Hellish yellow and orange danced all around us as the crowd marched onwards, torches held high. I could feel the flames’ warmth on my face, yet still it was cold enough to see my breath. The first thick snow of winter carpeted the ground and gave everything an ethereal glow.
A cacophony of cries and shouts went up from the mass of bodies. They wanted blood. Retribution for crimes and depraved acts I never even knew existed – at least, not at that time.
I let myself get swept along with their movement. I didn’t try to fight, but I certainly didn’t try to join in. I just watched – not that I could see much. I must have been only around 15 years old at the time, and relatively tall for my age, but still not quite tall enough to see beyond the heads of the people surrounding me.
I was nervous. Yet at the same time, I felt safe. Cocooned. It didn’t matter what the witch was capable of – surely her evil magic couldn’t hurt all of us.
There had long been rumours about the young lady who lived on the edge of town, out near the woods. Animal sacrifices, murder, and all sorts of foul acts. “You go near that house,” my Uncle had said, “you’ll never be seen again.”
It was his disappearance that bought the Hunter to town.
Someone had said they were old friends, the Hunter and my uncle, but I’d never seen him before. All I knew was that he terrified me more than any witch. His long, dark robes hid his body shape and gave his movements a strange, effortless glide. He certainly didn’t shave often, and a curiously pungent scent of alcohol of some kind followed him. I’d heard rumours that it was fuel for fires, but I never found out if it really was.
What scared me most, though, were his eyes. They seemed to be nearly all black, with a gaze that didn’t pierce as much as bludgeon you with rage. They’d seen too much and, I imagined, had borne witness to more secrets and foulness than most God-fearing men would wish upon their enemies’ entire lifetimes.
And that’s what I’d had to face during the trial. I was my uncles’ only living relative – in hindsight, it was obvious that the Hunter would want me to testify.
It had started simple enough. I was asked to tell the assembled crowd of town officials, morbidly curious souls and frightened folks what I knew; that my uncle had announced one night recently about stepping out to see a friend. Someone in long robes had greeted him in the night just outside the house. They’d both walked off, and that was the last I’d seen of him.
Then the Hunter began to probe deeper. Some of them he spoke with the quiet reassurance of an old friend. Others he bellowed and threatened; fire and brimstone, and the promise I’d burn with the witch if I hid anything from him. He made it clear that he’d know if I did.
He asked me about the woman. She wasn’t present at the trial, and I didn’t understand all of the words he used. It just replied with yes or no as best as I could, but each response seemed to be accompanied by a gasp from the assembled crowd. Looking back, with the benefit of a little more wisdom, I realise how I was being manipulated. The Hunter was putting words in my mouth, leading the crowd and warping a mere boy’s testimony to condemn this woman and incite violence.
Within hours the townspeople were on the march to find her house.
The torches eventually began to illuminate an isolated hut on the edge of the woods. It was a small, crooked place, where nothing seemed to have been put in quite the right place.
The Hunter bellowed something about banishing the Devil and ending her evil. I heard no replies or protests from inside. There was nothing but rapt silence from the crowd.
It wasn’t long before I could see flames tear up the building through a gap between the heads of the people in front of me. A cheer erupted from the group. Anyone not holding a torch or a weapon applauded.
For a moment, I thought I saw a face in a window. She was young and pretty, but didn’t look scared. She just looked at the crowd with mournful, betrayed eyes and disappeared in the smoke.
I could have sworn she looked right at me.
* * *
Several weeks later, I was woken by a noise downstairs.
My uncle’s house had become mine with his death, and I was convinced that his ghost haunted the place. In a strange way, it didn’t scare me – it was reassuring. It felt like I wasn’t in the dark, cold, draughty place all alone.
But that didn’t mean that I ever slept well.
It was only a small place, and cramped even when there was only two of us living there. He’d built it himself several years previously, and not particularly well. Sound travelled so much that he used to say that even my light footsteps caused an unholy din.
I stayed under the covers in the dark for a few moments. Eventually, I decided that the shuffling and dull thudding I could hear downstairs wasn’t natural.
I crept out of bed and towards the stairs.
“Where is it, you bastard?”
I froze. It was the quietest muttering, but distinct. It was almost as if the wind carried the words from a distance away, even though they were only coming from mere feet away below me.
It was the Hunter. I could just make out the shape of his robes, going through a chest of my uncle’s possessions. The gap between the floorboards was small, but enough.
I stayed at the top of the stairs. Part of me thought about grabbing the nearest thing that could serve as a weapon, but I couldn’t fight him. I wasn’t strong. I’d like to think that I was waiting to see if he gave away what he might have been looking for. But, in reality, I know that all I could focus on in that moment was how cold my toes felt. I wriggled them a little – a joint made a tiny popping noise as it shifted position, echoing a little through the thin wood.
The Hunter, animal-like, froze and listened for a moment before darting out the door and back into the night without making a sound.
* * *
The incident shook me. I had constant visions of my uncle’s house burning down, and my face appearing at the window, gazing out over a crowd of angry people.
Eventually, I decided to sell the house and use the money to leave town.
As I took one last look at the bedroom, I saw something tucked between the floorboards under the bed, near the wall. A yellowed envelope addressed to my uncle in a flowing, curved, delicate hand.
I wasn’t very good at reading, but she said she loved him “like all my clients”. She was flattered, but she couldn’t marry him.
Besides, a man named Maxwell had made the same offer. She’d turned him down too.
I’m not ashamed to say that it took me a long time to work out what had happened, and realise how this letter tied Maxwell to my uncle’s disappearance. How it implicated him in the witch-hunt and the break-in. I had to gather the sort of experience that only travel and discovering the world for oneself could have granted.
But now, finally, I think I understand.
And if I ever see the Hunter again, I’ll be sure to greet him with a cold “Hello, Maxwell”.