For a long time, all Seka had known was dark, loneliness and fear.
Now they were taking her to the stake in the village centre.
‘I’m going to fall, stumble on this uneven ground, soon,’ Glom, one of her guards, and an old friend of her father, whispered in her ear as he helped drag her towards the stake piled high with dry wood that would burn easily.
Seka looked down at the smooth dusty ground worn flat and hard by many generations of villagers.
‘I’ll probably stumble into Henk, and we’ll both let go of you,’ he continued, the roughness of his heavy beard pressed against her cheek as he spoke. ‘We’ll be in such a tangle we’ll be unable to chase you as you run away, deep into the woods.’ He looked into her eyes as they approached the chanting, howling mass of drunken villagers gathered around the pyre. ‘Do you understand?’
Seka thought she saw tears in his eyes. She nodded.
‘I do this for you, almost a daughter to me. And for the memory of my greatest friend, your father. Gods rest his bones.’ Glom took a breath and then fell.
Seka almost forgot to move as Glom and Henk entangled themselves on the ground at her feet. Then, with a fearful glance at the pyre, she turned and ran for the woods.
It took hours of running full tilt through the woods to escape. The trees, briars, brambles all tearing at the thin shift that was her only clothing, scratching and cutting her skin. Sharp stones, thorns and broken twigs cut into her bare feet as she ran.
For hour after hour, she heard the howling mob careering and crashing through the woods after her. There was an enthusiasm in the chase as though it was some extra treat added on to the witch burning as a holiday bonanza for the village. Seka knew they would not stop chasing her until the wine and ale ran out and everyone collapsed in a drunken heap on the forest floor.
But she knew the woods, first as apprentice to the old wise woman, Blena, then as village wise woman herself when Blena died.
At the trial, they blamed her for that too. The dead cows, the children dead in childbirth, the outbreak of the red disease, all blamed on Seka. The witnesses were mainly young women envious of her power and status, and the way all the young men watched her as she walked through the village. They all told of how Seka had cursed them. How she sold them love potions that turned their men against them and not to them. Hulp had even told how Seka had tempted him into the barn and forced him to do all manner of strange lusts upon her. The whole village had listened intently to that. All of them nodding and agreeing that Hulp had not the wit to invent such practices himself.
Seka was fairly sure Hulp didn’t know what half of those things he spoke of were too. But she did wonder who’d tutored him in his allegations and found out about those things she did like to do. Blena had taught her a lot, not just about the plants and herbs in the woods, healing and magic, but also what a woman can do with a man to pleasure him and to reach beyond the heavens herself.
Now here she was alone in the woods, beyond anywhere she had ever dared go. She was alone. She was cold, hungry and injured.
It was dark, and now she was utterly lost.
But she was alive, and she was free.