Seduced by Fire

1 – Prologue – Poland, 1671

The wind howled like a pack of wolves at a full moon, and echoed eerily across the Polish country side. Thunderous hooves galloped across the blackened sky, dragging with it torrential rain, nearly thick enough to be snow. Bowed by the weight of the weather, even the tallest canopies stroked the ice-covered ground. A small shelter, haphazardly constructed out of scrap metal and branches downed in the last storm had no chance. It had four crooked walls, one of which had an opening like a door. Wind entered through the gap, and whirled around the structure, tearing it apart from the inside out. Rain rode the wind until the straw was soaked through, and quickly hardening into icy stakes.

From the pile, a cloud rose and dissipated into the air. It was the breath of the woman who lay in the straw, her dress simultaneously pushed up around her waist and falling off her shoulders. Her thighs and chest were exposed, bruised and covered in a mixture of dirt, ice and blood. Occasionally a frozen tear would fall from her face, and roll down the rest of her body. Creamy skin was fading quickly to blue as she lay motionless and exhausted, completely emptied of all emotion. In her mind she laughed bitterly at being exhausted for spending a night on her back. She listened to the crunch of heavy boots as they retreated through the night back to the town watch. Still, it was several minutes after the noise had vanished that she sat up. The faded cotton finally gave up on staying in place, but she couldn't find it in herself to care as her marked chest was exposed. There would be no one else that night to see her in such a pitiful state. On her knees, she scraped around for the measly coins the soldier had thrown at her before leaving. He had been unusually generous; a working night in fallen down sheds or back alleys typically resulted in either a few coins or being left alone wherever she happened to be. Rarely both. Although, she supposed and touched a finger to her bruising eye, he had also been unusually cruel. The marks would stay for days, and she knew she might not get another customer because of them

Ignoring the pain, she turned her attention to her tattered clothing. Gingerly she pulled the torn, cotton dress over her blood-slicked thighs. When next she passed an unfrozen body of water, she would clean herself. There was little she could do about the top half of her dress, however. A life spent on the run with little sleep, and no food had left her rail thin, at risk of blowing away in the gale outside. All she could do was try and loop the material over some of her many protruding bones, and hope it stayed there. Depending on how she draped the mass of ginger hair that curled down from her head to her waist, she would remain covered as she walked.

Tonight was not the night to be leaving; the storm would kill her before she left town. Why run if you were just going to die in the weather? The woman stood at the entrance to the shelter staring up, and cursed roundly. How the might had fallen. She had spent most of her life trying to escape poverty and desperation, quite successfully too, for a time, only to end up selling herself to just barely survive. Her gaze dropped to a patch of ice on the ground, and she crouched to examine better. Dull green eyes stared back at her out of gaunt face, framed by lank hair. Once again she was the filthy little daughter of a tanner, who smelled of death and decay.

"Annihilare!" She snapped, and immediately regretted it. The ice splintered as she had intended, but she fell back exhausted. It had been a foolish waste of her very limited power. Anger burned her, providing temporary relief from the cold, and fuelling her self-loathing. It had been a simple spell, something she should be able to do thousands of times over. Yet here she was, nearly destroyed by it.

Light on the horizon caught her eye, and her head snapped up. She could see torches approaching her. Once again she cursed herself and her foolishness. The patrol, including that night's customer must have seen her little spat, and now were approaching. A sound escaped her throat that she would never admit to making. It was the noise of a child left out in the darkness who watched as her house was torn down, and all hope was ripped away. It was a sound of utter weakness. She despised it, but she had no choice. Picking up the hem of her dress, she ran through the night.

For a while, the ice cut into her feet, and she left a trail of blood as she fled through the remote farmland of Poland. The soldiers would track it, at least to the edges of the village. From there, they would send word to other towns in the direction she was travelling. But a lone witch, as weak as she was, would not be of much concern to them. However, by the time the sun began to rise, her feet had frozen, effectively stopping the flow of blood. She knew eventually she would collapse, but she also could not stop running. There were worse than soldiers who would track that silly little spell of hers. Soldiers would just use and destroy her body, the others she ran from, they would destroy her mind.

The sun was peering over the horizon when the woman finally collapsed in a heap. She was still conscious, though she almost wished she wasn't. Pain tore her body to pieces, without bothering to put it back together again. Yet she was so exhausted that she could neither scream, nor cry. All she could do was lay there and pray that Death would come for her soon. She knew he was not far away; over the last few weeks, she had seen him watching her, waiting for her. Well, this time she would go to him.

Sure enough, a few moments later she saw heavy leather shoes approaching her, and made a move to at least greet him on her feet. Immediately, she crumpled again. The pain was too much to bear. It seemed she would leave the world as she had come into it; weak, covered in blood, and all alone. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see how pathetic her own demise would be.

A hand rested gently on the matted mass of auburn curls, before carefully moving them to reveal the agonised face beneath them. She looked both ancient, and incredibly young. An incredible power that had been brought to total subjugation.

"Oh my dear, look at the state of you." Cooed the owner of the hand, and the woman on the ground opened her eyes in surprise. Before her was a middle-aged woman with gentle blue eyes.

"Too pathetic am I, for Death to come himself? He cannot bear to touch me that he has sent a minion." The moment of fire passed out of the green-eyed woman. "Either way, I welcome it."

"Death may yet come for you, but not right now. What's your name pet?" The other woman queried, as she began to lift the frail thing on the ground, and take her back to the house.

"Rowena." She breathed, and fell unconscious.