"I will fix this. " Islinn had said, her voice calm and sure. Those four simple words assumed a monumental responsibility and promised the impossible. JoHan had stepped forward and rested a taut hand on Islinn's shoulder. His voice was low.
"Islinn…don't fill this poor woman with false hope. Clarify what it is you promise."
"I can't. Because I don't know." She'd looked up into his face and her brown eyes were soft and pure in the yellowed flickering candlelight of the filthy room.
She'd glanced down at the bundle in her arms and gently moved aside the dirty wrap that covered its face. JoHan had had to look away. One side of the tiny infant's face was nothing but a red smear with bits of skull embedded like flecks of sand. JoHan's stomach had done a lazy roll but Islinn hadn't flinched.
She'd pressed her lips to what was left of the child's face and the kiss lingered like one bestowed upon a lover. JoHan had been frightened. The smeared wall, the flickering candlelight casting shadows, the animal-like whimpering of the whore in the corner, all of it combined together to tell him that he was descending into madness.
It was all around him, black pools of insanity and he knew that what Islinn had promised was nothing but a knock at the devil's door. He reached out to pull her to her feet and tell her that he was going to bury the child and they were going to leave but she ignored him. She cradled the child in one arm and reached out her other hand to grasp the whore's forearm.
"Come with me." Islinn's voice was firm and the whore nodded, her blank eyes fixed on the child that the girl held in her arms.
"I will bear outside." Islinn stated and got to her feet. JoHan had turned to where his back was to the growing crowd of whores and patrons clustered in the room.
"What are you doing?" He'd whispered frantically. "This is madness. She's nothing but a murdering whore. We can commit her whelp to the ground and bear the sin of his bastard birth but there's no hope for her. " JoHan drew in a ragged breath. Islinn calmly gazed at him and was silent.
"I know you don't understand," He'd explained. "She's a whore,Islinn. Brede cursed her with this child for her ways. She could have redeemed herself if she had kept the child and raised it. But she murdered it so now Brede has punished her with madness. You cannot override Brede and bear for her. You cannot "fix" this."
Islinn gave him a taut smile.
"I will bear the sin of both. Grant me shrift, Domyni."
JoHan shook his head helplessly. The Innkeeper had come over and had eyed the both of them.
"Well? You gonna help or not?"
JoHan opened his mouth to, once again, say it was impossible but Islinn overrode him.
"Yes. We're going to help. Grant me shrift, Domyni." She'd repeated and JoHan had. Brede have mercy on his soul, but he had.
They had all trooped out into the blinding sunlight, Islinn carrying the child with the whore traipsing anxiously along behind. His children had been ominously quiet and JoHan had seen a few of them hiding away tears. Because they knew. All of them knew but Islinn. He was about to sacrifice one of Brede's chosen because she was too foolish and too eager to recognize what was Brede's final decree. JoHan swallowed back his own tears. Brede was a hard god to serve and the lessons were always cruel.
Islinn had handed the child back to its mother and un-selfconsciously shed her robe. The usual catcalls and whistles had erupted from the godless and JoHan had wanted to scream at them, and tell them they had no idea what they were about to witness. The sacrifice they were about to see. But he'd remained silent.
He'd opened his pack and chosen the whip that had three separate thongs attached. Each thong had a hook tied to the end and an iron ball mounted below. In a perverse way, it was the only comfort he could offer. Anything less and she'd die a much slower death. And he had no doubt she would die. She was going against Brede's will.
He paused as he hefted the whip, feeling a leaded deadliness in its weight. Nothing but tied and bound leather made for the sole reason of inflicting pain and death. And yet…it was one of Brede's holy instruments. But it was not his place to understand. Only administer.
He'd turned back around and saw that Islinn had knelt with her back to him and was, once again, holding the dead child. JoHan looked at the crowd as they fell silent and had raised his hands to offer a prayer to Brede when Behrin had stepped forward and gone over to Islinn. He hadn't said a word, JoHan remembered, just cupped her face in his hand and studied her. Then he'd waved a nonchalant hand and stepped away.
JoHan had watched him as he'd rejoined his men and whispered something to one of them, causing a round of laughter. The sound had cut him deep, much like what the whip was going to do to his favorite child, and he grit his teeth in an effort to hold back his tears.
And he'd offered his prayer. And brought his arm back. And brought his arm down and felt like he was on the last leg of a journey he'd only seen in his darkest nightmares. The first lash had cut through her skin like butter and he'd felt the ripping pull of the hooks as they shredded and tugged their way across her back.
She hadn't made a sound. She never did. The snow around her had slowly turned pink, then red, then a deep vermilion. And JoHan had looked into his heart and asked his god what to do. But Brede had remained silent so JoHan had swung the whip harder than he ever had before and prayed for the strength to kill this girl that he loved so much.
The crowd had "oohed" and "aahed" for the first couple of swings but now they were stunned. Sickened. JoHan had been fiercely glad that his tears weren't the only ones shed over this travesty. He'd looked at the small, huddled form on the ground. He didn't know how she remained upright. Her blond hair was sodden with blood and her back was nothing but meat.
"Has she not paid enough?" JoHan thought sadly. But that was not for him to decide.
So he'd continued. At one point she'd thrown her head back, like an angel on fire, and his arm had faltered. But he'd never stopped. Finally,she had cried out. She pitched forward but managed to save herself from falling with one extended arm. He had gone to her then, why he didn't know.
She knew what it was to be one of Brede's chosen, just as he did but he wanted…needed… her forgiveness for his part in all of this.
"This dark province, where pain is faith and suffering is the road that leads to it. This is our home." He thought nonsensically as he knelt beside her.
And that was when something unnameable had swept through him, something cold and ancient, and what he had seen still haunted him in the musty air of his late night dreams.
Islinn hadn't cried out. It had been the small bundle she had quietly clung to. And yes it was a miracle, and yes it was in the name of Brede but he had been horrified by the turn of events.
Islinn had uncovered the baby and looked down into its soft unfocused eyes and gave it an enigmatic smile. The whore had broken the surrounding silence with an ear-piercing scream and had run forward and snatched the child from her arms. The sodden blanket that had been wrapped around it pulled loose and the baby had begun to wail and kick at the sudden intrusion of cold air on its healthy pink skin.
JoHan had backed away from Islinn and he knew the expression on his face wasn't one he wanted anyone else to see. But it hadn't mattered because no one had been looking at him. The whore had clutched her screaming whelp and started issuing orders to the other whores to get Islinn out of the snow and to find a healer.
The bystanders had been moving about uneasily, some praying, and some just standing and blinking in bewilderment. JoHan had caught the eye of the Innkeeper and the scrawny man had come over and eyed him suspiciously.
"What the fuck just happened??" He'd finally shouted and JoHan remembered feeling as though they were kindred spirits. What the fuck had just happened indeed. He had shaken his head and raised a hand towards the heavens but he knew it was all a sham.
And in the deepest level of his consciousness, he had felt a shift. A permanent sense of awareness that had locked into place with all the finality of a rock settling into a long sought after groove. That was the moment he had ceased to believe in Brede. And had begun to believe in Islinn.