The end of my life approached with certainty. My strength was no match for the muscles in the hands holding my head under the water. The nails seared as they dug into my neck. White-hot fear spread through me. My inner thighs grew warm and wet as I lost all control. I struggled feebly while thinking of all the things I would never do, like fall in love or see the sea. It was taking forever to be over. The struggle began to exhaust me and I relaxed, slackened my neck against the hands pushing on it, giving up. I opened my eyes, which had been squeezed shut with panic. The water was murky, but I could see. My eyes stung, but it didn’t matter when I was about to die anyway. My lungs, however, remained calm and didn’t struggle. Maybe this was death, the spirit continuing on in its lifeless body. To test my theory, I clenched and unclenched a fist and kicked my leg hard. The complacent hands reignited and pushed down harder. With the acceptance of my imminent death, the panic had receded, and with that, the crushing chest pain.
I’d been under far too long to still be alive. I let my body slacken again to encourage my murderer to release me. And it worked. My murderer’s shadow receded, and I waited some time before pulling my head out of the water, slowly. As I stood upright, I swayed a little from being bent over for so long. The edge of the barrel supported me as I looked down at my 10-year-old face reflected in the water. I felt reborn, newer and stronger than ever before.
My ma’s face clouded over when I arrived home, drenched and bedraggled. She sat me by the fire and I stripped myself of the wet dress and bonnet. She had something bubbling inside her that needed saying, so I didn’t begin my explanation right away. I suspected that maybe she would have one for me.
“You’re wet?” she said, more as a question.
“Someone drowned me,” I answered, my eyes not leaving her face.
She sighed wearily, nodding, and wrapped a blanket around me.
“We’ll have to move on.”
The nightmares I’d had about being tied up and burned swallowed my protestations, so I nodded.
“Will it hurt?” asked Iris, more curious than scared, while I brewed the collection of leaves and roots into a tea.
“I should think so. A little. You should stay here tonight. I can help with the pain.”
“Yes. I’d like that, thank you.”
If Ma were still here, she’d have sent Iris back to her dwelling to make sure she was far away if anything were to go wrong. Iris whimpered, and I stroked her damp hair as I fed her concoctions to ease her discomfort, help her sleep and calm her mind. The man would’ve been in his grand house, sleeping soundly in his grand bed, suffering not a jot for his treatment of my dear Iris’ body. She hadn’t protested; she even said it was pleasant, in a way, and that the part of her that had wanted to leap off the cliff while we stood on the edge had had a chance to come out and roar; but I knew that the intricate wonders she could encounter were still hidden from her.
She asked me to tell her stories in the dark, while sleep evaded us. I asked if it was too morbid to tell her the story of my birth, as it’s the only one I remember hearing throughout my own childhood. She gave the low, dark chuckle that always stoked a heat inside me, and told me it sounded perfect.
“I was born on the moors while my mother escaped. He was a rich man like yours, and he wanted to keep us, but my ma didn’t want to be kept. She birthed me into a stream and, in her despair, thought to leave me under the water until I stopped breathing and then complete her journey alone. She waited a long time, but the shimmer of life refused to leave my eyes. She grew cold and stiff waiting, and so decided to wrap up her babe and afterbirth and carry us along with her after all. She soon grew weary of the extra weight, so she chewed through the cord and threw the afterbirth for the crows. Apparently, I’m impossible to drown, although folks have tried. More than once.”
“You really are a witch then?” She asked through a weak smile.
“So they keep telling me,” I answered in a whisper.
Ma chose this spot for its solitude. I try not to leave home if I can help it. When people need me, they find me. They use a boat or even swim when it’s calm enough. Iris is the only one who visits for anything other than business, and I’m glad of it. When she left, I instructed her to return in a few days. But a week passed and I didn’t see her. After a fortnight, I began to worry that she’d bled too much. It was unusual for her to stay away this long. By the next full moon, it had been 20 days, so I slunk into the black water and submerged myself to think clearly. I thought, as I had every night since I’d started to worry she might be lost to me, about her laugh, her severe look of concentration, of how it would feel to kiss her, and how her gasp might sound in my ear. Ma’s last words floated up.
“There are ways to kill a man without touching him.”
I decided I needed to know.
The next morning, I sailed the raft and made the journey into town on foot. I could swim, of course, but I wouldn’t go unnoticed. Without being drenched, I could use the chance to collect supplies. At Iris’ croft, her father turned his back on me gruffly, leaving his mother to tell me of Iris’ engagement at the big house.
“She’ll not have time for frolicking around in the water from here on out,” she said pointedly, without meeting my eye.
I went straight up to the house, unsure what I would do when I got there. Now that I knew she wasn’t dead, I could’ve waited for her to come to me, but I was here now and felt compelled to get closer. As I walked along the road, I had to back hastily into the hedge to avoid a carriage approaching too close behind. The carriage stopped ahead of me, so I slowed my pace and shrank myself as small as possible, willing the coachman to continue on, but a gravelly shout slashed the air between us.
“Eleanor!” My ma’s name.
I kept my head low but shook it. Footsteps made their way towards me and I thought to run but saw, in a flash, the possibility of a chase all the way back to my home, which I so yearned to keep protected. He was a rich man, from the look of him and his carriage.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but you’re mistaken.”
“No. Of course,” he searched my face quizzically, “You’re young. And lighter. But you do look so like a woman I used to know.”
My face, so unused to being looked upon, burned with discomfort at such scrutiny and I longed to twist away from his gaze, but I held my breath until he walked away and the carriage continued along the road. It was strange that a man – and a rich one at that – would have known my ma round here, but I hadn’t time to think about that now.
Up at the house, I asked at the back for Iris. The woman tutted and rolled her eyes as she beat rugs on the line.
“You won’t find her back here at this time of day; not until she’s fell out of favour.”
“How d’you mean?” I pressed, although I’d already guessed.
“She’ll have accompanied his lordship on one of his walks.” The younger ones fell about giggling.
“How can I see her?”
“She’ll be here at tea time. If you want a meal, you’ll have to earn it.” She nodded towards a brace of pheasants to be plucked.
I sensed Iris’ return before I saw her, and I could see from afar that she was pale. Whether it was caused by tiredness or my presence, I couldn’t tell. I cursed my quickening heart when we embraced.
“I’m famished,” she announced. “You must be too. Let’s have some tea, and then I’ll take you somewhere and we’ll have a talk.”
The boathouse was bigger than my home, and fancier too. Away from the boats, a room was done out like a cottage. She knew her way around as though it was her own and I felt my innards twist knowing what that meant.
“I couldn’t get away from here. Not without explaining myself, and I couldn’t risk that – for both of us.” She held my gaze and her breath for a moment.
“Is he paying you handsomely at least?” I asked.
“Yes.” She set her chin defiantly, and I felt bad for asking.
“And when he marries, what then?”
“I’ll find something else.”
I sat down on a settee, defeated in a battle I hadn’t been aware I was fighting.
“Will you still visit?” I whispered.
She knelt before me and placed her hands along the sides of my thighs.
“Yes. When I can,” she whispered back.
We talked more and her voice smudged away my tension. The unfamiliar place became familiar to me as I felt how it was infused with her. Before we knew it, it was dark enough for candles and I needed to be home, but she insisted I stay.
“Libby likes you, or she wouldn’t have fed you. She’ll cover for me. Besides, his cousin, the Earl, is visiting from London. He’ll be busy entertaining tonight.”
We made our way back to the house, past the stables where the warm smell of horses and leather drew me in. Even in the dim light, I recognised the sleek dark brown face of the horse that clattered past me that afternoon. I pressed my face into its dusty neck and let its comforting breath soothe me. The feel and smell and sound of it enveloped me, so I wasn’t aware of his approach until Iris’ hand gripped my wrist.
“Sorry, my Lord, we’re just on our way back in,” she breathed hurriedly. The submissive way she said it made me bristle until I recognised the voice that spoke next.
“You must be Eleanor’s,” the voice from the carriage barked. “Even your hair is the same.” Our hair was not the same. Ma’s grew long and matted together into coarse locks, while mine was looser and locked in a way that still showed the curl. And it never got as long as hers. It was only the same to him because he was likely only used to hair he could run his fingers through.
I said nothing, but clutched Iris’ hand tightly. The feeling that it was time to move on resurged with alarming strength. Anyone who recognised me from before was a potential threat. He may or may not be the man who drowned me in the city all those years ago, but all men of his kind are best presumed a danger to me. If I left here and returned home alive tonight, it wouldn’t take long for him to find out where I was. I didn’t want to move on without Iris. I wanted her to always find me when she was ready.
“Who are you?” He snarled once my silence had confirmed his suspicions. “I only knew of one child, and she’s dead.”
I strode up to him slowly, keeping my eyes on his, hoping that if I hated him hard enough, the ability to kill him would come into my mind.
“Is it you who drowned me then?” I asked, unblinking.
It was only a moment, but I caught fear in his eyes and knew this was our chance to run. We fled past him and raced into the darkness. I pulled Iris along, down towards the water where I felt most safe, thinking he would chase us to the house or down the road into town.
At the boathouse, Iris quickly lit a candle and paused to look around the cosy room, deep in thought. She placed her hand on a blanket on the sofa and stroked it slowly. I halted, unsure about whether to comfort her or leave her to the memory, but I was anxious to escape.
“I have to go. Far away, for good, you know?” And then – because I had nothing to lose if I were to lose her anyway – “We could go together.”
Her head jerked up, and I’m sure her eyes glowed in agreement because, for a moment, I felt my insides catch with glorious hope, but the sound of the door opening caused me to whirl around and Iris to yelp in shock. The shape of a man crowded the doorway and my heart plummeted.
“You won’t escape me again!” he growled desperately, lunging for me. I pulled Iris to the boats, but he caught up quickly and his hands were at my neck again. Although she was right beside me, Iris’ screams sounded far away. I willed her away, pleaded with her in my mind to get to a boat.
I felt, rather than heard, the blow she landed. The shock went through him and his fingers slackened. The weight of his body fell onto me as we splashed into the water, and I could finally breathe. When I resurfaced, another man knelt beside Iris hauling my unconscious murderer out of the water.
“Iris!” his deep voice called up. He stood and placed his hands on her face. “Did he harm you?”
Panic flooded through me. I’d come here to rescue her, thinking I had the power to kill this man with only my love for Iris. She looked afraid, but not desperate.
“No,” she panted, “He tried to kill Arminda.”
I pulled myself up out of the water, eager to make our escape, not wanting Iris to change her mind but unsure if I could manage another battle.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured to him. “But it’s time for me to go. For us to go.” She spoke firmly and steadily, to my surprise.
“I see,” he said and cast his gaze over me. Then he murmured, “So this is her?”
“Yes,” she said, still unwavering.
He nodded darkly and I braced myself for him to leap at me, drag me back up to the house or throttle me on the spot. He moved suddenly and I flinched, but he slowed and went into the adjoining room. I worked swiftly to unwind the ropes of the nearest boat. The man returned with several heavy bags and placed them in a wicker basket stashed under the seat in the boat. He took the blanket that Iris had stroked and placed it over her shoulders. They spent a few moments regarding one another and something wordless passed between them. He addressed us both then. “There’s enough money there to get you started comfortably, far away. I can hold him off until the morning, but you should be on your way by tomorrow.”
He helped Iris into the boat with trembling hands and pushed us away into the night. He was right that someone would be chasing us by the morning, but I knew it wouldn’t be the Earl.