Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Honestly, though, I still don’t anticipate much success. Guess I’ll see.
STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT
Ulvis Handler was crucified on the Great Wheel in the village circle. His witches were there too, each hanging by bound wrists to a great beam that had been erected on either side of the Great Wheel. No one made much mention of the witches, however. For the past week, Ulvis had been all anyone spoke of. He had confessed to witchcraft himself. He was a werewolf, a murderer, a decadent, and even a cannibal. Never in Bluefield’s history had such a degenerate decided to set up shop and work his evil practices. It made things all the worse, all the more insulting to the townsfolk’s virtuous natures, that Ulvis was a natural born citizen of Bluefield. The witches, Anji and Gretel (no one knew their family names) were both strangers from Old Spokes, where Ulvis had spent five years as a dyer before returning to set up the shop he had run and lived in for over a decade. Talk was, the three had engaged in debauched orgies, and that their lust would transform them into savage wolves that terrorized the Blue Wood once a month. Sara, an oft-drunk prefect, was telling anyone who would listen that Ulvis confessed to own a cache of magical tools to transform people into toads, foods into poisons, and his many dyes into ghosts that would instill foul humors into innocent villagers. Sara liked to talk, though, so most of the village slept without fear of foul humors. Whatever his crimes, Ulvis could no longer speak of them. His tongue had been ripped out shortly after his confession.
Zia was standing near the back of the chattering crowd, having spent most of the early morning crushing herbs for Matron Marrow. He had been the Healer’s apprentice for almost a decade himself, but so far he remained little more than an errand boy. It seemed unjust, but he had a roof over his head and food in his belly, and Zia had never been one to cause a scene, so he continued to wait for the day Matron Marrow would begin to teach him the higher mysteries of medicine. Still, the frustrations were many. Zia had thought serving a Healer would bring him great esteem in the village. Proving himself good enough for an office typically held by wise and wellborn women seemed something to brag about, but instead the townsfolk found him alternately presumptuous and unmanly. His apprenticeship was seen as both uppity pride and shameful weakness, depending on the person and the day. Moreover, he spent so much time gathering plants in the Southern Edge of the Blue Wood or shuttered in the corner of Matron Marrow’s workshop, he was often the last to learn village news and the last to arrive at any gathering.
Even now, Zia suspected he would catch grief from the Matron for dawdling at the execution instead of crushing the herbs he had retrieved just after daybreak. Still, this was an historic event, and Zia knew he risked no more than a scold and a few harsh remarks the following day. Besides, if he wanted to be a Healer, he ought to observe some injuries. Life in Bluefield provided few practical educational opportunities, aside from yearly coughs and the occasional leg broken under a plow horse. Ulvis Hander and his witches represented an opportunity Zia might never have again.
Zia was not very tall, and he was old enough to assume he would not get much taller. Luckily, a great wooden scaffolding had been built before the Great Wheel, upon which stood three prefects and Matron Orled. The scaffolding was nearly as high as a man’s shoulders, but the Great Wheel stood three times as high as a man, so Ulvis was still hanging with plenty of room between himself and comfort. Not that he would ever know comfort again in his few remaining minutes.
At the foot of the scaffolding, far to the left, Zia spied three heads above the crowd. They were only a little taller than everyone else, but their heads were decked with elaborate silver headdresses he had never seen before. Clearly, in addition to the rest of the village, some very important people had shown up to watch Ulvis Handler die.
Ulvis was crucified, with his arms stretched at harsh angles and tied brutally tight to the spokes of the Great Wheel. In a small mercy of a sort, his ankles had been bound together beneath him. They too were bound with cruel tightness, but the security of his ankles allowed him to alleviate some of the pressure on his wrists. It also meant that most of the blood he lost would trickle neatly down to this feet and drip into the metal basin that rested just below his feet. Zia took a moment to note that neither of the witches had basins beneath their feet, and wondered what fate awaited them.
Matron Orled was among the wealthiest of Bluefield’s citizens, but Bluefield was still a humble village, nearly an hour from Great Peak. As such her robes were voluminous and well-tailored, but undyed except for her red stole. Zia briefly wondered if the Faith might help themselves to some of Ulvis’ dyes once the execution was complete. It was the right of the Elders in general to seize the property of any condemned person, but Zia of course knew nothing of the hierarchy of preferences that decided who seized what. There were other Matrons, of course, many held in high regard, and dye was a valuable thing.
Besides her robes, Matron Orled was also equipped with a gilded rod the length of her forearm, and an ancient leather book in her spare hand. The prefects, alternately, bore maces and bucklers. One of them, Kelle, bore a great stone hammer across her back as well. The Matron thrust the rod skyward, and silence fell upon the village circle like a calloused hand smothering a candle.
“Neighbors, hear me.” Her voice was like smoke, like mint, it pricked at your senses before it filled you like the warmth of a campfire on a winter’s night. “This sinner comes to pay contrition for evil crimes against the nation and our race. Within him come two strangers, traitors to our welcome, to pay contrition for evil crimes against the nation and our race.” A handful of villagers, scattered amidst the crowd, hissed at this.
Matron Orled lowered her rod, and a small murmur washed through the crowd. Slowly, she approached Ulvis and stood directly under him. She was not a tall woman, and even with the rod in her hand her reach extended only up to his chest. “Ulvis Handler,” she asked, “do you confirm that you have confessed and pled guilty to witchcraft, to transformation, to murder, to cannibalism, and to high debauchery?” She twisted her neck at what appeared to be a painful angle, looking straight up at him.
Ulvis Handler was an old man of middling height, still in the process of going to fat. A ring of light grey hair crowned his bloodhound face, his jowls quivering with the effort of keeping his head up. His meaty fists were red as beets, and his kettle belly could be clearly seen through the torn and soiled rags he wore, lacerated by switch, whip, and cane. Zia was unsure if his trousers had been brown or if they were merely encrusted with filth, but they too were ripped to shreds, displaying the blue veins that ran down his shins to his ruddy, almost blackened feet. The feet were large for a man his size, and the nails on the feet were long and jagged.
Zia thought he might see something in Ulvis’ eyes: guilt or innocence, pride or humility. All see saw was pain, the fluttering death of an old man’s fortitude, and what little remained of fear. Zia was surprised. A man facing death ought to be more terrified than that. The eyes themselves were small, dark, narrow, and unremarkable. His entire head wobbled a bit as with great effort he nodded. This done, his head collapsed down to loll at an odd angle, as if glancing to the witch at his right. He sagged a bit, perhaps to give his tortured ankles a brief respite. The ropes around his wrists creaked in protest.
Matron Orled moved with a most deliberate pace to the witch on his right. The Matron was an Elder and an old woman, but Zia knew showmanship when he saw it. Matron Marrow was not above a little performance herself when a villager came to her with an imagined ailment or even a difficult birth. Orled was drawing this out, no doubt wishing to concrete the message that any who dabble in such red arts would face a horrible end. Zia suspected that no such reminder was necessary.
The witches were closer to the ground, so Matron Orled could place her golden rod directly against the witch’s temple as she spoke. “Stranger Gretel, to you confirm that you have confessed and pleaded guilty to witchcraft?”
Gretel was older as well, though not as plump as Ulvis. Her sandy hair did little to hide numerous bald spots, the result either of disease or abuse, though they did somewhat obscure her bright blue eyes and large, broken nose, hanging over a lantern jaw. Her torn rags revealed bruises and rashes. Like Ulvis, her ankles were bound together tightly near the base of the beam upon which she hung.
Gretel still had her tongue. A hoarse, almost inhuman croak emerged from her white, cracked lips. “Aye.”
A grumble ran through the crowd.
She tried to lick her chapped lips, but there was no moisture there. “Aye.”
The crowd grew louder.
“Aye.” Her voice grew no stronger, but the words were coming more easily. The same was true of the villlagers.
Aye.” The people were audibly shouting now: booing, hissing, calling for her death and the death of her comrades.
“To high debauchery?”
Gretel’s neck grew stiff, as though she were going to shake her head or shrug or even nod. Instead, she let out a final “Aye,” and collapsed, letting her wrists take her weight. The village was howling now.
Matron Orled against thrust her rod into the sky, and the very air was taken from the voice of the people. Slowly, ever so slowly, she made her way to the other witch, Anji. She placed her rod at Anji’s head and repeated the accusations.
“Stranger Anji, do you confirm that you have confessed and pleaded guilty to witchcraft?”
Anji was bones with white skin stretched over them. She was almost completely bald, with only a few random strands of black hair trailing down to her waist. Her sharp ribs could be seen through her rags, and her skinniness mad her elbows and knees look almost swollen. Even her hands and feet, despite the knots that bound them, were pallid as spoiled milk. Her face was hard to see from Zia’s vantage. Her chin was tucked into her chest, trying to hide from the audience. It wobbled slightly, but she did not answer.
“Stranger Anji,” the Matron persisted, “you are guilty of witchcraft, are you not?”
Intermittently, the villagers demanded her confession. They called her devil, monster, cannibal, all manner of insults, but never more than one person at a time. The seconds stretched, until Orled asked again.
“For the third time. Anji, are you not guilty of witchcraft?”
A terrible moan came from Ulvis. His head twisted again, as though someone were manipulating him through his spine like a poorly-built puppet. His moan was guttural and grating. A villager’s fist flew up. “There it is,” someone shouted, “the wolf’s howl!” This was greeted with more screams for blood, until the Matron again thrust her rod into the sky, creating silence.
A small sound, light as a feather, floated through the quiet. “Yes.”
Matron Orled returned her rod to the witch’s head. “And transformation?”
Her head wobbled again before, “Yes.”
She hesitated. The tension was building again, but before anyone could speak, Anji threw her head back in a lurch and groaned “Yes! All of it, yes!”
Matron Orled faced out into the crowd. “Neighbors, in the sight of the Great Wheel, these sinners have confessed. They must now pay their contrition, to be whole again.”
As one, the village answered, “To be whole again!”
She nodded to the prefect, Kelle, and it began.
Kelle unslung the great stone hammer from her back and hefted it in her broad hands. Without hesitation, she strode over to Gretel, planted her feet, reared back, and swung the stone hammer into her shins. There was a great crack, and Gretel’s crackling voice exploded in a terrible scream. As one, the village threw up their hands and cheered.
Kelle was not finished, of course. Without even a pause to observe her work, she marched over to Ulvis, reared back, swung up, and shattered his legs. If Ulvis made a sound, it was drowned by the tumultuous celebrations of the villagers as he sagged so deeply in his restraints, Zia thought for certain he would snap free and fall to the ground like an overripe apple.
Again, immediately, Kelle methodically strode to the last witch and did her duty. This last, Kelle struck with such ferocity that the beam itself cracked under the weight of the onslaught. The cheers of the crowd were choked out with a collective gasp, but Anji’s wails were joined by Gretel’s as everyone waited to see if Gretel’s beam would break and fall. The seconds dragged by, and soon the village was comfortable celebrating again.
Kelle stood to the side as another prefect, Sara the drunkard, produced a small flensing knife from her belt. Zia wondered if Sara had been drinking that morning. Regardless, she was sure of foot and finger as she approached Ulvis and began flaying the skin from his thighs. Sara was a tall woman, and so could easily reach just below his groin to insert the knife and begin slowly tearing away strips of red flesh.
From the start, Ulvis had been a defeated and deflated man, but now he found reserves he did not know he had, threw back his head and let out an otherworldly scream that could be heard even above the cheering of the villagers. The scream became strangled, a small burst of blood flew out his mouth, and a sudden gasp of disgust near the front of the crowd told Zia that Ulvis had likely released his bowls from the pain. Yet Sara, the boasting braggart and tavern tall talker, continued like a lifeless object, slicing into the man’s legs and peeling away.
It was only a few minutes before he passed out from the pain. The witches continued to groan as Sara hesitated and looked to the Matron. Orled glanced up at Ulvis, and then nodded her head toward Davad, the last prefect. Davad drew back his mace and swung it into the flayed thighs, first left then right. The right leg broke under Davad’s swing, but still Ulvis did not stir. The prefect delivered a similar service to the stomachs of the witches, breaking them open and ending their suffering in short time.
They stared at Ulvis. His limp form contorted grotesquely as his belly pulled against his wrists. After what seemed a full minute, they could see the faintest motion, like a flag caressed by a gentle breeze, and Ulvis took in another breath.
Once more, Matron Orled thrust her golden rod into the air, but there was no noise to quell. “There shall he hang,” she said, “until his sins claim him. The strangers, Gretel and Anji, have paid their contrition and are now welcome into our love. Welcome Gretel.”
As one they answered, “Welcome Gretel!”
As one they answered, “Welcome Anji!”
Zia anticipated a sermon, but perhaps he had just seen one.
Without further ceremony, Matron Orled hobbled to the stairway at the back of the scaffolding, nestled between Anji’s beam and the edge of the Great Wheel. As she walked, she handed off her rod and book to a white-clad apprentice in a squared cap, who had just appeared. She followed the Matron back down off the scaffolding and out of sight. Urf the Undertaker and his own apprentice Wend were already taking down the bodies of the witches, even as Sara and Davad took their positions at Ulvis’ feet.
As the crowd began to thin, Zia’s eyes were drawn to the Great Wheel. Its pristine whitewash was now spattered with blood from the crucifixion, yet no one seemed in a rush to clean it. No doubt an apprentice would be by later.
Zia watched the witches being wrapped up and carried away, and as his eyes followed them he caught sight of three beautifully dressed people he did not recognize. What he did recognize were the beautiful silver headdresses they wore, shaped into semi-circular disks that made it appear as though each was wearing a moonrise on their head, a moonrise bedashed with a fistful of sparkling jewels. These were the people he noticed at the foot of the scaffolding before the confessions.
All three were quite tall, and two of them had skin nearly as pale as Gretel’s. The two women appeared to be counseling the man, who nodded or disagreed as his fancy suited him. Clearly, these were strangers, if not outright foreigners.
Zia stared absently at the Great Wheel as he approached, trying to overhear what the foreigners were saying while pretending to observe Ulvis Handler from a better vantage point. As the crowd dispersed, their conversation became more obvious. They were speaking softly, but making no special attempt to hide their words.
“… not your strong point, my lord, but surely you understand that the difference between five thousand and fifteen thousand is a significant one. Yes?” The pale woman was glaring at the man, who did not respond to her sally.
The other woman broke in. “Perhaps a demonstration is in order, my lord. It’s a small town, but surely there is a smithy somewhere. They need hoes and rakes, if not arms and armor.”
The pale woman crossed her arms deliberately, almost as though part of a performance. “Demonstration or not, no weapon can defeat three times the numbers.”
The man held up a single, admonitory finger. “Such odds have been beaten before,” he countered.
“Once in a thousand years,” the pale woman scoffed. “Shall I relate those odds to you?”
The other woman’s demeanor relaxed noticeably. “If such is so, then a demonstration harms nothing.”
“She should depart at once. Who knows what is happening while we scratch about in this hovel?”
The pale man’s brow darkened at this. “He was here for ten years. We must look through his things before we go, before the local chiefs root through it and take the treasures for themselves.” He placed his head in his hands. “There is too much going on at once.”
The pale woman’s glare narrowed. “There are two things going on at once. Is that such a challenge?”
“Well it’s more than usual!” he spat. “I am a prince by birth. I am not made for this… thinking.”
The two women, so lately enemies, exchanged a mildly amused glance.
“Very well,” he decided. “We will find a smithy and have a demonstration. Theserra, you find his home and look through it. Try to be secretive if you can, but do not be afraid to play upon their fears.”
Theserra, the less pallid woman, had suddenly dropped her confidence. “Me? Shouldn’t I—“
“I want a skeptic with me for this demonstration,” he said.
The skeptic he spoke of, the pale woman, did not gloat or even grin. She nodded in receipt of their orders. “How long do you…”
She trailed off. It took several seconds for Zia to realize all three of the foreigners were staring straight at him. Belatedly, he further concluded that he must be staring right at them. He swallowed, audibly.
“Hi!” said Zia.