I stare out of my window and watch the cold scene before me with wet eyes. I know none of the woman on the stand but one cannot help but shed a tear at the bedraggled and heartrending sight of them. All wearing rags that they cling to and hold to themselves, their faces are of those expecting a long and painful death.
I should look away but I cannot tear my gaze away from them. Altogether, there are six of them. I only vaguely know one. Serena Petaluma works at the bakery and does the frosting. She always smiles at me when I walk past her father’s store. I can see her father in the crowd; unable to tear his eyes away from hers.
She stares at him with eyes that are blank and unseeing; she looks lost to the world.
“We stand here today!” bellows Father David, “For the unholy purpose of ridding our world of these evil beings! These here women have been accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by means of being burnt at the stake. We hope only that the fires will burn away their evil and renew us all,” then he smiles and looks over at the ladies on the stand.
A young girl in the crowd is crying and the tallest of the women on the stand starts to silently cry. “Mummy!” screams the child. “Mummy, don’t stay up there! You aren’t a witch, mummy! You can get down!”
My breath catches and I clear my throat, feeling ill to the stomach. “Do any of you wish to confess to your sins?” inquires Father David with a raise of his eye brow. “For only then, will God save your souls and renew you.”
The quivering girl in the middle of them collapses and begins sobbing. “I’m a witch!” she cries. “I confess to it, I am a witch!”
Her sobs darken the morning and I flinch inwardly. My house is next to the bridge and the town square; I have seen this all before. “Then God will spare your soul,” smiles Father David, taking her hand and leading her to the stake.
“Can you unbind me?” she begs. “I confessed, I am free now.”
“You will be free in heaven,” Father David promises her, pinning her savagely to the stake.
Her scream rings through me and I feel like throwing up. “Catherine!” screams a woman with wild red hair from the crowd. “No, don’t light that, Father. She’s innocent, she’s not a witch!”
Father David strikes a match as Father Thomas binds Catherine’s hands behind her back. Her hands are shaking and her screams are becoming shriller and louder now. Everyone looks away once Father David has set the bonfire beneath Catherine alight.
I can’t take this anymore and I run from the house, her terrified screams still lingering inside me. My breaths are haggard and I feel lightheaded and faint. There is no running from them though. They are chasing me. They grab my arm and turn me around. It is Sister Georgia. “Why are you running, girl?” she asks in a hard voice.
Tears blur my vision and I wipe them away. My voice shakes as I answer her. “I can’t stay and watch! I can’t sit by while all of those people die!”
I am overcome by sobbing and I want Sister Georgia to go away and let me cry my soul out. Her grip on my arm tightens though and she raises an eyebrow. “Look Paige, they are not people. They are witches and they are evil.”
“What if they were good witches?” I ask her in a low, outraged voice.
I know that saying this is forbidden but I am a wreck and it slips out in my anger. Sister Georgia’s eyes widen and she whacks me across my cheeks, hard enough to draw blood. I bite my lip. “There are no white witches,” she hisses at me. “All witchcraft is evil.”
I stare at the ground. “I will go and clean myself up,” I say quietly.
Without turning, I know that she is watching me closely as I walk away.
Tears of helplessness make their way down my ruddy cheeks silently, as I make my way home. My father stands in the front row of the crowd and angry, blameful profanities stream from his lips. “Die!” he screams at the girl on the stake.
Two clerics are rushing to hold the little girl I’d noticed before back from the stake. “MUMMY!” she shrieks. “NO! MUMMY PLEASE!”
I grit my teeth fiercely and wipe away my tears with my satin sleeve. Whatever is left of the lady tied to the stake is no longer screaming and Father David leads the remainder of women on the stand away. I am fighting hard to keep back the tears now and my hands clench to keep it all in.
Father comes to join me and clamps a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t feel sorry for them, Paige. They deserve whatever fate they have brought among themselves. You have to remember that they are evil.”
My eyes remain glued to the floor and Father’s heavy sigh is full of disappointment. I look up at him with wide, red rimmed eyes. “I’m sorry, Father. Whoever they are, whatever they have done, I just can’t watch them die!”
His eyes soften. “You are only a child, but Paige, you do have to know how important and necessary this is. And tomorrow, I need you to go into the town market and get some more bread from Finley; you know him from church, remember?”
I nod and force a smile onto my pained face. It is almost hard to pull up the corners of my lips. Today isn’t a day for smiling.
The screams and cries of the families of the dead keep me up all night.
“So, I am to get rye, multi-grain or white?” I inquire softly, with a smiling glance in Father’s direction. “I know you prefer white but it is expensive.”
He gives a throaty chuckle and the floorboards creak as he walks past me, ruffling my hair fondly. “We can spare a few coins for some good quality bread. Maybe old Finley will give you a discount anyway.”
I remember Finley’s long, stern face from Sunday and I wince- I won’t be getting any discounts. I stand at the door and watch Father read his work over. “Do you ever feel bad about killing all of those… creatures?” I ask him tentatively.
His eyes flash up to mine and narrow. I hope I haven’t approached a testy subject for him. “I feel bad for killing them but I know that it is my duty and that it must be done,” he replies simply.
After bidding Father farewell and taking a long glance at the smouldering pile of ash and wood being collected, I head off for the market.
Walking the main road has always frightened me. All of the people seem too quick and stern faced. The streets are lined with grit and it seems too greasy. You can tell that you’re in the main part of town when you can see the scary, mean-looking men and women in the gutters that try and steal your money.
I got pick pocketed when I was ten; coming to the city with my father. He grabbed onto the boy’s sleeve and took all of the boy’s money. “You can go hungry tonight for all I care. Never steal from my family ever again.”
The boy’s eyes had followed the sack of coins as father took them. Father smiled back and I waved at him and he gave me a dirty look. Father being there had made me feel safe but now I am alone.
Thinking, I don’t see the girl in front of me. When I bump into her and cause her to spill all of her herbs I fumble in apologising and she just shoots me a dirty look. My shoulders slump as she walks dutifully off. This day just seems like an extremely disappointing one.
“Don’t mind her,” a voice says in a friendly tone from beside me.
I jump, turning to face the girl who spoke. She has long hair the colour of wet tree bark and eyes like the core of a flame. Beside her is a little girl with jagged cut, black bangs and heavily lashes eyes that look away from me shyly.
“Hello,” I smile in relief to find someone kindly and normal around here. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that I know you.”
She gives a soft laugh –exchanging a glance with her sister- as if she finds my remark humorous. “I’m Jazmyn and my little sister, Jamie, and I are only staying her momentarily. You wouldn’t have met either of us before.”
The town seems quieter now and I grin. “Well, I’m Paige and it’s nice to meet you.”
Jamie’s aqua eyes see something behind me that causes her to fling all three of us behind a stall. “Don’t move a muscle,” Jamie hisses in a voice so unalike the small, shy voice I have been
imagining coming from her. A strand of her hair flies into my face and I give a startled sneeze.
Suddenly, the crates of fresh food are being pulled out from in front of us and thrown carelessly away like nobody spent the year tending to them so they could be sold. “Stop that!” I command, my voice rising in helplessness and anger. “What are you doing? Those are prize stocks!”
The tough looking men don’t seem to hear me and Jamie is crying into her hands next to me. Jazmyn’s eyes look like the inside of a tomb. “Stop!” I scream. “You can’t just do that!”
Laughter rumbles inside the man’s chest who is standing closest to me. His hands are extended to catch me if I run. “You have no right to talk as if you belong with us, witches! Your opinion doesn’t matter to us.”
Suddenly, I recognise the men. They are my father’s closest friends; they are the priests and elders. “Father David,” I breathe in a whisper. “Father Thomas, Father Cedric? It’s me, Paige Herondale! You know that I’m not a witch.”
I register pain in the men’s eyes but they otherwise ignore me. Fear is rising inside of me and I clutch my arms around my chest. “What!”
Jazmyn puts a comforting hand on my arm and I see that her eyes are moist with unshed tears. She won’t cry in front of these people. “Jamie,” she hisses urgently. “Remember our plan.”
They both glance at me and I nod. They can leave me behind. Everyone else seems to have. “YOU CAN’T CAGE ME! I CAN STOP YOU!” screams Jazmyn suddenly, opening her mouth wide and her eyes are echoing with laughter. I stare at her in shock.
The three priests grab onto her and Jamie –sobbing hard- runs for it. This was their plan, I realise. Jazmyn would be left behind. But I knew better. The extra’s jump out and grab onto Jamie, throwing her to the ground. “Jamie!” Jazmyn screams in anguish, throwing her arms out as if to catch Jamie as she falls onto the hard ground, crying brokenly into the paved road.
The extra brawn they have brought with them are familiar. “Tony, Frederick!” I call out. “What are you doing? She isn’t even a grown girl. You’re hurting her!”
Tony looks up at me in surprise and his eyes go wide at the way I am in this picture. I am the hunted, not the bystander anymore. The change in the story is still new to me. “Paige,” he mouths in shocked silence.
They walk over to us and I realise that no one is holding onto me. I could run for it. But it still feels like I’d be running from my friends. “Paige,” Tony repeats, out loud this time. “What are you doing here? You aren’t a witch.”
I open my mouth to answer but a small, choked sound comes from inside me. “I don’t know,” I sob. “They just attacked these children and I wanted to help but I’m not a witch! You know I’m not a witch!”
Tony averts his eyes painfully and I stare at him in broken disbelief. “She’s been accused,” Father Thomas explains. “She’s guilty of being in the company of witches.”
“Help me!” I scream at everyone.
No one lifts a finger to save me.
© Copyright 2016 raven banks. All rights reserved.