Geillis gently closed the kitchen door as it would not be wise to disturb Mr Seton. The fire-kindle was where she had left it last night, in the grate ready for a spark. She placed the jug of fresh milk that she had brought in from the byre onto the table, then took off her shawl and shook off the raindrops. Once the fire took hold, she swung the iron frame with its pot of water across to heat and boil. Her bedding in the corner lay ruffled, but she had slept elsewhere. Mr Seton wouldn’t know, unless he had been sneaking around in the night. He was a wicked man with an evil stare who flicked his tongue and licked his lips towards her when Mrs Seton wasn’t looking.
There were no sounds from the adjacent room as the family were late risers and most likely they were still asleep. From the barrel in the corner, she filled a bowl with meal and added a pinch of salt. Not too much, Mr Seton complained about the escalating prices. Although, he always seemed to have enough money for French brandy, and its foul odour emanated from his breath every morning. How could Mistress Seton lay with him? She must have a fortitude for tolerance or else she was fearful to show her distaste.
‘Where were you in the night?’ Mr Seton shouted from where he stood by the hall door.
Geillis gripped the bowl with both hands otherwise it would have fallen. She turned to face him.
‘Did you hear me, lass?’
‘Sir, my brother’s sick, I was—’
‘The pox?’ Mr Seton interrupted and sneered at her.
‘Broken leg, Sir. A hefty kick from a thrawn ox.’
‘Aye, well. I’ll still be expecting to collect his tithes tomorrow.’ He grabbed her wrist and squeezed it. ‘I promised your father to care for you.’ He pushed her back against the table and thrust his body against her. ‘How can I if you wander in the night?’
‘You’re hurting me.’ She gulped at the stench of his halitosis. ‘Sir. Please.’
Behind her on the table, she felt around with her free hand and grasped the handle of a knife. Would she stab this man, could she? It would be so easy just to slide the blade across his throat as if slicing a brisket joint. But it wasn’t her temperament to kill; her nature was to comfort the sick.
Once she had witnessed this man’s disposition when he had swiped at Mrs Seton for the slightest of remarks. Once, she had asked if the dog should stay outside, please. Mr Seton reacted with a sudden blow that struck Mrs Seton and left her shaking so much that she had collapsed to her knees in shock. Poor weak woman.
For the sake of peace, Geillis eased her hand off the handle of the knife.
‘How does a scullery maid heal the afflicted?’ He grabbed at her breast. ‘Oh aye, there’re rumours you perform miracles. What do you say to that?’
‘Sir, I just tend them with warm broth and kindness.’ She twisted her head away from him.
‘Aye, and my salt no doubt.’ He pushed her to one side. ‘Minister Munro wants to talk to you this morning. So, don’t be telling lies about this house.’ He strode past the boiling pot over the fire and slammed the outside door behind him. From the yard, she heard him calling and whistle for his hound.
Minster Munro will want to chastise her. They say she has been spending too much time in the company of Robert Cairns and it’s time they sealed their future with the Minister’s approval. Her cheerfulness these days elicited a flutter of chattering excitement in Church, where the congregation would peek at her over their prayer books. Sometimes, she overheard the whispers, “Aye, she’s sixteen, it’s time there was a wedding”, which made her smile as she enjoyed being at the centre of the gossip.
She kneaded the meal dough ready for the griddle; soon she would cook breakfast for Robert. What an idea? Baillie Seton will then have to find another maid to light his fire and milk his cow. She smiled.
The sky had turned dark grey and Geillis rushed through the drizzle towards the Church. In the vestry, Minister Munro stood at his desk flanked by two masked men. Pock marks covered the face of one stranger and the other, a gaoler, had chains dangling from his thick leather belt. Robert was there, stood to one side. She smiled towards him but sensed a subdued demure in his stance; he looked away and gazed at the floor.
‘Geillis Duncan,’ Munro announced.
‘Sir, what is it?’ She looked across to Robert. He did not look up.
‘Lass, they say you can cure the sick,’ said the pock-faced man. ‘That you use concoctions of weeds in broths.’
‘I tend the sick. Yes, sir, to ease their suffering.’
‘And what about those who die?’
‘They never die, sir.’
‘So, you decide!’ Minister Munro shouted. ‘Is it true you offend the will of God?’ He prodded her on the head with his bible. ‘Strip her, find the mark.’ He ordered.
The men grabbed hold of her; they undid her clothes and tore them from her arms and legs. Roughly, they pulled her hair, fondled and prodded around her naked body, searching for imperfections until they found a dark patch with a mole on the small of her back.
‘The Devil’s mark.’ The pock-faced man said and laughed.
The gaoler took his pincers and sniped off the mole. He stamped on it and ground it into the flagstone floor.
Geillis had held her breath and dare not flinch at the pain. ‘Robert, tell them,’ she cried. ‘Please help me!’
Robert stepped forward. ‘You witch,’ he whispered into her ear, slapped her face and then bolted from the vestry.
‘There’ll be mercy for you if you tell us, who are the hags that instruct you?’ The pock-faced man twisted her arm.
‘Tell them, child,’ said Minister Munro, he was on his knees. ‘I will pray for your forgiveness.’ He clasped his bible between his hands.
The gaoler pulled the pilliwinks from his leather belt and forced Geillis’s thumb into the contraption. He twisted the screw a few turns. She screamed and then clenched her jaws.
‘Tells us and we’ll spare you. Who are the witches in North Berwick?’
‘Tell them, my child,’ Munro pleaded. ‘King James will spare you.’ He raised his bible towards her.
The man twisted the screw tighter.
‘Mercy!’ she screamed.
In a flash, a bolt of lightning struck the steeple followed by a thunderous roar that shook the Church rafters.
‘The Devil!’ Munro hugged his bible.
Geillis lashed out at the stunned men and freed herself from the thumbscrew. She dashed out of the vestry and ran between the gravestones and on across the stream as the rain lashed against her naked body.
She saw Agnes Sampson under the eaves of her cottage where she was sorting garden herbs.
‘Oh Agnes, the witch-hunters are with the Minister Munro.’ Geillis screamed and dropped to her knees. Agnes threw a shawl over Geillis and helped her into the cottage kitchen.
‘A Curse on King James and all his kind,’ said Agnes as she dried and assisted Geillis into some clothes. ‘The stallion will take you.’
‘Where, tell me where?’ Geillis sobbed and tears streamed down her face.
‘Just hold tight and let the horse run. He knows where to go.’ Agnes held the reins as Geillis mounted. She watched them race across the common, scattering a herd of grazing sheep.
Agnes rushed to her pigeon keep and released the latches. She shooed at the birds out of the coup until they flew off in different directions. At least she had time to warn the others, they will understand when the doves arrive.
Geillis looked back over her shoulder as she grasped onto the reins of the galloping horse. She saw the witch-hunters were at the cottage and struggling with Agnes. Minister Munro was there, and he stood holding his bible in the air. Once again, the lightning struck the Church steeple.
Geillis’s knuckles were white from her grip on the reins, her heart raced. The rain mixed with the tears running down her face. Would Agnes suffer at the madness of the Church determined to burn an innocent woman as an appeasement to a superstitious King? She stood up in the stirrups, lifted her head and shouted, ‘Curse King James Stuart and Anne of Denmark. Let the storm thrash them when they sail up the Forth.’ She settled back down onto the saddle and whispered. ‘Save us all from Man’s evil dynasty.’