His smile vanished instantly, “You’re Mr. Brandwith’s wife?”
The cheering stopped and for a moment there was silence then a groan came from the crowd. The rider dismounted and towered above Caroline with his eyes fixed on her face. She looked down at the youth; the yard beneath his knees and his hands was stained crimson and a thin stream of blood dripped from his lips.
“How could you! How could you treat him like this?”
The rider lunged forward and seized the boy’s hair, dragging his head from the ground, “He’s alright. He enjoys it! I’n’t that right, Abe? Here, have a drink!” He laughed and slowly, deliberately poured the contents of a tankard over the boy’s head.
Still he didn’t move; he seemed not even to blink though the ale dripped into his translucent green eyes. Caroline mopped his face with the edge of her shawl and cradled his head in her lap.
“He’s bleeding,” she said, “bring some water.”
One of the bystanders moved to obey but the man with the stick held him back.
“Saddler,” someone whispered, “don’t you know who she is?”
“I don’t care who she is. She’ll not tell me what to do!”
He turned his back on her and stood like a great tree blocking the light of the sun. Her heart pounding, Caroline looked down on the youth but the moment she opened her mouth to speak he leaped to his feet and with the sound of a whimpering dog darted across the green and disappeared beyond the trees.
Straightening her skirts, she stood up and met Saddler’s stare.
“He’s an imbecile,” he grinned, “he doesn’t feel like normal folk feel.”
“Normal folk? You think it’s normal to beat and humiliate him!”
“Begging your pardon m’lady,” Saddler bowed with mock courtesy, “I learned my manners from men like your father. Did I treat the lad any worse than he treats his workers?”
“Leave it, Saddler,” someone said but the man curled his lip.
“I know what goes on in Brandwith’s factory, so don’t come round here telling us how to behave.”
“She was only trying to help, Saddler.”
“Aye,” he said, moving so close she could smell the ale on his breath, “and if she wants to help, the best she can do is get back to
He clenched his hand into a fist, raised it above his head and let out a cry so loud and ear-piercing it shook Caroline to the core.
“Brandwith!” he spat on the ground before leading the crowd back to the inn.
As Caroline turned away trembling, the sound of his laughter echoed through her ears like the thunder of the looms in Brandwith’s mill.