Fire curled in the old woman’s hand, bright and hungry as though it could already taste its next victim. Amara screamed at the sight of it. ‘Hush, girl,’ said the younger woman next to her. Her grip on Amara’s shoulder tightened like hooks in the girl’s flesh.
‘Please! Please let them go.’
The woman shushed her again and shook her. ‘Enough. Don’t make it worse for yourself,’ she scolded. She wrestled the girl to a standstill and glanced across the circle at the older woman.
‘It’s time,’ Rosamund said, flame held high. ‘You may say your brief goodbyes.’
The girl shoved against her captor, wrenching free. She lunged toward the circle’s centre, toward the waist-high pile of logs and kindling—toward her parents, bound against the pyre’s towering stake. Tumbling onto the wood-pile, the girl stretched out her arms in a futile attempt to embrace her weeping mother. A fist clamped in her hair and jerked her to a halt.
‘Don’t hurt her,’ the girl’s mother cried. ‘Please! She’s innocent.’
‘Innocent?’ Rosamund’s eyes widened in the dusky light and the flame in her hand flickered. ‘Her very existence is a crime onto itself.’
Amara’s mother shook her head. ‘No. Please, no. She’s just a child. It’s not her crime. It’s mine—’
‘And she will pay for it with her life.’
Every night she waited. Silent, still. The limbs of her twelve-year-old body ached with the effort. Her heart hammered in the quiet of the room—drumming, chanting; a cruel, betraying boom that gave her away. Every night she wished for morning, for the light. It always came too late.
Sometimes, she wished instead for darkness, wished herself part of it—wisp and smoke and shadow, able to sink into the night and escape. When she held her breath and shut her eyes real tight, she could imagine that escape—imagine she was somewhere else entirely. If she kept still long enough she could pretend this night would be different; that maybe, this night, he wouldn’t come for her—
But he always did.