Near Canaan, Connecticut
The witch ran through the sweltering woods, her heavy skirts tangling and catching at the thorn bushes and bracken, the tree limbs cutting and bloodying her skin. The woods were eerily silent except for the noise she and her pursuers were making.
With a stifled cry of rage, she stumbled to her knees over a low branch. Her blue eyes held more anger than terror as she glanced behind her and listened.
They were close now. Any second they'd find her, and they couldn't, not yet ... not until she hid that damn book. Her diary, the one with the spells and incantations scrawled throughout its pages. Black magic. Witchcraft. If they caught her with it, it'd be the worse for her. A short trip at the end of a rope.
She pulled herself up from her knees, gathering her dark skirts in her trembling hands. She was exhausted and could barely stand, much less keep evading them. Her raven-hued hair had come undone and it hung in long sweat-drenched strands about her face.
Her lungs were screaming and her feet were bleeding in her tightly-laced boots.
She kept going. The mob of townsmen and magistrates were behind her. Six men with hats pulled low over austere faces. She could smell them. Smell the bloodlust that surrounded them like a vile cloud. They were a lynching mob, she had no doubt of that.
To make matters worse, she had no powers to fight them.
Her Master was punishing her for defying him at the last Sabbath when she--heady with her growing powers--had refused to yield to his wishes and kill her married lover, Darcy. She hadn't wanted to. Not yet. Darcy had proved to be a goodly lover and she'd become besotted with him, hadn't wanted to give him up. She'd thought she was being so clever, pretending she would kill him anon, but always putting it off.
Well, now Darcy was dead anyway, the Master had seen to that--and she was soon to follow him, if the rabble led by that witch-hunter, Sebastien, had any say in it. He'd been hunting her relentlessly these last few days and wasn't about to give up now when he knew she was so close, even if the day was waning.
They believed she'd murdered Darcy. Cut him into bloody pieces and strewn him about his home. His widow had shrieked for vengeance. Everyone in town knew whose bed Darcy had been sleeping in, besides his wife's.
Gasping for air, dizzy, she rested, leaning against a tree. She could only allow herself a few seconds, she had no more than that to spare. Sweat trickled down her face. It was hot, and she was thirsty. She wasn't accustomed to want. It was hell without her powers. Even her goat familiar, her beloved Beelzebub, had abandoned her. Then again, he'd only been on loan to her; he was really under the Master's command.
Horses' hooves thundered somewhere behind her through the darkening forest, the beasts snorting and neighing. Coming closer.
If she could hold out until dark, the night would hide her. The night would scare her pursuers away because godly men, such as they, were afraid of the dark.
In the morning, she could make her way into Massachusetts--if the Indians, bears, or the Master didn't get her first. Massachusetts where there were no sanctimonious Calvinists. She'd had a bellyful of the witch hunters and Canaan.
Shouts rang through the air around her. They'd picked up her fresh trail.
No time left.
She broke through the hedges and came upon a twilight-misted pond sentried by a young willow tree. She knew this place. Black Pond. Her witches' coven had held Sabbaths here.
Falling to her knees on the ground under the tree, she clawed at the dirt until a hole appeared, tossed the leather-bound book into it, and then quickly covered it up again with leaves and grass.
At least she'd managed to hide the book.
The witch hunter and his men were nearly upon her. She shoved herself up and away from the pond, sprinting with everything she had left, her breath coming in ragged sobs as she scurried through the trees.
She'd grown soft, depended far too much on her magic. She couldn't escape. They were too close.
Her legs collapsed beneath her, pitching her to the burnt grass in a weary heap. She could have scraped together a pile of leaves and twigs, tried to burrow under them into the forest floor like a mole. She could have crawled behind a tree. Alas, her pride wouldn't let her do that, and she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her grovel like a beaten cur. She rose to her feet to face them, her chin held up in defiance, her mind racing.
They wouldn't dare try to touch her. They knew what she was and weren't aware that she'd lost her powers. Perhaps she could bluff them.
Bloodthirsty howls of anticipation echoed and ricocheted through the forest when they discovered her.
Her cold eyes watched as the men on horseback circled her, their hatred--their fear--wavering in their eyes. She could see death in their grim smiles. They held back.
They were scared of her. Some had seen firsthand what she could do. They weren't fools.
"I will give thee one last chance," she snarled, flipping her sweaty hair away from her flushed face. "Leave now and I'll send no harm to thee, thy families, livestock, or crops."
Sebastien rode up, reining in his horse within inches of her. "We are not afraid of thee, witch, or thy evil spells." He spat at her. "God's power is greater than Satan's and I am under his protection."
He turned in the saddle to address the men behind him, who were but blurry shadows in the twilight. "No harm will come to thee as long as ye are with me."
His fanatical eyes returned to the woman. "Stop thy running. It will do no good. Accept thy punishment, witch. Confess to thy crimes and God will forgive thee."
She tried her magic one last time. Still nothing.
Her teeth bit deeply into her lips, drawing blood. She would never renounce her Master, no matter what He'd done to her. She knew His power too well. She'd rather die than face Satan's wrath. This tiny, meaningless sliver of reality in exchange for eternity. Not a bad trade.
"Nay, I will never confess," she hissed up into his face.
In that moment, staring into Sebastien's cruel eyes, she knew that this was to be her punishment.
He was a poor excuse for a man; rake thin with greasy ebony hair, beady eyes in a pockmarked, arrogant face. No wonder he detested women so--none would have him.
They said he'd accused, tortured, tried, and hung over three hundred people for witchcraft since God had called him to the task.
"Deny Satan, and be cleansed." Sebastien bent low in the saddle to peer into her face.
"Never! I warn thee. Leave me be," she whispered, her eyes slitted menacingly at one horseman after another. "Anyone who lays a hand on me will live to rue the day he did." She was still bluffing, for all the good it did.
The horsemen were hedging her in.
Bringing his hand down in a decisive gesture to the others, Sebastien ordered, "Take her."
When they hesitated, he chided them harshly. "She cannot harm us."
No one moved.