Meg groaned and rubbed at her aching back. The two nights they spent within the forest were cold and her old bones ached from sleeping on the hard grass floor. The weather stayed fine, but the early morning frost froze them to the marrow. Their only shelter was a crude canopy of leaves and fallen branches that did little to protect them from the cold. The children, as in all times, adjusted well, though Rose was quieter than normal. Her mind was filled with worry about her sisters. Meg tried to assure her they would be all right, but the words were stilted. For she heard a death cry carried on the breeze, its sound clear as solemn church bells, tolling through the quiet of the night.
Meg picked the last of the autumn berries from the bushes. These would have to do for the children’s breakfast. The food she packed was soon eaten and they had to resort to what they could forage from the forest. The children slept on and she was loath to wake them, but the sun would soon be up, and the open road called to her. The sooner they found Pat, the sooner they could rescue Annie. She would not think about the cries she heard. There could be many explanations for the sound, but still…
The children woke shivering, and the handful of berries they received did little to lift their mood. Soon they were on their way. As always, they kept within the forest. By now they were clear of the village and the rumoured roadblocks proved to be just that. No one tried to stop them, and the road remained bare with no sign of passing traffic.
Meg felt weary. The last few days were the hardest she had ever known. But it was not just the tiredness of old age that bothered her, but the weariness in both heart and soul. She felt the evil all around her. The air felt cloying, and at times, it seemed as though she was walking through a thick fog. The Dark One was working his evil, trying to delay her.
The forest was dark, despite the many fallen leaves. The bare branches seemed like skeleton arms that might reach down at any moment and pluck her from the earth. Shadows darted among the trees and strange creatures seemed to keep pace with them as they walked. There were indistinct cries and growls from far away, and she blessed herself and mumbled a prayer for protection.
They walked until the sun was well up, and now the children were tired. The bank of a stream proved an ideal resting place, and Meg dipped her handkerchief in the water and rubbed the stains of the blackberries from the children’s faces. She eased her way down onto a rock and watched as they played. They would soon be complaining of hunger. The air was much fresher here and the birdsong relaxed her. Her mind filled with thoughts of Annie and Dora and she swallowed hard, fighting back tears.
Sudden squeals and shouts from the children roused her. Paul was swaggering towards her with the body of a rabbit held aloft. He, like many of his kind, was a skilled hunter. His snare worked within minutes, and he beamed with pride at the look of relief on Meg’s face.
He cleaned and skinned the rabbit, while Meg lit a fire. Soon the smell of roasting meat made their stomachs rumble, as Meg turned the makeshift spit. Each thought the meal of roasted rabbit and water from the stream was the best they had ever had.
It was a much livelier group that set off that morning. The feeling of oppression lifted, and even Meg’s back did not ache as much. Rose and Paul carried the magpie, that cawed in annoyance, when they swung the basket. The sun, though watery, warmed them and their clothes soon lost their dampness. The meal they had just eaten would keep them going for most of the day. Meg would not have to worry until nightfall.
“Meg help me” the sobbing seemed to come from all around her. She spun, trying to find the source. The forest lay in stillness, and she held her breath. Her heart pounded against her breast when she heard the menacing laughter and Annie’s screams. “Oh God help me, Meg. I am in agony.”
Meg stumbled to a tree trunk. The very breath was taken from her body. Annie was in terrible pain. Dear lord, Meg prayed, take me, leave the child be. There was no answer, just the sighing of the leaves.
“Meg,” Paul came crashing through the undergrowth. “Come quickly. There is a cart coming.”
The children were hiding behind the trees, watching as the cart and driver approached. The wheels thundered on the rough track, as the driver whipped his horses onwards. It was almost upon them when…
“Pat, it is Pat,” Rose ran from her hiding place and waved her arms at the approaching vehicle.
The horses whinnied and snorted, as he pulled tight on the reins. Clouds of dust rose into the air, driven there by the skidding hoofs. Pat’s look of surprise on seeing Rose was soon replaced by fear, as Meg came walking towards him. Without waiting for an explanation, he lifted the children onto the back of the cart and helped Meg to climb up beside him. He flicked at the reins, and they set off. Meg whispered to him, as they rode, not wanting the children to hear. His eyes opened wide in alarm at her news.
“I knew something was wrong,” he whispered, shaking his head, and spurring the horses onwards. “I will kill those O Brien’s. So, help me.”
“They are in the grip of The Dark One.”
“What do you mean?”
“The very Devil himself is among us,” Meg crossed herself. “He has taken the form of a man.”
Pat’s head was reeling. It had to be that Tanas fellow. He was the only stranger in the district.
“We will save them, Meg,” Pat’s strong hand closed over Meg’s own and she held on tight, drawing strength from his touch.
“I pray to God we can. That we are not too late.”
Annie was forced up from the straw. She cried aloud as a dress was pulled over her head and scraped over the scars on her back. Her toes dragged along the stone floor, as they half-carried her. Some of the cuts opened from the rough handling, and she left small drops of blood in her wake. The jailors jeered at her shorn head.
A wave of noise erupted, as she was taken from the mill. Her death was to be a great occasion. The sunlight stung her eyes, as she had become used to the dark, and the many figures before her seemed faceless. Some laughed and pointed. Children ran towards her, wanting to touch the witch. Annie kept her head bowed and allowed her eyes to adjust.
The first thing she saw was the wood. For a moment she thought she was at the steps of the gallows, but when she allowed her eyes to travel upwards, she saw this was not the case. A stout pole stood in the centre of a woodpile. The villagers were still adding to it. The procession stopped, and she looked around at the people who gathered. Many of them were old friends of her family, and she tried to make eye contact.
“Well, Mistress Ryan,” The Dark One walked towards her. “It is time to pay for your sins.”
“I am innocent,” Annie cried, and this drew mumblings from the crowd.
“You are the leader of the witches and you must pay,” he snarled, and leaning closer whispered. “Unless you have changed your mind?”
Annie shook her head.
“Take her up.”
Annie was forced towards a ladder on the side of the pile. She stumbled on the rungs and was carried up by one of the guards. They tied her to the stake and wound strong chains around her body. Her hands were tied behind her back, so she was forced to look at the crowd. A shout of “silence” rang out and an uneasy hush fell. Then, The Dark One spoke.
“A witch with power as strong as Mistress Ryan must be burned; the fire will nullify all her evil.”
“No,” Annie strained against her bonds. “I am not a witch. Help me.” She looked at Mary and Hugh who stood at the end of the woodpile. “Mary, for the love of God, tell them I am innocent.”
Mary shrugged and Hugh smiled and winked at her.
“Bastards,” she screamed. “It is you who should be in my place.”
“Enough witch,” The Dark One motioned to the guards.
There were four men in all, and each held a torch of blazing pitch. At his signal, they threw the torches into the piles of branches and shrubs between the timbers. The dry kindling caught fire instantly. Flames crackled and leapt to other branches.
“There is plenty of green wood beneath,” Annie heard Hugh’s voice above the noise.
She knew the green wood was damp and would take longer to burn. She would suffocate. Amid the haze of acrid smoke, The Dark One appeared. He seemed to be hovering above the ground. The crowd drew back, some crying, others screaming in fear.
“I will ask you once more. Denounce your God. Give me your power.”
“Never,” Annie managed to croak.
“Then I curse you,” his voice sounded like thunder. “You will die, but you will never know rest until the last male in his line is gone,” he pointed towards Hugh.
The flames were licking about her toes and she tried to draw up her feet as he continued.
“You will feel each flame. You’ will not die until the fire reaches your heart.”
“If that be the case,” she gasped, the smoke stung her throat. “My voice will be the last one the O Brien’s ever hear. I swear this by all that is holy.”
Most of the crowd ran away. But the O Brien’s and the guards all heard her words. Mary was carried away in a faint. Not only had Annie’s curse upset her, but also the sight of her intended husband levitating above the ground before disappearing was too much.
She was not there to hear Annie’s screams as the ends of her dress caught fire and the flames scored her skin. Neither did she witness how the flesh on her feet turned black, as the toes curled upwards.
“Help me Meg,” Annie cried. “I am in agony.”
Even the guards took flight at this, and she was left alone to burn in the still morning air. She screamed and writhed against the chains. The flesh on her legs melted exposing the bones and sinews. The flames continued upwards leaping towards her face.
“Oh, Jesus, Miss.”
Annie saw a shadowy figure running below her.
“I will get water,” the young guard shouted, and in seconds the flames hissed, as he threw water on them.
. The fire burned fiercely.
“Let me be,” she screamed. “I am destroyed.”
He continued to throw buckets full of water towards her. The flames died in places, and she was able to see him.
“Look, look at me.”
He stopped and looked up at her. His face was blackened from the smoke, and there were tracks where his tears flowed. He saw the flesh was burnt beyond repair. Blood and fat dripped from her fingers.
“The Dark One cursed me. I am to feel each pain.”
He shook his head before running away. Annie moaned and arched her back, as the flames reached her thighs.
“Close your eyes Miss,” she heard him call. “It is all I can do.”
His aim was true, and the spear pierced Annie’s heart. She gasped, and her eyes opened wide for a moment. Then she smiled at him, before her head fell forward.