"The Ordeal" by Gabrielle Faust
Over the next few months, along with new posts on current events in my world, I will be reposting some oldies but goodies as I rebuild this site. Interviews, reviews, short stories, etc. Here is a short story from about 6 years ago entitled "The Ordeal". Enjoy!
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By Gabrielle Faust
Edmond sat alone in the dungeon below the church, his ankles and wrists bound by heavy iron chains. Earlier that evening he had been awaken by the sound of screaming men, chanting the word of God as they crashed through his home, ripping him away from the simple wooden desk where he had sat mending a tear in one of his only two shirts. They had answered his questions only with accusations that he was a vampire and that he was responsible for the deaths of several of the poor villagers that huddled in crude camps at the base of the king’s castle. He would stand judgment before the king’s inquisitor, the gravity of his sins weighed by the outcome of The Ordeal. Edmond knew that there was no way to escape, no opportunity to plead for his release. The king had deemed him a threat and would make an example of him.
In the far corner of the dank, filthy stone room huddled another unfortunate soul, an older man dressed in the tattered rags of a peasant. His long hair and beard were graying, his cheeks and eyes sunken with starvation and heavily lined from the hardships of survival. He watched Edmond with interest; it was hard to gauge just how long he had been imprisoned in the dungeon, but the stench of his own excrement was overpowering even where Edmond sat over ten feet away.
The man eventually worked up the courage to voice a question. “You’re a young lad. You must have done something terrible to be thrown down here with the likes of me?” The man giggled with a strained desperate insanity.
“I do not believe it takes more than an improper exhale of breath to be accused of being a devil in this day.” Edmond replied, staring straight ahead at the wall before him.
“A devil, eh?” The man’s eyes widened with superstitious curiosity. He paused, uncertain suddenly if he really wanted the answer to his next question. “A grave thing indeed you did?”
“They think I murdered people.” Edmond said, his voice flat with anger. “They said I am a vampire.”
“Oh!” The man chewed on his bottom lip, shifting his weight a little causing his rusting chains to clank against the stone behind him. “Are you?”
Edmond did not reply at first. “Does it really matter?”
The sound of the heavy wood door to the dungeon opening severed the conversation abruptly. The older man slunk back against the wall, attempting to fade into the shadows in the corner as the inquisitor, dressed in thick black leather tooled with the emblem of the king upon his breast, stepped into the room. He approached Edmond and stopped at his feet, staring down at him. Another man, dressed in similar garb entered the chamber carrying two cumbersome pails of water that hung from a wide wood pole across his shoulders. In the corner a large iron cauldron sat upon a stand over a fire pit of stones and sand. Edmond watched as the man filled the cauldron with the water, quickly building a fire beneath it. The light of the flames illuminated the room with an eerie gold warmth that flickered off of the damp gray stones around them causing the walls to appear alive and breathing as they danced beneath the pot. Behind the other torturer filed in two priests dressed in their saintly, plain robes, bibles and rosaries in hand to pray for the Edmond’s soul.
“Are you ready to face the voice of God?” The man standing before Edmond spoke down to him, his eyes harsh and black as the leather he wore.
“I atoned for my sins a long time ago.” Edmond knew his brazen statement might only encourage the torturer, but in the moment all he could think of was the pain he would endure at any moment.
The inquisitor appeared unmoved. He turned away and walked to the cauldron. From a small pocket on his hip he drew forth a small white stone. “When the water begins to boil,” he dropped the stone into the pot of water, “you will reach into it and withdraw the stone. If you had only been accused of one murder we might have only filled the pot to your wrist, but seeing as how you have had multiple charges lain against you, we have filled it quite full.” He seemed to delight in this fact.
He continued. “We will then bandage your hand and leave you. Upon the eve of the third day we will inspect your wounds. If you are healing well, then God has shown mercy and deemed you innocent. If you are not, then God has revealed your guilt and you will be put to death before the king and your country.”
The sound of bubbles beginning to rise in the cauldron as the water reached a rolling boil made Edmond’s heart begin to thunder painfully until he thought he might faint. The second man approached Edmond and unlocked the chains binding his wrists to the wall. Edmond immediately began to struggle, but between the two large, heavily muscled torturers, he was simply not strong enough to escape. Dragging him beneath his arms to the cauldron they forced him to stand before the vat of scalding water. Edmond began to shake, feeling nauseous and dizzy; down below, through the churning bubbling water and thick steam he could just make out the glimmer of the white stone. It seemed a mile away, too far for any mere man to touch.
“What if I refuse?” Edmond asked, his voice trembling.
“Are you admitting your guilt?” One of the priests behind him replied.
“No.” Edmond said quietly.
The man shoved him forward until Edmond nearly fell head first into the cauldron, startling him out of his trance. For some reason Edmond felt the need to roll up his sleeve, as if his shirt might hinder his ability to snatch the stone. He rubbed his face with his hands, drawing a deep breath. He wanted to cry, but knew he could not show any weakness to the men holding him prisoner. You see the stone. Edmond told himself. The stone is the key to your freedom.
Without a moment longer of hesitation, Edmond plunged his hand into the scalding vat of water. He repressed an animalistic screech as he felt his skin and muscle being instantly seared, boiled, as it were, like a lifeless hunk of meat. The stone moved with the motion of the water, slipping out of his fingers momentarily before he could reach it again. He could feel his fingers beginning to stiffen, the flesh bubbling up from the heat, but he managed to find the stone again. As he felt himself removing his hand from the cauldron, the stone between his fingertips, he felt himself beginning to lose consciousness, the pain overwhelming him, his body shutting down to save his sanity.
“Did he get it?” One man asked the other.
Edmond slumped to the floor like a broken doll. The stone left his limp fingers rolling across the floor to strike the torturer’s boots.
“Yes he did, the lucky fool.”
As promised the priests and their inquisitors did not return until three days time. Upon the final eve, the sound of the dungeon door opening was both a welcoming and horrifying dirge; no matter the verdict, it would mean Edmond’s freedom, either in death or in his release. With his wrists bound to the wall above his head, Edmond had not been able to look to see if his arm had healed adequately. The pain had subsided somewhat due to the lack of blood flow upwards, but through the flesh still felt raw beneath the filthy bandages they had wrapped the wounds in. As one of the torturer approached him, he kept his eyes upon the floor between his splayed legs, refusing to give them the pleasure of seeing the doubt and dread welling up in his eyes.
The torturer unchained the wounded arm; atrophied from having hung from the wall for so long, it fell to Edmond’s side with a thud. He grimaced, gritting his teeth. Distantly he was aware of his fellow inmate huddling against the far wall, watching on with horrified fascination as the result of Edmond’s test was revealed.
One of the priests bent down and gently unwrapped the soiled bandages from Edmond’s arm. His gasp pierced the thick silence of the dungeon.
“What is this?” He exclaimed, crossing himself with one hand as he held Edmond’s wrist in the other. “This cannot be?”
Slowly, Edmond turned his face and stared down at his arm; it was completely healed, restored perfectly to its flawless pale youthfulness as it had been for decades. He had said it would be like this, he said I could not be injured, but I did not believe him. Edmond thought silently with awe.
He looked up at the priest and smiled. “I told you. I am innocent. Even God believes it so.”