Set In Stone | An Original Short Story

Juliet crept quietly into the cover of brush and then turned for a last look at her house. A horde of villagers was hammering on her front door, several carrying torches to stave the late night shadows. Knowing that she could not afford to waste another precious second, Juliet moved as quickly as she could into the woods, impeded by her seven-month pregnant stomach. She wound her way expertly through the undergrowth, hiding her tracks where she could to buy herself more time.

This sudden revolt had surprised her. Juliet was the village doctor and midwife, and she traded her medicines for her living. She had been present at the birth of nearly every young child in the village and had saved more than one life with her cures. There was no valid reason for this unexpected attack.

A loud noise from behind jerked Juliet roughly from her confusion, confirming that the crowd had discovered she was no longer in the house. A disorderedly pounding of feet could be heard behind her along with raucous voices, swiftly drawing nearer. There was nothing for it; if she stood any chance of escape Juliet would have to run. Lifting her skirts free of her feet, Juliet broke into an awkward sprint. She took the clearest possible trails so nothing could hinder her pace but always the clamor behind her drew nigh. The extra weight she bore made her breathing labored and she felt her strength beginning to wane. Suddenly she slid to a stop.

A broad river loomed in front of her, nearly twice a stone’s throw across. Normally it was a shallow stream but this time of year the mountain snows had begun to melt and flooded the riverbed. Not only was it wide but also fast and frigid. There was no way she would be able to wade across and there were no bridges for miles in either direction.

“There she is!”

The harsh bellow made Juliet spin around. The crowd had appeared through the trees and was rushing towards her. The foremost man, a blacksmith whom Juliet had cured of the deadly typhoid fever only a week prior, held a torch aloft in one hand and while the other pointed at her with all the authority of Fate itself.

“What cause have you to pursue me so?” Juliet cried.

“We have come to arrest you on orders from Reverend Atsons,” the blacksmith replied. He gestured at the crowd and they began to form a semi-circle around Juliet, backing her against the river’s edge.

Juliet’s eyes widened in surprise. “Benjamin Atsons?” she gasped out. “You come to arrest me on his word? That man is a deranged fool!”

It had been many years since she had seen the man, although she had heard that he had returned to town. More than a decade ago the young Benjamin Atsons had appeared at her door, begging her to tend to his ailing wife. Juliet had done everything within her power to rid the woman’s body of illness, but her lungs had been ruined by disease and finally the most Juliet could do was ease the young woman’s passing. Benjamin Atsons was convinced that Juliet had cursed his wife and after he was not very successful in convincing the remainder of the village to follow his lead he left town. For a short while after that the village folk had been hesitant around Juliet, but eventually even that faded and life returned to normal with all accusations of black witchcraft disappearing into the shadows. His arrival in the village the day before last was the first time anyone had seen him since then, and he was now a powerful reverend of the church with the task of cleaning up the churches and ridding the small town of Satan’s handiwork.

“Come with us,” the blacksmith said and Juliet noticed he was staying well back from the circle closing in around her. “You must face your judgment.”

“You shan’t take me!” Juliet screamed in outrage. Like a cornered beast she lashed out and a sudden gust of wind barraged the villagers, extinguishing all the torches and knocking several men to the ground.

“Stand down, witch!” the blacksmith yelled, dropping his useless torch. Two men seized Juliet’s arms and another began to bind her hands with rope. Juliet, instead of struggling, closed her eyes and began murmuring to herself in a coarse language. “Silence her you imbeciles, before she hexes us all!” the blacksmith shouted, the fear in his voice only too evident. Before Juliet could finish her spell one of the men cracked a torch over the back of her head and she collapsed, unconscious.

Juliet was awoken by a sharp slap to the face and she gasped at the abrupt return to consciousness. Every muscle in her body was aching horribly. She could feel a thick wooden beam behind her back, around which her arms were tightly secured. Abrasive ropes bound her to the stake at the neck, hips, and ankles, and a piece of cloth had been stuffed into her mouth and held with another strip of rope.

“Witch,” said a deep voice and Juliet forced her eyes to focus. She was standing on a platform in front of what seemed to be the entire village. On a raised pedestal facing her stood the blacksmith who had captured her, the local clergyman, and, in the very center, Reverend Benjamin Atsons. Juliet’s eyes narrowed on him and he gave a small smirk in reply.

“Witch,” he repeated, hiding away his smile for a look of pious solemnity, “do you know why you are here before us?”

Juliet shook her head slowly, trying not to display the pain on her face as the wound on the back of her head throbbed and the ropes around her neck tore at her skin.

“You are brought here to face the punishment of the charges against you,” Reverend Atsons said pompously. “Juliet Carthot, you have been charged with the crimes of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. It is too late for you to deny these charges as you used your black magic on several of these people this night and the proof of your consort is only too clear by that demon spawn you carry.” There was a great rush of muttering among the crowd as all eyes turned to her waist. “You are, however, in the mercy of the Lord, given a chance to redeem yourself. Will you now, with this village and the Lord as your witness, repent for your sins and beg forgiveness from the Father Almighty?”

A defiant grimace on her face, Juliet shook her head, feeling the ropes sawing against her skin. She felt certain she had nothing to repent for. The so-called witchcraft she was embroiled in had never been used for anything besides helping the villagers in their times of need. That did not seem like something she needed to repent for. Wild murmuring erupted in the gathered mass and it took several long minutes before the reverend could restore calm.

“You refuse to atone for your sins and seek forgiveness?” Reverend Atsons asked. At this, Juliet nodded very clearly. “Then I declare that you must now be punished for your sins. For the high crimes of witchcraft and consorting with the devil you, Juliet Carthot, shall be this night burned at the stake and sent to your place in the eternal fires of Hell.”

A great cry rose from the crowd and several men moved forward with armfuls of straw and heaped them around her feet. Through the whole ordeal Juliet maintained perfect eye contact with Reverend Atsons, who returned her gaze calmly, a hidden smile playing around his lips. When the men had finished they all backed away and another man mounted the platform, a flaming torch held in his hand.

Reverend Atsons lifted both of his hands high with his arms spread wide, the unviersal symbol of forgiveness. “May God have mercy on your soul!” The man with the torch slowly began lowering it towards the straw.

“No!” For the first time Juliet’s eyes left the reverend’s face. Unnoticed in all the other action, a man clad in only a nightshirt and coat had elbowed his way to the front of the crowd and now clambered onto the stage. Swiftly he charged at the man who held the torch and threw him bodily to the dirt below. Then he straightened and came towards Juliet.

“It’s the mayor,” the crowd members began hissing to each other. “That’s Mayor Wilkins.” “What is he doing?” “Timothy Wilkins?” “It’s the mayor.”

“Do not worry, my love,” the mayor whispered to Juliet. “I will have us out of this, I promise. I will not leave you to this punishment.” Then he turned to face the crowd. “How could you seek to do something like this without including me? I am the mayor, the authority in this town. Had I not heard your noise from my house you would have this woman in cinders before I knew that she was charged with any crimes.”

Several people turned their faces down in shame but the reverend remained unabashed. “This was a matter that needed to be dealt with swiftly. We could not wait for your formal legalities. This woman is a convicted felon,” he said plainly. “She does not deny these charges and she must accept justice for her sins.”

“Her sins?” Mayor Wilkins asked, aghast. “What sins has this woman committed? I do not see how curing the sick and seeing that children are born into this world safely are crimes.”

“No, but using witchcraft and giving her sanctity to the devil are,” Reverend Atsons replied harshly. “Now stand aside before you are charged with obstructing peace and defying the orders of God.”

“No,” the mayor stated plainly. “I will go nowhere, and I will most certainly not stand aside and let you unjustly murder this woman. How could you people convict this woman to die while she is with child? How can you be so heartless as to sentence an innocent unborn to death?” A quiet mutter rose among the villagers.

“That child must die just as its mother must,” Reverend Atsons proclaimed. “It is a child conceived in unholy seduction and borne of dark witchcraft. That is the devil’s child within her womb. Something so wicked should not be allowed on this earth!” A few alarmed cries burst from the crowd at this statement. Juliet yelled to Mayor Wilkins through her gag and he turned to untie the rope around her mouth and remove the cloth.

“Please, I beg of you,” Juliet cried out, addressing the crowd, “do not harm my child. I will accept whatever punishments you can burden upon me, but let it wait until my child is born and then let my child be raised in safety. Punish me as you will but do not harm my child.”

“Silence that witch before she poisons your minds!” the reverend screamed but few acknowledged him.

“No, Juliet, you must not,” Timothy said in horror, tears in his eyes. Then turning back to the crowd he shouted, “I am willing to accept the punishments for Juliet so that she might live to bear her child. Take me in her stead. The charges against her are also mine. I have been learned in the same magic of nature and the child that she bears is not the devil’s but mine.” Gasps of horror exploded from the villagers.

“Adulteress!” Reverend Atsons shrieked and a wave of agreement spread through the crowd. “You use your powers now to seduce a man out of marriage, witch.”

“I have never used my powers for anything but good,” Juliet pleaded. “All of you know this, the countless times I have healed you from illness and injury. Jeremiah, the time that the tree broke your back and I helped you to regain use of your legs. And William, when your little Rebecca was ill with the pox and I made it go away. Or Henry, your wife nearly died in childbirth, but I saved them both. Are these acts of evil?”

“You killed my wife!” the reverend shouted passionately. “Her illness only worsened after you began treating her until she died.”

“She was too sick, I could do nothing for her,” Juliet replied with tears in her eyes. “There are some things beyond even my power!”

“Your magic killed her!” Reverend Atsons shouted. It was clear that this man was beyond reasoning. Murmuring had spread through the village crowd like a wildfire and the tension thickened.

The man named Jeremiah suddenly spoke up. “For weeks after you healed my back I was haunted by terrifying dreams, dreams of the devil.”

“And Rebecca is still scarred from the pox, marked so that she is considered ugly and unfit for a husband,” William cried and there were a jumble of agreements following this. Before Juliet could reply another yell rang out.

“My child has been unable to make a sound since you supposedly saved her,” Henry said. “And my wife can bear no more children, thanks to you.” A roar rose from the group and for the next several minutes others began to state unrelated claims against her. Despite Timothy’s angry rebuttals against the false accusations, the shouts kept coming with increasing fervor.

“Timothy, this is useless,” Juliet said sadly. “They will not listen to truth any longer. Stay back from me.” Then she declaimed to the mass, “My fight is a losing one. Let my story stand forever, set in stone, as a monument to the injustices of the world. Always remember that I and my child were never given the chance to experience lives of completeness.” Her voice died away as she whispered a quick, final spell.

Timothy turned quickly back to her. “No, Juliet,” he begged, reaching toward her as the last word fell from her lips.

A flash of white light momentarily blinded the watching villagers. When the night’s darkness once again returned and eyes slowly adjusted there were gasps and even a few screams at the sight now before them. On the platform there now stood two people carved of stone; Juliet Carthot tied to a stone pillar with her feet resting on a pile of straw and Timothy Wilkins standing before her, one stony hand connected to her cheek. Juliet’s face was upturned, a look of resigned sadness etched into her features and the mayor’s expression was that of the purest devotion.

On the floor of the platform next to the two statues lay another figure who had crept over without anyone’s notice and had been accidentally caught in the spell. Reverend Atsons lay on his stomach with a stone torch held in his outstretched hand. The tip of the frozen fire rested in the straw and a single tongue of flame was curling around Juliet’s ankle. A truly frightening grin covered the reverend’s marble features as he watched for all eternity the fire with a manic greed carved in his eyes.

The statues stood from that day on in the square of the village and became a talking point of the elders and children alike. For decades to come, the question of the true criminal was argued long past the time when the facts had blurred into myth.

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