This is the place on the cliff top where the man hauled her from the nymphs’ arms. Below her, stunted trees jut from rocks to spread their wind-twisted branches above the water. Sabrina’s whispers rise, telling Hester she is good, as she did when Hester was as small as Annie. She breathes in the goddess’s murmuring approval, uses it to shore up the courage she has had to dredge from deep within herself.
She strains to hear above the shouts of sailors, barge owners and fishermen all battling for space on the river’s wide reaches. The tide is turning and those going down pull into the bank to wait out the tug of the upstream flow.
It’s a high bore this morning. Hester leans in the direction of the sea, eager to sight the bright wave thrusting its way upriver and to delight at the creatures which carry the wave, silvered manes sparkling like spring rain. Although she craves glimpses of the river nymphs playing in the spindrift, she vows to close her ears and her heart to their call. Today, she is here to confront the man.
This is the spot where he hauled her from the nymphs’ arms that blustering November day. Hester paces, her need weighing as a physical heaviness in her stomach. He doesn’t come, she will soon have to return to the farm, and she’s uncertain she will find her nerve a second time. A deep sigh of surrender accompanies one more turn, to face upriver.
He is there, his smile wary, as if he doesn’t really want to be here with her but has no choice.
‘What does Sabrina say, Mistress?’ He bows and doffs his beaver hat.
Hester’s frail courage wanes, would flee from her. With effort, she hauls it back and wastes no time in the trivia of greetings.
‘Sabrina wants me to learn the lore of herbs and wildflowers, of mushrooms and toadstools, of leaves and roots.’ Arms crossed over her chest, she forces herself to look at the man. Heat rises up her neck.
‘Is that so?’ He searches her face for truth. She is afraid to blink. ‘Why does Sabrina want this?’
Hester juts her chin. ‘She doesn’t want children to die because I cannot help them.’
‘Ah.’ He stares out over the streaming water, following the high wave and its white riders. ‘The girl in the village.’
‘You knew? And you didn’t come?’ Her stomach roils.
‘I heard this morning.’
He doesn’t say ‘too late’ or that he would have gone if he’d heard earlier. Hester pushes down her disappointment, choosing to believe he would have come, that he would have saved Annie. Annie is beyond saving. This is about tomorrow’s Annies.
‘Will you teach me?’ She hears the desperate plea in her voice. Now he looks at her.
Hester brushes away a curl sticking to her hot cheek and phrases her answer carefully. ‘Father approves.’ He would, she is sure, if she asked him.
The man humphs. ‘I’m sorry.’ He turns from Hester and the river to the fields. ‘If the doctor couldn’t save the girl, then likely neither you nor I could have done so. It was Annie’s time.’
Hester ignores the kindness in his tone.
‘Her time? She was five years old! The poor little girl had no time, no time at all.’ Tears wet her lashes. She lifts her clenched hands, wanting to beat them against his yellow brocade chest.
He catches her fists in his own warm, smooth hands. ‘No. I will not teach you. The path you want to tread is treacherous. You should know, it carries perils for such as you …’ He tightens his grip, gently shakes her fists. ‘Do you remember how you told me once, when first we met, how you knew meadowsweet because that is what your mother says you will carry on your wedding day?’
‘Yes.’ Hester is conscious of his hands around hers and of his eyes, their tinge of sadness with its intimations of deep regret.
‘That is what you will do. You will carry meadowsweet when you wed a lusty farmer, and you’ll bear him dark-curled, blue-eyed girls and sturdy boys.’ He drops her hands as if they are fire-heated branding irons and strides away, matching his pace to the incoming tide below the cliffs.
Hester stares after him, stifling frustrated sobs.
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