The icy rain drop splashed into the tiny gap between the end of his hair and the collar of his coat. It rolled down to join the others, creating a stream of shivers along the way.
Pete nudged his companion and eased apart the green screen allowing her to glimpse the scene beyond.
Light danced through the hollow. The roaring bonfire cast distended shadows, tall warped images writhing on the smooth stone walls. The hooded figures danced around the fire and around a goat chained to a stake by the fire side.
Pete shifted slightly to avoid the next plop of rain and drew his sister back from their hiding spot, letting the leafy curtain fall.
They scooted back a safe distance, moving slowly and silently until they were out of hearing range.
Pamela threw back the hood of her cloak as she stood and frowned at Pete.
“You think Emilia is with that group of witches?”
“But why would she join them?”
“I don’t think she joined them, I think she was taken by them.”
Pamela brush a curl from her forehead and gazed back at screen of trees hiding the ritual from their sight.
“To what purpose? What could they possibly want with her?”
“Emilia said she had stumbled across something she wasn’t supposed to see, remember? She was afraid, terrified that she had been spotted. She locked herself in her room, afraid to go to school and then she was gone.”
“Yes, but she left a note. She said she was going to go stay with family in Topsfield.”
“Yes, but she didn’t take any clothes, did she! Why would she leave without clothes?”
“Maybe she was travelling light. She would have walked most of the way, or hitched a ride with a farmer.”
Pete crossed his arms and glared at her.
“I tell you, she has been kidnapped.”
She sighed. “It is dangerous to spy on witches. It is even more dangerous for a woman to be seen anywhere near witches! I am not staying around here. You can stay if you want but I am going back home.”
She pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head and marched off in the direction of Salem.
Pete watched her leave then turned back to the woods and began his stealthy return to the open-mouthed cave.
Dropping to all fours, he crawled to the edge of the small break in the foliage that provided a clear view.
The scene had changed. The bonfire still roared, but now the texture of the shadows had softened and a bluish haze hung over the area, opaque clouds gathering along the ceiling of the cave entrance. The haze swirled and bubbled like a pot full of stew and flashes of light sparked in the swirling mass, putting Pete in mind of cloud lightning.
He counted five hooded witches around the fire, chanting and dancing. The goat bleated in terror as one by one the witches stroked the grey horns as they passed.
Pete’s eyes caught a flash of green towards the mouth of the cave. Hidden in the murky shadows of the cavernous opening was huge black cat sitting atop a rounded boulder, tail twitching in time to the proceedings. The cat stretched then leapt down from its perch and padded towards the firelight. As it came closer, Pete realized this was no house cat. It prowled between two of the witches, eyes fixed on the goat. She bleated louder and with rolling eyes began to thrash against the chain holding it in place.
The great cat slunk down to the ground within striking distance of the goat, tail thrashing and glowing eyes fixed on the petrified animal.
With a loud shriek that made Pete jump, the witches clapped their hands together and went still. The silence pressed on the ears, relieved only by the crackle of the bonfire. Pushing back her hood, a woman with long white hair reached within her sleeve and withdrew a long thin knife with an etched bone handle. She walked slowly towards the goat and with her first step, the other witches began to emit a low mesmerizing hum. Pete found his head drooping to his chest and jerked himself awake once more.
The goat was transfixed by the sound and slowly lowered itself onto all fours and then onto its belly, eyes transfixed on the woman and ignoring the panther.
The woman stepped up to the goat, pried its jaws apart and with a swift stroke, cut the tongue out of the goat. She threw back her head and thrust her fists at the heavens, shaking the bloody prize. Pete gasped audibly, clamping his own hand over his mouth to stifle the sound
The goat did not move or react in any way to the removal of its tongue, blood dripping over the sides of its muzzle and puddling on the dirt between its feet. Lightning forked out of the swirling cloud and struck the tongue, blue flame roiling over its surface and then it was gone.
Hair flying about her head as though electrified, the witch approached the cat and placed the offering in front of him.
“Ebony, my familiar, I gift thee with a tongue to bind this creature to secrecy, to seal her lips and to fog her mind, that we may remain safe. Ebony, please accept this gift to bind her heart, her mind and her soul to our cause. We do not desire her life, only her service. Her life is yours.”
She placed the severed glowing tongue on the ground in front of the cat and stroked its sleek head then returned to her sisters circle.
Ebony sniffed at the offering and then in one great gulp swallowed the tongue, whole. At that instant, great rumbling shook the earth and a blinding bolt of lightning struck the center of the bonfire. Pete flattened himself into the earth and clasped his hands over his head, sure that the sky was falling and an earthquake erupting simultaneously. With an extended rumbling and muttering, the thunder faded away until silence reigned.
Pete lifted his head cautiously and peered back into the now dark clearing.
Where minutes before a bonfire had blazed, now sat a crater of charred wood. Of the witches and the great cat familiar, there was no sign. They had vanished.
The only thing remaining in the clearing was a girl, dressed in a traveling cloak, lying precisely on the ground where the goat had been tethered.
Pete slowly got to his feet and on quaking limbs entered the empty clearing. There was no sound, nothing stirred. He feared she was dead, she was so still.
He touched her shoulder. She woke with a start, sitting upright so quickly Pete jumped back with a yell. Emilia stared up at him with puzzled eyes.
“What am I doing here?” she blinked at him in confusion.
Pete was tongue-tied. “The cat…” he sputtered “The cat got your tongue! He ate it! How can you talk?”
She looked at him sideways as she got to her feet.
“What cat? Are you feeling all right?” She looked around at her surroundings.
“I must have fallen asleep. I came here to pick mushrooms, just a second.” She walked over to the cave and returned with a basket full of mushrooms. “I ate a few because I was hungry. I must have fallen asleep. Come on, its dark, we need to be getting back to the village.” She walked away then paused when he didn’t immediately follow her.
“Are you coming?” she demanded, impatient to leave.
Pete nodded mutely and followed her out of the clearing. Perhaps he was the one who had lost a tongue he mused, befuddled by the events he had witnessed…or had it been a dream?
Green eyes followed their progress as they vanished into the woods.
English Idiom: ” ‘Cat got your tongue?’ is the shortened form of the query ‘Has the cat got your tongue?’ and it is the short form that is more often used. It is somewhat archaic now but was in common use until the 1960/70s. It was directed at anyone who was quiet when they were expected to speak, and often to children who were being suspiciously unobtrusive.”
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