The older folk of Enstone always remarked what a quiet village it had been before. So much so that it seemed to Elias to be all they would talk about aside from the Father’s preaching and the state of the fields. Oh, how peaceful it had been, aside from the fighting with the Welsh. How prosperous, with as little rents as the local lord Urso took, and how kind the late Earl de Vere was to them all, mostly in that he almost never paid a visit but was sure to keep the woods clear of poachers and bandits. Good times.
Better times, they would say with rattling hands and shaken voices. Better times that all went away when in 1215 that wicked fog rolled in across all of God’s creation. Then the monsters and witches started to appear, much more often than before. More than just in the stories from those even older. Come to perform dark masses at those stone circles down the road, to awaken the trees to strangle the godly folk in their sleep. An infestation, laid by the devil himself. So the Father would say.
Elias never knew anything about that. He was born into a world where beasts roamed the woods and marshes, faeries fluttered about tempting the wills of men with their beauty, and pagan magicians hunted for those of weak convictions to corrupt their faith. A time where folk disappeared in the night, and lately a time where the Welsh and even his own countryman marched against not just the crown but Christ himself! Still, it seemed little different from the old folks’ stories, in truth. There was all that, and then the farm, and then church, just as always before since the conquest.
Elias liked working the farm, sure enough, hard work as it was. There were worse fates, to be certain, and he had seen them firsthand when King’s army made a route near the village after Lord Urso took a pair of lads, good Alex and Peter, to join the campaign during one of the early little wars with the Welsh sorcerers- druids, they called themselves. What a mess, the blood. Alex and Peter never came back, but no one ever saw their bodies either. Carried off by beasts, maybe. And oh, the stench- Elias preferred pig manure, though nicking a few of those half-beaten swords from the slain heretics for the watch to carry in the nights had been fun. First time he had held such a blade.
Elias liked the church, too. Seemed not everyone did, or else the damned rebels wouldn’t have been, but the folk of Enstone had remained virtuous, as the King and Pope demanded. Hearing the father read from the book, those words he did not understand as spoken but knew what they meant all the same. It didn’t matter a bit what some were saying about the true lord in those heretic camps or on the continent- they could call Him impotent all they wanted, Elias knew better. The idolaters worshipping these old pagan gods would find out in the end. Christ was with them, and so much so that a witch hunter was sent from Rome to keep watch on their little village, to keep them safe and those circles free of that vile magic. More than all that, though the good Father of the church was family. He opened the chapels to the Tiler and his family for a time when a hayfire took their home. So, too, when someone gave to cry-and-hue to another for something, like when poor little Henry was beat near bloody by Richard, or when Nicholas thought to try and bed young Maggie, the Father sorted things out rather than let the community suffer any harsher harms of unamicable justice.
Even as May approached and things seemed to be getting worse to the west and south, the Father swore all was well, and that their faith would protect them. Elias was happy to believe that. Elias loved May Day. Everyone loved May Day, as much as the Father reminded them it was the old, once those pagan savages from across the northern sea that first loved it so. All the same, there was no harm in it.
It was May Day of the Lord’s year 1250 when the man and woman from the continent arrived. Elias woke from his little cot by the stove and went to check his mother, already sitting up in her bed on the opposite end of the longhouse. She would stay in that day, too frail to enjoy the frivolities of the day, preferring a fresh breeze from the window to that hubbub. Elias, though, would not. He quickly tended the few animals he had anymore (fewer pigs and goats than the other men of his tithing, much to his frustration), and then off to the common square. It was time to celebrate the new spring, already buzzing with the warmth and energy the sun always brought to the animals and flowers of the fields.
There was not much by way of drink in Enstone anymore- the little garrison of soldiers sent to help that witch hunter made sure of that since their arrival. Sure, the Father kept some wine stashed in the cellars of the chapel for mass and Yule, but he was not about bring them up, especially not for a festival of this sort. The Lord had sent them some fine barrows from his own stock, though, and the villagers brought out their finest pies, last year’s preserves, and fresh milk with cream.
Better still, the lasses, few of them as there were, were dancing with the children with ribbons around the old tree, all having sewn flowers into their dresses. Spring air, flowers all about- good spirits all around, even among the old folk, who laughed and reminisced while the young folk danced.
Elias stood and watched, a hunk of pig in hand. It was good for folk to be happy in trying times like these- that’s what the Father always said, and probably why he tolerated the festival. It was good to see the young women happy, the unmarried ones especially. He watched Maggie dance in particular, thin as a rail with her dress lofting in lightly from the breeze of motion. There weren’t many unmarried women in the village, more widows in truth. Too few for all the young men, to be certain. They would all marry soon enough, and the men wishing to marry still would have to take leave by Lord Urso to visit Chalford down the road, or perhaps further. Certainly not to Oxford, though- might as well have been the new Sodom. Elias didn’t want to have to make that trip. He hoped for Maggie to come around. Perhaps she remembered him fondly, he hoped- after all, he had been one of the two to drag Nicholas off of her when he became possessed to try and take her. Elias and Paul, and Paul hadn’t the slightest interest, he knew. Even as Paul sauntered over to Elias at the edge of the celebrating, it was clear as day the man was in no rush to wed anyone from Enstone. Too busy farming all those acres and chattel he inherited from a father dead too young- smothered in the night by one of those boggarts in the service of the heretics, the wife had said. No, Paul, young as he was, was an important fellow in the village with all that land. Important enough to be chief pledge of a tithing- Elias’s tithing, even. Likely to marry some woman from some city after a trip to sell his harvest- though which now that Oxford was damned Elias was unsure.
“Well, a’ya gon’ta dance with her or not?” Paul asked Elias with a smack to the arm.
“No, no, I can’t”
“Ye can, no?
But he could not. Not that day. Not with the crones and the Father watching- always suspicious, especially with Maggie since the incident, and especially on days like that one. John, though, John had no problem hopping and twirling about with the wee ones and the lasses. Dancing drunk though he had nary a cup of ale or wine or anything.
“Odd one, he is,” Paul remarked, as he often did about John.
“He is. There are worse brothers to be pledged to, eh? Could ‘ave had Nic.”
“Could ‘ave. Didn’t. Lucky our tithing.”
They would tell Elias later that it was right then that the two from the continent arrived- the witch and her demon familiar. Rode up on normal looking horses, dressed a little finer than normal folk but normal all the same, wearing skin like anyone else- probably stolen- but they were anything but normal. Servants of Satan.
Of course, the soldiers didn’t know that when they spied them down the road and went to check their papers and business, same as they had for every other traveler.
“What’s your business in Oxfordshire and Enstone?” they would always ask, so hostile and dismissive all at once, followed by “Are you free folk? Where are your travel papers?”
Except this time, Elias was told, as soon as they said where they were headed the soldiers called for the witchhunter. “They asked where to find the stone circles,” Paul said after meeting. “Didn’t say why.”
It was only when the witchhunter was storming over that Elias saw the two, saw them see the witchhunter. Tried to ride off, only to both be dragged down from their horses. Then the man hacked one of the soldiers with his own sword, killed him dead there in the road before the others tackled him to the dirt. Then the girl- well, there was a light, bright as the sun for just for a moment. Elias couldn’t see a thing, nor anyone else save the witchhunter, who had clutched his cross and managed to knock her over the head and drag them both to the cells he had made in the chapel.
“Witchcraft! Devilish servants to be burned,” the witchhunter shouted with the Father behind him afterward. “Prepare two pyres.”
Building pyres was easy enough. Ten men to each, two to bury the poor soldier. Put an end to the dancing, to be sure, but God doesn’t wait.
“It’s this infernal festival that did this,” the Father was muttering as he went off with John and Paul to bury the dead man. “Witches and sorcerers- forgive us, Lord.”
They stacked wood in two columns outside the chapel. Had to be ready by morning, both the Father and witchhunter said. No problem- practiced hands made for short work, and theirs had become practiced indeed at building such pyres. The witchhunter and soldiers went inside the chapel. All the while Elias and the others worked, there were screams- first a woman’s, then a man’s, and screamed curses in a foreign tongue. So near, it may his gut wrench, but the whole of the village could hear if they didn’t try to ignore the noise.
The Father retired to inside the Chapel, and shortly after the screams ceased. Night fell. The pyres were finished- no sense in staring at the ribbons on the tree fluttering untied in the breeze. The men dispersed, taking to their homes to slumber uneasily.
Elias woke suddenly to yelling- the hue-and-cry. “Wake up, wake up ye’ fools!” It was Paul’s voice, no one else’s. “John ‘as gone mad, cracked me over the head, threw me in the grave. He’s making for the sinners in the Chapel.” The whole of the village was awake, many of the men outside, puzzled, groggy. “We must stop ‘im- arm yourselves.”
A dozen and a half men quickly rallied, armed with whatever they had near. Half went to seek the Reeve, while the other, the whole of Paul’s own tithing, ran to the church. The tall door was already swung wide, a soldier laying on the floor cold just inside. They charged inside. A shadow crept from the corner, by the passage that led to the Father’s quarters.
“Put it down, John,” Elias ordered, shouting across the bay chapel at the young man carrying a pair of sheathed swords and tied bundles. John jumped, startled, nearly dropping one of the blades, but quickly regained his courage.
“I won’t.” the young man shouted back. Dumb sod.
“Ye’ must,” Paul yelled. “I order it. You can’t do it, John. It’s a crime, we can’t let you. We’re responsible for you. The whole tithing’s here. We’ve woken the Reeve. Put it down, come with us. Please John.”
The lad winced at that. “It ain’t right. They didn’t do anythin’ wrong,” he muttered, stepping toward the passage leading to where that man and woman were locked up.
“They did, John,” Elias replied, taking steps toward the poor boy, club in hand. The other eight men of the tithing did the same, making their way around the pews. She’s got the sorcery. She’s sinful- you saw ‘er as much as I did. The devil at work, an affront to our Lord.”
“I think our lord is wrong ‘bout this one, Eli,” John said, his voice eerily calm.
“Would you listen to your-” Elias tried to reply, but then John bolted, heading for the door. “Stop ‘im.” The whole of the tithing rushed, some tripping over steps and pews. He and Paul made their way, but too slow- the lad slipped through the doorway and down the hall. As they gave pursuit, there were screams, and a sudden wave of the stench of burning. It was familiar, one they had smelled before, around the pyres. The room the continentals had been locked in was open. Paul and Elias ran inside, just after John. The woman, the sorceress, stood over two men- the witchhunter, his body still, his face blackened, hanging off on one side, still simmering with heat, and a soldier, still screaming as he clawed to pull off his chain vest, his flesh bubbling beneath. Her hand was red, pulsing, as though it had been placed on a boiling pot. The man was already standing with his sword drawn and bag shouldered toward the door, panting over a soldier with a bloodied face at his feet. John was handing the woman her things, the hellish fool.
“Vielen Dank. Wir müssen gëhen,” the woman chattered in her infernal tongue.
“Wir gëhen. Come,” the man chattered back.
“Stop them!” Paul shouted to the tithing. Elias took a step forward, but the foreign man flashed his long blade. Paul, Elias, the rest of the tithing all recoiled. “Stop them!” Paul shouted again. A man, good Daniel, rushed forward, woodaxe raised. He dropped it down, but caught naught but air before the longsword cut through his forearm in a spray of red.
“For your Lord God, for your country, stop the devils!” Paul shouted, his voice shaking through the mist. For a moment no one moved. Then Elias felt a hand on his back, pushing him forward, hard. He tripped toward the man and woman with a “Ooowp,” struggling to raise him weapon as others followed suit. He could see the steel of the sword move quickly. It was slow enough for him to know where it was heading, where it would cut, but too fast for him to get even near stopping it. The burning man on the floor flashed, reflected in that steel as it flew toward his temple, nearer and nearer until-