From the window of her chamber, Elan had no view of the lake; she saw only the southern turret of Wythe Castle, rising thickly against the overcast sky. On bitter days she thought her husband might have chosen this view for her intentionally. Before they married she had told him of her love for the sea, and that she found her greatest peace by the water's side. He in turn had told her of his love for hunting, running his prey to the ground until it had lost all will to fight, and only then would he drive his spear home. She had praised his valor. She had still believed then that there might be some affection between them. But she had not yet known him.
"Your medicinal, my lady."
Elan took the offered cup without looking, grateful for the heat of the contents against her chilled palms. For the taste, she was less grateful. She set the cup aside again with a grimace. "Melangell, your potions grow more noxious by the day."
"One must keep up one's health," the old woman replied evenly, settling herself onto a bench by the hearth, where she took up her mending again. "The air here has a stench of brimstone that bodes ill for the lungs."
"You've been saying that for two years. I've yet to catch a single whiff of brimstone."
"Not all evil can be smelled so easily, my lady."
Elan eyed her, but made no further argument. Debating Melangell was like slapping a brick wall; not a stone would give, and the slapper was left feeling a fool. According to the old woman, potions must be swallowed and ill omens must be heeded. And despite all that, or perhaps a little because of it, Elan loved her. It was Melangell who had brought her into the world on that riverbank eight and ten years before, and only Melangell who had followed her away from the cliffs at the border of Wales and into England. She might comfortably have remained behind; she had served Elan's mother so long and so faithfully, she would have been cared for into her old age. But when the marriage was announced, she had packed up her herbs and her tinctures and gone with Elan into this brackish land called the Wythewood, where the Barron Wythe ruled like a king, and valued his wife only as much as her dowry.
Elan plucked at the stitching that lay in her lap. Another of her husband's tunics, torn during hunting or sparring. He moved with so little care, rending and tearing anything near him. She spent fully half her days mending his wreckage.
"Melangell," she said.
"If I had a child, do you suppose my parents would come for the christening? I would like to see them again. Father's leg would pain him on the journey, of course, but he might try it, to see his grandchild."
"I had a dream," Melangell said, "that you bore a child."
Elan traced her fingers along the ragged edges of the torn tunic. The fire in the hearth crackled like another bad omen. "Did you?"
"It was a monster. Deformed, hideous. It had the tusks of a boar, the tail of a wolf. It killed you as it was born. And then it perished as well, because such things are not meant to live in our world."
"Well. I don't mean that kind of child."
"You will not have a child."
"Not even a normal one, a pretty boy with pink cheeks and eyes that wrinkle up when he cries? I might like that kind."
"You will not have any child."
"No. I know. You've told me before. I will have no child." Elan stared out at the tower, the dark of evening spreading across the sky. A matching darkness pushed at the edges of her skin, a heavy cold thing that had never touched her before she came to Wythewood. It brought bitter words to her lips, but before she could speak them, a breath of the charnel house drifted into the chamber.
Cold ran down the back of her neck. She turned to the door, and the Barron was already there, looming in the shadows just over the threshold. His eyes were hooded, bloodshot, and his gray hair hung in lank strands down his back. He looked as if he had not slept in days. But he had eaten recently; fresh stains marked the front of his tunic and his trousers where he'd wiped the grease from his fingers.
After two years, Elan knew to give no outward sign of revulsion. But the shiver went through her insides just the same. Barbarian.
"And why is that?" her husband asked, in a low rumble of a voice that sounded almost amused, unless one knew better. "Why will my wife carry no child?"
"You know the answer to that well enough, my lord," Melangell said in her breaking crone's voice, while her needle flew confidently in and out of her work.
"Do I?" Prowling footsteps brought the Barron further into the room, closer to Elan. She bent her neck and pretended not to feel the awareness prickling her skin, pretended absorption in the ruined tunic.
"A defect of the womb, my lord. There since birth, most like."
"You are a heathen, old woman," the Barron growled. "No child is cursed from birth. It is her own actions that damn her. It is the moment, the black moment when she turns her face from Christ, that seals her fate."
Melangell made a sound in her throat. "And babes born blind, my lord? Babes born deaf and dumb? How have they sinned against your god?"
The Barron ignored her. He reached out suddenly, swiftly, and caught Elan's face. His fingers bruised her jaw, and her heart leapt once and then froze.
She raised her eyes to his with serene compliance. "My lord?"
He leaned over her, so close she could taste the rancid meat of his breath, could see the grease and crumbs still caught in his beard. He had the eyes of a beast, small and glittering now he had her in his sights. "Tell me," he murmured hotly, "when did you first turn to the Horned One? What bargain was offered? What unholy touch did he lay upon you, that your very womb did dry up?"
Elan gazed back in silence.
The Barron's thumb stroked her cheek. "Or perhaps you have not dried up at all. Perhaps it is you who curses me. Do you sacrifice my sons, before they ever quicken in you? Do you creep down into Purgatory each night and pass my unborn children into the Devil's scaled hands?"
A shiver started at the back of Elan's neck and rolled down, and down. He had accused her of many things, this brutish husband of hers—disobedience, rebellion, pride—but never this. For the surfs to murmur about heathens and enchantresses was one thing. For the Barron to speak it was another matter entirely. She sensed a new chasm of danger opening up beneath her, more treacherous than any yet.
"Witch," the Barron whispered, and the word carried the stench of his breath.
Elan trembled. "I am no witch."
"I have taken me a witch to wife, and she pollutes our bed with the Devil's lies."
"I am no witch."
"It is in your blood," he said almost gently, stroking her face. "The Welsh are pagans. The land carried the taint of faerie and witchcraft."
"My lord—" She steeled her voice against its tremble. "I am as Saxon as you."
"What, with that pagan cunt of a mother? I saw her looks, her evil eyes. I'd wager she began teaching you the craft while you were yet in your cradle. And so perhaps it is not your fault… perhaps you can yet be redeemed…"
Fear at last found its way into Elan's bones, a sharp fear she could not deny. Her mother had barely been more than a child when she was carried across the mountains and given as bride to a newly landed Saxon knight. That she had been born Christian and easily came to love her husband, Elan doubted Wythe would care. He saw only what he wanted—needed—to see. What could a barren wife be, but a witch?
She touched the Barron's arm, fingers trembling though she willed herself calm. "My lord, I beg you. Do not hold such harsh judgment of me. Do I not kneel for mass at your side? Do I not take the sacrament?"
The Barron's grip eased. Just for a moment.
Without turning, he raised his voice to reach across the room. "Get out, old woman. I would be alone with my wife."
Almost, Elan wished she would refused. But Melangell only sent her a long, pitying look, and stood. She knew where the line stood between calm arguments and outright rebellion. She had learned it the moment they arrived at Wythewood. It was Elan who could not believe this new life, who had to test and prod at the Barron's rules, and come away bruised and humiliated for it.
One did not fight a beast. One could only bow before him.
The maidservant left the room in silence.
Elan began to shiver again. Once she had started, she could not stop. The wind howled, and blew in a misting of rain.
The Barron crouched before her with eyes the color of storm. "You will not return to the lake to cast your spells."
Elan started. "Spells—"
"I've told Grisart. You are not to leave the castle again without my leave, or the cost will come from his own skin."
She forced herself to look down at her lap. But she could not force back the words that rose painfully. "Do you mean to make me a prisoner?"
The Barron laughed, abrupt and loud. "My lady wife—you already are."
Silence twisted like an unwelcome draft through the chamber, raising hairs on the back of Elan's neck, bringing sickness to the back of her tongue.
The Barron whispered, "Would you like to know how to free yourself?"
She dare not look up. "Please, my lord."
"Give me a son."
"I will give you anything in my power."
"Then you will give me a son tonight."
Dread curdled in her belly.
The Barron rose and moved back, toward the fire. From the edge of the hearth, he lifted a thick branch, cool at one end and burning at the other. He turned it in his hands, while his gaze returned thoughtfully to her. "We must first drive the evil from you. You must be made pure, a worthy vessel to carry my heir."
He came back to her, holding the burning branch. "I will know by the sound of your screams," he said, "when the evil has left you."