I did not want to leave. The cottage had been my home all my life, and it was the burial place of my mother. How could I leave it? I had nothing else in the world. I had never known my siblings, for the last of them had left while I took my first steps.
I sat in the wooden chair at the table and allowed myself to drop my head into my hands, though I didn't want to give in to the clamour of thoughts. The scents pervading the air clouded my thinking. I knew it would be only a matter of time before they came looking for me. They didn't even need to look, they knew where to find me. I think they had always been a little afraid of us, and had hoped I would flee before they gave me cause to curse them, such as burning me alive. And I knew that was what their intentions for me were, as I noticed the collection of dry wood being deposited in the cleared market square. The bonfire was not for dead livestock.
I let my frustrations escape me briefly in a sigh before I inhaled them again and resumed my worrying. I didn't intend to leave, but with my mind occupied I found my hands folding my spare clothes into a sack and placing a loaf and apple on top of them, my last provisions. It ached my heart to leave the little glass bottles, so I arranged them in a plain wooden box with a hinged lid that had contained Mother's sewing kit, and that went into the sack too.
The sun was sinking below the level of the hills when I shouldered the sack and stepped from my front door. Fleeing under cover of darkness was cowardly, but I did not wish to die at the hands of such thoughtless fools. I refused for them to pin their strife on me.
I had barely taken seven steps from the door, having already said a silent farewell to the gravemarker cross, when I found my path blocked by three figures. The last rays of the sun were behind them, rendering them black silhouettes with a golden aura.
Then the middle one spoke, and I felt irritation and disgust, and, I must admit, a sliver of fear slither down my spine. It was Josef the butcher's boy. I had seen him hacking at the pitiful displays when his father wasn't looking, thinking himself impressive as he clumsily wielded the knife, though his two dim-witted compatriots seemed awed by his weapon. The two flanked him now; I knew them to be the brothers Marko and Johnny whose mother mended garments for a living.
"Where are you going, witch?"
He had begun lightly, tesing, mocking, but he spat the last word with venom, and his saliva flecked my face. I raised a hand to wipe it slowly, determined not to take my eyes from his face.
"I asked you a question."
His voice silky now, as he let the disappearing sun catch the edge of his silver knife, stolen from his father. A thrill ran through me as I wondered if he was brave enough to use it. He was stupid enough, there was no doubt.
"Witch child," he hissed, and I heard it echoed from either side. "You know what I'm going to do, witch child? I'm going to gut you like a fish. You've caused my pappy enough trouble, wiping out his stock. What meat is he supposed to sell if you've cursed his?"
A malicious grin split his face unpleasantly like a gash. "I'll tell you - yours."
"I don't think so," I replied quietly. He had started to laugh at his own wit, but stopped short.
I narrowed my eyes. I had had by far enough of his games. I did not resent him dubbing me 'witch child', for surely that is what I was; descendant of the magical peoples, their talent ran in the blood through my veins. It was their ignorance that I hated. I focused on the knife and sent a silent prayer to my ancestors that his knife would not harm me.
And he lunged with a triumphant shriek, stabbing with his blade; it scythed the air by my cheek. Again and again he slashed, but he just couldn't seem to make the tiniest of nicks or punctures anywhere on my person. Always within millimetres he missed, and I let him see my smile.
His friends had begun to back away, showing how strong their allegiance was. No doubt what they saw scared them; they were afraid of me anyway, and they believed Josef had lost his mind. When the mad boy did not relent after several minutes they turned tail and ran back into the village, leaving Josef alone, still hacking ineffectually.
"Witch," he screamed, high and girlish in his fury and embarassment; he dropped his knife and instead gripped me about the throat. I felt a paralysing shock; I had requested his blade not hurt me, but not his hands.
He squeezed his long pad-tipped fingers around until they met and overlapped, his grin widening and quite a demented flame in his eyes. Then something slammed into both of us, forcing him to let go, and I felt air flood my bruised throat as I choked for oxygen and then I hit the ground. I believe I must have fallen quite hard, because I felt a sharp cracking pain along the back of my skull and quite suddenly the sky had gone dark.