Bring Out the GIMP (Girls in Merciless Peril)


By Kirsten Smart

One – The Inquisitor

Solana stumbled across the Town Square, her wrists tightly bound behind her back with thick rope. It was autumn, but she was barefoot, her feet aching with cold, her naked arms coarse with goosebumps. In her mouth was a gag, a leather ball between her teeth, secured with a leather strap. Her lips formed a seal around its circumference, her jaws ached.

Three guards. Two held her arms: the Sergeant followed. They hurried their frightened prisoner towards the thirteen steps that rose to the malevolent Justice Hall. Grey stone columns, iron fittings in which unlit torches rested, a black metal gibbet suspended above, the off-white of old bones within its bars.

Solana wore nothing but a lace-up bodice and skirt. Her breasts, plumped by the corset, were all but bared to the November chill. The bodice's slim straps had slipped part-way down her bare muscled arms. Her skirts were torn, muddy. Her hair was loose, a thick black mane tumbling to her shoulder-blades, partially obscuring her face.

Half African by birth, her father descended from black slaves, her mother Spanish, Solana had inherited the beauty of mixed races. The slender nose and rich, curly black hair of her mother, the full cheekbones, proud lips and perfect teeth of her father. Her eyes were dark brown, lashes long, her brows bold. Her body was strong, lithe, muscular, her skin smooth, the colour of coffee. A life tending animals on her mother's small farm half a day from Pamplona had blessed her with good health. But now her slim fingers were blue with strangled circulation, the coarse ropes wearing ruts in her wrists, tightly confining her hands behind her back. Her feet were bruised from her journey through the city streets.

They reached Justice Hall. Solana would have pleaded to turn back, but for the gag. Her feet found the ascent, and she helplessly did as the guards bade, entering the cavernous atrium. Perhaps a hundred people stood within, most queuing to have petty grievances settled. But all moved aside for the beautiful prisoner and her armoured escort. A few pitied her: most simply felt relief that it was her, and not themselves, being led inside.

The four stopped at the head of a queue. A Clerk, robed and sombre, regarded the ragged girl. He dipped his quill in ink, reached for a heavy leather-bound book. Worn fingers leafed through thick pages, filled with the names of hundreds who had come this way before.

“Name?” The Clerk's voice came in a monotone, his disinterest plain.

“Solana Degas,” grunted the sergeant on his muted prisoner's behalf. From beneath the rim of his iron helmet, deep-set eyes watched the quill scratch its path. “She is accused of witchcraft.”

Solana tried to protest – stifled exclamations barely escaping the heavy leather ball that packed her mouth. Her dark eyes burned with rage as the Clerk wrote. How was it that such an injustice could be committed before her? She knew only too well her accuser – Catalina Lacrosse, her only rival in beauty, the blonde, lithe vixen from the nearby village. Catalina, who had been jilted in her efforts to be crowned Harvest Princess. To Solana, it had been a frivolous and childish celebration, but accepting the crown had pleased her fellow villagers and satisfied tradition, so she had borne the formalities with grace.

But Catalina, jealous, had began causing trouble for her rival. Culminating in this – Solana's arrest in her own mother's kitchen, dragged bound into the cold and brought here, to Pamplona, and the foreboding Justice Hall.

The Clerk finished writing. He looked briefly at Solana. “Have her examined.”

The guards propelled her forward, through a second chamber, finally halting outside tall oak doors, trimmed in brass, with elegant gargoyles as knockers, four guards outside. The Sergeant pounded once with his gauntlet, and the door was opened from within.

Solana's expression resembled one agape with wonder, though her mouth was merely held wide by the leather gag. They were in a cavernous hall. At the far end, tall stained glass windows splashed coloured light across a mosaic floor. Perhaps a dozen guards stood silently at posts along the walls. A brazier glowed sullenly in a far corner. Directly ahead, on a raised podium, three stern-looking men sat at a huge oak table. All wore the robes of Clergy. Apparently they had been in discussion, but all three now looked up.

A figure scurried to meet the four newcomers. A scribe in his forties, ferret-like in appearance and manner. He looked openly at Solana, his eyes taking in her shapely form, the lush tangle of her hair, her handsome face. Without breaking the stare, he listened to the Sergeant's brief communication. Finally, as Solana was brought within a dozen paces of the high table, the scribe turned to his superiors.

“Your Honours, the prisoner is Solana Degas, an accused witch. She comes this day from Sanguesa, where she lives with her mother.”

The central of the three figures glowered at the woman before him. Solana's racing mind identified him as the Inquisitor, a deeply religious man, whose role was seeking the truth from those accused of witchcraft or heresy. He, she hoped, would be kind.

“Free her hands.”

Solana looked back over her own bare shoulder as one of the guards worked the rope at her wrists. The rope had shrunk with cold and damp, and it took a time to loosen it, but eventually she was released, and massaged deeply-grooved wrists gratefully.

“Now strip her.”

Solana's eyes bugged over her gag. Momentarily stunned, she failed to react as one of the guards grasped her skirt and tugged. At once, she fought back, swiping at him, but the Sergeant caught her arms. “Steady, there, lass!”

Mute, Solana struggled, but the soldiers disrobed her quickly, then stepped away, clutching their trophies proudly. Solana cupped her hands over her breasts, more anxious to conceal her vulnerability than her nudity.

But the Inquisitor would have none of it. “Place your hands upon your head!”

“Do it!” The Sergeant butted Solana's shoulder. Unable to speak for herself, she reluctantly complied, feeling her nipples tighten in the chill. She closed her eyes as the three Clergymen leaned forward.

They regarded a body truly spectacular. Five-seven in height, slim, beautiful. Skin flawless. An oval face swathed by the rich black of her hair. Her breasts were high, plump, topped by black-brown nipples. Her belly was shaped by muscle, quartered by defined gullies centred on a petite navel, smooth skin like velvet. Lower, her slender hips were the frame for a tidy triangle of tight black hair. Her legs were long, shapely, terminating in dainty feet, high arches, perfect toes slightly curled on the cold tile floor. Under her lifted arms, the black hair was fine and soft.

“What is that?” The Clergyman on the Inquisitor's right pointed.

Solana flinched as the guard grasped the fine gold chain about her throat. “I believe it is an adornment of some kind, your Honour.”

“Huh.” The Clergyman sat back. “Remove it. Then burn her clothes.”

Solana's heart sank as she was stripped of her jewellery; the necklace, along with the rags that had been her clothing, were carried from the room in the arms of a guard.

“Sergeant, bind her hands, then remove her gag.” The Inquisitor spoke. “I wish to question her.”

“Aye, your Honour.”

Now was not the time to resist. Solana lowered her arms, and one of the guards grasped her wrists, holding them behind her back while his comrade twisted the rope tightly around-and-between, knotting it well, securing her. She flexed her fingers against the bondage, tugging experimentally, but her wrists may as well have been locked in stone.

Now, the Sergeant loosened the buckles of her gag. The oversized leather ball was extracted carefully from between her teeth. Solana slowly closed jaws strained by the cruel gag. She licked her dry lips with a numb tongue.

“Your name is Solana Degas?”

Solana straightened. Though she was naked, standing in full view of a dozen men, with hands bound behind her back, she kept her composure, dignity shining from her brown eyes. “It is.”

“Your age?”

“I am twenty-seven years, your Honour.” Her voice was strong, confident..

“And not married?”

“I have not yet found a man worthy.”

Amusement echoed around the hall. The Inquisitor seemed less inclined to laugh. “And what say you to the charge of witchcraft?”

Solana fixed him with cool eyes. “I say it is a lie, your Honour. I am innocent.”

“Hm.” The Inquisitor sat back. “The Court shall investigate further. Take her away.”

Hands still bound, Solana was led to another door. It opened onto a steep stairwell, and they descended to a small guardroom. There, several soldiers sat idle. Their command, a weathered Jailer in his forties, met the newcomers with barely a glance.

Solana lost count of the doors that opened and closed to the keys on the Jailer's belt. The five of them descended countless narrow stairways, marched between wet and slimy walls. Guttering, oily torches lit claustrophobic passageways lined with heavy, windowless doors. It stank of human waste. Cries and groans echoed eerily from distant rooms of torment.

Did the guards not feel anything? Solana looked to each in turn, but they seemed distracted, perhaps intent on leaving this hell-below-ground, this tight, intestinal nightmare of cells. The Jailer finally stopped alongside a door, unlocked it, pushed it open.

Solana nearly choked. Black, putrid, the cell was ten feet square, stone walls and a ten-foot ceiling. There was no bed, no pot, no source of water or light. Only a huge iron ring set four feet from the floor, in the rear wall. From it, on short, thick chains, dangled two heavy iron manacles, rough with age, chipped with years of use.

“What is this place?” she demanded in horror.

“This is where you stay,” the Sergeant sneered. “You will quickly become used to it!”

“Are you mad?” Solana looked wildly about as her wrists were again untied. The moment she was freed, she tried to bolt, dodging from the grip of first one guard, then the other. There were shouts of alarm; Solana was faster and stronger than any expected, but as she threw herself towards the open door, the Jailer blocked her way, grasping her shoulders, flinging her backwards. With a shriek, she tumbled, naked, to the cell floor.

“Restrain her!” the Jailer bellowed.

Solana tried to struggle up again, but this time the two soldiers seized her arms, the sergeant catching her right leg, and she was dumped against the rear wall of the cell. With her back to the stone, they lifted her hands over her head to the open manacles. Solana fought in rage and disbelief as the heavy shackles were clamped about her wrists. The Jailer quickly locked each with a key. The cold, hard iron snugly enclosed each wrist, trapping her hands. She felt vulnerable, exposed, her breasts and belly, loins and underarms naked to her captors.

“Stupid wench!” The Sergeant's boot thudded hard into Solana's unprotected ribs. She shrieked, jack-knifing and wrenching her hands in the manacles, then half-slumped, gasping, unable to lower her arms and hug herself against the pain. On the Sergeant's command, all four men turned to leave.

“Wait – please!” Solana shouted breathlessly after them, but the wooden door boomed shut. Despite the pain in her side, she found her feet, twisting to face the wall, and jerked against her restraints. But the shackles jarred painfully on her wrist-bones, not relinquishing their hold for a moment.

The cell door's lock was turned, a restraining bar clanked home.

Solana gave a wail of despair. “Listen to me! I am innocent!” She closed her fists, tugged again and again on her chains, twisting her hands, trying everything in her power to free herself. She braced a bare foot against the wall and hauled with all of her might, her muscles taut. Her teeth were gritted in rage and determination. “You bastards! Set me free!”

Solana was strong, but the chains did not so much as shift. Regardless, she fought their restraint for almost an hour, until her body shone with sweat and her breasts heaved. At last, exhausted, sobbing in frustration, she dropped to the wet floor, letting the chains pull her arms over her head again, with her naked back against the wall.

Nausea and weakness swelled from the pit of her belly. Her will was strong, her face rarely giving way to grief, but now it overwhelmed her, and she burst into tears, her head against one lifted arm, hands drooping from the metal cuffs. The shackles' cold bite seemed to burn into her wrists, a bitter reminder that she was now a captive, a prisoner, deep in the dungeons of Justice Hall.

Two – The Cell

Time passed in the tiny cell.

At first, Solana wept. Naked, her hands confined in the fetters overhead, she quickly discovered the cruelty of her restraint. Even after nine or ten hours, when she guessed night was well advanced, she could not lie down to rest. The best she could do was an awkward slump, legs stretched across the floor, her arms held over her head.

How had the word of a jealous she-goat led to this? That callous blonde whore, Catalina, had simply whispered into the right ear, and here Solana was. Chained, deep underground, in a dank and lightless cell. As the hours crawled, she sometimes lost all self-control, and shrieked curses to Catalina into the darkness. At times, she struggled to her feet, fighting the shackles that held her hands confined. But inevitably, sobbing and frustrated, she would sink down again, returning to slump against the wall, arms lifted and head lolling against them. Her dark eyes stared into the blackness.

Endless hours.

Solana was aware of her growing thirst and hunger. At first, no more than a minor discomfort, but as ten hours became twenty, twenty slowly wore into forty, the need swelled and grew to the intensity of torture. Solana found herself calling weakly towards the door.

But there was no sound. No water. No relief.

A thousand days passed. An entire lifetime.

Daylight and fresh air seemed distant memories. The freedom to move her own arms seemed no more than an imagined luxury. Numb with despair, Solana slumped against the cell wall, chained, naked, insensible to the cold, the silence, the slow passage of time. She barely registered the rattling of the cell door being unlocked. As it creaked open, she turned her face, hiding her eyes behind her uplifted arm against the glare of a torch – but glimpsed, briefly, a small figure padding into the tiny enclosure, guards standing in the corridor beyond.

A girl. “What is your name?”

The voice was soft, sweet. As the cell door was closed and locked, Solana dared to look. The girl was young, much less than twenty: thin, petite, naked but for two metal cuffs – bolted, not locked – about her wrists, connected by a foot-and-a-half of iron chain. She paused to secure her torch in a bracket on the wall. In the flame's light, her skin was given a golden sheen. Her breasts were tiny buds, brown nipples. Her ribcage was stark, her belly hollow, jutting hip-bones. Long black hair hung about her pale shoulders, a wispy thatch between her slender thighs. Her lips were a puffy rosebud, her eyes dark. She held a basket, which she brought to Solana's side.

“My … name?” Solana found the strength to move her head, her raised arms shifting slightly to the rattle of chains. She tried to sit up. “Solana Degas.”

“I am Maria,” the girl offered. “It is my job to tend the women imprisoned here.”

“You are in chains,” Solana observed.

“I am a prisoner, too,” Maria admitted. “I have been for two years. My mother was a witch, and salvation for me can only come through a lifetime serving the Church.”

“That is terrible,” Solana breathed, for a moment forgetting her own situation.

Maria shrugged. She reached into her basket, lifted a carafe of dirty terracotta. “I am used to it, now. It is a life. Drink.” She held the vessel to Solana's dry lips, and the latter drank gratefully, though the water was brackish. Soon she was at least partially slaked, and let her head rest against the stone again.

“Thank you. God, thank you. I do not know how long it has been since I last drank.”

“You were brought here two days ago.”

Only two days? Could it really have been so short a time? To Solana it seemed forever. Her wrists hurt within the fetters' hard grip, her lifted arms ached, her fingers and toes were frozen. Only two days?

“You are beautiful,” Maria said quietly, peering at Solana's face as she retrieved a crust of stale bread from the basket. “It is a shame.”

“How is it a shame?” Solana frowned.

Maria smiled sadly. “You must know, surely, that your time is as good as done? God has finished sporting with you. It is over.”

“What?” Solana was so shocked that she completely ignored the food offered in Maria's small fingers. She raised herself in the chains. “How can you say that? I am innocent!”

“Please!” There was already a shine of tears in the girl's eyes. “Do not say that! When they send for you, confess all. Just confess, or there will be much suffering. At least if you confess, you will go to the stake with your beauty intact.”

“The stake?” Solana's voice carried the horror her eyes showed. “How dare you! I am a free woman, wrongly imprisoned! Justice must, and will, be done!”

Maria shrank from the outburst, fear on her young face. She fumbled for her basket, found her feet with wrist-chain jingling. “Speak no more to me! I beg you to confess, or you will lose your mind upon the rack! Do not be a fool, I implore!”

“Maria, wait!” Solana tugged on her chains as the girl pounded on the cell door. It opened, and she grabbed the torch, taking light and hope with her. Darkness closed in, the door was locked.

For perhaps an hour, Solana's anger slowly cooled, and doubts began to creep from the edges of her mind. Chained, locked away from daylight and humanity, a horrible realisation grew. How many witches had she seen arrested in her twenty-seven years? A dozen? All had returned to the village square, pale and weary, to be bound upon the tall wooden stake while their confessions were read aloud to all. Solana had never cared for these executions, the long screams, the hissing flames, the rolls of oily smoke as flesh caught lazily alight. But it had never occurred to her that these might be innocent women, forced by torture into confessing false sins!

Solana's hands closed about her chains at the thought of such injustice. Surely not! And surely they would not try to make her, Solana Degas, confess to witchcraft, when she was guilty of none? She tipped her head back, stared blindly towards her shackled hands in growing despair.

Three – The Threat

The bar was lifted, the heavy key turned in its lock, and the door swung open, but Solana did not stir as light splashed across her grubby face. Her eyes, though partly open, saw nothing, her lips parted for the wisps of frost that illustrated slow breath.

The two guards entered cautiously. “Is she awake?”

“I believe so.”

The cell stank. A river of old urine ran from between Solana's legs to cracks in the flagstones. Her black mane was grimy, lank about her drawn face. Her skin shone with old sweat and grease. Her hands drooped from the fetters.

Sixteen days had passed, and Solana had not been freed for even a moment, the iron shackles fast about her wrists, in her cell. Anger had become self-pity, despair, and finally numbness. Solana barely stirred as one guard fitted a key into her fetters, unlocked each in turn. Her bruised wrists were lifted out, and she was rolled onto her belly, her hands instead bound behind her back.

“Come, Princess. Your time has arrived.”

“Where are you taking me?” Solana's voice was weak, husky with lack of use. Her legs would scarcely move as the guards hauled her to her feet, and she staggered with them. Far from being a relief, her release from the false security of her cell was an unwelcome disturbance.

“We have someone who wants to meet you,” the second guard said.

At the end of a long passage, a heavy door swung open, yet another guard holding it while the trio entered a room of gothic dimensions. Torches threw orange light onto stone walls that glistened with slime, trickling water. Stone pillars supported a vaulted ceiling. The chamber felt huge, its depths foreboding. Solana could make out shapes: huge frames, odd-looking tables, devices of which she had only heard tale.

Her fear grew. “What is this place?”

From the darkness, a woman's voice. “Bring her.”

Solana stumbled forward, to an open well in the chamber, a winch and pail astride its black maw. From the shadows beyond, a figure stepped.

The woman was Solana's height, in her forties: powerful, beautiful. An oval face, blue eyes, a mass of black hair tumbling loose about her broad shoulders. High cheekbones, a slim nose, dark lips. Her arms strong with worked muscle, her legs long and powerful. She wore a simple grey tunic that ended at her thighs, belted at the waist.

Her voice was rich, deep. “Welcome to the Torture Chamber. I am Maria Luisa Consuela.”

“Why am I here?” Imagination had given Solana answers enough, and fear tainted her voice. Luisa gave a slow smile.

“You know why. You are accused of witchcraft. It is my task to extract the truth.”

Extract? The beautiful torturer turned away, but paused to glance over her own muscled shoulder at Solana, eyebrows pitched in disapproval. “The girl is filthy.”

The guards thrust Solana towards the well, then made her kneel, hands bound behind her back, while they retrieved a pail-full of water. It was flung full over Solana's body, icy rivulets coiling down her thighs. She shrieked with the shock of cold.

The pail was filled twice more, the filth sloughed from Solana's skin. When it was over, she crouched low, arms twisted behind her, shivering violently. Water dripped from her bedraggled hair. Gooseflesh peppered her bare skin, her nipples were stones, her muscled belly heaved.

A hand closed in her hair, twisting her head back, until she was looking up into the glacial eyes of Luisa Consuela. The woman spoke coldly: “Confess that you are a witch, and save yourself a lot of pain.”

It was the first direct reference to torture, and it prompted Solana to twist her hands in the ropes. She was afraid, but gave her reply regardless: “I am not a witch, and nothing you can do will change that.”

Luisa Consuela gave a thin smile. “How naive.” She released Solana's hair. “Pain alone will soon reveal the truth.”

“If it the truth you must hear,” Solana spat, “then do your worst!”

“My worst is something you do not wish to experience.” To the guards: “bring her!”

Solana was led through the chamber. It was a madman's labyrinth: pits and alcoves, narrow stairways through the rock, passageways, rooms. There were places it was so dark, Solana could barely see to walk. Their first stop was a shallow fireplace, dead embers piled within. Immediately alongside were stocks, so that a prisoner's feet could be locked in place above the flames to roast.

Solana regarded it grimly, before Luisa led on. In a low alcove, a wooden bench to which a victim might be tied, her arms stretched to a thumbscrew: tightened, the studded vice would crack and shatter her finger-bones. Deeper, a broad oak table, shackles at each corner, alongside which were irons, pokers, pincers, the Spider: a clawed instrument for the tearing and twisting and burning of female flesh. A brazier shimmered nearby, ready to heat the cruel instruments. A 'pear' was shown to Solana: a bulb-shaped device, which, once inserted into the vagina or anus, would be opened by means of a screw-handle. Its expansion would cause, first, unimaginable pain, then irreparable damage. Luisa cranked the device open, slowly, to demonstrate.

Nearby, Solana saw, a girl hung from shackles against the wall, her toes twelve inches above the floor. Alive or dead, Solana could not discern.

Through a low passageway, to a small, rough-hewn cell, central to which was a huge object, a vile machine that Solana recognised from tales in the local taverns: like a bed, with a massive wooden winch at its head, around which thick ropes were wound.

“Ah. My favourite.” Luisa caressed the worn wooden surface tenderly. “On this bed, I have broken many.” Her hand closed around a well-used handle. “You see, the pain begins within just a few small turns. But it grows and grows, sometimes over the course of a day or longer. The rack will surely and slowly dislocate every joint in a woman's body, tear her belly and rip her back-bone into parts like a dismembered fowl.” Luisa focused on her prisoner. “And you challenge me to do my worst?”

Solana almost faltered, then straightened, her bound hands closing into fists behind her back. “I am innocent of witchcraft -”

A groan, so desperate it barely seemed human, echoed from somewhere not too distant. Luisa Consuela gestured towards the sound. “Indulge me.”

Borne by the guards, Solana stumbled from the rack, her eyes discovering the source of the sound. A pregnant woman, perhaps in her thirties, naked, was bowed backwards over the broad rim of a huge, six-foot wheel. Her ankles, widely-spread, were secured by ropes to rings in the floor: while her wrists were fastened to the wheel itself. Simply by ratcheting the wheel, she had been stretched to her body's limit. Every muscle was stark, the skin drawn harshly across her ribcage, her entire body shining with sweat.

Her head was secured by means of a broad leather strap across her brow. About the lower half of her face, a brank had been fitted: by way of its calipers, her mouth had been levered widely open, her jaws evidently dislocated by the force. An iron funnel had been forced part-way down her open throat, which Solana realised with horror was for the introduction of liquid. The woman was not pregnant after all: her belly was distended by gallons of water.

“In a few hours, I will listen to what Rosita, here, has to say,” Luisa explained. She bent to a ceramic urn beside the torture wheel, lifted out a pint-tankard of foul water. Coolly, the torturer poured the liquid into the open funnel. Rosita was stretched so tightly that she could not struggle, but her swollen belly heaved, and her eyes bulged at the ceiling as the water sank down her throat with slow, evil glugs. A long, low groan reverberated through the funnel protruding from Rosita's mouth.

“She will confess soon enough,” Luisa promised.

“You are evil,” Solana hissed, stricken by what she saw.

“This is nothing! Guard? Tighten the wheel, it is loose.”

Though she was unable to speak, Rosita began making terrified shrieks as a guard went to the geared lever that would turn the wheel. Firmly, he cranked it over, and the huge wheel rolled around another inch. Solana had never before heard a human body stretch; but as Rosita's wrists were pulled further from her ankles, a terrible creaking came from her limbs and torso, and a horrible scream of pain boomed up through the funnel. Luisa laughed at the poor woman's agony.

“She will break soon! Let us move on!”

A wide-open space, a pit in the floor, a twenty-foot ceiling. There, a woman hung by her wrists. The rope from which she was suspended ran through a high pulley, and down to a simple winch and brake. Her slim ankles were weighted with iron anvils, perhaps a hundred pounds at a glance, barely an inch off the ground. She must have been in terrible pain: her whole, naked brown body shone with sweat.

“Ah, Esmerelda. Do you wish to confess yet?” Luisa asked as she crossed to the winch.

The hanging woman slowly lifted her head: dark brown eyes, a beautiful face, white teeth clenched against the pain.

“I am not a witch,” she hissed.

Luisa began to crank the winch: slowly, the rope was wound in. Solana watched as, by her wrists, Esmerelda was lifted higher and higher, until her toes were some twelve feet above the floor. “This,” Luisa told Solana proudly, “is the strappado.”

She released the brake. Dragged down by the weights at her feet, Esmerelda plunged ten feet, the rope howling through the overhead pulley – and then Luisa snapped on the brake. There was a tremendous BANG! as Esmerelda was jarred to a terrible halt, both her shoulders ripping out of joint, dust flying from the rope. Esmerelda gave a terrible scream, pee spraying from between her thighs, twisting and swaying like a sack of grain on the end of the rope, the weights swinging from her ankles.

“And that,” Luisa said, “hurt.”

Solana's knees felt weak. To her disbelief, Luisa turned the winch again, began to crank Esmerelda again towards the ceiling. Esmerelda's screams became high-pitched, as she implored Luisa for mercy. But when Esmerelda reached the vaulted ceiling, Luisa again let her drop. BANG! Her dislocated arms were all but ripped from her body by the savage halt, and Esmerelda let out another awful scream of pain. This time, Luisa let Esmerelda hang, roaring in agony, and walked from the winch.

“Let us move on,” Luisa said. “We'll leave her like that for a day, and she'll think again about confessing to me!”

They walked deeper into the bowels of the torture chamber, the ongoing screams of Esmerelda becoming oddly hollow and distant. By now, Solana was shaking, and not just with the cold that invaded every inch of her naked body. She was terrified. Her hands, roped securely behind her back, were fisted with anxiety, her stomach tight.

Four – The Lash

“Secure the witch! I wish to begin!”

In the space between two pillars, Solana was made to stand, while her hands were untied. Her arms were lifted up-and-out, her wrists locked in fetters whose chains were connected to high metal rings. Her feet were also drawn apart and shackled, so she stood in a human X, only her toes touching the floor.

“What are you going to do?” Her voice held fear: she had seen the instruments of torture. Perhaps Maria had been right? Maybe it was wiser to confess, and suffer only the flames? Luisa appeared in front of her. In her hands was a whip, two yards of hard, braided bullhide, tapering to a vicious knotted tip. Looping the lash, Luisa trailed the leather down Solana's upstretched arm, following the contours of taut muscle, drawing it through the feathers of hair in her exposed armpit.

“I am going to give you a taste of the lash,” Luisa said smoothly. “Unless, of course, you wish to give your confession now?”

“I am no witch,” Solana said, her voice shaking.

“I should warn you that I wield the lash like few can.” Luisa circled the pillar again, returning behind her spreadeagled victim. She shifted Solana's lush mane, tucking it forward of her uplifted arm to bare her back. “Think carefully.”

Solana bit her lip as the whip circled. It whistled, a low note like wind through boughs. Then, with sudden savagery, it hissed through the air and cracked across Solana's flesh with a sound like breaking wood. Pain exploded across Solana's back, and she jolted violently in her chains, shrieking out. She had never dreamed it would hurt this much! A second lash, true and hard, crossed the first. Then a third. A fourth. With each, Solana jolted, shouting in pain. Five. Six. Seven. The thick leather bit her flesh, leaving a cris-cross of blood-speckled welts across her smooth coffee skin. Eight. Nine.

The tenth lash cracked across her shoulders, the whip fell silent. Solana hung in the chains. Her back was on fire. Sweat had broken out over her body. Her stretched arms shook, her legs had no strength, her heart pounded. Her fingers spread uselessly into the air in the hope of finding some salvation from the shackles' imprisonment.

“Confess!” Luisa drew back her muscled arm, slashed forward with the whip. It impacted so hard across Solana's bare back that the breath was knocked out of her. More strokes, delivered with precision, laying a cruel red cross-hatch down Solana's back. Ten lashes, punctuated by Solana's screams.

Still the whip fell, biting ragged trails across Solana's back, sweat flung from her naked body in a fine mist with every impact. Her mouth was wide, cry after cry of pain.

Thirty lashes. Luisa switched hands. Sweat had begun to glisten on her shoulders and arms, but she did not pause, flinging the whip again. It landed true across Solana's flesh, twenty more lashes.

Solana hung. Trembling. Tears wet her face, her body was wet with sweat. Her naked breasts heaved. Her hair was plastered to her decolletage and shoulders. Her back was bloody.

She whimpered. “Please, stop …” “Not until you confess.”

Her sweat-wet face framed by her own tangled hair and upraised arms, eyes half-open, mind swimming in and out of consciousness, Solana was aware only of pain. But at Luisa's demand, she slowly shook her head. At the same time, her long fingers spread in anticipation of what was to follow.

It came harder than she had expected. As a young woman, Luisa had learned the lash from her father: she had practised with a borrowed whip on trees, stripping the bark with well-aimed blows. Now, she laid into Solana with true expertise. The whip cracked hard across Solana's taut back, each lash crossing the last, measured stripes. The tip flicked under Solana's upstretched arms, hotly biting her armpits and breasts, cutting into her ribs. Solana barked in pain at each.

Luisa appeared in front of her victim. The sides and front of her crude dress were soaked with sweat, her bare legs shining. She was panting, blue eyes fixed on the heaving, sobbing woman before her. “Have you had enough?”

Solana slowly lifted a tear-streaked face. “You know I have,” she wept.

“Then say what I must hear.”

Solana's head fell forward between her lifted arms. “I cannot,” she whispered.

Luisa nodded, then returned behind the prisoner. This time, she threw the whip with all of her formidable strength. Blood flew in a fine mist from the prisoner's back, hotly flecking Luisa's face. There was blood on the pillars, on the floor, soaking the whip's braids. Solana hung limp, now, but still jolted with each lash, the screams exploding from her lungs. Blood-tainted sweat ran down the backs of her her spread legs, sweat streaking her ribcage and hard-muscled abdomen. Bile lurched up her throat, and dribbled to the floor while she gasped and groaned in agony.

“Confess!” The lash punctuated Luisa's cry, and Solana's shriek of pain echoed it. She had long since lost count of the strokes. The whip fell, Solana screamed.

The whip slithered back, then whistled through the air for one final blow. Solana's shout echoed through the chamber. A hundred strokes. Usually, a victim would faint after fifty. Solana was still conscious after twice that number. But it was enough. Luisa threw the bloodied whip aside, returned to face the loosely-hanging Solana.

“Do not think that because you held your confession today, it is over,” she hissed. “This was but the first torture. And compared to what I have planned, this was mere sport.” With that, she turned and strode from the chamber. “Leave her here for the night,” she called back to her guards, “then throw her back to her cell.”

The next morning, barely conscious, Solana had been flung to the floor of her cell, unbound, but too weak to move. Maria was quickly there with a coarse blanket, poultices and water for the wounds, and a few morsels of food: but for two days, Solana lay paralysed by the pain in her bruised and torn back.

By the third day, her recovery aided by bread and cheese fed her by Maria, Solana could move again. The cuts of the whip had not been deep, and given time even the scars would disappear. But the torture had touched her mind, too. In the days immediately after, Solana lay curled on the bare cell floor, weeping until her eyes were puffed. Dreams seemed to interweave with her darkened reality, and the awful instruments at Luisa's disposal haunted her.

Almost as disturbing were the images of poor Rosita lashed to the wheel, her belly swollen, her limbs stretched and creaking; and Esmerelda hanging, screaming like a madwoman on the end of the rope. Solana wondered if she could have done more: perhaps fallen to her knees and begged on the women's behalf, offering her own confession in exchange for their freedom. Tormented by guilt, and a sickening terror of the tortures that awaited her, Solana sobbed alone in her cell.

By the fourth day, she was strong enough to speak when Maria came.

“Tell me, Maria. What became of Rosita?”

Maria's eyes remained down. “I fear you do not want to know.”

“It matters to me,” Solana insisted.

Maria shrugged. “She was broken. She confessed.”

Solana drew breath, pity in her eyes. “Poor, poor girl. And Esmerelda?”

Maria smiled sadly. “She maintains her innocence, though the tortures are growing worse, I fear.” Maria put a small hand upon Solana's shoulder. “I beg you, when Mistress Luisa next puts you to question, confess. Perhaps then, when you are bound upon the stake, the executioner will use the garrote to ease your suffering.”

“Confess?” Solana's voice shook with fear, but there was pride, also. “I will not give that vixen the satisfaction of breaking me. I should die before confessing false crimes.”

“No, Mistress. Do not say that. Confess now, lest she take you to the Room.”

“The Room?”

In the half-light, Maria's face showed dismay. “Mistress Luisa is bound by the Church's law – that torture must not maim the accused witch, in case she be found innocent. He or she must be able to live a normal life. But the Room is Mistress Luisa's private torture chamber – hidden from the Clergy, and thus hidden from God. It is there she does her cruelest work.”

Solana's chest tightened with new fear. As if the devices she had already seen were not terrible enough! But in her mind, she saw the sky-blue eyes of Luisa Consuela, burning with triumph beyond a shimmering wall of flame. If she confessed, she knew, she would die begging and screaming in the hissing fire while her tormentor looked on. “I cannot confess. I will not.”

The next day, the Jailer entered with a physician, who inspected Solana, and pronounced her well. The Jailer promptly locked her wrists in the shackles that still dangled against the wall.

Slumped against the cell wall with arms above her head, in darkness and silence, Solana sometimes sang to herself, sometimes slept, sometimes cried. She had forgotten what sunlight looked like, forgotten the taste of fresh air and fresh water: forgotten the feeling of clothes on her body. With no way to tell day from night, she counted hours by instinct, waiting for the next visit of Maria, or the weekly dousing with water to wash the filth from her body.

Five – The Chair

Three weeks after the whipping, Solana was once again fetched by guards.

“It is time to face the torture again, girl!”

The Jailer fitted a key to her heavy fetters, unlocking her wrists, and they again tied her wrists behind her back. Her fingers trembled. She was pulled to her feet, marched from the cell. They traced a familiar route to the torture chamber: descending into its dim depths. Solana's legs were weak with fear as they took her to a shallow pit, an enclosure surrounded by torches.

“Ah! You are recovered from my little introduction to the lash!”

Luisa Consuela leaned against a pillar, a hand on her hip. She wore a brief tunic of sky blue, pinned at one shoulder, leaving her arms bare. Its skirt fell high on her thighs: torchlight glinted on the muscled lines of her magnificent limbs, tiny flames reflected in those ice-blue eyes. She gave a smile, the pink tip of her tongue against her teeth. “Let me introduce you to The Judas Chair!”

Solana was brought forward.

The Chair was terrifying, everything she had imagined in an instrument of torture. Its back was a narrow wooden board, twelve inches high, four inches across, mounted on a notched wooden rail. By means of a simple ratchet handle, the board could be lowered or raised. Bolted to the back of the board, at top and bottom, were two heavy sets of fetters. Two more fetters were fastened to the Chair's sturdy front legs, some six inches above the floor. A metal plate formed the base of Chair's low seat, barely one-and-a-half feet from the ground, with some manner of iron drawer beneath it.

But it was the obscenity of the 'seat' itself that filled Solana's belly with dread: An iron spike, sharp and vicious, fourteen inches high, six inches across at the base. Its surface was rough, badly hewn, the metal stained with unspeakable residues. Solana fought to hide her horror.

“Oh, so brave,” Luisa mocked. “Put her on.” Solana did not resist as she was marched to the Chair. The guards untied her wrists, arranged her so that she straddled the terrible spike. Solana could do nothing as her arms were twisted behind the back-board, and the lower set of fetters were closed and locked about her wrists, trapping them securely. Then, cruelly, her elbows were forced into the upper set of fetters. Solana gasped: the restraint meant that her elbows were touching behind her back, her arms and shoulders cruelly stressed. She gritted her teeth against the discomfort as the fetters were locked tightly.

Next, they lifted her ankles into the lower set of fetters. This transferred her body's weight to her twisted and fettered arms. It hurt, but still Solana made no sound, looking to the ceiling as her ankles were locked in place.

When she was fully restrained, the guards stepped away.

Luisa drew close, regarding her prisoner with pleasure. Solana's dark-nippled breasts, lifted by the severity of her restraint, heaved with her anxious breath. Torchlight gave a velvety sheen to her muscular belly, her spread thighs.

The humiliation was unbearable, locked in a sitting position above the huge spike, naked and restrained before her captors. She held on to her dignity by the slimmest thread, still the beautiful and dignified Solana Degas of Sanguesa, but very much afraid.

“You have a lovely voice,” Luisa was saying. “I look forward to hearing you scream.” Stepping behind the chair, she began to crank the ratchet. Grating and squeaking, the back-board to which Solana was secured began to descend, impelling her body down towards the spike.

At once, Solana was fighting it. The muscles of her legs grew hard with strain, her body quivering as she tried to resist the slow descent. But she was no match for the machine, and Luisa calmly cranked a few more notches, forcing her victim lower. Around the Chair, the guards were arranging themselves for a view of what would soon follow.

Another inch, and Luisa stopped, leaving Solana suspended above the spike.

“What do you want from me?” Solana demanded, her voice trembling. She tried to see behind her, but the pain of her backwards-bowed shoulders was crippling.

“Confess that you are indeed a witch, and this will go no further,” Luisa said.

“I am not a witch,” Solana replied.

“Very well.” Luisa began to crank the handle again. Solana let out a wail as the back-board descended, despite her efforts to resist. The first trickle of sweat ran down her face. Her teeth were clenched. Cramps were starting to spear through her shins and belly and buttocks. And, slowly, the back-board descended, the ratchet's soft clicks marking her descent towards the spike.

Luisa slowed her turning of the ratchet as the spike's sharp tip disappeared into the cleft of Solana's gleaming buttocks. Then, one notch further. Solana gasped as the spike's tip nosed the soft hairs around her anus. Gooseflesh erupted all over her naked body and a shudder of fear passed through her. She turned her face towards the vaulted ceiling. “Oh, God, give me strength …” She could feel the teasing spike, poised a mere breath from the locked star of her sphincter. It was dread, anticipation, horror.

Luisa cranked the handle: the back-board descended. Solana's mouth flew open in shock as the spike jabbed her anus, cold metal investigating the taut ring of muscle. Her bowels automatically spasmed, but she could not rise. There was laughter from those around. Without pause, Luisa turned the crank again, forcing Solana further down onto the spike. It pushed an inch inside her, spreading the flower of her sphincter. Solana's jaw cracked as she clenched her teeth.

“Ah, yes, it begins to hurt,” Luisa noted, with satisfaction. “Confess to me, whore.”

Solana's eyes filled with tears. The indignity was unbearable, but she could not lie, not even under torture, so she shook her head. Luisa turned the handle again. Solana's anus sank over the spike, and she squeaked, tears squeezing from her eyes. Another turn, two more notches, until she had been forced two inches onto the spike. Solana's bowels heaved, but to no avail.

Again Luisa turned the handle. As she was forced to accommodate the third inch of rough iron, Solana's mouth opened, a long moan of pain carried on the frost of her breath. The spike was really beginning to stretch her, and the pain was growing more severe with every turn of the handle. Sweat glossed her bare breasts and shoulders. Her hair was plastered to her back.

Another notch. Solana wailed as the spike grated deeper, forcing her anus still wider. She was shaking, the pain roaring up her spine, driving fresh sweat from her pores. It was all she could do to keep from screaming at the top of her lungs. Another notch: four inches. The pain was savage, the spike a huge and obscene invader.

“Confess,” Luisa hissed, and cranked the handle two more notches. Solana was further dragged down onto the spike, and this time gave a cry of pain. It was too much! Sweat coursed from her face, lay along the ridge of her collarbone, crept between her breasts, patterned the nap of fine hairs on her muscled belly. Her shoulders cracked as she tried desperately to work her cinched elbows and wrists free of the locked fetters.

Luisa cranked the lever again. Solana was wrenched down onto the spike: it rammed harder into her arse, and this time she screamed in pain. From the hairy nest between her glistening thighs, urine squirted, spilling onto the floor between her feet, steam crawling into the chill air.

“Where's your pride now, you filthy half-breed?” The shout of a guard was echoed by more laughter from the others. Solana's head rolled, tears streaking her face, her mouth contorted in pain as she fought to endure.

Luisa cranked the handle again. Solana let out a long scream of pain as she was pushed down onto the spike. She no longer tried to choke her cries, the pain too much to bear, now forced six inches down the spike. Her rectum, distended, stretched, was on fire, her whole pelvic floor cramping and burning. She still fought the dreadful machine, but had no strength against it, and was helpless as Luisa slowly cranked the lever another three notches.

Solana shook her head, a long scream of pain., tears and sweat rolling down her brown face. She could feel the spike deep inside her bowels, pressing on her organs: her head reeled, vomit lurching in her throat. Then, another click, another half inch. This time, she was sick, watery vomit gurgling down her chin, splashing over her breasts. She groaned.

“Confess, witch! Confess, and it ends for you!” Luisa Consuela hissed in her ear.

Tears coursed down Solana's face. Luisa turned the crank again, with slow, measured pace, impelling Solana's anus another inch down the spike. Solana gave another cry, sure that, by now, she must be splitting in two. Nine inches of iron impaled her, its girth distending her.

But there were still five terrible inches to go. Her belly spasmed. In the dungeon's chill, her wet body steamed. She had never known such humiliation, bound over this obscene spike, being forced slowly onto it. The pain was savage, but Solana was determined not to break. She let her head hang forward, panting hard, groaning in pain.

Cruelly, Luisa again cranked the handle, twice, three times, further spearing Solana onto the spike. Solana's head lifted on a scream. It felt as if she had been torn open, as if her pelvic bone had snapped, as if oil burned inside her. Her magnificent brown body, gleaming and defined, instinctively fought the torture, though she knew she could not stop it. Another notch, the pain grew worse, Solana gave another scream of pain. More bile escaped her throat, and groans reverberated from the pit of her belly, the spasms of fiery pain surging through her bowels in slow, awful waves.

Behind Solana's back, her twisted and manacled arms ached, the iron biting into muscle and bone. Her shoulders were racked with pain, cramps spearing down her back: but they were minor compared to the agony of the spike. It seemed to have reached her very core, filling her abdomen with a ravaging pain that made her legs and arms ache in sympathy. Every breath hurt, but the fire's cruellest focus was her poor, torn sphincter, nerves stretched around the spike's obscene and rough-hewn circumference.

Luisa cranked another notch. There was a sickening crack from somewhere within her bowels, and Solana screamed. It, like the rack or thumbscrews or pear, was a progressive torture. It grew steadily worse with every turn of the handle. Such a simple concept, such exquisite and unbearable torment.

“Confess,” Luisa urged, her hand on the lever. Solana said nothing, so Luisa cranked again, watching as Solana was forced down onto the spike, the rough iron tip probing thirteen inches inside her bowel, distorting and distending her innards, her anus spread six inches. Her body was weak from over an hour of struggling. Sweat covered every inch of her bare coffee flesh. Luisa let her suffer for perhaps ten minutes, then cranked another notch.

Solana's scream was heart-rending, a roar of agony that echoed through the torture chamber, disturbed the anguished rest of prisoners. A bright red trickle of blood ran down a leg of the chair, groaning sounds coming from inside the tortured woman's body. Her buttocks all but kissed the chair's base, nearly all of the spike's immense length inside her, forced in by the slow insistence of the Chair.

Ten minutes. Solana's screams died to long, low whimpers of pain.

“Confess to me,” Luisa urged. “Confess, and I will let you up. I will stop the pain. Just confess, and it stops.”

Solana's head fell forward. Her back-twisted arms shone, muscles fiercely defined in their awkward confinement. Another line of blood ran from beneath her. But no confession came. Luisa tightened her grip on the lever, cranked the last notch.

The back-board descended, ramming Solana down onto the spike, and her head bucked at once, sweat spraying into the air, a desperate scream of agony breaking her throat. Her eyes were wide, her breasts heaving rapidly, the sweat glossing her naked body. Her forced movement on the spike, the added distension of her rectum, the fresh intrusion into her bowels combined to heighten her agony tenfold. She automatically tried to pull herself off, but the fetters were secure, holding her in place.

After a minute, Solana managed to bite down on her screams, panting in high shrieks, her black hair glued to her shoulders and back, her face taut with suffering. Luisa stood by with arms folded, watching, waiting, and finally gave her offer:

“Confess to me, and I will let you up.”

Solana's head fell forward, then slowly rose again. Her dark eyes fixed on Luisa, white teeth bared in pain and defiance, her voice a quavering hiss. “Never.” “Then get used to having that iron cock in your black arse, whore,” Luisa growled. “Get used to it. Because if I have to put you on this chair again, and again, and again just to make you confess, I will. I will break you.” Solana was unable to reply. Through eyes that swam with pain, she saw Luisa signal that the guards remain, and strode into the depths of the chamber.

They did not take Solana from the Chair that night.

Luisa had taken her time impaling her victim upon the iron spike, making the torture last an hour and a half. Now, as the night crawled, Solana suffered. The pain was unending, her body glossed with sweat, her head lolling in anguish. Her arms, manacled together behind the back-board, had grown numb, though pain still throbbed in her strained shoulders. But it was nothing compared to the unceasing agony of the spike. Fourteen inches in her bowels, her pelvis burning. Cramps racked her colon, so savage and violent that cries were torn from her throat, echoing into the chamber's vaulted depths.

From time to time, the guards standing nearby heard her muttering breathlessly, hysterically, as if in prayer or desperate pleading, imploring Death to embrace her. At other times, she swooned from the pain, and her head drooped to her chest, until another crippling spasm forced her awake.

The torches guttered and flickered, were refuelled, burned on.

Eventually, Solana's cries weakened, and her head sagged.

It was this to which Luisa Consuela returned, the following afternoon. She circled the Chair slowly, inspecting the barely-conscious Solana.

“Wake her.”

The icy water flung into her face and breasts shocked Solana to lucidity. Her head lifted, and the tensing of inner muscles sent a wave of agony through her skewered bowels. A long, miserable cry escaped her lips. Luisa was there at once, to fix a hand in the unfortunate woman's hair, wrenching Solana's face towards her own.

“Welcome back. Has eighteen hours been enough for you?”

Solana's mouth weakly tried to form words, her lips trembling, her eyes unable to focus on the beautiful torturer. Finally: ” … Please …” “Do you confess?”

“I am innocent.”

“You are stupid,” Luisa corrected. She spat fully into Solana's face, the saliva smacking across Solana's nose and mouth. Stepping from the chair, Luisa waved towards another of her guards. “Bring the coals. We'll give her something to think on.”

At that, Solana's eyes widened. Two guards approached, leather gloves on their hands, carrying between them a metal basket of fiercely-orange coals. Smoke trailed their approach, sparks dropping through the grating to the floor.

Solana's brows rose in panic, adrenalin flooding her veins. “No, no, no, no! Please, please, I beg you, please!” But her imploring voice echoed fruitlessly as the guards, behind the Chair, tipped an avalanche of burning coals into the drawer beneath the spike. Solana felt a moment of radiated heat on her bare back, then nothing more.

There was the sound of bellows being pumped, the whispered roar of coals fired. For an awful time, Solana remained, impaled on the spike, her heart thudding, wondering what this new torture might entail. Then, finally, realisation: heated from below, the spike itself was growing warm.

“No, oh, God, no!” Solana had never struggled with such fierce strength as now, full awareness returning. Despite cramped muscles, joints frozen from immobility, she jerked at the fetters about her elbows and wrists, throwing her head forward, wrenching against the spike in an animal urge to escape. She could feel the iron inside her growing hotter, and sweat began to bead across her brow and back. Desperate, she appealed to Luisa. “Please, let me up! Oh God, please!” “You know what you must do.”

With a groan of dread, Solana turned her face from the torturer, closing her eyes. The heat of the spike inside her was growing rapidly, adding to the pain. The bellows puffed, the coals roared. Already the spike's very base glowed dully, heat translating along its length. Solana's breasts rose and fell rapidly. And then, from deep in her throat, the first wail of pain.

The bellows pumped.

Solana gave another cry. The muscles of her arms deepened as she again fought to free herself, reflexes driving her to test the manacles' hold. No avail: but as the heat grew, her struggles became more and more frantic. She shouted in pain, tried to lift her hips, but the locked ratchet prevented her from rising.

Another long minute, The spike in her rectum was too hot to endure, and, as sweat poured down her body, Solana's mouth opened as she began to bellow in pain. The first wisps of steam curled from between her spread thighs.

“Oh, God … God!” Solana threw her head from side to side, crying out endlessly. Her ribcage, stark and thrust forward by her unforgiving bondage, heaved with shallow breaths, streaked with sweat. Those close by grew aware of a hissing sound from between her legs, as sweat trickled down the hot metal.

Solana began to scream. No longer just cries of pain, but maddened animal roars of agony, as the hissing of the metal softened to a squealing sound. The bellows pumped. Slowly, the sweet smell of burning flesh drifted up on faint wisps of smoke. Solana's yells were demented: she was burning from inside. She thrashed and howled, agonised, while those gathered watched.

“Confess!” Luisa shouted. Solana screamed and shrieked and howled, flinging her head about, the chair rattling and shaking to her frantic struggles. Blood ran from her fettered ankles. Scream after scream echoed through the chamber, the maddened howls of a woman in agony beyond all comprehension.

Then, for a moment, she went rigid, and her scream trailed into a long, anguished wail. Her eyes rolled back, and her head flopped. Luisa was by the chair in an instant, and slapped the unconscious woman sharply. Again. No sound, but the spitting and crackling of searing flesh.

Luisa shook her head wildly. “No! You black whore! Wake, I order you!” Four slaps, with formidable strength, each blow snapping Solana's head about. But the bound woman was unresponsive, limp. Luisa frantically beckoned her guards. “Quick! Douse the coals! Remove her!”

In moments, the ratchet was loosened, the back-board raised. By her strapped arms, Solana was lifted, the steaming spike sliding endlessly from her rectum, stained with blood and filth, a burnt crust at its base. The fetters on her ankles, elbows and wrists were unlocked, and her body dumped to the stone floor.

Luisa stood, regarding the sweat-oiled figure still unconscious at her feet. She levelled a finger, her face twisted with rage. “You, my sweet, I will break.”

Six – Esmerelda

The iron door to Esmerelda's tiny cell creaked open. Chains clinking, the grubby woman pulled herself a little higher in her manacles. For months, she had been restrained. Her long, straight, black hair was filthy, tangled, hanging slack about her face and shoulders. Her skin was smudged with dirt and filth. The black hair in her armpits and between her thighs was matted, her full, round breasts gleaming. Her wrists were scored and raw from her long bondage.

Her dark eyes turned aside as the guards unlocked her fetters. Her arms fell, but she was quickly turned over, her hands bound behind her back, and hauled to her feet. The walk to the torture chamber she knew well, and made it with head lowered, hands bound behind her, hopelessness in every step.

In the torture chamber, they re-tied her hands before her body with one end of a long rope. The far end ran through a pulley twenty feet overhead, and was drawn in by three guards. Esmerelda's arms were yanked over her head: another pull, and she was hauled off her feet, her toes an inch off the floor. The long rope creaked as Esmerelda's slender body hung, suspended by the wrists, taut and exposed. She tipped her head back, seeing if there was any way she could loosen the knots, knowing that it was useless to try. The guards were preparing implements behind her back, out of sight, and she feared the terrible strappado again.

“It is time to reconsider your claim to innocence.” The voice belonged to Luisa: she idled into Esmerelda's view, a ragged cloth about her breasts, another about her hips, her body muscular and gleaming in the light of torches. She stood before the helplessly-hanging Esmerelda. “Lovely breasts, truly beautiful.”

That much, Esmerelda had always known. High, full, her breasts were like rounded melons, topped by light-chocolate aureole, the nipples like sweet stones, standing half an inch in the dungeon's chill. Luisa put a cool hand to cup the weighty swell of one breast. “A shame I have to ruin them.”

“I beg you, do not hurt me!” Hanging by her wrists, Esmerelda was unable to do anything but plead for mercy. “I have done nothing to you! I am not a witch!”

“We shall see.” Luisa retreated to a table, upon which instruments of torture were laid. Esmerelda tipped her head back, regarding her own bound hands, and the long rope by which she hung, with despair. A tear rolled down one cheek. When Luisa returned, it was with a savage-looking pair of iron pliers, the grip cruelly studded with triangular teeth.

“No!” Esmerelda stared in horror at the awful implement. But she could do nothing, hanging by her wrists, and could only watch as Luisa closed the pliers over her erect nipple. Luisa squeezed hard, twisted. Esmerelda let out a scream of pain as blood oozed from between the pliers' mashing jaws, her nipple wrenched first one way, and then the other, stretched and torn, tender flesh savaged. The muscles of Luisa's forearm worked as she crunched the pliers hard, turned them a full circle, then twisted back in the other direction. Esmerelda's screams were maddened with pain, her whole body swinging on the end of the rope with the force of the torture. Finally, Luisa released Esmerelda's nipple.

Hanging, Esmerelda gasped and sobbed, tears streaming down her face, sweat beading in droplets all over her suspended body. A line of blood ran down the curve of her breast, mixed with sweat on her ribcage. Her chest heaved. Her face, framed by her upraised arms, was a picture of suffering.

“Say you are a witch,” Luisa demanded coolly.

“I am not,” Esmerelda gasped.

Luisa crunched the pliers onto the same, bloodied nipple. Esmerelda gave a terrible scream as her nipple was again twisted, pulled, crushed beneath the teeth of the awful pliers. Blood squirted from between the iron jaws, spattering her breasts. Esmerelda's bare feet pedalled desperately for some kind of leverage, her body twisting from the rope as Luisa turned and tugged on her nipple, all but tearing it from her breast.

Finally, release. The nipple was black, misshapen, bloody. Esmerelda turned her face to the high ceiling, weeping in pain, the sweat now running down her sternum and the groove of her spine. She hung limply from the creaking rope.

“I want your confession, whore!” Luisa grasped Esmerelda's jaw. “Confess!”

“I have nothing to confess,” Esmerelda wept. “Please, please, hurt me no more!”

But Luisa put the pliers to Esmerelda's unhurt breast, lightly closed the teeth over the fat stub of the helpless woman's nipple. “Are you a witch?”

Esmerelda bit her lip, sobbing, hanging, knowing what her answer would bring.

“Are you?”

“Please,” Esmerelda wept.

Luisa squeezed hard with the pliers. Esmerelda gave a scream as her nipple was crushed between the studded jaws, then twisted savagely, one way, then another. Urine snaked down her dangling legs, her head shook, and she yelled in pain. Luisa now squeezed with both hands, crushing tender flesh, wrenching Esmerelda's nipple, twisting it around and around like the stalk of an apple. Esmerelda could only scream and beg for mercy, agonised by the torture. For a full two minutes, Luisa kept turning and tearing Esmerelda's nipple, finally releasing a swelling, bloodied knob of flesh, leaving Esmerelda gasping.

“I shall have your confession, witch,” Luisa growled, and returned to the implements. She returned with a thin cane. “Confess to me!”

“Please!” Esmerelda's brown eyes grew wide at the sight of the cane. She could do nothing as Luisa slashed down with her whole arm, the whistling cane whipping her breast with a crack! Esmerelda jolted where she hung, screaming shrilly in pain. A second blow, then a third, savage strokes over her breasts and tormented nipples, drawing lines of blood.

On and on: ten blows. Fifteen. The whistling, hissing cane landing with terrible cracks, Esmerelda twisting on the end of the rope, screaming, crying, begging for mercy as the beating continued: twenty, twenty-five. Luisa's magnificent, semi-naked body gleamed as she slashed left, right, left, right, the cane catching nipple and breast. Esmerelda's full breasts jiggled and jolted with each blow, quickly becoming striped with red marks and blood.

Thirty strokes. The final lash was harsh, across both nipples. Esmerelda gave a scream, then hung limp, her body swinging slowly like a pendulum, her head drooping between her stretched arms. Blood and sweat ran on her naked body, dripped from her dangling toes.

“Wake her,” Luisa commanded.

Guards fetched a pail of icy water, sluiced it over Esmerelda's body. The shock woke her with a gasp, the water searing the wounds on her breasts. They were swelling with bruises already, tender and doubly sensitive. But hanging as she was, Esmerelda could do nothing as the next stage of torture was prepared.

Two simple devices of iron: each a pair of studded bars, separated by turn-screws, the blunt spikes directed inwards. Closed on a limb, or hand, or foot, and tightened, the vices were a most effective torture. Such was Esmerelda's condition that the mere chill of the dungeon was enough to make her wounded breasts ache, and when the first vice was fitted over her left breast, she gave a long howl of anguish.

“I beg you, no!” she shrieked, desperate to avoid the torture. But Luisa tightened the screw until Esmerelda's breast was squashed lightly between the studded bars, the vice holding itself in place. The second vice was fitted to her right breast. Luisa stood back, and waited for Esmerelda to stop thrashing. Eventually, the woman hung limply on the end of her long rope, arms stretched above her head, ribcage stark, body drawn, down-pointed toes swinging above the stone floor.

“Confess that you are a witch,” Luisa said, “and I shall not proceed.”

“I am not a witch. Please, why won't you believe me? I am innocent, I swear, I am innocent!”

“We shall see.” Luisa grasped the lever of the first vice, and gave it a turn. The toothed instrument crushed down on Esmerelda's breast, drawing a wail of pain from the girl. A second turn, and Esmerelda gave another cry, blood oozing from the wounds on her breast. Luisa then did the same to the other breast, two full turns of the screw, compressing it hard over Esmerelda's tender flesh, drawing screams from her victim.

“Oh, Mother of Jesus, it hurts, it hurts so much!” Esmerelda roared in her pain, weakly stirring her feet above the floor, helplessly hanging with her breasts tightly squeezed in the cruel clamps.

“Let her hang here,” Luisa told her guards. “We will resume in the morning.”

Seven – The Fear

Awareness returned slowly. Solana stirred, opened her eyes into blackness. Her first awareness was burning pain in her rectum, though less intense than she might have thought. The spike had done no permanent damage, her burns were superficial.

Gradually, Solana realised that she lay on her back, on wood: arms wide above her head, thick ropes about her wrists. Her legs were uncomfortably spread, so wide she could feel the cool air on her labia. It was pitch dark. The air was cold, gooseflesh covering her naked skin, her nipples jutting into the blackness. Water dripped: from the lack of echo, she judged herself to be in a small cell.

She was stretched taut, spreadeagled and tightly bound: she tried to move, and managed a little leverage, hearing the ropes creak, but there was no way she could bring her wrists together and free herself, nor tug her feet from their wide confinement.

Long hours crawled by.

Lying on her back, stretched out, Solana had never felt so exposed, so vulnerable, so absolutely helpless. Her limbs, for all their strength, were useless. Her torso ached from the slow strain of muscles unused to such restraint.

After eight hours, the shuk of a bolt being drawn snapped her from her dazed state. A door swung open, the light of an oil lantern spilling inside. Solana's stomach tightened. Two figures entered: the graceful, muscular form of Luisa Consuela, and the slighter figure of Maria. The latter carried a basket in one hand, a lantern in the other.

Luisa's deep voice reverberated in the cell. “Ah. You are awake. Good.”

“Where am I?” Solana's voice was weak, shaky with exhaustion and fear.

“Take a look.” By the lantern, Solana saw that she lay in a cell, twenty feet square. It was more roughly hewn than her former prison, the stones ragged. Water dripped from fissures in the walls. In a corner, by a niche in which a single unlit candle stood, was an ancient pulpit, a Bible open upon its stand.

Solana lifted her head to look along her own spreadeagled body. She saw at once that she lay upon a great wooden bed, her ankles roped to iron rings at the bed's base. Tipping her head back, she saw that the ropes from her wrists ran to a sturdy winch with a single four-handled ratchet.

Luisa Consuela was smiling. “You lie upon the rack. This will break you. One way or another.”

Solana was terrified. From where she lay, she fixed her eyes to the beautiful torturer. “Please, have mercy - I cannot confess!”

Luisa laughed. “I love to see you so afraid! Girl, give her water.”

Maria obediently stepped forward. Solana accepted the carafe offered to her lips, drinking deeply to quench the agony of thirst. A little food followed, bread, interspersed with sips of the water. Solana's shrunken stomach could accept little though, and Maria stepped away. Luisa now idled to the wooden lever that would turn the roller.

Her hands closed around the lever, and she cranked it over. The roller turned. By her bound wrists, Solana's arms were drawn an inch tauter. Strain spread down her sides, through her hips, down her legs. A second notch. Unexpectedly, pain flared. Solana tipped her head, her mouth opening as a muffled pop came from deep inside her shoulders, and the pain spread hotly, along her arms, deep in her hip-joints, down the muscles of her back. Her ribcage jutted starkly, breasts drawn flat and gleaming in the orange light, nipples stiff in defiance of her pain. Sweat began to bead on her skin, adding to the shine of her coffee skin. Her belly shifted rapidly with fearful breath.

Luisa released the lever, looked over the woman on the rack. Solana's hands, squeezed beyond the ropes, feet moored firmly; her legs long and taut, her stomach hard. “You are now prepared for torture.”

Prepared? The question was plain on Solana's face.

“When I next speak to you,” Luisa explained slowly, “it will be to ask for your confession. If you do not give it, I will begin torture. You will be stretched to the tenth turn of the rack.” There were tears, now, in Solana's eyes. Her breasts quivered with each fearful breath. Luisa went on. “I warn you, nobody has ever survived the eleventh turn: some have died even on the seventh. So think carefully.”

“I am no witch,” Solana said quietly. “You need not make me suffer so, to know it.”

Luisa reached out, put a cool hand to Solana's ear, fingers stroking through thick hair. “You are a beautiful woman. It shall be a pleasure to work on you.”

The door was slammed shut, locked and barred.


Luisa Consuela sighed. Perhaps she had been doing this for too long?

Her father had grown ill when she was just seven. An accomplished torturer for almost forty years, he had been a compassionate man outside the dungeons in which he practised his craft, and had taken pride in his work. He rarely spilled blood, never maimed, and almost always gained confession, driven by a pious heart, and the patience of a monk. Though his wife died having never borne him a son, he loved his only daughter deeply. Upon learning of his own poor health, he had started teaching her how to torture; taking her to see how the machines of the dungeon worked, how to gain the most effect with the least effort. She had exceeded all his expectations, learning quickly, growing into a strong and wise young woman. On her sixteenth birthday, he had taken her before the Inquisitor, asking that she be chosen as his replacement. Loath to break with tradition and place a woman in such a role, the Clergy had been hesitant: but upon demonstration of her skills in the torture chamber, they agreed to let her work as an apprentice.

That was twenty five years ago. For the last eighteen, she had been Torturer In Chief, and her work was second nature. She barely heard the frantic pleas of Esmerelda, as she turned the screw of first one breast-vice, then the other. The screams were shrill, frantic, the girl twisting from her wrist-manacles like a fish on a hook as her blue-black breasts were crushed by the fierce metal teeth.

“Mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy, ohhhhhhh!” Twenty-four hours after first being hoisted from the floor, Esmerelda still hung by her wrists in the torture chamber. Her brown skin shone, her petite toes were just inches from the floor as she kicked in desperation and pain.

Luisa Consuela could not stop thinking about Solana Degas.

She had tortured many beautiful women in her time, and many strong ones. But never had she come across a prisoner with such a mix of all that was good in people. Beauty, intelligence, spirit, integrity. Solana did not try to hide her fear, nor her screams, as some did. Nor did she make desperate promises in a bid to escape the pain. She suffered as any human would, letting go of her dignity, but never doubting her own innocence.

Luisa returned to the brazier, pulled on a heavy gauntlet. With one hand, she pumped the bellows, making the coals roar. She turned the branding iron, giving it a final burst of heat. It was ready, shimmering, white hot.

Luisa returned to the twisting, moaning Esmerelda, steadied the girl with a hand on one slick hip, and pressed the white-hot tip of iron to the base of Esmerelda's spine, just above her gleaming buttocks. There was a soft popping sound, a puff of steam, the squealing and spitting of flesh burning. Esmerelda jolted violently, then roared in agony, throwing her head about, her feet thrashing.

Luisa lifted the iron away, taking burnt flesh with it. Esmerelda still screamed, steam and smoke rising from the angry red wound above her buttocks. Tears streamed down her face, the torture of her breasts forgotten in this new excruciating agony.

“Confess!” Luisa pressed the iron's fiery bar a second time to Esmerelda's flesh. The girl bucked in her fetters, kicking her feet, screaming and screaming as her skin crawled back beneath the hot metal.

What were these feelings? Luisa wanted to break Solana, to control her – and yet, part of her hated inflicting such pain on the beautiful mulatto. Nor did she want to hear a false confession from those lips: that would only mean Solana would be taken away to the flames. She wanted to keep Solana here, in the dungeon. But even that would soon rob her of sanity, age that perfect body, wear lines of misery into her beautiful face.

Luisa returned the iron to the brazier, while Esmerelda hung, sobbing uncontrollably. Her whole body was running with sweat, drenched as if she had been submerged in water. Nearby, the scribe wrote, the Bailiff stood with arms folded. Luisa was sweating too, her tunic clinging to her wet body as she drew another smoking iron from the fire. She approached the limp Esmerelda, paused, then pressed the shimmering metal into her armpit.

Steam exploded from Esmerelda's flesh, tiny flames erupted around the brand, and Esmerelda gave a hideous scream, jerking about in the manacles. She screamed for the full fifteen seconds that the brand burned into her, and, when it was finally pulled free of her damaged flesh, her wail was full of misery.

“I confess!” The scribe stepped forward. “Say again!”

“I confess,” Esmerelda sobbed. “I confess to witchcraft. I am a witch, please, just stop the torture, I will sign anything you want …”

Esmerelda's tongue was finally loosened. Luisa's job was done, and the torturer returned the iron to the brazier.

Eight – The Rack

An entire day passed.

Time was a cruel torturer. Lying stretched as she was, Solana was helpless to the torments of strain and immobility. Her joints burned with slow fire, and worse, as twelve hours became eighteen, cramps speared along her long limbs like shards of hot metal being hammered into her bones. She called out into the darkness, unable to fight the pain. Her tendons, stressed already, began to ache as if broken glass had been packed into her joints. The hard ropes ground into her wrist and ankle bones, sending deep aches into her arms and legs.

Solana tried desperately to faint, to find some focus other than pain: but in darkness, feeling herself naked and spread wide on the chill wood, distraction was impossible. At times, Solana groaned: at others, she called out to the God who had deserted her.

She knew she could do nothing to prepare herself for Luisa's return. Her mind returned again and again to the rack's roller, just two feet away, but forever beyond her reach. Its power over her was overwhelming. She heard, in her mind, the winch's metal clicks, the creaking axle, imagined the growing tension in her limbs.

An eternity had passed when the cell door opened once again.

Luisa Consuela hesitated in the doorway, then advanced a step, lifting the torch towards the stretched Solana. She was flat on her back, lips slightly parted to reveal the gleam of perfect teeth, her woolly mass of jet-black hair splashed across the wooden bed.

Luisa's eyes trailed from Solana's hands, distorted by the ropes, along the gentle lines of her forearms to the elbows, the firm swell of biceps and triceps, the ridges of taut pectorals and deltoids forming the deep hollows of her armpits. The black hair beneath her arms was thick, naturally trim. Solana's breasts were drawn to almost nothing, her ribcage lifted by the tension in her body, forming a defined arch over the muscle of her belly. Her hips were slender, sleek, the cradle for a tidy patch of black pubic hair. Her long legs gleamed, widely spread, thighs defined, calves strong. Her feet were perfect, slender toes, pink nails and soles.

Luisa stared. Solana was gorgeous beyond words.

Quickly placing the torch in its bracket, with a glance over her bare shoulder to check no-one looked on, Luisa drew close to the rack. Today, Luisa had dressed in a brief Greek-style chiton, open at the sides but for a rope belt at the waist. Her muscled arms and legs were bare. Her black hair was loose, casually cast over one shoulder, her haughty face beautiful in the half-light.

Gently, she cupped Solana's chin in her fingers, turned the woman's face, stared deeply into her victim's suffering soul. “Confess to me, Solana Degas.”

Though it seemed, at first, that she had failed to comprehend, Solana slowly moved her dry lips, found weak voice: “I am innocent.”

Luisa nodded. “Torture, then.”

“No!” Solana cried.

But Luisa stepped back to the open cell door. “The prisoner is ready.”

Five men filed in: two armed guards, who took up positions flanking the rack, a physician, a Bailiff, and a scribe. The latter carried with him a wooden stool, and placed it in a corner of the cell, sitting, setting up his ink-well and quill in order to log the proceedings to follow. The physician, meanwhile, circled the rack slowly, putting his hand to the muscled satin of Solana's taut limbs.

“She is fit,” he pronounced. “She may be tortured.”

Solana turned her hands desperately in the ropes. “Please …” she wailed.

The Bailiff waited for the physician to leave, then ordered the door closed. Solana looked on in dread as the heavy oak slammed into place, was locked from the outside. Luisa Consuela crossed to the rack's windlass, took a firm grasp of its lever.

The Bailiff spoke slowly. “You may begin.”

Luisa smiled. “One.”

The roller turned, and Solana's limbs shifted visibly as she was stretched a full inch. Her body was already strained from a full day lying stretched, and this new tension, Luisa knew, was pure fire. Solana's body began to shake, beads of sweat appearing on her face and breasts. Deep popping sounds came from her joints. Most prisoners would have screamed. Solana gritted her teeth, made no sound.

“Confess, and it will stop now!” Luisa whispered.

Solana turned her head, glaring past the upsweep of her own taut arm, tears already spilling down her cheeks. “Please, do not hurt me more!”

Luisa's eyes showed nothing. “Two!”

Slowly, the winch rolled over again, another notch, and the thick ropes hauled on Solana's stretched limbs. Her face screwed into an expression of agony: her teeth grated. She tried to hold back her groan, but it escaped anyway. Being so stretched felt as if her flesh had been coated in grease and set alight, fierce and terrible pain. Sweat was already pooling in the notch at the base of her throat.

Luisa waited. The key to torture on the rack was making it gradual. Solana's dark eyes were full with tears. The muscles of her arms and legs were in spectacular definition, her entire body resisting the torque upon it. Through shallow breaths, she muttered, her voice barely under control: “God in heaven, I will be strong … God in heaven, I will be strong …” Luisa knew better: “I shall now give her the third turn.”

The roller turned, the groaning ropes wrenched another inch from her body, and Solana's resistance broke. She screamed, abandoning herself to the savage pain of being stretched.

As a sixteen-year-old, Luisa had allowed her father to place her upon the rack, and stretch her only a little. It had been enough: although she had not cried out, the pain had been overwhelming, like liquid fire spreading from one end of her body to the other. Often, victims fainted by this third turn, confessed by the fourth. It was rare that anyone held out beyond the seventh.

Sweat beaded on Solana's body.

The Bailiff spoke, again. “Send for me if there is any progress.”

“Aye, Sir,” Luisa said. The Bailiff tapped on the cell door, and departed. Luisa went to the pulpit, calmly lighting its candle, and began to read to herself. The dam of Solana's resistance had been broken. The pain had shattered her threshold with a turn of the winch, putting more strain on her joints and limbs than nature had ever intended.

For half an hour, Luisa read. Solana's long screams became desperate anguished pleas for mercy and release, shouts of pain. She was restless, her head turning, her fingers grasping and clutching at the ropes, tears spilling endlessly on her face, sweat running constantly on her body. The pain was unbearable. And yet, no confession of witchcraft.

Finally, Luisa returned to the windlass.

“No, NO! I beg you, oh God, I beg you!” Solana shrieked desperately.

Luisa placed her hands on the lever. “Four.”

Solana was stretched. New pain exploded through her limbs: she gave a long, animal scream of excruciated torment, her elbows and hips creaking. She threw her head about, her mouth wide, cheeks wet with tears and sweat.

Luisa waited, watched, while Solana screamed. “Oh, stop it, stop the pain!” Each turn of the rack easily doubled the pain. Luisa stood back and let Solana suffer, her screams and shouts unceasing. Her hands were purple, her feet likewise, bones all but bending under the stress of the ropes.

The scribe wrote. The guards stood silent, fists tight about their halberds.

Half an hour after the fourth turn, Luisa again closed on the shrieking, wailing prisoner. Not an inch of Solana's brown body remained dry, sweat streaked over her ribcage, dewdrops over her belly, shining on her arms and legs. Her throat was wet. The hair in her armpits was saturated.

“Do you confess that you are a witch?” Luisa demanded over Solana's cries.

“Oh, please, please!! I am innocent!” Solana shrieked in terror. Her body was shaking. She had no strength.

“I am obliged to give the fifth turn,” Luisa said calmly, put her palms to the lever, and heaved. Solana began screaming in agony as the winch turned, and her body was subjected to new stress, fresh pain exploding through her. Her long legs were wet, muscles defined. There came the nauseating cracks and groans of cartilage and bone loosening, her hips and shoulders beginning to break anchorage. A fresh dribble of urine ran from between her parted thighs.

“Confess!” Luisa shouted, over Solana's screams. “Confess now! Confess!”

Solana shrieked and bellowed, howled for mercy, but gave no confession.

Luisa turned, strode to her bible, resumed her study.

Solana's screams ebbed, became cries for mercy. Her wet face, between her raised and wet arms, showed the magnitude of her pain. Already, the damage to her body would take weeks to heal. Sprained tendons and muscles, cracked joints, strained ligaments. Every breath brought shattering agony.

Luisa listened to the sounds that were so familiar by this stage of the torture. The slow creaks of the rack, the occasional squeal of rope, the high-pitched wailing and lung-deep shouts of the victim. She eventually yawned, stepped from the pulpit. Her bare feet felt the chill earth as she returned to the rack: the flimsy hem of her tunic played at her bare thighs. Cocking her hips, she stood beside the rack with arms folded. “Well?”

Framed by upstretched arms, Solana's face was pale, her eyes restless with pain. She had been under torture for two hours. “Please,” she managed to gasp. “Please, have mercy, it hurts so much!”

“I hereby pause the interrogation, and we shall resume tomorrow morning.”

“Nooooooooo!” The horror in Solana's scream chased Luisa's departure, the guards leaving with her, the cell door booming shut. To be left in such agony, where every second was an hour of unbearable suffering! She surely would not live to see the morning!

Solana lay, shaking, shouting out in pain. Her body felt torn between roller and anchoring rings. Her wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, pectorals, sides, back, abdomen, hips, buttocks, thighs front and back, knees, calves, and ankles, all burned with savagely-hot, unbearable pain. Solana could not, for a moment, find respite from the torment, nor put her mind to anything but its terrible fire. It seemed unbelievable that such tension could be inflicted, and maintained, on her body. The sweat beaded on her face and throat and breasts, glossed her arms and legs. The muscles in her limbs were taut, the tendons were hard like cables.

She lay.

Every minute was an eternity. Every laboured thud of Solana's heart was enough to send a shockwave of pain through her taut body. Even without the roller being turned, Solana could feel her joints gradually separating as the first hour crawled by. The sweat crept and trickled on her body, oozing down intimate creases and crevices. Her taut ribcage heaved and shifted as she fought to breathe.

Two hours. It seemed obscene that simple knots at her wrists and ankles could be all that kept her from slipping free, that the ropes alone were enough to hold this awful tension on her body, tear muscles from anchorage, fill her with such constant and fierce pain.

Through the night, Solana prayed for some kind of relief, for a way to endure. It became like a nightmare, neither unconscious nor awake, but in a half-arousal of sheer, unending pain, hour after hour.


When Luisa unlocked the door to the cell and led the men inside, she wondered if Solana was still conscious. She saw the wet body, drawn out upon the rack, anchored by wrists and ankles, fiendishly tight. But as Luisa drew near, Solana's head slowly turned, her hair in disarray, her face weary between her upstretched arms.

“I trust you thought about your confession?” Luisa asked.

Though filled with pain, Solana's eyes fixed upon the torturer. Her voice was weak with long hours of suffering. “Your cruelty cannot break me,” she whispered. “I am innocent, and nothing can change that.”

“On the contrary.” Luisa put a hand to the slickness of Solana's strained ribcage, inspected the sweat gathered by her palm. “This is just the beginning. You will now learn the true power of the rack, and it shall wrest the truth from you.” She turned to the scribe. “We resume the questioning.”

“No! No!! I am innocent!” Solana cried, but could do nothing as Luisa put her hands to the lever, and cranked the roller. The ropes again shifted, wrenched a fresh inch from the woman on the rack, and Solana gave a hideous scream. Her body exploded with pain. A series of wet popping and cracking sounds reverberated from her shoulders, and her arms, suddenly, seemed to lengthen as her shoulder joints dislocated. Tendons cracked, ligaments groaned, her hands went limp. Her screams were dreadful. Tears coursed down her upturned face. Her bare belly spasmed in her desperate efforts to breathe.

“That was the sixth turn!” Luisa shouted. “Do you wish for the seventh?”

“Mercy!” Solana shrieked, half-demented with this new and unendurable agony.

Luisa shook her head. “No mercy. Seven!” The rack slowly stretched Solana another inch.

For a few seconds, she was unable to make a sound, her breath stolen by pain. Then came a distinct wet, fleshy tearing sound, as her left hip bone was ripped fully from its socket. A few awful seconds later, the right dislocated with a crack! To Solana, it felt as if her hips had exploded, fire flashing the length of her legs to her ankles, extreme agony spreading like molten lead through her abdomen. She screamed, the most terrible yet, her voice breaking, her head rolling as the pain seared through her spread body.

“Say that you are a witch! Say it! Say it!” Solana could only roar in pain, the tears spilling from her eyes, the sweat running on her spreadeagled and broken body. It had been twenty hours of torture, and the pain was a thousand times worse than any Solana could have imagined. Luisa watched her suffering victim, wondering if indeed Solana would break, if her resistance could snap as surely as her ligaments.

A half hour. Solana, pulled between the rings and roller, her shoulders and hips dislocated, muscles torn, could do nothing but scream in agony. Sweat polished her naked body in the flickering light. Luisa turned pages, read patiently, before finally stepping to the lever once more.

“Do you wish for the eighth turn?” she shouted over Solana's unceasing cries.

Solana's voice. “No! … oh, please, have mercy … please …”

“Then confess,” Luisa said, and heaved against the resistance of the winch. Solana was stretched again, and her desperate pleading became a long scream of torment as her broken body was subjected to more strain. The agony in her arms surged, became a white hot fury that caused her voice to rise in pitch. Then came the wet ripping and snapping of her elbows pulling apart. Her arms grew fractionally longer, and she all but fainted with the pain that burst along her forearms.

Luisa stopped to tie her hair in a knot, watching Solana suffer. Let the pain do its work. Sweat was again running along the mulatto's tortured body: her ribs strained against the taut and droplet-wet skin, her cries frantic as she fought to breathe.

“No more!” she managed to shriek. “No more!” “Say the word!” Luisa urged. “Say you confess, and the pain will stop!”

“Oh God! Please believe me, I am innocent! Stop the pain!” But Luisa had no mercy, and stood back to watch. Solana's poor hands and feet were bent quite out of shape by the strain. Her drawn limbs burned with unbearable agony, her torso all but torn assunder. Her dislocated shoulders, elbows and hips raged with pain beyond comprehension, her torn and strained muscles causing her to shriek and cry without end. Slowly, with a wet and sickening sound, her knees came apart. Luisa watched, knowing that this, besides the spine, was the most painful dislocation of all. A puddle of urine spread across the wood, and Solana's head rolled. Every joint in her body was now broken. One of the guards gave a groan, and fainted, clattering to the floor. His comrade faltered, then tightened his jaw. The woman broken upon the rack was making sounds that barely seemed human.

After half an hour watching Solana' suffer, Luisa finally stepped close, grasped the helpless woman's jaw in her fingers, angled Solana's wet face towards her own. “Confess that you are a witch, and it will stop. I promise this pain will stop.”

Solana did not, or could not, reply.

“There are still two turns of the rack to go,” Luisa warned. “Your body can yet be broken further, and the pain grow worse still. Are you prepared for that?”

“Oh, I beg you, do not!” Solana begged. Sweat ran down her face, trickled the brown ravines of her belly. Her dislocated shoulders and hips, elbows and knees looked half deformed, her body extended by eight inches. Her ribcage was sharp and inflated, the skin taut. Her wet throat shifted as she fought to breathe.

“So be it, then,” Luisa said coldly. “The ninth turn.”

It did not seem possible that Solana could be stretched further, but after a minute of struggling with the lever, pushing with her shoulder against its resistance, Luisa managed to turn the roller another notch. Solana's head jerked repeatedly as she stretched. Agony came only in a panted “uh-uh-uh-uh” as her strained ribcage shifted. With a dual crack! her wrists broke, bones separating. One of the guards suddenly fell to his knees, vomiting in disgust. Solana's abdominal muscles tore, with the squeak of rending tissue. Her spine was on fire, the separating vertebrae an agony beyond all imagining: but she could no longer scream. Her disjointed body was drawn so that her diaphragm could barely function, and her breathing was rapid, shallow.

She fainted.

“Bring water,” Luisa commanded. The guard who had vomited now hurried from the cell, returning with a pail of water from the well, some of which he splashed over Solana's prone body. She woke, then, but made no sound. Her head rolled about, eyes glazed with agony, fixing to the ceiling, as sweat and tears and saliva ran from her face. Her mouth was wide, but she could only make faint panting sounds in her extreme torment.

Luisa waited. This time, she did not return to her bible, but stood, hands braced against the lever, watching. Solana's ribcage shifted only slightly, such was the tension in her spreadeagled figure. Creaks came from the stressed machinery of the rack.

It had been more than twenty-one hours, now. To continue the torture much longer would be to damage Solana's body beyond all chance of repair. Already, recovery would take time, and great care, lest she be crippled. If confession did not come with this last, most painful turn of the rack, it might never be wrested from her. Luisa grasped the winch for the final time.

“Scribe, note the tenth turn.”

Solana's feet remained anchored by ropes to the rings: but her hands were wrenched another inch towards the roller, and fresh fire shot down her broken arms, her taut body, her disjointed legs. A new and unbelievable agony exploded into her lower back, spreading like tearing metal barbs up her spine as her vertebrae began to separate, rending her spinal column, and filling her with the most terrible pain. She could not scream, though, and merely gave a long groan, tears wet on her face, unable to believe that she was still awake, still aware, still suffering. Luisa waited, listening for the muffled sound of the victim's diaphragm tearing, or the more distinct cracking sound of her spine actually breaking: either would herald death, the former within minutes, the latter a few hours. But Solana's body was strong, drawn to within a hair's-breadth of death, but no further.

Luisa slowly circled the rack. In the semi-darkness, Solana's dark skin shone with sweat, steaming, her body taut. Her elbows, shoulders, hips, and knees were dislocated, her wrists and ankles broken, muscles and ligaments torn, her body so stretched that she hovered on the edge of suffocation, lapsing into fitful moments of unconsciousness. Her mind knew nothing but pain – she was a being of pure suffering, without concept of past or future, life or death. Saliva wet her chin and breasts, tears streaked her face.

And yet, somehow, she had withheld confession.

Luisa looked away. “Guards, fetch the Bailiff. Scribe, let it be noted that I can do no more without causing irreparable harm to the prisoner.” As the two guards departed, and the scribe, in his relief, hastily wrote, Luisa drew close to her victim, put out a hand to Solana's face. Though the prisoner's eyes were partially open, there was no sign that she was aware of anything but the agony in her ravaged body. Her breathing was shallow and fast. “Just say, and I shall give you the eleventh turn,” Luisa whispered.

Solana gave no response: perhaps she was incapable of it. Luisa gave a nod. Then, she turned, and left the broken and torn Solana to her suffering.

Nine – Cruel Fate

Solana's unconscious body had to be loosened gradually from the rack, lest more damage be done, and Luisa took an hour to unwind the taut ropes. When the limp woman was untied, the physician helped reset her limbs. She woke, briefly, but the pain of her injuries was so great, she quickly lost consciousness again. She was laid, unbound, on the floor of her cell.

For the first few days, the swelling in her injured spine caused paralysis from which, Maria admitted, she might never recover. But after a time, Solana found sensation in her fingers and toes, and two weeks after she had been broken on the rack, she could once again move her limbs.

After six weeks, Solana had regained most of her strength, and the Jailer decided that she again be locked in fetters. So the thick and heavy iron was closed about her wrists, and locked with a key, her arms above her head while she slumped, naked, against the cold and slimy wall of her tiny cell. She did not try to escape, but bore her restraint silently, sitting with arms raised and hands drooping from the shackles for day after endless day.

Beneath her passive facade, though, was dread of further torture. Being stretched had all but broken her spirit: another hour of suffering, and Solana might have confessed anything to stop the torment. She knew that one more session upon the rack would break her.

Almost three months after being released from the rack, though, Solana had not been returned to the torture. Instead, she had spent the last six weeks locked in chains, all but forgotten by those who accused her, a wretched and grubby creature. Six weeks in which she had not once lowered her arms, not once been able to touch her own body with her hands.

But on the eightieth day, more than four months after her arrest, she was woken by the arrival of guards. Their appearance was such a surprise, she had no time to react as they bound her wrists, then, by means of another rope, her elbows. A gag was thrust into her mouth.

She was taken, via long corridors, endless stairs, to the Hall of Justice. Her bare soles whispered on the chill mosaic floor. She was a wilder sight than when she first arrived: grubby, her black mane a little longer, unkempt and tangled, eyes dark from long months of suffering. She was made to kneel before the Inquisitors. Her eyes widened a little at the sight of Luisa Consuela, closely wrapped in a heavy cloak, pale eyes fixed with an expression Solana could not gauge.

The Clerk spoke. “I present the Prisoner, Solana Degas. She arrived one hundred and eighteen days ago, and has since been undergoing questioning.”

The Inquisitor leaned forward, inspecting the naked woman before him. “She seems to have endured well, considering.”

The Clerk: “The Torturer-In-Chief, Luisa Consuela, has decided enough time has been spent upon the subject.”

“Indeed?” The Clergyman to the Inquisitor's left raised an eyebrow.

“Aye, My Lord.” Luisa's voice was strong. “She received one hundred lashes of the whip, then twenty hours upon the Chair, during which the spike was heated, and spent two days on the rack, whence I ensured her torture was carried to the fullest extent.” Luisa looked down at the wretched Solana. “She did not confess, and I believe her innocent.”

Solana's head lifted. Could she be hearing this? Was it some kind of awful joke, a way to draw a confession from her? But the Inquisitor seemed equally surprised. “This is truly unusual, for a witch to be found innocent.”

“As God's witness, I believe it is so,” Luisa said.

Tears were beginning to spill from Solana's eyes, and she glimpsed a tiny smile on Luisa's beautiful face. But the Inquisitor's next words were chilling: “We anticipated this, and have called upon a witness from Sanguesa: Catalina Lacrosse.”

Solana's breath caught in her throat. Guards were sent to fetch the woman whose testimony had led to all this agony. Slender, with straw-blonde hair, green eyes. Catalina was beautiful, but her heart was hollow, and when she took the witness stand and fixed her eyes on Solana, a cruel smile crossed her lips. To see her rival kneeling on the floor, wrists and elbows roped behind her, gag in her mouth, was a joy to Catalina.

“You know this woman, Solana Degas?”

“I know her.” Catalina's rich voice was lit with triumph.

“Do you maintain that she is a witch?”

“She is a witch indeed.” Solana looked directly up into the cool green eyes of Catalina, who met the stare with pure gloating.

“We must confer.” The Inquisitor and his fellows muttered in consultation. Solana's knees ached, her twisted arms hurt, her earlier moment of hope shattered by a few cold words. Now, the Inquisitor looked up, addressing not the prisoner, but Luisa. “There is still a question to settle. We recommend you put your prisoner again upon the rack.”

Solana's face paled. She suddenly felt weak, faint. There was no torture she feared more, and her bladder loosened at once in her terror, urine wetting her thighs, spreading in a puddle across the mosaic floor. She tried to plead and beg for mercy, but the gag stifled every sound, and she could only look in desperation to Catalina Lacrosse, whose green eyes blazed delight at the knowledge that Solana would soon stretch again between the rollers. The Inquisitor beckoned the guards, and Solana was hauled to her feet, taken from the echoing Hall.

Again, Solana's wrists were locked in the fetters.

For two days, she slumped against the wall of her cell, arms above her head. Long ago, she had tested the strength of those shackles. Now, she did not even try, knowing that her restraint was as unavoidable as further torture.

Hence, time was a resource Solana did not lack: though not all was spent in the numbness of despair and self-pity. Her mind had not yet been dulled by her ordeal, and thoughts now hounded her: why had Luisa changed her mind? Why the verdict of innocence? Solana had not missed Luisa's dismay upon hearing Catalina's testimony. Luisa had wanted Solana freed! It seemed unthinkable that a woman who took such obvious pleasure in the infliction of pain might suddenly feel mercy or remorse.

The answer came on the third day.

Solana had been hovering on the edge of sleep – true sleep was rare – and awareness returned to her only at the sound of her cell door softly closing. Her arms had gone to sleep, her hands completely numb, and for a time she remained slumped, half-hanging in the shackles, eyes trying to focus on a single ruddy point in the darkness.

A lantern, turned so low the wick barely glowed.

“Is someone there?”

“Shh.” The female voice was soft. Solana heard movement, but could not see the figure. In darkness, the woman drew close, until Solana could feel breath. Then, soft lips touching hers. Solana closed her eyes, opening her mouth to the kiss, the gentle invasions of a tongue. The kiss lasted a long time, Solana's lover putting a hand to the small of her back, urging the kiss deeper.

Finally, they broke. With her arms chained above her head, she was helpless to deny the mouth that descended to her breast, gently licking its curve, tasting the velvet skin, finally centring on her pebble-hard nipple. Solana gasped. Her lover sucked and tugged on her nipple, drawing it into full engorgement. Then the other nipple, sucking until it was so erect it hurt, and Solana felt arousal, deep in her belly.

Finally, a soft voice in Solana's ear: “Do not fight it.”

Luisa's warm body came against hers, breasts crushed to breasts, Luisa straddling her chained prisoner. Luisa kissed as she had tortured: with passion, conviction, her tongue deep in Solana's mouth, her hands roaming the muscled landscape of Solana's flanks. Solana responded with soft moans, encouraging the very woman who had hurt her so cruelly.

Luisa whispered into Solana's ear, “I love you.”

“Tell me again.” Solana twisted her hands in their manacles.

“I love you.” Luisa's heart soared. “I love you, I love you!” She crushed her mouth to Solana's, kissing her again, deeply, urgently. Then: “Let me please you.”

Luisa slid down to lick the gentle ravine of Solana's breastbone, then lower to warmly spear her navel. Solana sighed, grasped her chains tightly. Luisa's lips followed the soft, velvety trail to the full thatch of Solana's pubic mat, feeling its wiry crispness on her cheeks and nose, Her mouth found the wet ravine of Solana's sex: she kissed it, tasting its slippery heat. Gently, she began probing with her tongue, licking at the berry of Solana's clitoris. Solana sighed deeply, arched her back off the cold cell wall.

Luisa went slowly, her tongue caressing Solana's clitoris with maddening slowness, until the latter was gleaming with sweat, moaning in desperation. Spreading Solana's brown thighs wider, Luisa dipped her head lower until her tongue found the tight pucker of Solana's anus. She kissed it gently, teasing it with touches of her tongue, gradually pushing inside. Solana gave a groan, feeling the approach of orgasm, swelling like a balloon inside her.

She came with a gasp, a shudder.

Her task completed, Luisa slid up to lie alongside Solana, her hand brushing the smooth geography of Solana's naked body. She kissed the damp hair of Solana's armpit, kissed her lips. “Have you anything to say to me?” she whispered.

In the dusky light, Luisa could see Solana's eyes shining. Finally, in a soft voice, Solana spoke. “You may break me on the rack, fix me upon the chair, or whip me bloody. You have that power. But I will never, never kiss your whore's arse the way you just kissed mine.”

“But -”

“I could never love you.” Solana sneered. Her face turned to Luisa's. “You are the lowest worm upon the earth. You-” The savage whump of Luisa's fist into Solana's undefended belly ended the sentence, and Solana jack-knifed with a shriek, wrenching her hands in the shackles, unable to protect herself. Luisa was on her feet in a moment, fastening her fist in Solana's hair.

“Bitch!” she shrieked. She punched Solana again, then again. Each blow landed with a savage bass concussion in Solana's belly, driving a shriek from her lungs, her hands helpless claws above the fetters that restrained her. A rope of saliva spilled from her open mouth.

Before Solana could recover, Luisa drove her knee into Solana's face in a splash of saliva and blood. “I'll teach you, you witch!”

Solana drooped limply out of the shackles, one heel digging weakly at the stone floor.

“You will regret your words,” Luisa hissed. Tears of rage filled her eyes. “You will regret them!”

A half hour later, guards entered Solana's cell, bringing chains, couplings, and a pair of shackles attached to a three-foot iron bar. Solana watched with growing dread as they passed the chain through an iron ring in the ceiling, attached the shackle bar to its end.

The tears were already spilling down her face as they came to her with the key to her fetters. “No,” she wept in misery and fear. “No, please, please, I beg you …” But they unlocked her wrists, and, lifting her by her arms, dragged her to the centre of the room. She sobbed as her chafed wrists were placed apart in the new shackles, and locked tight.

“Heave!” shouted one of the guards. The chain clattered through the overhead ring, and Solana gave a shout as her body was wrenched up, to her knees, her arms spread up above her head, the fetters biting into her hands. “Heave!” She was hauled half-off the floor. “Heave!” Solana's feet left the floor, her whole body suddenly suspended by the arms.

“No! Oh, Lord, no!” she shrieked in sudden pain. “It hurts ! It hurts!” She kicked her feet desperately, eyes wide with pain, as the chain's end was secured. “Do not leave me like this, please!”

“Quiet, or we shall gag you as well.”

Solana fell silent, swinging on the creaking shackle-bar, her feet twenty inches from the floor. She wept as the guards left, closing and locking the cell door. There was nothing she could do: she was hanging by her shackled wrists from the ceiling, beyond reach of anything, helpless, naked.

Solana hung, silent, alone. She was cold, naked, suspended in the tiny cell by her wrists. This was Luisa's punishment for Solana's defiance, and the latter realised that she had been a fool.

Hanging, she could do little but reflect on her punishment, thoughts and hopes and frustrations swirling about her dangling body, taunting her, driving her half insane. She was acutely aware of every moment, and for perhaps five or six hours, she hung silently, not uttering a sound, not moving, just stretched, naked, cold, drawing shallow breaths into her lifted ribcage. Her hands were shapeless claws above the shackles, numb, useless. Her arms ached terribly.

She had thought suspension was torture enough, but she had been naïve. Eight hours after they had hung her in chains, the true torture began: the agony of crucifixion. Suspended as she was, the muscles of her chest worked harder to maintain breath. Now, after so many hours hanging, the muscles began to fail, and Solana felt a shortness of breath, like suffocation. Her response was instinctive; try to pull herself up, and ease the pressure on her chest.

She managed to raise herself a few inches, catching breath: then hung for a quarter-hour or so, until forced again by lack of air to heave herself up; each time, kicking her feet, gasping air at the apex of each tortuous climb. By the fourth time, a new sweat had broken out over her body, her arms and shoulders burning with strain, her wrists cruelly bruised by the motion. Droplets beaded all over her torso and limbs. Each time she tried to rise up, it was a smaller distance, and she caught less breath; finally, after more than two hours of effort and torment, her arms no longer had strength. She fought to raise herself, gasping with the unending pain, the crippling agony that speared through her arms and chest. But she was too weak, and drooped helplessly beneath the shackles, gasping, covered in sweat. All she could do was kick her feet, her body twisting beneath the shackle bar. Her burning arms stretched above her. Now, deprived of even her own strength, she was truly helpless. She could do nothing but hang, until she was freed, or until she died.

“Help!” She croaked towards the bolted door. “Please, I have been punished enough!”

No response came.

Defeated, Solana let herself hang, let her eyes half-close, gasped air in tiny breaths. Finally, after hanging in the shackles for twelve hours, Solana blacked out.

She woke again, but all sense of time and place had become confused; had she been unconscious for just a few minutes, or for hours? There was no change to signal either; her arms burned, tortured by her constant suspension, muscles and joints strained and stretched. Her shoulders were on agony, the muscles all down her sides and back hurting badly. Her triceps and forearms ached. Worst of all, her abdominal and chest muscles cramped and spasmed as she fought to breathe, unable to get enough air to sustain her failing body.

Briefly, she kicked her bare toes, but nothing would relieve the manacles' suspension, nor get her feet any closer to the floor. Gradually, blackness returned.

Solana woke one more time; or rather, was torn awake by a shock of agony through her chest. She found herself paralysed by exhaustion, hanging limply, her chin on her chest, her arms racked with the agony of strain, her body cold and immobile. She could not move a muscle, but her belly, driven by a reflexive desperation, spasmed in shocks of pain. She managed to gulp air, and it briefly gave her strength enough to lift her head. Her numb hands were still locked in the shackles, and by them she hung; she willed her fingers to open, but they remained tight.

Solana gasped, felt cramps spearing up through her sides, engulfing her belly, a hot fire of agony, and the spasms became sharper, shallower.

“Please!” she choked, though barely any sound emerged. She realised that this was the moment of her death, alone, hanging in chains in a cell, abandoned and forgotten. Her body naked, without strength, suspended like a dead-weight. Her chest spasmed again; the chains rattled, her feet swung above the floor.

As her gasps drew less and less air, blackness again closed in.

Ten – Maria

A pause. A few moments where nothing happened.

Then the slow creak of wood, the grassy screech of ropes, and the wet popping of stressed cartilage and bone. Maria let out a long scream of pain, utterly powerless to stop the rack delivering its agony. Her thin body was drawn, hands roped to the top roller, ankles to its base, fierce tension in her young limbs. Sweat covered every inch of her, matted the wisps of hair in her armpits, the tiny tuft of black between her slim thighs. Her lush mane of black hair was splashed across the rack's coarse wood, her brows compressed in an expression of sheer bewilderment and pain, her red-lipped mouth wide, white teeth exposed as her scream expired into agonised wailing.

Luisa forced the roller again. Fresh groans from the machine and the fragile body upon it, another long scream. Maria shook her head, unable to believe the agony that burned through her limbs and ravaged her back, a red hot savagery that worsened with every passing minute.

Luisa enjoyed stretching women on the rack immensely. Not just the sounds of groaning wood, tearing joints, the endless screams. She enjoyed the position it put them in: arms above their heads, legs wide, the most humiliating and vulnerable position in which a woman could be bound. And then to extend that very position, to make it the cause of such pain, was a wonderful experience. And what pain! It took advantage of the entire body, exponential, controlled by the lever.

Luisa watched the ropes on the ends of Maria's gleaming arms and shining legs, and forced the lever again. She actually saw the moment the ropes pulled, saw Maria's body visibly stretch like tautening leather, and was rewarded by a long cry from the girl. Maria's dark eyes were wide, her face a mask of pain. Her ribcage stood out, her tiny breasts drawn to nothing on her boyish chest.

“Please … stop!” It was all Maria could manage, before her voice dissolved into an inarticulate yell of sheer torment.


The door to Solana's cell was opened, two guards and a physician entered. Central to the room, a dark and muscled body, oiled with grease and old sweat, hung naked from a shackle bar. Her head down, veiled by the black mane of her hair, Solana did not move.

“How long has she been left unattended?”

“Our orders were for two days,” one of the guards replied.

The physician put his hand to the woman's shining chest. He looked surprised. “She lives.”

The anchored chain was released, and clattered through the ring, Solana's limp body sliding to the slimy floor. She gave a moan, lying where she fell. The guards rolled her onto her stomach, drew her muscled arms behind her back, tied her wrists securely with rope.

Helpless, she was made to walk the labyrinth to the torture chamber. Past the Chair, then, much to her relief, past the dreaded rack. But in the depths of the chamber, by the light of low-burning torches, she came upon a scene that tore her heart from her chest.

“Oh, God …” The girl lay, unbound and semi-conscious, on the flagstone floor. Her naked body was wet with perspiration. Her back and buttocks were a mess of bloody lines, easily two hundred lashes having landed on that flinching skin. Blood flecked the floor all around her, even a pillar some three yards distant.

Behind her, herself splashed in Maria's blood, stood Luisa Consuela, flanked by a guard.

“What have you done?” shrieked Solana. “What is this?”

“This whore -” Luisa pointed down at the barely-conscious Maria – “has disobeyed the Church, and me, by giving her body freely to the prisoners! For that, she pays the ultimate price!”

“Maria is innocent!” Solana's eyes were wide. She fought the guards, tears welling at the sight of Maria's ravaged body. “Please, let her be!”

“That is not part of the plan,” Luisa admitted. “Unless, of course, you confess to me.”

Solana froze. Could it really come to this? A simple word from her could free Maria from her anguish? Or was Luisa simply intent on destroying Maria regardless, attempting to break Solana's resistance in the process?

“Before you say anything, you should know that Maria has already suffered upon the rack, as well as the lashes I laid upon her. She confessed to Witchcraft; to taking on my form and trying to seduce you.”

“What?” “She confessed, and in her confession she also told me that you, too, are a witch.”

“And is it any surprise?” Solana struggled in her guards' restraint. “Upon the rack, anybody would say that!”

Luisa smiled. “Your devotion is touching.” To her guards: “Secure her.”

Solana was dragged to a pillar, to which a high set of manacles were attached. Her hands were untied, her wrists instead fettered above her head. While Solana was being secured, Maria's guard bound the girl's wrists securely behind her back with thick rope, tied her elbows together to pinion her arms completely. Poor Maria was utterly helpless.

But her ordeal was not over. There was a wooden bench, waist-high, no more than ten feet from where Solana now stood fettered. Maria gave a groan as, by her bound arms, she was lifted by her guard, dragged to the bench, and folded forward over it. Another guard produced ropes, and proceded to bind Maria's ankles to the legs of the table. Her slim legs were widely parted, muscles defined, the black and hairy secrets of her sex and anus exposed. With her arms twisted and bound, she could not resist. Finally, Maria's body was forced down onto the table so that her breasts were pressed to the wood, and a weighted iron hasp was placed over the back of her neck. Additional weights were placed upon its base, so that she could not rise.

Solana looked on in despair. The slim young girl, legs parted, arms bound behind her back, bent forwards over the table. Now, Luisa stepped into view, and Solana saw with horror the instrument the beautiful torturer held.

“The Pear,” Luisa said. She raised the device, turned its screw a few times to open the bulbous blades, then closed them again. “I want you to watch.”

“Noo!” Solana shook her chains in horror as Luisa put the cold nipple-like tip of the Pear against the delicate, hairy brown star of Maria's anus. The young girl jerked in her ropes, but was helpless. Firmly, Luisa pushed, and Solana saw the metal device sink inside Maria's rectum. At once, Maria was crying out in pain, her sphincter cruelly stretched by the intrusion. Inch by inch, it was forced inside her.

“Please, Mistress,” Maria begged. She was well aware of the Pear's function, and her voice shook with terror.

“You are a dirty little whore,” Luisa said coldly. “And you must suffer.” Finally, looking at Solana, Luisa gave the screw of the Pear a turn. Maria's slim body jolted violently as the sectioned bulb began to flower inside her bowels, and the pain hit.

“Ohhhh! Please, stop!” “Watch what happens, now, Witch,” Luisa told Solana.

“Stop it!” Solana shrieked. “Stop hurting her!”

But Luisa turned the Pear again. This time, Maria let out a scream of pain. The metal segments of the Pear were slowly forcing her rectum wider, and the pain was unbearable. Droplets of sweat beaded all down the taut backs of her bare legs, over her buttocks and back. She struggled desperately to free her bound wrists and arms, but was helpless to stop Luisa turning the screw a third time.

Maria let out a bellow of agony; odd squeaking and creaking sounds were coming from inside her pelvis as the torture device began to do its work. A trickle of blood emerged, to run down the sweaty skin of Maria's thigh. Her screams were manic, long and terrible.

“Scream for me, slut!” Luisa shouted, and turned the Pear's screw again. This time, loud cracking sounds came from Maria's rectum, and her screams reached a new pitch. Her sphincter, tight around the Pear's narrow base, mercifully hid the terrible consequences of the widening device, but for another run of crimson blood.

“Stop it! Stop it now!” Solana tugged and jerked on her chained wrists, weeping openly at the atrocity she witnessed, but Luisa was feeding on Solana's misery, and slowly, cruelly, twisted the Pear's screw once more. Maria screamed like a girl insane, jerking in her ropes, shrieking and baying in agony as the awful, muffled sounds of her rectum tearing apart reached those around her. Already, her injuries would be fatal; but the Pear was not yet fully open, and Luisa twisted the screw again.

More creaking and tearing sounds, but this time Maria's screams caught in her throat, and instead became a long, hoarse wail. Her body was covered in sweat, as if she had just been doused in water. Her struggles eased, her bound hands rested against the small of her back, as if in final acceptance of her pain. Her moaning and wailing continued, but were growing feeble.

Luisa finally seemed to accept that the torture had proceeded far enough. Closing the Pear, she withdrew it from Maria's anus, bloodied and steaming. A short gush of bloody gore splattered to the floor below Maria's spread legs, and her body shuddered, as if the life was already ebbing.

“Execute the little whore,” Luisa growled.

Until now, Solana had not seen the long rope that swayed from a high pulley. But she saw it now, and the noose tied in its end. As two guards set about releasing Maria's neck and bound ankles, Solana's eyes widened. “No!” Maria gave another groan as the guards dragged her to the rope. Unable to stand on her own, she was held upright as Luisa placed the noose over her head, tightened it around her neck. It was Luisa, too, who went to the simple winch that would wind the rope in.

“Say your final prayers, Witch,” Luisa spat, and turned the crank. Solana gave a wail as the rope tautened. Maria's head was drawn up by the constricting rope, her lips parting. Inch by inch, Maria's small body was hauled off the floor. The noose crunched about her slender neck, and her eyes fluttered open. The guards released her bound arms, and her bare feet scrabbled in panic for the flagstone floor, her body twisting as she tried to free her hands.

“Let her down!” Solana shouted. Maria's eyes bugged, her face deep red. She was hanging by the neck, her bare toes a mere three inches above the ground. She thrashed about, kicking for the floor, twisting and jerking in the effort to free her hands. She tried to scream: an odd croaking came from her open mouth. Sweat beaded on her brow.

“Cut her down!” Solana wailed, desperately trying to free herself and save the girl. But she could do nothing, and seconds became minutes. Maria was strangling. Her body thrashed about. A line of blood appeared from her nose. Her swelling tongue popped from her mouth, as purple as her face. Solana gave a wail of horror. “Please, Luisa, please cut her down!”

“This is your doing, witch.” Luisa hissed in reply.

Still Maria struggled, though she was growing weaker. Her eyes were wide, a long rattle escaping her constricted throat. Her toes still searched for the floor, though her hands were now relaxed in their bondage, as if she had resigned herself to the inevitability of death. A cascade of urine sprayed from between her legs, puddled below her swinging feet. The rope from which she hung creaked. For an endless time, she slowly swung, dying, helpless.

Finally, no movement at all. Maria dangled on the rope's end, her toes drooping, fingers limp beyond her bonds, head tilted above the noose. Her eyes were still open, the agony of her death on her young face.

Eleven – The Room

Solana was returned to her cell, and there slumped, chained, for another week.

A guard came with her daily rations: Solana said nothing to him, though he seemed kind. There was no hope at all in her eyes. More than four months since she had seen daylight, or worn clothing, or breathed fresh air. More than four months since she had known even a vestige of dignity. Despite the imprisonment, the humiliation and degradation of being constantly chained or bound, and despite the torture to which she had been subjected time and again, she had never lost hope. But now, with Maria's death, her spirit had broken. There seemed nothing left, no reason to fight.

When guards came and unlocked the fetters that had become almost part of Solana's own body, solid about her wrists for week upon endless week, she made no protest, placed her own hands behind her back as they bound her. She walked calmly at their bidding, head down.

This time, they descended a tight, spiral staircase beyond the torture chamber. The cave into which they walked was almost pitch black, cold and wet. Insects clung to the slimy walls, water dripped constantly like rain from the ceiling. Solana barely felt the icy drops on her naked body. At the end of the passageway, a heavy iron door stood open. Solana was thrust through by the guards. She stumbled, heard the door close.

“Welcome, my sweet. Welcome to the Room.”

Luisa locked and barred the door, then strode forward into the vague light of torches, shedding the cloak she had been wearing against the cold. Her tunic was grey, ragged, its brief skirt skewed across her thighs, her arms and shoulders bare. She offered the dungeon's key to her sole assistant, a guard who moved to stand behind Solana. “Bring her.”

The guard grasped Solana's bound arms, led her into an abbatoir of horror. Chains dangled like vines from the ceiling. Central to the Room was a rack, huge and dark. There were blunt spikes on its surface to tear Solana's flesh as she stretched. On a long table nearby were the other devices of Luisa's craft. A heavy brank, with calipers to lever the jaw into dislocation, and screws which, when turned, would slowly skewer Solana's eyes. Thumbscrews, a Pear, a studded mallet for breaking bones. Branding irons and long iron nails heated in a brazier. There was a rough iron file for flaying skin, hooked pincers for tearing flesh, a barbed whip. In the shadows, Solana glimpsed an Iron Maiden poised open, spikes ready to skewer the unfortunate victim: and, worse still, the 'rail' – a sloping beam bristling with barbs and spikes, which she would be made to straddle, weights at her ankles, and slowly descend – tearing away her most sensitive flesh.

Horror and dread stole the blood from Solana's face. Her legs went weak, and she collapsed to her knees, rocking forward with arms bound. “Mercy, please, have mercy on me.”

“Confess your sins, and you will be spared.”

“Then I confess!”


Solana wept openly in fear. “I confess to the accusations made against me, My Lady. Just tell me what to say, where to put my name. I will admit to it all -”

Luisa looked aghast. “You cannot!”

“Please, My Lady, I do! I will confess to anything!”

Luisa looked to her guard. “But …” A look of despair. How could this woman defeat her so many times? Solana had withheld confession long enough for Luisa to relent and ask that she be set free. Then she had toyed with Luisa's affection and dignity, rejected her advances. And now, with revenge at Luisa's fingertips, Solana had offered confession. Luisa's ice-blue eyes grew hard. “That means nothing to me.” To her guard: “Put her upon the rack. I shall do as I wish, regardless.”

“No!” Already broken, Solana let out a wail of misery. But the guard wrenched her to her feet, propelled her towards the evil rack. Solana screamed, hysterical with fear. With arms bound behind her, she tried to turn to Luisa. “Please, I beg you, I beg you, have mercy on my body! I am sorry for denying you! Please, I will do anything!”

“You will suffer, that is all.”

“Please, no!” Solana was truly frantic. Her legs were weak, her eyes fixed on the awful rack before her. The guard was untying her hands. “Oh, My Lady, no!!”

“This will be my pleasure, whore.”

Nothing to lose.

Upon this moment, everything pivoted. Even suicide was preferable to this. Driven by her panic, Solana exploded into motion, swinging her elbow up-and-back with all her strength. She hit the guard full in the face, his nose shattering with a sound like breaking eggs, his helmet flying off. He gave an awful scream, clutching his face. Solana spun, driving her knee up into his un-armoured groin. She felt the resistance of his testicles, heard the distinct pop of one splitting as it was crushed. At once, he fell to his knees, eyes bulging, the air driven from his lungs. Solana grabbed the guard's head, twisted it violently. Her reward was the nauseating crunch of his neck breaking, and his corpse flopped to the floor.

“Stay away, you black witch!” Luisa had drawn a red-hot iron from the brazier, and held it before herself as Solana turned her attention to the torturer. Solana's eyes narrowed. In the dungeon, she looked like a savage beast: dark, grubby skin and a ragged mane of hair, naked with only her hands and feet as weapons, bared teeth and eyes gleaming white. She stalked towards Luisa, who waved the smoking iron in the air. “I warn you!”

Solana charged.

With an angry shout, Luisa slashed down with the iron: but Solana ducked beneath the weapon's arc, grabbing Luisa's arm, wrenching it downwards, twisting hard. Luisa barked in pain, and doubled over, straight into the flying knee that smacked hard into the muscled wall of her midriff. The air exploded from Luisa's lungs.

Solana seized Luisa's hair, wrenched her up. As strong as she was, Luisa could not loosen Solana's Amazonian grip, and was unable to stop the knee that slammed twice into her face. Blood blossomed at her lips and nose. A third blow, and her jaw cracked. Given strength by rage, Solana slammed her clenched fist again and again into Luisa's unprotected face, until Luisa's resistance weakened and she finally slumped to the floor.

Luisa lay, dazed and beaten, as Solana retrieved the rope that had been her own bondage, and used it, instead, to bind Luisa's hands behind her back. The bonds were tight, Luisa's hands at once turning purple. Next, Solana tore away Luisa's clothing, stripping her bare.

“Please,” Luisa gurgled through the blood in her mouth. “Kill me swiftly.”

“As you killed Maria?” Solana hissed. “As you would have killed me? You ask for mercy, you who have hurt so many innocent women!”

“Forgive me!”

“Forgive you?” Solana's dark eyes blazed rage. She stepped back, pushing her hair from her face, shining sweat. She glared down at the helpless, bound woman at her feet, then looked about the room. If she chose, she could torture Luisa horribly to death. But that was not in her nature. When her anger subsided, she would feel remorse. And Luisa did not deserve that.

She had a plan, but there was one thing yet to be done. Seizing Luisa's thick black hair, Solana dragged the bound torturer over to the brazier. There, she drew from the searing coals a shimmering, red-hot iron. Luisa's eyes widened in abject dread.

“No! No-o!” But Solana's hand clamped about Luisa's face, squeezing her jaw hard till Luisa's mouth was forced open. There was a brief moment in which realisation appeared in Luisa's eyes, an expression of sheer horror.

Solana thrust the red hot iron into Luisa's mouth.

Luisa screamed horribly as steam billowed in a huge cloud from her searing tongue. There was a hissing, squealing sizzling; and the smell of burning flesh. Her muscular body convulsed on the floor in agony, her hands straining at the ropes that bound them behind her back, sweat beading all over her bare skin, her eyes wide as the iron ravaged her tongue.

Finally, Solana withdrew the iron. Luisa fell to the floor, steam and smoke still curling up from her half-open mouth. Never more would Luisa Consuela utter words; in a moment, she had become one of the beasts, capable only of sounds.


When the cell door creaked open, the torch in Solana's hand lit a ghastly sight. A naked woman dangled from shackles in the centre of the tiny cell, her petite body oiled with old sweat, her head drooping forward. As if torture had not been enough, she had spent almost two months hanging by her wrists without relief.

Esmerelda did not stir as the cell door closed again, and Solana dumped the dazed Luisa to the floor. In moments, Solana loosened the winch, and lowered Esmerelda gently to the floor. The woman groaned, but could not move.

“There is a key here, somewhere,” Solana muttered, lifting Esmerelda's cuffed wrists, sorting through keys on a heavy ring. At length, she unlocked the weighty shackles, dragged the confessed witch to the wall. “Lie still, Esmerelda.”

Luisa, now, groaned as Solana forced her to the middle of the cell, locking her in fetters still warm from Esmerelda's wrists. In seconds, the chains clanked again, and Luisa was wrenched off the floor. When she had been hoisted high enough, Solana locked the brake. Luisa's beaten face was framed by her tautly upstretched arms. Her naked breasts shone with perspiration in the chill air. The chain from which she hung creaked slowly.

Solana returned to Esmerelda. “Can you stand?”

Esmerelda nodded weakly, her blue eyes searching Solana's face. “… Tell me why?”

Solana smiled. “Justice is finally being done.” She drew the hood of Luisa's captured robe over her face, her features concealed in its shadow, and helped Esmerelda stand. “I will have to tie your hands, but it is only until we are outside the city.”

Esmerelda nodded, and held her hands behind her back for the rope. She looked up at Luisa Consuela, who hung motionless by the wrists from heavy shackles, her nude body drawn and gleaming. “How did you do it?”

“It was she who did it,” Solana replied softly. “She craved her own indulgence too much.”

The cell door slammed shut on the dangling Luisa.

Alone, Luisa now began to struggle, trying to free her wrists, trying to twist her body about: but without leverage, it was futile. Sweat glossed her naked breasts and belly. The terrible pain of her burned tongue was now joined by the growing torment of the fetters about her wrists, the slow ache in the pits of her shoulders, the gradual torment of her own body's weight on her arms.

Slow sweat crept over Luisa's body, her bare skin greasy with a sheen of wet. Her lips were dry, all her strength gone. She moaned, briefly, in the hope that the guards might come and lower her: but there was no response. She knew already that even if they did come, they would not recognise her beaten face, nor could she ever tell them her identity, now that her tongue was burned away.

Slowly, her head sank forward onto her aching chest. She hung.

Twelve – Justice

The naked woman's bare feet slid in muddy snow, the breath from her nostrils made huge clouds in the icy winter air. With hands bound behind her back, she was dragged between two guards, two more in front, two more behind, towards the tall stake in the Town Square. She was gagged. Her dark hair hung ragged and lank about her bare shoulders. Her face was swollen, discoloured from a recent beating. She was weak from having hung in chains for several days without relief; and yet, she struggled, fighting with diminished strength to pull free of the guards' icy gauntlets.

There would have been little point breaking free, though. The Town Square was full of people, perhaps four hundred in all, come to watch the spectacle. Though they parted for the prisoner, their shouts of abuse were promise of what would happen if she fell into their hands.

“Suffer, witch!” “Back to the Devil with you!” She tried to catch the eyes of her tormentors, shaking her head wildly, her gagged protests lost beneath the cacophony. Her struggles all for nothing, they arrived: wooden boxes formed steps to a three-foot platform against the stake, and it was up onto this that the woman was dragged.

Her hands were untied, her arms held. A heavy iron bracket was placed about her waist, pinning her to the stake. The Executioner made it fast with heavy nails, hammering each through eyelets in the hasp. Next, her arms were lifted high over her head so that she was all but hanging, her wrists enclosed in blackened shackles that dangled from a bolted iron ring. At once she was struggling to break free, tugging repeatedly on the chains.

Below, other guards were hurriedly organising spectators with armfuls of wood and straw into a line, so they could stack their fuel about the stake's base. Without her tongue, the woman could only cry wordlessly in rage and dismay, as the guard clambered down from the platform, the place where he had stood quickly piled with wood for the fire.

Nearby, on a short step-ladder, the Bailiff briefly read aloud a list of charges, followed by confirmation that each had been confessed. “The sentence upon Esmerelda Lopez, carried out here today, is to be death by fire, that her soul may be purified.”

The woman shook her head wildly. I am not Esmerelda! I am Luisa Consuela! But her cries were mere bellows, and lost in the jeering of the crowd. Her frightened face framed by her own lifted arms, her nude body presented for open appraisal. The men looked on with lust, the women with smug pleasure that this beauty would soon die.

The Executioner stepped forward, a burning torch in his hand, and he gently touched the flame to straw at the pyre's base. Luisa reared back against the stake, her eyes wide in terror, shaking her head madly, barking out her fear.

The flames spread quickly, licking up through tinder-dry wood, sap crackling, sticks catching alight in moments. Luisa again struggled in her chains, wailing aloud above the excited clamour of voices, as the first cloudy swirls of smoke clambered past her face. She could already feel the savage, horrible heat on her legs, and her dread drew tears from her eyes. The crowd was devouring her fear, jeering and calling, standing well back from the growing radiance of the fire.

Luisa Consuela threw her head back and wept. Slow minutes passed. Terror ate into her, her body trembling, her heart pounding, the humiliation of being reduced to tears and begging in front of so many people more than she could bear. Her naked breasts heaved as she sobbed, her hands curled around the chains holding her arms aloft. For one desperate moment, she looked across the crowd, her eyes settled on a dark face, framed by a coruscating mane of hair. There was no triumph in Solana Degas' eyes, nor vindication: just sorrow that it had ever come to this.

Embers rode the climbing smoke, and stung her naked body. Luisa squeezed her streaming eyes shut against the pain, knowing that it was just a hint of the agony to come. In cruel irony, a breeze from the snow-covered rooftops briefly cleared the smoke. Gooseflesh peppered Luisa's bare skin, drew her nipples erect.

Then, the wind died, and flames suddenly lapped up through the wood, fluttering around Luisa's bare feet. She jolted, arched her back, her eyes flung wide. It felt as if she had been slashed with razor-sharp knives, and she jerked at her fetters. “Ohhhh!” Her first cry drew a roar of delight from the crowd. The wind made a brief return, blowing the flames back. She sagged, hanging fully in the shackles. Her feet steamed. Trails of sweat ran down her ribcage from her armpits, her nipples hardening again in the winter air. Her mouth was a shapeless expression of ongoing pain, her feet hurting beyond belief. She wailed aloud.

The wind ebbed, and the flames leaped again, enveloping her naked feet, licking up her gleaming calves, curling black smoke. As her skin shrank at the fire's touch, Luisa roared in pain, arched her back, screaming at the sky. The flames rallied and climbed, licking at her knees. Luisa bellowed, flinging her head side-to-side. Steam rose from her bare thighs. Sweat glued her hair to her face and neck.

The crowd had grown quiet. Luisa's agonised yells echoed about the town square, above the roar of the fire. As the stack of wood and straw filled with fire, waves of savage heat drifted up. The helpless woman's skin was polished with sweat. Tiny blue flames skittered through the fine hairs on her thighs. Hot air funneled up between her legs, blistering her sex, steam wisping through her thick pubic hair. Her screams became frantic, her struggles truly insane. But she was held firm, and the fire grew. Her feet were now alight, flesh turning to tallow. Flames briefly devoured her pubic bush, sputtering the spider-trail to her belly-button, kissing her buttocks and the muscled landscape of her belly.

For an endless time, Luisa screamed as her legs burned. Steam curled from the wet curves of her proud breasts. The wind returned, but this time merely served to guide the flames. They whipped and lapped at her like scourges, flaying her back with their touch. The fire loved her, enclosing her lower body, slowly licking at her. The hair of her armpits steamed and turned to charred nubble. She hung helplessly in the fire by her wrists, the bones of her feet snapping and popping loudly, audible above her screams.

A moment later, the hair on her head caught alight. It was a brilliant fireball, engulfing her whole face, and her screams were truly horrible. The tiny hairs on her lifted arms flashed away, as the flames, roaring high on savage updraughts, completely engulfed her. The crowd roared. Her legs were burning, skin turning to oil and igniting fiercely, while she continued to twist her torso amidst the inferno, screaming, unable to escape the agony that assailed every inch of her body.

She burned for perhaps five minutes, screaming, engulfed.

There were two loud thuds! as her pert breasts burst. Hot fat scattered the crowd, and Luisa's screams trailed into a long, agonised rattle, her face sheathed by fire. Still the agony continued, but the only sound was now the roar of flames, the hiss of a burning woman. Her struggles weakened, and, as minutes passed, ceased altogether: from her fettered arms, she hung limp, feeling herself burn. Her face was burning away. Her eyes exploded in bursts of hot liquid, her melting features graciously veiled by smoke and flame from the crowd.

Her shallow breaths drew heated air, destroying her lungs. Her nerves deadened by the fire, Luisa found herself almost without pain. Blind, mute, she was aware only of the thunder in her ears, the frantic beating of her heart as she hung by her wrists in the heart of a roaring bonfire. In a final moment of lucidity, she knew that she had succumbed without a shred of dignity, a screaming human torch.

Perhaps Justice had truly been served.

Solana Degas drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders. It had been twenty minutes since the fire was lit, and reports were drifting back that the Witch upon the stake had finally stopped moving. Even so, she would be allowed to burn until her bones exploded and fell from the blackened restraints, her ashes cast into the river.

In truth, Solana could not think of a more fitting end for the cruel torturer. And for Solana, a new beginning. It was a long ride to France, but Spring was close.

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