WARNING: This chapter contains triggers.
Night falls and I am haunted by what I have seen today and by the queen’s accusations. A man is dead and the whole castle thinks that I am a murderer. That is, everyone except Lothar and the king—praise the Goddess for that.
If only I could sleep this miserable day away and dream of happier ones. Of my new life and the beautiful future I will share with my love.
But no. When I close my eyes, I see the awful images. A dying man’s last gasping breath as he chokes on poisoned wine.
I hear the shrieking cries that fill the hall. “Witch!” “She would have killed us all!”
I see him lying there, his open eyes vacant and dull. I feel the chill of death in the air and my insides turn as though they are going to jump out of my mouth. The king’s words echo through the macabre scene: “Lucky no one important was killed…”
Only a slave…
I jump awake and catch my breath. My heart is pounding against the wall of my chest. I know I need to sleep, but I don’t know how I’ll ever sleep again.
“Corynne,” I hear Lothar murmur. “My darling, what is wrong?”
“Nightmares,” I whisper and move closer to him.
“It is over now,” he says and puts his arm around me. I rest my head on his shoulder and listen to the calm, steady rhythm of his breathing. My eyes feel heavier until I am taken under into a deep pool of darkness and warmth.
For the rest of the night, my sleep is peaceful and when I wake, I do not remember my dreams.
The days pass. Lothar paints me many different ways. He says he wants to capture my beauty so that he can always have me, just like this.
“You will always have me,” I tell him. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He says, “I can’t think of anything I’d rather paint.”
Although Falada has made many beautiful gowns for me, when I am alone with Lothar I feel the most beautiful when I wear nothing at all. As I lie before him completely exposed, I feel no shame in my nakedness—only freedom. I hope to always feel this free.
Each time we make love, it feels like the first time. Sometimes I feel like the intensity is going to suffocate me, but I never want to stop. Sometimes, when he is away, I feel like I can’t breathe. I prefer to stay in Lothar’s room, away from all of the condemning eyes. When Lothar is in here with me, the days are golden and sweet.
But then there are the secrets. When he is not with me, Lothar spends his time with his brother, Lathian. They are always whispering and planning.
No one but the two of them knows what they are conspiring. Whatever it is, I know it must be of the upmost importance, because the moment that Lathian appears, he steals my Lothar away.
When I walk in the room and they are talking, they become silent. Lathian seems skittish around me. I hope that he does not share the same opinion of me that his mother and other brother have.
I confront Lothar about his elusiveness, demanding to know what he’s hiding. It breaks my heart that he would keep anything from me. There is nothing about my life that he does not know. Don’t I deserve the same from him?
He only grins sheepishly at my request. “It’s not that I want to hide anything from you,” he insists. “If I thought it was good for you to know right now, you would. All will be revealed soon enough."
It is an answer I must accept. For now.
When Lothar is gone, there is not much to do when I am locked away in his bedchamber. As per the king’s orders, I am free to wander the castle without harassment. However, that does not stop the cruel whispers behind my back. The court views me as a piece of refuse intruding on their pristine society. They speak of me as though I am less than a criminal.
The servants are worse. I can see their hate and fear of me whenever I pass by. They believe that I’ve killed one of their own. Perhaps they are even wondering who will be next. My declarations of innocence are ignored, just as they were the night that poor Renfred was poisoned. So instead, I keep walking, pretending not to see or hear them.
And at all costs possible, I avoid the queen.
My favorite place is the garden. I love the peace that I find there. I could sit by the fountain, listening to the birds and the calming water, basking in the sunshine, and smelling the plants blossoming around me all day. It helps me forget all of the bad things when I don’t have Lothar there.
“Lady Corynne.” A familiar voice interrupts my reverie. It is Lathian. How odd to find him here without my Lothar attached to his ear. “You have a visitor.”
Lathian walks into the garden to greet me with someone that I know very well—the last person that I had expected to see. “Keiry?” I ask in disbelief. During these past days at Castle Veradel, I had resigned to my heart that I would never see her again, and yet here she stands before me.
“Corynne,” she breathes in her sweet, quiet voice. Keiry speaks everything as though she is breathing it. “It is good to see you again. I had hoped I would find you here.”
“It’s good to see you too!” I say. “I can’t believe it’s really you.”
Keiry is my oldest and dearest friend. Or, I suppose I should say, she is my one true friend. She was the only girl my age in the Sisterhood that I could talk to. She was one of the most difficult parts about leaving.
“You look so beautiful,” she says. “Your dress… It’s hard for me to believe it’s you as well. You’re so… different.”
“It’s me,” I say and embrace her. She smells of hay and animals and earth—the way that I once smelled when I was like her. Now I smell like the expensive bath oils and perfumes that Lothar bought for me at the market. My outsides may have changed after I left, but inside I am the same Corynne. And although I will soon become a princess, I know that I’ll always love this witch.
“Keiry, what in the world are you doing here?” I feel my stomach clench with nervousness. If Keiry knows where I am, chances are high that the Witch Queen does too. I am so happy to see her, though, that in spite of my nerves I keep smiling.
“I could ask you the same question,” she answers.
“I’ll just leave the two of you alone to talk,” Lathian tells Keiry gingerly. I realize that he has not taken his eyes off her since they walked into the garden together. “If you need anything,” he continues, “please don’t hesitate to find me.”
“Thank you,” she says softly. “I won’t.”
After he is gone, though not too far away I am sure, I ask her, “How did you know where to find me?”
“Your mother,” Keiry replies. “She was devastated to find that you were gone. She thought you’d been stolen. All of the witches were in a panic. But then she told me what she feared even more than that. She said that she saw you making eyes with a boy at the marketplace, and sometimes you disappeared when he was there. She recognized him as the king’s son and she was afraid that you had betrayed us and ran away with him. She’s sick with grief, Corynne. I promised her I would find you and sure enough, here you are. So it’s true, then.”
“The truth is I love Lothar and I am going to marry him,” I say. “I left the Sisterhood under my own free will for love, which is a thing that neither Galaea nor my mother will ever understand.”
“How could you do this?” Keiry’s soft, airy voice breaks in two and the sound is enough to break my heart along with it. “The bond we share with our sisters, your mother’s devotion to you, our friendship—that’s real love. How could you throw away everything you’ve ever known, everything that we believe, for a man? For a prince? Have you gone mad?”
“I’m sorry, Keiry.” Her words have hurt me, but my will is strong. “Galaea’s wrong about them—about Lothar and all other men. They are not the controlling monsters that she says they are. Lothar is gentle and kind and he loves me. I’m staying here with him and I’m never going back. I can’t go back.”
I have wounded her. Her face is lined in pain, but she only says, “I should go then.”
Without invitation, Lathian reappears. “Shall I escort you, my lady? It will be evening soon and the woods can be treacherous, especially for a maiden so fair. Allow me to be your protection.”
“Oh, I am sure I can manage,” she says, but I see a trace of fear in her eyes. As children, Keiry and I had told each other tales about what kinds of monsters—man and beast alike—roamed the Alathean Forest at night, until we were both so frightened that we couldn’t sleep.
“Lathian is a good man,” I tell Keiry. “Let him assist you.”
Keiry sighs. “He may walk with me, then, but only as far as I say. Then I want him to turn around and go back the way he came.”
“If that is what you wish, my lady,” Lathian agrees.
How odd to see a prince so eager to be at the service of a witch. But then, just look at Lothar and me. I am certain that Keiry will come to understand just how wrong Galaea is. Maybe she’ll even join me here. It would be lovely to have another ally in this place.
“Goodbye, my friend,” Keiry says sadly. “I do hope to see you again.”
“You know where to find me,” I tell her.
“Of course,” she says, “in the house of my enemy. Fair thee well, Lady Corynne.”
* * *
When night has fallen, Lothar and I slip out of our clothes and sneak out to the garden. At last, his business for the day is over and he can fully belong to me. My arms have been aching for him and now that he is mine, they wrap around him hungrily as I kiss his neck and lips. I feel as though I could devour him.
“Corynne, my beautiful…” he moans and presses his mouth against my throat. A wave of ecstasy pulls me into an undertow of feverish lust. I’ve never wanted him more.
“Take me,” I whisper. “Right here.”
He stares deeply into my eyes and I can tell that he wants me just as badly. My legs tremble in anticipation for him. He begins to lay me down, but then stops midway. His eyes change from passion to alarm.
“Did you hear something?”
“Like what?” I ask. “Is someone coming?”
I hear. The noise is coming from the castle. It sounds almost like wailing.
He lets me go and we both stand, staring dumbfounded at the castle. “What do you think it is?” I ask. “It’s like a cat is screaming.”
“I don’t think it is a cat,” Lothar’s tone is full of worry. “You see those windows behind the balcony—”
I look up to where he is referring. A candle burns in the room and I can see shadows darting here and there. Again, I hear the sound, as though someone were pulling the tail off a forest cat.
“—that’s my mother’s bedroom.”
I wrap my arms around my waist and Lothar pulls me closer to him.
“What’s happening up there?” I ask in a fright. If those unearthly sounds really are coming from the queen, I hate to think what is causing her to make them.
Suddenly, the light blows out and the cries cease at once. There is no more movement behind the window and the only sound anywhere is an unnerving silence.
“I’m going to find out,” Lothar says.
We both run through the garden and around the wall, toward the back kitchen door. As we run, I can hear the muddled shouts of men and the disorderly pounding of boots. I can feel fear in the air, hanging heavily like a rainy morning’s fog.
We stop abruptly as the king’s knight, Garim, charges toward us.
“Lothar.” His voice is gruff and winded from running.
“What has happened, Garim?” Lothar asks.
“It’s the queen. She’s missing.”
I bring my hand to my mouth and gasp. Assuredly, I am not taken with the queen, but that doesn’t mean that I want anything bad to happen to her. Even if she is cold to me, she is still Lothar’s mother.
“Have you seen anything? Has anyone come this way?” Garim asks.
“No,” Lothar says. “What do you mean, missing?” His tone is thin, as though he may faint.
“I mean she’s gone!” Garim exclaims. “We heard a struggle in her room, but when the other guards and myself went to her aid, the lights were out and she was nowhere to be found. Gone. The king has ordered all of the men to search for her and her attacker. You would do well to do the same. And for Fate’s sake, put some clothes on!”
Garim’s suspicious gaze lingers on me for only a moment, and then he turns and runs past the garden to the castle’s outer wall.
“This is bad.” It is the only thing I can think of to say. I feel as though I am standing at the edge of a cliff. It finally dawns on me that something very foul has been going on at Castle Veradel. Someone poisoned the king’s wine. I have been too preoccupied with the knowledge that everyone suspected me to wonder who actually did it. Now this. And the secrets. My mind starts to race. Does Lothar know more about what’s going on than he is telling me? He certainly knows something that he is not telling, and my heart is weighed down by the idea that it has something to do with all of the bad things that have been happening since I arrived here.
“Lothar,” I say slowly, “do you know…anything?”
“No,” he says. “But I have my suspicions.”
He takes me to his room and hurriedly opens his armoire to put on some clothes. I am afraid for the queen, but I can’t hide my disappointment that my evening with Lothar has been ruined.
After he has dressed in a hunter green tunic, Lothar takes my hand and says, “Stay here. No matter what you hear outside, do not leave this room. You’re the most important thing to me in this world, Corynne. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I feel exactly the same about you,” I tell him. “Please be careful.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he says. “I’m going to find her, no matter what I have to do. Just stay safe.”
I pull Lothar close to me and look straight into his eyes. “I’m afraid. Please tell me what’s happening—what’s been happening. What are you keeping from me? I can’t bear these secrets any longer.”
Lothar rests his hands on my shoulders and actually smiles. “Relax,” he says. “I’ve given you my word that I’ll tell you everything, but I have to go now. I need you to wait just a little while longer. When I come back, I’ll try to explain things the best that I can.” And with that, he kisses me briefly on the tip of my nose and rushes away, closing the chamber door behind him.
I wait on the bed for him, hoping that everything with the queen is all right. Wondering if we will ever get to continue where we left off.
After some time has passed, I hear a sound. The door opens and closes and a dark shadow moves across the room.
The figure of a man crouches at the foot of the bed. “My, you are beautiful,” he whispers.
“Darling, what has taken you?” I ask. “What has happened?”
The man rises to his feet. He is completely naked and, to my horror, I realize that he is not Lothar.
A choked cry escapes from me as he forces himself on top of me. I struggle against the weight of him, but I am not strong enough.
He slams me against the bed and holds me down. “Go ahead and cry, Witch,” he says. “No one will hear you. The whole castle is shouting.”
He squeezes my arm so tightly that I know there will be a bruise there in the morning. I hiss through my teeth in pain and curse my weakness. Hot tears gather in my eyes and I can only think, If only I were stronger. If only Lothar had not left me here alone. If only…
“Why are you doing this?” I gasp as he puts his hand to my throat.
“Why should my brother get you all to his self?” he answers silkily, but his tone makes me think of wriggling worms. “A witch is no better than a whore. I must say, though, you are exquisite as whores go. A good brother would share.”
Although it is dark and my eyes are burning with tears, I can see the crimson scar across his left eye. Litham.
“Let go of me!” I would like to scream, but my mouth is far too dry. My words come out a shrill squeak.
“Shut up, Witch!” Litham growls, far louder than me. “Just stay quiet and take it like a whore.”
He squeezes my arm tighter with one hand and with the other, he pulls away the thin lace of my flimsy undergarment that covers the part of me that he is after.
I start sobbing uncontrollably as he pushes himself toward me. I squeeze my thighs shut as tightly as I can.
“Shhh,” he tries to soothe me but his voice has a cruel edge to it.
I would spit in his eye if my mouth had any moisture left.
He bears his crushing weight down on me and pushes my legs apart with his. I know that in a moment, he will invade my body and a strangled scream rises from my throat. My eyes dart around the darkened room, searching for something—anything—that could help me.
Hastily, I form an idea. I stop struggling against Litham. Just as I’d hoped, he eases his grip on me. “That’s right, Witch,” he whispers. Despite my urge to tense at his warm breath against my ear and his hands rubbing up and down my body, grabbing me in places only Lothar is allowed to touch, I remain relaxed.
“You like this, don’t you?” It only takes him a moment to release his hold of me to change his position, but a moment is all I need.
Quicker than perhaps I have ever moved, I shoot upright and lunge for the candlestick on Lothar’s night table. I put all of my rage and revulsion behind the swing and strike Litham in the head. He drops like a stone and I push him off me.
When it is over, I stare in shock at Litham’s lifeless body and the candlestick lying on the floor. I cannot believe what just happened—or what I’ve done.
“Corynne?” I hear Lothar’s voice behind me. “My soul, what has happened in here?”
“He… he attacked me,” I stammer. “I had to… he was going to…”
I turn to face Lothar and I have never seen him look so angry.
“He touched you?”
Tears spill from my eyes as I nod.
“Did he rape you?”
“No.” My voice catches. “But he tried.”
Lothar wraps his arms around me and I can’t hold my sobs in. His embrace is so tight that my body aches, but I don’t dare let him go.
“I could kill him for this,” he says quietly. “I’ll see that he pays for his crimes. All of them.”
Lothar then releases me and tells me to get dressed. After I have slipped into a gown of rich violet and gold, he puts his hand on my shoulder. “Corynne,” he says thickly. His face looks anguished. “Darling, you have to leave.”
“Leave?” I ask, stunned. Although my first week at Castle Veradel has been less than perfect, I’d convinced myself that this would be my permanent home. “Where would I leave to?”
“You have to go home,” he says.
“You are my home!” I cry. “I’m not going anywhere without you.”
“You must go back to the witches. Go home to your mother. It is the only way I can be sure that you are safe.”
“Why?” I burst into fresh tears and I am aware that I sound like a child. I do not care. In this moment, it feels that my whole world is being ripped away.
“Because my mother is missing and I’m afraid for the worst. I know that Litham is somehow behind it, but my father won’t hear it. The whole castle is convinced that it was the witch’s doing, and they’re crying for your blood. That is why you have to go.”
He holds me while I weep.
“I can’t go back there,” I tell him. “I just can’t. You don’t understand. I can’t face them and… and I don’t want to be away from you.”
“I don’t want to be without you either,” he says, “but it’s the only way. I have a gift for you.”
He takes something from his desk drawer and lovingly puts it around my neck.
“A necklace?” I ask.
“More than that,” he says. “It’s the latest innovation in magic. Expensive and not easy to come by, but well worth it.”
“What is it?”
“It’s called a gatekey,” he answers. “What is the fastest way to travel?”
“By portal,” I say. “But—”
“Exactly. This little jewel can take you anywhere you can think of. You only have to see your destination clearly in your mind, and then you will be there.”
I hardly know what to say. Portals are certainly the most convenient way to get around, but they are a rare marvel. One must have the assistance of a portal-maker—usually a seer—to use them. But with this gatekey, I could go anywhere I wanted to.
“You have to go now,” Lothar says.
“Come with me,” I plead. “We could run away together. We could go somewhere far from here and be anyone we want to be.”
“I can’t,” he says firmly. “I have to stay here. There is so much I want to tell you, but I can’t just now. Promise me that you’ll go home to the witches and not anywhere else.”
“It is not my home,” I say bitterly, “but if that is what you wish, I will go there.”
Lothar pulls me in and we share our longest kiss yet. There is a heaviness in this kiss for it bears many things: my undying love for him, my unwillingness to leave him, my fears for our future, and all of my sadness, which in itself is a very heavy thing.
Still, I never want this kiss to end because when it does, I do not know what will happen. The heaviness I feel now nearly crushes me with the realization that I am kissing him goodbye. I hated to say goodbye to him those nights when he came to my window, but at least then, I knew that it was only until tomorrow. I have no way of knowing how long this goodbye will last.
When it does end, I do just as my love has asked of me, although it kills me to do it. I think of the home of the Sisterhood, and I can picture it so clearly it is as if I am there. And then, the sky opens up around me and suddenly I am.