“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... even we who fashion our own gods remain 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.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce.