4. but those who sang loudest were dead
The village was out in full force, even more so than earlier in the day, by the looks of it. The solemn occasion had everyone in whispers. Even Old Woman Withers was there, in front.
Savannah and her mother searched the crowd for Thomas while trying not to get separated by villagers vying for a view.
"There he is, mother, look!" Savannah said. A hush fell over them all as Thomas and Kenneth appeared, between them lifted the bed. Gloria was wrapped properly in the shawl of the dead. They placed her on her high pyre and stepped down. Thomas gripped Kenneth's arm before he joined his family.
Phillip stood before Kenneth and offered him a torch. Kenneth accepted it wordlessly and sobs broke out as he set it to the pyre.
The flames were orange and red as they climbed higher and the darkening sky contrasted beautifully.
Savannah could not concentrate on the flicker. She searched for Eric. There he was, next to his father. He looked furious. His jaw clenched and his heavy brows drew together. Sarah's hand gripped her arm and that split second distraction made her lose sight of him.
"I'll be right back," she whispered to her mother. Sarah called after her but could not weave through the crowd in pursuit.
Eric was nowhere to be found. The rest of the village looked deserted. Where could he-
"It's not safe to walk about at night."
Savannah jumped at the sound of Eric's voice. She turned, and there he was. "I'm safe now that you're here. Why did you"
"I'm very serious about this, Savannah." His voice had a hard, protective edge. "I don't you walking about in the dark. I need to keep you safe."
"Safe from what?"
"Safe from everything." He gripped her hands and brought them to his chest. "I love you, Savannah. I don't want you to come to harm."
"You love me?" Savannah gasped. He'd never been so direct, so forceful.
"You hadn't guessed?" He smiled that wry smile of his that she liked -loved- and kissed her forehead. "I want to marry you and for you to have my children, dozens of them. Far, far away from here." He said it almost like a prayer and Savannah's heart swelled.
"Yes, Eric, I love you, too. My heart is yours."
"And mine yours, my love."
Their eyes locked and he ran his fingers through her hair as he bent his head down, and someone screamed. Eric instinctively snapped her closer to him.
"What was that?"
"Trouble," Eric growled.
Mary clapped a hand over her mouth in horror. What trickery was this? What mockery did some imp make of this tragic day? The flames that covered Gloria to take her soul to the Divine had turned ice blue and raged as if on paper kindling. And the fire, it screamed. Like a hawk diving in the sky, by one hundred. She gripped George's arm.
"Where is our son?"
"He is not here with us. He will be fine."
"I know." She squint her eyes at the unnatural flame and said a prayer for her soul.
They watched as Phillip stepped forward, waving his fist in the air. He stood too close to the pyre and the flame kissed his temple, singing the hair from his head. Two boys helped him up just as Withers began to scream.
"There is evil among us!" Her hand turned into a small fist and an accusing finger that she crooked towards them all. "Take my word! This is no small thing!" The crowd hushed and Old Woman Withers spoke over the howling flames. She turned to Kenneth, who was shaking as if he were going to scatter in the wind. "It were no ordinary wolf that had your wife, Kenneth!"
The crowd gasped. Surely not! She can't mean!
Kenneth shook his head and his hands pressed down over his ears.
"Leave him be, hag!" A barreling voice called out. "Can't you see that he's been through enough? Don't start on with your nonsense." Bishop stepped forward. He was a hulking man with a shaggy black beard and piercing green eyes. A blacksmith, he usually kept to his work. He towered over most men and Withers appeared miniscule beside him.
Withers pointed her finger towards his chest. "I know of what I speak, blacksmith." Then she turned to the crowd, "Take in this night, all! I have seen more than you care to forget. Beware of the werewolf!" The flame roared, then suddenly died.
George held Mary tight so that she would not be knocked away from him in the sea of panicked souls. He caught sight of his son, a mirror image of him, holding tight the red-haired girl Savannah. Superstition was a certain way to rile up villagers. A certain way to disaster. He prayed that it came and left swiftly, whatever it was.