The Still (part two: the beginning) by Pete Warner

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SUMMARY: Entry for the may flash-fiction contest, themed "the hole"

Tathar of Montgomery kissed his wife's hand and wept quiet tears as the Pastors maintained a respectful distance, in the shadows that suited their demeanours well. When they judged it was time, they came forward, the four of them. One led Tathar away across the chamber. He was permitted to stay, hugging a small leather bound copy of the Veritoire and whispering Truths, and the one that accompanied him was pleased that Tathar was a pious one, and that he would not be required to pacify the man.

Two Pastors bound Tathar's wife across the shoulders, chest, knees and feet to the yew planked table on which she lay with simple ropes while the third stood at her head, opened his Veritoire and bowed his head. When the two that had bound the woman were finished, one held aloft with two stiff arms a hessian sack above the woman's chest, and the one opposite readied a small dirk.

They waited for her laboured, rattling breaths to cease. They did not have to wait long. Straw-Fly fever victims never kept them late. When they were sure her last breath had sounded, the Pastor who held the thin blade punctured the sack and a tiny, steady flow of sand began to trickle across the woman's chest, grateful for the soft hiss to distract them from Tathar's sobbing beseechment. The sack contained enough sand to measure how long a strong and Holy man might hold his breath.

Just before the sand ran out, they trailed the last of it into the dead woman's mouth, while the Pastor with the Book read the Thirty-Fourth Truth. The hissing of the sand stopped and for moments, the chamber lie in silence. As if to prove the sack's dimensions accurate, Tathar's breath exploded in a stream of fervent gratitude.

As if to mock him, his wife tried to sit up.

She thashed against her bindings, gagged on a throatful of sand. One meaty Pastor's fist smacked across her temple, then slapped down over her mouth while the other removed from his robes a long needle and a spool of copper wire. Tathar was two steps across the chamber screaming when the Pastor who had moments before been consoling him with gentle shoulder pats rapped his cudgel across the back of Tathar's skull. The man crashed to the floor, unconscious. A common reflex, the Pastor knew, and he held no grievances. It was no easy thing to accept that your wife was dead. Much harder still to accept proof that she was Damned.

She kicked against the yew table, trying to scream through a mouthful of sand while two Pastors adorned her lips with the copper Trammel and a third growled a litany of grim Truths.

By the time they were done, she no longer struggled. Her skin and her hair had turned a dull grey. Only her eyes remained unchanged. Green. Defiant.