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Old Style Witch Burning
I was just beginning to wake up, or resurface from unconsciousness, enough to feel the ache in the back of my skull. Enough to recall that I had been minding my own business when someone had cracked me over the head. Well, so I could only assume, since all I remember was a sharp pain and falling, in that order.
John was going to be in a foul mood if anything happened to me, or more specifically my hands since I was a harpist. I was the Harpist and we were a rare breed. I rather hoped rare enough that he would exert just a little effort in helping with whatever situation I had stumbled into. It was all about protecting the hands, and the harp. Okay, for me, it was all about getting out alive.
I flexed my fingers tentatively and they moved, which was good, but I could not raise my arms, which, I was thinking, was so bad. I cracked my eyes open a thin slit. I had the thought some burglar had robbed me of my nights pay and then one of the troupe had found me and lugged me back to the Inn. Unfortunately, I was not in my room at the Inn, unless it had a gloomy dungeon to stash guests who had not paid for their stay. And I was tied to a bed in the middle of the cell. I shifted a bit and then decided it was more like a slab of stone rather than a bed. There was some light coming in through a window above me, but otherwise, a true dungeon; damp and dark. There was a reason dungeons were made so and it had more to do with stashing people out of sight and the unpleasant smell people tended to create, rather than the intimidation factor. But, nonetheless, the intimidation factor could not be underestimated.
I wracked my brain trying to think if I had done anything illegal. New countries, new cities, and I always had to watch myself because of some obscure law, some firmly established precedent or even simply a widely held belief. Since I traveled with a troupe of musicians we generally did not do anything on the wrong side of the law, although sometimes we were lumped in the ’riffraff’ class and treated as such. There was a time in Macabar that we had sung a rowdy song about their lecherous and lush of a king which had landed us with a fine and a night in jail. I ran over the night's playlist, but all I had done were two ballads about lost love and lovers who end up dying for their love. Sad, melancholy, even depressing, but not worthy of being thrown in jail.
Hours later I began wondering how I was going to go to the bathroom or if I should just let it go. The dilemma was put off by someone opening the door. I lifted my head, wincing at the pain arching through my skull and saw three blurry men holding lanterns. I lowered my head slowly and blinked a few times. They came over to me, looming over me with intent expressions. Almost hateful expressions. I began to get the feeling this not about playing the wrong song, or public drunkenness or anything on the petty crime level. I was a little puzzled because generally, people said I was elegant, pleasant and mostly easy to get along with. Certainly, I found it hard to believe I had made such a negative effect on people I do not recall even meeting.
One of the men was a captain of the guard, dressed sharply in a navy blue uniform, hands clasped behind his back and a stern expression. He stood at the foot of my slab. To the right was a man garbed in a purple robe, which did little to flatter his large flabby frame and balding head. To the left was a scribe, holding parchment secured to a wooden board with a little ink dipper attached.
“Let it be noted that we are starting the interview with the accused at half past noon,” the robed figure announced. “Present are Captain Johnston, an authorized scribe and myself, Bishop Lathern.”
“What have I been accused of?” I asked and was rudely ignored.
“The accused is roughly twenty years of age,” the Bishop continued.
“Interviews indicate she is unmarried.”
“Not a crime, I would say.”
He leaned over me, then gripped my jaw to turn my face so he could inspect me from any angle and in the process jostling my head enough that I felt like vomiting. “The accused has one light blue eye and one hazel, a clearing marking of a witch. The inspection done by Sister Havana earlier did not indicate any further markings.”
I was momentarily outraged that someone, even a woman, had inspected me for anything while I was unconscious. Then the word sank in. Witch. God damn it. If I had done a crime, that I could find some reasoning for, even if it was a blatant lie or a vague rationalization. But the declaration of being a witch, in some parts of the universe, was based on tricky invisible facts. Hard to argue invisible facts. “Wait a minute. Witch? I am not a witch,” I declared, trying to sound outraged at the mere suggestion.
“You have been accused as a witch,” Captain Johnston said firmly, as though accused and convicted were different things, which in these cases they were not. After all, I had heard of cases where they threw so-called witches into a lake and if the drowned, they were not a witch, but if they floated they were and they would be promptly executed. They assumed if you died and you were not a witch then you would go to some warm, fluffy heaven like place. I, on the other hand, looked at the facts which clearly demonstrated dead is dead.
“Just wait a moment. You can’t just accuse someone of being a witch without evidence,” I said. In my travels, I had encountered many superstitions and odd beliefs, unfortunately, the worst were the ones encouraged by religion. I suspected the fact I merited a Bishop was a bad sign.
“We have evidence, trust me on that,” Bishop Lathern said. And that could mean anything. That I had looked at someone funny and then their chicken died two days later. That some married fellow had lustful thoughts about me and then in a fit of guilt accused me of inducing such thoughts of adultery. The list of possible scenarios was endless. When bad things happened, blame the closest woman.
“I think you are mistaken. Witches are ugly because the evil within them manifests on the outside. I know enough songs about them to be certain on this fact,” I said.
“Yes, it can be so. But evil is also beautiful, to seduce others to the devil,” the Bishop said.
I tried to shift away from the man. “I’m not seducing anything. Got that? No seducing going on here.”
He sighed, seeming to pity me immensely while at the same time implying he would never fall for the seductions of a witch. “This would be easier on you if you would confess and repent your evil deeds.”
I contemplated that for a moment. Wrongful confessions did not bother me any. I was more than willing to confess anything to save myself even the most minor of discomforts. Truth was for people with principles. To me it was relative. I would swear to the Almighty, whichever they believed in, that I danced naked in the moonlight with faeries and squirrels if it earned me my freedom. “And if I did?”
“Then we forego the trial and offer you a quick execution, but most importantly your soul will go to heaven.”
“Ahh. And if I do not confess?”
“Then we will have the trial, but with the evidence, I believe you will be found guilty. You will be burned at the stake and rot in hell for all eternity.”
“I see,” I said slowly. “Get a lot of witches in these parts, do you?”
“These are dark times. Many women have been seduced by the devil. Whether it be an old woman with the evil eye or a young woman seducing others’ husbands, many have made deals with the devil.”
Obviously, they had not made good deals. I would have thought a contract deal sealer would not be dying at the hands of a mob. The lesson here was don’t make deals with the devil unless you know how to create a well-structured contract.
“Well then, firstly, I seduced no one. Secondly, I do not have the evil eye, just mismatched ones.”
“A mark of the devil,” the Bishop insisted.
I scanned over his pasty skin, the slight glean of sweat on his forehead and most of all the brightness of his sparkling blue eyes. The very intensity of them, this sort of dazzling smoky sapphire made you pay attention to him and was his best feature. This man was either on some sort of drug, for that extra shiny eye polish, or the thought of persecuting women and stamping out anything that might be construed as sinful was something he sinfully enjoyed. He probably spent a great deal of time contemplating the sins of women. Twisted bastard. “Sometimes a mole is just a mole,” I said.
“Do you have a mole?” he asked, his eyes jerking down my body as though to pierce my clothing.
“No! I’m just saying, physical flaws don’t mean anything in particular.” Again, I was thinking if you were making a deal with the devil anyway, you might want to add in a good looking clause, just so warts, moles and other disfigurations did not illuminate others to your devilish pact.
“They are helpful signs. Not necessary, but valuable evidence. The devil likes to mark his own, and your eyes suggest you have been marked from birth,” the Bishop said.
Had I been ’marked’ as a witch from the moment I entered town? If I had, I obviously had no sense of it. Not that we had been in town long. We had not even the time to get a sense of the place yet.
“I can see you are not willing to confess your deeds.” He gestured to the captain. “Have her brought upstairs and the judges ready. We must have this finished before night falls and she gains her strength.”
I was assuming he meant some sort of devil related super mystical strength, which unfortunately I lacked. If I could summon the devil and make a pact with him I would certainly do so before nightfall. Although, I was not certain how I would call up the personified version of evil and why it would give a damn, except maybe to eat my soul and laugh hysterically at my stupidity. Damned devil was probably laughing his ass off right now.
The Bishop and the scribe left me alone with the captain. His stoic expression melted slightly. “It would have been better had you confessed,” he said.
“Actually from the sounds of it, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. Dead is dead. If there is an afterlife, that is where the difference would be.”
He gave me a disapproving frown. “You don’t believe in heaven and hell?”
“I suppose my reasoning abilities do not allow for faith in it, only for the possibility of it. However, in your eyes, I’m thinking speculating about the subject is hearsay, so if I die, hell would be where I end up.”
He began to untie my wrists. “The devil is a subtle creature. It has seeped into this city, no matter how many witches are found out and killed. Anyone can be tempted by his lies. Your so-called reasoning is just a trick of the devil to twist your mind against true faith. It must be stamped out before it spreads, you understand? We have witness accounts that would make even you scream out in horror. People have seen things, people have been tormented in their dreams. Good folk are panicking.”
I was not feeling sympathetic for the irrational purge. I had seen many good folk panicking over many things. Made them see things that were not there; fertile ground for the imagination. Unfortunately, I was the random ‘stranger’ to be targeted in hopes of appeasing the paranoid masses. As he undid my legs I rubbed my wrists and said, “Maybe you should just kill off all the women and save yourselves the trouble. Just to be sure and all.”
When I was free I slid to the ground, gripping the slab as I felt lightheaded. As I tentatively explored the back of my head he said, “It is known that women are more susceptible to the devil’s charms.” He came up to me, grabbed the hair at the base of my neck and tugged me close. “I know you are tempting me with your charms and what you offer.”
My heart thudded in my chest at the implied threat, but could not muster up any fear. I was far too analytical to be afraid, even when I ought to be. “I’m afraid lust is a sin you suffer from, not I,” I said.
He stiffened and then pushed me away. “I will not let the devil take my soul for such temporary satisfaction.”
I said nothing, offering a glaring silence. I was in a preconscious position, surrounding by irrational people. Irrational people more than willing to rationalize horrible actions.
He escorted me out of the cell and into a larger cell where they had the other accused. I was left there to wait my turn. John was going to kill me when he found where I had found myself. He was always lecturing on different cultures, as it was part of the job. I don’t seem to recall him mentioning the place had been consumed with witch hunt fever and that is something that would have been valuable news to me. I knew about the whole mismatched eye thing. Maybe there was even some truth to it. Most claimed those with different eyes were more in tune with the spiritual. Apparently, these guys thought the opposite.
My fellow accused were down in spirits. Some of them looked like they had been beaten, or worse, to gain their confessions. And most had. I was not surprised. It was a mixture of young women and elderly women. For some reason, people were freaked out by elderly women. They were always the first target. As if they spent their time making fresh cookies and bread to lure small children into their lair. Not a one was a witch, and I ought to know. No, they were just frightened commoners, who had likely been fingered by other frightened neighbors or for spite. They tried to comfort themselves, those on trial, as opposed to those that had confessed. They truly believed in religion and demons and devils, and so thought no one would honestly think they were consorting with such evil.
There was a whole lot of praying. Except in the land of Rytha, or Rycho-something, I had never seen prayer have an effect. You needed to have something answer the prayer and there was not always anyone there to do so. Certainly, in these parts, I found it hard to believe a benevolent being, god, demi-god or even randomly nice fairies were anywhere to be found. Now, in my land we had numerous demi-gods and depending on who worshiped them some grew in strength, which fluctuated over time, making demi-god competitiveness high. They liked a good tune. It was the only way to get anything from them. I guess that made me a priestess. One’s priestess was another’s witch. I would have offered one of my prayers, but John said I should not do such things, not in other landscapes, other spheres of influence. He called it interfering or maybe he thought it was rude.
I leaned against the wall and sighed. The other accused had been imprisoned for days or weeks, had not seen their families, and looked ill fed and ill kept. Although it was a dungeon and I expected prisoner care was not indulged in. Even so, I suspected from the appearance of them all, they were lower class working people. That is one thing John had told me coming in. In this society, the wealthy were often overweight, as it was a sign of affluence, middle-class looked well-fed because they were, and the rest, well most people would starve on what they ate. Religion had a fine way of distracting people from the important things, after all, it was their eternal soul at risk and it did not matter how crappy their lives were because it would be worth in the end. That also seemed like a poorly constructed contract, a whole lot of working for little or no pay for the potential of a heavenly afterlife. And what if the end was crappy too, you just could never tell. Death is the great Unknown everybody feared, and so made happy stories about paradises they would go to. I was not ready to meet that great Unknown, because I thought it might not meet up to its expectations.
I hated dealing with religion, but it was part of my job description. So really this was all John’s fault. I suspect I would be having some intense chest clenching anxiety right about now if I did not know John so well. I was not sure if he would go with the usual bribe the right people approach to get me released, ‘visit’ the witnesses or something more dramatic. You just never could tell with John. His mind moved in incomprehensible ways. He was not in the troupe because of his adequate skills with hand drums for upbeat music. I was vital and irreplaceable. At least, I hoped so.
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My turn came first, which made me feel they were rushing me along with no raping and painful torture or even inappropriate groping. That implied I had ticked off someone higher up the ladder, or that literally getting rid of strangers trumped killing locals. I was shackled and then escorted to a chamber that looked as though it had once been the local dance assembly room, converted into a courtroom. Which was sad, to think off all that dancing ending, all that music silent and replaced with a court of death. And it was packed, with a crowd of commoners, likely family of the condemned, on the main floor, and middle class on the upper balcony. I was ushered up into a railed box, slightly elevated, to be viewed by the public. Then to the left of me was a table where seven black-robed men sat, all of them at least over fifty of age and the seemingly irresistible desire to grow their beards to their bellies. I really did not see any help on their side, given their expressions.
I scanned the crowd and finally spotted members of the troupe, all decked out like various parts of work crews, looking scruffy even. Twitter was the closest to me, his anxiety making him tremble noticeably. He as quite young, but a fine fiddle player. Then I spotted Sarah, our flutist, standing rigidly in the corner as her cool blue eyes scanned the crowd with disgust. And finally John near the back, arms crossed, looking imposing and not blending because his presence always drew the eye. He six-foot-six frame towered over everyone around him, his lean sinewy body making him a fine mid-point between over muscular and lean. With his high cheekbones and liquid blue eyes, he was a man worthy of being sculpted in marble, nude. I had often speculated on seducing him, but in the end, he was better to look at, than he was to deal with. Plus he had soft brown, curling hair and I usually went with empty minded blonds, who did not require maintenance. I saw more than one woman eye him up, speculating the same thing. So strong was his aura of presence that for a moment I forgot I was on trial and he was to blame for my position. He gave me a slight, mocking nod in my direction. That bastard. I should accuse him of being a warlock, that would likely take the focus off me. It seemed par the course to accuse others at these things, but I was not aiming for a quick, yet purifying, execution.
The Bishop was in charge of the trial, or as I would say the public interrogation. There was no one on my side, to defend my pure spirit or any such thing. First, he read the transcript of the earlier interview, to which I denied any culpability. Then he outlined my physical attributes as being products of the devil, as in my mismatched eyes and my stunning beauty. I rather liked that part, that I was considered so stunning it had to be supernatural. Maybe they ought to think that adequate food and hygiene added to my appeal. Beauty is so relative. Then he listed the basic facts, like gender, marital status, and occupation.
He turned to me, with a bright intensity to his eyes. I leaned back, rattling my chains dramatically; trying to play up on the frail woman being wrongly accused bit.
“You claim you are not a witch, yes?”
“I have never practiced the dark arts. I have never made a pact with the devil,” I stated clearly. Since that was their definition of a witch, I could easily deny such a thing.
“You and your troupe were recently hired to perform at a gathering for the Lord Mayor, is that not so?”
“I hardly deny working that evening. I did. Rather thought it went over quite well.”
“I have reports that your performance was enchanting.”
I narrowed my eyes at his word choice. “I am a professional.”
The Bishop gestured and a man held out my harp so the judges could see it. My mangled harp, the spine broken all the strings snapped. “What the hell? That’s my harp! I paid good money for that. The best craftsman I could find and seven months in wages. It is irreplaceable.” I felt a sharp pang in my chest, seeing it so mangled. It almost brought tears to my eyes.
“You are not so powerful without your instrument designed to entice men and enthrall them to your will,” he said smugly.
“Are you freakin crazy? It’s a harp, not some object to suck the souls of innocents.” Although I wondered why he would think that. It was not in the mythologies I had read in this land, books forced on me from John.
“Are you saying your music did not spell the crowd? Made them feel and see things because of the music?”
“As a very good harpist would say, that is the goal. You want people to be absorbed into the music,” I said, avoiding a direct answer.
“Do you recall the Lord Mayor’s son at that playing?”
“There were many people there.”
“Perhaps then I should remind you. Young Lord George has given a statement dealing with his encounter with you. He said you tried to lure him away and seduce him and when he raised his cross to you, you turned into a raven and flew out the window.”
I gaped at him. I did now remember the young inebriated lord in question. He had tried to corner me to grope me and I had slapped him, then kicked him, then kicked him again for good measure and left. Arrogant little prig. Maybe the insult is what started this whole thing. I should hex the bugger for it. It would be meaningless, but if he thought he was hexed, then maybe he would believe it was actually doing something. I scanned the crowd for the pompous brat but did not see him on the balcony.
“He is not here. He fell into an odd fever last night.”
“Maybe because he was feverish and hallucinating. I did not change into a frickin bird and fly anywhere. I’m sure someone else would have noted such an impressive thing. I left, with everyone else, out the door with my troupe. And the little bastard was trying, ineptly, to seduce me.”
“I am afraid you have one more thing to account for.”
“What?” I snapped.
“How is it when the harp was broken you fell unconscious? If it is not your instrument to enthrall others to your will, then why did harming it harm you? And why are you powerless without it?”
He stunned me into momentary silence at the remark. I had no good answer for that. “I don’t remember what happened really. I must have fainted. I have a poor constitution and the performance must have drained me.”
I was really not permitted to say anything else in my defense. Rather the Bishop riled up the crowd stating all the ‘facts’ with a charismatic and enthused speech.
I remained where I was while my judges conferred and read the ‘witness’ reports. I glanced at my crew and got no encouragement from them. I was in trouble by the looks of things and maybe I could not depend on a rescue. Maybe they expected me to extract myself, to prove something, even if such things were frowned upon. But I did not have my harp, so it would be a test of my skills. So much for not interfering. I would likely have to pay a fine for it, but I was not dying just because of those rules.
The judges stood and so did I.
“Guilty of witchcraft,” one said, followed by the others.
There were so very many responses I could make to this answer. I could rant and rave and tell them I was going to hex them all. Or I could go for the crying, weeping doomed woman look. I aimed at a sort of defeated sorrow as I was manhandled out of the courtroom and out into the city square, where I faced the pole surrounded by hay or other combustible things. I cringed at such a horrific death. I let them lead me up the steps to the pole.
“Any last words for the condemned,” the Bishop asked. Oh, he had a gleam in his eyes. The fat bugger loved seeing women burn.
“Actually I do. I would like to sing the death prayer of my people, to ease my passage into the afterlife.”
“Nothing pleasant awaits you there, witch.”
“I suppose that is something I will find out for myself, now isn’t it?”
“I will permit a short prayer. Anything to cleanse your putrid soul and spare some of your eternal torment.”
I smiled slightly. And then I sang. The words flowed out of me of sorrow and death. And while I had their attention I added an undercurrent, so easy for my kind to do, that eased into the music, into their ears, into their minds. In that undercurrent I suggested, tempted and, yes, I enthralled. A sound so pure their hearts wept on hearing it and could not be drawn away from it. They were mine now. And I could do some damage with my voice, send them into a killing rage, suicidal and homicidal. Make them bleed out their ears as I imploded their little suspicious brains. But I did not, I just trapped them within the song.
Then I stepped down and walked away, keeping the song going, continuing the weave and melody that held them still. As I made my way through the crowd I found John and the others. I continued my song, just giving him a nod until we were well out of danger.
“Good job there,” John said.
“Fuck you. You were going to let them burn me.”
“We better get going, the song is finished and they will snap out of it.”
“Whatever, man, whatever,” I said.
A familiar tingle in my arms and a warm swirl around me was the only indication of John teleporting us out of there, to a hillside overlooking the city.
“Your report?” John asked with a smile following. A slow easy grin. That bastard, if he was not so pretty I could hate the man. His bright blue eyes glittered, in what I was sure was amusement.
“My report? That is all you have to say for yourself for not breaking me out of that place? I am profoundly insulted.” I sighed and resisted to stamp my foot or slap someone. I may not have been with the troupe as long as the others, but I knew my job so I said, “Fine, my report. The whole lot of them are deadheads. No psychic abilities, no witches certainly and no magic of any sort. Just damn deadheads, intent on destroying anything that frightens them and their church gaining power from their fear.”
“It’s the wheat actually,” Sarah said. “It’s bad, commoners eat the less refined stuff and well that leads to many ‘visions’ and nightmares.”
I trembled with outraged anger. “What the hell were we here for then?”
“It seemed like an easy training test for you. See how you would handle it. And we did have to make sure.”
I stared at John a moment and saw Twitter wringing his hands. “You dirty, scummy, bastard. You told them about the harp, so they could destroy it. You bastard, my heart was in that harp. I am a Song Singer, it is my tool.”
John shrugged, amusement still pulling his lips into a small smile. “You have another, far older one.”
“That one holds my soul, and I don’t drag my soul around with me unless there is a dire need. So you destroyed the harp so I would be taken? And then did not bother to save me.”
I was momentarily stunned by that fact. In a very short amount of time, I could have suffered any number of horrific torments.
“We wanted to see how well you worked without your tools. And for you to inspect the other accused. And naturally to see if you would help yourself escape. We had the situation monitored constantly.”
“I am not supposed to interfere with their culture or alert the dead heads of my abilities. You’re the one that told me not to mess with cultures and hide my abilities.”
“Given the right circumstances, you are free to do as you must to get out of that situation. And you passed on all accounts.”
“I hate you.”
“Hey, you took the job,” John said. “And we needed to know how effective you were without the instrument you are bound to.”
“So just a god-be-dammed test was it? This is a dead world then?”
“Yes, but you never know. It is our job to find worlds within the multi-spheres that have true magic, in any sort, initiate contact with them and protect them. There are vastly more empty worlds than those with magic.”
I had heard the mission statement before and had no desire for a lecture.
“Let’s get out of here then,” I said, annoyed beyond belief that they had thrown me into such a situation as a test. If I had known that, I would have flown the coop sooner. I would have saved all those prisoners and be damned the consequences of that interference.
“It is funny that they pegged you for a witch so closely. Cause you are,” Twitter said.
“I’m not a witch, not by their definition or any other.”
“Yeah, but your supernatural and your harp does what they thought it did.”
“They pegged me so closely because you set them off and they need little encouragement with strangers or women and no evidence.”
“And the lesson in that should be, even if you think an environment is unthreatening, populated by deadheads, you must always be on guard. No one would have gotten to your harp otherwise,” John said.
“Shut up. Just shut it.”
“Are we heading home?” Sarah asked.
“No, but we are going to a place known for fae activities. It’ll be fun,” John said.
We linked hands as John pulled them into his vortex portal that would pull us to yet another sphere universe, on their quest to find magic in all its forms on new worlds. I so needed a vacation, in my real world, where the music was pure and strong. We swirled through the worming gateways to penetrate another sphere and landed in rolling fields of lush green grass, flecked with sheep.
“Well, at least this does not look so bad,” I said and John laughed.
“Laugh it up pretty boy, you owe me a harp.”
As we walked into the sunset I head Twitter say, “Hey, does that sheep have carnivore teeth?”
© 2011 Nikki Albert