Witchstruckby Victoria Lamb
If she sink, she be no witch and shall be drowned.
If she float, she be a witch and must be hanged.
Meg Lytton has always known she is differentthat she bears a dark and powerful gift. But in 1554 England, in service at Woodstock Palace to the banished Tudor princess Elizabeth, it has never been more dangerous to practise witchcraft. Meg knows she must
If she sink, she be no witch and shall be drowned.
If she float, she be a witch and must be hanged.
Meg Lytton has always known she is differentthat she bears a dark and powerful gift. But in 1554 England, in service at Woodstock Palace to the banished Tudor princess Elizabeth, it has never been more dangerous to practise witchcraft. Meg knows she must guard her secret carefully from the many suspicious eyes watching over the princess and her companions. One wrong move could mean her life, and the life of Elizabeth, rightful heir to the English throne.
With witchfinder Marcus Dent determined to have Meg's hand in marriage, and Meg's own family conspiring against the English queen, there isn't a single person Meg can trust. Certainly not the enigmatic young Spanish priest Alejandro de Castillo, despite her undeniable feelings. But when all the world turns against her, Meg must open her heart to a dangerous choice.
The Secret Circle meets The Other Boleyn Girl in Witchstruck, the first book of the magical Tudor Witch trilogy.
Gr 8 Up—In 1554 England, Meg Lytton, 15, demonstrates an uncanny power for witchcraft that strengthens her relationship with the banished Tudor princess Elizabeth, yet also threatens their lives. Elizabeth yearns to discover whether she will ultimately become Queen in place of her half-sister, Mary. Will the current Queen die so that she can be crowned, or will Elizabeth be convicted for treason and hanged for abandoning the Catholic faith? Only Meg and her Aunt Jane can conjure a spell to reveal the answers Elizabeth craves. A well-balanced blend of magic and historical facts about 16th-century England will lure readers into an exotic and grim world. Witchfinders, men who mercilessly condemned innocent people, add danger to the plot while the arrival of a handsome stranger from Spain contributes romantic intrigue. Stark descriptions (e.g., "the lamb's entrails began to spill bloodily onto the floor") deliver images that are not easily forgotten. The most complex character in the book is the proud Elizabeth, who emerges as surprisingly vulnerable as she is valiant. Fans of all things "magick" will find themselves both enriched and bewitched by this first installment in a planned series. This commendable book should be a first purchase for most libraries; it will leave readers anticipating the sequel.—Etta Anton, Yeshiva of Central Queens, NY
Read an Excerpt
When the power falls on me, it buzzes in the warm, dark spaces of my skull. It stings like nettles at the tips of my fingers. The power is a fever I have felt since early childhood, a heat in the blood that leaves me flushed and unsteady, dreaming in daylight. My aunt once told me the power came from being born on the spring equinox under the martial sign of the Ram, with baleful Saturn rising. And truly my power is often strongest when Mars and Saturn clash in the heavens, as they did the day I was sent to serve the imprisoned Princess Elizabeth. Yet on that occasion I was unable to influence my own fate.
I felt the power that evening of the full moon in June though, sitting cross-legged in the ruins of the old palace at Woodstock. I stared across the candlelit circle at my aunt's narrow, slant-eyed face and hungered to be a witch, just like her.
Aunt Jane leaned forward, her fair hair wild and unbound about her shoulders. With her witch's dagger, a black-handled athame, she cut a jagged gash across a dead lamb's belly.
"By Hecate," she chanted under her breath, widening the gash with her fingers until the lamb's entrails began to spill bloodily onto the floor, "by our Lady of the Forest, strengthen our spell tonight. Let this dumb creature answer the question: Shall the Princess Elizabeth be Queen?"
Beside me, Elizabeth shuddered. The lamb had been dead three days and the smell from its innards was disgusting. Her pale, bejewelled hand gripped mine compulsively.
Though the princess was five years my senior, tonight I knew more than her, for this was her first attendance at a moon ritual. Elizabeth looked younger than her twenty years, even if the dark shadows under her eyes suggested otherwise. Yet she held herself very regally considering her recent stay in the grim Tower of London, accused of conspiring with the rebels against Queen Mary. Half-sister to the Queen, Elizabeth always looked as though she were holding court in one of her own great houses, when in truth she was little better than a prisoner in this ruined old palace in the middle of nowhere. Her gown of black velvet, no doubt splendid when new, looked worn and dowdy as she kneeled in the dust beside me. Yet the princess did draw the eye with the elegant length of her neck, and her hairfair, though with a strong reddish glintwhich peeped out from under her hood.
Her small dark eyes, hooded like a hawk's, were staring fixedly at my aunt through the smoke. Her mouth was also small, pinched at the corners, and her high forehead spoke of tremendous learning, though she knew little of the witch's craft her own mother had been accused of practising.
"Is the magick not working?" the princess demanded, her voice sharp with frustration.
"Hush, my lady, give it time." I looked back at my aunt, the fine hairs on my neck rising in horror. My head was spinning in the fragrant smoke from the candles, my mouth uncomfortably dry. Already I could see the blank stare of my aunt's eyes as the spell worked its magick on her. Soon Aunt Jane would fall into a trance and there would be no chance of questioning her after that. The princess squeezed my hand again and I spoke, catching her urgency. "What do you see in the lamb's innards, Aunt Jane?"
"I see a coronation," my aunt replied in her hoarse voice. Slowly, with delicate, bloodied fingers, she probed the slimy coiled intestines of the lamb. Its liver glistened in her hand and she bent over it, staring. "I see good fortune following bad, and a reward for long years of patience. I see the Lady Elizabeth walking through a great doorway with a crown on her head, and all the people on their knees."
"But what of my sister?" Elizabeth demanded. The exiled princess sat back on her heels, her face pale and tense, her usual caution abandoned. "Is the Queen going to die? When will my coronation come to pass?"
My aunt did not reply. She trembled, swaying where she sat, lost in the grip of prophecy.
"There is danger for all of us," she managed at last. Her voice grated in the silence. "No one is to be trusted. Beware a traveller who comes over water, over land."
Elizabeth and I both stared at her in horror, unable to move. Danger for us all? Then something tugged at the far edges of my hearing and I stiffened.
Turning my head, I caught the echo and scrape of booted footsteps downstairs in the old palace. Then the sound of a man whistling to keep away the spirits of the dead.
The Lady Elizabeth had heard him too. She looked round at me apprehensively, her eyes darker than ever. "It must be one of Bedingfield's guards, making his patrol. We must leave at once. I can't be seen here."
"Better to wait until he's gone, my lady."
"The fire!" My aunt suddenly gasped, terrifying me. "The fire it burns me!"
The vision in her head must have changed, for her thin face had contorted with horror. My aunt's watery blue eyes were no longer staring at the bloody coiled innards, but over my head. She lifted her shaking finger to point, as though someone was standing behind me in the shadows. I glanced back over my shoulder, unnerved. But the three of us were alone in the dusty room.
Then my aunt gave a sudden, high-pitched cry and fell backwards on the soiled floorboards. She began flailing about and shaking as violently as the village idiot in one of his fits.
I gawped at her like an idiot myself, momentarily lost for what should be done.
"Keep her quiet!" the Lady Elizabeth urged me, her eyes wide with panic. "The guard will hear us!"
Tripping on the hem of my gown, I scrabbled round to where my aunt still lay thrashing, spittle on her lips, her eyes almost white in the shadows.
"Hush, Aunt Jane, for pity's sake," I told her urgently, my heart thundering at the possibility that we might be discovered. I stroked the hair back from her face, hoping to comfort her, and leaned close to her ear. "One of the princess's guards is downstairs. He may hear you."
For a moment I despaired of silencing her. But some grain of sense must have filtered through, for Aunt Jane's wild tossing gradually slowed and then ceased altogether. Her body lapsed into a kind of restless unconsciousness in my arms.
Shivering now, I stared about the old palace chamber. If we were caught here tonight, with these unholy instruments strewn about, we would be accused of witchcraft. And rightly so, for we were far from innocent. Even the princess would face execution if discovered like this, as her poor mother had gone to the block when Elizabeth was but a small child. Being the Queen had not saved Anne Boleyn from an accusation of witchcraft, any more than being of royal blood would save her daughter now.
I looked at the Lady Elizabeth. She was still on her knees, frozen in shock.
"My lady," I said softly, "these candles must be put out and all traces of the circle rubbed away before we leave. Will you help me?"
Elizabeth nodded, though I could see she was badly frightened. She leaned forward and began frantically rubbing at the circle my aunt had drawn in the dust, her hands soon filthy.
Ignoring the foul stench, I dragged the bloodied lamb back to the sack and pushed it inside, along with its entrails. My aunt's soiled knife lay on the floorboards beside her. The cup of ceremonial wine we had shared was empty now but its dregs were still potent if anyone should think to taste them.
Downstairs, the whistling had stopped. I listened intently for a while, but could hear nothing.
"Meg?" my aunt moaned, stirring as she came back slowly to herself.
I looked down into that white, drawn face. What had caused Aunt Jane to lose control like that? I had never seen her so wild. Perhaps she was growing too old to control the spirits we had invoked. I rubbed her hands gently between my own to warm them, as though she were the child and I her guardian.
"Better now?" I asked my aunt softly. "Are you able to walk? We must get out of the palace."
"No," she groaned, pushing me away. "Not yet. The spell was not finished in proper fashion."
Struggling weakly to her knees, my aunt cast about for her instruments. Then she saw the circle erased and the candles extinguished.
"Why have the candles been put out?" she demanded. "Where is my sacred knife? Help me. We must appease the spirits."
"Aunt, there is no time to relight the candles. We must return to the lodge before they discover that the Lady Elizabeth is missing. If anyone should find us with these"and I indicated the remains of our magickal work"it will be we who burn. Don't forget the Lady Elizabeth is a prisoner under threat of death. If her sister the Queen should ever hear of this "
Aunt Jane seemed to grasp the truth in what I said, the crazed light slowly fading from her face.
"Yes, you are right," my aunt agreed reluctantly, and began to gather up her various tools instead. "But the spirits will not be happy."
I helped her tidy the last objects away, cleaning her ceremonial knife before wrapping it in its stained leather sheath.
Flashing me a weary smile, my aunt tucked the knife inside the bodice of her gown. "You are a good girl, Meg," she whispered. "If only my sister could have been more like you. But she had no time for the power once she met your father, only for marriage. And look where that brought her. To an early grave, never to see her daughter grow up so gifted and fair."
"I'm hardly fair, aunt."
She laughed then. "Fair to me, Meg. And you do have beauty of a sort"
I shushed her, holding up a hand. I shot a warning look at the Lady Elizabeth too, who had stood up now and was shaking the dust from her skirts. I had heard a faint sound from the other side of the thin wall. No whistling this time, but the quiet protesting creak of a floorboard.
My skin crept in warning. I felt certain that someone was outside the chamber, listening to our conversation. Yet when I crept to the door on tiptoe and looked out through a crack in the wood, there was nobody there. All I could see was the dark, empty corridor and the stairs down to the ruined great hall, lit with pale patches of moonlight.
Elizabeth came silently to my shoulder. "What is it?"
"I thought I heard " I shook my head. "Nothing. It was just my imagination. We must return to the lodge without being seen. My aunt will walk home across the fields. Are you ready, my lady?"
Elizabeth nodded, but looked petulant. "I wish we had not been interrupted tonight. I want to hear more of this vision of my coronation."
"Perhaps we should wait a few months before meeting again, my lady, just to be sure we are not being watched. Sir Henry Bedingfield will be suspicious if we are caught out of bed at the full moon."
"Bedingfield may be my gaoler," Elizabeth snapped, "but he's a round-faced fool and can prove nothing. Besides, why should I not seek knowledge through magick? To know the future is a mighty weapon for a princess." She gave me a sharp stare. "Your aunt will visit us again at the next full moon. I wish to hear more of her vision. Though we can meet in the forest behind Woodstock if you find the old palace too dangerous."
I curtseyed, recognizing the determined note in the Lady Elizabeth's voice. "Yes, my lady."
Cautiously, I opened the door a few inches and peered out, listening for any signs that we were not alone.
The ruined palace was an eerie place to walk at night, room after empty room draped in deep shadows. My aunt carried her instruments and the blood-stained sack containing the dead lamb. I knew she would have to bury it in the forest before making her way home. We descended the staircase, the only sounds the swish of our skirts against the crumbling walls and the faint cooing of a wood pigeon in the rafters above us.
I thought of what my aunt had said about my mother. Catherine Canley had been a beautiful lady of the court, my aunt had always told me, who had given up her power as a witch to marry my father and bury herself alive in this remote corner of Oxfordshire. My unmarried aunt had come to live with her and my father as a companion, and had stayed on after her death to care for me. I could not remember much about my mother, for Catherine Canley had died of pneumonia when I was only five years old. Whenever I thought of her, I had a vision of laughing blue eyes and a rustle of silk as a woman bent to pick me up. But I could not even be sure that was a true memory of her.
There were no portraits of my mother in our house, or none that I had seen. It hurt me to think I could not even remember her face. However, I have never been a girl to cry, but rather to nurse hurts deep inside in silence. Besides, I had my dear Aunt Jane to love and hold, and thought of her as my mother instead, the woman who had cared for me and secretly taught me her craft once I was old enough to cast a spell.
I parted with my aunt at the side entrance, kissing her fondly, and we met no more guards on our way back to our dilapidated rooms in the old palace lodge. The lodge was where the princess had been installed on her arrival at Woodstock, for the palace itself was deemed too ramshackle to be inhabited, with part of the roof missing in places and the whole building unsafe. The lodge itself was little better though, a damp heap of stones barely warmed by the fireplaces which smoked incessantly, bats living in the eaves, the rooms dark and cramped with most of the narrow windows open to the wind and rain. Though at least the weather had been good to us this past month. The summer night was still and warm now, a fleeting hint of lavender on the air from the kitchen courtyard.
At the back door to the lodge, I caught Elizabeth glancing back at the ruined palace, her face pale and wide-eyed. Yet despite her fear, there was always a calmness about Elizabeth, as though she stood constantly at the centre of a storm.
I was a little scared myself, truth be told. But I was accustomed to fear. Ever since I had first discovered my power, I had wanted to be a witchjust as other girls my age wanted to be wives and mothersand not even the threat of death could deter me from that path, now that I was finally beginning to test the extent of my powers.
When I was seven years old, out on a walk with my older brother, our nurse had given us a scolding for hiding among the bushes. Suddenly, a rook had swooped down, screaming and flapping great black wings, and begun to peck at her eyes. We all ran back to the house, pursued by the furious bird, and no one was hurt. But my nurse avoided scolding me after that, even crossing herself whenever I looked at her sideways.
That was when I first knew that I was different from other girls, and over the years I grew determined to discover just how much power I possessed. I could never forget that the punishment for witchcraft was the most painful of deaths. Yet it seemed like death to me to own a gift and never use it out of fear.
Meet the Author
Victoria Lamb lives in a farmhouse on the wild fringes of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, England, with her husband, five children and an energetic Irish Red Setter. She writes poetry and fiction as her day job, and is addicted to social media. On dark nights she has been known to sneak out onto the moors and howl at the moon . Visit her website www.victorialambbooks.com or chat with her on Twitter, where she answers to @VictoriaLamb1.
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