Sera moved the delicate fingers of her right hand to brush away a lock of black hair, slick with sweat and blood, which had slipped down to cover her dark green eyes.
“Hands behind your head witch or you’ll lose them,” growled one of the wardens. He stepped into the corner of her vision and gripped the hilt of his sheathed sword menacingly. His armor, a patchwork of ceramic and metal, tacked together with epoxy and links scavenged from old chains, was streaked with Sera’s blood.
She complied, wincing as she pressed her palm against the sticky, pulsing lump on the back of her head. Sera blinked back tears of pain and looked down at the deck beneath her knees. The large square tiles had once been smooth and clean, gleaming white with the holy purity of bone, but they were now stained with dried blood spilled by countless prisoners who had knelt in this very chamber since the founding of the Kingdom. Seeing her submit to his order, the warden eased his grip on the sword hilt and stepped back out of sight.
Sweat dripped into Sera’s eyes and she blinked rapidly, wincing at the pain, and at the visions of suffering and humiliation that splashed across her eyelids whenever her eyes shut. She swallowed a whimper, took a deep breath, and tried to think of better times. That too brought only pain. Once joyful thoughts of her parents and childhood friends were twisted into the more recent memories of the shock and disappointment on their faces as the wardens dragged Sera past their chambers, through the commons, and out of the ward. Disheartened, she instead thought back to all of the people she had helped. The joy on the faces of parents as their children ran across the green grass of Spine Park after being healed of infections and broken bones. Tending the gardens of healing with her master, old Rigel, in their own special corner of the royal gardens. Soon, though, Sera’s heart grew heavy again as she realized that many of those grievously wounded patients might have been healed with the same forbidden magic that had condemned her.
The narrow door at the end of the chamber creaked open and the assembled prisoners looked up as one, anticipating which among them would be called forth to face their king. The royal announcer was a withered old man whose skin was so wrinkled that it piled up in loose, spotted layers above his low brow. He was dressed in a clean, unadorned blue robe, which marked him as a servant of a noble family. Despite his simple attire and obvious age and shuffling, clearly painful gait, the man carried himself with an unmistakable air of self-importance.
He squinted and spoke in a wheezing voice, “Sera, apprentice to the healer Rigel, you are summoned to face your king and god on the charge of heresy.”
Sera’s breath caught in her throat. She glanced from side to side at the faces of the other prisoners, but found only the harsh glares of men and women who, despite their own crimes, had now found someone who they could all look down upon. She blinked rapidly, forcing tears of rage and frustration to remain inside, and met the announcer’s eyes. “I deny all charges and…”