William stuck his tongue out at the dead man in the coffin.
Kathryn pulled him back against her, smoothing his honey colored hair with a gentle hand which managed, by its nature, to be comforting and remonstrative at the same time. She felt him tense at her touch and then just as quickly relax, as if just now realizing he was safe. Five years old and too young to have learned a lesson about caution. Five years old and wise in the ways of self-preservation.
Did God look down from the heavens and judge Henry for his cruelty? Did He look down and whet his lips and anticipate sending the newly departed Henry Siddons to the netherworld? She would have.
William stuck his tongue out again.
He hated his father and he was glad he was dead. He squinted until the white pine of the coffin draped in his grandmother’s best shawl was only a blur of light.
Unless….unless he wasn’t really dead. Unless, he was waiting, quiet, for someone to notice.
It was the wind, that was all. The wind which swirled up and caused the white fringed shroud the weave in the air.
He cringed, and pushed back against his mother’s skirts. She was soft and smelled like summer, like the roses which spiked on the fence outside their cottage. She brushed her hand against his cheek, and he moved his face away so that she wouldn’t feel his tears.
“Come,” his grandmother said, and grasped his wrist with a hand that felt bony and dry all at once, like a crow’s foot. He pulled against her grip, pushing back against his mother, felt her soften against him, then bend down as if to surround him from the outside world, all softness and sweet smells and cozy warmth. She bent around him like the sun and talked gently in a voice that sounded like bells hid in it.
He heard the words swirl above him, like the wind itself, snatches of words, some he didn’t understand, “kiss his lips so he’ll not dream about him.”…”bizarre customs”….. “he’ll be a man for it.”…..”he’s only five”…..
He felt himself being tugged between the two of them, his grandmother’s grip bringing him closer to the coffin, with its detached lid and beyond, to the twisted, bloated body of his father laying there waiting for him. He struggled, and broke free of his mother’s protective grip, avoiding his grandmother’s talons with strength borne of panic. He raced through the room, past the people milling near the door, pushing past them, beneath them, through them until he reached outside. He felt the winter wind bristle and chill his cheeks and near freeze the tears still resting there, but that didn’t stop him.
He ran as if death itself chased him.
Kathryn Siddons glared at the mother-in-law, picked up her skirts, and followed her only child. Her aim was not to chastise William, but to comfort him. A lyke wake could be a frightening ceremony and this one had held its own share of terror. She ignored the shocked gasps of her neighbors as she pushed open the door, and spying William still running down the center road of the village, forgot her wifely duty and her recent widowhood, and raced after him.
She cursed the bones in the corset beneath her newly dyed black dress, and the armholes sewn so tight that no respectable woman could raise her arms higher than her shoulders. But dresses were not designed to race in, even if she were a widow intent upon scandalizing her neighbors.
It was not the first time she had shocked them, and she suspected it would not be the last.
But their opinions did not matter right now, not when William was crying, and racing hell bent for any place but here. He was only five, and needed a warm hug and a sweet words of comfort. The village road was nothing more than a wide lane, and curved upward to the hill which crested at Dunmouth Hall. Only then did it become a track again, disappearing into the hills and leading to places for a little boy to be lost in, ravines to tumble down, holes in the earth which could swallow him up, rivers to drown in, forests in which to be lost. The darkness of night was almost upon them. She ran faster, not thinking of the clumpy boots laced to her ankles or the fact that her breath ached on her left side, so that she could barely breathe, let alone call out to William.
She did not look behind her as she darted across the road, taking a shortcut to the fields leading to the open fields. Only one thought was uppermost in her mind – find William. If she were not cautious, it was because she had no reason to be. Her own labored breathing constricted her hearing to the sound of it, and the discomfort of her corset merged with her heartsore worry about William to keep her trapped in a bubble of self-absorption. Most of her neighbors were pressed into the small cottage she and Henry had shared during the last ten years.
Nor did she think of strangers.
She heard the shouted caution only a few seconds before glimpsing the flailing hooves of the horse out of the corner of her eye. The horseman seemed to encompass her entire field of vision in an oddly comforting way, as if she knew and recognized him in that brief second before the sense of peril occurred to her. It was a moment so clear and perfect that she would remember it forever, as if it were preserved in crystal.
He cursed and sawed on the reins, blistering the air with comments about foolish, blind women while he struggled to swerve Reiver in that last desperate moment. He was close enough to breathe her fear, smell the scent of her terror. He prayed, in that moment, that she would be sensible enough to turn of her own accord, to roll in the dust if necessary to avoid Reiver’s iron shod hooves, to fly if need be.
Providence, in the form of a small boy thrust itself between the stallion bred for endurance and speed, and the hand of fate, itself.
“Mama!” William screamed, and hurtled himself at her. She instinctively reached out both arms and grabbed for him, and the momentum of his leap into her arms knocked her backwards. They rolled, an inch further than safety demanded.
It was an inch carved from his very soul.
Was it an hour or a decade later, he wondered, when the icy wind had chilled his temper enough to dismount and walk to their side. The men who crowded behind him remained as they were, huddled together against the wind, banded by kinship, loyalty, and now, not a little curiosity. Their leader did not suffer fools gladly, and this woman had been more than simply foolish. She had been murderously stupid.
“You could have killed me,” she said, glaring up at him from her perch upon the ground. She struggled to her feet, a gesture which went unaided. He stood, hands upon his hips and watched her, incredulity vying with unexpected humor. It was an odd emotion to feel. There was nothing remotely lighthearted about their encounter. If it had not been for the fact that he was an expert horseman, she would have been struck and injured severely, if not killed.
He was dressed differently from the men in the village. His white shirt marked him as a gentleman, his shiny black boots as fastidious. She didn’t know if his waistcoat were of the latest fashion, or if the possession of such a prepossessing mount marked him as wealthy. Sarah knew these things, she did not. Yet no other man of her acquaintance possessed a tailored coat in such a shade of midnight blue, or buff colored trousers which outlined his thighs and other manly endowments. The village men would have worn their plain butternut colored smocks over loose fitting trousers and gone happily into the fields in their utilitarian garments.
It was not a pretty face, nor soft. It was, she thought, a face of extremes. Too much arrogance in the nose and the chin. Too much cheek, too broad a forehead barely saved from ugliness by locks of windblown black hair. A mouth too generous, too full. His eyebrows too thick, too dark, topping eyes whose color she could not see. That face was as easily hewn from granite as it was flesh and bone, so little did it betray any emotion.
He would never be considered handsome, but she suspected that such a label would only have invoked his scorn.
It was a face she would long remember.
He stepped closer, his head bent toward her, his eyes straining through the deepening dusk to see her. She was a shadow, and yet, he had a feeling of familiarity with her, as though she were known to him, as if he could recognize her if he’d only think of when they’d met, and where, and who had bridged the gap between strangers and made them known to each other. Except, of course, he knew he had never met her, and such a feeling was no doubt a product of a near killing ride and a hunger only surmounted by his fatigue.
In those long moments in which they stood examining each other, the world receded, the air grew hushed. Time itself slowed until she could feel each beat of her heart strangely sluggish, each breath deep and filling her lungs.
It was not seemly to feel a strange lurch as if her heart had stopped and abruptly started again, pushing the blood into her cold feet and colder hands and near to fainting brain. Nor was it right that it felt as though a heavy cotton string had been tied around the base of her lungs, preventing her from drawing as deep a breath as she needed. And why was her throat strangely thickened so that she could not swallow easily?
She felt William’s shivers, and cradled him closer to her chest, his legs fastened around her waist as though he were her own personal anchor. The horsemen arrayed in the middle of the road were mere shadows now, only their creaking harness and the snorts from their mounts proving that they were neither mythical nor figments of her imagination.
“My apologies, madam,” he said, his voice as thick as the honey Giles harvested from his hives. There was an undercurrent to it, as though he held his temper or his humor tightly leashed. She frowned at him, and he thought that she would look fierce indeed, If she were twenty years older and a hag.
It was not the shape of her face which intrigued him, or even the tumbled hair now sweeping past her child’s fingers and brushing the edge of her hip. It was not even the swell of breast against which the lad lay, looking up at him with barely dried tears sparkling on his cheeks. No, all of these things were put away in his mind to savor on another occasion. Right at this moment, he was fascinated with her eyes.
They were angry and narrowed, and even in this light he could easily see her rage. They nearly boiled with ire, and snapped and crackled like a fire lit with poorly cured wood. No simpering miss, this. She was woman and mother, angry and protective.
They stood in the middle of the road in Dunmouth village, with her chest heaving from the effort of chase and rescue, and him with the terror of nearly running her down and the relief of her safety in his mind.
She blinked, and finally tore her gaze away. He was a stranger, and she was newly widowed, and the entire village paid homage to her husband while she stood bemused at the presence of a stranger.
Henry, dead before his time.
And his wife already forgetting.