Her feet never touched the floor, as she was carried along on a wave of hysteria. Within seconds she was standing before The Dark One. His eyes were serious now they were face to face. They no longer held the mocking gleam of triumph she had so recently witnessed. She stood in front the table; he was behind it with Roma as a human barrier. The room fell silent, save for the odd shuffling or fussing of a child. Annie reached over and pulled down Roma’s dress. The woman never noticed this act of kindness. Her eyes were glazed over in fear, and Annie could smell the strong, acidic stench of her sweat. She allowed her hand to slip along Roma’s body until their fingers met and she squeezed. The pressure from Annie’s hand made the woman moan.
“It’s all right.” Annie whispered. “It’ll be over soon.”
“Even now,” The Dark One’s voice broke the silence. “Even here before you good people they continue to plot.”
Annie looked up at him.
“Yes,” his mocking sneer had returned. “They continue to mouth their evil spells. Though I know nothing of the language of the Devil, the chant she used is clear enough.”
“This is madness,” Annie spun around to face the people. “You all know me. I’ve helped many of you through the sickness.”
There were mutterings from the crowd.
“And how many more have you helped to kill?” The Dark One asked. “Is there anyone who has not lost a loved one through your potions?”
There were shouts, voices raised high in anger.
“My potions were made of herbs and roots. There was nothing in them to cause harm,” Annie hoped her voice belied the terror she felt.
“Enough,” The Dark One roared. “We will hear none of your excuses and lies. All you are doing is prolonging the outcome of this trial.”
“I thought this was a hearing?” Annie’s heart started to thump against her breast. “If this is a trial who is to speak on these people’s behalf?”
“Perhaps you would care to address the court?” He waved his hand towards the seat on which the Squire sat.
Annie had forgotten about the Squire and the O Brien’s. She knew, even as she turned to face them, it would be hopeless to plead for mercy. Mary and Hugh looked at the proceedings stony faced, lips pulled into tight little lines. The Squire gazed down at her from his high seat and smiled. She had refused his advances and he would now keep true to his promise.
“Well,” The Dark one was speaking to her. “Have you nothing to say on their behalf. No fanciful explanation for their sorcery?”
“They are not sorcerers nor witches; just simple travelling folk and you wrong them greatly.”
“And do we wrong you?”
“You know you do. I am a healer; there is nothing sinister or magical about my power.”
“Then you admit you have power?”
“No,” Annie spun around to face the crowd. “I admit nothing of the sort. I have the power to heal not to harm. You all know me; have known my family for years. Jane,” she searched the crowd for her friend. “Jane, come and speak for me.”
“Where is this Jane you speak of? Bring her forward,” The Dark One commanded.
Jane O Regan was dragged from her hiding place among the crowd and pushed to the top of the room.
“Jane,” Annie begged. “Tell them I do no harm. I only do what I can to heal others.”
Jane’s eyes darted from Annie to her accuser.
“Well, speak up,” the Squire roared, making her jump.
“I am not sure what you ask of me, Sir.”
“It’s very simple, my dear,” His voice was sweet. “Is this woman a witch?”
“No, Sir. I do not think so.”
“You do not think so. What does that mean?”
“She never done me or mine anything, but good.”
“And your youngest child did she do her good?”
“She died of the fever, Sir.” Jane was close to tears.
“But you told me you were all sick when she arrived with her potions and spells; yet only hours later your little one was dead. How do you account for that?”
“She was small and weak, sir. Her strength gave out.”
“Do you not realise you stupid woman, that witches always take the youngest children and during their death throes breathe in their life force?”
No,” Jane was crying. “That is not true.”
“Yes, it is,” the honeyed voice again. “I have no wish to cause you any further distress, but what I say is the truth. Your child’s soul lives on in that creature you see before you. She has bound your child to her will, refusing to let her rest in order to help her in the Devil’s work.”
“No,” Jane looked at Annie, her eyes wild in terror. “It is not true, is it?”
“Of course, it is true,” The Dark One put his arms around Jane’s shoulders. “Think, were you there when your child died? Did you witness every drop of the potion she administered?”
“I was resting below stairs while Annie nursed her and asleep when she died,” Jane was shaking her head in disbelief.
“Of course, you were asleep and why, you must ask yourself this question. Would any mother sleep peacefully knowing her child was so gravely sick?”
Jane looked up at him, shaking her head.
“She gave you a sleeping draught. That is why you slept and were unable to hinder her in her dreadful act.”
“Then my child,” Jane sobbed, pointing at Annie. “My little one is in her?”
“No Jane, no.” Annie pleaded with her. “Don’t listen to him. It is he who spreads such lies. Do not listen to him.”
“See how she turns on me now?” He addressed the crowd. “More lies and slander. Anything to save herself and her servants.”
Roma’s soft crying was peculiarly piteous. Stefan regained consciousness and was struggling against his bonds, muscles standing out like wires on his bare arms.
The crowd was in an uproar. Screaming taunts and accusations at Annie. Men shaking their fists, and the women reaching out at her crying hysterically and calling for revenge.
Annie watched it all in disbelief. This was madness; everyone seemed to have lost their minds. The crowd surged forward calling out for blood, and she found herself ushered back behind the table. Looking up at her protector, she was surprised to find it was The Dark One.
“I will not let them harm you, not yet.”
She shivered, trying to pull away, but he held her fast. At his command, the men holding Stefan and Roma formed a barrier between them and the crowd. Annie, Roma, and Stefan were herded away towards the cellar steps and down into the cells. The women were pushed into one cell and Stefan into the other. They still heard the thundering of feet from above and the shouts of the crowd. Annie and Roma huddled together in fear, sure at any moment they would gain access to the cells and they would be torn to pieces. But slowly the noise abated, and they heard a soft mumbling. The footsteps overhead retreated towards the main door. They heard the clattering of feet on the steps outside, and through the small, slatted gaps serving as windows, they watched the skirts of the women and heavy-booted legs of the men pass by. A few fell flat on the ground and tried to see inside the cells, but Annie and Roma retreated into the shadows. There were curses and threats hurled at them through the bars, and they covered their ears. The one thing all three of them heard from each foul-mouthed voice, was the promise of seeing them next day.
“What do you think they mean?” Annie asked Roma when the last voice had died away. “Why will they see us tomorrow?”
“Oh, Annie, Annie,” Roma fell against her sobbing. “My children, what will become of my children?”
“Hush now. They are safe and well. I told Meg that if I was not back by nightfall to take the children and set off for the town. They will find Pat, he is a good man and he will help us.”
“But,” Roma wiped the backs of her hands across her face. “The town is days away from here and that’s by horse and caravan. It could take much longer walking. Meg is old and the children will tire easily.”
Stefan, calling to them from the next cell interrupted their conversation. Roma reached out through the bars and managed to touch the tips of his fingers.
“The children are safe,” she whispered. “Meg is taking them to the town to get help.”
“Thank God,” he moaned. “Let us hope they are not too late.”
“Are you very badly hurt, my love?”
Annie moved to the other side of the cell ashamed at having to hear their whispered words of love and endearment.
Her mind was in turmoil worrying about her sisters and Meg. She prayed for their safety and protection, and the strength to bear what was about to happen. Picturing in her mind Meg’s cottage and the route they would take to the town. She hoped they would keep well into the shadows of the trees until they were clear of the village. Then they could get a ride in one of the many carts heading for the town. She was so deep in thought she did not realise Roma was calling to her.
“Annie, come,” she beckoned her over and stood back in order that Annie might take her place and speak to Stefan.
“Stefan, are you, all right?”
“I am fine, Miss, but it is sorry I am for bringing such trouble on you and yours.”
“This is not your fault,” Annie assured him. “We are all part of some dreadful plan. In truth I think it is me he is after, and I will do whatever I can to help you both.”
“There will be no help for us, Miss, I fear.”
“You must not think such a thing,” her whisper grew more urgent. “There is always hope.”
The sound of approaching footsteps made Annie draw back. Taking Roma by the hand, she pulled her towards the back of the cell.
“Well, well, well,” The Dark One stood outside the bars with Mary on one side of him and Hugh flanking the other. “Your bravery seems to have deserted you,” he spoke to Annie.
She refused to answer him, and his eyes grew hard.
“Bring her to me,” he roared, before walking away.
A man appeared with a bunch of keys hanging from a belt around his waist.
“Come along you,” he dragged Annie outside, throwing her hard against the wall.
She stood there winded, as he locked the cell.
“Come on, I want no trouble from you, witch,” with this he caught her wrist in an agonising grip and pulled her along the dark corridor. She caught Stefan’s look of despair as she passed his cell, and she heard Roma sobbing, as she descended deeper into the mouth of darkness. Her jailer knew the dark passageway well, but Annie stumbled a few times on the uneven stone flags. She was shaken and pulled to her feet and her wrist burned from his grip. Just when the darkness seemed absolute a door opened, and she was propelled into a room. The door slammed behind her and she found herself once again facing The Dark One.
“Sit down,” he pointed towards a chair.
Mary and Hugh sat opposite her, their eyes never leaving her face. A fierce fire burned in a brazier in the centre of the room and chains hung from the walls. A huge wooden chair stood in one corner and the seat was made from long nails! Their sharp points glistened in the light from the fire and the arms were fitted with leather restraints.
“Now,” he continued, “We can make this all quite simple. If you confess your guilt here in the presence of you cousins, you will be dealt with fairly. If, however you persist in denying your guilt, you will suffer a torture you could never imagine. I’ll make an example of you.”
“You know I am not guilty of the crime of which you accuse me. I know this is some dark plan hatched by you, but I find it hard to understand your reason. What have I got that you want?”
“Do you hear that, my dear?” Reaching down, he took Mary’s hand and brushed it with his lips. “What has she got that I want?”
“My dearest Oliver wants nothing from you,” Mary hissed. “You are an evil, wicked child.”
“Then you,” Annie asked. “What do you want, the cottage, the land? Take it; I will give it to you in exchange for our freedom.”
Mary’s eyes lit up at this, and she was about to say something, when…
“She will make no deal with the Devil,” He answered for her. “This woman,” he placed a hand on Mary’s shoulder. “Is sainted and above corruption. She wants nothing from you.”
Annie’s mind was racing. The heat from the fire was searing and her mouth felt dry, as she tried to swallow. As if sensing her discomfort Hugh asked.
“Would you like a drink of water?”
“Oh, yes thank you, Hugh.”
She watched as he walked across the room to a barrel and filled a large wooden scoop. He carried it carefully back to her, and Annie watched the small dribbles falling from it and licked her lips anticipating it coolness on her parched throat.
“Here you are.”
Annie reached out to take the scoop, but before she could do so he laughed and threw the full contents into her face.
“I show no mercy to witches,” his mouth curled into a sneer.
His mother was laughing as though it was the funniest thing she had ever seen, but there was no sign of mirth in The Dark One’s eyes.
“I think,” his voice put a stop to the laughter. “I should work alone from now on.”
“Why, Oliver, dearest,” Mary became flustered. “Have we upset you in some way?”
“No,” his tone belied this fact. “You must not witness what is about to happen. Not a woman of your sensibilities.”
“Very well,” Mary stood for a moment brushing the creases from her dress, unsure of his dismissal.
He took no notice of her and turning to Hugh, ordered.
“See your mother safely home.”
“Just do as I ask,” the flames leaping in The Dark One’s eyes left no room for discussion. “You may return later.”
Hugh started to lead his mother away. As he passed Annie’s chair, he grabbed hold of her hair and pulled. It hurt so much she screamed, and she felt each hair as it was ripped from her scalp.
“I will see you later, cousin,” he hissed in her ear.
She tried not to cry and rubbed instead at her torn hair. It felt wet, and she gasped at the blood on her hand. Once the door slammed behind them there was silence, save for the crackling and spitting of the fire. She was alone with The Dark One. Concentrating on the pain in her head, she prayed for relief, but there was none. The pain raged within her and she bit down on her lip to keep from crying out.
“He is not listening.”
Oh, please God, she prayed, do not let me cry.
“I told you he is not listening.”
Still, she refused to acknowledge him, digging her nails into the palms of her hands until finally…
She tried to leap from her seat when his hands touched her head. Sharp, icy needles pierced her skin until slowly the pain subsided. She brought her hands to her head. The pain had completely disappeared. He sat opposite her.
“I can be good to those who obey me. What I have done is nothing to what I can do for you and for your sisters; if you’ll only bend your will to mine.”
“I don’t understand,” she croaked, her mouth even drier than before.
He stood and walked to the water bucket, returning with a scoop. She shied back at first, but he pushed it towards her.
“I take no pleasure in such pettiness.”
She reached out and took it. The water tasted like honey.
“Thank you,” she held the scoop out to him, and he took it, flinging the last dregs of water into the blazing fire. The flames hissed, protesting the intrusion of the cold water before settling down to their crackling once more.
“Now, let us not waste any more time,” he returned to his seat. “There is much to be done if we are to save your sisters.”
“What do you mean?”
“They will go for them at first light and bring them here.”
“But they are innocent. Oh please, I beg you. Do not let this happen.”
“There is no need to beg. All the power you want is within your grasp. Just say the word, Annie,” his voice was soft. “And all this will pass from you. Things will return to normal and your life will continue until it has run its course.”
“I still do not understand.”
“Let me explain. You have a power I desire. Give me the power and in return I will reward you. Whatever you want, gold, property, the lives of all you love will be saved and you will have the sort of life you could only dream of. Just say the word and it will be yours”
“How can I give you my power?”
“I do not ask for it now; no indeed. My only desire is to have it when you are no more. Think of it Annie. You can leave here now and take your gypsy friends with you. Live out the remainder of your life in luxury. See your sisters grow and prosper. I see many children in their futures and long lives. Do it for them.”
“So,” she asked. “You would take my power once I was dead and not until then?”
“That is right. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Annie chewed on her lip. The children would be saved. So would Roma, Stefan, and Meg. What right did she have to condemn them?
He was grinning, sensing her weakness. The power so strong in her he could almost reach out and touch it.
Please God, she prayed, one last time. Show me what to do.
“Yours is the power of angels, Annie,” the whisper was close as lips against her ear. “The power of light over the darkness you see before you.”
Closing her eyes, she allowed the sense of peace to flow within her and felt its goodness, its light reaching the very core of her being.
“And what would you do with this power, Lucifer?” The voice asking the question was no longer that of a young girl’s, but a more enlightened soul.
“You dare address me with that name!” He jumped up and, in his anger, threw the heavy, oak chair across the room. “You, who know nothing of my power, of my legions.”
“I know you would use my power against God.”
Even then, as he stood over her, his face resembling the beast, she refused to fear him.
“You will die. All of you will suffer, but you,” his spittle stung her face. “Your suffering will be absolute. The death I give those you love will be nothing to what I’ll do to you.”
The fear welled up in Annie, but then the voice in her ear.
“Be at peace, child.”
He reached out an odious gnarled claw at her and she covered her face trying to avoid the sharp talons. Cringing, she waited for it to make contact on her skin but…. Spreading her fingers wide, she peeped through and saw he was backing away. A strong breeze threw her hair around her in disarray, blocking him from sight. Brushing the hair from her eyes, she looked around the room for the source of the wind. She saw nothing except the shadows thrown on the walls by the firelight. They looked like…wings. Yes, like giant birds’ wings flapping. Faster and faster they moved, their shadows uniting until they moved as one. The Dark One covered his face and was screaming curses. It was a language Annie never heard before or would ever want to hear again. The shadows moved from off the walls, surrounding him. Something brushed against her face, its touch as soft as cobwebs stirred her. She got up and ran towards the door. She would escape into the woods and save her sisters. The door was heavy, but she pulled with all her might. It swung open and hit the wall with a resounding thud, and she ran straight into the arms of Hugh O Brien.