Margery alighted from the stagecoach at the crossroads and set off in the direction in which she had been pointed, a small bundle of overnight items on her back.
The Lancashire air was cold on her face. Snow lay thickly on the fells but the highway had been passable.
Behind her, the stage rumbled away along the turnpike, bound for Clitheroe and beyond. The narrow road Margery trod was crusted with trampled snow.
It was a fair step and she was heartened to catch the whiff of woodsmoke, then cooking. She rounded a bend and there it was.
Built of local gritstone, the Black Boar stood in the dark shadow of Pendle Hill.
Margery marched to the door, opened it and stepped into a flag-floored taproom.
A fire blazed in an inglenook and at the bar a man was running a cloth over the counter.
He gave Margery a nod.
“Good day, mistress. Can I be of help?”
“Sir, I wish to speak with Alys Croft.”
“Alys? She’ll be in the back. This way, lady.”
Margery was directed to a dining chamber where a woman was scrubbing a long trestle table.
“Visitor for you, Alys,” the alehouse keeper said, departing.
Alys straightened, apprehension crossing her face.
“What’s your business wi’ me?”
“Some weeks ago you made a house call at Chester. You spoke with a certain Mistress Leche.”
“How come you know of my dealings?”
“I know many things, mistress,” Margery replied.
Seldom did Margery use her powers to threaten, but she did so now, holding Alys Croft’s gaze and seeing the insolence in her eyes change to fear as she made the sign against witchcraft, the thumb tucked between the first and second fingers.
“You’s one o’ them. You’s come to the hill!” she whispered.
Margery stepped closer.
“You told a falsehood to Mistress Leche. You had best explain yourself.”
The woman’s face crumpled. She drew a shuddering breath and launched into a ragged diatribe that told Margery all she wanted to know.
Will bid his customer farewell and, buoyed by the sale he had just negotiated, dropped the payment into the metal-bound cashbox.
He glanced up as the shop door again opened to admit another figure.
Lines of exhaustion etched her face. Her clothes were crumpled and travel-stained and she carried a small bundle.
“Will, I beg a word.”
“Surely. Will you step up to my office? We shall be more private there.”
He led the way. Once in the makeshift office, Will turned to her sharply.
“I’ve been concerned. I called at your lodgings but you were mysteriously absent. Neither was your landlady forthcoming. Where have you been?”
“May I first beg refreshment? Ale will do.”
“Aye, sit down. Wine might be more restorative. Can I offer you food? There’s cheese and fresh bread.”
“My thanks but, no, I must not linger.”
The wine restoring some colour to her cheeks, Margery began her tale.
“I have come straight from the stage. There was a blizzard and it was delayed. Passes blocked, roads snowbound.
“We were holed up for days at the Clitheroe staging inn, sleeping as best we could on the benches and eating what food they could spare us.”
“You were in Lancashire?”
“I went to the Black Boar at Pendle. I needed to speak with your half-sister.”
“The devil you did! You know all about me, then.”
“At first only what my mistress heard from your sibling and then told to me.
“Most of which proved exaggeration, born of jealousy and resentment.
“I learned of your getting, the life at the alehouse and such.
“To my mind, however, the talk of a previous marriage did not ring true.”
“Of course it wasn’t true! Jane should have realised that and trusted my word, not the spiteful ramblings of a stranger!
“She would not listen to me, her husband. She spoke as if I was her enemy.
“Jane should have thought before attacking me.”
“You might have handled matters better yourself. Will, your wife is with child.”
“What? A babe? Why did she not say?”
“I suspect she did not have the chance. But hear me out. Alys Croft was bribed to come and tell my mistress what she did.
“There was talk of having discovered your whereabouts from something overheard in the alehouse. That was a lie.
“Alys’s motive stemmed from childhood and your mother favouring yourself above her other children.”
“Hah! Alys always was a disgruntled wench.”
“She must have felt the hurt sorely. But that is no excuse for her actions.
“The perpetrator of all this appears to have been extremely persuasive.
“The bribe money, too, would have been tempting.”
“Did Alys say who was responsible?”
“She would not give a name. Someone who wanted you out of the way, I warrant.”
“Not Constance? She never was my ally.”
“Mistress Hatton would never stoop to such measures.
“Will, speak to your wife. Don’t miss the chance of a good life together.
“My inner self warns me my mistress could be on a path from which there is no return. Go to her before it is too late.”