The Sugar Quill
Author: DMCourt  Story: A Burning Issue  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

The 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.

Three 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.

"Can't 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 the town."

The 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."

"Innocent, 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!"

Mistress 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."

"Aye, 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."

The women froze. There were sounds of footsteps and the squeaking of armor coming closer. As one, their heads snapped toward the windows.

"It's too early yet," Mary whispered. She looked away from the dim light and into her mother's eyes.

"Sun's 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.

They listened as the sounds grew closer.

There 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.

"Company for you, ladies," said one of the soldiers. "Not that you'll have a long acquaintance."

The 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.

"Good 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?"

They 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.

"No," she said. "If any of you were true witches, you wouldn't be afraid to say so."

"Who are you, girl?" The elderly woman leaned forward. Curse these eyes, she thought, they grow dimmer every year.

"Why, 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?"

"How--" 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 anyone remembered..."

She 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.

"The Wyrd," she breathed out, awed. The goddess of fate. It was true, then -- everything her mother had told her of the old gods.

"Please, 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?"

"Have you come to -- are you here to--?"

But the girl had moved back. She addressed all of them, now.

"Don't worry. Sometimes these problems have a way of working out."

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.

The 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.

As 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 more intense.

"Oh, please stop," Mistress Brown moaned. "Stop provoking them!"

Wendelin 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 too."

Mistress 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.

The 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.

He sighed with relief when the cart finally broke through and pulled up in front of the platform. Atticus motioned one of the guards over.

"Her first, the red haired one." The other three were subdued. Hopefully the old one was dry enough to burn fast. It would soon be over.

He watched in amazement, along with the rest of the crowd, as they dragged the witch down. She shrieked and snarled, hurling curses.

"Repent, witch! Repent, repent!"

Atticus 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 preachers.

The 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.

The mayor watched too, open mouthed, as the girl raised her bound hands over her head.

"I 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 laughed wildly.

"Why, 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!"

The townspeople looked at each other in confusion. Mayor Pilk gave up all hope of dispatching things quickly.

"And 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."

Wendelin scanned the crowd. "Aha! Master Simkin, my old friend..."

A 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.

"Oh no, Thomas, please tarry with us a while." Wendelin cocked her head and stared. The man began sweating.

"Thomas 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 you?"

"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?

"Wait," 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..."

Mistress Brown reached over to squeeze her daughter's hand. For the first time, she let herself hope that Mary and she would survive.

Damnation! Mayor Pilk stepped forward. It was time to take charge and get this thing settled.

"Council, 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."

The 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.

A man pushed through the crowd, grabbing his niece in a tight hug.

"Take 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?"

"Mama." Mary tugged at her mother's sleeve. "Isn't there anything we can do?"

"Nothing 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."

The 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.

Wendelin 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.

"You cannot get rid of me so easily, witch!"

Beelzebub's 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.

"Why 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!"

The 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.

The false reverend's eyes darted around; he started to edge to a place where the crowd had thinned a little.

"While 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.

Some 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.

He tried to catch the eye of the guard facing the witch -- tried to motion with his arms -- light the fire now -- but it was fruitless.

"Do you have any final words before we pass judgment on you, witch?"

Atticus 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.

"I 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 houses."

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 break free.

For 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.

Mayor 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.

There 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.

Everyone 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.

Mayor 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.

Margery 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 burnings, surely.


A 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.

She didn't seem surprised when, with a loud crack, a girl with bright red hair materialized in front of her.

"Your forehead's bleeding. Hold steady." The woman removed a wand from an inner pocket of her brown cloak. "Sano sectum."

"Someone threw a bottle," Wendelin grinned. "They threw much more today. An improvement over last time."

"An improvement in aim, or an improvement in quantity?" replied the older woman, dryly. "Perhaps next time someone will try putting an arrow through you."

Wendelin frowned, but her sister's expression was neutral.

"I 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 instead."

"Even 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."

"Pah, 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.

"I thought your motive was to rescue Muggles from burning, not practice playacting."

Wendelin skipped over to her sister. "Why can't I do both? Even though I enjoy it, I'm still helping them."

"The Wyrd is helping them. Honestly, Wendelin. Why persist with that silly playact?"

"Most 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."

Drusilla turned and began striding toward the far side of the crossroads. "The Portkey is in a clearing a few miles through these woods."

Wendelin 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."

Drusilla 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.

"I saw 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."

"Wait! What did you think?" Wendelin grabbed her sister's arm. "How did you like my speech? I've added to it a bit since."

"Even in a small town there may be one or two who have seen Shakespeare's plays. You might want to be more original."

"Write 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?"

She 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 --"

Drusilla 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.

"Perhaps you'd best stick to Shakespeare..."

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