by Jamie Proctor ©

She was a woman, old, and about to be executed for witchcraft. She sat on the bare rough rock floor of a wine cellar, the village's makeshift prison. Her grandchildren, a boy and a girl, huddled close under her bony arms. Wispy gray hair, unkept but long and still silky, flared out in a cloak around the three of them, giving the illusion at least of warmth. It would catch fire at sunrise, become the red flame it had been in her youth, and perhaps her life would end quickly with blood boiling and skull cracking. Or perhaps not.

She wondered what would happen to the children, aged two and three, at her death. No godfearing citizen of town would take them, not two little imps raised in a house of witchcraft. Her house would be burned, and all the children's few possessions would go up in flames with their grandmother. She closed her eyes. A cold tear trickled down the grooves in her lined cheek, splitting into rivers and streams that emptied into the reservoir of loose flesh at her neck. Aye, the children would be turned out into the cold autumn air, already frosting the ground most nights. Perhaps they'd find a merciful death the next evening, freezing to death, two little angels together. Or perhaps it would come to them from the wolves and wild dogs in the forest, or it could be the long and painful death from starvation. However it came, come it would.

Her own death she could bear. But not the death of her chicks, the only thing left of her daughter. Or, for that matter, of herself.

So she prayed to whatever god might be listening. "Ach, moroch, it is fair that I die. But I'd give anything in my power if only my children could be saved."

In the corner, a rat squeaked, scurried. The cellar remained still otherwise, stinking of urine and the rotting wounds from the beating they'd given her a week past. She could barely make out the blonde hair on the heads of the babies, both sleeping. Tiny wisps moved in the little girl's breath.

"Aye, well," she whispered. "I knew it was of no use to pray." Silence surrounded her, broken only by breathing.

"And how long were you a witch, Grandmother?" shrilled a voice.

"Hah! Who's there?"

"You said anything in your power for the lives of your grandchildren."

She swallowed. "Aye, I did, and I meant it. If you're the devil here for my soul, it's yours."

Shrill laughter. "If I were the devil, I wouldn't bother. You're his already and you know it."

"And how d'ye make that out?"

"Are you not a witch?"

"Yes." She bowed her head. "Yes, I made the vows to the Horned One and became his bride. I practiced the rites of the round moon, and I danced naked to celebrate the coming of spring. But I did no different from my mother, or her mother, and 'twas only at the coming of the priests that witchery became evil."

"Do you deny then that you ever did an evil act?"

A tear dripped down her cheek, joining the first ones in the folds of her neck. "No, I don't deny it. I spelled my first husband Nat to fall in love with me instead of my sister. I cursed him into dying a year later. I spoiled the milk cows of Bram Forster. I brought down disease on the family of Sythe Marin, and then made sure of old Sythe dying of it. I've sold potions and poisons, dug up corpses to use in magic rites, and spat on the church. And I caused the priest's horse to shy and throw him in a ditch, which broke his back and made him bedridden for all his life."

"And you regret these things?"

"No!" She almost leapt to her feet, then remembered the children. "No, I regret nothing. I never harmed one who didn't deserve the harming, nor did ill to one who did only good to me. In truth, I brought justice down on many who'd never have had it otherwise. Sythe beat his wife and raped his daughters, Nat went with other women, Bram closed debts on folk who were turned out to starve. My potions were more like to be love potions and potions to get young frightened girls out of trouble than they were to be poisons, and I always took care who the poisons went to. And the dead I disturbed, well, I reckon they didn't need their bodies anymore."

"So, a lifetime of witchcraft, no remorse, excuses for evil acts. I'd not even have answered your prayer if it weren't for the little ones who have done nothing."

"You'll help me, then? Let me burn, I care not. I'm old. But my chicks will die sure an someone doesn't care for them."

Something shuffled closer to her. "You don't care who or what I am, or what it may cost you, if only your grandchildren are cared for."

"That's the right of it."

"And you are sure? You must be very, very sure."

The old woman thought a minute. What had the children to look forward to with her death but starvation, or being eaten, or freezing to death? Their immortal souls were safe, being innocent.

"One thing only: that you promise me upon your soul that my chicks will be cared for as I would care for them."

The shrill laugh came again. "I have no soul to promise on, but I swear it by the breath and blood of my body. The children will be beloved and treated and raised well. My folk treasure children, you ken."

She nodded. "Aye, then, that will have to do. I guess then you're of elf kin, but life in Tirnanog is better than sorrowful death and no burial here in the mortal world."

"Clasp hands with me on it." The old woman reached out, gasped as she felt the tiny fur- covered hand and the claws.

"A rat!"

The rat laughed shrilly. "I am a servant of Titania, fear not. And your grandchildren shall be safe. We shall take them now."

The morning dawned bright and cold and clear. The weather vane atop the blacksmith's steep-pitched roof stood black against a red dawn. A hundred or more villagers gathered in the square, staring at the blackened post surrounded with brush and logs in the center. There were whispers, neighbor to neighbor, daughter to mother-in-law, that the old woman had eaten her grandchildren the previous night, that this morning her face had been reddened with blood and the children nowhere in the cellar.

The blacksmith's wife set her feet wide, hands on hips, when she heard it. "'Tis a mercy to the children, if it's true; at least they died in the hands of one they loved, instead of in the mouths of the wolves." Her husband hushed her, and she frowned at him.

"Aye, Smith, and you know it to be true as do we. Poor tykes were to be set into the world, and none to take their poor cursed souls in."

A hush fell on the crowd as the old woman was drawn blinking into the dawn light. Her mouth was red indeed, though the smith's wife said it was from biting her own lips out of grief. Her eyes too were red from crying, though no one saw tears in them, nor expected any from the eyes of a witch. She wore a gray homespun gown, tattered and black at the back from the beatings she'd received before confessing. The crowd parted as she tottered toward the stake.

Her fine grey hair stirred in the wind, moving and whispering with a life of its own. One of the guards tried to take her arm. She shook him away from her, clambered over the tinder to stand on the platform below the stake. The priest took her arms and bound them behind the pole; she winced as her back scraped against it. When she was tied fast, the priest backed away and nodded to the guard, who touched the tinder with his torch. A flame leapt up from the wood, crackling as it ate a path toward the old woman. It was the same color as the sunrise.

"So die those who refuse to receive our Lord God as their sole salvation and life," said the priest, then backed away and crossed himself, muttering a prayer in Latin.

The old woman stood proudly behind the flames, breathing deep whenever smoke came toward her, then coughing. Through the smoke, she could still see the cellar from which she'd been taken. A rat was there in the opening, with two sleeping rat pups. Before her eyes closed forever, the old woman could swear the rat winked at her.


About the author:

Jamie Proctor tells us she comes from a family with a tradition of storytellers and talkers, so writing fantasy comes naturally to her. She juggles writing with raising three bright sons and working full-time in a non-profit agency. Besides writing, she enjoys laughing, learning, and teaching.

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