Hepzibah Kemp did, in fact, prove to be quite the miracle child. Joan, a natural healer and herbalist, learnt the skills of her trade, over many years, from her own mother. Hep, as she becomes known, soon far surpasses Joan’s knowledge, able to read and write with little tuition by the age of five.
One day, when she is twelve, the parson comes calling complaining of the gout. Nothing Joan tries seems to cured it, but Hep has some thoughts.
‘What you need, parson, is an anti-inflammatory,’ she suggests, ‘it will not be cheap, because it comes from the East Indies, but I would suggest the Turmeric plant. You can use the root in cooking. It has a warm bitter taste, like black pepper.’
The parson is astounded, ‘How do you know of such things?’
‘Marco Polo described the spice and it’s medicinal use,’ replies Hep, ‘so I asked some of the sailors on trading ships that dock if they obtain some for me to experiment with. It seems to quite efficacious.’
The remedy works, and the parson is so grateful he decides to give her the run of his library.
On the day of her thirteenth birthday, Joan and Clem prepare a special feast for the girl, pasties followed by saffron buns. As they work, they discuss the marvel of the girl they have been blessed with.
‘She in the parson’s library again?’ asks Clem.
‘Aye,’ replies Joan. ‘He says she has a voracious appetite for learning. He’s mightily impressed. He says she has the measure of Greek and Latin already.’
‘Greek and Latin, is it? With only a year’s learning?’ Her head’s always in books now, ain’t it?’
‘And look how well it serves her, Clem. She’s that bright, she knows that much more than me already. I don’t know where it comes from, for it’s not us. Perhaps it’s her real family, whoever they were. Maybe she was highborn, or from faerie folk.’
‘Should we tell her? That we found her? That she’s our flesh and blood? Not our daughter?’
‘No, she dotes on us, t’would cause her grief to think she were abandoned.’
‘Aye, maybe it’s for best,’ Clem sighs, ‘Difficult enough for her to fit in round these parts with her strange ways. Tis’ beyond me, these ideas of hers.’
Joan nods, and looks concerned, ‘Tis’ beyond us all. That’s what worries me. It may be more of a curse than a blessing. What will happen to her when we’re gone? When we’re no longer here to protect her?’
‘She talks of meaningless things to me. Ecktrickery? Magneticals? Some strange forces I have never head of. All manner of subjects I know the villagers believe to be the providence of God alone.’
‘You fear that they might turn against her?’
‘Have we not had to be careful in our own dealings with the villagers? Accusations of witchcraft abound. The people turn against anything they do not understand. You know that. That’s why we’ve always made sure to be regular visitors to church, and to bless God for my healing hands.’
‘She is a clever child, I’m sure she will know not to arouse suspicion.’
‘Clever, true, but is she wise? There is something unworldly about her. She holds no mortal fears for how her ways might be seen.’
The couple exchange a look and fall silent as Hep runs into the cottage.
‘Mama, Papa, is this all for me?’ she cries.
‘Aye, a special treat for Samhain,’ replies Joan, ‘and your birthday.’
‘May I write in the Grimoire first?’
‘If you must.’
‘I need to do it now, whilst I remember the thoughts I had on the way home.’
Hep takes a huge book, the Grimoire, from its special shelf. A collection of herbal remedies and magical lore passed down over the years from mother to child.
She scribbles in the blank pages, after the many recipes.
‘What are those strange marks you make?’ asks Clem.
‘Euclidean geometry,’ Hep replies.
Baffled, Clem looks quizzically at Joan. ‘Don’t ask me what that be,’ she says, ‘for I have no idea.’
‘It’s an axiomatic system,’ says Hep, ‘in which all theorems are derived from a small number of simple axioms.’
‘Listen, my dear,’ murmurs Joan. ‘You’re only thirteen years old! You do not realise that there’s plenty out there who would harm you, for the things you say. The healing I do, the spells, the necromancy, are all in the service of good. But the old rites are frowned upon by the church. Seen as heresy. They think the same of the magic you talk of; the earth revolving around the sun, of invisible particles in motion. They consider it blasphemy.’
Although having grown up surrounded by superstition, Hep believes in rational thought. ‘Magic? The Church?’ she scoffs, ‘I have read of a new device, invented by Galileo. It’s called a microscope. Through it you can see the smallest objects. If you want to know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, that is where you should look for the answer. Not by praying, or chanting incantations.’
‘You must understand, the simple matter of if it,’ sighs Joan. ‘The villagers will be fearful of a girl who uses strange words.’
‘Well, they are silly, then. And I am no longer a girl. Today I bled and so am a woman, and I intend to make my mark on this world.’
You men of Britain wherefore gaze you so,
Upon an angry star? When as you know
The Sun must turn to dark, the Moon to blood,
And then t’will be too late to turn to good.
O be so happy then whilst time doth last,
As to remember Doomsday is not past:
And misinterpret not with vain conceit
The character you see of Heaven’s height:
Which though it bring the World some news from fate,
The letter is such as none can it translate:
And for to guess at God Almighty mind
Were such a thing might deceive all mankind:
Therefore I wish the curious man to keep
His rash imaginations till he sleep…
King James, having finished his oratory, leans back, declaring, ‘A poem o’ ma own devising. On that angry star that obsesses ye, an’ sae many others.’
A sharp-faced tall man, cloaked in black, kneels before him. A man who died many years ago. ‘And a finer example of the poetic arts I could not imagine, your Majesty,’ he states.
The diamonds of his rings catch the light, as the King wags an admonishing finger at the supplicant.
‘Fraser Campbell, a fellow Scot, you should know better than tae try tae flatter me. It wis no’ written for fancy, it wis meant tae convey a warning. Doomsayers an’ pessimists from Scotland tae Sicily claim tae have witnessed portents an’ prodigies in its fiery tail. For aw we know it was nothin’ else but Venus wi’ a firebrand up her arse!’
‘Your Majesty, as always, your skepticism is well placed. For if the comet was a heavenly sign, would its meaning not remain unintelligible to mere mortals?’
James tut-tuts testily. ‘Exactly. It is ma belief that any attempt tae interpret or predict God’s actions i’ this way is at best misguided, at worst dangerous. Sae why seek for an audience wi’ yer king tae discuss this matter?’
‘Only, as the most humble of your subjects, to beseech your wisdom regarding a theory I have, your Majesty.’
‘Eh?’ The King raises an eyebrow. ‘A theory, ye say?’
‘Yes. For what if it was not a heavenly sign? What if its appearance was not an action of God? For, did this apparition in the skies not have an extremely long tail of a reddish hue?’
‘Satan!’ exclaims James.
‘Yes, the devil himself, I believe, your Majesty,’ replies Fraser, ‘with forked tail, come to earth, to reek his will. That is why I felt I must consult with you.’
‘That wis wise o’ ye. ’Twas oan Satan’s command that witches raised a storm tae destroy mah freish bride ‘n’ ah as we crossed th’ sea fae Denmark.’
‘Indeed, your Majesty. And were you not appointed by God to lead a crusade against the dark one, and the scourge of witchcraft that infests your kingdom? Have you not written the foremost volume upon this subject?’
‘M’mm. Whit ye say may have some validity.’ James feels deep into his bejewelled and much-padded doublet. He draws out a small leather-bound book.
‘My Daemonologie,’ he murmurs, leafing through the pages. ‘Magic, necromancy, witchcraft, sorcery. Spirits an’ spectres. ‘A have provit the existence o’ such forces an’ detailed the trial, an’ punishment, these practices merit – i’ ma view, death.’
‘Yes, your Majesty, but perhaps it might be wise to interrogate them first? For their knowledge of Satan’s plan?’
‘Aye, but whit makes ye sae sure thon devil came tae earth on this angry star?’
‘Has there not been a notable onset and increase of reports of witches? Have there not been numerable threats to your Majesty himself?’
The King looks fearful. The reason he cuts the large figure he appears, is because he fills his doublet with padding, as a protection against assassins with knives. The thought of an attempt on his life constantly haunts him. He knows that his clothing will be no defence against the dark arts.
‘Guido Fawkes threatened ma life wi’ gunpowder. Ye believe thon supernatural forces could be an e’en greater threat?’
‘I fear so, your Majesty.’
James’s mournful, shining eyes stare at Fraser. ‘So, whit action wad ye suggest A take tae counter this attack on ma kingdom, bah Lucifer hisself?’
‘This Resurrection of the Antichrist?’ replies Fraser. He pretends to take a moment to think, as if he has not been leading up to this advice from the very beginning, ‘Might I suggest the solution relies upon a powerful organisation of Government, to seek out and purify the country from every manifestation of his witchcraft? An Office of Resurrection.’
‘As our Lord is was resurrected, so we will resurrect the true faith, and banish heresies.’
‘And ye wad be its leader?’
‘Majesty, I am your most devoted subject,’ the thin man declares, ‘anxious ever to serve you in deed as in word.’
The King eyes the thin man thoughtfully. ‘Aye, deeds speak louder than words. Fraser Campbell, henceforth ye will be known as Witchfinder General. Serve me well, for we’ll no’ be safe until the angels o’ darkness, the servants o’ Beelzebub, have been vanquishit.’
The Witchfinder, bows low.
‘Go aboot yer business, then. Ye will be given aw the support yer enterprise requires.’
Well content, the monarch beams on all the courtiers gathered around.
A slow smile spreads across the Witchfinder’s face.