The cold chains hold me near the wall. I’ve no idea how long I’ve been in the dungeon, a few days or even a week? It is hard to believe that in such a short time so much hardship and sadness can overcome people. Sarah has always taken care of the people in Silverdale, our village, as long as I can remember. When someone was sick she always knew the herbs to cure them and ease their sufferings. When someone got hurt in an accident or wounded in a fight she knew what to do.
The first time I met her was when I was badly hurt by an orcish arrow. My comrades brought me back to the village, but few of them thought that I would live through the night. The wound was deep and the arrow poisoned.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness Sarah floated above me soothing my fevered head and wetting my dry lips with a honey tasting liquid. I had no idea of the time I lay in the hut drifting in and out of darkness with Sarah’s golden head floating over me but finally one morning I woke to feel the cold of the dawn. I looked around the familiar room and realised that I was still alive. Sarah had gone but I knew that she had saved me.
Time passed and Sarah continued to help the village people when they had problems. The village loved her, or they seemed to. But love can be a fickle thing.
One day nearly a year after my recovery Sarah had been arrested on a charge of killing the local Judge. She was being held in the jail they said. I knew that this charge was ridiculous and that she would not be held for long. She was so loved in the village that none would believe such a ridiculous story. I was listening to the villagers talking when I began to realise that maybe not everyone had the same faith in Sarah’s innocence as I did.
Her accuser was Patricia, the daughter of the judge, an attractive girl, but one with a hard personality. She was the same age as Sarah and had spent almost all her life in her shadow. Jealousy is a terrible emotion and it seemed to be steering her towards real trouble. I was still confident that in spite of the influence of the Judge’s daughter the village would support Sarah. She had helped them so much in the past they could not possibly let her down.
The court case was short and brutal. Not a single person from the village spoke in Sarah’s defence. Indeed there were mutterings and rumbles of anger and assent as the charges were laid out. Several villagers came forward to support the charges against Sarah or to add further allegations.
As I stood at the back of the court watching the golden-headed girl sitting on the prisoners stool with tears in her eyes I felt an anger rising in my chest. “Stop this” I shouted, “This girl is innocent. She has done nothing but good for the people of this village. She has saved life many times not taken it.”
“Silence! Silence!” the Judge roared. “Be silent in my court.” “It is the jealousy of your daughter that has brought Sarah to this. Patricia is an evil girl who has always hated Sarah.” “Enough!” the Judge roared, his face red with anger. “Take him away. He is a familiar of this criminal witch. Seize him now!” I moved towards the front of the court in a vain attempt to reach Sarah but the crowd of villagers was to crushed together.
Within seconds my arms were grabbed and pinned at my sides by the guards who accompanied the Judge everywhere. I kicked and struggled as they dragged me from the court to the jeers of the villagers but to no avail. As the guards got me to the door of the jail I heard a roar of approval from the packed courtroom. Sarah had been found guilty and the sentence of public burning at the stake in the village market place was being pronounced.
The door to my cell opened and Patricia entered. She was cloaked in a deep blue dress, with a cloak around her. She smiled down at me as I vainly struggled to stand in spite of the chains holding me. “You cannot get to me foolish man. You and your witch lover can do no harm to anyone now.” Her voice was cracking with a mixture of hate and pleasure. “Have you ever seen a burning at the stake? Heard the crackle of the flames and the shrieks of the victim? Seen the terror in her face as the flames rise and her desperate struggles as the fire takes her? And the smell...........that unique smell of burning flesh?”
“When I was a child, my father forbid me to watch the public executions.” “This isn’t for a young girl like you he kept telling me” she giggled “But I’ve still crept away and hidden inside the crowd to watch the executions. I especially liked it when someone was burned alive. You know, when they hang them it is over when their neck breaks. Sometimes they struggle a little when the rope is choking them, but it is over very fast... but burning.”
Little sweat drops gather on her forehead “It rarely happens that a crime that is committed as serious enough to justify this punishment. But sometimes, like now it does. I still remember the first burning I witnessed as if it was yesterday. It was a pretty and young servant girl who had murdered the son of a noble house lady. A long pole was been placed into the ground, 10, perhaps 15 feet high. Straw and branches were piled into a huge pyre. She was kicking and shrieking in panic, but the guards dragged her without mercy to the pole where she was to die. The crowd became silent suddenly and the only sound was the sobbing girl, still pleading for mercy. She was tied to the stake with ropes and chains, every eye was on her - but her eyes were only on the torch that the executioner held. The judge outlined her crime, pronounced the sentence and then nodded to the executioner.”
Patricia paused for a few moments and her tongue licked her lips before she continued.” The executioner thrust the torch to the straw and held it there until it caught fire, then moved around the pyre slowly applying the torch to different sides. Very soon the flames blazed up everywhere. At first the doomed girl shrank back pressing herself harder against the stake in a forlorn attempt to distance herself from the terrible fire. She was begging for help. For someone to put out the fire and take her down. Her pleas were really heartrending.” Patricia paused licking her full lips again.” Then the fire began to take her.
First the flames licked over her feet and legs. Her sobs became cries, louder and more piercing than anything I had ever heard. Her yells increased as her body was slowly consumed by the fire. Her thin robe burned away very quickly, leaving nothing other than the chains and the transparent flames to cloak her body. She had some strength left and desperately lunged against the bindings, but the pole moved only slightly and forced her to stay in the pillar of fire. The kiss of the flames first blistered her flesh red, then black. It cracked open and broke away from the bones. Even as her hair caught fire she was still screaming, but that was close to the end and soon there was nothing to hear but the crackling of the fire. Some people left when her screams ended, but I and most of the other remained to watch the fire, still consuming her empty shell until nothing was left but ashes, the chains and the scorched black pole.” She breathed out and there was a long silence as she watched me.
“Tomorrow morning your girl will burn and you will watch it like the rest of the town. Your life will be spared. I’ve not arranged this because I like you, but because I want you to suffer. You will spend the rest of your life in this cell, with your memories. Her first screams when the fire begins to burn her, the look when her skin is melted and her beauty is destroyed by the fire. Your mixed feelings of anguish and relief when her agony ends.”
“Why? Why are you doing this to us?” I gasped. “What have we ever done to you?” Patricia laughed, a sneering laugh.” She has done nothing. It is you! You caused all this. You are Sarah’s executioner.” “But I have done nothing to you! I have hardly ever spoken to you!” I cried out in anger and amazement. “Exactly!” she smiled and turned to the door. “You ignored me.” She spun on her heel. “I will now make a small visit to the executioner and ‘convince’ him to make the death of your girl as long and excruciating as possible. Farewell my captain.”
Then she closed the door with a loud bang and I was alone again.
There was no sleep for me that night, every time I closed my eyes I saw Sarah tied to a pole, surrounded by fire, screaming in pain, desperately yelling my name.
It seemed an age before the first shafts of the sun glinted through the barred window. Before long there was the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside and the guards came to unlock the chains and drag me to the marketplace. They were the best of the guard, strong and efficient. They took no chances that I might break loose.
When we entered the market place my heart went cold. I saw the old stone block about, a yard square, from which announcements were made. But now it had a tall pole set into the ground directly behind it. Near the block were two wagons loaded with enough faggots to destroy Sarah’s body and a small brazier with peat burning in it from which the fire would be started.
The crowd was dense loud. They pressed forward and jostled to get a good view of the execution. A few faces were sad but most were laughing, chattering and looking forward to the entertainment soon to come.
Suddenly a ripple of interest went through the crowd as Sarah was led into the square. Her face was smeared with dried tears. Her long red hair, once beautiful, now matted and dirty, straggling down over her shoulders. Her once sparkling green eyes, dull and blank with a numb horror at her fate. She wore a simple sleeveless shift of pale grey, which just revealed her naked feet beneath its hem. The feet shuffled, almost dragged over the hard cobbles as the guards propelled her towards the terrible stone block.
The crown, silenced at her first appearance suddenly burst into shouts. “Burn her!.” “To the stake with the witch!” “Burn the murderess!” they roared, as this young girl who had tended and helped them since her first days was half dragged, half carried to her death.
The guards hauled Sarah up the steps onto the stone block and spun her round with her back to the stake. The first guard pushed her back hard against the wood with his hands on her shoulders and she stood unresisting as the second guard pulled her arms roughly behind the stake and tied them together with a length of water soaked rope.
Next an iron chain was wrapped tightly across her chest and then coiled around her waist and legs being finally secured with iron staples behind her ankles. The guards slowly and methodically tested the bindings to make sure that there was no chance of Sarah breaking free once her terrible struggles began and then they climbed back off the block and began to pile faggots from the carts around the stake and its lonely occupant.
Light as if she was dancing, Patricia moved over to me The Guards strengthened their grip. She bent down and whispered into my ear “Do you see the thick bundles of wood that they are piling up directly around the stone block? I have arranged that they are soaked with water. That will prevent the flames from igniting them too soon and make her dying longer.” She smiled grimly “We have also forced her to drink a special potion so she won’t faint too soon and can give the audience the show they desire ... I wonder if she can still scream very much after last night. The stone block was my idea by the way.......it will ensure that she does not fall down into the flames and die too quickly. We would not want to deprive the crown of their fun would we?”
Mustering all my strength I dragged to free my arms from the guards to grasp for her slim neck so I could throttle the life from her. She jumped back, but before I could free the hard grip of the guards had caught me again and wrestled me to the floor. She bent forward putting her face close to mine and breathed “Since she has killed my father it will be me who has the honour of lighting the pyre which will erase your girl from this world”
The guards dragged me back to my feet as Patricia walked away towards the stone block where everything was ready. Faggots were piled high to the feet of condemned girl whose face was blank, her body erect and unmoving. The Judge from Vexen, the neighbouring town walked to the front of the pyre and read the crimes of the accused and her sentence. Then slowly stepping back he nodded to Patricia.
She took a long piece of wood with an oil soaked rag tied around it and step to the brazier were she held it. The crowd were silent. The only sound in the market place was the gentle whispering as the oil soaked rag began to catch alight. Patricia held the burning torch aloft to the crowd for a short time, then stepped to the pyre and thrust it deep into the waiting faggots.
After a few moments of hesitation it begins to crackle and fine clouds of smoke start to rise between the branches soon followed by the first tongues of flame. Satisfied she took a few steps back and gazed dreamily at the girl tied to the stake and the slowly growing fire.
Like a snake creeping though the grass, the fire slowly licked over the waiting faggots, jumping from one twig to another. Although I was only five yards away from Sarah, I was unable to do anything for her. “No!” I head myself scream “Don’t do this!” but again my struggles were in vain. The guards held me tightly as I watched the flames blazing around the woman I loved. Even from that distance the heat from the fire was unbearable. I dare not imagine how it was for her. Hot air from the fire blew upwards, and gave her dress and hair movement like a strong wind blowing.
Suddenly she came to life, her body arching in the chains and her arms tugging uselessly against their bonds as the flames leaped nearer to her. Her blank eyes flashed and widened brimful of horror and stark terror now her moment had finally arrived. But the stake had been well prepared and did not budge an inch in spite of her writhing and bucking against it as much as the tight bonds would allow.
Her eyes scanned over the crowd, and then meeting mine they held them fast. Her lips moved, forming my name, but there was no sound to be heard other than the crackling of the wood and the roar of the flames. But the new tears that ran down her cheeks said enough. She coughed as thin clouds of smoke surrounded her face and looked fearfully at the roaring flames below her.
More smoke began to rise and the hiss of steam could be heard as the fire reached the water soaked branches and hid her quivering body in what seemed like fog. Sweat drops run down her face as she teared again at the chains in an attempt to escape.
Then suddenly the flames jumped upwards, licking over her legs and igniting the robe she wears. Her face distorted as sudden pain ran though her body, but she struggled not to scream. Her body squirmed and writhed in a desperate attempt to avoid the burning pain as much as the confining chains allowed her to, but it was futile. Her screams echoed over the marketplace.
Her first cry drew a roar of delight from the crowd, soon followed by and never ending chant “Burn, witch! Burn murderess, burn!”. The fire blazed higher and higher, seemingly encouraged by the cries of the crowd and fuelled by the wood and her body. She moved her head upwards, looking into the sky, still screaming and shrieking in agony. Flames began to dance before her face, touching her stomach, licking her chest and finally igniting her hair. Her shrieks became howls as he jerked her head from side to side in a desperate but vain attempt to throw the fire off.
I was not able to watch it anymore and closed my eyes, but it seemed to take an eternity until it was over and her screams become moans and then vanished into the roaring of the fire and chants of the crowd. Even with my closed eyes I could still picture her inside the fire, her struggling against the chains became weaker and weaker. Then she closed her eyes and stopped fighting altogether. Her head sank to her chest and the movements ceased and peace came over her.
After a while I dared to open my eyes again. The twisted remains of her body were still in the fire, only held up by the chains, glowing hot red in the flames. Sarah died right in front of my eyes and it was not possible to do anything for her. The fire was still roaring, columns of black smoke rising into the sky. The burning pyre blurred as tears filled my eyes.
Patricia was still standing 3 steps away from me, her gaze shifting between the roaring fire and me. At first her face showed signs of disappointment, but then her lips formed a smile. “Shame that is is over so soon, I wish it had taken longer and she had made in more effort to struggle and beg for her life, She died too silently, too quickly, but it was still a great show, wasn’t it?” Fury and Rage grew inside my heart, I had only one wish, to kill her, to make her suffer.
Her laugh rang in my ears where the echoes of Sarah’s screams of anguish still roared. The guards had weakened their grip around my shoulders and arms. Now or never! I put all my strength into one blow, freed my right arm and drove my fist in the face of the guard to the left of me. He was surprised by the blow and sank to the ground. The soldier to my right get tried to resist but was too slow. I kicked him between his legs and as he went down I drew his short sword. The grip of the cold steel gave me new strength as I ran for Patricia. Something hit my rear hard, I stumbled and felt blood running down my back, but no pain and still I ran towards her.
Patricia looked surprised, unable to move, she did not even blink or scream as, with a loud scream of revenge, I rammed the sword into her chest. I sighed with pleasure as I felt it slide in through her ribs and out through her back. I looked into her shocked eyes, staring unbelievingly at me rather than at the blade in her chest. Red blood gushed out of the wound. Suddenly it became very cold, I didn’t even feel the heat from the burning pyre anymore. Everything blurred as my knees were not longer able to hold my weight and I lost my grip on the sword and sank to the ground.
I heard screams and shouts, someone calling for the healer, but it sounded so distant. I only heard my heart beating, slowly and weakly. The world faded away and the people around me became ghostly shadows. Everything turned black and I closed my eyes. Only one face remained clear, bending down over me her red hair blowing in the wind her green eyes flashing with love. She kissed my head “Soon we will be together” she said and then took my hand as we both entered the light.