From the author: A short companion piece of sorts to my previous story "Consequences", Actions is a tale about burning witches and how much trouble that can get you into.
Elizabeth woke to the smell of fresh resin, the sharp tang of it flooding her nose, making her eyes water. Shaking her head she blinked into the gloom, a sea of faces swimming past her in blurry duplication. Ropes were biting into her arms and hips, an aching ripple along her body that she took in in pieces, shifting her weight to lean against the rod at her back. They’d cut a fresh tree for her, how polite.
Her skull hurt and blood crusted one eye, making her wrinkle her nose until the lashes were freed. Ninel came into focus before her, face down to watch the ground. He had kicked up a spot, stones scattered around him like a trail home.
He’d betrayed her then.
James stepped forward, in front of the younger man, his eyes grim. He had a lit torch and the gait of a man who knew he was right, as usual. Arrogant ass.
“Elizabeth Ackers, you have been accused of witchcraft. How do you plead?”
“I’m already tied to a pyre, James, I doubt it matters how I plead,” she shouted back, grateful for the pain it brought her. Pain was good, pain got focus.
“You have a chance to repent,” James said, all benign smiles, “You must perish to cleanse the land, but your soul could be granted absolution.”
“Nothing that comes from you is absolution, James, you’re worse than the flames,” she said with a laugh, shaking her head. Of course they had come in the night, of course they had chosen now to take her. She’d been so close to leaving and they came to kill her.
“See how she mocks a man of God,” he called to the gathered village, mostly men. The women would have no appetite for this, at least. They would yearn to protect each other from the quick knowledge that skipped between men when blood was spilled, the vicious suspicion to justify more.
“I don’t mock you because of that, I mock you because you’re an idiot,” she said, glaring at Ninel as he continued to duck his head. “You call my work witchcraft because you don’t understand it. You’re a learned man, James, you should be able to use your head instead of your prick.”
He stalked forward, backhanding her in one smooth motion. She laughed, spitting her blood in his face in turn.
“You would do well to hold your tongue,” he growled, tipping the torch towards her.
“And you’d do better in a city where your ignorance could be corrected. Or at least hidden amongst the numbers.”
“She will not repent,” he called, turning from her to face the crowd, “And because of this she shall be damned.”
He dropped the torch, the flames licking over the wood, and she closed her eyes in a brief prayer as he walked off. Maybe she could breathe in the smoke and it would be quick.
She was considering the merits of shrieking her lungs out at them, making enough noise to haunt their dreams, when she felt a warm hand on her cheek. Leaning towards the feeling she breathed deep, the scent of petrichor and dust fighting off the acid of resin and smoke. A scream went up from the crowd, one of the young ones whose stones hadn’t dropped yet.
“You’re here,” she whispered, opening her eyes to the turquoise eyed creature before her. They rippled with a purple fire, flames like sunshine on Elizabeth’s skin.
“We couldn’t have our best student killed,” the being, Sashana, said with a wicked smile.
“Demon!” James shouted, pointing a finger up at the flaming woman.
“Not quite, though I’m not surprised that’s all you could think of. Lacking in imagination as well as intellect, it seems,” Sashana said, hooking a finger under Elizabeth’s bindings and burning through them. “Why did you try to kill Elizabeth?” Elizabeth slumped forward, grabbing onto the djinn before her.
“She’s a witch, she must burn or the village will be cursed,” James said, stepping forward to hold up a cross.
“How selfish you little things are, to assume her interests were you. Why would she care about your petty village when she could explore the world?”
“A witch is a thing of evil, they seek to corrupt the good about them,” shouted someone from the crowd, one of the butchers maybe. Elizabeth couldn’t see straight and her head throbbed, she didn’t care who was volunteering to be stupid.
“What good would there be for her to corrupt?” Sashana asked, one arm going around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “Your church, full of riches and hurt, or your houses, full of terrified women hoping they won’t be next? If she were looking for corruption she wouldn’t need to come up into the mountains.”
“See how it seeks to condemn the house of the Lord?” James said, turning to look at the crowd, “See how it arrives to save that who has given her soul to the devil?”
“I don’t know the devil,” Sashana said, turning to take Elizabeth’s face in her hands. The flames lapped against her like warm water, no harm in their heat, and she turned with the gentle pushes given here and there as she was inspected. “I don’t imagine I would have much reason to.”
“All wicked things know of the Adversary,” James said with a smug laugh. “It even seeks to deceive true believers.”
“I’m not wicked,” Sashana said, letting go of Elizabeth’s face and giving her a soft kiss on the forehead. “At least not in the way you mean. I’m certainly a lot of other things you can’t understand, maybe wicked is the best you can do. I’m taking her away.”
“She must be burned!” the same voice from the crowed shouted and now Elizabeth knew who it was – Matthew, Ninel’s father. He had always disliked her, now he seemed determined his son’s sweetheart would die. Not that she even liked Ninel in that sense.
“You have no knowledge of the fire, you don’t speak for it. If you want to stop me I do invite you to try, but I won’t see her harmed,” Sashana said, arm going around Elizabeth’s waist.
“Don’t hurt the lad,” Elizabeth said, leaning into the crook of Sashana’s neck. “He was a fool but he doesn’t deserve harm.”
“They all deserve it, they’re harmed you,” Sashana replied, looking into Elizabeth’s good eye. “They should remember fear.”
“They do, look at him,” Elizabeth said, pointing to James. “What’s he but fear?”
“What do you do, witch?” Matthew shouted, pushing forward.
“She reminds me that mercy is the mark of a stronger heart, loud man,” Sashana said, nodding. “You would give them all such a boon?”
“Lies, no demon could show mercy,” James said, moving to stand before the crowd. “Only the lord gives mercy and you are far from his light.”
“Everyone but him,” Elizabeth said, nodding to James, “He’s a prick.”
Sashana hummed in agreement, dropping her arm to link their hands instead. “That seems generous, given they had you tied to a tree. Ready to burn.”
“But you didn’t let them.”
“No. I never would,” Sashana said, stepping towards James. “I suggest you get out of the way.”
“I will not be moved by hell spawn,” James spat, chest puffed with self-importance.
“Alright then,” Sashana said, turning to Elizabeth, “Shall we?”
They started to walk. James and Matthew stood shoulder to shoulder before the crowd, glowering at them. Sashana brought her free hand up, pointing to the side. Neither men moved.
“How about the other one?”
“I have no care for him,” Elizabeth said, and meant it. "But his family would suffer if he was dead. Maybe just hurt."
“Good,” Sashana purred, grinning like a cat. “They might scream a bit.”
“I was going to as well, if the fire got me.”
“I got you instead,” Sashana said, giving her hand a little squeeze. “Hold tight.”
They continued forward and Sahana swept her hand out as if scattering seeds, purple flame dripping out from her fingers. It raced forward, seeking the men out like foxes chasing rabbits, quick and true.
James was the first to start screaming, the fire climbing quickly up him to settle around his face. It didn’t burn on his clothes but nestled in at his neck, his mouth, his eyes. He clawed at it, words lost in the pop and roar.
Mathew’s was different, coiling around his legs, snaking up to his throat and shoulders and then squeezing, tearing a shout out of him as he was wrenched to his knees.
“I’ll not be cowed before a demon,” he growled and Sashana shrugged, flicking her wrist.
A deep crunch went through the crowed and Matthew screamed like a beast, bellowing as his arms hung disjointed from his chest.
“You should know the weight of your actions,” Sashana said, stopping to lean in close to him. “If she didn’t like value your life I would have ripped your tongue out.”
“Filth!” he spat, moaning against the pain.
“Prick,” Elizabeth muttered, wincing when one of the flames danced up and burned across his cheek in a sharp slap.
“A reminder to hold your words close,” Sashana said, snapping her fingers to extinguish the flames. His face was shiny with sweat and the new mark, livid and proud on the skin.
James was still screaming, blood running down his cheeks and neck as he clawed at his skin. Sashana stopped, curling her fingers to bring the flame lower, settling around his mouth and then pushing down, forcing it inside.
He started, spine going rigid as he gasped and mouthed like a fish, looking frantically at the crowd. They had backed away from the carnage, a semicircle instead of the throng of before, some holding up crosses against him. He doubled over, coughing out fire and thick black liquid, one hand grabbing at his chest.
“I think that’s enough, hm?” Sashana asked, looking to Elizabeth. She nodded back. Sashana flicked her wrist and the flames sprang back out, flooding along what was left of James and catching the clothes.
“You want to burn the body?”
“No point in them being able to bless his bones. He’s not going anywhere that would need it,” Sashana said, walking forward again.
They came to Ninel, pale and shaking but not yet at his father’s side. He flinched as they came close, eyeing Elizabeth fearfully.
“You don’t need to fret, little thing,” Sashana said as she looked him over, “She would never let me hurt you, no matter how much you may deserve it.”
“I didn’t mean to,” he blurted, “They said my sisters couldn’t be married off if I was about with a witch.”
“They’re children, there’s no marriage for them for years,” Elizabeth spat, furious at the man.
“She’s not a witch, you idiot,” Sashana said with a sigh, “No more than your priest was a magician, at least. Know if your village does this again the same thing will happen.”
“You’ll come back?” Ninel went paler, a feat Elizabeth didn’t think possible.
“If you misuse the fire we will intervene. It is our element, not yours. Come now, let’s leave before they get anymore bright ideas.”
“I have nowhere to go,” Elizabeth said as they walked out of the village square, into the darkness and stars.
“You’ll stay with us,” Sashana said, “The mountains are cold, but we’re warm. You’ll have books to read and things to learn. And when it’s time to go elsewhere you can do so without the risk of a pyre.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” Sashana said, squeezing her hand again. “Come on, you must be tired. I know I am. Took a lot to dislocate those shoulders.”