Another excerpt from “Maiden In Light”

Laurel follows her uncle one night to discover what goes on during the wizard’s secret vigils:

After sunset on Midsummer eve, as twilight deepened, Laurel hid and waited impatiently in the shadowed thickets of the chapel garden.

From her first days at the castle, she’d watched Lord Redmantyl go out on the nights of Equinox and Solstice, on May Night, Maryemas, Candlemas, and All Hallows, and she wondered each time where he went. The wizard would never tell. If she looked out of her dressing-room window in the late hours, she sometimes saw strange, glowing lights out on Greenwaters Island—the unnatural color of wizard-fire. Something spectacular was happening and she was eager to discover what it was. Her uncle’s promises that she would understand when she was a wizard herself did not satisfy. She sensed a tantalizing, ominous truth behind this mystery. Her training told her that she was being prepared for great vigilance. Each exercise indicated a magical purpose which required enormous power uncontaminated by external influences. She was armed as a knight errant for battle, but against whom? What foe did she defend herself against? Wizard’s Keep was the key.

She couldn’t wait until she became a wizard; she must know now.

Lord Redmantyl disappeared down the dark road. Laurel climbed over the low wall at the edge of the green and crept through the forest, keeping a safe distance behind. If she was discovered, she knew, he would send her back and be more cautious if she attempted this trick again. She would never have another opportunity such as this. She dove into the bushes as he turned- No, not to find her, but to look up at the sky. A full moon was rising.

Two, three, five miles, they walked past the neighboring farms until she no longer knew how far they traveled. Lord Redmantyl left the road to cross a meadow; Laurel crept behind, keeping low in the tall grass. They passed through woods so thick with bushes and brambles that Laurel soon lost her way in the tangle. The trees closed in, leaving her without a hint of light. Her breeches were torn and her bare arms and face scratched. Her heart beat loudly with fear and frustration and her magic shone on her skin so that she was certain he must see her if he were anywhere nearby. She was about to turn back through the hindering darkness when a silvery gleam flashed before her. She found him.

The wizard had entered a broad clearing without a blade of grass nor pebble, ringed by a circle of small standing stones. Here, the light was bright. Laurel watched as Redmantyl cut a circle in the dirt, a pentacle so large that it filled the clearing, and in the pentagon at the center of the huge five-point star, a smaller star, a pentagram. Now and again, he paused in his work to check the position of the moon. Laurel, concealed in the underbrush, glanced up also. It had risen during their walk, and she knew from her astronomy that it would soon reach its zenith in the dark sky.

The weaving of his spells completed, Redmantyl seated himself in the inner pentagram like a tailor, legs folded beneath him. He brought twists of white linen, a small silver chalice, and a knife—she saw the glint of the blade as he set it before him—from the pockets of his mantle. The contents of the linen packets were poured into the chalice and, knife at his left wrist, eyes up to the rising moon, he waited. Silent minutes passed. Even the crickets were quiet. Laurel watched through the trees. She didn’t see a change in the sky, but she knew that the wizard must be aware of the precise time. The moon crept slowly up toward the appropriate point overhead.

The moment arrived. He cut the side of his wrist; blood spilled into the chalice, onto the dirt about it. A sudden flare shot upwards, a tall spire of flame, then died down and left only its heat. Radiance shone through the silver cup, pulsating with furious energy. Laurel felt its intensity from yards away.

The wizard bandaged his wrist with one of the linen scraps and rested his loosely clenched hands on his knees. Bathed in his own glamour, a softer glow than moonlight or fire, he intoned a chant, words spoken so softly that Laurel could not hear them. Long minutes passed. Redmantyl remained unmoving, his whispered song unceasing. Laurel waited, wondering if there was no more to the ceremony than this. It had been a fascinating thing to see, but surely her uncle didn’t need to be so secretive. Where was the terrible battle she had sought? Where was the foe?

A horrible thought occurred to her: Were all the rites of wizardry a game that magicians played to justify their own power? Was her apprenticeship without meaning? Her magic a sport? Could spellcraft truly be no more than a collection of rituals enacted through long centuries by fools who didn’t know their original purpose? Was this all there was?

Laurel refused to believe it. There must be meaning. She was here, and she would stay until the vigil was finished. Shifting ever-so slightly, to avoid disturbing the entranced wizard, she tried to make herself comfortable amid the damp dead leaves and twigs of her covert. She’d come to satisfy her curiosity and must see this adventure, disappointing as it was, through.

The night went on, warm and windless, in unnatural silence. Lord Redmantyl’s breath fell rapidly and his fists clenched, but Laurel didn’t see. She was near sleep, when she was suddenly aware of a shadow cast over her.

She started up. No one was there. She looked to the pentacle; Redmantyl had gone. Yet he was here. She could sense his presence nearby. She felt another presence too, strong, about her. The sensation overwhelmed her. It was-

It touched her—a thing alive somehow, yet not human, nor beast nor plant. It was nothing she could understand, only hunger and a sort of glee as it pressed in to quiet her beating heart and numb the edges of her mind with icy cold and the black of endless night. Still, there was no one.

She screamed.