The afternoon wore on to a warmer day. Despite the chill in the air the sun stood strong, fending off the snowy assaults.
Roman and his hunting party made their way through the woods taking care not to leave the kingdom too far behind.
Vasinov rode close beside his cousin. They spoke jovially as they travelled. The rest of the party lingered behind them.
“The pending arrival of the royal baby has the entire kingdom rejoicing,” Vasinov was saying. There was a smile on his face and a redness in his cheeks.
“It will be nice to have a little prince or princess around,” the king mused.
“What will become of Charles?” Vasinov asked.
Roman drew his cousin a most bemused glare.
“What do you mean?”
Vasinov considered his words carefully. “I’m sure he features warmly in your heart but your own children will steal focus, won’t they?”
“I will always have place for Charles,” Roman assured. “I would do a disservice to his mother’s memory otherwise.”
Roman who had been distraught at Natalya’s death had spoken of it less and less over the years. Vasinov knew of Charles’ true parentage. He knew he could speak frankly to his cousin so there was no reason why the king would disguise it. It was almost like he had forgotten.
“I’ll take care of my nephew as though he were my own child,” Roman mumbled, concentrating on what lay ahead of him.
“Of course, Your Majesty. Your paternal prowess is astounding.”
Roman stopped suddenly. He climbed from the grey mare he rode and started to make his way into the forest.
“Perhaps the guard should go first, Your Majesty?” Vasinov called.
Roman looked back over his shoulder and put his finger to his lip. Vasinov halted the rest of the party. They remained stationed as the black cloak of the king delved further into darkness, assuming he had found suitable prey.
There was a fire burning. Roman could hear the birds call mingle with the crushing of leaves under foot. The trees as he progressed further became more twisted and their wood darker. He came a cliff. At the bottom was an opening to a cave. The light from a fire danced across the forest floor. Roman drew his sword and approached. He assumed it was someone lost. and he didn’t want to frighten them.
The fire that had been built filled almost the entire space the cave afforded. Roman’s eyes blurred at first as he waved the smoke away from his face. He noticed then the body of a man lying on the ground. It was almost like he was sleeping except his face was contorted into an expression of terror. His skin all over his body had been removed leaving but a carcass of muscle and ligaments.
“Don’t worry about him,” a voice from the opposite side of the fire said. “He was a rapist and a thief” It was a soft feminine voice with the musical accent found in the villages surrounding the kingdom.
“Did you do that to him?” asked Roman.
“I had to. I told you, he was a rapist and a thief.”
Roman reached out his foot and with the toe of his leather boot he moved the body over onto it’s back.
“If he hurt you he should have been punished by law,” the king stated.
“I only abide by one law and it reaches much higher than any man has made. I follow a higher law only I am powerful to enforce. Even a king is subject to that law.”
She must have guessed his position because Roman wore no crown on his mess of brown curls that day. His cloak bore no sign of his station.
“What is your name?” Roman moved around the fire. The woman was naked. Her back was turned to him. She was hunched in the shadows.
“Elidh. At least that was what they called me before.”
“Are you a witch?” Roman couldn’t help but ask. The skinning of the man had been so thorough she either had tremedous skill or supernatural powers.
“I am no witch,” said the wretched creature with absolute sincerity. “I am something much worse.”
“If you were hurt by this man I don’t want to arrest you but I can take you to shelter and safety,” Roman offered.
The creature moved a little. Roman stood his ground.
“I told you, I obey no man, not even a king. You should leave because I smell it on you too”
Roman asked, “smell what?”
Roman was astounded at the word.
“I am a good man,” he insisted.
“Everyone has the smell of evil on them,” said the creature. “It is strong with you. The scent of goodness you have is overwhelmed by the foul stench of letting the woman you love die and denying your child.”
Roman became impatient with the creature. “Who are you?” he growled.
“Hangram!” hissed the creature as she dived at Roman with long, claw like fingers. A long tongue protruded from her mouth. She knocked the king to the ground and tried to sink her sharp teeth into the flesh of his face. He managed to kick her off him. He ran for the entrance of the cave almost tripping over the skinned body. At the entrance he was met by Vasinov.
“What happened?” he asked.
Roman was struggling for breath. He pulled his cousin back to the hunting party. When he was out of danger he began to laugh. He leaned on Vasinov’s shoulder and continued to catch his breath.
“You would never believe me if I told you,” he claimed.
The guard were sent in search of the creature but she wasn’t found. They burned the skinned body and made their way back to the castle. By then the sun had fallen behind the mountains and the bitter cold was beating the sun into submission.
“It’s not a witch we have on our hands,” said Roman. “It’s a mad woman.”
The outline of the grey castle loomed as they approached.
“Perhaps it is both,” Vasinov surmised.
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