By Rebecca Warfel (Sun Valley High School)
Shadows lurked around every tree, giving the illusion of unwanted company. A pale glow drifted eerily about the full moon; its vacant face ogled at the dark forest below, as if it were waiting for something. The night was silent save for the rapid song of a solitary owl, eager to fill its loneliness with conversation. Leaves crackled under her feet as Tierra walked through the dense wood, her pathway lit by a single candle in her hands. The brown curls of her hair swayed with every careful step, and the firelight reflected the hidden anticipation in her eyes.
The young girl, who was barely into her teens, lifted the heavy folds of her dress as she stepped over a fallen log and onto a concealed path that winded through the thicker trees. Having made this trek for over a dozen years, Tierra knew exactly where to go, though in previous times she did not travel alone. Glancing around her for a brief moment, her face displaying discreet suspicion, Tierra cupped a hand around her light and disappeared onto the forest trail. For several minutes she walked, her footsteps as quiet as a mouse, until finally she spotted it.
Partially buried under a fallen tree branch was a rather large door, the greenish tint in the wood hinting at its ancient age. The cracks between the boards were sealed with dry mud, and the rough arc of the top leaned back into the ground. The bottom was covered in a dark moss, with tiny white flowers blooming at random. Tierra paused for a moment before the door just as a cool autumn breeze rustled the tree tops, showering dead leaves around her person. She knew what awaited her beneath that door, and like every other night of the full moon she hesitated, intensifying her excitement.
After a short while, she tore away from her reverie and reached down, moving the broken branch away from the door. Underneath lied a twisted wooden handle, the ends stained dark from a slow molder. Beside the handle was a tiny slot, covered from the inside. Tierra leaned down and gave three solid knocks, ignoring the scraped feeling of the splintered wood against her soft knuckles. Exactly five seconds later, the slot cover slid open and a pair of narrow eyes peered out at her.
“It’s Tierra,” she whispered, holding her candle nearer to her face. The eyes blinked once in acknowledgment before disappearing behind the cover again. A hollow clicking sound reverberated from underground, and then the door was pushed outwards, the rusty hinges groaning like the moans of an old man.
Without hesitation, the young girl walked through the entryway and descended a short flight of stairs, entering a hidden corridor that was undistinguishable from outside the door. Vines and roots of the trees above helped to shape the ceiling and walls of the secret passageway; the floor was solid dirt, smoothed out by various footprints over the ages.
Tierra squinted into the shadows at the end of the underground tunnel, for her melting candle gave too faint a glow to see through the darkness. She heard the large door seal shut behind her and shot a quick glance over her shoulder, spotting a man about twice her age with freckled skin and a bowler hat atop his blond head. It was his eyes that she saw through the opening.
“Good evening, Marcus,” Tierra greeted as she began to walk down the dark den.
“And to you, Tierra,” he replied, keeping pace with her. “I couldn’t help but notice the absence of your mother tonight. Is she still ill?”
“It’s a fever, an awful one at that. I’ll be returning to her bedside after the ceremony.”
“I’ll suggest a blessing for her to the Elders before the start,” Marcus said kindly. “They respect your mother. We all do.”
Tierra lowered her eyes and smiled in gratitude. “Thank you,” she replied quietly, almost shyly. Marcus tipped his hat to her in response. As they rounded the only corner, Tierra saw a faint light pooling from a small opening at the end of the corridor. The sounds of voices and laughter pricked her ears.
“We’d better hurry,” Marcus commented, “You’re the last one to arrive and it’s nearly midnight. The Elders don’t like to be kept waiting.”
Tierra continued down the hall and approached a second door, this one slightly more modern. Marcus came up from behind to politely hold the door open for her, and she nodded again in grace. Upon entering, Tierra found herself within a familiar circular cavern; the dome-like ceiling arched skyward with a magnificent array of twisted, gnarled roots acting as décor. The rounded walls were lined with shelves, each stacked with books and dotted with lit candles, the room’s only light source.
Several faces turned to gaze upon the late arrival, most of them lighting up in recognition. Twenty or so people were spread around the room, nonchalantly chattering amongst themselves. As Tierra walked through the crowd, setting her dwindling candle upon a shelf while passing by, she overheard bits of conversation with topics ranging from current events to personal updates – the usual gossip one might hear at a tavern excluding the touch of tipple.
This was how it always was in the beginning: socialization. Everyone was happy to see each other again, for some of the people there lived on farmland, out of town, and didn’t get many visitors. If her mother were well enough to come with her tonight, Tierra would be sticking to her side like glue and roaming with the adults. Alas, tonight she could tell she was being viewed as merely a lonely child, for nobody over the age of ten approached her. At least she was the eldest child there.
“Settle, everyone,” said a gentle but commanding voice. Sudden silence gripped the crowd with two abstract fists. Tierra looked around the room, seeking out the demanding speaker: a short, wrinkled woman of aged time, her thick, white hair reaching her hips and streaked with gray. It was Amelia, one of the Elders. The other two – a pair of balding, scowl-eyed men with arched backs and a hobble to their step – stood behind her; each held something obscure in their clasped hands. “It’s time to begin,” Amelia announced, looking around the room with her small, beady eyes. When they locked with Tierra’s gaze, the young girl looked down in timidity.
Instinctively, the group of people separated and moved towards the walls of the cavern, forming an empty circle. Tierra took her place close to the door and faced the heart of the room like everyone else. When the air was completely still, Amelia the Elder slowly walked into the center of the ring. “Before the ritual commences,” she said, her voice carrying around the room as if in a canyon, “it has come to my attention that our mutual friend, Evelyn, has fallen gravely ill a few nights ago and could not make it this evening. Let us join hands in prayer for her soul.” The people locked fingers with each other and bowed their heads in unison; Tierra joined them, squeezing her eyes shut.
“In gathering tonight,” Amelia started softly, “the believers of this congregation give their hopes and wishes towards Evelyn, our comrade and our equal, who is plagued with fever. Calling upon the power within us all, we cast a shining light unto Evelyn’s health and strengthen her vigor. With our prayers, she shall persevere.” Amelia paused for a moment, almost in hesitation, before continuing. “We also pray for Evelyn’s only daughter, Tierra…”
Tierra’s eyes flew open in surprise. She did not expect to be mentioned directly and felt very taken aback, but Amelia carried on.
“In the state that our prayers and the powers bestowed upon us by our Lord do not reach Evelyn, we in turn share strength and guidance with Tierra, so that she may endure whatever pain might follow and find her way again into the light. Amen.”
“Amen,” repeated the crowd, and everyone lifted their heads. A few curious glances were shot at Tierra discreetly, but she ignored them, keeping her face passively blank. It was difficult, however, to disregard the burning sensation of discomfiture on the back of her neck.
“Now,” Amelia spoke, slightly more cheerful than before. “Let us begin the ceremony.” Without further instructions, each person turned around and picked up a single candle among the dozens that were set upon the shelves. Tierra clasped her hands around the warm wax of a lean candle and turned back to facing Amelia, her gaze transfixed upon the flame. She, as well as the others, mumbled in the ancient language of their people a chant of consecration and endearment to their God. Then silence gripped them once again.
“Our Lord, the powerful God of the Underworld, is the one who has blessed us with the gift of enchantment,” said Amelia, a touch of tremulous yearning in her tone. “We give ourselves to Him completely on this day and share a sacrifice that will not only prove our fidelity as individuals, but give a selfless demonstration of our love for Him. Let the ritual begin.”
Soft clicking and clunking noises reverberated like percussion around the room, filling everyone’s ears with music and their minds with thoughts about their culture and their Lord. The musician tapped on the peculiar drums with a varying beat and would continue to do so throughout the entire ceremony. Under everyone’s tongues, a rhythmic hum expelled itself.
Amelia turned to the first person in the circle, which happened to be Marcus. The other two Elders approached her from behind and stood firm, waiting. Tierra watched with large eyes as the old woman took a knife from the hands of her fellow Elder and dragged the blade across the side of Marcus’s palm. The man barely winced, having experienced this bloody act since the age of seven, like the rest of the people there. Amelia softly touched two wrinkled fingertips to the bleeding wound and made an ancient mark on Marcus’s forehead, shaped like a crescent moon with a line through the side, with his own blood. She spoke in the ancient language, blessing his soul, and then returned the knife to the first Elder, who wiped it clean with a dark cloth.
The second Elder handed her a bowl next; Tierra didn’t need to peer over the rim to know it was filled with Titus, a strong-smelling herb that was always used in this ceremony in proving the faith of the people. Amelia pinched some of the plant between her bloodied fingers, muttered an enchantment, and dropped the Titus into Marcus’s candle. The flame devoured the herb and climbed higher, almost sparking with life; a moment later, it returned to normal, but the proof was given that Marcus was a true man of faith. Amelia smiled at the believer, wiped her fingers clean, and moved on to the next person to repeat the process.
Tierra waited patiently for her turn, as she was taught. Her throat hummed softly to the beat of the drums and the clunking of wood; her eyes were glued to Amelia. In particular, they were engrossed on the knife, the flesh wounds, the blood – things she was never accustomed to seeing outside this room. The ritualistic cutting of the hand always disturbed her, naturally, but it also fascinated her in a queer sort of way. She couldn’t describe the feeling if she had to, but she did wonder if anyone else shared her thoughts on the matter.
Amelia was about four people away from Tierra when a sudden shriek ripped through her throat. The bowl of Titus fell from her grasp, shattering into a thousand pieces upon hitting the ground; herbs fluttered in the air like feathers slowly drifting down in spirals. The music stopped cold; gasps erupted from everyone as they realized what was happening.
“Traitor!” Amelia shouted, pointing to the man she had just blessed. His candle had blown out the moment the leaf touched the flame, and his humming had become a hoarse gagging as he started to choke on nothingness. Now he clutched at his neck with both hands, falling to his knees before the believers surrounding him. His eyes bulged from his face and his skin gleamed with sweat. When he attempted to speak, nothing came out save for faint strangling sounds.
Tierra looked from the man on the ground to the Elders, her face expressing the very definition of fear. While the man squirmed where he sat, Amelia had frozen stiff, her eyes wider than an owl’s. “They’re coming…” she whispered. “They’re coming for us. I can sense them!”
Marcus was unsurprisingly the first to act. He bolted to the door and swung it as wide as it could open. “Come on, everyone!” he roared, grabbing a candle and running into the tunnel. Nobody needed to be told twice. They all charged through the doorway, almost frantic in their step. Each person there, even the younger ones, knew what Amelia’s warning meant. They’ve all heard the frightening stories about Salem, Massachusetts; they all knew what they signed up for. It was only a matter of time before they were discovered.
Tierra’s heart pounded as she raced through the underground passageway, her feet almost tripping over her dress several times. She was one of the closest people to the first door when it suddenly burst open in a shower of splinters and flying wood chunks. The people within the tunnel ducked their heads under their hands as an ax ripped through the door like a vicious beast. Glowing yellow light leaked in from the outside through the new cavities. Shouts and bellows were heard from above ground, taunting the terrified people trapped below.
Finally, the door burst apart, and chaos took control of the scene. As one crowd tried to climb to the outside, another was clambering downwards; as one people held small candles, the other carried large torches and fiery clubs. Pandemonium erupted from the clash, and all Tierra could see as she blindly pushed through to the forest above were angry faces, fists, and orange flames. Someone grabbed her arm in an iron grip, and Tierra looked up to see Josef, the town butcher.
“Josef, please–” she started.
“I don’t want to hear it, Tierra! I can’t believe you’re one of them. For years, we’ve traded with each other. For all I know, you could’ve contaminated your bread with a spell!”
“Please, no!” Tierra pleaded as one of her own friends dragged her through the dirt. All around her, people were being captured and tied up. Young children were bawling while their parents were beaten in front of them, a harsh punishment for such a vague crime. Across the path, Tierra spotted Marcus with his hands tied behind his back and his nose bleeding from a nasty scrap. He locked eyes with her, and Tierra saw more mourning in that man’s eyes than she ever did in her life.
That’s when she decided to close her eyes on it all. She knew she’d never be able to escape Josef – his grip was nearly breaking her delicate wrists – so there was only one thing left to do: pray.
She prayed for her mother to get well even after tonight’s tragedies, and if she did feel better by the morning Tierra prayed for her to find peace. She prayed for her own soul to join the Lord by this night’s end, as well as the other people of her coven. Under her breath, she mumbled her prayers in the ancient language, earning her a slap to the face.
“Don’t curse me, devil child,” Josef growled. “You’re spells are mindless and evil, and so are you. Take her!”
New hands grabbed at the young girl, carrying her to a higher ground. She kept her eyes shut until she felt the rough sensation of rope wrap around her hands behind her back. Her eyes widened in fear when she realized she was tied to a tall wooden post, a large batch of hay and twigs piled up by her feet. It was a similar story for several other people around her, including Amelia and the other two Elders.
Errant screams reached her ears – “Devil-worshippers! Witches! Satanists!” – and despite her situation Tierra couldn’t help but wonder who was right and who was wrong. She was about to perish for being faithful to what she was raised to believe in, for worshipping the God whom she was taught to swear by. What gave the townspeople the right to decide her fate more than she could decide theirs? They have their own beliefs, their own lord; she never once thought they were evil or wrong … just misguided.
Tierra looked into the eyes of the people shouting below her and saw her own fear reflected in them, fear of the misunderstood. She wanted to shout back at them, convince them she wasn’t a monster – none of them were monsters – but no words escaped through her lips. Only tears stormed from her eyes as she watched Josef take the enraged flame of his torch to the kindling below.