England – 1491 AD
“Lover of demons!”
“Wife of the devil!”
“Witch! Witch! Witch!”
The mob took up the cry, feeding on the anger and fear it produced itself. The mob writhed and seethed, forming a tight circle through which no man could penetrate.
“Burn the witch!” someone, a leader of the crowd, perhaps, shouted.
The crowd echoed his cry. “Burn her! Burn her!” They followed any who would declare himself as leader as blindly as sheep, caring not which direction they took but only that someone would choose the way for them.
A lone voice tried to make itself heard, but was no match for the bleating of hundreds of mindless followers. “No, wait! You must not! You can not know-”
The mob surged away from him, carrying its victim onward to the edge of the village. The single protestor hurried after, hands knotted in fists inside his priestly robes. He peered anxiously to the early twilight sky. The sun was barely below the horizon, yet it was darker than the hour would suggest. The sky was clouded with dark shapes that roiled across the greying canopy, forming ominous shapes and then immediately changing to another silhouette more ghastly than the last. The priest swallowed nervously and broke into a jog to keep up with the rear of the mob, tugging his robes more tightly around his thin frame.
The crowd spread out as it filtered into the open field that was their destination, dispersing like water to fill the larger space. Before their entrance snow had coated the ground like a dusting of baker’s flour, soft and thick, but in the wake of the mob the pure white turned to grey, polluted by their feet just as the suggestion of one man polluted their minds.
All turned to face the unspoken leader of the pack. He was dressed shabbily, in a worse state than most of his disciples, yet he stood with proud authority, the attention of hundreds adding to his lanky height so that he seemed to tower over the masses. Behind him a large pile of firewood. In the middle rose a single post, standing ominously prepared for the crowd’s intended action. He gripped the arm of a young woman, whose brown shapeless dress was torn from one shoulder. Her eyes, a match for the blue-grey sky at that hour, were wide with terror, rolling around as though she had no control over them. She whimpered softly as he flung her to the ground before the crowd.
He stood over her and raised his arms high over his head. As though he had cast a spell over them, the crowd fell silent.
“Townspeople!” he boomed, his voice lyrical with the accent of the common people, yet commanding attention with each note. “Men and women of Blackspring! Before you lies a witch, a wife of the devil. We have seen with our own eyes her control of the evil forces of the sky. She raised her arms and they came to her, doing her evil bidding. The Good Lord has shown his favour by revealing the witch to us. Now we must do the Lord’s will.” His voice rose in pitch as he became more excited. His face was animated with passion and he gestured broadly as he spoke. Every eye was on him. All except one. The priest stood a little apart from the crowd, tears filling his eyes as he watched the woman’s shoulders shake with sobs. Her loose brown hair hid her face from his eyes as she crouched in the snow. As though she sensed his eyes on her, she pushed her hair away from her face with a shaking hand and looked directly at him, her gaze sharp as the tapered point of an icicle piercing his heart. Her stormy eyes were as beautiful in grief as they were in laughter. Now they pleaded with him, begging for his help.
I won’t let them burn you, I promise. He desperately hoped – prayed, he was a man of God, after all – that it was a promise he could keep.
“-that we burn her!” The leader’s voice crescendoed triumphantly and he pumped both fists into the air. The crowd echoed. “Burn her! Burn her! Burn her!”
Two men broke from the crowd and came forward. They seized the woman by the arms and hauled her to her feet, dragging her towards the wood pile. As she became aware of what they were doing, she began to struggle against them. She screamed.
“No! Please, no! I’m not a witch, I’m not a witch, I promise, I promise! Justin, please-”
The priest found his legs surging him forward without instruction from his mind. He was between the woman and the wood pile in an instant. “No!” he shouted, his usually soft voice strengthened by the injustice of what he was witnessing. “You must not do this evil thing. Do you not see? They-” he pointed at the writhing mass in the dark sky above them, “-are the ones poisoning your mind. They tell you that your children are changelings, that the dead rise up to hunt the living, and that innocent women are witches.”
“She is no innocent!” Someone unseen yelled back, followed by a chorus of agreement. “That whore is a witch and needs to be burned! For the protection of our children!”
“They do not tell you truths to protect you.” The priest rose his voice. He had the attention of at least some of them and he could not afford to lose the tenuous advantage he had gained. “They tell you lies to hurt you. They feed on your fears and rejoice when you follow their suggestions. Please, listen to the Word of The Lord and do not harm another human being.”
“She’s no human,” The leader of the mob interrupted, his voice confident in contempt. He swaggered in front of the priest and spat on the woman. She flinched but made no sound. “She’s a witch!” He shouted the last word, whirling to the crowd and raising his arms to them again. The crowd responded with a roar of assent. “Witch! Witch! Witch!”
“No!” the priest cried, but he had lost them. The men holding the woman continued to the pyr. She cried out in panic. “Justin! Help me! Please?” The last word was a question, said as she twisted to catch the priest’s eye.
“Alys! I won’t let them hurt you, I promise!” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Was the Lord punishing him for his sin? A priest was required to keep himself pure to better do the Lord’s work. It was expressly forbidden to look on a woman lustfully. But the moment he had laid eyes on Alys-
And heaven help him, she felt the same way toward him. Did the villagers know, and that was why they were doing this? Or was it them? He crossed himself and looked up to the sky. The creatures were swooping down over the crowd one by one, releasing a hideous cry with each dive. The crowd surged in rhythm with the swooping beasts, becoming more crazed by the second.
The priest felt a wave of hopelessness wash over him. Day and night he fought against this evil force that had come into the world, creating this age of darkness in which they lived. According to the ancient writings, the beasts did not always darken the sky, but were once absent, at least from sight. How he longed to see a day where the beasts did not flock around them, whispering evil secrets into the minds of the weak.
He turned back to Alys. They had tied her to the stake and were trying to start a fire. The wood was damp from the snow, and a spark was not easy to produce, but the priest knew it would not be long now. Frustration overcame him. He fell to his knees.
“Why don’t You stop this?” he screamed to the heavens. “If you love your children so, why do you not rescue them? Don’t you see we are suffering at the hands of these beasts?” He was beyond caring if it was appropriate to speak to his Lord in such a way. King David poured out his heart to the Lord, sharing his joys and his troubles, and was called a man after God’s own heart. The reminder brought him comfort. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. Thou art with me. Thou art with me.
He was still repeating the Scriptures to himself when the world further darkened. The crowd fell silent. Not a soul moved. The leader of the mob paused with one fist raised. Alys was frozen with her mouth wide in a silent scream. A horrible chill flooded the priest’s veins. He whirled on the spot, breath quickening in the stillness, silent as death.
“Father Justin,” a voice slithered into his mind like the Serpent himself. “Do you really wish to stop the demons from inhabiting the place that is rightfully theirs?”
Despite the icy fingers of fear that gripped his heart, the priest spoke up boldly. “This world is not yours. It belongs to God.”
“Oh, but it is.” The voice was slimy with satisfaction. “Your God has been required to give me freedom for a time. I must say that my children are relishing the opportunity to stretch their wings.”
“And feed on the souls of men?” The priest’s voice broke with emotion. God was allowing this?
“Of course. They don’t have long to roam free, and they must enjoy it while they can. Soon they will have to return to Hades.”
“God will punish you for what you’re doing!”
“Will he? But we have a deal, and if I know one thing, it’s that He always keeps his promises. Now, look at your love. Your forbidden love.”
The priest’s eyes found Alys, still poised in her silent scream. The terror in her eyes was unmistakeable.
“In minutes she will be dead.” The voice didn’t sound smug as he expected, but simply empty, void of any emotion, as though he were incapable of joy even in the evil that was his delight. “But her fate is not set in stone yet. You, Father Justin, can change that, if you so choose.”
He is the Father of Lies, the priest reminded himself. You must resist him at all costs. But the words that came out of his mouth were, “I can keep her from dying?”
“I am nothing if not generous,” the voice sighed. “I can spare her for you.” Hope soared in the priest’s heart. “For a price.” The voice hissed in his ear.
The priest swallowed the firm lump that had formed in his throat. “What is this price?”
He didn’t think it was possible, but he was certain he heard the voice smile.