The Witch Hunt
The temperature had been steadily falling during the night and, by the early hours, the countryside was hidden under a thin blanket of snow. Cold winds tore down the slopes of the highlands and rippled the waters of the lakes which dotted the plain below.
A pair of anxious eyes watched the coming dawn from a lone shack on the hill. His eyes were tired and red, his cheeks were dirty and his red hair unkempt. He yawned silently and pressed the balls of his hands into his eyes and rubbed. Edward had not been able to sleep easily for weeks.
Gazing out of the window, he watched the land turn from shades of grey to shades of green and brown as the sunrise approached. There was nobody to be seen in any direction.
Perhaps we will find some solace here for a time, he thought wearily, turning away from the window.
He looked down at the sleeping figure beside him in the narrow bed, her straw-coloured hair lying tangled across her pillow, her dark eyelids moving slightly as she dreamt. Edward eased himself down again carefully, propped up his head and gazed at his companion. He would let Evie sleep a while longer. Their constant travelling had made her grow very weak, especially the last few days.
Five months ago, Edward had had a fight with his father. In his anger, his father had lashed out, catching Edward on the jaw, causing his son’s mouth to bleed. Horrified, Edward had ran, grabbing only a little money and his large overcoat. On the second day of his flight, he had met Evie in an orchard where both of them had been stealing apples.
‘My mother and father are both dead, hanged,’ she had said. ‘Thieving. It’s the only thing I know.’
They had travelled together ever since. She was only a year younger than he was, which was just shy of twenty, but her knowledge of life greatly outweighed his own. She knew how to catch rabbits and fish, she knew where fresh water could be found, and she always knew when it would rain.
Edward had been infatuated with her within a week and she had not been able to resist his charms.
They had wandered from town to town together, keeping to the coast and its steady food source, always on the lookout for a place to live in peace, for a society willing to accept them, to embrace them.
‘Tequa! Peran!’ various village elders had screamed at them. ‘Demon! She is a witch, a witch!’
The last village they had passed through had sent hunters after them with fire touches, screaming and wielding their firebrands and swords in a wild frenzy.
‘Demon! Witch! Get them!’
They had been on the run for thirteen days now, always in fear of the hunters behind them. Though Edward had not spotted them for two days, he was sure they were still there, somewhere back on their trail. So they kept running. Dolendain was a large island but Edward feared that they would one day run so far and fast that they would end up back where they had started.
‘Tequa,’ he muttered. ‘Peran. Pah!’
The words tasted bitter in his mouth. Evie was no demon, no witch. She was a thief, yes, but so was he. How could someone so small and vulnerable call up a curse from the fires of hell? How could someone so timid control the forces of nature and command them to raze an entire village to the ground? His Evie was no witch.
Evie murmured something in her sleep and moved slightly beneath the thin covers. Edward smiled and stroked her hair. He wanted to look at her forever, to be caught in this moment for the rest of his life. He glided his hand down her neck and followed the line of her side. He paused at her waist and rested his hand on the small bulge of her stomach where their child was growing, day by day.
Still smiling, he eased his head back down on the pillow and closed his eyes. What felt like a second later, he twitched awake, hearing a heavy knock upon the shack door. He flung open his tired lids and sat up, his mind groggy but his instincts as sharp as ever.
‘Open up!’ came a man’s voice from outside. ‘Open up, in there!’
Edward gently shook Evie’s shoulder and whispered her name. Her dark brown eyes opened slowly.
‘What?’ she whispered back.
‘I think they’ve found us. Get up. I’ll delay them for as long as I can.’
Evie threw back the cover and grabbed for her clothes. She dressed quickly, pulling on her boots last of all, then planted a forceful kiss on his mouth.
‘Go,’ he whispered harshly. ‘I’ll find you later.’
Again, the man outside the door shouted and banged.
‘All right!’ Edward shouted. ‘All right, let a man get dressed!’
He glanced over at the back door and watched as Evie quietly prised the door open and peered outside. An instant later, she had slipped through the gap and disappeared.
Edward quietly closed the back door, then hurried over to the front. Taking in a deep breath, he grasped the handle and turned. Three large men stood outside. Edward swallowed.
‘Yes?’ he asked, looking from one to another. ‘Can… Can I help you?’
‘You Mundin Redmouth?’ the middle one asked.
‘What? No, uh… my name is Jon. I don’t know anyone called Mundin.’
‘Then why are you in his house?’ the left one asked, folding his arms. ‘He’s a mate of ours.’
‘Ah,’ Edward said, feeling very small. ‘I see. Well, I needed shelter from the storm yesterday afternoon. I saw it wasn’t being used, so I thought I’d just slip in, out of the rain. I’ve left everything the way I found it. If… If there’s a problem, of course, I’ll leave at once.’
The third man shook his scarred head.
‘We ain’t here to push you out. Mundin ain’t used this place for years. We heard there was a woman living here, an undesirable.’
‘Undesirable…?’ Edward asked, his brow furrowed. ‘What’s a…?’
‘An evil woman,’ the first said. ‘Been rumours down in the town of a witch passing through the area. Says she travels with a companion, a thrall of some kind. Seen anyone?’
‘A witch?’ Edward asked, his eyes wide. ‘N-no, I haven’t seen one. I hope never to see one!’
‘Rumours say her thrall has hair like yours.’
‘D-do they?’ Edward asked, forcing a smile. ‘Well, both my brothers have hair like mine! Surely, I can’t be the only man in the region with… Hey!’
The first man pushed his way into the house, his eyes looking from side to side like a predator. Edward made to stop him but thought differently. The three men were all larger than he was and, he figured, the more he resisted them, the guiltier he appeared.
After turning the place upside down, the three men left, satisfied that Edward had not been hiding the witch under the bed or in the water barrel.
‘Leave this house by tonight,’ the first man said threateningly, ‘or we’ll go get ol’ Redmouth to come sort you out. All right?’
‘Uh… yes. Yes, that sounds fair. Thank you!’ Edward said, forcing another smile.
Once the men had gone, he shut the door quickly and pressed his back against it, breathing hard. He was not sure the men had been convinced by his act, so he decided to wait a little while before following Evie. He waited anxiously by the window, watching the men as they followed the narrow trail back down to the fishing village just over the rise. Once they had disappeared from view, Edward opened the back door of the shack and took to his heels.
They had nearly been caught again! How long would it take for them to be forgotten on this island?
The sinking sun was veiled by thick cloud cover and the wind still blew fiercely down from the highlands. Thankfully, however, the rain had stopped and there was now a visible break in the clouds out in the channel. Rays of sunlight shone brightly down in columns of pure gold.
As Evie diverted her gaze from the water, she spotted the small figure of Edward running up the slope towards her, bag slung over his shoulder, his heavy coat tails flapping vigorously behind him. She stretched her weary muscles and emerged from her sheltered spot beneath an overhanging boulder. She raised her hand in a wave and stopped on her rocky outcrop, watching as the tiny figure grew larger and larger.
When he finally scrambled up onto the rocky ledge, his embrace was desperate and his kiss more fervent than usual. As Evie ran her hands through his hair and whispered words of comfort in his ear, she knew all was not well.
‘Evie,’ he gasped, dragging air into his lungs, his face almost as red as his hair, ‘they’re… I know they’re behind me. We can’t… stay.’
She looked over his shoulder and squinted into the gathering darkness. Sure enough, on the distant rise below them, she could see a small group of people hastening up the slope after them. She stiffened and Edward turned.
‘So soon?’ she heard him say wearily.
Without another word, she grabbed his hand and they began to run. For a while, he led the way, tearing across the flat top of the hill, darting around boulders and shrubs, but once they reached the other side, Evie took the lead. She had better sight than he did at night and she guided him along an old goat’s path as it crisscrossed its way back and forth across the steep hillside.
Despite their head start, the gap between them and their pursuers began to lessen. Soon, they heard the shouts of the men, their curses, their taunts. At the bottom of the hill, Edward resumed the lead, dragging Evie along behind him, but she was growing tired.
‘Come on, Evie!’ he cried encouragingly, squeezing her hand. ‘We have to run! Come on!’
But it was no use. A stitch was plaguing her side and her breaths were coming in short, shallow bursts, her chest aching from the strain of their run.
‘I… I can’t, Edward!’ she cried.
‘Yes, you can!’
‘No, it’s… it’s too hard. Go! They don’t want you. Just go!’
‘I’m not leaving you, Evie!’ Edward shouted, pulling at her arm. ‘I’ll carry you if I have to! Come on, just a bit further! We’ll find a cave or something and lie low.’
Another hill loomed ahead of them, a conical giant in the gathering gloom. The chase had already taken most of her energy but Evie pushed on through her pain, knowing it was their only chance. This was their deciding run. If they slowed, they would be caught and no mercy would be given to them. They had to run to survive.
Clambering up the slope, it was Edward who fell first. The crumbling stones underfoot gave way and he slid back down on his hands and knees, shouting angrily for Evie to keep going. In an instant, their pursuers had caught up with them and two large men grabbed Edward, leaving the rest to continue after Evie herself.
‘Run, Evie!’ Edward cried, kicking out at his captors. ‘Just run!’
Tears streaming down her face, Evie found a new burst of strength and kept going. Behind her, she heard the continued shouts of the men as they fought to restrain Edward. A moment later, she heard a loud thud and Edward’s cries ceased but, though her heart ached, she did not dare look back. She kept her eyes forward, searching for the next hand hold, desperate to put as many yards between herself and…
A hand grabbed her ankle and pulled. Her grip on the crumbling slope slackened and she slipped. With a terrified scream, she rolled back down the slope, her hands protectively covering her face. A few moments later, she slowed and stopped but there was hardly a chance for her to rise and resume her flight. A giant of a man loomed above her, silhouetted against the last rays of the sun, a wash of blood red across the sky. His hand came down, grabbed the front of her dress and hauled her to her feet.
‘Caught you, you little tequa bitch!’ he spat, slamming her up against a nearby boulder. ‘It’s to the fires for you.’
Upon the summit of Lossenhil stood a large company of people in a circle around an unlit pyre. From the conical arrangement of branches and logs emerged two thick central poles onto which had been strapped two figures. The surrounding crowd was strangely silent, perhaps afraid of the woman who had been caught.
A moment later, a tall priest emerged from their number. He was dressed all in black and his bald head was raised to the heavens.
‘Oh, Holy Father,’ the man cried, raising his arms high. ‘We bring before you this witch as a sacrifice!’
The crowd cheered and shouted then, pointing at the pyre with accusing fingers, cursing them, eager to see them burn.
‘This woman here has defied the workings of this land, oh, Holy Father! See how her thrall struggles! She has bewitched him, body and soul! There is no way to save him but to let him be cleansed by fire!’
The crowd’s shouts grew in anger.
‘She stole his heart and fornicated with his flesh!’ the priest continued. ‘That child will be a demon from hell! It must be destroyed, as must she!’
Evie watched with dark eyes as the priest paced back and forth in front of the pyre, gesturing animatedly with his hands, stirring the crowd into a frenzy. Her mouth gagged, she turned to look at Edward whose eyes were wide with fear and sparkling with tears.
‘She is no witch!’ Edward cried, struggling desperately. ‘She’s just a girl! Why won’t you see that? She’s just as human as you are!’
‘And her thrall!’ the priest continued, smiling. ‘See how she still controls his mind? He knows not what his lying tongue utters!’ His smile fell and he approached Edward, his expression growing sad and comforting. ‘I know you can hear me, my son. Somewhere inside that… that prison of a body, I know your soul can hear me. I will free you from the chains she has put upon you. Through fire, your spirit will be released and you will rise up into the arms of Our Holy Father! You will be free of this demon!’
‘Witch!’ the crowd shouted, angrily pointing at her. ‘Tequa! Demon! Burn her, burn her!’
‘No, she’s just a girl! Just a girl! Let her go!’ Edward shouted.
Evie felt a lump rising in her throat and a surge of affection exploded in her chest. Again and again, he begged for mercy, not for himself but for her.
The black-garbed priest held aloft a firebrand and continued to yell at the crowd, igniting their anger, encouraging them to voice their hatred. As the priest held the torch at the base of the pyre, Edward’s peas finally died and he turned to her. Their eyes met.
‘Evie… Evie, I’m so sorry!’ he sobbed.
She shook her head and leant back against the pole. Smoke drifted upwards from where the fire was starting to take hold of the pyre but she did not take her eyes off Edward. The heat of the flames grew ever more uncomfortable and intense and, again, she heard Edward shouting for mercy above the roar of the crowd, his voice desperate in his plea, but the priest did not grant him mercy.
As the smoke began to grow ever thick and the fire flickered about her shoes, Evie closed her eyes. Behind her closed lids, she could see the flames as they grew higher and smelt the scent of burning hair and leather.
Taking in a deep breath of smoky air, she felt the bonds which tied her arms around the pole loosen a little and her gag fell away.
‘I am no demon,’ Evie said quietly, twisting her hands out of the rope.
Opening her eyes, she could just see through the flames and smoke to the terrified gaze of the priest. He had heard her. Fearfully, he turned and ran, as did many of the others, but it was too late for him, too late for them all.
With a cry, Evie spread her arms wide and released a stream of words from the Nether Realm. The pyre trembled. The flames sprang away from the wooden stakes and logs and rose in a great ring of fire about her.
‘Mercy!’ one man cried, falling upon his knees before the pyre. ‘Mercy, please, I beg of you!’
Evie looked down at him with disgust.
‘Like that which you gave me and my love?’ she asked, raising her arms higher. ‘No.’
A great tremor spread across the island of Dolendain. The villagers who dwelt at the foot of Lossenhil looked up in fright as a giant column of red flame burst upwards and outwards into the night.
- Next: The Red Ribbon