For Tina de Dance, who provided the inspiration for this story, and kindly fixed its errors in language — any remaining errors are due to my own subsequent editing!
It was sheer luck that I received the news at all. But so late! Why did I have to hear of it so late?
Catherine was going to burn on Sunday morning. She would burn in Earstham, and to Earstham it was a distance of 40 miles, the last 10 miles across the mountain. And now it was Saturday evening.
So late! Too late!
Or was it?
Was there a slight chance that I could make it?
By a fortunate coincidence, I had worked late into the night the day before, and had rested in the afternoon. And another fortunate coincidence, we had a clear sky, and the moon was almost full. It would rise soon after sunset. It was summer, the night would not be long, and neither would it be cold. If I started now, not losing any more time, and with a horse that took me to the foot of the mountain, I might make it.
I did not have a horse. My horse had died a few months ago, and I had not yet bought a new one. It had not seemed necessary.
I took my neighbor's horse. I could not ask him, as he was not home. I knew where he was, at a lady's house, but it would have taken too long to go there. We were not friends, hardly on speaking terms, anyway. I was fortunate that he had two horses, one was for me now. I left him a note.
I could only hope he would not have me hanged as a horse thief. It did not matter.
Catherine! How long had it been? It did not matter either. All that mattered was that I get to Earstham before the mass ended. That would be 9 in the morning. That was when the executioner would begin his work. It would be slow work, I knew.
And it would have to be a fast ride.
It was long after midnight when I got to the foot of the mountain. There was a hostel at the end of the road, where the mule trail began. All the windows were dark, and the door was locked. I wouldn't have time for a rest, anyway. I tethered the horse, assuming it would be cared for in the morning. With luck, I would be able to pick it up on my way back. Luck. I needed more luck than that now.
The trail was steep, and not easy to walk even in the daylight, and when you can take your time. I had only the moon, and I had to hurry. I was exhausted when I reached the mountain's saddle, and I hurt from several falls. On the way down the muscles of my legs began to hurt. Half way down, dawn broke, and soon afterwards I spotted Earstham in the distance, in the plain below.
I heard the bells that told the mass had ended when I had reached the outskirts of the little town.
When I reached the market square, Catherine already stood on the scaffold, next to the executioner, next to the nine foot stake. She wore a simple gray linen gown, so different from the fine clothes she had been so fond of. Her hair was still long, loose and brown, as I remembered it.
As I started to push through the crowd, she took off her gown, and handed it to the executioner. Was it an act of defiance, or an act of obedience? I could not tell. She was naked underneath.
She had never undressed for me, but for him she had done it now. For him, and for all the others.
Her body was lean, her breasts were round and firm, her crotch was shaved. Her belly and her thighs were marked by a dense patterns of red stripes. She was a truly beautiful sight. A collective sigh of appreciation arose from the crowd.
I pushed on.
She stretched up her arms, and the executioner, stepping on a stool, shackled her wrists to the chains that hung from the top of the stake, then he chained her waist and ankles to it.
She stood still, looking into the distance, above the heads of the spectators, when the executioner took the pincers from the brazier. He had two pairs of pincers, small and large ones. He started with the small ones. He also had a poker.
I was only sixty feet away from her, when the red hot iron bit into her left breast. She screamed, and now she struggled against the chains, but they held her tight. The iron ripped out a small chunk of her breast. A little blood from the wound colored her thighs.
Her screaming stopped, but her face showed her pain and anguish, and tears flowed from her eyes.
The executioner put the pincers back into the fire, and waited. He was a strong man, with a heavy chest and bare muscled arms. Besides being executioner, maybe he also was blacksmith. His face was hooded, but his mouth showed, and he smiled.
Content with the pincers' red glow, he picked them up again.
Fingers dug into my arm. A girl was standing next to me, grabbing me. "Kind sir," she said. She was slim, with dark hair and dark eyes. Despite the warmth of the summer day she wore a thick woolen cardigan. Despite the warm cloth, she shivered.
"Kind stranger," she said, "please!"
I do not know whether she said more, as Catherine's scream drowned out all other sounds. This time, the hot irons had touched, squeezed and scorched her nipple.
The girl grabbed my arm so hard now that I emitted a low scream of pain myself.
"Kind sir," she said, again, and I felt her body press against me. I put my arm around her, and by itself my hand found one of her breasts, and now my fingers dug into her soft flesh, as the executioner's pincers played their game of burning and tearing on the chained woman's breasts.
I felt her hand upon mine, holding it firmly. Her nipple rubbed hard against my palm.
"Please," she said, and them after a while, her body still firmly pressing against mine, "she will die."
"Yes," I said.
"Please say it," she said, "kind sir, please say it!"
"She will die," I said.
She was breathing hard. As the glowing forceps closed in on their target between the bound woman's thighs, she took my hand and put it between hers. Through the fabric of her gown, underneath her cardigan's hem, I pressed my fingers against the soft folds of her sex.