"No! Ye shall not take her, not while I have life and breath!" Patience Young cried, clutching the unconscious woman to her bosom. In the dim firelight, Patience's eyes seemed to glow as scarlet as the gush of blood across the other woman's brow. She struggled to hoist the limp body further into her lap, and glared up at the men who had burst into her cottage. "Get thee hence, Fight-For-Thy-Faith Makepeace! There will be no witch-taking this night!"
The silhouette of a man loomed above her, his cloak wrapped tightly around a spare yet powerful frame. He stepped forward, his stride long, his footsteps made heavy with arrogance and a firmness of purpose that would not be denied by mere words. Behind him were other men, shifting uncomfortably in the crisp autumn breeze that poured through the open door. Some of their faces were made legible by the moonlight.
Patience knew all of these men; she had nursed them and their families through illnesses; she had set their broken bones, and delivered their wives of children. They depended on her wisdom and skill to heal their hurts, for their little village could not support a more learned doctor. Normally, her authority as a healer was enough to command respect, but not tonight. She could read the resolve on their faces, made thin and hard by the recent famine. When hunger clemmed men's bellies, and their ears were filled with the din of crying children, and they watched their women-folk suffer, then madness overruled sense. Led by Reverend Makepeace – a recent arrival but popular, with his religious speeches and fanatical attitude – the mob had come seeking a scapegoat.
They had come for her lover, Gracious Withycombe.
Makepeace shouted, "I accuse Gracious Withycombe, daughter of Temperance Withycombe, of consorting with Satan! Of the wicked, malicious and felonious practice of witchcraft, which has afflicted this village, and caused such suffering among the God-fearing community." He looked down his nose at her, and she saw the superior expression on his face soften a trifle. When he continued speaking, his tone was seductive, more beguiling. "Here, Mistress Young, we say nothing against you, no one wishes you harm. All know you are a charitable woman who does much good for her neighbors."
"Then get thee hence, an' thou lovest me and mine so much. Leave us be." Patience's voice cracked. Ever since the door had crashed open, and men had poured inside, and Grace had risen to defend but been struck down without ceremony, she had felt nothing but terror. Her heart beat a rapid tattoo, battering against her ribs until she could scarcely draw breath. Nevertheless, she held Grace tightly to her, and stared at Makepeace in defiance another moment before shifting her gaze to the men shuffling behind him.
"I see thee, Habakkuk Wilson! And thee, too, Wrestle-with-the-Devil Kane!" Patience cried. She used the long sleeve of her nightdress to blot the blood that seeped from Grace's head wound. The injury was deep, the edges of the cracked skull shifting ominously, but her hands moved with their own purpose, guided by the experience gained by a lifetime of other nights, and other wounds. Her searching fingers found a small jar that had fallen from a shelf when the mob burst inside; she removed the lid and rubbed cream into Grace's cut. "Dost not recall when thy good-wife labored near to death to deliver thy son, Master Cooper? Who was it saved both woman and child?"
The cooper – who was as fond of his stout wife and stout son as he was of the ale that often filled the barrels he made – had the grace to blush.
"What of thy smashed leg, Omphrey Shattuck? Aye, thee will limp for the rest of thy days, but when the festering ran deep, who was it stayed at thy side night and day, to see thee through to health once more?" Patience eyed another man, who was attempting to sidle out of the door unnoticed. "And thee, Adam Barebone! Dost recall thy son's fever? I see thee, too, Praise-That-I-Am-Delivered Girnwood!" Patience paused to draw a breath; unseen, her fingers pressed against Grace's neck, and felt the flutter of the other woman's pulse.
"I am certain, Mistress Young, that no man is ungrateful for your many kindnesses. Such remembrances are not to our purposes, however. Sentiment has no place when we must deliver ourselves from evil." Makepeace smiled, or rather, he stretched his lips and bared his teeth in what could never be mistaken for an expression of happiness. His tone firmed to granite, an unshakeable resolve. "Give us what we want. Give us the witch!"
"Then we shall take her!" Makepeace swooped down to snatch at Grace, and Patience cowered back, trying to twist her body around to shield her unconscious lover. The men came to help the reverend, emboldened by his example. At first, the villagers were gentle – no doubt remembering the debts they owed to the healer – but soon, their patience unraveled when she continued to resist. Grace was cruelly torn from her embrace, her grip loosened by blows from fist and foot. Patience was left bruised and broken, her lips bloody, one eye already swollen shut. As Grace was lifted and carried out of the cottage, Patience keened, a high wild skirling cry that turned every man who heard it to ice… save one.
Makepeace whirled about and delivered a vicious kick to Patience's side. "Silence!" he barked. "Silence, woman! We do God's work. You should not have interfered! Be grateful that we have delivered you from the witch's wiles."
Huddled on the floor, Patience glared at Makepeace. Pain stabbed at every inch of her body; cold chills wracked her frame, alternating with waves of heat that left her sweaty and gasping. "Let her go," Patience mumbled around broken teeth.
He sneered. It was clear that he enjoyed his triumph, now that potential witnesses were gone. "When Gracious Withycombe is dead – after a trial, of course - I expect you to behave with the humility most becoming a simple female. The town fathers have voted me the power of a Witch-Finder General, and I won't hesitate to accuse anyone I believe may have forsaken God, and given themselves to Satan and his minions. Do you understand, Mistress Young? Your friends, your family..." His voice trailed off suggestively.
She hung her head, shivering, and did not answer.
"There are tools that are useful to the art of witch-finding," Makepeace continued. For all his professed Christian faith, it seemed to Patience that the man was steeped in hidden vices, with naught but rotting evil at his core.
"The strappado, the thumbscrews, the infamous Boot that crushes the foot bones so thoroughly," he said, his eyes gleaming with something that was horribly akin to delight. Spittle flew with the force of his utterance. "The wheel, the Judas cradle, the flail and lash, the Heretic's fork, the Scold's Bridle that will stop up a blasphemous mouth with iron! Yes, with these instruments I will wring a confession from the accused, and lead them to repentance before they are condemned to be burnt, and carried to divine judgment on a pillar of smoke and flame."
"You are mad," Patience said, getting the words out past her agony.
His fist wound into her hair, forcing her head back. "No, I am the Angel of Death," Makepeace said. "And you will do well to remember that. God may have mercy… but I will not." He tightened his grip until she winced, then let her fall back to the floor.
The other men were gone from view, having marched back to the village square while carrying Gracious Withycombe's unconscious body down the moonlight-drenched path through the wood. Reverend Makepeace turned on his heel and walked out of the door, leaving Patience alone in the unbearable silence.
For a long time, Patience lay there, gathering her strength. The darkness of the night deepened, as did the shadows that lengthened within the cottage, now that no one tended the fire. Her only thought was Grace – her beautiful, kind, soft-spoken Grace who had never raised a hand in anger to a soul. For Makepeace to accuse Gracious Withycombe of consorting with dark powers---! The very idea was ludicrous.
Especially since it was Patience herself who was a witch, in an old, old sense of the term that predated Jesus the Nazarene and his followers.
Each breath caught in her side. Patience spat out a mouthful of blood. Slowly, painfully, she stood up. There was a small open jar at her feet; on the label was written ‘Poison' in spidery handwriting. She had done what she could to ensure that Grace would not suffer. Even before Makepeace had boasted of his torture implements, she had known what happened to women (and men) accused of witchcraft. Pardons were rare; conviction meant imprisonment, hanging, strangulation or burning – the punishment of the auto-de-fé given to heretics who spoke out or acted against the Church of Rome. Patience could not save Grace, therefore she had ensured that the woman she loved would not face death in agony. Gracious Withycombe would simply fail to wake up, and her soul would slip away.
If only matters had turned out differently… but no. There was no use wasting time on regrets and what-ifs. There was a final task left to her in this life. Slowly, painfully, Patience limped to the woodshed.
There was only one answer to Makepeace's insanity. Unchecked, he would be the ruination of this small corner of the world. The man was a devourer; his appetite for destruction, his greed and lust would not be sated until the land itself had been sucked dry.
Patience muttered while blood – black as ink, in the pale and watery illumination - dribbled down her chin, and dripped on the front of her nightdress. Arcane words spilled over her lips while she slowly, painfully found what was needed..
Moonlight gleamed on the golden serpent ring that Patience wore on her left hand. The silvery luminescence rippled on the edge of the ax held high, drawing blue from the well-sharpened steel. Patience smiled; the jagged stumps of her teeth were wet with blood.
"Grace," she whispered.
The ax flashed down.
There was no tavern within the boundaries of New Jericho. The godly folk would never have permitted such a den of iniquity to be built in their very midst. However, the village was not entirely isolated from the world; there was a need for merchants and traders to bring things which the people could not manufacture themselves. These strangers could not be expected to live up to high Christian standards, therefore they were banished to the tavern once their business was concluded. It was a satisfactory solution, especially for the merchants who despised the dour, religious villagers of New Jericho, even as they traded with them.
"'Tis a bad year, eh?" said Ezra Lathrop, one of the most successful merchants. He grimaced and took another swallow of ale, wrinkling his nose further at the bitter tang of the home brew. "Famine and hunger, aye… and curious the other villages hereabouts bain't had no trouble in that line at all." He eyed the other man, and twisted his mouth into a lopsided grin.
His table-mate was none other then Fight-for-Thy-Faith Makepeace. The reverend wore a hooded cloak, but he was known by the tavern-keeper as a regular customer, albeit it a discreet one. "That's no concern of yours, Lathrop," he said sourly.
"My concern?" Lathrop said, slamming his tankard onto the table. Ale slopped over his fingers. "B'God, this plan of your'n had better work, for I'm out of pocket as ‘tis."
Makepeace shook his head and hissed, "Silence, you fool! Or do you wish to broadcast our arrangement to the entire tavern?" Beneath the shadowing hood, his eyes glittered with malice. "I told you, Lathrop, a plan such as this takes time. First, a disaster to leave them helpless. That's been accomplished by the death of their crops in the fields. Hunger and desperation addles a man's wits, as well you know."
Lathrop nodded, tracing circles in the spilled ale on the scarred table-top.
"Next, finding a scapegoat to blame for all the troubles. I had a ripe young maid to accuse of witchcraft, but she died too soon. Cheated, b'God!" Makepeace beckoned to the serving girl to bring him a tarred horn of ale. "Yet I'll have another witch come the morrow, so all's not lost," he continued. "Four or five burnings, and the rest of the village will fall into line. They'll pay any price to be saved from the Devil, which they fear more than hunger!"
He and Lathrop shared a chuckle over the folly of their fellow men.
"Once I've taken what New Jericho has to give, I'll move on to the next village," Makepeace said, raising his voice to be heard over several drunken guardsmen at the next table, who were trying to sing an off-key ballad. "This is a wondrous scheme, Lathrop, and the true beauty is that there'll be no mob to drive me off on account of being gulled. They'll get good value for their valuables, for who'd complain of free public executions?"
"Don't forget our agreement, eh, m'boy?" Lathrop winked. On his fat red face, the expression was disagreeable. "The dirt-eaters are cash poor, but land rich. I've always fancied myself a lord of the manor, with plenty of tenant farmers to do the hard scratching, and me to take my share of the harvest as I fancy."
Makepeace's lip curled in disdain, but he said, "Of course, my friend. You'll be richly rewarded for your part. Now, did you bring that apothecary's powder?"
Lathrop slid an packet made of oiled paper across the table. "What does it do?"
"Makes cows go dry," Makepeace said. "The ‘pothecary also made the poison to kill the crops. I'll need you to obtain another powder from him before you return in the Spring – something to taint the village well, to simulate a putrid fever."
"Done, though the man demands gold for his work."
Apparently satisfied, Makepeace drained his horn of ale. "I'm for bed, Lathrop." He stood, and grabbed the serving girl's wrist, making her squeal. A few coins tossed in the landlord's direction closed her mouth, particularly when one of those coins found its way down her ample bosom. Makepeace took the stairs to the bedchambers two at a time, dragging the girl behind him. The door of his room shut with a loud bang.
Lathrop finished his ale, and signaled for another.
He did not like Makepeace, but b'God, the fellow was devilishly clever, indeed.
The front door opened, letting in a gust of air, a swirl of dead leaves, and a spill of moonlight on the sawdust-strewn floor.
Ezra Lathrop had gone to bed, only to discover that an annoying moonbeam was slipping through a crack in the shutters, bathing his face when his head touched the pillow. Mindful that moonlight caused lunacy, he stuffed a rag into the hole. In the dark, he groped his way back to the bed, cursing when he barked his shin on a nearby table. At last, Lathrop pulled the threadbare blanket to his chin, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
He had no idea of the time when he awakened, and lay in bed, listening. His heartbeat quickened. With the shutters fastened, the darkness was absolute. Lathrop heard a faint scratching, as if a cat was trying to climb up the tavern's outside wall. A few moments later, there came a fumbling at the shutters. Thief! His pulse was a veritable roar in his ears. Lathrop was no coward; fat and occasionally foolish, yes, but no merchant who faced the threat of bandits and robbers every day during a trading journey could afford to cower in fear.
With care, moving as silently as he could, Lathrop reached for the sword in its scabbard on the bed, where it lay next to him. His fingers closed upon the familiar hilt, roughened and wrapped in a spiral coil of metal to aid his grip. Biting his lower lip, he tugged the sword free, and eased himself upright, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. The floor was cold, and made his toes ache.
The noise at the shutters grew a bit louder. He supposed the thief was having trouble with the latch. Lathrop ran his free hand over his face; the room was stuffy, and his skin was covered in an unpleasant layer of greasy sweat. Again, he heard the rattle of the shutters. Had he been deeply asleep, he supposed the noise would not have been sufficient to wake him, but Lathrop always slept lightly on the road.
Reaching the window, he braced himself, then reached for the latch. One… two… three… Lathrop unhooked the latch and threw the shutters wide, simultaneously lunging with his sword to catch the thief upon its needle-sharp point.
There was no one there.
Cautiously, Lathrop went to the open window. Outside, the night sky was livened by the first dusky streaks of the slow approaching dawn. The world slept still, and the late moon hovered above the western horizon – a milky opal hazed in mist, and set among a subdued glitter of stars. The wind smelled of decaying leaves, and the chill cut him to the bone. Lathrop shivered, and leaned out over the sill. Looking down, he saw nothing in the courtyard except a sleepy pot boy, hastening to the well with a bucket. The windlass creaked, and was answered by the hoot of a hunting owl.
The room next to his had the shutters thrown wide open. Lathrop wondered at this carelessness. The temperature was too cold for comfort, and it was well known that the night air carried strange fevers and malaises, then he bethought himself of the noises he had heard. He scratched his head, fingernails scritching at the dried sweat on his scalp. Lathrop considered if he ought to warn the occupant of the next room about the thief he had heard on the wall, and decided it was the other fellow's problem. Why risk his skin for a stranger?
It was not until he had returned to the bed that Lathrop remembered.
Makepeace was in the next room, sleeping with his hired girl.
In an instant, the rotund merchant was across the room and at the door, moving with a speed that belied his bulk. The corridor was empty; a single taper burned in a sconce on the wall. Lathrop crossed to Makepeace's room and tried the doorknob. It was not locked. For the space of a single heartbeat, he debated the manner of his entrance – bold, to startle the would-be thief, or with quiet cunning, to catch him unawares. Lathrop decided that boldness would serve best, and flung open the chamber door.
His gaze was first drawn to the window, where moonlight poured in to cast a sickly, pallid illumination over the room. The light also fell upon the sleeping form of Makepeace, tangled naked in the bed linens; the girl was nowhere to be seen. Lathrop caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned his head to regard the window once more, drawing breath to shout a threat at the intruder.
What he saw made his tongue wither, and cleave to the roof of his mouth.
What seemed like a large white spider squatted on the sill; its flesh was waxy and unwholesome. It left a black stain behind when it dropped off the sill and crawled towards the bed where Makepeace slept unawares. The thing moved in a strange clumsy manner on legs that were too thick, almost too feeble to drag its weight along the floor. When the spider reached the bed, it climbed up the post and hung above Makepeace, half-hidden in the shadows and the hangings, pausing as though exhausted by its awkward journey.
A ripple of dawn broke over the horizon, pink and gold against the dusky purple.
The spider tensed.
Lathrop found his voice and shouted a warning, lurching forward with his sword outstretched to pin the monstrous thing if he could.
Makepeace's eyes flashed open. Black foulness from the thing pattered on his face. He glanced up and a terrible scream broke from his lips, filled with horror and loathing. The spider dropped, landing full upon his neck. Makepeace's scream was cut off in mid-utterance. The sudden silence was stunning. Even as Lathrop stepped towards the bed, he saw that the spider had tightened its legs around Makepeace's throat; there were ripples flowing across the oddly shaped abdomen that spoke eloquently of tension and inhuman effort. The man's face had turned magenta. Tears flowed down Makepeace's cheeks. His heels drummed the flock-stuffed mattress, and his fingers tore at the spider without affecting its unnatural grip.
Mastering his revulsion, Lathrop reached out to pluck the thing off when a long, gurgling rattle burst from Makepeace's mouth, and his body went lax, his head lolling against the pillow. He was clearly dead. The instant the life fled from him, the spider fell away and lay limp among the bedclothes, its legs curled.
Lathrop prodded at the spider with the tip of his sword. It was flaccid and lifeless, and appeared to be as dead as poor Makepeace. He spitted it, and brought the thing out into the moonlight to have a better look at the creature that had strangled a grown man, perishing itself in the effort. He squinted at it. There was a strange yellow strip banding one of the legs…
He yelled and threw the thing away from him, for what had scratched at the shutters, crept across the floor, and killed Fight-for-thy-Faith Makepeace was a human hand!
The tavern's landlord appeared in the doorway; his bandy legs protruding naked from the bottom of his nightshirt. He held a flintlock hunting rifle, and cried "What this, then?" as his terrified gaze fell upon the bed, where the grisly spectacle of Makepeace could be seen drenched in moonbeams, his limbs a-sprawl and his glazed eyes rolled back to show the bloodshot whites. Then the landlord caught sight of the floor where the hand lay, and his face went pale as milk. He reeled, and came further into the room, sinking onto a stool.
Lathrop knelt and examined the hand, although he did not like to touch it.
It was a woman's left hand, callused from a lifetime of labor. The hand had been cut off at the wrist, and the wound was still fresh enough to leave a blood trail. A curious gold ring in the shape of a coiling serpent glinted on the third finger. The serpent's eyes were ruby chips, and Lathrop could have sworn there was an alien intelligence in the wine-red depths.
He shuddered, and turned away.
"P-p-please, milord…" the landlord stammered. "There be a fire in the tap-room." After a moment, when Lathrop did not respond, the man repeated, "Milord?"
"Take it," Lathrop rasped through a throat gone tight with remembered horror. "Take it and burn the God-forsaken thing."
The landlord stooped to remove the hand, and stopped, his eyes bulging. "Here now! This be Mistress Young's ring!"
"Aye, the healer hereabouts. Patience Young. She shared a cottage with Gracious Withycombe… her what died this night on account of bein' accused of witchery and the like, or so I've heard it said."
Lathrop recalled that Makepeace had said something about being cheated of his prey. A dim picture rose unbidden in his mind – the healer's severed hand crawling upon its fingers like a great pallid spider, blindly groping through the dark wood, guided by God knew what strength of will to scale the tavern wall and fumble open the shutters. He recoiled from the rest; the vision of Makepeace's horrific end was too freshly seared into his waking mind.
In the wan moonlight, in the cool autumn breeze, Lathrop fancied he heard a woman's voice whispering, "Grace."
But it was nothing more than a will-o'-the-wisp, and he got to his feet, wishing desperately for a drink.
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