Trial by Fire
By Lucas Carroll-Garrett
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Rough boards tilted beneath Eulice’s bare feet. The air grew hotter. Shackled to a sunken post and knee deep in piled wood, she tried not to move lest she fall into the fire.
If the villagers murmuring around her simply wanted her to leave, Eulice would have run. Even if it meant stumbling through the sudden scratching of branches that her blind eyes couldn’t see coming. But the chains around her wrists offered no escape. Eulice knew where they all wanted her to go. The chains were heating up too.
The next hiss of pine sap sounded much louder, sudden as a feral cat in her ear. The crackle of kindling rose towards her, almost drowning out the villagers’ uneasy voices.
“Please,” Eulice called out to them, to the voices she had known all her life. “Please stop, I don’t want to hurt anyone, I promise! Please, before—” Pain licked at her toes and her words ended in a hiss.
“It’s working,” came the voice of Katrina, the butcher’s wife. “The fire is driving it out, we’ll be saved!” The woman had soft, puffy hands and often gave Eulice her shop’s offal to eat when the other villagers couldn’t—or wouldn’t—spare anything. Now she sounded relieved that the wretched, motherless girl would soon be gone.
A wave of queasiness rose in Eulice’s belly: the power she had found out in the woods under the full moon and centered in a ring of mushrooms—the type that would make her sick. Sometimes, the power’s mirror-voice threatened to overwhelm her. The river of hatred wouldn’t quench the flames, she knew. But it would drown those that had kindled them, bringing them into her dark little world and choking out their fever pitch: “Burn her! Burn the witch!”
The board Eulice balanced on shifted and she seared the soles of her feet. The hatred swelled higher, acrid in the back of her throat. “Stop it,” she told herself, trying to scoot her feet back and arch up onto her blistered toes to keep ahead of the fire. “Don’t do it…”
“And why not?” Her voice whispered, though she hadn’t spoken. “What does it matter?”
“I don’t want to hurt them,” she whined back, her real voice strange in her own mind.
“They want to hurt you. They want to burn you, see you suffer. Isn’t that enough?”
The voice rose and fell in time with the flashes of fire against her ankles. Eulice bit her tongue, focusing on that pain: sharp and clear and close. Pain she could control. “If I let you kill them, there will be no one to put out the fire. We’ll still die. What would be the point?”
She bit back a scream as the tops of her feet blistered. Her voice snickered. “The same point as this pyre, little one.”
Eulice clenched her fists and strained the chains forward to their limit. That would keep them out of the fire. Maybe they would stop cooking her wrists. “Then I refuse.”
The power drained down, churning in her stomach. But now all she had to think about was the pain. Burning, along her wrists, the backs of her calves, around her feet. She could no longer feel her toes, and they made a scraping sound against the boards. Wishing the rest of her would hurry up and burn too, Eulice tried to focus on the sound, on any sound or sensation other than the fire. By now it howled like a stormy night.
But the chanting was loud too, enough to distinguish individuals. There was Genson’s rough voice, scraped hoarse by time. Whenever the farmer would come into town, Eulice asked him for something from his squeaky cart, just one vegetable or potato. All she ever got was a sticky glob of spit.
Near him chanted the softer version of his voice, his son Frederick. Once he had driven the wagon instead. That day, she got all the apples she could eat. He even sat her up on the bench with him, above the snuffling horse with its velvet nose. Eulice had ridden with him all the way back to their farm, where he had bathed her with steaming water and soft towels, so soft she thought she they must be magical. But then his bed was even softer, full of the little feathers she would sometimes pluck from birds in exchange for hot soup in winter.
And his arms had been so warm, nothing like this fire creeping up her thighs. His hands had done that too, but it had felt good, even more wonderful than the towels. But she most remembered drifting to sleep afterwards, tucked under the stubbled strength of his jaw. The next morning, Frederick drove her back to the village, leaving her to wonder if it had all been a dream.
Those big arms certainly had the strength to tear apart this pile of kindling and pull her from the fire. But Frederick’s voice was twisted high in fear, chanting with the rest of them. It sounded wrong—off—though Eulice couldn’t focus well over the searing, Searing SEARING--
“He only used you.” The mirror-voice returned. “Taking advantage of the poor blind girl no one would defend. If the man really cared, you would still be in that farmhouse.”
“Shut up, shut up” Eulice tried her own chant, over and over again. After all, it helped the others ignore her suffering. It helped them put her in this fire after the priest saw her sicken that dog with her power, even though she’d just wanted the animal to let go of her arm. It didn’t matter if they hated her. She had known that, lived with that for as long as she could remember. That didn’t mean she hated them back.
But the murderous feeling shifted within her, undeniable. Hatred swelled along with the fire blistering her shaking knees. The mirror-voice had always hated the villagers. So surely the feeling all belonged to the power from the woods--
“Of course not,” the voice assured her. But it had lied before. Under those trees, it had promised her sight like the others if she broke the circle, freeing it. But nothing had changed. She still couldn’t see how high the fire was getting, how her bindings were fastened, how the other villagers viewed and understood the world. All Eulice had learned was that there were things like her power out there, things she couldn’t even hear or smell, things that scared her.
The power rose again and Eulice thrashed against it, straining at the baking chains and whipping her head about until her own tangled hair lashed her face. the crowd gasped, chanting halted. A hush settled like the dead of winter, when one of them—eventually—would open a door for her to sleep out of the cold. For one foolish moment, hope flared in Eulice’s heart.
The board she teetered on cracked and she plunged down, into the depths of the pyre. First there was only confusion as planks scraped at her legs and the shackles wrenched her arms above her head. But the overwhelming fire came a second later, clamping onto her entire body. The heat clung and burrowed, split and peeled—everywhere, all at once. Eulice bit through her tongue, the iron taste like the rats she ate only when she was truly, desperately starving.
Still, she barely held back the swell of power, clinging to the thread of sensation: the tang of her blood, the bitter scent of cooking meat seasoned with burning hair. Groping out for something, anything to set her fraying mind to, the girl heard a new sound above the hissing fire. The villagers’ voices came to her again, this time high and jubilant.
They were cheering.
Her voice laughed horribly—brokenly—and rode the swell out of her screaming mouth. For a blissful moment, a numbing chill gripped the air and there was silence.
The fire washed back over her and Eulice could no longer care what happened to all those familiar voices. Dimly, she was aware of their howling and jabbering as the frigid power spread from her pyre. Katrina’s voice rose shrill until it broke. Frederick and Genson shuddered together with sounds beyond language. Even the old priest who had set the fire heaved and wretched like he was trying to get something out, something that was killing him.
The sounds all blended into the maddening pain and Eulice lost track of the seconds creeping by. Eventually there was only the quiet crackle of fire and the deep, hot ache of her cooking innards.
Eulice wanted to reach out, to find what remained of the others, maybe feel that stubbled jaw again. But her arms no longer worked. Her cracked lips wouldn’t open and even the crackling became distant and muted. Under the smoke and ash wafted the wet and faintly acrid smell of fresh sweat. Whatever that power had done to the villagers, they were silent now. Regret itched at Eulice, from both directions. There was no one to put out the fire, no one to share her suffering. It left a coldness deep within her, a chill her deepest thoughts clung to as the rest peeled away.
And so the witch burned on alone.
Lucas is an emerging writer out of the hills of East Tennessee. He writes mainly speculative fiction, from a good old swordfight to a pondering of human nature after the heat death of the universe. Raised in an environment with a rich storytelling tradition, one might say his transition from the Biological Sciences to writing was inevitable. He has recently finished an MFA in Popular Fiction in Maine. His work appears in the Chlorophobia Anthology and in Galaxy's Edge Magazine.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.