She watched them ride towards her; their black travelling cloaks streaming out behind them in the wind, making it appear as if five massive crows swooped low across the moorland. She could almost see the zeal in their eyes as they came closer; full of the belief that they were about God’s work, ready to smite the unrighteous in his name. She could see past that too; behind the rationales they gave themselves was a simpler, uglier reason. They liked to hurt people, women especially. And witch-finding was the ideal job for them to indulge their hatreds.

She rose in darkness, throwing aside her blankets restlessly. She crossed the room, stopping as her eyes caught the fringe of daylight that had made it past the heavy muslin drapes. She had awakened earlier than expected. Again. It was the same dream she’d had the night before, only this time it had been longer.

She sighed, as much with resignation as with tiredness, and sat at her vanity table. She picked up the silver hairbrush and began working the snarls from her long, raven black hair. Usually, this calmed her but the dream had her on edge, pulling harder on the brush than she intended and wincing as hairs snapped or tore free as a result. She made herself stop after the fourth such occasion, setting the brush down and studying her reflection instead.

‘Behold, the Lady Lilith Valerius.’ She thought and her mouth quirked in a sardonic smile. She was a fine looking woman, or so she had been told, and her image in the mirror gave her no reason to doubt it. She had dark eyes, smoky some had said, to go with her hair, which fortunately had still to begin showing any trace of grey. Her face was thin but not narrow, with high cheekbones and a generous mouth which could smile and scowl with equal ease.

Even so, she looked tired. There were light shadows under her eyes, which she would cover with powder as she had yesterday. As she picked up her makeup, she forced herself to consider the dream, much as she would prefer not to. She had possessed Cassandra’s gift, as her mother had called it, since she was a girl and when a dream persisted as this one had, she had learned better than to ignore it. Especially since close attention to her dreams had done much to aid her in the past.

She smoothed the powder into her skin deftly, her fingers busy as her mind worked at its own problem. Witch-finders. Abominable men, armoured as they were in the sense of their own righteousness but they had a way of using superstition and fear to incite people to turn on each other. Even a normal woman would do well to step lightly around such men. And she was not a normal woman, by her very nature.
They had power too. She could remember Scottish Jimmy, back before he had been king here too, becoming involved in a witch trial up in Lothian after he’d been convinced that some of those accused had attempted to kill him at sea. Apparently, he had been incensed enough, even years later, to write a treatise on the virtues, if such a word could be used, of hunting and killing witches. Being the target of three conspiracies in the ten years or so since was hardly likely to have softened him any. With the backing of the Crown, or even just the belief that they could be looked upon favorably for their actions, she doubted there was little such men would not do.

She finished applying the powder, giving her handiwork a critical eye before nodding to herself in satisfaction. Rising from the vanity, she stepped back to the bed and gave the bell pull hanging there a hard yank. Muttering to herself, she walked to her dressing room, waiting for her maid to arrive and assist her with her dressing. She tried to tell herself that she had awoken early, that she should not be impatient with the girl, but even after a year of service, she still seemed incapable of learning a proper routine. She snorted. At least she could remember this one’s name; her predecessor had lasted barely a month before she’d been forced to dismiss her for a variety of reasons.

She sighed. She still missed Joanna who had been an exemplary maid to her for years. She’d thought much of the girl, perhaps recognizing a degree of kinship with her. She had intended to make a project of her, giving the girl lessons, statecraft and other things normally considered beyond what her station would require. She had hoped to help mold her into a strong woman, as she herself had been helped years ago. Centuries ago, she thought wryly.

Goodness, but she was maudlin this morning. The dream must have shaken her more than she thought. She hadn’t thought of Joanna in a long time, with good reason. She had been impressed by the girl but she’d underestimated her ambition. Rather badly as it turned out, and she’d been obliged to speak rather firmly with Matthias about the matter.

There was a knock at the door, interrupting her reverie. Somehow even that knock sounded timid, much like the girl herself. Still, better too timid than too forward, she supposed. “Come in, Claudia,” she said and the pale, thin girl slipped into the room. She wore a simplistic outfit; gray-white petticoat below a faded green jacket-bodice and her hair tucked up beneath a coif. She crossed the room towards Lilith, almost a scurrying motion, she thought, the folded chemise in her arms held out before her. She bobbed up and down for a moment in her approximation of a curtsy and presented the chemise to her mistress.

She accepted the linen shift with a small nod, saying “The blue dress today, I think.” and turned away to let Claudia begin laying out her clothes. She pulled her sleeping shift up over her head, feeling the muscles in her back stretch and loosen as she did, then shrugged into the fresh undergarment. “On second thought.” She called. “Perhaps the purple instead.” The purple had the higher neckline; she would save the blue for another time, one when she might have need of distraction. With its lower rounded neckline, it had proved its usefulness when she had to have dealings with the rulers of the other Houses. The male ones at least. Not that she really needed to take such steps. As the current head of the Cabal she had the authority to give them orders, if she felt the need. But honey had ever served her better than vinegar and men were generally simple creatures, to be so dazzled by a winsome smile and an expanse of cleavage, that they could be easily persuaded to her chosen course of action.

That brought Joanna to mind again. The little minx had taken that one to heart easily enough, and she had to admit it seemed to have served her well, after her initial setback, anyway.
“Are you ready, Milady?” Claudia asked timorously.
Lilith turned to face the girl, who was already holding out a corset. She looked at it, the glue-stiffened fabric, the tight lacing, and sighed. “Not that one, girl. I’m not holding court today. Get me the quilted one.”
As Claudia hurried to obey, Lilith shook her head slightly. She supposed she should have been clearer with her intentions but, as her maid, Claudia was supposed to anticipate such things. She cast the thought aside as the girl helped her into the corset, then stood back to fetch the petticoat and jacket as Lilith tightened the lacing in front.
Lord, but she missed the days when she could get away with much easier clothing, she thought as Claudia handed her the petticoat and she struggled into it. The only day she allowed herself that small luxury, if it could be called that, was at the Solstice now. True, she still wore one of her better dresses to receive the last of the arrivals from other Houses, but she could change before the actual feast started. Not that she had much chance to enjoy her freedom from corsets and such at first, not with the possibility that every Ascension Night brought.

Between them, they got her into the rest of her clothes and Lilith strode off, as much as she could in the tight confines, ready to deal with the other troubles of the day.