Four - The Lash
“Secure the witch! I wish to begin!”
In the space between two pillars, Solana was made to stand, while her hand s w ere untied. H er arm s w ere lifted up-and-out, her wrists locked in fetter s w hose chain s w ere connected to high metal rings. H er 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?” H er voice held fear: she had seen the instruments of torture. Perhaps Maria had been right? Maybe it wa s w iser to confess, and suffer only the flames? Luisa appeared in front of her. In her hand s w as 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. H er back was on fire. Sweat had broken out over her body. H er stretched arms shook, her legs had no strength, her heart pounded. H er 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. H er mouth wa s w ide, 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. Tear s w et her face, her body wa s w et with sweat. H er naked breasts heaved. H er hair was plastered to her decolletage and shoulders. H er back was bloody.
She whimpered. “Please, stop ...”
“Not until you confess.”
H er 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 dres s w ere soaked with sweat, her bare legs shining. She was panting, blue eyes fixed on the heaving, sobbing woman before her. “ H ave 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. “Thi s w as but the first torture. And compared to what I have planned, thi s w as 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 scar s w ould 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 eye s w ere 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.”
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. H e 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.