Seeing Red

Gransys. A city of beauty, strict laws and dark secrets. Here anyone with hair of fire (as the people call it) is evil. Here red hair is an abomination. So how can one young girl survive here? Living alone in the cathedral belltower away from the outside world. How can she be accepted? How can she finally belong?

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3. The Festival

The sun on her face, the wind in her hair. She had never felt pleasure like it.
Scaling the high wall, she prayed no one would look up. Music drifted up from down below. The sounds of flutes, trumpets and drums. The city was so happy. Her heart leapt at the thought of joining them. Dropping, grabbing, leaping, she climbed down the high stone wall. A flock of birds swept past, some chirping in surprise. Her cloak fluttered in the wind, she pulled the hood lower so her hair wouldn't show. Glancing down, she saw the people gathered in a large circle watching a group of dancers. The sounds of flutes, trumpets and drums drifted up through the air. Not far below Ezra saw a ledge just wide enough to stand on, as she dropped she missed it by inches. Heart racing, she grabbed it hard as she could. The stone rubbed her hands but she felt no pain. Ringing the bells had roughened her hands, they were hard and leathery now.
As a strong wind whipped her, she felt glad she was wearing trousers. Down below, all the women were wearing dresses. This was another thing that made her different. They wore dresses and skirts, she wore trousers. Khaki green and skinny, she also wore a black polo shirt and long black loose jacket for warmth. On her feet she worse knee-high, brown lace-up leather boots. Their hair was pinned up, hers hung loose. But then there was the major difference. They were monsters, their hair wasn't like living fire.
One last drop and she was just above the ground. No one was watching her. They were all watching the performers and exploring the stalls. Shock rushed up her legs as her feet touched the ground. She was free. A part of the people.

All around there was something to excite the senses. The bright colours, the sound of the music: drums, trumpets, tambourines, flutes; so many smells: freshly baked bread, sweet and sharp fruits, exotic herbs and spices, tempting meats and fish, the sweet scent of honey-cakes and the strong perfume of flowers. But food wasn't the only thing on offer. There were stalls selling different cloths and fabrics, jewellery, beautifully carved wooden and metal sculptures. In particular, Ezra was drawn to one stall stock piled with different books. She couldn't help admiring the many volumes on offer. Different bindings of leather, velvet and other materials Ezra was not familiar with. Some thick, others thin. Silver and gold imprinted markings and titles. In Ezra's eyes, seeing so many volumes felt like a haven.
The old woman running it watched Ezra carefully as she surveyed the many volumes on offer. Her white hair pinned back in a loose bun.
"Are you from around here?" she asked, her grey eyes glittering with curiosity.
"I guess I live close." replied Ezra, not looking up, holding her hood low over her eyes.
The woman was clearly not done with her interrogation.
"Why are you so heavily hooded? What are you hiding?"
Not looking up Ezra hesitated before replying, "I am not fond of my appearance."
Thankfully, the woman did not pry any further. But Ezra still remained a little on edge.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" her smile was warm but it did not reach her eyes.
Ezra shook her head, quickly pulling her hood forward as it slipped back on her head, "I am just browsing."
The woman dropped her gaze for a moment as she picked up a thick purple velvet bound volume printed with a silver flower pattern. Ezra admired the beautiful cover before flicking through the yellowing pages. Each filled with different texts, sketches, diagrams and paintings. It didn't take Ezra long to work out what it was.
Shoving the book back into the old woman's withered hands her voice became low and urgent, "This is a book of magic! Don't you know it's forbidden here?"
The warm smile now reached her eyes as the woman pushed it back towards Ezra, "I know but there's something about you. You glanced up and I saw it in your eyes. I can't quite put my finger on it."
Ezra did not resist this time, "But I can't afford it. I'm sorry but I have no money."
The smile did not fade, "You keep it."
She picked up another thick volume bound in black velvet with the title, "Fantastic Beasts and Mythical Creatures" printed in silver writing and the image of a colourful Chinese dragon.
"I think you should have this as well."
Ezra took the volume holding it carefully on top of the first.
"I hope you find them useful."
Ezra smiled then turned away, the two books concealed under her cloak. As she disappeared into the crowd a thought crossed her mind. She had not looked up once. So how had the old woman seen her eyes?

With that thought on her mind, she decided to take the time to explore some of the other stalls. No sign of her master so hopefully, for now, she was safe. Keeping her hood low and her books concealed under her arm beneath her cloak, she weaved through the vast crowd to explore the sights. It was surprisingly easy to get past the crowd. The majority of them were still watching the performers in the centre of the square. Just as she was about to pass a stall selling brightly coloured fabrics, someone knocked into her. As she lost her balance, she dropped her books and her hood slipped back. Just before she fell a hand grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet.
"Sorry about that." the male voice was warm and kind, "Are you okay?"
Ezra quickly gathered the fallen books back up and pulled her hood forward again, "I'm fine, thank you."
Cautiously looking up she saw the face of the person who had helped her. He was young, around her age. He had bright blue eyes and loose dark brown hair, the most widely accepted hair colour in gransys. He was only a little taller than her.
"Is this your first time here?" he asked, "I don't remember seeing you here before."
Ezra gave a small anxious smile, "I've only ever watched before. This is the first time I have actually visited."
The young man looked slightly puzzled before laughing, "What's your name?"
Ezra held her breath, conflicted over whether or not to reply with an honest answer.
"Ariel." she replied finally.
The young man smiled again, "Beautiful name. The angel of protection or lion of God."
Ezra was not surprised he had gone into the meaning of the false name she had given. Cleeves had taught her that in gransys names were given based on their meaning.
"Well Ariel, I hope I will see you again sometime."
Ezra nodded smiling. As she walked past him she heard him whisper in her ear, "Your hair is beautiful."
He must have seen her hair before she was able to cover it again. Her heart fluttered at the compliment. It was the first she had ever received especially regarding her hair.
She had barely gone a few steps when another person shoved into her again knocking her sideways. Mocking laughter sounded which quickly rippled among some of the crowd as she fell into a stall selling different fruits, knocking over a basket of apples scattering them everywhere. As she bent to pick them up she noticed a small, thin figure seemingly no older than a child, dressed in rags, grab an apple and scarper. Surprisingly no one noticed but a thousand eyes bore into Ezra as she quickly picked the ruby red apple scattered around. She didn't notice her hood slowly slip back.
"Thief!" yelled a thunderous voice.
She looked around expecting to see another small ragged figure but everyone was staring at her. Her blood chilled as she dropped the apple and ran, the books still concealed beneath her cloak. Tears streamed down her face as she ran towards the cathedral, she was petrified.
Suddenly, someone grabbed her cloak from behind choking her and causing her hood to drop. Everyone stared in horror as her hair hung loose around her face. By now her eyes were red from crying and she coughed as air quickly re-entered her lungs. For a moment there was silence then the shouting began.
"It's Ezra the bell-ringer!"
"Thieving witch!"
"Demon!"
"Go back to Hell where you belong!"
"Burn her!"
"Hang her!"
"Silence!" the final voice was deep, authoritive and all too familiar.
The crowd parted as Cleeves approached, a small gang of armed guards in his wake. He stared at Ezra with silent fury, his eyes ablaze despite his appearance of calmness.
"Master," Ezra quietly pleaded, "please...help me."
Cleeves raised his hand to ensure silence in the crowds who had gathered to watch what was about to happen.
"Please..." her voice choked up so she could no longer speak.
"Arrest her." Cleeves stared right into her eyes.
Ezra barely breathed as two guards rushed forward to grab her. They held her tight and stiff by the arms. Her instincts told her to break free and run. But she couldn't do it. She suddenly realised the two books she had been carrying had disappeared. But she knew she hadn't dropped them. This thought was quick to leave her mind as Cleeves gave his orders to the rest of the guards.
"Lead her to the platform where the dancers were. Bind her there so she cannot escape. Fetch the whip."
The crowd cheered at this.
"The witch will be made an example of." Cleeves declared to the crowd, "You ask for blood and it will be given. She will not face execution this day, her crimes are not enough. Fifty lashes for theft, a hundred for consorting with the devil."
Ezra tried in vain to fight back as she was dragged to the large, wide wooden platform. Her cloak and jacket were stripped from her then, to humiliate her further, her t-shirt was removed so she wore nothing but a makeshift bra. The ropes bit into her skin as she was tied down in a kneeling position. She tried to avoid the mocking, jeering looks of the crowd. One guard stepped up carrying a black leather whip.
The crowd watched in anticipation as the whip was raised above her.
Then the first agonising lash came down.

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