“Burn in Hell!”
“Think of the children!”
Insults raged from all sides of the circle as the young woman huddled in rags in the centre of the mob. Women, holding children to their breasts, screamed and spat while men pounded pitchforks on the village centre’s flagstones.
“What on God’s green earth is happening here?” a voice boomed across the baying crowd followed instantly by silence. Only the wind blowing through the trees and the soft whimper coming from the rags could be heard. Heads turned to observe the newcomer slowly edging a horse forward. Tall and imposing with a dark overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat.
“Milord, we ‘ave captured this witch,” spoke a man, the village mayor.
“I received your message,” the stranger replied, pushing his horse through the crowd.
Then, he spoke in a voice that carried across the square. “My name is Daniel English, and I am the Witchfinder General.”
“Very good, milord,” the Mayor said. “You must be here to oversee the trial.”
“I do not see a trial, just a rabble of villagers baying for blood,” the Witchfinder spat with contempt. “First, tell me about the witch and her crimes.”
“Milord, her name is Atty Eve. She has lived in the village for eight years, we took her in as a child after we found her wandering in the woods,” the Mayor explained. “She has been filling the children’s minds with stories, leading them away from salvation. Our Reverend has witnessed the children utter words in a weird tongue and shake uncontrollably since talking to Mistress Eve.”
“Mister Williams, lift the accused. I wish to see her.”
A man stepped forward from behind the horse, pulling the woman to her feet; he brushed the long matted hair from her face. She stared defiantly at the Witchfinder.
“I must speak with the accusers first,” he said. Two boys and an older girl stepped forward.
“What are your names?”
“If it pleases milord I am Ashley McKenna,” the golden-haired teenager spoke first.
“I am Laurence Bastwick,” a dark-haired ten-year-old mumbled next looking towards the ground.
“My name is Robert Houghton,” the shy eight year old finally replied.
“I wish for you to tell me your story,” English commanded.
“Milord, Laurence, Robert and I all enjoy playing in the woods. Several weeks ago, we found Mistress Eve’s home. She looked so pretty, and her son was sat on the stoop, singing like an angel.” Ashley replied.
“Where is her son now?” the Witchfinder demanded.
“He is almost a man, and ran as soon as the village men came close to the home.” The Mayor said.
“We shall capture him after we finish this trial,” the Witchfinder replied, “Please, continue.”
“Milord, we approached the house and were met by the lovely smells of herbs. Mistress Eve began to tell us stories from Malleus Maleficarum, dancing with the Devil while denouncing the one true God. We began to dance and I felt funny like she had put a spell on me. The boys took off their clothes, acting like wild animals,” the teenager paused as the two younger boys looked sheepishly at the floor, “I danced unnaturally with the witch’s son.”
“How did you come to escape?” English asked.
“We woke up the next morning, in a clearing a little way into the wood,” Ashley replied, staring at her feet.
“Lies!” Atty Eve spat. “Those little toads mocked my son, and then this harlot tried to seduce him. He ignored her, and she ran off.”
“Shut your mouth, witch,” Williams backhanded her.
“If all you have said is true, then she is truly a witch, but she must endure the Trials to prove her innocence.”
Atty cried out in fear as Williams picked her up from the floor, throwing her over his shoulder. The mob all followed to the fast-flowing River Ouse.
“First is the trial by water, if she is innocent of all crimes, then she shall sink to the bottom and be met at the gates of Heaven by Jesus; if she is in league with the Devil, water spirits shall push her to the surface,” Witchfinder English announced to the villagers.
Before the brackish water, stood a wooden platform with one end anchored to the ground and a long limb reaching over the water dangling a rope. Attached to the cord was a chair. Williams and the villagers bound Atty Eve’s hands tightly as she watched them, subdued. Men from the village lifted her body. Placing her on the chair and letting it swing out across the water. The only sound was the creaking of the rope as the crowd fell into a hushed silence.
“Lower her down,” the Witchfinder commanded.
The pair released the rope that was wound tightly, lowering her into the water. Slowly, the water lapped up across the wooden chair, over the rags she was wearing, and into her lap, startling the young woman. She hissed with the coldness of the water as it went over her belly, chest, then finally lapped at her chin. Screaming wildly, she tried to lift her head from the water, but it slipped over her mouth. She stared once more into the eyes of the villagers, then her head went under. The crowd let out a sigh as the seaweed-like hair disappeared. Minutes passed, and the Reverend stepped forward.
“She has gone to God now. He is opening his arms to welcome a new angel into his fold.”
No sooner had he finished when the young woman emerged, very wet, but still alive.
“The Devil hath protected her,” a woman cried.
Williams and the villager dragged her from the chair, as she coughed up black water, and hauled her in front of the Witchfinder.
“With God as our witness, we gave you a fair trial to prove you were innocent, but sometimes the Devil’s hands can be strong,” he intoned. “Now, we know Atty Eve is guilty. She must be hanged before the church.”
A horse was brought forward, and the Witch was thrown over its back like a sack of potatoes as everyone moved towards the small stone church, which lay in the centre of the village. Some say the church was built when Jesus was born; others say the Romans built it. In the square beyond the church was a small fountain with a hastily erected structure to house the noose used for heretics and witches. Though this structure had seen no use, local militia had insisted upon it being built. Atty looked upon the structure with a degree of fear; two thick beams had been buried into the ground, and a third lay atop them.
“Do you have anything to say before you are hanged, Mistress Eve?” the Witchfinder asked.
“I am innocent. That young lady tried to seduce my son, who in turn ignored her,” Atty Eve said loudly over the other voices.
“Lies!” Ashley shouted.
“You shall join the Devil in Hell,” voices no longer separate but as one chanted at her.
“You have failed the trial by water. Therefore, you shall be hanged. May God have mercy on your soul!”
Williams stepped forward carrying a noose fitting it tightly around the neck of the bound woman. Atty choked briefly, then let out a deep breath as he picked her up, throwing her over his shoulder. The villager placed a roughhewn ladder against the structure and Williams began to climb. Reaching the top, he took the other end of the rope and tied it securely around the beam. Without ceremony, he grabbed Atty and threw her away from him. The rope snapped taut, strangling the supposed Witch. The crowd watched fascinated, seeing a hanging for the first time. She dangled her legs, jerking like a puppet on a string.
Some would say later, they heard the soft pluck of a bow or saw the arrow that caused it. Days later, the Witchfinder found the arrow, but by then rumours had already grown that the Devil had saved the Witch himself. The rope snapped, causing her to crash to the ground gasping for breath, and for the second time, alive after a trial.
“The Devil is strong with this one,” the Witchfinder said with glee, knowing this Witch would be his crowning glory. “If she cannot be drowned and she cannot be hung, there is one way to kill a witch — by fire!”
Villagers were sent out to gather wood as darkness began to descend on the village. While the villagers worked installing a large stake into the ground, the Witchfinder watched impassively, his face shadowed by his hat.
“The Devil is at work tonight.”
The Reverend stood next to the rider, indicating the moon, which was blood red.
“Indeed, he is.”
“Have you met many witches, milord?”
“Yes, they are dastardly and devious,” the Witchfinder returned.
He went quiet as the last villager came forward and placed a bundle of sticks at the base of the stake. Atty Eve was bought forward and tied to the stake.
“Tonight is your hour of deliverance; confess your sins, and God may yet help you in the afterlife.”
“I have nothing to confess, my lord. I am innocent, but tonight innocent blood shall be spilt, and I shall have my retribution in the next life. Ashley McKenna, Laurence Bastwick and Robert Houghton, your souls will be mine,” she cackled with laughter.
The villagers screamed. Williams stepped forward and placed his torch to the wood. Instantly, crackling could be heard and whoosh the wood began to flame snaking towards the sky.
The flames seemed to move slowly at first, but then they began to lick at Atty’s feet. She began to scream from the pain and the heat. The flames got higher. Now capturing her rags and scorching her body. Not one of the villagers would forget the screams like the pained howls of a wolf or some unnatural creature. Time seemed to accelerate, and the screams cut off as the woman died.
“My work here is done,” the Witchfinder said and turned his horse away.
The Reverend blinked. He would later say it was a trick of the light, but he swore by the Lord Jesus, that he had seen the Witchfinder’s eyes glow like the dying embers of red coal. The Reverend shuddered, and the Witchfinder rode into the forest, leaving the village behind. Some distance into the woods, he stopped and looked out.
“Do not worry child. I knew your mother,” he said softly and the sixteen-year-old son of Atty Eve came into the light of the torch Williams held.
“You are the Witchfinder General,” he said loudly.
“Hardly, but those simple villagers will believe anything.”
“Who are you?” the boy asked.
“A friend of your mothers, she is now in my residence,” the man said, taking off his hat. His face was made of pure shadow and where his eyes should be, were glowing red spots. He offered the boy his hand.
“Take my hand and join me.”
“You are the Devil!”