Father Stephane crossed the grassy yard between the modest stone chapel and the fortress of rock which was being used as a jail. The Inquisition had been raging for several years under the strict iron fist of the church, yet he had barely seen any of its actions. Having recently been sent from Rome, this was his first time in the land of the heathens. Yet a young man, the bishops felt the presence of God was strong in him—strong enough to save and convert. His silence was seen as true devotion. It was, in fact, his own questioning that caused to be so quiet.

"You requested me, my child?" Father Stephane gazed through the cold steel bars of the cell door at the prisoner sitting in the dark far corner. Her slender hands, blotched with dirt, clutched at a strand of red and black beads. "Have you confessions to make?"

"I have no confessions to make, Father." A young, soft, feminine voice drifted from her lips. Deafening creaks came from the heavy hinges as the door was pulled open to allow the priest to enter. "I only wish a pair of ears to hear my story before I die."

"I am your pair of ears, child." He moved slowly across the packed dirt floor to take a seat on the simple three-legged wooden stool as the door was closed behind him. Never before had he made a visit to the jail of the damned. A deep chill caused a violent shiver to course through his body.

"Thank you, Father." A petite young woman wearing a ragged rat-eaten dress stood in the shadows of the corner and patted the dirt from her torn skirts. "I have only an hour more on this Earth."

The cold stone cell was no larger than a peasant's bed chamber, just large enough for an average sized man to lie down without being too cramped. Despite the small space, he observed a homey feeling from her as if she had been in that room all her life. She was almost a skeleton with flesh, eyes sunk in, bones pressing against the caramel tanned skin. She crossed the cell and floated down gracefully to sit on her make-shift bed of straw.

"I will listen." He kept his tone tender and low hoping she would not become frightened by her fate. "How many years have you seen, child?"

"Just thirteen."

How could a loving God allow such a young girl to die? The holy man was filled with a deep sympathy as he looked at the young woman who was up for execution.

She crossed her legs before her and laid her beaded string into her lap. He watched the gentle rise and fall of her chest as she twined small slender fingers through the waves of the long hair drifting over her shoulders toward her lap. Father Stephane could only wonder how someone so young could have committed a crime serious enough to merit a death sentence. As her fingers began to move and weave the chestnut tendrils, she braided her hair with a relaxed ease.

"My life has been a simple one. Peaceful and simple. I grew up in the south of Sommerset with my mother, father, and two sisters." Her tone became lofty and dazed as her eyes fluttered closed to recall her young life. "I loved summer because of the flowers in the meadows." She knotted the end of her braid and let it hang down over her shoulder. "We used to play seek and hide, my sisters and I, in the tall grass."

"What happened to your family, child?" She is too gentle and young to be alone.

"It was at the turning of spring just a few months ago. We were a peaceful village, never hurting anyone. We were simple country people." Toying with the beads in her lap seemed to keep her calm and focused. "My mother was stabbed at the well drawing water to start the stew for breakfast. Father was trampled by their horses trying to help her." Her tone never changed as he watched her gentle features intently. Nothing about her expression deviated from the calm relaxation of her brows and the simple curve of her lips. "My two sisters were slaughtered inside the cottage. I heard their screams from the street, but I could not get inside in time to help them. The soldiers grabbed me in the doorway of the bedroom." Deep blue eyes stared into his own turning his heart and soul with pain for her loss. A sharp ache stabbed at his stomach and chest clutching his lungs tightly and squeezing out the air. "All I could see were the blood-soaked blankets." Her fingers systematically moved over every single bead on the strand in her small hands. "The killed everyone in the village—except a handful of us."

"Who, child?" This girl is the only one here.

"Mothers, fathers, children—healers, merchants, farmers. We were brought here, to sit. And wait. And suffer. They beat out false confession for crimes that were never committed and murdered them all just because our goddess has a different face. A different name."

"Have you been hurt, child?" God help him if anyone had the soulessness to lay a hand on such a delicate creature.

"Not yet, Father. But, I know my end is near." Her lips moved in silence with a breath of a prayer. "Everyone else has already gone on to the Summerlands. I will rejoin my family there—my village—and we will all once again live in peace."

"What of Heaven, my child?" There had to be a way to save her soul. "Jesus promised all his followers peace in Heaven upon their deaths. He promised paradise."

"Our Goddess has promised us everlasting peace in the Summerlands." She lifted her gaze to meet his as the soldier approached the bars. "They are nearly the same, your Christ and our Goddess. They both promise salvation to those who are loyal." The girl stood slowly. "I see no reason to view her as a man as they are essentially no different."

The cell door creaked open and a soldier marched up to the young woman. Father Stephane's heart lurched into his throat as the man clasped his large calloused fingers around her thin, bony wrist and led her out of the cage. He struggled to even stand from the stool. I must stop them. This girl has done nothing wrong. Moving quickly to the door of the cell, he froze as their eyes met again. As she passed the stunned priest, she placed her chain of beads into his hands.

"I have committed no crime, Father. No crime other than being true to my own heart." He prayed she could not see the fear in his eyes. "People believe in many gods because when one does not hear your prayer, another may be listening and answer instead."

How could the God he served allow a child to die? Father Stephane followed the girl silently as she was led from the cold prison out into the blinding sunlight of the morning. Raising a hand to block the glare, his mind was still racing. Why God? Why have you chosen this child to leave your world in such a demeaning manner? What has she done?

"Blessed Mother, I pray to you now." The gentle words came from her mouth as she followed the soldier to the wooden gallows. Father Stephane could do nothing but stand and watch her take each step to the platform with a raised chin. "Ease my pain and suffering. Take my soul swiftly upon your wings, and deliver me to the Summerlands."

Slanderous cries and shouts rang out from the crowd as her eyes gazed up to the sun. Heathen! Her prayer continued under the rumbles from the people. Satan's whore! None of their slurs seemed to even reach her young ears. Witch! Father Stephane stood still and horrified as rotten cabbage and apples flew toward the girl. The hangman approached her steadily with a rope. The tightly woven rope was slipped around her neck, and the shouts and curses of the crowd dulled into whispers of anticipation.

"Our work is done here." The bishop came to stand beside the ailing priest.

"She is an innocent child, Bishop." Father Stephane still did not understand the fate of the girl. "Why is she to be hanged?" Tears clouded his vision as he gazed through the blur at the gallows. "What was her crime?"

"She may have the look of a child, Father, but she is not." A twing from the rope snapping taught silenced the crowd. Bishop Phillip made the sign of the cross—touching forehead, stomach, left shoulder, then right. His chin lifted as he caught a glimpse of the corpse hanging from the gallows. Father Stephane saw pride consume the man beside him.

"We have murdered a child." The priest felt ill as the crowd cheered. Placing a hand on his lurching belly, he swallowed hard. "What was her crime?"

"Be proud of yourself, Father, for you have done God's will." The bishop strolled away with his head held high, shoulders squared. He was obviously satisfied with the outcome of his search. "She was a witch."

The confused man lifted his eyes to the Heavens. Now we murder in your name, God? She prayed to a different guise. That was all. Turning away from the sight of the gallows, he took slow, clipped steps toward the door of the chapel. His heart screamed within him pounding against his rib cage as he watched the crowd slowly disperse. They all had the same view as the Bishop—kill the ones who are not like us. The God I know would not ask for the slaughter of children. Father Stephane paused before walking toward the stone chapel to pray for his own soul.

"Was she truly guilty?" He realized he was still squeezing the girl's beads. Turning the stand in his hand, he saw the beads were worn down in spots having lost their original pearlized shine to use. "She prayed more than any holy man I have ever known."

She never killed a man, nor stole a trinket or a horse, nor had she caused a fire in a home or inn, or left town to avoid an adulterous affair coming to light. Countless men had gone to the gallows after confessing to Father Stephane in the chapel, but never had he actually listened to their stories. Each of them had begged for forgiveness and made cries of their false innocence. The girl had never even showed a hint of fear.

She accepted her death as a way to go home. She was the one facing death, and she offered me hope. Pushing through the wooden door, he entered the stone chapel. Thankfully, no one else was inside sitting in the pews. Taking slow hesitant steps toward the altar, he held the beads in his hands. He kneeled at the base of the crucifix statue and clasped the beads between his hands and began to pray.

"God. Goddess. Whichever you may be, I pray you watch over the soul just sent you by the fear of civilized people." Tears slowly streamed down his cheeks as he tried to blink them away. "A child has been taken from this world with no right of those who imprisoned her. Forgive them their wrongs." I could have saved her. "Forgive me for my weakness."

Finishing his prayer to whoever may have been listening, Father Stephane stood from the base of the statue. He paused only to kiss the feet of the representation of Jesus Christ. Glancing back to the pews to be sure he was still alone, he approached the small statue of the Virgin Mary. Kissing the strand once more, he hoped the girl was safe again with her family in the peace she had believed awaited her. He placed the beads at the feet of Mary's statue and walked away.