Saturday 17 July 2021

A Deleted Scene: Odell Examines the Accused

This scene appeared in her earlier versions of The Unflinching Ash manuscript, but was eventually removed due to pacing and clarity issues.  For those who could have done with more Odell, it's your lucky day.  The "woman" referred to in the scene is another accused heretic, separate from the mother of the foundling and from Neith. 


She’d gotten away.  Odell would have offered the woman tender care and guidance to bring about a remission of sins and see her made clean.  Fern had run instead. 

Odell’s eyes glazed over, out of focus.  A meeting went on around her.  With the foundling rehomed and the mother eluding rescue, the council had not known quite what to do with themselves.  That was, until they’d found another lost sheep.  This one wasn’t running. 

The council sat in a spaced circle, with Bishop Gregory enthroned at the circle’s head, framed between the basilica’s most prominent veiled statues.  Odell noted that her husband’s girth spread so that it bulged over the handles of his chair.  She winced.  He projected his voice for the council to hear.  “Another Thrice Accused has been brought before us, in need of our aid.  In seeking the mother of the foundling, another lost child was found. God works in mysterious ways.” 

Odell’s eyes came into focus on the girl – for that’s all she was – another young, lost lamb.  But Odell felt invigorated with purpose that this one might be ready to be saved.  The girl crouched on the floor at the circle’s centre, her head curled upon her drawn-up knees, her hair loose and unkempt down her back – all outward signs of suffering in her sins the girl would be experiencing within. 

“It is proposed the accused be examined for signs of a Mysteries Mark, signifying an irreversible pact made with The Unknown without God’s approval.” 

“Allow me, Bishop.”  Odell found herself standing.  She knew she couldn’t derail the meeting’s agenda or prevent this girl’s humiliation – three accusations exceeded her singular voice by two, should she raise it in defence.  But perhaps she could diminish the depth of the woman’s exposure and shame and make her reclamation something beautiful.

“My good wife, your support and desire to offer aid is noted before this assembly and before God, and is hereby approved.”

“Thank you, Bishop.”  Odell rose and approached, crouching beside the girl to whisper, “Come with me, away from all these eyes and let us have done with this.”

“Sister Gregory?  What are you about?”

“Only instructing the accused, Bishop.”

“The instruction has been given, Sister.  Please commence the examination.”

Odell flexed her jaw.  “I thought, in the Bishop’s wisdom, he would approve of the gi…accused…being removed from the chamber for a discreet examination, to preserve the modesty and virtue of all present.”

“Your intentions are noted, but without witnesses, the accused cannot be fairly tried.  Please proceed.  The council will bear record.”

What had she done?  Odell would now not only be complicit, but the one to make the abject public inspection.  There was a gentle way to bring a soul to a needful confession and repentance, and there was what she was being made to do instead.  Odell would rather nurse the lamb, easing out the barbs afflicting her, than straddle the animal, hacking off its wool and skin with it, having wolves looked on all the while.

Odell attempted to make eye contact with the girl through a shield of her waxy hair, and whispered, “We will find nothing.  You’ll go home soon enough.”  And change your ways, Odell thought, but she would teach her later.

A suppressed whimper was all that came in reply.

So it was that Odell became the hands that unlaced the meagre dress.  Her nails caught against healing lines upon the girl’s back – signs she had been beaten before.  It was Odell who lifted the girl’s hair to look upon her back, her neck, her chest.  Odell who extracted flinches, goosebumps and shudders like angry notes from an untuned violin.  As she worked her way down the girl’s ravaged body, Odell began to hope the girl was ready for saving.  Brought so low, how could she not be?  This was what wickedness had afforded her.  Then Odell came upon the bandage – grey, threadbare, and crudely wrapped about the girl’s left calf.  No good could come of removing it.  Odell made to lift the dress up around the girl, concluding the examination.

 “Bishop, if I may?”  An interjection came from a voice Odell knew well.  Gwen.  Meddlesome, unrestrained Gwen.  “Should we not remove the binding, good Bishop?”

Odell turned, placing herself between the girl, naked and cold, and Gwen, inflated and chin high, seated with the council.  Odell had fought hard to have women represented and she could not have asked for a poorer counterpart.  The balance of the council eyed Odell shrewdly, all ten of them men.  She took stock of each of their expressions – a motley array ranging from sleepy to outright lecherous.  This is why she had wanted women present.  So often Trials by Ordeal were of women; it was only decent that female chaperons should attend.  Odell knew well that being bestowed with the responsibility of governance did not equate to being blessed with compassion.  Compassion was a natural grace given to women. 

“Removing the dressing may turn the accused’s injury putrid.  It’s prudent to leave it as it is, Bishop, sir.”

“Then all accused might simply find a bit of cloth to secure about their Marks, and thereby evade detection, yes?”

Odell closed her eyes, and counted to three.  She then turned to the girl.  “I tried,” she said.

The fabric appeared cleaner the deeper she unwound it.  Eventually, all had unfurled, and there unmasked lay a gash, stitched closed, the length of a veil candle.  The stitching was surprisingly neat.

Odell addressed the council.  “I recommend the trial be deemed satisfied.  I detect no mark suggesting a sacrilegious bargain.”  Did they truly believe the Mysteries so brazen as to mark their conspirators?  Odell believed the Mysteries to be more nuanced.

Bishop Gregory rose from his seat and stalked to the fore.  “Your judgement is noted, Sister Gregory.  I, however, have questions for the accused.” 

The girl curled inwards, as though she might enfold her breasts, navel and pubic bone within the cover of her back and hair and shield it all from this man.  Odell lifted the girl’s dress up around her.

“Sister Gregory, this trial is not yet over.”  Bishop Gregory spoke and Odell froze.  “As God’s servant – His mouthpiece and eyes upon the earth – I deem the trial at its zenith.  You know better than to attempt to hide a sin before God, who sees all.” 

Sister Gregory allowed the garment to fall.  She stepped back. 

Bishop Gregory addressed the girl.  “Thrice Accused, I now speak to you, and you may answer.  What happened to your leg?”

A sniff.

“I am allowing you to bear witness for yourself, despite three others’ accusations.  Do not squander it.”

“I had need of surgery, Bishop.”

“And why, pray tell, did you have need?  What was your affliction?”

A minute shake of the head.

“Did you not bear a mark?  An unnatural mark, unintended by God, which you have had removed in an attempt to hide your nature from God and this council.”

The girl’s shaking could not be hidden; the tendrils of her hair quivered in answer.

The bishop spoke past the girl, though his breath caused her hair to waft away from her face, he loomed so close.  “Let it be noted, the accused felt a need to remove a mark in anticipation of her appearance before these witnesses – an admission of guilt, as plain as the sun at Dawn’s Veil.  Else what need to hide it?”

“So said I, Bishop.”  Gwen could not keep her mouth shut.

Odell would find no compatriot in compassion there.  If there was to be mercy, it was hers to propound.  She hesitated.  Her attempts to spare the girl this humiliation had only brought her closer to its inducement. 

The girl was indeed guilty, but Odell felt they had not established her guilt here.  “Bishop, with reverence, I have not heard a confession nor can I bear record that such a mark existed.  Perhaps fear with such an audience has stolen the accused’s tongue, so she cannot explain how she came by an injury needing correction, if I might be permitted…”

Bishop Gregory’s eyes flashed in anger only briefly, then simmered.  He had settled upon something, she could see it.

“Very well, Sister Gregory.  As you, a respected member of this council, believe this trial has failed to produce proof of guilt, on the morrow we shall move to Trial by Stone, so there may be no doubt.”

No.  Odell fumed.  She hastened to cover the girl, looking into the roof-work as she did.  She did not seek permission – if this trial was over, the girl need not stand naked before them a moment longer. 

While the bishop offered them his back on his return to his seat, she looked to the girl.  Where Odell expected to find fear or rage she instead found pleading and…surrender.  What did the girl want?  Another minute shake of her head.

“I…”  Odell clapped a hand over the girl’s mouth after the single syllable.   The girl intended to confess – perhaps to an unnatural mark, or perhaps to her well-known propensity for dispensing tea that bound women’s wombs.  The young herbalist believed she knew how another trial would go. More pain, humiliation, and then a verdict resulting in her death.  She intended to bring it sooner, and skip the added measures of pain and humiliation.

Quickly and as gently as Odell could, she said, “I believe God can and does intervene for His children, and I will pray he does so for you.”

The bishop’s head snapped around.  She would bear the brunt of her defiant whispers that night, she was sure.  So be it.  She would endure it.  God saw that too.  Saw her.  And tomorrow, He might see this girl, and save her.  Odell would be the first to embrace her, should the Thrice Accused prove worthy to return to full fellowship.  The girl could cease her wickedness and accept God.  Odell would not give up on the lamb yet.