The Snow Bride
She is Beauty, but is he the Beast?
Book One of The Knight and the Witch
England, winter, 1131
Elfrida, spirited, caring and beautiful, is also alone. She is the witch of the woods and no man dares to ask for her hand in marriage until a beast comes stalking brides and steals away her sister. Desperate, the lovely Elfrida offers herself as a sacrifice, as bridal bait, and she is seized by a man with fearful scars. Is he the beast?
In the depths of a frozen midwinter, in the heart of the woodland, Sir Magnus, battle-hardened knight of the Crusades, searches ceaselessly for three missing brides, pitting his wits and weapons against a nameless stalker of the snowy forest. Disfigured and hideously scarred, Magnus has finished with love, he thinks, until he rescues a fourth 'bride', the beautiful, red-haired Elfrida, whose innocent touch ignites in him a fierce passion that satisfies his deepest yearnings and darkest desires.
Here is a new excerpt from my Medieval Romance, "The Snow Bride",where witch Elfrida and warrior Magnus are getting to know each other.
Her dreams were dark and strange, full of loud noises and storm. She called, in her dreams, on the saints and the old ones to protect her, while at times she was in a land of white, then red and green. When the space about her turned blue, she woke.
Magnus was sitting beside her, playing chess with another man. As he moved the queen, he lifted his familiar, ugly head and smiled at her.
“How are you now?”
“Better, becoming better,” she said. “But how long and where—”
He smiled. “Never fret, Elfrida! My men and hounds are searching the forest even now, and Christina’s betrothed is with them. They will find the track of the monster even in this snow.”
Elfrida looked about, recognizing the hut and the charred remains of Magnus’s huge bonfire.
“You were too ill to move,” Magnus said simply. “I did not realize at first, but when the fit-demon came over you, I reckoned we must stay here.” With a quickness that astonished her, he took her face in his hand. “The demon has gone from you. Your eyes are as clear as amber again, and very sweet.”
Elfrida flushed, unused to anything of hers being called sweet. She was conscious, too, of the steady warmth of Magnus’s fingers against her cheek even as she anguished, wondering what the fit-demon had made her do. For the first time in an age she wondered how she looked. Were the itching-pox spots very bad?
I fret for a mirror when Christina is still missing! That is more sinful than witchcraft.
The man beside Magnus spoke, and Magnus laughed, releasing her.
“Mark is a simple soul. He thinks you are not pretty enough to bother with. He says he would have rolled you in the snow and left you.”
Elfrida rubbed her finger and thumb together, murmuring a charm to bring fleas to the ungracious Mark, a wiry russet-and-gray fellow with a red nose. She smiled when he clapped a hand onto the back of his neck, and cursed.
“How long have your men been searching?” she asked, wondering if the helmet full of hot water was still about and if she might have some.
“Since dawn today,” Magnus replied, holding out a flask. “We must do it quickly. More snow is coming.”
Elfrida glanced at the cloudless sky and wondered how he thought that. “Where are you looking?” she demanded, taking the mead with a nod of thanks. In this sacred time before Christmas, such honey drinks and small luxuries were forbidden, but God would understand a gesture of peace and fellowship.
Mark glowered and said something more, which Magnus waved away with the stump of his right hand.
“What did he say?”
“That an ugly woman is an affront to God and that you ask too many questions.”
“Mark is a fool. When I am well, I will be acceptable, and Mark will still be a fool.” She glanced at the fellow, who slapped at another biting flea on the back of his neck. “That one will say that all women talk too much. He steals brides, do you know?”
“I think you mean the monster rather than my soldier.”
“I hope he fights better than he reasons.”
“He does. As for the monster, Walter told me through an interpreter.”
“What else has Walter said?” Loathing the way the men of her own village had kept secrets from her, Elfrida forced herself to swallow her resentment—it would only waste time now. Biting her tongue, she took a huge gulp of mead, which made her eyes water and had her half choking.
Magnus did not grin or clap her on the back. He waited until her coughing had subsided and gave her a slow, considering look. Whatever he saw must have satisfied him. He spoke again to Mark, a clear order, and waited until the man had risen and kicked through the snow to a covered wagon.
“How are the spots? Itching yet?”
Elfrida gave a faint shudder. “Do not remind me.” Since stirring, she had been aware of her whole body tickling and burning. Mark’s idea of rolling in the snow might not be so bad.
“Walter told me that the
bathhouse. Bathing in oatmeal will help you.” village
of Great Yarr
She did not say that the village could afford to spare no foodstuffs and would not be distracted. She had tried to rush off in pursuit of the monster before and gained nothing, so now she would gather her strength and learn before she moved. “What did you call the beast?
Grendel? Is it known he lives in the forest?”
Magnus shook his head. “It is not known, but I do not think so now, or at least not outdoors. I have hunted wolf’s heads who have been outlawed and fled into woodland, and they always have camps and dens and food caches within the forest. I have found none of those hereabouts.”
“My dowsing caught no sign of any lair of his,” Elfrida agreed.
Magnus leaned forward, bracing himself with his injured arm. Elfrida forced herself not to stare at his stump, but to listen to him.
“Do you sense anything?” he asked softly.
“The night you came, I felt something approach.” She frowned, trying to put into words feelings and impressions that were as elusive as smoke. “A great purpose,” she said. “A need and urgent desire.”
Now Magnus was frowning. “Have you a charm or magic that will help?”
“Do you think I have not tried magic, charms, and incantations? My craft is not like a sword fight, where the blades are always true. If God does not will it—”
“I have been in enough fights where swords break.”
“Are your men good trackers?”
“They would not be with me, else.” If Magnus was startled by her determination to talk only of the beast, he gave no sign. “Tell me of your sister and her habits. Did she keep to the same paths and same tasks each day?”
“Yes and yes, but what else did Walter say? The old men have told me nothing!”
“No, they do not want the womenfolk to know anything, even you, I fear.” His kind eyes gleamed, as if he enjoyed her discomfiture. He had a small golden cross in his right eye, she noticed, shining amidst the warm brown.
A sparkle for the lasses, eh, Magnus?
To her further discomfiture, she realized he had asked her something. “Say again, please?”
“Would you like some food to go with your mead? There are the remains of mutton, dates and ginger, wine and mead and honey.” His brown eyes gleamed. “My men found it in the clearing where I found you. The mutton has been a bit chewed, but the rest is palatable, I think.”
“It is drugged!” Elfrida burst out. “I put”—she could not think of the old word and used her own language instead—“I put a sleeping draft in the wedding cakes and all.” She seized his arm, not caring that it was the one with the missing hand. “Do not eat it!”
“Sleeping draft?” He used her own words.
She yawned and feigned sleep, startled when he started to laugh.
“A wedding feast to send the groom to sleep! I like it!” He chuckled again and opened his left hand, where, to Elfrida’s horror, there was one of her own small wedding cakes.
“Do not eat it!” she cried.
With surprising speed, Magnus rose and flung the cake straight into the forest. Elfrida watched it tumbling through the trees, going leagues and leagues, it seemed to her.
“Now we must shift with what I have.” Magnus settled back again, rumbles of laughter still shaking in his huge chest. “Do not look so troubled, Elfrida. I am too greedy to put anything on my food but salt, when there is some.”
With Christina still missing, Elfrida could not smile at the irony, but her belly growled, reminding her that she had not eaten for days.
“I am hungry, too,” she admitted. “Thank you.” They could still talk while they ate.
Sharing roasted chestnuts, acorns, toasted bread from the stores of Magnus’s men, cheese and apples and dates, she and Magnus shared their knowledge, too.
“Walter called him a spider?” Magnus repeated when she had told her sorry tale. “One who comes and goes without sound?”
“And without breaking twigs. You say he has struck at all three villages? A maid from each one, perhaps?”
Magnus nodded. “I was told that the orphan lass was taken from Great Yarr and another maid from Selton, with your Christina being carried off from Top Yarr.”
“So it may be that the beast knows the area well.” Elfrida chewed on a date, guiltily enjoying its sweetness even as she wondered if Christina had eaten yet. “You think he will touch
Magnus sighed and stretched, cracking the joints in his shoulders and his good hand one by one. “I have sent men to all these places, including
Yarr, to get the villagers digging out ditches round their homes
and gathering thorns to put round their houses. I wish the menfolk would let
the maids come to my manor, but they refuse.”
“They refuse? They?” Elfrida felt as if she had turned into a dragon and might breathe fire, she was so angry. Rage burst through her, and she clutched her wooden cup so fiercely she heard it crack. “By what right do they choose and not say a word?”
Magnus scratched at one of his deeper scars. “It is the way of the world. You are freer here than in Outremer, where women are kept indoors.”
“Thank you. That is such a comfort,” snapped Elfrida. She could feel mead trickling down between her fingers, and her anger tightened another notch. “Christina would be safe now, if they had told us!”
“Would she have left her betrothed, especially so close to her wedding?” Magnus asked patiently.
Elfrida closed her eyes and said nothing.
“Once my men begin work on the ditches, your villagers will have some explaining to do.”
“Good!” Elfrida ground the fingers of her free hand into her aching eyes. Her limbs itched and flamed, and she no longer had any appetite.
“Do you know anything of this orphan girl?”
“Why her particularly?”
“Because it was obvious from what the headman told me that she had no one to stand for her.”
Elfrida took a deep breath. “I would have spoken for her, but I knew nothing!” In a fury, she dashed her hand against her forehead, forgetting she was gripping the wooden cup, and immediately saw a host of green lights.
“I have something of hers,” Magnus remarked quietly. “Part of a blue veil found inside the lean-to. The place where she lived,” he added.
“The beast came inside her home? Did she let him in? Did he force the door?”
“From what I was told, I think the creature slipped in through the roof.”
Which explained Walter’s prodding of the thatch when he had last visited Christina, Elfrida thought, abruptly chilled as she imagined a shadowy, hulking form bursting into a hut from above.
Was the monster as big as Magnus?
She glanced at him, her fingers absently scratching at the spots in her hair. He looked at her steadily.
“I am not him,” he said, “and you should not do that.”
Elfrida’s hand flew down to her lap. “Blue veil, you say?” she croaked, snatching at the first thing she could to cover her embarrassment. “My sister’s wedding veil is blue.”
“One of the doors in my dream of the creature was blue.”
Elfrida’s interest sharpened, even as she realized that Magnus had mentioned his dream to purposely divert her. But then, she worked in dreams. Dreams were important. “Tell me all.”
She listened carefully to Magnus’s halting account, not shaming him by asking what he was leaving out in his tale of the river and the doors. Men did not feel easy discussing dreams.
“Who are Alice and Peter?”
“The true friends of my heart and hearth. Hellsbane—Peter of the Mount—was a fellow crusader, fighting with me in Outremer. He has carried me off the field of battle more than once.”
“And you him,” Elfrida guessed.
Magnus waved this off. “His fight name is Hellsbane.
gave him that name.” Alice
“And what is she?”
“His wife.” Magnus puffed out his cheeks, making himself an ugly, jolly demon. “Like you, she is a healer, a maker of potions. But a lady.”
Shrugging off the but, Elfrida wondered what
the lady looked like, then found her thought answered. Alice
“She is small, like you, and pretty, with long, black hair and bright, blue eyes. She wears blue, also. The Forest Grendel would have stolen her away had she lived hereabouts and Peter been dead and in his grave.”
“The monster has his dark-haired bride,” Elfrida reminded him, feeling a pang of envy at the warm way Magnus described the lady Alice, “but no auburn yet.”
“You cannot put yourself up as bait again.”
“No one will stop me.”
Magnus shook his head. “You have some days before you can even entertain such foolishness.”
“Men like the outward show. I know that all too well. I have never seen a handsome man with an ugly wife.”
Magnus’s brown eyes twinkled. “You would at court and in kingly circles. A handsome dowry can work marvels for a plain girl.”
“Plain yes, but no worse than that.” Why do I pursue this? I know men are shallow as dew ponds!
Anger at herself and mankind made her blaze out with another fresh rage of itching, all over her body. She glanced longingly at the snow and then at the necklace of bear’s teeth and claws slung around Magnus’s thick neck.
“Those are the claws I saw the night you found me!” she burst out, reaching out to touch the necklace. Pleased to have one mystery understood, she smiled in turn and bent her head eagerly as he dropped a small parcel onto her lap. “What is this?”
“His token, dropped into the girl’s rush pallet when he stole away with the orphan. I am most interested to know what you make of it.” He cleared his throat. “What you sense from it,” he added, glancing at the charms around her neck.
Why did he not show me this earlier? Elfrida unwrapped the rough cloth with trembling fingers. She did not want to think of the girl, waking in her bed and finding a monster where she should have been safe within her home.
She did not want to touch the object, not at first, and studied it a moment. “Have you handled this?”
“I did exactly as you did, Elfrida. I untied it and looked. I cannot say for the village headman or the rest.”
She lifted it, still wrapped in the cloth, and sniffed.
“I did that, too,” Magnus said quietly. “The scent is cloves and frankincense.”
“Cloves, frankincense with a whiff of pepper and ginger. All foreign and expensive. So the monster has money and servants.”
“Ah, to buy them for him! Unless he steals those, too, from peddlers and the like, as they pass through the forest.”
“It has a blue base,” Elfrida observed, turning the cloth on which the object was laid.
“Ancient glass, Roman, I think, cut to shape and set into the wood. Is it a cup, as seems? Or was it fashioned for other uses?” As he spoke, Magnus lifted his left hand and made the sign to ward away the evil eye.
“There are no runes or magic signs cut into the goblet, no gems or magic stones inset within it.” Elfrida closed her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose. “It is old, made in the time of our grandfathers. It has held hot things.”
“Tisane.” Elfrida smiled at Magnus’s wary question, amused and saddened in equal parts at the way nonwitches thought all magic dark and terrible. “See where the inside is stained dark? That is with tisane. I would say a blackberry tisane.”
“Not blood and not beer either, like your own good ale.”
“No.” Absurdly touched by Magnus’s praise, she found herself wishing, for a moment, that she could give him more ale.
“What?” Magnus asked, altogether too sharp and all seeing.
“Nothing, eager one! Now let me work.” Confident of her own magic, she took another deep breath and lifted the small bowl-shaped cup with both hands.
Images rose out of the snow and played across her startled eyes. There was Christina, laughing with her head thrown back, and a dark-haired girl dancing on the spot, blowing into a small pipe. A shadow fell across them both, but they did not shrink back. Rather they stepped forward eagerly, their hands outstretched like beggars at a fair.
“Christina!” she called in her mind, but the vision faded even as she strained to reach for her sister and for an instant felt as if she flew, as she could when she ate the secret mushroom of the birchwood. She blinked and was looking down from the treetops, east into a gray sky at a hillside of oak trees, and within the oak trees were three strong towers.
She lunged forward like a hawk, dropping to the tower with the blue door...
“Elfrida? Elfrida! Are you with us again?”
She sighed, pinching the top of her nose, forcing her spirit back within herself. It was mildly disconcerting to discover that she was half on Magnus’s lap, her body propped against his barrel chest and her head snug in the crook of his arm—his arm with the stump, she realized.
“Are you well?” he asked again, touching her forehead with his good hand. “Your eyes rolled back into your head, and you were twitching like a hunting dog on the scent.”
“I was hunting,” she replied. Deciding she was too comfortable to stir from where she was, she talked quickly as the scene vanished into the whiteness of the snow. “He has them bewitched in some way, perhaps with a love philter, perhaps with a handsome, pleasing familiar.”
“Have you a familiar?”
She scowled at the interruption, conscious again of the itching in her hair and across her face and arms. “I do not need one,” she said sharply. “But listen to me now, for once the sight leaves me, I do not always remember it well.”
Magnus nodded and brought a finger to his lips, his promise of silence.
“To the east of here, within the forest, there is an oak wood set on a high hill. His lair is there, within three strong towers, three towers, one with a painted blue door.”
She heard Magnus’s breath catch, but he did not interrupt.
“I saw my sister, laughing, and another girl, playing a pipe. They were dancing. I do not know if they were together, or if they danced alone, for the beast. They seemed unharmed. I did not see the third, but they were safe and even happy.”
She felt Magnus’s gasp of relief, and his reaction inspired hers. Overwhelmed to know that Christina was safe, she sobbed aloud as tears burst out of her.
“Aye, aye, I wondered when it would come to this.” Magnus gathered her closer still, ignoring her fever and spots. When her weeping subsided, he gave her a clean rag to wipe her face.
* * * *
He believed her. He had seen magic in Outremer, where men had put themselves into trances and driven nails into hands without pain or blood. He shouted to Mark, a single order, “Stop!” and listened as Mark blew his horn to signal to the rest of his men.
“Does the monster hunt alone?” he asked Elfrida. She was rubbing at her forehead with the rag, and he took it from her to stop her bursting her spots. She frowned but not because of the itching pox.
“I do not know,” she admitted.
“No matter,” he said easily, glad she had sense enough not to claim more than she did and not wanting her to blame herself. That was the failing and limit of magic, he knew—it never showed everything.
She squirmed on his lap and rolled off him into the snow.
“I must set a charm to find this oak hill.” She rose to her feet, seemingly unaware of how she swayed in the still, crisp air like a sapling in bad weather. “All oaks, and very ancient, with lichens hanging from them. And mistletoe!” She brightened at remembering, the glow in her small, narrow face showing how pretty she was, without spots.
She checked the position of the sun and began to walk southeast, tramping stiffly through the snow. Then she turned back.
“Your men know to let me pass?”
“They would not dare delay a witch.”
She smiled. “No, only you would.” She turned, took another step, and stopped.
Magnus did not want her to leave, either. He told himself it was because his men were even now calling back through the trees, “Nothing!” “No track!” “Nothing here!”
I need her skills, and though she will not admit it, she needs mine.
He limped toward her and offered her his good arm. “May I escort you? I have seen a mage’s house in the East, but never a witch’s home.”
He caught a glitter of interest in her eyes, quickly suppressed as she jerked her head at his horse and gathering men. “Do they come, too?”
“It will be quicker,” Magnus said easily. “Once we know where to seek your sister, we can set out on horseback.”
“I do not have a bathhouse nearby.”
“A barrel of water and hot stones will do as well.”
“And food and hay? I cannot magic those.”
“My men have brought both, even oats.”
She glanced at the gray skies and shook her head. “There will be more snow tonight. More! I have no spells against that amount of evil weather!”
“And your sister is indoors.” He waited a moment, for her to see the good in that, then added, “If we cannot hunt in more snow, neither can the beast.”
She nodded and took his arm, saying quietly, “Thank you.”
They walked forward together.
THE SNOW BRIDE (THE KNIGHT AND THE WITCH 1) https://amzn.to/2MZZan0