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I awoke in my assigned chambers, on my back in the bed, Aryden and Endan standing over me. Everything hurt, but especially my chest, where a layer of linen bandages wrapped what I could only assume were wounds Orren had caused in last evening’s confrontation.
My two attendants—Endan especially—exchanged quiet words and spoke to me as the doctor brought me a glass of mulled wine. But I wasn’t listening to them. Instead, I was trying to identify the faint smell that my befuddled mind told me meant something important. Behind the almost-whispers of those in the room, a faint sound entered through the open window, loud but muffled by distance.
Realization dawned on me, gripping my stomach and twisting it in its hands until I felt I would burst. Pain be damned, I sprang from the bed, nearly pushing Endan over (and fully spilling the wine) in my efforts to leave.
They’d left my pants and boots on me, fortunately, so I hastily threw my vest over my bandaged chest and grabbed my belt, sword and all. I rushed from the room, Aryden calling behind me.
I flew down the stairs, out of the keep, and through the castle courtyard, stumbling over myself occasionally in my haste but inexorably propelled by guilt and fear.
The jeers and jibes of a taunting crowd drew me forward through streets otherwise emptied of all inhabitants. The mass of people had overflowed from the market square and spilled into the streets radiating away from that place, forcing me to push through with elbows and shoulders.
The smell that had been at the edge of perception in my room now overshadowed all other scents as smoke bloomed into the air above us, darkening the rising brightness of the morning suns as the smell of burning blocked out the odors of those pressed against me. The smoke did drive out those creeping things that made their homes on the flesh and in the clothes of the townsfolk, though, and I cringed to see lice squirming out from under caps and mites scurrying out from collars.
That smoke did not yet carry with it the stench of burning flesh, and I thanked the One for the that, but the fires had been lit and that crescendo of flames and sickening perfumes had become inevitable.
The crowd’s heckling had become a deafening roar now that I was in the midst of it, and I could only occasionally hear Falla’s screams and maledictions from the raised pyre in the center of the square against which she’d been tied. Her voice, inevitably, drew my eyes to her.
She’d been clothed in only a filthy chemise, apparently to give her the look of a penitent. Thick ropes bound her arms behind her, wrapped around the pole that held her upright. Another ligature wrapped round her throat, tight enough to restrict her movement but loose enough not to restrict her voice. The crowd would not be sufficiently entertained if they could not hear her screams or laugh at her futile blasphemies.
Already, her feet began to involuntarily kick at the flames that licked at them, close enough to presage what was coming, not close enough for the burning to truly begin. Her head lolled as she struggled against her bonds, turning her attention skyward and then back to the crowd, straining to look behind her, where Barro, again accoutered in the formal gown of an officiant, practiced a stoic face belied by the righteous pleasure he took in watching the painful end of a seductive heretic who only existed to lead his flock astray.
Keeping a small circle between the massed townsfolk and the incipient bonfire stood a half-dozen of Aryden’s guardsmen, armored in half-plate, the visors of their sallets intimidatingly lowered, halberds held in a position of readiness. I thought of the men whom the lord had posted outside my bedchambers and wondered again whether these dour fellows were truly there to prevent my interference.
Damn me for letting Orren get the better of me! I’d intended to return to the woman—to my friend—after the confrontation, to find some way to let her escape the fate that Aryden had in mind for her. Bad wyrgeas may have prevented that effort entirely, but now it was Aryden’s own ambition ensuring that none could subvert his pawn from its intended sacrifice.
Despite the odds, my blood rose and my right hand went to the hilt of my sword, still held in its scabbard in my left along with the rest of my wrapped belt. The gawkers pressed tighter against me; I had no room to draw my blade, much less a way to quickly make it to the bonfire, fight off the guardsmen and extinguish the flames before they had passed the point of no return. Any one of those obstacles might have been a near insurmountable obstacle. Together, they were an impossibility, even for a practitioner of the Subtle Art.
So, I stayed, silent, watching. It was the least honor I could do her to face my own failure head-on. I burned within as she burned without, though I’m sure she had the worse of it.
The crowd’s enthusiasm rose to a crescendo as the first flames began to lap like waves against Falla’s feet, her flesh sizzling as she writhed in pain. Coughing and choking punctuated her screams; her muscles tensed involuntarily, flexing at the joints and straining against the ropes, her fist balled. Her skin pulled tight against her bones, a premonition of the corpse she was becoming.
I forced myself to watch, to avoid looking away. My head swam at the tumult of emotions, the roar of the spectators like a heavy burden pushing me down, my senses overwhelmed by the smells, sounds and sights. My fists clenched in sympathy, but I only observed in vain as the flames climbed her until she they wreathed her entirely, an aura of suffering that seemed to emanate from her rather than to consume her.
This caught my attention, and I expected what came next, though it surprised a part of me all the same. Falla’s head snapped forward from where it had previously lolled in excruciation; she stared a the crowd with dark eyes that bulged from their sockets. From a mouth chapped and peeling from the heat, shrunken against her teeth, she began to speak clearly and confidently in Gwaenthyri. Her voice echoed as if a choir, as if the spirits themselves were joining her in her condemnation of her murderers, in her death curse upon the gathered crowd.
In response, I did the unthinkable. If she pronounced her curse in its entirety, focused her will before she expired and finished the working, the difficulty of my job would increase tenfold. More than that, despite the injustice of her fate—and my culpability for it—I saw no benefit to the increase of collective suffering in Vaina that would arise from her curse.
By now, the nerves in her body had mostly deadened to her pain; her arcane practice allowed her to separate herself enough from the sensations of her body to focus her mind on her final working. Under no circumstance could I match the Power she drew through herself without need to consider her own survival, even were I hale and ready. No simple counter-working would suffice; I had to distract her enough for the structure of the curse to fall apart under its own weight.
So I began my own working, chanting aloud with equal fury and determination, imagining the healing of her body sufficiently that she could feel anew, willing the enlivening of her sensations enough that the fire would once again torture her into submission.
I am ashamed that it worked. At first her cadence slowed, became less confident, as sensation tingled at the periphery of her awareness, part of her focus breaking away from the curse to investigate. Such inquiry only opened her up to the full feeling of the flames about her once more; the cadence of her chanting took on the staccato of a desperate attempt to finish the words, until screaming erupted anew from her burning mouth. I could feel the air thin out once again as the imminence drained from the curse and its possibility dissipated into so much nothingness.
The Flux from my counter-working caused the flames to expand outward, the fire burning improbably across the ground in front of the bonfire into a wider circle centered on Falla. Even the guardsmen abandoned their posts, hair singed by the sudden expansion of heat and flame. The crowd dispersed now, unsure whether the conflagration represented the first effects of her curse or the intent of my own working. They fled past me, those who had heckled bumping me as they stumbled against one another to get away. I hated them. I hated them for what they’d made me do.
By the time I could hold to my footing and return my attention to the crowd’s victim, Falla had fallen silent, sensation again receding from her and leaving her with the cold knowledge that she would soon die. She coughed as the gasses from the fire, fueled by her own body, floated up and past her face. Only the two of us remained in the market place, her and I, our eyes locked upon one another in a silence broken only by her wheezing and the continuing crackle of the fire.
She needed no words, and I had none to speak. Her eyes conveyed the sense of betrayal, a knife plunged directly into my heart, well enough. Did she see the regret, the guilt in mine? I don’t know, and I don’t know that it would have mattered whether she did. My actions had spoken for me, and they could not be taken back.
She only lasted a few more minutes before her head leaned forward in final defeat, her skin becoming waxy and wet from the heat. Knowing Barro would perform no rites for her, I did what I could, uttering a quiet prayer to The One for her soul and her salvation, that she might be ushered on to a life better than this one if not given immediate ascension to the Supernal Realms for her martyrdom here. Maybe it was a prayer for my own fate as much as for hers. Tears mingled with sweat from the heat as I stumbled through the words I spoke in silence to The One who hears all things.
My chest burned on the outside from Orren’s scratches, on the inside from the smoke that filled the air in an expanding cloud, now turned dark as Falla’s body began to char. Coughing, I took what comfort I could from the faith that I had, however much it was, and thought of a more worldly comfort. I needed a drink.
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