“By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks, whoever knocks.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Aloof from the poverty-ravaged streets in shadowed lordly halls swayed dark banners of mourning. The fabric of the wind-stirred pennons whispered amid muffled sobs like urgent rumours confided to the night. A fretting castellan paced the flagstones of his keep in despair with sweeps of his fine robes, oblivious to the urgent counsel of his courtiers. A terrible malady had insatiably swept the townships and castles of the realm, sparing neither rank nor age. Even the crib of his household had not been spared death’s touch.

While the apothecaries and alchemists were at loss for a remedy and monks thundered from their pulpits of divine retribution for their people’s sins, a whispered rumour of witchcraft became a roar from a hundred throats. Fear of the relentless malady became rage and the omnipotent rage needed a target, preferably a vulnerable one.

A dark-robed monk passed uncrossed spears and approached the lord. He leaned in his cowled head and whispered in his ear. The nobleman’s face betrayed fear. His wife, a dignified matron appeared at his side from the shadows and pressed his arm, her face ashen-pallored and haggard.

“Must you?” she all but sobbed.

One of her trusted ladies in waiting had even been claimed in the witch hunts. The monk’s counsel became urgent. Avoiding his lady’s eyes, he reluctantly consented, nodding grimly and pressed his seal onto a scroll that was hastily wrapped and taken almost giddily as the monk hastened from the room.

The monk appeared before a balcony overlooking a sea of torchlight illuminated in hellish light, the expectant mob. He triumphantly raised the scroll for them to see, basking in the firelight to a collective ecstatic roar and chant: “The witch must die! The witch must die!” They marched in torchlit procession across the cobbled street, their maddening chanting echoing and re-echoing in the narrow alleyways and past the charred remains of those executed as witches left on the stakes where they were bound and burned before crowds, unmoved by their cries for mercy.

With a flourish of dark wings, a raven took flight from a cathedral spire as a cat that had lost its mistress to the stake hissed at the mob passing below, from its perch on a gargoyle. The steeple bells tolled incessantly. Another death to the plague. Another witch-hunt. The dark cloud formations seemed a fate-reader’s hand caressing the orb of the moon as from the raven’s aerial perspective over the baronial towers and gables of the hamlet he beheld the distant forest like a dark castle awaiting a siege…

The shadow of the raven passed over the crimson wake of a torch-bearing mob, gliding across the undulant sway of the forest canopy one could follow from aerial perspective ‘til one saw, in an isolated glade, a small unassuming dwelling, a cottage of modest build, where a reclusive midwife dwelled. One who was sought from afar for her skill. She lived in solitude within the shadowed glades, only for her cat.

That eve, he followed the beckoning from the night…the lilting silvery voice…nocturne and incantation…luring one of soundless tread to the cottage in the sequestered depths of the green wood…night had fallen as softly as black rose petals hailing his mistress. Reclusive beauty living in the living shrine of ancient trees, the mullioned windows lit in eerie intervals by her sleepless toils as he approached.

A cauldron bubbled at the hearth. Assorted roots and herbs had been gathered. Charts had been unscrolled for her to consult. The cat appeared as if conjured at the windowsill…as if restless shadows were granted form.

“Come hither, then. Whither have you strayed this eve, huntsman?”

The pale arm and tender palm caressed the black fur of a cat, leaving lingering dark hairs on her green woolen sleeves. “Some urgency in your gracing with thine presence?” He nestled into her palm, closing eyes euphorically into the soft touch.

“What tidings, then? Is aught amiss?”

To the feline, the human senses were pitifully dull. He sensed the tread of advancing feet, crashing through the forest as stag, hare, and wolf retreated against the onslaught.

“What tidings, then?”

It was then she saw the raven like an urgent emissary, talons clawing at the windowpanes ominously. The cat coiled around her neck, hissed and baring its fangs at the brandished torches weaving through the trees. The cat’s eyes smoldered crimson emberously.

“Go now!” she screamed, “Before they encircle us completely! Seek the shadows, dear one.”

The black cat melted into the darkness like a tear, mingling with the shadows effortlessly. She cried out in vain as an axe clove down the door and she was dragged by the hair from her home.

“Not the books! My work!”

“Silence, witch!” She was pushed roughly into a cage and surrounded by gloating and hate-crazed faces.

“Maybe we should slay her now?”

“Aye, let’s burn her now!”

“Burn her! Burn her!” they chorused, casting down torches to raise a roaring bonfire. The chill night wind, like a wordless counter-spell, seemed to lend ventriloquism to her shocked silence, as if heralding something approaching swiftly. Then suddenly, a baritone voice cried out from the darkness.

“Hold and make way in the King’s name!”

A company of horsemen hastening from the shadows materialised with such haste they rode roughly into the midst of the mob and drew reign, throwing the horde into disarray. Their commander’s great dark warhorse reared, iron-shod hooves flailing. One of the thuggish mob was cast back into the bonfire and he emerged screaming, enveloped in flame, running like a red ghost into the night.

The riders were heedless of the leveled crossbows and contemptuous of their pitchforks, while the hands of his followers hovered by the hilts of their swords. The torchlight danced like red jesters over their armour in eerie interplay or dance macabre over the enigmatic newcomers.

They were clad in flowing dark riding capes and gothic armour, finely forged swords sheathed at their sides, and brocaded surcoats trimmed with exquisite pale stag fur. Finery that marked them retainers of a wealthy lord. One of their number dismounted and drew off his gauntlet, kneeling by the cage…his hand enfolded her palm.

“What is the meaning of this?” a zealous young monk with the mob ventured to object.

“Stand down!” one of the strange knights snarled.

“Would a hunting party dare disturb an errand of noble decree?”

“You take us for a hunting party?”

“Those are hounds lurking yonder, are they not?”

“Nay, monk. They would appear to be a wolf pack.”

“Wolves fear men…”

“In a war-torn time, they’ve grown to relish the taste of men in battle’s aftermath.”

“We’re on a crusade ourselves, yer lordship. By holy orders,” a member of the mob blurted out.

“Speak not to me of crusades, thou insolent serf. I rode under the banner of the cross against the Saracen, crossed sword with scimitar in the killing fields of the east.”

“Aye, and failed…” he retorted insolently.

The black-armoured knight’s back-handed blow struck the offending man down instantly, unable to scream for his broken jaw, writhing in agony. None moved to tend to him.

“Slay any who hinder me,” he ordered his companions as he dismounted and strode towards the cowering trembling figure in the cage. They parted before him. His was a lordly presence astride a fine warhorse and voice accustomed to command, contemptuous of the mob as mere rabble.

Dark banners swayed above them, with a silver lion as their insignia.

A foreign house, perhaps. Their tones and accents seemed old-fashioned, courtly, hard to place.

“I am Sir Tancred and you will not disrespect our banner!”

The mob began to disperse confronted by his Lordly presence, astride a fine warhorse and voice accustomed to command, contemptuous of the mob as rabble.

The gloating died on their lips.

“Can you save my Lord’s young heir?” the Knight asked urgently. She nodded, meeting his eyes. “Ease our lord’s heir’s birthing…it draws nigh.” The gloating died on their lips.

“Who among you calls her witch?”

One man stepped forward brazenly, swaggering.

“I do!”

“And I cannot rightly allow such valour to go unrewarded. I know your kind. You crave the finer things. Very well, then. Fine taste for ermine, perhaps?”

A live ermine coiled around his arm, eyes like beads of blood gleaming fiercely and it hissed like an albino serpent. He took a spare helmet from a squire.

“Kneel, then…”

Flushed with excitement, he did so.

“An accolade?”

“Even better.”

The knight took a spare helmet and placed the ermine writhing and thrashing inside before placing it over the man’s head, barely muffling his screams as the ermine’s claws and fangs slashed at his eyes, tongue and cheeks.

Blood oozed from the helmet’s eyeholes. He released him at last and the ermine squirmed free, rearing and hissing at the mob before mounting the gloved hand of the knight and coiling around it snugly, licking off the blood while the helmed man crawled over the ground…crying out as he trailed blood.

“Key, my Lord?” one obsequiously offered.

“I don’t need a key,” he replied as the lock shattered by a blow from his war axe. A zealous young monk with the mob ventured to object.

“Brother, is it? Keep to your scribes and cyphers in your cloistered life ,you ninny. I am another order of monk entirely. One with an absolution to kill from Rome. I have the discretion to slay any I deem an enemy of the cross.”

“I cannot permit this transgression. The captive cannot be redeemed, save for trial by ordeal…” the monk objected.

“Or combat. Done. Select your champion.”

“We’ve not time for this!” another knight objected.

“Hold, or we will run her through with a sword through the bars. Stand down, ” the monk screeched.

“Patience, Brother. It won’t take long,” their brother reassured.

A burly man, towering over the others, lumbered forward, tapping a cudgel in his palm. He was passed a rusty sword and he drew mead from a flagon before wiping his jerkin.

“This judicious duel will be conducted according to…”

“We can dispense with formalities!”

“Lay on!” the monk cried.

The midwife closed her eyes, lips moving soundlessly. The two clashed. Blades parried and sparked as torchlight silhouetted their dueling figures. A glancing blow was twisted and thrust between grooves in the knight’s armour. Yet he inexplicably did not falter nor fall. Instead, her enigmatic champion gripped his adversary by the throat and lifted him up by one hand as his limbs flailed. He saw himself mirrored on the varnished helm against a background of flames, like a soul condemned. The gauntleted hand clenched tighter and he shuddered spasmodically then, going limp.

He threw the corpse aside dismissively as the monk crossed himself.

“She is redeemed, then?”

“By the laws of the realm, alas yes,” the monk sighed.

“We will need to have your warrant officially voided, then.”

“We’ve no scribe nor ink.”

“Haven’t we?”

He gripped a member of the mob, tarrying to loot the cottage. He jabbed a dagger into his forearm and crossed out the warrant with a signature in blood.

“Rather unceremoniously, but it will suffice.”

“The pains of labour afflict our lady…we must hasten. Bring the midwife. We cannot linger merely to exchange words with rabble.”

“Alas, goode Brother, she is frail.”

Their leader lifted her gently to mount astride his towering warhorse in front of him, steadying her as she swayed and embracing her to his cloaked chest as she shivered. As they rode into the night, the thwarted inquisitor suddenly ran after them in defiance.

“I know you are a witch!”

One of the knights drew reign and turned to face him. He raised a silver horn to his lips, as if to signal a hunt to hounds. Yet it seemed the horn was soundless…to human ears, anyway. The wailing of wolves rose then in choir like a ghostly battle cry like dark hounds rallied to a hunt.

He tried to scream “Witch!” again, but flies spurted from his mouth. He clutched his chest; his senses swam. The night and torches swirled kaleidoscopically around him. He felt himself pulled down to the ground, as if carnivorous plants in the garden rose to snare him.

The wolves of the forest are no mortal man’s to unleash upon quarry. They answer only to hunger and to instinct. The mob ran in fear into the labyrinthine glades. They followed. The inquisitor monk crawled on his stomach hand over hand, cursing and sobbing.

He rose to his knees before the bonfire intended for the midwife. The flames swayed like charmed serpents and seemed to morph into the forms of women and men…all those he had sent to the stake as “witches” and “warlocks.” The form of a woman shaped by the flame pointed a finger at him.

He felt himself being dragged backwards suddenly by his robes. A wolf had him by his dark cloak, dragging him into the forest. The screams of the man echoing in the forest were drowned out by the cries of wolves rising in thanksgiving to the full moon. The night wind stirred her raven hair like an endearment to the night…she felt the sensation of flight as if carried on a rebel angel’s wings.

They rode into the night, immersed in the dreamscape of cauldrenous mist, enshrouding the moor as they rode from the forest seeking a melancholy lord overlooking his lady.

“Gramercy, lords, for heeding my summons.”

Like courtiers in restless vigil, black cats haunted the haven of ruins. As if a stage illusionist revealed the mirage, the stately castle again reverted to ruins under the apparitional spotlight of moonbeams from the unveiled blood moon.

“How now, then? How fares then your mate, my goode Lord?”

No human master of the ruins was he. The cat snuggled against her arm and then with the female cat resting on a stone slab. Her kittens took their first breath.

“You must be a proud father, your lordship,” she beamed at her cat, her familiar.

“You redeemed yourselves, Sir Knight. Fare thee well.”

The mists of the forsaken battlefield rose and seemed to gather form into beckoning ghostly hands embracing their brothers that seemed to dematerialise or dissolve into the mist.

“Your brethren await,” she said gently. Like moths shedding their cocoons, they seemed to emerge in winged form from their armour in graceful metamorphosis.

She spread her arms then as if taking flight, enraptured by the moonbeams. The sonorous night wind swept her soul and she laughed again in heady intoxication with the power running wild that eve. She raised a newborn kitten to the chill night of that All Hallows’ Eve, laughing in beautiful wild ecstasy.