A Witch Hunt, 1666
A shot rang out in the night, followed by an anguished scream. If anyone would have been in those dark woods, they would have run as far away as they could. However, if they were brave enough, they would have seen the corpse of a young adult male. A single shot in his abdomen. It was the body of Thatcher Borne, the son of the late Henry Borne who was one of the founders of nearby Norwich, Connecticut.
Ivy Sterling didn’t mean to kill him. She had been out in the woods gathering chamomile and ginger roots per her mother’s request. Ivy’s sister, Grace had fallen ill and the usual remedies weren’t helping. When she plucked another root, she saw something shining in the dead tree trunk. She peered down and saw a small pistol.
“What is this?” She carefully picked up the gun and examined it. “Wonder why someone would put a gun in here.” Ivy heard an owl screech nearby, causing her to jump. She looked around, then looked back down at the gun. “Well. No one has lived out here for so long. I don’t think it would hurt to borrow it. I could return it in the morning.” She placed the gun in the bottom of her basket and continued her task.
As Ivy was finishing up, she heard more rustling, shortly followed by giggling. She stood up and thought it wouldn’t hurt to investigate. There was someone else out here this late at night? She thought. As she got closer, she saw two figures behind a tree: Thatcher with Josephine Rosenthal. She had a reputation for being the town courtesan. Just like Thatcher, her father, Jacques Rosenthal, was another founder of the town. They appeared to be getting intimate. Ivy didn’t want to disturb them so she quietly backed away. However, she stepped on a branch and Josephine’s giggling stopped.
“Who’s out there?” Thatcher yelled out. “It’s pretty rude to spy!”
Ivy made an attempt to avoid being seen, but she heard Josephine yell that she could see someone, and she saw them coming toward her. When Thatcher and Josephine saw who it was, Ivy heard him chuckle. “It’s just the young Sterling girl. She’s not a threat. But it is odd. Why would a child be out so late at night?”
“Exactly! Shouldn’t you be in bed, little girl?” Josephine sneered. “Probably out here performing some eerie custom.” She pointed to the basket Ivy was carrying. “What’s all in there? Some animal bones? A vial of blood?”
Ivy gathered up her courage. “No, Ms. Rosenthal. All that is in this basket is chamomile and ginger roots. You see, my sister – “
“Needs them for her next potion? Why can’t she come out here and do it herself?” mocked Josephine. “Why send out her little sister to do it for her. Unless…”
Confused, Ivy asked, “Unless what? She’s really sick and my mother asked me to gather these plants to make a remedy.”
“But it’s so late at night. Why was this not done when there was light? Why are you out here alone?” Thatcher smirked at her. “It’s not safe for a little girl to be out here alone. There are all kinds of dangers you could come across.”
Ivy started to feel nervous. “M-m-my sister’s health t-t-took a turn. T-this was a m-m-moment’s decision. B-but you’re r-r-right. I need t-to get home. It is l-l-late.” She turned away from the couple and started to walk away, clutching the basket close to her. One of them pushed her, causing her to drop her basket, spilling its contents on the ground.
“Come on, Josie. Think we let her be now. However, what is this?” Ivy froze. The gun. Before Thatcher could grab it, she made a dive for it and snatched it.
“Hmm. Why would a child need a gun? There is no way this is yours, Sterling! Where did you get it? Where did you steal it from?”
Ivy remained silent. She didn’t know what to say or do. All she knew was that she was terrified and felt things could get violent if she didn’t do something.
Thatcher grabbed her arm. “I asked you a question! Where did you steal this gun from, you little bitch!”
She didn’t recall pulling the trigger. Ivy didn’t know she had it pointed it at him and that it was loaded. A bullet fired and went clean through Thatcher Borne’s body. It killed him instantly.
“You killed him! Witch! Sorceress!” Josephine screamed. “We were only joking around with you, but now I see the rumors were true! It can only explain why a child is out here so late at night, gathering strange herbs and doing so all alone. The Sterling’s are dabbling in black magic!”
“No! You don’t understand. Josephine, I swear…my sister…she’s really sick. I’m gathering plants to make a medicine to help her,” Ivy pleaded.
“That’s what a witch would want me to think! You’re going to be in so much trouble! I’m going to find Mr. Porter. He’ll see that you’ll be hung for your crimes!” Josephine took off running on the path toward Norwich. Ivy panicked. She didn’t need to have her family’s name further stained by another lie. Picking up her basket of herbs, she ran after Josephine.
Thacker Porter was not a man to be trifled. His family was one of the first to arrive in Norwich and help turn it into the town it was today. The Porter’s became prominent in the town before tragedy struck: he was the lone survivor after a mysterious illness claimed the lives of his family. As a result, he became bitter and reclusive. He left Norwich and was living in the woods not far from town. It brought too many painful memories for him to remain there. His family had counted on him to protect them, but he felt he failed and needed to suffer alone.
He was gathering wood he chopped earlier when he heard a popping sound, followed by someone screaming. In all honesty, he wasn’t going to check it out. There were a lot of people who came into these woods to mess around. He was running behind schedule. However, he heard someone yelling his name. He set the pile down and looked around. He saw Josephine, her red hair flying all over as she ran down the path. He heard her calling for him frantically. He noticed her face was flushed and blood splattered on her dress. Where did that blood come from, he wondered? Why would she be out here so late at night? It was apparent she was alone and clearly wasn’t out here hunting animals or gathering supplies. She was running from something, but what?
His heard more noise and saw a younger girl running after Josephine. She looked no older than 13. She looked familiar to him, but couldn’t place who she was. The younger girl looked terrified as she ran after the other one. Thacker saw the small gun in her hand, and concern filled him. Two shots rang in the air, followed by two distinctly different screams. Josephine knew she wasn’t long for this life. Given her profession, she knew there were risk and took as many precautions as possible. But never did she see herself dying in the hands of a child.
“Should have never taken the Borne boy up on his offer”, she shuddered as her eyes closed for the last time. “Wasn’t worth all this trouble…”
Thacker silently made his way behind a large tree about 200 yards away. He heard the sound of rapid footsteps as he saw the younger girl running away from the murder. She looked scared and blood stained her dress. He could no longer see the gun.
“Hey!” He decided to make his presence known. He heard her yelp in alarm and whipped around to see him.
“Please sir! I didn’t mean to! I didn’t shoot the gun!” Ivy pled. “It went off on its own! I didn’t kill her!” She broke down crying, scared to think what was going to happen to her. Surely, she was going to be hung.
Thacker approached the crying girl slowly and got down on his knees to seem less threatening to her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and made her look up at him.
“Let’s start at the beginning. I’m sure there’s some kind of explanation to what’s going on here.” He could feel her shaking. She was clearly scared but he needed to get to the bottom of this. “What is your name? Why are you out here all by yourself?”
Ivy took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. “I am Ivy Sterling. I was only out here gathering chamomile and ginger roots to help my sister. She has fallen ill. That’s why I’m out here. I know it seems strange since it is so late, but it’s urgent, sir. She may not make it to the morning.”
Thacker saw the basket filled with said plants; she was telling the truth. “What else happened? Who else was out here?”
“I was collecting the last of the ginger when I saw two people nearby. They were…exchanging affections with one another. I was trying to let them be, but I stepped on a branch and got their attention. After scolding me for bothering them, they asked me why I was out so late. They started accusing me of being a witch.” She started to tear up again as she rehashed the memories. “They threatened to hurt me. I tried getting away, but they grabbed at me and that’s when the gun…I had found it inside a tree trunk earlier…went off and killed Mr. Borne. I swear I didn’t pull the trigger.”
“You found a pistol inside a tree trunk? Are you sure?” Thacker interrupted her, confused by this revelation. He had been out here for a while and gathered everything that may have been left behind; not once had he found a pistol in a tree trunk.
“I thought it to be strange too, but I swear on my father’s grave,” Ivy said quickly. “I didn’t even know it was loaded. I followed after Josephine because I didn’t want to be blamed for something I didn’t do. I promise this is true. I wasn’t going to kill her.” She broke down crying again.
Thacker wasn’t sure what to believe. On the one hand, this girl was clearly scared and didn’t appear to have malice intent to harm anyone. But on the other side, he had never had issues with a gun erratically discharging. She was being threatened with her life as well, and while in his eyes it was grounds to defend yourself, it should be a last resort. He had made his decision.
“I believe you. But we will need to report this to the constable,” Thacker stood up, pulling her up to stand.
“But I didn’t kill them! I swear!” Ivy ripped her arm away and took off running deeper into the woods. She needed to get home. She wasn’t going to be blamed for something that wasn’t her fault. She could hear Thacker shouting for her to come back but she refused to turn around. The fog was getting thicker, and it was hard for Ivy to see anything. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a glimmer of white light and headed that way. A lone tree stood in the clearing, its size intimidating.
She felt a strange presence near this tree. That wasn’t the only strange thing she noticed: the giant tree was in full bloom. Nearby trees were long dead due to an early frost. It was also eerily quiet, as if this place was inside a bubble and in its own space. Ivy knew she had to hide as she couldn’t outrun Thacker. She grabbed the lowest tree limb and began to climb up to hide herself in the vegetation. Once she was concealed, she heard heavy footsteps from who she assumed was Thacker looking for her.
“Come on kid. I know you’re nearby. You can’t outrun me,” he shouted. He glanced around to see if there was any movement. As Ivy was trying to adjust herself, her foot hit a branch, causing some of the leaves to rustle a little. She could see Thacker looking right at her, but he didn’t appear to see Ivy herself. He pulled out his own pistol and went to the base of the giant tree.
“I know you’re up there. I’m not going to kill you as long as you let me know it is you.” Thacker said softly as he looked up.
As Ivy was going to respond, she felt something slither down her leg; a vine from the tree had moved on its own and wrapped itself around her ankle. She was pulled back violently and found herself hanging upside down, the vine being the only thing keeping her from falling 20 feet. She let out a scream. “Let me go! Mr. Porter, please help me!”
Thacker was at a loss for words at the scene in front of him. Pulling his knife out, he tried slicing away the binds to free Ivy. But as soon as he’d make a cut, the plant would begin to heal itself at a rapid pace. He had never seen anything like it. What kind of sorcery is this? He asked himself as he decided to abandon the knife and use his hands to rip it apart. He was able to get enough off to free Ivy and decided to take off out of the woods. He made it to the edge of the clearing when he found himself unable to leave.
“What is going on?” screamed Ivy. She was quickly snatched away from him again, but he managed to grab her arm. “Help me! Please!” She managed to grab the pistol that was tucked under her dress and fired at the vine, but nothing happened. She squeezed the trigger again, and she got the same result. “I can’t fire the gun! I think it’s jammed!”
Thacker refused to let go, but his grip was slowly slipping. “Ivy, get down!” He shouted as he withdrew his pistol and aimed at the vine. Ivy managed to move herself enough to him to get a shot. He made his mark: the vine gave slack and released Ivy from its grasp; however, she was hurled past Thacker. He heard a sickening sound and saw that she was impaled by a tree limb right in her stomach. Ivy didn’t scream, but she was gasping for air.
“Ivy! Oh no…” Rushing over to her, he assessed the situation. It wasn’t good; the branch went clean through. Trying to remove her would most likely cause her to bleed out.
“Don’t.” She whispered. She had gone pale, eyes starting to glaze over. “It’s in pretty deep. It doesn’t hurt as bad as you think”.
“But we have to get you off of this branch. You’ll surely die if you stay here,” said Thacker. “I’m so sorry for what happened.”
She shook her head slightly and looked at him. “We both know I’ll die if you try. You were trying to save me from that…thing. I didn’t know plants could attack like that.” She inhaled sharply and clutched at the branch impaling her. “I know I won’t live. Can you please shoot me? I don’t want to suffer.”
Thacker glanced at his gun. He knew it was the humane thing to do, but he didn’t want to give up on saving the girl. There was still a chance…
“Please, Mr. Porter. I don’t want to hurt anymore. If I could…I’d shoot myself, but I suppose that isn’t very lady like.” She let out a strained chuckle. “But I beg you. Please inform my family what happened and how you tried to save me. They will understand.”
He sighed heavily and cocked his gun. “Though I don’t agree with this, I know you’re right. I didn’t want to tell you that, but you’re wise. I can’t deny a lady her dying wish.”
Ivy closed her eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Porter. Thank you.”
He squeezed the trigger; a shot rang out into the night. Ivy Sterling’s body lifelessly slumped forward.
“It was what she requested and you granted a dying girl her final wish. You didn’t let her suffer. You did a good thing,” Thacker told himself. It didn’t stop the dreadful feeling from entering his heart, and he let his gun fall to the ground.
“Yes, you did a good thing, Mr. Thacker Porter,” a mysterious voice said. Thacker snapped his head up to see a translucent figure standing next to Ivy’s body. “Everything that has happened tonight has happened for a reason. All will be revealed in time. Maybe not in your lifetime, but everything will make sense.”
Thacker was at a loss for words. Still he noticed how the “body” of this figure resembled the vines that had grabbed Ivy. “You killed that girl! What the fuck are you?” he demanded. Instead of answering him, the figure handed Thacker a bundle of papers, one which had “Deed – Porter” scrawled in silver writing and an emerald crest with a falcon in its center.
“I don’t understand. There are no other homes out here other than my own.” Thacker was perplexed.
“You are gravely mistaken. Please come with me, Thacker Porter. I will not harm you. In fact, this is the fortunate thing that could happen to you.” The figure walked out of the woods and started up the hill. Thacker hesitantly followed, his hand remaining on his gun. A lone house stood at the top of the hill, near the outskirts of the woods. There was no sign of life and looked as if it has been there for some time. Thacker was more confused. He knows this area. Surely, he would have seen this abandoned house at some point.
“Now you officially possess this beautiful home and its secrets, Thacker Porter. If I were you, I’d start gathering information and supplies. By the way, I am the one who started the rumor of the Sterling’s to be involved in witchcraft. There was no witch at all; it was the start of something much grander. But the first thing you need to do is dispose of the bodies. But word of warning: let’s hope the dead stay buried.”