The knife sunk deep into the orange flesh. Children’s laughter surrounded Tilly as he pulled it out and shoved it in again, this time to the hilt. Grunting, he yanked it out before stabbing one last time. A triangle shaped piece fell out.
Tilly picked it up, holding it to his eye. “Look! I popped his eye out!”
The other children laughed.
“Be careful with that knife or you’ll be popping your own eye out next,” Marfin warned his son. The others were already holding up jaggedly cut noses and mouths to their own faces and laughing.
Marfin shook his head. Children always found a way to entertain themselves, even in the darkest times.
Sheepishly, Tilly moved his knife away from his face. “How many pumpkin lanterns do we have to make?”
“All of them.” Marfin lifted the lid off his own pumpkin and scooped slimy seeds out.
The boy looked at the cartful of pumpkins. “Pa?”
“Is Father LaCearn really a warlock?”
Marfin looked around to see if any other children were listening before answering. Tilly had always been fond of the traveling priest who came through their village every three fortnights. “It’s not my place to say,” he finally answered and went back to work.
“Why are they going to hang him at the crossroads?” Tilly started carving a serrated smile.
“Because a warlock is dangerous—even after death. The crossroads will confuse his soul and stop him from finding the village again.”
“Why would he want to come back if we hung him?”
The boy worked in silent thought, ignoring the laughter of the other children. He finished another two pumpkins before he spoke up again. “What are the pumpkin lanterns for? We aren’t celebrating hanging Father LaCearn, are we?”
“No. They are to protect our souls. If he is a warlock, when he dies, he will lash out. The lanterns will confuse him. He won’t know which are real people and which are not.”
Tilly shoved his knife deep into another pumpkin. “What if he isn’t a warlock?”
Marfin didn’t answer.
“I don’t think Father LaCearn is a warlock,” Tilly mumbled.
Marfin sat the last of the pumpkin lanterns on the ground around the crossroads. Tilly and another boy were still several lanterns behind him, placing and lighting candles within the pumpkins.
It had taken all day to carve the hundreds of gourds and place them all around the gallows. Now the sun was touching down on the peaks of the mountains surrounding the valley and night was coming fast. The glowing eyes of the carved faces stood out against the lengthening shadows, and the chill of the evening was creeping into Marfin’s soul.
“Here they come!” one of the children cried.
Marfin looked to see the procession of torches coming from the village. The children hurried to light the last few lanterns.
Father LaCearn gripped the rough wooden bars of the rolling prison cell. His hands bled from splinters but he refused to sit in the bumpy cart and be tossed around like an animal. He had given up pleading to the villagers marching alongside. His voice was hoarse and raw to the point his words couldn’t be understood even had anyone chosen to listen.
He thought he’d resigned himself to his fate, but when the glowing faces of the pumpkin lanterns came into sight around the gallows, rage surged through him anew.
These peasants had no idea what they were doing. They didn’t know him or anything about him, and now they were going to not only deny him a good Christian burial, they were trying to damn his soul for all eternity by preventing it from finding its way to Heaven.
Who were they to decide his use of magic was evil? He was a man of God, not Satan. Surely his magic was the same. How could satanic powers have healed that little girl? Only the divine had the power to do such a thing. They should be praising him for miracles and declaring him a Saint.
Instead, children danced around his prison cell and taunted him.
As the cart stopped, he stumbled and smashed his face against the coarse beams. White pain flashed through his head and blood flowed freely from the abrasion.
Before he knew what was happening, rough hands grabbed him, pulling him out and dropping him into the dirt. Torchlight flickered all around and reflected off the blood dripping from his face into pools in the dust.
The Mayor called out words, but Father LaCearn couldn’t focus through the ringing in his ears. He knew they had to be a denouncement and a citing of the laws, but he was distracted by being dragged up the scaffolding and having a noose slipped around his neck.
Blood in his eyes obscured his vision and turned the pumpkin lanterns into a sea of demonic faces, grinning evilly at him, waiting for him to join them in hell.
One face, pale and lacking luminescence, pushed forward and caught his attention.
He knew the boy. Tilly.
“I’m sorry, Father. I thought you were a good man.”
“I am! I saved her life…” Father LaCearn tried to protest, but his ruined voice came out as only a harsh croak.
Men appeared from the crowd of glowing faces and whisked the boy away.
“No!” Father LaCearn tried to call them back. The boy was the only one who had talked to him, had believed in him…
Damn this village! Damn these people! He should have let that girl die. If he had it to do again, he would. In fact, he would destroy this whole village and damn their souls the way they were damning his.
“Damn you all!” he yelled from the top of the gallows. “God da—” The noose pulled tight around his neck as the platform beneath his feet vanished.
The gathered villagers gasped, and Marfin gripped Tilly’s shoulders as Father LaCearn’s body jerked at the end of the rope and, with a sickening pop, the head came off.
The body landed with a thud and the head rolled out of the torchlight to join the grinning lanterns.
In the flickering light, Marfin thought he saw the body move, twitching in death throws.
But then, it lifted itself to hands and knees and began crawling, searching in the direction the head had rolled. Children shrieked and ran. One tripped over the grimacing head, spinning it farther away. Another reflexively kicked a pumpkin at the searching horror.
Fumbling, the beheaded figure found the lantern and lifted it, jamming it down upon its headless shoulders.
Lurching to its feet, the unholy being surveyed the crossroads with flaming visage taking in fleeing villagers.
“Damn you all!” it roared, slashing out at anything it could reach. “Just as you have damned mine, I will damn all the souls of this village to Hell!”
Blazing eyes fell upon Tilly and it hesitated, trembling with rage.
“Run that way, boy,” it pointed to the east as it spoke. “Never look back. There is nothing for you here anymore.”
Marfin grabbed Tilly by the arm and they ran eastward.