The heat was everywhere, clawing ferociously at her skin, scalding her body. Her breath came in short gasps, lungs screaming for air. The bright flames and smoke scorched her eyes and tears carving a path down her face as her soul filled with terror. She was going to burn.
Throwing herself forward, she struggled wildly at her bonds. Her hands were tied behind her to a post, and she could feel a sticky warmness run down her wrist as she tore against the rope digging into her skin.
She felt her body weakening as the fire roared closer. She looked desperately around her. Pale, gaunt faces waited just outside the flames, watching her death struggle. They watched her accusingly, not a shred of remorse in their expressions. Witch, they had called her, demon, temptress, blasphemer, unholy. They insured her fate with a clean conscious.
She would have yelled if she could, screamed at them, the murderers, shouted her hate and despair and fear loud enough for the world to hear. Loud enough for her King to hear, to regret her death, his broken promise.
She would have cried if her lungs weren't choked with smoke and if she wasn't already sagging against the pole, the life draining from her limbs. She wanted to cry as she never could before, loosen the torrent of anguish that constantly welled inside her heart.
Then her rough woolen shift caught fire, her skin blistered, and God God please save me—
Joanne lurched out of her dream, her muscles tensed tight and her body coated in sweat. Slowly, painfully, she relaxed, forcing her muscles to unclench and her breathing to slow. She slowly sat up, untangling herself from the messy sheets.
She rested her head in her hands, utterly drained. Joanne's nightmare came about once or twice a month, never failing to terrify her.
Running her hands through her short, dark brown hair, she glanced at her alarm clock. 4:36. She groaned. It was too late to go back to bed, and besides, her fear wouldn't allow her to fall asleep again. Climbing out of bed and shivering in her shorts and tank top, she padded across the hallway to her bathroom.. She took a hot shower and dressed in her usual outfit: fighting clothes. Her loose trousers and dark blue, long-sleeved shirt were chosen for comfort and flexibility. She walked downstairs for a granola bar, tugged on her tennis shoes, and grabbed her duffel bag and flame-bladed longsword. Striding through the cold morning air towards the park, she planned on maiming a few practice dummies. Hopefully it would help to shake the terror loose from her mind.
She unlocked the shed at the park and set up a dummy at the weapons pit. She pulled on her chain mail shirt, fastened on her leather forearm and shin guards, and unsheathed her sword. It was long and flame bladed, the undulated metal glinting in the dim light. It had a long handle, and she wielded it two-handed, but could use only one if needed.
Joanne took a fighting stance and attacked it. Cutting, stabbing, slicing, she went through her range of moves until she heard someone cough behind her. She whirled around, bringer her sword up between them, ready to defend herself. Standing at the edge of the sand pit, arms crossed, was Balder, the leader of the Regional Authority and her mentor.
Flushing, she lowered her sword and sheathed it. "Sorry, sir." She said, embarrassed. She ran a hand through her sweat-soaked hair and tried to slow her rapid breathing. Feeling his steady gaze on her, she avoided looking at him. He always had the uncanny ability to see straight through her and she didn't want him to know her thoughts, not right now. She cursed inwardly, she should be able to keep a tighter leash on her emotions.
"Something wrong, Frey?" He asked in his Norwegian accent, using his nickname for her. As near as she could tell, it was the equivalent of calling her a beautiful soldier. Joanne had always wondered at that. Balder had been almost like a father to her; he was one of the group that had found her after she was turned immortal, he had taught her to fight, physically and politically, and had brought her along to set up the first base for the Order in the Americas. She was a soldier, fine, one of his best soldiers, but beautiful?
"Couldn't sleep." She finally looked at him. His eyes narrowed, and Joanne knew he thought that was complete bull. "What about you? Insomnia?" She shot back.
He smiled, and Joanne felt the corner of her mouth twitch up in response. It was an old joke between them. She wasn't sure when it had started, but the (very lame) punchline was that gods didn't sleep. Balder and Joanne were good at many things, but comedians they were not.
Still grinning, he strode over to her. "I'll help you pack up." Together, they took down the practice dummy and put it's mangled remains in the box marked damaged. Someone would fix it later that day. Balder grabbed a water bottle from the shed and tossed it to her. Taking a large gulp and wincing at the warm water, she sat down against the outside of the small building. Balder settled down beside her.
Joanne leaned her head against the shed, eyes closed, trying to relax, but the knot of anxiety and terror in her stomach refused to lessen.
"You know," Balder said after a few minutes, "I'm glad."
"About what?" She muttered, eyes still shut.
"That you found a friend."
"What?" Joanne stared at him, confused.
"Melody, I mean."
"Okay..." She thought it over. "I didn't have friends before?"
"Not really." She glared at him. "You had friends," He amended quickly, waving his hands, "work friends, fighting friends. Those were more like... allies, I suppose. Melody is an actual friend. Through think and thin and... well, you know." He finished lamely.
Joanne smiled at seeing the ancient Norse god flustered. He was never very good at heart-too-hearts. Then again, neither was Joanne.
He covered up his awkwardness with a snort. "Besides, you need someone to talk about guys and shopping and dresses and stuff."
"Right. Dresses." She rolled her eyes.
"Important girl business." Balder said with a mock-serious face, glancing at her out of the corner of her eye.
"Of course. Top secret." She mimicked his expression, getting to her feet. Glancing around her, she was surprised that the sun had risen already, soft light filling the air. "I have to get back home. I don't get many days off and I want to make the best of it."
"Well, I get no days off." He sighed, rubbing his face and groaning. "We're hosting the Satyr National Council today."
"Merde. Have fun without me." She called as she walked away, hearing him mutter under his breath behind her.
A few hours later, she sat in a restaurant across the table from Melody, sipping her tea and talking (which involved mainly listening when it came to Melody) about her classes. She smiled at a stupid joke Melody told and gradually felt the knot in her stomach dissolve.