Stefan was shackled in the same chair that Roma was tied to. But his captors were taking no chance with him. As well as the leather restraints, thick chains looped around his arms, across his chest and around his legs. There was a pounding in his head. Blood streaked his hair and dripped down his neck, staining the collar of his tunic. He shook his head trying to clear it, but this only served to agitate the wounds; the skin tearing further, the blood rushing faster, until he felt its warmth on his chest. That last blow, the one he received before they dragged him from his cell, was the worst. The whooshing sound of the wood as it cut through the air wielded with all the force his attacker could muster, still rang in his ears, or was it the pounding of his heart causing the sound?
Blinking, he tried to dislodge the blood flooding into his eyes, turning the whites red. His mouth was filled with its sweet, coppery taste, and it sprayed from his lips, bubbling and foaming, as he mouthed a prayer for protection. His eyes darted to the chains on the wall and the cruel chair with it spiked seat.
It had been quiet for a few minutes, but this made his suffering worse, for within the silence was the uncertainly of knowing what they were doing. What vile act they were perpetrating on his wife and Annie. Then he heard them approaching.
“You, gypsy,” The Dark One lost no time. “I want you to admit to these men assembled here that your wife is a witch. That she is in league with the devil and the one who initiated her into his ways is Annie Ryan.”
Stefan refused to answer.
“Speak or I will make sure you suffer,”
Stefan shook his head. He loved Roma and he would never betray her.
“You wish to remain silent?”
Still he refused to speak.
“Very well,” The Dark One moved to a table and though his back was to Stefan, he heard the clink of metal against metal, as he chose from the assortment of tools spread before him. Turning back to his men, he ordered. “Hold him tight.”
Stefan’s head was pulled back against the chair, a strap was placed around his forehead and tied to the wood making it impossible for him to move. The Dark One stood before him, a set of pinchers in one hand and a blade in the other. Firelight gleamed across the blade outlining its razor-sharp edge. Stefan’s eyes bulged.
“Open his mouth.”
He clamped his teeth together as two of the men tried to force his lips apart. They held his nose making it difficult for him to breathe, and he turned purple from lack of air. Finally, he was dealt a resounding blow across the head that made him cry out in pain, and a piece of wood was jammed between his teeth. He tried to bite through it, but it was too solid, and he felt the pinchers snatch at his tongue and pull it from his mouth.
“You wish to remain silent,” The Dark One drew back the blade. “Then so be it.”
To Stefan’s horror the blade sliced through the air in slow motion. Its movement in time to his pounding heart before finally, it contacted the soft tissue of his tongue slicing through membrane and muscle. Blood sprayed in an arch following the blades wake. As in Roma’s case it would be impossible to describe the agony. He tried to scream, but all he could do was make deep, guttural sounds. His mouth filled with blood, choking him, but he was unable to move his head to clear the blockage. He gulped, swallowing the blood. Its raw taste was now beyond him, but his stomach heaved and sent it back up and it spewed from his mouth drenching all before him. Some of the men drew back in horror at what they were witnessing; others cursed him for staining their clothes. The Dark One stood with the pinchers held out before him, Stefan’s tongue held tight within its claws and the blood-covered blade dripping at his side.
“Release his head.”
The strap was loosened, and Stefan’s head fell forward. Blood dripped onto his lap soaking his trousers. Tears mixed with his sweat; mute sobs shook his body as he too prayed for death. The pain roared within his head, fiery needles pierced his mouth and his body started to shake from the shock. Looking up through his tears, he saw The Dark One was watching him, an amused expression on his face. The men stood frozen, watching as his life’s blood gushed from him. As an afterthought The Dark One looked at the pinchers he held. Scowling in distaste, he walked towards the fire, loosened his grip on the pinchers and allowed the flesh in its claws to drop into the flames. It sizzled and jumped before catching alight. Stefan closed his eyes and tried to block out the awful sound of his own flesh frying. Although the room was stifling, he felt a cool breeze caress his face. From somewhere close by he heard children’s laughter and the tinkling of harness bells. He was no longer in the torture chamber. Instead, he was walking barefoot through a green, leafy glade. Birdsong echoed through the trees and the sun felt good on his body. The caravan was just ahead of him. He saw Roma leading the horse and his children, leaning on the back door called to him.
“Hurry up, Da, hurry up,” they held out small hands, but no matter how fast he walked they moved further away. He tried to call out to them to wait but was unable to speak.
The torturers watched him in awe, as his eyes grew bright, his breathing slowed, and his face turned ashen. The blood still pumped from him, but there was not as much now, as it kept time to his fading heartbeats. There was no longer any pain, not where Stefan was. He started to run, crying out in his mind for Roma to stop, to wait for him. She turned, sensing the cry, and he sobbed with relief, when she smiled and held her arms wide. Her arms encircled him. He smelled once more the perfume of her skin, the softness of her touch before the pain within him roared, darkness descended, and he was no more.
“Oh my God,” Roma clutched at her heart.
“What is it?” Annie asked.
“I do not know. A horrible, stabbing pain.”
“Perhaps it is the skin knitting together.”
“No. It is something bad, like emptiness in my soul. “Oh God,” she sunk to the floor, her arms crossed over her chest. “The very life seems to be draining from me.”
Annie did not kneel beside her; instead, she walked to the cell bars. Her mind reached out for Stefan, calling to him. There was nothing, just a vast stillness. Still, she did not panic; she let her senses guide her. Invisible fingers roamed the dark corridor and into the room at the end, past the watching guards, heedless of anyone other than Stefan. Then, she found him.
His lifeless body lay slumped in the chair. His head bowed over, dark hair covering his face, the smell of blood overpowering. She probed deeper trying to touch Stefan’s mind, but it was useless. The flame was extinguished; all she felt was the coldness of death and the echoes of his suffering.
The Dark One sensed her presence. Walking over to the body, he waved her away as though dispersing mist, and she found herself back in the cell.
“Annie,” Roma screamed at her. “What is it? What do you feel?”
“Nothing. I felt nothing.”
“Annie,” she heard the rustling of straw as Roma stood. “You’re the only friend I have in this world. Do not lie to me, please. I could not bear it.”
“Leave me be.”
Roma’s arms went around her waist.
“Please, tell me.”
“I felt his soul cry out in pain.”
“Then what?” she managed to ask.
“And then,” Annie started to cry. “And then…nothing.”
For a long time neither of them moved. It was not until they heard sounds from the darkness they broke apart. The guards were dragging Stefan’s body back to his cell. Annie saw him first and had to drag Roma away, but not before she saw his blood-soaked corpse. They heard the jangling of keys, the creak of the rusty cell door, and the thud of his body, as it was thrown to the floor. It was then Roma started to scream.
There were times, over the next few hours, when Annie felt she would surely lose her mind. Roma spent the time whispering through the wall to her dead husband. She dug with her nails at the dry clay between the bricks until her fingers bled, wanting to see him one last time.
Annie huddled against the wall at the opposite side of the cell. She was beyond tears and resigned to her fate. But it was her sisters, Roma’s children and Meg who worried her. The Dark One said they would go for them at dawn. Already the air grew chill with the promise of first light, and from far away she heard the thrilling of bird song.
Just as the first, white fingers of light moved towards the cell, they came for them.
A great rumbling started above their heads. Roma seemed not to hear it, but Annie looked towards the ceiling and followed the sound as it moved across the floor. It was the great wheel, the one chained to the mill wall. Footsteps resounded on the stairs leading to the cells. A group of men passed. Ignoring the women, they made straight for Stefan’s cell. Four of them carried his body away. Roma screamed curses at them, her bloodstained fingers reaching through the bars, trying to touch her husband.
“Where are they taking him?” She turned to Annie.
Her hair stood out wild from her head. She had torn some of it from the roots in her misery. Her eyes were red rimmed from crying, her face swollen. Now, she truly resembled a witch. Before Annie could answer, the men returned. Throwing open the cell, they dragged Roma away, pushing Annie aside, so she lay amid the straw and listened to the fading screams of her friend. Her throat ached with unshed tears.
There were shouts from outside the mill, where a crowd gathered. She could still hear Roma’s faint crying from overhead, but this rose to a scream, as the rumbling of the wheel started and mingled with the sound.
“Mistress Ryan.” The Dark One stood outside the cell.
Hugh, as always, stood beside him. He opened the door and motioned for her to come out. Her legs quivered as she stood, but she would not allow him to see how frightened she was.
“This way,” he walked back into the darkness, and she thought she was being taken to be tortured. Hugh gripped her arm as they walked, but they bypassed that terrible room, and she hitched up her skirts as they led her up a stairway towards a door. The sudden rush of light dazzled her, waves of noise confused her, and she found she was at the back of the mill, facing the gallows.
“Up you go,” Hugh propelled her towards the wooden steps.
Soon she was standing looking down at the assembled crowd. They had grown quiet on seeing her, but with a wave of his hand the commotion started up again.
“Watch and learn,” The Dark One whispered.
Hugh’s grip never slackened on her arm. Two round cords of rope swung from the overhead beam. Roma was led out first. Her hands tied behind her back; her legs manacled in stout chains made walking difficult. Annie watched her progress through the jeering crowd. It parted before her, many trying to avoid even her shadow least she curse them. Others threw stones, and Annie cried out as Roma’s body jerked, when each missile hit her. She had to be helped up the steps of the gallows
Roma seemed unaware of what was going on as the noose was tightened around her neck. The crowd parted again, as the rumbling of the great wheel started up. Annie saw, to her horror Stefan’s dead body was tied, spread-eagled across its rungs, so each turn crushed him beneath it, as it moved forward.
“Look, witch,” The Dark One pulled Roma’s hair so she was forced to watch this further act of barbarianism. Though Stefan was beyond pain, Roma was not. Anyone who has loved knows when those you love are injured; it’s the most infinite agony. The rough ground rendered Stefan’s skin, but there was no blood; that congealed hours before.
The wheel reached the steps of the gallows. Stefan’s mangled body was taken from it and carried up to the platform. The noose was tightened around his neck causing his limp body to be jerked upright.
“This is madness,” Annie looked up at Hugh. “Why were they doing this? Stefan is already dead.”
Roma turned to look at her dead husband, then her eyes strayed to Annie.
“I am sorry,” Annie called to her. “This is my fault.”
“The witch admits to her terrible crimes,” The Dark One called to the crowd. “You have heard her words with your own ears.”
The crowds answered booing and jeering, waving their fists at her. Roma shook her head. Even then, in her worst pain, she would not blame Annie.
“Make ready,” The Dark One pointed towards the lever that would spring the trap door.
“Let me do it,” Hugh begged eager as a child.
Annie was thrust towards a waiting guard, while Hugh took his place at the lever.
“Any last words, witch?” The Dark One asked.
She turned towards Annie. “God bless you, child.”
“And you,” Annie whispered.
She had never before witnessed the pain she saw in her friend’s eyes, and she knew she would never forget that look, ever. For in it she saw the fading of the spirit, the death of hope.
In the second it took for Hugh to pull the lever, Roma’s mind joined with Annie’s and she heard her words as clearly as if they were spoken. The children, what will they do to the children?
Annie closed her eyes and did not have to see her friends disappear into the gaping hole. She heard the thunk as they fell, and the creaking and groaning of the rope, as it took their weight and swung backwards and forwards. A cheer rose from the crowd, and from somewhere the sounds of pipes and drums started up. They were celebrating the death of the innocent.
“You are next.” The Dark One hissed.
She started to pray, an act of contrition.
“You are being much too premature,” he laughed, leading her down the steps and back towards the mill.
She had expected to be hanged.
“Oh, that would be much too quick. I have great plans where you are concerned. What you just witnessed is a drop in the ocean to what you will suffer.”
Throwing her back into the cell, he slammed the door.
“Think about it, Annie,” he warned. “I am talking about the ultimate in humiliation, the ultimate in suffering.”
His footsteps faded in the distance and she was left alone. The crowd outside moved away. The silence descended and hummed in her ears. She realized she was panting, and holding her hand to her breast, she tried to slow her pounding heart. When she achieved this, when the noise in her head was gone, and her breathing was keeping time with her heart, she reached out her mind with every bit of strength she could muster and screamed, Run Meg run.