Jeanne has escaped, and the lady of the castle paces the length of her halls.
Her guards are useless. She’s been clear how very dearly she would value the devotion of whoever delivered Jeanne’s poor bleeding body to her. But no matter how grateful she’d be, the guards sent to Jeanne’s home and the village and the wastelands to the north all return emptyhanded except for a scrap of fabric stained with blood and sweat. The prey’s slipped through the hunters’ fingers. Jeanne could have grown wings and flown away for all she can tell.
If she had powers like Jeanne’s, she could have used a bit of fabric like this to weave a spell, fill Jeanne’s mind with thoughts of her until Jeanne crawled back on her own to be walled up beneath stone and the lady’s tender care for the rest of her days. So the people of the village say, anyway—an object taken without your knowledge or leave and fallen into the hands of a witch, something small and personal, the scent of her, that’s all it would take for a witch to dig her claws into a victim.
For weeks now, the lady has been careful to give her nothing to work with, swathed in fabric examined daily for frayed threads, no hair out of place and burning each strand caught in her comb, with Jeanne’s eyes in her mind, her silhouette, that tall and haughty figure in a beautiful green gown moving through the village square as if it was hers and hers alone.
Jeanne’s dead in a ditch or else her devil’s carried her off to hell, and that’s an end to it, the lady comforts herself; the witch is gone from the village and life will return to normal.
It’s technically true, she discovers: the witch is gone from the village. Physically, at least. Only rumors are left behind, whispers over the winter of the beneficent witch who brings back the dead in dreams and plays at being the people’s confessor, hearing their troubles and granting their wishes. With the witch, they have no shame.
Jeanne’s ceded the village to her with one hand while beckoning the villagers into the wilderness with the other, and the lady can practically hear Jeanne laughing at her from wherever she’s hidden herself. Laughter would be better than indifference.
You wanted to rule this place? Jeanne mocks her in her dreams. Fine, it’s yours. My, what a grand power my lady wields, to hold sway over a handful of bricks and stones and a few men in armor who can’t catch one witch. Were the deals you made with your own devils any better than mine? What did you gain? Was it worth it?
She turns a scrap of fabric over in her hands, worrying at it, thinking of seeing the proof of Jeanne's growing power with her own eyes, thinking of the uselessness of her guards and of Jeanne sprouting wings and flying away again; worrying at her own lip with her teeth and thinking of some small object that might have been stolen without her knowledge and used to gain a hold on her mind and fill her head with thoughts of Jeanne.
A path through the caves, the rumors say. A garden in the wasteland. She sets out in disguise to avoid the humiliation of the lady of the castle being seen seeking out the witch. In the clothes of a servant woman, she reaches the border of Jeanne’s grove, and stands in the shadows of the trees.
Just visible in the moonlight, Jeanne is naked in the river, damp strands of hair clinging to her back.
When Actaeon watched the goddess Diana bathing in the wilderness, the lady thinks, he was transformed for it and hunted down and killed by his own dogs.
The flowers are turned toward Jeanne as if they’re blooming just for her, as if the whole garden was made just for her, and that’s all wrong, like everything else about Jeanne. As if between the witch and the lady of the castle, the witch isn’t the one who’s been forced to flee into exile. And the perfume in the air goes right to the lady’s head. There’ll be poison in that scent, she supposes. Her heart’s beating rabbit-fast.
The tree she’s hidden behind is growing. Rapidly. The bark moves under her fingertips. And not just that tree, but all of them, the poisonous flowers on their vines, a rushing sound in her ears as they swoop past her, up and away until she’s buried in blades of grass, crouching on four rabbit feet, as quick as her heartbeat.
And a paw pins her to the ground, a rabbit pinned in place, frozen staring up at the monster that’s caught her, sphinx’s smile and curling horns.
No. That’s not real. No rabbit and sphinx, she blinks and the lady lies flat on her back in her borrowed servant’s clothes, looking up the length of Jeanne’s bare leg to where it disappears beneath her cloak, pinning the lady to the ground.
There isn’t a bit of surprise on Jeanne’s face to see her here. Not indifference either, and the lady’s heart is thundering in her ears.
“I wondered when you’d come,” Jeanne says, her voice slow and lazy and deeply relaxed, as at home naked in the wilderness with her enemy at her feet as if she sat on a throne.
Of course the witch wouldn’t be surprised. The devil must have made her promises about this. Revenge would have been the endearments whispered in Jeanne’s ears. The lady could almost hear it, see it in Jeanne’s eyes: You shall behold your enemy on her knees at your feet, begging and praying for mercy, desperate to earn her release by doing everything she has made you do. And you will graciously say no.
Jeanne's lips curve into a smile. And the lady twists away, breaks and runs with Jeanne’s laughter ringing in her ears.
She sleeps with her mind full of Jeanne, of fantasies of choking her or drowning her, of the promise of kneeling and begging, of running through grasping branches. Fingers under cloth, rising to her own touch and Jeanne’s voice in her dreams, Jeanne’s scent on a scrap of bloodstained fabric, Jeanne writhing like smoke all around her.
She’s heard that a witch can brew a potion to bring dreamless sleep. Or one that can send you running through the forest in the shape of a wolf—not a rabbit or a deer or any other prey animal, and her guards are not the hounds of Actaeon, she tells herself every time she sees their eyes on her—a wolf, blood in your mouth, to escape from stone walls forever. She can’t stop playing it over and over again in her head, the moment she will beg for one or the other.