The Witch Stone - Emily Oakes

Chapter One

Oakwoods 1645

The bird’s wing was broken. That much was obvious. Rowena cupped her hands around the fragile creature. “Shh, there, there. What happened to you?” Rowena kept walking. The moon gave just enough light for Rowena to make out the dark shapes of the trees around her. A slight mist in the air gave the trees a ghostlike appearance. She breathed in the heavy air and shivered. Winter would soon be here.

Rowena held the bird up to the moon. “Goddess. I ask that you heed my call. One of your own has been harmed. Please heal this innocent being. If that is not possible, I ask that you end its suffering in a swift manner. Blessed be, so mote it be.” She kissed the bird’s tiny head and closed her eyes. She held her arms back up and felt them lighten. She opened her eyes. Her hands were empty. She thought she saw a flicker of wings land in a tree above her. She smiled and gathered her cloak from the ground and wrapped it around her shoulders. She’d better get to bed lest she be late for her next lesson in the morning. Usually, she would be home in bed by now, but the crone had kept her back late to clean potion bottles. The darkness had taken her by surprise. Soon the moon wouldn’t be enough to keep her from losing her way.

Her pulse quickened. Something wasn’t right. Every hair on her body seemed to stand up, as they always did when she sensed danger. Had the injured bird been a sign? The mist grew thicker. Twigs crunched behind her. The crisp sound of branches underfoot. Unmistakable. Somebody was behind her. Had they been watching her the whole time?

Clutching her cloak, she turned around. Rows of dark shapes had replaced the moonlit trees from before. She looked up toward the moon but it had gone behind dark clouds. All she could see of it was a glimmer of light like there was lightning trapped in the cloud.

More twigs snapped from behind. Rowena startled. She spun around but could still only see the vague forms of the trees. Her grip on her cloak tightened. The feeling that she was watched couldn’t be shaken. Had somebody been watching her the whole time? The footsteps grew louder and more frequent.

Rowena ran. Dirt and leaves softened her footfalls but she almost tripped on unseen logs and creeping vines with every step. The sky began to lighten. A hazy glow appeared in the distance above. A familiar smell singed the air. Smoke.

Her pulse quickened and cold sweat slicked her back.

The village was on fire. Her home.

As though to confirm this fact, screams sounded out from beyond the trees. Now she was close. Close enough to hear roaring flames and breathe in thick smoke. She covered her face with her cloak and headed for home.

Horses thundered toward her. She jumped out of their way, narrowly avoiding being trampled. She hunched down behind a blackcurrant bush to wait until the horses passed. Her body trembled and her mind raced. Somebody shouted behind her. Did the voice belong to the person who had been following her?

Mindful of the thorny branches, she made a parting and peered through. Fire tore through the wooden cottages. Screams mingled with brutish shouts. A man dragged a woman out of her home by her arms. She struggled but she couldn’t shake his grip. Women ran in groups, their eyes wide and full of tears.

Rowena took a deep breath. She willed her heart to slow. It felt like it was preparing to leap from her chest. Seeing a large burly man seize a handful of her friend’s hair didn’t help. Isabel’s golden mane was the envy of every woman in town. Now it was a mass of tangles. Rowena cringed as the man ripped a clump of hair out of Isabel’s scalp. An immense scream bellowed from within Isabel’s tiny frame, It was soon drowned out by the commotion behind her. The man dropped the blood-stained tuft of hair and wrenched Isabel away by her arms.

Rowena didn't realize tears were streaming down her cheeks until a cold breeze brushed past. Shivers ran down her spine. She dried her face with her sleeve. Sounds of hooves galloping filled the air. Horses being guided by hooded men arrived pulling dark windowless coaches. Rowena had seen them before. To transport dead bodies.

The screams became louder as the hooded men opened the wooden doors to the