This was written for Daily Picspiration, but seems not to be appearing there after all. Based on a Peter Knight song. [TW: violence and fire]
“You will burn! You will burn!”
The voice woke me from my slumber. My dream of forests dissipated like smoke on a hot wind, leaving behind naught but wisps at the periphery of my mind.
“Let all be forgiven! Let none be denied!”
Who was making such a noise at this time? I fluttered open my eyes. Figures stood about my bed, holding lighted candles. Figures – men – from the village. I recognised their faces. There was Ailred the smith, Pentecost the baker, Father Ilbert and half a dozen others.
“Hold her!” the priest snapped. Pentecost flung aside my bedcover and strong hands gripped my wrists and ankles.
“Father Ilbert, what’s going on? Ailred?”
“Strip her,” Father Ilbert said. “Let her go naked before the Lord.”
My scream of denial went unheeded. Ailred’s meaty fists gripped the neck of my shift and tore it away. He stared at my naked body, licking his lips.
“Be not tempted by the witch!” Father Ilbert snapped at Ailred. “Before you know it she will turn you into an eel!”
“Witch? Wha… I am no witch! I am a cunning woman! Pentecost, tell them. I healed your rash last month. And Ailred, your daughter would have died but for my help. I delivered your grandson, tell them!” Both men stared silently away, their lips tight.
“There is a curse come upon this village. The crops fail, the beasts sicken—”
“The weather has—”
“It is well known that women are to blame for the world’s evil,” said the priest. “Eve, the first woman, proved that beyond the doubting. Admit to your guilt, witch, and die easily.”
“You’re all mad!” I writhed to free myself, but the hands that held me were too strong.
“We are here to save you, girl,” said the priest. “As you slept this night in your goose-feather bed we prayed for your soul in the sight of the Lord. Ailred! Break her shins.”
“What? What are you … NO!” My protest was cut short by my screams as the smith brought his hammer down heavily on my legs with a mighty crack. The pain was immense.
“Confess!” Father Ilbert insisted, spittle spraying from his red lips.
“I am no witch!” I gasped desperately, sobbing, great racking sobs that shook my whole body.
They dragged me out of the toft, naked and bleeding. By the door little Pons lay on the ground in a heap.
“My child! What have you done?” My vision swam. Daggers of agony sliced my legs.
“The spawn of a witch must not be allowed to survive, lest they breed more.”
“You bastard! You evil turdsucker! You will rue this day—” Father Ilbert’s fist hit me full in the face. I felt my teeth shatter.
“You see?” he crowed, triumphantly, “She tried to curse me! Proof indeed of her guilt! Take her eyes. If she cannot see us, she cannot curse us.”
And they did. They put out my eyes, painfully, excrutiatingly, with their eating knives. I knew then that I was as good as dead, and, inspired by the wisps of my dream, began my incantation, quietly, barely moving my bruised lips. Father Ilbert could not have heard my words, yet he cried “She confesses!”
The men dragged me out of the village to the forest. It was cold, and my whole being felt like it was being torn apart.
“Ralf!” called Father Ilbert, “Did you do as I asked?”
“Yes, Father, good sycamore and broom, just as you said.” I knew Ralf. I had made him a potion to repair his broken heart not a se’night ago. I continued to chant beneath my breath, calling on Cernunnos for help as they tied me to what felt like a stack of wood. The branches and twigs scratched at my back and buttocks. My shattered legs collapsed but the bindings around my arms kept me semi-upright. I felt intense heat around my feet, and knew that they had lit the fire.
“Cernunnos, please,” I wept.
“Know this, witch!” cried Father Ilbert. “Because you confessed your sins we forgive you, even as you twist in death like a dancing silhouette against the pure light of themoon. We purify your soul in the fire and your spirit will live forever, rising with the smoke from the ashes and the embers in your eyes!”
“Praise the Lord!” chorused the men watching.
“Another soul is saved!” cried Father Ilbert.
“Praise the Lord!”
I felt … a tugging … within me. Something inside shuddered, and suddenly I could see once more. No, not see – this was not seeing. Rather I sensed everything about me with a kind of misty awareness. I saw the men gathered around a blazing inferno, inside which a body – my body – twisted and charred. I felt no pain. I was detached from it all now. I was … I had become … the forest itself. Cernunnos had saved me, gathering me in to join her in the trees of the forest, rewarding me for my years of devotion. I was blessed.
And with my new awareness, I suddenly saw the emotions of the men who had killed me. I saw terror and anger and sadness and confusion and desperation. A better woman than I might have forgiven them then, knowing the despair that had driven them, but not I. I would never forgive. In their fear of a non-existent witch, they had, ironically, created one. They had created me. I pulled strands of their emotions through the earth, deep into me, up through my roots and into my branches, creating songs of hatred from their twisted feelings; songs that manifested in leaves of red fire. It was not yet autumn, and yet my leaves sang out and fell, raining fiery death upon those who had murdered me, the leaves singing my vengeance as the men screamed.
Through the long centuries since, other people have come to this clearing, drawn here by the remarkably red leaves of the large tree that shelter it. None of them ever left. And I see you now, woman, warming your feet against the paltry fire that you have made. I see your hopes and dreams, your lusts and your greed. You disgust me, as do all your kind. It is time for my leaves to sing again.
“You will burn. You will burn.”