(Immoral Virtue, #2)
“Only the witch hides what she has.”
From atop the manor stairs, she saw the full size of the crowd. The fury in their faces. The fear. All were made more vicious by the swirling smoke and fiery glow of their torches.
“I will not submit,” she said, shocked by the harsh choking sound of her own voice.
“Why did you refuse the governor?” The watchman stood behind her, his hard hands tight on her naked upper arms. “He would have spared you this.”
“To submit to him would be to shame myself.”
“They will not mind your virtue. They will take it. Is that not shame?”
“Faceless hands cannot shame the same as his.”
“That is a fool’s logic, Elizabeth.” He drew a long breath, then bellowed. “Who will examine this woman?”
There was no time to think, to react, to relent. He urged her forward, down the stairs, over the grass to the gate. Her feet seemed to glide over the ground as he moved her ahead of him.
Their want was to take from her but they would not. She would give. To them, not to the governor, for what he demanded was her body, her mind. What she offered the crowd was mere proof of her innocence.
Three women rushed toward her. They talked at once. Tugged at different parts of her clothing.
Courage failed her and she recoiled, shouted at them to unhand her, heard the watchman tell her to cease, that to resist would make it worse.
Her tattered shift was torn from her bound wrists and tossed aside. Her foot was lifted, first one then the other, and her slippers discarded. The grass was cold, slick and wet beneath her feet. Hands tugged at the drawstring of her petticoats then latched onto the band at her waist. She clenched her legs together, trapping the fabric, not letting the garment slip past her hips. Other hands pulled at it, tearing it from her body, and she could do naught to stop it. But to stop it, to stop them, would be to accept guilt, and that she would not do.
As madness spiraled around her, the watchman spoke calmly in her ear. “I will not let them harm you, but I cannot stop them from seeing you or touching you or having you.”
She meant to reply but only a whimper escaped her, and she dropped her head back to the solid heat of his shoulder.
“They will examine all of you,” he said, “test your flesh for the devil’s mark…”
They would not take what she did not give. “I submit,” she said forcing her breaths to slow. “I will let them see me.” She looked up at the sky, thought of an hour when this would be done and by decree she would be deemed unmarked. “I will prove my innocence.”
The hands were gone from her. Only icy damp air touched her as it washed over her now naked body.
She shivered. “I will prove my innocence.”
The watchman urged her forward, whispering to her as they moved closer and closer to the mob. “You must not fight.” He took her beyond the gates, pushed her past the crowd and onto a platform topped by a beam from which shackles hung. “I must give you to them…”