The waiting was the worst. Annie jumped at each sound, as the old mill creaked and groaned about her. Common sense told her it was the timbers settling and the scratching and tearing, nothing more than the clawing of mice or rats in the beams. The smell from the next cell made her feel sick. Stefan’s body fluids mixed with the damp straw, and to Annie’s heightened sense of smell, it was rancid. She could almost taste the sweet, coppery blood. It seemed to stick to the back of her throat, causing her to gag. Walking over to the gate of her cell, she pushed her face between two of the bars trying to gulp in the air streaming from the slatted windows. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead, as she prayed once again for the courage to bear what was about to happen.
There came the sound of footfalls from above, and she moved deeper into the cell, when she heard a door open and the steps upon the stone stair. Turning her face to the wall, she refused to look at her visitor, but sensed someone was standing, watching her.
She turned to see Mary O Brien.
“I have come to save your life, Annie.”
“Really?” Annie knew The Dark One had sent Mary.
“This is no time to be proud,” Mary’s smile tightened. “But, then, why should it surprise me. Your mother was the same. She could have married well you know?”
Annie did not answer, but this did nothing to stop Mary.
“But, no,” she sneered. “She had to marry for love. Love, I ask you,” the laugh sounded like a snort. “And to a lowly woodcutter. Well, see where it got her. She left three orphans, two of them in prison.”
“Two in prison?” Annie ran towards the bars. “What do you mean two in prison?”
“You have not heard? She raised an eyebrow in mock disbelief. “Oh, they brought your younger sister in this morning. Dora is it?”
“And the others?”
“I have no idea. They could be dead for all I know. Something of the kind was hinted at.”
“No,” Annie started to cry. “No, you are lying. You must be. I would have felt it if they were dead.”
“There you go with that silly talk again. Felt it, indeed. No good will come of it, mark my words.”
“Please listen to me,” she pushed her hand between the bars and held it out to Mary. “Cousin, help me.”
Mary ignored the proffered hand, but Annie saw she was prepared to listen.
“If you find out what happened to my sisters, I will give you my cottage and land.”
Mary looked around her, checking no one could hear, but there was no mistaking the spark of greed glistening in her eyes.
“I am sure I do not know what you are talking about.”
“Listen,” Annie grew more desperate. “The deed is hidden in the cottage. Do as I ask, and I will tell you where it is. You can keep it. I care for nothing other than news of my sister.”
“Very well,” Mary nodded. “I will see what I can find out, but not a word to anyone. I do not want to be seen helping a witch.”
“You know I am not a witch.”
“Oliver says you are and since your imprisonment and the deaths of the gypsies there have been no more cases of the fever.”
“But that is because the weather has grown colder. Please, Mary you must see reason.”
“I know only what my intended tells me, and I have no reason to doubt him.”
“Yes,” Mary smiled. “We are to be married as soon as all this unpleasantness is finished.”
Annie looked at her in wonder. Did she really believe the Devil would marry her?
“Do you not wish me luck, Annie?”
“Oh, yes indeed. I wish you all the luck you deserve.”
Mary was unsure if the words were barbed, so chose to ignore them. After all, the cottage and lands would fetch a good price. The money would come in handy and her new lifestyle might be expensive. Dear Oliver, was generosity itself, but she had to impress him with her independent spirit.
“I must go now,” she pulled her silk shawl tighter.
“You will do as you promised?”
“I will do my best, and I hope you will stick to your side of the bargain?”
“I promise. As soon as you bring me word of my sisters, Meg and the gypsy children I will tell you where the deed is.”
“Very well,” Mary turned, and as an afterthought… “I almost forgot my reason for calling on you.”
She made it sound as though this was a social call.
“I came to beg you to repent and admit to your sins. I have no grudge against you and wish you no harm.”
Annie knew this was untrue. Not only was Mary grievously vexed by Annie’s refusal to marry her son, but also because of her resemblance to her mother, Mary’s cousin. She always envied her looks and kind nature, and the simple happiness she found in her woodcutter husband and daughters.
“I am not a witch. I admit nothing.”
“Well, I did my best. I can only hope your suffering and the suffering of your sister will be swift.”
With these words she was gone, and Annie stayed staring at the spot she’d vacated. Dora, surely, they would not harm her. She was only six years old, almost a baby.
She heard the slam of the mill door overhead, and pictured Mary sweeping along the main street on her way to report to Him. The thought of her cousin in a wedding dress, with The Dark One by her side made Annie laugh, such a fitting bride for the Devil. She laughed louder, tears streaming down her face. But there was no merriment in the sound, and she collapsed on the straw still laughing hysterically.
Somehow, she managed to sleep. When she woke it was still daylight, but the shadows lengthened, and she judged it was well into the afternoon. Brushing the hair from her face and wiping at the dried spittle staining her mouth, she stood. She was covered in straw. It stuck to her skirt, worked its way into the cleft between her breasts and seemed to cling to every strand of her hair. She picked as much of it as she could from her clothes and shook it from her hair. So intent was she at her work she failed to notice Hugh was watching her.
“Good day, cousin,” he bowed. “I have been sent to fetch you.”
Annie backed away, but he threw open the gate and seized her arm.
“Come along now and none of your nonsense.”
He propelled her along the corridor and towards the dark door, and into the room that played such a part in her tortured imagination. There was a row of six chairs on one side of the room. The squire and five of the elders were all to sit in judgement of her. There were three large books spread open on a table and she saw to her dismay these were Meg’s books. Meg would never part with the books. She would guard them with her life. Did this mean…? No, she could not be dead.
“Gentlemen,” The Dark One addressed the assembled jury. “You see here before you the grimoires of this witch. Within the pages of each of these accursed books lie the Devil’s words. It was with these innocent looking books she,” he pointed at Annie. “Cast her spells and killed those you loved and held most dear.”
She turned towards the men and shook her head, her eyes pleading with them for understanding, but their faces seemed set in stone. The Dark One was still speaking. Picking passages from each of the books. Jumbling up the words and making them sound sinister and evil. The tirade continued for so long Annie lost track of time. The Dark One’s eyes blazed, as he hurled accusation after accusation at her. She never answered but shook her head in denial. He became angry at her refusal to speak and turning to the jury, cried. “Will not one of you good men question her?”
There was a shuffling of feet, heads were shaken, whispers passed between the men until finally, one of them stood.
“Well,” he cleared his throat. “Do you deny any involvement with these books?”
“No, Sir, I do not.”
“Then you admit to reading them; to have knowledge of their evil!”
“These books are used in healing and in the protection of the dark forces,” she explained. “There is nothing evil within any of the covers.”
“But,” the man spluttered. “We have heard the words for ourselves. They speak of spells and charms. Do you deny this?”
“I deny they are evil. The words were muddled up in the reading. It is he,” she nodded towards The Dark One. “Who tries to fool you.”
“And why should he do that? He has nothing to gain. There is no fee involved in his work.”
“He is the Devil and he works to empower himself.”
There were gasps and mumbled calls of blasphemy.
“I have no more questions,” the man turned away.
Once he resumed his seat, the jury whispered together. The squire looked up from time to time and smirked at her. The Dark One allowed them to confer for a while and then asked.
“What is your verdict, gentlemen?”
The squire answered for all. “Guilty of witchcraft.”
“Very well,” The Dark One smiled. “A wise decision. I will deal with her in the approved way from here on. You may go,” he waved towards the door.
They filed from their seats. One or two cast a furtive glance in her direction, but most avoided looking at her. Annie stared down at her lap, not wanting to meet their gaze. She listened to the shuffling of feet and the heavy thud of the door closing, until the silence came surging back and she was alone with The Dark One and Hugh.
“You have heard the verdict of your elders. They have found you guilty of witchcraft. What do you have to say?”
She looked up at him.
“Nothing I can say will make any difference. You have already decided my fate.”
“You know what you must do to save yourself,” He glared at her. “I have given you plenty of opportunity.”
Turning to Hugh she asked. “Do you really have any idea of what he wants?”
Hugh shrugged. “He wants what we all want, the end of the plague.”
“No, he does not. He wants my power. He wants …”
Before she could say any more The Dark One roared.
“Take no heed of her words. They are meant to enslave you to her will.” And taking Hugh by the arm he walked him towards the door, whispering. Hugh nodded, before turning to look back at Annie. She had never seen such a look before, but then, she’d never seen what lust looked like.
“Did you really think you could bring a mind as weak as that around to your way of thinking?” The Dark One sat opposite her and nodded towards the door.
“I was merely telling him the truth, but you know nothing of the truth.”
“Oh, my dear,” he laughed. “I know all about the truth. I just bend it to my will and make it much spicier.”
“What happens now?”
“That is up to you. You know what must be done. I give you one last chance. Give me your power.”
“Not at any price?”
She shook her head.
“Very well. You care nothing for your own life, but I have something that might convince you to change your mind.”
He walked out of sight. Her heart pounded in her ears and looking down, she saw the front of her blouse moved in time to the beats. The door opened. She felt the cool air rush into the room dispelling the stifling heat. There came a shuffling of feet, the clanking of chains and a small cry of pain, as Dora was pushed towards her.
“Dora,” Annie tried to go to her, but he grabbed her from behind. His hands were like claws on her shoulders.
“Dora,” she cried, and the child who stood with her head bent looked up. Her hair hung in damp tendrils about her face, and there was dried blood at the corner of her mouth.
“Annie,” she shuffled forwards. Her legs and wrists were bound with chains, as the shackles were too big for her. “Annie, he hurt me,” she started to cry. “He hit me,”
“You fiend,” Annie struggled to get free, but it seemed impossible to move. Then, she heard Meg’s words. “You have the power of angels. Your power is equal to his. He is a fallen one, you are not.”
Annie tried to concentrate, tried to block out the cries of her sister, and called out with all her might. “Take your hands off me, Lucifer.”
The pressure lifted at once, as he was thrown from her, and she rushed to her sister’s aid.
“There, there, my precious,” she picked the child up and carried her to a chair. Brushing the sweat-soaked hair from off her face, she kissed the flushed cheeks. “I am here now. It is all right,” she tried to ease the chains over Dora’s wrists, but they were bound too tight. She forgot all about The Dark One until the child was yanked from her grasp.
“No,” she screamed, lurching at Dora, but he was too fast.
With a flick of his wrist he sent her propelling back into her chair and invisible hands held her there. “That was clever, witch,” he laughed, and hoisted the crying, struggling Dora under one arm. “But my power has grown over the centuries, your time has been short, and there is much to learn.
She screamed at him to let the child go and to her surprise he agreed. Dora was put back down. He stood her in front of him, one hand on her tiny shoulder.
“Will you let her die?”
Annie looked at the shaking child and shook her head.
“Then you will do as I ask?”
She never took her eyes of her sister. How could she give him her power? In order to save her sister, she would have to go against God. Please help me, she prayed, show me what to do.
“I keep telling you he is not listening. He seemed to lose all power of hearing at these times. If I correctly remember the last time, I witnessed so touching a scene I was in a garden with his son. His son, Annie, what are you to him?”
Dora stopped crying and was staring straight at Annie. Her face started to glow, the features changing until they became the face of a young boy. The voice coming from Dora’s mouth was ethereal. “All this will pass; Annie and you will walk in my divine light.”
The Dark One roared, twisting Dora round to face him, but her normal features returned. He screamed in anger and the same voice that spoke, answered his cry. “This was to be your punishment, Lucifer. You will never again look upon my face.”
In his anger he forgot about Annie and the child. Dora ran to her and Annie knelt on the floor holding her sister close and trying to block her ears from the curses and taunts he screamed at the heavens. Dora was shaking, and Annie rubbed her back trying to sooth her trembling. The child felt delicate as a bird, and she was aware of how easy it would be to hurt her.
“Where are the others,” she managed to whisper, before the child was pulled from her once again.
Dora shook her head in answer. The Dark One calmed down. Spittle dripped from his lips, but it was green in colour and burned his clothes as it splashed on his chest. Wiping the slime from his face with the back of his hand, he hissed at Annie.
“For this you will all die.”
No,” Annie begged. “Not my sister. She is innocent and no more than a baby. Have mercy.”
“Mercy,” he roared. “What mercy was shown to me?”
“I do not know.”
“Well, I know and you,” he spat. “One insignificant girl tries to stop me having my revenge. Guards,” he called. “Take this one away,” he pushed Dora towards the waiting men.
“Annie,” the child screamed and tried to wrestle free, but a resounding slap sent her spinning into the arms of the guards. Annie had to listen as her anguished cries echoed along the corridor.