The day the men of Gideon burned Nicholas Blaine dawned warm. Tom Blaylock worked in shirtsleeves for the first time since the autumn, binding straw and kindling into loose bundles, then dipping the ends into the bucket at his feet. It held ground herbs, a king’s ransom’s worth, a special blend that Master Cateman himself had procured from family back East. A combination of things, he’d said, to help send the traveler on his way. And to ensure he stayed where he’d been sent.
Tom paused to rub his eyes. The aromas from the bucket, sharp as peppercorns and cloying as syrup, drifted around him, strong enough to draw tears. He coughed, then winced as rough burning raked his throat. Shivered, even as he felt the heat of the winter sun on his back.
It’s the quiet. It unnerves. Even the crows, whose cawing had greeted the Gideon morning for as long as Tom could remember, had gone silent. What would a stranger see, who entered Gideon now? A town like unto dead, buildings shuttered, streets empty but for a young man dressed in his best Sabbath black and seated on a milking stool in the middle of the square. As they walked closer, they would see him stick bundles of twigs into a bucket of crumpled leaves, hear him mumble prayers. Old ones, taught him by his father and his grandfather. New ones, that he made up as he worked.
Where is everyone? The stranger would look around, until their gaze settled upon the platform in the dead center of the square, the hay bales and the piles of logs and the stake poking up through the middle like a measuring rod. Where are the women? The children?
Tom pondered what answer he would give. The simple one, which would make no sense? They’re in Eli Petrie’s barn, two miles away. Or the complicated one, which explained everything. It all started late last year, when two brothers came to Gideon and asked to stay.
“It’s a great day, Tom.”
Tom flinched, then looked up to find a familiar bearded face smiling down. “Yes, Master, it is indeed.” He hadn’t heard Jacob Cateman approach, but then, no one ever did.
“You don’t sound sure.” Cateman’s rumbled voice took on an edge. “You’ve no doubts as to my decision?”
“No doubts, Master.” Tom shook his head, and held his tongue. Cateman had disdained the criticism that followed his decree that Nicholas Blaine be judged at the stake, and had grown ever more irritable as the day of reckoning approached and the mutterings persisted. “Fears, though. Concerns.” He stopped there, even as he ached to say more. Even as his Eliza’s words rang in his head. They can’t burn him, Tom. You know they can’t.
And you know why.
Cateman stared at him, the smile vanished, eyes dark and shiny as flint. “Understandable,” he said eventually. “He seemed invincible. There were times I doubted we’d ever get him. Then we had him, and I wondered how we’d hold him.”
“Be five months tomorrow we put his brother in the ground.” Tom swore under his breath at the crackle in his voice, brought on by his irritated throat, and by fear.
“Indeed it will be.” Cateman’s face brightened. He turned and walked to the pyre, his step quick as it had been on the day he wed. Like Tom, he wore his best black suit in acknowledgement of the occasion. “Old Adam.” He rearranged a pile of tinder, then stood back to ponder his handiwork. “And young Nick soon to join him, in the hell of their own choosing.”
“He’d get there faster if we hanged him.”
Cateman turned slowly toward the voice, as though he didn’t relish setting eyes on the speaker. “We’ve been through this, George.”
“Yes, we have, to no one’s satisfaction but yours.” George Hoard stepped out into the square from the dark doorway of his dry goods store. His was a big city voice, too rapid by half, at odds with his barrel frame and round, ruddy face, his own somber black garb. “We know what he is. When you know, you hang ‘em. Those are the rules. Within the host and without, those have always been the rules.” He glared at the pyre as if it were an unsound horse someone had brought him for trade, a swindle in the making. “Burning’s for when you’re not sure. Trial by fire–if he burns, he’s guilty and if he doesn’t, he’s not.” He walked past Tom without so much as a glance and planted himself in front of Cateman. “What proof do we need? We found him with her blood on his hands. We found–“ He stopped, eyes widening until they looked as they had on that day, blank and staring as a madman’s.
Tom stirred the herbs with the end of a stick. He knew what George saw. The same things he saw sometimes at night, when exhaustion had stripped his ability to block the memories. Of the ash leaves, gold as coin and heavy on the forest floor as a miser’s prayer. Of the sky, bright as turquoise. Of Dolly Hoard’s sundered body, the skin so white…except where it wasn’t anymore.
“George.” Cateman remembered as well. You could tell by the way his voice caught, and by the sluggish way he moved, as though the effort pained him. “Hanging’s too clean for him. Too quick.” He shook his fist under George Hoard’s nose. “’He needs to see it coming.’ My Ann’s words, and I agree with her. He needs to feel all we felt, the pain and the anguish and the grief. For every tear you shed for Dolly, let him shed a thousand. For every second of pain she endur—“ He stopped, let his hand drop, and hung his head. When he finally raised it again, his eyes shone as clear and bright as they had on the night he pronounced his decree. “He’s for burning. Of that, I am as sure as sure can be. By the Lady.”
“In her name.” Tom inscribed the Lady’s sign on his forehead with his thumb. Her all-seeing Eye, a circle centered with an X, protection against evil, whether of this world or the next.
Hoard touched his hand to his forehead. Then he stopped, sniffed, and looked down at the bucket. “That’s why the wards? Because you’re sure?” He pointed toward the south, and the road that led to the farms. “That’s why you’ve sent our families to Eli’s barn? Because you’re sure?”
“Caution, George.” Cateman straightened, his voice returned to its Sabbath strength. “That’s why I’ve led this host for thirty years. That’s why the Council leaves us to manage ourselves, and allows me to pronounce decrees without awaiting their approval. Caution.” He quieted. “Even when I’m sure.” He looked up at the bright, still sky. “It’s near time.” He started across the square toward the squat, windowless meeting hall. The sole building in Gideon with only a single level above the ground. The sole building in Gideon with three levels below.
Tom watched Cateman until he disappeared around the corner of the weights and measures office, and sat silent as Hoard kicked at a stone, sending it flying. It struck the side of the pyre platform with a sound like the crack of a pistol–the noise echoed, underscoring the silence.
“You’re quiet, Tom Blaylock.” Hoard shook his head, and started to pace. “We know what he is. He spelled the river this summer so it would flood the low fields and ruin the corn. Made it so wells went dry no matter how much it rained. Got us back for Adam, he did. Turned the earth against us because we buried his brother in it.” He stopped to stare at the pyre, and passed a hand over his face. “Now we’re giving him a chance to show us what he can do with fire.”
Tom bound the last handful of kindling, and set it atop the stack beside his stool. “As Mistress Cateman said, hanging’s too clean for him.”
“But a broken neck is a broken neck. Hard to ward against.” Hoard turned to him, eyes blinking like shutters, his breathing quickening. The first signs of fear, breaking though the anger that had consumed him since his daughter’s murder. “Fire is an elemental, and he calls them his own.”
Tom stood, wincing as his right knee cracked. Change comin’. He damned the horse that had with one well-placed kick turned him into a human barometer as he looked up at the clear, cloudless sky and tried to get a sense of the air, a feel for impending storm. Still warm. And barely enough breeze to ruffle a ribbon on his wife’s bonnet. “Eliza thinks he gave us Adam to throw us off his scent.”
“For all he begged us to spare him? For all he railed against us that we had condemned an innocent man?” Hoard’s eyes sharpened, his speech slowing. “Why would he do that?”
Tom bought his own time by focusing on the kindling, picking up the bundles one by one until he held all he could carry and the herb stench enveloped him like a foul haze. It all made so much sense when Eliza said it. When he heard the words from her mouth, he wondered how he could have harbored any doubt at all. “So he could buy time. Build his power.”
“What for?” Hoard eyed Tom sidelong and leaned against the pyre, his weight on one elbow, like he did when he stood at the bar at Peterbury’s saloon. “If you believed that, why didn’t you say something at last convocation, when Jacob asked those who objected to speak out?”
Tom trudged to the pyre, and set down the stack of kindling. Because Mistress Cateman came to see me at the stables that afternoon. She warned him that the women of Gideon had taken against Eliza. That she was arrogant. That even though she had not been born in Gideon, she thought she knew the ways of the host better than anyone, and refused instruction by those more learned. She behaves in a manner above her place, Tom. You know she does. And that manner had become more pronounced after the execution of Adam Blaine.
Think on it, Tom. Mistress Cateman’s eyes had glittered with tears. I tell you this as a friend. Think on it. She hadn’t had to say what “it” was. The women of Gideon thought that Eliza Blaylock had allied herself with the Blaines, with allied taking on as many meanings as a human being could imagine.
And Tom had imagined. In the hours between Ann Cateman’s visit to the stables and the gathering that evening at the meeting hall, he had imagined too much and too well. And so it went that, with Eliza’s stare drilling the side of his face, he sat quietly as Master Cateman asked for objections to his condemnation of Nicholas Blaine for the murder of Dorothy Hoard, and said nothing.
Tom collected another stack of kindling, and tried not to think. Of Mistress Cateman, youthful face aged with worry. Of Eliza’s throaty laugh, unheard these past weeks, that hit him in the pit of his stomach and sent his mind a-tumble. Of her hair, dark as mink and heavy as a summer night, spread across a pillow not his own.
Think on it….
Hoard watched Tom heft the last armful of sticks and set them on the pyre, then shook his head. “Your problem, Tom Blaylock, is that the more you have to say, the less inclined you are to say it.” He flinched when he heard the distant slam of a door, straightened as the voices drifted from the direction of the meeting hall. “They’re coming.”
Tom stifled a cough as he stacked the last of the kindling. His throat ached in earnest now, a combination of nerves and the damned stinking herbs. He had never heard of this particular curse, but even at age twenty-four, he was still young in the arts. If anyone could concoct a spell that would send Young Nick into the bosom of Old Nick and keep him there, Master Jacob Cateman could.
”There they stand!”
Tom breathed yet another prayer, and turned.
“Two more members of Gideon’s illustrious host!” Nicholas Blaine stood half a head taller than any of the scores of men who surrounded him like a phalanx and maneuvered him down the empty street toward the pyre. “Come to once again dip their hands in the blood of an innocent man.”
“I told you we should’ve gagged him.” John Petersbury prodded Blaine in the back with the blunt end of a pike.
“Let him yell.” Jacob Cateman brought up the rear, his expression solemn, the Book of Gideon tucked under one arm. “He’ll be silenced soon enough.”
Tom watched Blaine’s approach, and tried to see him as Eliza would. He was twenty-seven, or so he claimed, ten years younger than his late brother. He was taller than Adam as well, and thinner, with pale skin and black hair that fell into his eyes. During friendlier times, Mistress Cateman had once called him “Lord Byron,” whoever he was. He never worked. Never plowed a field or shoed a horse or felled a tree. Not like his brother. Adam Blaine had worked harder to win the trust of the citizens of Gideon, and had paid for his crimes by being pressed under the weight of the same rocks he’d helped clear earlier that summer.
But Master Cateman declared that you were for burning, Young Nick. Tom clenched his own calloused hands, then shifted his weight to ease the pain in his knee. Because Adam stole, and lied, and betrayed. But the one thing he hadn’t done was kill. Not like you. He took his place next to Hoard, and tried not to think of all the other things the man had done. Things that hadn’t ended life, but destroyed it just the same.
“And where are the women?” Blaine looked from one desolate end of the square to the other. “Fine young flesh that wants more than Gideon can provide.” He fixed on Tom. “Where’s your beauteous Eliza, Blaylock? I’m surprised you let her out of your sight.” He jerked his head back, in the direction of Cateman. “Ask the good master how one keeps a young mistress in line—“
”Shut up!” Petersbury rapped Blaine across the back of the head with the pike butt, sending him stumbling into Frank Mullin and Bill Waycross. They shoved him upright, Waycross elbowing him in the gut for good measure.
Blaine regained his balance and straightened slowly, breathing ragged and eyes watering from the blows. He remained silent until they reached the pyre–as he took it in, his eyes widened. “So, this is it.” His voice emerged soft. “The means of a poor witch’s destruction.” He hesitated as his escort parted to allow his passage, then squared his shoulders and mounted the stair, Waycross and Mullin closing in behind to prevent his bolting. He still wore the clothes in which he’d been captured, a white shirt gone grey with prison grime and open at the neck, and checked brown trousers, one leg torn, courtesy of one of Hoard’s tracking hounds.
Tom followed close behind, picking up an armful of the kindling along the way. He waited until Mullin and Waycross bound Blaine to the stake, then set about his own assigned task, tucking the warded kindling into Blaine’s pockets, under his arms, into his waistband and down the front of his shirt. He sensed the man’s eyes on him as he worked, did his best to avoid them, yet felt the pull. He’s powerful, darling, Eliza had said on more than one occasion.
So am I. Tom stopped, stood up straight, and looked Nicholas Blaine in the face.
“Do you think this will save you?” The past weeks had taken their toll on Blaine, the days spent in the wilderness evading capture, followed by his seizure and confinement while the host debated his fate. His eyes glittered fever-bright, while the skin of his face showed sallow and blotted with razor scrape. “Do you think this will preserve the life in this pathetic little place?”
“Whatever life we have, it’ll last longer than yours.” Tom forced himself to stare into the man’s red-rimmed eyes. “And each year hence, the host of Gideon will celebrate this day.”
“You think so?” Blaine arched his brow. “Well, it would give you something to do.” He rested his head against the stake. “By all means, then, let’s get on with it.”
Tom shoved the last of the kindling into the spaces around Blaine’s feet while other men dragged bales and bundles of hay into a ring around the stake, stacking them until only Blaine’s face remained visible through a small gap. When they finished, they stood aside as Jacob Cateman mounted the stair.
“Nicholas Blaine.” Cateman took the Book from under his arm and held it out so that Blaine could see it. “Do you have any last words before we carry out the will of the host?”
Blaine studied the tome for a moment. Then his gaze moved to Cateman’s face and fixed there, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Cateman’s face reddened. “Very well, then.” He motioned to Mullin, who hoisted a small bundle of hay and inserted it into the gap, hiding Blaine from view.
Tom’s knee complained as he and Mullin and Waycross stacked more logs large and small around the hay. Then Waycross took a bucket of spirits from a corner of the platform. He slopped most of the fuel over the logs and hay, then held the bucket out to Mullin, who shoved the end of an unlit torch into the dregs.
“Let it be written that on this day of the new calendar, the twentieth of December in this year eighteen and thirty-six, justice was done in the town of Gideon.” Cateman nodded to Mullin, who struck a match on the seat of his pants and lit the torch, which sputtered for a moment, then burst into flame. Mullin then handed it to Cateman, who turned to the other men standing around the pyre. “George?” He held out the torch to Hoard.
Hoard stared at the flame. “Fire’s his, Jacob.”
“I don’t see him putting this out, do you?” Cateman walked down the stair toward him. “The pyre’s yours to light. No one here has a greater right.”
“I’d have gladly sprung the trapdoor at his hanging.” Hoard stood his ground as Cateman approached, the other men backing away to allow the pair some room. “I’d have gladly done that.”
“Do this.” Cateman’s voice emerged low, level, a voice for an old friend. “You have my word, it will have the same effect.”
Hoard looked from the torch to the ground at his feet, then back to the flame, his lips moving as if to speak even though no words came. Then he looked to the pyre, and his eyes narrowed. He took the torch from Cateman, and mounted the steps to stand beside the hay-walled stake.
“Curced in kirc an sal ai be,” Cateman said in the old language, “wid candil, boke, and bell.” He walked around the pyre until he stood directly in front of Blaine. “Nicholas Blaine,” he continued in the modern tongue, “we the sons of Gideon separate you, together with your accomplices and abettors, from the precious body of the host and the society of the children of Endor.” He opened the Book, and held it out before him. “We exclude you from our Body in this life and the next. We exile you outside the border that divides we the blessed from the ruined and the lost, and cast you into the wilderness. We declare you anathema and judge you damned, with the Devil and his angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire until you shall recover yourself and return to amendment and to penitence. This sentence I pronounce upon you, by the Lady.”
Tom and the other men signed themselves as they spoke with one voice. “In her name!”
“Ring the bell.” Cateman nodded to Petersbury, who took up a cowbell and jangled it while from down the street, untouched by mortal hands, the bell outside the meeting hall entry pealed in counterpoint, sounding the death toll of thirteen rings.
After the last reverberation ended, Cateman held up the Book of Gideon, balancing it atop his open hands. “Close the book.” He slammed the cover closed, and separated Blaine from the host from that moment until the end of time. Then he looked to Hoard, who stood still as a statue beside the stake, the torch aloft. “Light the candle.”
Hoard brought the torch down, touching it to the turpentine-wetted hay at the base of the stake. The fire licked around, then traveled upward, as Hoard circled the stake, touching the torch to the kindling, the logs. As the flames rose and strengthened, he walked down the steps, stopping along the way to snuff out the torch in a bucket of sand. “So be it,” he said under his breath.
Tom followed Hoard down from the platform, and went to stand with the other men. The sun still warmed and there was no breeze worth mentioning, the only sounds the crackle and hiss of the growing blaze.
How long will it take? It was Tom’s first burning, and all he knew was what he’d heard from the older men. If Blaine were lucky, which no one hoped, the smoke inside the hay would suffocate him in a few minutes. If not, he’d burn from feet to face, with death claiming him at some point along the way.
“It’s a day of salvation for us all.” Petersbury removed his hat, in deference to the occasion if not the man. “I remember–” He fell silent as a low sound drifted from the pyre.
“O let me in this ae nicht, this ae ae ae nicht…”
“He’s still breath enough to sing.” Cateman snorted, a laugh with no humor in it. “Good. He’ll use it up that much faster.”
“…O let me in this ae nicht…And I’ll never seek back again…”
“He always could carry a tune.” Petersbury still stood with his hat over his heart. “Let him carry this one to hell.”
“…But when he got in he was sae glad…he knockit the bottom-boards oot o’ the bed…he stole…the lassie’s maiden…head–” Blaine coughed, once, then again. “–and the auld–” Another cough, then silence. The flames shot up to the top of the hay mound, roaring as though stoked by a bellows, glowing to rival the sun. The minutes passed, the men marking time’s passage by watching the fire, as somber as surgeons observing a procedure.
We’ve removed a disease from our midst. Tom scuffed the toe of his boot into the dirt. Now we can heal. He thought of Eliza, waiting for him in Petrie’s barn, as the fire died and the stake and what remained bound to it became visible.
Petersbury strode up the steps, pike in hand. He poked at the dark, smoldering shape, then turned to Cateman. “We can bring Mistress Hoard here to declare matters proper, but I’d say it’s dead.”
Cateman nodded. “Wait till it cools. Then we’ll cut it down, take it to the lowest level of the hall, lay it out.”
“Better to smash it to powder and spread the ashes hither and yon.” Hoard shook the smothered torch. “Why keep him here? It makes no sense.”
“Because that which we sundered could be made whole again with the right spell.” Cateman paced, his chin high and his step quick, his earlier energy returned. “Better to keep him here, intact, where we can keep an eye on him.” He stopped, and turned to face them. “Ann has seen it done. Says it’s common practice back East.”
“The cellars of the Boston host must be sights to behold.” Hoard looked at the spent torch he held as though he’d never seen it before, and tossed it aside. “A corpse in each, laid out next to the coal and the preserves.”
“Be quiet, George.” Cateman looked up at the sky, and took a deep breath. “Let’s get–” He fell silent, eyes fixed toward the north.
Tom followed Cateman’s gaze, and saw the heavy grey line of cloud where just a few moments before there had been clear blue sky. “Change comin’.” He flexed his knee, felt it crack.
“Comin’ in mighty fast.” Cateman’s voice emerged soft.
“It does, sometimes.” Tom watched the clouds tumble toward them, as dark as the pyre smoke. “One hour, it’s bright and sunny, and the next–” He stopped as a gust of wind slapped his face, cold as sleet and just as sharp.
“Inside!” Cateman turned and ran as above them, the sky filled and blackened. ”Into the nearest shelter and bar the doors!”
Hoard pointed to the pyre. “The body–“
“Leave it!” Cateman stumbled, the Book flying from his grasp. He fell to his knees, and scrambled on all fours toward Hoard’s store.
Icehouse cold. Blizzard freeze. It washed over like a wave and struck like a blow, an invisible avalanche that stopped them in their tracks and drove them to the ground.
Tom looked toward the pyre in time to see Hoard collapse, clutching his left arm. Watched him shudder, then lie still. He saw Petersbury sag to the ground, Mullin slump against a water trough.
He won’t kill by fire, my love–he’ll leave the fire be. He wants to die–I don’t know why, but he wants to. He has to.
Tom looked overhead, saw nothing but swirling blackness, and started to run–
But he won’t stop there. Tom, he won’t stop there. He’s more powerful than the host–
–felt his knee crack, the pain shoot like roaring flame. His leg buckled, and he grabbed the edge of a trough to break his fall. But it proved near empty, and he pulled it over as he fell.
–and he’s had help. And you know who that is, Tom. She’s tried to drive a wedge between us since we wed.
“Darling.” Tom tried to rise, but a spasm of shivering took him. You were right, dear Liza. Shaking like a newborn calf, he rose onto his elbow as the storm darkened the day to night and the water that splashed his skin and clothing froze. “I love you. Forgive me. Forgive….” He caught a glimpse of his reflection in a puddle, and saw the slack features of a dead man. Felt his heart shudder as his face altered, the bones narrowing as the hair lengthened, until his wife’s face formed. “Eliza? Can you see me…hear…me…?” Then her face vanished, leaving only his reflection, which hazed and faded as the ice skinned over the water. “Eliza…” He lay down his head, shivered again, then stilled as the pain of freezing subsided. He no longer felt the ache in his knee. He no longer felt cold. Only tired. So tired….