The chains dug into the woman’s skin as the executioner tightened them around her, tying her to the stake. The metal cut through the thin fabric of her already torn dress, rust stains rubbing off on her skin as the links of the chain pinched and tore the flesh underneath. The dress, beige and plain, the scraps of the bottom fluttering in the wind, grew stained as blood spilled out from where the iron tore her apart. Her wrists, her waist, her ankles; all bled long before she was set to die. It dripped down onto the woodpile beneath her, sliding down the logs and onto the stone tiles of the street.
She passed the time by watching her blood slowly drip, drip, drip onto the wood, the droplets rolling one by one to settle into the grout lines between those stone tiles. She had once stood there, staring up at another on the stake, the young girl’s body bound with tight, cutting rope. She remembered watching the girl struggle against her binds, fighting for her life even then, screaming into the winds that she was not what they said she was. That girl, with tears streaming down her face and sobs tearing themselves out of her, begged for mercy. She was not a monster! She was innocent! And when her cries for mercy fell on deaf ears, as the people of the village continued their daily shopping at the stores surrounding the town square where such executions were regular, she had prayed. The girl would have fallen to her knees if she could, but the ropes held her steady. She looked to the heavens and begged her gods, repenting her sins and swearing utter fealty to them for the rest of her life if they would spare her. Then, as the sun began to set, the executioner returned and set fire to the woodpile.
That girl, not even yet a woman, screamed wildly as the flames licked at her skin and melted it from her bones. She was burned slowly while the villagers watched, muttering to each other that it was what the little devil deserved.
The woman now on the stake couldn’t help but smile. If it hadn’t been for her, that young girl would still be alive. How old would she be by now? Fifteen, perhaps? The woman remembered how she had laughed as she hung one of the sheep from the girl’s flock from a tree, killing it with a quick slice across the beast’s throat. She remembered the beautiful sight of the blood gathering in the bucket she had set underneath it, the blood gushing, pouring forward, its redness illuminated by moonlight. She remembered how much she had enjoyed finding the dress the girl had worn that day, using it to mop up the blood that hadn’t made it into the bucket. Everyone knew that that dress belonged to that girl.
The village had grown convinced that a heathen god had possessed her not long after that. The woman had seen to it, making sure that the foreign girl with foreign gods seemed to be the one behind the mysterious deaths of livestock and the sudden disappearances of children younger than herself. It was true, that girl had been innocent. The woman on the stake, well, she had enjoyed watching the child burn. She had gathered as much of the girl’s ashes as she could in the middle of the night, once the flame had died and the girl’s soul was gone.
Even after the girl was dead and the woman lost her scapegoat, everything had gone so well. As strange and horrible things continued to happen, the villagers were made to believe that the spirit of the girl had remained. They swore that the girl had stayed behind, was continuing to terrorize them even after her body had died. For four more years, the woman had gotten away with it.
But then the priest found her, naked and kneeling in the church, gutting that dog. It wasn’t long before she had been forced to confess, forced into that dark cellar, then forced to the stake. Simple ropes weren’t good enough to hold her, though; that woman, that witch, could only be held with iron. They had learned that while trying to keep her bound within the cellar.
She felt no fear, even as the chains held her tightly in place. Even as the villagers came, one by one, laying logs on the woodpile or spitting curses at her, she felt as at home as she ever had. They had no idea, she thought, just how much they owed her. Even as her blood ran red, the chains rubbing her skin and splitting it again and again, even as the droplets gathered into the grout lines like a branching river, and even as it spilled over the edges and gathered into a puddle beneath her, she came increasingly close to manic laughter.
Because she knew. Deep, deep beneath their feet, a relic of an ancient world was awakening. A forgotten god was beginning to rise. The sacrifices the woman had performed over the years had delayed its return, but as soon as she was dead, the god would burst free from its prison and the world would crumble beneath it. They had no idea what was coming. As the sun began to set and the villagers began to gather around her to watch as she burned, she looked them all in the eye as they approached. They refused to meet her gaze.
The fire was lit beneath her. She focused on the puddle of her blood that had gathered around the woodpile as she began to burn. But she did not scream. She laughed as the liquid in the puddle began to slosh as the ground began to shake.
It was coming.