The Hand wasn’t the same place she remembered when she returned. It was no longer her childhood home that was full of laughter and memories. The memories the Countess had of her beloved parents before they died had grown morose in her absence. Doctor Hogran had waited on her returning to deliver news of her husband.
“Still no change doctor?” Natalya assumed.
The doctor raised his bushy, grey eyebrows. There was a hint of a smile on his face although he wasn’t sure if he was delivering good news or not.
“He’s made a remarkable recovery,” stated the doctor.
Natalya felt her breath tighten in her chest. She forced what felt like an expression of relief.
“That is good news doctor. We will forever be grateful to you.”
Doctor Hogran shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not sure how much help I was, Your Grace. There seemed to be some kind of mania over him that he came out of on his own.”
“Where is he?” she asked. “Is he comfortable?”
“He’s in your father’s study.” The doctor hesitated. “Although I would do well to remember it is no longer your father’s study.” He stopped her from making her way to Jerome. “I warn you, Your Grace, he is in a foul mood. It may be best to leave him alone for a while.”
“Have a safe journey back to town doctor,” Natalya dismissed him.
The serving girls were sent away and The Hand stood empty but for Jerome and his wife. He hadn’t left the study all evening so eventually she went to him.
She eased the door open with caution. Jerome was sat by the fire with his feet on the old Count’s chair.
“I wondered when you would come crawling back,” he growled.
“I was speaking at court on your behalf, my love,” she said calmly although she could feel her hands quiver.
“I’ll bet you were,” he said.
He turned away from her and lifted the iron rod and began prodding the logs on the fire.
“I’m so relieved to see you are well again,” she attempted.
Jerome sniggered. “I remember what you did to me,” he uttered coolly. “You are a witch.”
“Your illness has made you delirious,” Natalya returned quickly.
Jerome smiled but it was a wicked smile with malicious intent.
“I remember what you did to me witch!” he said. “Punishment in this kingdom for witchcraft is death and even your precious king can’t save you from that.”
“Maybe you are still delirious,” she started but before she could finish Jerome leapt to his feet.
“You fucking bitch!” he roared, swinging the iron at her.
Luckily Natalya ducked and avoided the blow. He ran at her but she retreated faster. She slammed the door behind her and ran to the gardens as quickly as she could. He was still too weak to pursue her.
He remained in the study. At first she couldn’t understand why but then it became apparent. He was a little afraid of her. This realisation gave her something of a grim satisfaction but it was fleeting. If he told anyone she would be put to death and he was right when he said even Roman couldn’t save her.
After pacing the gardens for a while and allowing her head to clear she returned to the study but rather than going in she put her ear to the door. He was stomping around, murmuring to himself angrily. He had been drinking again.
She knew The Hand far better than he did. The study could be locked from the outside. She retrieved the key that was very rarely used and locked the carved oak doors with her husband trapped. His angry mutterings stopped immediately when he heard the echoing click. As she walked away the realisation that he had been locked in ignited his fury and he pounded on the door with solid fists.
“Let me out of here witch!” he screamed.
The study was on the top floor of the tallest of the five towers that made up The Hand. The only means of escape would be for him to throw himself from the window to an almost certain death. Natalya had to seek help from the witch named Annabelle. Everything was quickly falling out of her control.
Natalya wandered the woods for hours. Her entire frame trembled with a cold that had dug deep into her bones. She cried out for Annabelle but there was no response.
“You call for Annabelle like she would help you.”
A woman, tall and slender with skin like porcelain was stood by the tree – Annabelle’s tree.
“She helped me before,” Natalya vouched.
The woman was striking. Her hair was thick and as black as ebony. It flowed freely to her waist, as straight and fine as a horses tail.
“She fooled you,” stated the raven haired beauty. “If you still seek her out she didn’t help you as well as she could.”
Natalya was drawn to the woman. She was like a work of art. An image that carried with it, so many stories.”
“Are you a witch?” Natalya asked. “Are you like Annabelle?”
The woman grinned. Her naturally rose coloured lips parted. For a moment Natalya thought the woman’s teeth were as sharp as needles.
“No one is like Annabelle,” she commented in something of a jest. “I’m not just a witch,” said the woman. “I’m the ruler of them. I’m like a Goddess to them. I have strength like no other.”
“What is your name?” asked the Countess.
“Francesca,” was the reply.
Natalya became aware of the cold again as an icy wind spread through the trees and snow began to fall.
“Will you help me? My husband is violent. I have to stop him. He was sedated for a while but he will hurt me. I fear he will even kill me.”
Francesca laughed. “Then why not just kill him? Murder is something you dwellers are capable of without witchcraft.”
“I couldn’t, not without help. Will you help me?” The desperation in Natalya’s voice was tangible.
Francesca sniffed the air as though the stench of the Countess’ fear was pleasing to her.
“I will help you if you give your husband’s body to me.”
Natalya agreed without question. “Thank you. I know you put yourself at great risk. Already they are burning witches in the kingdom.”
Francesca grinned. Again her teeth looked razor sharp.
“If they are able to be burned,” she commented. “Then they are no true witch.”
Natalya followed Francesca’s instruction to go home. She would know when it was done. Whatever that was.
Jerome had fallen asleep. The alcohol forced him into a slumber. When he woke again the fire had burned out. He shivered and his mouth was as dry as sand.
“Fucking bitch!” he grunted as he climbed to his feet and stumbled to the fire, lowered his trousers and urinated onto the embers. A crack of thunder caused him to wander to the window distractedly. He peered out into the night.
Natalya controlled the staff, she controlled The Hand. She could keep him there for as long as she wished. ‘Had she always been a witch?’ He wondered. Maybe he had imagined it. Perhaps his illness was taking its toll on him.
The thunder cracked again. He growled. He was Prince Jerome. He was the eldest child of King Roslow. He was the rightful ruler of Navaria. His power should not have been placed in the hands of his younger brother. He should not be a prisoner at the mercy of a woman.
The thunder brought a heavy rainfall with it. It patted against the windows like many tiny hands trying to get in.
Jerome felt a pain on his hand as though someone had cut him with a sharp but small blade. He looked at it. It was a small cut but it was bleeding heavily. He shook his hand and looked from the window again. The fain fall was so heavy now it was like a blanket of water across the land.
There was another cut but this time it was on his face. It felt a little larger and deeper than the first. He put the tips of his fingers to his face. When he removed them there was blood. There was another on his face and then on his neck. The cuts kept coming, deeper and bloodier. He pulled open his shirt to see more on his chest. A slash tore across his abdomen from an invisible blade.
The thunder roared like an uncontrollable beast. The rain lashed against the window like the whip of an angry master.
His vision cleared. The cutting stopped. There was a woman standing before him, more beautiful than any he had ever seen before. Her black tresses flowed over her shoulders and down her back.
He hadn’t heard her arrive. Perhaps the thunder had masked her footsteps.
“What do you want?” Jerome asked. The pain from the cuts still surged through his body. “Did my wife send you witch!?” He was quickly recovering his strength.
“You should be pleading for your life,” Francesca replied.
Her image was like a dream, as though she wasn’t actually there. She raised her hand and in a motion that resembled a swipe of a cat she clawed in front of her. Jerome felt three slashes across his face.
“Who are you?” asked Jerome, reaching for the fresh cuts.
“I am the last thing you are ever going to see on this mortal coil,” Francesca replied, sounding quite giddy. Her face held a mischievous grin.
He felt scratches across his back that tore the flesh away. He wailed and stumbled. He was face to face with Francesca again.
“I can just keep cutting you until you die,” she warned. She swiped her hands like claws and more tears formed on his arms.
“What do you want?” Jerome asked again. He knew calling for help would be of no use.
“A good hearty meal,” was Francesca’s reply.
Jerome was cut, cut and cut some more until eventually his skin was flayed.
The clock in the main tower where Natalya waited chimed ten. She heard Jerome’s tortured screams echo down to her. She listened with a mixture of horror and satisfaction. Eventually the screaming and the thunder stopped.
Natalya unlocked the doors to the study. She listened carefully first before opening. She braced herself for a horrific scene but there was nothing. Francesca was gone. Jerome was gone too. There was not a single trace of what had happened.
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