She remembered the freefall, the tightening of the noose, and then, the miraculous breaking of the rope.
The fools had taken it as a sign of innocence, and it seemed there was more remorse at her innocence than bloodthirsty pleasure at her guilt.
“Renounce him, and his legions of hell, if you are not of him!”
The magistrate’s spittle flecked her cheeks, and she turned her head in disgust at the stale tobacco and ale on his breath, wanting to retch, which they would surely take as a sign of possession.
Somehow, she kept the vomit down, and a fresh breeze going into his face mercifully cast the scent of his unwashed body away from her.
“I renounce him, and his legions of hell. Why is that not enough for you?”
The crone cackled from the crowd: “I saw you dig that grave! I saw you bury that child! I saw you perform your unholy rites over that baby, you whore!”
Before anyone could stop her, the old crone hobbled forward and kicked the lever that held the platform, and Caroline didn’t even have time to gasp before the noose pulled itself taut; she swung once, twice, her vision darkening, her air constricted...
The rope snapped, and she fell and sprawled, her dress jumbled, and after some fumbling, she managed to get to her knees.
She heaved, retched, heaved again, but nothing came up.
She was dizzy and sick, and weak with relief.
The buzz and chatter of the amazed crowd sounded like flies over dung in high summer as the magistrate reluctantly righted her, and she smoothed her clothes, her breathing slowing, her dignity returning.
She hated them all.
How could they? How dare they, touch her.
As her vision cleared, and the darkness receded, she vowed to make them pay.
The magistrate, who was no stranger to her bed, seemed almost relieved as well, but played to the crowd his pious character; she would see to that as well. While he was grunting over her, he practically lathered her with spit, but she’d endured it all, and yet, at the first accusation, he’d done this.
Yes, she would see to it; it would be slow, and painful, and sharp.
They proclaimed her innocence, and declared the rope breaking an act of divine grace, and heavenly pardon, and with all due respect and apologies, they freed her, and avoided her like the plague.
It was past midnight, and even the woods seemed silent tonight.
No howls, no hooting of owls, no crickets, no bats, even, which was unusual.
She supposed the ground itself was unholy, perhaps, so nothing came near it.
Fire blazed in the hearth, and warmed her back, but the voice that came from behind her sent a shiver of pleasure and fear through her, and she felt the fine hairs on her arm come to attention with tingling.
Whoever it was knew her name; the voice wasn’t asking.
She turned, and a man in dark robes was sitting in her oversized chair. His hood was over his head, and his eyes glittered with silver and amber, as if there was a forge within, and knives were being crafted.
He took off the hood.
His gaze had weight, and it hurt her as much as it scared and thrilled her.
She tried to make sense of it, but too much, combined with her near-death, was overloading her, so she stopped.
“Who are you? What are you doing here? What do you want?” It all came out hushed and breathy, and she sounded like a schoolgirl who’d unexpectedly bumped into her crush.
“My name is Nefarion. I’m on an assignment for our master, and I want you to give me your hand.”
“My hand? Why do you need me to take your hand?”
“It will be less painful for you if I do.”
“Your…redemption. The master calls for you, and he sent me to bring you back.”
“Bring me back?”
“You renounced him. Having renounced the other, you shouldn’t have done that.
"You've studied the black arts, and practiced them, used them to your advantage.
“You murdered a child, Caroline.”
“It wasn’t a child…” He held up a hand, stopping her.
“I’m not here to argue, my dear. I’ve come to take you…well, home.”
“My home is here. My family…”
The robed man, ('Nefarion,' was it?) chuckled, but it was not a merry sound.
He stood, and held out his right hand to her. It was strong and pale, and seemed to glow a bit from within. Caroline tried to convince herself it was the fire’s reflection.
“We’ve wasted enough time. He calls for you, and you must go.”
“Caroline!” He used his voice like a whip, and she flinched, and began to cry.
Backing into a corner, she went to her knees and pleaded.
“No…no, please. The rope…didn’t you see? It broke! It broke, don’t you see? It broke…I’m innocent.”
Nefarion walked over, towered over her. “It broke because you renounced him, Caroline, and now, he wants to see you. And now, you must go.
“Give me your hand.”
She stayed in the corner.
Nefarion lifted her, and she began to sob. “No…no…I only did it to save my life. I’m loyal, Nefarion. I’m loyal, I swear…”
He embraced her, and held her almost tenderly, and led her back to the fire, stepping into it, lifting her over the logs, and the flames caught the hem of her night robe.
She fought for a time, but Nefarion began to glow, and grow warm, and Caroline saw her skin begin to blister and peel.
“No…no, please, no….it wasn’t a child…I’m still a witch…no, please...”
As Nefarion ran his hand through her hair, it smoldered, as he kissed her mouth, her tongue caught fire, and her eyes sizzled and dripped as he whispered in her ear.
“It will be fine, Caroline. Everything will be fine.
"I promise you...”