Through the trees, the sun broke in a dappled pattern on the ground. The smell of the rich soil and vegetation swamped my senses. Birds, sounding their calls, echoed through the valley. Lizards scurried through the undergrowth. It was morning already.
I held my breath, listening intently to the sounds of the forest. It was sheer luck that alerted me to his presence. A sixth sense, really. I had almost missed the signs – an extra rustle in the wind, the random snap of a twig, a flash of grey that should not have been seen in this place. So, now I waited, my cloak pulled tight, my nerves stretched almost to breaking.
Silently, I cursed my foolishness in attending this night. All knew my Lady was marked. But I had raised her from a child and could not bear the thought of her birthing alone and friendless in the wilderness. Well, I would pay dearly for it, that was certain. I shifted uncomfortably, trying to ease the ache in my legs.
I wondered, ears straining, if wolf was out there still, circling, searching out his prey. Or had he given up the chase? Was he, even now, questioning my family in the village? If so, then they would already be dead.
A brown snake slithered into the alcove in which I hid. I froze, praying it would leave. I dared not move, my fear of being heard much greater than worries about being bitten by the snake.
The snake disappeared with a suddenness that startled me, replaced by a pair of heavy boots. I cried out as I felt my head jerked violently back by my hair. I was staring into the face of death. “Wolf,” I breathed.
His eyes were a cruel, cold blue set deep beneath bushy eyebrows. His pale face was set in an expression of triumph.
“Witch!” he growled, and I winced at the malice in his voice. “I have caught you at your treachery!” I was frozen in his vice-like grip, trapped like the gazelle marked for the hunt.
“No treachery,” I managed to croak. “Only a walk in the woods.”
He laughed harshly. “You are a witch.” he said. “You have cast the evil eye on the good people of this village and you have midwifed abomination. You will burn for your crimes.”
He tore away my cloak and leered at my nakedness. I shivered in the morning chill. Still gripping my hair, Wolf yanked me to my feet. He tied my hands roughly behind me then dragged me, stumbling and whimpering, back to the village to face the Inquisition.
Through my pain and fear, I managed to soak up the sights and sounds, the smell and feel of the forest, knowing this would likely be the last time I would taste the cool freshness of the life within.
The days that followed were a haze of pain and hunger, a blur of endless questions and accusations. More than once I proclaimed my innocence. More than once I begged for death. Always I was answered by the harsh laugh of Wolf.
After enduring many nights of such torment, I was locked in a tiny cell. I was given bread to eat and water to drink and finally allowed to sleep. As I fell into an exhausted slumber, the stone floor cold beneath my battered body, I allowed myself to hope my ordeal may be near its end.
Too soon, my hopes were realised. It was but two days before the door of my prison opened, admitting black-robed priests and village goodwives. My hair was roughly shaved away and my nakedness covered with a grey homespun robe.
I gathered my courage and, with great trepidation, followed slowly behind my escort. My body tingled uncomfortably beneath the gaze of the entire village. When I spied the pyre to which I was being led, my courage and dignity fled and my legs gave way. Calloused hands grabbed me, nails biting cruelly into my bruised skin. I was half carried, half dragged to the pile of wood and tinder and tied tightly to prevent escape.
As the fires were lit around me, my final thoughts were for my Lady. I prayed that she had escaped my fate, that she had managed to flee across the border. For she and her newborn babe were our last hope if our people were to escape the plague that had descended apon them.
Then the hot agony reached my body and I was consumed.