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There was a shuffling in the crowd; a simultaneous fidgeting and a rustling of cloaks and trousers. Edmund Harping was only fourteen, but standing beside his older brother, James, who was seventeen and enlightened in the ways of the world (having seen many, many things and accumulated many stories to recount to an enraptured baby brother), he knew that something was happening.
James Harping, standing beside Edmund, shifted uneasily along with the crowd. He scuffed his boots on the dirt between the cobbles, and kept his head faced forward, covered by a dull, unattractive cap.
Edmund, on the other hand, had his hood thrown back, allowing the slim streaks of sunlight that had fitted between the gaps of the gray storm clouds overhead to penetrate his hay-colored hair, letting it shine like golden thread, while his rosy cheeks glowed beneath blue eyes opened wide in wonder and searching frantically behind him for the cause of the stirring. James felt an undue sense of hatred toward his brother. Why were his beautiful, childish eyes opened so wide as if in wonder? Why was he craning his neck to see another man’s misfortune? And why, that morning, had he burst onto James’ bed as he slept, and begged in his unconscious ear to be allowed to see the spectacle? Why was he such an idiot? A braggart, a scoundrel. He lusted for the pain of others, didn’t he? And James hated him for it. They’d never been particularly close; they’d always been distant, as if they were cousins or acquaintances, not brothers. There were things James didn’t get about Edmund. Things like this that made him hate him.
So he stamped on his foot.
Outraged, Edmund turned hastily to him, the glittering eyes suddenly severely compressed and bitter with a tingling pain. He hopped about on one leg so as to massage his wound, and made to reproach his brother. James waited with the haughty arrogance of an older sibling aware that he’s just further reinforced his superior status, but Edmund never got around to reproving him, for at that moment the fanfare of the musicians on the left side of the crowd escalated into a raucous melee of indistinguishable notes thundering through the charged atmosphere.
Edmund’s face disappeared from James’ sight, thrust hastily back toward the gates behind them. The music reached the height of its power and the noise of the rusty gates thrown open wide for emphasis was drowned out. In the sheer silence of the blasting music, a pair of guards marched into view, flanking a weary-looking man clad in a dirt-streaked, ill-fitted, white shift tucked into dark breeches. His grimy hair stooped languidly over his ears, bits of filth falling off the slimy ends like the remnants of a rain shower. His face was long, and the cheeks that Edmund supposed had been red and full around his bones from chicken and potatoes and mutton and perhaps too much ale in the tavern to flush them a darker color, were now sunk in deeply like little rabbit holes on the terrain of his face.
Edmund shivered unconsciously, and moved closer to James, who, for his part, stood stolidly staring forward even as the rest of the surrounding company had mimicked Edmund in looking back. Suddenly protective, James took a decidedly strong step closer to his brother and put a hand lightly on his arm. A hug would be too much; it would look as though Edmund were a child, or what’s worse, a childish man. He would rather die than be seen as such. So James settled for the light touch of the single hand.
The musical fanfare died away and the irritated noise of shifting fabrics resumed its song as the manliest men rocked uneasily on their feet and the weaker members of their sex set about adjusting their caps to just the right position that would make it seem as though they were watching the spectacle when they were really only memorizing the color of their inner brims and praying to God that he could spare their fainting.
Edmund watched the prisoner intently as he approached, as weak and slender as a leaf hanging onto a tree by just a thread of a stem. That morning, when he’d pounced on James’ bed, he hadn’t been thinking much about actually seeing a man destroyed the same way meat was roasted on the spit behind their father’s alehouse. He’d really only imagined how proud and grown-up he’d feel to finally be able to partake in conversations with the other boys in his school class. They’d all been in this position before. Hundreds of times over. They could recite the proceedings to the most minute details from rote memory. And not only that, but most of them had seen other things too: hangings took place every few weeks or so and once in a while there was a real nobleman - someone so full of his own powerful bearing that the commonwealth could do nothing more than offer their grudging respect to mask their simmering hatreds - who took it upon himself to irritate the king enough to earn a place among the beheaded legends. Daniel had told Edmund just last week about the man who was unlucky enough to be beheaded by an axe rather than a sword, and not only an axe, but a blunt axe still covered in rust and splinters of tree bark. The cut had been too jagged rather than the smooth severing people were used to seeing with the swords. This morning, Edmund had still envied Daniel for having seen it.
He still felt a bit exhilarated; there was still an unfamiliar twinge in his stomach, a sort of wrenching of his entrails into a thick, twisted cord around his stomach, compacting into a dense, round stone of apprehension. He thought he was excited, at least. He’d waited for the moment for years.
Really, it was only a bit of sympathy for his fellow man - but this man was a traitor, and hardly his fellow at all. That’s what James would say if he could read minds.
Edmund chanced a glance at his brother, but James still refused to alter his direct stare. Edmund couldn’t help but watch the prisoner though, as he was led to empty circle at the head of the crowd. The bodies of the onlookers were all pressed together into one large mass leaving an open stage for the event to play out.
A number of soldiers manned their posts, clutching long spears vertically in one hand and grasping the hilt of the sheathed swords nonchalantly with the other. They wore padded armor beneath their thick tunics and breeches but their heads were bare to the breeze, standing nakedly in gleaming chestnut and gold variations. The guards grasping the unfortunate prisoner were even less attended with only their blades. Their other hands grasped the prisoner’s arms, while the prisoner himself had his hands tightly shackled. The closer they drew to the front, the wearier the man’s features grew; as he passed a few arms length’s from Edmund and James, the younger boy saw that he’d begun dragging his feet and dredging up dust.
The men around them began to shift forward, still rustling in their clothes. Most of them, Edmund noted, had the looks of men already thinking of the day’s business. This was no more than a trite obligation of obeisance to His Majesty; a sorry errand that must be attended to.
A priest made his way out of the titled men at the head of the party. Another man gestured regally and a pair of boys, probably no older than ten or eleven, darted forward. They wore regular shifts loosely on their torsos, but wore dark breeches and thick gold chains gleamed as they thumped back and forth, swinging to the movement of their necks. Noblemen’s sons. Probably second sons, though. Or third. Firstborns would never be seen in such a simple costume.
Whatever the case, they scooped up bits of kindling to set alight and then stood rigidly at attention, awaiting the command. Meanwhile, the guards had hastened the prisoner to a wooden rod standing straight up on a small platform. Thick logs and dry leaves surrounded the wooden pole. One of the guards held the man’s weight as the other momentarily released the iron handclasps. The prisoner’s breath caught in a quick sigh of freedom; he made to wring out his hands but the first guard clapped him to the wood structure while the second wrenched his arms around it and fastened them to the back with the handclasps once more. Edmund began to shiver a little. It was all so frightfully prearranged; this was civilized brutality in all of its glory. Yet another guard made his way over, bearing thick, strong ropes in his hands. They were wound briskly around the traitor, holding him fast upright and in the air.
The guards stepped back, and the priest took their place, pacing in front of the man who tried to clutch at himself and found his body immobile. The priest sighed. He looked up at the sky. The storm clouds had begun to desist. The dead man wouldn’t see the bright day that was promised in an hour, two hours. It was still early yet. There were still hours ahead of them to romp and play and plan mischief. There was time enough for another watcher here to step forward as a traitor, perhaps.
“You’ve come to die,” he said suddenly, returning his gaze sharply to earth. The crowd drew sharp breaths. Edmund tried to slow his own heartbeat but it was if his organs felt themselves endangered. His heart pumped faster. James remained frozen, hands folded in front of him. His only betrayal of life was the blinking of his eyelids.
“Yes!” the man croaked bravely. His voice was tremulous but Edmund sensed the dead power that had once reigned in his words.
“And you will die by fire - but you need not suffer the fire for all eternity!” He lowered his voice to give it a more soothing appeal. “You have sinned in your life, but it isn’t over. You have a chance. Repent, man. Repent and you will be spared the eternal fires.”
“I see no need to forfeit the glory that awaits me in order to appease your earthly soul,” the man retorted calmly.
“There is no glory for you.” The priest’s face turned ugly. “You have ensured that by your earthly actions. This fire here is enough for any man and it is attainable by our own sinful flesh. The fires of God’s wrath can only be worse.”
The man watched impassively. “Or they can be the same. But as I’ve said, I do not fear facing the opportunity of testing them myself.” He inclined his head in false respect. “I will ask my lord to save the honor for you as I see that it is a privilege which touches you deeply.”
The put-out priest retreated a few steps, shaking his head angrily. “As a good man must, though it grieves me to be so kind to your unthankful flesh, I say you have a chance to repent.”
The traitor simply turned his head - the only unfastened part of himself - to face the crowd. The hat men stood in the same position, but all of those brave enough to actually watch the proceedings lifted their faces to him carefully. Some allowed simple signs grudging respect to traitorously gleam in their eyes or the corners of their mouths. Others kept rigid stares and firm eyebrows to convey their disapproval. Edmund didn’t know what category he fell into. He only knew that his mouth gaped wide and his eyes shown in trepidation. “My fellow men, I am here to die, as I must for my lord, but I beg you not to eat with your eyes closed when it is in your power to open them freely. You are hostages of men who see themselves as having a more divine affinity. I say to you: the lord would know us each without the guises of idolatry and money.”
“That’s heresy!” someone shouted. Another chimed in, “You’d have been right happy if we’d been giving the money to you! It’s only you that’s sorry for not being a saint yourself!” One more strenuous voice - a boy; Edmund turned to seek him out - cried “We’re too ignorant of the lord’s ways and too blind to see him ourselves as you would have us do!”
Edmund awaited the response curiously, but the blustery priest had had enough. “Heresy!” he screamed in a warbling voice as thin on the air as the boy’s had been. “Treachery against His Majesty the King!”
He nodded, and in a simple nod, the man’s life was over. One of the original guards circled behind the man and cloaked his head in a thin gray garment. Then the boys lit a torch on fire and tossed it into the ring of wood. There was a loud crackling. The snapping and popping of the flames rose on the air, drowning the sounds of the crowd. A lone woman, perhaps a mother or a sister, perhaps even a wife, chanted shrilly, “Repent, Robby, repent, Robby, repent, Robby!” The blaze roared, screaming in the air. The woman’s voice no longer reached Edmund’s ears. He dwelled on her for a moment, watching tears spin wildly down her face. Already smoke was billowing around the foremost watchers; the priest, the boys, and a number of the guards had withdrawn farther back with only an attendant and a pair of guards remaining near the fire. The tongues of flame stemmed higher. Now the man was shimmering, surrounded as he was by thick, golden yellow tongues, licking, always licking. They were ravenous in their hunger. A single tongue of fire expanded, slid across the wood platform, caressed the man’s foot. Some of Edmund’s friends had told him that the heretics usually chose to recite verses as they died. Joseph had said this was probably a way of gloating since they were reciting the scriptures that most of the people didn’t have memorized. This time the prisoner only cried “Thank you lord! My God! Thank you lord!” The fire continued to rise, growing ever stronger, ever louder, ever larger. The flames licked at his bare legs. The smell of singing leather stung the air and then it was overtaken by charring flesh. Edmund was suddenly reminded of the time that the spit had fallen into the fire and the flames, just as untamed then as now, had devoured the meat, had roasted it, shriveled it, and coughed it up all black and small.
The man was being consumed. “Thank you God!” he screamed. “Oh Jesus! Thank you for bringing me home! Oh thank you!”
Edmund stared in terrified horror and whimpered softly. James gripped his hand in reassurance. He still retained the same position, the same impassive features on his face. He was strong, Edmund realized. His brother was very strong. He was much stronger than anyone had known. But this was no longer a game for Edmund. This was no longer a cherished outing. He beseeched the lord, silently, to turn back time, to allow him to change his mind halfway to James’ bed. How could these other men stand around him so unsympathetically enthralled?
They reached his neck before he gave in to the pressure and screamed. Loud and long. It was the worst sound Edmund had ever heard. He tried to keep from retching or from bawling out his eyes, or from fainting of the noise. The noise. The fierce, keening, bitter yell of agony, of bubbling blood and bursting veins.
Four things happened simultaneously. The man stopped screaming, or maybe his screaming had been snuffed out by the flames as they conquered his mouth; the woman at the front, tears streaming down her face, screamed “REPENT, ROBBY!” in the ugliest squall of uncensored terror Edmund had ever heard; the flames consumed the sacrifice, peaking into a single flame far above his head, encircling his entire charred remains in a fiery cage; and Edmund screamed in horror. And then the man was gone. There were more subdued crackles as the fire began its natural course of descent. But the flames were large and would take long minutes to calm. The spectacle was finished and all duties of obedience had been fulfilled and surpassed.
There was a sudden heaving of relief. The stabbing pain Edmund had felt in his stomach began to unravel and smooth out. It was time to return home to the lessons, to the chores. Still his head cried out in fear and the adrenaline pounded through him, setting every nerve end on alert. It was horrible. This was horrible. This was all wrong.
In the silence, only the priest seemed jolly enough to break the cold tension. “Let this be a lesson to all those who would call the King wrong in his behaviors!” he crowed. “He is God’s appointed son on earth! He will lead his people to the pastures of heaven, but only if they remain faithful to him!”
Men nodded seriously at his words, and then, to the sound of the popping flames, they began to depart, shuffling silently out of the square. James turned abruptly and began to walk.
“Jim?” Edmund murmured softly as they veered away from the surging crowd, in the direction of the slim alley that would lead them eventually back home.
“What?” James’ response was brisk and raspy after leaving his voice unattended for so long.
“Why did he die?” Edmund asked, subdued.
“He was a heretic, Ed. And heretics are no good.”
“But why- why did God want him killed, Jim? He was only worshipping in a different manner from the good Catholics.”
“That’s it, Ed. He was worshipping God in the wrong manner. God doesn’t like Protestants.”
“But why doesn’t he?”
“They don’t pay due respect to Him.”
“But people liked Martin Luther. They thought he was right, Jim.” Edmund bit his inner cheek thoughtfully. “I don’t understand it. There’s all those Protestants. Is God going to send them all to H*ll?”
“But they aren’t even doing anything bad. They aren’t even hurting anyone.”
“They’re not paying God his due respects, Ed. That’s worse than killing all the people of France and Spain and Asia.”
“But why is God going to send good people to H*ll?”
“He just is. I’m not God. I don’t know why.”
“But who knows why?”
“But how does he know?”
“He just does, Ed. Stop asking questions. You just have to know that Catholicism is what God wants, and protestant heretics have to go to H*ll for disobeying.”
“Jim?” James pretended not to hear. “Jim?” Still, James strode in silence, with Edmund nearly running to keep up. “Jim? Jim, come on?”
“Why do they burn them?”
“The heretics. Why do they have to be burned? Doesn’t that hurt worse than hanging, Jim?”
“Then why do they have to be burned?”
“Because their sins were not earthly sins against men. They were divine sins against God, so they deserve divine punishment. Fire is divine, and given raw from God. Rope and metal we craft by our own hands.”
“Oh.” They had reached their home. Edmund stared at his little brother and sister out front, playing in the grass with their toy horses and swords, pretending to fight a battle. It was all so very ordinary and simple here. So very safe. Not like there. He tried not to remember the screaming man.
He made to go inside, to change his clothes, to find his father for a chore list. But James held out a hand. “Stop, Edmund.” Edmund stopped obediently. James looked at him with a hard, harsh fury. “You screamed,” he said accusingly.
His brother looked down at his shoes. “I know, James. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
He looked up cautiously. James smiled, a very small smile and it that moment, his smile was the only thing Edmund wanted, a reassurance that James didn’t mind what had happened, that he’d forgiven his brother. “No,” he said simply. “But- Ed.”
“Don’t you ever take me back to another burning. You’re not ready and I don’t think they’re very fun. Do you? Was it worth waking me up?”
“No,” Edmund said honestly. “No, James, it was horrible. I’m never going to another burning. Not as long as I live. I promise.”
James smiled again. And then he reached forward and hugged his brother. “I love you, Ed.”
“I love you too, Jim,” Edmund said. Together they strode into the home, changed their clothes, found their father, and set out to do their chores. It was just another day, but somehow, for some reason, they felt closer than they’d ever felt before. Like brothers.