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Father Cotton clutched the bible against his chest and spat fury beneath his fluttering cowl. A wind picked up and carried a fine mist across the river, but it would not affect his focus. “The Lord sees your sin, creature, and denies you entry to paradise. What have you say? Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”
“I am innocent, I swear it,” cried the fiend, Emily Tanner, fighting the Hessian ropes binding her to the oak’s broad trunk. The ancient tree had been healthy and strong just one week ago, but now it withered and listed precariously over the river. “I have done nothing! Where is my husband? Jonathan, where are you, my love?”
The village tailor emerged from the crowd, bleary-eyed and holding Martha Hamleigh in his arms. The grieving mother sobbed and made a sound akin to a wounded lamb. Her long brown hair mingled with Jonathan’s and created an unruly nest. “I am here, Emily,” he said. “As much as I wish it were not so.”
Emily’s face lit up at the sight of her spouse, but Father Cotton saw it for what it was—a perverse replica of human emotion—and it sickened him. Her voice was thick with mock-innocence as she spoke. “My love, help me!” she begged. Her golden hair framed her face in a picture of naïve innocence. “Tell them I am not what they say. I would never hurt a child. Nev-“
“Enough, Emily!” Jonathan was rubbing Martha’s back, but her sobs continued to rise. “You are my wife, and I love you—God forgive me for how much I love you, but I cannot deny what I have seen. You returned to our home at an ungodly hour—a lost siren, naked and muddied by the river. There is too much evidence of your crimes to deny. Our vows lay broken, and my obligation to you with them. Martha is the victim here, Emily. You took her children both. Dear Lord, you butchered them.” He covered his mouth for to prevent expelling his supper. Who could blame the poor man for his disgust?
Emily fought against her bonds again. “Martha lies! I am innocent. Does ten years of marriage mean nothing, dear husband?”
Father Cotton had heard enough and thrust out his bible like a shield, its pages fluttering in the wind. “You have chance to repent, creature, but seek instead to bend and manipulate. To ask Jonathan to intervene now is to condemn his soul alongside your own. You were witnessed at the crime scene, Emily Tanner, young blood still staining your hands. The Church finds you guilty of witchcraft!”
“You mean YOU find me guilty of witchcraft, Father Cotton. Damn you and your blind righteousness!” She glowered upon every man, woman, and child assembled by the riverside, and directed her judgement at them all. “Damn you all to the darkest hell. I am no witch. I am no child butcher. It is all of you who are guilty. YOU who judge with fear and loathing, while forsaking love and compassion. For years I have lived amongst you. Your neighbour, your friend…” she looked at Jonathan. “Your wife!”
“And you have given your husband no family,” someone shouted. “The ungodly cannot bare children. They are cursed barren. Harlot!”
Emily spotted one of her hecklers—Thompson, the widowed sheep farmer—and whipped a gaze upon him so fierce that he shrank back into the crowd like a bleeting calf. Even Father Cotton shuddered at the sheer malice in the creature’s eyes. To think he had judged her a simple woman for so many years. In this, he had truly failed.
“It is you who will be cursed if you do this!” Emily promised the crowd, her venom only increasing. “Your souls will burn in the Abyss. You shall feed on mud and rotting flesh like meal worms.”
Thompson, the widow, re-emerged and thrust a trembling finger at her. “She admits it! She places a hex upon us! A witch!”
“Lies!” shouted Emily. “All lies. Where is the abbot? Does he know you intend murder this night, Father? Has the Church not tired of your unceasing condemnations? Is it not your nature that should stand judged?”
Father Cotton gritted his teeth and tried not to lose composure. This was the way of darkness—to seek out the light and try to extinguish it. This witch would not pollute his belief in himself. He would not allow it. “The abbot is infirmed due to a hex most likely placed upon his soul by you!” A howling gust rose up and buffeted his woollen habit, aggravating the tender wounds beneath. “We found his Holiness lying in his vestry, furnace-hot and babbling.”
“A simple fever, surely?” cried Emily.
“Quiet beast! Your corruption is at an end. Tonight the village shall weep for the woman you were, and celebrate the vanquishing of the evil you have become. May your butchered victims rest in a peace you shall never know.”
Emily thrashed against her bonds like a wild animal, drawing blood from her slender wrists. She kicked her bare feet amongst the leaves and flicked them at the crowd—a defiant, yet ineffectual gesture. “I wish upon you eternal agony,” she screeched, tears soaking her face. “I will see it so!”
Father Cotton gave no reply. He returned the bible to his chest and placed out an open hand, summoning Jonathan, who passed him a lit torch. Emily moaned at her husband’s betrayal, and he sheepishly rejoined the crowd. Father Cotton pitied the heartbroken tailor, for it was the truest of tortures for a righteous man to face—the condemnation of a loved one. The spurning of a wife was perhaps the pinnacle of righteous sacrifice. His reward would come in the next life.
Father Cotton strode towards the pyre, torch lofted above his head. “Emily Tanner. As your flesh burns and agony cleanses you, Heaven will not await. Consider your misdeeds, but know that no chance for atonement shall come. Eternity is a barren wasteland of everlasting solitude to you.”
“I did not kill the Hamleigh twins! You condemn an innocent woman this night, and you shall know the consequences.”
Father Cotton dropped the torch into the crisp, dead leaves. The conflagration was immediate. Flames leapt in a circle around Emily’s feet and she screamed, but only in fear just now, for the pain was yet to begin. The dusk turned orange, and the crowd looked upon one another’s faces. None showed regret. They did the Lord’s work today: ending the life of a child killer.
Emily’s screams halted as she bit down on her tongue. More tears came, along with blood from her mouth. The look she gave the crowd was no longer condemning, but pleading. All evil quivered before the glory of God, and Father Cotton was a beacon shining said glory unto every patch of shadow. He would hold the divine image of Emily’s broken will in his mind tonight as he flagellated himself before the statue of Saint Adolphus, the Martyr. No better way to wash the wretchedness from his soul.
Tomorrow, there would more glory to shine.
Emily’s screams increased pitch. Flames circled inward, devouring the dry leaves piled at her feet. Her pale skin turned pink, and blistered, while the stench of burning meat made those in the crowd cover their noses. These were godly people, and watching human flesh burn was a dark deed. Yet it was necessary. All must see justice done this night. The village needed to shed its sin alongside Emily Tanner.
Forgive us Lord for our sins.
Emily’s woollen nightdress ignited, and her high-pitched screams turned low and bovine. In unison, and without prompting, the villagers began chanting the Lord’s prayer.
“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The sinew of Emily’s legs reduced to fat, spitting from her bones as her body melted. Blood turned black and curdled. Her nightdress shrivelled away to nothing and exposed her nakedness. The points of her breasts popped like carbuncles and drizzled down her chest. Silky golden hair curled in on itself and smoked before falling away from her glistening scalp. Then her eyes rolled back in her head and her bellows became whimpers. A prayer-length later Emily Tanner was a charred skull staring back at them.
Then the flames leapt higher into the night sky and she vanished from them forever.
But the blackened oak tree remained. Even in the inferno, it persisted holding onto the blackened earth. Father Cotton would command the monks from the abbey to fell the ungodly thing at dawn, but first he turned to the crowd. “We did the Lord’s work today, my children. Be not troubled, for the righteous act is never the easy one. Go home to your loved ones and pray, for tomorrow is another day.”
A roaring gust came off the river, summoned by the hungry fire. Hot air drew sweat from the brows of those closest, including Father Cotton, and many moved away. Father Cotton clutched his bible in one hand and used his other to wrangle the hair from his face. As he did so, pain flared in his left eyelid. “Jesus Mary!”
“Father?” said Jonathan, splitting from the crowd and hurrying to his aid. “What is wrong?”
Father Cotton pressed his palm against his burning eyelid and tried to push the pain away. “It is nothing, good Jonathan. An ember from the flames. We should depart this place, lest its echoes haunt us too long.”
“Of course, Father.”
Jonathan attempted to ease him away, but he shrugged the gesture off, angered by the pain still flaring in his eyelid and baleful of pity from a lowly man such as Jonathan. “I hope days to come do not reveal you complicit in your wife’s actions, Jonathan Tanner. May the Lord strike you to ash if you are.”
Jonathan staggered as if struck. “I swear it, Father. I had no idea. If I had known…”
An angry buzz drowned out Jonathan’s words and indeed replaced all sound in the space beside the river. The departing crowd stopped and glanced back at the pyre. The inferno had risen high, illuminating the sky red, but its spreading glow was not yet finished. Orange tendrils dispelled the dusk in every direction. Embers spewed forth into the frigid gloom like a swarm of bees.
A literal swarm.
Fiery specks fluttered on the air, almost serenely, but then they descended savagely upon the crowd. The villagers cried out in pain and confusion. Father Cotton turned a full circle, trying to decipher the Lord’s will in what he was seeing.
What was he seeing?
His eyes confused, now buzzing filled his ears.
Nearby, Jonathan batted at himself hysterically, an angry welt rising quickly on one cheek. A wasp formed of flame and crawled along his jawline. “It’s Emily,” he cried. “She has cast a hex upon us. She swore it. Dear God, what folly have we brought?”
Father Cotton watched the pyre in awe, its flames whipping like enlivened sprites. Thousands more spiteful embers grabbed hold of the wind and descended upon the screaming villagers, wrenching out their torment, but a separate swarm now headed toward him alone, marking him out, and chattering in his ears so loud his brain ached. He threw up his arms to shield himself, dropping his bible in the slick, black mud. His mouth opened to scream, but before he could make a sound, searing agony filled his throat. Jonathan, prisoner to his own panic, collided with him and knocked them both to the ground. From on his back, Father Cotton stared into the flames. The shadow of a woman looked back at him. Then, a hundred embers engulfed his face and stung the sight from his eyes.
Unable to see, unable to speak, he prayed to the Lord for help.
But the Lord was not there.