Marked
By: Amber M. Simpson

"Burn! The! Witch!" The crowd of villagers chanted, thrusting their torches to the sky. "Burn! The! Witch!"

Twelve–year–old Pippa stood among them in the darkening village square, biting her lower lip. When the witch was dragged out by a thick rope knotted around her neck, the villagers cheered. Women tossed their skirts; men threw their hats in the air.

Pippa watched with dread as the woman was hauled up the crudely built wooden steps leading up the side of the pyre. The evening breeze blew her long hair in her face, obscuring the dark eyes that seemed to glitter with fury at the man awaiting her there—Pippa's own father, his priestly robes billowing around his feet.

As her father motioned for the jailer to tie the witch to the stake, the crowd's excitement grew to a fever pitch, thrilled with this rarity of amusement from their dull daily lives.

"I heard she sleeps with the devil and eats her own offspring," a tall toothless woman beside Pippa cackled.

"I heard she seduces any man foolish enough, then cuts off his member to aid in her spells," an emaciated woman to the other side of her added.

"Let her burn!" a gruff male voice near the back of the crowd shouted. "Kill the witch!"

Frenzied cries of "Kill the witch!" washed over the throng of villagers like a wave, increasing in volume and intensity until Pippa had to cover both her ears with her hands.

Fighting her way to the front of the crowd, she found her brother, Abram, whose own loud cries added to the swelling chants. Pippa knew it was Abram's dream to someday be a holy priest as well, yet it still made her stomach turn to see the pride in his eyes as he looked up at their father. Didn't God preach love and forgiveness above all else? Surely, he would not condone the burning alive of a human being out of what Pippa knew to be simple fear.

"Abram," she croaked, tugging at his arm. "Must they burn her? What if she is not truly a witch?"

Abram laughed down at her and tweaked her nose, immediately dismissing her concerns. "Then our glorious father is not the renowned priest of Meere!"

"But—" Pippa started, but Abram shushed her with a finger to the lips as their father began to speak.

"Villagers of Meere!" he cried, throwing his arms wide as if embracing the whole of them. "This woman stands accused and charged of witchcraft and evil intent! Therefore, tonight is a special night, indeed! Tonight, we banish the darkness that has invaded our homes! We destroy the evil that has infiltrated our lives!" The villagers cheered, Abram as loud as the rest, and Pippa shrank back away from him.

As her father continued his zealous rant, Pippa stared at the witch, realizing for the first time just how beautiful she was. It was hard to believe her capable of the supernatural atrocities of which she was accused. Even now, as she stood bound to the stake that would soon be lit to burn her alive, she did not lose her beauty, the corners of her lips turned up ever so slightly as she glared at the crowd amassed before her. Her eyes swept over the crowd, as if looking for someone in particular. When they landed on Pippa, holding her hostage in their glare, all the air left Pippa's body and she struggled to breathe.

Her father's voice droned into a dull buzz in her ears as the witch held her with those dark, scorching eyes. The mark on Pippa's forearm burned as if on fire itself and she was transported to the nightmare she had had the night before—the nightmare where the witch had crawled through her window and come to her bed, grabbed her arm and spoke in an unfamiliar language. Pippa had wanted to scream, to call out for her father or Abram, but the witch's eyes had paralyzed her, held her down, mute, to the bed. Not until she finished speaking in that strange, garbled tongue did she release Pippa's arm and slither back out the window to disappear into the night.

Pippa had remembered nothing else until she had woken in the morning and had even almost forgotten the dream… until she saw the deep red marks on her arm, raised like welts, in the shape of gripping fingers. She had made it through the day by reasoning she had done it herself while having the nightmare, but now, she was not so sure. The longer the witch stared at her, the hotter the mark burned, until Pippa was yelling as loud as the crowd of villagers around her.

"Have ye any last words, witch?" her father asked, drawing the witch's eyes away from Pippa. Instantly, the burning on Pippa's arm ceased as the witch glared at her father, her lips pulled back in a hateful sneer.

"You are a fool," she growled, straining toward him against the ropes which bound her to the stake. "You cannot rid yourself of me. I will haunt you until you go insane, then I will slit your throat in bed. I will strangle your children. Cook them. Eat them. Your God will not protect you. Your God is a bigger fool than you."

The crowd hissed and made the cross sign in front of them. Someone threw a rock at the witch, striking her above the left eye. A stream of blood gushed from the wound down her face.

"Burn! The! Witch!" The chanting resumed as more rocks flew through the air. One of them struck her father, who quickly commanded the pyre be lit before rushing down the steps. Several men stepped forward and touched their torches to the dry wood at the witch's feet. Immediately, it ignited, the gust of heat shooting out at the crowd. They jumped back with a collective gasp.

Pippa watched in horror as the fire licked up the witch's legs, catching her tattered skirts aflame. The mad crowd did a wild dance of excitement, and Pippa was jostled about roughly. She looked back and forth between her father's and brother's faces, sickened at the sight of delight she found there.

As the witch burned, Pippa saw her dark eyes on her once again, her thin lips moving quickly as if in prayer. A dawning realization struck her just as the witch's hair caught fire, going up in a bright halo of flame.

But it was too late.

With the witch's last ululating scream, Pippa's body stiffened and seized, her eyes rolling to the back of her head. The witch's melting face appeared in her mind's eye, and she felt the sensation of being torn apart from the inside out.

Pippa tried to resist—struggling to remember all the prayers her father had ever taught her to ward off evil spirits—but it was no use; the witch was too powerful. Twelve–year–old Pippa was simply no match for a centuries–old woods witch.

A dazzling bright light shot through Pippa's head like a bolt of lightning, and she lost control of her body. Going limp, she collapsed against her brother who barely caught her before she hit the ground. From somewhere deep inside, Pippa's consciousness screamed for help, but the witch snuffed it out as easily as putting out a candle.

"Are you all right, Pip?" Abram peered into her eyes, helping her resume balance on her feet. Straightening and smoothing her skirts, she nodded and looked up at the charred remains on the burning pyre, the priest reading to the crowd from his ridiculous bible.

"Wonderful," she answered with a smile, eyes dancing with reflected flame. Satan would have to wait for her a while longer yet—she had unfinished business with a foolish priest to tend to.

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