Thursday, May 22, 1567
Her way illuminated by a full moon, Constance Crane left Mill Hall in the hour before midnight to follow the footpath that led past the abandoned chapel. The unexpected crack of a twig under her own foot made her gasp. Closing her eyes for a moment, she waited for her heart to stop racing. She told herself there was nothing to fear. She had walked the short distance to her cousin's cottage many times in daylight. She ought to be able to navigate the route blindfolded.
As she resumed her journey, her wary gaze attracted by every flicker of movement, every wisp of sound, she wondered if having her eyes covered might not be an advantage.
Shimmering moonlight picked out the most hazardous obstacles underfoot--exposed roots and rocks and the like--and helped her stay on the hard-packed trail, but it also created ominous shadows. Constance had the uneasy sense someone was behind her, keeping just out of sight but watching her every move.
Nonsense! Who would be abroad at this hour? There were more reasons to remain within doors than to go out. Sensible folk went to bed early and rose with the sun to take up the day's duties. Constance doubted she'd be able to perform with her accustomed efficiency on the morrow, thanks to this night's business, but that could not be helped. Nor would she change her mind about meeting Lucy. Constance had promised to assist her cousin, and she prided herself on being a woman of her word.
She hurried past the chapel and the two giant elms that stood on either side of it like twin sentinels. Had they been planted there to guard a holy place against evil? Superstition held that spirits walked the earth after dark. Demons appeared then, too, and the faeries who made the milk go sour. And everyone knew that corruption traveled in the night air, spreading the plague and other terrible sicknesses.
Dread riding on her shoulder, Constance had to force herself to plunge into the thick cluster of trees beyond the chapel. Why had she never realized how closely packed they were? Above her head, interwoven branches of elm and beech stood out in silhouette against the sky, swaying and dipping in a strange dance choreographed by gusts of wind coming in off the Narrow Seas.
A low-growing bush snagged Constance's skirt. She broke into a run, certain it was a hand grasping at her. A moment later, she burst free of the wooded stretch, entering the rectangular clearing that was her goal. By then, her chest heaved and her heart seemed to slam against her ribs with every ragged breath.
Lucy waited outside her door, a basket over one arm. She regarded Constance's panic-stricken countenance and harried demeanor with ill-concealed amusement. "I perceive you have never been out alone in the dark before. There is naught to fear from traveling by night, but it might have been less upsetting had you carried a lantern."
Brought up short by the brusque, matter-of-fact words, Constance reined in her overactive imagination and felt herself flush with embarrassment even as she grew calmer. She could not deny she was relieved to have reached the cottage, but when she looked over her shoulder she saw that Lucy was right. She'd had no reason to be frightened. Neither man nor demon nor faery king had followed her out of the trees.
Only a ghost, she thought with wry self-mockery.
For this was not, in truth, the first time she had braved the night's dangers on her own. Her memory jogged by Lucy's comment, Constance recalled with vivid clarity that long-ago midnight when she'd crept out of the room where Lady Northampton's ladies slept and gone to meet a lover. She'd been very young and surpassing foolish and she'd had no qualms about braving the extensive gardens of a country estate in the dark to give herself to a handsome young man in the duke of Northumberland's household. Together they'd reveled in the heady delights of the flesh and in the excitement of their own daring.
"Come along," Lucy urged, taking Constance's arm for support. She hobbled a bit, lame in one leg, but she made good speed. Constance had to move swiftly to keep pace with her.
Lucy's excitement was so intense that she fair vibrated with it. There was no stopping her. After being bedridden and housebound for much of the winter just past, she was determined upon her quest.
Constance was prepared to endure for Lucy's sake. Although she knew a number of people who had lived more than her cousin's sixty years, they were hardy souls. Lucy was frail, unfit to go wandering through the woods alone. And yet, if Constance had not agreed to accompany her, she'd have attempted this expedition on her own. After nursing Lucy all those months, and comforting her more recently, when she'd learned of the death of a long-time acquaintance, Constance felt an obligation to continue looking after her cousin.
Besides, she'd grown fond of Lucy.
Once more, Constance found herself following a moonlit path through thickly wooded darkness. She swallowed an anxious protest when Lucy veered off into the trees. Bereft of all sense of direction, unable to tell if they were still on Mill Hall land or if they had crossed over onto property belonging to the Edgecumbes, Constance put her faith in her cousin. Lucy had confidence enough for them both.
The older woman never faltered, never slowed down until they reached their destination. "There." Triumph in her voice, she pointed one gnarled finger toward a cluster of plants growing wild in the wood.
"I do not see why we could not have come here in daylight," Constance murmured.
"I have told you my reasons." Lucy's querulous voice sounded loud in the stillness of the night. "The leaves are most potent if they are gathered between Lady Day and Midsummer's Eve. Collecting them in the full of the moon adds to their power. Should congestion of the lungs ever bring me as close to death's door again as it did on St. Valentine's Day, then these leaves, plucked at their strongest, have the power to bring back my breath."
Constance had seen for herself how a pinch of this herb, ground and dissolved in sweet wine, had eased Lucy's struggle to breathe. Besides, they were here now. They might as well continue. She picked her way over the last uneven stretch, knelt, and reached for the nearest stalk.
With excruciating slowness, Lucy lowered herself to the ground beside Constance. One knee made a sharp popping sound.
"Ritual is important. The herb must be crossed and blessed when it is gathered." She made the sign of the cross, then bowed her head. "Hallowed be thou, vervain, as thou growest in the ground, for in the mount of Calvary, there thou was first found. Thou healedst our Saviour, Jesus Christ, and staunchedst his bleeding wound. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I take thee from the ground."
No hasty plucking of leaves would do for Lucy Milborne. Constance resigned herself to following her cousin's exacting instructions. There were more prayers when the job was done. By then, Lucy's bad leg had further stiffened from kneeling in the early morning dew. They returned to her cottage at a snail's pace. Dawn was not far off when they reached the door of the stillroom.
"I have one other favor to ask of you, child." Lucy deposited her basket, filled to overflowing, on a long worktable.
Tired as she was, Constance did not think of refusing. She even managed a small smile at her cousin's use of the endearment. Lucy might be some twenty years older than she, but by no stretch of the imagination did that make Constance a child.
"There is a root in my herb garden that needs digging up." Lucy rubbed her right knee. "I can do the work myself. Never think I cannot. But without your help I will have the devil's own time getting to my feet again when it is done."
"I will unearth your root for you, Lucy. Only tell me which one it is." Constance had lived so long in the household of the late marchioness of Northampton, without making use of her early lessons in plant lore, that she had all but forgotten them. She knew the smells and uses of more apothecary-made medicines than most women but was perilous ignorant when it came to the appearance of single ingredients in their natural state.
The rising sun found Lucy and Constance both kneeling in Lucy's small garden. What should have been a simple task had taken far longer than either of them had anticipated. Constance glanced up from her struggles to discover she'd been caught in a most undignified position by one of the servants from Mill Hall. Arthur Kennison was gaping at them from the path. When she scowled at him, he hastened to avert his eyes and continue on his way through the clearing.
Lucy gave a dismissive snort. "That fellow again!"
"Does he often come this way?"
"Of late he does."
Constance stared in puzzlement after the rapidly disappearing figure. That path, if one stayed on it instead of veering off to pick vervain, led to only one place--Edgecumbe Manor.
"Is he on his own business or Hugo's?" Constance wondered aloud.
Hugo Garrard, who was cousin to both Lucy and herself, had spent considerable time with his nearest neighbor before Clement Edgecumbe's sudden death. He might well make a special effort to look out for Edgecumbe's widow and daughter, but would he choose to send Kennison, the least trustworthy of Mill Hall's servants, to carry his messages?
"Help me up," Lucy said, distracting Constance from her speculations.
When she'd settled her cousin in the stillroom, Constance returned to Mill Hall. The way was passing ordinary in daylight.
Busy with her duties as Hugo's housekeeper, Constance had no notion that anything was amiss in the neighborhood until the local constable, a carpenter by trade, arrived late in the day.
"I are come to arrest you, Mistress Crane."
At first, her amazement tempered any feeling of apprehension. His words made no sense. Neither did the emotion she recognized in his eyes. Why should he be afraid?
"For what crime?"
"It is charged that you and old Mother Milborne did bewitch Peter Marsh to death and that she did kill Clement Edgecumbe by witchcraft."
Stunned, Constance took a step away from him. She could scarce take in all the shocks contained in that one sentence. For a moment, she fixed on the least of the strangeness, wondering why he'd addressed Lucy as Mother instead of Mistress.
Then the rest of what he'd said crashed in on her. A ripple of alarm shook her out of her state of dazed incomprehension
"Marsh cannot be dead." Constance had seen Hugo's former clerk only two days earlier. He'd been hale and hearty ... and up to his usual tricks.
Hugo, face pale within a shock of reddish brown hair and the little tuft of his beard, his heavy-lidded eyes wider than Constance had ever seen them, came up behind the constable. Arthur Kennison, stone-faced and for once showing no evidence of being cup-shot, appeared at his elbow.
"'Tis true, Constance," Hugo said. "I can scarce believe it myself, but we have just been to see the body. There is no doubt it is Marsh."
Death could come of a sudden. She knew that. But accepting Marsh's demise forced her to contemplate the remainder of the constable's remarkable statement. Her hands felt clammy as she clenched them into fists at her sides. Holding herself still, she struggled to order her thoughts and keep panic at bay.
Marsh was dead and she was accused of killing him.
"I am not a witch," she whispered.
"How else do you explain the circumstances of his death?"
Drawn by the commotion, Mill Hall's servants had left their duties to come and gawk at the tableau in the hall. The cook, who just an hour earlier had exchanged cheerful, friendly words with Constance, now shrank from her in revulsion. Emma, the young maidservant she'd befriended, appeared to be too terrified to speak. And the chaplain, who might have been expected to play a role in such proceedings, kept in the background, his expression guarded.
"When did he die?" Constance managed to conquer her dread long enough to address the constable. "And where?"
"He was found this morning, within sight of Mother Milborne's cottage." The constable lowered his voice as a note of awe crept into it. "He lay dead, not a mark upon him, face down under the wych elm."
In the horrified silence that followed this announcement, Constance began to feel light-headed. Her stomach clenched in fear.
"Mother Milborne is already in custody," the constable continued. "You will both be tooken to Maidstone for trial at the summer Assizes."
Maidstone--the shire town for Kent.
Assizes--the twice-annual court at which felons were tried. And after, executed.
Constance fought for control of her reeling senses. She must not scream or faint. She had to think. There must be some way out of this terrifying situation.
She was not a witch and neither was Lucy.
Lucy was accused of bewitching Clement Edgecumbe to death? Had the constable said that? The charge was preposterous. Lucy had still been all but bedridden when her neighbor died. And she'd been distraught when the news was brought to her that he was dead. They'd not been friends. They'd quarreled too often for that. But they'd known each other all their lives and Lucy had admitted to Constance that she'd miss "the old goat."
Constance tried again to deny the charges, but no one listened. Under guard, she was escorted to her own bedchamber. She and Lucy, she was informed, were to be kept prisoner at Mill Hall overnight and taken north on the morrow. There was a proper gaol in Maidstone.
Left alone, Constance could no longer hold her horror at bay. She sat, staring at nothing, and let it wash over her in crashing waves. But she had never been the sort to weep and wail and bemoan her fate. When the onslaught had at last passed by, she was able to think again, to consider what she could do to save herself.
If Lucy had been fit, Constance would have found her, freed her, and run away, but that was not possible.
The Assizes, she remembered, met sometime in the middle of July. That meant she and Lucy would spend many weeks in gaol. She did not allow herself to dwell on that bleak prospect but instead considered that the same span of time might be used to their benefit. They'd need an ally, someone she could persuade to look into the two deaths and discover their true cause.
An ironic smile twisted Constance's lips at the name that came at once to mind. Yes, she would know how to proceed. She had been in a similar situation herself some two years earlier. She'd escaped the gallows by uncovering the identity of the real murderer.
She was also the last person on earth who would be inclined to help Constance Crane, for she was the widow of the man Constance had met in that garden, and other gardens, all those years ago.
Constance passed a long, sleepless night but she could think of no one better suited to her purpose. She spent the hour before dawn composing a letter. She had nothing to lose by asking, and she did not make her request only for herself. Lucy had never even met Constance's lover.
"Thank the Lord," Constance whispered when the first person to enter her chamber was someone she considered trustworthy.
In haste, before the constable and his men came to take her away, she explained what she wanted done.
She left Mill Hall buoyed up by a faint stirring of hope. She'd exacted a promise. Within the hour, a messenger would be dispatched to take her missive to its destination.