Sallya was hot and sweaty and uncomfortable, and why wouldn’t she be given the flames that crackled up her torso? Trial by fire, they called it. Witch burning: that’s what it was. Cheap entertainment for the crowd that stood well away, enjoying the show.
And isn’t this just what she got for relaxing her guard? Sallya had been around the block too many times to be making stupid blunders, but here she was, bound to a stake, getting hotter by the moment. Pissed at the townsfolk, and pissed at herself for becoming distracted.
She was not having a good day.
In these times of instability, standing out in any manner was foolhardy. What with a leader who seemed bent on turning the clock back to feudalism, and weather that couldn’t decide what season it was, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, and fear-based rumors passing as fact, people were suspicious of anything out of the ordinary. Locally, things had progressed to a broil.
And for such a stupid little thing.
Sallya had come out of the shop, preoccupied with juggling her parcels and the few coins she’d received as change. She wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings. That was stupid move number one.
She had tripped over the legs of a child who was lounging in the shop’s sunny doorway. She scrambled for balance and snarled a curse as her parcels went flying. That was stupid move number two: Getting noticed. The boy scooted out of the way but stopped just out of her reach, tickled pink at an old woman saying bad words his mama would slap him for uttering.
But then she went from bad to worse. Sallya’s wretched knees just would not let her bend enough to pick up that one coin that shined so brightly in the sunlight. The cursed silver disk was just a few inches too far. It must have been the devil that made her call the coin to her fingers, because Sallya had never ever before done anything so stupid, never anything that even hinted of magic, not in public. The devil himself must have laughed his head off when Sallya creaked to an upright position and raised her dark eyes to meet the shocked blue ones of the boy.
An eternal instant later he screamed and bolted off and that, as they say, was that.
Stupid, stupid old woman. Of course, it couldn’t be just any kid. He must have been the mayor’s son, or maybe the sheriff’s, or the preacher’s, because Sallya hadn’t gotten beyond the last house of the village when heavy hands grabbed her and she was unceremoniously hauled back to the town square. There, things had gotten very heated very quickly.
She puffed a flame away from the hair that had come loose from her silver braid and flew about in the updraft, blocking her view. Sallya was intent on catching the eyes of each of those solid citizens who had elected themselves judge, jury, prosecutor, and witness without the bother of having actual authority to do so. She ignored the others at the back of the crowd, those who had merely come to watch the drama of a witch writhing in the flames of socially approved righteousness.
Sallya did not feel like writhing. Plus she was not, strictly speaking, a witch. No matter. She didn’t have to burn and she didn’t plan on burning. The question, though, was how to proceed. It was one thing to endure few moments of discomfort. A small price to pay for her monumental stupidity, really. But she didn’t need to compound her errors by simply walking away from the pyre. She had to think this out, but quickly, because any moment people would start to notice she was still alive and kicking. Her future was at stake.
Obviously appealing to mercy wouldn’t work. She had already tried that, calmly and rationally, not that it would have changed anything. The crowd was there for the weeping, groveling, and, later, screaming, so that after it was all over they could feel righteous and safe once again.
Too bad for them. Grovel wasn’t in Sallya’s vocabulary.
The heat was getting somewhat uncomfortable. The ropes had burned away. As had her raggedy clothes. And her shoes, mores the pity. Sturdy, comfortable shoes were hard to come by in any day and age. Sallya was now bare-ass naked. Fortunately, the roaring flames were so intense her saggy old flame-resistant form could not be seen.
It was time to act.
The fire flared, forcing people to step back. Dense black smoke roiled from its center, twisting as it rose. Some of the villagers screamed, crossing themselves. Others fell to their knees, weeping. What did they see? An obsidian snake-dragon breathing smoke, flapping its outsized leathery wings? A phoenix spreading its flame-colored pinions as it strove for the clear sky above? The horned devil himself? Or an angel glowing with an inner light as it turned its impassive gaze upon the merely human?
None of the townsfolk would agree afterwards, and the arguments would go on for years. Each saw what was in his or her heart, and Sallya had no control or interest in the hearts of others. She was intent on slipping away as unobtrusively as possible — a tiny, naked human figure of indeterminate age, a little fuzzy around the edges, trailing the stink of scorched hair. It was a long way from here to a safe haven.
And worse, now she’d have to shop in some other village. A shame, that. Hardly anybody carried good quality mint chocolate chip ice cream anymore.
Lif Strand lives in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, a place that does interesting things to the mind. When she isn’t writing, she’s taking photos, or creating fabric art, or hiking, or scooping horse manure. You can find Lif at her blog or on Facebook.