I suppose the Judge wanted to help me with my decision by giving me the corner cell, one sunk into the earth like a spring bulb. Perhaps he thought I would reconsider my plea once I saw where my stubbornness would lead.
Whether he intended me to or not, through my barred window I watched the courthouse’s laborers hauling pieces of the gallows off the cart halted in our town’s central square, their shapes and those of their horses silhouetted by the crimson dawn clawing across the sky. The scrape of wood and first pounding for the stand’s construction cast trembles through my legs but I couldn’t look away. Instead, I rubbed the dank chill clinging to my dress’s linen sleeves vainly seeking comfort in the rustle of dingy fabric.
“Good morning, Thalia.” My Matron’s whispered greeting danced through the chipped mortar standing between her cell and mine.
Freed by her voice from the laborers and their planks, I crouched in the spoilt straw gathered as my last bedding and leaned onto the stones. On the other side, I heard my Matron breathing slow and easy as she might have seated before the blazing hearth I’d tended at her home.
She may have cast one of her spells or perhaps her presence alone entranced me. Maybe both wove together. Either way, her rhythmic breaths worked into my flesh and seized my pulse with the same beat. My nerves calmed despite the goose bumps on my skin.
“We should look our best today, little one.”
Heeding her suggestion, I brushed my grimy toes against one another, my calloused soles striped by shards of morning spilling through my cell’s bars. In the warming light, I dusted my ash-smeared hands and fluffed my once wheat-hued skirts. The fraying hem drooped around my ankles and my face, I felt certain, carried the same sweat, soot, and grunge earned from the stifling days of confinement and the sobs initially joining me in captivity. As I fruitlessly tidied, the first night of body-wracking sorrow replayed in my mind, the details crystallizing of my tears ebbing into weary sniffles when I heard Matron locked in neighboring cell.
* * *
“I’m sorry to have brought this upon you, Thalia.”
“I…” I hunched deeper into my self-embrace. “I wanted to help, ma’am.”
My Matron laughed like a child surprised by a gift. “You are too kind for your own good.”
Rocking back and forth, I stared at the oaken door separating me from freedom while blackness thickened around me.
“I’m going to tell them the truth, little one.”
“But—” Halting my sway, I peered at the wall, hoping to discern my Matron’s face through the shadows and stone, and find her mockery. “Then…”
“They’ll hang me, yes.” A smile crept between her words. “But I will go with a pure conscious and will be true to who and what I am. You, however, are innocent. Tell the Judge what he wants to hear, Thalia, and live.”
“No!” I gulped, startled by my exclamation’s iron and the disruption my voice made in the evening’s peace. The echoed defiance faded and I pitched my voice low. “I knew what I was doing, ma’am. I heard everything.”
The memory drowned my ears and caused my heart to charge.
From her cell, my Matron persevered, her tone resolute. “You didn’t know what I would do. What I could do.”
“I would have done it anyway.”
While she chuckled, I tipped my head against the stones and watched the fatal confrontation coalesce behind my closed lids.
* * *
I knelt by the crack in their chamber door, wide-eyed as soured wine and floral perfume combated within their bedroom. My Matron’s husband, still donned in his traveling cloak and muddied boots, stood before her, she with her arms demurely folded across the midriff of her eggshell nightgown.
He flung down his riding gloves, the leather a soft thump on the carpet. “You can’t refuse.”
“They are your debts.” Her voice washed over the room, cool as a frozen lake. “Repay them with your own money, or ask one of your mistresses to give back your gifts and pawn those. You’ll get nothing more from me than the title you’ve already claimed.”
“Because no one else would.”
“Then you were as foolish as I was thinking this marriage would work, thinking you’d get a pliable wife and I an honest husband.”
His vulpine body quivered and anger stole his words. He lashed out instead, and I smothered a gasp as my Matron reeled from the slap he delivered across her face. She caught herself on the vine-carved bedpost while he lurched forward, the wine in his belly staggering his course. Listing upon the other post, he threatened with a ringed finger.
“You will not deny me again.”
My Matron lifted her chin and the midnight of her eyes blazed with a primal fire. “No, I won’t.”
A halo of wintry radiance bloomed around her and ethereal tendrils bobbed upon the whispers pouring from her mouth. The snowy threads wrapped around my Matron’s wastrel of a husband, trussing him like I might a goose. Her aura expanded, encompassing him and brightening as each shade of color drained from his olive pallor and his sun-drenched hair. His skin paled to ghostly white, his locks bleached, and then the ribbons flowing from my Matron’s lips ceased, her halo diminished, and they both slumped to the carpet.
Creeping from my hiding spot, I found my Matron winded, from the effort I was certain, but also from the blood trickling from her nose and seeping from her lips, the crimson drops staining her gown. Her curtain of raven hair obscured the bruises forming upon her cheek but her pearl smile beamed.
“Don’t fret, little one.”
With the help of my arm, my Matron perched on the edge of their downy mattress and composed herself like a settling sea.
Her husband never moved again, at least not on his own.
Together, my Matron and I hauled him from their chamber and down the servant’s spiral stairs. I fetched the gardener’s tools and his wheelbarrow and, with the corpse in the bed, we made our way to a clearing my Matron knew of in the woods. We buried him swiftly, with no ceremony except for my Matron humming a tune sung in the Spring Festival, a cheery melody encouraging growth in the newly planted fields.
Questions, however, arose about his absence, no doubt stirred by mongrels after my Matron’s coin or the women whose beds he had frequented. If not for the following squalls and the curious pigs on their hunt for truffles, the incident might have passed by unresolved but, with the discovery of his body, rumors broke like an impending storm and we were swept away.
* * *
A key rattled in the lock, luring me from my morning’s ruminations. After a yank, the rusted hinges groaned and the mammoth Jailor opened my cell door. His evergreen gaze tucked beneath a perpetual frown of sandy brows as bushy as his beard, shot across my squat quarters. He grunted, as if amused at finding me still within, and then stepped aside.
In his place, the Judge appeared, clasping his Book of Verdicts in boney fingers. “My child.”
He skittered forward, claret robes mussing the straw and a pungent musk oozing from his pores. While the door closed behind him, the sparkle of his signet glittered against the book’s supple cover and as he approached, I rose before the power within those carved ridges and his ardent stare.
“I’ve come to grant you one last chance to reconsider.”
I seized my skirts in two tight fists. “I have nothing more to confess, sir.”
He pursed his lips, the compassion in his features fleeting. “There is no more I can do for you if you will not admit to acting under her influence.”
“I acted of my own accord and I’m going to the gallows—” I swallowed the threat of a higher pitch and lifted my chin, hoping to mirror my Matron’s defiant angle. “I’ve told the truth and my conscious is clear. I hope you can say the same for yourself.”
Wrinkles deepened into ravines upon the Judge’s receding pate. “She is the Witch here, child, not you.”
“Does it matter? We both will be hanged and die the same way, under your judgment.”
“The truth does matter.” The Judge inched closer, the charity in his voice turning harsh. “If she controlled you then you can be freed. You could live.”
“And then what?” I scowled as bitter flames ignited on my tongue. “Who would hire me then, sir? How long would this town allow me to remain?”
The Judge gaped and I pressed on.
“Once I’m cast out, what would become of me? I die either way, by rope or in the cold. This way I depart with a sliver of dignity.”
“But your reputation—”
I barked a laugh and the Judge balked.
“I’m a servant, sir. If my reputation includes loyalty to my Matron, Witch or otherwise, then I am satisfied. Bury me in the woods if you like. I don’t need a tombstone to note what I have been. She took me in when I was nothing, gave me care and her protection. For that, I will go with her to the end.”
Consideration of my sanity washed across the Judge’s pinched face. He settled for a grimace, his conclusion as evident as the gallows outside.
“As you like.” He waved aside further conversation and gave me his back. “I’m finished here.”
The Jailor opened the door and after a slam I stood on my own but not alone.
“Thank you, Thalia.”
I hugged my arms around myself as the rush of blood from the encounter waned. Wilting onto the stone beside my window, I noted the laborers’ progress through the bars.
Hammering had brought together the timbers for the hanging frame and, with a heave, they had the beam towering over the platform.
Around them, townsfolk gathered, but anxiousness replaced the usual chatter rumbling through the square on market days. Those who had come to witness our deaths clumped together at the erecting stand and stared. Some murmured and pointed when the ropes were brought out, others hustled children to their heels. The little ones seemed oblivious to the somber occasion and raced off, playing tag through the mob and the ring of merchants and hawkers assuming their posts around the perimeter.
Savory aromas and advertising patter grew as mid-morning approached and the courthouse’s laborers completed the gallows’ construction. The platform and two nooses loomed amid the typical banter while everyday life for those outside resumed like spring following winter.
Tipping my face into the sun, I savored a last bask in its rays as I waiting for the blazing orb to mark my end by reaching its peak. Through my cell wall, I heard my Matron humming her melodies of life and growth. Her singing joined my sunlight bath, each seeping into my bones, and coating my insides in white and gold.
Jangling of the Jailor’s keys cut my pristine shower short. His intent, though, was my Matron’s cell.
“Is it time already?”
The Jailor snorted his reply, and I listened to straw crinkle and buckles cinching. “Watch her.”
Footsteps thumped and then the lock to my door rattled. The Jailor shoved one shoulder into my cell before the other, entering within a fog of well-oiled leather.
I didn’t manage the witty repartee of my Matron. Instead, I focused on not crumpling when the Jailor revealed a set of bindings.
“Your wrists, girl.”
I forced my fingers to release my arms and held out my hands. They quivered while he looped the straps around one of my wrists, then the other, and pulled both taut. He secured the buckles’ prong into the smallest hole and I bit my lip.
“Bully up, girl. Won’t hurt for long.”
Chastised, I dropped my gaze to the floor and allowed him to lead me from my cell. The thought of struggling tickled my mind but when the Jailor’s massive hand encircled my spindly arm, I figured if I tried, he’d break me with a simple flick. The idea of being rescued, like the innocent damsels in the stories my Matron had read to me by her fire, made me snicker. Damsels we might be, but neither she nor I were innocent.
Instead of resisting or pining to be carried off on a charging steed, I warded the wobble from my knees, intent on staying on my feet until they no longer had ground upon which to stand. The effort became trivial once we entered the hallway and I felt my Matron’s presence.
As my legs firmed, I lifted my gaze to her serene face and her kind smile even while two armed guards threatened at her shoulders, their rodent eyes flicking between us beneath their helms.
They must have noted, as I did, how the time of our imprisonment hardly seemed to have touched my Matron. Her snowy gown, laced at the bodice, had accumulated faint stains only around the hem and cuffs. Her inky hair gleamed as if recently washed and brushed. Her skin shone, immaculate, and absent of any blemishes from rough hands.
“Give us a moment.” Gliding toward me, my Matron lifted her bound hands and preened my auburn nest of hair with tender fingers. “Handkerchief?”
The Jailor grunted but obliged, withdrawing a surprisingly clean piece of cloth from inside his studded doublet. With it, my Matron smeared away the dirt from my cheeks while I fought tears.
“All will be well.” She dabbed the threatening streams away and then kissed my forehead. “Ready?”
I met her gaze and nodded although my stomach sought escape through my feet. My Matron pivoted toward the guards blocking the passage to the stairs, her head high, her voice trouble-free.
“Shall we, gentlemen?”
The Jailor motioned them on and took position at my back. With a brisk swivel, the guards led us up the steps and through the courthouse’s entrance.
Sunlight welcomed us but the waiting crowd wheeled as one. A ripple rushed through the throng, quelling conversation in ever expanding rings.
Flanked by the guards, my Matron strode down the cobblestone lane barricaded for our procession, toward the stand where I heard the Judge recounting our crime and his verdict. Locking my gaze onto her raven curls, I followed her into the gauntlet of revulsion and sneers. Whispers rebounded on either side and trepidation filled the air.
“He wasn’t the first.”
“I heard she’s centuries old.”
“Good the Judge’s stopping her now.”
Despite their loathing, I grew dismayed at the crowd’s ignorance and their fear-based conclusions. They had the Judge and his laws but even after today, they would wonder. They would remain unsure about the powers in their midst and about whether another woman might bring them to bear upon the unjust. They would live but under a shroud of dread having eliminated the unknown rather than delving into the mysteries my Matron had begun sharing with me. Unexpected sympathy surged through me for them, for their loss.
“What about her?”
The shift of speculation harnessed me like a yoke.
“Her apprentice, I’m sure.”
Bowing my head, I wished their guesses landed nearer to the truth. My awakening had come too late and now the chance to learn from my Matron would be foiled. I would be reaped before I had a chance to sprout.
I wallowed in self-pity until the platform steps appeared and stalled all thought and motion.
I forced a foot to comply with the Jailor’s order but teetered on the first tread. He cupped my elbow, preventing me from falling.
“Thank you.” My gratitude scraped against my parched throat and left me mute.
The Jailor squeezed my arm in the silence, as if trying to impart his ursine strength into my willowy frame, and then he released me and another took his place.
The Executioner seized my arms with hands obscured beneath night-black gloves as dark as the hood hiding his face, his unadorned mantle, tunic, and breeches. Hoisting me onto the crate beside my Matron and before the Judge and crowd, the man-shaped shadow looped the noose around my neck.
The shout from the throng shattered anticipation. The mob writhed. They flung similar demands for our departure in curses and gibes along with rock-hard cores and squelching fruits.
While I quaked under the barrage, my Matron cast her gaze upwards, to the feather-streaked clouds bounding overhead. As a gust swept my Matron’s satin curls from her shoulders, her lips curled into a pearl smile and I heard her whisper between my ears.
Don’t fret, little one.
A heartbeat later, the Executioner kicked the crate out from under her and the boiling crowd hushed. I looked away while the snap of her neck soaked the square. In the corner of my eye though, her white skirts billowed as if hung from a clothesline to dry.
The Executioner’s next strides made the platform moan. His nearing bulk frosted my back. I forced my gaze away from the platform and peered beyond the faces gaping at me, the abomination, the would-be Witch.
Beyond them, I noted a petrel landing on the courthouse’s eaves. The snowy feathers seemed out of place in the height of summer but the bird’s inky eyes drew me into their trench-like depths. Sinking into those ebony pools, I heard my Matron’s voice once more.
Flapping wings pulled my gaze above my head. A second petrel fluttered onto the gallows’ crossbeam and blinked at me. The bird tilted its snowy head one way and then the other as if inspecting me as a potentially worthy morsel. Then serenity washed out of the bird’s bottomless eyes and goose bumps peppered my flesh.
A smile crept to my lips and the tension in my body drained. “I’m ready, ma’am.”
As the Executioner shoved the crate from beneath my feet, I kept my gaze on the bird and, together, we soared into flight.