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Daughter of Chronos: 

 

4. Suspicion

23rd July, 1696

 

  Daniel busied himself gathering his powder horn and buckshot, placing them carefully in the hide pouch slung across his shoulder.  From a shelf in the larder a portion of cloth-wrapped beef pie was added to the pouch’s burden, followed by a pair of apples.  A smile of anticipation lifted his face.  The weather was fine, and a good days hunting beckoned.  If he was lucky, he may even bag a deer for the table.  Venison would be a welcome treat for the Proctor family. 

  Leant against a doorframe, Judeth watched her husband’s preparations through fond eyes.  He was a tall man, with dark, almost black hair and a close-trimmed beard that circled his square jaw.  With a strong, muscular physique, he was an honest man, and a diligent husband and father. 

  Unfortunately, for all his many positive attributes, Judeth’s own family considered that she had married beneath her station.  Unbeknown to Judeth, her father, a successful and wealthy businessman in Concorde, had planned for his eldest daughter to be married to the son of a local banker, and thus cement a financial agreement made between the two family patriarchs. 

  So when she took up with the handsome young Daniel of her own volition, the family home resounded with vitriolic words from her apoplectic parents.  When the time came for Daniel to ask Judeth’s father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he refused, forbidding the two from ever seeing each other again. 

  So, as star-crossed lovers often do, they eloped.  After travelling for a few weeks they eventually arrived in Duncan Falls, where they settled down and became part of the community.  Now she rarely saw her family, only occasionally communicating with them by letter. 

  As she watched him clean his flintlock musket she tried to appear calm, but her eyes could scarcely conceal a concern. 

  “I know that look, Goodie Proctor.” He stepped over, and put a hand up behind the nape of her neck, gently stroking her earlobe with his thumb. “Tell me, what ails thee?”  

  “‘Tis nothing, dearest.  Please, pay no heed.” She put her hands around his waist, trying to disarm him with a warm smile.

  “Come now, wife,” he spoke softly, lowering his head till his forehead almost touched hers. “I know thee well enough.  Please, unburden thyself.”

  She hesitated for a moment, then, “‘Tis Judge Chambers,” she said edgily, lowering her gaze. 

  Daniel’s face instantly folded.

  “Chambers?” he grimaced, “what of him?”

  “He... did watch the house again this morrow,” she answered, head still lowered.

  “Again?  Dam-nation.  Why doth he do this?” Daniel glanced through the window, thinking to catch the man in his studies. “What possible reason could he have for this fascination with us?” Unable to fathom the magistrates animus, he felt impotent as to how to resolve it.

  “I know not, dearest, but he unnerves me so.”

  Judeth had long hoped whatever interest Judge Chambers found in them would wane, but as the years passed, he continued to appear near their house, always watching with the same dark fascination.

  Daniel stroked his beard. “Well, he has not harmed us,” he murmured, frustrated, “so there is little yet we can do.”     

  “Daniel, I think we should consider moving, to another town.” 

  “Move town?  But why such an upheaval?”

  “I fear for Verity, her safety.”

  “Verity?” Daniel’s eyebrows shot up. “How so?” 

  “He studies her, and his eyes are cold.  I swear there is evil within them when he looks at her.”

  Daniel’s fists began to clench.  He had a good job at the warehouse, and a comfortable home.  But, if it came to a choice between a settled life, or the security of his daughter, there was no question of what should be done.  It was not something to be rushed into though, and would need proper consideration.

  “Where is she now?”

  “Down by the lakeside, with her friends.” A knock at the door ended their discussion, and a tall, fair-haired man let himself in.

  “Art thou ready for a good bag this day, Daniel?” 

  Daniel turned, hiding his unease with a mask of conversational greeting.

  “Aye Peter, let me fetch my flintlock, and we will away.”

  Judeth took hold of her husband’s hand. “Where whilst thou be hunting?”

  “Up Severn Sisters Trail, above the falls.” Her eyes widened in concern. “There are rich pickings there this season.  Best empty a shelf in the larder, I foresee several fat game-birds will soon make their home in there.”

   “Above the falls?  Dearest, must thou?  That trail, ‘tis steep, and dangerous.”

  “Tosh, woman,” he gently scorned his wife’s concerns, “Peter and I have traversed that trail many times.  We know it well enough, now, still thy worries.”

  She fussed with the lapel of his jacket. “Please, if thou must go there, take the greatest care.”

  “We shall, wife.” He kissed her on both cheeks.  Then, with a look that only she could see, “we shall talk further when I return.”

  The two men stepped out through the door.  Judeth watched as they left.  Inside, she felt a deep foreboding, something that couldn’t be pinned on the nefarious activities of the twisted Judge alone.

***

  From the lakeside came happy giggles and laughter from four young girls.  Verity, Elizabeth, Felicity and Helen. 

  At eleven years old, Elizabeth Cobbold was a full year older than Verity, and was the tallest of the cheery group.  Her hairnflowed down her back like rivulets of liquid gold, and her cherubic face held eyes of cobalt blue.  

   To Verity, Elizabeth seemed a strange kind of friend.  She could at times be hurtful or unkind to Verity, thoughtless of the consequences of her sometimes spiteful actions.  But if any other child picked on Verity, Elizabeth would instantly fly to her friend’s defence.  Verity belonged to Elizabeth, and no one else was allowed to hurt her.  This, to Verity, was the good that her mother taught her to always seek in others, and the gentle soul within her accepted Elizabeth’s sometimes rough handling as the price for her friendship. 

  The four girls were sitting or kneeling on the bank that rose from the water’s edge.  Clumps of reeds were dotted around, and a tree overhung the bank next to them, it’s lower branches almost kissing the water itself.  They had been led there by Verity, keen to share her love of wildlife, and she was showing them how a Kingfisher was gathering food for its young brood.

  “Look,” she whispered, pointing to the iridescent creature, as it flitted back to its regular perch just above the water, “there he is again!”

  The friends fell silent, and waited in hushed anticipation.  A rainbow-hued blur flashed as the tiny bird dove into the lake’s water, emerging almost instantaneously with a fish in its beak.

  “He has one, he has one!” an excited Felicity Godbolt exclaimed.  Though younger than Verity, she was still a little taller, and wore her dark hair in long ringlets.  As they watched, the bird flitted up higher into the tree into a more densely foliated part, and was temporarily lost from their view. 

  The youngest of the group, eight-year-old Helen Fisher spoke up.

  “Where is the nest?” she asked, thinking Kingfishers nested in trees, “we know he has one, and babies, but I cannot see it.” She peered up at the tree, unaware the birds nest was further along the lake, in a bank.

  “There is one way to find out,” the bold Felicity decided, standing up and moving towards the tree’s base.

  “What dost thou intend?” Elizabeth queried.

  “Simple.  I shall climb up and find the nest.” 

  “No Felicity, please,” Helen cried out, “thou cannot, thou may fall, and hurt thyself.”

  “And the babies, thou may frighten them,” Verity called to the already ascending girl. 

  “Please, still thy fears,” Felicity grinned down at them, “I shall  be most careful, and I have no intent to harm the babies, I only wish to see them, is all.”

  She continued her assent, above the worried gaze of her friends.  As she climbed, she began to edge out over the water in her misplaced search for the Kingfisher’s abode. 

  “Felicity, please,” Verity called up, “thou art too high; the branches will not take thy weight.”

  But the bold girl had the object of her labour in her sights.

  “There!  I see it, I see the nest.”

  She edged still further along an ever more drooping branch, eager to reach a clump of tangled twigs and vines that, to her, looked exactly like her expectation of a Kingfisher’s nest.

  “Just… a little… further…”

  “Felicity, the branch, it-”

  Verity’s warning came too late.  There was a loud crack of splintering wood, followed by a short squeal and a loud splash, as the hapless girl was dunked unceremoniously into the lake’s waters.  Though the lakeside was shallow at that point, being unable to swim, Felicity panicked and started to scream and flail about, much to the anxiety of her companions. 

  Verity was the first to snap to her senses, and without thinking of herself, jumped into the waist deep water, grabbed hold of the floundering would-be ornithologist, and pulled her the few yards back to the bank.  The two shore-bound girls then helped their waterlogged friends back onto solid ground.  Felicity was soaked through from the shoulders down, Verity to the waist.

  “When thou sayest that thou wished to get a better view of the Kingfisher,” Verity joked, “I had not expected thee to copy him!”

  “And a poor copy it was, too!” Elizabeth teased, “all that, and no fish in thy beak!”

  “Mayhap we should call thee Queenfisher from now on!” Verity giggled.

  “‘Tis not funny,” howled the saturated Felicity, stamping her foot in emphasis, “‘tis not funny.  How shall  I return home like this?  I shall  receive such a sound spanking from mother.” She began to sob in anticipation of her painful derrière. 

  Elizabeth began to snigger unsympathetically, but Verity had an idea.

  “Well, I too am drenched.  Mayhap we should tarry a while.  The Sun is warm, and there is a good breeze.  If we tarry long enough we should be dry when we return home, and none shall  know.”

  “Well, where are we to go?” Elizabeth asked, waving her hand through the air, “the Kingfisher has moved on, no thanks to Felicity.”

  Verity thought for a moment. “Ah, I know where there is a fox’s house, and they have cubs.”

  Helen pricked her ears up. “Little foxes?” she asked, eyes full of glee.

  “Indeed.  If we are still and quiet, we may yet see them.  Follow me.”

  She set off, Helen and Elizabeth close behind, with a morose and miserable Felicity following at a distance, leaving a damp trail behind them.

  They followed the lakes edge for a while, threading through reed banks and skipping across the occasional fallen log, till they started to approach a more heavily wooded area of the lower slopes of the steep hills. 

  As Verity’s friends began to realise the possible destination of their journey, they began to feel uncomfortable.  She was leading them to an area of the forest known locally as ‘The Blackriver Coverts.’  Verity was a frequent visitor to the Coverts, and had a favourite spot in a small, sunlit clearing.  A large oak tree grew there, inclined at a shallow angle.  Within a ‘V’ shaped gap in its roots, the grass grew thick and luxuriant, and there Verity would spend many hours, leaning back against the trunk, watching the natural world around her. 

  “Verity, where dost thou lead us?” Elizabeth hissed through gritted teeth. 

  “‘Tis as I explained, to show thee a fox’s house.”

 Felicity, who had by now began to dry off, looked suspiciously at the leader of the party.

  “In there?” she pointed at the edge of the wooded copse.  The trees were pressed close, edged by a thick line of brush and fern, but there were gaps, mostly made by larger animals, and it was towards one of these that Verity was heading. 

  “Why yes, that is where the foxes are, if thou wishes to see them.”

  “Art thou mad?” Elizabeth demanded, eyes flashing anger.

  “The Coverts are inhabited by spirits!” Felicity snapped. 

  Little Helen grew frightened. “S-Spirits?” She looked around nervously, worried if some ethereal being might materialise right there and then. “Please, may we go home now?”

  Verity looked at them in astonishment. “Spirits?  There are no spirits in there.” She gave a short laugh. “Truly, I am surprised at thee, to listen to such old wives tales.”

  “‘Tis no tale,” Elizabeth barked, eyes hooded, “there are evil spirits in the Coverts.” She lifted a hand and sighted down a pointing finger. “And thou wouldst be foolish indeed to enter in there.”

  Verity shook her head. “No, no!  Not unless these spirits have gold and brown faces.  No, I have been in there many a time, and all I have seen are beautiful creatures of the kind that only our good Lord has created.”

  Felicity threw her hand to her mouth in shock.

  “Thou hast entered the Coverts?”

  “And returned safely, as thee can see.”

  Helen tugged on the hem of the older girl’s dress. “Please, may we go home now?  I dost not wish to see baby foxes anymore.”

  “See, thou hast upset Helen with thy fanciful tales,” Elizabeth scolded, “foxes indeed.” She then shoved Verity on the shoulder, causing her to stumble backwards. 

  “B-But, truly, there are no spirits there, on m-my life-”

  “There are no spirits in there!” Elizabeth mocked Verity’s words in a high pitched voice. “Well, mine own uncle did tell me, when he was a boy, his friend entered these very Coverts.  All they found of him was bones.

  Helen’s brown eyes filled up.  She began to cry, and tug more insistently on Verity’s dress.

  “Oh please, let us go home.” Her little voice trembled, as she continued to throw fearful glances at the trees beyond the thick brackens and ferns. “I am afraid.”

  Elizabeth reached across and took hold of the youngest girl’s hand.

  “Do not fear, Helen, we shall  take thee home.” She snarled the words out, throwing Verity a black look. “Leave her to her spirits, we shall not be seeing any foxes this day, I’ll wager.”

  Elizabeth turned, and with Helen still holding her hand, flounced back along the lakeside path, Felicity close by her side.  Verity, left standing alone, watched her departing friends through moistening eyes.   

  Rubbing her cheek, the pained young girl then turned, passed through the gap in the thick hedge and entered the heavily-wooded copse. 

  Behind her, between the older girls, Helen gave a long, concerned look over her shoulder.

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