Chapter 27: A Play of Power


The deep tenuous roar of the crowd filtered around Carina’s loud gasping breath as she stepped hesitantly. Each step a cauldron of anticipation and fear as if she might carelessly break some magical connection she did not understand, and the familiar young woman before her might then disappear like an apparition who never existed.

‘Jade? Is that—is it really you?’

The screaming infant, which dangled out of Jade’s restrained reach, snapped Carina from her mesmerizing thoughts. Her confusion quickly smothered beneath the stench of death that lingered in the air and echoed in the child and mother’s frantic cries.

“My Lady.” Jordan caught her arm firmly.

“No—wait!” Carina protested tensely. ‘That’s Jade’s baby—I have to do something!’ She pulled against the knight’s grip as one of the three witch hunters carried Jade’s baby past them—towards the well.

‘The well? No!’

“Sir Jordan, stop him!” Carina commanded desperately.

To his credit, Jordan did not hesitate to follow her order. He released Carina’s arm with a grim look of determination and charged after the screaming infant. Acheron quickly rolled to his feet and followed behind, bellowing, “Don’t you dare harm that child!”

The other two witch hunters, realizing their comrade was about to be overwhelmed, abandoned their torment of Jade and swiftly ran to his aid.

Carina hurried towards the fallen woman and offered her hand. “Here, let me help you.”

Jade flinched and smacked Carina’s hand aside as she stumbled to her feet then rushed towards the scuffle of men. “Please, give me back my baby!”

‘She doesn’t recognize me?’ Carina felt a twinge of pain as she followed behind her friend. ‘Of course, she doesn’t. I’m Maura now.’

Jordan gripped the kidnapping witch hunter in a chokehold while Acheron latched onto the arm that held the wailing child. Jade attempted to pry the hunter’s grip open while Sir Basil kept the other two witch hunters at by with his loaded crossbow.

“What is the meaning of this?” A witch hunter growled as he eyed the cross-bolt aimed at his chest. “Why is a knight interfering with our inquisition.”

“Sir Jodan is following my orders,” Carina replied curtly. “This woman and her child are not part of your inquisition.”

The witch hunters turned their attention towards her, and Carina flinched, half expecting their magical piercing gaze to see past the Winter Rose and uncover her identity in a heartbeat.

“And who—is this wench?” growled the witch hunter pinned between Acheron and Jordan. The knight yanked his arm against the man’s neck harshly in response. With a strained gasp, the hunter’s knees buckled and hit the ground.

“The Baroness of Averly, Lady Maura,” answered the Mayor as he moved hesitantly to Carina’s side. “What are you doing, Baroness?” he asked in a panicked whisper as he leaned towards her. “I told you—we can’t interfere.”

“Does this woman and her child belong to the church?” Carina demanded.


“No!” Jade sobbed. “I only went into the church for shelter last night.”

‘She only arrived last night—then if I hadn’t come today?’ Carina shook the thought aside as she faced the witch hunters. “Seeking shelter does not make her church property. What right do you have to detain her and harass her child?”

The second witch hunter, the smaller of the two, turned from Sir Basil to Carina and scoffed. “She’s a foreigner. A vagrant with no papers and no background to speak of.”

“So, the church uses its sacred inquisition as an excuse to harass homeless women and babies now?” Carina countered with a sneer. “Or are you saying this woman and her child are witches?”

“And if I said they were, what would you do about it, Baroness?” the witch hunter sneered back.

Carina smiled coldly as she walked past him, untied Jordan’s cloak, and placed it around the trembling Jade’s shoulders. “You are a foreigner, Miss?”

“I—” Jade’s eyes danced over Carina’s face curiously “—I am a far way from home.” Her voice broke for a moment, and then she seized Carina’s wrists tightly. “Please help us. We aren’t witches. I don’t even know how I got here. I—”

“Hush,” Carina murmured as she squeezed the young woman’s hand. “I will protect you, but I need you to trust me.”

“You—you are the Baroness of this place?” Jade asked uncertainly.

“Yes,” Carina confirmed quickly. “And I would like to invite you to stay in Averly, as one of my subjects. If you swear your fealty to the royal family and myself, then I can protect you. Will you do that?”

“You dare—to defy the church?” The pinned witch hunter growled past Jordan’s arm.

“Yes, I swear! I’ll swear to anything—” Jade dropped to her knees before Carina. “—Please save my baby!”

“I will,” Carina answered with renewed confidence and determination as she pulled Jade back to her feet. “What is your name?”

“Jade, Jade Hoffman!”

‘It is you!’

Carina smothered her excitement as she turned to the struggling witch hunter held by Acheron and Jordan and raised her voice. “Miss Jade Hoffman is now under the protection of the Baroness of Averly. She was never the property of the church and is, therefore—beyond the scope of your investigation.”

“Oh, a few pretty words, and this wench thinks she can tell us what to do—Arugh!” The witch hunter grimaced as the knight ground his heel into the man’s calf.

“Keep disrespecting the Lady and see where that gets you,” Jordan warned.

“Yes, by all means, continue to challenge the Lady Maura’s authority,” Acheron growled over the still screaming baby. “I’m sure the Crown Prince would be most interested to hear of this along with the rest of today’s events.”

“Release the infant, Theo.” The second witch hunter advised.

“Not until I’ve tested it,” snarled Theo. A flash of red light flooded over his chest plate as he ripped his arm from Acheron’s grip, spun upwards towards the unbalanced knight, and then smashed his forehead into Jordan’s nose.

Carina’s escort staggered back with a grunt of pain as the witch hunter flung Acheron and Jade across the muddy square with inhuman strength, then turned towards the town well.

“No!” Carina and Jade screamed in unison as Theo flung the infant like a stone towards the dark, swallowing void.

Theo howled in pain as his knee twisted suddenly sideways and crumpled to the ground. Carina ignored the man as the baby fluttered in the breeze, its descent slowed by some invisible force just before Sir Basil caught the child deftly in his arms. Jade was upon the butler and infant in a heartbeat sobbing in relief, Jordan’s cloak forgotten in the dirt behind her.

“Richter!” the injured witch hunter howled as he clutched his oddly distorted leg, groaning and gasping in pain. “Richter, you fool, send for Ripper.”

Carina spun towards the short witch hunter, who had pulled what appeared to be a flare from his pouch. A ring on his hand glowed orange as the end of the flare ignited, and he raised it towards the sky.

A cross-bolt zipped overhead and snapped the flare in half as a commanding voice called out, “That won’t be necessary.”

The two standing witch hunters spun around as Percy appeared on horseback surrounded by a dozen mounted mercenaries, their horses panting with effort as if they had just galloped from the Earl’s estate.

Carina exhaled with relief as the Earl guided his horse towards her, his winter gray eyes visibly relaxed as they settled upon her face.

“Baroness of Averly, might my men be of some assistance to you?” Percy asked with a warm smile.

“Lord Percy,” Carina replied, then cleared her throat as she tried to smother the overwhelming joy in her voice. “Perhaps they might. I have no wish to bully the church, but perhaps if these witch hunters would refrain from endangering the residents of Averly—” She turned towards the two witch hunters “—we could reach a peaceful agreement.”

“Indeed,” Percy replied as he turned his cold gaze from Theo to Richter and his unnamed comrade. “It would be in the church’s best interest if you left without a fight.”

“By what authority do you command us?” Richter growled.

“The chapel is church property. We are here under the Emissary’s orders to hunt out witches. We aren’t going anywhere,” Theo grunted through his obvious discomfort.

“But the ground you presently lie upon is not church property but mine,” Carina countered with a mocking smile. “You attempted to harm the infant of one of my subjects upon my lands. These actions have forced me to banish you from Averly; never show your faces here again!” She nodded to Jordan, who drew his sword and motioned for the other witch hunters to join their injured comrade. “If you have any grievances with my decision, you can take it to the Crown Prince. Now get out!”

“This—” Richter stammered to a halt.

“I would not expect much sympathy from his Majesty once he learns how you abused the authority he so graciously offered you to butcher women and drown infants,” Acheron confirmed grimly.

“That—” Theo protested.

“Leave it,” muttered the third witch hunter, the scar over his lip twisting as he muttered, “I told you this was going too far.”

Theo glared from his comrade to Richter and pointed towards Jade. “That woman smells of witches, even if she is not one herself. She ought to be taken in for questioning.”

“You have been burning and slaughtering witches from the chapel where she sought shelter,” Carina countered as she pointed towards the burning pyres. “Would it not stand to reason Miss Hoffman picked up their scent after sleeping among them? Or were those Sisters you murdered innocent and burned simply because they fall under the church’s domain?”

Evident disgust and uncertainty rippled amongst the crowd gathered around them. The witch hunters exchanged tense glances and seemed to reach a silent agreement.

“Very well, Baroness of Averly,” growled Richter. “We will leave, but rest assured, we will return. There are still plenty of witches hiding in Averly.” His gaze shifted from Carina to Percy. “And still others hiding in plain sight among Lafeara’s nobility.”

Richter and the third witch hunter moved to Theo’s side and assisted their comrade to his feet. “Enjoy the peace while it lasts,” Richter advised as they carried their crippled friend away from the well. “When Ripper comes, no titles or clever words will save you.”

Percy smiled as he moved closer to Carina and addressed the retreating witch hunters. “You would do well to remind your Commander that the Baroness has the backing of Crown Princess Eleanora as well as support from the house of Hawthorne. He would do well not to provoke her further.”

Richter paused and glanced over his shoulder at Percy. “Hawthorne? Aye. I remember that name.” The man offered Percy a twisted smile. “Shame how the late Earl was done in so easily by a little bit of poison.”

Percy hissed as he took a step forward and raised his arm.

The gesture was enough for Carina to recall the exploding death note back in Rose Palace’s courtyard. She instinctively wrapped her hands around his raised arm and shook her head.

The crows along the rooftops squawked in anger while Percy froze, then turned his surprised gaze towards Carina and smiled down at her reassuringly.

“My men will escort these hounds to the borders of Averly,” Percy ordered without taking his gaze from her face. “I would also like to escort you back to my Manor, Lady Maura, to rest and—” his winter-grey eyes dropped down to her dress “—change into something less alarming for your return to the palace.”

Carina nodded her agreement silently as she glanced after the mercenaries who formed a square around the witch hunters. Theo and his comrades moved at a slow but steady pace through the crowd that parted before them, towards the town road. When the throng of onlookers merged behind the departing hunters, Carina quickly turned her attention back to Jade, who knelt by the well, softly consoling her child.

“Before we leave, Lord Percy.” Carina raised her ice-blue eyes to the Earl’s steadfast gaze. “I would like to ask a favor of you.”

Percy raised an eyebrow curiously, even as his smile widened. “Anything, Lady Maura.”


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