The crowd erupted into cheers as the flame ignited the pile of kindling at the feet of the pale woman, flaring with ease. Hawkins stepped back, allowing the fire a moment to catch before throwing the torch onto the pile. He watched from under the wide brim of his hat as his work paid off before his eyes. He sighed internally at the recent motion passed in court that decreed the heretics need to be garotted before they were burned. A part of him missed their agonised screams as their false flesh melted away from their infernal bodies. It had always been an empowering, pleasing success to his ears. A reward for his hard work.
Turning back toward the crowd as the fire swallowed the body of the accused, the stake she was fastened to crackled as it sent embers into the air. The Witchfinder swiftly thrust a triumphant fist into the cool evening air.
'The witch is dead!' he yelled, a smile spreading across his face beneath his blonde moustache as the crowd erupted into cheers, a chant of his name being taken up. Starting in the front ranks and spreading like a plague. The clergyman beside him on the raised stone platform, grimaced as he made the sign of the cross before himself, his gaze falling to the floor. He disapproved of Michael Hawkins' popularity. He had turned witch hunting into something that people blindly followed like sheep, hearing about his exploits from the council bulletins. He had made fame and fortune of the lord's work, and no good would come of it. Atop of that, he always made the clergyman feel unwell, simply by being in his presence.
As the excited crowd worked themselves into a frenzy, inflating the go of the nation's hero, a long peasant pushed his way through the crowd. His clothes were dirty and ragged, his face filthy and his eyes tired. The members of the crowd who noticed his pained attempts to move forward gave him a wide berth. They feared infection, going by his appearance. Finally, when he was a rank or so from the front, he aimed an accusing finger at Hawkins. His voice as he shouted was lost in the crowd, but slowly, those around him noticed his yells and quietened down, until suddenly a silence fell in the courtyard and all that could be heard was the weak voice of the man.
'Witch!' he repeated, yelling himself hoarse. His voice implied that he expected the crowd to join his cries, but none did. This was a common occurrence wherever Hawkins went.
'What say you, stranger?' Hawkins called back confidently, he took a few steps to the edge of the platform and leant on one knee, bringing himself to the man's level. It was an incredibly condescending action. 'What accusations do you bringing forth me on this day?' Hawkins' confidence showed that he knew the crowd would not turn on him, regardless of the man's claims. If the situation turned bad enough, Hawkins would simply claim the man a witch himself, burn another heretic at the stake, and take receipt of twice his fee for Colchester.
'Witch,' the man repeated through gritted teeth, his firm accusing finger never once shaking, 'My accusation of you, is that you are a witch. In your time, you have discovered a vast number of witches, and only could you do so if you were yourself, a witch.'
The crowd remained deadly silent, as if turning the accusation over in their minds. A cocky grin spread across Hawkins' lips, he already knew how to respond, and he stood from kneeling, to address the crowd, and rally them to his support, 'Tell me, if I am indeed a witch, as you accuse me... Then Satan's kingdom stands divided... And if Satan's kingdom stands divided, then how does it stand against humanity, if it cannot cease to war between itself?'
Without missing a beat, the crowd exploded into a cheer and settled as it awaited the man's rebuttal. Hawkins' hands were out at his sides, palms aimed to the clouds, compelling the crowd to cheer. His rumoured training in the past was that of a lawyer, and it showed through, he was already the clear winner of this debate. He also knew how to play a crowd to his favour, and he did so to great effect.
'My wife,' the man called back, his voice cracking into a sob, the crowd quietened down to hear his pointless cries, it was nothing to them if not entertaining, 'an innocent young mother! Plucked in the cold hours of night from her bed, tortured until she begged for death! Thrown helplessly into a lake and murdered because you say she did not drown! She attended church every day! How could she do what she was accused of by you? She was innocent!'
A murmur rippled through the crowd as they whispered amongst themselves. Hawkins did not fear this, he silently raised a palm to quiet the crowd, and they fell silent once again. When he was convinced he had the ear of everyone present, he spoke softly, unhurried, 'Did not the child abductions in the village cease, after I had discovered and expelled her heresy?' he asked confidently, once again throwing his arms open wide, welcoming a reply.
'They did.' the man responded quietly, prepared to say more, but he checked himself, defeated. If he accused Hawkins of orchestrating the kidnappings himself, the crowd would surely lynch him before he could blink. Instead, he took his cue and pushed his way back through the crowd, disappearing from the shadow of the castle.
'The defence,' Michael said softly, victoriously, pausing for dramatic effect, before he concluded, 'rests.' He took an exaggerated stage bow as the crowd cheered again. The disgusted clergyman scurried away, excusing himself from the horrid display of celebrity.
'My friends, I must now retire from this display, for the King- yes, the King himself- has requested that I dine with him this evening at a banquet in my honour. Were it my choice to make, I would have you all join me,' the crowd made to cheer again, but Hawkins hushed them, 'Unfortunately, a royal reception is such that one cannot decline, and so I bid thee a fond farewell.' He leapt from the podium as the crowd began to clap, his cloak flowing behind him as he landed among the ranks, and walked through the centre of the crowd, milking the popularity for all it was worth as he did so.
That evening, while Hawkins dined with the King, a shadowy figure delivered through the portcullis of Colchester castle, a letter addressed to the Witchfinder General.
Returning to his quarters, Hopkins found the requested buxom wench awaiting him in his bed. Bolting the heavy wooden door behind him, he stood at the foot of the bed, and began to remove his garments. He threw down the capital's purse of twenty three pounds, which the King had presented to him personally, and looking on the leather pouch, wishing he could have received double for denouncing his accuser as well, noticed the envelope next to it on the table. Abandoning his disrobing, he approached with stride and snatched it up. The anonymous woman in the bed crawled toward him as he sat on the edge of the bed. She wrapped her arms around him and continued to take off his clothes, kissing his neck as he read aloud.
' "Dearest Witchfinder, I write to thee to request your help in the village of Cogheshal..." et cetera, et cetera,' he skimmed the details of the missing children, the town fear of a witch, ' "...please come to us quickly. We need your help." My... Another test of my ability.' He stepped away from the bed, obliviously dragging the naked woman along with him, and she fell to the stone floor with a squeal as he began to pace, talking to himself as he did so. Finally, he resolved to leave as soon as possible.
Within an hour, he saw astride his horse, galloping at great speed down the dark country road toward Cogheshal. His right hand held the reigns tightly, his left arm bent in front of his face, shielding from the wind as he held up a lantern to attempt lighting the way.