Whispers in the Waters
I rounded a bend, and the slight woman I’d seen in the stratesman’s shadow when we’d arrived in Milburn stumbled down the lane, her gown of muslin streaked with dirt and littered with forest debris. She clutched a ragged silk shawl around her shoulders, as though it could shield her from notice.
Nelda, Mrs. Wilkins had called her. Her palm dripped blood, and tears streaked her cheeks. For a moment, I remained rooted in place. If the townsfolk were to be believed, Nelda had brought a vengeful attack against Melle and her family. But the downcast lines of her body spoke of brokenness and distress, not malice.
“Nelda?” I hoped she wouldn’t take offense at the use of her given name from a stranger. I hurried forward. “You’re hurt. What happened?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” Nelda lifted her hand and watched as blood wept from it, one drop after another splatting against the dusty surface of the road. The wound cut deep.
Could Mrs. Wilkins have been right when she’d suggested madness? I shifted the bundle of clothes from one arm to the other. “Can I accompany you home and find someone to tend your injury?”
She laughed, a wild, off-key sound. “Home? I have no home.”
“Then where are you staying?” I lowered my voice in an attempt to soothe her. “I’ll help you there and fetch an herbalist, if it suits you.”
“Staying? No one will house me. Not after what’s happened at the mill.” She jabbed toward the trees with her uninjured hand. “I stay in the forest. At least here, I’m close. Close to where home used to be.”
I drew in a sharp breath. To live in the forest, this close to a Crossing? It was unthinkable. Otherkind might lurk anywhere, not to mention natural predators. Had the entire town truly forsaken her, simply because she’d wed the wrong man and he’d abandoned her? Or was there more that I missed? Society offered swift condemnation for those who failed to abide by its strictures, but other than a poor choice in a husband, what wrong had she done?
She swayed, and I rushed to steady her. “You can’t stay out here. You need proper shelter and someone to look at your wound. Come with me into Milburn, and we’ll find an herbalist.”
“No, I can’t.” She backed away, every scrap of color leeching from already-pale features. “No one here wants to help. They’d only try to lock me up!”