Foul And Ugly Mists

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Summary

Estelle knew what happened to witches. Surely no one would ever accuse her of being one. The authorities were taking an interest in her. Would they protect her, or throw her to the alligators?

Genre:
Romance / Adventure
Author:
Terry A
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
13
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
18+

To Burn A Witch

The witch would be burnt at the Church of the Guardian Spirits at the west of the village. This was the last outpost of Ryehurst before the Dark Forest. It was considered appropriate that she would be offered to God at the juncture of the godly and the godless, a sacrifice presented where the Guardian Spirits were most needed. She would be whipped from the Market Square to the Church Yard. Spectators thought whipping, especially of women, was a lot of fun. For those involved it was a lot less so. The victims had to have their backs bare. Men took off their shirts. Women had the back of their dress torn open, requiring them to mend it once the sentence was finished. The victims’ hands were tied to a rod sticking out of the back of the cart that would lead them. The rod was above head height, supposedly so the victims could see where they were going. It was pure coincidence that this meant that the women could not cover their breasts. As each whiplash caused them to writhe, their breasts, covered or not, bounced in a manner very pleasing to the cruder watchers.

Xyletia was wearing only a thin shift. Since it would be burnt with her, there was no need to be careful with it. The back was torn open, revealing her tender flesh. No one cared that the shift covered her front. It was so thin that nothing would be hidden. Zekan, Krid, and Quarl stood in the front of the crowd. They had not been the first to arrive, merely pushed their way in front of everyone else, jeering them to complain. They intended enjoying the sight, marching the half mile route along with the cart, calling out the usual crude and humiliating comments. Tomni stood a few paces from them. Being 5′ 8" tall, he had easily found a place where the people in front were shorter than he was. The normal 17-year old’s interests meant he would watch, admiring the virtuosity of a body under great stress. His innate consideration for others, especially those who were suffering, kept him separate from the crude activities of the three bullies.

Xyletia’s daughter, Penarette, was held by two guards. She would be taken behind the cart, seeing every whip lash as it drew bloody welts across her mother’s back, and then be forced to watch her mother’s cremation. Already tears were streaming down her face as she cried out, “She’s innocent. She’s not a witch. She’s just an old woman who was trying to look after her daughter.” Penarette’s anguish caused more laughter and vile comments from the callous threesome.

Estelle was at the Church of the Guardian Spirits. This was the church nearest their home, where they normally worshiped. It was hot, but not the searing heat that would last throughout the summer. While the grass in front of the church and around the graves was kept short, elsewhere plants and low shrubs were allowed to grow. The pink fetterbush and the yellow acacia flowers gave colour among the white marbleberry and buttonsage plants. The hydrangeas and the firebush plants would provide their colour in summer. Always some lilies were in bloom. Hibiscus seemed nearly as prolific. Blazing Star and pink poppies mingled with the other plants, while trumpet vine climbed up the trees. There was a fence around the edge of the churchyard. Tupelo trees and maples, intermixed with palmettos, were permitted to grow along it, providing a stronger boundary that kept out animals and people. Taro grew in the shade of the magnolia and live oak trees. Estelle saw a rabbit scurry among the plants. Ibis walked around the graves, hunting for insects in the grass. A black snake had been warming itself on the sun-heated stone slabs that lead from the kissing gate to the church. The noise of the people made it live up to its name of ‘racer’ by racing away into the underbrush. A crested caracara, arriving too late to catch the snake, sat on a fence post. Squirrels played on tree branches, and blue jays and mocking birds flitted around. The ubiquitous little lizards were everywhere. Some were only as long as Estelle’s finger, while others were the length of her hand. They ran from the shelter of one bush to a pile of leaves to another bush. Some ran along the leaves or branches of plants. Occasionally one would stop and blow out its throat sack, trying to attract females. Sometimes this was red, adding a splash of colour among the tiny creatures.

“It’s a pleasant spring day,” Estelle said sadly to her parents. “This should be a very peaceful scene.”

Her father shuffled his feet. He did not want to say he supported what was about to be done, yet at the same time he could not say anything in front of the neighbours that might appear to disagree with the dispensers of justice. “It should be,” he said, “but instead we have to go through this.” Neighbours could take that how they wanted, that he did not support the burning, or he was sorry it had to be done.

In front of them, spoiling the peace that should be equated with a churchyard, was a stake. Fixed fast in the ground, it stood over six feet high. Six inches across, it would survive the fire long enough to hold the witch until she was ashes. To one side were the chains that would restrain the condemned. On the other side were the bundles of faggots that would light her way to the next world. What Estelle would see would be horrific for the 14-year old girl, but her mother Sarda, and her father Metras, felt she needed to be warned about what happened to those who did not do what the village authorities wanted.

Whippings began with three ritual blows. First across the shoulders, then the middle of the back, and finally above the waist. These marked out the area that would be turned to raw meat. Those in the crowd jeered the victim or cheered the strong arm of the whipper, depending how they felt. As each blow fell, Xyletia jerked, but said nothing. The cruder spectators yelled out comments about her bouncing breasts. Xyletia was 34, a little plump, but still young enough for her figure to attract attention. Each jerk of her body caused the front of her dress to move in ways very interesting to the young males. They yelled out approving comments.

Penarette called out her mother’s innocence even louder as she saw the red marks on her mother’s back. She reddened at the humiliation of the crude taunts. Her tears flowed unrestrained. The cart started slowly moving. It would take twenty minutes to reach the church. During that time the whipper, his arm strengthened by long practice, would continue his mauling. Zekan, Krid, and Quarl walked along in front of the crowd, continuing to shout offensive appreciation of Xyletia and Penarette’s discomfort. Tomni watched the procession as it started to wind through the streets to its grim destination. In his 17 years, this was not the first time he had seen such punishment. The local pike brigade, marching in front of and alongside the cart, cleared a path through the crowd until the cart had passed. More pikemen followed, ensuring no one got too close and interfered with the whipper’s aim. As the crowd spilled into the road, Tomni saw Henren and Osphrarl. He had not seen them when he arrived, or he would have stood with them. The three boys were friends, and were often together. Tomni joined them.

“Witches need to be punished, to protect the community,” Osphrarl said.

“You going to watch the burning?” Tomni asked.

“No,” said Henren. Osphrarl shook his head.

“Nor me neither. Seen one before.” Tomni shivered at the memory. “Kept me awake for nights afterwards, fearing they might do something like that to me.”

“They won’t, if you’re innocent.”

“You think Xyletia’s guilty?” Tomni looked at Osphrarl. “All she did was sell ointments that every one of us bought at some time. If anyone’s a witch, it’s that Noxiet. She sold potions that would harm people; Xyletia never would.”

“Quiet,” hissed Henren. “She has friends. Say anything against her and you’ll find out if her harmful potions actually work.”

“What about Penarette?” asked Osphrarl, changing the subject. “What will happen to her?”

“She’s 16, should be married already. No one will want her now though.”

Life expectancy was short. Some people lived to 70 years of age or longer, yet by 50 most were old. Poor hygiene, insufficient food, and expensive and usually worthless medical care caused minor illnesses to be fatal. One third of children born would die before their fifth birthday. To compensate for the short life span, girls usually married at age 15 or 16, boys slightly older. Some married younger. A few were betrothed very young. That way if anything, accident or illness, happened to one set of parents, there was another set who would look after the orphaned child. For Penarette to be unmarried at 16 made her almost an old maid.

Those at the church heard the procession before seeing it. Xyletia could no longer keep silent. Each blow brought forth a heart rending cry of pain. Heart rending to Penarette anyway. The others thought it just punishment for being a witch. Penarette was now sobbing uncontrollably, her cries of innocence drowned in the blood that flowed so freely down her mother’s back. As the cart reached new spectators, they joined in the calls and savage jokes. The cart stopped outside the church. The whipper delivered three last ritual strokes, same as the first three, only now landing on reddened mangled flesh. Xyletia was no longer standing. She was hanging from the pole coming from the cart, her feet dragging more than walking. She was untied, pushed roughly against the stake, the chains encompassing her tightly.

Grenmonton and Unbret walked slowly out from the church, and down the path the racer had so speedily quitted. With them was the Pastoral, the officiant at the church. Grenmonton was The Esquire, the owner of the largest estate, landlord of half the village, the law giver and ruler of the region. He stood straight backed, as befitted someone of his importance, his black eyes scanning the crowd. 38 years old, his curly black hair was now streaked with grey, but was still a dense mass that added to his dignity. At 5′ 9" tall, he was one of the taller males in the area. He was growing plump, but was still well muscled, could challenge anyone in the village and win more times than not. Even Tomni’s father, Damtan the smith, one of the strongest men in the area, would not like to face a real fight with Grenmonton.

If Grenmonton was one of the tallest men in the area, Unbret was the tallest. At 6′ 1" he towered even over Grenmonton. At age 37, he had achieved his goal of becoming The Magus, the head of the church. Between them, he and Grenmonton were the law, givers of life and death to all who lived under their sway. Now they were giving death. In looks Unbret was, in many ways, the opposite of Grenmonton. His blue eyes and blonde hair gave him a kindly, friendly appearance. Knowing the value of this impression for a churchman, he smiled continuously, nodding acquaintance to everyone, making them feel he knew them personally, could be trusted with all their secrets. In this way he gathered information he could later use to further the political goals of he and his confederate.

By a superhuman effort, Penarette dragged herself free of her captors. Racing to the two who held her mother’s life in their hands, she dropped to her knees before them.

“Please, please,” she begged them. “Spare her life. She’s not a witch. She’s a herbalist. She makes simple potions to help heal people from their illnesses. Why, both of you have benefitted from her ointments before now. Please, save her from this terrible death.”

Grenmonton looked gravelly at Unbret, who gave his practised sweet smile at the distraught girl. “My dear. Of course it is completely laudable that a daughter should show such loyalty to her mother, no matter what evil she has done. As was stated at her trial, we felt she had hidden from you all her perversions, the meetings with the Evil One, the trading of souls in return for power over her victims, the heretical uses of sacred symbols and incantations to further her own base desires. Be strong, my dear. Acknowledge her crimes, beg forgiveness for yourself, throw yourself on the mercy of the church, dedicate your life to good works, be guided by the Pastorals, and your own tainted soul may yet be saved.”

“She’s no witch. If she was, she would turn both of you into toads and escape.”

“She would, if we had not fastened the sacred symbol, The Sunburst And Circle, round her neck. This blocked her path of communication with the Evil One. Yet even that was done at cost. You can see that merely wearing the holy symbol has burnt it into her corrupt flesh.”

“It burnt her because you heated it in a fire before hanging it round her neck, and pressing it against her. You deliberately ...”

She was not allowed to say more. The Esquire motioned to the guards who had come up behind her. Putting a hand over her mouth, they dragged her away.

The Sunburst And Circle had a sun in the middle, with eight wavy rays emanating from it, imitating a sunburst. The circle, with the sun at its centre, surrounded the emblem about half way along the sun’s rays. The diameter of the circle was about the width of a man’s hand. The emblems worn by the high priests had a gold sun and rays, and a silver circle studded with blue sapphires. The copy forced on Xytletia was iron. It would melt in the fire, so precious metals and exquisite craftsmanship were unnecessary.

“Peace, my darling Penarette, peace,” Xyletia called out. “This is not how I wanted to go. It will be painful, but it ends the tortures that wrung a confession from me. Watch for yourself now. You can do no more for me.”

Penarette turned to The Magus. “At least let me kiss my mother farewell.”

“And contaminate yourself on her foul being?”

“She’s my mother!” the distraught girl pleaded.

“Then you should be glad we have not considered you also guilty. You should pray for her soul, that God will forgive her vile crimes and heresies. You should be submitting yourself to church discipline to save your own soul. On your knees, and pray for the soul of this debauched mate of the Evil One, and for the saving of your own soul from the hell to which it is destined, unless spared by God.”

The guards forced Penarette to her knees. 16 years old, with gold eyes, blonde hair, a pretty face, and a body that set men’s blood racing, she was a known beauty in the village. Yet now her face was contorted with sobs, her hair and dress disheveled. She looked anything but beautiful. Estelle, one inch shorter than Penarette at 5′ 2", with grey eyes, mousy brown hair, and her plain face, had never felt herself as fortunate as the prettier girl. Now her heart went out to the older girl. Penarette’s life was catastrophically ruined, being forced to watch the destruction of the one she loved, the centre of her life since the death of her father. Estelle was naturally sensitive, sympathetic to all sufferers, even if they did deserve it as this witch did.

Unbret, in the unctuous voice he used for incantations, began his routine call for the damned to confess and repent. “False spirit, who has tried to infiltrate and corrupt our holy society, come out of this woman. Reveal yourself to this assembled crowd that they may see and be warned of the agents of the Evil One. Woman, admit your guilt. Beg forgiveness for the sins you have committed. Place yourself under the protection of the holy word, that when your body is ashes, your soul may leave your corrupt worldly container, and hope to be welcomed into the paradise of the forgiven.”

Those at the stake were always called upon to admit their guilt and seek the protection of the church. This would not save them from their fate, but might mean it was not made more painful. Thus Xyletia’s words were carefully phrased. “I admit all the wrongs I have done, and place my soul at the judgement of the one true and just God.”

This was not the explicit confession that Unbret would have liked. Such an admission could have bought a quick thrust of a pike once the suffering had been sufficient to impress the audience. Yet neither was it a defiance thrown in his teeth. Those that did that found the faggots were pressed against only their lower extremities, causing pain, but not a quick death. Unbret frowned, and stepped back. This “admission” would ensure no additional pain, but would not merit a quicker death.

Grenmonton now stepped forward to pronounce the sentence. “Foul witch, you have caused harm and suffering to the innocent, law-abiding, and holy members of this community. You have been tried and found guilty of your awful crimes. Your refusal to confess all your sins has itself proved your continuing guilt. Now you must suffer the legal and God-given penalties for your debauchery. May God have mercy on your soul. We can not.”

He nodded to the executioners. The faggots, bundles of wood, were piled up around her. They formed a pyramid. Lying on the ground five faggots wide at the base, tapering off as they rose from her feet to about her chin. Xyletia and Penarette had to watch as glowing coals were tipped on top of dry wood in a brazier. Xyletia, knowing what was going to be done to her, closed her eyes and made whatever silent prayer she thought might still have any value in a community she believed was godless. Penarette, knowing only too well what was to happen, called out once more for mercy, while the coals set the wood alight and caused a good fire to burn. Bundles of wood were then thrust into the fire. All this time, the victim and her daughter had to watch, unable to avoid the horrendous fate that awaited, seeing only too clearly what torture was going to be applied.

The executioners took out the brands and headed towards the helpless sacrifice. “Tickle her feet with the brand,” yelled out Zekan. At 18, he was the oldest of the three bullies. His position as leader was aided by being the tallest, at 5′ 9”. Muscular, broad shouldered, he felt strong and secure enough to display his arrogance and lack of sympathy for others. “Don’t light the faggots, give her a taste of the brand. That’ll signal her way to the Promised Land.”

The executioner glanced at Unbret. He gave a slight shake of the head. Xyletia’s “confession” had been sufficient to avoid more than just the normal sentence. Besides, it would be difficult to find her feet behind all those bundles of wood. The brands were pushed among the faggots. The dry wood quickly caught, and soon fire was spreading up the side of the chained victim. As the fire started, The Master of Music, Chantan, signalled the band to start playing. They played a happy tune. After all, the successful capture and conviction of an agent of the Evil One should be celebrated. The music would help to get the people in the mood to enjoy this edifying spectacle.

Krid, the youngest of the three at 16, and the shortest at 5′ 6", was leaping and yelling with glee. His thin rat like face was now smiling with delight. By himself he would have been scared to say anything, but with his two older and bigger friends he could be as vicious as them. Quarl, at 17 and 5′ 8" in between the other two, turned his fat pudgy face to Penarette. He was shy about his appearance, embarrassed that the girls never showed interest in him the way they flocked around Zekan. Now he got to show superiority to one of the prettiest girls in the village, one who had made plain her dislike of him. “Warming yourself by the fireside? Bring any bread to make toast? Or is your mother going to be the only ‘toast’ that’ll burn today?”

This comment made Krid confident enough to add his own crude remarks. “What price your virginity now? Wouldn’t look at me would you? Called me rat face.” He leered at her. “Well, this ‘rat face’ can watch your witch of a mother burn just as easily as your virginal eyes.”

Unbret was not pleased by this comment. As The Magus, it was his job to encourage the girls to value their virginity. To have someone publicly mocking one of the commandments did not add to the inspirational value of the exhibition. He would remember Krid. For now he turned his attention to the witch, who was screaming, while Penarette wept even harder.

The sentence completed, Penarette was released. She dropped to the ground, too drained to think of anything. Slowly she crawled towards what was left of her beloved mother. The ashes were still hot, too hot to touch, but she managed to scoop some of them into her skirt. Her shift covered her legs, protecting her modesty. Carefully she stood up. Her tears cooling the ashes, she wended her sorrowful way home. Once there, she reverently emptied her mother’s ashes from her skirt into an urn. Saying a short prayer, she placed the urn in a place of honour on the household altar. Standing in the empty room, she felt she should cry, but she had no more tears left. She would find more, but not just now.

“What of me?” she said to herself. “What do I do?” She used to help her mother make the ointments and potions that she sold. No one had wanted any of those since Xyletia had been arrested. There was the land upon which the house stood. Xyletia had been one of the larger landowners among the small folk. Nothing like The Esquire, of course, but still sufficient. It was more than Xyletia and Penarette could farm on their own, so most of it had been rented out. A portion had been reserved for them as their kitchen garden. They kept their own chickens and four cows. Except for farmers, they were one of the few lower people to have more than two cows. The men who rented the land had also not returned since the arrest. The land would keep on producing, but now was the time for plowing and planting. If that was not done, there would be no yield.

Penarette could not think of that. Silence and emptiness oppressed her. She took no account of the time, nor of what she did. She wandered around the empty house, remembering her mother, occasional tears trickling down her face, unable to think of what to do. So it was a shock when, three hours after the burning, there was a hammering at the front door. On her doorstep were Grenmonton’s Steward, The Magus, and three pikemen.

“Have you come to arrest me now?” she asked. A mixture of fear and relief washed over her. Although she did not want to face the fate her mother had suffered, it would at least end her solitary life, and maybe even reunite her with her mother.

The Steward pushed into the room past her, followed by the others. Clearing his throat, he held up a piece of parchment and started to read. “The expenses in the examination and execution of the foul witch Xyletia, to be repaid by her family. Seven days lodging in the prison at a shilling a day, seven shillings. Cost of interrogators at a shilling a day, five shillings.” He looked at Penarette and winked at her. “We’re giving you a break there, girl. Not charging you for the first and last day.”

He continued on, listing all the tortures. Red hot irons that had burnt her flesh, hanging over a smoky fire, thumbscrews, water tortures. Even the iron Sunburst And Circle was priced at two shillings. Penarette could not stand it. “Stop it,” she screamed, putting her hands over her ears. “I don’t want to know. Just tell me what you want.” One of the pikemen removed her hands. They could not possibly charge someone money without saying what had been done to earn it. That would have been dishonest. “One stake, eight pence. Erecting it in the churchyard, four pence. Faggots, fifty four bundles at tuppence ha’penny each, eleven shillings and threepence. Total amount, twenty seven pounds, fifteen shillings, and eleven pence.”

The list ended, Penarette shook her head in disbelief. Tears were again falling. “I can’t pay that. I have no money. No one’s buying her potions, the men won’t come to work the land. No one will hire me. I can never pay.”

“You’re in luck,” the Steward said, smiling. “We’ve valued the land and house you now own. That comes to twenty seven pounds, thirteen shillings, and fivepence. So, if you give us your property, you will only owe two shillings and sixpence.” With another wink, he added. “If you ask The Esquire, I’m sure he’ll let you off that.”

“That’s all I have. Where will I go? How will I live? People don’t want to be near the daughter of a damned witch. What will happen to me?”

Unbret gave her the smile that he had trained himself to give to those in distress. “Throw yourself on the mercy of the church. Come and live with the other penitents in the house of the One True God. He will show you mercy.”

Before he could continue, Penaraette interrupted him. “I know what happens to girls who enter your vile house of vice. Debauched, used as playthings by you and your Pastorals. After a month, they are so ashamed of what they’ve been forced to do that they can’t look anyone in the face. They keep their eyes on the soil, to match their scarred souls. After a year, they’ve got so used to it that they flaunt their wantonness. When you finally throw them out, they’ve lost all their humanity. They are just empty husks, containers of corruption. You hypocritical monster. You are the Evil One incarnate, yet you so sanctimoniously pretend you serve God. You would not know God if he stood next to you. You’re an agent of the Evil One. You’re worse than any witch. My mother was innocent; you are not. Get out of my house while I still own it. Get out and never speak to me of ‘throwing myself on the mercy of the church’ again.”

Unbret now had not even the hint of a smile on his face. “Evil creature. We offered you the chance of redemption, of showing your respect for your betters. Yet it seems your mother’s vile activities have contaminated you as well. Very well. We will give you until tomorrow to think about this. Then we will come and take what is owed to The Esquire. If you still wallow in your sin, then we will just throw you out in the street, and you can fend for yourself. It will not be long before you are being whipped, like your mother.” Turning on his heel, he lead the others out.

Estelle was silent on her way home with her parents. Her hair alongside her face was tied in two braids. These stopped it from blowing in the wind, and getting in her eyes. The braids, heavier than loose hair, hung down each side of her face. Her downcast head was turned to the ground. Seeing nothing, she said nothing until they were indoors. Then she shivered. “Terrible,” she whispered. “Terrible, yet I suppose it had to be done to the witch.”

“She was no witch,” exclaimed her mother, Sarda, with some heat. “She was no more a witch than you or me.”

“Not a witch?” Estelle was confused. “Then why ...?”

“Quiet!” whispered her father, Metras. “Don’t say anything against the authorities.”

“She needs to know.”

“Then at least make sure no one’s listening.” Their house had only three rooms. Metras went into his carpenter’s workshop. The tables were in the centre, where they were easiest for work. Around the room the wood was stored, some lying in piles, more standing against the wall. The tools were all in their place. Work was most efficient if the worker could just reach out and take what he wanted. Better to put everything back than to have to look for it the next time it was needed. Shavings littered the floor, but that was normal. Sweep out the room, and after an hour’s work it would again be covered in shavings and wood dust. The room was empty. The boy who sometimes helped with the work had gone home after the burning, not come in to work.

The main room had a fireplace on the wall opposite the workshop. No fireplace was wanted too close to all that wood. A spit was fixed on the wall to the right of the hearth. A kettle could be hung from the spit, which then was swung over the fire. The times they caught or slaughtered an animal, it could be stuck on the spit and roasted. Meat though was a luxury they managed only a couple of days a week. In the wall on the left of the hearth were two ovens. When the fire was lit, the ovens got hot, and food could be cooked there. Usually bread. If Estelle saw her mother kneading bread, she knew they would have something hot to eat that day. Enough bread would be made to last several days. It would be stale by the time they finished it, so seeing fresh bread being prepared always made her hungry. In the middle of the room was a table with a bench each side of it. There they sat for meals, lessons, greeting visitors, and evening conversation.

The other room was the bedroom. There was no fireplace, but the chimney was inside this room to provide some heat in winter. Two beds, one large enough for two people, and a smaller one for Estelle, filled most of the room. They were just large cloth bags stuffed with straw, or sometimes wood shavings, on wooden supports with legs about 6" high. These kept the beds off the ground, providing some protection from rats and other undesirable creatures during the night. Three chests completed the furnishings. One each, they contained their few other clothes, and the meagre personal possessions they owned.

All rooms checked and empty, Metras looked out the windows. No one was within earshot. Nonetheless he bade them all speak quietly. “Your mother’s right,” he said, almost in a whisper. “You need to know, so you can try and protect yourself.”

“But why? If not a witch, why did they do that to her?”

Metras checked again that no one could hear. “She owned the plot of land where she lived. The Esquire wanted it. Gives good crops, fills in a corner of his own estate. Tried to buy it, for a fraction of what it was worth. When Xyletia refused, he decided to get it another way.”

“But how does killing her help?”

Metras and Sarda exchanged looks. While Metras took a deep breath, Sarda explained how the family was charged for the cost of torturing and killing. “There’s no way Penarette can pay. They’ll ensure the cost is equal to the value of the land, and demand that in payment.”

“What will happen to Penarette? How will she live?”

Once more Estelle’s parents exchanged looks. Sarda turned away. Metras spoke. “The Magus wants her. Beautiful as she is, he lusts after her. Didn’t you notice how The Magus kept telling her she should submit to the church? What he wants is that she submit to him.”

When Sarda was 15, and Metras 18, they had lain together. This one union, and Sarda had got pregnant. They married, and were delighted when, the next year, Estelle was born. They loved her, but wanted boys. To hunt, to catch food, to help on their small landholding, to work in the shop, to learn the trade to take it over and keep the parents in their old age. Estelle’s birth had been difficult, and it must have done something to Sarda’s womb. Although they had continued love making, no other children had come. Sleeping in the same room, Estelle had seen what they did. So she knew what her father meant.

“But he’s The Magus. He preaches all girls should remain virgins until marriage.”

“Listen to what he says, and do that, but don’t expect him to obey his own rules.”

Estelle had been horrified at witnessing the burning. Now she felt sickened too. It was bad enough when she thought it was justified. Now she knew it was all a lie. Just to allow The Esquire to get more land, and The Magus to debauch a beautiful girl Estelle knew and had thought fortunate. Hurriedly she went outside and got rid of the small amount of food that was in her stomach.

Returning, she nervously asked, “Are they likely to do that to us?”

Metras shook his head. “Xyletia owned her land. We lease ours from a landlord, pay a monthly rent. Nothing we have is of value, except my carpentry tools, and they’re only of use to a carpenter.”

For once, Estelle was glad she was not as pretty as Penarette. When she married, her husband would do with her what her parents did. If she had not already emptied her stomach, she would have done it now at the thought of The Magus doing it with her.

“I’ve not heard you complain about The Esquire, or the Magus, before. Except about taxes. Why now are you saying these things?”

“Everyone complains about taxes. So long as we pay, complaining doesn’t get us into trouble. What we just said might. They don’t usually bother us enough for it to be urgent that we warned you. Plus we had to wait until you were old enough to be trusted not to repeat what we said.” Metras sighed. “After what you’ve just seen, we have no choice.”

As promised, the next day the Steward, The Magus, and three pikemen demanded admission to Penarette’s house. No answer. “She may have left,” the Steward said.

“Where would she go?” The Magus asked. “She has no relatives. No one would risk sheltering the daughter of a condemned witch. She may have fled, in which case we will have to find her. To protect the village, of course,” he quickly added. He did not want anyone to think that his interest was in the girl because of her prettiness.

“The cows are lowing,” the Steward said. “Sounds as if they’ve not been milked today.”

“Open the door. Let’s search for her.”

They had no need to search far. Hanging from her own roof tree was the body of Penarette. Underneath her was a chair, tipped over. They guessed she had hanged herself that morning. “A suicide,” said The Magus with contempt. “One who has bespoiled the sacred vessel that God gave her at birth, making a mockery of his mercy. Neither I, nor anyone in grace, can touch such a vile object without contamination. Send for the undertaker. Tell him to take her down and bury her outside the village, in an unconsecrated and unmarked grave.”

After the events of the previous day, Estelle was doubly stunned by Penarette’s suicide. “To be buried in an unconsecrated grave, to be denied the holy rites. That will condemn her soul to Hell. Why? They murdered her mother. Why add damnation to Hell on top of that?”

Metras was in his workshop. He and Estelle were alone. Yet he had to be careful what was said. “That’s the law,” he said gruffly.

“But why condemn her? She was going to be taken away by The Magus, raped, damned by his actions. She killed herself to preserve her virginity. Surely she can’t be condemned for wanting to obey God’s word? It’s The Magus who’s at fault. He’s the one should be damned. He doesn’t obey God’s word.”

“Hush, child. Don’t say anything like that.” Metras looked round, checking no one could hear. “You could be next if anyone hears you. At the least, that’s a whipping offence. You saw what a whipping is like. You don’t want to suffer that, with those over-sexed louts enjoying your misery, and the sight of your revealed body, and making their crude comments.”

“It’s true though.”

Metras put his hand on her shoulder. “Yes, my wonderful daughter, who means so much to both your mother and me. It is. But still, never say that again.”

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