Blackwater, p.13
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       Blackwater, p.13

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Matthew could feel the townsfolk’s eyes upon him as he strode into the meeting house. The few villagers that had arrived early enough to secure a place inside had squeezed on to benches or stood against the walls. Matthew took his seat as John Buckley, the presiding magistrate, swept into the room.

  From outside came the rattle of wooden wheels on cobbles and the baying of the crowd began. The prisoners had arrived.

  They shuffled in, sorry, ragged shadows, and, as one, the men of the court raised handkerchiefs to their mouths and noses, to stifle the horrific stench emanating from the sickly, unwashed bodies. One of the prisoners, a young woman Matthew remembered as Susan Adams, began to wail.

  ‘Oh God, help me. I have done nothing, nothing, I swear. Please, please God, help me.’

  ‘Silence woman.’ Buckley’s voice was strident and the terrified woman stopped, then fell to her knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing silently. Some of the remaining prisoners watched with stricken faces. Others stood, heads bowed, all fight gone, eyes downcast.

  Hannah Woodbury was called to the front first and stood cowering in front of the magistrates. Buckley, large and florid, peered impatiently down from his raised bench.

  ‘Woodbury, you are accused of horrible crimes to which you have confessed. You have said that you possess several imps and that these were given to you by Satan himself. You are accused of using the foul arts of Satan to commit several crimes including that most severe offence of murder. What do you say to this?’

  The woman raised her head briefly, her dead eyes squinting up at the magistrate. She opened her dry lips to speak, but words seemed to fail her. Matthew had met with this silence, this stubbornness, during her interrogation. He was pleased to observe that Buckley had no patience with her – indeed he was slapping the bench, clearly irritated.

  ‘Nothing? You have nothing to say? Do you not realise how serious this is?’

  Still Woodbury gave no response. Buckley sighed impatiently.

  ‘Very well then. Seeing as you have nothing to say we’ll call our first witness. Is Yeoman Potts here?’

  The crowd murmured as a tall, skinny man with a pock-marked face stood and strode to the bench. Matthew remembered Potts well. His resentment and righteous anger had been heartening to witness. It would be interesting to see how he responded to Buckley’s forthright questioning.

  ‘You say that you have a grievance against Woodbury. What are your accusations?’

  Potts glared at the woman, who continued to observe her feet. He held his hat in his hands, turning it as he began his tale.

  ‘She has lived near me for years. Always she has been a strange one. She’s known to be the one to go to if you need anything. Medicines, potions, that sort of thing.’

  Matthew pursed his lips. How he despised these superstitions. They were dangerous, he knew, leading the innocent into the path of Satan himself. Potts continued.

  ‘She has been poor, but it’s no excuse.’ He paused and licked his lips, his ears turning red. ‘As I say, it’s no excuse.’

  ‘No excuse for what, man?’ Matthew could sense Buckley’s exasperation. He willed him to patience; sometimes it was necessary to take these matters slowly. True, there were ten cases to hear, but it was vital that each of the aggrieved was allowed time to speak.

  ‘She came to my house one day last November. Freezing it was, so at first the maid wouldn’t answer the door. But she kept on banging. She wanted a cup of milk.’

  ‘And you refused?’

  ‘The maid it was. But we had told her not to give to beggars. They keep coming if you do. So she said no and Woodbury didn’t like it. Went off muttering threats.’

  ‘Threats? What kind of threats?’

  ‘Said that we’d be sorry. That we’d regret not helping someone in need. Sally, the maid that is, was petrified. Then Nathaniel, well, almost straight away he took sick.’

  Potts regarded his hat, then he raised his head to stare once more at Hannah Woodbury.

  ‘He took sick, with terrible fevers. Fevers and pains all over so he couldn’t sleep, or eat. And then he died and it was that bitch that did it. Three years old, my son. Never harmed no-one. She’s caused the death of many with her curses. She’s a whore of Satan!’

  With that he turned and spat a globule of phlegm full at the spinster’s face. She did not move, did not flinch, kept her eyes down as it trailed glutinously down her drawn cheek, leaving a pale, clean track in the filth.

  Matthew watched Woodbury in fascination then jumped as Buckley smacked the bench loudly to quieten the villagers, who were chattering in excitement. Order regained, he turned to Potts.

  ‘I think that will do, sir. Kindly return to your seat. Now, Master Hopkins, approach please.’

  Matthew stood, his heart thumping. These were the moments he had imagined as he listened to his father’s sermons in the long hours of his childhood Sundays. These were the black-hearted wretches that his father had railed against, calling on his parishioners to tolerate no darkness from their neighbours. And now he, Matthew, continued his father’s work. He strode to the front of the room, muttering a prayer, asking for the strength to do his duty. Standing before Buckley, he removed his gloves, holding them lightly as he looked the man full in the face and began.

  ‘Hannah Woodbury was the reason Lord Westmore asked me to come to this place.’

  Here he paused. Buckley nodded and Matthew relaxed. He was aware that Buckley was related to Westmore, their wives were cousins, and both men had been instrumental in the destruction of those evil monuments of idolatry and superstition – the decorations, statues and stained glass of the local church. Noting Buckley’s response, Matthew turned to the packed benches and continued.

  ‘Lord Westmore knew of the wickedness in the heart of this village and that this woman was the centre of it.’

  The crowd gasped, leaning forward to hear more.

  ‘My searcher, one Mary Phillips, a trusted colleague, stripped Woodbury and saw that she has three teats for suckling her imps, two in the privy parts.’

  Nervous laughter rippled around the room, soon suppressed by a withering look from Buckley. Catching Matthew’s eye, he beckoned him to the bench.

  ‘Master Hopkins, a question. Why is this Mary Phillips not here to give evidence?’

  Matthew smiled at the magistrate.

  ‘I am afraid Mistress Phillips is unwell. But I can assure you that I am able to present her evidence myself. She was extremely detailed in her recounting.’

  Buckley nodded. ‘I see. Continue then.’

  ‘Within three days Woodbury confessed to her crimes. She also implicated four other village women who stand before you today. These four named others involved in their unholy coven, a further eight sorry souls. Three of these unfortunates succumbed to disease before this trial. Those that have survived their time in prison stand here. Each one confesses to unholy actions and all admit to taking a part in that vile Sabbat that denies and debases the holy laws of God himself.’

  Murmurs shivered through the room, nervous villagers stealing awed glances at the bowed heads of the accused.

  ‘Woodbury has confessed to being a witch, to sending one of her imps to murder poor, innocent Nathaniel Potts. What is more, she confesses to signing an infernal covenant with the Devil himself.’

  This last was too much for the crowd. They jeered at the spinster, women began to moan, children to cry and Beatrice Potts set up a wailing that pierced the air. Buckley struck the bench once more. Satisfied, Matthew returned to his seat.

  ‘Woodbury, do you still have nothing to say?’

  The magistrate’s voice was strident in the now silent room.

  There was no response. Matthew shook his head slowly; the woman’s face was impassive, still she showed no remorse, no fear for her soul.

  ‘Well, in that case, the accused is convicted. She will be hanged tomorrow. God have mercy on her soul.’

  Matthew smiled to himself, satisfied. He looked again
at Woodbury, saddened but not surprised that she still showed no emotion. She had obviously sunk so low that she did not fear judgement, either in this world or the next. Or perhaps she was so deluded that she believed Satan would reward her for her death. It was impossible to know what these witches thought, what they believed. All he knew was that it was as far from the righteous path as it was possible to be. But she would soon know, he thought with contentment, yes, she would soon know the painful truth. For she would suffer an eternity. If she supposed that her trials were over, that her tortures were finished, she was wrong. He, Matthew, knew they were just beginning. But now there was more work to do this day, much more work.

  Matthew drew his chair closer to the fireplace, enjoying a glass of Lord Westmore’s finest brandy, his legs warming as he rested his weary bones. It had been a tiring day, but satisfying. All ten of the accused had been convicted and would be executed the very next morning. Matthew took another sip of the smooth brandy then rose from his seat as his host entered the room.

  ‘Sit down, sit down, no need to stand on ceremony.’ Westmore flapped his white hands. He was a small man, reaching only to Matthew’s shoulder, and his limbs were painfully thin. His physique was astonishing, Matthew pondered, considering the amount of meat he had consumed during their substantial dinner.

  ‘Enjoying the brandy, eh? Good, good.’ Westmore’s voice had a nasal quality to it, belying his mid-country ancestry. ‘Well, you deserve a good drink after your toils today. An excellent result, excellent, and I thank you for it.’

  He poured himself a large glass of the brandy before settling himself into the chair beside Matthew.

  ‘Well, Hopkins, I must say it is a pity that you leave us so soon. It would be good to have your company for more than one night.’

  Matthew smiled.

  ‘It would be my pleasure, my Lord, but God has other plans for me. There are other towns and villages that require my assistance, and it is my duty to do God’s work after all.’

  ‘Indeed, indeed. But will you at least stay for the hangings? It would be a shame to miss them, after all.’

  Matthew shook his head resignedly. He did enjoy seeing the results of his labour, but it was impossible to attend each one; he could not spare the time. How many had he witnessed? He remembered the first. Nineteen were hanged, the perfect beginning to his career. He could still recall some of their names; Elizabeth Clark, a one-legged old hag whose mother before her had also been one of the Devil’s own. How quick she had been to turn on the rest of her ungodly coven. Anne West was one of that coven, accused by her own daughter. And three Marys – like some unholy trinity; Mary Greene, Mary Foster, Mary Rhodes. One of these, he thought it was Foster, had screamed her way to the noose. He heard that screaming sometimes still, in the grey hours between the dark and light, when he was sleeping in a strange tavern or when he slept under the stars. That screaming had been desperate, full of fear. But he had not turned away. He had watched as she had trembled under the jeers of the crowd, watched as she had struggled under the hands of the hangman who had sought assistance from the spectators to hold her steady while he placed the noose around her neck. And he had smiled as the woman’s bare feet kicked at the air in some deranged dance. They had kicked for much longer than he had supposed they would, but eventually they were still. And Matthew had known then, as he looked at those grimy feet, that he had found his calling.

  Sighing contentedly, he refilled his glass, took a proffered fig from Lord Westmore’s delicate hand, and settled back into the softness of his chair.

  The day dawned bright and clear, the early mist dispersing rapidly. The bitter wind of the past few days had vanished and there was even a slight promise of the coming spring in the crisp air. Matthew approached his waiting mount in good spirits, for the previous night had been a comfortable one. Lord Westmore had not only provided a fine dinner, but also a feather bed and a hearty breakfast. Matthew’s stomach was pleasantly full of bacon, good bread and ale and his purse was heavy with coin for his trouble. He was refreshed and well rested; in fact he had passed the best night’s sleep that he had had for a long time. Even the persistent cough that had been plaguing him for the past few weeks seemed to have improved, much to his relief.

  Placing his wide-brimmed hat carefully onto his head, Matthew mounted his horse and turned towards Halstead. He would take the road travelling southwards around the town’s edge, towards other villages needing his help.

  The sun was high and the day promised to be dry. God’s world was beautiful, despite the corruption that hid in many human hearts. Enjoying the feel of the weak sunshine on his back, Matthew skirted Halstead. A kestrel hovered in the blue above, sending crows screeching from the copse, their calls drowning out the creaking of ropes and the cheers of the villagers, as the first five of the damned dropped into empty space.

  If you have enjoyed this excerpt from ‘The Black Hours’, the novel is available from online retailers. Visit Alison’s blog for details:

  Alison Williams lives in Hampshire in the south of England with her husband, two teenage children and various pets. Alison worked in education for several years until deciding to bite the bullet and do what she had always wanted to do which is to write full-time – it only took her until her forties! Alison now works as a freelance writer with articles published online and in magazines. From 2011-2012 she studied for a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Glasgow. As part of her studies, Alison wrote her first novel ‘The Black Hours’.

  Alison is fascinated by history – but not so much the kings and queens, the emperors, the military heroes or the great leaders. More the ordinary people whose lives were touched by the decisions, the beliefs and the whims of those who had power over them and who now fill our history books. It is this that Alison finds fascinating – how it was for the ordinary people, caught up in events they couldn’t control. It is their stories that she wants to tell.

  If you have enjoyed ‘Blackwater’ and would like to know more about Alison and her writing then please visit her blog:

  Find her on Facebook:

  Or on Twitter: @Alison_WiIliams

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