By Jordan Legg
“Are you ready?”
The opening of metal hinges echoed in Hugh’s ears, and he heard the sound of heavy footfalls in the passage outside. A set of keys jingled in someone’s hands. The old man gripped his crutch tightly and looked up to see the door swing open. A large jailer stood in the doorway before them, wrinkling his nose at the excremental stench. He surveyed the two men and then stepped into the cell to gather up the aged Hugh in his massive arms. After flinging the old man over his shoulder, the jailer gave John a kick.
“Up,” he growled.
John’s hands groped at the floor beneath him until they finally hit the stone wall. The jailer carried Hugh out of the cell, and John felt a shove in the back directing him to move forward. Their officers took them up the stairs of the dungeon and eventually into the open air. Hugh’s feeble body was flung roughly onto the back of a waiting horsecart, and John, too, was lifted up and placed beside his comrade.
“To Stratford-le-Bow,” the jailer told the cart driver. The driver whipped up the reins, the horse gave a whinny, and the wheels of the cart began to bounce their cargo up and down over the cobblestone streets of London. The cart was flanked by two black-clad men-at-arms astride large black horses, baring their weapons to ensure an orderly execution.
Hugh put his crutch aside and tried to turn to better see his companion. The crutch had not helped him walk in years, but he had always carried it with him out of stubbornness. He winced as his hands forced two limp legs around, cursing the paralysis that had plagued him for over forty laborious years. A little grunt escaped his throat. He ground his teeth together.
Hugh had needed crutches since age four. His father had fashioned them out of a pair of sticks, branching out in a tripod at the bottom and allowing him to walk around town. When he was ten, his father died, and Hugh was left with no recourse but to compensate for his disability by the mercies of other men.
He sought the pity of the Church, which his father had extolled with his dying breath. Hugh had been dutiful—he had prayed and fasted, and dragged himself into Mass with the pious hope that he might find favour in the eyes of God. He had heard the priests tell of the healing that awaited the faithful, and seen them parade their indulgences through town with the promise that when coins in coffers ring, souls from Purgatory spring.
But he had no coin for an indulgence. He could not buy the blessing of a priest. And not once had he tasted the blood of Christ at the Eucharist—it was reserved for clerics only, lest the commoner spill a drop and tread upon the very blood of God. If he could buy no indulgence, nor partake in the holy wine, what hope was there for the salvation of his soul?
It was then that he heard rumours of men like Christopher Lyster and John Mace. Lutherans, it was said, who preached that no indulgence would save men from the fires of Hell, but only by a naked faith in Christ and in his death and resurrection. No churchman was needed for this sacred faith, Hugh heard—only the plain Scriptures, which had now been translated into the common English tongue.
He had sought out Lyster and Mace, and had thus met the young John Apprice, who sat before him now. Hugh had known what his allegiance to these Lutherans meant—it was a heresy punishable by death. They had all plainly told him so. They had known this was coming. Their entire fellowship had been telling one another to be ready for the stake long before any had been arrested. In this company, with these books, and in this Eucharist there lies danger, they had told one another. Every man and woman among them had known it. And now their fears had come to fruition. Hugh and John had been preparing for this ride ever since casting their lot in with the Protestants. And not two weeks ago, they had been discovered by Bishop Bonner’s men-at-arms. They had been seized and tried, and then there in Newgate they had waited for their sentence to be carried out, hoping and praying that when the time came, they would be given due courage.
He remembered the meetings that they had had together, he and John Apprice and the others that had met to break bread in secret. They had met in houses, secretly, praying and worshipping together. Someone had brought in Tyndale’s New Testament, and together they had marvelled at the words they found in that forbidden text. Now here, riding down this old cobblestone street, caught at last, Hugh reflected on the death that would surely come.
He had not expected it to be like this. All the hours spent in introspection, in steeling his spiritual grit for his inevitable final hour, seemed wasted upon knowing that the hour had come. This day, Hugh Laverock and John Apprice would stand before God. All he had yet hoped for in his earthly life was cut short. They would see no earthly retribution, he thought. He would not see the fate of the rest of their little Protestant congregation that yet waited, some in Newgate Prison, and some still at large and safe from the wrath of Bishop Bonner. There was this day only, and then he would behold Christ, waiting for them on the other side.
“Hugh,” John said.
“Are you afraid?”
“No,” the old cripple told him with a grimace, and in that moment, wondered if he had told the truth. “We’ll burn today, John—that much is certain.” He wished his voice did not tremble so. “But I know wherein my hope lies. And before this day is out,” he forced a smile, “I shall walk again.”
“I’m afraid, Hugh,” whispered the blind man. “It is my last day without my eyes. Tell me what you see.”
Hugh looked about him. “The whole of London’s waiting round us,” he said, “with folk of all sorts watching us and walking alongside the cart to the Stratford stake.” His voice grew strained and heavy. “There’s scorn in some eyes and sorrow in others, and in some it’s hard to tell between the two. Bishop Bonner stands beside the waiting stake, arrayed in rich prelate red, and round him his men-at-arms pile bundles of kindling round the faggot. They’re readying it to be lit.”
John nodded. “What else?”
Hugh found it hard to describe anything more. His eyesight was not what it once had been, but even in his old age he found it hard to imagine a life of total blindness. How could he describe what else he saw?
“Just speak, Hugh, please,” came the plea from the man beside him.
“He’s flanked by other clerics, doctors and priests in their black robes,” said the old man. “A few knights on horses lie on the outside, watching to make certain there be no mischief here. There are drummers standing round the stake in a circle, waiting for their orders. The old stone chapel lies silently yonder, as if watching and waiting for when they set the flames.”
“See you any of our number?” John asked nervously.
“Aye,” Hugh whispered, his voice shaking. “A few, here and there.”
The cart stopped before the waiting bishop, and a few men-at-arms dragged Hugh off the cart and up onto the platform, where the waiting stake stood like a bone, waiting to be clothed in the flesh of its victims. Hugh grabbed hold of his crutch as his handlers shoved his body up against the piece of wood, behind the stack of kindling, and chained him under the arms to the pole. One of them moved to take the crutch from him, but the paralytic dropped it before he could take it away. He hung there, limp and trembling. Yes, afraid.
The proud bishop stared down at the old beggar, and raised a scrutinizing eyebrow. His mouth pursed with haughty self-righteousness. Hugh thought back to the trial, six days before, when the bishop had demanded the two men confess transubstantiation, and when he had insisted that only through the Catholic sacrament of body and blood might one receive the mercy of God.
The men-at-arms thrust John down against the stake on the other side of his companion, and together they began to tie his arms around it to secure their victim.
“Tell me more of what you see, Hugh,” John whispered to him.
“It’s a bright blue sky over us this morning,” Hugh told him, “with the sun shining down upon trees greener than I’ve ever seen in all my days. It makes me wonder what they’ll look like in July, when all the world is in full bloom.”
From the other side of the stake, Hugh could hear the blind man emit a nearly inaudible chuckle. “Today, Hugh,” he whispered with wonder, “today at last I’ll see it.”
“That you will,” replied Hugh, and a smile spread across his own face. He ran his hands around the unfeeling legs beneath him, crumpled between the kindling and the stake. For a moment he felt the weight of despair—what if their reward did not come?
What if the grace of Christ did not wait for them on the other side of death? What if they were to be met, not with resurrection in the presence of God, but the agonies of Purgatory, or worse, the fires of Hell itself? Or what if there was nothing at all beyond the stake? A terrible, aching emptiness, a non-existence, a cruel trick by a world indifferent to cruelty and injustice?
And yet it was so tempting to imagine the vigour rippling through the bones beneath his flesh, and standing up straight for the first time in forty years. He yearned for the sensation of strength in those old bones—the glory of standing tall the way men were meant to do. How long it had been since that strength had been his—and today, at last, it would be again. He thought back to his childhood, and the feeling of bare feet against the cobbled streets of Barking parish.
“And I shall walk, John. Finally, I’ll know what it means to walk again.” Even as he said it, his voice began to grow more excited, and quickly he whispered, “It won’t be for long, John. It won’t be for long—and then at last you will see. We will see. We’ll see him.”
The drums began to roll and the crowd grew quiet. Faster and faster the drummers pounded their sticks against the skins, echoing Hugh’s pounding heart, and finally, they stopped. Bishop Bonner spoke.
“On this, the Fifteenth of May, in the Year of Our Lord 1556, I find Hugh Laverock and John Apprice guilty of heresy against the traditions and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church; namely, the rejection of the Eucharist, of the veneration of the saints, and of the preaching of indulgences and Purgatory. Yet even now, God’s mercy is at hand, if only these two men will humble themselves and recant their blasphemy against the Church of God.”
Hugh thought for a moment of the fire that would come if they persisted in silence. The terrible consumption of fire over their flesh. His tongue trembled, wishing to succumb to the bishop’s taunt. But no sound came from his mouth. He wondered if he was just too afraid to speak up, and prayed for the reprieve from the temptation that came with silence.
“Very well. Hugh Laverock and John Apprice, guilty of heresy, are hereby sentenced to be burned at the stake. May God have mercy on your souls.”
The men-at-arms lit the torches and thrust them forward into the kindling beneath the two men. The stifled smoke climbed through the kindling and filled their noses. Heat began to intensify against their skin. The bishop glared at them with cold arrogance. They could see the beginnings of a blaze, growing beneath the shade of the kindling around them. Then, suddenly, the flame seemed to shoot up, and the sound of crackling filled their ears. John panted frantically, as the blaze rose quickly around him, like a dog leaping up to grab fresh meat dangling just above its reach. A pitiable, suppressed whine leaked through John’s tortured lungs, and his eyes widened, darting frantically across the platform, as if they might find some way of escape.
“Hugh!” he cried out.
Hugh bent his head back in an effort to behold his companion. Fear was audible in John’s desperate breaths, and visible on his tormented face.
“Be of good comfort, my brother; for my Lord of London is our good physician.” The crippled man inhaled deeply, but could not contain his breath for very long. “Oh,” he sighed, “oh, he will heal us both shortly,” he took a laboured breath, “you of your blindness, and me… me of my lameness.” Pain seared through him like he had never known before, and he heard a tortured scream erupt across the square. It was his own. “Hold on, John,” he cried, “it won’t be for long.” He gasped a lungful of air. “Remember the text: ‘These are they which came out of great tribulation,’” he gave another wild, painful scream, “‘and have… have washed their robes and made them… made them white, white with the blood,” he cringed with the sting, “of the Lamb.’” Out of the corner of his eye, Hugh saw the tormented head of John Apprice nod violently, banging against the stake.
The flames ran madly across the cone of kindling round the stake, and began to sense the scalding heat against his own leathery skin. It grew closer, and soon the flames began to lick corrosion across his skin. His breath vibrated loudly back and forth across his throat as he fought the fire for the air around him. It was like a ravenous animal, consuming, suffocating its condemned victims. Smoke, dry and unfeeling, filled his nostrils, making it difficult to breathe, difficult to concentrate. He winced, and his teeth churned against one another. He could taste blood on his tongue as fire charred his trembling body. Hugh hardly knew what to hope for as he felt the fire deepen its scars across his ancient body. He had often wondered whether death would be painful—and perhaps for others it was, but not for him. He could feel it all—every terrible, excruciating cut. He reminded himself silently with each passing minute—it’s that much closer. That much closer to the end. That much of it is over with, and afterwards—
No. Not an end, he knew. A beginning. He would walk again. Today. He knew it, as surely as he had known anything. And surely that was not his greatest reward. Today, he thought—today he would see beyond that global veil. Today he would look upon Christ, and run, laughing, into his waiting arms. Today he would hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He just needed to hold on. It wouldn’t be for long.
Jordan Legg is originally from Oshawa, Ontario, and is currently studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. He has been published twice before at Issue 16 of epiphmag.com and the September 2012 issue of the science fiction branch of fictionmagazines.com. When he is not writing he enjoys cycling, drawing, playing soccer, reading, and growing his beard.