Stomping boots echo off the stone floors. Torch light rounds the corner and the guards’ silhouettes march in step with their shadows. Silke slowly raises her head. The smell of leather and horse mingles with the moldy straw of her cell. Keys jangle and rattle the iron lock. She wants to scratch the numerous dried cuts on her scalp—they were brutal when they shaved her head looking for witch’s markings—but her hands are chained behind her back. Pain pounds no longer in her thumbs broken by those screws, but she cannot move them.
“It is time,” Hannes the Executioner says. He uncorks a tiny ceramic flask and raises it to Silke’s lips. “Drink this. Then it will all seem like a dream.”
He gently helps her to her feet. His potion was potent and her knees give way. The scratchy grey frock sticks to the wounds between her legs. They had shaved her there, too. Hannes the Executioner catches her before she swoons.
“You must walk by yourself,” he says.
The city fathers wait by the gates of the jail. As Silke approaches, they begin the march towards the gallows. Silke follows, head bent but eyes on the crowd. Her friends. Her neighbors. Her betrayers. An apple of grassy-green horse shit hits her in the face, the cool juice dripping down her neck.
“Burn the witch!”
They stop at the base of the pyre. What a waste of firewood. Alexander had to pay for the wood, too. This wood would have kept them warm for a month. Now it will keep her warm for eternity.
Hannes the Executioner lays an arm across her shoulder. “Silke, I’m sorry. It will go quickly, I promise. Have another drink.”
He offers her the ceramic flask again and she drinks. He leads her up the makeshift steps to the top of the pyre and secures her chained hands to the stake with a rope. She looks at the sky. One lone hawk soars on the current, circling upwards like a soul towards heaven. She steals one last look at the mob, dirty faces twisted in rage, the sound of their anger mingling into one incoherent din.
The guards ram their torches into the dried woodpile and the flames spring to life. The soles of her feet singe. Smoke and the smell of burning flesh fill her lungs. She splutters and coughs and tries to take one deep breath. Just one. She closes her eyes and tilts her head to the sky, feels a burning warmth on her face, the lone hawk cries out, a breeze rustles through the trees, a gentle hand touches her face…
“Come out of the sun,” a man’s voice says. “You’re burning up.”
Silke stretches her legs and blades of grass tickle her toes. She opens her eyes. A lone hawk soars overhead. Alexander strokes her cheek with his finger and smiles. He stands and helps her to her feet. He kisses her cheek and leads her to the shade underneath an ancient oak tree. He lays her down. Acorns prick her shoulders and she cringes as she imagines the inflamed welts on her back, but no pain comes.
“This is the work of the devil,” Silke says. “What have you done?”
“The devil has enough work with those men and their incessant witch trials,” Alexander says. “And I have saved your life.”
“I remember this day.”
“This is the day I asked you to run away with me.”
“But I couldn’t then. I can’t now. My father needs me.”
“We can’t stay here,” he says. “They find us out. You remember how that day ended. They hurt you. They’ll find me. I’m giving us a second chance.”
Silke runs her fingers through her curly red hair. “We cannot tamper with what was. With what is. What is to come. This trick of yours is damned.”
“Anything done for love surely cannot be damned, dear.”