For a moment Samuel and Maggie looked at Lizzie in shock. Then they began to move, gathering up their belongings. Maggie grabbed a pile of blankets from the pallet.
‘How close?’ her voice was shaking.
‘Just coming across the meadow. They’ll be almost here by now, come on, we must leave.’
They ran from the cottage, Maggie flinging the blankets onto the few possessions already stacked in the cart. The horses were drawing closer, the sound of their hooves pounding on the hard, cold earth of the meadow, ominous in the still early morning air. Samuel lifted Lizzie up onto the back of the cart, then went to help Maggie.
‘Wait,’ Maggie said sharply. ‘I need to go back in. I forgot the meadowsweet.’ She frowned, looking at the jars that were tumbled at the bottom of the cart. ‘And the chamomile. Lizzie will need them.’
‘Maggie,’ Samuel pleaded, ‘can you not gather some more on the way.’
Maggie looked exasperated.
‘No Samuel. It would take too long to find them. And even if we did, I cannot prepare them in a cart! They need to be dried, to be ground into powder.’
‘Just let her go back,’ hissed Lizzie, aware of the loudness of the drumming hooves approaching. ‘We’re running out of time.’
Maggie flew into the cottage. The hooves stopped and Lizzie realised that the men must have reached the back wall of the little yard. She could hear them murmuring under the jangle of the horses’ harnesses. Her flesh grew cold, though it was slick with sweat.
‘Samuel,’ she whispered, her words turning to vapour in the chill of the morning. ‘They’re here. They must be going through the yard.’
‘Then we have to leave now, Lizzie. Right now.’
‘I’m not going without Maggie. I won’t leave her.’ Lizzie began to climb down from the cart.
‘Lizzie, no, we have to go. You have to think about the baby.’ Samuel grabbed Lizzie’s arms, pushing her backwards into the cart. She struggled against him, angry tears of frustration flowing. Then a loud crash from inside the cottage stilled them both. They listened, Lizzie’s heart banging in her chest. A piercing scream tore through the silence and Lizzie gasped. Samuel let go of her arms.
‘I’ll go in, see what’s happening.’
He turned and began to walk towards the cottage door. Lizzie watched him go, not knowing whether to shout to him to stop or to be grateful that he was going to help her mother. She stared towards the cottage, now menacingly silent. Then came another crash and the sound of shouting. Lizzie could stand no more; she jumped down from the cart and entered the cottage.
At first she wondered why it was so dark, then a cloying smell hit her and she gasped for breath. In the gloom she could make out Maggie, her arms held behind her. Daniel. Two more men were ransacking the shelves, grabbing jars and bottles and throwing them into the hearth. This was where the smoke was coming from; the fire had been lit, and the herbs and plants from the jars were burning, the smoke rising in sickening clouds, the mixed aromas thickening the air. The floor was littered with broken crockery, cooking pots, tankards and ladles. There was no sign of Samuel. Daniel was grinning at her, twisting Maggie’s arms behind her back until she winced and cried out. She needed to find Samuel, needed his help. Lizzie hurried out into the yard, breathing the clean air into her lungs with relief. There she saw Samuel standing with his father. Alongside them were the minister and Constable Haynes. The sight of the constable filled Lizzie with foreboding - Samuel had been right then, his father did mean to prosecute her. She crossed the small yard to Samuel, and realised that he was crying. Ignoring the hostile stares of the men, Lizzie took his hand. He raised his blue eyes to her face, they were dull with grief.
‘My mother, Lizzie, she is dead.’
‘Dead? When, how?’
‘As if you didn’t know, girl.’ James Pendle was staring at Lizzie with hatred. She flinched under his gaze.
‘What do you mean? How could I know?’
Constable Haynes stepped forward, his face serious.
‘Master Pendle here has made some very serious accusations against you. He believes that you have bewitched his son and that you are responsible for his wife’s death.’
‘But that’s ridiculous. How could I be responsible?'
James jumped forward, grabbed Lizzie by the shoulders, his face mere inches from hers. She stared into his blue eyes, so like those of his son, except that these eyes were cold, disgusted and deranged as he stared into her face.
‘Yesterday – you saw her yesterday, on the lane.’ With each utterance he gave her a hard shake until Lizzie could feel her teeth rattling. ‘Was that when you cursed her?’
Samuel stepped forward.
‘Leave her alone, Father. Let go of her.’
But his father only clutched Lizzie more tightly, his fingers pushing into her shoulder blades, his nails digging into her skin. The constable spoke.
‘Let her go now, James. It’s best if you let me deal with this.’
‘No, I’ll deal with the little whore, she murdered my wife.’ He pulled her towards him, his breath ragged; she could feel each exhalation on her cheek, could smell the stale ale and tobacco. She struggled to pull away, pushing at his chest, pounding at it with futile blows, then Samuel reached between them, pushing at his father, pulling at his arms. The struggle resulted only in James grabbing Lizzie’s shoulders harder, until she was screaming out in pain. At her cries, Samuel raised his hand and Lizzie watched with horror as he struck his father full in the face. The older man staggered backwards, streams of thick red blood gushing from his nose. Samuel rushed to Lizzie, holding her tightly.
‘Come Lizzie, we are leaving. I’ll not have you treated like this by anyone, even him.’
‘You can’t leave, Samuel.’ Constable Haynes said. ‘At least your wife can’t. I have no choice but to arrest her.’
Lizzie quailed, shrinking into Samuel’s arms. Arrest her? Surely the constable couldn’t believe the rantings of James Pendle. He was obviously driven mad by grief. But Haynes was striding towards her; his hands were reaching for her. She felt Samuel’s grip on her tighten and she clung to him. The constable sighed.
‘Come on now; don’t make this harder than it needs to be.’
He reached for her again, then was suddenly knocked to one side. Daniel and his two accomplices had come flying from the cottage, smoke billowing around them.
‘It’s alight, the cottage, it’s on fire,’
Smoke was pouring from the door, the stench of burnt herbs filling the air.
‘Where is my mother?’ Lizzie screamed. The men were shouting at each other, unsure of what to do. Lizzie turned to Samuel. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
‘Stay here, Lizzie, I’ll get her out.’
Before she could stop him he had darted into the cottage. Her mother’s words came back to her, warning her that history would repeat itself; well, Maggie had been right. And now she was at risk of dying in the flames, and so was Samuel. Could it really be happening again? Was Lizzie going to lose everything and everyone, just the way her mother had? The thought spurred her into action. She would not stand by and watch her mother and husband burn alive. Taking a great gulp of air, she dashed into the cottage.
Lizzie walked into a wall of heat. The straw in front of the hearth was alight, the fire moving quickly. She could not hold her breath any longer and gulped at the air. Instantly she was choking, the smoke filling her lungs, making her eyes water. Where was Samuel? The flames were licking across the floor, coming closer to her. She heard a noise from the room above. Rushing over to the ladder, she saw, to her relief, two shadowy figures moving towards the opening. Maggie must climbed the ladder to get away from Daniel when the fire took hold. Samuel was leading her forwards, guiding her to the first rung. The older woman was bent over, her cloak over her face, coughing badly. Lizzie made to go to her.
‘Lizzie, no.’ Samuel too burst into a fit of coughing. Lizzie
‘Mother, come on, climb down, I’m right here behind you.’
Maggie looked down and Lizzie could see the panic on her face.
‘Please,’ Lizzie struggled to speak, the smoke filling her mouth. ‘We’ll die otherwise.’
Something seemed to spark in Maggie’s eyes. She nodded and stepped on to the rung. Lizzie reached up with one arm and put it around Maggie’s waist, guiding her down. Samuel, crouching at the top of the ladder, held on to Maggie’s shoulders, steadying her. Suddenly, Lizzie saw his eyes widen.
‘Lizzie, be careful.’
Lizzie looked down. The fire had reached the ladder. She quickened her pace, but as she moved, flames lapped at the bottom rung. Lizzie knew she had to hurry, but Maggie was moving too slowly. The flames began to take hold, flaring bright orange and red in the smoke. Lizzie gulped.
‘Mother, we have to get down, now.’
Maggie was like a dead weight. Lizzie moved faster, pulling the woman with her. She reached her foot down, terrified of the fire but not having any other choice. Then Samuel was screaming at her and she looked down to see a flame flickering at the edge of her skirts. Panicked, terrified, she jumped the last few rungs, pulling Maggie with her. They landed in a heap at the foot of the ladder, the fire burning close to Lizzie’s head. A noxious singeing in her nostrils told her that her petticoats were burning. But she could not move, Maggie’s weight was pushing her down, taking even these difficult, smoke-filled breaths from her. The singeing smell became stronger, the flames dancing towards them, closer and closer. Lizzie shifted, trying to move Maggie, and a searing pain shot through her. Suddenly she thought of the baby. She had to get out of here. Then Samuel was there, pulling Maggie to her feet, grabbing Lizzie, running for the door, and out, at last, into the fresh, sweet air, coughing and choking and terrified.
Lizzie tore at her outer petticoats, Samuel beating at the flames, until the ruined skirts lay smouldering in a heap on the ground. They turned to Maggie, who was standing, staring at the burning cottage, her eyes wide, her mouth moving, no words coming out. Her eyes were filled with confusion, huge in a face that was bright red from the heat, streaked with sweat and dirt. Here, at the front of the cottage, it was strangely quiet. The cart stood there still, the horse straining agitatedly at her bonds.
‘They are all still in the yard,’ Samuel whispered. ‘They must think we are still inside.’
And doing nothing to help us, Lizzie thought, her mind straying again to the image of her father, lost in the flames all those years ago. Clearly, any villagers roused by the flames had made their way to the little yard, no doubt crowding in and craning their necks to see if they could spot a charred body.
‘Come on,’ Samuel spoke urgently. ‘We can get away before they notice.’
Lizzie nodded up at him. Between them they bundled a still-dazed Maggie into the cart, Lizzie climbing up beside her. Samuel untethered the horse and jumped into the driver’s seat, quickly guiding the cart away. Lizzie sat among their few belongings, Maggie still and cold beside her. These few jars of herbs, tatty blankets and clothes were all that they had left in the world. All they had to sustain them on this journey and then in the future. She wondered what that future would hold. A strange place where she knew no-one, a new home, new people to stare and whisper. For why should it be any different there? They would have to build everything from scratch, too. Samuel would have no income, she and Maggie would have no customers, at least at first. But there was nothing here for them now either, only the threat of danger, of imprisonment, of death even. Lizzie shuddered as she thought of Susan, Jenny and Agnes, their terror on the scaffold that day, their legs jerking as they choked to death. No, they had no choice but to leave, to try and start again somewhere else, however hard that might be. As they put a safe distance between themselves and Eversley, Lizzie did not look back. She could not bear to catch a last glimpse of the place that had been her home.
Blackwater by Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes