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Prologue from The Survivors

Salem, Massachusetts
December 1692

“We are decided then,” he said, but doubts plagued his mind. “You take them, Captain. Away from our homes. Away from this place,” Reverend Parris demanded. The six men standing before him nodded.

“We will rid you of the miscreants,” the captain assured him.

“How far is the chosen destination?” Parris asked.

“Far enough,” the captain said.

“And the length of your journey?” Reverend Parris inquired again. He pressed his thin, pale hand to his forehead and clenched his jaw. It would be but a moment until his doubts overwhelmed him.

“We are not sure,” the captain said readily. “We have heard only rumors that we can go so far west. I expect we may return when this winter gives way to spring. At worst, we may return with the summer sun.” He swallowed uncomfortably at the falsehood, his conscience guilty for telling such untruths. None of the six envisioned surviving the journey ahead of them.

Reverend Parris hesitated. Then, the governor spoke. “It is far enough that they could never return to Salem. They would die in the journey.”

“If they shall die by God’s hand in the wilderness, then why shan’t we bestow upon them justice ourselves?” the reverend asked. The governor crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. He and Parris both knew it was imprudent to ignore the allegations but outrageous to condemn them all to death.

“Enough is enough,” Governor Phips said in a stern voice, and placed his hand on the reverend’s shoulder. “I will not hang another unless His Majesty says so, and he does no such thing. We are already impugned for our crimes against the other nineteen.”

Parris obliged. “Take them now, Captain. Before this night has passed. You take what you need, and you leave now,” he said roughly. He had half the mind to kill each of these children, these witches, himself, before anyone could stop him. He knew in his heart it was the Lord’s way.

They could all sense this. The captain led his team of horsemen out of Parris’ home hurriedly. In the street, thirty-two horses waited: one for each of the six, and twenty-six more, each with an accused witch shackled to it.

The horsemen were as prepared as they could be for the journey ahead. Their only regret was taking so many of the small village’s horses with them, but they dared not question their purpose. To them, it was worth risking their lives. They believed that witchcraft had no place in Salem, that there should be no room for it in God’s world at all. But they were quiet vigilantes, these six, who could remain complacent no longer. They were charged with keeping their town, their religion, from murdering any more than it already had. Many in Salem could not bear to witness the massacre that would result if these children were put on trial, but these six men were motivated not solely by beneficence. Instead, they were driven by purpose, acting as if God Himself had sent the word to them to remove the accused from Salem and bring them to safety.

In the seasons preceding this midnight ride, nineteen souls had hung from the gallows of Salem, accused and convicted as witches, and five more had died in prison. And now, just months after the most recent execution, this mass accusation had arisen. Twenty-six children were believed to be witches. The grievous claim was legitimate and was taken very seriously by more than just the zealous reverend. Alexander Raven, a respected member of the community, had made credible accusations on all twenty-six.

As an act of forbearance, Sir William Phips, the governor of Massachusetts, had decided to exile the accused instead of hanging them, which outraged the Reverend Samuel Parris. But the decision had been made. It had been only one week ago that these twenty-six had been taken from their homes and imprisoned, and now they were shackled, shivering from fear and frost, and certain that they were being marched in some uncommon fashion toward death.

Reverend Parris and Governor Phips stood in the lane, watching as the accused and the horsemen disappeared into the frozen blackness of night.

They headed westward with no plan but to continue on until they had gone far enough. It took a season to reach the point where the men had decided to drop these children, defenseless against the elements.

Their ride was treacherous. Their horses labored in the frigid winds as they trekked across uneven terrain, slowly climbing through mountain passes, struggling on steep declines. The sky shone a glaring white-grey as if snow that never dissipated hung in the sky. Each day they followed the path of the setting sun, driving the horses until their hooves could take no more. The accused witches were silent, save for the sounds of their quiet prayers.

Seven of the twenty-six died en route. A girl with brown hair and blue eyes and freckles was the first to pass on, still upright on her horse until they approached a sharp incline and her rigid, frozen body fell from the horse. It was dragged, hooked to the saddle, for fifty meters before the chains broke loose. A rosy-cheeked fifteen-year-old boy, whose father was friends with Reverend Parris, began to shake late one night, convulsing and crying out into the dark as he labored for each breath, until he labored no more. A horseman’s nose, fingers, and toes began to sear in hot pain in the cold wind, turning black before he met his end. A second horseman had lain on the ground one night, too far from the fire. He never awoke.

On the seventy-fourth cold morning, they reached a clearing flanked by shallow hills. Frozen streams lined the grey and icy earth. The sky was white with frost. The team of horsemen decided they had done all they could.

The remaining four men released each of the accused, one by one, and let them off their horses. They freed the youngest, Hannah, who was just twelve years of age, first. She stood shakily on the ground and began to walk, looking like a newborn colt as she struggled to remember how to move her legs.

Each of the survivors felt a mixture of fear and relief as the captain removed the shackles. They looked at the dead, frozen ground around them in terror, certain that this would be their end. From their eyes, they had been sentenced to a slow and painful death. There was no mercy in the gesture.

As the last of the accused, nineteen-year-old John Surrey, stepped off his horse and into his new freedom, he turned to the captain and spoke. “You tell Parris that his conscience shan’t be any clearer for sending us here than for hanging us from the gallows. This is surely a death sentence,” he said, his face raw from the icicles forming on it. The fierce expression on the eldest boy’s face reinforced his meaning, as he gestured to the dead land around them, “If this be not Hell, I know not what it is.”

The young people roamed around, looking out into the distance at the perpetual nothingness. The captain re-mounted, and the three others followed. They drove the other horses together, not saying a word to any of the nineteen youths they had freed as they turned their backs on them. They galloped back toward the rising sun. None made it back to Salem.

The circumstances in the following months were austere. It had been a cold winter, colder even than the winters in Massachusetts, with more snow and wild air that stabbed through the skin like daggers even into months that might usually feel like spring in Salem.

By their sixty-third day in the bleak wilderness, with no food or drink, only fourteen of them—eight girls and six boys—remained. They had become desperate, wandering in the wild, terrified. Each of them prayed at night, some asking their Lord to end their suffering, others begging for their lives.

And by some miracle none of them understood, the fourteen survived. 

They had gone on to live in the desolate land for nearly two more years before deciding to travel farther west in search of a less exposed terrain. They had lived through impossible conditions, from frigid temperatures and ice storms in the winter, to blazing heat in the summer, in open plains that flayed them against the battered earth like meat beaten with stone. Their move west was a search for comfort. They hoped that a more mountainous, secluded environment might prove more hospitable.

They hiked in a bright spring and summer across lush landscapes, thick forests, and rocky inclines before they reached a green mountain range they would declare their home. They never left.

Since they were abandoned, the fourteen survivors had been able to go without food or water for weeks at a time, and despite the fact that it had taken them months to learn to start a fire with snow-covered wood or build a shelter with no tools, each of them was, in fact, strong. None had fallen ill or lost limbs. It never occurred to them what an impossibility this had been. Instead, they wondered why so many of their number and two of the horsemen—even so many of their community in Salem—had fallen ill and died in conditions less severe than the ones they had endured. They idly mused how fragile those lives must have been in comparison to their own.

They counted off their time in days, unsure of what day it was when they left Salem or reached their new home. On the 671st day since they were abandoned, an older girl, Sarah, voiced something many of them had noticed: Hannah had not grown or changed in any way since they had arrived. Her clothes still fit, unlike many of the others’, whose clothes had grown slack as they had grown thinner, or too short once they had grown taller. But her young physique had remained; she was no more womanly than she had been when they left, despite having been born fourteen years before. She also began telling fantastical stories of happenings in a land not far from theirs, of things she saw that would happen, describing events in the unknown land or speaking truths that would become of the fourteen survivors. They began to wonder if it was more than an active imagination.

Nor had the oldest of them, Lizzie, grown or changed since their exile. But she had been born in 1670, so it was more difficult to determine what changes should have occurred. As their 671 days turned into nearly 1,300, and they had settled in their newer, greener, mountainous homeland, they began to notice that many of the boys who began as the youngest of the group now began to look older and bigger than Andrew, who was seventeen when they left Salem. They theorized as to why this was. The consensus was that their conditions had caused them to be smaller, malnourishment impeding their development. But all three were strong, almost impossibly so. Little Hannah could carry logs as thick around as she was. Andrew could pull tree stumps from the ground with his bare hands. Lizzie was always awake when others fell asleep in the wilderness and when they rose in the mornings. They thought this was because she felt a need to protect them, but, instead, it was that she never slept. 

One late autumn night, fourteen quiet survivors laid calmly on the mountainside,  asking God why He would keep them alive only to live in such misery. It was then that a cool breeze turned quickly to a cold wind. It rained at first, and then snow began to dance in the air and cover the ground around them. All the survivors hastened to find dry wood to burn to brave yet another cold night. A fire would not keep them warm, but it did make the wind feel more like a dull pain rather than the sharp stab it usually was. But this night they had not made it in time. All the wood they found was wet and slimy and snow-covered, and it would not ignite. 

They cursed at each other, screams of anguish and insults launched at one another, and each of them frightened at the idea of spending another night in darkness and frigidity. They had not yet grown enough accustomed to the cold to endure it without pain.

Overcome with frustration, from his failed fire building and from his existence, Andrew threw his hands up to the sky. In an instant, the wood they had piled together erupted violently into flames.