The woods seemed darker than usual when Annie set off that night. Though she knew all the trails by heart, she picked her way carefully. The wind died down and she tried not to listen to the night sounds. Meg placed a small wooden cross around her neck, and it felt good against her skin. She mouthed a prayer for protection, but the paralysing fear she once felt, was no longer upon her. She now had four children to think of and Meg.
The village was well lit that night. She saw the flickering of torches long before she reached the outskirts, and she made her way hidden by the shadow of the forest, to the back door of Jane’s house. She tapped a few times on the wood before a light appeared in the window and she heard Jane whisper.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, Annie.”
“Annie,” Jane stood framed in the doorway, a candle in her hand. “What brings you here and at such an hour?”
“I need to speak with you. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
“Come in,” she stood back and allowed her to enter.
The kitchen, the room in which Annie spent much of her time while nursing Jane and her children, seemed grander, more elaborate, even in the dim candlelight. There were stuffed cushions on the wooden benches, and she noticed the food shelves were well stocked.
“Has the work situation improved?”
“No, why? Well, maybe a little.”
“Things seem to have looked up since I was last here, and I wish you well.”
They were still standing by the door, and Jane with great reluctance, asked Annie to sit down.
“Jane, what is it. What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing. Oh, I am sorry, Annie. It’s seeing you after all this time and so late at night,” the smile she gave Annie never reached her eyes.
“I won’t keep you long. I need to know if you heard anything about the gypsies that were camped down in the hollow.”
“Oh, yes, indeed,” the subject sparked something in the woman. “They took them last night, you know?”
“No, I don’t know. Who took them and for what reason?”
“Why, the elders. They went to the camp last night and brought them here.”
“To the old mill. They’re being held for trial.”
“On what charges?”
“Witchcraft, it was they caused the sickness.”
“But, Jane, you know the sickness was here before they came.”
“Yes, my dear, I know it was, but good Mr. Tanas, says that’s how they work. They send the sickness ahead of them, and then come to gloat at their work.”
Annie got up and paced the room. Roma and Stefan, two of the gentlest people she had ever met were being tried for witchcraft.
“Who is Mr. Tanas?”
“He’s a truly kind gentleman who’s been staying with the O Brien’s. He too has suffered, poor dear, because of these people, and it’s become his mission to track them down and stop them from hurting others.”
“When is the trial to be?”
“Who will speak for them?”
“I’ve no idea. They’re unlikely to have any money.”
Annie found it hard to accept the change that had come over Jane. In the old days she would have been crying when talking of such things, now…
“If they had money,” Annie spat. “They would not be on trial.”
“Well, Mr. Tanas says…
“To hell with this Mr. Tanas, I’m sick of the man and I’ve yet to meet him.”
“Oh, Annie, you mustn’t take on so. You’ll change your mind when you meet him and realise, as I and many others have done, what a good man he is.”
“Be quiet, Jane,” Annie’s mind was racing.
“Please, do not upset yourself, Annie. After all, they did cause the sickness. Even you lost your parents because of them.”
“Jane, once and for all, will you listen to me? The heat caused the sickness. Ignorance and careless handling of food caused the sickness.”
“Are you saying I in some way caused my child’s death? How could you, Annie,” Jane was near to tears.
No, that is not what I am saying. No more than I brought about the death of my parents.”
“I’ve heard enough. I want you to leave,” Jane took the candle from its holder and walked towards the door.
“I didn’t come here to upset you, Jane, but don’t you see what’s happening? The villagers strive for a simple answer for the sickness and all this talk of a curse is the stuff of fairy-tales. There is no curse. There are no witches. They have picked on the gypsies because they are poor. Who will they come for next, you or me?”
She knew by Jane’s face what she asked was not far from the truth. Meg was right; she was in danger.
“I’ll bid you goodnight,” Jane held the door wide.
“I’ll be back in the morning. Someone has to speak for those unfortunates.”
“Then I should come quite early, if I were you.”
“To be sure of a good seat?”
“If you are going to speak for them.”
“Why, what time does the trial start?”
There was something missing, something her friend was not telling her. Annie stood waiting.
Jane squirmed, fussing with the cuffs of her dress, and pulling at the neckline.
“It’s just that…”
“It’s just that, what?”
“They’ve already built the gallows,” Jane’s head was bent; the words muffled.
“How can this be? They haven’t even been tried yet.”
“Well, we’ll see about that. Not everyone in this place can have taken leave of their senses.”
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call here on your way to the trial. Rumours spread so quickly at times such as these.”
“I understand. I would not want to put you in any danger. You were always such a good friend to my mother.”
Jane flinched at the mention of her mother.
“Good night, Annie.”
No matter what Meg said, no matter how much she pleaded, Annie refused to stay away from the village. Meg was shocked at the news of Stefan and Roma’s impending trial, but she was more afraid for Annie.
“But, Meg, don’t you see? I must go. They have no one, and there’s no one to speak on their behalf.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Meg shook her head. “The people are out of their minds with worry. They’ll turn on you, mark my words.”
Then what am I to do?” Annie whispered; fearful she might wake the sleeping children. “Stand back and let them hang for a crime they haven’t committed?”
“You have to think of the young ones. You are all they have. Look at me, child.”
Annie did not want to look.
“Annie, look at me,” Meg’s voice was softer. “I’m old, I cannot always be around for the young ones, and you can.”
“Oh, Meg, don’t you know that I’m thinking about them. I’m doing this for them,” she knelt beside the old woman, and buried her face in her lap. “Don’t you think I’m frightened too? I dread going to court tomorrow, but I’ve no choice.”
“There’s always a choice, child,” Meg stroked her hair. “And there’s always a price must be paid for those who are true to his teachings. This time, God help me,” her words became a sob. “He’s asking too much of you.”
“Oh, Meg, don’t cry. Maybe he’ll find a way to help me.”
“He couldn’t help his own son.”
“But it had to be,” Annie whispered. “He had to be sacrificed to save us.”
“And who will save you, child. What if it is time for another sacrifice?”
“I don’t know, Meg. I only know I have to try and help them.”
“Oh, child, child,” Meg held her. “I feel as though my heart is being torn from me.”
“I’ll come back. I promise I will. You’ll see me walking through the ferns tomorrow afternoon and with Stefan and Roma following.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then take the children and start walking towards the town. Find Pat and bring him back here as quickly as you can.”
“I’ll do that. I will keep the young ones safe. I’ll promise you.”
Neither of them slept that night, though no strange noises came from the forest to trouble them. They spoke little, each lost in their own thoughts. Meg cried quietly in between praying, and Annie studied her books. Every so often she got up and went to check on the sleeping children. They lay as always huddled together with Blackie at their feet. Meg told her she had to give them a little something to help them sleep. Paul and Lily’s upset was passed to her sisters, and they needed to get some rest.
They were asleep when Annie left for the village. She kissed each warm face and stroked the cat, which eyed her wearily before purring and nuzzling her hand. The first rays of light were streaking through the trees when she set off. Meg kissed her, wishing her a speedy return before breaking down and sobbing.
“Oh, Annie, child, don’t go.”
“I have to, Meg,” Annie pulled her fingers from the old woman’s grasp. “Pray for me.”
Annie started to run. She wanted to be far away from the cottage when she too, broke down. When Meg was well out of sight and the cottage lost among the trees, she stopped. Leaning against a trunk, she sobbed until she felt sick. She was frightened, terrified, but she had to go on. Something within her said she must do this. Wiping her eyes and pulling her shawl tightly around her in the hope of finding courage within its folds, she set off. She stopped once more beside a small stream and washed the tears from her face. Then hurried onwards, sure the villagers were already awake and thronging the streets. It was not every day they tried someone for witchcraft.
There were many who stayed awake that night. Although Oliver Tanas was too busy to help in the erection of the gallows during the day, he was highly active at night. Being a man of great learning, he had many books on witchcraft, and these he read with great gusto to the assembled villagers. There were chapters on how to tell a witch, what marks to look for. He had even drawn the wheel they had to make to help in the interrogation of the said, witches. His most fervent servants were the O Brien’s. They worked by him nightly teaching the others, etching the fear of witches deep into their brains. Mary and Hugh now felt they were a great authority on the subject and lost no time in telling others about the fearful things being done by these witches. Their words came directly from Rome and became their mantra. “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.”
Witches were easy to spot. They could be young or old, but they all had the devils mark. This, so-called mark, was the teat with which they fed their familiar. This could be a dog, a cat or the witch hunters were known to have settled for a spider. The familiar was an imp in animal form and acted as a go between, ran errands and took messages between the witch and the Devil. They also helped in the invocation of demons. Once pricked with a needle the mark refused to bleed. The absence of blood was a sure sign of a witch.
Oliver had a special tool for such a purpose. He had shown it to Mary and Hugh many times, holding it up in front of a lamp, so they might see the gleam of the steel, the point of the blade. They had no idea this awful looking blade was made to retract into the handle, and when it seemed to the onlookers the needle had descended deep into the victim’s flesh, in fact, it barely touch them. Witches were mostly women with great power over men. They were said to collect male organs and Oliver lost no time in telling the frightened men how he found a nest of almost forty of these at the home of one witch. The more beautiful the witch the more dangerous she became. Now, on the day of the trial the people were not only frightened out of their wits, but their blood was up. They would weed the witches out, they told one another, find every one of them and make them pay.
Oliver was gathering strength for the days ahead. He despised the light, but he could not miss this opportunity. If he left it to the oafs around him, they would surely make a mess of things. This had to be handled gently, with a silken touch. The girl was already here. He felt her coming through the forest. Such bravery was rare in one so young; he would enjoy toying with her. There were so many in the past who settled for so little. Eternal life was always a good seller, eternal damnation was their reward. He had a cave at the mouth of Hell for all those who had fallen to him; a black cave echoing with their cries and pleas for mercy. They had shown none of this to any of their own kind, and he felt no inclination to do the same. So, few realised, until too late, what a precious thing the soul was. This one would not surrender so easily. She might even amuse him for a while, but in the end, she would submit.