"I'd listen to a mad man over a woman any day." Eleanor's brother sucked on his cigar.
"Now that's not fair." The lawyer stretched out his legs towards the hearth and examined his calfskin boots. "Women are by nature mad, in one way or another. I've not met one that wasn't dumb, hysterical, or downright cruel." He cleared his throat, noticing Eleanor by the door. "Present company excepted of course."
Eleanor set the tray of scones carefully upon the side table so as not to give her fury away. Her brother twisted the ring around his third finger, watching her. She dared him silently to speak up, defend his precious fiancée Beth at least. His lips remained firmly shut.
"No need, my good man." Her father sighed. "My girls are all paragons of womanhood in those regards. That'll be all, Eleanor."
"And she's sticking to her story?" Eleanor's brother asked. Smoke trickled from his lips.
Father shook his head. "She's not said a word since they found her with the babe's blood on her hands."
"There, what did I tell you? Dumb."
Eleanor shut the door a little louder than perhaps was strictly polite.
She strode to the sitting room, leant her fists on the window sill and pressed her forehead against the centre pane.
By the fire, her mother exhaled in disgust. "Are they still talking?" She dropped her pretense of sewing into her lap. "They'll be at it all night at this rate. We'll miss the funeral service. What are they going on about for so long?"
"Who murdered the child," Eleanor murmured.
"Oh goodness." He mother fanned herself. "Of all things. Still? How gruesome."
Her sister Abby leaned forward. "Bailiff said only a man could have done it. Says the madman planned to eat it."
Her mother let out a half-stifled cry and fanned harder. Eleanor's jaw hardened.
"He says they are both guilty," Abby went on. "That girl for giving it to him and the man for salting it.
"How extraordinary." Her mother leaned forward too.
Eleanor spun around. "Might I be excused, Mama."
A vague wave of her hand.
Eleanor ran down the hill track clutching two warm scones and a tin pot wrapped in her pinafore against the gusty wind.
How could they. How could they talk as if Mary was any common harlot. Clouds marked the sky, a shiver of rain fell. As if they hadn't grown up together, Eleanor and Mary, as good as sisters. Mary had been a better sister than Abby, ten times over.
She slowed as the road turned to cobbles. She dropped the scones into her pockets, and stooped by the mill stream to scoop some water into the pot.
"Miss Eleanor." A hat touched. A hand-cart trundled past.
Eleanor nodded at the tenant, but pressed on over the arc of the bridge and through the first buildings of the town to where the sandstone blocks of the gaol loomed.
She bobbed a curtsey to the guard sagging out the front. "Father sent me with some broth for the prisoner."
The guard peered inside the proffered tin pot. His cheeks worked and a gob of drool plopped into the water. Eleanor held the pot handle hard.
"Very good, miss." The guard straightened up. "Pilling, grub's up for cell two," he bawled over his shoulder.
Eleanor forced out a stiff curtsey and ducked into the dark mouth of the gaol.
When the cell door was safely locked behind them, and Pilling's slow steps had drawn away, Eleanor let the pot fall into the straw. She flew into Mary's arms. For a moment she couldn't find the words, and just hugged her more tightly.
Then she drew back and pressed the still warm scones into her friend's hands. "This is awful. Just awful. How are you?"
Mary tried a ghostly smile and peeled a small bite from the scone. Her hollow eyes widened at the burst of sweetness.
"Raisins. Cook soaked them especially."
Mary ducked her head. She swallowed hard. "Thank you."
There was still blood edging the trim of Mary's sleeve. Eleanor looked away. She paced three steps back and forth. "It's disgraceful. Do you know what they are saying?"
Her face sinking lower, Mary shook her head.
"That you stole the baby from the nuns. That the madman's a prophet. That you're a witch-" A furious noise ground out her throat. "They're the ones that've gone mad."
"I'm going to hang, Ellen." She exhaled a shivering breath.
Eleanor grabbed her arm. "Don't say that. You can't. There's no proof one way or the other." She gripped her harder. "Father will have to rule that. And they'll have to let the both of you go."
"People won't forgive the death of a child. They'll want some kind of … justice."
"But where's the justice in this?"
"Revenge, then." Her lips squeezed themselves flat. "What difference does it make."
Eleanor dropped onto the wooden platform that served as a bed. The one who's got blood on their hands. The madman's words had haunted her all day. She kicked at the sodden straw, keeping her eyes from the red rim of Mary's sleeve. It was useless, anyway. Of course the murderer had blood on their hands. She stared at the walls. Hardly the most visionary thing to say, for a prophet. She scowled. The bare stones, un-white washed, nude, offended her. Everything offended her.
"Was it really your child?" Eleanor focused the force of her gaze on her friend.
Mary froze mid bite. Her eyes closed. She nodded.
Eleanor leaned forward, chin in her palm. How had she missed that? A year ago, two, Mary had been sent to help out on their northern estate. It must have been then. Where had she hidden it since?
Mary's dark lashes glinted wet. "I knew he would try." Her voice broke. She pressed the back of her hand into her tears. "I tried to stop him but- "
"Mary." Eleanor slipped down beside her, hugging her shoulders. "Did you know the murderer?"
A trembling nod.
Was it him? Eleanor mouthed, her chin jerking towards the madman's cell next door.
Mary looked at her, face blank with shock. She just barely shook her head.
Eleanor's hand tightened into a fist. "You must tell them what happened."
Mary's face fell. She buried the remaining scone in a pocket of her dress. Her thin shoulders squared.
"Ellen, I have to escape."
Eleanor's chin slid off her fist. She stared at her friend. "Then you'll be as good as tried already, in their eyes."
"He's going to kill me anyway," she whispered. "Please Ellen." She shuffled forward on her knees. "Tonight."
Eleanor wanted to say Mary could trust her Father to do the right thing, that they'd grown up together, that justice would prevail. The words stuck in her throat.
She stood. Rapped on the cell door. Took a breath. Turned.
"When you hear the church ring out for the service, be ready."
Then Pilling was there, and the key scraping, and there was no time for anything else.
The moon drowned behind pregnant clouds, casting beacons that sank into the night. Behind the black bulk of the townhouses, the priest rang his hand bell for the babe's funeral. Eleanor gripped the horse's reins. Beyond the elm's limp branches, the guards locked up and slouched off for the town square, their lantern swinging their shadows against the walls.
Eleanor counted ten breaths. She took one step towards the gaol. Footsteps clattered to her right: a farm boy late for church. Eleanor made herself count again, then once more for good measure. Nothing. She slipped over the bridge to the gaol.
Her father's big key opened the main door; the third of the smaller ones opened Mary's cell.
Mary fell into her arms. Eleanor hugged her trembling friend.
Mary cupped her face and stared at her. "Promise me you won't get in trouble."
"Me?" Eleanor shut the cell door with a smile. "Nothing to do with me." She took Mary's hand and grinned, though her heart hammered in her chest. "You're a witch remember? You can walk through walls."
"Only when the moon's full," came a deep voice from the first cell.
Mary's spine went rigid.
A rough, wiry hand squirmed through the cell's observation grate. "Take me too, or I'll scream."
Eleanor set her chin. She pocketed the keys. "Scream all you like." She pulled Mary past. "No one will listen to a madman."
The too thin arm snatched up a handful of Mary's passing curls. "Let me out, or I'll tell."
This pulled Eleanor up short. It was one thing for Mary to disappear through a locked door by herself. It was quite another to have a witness, however mad, say the judge's daughter had come with the keys.
The hand let go.
Eleanor closed the observation grate. "Go to the elm by the stream," she breathed to Mary. "I'll come just as soon as I've locked up."
Mary nodded and tripped out the door.
Eleanor took a breath. She twisted the key in the lock. The door pulled open from the inside. The madman stood in his rags, hunched, hands out like claws before him.
She stepped back. Once. Then twice.
And in a flash the man was gone.
With shaking hands she locked the two cell doors. She ran to the entrance. Strains of singing drifted down the deserted streets from the square. Fast as her sweaty palm could manage, she shut and locked the main door. Heart kicking at her ribs, she ran over the bridge to the elm.
Mary stood like stone beneath the web of branches, staring at the horse.
"Mary, quickly." Eleanor unwound the reins from their branch.
Mary didn't move. "This is your brother's horse."
"Yes, I know."
"He will miss it."
"Not til tomorrow. You can get a good start-"
But Mary was shaking her head, stepping back.
"Come on, Mary."
Mary stepped beyond the shadow of the elm.
"Mary!" Eleanor hissed.
But Mary's face turned slowly to the left. A man stood on the track, calmly loading a pistol.
"No," Mary breathed. Her hands wiped at her dress. "No."
And then she ran. Back towards town; back towards the gaol.
"Mary, no!" Eleanor cried.
The church bell began to sound.
The man raised the gun.
On the third toll, the pistol bucked with a belch of white smoke.
At the top of the bridge, Mary spasmed. Arms outstretched, she fell slowly. Over the edge. Into the stream.
"No!" Eleanor shouted. The edge of the word trailed past the last reverberation of the church bell. She ran to the bridge. Mary hung in the water with a tendril of hair curled round her neck, red unfurling from her chest. Eleanor clutched the stone railing.
Holstering his pistol, her brother walked up beside her. "Guess she wasn't a witch after all." He peered over the parapet. "Witches don't drown."
Eleanor choked, coughed, turned to him.
"Don't look at me like that, pet." He twisted the ring around his wedding finger. "She was pretty, but she was going to get us both into trouble, wasn't she. Now, I won't tell on you, if you won't tell on me."
"But you- you-"
"Hush." He drew her against his chest, half-smothering her. "I won't have anything disturb my engagement, do you hear?" he whispered in her ear. "Nothing."
She sobbed. He stroked her back. "Come now." He led her over to the elm and collected his horse. "We must get you home, before you're missed." And together, they climbed the long hill track up to the house.
This is a submission for the February Writing Challenge Contest, run by the Review Game Forum. Yes! The forums are still active if you can get past the blank first page. The only way I can think to link is to spell out the you are ell:
Ayche tee tee pee colon forward slash forward slash dot fictionpress dot com forward slash topic forward slash 1867 forward slash 726853 forward slash 37 forward slash #2313341
Read the other submissions and vote for your favourite at the RG forum between the 7th and 14th, knock wood!