Hubert opened the mansion door to a decidedly shifty-looking bunch of men carrying hatchets, fronted by an imposing character dressed somewhere between a buccaneer and a church minister.
"Silas Warnes, witchfinder," the stranger declared, tossing his ringletted head. One hand gripped the hilt of a sword, the other rested on the butt of a horse pistol hanging from an improvised sling over his shoulder, so that it lay against his hip, the tip of the long barrel just brushing his knee.
"No, never heard of him. Sorry!" Hubert tried to shut the door but the man pushed it back open.
"I am Silas Warnes, you ninny. Silas Warnes, witchfinder."
"You're the witchfinder?" Hubert asked, eyes narrowed.
"I'm a witchfinder," Silas said, nodding.
"But I thought-"
"I'm not having this conversation again, and certainly not with you, bumpkin," Silas said, clearly irritated. "Witchfindery is open to whoever God calls to the profession, it's not an exclusive thing." Behind him, his men shrugged their shoulders and rolled their eyes at Hubert, having heard it all many times before.
"The last fellow never said that," Hubert said. "He was very particular. THE witchfinder this, and THE witchfinder that. He never suggested there was more than one." Silas' hands tightened their grip on sword and pistol. "What a pleasant surprise to discover we are blessed by another," Hubert added hastily.
Silas growled at the man by his side. "Prepare the bonfire, Nicola. I want it tall as a house."
"Sire!" the man replied, before he and his comrades departed, waving their hatchets.
Silas pushed past Hubert into the mansion. "Tell your master, the magistrate, that I would have words with him. At once!"
"Nicola?" Hubert said, scratching the side of his head.
Hubert knocked lightly on the study door.
"Is someone there?" came the voice from within.
Hubert knocked again.
"Knock once for aye. Twice for nay."
Hubert scratched his head, having already forgotten the question.
"Answer me, spirits of the door. Is there anybody out there?"
Hubert cracked the door open and peeked his head inside. "Was it one knock or two for aye, Sir Bromley?"
"One," Sir Bromley said, from behind his crowded desk. Hubert looked at him plaintively for a moment, but the magistrate made a shooing gesture. Hubert sighed and closed the door.
He knocked once.
"Tell me, oh spirits of the door, tell me-"
Hubert opened the door again. "I hate to impose on your majesty, but we've got a situation kicking off downstairs."
Sir Bromley looked crest-fallen. "Oh, what is it then?"
"There's only a witchfinder turned up. He's stomping around the hall, looking most ill-tempered, and he's touching things and tutting something awful."
"A witchfinder? Not THE witchfinder?" Sir Bromley's brow wrinkled in confusion.
Hubert frantically waved his hands in the air. "Don't get him started on that, boss. It's not worth the aggravation!"
Sir Bromley led the way back downstairs, puffing out his chest as he confronted his unexpected guest.
"Sir Bromley," Hubert said. "Allow me to present Master Silas Warnes. A witchfinder. A..." He let his voice trail off.
"Sir Brody Bromley!" Silas exclaimed. He bowed stiffly at the waist. "A pleasure, sir. I have heard nothing but good things about ye."
"I have certainly heard nothing bad about your own self," Sir Bromley replied, dipping his head. "Now tell me, what's the purpose of your visit?"
"Witches, Sir Bromley," Silas hissed. "I have come to offer my services to you, in the matter of their detection, interrogation and elimination. All for a most reasonable fee."
Sir Bromley threw his hands up and sighed. "But we've already been done. The last fellow gave us a clean bill of health."
Silas leaned in, his face twisted into a tight grimace. "I can assure you, magistrate, I WILL find you a witch. I come highly recommended. The King himself has praised my services."
"The King, you say?" Sir Bromley grinned. "Tell you what, fellow, I will offer you a sound piece of advice in restitution for your, ahem, services. Then you will finish with your business here and be on your way."
"Advice? I am commonly offered-"
"Advice, yes, and more valuable than coin, sir."
Silas regarded Sir Bromley. The magistrate had the air of a man who was most singularly assured. Was that Silas Warnes a gaming man, he was certain it would be time to fold his hand.
"I am, of course, grateful for what little God sees fit to put my way, Sir Bromley. Speak as you will."
"Only this. I wouldn't be drawing on the King's reflection to throw light on your own endeavours. I have been assured - I can not reveal my source - that Cromwell is sure to prevail in the present altercation. Look here!" Sir Bromley flicked his recently-bobbed hair. "Why do you suppose I have adopted this ludicrous haircut? What sort of gentleman would be seen with such a preposterous lack of locks otherwise? I've had my hair clipped, to save my neck from a more serious clipping, and I suggest that you do the same, sir. Those roundheads will not tolerate long hair."
"Cromwell? Really?" Silas stroked his chin, staring at the floor. "That is most interesting, Sir Bromley. Most interesting indeed..."
"Hubert, arrange for the scullery maid to style Master Warnes' hair. I must withdraw upstairs. I expect I have important things to attend to. If you feel the need of my attention, you know what to do."
"Knock once for aye?" Hubert ventured.
"No, you silly man, deal with it yourself."
"Please Molly, you must! The master said so." Hubert wrung his hands, flicking his eyes at once from the cracked plaster walls of the larder or the packed earth floor to the pretty scullery maid's face, and away again. He could not, dared not, look at her directly over long. He imagined his head would explode. As it was his stomach churned just to be talking to her.
"Are you crazed, Hubert?" Molly shrieked. "Do you know what he will do with me? Have you no sense, no consideration... consideration for my welfare?"
"Of course I have. I would die for you." Hubert gulped. "I mean, I... I..."
"He's a witchfinder, Hubert!" Molly grabbed his jacket, her face so close to him. "He'll take one look at me and... do you know what he'll do?" She fell against him, sobbing. He waved an arm near her back, wishing he had the nerve to hold her.
"You don't have to do it, Molly," Hubert said. "I do not know what, but concern yourself no further. I will find another way."
Molly beamed a glorious smile at him. "Truly? Oh, Hubert!" She hugged him tightly.
"I'll fetch someone from the village," Hubert said.
"No!" Molly said. "There's no time. You must cut his hair yourself."
Hubert stifled a laugh. "Me? Oh Molly, you jest."
Molly slapped his face. "That man is a monster. Is that a joke to you?"
Hubert scratched his head with one hand, while he smoothed his cheek with the other. "Don't be angry with me. If you tell me what to do, I will do my best."
She pushed a hairbrush and a pair of shears into Hubert's hands. "Here, take these. They are all you will need."
Hubert looked at he tools as if he had never seen their like before.
Molly sighed. "Simply put, brush his hair out and then cut it to a length which suits his purpose. Please, Hubert, it really is a very easy thing." She put her hands over his hands, bunched around the items as they were.
Hubert dared to hold her gaze for some part of a second. "Molly, I will do it. For you."
He made to exit the larder, but Molly caught his arm.
"Wait!" she said. She pulled a ragged old sheet from under some shelves and shook it out. It was nearly black with grime. "Put this over his clothes to catch the clipped hair. The master will not tolerate a hairy house."
Sheet in hand, Hubert entered the kitchen, where Silas was already seated by a table.
"Where's the scullery maid?" the witchfinder barked.
"Dead, sir," Hubert said at once.
"Dead?" Silas fixed Hubert with a beady eye. "Then why did your master recommend her?"
"I'm afraid Sir Bromley has not yet let the death sink in. The old girl was most popular."
"Old?" Silas sneered. "I've no time for old maids. Never any problems there. It's the young gals that dabble most in the witching arts." He leered. "Lucky thing too."
Hubert hung the sheet about Silas' throat, pulling it so tight the witchfinder coughed and dragged it off his neck a fraction of an inch with his hand. "What are you doing, you idiot?" he demanded.
"I'm preparing to cut your hair, sir," Hubert said, his face blank.
"Oh, take care then. I shan't be man-handled."
Hubert looked first at the shears, then at the hairbrush.
"Don't tarry!" Silas snapped. "Get on with it."
Hubert set the shears on the table and tried to run his hands through Silas' hair. The tight ringlets harboured knots that caught on his fingers. Silas grunted as Hubert tugged at his tresses.
Tentatively, Hubert attempted to drag the hairbrush through Silas' hair. It was hopeless. He swiftly retreated to the larder to consult with Molly.
"Oh Molly!" he cried. "I am doomed."
Molly slapped him, then as she held his shoulders, demanded, "What is the matter? Tell me the problem, and we will solve it!"
"I can't brush his hair out! Can't I just cut it?"
"No," Molly said. "It won't be even when you're done. Here take this." She handed him a pot of bacon grease. "Rub it in his hair and it should be easier to brush."
Hubert looked at it sceptically. "Are you sure?"
"Please, Hubert, just do it. Do it for me."
"I will!" Hubert declared.
He went back into the kitchen and began to knead the bacon grease into Silas' hair.
For his part, Silas lay back in the chair and sighed contentedly.
But when it came time to use the hairbrush, Hubert found there was little difference.
"Stop hauling on my scalp like it's a blessed fish on a hook, you devil," Silas exclaimed. "I want a haircut, not a neck injury."
Hubert slipped back to the larder.
"It's all going wrong, and I don't know what to do," he said, scratching his head.
Molly slapped him hard on the side of his face. He snorted, tumbling backwards a little way. Molly began to blub, rubbing at her eyes. "What did you mean?" she gasped "When you said you'd die for me?"
"I didn't think you heard that," Hubert said, puzzled, his battered face forgotten. "You never said anything."
"I heard," Molly replied, "but I wanted to think on it. I thought a lot about it."
"Oh. What did you think?" Hubert asked.
"I told you, silly." Molly smiled, face brightening up. "I thought much of it..."
"Oh Molly, what am I to do?" Hubert asked. "His hair is so tangled, and he is getting ever so angry with me."
Molly rubbed her temples, forcing out her thoughts. "You need to pamper him, so he won't notice. Here, use this."
Hubert looked at the pot she had handed him from the shelf. "Ain't that gooseberry jam?"
"No, it's gooseberry face cream. Plaster that on his boat race and he'll just giggle and coo while you're cutting his hair. Trust me!"
"Oh, Molly, I do," Hubert said, the words a breathy vow.
Silas regarded Hubert as he emerged from he larder.
"Why do you keep dodging in there, churl?" Silas asked, his tone an accusation.
"I wanted to fetch the master's best face tonic," Hubert said, waving the pot as evidence.
"A face tonic?"
"It will melt away the years, making you look ever so youthful." Hubert smiled awkwardly.
"Oh, in that case..." Silas relaxed back in the chair, his eyes tight-closed.
Hubert cautiously smeared the mix across the witch finder's face. When he had done with the pot, he took the hairbrush up in his gooseberried hand and attempted to brush the witchfinder's hair. The tight ringlets were like an impenetrable barrier to the brush. At each attempt Hubert winced, while Silas grunted or moaned.
Hubert was soon back in the larder.
"I can't brush out his hair, it is a task beyond my abilities."
"Take this," Molly said, handing him a battered old hat. "Just stick that on his head, pull it down as far as you can, and cut around it. It will be a shoddy excuse for a haircut but... but... oh, Hubert, you exasperate me."
"Oh Molly, I'm so very sorry," Hubert said. "But most of the time I simply do not know what to do." He scratched at his head, feverishly.
Molly slapped him soundly on the cheek. "Why do you keep scratching your head?" she demanded.
"I sleep in a stable, amidst a pile of dogs," Hubert whined. "Is it any wonder I have fleas?"
She cupped his face in her little hands, then slapped him hard again. "You poor, sweet, lovely man." She slapped him once more.
"Why do you keep hurting me?" Hubert clutched his throbbing face.
Molly pulled aside his hands and stroked his cheeks, pulling his face a smidgen closer to her own. "I don't know, Hubert. I just don't know, but I think if I stopped hitting you... well... I wouldn't know WHAT might happen next."
"Hold that thought," Hubert cried. "I've a hair cut to dispense with, then we must discuss this further."
Hubert re-entered the kitchen. He looked aghast at Silas Warnes, whose gooseberry-smeared face was now crawling with wasps, all unbeknownst to the witchfinder. "Oh Lord," Hubert whispered. "Oh Lord, preserve me."
"Come now, boy," Silas shouted, bouncing wasps on his lip. "Finish the damn job before my hair is not only unfashionable, but grey."
Hubert took the hat and pulled it down on Silas' head, glaring at the ecstatic wasps the while. He clicked the shears experimentally.
It was at that particular moment that a particular wasp entered Silas Warnes' mouth.
Silas did not, particularly, care for it.
"Gah!" he exclaimed as the wasp, in a final act, stung his tongue. The witchfinder's eyes bulged and his face turned purple with pain and rage.
Hubert dropped the shears. He glanced at the larder, hoping that Molly would be there to tell him what to do. The door was ajar, but she was not to be seen.
Silas had risen from his chair and was clutching at his belts for a weapon, but he had left both sword and pistol in the hall, in deference to his host. He lunged for Hubert. "Ooh ehh ahhh uhhh ehh," Silas swore, over a thickening tongue.
Heart-sinking, Hubert dashed out the back door. Silas was in hot pursuit, but not before grabbing the first heavy object that came to hand with which to beat on Hubert.
Outside, Hubert was at once struck by the bonfire that had been erected while he was engaged inside, and which was now ablaze. Secondly he was crushed at the sight of his sweet Molly talking to the witchfinder's man, Nicola.
The pair turned their eyes to him. Molly's smile was enigmatic. It stole his breath and placed an elephant of weight upon his shoulders. He sank to the ground.
Nicola jabbed a finger at him. "There! Burn it!" he said.
The while he stared at Molly, destroyed by her neutral gaze, Nicola's comrades rushed towards him. Then past him.
"We have her!" one cried.
Hubert watched as Silas Warnes was wrestled towards the bonfire, grimy black cloak flapping, gooseberry-green face lit by the flickering yellow flames, pointed hat stuck firmly on his head, still brandishing the broomstick he had grabbed with which to assault Hubert.
Once the bacon grease caught fire it was soon over.
Sir Bromley paused as he passed Hubert, patting him on the shoulder. "Nicely done, lad. Take the rest of the day off." The stars twinkled as he continued to his bed.
Hubert got to his feet, idly scratched his head and turned back towards the stable. He was stopped by Nicola, Molly hanging off him. Nicola thrust a calloused hand towards Hubert who, instinctively, took it. Nicola squeezed his hand painfully as he shook it.
"I'm sorry..." Hubert did not know what exactly to say.
"For what?" Nicola beamed as he spoke. Molly tittered.
"You know.... Silas?"
Nicola's grin widened. "I'm sure that Silas, wherever he is, will be happy for all of us."
"Wherever he is!" Nicola reiterated. Molly squeezed his broad shoulders between her little hands and giggled.
"Oh." Hubert let the realization sink home. "I hope you'll both be happy."
"Both?" Nicola said, his face creased for a moment. "I wish it was both, but she says you're taken."
"She?" Hubert glanced at Molly, his eyes on her eyes for a brief moment. He turned his head away, eyes watering and his guts flipping.
"I'm here," Molly said. She raised her hand and Hubert flinched, but instead of the expected blow, she ran her hand down his face to stroke his neck and shoulders. She took Hubert's head and guided it so he was looking directly into her face. "You'll need to get used to me."
"I will..." he whispered, voice choked.
"There's one thing though," Molly said.
"No more sleeping in the stables." Molly pulled his face down and kissed him.
"Promise," he said. He followed her back into the kitchen, his hand in her hand, thoroughly under her spell.