Her body continued to burn throughout the day. The sight of her smouldering corpse met Meg and Pat when they rode into the village that evening, and it was one, they would never forget. Annie’s blackened figure hung amid the embers of the fire. The spear held it in place.
The children were asleep in the back of the cart and spared the terrible sight, but Meg and Pat were inconsolable. A shadowy figure moved from the shelter of the mill and stumbled towards them.
“I threw the spear,” the young guard sobbed.
“You…” Pat cried, catching him by the throat.
“I had to; she was cursed to feel each flame.”
Pat looked at him uncomprehending, and it was only when Meg pulled at his arm, he released the boy.
“Let him be, Pat. He put her out of her agony.”
The boy coughed, rubbing at his bruised throat.
“I worked all day putting the fire out.”
“Where is he,” Pat asked. “This man, Tanas?”
“He disappeared before she died.”
“And the O Brien’s and the rest of the village?”
“They fled in terror.”
“They will have more to fear than the Devil when I find them.”
The sound of Meg retching made them run to her aid. She could no longer bear the sight of the burnt corpse, or the smell of cooked meat pervading the air.
“Take us home,” she beseeched Pat. “Take us to Annie’s cottage.”
“She will need a Christian burial.”
“You can come back when the cart’s unloaded and bring her home. The embers are still too hot and there is no hurry now. Just take us away.”
She had to be lifted onto the cart. The very life seemed to have drained from her, and she sat in a stupor for the rest of their journey.
The cottage looked dark and deserted. A melancholic breeze sighed among the trees. Even the little pool beside the cottage was covered with green slime. Nature itself mourned the passing of one so good.
The sleeping children were carried inside and put to bed. Meg took some wood from the stack beside the hearth and lit a fire. Even its comforting light did nothing to dispel the gloom. Pat brought water from the well, filled the kettle and swung the arm over the fire.
“I will make you some tea.”
Meg slumped into a chair and watched the leaping flames. Pat realised, for the first time, how old and frail she really was. They sat in silence until steam hissed from the spout, and the water threatened to boil over.
“My God, my God, why hath thou forsaken me?”
The hair on Pat’s neck rose at her whispered question, and he gulped back the tears. This was his fault; he knew something was brewing.
“You are not to blame.”
Her words startled him.
“Sit down,” she pointed to the chair opposite hers.
Pat handed her the tea and sat down. He was glad of the solidness of the wood beneath him. It was the only thing that seemed real. He held the cup with both hands to bring it to his lips, and he noticed how Meg’s hand trembled also.
“This is not a time for blame,” her eyes seemed to bore into him. “Nor a time for revenge.”
“I do not understand. What happened?”
“Annie, Lord rest her soul,” Meg continued, then stopped suddenly as the sound of the familiar name pierced her heart. She allowed the cup to slide from her grasp and it shattered on the stone floor.
Pat could do nothing to help. The tears that were threatening spilled over, and he was forced to hold a hand over his mouth, least the sound of his anguish wake the children.
“Come now,” Meg managed to rouse herself. “There is much to be done and plenty of time for grieving in the months ahead.”
Pat wiped the tears from his face.
“Take your cart to the store and unload it, then bring Annie and Dora home.”
“Dora is dead. I felt her spark die before Annie’s.”
She rose and motioned him to do the same. He was afraid to leave her alone and told her so, but she knew the danger was past. The Dark One was vanquished. There was nothing left for him there.
The young guard was keeping watch over Annie’s body, and it was with his help, Pat managed to take her down. She felt warm to touch, and he moaned when he realised the pieces of ash falling from her was skin. They placed her in a blanket and loaded her onto the cart. Still the village lay in silence. No dogs barked; no lights showed in any of the windows.
“There was a child, a little girl…”
“They buried her outside the chapel wall,” the guard told him. “I can show you where.”
Pat led the horse along the village street. The sound of its hoofs shattered the quiet. Clip—clop, they rang through the silent night.
It was easy to find the small, unmarked grave. Burial outside the chapel walls was a fate reserved only for suicides, witches, and stillborn babies. The guard went inside and returned with two spades, the property of the gravediggers. Dora was not buried very deep, and the earth was dry and easy to dig. She was wrapped only in a blanket. Pat threw this aside and cried out when he saw the condition of her body. The stench made him draw back and he gagged at the raw, rotten smell of her decay. When he lifted her from the dank earth, her hair that was hiding her face, fell back, the moon lighted upon her, and he gasped at the beauty and serenity of her features. Despite the marks on her body, death left no sign of suffering.
The young guard, who introduced himself as Tom O Shea, offered to make the coffins and help with the grave digging. Pat accepted with a nod, and Tom climbed up onto the seat beside him. Meg came out to meet the cart. Pat stopped her from pulling back the blankets shrouding Annie and Dora.
“It is best to remember them as they were.”
They spent the rest of the night in the woodshed fashioning makeshift coffins from pieces of timber.
At dawn they buried Annie and Dora side by side, in the farthest corner of the property. A light rain fell as Pat and Tom filled the hole. A wind blew up, and it seemed as though the trees were bowing over the grave; paying homage to one who was a part of the forest.
“Should they be in consecrated ground?” Pat looked at the mound.
“Anywhere she lies is blessed,” Meg wiped her tears and turned to go. “The children will be awake soon and there is a lot of explaining to do.”
It was a solemn procession that walked back to the cottage that morning.
Meg, Pat, and the children stayed on at Annie’s cottage. More rooms were added to make way for the growing children. Pat’s business prospered, though it was whispered he was never the same after Annie died. Meg did her best at being mother to Rose, Paul, and Lily, but the loss of her loved ones took their toll. She spent hours beside the grave each day talking and whispering about old times. Flowers grew in abundance and covered the mound watered by Meg and Pat’s tears.
Slowly the seasons passed, and it was soon winter again. The sky was dark with the promise of snow when Meg set off to collect kindling from within the forest. There was no need for her to do this, as Pat had a woman come in and help with the housework, but it kept her busy and her mind from tormented thoughts. It was reported Mary O Brien was dying. Some said it was from a broken heart, but Meg knew it was from vexation.
The holly bushes were heavy with berries, a sure sign of a hard winter. Lord, I am tired Meg thought, as she stooped to pick up a stick. A cold wind stirred the trees above her, and she gathered her shawl tighter and was about to turn for home, when she heard it, a long, mournful cry that froze her blood. Meg listened as its volume increases and tore at her heart.
She allowed the sticks to fall, as she followed the sound. It took her way beyond the forest and into the village. Every window and door were locked, as the villagers tried to escape the cry. Her search took her to the O Brien’s house, where Hugh’s ashen face appeared at the window. Annie stood in the garden; Annie as beautiful as she had once been. The wind whipped her hair around her and carried her cries with it. Those who heard it would describe it as a keening, a ghostly lament for the dead.
Annie, Annie child,” Meg leant on the gatepost, her eyes blinded by tears.
“Do not come near me, Meg,” Annie sobbed, her cries rising and falling. “I am cursed to walk the earth until the end of his line.”
“I will find a way to help you, child,” Meg walked towards her. “Let me take you in my arms.”
“You cannot, Meg. You will die. I am death to all who touch me.” Annie floated towards the house and sat upon the windowsill.
Her crying continued unabated until dawn. Meg sat on the steps to the house praying and never taking her eyes from Annie’s face. The sounds she made were frightening, and Meg prayed, asking God for some relief for the child. Snow began to fall at first light. Soft flakes at first, but it soon came faster swirling about the village, covering everything.
“I have to go,” Annie called to Meg. “She is dead.”
“Where will you go?”
Annie’s eyes opened wide in terror. “I belong to the night. I lie shrouded in darkness. Help me, Meg.”
Sheets of snow blinded Meg, as she fought her way towards where Annie sat. But she was gone, fading into the air. The last thing Meg heard was her crying. “It is not fair; I am so frightened. Help me, Meg.”