Meg watched the path through which she expected Annie to make her way home, until it became too dark to see. The evening grew colder and the breeze carrying the perfume of the woods, smelt rancid.
“Sweet Jesus, protect us,” she murmured, ushering the children inside.
They were restless all day, barely touching the food she prepared for them. She had not been able to eat a bite either. The worry for Annie’s safety weighed heavy on her. It was an even worse struggle to get them to go to bed and they did so, only after she promised to wake them as soon as Annie came home.
But Annie was not coming home, not tonight. Meg lowered herself into a chair beside the fire. She placed a lighted candle in the two small windows fronting the cottage. Small beacons to light the way for one she loved more than her life. She would rest awhile here in the quiet and surrounded by all the things familiar to her. Looking around the kitchen, she smiled at the jumble she collected over the years. Wooden shelves groaned under the weight of jars filled with hundreds of dried herbs, powders, and oils. Vervain root acted as a mild stimulant, valerian to ease a troubled mind, plantain, for bites and stings and other more powerful plants to relieve the pains of childbirth. She taught Annie all about these things, and the child knew each plant and root by its feel and smell. Had she been wrong to encourage Annie in the ways of the healer? But the child was born to do so, and surely it would have been sinful to discourage such a gift? I will not cry, I must not, for all will be lost if I weaken. She tried to occupy her mind with other thoughts and glanced at the faded tapestries on the cushions adorning each chair. Meg’s cats and Blackie all huddled together on one of the cushions, a maze of heads, paws, and tails. It was hard to see where one cat began and the other ended. From above the fireplace two bright, searching eyes appeared. The jackdaw took shelter in a nook in the wall and was watching her, bobbing its head from side to side as if asking, what is wrong? The old dog at her feet stirred, sensing her mood, and put his face on her lap. Reaching down, she stroked the animal’s coarse hair and her mind was filled with plans for the coming day. They would set off at first light and make their way towards the town. The going was hard, but the weather was dry and with God’s help they would make it in time. She would find Pat and tell him of Annie’s imprisonment. She knew the child was being kept against her will, for nothing other than death would keep her away from her sisters. Crossing herself, she prayed for Annie and the strength to endure the journey they were all about to make.
The torture started as soon as the sun set. They came for Roma first, tearing her from Annie’s grasp and ignoring her pleas for mercy.
“Watch and learn.” The Dark One sneered.
Stefan kicked against the bars of his cell in vain. They were too solid for even his great strength, his shouts of terror and impotence echoed along the empty corridor, even after the door slammed shut and he could no longer hear his wife’s sobs. He had always been strong in both mind and body, but now he went unmanly with grief. Gripping the bars, he laid his head against them and sobbed. Annie sunk to the floor and listened in terror to his crying. Maybe, The Dark One was just trying to frighten her, and wouldn’t really hurt Roma? No sound came from along the corridor. For a while it was quiet save for Stefan’s anguished sobbing and then she heard it, a desolate cry resounding from far away.
Roma listened to the accusations against her and once again denied them. He bound her hands to a chair, and she struggled against her restraints. A fierce fire burned in the brazier, and the coals were red and angry looking.
“Confess and be free.”
She looked up at him in wonder.
“Yes,” his voice was kind. “Tell us the truth and you can go free. Take your husband, return to your children and be on your way.”
Sweat glistened on her upper lip and trickled into her mouth. She licked at the salty liquid and watched as he strode around the room.
“If I say I am a witch,” she asked. “I can go free?”
“Yes, that is all there is to it,”
She failed to notice his smile of triumph, as it was directed to Hugh O Brien.
It would be going against God to utter such blaspheme, but if it saved their lives.
“I am a witch,” the whisper was indistinct.
“I am a witch.”
“Good,” he sat opposite her. “Very good.”
“Can I go now?” God forgive me Roma prayed, but I am only doing what mothers have done throughout the centuries, lying to save my children.
“In a little while, but first I have a question for you. Answer carefully,” he warned. “Your very life depends on it.”
“Your friend, Annie Ryan. It was she who instructed you in the Devil’s ways, was it not?”
“Annie, no! Annie is goodness itself. She would never think of such things.”
“Think again, gypsy,” he snarled, causing her to draw back. “If you value your freedom answer true.”
“But what I say is the truth. Annie is good and kind and I will not betray her.”
“Not even to save your husband, your children?”
“No,” Roma’s heart ached with sorrow, for she now saw the road she had to take. The Dark One could not be allowed to have his way.
“Perhaps this will persuade you?” Walking over to the fire, he withdrew an iron resting among the coals. The head was flat and glowed white from the heat.
“Prepare her,” he motioned to Hugh, who came and stood before her.
She looked up at him, shaking her head and crying.
“No, please no,”
There was no mercy in Hugh’s face as he leaned down, grabbed her blouse in both hands and pulled it apart exposing her breasts. He leered, stroking her smooth skin with the back of his hand, before stepping aside and allowing the Dark One to take his place.
“Do you still say she is innocent?”
The iron was so close she smelt its heat.
“I am afraid. Oh, God help me, but I am so afraid,” coal-black curls tumbled across her face as she bowed her head.
“Pull her head back.”
Hugh, standing behind her chair, grabbed her hair and pinioned her head against the hard wood.
“Last chance,” The Dark One’s face drew close to hers. “Just say the words and you will be free.”
His breath smelt blood-sweet and in that few seconds she noticed, for the first time, his eyes had no colour within the pupils, just a flat blackness. Hugh’s grip loosened somewhat on her hair and she managed to draw even closer to The Dark One, their noses were almost touching when she spat into his face. He drew back, disgusted and wiped the spittle away with his sleeve.
“Very well,” he thrust the iron as though it were a sword. It contacted the skin on her left breast, just above her heart and she screamed in agony. It would be pointless to describe the pain; she could not have found the words. He did not withdraw the iron immediately but held it in place allowing it to burn past the skin and into the tissue beyond. Roma writhed and howled, trying to get away from the pain, praying for death. Even when the iron was withdrawn, the agony continued. A large circular piece of her skin had burned away and was stuck to the head of the iron. Her left breast was now an open wound, the skin around the hole blistering and bubbling causing her to moan and scream. It felt as though she had a fever. The heat raged within her and sweat dripped down her face. Even the small trickles that reached the wound caused her to cry out.
“I will just let the iron reheat.”
He was speaking to Hugh who still held her hair, but she managed to move her head enough to see the fire. The head of the iron was buried deep with the coals and already turning white from the heat.
“Please no,” she whispered. “I cannot take any more.”
He had withdrawn the iron and was advancing on her again.
“Then tell me the truth. Say she is a witch and has instructed you in the ways of the Devil,” he moved the iron closer to her right breast as he spoke. She felt its heat on her skin.
“Yes,” she cried. “Yes, Annie told me to do it.”
“What do you want me to say, tell me?”
“You will sign a confession that Annie Ryan instructed you in the ways of the Devil. That through her intercession you mated with him and bore his black offspring’s,”
Roma was sobbing from pain, but also from self-disgust. “Then I can go free?”
“Yes, of course. I will give you freedom.”
Hugh loosened one of her restraints. A thick manuscript was dropped into her lap and a pen, its nib dripping ink, handed to her.
“Sign there,” Hugh indicated a space on the bottom of the document.
“I cannot write.”
“Then make your mark. A cross will do.”
Roma’s hand shook as she traced a cross onto the yellow paper.
“Very well,” The manuscript was grabbed from her lap. “Take her back to the cells.”
“But,” she panicked. “I have done what you asked. You promised to set me free.”
“Oh, I will give you a freedom of sort. Take away all your pain,” he laughed. “Now take her away.
Roma was dragged back along the dark corridor. Her blouse open, her breasts hanging loose, but she was beyond shame. They threw her into the cell, and she lay on the floor, trying to burrow into the dirty straw. She heard Stefan’s curses and roars at the men, and she pulled away from Annie, when she tried to lift her.
“Leave me be,” she sobbed. “I betrayed you Annie. I have signed your death warrant.”
“Roma, hush now,” Annie tried to brush back the sweat-soaked hair. “Turn around let me see what they did to you.”
“Do not be kind to me Annie,” Roma’s voice was muffled by the straw. “Please, I cannot bear it.”
“Roma, listen to me,” Annie was crying now. “I know what you did was not out of malice. Let me help you.”
Roma sat and tried to gather the remnants of her blouse around her, but she was not fast enough. Annie gasped, when she saw the wound and the raw, burnt flesh around it. Blood dripped from the tear, caking Roma’s side and there was an aroma of cooked meat. Annie tried not to retch, when she realised the smell was emanating from her friend.
“Do not look,” Roma tried to hide.
“I have already seen. Do not pull away. I can help.”
“No,” Roma brushed at Annie’s outstretched hand. “It hurts too much.”
“I know, but I can ease the pain. Trust me.”
Annie called out to Stefan several times to be quiet. He was out of his mind with worry, and although she could understand his desperation, there was work to be done. Her powers were limited under such a strain, but she would do what she could. Reaching out, she placed the palm of her hand over the wound. Roma screamed and tried to pull away, but Annie whispered to her, the words soothing. Closing her eyes, Roma swayed slightly, and Annie held her upright with one hand, while laying the other on the open wound.
“Lord,” she prayed. “It is a good thing I wish to do with this gift you gave me. I ask you now, you who healed our Saviour, Jesus Christ and staunched his bleeding wounds. Have pity on this woman who suffers in your name.”
The flesh beneath her hand began to cool. Roma gasped as she felt the pain ebb and the fever within her body faded away. Charred and torn tissue started to knit together. The puckered, burnt flesh uncurled and stretched itself across the wound. When Annie removed her hand the only evidence of what Roma had suffered was a round, red mark.
“I cannot believe it,” Roma traced her fingers over the mark. “Annie, how can this be?”
“I do not know,” Annie was amazed by what she had done. “I have always been able to heal, but I cannot explain how or why.”
“Stefan,” Roma wanted him to hear what Annie had done.
Leaning on Annie’s arm, she managed to get on her feet. She was still badly shaken by her ordeal, but now the pain was gone, her thoughts were of her husband. Before she could walk to the bars, before she could reach out a hand and try and touch him…
“Bring the man next.”
The command from the darkness made her draw back in fear.
“Get down,” Annie warned, and Roma crouched in the corner of the cell, pulling her tattered blouse around her. Annie stood in front, shielding her from the group of men who arrived to take Stefan. There were at least ten of them and each held a stout club. They knew he would put up a fight, and Roma and Annie clung together listening to the roars from the next cell. Sobbing, they cringed as blows rained down on him, and they heard the smack of wood against flesh, the dull thud when it hit bone.
“Right, bring him along,” one of the men stood back to allow the others to drag Stefan out.
Annie rose and walked to the bars of her cell. The man who had spoken was sweating, and the club he held was matted with blood. All she saw of Stefan were his heels as he was dragged away, toes scraping along the flagstones.
“Wait,” Annie called to the man.
“What do you want, witch?”
“Tell him,” she indicated along the passageway. “Tell The Dark One I will admit to being a witch. Sign anything, he wants if he lets Stefan go.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The one you call Oliver. Tell him what I said.”
“I take no orders from the likes of you,” with this he struck out at her.
She was too quick, and the blow from the club meant for her fingers, rang against the bars.
“Tell him,” she warned. “Or I will say you are in league with me.”
He drew back as if struck and hurried away into the darkness. The Dark One and Hugh O Brien accompanied him on his return.
“What is it you want?” The Dark One was annoyed.
“I will sign whatever document you want; admit I am a witch if you let Stefan go.”
“That is not what I want from you,” he hissed, moving closer to her.
“I cannot give you what you ask.”
“Cannot or will not?”
“I will not go against God.”
“Why?” Then, noticing Hugh moving closer, he turned. “Go, make sure all is well.”
Hugh and the man moved away.
“Now,” he turned back to Annie. “Tell me why you defend this God of yours, this Saviour. He is willing to let you and yours suffer and die; while I will give you everything you desire.”
“I love him.”
“You love him! Have you taken leave of your senses? How can you love him? He is a monster, an abomination that sees your suffering and does nothing.”
“I feel him all around me,” her face became rapturous. “He whispers to me on the wind. When I am in the woods, I feel his wonder beneath my feet. I can feel the opening of each bud, the birth of every creature no matter how small. It is their life renews the power in me. It flows over me. I can feel it now, even in this dreadful place.”
Roma turned and looked up at Annie. She seemed to be glowing, emitting a warm light. Even The Dark One seemed mesmerised.
“This is why I love him. I can feel his goodness. Can you not try to feel the same?” She reached through the bars and touched his face. The magic within her fingers was like acid on his skin.
“I am sorry. I am so sorry. I did not mean to hurt you.”
“It is not you,” he snarled, holding his hand against his severely burned cheek. “It is him,” he shook his fist towards the ceiling. “He has tormented me since the beginning of time and continues to do so through you and your like. You will pay now, all of you will die.”
“No,” Annie backed away as the fire in his eyes grew stronger
Hugh and the others came running on hearing his cries. Their eyes flew from his burnt face to Annie and back again.
“See what the witch has done to me?”
The looks they gave Annie were filled with fear.
As if noticing Roma for the first time, he turned on her. “Show me your wound, gypsy.”
“No,” Roma huddled deeper into the corner.
“Leave her be,” Annie warned. “She has suffered enough.”
“Do I have to come in there?” He roared.
“No, please,” Roma held up a hand to ward him off.
He knew what happened. Annie healed the wound and having had evidence of her power; he knew she was capable of much more.
Turning to Hugh he asked. “Did she not under pain of torture admit to being a witch?”
“And did I not brand her with a hot iron and tear the skin from her bones?”
“You did indeed.”
“Yet,” he indicated to one of the men to open the cell. “I see no sign of her suffering, no marks. Do you?”
“Come to think of it,” Hugh scratched his head, a stupid look on his face. “I cannot see anything.”
Annie backed away towards Roma and was shielding her with her body. Two of the men approached her, grabbed her arms, and dragged her kicking and screaming to the other side of the cell. Roma was pulled to her feet and offered little resistance, as he moved towards her and pushed aside the remnants of her blouse. Hugh gasped at the red patch on her skin and pointing a trembling finger, stuttered.
“But she was horribly burned. There was a hole and blood.”
“Now you see how powerful this witch is?” The Dark One looked round at the men, who were shaking their heads in disbelief. “While she lives, you will never prosper. She will bring sickness and suffering on the village until she and her servants are wiped out.”
“No,” Annie tried to pull away. “What he says isn’t true. I am a healer. I heal man and beast, and I do so in the name of God.”
“Enough,” he walked outside the cell and waited for his men to join him. Annie and Roma were thrown to the floor by their captors.
“I will be back for you later,” was his parting promise.
“No,” she ran to the bars, but he was already lost in the darkness. “Please,” she whispered. “Oh, please God help us.”
The only reply was the laughter of The Dark One and his mocking whisper.
“He is still not listening.”