When She Burns | A Short Story

This is my first foray into historical fiction ever! Before my second short story starts, I just want to say that this is here because ages ago I put a poll on my Instagram account asking if people would read my writing if I put it on my website and the overwhelming majority said yes. So…here’s my second short story!

Why? I’ve written on and off since I was quite young, but I’ve never really put it out there for anyone to read. But I want to get better and one way to do that is to put my writing out there for critique. So…here we go!

I’ve also created a cover for this story because I like playing around with cover design, and I’ve put this at the end of the short story. Ps – I’m using my nom de plume of Laurana Stevens so that’s what’s on the cover!

I hope you enjoy!

***

    It is supposed to be my bedtime very soon. On any other night my mother would be tucking me up tightly between my sheets, but instead she is tucking me into my pelts and boots, and making sure my hat is on tight. Her and father and are already fully dressed and father is preparing his burning torch to be lit when we leave our home. Tonight is not a normal night; for the whole town has been called to the square after dark to witness justice prevail against an evil that has been plaguing us. Most children are permitted to remain at home due to the late hour and to protect them from the presence of evil. But I am ten now, so I get to go with mother and father to the square. 

    The November air is crisp against my skin as we take our leave of our small home and head to the centre of the town. It bites at the tip of my nose and my lips and quickly turns them both red. Father’s burning torch, now lit, illuminates our path on the way to our destination and as comforting as the glow is, it also casts looming shadows all around us. They rise up across the houses and paths ahead of us. The trees, now bereft of their leaves, claw skeletal fingers in shadow form across everything they touch and our own shadows stretch out before us and transform into monstrous versions of our bodies.
    Before long the shadows become less worrisome as the light of our torch joins the countless others belonging to the townsfolk and banishes the darkness to the corners of the square. The square itseslf is almost filled to capacity everywhere I look. Everyone is here; Mr McElry the butcher and his family, Mr Harris, the baker and his family, Mr Toop the town doctor and his family – in fact, pretty much everyone is here. The only prominent figures I cannot see in the crowd are Reverend Maycott and the rest of the church congregation. But I already know that they ate here, and where they are. They are in the very centre of the square, where the rest of the townsfolk have formed a ring around them, the various torches allowing warmth to radiate throughout the bodies around them. So many of the people look happy, despite the cold of the season and the horror of what is to come. But I suppose the promise of justice delivered is a cause for celebration.

    “Mother, what is happening tonight?” I ask, tugging on her coat as we come to a stop behind the Runfield family.
    “Well Elisabeth, tonight a very bad person will be punished, and we are here to watch.” She tells me calmly. “Remember last month when your father and I tucked you in and told you we had to go to a town meeting? This is just like that,” she leans down to me so she is at my level, “only this time you are old enough to bear witness too.” She gently taps me on the end of my cold nose and smiles. At this moment Mr Runfield turns round to us.
    “Actually child, we are here to see something much more important than simply a bad person being punished.” Mr Runfield speaks with both gentleness directed towards me and condescension directed towards my mother for apparently not explaining the gravitas of the situation. “We are here to witness a demon return to hell, we are here to watch the –”
    “I think that is a speech best saved for Reverend Maycott, do you not, Mr Runfield?” my father stops him mid-sentence with his authoritative tone. Mr Runfield looks a little accosted but accepts his scolding.
    “Of course Mr Graceland, my apologies. I did not mean to speak out of turn.”
    “No harm done.” My father says dismissively and Mr Runfield turns back to front the square. Father leans in towards me and speaks softly. “Now Elisabeth, what you’re about to see might be hard to comprehend at first, but just know that this is for the greater good, and that the wicked get what they deserve.” He speaks gently, but there’s also graveness to his voice.
    “But father, I cannot see from here.” I say.
    “Aye, I know, child. That’s intentional. This is your first time, and whilst I hope it is your last I would be a fool to believe it so. Therefore there is no need for you to see all of the horror during your first time. You may not even see it at all. You may just hear it and smell it.”
    “I do not understand.” I admit to him.
    “You will, child, you will. You just listen to the good Reverend and he will explain all and help put your mind at ease for what has to be done.”
I begin to hear screams coming from nearby as a small crowd of people break through the throng of villagers. Reverend Maycott and his closest circle of colleagues and most loyal supporters step forwards into view in the middle of the square and observe us all for a few seconds. The screams do not get louder, nor do they recede, but they are those of a woman.
    “What has to be done, father?” I ask, fear tinging the edges of my voice.
    “Shhh, Elisabeth, have patience.” My mother chides me. “The Reverend is about to speak.”
    Then I hear the booming voice of Reverend Maycott roll through the square and near-instantly hush everyone in attendance.

    “Good people of Rocheport, I thank you for attending tonight and I apologise for bringing you all out into the cold.” I can’t quite see him, but I can tell he is wearing his usual black clothes and his cleanly shaven face boasts a strong jawline. For a middle-aged man he has retained much of the good looks of his youth. “But there is evil among us, and we must use the strength that we have as a community to vanquish it, for the devil prays on those who are outliers, on those who stray from their own. We have strength if we stay together, so stay together we must. Fear not, for God is watching over us and has blessed this holy meeting so that we may enact His justice, His will, in His name whilst on this mortal coil.”
    I watch as several of Reverend Maycott’s followers begin erecting a structure just off to the side of him. A long, thick log is being forced into the ground.
    It is a stake. They are erecting a stake in the town square.
     Reverend Maycott continues his tirade.
    “Good, Christian people of Rocheport – I implore you, please do not try to communicate with the demon we are about to overcome. The devil is a trickster and will seek to help his own brethren by any means, including feigning innocence through his vessels!”
    A woman is dragged across the square by two men dressed in black. She wears a basic and dirty white robe and has no shoes on her feet. Her brunette hair is wild and unbrushed, her lips are cracked and her skin is gaunt, as if she hasn’t been fed in a few days. Her hands are tied with thick rope behind her back and her bare feet struggle for purchase on the ground beneath her as she resists the forward motion from her captors. She is not screaming anymore, but instead she is grunting in an effort to escape, and her eyes roam the townspeople desperately pleading for help. Reverend Maycott speaks up and demands the attention of the congregation back again as the woman is tied to the now fully raised stake.
    “This woman has been found to be a witch!” He exclaims.
    “Please!” the woman pleads out to the crowd. “I am no witch!” Reverend Maycott ignores her and continues addressing the crowd as if she had not spoken.
    “She was seen cavorting in the woods under the full moon, dancing and speaking with the devil!”
    “Please, sir! I was not conversing with anyone! Especially not the devil! I was foraging for mushrooms and berries in the woods. Please!” The woman’s voice grows more desperate, pleading for her audience to hear the logic in her words. This time Reverend Maycott turns his attention to the accused woman.
    “At the witching hour?” he challenges, with an air to his voice that implies her guilt purely by the time of night she was outside. The woman visibly panics, it seems as though this is the first time she is being told what hour of night she was seen.
   “Please,” she begins again, “I could not sleep! I though gathering food for the morning would tire me and help aid a restful night!”
    “She admits it!” Reverend Maycott twists the woman’s words to confirm his own beliefs. “You were gathering materials for your potions! Devil! Witch!” and with that final accusation he points his finger at her and the crowd begin to mimic him.
    “Witch!” Comes a loud voice from further back in the crowd. A few more voices join the accusation in staccato injections of random vocals.
    “Return it to hell!” someone closer shouts. Before long the entire crowd is bellowing the same or similar demands to condemn the woman. This does not feel right to me, I do not think this woman is a witch, I know not why or how I know it, but I do know it, and it is a feeling that sits deep within my bones.
    “Mother,” I tug on my mother’s skirts until she looks to me, “why are they going to hurt her? She did nothing wrong.” My mother’s eyes widen in horror at the words I have spoken and she whips her head around to check that no one else heard them either. Luckily the noise of the rabble had easily drowned out my tiny voice.
    “Elisabeth!” She whispers out as she drops to her knees to be at my height. “You must never say such things again! Someone may hear you and then you will be where that woman is! It is not safe to question the Reverend.”
    “But she’s going to die for nothing!” I say exasperated.
    “Elisabeth be quiet! You do not understand. She will burn. When she burns you will learn. For now you must be quiet and not draw such attention to yourself! Do you understand?” The fierceness and nervousness in my mother’s voice makes me nod my head and we return out attention to the woman before us. The Reverend is giving instruction to his men to tie the woman to the stake more efficiently.

    “You must bind her tightly!” he instructs in a way that strikes fear in the woman and makes my blood turn cold.
    “Please, I am no witch!” she repeats, beseeching anyone in the town to help her, but none move. “I do not deserve to die!” She is crying now as the Reverend’s people build a pyre around her feet. The Reverend quells her speech with one of his own.
    “The devil will seek to help his own by speaking through this vessel! Do not listen to her! She is corrupted and a witch! But we can save our town, our children and our very souls from this wickedness by purging the evil from her! The will of God must be enforced before it is too late. It is time to send the witch back to the lap of her master, Satan!” With this final address completed the Reverend nods to one of his men, who hands him a lit torch. The crowd is roaring now with shouts of vitriolic messages and bloodlust.
    “Witch, who walks among us, you shall not corrupt anyone, for I am the hand of God and I condemn you back to hell with its own fire!” and with that he holds the torch to the base of the pyre, which ignites almost instantly. The woman flails helplessly against her restraints as the first flames lick at the skin of her ankles and feet. She starts to scream but the smoke fills her lungs and all that comes out are gasping, frantic choking coughs. A few more seconds go by and still the woman does not manage a scream. She stops coughing too. She does not appear peaceful, as her eyes are darting around the crowd still looking for help. Yet she does not appear to be in pain, even as the flames climb higher, now enveloping her to the waist. The white robe she was wearing is burnt off to scraps from just below her breasts and the skin from her legs has blistered and come off, exposing muscle and tendon.
    “She does not scream!” a frightened citizen shouts from closer to the front of the fire. “Why does she not scream?” I have to admit, it is a very unusual thing for a person not to cry out when in pain, and I cannot fathom the pain that she should be feeling.
    “Tis but further proof that she is a witch!” Reverend Maycott moves to quell the rising panic. “Satan cocoons her in his embrace and is protecting her, but her soul is already corrupted! We are simply disposing of the vessel! She does not scream for she is already damned!” At his words, the people of Rocheport seem to relax from their rising panic and instead return to taunting the woman as she burns.
    I am glad that I cannot see too much from my vantage point, but I do not wish to see anything at all, so I look around the crowd. All around me I see men, women and children screaming their hatred towards the square centre at the woman. And then I see something unusual.

    There are several women dotted amongst the crowd who are behaving strangely. Some are twitching lightly, some appear to be breathing heavily, and some look to be sweating. I barely have time to ponder what this could mean before my mother is back kneeling down next to me. I turn to look at her and there is sweat on her brow and her hands are shaking. She buries them within my hat, making it look to anyone who may care to gaze upon us as if she is fixing it upon my head. She leans in close and whispers to me, so quietly I have to strain to hear.
    “You were right Elisabeth, that woman is no witch. She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and the fear of these men has made them see fit to kill her for it. ” My eyes widen with surprise at my mother’s admittance. “The coven is taking this innocent woman’s pain as she does not deserve any of it. The pain is too much for any one of us to bear, so we are all sharing it. You have already noticed.” I look around briefly again and see one of the women who was shaking lightly earlier before my mother snaps my head back to hers.
    “Do not draw further attention Elisabeth. The town are all so focussed on that poor woman, revelling in their supposed justice that they do not, and will not, notice us as long as we don’t draw obvious attention. So when I stand back up, look forwards only Elisabeth, for the protection of us all. Do you understand?” I nod my head at my mother, and begin to speak.
    “But –” I begin to question.
    “Hush child, you will learn all about who we are, and who you are in due course. But just know, we are all around, we always have been. We cannot save this woman, but we can help her go peacefully. But when the time is right, we will avenge her, and all others like her.”
    And with those words, my mother returns to standing and I hold my head high, looking forward; both to protect the coven and to my own future within it.

And that’s the end of that short story! Here’s my fantasy cover for this story!

Thank you so much for reading! Please do let me know if you have feedback in the comments!

If you want to read more of my writing it will all get posted here!

***

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