A Witch Hunt, 1666
Ivy Sterling didn’t mean for any of this to happen. The day started off innocently enough. She was instructed by her mother to go to the woods and gather chamomile and ginger root. Ivy’s sister, Grace, had fallen ill, and the usual remedies weren’t helping. It had been a relatively boring afternoon, and Ivy was grateful she was nearly finished. As she plucked another root, Ivy saw something shining inside a hollowed-out tree trunk. She peered down and saw a small pistol, lying on a bed of dry leaves.
She jumped back in fright. Her father had taught her to be afraid of guns. But she couldn’t help but wonder why it was there. “No one lives nearby. It doesn’t make any sense unless someone is hiding it here for sinister reasons.”
Ivy looked around the surrounding area, then back down at the gun. “I don’t think it would hurt to take it to Father. Maybe he knows who the rightful owner.” Reaching down into the tree trunk, she grabbed the gun, placed it securely at the bottom of her basket and continued with her task.
As Ivy was finishing up, she heard more rustling, shortly followed by giggling. She stood up and saw two figures behind a tree: Thatcher Borne and Josephine Rosenthal. They appeared to be getting intimate. She had a reputation for being the town harlot. Her father Jacques Rosenthal was another founder of the town. Ivy didn’t want to disturb them, so she quietly backed away. But as she stepped on a branch, Josephine’s giggling stopped.
“Who’s out there?” Thatcher yelled out. “It’s rude to spy!”
Ivy attempted to duck out of sight, but she heard Josephine shriek as she pointed Ivy out to Thatcher. The couple made their way over to her. Ivy heard Thatcher chuckle.
“It’s just the young Sterling girl. She’s not a threat. But it’s strange. Why would a child be out here so late?”
“Exactly! Shouldn’t you be in bed, little girl?” Josephine sneered. “Probably out here performing some spells.” 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. 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 sick and my mother asked me to gather these plants to make a remedy.”
“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 felt 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 to walk away, clutching the basket close to her. But she got pushed from behind, dropping her basket. Ivy saw all the contents spill from it, including the gun.
“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! Who did you steal this from?”
Ivy remained silent. She didn’t know what to say or do. All she knew was that she was terrified and was afraid they’d use the gun on her.
Thatcher grabbed her arm. “I asked you a question! Where did you steal this gun from, you little bitch!”
Ivy had no idea the gun was loaded, and she definitely didn’t pull the trigger. A shot rang out followed by an anguished scream. If anyone would have been in those dark woods, they would have run as far away as they could. Thatcher dropped to the ground, a single shot to the abdomen present. His eyes rolled back into his head as he took his final breath. Ivy dropped the gun in horror as Josephine’s wide eyes stared at her.
“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 is sick! I’m gathering plants to make a medicine to help her,” Ivy begged.
“That’s what a witch would want me to think!”
She took the gun from the ground and placed it in her dress pocket. Pointing at Ivy and threatening that she was going to be in trouble, Josephine took off running on the path that led back into Norwich. Ivy panicked. She didn’t need to have her family’s name further stained by another lie. She ran after Josephine in an attempt to stop her.
As Ivy made her way out of the woods, she saw a tall figure in the distance. She recognized the figure to be Thacker Porter. Ivy didn’t know much about him other than his father was prominent in establishing Norwich and made the town what it was today. She didn’t have a clue what he was doing out there, but maybe he could talk some sense into Josephine.
“Mr. Porter! Please help me!”
Ivy heard Josephine scream to him. His head whipped their direction and started to run toward the two women. Ivy was concerned Josephine wouldn’t give her the chance to hear her out. She tried to pick up the pace, but Josephine’s long legs gave her an advantage.
Just as Josephine reached Thacker, she tripped on a tree root sticking out and hit the ground hard enough to discharge the gun in her pocket. Two shots went off and Josephine’s scream filled the air. Blood started to seep from her stomach. Ivy and Thacker had reached her too late. Thacker held her in his arms as she spoke her final words.
“Should have never taken the Borne boy up on his offer…it wasn’t worth all the trouble.” Her body went limp, and the gun dropped out of her pocket. Ivy started sobbing. If she would have left that gun in the tree, none of this would have happened.
“Care to explain what’s going on here, little one?” Thacker asked.
“I’m sorry Mr. Porter!” Ivy pled. “I should have left the gun in the tree! Didn’t mean for any of this to happen!”
She could hear rustling leaves and began to brace herself for the punishment she was going to most likely receive. Instead, she felt warm hands on her shoulders as Thacker tried to get her to look up at him. Taking a quick glance at him through her tear-stained eyes, Ivy noted he was much taller in person. She had only seen him a handful of times in town. He had shaggy brown hair that most would consider uncouth, but he managed to pull it off. Thacker’s blue eyes looked into her own as he tried to calm her down.
“Let’s start at the beginning. I’m sure there’s some kind of explanation to what’s going on here. You’re one of the Sterling children, yes?”
His voice was gentle but firm at the same time. It almost reminded her of Father. Ivy was still shaking over what had happened, but she tried to compose herself. She took a deep breath, counting to ten in her head before she answered him.
“Yes, Mr. Porter. I am Ivy Sterling. My mother had sent me to gather chamomile and ginger roots to help my sister. She has fallen ill and this was a matter of life or death. She may not make it to the morning if I don’t get these to her.”
“What else happened? I’m assuming you and Josephine weren’t out here together.”
Ivy shook her head quickly. “I was collecting the last of the ginger when I saw Josephine and Thatcher Borne being affectionate with one another. I knew I shouldn’t be seeing this, so I left them to their privacy. 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 at the memory of their nasty comments. “They threatened to hurt me. I tried getting away, but they pushed me to the ground, causing my basket to spill its contents, including a gun I had found. It seemed to discharge and it shot Thatcher.”
Ivy saw Thacker’s eyes widen. “Someone else has been shot? Where are they?”
She shook her head. “No. He was shot in the abdomen and died shortly after.”
“You said you found a gun? Where did you find it?”
“Inside a hollowed-out tree truck. I wasn’t going to take it, but thought my father might know who it belongs to. I know I shouldn’t have taken something that wasn’t mine. Just trying to be helpful. Now I wish I would have left it inside that tree trunk. None of this would have happened.”
She heard Thacker sigh. “Not much we can do about this now. But I find it odd someone would put a gun inside a tree trunk.”
“I thought it to be strange too, but I swear on my father’s grave,” Ivy blurted. “I didn’t even know the gun was loaded. Josephine had taken the gun when she took off running from the scene. She was going to blame me for what had happened. I only followed her because I didn’t want to be falsely accused.”
Thacker stood up, pulling Ivy along with him. He had a serious look in his eye. “We will need to report this to the town constable. Thatcher’s mother will be wondering what happened to her son; the same with Josephine’s father. As long as you tell them the truth, it will be all right.”
Ivy started to shake her head. “No, the Rosenthal’s despise my family! This will give them an excuse to oust us from Norwich.”
Ripping her arm free, she ran back into the woods. Ivy needed to get home. She would not have her family suffer because of the Rosenthal’s unwarranted hatred. Ivy could hear Thacker shouting for her to come back, but she refused to turn around. The fog was getting thicker, and it was getting harder for her to see anything. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a glimmer of white light and ran toward it. When Ivy got to the source of the light, a lone tree stood in the clearing. Its size was intimidating yet beautiful.
She felt a strange presence near this tree. That wasn’t the only strange thing: the giant tree was in full bloom, while nearby trees were long dead because of an early frost. It was eerily quiet. Ivy knew she had to hide as she couldn’t outrun Thacker. Grabbing the lowest tree limb, Ivy began to climb up to hide in the vegetation. Once she burrowed herself deep enough, she heard heavy footsteps approaching.
“Come on, kid. I know you’re nearby. You can’t outrun me,” Ivy heard him shout. She adjusted her footing, and she accidentally kicked a branch. This caused some leaves to rustle. Ivy saw Thacker looking where she was hiding, but didn’t seem to acknowledge her presence. He stood at the base of the giant tree and looked upward.
“Please come down. I’m not going to hurt you.” Thacker whispered.
Before Ivy could 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 was the only thing keeping her from falling 20 feet headfirst. She let out a scream.
“Mr. Porter! Please help me!”
She saw him turn to face her. His face was in disbelief at what was happening. Ivy saw him pull his knife out and started slicing away at the vines in an attempt to free her. But as soon as he’d make a cut, the plant would heal itself at a rapid pace. Ivy had seen nothing like it.
“What kind of sorcery is this?” She heard Thacker say as he abandoned his knife and began to use his hands to rip the vines apart. He was able to get enough off to free Ivy and took off out of the woods. The two of them had made it to the edge of the clearing when they were suddenly pulled backward. The vines had wrapped their tendrils around Ivy’s ankle.
“I’m caught!” She screamed and was quickly snatched away, but Thacker managed to grab her arm.
“I’ll get you free from this. Just hold on!”
She watched Thacker pull the pistol from his side and fire at the vines, but nothing happened. He fired off another shot and got the same result.
“I can’t fire the gun! I think it’s jammed!”
He refused to let go of her arm, but Ivy could feel his grip slipping.
“Ivy, duck!” He shouted as he withdrew his own pistol and aimed at the vines. Thacker had made his mark: the vines gave way and released Ivy from its grasp.
But with this sudden reaction, she hurled past Thacker too quick for him to grab her. She didn’t see the tree limb she was flying at until it was too late. Ivy felt an unknown pressure in her stomach, but the pain didn’t register until she heard Thacker gasp and cry out. Looking down at her stomach, she saw the other side of the tree limb sticking out. Ivy didn’t scream, but she did start to gasp for air.
He rushed over to her, assessing 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 glazing over. “It’s pretty embedded. It doesn’t hurt as much as you think”.
“But we have to get you off of this branch. You’ll die if you stay here,” said Thacker.
She shook her head. “We both know I’ll die if you try. You were trying to save me. 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 give you permission to do so.”
Thacker glanced at his gun. He knew it was the humane thing to do, but he didn’t want to give up on her. There was still a slim chance they could successfully save her from death.
“Please, Mr. Porter. I don’t want to drag this out. If I could, I’d shoot myself, but I suppose that isn’t very proper.” 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, you’re right. I didn’t want to tell you that, but you’re wise. I can’t deny a lady her final request.”
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. Falling to his knees, Thacker couldn’t help but feel despondent at the events that took place. He kept telling himself he did the right thing.
“It was what she requested, and you granted a dying girl her last 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.”
“Please come with me, Thacker Porter. I will not harm you. 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 baffled. He knew this area well and would have come across this house at one point while he was chopping wood.
“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, it was me the one who started the rumor of the Sterling’s involvement in witchcraft. There was no witch at all; it was the start of something much grander. You need to dispose of the bodies quickly. But a word of warning: let’s hope the dead stay buried.”