Hovering barely a foot above the ground, the two yellow beads came swiftly toward Galen and, for the second time that day, he reached for one of the Colts. The thin quality of the moonlight angling through the tops of the trees lining the road was playing tricks on Galen’s eyes, causing a strobe effect as the yellow beads vanished then reappeared, each time closer yet.
Galen cocked back the hammer. His heart raced, thinking that the loud report of a single gunshot could bring God-knows-what-else from the woods. His finger tensed on the trigger.
As he squinted to see, the shape of the four-legged creature became clear to him against the shadow. He raised the pistol, aimed it dead between its eyes, and steadied his hand. But something—a bit of instinct—told him to hold off until it came closer.
And when the animal trotted into the light of the moon, Galen chuckled to himself. It was nothing more than a vagabond mutt walking down the road, carrying its dinner.
But as it passed, a chill ran down Galen’s spine. What was in the dog’s mouth was not a bone, but a severed human hand.
Galen rubbed his eyes. Can’t be, he thought. The little voice in his head told him to turn around and avoid the camp ahead; but it was so close, and to do so would be like signing Maria’s death warrant, as the turn would cause doubtlessly consternate the horses.
He pushed the horses forward to the end of road, which opened into an acre-wide clearing. Galen could see dozens of tents all facing a single cabin placed on the rise of a small hill. He headed in the direction of a campfire, around which he could see several men standing. As the wagon drew closer, the men broke from the fire and came toward him, noticing the Stranger quickly. One of them—the closest—raised a hand for Galen to stop.
“Who are you?” the man asked. His pockmarked face carefully examining the Stranger before him.
Instead of answering his question, Galen went into a quickly worded explanation of Maria’s condition.
“Is there a doctor in camp?” Galen finished.
“Nena!” the man called out over his shoulder.
Moments later, Galen could see the front door of the cabin open. Briefly silhouetted in the light coming from inside was the figure of a woman. She shut the door and came down the hill toward the wagon. But, even as she drew closer, Galen could not see her face. It was not until she approached that he realized she was wearing a hooded cloak.
“This fella says he’s got a dying woman in the back,” the man told her.
Not even glancing at Galen, the hooded Nena went to the back of the wagon and looked inside. She then turned back to the man who had summoned her and whispered something in his ear.
Suddenly, he drew his pistol and pointed it at Galen. The other men who had accompanied him from the fire did the same, raising their guns right at the Stranger’s chest.
“Get out of the wagon, Mister.” His voice was deadly serious.
“What’s going on here?” Galen demanded, raising his hands.
Instead of an answer, the man with the pockmarked face roughly grabbed Galen by his arm and yanked him out of the driver’s seat and onto the ground. “Don’t you move!” he yelled.
And as Galen looked up, Nena pulled the hood from her head, exposing the outline of her moonlit face.
She pointed to the back of the wagon and the prone, unconscious Maria. “This woman,” she shouted, “is a witch!”
“What are you talking about?” screamed Galen as the men pulled open the rear gate of the wagon. Instead of an answer, he received the butt of a rifle delivered to his skull with stunning force. Instantly his head filled with stars and he felt his arms grow rubbery and weak. As they gave out under him, he fell face first into the ground.
Through the ringing now braying in his ears, Galen could hear the men as they dragged Maria out of the wagon. He tried to get up, to help her, but was too woozy to even move.
He tried to fight it and stand up, but his stunned mind wasn’t able to control his injured legs.
“Stop!” he tried to shout, but could only whisper. His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton.
Two more men yanked him to his feet, holding him up under his arms. Weakly, Galen lifted his head to find himself staring right into the face of Nena—her dark, handsome eyes gazing directly into his dilating pupils. She reached out with a finger and ran a nail along his cheek and down to his chin, and cocking her head as she examined his face.
“Restrain him,” she said to the men holding Galen up.
“What about her?” the man with the pockmarked face shouted as he and another man held up the unconscious Maria.
“Burn her,” Nena said coldly. She turned to Galen who was fading into unconsciousness. “And make sure he sees everything.”
The splash of water in his face brought him around. His vision was hazy at first. The blow to his head still rung in his skull; he had to take a moment to resurface to consciousness.
Immediately, Galen was aware of the crippling pain in his neck and back; he was locked in a bent over position. As the fog in his brain cleared, he realized his hands were immobilized. He couldn’t turn his head, either. He was in the stocks.
“Quit fighting, yer not going anywhere,” the beady-eyed boy said as before tossing another bucket of water in Galen’s face. As Galen struggled to see what kind of infernal contraption they had locked him into, it occurred to him what they had done. He’d heard that the settlers had used the pillory to restrain and punish criminals—and now he fully understood why: from here there was no chance of escape. Bent at the waist, it was difficult for Galen to breathe—and when the boy threw another bucket in his face, he coughed until it felt like his ribs would snap. When his lungs stopped seizing and he caught his breath, the bucket boy grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head up.
Ahead—no more than a hundred feet away—Maria had been tied to a stake atop a large mound of wood and dried bramble—kindling. At the nod of Nena's head, the man with the pockmarked face touched the tip of a flaming torch to the bramble, causing it to ignite. Within mere seconds the fire spread to the whole pile.
“No!” Galen tried to call, but the compression of his lungs caused the shout to only spill out of his mouth. As the sky thickened with smoke, Galen saw, to his horror, that Maria was not only still alive, but fully conscious as well. She struggled against the ropes that bound her to the pyre, her mouth silently, and futilely, crying out for help and mercy.
“Witch!” bellowed Nena. “Dost thou ask for His forgiveness? We can spare you the agony of a slow death in the flame.” She nodded to a man a few feet away raising his rifle and taking aim at Maria's head.
Galen tried to open his mouth to tell the bucket boy only to be greeted by another onslaught of frigid water.
The fire had made its way up the base and to the wood under Maria’s feet. Through the choking smoke Galen could see Maria's head thrash around wildly while the fire consumed her legs.
“Witch, hear me,” Nena bellowed again. “I can release you—but you must ask for His forgiveness.”
Again Galen tried to speak, forcing his cracking voice out as loud as he could. “She cannot talk! She has no tongue!” But even so, the roar of the fire drowned out his plea; no one heard it.
The flames now rose to her waist, licking at her chest and back. Her thick black hair began to curl and ball up on the ends from the heat.
When no cries of forgiveness were heard, Nena motioned the man with the rifle to lower his gun. “Suit yourself,” she said.
From his location, Galen could see Nena's face was placid as she watched the flames.
Maria's head whipped back again as the fire rose to her face. Her mouth drew open as she struggled for breath inside the burning ring of superheated air. Tears streamed down Galen's cheeks and he averted his eyes, but the boy with the bucket grabbed his hair once more and yanked his head up, forcing him to see everything. Maria whipped her face back and forth, the fire roasting her flesh. As she did, her eyes met his—and, if only briefly, Galen could see they were full of hate. The contempt she felt for him was more than apparent on her charred and blistering visage before vanishing moments later behind the growing wall of smoke and flame.
Galen tried once more to avert his eyes, falling upon them reveling in a small circle by the fire, their naked bodies swaying to a rhythm only audible in their minds. A circle of undressed men, their hands joined, chanted in low voices as they watched the ritual taking place inside their confines. There crouched Nena in the nude, up on all fours as if she were imitating the attack stance of an animal. Behind her stood a man holding her by the hips, thrusting into her while the other men watched and chanted.
By this time they were oblivious to the pyre, whose flames had entirely consumed their witch. Its greedy orange fingers reaching ten feet into the sky. The bucket boy refused to let Galen look away so he watched, and he wept.
The nearly primitive ritual went on for what seemed like hours as each naked man had his way with Nena—though never did it seem like she was submitting. It ended when the flames died, the fire leaving behind what was left of the slumped and roasted figure still lashed to the pole, its mouth open in a never-ending cry of unspeakable pain. The boy finally let Galen's head drop down before he picked up his bucket and walked away.
Hours later, as a group of men cleared the pyre—and Maria's charred bones—Galen was surprised by a visitor. It was Nena, once again dressed in her red cloak. She reached down and raised Galen's head by using just her fingertips to lift his chin.
Galen could not even bear to look at her.
“She had no tongue!” he screamed. “How could she have asked for mercy with no ability to speak?”
She ran a finger along his cheek and asked how he knew such a thing. Galen told an abbreviated version of how he'd come upon Maria in the woods, leaving out the part about his death and resurrection.
Before he could go on, Nena stopped him. “Why do you think they cut her tongue out?” she asked. “A witch cannot cast a spell if she cannot speak.”
“You’re crazy,” Galen told her, his voice full of contempt. Though something in her words bothered him. “Where am I?” he demanded.
“You’re in the camp of the Magus. This is our settlement and you intruded. I will decide what will be done with you.”
“Lady, I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. I mean, what state are we in? Arkansas? Tennessee?”
Nena looked at him, her dark eyes examining him closely. Then suddenly she broke out into a braying laugh. “What makes you think, dear stranger, that you are still in the mortal world?”