She was running. The snow added weight to her already heavy footsteps. Tears formed in her emerald eyes. They were bitter, angry tears made fatter by being forever bound to the witch who had taken everything from her. The pendant hung heavily around her neck like a noose. She couldn’t throw it away. She couldn’t escape it. Francesca saw to it that they were bound together for all eternity. Beyond the grave Annabelle would still be tormented into servitude. Given what they had done it wasn’t a pleasant after life that awaited them anyway. Francesca couldn’t see that. She had her king now so what did it matter?
Annabelle stopped by a crooked tree that sat at the end of gardens of the castle. She took a deep breath and her lungs filled with ice cold air.
Someone was following her. The party was still carrying on inside so the lights shone onto the snow, casting long shadows. The silhouette was a broad, rounded frame of a man.
It was Vasinov who had pursued her.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” said Annabelle. “It is far too cold.”
Vasinov was out of breath. He had come after her at a run. A sweat had gathered on his brow.
“I was worried about you,” he said. “You left so abruptly. I worried it was something I had done.”
Annabelle’s lip flickered in the left corner with amusement.
Vasinov was a handsome man. He and Roman had dark curling hair from their shared ancestry but where Roman wore a full beard, Vasinov was clean shaven and youthful. He had a sweet temperament and from the moment he met Annabelle he was like a loyal hound at her feet.
“I was overwhelmed,” she said politely. “I needed some air.”
Vasinov offered his arm. “Would you like to walk together? You must see the rose bushes. They were planted by my own dear mother.”
Annabelle linked her arm with the Count’s. As the ystarted to follow a path she hadn’t noticed before she came to realise that this was the life Francesca had been seeking. She had fallen in love with Roman but in order to be together she had been compelled to shed the wickedness of her past. It was true Francesca had destroyed everything Annabelle held dear but as she walked arm in arm with a Lord of Navaria swapping stories and laughter she came to realise that Francesca had given her something she would never have thought possible, the chance of a life anew.
The path circled round the grounds and returned to the crooked tree. There was a little girl stood beside it. She was watching Annabelle with a hunger on her lips that would only be satisfied by flesh.
Vasinov noticed her sudden hesitation. He looked at the tree but could see nothing.
“It’s a grim old thing,” he said, referring to the crooked trunk that was almost black. “It’s stood here for generations,” he explained, still assuming it was the tree that Annabelle was staring at. “It is said that the fate of the kingdom rests on it. It’s a symbol of strength in these parts. That is why Kroestov was built here.”
Annabelle was still watching the little girl. The little girl was smiling back at her. Vasinov could still see nothing.
“Go back to the castle,”Annabelle instructed.
Vasinov laughed at first, made uncomfortable by the sudden seriousness of her tone.
She turned to him.
“Go back to the castle!” she said again.
This time Vasinov obeyed. He turned and followed their footprints in the snow through the gardens.
“What do you want?” Annabelle asked the little girl.
The little girl opened her mouth. Her young lips and tongue formed words but there was no sound. Annabelle smiled despite herself.
“Francesca was right,” she said. “You have no power over us. You are just ghosts of the past and you can’t hurt us.”
The little girl continued to speak but still no sound came out. Her face contorted in fury. A terrible face with blackened eyes and a mouth of razor teeth framed by pretty brown wringlets.
She reached out and tried to snatch at Annabelle. Annabelle leapt back, not trusting the vision. The little girl began to fade.
“She killed you all!” she groaned to herself. “Have the decency to stay dead.”
The snow below where the little girl had stood had turned red. They couldn’t harm them on the grounds of the great grey castle but somewhere Their strength was building.
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