyond her eyes shut tight, still praying.
She only stopped her prayer when a shadowy hand reached around behind her and sliced her throat open.
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