The rough iron of the shackles bit into Sadie’s wrists as she walked to the center of the square. The merciless noon sun beat down on her head and shoulders, and she could feel sweat making its way between her shoulderblades. Her clothes were torn and ratty from her stay in the city’s prison, and her hair felt like a bird’s nest on top of her head. She gulped and licked dry, cracked lips, trying to not acknowledge the structure looming in front of her. Her voice had long ago grown hoarse and scratchy from too much crying, and her face itched from those now dried tears.
Another piece of rotten fruit, thrown at her from the crowd, struck the side of her face. It splattered her hair and neck with its sticky insides, and she grit her teeth. It would be over soon. All around her, the crowd screamed for her death. Amongst the accusations she could make out, the most frequent ones were of “witch” and “djinn”. It made no sense to her. They used to gladly ask for her assistance to heal their injuries with her skills. What was so different about her magic now?
A hand pushed her in the back and she stumbled on the first step of the scaffold leading to the executioner’s block.
“Up, witch,” the official overseeing her death spat.
On legs that trembled in fear and exertion, she made her way up the steps, grumbling, “No need to push. You’ll have my head soon enough.”
Of course, at this point it was futile to resist, and no amount of attitude would buy Sadie any more time. Ancestor spirits protect my soul.
The official pushed down on her shoulder, forcing her to kneel in the middle of the raised platform. A burly guard took his place behind her, and knocked her forward across the block. He slid her into position and kept her bowing down with one hand pressed in the middle of her back. When the executioner stepped onto the scaffolding, the crowd went wild with excitement. Really? Was the prospect of her death that enticing? Sadie wondered how long they would keep her pinned before the sword sealed her fate.
For one distracted second, she wondered why the guard did not fasten her shackles to the platform. The iron ring bolted next to her bound hands would provide an easy way to keep her restrained, thus freeing the guard standing behind her from his duty of holding her down. Try as she might, Sadie could not suppress the sick anticipation. With each passing moment her heart rate increased and she started hyperventilating. At this rate, she would pass out before they did the deed.
Jalen had business to attend to back at the palace, and his trip to the town square for the execution was folly. But when he’d overheard one of his soldiers telling a comrade about a young woman’s capture and her impending execution, he had decided to investigate it himself.
He didn’t hold any hope of the rumors being true. They had to be pure fantasy. A magical healer still alive in the city? Impossible. His men had already looked everywhere for one to no avail. He discounted the soldier’s claims. All the healers were dead.
Yet he had gone to see for himself the red-headed prisoner from his father’s jail.
Now that he stood in sight of the scaffold and could catch a glimpse of her, he decided his idea had been the right one after all The woman was stunning despite the grime caking her skin, hair, and garments. Her red hair glinted in the bright sunlight, curling around her head like a crown of glorious fire. He wonder how it would feel to run his hands through it.
He watched as she approached the scaffold with her head held high, her determination clear in spite of the taunts from the crowd. She resisted her fate with a quiet dignity that appealed to him. She shed no tears, proffered no useless wailing, no pleading for her case. Defiance burned in her stance, in each of her graceful moves as she complied with the officials presiding over her execution.
It wasn’t until the ax hovered in the air that Jalen knew he would intervene. On the upswing of the executioner’s blade, he approached the platform, taking everyone there by surprise.
“Stop!” he ordered. He exerted only enough mental pressure to subdue the executioner. He didn’t want the man to kill his prize.
Yes, a prize—a distraction from the madness that now stole his nights. He strode forward through the crowd, stilling them as he passed. He knew he would regret his use of power later in the day, but would deal with that when it came.