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The bonfire marking the clearing before the stone—the signal from Bernivvigar of the significance of this night—burned low, casting them all in dim shadows.


Finally, a tall, lean figure made its way down the forest path and out onto the flat stone. And Bernivvigar was taller than almost any other man in Pryd, standing above six and a half feet. He had wild, almost shaggy, gray hair and a long, thin beard that reached halfway down his chest. He wore his simple light green robe, the Samhaist habit, and sandals that revealed his dirty feet and his red-painted toenails. He carried an oaken staff that was nearly as tall as he, with a knobbed end that made it look more akin to a weapon than a walking stick.

A necklace of canine teeth framed his beard and clacked when he walked or when he turned quickly to settle his sharp gaze on one or another of the onlookers.

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He looked at Prydae only once, gave a slight nod, then squared up to face the general gathering and lifted his arms high. The crowd went completely silent, all eyes turning to the left of the stone, near where the monks were sitting. The crowd parted and a group of men—soldiers of the Laird all—forced a young man and woman forward, prodding them with spears and slapping them with the flat sides of bronze swords. Another man, a commoner, bearing a sack in one hand and a pole ending in a small noose in the other, came out after them and moved toward the low-burning fire.

Prydae gave a profound sigh at the sight of the accused.

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He knew them, the woman at least, and understood that they were young—younger than he at eighteen by two or three years. Callen Duwornay was her name; he knew her family. She was quite a pretty young thing, and Prydae had many times thought of taking her for a night of his pleasure, as the laird and his offspring were wont and legally entitled to do. Her soft hair was the color of straw, and it hung below her shoulders, cascading from her face in silken layers. Her eyes were not the customary blue of the folk but a rich brown hue—not dark, but true brown.

Her smile was bright and even, and often flashed—there was a life and lustiness about her, a scent of womanhood and enthusiasm that all fit together, in light of these charges, to Prydae. Such a waste, he thought, and he worked earnestly to keep his expression impassive.

He was bearing witness and not passing judgment. Some traditions overruled even the desires of the son of the laird. As soon as her hands were untied, Callen brought them up to brush back the hair from her face, but since she was looking down, it fell right back. He seemed as if he could hardly draw breath or as if he were about to burst into tears at any moment.

And I paid good money for her.

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Silver coin and three sheep. The crowd began to laugh and taunt, but the monks kept praying, and Prydae did well to keep his composure. Prydae watched him with great interest, noting the emotions tearing at him. The man obviously loved that young woman, and he knew of course what his admission would do to her. A long minute passed. Oh, but she bewitched me with her charms. She knew she was doomed, Prydae observed. She had gone past hope now, had settled into that resigned state of empty despair.

They took the guilty man first, throwing him roughly to the ground. Two men sat on him to hold him still, while another pulled off his trousers. The cuckolded husband, meanwhile, went to the bonfire, where a flat-headed iron brand had been set in place, its end now glowing. By the time he lifted it in his gloved hand and turned, the guilty man was staked to the ground.

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He lay on his back, naked from the waist down and with his legs spread wide and held firmly in place by leather ties. The guilty man began to whimper, and all the louder when the cuckolded husband waved the glowing iron before his wide, horror-filled eyes. Five times! Prydae had seen several battles in his eighteen years. He had watched men chopped down, squirming and screaming to their deaths. He had seen a woman get cut in half at the waist by a great axe, her top half falling so that she could see her own severed legs, standing there for a long moment before toppling over.

But never in all the battles had the young nobleman heard a shriek as bloodcurdling and earsplitting as that from the man sprawled before him. The man jerked so violently that he yanked one of the stakes from the ground. That hardly did him any good, for as he tried to kick his leg over in an attempt to cover up, he merely brought the tender flesh of his inner thigh against the side of the hot iron. His face locked in a fierce grimace, the wronged husband pressed harder and slapped the flailing leg away.

Finally he stepped back, and the wounded man, sobbing and wailing in agony, flipped his leg over again, trying to curl up.

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The guards pulled him up from the ground, and when he tried to duck, one kicked him hard in the groin. He doubled over and fell back to the ground, and so they grabbed him by the ankles and unceremoniously dragged him away, through the jeering and laughing crowd, many of whom spat upon him.

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When finally it settled again, Bernivvigar turned his hawkish gaze upon Callen once more. A nod from him had the guards eagerly stripping off her clothing. Her breasts were round and full and teasingly upturned, and her belly still had a bit of her girlish fat, just enough to give it an enticing curl.

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Again the aggrieved husband went over to the fire, where the handler was preparing the adder, exciting it and angering it by moving it near the hot embers. With a wicked grin, the dirty man handed over the catch stick, its noose now securely holding the two-foot-long copper-colored snake right behind its triangular head. If you have any words of apology or remorse, this is the moment. Now she flailed wildly and struggled, until one of the guards kicked her hard in the back. They drew the drawstring of the sack, and kicked her again for good measure, and she lay there, sobbing quietly.

The crowd began to murmur, urging the husband on; and, indeed, there was a hesitation to his every step toward her. Prydae watched him intently, seeing him pause and imagining the tumult of feelings that must be swirling within him.

watch That hesitation seem to break apart all of a sudden, as the cuckold painted a scowl on his face and moved to the sack with three quick strides. One of the guards pulled up the tied end, and the other pulled open the mouth of the bag.

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The cheering grew louder; the husband looked around. With quick hands, the guards helped him force the rest of the squirming snake in, and the husband released one of the drawstrings and pulled back the empty catch-stick. The guard drew tight the string and tied it off, then jumped back, letting the sack fall over. The crowd hushed; Prydae found himself leaning forward in his chair. For a long while, nothing.

There came a slight movement as the snake began to stir. The woman screamed, and the sack began to thrash. They heard her cry out, and a sudden and violent jerk of the sack brought every onlooker to hold his breath and seemed to freeze the scene in place. The sack held still for a moment, then came another jerk, the woman within no doubt reacting to a second bite.

And again and again.