"I'm not a witch!"
It had been a phrase, a plea for mercy that Noelle had spoken perhaps a hundred, a thousand times, in the past month.
She had begged, pleaded, bargained in whatever way she could bear. But it had done nothing to change her fate. The iron manacles around her wrists bit with intense pain, and her collar felt like it tightened around her throat by the minute. The snowfall from the early morning had slowed, but the ground was still caked in the sheet of pure white she was dragged across, the town guards clad in thick armor as she saw the stake that awaited her. Others were nearby, with the frozen, ruined corpses of previous 'witches' collapsed against their chains, a metal helmet placed over their heads to forever hide their identities.
"Noelle Freyyr." Her stomach sank as Father Beckett approached, still dressed in his perfect silken church robes, trusty book by his side. "You have been tried and found guilty of…heinous, abominable crimes. Witchcraft, heresy, the speaking of false truths before the Gods…yet you have continued to claim innocence to your crimes and deny yourself penance."
"I..am..innocent." She rasped weakly, starved of food and left without water. They had left her in her cell to rot away, and it had certainly the intended effect. Beneath the filthy rags she was clad in, her body had withered and thinned to the point her ribs stretched against her pale skin, nearly as white as the snow her feet bled on. Her hair was raven black, though now long and unkempt from captivity. Her grey eyes stared weakly, desperately at the man now responsible for her fate. Other townsfolk glared at her hatefully, wielding torches and pitchforks as they jeered at her.
"I-I..am not…a witch. I-I grew u-up with a-all of you!" She sobbed, crying out as the guards threw her into the snow, loosening her chains as they began strapping her to the stake. Her eyes darting through the crowd desperately, Noelle pulled against her restraints, crying out in pain as her emaciated wrists cut against the frozen metal. "I-I know you! H-Hank! W-We grew up together! Pylor? I-I b-bought bread from you before t-this all happened!"
Father Beckett sighed, shaking his head as he approached her.
"Your blasphemies have driven you mad, my child. I only wish I could have saved you sooner." Nodding to another priest as Noelle was pulled against the stake, her arms tangled in the chains as she struggled against her binds, Beckett produced a mask-like helmet, forged of crude iron and featureless, save for space to breath. Fitting the oversized helmet over her head, the Father uttered a silent, mournful prayer as Noelle fought it, shaking her head desperately.
"P-Please, don't do t-this. N-Not this!" She begged, breaking out into worse sobbing as he ignored her pleas, forcing the helmet over her and muffling her.
The crude sun insignia of the church was welded into the mask, though Noelle could hardly keep her head upright.
"And so the Heretic is judged. Here, she will join the others in her transcendence of humanity."
Noelle threw herself against the chains, screamed futilely as against the mask that made them all but deaf to her.
"Goodbye, Noelle Freyyr. May the Gods have mercy on your soul."
One of the guards reached out and tore away her rags as the townsfolk jeered, leaving her naked, emaciated, and shivering as Father Beckett finished his prayers, shaking his head as the crowd began to thin out.
"…For the living have none." He spoke softly, eying her starved body as he shut his book, walking away and nodding to the twin guards to leave.
"F-Father? F-FATHER!" Noelle begged, her chains rattling as she was met with nothing but the cold winds of exile.
Despite whatever desperate, broken hope she had held, she would freeze here. Feeling her tears freeze against her cheeks and the mask, Noelle quietly sobbed as she felt frostbite taking over, a strange, shrill warmth replacing the unbearable cold.
"I-I'm…in…innocent…" She whispered, her breath slowing as her consciousness faded.