The Countess had been asleep when her husband returned. He came stumbling into her chambers, tearing the white cotton shirt from his torso. His trousers were mud stained and he had kicked off one boot. He shook Natalya but she refused to remove herself from bed and tend to him. He shook her more violently but when she still refused to receive him into her bed he grumbled and wandered off down the hall to find one of the serving girls. When he was gone she sat up. There was a metallic taste in her mouth. She spat and a spray of blood landed on the floor. Jerome’s neglectful shake had opened up the wound on her lip again and it bled.
Dawn was close. The halls of The Hand were icy cold. She didn’t call for anyone. She pulled a warm cloak over her thin frame, slipped on some leather boots and made her way into the surrounding Mendelov Woods.
There was a small clearing, deep in the forest that Natalya had visited the previous day. There was a tree that had markings and strange symbols carved into the black bark. It was beside that tree she had met Annabelle.
The early dawn light guided her way. She wasn’t sure to find the witch again but she had to try. She had told Annabelle everything about her problem and she had been eager to help.
The forest was quiet. The animals of the day were only just beginning to stir. While she waited she ran her hand over the marks. It was a strange symbology she didn’t recognise. It certainly didn’t belong in Navaria.
“You shouldn’t be here,” a woman’s voice, deep and soft, met her ear.
Annabelle seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Her skin was so pale it almost glowed in the cold morning. Her hair was copper blonde tresses that rested on her broad shoulders. Her emerald eyes were haunting.
“I had to find you. I need your help,” Natalya explained.
Annabelle snorted. “That’s not how it works,” she remarked. “Do you think I’m at your beck and call?”
“You said you could help me,” Natalya reminded the witch.
As a grin spread across Annabelle’s lips, Natalya noticed her beauty fade. For a brief moment every blood vessel in her face and neck seemed to throb.
“I said I could. I didn’t say I would.”
The Countess was frustrated. She had pinned so much hope on the nonsense Annabelle had filled her head with. It was only then she realised how foolish she had been. Witchcraft was punishable by death in Navaria and even Roman couldn’t protect her from those accusations. She turned to leave but Annabelle snatched her arm with a firm hand and pulled her back. She gripped her face with her long fingers and observed the Countess’ bruises.
“I’ll give you something,” Annabelle decided.
Natalya looked up. The witch was much taller than she.
“Will it kill him?” she asked.
Annabelle pouted her small, doll like lips. She pulled off the black cloak she wore.
“No,” she replied. “But it will tame the beast within. Murder is for you to decide, not me.”
Natalya was feeling giddy. The birds were beginning to sing. The cold, damp morning breeze was beginning to caress her face which she buried inside her cloak as much as she could.
Annabelle took Natalya’s arm and pushed the sleeve of her gown back, exposing the flesh. She ran her finger along it gently. Underneath her finger tip a deep cut appeared in the absence of a blade. Natalya winced at the pain but tried her best to remain still.
Annabelle took the fingertip, which was doused in the Countess’ blood and wiped it on one of the symbols carved in the great, black tree trunk. A crude shape that reminded Natalya of a bull. When this was done the witch crouched before the tree and murmured an incantation to herself. The tree began to ooze as though it was bleeding. Natalya could only watch on in stunned silence until eventually Annabelle stood again. She produced a small jar from the pocket of the tatty brown cloak she wore and collected some of the tree’s blood into it.
“Put some into his food. He will be no more aggressive than a door mouse,” she proclaimed. “Don’t use it all at once,” she added.
Natalya was giddy again. She didn’t know if she was feeling some magic work within her or if she was excited at the prospect of getting her life back
“Thank you,” she said with pure and true gratitude. “You must be a powerful witch,” she surmised.
“That?” Annabelle replied, pointing to the jar. “That is play to amuse children,” She said although she did seem oddly proud. “The power comes from within the tree,” she explained. “I’m just merely harvesting it’s energy. It doesn’t come free though. It has to be paid in blood.”
Natalya clasped the jar to her chest.
“My husband is the king’s brother,” she said. “If they find you they will burn you.”
If the blood of the tree did what Annabelle said it would she would forever be in the witches debt. For that she wished Annabelle to remain safe.
“I can take care of myself,” Annabelle said not unkindly. “Go home now before the energy is lost.”
Natalya skipped back to her home before the servants began to rise. She quickly washed the forest from her hands and face and skipped back into bed.
When breakfast was done her husband be no more than a whimpering child.
She slept soundly on for another hour before she was roused for breakfast.
“My Lady,” said the maid, a girl of eighteen who went by the name Lana, with a gentle stroke of her hair.
Natalya opened her eyes and feigned sluggishness. The truth was she was more than ready to face the day.
“Breakfast is ready for you, My Lady. His Grace awaits.”
“I’m feeling a little out of sorts this morning,” Natalya told the servant. “Give me a few moments.”
With a curtsy the girl left. Natalya wondered if she was the poor girl Jerome found to slake his lust the night before.
She dressed alone in a simple, salmon pink gown which caused her cheeks to glow. The swelling in her lip had gone down but she covered her bruised face with powder anyway. She was beginning to look much like herself again. She even smiled at her reflection. She retrieved the jar from under her pillow and prepared to face her husband.
Jerome was heartily eating bread and butter. The masticated food falling onto the table from his too wide, chewing mouth. He shoveled more crusts. The warm butter was dripping down his chin. He looked up and grunted when she took he place at the table opposite him.
He had been such an attentive man to her at first. When her father, the old count, introduced them Jerome seemed a larger than life character. He was strong, noble and capable of giving her everything she had ever wanted. Now he was a miserable wretch who was so unhappy with his life he was intent on making everyone just as miserable.
Lana brought some fruit wine. Natalya wrinkled her nose and refused.
“How are you feeling this morning?” asked Natalya.
Jerome looked at her for a few moments but said nothing.
“I thought we might take a walk together this afternoon, like we used to,” the countess attempted.
“Shut up and let me eat in peace woman. I have a headache,” he barked. He snatched the wine from Lana and washed the bread down with a greedy guzzle from the bottle.
“I’m sorry to hear you don’t feel well,” replied the wife.
Lana departed leaving them alone. Jerome rested his elbows on the table and glared at her.
She lifted a glass of water and emptied a few drops of the tree blood into it. She wasn’t satisfied though so emptied some more until the water was a pale red colour. She slid it along to her husband.
“This was from the doctor. It will make you feel better and it is said gives a gentleman some virility.”
Jerome snatched the glass up. The wrinkles in his forehead deepened as he eyed the liquid.
“It just looks like dirty water,” he said.
“It’s a herbal remedy. It will make you feel much better.”
“So you’re a fucking doctor now?” he scoffed but he drank the water. When an alcohol laced thirst took him he finished the entire glass.
“What do you care?” he snapped. “You only married me because you thought I was to be king. I was a prince, my father’s heir. Now I’m a count and stuck in this shit hole castle.”
Natalya was furious but she contained herself. “I’m sorry you feel like our life is below your station. I just wish for us to both get what we deserve.”
Jerome clutched his throat. He tried to speak but couldn’t form the words. He had been struck dumb.
Lana returned some time later and found the count sat, straight-backed in his chair and staring at his wife.
“Do you require anything else, Your Grace?” the maid asked lifted the plate with some chewed bread still remaining.
“He’s fine,” Natalya answered for him. “The count is weary and doesn’t wish to be disturbed today.” Jerome slowly nodded his head in agreement. When they were alone again Natalya took a deep breath.
“You will never hurt me again. As the blood of the great Edward Hargov runs in my veins you will assume my title as my husband and you will be grateful for it.”
Jerome again nodded his head dumbly in agreement.
Lana returned, looked at Jerome suspiciously at first but addressed her mistress.
“Will that be all, Your Grace?” she asked politely.
Natalya smiled. “Thank you Lana. Yes that will be all but before you go could you call on Sep?”
Sep was a large stable boy. He was dim-witted but had tremendous strength.
“His Grace is feeling a little tired and will need help to his room. He is going to be confined to his chambers for a little while.”
Lana turned to her master. “I’m so sorry to hear that. Should I call for the doctor?”
Jerome slowly shook his head. A spittle of drool gathered at the side of his mouth.
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