The King's Inquisitor
The North Berwick Witch Trials
Tonya Ulynn Brown
The queen of Scotland is dead. Her almoner’s son, William Broune, has fulfilled his father’s wish that he should serve the king, James VI, at court. William finds himself caught between loyalty to the king or loyalty to his conscience. As William is forced to serve as the king’s inquisitor in the North Berwick witch trials, he must make a decision. Will he do what the king asks, and earn the wife, title, and prestige he has always desired, or will he let a bold Scottish lass influence him to follow his heart and do the right thing?
If William doesn’t make the right choice, he may be among the accused.
Trigger warnings: Some violent imagery.
Book Excerpt or Article
I made my way once more to the dreaded establishment. Ten more witches had been arrested, and I wanted a chance to question them before Seton got his hands on them any further. The morning was bitter, and I cursed having to leave the warmth of my bed. The biting wind, blowing in from the Firth of Forth, brought gusts of snow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the soft, fluffy snow, but tiny ice crystals that stung the face and threatened to burn one’s ears off. I pulled my collar tighter about me and kept my head down. But as I drew closer to the daunting structure of the tolbooth, a small figure wrapped from head to toe in a brown earasaid bent, shoving a tiny, wrapped parcel through a hole in the tolbooth wall.
“What in the name of all that is holy do you think you are doing?”
The woman jumped at the sound of my voice, but otherwise did not acknowledge me. She continued to shove the package through a crumbling hole in the wall. Passersby shuffled around her, clearly uninterested in the woman’s activities. However, grubby fingers reached from within and removed the package from her hand. I sprang into action.
Only a few strides were needed to be at her side. I grabbed the woman’s arm in annoyance, irritated that she chose to blatantly disregard me.
“Unhand me, ye beast.”
I stepped back abruptly. It was Ailsa. Her voice was low and passionate, and her eyes shown with a rebellious fire. I instantly released her and held my hands up, palms facing her. “My apologies. I meant no harm.”
“I will not be manhandled thusly. I am not your property, Master Broune, therefore ye cannot command me as ye will.”
“Even if you were my property, I shouldn’t have grabbed you. It was a reaction.”
Her right eyebrow shot up in irritation. “So, ye think a woman can be your property then?”
“I, no, of course not. That’s not what I meant at all.” She was twisting my words and that irritated me even more. I had apologized and had already shown this chit much more tolerance than what she deserved. I stepped closer to her. She would hear me.
“I just caught you scheming with the prisoners.” I jabbed a finger toward the hole in the wall.
“That is my business to command.” I stood so close to her now that I could see the faint hint of freckles scattered across her nose. They were charming, and I had to resist the urge to brush the pad of my thumb across her cheek to catch one or two of them. Her cheeks were rosy, more than likely from the fierce wind, and tiny ice crystals clung to her long dark lashes. Even her adorable button nose was red. She’d been out here for a while; I was sure of it.
“I am not scheming,” she whispered harshly, looking about her. “Is it a crime to show the compassion of Christ to these poor starving souls?” She reached into her basket again, pulling out another small bundle.
“It is when they are witches.”
She scoffed at that then turned her face on me fully. “Master Broune, I am disappointed. I thought ye a man that might be prevailed upon to do the right thing. Ye are the arm of justice for His Majesty, the King, and all power is in your hands to help these poor victims. They are accused, not convicted. Any advocate worth his salt would justly want to find the truth, not just believe tainted accusations from a sadist whose position has gone to his head. Perhaps that is your affliction as well?” She looked up at me then, all innocence.
I flinched at her words. I was not intoxicated with the power King James had bestowed upon me. And I certainly gained no pleasure from it. In fact, I loathed it. But she had no way of knowing that. If only I could make her see that I wasn’t the blackguard here.
A gaggle of children went bustling by, screeching at the top of their lungs as they clung to a wagon that pulled them along the High Street. The puddles of water on the road had frozen overnight and the children found great delight in slipping and sliding along behind the wagon as it pulled them across the icy road. Ailsa’s expression also showed smug delight in the noisy interruption of my lecture.
When the commotion had died down, I turned back to her. “I beg to differ, you, you—” I searched my mind for an appropriate way to address the little chit. She was mouthy, and opinionated, and all the things that a lady of the court was taught not to be. And I was fascinated with her.
“I think the words ye are looking for are, Mistress Blackburn.” There was that smirk again. I felt my body tense at its appearance.
“Listen, Mistress Blackburn,” I said, irritated. “I am not a sadist, and I’m certainly not on some kind of power-hungry rampage.”
“I was referring to Bailiff Seton.” She brushed her comment away with the wave of her hand.
Irritation pulsed through me at her comparison of me to David Seton. I straightened. “It just so happens that I prefer to seek justice for the accused, not swift punishment without a trial. But I also recognize that there must be no contact with outsiders while the prisoners are in our custody. What is in the package, Ailsa?”
“It’s a wedge of cheese and a small loaf of bread. These prisoners are starving.” She pulled the paper open to reveal the contents and shoved the fare toward me. “They are also exhausted and freezing. And the longer they are tortured, the more likely they are to say something, anything that will bring relief from their affliction. Ye would do well to find a different way to obtain the truth ye seek.”
“What do you suggest?” I truly was curious as to her opinion. She seemed to have a lot of them, surely there was something of use amongst the many.
She closed her eyes for a moment. “I don’t know,” she breathed, barely above a whisper. Her frosty breath rose above our heads and hung suspended as if it too awaited her suggestion. Opening her eyes to look at me again she said, “But if there is truth, there has to be some humane way to find it.”
I watched as a horde of emotions flickered across her face. Hurt, anger, hopelessness, and an emotion that made my blood run cold: defiance. I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
“If the accused truly had something to do with Queen Anne’s storms, do ye really think it was on their own volition? The devil goeth about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” she quoted the Holy Writ. “They are as much the victims as Her Majesty.”
“Are you sympathizing with the witches?” I stepped back, feeling as if she had slapped me.
She sighed and looked away from me. “Men like you will never understand.”
Raising her eyebrows, she looked at me with amusement. “You are so cut and dry. Black and white. Right or wrong.” She cut her hand through the frozen air, chopping at nothing as she tried to make her point. “Will you never understand that some things just aren’t that easily explained?”
“You speak as if you know me, Ailsa.” I closed the gap between us again, but she took a step back. I wasn’t sure if it was the use of her given name that alarmed her, or my closeness, but if we were going to speak as if we knew each other, then I would address her as such.
Puffs of warm air escaped her parted lips, curling into tiny spirals that dissipated into the air. “Ye mean to intimidate me.”
“Not at all.” I studied her, noticing her shoulders rising and falling more rapidly and the puffs of air increasing as she took quicker breaths.
“Then why do ye stand so close to me? And why do ye call me by my given name? I gave ye no such permission.”
“I stand close because I do not wish our conversation to be heard by every wagging tongue that passes by.” Then, allowing a smile to spread across my face, I said, “And I use your given name because you presume to know me so well. I thought perhaps we were on more familiar terms than I had previously realized.”
Balling her hands into fists, she let out a short grunt that sounded a mixture of clearing her throat and huffing, similar to my mare, Cleopatra. Pulling her earasaid tighter about her face, she said, “I have nothing more to say to ye, Master Broune. Good day.”
I fought the urge to let out the laugh that I held inside. I enjoyed teasing this woman, for her reactions were so tantalizing. But the seriousness of our conversation soon resurfaced, and I was left to ponder what she had said. Will you never understand that some things just aren’t that easily explained? She was right about one thing: I saw only the black or white, right or wrong. Evidently another quality I inherited from my devout father. And I served a king who ruled in the same manner. Even if I had the ability to see the gray areas, how could I convince James of such? No matter. I didn’t see the gray. I was committed to justice, but that could only be obtained by finding the truth. And I was determined to do just that.
Tonya Ulynn Brown is an elementary school teacher. She holds a Master’s degree in Teaching and uses her love of history and reading to encourage the same love in her students. Tonya finds inspiration in the historical figures she has studied and in the places she has traveled. Her interest in medieval and early modern British history influences her writing. She resides in rural southeastern Ohio, USA with her husband, Stephen, two boys, Garren and Gabriel, and a very naughty Springer Spaniel.