My entry for Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge “The Torch.” This one was quite a struggle. And sadly it is not at all based on Monty Python. You can see the image prompt at the link above.
The torch burned hot. Albert held it high as a beacon. He could feel the heat on his scalp as he cast it about, observing the crowd who had gathered on the sticky-hot prairie summer’s night. Farmers, smiths, militiamen, millers, housewives, even a few nobles had come, their colourful silk or well-tailored suits and fine hats contrasting with the simple cloth of the other folk visible in the torchlight.
It was a good crowd, he decided. He turned his gaze to the mountains in the west, where dusk still glowed. It was late and he expected no others.
“Friends!” Albert called to them, and they pushed a little closer. Emotion had brought them here, and his goal was to stroke it, stroke their curiosity, and stroke the fear that gripped their hearts. `We have come tonight… because of a warlock!”
The mutter that ran through the crowd was ugly. People crossed themselves. Those holding pitchforks raised them into the air like spears. But Albert couldn’t feel the anger. Pistols remained in their holsters. Rifles were still strapped to backs. Many had brought torches, but only a few were alight. The crowd wasn’t ready yet.
“We have feared this! We have seen the signs!” Albert turned his eyes on a man near the front of the crowd. His suit was earth-toned, and patched at the elbows and knees. Thick black stubble coated his cheeks. Albert had counted on this man being here. “Tell them, Frederick!”
He needed little prompting. “The warlock stole my wife!” his voice near breaking. “She walked off into the middle of the night! Left my bed, left our sons. She was tricked with magic, her heart enslaved. And when we found her… it had been cut out!” Albert nodded at the assertion, though he knew it wasn’t strictly true.
“Our animals!” Another man, his voice deep and rough, shouted from somewhere further into the crowd. “Dead dogs, cats, deer, pigs. We find them downstream of his house!” “There are strange lights at night. Evil lights!” A woman added, her voice shrill.
A hatless gentleman, his necktie askew and his shirt sweat-soaked, raised his voice from the front of the crowd. “My daughter. The warlock… he put a hex on my wife! So my daughter was born wrong. All twisted. She didn’t live.” He raised both his hands towards the sky, as if appealing to the heavens. “We must have justice!”
“Justice!” Albert repeated, and he whipped his torch back and forth. “We accuse Joshua of being a warlock, of having a pact with the Dark Lady. Does anyone speak in his defence?” The mood had grown uglier. More torches had been lit, and hands rested on pistol butts.
“Calm yourselves.” Someone pushed her way to the front of the crowd. Eventually, she emerged, a woman with a long ponytail, wearing a long coat. “This is madness.” Albert kept his face neutral, but he mentally cursed the arrival of the town’s doctor, Elizabella. She should have been seeing to the birth of Mrs. Crowly’s baby. Why was she here? The woman had been schooled in the east and many held her opinion in high regard. If she urged caution, the crowd might quiet.
“We have warlocks in the capital.” The doctor spoke in normal tones and the crowd quieted as it strained to hear her. “Charlatans and beggars, we give them our pity, and perhaps a few coins. Who has proof that Joshua has done any of these things you mention, let alone of having made a pact with the evil god?”
The crowd had calmed. Albert risked losing them. But he had another trick to play. “Alma? Are you here?”
The crowd parted around a gangly, brown-haired teenage girl as though she was a stone in a river. It took her a long moment to notice, and when she did she covered her face with her hands. “Tell them all what you told me.” She was his niece, a well-liked, church-going girl.
“Well… I saw mister Joshua.” When she didn’t elaborate, someone gave the girl a gentle push. “I saw him in the forest, dancing without any clothes in the night. And singing words I couldn’t understand… except for the Dark Lady’s name!”
Someone in the crowd gasped. In an instant, the ugly current was back, a racing, raging river of unthinking hate. Albert waved his torch, and it was joined by dozens more, pushing back at the darkness. Pistols and rifles had joined the pitchforks in the air. He could hear doctor Elizabella arguing for calm, but she was ignored. A decision has been made.
Of course, it wasn’t Joshua that Alma had seen at all, but that didn’t matter. “To Joshua’s home!” Someone yelled. “Burn it!”
From the fescue prairie to the north of town, Joshua’s home was just over a small hill, near to the river that rushed through low, furious rapids. It didn’t take the mob long to reach the river, and then it was only a few minutes to the simple log cabin with its little garden.
That was where they stood, crushing tomatoes beneath booted heels and grinding lettuce into the dirt, while men tossed torches. It took several tries to get one atop the roof, for no-one wanted to approach too close. The summer had been dry and the small cabin was soon alight, as fire danced between the logs. The roof fell in and fire stretched towards the diamond-dust sky. Joshua never emerged from the inferno, but Albert thought he heard a scream over the roar of the blaze.
The crowd remained until the building collapsed. The thick logs would burn for hours, but no-one could live in that heat and smoke. Their anger sated, the mob became a crowd again, and they broke away singly and in small groups.
Albert left before the crowd had shrunk too much. His work here was done. He would lie low for some time, for the people foolishly believed that they had solved their problem. But it was Albert who was the warlock.