There are witches in Essex.
I’ve sat in on the trials. It’s not allowed, not really, but no one’s stopped any of us. And there are a lot of us, gathered around, watching Witchfinder General Hopkins as he stares down the three hanging women. They’re screaming and gasping, all three of them, their legs flailing as their faces grow slowly purple, and I fight back a wince.
Showing the witches sympathy makes thee a target.
The witches are always at the trials. That’s what we’re told. Even if they’re not there physically, they’re there mentally. Astrally. They watch the crowd, not the dying. They watch for weakness. They watch for new recruits.
We have to be stronger than they are.
“This is what happens,” The Witchfinder General’s voice, booming, echoing over the screams, jolts me back into myself.
The women are choking now, gasping and sputtering. They won’t last much longer.
The Witchfinder General adjusts his hat and leans in closer to us, away from the witches, towards the gathered crowd. “This is what happens to those who practice witchcraft in Essex.”
One of the women lets out one final, strangled scream.
And then their bodies still, one by one, and hang, blood and spit and something else soiling their dresses and dripping down onto the cobblestones below.
They are the two hundred and eighth, two hundred and ninth, and two hundred and tenth women to die in a witch trial, though many, many more have been arrested.
There are witches in Essex, and the Witchfinder General is rooting them all out.
The crowd around me stands, and I follow suit, shuffling out of the chamber, making to return to the servants’ quarters. It’s my free day for the month, and I’m not meant to clean up the blood, but the Witchfinder General will surely be looking for someone who is; I ought to find her.
As I’m about to leave, one of the last to file out, I feel a hand wrap around my wrist.
I jump, stifling a yelp, and turn to look at the man attached to the hand gripping mine.
Matthew Hopkins. The Witchfinder General.
“General Hopkins,” I say, doing as much of a curtsey as I can manage with his vice grip on my hand.
He releases me, a smile sliding across his face. “Bit antsy today, Miss…?”
“Dawe, sir,” I say, bowing my head again.
“Antsy today, are we, Miss Dawe?” he asks again.
I shake my head. “No, not in the least, Witchfinder General, sir. I just ought to be getting back, I’m meant to go find Missus Crawford to do the cleaning up–“
“But surely Missus Crawford won’t mind if thou art a few minutes late, now, will she?” asks the Witchfinder General, still smiling that peculiar smile at me.
I open my mouth, then close it again. He’s still staring at me, and I feel odd under his gaze. Exposed. Vulnerable.
I suppose he’s checking, in his way, to see if I’m a witch. It’s absurd, of course, I could never be a witch, but it’s perfectly fair of him to check. However he does it.
“I… I guess a few minutes delay won’t hurt her,” I stammer. “But more than that, and the Lady will get quite cross for me, she’s meant to have a dinner party tonight and the room needs to be spotless by then–“
“I’m aware,” says the General. “I’m meant to be at the party.”
“Oh.” Of course he was. He was the most powerful man in Essex right now, apart from the Lord himself. Of course he would have been invited.
“Willst thou be there?” he asks me.
I blink once, twice. I can still feel the pressure of his hand gripping my wrist, though he’s long since let go. “Um. I do believe I might be serving?”
His strange grin widens. “Excellent. I should quite like to see thee tonight.”
“Um. Right,” I say, unsure of how to respond, my mind made rather criss-crossed by the way his eyes are boring into mine. “I really ought to get going, Witchfinder General, sir, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
Before I can react, he takes my hand, bows slightly to kiss it, murmurs against my skin, “The pleasure was all mine.”
I pull my hand away, my cheeks flaming, and leave, barely able to contain my run until I’m out of his sight.
I very nearly smack into Missus Crawford two halls down, already with the rags and bucket in her arms.
“Dearie, do be careful!” she cries out, nearly dropping the bucket, but I reach out more by instinct than by desire and help her catch it.
“Sorry, Missus Crawford,” I mutter, releasing the bucket, fully meaning to sidestep her and hurry on.
She refuses to move. “What’s got thee in such a huff?”
“Nothing,” I say, forcing a smile. I just left the courtroom. The witches may still be watching. “I’m quite alright, Missus Crawford, I’d just like to get in some rest before the party this evening.”
Missus Crawford’s frown deepens. “Thou aren’t meant to work tonight.”
I feel a heat rising in my cheeks again, borderline painful, and I stare down at my hands, twisting themselves together in front of me.
“Oh.” There’s something in Missus Crawford’s voice, now, something that makes me look up sharply. It’s in her eyes, too.
“Did the Witchfinder General ask thee to come?”
I nod, too stunned to question how she knew. There are witches in Essex, after all, but they can’t include Missus Crawford, not in a million years. She’s far to kind, too generous, too caring to be a witch.
“Thou ought to go, then,” she says with a sigh. “But be careful for me, love. He’s a powerful man, and a dangerous one.”
“The Witchfinder General is an honourable man,” I say, feeling oddly pressed to defend him. “I should think I’m quite safe, seeing as I’m about as far from being a witch as one can be.”
“Just be careful, Anna, won’t thee?” asks Missus Crawford.
It’s the use of my given name, more than anything else, that gives me pause. She only calls me Anna when something is incredibly serious.
“I will, Missus Crawford,” I say. “I always am.”
“That’s a good dear,” says Missus Crawford, and she smiles like she would quite like to pat my cheek, but her hands are rather too full for that. Instead, she settles for gently nudging up against me as she passes, carrying her rags and bucket into the courtroom.
The Witchfinder General is a good man, I know it, even if he is a bit… eccentric. I assume one must be rather odd, in order to catch so many witches. It is for the witches that I need to watch.
That much, I know.
There are witches in Essex, and some of them have attended the party.
That is what the Witchfinder General tells me, whispers it in my ear as he passes me to get into the banquet hall. “There are witches everywhere, Miss Dawe. Be ever vigilant.”
And so I am, for the witches, for their influence, but I keep Missus Crawford’s advice in mind, too. I must trust her. She’s all I have left. And so I keep my distance from Witchfinder General Hopkins, despite the way his eyes continue to bore into me, and when he calls for a servant girl, eyes never leaving me, I let another go in my place. And the party is over soon enough, and the Witchfinder General leaves, and he doesn’t whisper in my ear as he goes.
There are witches in Essex, but they’re not all we think about. It has been quiet on the witch-hunting front for five days now, which is a new record since Witchfinder General Hopkins came to town. I’ve a moment of free time right now, as I’ve finished my polishing in the armory earlier than expected, and so I’m sitting just outside the armory door, having long given up on using the polish rag to remove the stains from my hands. I must be down in the kitchen in twenty minutes, and the servants’ quarters are on the opposite end of the castle from both the kitchen and armory. And so I’m sat here, instead, inspecting the new symbol Witchfinder General Hopkins insisted be carved into the wall here. A symbol of protection.
Protection against the witches.
There are witches in Essex, and while it may not be all we think about, it certainly does take up quite a lot of thought.
A voice sounds above me, soft and gentle and instantly recognizable. “Miss Dawe. I would have thought thou hast duties to attend to?”
I jump, looking up to see a rather handsome face standing over me. George Lyle. One of the Lord’s younger soldiers, barely sixteen– the same age as me.
I smile up at him, fighting back the blush threatening to rise in my face. “I just finished in the armory, and I’ve not to be in the kitchen for another quarter-hour.”
“Is that so?” he asks, and he holds out his hand.
I hesitate. “My hands are stained. I don’t want to dirty thee.”
“Thou couldst never dirty me,” he says, his hand inching closer to me, and I take it, let him pull me to my feet.
“I thank thee, Mister Lyle,” I say, for want of anything better.
“Call me George,” he whispers.
I blink. “George? Is that–”
“It may be forward, Miss Dawe, but I don’t think it’s entirely inappropriate,” he says, a small smile playing around his lips.
I can’t help but to smile back. I’ve always been powerless around George Lyle’s grin, ever since I met him six months ago, ever since I bumped into him in the armory, just as I was doing the very same task I just finished today.
His smile may be the reason I’ve spent so much time in the armory recently.
“Well, if I’m to call thee George, I must insist thou callest me Anna,” I respond, and that grin of his widens, and he bows, bringing his head to my hand.
“No!” I yelp, pulling my hand back, because I can’t sully him, can’t risk dirtying that beautiful face.
His smile fades in an instant. “I’m so terribly sorry, Miss Dawe, I didn’t–”
“I do believe I just told thee to please call me Anna,” I say. “And… it’s not thee. I didn’t want… like I said. My hands are stained. I don’t want to sully thee.”
“Thou couldns’t,” he says, and he takes a step closer, and suddenly I feel as though we’re no longer talking about my dirty hands. “I’m merely a private, and that’s all I’ll ever be, I think. I’ve not got any particular skills that would help me to get ahead. And the salary of a private is still quite sufficient, at least for me.”
“I… I do think it would be, yes,” I say, my voice a mere whisper, not trusting myself to let it rise above that. “I thank thee, George.”
“I’ve done nothing to deserve thanks,” he says, taking another half a step closer, and I don’t draw back, even though there is plenty of space for me to do so.
“I would rather disagree with that sentiment,” I breathe.
His eyes dart over my face, and I feel my cheeks begin to flush, and this time, when he takes my hand and raises it to his lips, I don’t pull away.
“Until next time, Miss Dawe,” he whispers against my skin.
“Call me Anna, George, please,” I insist, for the third time, and that grin lights up his face again.
“Very well,” he says. “Anna.”
And then he steps away, vanishes into the armory, leaving me with a polish rag on the floor and a hammering in my heart and a strange warmth spreading from the spot where he kissed me through my entire body.
There may be witches in Essex, but they are hardly the most important thing we have.
There are witches in Essex, and the Witchfinder General has found another one. It’s been a week since the party, and I haven’t seen him since, and I would be lying if I said I minded the break from his relentless stare.
He’s holding another trial today, a true interrogation, he says, and he says that this new witch will name another. One within the Lord’s own household, hiding amongst his staff.
All of us attend, all of us who are not otherwise occupied, and even some who are. I ought to be helping in the kitchen, assisting with the dishwashing, but Missus Hume has got it under control, she told me, and she knows neither of us are witches, but she knows I like to watch the trials. So she sent me along, told me to come back after the trial and help her with the last bits of the drying.
I sit in the stands, buried amongst the other women, and I watch.
The Witchfinder General walks in, his eyes scanning the crowd, and when they find me they linger for the briefest second. Then he turns his back on us sharply, looking over at the soldiers– members of the household, themselves, that were drafted briefly by the Witchfinder General to aide his fight against witchcraft. He gives one nod, adjusting his hat.
The soldiers part, and between them come two more, leading a woman.
Leading Missus Crawford.
I can’t stifle a gasp as I stare at her. She’s staring at the floor, her eyes puffy, her face swollen, her normally-severe bun dishevelled. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a week.
There’s no way Missus Crawford could ever be a witch.
The crowd around me murmurs, but I can’t make out the words, not over the pounding of my heart in my ears. It can’t be. It can’t be.
“Missus Phyllis Crawford,” says the Witchfinder General, and Missus Crawford winces at his words.
“Witchfinder General Hopkins,” she breathes.
“Who is the witch in our midst?” asks the Witchfinder General, his voice cold, uncaring.
Missus Crawford doesn’t respond. She’s scanning the crowd, blinking far more often than she normally would, squinting up at us.
Her eyes meet mine, and widen in fear.
“Missus Crawford.” The Witchfinder General’s voice is cold, harsh, like it is with all the witches he’s caught. I can’t believe Missus Crawford is one of them. I cannot believe it. “Might I remind thee that thy life depends upon thy answer to this question?”
Missus Crawford tears her eyes away from mine, and they land on Witchfinder General Hopkins. “Sir. I don’t– I don’t–”
He sighs heavily. “It matters not if thou says it now. She told me in advance, ladies and gentlemen.” He turns to us, turning his back on Missus Crawford, and her eyes search for mine again, I can feel them, but I can’t look at her. I can’t look away from the Witchfinder General.
There are witches in Essex, and we’re about to meet another one.
The Witchfinder General clears his throat. “Phyllis Crawford has named Miss Anna Dawe as her apprentice in witchcraft.”
There’s a gasp, a murmur, that runs through the crowd, and all eyes turn to me.
I can’t seem to make myself move. I can’t hear the words of those around me, can’t hear their mutters, can’t hear the cries I know must be starting. All I can hear is the ringing in my ears and my name, spoken in the Witchfinder General’s voice.
There are witches in Essex, but I am not one of them.
I think I must have said something, because there’s a sound that sounds like my voice, a strangled half-word, but it’s cut off, abruptly, by hands closing around my arms. Soldiers.
One of them is George Lyle.
George and the other yank me to my feet, half-leading and half-dragging me to the dungeon, the very same one from which Missus Crawford emerged. I hear the Witchfinder General’s voice, booming out something, some proclamation, but I can’t understand what he’s saying.
I can feel the General’s eyes, following me out of the room, following me as far as he can.
There’s the creak of a dungeon door, and George shoves me inside. There are people inside already, scattered about, dressed in rags, most of them half-collapsed. Weak women, feeble women, broken down by whatever it is the Witchfinder General does.
There are witches in Essex, and I am in their midst.
There are witches in Essex, and now that they surround me, I can’t help but to stare at them. Not all of them are collapsed, as I originally thought– some are held up against the wall, supported more by their chains than their feet. Others are curled into balls on the ground, their eyes open, muttering to themselves.
I’m half-curled-up, too. I don’t know what to do. I’m shaking, shaking like a leaf in the wind, but I’m still silent. I won’t draw attention to myself. Not surrounded by scorned and angry witches.
There door creaks open, and Missus Crawford stumbles in, dropping to her knees just inside the door.
I uncurl myself, crawling over to her, and she reaches out, grabs me, tries to hug me close.
I don’t let her.
“Anna, Anna, Anna, love, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” breathes Missus Crawford. \
“I’m not a witch,” I say, and my voice is shaking, but I try my best not to let it overtake me. The pounding in my ears had subsided, but now it’s back, and it’s accompanied by fury.
“I know, my dear, I know,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry, my dear.”
“Why?” The anger is pricking my eyes now, and I feel the tears forming, feel them beginning to spill over down my cheeks, but I ignore them, I keep talking. “Why did thou givest him my name? I’m not a witch, thou knowest I’m not a witch. Missus Crawford, I don’t understand why–”
“I never gave him thy name, dearie,” says Missus Crawford. “I love thee, Anna, I love thee like my daughter, I would never hurt thee. I would never. I never wanted to hurt thee. He… he… I haven’t slept all week. He hasn’t let me. Not until I said… I said I would confirm what he was saying. I never– I never said thou art a witch, love. Not ever. He did. Hopkins did.”
I blink, unable to do much else. The Witchfinder General named me as a witch? But that was impossible! It was inconceivable. I am not a witch. I never was. Why would he ever think that?
I remember his eyes, the way they bore into me, the way they seemed to find me in a crowded room.
I don’t know how the Witchfinder General finds his witches, I haven’t a clue, but he must have been wrong here. Just this once, he must have been incorrect.
Well. I look over at Missus Crawford, curling into a ball of her own, just out of the reach of the door, her eyes fluttering shut and her breath slowing. Maybe twice. Maybe just twice, he was wrong.
It wasn’t alright of him to torture Missus Crawford like that, either. But he wanted to know if he was right, and Missus Crawford was afraid, and so she lied to the Witchfinder General to try and get out of what he was doing. It wasn’t either of their faults, really. If the Witchfinder General would just come here, I could surely explain to him, explain that there’s been a terrible misunderstanding–
The door to the dungeon creaks open, and all around me there are gasps and cries and moans of fear and pain. Light floods in, too little of it, too briefly, and then the door swings shut again, and the Witchfinder General is standing there, flanked on either side by soldiers.
One of them is George.
I jump to my feet, running up to him, and throw myself at his feet. “Witchfinder General, sire, please, listen, I am not a witch–”
“Why didn’t you fools chain her up?” he snarls, his cold, sharp tone such a contrast to the one I remember from just a few days ago. “I told you to chain her.”
“There aren’t any free posts, sire,” says the other soldier, the one who isn’t George, and when I look up at them, tears streaming freely down my face now, George is looking straight ahead. I beg and plead– silently, I don’t want to draw Witchfinder General Hopkins’ ire– for him to look down at me, but he won’t, and I know him, I know how stubborn he is, and I know that no force on Earth can persuade him to look down at me if he doesn’t want to.
But I can see the way his eyes are darting, see the way his fists clench and unclench, and I let out a breath, barely managing to form it into the shape of the word I want before it leaves my body, but the sounds arrive at my ears relatively unmangled all the same. “George.”
He looks down, his eyes finally meeting mine, and there’s something in them, a strange sort of grief and a steely determination and something else I can’t seem to place.
“I don’t care where you chain her up, just do it!” snarls the Witchfinder General, and then something slams into my face, and I cry out, flying backwards, feeling a white-hot flash of pain rush through my face and something warm and wet drip down onto my lip. Blood. I’m bleeding.
Hands grab onto me, far gentler than they ought to be, and through the haze of pain and tears I see George, dragging me over to a spot on the wall, and he places my wrists into manacles, but I can still sit, I can still lie down, and it seems like almost a kindness considering the plight of some of the women in here.
“George, please,” I whisper, keeping my voice low so as not to alert Hopkins, “thou knowest I’m not a witch. Thou knowest I’d never hurt anyone. George, George, it’s me, thou knowest me, please,” and I’m begging now, tears falling anew, mixing with the blood now dripping down my chin, and George ignores me.
George ignores me.
He steps away, striding smartly back over to the General, wiping his hands on his vest as though I’ve dirtied them. Thou couldn’t. Thou couldst never dirty me. The words echo in my mind, even as the three men retreat, the door slamming shut behind them.
I curl up, a wretched sob wrenching through my body, and I hear a voice nearby, an unfamiliar one. When I look up, it’s one of the witches near me, a woman who can’t be older than twenty, and there are tear tracks streaking through the dirt on her cheeks, but she’s crawled as close to me as her bindings will let her, and she’s holding out her hands for me to come closer, and when I look I can see a rag in one.
I inch towards her, cautious, because there are witches in Essex, and this girl might be one of them, but then gently takes my face in her hands, wiping the blood from my lips, and another sob bubbles up unbidden, but she continues just to wipe me clean, as clean as can be managed with anything in this dungeon, and I hear another woman whisper words of comfort, and a third joins in.
I look up, my eyes meeting the first girl’s gaze. “He said I couldn’t possibly dirty him.”
“He’s trapped, just as sure as we are,” says the girl, and her voice is thick with an accent much like Missus Crawford’s, heavy with the countryside and still somewhat unfamiliar after an entire life spent within the castle walls.
“I think I loved him,” I breathe, and the thought is absurd, but that doesn’t stop it from being true.
“I loved the one who turned me in, too,” says the girl. “But that don’t stop Matthew Hopkins. Not ever.”
“Has he ever felt love?” I ask, the question falling from my lips entirely unbidden, and I feel a flush rise in my cheeks.
The girl shrugs. “Not for any one of us, I promise thee that.”
“Us,” I breathe, and I look around.
The women around me are weak, frail, and for people who supposedly had made pacts with the devil, they seem to be doing very little to try and escape their plights. It dawns on me, a true witch would never be confined by simple walls and a door.
“None of you are witches.” I never meant to say it aloud, but my mind is not entirely in control of itself, not yet, and the words elicit a quiet, bitter chuckle from the woman holding the rag.
“No, dearie,” she says, the mirror image of Missus Crawford now. “Not a one.”
I nod, slowly, the pain finally beginning to recede, my head finally beginning to clear.
None of the women here are witches. And despite what we’ve been told, despite what the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins has told us, I’m beginning to think: perhaps there aren’t any witches in Essex at all.
There are no witches in Essex, but there is a Witchfinder, and he likes to remind us all of that. I spend three days here, freezing on the dungeon floor, largely ignored in favour of the various women forced into standing, forced to stay awake.
It’s on the eve of the third day– or, I think it must be the eve, based on what little sunlight gets in through the tiny window overhead– that Matthew Hopkins finally seems to remember I’m here. He does so nearly by accident, stepping on my hand on his way past, and I let out a whimper at the sudden flaring pain, and when he looks down at me his eyes still seem to bore into my being.
“Thee,” he says, and his foot doesn’t lift from my hand, and force back another noise of pain. Letting him know thou hurts only makes him hurt thee further. “Thou art Anna Dawe. Thou enchanted one of my officers.”
I don’t dare open my mouth for fear of what sounds I might make, instead choosing to just shake my head.
“Thou didst,” he says, finally taking his foot off my hand– I can’t hold back a gasp of relief– and instead bending down so that his eyes are level with mine. “Thou tried to work thy magicks on me, too.”
I shake my head again, cradling my injured hand to my chest, not daring to close my eyes against the pain, even as his eyes bore into me once more.
“Have thee anything to say for thyself?” he asks.
I take a deep, shaking breath, forcing the words out. “I am not a witch.”
He scowls. “Perjury is a crime.”
“I am not a witch,” I insist. I’ve said those words, now. I can say them again. “I am not a witch!”
His hand flies, striking me across the mouth, and I yelp, knocked to the side once more, the blow reigniting the pain in my nose.
“Next time thou lies to me, witch, I won’t be so gentle,” he hisses. “Thou shalt go to the pyre tomorrow.”
I keep my eyes squeezed shut, closed against his vicious gaze, not daring to say anything else. Perhaps the fire will be a release, after this. After all this.
There’s a sound above me, a soft, self-satisfied hmph, and then his presence is gone, and I hear footsteps, and the telltale creak-creak-slam of the door opening and closing again.
It’s not for another several minutes that I dare to open my eyes, and when I do, Rosamond– who comforted me, that first night, and who I’ve since comforted time and again– is staring at me with tears in her eyes.
“Thou art to die tomorrow,” she breathes, and I nod.
“Better than this,” I say. “This is no life at all.”
“Then perhaps I will confess,” she says, that dark chuckle I know far too well rising from her lips. “Saves me a lot of effort.”
I laugh as well, a hollow sound, and she holds out her arms to me, and we collapse against each other, falling into our usual semblance of restless sleep.
There are no witches in Essex, but tomorrow, I’m to die as one anyways.
There are no witches in Essex, but the people building the pyre on which I’m meant to burn don’t know that.
I’m outside, now, watching them work, relishing in the fresh air in my lungs, in the way the breeze feels against my skin. It’s not raining right now, but the clouds overhead threaten a storm on the way, and Matthew Hopkins is attempting to rush the process to ensure I’m thoroughly crisp before the sky can open up on us.
I don’t react to his efforts. I don’t kick the kindling away from my feet. I don’t fight it at all. I just watch, feeling more contempt than fear, even as the torches begin to light around me.
Matthew Hopkins calls up to me, his voice confident as ever, booming out across the empty field. “Evil creature, thou art a witch.”
“I am not,” I say. “There’s not a single witch in all of Essex, and thou knowest it to be true.”
“Witch,” hisses Hopkins. “Liar.” He looks bedevilled, his face aglow with the light of the torch, his eyes flaming even further in his skull.
I realise it then. The truth of witches. “Thou needest not a pact with the Devil to become a witch, Matthew Hopkins. Thou needest only a cruel heart, and that thou hast aplenty.”
“Burn her!” Hopkins snarls, and the torches fall into the pyre.
I scream, the flames crawling up to meet my flesh, the terrible heat engulfing me, but the whole time I can still feel his eyes, his terrible eyes, boring into my soul.
One final time, I meet them, glaring my defiance through the haze of pain and smoke, and I see the ricketish grin spreading across his face.
There is one witch in Essex, and he is laughing as I burn.