soft rustling of straw and the quiet sobbing of one of the women were
the only sounds. The town gaol was a small building nestled against
the fortified walls. In the cramped room used as the cell, two
narrow slits far above let in light and air, but not in amounts
sufficient to clear the old smells of urine and vomit from the drunks
and petty thieves who were its usual guests.
women were sharing the close quarters. Two -- an old crone and a
middle aged woman in a plain homespun dress -- were slumped against
opposite walls. The third was barely out of childhood; she curled on
her side, her face hidden in the folds of the second woman's skirt.
you shut your girl up?" The old woman scratched underneath the
frayed collar of her worn black dress and spat into the straw. "Pox
take these fleas. Bad enough the stink and the squalling
-- not to mention what happens at the end of our stay as guests of
other woman stroked her daughter's hair. "Hush, Mary, your
uncle goes before the Council this morning. He will make them see
reason. We are innocent of any wrongdoing."
widow?" The older woman's low laugh turned into a wheezy cough.
"I'm innocent too," she choked out when she could get her
breath back. "Since when did that matter to such as them?
Thought yourselves safe, did you? Thought yourselves respectable
land holders? Too bad your neighbor Simkin would like to hold some
of your lands!"
Brown glanced at her cell mate. "Not so innocent as you,
perhaps, with your herbs and potions. You might have come into town
Sundays, show up at worship."
I hold to the old ways, as did my mother before me and her mother
before her. And grateful enough many of the townsfolk have been,
when that book- learnt fool who's set up shop here couldn't cure them
with his doctoring. If your brother-in-law had brains, he wouldn't
bother with the council. He'd be at Simkin's offering him the lands
you brought to your marriage in exchange for his retraction."
women froze. There were sounds of footsteps and the squeaking of
armor coming closer. As one, their heads snapped toward the windows.
too early yet," Mary whispered. She looked away from the dim
light and into her mother's eyes.
still too low. They'll want to make sure everyone gets in from the
surrounding farms for the burning." The old woman had turned to
stare at the door.
listened as the sounds grew closer.
was a clank of the key turning and a groan from the door, and a
sudden burst of color as a body was hurled inside.
for you, ladies," said one of the soldiers. "Not that
you'll have a long acquaintance."
three cell mates stared as the fourth stood up, brushing straw from
her dress. Tall and slender, with fair skin and freckles, her
outstanding feature was her hair. Bright red, thick and bushy, it
stuck out in a tangled halo. Shoes almost the same color as her hair
peeked from beneath the hem of a bright blue dress. Topping it off
was a shawl in a hideously discordant shade of pink.
day to you, grandam, mistress, miss." The girl's voice was rich
and musical. She nodded her head at each of them. "My name is
Wendelin. I'm a witch. Are you witches too?"
stared at her. They had never seen such brightly colored clothing.
Like flowers, the old woman thought, squinting up at her. Wendelin
shook her head.
she said. "If any of you were true witches, you wouldn't be
afraid to say so."
are you, girl?" The elderly woman leaned forward. Curse these
eyes, she thought, they grow dimmer every year.
Margery, what a question!" Wendelin leaned down until her face
was level with the old woman's. "Or perhaps it might be more
respectful if I addressed you as Mistress Randal?"
Margery licked her lips-- "no one's called me Margery, not
since my man passed on -- thirty years he's gone. I didn't think
was squinting at the young girl. No -- not so young. She looked
middle aged, suddenly, though her hair remained as red as the fire
that would soon consume them. She blinked and one bony hand came up
to rub her eyes. For an instant, the face had changed into that of
an old woman. Another blink and the first, youngest face was
grinning down at her.
Wyrd," she breathed out, awed. The goddess of fate. It was
true, then -- everything her mother had told her of the old gods.
call me Wendelin." She leaned in even closer. "No need to
upset the others. They don't hold to the old ways," she
whispered. "You won't be afraid now?"
you come to -- are you here to--?"
the girl had moved back. She addressed all of them, now.
worry. Sometimes these problems have a way of working
Mistress Brown looked warily at the strange young
woman, one hand absently stroking her daughter's back. Mary slumped
back against her mother, looking down at the rushes. Margery's eyes
gleamed as she used the wall as a brace to pull herself up. She
wasn't sure what would happen, but she wanted to work the kinks out
of her back and legs so she could enjoy it.
women had been too engrossed with the newcomer to notice the noises
coming closer. Suddenly, men came in carrying shackles. They
grabbed the women roughly; Mary whimpered as the irons were fastened
to her wrists. In short order, the women were bundled outside and on
to a cart for the ride to the town square.
they got closer to their destination, the crowds grew thicker and
more vocal. Bits of old vegetables and other rubbish began pelting
them. Mistress Brown tried to shield her daughter; both kept their
heads down. Margery stared at Wendelin. The witch stood steady in
the lurching cart, glaring back at the crowds. Occasionally, she
raised her bound hands and made odd motions with her fingers. The
crowd responded with jeers and catcalls, and the bombardment became
please stop," Mistress Brown moaned. "Stop provoking
was craning her neck to look over the crowds. "A big audience
always gets me all a-twitter. And I'm working without a prompter
Brown groaned. The girl must be moon-mad. Margery watched quietly
from her corner; she didn't understand anything the Wyrd said, but
the ways of the gods were not the ways of mortals. She was content
to sit silently and have faith in their deliverer.
cart was almost brought to a standstill as more and more angry,
screaming people pressed in on it. Atticus Pilk, watching with the
council from the raised platform at the town square, cursed
silently. Murderers were bad enough, the mayor thought, but there
was nothing like witches to work the crowd into a frenzied mob. He
pulled his hat off and mopped his sweating forehead with his sleeve.
The young one in the middle seemed to be egging them on. He resolved
that she should be first -- maybe strangle her before she was bound
to the stake -- shut her up. He hoped they could get through this
without innocent bystanders getting squashed by the mob.
sighed with relief when the cart finally broke through and pulled up
in front of the platform. Atticus motioned one of the guards over.
first, the red haired one." The other three were subdued.
Hopefully the old one was dry enough to burn fast. It would soon be
watched in amazement, along with the rest of the crowd, as they
dragged the witch down. She shrieked and snarled, hurling curses.
witch! Repent, repent!"
groaned. Reverend Dunne, the witch finder who'd come to this quiet
town a fortnight ago, stirring the people up. Could somebody please
muzzle the man? The mayor could tell the girl was going to draw this
out enough on her own; Dunne was long-winded enough for two
crowd fell silent as they watched the Reverend approach the girl,
Bible raised high. The girl watched calmly, then, as he drew closer,
raised her arms and shrieked something in Latin. The book was
wrenched from the Reverend's grasp, circled his head three times and
took off in the direction of the church. The Reverend gasped and
raced off after it. The crowd murmured, too shocked to go back to
their jeers and catcalls.
mayor watched too, open mouthed, as the girl raised her bound hands
over her head.
may be shackled, but the dark forces give me power over you all!"
Her voice boomed across the square. "I have been here many
months, causing mischief and calamity. Why, these women here--"
she said, pointing back at the cart -- "they are my greatest
triumph. I have fooled you all!" She threw her head back and
old granny, there, every Sunday did I befuddle her as she readied
herself for worship. Sometimes I made her think 'twere a Tuesday,
sometimes I would let her leave the house and confound her about the
direction to the town. The many hours I had her wandering the road!"
townspeople looked at each other in confusion. Mayor Pilk gave up
all hope of dispatching things quickly.
her spells and potions! Simple herbs, like any woman uses in her
kitchen. No mystery in them at all, yet I have you believing the old
relic can work magic."
scanned the crowd. "Aha! Master Simkin, my old friend..."
space opened up around a short man with limp, mousy brown hair that
hung around his collar in a dispirited tangle. He quailed and tried
to shrink back among his fellows.
no, Thomas, please tarry with us a while." Wendelin cocked her
head and stared. The man began sweating.
Simkin, I bewitched you to bear false witness against your neighbors,
Widow Brown and her daughter. Or
perhaps you were my partner in the Devil's work?" She
leaned forward, her eyes stabbing him. "Or I did I bespell
"No!" he shrieked. " I -- I,"
Simkin stared at the shocked faces surrounding him. He frowned.
He'd been denying that second bit the witch said -- the one about him
being her partner. He licked his lips and scanned the crowd. They
think I've just denied being bewitched, he thought. His mind worked
quickly, trying to decide what to say. What if they decide I am
a follower of Satan?
he cried, covering his eyes with his hands. "A great
befuddlement has lifted from my mind. I remember that witch coming
to my house. She cast her spell over me to make me accuse my
neighbors of witchcraft. They are innocent -- yes, innocent."
He stopped, gasping for air. He couldn't profit from larger
landholdings if he
were burned at the stake. "They are good, churchgoing women --
a credit to the town..."
Brown reached over to squeeze her daughter's hand. For the first
time, she let herself hope that Mary and she would survive.
Mayor Pilk stepped forward. It was time to take charge and get this
townspeople," he said. "Let us not stand on formalities.
We have heard this witch's confession, we have heard Master Simkin
retract his accusations. I declare the Brown women and Granny Randal
innocent and order them released at once."
crowd, with the fickleness typical of mobs, now were cheering the
very women they had cursed moments before. The guards helped them
down from the cart, unlocking their shackles.
man pushed through the crowd, grabbing his niece in a tight hug.
us home, Jack, please," Mistress Brown whispered as she gazed up
at her brother-in-law. "I don't want to watch this. Witch she
may be, but if she's wicked, why did she bother to save us?"
Mary tugged at her mother's sleeve. "Isn't there anything we
we can do, girl. Nothing we need to do." Margery laughed as
they started, too engrossed to hear her come up. "The Wyrd can
take care of herself. Best you go home, though. I mean to stay and
see how she makes fools of them all."
Browns pushed their way through the crowd while Margery moved in the
opposite direction. She managed to get a good space at the corner of
the council's podium.
was being lashed to the stake; she groaned and writhed. The crowd
was uncommonly quiet. Spooked, thought Mayor Pilk. He drew breath
to give the order to set the kindling ablaze.
cannot get rid of me so easily, witch!"
hooves! The mayor was glad he hadn't sworn out loud. Every time he
thought things were moving along, something or someone came along to
bollix the situation. Reverend Dunne wasn't about to let this
continue without getting the last word over the witch.
should my dark master wish you to leave? You've done more for him
than many of his acolytes, with your false title and false
accusations. And your trick dagger with the blade that
retracts into the shaft!"
townsfolk began murmuring. Everyone at Granny Randal's trial
remembered when the reverend had jabbed his dagger into a hard brown
patch on the woman's skin and told them its lack of bleeding proved
it was the Devil's Mark.
false reverend's eyes darted around; he started to edge to a place
where the crowd had thinned a little.
quacks like him burn innocent women, real witches have free run
throughout the land. Here, trickster!" As Wendelin spoke an
incantation, a swarm of small objects gathered over the heads of the
crowd, then zoomed toward Dunne.
of the mob laughed as the bees chased the witch hunter down the
deserted street toward the town gates. Atticus Pilk felt his stomach
churning and acid rising in his throat. He tried to convince himself
it had been a coincidence. The girl had spotted the swarm. They
just happened to fly in the right direction. No. This was magic --
real magic. If they were very lucky, maybe they could burn her
before she tried something more deadly.
tried to catch the eye of the guard facing the witch -- tried to
motion with his arms -- light the fire now -- but it was
you have any final words before we pass judgment on you, witch?"
sighed. Hadn't they seen enough of what she could do? He watched as
the witch drew in a breath and prayed she wouldn't call down
lightning or summon snakes. He hated snakes.
curse you all! The common curse of mankind -- folly and ignorance --
should you ever choose to burn another witch. A plague on all
cowards, I say, and a vengeance too! A plague on all your
The guard grabbed a burning torch and thrust it
into the kindling at the foot of the stake. Mayor Pilk held his
breath. Margery strained her eyes, watching to see if the Wyrd would
a few minutes the girl stood straight and silent, gazing out above
the crowd haughtily. Then, as the first flames caught her dress,
she shrieked and started writhing against her bonds.
Pilk was looking slightly to the left of the burning girl. Margery
squinted at the flames carefully. They looked real enough, but the
Wyrd didn't seem to be burning. She glanced about. The townsfolk
seemed to be enjoying the show. She wondered what would happen when
the Wyrd didn't burn.
was a popping sound, then a whoosh. Margery looked toward the stake,
then had to avert her gaze and step back a pace as a gout of flames
shot up into the air, and sparks whirled and crackled and shot out
into the crowd.
gasped as the flames rolled back on themselves and died out. All
that remained was some charred wood and the stake. Of the witch
there was no sign.
Pilk released the breath he had been holding. He didn't care that it
had ended strangely; it was over. He could tell the sheriff to move
the crowd along. As for himself, he meant to spend the rest of the
day in the ale-house, trying to forget. He hoped he'd seen the last
of the burnings.
watched the mob begin to melt back into individuals and families.
They made their way toward the gates or over to the high road,
talking quietly, not with the usual excitement. She began the long
walk back to her cottage at the edge of the forest. The Wyrd
flummoxed them, she chuckled to herself. That'll be the last of the
few miles outside town, at the crossroads, a woman was circling the
signpost. She stopped and studied the town names, glanced down one
road, sighed, and resumed her pacing.
didn't seem surprised when, with a loud crack, a girl with bright red
hair materialized in front of her.
forehead's bleeding. Hold steady." The woman removed a wand
from an inner pocket of her brown cloak. "Sano sectum."
threw a bottle," Wendelin grinned. "They threw much more
today. An improvement over last time."
improvement in aim, or an improvement in quantity?" replied the
older woman, dryly. "Perhaps next time someone will try putting
an arrow through you."
frowned, but her sister's expression was neutral.
don't like being pelted with rubbish, Drusilla, but I take it as an
indication of my believability. If papa would let me tread the
boards, my Portia or Juliet would have them throwing flowers
Muggles don't allow women to become actors. Don't say that in front
of our father; he'll threaten you with the tree again."
shutting people up in trees was old in Merlin's time."
Wendelin turned back toward the town. She executed a small curtsy
and practiced waving her hand graciously to her unseen audience.
thought your motive was to rescue Muggles from burning, not practice
skipped over to her sister. "Why can't I do both? Even though
I enjoy it, I'm still helping them."
Wyrd is helping them. Honestly, Wendelin. Why persist with that
of the women are elderly outcasts. They are condemned for worshiping
the old gods. I've found it helps soothe them, they feel they can
entrust themelves to the goddess of fate."
turned and began striding toward the far side of the crossroads.
"The Portkey is in a clearing a few miles through these woods."
hurried to catch up. "It's partly our fault, too, you know --
not us, but careless witches and wizards. Every time Muggles see
real magic, they panic and start killing their own."
walked on without answering. The sunlight broke through the leaves
overhead, becoming dimmer as they moved deeper into the heart. They
walked silently, stepping over roots and rocks.
you get 'burned' in Exmore last week," Drusilla said. She
pointed toward a white rock wedged between the roots of an oak.
"Hurry. Father will be wondering where we've been and I'm not
lying for you if he asks me outright."
did you think?" Wendelin grabbed her sister's arm. "How
did you like my speech? I've added to it a bit since."
in a small town there may be one or two who have seen Shakespeare's
plays. You might want to be more original."
my own material? I have thought of some lines, but I didn't want to
use them in an actual performance until I'd practiced them in front
of a critic." Wendelin tugged her sister away from the Portkey.
"What do you think about this?"
dropped Drusilla's arm, raised her chin and jabbed one arm up in the
air, declaiming loudly. "It is a far, far, better thing I do,
than I have ever done. It is a far better rest that I go to than --"
had reached forward, grabbed her sister's arm and stretched one foot
to the Portkey. As they disappeared with a pop, Drusilla's voice
floated back through the glen.
you'd best stick to Shakespeare..."