Emmaline was always afraid. She was afraid of the trip to the outhouse after dark, afraid of rustling sounds in the corners of the house, afraid of harsh words from her aunt and uncle, afraid for her future.
She took whatever excuse she could find to get out of the cramped house and into the village. The villagers were friendly enough, even with the pitying glances, and being near other people helped her feel grounded. It was even better if she could be useful while doing so. Her aunt and uncle worked hard and had precious little to spare. They tried to make her feel welcome, but she knew she often received food they denied themselves.
Thus she was in the market at sunrise, looking for vegetables, when she felt eyes on the back of her head. She turned around to face a man she had never seen before.
“Good morning sir,” she said with a curtsy.
He waved his hand. “They’re trying to make you marry John Burrows,” he said. “I know him pretty well. Don’t them force it if you don’t want to.”
Emmaline froze. “I’m sorry sir, I didn’t see you at church. How do you…?”
He laughed. “Don’t call me sir,” he said. “I’m Nash. I don’t hang around to listen to that windbag of a vicar, but I’m around. Everyone in Mahrlsberg knows your situation.”
Emmaline felt the back of her neck warm. She felt a flash of anger, then fear, and dropped her eyes. “Then you know, Mr. Nash, that I am a girl with no options,” she said. “I have no immediate family and no dowry. I’m dependent on the charity of my extended family who do not have the resources to support me. I cannot support myself alone. I must go where I’m sent and hope for the best.”
Nash scowled. “That’s wrong,” he said.
“Believe me, I would be delighted to have more options,” Emmaline said bitterly. “I welcome your guidance.” The square was beginning to fill with villagers on morning errands, which eased her fear at being near such a large and intimidating stranger.
Nash grunted and seemed to look at something over her shoulder. She took that dismissal, rushed through her vegetable shopping, and fled. Safe at last inside, she curled up on her got with her knees to her chin and waited until her heart stopped pounding.
In the evening, her aunt and uncle herded her to the King’s Inn for another chaperoned meeting with John Burrows.
“I’m sure with a bit of time, you’ll see what an honorable fellow he is,” Uncle Gerbald told her. “He can be a bit intense at times, but he’s quite respectable.”
“I saw someone new at the market,” Emmaline asked tentatively. “A man who called himself Nash. Do you know who he is?”
Aunt Ruby and Uncle Gerbald frowned in unison. “What did he say to you?” Gerbald demanded.
“N-nothing much,” Emmaline stammered. “He just said hello.”
“He’s a heretic,” Aunt Ruby said. “That’s why he wasn’t at church when we introduced you to the village. Almost any time he opens his mouth, it is to blaspheme the Watcher.”
“You’ll do well to stay away from him,” Uncle Gerbald added.
The King’s Inn was more boisterous than usual that evening. Emmaline found a seat in the corner and watched the village laughing and drinking. She saw John Burrows as he came in the door and scanned the crowd for her face.
Her aunt and uncle found her and escorted her across the room. They made awkward smalltalk about the weather while her chaperones looked anywhere but at them.
A drunken man climbed up on the bar behind them and began to sing loudly and dance.
“This is more entertainment than I was expecting,” John said at the crowd hooted and cheered at the dancer.
“Everyone seems so happy,” Emmaline said, trying not to sound as miserable as she felt.
“I want you to know that I’m truly sorry for shouting at you when we met,” John said. “I was late because of a list of frustrations, and I was in a poor mood. You didn’t deserve it.”
“Thank you,” Emmaline said. “You’re very kind. Think no more of it.”
“Very good,” John said. “I can but hope for a bride who is so gracious and eager to please.”
He started to reach out for her then. She stiffened with terror but held herself firm and waited. “Perhaps a bit more time, then,” he said. He bit her farewell then, and she hurried back to curl up in her cot.
In the morning, she was working in the garden when Nash walked by. As she watched him, he looked up and met her eyes. The look on his face was thoughtful, even kind. She quickly looked away and focused on her weeding. When she looked up, he was gone.
He wasn’t gone for long, however. He sought her out in the market on her next trip.
“You’re right,” he said. “You don’t have as many options as I would have in your shoes. I apologize for being arrogant.”
“You’re forgiven,” Emmaline said. “It was kind of you to think of my problems.”
“I thought of just one other option that you might choose for your future,” he said.
Emmaline blinked. It had been so long since she’d felt any control at all for her future. “I’m very curious!” she said.
He grinned and produced a bouquet of wildflowers. “You can marry me instead.”
Emmaline stared at the flowers as he held them out, blood draining from her face.
“Take them,” he said. “They don’t require any promise from you.”
“Why are you saying this?” she demanded. “I have enough problems. I don’t need jokes at my expense.”
“There is no joke,” Nash said. “It’s time I settled down, and I think we have a lot in common. We both lost our family young and have had to make difficult choices. That’s as good a reason as any. None of the local girls are nearly as interesting as you turn out to be.”
Emmaline reached out and touched the flowers. He pressed them into her hands. “My uncle says you are a heretic,” she stammered.
Nash gave her a wolfish grin. “I can’t argue with that,” he said. “The Watcher has an army of greedy clergy who give long boring speeches about virtue they have no intention of following themselves. I have no time for it. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether that makes me impossible to marry.”
“I have no dowry,” she said.
“I don’t need to be purchased like a trinket in the market,” he retorted. “I am reseeding my father’s farm. Any wife of mine will need to work hard with me and prove her worth that way.”
“I–” Emmaline couldn’t think of anything else to say.
They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Nash nodded his head. “Thank you for listening to my petition, my lady,” he said. “If you ask your uncle, I’m certain he will steer you away from me. I’m really not such a bad fellow if you can handle the blasphemy. Good day.” He waved to her and turned away. Emmaline stood and watched until he disappeared between buildings.
Emmaline didn’t sleep at all that night. She lay awake and stared at the moon through the window above her cot.
Why had she survived? It was a cruel joke. Any of her family would have been more capable of moving on alone than she was. She was trapped and helpless, with few possibilities each more terrifying than the last.
That’s when she realized that in all of Mahlsberg, the only person she wasn’t afraid of was Nash.
She found him the next morning at the bunkhouse for laborers on the edge of town. She had traveled alone, which by itself seemed so scandalous that she wasn’t sure she could still be a suitable bride for Mr. Burrows.
When she knocked on the door, he was the one who answered. “Miss Weaver,” he said in astonishment. It was the first time she had heard him say her name.
“If your offer is real, then I accept,” Emmaline said as fast as she could before she could freeze up.
A smile, warm and delighted, spread over Nash Harlond’s face. She found herself smiling back. “The offer is real,” he said.
“I have one condition,” she continued. He raised his eyebrows. “I need you to come with me to tell my aunt and uncle,” she said. “I don’t think I can face them both by myself.”
There was shouting at her uncle’s house, followed by days of tense silence, but in the end it was done. Aunt Ruby even loaned Emmaline the gown that she and her mother had both worn to their own weddings.
No matter what Nash’s ideas on religion, Emmaline would only recognize a marriage consecrated by the church. Nash didn’t protest too much, perhaps out of respect for how much of her reputation she had already given up to marry him.
She thought Aunt Ruby and Uncle Gerbald had washed their hands of her and would shun the wedding, but they arrived just as the ceremony began.
Uncle Gerbald even wished her well and made amends for harsh things he had said to her. He did not agree with her choice, but he wished her happiness.
Rings were exchanged, and they became man and wife in the eyes of the village and the Watcher.
When the ceremony was over, Nash pulled her arm, and she found herself falling.
“Now,” he said fiercely,
“You shall see that when you fall, I’ll be there to catch you.”
Most of Nash and Emmaline’s interactions were autonomous. They took her origin story someplace entirely different than what I planned.