by David Barber
The track down the mountain is narrow and treacherous. A misstep by a tired horse sends stones clattering down into the gorge and the riders twist uneasily in their saddles, aware how vulnerable they are strung out in a line. But if the mist conceals a threat it does not show itself.
The witch-wife, muffled in furs and astride a docile mare, stares ahead. She is not braver than her bodyguard, but she has dreamed all this before and there is no trap.
An ancient stone bridge marks the border. On the far side wait mounted warriors, and their voices carry, mocking the ponies and ragged folk of her bodyguard. This is the foe who has always beaten them in battle; who are blood and iron and purpose. Her kind have learned to best them in other ways, more subtle, watchful, clever. Now there is to be a truce between weary kingdoms, sealed with a marriage to end the War.
As they halt at the bridge, a warrior leans forward and spits, and his Captain backhands him with a mailed glove. The man bares blood-stained teeth like a wolf.
They escort her to a feasting hall, hung about with flags and weapons, where bearded men are waiting. These are their chiefs; they wear swords and mail, garnished with wrist-guards, boots and scars. Amongst them are factions who still plot for victory.
They openly discuss her in their tongue, as if they have come to judge her, like horseflesh.
“This is the witch-wife? I pity her husband.”
Plain and flat-chested, she hears them say, though they use coarser language than this.
“I’m told she’s a favourite of their Queen, if you understand.”
“A man would need to be firm with her,” says another. A dirty joke in their speech.
She interrupts the laughter. “You do yourselves no honour in speaking so.” Her accent has been likened to that of a priest.
“Now I know you have a contact at our court. Ask yourselves what else you have given away. I would not be so impolite nor as foolish with your ambassador.”
She bristles with anger, but belittling them was a mistake; they will not forget.
The husband they chose for her has been drilled from childhood in close-quarter killing, the work of blades and pole-arms. He is called Balla, after some ancient hero. She explains her own name, Krista Lowensdatter, daughter of Lowens, after her father. Her mother chose Krista. She sees there will be silences between them.
That first night, her fingers are unsure where armour ends and flesh begins.
By tradition, their Ladies do nothing, sequestered from men’s gaze, chattering and wasting hours on appearances their menfolk barely notice. A deputation of these wives calls to welcome her, though their real motive is a pernicious curiosity. Perhaps they mistake aloofness for contempt, because they never come again.
This glimpse of their lives prompts her to work, burnishing each piece of her husband’s armour, oiling the squeal of a shoulder joint, making leather supple. She sits silently as he hones a sword; the trust of a wild thing, earned slowly.
Though the War is over, these men cannot hang up their weapons, forever goading one another into bruising combat. Only the maimed and the old are excluded. Her husband practices daily, and returns battered from melees and tournaments. Perhaps this is what she has been warned about; so she invents a dream.
“Not a real fight, yet they wanted to kill you.” She points to a warhammer. “With one of those.”
“A worry dream,” he says uneasily. A woman’s dream, he means. “The melee is only training.” She guesses he has never reassured a woman before.
There was no choice, the Queen had said, her febrile eyes full of futures. “You are the witch-wife.”
Confined to her sickbed, the Queen whispered what she had skryed at such cost. “Sometimes you save your husband; sometimes they kill him. They ignore you because you are a woman, but always the peace endures only as long as your marriage.”
The Queen had clutched her with gaunt hands. “And be wary of love, it makes it harder to do what you must.” She dropped back onto the pillows, exhausted by seeing too much. Magic wastes the flesh of those that use it.
So when he leans in the doorway, blood staining his armour, it is his wife’s dream, almost come true. He is wholly ignorant of magic, yet credulous of its reputation, as if anything was possible.
“A lucky blow,” he grunts, as she unbuckles metal. She cuts him out of his shirt, touching his pale torso for the first time in daylight. His fists clench as she sews flesh.
Forced into idleness while healing, he begins to notice her; he notices her slender busy hands, the curve of her neck, the frown she wears when displeased. Why had they warned she was plain?
When he lets her crop the tangles of his hair, as a proud hawk might tolerate being touched, she keeps a fallen black ringlet, for when the full moon gleams in a mirror and her own blood flows darkly.
She dreams of loppings and gashed flesh, and steaming guts spilled on the ground; and always too late, the warning, as bearded men in mail chop him down, this fate always winding eventually back to war. She wakes feverish, knowing what must be done.
In the first tournament since his wounding, an unlucky lance splinters. In the blink of an eye, fragments pierce his visor. The making of such luck took all her skill.
She covers his ruined sight with a white bandage and leads him by the arm, like a broken horse betrayed by the saddle. He is safe in his darkness now, a maimed warrior’s shame puts him beyond harm.
Well that he cannot see how gaunt magic has made her, the grey of her hair, the guilt in her face.
The witch-wife and the wounded knight, may they find peace together.
David Barber lives in the UK. His ambition is to write.