Witch’s Hallow Part 2: Sarah felt the fine hairs on the back of her neck stand and she knew without turning around that he was behind her.
Her hand shook as she placed the last bundle of vervain into her basket and her heartbeat painfully against her breast as she straightened up.
She looked up into the dark eyes of Fabian Fitzpatrick, the Lord’s son and heir to the land she stood on. “I’m not trespassing,” Sarah’s voice was hoarse from fear.
“The head gardener said I could take any of the plants that grow outside the herb garden. Oh, he did, did he,” he started to circle her; his eyes tracing down the slim lines of her body.
“Well, unfortunately for you, the head gardener has no say in the running of the Hall. You will have to be punished, you know?”
Sarah looked towards the wood and the promised shelter of the trees. If she could make it that far, she would be safe. She knew every trail and gully and he would not be able to keep up with her once she reached the trees.
“Please let me go,” Sarah tried to pull away. “I haven’t done any harm and I won’t come back here again. Don’t even think about it,” his fingers clamped like a vice on her wrist. “You’re going to prison this time.”
He pulled her closer to him until their faces were almost touching. Sarah smelt the scented water he used to anoint his skin and the faint trace of Port, leftover no doubt after a hearty lunch.
“I might be persuaded to let you go if you give me something in return,” his meaning was clear as his lips descended on hers.
“No,” Sarah screamed and pulled away.
Sooty, who was busy chasing a butterfly, heard the sound of her mistress’s distress and set off running. She never faltered when she saw the man lying on top of Sarah and she pounced onto his back and raked her claws across his neck. It was now Fabian’s turn to scream and he forgot all about his assault on Sarah, as he brought a hand up to feel his wounds. Her sobs echoed through the still air.“Jesus Christ,” he looked in horror at his blood-stained fingers.
He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket to stem the blood and as he did so, Sarah managed to scramble out from beneath him. Even in her terror, she remembered to pick up the basket containing the life-saving herbs and then ran towards the wood. Sooty ran beside her, aware of the danger they were in. Fabian Fitzpatrick stopped what he was doing and watched their flight. He hated Sarah with a passion that knew no bounds, but he desired her even more and this added fuel to the fire of his hate. She was not getting away from him this time.
Sarah’s long hair flew around her as she ran and the wicker basket bounced against her side, but she didn’t feel the pain. She could hear the sound of his footsteps behind her and the snarling sounds he made as he pounded through the grass. Oh god, help me, Sarah prayed, but as in all such times of need, there was no one listening. She screamed, as his hand grabbed her hair and she was thrown against the nearest tree trunk. The impact her body made against the wood took her breath away and the waves of pain that flowed through her back told her she had broken some of her ribs.
“You’ll never escape me,” Fabian’s body crushed her against the trunk and the weight on her shattered ribs made the pain roar.
Sarah fainted and when she slumped in his arms, Fabian smiled. He could already taste the victory of her deflowering, as he threw her down among a bed of fallen leaves and pine needles. Sarah groaned when she felt his weight on her and tried to push him away, but she was powerless. As consciousness returned, she saw the dark shape of the cat renew its attack and for a moment the pressure on her body ceased. As the cat leaped, Fabian reached out a hand and caught it in mid-flight. Sooty yowled and tore at the fingers circling her body, but she was no match for the brute force of the man as he threw her against one of the trees. Her agonising scream, as every bone in her small body shattered, made the nesting birds take flight and their cries of confusion mingled with those of the dying cat.
“Sooty,” Sarah sobbed, as she reached out her hand to touch the small paw nearest to her.
The cat blinked once before closing her eyes forever and Sarah felt her only friend’s life force drain away from beneath her fingers. The dreadful weight was on top of her again, as Fabian renewed his assault. Sarah sobbed as she felt his nails raked along her thighs, but her cries for mercy were lost on him. Pain tore through her body as he ravaged her and the look on his face made her stomach heave. She turned away and looked at the body of her fallen friend. The slight breeze sent tiny waves ruffling through the cat’s soft fur and made it seem like she was breathing, but she was not.
Sarah was no longer aware that the pressure on her had eased and she never heard him walk away; her body was not the only thing that was torn, her mind was also damaged, if only for a short time. Perhaps, this was nature’s way of helping her to cope with what happened. For a moment time seemed suspended and the silence that enveloped her was tremendous. There was nothing, no bird song, no breeze, just the afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees and the terrible sadness of knowing that her life would never be the same again.
As reason returned, Sarah groaned and sat up. Blood caked her thighs and as she bundled her petticoat to stop the flow, she became aware of the fire that burned between her legs. She was sobbing as she picked up Sooty’s broken body and cradled it to her. Her eyes scanned the floor of the wood until she found her basket and she laid the cat inside. She no longer cared about the fallen herbs and she left them to lie among the rotting foliage. Each breath she took was agony, as she limped along, using the trees for support. The short walk to her cottage seemed endless, as sweat-soaked her body with each wave of pain.
Once inside, Sarah put the basket on the table and stumbled towards the cupboard that housed her collection of potions. With shaking hand she found the bottle she needed and brought it to her lips. She drank deep of the foul-tasting liquid and then made her way to the next room and lay down on the bed. Tears ran down her face, as her mind flew to her dead friend and the terrible consequences that Fabian’s assault might bring. The pain in her chest eased as the herbs did their work and she closed her eyes. When she woke it was dark.
The alehouse was alive with laughter and music. Fabian made his way through the crowd to join his friends, stopping now and then to share a joke or make some snide remark to those already well in their cups.
“You’re late tonight,” John Richards, his lifelong friend and the son of the local squire said, as he pushed a tankard of ale across the table.
“I took my time over dinner,” Fabian picked up the mug. “My father was in one of his rare good moods and I have something to celebrate.”
“Oh, yes?” John laughed at his friend’s air of mystery. “And what might that be, pray tell?”
“It’s two things actually,” Fabian took a swig of the ale. “But I’ll tell you the least of them first.”
He went on to tell John about the news he’d just received from his father. Fabian was the heir to most of the land in the district and this should have made him a very valuable prize for any mother in search of a husband for her daughter, but this proved not to be the case. Any suggestions his father made to those with suitable, eligible daughters were ignored or kindly refused, as his son’s reputation reached the ears of those in polite society.
No one wanted a rake as a son-in-law, no matter how much money he brought to the table and with Fabian now in his twenty-eighth year, Lord Fitzpatrick was losing hope of ever bouncing a grandchild on his knee. This was the reason why Fabian was in such good spirits that night, he explained to John. A match had been made with a local merchant’s daughter. It was quite a step up for her to marry into royalty and her dowry was a pleasing one.
The fact the young woman in question was pleasing to the eye was not lost on her future husband and there was much celebrating as he shared the news of his coming nuptials in the alehouse. So much so that they lost all track of time as the alcohol flowed and it was late into the night when they finally left the warmth to make their way home. They could barely keep upright in the saddle as they rode along and despite his inebriated condition; John suddenly remembered his friend’s words from earlier that evening.
“You said you had two things to celebrate,” he hiccupped.
“What?” Fabian turned to him bleary-eyed.
“Tonight, when you came into the alehouse, you said you had two things to celebrate,” John reminded him. “What was the second one?”
For a moment Fabian was thrown by his friend’s question and then it dawned on him. By now they had reached Oakwood Hall and Fabian suggested they carry on their celebrating inside his home. Both men slid out of the saddle and stumbled their way inside. The slam of the great door closing behind them brought the butler running in his nightgown.
“Bring us a couple of bottles of port,” Fabian ordered the sleepy man. “And then bugger off back to bed.”
The butler hurried to the wine cellar and quickly decanted three bottles of port. The young master was known for his bad temper and it would not do to keep him waiting. He carried a tray with the port and glasses back into the drawing-room and placed it on a side table.
“If that will be all, sir,” he asked.
“I thought I told you to bugger off,” Fabian swatted him away.
The relief was evident in the man’s face as he glided out of the room.
“Don’t keep me waiting,” John took a gulp of the ruby liquid. “What’s your second piece of news?”
Fabian grinned, and told him about Sarah and, as he saw it, the high jinks of that afternoon.
“I don’t believe it,” John’s flushed face turned pale at the news.
“You can take my word for it,” Fabian said. “The proud Miss Cleary had no longer any reason to act so grandly.”
John stayed silent as the full impact of the news set in. Like many of the eligible men in the district, he had a soft spot when it came to Sarah, and it wounded him to think of her being misused this way.
“You’ve gone quiet,” the laughter left Fabian’s eyes. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought of doing the same thing yourself?”
“I have not,” John shot up in his chair. “You are a cad and I want nothing more to do you with.”
“Are you serious?” Fabian stood up to face him. “You’re no saint; what right have you to judge me?”
“I may not be a saint, but I’d never stoop that low,” John was shaking with anger, as he placed his wine glass on the table. “I hope for your sake that your father doesn’t find out what you’ve done.”
Fabian watched his friend’s back in amazement, as he stalked out of the room. What had come over the man, he wondered, as he refilled his glass? He listened to the sound of the horse’s hooves on the cobbles outside and the slight echo of their departure as they faded into the distance. What had started as a joyful evening had turned into a disaster and he was now minus the only true friend he had in the world. It was so unfair, his eyes hardened with anger, as his thoughts drifted back to Sarah. It was all her fault for acting the fine lady, when in fact; she was the lowest of the low.
His mind cleared a little as the full impact of John’s words hit home. What would happen if his father found out? He had to do something to stop her talking, otherwise, she would spoil everything. He pushed the decanter of port away and put his head in his hands. Sarah was proud and not likely to listen to reason, but something must be done and before morning.
Moonlight streamed through the small window in her bedroom and woke Sarah from a deep sleep. For a moment she lay there still caught in the effect of the potion she had taken. The skin on her face felt tight and sore from her salty tears and in an instant, the memory of what happened returned. Moving was agony, but she forced herself to sit up and light the candle on the table beside the bed. An old chest in the corner of the room held all of her mother’s old clothes and Sarah limped her way over to it. She found an old corset hidden deep within the folds of material and started to strap this around her waist. Each tightening of the lace made her cry out in pain, but she knew from her teachings that his was the only way to heal her broken ribs. She was weak when she finished and sat down on the bed until the shaking inside her stopped. There was one more thing she had to do before taking any more of the painkilling potion.
The night seemed filled with sound when she opened the cottage door. The wind rose and wafted her skirts around her as she walked to the shed where her father stored his tools. The spade felt huge as she carried it to the back of the cottage and began to dig. Sweat soaked her forehead as she eased the dry sods from the earth and twice her hands slipped down the wooden handle almost causing her to fall over. When she was sure the hole was deep enough, she went back inside the cottage and picked up the basket. An old shawl would become the burial shroud and she lined the dark hole in the earth with this before laying the cat inside.
Folding the soft wool over the rigid body, she whispered a prayer for the animal she loved and then hurried the earth over it. She was sobbing as she picked up the potion and took two long draughts of the liquid. The dose was strong, much stronger than she would normally recommend, but she wanted to sleep, to escape the pain of the day. I’ll be stronger come morning, Sarah thought, as she lay back down on the bed. My mind will be clearer by then and I can decide what to do next. Her eyelids felt heavy as the potion coursed through her system and it held her fast within its grip. Her sleep was so deep she didn’t hear the sound of the hammer and the pounding of wood that signaled her death sentence.
Fabian loaded the small cart with planks of wood and led the horse out by the back gate of the Hall. He had decided what must be done and there was no going back now. The light from the full moon lit the way as he crossed the field leading to the wood and became lost among the shadow of the trees. The small oil lamp he carried sent shadows darting in his path and his eyes scanned the sinister shapes. An owl hooted overhead and its sound made the hairs on his headstand. The horse whinnied sensing his fright and he stroked its mane and made comforting sounds. He saw Sarah’s cottage in the distance and this strengthened his resolve. In the bushes and hedgerows, the night creatures stopped their nocturnal foraging and watched as he passed. There was something bad about to happen; they smelled it on the night air and drew back into the shadows.
Fabian peeped through the two small windows of the cottage and saw Sarah asleep on the bed. He took the bundle of planks from the cart and carried them over to the door. He placed the first plank across the door and hammered it into place. It sounded like thunder in the silence, but there wasn’t anyone to hear and if the noise brought Sarah running, then the hammer would be put to better use. He wiped his sleeve across his forehead to clear away the sweat that dripped into his eyes and put the next plank in place. It didn’t take long until the door was completely covered and Sarah’s means of escape blocked. Fabian stood back and held up the lamp to admire his handy work. There was no way she could escape now and the windows were too small to fit through. Without a moment’s hesitation, he threw the oil lamp up onto the roof and watched as the thatch took light.
Sarah struggled to break free of the potion’s hold. There were noises in the distance and a warning voice that cut through the soundness of her sleep and warned her to run. She slipped out of the bed and coughed. The mistiness of her dream was all around her and with growing terror she realised it was smoke. Choking, she ran into the kitchen and made her way to the cottage door. Sparks from the burning thatch swam before her eyes as she threw open the door and came face to face with a wall of wood.
“No,” she screamed, beating her hands against the barrier.
She was trapped within the burning building and there was no way out. Tears flowed and blocked her vision as she ran over to the fireplace. She looked up the chimney and saw the stars overhead and the leaping flames. It was wide enough for her to climb up, so placing her back against the wall she started to hoist her way up. Soot coated her hands and made the climbing difficult and she slipped a few times, but she would not be beaten. Sobbing in terror, her fingers finally found the bricks of the chimney pot and she hoisted her way out. Below her was a sea of flame and she was stranded among it with nowhere to go.
Fabian stood in the shadow of the trees and watched as the cottage burned. The wind became his ally as it fanned the flames and turned the building into an inferno. He felt no remorse at what he’d done and felt the end justified the means. He was about to lead the horse away when a movement on the roof caught his eye and he watched in dismay as Sarah climbed out from the chimney. He stood open-mouthed as she looked frantically around her and saw him standing there.
“You did this,” she screamed above the roaring of the flames. “I curse you and all your kind. Your family will die out with you and you will never know a moment’s peace from this night forward.”
He saw her look of horror as the thatch began to give way and the chimney started to crumble. For a moment she was suspended in time, a dark, ethereal shape her hair billowing in the wind and then she was gone. He tried to block his ears to her screams as the flames dragged her down into the burning building, but the sound of her agony would remain with him until the end of time.
“You mean to say that she’s buried in the cottage ruins?” I asked Bill.
“She is, that’s why its called Witch’s Hallow,” he explained. “She was an innocent, young woman whose death was explained away as the burning of a witch.”
“Surely no one believed that?” I said.
“They were ignorant times and the gentry had a firm hold on the working classes, but while there were many who pointed a finger at her, there were others who considered her a saint. Her most ardent supporter was John, the squire’s son, who kept his mouth shut about what he knew, but who lost no time in berating the superstitious talk surrounding her death.”
“Did her curse work?” I asked.
“Well Fabian’s line died out, but that was down to the fact that the wedding to the merchant’s daughter was called off. There was never any proof that he killed Sarah, but there’s always someone who sees something and there was talk.”
“What’s her death got to do with a ghost story?” I asked.
“Ah, well you see,” Bill said. “Her ghost has been seen numerous times over the years, and there isn’t one family in the district who doesn’t have someone who will swear to have seen her.”
“Have you?” I asked.
“It’s difficult to say. My old eyes play tricks at times, but I sometimes think I see the fleeting image of a wraith-like creature and a small black shadow walking through the autumn mist. There will be some clever fellow who’ll tell you its nothing more than a trick of the light, but I believe otherwise.”
Although centuries have passed since Sarah last walked the earth the world is still unkind to those who appear different. I sometimes wonder what they think of me, a storyteller lost among the dreams of the dying and the whispers of the dead.
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