Annie pushed her way through the crowds making for the mill. She had not realised so many people would turn up for the trial. There were street hawkers all along the road selling sweet biscuits and fruit. Others had effigies of sharp-nosed witches, riding on brooms, or swinging from a rope. The whole event had a feeling of carnival about it. She was one of the first to arrive at the mill.
The building fell into disuse years before, long before Annie could remember, but it was still used as a meeting place and at rare times, as a jail. The worse crime she could recall was an argument over cattle or land, and no one was held for long. The culprit usually gave in after a few hours in the draughty, barred, basement cell and was sent on their way with a heavy fine. Now, as she picked up her skirts to begin the climb up towards the door, she felt as though she was stepping up to the gallows. There were fourteen steps in all; she counted them as she moved. The stairway was wide and there were people on either side of her; the wood resounded to each footfall, the thuds echoing and vibrating. She stopped at the top of the stairs and stared in amazement. Mary O Brien and Hugh stood on either side of the door as though greeting guests to their home.
“Why, Annie,” Mary smiled. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Why not, everyone else seems to be here?”
“Yes, of course, dear,” Mary agreed. “And where are your sisters?”
“They are safe and well, thank you,” she started to move past, but Mary grabbed her arm.
“It was a big mistake you made in refusing my Hugh.”
Annie glared at her and looked across at Hugh.
“I don’t think so.”
The inside of the mill was set up with all different sized benches. At the top of the room, there was a high desk, a chair, and a large, sturdy table. She wondered who the judge might be. Luke Richards oversaw such things in the past. He was also the local wise man and the leader among the elders. Sadly, he had succumbed to the sickness and would be a great loss to the village. She had not noticed the gallows on her way there and looked up at the dirty, dusty windows lining the room. It was only by listening to the general hubbub around her she learned it was built round the back of the mill. The room was filling, becoming stuffy despite the cold morning air. Many were unable to get seats and stood around the walls or sat on the stairs leading to the upper rooms. Annie prayed for Stefan and Roma, trying to block out the heightening buzz of conversation and the crying and fussing of children. Suddenly, it stopped, and she felt her heart tighten with dread. A loud rumbling was moving towards the hall. Whatever it was clattered and rolled over the cobbles. Everyone held their breaths. It reached the steps outside and the noise stopped as suddenly as it had started. There came a rattling of chains and the muffled curses and shouts of the men, as they hauled, whatever it was, up the steps. The doors were flung open and the thundering began again, louder this time on the wood floor. Annie glanced to her right as it passed her. It was a giant wheel of sorts. Like two cartwheels, one on either side and joined together by stout rungs. It was rolled to the front of the room and chained to the wall. She saw the hooks that were made to house this contraption. The whispering and chatter started up again until Annie wanted to put her hands over her ears to block out the sound.
She strained in her seat to watch the procession coming from the main door. The Squire led the way and she felt sick when she realised, he was going to be acting as judge. A dark man followed close behind him, she was unable to see his face, then Mary and Hugh O Brien. The Squire took his place on the judge’s bench, the dark man, Mary, and Hugh sat in specially designated chairs to his left.
“Bring in the prisoners,” the disembodied voice again.
There was a wave of movement as everyone in the room leaned forward, wanting to be the first to see the witches. Annie gasped; when she saw them, but the sound mingled with so many others it went unnoticed. Stefan and Roma were dragged in chains to stand before the judge. Stefan’s head was bowed, and he reminded Annie of some great, gentle bear being held in captivity. Only Roma held her head high, scanning the crowds. She caught Annie’s eye and shook her head. Their clothes hung in tatters around them, and she saw the marks of the whip and the blood-streaked patches on their skin. Annie’s throat ached with unshed tears.
The list of charges was being read out; it was as she had expected. Roma was charged with being a witch. Of cavorting with the Devil and siring his children, of selling charms and potions to aid in his work. Stefan was charged with much the same things as his wife.
“Will you say now before this court and these good people that your wife is a witch? That she aids the Devil’s work and has sired his children?” The Squire roared at Stefan.
“My wife’s no witch,” Stefan’s voice was a low growl.
“So be it,” the Squire turned to Roma. “Will you admit before this court and before God that you are a witch?”
“I am not a witch,” she spat. “If I were, I would turn you into a man.”
There was laughter and sniggers from the crowd, but these were soon silenced with a glare from the Squire.
“Proceed,” he turned to the dark man, and for the first time Annie got a good look at him.
He was very handsome and somehow familiar. This must be the famous Mr. Tanas Jane spoke of. He bent down and fumbled in a bag beside him, withdrew a knife or large needle and held it up for everyone to see. The sunlight streaming through the windows lighted on the tip and showed it cruel, sharp point in all its glory. There were more gasps and ooh’s from the crowd, as he walked across the room with the weapon held high.
“This will help us to prove,” he told the crowd. “If these people are really in league with the Devil; a witch will have a mark that’ll does not bleed when it is pricked.”
Nodding to the group of men who held Roma, he waited as they picked her up and placed her on her back on the table. She screamed and struggled against her capturers, but they held her fast. Stefan roared and pulled free, the chains on his arms hitting the men who held him and knocking them to the floor. But, before he could reach the table, the men gathered about the walls set on him, trying to drag him to the ground. They beat at his legs with clubs and though he fought bravely, he was no match for the weapons. Even when he fell to the floor, they continued to beat him. Annie held a hand over her mouth to stop herself from screaming. She watched the faces of the men as they went about their merciless work. Men she had known all her life. Men who had once been kind were somehow been transformed into snarling beasts
The men stopped and looked up at the voice. Sweat dripped down their faces from the effort and spittle ran from the corners of their mouths. They turned to go back to their place by the wall. Their eyes wild, they were more beasts than men.
“I take it I am safe to continue?” The dark man looked at the fallen Stefan.
“He will give you no more trouble.” Hugh laughed.
“Very well. As I was saying…” he stopped, annoyed by Roma’s sobs and unsure he could be heard above the noise, he slapped her face. The sound seemed to resound within the room, and for a moment there was silence.
“Now, I will start again, and I take it I will have no more interruptions?”
Roma was crying quietly.
“Very well. I shall now look for the witches mark,” he took the hem of Roma’s tattered skirt and pulled it up about her waist. She kicked and struggled, mortified at such a violation. The women in the room gasped and hid their eyes; the men leered at her exposed limbs.
“Do you want me to strike you again?” The dark man roared at Roma.
Annie felt all hope fading as Roma lay still and allowed him to examine her legs. He found what he was looking for, a small mole just below her knee.
“I have found the mark.”
He looked around the room and was satisfied by the gasps and looks of fear. Taking the needle, he placed the tip against Roma’s leg, and they all watched in disbelief as he pushed it in, all the way to the hilt. It must have reached the bone, yet Roma seemed to feel no pain. He then withdrew the needle and called to the Squire to inspect the mark.
“There is no blood,” the Squire seemed as astonished as the people, and he called on others present to witness this.
There was a general shuffling as everyone wanted to witness this sign, this abomination. Annie sat frozen in her place as the people beside her tried to push past.
“Get in line.”
The shout brought about some order as the pushing and shoving ceased, and they filed past Roma as though viewing a corpse. Some of the women lifted their children to see the mark, and each child was carried away screaming. It was whispered the children, in their innocence, could tell a witch, but Annie knew differently. She watched each child as its eyes moved from the mark to Roma’s face. It was her look of terror frightened the children. Annie pulled her shawl tighter around her. Icy hands seemed to move up her back and she felt the fine hairs on her neck rise. The dark man was looking at her. She held his gaze for a moment, before looking away. The people were filing back to their seats and the crowd around Roma thinned. She was no longer crying; her shame was now absolute. When everyone was finally back in place, the dark man spoke down at the prostrate figure on the table.
“Will you now admit that I have proven it, declare you are a witch and save your soul, if not your life?”
Roma turned her head towards the crowd, searching. Annie saw blood on her mouth. The man was still speaking, but Annie had no idea what he was saying. She was too busy trying to make eye contact with Roma. There were jeers from the crowd and shouts at Roma to admit her guilt, but Annie could not hear any of it. A silence seemed to envelop her, as her mind reached out to contact Roma. Their eyes met and she watched as Roma mouthed three words. Her view was constantly being blocked as some of the villagers ran forward and poked and prodded at Roma. Some of the women pulled her hair, as they screamed at her to admit her sin. Everyone within the room seemed to be caught up in some religious fervency. Annie tried to block it all out, calling to Roma with her mind, tell me? “The Dark One.” She heard it as clearly as it was whispered in her ear. She looked towards the table and Roma nodded at her. The Dark One was here? Annie looked up at Roma’s tormentor. He was staring at her again. This time she did not look away.
A cool breeze ruffled her clothes. She was no longer in the mill. The crowds disappeared, the jeering was no more, and she was no longer in that time. She was standing on a plateau, the full moon lighting the road before her. The grass about her was brown and dry and crunched beneath her feet as she walked. There was no life in this strange, arid place. Blood dripped from the moon staining the velvet blue sky. She walked quickly onwards as the plain parted before her, dividing into two roads. The one to her right looked dangerous. The ground was covered with sharp stones and deadly looking thorns sprang from the blackened hedgerows lining either side. It would be safer and wiser to take the left path. She turned to walk towards it and heard Roma calling out to her.
“Take the right-hand path, Annie. Do not be afraid. This is the right way.”
“But, it’s dangerous.” Annie shouted. “I will walk the other way and meet you at the end.”
“There will be no end if you choose that way. Your journey on this path will be hard and the going slow, but it’s the way to salvation.”
“Such theatricals, don’t you think?”
Annie spun round. The Dark One was walking towards her along the left path.
“I do love a good performance, don’t you?”
“What is this place?”
“This,” he swept his hand around. “Is the place where most decisions are made? It is part of your mind, the darkest part. Yes,” he smiled at her. “We are inside your head.”
“But I would never imagine a place such as this,” she looked at the red moon and ravaged landscape.
“Nevertheless, we are here and it’s your time to decide.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither did I once and like you, I had many questions.
“What do you mean?”
“Enough,” he was angry. “The time grows short and there’s much to be done. Choose now. Take the right path and your suffering will be great. All you love will be punished for your folly. Your sisters will perish if you choose to listen to the words of the gypsy. She has decided her fate and you will see the outcome of that, but you, you have a chance. Watch what happens to her and then decide, but I warn you. Choose her way and her death will be nothing to the death I will give you. Do you understand now?” He leaned towards her.
Annie closed her eyes, not wanting to look at him, but she could smell him. He smelled of freshly baked bread and spring flowers. It was all so familiar to her and yet she turned from it.
“Open your eyes.”
She looked up at him. He was very handsome, and she could not tear her eyes away.
“Come with me, Annie. I will keep you safe and your sisters too. With me there will be no suffering. We could be incredibly happy.”
His eyes burned into her soul. They seemed to light his face and all around her. She wanted to feel safe again. She was so frightened since her parent’s death, and she did not want to suffer like Roma. She did not want Dora, Rose, or Meg to suffer either. He smiled, sensing her weakness, and held out his hand. She hesitated for a moment before slowly, very slowly, her hand moved up from her side to take his. Their fingers were almost touching, when…
“Annie, child,” it was her mother’s voice. There were no tricks this time. “Come away.”
“Don’t listen to it,” The Dark One urged. “It’s a trick.”
“No,” Annie started to back away. “No, it’s you who plays tricks.”
The white hand he reached towards her began to swim and change. The veins stood out against the skin and the fingers stretched and gnarled. The carefully manicured nails turned black and pointed. The fire was still there in his eyes, but the light in them burned like the flames of Hell. His talons reached for her and she held up a hand to stop them.
The words formed an invisible barrier and she watched as he clawed the air before her but was unable to penetrate the shield.
“You will pay dearly for this,” he hissed, and she saw his tongue was long and pointed.
“Maybe so, but you will never have what you desire,” with this she launched herself towards the right path, threw herself into the thorns and landed with a thump back on the bench in the mill.
The dark one was still staring at her, but this time he bowed, before going back to his work. She felt the sweat on her face and could smell her own fear. The noise returned; the jeering of the crowd and Roma’s moans filled the air. Annie saw wet patches in her hair and smelt the blood coating it. They were tearing her apart, she had to stop this, but before she could rise his voice rang out.
“Tell us the name of your leader; whom it was initiated you into the Devil’s work.”
Roma moaned and tried to turn away from him, but he caught her hair making her scream and turned her head back towards him. Leaning down, he seemed to be listening to something she said.
“Annie,” his voice rang. “Annie, who?”
Everyone turned towards Annie. She got up, tried to run. She knew Roma had not betrayed her and this was his work, but she was frightened. She did not want to die; she wanted to live. She wanted to see her sisters grown and watch their children grow. It was so unfair; she was no more then a child herself. The hands stopping her flight were strong and vicelike on her arms. She struggled; begged with them to let her go, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
“Bring her forward. Let us hear what she has to say.”
She knew as they were propelling her forward toward The Dark One, her life was at an end.