From ‘The Cat’s Head’ a tale of witchcraft in the English Civil War
The scream woke him.
Mind confused by sleep and shifting dreams, Gideon awoke cold and clammy. It took a few moments to convince himself that it had been a real scream and not just a part of the strange, shapeless nightmare from which it had dragged him. There was no second scream, but re-enacting the sound in his head assured him it had belonged to the waking world – and that it had been female and terrified.
Some primaeval instinct bit deeply into his heart at the realisation and exploded there as a burst of protective rage. Almost blindly, he charged down the stairs, two or three at a time, clutching his knife – the first weapon his fingers had closed on in his haste.
Both doors on the floor below were open. From one came light, the sounds of struggle and another anguished scream, abruptly muffled. It inflamed Gideon’s burning rage to inferno. Without conscious thought, he hurled himself towards the source of the sound. The scent of sandalwood and a dozen exotic perfumes filled his nostrils, murder filled his mind.
Within the room, a guttering candle reflected the struggle around the walls in stark, angular shadows. The mattress had been half dragged from the bed, revealing the ropes beneath, and on it two bodies struggled, one still clad in the overblown finery he had worn in the evening, the other, shift dragged up to her thighs, pinned beneath him. Silver and gold hair tangled together as the man exherted his strength to hold the girl.
Gideon heard a noise like an enraged animal. Scarcely conscious that it issued from his own throat, he launched himself forward, knife gripped in one fist, blade downwards like a fang ready to tear into flesh.
Before his headlong rush could connect, something swept his legs from beneath him and he sprawled full length. The knife clattered away into shadows as a solid weight landed on him, rolling him, with force and suddenness enough to drive the breath from his lungs. He gasped in air, but a strong arm pulled his head back, choking it off. Slight pressure more and his neck would have snapped. Philip Lord’s voice, from the dishevelled bed, sounded taut and long suffering.
“Oh God! It’s Sir Percival. Get him out of here, Shiraz.”
Manhandled with ease, like a wayward child, half-choked and with a blade pressed close to the skin of his throat to discourage any objections, Gideon was bundled back up to his room and locked in. There the impotent anger burst from him, as he pounded on the sturdy wood of the door with anything that came to hand and with his fists themselves in the end until they were bruised and bloody. He roared curses through the soulless, unheeding wood and stone. Eventually, frustration and fatigue took their toll and he slumped to rest – for just a moment – on the pallet bed.
He awoke much later to the sound of the key turning in the lock. It was full day. Night clad and sword in hand he was at the door and pulling it open before any could enter, murder in his heart. Zahara stood in the doorway, her bright hair bound from sight under a plain blue linen lappet. She held a basin of water in her hands, steaming very slightly. His hold on the sword went limp and the raised blade fell onto the blanket.
“I brought you water to wash with,” she said simply and stepped past him, with care to avoid the detritus left by his nocturnal endeavours to escape the room. Bright morning sunshine revealed overthrown boxes and contents spilled. The girl found a place to set the basin down and turned to leave.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “I mean – last night… “
The girl sounded genuinely puzzled and Gideon realised, dully she had not even known he had been there, that he had tried to rescue her.
“Your screams woke me,” he said, by way of explanation.
A slight touch of colour pinked her face.
“I am sorry,” she said, looking down, embarrassed. She walked to the door, keeping her face from him.“It happens. You should pay it no regard.”
“No regard? I can’t – “
He broke off and stepped forward quickly before she was gone, to capture one of her hands. But, like a shy bird taking wing, it slipped from him before he could close his own upon it.
“Listen,” he said, low voiced and imperative. “I will get you out of here, somehow. I have friends and family in London who can help you – we can take ship there, you do not have to live like this.”
She looked up at him then. The kitten-green eyes expressionless, searching his face.
“You are kind. But it is better for me here.”
The pent up anger of the night burst through.
“How can it be better with that – that demon?”
Gideon heard his own voice snarling and regretted it instantly as the girl took a small step away from him, close to full flight.
“The Schiavono is good to me,” she said gently, “and to you. He saved your life. He is no demon.”
Memory rose to haunt him. A woman so beaten down that the fault became twisted back to herself in all things until she could see nothing but righteous wrath in the treatment she received. And nothing Gideon had ever said changing that view – no argument, no reasoning, no appeal.
Fists, stiff from the damage he had done to them, clenched and unclenched. In his mind ran visions of the things he would do to Philip Lord should the opportunity present itself. Zahara was still watching him with some troubled emotion in her eyes that he could not read.
“There is food for you ,” she said, “and a man the Schiavono would have you speak with. He said that since you are here, you could earn your keep.” Her message given, the girl turned away and left him.
Gideon felt her distance and vowed to himself that whatever it took he would deliver her beyond Lord’s reach. His every instinct screamed for violence. But in violence, it would be himself who came out the worse. If that would in any way help Zahara, he would not hesitate, but he was her sole true protector, her sole chance of escape from a prison whose bars she helped to cement herself. There were more – and better – weapons with which battles could be won than naked blades. Weapons with which he was well trained and of which he owned the mastery.