"Cassie," Fra Douglas said, "That's enough."
Cassandra sat back against the cabin's rear wall, tears streaming down her face.
Douglas had been a friend of her family for as long as she could remember. When she'd been a girl, when he'd still been young and strong enough to work as the village woodsman, her father had gone out to the edge of the forest with him to help drag logs into town. She ran errands for him, too, sprinting to the market with the man's coin purse and then coming back with food or small-ale. Later, when she had real chores to do tending the sheep, she would still drop by his house when she could. She'd bring leftovers from her mother's kitchen, and scraps for his old grey cat.
In the past six years, the only time she could remember him calling her Cassie was the day after her mother and father had died from fever.
Fra Douglas sat down on the hard-packed earth floor across from her. He reached into his vest pocket, drew out a handkerchief, and pressed it into her right hand, "It's alright. It's going to be alright."
Cassie took the cloth and used it to dry her eyes. They sat in silence for a moment. Douglas looked over the manacles around her legs, and with his eyes traced the heavy iron chain that bound them to a timber supporting the roof.
Finally, he said, "Cassie, I know you're not a witch. You don't have to explain that to me. I may be blind in my left eye, but I still have one good that's left to see. Apparently, unlike some people."
There was no need to clarify who "some people" were. Clearly, there was at least one outstanding example in town. The Good Reverend Jebediah Cotton. He was a young man, maybe two years older than Cassandra if that. When he'd first come to town, she found his stories exciting. He was fresh out of one of the new seminaries by the coast, a place of learning founded to teach new leaders to shine a light into the darkness and sow seeds in the freshly tilled soil along the frontier. His first few Sundays in the pulpit, he'd brought tales about holy men and women blazing a path into the wilderness. The Devil's playground, he'd called it. There was one about a boy living on a lonely homestead, possessed by two thousand demons, who all had to be driven out into a tree that the exorcist then burned to ashes. In another, some sorcerer who passed himself off as a prophet called down a hail storm on a town that refused to give him all of its firstborn. Those who went into the church for sanctuary were left unharmed, while the ungodly who tried to find shelter in the forest were never seen again.
"No, Cassie," Fra Douglas continued, "you're no witch. What you are is something a lot more dangerous. Well, more dangerous to be at any rate. You're a young woman, unmarried, with a lot of inheritance that quite a few people would like to have for themselves. The honorable reverend, well, he's only first among them. I'm sure he intends to honor the witnesses against you with a portion of your 'ill-gotten treasure', too, after they scatter what's left of you to the four winds."
With no pockets in her sackcloth dress, Cassandra offered the handkerchief back to Douglas. He took it and slid it back into his breast pocket.
Her throat dry and raw, Cassandra's voice sounded like it belonged to someone else, "Can you...can you get a message out to the magistrate? A plea for leniency? You're the only person here who'll listen, but someone else-"
"Someone else would get here only hours after they'd poured water on your pyre, and the last embers had gone cold," he said, his voice low, "I'm sure anyone not under the sway of our village charlatan would take one look at the charges against you, and see them right away as the words of a child twisted by a mob of liars and accepted by fools. After your death, though, there would be no justice. Any punishment for Cotton would be an admission of guilt on the part of the bishop, so even aside from being of no benefit to a dead woman, an investigation by the church would do nothing to prevent this from happening again to someone else."
Cassandra stared down at her own hands, splayed out to hold her up from the dry floor. "What can I do, then?" she asked, looking back to Douglas, "Is there anything I can do? Am I...am I just going to die?"
Douglas reached out and, with his index finger, quietly started to draw in a small patch of sand. Geometric patterns and interlocking circles. Almost half a minute passed before he spoke again. "Other than being possessed of good sense," he said, "There's another way that I know you're not a witch."
Outside, the wind seemed to pick up. Shingles on the roof clattered, and a chill managed to sneak in between the shack's wooden beams and clay mortar.
Douglas' voice was low, but he gave each word greater clarity than any message that Cotton had ever shouted before the alter, "When I first came here from the old world, my family was fleeing a famine. A blight struck the crops all up and down the countryside, from the sea to the moors far in the North. Any grain that grew that spring, whether wheat, barley, or rye, first showed large white blemishes and then blackened in the field. It was bad in the city, but out in the marches, what little we could harvest come autumn was taken away for the market by the bastard whose land we leased.
"We were without enough food to eat that winter. I tried to make sure that my two younger sisters had as much as I could scavenge or beg, but they were still too weak to survive when a fever came and took them. The next spring after we buried them, that's when my father decided that we should cross the sea. He skipped the last few years on his tenant's contract, a major risk seeing as he could have been hanged in those days, and used what money he had burrowed away to book passage in the belly of a tobacco merchant's ship.
"We disembarked at the first port of call, about a day's travel to the Northeast of here. There weren't enough rations to see us and the crew all through to better climates further South. Still, to our eyes this place looked like the promised land. It was a lot wilder back then, and anyone who came over could get a grant on territory in the back country. All they had to do was promise to clear it, plant the soil, and give a pittance each year when the tax collector came.
"Things went good that first season. We took our grant, traveled with it West, and staked a claim just past where the roads started to run out. It was a nice spot, in a little hollow a stream had carved out from the hills. There was an easy walk to the river for fish, plenty of wood to build a house and some store buildings, and the bottomland here was so much more fertile than the stony dirt back home. You could hunt in the woods with a rifle and never worry that the foresters might take you away if you shot one of the queen's deer. We owned our own land, and that was that.
"Then, the next summer, we got our first lesson in how fickle our new paradise could be. Between April and September, we might have had a week all told when it didn't rain. Every evening brought heavy storm clouds, the streams flooded, and without the trees to cover it, the hillside came down over our field. My family did what we could to buy up food, but everyone else seemed to be hit just as rough. My father, he was a hard man. Burned by what had happened before, too. He wouldn't go into debt, not even to put a meal on the table, so we had nothing laid up when the snows came.
"I went out hunting every day. Sometimes, I'd bring home a little pheasant or venison. We'd eat what we needed, and cure the rest. Still, it wasn't enough.
"One evening, while I was out hunting along the river, I got caught in a storm like I'd never seen. The winds tore branches from the trees, and the snow piled up so fast that there was no possibility of making my way back. I found a spot up the hillside between two rocks, somewhere dry with something to break the wind so I could build a fire, and that's where I staid overnight."
When Douglas picked up his finger again, he said, "This next part, I'm trusting you to keep close. No matter what you decide today, Cassie, I want to make sure you understand that what I say is to be held in absolute confidence. I would never do anything to hurt you, as much as I love you and always have, but there are things I can't protect you from and there are things much worse than Cotton's fires. Do you understand?"
Cassandra nodded. Fra Douglas looked into her eyes, then spoke again, "That night, I saw something that I still don't know how to describe, out there in the snow. I shouldn't have been able to see it, not so far from the firelight, but it had a fire inside all its own. It gave no light, but still, it glowed in those shadows. It spoke to me from deep down in myself, at first taunting me. Told me that all I believed about death and about Heaven was just a lie. There was nothing waiting for me, it said, except to be consumed again and again by things that would feed on my fear and pain until the stars burned out of the sky. And I knew. Deep down in my heart, I knew that was true.
"Then, it made me an offer," he said. The wind picked up again, and Douglas' breath started to condense in the cold night air, "It said I could live, but if, and only if, I agreed to follow it into the dark. More than life, it promised me power, and it told me that no harm would come to my soul when I passed. I would be united to it, swallowed up along with those others who'd served it over the years, and eventually, I would become like it."
Cassandra's stare cut through Douglas, looking to something unseen in the far distance. "What does that mean?" she asked.
Douglas shook his head, "I don't know, but I took its offer. I didn't want to freeze, and I didn't want to starve. I didn't want to die, just like you don't. When I got back home around noon the next day, I found that I wasn't hungry. I wasn't thirsty. I haven't had to eat or drink since, except to keep up impressions. When I went into town, I could buy anything my family needed with whatever coin I had, or with nothing if I chose. I could sway anyone's thoughts just by willing it, and my parents never went hungry. They never questioned it, either. I don't think they wanted to."
Cassandra looked back to the pattern on the ground. Without thinking, she reached out and started to complete it. The lines flowed naturally together, until finally she was confident that the work was done.
"It's outside, isn't it?" she asked.
Fra Douglas nodded.
Cassandra felt the cold steel around her ankles give way and open up. With some difficulty, she scrambled to her feet. The old man reached out a hand to steady her.
"If I do this," she asked, "I can make sure Cotton never hurts anyone again, can't I? And I can pay him back for what he did to me. What I'm sure he's done to so many other people, too."
Douglas answered, "You can do to him whatever you'd like, although I would remind you that what is done in the night may not look so desirable to you in the light of the morning."
Cassandra nodded, and took a few stumbling steps before Douglas reached his arm around to support her. Together, they walked to the door. Then, after a moment's shared glance, they stepped out into the howling night.