It was just bad, bad luck that led Britney into the small village.
She had been hiking with a few friends; they’d set up camp, and she had gone for a short walk to check out the surroundings. Not far from camp, she had spotted a rocky ridge that seemed to offer a fantastic view of the surrounding woodlands, so she headed for it.
Five hours later, she admitted to herself she was lost. Shining with sweat, her white tank top and grey walking shorts grubby, her boots dragging a collection of twigs and leaves, she fought her way through inhospitable foliage, hoping to find some clue to where she was. Branches constantly snagged her black hair.
Britney was tiny - only five feet tall - but she had fierce determination, and refused to give up. Eventually, she found herself on a well-worn walking track. With a self-congratulating smile, she followed its course.
She came across the village soon after. Just a collection of houses, an old church, and a general store at the side of a cracked two-lane highway that snaked off into the forest in either direction.
The store was closed for the evening, so Britney decided on the church. She crossed the road with confidence, tugged on the wrought iron handle of its heavy wooden door. It was locked. The red paint was badly peeling, and she scowled at it.
“Someone hasn’t been doing their maintenance!” Making a small fist, she pounded on the door. “Hey! Anyone inside?”
There was the sound of movement. Britney waited, hands on hips, as a bolt was drawn on the inside. Slowly, the door creaked inwards.
“Hello?” The priest who peered out looked friendly enough; in his fifties, dressed in a simple white cassock. He focused on Britney’s eyes. “May I help you?”
“Hello yourself!” Britney huffed impatiently, and pushed past him to get inside the church. “What does it look like, doofus? I’m lost! D’you have a phone in here, or what?”
“I’m sorry, how rude of me. Please, come in,” said the priest, shutting the door. Britney was already halfway down the aisle, looking up at the wooden ceiling.
“A bit crappy in here, isn’t it? You got cobwebs,” she noted.
The priest followed after her. “Well, you know how it is. There aren’t so many occasions to clean it, these days.”
“No shit,” said Britney.
“Your language, my child, is inappropriate for a House of God,” the priest reminded her.
“Ah, c’mon. Fuck that and get me a phone, would you?”
The priest hesitated. Then, with a sigh, “in that case, please, come this way.”
He led Britney to a small doorway; it opened to reveal a spiralling staircase leading down beneath the church.
“Holy shit! This is where you live?” Britney gasped in wonder.
“After you,” said the priest.
Britney descended the stone stairs, perhaps twenty feet down. The only light spilled from the doorway above, and a burning bulb in the room below. As they reached the concrete floor, Britney frowned.
“Well where’s the …?”
“There is no phone, Sinner!” Without warning, the priest seized Britney by the wrist. She shrieked and tried to tug away, but he twisted, and Britney’s arm folded up between her shoulder blades.
“Oh! Ow! Fuck, stop, stop!” she bellowed. “You’re breaking my arm!”
“Walk with me,” the priest hissed. Britney had no choice but to cooperate, as she was marched through the cellar towards a crypt, a tiny enclosure dug into the bedrock, closed off with a barred iron gate.
“Please,” Britney panted, as she drew near. “I get claustrophobic!”
The priest took no notice, simply drew the door open and shoved her inside. She stumbled to the floor, and before she could get to her feet, the door slammed shut. Britney watched helplessly as the priest fitted a padlock to the door, and locked it.
“Don’t go anywhere, Witch,” he scowled.
“Witch? Witch? Oh, mister, you’ve got it wrong!” Britney’s arrogance was traded for desperate humility. “Please, I’m not like that at all!” But the priest was already leaving, unheeding Britney’s calls. She watched him climb the stairs, and, a minute later, heard the door above slamming shut.
Britney burst into tears. She slumped to the floor, drawing her knees up to her chin and hugging her bare legs, sobbing uncontrollably.
The sound of the door opening upstairs woke Britney from her doze. She sat up at once, rubbing her bare arms against the cold cellar air.
She could hear footsteps descending - not just one, but perhaps three people. No, four! She was saved! She scrambled to her feet. “Hey! Hello! I’m down here!”
“We know.” It was the voice of the priest, and Britney froze at the sound.
“What’s going on?”
The priest appeared first, followed by a policeman of a similar age, then another man, in his thirties, and, finally, a woman, also in her thirties. The latter two, particularly, looked like normal, friendly people. The man wore smart trousers and a business shirt; the woman wore a simple summer dress.
“Oh!” It was the woman who spoke, as all drew near. “She’s pretty.”
Britney was worried. “Who are you? What’s going on?”
“Nothing to worry about, young lady,” the policeman said. “We just weren’t sure who you were, or why you were here.”
“I’m Britney Martin, and I came out here with my friends, we were hiking, but I got lost, and -“
“Does anyone else know where you are, then?” the businessman asked.
Britney glared at him. “No, doofus! Mr. Bible Basher over here locked me in here before I could get to a phone!”
“We should torture her first,” the woman said.
Britney blinked at her. “What?!?”
“No,” said the businessman. “There’s no time. They’ll be looking for her. We have to do it tonight.”
“Do - fucking - what?” Britney demanded. She grasped the bars of her prison, shook the door. “Come on! Let me out, already! Please! I’m freezing in here!”
The policeman nodded. “She’s perfect. Let’s get ready.”
“Hey!” Britney called after the four, as they departed; but nobody looked back.
Hours passed. Britney finally heard the door upstairs opening again. This time, she got to her feet cautiously, watching to see who arrived. It was the same four as earlier, but this time, they were differently dressed.
The priest wore black and purple, his finest robes. The policeman had his full dress uniform. The man wore a smart suit. The woman, still wore the dress, but her blonde hair had been carefully tied with flowers and some leaves of ivy, and she wore a gold bracelet on each wrist, a gold band around her upper arm. Britney shook her head in disbelief.
“What the hell …?”
“Time to go,” the priest said, as he unlocked the door.
“Go where?” Britney was hesitant to emerge from her cell, but did so on the bidding of the priest. As she stepped out, however, both priest and policeman grabbed her. “Hey!!” Britney fought, but had no chance against two large men, and they wrenched her arms behind her back. It was the woman who produced a length of rope, and busily set about tying Britney’s wrists behind her back.
“Ow! Fuck, that’s too tight!” Britney yelped.
“Let’s go,” the policeman said. As soon as Britney was bound, they hurried her to the stairs and began to lead her up. Britney was shaking, her mind racing.
“Damn, you guys,” she said nervously. “It this turns out to be one of those practical jokes for TV, I am not going to be fucking laughing!”
“Shut up, for God’s sake,” the woman said.
Britney glared at her, but said nothing more as they started up the stairs.
Somebody had cleaned the church.
It was nighttime, but all the church’s chandeliers were blazing, candles lit along the walls, and the place looked spectacular. It was enough to even distract Britney for a moment, before she was hurried towards the doors.
The air was cool outside, and goosebumps coursed over Britney’s bare arms as she was marched across the road; but a moment later, she forgot all about the cold as her jaw dropped in horror.
In an open space between who large old houses, a tall wooden stake stood in the ground. In neat piles, around it, were stacks of wood, straw, and twigs. Halfway up the stake, a metal ring, two manacles dangling on chains. Perhaps a hundred people stood in a wide circle about the scene, twenty of them holding burning torches.
“Oh, God, no,” Britney moaned in utter horror.
As they urged her forward, she tried desperately to free her hands. Now she was in the hands of the policeman and the businessman; the priest went to stand in the middle of the circle of onlookers.
“People!” All fell silent at his raised voice. “Our prayers have been heard! We asked God to deliver us a witch to burn, and last night, she arrived at the very doors of my church! This will be the answer to our woes.”
“Don’t listen to him!” Britney shrieked. “He’s lying! I’m not a witch!”
“Divest her of her clothing,” the priest ordered.
“No,” Britney protested weakly, but the woman held a blade of some sort, and in moments had neatly cut down the front of Britney’s tank top. The garment was ripped from her; a simple snip severed the straps of her bra, and a moment later Britney’s button-breasts were bared to all. Her boots were next, then her shorts and g-string; in less than two minutes, Britney was stripped bare in front of the hundred onlookers. Her body looked perfect in the flickering light of the fires.
“Prepare her!” the priest ordered.
As the two men forced Britney forward, the crowd closed in behind them, watching as the naked girl was marched up to the stake. She chose a moment to suddenly pull back and twist, hoping to get free, but the hands on her bound arms held her, and she was pushed against the stake.
The woman was on hand with a length of thick rope interwoven with wire; as Britney was held against the stake, the woman crouched at her feet, looped it tightly about Britney’s ankles, then around the stake, lashing them tightly.
“You’re making a mistake,” Britney said. “God, tell me this is a joke!”
“This isn’t a joke,” the businessman said.
With her ankles secured, they untied Britney’s wrists. She tried to fight, but was helpless as they pulled her arms high above the stake, and locked her hands in the metal shackles.
“What are you going to do to me?” Britney asked in fear. A droplet of nervous sweat ran from one smooth armpit, down her ribcage.
“We’re going to burn you,” the woman said calmly.
“No-o-o!!” Even as the men stepped away, Britney began tugging wildly at the chains that held her arms up; but she was helpless. One by one, the gathered people began picking up straw and wood, and piling it about Britney’s feet. “Please,” she wailed to the priest. “My parents have money, they’ll give you what you want, please!”
“We don’t want money,” the priest said.
“Then what do you want?”
“We want a miracle.”
Her face framed by her upstretched arms, Britney shook her head, tears pouring from her eyes. “I can’t give you a miracle!”
“You can, and you will, by dying for us.”
“I WON’T FUCKING DIE FOR YOU!” Britney shrieked. But the wood was piled about her, as high as her knees, and all she could do was watch, and weep. Eventually, the people all moved away. The woman who had bound her now came forward with a hair-tie. Britney said nothing as her black hair was pulled back and secured away from her face, but when the woman was done, sniffed, “why did you do that?”
“So your face won’t burn too soon.”
At that, Britney let out a long wail of misery.
The policeman whispered something to the priest, who held up his hands again for silence. The crowd went silent, until the only sound was Britney sobbing.
“We do not have long, so we shall start. We have gathered here, tonight, to witness the burning of a sinner, a witch, whom God delivered to us. Through this act, in which we honour God by ridding his world of Satan’s whore -“
“Satan’s what?” Britney was outraged.
“ - we can be sure that the troubles we have endured will soon be at an end.”
“I can’t believe this! Please, tell me it’s a joke!” The tears were pouring down Britney’s face, and she struggled to free herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement, the flicker of a burning torch being brought closer. “Please, please, don’t burn me!” she sobbed at the onlookers.
The woman, whose role in all of this Britney had so far failed to understand, moved into view. She, too, had stripped naked. She wore nothing but the gold armband and bracelets. She stood in front of the terrified Britney, holding a fluttering torch, her nude body gleaming in its light.
The priest said, “by the hand of a virgin, pure in the eyes of God, the fire shall be lit.”
Britney watched in horror as the naked woman crouched, touched the flames to the straw at the base of the pyre.
For the longest time, there was only the growing fire.
To Britney, it was surreal. Her heart thudded as tiny orange flames skittered and flared in the straw, jumping from one twig to another, their flickering light revealing the circle of onlookers in slowly increasing clarity. She could smell the sweet smoke of its burning. The tears raced down her cheeks, sweat shone in gleaming trails down her naked body. She continued to beg and plead to the crowd, but nobody stepped forward.
The fire grew. Somebody coughed. Britney tugged her hands against the manacles that held them above her head, tried to pull herself up, but her bound ankles kept her anchored. Tiny sparks began to rise up through the stacked wood, riding the currents of hot air, and one stung her bare thigh. She gasped, jolted back against the stake.
The night was cool, but windless, and the fire was taking a long time to grow. It would have given Britney’s tormentors ample time to rake the burning straw back and free her, but nobody moved, and the flames jumped ever higher. Britney tried to shrink back, but had nowhere to go. The flames were dancing closer and closer towards her, and she began to feel the heat, at first just the comfortable warmth of a bonfire or barbecue; but as the flames rose, it began to feel uncomfortably hot.
“Please!” she begged.
The smoke was drifting in ever-thicker clouds past her pretty face. Beneath the stacked wood, a tight bundle of straw caught alight, the flames crackling up through the twigs close to her right calf, and she gave a small shriek. There were a few moments when nothing more happened; then, fifteen minutes after the fire had been lit, a flame licked the side of her foot.
“Ohhhh Goodddddd!!!” The moment the flames touched her, Britney was screaming in pain. She thrashed about with renewed strength; but the fire’s first assault was quickly reinforced by a small, fluttering trail of flames that engulfed both feet. Fire began to lick, hissing, at her shining calves. Britney screamed at the top of her lungs, but she could not tug her feet from the agony. Sparks drifted up, stung her bare arms and breasts and belly.
Twenty minutes. The crowd was slowly moving back as the fire took hold of the wood. Flames began to jump higher; the first tongues of orange crackling up through the bigger logs, and flickering out towards Britney’s bare thighs. Wherever fire touched, her skin reddened, blistered. Her whole body shone as if it had been oiled.
Still she screamed; twenty-five minutes into the burning. Her feet and lower legs were now alight, and the fire was hungrily attacking her knees, climbing slowly higher. A spark settled in her pubic hair and there was a brief flurry of flames as most of it turned to char. The distinct smell of burning hair reached the crowd, and several people held their noses.
Britney howled in agony as the crackling, hissing fire reached her thighs. The first flames fluttered at her hips, too, and a brief, savage flutter of flame flew up between her legs, burning her sensitive lips. She threw her head back, screaming in unbridled agony. Now, the oils and lipids of her body were turning to tallow, and, like a candle, had become its own fuel.
“Please! Kill me now!” Britney bellowed through her screams. It was half an hour since the fire had been lit, and now she was suffering beyond all endurance. She was tugging madly on the manacles above her head, blood running down her arms from her lacerated wrists. The fire was growing faster, flames flashing past her belly. The undersides of her breasts were beginning to blister. She still struggled. Then, without warning, there was a loud POP! from one foot, like a small firecracker, and a cloud of sparks rose up on the fire’s heat. Britney howled, and suddenly lost all the support of her legs, her full weight hanging from the manacles. It was evident, now, why they had chained her hands above her head; to stop her falling into the fire and dying too quickly.
There was another pop, then another; the bones of her ruined feet, exploding with heat. At the same time, fire finally began lapping at her naked breasts, hissing flames sizzling through the sweat that covered her skin. Fire kissed her shoulder blades, ate hungrily at her belly and ribs; skin peeled back, flesh caught alight. Britney screamed and wailed.
She had been burning for twenty minutes, when her beautiful black hair, suddenly, flared in a crackling fireball. Its flames seared her arms, tore her scalp, but her face was barely touched, and through the rising fire and drifting smoke, all could clearly see the agony on her face as her entire body became embraced by fire. The flames began to rumble, like a passing freight train, the savage heat funnelling the fire up around the twisting, screaming Britney. Flame danced in her armpits, and, finally, embraced surrounded her pretty, upturned face.
Twenty-five long minutes since her feet had felt the first touch of fire, Britney hung, twisting helplessly in the all-engulfing inferno. There was no escape from the agony. With a distinctive thud! thud! her breasts burst, hot, melted fat flung out across the grass. Her voice, at once, became a rattle of agony. She was inhaling fire, now, and it was searing her lungs, blistering her throat.
Thirty minutes. Britney’s voice was finally silenced. She hung in the fire, only her hands, at the very apex of the flames, showing that she still lived, still felt the agony: her fingers slowly curled and twisted, shaking, pulled hard down into the manacles by the weight of her burning body.
Finally, even her hands were engulfed by fire. The onlookers watched as the dark shape within the flames slowly came apart, as bones burst, destroying what little was left of Britney’s firm young flesh. Nobody knew if there would be a miracle as a result of this night; but for Britney there were no miracles.