The Transformation Story Archive Mythical Beings

Ashes to Ashes

by Paul Exton

A young woman hunched in the cold, dank cell, sobbing.

"Hello. I am sorry."

The young woman lifted her head in astonishment. "Who are you?" Her raven hair spilled over her face. She brushed it back with her hand and gazed at woman who had spoken. The older woman appeared to be in her early thirties, yet her dark hair had pure white, subtle lines flowing within it. The newcomer was beautiful, yet free of any artifices, natural and pure.

"That is not really important. Let us just say that I am a friend."

"I'm sorry; I did not hear you come in."

The mysterious woman laughed. "No, not many can manage that!" Her face became solemn. "I saw your trial today."

The younger woman jerked. Her face was a like a death mask as she stated flatly, "I am innocent! I swear to God, I am not a witch!"

"I know that."

"But they declared me guilty. Tomorrow I burn at the stake. How can this happen?"

"It happens."

The black-haired girl stared, her youthful, unlined face seemingly straining for comprehension. "Are you here to help me?"

"No, I cannot do anything, but I already know what will happen," she shook her head sadly. "The people here will be consumed by their intolerance and superstition. It's a kind of madness, you see. I cannot stop it and I may not cause or hasten it. I'm sorry. I wish that I could do more. I came to comfort you. That is all I can do at the moment. Vengeance is not our way, you see. That is for those who do not truly understand. Ours is the way of light. I am a healer."

The girl sharply drew her breath. "Lady, it is not safe for you here! Anyone who is different or who has knowledge that these people do not is in great danger! Please, leave this place!"

"Do not worry, child. I am in no danger. I came here willingly, and I watched your trial. What a travesty!" She closed her eyes. "I came to console, as little as I am able, I am afraid."

"You are a healer. Can you give me something? I mean, something to help me?" The young woman looked hopeful.

"I may be able to do something. Here, take this. It is an herb. It will help a little, not as much as I would like."

"Will it... you know, put an end to my suffering if I take it?"

The wise woman looked down, as if embarrassed. "No, I am sorry. I cannot do that. No, I am capable, but I could not. I will not kill. Please forgive me." Her hands fumbled. "It will ease your pain, not much, but just a little. Nothing else, I am afraid."

Her amber eyes stared intensely. "Listen, child. There is something in you, something that is different. I think that many people could sense it, but they do not really know what it is. There are some among us who are just born a little different. This is not a bad thing, really. It is wondrous. I know that is difficult for you to believe that right now. Tell me, dear child, what is it that you want? I mean, if you could have anything?"

The young woman squinted. "I wish that I were free! I have never been free, never in my whole life. I just want to go far, far away from here."

"I see. I have a feeling that you may get your wish. You know, there is a rough justice in the universe. It may not be immediately apparent, but it is there. Some people do have hard lives, and the bad things that happen to one are not a punishment and the worst things usually happen to those who bring it upon themselves." She sighed. "And they will. Would that I could stop this madness, but it has a life of its own. The mob will have its way, but this insanity is a disease. And this will be the destruction of them and they will suffer more than you will. They will not only lose everything, they will have to live with what they have done. Please, go to the bed."

The young women reclined upon the rough cot, made only of straw covered with a crude blanket. She gazed at the other woman, who winked and sat upon the edge. She rubbed the back of the younger woman and began to hum.

The young woman finally drifted off to sleep as the other comforted her, then stood, softly singing a strange, lilting melody. The words were incomprehensible, in some strange language. She shifted into a minor key while gracefully dancing, then vanished, fading into a dark corner of the stone room.

The next morning at sunrise, the woman was roughly led to a crude wooden post with a huge pile of of sticks and brush surrounding it. A burly man shoved her and grasped her neck as two others lashed to the stake. A grinning, feral-looking man lowered a torch to the brush, which burst into flame as the screaming mob continued to throw sticks, logs, hay and anything else flammable in sight. The enormous, cracking inferno drowned out the young woman's cries. The wild-eyed crowd continued to build the fire. Children ran back and forth to the woods, bringing limbs, branches, small trees that were uprootable, clumps of moss, anything that looked likely to burn.

Glowing sparks, whipped by the wind, swirled upward. The people of the village continued to scream and pile more wood upon the already huge inferno. Hour after hour, long after the pitiful screams had ceased, they threw more and more.

"Fire! Fire!" a fat, sweat-covered man with thin, greasy hair began to shout.

"Of course it's fire, you idiot! That's the whole idea!" laughed a man next to him, punching him in the shoulder.

"No, the hall!" he pointed, raising his sooty hand. "The hall!"

Slowly and gradually, the realization spread. The entire town was burning. Panicked townspeople ran in all directions as they tried to extinguish the harsh, licking flames already shooting upward from various structures. "My house! My house!" screamed a man in a white wig and black robes. "Somebody help me save my house!" he wailed.

The town was consumed.

The next morning most of the town was a smoking ruin. A few people sifted through the ashes or stood watch over the skeletal remains of their homes. The huge heap of embers in the square still glowed a sickly red. The remaining townspeople wandered away, one by one.

That night, the warm ashes in the square stirred. Suddenly, in a swirl of dust and sparks, a large bird burst from the still smoldering remains of the pyre, surrounded by blue and orange flames. It opened its bill and deeply inhaled the night air and spread its wings languidly.

The bird gazed sadly over the remains of the town. Stone foundations, chimneys, and a few husks of larger buildings still remained upright, smoldering in the ghastly, diffused glow of the myriad piles of embers, while wisps of smoke rose over the carnage. The bird again shook its wings, then began to hop and flap its huge pinions.

The phoenix took flight, circled the ruined village, then flew eastward toward the sunrise.

Ashes to Ashes copyright 2001 by Paul Exton.

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