Chapter 10, Part 2
Asrial stumbled behind the coarse rope binding her wrists together. The sky was an impossible color: neither the star-sprinkled black of true night nor the smooth plate of a sun-jeweled morning, but the forsaken time in between when neither sun nor stars showed their faces.
The Archangel stood beside the cross, waiting for her. He had collected an audience in the entirety of the camp; she recognized Raphael behind him, and several other archangels... and the guard beside the cross was Tapheth, the same who had led her to the tent to await Michael's judgment after her first trespass.
Asrial stopped, hunched with her hands pulled in front of her, wings extended for balance. Her hair slid over the front of her thin shoulders as if to apologize for the poor concealment her torn chiton provided.
Michael walked to her, gazed down at her as the guard stood out of his way, the rope between her wrists and his hand strained.
"Are you ready for your punishment?" the archangel asked into the pre-dawn's silence.
"I have done nothing wrong," Asrial said, arching her primaries forward and panting softly. The broken rib pressed the breath from her each time she gasped.
His fingers cupped her chin and forced her to look up at his cold and beautiful face. "Do not lie, girl. Not in Heaven where God dwells."
Asrial shivered but said nothing, and did not blink.
"Again I ask: are you ready for what you have earned?"
Asrial swallowed past her narrowed throat and held her silence.
Michael frowned, then tossed her face away and turned. "If we want her to fit on the cross, we'll have to divest her of some of her plumage. Tapheth... help Damen tie her to the cross so we can pluck the secondary shelf."
Asrial dug her heels into the ground and flared her wings as the guard jerked her cord. She tumbled forward to a knee, burned the skin off as the guard dragged her through the dirt. Their cool hands on her feverish skin sent shivers running down her spine, and she struggled to tear away from them.
They bore her to the cross, pressed her face to its wood, and tied her hands up against it before spreading her wings. Her muscles twitched violently as their hands ran along the edges of her feathers.
"Michael... are... are you sure about this?" The unexpected voice of Raphael, timid and pleading. "Michael... what if this is wrong?"
"This is not wrong," Michael said. "She betrayed us to the enemy. More of our own may die because of her. Would you have her go unpunished for the crime she has committed? No act is without consequence, Raphael."
Raphael said, "But... she's one of our own, Michael. One of the Ninth. We should be merciful—"
"Mercy and justice do not dwell together peaceably," Michael said, voice hardening. "A lesson you must obviously learn. Go, pluck the feathers. All the secondaries near her body. You'll know better how to avoid the blood feathers."
Raphael's voice tightened almost to nothingness. "I—I am a healer!"
"Are you not also God's servant?" Michael demanded. "Go!"
Asrial closed her eyes, the wood pressed to her body from cheek to hips. Her heart pounded against it, wings trembling at their forced extension. She tasked herself to calm and found it very difficult, listening to Raphael's uneven steps as he approached. When she could sense him behind her, she opened her eyes and looked over her shoulder, past him, at Michael.
The Archangel's body was a silhouette, black against the dark blue sky; only his face was visible, lit by the spin of his halo.
Asrial wet her lips and throat and said, "Look well, Archangel. You should remember this day."
Raphael stroked her wing-arms with hands that trembled violently. Asrial closed her eyes and rested against the wood, her forehead several inches below the foot-rest.
A lance of pain flared in her right wing, so intense Asrial saw spots and a black field. She had only just recovered her breath and blinked away the tears when the next came. And the next.
"Avoid the blood feathers, Raphael."
"I'm trying! But they're all bleeding!" Raphael shook. "Please, Michael! We'll kill her!"
"She'll die anyway. Continue."
"Raphael," Michael's baritone softened. "Do you think God would let her bleed to death if He had wanted her to live?"
The healer swallowed a sob. His hands lit on her back between her wings, resting there, before he resumed his grisly work. One by one, Raphael jerked her secondaries out, leaving gaping sockets dripping gold dust and droplets of gold blood. She could hear him gulping against his own tears.
Asrial opened her eyes, found herself looking into the face of Tapheth who was steadying her right wing. His face had set into hard lines, but his eyes had the glazed horror of a soul in shock.
By the last feather's fall, Asrial dripped thin sweat into the cool predawn, her entire body slick and her hair drenched nearly auburn with its rivulets. The song of God's creation was so loud in her ears that she felt faint. Her wings no longer had a distinct bottom edge: from the inner feather of her primaries to her spine, they were joined to the ground by a cobweb of thick golden blood.
"Now," Michael said, voice hoarse, "we hang her."
Raphael turned. "Please, Michael. Isn't it enough? She'll never fly. The blood loss alone... it's meaningless."
"The abandonment of God and one's own demands the highest price. We will finish it."
Asrial focused with difficulty past the ache in her wrists and became aware through it that she must have thrown herself against her bonds during the ordeal. Something in his voice....
"Oh, God, Michael, it's so wrong!"
"Leave—," Asrial took a breath, willing her rib to allow her diaphragm to expand; "Leave him alone, Archangel."
Her voice was a tiny, thin thread, but from the sudden silence of the crowd, it was audible.
"You dare address me?"
"You will kill me one way or another," Asrial said.
She was unprepared to be torn from the cross and slammed to the ground. The stones bit into her flesh and the empty sockets on her wings, smearing her blood across the earth. Asrial whimpered, clenched her teeth against it as the sandaled feet drew near.
"Sound grateful when you say that, Fallen. Your death will set you free."
There it was again... that note in his voice. The one she could not match to his words. Asrial opened an eye, wheezing. "Don't do this, Archangel. Please."
Michael's eyes thinned. He hesitated.
"Don't do this to us both," she whispered.
He grabbed her by her wing and threw her to the base of the cross. "Do not hold me in your mouth!" he cried out. He turned furiously from her. "Hammer her to it! And leave her there for the dawn to find dead!"
Asrial couldn't move. The rocks had ripped her skin apart across her belly and sides, and the pain drowned out God's symphony. She barely felt the guard hoisting her to the top of the cross. They stretched her left arm across the bar, pulling her wing over the bar and behind it.
Asrial stared blearily down to the end of her arm at the sullen glow of the nail in Tapheth's hand. He refused to look at her; he pressed her palm open, centered the nail there, and sucked in a breath before knocking it through the flesh of her hand. And then the other side, wrenching her hands obscenely open, even the bones of her palms forced apart. Her wings, drawn over the bars of the cross and behind it, were nailed together to the back of the top of the vertical bar somewhere above her head—spread so the primaries arched reflexively into a mandorla, her remaining coverts a pitiful, sopping counterpoint.
They untied the cords around her wrists once they finished. There was no need for them: in Heaven, even an angel without a halo, even one in Shamayim, the furthest layer from God, was too light to drag her own body down.
After they secured her feet, the two withdrew desperately into the anonymity of the crowd.
Michael faced her, stared up at her with mad, unblinking eyes. "And so you will remain until the sun disposes of you."
Asrial shook, mazed with pain. A satiny tear of blood dripped to the earth beneath her.
Michael left and with him took the host that had watched in silence.
She was aware, vaguely, of someone else, someone who had remained. Asrial opened her eyes.
Raphael stood in the quiet of the pollen-scented predawn, wringing his hands, his face cast into anguished lines by the unhealthy glow of his halo.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Asrial did not reply. One of her coverts came loose and drifted sedately to the ground.
"I couldn't say 'no'."
She said nothing.
"I couldn't. I didn't want to! I had to! I had to!"
Asrial closed her eyes. Her mouth was parched, and the tip of her pink tongue stole out to test her lips for moisture.
The archangel said nothing for a long time. He dropped to one knee, then the next, and pressed his head to his knees. She heard him weeping, thought hazily of the sweet wet tears that must be coursing down his cheeks.
His sobs dissolved to hiccups, and his hiccups to silence. At last, he said, "I'm so sorry."
Asrial shut out the din of her body's every flaming nerve, shut out the overwhelming symphony of Creation. Through a throat leeched dry, she said, "I cannot absolve you. But I forgive you."
His face jerked up to meet her eyes, his own wide and staring. He was not seeing her, but something else in her face. Asrial watched as he staggered to his feet and fled her.
She could not measure the time passing. The darkness that owned neither sun nor stars refused to lift. But at some point, she heard the sound of wings. The tiny vibration that rippled down the wood sent off sympathetic aches in her hands and feet and wings.
The grackle had perched on the top spar of the cross, in front of the nail that pinned her wings.
Asrial tried to look up, but could not; tried to speak, but could not. She sent her tacit gratitude to the bird, glad that she would not have to endure this trial alone... grateful that it was the grackle and not some person who bore it with her. She knew somehow that the bird could withstand the sight of her so, where her friends would not have been able to.
Her blood had long since stopped seeping around the nails, crusting on the edges of the wound. She could smell the honeyed sweetness of her own blood, feel the fire of the wounds and bruises, taste the dust-dryness of her mouth. Even her sight, when she opened her caked eyes, was speckled with dark spots.
Asrial wondered what the Wind sounded like, and if it came for angels without halos.
The song of His Creation and her awareness of her body began to fade in and out of one another. Hesitant, she extended her awareness out past her body, past the walls of flesh and bone, and out toward that music. There was nothing left for her but the song... and so she shed the shackles of her body—
—and Embraced the music—
And gave herself over to it completely, as she'd always dreamed, as she'd always been unable to—
And it was glorious—
And it filled her—
And she saw the Order in it, a Divinity so obviously imposed upon the procession of each spinning quark, of each spiral galaxy, that she would have wept had she anything liquid left to weep... had tears had any meaning anymore. Had tears had dominion anymore, in a universe so completely permeated with His love.
Asrial opened her eyes slowly, her crusted lashes sticking together. Her chin lifted as she stared, unblinking and dry-eyed, into the east where the sun was rising. She watched it until morning had full come, and then her awareness of her ravaged body returned, one extremity at a time. She let her head hang again. Her eyes closed.
A small smile, mediated by pain and deep with beautiful secrets, touched her lips.
© 2011 M.C.A. Hogarth, Stardancer.Org