This story is by Sharon Wong and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The cell door opens, letting a block of light fall on the figure on the bed. The bed mostly hard stone, a few wisps of straw providing little softness. The figure sits up.
“Is it time?” There’s no emotion in her voice. No life.
“It is. This may be your last chance, Lisette of Lierna.“
Lisette stands, unsteadily. Her long dark hair is unkempt, her clothes threadbare. She has not eaten for a long time. The man by the door is dressed all in black, the garb a prison guard. Lisette does not face him when she speaks. “You are Terran. The one who spoke for me.”
“Tell me why.”
“You have been here so long, men do not remember your crimes. You do not deserve to languish in the dark cells forever.”
Lisette sees no pity in the man’s face. “You mean, you think I deserve death.”
“If I am right, Goraya will grant death to you. If not, you will pass the trial and be granted a new life. Either way, this matter will be settled.”
They walk down the corridor. Lisette walks with faltering steps, one hand at the wall to stop herself from falling. Behind her, Terran’s boots clang against the flagstones, his step steady and slow.
“Do you know why my crimes are forgotten?”
“Because you have lived so long. All those who imprisoned you have since died. In all those years, you have not aged. Enough of your power remains for that.“
“That is not the reason. It is because I did not commit crimes worthy of punishment. My only crime was to be powerful, the most powerful woman in Lierna. So they destroyed Lierna and took my gift away. I don’t suppose you could find any trace of Lierna now.”
“That may true. But I think you fought back. I am sure you have done terrible things in the name of keeping your home.”
“Of course I fought back. But I was one against many, and could do little. The fire will prove me right.”
They emerge from the corridor into a blaze of heat and light. Lisette has not been outside for many years, and it almost blinds her. She can make out that she is in a large square, with poles at the edges to keep the crowds at bay. The sun is nearly directly overhead, and before her, in the centre of the space, a fire blazes red. She can feel the power within it.
There are whispers from the townspeople. “Witch, demon. Die. Burn.” She pays them no heed.
“Lisette of Lierna.” The voice echoes around the square. A weak magic, Lisette thinks. If she had her gift back, she could make her voice shake the earth. She can see the speaker, a stern-faced woman, standing on the other side of the square, upon a dais. The woman wears a cloak of rich embroidered silk. She must be the judge.
“You are here because you have committed terrible crimes. The price for those crimes is life in captivity, without your power.” The woman looks uncertain, uncomfortable at not being able to specify Lisette’s wrongdoing.
The onlookers have no such uncertainty. “Witch!” they cry. “Die, witch, die!”
“The will of the people is that you stay in captivity forever,” says the judge. “However, our land has rules. If but one person speaks for you and names you deserving of a new life, you have a chance of redemption. Thus, we have brought you here, to stand the trial of fire.”
“Am I allowed to speak?” asks Lisette.
“You may not speak,” says the judge. “This fire has been lit by the will of Goraya, God of Justice. His eye is upon it. If you can pass through the fire, then Goraya has deemed you worthy of redemption. Should that happen, you may speak, but only then. If Goraya deems you unworthy, you will perish in the fire.”
As you deserve. The words are unsaid, but Lisette is sure they are in the judge’s thoughts. Around her, there is more shouting. ”Burn, witch! Burn!”
“You could just let me go,” Lisette says. “You don’t even know what I did. I might have been in the cells by mistake.”
“You had power, once,” says the woman. “The fact that you have lived for so long in the dark cells means that you once had a lot of power.”
“That is not a crime. They thought it was, once. It seems like they still do.”
Behind her, Terran speaks. “It is noon.”
“Time for the trial.” says the judge. “Pass through the fire, Lisette of Lierna.”
“Through the fire. Through the fire. Through the fire.” Around her the chant is taken up, overtaking the cries of “Burn, witch.” Lisette cannot do anything against so many, not without her gift. She walks up to the fire. There is no wood at its base. It is fueled by the power of Goraya. “Let us see what Goraya thinks of me,” she says, and steps into the flames.
For a moment, there is nothing but the heat. Her skin shrieks in pain. Only a few steps and she will be out of the flames, on the other side. She takes a step forward. Her hair is gone. Her scalp and face feel raw, her body, bare. Her clothes, gone. Heat, flame, pain. She steps forward. She can feel Goraya’s eye. Goraya’s breath. Goraya holds her. She tries to take another step but her foot will not move. Her world is burning.
I am Lisette of Lierna. They took my home, my power, my world. They took all that was mine, and they locked me deep in the dark cells underground. You think this hurts? You think this is pain? You do not know what it means.
She screams the words, but there is no sound here. Only fire. Her bones are burning.
They locked me up for a hundred years. More. While I was caged, those who caged me grew up, and died, and forgot. They. Forgot. Me. Lisette feels the flames scorch her throat, her lungs, her belly. I have not forgotten them. She lets the memories rise. You think anything I did against them was unjust? Then judge me, Goraya. I dare you.
The world burns. Every cell in her body is a ball of pain, of flame. Lisette lifts her foot and places it down before her. She takes another step, and another, and another. One more, and she is out of the flames.
The crowd has been shouting, chanting, cheering. Now, as one, they fall silent. Lisette stands there, her skin unmarked, her hair and clothes burnt away. “I have passed the trial.”
The dais where the judge stands is but a few feet away. The judge’s face is a mask.” Goraya has deemed you worthy. You may take up your new life.”
“Yes.” Now Lisette can feel her power returning. Her gift flows back into her veins, warm and soothing. It buzzes. Lisette turns and faces Terran, standing across the courtyard. There is no fire between them. “I owe my new life to you, Terran. You spoke for me. I always pay my debts.”
Terran vanishes. A gasp runs around the square.
“What did you do to him, witch?”
Lisette turns back to the judge. “I sent him away. He is still alive, and will return soon. But you won’t be here.” She twists her power, and can feel the flame burst back into the life behind her. She advances upon the dais. “You forgot my crimes. I never forgot yours.” She spreads her arms and her feet leave the floor. She rises until the judge must look up at her. “Goraya has judged me and found me worthy. Now he will judge you.” Beneath her the flames spread. They spread across the stones, over the people. The flames take the judge and spread further, across the buildings, the plains, all the way to the edges of the city that had been built on the bones of Lierna.
It takes a long time for everything to finish burning. When it does, Lisette descends again until she stands in the ashes.
“What have you done?” Terran has appeared again, and stares aghast at the ruins around him.
“I pay my debts. They paid for their crimes.”
“They did nothing.”
“They inherited the crimes of their forefathers.”
“You witch. You have not learnt the error of your ways. You do not deserve mercy.”
“Goraya judged otherwise. I simply paid my debts. The matter is settled.” Lisette stands tall. Her hair, glossy and dark, streams in the wind. She thrums with power. “Now, I can begin my new life.”