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Dragon's Baitby Vivian Vande Velde
The day Alys was accused of being a witch started out like any other.
She woke to the gray light of dawn and to the sound of her father coughing. Did he sound any better than he had the morning before? Yes, she told herself-just a little bit, but definitely better. And though she'd thought that every morning since late winter when he'd been so sick she'd been afraid he'd die, and though here it was with the wheat already harvested and the leaves beginning to turn, and he still too frail to run the tin shop by himself-that did nothing to lessen her conviction. He definitely sounded better.
Of course, it wasn't normal for a girl to help in her father's business. A man without sons was expected to take in apprentices, not teach his trade to a fifteen-year-old daughter. But her father had had no need for an apprentice before he got sick, and now there was nothing extra with which to afford one. Without the goat cheese that Vleeter and his wife had given them and the bread that the widow Margaret had periodically left at their doorstep, they might well have starved during those long, long days when he'd been too sick to work at all. So now he was teaching her how to draw out tin into wire, how to pour it to fashion buttons, how to cut and join. She was slow, just learning, and he was slow, having to rest frequently. Between the two of them they could craft just barely enough tin to keep themselves alive.
Until the day Alys was accused of being a witch.
It started in the late afternoon, when a man she didn't know came into the shop.
Saint-Toby's-by-the-Mountain was small enough that everybody knew everybody, so it wasn't often that she saw a stranger. She put down the shears with which she'd been cutting a sheet of tin and said, because her father had gone into the house to lie down, "Yes? May I help you?" It wasn't fair to judge someone by the way he looked, she knew, but there was something decidedly unpleasant about this man, about the way he didn't seem to fit together properly. The toothy smile didn't go with the cold eyes; the head, shaved in the manner of a man of the Church, didn't go with the long, elegant, beringed fingers; the clothes were much too fine for Saint Toby's-even for someone simply passing through Saint Toby's.
"You are Alys, the tinsmith's daughter?" the man asked, though his gaze was roving all over the shop and he must see who she was even if-she could tell-he disapproved.
Beyond him, she saw a flitter of movement by the door and recognized their neighbor, the wheelwright Gower. Now what was he doing? His shop had been closed all day, which was unusual, Gower being an ambitious man. He was so ambitious he had even made offers to buy their land so he could expand his own shop. His wife, Una, and their daughter, Etta, had refused to talk to Alys ever since her father had refused to sell. Leave it to Gower to show up at the first sign of trouble. "I'm Alys," she said.
"I am Inquisitor Atherton of Griswold," the stranger said, naming the town on the other side of the mountain. Alys's attention leaped back from Gower, but before she could say anything, he continued, "You have been accused of witchcraft, and it is my duty to prove that." The already insincere smile broadened. "Or disprove it, if the evidence so warrants."
"Witchcraft?" Alys had no idea what to say. "Who...I mean what...I mean..."
"You will come with me," the Inquisitor told her.
Alys knew she wasn't a witch and reasoned that she would therefore be proven innocent. Still, fear began to overcome confusion as Inquisitor Atherton took firm hold of her arm. Her voice shook. "But my father's aslee-"
The Inquisitor's fingers dug into her arm as he repeated, "You will come with me."
That was when she knew, deep in her heart-though she wouldn't admit it-that he would never find her innocent, no matter what. "Father!" she cried.
The Inquisitor pulled her out into the street. People were gathering to see what the stranger was up to. But out of all those faces, Inquisitor Atherton picked Gower. "Go fetch the father."
"Gower," Alys said, finally realizing.
And lest she have any lingering doubts, the Inquisitor was pulling her next door, to the storeroom behind the wheelwright's shop. "This will be our court," the Inquisitor said. "Gather those who would testify."
The room filled quickly. "What'd she do?" she heard several of the children ask. But the parents only told them "Hush," and looked at Alys with fear, while the whispered word "witch" played over the crowd so that she could never tell who had spoken it. She had known these people all her fifteen years. Surely they couldn't be afraid of her? But standing there among wheel rims and spokes of various sizes, with Inquisitor Atherton's grip bruising her arm, she couldn't be sure.
Her father came rushing in. Alys's heart sank, for she was alarmed by how pale he was. But Atherton wouldn't let her go and he wouldn't let her father approach.
"Stand there," the Inquisitor commanded her father. "Let it begin."
Let what begin? Alys wanted to ask, but she only had time to draw breath.
"I saw her"-Una's loud voice cut through the murmuring of the crowd and everyone turned to face her-"in the street in front of Goodwife Margaret's cottage. I saw her look around to see if anybody was watching, but she didn't see me because I was bending over in my garden. She made a sign, and then she spat on the ground, and the next day Margaret's goat went dry and it's been dry ever since."
"I never-," Alys started.
"Be silent!" the Inquisitor warned.
"I will not," Alys protested. "What she's just said simply isn't true." She took a step toward Una, and Una threw her arms up in an exaggerated gesture as though to protect herself.
"Don't let her make the Sign against me!" Una cried, hiding her face.
"That's the most ridiculous-"
Before Alys could finish, Atherton grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away from Una. "We need a rope to bind her," he said. "And keep the father back."
"Don't hurt him!" Alys cried, seeing Gower shove her father, who'd been struggling to get to her. Atherton twisted her arms behind her back, and she felt rope being wrapped around her wrists.
Once she was tied, Atherton spun her around to face him. "Another attempt to harm the witnesses will be dealt with severely."
"But I didn't, and my father's sick, and-"
He put his finger close to her face. "Speak out of turn again, and that will be dealt with severely."
Alys jerked away from his finger but didn't dare answer. She looked at her father and tried to tell him with her expression not to worry, but she was too worried herself to be convincing.
It was Margaret who stepped forward, though she was almost half Atherton's height and probably twice his age. "Well, if she can't talk, I will," Margaret said. "What Una said is total nonsense."
"Has your goat gone dry?" the Inquisitor asked.
"And it was a good milker before?"
"I seen her," Gower said before Margaret could protest again. Everyone turned to look at him. "I seen her this past Midsummer's Eve. I just come back from fixing Barlow's cart wheel. They had me to supper and I stayed late." He turned to Farmer Barlow. "You remember?"
Barlow was watching the Inquisitor and looking nervous about being involved. "I remember you coming."
"The moon had risen," Gower continued, "and I seen her plain as day in the meadow beyond Barlow's pasture. What's she doing there? I said to myself. She had her arms out like this and she was just turning round and round, like she was dancing real slow. I stood a moment, just wondering what she was doing. And then..."
"Then?" the Inquisitor said.
"She took her clothes off."
Horrified, Alys protested, "I never-"
The Inquisitor raised his hand as though to slap her. "Gag her," he commanded.
"No, wait," Alys gasped. "Please. I promise to be quiet."
Atherton changed his upraised hand to a gesture of warning. He turned back to Gower. "Then what?"
"She danced faster and faster, in a frenzy. A lewd, devilish dance. And then I could hear the sound of pipes playing high and sweet almost beyond hearing. Fairy music, I reckoned. Not something a man who believes in the good word of God should listen to. Nor see, neither."
Atherton turned to Farmer Barlow. "And you, have you heard or seen something a man who believes in the good word of God shouldn't?"
Barlow's gaze shifted nervously from Atherton to Gower to Alys, back to Atherton, as though searching for the safest answer. "I ain't seen nothing," he said, licking his lips. "But then, that meadow's to the back of the house."
"I've seen something," Etta said, "something half the people in Saint Toby's saw and heard."
"And what's that, my daughter?" the Inquisitor said, sweet and gentle.
"She went to the carpenter's shop, to have a stool made. After it was done, she and apprentice Radley had a big argument about the price. We all heard her. 'That's too much,' she said. 'I could make a better one than that,' she said, 'in fact from now on I will.' Several of us were gathered around the door to see. She pushed past me on the way out, but then I saw her turn back. And the moment she did, the moment she did, Radley's chisel slipped and he gouged his hand something terrible so that he was hardly able to work for almost half the rest of the month."
"Is Radley, the carpenter's apprentice, here?" Atherton asked. "Step forward and tell us: Is this how it happened?"
Radley shuffled his feet and wouldn't look up, neither at Atherton nor at Alys. Tilden, the master carpenter, stood silent, next to him. "It's true," Radley mumbled.
"Who witnessed this argument and the aftermath?" Atherton demanded.
Hands raised, some reluctantly, some eagerly.
"What else?" Atherton asked.
And so it went.
Alys watched as one by one the friends who tried to defend her were bullied or frightened into backing down.
If only fat, jovial Father Joseph were still here, Alys thought. 'And did she dance naked even though it rained?' he would have asked. 'And isn't Goodwife Margaret's goat almost as old as Goodwife Margaret herself? And how often has apprentice Radley struck his thumb with a hammer and asked his master for the rest of the day off, and was young Alys there every time?' He might have dramatically clapped his hand to his brow and said, 'Last Sunday I forgot the words to my sermon. Maybe I've been bewitched, too.' Everyone would have seen how foolish the accusations were. Everyone would have noticed that Gower Prescottson and his wife, Una, and his daughter, Etta, were the only ones claiming to have actually seen her dance or spit or make the evil eye. Everyone would have laughed with Father Joseph.
But Father Joseph was dead, killed by the coughing sickness which had ravaged Saint Toby's this past winter, the same sickness that had left her father frail and bent over at the least exertion, so that now he could do nothing but put his thin hands over his face and rock back and forth where he stood.
Instead of Father Joseph, there was only Inquisitor Atherton. And Alys could see that he never laughed. Instead, he smiled. He smiled while Gower and his family told lies about her. He smiled while the confused villagers made vague comments about her. He smiled as they went from saying that she couldn't have done those awful things to saying that they didn't know anything about whether she'd done those awful things to saying that she may well have done those awful things.
It was only when the villagers were totally confused that he finally told her she could speak.
"I'm innocent," she started, "I-"
"Only the Blessed Virgin is innocent," Inquisitor Atherton bellowed. "Born into this world without blemish on her soul. How dare you compare yourself to the Mother of Our Lord?"
She heard her father groan. "But," she stammered, "but..."
"Do we burn her at the stake now?" Etta asked, unable to mask her enthusiasm. "Or do we throw her into the water first?" Water was sure proof. If the accused floated, that meant she was a witch and she was taken out and burned. If she sank and drowned, that meant she hadn't been guilty after all, and the village elder would apologize to any surviving members of the family.
Gower gave his daughter a dirty look. The last thing he needed at this point was a chance for Alys's name to be cleared.
But in any case Inquisitor Atherton was shaking his head. "We can solve two problems at once. A dragon has been terrorizing Griswold and the other villages on the north side of the mountain. It is a small dragon, as dragons go, contenting itself so far mostly with sheep and the occasional dog. Perhaps a small token of our respect will keep it from bothering the villagers themselves."
"Dragon?" Alys breathed. Her knees almost gave out under her. I will not, she commanded herself, I will not give them the satisfaction.
"Only a small one," Inquisitor Atherton repeated. With a smile.
In the end it was Alys's father whose knees buckled. Without uttering a sound, he clutched at his heart, then dropped to the floor and lay completely still. Nobody moved: perhaps because they were so surprised, but then again perhaps because he was father to a convicted witch.
Alys tore away from the two farm lads who had assigned themselves to guard her. Her hands were still bound behind her back, but escape was not what she had on her mind. "Father," she cried, throwing herself to the floor beside him. "Father!" But his chest no longer moved up and down with breath.
I will not beg for my life, she told herself, and I will not let them see me cry.
"Look at her," she heard some of them murmur. "Her heart is made of ice."
And others: "It's made of stone."
And again: "She's given it to Satan."
Someone jerked up on the rope that bound her wrists, dragging her up onto her feet. She forced her face to hide the pain. Instead she concentrated on the crucifix that hung on Inquisitor Atherton's chest, all gold and gems though she had never heard that Griswold was a rich town. She thought once again of Father Joseph, who had worn a cross his own father, a casket maker, had carved from wood.
"Get a cart to transport her," Inquisitor Atherton commanded. "We'll bury the old man when we get back."
And once more he smiled at her.
Copyright © 1992 by Vivian Vande Velde
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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First Magic Carpet Books edition 2003
First published 1992
Magic Carpet Books is a trademark of Harcourt, Inc., registered in the United States of America and/or other jurisdictions.
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