‘Is this how I am going to die?’ Adeline thought as two big, strong arms dragged her down a long corridor, their armor rattling quietly in the cold, empty space. Neither of the guards spoke - the only noise came from the crowd outside that was cheering and shouting excitedly.
The bag over her head made it impossible to see where they were taking her, but thanks to it, her hearing had grown sharper. She was sure they were getting closer to the angry mob, which made her heart beat faster even though she couldn’t hear what they were saying.
This whole situation made no sense. It made no sense that the Royal Guard dragged her out of her room like a criminal; it made no sense that everybody suddenly started treating her like an enemy; it made no sense that nobody even told her what she had done to deserve to be locked in the dungeons for days, maybe even weeks. Especially in her condition.
She was the perfect lady and wife, the perfect role model and leader. She made no mistakes and created no problems for her husband. She was a devoted, hard-working queen. She was going to be a good mother.
Adeline had given him everything she had - the fortune she inherited from her parents, the lands, the connections, even her body and heart that was now breaking from the heavy sorrow and regret overflowing from it.
Where did it all go wrong? How? Why?
A creak of a heavy door reached her ears and suddenly the sounds of the crowd grew tenfold, making her deaf to everything else. It had become even harder to distinguish the words they were saying, but they sounded angry and hungry for blood.
One of the guards pulled the bag off her head and she squinted her eyes against the bright glare of the waning sun. Even the sparse light of the sunset was better than the complete darkness she had spent the last few days in. Or so she thought before she looked around.
“Witch! Monster! Demon!” The words slapped her one after another and she looked left and right, only to find faces full of hatred and fear turned to her. Somebody threw a tomato, and it splashed over the front of her tattered dress, spraying red juice over her face and hair. She tried to wipe it with her hand, but the guards held her too tight, dragging her forward without even giving her a second to compose herself. The voices grew even louder, shouting curses and profanities, and even though she tried to tell them she was none of those things, they remained deaf to her desperate pleas.
Lowering her head to protect her eyes from the objects thrown at her, she glanced towards the construction they were heading towards. The guards were dragging her towards a high podium they must have built recently, surrounded by a thick wall of soldiers keeping the crowd away from it. A single chair stood on the platform, rising tall and proud, just like the man sitting on it.
She couldn't see his face or distinguish those of the people around her because of the constant pulling and jerking by the guards who were still moving ahead, creating a narrow path for them to go through. Her eyes were stinging from the sour juice that had landed in them. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, mixing with the traces of crying earlier. She didn’t know she had any more tears left after all the crying she had done.
Once they reached the podium, the guards forced her to her knees and took a step back, bowing. The shackles on her hands made her lose her balance, and she crashed on her face, a stinging pain rising from her cheek. When she looked up, the chair on the podium was empty and the person that was previously sitting in it was slowly descending the stairs towards her, wearing a disgusted expression.
His face was just as handsome and dignified as ever. His tall, slender frame and broad shoulders made him look like a magnificent statue that had come to life just to save her. But she could only hold on to that false hope until he stopped in front of her and his scowl deepened.
“Please, Shayde, I’m your wife! Your Queen! I’m not a witch and you know that! I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m innocent!” Adeline pleaded, childishly hoping that this was all one big misunderstanding. But looking back to the years they had been married, she knew that begging was pointless. She had never received a warm touch or sweet word from him once their vows were exchanged and the two were bound by law and god. She never received his undivided attention, let alone his love and trust. It had always been her giving her all.
She had thought that if she loved him more, loved him better, then the dazzling man she fell in love with and who promised her the world would finally appreciate her and love her back. But with every passing day, he grew colder and more distant. And angry. Even when she did everything he asked, making no mistakes, he would get angry.
“How dare you use the king’s name so casually?” He snarled at her, and Adeline shivered at the menace in his voice. Shayde leaned down, and she instinctively curled up, almost expecting him to hit her. He hadn’t done that before, but he looked like he wanted to hurt her, really hurt her. “You are pathetic, Adeline. So powerless that I can’t even look at you. Your only redeeming quality was your money and your potential. But you ended up as a useless disappointment.”
“I gave you everything!” Adeline cried desperately. “My wealth, my name, my support, even the child growing inside of me right now! Your child! What else can I give you? Please tell me! Why is that not enough?”
“Like I need a child with your dirty blood running through it.” Shayde spat, studying her face for a second before crouching in front of her. “I want you to know one thing, Adeline. You did this to yourself. If only you had broken down faster, this could have been avoided. But unfortunately for you, I’m out of patience and I can’t let anyone else have you. So you left me no choice. Bear the consequences.”
Adeline opened her mouth to say something, but he was already on his feet, turning his back on her and facing the crowd. The guards straightened up as he raised his hands, and the people quickly quieted. Once an eerie silence had spread over the square in front of the palace, Shayde spoke with a low, almost somber voice, full of regret and sorrow.
“Citizens of Maerania, I have asked you to come here today to bear witness to my shame and remorse. I have made a grave mistake and allowed myself to be deceived by those closest to me. By my own wife!” He added in a cold, cutting tone. “I thought I had chosen a wise, honorable woman to help make Maerania a better place for you and lead you with grace, but I was just being used by this evil witch!”
The crowd came to life at once, letting out a deafening roar at the last word. Adeline winced, watching them with growing horror.
Nobody was listening to her, nobody was going to believe her. He was the king after all, the king everyone loved, and he was telling them she was a witch. Even those who weren’t sure before, now probably believed that lie more than they believed in the sun and the moon.
“But thanks to my loyal subjects, her true nature has been exposed! She was proven responsible for all those deaths in the Matuda district, as well as the collapse of the bridge that killed eleven people last month. She was responsible for the drought in the west and the fire that destroyed half of our winter crops. She feeds on death and suffering and she has been feeding on all of you!” A murmur rose from the crowd and a few people pulled back, as if afraid that being closer to her might hurt them. Adeline watched them with resignation, not even trying to make her voice be heard anymore.
“But that ends today! We will snuff out the darkness and make sure she never hurts anyone else again!” He shouted, and the crowd roared with him, swallowing his voice as he ordered the guards to tie her up.
Adeline felt the hands grab her again, dragging her towards the crowd. For a moment she thought they planned to throw her to the people and let them tear her to pieces, but the other guards pushed the screaming men and women away, revealing their true destination.
Adeline’s eyes widened and the horror she was pushing to the back of her mind broke free, sending her into a frenzy. She fought against the guards, but they just dragged her more harshly over the ground, picking her up under the armpits and putting her on top of the wood and twigs they had put in a pile. The two other guards standing on the top of the pile caught her and pushed her against the stake that rose out of the middle of the burning pyre, tying her so fast, she didn’t even get a chance to break free.
The tears had started falling down again, but she was not sure why she was crying anymore. Was it the fear of dying? Or was it the regret? A bitter voice in her head kept telling her it was really all her fault. If she wasn’t so eager to please Shayde, so determined to be the perfect wife for him, to make him love her, this all wouldn’t have happened. She wouldn’t have been framed, she wouldn’t have lost everything, including the life of her unborn child. She wouldn’t be dying branded as a witch.
She looked towards the podium where Shayde was sitting in his high chair, head leaning on his hand almost in boredom. As their eyes met, a small smile blossomed on his lips that sent shivers down Adeline’s spine. A figure appeared next to Shayde’s chair and touched his shoulder and Adeline immediately looked up at the woman, not even surprised to see the arrogant smile on her face. What surprised her more was the fact that Shayde caught her hand and placed a small kiss on her knuckles, his eyes still on Adeline.
Anger and desperation swelled into Adeline’s chest and she gritted her teeth, willing her tears to stop.
It had all been for nothing. All of this, all of her effort and sacrifices, for nothing.
“Burn! Burn! Burn!” the crowd chanted, louder and louder, all slipping into one voice. Shayde lifted his hand and gave the sign for the guards to proceed. They had already jumped off the pyre and were adding oil to the wood, some of the foul-smelling liquid splashing on her skirts.
Adeline leaned her head on the stake, closing her eyes and letting out a scared sob. The sudden burst of happy cheers made her open her eyes again, only to realize one of the guards was pressing the burning torch in different places around the pyre, spreading the fire everywhere. Heat rose under her feet and Adeline whimpered, pressing herself closer to the stake even though she knew that wouldn’t help.
She was going to burn no matter what she did, she was going to die in agony.
Adeline wished she really was a witch at that moment. If she had so much power like he told them, she could have gotten herself out of there, she would have survived and she would have…
The thought trailed off as the first flame licked her leg and she screamed in pain, looking down. Her skirts had caught on fire already and the cloth was quickly burning along with her skin. The pain was so striking and overwhelming that Adeline thought she’d die from it, but the seconds dragged and the torture continued for what felt like forever.
Feeling her mind slowly slipping, Adeline thought that even if she was a witch, nothing would have changed. Even if she got herself out of here, if she survived, there was little she could do to change how things are. But if she never fell in love with Shayde, if she never agreed to marry him… then things could have been different. She could have lived, she could have made better choices.
Adeline screamed as the fire licked at her feet, bite after bite of agonizing torture. A thick fog fell over her mind, but in the distance, she could feel something stirring and moving towards her. She embraced it without thinking, without questioning, and as its warmth wrapped around her, a soothing voice whispered its name.
Adeline screamed again, throwing all of her desperation and regret into that final plea, praying to god to give her one more chance, to let her go back in time and make him suffer instead.
The fire bit into her face, devouring her hair and melting her skin, burning her eyes and destroying her lips. Her voice broke, losing its power and her body slacked off against the stake in utter surrender.
‘If only I could go back…’ Adeline’s last thought lingered in her head before slipping away. A bright light flashed in front of her, swallowing the crowd and the soldiers, moving towards Adeline and reaching out as if to take her away. Its blinding rays wrapped around her and for a second the pain returned, even stronger than before.
Adeline screamed as she jumped awake, sitting up in her bed and taking a sharp breath. Darkness met her from all sides, but her eyes quickly got used to it, distinguishing the outlines of furniture and walls.
“What the…?” She whispered, her hands reaching up. Her eyes were still there, as well as her hair and skin. Apart from the sharp pain in her chest from panting so hard, nothing hurt and nothing was missing.
Could that have been a dream? But it felt so real and so detailed, she could almost feel the fire melting the muscles off her bones.
The door of the room opened and Adeline flinched, locking her eyes on the maid that rushed in with ruffled hair and a candle flickering in her hand. The young girl stopped by the bed, looking around frantically, even more scared than Adeline herself.
“Are you alright, Miss? Did something happen? Did you have a nightmare?”
Adeline stared at her, trying to recognize her voice but failing. None of her maids at the castle sounded so young or so worried, even when Adeline was really sick.
“Miss?” Adeline repeated, realizing what she had heard. “Did you just call me Miss?”
“Well, um,” the girl stuttered uncomfortably. “You told me to call you that, Mistress. You told everyone to call you that. You didn’t like being called ‘Duchess’ because it made you feel old.” The girl said in a single breath. “Are you alright? Do you want me to call His Grace or a doctor?”
Adeline kicked off her covers as fast as she could, rushing towards the girl. She noticed the maid had curly ginger hair and her face was round, with lots of pretty freckles on her cheeks. She could distantly recall she had a maid like that back in her father’s mansion, back when…
Adeline grabbed the candle from the maid’s hand, carrying it to the full-body mirror in the corner and taking a deep breath before stepping close enough to see her reflection. She dropped the candle holder as she stared at herself, her hands immediately going for her face. She heard the maid shrieking then stomping the flame with her foot, but chose to ignore her. Adeline still couldn’t tear her eyes away from her reflection in the mirror.
She was back.
Back before she was queen, back before she became crown princess, back before she accepted the marriage proposal that set her on the course of disaster. She reached out and pinched herself with all her might, welcoming the pain that spread through her arm.
“It worked.” She whispered, reaching out and touching the mirror. “I can do better now. I will do better.” She continued to talk to herself, painfully aware of the maid’s eyes on her, but not caring at all. “This time, I will change things. This time, I will survive.”