Chapter 1: Burning a Witch
She woke to hear the birds chirping outside and weak sunlight streaking her small room. Yawning she climbed from bed and stretched her arms above her head and curled her back. With a grunt she pulled her old dress over her night shift and entered the second room that was her kitchen and former bedroom. She looked at the clothes needing mending before picking up the basket by the door with which to feed her chickens and collect eggs. Tingles ran down her spine as she passed the shed to reach the chicken shack, but everything was quiet there. After feeding the chickens and avoiding snapping beaks she came away with five eggs with which to make her breakfast. Afterwards she would weed the garden then plow the small field on the other side of her hill.
Just as she was making her way back to the cottage she heard a yowl from the shed. Opening the door quickly she paused before the scene before her; a tom cat backed into a corner hissing while the dragon held a massive fore paw above its head.
“Stop that now!” she said coming between the two animals. The dragon growled and she swatted it on the nose surprising them both. “If you can’t behave I will put you in the well. Come with me,” she said tugging on the chain and leading the dragon out. It watched her intently as she led it up the small path by the hill and toward the field behind it. The plow was resting by a budding oak where she had left it yesterday after Anastasia was stolen. Turning the chain into a harness, she strapped the dragon to it and pointed to her field. “I want the east section done today and maybe I’ll see about getting you supper.” The dragon whined at her, but she had already turned her back and headed back to the cottage.
While the dragon plowed she mended clothes and read more from her mother’s book. At midday she grabbed her shawl and basket to head to the market. She nodded at the dragon as she passed it, already seeing that more than half the area she had appointed it was freshly plowed and the stones and debris put by the rotting fence line. Town was an hour’s walk away but she enjoyed her time away from the cottage. Her aunt and cousins lived in town, family of the local baker. From time to time they sent her home with small cakes and bread and she brought what produce she could from the field.
As she approached the town she noticed an unusual quietness about it. No one would meet her eyes and everyone walked stiffly, looking over their shoulders at her and forming signs against hexes. She quickly ducked into her uncle’s bakery and was greeted by a swift hug from her aunt. “Bird, I have worried about your safety. Did you know a dragon has been seen in the area stealing from the farmers?”
“Yes Aunt, I captured it last night after it took Anastasia.” He aunt’s eyes widened in surprise.
“You?" the woman asked. The girl nodded. “You captured the dragon? With what, how?”
“I used the book Ma left me.” Her aunt put a finger to her lips and nodded towards a customer purveying the cakes.
“Be careful what you say. A Hunter is in town looking for the dragon. He has everyone tense, you will know him by his red hair,” her aunt said leading her behind the counter to the kitchen. Her cousins Nettie and Ami were elbow deep in flour kneading bread and throwing them into pans. They smiled at her briefly. “I think my girls might have the same talent you and your mother have though it’s weak in me. I have yet to test them,” her aunt whispered conspiratorially.
“I can come by tomorrow with the book?” Bird said suddenly thinking about the field and the dragon. What would happen if the dragon Hunter found it there strapped to a plow?
“Yes do, we see so little of you,” her aunt said then deposited fresh rolls into Bird’s basket.
When she returned half the field had been plowed and the dragon was resting under the oak. Taking pity, she ran to her well, filled a bucket and brought it to the creature. It looked at her a long time before taking it in its paws and lifting it to its lips. She was surprised by the human gesture and peered hard at the dragon, trying to divine its secrets. It set the bucket down and grunted at her, she threw a roll at it. The dragon caught it with a snap of its jaws. “I know I can’t feed you on bread alone. Maybe I can catch a deer for you,” she said to the dragon. It began to make a wheezing noise and she realized it was laughing at her. “You know I don’t have to do anything for you, thief! Anastasia was my friend and you ate her, but a promise is a promise even made to beasts.” The dragon snorted and bowed its head briefly.
Using her mother’s book she caught a young doe for the dragon and managed to drag it to the clearing of her cottage. To her surprise the dragon spit a ball of flame that cooked the animal before eating it. “So you don’t eat raw meat, at least you’re somewhat civilized for a beast. The dragon rolled its eyes at her and she laughed. “Well, good evening beast, the rest of the night is yours,” Bird said then retreated to her cottage.
At midday the following day Bird arrived into town to find it more solemn than before. As soon as she stepped into the bakery her aunt grabbed her and dragged her into the kitchen. “Bird, you need to go home now. The Hunter has been speaking to the people and they know about you. You need to get out of town now and hide until the Hunter is gone. If he finds you with that book it will be the gallows! Get rid of that dragon. Here take this bread and cider with you, now go.” He aunt moved quickly and efficiently and soon Bird was on the street again looking around warily for the Hunter. She noticed the looks the towns’ people were giving her so she hurried down the road.
She was halfway to her cottage when the Hunter found her. He had rode up swiftly on a large black warhorse dressed all in grey, red hair flowed down his back standing out like a bloodstain and a half mask covered the lower half of his face giving him a mysterious air. A large sword hung on his saddle, a guild seal on the sheath of leather marking him a mercenary. Bird gasped when she saw him and nearly dropped her cider in the road. “You girl, what’s your name?” The man spoke in a deep voice that immediately made her want to trust him, but he was a Hunter.
“I’m Lavender Blackbriar,” she said shaking. Suddenly more horses appeared on the road with men. Some were the farmers from around the town; the others she guessed were companions of the Hunter based on their hardened looks and grey cloaks.
“That’s her, that’s the girl I told you of. She’s a Witch,” hissed one of the farmers pointing at Bird accusingly. “I saw that dragon fly toward her cottage every night after it would steal from us. I think she set it loose to torment us innocent folk.”
The girl recognized the farmer Cal, she used to bring him herbs for his wife’s cooking, to see his face twisted in anger and mistrust scared her. Involuntarily her fingers tightened on her basket.
“My Jessa heard yesterday she had caught that demon herself using black spells and blood sacrifice,” another farmer said.
“Girl, is that true?” the Hunter asked looking at her with piercing blue eyes.
“I did catch it, only because it was stealing my chickens,” Bird said then clapped a hand to her mouth. She had admitted to using magic. “It was just a trap, like a wolf trap…” she said hastily, but the damage was already done. The Hunter had drawn his sword and his men surrounded her. He pointed the long length of steel at her throat.
“I am Oliver Redfield, by power invested in me by Lun, god of all, and Hexa goddess of purity, I name thee Witch and sentence you to burn in your lair of wickedness.” Bird gasped, but clung tightly to her basket as they grabbed her. “Take her basket, she may have witchy devices in there,” Redfield ordered. When she resisted one of the men slapped her so hard that she bit her tongue drawing blood. Roughly they tied ropes around her wrists and strapped her to a horse like luggage.
“She has a book in her basket! It’s in some demon language.”
“Give it to me,” Redfield said. The book was passed and he briefly flipped through the pages. “This will be burned with her so that her taint may not spread.” Bird closed her eyes and prayed they would not think of her aunt and cousins in town, but her hope was short lived.
“She has family in town, the baker’s wife and daughters, “Cal said spitting. “What of them?”
“They have a chance to repent their sins of harboring a Witch then they shall be cleansed.” The Hunter emphasized the word cleansed by stabbing his sword into the air. “First, show me the Witch’s lair.”
In less than twenty minutes they arrived at her cottage. The field was completely plowed and one of the farmers muttered witchcraft under his breath as they went up the path that led to her cottage. The chickens were silent as the men dismounted and raided her house throwing her furniture and clothes into a pile on the patch of bare ground that made up her clearing. One of the men tied her to the stone well’s wooden roof and began to pile brush and saplings at her feet.
Bird felt her heart rise into her chest but remained silent even as tears ran hot down her cheeks. Soon all the men gathered in front of her and lit brands. Oliver Redfield stepped forward. “Lavender Blackbriar, you have been named Witch and shall burn for your crimes. I now offer you a chance to repent so that your soul may be forgiven and rise to the heavenly halls.” Anger suddenly bloomed in the girl’s chest and she spat at them. “Then let your soul burn in hell!” Suddenly a roar ripped through the clearing and the men crouched in fear. The dragon burst from its shed and came to a stop in front of her. It tried to open its chain bound wings while it growled and hissed at the men.
“See, she summons this demon creature to defend herself! Attack it.”
The dragon looked over its shoulder at the girl and their eyes met brown to green. Free me, its eyes said.
“I release you from servitude!” Bird yelled putting power into her voice. The chains and collar melted into smoke and the men took a step back immediately more fearful. With another roar the dragon shattered the well throwing Bird into the ground. One of the men dropped his lighted brand in surprise and it lit her belongings on fire. Spurred by the flames the men threw the rest of the brands on the buildings around them then ran. Redfield was the only one left in the clearing with the girl and dragon. He pulled her book from his cloak and threw it into the flames.
“Only I am left to finish you shadow creatures,” the Hunter said drawing his sword. The dragon twisted around, scooped up Bird in its fore arms then leaped into the sky using its powerful wings to gain height. The girl could hear a shout of rage from below as the men watched the two ascend, but as she looked down she noticed that only the Hunter was silent as he watched them fly away.