I slipped through the crowd circled around the wooden platform in the middle of the town square. Reaching the front, I peered up at the leader of our mountain village as he unrolled a piece of parchment. A woman was tied to a pole behind him with kindling piled around her feet.
I was yanked back by my caretaker.
She smacked the top of my head. “I told you to stay beside me.”
Rubbing the spot, I gave her a sideways glance.
“Run off like that again and you’ll go back to the house.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I sighed, letting my head roll to the side. I couldn’t see from all the way back there, and I wanted to know what was going on. It was rare that so many people would gather together.
“What did she do?” I asked, standing on my tiptoes.
“A monster,” stated Mrs. Haywood. “The world will be a better place without a creature like that running loose among us.” She folded her arms, shaking her head.
I snuck a peek of the black haired lady who stood with her head bowed. “She doesn’t look like a monster.”
“It’s all a disguise, Fin.” She nodded toward the woman. “The guardians found her ripping apart a deer like a deranged dog.”
Taking a step to the side, I had a clear view of the woman. “She still looks pretty normal to me.”
“Fin.” Mrs. Haywood looked down her nose at me. “Appearances are deceiving. You can’t trust strangers. Not in a world like this. The gods put these creatures among us to test us. It’s best to send them to hell where they belong.”
“I guess,” I breathed.
“There is no guessing,” she said firmly. “That it how it must be in order to protect ourselves. Remember that, Fin. Nothing good can come from a shapeshifter. They’re mistakes and should be dealt with accordingly.”
Whether Mrs. Haywood was right or not, I still thought she looked ordinary.
“For crimes against the people of Gail,” announced Mr. Lockhart, “we sentence this creature to death by fire, so her curse can no longer harm anyone else.”
A whisper spread through the crowd. I looked to Mrs. Haywood, but she kept her eyes on the woman. The lady next to her with a baby leaned over, and the two whispered amongst themselves.
Peeking at the two women, I inched to the side. Mrs. Haywood didn’t seem to notice, so I took my chance. I slipped through a hole in the crowd to the front line. I had never seen anyone being burned alive before. As cruel as it seemed, there was something about it that excited me.
Mr. Lockhart grabbed a torch from the man standing with him on the platform. “I send you back to hell.” He jabbed the flames into the kindling. “May the gods accept your tortured soul.”
My eyes grew wide as the fire began to grow and spread. Mr. Lockhart and the other men left the platform. The heat rose, causing the crowd to move back. I didn’t, though. The way the flames flickered and flowed across the wood had me in a trance. It was beautiful.
The woman’s head rolled back and forth. The fire was getting closer to her now. Smoke was billowing up around her as the flame wrapped around the pole. She could probably feel the warmth on her skin. I stepped a little closer. I wanted to feel it, too. I wanted to know what it felt like to have such immense heat lick at my flesh and burn to my very core. I wanted to be in that woman’s place.
A scream brought me from my thoughts, and I realized the blaze had nearly consumed the shapeshifter.
“Dear god, Fin!”
A strong hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. I looked up at Mr. Lockhart.
“Children your age shouldn’t be here. A sight like this isn’t meant for someone so young.” He shoved me toward Mrs. Haywood.
“Oh, thank you, Edgar.” She pulled me to her side and slapped the side of my head. “You stupid boy. I told you to stay by my side. Do you want to end up burnt yourself?”
I didn’t reply. I was too confused by the sudden coldness I was feeling. It made my skin crawl with a weird, unsettled sensation. Looking at the flame that had engulfed the woman, I wanted to go back, to feel its warmth again.
“The boy should be home, Mary.”
“I needed him to help me carry some things, or I would have left him.” She pulled me in front of her. “Fin is getting older. I figured he’d manage well enough.”
Mr. Lockhart looked me over quickly. “I suppose. Just keep him out of trouble.” He left with the guardians.
Mrs. Haywood smacked me again. “Embarrassing me like that in front of the Governor, Fin—you know better.”
I didn’t respond. The momentary strike of pain was nothing to the coldness I was feeling, a coldness that could only be quenched by fire.