The ping of the worn hammer echoed across the compound. Sed shook the sweat from his forehead and drops sizzled on the dull-red iron band he was shaping, a collar strong and heavy.
“She’ll not be rid of this one.” He plunged the metal back into the glowing coals readying the strip to receive the first hole punched in its end.
Old man Creston leaned back against a nearby post. “Iron won’t hold her but a day, maybe two. Without a core o’ silver runnin’ through, she’ll be rid of it soon enough.”
Sed motioned the man over to hold the punch to the end of the collar, ready to receive the blacksmith’s penetrating strike. “She’ll come out of it. It’s just mind-fits. Nothing more. You and the Council been spending too much time in Borrowest’s library.”
The hardened punch drove through the iron band and Sed flattened out the ragged edges of the hole. The mist from the river had yet to lift; the cottonwood trees encroached upon the smithy like shrouded watchers, witnesses to the makings of imprisonment.
“Not a scratch on her, yet the last two sets of shackles bent and tossed aside,” the old man offered.
At Sed’s nod Creston set the punch to the other end. The hammer struck and the sound died hollow.
Sed bent the ends of the collar to tabs and aligned the holes holding it up with tongs to gauge the trueness. “This time we’ll rivet the ends with the chain pinched between.”
Creston frowned, tossed the punch into the tools bin, and wiped his forehead with a rough canvas sleeve. “No silver, no chance.”
“Tell the Council we’re ready.” Sed submerged the hot collar in the water bucket where it hissed and spit. “And make sure Nesta’s hands and feet are well tied this time.”
Nesta’s chin lifted and she stared straight into the blacksmith’s eyes, her own, honey-gold eyes clear and guileless. “We can lose this place, Sed. You and I, we can head north, maybe west where Mother Earth still earns respect.”
“Shh, Ness. Wear this collar. Suffer their fears for the time being. Some fresh calamity will steal their minds from you. Then…”
She lowered her eyes and Sed noticed her familiar, melancholy look. Nesta, her tangled chestnut hair weed ridden and stringy, leaned her head to the anvil. Sed adjusted the collar binding the first link of the twenty foot chain; ready to hammer the rivet smooth. He’d taken a bit of cottenwood fluff, free of seeds and gently tucked it into her ears, the pinging, so close, would drive anyone mad.
Borrowest’s mayor, the buttons on his vest straining to fly loose, his eyebrows combed vertical — thinking to lengthen his pudgy, pie-tin face — held up his hand. “As sentenced by the town council of Borrowest, you, Nesta Vie will be shackled in the square for a period of thirty-days for your original crime of conjuring dark spirits and subsequent crimes of escape from prior punishment. Smithy, you may proceed.”
Three days in, Sed had built the woman a lean-to with a raised cot; the southern sun could bake a stranded frog to a dried husk in minutes. Eleven days and Nesta had worn a deep rut, dragging her chain first one way then back, careful not to damage her makeshift shelter. At day twenty of her sentence, the scent of a heavy storm coaxed the folks of Borrowest to board up their expensive glass windows. When the downpour started, the few whose homes looked upon the town’s square left a finger’s gap to watch how the storm would treat the shameless witch. They were not disappointed. At least not until later, after they’d shielded their children from the sight. A few of the men continued to cast their eyes Nesta’s way.
“Ness, you prancing naked in the wind and rain ain’t gonna help your case. Here, here’s a wool throw I keep in the smithy.” Sed moved to embrace the crazed woman whose water slicked skin sheened like copper beneath the lightening that ripped across the wounded sky. She danced away from him, her chains tinkling like bells as she went.
Nesta yelled behind her, “Tonight we feast, Sed! Tonight the spirits pound the Earth. And tonight She heaves and moans.”
Slipping through the mud he tackled the woman, wrapping her in a fearsome struggle. “You’ve got the fever, Nesta. Let me tuck you into your cot and fetch some hot tea from the smithy fire.”
The woman arched her head back and laughed into the storm. “Fever, Sed? You know I have a burnin’ inside me been eatin’ me all my life. Tonight it’s gonna eat its way out. It’s gonna eat up the land and the people and this blowin’ crazy sky. It’s a comin’ Sed. I feel it like a demon scratching its way out o’…”
A thousand suns exploded just feet away from the pair as Sed tried to drag Nesta toward the shelter. The lightening bolt stabbed like a spear into the metal stake that anchored the prisoner’s chain. Brilliant white light arced along the links stretch tight, crackling and hissing. Sed had had his eyes pointed away from the strike but instantly felt the shock as a hundred-thousand volts gripped his nerves and muscles — the electricity having shunted its way through the iron collar, into Nesta’s body and then into his.
Her scream carried long after the concussion of thunder had echoed away. Nesta didn’t breathe. She just screamed, an ear-splitting shriek that drilled into every town-person’s mind. Years later, as those still alive recalled that sound, a pale shudder would take them in the retelling.
The blast threw Sed back near the stake. Nesta remained standing, the collar, melted to slag in an instant, sloughed off and hardened at her feet, a blackened dead thing. The hair on her head had billowed out, a Devil’s halo. Her brown skin, steamed dry for a moment, wetted to dull copper as the rain continued to pour down. She stood like a goddess in the soggy soil, her chest heaving with exhilaration, her eyes wide with fascination.
“Sed. Rise and come to me,” she commanded. “Come to me and take me away from here. No one will stop us. I have been given my purpose. None will risk to meet my eyes, nor place a hand upon my flesh. We are chosen. Come, let us leave this place.”