PART I: THE WITCH

1057


I


"My lady, we ought return to the keep."

Elan ignored the squire. Before her the surface of the lake spread out like shivering yards of gray silk, endless. The far bank was nearly lost in mist; she had to squint to make out the indistinct shape of conifers lining the shore.

"My lady, the rain… you'll catch a fever."

"Rain? This is a mist, Grisart; a mouse could not catch cold in it." Elan sighed. The water lapped gently over the rocks at her feet. Gently, when she wanted violence from the water, wanted the passionate crashing of sea against cliff. "Did you know, I was born in the rain? On the bank of the River Colhuw. My parents were traveling when the birth pangs came on my mother early. She had no midwife with her, only a maidservant with some little skill in healing, and she delivered me there by the river, with the skies opening for my baptism. So I do not think a little spray will harm me."

The squire gave her a moment of silence, in which the view across the lake changed not at all. Only, the wind began to blow, a cold spring wind that tugged at her cloak and swayed the youngest of the tree boughs around them.

Armor chinked as the guard at her back shifted restlessly. "Forgive me, my lady. But… I fear if you were to catch a fever, or even so much as a shiver, your husband would hold me to account for it."

"Yes," Elan murmured without moving. "But never fear—I will receive my own fair amount of blame as well."

Or was it unfair? Marriage had skewed her certainty in fairness. The night she took her horse from the stable and tried to ride away back to the Welsh seaside, that, surely, had been wrong of her. Of course then when her lord husband rode her down, he had been justified to beat her, and then to cut the palfrey's throat that she might see the cost others paid for aiding her disobedience.

But could he fault her for making her body ill? Perhaps, if that body belonged no longer to herself, but only to her husband.

She watched the water for another moment, drawing what solace she could from the grayness, from the cold air and the damp on her cheeks. But the lake was not the sea, no matter how she wished it. This land would never feel like home.

Elan pulled her mantle close, and turned away from the lake.

The squire was waiting a few steps back, at the bottom of the muddy embankment between the trees. With visible relief, he extended his arm to her, and began to guide her up the path. She didn't need his help. Her boots were sturdy, and her feet knew the path from walking it nearly every day. But she knew from experience the young squire would be embarrassed if she shrugged off his help, feeling himself somehow failing in his duty to guard her. And he had always been kind with her, pretending he was there for her service, and not because the Barron no longer let her leave the castle alone.

She let the squire lead her. With each step, the trees fell further away. In a moment she could see the castle against the sky, gluttonously squat on its hill, like a dragon bloated after feeding.

Resentment filled her like bile. She halted dead at the top of the embankment and said, before she could think better of it, "Hateful. 'Tis so hateful."

"What, my lady?" the squire answered, with alarm in his voice. He half-turned to her and slipped in the mud. He struggled to regain his footing, but the soft edge of the bank gave way.

"Have a care," Elan cried, but he had already begun to fall backward.

The squire's hand loosed its grip on her at once, but stupidly she held fast, as if she could keep him upright with her own strength. His larger body and the weight of all his chainmail bore them both backward, crashing down the bank. The squire twisted to take the impact, landing hard on his back with Elan sprawled atop him. His armor dented into her flesh, knocking the breath from her. For a moment she couldn't move, and only lay there with her skirts tangled around his legs.

The squire groaned, a guttural sound like a wounded animal. He lay stiffly beneath her with one gauntlet covering his eyes. "My lady—forgive me. I am clumsy, unworthy of your mercy—but pray you are unharmed?"

"I am whole," Elan managed as she got her breath back, and climbed inelegantly to her feet. Her hair had come loose in the fall, and hung darkly over her shoulders. She snatched it back and wound it into a harsh knot. "Though I daresay my dignity may be bruised."

"Forgive me," he whispered, in so raw a voice it made her sick to hear it.

"You are forgiven," she said quietly. "The Barron will not know of this."

"He will know."

"I will not tell him."

"It matters not. He will know."

The squire moved his hand from his face. Beneath the gauntlet, his eyes were frighteningly blue, streaked through with amethyst, and haunted. He lay on his back and stared up at her. "Do you know what they say about your husband, lady?"

Elan shook out her skirts briskly. "How should I care for peasants' gossip?"

"They say he is the Devil Himself."

"Well, and they say I am a witch."

"They say he killed his mother on his way out her womb. They say his soul is sold for immortal powers, and that is how he hunts the largest bear and boar and wolf and hind, and how he hunts his enemies. He knows all that passes in this world, and in the wicked hearts of men."

"Then best be thankful you have no wicked heart."

The castle was close. Even now, anyone might look down from a window and see her here and wonder why she lingered, wonder at the young man, not yet a knight, lying at her feet.

"But lady—" The squire's voice broke, low and full of anguish. "Did you not guess? My heart is wicked about all men."

Elan told herself that ruin lay in meeting those blue-and-purple eyes, but she did it anyway. And if she expected fear or dread, that was not what she saw.

Grisart of Blackfen was as handsome a boy as any maid might wish. It wasn't only his eyes, but the entirety of him—the body lean and strong as a sapling tree, the handsome face and close-cropped midnight locks, and the unbearable gravitas of him, like a man grown, reminding Elan of his twenty years, older by two than she herself, though she had always thought him merely a child.

They were all children to her, the boys who served as her husband's pages and squires. Silly boys desperate for knighthood and glory, who might cast a pitying look her way before they removed their glance. Because what could a child do for her, truly? They served her husband now, and one day they would ride away without a backward look.

But Grisart was still looking, and it was not a child's gaze, but a man's. Hard, hungry, and resentful.

He sat up, slowly, like a cat wary of startling its prey. "Each time I lay eyes on you, my heart grows more wicked still," he said softly. "I dream of terrible things. Your smile. The way you might look upon me if I carried you far from this place and from those who hold you against your will."

A violent shudder went through Elan. She turned sharply away, and clasped her arms about herself as she faced the castle. "Only my husband holds me—" She heard the desperation in her own voice, the terror of a new trap— "and then by the bonds of matrimony. I would not be torn from him for all the smiles in Christendom."

"My lady," the squire said roughly. "Elan—"

She took two long strides, forging alone up the bank again. Wind and rain stung her cheeks, numbed her skin. "The weather is worsening," she called back over her shoulder. "You were right, we had best get indoors."

She bit her lip, but a moment later heard him behind her, the armored clank of his rising and the wet, mud-sucking sound of his steps. Still she kept well ahead of him, and her heart beat madly all the way back to the keep.