The chill of winter nipped at Johnathan’s nose as he paced quickly between the bustling people on the street. Clutching at his temples, he smiled tightly at those who greeted him, drawing the brim of his hat down to shield his eyes from the harsh light. There was anticipation in the air today. Anticipation and dread and he struggled to keep his mind from the cause as nausea roiled in his stomach and phantom heat, the production of unpleasant memories, scorched his skin. He shuddered and kept walking, pulling the simple black lapels of his jacket more closely around him.
His footfalls sounded like hammer blows in his ears, his temples throbbing in time as the crowd thickened and he stumbled into a dingy alley, propping himself up against the grime of a rough wall. The surface caught on individual strands of his jacket, the sound of their pulling clawed at his frayed nerves. He closed his eyes on a curious beggar boy, willing the world to be still, the hum in his blood to slow. Sweat beaded on his skin and his breathing was ragged, his heart a painful fist in his chest. Groaning, he pushed on, stumbling back into the pull of the crowd.
The people, rich and poor, grown and child, man and woman, all, flowed in one inevitable direction, their chatter excited either by fear of or at the impending entertainment. Johnathan simply felt ill.
The crowd poured from the mouth of the street, their bodies shuffling aside at alarming speed to fill the gaps in the large square that stood at the centre of their small city. The shuffle of feet stirred a fine spray of dust into the air, the tiny particles smothering as Johnathan heaved in heavy breaths, green eyes feverish as they ran over the crowds, searching. He clutched his stomach, swallowing bile until the urge to be ill resided.
His eyes fell on the pyre at the centre of the square. A heavy post rose straight and unwavering from a rough platform, surrounded below, around and across with firewood. So, it was to be auto-da-fé then. Dread, heavier than the call of a summoning settled like lead in his limbs, the phantom heat consuming him as he stared, tight lipped, sweat running from his brow. He murmured a brief dismissal to the man who enquired after his health and ignored him as he scampered away.
The town caller’s voice rang out and Johnathan’s eyes turned slowly to him and the excited shouts that followed. The crowd pressed close to the procession, obscuring his view. Johnathan’s heart pounded hard, his breath holding still in his chest as he waited to see, to know. She stumbled into view as the inquisitors led her up to the platform and the stake, hair of finest blonde loose and tangled, stained with red, only a thin, dirty gown covering her modesty. She threw her head back as they roughly jerked her to the stake, wrestling her arms behind her. It was then Johnathan saw the marks, tears gathering in his eyes as he took in her eye, swollen shut, her lips bloody and cheeks scraped raw. How he wished he could stop this.
“Emnie Merchant,” the Grand Inquisitor’s voice rang out, silencing the crowd. “You stand accused of heresy, repent and see your soul cleansed.”
Emnie turned against the stake, trembling in the cold and shook her head, calling in a voice rough with abuse, “I can not repent for I have committed no sin, done no crime. If you must send me to our father, then know I go with clear conscience and pray you may one day do the same.”
The inquisitor said nothing more, men stepping forward with torches, feeding the pyre until flame licked at it. Emnie’s eyes turned from him, roving over the crowd, desperation in her gaze.
“May God take mercy on you all,” she called, an odd sort of peace settling over her features as the ache in Johnathan’s head turned to a scream and she turned her eyes skyward, her ruined lips moving in apparent prayer.
He stepped forward, tears spilling to his cheeks as he watched, knowing, beyond a doubt that there stood an innocent woman. And perhaps he was the only person in all the world who knew, but he did, and he would watch her burn all the same. Her eyes cut down from the heavens, crossing through the space between them with a fierce intensity, and though he yet stood too far to see their colour, he knew they held his own. Her expression softened, something deeply sorrowful filling her face as the flames reached her, catching on the ends of her gown first. She ground her teeth tight and Johnathan determined that if she must die, she would not die alone. He forced his gaze fixed, even as nausea roiled in his stomach and his head felt as though it would explode, even as the people around him jeered and whooped as she screamed, the flames crawling up her body. Even once she was consumed, he watched.
The light faded as the fire died and Johnathan still stood, rooted in place, watching the smouldering pile. The crowds had long since grown bored, the inquisitors returned to their lives, but not he. The screaming in his head wouldn’t allow it. The injustice of her conviction so great it had called him while she yet drew breath. His feet drew him forward of their own volition.
Over the still-warm coals and smouldering logs he stumbled, drawing a knife from his belt as the heat rising around him chased away any chill from the encroaching night. He didn’t search, he didn’t have to, the pounding in his head told him where to go and his feet drew to a stop at the centre. With shaking hands, he brushed aside the coals, ignoring their burn as they broke through his gloves and bit into his skin. He dug until he found her.
Fingers tenderly running over ruined corpse, the stench of burning on the air, he watched the damp speck of a falling tear sizzle off and lifted his knife, drawing it first across the ruined flesh, deep, to pass the burned tissue, then across his own wrist, pressing the two wounds together close, the pounding in his head easing as his blood mingled with what little remained in Emnie Merchant’s body. The pain dulled, he stepped back, rising on uneasy legs as his strength slowly returned, the ash and smoke shifting alongside the body as slowly, a figure began to grow. He watched her, ignoring the night around them. He knew none would visit here until those who came to remove the remains were summoned.
It was a slow process, at first, growing from movement, to a speck of gelatinous colour, bones and muscles forming and weaving together, the outer layers hardening, stretching until they formed a skin from which features began to sprout. He drew his coat from his shoulders, placing it lightly over the forming body, protecting it from the cold. He stood tall, wiping the sweat and soot from his hands with a handkerchief as her face settled and his breath caught.
She was lovely, this woman who had burned, her beauty no longer hidden behind the marks of her abusers. Lovely, and he had no doubt, this was the reason for her death, for the most powerful amongst their society could scarcely see a beautiful thing without attempting to possess it, and would destroy it if they couldn’t. It was for attempting to expose this crime that he too had burned almost a century earlier.
She shivered and Johnathan crouched beside her, watching her face intently, knowing all too well the fear of rising. Eyes of startling blue jumped open, a harsh gasp pulling into her as she lurched upwards, hands reaching and wild. She skittered back in the hot coals, casting about, tears on her cheeks.
“Miss Merchant,” Johnathan said soothingly, her eyes flicking to him, their gazes locking as she stilled. “Miss Merchant, you’ve had a trauma. My name is Johnathan Clark, I’m here to help you.”