5. The End
The sky was an untainted blue with only a few baby-clouds in virgin white scattered with a careless hand. The sun had dried the streets. What was mud yesterday was now well-stamped earth. The crowd would not raise much dust when it came. There was no wind to speak of and the air was only slightly chilly. A perfect day for a burning.
Everything was ready in the square. The wood, the kindling, the stake, it was all there waiting for the hour of justice.
A witch had been found. It was she, who had made the smith’s horses ill. Old Man Harold was found dead in the gutters last week; no doubt he was lured outside by the witch. Henrietta had been devastated. Even Gottfried, who was known as a very god-fearing man and never missed a sermon, had not been protected from her evil. His wife had miscarried for the third time because of the devil worshipper.
She would burn this sundown, and everyone would be there to witness it, mostly to show their contempt of the witch, but also because no better entertainment could be found for miles around.
The first to arrive were the merchants. They set up their stalls two hours past noon with many a joke. They reserved their rivalling for when the customers arrived. The first of these trickled into the square not long afterwards, and of course began to browse to pass the time. If you wanted to be close to the fire, you had to be early. And at this time of year it soon became cold when the sun disappeared.
A group of five boys ran around the square. Two of them waved newly cut dog’s tails about their heads. The others squealed with glee each time one of them came close to hitting them. A few of the browsers looked reproachful, but boys will be boys, and no one said anything.
Soon Henrietta showed up with her husband, both dressed in mourning. Their first stop was the tailor’s, and Henrietta went straight to the most expensive fabric she could find. She whispered in her husband’s ear, and they both laughed. When she came out again she had been measured, and in a week she would come back for no less than five different dresses. Next stop was a stall filled with all kinds of jewellery. It was a small comfort, but at least she would no longer have to worry about money.
Not long afterwards Gottfried and his wife arrived. Many people offered Gottfried their condolences, to lose the chance of an heir, and so soon after the last one. He thanked everyone. It would ease his heart, he said, when the witch was nothing more than ashes in this world and burning in the next. They all nodded their understanding. Gottfried’s wife wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.
The couple went on to buy vegetables. Gottfried wanted to buy them now to be sure to get the best ones. In an hour’s time all the good ones will be taken, he said. The woven basket his wife carried around with her was soon full. They began to make their way to the front of the crowd that was already gathering around the stake.
Then Gottfried’s wife stumbled seemingly over her own feet, and everything in the basked tumbled out onto the ground. Gottfried’s wife sat in the dirt for a second, tears welling up in her eyes. Then she rose to her knees and hurriedly pulled down her sleeve over purple bruises. She apologized and at once gathered together all the vegetables and put them back in the basket. Some in the crowd shook their heads, some looked exasperated, Gottfried only smiled; he was such a generous man.
As sundown neared the excitement mounted. When the sun first touched the end of the world, the cart began its journey from the prison. Some villagers had assembled outside the prison to be the first to throw insults and rotten crops at the evil one. She was quite silent and kept her head down. No-doubt she was praying to her false god for protection. None would come. The villagers shouted even louder.
The cart was driven around the square a few times before the witch was tied to the stake, stained with dead crops and spittle. The charges were read aloud, and there was a great answering roar from the crowd. The witch was still silent. The crowd pushed closer, shouting and raging. They threw anything at her they could get their hands on. A severed dog’s tail landed at her feet.
The kindling was lit, and for a while nothing happened. Then a piercing scream rose from the monster’s throat. The ear-splitting pain in that cry released a sigh from the bystanders, and while the sun stained the west in the deepest crimson, satisfied smiles blossomed on their faces.