The Fall of Ossard
The fiery brand seemed weak, its flame all but lost under the glare of the summer sun, yet the black robed man who wielded it stepped forward with all the chill and menace of the deepest winter squall.
Vilma watched the young Inquisitor cross the cobblestones to the base of the long, stake-studded, and oil-soaked pyre. She wasn't alone. Four-dozen others also stood naked and bound as if some macabre forest had sprouted from the heart of Market Square.
Standing as straight as her bonds allowed, she tried to show her defiance despite her racing heart.
This wouldn't be quick, and by the gods, it would hurt!
Inquisitor Anton met her wide blue eyes, waiting for her to break –they always did. As a member of the Church of Baimiopia’s Expeditia Puritanica, he'd already cleansed scores of souls across the Heletian League, yet here he’d truly excelled: His superiors had warned that the harvest in Ossard always came heavy and rich.
Thanks be to Krienta!
It was the Northerners' penchant for blood mixing, the intermarrying of pious Heletians with foreign Flets, that created such fertile ground for heresy. Ossard stood ripe for a good burning, and fortunately he had the faith to kindle it.
He could smell a witch at a dozen paces, tasting their vileness just as his keen nose could catch the dirty blood of a fertile woman. Anton was good at what he did, very good indeed.
The Flet bitch continued to stare at him. He smirked, letting her sample his smug disdain. Most of her fellows begged for mercy or persisted with cries of innocence, yet it was the few who maintained their silence that he focussed on. They were where the true danger lay.
He turned his back on her to bring his attention to the crowd being forced into the heart of Market Square. They needed witnesses, as many as they could get, to learn the lesson that the Inquisition dutifully taught: That none shall stray from St Baimio's righteous path, for that was the only way to Krienta.
Thousands of hesitant townsfolk came forward, forced by a reluctant city watch, they in turn driven by the Sankto Glavos – the Inquisition’s holy knights. With barely a murmur, the two peoples of Ossard closed on the pyres, both the dark featured and olive skinned Heletians, and the blonde and fair Flets. Usually, their differences kept them apart, but today it was the true outsider – the Inquisition – that brought them together.
Vilma looked from her executioner’s back to her poor daughter where two monks held her at the front of the crowd. Inger, only newly a woman, struggled against their hands as she tried to turn her tear-filled eyes away. They stopped her, forcing her to look on.
The Sankto Glavos stood solid in their fine armour with shields and breastplates bedecked in black, navy and gold. The townsfolk before them cowered, the Heletians shedding tears to feed seeds of resentment with their sorrowful water, while their Flet brethren’s anger roused, fuelled by this latest act in an unfair history two centuries old.
Vilma whispered thanks to the gods that her daughter held no magic, but they'd also deprived her of the spirit she’d need to survive. She had to do something to give Inger a chance, something that might also spare her future children – for in their bloodline the ways of magic could skip a generation, but never two in a row.
She tried to keep her composure for Inger, to offer some kind of calm. It was hard, so very hard when she stood naked and bound to a stake rising from a pyre while so many different emotions rushed through her.
Her anger at her fate boiled, and that her daughter and her people should be made to watch the barbarity of it all only stoked that rage.
It also angered them; she could feel it. Her ability to delve into the celestial, the realm of magic and spirits, showed her the emotions entangling the souls around her. She would die today, but before her charred corpse fell crumbling and loosened from its burning bonds, the Inquisition would suffer the fury of the mob. Some already planned for it, both Flet and Heletian. By sunset the city would stand united, coming alive in riots led by the guilds and merchant houses. More would die. But dawn would see Ossard free of the Inquisition and their damned Black Fleet.
In a strong voice, Inquisitor Anton called, “Witches and warlocks will burn while cultists will drown. Yes, faithful people, the Church of Baimiopia will keep Ossard safe by picking the unfit hidden amongst you. Behold, the cleansing of the foul!” Then he dropped the burning brand, letting it fall through the silence and onto the edge of the oiled pyre.
The flames blossomed, rolling up to lick at Vilma’s toes while their searing breath raced higher to singe her blonde hair and scorch her fair skin. She struggled against her bonds, but it was pointless. The shock of the pain didn't allow her to do anything more than jerk and buck. She needed to focus, to blind herself to the agony and avoid the madness it would bring.
She had to focus…
Flames raged to either side of her and all about the stakes rising from amongst the piles of oiled wood. Men and women screamed and writhed against their bindings while the crowd cried out in horror.
Vilma fought against the pain, pushing it down, back, and into her heart. There she worked to harness it, to use it for power. This would be her only chance.
And all the while the flames grew stronger.
Blisters rose along her reddened and swelling legs, and lower her feet blackened and charred. The scent of her own burning flesh haunted her nose, yet she found sanctuary despite the stink and searing blast.
She stared out into the crowd, her gaze locking on to her daughter.
Inger looked back, her head held tight by the monks. Tears ran freely from her wide and innocent eyes, rolling down her cheeks to her chin, from where they fell free to land on the cobbles.
What Vilma would have given to sup of them!
She whispered, a sound that couldn't hope to break above the hiss and snap of the roaring flames, yet she knew Inger would hear. Delving into the secret arts, she harnessed her boiling blood as it leaked from doomed veins to spend its power. This would be her last casting.
Yes, she was a witch, but what of it? She'd never burnt anyone at the stake or committed any other crime. She wasn’t the monster!
She whispered to Inger, first soothing words and cooing.
Her daughter stilled her struggles, so much so that the monks holding her began to loosen their grip.
Vilma then gave her a message, whispering it over and over, “Remember your children, keep them safe.”
The monks relaxed as Inger calmed. Now, her only sign of anguish came from the tears streaming down her pale cheeks. The monks stepped back, leaving her to her misery.
And all the while the fire raged.
Vilma’s hair fell about her in burning strands with most of it breaking free, singed and ashen, as it was dragged up and into the afternoon sky. She couldn't feel her legs any more, but it was no relief, the worst of the pain had risen up her body, fully upon her blistering belly and breasts, and her arms tied behind her.
She had to end this and quickly. She'd also try to take the others being fed to the fire with her, but before she could, she had to give Inger hope.
Vilma saw a young man in the crowd, glimpsing him through the rising wall of flames. She knew of him. He was the only son of a well to do Flet family – and also come of age.
He looked upon the burnings in horror, yet had the strength to watch.
She sensed his soul more deeply.
He was true…
She whispered to him, sending something that made him push forward to the front of the crowd.
Before him stood a lone Flet girl, the young lady’s beautiful face wet with grief. Struck by the look of loss in her eyes, all he wanted to do was offer her comfort. He stepped past some monks and took her into his embrace.
Inger surrendered to him.
Her mother whispered, “Love her and care for her,” sending the message directly to his soul as she reached into the celestial and bound them together.
Inquisitor Anton scowled. He could sense a casting, the cold tingle of its passing hanging in the air despite all the heat being thrown off by the flames.
It was the defiant bitch!
It ran weak and without danger, but still stood as sorcery. Guessing its target, he span on his heel to search the crowd.
There she stood, the witch's daughter, wrapped in the arms of a young man – another Flet!
Anton could taste her mother's bewitchment; the binding of souls and making of love. She’d crafted their marriage here. No doubt they would breed and more witchery would crawl from the filthy pit between the girl's legs.
No matter, he could check on their get during his next visit.
And then a dark smile broke his stern lips.
But for now…
For now rose the hungry fire and he would burn her mother, and if he found no satisfaction in that, he could always throw her daughter on the pyre as well. His gaze drifted as he thought, coming to a stop where it found a half empty barrel of oil.
He’d finish her casting now!
Anton strode across and tipped the barrel on an angle so he could wheel it along on its rim. He began moving it, it rumbling as it rolled over the cobblestones, bringing it closer to the witch and her coming end.
Vilma watched her daughter, the young man holding her tight. The couple were lost in each other as they mouthed her message of binding and love.
A smile split her blistered lips. The Inquisition had set many magical blocks about the pyre to stop any offensive sorcery, but because of her casting’s harmless nature she’d been able to bypass them. It seemed that it had never occurred to the heartless bastards that someone might cast a love spell while being burnt alive.
Finally, it was time to end her own suffering…
Inquisitor Anton growled, “Put this in you!” And he kicked over the barrel, setting free its dark juice to spray onto the bonfire’s edge.
The monks cheered.
The crowd cried out in horror.
And the fire around Vilma erupted into a ball of fury that lifted up to wash over her.
Her work done, she freed her perception and fell away from her mortal form to escape the pain, screams, and roar of her own boiling blood rushing through doomed veins. It was like backing away from two open furnace doors, her eyes, and into a dark cellar. With each moment the heat grew weaker and her view of that world diminished as she fell into the cool and soothing blue-tinged darkness
of the next – the celestial.
She sensed for the others around her, seeking those also being fed to the flames. She grabbed at their desperate souls, mercifully dragging them and their attention away from their failing bodies, and into the cool of the afterlife.
Vilma would let them rest soon, but not before she used them to stir the emotions of those left behind. They needed to feed the crowd's anger – just as oil had been used to feed the fire. What she was doing would spare them the agony they'd felt, but also block their mortal forms from dying. The results would not be pretty.
Back in Market Square, the spiritless bodies convulsed and ruptured in a gory display. At the same time the crowd's anger also bucked to grow wild and ugly.
Anton shifted uncomfortably. He'd sensed the passing of souls, yet their blackened bodies still jiggled, moaned, and burst amidst the flames. It was as if they’d become zombies, the flesh alive, but the bodies without spiritual owners. Worse still, he could sense the shift in the crowd's mood; from one of horror to a deepening outrage.
In the celestial, her spirit smiled.
Tonight, it wouldn't be the witches and innocents of Ossard being slaughtered. Not any more. Tonight, it would be the false moralists of the Church of Baimiopia's hated Inquisition. And as for the Inquisitor who’d personally lit the pyre, the vile man taking power from the pain he inflicted – she'd get her own revenge.