The Witch with the Water

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Set your story during a drought.... view prompt

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Historical Fiction Suspense Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Extracts from the personal records of Roland de Claire, senior advisor to Lord Montgomery of Oxfordshire.

14th August 1198.

Today was a most interesting day. This morning, His Lordship summoned me to attend him in his solar, so naturally, I hurried there with all due haste. However, upon arrival, I had a rather nasty surprise. Instead of His Lordship, I came face to face with Sir Brutus of Grimsby, a most unpleasant man.

He greeted me with a nod. ‘De Claire.’

‘Sir Brutus,’ I replied with the same.

With the pleasantries out of the way, we quickly looked away, preferring to study the room and ignore each other. Of course, His Lordship’s solar contains a most beautiful array of furniture, including a rug woven in Egypt and several ornate tapestries depicting the deeds of his ancestors. However, I believe I speak the truth when I say that both of us would have found the insides of a peasant’s hovel a preferable sight to each other’s faces.

Thankfully, His Lordship did not keep us waiting long, and a few minutes later, he swept into the room adorned in fine silks and jewellery.

This immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head. His Lordship, much like myself, usually has a taste for simpler clothes. He only wears finery such as this when attending an official event of some kind or when conducting important business. Something was going on.

‘Good. You’re both here,’ he said. ‘I know you’re busy men, so I’ll be as brief as possible. I want you to investigate this drought and look for possible solutions.’

I frowned. ‘Both of us, my lord?’

‘Yes.’ He grinned at me. ‘With your brains and Brutus’ brawn, I expect you to make an excellent team.’

I suppressed a sigh. His Lordship knows that Brutus and I don’t exactly get along, and this is probably another one of his schemes to force us to work together. Frankly, I do not believe this will end well, and Brutus’ sour face suggested he feels the same way. Still, if this is what His Lordship wishes, I will do my best to make it work. This drought is fast becoming a significant problem. Lakes and rivers are drying up while crops wither in the fields. In times such as these, all of us must do our part for the good of the realm.

26th August 1198.

For the past two weeks, I have spent my time buried in every historical text I could find. Unfortunately, while I discovered numerous examples of droughts in our past, the best advice they contained on how we should solve them was to pray to God to relieve us of our burden. We have tried this, and as of yet, it has not worked. Nevertheless, I am certain that, given time, I can find a solution.

Alas, it seems I may not have this time. While I have been conducting proper research, Sir Brutus has applied his meagre talents to interrogating the good people of Oxfordshire. On his travels, he has heard of a strange old woman living alone in the woods near Heatherford village, who still has a reliable supply of water. The villagers claim that she has a suspicious knowledge of herbal remedies and have accused her of witchcraft.

Sir Brutus, in his infinite wisdom, immediately believed the rumours and argued that this woman was obviously responsible for the drought. As evidence, he cited her reliable supply of water as well as her possession of ‘forbidden knowledge.’

I find this logic somewhat lacking. However, Sir Brutus only sneered at me when I said as much.

‘I don’t see you coming up with any ideas, de Claire,’ he said.

‘Proper research takes time,’ I snapped back. ‘My methods are a little more strenuous than simply listening for outlandish rumours in alehouses and brothels.’

Brutus’ face darkened. He leaned closer, no doubt hoping to use his size to intimidate me. It worked.

‘Shall we see what His Lordship thinks?’ he asked.

I bowed my head in defeat. His Lordship would side with Brutus, of that I am certain. The past weeks have taken their toll on my master. He has been neither eating nor sleeping properly, as the troubles of his land and people weigh heavily on his mind. For his sake, I must do everything possible to end this drought, even if that means submitting to a loudmouthed buffoon like Brutus.

28th August 1198.

The past few days have been eventful, to say the least. I cannot sleep. My mind is filled with thoughts of what I could have done differently to prevent this tragic outcome. Since oblivion’s sweet embrace continues to elude me, I will instead lay down my thoughts here in the hope that committing them to paper gives my mind some measure of relief.

Brutus and I, accompanied by a few of His Lordship’s men-at-arms, rode to Heatherford, where Brutus rallied the local peasantry, ordering them to arm themselves with pitchforks, torches, and other such crude weapons.

We arrived at the woman’s hut, and Brutus stepped forwards to hammer on her rickety door. I can only imagine how terrified that poor woman must have felt, having a large brute such as Brutus pummelling her door. He cuts an imposing figure at the best of times, putting my slender frame to shame. Armoured in his mail, he appears like a demon out of hell.

The door swung open to reveal a woman that was not at all what I’d expected. Given the reports of the peasants, I’d been steeling myself to meet a wart-covered old hag. She was not that. She looked to be perhaps fifty years old, with a few streaks of grey in her raven black hair. It was clear that she had been a great beauty in her youth, and at that moment, I developed a suspicion of what was going on here.

I have noted, in my travels, the evil power of jealousy and resentment. The poor woman probably rejected the advances of some man and was driven out of her home as punishment. Or, perhaps the advances were not unwanted, but the womenfolk of Heatherford were simply jealous of her beauty and the attention that came with it.

Brutus, naturally, picked up on none of this. He narrowed his eyes at the woman and got to business immediately.

‘We have evidence that you have been practising witchcraft. In the name of the king, I demand you submit to a trial.’

The woman stared at him in wide-eyed horror.

I decided to intervene. Stepping forwards, I placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘It’s all right, don’t be afraid. If you have done nothing wrong, then the trial will prove your innocence. What is your name?’

‘Edith, m’lord,’ she said. ‘I’m not a-’

Brutus slapped her across the face with a gauntleted hand, knocking her to the ground. ‘You will be silent, witch!’

‘Brutus, I must protest,’ I said, reaching out to grab his hand before he could strike her again.

He whirled on me, eyes brimming with rage, and batted my hand away. ‘You can shut up too.’

I ignored the fluttering in my chest and tried again to reason with him. ‘Brutus. This is most inappropriate behaviour. We are both in command-’

‘I said shut up,’ he growled. ‘I’m a knight of the realm. You’re nothing more than a glorified servant.’

‘His Lordship-’

He turned away. ‘Enough. We’re done here. Time to find the nearest lake and get this done.’

‘The nearest lake?’ I asked, wrinkling my brow.

He turned back then, face no longer filled with rage. Instead, he wore a cruel, vindictive smile. ‘Of course. You do know how these things work don’t you?’

I know how the barbaric farces we call trials work, certainly. Brutus was clearly referencing the ‘swimming test’, one of the favoured techniques of would-be witch hunters. Essentially, a mob gathers, binds the accused, and tosses them into a lake. If they float, they are considered guilty, so the mob burns them. If they sink, they are innocent. Of course, this means that even if the accused proves innocent, they almost always drown.

I frowned at Brutus. ‘I understood that we would be investigating to see if there is any truth in the rumours of witchcraft before taking such a step?’

He shook his head, still smiling. ‘No. That’s too risky. Witches can control people’s minds. We can’t trust that she wouldn’t bewitch someone and fool them into helping her.’

‘But-’

‘I said no.’ He turned to the nearest villager, a muddy-faced old man holding a burning torch. ‘Peasant, there is a lake nearby, yes?’

‘Yes, m’lord,’ the old man said. ‘But-’

Brutus nodded. ‘Good. Lead the way then.’

The old man’s eyes were as wide as a rabbit frozen in the light of a torch. He trembled. ‘Of course, m’lord, only-’

Brutes bared his teeth at the poor man. ‘Only nothing. You will do as I command, and you will do so without question.’

‘Of course, m’lord, right away,’ the old man said, bowing so low that for a moment, I wondered if he’d be able to get up again.

He did, and he led us along a forest trail for about fifteen minutes until we reached a large lake. Rather, we reached the place where a large lake should have been. As it happened, the water level was so low that it could scarcely be called a lake. It was more of a large puddle.

I let out a small chuckle. Unfortunately, Brutus heard me, and let’s just say he didn’t see the funny side of things. He glared at me, red-faced, and demanded to know what was so funny.

‘We’re in the middle of a drought, Brutus. What did you expect?’ I said. ‘This is probably what the poor man was trying to tell you.’

Brutus yelled out a string of profanity so vile that I will not recount here, lest it offend your ears.

‘I suppose we’ll just have to do things my way then,’ I said, fighting to keep the smugness from my voice.

‘Out of the question,’ he snapped. His evil smile returned. ‘We’ll simply have to assume her guilt. Guards, prepare a pyre.’

I gaped at him. ‘What? No! Surely there are other tests we can consider?’

Brutus shook his head. ‘None we can perform here, and we must not delay justice.’

I steeled my resolve, hoping no one would hear the tremble in my voice. ‘Brutus, must I remind you again that we are in joint command of this investigation?’

‘No, we’re not. You had your chance to solve this problem, de Claire. You failed. Now stand aside and let me finish this.’

‘Brutus, I’m warning you, I’ll-’

‘You’ll what? Stop me? I don’t think so. You’ll do nothing.’ Letting out a bark of laughter, he gestured to his men-at-arms, already getting to work. ‘These men answer to me.’ He loomed over me, stepping so close that I felt his breath on my face. The stench of stale wine assaulted me as he whispered into my ear. ‘I would rather avoid making a scene in front of the peasants, but if I have to have you arrested, I will do so. I doubt His Lordship will look fondly on your little emotional outburst.’

I hung my head and, to my great shame, protested no more. Brutus’s guards, aided by an eager mob of peasants, gathered twigs and branches. The poor woman, Edith, the so-called witch, stood there shaking. Her lip was split and bleeding from Brutus’ earlier assault. I considered going to comfort her and encouraging her to speak out and argue her innocence but thought better of it. I decided that my presence would only make things worse.

Perhaps that was the truth. Or, maybe I was simply giving in to my cowardice. I will likely never know. Whatever my reason, I stood and watched as Brutus and his men built a pyre, ready to burn a woman who was quite possibly innocent.

It didn’t take them long. Within a few minutes, they had gathered a large pile of kindling and cobbled together a makeshift stake from a few sturdier branches.

As Brutus bound Edith to the stake, I expected her to beg for mercy. I prayed that she would beg for mercy. While I didn’t think Brutus would back down, I hoped that if she was convincing enough, she could make the peasants, and possibly Brutus’ guards, waver. If that happened, then I may have been able to intervene.

Alas, it was not to be. I believe the poor thing was in such a state of shock that she scarcely knew what was happening.

Brutus lit the pyre himself, his lips curling up in vindictive pleasure. I will not describe the horrors that followed. I’m not even sure I could do justice to the feelings that coursed through my body. All I will say is this. Every time I close my eyes, I still hear her screams.

Back then, however, I did not have the time to dwell on what I had witnessed. Though the flames quickly devoured the unfortunate woman, the situation soon changed in a rather dramatic fashion.

In the greatest shock since Judas Iscariot betrayed our lord Jesus Christ, it emerged that Brutus had not thought things through. As any child can tell you, starting a fire in the middle of a dry forest is not a good idea. Before long, our surroundings were ablaze.

At that moment, Brutus, by complete coincidence, remembered that he had pressing business to attend to elsewhere. He left, taking his guards with him. I stayed, offering what help I could to the common folk as they attempted to use the meagre water left in the lake to save their forest. It was all in vain, of course. The dry wood provided too much flammable material, while our water supplies were impossibly low. After a few minutes, we, too, retreated to let the fire run its course.

As I write this, the fire still rages. We are powerless in the face of its ravenous fury.

12th September 1198.

The forest burned for three full days, during which colossal amounts of smoke blacked out the sky. The fire spread across the countryside, consuming all in its path. Trees, pastures, even villages and human lives, nothing satiated it. Countless fields of wheat and barley fell victim to the cruel tongues of flame, meaning that famine is now inevitable.

Finally, after these three days of hell on earth, a great storm came to our rescue. Brutus, naturally, took this as a sign that he was correct. He argued that the fire was the final outpouring of the witch’s magic and that rain was now free to return. I was not so sure.

Surely, had Edith truly been a witch, her magic would have died with her. I could not escape the feeling that we had committed a terrible act of injustice. That perhaps this fire was, in fact, our punishment from the heavens. As such, I did what I do best and launched my investigation.

Once the ashes cooled, I returned to Edith’s home. Though the fire had destroyed her hut, a small stone structure still stood behind it. A well. An old and particularly deep one that still holds water while others have run dry. Edith’s supply came not from devilish powers but from a simple act of construction. I now believe with my whole heart that she was innocent. Her blood is on my hands.

For too long, I have been a coward, allowing overgrown barbarians like Brutus to push me around. No more.

Though it is too late for me to save that poor woman’s life, it is, perhaps, not too late for her immortal soul. Maybe, if I can make a compelling enough case, a priest would say a few words for her. Who knows, God may even show mercy on us and work a miracle to save us from the coming starvation?

 I go now to speak to His Lordship in the hope that I can secure his support in this matter.

Note added by Sir Brutus of Grimsby, 1st October 1198.

Roland de Claire was executed today, having fallen under the influence of a witch. I walked in on him attempting to convince His Lordship to commit a terrible sin by pardoning the hag responsible for our drought. Luckily, I convinced His Lordship that de Claire had lost his mind, and we needed to confine him in the dungeon for his own safety, as well as ours.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that this was not enough. De Claire repeatedly refused to renounce his claims, proving that the witch’s hold on him was quite unbreakable. His Lordship proposed that we keep de Claire under house arrest and allow him to live out the remainder of his years in peace, but I explained that this was dangerous and that de Claire may corrupt others. With no other choices left, His Lordship agreed that we had to execute him. I volunteered to undertake the responsibility myself.

To anyone who comes across these mad ravings, I urge you to ignore the lot of it. If I had my way, I would have burned these papers, but His Lordship would not hear of it. He thinks this stream of nonsense may one day be helpful to researchers. As such, I’ve written this warning in the hope that no one shall be deceived by the words of a weak-minded fool such as Roland de Claire.

August 26, 2022 10:07

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17 comments

Aeris Walker
17:06 Sep 01, 2022

Really enjoyed this one—the voice felt immersion of the times right from the beginning. And not just the language, but the “matter of fact” tone De Clare uses when talking about such horrific events, as if they were commonplace enough not to warrant much excitement. It felt very believable. Well done!

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Daniel Allen
17:29 Sep 01, 2022

Thank you very much! I'm glad that you enjoyed it. I haven't done any historical work in a while, so I really enjoyed immersing myself in this.

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Aeris Walker
17:36 Sep 01, 2022

I was curious if any of it was based on true historic events? Like an actual recorded forest fire from 1198?

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Daniel Allen
19:09 Sep 01, 2022

Unfortunately not, I can't claim that level of accuracy. I did a bit of research to make sure that things like the swimming test were appropriate to the time, but it was more base on the genreral attitudes of Medieval England than any specific event.

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Aeris Walker
01:07 Sep 02, 2022

Hey, even getting “the general attitudes” right of any historical era seems to require a ton of research, so hats off to you 🎩

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H L Mc Quaid
09:48 Aug 30, 2022

Really strong visceral 'voice' for the narrator -- we can feel his doubt, dismay, horror. Also, this could be read as cautionary tale of what happens when ideology (led by myth and misinformation rather than science and rationality) drives government. Only one phrase seemed a little out of place (anachronistic, maybe), "alarm bells in head." Great story, great storytelling, well done.

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Daniel Allen
18:32 Aug 30, 2022

Thanks! I'm glad that you enjoyed it! Yeah I wasn't 100% on that line. I was thinking about church bells and the like being rung at the sign of raiders, but I did wonder if it would sound a bit off!

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Michał Przywara
20:03 Aug 28, 2022

This was a great story! I shy away from historical fiction myself, and have respect for people who pull it off. Great voice for both of the main characters. Their rivalry is an engine that just keeps giving conflict, and gluing them together in a stressful situation was a great setup for a story. I love how the burning led to a forest fire. That a storm just happened to come afterwards was unfortunate timing for de Claire, but it did play perfectly into the hands of the shrewd, politicking Brutus. In the end, it's a great example of histor...

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Daniel Allen
16:03 Aug 29, 2022

Thank you! I really enjoyed playing with the perception of truth here, and exploring how crises tend to bring out the worst in human nature.

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Evina Roux
19:13 Aug 28, 2022

I loved the pace of the story and the vocabulary. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres. It's a very nice one, thanks for sharing this.

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Daniel Allen
16:00 Aug 29, 2022

Thank you very much!

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Darya Silman
14:53 Aug 28, 2022

Wow, what a fast-pacing and engaging historical fiction piece! I was eager to know what was to come for the woman and the narrator.

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Daniel Allen
18:35 Aug 28, 2022

Thank you very much! I'm so pleased that you enjoyed it!

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Graham Kinross
03:20 Sep 08, 2022

This is gripping, fast paced brilliance. Well done.

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Daniel Allen
11:11 Sep 09, 2022

Thank you! Very glad that you liked it!

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14:55 Aug 31, 2022

This read like great historical fiction. Well done :) I love the barbarity of the people who obviously cannot put two thoughts together and are in charge of things. :/ Of course, in those times, the kings and such needed those lunkheads to carry out their dirty business. I would have shortlisted this :)

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Daniel Allen
16:34 Sep 01, 2022

Thank you very much! I studied history at university, and I love any chance to put that to use. I'm really glad that you enjoyed it.

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