Three maidens cast piercing glares my way. Tramps, the folk called them. Others knew them simply as the dark sisters. They tugged at the binds, squirming like a bunch of stretched worms against soaked tree trunks.
“Repent!” Father Pritchet gave them another lash across the face. The whip butchered their powdered skin like a bull carcass in a lion pit. “Admit your sins in front of your brothers and sisters! Shout it so the good Lord can hear your pathetic confession!” The sisters kept quiet, unflinching. This only further enraged the preacher.
Pritchet’s face burned as he turned to face us. His eyes were glassy and his fingers twitched and tightened against the whip. There was no question that he was back on the spirits again. “Dare you stand at your post, denying the good people of Neckam an admission of guilt in the possession of young Bette Ferstip?” The preacher pointed his scaly finger at me. “What about your little sister, Gloria? Will you not give her closure? Anything to ease her suffering? You three killed your mother, after all.” The silence was broken by a sneeze from the back. It was the baker, ol’ Maryann Callister – everybody told her flour would be the death of her. She swore it was the work of Satan and his three wenches.
“Speak!” The father whipped them another four times. Still nothing. Pritchet wiped the sweat from his brow. “Very well. You can die with your demons, harlots! Would dear Maryann please face the accused?” Mrs. Callister cut through the crowd and joined the preacher at the front. “Now tell us all what these sinister whores did to your health, Maryann.”
Despite being the source of Neckam’s sweet treats, Maryann evidently did not indulge in her product; she was gaunt, her apron barely clinging to her thin waist. She had been part of the community since migrating from the homeland sixty years ago. “They tarnished it, Father!” The audience hissed obscenities, curses of their own, as the woman coughed in a dark handkerchief. Dust danced in the dry wind. “They asked for a blackberry tart, but I explained that I ain’t got no blackberries, as the harvest was spread too thin. Most of this season’s batch was shipped to the capital, you see. And they left appalled! Shortly after was when I developed this painful cough!”
The crowd erupted. “Burn the witches!” they chanted. “Cast the flame, Father!”
And he did exactly as the spectators demanded. In seconds, the three women were ablaze. Their screams would haunt the square for centuries. Father Pritchet stood tall and proud, confident that he just ridded the land of some more of Satan’s slaves.
The death of my older sisters does not affect me. The stench of the burning hair and their screams were enough to send the rest of the villagers back to their cottages, but I watched every moment.
When the three girls walked in on me with the stones one afternoon, they threatened to tell the preacher. Everyone figured the village was rife with witches, thanks to hysteria in neighboring towns, and how great would they be regarded if they turned in the most powerful one of them all? So I casted a simple hex sealing their cancerous mouths and went to work.
“It’s such a shame it had to come to this,” I mentioned to Father Pritchet, who was scribbling something in a journal, still at his post near my burning relatives.
“We live in dark times, Gloria. The Devil’s shadow stretches far.”
“Indeed.” I walked back to my secret cottage in the woods, enjoying the smell of my sisters’ burning hair on the way. At the cusp of war, I entered my home with no bounds for the first time in a century.