Chapter no 29

The Silent Companions

I toiled up the stairs towards bed about five o’clock. Even then the snow fell ruthlessly. It would not stop until it had obliterated every object in a shroud of white.

I had grown so cold that I no longer felt it. Numb, inside and out, I climbed as if in a dream. I thought it was part of that dream when Josiah materialised on the landing in his nightshirt and bare feet, staring out of the window at the drifting snow. But he was real; the breath of life plumed from his nostrils and misted the frozen glass. He wheeled round at the sound of my step.

‘God’s blood! Anne, what are you doing up at this hour?’

‘I could not sleep,’ I said. His head flicked back and forth, from me to the window and back again. With a pang, I knew his mind: he was looking at the storm and wondering if I had whistled it up. ‘Did the wind awaken you?’

He did not meet my eye. ‘No. I am awake by design. I will leave within the hour. I intended to set out a little later, but this weather will slow us down.’

‘Leave?’ I had not slept – I was not thinking clearly. My temples throbbed with exhaustion. ‘Wherever will you go?’

‘You know where.’

It came back to me: Merripen. Josiah was going to watch while the boy danced on the end of a rope, while they cut his belly open to steam in the winter air. I had a vision of his innards, rotted to coal black.

‘Josiah, you cannot go! You cannot travel in this weather! It is madness.’

‘I must try. I have sent men out to dig a trench to the bridge already.’ These are the men that ride with him – not the household servants invited to last night’s feast. A fortunate circumstance, for I am sure if he sent Mark out with a shovel this morning, the man would topple sideways into a snowdrift. ‘I wish to be the first to tell the King that justice has been served.’

My hand rested on his shoulder for an instant before he flinched away. ‘Truly, husband, it is not worth the risk to your health. I doubt they will proceed with the execution on a day like today.’

‘You would like that, would you not?’ The ice crackling in his voice felt infinitely colder than the weather. ‘Have done, Anne. I am going and I will make sure that it is accomplished.’

Fear wrapped its fingers around my heart. Something terrible would happen. I sensed it, as surely as I sensed him by my side. ‘Josiah!’ I begged. ‘Do not act so rashly! You could die!’

It was then that I saw it: the old gesture I have seen a thousand times. But never from him. I never dreamt to see my own husband cross his fingers against me, as if I were a witch. ‘Do not ill-wish me. You have done enough, my lady.’

He turned and strode back to his room.

My own chamber was remarkably cold. No fire had touched the grate, with the servants revelling downstairs. Even the ink I use to write my journal had frozen in its bottle, so I cradled it between my palms as I climbed, fully clothed, into bed. The sheets were so chill that they felt damp.

I must have slept, for I awoke with a sensation like falling that jerked my body up. Cold white light shimmered through the windows – I had forgotten to close the shutters. The sun was rising but no servant fetched my morning drink.

Wearily, I climbed out of bed, knowing I would not fall back into sleep. Something was wrong. I felt it, worrying at me, like a strip of torn skin. Perhaps I would go to the kitchen. If there was a fire anywhere in the house, it would be there.

I stumbled bleary-eyed down the steps. I was in luck. Orange flames danced in the kitchen’s hearth and a pot hung suspended over

them. Jane was no longer stretched out on the floor, but sitting at the table with one of Josiah’s men. Both of them looked as pale as whey.

‘What is the matter?’ I demanded. They leapt to their feet at the sound of my voice. ‘You,’ I said to the man, ‘why are you not out riding with your master?’

He inhaled. ‘I was,’ he said. ‘The master sent me back here with a message. There is something that must be . . . attended to.’

Jane stared at the knife-scarred table. ‘What?’

‘An unpleasant circumstance. Do not trouble yourself, mistress, we will arrange . . .’

My stomach wallowed. ‘What?’

A look passed between him and Jane. It was etched in their brows: their suspicion of me. They did not know how much they could conceal.

‘There is something by . . . something in the river,’ he said. Understanding dropped into me, as heavy as lead.

‘No,’ I cried. ‘No, no!’

I blundered over to the door. It was hopeless, I knew, yet I had to see for myself.

I inched the door open against the snow and waded into the yard. Nothing moved. There was no sound. A white spell had fallen over all.

Bracing myself against the bitter air, I followed the path cut by Josiah’s men and their horses, a patina of fresh snow already covering it, step after laborious step. In a few minutes my shoes were wet through. Although I held my skirts bunched in my hand, high above my ankles, they soaked up the snow and weighed me down.

My teeth chattered. Snowflakes so cold that they stung like cinders battered against my face. A spiteful wind snatched at my hair. I knew that if I stayed outside much longer, I would catch my death.

At last, the stone lions of the bridge reared up. Icicles hung from their roaring mouths. I staggered next to one, my nerves taut and braced for horror.

There was nothing. Only an empty bridge twinkling with frost, and the river, frozen solid.

Exhausted, I leant on the stone lion. It was so cold that my glove stuck to it.

I paused, panting, summoning up the strength to trudge back home. My lungs were raw. I was too tired to feel anything like relief.

It was then that it caught the tail of my eye. I blinked and looked again at the river. Peered closely through the murky, silver-grey ice.

A face stared back from beneath the solid water.

Two dark eyes turned up to the sky. Black hair spread like tendrils around her shoulders. She must have tripped on the brambles sprawling beside the river and fallen in, for they were all around her, holding her. Her lips and hands pressed against the ice in a hideous imitation of a child peering through a window. The open mouth gasped for air that would never come. I heard it speak, as I slumped to my knees in a bank of snow.




I was a coward. Unable to bear the sight of the poor gypsy girl, I crawled back to heat, life and comfort. I did not give any of my own directions for retrieving the body. With craven silence, I let events wash over me. Josiah’s men did what needed to be done.

‘I will return to bed,’ I told Jane. Not to sleep – if I closed my eyes, that wasted face would surface before me. But at least in bed I could hide, submerge myself beneath the warmth of blankets and lock the door.

Jane rose clumsily to her feet. I noticed she held the table for support. ‘Will you be needing me to unlace you, mistress?’

‘No, I will cope. In truth, I do not think you would be able to manage a bodice.’ I touched her hands, which quaked with tiny tremors. She did not seem able to control them. ‘Are you so cold, Jane?’

‘I think I am, mistress. My legs are numb.’

I frowned. The fire was stoked high. Heat returned to my own frozen skin with painful jabs. ‘Sit yourself by the fire and heat some spiced wine. I cannot have you catching a chill.’

She thanked me, called me a kind mistress. I wish I could say my kindness came from some inner store of goodwill, but it was rank fear that made me generous. Fear that I had already let one girl freeze to death and I could not stand another on my conscience.

My skirts left a slick trail over the flagstones as I dragged them through the Great Hall and up the stairs. Exhaustion began to overpower me. Feverish and shivering, I clambered through the empty house. No servants stirred. All that remained of last night’s festivities were the hacking coughs that sounded from the garret and the occasional retching sound. Jane had informed me that one or two of the men had cast forth vomit overnight. I detected the scent –sharp, sour and noxiously creamy. A broom and bucket lay abandoned on the landing of the first floor, but I could not see their owner.

Perhaps, another time, I would have been vexed. After all, Josiah had only given them a holiday for the day of the feast – he had not excused them from their duties the day after. But who am I to talk of duty now? Our family lies in ruins and two gypsy children are dead – all because of me. I cannot scold my servants.

I regretted my compassion to Jane the moment I gained my room. It was an abominable business, manoeuvring my numb body out of sodden clothes. I let them fall to the floor in a heap and stared at my skin – still wet, with a light sheen. I dried my arms with a clean shift, banked up and lit the fire, then retreated to bed with my journal. I have remained here ever since.

The book does not comfort me as it usually does. I thought I would be able to write at length about the remorse that consumes me, inch by inch; explain how the needling details of last night go round and round in my head. If only I had done this. But now I find that some regrets are too deep for words. Language is insufficient. I can do no more than remember that face. It is the image I need to confess my crime. All my fathomless, sprawling guilt is expressed in those two glazed eyes.

She must have tripped. She must have tripped on the thistles and fallen into the river. I see her when I close my eyes: stumbling in the snow; trailing plants wrapped tight about her ankles. Did she take my diamonds with her to her watery grave? Those stones which Josiah chose with such hope and pride? It is apt if she did. The man who bought those diamonds and the woman who wore them have gone. I do not know them any more.

Unnerving silence fills the house. Every time a sound is heard, it echoes as if it has some deep significance. Drips fall from the

window as icicles melt away. Above me, sporadic thumps from the garret. There is a clatter from downstairs – Jane dropping a pan with her shaking fingers, I expect.

I wonder what Hetta is doing in the nursery with her wooden companions. I should go to Lizzy, I know, and tell her what has happened to the gypsy girl. She deserves to hear it from me. But dear God, I cannot bear to witness her dismay.



Did I really leave it there? Safe and tired in my bed? That is where I should have stayed. Looking back, I was happy then.

I would give kingdoms not to gaze over my shoulder and see the events of the last few hours. But I do not have kingdoms; only burdens I must shed. The truth must be laid down here.

Images swirl and I cannot sort them into order. I must think. Where was I? In bed? Yes: asleep in bed, for the strain of my late night and the trudge across snow finally caught hold of me. I awoke to the sound of sobs; heartbreaking in their very softness.

I clambered out of bed. The frigid air awoke me at once. Taking a dry mantle from the press, I flung it around my shoulders and opened the door. No one stirred. The cries rose and fell in a gentle tide.

With a shrinking emptiness inside, I concluded that it was Hetta.

Crying for Merripen, or just for her own lonely existence.

A tiny piece of my heart cracked with each gasp I heard. But even then I was too selfish, too afraid. I did not go to comfort my daughter – I could not face her. Heading back into my room, I dressed in a day-gown and made my way downstairs.

Still no servants moved. It troubled me. Judging by the sun, it was well after midday. No one had fed me or checked if I needed attendance. It was not like my household.

Before I reached the kitchen, I heard a thud and a clatter like the sound of pans. That would be Cook, I thought. My stomach groaned – it had been many hours since last I ate. But to my surprise, when I unlatched the door and stepped into the warm glow from the fire, I found the room empty.

I sniffed – a strange, musty scent hovered.

The kitchen showed signs of recent occupation: a block with Hetta’s herbs lay on the side, the stems half-minced and the knife still wet, green-tinged and gleaming. Perhaps Cook had gone down to the larder?

I passed through the inner door into a damp passageway. I felt like I was in a cave. I had forgotten to bring a lantern and it was difficult to see. I picked my way in a strange, halting manner, unable to move with any haste.

The door to the cold-larder stood open. No sounds of movement came from within. I gave a short knock. Nothing.

I poked my head inside. It was a cavernous room with a row of meat hooks at the far end. Dead animals stared back at me with their dull pebble eyes and there was a scent so strong, so primal, that it sent gooseflesh up my arms.

I could not see Cook.

I edged inside. ‘Hello?’

The splayed ribcage of a doe took up most of the space on the table. I noticed the cleaver, still sandwiched in a hunk of meat.

Another step. My head knocked against a dead bird suspended from the ceiling. I flinched and pushed it off, spitting out feathers. The creature was half soft, half bobbled, as if someone had begun to pluck it but given up. And now that I reflected, there were many chores like that around the house today: the abandoned bucket; the partially chopped herbs.

A carcass creaked as it swayed on its hook. ‘Hello? Cook?’

No answer. Almost frightened now, I walked in the direction of the hooks. I don’t know what I expected – for someone to leap out at me from behind a carcass, perhaps, or for one of the animals to suddenly twitch alive. Focused on these fears, I did not think to look down. My foot slipped on something soft and, in a trice, my body smacked against the stone floor.

It took the wind from me. I lay for a moment, bewildered.

A long, lumpy shape stretched at my side. Revolted by the notion that it might be a dead cow, fallen from its hook, I kicked out a foot to push it away. But the black mass simply rolled over, an arm unfolding.

It was human.

My scream echoed. I levered myself into a sitting position, scrabbling backwards with my arms. I saw the face now: it was Cook.

Pushing down my gorge, I extended a shaking hand and tapped my fingers against her cheek. The skin was as cold as marble. There would be no saving her.

I had to get out of the room. Grabbing the bloody table, I hauled myself to my feet. They shook but they did not give way. Fetch help, my mind screamed. Jane, Mark, anyone.

I hurtled back down the stone passages into the warmth of the kitchen.

Still that musty smell tainted the air.

‘Help!’ I screamed. ‘Somebody help! I am in the kitchen.’ Silence reigned.

Was it then that the sly, terrible thought crawled through my mind? Some part of me must have known, for my feet took me out through the servery passage and into the scullery.

The smell hit me first: vomit and the acrid reek of a midden. In a pool of viscous fluid lay shattered pieces of crockery, stained knives and, beside them, my two young scullery maids.

Bloodshot eyes stared blindly at the ceiling. Dark marks stained their lips and a yellow and red pattern mottled their skin.

‘No,’ I gasped, ‘no.’

Hardly knowing what I did, I ran back to the kitchen. Stopped. The room undulated like water around me. As my eyes cleared, the chopping block loomed into terrible focus. On the half-cut herbs, I saw what I had failed to notice before.

‘No.’ My fingers turned over the wet stems. They were pocked with purple spots.

I grabbed the knife and groped for the door. It could not be true. If I had to run ten miles in the snow with the bitter wind tearing at my gown, I would prove it were not true.

Hetta’s garden lay beneath a dusting of snow and frost. I plunged my bare hands into the herbs. The thistle entangled all. From the corner of my mind, Harris’s words echoed back at me: it creeps. I wielded my knife and hacked my way through.

Scratched and bleeding, I clawed until all the snow fell away. And there, hidden beneath the blue-grey thistle, grew the plants I had

failed to see – I, who prided myself on second sight. Poisonous henbane, monkshood and water pennywort. Vervain for sorcery. Last of all, growing at the back, the dark berries of belladonna.

My fingers fell slack; the knife dropped without a sound into the snow.

It was true. And it was worse than I ever imagined.

Memory flooded me with a force that would not be denied. I saw flashing images: the potion; rusted scissors; Hetta’s cold, impassive face; an antimasque of smoke and red lights, and capering through it all, the masked devil of a child’s height.

‘Dear God,’ I whispered. ‘Dear God.’



I do not recall how long I knelt there with the bitter greens my daughter had sown. I barely felt the cold pinching my face, or the ice pooling to water beneath my skirts.

Josiah was right all along. Through my potions and spells, I called forth something wicked. I created her. I am worse than a witch.

My baby. Rotten to the core. Every memory of her childhood takes on a sordid, shameful appearance. Was she a demon from the very womb? But of course she was. What else could she be, at once unnatural and misbegotten?

Now she is nine, her power is full. The ninth hour, the time Christ died. Yet even before that she was plotting. What I mistook for friendship with the gypsy must have been a lure. She set him up to take the blame while she killed the horse. And now she has killed my servants.

I do not know if a child created by human hands possesses a soul. Yet this I do know – the penalty for Hetta’s sins will be required of me on Judgement Day. murdered those servants when I mixed my brew: it was only a different combination of herbs.

I must have made a mistake. A proportion of a mixture, a word in the spell. I did not create a child. I made a monster.

I wish I could say that I built up the nerve to come inside and face Hetta, but it was the chill that conquered me in the end. The sun set early, powdering the clouds pink and grey like mother-of-pearl. My shaking fingers sought the knife by my side.

My skirts had frozen stiff. It was as though I dragged a chain around my waist as I stumbled back towards the house, and my thoughts crawled too, unable to plot the course I must take. Whatever would I say to my family? Lizzy doted on the girl, she would never believe me.

Then the thought bowled me sideways. Lizzy.

I ran. Stumbling, tripping, unable to control my limbs, I barrelled through the yard door. The house reeked of death. Coughing against my sleeve, I dragged myself on into the Great Hall.

My skirts threw out shards of ice as I thudded up the stairs. Fear clenched in my chest as I drew nearer to the nursery.

I reached the door. Hetta’s sparrow chirruped from within. Once it was sweet to hear the bird sing, but now it was calling, calling to the dead, calling to their souls that it might carry them away.

I hesitated. Then I pushed the door open.

My eyes did not want to process what they saw. They took in the leaves on the floor, the silent companions ranged about the room like an audience at the play, and Lizzy, laying on her back. Sleeping, my eyes said. Sleeping. But with something draped about her neck. Vines. A rope made of vines and creepers.

I remembered the catches of breath I had heard earlier. It was not Hetta crying, gasping for breath – it was Lizzy.

Hetta turned to me. When her eyes met mine, everything came into focus. I saw my oldest friend, the woman I had loved like a mother, with the life throttled from her body, and standing over her, the goblin I had once called daughter.

There was no apology in her face – only a loathsome, gloating triumph.

I still held the knife in my hand. God forgive me.

Now all is quiet. The sparrow sits motionless in his cage. Around the house, bodies stiffen and corrupt while Hetta’s blood creeps across the floorboards to the feet of the companions, her only true friends. I watch the red pool curdle with the vines and turn to a rusty brown – the same brown as the potion I drank, so long ago.

I know what will happen to me: Josiah and his men will find me alone in a house of death. They will send for the witch-finder. The

whispers have followed me for long enough. I shall burn.

It is the most horrific of all deaths. I could avoid it – the knife is still sharp. I should draw the tacky blade across my wrists now and save myself. But that would be too good for me.

I summoned the demon. I need the cleansing fire of God’s wrath. I need to feel the flames.

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