Jasmine was too weary to join the festivities. She had been rushed off her feet all afternoon cooking for the feast and pumping ale for the flagons. She was exhausted and gratefully snuggled into her bed. It was only seven o’clock but she was tired. Everybody was at the feast and she had left the door unlocked for the serving women to dash in and out with more ale.

How she expected to sleep she had no idea. Chattering, clinking and loud laughter carried up to the window, and the flames from the lanterns glowed through the sackcloth curtains and cast shadows on her walls. Mr Holborn had drunk so much he had passed out and Jasmine had had a job dragging him upstairs. Now she could hear him snoring loudly, as well.

Down the hall, the rich man Mr Taylor was also sleeping. He didn’t care for local traditions and when Jasmine had checked on him before coming to her own bed minutes before she had found him slumbering peacefully.

How could they sleep? Jasmine turned fitfully. There had been footsteps creaking downstairs, and suddenly she heard them start up the stairs.

She sat up in bed, and her half-up and half-down auburn hair curled on the shoulders of her nightdress. The women did not need to go upstairs. They were only going in and out of the main bar and had no reason to come up and find her.

She slipped out and quickly changed into her black and white dress. In her tiredness she had forgotten to remove her necklace before and was still wearing it. It was warm against her skin as the footsteps creaked into Mr Holborn’s room.

Jasmine pulled on her slippers and hesitated before also putting on her cloak. She might have to run for help if there was an intruder.

She slipped out of the door to her room. The footsteps were in the rich man’s room now. Mr Taylor was a very light sleeper, but he didn’t awaken as the intruder began to search his room. She heard the rattle of coins and a chuckle of victory.

Why did Mr Taylor not awaken? Mr Holborn was in a drunken stupor, but the rich man never drank as far as Jasmine had seen.

A Hand of Glory, she thought, and gasped. She flung a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound but it had already escaped her lips.

The intruder hadn’t heard. He thought all were in a magical sleep from which they couldn’t awaken while the flames in the hand were alight. The hand belonged to a corpse hanged for murder, drained of blood and embalmed in a wax with hairs in the fingertips to form a candle. Some Hands of Glory had a candle gripped in the fingers which doubled its power. Jasmine had heard these legends. The intruder’s Hand of Glory must be weaker than he thought, because it had not affected Jasmine at all!

Of course, she thought as she pressed her ear to Mr Taylor’s door, if one of the fingers won’t light, one of the house’s occupants will be awake. From the many stories Jasmine knew that the only thing that could extinguish the Hand of Glory’s flames was milk. She had to fetch some quickly and confront the thief

She crept down the stairs as quickly as she could without making them creak. Close to the bottom, a figure appeared and grabbed her before she could scream, clamping a hand over her mouth.

In the dim light from a candle at the top of the stairs, she recognised the boy.

His pale face and hands were smudged with dirt, and so were his clothes. He was dressed in a once-white shirt with baggy sleeves, a brown unfastened waistcoat over it, and close-fitting brown trousers tucked into black leather boots. He had wavy orange-gold hair that swept all around his head and across his forehead like flames. He had been drinking at the bar earlier that evening.

“What are you -?” She whispered, but the boy shook his head.

The thief was approaching the stairs quickly, hasty to be off with his takings. The boy pulled a silver chain with a locket from under his shirt. The heart was open, showing a stone which was half-ruby, half-amber. Strange for a boy, Jasmine thought, to have a heart locket just like mine! The boy disappeared into the shadows at the bottom of the stairs.

Jasmine turned and gasped as she saw a man at the top of the stairs. He was very tall, until Jasmine realised his height was achieved by a black top hat on his head. He held a leather purse in one hand and the Hand of Glory in the other. The dancing flames on the fingertips, all five of them, lit up his grey-whiskered face.

Jasmine shrieked. She couldn’t help it.

“How can you be awake when the Hand is lit?” The man hissed. Suddenly, the flames all went out as one. The man’s face was plunged into darkness. For a moment there was a shocked silence.

“Witch!” hissed the thief. He tucked the Hand and purse inside his black coat and came down the stairs in three strides. Jasmine was paralysed with fear as he seized her arm tightly and dragged her down the hall. The boy was still hidden. Had he extinguished the Hand? But nobody could, nothing but milk…

Jasmine found her voice and began to struggle. “Wait a minute! You’re a thief! What are you doing? I’ll have the law on you, Mister, make no mistake!”

The man stopped and shook her into silence. His mouth was curled in a sinister grin. “On the contrary, my dear, I’ll have the law on you,” he said. His voice was low and rasping and made Jasmine shiver. “A witch already found. Caingold can have a bonfire early this Christmas!”

Jasmine gasped in horror as the man chuckled again. “What do you mean? I’m not a witch!”

“Who else put out that Hand of Glory?” He was dragging her across the bar room, towards the front door. A woman called Martha was coming in, but stepped back and dropped her jug as she saw the man pulling her along.

“You did, dear, and only powerful magic can defeat the Hand without milk!”

He pushed open the door and the sounds of the feasting and merriment and some pipe music floated towards them.

“What a shame, dear, to dampen their spirits,” he grinned wickedly. “And with one so young, too.”

Jasmine flinched as he stroked her face with a gloved hand.

“Ah well, the job must be done. And as I receive five gold per witch, I certainly shan’t complain.”

“I’m telling you I’m not a witch!” Jasmine croaked. Her throat had dried in terror. The man ignored her. He seized her wrist in an iron grip and dragged her outside.


The End

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