Hunters found a woman in the woods outside the village and gave her to Gus and me, and now she’s locked in a room in our cellar. In the years since Gus took me in, we’d kept an occasional drunkard down there for the night after they’ve gotten a little too rowdy, and sometimes we’d get a horse thief or a fake street magician or even a regular thief and keep them there for a little while, but we’d never kept anyone down there just because they were sleeping in the forest.
By the third night, I still didn’t know much about her or why we had her in our cellar.
“What's a witch?” I asked Gus while we ate dinner.
“That's not something you need to worry about. Eat your food.”
I poked at my food. Gus hadn't brought the woman any food yet. She must be starving. I snuck a leg of chicken into my pants.
“One of the men called that woman a witch. What did she do?”
“I told you not to worry about it. Do as you're told and stay out of the cellar, and this will all be over soon enough.”
We ate the rest of our meal in silence. Gus was upset with me for asking about her. I was upset with him for not answering. When we were done and we had cleaned up, I snuck down the stairs and into the basement. It was a lot darker than I remember it ever having been before, pitch black even. I couldn’t see my feet. I lit the candle I’d brought with me.
The light shone on floor-to-ceiling wrought iron bars in front of me. I put the candle close and peered through them, letting my eyes adjust. There she was, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the cell with large iron manacles binding her wrists. Her nails were long and sharp, and her brown hair was shaggy and unkempt, with leaves snagged in it like they’d been woven in. Her clothes were barely more than rags piled on top of her, and she was thin, so, so thin. And she was staring straight at me, the wavering candlelight reflecting in two large black pupils.
“I brought you some food.”
She didn’t respond. I fished the chicken out of my pants leg and held it out towards her, through the bars. She still didn’t move, just kept staring, her eyes two black points of candlelight.
“It’s a chicken leg. You’re supposed to eat it,” I said, “like this,” and I showed her how. She cocked her head to one side but made no other motion. Maybe she was afraid of Gus and didn’t want to get into trouble for eating.
“He’s really not that bad, you know. He’s big, and he likes to act all scary, but he’s really a nice guy. He took me in when my mother died, and he’s taken care of me for a long time now. I’m sure he just forgot to feed you.”
Still no response though. I didn’t know what else to do, so I put the leg on the floor and slid it into the cell. It got a little dirty, but I didn’t think she would mind. Food is food.
The next morning I woke up to Gus yelling and barging into my room and making all kinds of ruckus, waving a chicken leg covered in gray dust and dirt. He must have found it. I didn’t see another bite taken out of it, so he must have gotten to it before she did.
“I told you to stay away from her!” he roared. “And yet you chose to go down there anyway, and on top of that, you wasted perfectly good food.”
I stood my ground. I knew what I did was right. “She was starving. All I did was bring her a little bit, that's all.”
“She doesn’t need to eat.”
I glared at him. Everyone needs to eat. He was being cruel and he was wrong and we both knew it.
“Don’t disobey me on this again,” he said. “I don’t want you to get hurt.” And with that he left the room, taking the dirty chicken with him.
The next couple days passed quickly. I did my duties around the house, tried not to upset Gus any more than he already was, and visited the woman every chance I got. I asked her what she was doing in the woods, what she’d done wrong, why she wore rags for clothes, why she never seemed to move from her spot on the floor, why she never answered any of my questions. Sometimes she would slowly roll her head around to one side as if she were trying to work a pain out of her neck, and her black eyes never left my face as she did so. I never stayed down there with her for more than a few minutes, as I grew more and more uneasy the longer I was in the cellar. I didn’t want to be caught by Gus again.
Finally came the day of her trial. For the first time in a week, Gus and I went down into the cellar together. He was wearing all dark green and carried a lantern, and I followed behind him. The woman was still sitting cross-legged in her cell. If I were her I would’ve needed to get up and stretch, but she seemed to like that position. Everyone is different.
A key clanked in its lock, and Gus swung open the door to the cell. In the light of the lantern I saw a bowl of nasty-looking gruel in the corner. It didn’t look like it had been touched. I wouldn’t have eaten it either.
“Get up,” Gus told the woman. She stared at him. He stepped in, grabbed the woman’s manacles and wrenched her to her feet. She stumbled as he pulled her out through the doorway.
He dragged her up the stairs and out of the house, and I followed behind, ready to catch her when she fell, but she never did. We passed house after house, and the few people we passed gave us nasty looks. Eventually we reached the square and found everyone else in the village waiting for us. The square was in the middle of the village and surrounded by small houses and an open market. The fourth side opened up to water. Past the deep blue waters of the lake were tall spiky mountains with white caps. A large wooden pyre had been built in the center of the square, but we made our way to the edge of the lake and walked onto the fishing dock. A couple men in dark green were already on it, the same color that Gus was wearing, but none of them had gray hair. Gus handed the woman over to me, turned to the crowd waiting on the shore and cleared his throat..
“Today, good folk, we have ourselves a witch to try.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd.
I watched the woman, and she didn’t react to the noise. Maybe she just didn’t know the language, didn’t know what was going on. Maybe she was really hungry and tired. I poked her to make sure she was okay, and she nearly fell over. Oops. The crowd quieted, and Gus continued.
“As you all know, as of late, many things have been happening in our village. Some of our crops failed to grow, some of the outlying farmers reported their livestock missing, and what’s worse, a child went missing after playing in the woods. Though it has been many yearsand we hoped the scourge was over, sure enough, this woman, this witch, was found sleeping in the woods.”
Jeers from the crowd.
“Now, as is tradition and is right, we will perform the trials of the witch. First, of course, is the trial of hunger. A witch sustains herself off consuming the souls of her unfortunate victims, so she does not require food like the rest of us. Therefore, if there is food in her stomach, wonderful! She is human. If she does not vomit …” He shook his head. “Let’s begin.”
One of the men in dark green handed Gus a small vial. It was full of a sickly green liquid topped with foam. It looked disgusting. He opened it up, and I almost gagged. And then he held it up to the poor woman’s face.
“Hold her still,” he told me.
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t believe that after a week of not feeding her, he was going to give her that stuff.
“I said,” he looked furious, “hold her still.”
I grabbed her shoulders. Gus grabbed her chin and forced the contents of the vial into her mouth and down her throat. She shuddered and gagged, but didn’t vomit. Of course she didn’t. There was nothing for her to vomit, not even a little bit of chicken. Gus nodded and turned back to the crowd. I leaned in close to the woman.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
“All right, folks. Nothing. And so we move on to the trial of water. A peculiar trait of the witch is that they float. If you will …” Gus motioned to two men in dark green waiting at the end of the dock with heavy chains. I was pushed aside, and they quickly wrapped the chains around the woman and locked them into place.
“Any of us wrapped in these chains would quickly sink and drown. A witch would not. Let’s begin.” He nodded to the two men, and, before I could do anything, they pushed her off the end of the dock.
There was a great splash and some thrashing, and then the water grew calm. Suddenly a hand burst through the surface, and the woman miraculously began to tread water. The men reached down and pulled her up and back onto the dock. The chains had slipped off, and the woman had been saved, but apparently Gus didn’t think so.
“She is a witch.” Gus sighed. “Tonight, she will burn in the trial of fire. Prepare the pyre.”
The crowd cheered again, and they dispersed and quickly brought back baskets of food and drink and picnicked on the grass of the square. Gus led me and the woman to a spot right near the pyre, where I sat down. Everyone around us was laughing and smiling and eating, and I was confused.
“Gus, I don’t get it.”
“Why is everyone so happy? Isn’t this sad?”
Gus sighed. “It’s not happy, but it’s not sad either. I should have explained this to you before.” Someone called Gus’s name. It came from a group of men gathered near the edge of the square. They were all wearing dark green. No one else seemed to be wearing dark green. “I’ll tell you more later, I’m sorry. For now, keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t try to escape. The townspeople should know not to mess with her, don’t worry about them. I’ll be back soon.” And he left. I watched until he reached the men and disappeared into the midst of them.
The woman sat on the grass next to me, and no one seemed to pay us any attention. Her hands and the manacles around them rested in her lap. I didn’t think she’d try to run. She was staring at me.
“I’m sorry about all this,” I said.
She tilted her head to the right and made a pained expression.
“Are you hurt?”
She did it again, and this time I noticed a glint of sunlight off of something small and silver poking up out of her neck. I leaned closer. There was a needle poking just out of her neck.
“Ouch,” I said. “How long has this been bothering you? Hold still a moment.” And I reached up and slowly pulled it out. It was silver and long, as long as my hand, and so thin that no blood came out with it. I stuck it into the ground next to me. The woman shook her head around and looked a lot more relaxed. “Much better,” I said. Her eyes seemed a lot more focused. She smiled at me. I smiled back.
We sat together and waited for the time to pass. Everyone around us continued to act like it was festival day, and eventually even the woman seemed to get into it. She leaned forward, reached her hands out over the ground and began to beat it rhythmically. I joined her and did the same. It was fun, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to match her rhythm. She closed her eyes, lost herself in the action, and I did so too. Bop, bop, bop on the ground. When I opened my eyes again she had stopped and sat as she had before. She smiled at me again, and we sat in silence.
When the sun started to touch the white tops of the mountains across the lake, I started to grow worried about Gus, where he was, but the sky was still lit when he laid his hand on my shoulder.
“How’s it going? Anything happen?”
I peered up at his silhouette. “No, sir. Just been sitting here waiting,” I said. I noticed some of the men in dark green were spread out, standing guard at the edges of the square.
“Good. It’s time to get started.”
He pulled the woman up by her manacles again and handed her over to two men who carried her over and lifted her onto the pyre, where another man tied her to the center post with rope. He climbed down, and they began to douse the wood beneath her with oil. Everyone in the square had stopped their festivities and had joined us around the pyre. I turned to Gus, who stood beside me.
“Gus, what are they doing? This isn’t a trial,” I said.
“I’ll explain everything afterwards. Now isn’t the time,” he said. He gripped my shoulder hard once and then grasped a torch someone handed to him. It would require an awful lot of explaining. Gus addressed the onlookers.
“Good folk, the time has come.” He lit the torch in his hand, and everyone cheered. “Her time,” he gestured to the woman tied atop the pyre, “has come. This day we send a message, a message that witches are not welcome here and will never be welcome here.” More cheers. He handed the torch back and nodded. The torch was thrown at the woman’s feet, and the entire structure quickly burst into flames.
The crowd was silent, waiting and listening for the screams. And they kept waiting. Flames licked the dark sky, sparks drifted on the wind, smoke and the smell of burning wood filled the air of the square, wood creaked and popped, but there were no screams. People started to murmur uneasily. I was uneasy. I hoped the woman wasn’t in too much pain.
Suddenly I was spun around forcefully and Gus was shaking me by the shoulder.
“What is this?” He held up the silver needle. “What is this? Where did this come from?”
I started to stammer but couldn’t answer. The fire was roaring, he kept shaking me, and he looked terrified.
“What did this come from, damn it! Answer me!”
“It was in her neck!” I said. “It was hurting her!” And he roared and started to yell and then the fire went out with a heavy wumph and everything grew silent.
She stood atop the smoking pyre, manacles undone at her feet, completely unharmed from the flames and laughing. She laughed and laughed, her eyes open and wild, and then the sound of rustling leaves came from all directions. The rustling was followed by screams from the fringes of the crowd as ragged women appeared and began to slaughter the villagers with jagged knives and nails and bare fingers. Silver daggers flashed in the hands of the men in dark green, but they too fell to the ground in splashes of red.
The witch jumped down from the pyre and landed lightly on her feet. She approached me and Gus, and Gus took a step back.
“Run,” he said. He pushed me when I didn’t move. “Run!”
I fell backwards, and the woman looked at me, smiled, then turned back to Gus. He brandished the silver needle between them like a dagger. She was thin and bony and tiny in comparison to Gus, but he was too slow and like lightning she cut a line of red across his neck. He fell with a dull thud. I ran.
The carnage around me continued but all I could do was run and put that woman as far behind me as possible. Not a single witch paid me any heed, and I reached the edge of the village and kept going and going and now I don’t know where I am or what to do and I don’t know anyone and I’m scared and I’m still running.