Through the tiny grill above me I can see the sky. It is a clear and perfect blue. Sometimes, a Raven lands on the bars and cries a warning. Tomorrow I will be led from this cell to the hill from which there is a good view of my wood, my home. I will be chained to a stake. Then, in front of muttering ministers and screaming hordes, I will burn.
Five summers ago, floods swept down the valley and came to our village. Crops and houses were destroyed. On the heels of the floods came plague and misery. Many folk sheltered in my wood, huddled under oak and beech. I helped as best I could, with some food and fire. But I have always lived on my own and could do little. Many people died; the old and the weak. I made many caskets that summer.
After the floods a Bishop came to our village. His robes were like a cloak of blood, and big men with long, bright swords surrounded him. The Bishop demanded our prayers. He said that the floods were God’s judgement for a lack piety and contrition. Some of the villagers grew angry, for we are a simple folk and know little of the ways of God and his spirits. He said the Godless must be purged if the village is to be saved. There were whisperings of witchery and the ‘Maleficarum’.
The first I knew of any of this was when a breathless young lad came to see me in my wood. He said that the village demanded that I carve a stake.
“Why?” I told him.
They had arrested a young girl, orphaned by the water. She was guilty of witchcraft.
“By what charge?” I enquired.
“The Bishop prayed to Saint Augustine.” Wailed the boy. “She’s going to burn!”
When I saw the girl she was caged in this very cell. She was bound as I am now; her hands trapped in huge iron gauntlets hammered into useless fists, chained by the ankles and the neck. In the gloom of the cell her hair was a golden halo. Even in this dim light her skin shone like pearl through the dirt. But it was her eyes that captivated me the most. They glittered like two pieces of polished obsidian.
She smiled at me as I approached. “Why are you here?” She said. Her voice was sweet like new milk. I took another step. The scent of spring meadows seemed to rise up, and drive out the foetid stink of the cell.
“I have come to see your height.” I replied.
“But why?” She whispered. I was unnerved by her calmness.
“You are to be burned. This is the judgement on the Bishop.”
She was still for a moment. “They say I am a Witch.”
“Child, I know nothing of such things. I am a simple woodcutter. I do not question the will of God or his Bishops.”
She was quiet as I measured her height in spans. It only took a moment. As I turned to leave she spoke. “Please.” She said. From a gauntlet, a tiny pale hand wriggled free.
“Please, bury this on hallowed ground, so that God might forgive me.” A tiny purple flower rested on her palm. I don’t know why I took the flower. Maybe I felt sorry for her. Maybe I thought somebody should pray for her soul. But not me; I don’t know how.
In the morning, crowds grew to watch her burn. I watched from the edge of my wood as smoke stained the sky. As far as I know she made not a sound. I now realise the exact moment she died. It must have been the moment a tiny purple flower – resting in my pocket – turned to ash.
In the days that followed I awoke. I can’t describe it any other way. The life of the wood forced itself into my mind. I could see the tracery of ley that binds all things. I could feel the sap in the trees, and I could hear the heartbeat of the mouse underground.
Knowledge came to me in waves. From where I know not – but each wave bought insight. I learned about sulphur and mandrake. I learned about blood, and salt, and carved a hex sign. Ravens wheeled and screeched above me as I walked through the night in my wood. They were enraged by my transformation and threatened to take my eyes.
“Take them then! I don’t need them to see!” I challenged. But fear kept them at bay.
I bent them to my will soon enough. I drew power from the plants and the trees, and enslaved everything else.
As the years passed I retreated further into my wood. The villagers began to avoid me. They are simple, but they are not fools. I killed the Bishop as he slept in his fortress. From my hut I wrapped ghost fingers around his heart, and squeezed. Steel and stone were no defence. This was my gift to the girl who burned. The life of the wood and the village pounded in my ears. I could smell the storm and taste the lighting.
Then, on the embers of the fifth summer, the inevitable happened. Soldiers of the church came to my wood. They found an emaciated, broken old man, with straggled hair and twisted bones. They took me at spear point. I could have killed them all, but I was already dying. Consumed by my power as I was, it was destroying my body.
Rest easy my young lad, with that little present I gave you, when you brought me water. I know how it’s clutched in your hand under your pillow. The real gift I have for you however, you will receive tomorrow. And you will know it as you watch me burn. Because that little flower I gave you will turn to ash.