Copyright © 2015 by Daniel de Lorne
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
Aurelia jerked with the cart as the wheels rumbled over each bump in the road. Her muscles tensed as she tried to stay upright, but it was difficult with her hands shackled in front of her and chained to the floor through metal loops. She studied them. If she didn’t, she’d be forced to look up and see the faces of the screaming townsfolk of Carcassonne, people who’d once been her kin, as they shrieked for her to burn. If she looked up, they’d be the ones to dance in the flames, and right now she just wanted to get this over with.
An onion punched her in the left breast, as strong as a fist. Almost as strong as Henri’s. It stole the breath from her and she doubled over. More vegetables pelted her, some as hard as stones. Maybe they were. She couldn’t stand straight any longer. She’d have to take the remaining distance hunched over, protecting herself as much as possible and holding onto her will.
She could have done away with this in an instant. She could have scorched the earth around her, making a pyre of her own that would blaze through the vile villagers gathered here today to watch her go up in smoke.
Keep calm. This will all be over soon.
She focused on the floor of the cart, then on one plank of wood, then tighter on one small section of its worn grain. The sounds and cries around her muffled. She kept her concentration locked on one tiny, curled knot and poured her whole world into it. The vegetables, the rocks, the missiles continued, but they were as gnats on a summer’s night.
The cart lurched to a halt but she saved herself from tumbling. Calmer than she’d felt in a week, she raised herself upright. With all the majesty she could muster, she regarded the peasants she’d been forced to live amongst. She fixed her eye on Benoit, a tanner, poised ready to throw a turnip, but it slipped from his hand. The corner of her mouth curled.
She looked at the stake rising out of a pile of dried sticks. They would ignite with the barest of sparks and set her white smock aflame. She swallowed hard. For the first time since her sentencing, she felt uneasy about what was to happen next.
Out of the corner of her eye she spied the two priests in their vestments, moving towards the cart — and her. Their lips mumbled prayers to the Lord, old white-haired Père Laurens with the younger Guillaume beside him, both with their eyes bright and hungry for the spectacle of seeing God’s will be done. It had been weeks since their last burning.
One of the guards who’d led her cart untied her from the floor. He grunted, and pulled roughly on her rope, pitching her forward. Hating him for the loss of grace, she wished she were a more vengeful person. The things she could do to him…
Maybe I will when all this is done.
The pelting began again as she was brought to the pyre, and led up the steps to the stake. From this higher point she could see the crowd and how it swelled. The square heaved with people. Children on fathers’ shoulders. Women with their faces twisted. More of those who had once been her people roared for her execution.
Her stomach ached, not from lack of food, for she’d been provided for, as disgusting as it was, but from the hate surrounding her. She had once been among them and now was cast out forever. She found Simone, Violette and Marie, but she no longer knew them. Just as they no longer knew her.
The Aurelia they had known was gone; the girl with the raven hair and the brightness in her eyes that seemed a blessing from God, considering she lived with those men, her family, and with no mother. Well, maybe that explained it. She’d made a deal with the Devil because her mother had run away and left them behind.
She could hear it all, spoken aloud or not. The gossips down the street who’d whispered about her diminished family, the silent stares as she walked past and then the chatter starting again when she wasn’t quite out of earshot. Her family had always been under suspicion. Now it had been proven justified. Especially now after her brothers’ disappearance.
The guard bound her to the stake with her hands behind her back and a rope looped around her neck.
Where were Olivier and Thierry now?
They lived, that she knew, but how did they fare? Drinking the blood of others no doubt suited Olivier, but Thierry wasn’t made for such things. She should have kept him close. While she wouldn’t want Thierry here to witness this, she couldn’t help but long for him.
‘Do you repent of your sins?’ asked Laurens.
Guillaume waved that ridiculous cross on its long stick in front of her face. She smiled slightly and let Laurens continue with his entreaties.
‘Do you repent of your sins, witch, and deny Satan so that God may have mercy on your soul?’
When she gave no answer, Laurens puffed himself up and his words fired at her, foam gathering in the corner of his mouth and spittle shooting from his lips. The man was utterly terrified.
‘Witch, you have been tried and convicted under the benevolent will of God. You are a consort of Satan and shall burn at the stake. Repent now and God may have mercy on your soul. Fail to repent and you shall writhe on that stake just as you shall writhe for eternity in the pits of Hell!’
The rough rope grazed her neck as it tightened, ready to take away her breath and leave nothing but an empty shell to cook in the flames. The cross danced in front of her face, with Christ’s tortured body hanging limply on it, the crown of thorns cutting painfully into his forehead.
‘Bring the flames and let that be the end of it,’ she intoned, her voice cutting through the rabble’s clamouring.
Gasps came from those nearest her and then a roar erupted once more, baying for her to burn.
‘Witch! So shall it be. You are hereby condemned to Hell. May you feel the full force of God’s vengeance.’
The executioner stepped forward. Henri — master butcher and her father — had volunteered to put his own daughter to the flames. A cynic would have suspected him of doing it to deflect suspicion. She knew he did it to exact his revenge. Yet now the time had come, he didn’t hold the torch as confidently as he would have if he were wielding a knife to slaughter a lamb. Gone were the strength and the certainty, his once defiant and staunch posture replaced with a wimpy frame, as if his vitality had drained. She wanted to laugh at him, and then she was. Laughing at those sad, pathetic eyes as he came forward to burn his daughter to death. Laughing at what she’d let this man do to her and her brothers for so long. Laughing at how much loathing she had within her.
‘Listen not to her cackling.’
Henri stood there, two hands grasping the torch when before he would only have needed one. A priest moved to either side of him, each putting an oiled torch into the fire, lighting it, and with a final call to God to have mercy on them, tossed them onto the pyre.
The faggots ignited quickly, and smoke rose to choke her. She turned her head to breathe in clear air, something that was fast disappearing. Heat radiated from below as more sticks burst alight and the branches snapped. Dancing flames leapt at her smock and sweat broke out across her body. She took shallow, rapid breaths.
What if this went wrong?
People punched their hands into the air, chanting for her grisly demise. She couldn’t look at them any longer, couldn’t even look at Henri. She’d wanted to stare into his eyes until the end, to pour all her fiery contempt into him, to make him burn as she did. But vengeance would have to wait. She needed to concentrate.
Fire scorched her ankles and she groaned at the freezing and burning that blasted her body, threatening to make her cry and scream. Her skin blistered.
Fighting back tears, she closed her stinging eyes. Breathing became harder, the smoke scratching her throat, but she compelled herself to relax and began to chant under her breath.
Cool air surrounded her body, holding the flames back. She continued her incantation, opening her eyes to see the fire encase her. The people silenced, and in between the flickering she saw the disbelief on their faces. She was supposed to be screaming, to be begging God for mercy, or at least whimpering. Anything except standing there whole.
The priests crossed themselves and clasped their hands. She focused on Henri. His mouth hung open, and his eye twitched. The fire rose higher, cutting off more of her view.
She should end this now.
Not for the first time since the soldiers had dragged her from her home, she wondered if this had been the right way to do things. She’d always tried to avoid a spectacle, preferring to work quietly in the background. Her mother had taught her that. Most times it was better to avoid suspicion and not let her power show.
But just this once, she wanted them to see what she was capable of. She wanted them all, especially Henri, to know.
What will Mother say?
She recited a short but powerful spell, and energy rose out of the earth to swirl around her and the blazing pyre. No one but her could sense it or see it. It twisted, creating a cone that rose to a point far above her head. And then the energy took on form and gathered the flames, bursting into an inferno. People leapt back; some ran. The flames churned, spinning and spinning, a conflagration that heaved like waves on rough seas. The energy then worked on her and she sailed into the air, leaving behind the earth, Carcassonne, and nothing to show she’d even been there.
Pre-order now from:
Escape Publishing | Amazon | iBooks | Kobo | Nook | GooglePlay