“Where have you been?” she whispered furiously. “Where's your brother? Is he here?” She kept hold of his arm and crept around him to listen at the door to the garage.
“He left me in a vault, and now his fucking phone’s off. Christabel, he’s not here... why? What’s going on?”
She did not seem to be able to accept his assurances, keeping her voice low as she beckoned him toward the stairs.
“Lilian came back from town and then these idiots arrived with a truck... I have no idea who they were... she went and got a gun and she would have used it on them if your brother hadn't come home...”
“Was she high?”
“I don’t know... yes, probably! I hid up here. I heard another car come up the drive, and then I heard a fucking gun go off..."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! I was too scared to look... when I sneaked down finally, everyone was gone and there was nothing."
William stood for a moment at the base of the stairs and collected his thoughts.
“If anyone was dead we would have tripped over them by now. Frost’s probably with Ed, so she’ll be okay. In one sense.” he sighed, climbing past her while she stared at his phlegmatic response. In the bedroom he emptied his pockets onto the quilt, dumping a folded wad of documents and notes scrawled to himself, and slumped down in the chair to kick off his boots. Taking his phone from him, she found Edward’s number and stood chewing her lip with the appliance to her ear as she was advised of the latter’s unavailability.
"Lilian's not okay... she's taking clozapine." she confessed, handing back the appliance. He pressed two fingers to his forehead and swore down at his lap. “Petrouchka said to make you tell me everything.”
“Yeah well, that’s fine for her to say. Vampyres don’t have any fucking skeletons. The people I’m talking about have more closet space than a Narnian penthouse. Christabel..." he groaned. "I’ve just spent the day at five different fucking banks arguing with the world’s scariest nitpicker over which bits of our stash we should involuntarily liquidate, because he’s just had the money he earned as an international apocalypse ripped off by someone he already wants to force through a fucking shredder... please don't give me waterboarding eyes. You will not thank me for telling you.”
She watched him slide down further into his chair and push his feet along her legs, inviting her hands to them with restless movements of his toes. Pushing them aside, Susan rolled over onto the bed and settled with her back to him, taking the magazine from beside the lamp. William sat for as long as he was able without speaking.
“Lilian’s not crazy.” he confessed. “Sometimes clarity is not your friend.” Turning over, she saw that he sat on the verge of significant disclosure. "If I tell you where all this comes from, you have to tell me what to do.”
The faces of the multitude were like bobbing sea-ice over their dirty, cattle-coloured tunics and thick stitched furs. Sachiin scanned them all, standing at the end of the cordon that divided the flagged square while the guards grouped beneath their pointed helms lost patience with the restive mass, barking and striking at them with cudgels cut for the occasion. The sky threatened snow, casting a sickly, cinereous illumination that drew in black and white and the unclean colours of their union. He glanced toward his companion; Gideon Auberjonois seemed more rueful than he had expected, the greedy, agrestic gloating of the crowd that pressed them on three sides reviled by every facet of his person.
“Why did you not tell me before now?" he muttered, shrugging his greatcoat around himself against the cold. "With your brother, we might have taken her from here.”
“She made me swear that I would not.” Sachiin confessed, Gideon's gaze upbraiding his adherence to such onerous terms. Both creatures craned their necks to catch sight of Kala'amātya, some twenty metres distant along the way cleared by the guards. He stood immobile and impassive amid the contingent drafted from Gideon's own circle, the latter flexing their wary hands and murmuring to one another as they watched the crowd around them. Before them rose the dark frame of the gallows beside a massive stave of oak rearing over the assemblage like some hungry idol. A thick skirting of bundled osier had already been laid head-high about its footing, stacked and kindled with wreaths of straw figured into crosses by the busy hands of charwomen. Alongside the stake a ditch, large enough to accommodate a tall man, had been dug and filled to its lip with freezing, opaque water.
On a lofty dais the gross figure of a catholic bishop, swathed in the complex, burnished finery of his office, sat upon a cushioned throne listening to details related by a pair of dark-garbed drudenhaus attendants. In the robes commissioned for the great occasion, he resembled some couchant and sedentary magi; behind him sat Rana in her own gilt chair, a dress of brilliant golden velvet beneath her bright red mantle, a cup of wine standing in her grasp. To the rear of her vantage roosted the wealthy burgher clans and guild men who had campaigned so long for the offender’s apprehension, cloaks drawn up about themselves as they exchanged confidences behind gloved hands.
Without fanfare the gates were prised open to admit two mounted wardens in scarred cuirasses to the square. They forced the mob backward into two thick ranks while the horses’ smoking breath and the sharp, hollow clatter of their riders' plate echoed unchallenged by jeers or shrieking catcalls, the ploughmen and mill girls standing in a dour silence nursing the stones and clods of offal they had brought to fling at the enemy who had held them subject for so long. Behind the riders and before another company of guards, pikes held upright in a bristling surmount, three women walked in single file, chained hand and foot to one another and forced to match their pace to that of the checked and stamping horses. Sachiin closed his eyes at the sight of them, his distress shared by the creature alongside him who expressed his dismay in soft gallic vowels.
The first woman wore an overgown of ravaged hellebore purple that flapped against her shoulders in the wind. Helaine's pale head had been crudely shorn and left a blistered, harrowed waste; around her throat deep-bitten wounds echoed the battered colours of her mouth, the same damp welts encircling each branded arm. Filthy linen bound each hand, preventing the remains of her fingers from disgorging enough blood to subvert the purpose of her detention. In defiance of her circumstance she displayed neither hauteur nor desolation, but walked in the direct and unfeigned manner that had always been her wont, wrists chained at her waist. Behind her, the two apprentice girls Adelle and Agathé proved less resolute, weeping and stumbling, their distress rousing a more demonstrative response from the crowd, the braver amongst them hefting the stones meant for their mistress. The hurled debris soon added its dire colours to those already staining their bloodied shifts of white linen, a vestige of their former station. The rear guard abused Agathé as she faltered at the sight of the rearing stake and the crowd pressed home the advantage, enclosing the two girls with their spitting faces and jostling limbs.
Breaking with the onlookers Sachiin stepped out into the way and helped Agathé to her feet, only to be shoved back by the pike bearers. Moving quickly along the face of the crowd, he walked at the shoulder of the senior witch and addressed her as discreetly as the tumult would permit.
“I could not persuade him to leave.” he told her, keeping his head low. She glanced at him, one eye shot red by a blow that had blackened her brow as far as her hairline, but made no reply, and was forced onward by her jailers. Gideon caught him up; they went ahead of the captive party to take their places beside Kala'amātya.
Helaine suffered no visible struggle as the guards led her past, finding Sachiin's bright features against the brumous crowd before his brother's. The sight of Kala'amātya caused her to falter briefly before wresting back control, every moment she had suffered visited upon him in an agony that would have turned another from her. With no other opportunity remaining to him he was compelled to commit even the indelible horror of her wounds to memory, before the mounted guards swung down onto the cobbles to take her arms and march her before the dais, her two maids arraigned in like fashion behind her. All demonstration from the crowd ceased as the bishop rose with the help of two attendants who then crouched about his robes, busily composing them, and looked out across the square, to his cabal of clerical associates, and finally to the small party before him, his head haloed by the misted sun.
“In the name of Christ, we sit in judgement upon you, the Countess Helaine de Marchand and your various serving women beside, in the matter of the murder of your lawful husband, and charges of the most horrible maleficia, too numerous, and infamous, to utter in open company.” announced the enormous priest, his tiny, cupid-bow mouth moving in the great flat bulk of his face beneath bagged grey eyes. “The word of your two novices has been duly recorded, naming you as foremost amongst witches, and naming the acts by which you, Countess de Marchand, compelled them into your service so that they might do your bidding in all things and prosecute infamies in your stead. How do you speak to the charges laid this day against you?”
She stood between her guards, staring into the shadows beneath the dais. The crowd began to murmur and some demands for her confession were voiced from its more substantial quarters, those preserved by prudent distance from having to confront their great bête noire in person. Behind the bishop, Rana leant forward from her chair and came to the latter’s shoulder, laying a hand upon his arm as she confided something to his right jowl.
“It is a vulgar custom.” he announced to her suggestion. “But I shall permit it.” He issued some short order and watched, as the senior guard drew a bodkin from his belt; Sachiin caught Kala'amātya's arm as they took her head and sliced the skin between her eyes with the blade, treating Agathé and Adelle in the same way, though they seemed insensible, standing with the blood streaming down their faces. The crowd began to cheer, emboldened. The bishop called for a charger of blessed water, which he tossed down in the direction of the prisoners, splashing the cobbles and their bare feet. In her gleaming chair, Rana settled back to search out Kala'amātya's face.
“Before I name your sentence, I call on you to confess your crimes and prepare your soul for the judgement of your living saviour.” he informed her. Helaine looked for the first time to the prelate’s rose-flushed features; he read her mute refusal. “The fate of your corrupted sisters may move you better.” he predicted.
The weeping novices were dragged from behind her and hoisted over the faggots by a line of scowling pike-bearers, their chains drawn rattling round the great oak, three times about their bodies until they were imprisoned against it and each other. The girls began to petition the last of the guards who leapt down onto the flags, their sobbing entreaties rising into wailing as the flaming, tar-soaked torch was passed to the hooded executioner. The anonymous figure mumbled his half-articulate entreaty for the safety of his own emperiled soul, and without further ceremony touched the smoking flame to the foot of the pyre.
White smoke was whipped away from the girls by the same wind that fanned the flames until they flared up about their legs like licking tongues arising from a brittle phoenix nest. Their wailing rose into wild, avian screams as the fire climbed over the fuel toward their legs, the heat engulfing them in a shimmering silver column that ate the clothes from their bodies and began to consume their steaming, blistered flesh. The stench swept down over the crowd as though on blackened vans, the burning women thrashing in their chains until the bright veil of flame rose about their bloated shoulders and the crowd drew back, pressing sleeves and kerchiefs to their faces. With their remaining charge the horse guards retreated from the heat of the conflagration against the ranks of the onlookers, where a single voice in a low and vehement language scarcely earned a moment of their rapt attention. Standing out of sight behind her shoulder, Kala'amātya dragged from his empty chest, sending them as emissaries across the cold arm’s length between them.
“You know well... they care for your land and not your life... confess and I will buy you from them.” He reached out, unable to contain himself, and slid his hand beneath her arm. She looked down at its strange shape against the threadbare silk that clothed her side, remembering his knowledge of her flesh, the way in which his body was but a province of her own.
“I cannot live another hour in this skin." she told him softly. "Kala'amātya... we may fashion our own gods but we are subject to their judgement." His sorrow filled the last redoubt inside her heart and blurred the immolation as it spilled down her face from her lashes. "You are all that I have loved. Let me go, or I will never learn to leave you.”
Before him, the white breadth of her shoulders moved, and she lifted her head, looking up to burn her pale eyes upon the corpses chained against the sooty stake, bent double by the flames that had consumed and transmuted them so horribly, their blackened, oily skin and sinews contracting as they cooled, the fuming mound of charcoal and ashes beneath them doused by wardens. The womens' twisted forms appeared far more ominous and malefic than at any living moment, like something dragged smoking out of hell; the assembled clergy kept their linen to their faces and awaited a change of wind. When it came, the bishop heaved himself once more from his throne to deliver his final address.
“Helaine de Marchand... your estates, dwellings and title shall be forfeit to the church, with any coinage, relic or treasure in your name. I call upon you to repent your crimes before your fellow man, so that you may be freed of the corruption that binds you to the Adversary. What say you?” Her guards stepped back from her, as though their presence might impede her will. Helaine looked up at the dais, at Rana’s smile and then at the bishop, studying him for a term.
“I would say these few things. The first, to this distinguished company... without your greed and your abiding hatred of each other, I could not have prospered as I did. To the women, I say abasement is your desert for as long as you submit yourselves. To the men, I own I should have set more of your heads upon my gate. And to this church... you cannot cast me into the void... in death I will go where I please, as I have done in life, and I will die in any manner you devise before I kiss your book and live by your consent.” Helaine looked over the faces staring back at her. “I leave you in each others' hands.”
Gideon shook his head at Sachiin's side, smiling in spite of his regret.
“An we are to lose this woman, while your beloved lives.” he observed, looking across the clearing at Rana. “A bitter day.”
Beside the pit that lay between a score of lifted stones, two guards took up a lengthy wooden instrument, as long as a pike and forked at its end, fashioned from a bifurcated bough; another like it had been handed to them by the priests after it had received a hasty blessing. Helaine considered her dim reflection in the milky ditch, an image shattered as she stepped down and sank to her waist in its midst; the dark silk of her skirt billowed out around her, drinking in the water and falling with its weight. With her back to the crowd she lay down in the freezing pool, its depths biting hard as they soaked through her gown. The feeble sun was once more engulfed by clouds, their soft shapes floating on the surface of her gaze until she closed her eyes against the day and descended, leaving only ripples to meet and cross each other until waning into quiescence. In their nervous haste the men plunged their staffs into the pit, leaning heavily upon them. If she struggled there was no sign, though they were careful to keep their eyes from the water. Sachiin turned to find his brother had sunk to his knees as though run through by eviscerating iron, holding his dark head in his white hands.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce