Chapter 15: Punishment for the wicked

She was still in shock when she was dragged out of the courtroom. Ruth pushed against the arms holding her, unwittingly screaming her lungs out in the overwhelming thunder of hatred and rage. She could barely even hear her own voice against the chaos around them. The masked man, together with a few others, threw her into a small, adjacent chamber, shutting the doors behind them, putting the raging storm of noise to a muffled halt. One of the four guards who previously protected her from the furious crowd now grabbed her and pushed her against the wall. His hand curled around her neck like a vice, lifting her up.

"Who's so innocent now, you filthy little bitch?" She couldn't fully see his face past the wooden layer resembling a theatrical, painted, smiling mask, but his bloodthirsty eyes shimmered with satisfaction through the slits. She recognized his voice as the man from the previous night, trying to free herself from his tight grip, her heart racing, legs flailing in the air. "This whole trial was a fucking waste of our time, we should have staked you as soon as we caught you."

"Your friend kept you safe for long enough." Another older guard said, his hissing voice matching his long, pale face and bald scalp surprisingly well. "But now, the council has spoken. You'll be dancing on a stick in no time and I can't wait to see it!"

The four of them cheered almost in unison, the same, sick satisfaction passing through their eyes. Ruth tried to catch her breath, to kick the oppressor away, but her body was quickly weakened by his grip, even with the adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her feet managed to find purchase on his torso, but despite seeing him flinch, the hand only tightened.

"You'll be the most praised decoration on our walls." The youngest voice surrounding her added with a chuckle. "Or maybe we'll just leave you in the square? I could practice my knife-throwing skills to see if you're still breathing."

The chamber blurred before her eyes, she could no longer focus on anything as the pressure made her head spin and fill with dull, crushing pain. Her hands were uselessly clenched around his arm, nails embedded in his skin, trying to wrestle herself away, or at least make him loosen his grip.

"Don't worry." The masked man continued squeezing her neck a bit more. It felt as if her head could explode from pressure. "As much as I'd love to, I ain't gonna strangle you to death. It would be way too easy..." His words became muffled and her vision quickly began fading to black. The pain subsided into a continuous noise at the back of her mind, her legs stopped kicking, arms dropped, hanging limply at her sides. "'re gonna die... really slowly... for death...and we're just gonna look and laugh."

The pressure around her neck disappeared. He released his grip and let her collapse to the floor, wheezing, gasping for air, while the people cackled unanimously. Her lungs and throat burned with every breath and the headache remained like a haze clouding her senses. She tried to heave herself up, but her body refused to work. Looking up, she only saw blurred figures in the dim light, towering over her. She gathered enough strength to spit at their feet.

She quickly became numb to what came next, as much as she tried to avoid it. Her body turned into a ball of pain from all the kicks and punches from the people around her, but it all melted into a continuous, background noise of sensations. She wrapped her arms around her head and shut her eyes, the sounds of the roaring crowd outside the room almost completely faded from her mind. Despair overwhelmed her, and with it came the realization she had mere minutes left to live. She'd faced certain death before, but she never had the time to truly realize it. The painful awareness creeping up on her for the last several hours peeled away her strength to fight back. She was surrounded by a bloodthirsty crowd, accused of crimes she didn't commit, and uncertain of her friend's fate. There was no escape. No way out. The only thing that remained in her was the overpowering, paralyzing fear and the pathetic sense of defeat.

"Bring her out!" Someone barged into the room, their voice piercing through the noise. "They're ready!"

The guard restrained himself from sending another kick into her side. Looking down at her, he ordered the other man to drag her off the ground.

The shouts and chants of the crowd reached them as the small woman was pushed out of the room. Her legs were stiff and felt as fragile as a pair of dried sticks, threatening to break at every step. On emerging from the building, Ruth was crushed by the sea of people, sending another wave of pain she didn't fully register. There was a podium in the middle of the square, prepared just for her. Two people were holding a sharpened pole upright, mockingly presenting it before the whole crowd. They weren't kidding. All the doubts left in her that questioned how far these people would actually go to satisfy their rage now disappeared completely.

The sight shook her out of the numbness and another boost of adrenaline flooded her system. She looked at the crowd around her as she was dragged along. The bloodlust in their eyes, their faces twisted by hateful shouts. If she tried to bolt now, the whole town would jump at her, maybe even shoot her without a warning, like a pest that finally needed to be exterminated. Maybe the crowd itself would maul her before they even reached the podium. And if not to escape, that was the second best thing she was hoping for.

Her heart hammering in her chest, Ruth shook the guards' hands from her shoulder and darted towards an opening in the crowd. Somehow, she reached the bystanders and jumped between them. She began almost clawing her way through the sea of bodies, but before she was able to get away, someone pushed her back, sending her to the ground. The woman got back to her feet, ready to run again, but the guards jumped at her and pulled her away from the townsfolk. "Let me go!" She yelled, trying to break free.

The guards grabbed her arms and dragged her the rest of the way to the platform while the crowd cheered. They let her go at the base of the wooden structure, pushing her towards the stairs. The hopeless fear took over again. It was only a few steps up to the podium, but she struggled to move her legs even an inch further. Pushed by someone's hand, she forced herself to ascend, not looking around anymore.

"Hey." Her reddened eyes turned to see a woman approach her. It was the doctor she'd seen in the courtroom, her face stern, but her soft voice a positive change from the raging citizens. "Drink this." The woman showed her a bottle containing some transparent liquid. Her hand was shaking slightly.

"What is it? A virus in its raw form?" Ruth leaned slightly away from her, struggling to control her trembling voice. "You're about to kill me anyway."

"No. It'll dull your senses for a while, numb the pain. It'll relax your muscles when..." She paused. Surprisingly, the doctor looked at the small woman with a hint of sadness, or compassion, even.

"Why the sudden mercy?" Ruth grabbed the bottle with her bruised, shaky hands.

"Even with all the grief you caused us... This will make it a bit easier... at first." The doctor's voice was barely audible.

Her whole situation was so absurd, so utterly perplexing, she almost refused to believe it was real. The small woman shook her head, looking into the liquid.

"I didn't do it. Why can't you believe us... I didn't...I didn't..." Ruth looked away, repeating hopelessly, although aware it'd change nothing.

"Just drink it." The doctor urged her. "It's too late for you to run now. It's best to just accept it."

The woman stepped off the podium, leaving her surrounded by guards, mere steps away from her death. A sharp alcoholic smell emanated from the bottle. The concoction tasted about as good as it smelled, and she felt as if she was swallowing liquid fire, it burned her throat like fresh spirit. She wiped a few tears from her eyes. The guards pulled her away and towards the center of the platform.

The effect of the substance was immediate. Her heart rattled in her rib cage in alarm as her vision blurred and the crowd's roar was quickly muffled, as if she was hit on the head with a club. She lost control of her legs, or was no longer aware of moving them. Everything became distant. It felt as if hovering in a dream, where only random details like angry faces and guard's heavy boots were recognizable for a brief moment before the whole image went out of focus again. The world was spinning, and she, finally, didn't feel anything at all. Time became a distant, irrelevant concept. She was lost and confused, battling the effects, and at the same time succumbing to the blindness. She was stuck in her own head.

There was a cold realization forming between the mists of her mind. A familiar one, in a way. She was about to answer for all of her past and the crimes she did commit. A voice in her head kept telling her she deserved it. This was the reason why she allowed herself to be captured, after all. She could have fought the caravan back at the Refinery and kept ignoring the guilt weighing down her shoulders, but for how long could she possibly go on like this? She was so used to running away from it, from ignoring her conscience that now, when she was left with just herself, it desired her punishment about as much as this whole town. She'd wished to punish herself in the past, but she was alone back then, it was a self-proclaimed judgement. Now, with the whole town against her, it only seemed more fitting. She knew that her trial was unfair and she couldn't believe that her uncle's works could lead to such a catastrophic plague, but she could no longer deny she deserved to be punished and no amount of atonement could save her from it. She'd done enough wrongs. Not here and not to those people, but did she really deserve anything better than this? They were simply the hand of justice finally catching up to her. Through the mist covering her sight she saw a glimpse of a wooden floor and then a familiar face. Was it Amber? No. The image shifted and it was the mayor, his stern eyes, his lips moving. She could hear his words, but couldn't understand them. There were guards rushing about her. Her body felt weightless, her world had no up or down, only her mind floating in the sea of guilt and self-reproach. She wondered where her companion was. She wanted to see her again, one more time before it all played out. The thought of her was the only thing keeping her somewhat sane.

More and more glimpses of reality started to break into her mind. The initial haze of confusion cleared and Ruth felt her muscles again, the bruises, the headache, and the sun's heat on her body. Voices around her became clearer, but she still couldn't distinguish between words. Someone shouted some orders, some people cheered. None of those voices belonged to Amber. Her vision began to clear as her eyes remembered how to focus. She was looking down at the boots of the guards and her bare, bruised legs, dragged across the wooden floor. She did a double take. Bare?

The rest of her confusion was pushed away by a sudden hit of adrenaline she was surprised her body could still produce. She realized the lower half of her clothes was missing. Her hands were tied behind her back and two guards were dragging her towards a long, wooden bench. She felt her nose bleeding, a few red drops falling to the floor below, leaving a small, barely visible trace. Ruth tensed and put all her remaining strength to break free, but her body barely responded to her commands. She was tossed across the rough, wooden board. She made one last desperate effort to throw herself off the bench and run, but there came two strong arms pressed against her back, pushing air out of her lungs. She lifted her head to face the angry mob. Her eyes jumped erratically from person to person all over the crowd, hoping to spot the red mane or a barrel of a gun that would take her out of this misery. She didn't find either. The mayor on her right was saying something, but she didn't care. Her whole body shook in fear as she tried to turn her head and look back. She immediately regretted that decision as she saw the greased, sharpened tip of the wooden pole dragged by three men, with a fourth standing behind them with a sledgehammer. Two more guards came to hold her down. They grabbed her legs and pulled them apart, twisting her hips painfully. Ruth tried to free herself from the three guardsmen, but her efforts were in vain. She felt the wooden planks below her shake as something heavy was moved along the platform. She closed her eyes and tightened all of her muscles, arching her back as much as she could and screamed at the top of her lungs as tears mixed with blood ran down her face.

There was a deafening bang that echoed within the walls of Big Bog. The ground beneath them shook and the crowd's yelling stopped at once as the world came to a standstill. Thousands of thoughts ran through Ruth's mind. Was it a shot? Did Amber miss, or was the shot so clear she couldn't feel herself dying yet? She dared to crack her eyes open. She could still see the platform and the crowd. She could still feel three men holding her down. But she also saw a column of black smoke and flames coming out of what must have been a home on top of the wall moments ago. She realized it was an explosion that shook the whole settlement. The crowd dispersed in fear, some people yelling and running around, pushing one another in the process. There was a low rumble as two loosely-constructed huts nearest to the explosion began to collapse and turn into a pile of junk.

The guards holding the pole released it and rushed towards the fire, so did the two men holding her. She was left on the bench with only one, confused, and somewhat terrified guard, who took a step away to consult the mayor. Ruth's trembling body collapsed to the floor. She took a glance at the huge pole and heaved, as her stomach rebelled against her, forcing the vile alcoholic cocktail out.

"Guards!" The mayor shouted, trying to regain control over the situation. "Get in there, now!" A few of his men left the podium and ran to investigate as well. The dark skinned man came up to Ruth and grabbed her by the hair to lift her head. "This," he pointed to the burning house, "was Stan's home. If your friend had anything to do with this, she'll take your place at this pole today and we'll force you to watch it."

Ruth found it impossible to speak, so she only glared at him. The man grunted in anger and left her, pacing around the platform.

The man previously guarding her returned and pulled her up to her knees, standing behind her while they waited. Ruth had no idea what was going on, but she was glad the perspective of her really painful death was somewhat postponed. On the other hand, Amber was clearly responsible for this and she was beginning to worry for her safety. It didn't take long before her worst suspicions became true. She saw two men dragging her friend's body through the crowd, two more carrying another body behind them.

Ruth looked up at the mayor whose face was a stone mask. Turning her attention back to the bodies, she saw Stan's corpse was set down carefully. His back was charred, his clothes either burned or melted into his blackened skin, but the cause of his death was clearly a broken neck, his head stuck in an odd, sickening position.

Amber, to Ruth's relief, was still breathing. Her clothes were charred and there were cuts and bruises all across her body, but she seemed otherwise intact. She became conscious and was brought in front of the mayor, one of the guards grabbed her red hair and pulled her head up to face the town leader.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" The older man asked coldly. The dispersed crowd around them fell silent as he spoke, slowly gathering at the podium again. "We have extended our hospitality to you and allowed you the chance to defend your friend in a trial and you repay us by killing the man who welcomed you to his own home!" His cold, calm voice slowly turned into a raging roar. "You have insulted us and doomed our community by killing the only man who could save us!"

"I saved you, and your sorry town." Amber's weak, hoarse voice stunned everyone. "This man." She glanced at the burned corpse. "He was responsible for the plague."

"How dare you say that!" The mayor exclaimed, approaching her. "This has gone too far!"

"Let her speak, Peter." They heard Irene's voice as she and a group of elders entered the platform. "She isn't going anywhere, we might as well listen to what she has to say." Ruth observed the older woman as she approached the redhead measuring her with the cold, drilling stare.

"There's a vial of poison in my pocket." Amber nodded at the judge. "Check for yourself."

"Is this some kind of a trap? You can't trust her!" The old man raged, but Irene gestured at one of the guards to search the injured woman. She was surprised at Irene for taking over the situation, although she was just another cog in the machine of ignorance and hatred, her presence was somewhat encouraging. The judge waited patiently, completely ignoring the demands of the crowd surrounding them. A faint glimmer of hope appeared in Ruth's mind as she observed the whole ordeal. Moments later a familiar-looking glass emerged from her friend's pocket and her heart stopped. It was cracked and empty. There was no doubt that it was the same vial as before and she could recognize her uncle's writing on it as well, but its content was no longer there.

"What makes you think we'll believe your words that you didn't bring it in yourself?" Irene asked coldly as she examined the finding.

"Of course she brought it herself!" The mayor exclaimed angrily. "It was your plan all along, wasn't it? To plant evidence against the one man who came here to help us?"

"There's more in his safe!" Amber hissed, slowly regaining her strength. She nodded at the fire behind them, which thanks to the effort of a few citizens and guardsmen was almost completely gone by then. "There are letters, and more! It's been there all this time!" She tried to free herself, but both guards twisted her arms behind her back, forcing her to stay on her knees.

"Conveniently left in a burning home to conceal your conspiracy?" Irene replied as if she saw through Amber's deception. "You're more despicable than your partner in crime!"

"You will pay for it and hang along with your friend, right here and now!" The mayor said and turned to face Ruth, a fire of another nature in his gaze. "It would only be fair to execute both of you at once, but we prepared only one stick today. I think you'll still get to be the honourable first."

Ruth felt fear grip at her throat again, but not for her own life this time. "No, you... You can't do this to her!" She managed to say, but her words were completely ignored.

"Take Stan's body to the hospital." The old men barked orders at the guardsmen. "And tie her to the railing! I want her to watch what's going to happen to her!"

"No! You sick fucks, listen to her!" Ruth exclaimed in terror, her voice cracking. The newfound hope was rapidly slipping through her fingers again. She looked helplessly at her friend struggling with the guards, who were dragging her towards a wooden post at the edge of the platform. "Do whatever you want with me, I admit to everything, just let her go! Please!" She wept, unable to break free from the iron grip of her guard.

"Listen to me!" Amber yelled as she was trying to fight back. "He was manipulating you all! Please, you have to listen to me!"

The crowd around them raged, almost drowning their pleas, but one sound broke through the noise and reached Ruth's ears. The shattering of glass. Surprised, she turned towards its source only to see Irene's shaking hands as she looked down at the broken vial. She repeated something under her breath, then her eyes widened and she turned around.

"Stop!" The woman ordered and approached the confused redhead. "What did you just say?" She asked, her voice was trembling, thick with emotions.

"That you have to listen to me." Amber repeated slowly, not sure what to expect.

"No, not like that." The old woman shook her head. "Say those exact words again."

The redhead stayed silent for a moment, recalling the exact wording of the sentence. It felt as if it was spoken decades ago. "Please, you have to listen to me."

The judge covered her mouth and shook her head before turning hastily towards the equally confused and concerned mayor.

"She's right..." Ruth could barely hear her words, but it was clear that the woman was deeply moved as she spoke to the elders. "It all makes sense now, the son of a bitch..."

"What the hell are you talking about?" The mayor demanded, staring at the pale woman.

"It was so obvious, but we never noticed it, he was saying it all the time. Playing a polite bastard..." Irene then shifted her attention to the men holding Amber down. "Let her go. Right now!" She said, her voice was still shaking. The guards did as they were told and the redhead stood up, flexing her aching arms. The angry mob fell silent, confused by the events they were witnessing.

"What the hell are you doing!?" The mayor asked again, more out of concern than anger. "Are you mad?"

"Peter, please, be quiet." Irene said and the man's incoming words immediately died on his lips. He fell completely silent for a brief moment, blinked, and then finally his face turned from shock to realization as it struck him.

"What the..." He noticed people staring at him weirdly.

The elderly judge gave him a little nod, then turned to Amber. "Tell us what you know. Everything."

"The man you called your own has been poisoning your water this whole time." The redhead replied, reaching for her pocket. "I found letters addressed to him. I didn't read them yet, so I can't even tell if those are related, but I bet my life, and hers, on it." She took out the papers. They were wet and had discolored patches in a few places, but most of them were intact. She passed them to one of the guards and wiped her hand. "I guess you might want to be careful with that."

Irene unfolded the document, her eyes skipped through the page.

"We have to evaluate this at once!" She said once she was done reading. "If this is all true..."

"First we have to decide if it's true or not." One of the council members replied dryly. "Those are pretty extraordinary accusations."

"I think we'll have to change our perception of the extraordinary..." The older woman muttered, folding the document and began gathering the rest of the elders to leave.

"Abby, please tend to miss Dale's injuries and bring her to us as soon as possible." The mayor said, nodding at one of the guards to accompany them. "You two, take Delassandis back to the interrogation room." He ordered and turned to face the rest of the crowd.

"Everyone, go back to your homes and throw out all of your water! Try to avoid drinking anything for now!" His voice echoed between the ancient walls, as the people looked utterly confused and concerned. "We will sort this out as soon as we can, but until then, stay calm!"

Ruth watched Amber walk away with the doctor and turn towards her to smile before disappearing from her view. The blue-haired woman stayed on her knees for a while longer. She was exhausted. The extreme swings between hope and despair took their toll on her. The adrenaline burned out from her system and her mind plunged back into the dull, drug-induced haze. She looked around and her eyes fell on the discarded pole still pointing at her with its sharpened, greasy tip. She felt another wave of nausea and heaved to the side, coughing.

"We should go, miss..." One of the guards assigned to her said, reaching to help her up, but she twisted her body away from his extended hand.

"Don't touch me." She hissed, struggling back to her feet on her own.

The crowd around the platform was already thinning down and the shouts demanding her blood were replaced with whispers and hushed conversations. It was a perfect moment to dive to the side and disappear in the crowd, leaving her escort behind, but all she wanted to do now was to curl into a ball and cry. She tried to keep her face as calm as she could while passing between the people who just minutes earlier were demanding her death. Now, their eyes avoided her gaze, only following her from afar.

They entered the room, the one she left ages ago for her last walk towards her doom. One of the guards broke the awkward silence asking cautiously if it was okay for him to untie her hands. Once they were free, both men left, locking the door behind them. The only source of light left for her was a small window covered with planks. Streaks of sunlight passed through the dusty air painting white scars on the bare, concrete floor. She sat down in the corner embraced by thick, cold walls, her body trembling from exhaustion.

She cried tears of joy only someone who escaped certain death could cry. She cried tears of fear and helplessness, not knowing what her future might bring, and finally, when she had no more tears to cry, she drifted into unconsciousness.

There were gunshots and flying bullets all around, cutting the air just above the shoulders. She was running through the sand, her feet sinking in far too deep, slowing her down. She turned sharply to look behind her back, more and more shadows chasing her from all across the horizon. The sand underneath suddenly gave way to solid ground, and she found herself in a dark corridor. Panic clenched her throat, but she didn't know why. The floor was red, and her worn shoes were sticking to it with every step. There was a body under the opposite wall. A body she thought she recognized. The corridor's walls began to shift and deform, coming closer together, leaving less and less space to breathe. She felt like screaming, trying desperately to approach and help her up, to drag her away and into a safe place far beyond this horror, but the person before her wasn't getting any closer. Someone grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her in the opposite direction as the body began to drown in the red below, the walls closing around her. There was a blinding light, and a voice urging her to hurry up.

"Ruth, wake up."

She opened her dry, swollen eyes. The world around her was a blur of light and dark shapes. She blinked a few times to regain focus and pulled herself to a sitting position, her whole body screaming at her to lay back down.

"Amber?" Her voice was strained and tired. She woke up from one nightmare, only to return to the other. "Please, tell me..." She started, but fell silent and pressed herself back into the corner when she noticed two guards standing behind her friend, outlined by the light from the corridor.

"Relax. We're not going back to the podium." The redhead said calmly, grabbing her hand. Ruth's first instinct was to jerk it away, but this single, gentle touch wiped away the uncertainty she felt ever since she stepped into this town. She wrapped her fingers around Amber's hand, and felt a pang of worry.

"That can't be all. There's a but in there, right?" She asked, preparing herself for the bad part of the good news.

"Well... You still stole their medical supplies in a time of need..." Amber continued squeezing her hand. "And I blew up a shed and killed a man."

Cold shiver ran down her spine as her friend was speaking.

"But..." She wanted to protest, or just say something, but Amber interrupted her again.

"There was a lot of arguing and..." The redhead shrugged. "I might have threatened to punch a few people, but in the end we got a deal in which we both live."

"How bad is it?" She asked with resignation in her voice. Amber hesitated for a moment, making her heart rattle again.

"They call it the cage." Amber replied finally. "We'll be stuck in it for the whole night... submerged in the lake. And then we'll be fined and exiled."

Ruth was silent for a moment, processing the news. She looked at her friend, slowly realizing what was really going on.

"You don't have to do this." She tried to keep her voice calm. "This isn't your..."

"Ruth... it was either that or you'd be hanged as a thief." The redhead lowered her voice to a whisper. "I didn't blow myself up to save you from that pole just to see you dangling on a rope."

Ruth nodded slowly, as she let that sink in.