A Harvest of Broken Stars

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Chapter 28: Sentence

‘Mnnghhh,’ Ada said.

It was not what she intended to say, but the rag in her mouth complicated things. The tight blindfold over her eyes similarly complicated the use of her eyes.

Murder they had said. And arson. Someone in the background had mumbled ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’ as well, pointing out that no normal fire would cause the damage found on what remained of the veteran’s body. The acting judge dismissed the notion, explaining there were no laws against witchcraft in Shacktown and that the two women would be sentenced to death regardless of how or why they started the fire, destroying four buildings and killing three people.

Ada and Rayn had not been allowed to explain or defend themselves. They were apprehended by armed men as soon as they exited the burning inn. Their hands tied behind their backs, and they were gagged before someone pulled a sack over their heads. Later, they were dumped on the floor in a cold dungeon cell, and chained to the wall.

There had been no trial. Hours or days ago, Ada couldn’t tell, some men entered their cell. They briefly discussed the case and the charges among themselves, until one of them concluded and sentenced them to death. Some others uttered their approval, and the company left. The cell door slammed shut and had not been opened since.

Before the mock trial, they’d been given brief opportunities to eat and drink. Two guards carrying torches replaced the sacks over their heads with blindfolds. For two beats, Ada had been able to see with eyes half-blinded by the torchlight. She confirmed what she already had perceived with her other senses: she was in a small dungeon cell, and Rayn was in the opposite corner, just outside her reach.

After the blindfolds were in place, the gag was removed and replaced with a chunk of old bread. Ada chewed as fast as possible, but her mouth was still half full of bread when the guard forced the tip of a wineskin between her lips. The sour wine dissolved the bread, and she swallowed the unsavoury meal. When she opened her mouth to draw a breath of air, the guards quickly replaced the gag.

Five times before the trial, the feeding ritual had been repeated, but not after. They were sentenced to death, but nobody had mentioned how they were to be killed. Ada grew increasingly aware that there was no need for an execution if they did not get anything to drink.

Her biggest concern, however, was that she did not hear anything from Rayn. She was also gagged, of course. But until recently Ada could hear her breathing, shuffling her feet or the occasional muffled yelp when a rat got too curious. Now, there was nothing. The half-elf had been conscious when they escaped the fire, but they were seized before Ada could examine her wounds. She had slammed her head against the wall when the brute hit her, and most likely suffered burn injuries.

In their eagerness to prevent the two arsenious witches causing any more damage, the mob had pulled sacks over their heads and carried them to the dungeons. Thus, nobody found the stone Ada kept in a pouch attached to a leather string around her neck. Rayn would probably still have hers, too.

The power that enabled her to incinerate a man days before felt so faint and distant in the cold dungeon. She was weakened from the exposure, hunger and thirst, and there was no source of heat or other elements to draw from.

Boosted by her starfall shard, Ada went beyond the limits of her own being to search for her friend. Typically, the presence of rodents would be mere distractions, the mindless chatter from their weak spirits easily ignored or overlooked, like tiny stars in comparison to the moon. But Rayn’s soul was so fragile—hardly noticeable among half a dozen rats. Ada found her, pale and faded. Her life essence almost extinguished. She was alive but not for long.

Fearing for her friend’s life, Ada intensified her efforts. Removing the barriers separating her from the outside world, she drew on the power of the shards to unite with Rayn’s spirit. The noise from the rats multiplied, and the distant echoes of hundreds of thoughts and voices filled her mind. The stone around her neck started vibrating, creating a high-pitched tone.

‘Rayn, I’m here. Wake up.’

There was no reply.

In desperation, Ada pushed even further, ignoring the incessant noise from nearby people and animals. A warm wind embraced her naked spirit. There was a whisper, and even though she could not understand the words, it comforted and encouraged her.

The half-elf was too weak to resist as Ada trespassed the boundaries that separated them. They merged, allowing Ada to sense with Rayn’s senses and experience her emotions.

Ada’s first clue was the absence of thoughts. If Rayn was awake, she did not think. If she was sleeping, she was not dreaming. A growing premonition drove her further, connecting with her friend’s senses. Ada stirred as she sensed the pain. The incessant, sharp, ever-present sting from the burnt skin on her right thigh and hip. And the regular thuds, the waves of numbing pain that washed through her head with every weak heartbeat.

Unable to do anything for Rayn, Ada stayed with her. Sensing the fear and pain subsiding, replaced by exhaustion and sorrow as the body slowly capitulated. Her inhalations were weaker and further between, to the point where she did not breathe at all. But every time, she would inhale sharply, and the breathing pattern improved. Devoid of light, hourglasses or any other ways to measure the passing of time, Ada started counting those forceful inhalations that followed a prolonged pause. For the first hundred or so cycles, she waited expectantly for Rayn to inhale, and felt relief when it happened.

But then, gradually, Ada found herself hoping that the innerving breathing would stop, that Rayn would remain quiet.

‘Please, just die,’ Ada whispered.

In the darkness a few feet away, Rayn inhaled forcefully. For the four hundred and thirtieth time since Ada started counting.

‘Yes, you’re right,’ Ada said. ‘I’m terrible.’

Ada was no stranger to feeling shame, but this was worse than anything she had experienced before. Far worse than anything she had ever done before.

Her stomach twisted into a firm knot, and her body curled up as she tried to vomit. She rolled sideways, felt the acid burn in her throat, and the foul taste filled her mouth as she half coughed, half spat a tiny amount of slime.

She coughed again, and leaned back against the cold stone wall, allowing herself to fully submerge in the bittersweet pool of equal parts self-pity and self-loathing.

‘You were the only decent person in my life. The only person to love me. And I took advantage of you, as I’ve done before. I burned down your home, and dragged you to this horrible place. You gave your life to protect me, and all I can do is to suggest you die faster.’

Ada stopped counting, and surrendered to the hopelessness. Eventually, Rayn’s breathing rhythms changed, becoming more laborious and irregular. Hers was no quiet passing, no peaceful sleep. For hours, Rayn fought a losing battle, until she did not possess the strength to draw one more breath. As her spirit departed, the power of her starglass shard extinguished like a candle.

Ada was alone in the dark.

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