The crowd shifts nervously. A wave of anxious energy, flowing out from the centre, passes over all: adults and children; men and women; rich and poor. Like ripples in a pond after the stone drops. I’m stuck. A mere handful of rows from the front. Between sweating, jostling bodies. For one terrible moment, their mood is transmitted to me, a virus that insinuates itself in my mind and begins to take control.
The fingernails of my left hand dig into my palm hard enough to draw blood as I remind myself that I am not like them.
I’m here for a reason.
In a crouching, sideways shuffle, I make my way forward as quickly as possible. I need to be closer but the tightly packed spectators refuse to give way. Some of them have been here for hours: waiting with anticipation; counting the moments.
They sicken me.
Involuntarily, my eyes are drawn upwards to an ornate balcony on the building opposite. The scroll-work on the railing that keeps its occupants from a twenty foot drop into obscurity is captivating; a real testament to the ironmonger’s skill. I hate myself for noticing.
Who cares about some fucking balcony?
I duck my head and stare at the floor with an intensity that borders on obsessiveness, dropping to my knees to crawl between and beneath the obstructing dregs of humanity. The stench down here overpowers. It’s a physical assault on the senses that has me reeling.
Before I can reach the tiny open space that stands between the forefront of the crowd and the raised platform that is the focus of so much attention, a cry goes up from somewhere behind. The rising swell of excitement drowns a vastly outnumbered, counter-chorus of dissent.
A familiar acrid scent finds me, rocking me back on my heels.
I’m not close enough.
A ragged cheer, punctuated by a smattering of applause, heralds the wisp of smoke escaping from the base of the platform.
Abandoning caution, I rise to my feet, shoving at the nearest bodies, screaming my agony. Tendrils of fire lick at the feet of the solitary figure, forcing me to look at her.
There are pale streaks of skin on her face where tears have washed away the grime of her captivity. Her grey eyes, that I know so well, are closed and she looks almost peaceful but for the orange glare that burgeons beneath her. Light and shadow dance together across her face, creating a sense of movement on her immobile features. A tangle of blonde hair hangs over her face, cleaner than the rest of her ravaged mane. It gleams like gold and stabs my heart.
Enraged, oblivious, I strike out at those closest to me, desperate to reach her; to hold her. My blade is clenched in my hand, though I do not recall unsheathing it – the tip drenched in blood though I have no idea whose.
All I know is the growl of the flames, the stench of burning and the roar of an approving crowd as flames devour my heart.