"Blow my horn," he said, urgently, "blow my horn," and at first she thought the blow she struck had strayed. She knew she had not missed him - she had felt the blade sink in - but had she cut deep into his shoulder instead of his neck, or dealt some other inconclusive wound?
Then his arms fell away from his head, dragging down the shirt he had so lately lifted, and she saw that the shirt was filling with blood. The knees of the body buckled, and she felt the weight of the head settle on her blade. It was too heavy a weight for her to sustain on the outstretched sword, so she was forced to let it slide and fall. The shirt and its contents rolled on the ground, mud and blood mingling.
She had beheaded him, and he was still speaking.
Instructions, not entreaty. "Blow my horn, and summon them," he repeated, only a little hoarse. He did not explain himself, but she thought she understood. To meet with the lord Halewijn, she had ridden alone to the centre of the wood. Along the way, she had gained an escort, silent men flanking her, replaced by others as her horse outpaced them, their gazes intent and strange.
Men and women alike went into the forest to seek out the lord Halewijn, after they had heard his voice. The women he slaughtered. The men he kept alive. There were none he turned away.
When she had reached the middle of the forest, and lord Halewijn had come out to meet her, the men had fallen back. She did not know if that had been in obedience to his will, or if they retained the awareness to shrink from him.
She did not know if his hold on them had broken with his beheading, any more than his tongue had stilled. "No," she said, loud enough to cut through cloth.
He spoke again, and this time his voice was coaxing and sweet. "Beautiful maiden, if you will not blow my horn, have mercy now you have mastered me. Go to the foot of the far gallows, and bring me the pot you find there."
Before he finished speaking, she had stepped away from him, and she was not sure if it was because he had asked or because she wanted to stop hearing his voice. She did not know if the words that rose in her throat in reply, asking him what she must do with the pot, were to trick him or to obey him. When he spoke, whatever he said, that was what you wanted to hear. She did not let the words out of her mouth.
"Bring it to me," he said, "and rub my neck with it, my neck that you have made so red."
She bit her lip and did not look behind her as she set out across the field. She took the sword. No, no, she mouthed, and did not voice that either.
If she could have, she would not have looked before her, either. The bodies hung the way that the animals had in the butchers' stalls, when she rode out through the town in all her most copious finery. The legs in their stockings were swollen, and the skirts were stained and torn where the birds had pecked. Before long, she had stopped rehearsing no silently, holding it in her mouth as if she could ready it to release. It was all she could do to hold in a scream.
On the far side of the field, she bent to pick up the pot - a generous armful, near-full with a pale green ointment - and looked up to avoid the body above it as she rose.
She could not stop herself from looking, and looking, because here Agneta hung.
Agneta, with her stories late at night. Agneta, exasperating and diffident. Agneta fulfilled her duties in exactly the same way every week unless prompted for more, and even then would often interpret royal requests in the way she found most convenient. Agneta, however, was almost a friend or had been, and could distract another less-welcome companion with a sudden, merry, idea. When she had last seen Agneta, Agneta had been laughing. She had not seen Agneta go.
And no one else should see Agneta like this, hanging like a criminal. She put the pot down, and reached for her sword, and struck above Agneta's head, and the body fell.
For a long moment after that, she could not move, as if, so lately a puppet, she had cut not Agneta's rope but her own strings. She was here at the end of the gallows-field, and it might have been the end of the world. Far away in front of her stretched the forest of lord Halewijn's estate, and behind her was the field of the dead and the waiting, wheedling head.
She would not take him back his pot. She would carry back her friend. He might still beguile her, but in breaking his gaze she knew she had broken his enchantment long enough to turn against him, and although she had gone on his errand she thought she could choose to defy it.
She took a deep quick breath and reached to unknot the rope around Agneta's neck.
The marks beneath were still red.
And she thought of another red neck, and as quickly as she thought of it, she put Agneta's body down and dipped her hand into the pot and smeared a scoop of its contents across her lady-in-waiting's mottled skin, across the neck and the pecked eyes.
The color faded - no, returned, the neck's waxy paleness retreating so that the violent marks did not stand out so much.
The chest moved; Agneta's eyes blinked, and the eyes that opened were whole, bright eyes. She coughed and breathed.
"Agneta," her lady said, and then she thought of the silent men in the woods, and gripped her sword.
But Agneta looked up at her with eyes full of ordinary horror. "Agneta," was answered with a gulping, "Oh!" and Agneta's hands flew to her neck.
"You remember," the princess said.
"I died," Agneta said.
"I would not have it so," her mistress said, and the sob Agneta answered her with turned into a laugh - as miraculous a transformation, in this field of the dead, as the workings of the ointment.
It was a large pot. They worked their way across the field, cutting down its corpses, emboldened as the strange ointment worked its magic faultlessly on worse and worse decay. The princess cut through rope after rope, and body after body fell into waiting arms, to rise again.
As they neared the side of the field where Halewijn lay, the head called to them, and the women froze. They looked at each other, and some moved towards him, and some moved away.
"I'm coming, lord Halewijn," the princess called. But instead of the pot, she took up a length of rope that had just been unwound from a neck, and she went to the head she had severed. She freed Halewijn's head from his shirt, but before he could speak again she thrust the rope between his jaws, and wound it around his head, and tied it.
His eyes flashed fire, but he could not form words around his gag.
A great sigh came up from the women, and although it was not the loudest noise they had made yet, the crows of the field took flight.
"I have used the ointment you gave me to a good purpose," the princess said, "and it is all gone." It was not true - they had emptied half the field and more, by now, and she had seen that half of the pot's contents still remained - but it gave her a fierce joy to say it and to see Halewijn's eyes go wide. Should his gag slip, he must not know that he still had that trick to play. Should he gain the upper hand again, still he must never be restored.
She lifted the head by his hair, and showed it to the women, even as the last of them cut from the gallows was helped to her feet. She was met with curses, and ragged cheers.
"It is not over," she said, and the women fell quiet.
"In the woods are our brothers, our husbands, and our sons, taken captive as we were; and we have seen that the lord Halewijn's enchantments defy his death. But that is the way we must go home.
"Maidens, we must make ready."
They hid the body beneath one gallows, and the head beneath another. They took up sticks and stones and made knots in the ends of ropes. They snapped braces from the hastiest-built of the gallows, and armed themselves with ragged stakes, should the men in the woods bar their passage still and look to lord Halewijn's command.
They made themselves ready. And then the princess blew the lord Halewijn's horn.