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.’
The mother wailed—a sharp, gut-wrenching howl that echoed in the wood-clearing and sent birds flapping skyward.
‘Enough!’ Rosamund barked. ‘If you’ve nothing to say save for your protest, let us be done with it.’
Amara shivered, wrapping her free arm across her chest and biting her lip to keep from crying. She studied the face of her father. His dark eyes bore into hers with intent. They flicked back and forth between hers and the face of the witch with the relentless grip on Amara’s shoulder. Amara frowned at him, wishing she had the power to read his mind.
‘Saba. Hand the girl over to Coen,’ Rosamund instructed.
Saba shuffled Amara along to the other side of the circle where a man stood waiting. The girl caught her father’s eye one last time, and words formed on his lips.
‘Touch her,’ he mouthed.
Amara blinked, comprehension lost on her as her father’s face disappeared from view. She stumbled, and Saba yanked her to her feet.
‘Look where you’re going, girl.’
She ignored the warning, glancing back at her father. His face was no longer visible, but his fists clenched repeatedly at his back. Not to escape his restraints, Amara realised, but as a message.
Almost too late, she laid both hands on her captor, clenching her small fists around the witch’s wrist, imitating her father. She flinched, startled by the new and compelling portal in her mind’s eye. Bright colours of energy swarmed under Saba’s skin. Hairs rose on the girl’s neck even as Saba wrestled against her, beginning to squirm easily out of the child’s grasp. But then Amara found it—the swirls of energy—dancing, translucent—and she clawed at them with her mind. She drew them into her, into her own hands, and Saba was locked in her grip. The girl pulled the swirling energy inside of her until she could feel the heat of it on her skin. Her eyes flew open as she pushed the magic from her tiny outstretched palm, gasping as the flame ripped through the air toward an unsuspecting Rosamund.
The old witch flared orange and fell to her knees, the single flame in her hand engulfed in the raging fire of the rest of her. Her skin and flesh blackened and shrivelled, and as quick as the fire began, it was gone, a spiral of smoke curling from the pile of ash where Rosamund had stood mere seconds before.
Amara looked from the ash to the palm of her hand, her eyes wide. Saba shrieked, and the male witch behind them, Coen, rushed forward. Amara pulled at Saba for more magic, but the swirls were nothing more now than threads. She flung the witch’s wrist from her clutches and ran toward the pyre.
Heat cracked alongside her, missing her by inches, not flames but lightning. She yelped, covering her head on instinct. She scrambled toward the stake, propelling her small body over the wood, ignoring the ache in her knees as she fell against the logs again and again.
She shook her head at her father through tears. ‘I won’t leave you.’ She reached her mother first, flinging herself against her body, whilst fighting the knotted rope at her mother’s back. Beneath her, smoke began to rise, and the union of wood and flame crackled in her ears. ‘No… No!’ She swerved behind her parents, plucking at the knot with shaky too-small fingers.
‘Amara! Run, dammit, run!’
‘I can’t untie them. I can’t do it,’ she cried, throwing her fists against the ropes.
She shook her head again, stepping around her mother. Then she thrust herself between her parents, throwing her skinny arms across their waists. They wept as the smoke rose steadily, the encroaching heat driving Amara closer and closer between them.
A white crack of lightning snapped at her feet, and she screamed again. The spark caught, orange and yellow flames licking their way toward the stake. Amara made to stamp on them, but another whip of lightning struck, this time to her right, missing her elbow a fraction of an inch. She looked down into the stone faces of Coen and Saba: there’d be no point in pleading.
Her father howled beside her as Coen cracked another bolt of lightning, this time at her father’s side. A deep welt appeared on his arm, blooming with blood that dripped at an alarming rate onto the logs. ‘Please, Amara. Leave us. I beg you. Run,’ her father cried. A solitary tear streaked down his cheek, glistening in the light of the fire. ‘Go,’ he pleaded.
She cast long looks at both her parents. A tight ache blossomed in her chest as the fire began to roar in earnest behind her. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. Then she slipped around her mother for the last time and ran. She hurtled to the base of the pyre, hidden in the curtain of smoke as she tumbled to the ground. Her breath came quick and heavy as she pelted toward the thicket of trees on the other side of the clearing. She didn’t dare look back.
Night fell swiftly upon her, the smoke disappearing with the light, the glow of the fire dimming. But the final cries of her parents echoed in Amara’s ears as she ran. And they would continue to echo for a long time to come.