They’re all standing down there, pushing and shoving to get up close to the scaffold. Horrible lot, all elbows and knees as they try to get to the front. And they call me the animal! I’m no animal, just someone they don’t understand. They’re baying for blood, or at least a sight they’ll be able to shout about down the pub later. The hangman steps aside and motions behind his back for me to move. I pretend to stumble, putting him between me and the mob. No one knows who the hangman is on account of his hood but at least he’s got sense, not like that lot down there. I don’t think for a minute that he pities me but it’s better I dangle from his noose than get torn apart by the savages drawing blood among themselves in their rush to get closer.
The local constable shouts for quiet and starts reading out the charges against me. Witchcraft, consorting with the Devil, keeping a familiar, attending sabbats, on and on he goes, reading out things that would make me laugh if I wasn’t standing where I am. There’s no such thing as the Devil and I’d hardly call my old donkey a familiar. I am a witch, but not in the way he thinks. It’s just listening to what nature tells me, using the right plants and giving the world a nudge in the right direction. If it wasn’t for that stupid Oates woman, I wouldn’t even be standing here, but she mixed things up, and decided I’d always intended for her husband to die when things went wrong.
There’s a priest nearby, reciting some old thing from his big book of wonders, and if he thinks it’s the only way to save my soul, then he’s got another thing coming. They all do.
The hangman walks me over to the noose, and lifts the bag to go over my head, and the crowd boo. They want to see my face as I die. Vicious lot, they are. The face of a dying human isn’t something you should want to see. It makes me feel sick to my core that at some point in my life I’ve helped every one of these ungrateful buggers. I’ve mended limbs, fought infections, reunited broken hearts – you name it, I’ve probably done it. All except the hangman. The bag goes over my face, and the thick sackcloth muffles some of their shouts.
The hangman guides me up the ladder – I can’t climb up myself with my wrists bound. I suppose they think it’ll stop me putting the Evil Eye on me but I never did give much credence to the cleverness of common men. I whisper a simple command, one that cannot be ignored, and I smile at what I’ve done as the hangman pulls away the ladder and I swing into space from my neck. The sudden pain is unbearable, but I know it won’t last long.
Silence has descended on the crowd, the only sounds now the gagging and spluttering and choking from inside my sackcloth hood. My feet kick and peddle in thin air, and for a moment I think this might be my end. Dizziness is setting in from the pressure of the rope against my neck, but before I blackout, hands grip my legs and guide my feet back to the rung of a ladder. The ropes around my wrists go slack, and my hands scrabble at the noose around my neck. It doesn’t take me long to free myself and pull off the hood.
The baying mob is now a jumble of prone bodies, twisted into vile positions as they fell where they stood. A crowd of figures, more air than substance, gather in silence around the foot of the scaffold. Among the shapes, I recognise James McFadden, whose dislocated shoulder I fixed, and Mary Eddons who benefitted from my help when she had her heart attack. They’re not baying for my blood now, or calling me a witch. They’re silent, and obedient.
I turn and face the hangman, and in the setting sun I fancy I can see a face, white as bone, within his hood. Dark eyes sparkle in those shadowy depths.
“They’re all yours, Esme. For now, at least,” he says, in a voice that rumbles like faraway thunder.
“Thank you,” is all I can say in reply.
“We’ll meet again.” He turns and walks away into the growing twilight.
I turn back to my quiet detachment of souls and clap my hands together.
“Well well, my lovelies! What shall we do first?”