Winter, Year 1, Red Ages
I wake to the sound of pounding on the door and Mor’s voice yelling, “Shaina. Shaina.”
Sorcha wakes up crying as I rush to open the door. A bloodcurdling scream tears through the night, destroying any illusions of a peaceful return to slumber. I swing open the door with trembling hands and see anguish in Mor’s eyes. The words that tumble from her mouth bring to the fore all the fears I’d been trying to suppress this winter.
“Shaina, Conor was found dead, killed by the bloodsuckers. Grainne and Aongus are calling you a Witch and gathering the town folks to burn you as one. Quick! We must run.”
I start gathering my things together, but Mor yells, “There is no time. Grab the bairn. We must go now!”
Sorcha is wailing now. Tears streak her little cheeks as she grips her blanket tightly in tiny fists. I grab my plaid and wrap it around us both as I follow Mor outside.
“You must quiet her,” Mor whispers.
I try to comfort Sorcha in a hushed voice. “Shh, Sorcha, you must be quiet. Shhhh.”
Sorcha pays no heed and cries all the louder as she clutches me with her little fingers.
I hear the voices of the villagers coming now, yelling and screaming, “Burn the Witch. It was her husband who brought this upon us.”
Aongus’ voice rises above the rest. “Let her die too. Why should she be spared?”
Mor leads me past the blacksmith’s shop, behind Fergus’ cottage, toward the forest. I see their torches at my cottage now. A voice yells, “They’re gone,” and the villagers continue to chant, “Burn the Witch. Burn the Witch.”
I cast through my mind wildly now, seeking a remembrance of a place to hide. My mind comes up empty, just as it did all winter when I feared a night such as this would come. I should have braved the cold and gone to the sea caves where the dragon tribe dwells despite the perilous winter journey.
Just then, Sorcha lets out a loud bawl, and I hear Grainne yell, “She’s over there.”
Mor and I run around Fergus’ cottage and make for the tree line. The throng is following us quickly with the younger men in the lead. The woods are just up ahead—if only we could lose them in the deep of the trees. If only Sorcha would stop crying.
We reach heavy brush, and I hear the thunder of feet behind me. Just at the edge of the woods, my foot catches on a tree root and I tumble to the ground. As I land on the hard dirt, I twist to protect Sorcha from being crushed by my weight, and pain shoots up my leg. Fear strikes my heart as I realize I’ve a choice to make.
“Mor,” I yell.
Mor glances over her shoulder and sees me on the ground. I try to stand, but my knee gives way. I see the torches through the dark coming swiftly closer.
“Mor, take Sorcha. It is too late. Run. Keep her safe.”
Mor stands there, petrified. She looks at me, she looks at the woods in front of her, and she looks at the torches that are almost upon us. I thrust Sorcha out while warm, wet tears stream down my cheeks and fall unheeded onto the snow. “Take the bairn! It’s me they want.”
Mor grabs Sorcha and my arms, bereft of their lovely burden, fall uselessly at my sides. I stare hungrily after Sorcha for one last moment, and just as Mor and Sorcha disappear in the dark of the woods, the torches are upon me. First the young men arrive, their faces ugly with rage. I know each of them, grew up with them, broke bread with them, bartered with them, sang with them, but it matters not. It’s fear that drives them this night, and no proclamations of innocence or fond memories will help me now.
Niall grabs my arms and drags me into the throng. I try to gain footing, but my right leg will bear no weight. Tadgh holds my other arm, and together they pull me to the center of town. The mob crowds around, cursing me, throwing sticks at me as I’m roughly tied to a large ash tree. The faces of my friends and neighbors swirl around me in angry confusion with rays of moonlight shining on a gaunt cheek here and a slashing brow there. The bindings are pulled tight, cutting into my wrists and ankles as I struggle, but I know it’s useless. It’s been useless since Torloch made his pact with the devil’s handmaiden, Lilith. It’s been useless since Torloch took my wee baby boy and returned home with his blood on his hands. It’s been useless since Torloch became a bloodsucking monster and spread his disease through the village.
I look out at the faces of the crowd, and I see anger and fear. I see despair. It’s a mercy they’ve let me live this long. I curse myself again for not leaving earlier despite the biting cold of winter. I hear one voice among the bloodthirsty yell, “Give her a Witch’s Trial.”
Another voice responds, “We’ll give her a trial of fire. If she’s innocent, let her be saved.”
Bundles of dry oak twigs and sticks are piled at my feet. Oak, the tree of strength. I wonder if the oak will give me strength in my last moments of life. I think of Sorcha, the twin of my poor baby boy. I hope only that Mor got her away safely and at least one of our family will be spared.
Grainne walks right up to me and spits in my face. “You filthy Witch,” she snarls. “Your monster husband and his kind killed my son. Shredded his neck.” Tears run down her dirt-smudged face. “We are going to watch you burn for what you’ve done.”
Una, who lost her husband to Torloch, grabs a torch and sets the wood at my feet on fire. The firelight reflects off her savage face, and I see months of grief and seething anger in the depths of her wild eyes. There is no mercy here.
I feel the heat rising, and it burns. I look at their faces, and even through my fear, I feel their sorrow and rage. I feel it in me as well. That has always been my curse: to feel others as myself. Their rage now feeds mine. The flames lick my ankles, and smoke fills my eyes.
I look up at the night sky and my fury overflows. Months of rage at Torloch, who took the life of our son to try to save himself. But most of all I rage at Lilith, who made him an empty promise and turned him into a monster for the price of our child. Tears stream down my face as I recall my own black pit of grief at losing my lovely little boy. I feel the grief and pain of everyone on this dark night.
I smell the smoke from the ash tree I am tied to mingling with the oak kindling about my body. My childhood learnings flit through my mind even in my last hour. While oak gives strength, ash is the bridge between Earth and other worlds. Good. Let it make a bridge to the Plane of Fire for me so that I might reach Lilith and pay her back in kind.
I shout to the blackness of the sky above. I call to the dark with all the rage of my soul. “Lilith, I call on you to hear me. By my blood, you will be destroyed. A light will come. A light that shines through your evil. A light that calls you to answer for your deeds. A light that binds you as I am bound and burns you as I burn. A light that rips you asunder and destroys your darkness.”
The pain is so great. The flames sear my legs. I can’t help but scream and convulse, though I know there is no escape. I writhe, trying to get away from the fire, but it just grows and grows as my calves blister and melt. A part of my mind wishes the fire were higher so this pain would end more quickly. The only escape now is death, and it fast approaches. The smoke is so heavy I cough as I scream. The fire has reached my waist now, and it envelops me in its excruciating embrace. I see the horrific faces of the mob, distorted and cast in red from the fire that consumes me.
I scream with all the strength I have, willing my voice to carry through the between spaces. “Lilith, hear me. I call to you. By my blood, you will pay for what you have done.” I cough and hack, unable to get a breath of air. I thrash my head as the tongues of fire lick ever higher, melting my flesh, binding me to the holy ash tree as though we are one. The pain is so great now that I know nothing but the feel of it engulfing me. It seems to be all that was before me and all that will ever come after. I’m being eaten alive by the ravenous fire. The agony and the rage are the whole of who I am now.
I think one last thought, unable to even catch enough breath to scream it, unable even to work my mouth to speak it as the flames lick my chin. My dying thought sears into my soul and lifts with me to the Plane of Light. “Lilith, by my blood you will be destroyed!”