To have a witch in your town is a dangerous situation. You cannot let her go. You cannot keep her locked up for long, she’ll find a way to harm you. You cannot risk to have her seduce the wardens, the magistrate, or even the judge — she is a good-looking woman, after all, even now, lying naked on a heap of straw, cold and hungry, dirty and bruised, chained to the dungeon wall. You cannot put her to death, without proof of her guilt. You cannot have proof without her confession. Only pain will make her confess, only pain will make her name the other witches she knows, only pain, pain that goes beyond the limits of what she can bear, can prove her innocence, if innocent she should be. But no one, high or low in the hierarchy of justice, is allowed to harm her, beyond keeping her restrained. The judge will have to find her guilty, the executioner will have to end her life, quickly or slowly, according to the judge’s findings, but, until then, only the torturer has the right to cause her pain, as only the leech has the right to administer medicine to the sick, and only the priest has the right to give benedictions to the fallible. And against a witch, neither medicine nor benedictions will help. But, suddenly and unexpectedly, when he was needed most, the torturer has died. Maybe he died from a heart attack, or maybe he fell down the stairs of his house in a drunken stupor and broke his neck, but now he is dead, and the town is in dire need of a replacement, and has sent a petition to the court, stressing the urgency, asking for the appointment of a new torturer. He will be sent to them soon, they were relieved to be told, carrying a letter with the Queen’s seal as his credential.
Hunger had driven the boy to pluck a fruit from a tree, but it had been the wrong tree, standing on the wrong side of a fence, and now he is on the run. If they catch him, he knows he will be dead. He hides during the days, he stumbles along during the nights. He is not really a boy anymore, he is a young man, but he is shy, he has kept to himself for as long as he can remember, he feels uncertain about the ways of the world. He knows he must keep moving, but he knows he has no hope of finding safety. He will not be forgiven nor forgot, there will always be a reward on his head that will far exceed the value of any fruits he may ever have stolen, and he will always stand out, always raise suspicion, as someone who has no business being there, wherever he may go.
He follows an overgrown former footpath near the bottom of a ravine, where high above him the paved road precariously clings to the slope. Dark clouds fill the narrow gap of sky between the mountain ridges, then thunder rolls through the canyon, and heavy rain begins to pour down. He finds shelter in a small cave, just a recess in the rock, only a few yards deep but enough to protect him. A flash of lightening is followed by a deafening thunderclap, and then, his ears still ringing with that sound, some strange noises he cannot identify, then the deluge drowns out their echo. After a while, as swiftly as the thunderstorm and the pouring rain had arrived, they end. He comes out of the cave, to see not far away from him, below, splayed out on a rock and half immersed in the water of the now swollen stream, the broken remnants of a carriage, with two dead horses, in their harnesses, lying next to it.
Carefully, so not to fall into the stream, he approaches, sees the body of the coachman, and then, among the debris, three more bodies, the passengers who have died with the horses and the coachman. An elderly man, an elderly woman — from their clothes they seem to have been well off, but he shies away from the thought of searching for the possessions they might have carried with them. And the body of a young man, not much older than himself. For a short and eerie moment, when he looks at the dead man, he has the feeling of looking into a mirror, before he realizes that the semblance is very superficial at best, and more about the build of their bodies than the features of their faces. Still, he cannot dismiss this young man, as he had dismissed the other dead, human and equine, as not concerning him. There is a bag with a strap around the corpse’s neck, made of leather, and tightly closed. He takes it and opens it, and finds in it, protected in its own thin leather pouch, the paper with the royal seal, stating its owner’s name, destination, and appointment.
It is the idea of a moment. He takes off the dead man’s clothes and boots — still better than his own, even though they are now torn, dirtied and soaked — and exchanges them for his own. He stuffs the pouch with the paper into a pocket of his new clothes — he takes the bag, but only to dispose of it somewhere where it will not be found, he does not want to take more from the dead than he needs to take. He drags the body, now in his own old clothes, the few feet to the river’s edge, he throws it in, he watches as it gets carried away by the water. Even if it will not get carried far, in this wilderness it will take some time before it will be found, and by then, he hopes, it will not be recognizable. Not be recognizable as the dead body of the man who now begins the arduous ascent to the road above, and the long walk towards the town that he hopes will welcome him.