* * *
“It is time for me to die.” Sofie’s delicate hands slid up Elijah’s chest to slip behind his neck.
“And if you are wrong …” Unable to finish the sentence, his voice trailed off.
“I am not wrong!” she snapped. The copper-haired spitfire was always quick to temper.
He pulled away and moved to stand at a nearby window, to gaze upon the bustling nightlife beyond the castle walls. Rarely did he envy the commoners. Tonight, though, as he watched horse-drawn carriages roll along cobblestone streets, shuttling passengers home from frivolous celebrations and too much ale so they could hump their partners with reckless abandon, his jaw tightened with resentment. Why couldn’t his problems be so trivial?
Briefly, Elijah allowed his attention to stray to the square where the pyres beneath the charred remains of three women still smoldered. It had been the largest culling in the region yet, the flames stoked by the bishop in his fervent quest to save humanity from witchcraft. This time, the church cited the plague of vole that ravaged the year’s harvest as evidence of these women’s guilt. Next time, they would find proof of Satan’s wicked hand in a contagion that stole children, or a flood that drowned crops.
There was more truth to it than the portly bishop realized. But Elijah knew the church was motivated not by rooting out the cause of evil as much as its bid to maintain power in a time when a new house of worship was rising.
And this lunacy was spreading.
As Count of Montegarde, Elijah’s influence over the church was limited. Still, he could have stopped today’s massacre. He could have slipped into the yawning shadows of the bishop’s residence and snapped the neck of that sanctimonious prick leading the charge. But his untimely death would only stir inquiry and embolden the masses. Another would quickly ascend into his place, more women would perish atop a bed of flames, and soon attention would turn to these stone walls and the peculiar nobility who arrived overnight, staking claim.
From there, the whispers of heresy and evil would grow legs and teeth. It would be only a matter of time before a frenzied mob congregated outside the gates with pitchforks and swords, and Elijah and Sofie were forced to flee like rodents, to start anew elsewhere.
He knew this pattern well. He had lived it in one form or another many times over.
And so Elijah sat idly by within his comfortable castle and listened to the shrieks of the women as they burned.
Sofie glided over to his side and lifted a finger to push a stray lock of hair off his forehead. “I cannot exist like this anymore, hiding in the shadows and waiting for certain doom.”
“Do not worry about those zealots, my love.”
“Adele did not worry, and look what happened to her,” she reminded him somberly of her dearest friend who relocated to London, whose charred corpse Sofie wept beside last spring. He needed no reminding, though. That night, alight with raw fury, Sofie had razed the abbey responsible for Adele’s death, including its occupants, with nothing more than a flick of her wrist. In all his years on this earth, Elijah had never seen such power. It was both awe-inspiring and terrifying.
He had quickly ferried her sapped body away before too many witnesses could place her at the slaughter. Still, the last messages received from abroad were worrisome. The Casters’ Guild knew Sofie was behind the massacre and sought severe penance for her sedition. Meanwhile, the humans hunted for a witch with hair the color of the devil’s flame. Already, four victims matching her description had perished for her crime.
He could not fault Sofie for avenging Adele’s death. The two shared a childhood of dashing along Paris’s narrow passageways between lessons, and later, youthful nights dancing through the streets, enchanting suitors as much with their alluring beauty as their mettle. Sofie’s heart was ardent and her loyalty eternal. Unfortunately, when wounded, her emotions engulfed her need for self-preservation.
Elijah sighed. “Adele was not careful. Besides, I would never allow any harm to come to you.”
“And what of time? Will you stop that too?” Sofie knew where to aim her words to inflict the sharpest ache. “The madness calls to me even now, at this very moment. I do not know how much longer I can deny answering it.”
He flinched, dropping his gaze to the majestic oak in the courtyard garden, dressed for autumn, a scant breeze rustling its golden leaves. Winter’s bite hinted in the air. It would arrive within a fortnight, stripping the tree’s beauty and imposing rest upon the earth. Sofie despised that long, dreary period, but Elijah found comfort in the visible passage of time.
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