“… and so we hereby find you, Michael Scott, guilty of illegal pacts with the Devil and for the practice of sorcery.”
Michael stood there, stoically staring off into space with his hands held taut in ropes, his giant shoulders straight and his muscled arms defined. His long, greasy hair fell over his brow, clouding his eyes from those around him in the courthouse, but the five members of the jury who had heard the evidence against Michael all sat content knowing that they were sending a witch to the gallows the following day.
The judge, Reverend Merry, a normally jovial little man, held a dour look on his face as he adjusted his wig and smoothed his ceremonial black robes, sitting high up in the pulpit in the towns church. The trial of the century, the pews were filled with nearly every man, woman, and child in Relmut. All were keen to hear the words of the village witch, someone who had offered medical treatments in exchange for food and goods for years, at least until one of the children said they saw Michael doing profane rituals with the blood of an animal.
The Reverend leaned forward on both hands in order to peer over his high table. “Do you have anything to say for yourself, Mr. Scott?”
The hall fell silent as his head moved the slightest bit, his glimmering black eyes peering from behind the curtain of dark hair. An audible cracking could be heard as he ground his teeth together before he spoke.
“You all know me,” he said, not bothering to turn and address anyone in particular. “You know what I do in my shack and you know the covenants which I hold dear. We’ve had peace for years now, with both of us practicing our ways of life freely with nary an issue. But today you’ve broken that accord.”
A slight murmur rose through the courtroom, only to die down when his raspy voice continued on unabated.
“I admit to being a sorcerer, a warlock you would deem most foul. And I know the punishment that you will likely sentence me to as well. But let me tell you this, people of Relmut, that whatever you do to me will come back on those that judged me, those that ordered the sentence, and those that carried it out. So kill me if you must to satisfy your jealous god; you’ll get what’s coming to you from my vengeful one.”
The jurors all looked at each other, their bench sitting in front of the judge’s high rise. The six men, the wealthiest landowners in the area, exchanged worried glances. One, Mister Paul Wheel leaned forward.
“Are you suggesting that should we say, hang you, we too shall suffer the same fate?” He asked in his rich baritone.
Michael leaned back far enough to stare at Paul with one free eye, the darkness from within it enough to crush all light that dared enter it. “I suggest nothing Mister Wheel. I am telling you what will happen should this charade continue.”
“Charade? By what do you mean by that, heh heh…” Reverend Merry asked from his perch, chuckling nervously as he spoke.
“I mean it is no coincidence that my land is desired by these men, all of which have brought charges of witchcraft against me. Pray tell, what will happen to my land once I am set a punishment, as I doubt any punishment you give me will be one I’ll live through.”
“Your land will be sold off to the highest bidder, the revenue going to the church.” Reverend Merry said slowly, a quiet murmur breaking out in the gathered townsfolk in the pews.
“Ah, so that’s where you come in good Reverend? The one to make the profit off of my land, while these five weasels divvy it up between themselves?”
“Watch your tone boy,” one of the jurors, an older slaver by the name of Jameson growled.
Michael tilted his head. “Or what? You’ll kill me? I hardly find the posturing of thieving landowners scheming to get even richer something that I should watch my tone about, especially when it’s my life and my land that you will be taking!”
“I think we’ve heard enough of this for one day. Reverend, if you would please determine this young man’s fate?” Another juror, Lucius Grey, said while idly fiddling with his silver-headed walking stick.
“I agree. It is with a heavy heart that I must determine that you, Michael Scott, have been found guilty of witchcraft and illegal pacts with the Devil. For such crimes, the penalty is death, by hanging.”
“May I make one request from the men already looting my grave?” Michael snidely asked.
“Of course Michael,” Reverend Merry replied, trying to hold back a sniffle. He’d known Michael for years and this was a hard penalty to hand out.
“I want to be hung on my own land, and left to hang there for all of you to remember what you’ve done.”
The courtroom broke into a rash of whispering and chattering, which Reverend Merry had to bang his gavel three quick times to silence.
“Are you sure you wish to inflict this on the town Michael? There are many people who care for you that would hate to see you rot in the trees.”
“Do it by the large oak by my house, it’s far enough back on the property that nobody will see me just passing by.”
“Well… if that is your last wish, then I see no reason to deny it to you. Your execution will be tomorrow at dawn, along with two other criminals that we’ve brought to justice.”
Michael smiled. “Feel free to have them swing in the branches with me, more’s the pleasure.”
“That’s very gracious of you Michael. Perhaps you’ll repent and see God’s love before your final moments.”
“Like I said before, I already know of your god; he’s petty and jealous, and I’ll have nothing to do with him.”
“Do not speak ill of the Lord boy, not in my presence nor the good Reverends!” Alastair McNear, another juror, said with a sneer heavy in his voice, one lip turned up in an ugly snarl on the man’s scarred face.
“You know I find it odd that we are granting this prisoner such an odd request. I think he should be hung in the gallows like any common criminal,” the final juror, John Pierre, murmured over his own hands, his eyes drifting up to look at the judge’s seat. “Why grant him such a request, dear Reverend?”
“Any man, be him Christian or otherwise, should be allowed to die on his own land. You should know as much Mister Pierre; wouldn’t you want to pass on in the comfort of your plantation?”
“I should hope I pass while partaking of a fine pipe of tobacco and a finger of brandy,” John muttered before sitting up. “But I see your point. I guess allowing the accused this one favor of the court won’t do any harm.”
Unseen by all was the wicked grin that formed on Michael’s face at the statement.
The following morning three men marched in a line, led by the town butcher via rope, into the forested lands of Michael Scott. Unlike the rest of Relmut, the lush Virginia landscape grew wild here, with thick underbrush flanking the narrow path, and great towering trees blocking out the peeking sun, casting a shroud of darkness over the grim occasion. Michael marched stoically, a grim smile on his face as the butcher tugged on the rope connected to his wrist and neck.
The man behind him, Barnaby Miller, was from a county over and was guilty of murder. He was quiet and unassuming, and seemed to shrink in on himself as they marched. The third man was a Negro slave who’d tried to break his brethren free and lead a revolt on John Pierre’s tobacco plantation. All three had been tried by the five men, all three found guilty of their crimes.
None seemed ashamed.
Waiting by torchlight, outside the small log cabin that Michael called home, was the Reverend and half the town, with three ropes looped over the thickest branch of the old oak, and three stools set out below each noose. A heavy darkness clung to every crevice, weighing down the air with a rancid humidity that was made only worse by the partially flayed deer hanging from the porch, flies buzzing around the rusty iron buckets beneath them where their blood had gathered from their slit throats. Mister Pierre seemed appalled by this, holding a handkerchief over his nose, while Wheel and Jameson looked over the deer with appreciation.
Not very professional, Michael mused, but it would have to do. After all, how often was one executed?
“And so the guilty have arrived,” Lucius Grey said aloud, drawing the crowd’s attention. “A murderer, a slave and a witch… three men that will soon make the world a better place by leaving it!”
“Now Lucius, let’s not speak out of any sort of anger,” Reverend Merry, this time dressed in white finery with a thick bible held in his hands, admonished. “This is a grim day for all of Relmut, not something to be mocked.”
Lucius merely sneered at this, and planted his cane firmly in front of himself, leaning on it as a cold wind blew through the trees, sending a torrent of leaves swirling all around. Michael stopped, surprising the butcher, and leaned back to take a long sniff. The scent of blood carried on the wind, as well as a hint of rot coming from the deer carcasses.
“Come along you, don’t make me get the club now,” the butcher threatened while cowering beneath Michael’s fierce gaze.
“Just enjoying the smell of the fresh pines dear friend. I want to remember this day for a good, long while.”
“Like you have much time left anyway, witch.” The butcher spat, tugging on the rope holding the three prisoners together forcefully. “Now hurry up!”
“As you say, we mustn’t be late.” Michael replied cryptically, lowering his head to shroud his face once more.
The butcher led the three to the line of hanging nooses wafting softly in the breeze, before untying them from each other. Several men were on site with muskets, in case someone tried to pull a runner, and Alistair had personally shown up with four of his best hunting hounds, a musket in hand. Half the village had shown up to see the execution, with many bleary eyes showing that some had come extra early to get good spots to see the action.
“As this is an execution, let us dispense with the formalities and begin the nasty work at hand.” Reverend Merry called out, causing the crowd to settle back and watch. The butcher led the slave, a tall and robust fellow clad only in burlap trousers, over to the tree. He helped him up upon the stool and, after climbing his own ladder, affixed the noose nice and tight around the Negroes throat. Stepping down from the ladder, the beefy butcher stood by the stool, his pinched red face alight with the chance to put criminals to the death, ready to pull it out when given the command.
“Thomas, of the Wheel Plantation,” Reverend Merry intoned. “Do you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior, and beg his forgiveness for your sins in this life which have led you down this dark and lonesome road?”
Thomas looked out over the crowd, cleared his throat and spit down upon the ground causing much of the gathered masses to gasp at his blatant disrespect. “There will come a day when all of you white devils see the error of shackling my brothers and sisters! One day we will rise up and take this land for ourselves, breaking your implements of torture upon your backs for a change. Do I accept Jesus? Yes, whole-heartedly. Am I sorry for what I did? Not a chance. So let me swing in this tree, and finally know some peace.”
The Reverend closed his eyes and nodded to the butcher, who kicked the stool out from under the slave, who fell with a snap, his legs kicking about as his body danced in an awful mimicry of life as he shed his mortal coil, silent as the owl on the wind. Several mothers’ covered the eyes of their young children, though many said children were able to peek and see a dead man for the first time in their young lives.
Next was the murderer, a small mousy man who was altogether unassuming. He wore breeches with suspenders and an olive shirt, along with small glasses that sat perched on the edge of his nose. As he was brought up to his stool, he leaned in close to the butcher and whispered to him.
The man, obviously a little confused, took the murderer’s glasses off and tucked them into his shirt pocket, before helping the short man up onto the stool and climbing the ladder to affix the noose around his neck.
“Barnaby Miller, do you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior, and beg his forgiveness for your sins in this life which have led you down this dark and lonesome road?” Reverend Merry repeated, holding the bible in front of him as if it were a shield.
Barnaby smiled, wider and wider until almost all of his teeth were showing, his eyes bulging wide. “Jesus? No, I don’t think I’ll side with him during this conflict. Where was he when I took the knife to the children over the years? Was he there when the neighbors heard the little girls scream, finally rallying the townsfolk to come and get me? Jesus had thirteen chances to come and intervene in my life, to prevent me from doing what I love to do. So you can keep Jesus, and let me hang by the witch. Perhaps we’ll burn together!”
The Reverend shook his head sadly and looked away as the butcher kicked out the stool from beneath the short madman, a loud crack ringing through the small grove they all stood in as his neck broke, his pointed boots shaking mirthfully as his body spasmed. The smile never left his face, nor did his eyes close. Several women of the crowd turned away to get the sight of the frightening visage out of their minds, while many children shrieked in terror at the sight of him.
“Now now, calm down everyone,” Reverend Merry called out nervously. “This man is not going to harm anyone ever again, so no need to fear. Let us just move on to the final execution and move about our business.”
“Couldn’t agree more Reverend,” Michael said with a hideous smile, his hair ghosting over his face.
“Now it’s just down to you Mr. Scott,” Paul said, earning a few guffaws from his assorted workers. “Afraid of the reaper?”
“I don’t fear that which I’ve embraced Mr. Wheel, and am fully ready to face my lot in the afterlife. How about you?”
“Get him up on the stool, would you? I don’t have all day to trade quips with a godless heathen.” Lucius said, examining the back of his hand carefully.
As they were setting Michael up on the stool, tightening the noose around his neck, Reverend Merry cleared his throat before calling out in a cracking voice. “Michael Scott, do you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior, and beg his forgiveness for your sins in this life which have led you down this dark and lonesome road?”
Michael smiled a thin smile, narrowing his eyes at the crowd. “Now I think we all know who I accept as my Lord. Isn’t that what I’m being killed for, in the end? Or is it because you want my land, like I suspect?”
“You’re a godless witch!” Someone in the crowd called out, a young mother clutching her daughter’s hand. The crowd murmured in agreement, some even going so far as to call out cries to “stone him to death!”
Michael looked right at the woman. “Mary Anne Joseph, I will die this day for being a godless witch. But by my Master’s creed I will return and exact revenge on all those who have wronged me, starting with you. Now kick this stool out from under me so that I can begin to rot.”
Before anyone else could give him an order, the butcher did as asked, kicking the stool out from beneath a cackling Michael, with his choking laughter dying on everyone’s ears as his spine snapped, leaving him to hang in the tree bound up like a deer fresh from the hunt. The villagers watched him for a while, swaying gently in the breeze next to the other two sinners. Slowly the town undertaker came up, asking that they be lowered so that he could take measurements for their caskets.
“Why on earth would you bury a killer, a witch and a Negro in perfectly good caskets?” Lucius asked aloud as the crowd began to disperse.
The undertaker, a young man by the name of Morgan Caine, turned and gave Lucius a blank stare. “Because that’s what’s right by the Lord.”
Reverend Merry came up, his bible closed and held beneath his arm. “Indeed, we need to give them a final place to rest so that their spirits don’t wander. Perhaps outside of town, at the crossroads between our fair town and St. Augusta?”
“Yes,” Morgan said, looking up at the swinging bodies. “That might be for the best.”
The butcher cut them down, one by one, and passed off the corpses to Morgan, who placed them in a wheelbarrow. The only one to stay was Michael Scotts, something the Reverend insisted upon.
“It was his last request and I will hear nothing of going against it,” Reverend Merry said over the gathered townsfolk who wanted his body far away from their lives. “Don’t come over here and you won’t see it. I’ll have it removed in three days’ time and buried in a spot nobody save for me and Morgan will know about.”
And with that the people fully dispersed, Morgan taking a few moments ordering some of Mr. Wheel’s slaves to cut down a large tree near the edge of the meadow where the house sat. He said it was for wood for the coffins, but Lucius thought it was just to claim he had something that’d once been sacred to the witch. Nevertheless, the tree was set to be cut down, and the coffins prepared to be made.
When the burials happened for the Barnaby Miller and Thomas, the whole town went to the crossroads to witness the smooth coffins, made from fresh oak, being lowered into the ground while Morgan and his wife stood by watching. The Reverend spoke over the silent crowd, reminding them of Jesus’s words and advice when confronting one who strikes first. None of them seemed willing to turn the cheek, nor wish these souls peace in death.
They all wanted to know the men were good and buried.