For the asking…

Tara felt the noose tighten around her neck. It would not be long now. The crowd had gathered as the day progressed and just a few minutes ago she had been led out to the makeshift gallows pyre. “Isn’t this a little bit of overkill?” she asked the black masked executioner. “One can never be too careful with a witch,” the gruff man monster replied. He towered over her as he checked the noose and the pullies above her. “We will hoist ya from here and yer neck will break or you will dangle as I light the fire beneath you. It will purge yer soul and remove the foul demon inside.” “She deserves no explanation,” the black robed priest shouted. “She has been tried and convicted of witchcraft and heresy to the holy church of the state. All she deserves is death.” The monster bowed to the smaller man and his tongue was silenced. He was no more gruff nor measured, just quiet as he did his work. His eyes under the executioners mask scanned the small priest but did not challenge. The priest went forward to Tara, “Are you ready to confess? You may be given forgiveness by the almighty if you confess yourself as a witch. It does not matter now. You will die either way, but perhaps your soul can be spared.” “I am no witch,” Tara spat. “I am just a wench that refused your advances. Better you kill me lest you suffer the pain of my truths being told.” “No one can hear you child,” The priest said as he looked around, “Perhaps this is a more pleasing outcome for you than my manhood.” “I have heard tell there is no manhood under those robes, just the instrument of a child,” Tara grinned. The priest slapped the woman and the crowd cheered. He smiled only a little, “Out ye demon!” he yelled and hit her again. The crowd screamed in applause and he hit her again. “Release her spawn!” The crowd was as excited as the priest beat her over and over and with each blow the yelled in approval. “You see,” he said, “They know you are a spawn of evil.” “It’s too bad they don’t know you are actually the evil one,” Tara said as blood dripped from her split lip and battered eye. “Now you look the part, witch.” The priest smiled with the nasty smirk of a nocturnal predator, “You should have taken another path.” Tara spit blood and it sprayed on the stack of wood next to her. “I suppose death is better than laying with you.” The executioner snickered. “Buffoon, silence or you will join her,” the priest yelled. The monstrous hulk of a man again went on about his work, stoking the kindling and setting the rope to be sprung when he pulled. It was quite ingenious actually. Instead of a fall, a trebuchet pulled the man or woman up from the ground with massive force, snapping their neck or at the least knocking them cold. It did not go up far. When the lever was pulled the fire was lit as well. The executioner now pulled a long edge broadsword out and began running a stone down its length. “A sword fight? At least that would be fair.” “No milady,” the hulk stated as the stone made a slick sound up and down the blade. Once the fire is out I will sperate your head from your body and bury it in a separate grave. “You take your job seriously,” Tara said. “Oaf,” the priest slapped the executioner, “I told you to be silent.” The executioner stepped to the side and sheathed the intimidating sword. On the hilt Tara noted the cross. “He is a man of god, yet you have him do your bidding? You are evil priest.” “Perhaps,” the priest replied, “but I will not die today.” “Hear me people,” the priest yelled, “The demon will not confess, but we all know she has been possessed. She is a witch by my own sight. She attempted to seduce me and plotted to steal your children. See her blood, the righteous will not feel. She is surely a spawn of hell.” He coughed, once, twice, thrice and continued. A small cloud of dust was in his face. The executioner reached to him as he coughed and held him for a moment. “The demon has changed bodies, it attacks the priest and will soon have us all,” the executioner yelled. With swift motions he cut Tara free and pulled the noose from her head. “Quiet if you want to live.” he whispered. The noose was replaced on the priests’ head. “Pray for the priest for surely his soul is safe,” the executioner said. The crowd was stunned but was starting to chant. “Burn him, burn him,” they cried. Tara leaned to the side holding her battered body up. The executioner pulled the lever as the wide-eyed priest gasped for breath and reached for the noose, his hands were not bound but he was too slow. The counterweights dropped and spun, and he was pulled 5 feet in the air in a split second and the crown cheered as they heard the familiar crack. The executioner lit the pyre under the ropes and it began to burn, soon too hot to stand near. He walked Tara to a safe distance. “You must watch and profess the demon is gone,” he said. “I will do so,” Tara replied as the fire blazed and the body jerked fitfully while the water began to burn out of it. They watched to the end, and as the fire began to die down the body fell, the woven rope finally giving way to the flames. The crowd was still watching as the executioner pulled his sword and in one stroke severed the head from the body. “It is done,” he yelled and, using a gloved hand, lifted the skull for all to see. The crowd cheered and then began to mill around as though they were unsure what to do. Several people walked to Tara and she said she was finally free. Each blessed her and eyed her with some semblance of respect, nodded, then moved forward. Within an hour it was only a few men left, cleaning the area for the next burning. Tara looked at her savior as he took of his hood. He was not a handsome man, nor was he ugly, he was a massive bulk of sinew and scars from forgotten battles or untold beatings. “Are you ok,” he asked. “Sure, I am well,” she said and walked beside him. “What is your name?” “I am John,” he said, “Son of John from a line of executioners.” “How many have you killed,” Tara asked. “I have lost count milady,” John replied. “It was with no pleasure I killed anyone; it was my job. It was not so long ago I realized it was a ruse, and the evil of the priest. I have been waiting for such a time.” “I thank you for that, but how did you make him cough?” Tara asked. John pulled a small bag from his pocket, ” Ground cinnamon. It clouds the lungs.” “That it does,” Tara replied. “May I walk you to your home?” John asked. “I have no home,” Tara said, “It was burnt down when the priest took me.” “Then you may stay at my home tonight, I will sleep in the barn.” They walked a short time to a small cottage with a barn and shack near it. There were no neighbors, and the day was nearing twilight. A few chickens roamed the area and small pigs, and goats were in a small pen to the side of the barn. “This is home.” John said. He opened the door. The inside was a dirt covered floor with a small rock fireplace. There was a bed on one side of stuffed straw, and skins and blankets around the hut. It was surprisingly clean. John took off his sword and hung his cloak. His massive arms were bare, and he grabbed a blanket and set it by the door. He went to the fireplace and the coals were still hot, hanging over the fireplace was a pot that he opened. “It is not the best, but it is a nice stew.” John told her. “You are welcome to it.” “I am not hungry now,” Tara said. “I will eat later.” John nodded in understanding, took a small hammered bowl and filled it, then say on a large chair and ate. As he finished Tara sat on the floor next to his chair. “Thank you for saving me,” she said. “I am sorry I could save only you,” John replied. Tara moved behind the chair and began rubbing Johns neck. At first, he resisted, but soon he was relaxing, and she kneaded his large shoulders and neck muscles as he closed his eyes. “Does that feel good,” she asked. “Yes ma’am,” John replied as he sat still feeling her hands massage him. “John,” Tara said. “Yes,” John asked. “Do you believe in witches,” Tara asked. “No,” John said, “I have yet to see one I believe in.” “You have now,” Tara said as she rubbed, and he slowly began to shrink in her hands. He did not hear nor care, it felt so good. His massive body shriveled and bent and as John faded from this life, he just thought about how good it felt to save someone. Behind him Tara smiled, her wounds healed and her body whole. She pushed the lifeless husk to the floor, took the bowl, and made herself some stew. The food tasted as good as the life she had just taken and she smiled at the thought of another day.