The day that the witch was meant to hang, a black cat darted across the road in front of Verity Adams’ window.
Verity watched it go, hurrying across the lane and disappearing beneath her window as if it knew how cursed and unwanted it was in this town. It looked like an average black cat — like two bright green eyes in a cat-shaped void — but she knew it would be a grim reminder of what had been on the townspeople’s minds for the longest time: witches.
Salem had been swept up, among other towns, in a full-blown witch hunt. Feuding neighbors accused each other of witchcraft; girls and women wilted before a council as they asked them questions that couldn’t be answered; those who weren’t on the stand anxiously counted down the minutes until they were accused; condemned after condemned died by the gallows as the days went on. It had been weeks and there were no signs of stopping.
Verity stretched, raising her arms above her head. She had been sitting in the small room for hours now, and her limbs were stiff from lack of movement.
She knew the townspeople would think of witches if they found the cat beneath her window. Everything seemed to scream witchcraft lately. If you could swim or read, if something mildly inconvenient happened while you were around, if you did anything abnormal at all, you might as well tie the noose around your own neck.
Nevertheless, Verity stood, stretching her legs, and opened the window to search for the cat. Its two large, green eyes were the only thing she could see of the cat. Despite its previous furtivity in trying to scurry across the road, it seemed perfectly calm right now. Verity clicked her tongue softly, beckoning the cat closer. When it came close enough to the window, she gently lifted it up into her arms, backing into the room and closing the window behind her. The cat jumped out of her arms almost immediately, but when it landed on the floor, it was no longer a cat. It was a young man with dark hair and bright green eyes, the exact shade the cat’s eyes had been.
“Good afternoon, Will,” Verity said.
“Good afternoon,” Will replied. His green eyes seemed to glow in the now semi-darkness, which wasn’t surprising — he was Verity’s magical familiar, after all. “Busy week?”
“Not really,” Verity replied. Her father was a doctor, and she helped her mother’s side business as an apothecary. Business had been slow the past couple of weeks, and not just because of the declining population in their town. “Everyone is more suspicious of us these days.”
“How was Plymouth?”
“Rather boring, if I’m being honest.”
Verity smiled. Though he was mostly human now, he still acted like a cat.
There were voices outside. A spike of alarm pierced her heart. Was it time? She peered out the window. The noise had come from down the street. Verity relaxed, watching as the townspeople left the meeting house, discussing the trial. More likely than not, there would be a new resident awaiting death at the prison within the hour.
Verity knew the process: first they would drag you to court to answer questions before the judge, the governor, the minister. They demanded to know everything. How long have you been a witch? When did you make your covenant with Satan? Why did you curse your fellow townsfolk? When you couldn’t answer any of the questions to their satisfaction, everyone muttered among themselves that you were certainly a witch. Verity, along with many other girls, had watched the process uneasily, knowing the whole affair was the scale of justice tipped against the undeserving accused and wondering if she would be the next one to suffer through the questioning.
“Verity?” Will called her name for the second time. “Is everything alright?”
She exhaled deeply, trying to slow the quick beating of her heart. It would do no good to think about it at this point.
“Everything is fine,” Verity said. “There has been a lot of action lately. I suppose you’ve guessed that we’re in the midst of a witch hunt.”
“I heard them say they’ve found a witch,” Will said. “They say she’s on house arrest now.”
His tone invited an explanation. He probably deserved one, since he’d been away for so long. However, Verity wasn’t in the mood to give one, and even if she was, she doubted she could.
“Did they find a real witch?” Will asked. “One of ours?”
Verity shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
Will sighed in relief, then asked, “Who?”
Once again, Verity shook her head. She returned to her bed, where she’d been sitting earlier, and forced down her panic. They weren’t coming for her. Not yet.
“Verity, you’re worrying me,” Will said anxiously. “What happened?”
“Will,” Verity said, not as a warning, but as a plea. She sighed. She wished he’d come later, when it would be safe, when it was too late to complicate things by trying to intervene, but there was no helping it now. Verity buried her face in her hands. What was she to do now? There was nowhere to go, and the longer Will stayed here, the longer he was unsafe.
“Will, I intend to terminate our bond.”
Will flinched as if she’d hit him. “What?”
“I must terminate our bond.”
Hurt flashed across Will’s face; he masked it quickly, but Verity had known him long enough to see her words hurt him.
“You don’t wish me to be your familiar any longer?” Will asked. His voice conveyed what his face did not. They’d been working together for nearly ten years now, and they were as close as brother and sister. Under normal circumstances it would be insane to terminate such a bond, but Verity knew her stubborn cat would fight too hard when they came for her, and he would only get hurt.
Voices outside again. Verity’s pulse quickened as the voices grew closer. It was definitely time. She had to do this quickly.
“Will, I’ve always considered you to be my brother, and I your sister. You know I would never break a bond unless there was a good reason. You’ve been away too long to realize how dangerous it is here. To even be associated with a suspected witch is to condemn yourself.”
Will’s look of hurt changed to one of horror. “But — do you mean to say —”
“William Bourne, faithful Cat, I release thee to live thine own life. We are unbound, I am no longer thy Familiar, you are no longer mine. I release thee to thine own life.”
Will pulled back his sleeve, searching for a binding mark on his forearm that was no longer there. “Verity —”
Verity heard the front door open. They were coming for her, they were here, there was nothing she could do now. “I’m sorry, Cat. But it had to be done. Now go before they capture you, too.” Will held her gaze for a count of three. “Go, Cat.”
Will hesitated. Then, reluctantly, he turned back into a cat and leapt out of the window whence he came. A moment later, the sheriff, followed closely by the Reverend and the governor, entered her room.
“Your time is up, witch,” the sheriff said. “Now, come.”
Gathering her courage, Verity turned away from the window, where a dark blur was running back across the street, to face the sheriff. She nodded, signaling that she would not resist.
It seemed like the whole town had come to watch her death as if it was a twisted play. The people she’d known her whole life had arrived to watch her take her final breath, and Verity knew they’d view it with satisfaction.
She didn’t hear her own death sentence read out; she was scanning the crowd for someone she was praying wouldn’t see what would come next. She didn’t hear the Reverend saying a prayer for her soul, she was trying not to look into the eyes of the girls who’d pointed at her and said “witch” after they’d promised their friendship years before.
“Verity Adams, do you have any final words to say before your fellow countrymen and before God?” asked the minister.
She had lots of things to say. She’d been thinking about it for days. However, all the words in her mind seemed to have floated away. She said softly to the minister, “Please end it quickly. My life, and this senseless massacre.”
The rope was rough against her skin; the wind was cold against her face. She closed her eyes as the rope closed around her neck. She blocked the noise of the minister claiming her soul for God and announcing her necessary death.
The ground fell beneath her feet.
A crow cawed and broke the eerie silence.