I watched the flames lick higher at the woman chained screaming to the post. The white polished marble of the ruined church flickered with the light of the bonfire and the brands that so many of the people carried. In the corner a weeping man held himself, chained at the ankle he rocked back and forth, worrying the wounds around his legs, blood trickled onto the ground.
The songs of the faithful rose higher. The man wailed louder. He kept shouting the same words.' I am sorry, I am sorry. I cannot, I cannot.'
An unusual fear was in his eyes. Perhaps he was next? Hiding behind my mother’s skirts as she stood rigid, glaring at the coughing girl about to be consumed by the heat and smoke of the fire. There was no rain or breeze.
The priest walked around the outside of the pyre chanting. His black robes dusting the floor. The man in the corner stood. His legs and shoulders creaking and straining. Emaciated, withered, his veins bulged against the effort. The men by his side did not see, watching as they were the growing blaze.
I felt I was the only one who saw. The man in his rags and bloodied legs stepped out of his chains but moved no further. He saw me stare and raised his finger to his lips. I want to say I saw yellow eyes and fire and anger come from him, I want to say that he was a demon who struck the blow that day, but he was not. He was a starved man who whispered something to the wind.
He stepped forward and moved through the crowd. No one saw him, no one moved. Their eyes fixed on the curling yellow and orange light of God’s fury. He stepped into the fire and held out his hand. The woman strained at her chains, closed her eyes and then took a simple step forward. The ragged man helped the woman in her white soot darkened smock from the flames.
They walked towards me. Hand in hand. They passed but the frail sickly man stopped and knelt.
‘Do you hate me child?’ he asked.
I shook my head.
‘Here’ he held out his hand. ‘You will come with us, you will be safe. I promise.’
I took his hand and slipped past my mother’s skirts. They brushed my cheek as I walked away from her.
Into the distance I saw the town and started to make for the lights. Behind me I started to hear a rumble of thunder and then the cacophony of crowd in panic and fear for their lives.
I looked at my arms and brushed dust from my sleeve.
‘Do not look back’ he whispered.