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The Decision

It was midday when the witchfinder arrived at the cottage of the woman who lived on the edge of the woods. As he and his men approached, walking up the short path that split off from the winding road to the village, they found her sitting at a spinning wheel outside on the grass, the warm sunlight falling in a pool around her. A few chickens pecked among the clover that grew in the shade of a great, gnarled tree, whose branches twined above the clearing where the cottage lay, and an old, gray ram drank calmly from the waters of a small stream that flowed burbling from the woods behind it.
The woman looked up from her spinning as the men approached, her foot pausing on the pedal of the wheel, and the worn device spun to a stop, the fibers of the thread growing still between her fingers. She wore a curious look on her face as she watched their approach. But she did not seem alarmed.
The witchfinder came to a stop a short distance from her, and his men stopped behind him.
"Good morrow, sirs," she said, looking at each of the men in turn, before returning her gaze to the man that led them. She was young and lovely, much more lovely than he normally found the women of the peasant class; her skin was pale and smooth, unpocked and unroughened by work or age, although it was whispered among the villagers that she was older than she appeared. The features of her face were lovely as well, her hair a pale white-gold, her fingers slim and delicate on the thread. Only her eyes were strange: one was green, and one blue. He looked searchingly into them, and saw no fear there, only curiosity.
His own face, hard and lined, held no expression at all, and he wasted no time in returning her greeting.
"Are you the one who is known as the Widow Del?"
"Many call me that," she replied, "among other things." Her expression did not waver, and her eyes continued to search his own. "May I know who you are, sir? Neither you, nor any of your men, are known to me. And I know many who live in these parts."
He drew himself up, his chest swelling beneath the gleaming steel of his breastplate, his gloved fist tightening on the pommel of his sword.
"My name," he said, "is Sir Nicolas Eymerich, Witchfinder General. I am here to inform you that you stand accused of witchcraft."
The woman nodded, as if considering this news. But her expression did not change, and when at length she spoke, her voice was as calm as when she had greeted him the moment before.
"That is a most serious accusation, sir witchfinder," she said. "Who has accused me of this crime?"
The man's face remained a mask. "You will know in due time, when you face your accusers at trial. But you may know that your accusers are many, and the claims they make against you are grave."
The woman tilted her head, the sunlight shifting in her white-gold hair.
"This surprises me, sir. For I have tended to the needs of my countrymen for many years, and none of those who I help have voiced any fear of me."
The mask of the man's face shifted for a moment, a slight curling at the corner of his lip.
"Your kind is common in my work," he said. "I have brought many witches to justice who have claimed to be no more than simple healers, supplying herbs and ointments and charms to their countrymen. But you stand accused of far more serious crimes."
The woman nodded again. "And what crimes are these, sir witchfinder?"
The curl at the corner of the man's lips smoothed, and his voice grew somber and hard.
"They are charges I have heard often before," he said. "Fields blighted by insects. Cattle born sickly and deformed. A healthy young child dying of a terrible wasting disease, for which the doctors could find no cure. To name only a few of the charges. In each of these occurrences, there are witnesses that swear you were present."
The woman remained sitting at her spinning wheel, but her eyes strayed up to the sun-dappled branches spread above them.
"I begin to see now," she said. "Although the Lady Ebrill swore me to secrecy when she asked my services, concerned as she was for her reputation, she was most distraught when I could not save her son. But I believe I was most gentle in my refusal of Matthew Hopkins and Goodman Baines."
"Enough," the witchfinder said.
"Although you did not mention her," she continued, "I assume young Mistress Lennit is still dissatisfied with the charm I made her...."
"Enough," he said again, more loudly.
The woman looked down from the branches where her eyes had wandered, coming to rest again on the faces of the men before her. They remained silent, their eyes white marble, their mouths fissures of stone.
At length, she said, "You speak as if you have tried many witches in your time, sir."
"I have," he replied, a note of pride entering his voice. "Many scores."
"And you oversee these trials yourself?"
"I do."
After a moment, she said, "I have heard that a witch's trial can be most hard."
The witchfinder did not hesitate in his reply.
"For a crime as serious as witchcraft, only the harshest of proofs will suffice."
The woman nodded for a third time, thoughtfully.
"Tell me, then," she said curiously, "how often is a woman accused of witchcraft in one of your trials found innocent?"
The witchfinder raised his hands, palms upward and open.
"I am a fair and impartial judge," he said. "Even under the strenuous tests upon which I insist, there are some who can prove their innocence."
The woman was silent in response to this. The only sound was the low lapping of the water from the stream, and the soft stirring of the branches in the gentle breeze above their heads. The air around them was warm, and smelled of the surrounding forest, moss and leaves, dirt and dust. A cloud passed over the sun, darkening the sky.
"If you choose," she said at length, "you may use your authority to dismiss the charges of anyone who is accused, as you see fit?"
"I may." The corner of the witchfinder's lip curled again. "If they persuade me they are innocent."
The woman thought on this for some moments. Then she said, "In that case, it is a terrible decision that you must make."
The witchfinder's mouth hardened again into a straight, pale line.
"What decision is that, widow?"
She folded her hands in her lap. Standing over the stream behind her, the ram raised its head to look at them.
"You are the one who must decide whether or not a woman should be tried as a witch, of course."
"I see nothing so terrible in that duty," he said. "I have carried it out many times before."
She shook her head.
"Do you not see the quandary in which you place yourself?"
His voice filled with contempt. "What quandary is that?"
Her voice remained calm.
"If an innocent woman were accused of witchcraft, and you submitted her to the harsh proofs required of such a trial, then you would forever bear the guilt of subjecting an innocent soul to torture, perhaps even death."
"And if the accused was truly guilty?" the witchfinder asked, voice thick with anger, and pride.
The woman cocked her head to the side.
"Well, then you would be delivering yourself into the clutches of a witch."
As the sky darkened, the witchfinder looked up, and saw that the clouds above them were gathering, and that the branches of the tree that stood over them had filled with crows. The forest was silent, and the great ram watched them, unmoving, from beside the stream.
When he looked again at the woman before him, gazing into her strange eyes, he thought of the many women to whom he had delivered the accusation. Many had screamed, or wept, or begged him to spare them. None had simply watched him, as she did, waiting calmly for his decision.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 6th, 2022
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