“It was me,” Asa said. He stood beside his father.
“Asa, no,” Owain whispered.
“It’s ok, dad. I can’t let you die for my actions.” Asa turned towards the missionaries and to the crowd.
“I killed Dauphin Robicheaux.” He held up his hand, exposing the irritated cut on his palm. The crowd gasped and whispered. “It was my magic that ended his life, not my father’s.”
Solomon pursed his lips. The innkeeper cast his gaze downward.
“Your honesty is commendable, young man. What is your name?”
Esther stepped behind Asa.
“Don’t listen to him,” she whispered.
“My name is Asa.”
“Asa. A fine name. Tell me something Asa, do you believe in the power of the Lord?”
Asa was silent.
“You see, the Lord forgives. I believe it was him who spoke to your spirit and guided you to confessing today. You’re a young man, and so I think it would be a tragedy for your life to end. But, everyone must answer for their sins. Perhaps we may come to a compromise.”
Asa didn’t know whether he’d throw up or faint. The missionaries turned towards each other and it was as though they were having some silent conversation. After several minutes the second missionary climbed on his horse and rode away.
Solomon turned to Asa and smiled, once again looking like a skeleton.
“You have two choices, Asa Manning. It seems we are in need of a Witchfinder. You’re abilities would make you a uniquely qualified individual, I’m sure. You’d work for the church, and you’d never have to worry about money or lodging. If you accept, you’ll be taken to Gattenhouse, where you’ll receive the best training and education.”
“And if I refuse?”
Solomon chuckled. “My dear boy, then you’ll be the youngest person to hang from the Limb.”
All eyes were on him. Never have to worry about money, he said. Education, he said. Asa had grown up knowing what growing up in Felice meant. It meant he was destined for a life working at the inn, or as a blacksmith, or as a farmer, like his father. Could this be his chance to have a different life? A better life?
“Okay,” Asa said. “I’ll do it.”
There were boos and cheers from the crowd. That smile again from the missionary, only this time Asa was sure it was the most malevolent thing he’d seen. He gestured for Asa to approach him.
“No,” Owain growled. “No, you’re not taking my boy.”
“Asa made his choice, Owain. You’d best let him through.”
The second missionary returned, and across his lap lay a pistol. Asa’s breath hitched.
“What’s that for?” Asa asked, as the second missionary strode towards them. He held the pistol in both hands, and when he was close enough to Asa, he held it out as an offering.
“Well, it’s for your first find. You’re now under the church’s employ. Your first order of business is this: you must kill your father or your sister.”
“You’ve chosen to live. The purpose of a Witchfinder is to find and kill witches and other magics. You have found them, and now you must decide who will be the next Manning to be buried.”
Asa’s world stood still. The crowd whispered and shouted. They called him a heathen and a murderer. He was only fourteen, but was about to make his third life-changing decision that night. He looked back at his house, where his father and sister stood.
The second missionary turned Asa around and placed the gun in his hands.
“You’ve been chosen by God, son. Make the right choice.”
Asa took a step towards his father. Owain’s eyes were glassy. His sister sobbed.
“I don’t want to do this,” Asa’s voice trembled. Owain stepped towards him. He placed one hand on Asa’s shoulder. A tear fell down his left cheek.
“It’s ok, son. It’s ok.” He gripped the gun and lifted it from Asa’s hand. “I love you.”
Before Asa could reply, Owain lifted the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. The sound rang through Asa’s ears. His father’s body fell to the ground with a thud; blood pooled from the wound.
Asa fell to his knees. His sister wailed and ran towards their father’s body, but was caught by the blacksmith.
“I think we need to make an example of this one, too.”
He gripped Esther by her hair and shoved her against the wall of the house.
“No! No!” Asa shouted. He moved the innkeeper with his mind, flinging him against the fence. Esther ran inside the house and locked the door behind her.
Asa wailed as he felt a burning on the side of his neck. He doubled over and brought a hand to the wound. He’d been branded. His skin bubbled and steamed.
“You are forbidden from using your magic on any non-magic person. This brand will let everyone who meets you know exactly what you are,” said Solomon.
Asa looked up at him. Solomon held the brand out as though he might use it again.
“Now, I do believe this young lady has an appointment at the Limb.”
Asa sprang up. “Wait, wait! That’s not fair; you said only one of them had to die.”
Solomon turned back to Asa again.
“I said you needed to kill one of them. Since your father took his own life, your sister’s is fair game. Thank you, Witchfinder, for your service. Bury your father and report to the church in the morning.”
The missionaries and the crowd busted down his door. Seconds later he heard his sister’s terrified cries. Solomon pulled Esther out of the house by her hair and tossed her on the back of his horse. Her wails echoed through the night as the crowd lead her to the Limb. Asa knelt down over his father and sobbed.