Chapter 26: The Scent of Violence
Despite the increased number of knights at the fortress gate, it took only one glance from the knight lieutenant at Acheron’s pass, marked by the House of Lord’s seal, before Carina was waved through without question. The driver quickly whipped his panting team of horses into a tense canter that built up speed and moved into a jolting gallop. Carina braced herself against the luxuriously cushioned seat as the cherry trees flew past and the first buildings of the capital appeared around them.
“Do we have any idea what sort of trouble your province is in, Baroness?” Jordan asked as he steadied his knight’s sword across his lap and held onto the handgrip in the corner of the carriage.
“No, but I suspect it’s related to the arrival of the Pope’s Emissary,” Carina replied, her repose a bit rattled by their bumpy journey. “While I was waiting for you, the messenger said Averly’s Mayor was in a panic because their chapel was under attack.”
Jordan raised a brow and exhaled with an unhappy grimace. “So, we could be dealing with witch hunters?”
Carina tightened her grip on the carriage seat and touched the Winter Rose beneath her gown bodice. “We will find out when we get there.”
Jordan nodded and stared at his sword for a moment before glancing out the carriage window as the road veered, and the outskirts of the capital rapidly disappeared behind them.
A countryside of summer fields, dogwood trees, farms, and cottages lay overshadowed beneath the distant approach of rain clouds. Carina gazed towards the gloomy, threatening horizon and watched with curiosity as a flock of dark birds gathered in distant trees before they swarmed once more into the air to catch the north wind’s current.
‘North to Averly?’
A wheel struck a bump in the road with a jolt, and Carina’s posterior lifted cleanly off the carriage seat. Jordan caught her arm and waist as she tumbled forward, his sword forgotten as it slid onto the floor with a muffled clang. After a quick exhale, Carina regained her balance and returned to her seat, this time clinging to the handgrip with both hands.
“Should I have the driver slow down?” Jordan asked with a worried glance at her braced ankle.
“No,” Carina replied with a shake of her head. “I have a feeling we’re not moving fast enough.”
By the time the carriage pulled to a stop, Carina was feeling “car sick.” Jordan appeared little better off though he bore it all silently, probably too proud to complain before a lady who had suffered the same journey.
Through unfocused, weary eyes, Carina made out a prominent country estate outside the carriage window. She straightened her stiffening back, rubbed her numb palms and fingers together, and motioned for Sir Jordan to open the door.
“Baroness!” the messenger yanked the door open just before Jordan’s fingers reached it. “I apologize if the journey was uncomfortable.”
‘If?’ Jordan’s expression seemed to grumble as he pushed past the anxious man and exited the carriage.
“Never mind that, why are we not at the church? Where is the Mayor?” Carina replied as Jordan gave himself a quick full-body stretch then turned to extend his hand to her.
Her first few steps wobbled, and not because of her ankle. Carina could only imagine how much pain her body would be in—if she could feel pain—and felt a stab of guilt for Jordan, who walked with a limp and occasional wince as they followed the messenger towards the large house.
Although the estate was not as large as the Turnbell Manor, it was nevertheless a house of status. A balding butler with a silver mustache greeted them with a bow and explained the Mayor was not at home but had gone to the chapel with Lord Acheron.
“Then I suppose that is where we should be,” Carina reasoned with a sigh. Jordan’s expression turned miserable, and Carina herself felt a bit green at the thought of another carriage ride. “How far is the chapel?”
The messenger leaned against his knees with a defeated groan and shook his head. “I can’t—go back there—”
The butler glanced at the younger servant; his immaculate pepper grey mustache barely quivered as he sniffed in disapproval. Then he turned to Carina and placed a hand on his chest. “If you will give me just a moment, Baroness, I can escort you.”
“Oh, of course,” Carina replied and blinked as he stepped back and shut the door between them. Carina turned to Jordan, who merely raised a brow and shrugged.
A moment later, the butler returned, this time carrying a loaded crossbow and quiver. “It is but a short walk to the chapel, Baroness—unless you would prefer to go by carriage?”
“No,” Carina declined quickly as she stepped back to let the man pass. “Sir Jordan and I could probably do with an opportunity to stretch our legs. Please, lead the way, Mr.?”
“Please, Baroness, call me Sir Basil. I may not look like it, but I was a knight once myself,” the butler informed them as he descended the manor steps and moved promptly down the lane towards the cluster of buildings that made up part of Averly’s town. Carina and Jordan followed close behind him while a frankly rather exhausted looking messenger trailed after them.
Closed doors and shuttered windows greeted them on every street. A few discarded tools, children’s toys, and a stray orange cat made the absence of pedestrians all the more unsettling.
“Where are all the townspeople?” Carina asked as she readjusted her hood around her hair and face.
“In the town square, I expect, Baroness,” Sir Basil replied in a polite but tense manner.
Murky reflections in a shop window turned Carina’s attention towards a flock of crows that swooped overhead on silent wings. She followed their path across the rooftops towards two pillars of smoke that twisted across the horizon of approaching storm clouds.
Carina focused on the smoke. A sense of dread coated her skin in sharp prickles as a lump rose in the back of her throat. “Something is burning?”
Sir Basil stopped in his track and followed her gaze towards the darkening smoke. “Ahh—yes. I suppose that means they’ve started.”
“Started what?” Jordan asked tensely, still surveying the empty streets around them.
The charred odor of bitter iron and pungent death drifted over the rooftops as the wind changed direction. The scent seemed to stir a memory within Carina, one that was not her own, as ghostly shrieks clawed her ears and raised the hairs on her neck.
Sir Basil glanced from Jordan to Carina with an expression of pity before he answered with apparent reluctance, “Burning Witches.”
It was a different kind of town square from that of Lafeara’s capital. A single large public well stood at its center, surrounded by buckets and a few scattered tables and chairs. Along the edge of the public square, a half-circle of shops filed around the town’s water source to face the chapel and its bell tower.
Compared to the buildings around it, the two-story chapel with a single rising spire appeared to be newer and larger in size. The structure’s stained glass windows lay muted beneath the shadows of the gathering storm, but it was the two burning pyres that writhed and hissed but a few feet from the chapel’s open doors, which desecrated this reverent structure.
The fear in Carina’s chest twisted like a dagger as her gaze homed in on the wilted figures hidden behind the dancing wall of flames. Still bound to their post, the slumped posture of the victims’ heads implied they had escaped their grizzly torment, but the blistered, baked skin that framed human teeth and twisted, deformed jaws bore witness to their violent, barbaric death.
The howling agony of their death echoed in the flames that sparked and shrieked into the wind. Carina could not tear her eyes away, couldn’t block the scent or escape the terror it awoke in her. It was as if they reached to her from beyond their mortal shell. Their invisible cold hands wrapped around her throat and wrists and promised her no mercy.
‘This is the fate of a witch in Lafeara.’
“Lady Maura, please don’t look.” Jordan moved to block her view, his voice muffled by the handkerchief he held pressed to his mouth to mask the stench. “My Lady?”
“We—we should find the Mayor,” Carina whispered and flinched as a snowflake of ash dropped against her cheek. She wiped it away and stared at the black smear it left upon her fingers. “Where is he—where is the Mayor?”
“If my Master is not in the square, he will be inside the chapel,” Sir Basil replied in a sympathetic tone. “Forgive me, Baroness. It is not a sight for one still so young.”
‘Inside the chapel?’ Carina stared at the simple stone pathway, which led through the two burning pyres to the chapel. ‘Is that why they placed them there—to dissuade others from interfering?’
She glanced at the crowd of townspeople who gathered along the edge of the square and stared with shuttered eyes at the dead witches. Only the young looked stricken and horrified. The older residents bore an expression of grim acceptance and even indifference.
‘It’s only been two years since the last witch burnings. I don’t recall—but it’s possible Averly has witnessed such public burnings before.”
“I need to speak to Lord Acheron and the Mayor,” Carina announded stiffly as she stepped around Jordan.
“My Lady, please don’t force yourself too—”
“They asked for my help. If I can do anything to prevent further insensible cruelty—I will.”
Carina knew her words sounded far more confident than she felt. Logic and reasoning were screaming at her to run away, and yet her feet moved resolutely towards the remnants of these two unknown souls.
The bitter, nauseating stench filled her nostrils and throat with sweltering misery as Carina approached the twisting flames. The closer she drew—the more she felt them.
Like a barrier of wills, her limbs grew heavy beneath their empty, burning gaze. Rancid smoke stung her eyes and filled her lungs. Within her tightening chest, Carina’s heart raced hysterically as if her soul were desperate to tear away from her body and fly from this place.
‘Is this—a warning?’
Before she could take another step past the barrier, Carina heard the crowd gasp and a scream behind her—then a body blurred past her vision and slammed against the granite steps two feet ahead.
Carina stared at the figure in white. The woman’s habit twisted around her light brown hair, her face buried—no collapsed—caved into the cracked granite corner of the middle step. Blood quickly collected around the woman’s smothered face and stained the robes beneath her chest, then crawled along the crevices of the stone path to form a scarlet pool of death.
Carina sucked in a strangled breath as she stared into its dark crimson surface and saw the pyres’ demonic flames reflected within them.
Wind and fire howled in her ears as Carina focused on the woman’s right hand, which twitched for a brief moment, but then went utterly still.
She barely registered Jordan’s voice as he grabbed her waist and pulled Carina back from the chapel. The town residents surged behind their retreat to gawk at the gruesome sight, their voices distorted and inaudible. And yet, from somewhere in the crowd, she could hear someone laughing.
‘How could they—How could anyone laugh at this?’
Her legs offered no resistance as Jordan sat her on a chair beside the well. Sir Basil appeared with a damp handkerchief, which he passed to the knight.
“Forgive my impertinence,” Jordan said gruffly before he pressed the cloth against her face and wiped it clean.
The cold pressure snapped Carina from her daze. She glanced down at the cloth in his hand and stared in confusion at the red stains smeared upon the damp green cloth.
The maddening pace of her heart steadily decreased to a dull, heavy thud that filled her ears as her body went numb, and her mind filled with one inescapable thought.
Carina swallowed her fury and sharply exhaled. Through the cold vapor of her breath, she focused on the flock of crows gathered on the rooftops around the square. The observers’ dark gazes drifted over the rabble before them while the townspeople remained blissfully ignorant. Averly’s citizens soon turned their attention to a group of men that emerged through the chapel doors and strode down towards the woman’s corpse.
Two of the men were witch hunters, garbed in familiar scarlet cloaks and armor, while the other two behind them were dressed as Lafearian nobles. Carina recognized the youngest noble as Lord Acheron.
She did not attempt to rise or greet him. Her body remained locked in a stasis of shock long after Jordan removed the blood from her face and neck. The stains on her dress and cloak would likely not wash off—but Carina little cared to wear them again.
Her frozen breath appeared and evaporated before her eyes in slow repetition as Carina watched the crowds part. One of the witch hunters dragged the dead woman’s mangled body from the chapel steps over to a pyre, where he tossed her onto the flames.
“If you’ve no stomach for this, go home!” Shouted the other witch hunter as he faced the crowd. “Rest assured, we are merely cleansing the church of foul witches that have tarnished this sacred sanctuary.”
The crowd murmured in response while Acheron, whose pale complexion had turned an odd shade of gray, registered Carina’s presence.
“Lady Maura!” He grabbed the arm of the noble beside him and quickly dragged the older man towards her. “Mayor Baltmore, this is the Baroness of Averly, Lady Maura.”
“Ah—a pleasure, Baroness,” the Mayor greeted her haltingly as he fumbled with his cane. “I-I am sorry. I do wish we could have met under happier circumstances—”
“How-how do we stop this?” Carina interrupted hoarsely.
“Lady Maura, your dress—” Acheron mumbled as he glanced towards the soiled handkerchief in Jordan’s grasp. Realization and shock registered across his face. “I—I am so sorry!” He knelt beside her and wrapped his hands around her cold, numb fingers.
“How can I help?” Carina forced out as her jaw tightened. She needed answers, a solution, anything to help refocus her mind from the image of a woman with no face.
“There is little that can be done, Baroness,” the Mayor answered with bitter resignation. “As long as they remain on church property and only punish members of the church—we cannot touch them. If we get in their way, we would be defying not only the church but the royal family.”
“They are murdering people—defenseless women!” Carina protested.
“Witches—” the Mayor corrected hesitantly “—or so they claim.”
“And did they provide you with any proof before they—” Carina’s voice failed her as her fingers twisted inside the folds of her cloak. She blinked rapidly and clamped her jaw shut before her genuine emotions could break free.
The Mayor lifted the handkerchief from his nose and mouth to wipe his brow. “They are witch hunters, my Lady. Their very identity means they can judge a witch from a mortal by simply looking at them.”
Another scream echoed through the square, followed by a quick, stomach-lurching thud that sent a sickening chill down Carina’s spine.
“Another one,” a voice nearby confirmed.
“Saints have mercy,” whispered someone else.
“Perhaps—I should not have brought you into this,” Acheron lamented as he moved closer to block her view.
“It seems this witch also couldn’t fly!” a witch hunter cackled, who stood a few feet to her right.
“Maura, your hands are freezing,” Acheron whispered as he released her left hand and brushed his fingers against her cheek. “You’re ice cold.”
Carina avoided his worried gaze as she searched the crowd, seeking some semblance of anger at this cruelty and injustice. She barely noticed when Jordan removed his cape and draped it around her shoulders. Her futile search only ceased when she caught a glint of glowing white hair.
Between the mutated figures of the murmuring townspeople, a strange white-haired woman, garbed in a scarlet dress, stared back at Carina with two bottomless eyes—and smiled.
A sinister sense of deja-vu washed over Carina as the volume of the protesting crowd suddenly spiked.
“This—they’ve gone too far!” the Mayor protested as he quickly broke away. Acheron released Carina’s hands and followed him.
Carina watched them struggle through the crowd and turned to search for the white-haired woman once more, but she too was lost in the chaos.
“We should get you out of here, my Lady,” Jordan said urgently as he pulled her to her feet.
“What is happening?” Carina asked, her voice barely mustering the strength to form a whisper.
“Please, Lady Maura.” Jordan turned her away from the turmoil towards the path they had taken into the town square.
“No, wait—I can’t just lea—” Carina’s feeble protest cut off at the sharp cry of a baby echoed over the crowd, followed by the desperate voice from a long-forgotten dream.
“No! Please! Please give me back my baby!”
Carina whipped around and shoved past a startled Jordan. Her breath caught in the back of her throat as she raced towards the crowd that blocked her view. The path through the jostling townspeople suddenly parted as Acheron stumbled back and fell to the ground with a grunt of pain.
A witch hunter advanced towards the fallen noble with a sinister laugh. “Now, now. Don’t hurt yourself, my Lord.”
Beyond them, Carina saw the Mayor climb to his feet and scramble away from the second witch hunter, who held an infant tucked against his chest with one hand. Below the witch hunter, a woman with familiar jade-green eyes and dark raven hair squirmed as she gasped for air beneath the boot pressed against her chest.
“Just lay there and be still. I’ll give the brat back to you if he manages to pass a quick test,” the witch hunter taunted as his comrade returned and yanked the woman up by her hair.
“No! No, you bastards! Don’t hurt him!” the young mother screamed.
Carina stumbled to a halt as she stared at the woman’s face—a face as familiar as Carina’s own name.
For eight long years, Carina had wondered, had grieved, had been riddled sick with guilt—and now Jade stood before her once more—alive.