A gale blew up during the night and sent leaves and dust swirling around Annie’s cell. She sat against the wall and listened to the voices carried on the wind. Her senses heightened; she heard the death cries of animals trapped within the forest. The beating of bats wings sounded like thunder. But the sound she reached out for most was beyond her. She could not find Dora. The darkness within the mill was absolute, broken only by the moon, as it sailed between wind-tossed clouds. There was scurrying in the straw, and she flicked her hand towards the movement. Coarse hair brushed against her skin, and she drew back in terror. Moonlight moved across the floor and she saw it was a rat. It was huge, almost the size of a full-grown cat, with black bristles standing upright on its back, teeth drawn back in a manic leer. It hissed and made ready for attack. It knew she was trapped.
She never took her eyes off its face as she stood up. If it should catch her throat, she knew she would never be able to remove it. She edged towards the corner of the cell, one hand in front of her face. It jumped, and she felt razor-shape teeth tear a chunk from her wrist. Screaming, she shook it off, and it thudded against the wall. It lay still and she inspected the bite. Blood gushed from the hole, and she tried to spit into the wound in the hope of clearing away any poisons left there, but it was useless. Her throat was too dry from terror. So, instead she held her hand down and allowed the blood to flow ever faster around the torn tissue. It ran between her fingers to drip into a small pool on the straw. So intent was she on tending to the wound, she had forgotten about the rat. It was now ready to resume the attack. Its tongue darted across its lips, tasting her blood. The moon moved behind a cloud and the cell was thrust into darkness. Annie felt sick from fear as she tried to trace the rats’ movement. But it was well used to hunting and moved noiselessly among the straw. The only sign of its presence was the light thrown by the redness of its eyes. At times it blinked and was lost from sight. Annie froze, waiting for it to pounce. The wound in her wrist burned, and waves of pain shot down her fingers.
Dora, her sister flashed into her mind. If something as large as this should attack so small a child! The rat inched towards her and snatched at her ankle. Once again, she felt the teeth tear flesh from her bones, and she screamed and kicked out at the dark shape. Her fear was being replaced by anger. She would not allow the creature to hurt her again. Moonlight flooded the cell and she saw to her horror; the rat was gnawing on a piece of her flesh.
“Devil,” she spat, at the hunched shape. “Fiend from hell.”
The rat, intent on its feasting, looked up at her and drew back its lips. For a moment it looked as though it was laughing at her.
“Die,” Annie whispered, imagining she was inside its body, tearing and ripping at its tissues.
The rat hissed and drew back. Annie’s hands moved faster, clawing at the air. The rat spun and withered on the floor. Blood dripped from between its clenched teeth and ran from its nose. It squealed just once as Annie envisioned her fingers wrapping around its heart and squeezing. She held on tight until all movement ceased, and the body stiffened in death. This threat was over for now.
She spent the rest of the night huddled in a corner of the cell and as far away from the body as possible. This was the first time she had knowingly destroyed life, and the thought of what she did sickened her.
The night air chilled her to the marrow, and her breath rose in white clouds. Winter’s sting was upon the land, and there was nothing to stop it invading the cell. But this cold seemed like no other. She pulled some of the straw around her legs and over her lap, hoping to find some warmth, but there was none. From somewhere along the inky-black corridor she heard low, menacing laughter. Threatening shadows, making no sound, darted along the walls. Nameless things reached out sharp talons snarling hideously and she screamed, covering her face. All through the night this torture continued. The bitter-cold air hung with the stench of death, as vile creatures whispered in her ear, to heed The Master, to do his bidding and all would be well.
“No,” Annie moaned, at each whispered promise. “I cannot.”
As the voice faded away with an agonising cry, another replaced it. All of those within his power sought to please him and appease their own suffering. Annie prayed, begging God to help her. She plugged her ears with her fingers, but the voices still penetrated. Her stomach lurched from the smell, and she crawled onto her hands and knees, muscles contracting painfully as she retched into the straw.
“Have you suffered enough?”
Annie wiped the bile from her mouth with her long hair and looked towards the voice. The Dark One stood at the gate of the cell, but she was unable to see him for he blended so well with the night.
“Leave me in peace,” she croaked, her throat burning.
“I will give you peace, Annie. Just say the word.”
“Very well,” she heard him move away. “But by morning you will bend to my will, if you remain sane enough to do so.”
The blood pounded in her ears, as she waited for what was to come next. Screams reverberated from within the mill. She ran to the bars of her prison and tried to locate the sound. There was movement along the corridor, a slow shuffling of feet dragging on the stone floor. She sniffed the air and her flesh crawled. It smelled of the tomb, of rotting, decomposing corpses. Icy fingers scored down her neck, as the lumbering figures came into view. The rotten remains of her mother and father walked towards her. She was unable to move; her hands had grown numb from gripping the bars, and she was frozen in place.
“Ma, Da, no,” she sobbed, as they advanced.
The shrouds she had so carefully sewn for them, draped from skeleton shoulders. What remained of their flesh was blackened and hung in strips from yellowing bones. Most of her mother’s hair was stripped from her scalp. The few remaining hairs hung in snakelike tendrils around her wizened face. Their shrivelled lips showed white teeth against the blackness of gums, and the sounds they made were of a tortured wailing. Clawed, leprous hands reached out to her, and she screamed in agony. Still she could not move. Not even when her mother pressed her face towards Annie’s, and she was forced to look into the black, worm infested cavernous sockets that once housed her eyes.
“Ma, no” Annie sobbed as the fear overwhelmed her. She never felt her muscles relax or the warmth of the urine running from between her legs. Mercifully, a curtain of darkness covered her vision and her mind, as she sank to the floor.
Watery sunlight flooded the cell, as Annie struggled into consciousness. Her sleep was undisturbed and despite the horrors of the night, her mind remained untouched. All that happened seemed just a bad dream. The body of the rat lay on its back, frozen claws reaching upwards. She shied back for a moment, and then anger replaced her fear, as the pain of her wounds stung.
“Get out,” she nudged the corpse with the toe of her shoe.
It rolled over on its side, and she shuddered at the dried blood on its face.
“Go on, get out,” she kicked it closer to the bars.
Footsteps thundered on the floor above, and she retreated to the back of the cell. The Dark One passed by without a backward glance.
“Bring her along.”
The cell door was thrown open and Annie recognised the man. He had been part of the group who had taken Stefan.
“I want no trouble from you,” he warned. “Come out.”
She smiled, as she walked towards him. He drew back uncertain, but mesmerised. He never saw the huge rat, and she moved so quickly, he was unable to stop her. She kicked at the body and he was hit full force in the face with it. The rats’ claws snagged on his tunic, and he screamed backing away, until he landed in a heap against the wall. He stared down at the blood-soaked body; its face drawn back in a grimace of death. His screams brought the others running, as he struggled to tear the rat away. The body thudded against the bars of the cell and he pointed a quivering towards it.
“She made that thing attack me,” he told the men. “It flew at me.”
They mumbled in astonishment not only at such evil, but also at the sheer size of the rat. Annie was dragged from the cell and propelled towards that accursed room. The Dark One was waiting.
“The night was a long one for you?”
She shrugged and sat in the chair he pointed at.
“Then you still refuse to obey me, after all you have seen?”
“My answer remains the same. I am a servant of God.”
“You will leave your parents in Hell rather then protect them?”
“My parents are not in Hell,” she shook from fear. “They were good while they lived. You have no power over them.”
“Oh, but I have, Annie. Every creature that walks on this earth has their failing. It is bred in flesh and bone. They are mine now, and they will suffer eternal torture until the end of time. Have you so little love for them you allow this to happen?”
“You lie. I know you lie.”
“Then, what did you see last night?” he hissed. “Does your God tell you that you dreamed it all? It could not have happened, and your parents are with him?”
She refused to answer.
“Very well,” he reached into his pocket, withdrew a scrap of material, and dropped it onto her lap.
She screamed and brushed it away. It was the same material she used for the shrouds.
“Tricks,” she screamed. “Vile tricks used to frighten the ignorant.”
“Tricks,” he snarled. “You accuse me of trickery. I who command legions?”
He clapped his hands and the door was thrown open. Dora was led into the room, but she was no longer in chains. The dress she wore was new, and she appeared well cared for.
“Annie,” she ran to her sister and climbed on her lap. “Look at my new dress.”
“It is very pretty,” Annie tried to smile. “Who gave it to you?”
“Jane made it for me, and she is going to make one for you too.”
“Where did you stay last night?”
“I stayed with Jane,” she reached up and stroked Annie’s face. “Are you coming home soon?”
“I do not know, my sweet,” Annie’s eyes filled with tears and Dora’s face grew serious.
“I thought everything was going to be all right, but it is not. Is it Annie?”
Annie could only shake her head.
“It is all right, Annie. I know.”
“What do you know, Dora?”
“That bad things have to happen.”
“Who told you this?”
“No one,” Dora whispered, clutching her stomach “I feel it, inside. You know?”
“Yes, dearest,” Annie felt tears trickle down her cheeks. “Yes, I know.”
The sisters clung together for a moment, Annie breathing in the smell of Dora’s hair.
“Well, this is all very touching,” The Dark One pulled Dora from Annie. “But it is time for your sister to be questioned by the elders.”
Strong arms lifted Annie from her chair and marched her towards the door.
“No,” she screamed. “She is just a child. Let her be.”
She twisted around trying to see her sister.
“Dora,” she called to her. “Tell them whatever they want to hear.”
“I am not afraid, Annie,” Dora’s voice reached her before the door slammed. “And you must not be either.”
Annie was dragged back to her cell. She screamed, she bit and kicked at her jailors, but it was of little use. They dumped her unceremoniously into the straw, and she lay there sobbing.
The hours dripped by, as she listened to every sound within the mill. Doors groaned open, timbers creaked, as they stretched and settled. Voices echoed along the corridor, and she strained to hear what they were saying. The only person she saw throughout the day was the jailor, who brought her food. This consisted of a stew of lentils and potato that made her stomach turn. She pushed it aside, and drank the tankard of water accompanying the meal. Despite her pleading with him for news of her sister he remained silent, and she was left to suffer.
Later that night she had a visitor, Mary O Brien. Annie stumbled to her feet when the woman appeared and rushed towards the bars.
“You have news of my family?”
Mary looked around her before answering.
“They are all dead. All except Dora and she has been accused of being in league with you.”
“No, this cannot be true. You are lying, you must be.”
“Well, if that is all the thanks, I get for putting myself out, I am sorry I bothered,” Mary sniffed and made a great show of pretending to leave.
“No wait,” Annie begged. “I do not mean to be so rude. Please tell me what you have heard.”
“Very well. But I warm you any more rudeness and I will leave.”
“Yes, of course, but you must understand how upset I am at the news.”
“Well, you only have yourself to blame. Goodness knows I have tried to help, and dearest Oliver has been doing what he can to assist you.”
“Yes, please,” Annie ignored the woman’s nonsense. “Tell me of my family.”
“Well, it seems they were trying to escape through the woods when the elders hunted them down. Dora was the only one who survived, and she is here with Jane Lynch awaiting sentence.”
“Sentence, but she is just a child!”
“Nevertheless, she has been found guilty and her punishment begins in the morning. Annie dear,” Mary’s tone softened. “Will you not repent and be done with this for all our sakes.”
“Yes,” Annie needed time to think. “Send him to me and I will repent.”
“Good girl. It makes sense to do so, but Annie. You will keep to your side of the bargain. Give me the lease to the cottage and land.”
“Yes, of course I will, as soon as I am free.”
“Oh, very well.”
The Dark One appeared within minutes of the woman leaving.
“I am told you want to repent?”
“Tell me the truth, are my family dead?”
“All, but the child, Dora and she is not long for this world.”
“I do not believe you. I would have felt their passing.”
“Even now you doubt my power,” he raised an eyebrow. “After all you have seen.”
“What will become of Dora?”
“She will be beaten like all witches’ children until she confesses you are a witch.”
Tears stung Annie’s eyes as she thought of her sister’s frail body.
“She will not survive the beating. She is too weak.”
“That is up to you. You know what you must do to save her. Sleep well,” he laughed before disappearing.