The ropes cutting into the skin on my wrists prevented me from catching myself as I was thrown down. The raw rough wooden boards sent splinters through the skin on my chin. I rolled over and moved my jaw, relieved to find it wasn’t broken despite the bone-numbing crunch of my face coming in contact with the ground.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to see there was a large crowd gathered for my trial. I registered faces I knew, the cook with a worried expression on her face, a group of small boys, Aimee and the rest over by Matilda who looked calmly elegant in her dark green gown. Johanne wasn’t there. She had agreed to boil cloth for me in herbs...madame Gilfre having disappeared again. Hairy Henry didn’t seem like he was trying to be gentle like he’d promised as he half dragged half kicked me to the foot of a chair that looked like one of those giant rocking chairs at Cracker Barrel. I forced myself to look up. I would have expected the chair to make even the pope look small and ridiculous. The thing was so over the top, were those caterpillars carved on the side? But Sir Nicolas de Flandres, heir to a small country and First Knight of William of Normandy looked like he’d been born for the chair. I dropped my face quickly before I could make eye contact with him.
The courtyard could have held a high school football field and I could see the tiny window of my bedroom and the larger arches of the woman’s salon peering down like spectators themselves. Graventsteen was like a living thing, a giant stone troll with its arms crossed and eyebrows waggling at me.
We were on a raised platform in the center of the courtyard. And the whole set up smacked terribly of a bad movie. Course it kinda was, we were the actors putting on a show to remind everyone you shouldn’t do stupid things. I’d once had a patient in the ER who’d painted his car to look like a police cruiser. He’d run over himself in his haste to ditch the car after he’d been caught. Finding myself occupying the same categorical space as him came as a bit of a blow.
“Emilie of unknown origins and family, you stand accused of debasement of the worst kind, rejecting thy God ordained life and seeking through treachery and deception to occupy a title not granted thee.”
I allowed myself to look up. Nicolas’s eyes held all the fiery reserve you’d want to see in a harbinger of justice and lordly command, but his cheeks were pale and he looked like he hadn’t slept much since I’d last seen him. … not that I had either.
My crimes were read by Father Pierre and included stealing shoes, clothes bread and gillyweed? It went on and on so long I began to wonder if it was customary for everyone to sneak in other crimes in an effort to take care of the local crime statistics all in one go, or if there was a more sinister purpose.
“It is not just against our loyal Comte and his esteemable family that these heinous crimes were committed, but against the people of the village, the hunters, the gathersmen, the church and nay even God heeself that this unrepentant harlot stands in judgment.”
“But I’m not…” I started to object, but a look from Nicolas and a small shake of his head shut me up. Gah, I see now why he’d wanted to discuss a plan… hopefully he had one. It seemed perhaps a tad bit too thorough. And what motivation could he possibly have for caring at all? I had no family, no connections and had only caused trouble...making me disappear permanently was likely in the best interests of all involved.
After the priest finished, the witnesses were called. They came forward in a steady stream. Relaying in great detail how they’d witnessed me foaming at the mouth running naked down the road. I would have liked to point out I was only half naked, and there certainly was no foam involved, and they’d be slightly unnerved as well if they found themselves walking down Sunset Blvd a thousand years in the future. I was grateful that none of my friends among Matilda’s ladies were coming forward. And Henry (I should really stop calling him “Hairy”) made a very gallant speech on my behalf (although I couldn’t quite tell if it was a poem he’d memorized or if it was just unintelligible to me).
Nicolas very sternly marked off and added crimes to the list. On the testament of the cook and weaver, I was no longer guilty of stealing food or clothing. But I was now guilty of consuming treasonous amounts of mustard weed which could only be used for nefarious deeds though no one could think of why since it was only good for childbirth (reason being it was a natural antiseptic, but no one, of course, asked me).
“She gave me to put cabbage and clay on a sorcerous stone in me breast Mi’lord”. It was the young mom with mastitis that first day on the road. In retrospect, I may have been a tee tad bit too intense. “She said to nurse my babe upside down. Would cure me of the fevers I had.”
“And did it?” Nicolas asked without batting an eyelash.
“Aye sir.” The poor woman clearly didn’t want to discuss her breast health with a nobleman sitting on a giant iron throne, but the priest on one side of her and her husband on the other didn’t leave her much choice. “I didn’t have the cabbage, but the clay and feeding worked mi’lord.”
Father Oran started to ask another question, but Lord Nicolas was already calling up the next witness. The young mother stood frozen for a second as she surveyed the crowd, and I realized she was almost as overwhelmed by the large mass of excited bodies as I was.
She was hurried off the stage though as the next witness was led up. It was hard to understand what was being said, I needed a dictionary and Wikipedia. It seemed that the there was a big difference between my crimes against the church and my crimes against the Lord Comte and I couldn’t make heads or tails of which was what even though it was clear from the faces around me that it made perfect sense to everyone else here. The father was not an unkind man. I liked him. He had deep lines in his face that I imagine must have been dimples when he was a baby. Did his mother know he was going to grow up to hold such a position or had he been thrust upon it? And Nicolas, he had been born to this life, but he looked at it so differently than I expected. Less like a spoiled monarch living in luxury and almost like an attending physician who was trying to keep all of his patients alive until his shift was over. As such, he wasn’t about to prescribe something he felt was dangerous nor was he likely to risk letting a virulently contagious virus run rampant. I just wish that plague wasn’t me.
I felt a sudden weariness. How long could this trial go on? Maybe they would just hang me and be done with it. At the moment that seemed like the least complicated way to go. Even if the best case scenario happened and I was acquitted and given room and board, I still had very little hope of getting back to my own time. I thought I was thinking all of these thoughts quite calmly, but apparently, there was still some part of my brain that was freaking out and didn’t want to die, because my stomach suddenly turned itself out and I found myself vomiting. Embarrassing beyond belief. I kept my head down.
There seemed to be a quietness that settled over the crowd, and I was grateful no one was jeering at me anymore. Fight. Say something. Fight. I didn’t want to, or rather....I wanted to, but I was the type of person who needed information and facts to go on. Some sort of understanding of the situation. Plunging forward without those things had been pounded out of me in my old life.
Nicolas called “Lady Matilde Margaret de Flandres of the House of Rushes” to our raised platform. A gasp spread out of the crowd and Matilda shot her brother a similar look as she graciously walked up the newly hewn steps. She looked like Tinkerbell, a tiny little fairy of beauty and life. It always took me by surprise when she opened her mouth and sounded more like a floor nurse taking charge of an unruly patient.
“Do you have any knowledge or claims upon the woman who standeth before thee?” Father Pierre asked.
The siblings exchanged looks and I wondered if Matilde knew her brother had climbed my window last night. They appeared to be holding some sort of silent argument and Matilde finally threw back her head and said definitely. “I do indeed.”
I held my breath. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the incident with Madame Gilfre and the dress could be accounted for in public. If that happened it was over. They’d drown me in the witch’s chair for sure. I’d have said the same thing myself if I were them. My stomach started to churn again, and cold fingers of chills spread down my back and made the hairs on my neck stand up when I thought about how I’d half disappeared when I put on the red kirtle.
“She has been a gracious addition to my ensemble and I would be loathed to lose her.” She said. I looked up in shock. Her brother narrowed his eyes at her. “As a gentle-born in the pursuits of humility and modesty I have intimate knowledge of innermost dealings of Lady Emilie.”
The crowd appeared impressed with this, but I braced myself.
“...It is my chaste opinion she is clearly not a vassal or peasant and I fear her family must be dreadfully worried about her. I suggest all haste be made to learn of her true identity.”
“Are you in agreement she is possessed of a devil then?” Father Pierre asked, raising an eyebrow.
I tried to read Matilde, but she was imperious and closed as a vault. “I cannot say, father”.
Nicolas appeared thoughtful. Father Pierre whispered something to him and he nodded his head slightly. They talked, heads bent together as Matilde regally made her way back to her cluster of ladies. At length Nicolas stood slowly, his sash and brooch clanked against the pearled dagger and his gold buttons shown in the morning light. The townspeople as a whole bowed as if on command. I bowed too...not intentionally, but because it seemed the natural thing to do.
At length, he beckoned imperiously for me to come forward. The blacksmith unwrapped the chains from the post where I stood. Beside him, the men from the watch stood scanning the crowd looking for trouble.
"Who are you?" he asked clearly and simply. A simple question, with no simple answers. Everyone waited.
“I don’t know your excellency,” I said, and it was the truth. Who was I? Clearly, I didn’t know quite a bit and the bits I did know would never be believed.
Father Pierre leaned forward to say something else to Lord Nicolas, but the Comte’s son put his hand up.
My lower back was aching from standing so long; some of the village people had spread out blankets and were busy pulling out bread and fish to feed their children, my now empty stomach grumbled. But Nicolas began to speak and I promptly forgot all of my physical woes.
“It is the judgment of the house of the Rushes, the crest of de Flandres and the holy offices that there is insufficient evidence to condemn you.” Murmurs spread through the crowd and the ladies court all looked sharply at Matilde to gauge her reaction which was impossible to see on her serene face.
“Escort the maiden to the witches kettle.” Panic struck me and I couldn’t help but strain at my chains, pointless though it was. The crowd was going wild too. I rotten piece of meat was hurled at me, striking me on the side of the head. I could feel maggots crawl in my ear. I was led down the steps and everyone wanted to seem to touch me, whether to judge me for themselves or to get a talisman from me...I wasn’t sure. My clothing was ripped from me and as I got pushed and crushed in the crowd I could see out of the corner of my eye they were ripping the cloth up into smaller sections and passing it out like souvenirs. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I probably didn’t want to know.
Nicolas’s Mensie finally beat everyone back enough to lead me through the courtyard and through the main gates. The ground was uneven and I tripped several times. By now I was almost completely naked and I could see Nicolas was studiously avoiding looking at me, although the same couldn’t be said of some of the other men. A small fire had been started by the witch’s chair and there was boiling water. I was pulled up to this and the chains wrapped around the base of the chair. Did they mean to drown me or boil me?
Nicolas looked grim. I could see the muscles in his jaw clenched, but otherwise, he was like his sister. As immovable as a mountain. I hated him in that moment. It didn’t matter what time or century I was in, and it didn’t matter how responsible he felt. The fact that he held all of the power and my fate in his hands made me angry.
“Put your hands out!” I was commanded.
“This is ridiculous!” something in me snapped.
"Please put your hands in the trying waters" Father Pierre ordered calmly proceeding as if he hadn’t heard me.
"What the hell is wrong with all of you!”
The priest looked surprised. "Tis the only way to prove whether ye be truthful or guilty. A trial by boiling water. Yer hands are wrapped, a guilty body festers and boils, an innocent soul is spotless and healed.”
Holy heck. A small part of me remembered and acknowledged this is what we had prepared for...this is what Nicolas had talked about. This is what Johanne was preparing for in the kitchen. But now that I was here the sheer madness of it all was overwhelming. Openmindedness be hanged. This was ridiculous. I fought with every trick I remember from the self-defense class I took with Natasha, but it was like fighting iron. I felt the members of the watch wrap their hands around my arms and bear me forward. I would have thrown up again if I could, but there was nothing left and I saw spots at the corners of my eyes. I must be hyperventilating though I couldn’t tell, I couldn’t even feel myself breathe and I seemed unable to hear anything but a loud rushing sound pounding in my ears as I saw with horrified detachment my arms going forward. I noted the bubbles and saw twigs of something roiling in the water.
It didn’t hurt. I felt nothing.
And then pain exploded as my brain finally caught up and my nerves started functioning. My hands were pulled out and I sagged, my feet unable to hold me up anymore. I wish I could pass out. Being unconscious sounded mercifully tempting, but I stayed miserably conscious as I was born by strong arms through a side archway. I had no idea where they were taking me, and I struggled. My naked skin scraping up against leather. I could feel the cool metal of their swords pressing into my bare hip bones.
I was deposited not ungently onto the floor...I opened my eyes and realized I was in one of the small smoking rooms off the kitchen. A wrapped boar was hanging over my head and I shivered, grateful split second that I hadn’t suffered the same fate as it.
And then Johanne was hovering over me. She wasn’t the type to waste words or be overly motherly, but she gently wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and sponged the dirt off my face. “Do ye need to sleep milady?” She asked, seeing me close my eyes.
“No,” I said. “Have you boiled the bandages” It wasn’t tiredness she was noticing, but my body going into shock. Do you have some water and more blankets? I asked. “And maybe some chamomile?” She nodded. I’d arranged them all ahead of time, but I hadn’t accounted for the fact that I might be shaking so badly I couldn’t act as my own physician. Nevertheless, I had to rally. There was no choice. This was the crucial moment. My red hands were already blistering and I could dirt along with all of the invisible bacteria I couldn’t see but knew was there. I gritted my teeth and dipped my hands into a small barrel of gin and held them there as long as I could. I meticulously cleaned my fingers and scrubbed off any dirt that was stubbornly clinging. I couldn’t see or think very well, but the familiarity of dealing with wounds took over and I moved automatically. Binding my hands in honey and lavender.” I took a long draught of elderberry and oregano and prayed that the shock wouldn’t lower my immune system. t was warm in the smoker and there was no light except for the great kitchen fire. Young Peter sharpened a knife on the stone wall nearby and the rhythmic sound was soothing.
I closed my eyes for a half second, and that was the last thing I remembered.
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