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With hindsight, and plenty of time to think on it, she could see that her current predicament had been inevitable. A number of conditions, some avoidable, some less so, had joined together to create the net in which she was now entangled.

As she gazed into the gloom, she knew that she ought to turn her thoughts towards a solution. She somehow couldn’t bring herself to it, though, and her thoughts turned inexorably towards the past.

Her sex had told against her. Her lack of a husband, lack of money and surfeit of years, they too had counted against her. It was sad, she thought, that such things should be weighed so heavily. Perhaps one day the world might be less judgmental. She hoped it would be so, but doubted it at the same time.

Had she chosen to make her home somewhere else, she might have found more favour, but the home she had was the best she could have hoped for. She could not afford to live within the town’s walls, and so she had built herself a little hut at the forest’s edge. This was now said to be a convenience, that her nocturnal activities should not be observed. She laughed a little at that. Her nocturnal activities were limited to dragging her old and weary bones outside to piss.

That the land she built on belonged to the baron, that too would come to tell against her. At the time he had borne her no ill will and told her to build where she liked, for he had more use for her than the wild tangled land at the forest’s edge. With hindsight, she would have been wise not to use his land or offer her services, but hindsight was always clearer than foresight.

She knew, in truth, that she had been condemned the moment the messenger knocked on her door. The baron’s son was ill, deathly sick, and she, the wise woman of the woods, was commanded to attend and to cure him. She could not have refused. But equally, she was unable to help the boy. Some things are within the capabilities of her herbal cures, but some things remained beyond her will.

Once the boy died, it had been a matter of time only. Mutterings and whisperings flew through the town and other connections were made. A man refused her alms; the man’s ancient cow stopped giving milk, and suspicious glances fell her way. A dog howled when she walked by, and fingers were pointed at her. If she said a harsh word against her accusers, no doubt they would instantly fall upon their sickbed.

She gazed into the gloom of her cell. They would come again tomorrow and tell her to confess. They would ask her if she signed the Devil’s book and sold him her soul. They would demand that she named her familiars and the other witches she had seen at the Devil’s sabbats. They were the same questions they had asked her today, and the day before that, and the day before that. If she confessed and begged forgiveness she would be granted her life, they told her, as forgiveness is divine. Much use that would be, for as a confessed witch she would be as good as dead.

It mattered little. She would not tell them what they wanted to hear. These pious men would never break her because she would not trade her life for a lie. She would rather go to the gallows as an honest woman.

© Kari Fay

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