They dragged her out of her darkened cell once again, out into a dazzling light that made her cringe and squint her eyes. Her body had only begun to heal from the abuses of their devices. The faint breeze caressed her scalp beneath her shorn hair. It still throbbed in the places where the blade had missed its mark and nicked her skin instead. Her bare feet sank easily into the muddied yard, making her stumble a bit as they shoved her forward. Cursing, one of them yanked harshly on her arm, hauling her upright once again.
She bore the shackles that even still ripped through the skin of her ankles and wrists. They all behaved as though she were somehow able to cause them harm, when most of them stood two heads taller and had not survived the past fortnight on scraps of bread and rainwater. The one talent that frightened them the most had already been wrested from her. There was no music left in her soul.
“Maid Liria of Hoffenshire, do you finally confess your sin before the eyes of God?” a deep voice rumbled to her left.
Her eyes blearily sought to make out the form of the Deacon Rothschild, tearing a bit when she discovered they could not. “I cannot,” she whispered, her voice raw. She tasted blood in her throat and winced.
“You will not,” he corrected her, anger staining his words. “You refuse to allow your soul the opportunity to be cleansed. So powerful is the grip of the dark one.” She could sense him turning away from her at this last statement, no doubt waving his arms for dramatic effect as he preached at the crowd gathering around.
She could hear the mass of bodies straining to catch every nuance of what would soon transpire, and smell the rich odors of mead and sweat mingling throughout. But her eyes would not focus, no matter how much she willed them. Perhaps this was for the best, she decided. For who would want to witness their own death?
“Maid Liria, who refuses to renounce Satan's claim, you have been condemned by the good people of this town. These righteous souls will no longer be contaminated by your presence. While you may yet pronounce your innocence, your own voice has already proven your soul's degradation.”
She whimpered slightly, but would not allow herself to bow down to the increasing exhaustion of her body. She forced herself to stand upright as she said, “You are wrong.”
The gasp of the crowd would be comical were it not for her immediate circumstances. A shadow fell over her as the Deacon approached. “You deny using the Devil's song to tempt the good Silas Marsters from his path? That same song which also caused the death of Rebecca the Miller's only child? You deny these charges when more than twenty men and women witnessed your conjurings in the forest behind your home?”
“My music is not evil,” she said, telling them again for the thousandth time. “I sing of naught but fairy tales and other fancy.” She felt the tears begin in earnest.
Her eyes had begun to distinguish the darkened form of Rothschild as he backed away from her to face the townsfolk once again. “I fear this young woman is lost to us. Such is the seductive power of Satan. Liria of Hoffenshire, you shall now go to face your dark master. 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' So sayeth the Good Book. You shall be hung from the neck until dead. Take her.”
One hour earlier
“'Tis a sad day,” the tavernkeeper sighed once again, clearly trying to draw the attention of his strange guest. “Today a young girl dies. And look how they all clamor to see it.” He waved out the window in disgust.
The dark-haired woman turned her head to gaze out herself. She could see nothing but the gallows behind the crowd of townsfolk circling it. Beyond was a small darkened hovel. Such a place had not been necessary in towns like Hoffenshire just a few years ago. But with this sudden hysteria gripping the country, most towns were obliged to offer a quiet room to torture a few pretty girls.
The woman sneered, her bright blue eyes narrowing. Seemed she'd arrived a bit too late to catch Rothschild. The people of Hoffenshire were already well under his spell. Take a few dim-witted fanatics and soon the whole town would beg him to take their gold, if only to rid them of whatever evil presence lurked behind every corner. If she hadn't taken so long to find permanent lodgings for Drusilla she might have caught up with him on the road. Any peddler who found him after she was done with him would assume the demons had finally overtaken their one true enemy.
She sighed inaudibly. She couldn't very well blame Drusilla. The girl had been barely able to stand after Rothschild had taken the irons to her. Bastard. She'd kill him yet, as soon as she had her chance.
“Oh, yes, a sad day. Tell me, have you heard of the Deacon Rothschild?” the tavernkeeper asked.
She set her wooden mug down on the table before her and fixed him with a steady gaze. He wavered slightly, taken aback by the coldness in her eyes. “Aye, I've heard of him,” she answered. “Why do you not join your kin outside?”
The man frowned. Glancing around the empty tavern, he leaned forward and whispered across the room, “I don't think that Rothschild is a good man.” He flushed after this confession, as though half-expecting God Himself to strike him down where he stood. But he seemed unable to help himself from continuing. “Liria is a child of nature,” he explained. “She's always spent time alone out there. And her voice is more of an angel than a devil.”
She realized the portly man was in love with this young witch. Nodding solemnly, she rose to her feet. Reaching into the small leather purse at her belt, she tossed a silver coin his way. He grabbed for it, shocked. “You'd do well to stay inside then, friend,” she advised him. He hadn't time to recover before she was out the door, a blast of cold air blowing inside before it closed behind her.
The rope was heavy around her neck and shoulders, making her tremble slightly. She now could see the fuzzy shapes of those watching around the platform, although thankfully the expressions on their faces were inscrutable. Trying hard to slow her racing breath, Liria tried to focus on anything other than the words Rothschild was spouting below and the prickly sensation left by the flaccid noose.
She could recite word for word the scripture the deacon was now shouting over the din of the crowd. Yet this would do little to ease their spirits, for she'd been told “The Devil can quote scripture to suit his purpose.” She wondered again how they had come to such a point. Rothschild had not been summoned to Hoffenshire, and no threat had been detected until his arrival a month before. Suddenly her song had become an instrument of evil. How could she believe this when she had spent her life entertaining these people with that same music?
Her mind froze for an instant. Rothschild had finished, and she heard the heavy tread of the executioner's boots on the platform behind her. It approached slowly, each thud echoing that of her heart. When she was sure he'd traversed the distance across the wooden floor the sound still continued, growing louder and actually increasing in speed. A sudden scream in the crowd behind her made her realize what she was hearing was not the footfalls of a man at all but of a horse galloping ever closer.
Rothschild shouted something unintelligible, his voice cut off quickly. Liria could hardly hear his echoing cry over the ragged sound of her panting breath. Something whizzed by above her head, thudding against the wood. The rope immediately slithered down to her side. She gazed around, spotting a dark shape on the ground before her. A man on horseback, it seemed. He was telling her something.
“Move forward,” the voice commanded, yet it didn't belong to a man. “Do it now, Liria.” Dazed, she did as she was told, and after a mere two steps was grabbed about the waist and heaved into the air.
Liria screamed, until she was plunked down upon the horse, her belly cradled by the saddle. She felt the warmth of a human body next to her and then the jarring movement of takeoff. Her hands grappled with the only thing within her reach; the leg of the individual who'd abducted her. A thick leather shin-guard told her this person was wearing armor.
“Be still,” a gruff voice warned. “I'll resettle you once we've made some distance.”
Yes, the voice was clearly female. Liria stopped struggling, but found it impossible to relax. What was this woman's purpose in stealing the condemned? She found herself more worried about those possibilities than of Rothschild himself, who was a fairly simple man to understand.
Presently, the horse slowed to a walk, finally stopping. Liria heard the familiar sounds of the forest, and figured they'd left the road. The woman picked her up once again and set her on the ground. Her legs refused to bear the weight once again, however, and Liria sunk to the earth in exhaustion. Her vision was improving rapidly, and she saw the individual legs of the horse beside her as it pawed at the ground with one hoof.
“Good girl,” the woman crooned softly before dismounting. She crossed to the front of her animal a moment and Liria realized she'd been talking to the horse.
“What's happening?” Liria demanded, feeling a surge of anger. The woman had basically ignored her sense first taking her. “Who are you?”
“My name's Devon,” she heard in reply, and nothing more.
Liria forced herself to stand. She could see the dark coloring of the woman's leather armor and hair. When Devon turned to face her she saw the brilliance of her blue eyes. “I still can't see very well,” she muttered half to herself.
“Light deprivation,” Devon concurred. “It's Rothschild's favorite. Less invasive, although he doesn't eschew more permanent devices. You'll get your sight back soon. Has it improved at all?”
Liria nodded. “You know Rothschild?” she asked.
Devon grunted. “Unfortunately. It's too bad,” she added. “I could've saved you the trouble if I hadn't been delayed back in Kippley. But no matter. Do you have family anywhere?”
“No,” Liria answered, thinking of Silas. “I have no one.”
“Yes, that's certainly another tactic. No one to defend you against the charges. Well, I know of a few places nearby where you'll be safe.”
Liria frowned. “You still haven't told me who you are.”
“Why don't you relax a bit? We'll have to continue shortly.”
Crossing her arms before her chest, Liria stood solidly. “I'm not going anywhere with you,” she avowed. “I don't even know you.”
She wavered a bit when the woman took a step closer. Although her movements were minimal, she appeared quite menacing. Liria still couldn't get a clear look at her. “I saved your life,” Devon responded. “And that's all you need to know, little girl.”
Liria gritted her teeth, knowing her chin jutted out mulishly. It was an expression that had caused her mother ceaseless frustration. "But," she continued evenly, "I don't know for what purpose. What are you going to do with me now?"
She heard the smile in the woman's following comment. "You think I stole into your town, rode straight up to the gallows, and took you away simply to play with you? And why, pray tell, would I not yank some hapless traveler on his way to market? Are you really so special I should risk my neck for sport?"
Flushing, Liria wasn't quite appeased by this logic. "Even so, you're hiding something. That leads me to conclude that I have a right to be suspicious."
"You talk a lot," Devon muttered. "'Tis no wonder Rothschild focused his attentions on you." Before Liria could reply, the woman had reached out and grabbed one arm. "Come, we waste daylight. There's a safe house not twelve miles west of here."
Liria didn't realize what she meant until she was seated up on the horse once again. Devon was clearly much taller than she, and simply hauled her up as she would a heavy saddle. "Twelve miles west is Woelfel. You can't mean to go there."
Devon mounted behind her, placing a steadying hand on her waist. Liria was acutely aware of the threadbare quality of the rough woolen shift she wore, and the scabs no doubt showing through the sparse blonde wisps of what was left of her hair. She was embarrassed that Devon had to see her in such a state. There was no tidying up, so Liria simply bit her lip and imagined the beautiful blue gown she'd nearly finished before all of this mess began. Rothschild no doubt had already sold it.
"And why not?" Devon asked blandly. With a click of her tongue, the horse started forward obediantly.
"That place is full of ruffians and thieves. The scum of the earth live there," Liria said. She realized how pompous she sounded and stopped at that.
"More the better," Devon replied. "You think Rothschild will find any profit there?"
"Just don't leave me alone," Liria begged. Though this person was a stranger, she felt more kinship toward her than anyone she might meet at Woelfel.
Devon paused before answering. "I won't," she promised.
As they continued on their way, Devon thought about the small girl seated before her. Liria was not the first she'd liberated from Rothschild's grasp. The bastard tried as hard as he could to serve up the condemned as quickly as possible, in order to beat her arrival. His goons were too stupid to sufficiently keep her out of the way, and he was too greedy to hire anyone superior. It would mean paying them more. He was also too cowardly to finish her off himself. He never did like getting his hands dirty. His current position allowed him to vent his perverted pleasures without sullying his reputation. Problem was, no one quite believed who he'd been before he'd taken the good book beneath his wing.
The fact that Liria had been able to force her hand was something of a surprise. She'd never promised any of the girls her protection, not after delivering them to the nearest safe house. But for some reason this one made her think further ahead than the immediate future. It was likely her bravado. The girl was afraid of her, just as all others were, but she refused to let it show. Devon had to respect that. That utter lack of submission reminded her of someone...someone she had no rights to think about now. Grimly, Devon pushed that memory out of her mind.
She had no idea what would become of Liria, and found herself worrying a bit about dumping her with Laric and moving on alone. It was a strange feeling, and not an entirely comfortable one. Well, she would have to leave the girl behind, that was clear. She couldn't very well continue on the way she had been if she had this pup trotting along beside her. Devon shook herself out of thse musings. Of course, she'd known the answer the whole time. Once they entered Woelfel, it was to Laric's house and then onward; on her own.
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