The morning after our intimate ablutions dawned clear and fine. Our schedule dictated that this was again a market day. We arrived in good time and managed to occupy our using quiet spot. Business was brisk and our stock of elixirs and potions diminished steadily. It looked as if we would not have very much to carry back home.
In between the dispensation of potions and advice, I began to notice that there were eyes fixed upon us. Of course, both Cissy and I were regarded as attractive widowed women, even now, and it would not have been the first time that some awkward youth or desperate man had focused his attention on us.
But the eyes in this case were those of a street urchin, one of innumerable waifs and strays that tended to congregate in these places. Few had any money, and those that did had almost certainly stolen it. As a caution, we always kept our purses close and guarded, our reputation for mystery and hidden powers helped stay many a wandering hand, and we had been known, on occasions when nobody was looking, to slip a soothing ointment or healing potion to those whose needs were both extreme and unfeigned.
Mother was always a tall and elegant woman, even towards the end of her life. Everybody says that I favor her; that would certainly be true if the images in the mirror did not lie. So perhaps I should not have been surprised by the words I heard from behind me.
"You are so like your mother."
I spun around. It was the urchin I had spotted watching us earlier. He - no, she - looked skinny and dreadfully underfed, judging by what little I could see of her face and hands. The rest of her was hidden under layer after layer of rags and tatters; whatever hair she had was hidden under an oversize hat with a floppy brim which looked like it had been thrown away by its original owner.
"Who are you?" I said, but gently. I could see the look of desperation in her face, a sense of pleading with an admixture of unbroken pride and firm resolve. She tugged off her hat to reveal irregular blonde stubble where her locks had been crudely cut off.
"I’m Diana," she said softly, her voice beautifully delicate and entirely at odds with her appearance, "Do you remember me?"
I am sure I must have stared uncomprehendingly at the girl for a full minute, shocked beyond speech. In truth, I did remember her, from ten or more years ago. Then she was but a child, bright-eyed and bird-like, with a mischievous grin never far from her lips. Now, I would not have recognized her if she had not spoken, drawn attention to herself, especially given the shortness of her hair. For all the world, it looked like it had been shaved off as some kind of punishment.
Suddenly overcome with compassion, I took Diana by the hand and drew her into the relative privacy provided by the handcart and the impromptu stall which we had thrown up in order to market our wares. Cissy, who had been watching our exchange from the other side of the cart, joined us, looking suspiciously at the unkempt vagabond.
"Be calm, Cissy," I admonished, "Diana I remember well, but she seems to be down on her luck."
In truth, Cissy was a generous and compassionate soul, but she did not like to think that she was being taken advantage of. She looked closer at Diana, seeing as I had her genuine need of assistance.
"You look famished," Cissy said, "You must eat. Share our lunch."
"Thank you," Diana replied, her eyes wide, "I haven't eaten anything for days."
Cissy reached into the depths of the handcart and drew out a small basket covered with a cloth. This contained our meal: bread and cheese and chutney made with ingredients from our garden, and a bottle of small beer. She tore off a huge hunk of the cottage loaf and handed it over to Diana, who fell on it ravenously while I struggled with the stopper of the bottle.
Once Diana had taken the edge off her hunger, I felt I could ask her questions.
"What has brought you to this dreadful state?" I said.
"I was foolish. I became pregnant," she said flatly, "Only a few months gone, I knew. I was beaten; now I am not pregnant."
My eyes filled with tears. One so young, to have been with child, out of wedlock no doubt, and then to lose the child in such a way.
"Who was the father?" Cissy demanded, righteous anger flashing in her eyes.
Diana was suddenly silent at the question, the last of the bread half-way to her lips.
"I have been punished enough for making a claim in this respect," she said stiffly, glancing at Cissy with suspicion and sudden fright.
"You can trust us," I said soothingly, "And we do not really need to know who it was. Would you have your revenge on this man, in any case?"
Diana shook her head firmly.
"I just want to get away," she said plaintively, "I tried to push him away before, but he pressed himself on me. I never wanted his attentions. Now, if a man tried to lay his hands on me, I would sooner cut his throat than submit to his penetration."
I reached out both hands to Diana, taking hers in my own, then I turned to my bosom companion.
"Cissy, can you find room in your heart to take her in? As Mother and I once took you in?"
Cissy had joined our household as an outcast, homeless after her husband died, although not, perhaps, as estranged from society as Diana has become. As I spoke, Cissy face softened and she too reached out to us both.
"Yes," she said, "Yes, you should join us, live with us, like us."
Diana looked from my face to Cissy's and back again.
"You mean it?" she said finally, wonderingly, than added as both Cissy and I nodded enthusiastically, "I would love that."