Posted: 29 February 2004
Word Count: 1587
Summary: About witch burnings, but not witches.
A small yet vicious mob was gathering on the hill on the outskirts of town. They encircled two women, both aging widows, tied to wooden beams placed into the ground. The townsfolk erupted into a mass chorus of shouts and screeches. Two carts arrived through the center of town, bringing forth hay, kindling and lumber. The crowd surrounded the two women and began to plant the kindling, lumber and hay at the women’s feet. Cheerful pandemonium ensued as two men carrying lit torches triumphantly marched towards the fire-to-be. Cries of bloodlust began as the hay started to smoke. The kindling turned to fire and licked at the feet of the two women. In a quick flurry, the flame burst over the small mounds of kindling, was not satisfied; thus turned to the women. It consumed them with a malicious glory, much to the appeasement of itself and the crowd.
The charred patch of grass has now re grown; the town has forgotten the fire they fueled. Near the center of town lies an inn. Clouds let loose their burden and rain falls from the sky, dissolving the hard dirt streets of the haphazardly plotted town into mud. The water gives birth to small trickles of water which weave between the various shanties. The inn stood proud, easily the largest structure in the town, save its rival: the church.
A single man on horseback rode into the town from afar, and came to rest himself and his horse at the inn. A stable boy took the horse into nearby stables as the drenched rider entered the inn. He took a seat at one of the vacant tables and ordered an ale; the handful of native occupants of the inn eyeing him all the while. Upon finishing his drink he was asked, “Bard, bring any news?” by a gruff bearded man who cocked his head slightly awaiting an answer.
“No news, lo, a warning.” replied the rider. He cleared his throat.
“Well, speak! What warning?” The gruff man’s back straightened.
“It’s said that from the north a witch passed through leaving disease in her wake.” The rider began to cough.
“A witch? What relevance does this have to us or our town?” another customer asked.
“The town north of that town was stricken by disease earlier. They too say it was the work of a witch,” replied the rider. He began to cough again.
“Well, what of it?” the gruff man spoke up again.
“The witch must be coming this way then,” a quiet man added. The rider continued to cough.
“Is that so?” the gruff man turned to the rider.
He stopped coughing. “It may be so.”
“Why did you come here, bard?” asked the quiet man.
The rider paused. “I am fleeing the witch’s curse.”
The men of the inn were intently listening now. The rider approached the innkeeper, who was listening from behind his counter. “Yes?” the innkeeper asked.
“Do you have a room available?” asked the rider, now slouching.
“Yes. You look as if you could use the rest. I’ll show you to it,” the innkeeper showed him to a room.
The stable boy entered the inn. Seeing the empty table with the rider’s half empty mug, he grasped it and drank the remaining ale. He gathered up other mugs and returned them to the counter. He then searched for his father, the innkeeper.
After the sun fell another person entered the town. A skinny disheveled widow, on foot. She too found her way towards the inn. She shuffled inside with methodic thumps arising from her bad leg. Her walk’s melody was completed by the tapping of her walking stick. When she reached the counter she asked the innkeeper’s son for a room. She towered over him, even though her height was somewhat lessened from her slouching.
“There’s one more room. This way,” the boy said. He led her to the room.
There she slept soundly; unaware of the coughs emitting from the rider’s neighboring room.
In the morning the innkeeper’s boy discovered the rider. He had died during the night. A cleric was summoned to the room to make a diagnosis. The inn’s customers crowded the room and awaited his judgment.
“It seems he died of a fever. Peculiar case. Usually it takes a few days of being bed ridden before death,” the cleric stated. “You say he came in yesterday?”
“Aye,” the innkeeper replied.
“He came with warning of a witch!” an inn-frequenter reminded the rest of the group. “Maybe he was cursed.”
“Nah, there’s not been a witch in these parts for more than twenty years,” the innkeeper assured. “The last witch burning happened when I was just a small boy.”
“Well, witch or no, I’m done here, Gerald,” the cleric said, turning to the innkeeper. “Get this body up to the church for burial.”
“Alright. Boy!” The innkeeper turned to his son, who was amongst the crowd. “Help me carry him into the cart.”
They carried the body into the stables and dumped it into a cart. The boy got a mule to pull the cart, at his father’s bidding. He walked alongside the building towards the church. The innkeeper went back inside to hear the general chatter.
“Funny how he did warn us about a witch, then died the next day, ey?” a man said.
At this moment the skinny woman emerged from her room and found herself in the inn’s bar with the small gossiping group of men.
“What’s all this?” she asked them.
“Who are you? And where did you come from?” the innkeeper demanded. The rest of the group turned to her.
“Who I am is of no concern to you! I’m but a widow from the north,” she replied, angrily. “Now, what’s going on?”
“The north?” a small man asked. “Isn’t that the direction the rider warned us about? About the witch? The witch from the North?”
“He did,” answered the innkeeper. “And the cleric said he died unnaturally fast for just a fever.”
“What are you talking about?” The widow was speaking faster now.
“How did you get into my tavern?” the innkeeper asked.
“A boy led me to my room,” replied the widow. “I have coin and I plan to pay and leave. Now.”
“Hold fast widow. We were warned of a witch, and you damn well look like one. You’re not leaving until we sort this out,” a large man said.
“What do you mean, ‘I look like a witch’?” the widow asked.
“You’ve got no meat on you; you limp; you’re tall. You’re also a widow,” the innkeeper said.
“What does that have to do with being a witch?” the widow asked, now angry.
“Twenty years ago two witches were burnt, the eldest of whom looked exactly like you,” the innkeeper retorted. “Both of them were widows.”
“Well, then, why haven’t I aged? Twenty years is a long time,” the widow said, smugly.
“Why, indeed,” the innkeeper replied.
“She’s a witch! She’s the very same witch from twenty years ago!” a large man said.
“Aye, let’s burn her again!” the quiet man suggested. The rest of the crowd cheered.
“No, we should wait,” the innkeeper said, trying to stop the flare of rage. “Perhaps the Bard was stricken with a curse from another town.”
Various grunts spawned from the crowd. “How long do we wait?” someone asked.
“A day or two, I suppose. We’ll wait and see if anyone else contracts a sickness,” the innkeeper said. “Keep an eye on your families.”
The innkeeper’s boy returned after bringing the corpse to the church and helping with the burial. He was informed of the witch matter. The boy, coughing, picked up a rag and began cleaning glasses and plates. He occasionally covered his mouth with the rag. The innkeeper’s son then later slept, though the widow did not. She waited, worrying. Two men guarded the door to her room at the inn. Morning rose. The boy was sick.
With a great fury the innkeeper thrust himself into the widow’s room, grabbed her by the hair and pulled her out of bed. Her thin hands grabbed the innkeeper’s wrist and she forced herself to her feet. She stumbled along with the innkeeper.
“We burn the witch today,” the innkeeper announced. “Jeremy is stricken with the curse.”
A crowd soon gathered. Kicking and screaming, the widow was dragged through the streets towards the hill. She was screaming, “I’m no witch,” all the while. Her effort was futile. Her screaming didn’t earn her mercy; it simply resulted in a larger crowd. Those who heard the widow’s cries joined the crowd and the mob grew in size until it was composed of most of the town.
When the townsfolk reached the hill they quickly sent a few people for a stake and kindling. Two carts full of kindling arrived and a stake was forced into the ground. The widow was tied to the stake. Kindling was placed at the widow’s feet.
Various outbursts came from the crowd:
“Aye, I remember her! She’s not a hair different than that other witch, twenty years ago!”
“I remember her too! She hasn’t aged either! She must be the witch!”
The innkeeper spoke: “This witch has cursed two people. One of whom is now dead. I’ll lift this curse or be damned trying.”
With that he was handed a torch and the kindling was lit. A week later the innkeeper’s boy had a fever and the inn’s customers started to cough.
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