May I never know grief like it again. There are no words to describe the web of misery winding around that poor woman, crumpled and crying in the rain. Without thinking, I knelt and held a hand out to her as though I thought she could bundle up her pain and hand it to me. I remembered too late that my hand was still covered in Nelly's blood.
She slapped my hand away and snarled at me. "You bitch, you heartless bitch! You did this!" Her voice shattered like a water droplet." Why didn't you help her? You know Jemima's house, why weren't you here faster? What kept you?" As soon as she said it every eye turned to me. Did they know, somehow, that I had wasted time by fighting? If I had ran past him, convinced him to help, kept quiet and not distracted Arthur with the gunshot- might that little girl have lived? Or Mrs. Potter, slumped day and night in the tavern- it would not have taken two minutes to offer to mind the children for her, to offer them a warm, well-lit room in which to play. Was I a murderer for not asking?
"Lucy did everything she could, Ann, just like the rest of us," Jemima interrupted, lifting her long, red plait to keep it out of the mud. She wound it around her arm a few times, and nodded to Father Thomas, who crossed himself and slipped inside- to our great misfortune, it appeared she would need the last rites after all. Stepping forward toward the grieving mother, Jemima lifted her eyes to the three doves flit from the cottage window up to Paradise. "Her pain's gone now. That's all there was too be done."
"Tha's true," Arthur added. "A shame, t'is though, for a-"
"Stop making excuses," Sir John ordered, and stooped carefully to avoid muddying his fine clothes. With a solemn face, he coiled his arm around Mrs. Potter's shoulders. His voice slithered into her ear. What is it about rich, handsome men that makes us believe them? Though if I am fair, I do not suppose I blame Nelly's mother. He had a fine face, and a golden aura I had noticed even the first time I met him, when he came to my cottage and asked me to make his new bride some pretty dresses. The money he gave me bought a sewing machine, a new blanket for my bed, a month's firewood, fresh milk and honey and red apples and warm, white bread. For a time, I had thought him very honest.
Jemima's large eyes swiveled over the crowds' faces and finally onto Mrs. Potter, myself and Sir John. Had she somehow known what he would say?
"You have to wonder how Nelly came to harm, Jemima," the rich man declared, his hand caressing Mrs. Potter's brown hair as he stood up. "So close to your home, I mean. I'd have thought you'd hear her when the wolves got there." His black eyes caught my face. "You have before, for your little pet."
At this I stood up, half-ready to run though I did not know why.
"Jemima is old, Sir," I found myself saying. "And I was lucky." There was something about his expression, the glint of moonlight on his black eyes, that reminded me of that terrible night that the wolves had come after me as I strolled wearily through the woods, barely a year ago- still in my nightgown, still in my dreams, awoken only by the snarling around me, the growl of an animal crouching to pounce, the teeth tearing into my calf, my own screams, the shouts of the old woman who saved me and to whom I became a constant friend.
"Speaking of which, I'm surprised my horse didn't bring her here faster," he continued, his voice twisting my insides with every word. "Then again, you weren't looking for Nelly, were you?"
"Of course I was."
"Do you know what this one was doing when I found her?" he declared. "This one, who you've all seen in the front pew? Collecting herbs for the witch. Poisons. Then, seeing I'd spotted her, she stole my pistol."
"She had every plan to shoot me with it, too! Barely missed me, I can take you to see the bullet in the tree trunk," he went on. My blood congealed as I heard a murmur among some of those gathered: "Now that I think about it, I did hear a shot."
"You've all seen how she takes orders from the old bitch. Drifting across the bridge every night like a ghost," he snarled, glaring at me. "It was your witch who attended on my Sarah, and where is she now? Dead in the ground."
"I loved Sarah and you know it!" Jemima shouted, her eyes blazing as brightly as her hair. "She deserved better than you."
"Barely twenty-five and dead in the ground with her baby. Young and healthy, what would have caused such a thing?" he asked, turning with an arm lifted into the air, his palm facing the crowd. "A death penalty, I don't doubt, for turning away from you to marry me. That's why her and her baby died, and I don't doubt that poor little girl," he announced, shouting over the sobbing storm clouds. "was a victim of yours, too. A sacrifice to evil spirits, or a punishment to the town for overlooking you."
"No! We would not do that! Mrs. Potter, please..." My protests did little good as a collective roar rose from the crowd. The thunder boomed in agreement with their cries: Murderers, murderers, murderers!
"What the devil's going on out here?" Seeing Father Thomas, I darted towards him.
"Father, you have to make them see sense," I babbled. "Please, tell them we did not hurt Nelly."
"Hurt her?" He turned to Sir John. "There is a dead child in that house. Have you that little respect that you'd try and prompt a lynching here of all places?"
"It's regrettable, Father," Sir John replied, his tone more suited to dealing with a small child than a man of God. "But I don't think Nelly would be to happy if we ignored her murder."
"What? Murder? Sir, I think you've made a mistake."
"If anyone murdered Nelly, it was the idiot who should have been watching her!" Jemima shouted, doing herself no favours as she stared at the distraught, rambling Mrs. Potter. "What did you expect to happen if you leave your children to go drinking? Six years old! Why was she out of your sight in the first place?"
"Quiet, haven't you done enough damage?" Sir John snapped, the said to the crowd, "Blaming a grieving mother, have you ever heard anything so despicable?" On cue the crowd snarled, and shrieked, and shouted support for Sir John. After all, what good would supporting Jemima or me do? The rich, black-eyed had more to offer than us, and who knows? Perhaps they had assumed Jemima could make miracles, and saw no need to keep her around when they realised she could not solve every accident. Me? A rosy, blonde seamstress, what did I matter? A little girl was dead, and those left alive demanded a pound of flesh from someone. Who cared if we were to blame or not? We sufficed.
So, without protests or evening questioning this rich man, the village convicted both of us- us, who many of them had known all their lives- and demanded we be killed. Since the rain forbade them from burning us(and hanging was too quick to quench a bloodlust), Sir John declared that it was only fitting to throw us into a pit with wolves to be tore apart and eaten.
Thank you so much to anyone who's reading this. I wasn't totally sure about this chapter, but here it is. I'll try and get the next one up as soon as I can.