Free Read: The Pen And The Pyre

Burned at the Stake

[This was short story I wrote a few years ago for a competition – and for fun, as well]

If only she would stop screaming.

You’d think the crowd would drown her out – their jeering and cheering feeding off her screams like a frenzy of wild animals ripping at a carcass. That kind of unholy shrieking cuts right to the bone and you feel it as much as you hear it. Soon, the screams became weaker. Either she’d lost her voice for the screaming, or the life was finally, mercifully fading from her. Either way, she was growing silent, and the crowd was getting bored. Soon, they would be restless and the cycle would start again, whipping into a frenzy as the tortured screams peeled a track down your spine.

Eve was next.

The guard yanked her up by the thick rope binding her wrists, pulling her along as the crowd began to buzz behind her, coming to life again. They stopped abruptly in front of the magistrate, a portly man with a contemptuous demeanor, who obviously thought himself some sort of demi-god. He gave the papers in his hand a cursory glance.

“Goody Brubaker? Are you aware of the charges laid against you this day?”

“Yes.”

“And what say you to those who call you witch? What defense do you offer to those who accuse you of being the minion of satan?”

A gasp rolled through the crowd at the mention of satan’s name, as though he were suddenly seen standing among them, or perhaps if they lifted her skirts, Eve would have cloven hooves instead of feet.

“Yeah. About that. See, I was just trying to make wine, and I got a little carried away. The stuff was bad, the dog drank some of it, and he went a little crazyΒ for awhile. He’s fine now. Drama’s over. Can we move on?”

“Goody Brubaker!” The magistrate was aghast. “Have you no defense? Not only were you seen to have bewitched that dog, but now you stand before us speaking in strange demon tongues and clearly unrepentant of your grievous alliance with the Prince of Darkness!”

“Voldemort?”

“Is this the name of the demon that torments you?” The magistrate drew back several feet, clearly terrified.

“Nah. Just funning with you. You said “Prince of Darkness” and I was all thinking “Dark Lord”, but I guess you have to know the joke. Sorry. My bad.”

“Burn her!” Shouted someone in the crowd. “She speaks as a witch! She’s tormented by old hob!”

Eve surreptitiously pulled back her sleeve and glanced at the small box in her hand. Six minutes. She had to stall for six minutes.

“How about a battle of wits, my lovelies!” She called out to the crowd. “Bring me two goblets! The magistrate and I will drink, though one shall be poisoned. It ends when he decides and we both drink, and we find out who is right… and who is dead.”

The magistrate looked at her as though she’d just grown a second nose, and the crowd stared in stunned silence for a moment before erupting in jeers and stronger cries of “witch!” and “burn her!”

Well. So much for humor. She looked down again.

Five minutes.

“Good gentles! I call upon your mercies as I battle the forces of evil! Just as my namesake did in the good book, I have been sorely tempted and am now in need of absolution!”

“Burn her! Burn the witch!!” The crowd was whipping itself into such a frenzy, the birds in the trees took flight at the noise, turning the sky black for a moment as they alighted. The magistrate glanced overhead fearfully.

“Even the birds of darkness have forsaken you!”

“They’re crows, right? Wow. A murder of crows! I’ve always wanted to use that in a sentence. You know? ‘She stood proudly, the wind lifting her hair as a murder of crows fled the trees.’ Hey! That was a good! Do you have a pen? I need to write that down.”

“There will be none of your incantations put to paper this day, Goody Brubaker!” The magistrate mopped his suddenly sweaty brow with a stained handkerchief. “Now, what say you to those who call you witch?”

“What was the other one….ravens? An ‘unkindness of ravens’. I think I like that better. Much darker, and with a lot more undertones than a straight-out ‘murder’ of something, don’t you think?” She glanced down at the box in her hand again. Nearly time.

“Enough!” The magistrate shouted, spittle clinging to his thin lips. “To the stake with her!”

She was carried off, humming a bit to herself, occasionally glancing around as they tied her to the pole, setting the branches at her feet. One of the townspeople ran for the torch, and suddenly, her palms began to sweat.

What if her calculations were off?

She should have less than a minute now, but when you’re talking about time, all kinds of things can happen. Temporal eddies and fluctuations can play havoc with the times stream. Unscrupulous travelers can upset the entire balance with one wrong step. Shit. This was getting too close.

What if she burned?

They set fire to the tinder at her feet, and it seemed to catch impossibly fast. The smoke made her eyes smart, and she struggled to breathe as it blew into her face. Wasn’t that the way most people died in a fire? From smoke inhalation? She held her breath, finally letting it out in a whoosh when it became to unbearable. She sucked in a great lungfull of smoke and began to cough, nearly retching with the force of it. She felt a sudden pain in her leg as she saw the fire licking up her skirt. She screamed, but all that came out was more coughing and retching. The fire grew with a roar, as the wind shifted and she felt the blast of it hitting her head on. She closed her eyes and prayed as the flames engulfed her…

“Hey! You okay?”

She was in the lab. She inhaled deeply, coughing the last of the smoke out of her lungs, taking the cool glass of water that was handed to her and drinking deeply.

“What the hell, Randy!” She croaked. “That was too close!”

“Nah, it just seemed that way. I had you.”

“I got burned, you jerk!”

“Oh, barely. You are such a wuss.” Randy helped her down off the platform. “Would you like a shower? Or do you want to start writing right away?”

“I’d love a shower,” she moaned. “But I need to get this down while it’s fresh. And I could wish it hadn’t been quite so fresh. You are such an ass, sometimes, Randy.”

“Do you want an experience, or don’t you, love? There’s a reason why you’re the best historical fiction writer in the biz, you know.”

“I know. The price I pay, right?”

“Right.”

“Now leave me be and let me finish this story. God knows where I’ll be tomorrow.”

“China. You’re going to China.”

“When?”

“Twelfth century. You’re going to settle a feud by marrying a warlord.”

“Nice.” Eve hobbled off to her writing desk as Randy turned to make some coffee. She sat down, pulling out an electronic pad and started tapping away.

“Wait!” She turned her head to Randy, her eyes narrowing. “Twelfth century? Oh no!Β I am not binding my feet!”

“Oh, yes you are.”

“No way!Β I’ve been damaged enough.”

Randy gave her a conciliatory smile, pulled up a chair opposite her and set two steaming mugs on the table.

“We have to be authentic, Eve.”

“I’m telling you no. What’s the first rule of historical engagement? No harm. That means to ourselves as well as to others.”

“That’s the second rule of historical engagement, love. You’ll be needing to remember the first.”

“And that is…?”

Randy took a big swig from her mug, and smiled cheekily.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

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