She washed up along the riverbank just as the sun was setting. Amber light flooded the forest and the water of the stream was like molten bronze, the white spray, as it tumbled over rocks and fallen branches, rendered in brilliant gold.
Her body moved remarkably elegantly, twisting and turning as if she were in the throes of a fitful sleep, nothing more. Weeds and dead leaves were tangled in her golden hair, and her skin was grey-white. Her eyes, glassy, staring up at the heavens, seeing far, far beyond the sunset and the sky streaked carnation red with black clouds…out there, beyond where no one on this earth could see even in dreams and visions…
Though there was a lone figure, following her slow progress, hidden by the trees, waiting for a chance, a passing group of hunters found her first. A group of green lads from the town, trussed up in leathers, with their prey strapped to their backs, and strapping smiles on their ruddy cheeks, at first they had thought themselves lucky; they had stumbled on a maid, bathing in the stream – it was not such a rare sight, on a midsummer evening, after a scorched day such as this. It was only when a crow came to settle on her shoulder, and worry at her open eyes, that the boys grew alarmed.
After much deliberation amongst themselves, it was decided that they ought to bring her to the nearest village, and the sheriff there could deal with the matter properly. The two oldest, largest boys carried her between them. Though they were still a little addled with ale, a very sober silence came upon them during this walk. No one uttered more than a sigh, or a shudder as the evening chill descended on the woods.
It was midnight by the time they arrived. The sheriff was roused, and soon after a crowd emerged, and the empty market square was lit by many hands carrying candles, lanterns, torches. The girl’s pale body was surrounded by a flickering glow, and a low murmur of anguished voices.
“She’s not from here.” An old spinster said, making the sign of the cross. Relief was in her voice.
“Perhaps she was washing clothes in the river and slipped?” Another offered.
“She looks well bred, perhaps she was a noble girl, a runaway…”
“Running away from her marriage, perhaps?”
“Or a terrible crime! Perhaps she killed her child!”
“Now, now, let’s not condemn her – she might have been murdered.”
“Oh, God forbid! Drowned! The poor creature…”
“But how shall we find out who she belongs to?”
“Enough!” The sheriff boomed. “Go back to your beds, the lot of you. This will be dealt with – she’ll be gone by tomorrow and given a Christian burial. If her family can be found, that’ll be a blessing. But regardless, she’ll not be left out to rot in this heat, so you can all sleep with a clear conscience.”
The crowd grudgingly dispersed, save for a lone figure, who had slipped into the village on the tail of the group of hunters. She was hooded, but beneath, a braid of corn-yellow hair was hidden. The sheriff would not leave the body unattended, she knew. There was no chance of getting back the necklace now, the one containing the lock of jet black hair – her lover’s hair. No doubt the river water had washed it of all its wonderful scent…
She shed a quiet tear, not for her dead twin, nor even for the lost locket, but for the fact that her own life was over now. For, if all went to plan, it would be ‘her’ that they buried tomorrow. While ‘she’ would return to ‘her’ loyal husband, in tears, to tell the news of the bad sister’s death…
(prompts: evidence, underwater, amber)
by Rachel Norris