THE TITHING PROLOGUE
The hanging tree is barely visible through the mist that’s settled heavily across the land. The sun is a line on the horizon. A man crosses the field. He draws his cloak closer against the morning’s chill, his careless steps crushing the frozen ground beneath his boots.
His eyes catch mine, and he grins.
Isaiah Delacroix. The first Penitent.
He wears my face, but there’s something wrong with it. Something I can’t put my finger on.
My vision blurs and I feel myself tugged, as if hooked like a fish. My head feels as though it’s cracking open, being divided in two parts. The pain is agonizing, but it will pass. The worst is yet to come. I know.
And in the next instant, it comes. Oh, how it comes. Always the same, yet always a shock.
Because I am him. I am Isaiah Delacroix.
I see through his eyes. I think his thoughts. I feel every evil thing he feels.
“The Tithing time has come,” he says.
His words terrify me, but I am trapped and mute, a prisoner to this man whose face I have inherited. I look down at the clothes I’m wearing. I don’t recognize them. But the hands, they’re mine. The ring on my finger? It’s Isaiah’s. The ring of The Penitent.
I shove my hands into my pockets so I don’t have to see it. There’s something in one of them, though, something soft and wet.
“Duty, boy,” he says, and I turn to him because his voice is my own.
That head-splitting pain comes again. The scene before me flickers, blurring momentarily as I break free of the tether binding me to him. But I’m powerless to flee, my feet rooted to the spot. We are two men with identical faces standing alongside Proctor’s Ledge.
Except my thoughts are not my own. They’re still his.
We stand apart from the people of Salem who have all turned out in their Sunday best. They wouldn’t miss the execution of the Wildblood witch. They’re a bloodthirsty bunch. I find I hate them as much as he does. It’s the one thing we have in common apart from our last name. Mothers and fathers point out heavy branches, their children making a game out of guessing which one they’ll string her up to.
“I have my money on the highest branch, although it wouldn’t be a fair bet, seeing as how I paid for it,” Isaiah says with a laugh.
He, too, wants to see her hang. He’s hard at the thought of it. He wants to see her fear as they tighten the noose around her neck and when they pull the cart out from under her, he wants her eyes on him. Isaiah will watch her twist and turn in agony and terror as her life is stolen from her. He has bought and paid for these, her final moments. They will be his morbid keepsake. Because he has won and she has lost and she will finally know it.
Except it hasn’t gone quite the way he wanted.
Exhausted, I hear my own ragged breath and feel the bite of this freezing morning with each inhale as if this were real. As if I were truly standing here, on this ledge upon this condemned land watching an execution that took place centuries ago.
The crowd quiets at the sound of horse’s hooves approaching, signaling the arrival of the wagon carrying the accused.
Anticipation builds in them.
Anticipation of something wicked to come.
I watch, riveted, as an unearthly silence settles around us. No one dares to breathe as the carriage cuts a line through the center of the dirt road. People making way, crossing themselves as she passes. A child howls and buries her face in her mother’s neck.
She’s right to be afraid. After all, her mommy could be next if she isn’t careful.
The mist clears unnaturally, as if obeying some command. The wagon slows, and my gaze falls on the condemned woman. I know exactly who she is. The Wildbloods and the Delacroixs have a long history.
This is Elizabeth Wildblood.
She is the first of their line to be sacrificed, the first witch to be hanged.
Beautiful. Even in the filthy remnants of her rags, her finery long taken from her. A mass of the loveliest, reddest hair—a sign of the devil—tumbles thick and long down her back, over a pale, bare shoulder where her dress is torn.
She’s thrown off balance when the wagon halts, and an onlooker catches her instinctively to save her from falling. I notice how Isaiah’s hands fist at the gesture—or maybe it’s seeing the man’s hands on her. When she is righted, I see that the hair behind her right ear has been hacked off at the scalp, the skin still bloody, as if someone’s crudely taken a lock of it.
The man senses his mistake in touching the witch. He snatches his hand away as if he touched fire. The crowd gasps, each person frantically making the sign of the cross.
But all else falls away when, as her sentence is read aloud, she turns that bewitching gaze toward Isaiah and me and I realize I stand alone. Isaiah has vanished. Or maybe he was never here at all. Maybe it was me all along.
Her gaze makes my heart stop beating. It sends a shiver so cold along my spine that I wonder if it’s all true. If she is a witch after all. If there is such a thing.
The wagon is moving again, the horse carrying the doomed woman up the hill to the hanging tree.
I swallow down bile, my jaw tense, teeth so tightly clenched my face hurts. I watch her, the crowd hurling accusations, condemnations. It’s all background noise to me.
Our locked gaze is broken when two men mount the carriage, and I am relieved. They take her bound arms and move her toward the readied noose. She struggles.
It’s the first time she betrays her fear, and there is an evil inside me that relishes the sight. It shames me. Maybe I’m no different than Isaiah Delacroix. No less evil. I am, after all, of the bloodline, a direct descendent. The next Penitent.
They turn her so she is facing me again. This is what Isaiah’s money has bought.
Her eyes lock on mine once more. Eyes I know. They belong to another Wildblood. One not for this time. One who will be sacrificed to me.
When they fasten the noose around Elizabeth’s neck, I feel the rope scrape roughly against my own. My throat closes up as they tighten it.
Always in this nightmare, this time is ours. Her witch’s gaze never leaves mine. This is our shared moment. It’s seconds away, her execution, and it’s then that her lips begin to move, subtly at first.
So subtly I’m the only one to see it.
To feel it.
An angry wind icier than the morning air howls in the distance, and the line of the sun darkens, a storm cloud appearing out of nowhere to obscure it.
A woman screams. Another follows. Cries from the crowd quickly grow into a full panic as Elizabeth Wildblood’s lips move faster, speaking her silent words. She casts her spell, her curse, as thunder rumbles in the distance, lightning splitting the now near-black sky.
Screams to hang the witch abound. Our eyes remain locked even as the men hurry to jump from the carriage, to flee the witch in their panic.
I know the driver wants to crack his whip over the back of his horse and get away from her as fast as he can, but there’s money in it for him if he goes slowly. If her neck snaps, he only gets a third of it. It’s a mercy Isaiah would not allow her. She will hang. She will feel the rope tighten around her neck, feel it bite into that delicate, alabaster flesh and slowly, ever so slowly, strangle her.
Some darkness inside of me is jealous of that rope, and I know Isaiah hasn’t fully left me. He’s inside my head, his vile thoughts contaminating mine.
The horse neighs. The animal wants to be away, and in the next instant, the wagon is gone from under her, and she drops. The branch creaks even with her slight weight. But her lips are still moving, and her eyes are still on mine, and I pull my hands out of my pockets because I can’t breathe.
But when I see what it was in Isaiah’s—my—pocket, a wave of nausea has me stumbling. I open my hand and watch those wisps of the reddest hair fly into the wind, some sticking to my palm with her wet blood.
The noose is tighter now and I’m choking. I’m fucking choking. Even though she is the one at the end of that rope, it is I who cannot breathe.
Blood vessels burst in Elizabeth’s eyes. It’s the last thing I see before she stops her twisting, her turning, a stream of urine running down her legs, over her bare feet and into the ground. She swings there in that icy morning, her eyes open, locked on me in death. Accusing me. Cursing me.
My own throat is raw as the dark cloud vanishes back to the hell it came from, and there’s one final shift in the scene, this nightmare of mine. One new aspect I haven’t seen before.
The woman hanging from the rope, it’s no longer Elizabeth. This woman is not yet dead. Her eyes accuse me just as those of her ancestor did only moments earlier.
And I hear Isaiah Delacroix’s voice again telling me it’s time, boy.
The Tithing time.
Time for the next Wildblood witch to be sacrificed.