The Countess’ heart thudded as her carriage drew closer to Castle Kroestov. She couldn’t believe it would be so easy to escape her life with Jerome and she had the witch, Annabelle, to thank.
Roman was in the doorway waiting for her, beaming with excitement. An honour guard dressed in the blood red uniform of Navaria surrounded him.
When the carriage stopped, Roman helped her out, holding her hand tightly.
“I’m so happy you have come,” he said. “I trust my brother had no objections.”
“I’m afraid my darling husband is unwell,” she explained as she took the king’s arm and made their way into the castle.
Roman stopped. “He hasn’t given you any more trouble, has he?”
Natalya smiled. Her bruises had begun to heal and her smile was radiant. It was clear the worries that had plagued her were gone.
“He is sorry,” she stated. “He regrets his actions,” she added sincerely.
“Glad to hear it,” Roman commented.
“I am happy to be here until he recovers. He needs his rest and the staff at The Hand will take care of him. I fear I would just be in his way when I could be here speaking on his behalf.”
It was Roman’s turn to smile.
“You are welcome here for as long as you wish. The place will be much brighter for it.”
Natalya giggled. “If you were not a king I would swear you were a poet, Majesty.”
Natalya could feel the atmosphere darken as she crossed the boundary of the castle. There was a malevolent air hanging that would remind her there would be no turning back.
A few days passed and Natalya settled into Castle Kroestov so thoroughly when people asked of the welfare of her husband she had to take a few moments to consider who they were speaking of.
“How is your husband?” asked Countess Vorgovna.
Natalya had been busy watching Roman conversing with members of his council.
She replied, “He’s doing well.”
It wasn’t until she noticed Vorgovna’s confusion she realised what she had said and felt the need to clarify.
“I mean the king is doing very well. My husband has shown no change unfortunately.
The Countess Vorgovna took Natalya’s arm in a tight grip.
“Do let him know I wish him well,” she said with a snakes hiss. “We were always very close.”
Meanwhile, the king was being urged by his council.
“The crown is a heavy burden, Majesty. It requires a queen to help carry,” Perrin was saying.
The king’s cousin, Count Vasinov, nodded in agreement.
“A suitable wife for Your Majesty would give the entire kingdom a reason to rejoice.”
Roman grinned. “I’m sure my queen will make herself known to me when the time is right. For now I would much rather turn my attention to where it is needed most. The people of The Abbey are still starting and desperate. We should be doing more to help them.”
Vasinov frowned at his cousin. He had a round boyish face and a mop of black curls. He carried a thick belly from good living and was well presented in a blazer of green which caused his brown eyes to warm.
“The Abbey is a breeding ground for thieves and whores. I fear there is no helping them.”
Roman laughed and patted Vasinov’s shoulder good-naturedly.
“My dear little cousin,” he said. “People will only steal when they have no hope. Women who feel the need to prostitute themselves need all the more protection.”
Vasinov smiled and bowed to the king’s request.
“You are going to be good for this kingdom, Majesty. I’m not sure the people deserve you.”
The court was disturbed by the arrival of two men in the uniform of the Navarian Guard.
The first – an aging man with grey hair and a full beard speckled with grey – looking furious. His over grown eyebrows were knotted in a severe frown. The second – a younger, barely a man – was being led. The boy had a slight sneer on his full lips. The smile hadn’t quite reached his eyes which looked bored.
“What is this?” Roman asked Perrin.
“General Karamin,” Perrin announced. “He has some concerns about his new recruits.”
Roman bid them to approach. Karamin bowed. The boy was forced to bow too by the hand Karamin kept behind his neck.
“What seems to the problem General?” asked the king.
The room silenced as the rest of the court looked on.
“I am having some trouble with our newer recruits,” he explained. “They are refusing to obey orders but there are such a number of them I wanted to ask for Your Majesty’s wisdom before putting them to the sword.”
Roman raised his eyebrows. “And this is one of them?” he asked, referring to the boy.
“He has been leading them,” Karamin growled. He pushed the younger guard forward.
“Being enlisted in The Guard is a sworn duty. It is a committment for life. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.” Roman addressed the boy. “What is your name?”
The boy kept his head held high although he didn’t look directly at the king. He stood with his back straight, defiant, as though he was being addressed in the ranks.
“Drenisov, Sire,” he said.
“Disobeying orders carries the punishment of death. Explain yourself.”
This time Drenisov did look at the king.
“The General was sending the men to a needless slaughter. There are witches in the woods. I tried to warn him of this.”
“Why did you not listen to the warnings of your recruits?” Roman asked Karamin.
“There are no witches, Majesty. There hasn’t been in this kingdom for centuries. This boy’s fear mongering is causing chaos.”
Drenisov lost his composure. He turned to the general.
“There are witches. We have seen them and seen what they are capable of!”
Karamin hit Drenisov with a solid hand about his head. Before Drenisov could react, Perrin stepped in.
“Now gentlemen, this is no place for brawling,” he said in a calm, paternal tone.
The talk of witchcraft was making the entire gathering nervous. They started to whisper among themselves.
Roman spoke up before things got out of hand. “This young man certainly believes his tale. There are no lies in his fear. You claim to have seen proof of these witches?”
Drenisov’s lips tightened. His nostrils flared.
“They have taken five of my comrades so far. They were sent into the forest to search for supplies but didn’t return.”
Vasinov interupted. “They woods can be treacherous. Many a fate can befall even a trained guard. That doesn’t mean it is witchcraft.”
Drenisov glared at the count. “When they were found they had been hanged from the trees with their skin stripped. Strange symbols were carved into the tree. It was no wolf or bear that did that. Now the general wants us to go into the woods again unprepared. That is as good as us being sentenced to death.”
“General Karamin, were your men found this way?” asked the king.
The general nodded in agreement.
“I want you to err on the side of caution,” instructed Roman. “At the very least someone is doing this and must be stopped. Knowledge is power after all. The more we know about the alleged witch craft the better.”
Both Karamin and Drenisov bowed but before they were allowed to leave, the king addressed the younger.
“If the men follow you I want you to take lead in the search for this murderer,” he said. “Do you think you could face a witch?”
Drenisov’s mouth spread into a wide grin that flashed a smile of pearly white teeth.
“With your authority, Majesty, I will flush out every last magic wielding whore from this kingdom.”
Karamin shook his head in disapproval but Roman laughed. The rest of the court laughed too taking the lead from the man wearing the crown.
“Then we needn’t worry. Our children can sleep soundly in their beds knowing that Witchfinder General Drenisov is keeping our kingdom safe.”
The soldiers departed and the court returned to the mingling atmosphere it had before, albeit a little uneasy. Some of them believed witches to be the creation of fantasy. Natalya knew better. She mad met one. She had traded with one. The king’s brother back at The Hand was under the spell of one. If the countess were to catch Drenisov’s attention she may very well be accused of being one.
The lighting at The Hand had been kept to a few small lamps and the glowing embers of the fire.
Two doctors, Hogran and Kelt, consulted over their patient. The Count, a large man, had been placed in a wing back, reading chair in the Natalya’s father’s favourite study. He was close enough to the fire that he would be warm but not so close that he would be uncomfortable.
“It’s quite a remarkable condition,” said Doctor Hogran,
His colleague leaned in closer and gazed into Jerome’s eyes. “His eyes have a strange look though. It’s almost like he is trying to say something.”
The Count nodded slowly. Drool began to leak from the right corner of his mouth. His lips parted slightly. Doctor Kelt wiped it with a handkerchief.
“I heard talk of witchcraft,” he said.
He had meant it as a jest but the words came out laced with genuine concern.
“There will be some medical explanation to this malady,” stated Doctor Hogran.
The left their patient in the hands of the staff. The Count’s eyes were still screaming. His head was still nodding.