“Malkin Tower” by Lynette Creswell
I lift the latch, creep out of Malkin Tower and breathe fresh air. Rain trickles from the rooftop, gathering at my feet in small, muddy pools. A golden ball of sunlight rises over Pendle Hill. Malkin Tower might sound grand but it’s nothing more than a shithole.
I slide into a puddle and dip my toes under the murky water. I inhale the sweet smell of early morning dew while washing away the grime from my feet. Cold seeps into my bones. I jump out of the puddle and onto the grass, drying my toes on the hem of my dress.
I skip down the lane heading away from Malkin Tower. A smattering of snowdrops covers the verge and a canopy of pink blossom shields me from a warming sun. I rub my stick-thin arms to stop me shivering. My stomach growls, reminding me I’ve had nothing to eat as there was no food left inside the hovel. My older sister, Dyane, devoured the last of the gruel yesterday. I tighten the rope around my waist to hold my tattered slip in place.
As I wander down the hill, I spot a figure crossing a field. His large frame is bent over as he shuffles along, resting frequently. I smile, hurrying down the lane. A chance for me to have a conversation with someone other than my sister.
By the time I reach the figure, he’s resting on a large mossy stone by the roadside, clasping a walking stick in one hand and a clay pipe in the other. I skip towards him. “Good day, Master Pedlar. Are you making your way into town?” I focus on his many wares. Rabbit pelts dangle down his back. A rusty sword hangs from his belt and little bags of hessian are threaded through his lapels.
“Are there pins inside those sacks?” I point to his jacket.
The pedlar stares at me, grunting and biting down on his pipe.
I move closer. “Sire. I asked if you had any pins?”
He coughs. A blob of green phlegm lands close to my feet. “Beat it lass, afore you feel the back of my hand.”
I step back. “I don’t understand. Have I offended you? I only wanted…”
“Be gone, I say. I don’t associate with the likes of you.”
“Likes of me?”
He stands up and shakes his stick. “I’m no fool. I know who you are. You’re Demdyke’s daughter and I don’t mess with witches.”
I frown. “But I’m no…”
He laughs, but his eyes maintain a hawkish glint. “Everyone knows the old crone worships the devil. She admitted it to the authorities that He drank her blood.”
“That’s not true.” I ball my hands into fists. “Take it back.”
“Or what?” He laughs again, showing a row of rotten teeth. “Look at ye, dressed in rags and begging crumbs from a pedlar.”
I swallow. A tightness forms in my throat. “Look here, mister. I may be poor but I never asked you for nuffing.”
He taps his pipe on the stone before stuffing it inside his pocket. “Why don’t you show me what’s underneath that pathetic piece of cloth hanging from your bones?” He licks his lips. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
Ma told me to stay inside away from the townsfolk. She was protecting me from this barrage of hatred and contempt. I should have listened. I bend down and pick up a small round pebble from the ground. Rolling it within the palm of my hand, I hide it behind my back. “What you’re asking ain’t right. Being eleven years born means I’m no woman yet.”
“Old enough for me.” He points to the low stone wall ahead. “Get behind there. Let me lie with thee and I’ll give you a coin or two.”
I glare. “I ain’t stupid. My sister lies with men like you. They tell her they’ll pay her well but often disappear without leaving a penny.”
The pedlar winks. “You’re a smart one but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say.” His smile slips from his lips. “Or I’ll swear to the local magistrate you stole from me.”
My legs shake. Ma’s imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, on trial for witchcraft, and if I get arrested too… “Please, sire. I beg you, have pity on a poor soul.”
“Be a good girl then. I’ll make it quick.” He rummages inside a cloth bag and pulls out a moldy meat pie. “I’ll even give you lunch.”
I put my hand out to take the pie but he backs away. “Not so fast. Give me what I want first.”
I can almost taste the crumbling pastry as my stomach rumbles. “No!” I fling the stone and hit him right above his left eye.
Blood trickles down his cheek. “Bitch.” He drops the pie to the ground and tries to grab me but I’m too quick.
I dash a few feet up the lane. Once I’m at a safe distance I spin around and shout, “You’re so fat and ugly I bet even the pigs won’t sleep with you.” I stick out my tongue.
His eyes glare. “You wicked girl.” He wipes blood away with his sleeve. “You need to be taught a lesson. I shall seek out the magistrate.”
“If you do I’ll curse ye and make sure your family rots in hell. The devil will strike you down and feast on your blood.”
“You are a witch.” The pedlar lifts his stick towards me.
I snigger. “You’ll never catch me, old man.”
He jerks mid-step. Gurgling comes from the back of his throat. Spittle bubbles from his lips. His eyes bulge. His expression slips from anger to confusion. The walking stick drops to the ground as he falls to his knees.
“What’s wrong with thee?” Bile fills my mouth. “Is this a joke? You cannot trick me into luring me closer. It won’t work.” A knot of fear grips my gut as I watch him land face down in the dirt. A few of his wares come loose from his belt, rolling in the mud, but I stay rigidly still, unable to move, like the devil himself has pinned me to the ground. The pedlar’s body spasms. He lifts his head and moves his lips but there’s no sound. He tries to speak again. A whisper. A faint murmur. Slurred words as though he’s drunk too much ale. “Help me.” He stretches out his hand.
His face falls to one side. I clasp my palm over my mouth. What have I done? He looks like the gargoyles sculpted around the church tower. I run to his side and fall to my knees. Tears well in my eyes. “Sire, please forgive me. I meant thee no harm.” I pull at his clothes. “Get on your feet.” I try to lift him but he’s a dead weight. “Believe me. I wouldn’t have cursed thee if I’d known I was a witch.” I use all my strength to push him onto his back. “Get up.” I shake him, pleading for a response, but his body stills. His eyes stare into nothingness. I sob, clinging to his shirt-tails. What will happen to me now? I should’ve listened to Ma.
Clouds scud across the sky. The sun has gone and darkness closes in. A horse neighs and I hear unfamiliar voices.
“Help!” I remain hunched over the pedlar. This is all my fault and I must pay for my wickedness.
Strong hands encircle my waist and drag me to my feet. I breathe a sigh of relief. “Dyane, thank goodness.”
“I’ve come to take you home.” She nudges me. “Oh no – look, the authorities.”
I recognise them from the smart coats they wear. They trot towards us. The men dismount and encircle the pedlar’s lifeless body. They hold up blazing sconces, illuminating the night sky with golden light.
A broad man points to my sister. “Is this your doing, witch?”
“No, Sir Robert. I… I came to fetch the girl.” Dyane pulls me close. Her eyes widen.
The magistrate glances at his companions before returning his stare to my sister. “You expect me to believe your lies?” He strokes his wiry beard. “What happened? Did you attempt to steal his wares and he fought back? Is that why you killed him?”
Dyane steps back, pulling me with her. “No, sire… You’re mistaken. I’ve nothing to do with this man’s death.”
I wriggle free of her clutches and rush forward. “Sire, I’m to blame for his fate.”
“You?” Sir Robert pulls off a leather glove and points a plump finger at me. “What’s your name, child?”
Sir Robert focuses his attention on me. “You don’t expect me to believe a silly little girl could take down a grown man?”
I peep through hooded lashes. “I didn’t mean him harm. He wanted to lie with me and got angry when I said no.”
Sir Robert’s jaw tenses. “Poppycock. This man’s a respectable member of the community.”
“Sire, I’m telling the truth.” I clasp my hands together.
“Enough!” He slaps a glove against the palm of his hand. “You’d say anything to save your sister.”
“But that would be a sin.” I lift my head and meet his eyes. “I cursed him and he fell down dead.”
A blond-haired officer lifts a sconce closer. “You cursed him, you say?”
“Yes.” The flicker of fire warms my cold skin. I lift my face. “He threatened me. Said he’d tell the law that I’d stole from him if I didn’t do what he asked.”
“Liar.” The officer glances at Sir Robert. “It’s what we’d expect from a witch’s daughter.” His voice drops an octave. “No doubt she’s determined to save the last of her kin.”
“No! I beg you…” I drop to my knees, pressing my hands together in prayer. “Please, almighty God forgive me. I never meant to harm him and I’m sorry for the dreadful thing I’ve done.”
Sir Robert drags me to my feet. “How dare you use the Lord’s name in vain.” He slides a hand around the nape of my neck, gripping a handful of hair and yanking my head back. “Tell the truth now, d’ya hear, or you’ll be punished too.”
I cry out in pain. “I swear, I’m guilty.”
The magistrate moves closer, his face inches from mine. His stale breath makes me gag. “Foolish child. You’re too young to learn the art of witchcraft although I sense you’re bewitched. Be wise and tell us what really happened here or I shall be forced to send you to the gallows alongside your mother and sister.” He tosses me to the ground, leaving me to grapple in the dirt, desperate to get away from him.
He spins towards my sister. “Seize the witch.” The officer closest to Dyane grabs her. The blond man runs to assist. He clasps her hands behind her back, tying them with thick rope.
Dyane screams. I clamber to my feet, clutching her skirt as they drag her away. Sir Robert grabs my arm, jolting me back towards him. Through bleary eyes I plead, “Please, take me instead. My sister is innocent.”
Sir Robert releases me. “Go home. I’m tired of listening to your perpetual lies.” He climbs onto his horse, turns in the saddle and looks down at me. “I’ll send for you on the morrow to make a statement.” He pulls at the reins. “Justice will prevail and I’ll not rest until witchcraft’s wiped out of the county.”
I watch in horror as my sister’s thrown onto the back of an old apple cart alongside the pedlar’s body. Her eyes meet mine until she’s lost to the darkness.
Streaks of sunlight filter through cracks in the door, waking me from my sleep. I turn in the hay, sit up and wipe my bleary eyes. I barely slept a wink last night. It wasn’t just the lack of warmth that kept me awake but the realisation I’d killed a man. My thoughts wander to my poor innocent sister as I rise from the makeshift bed. How could I let her take the blame for my crime? My heart lurches in my chest. She doesn’t deserve to be punished for what I did.
I shiver. The fire died hours ago. Charred embers, black as death, lay scattered across the hearth. The room’s bleak, grey and cold. I miss the warmth of Dyane and Ma’s bodies lying next to mine.
A pot of turnip soup hangs over the grate. I dip my hand into the cold watery broth and lick it from my fingers before scooping the tasteless yellow-gold liquid into a wooden bowl. I think of my sister’s fate while sipping soup.
A horse whinnies outside. I rush to the door, abandoning my meal. I peep outside. The blond-haired constable from yesterday is making his way up the path. His dishevelled clothes look like he’s slept in them and his dark stubbled chin is unshaven. He tilts his hat and gestures for me to follow. I hesitate but know better than to refuse and close the door behind me.
“Best get this over with.” He throws me onto the back of a black mare and climbs up behind me. We ride in silence other than a few grunts from him to encourage the horse.
When we arrive in town the main street is bustling with folk. Women with wicker baskets hurry home while men congregate on street corners. Boys, no older than five, play-fight with swords made from sticks.
The officer guides the mare into a stable at the far side of a grey stone building and slides down from the saddle. His rough hands drag me from the horse and I land with a thud. He grabs me by the scruff of the neck and marches me along a narrow footpath to the courthouse. He rushes past the clerk, shoves me into a side room and closes the door. A key turns in the lock.
I glance around my prison. A small window with iron bars lights the holding cell. A wooden table with matching chairs stands in the centre of the room. I sit down to stop my legs from shaking. Is it fear making me tremble or cold? Voices approach. I jump to my feet as the key turns. Sir Robert, the magistrate, enters the room with a woman by his side. She wears a long black smock, reminding me of the parish nuns who sometimes gave me bread.
A small bowl covered in muslin is in her hand.
Sir Robert gestures for me to sit and I obey. He pulls a chair away from the table, lifts it closer to me, and straddles it as he sits down. He glances towards the bowl. “Hungry?”
Is it a trick question? Will I be in trouble if I say yes?
“Well. Are you?” He nods at the woman and she hurries over.
She slides the cloth off the bowl and places it under my nose. “My specialty. Dumplings in rich brown gravy.” Tugging at her skirt, she slides a wooden spoon from her pocket. “Best eat while it’s hot.”
I snatch the utensil and gobble the stew. The meat is delicious. I cannot remember the last time I had any. My stomach gurgles. I’ve never tasted anything so good.
“Steady on.” Sir Robert chuckles. “My, young one. You have a healthy appetite.” He gestures for the woman to leave. “I’m pleased you’re enjoying the stew,” Sir Robert says as the woman closes the door. He waves a finger at the dish. “If you’re a good girl and do what I ask they’ll be plenty more where that came from.”
I chew a mouthful of potato. “Why am I here?”
He clasps his hands on the top of the chair, resting his chin. “I realise what I’m about to ask is upsetting but you must do what is right. Do you understand?”
I halt the spoon at my lips. “You mean admit I’m a witch?”
Sir Robert throws back his head and laughs. “What a sweet child you are. No, my dear. There are already two witches in your family.”
“Ma and Dyane?”
His eyes turn serious. “Yes. And it’s clear you’ve been touched by evil but it’s not too late. If you turn towards the light you can still be saved.”
“I can?” Gravy dribbles down my chin.
“Yes, but you’ll need to be brave. The path to righteousness is paved with many dangers.” I drop the spoon inside the empty bowl and push it away. “But I killed the pedlar.”
Sir Robert shakes his head. “No, you didn’t. Your sister did.”
“But she wasn’t there.”
“She didn’t need to be.” Sir Robert draws breath. “She cast a spell from afar.”
I scratch my forehead. “How?”
“Simple. She sensed you were in danger and used witchcraft to kill him.”
“You mean she used black magic?”
“Exactly. You’ve seen your Ma and sister making weird concoctions, spells, pretending to use them to help people when really they were made by the devil.”
A memory flashes. I remember watching Ma making a poultice for the farmer’s wife to mend her foot. The woman refused to pay so Ma cursed her and wished her ill fortune. “God damn you, God wound you and the devil fetch me.” The following day the farmer had found his cow dead in the field with no injuries. No one could figure out how it died. It cannot have been her though. Surely? Or was it? Is Sir Robert speaking the truth? If Ma and Dyane are witches then what about me?
Sir Robert lowers his voice. “It’s our job and duty to write an account of what you’ve witnessed at home. We may be in the seventeenth century but witchcraft is still rife in our county.”
He’s right. It’s 1612 and black magic is everywhere.
Sir Robert interrupts my thoughts. “The king wants witchcraft eradicated. We must fight against such sorceries and prove your Ma and sister used wicked arts, charms and enchantments to harm others. If we document their accounts of witchery and bring them to justice the king will be pleased.”
I let out a deep sigh, unsure what I should do. Although Ma and Dyane often beat me, they were still my family.
“You want to please the king, don’t you?” Sir Robert’s eyes narrow. “Or you can go to the gallows alongside them. Your choice. We have a written account from a neighbour claiming you’re a witch. However, as I’ve said afore, I believe your sister bewitched you. Now you’re no longer living under the same roof the spell has broken.”
I bite my lower lip. “I don’t want to hang. And it’s true… I’ve never made potions and poultices like Dyane and Ma.” I squeeze my eyes closed to hold back tears.
“Crying will not help. Stop snivelling and make a decision.” Sir Robert pulls out a stark white square of cotton and lace from his pocket. “Here.”
Its whiteness reminds me of the snowdrops that grow near Malkin Tower. If only I’d listened to Ma’s warnings and not left that day. Dyane would be safe. My fingers curl around the cloth. My hands are brown from ingrained filth. The soiled handkerchief drops to the table.
“Don’t fret, I have plenty.” Sir Robert smiles. “Take it as a gift.”
I pick up the cloth and dab my eyes before tucking the handkerchief in the palm of my hand. “What will I have to do?”
“I’ve acquired written confessions from your Ma and sister. All you have to do is give your statement and later testify in court, offering your account of how you witnessed them using witchcraft.”
Sir Robert pats the back of my hand. “Don’t upset yourself. Simply concentrate on the statement. You’ll have all the help and support you need.”
“But if I do this Ma and Dyane will never be free.”
Sir Robert rises from the chair. “Regardless of your testimony they’re doomed. If by some miracle they manage to evade hanging they’ll die in prison. However, if you do the right thing, you’ll never want for food or a warm bed again.”
I swallow. “I guess I don’t have a choice.”
Sir Robert grins. “No, you don’t.”
My stomach churns at the barrage of noise coming from the court room. Ma and Dyane will be up there by now. A week has passed since Sir Robert helped me submit my account. My family never stood a chance against him.
A clerk enters the room and beckons me closer. I follow him down a panelled hallway. The smell of beeswax and musty paper reminds me of the chapel I visited with Ma and Dyane.
A cacophony of noise comes from the spectators as I enter the courtroom. I search out a familiar face and spot Sir Robert, who smiles with a wolfish grin. Bile slips down my throat.
My gaze flicks towards Ma. Our eyes connect. She lets out a piercing wail and her body collapses into a heap. Her hands are chained together. I clench my fists, my palms clammy. For a second my resolve slips away. I take a deep breath. How could I have agreed to Sir Robert’s demands? What have I done?
Ma stands beside my sister. Dyane’s face is swollen on one side and she’s suffered a black eye. Dry blood stains her lower lip and part of her bodice is ripped, showing the top of a milky white breast.
A clerk ushers me towards an empty chair. My legs buckle as I slide into the seat.
“Silence in court.” A large man with a bulbous nose slams a hand down onto the table. “This is the defendant’s daughter, Elyza. Let her speak her account.”
A man sits at the front of the court, poised with a quill. I part my lips to speak but my mouth is too dry. A humming sound rings in my ears. I look across at Ma who is little more than skin and bone with sunken cheeks and arms like twigs. She points a shaky finger towards the prosecutor. “Please, your lordship, in the name of the Almighty don’t use my child against me.”
The man with the huge, fat nose slams his fist onto the table. “Silence.” He turns back towards me. “Speak up, girl. We haven’t got all day.”
I cough. “Sire, I didn’t hear the question.”
His voice softens. “Call me Mr Ruben. Tell me, Elyza, is it true that your mother and sister held a meeting of witches on Good Friday past at twelve o’clock?”
“Yes, Mr Ruben.”
“They didn’t go to church like other God-fearing folk of the town?”
“No, they did not.”
“Is it true they held a feast where the devil appeared?”
Ruben points a finger at Dyane. “We have a written confession from your sister stating she saw a familiar in the shape of a black dog. What do you know of this?”
I glance over at Sir Robert. He nods, signalling me to relay what we’d rehearsed. I stumble over my words. “Dyane t-t-told me that t-t-the devil spoke to her as a black dog.”
“And what did the animal say?”
I take a deep breath. “That if she gave it her soul and allowed it to suck her paps she’d receive great power.”
Several women in the gallery gasp.
Dyane falls to her knees, crying. “Lord, I beg you, have mercy on my soul. Please, I ask only for forgiveness.”
Ma lets out another scream. “Elyza, don’t let them do this to you.”
Mr Ruben turns to the guards. “Take them down. We can’t hear the child’s testimony with that dreadful racket going on.” Two officers grab my sister and mother. Dyane clings onto the doorframe. “Elyza, I forgive you.”
I cower in my chair, closing my eyes, as my kin are dragged away.
Mr Ruben clears his throat. “Tell us what happened to Jacob Law.”
I open my eyes. “Who?”
“Oh. Erm…” I gape towards the jury. “Dyane cursed him from afar.”
“And how was she able to do this?”
“The black dog came to her at Malkin Tower and told her the pedlar meant me harm. She must have cursed him because the next thing he was dead.”
Mr Ruben throws his hands into the air. “And there we have it, gentlemen. The truth at last.”
I stroke the blanket across my lap. It feels soft like a swan’s silken feathers. Mr Cummins, my new guardian, hits the carriage roof with a silver cane and draws the vehicle to a halt. “Are you ready, my dear?” He takes my hand. I throw back the blanket and tighten the cloak around my throat.
The carriage door opens and a servant helps me down the rickety steps. A smattering of frost crisps the ground underfoot. I pull my cloak closer, shielding my face from the biting wind. My guardian links my arm through his and guides me along a path towards the moors.
“Get your Demdyke tarts ‘ere,” shouts a pieman waddling through the growing crowd. He holds up a wooden tray filled with an assortment of pastries. “Only a penny for the best pies in Lancashire.” The smell of gravy makes my stomach heave.
We reach the top of a steep hill. A set of gallows looms on the horizon. Nooses dangle like broken puppets from wooden beams. A man dressed in black tugs at each knot in turn.
Mr Cummins pulls gently at my arm. “Who’d have thought your account would send ten witches to their graves?” He pats my hand. “You’ve done well, Elyza. Your courage and strength of character will ensure you bask in the glory of God.”
I remain tight-lipped as we mingle through the crowd. A boy yells and points in the distance at a horse-drawn cart full of people. As it draws closer, Ma and Dyane glare at me. I shiver.
When the prisoners come within easy reach, the boy lobs a clod of earth. “Witches, the lot of ye!” He roars in triumph when the clump hits Dyane square in the face. The crowd watches with anticipation waiting for a reaction. Dyane buries her head in her hands and sobs. A rotten cabbage flies through the air. Soon the cart’s pelted by anything the crowd can grab. Ma’s hit by a stone. She cries out. Blood trickles down the side of her forehead. The townsfolk jeer as the cart passes by. I avert my gaze, too ashamed to look them in the eye.
Mr Cummins guides me along the path. The crowd congregates a few feet from the gallows, hoping for the best view. Everyone’s excited at the prospect of free entertainment. Remaining mounted, Sir Robert positions himself beside the hangman, watching the condemned climb the steps and await their fate. He grins like he’s the people’s champion. Happy to dispose of life like tossing away rotten apples.
My guardian guides me to a spot befitting gentry. He turns to the gentleman beside him and chats. A trap door springs open with a thud, followed by another. The townsfolk cheer as the prisoners fall to their deaths. My mother and sister are next in line. I turn to my guardian but he’s enthralled by the two women thrashing against rope. I swallow bile, pick up my skirt and run.
Behind me I hear more thuds. My stomach churns. I stop and turn around, watching in horror as my family is annihilated. Blinded by tears, I stagger down a dirt track leading along the moor. A large black dog blocks my way. It speaks to me in a low growl. “Had enough of this charade?”
I halt mid-step to stroke the animal’s coarse fur. “Yes, master.”
The animal licks my hand. “It’s time to leave this wretched place.”
The image of Ma and Dyane swinging from the gallows burns inside my mind. Sir Robert gloating as he watched them fall to their deaths. Hatred fills my heart. My sister paid for my crime.
A cold wind blows from the east. I lift my hood, pull my cloak closer and disappear into the mist with the devil by my side.
2 thoughts on “2022 Short Story Competition Winner”
Pingback: Witch trials inspire 2022 story comp winner | Shooter Literary Magazine
A great little story with a twist at the end. I wanted it to be longer!