2 – Red Dawn – Poland, 1671
Days later, there was still quite a thick layer of snow scattered across the ground. Lingering bad weather was one of the many consequences of living in the Northern European country. However, for every freezing snowfall, there was an element of beauty. The glistening white served as a canvas for the radiant colours that splashed across the sky at dawn and dusk. That particular morning, the sky was an array of red hues, accented by the most vibrant pinks and oranges imaginable. It was stunning, but it made the ground run with blood.
Footsteps lead from a small cottage out to a tree with convenient branches. The indents looked like miniature pools in the river of red, but their maker ignored them. She traipsed out to the tree, and hung the dress she was carrying over it. After examining the sunrise, the woman had decided they were going to get some good light. That would make the dress all the more pleasant for its owner when she woke.
Rowena, was what the girl had called herself. Well, reasoned the woman, she wasn't quite sure 'girl' was an accurate word. The red-head was certainly younger than the woman who had taken her in, and yet it was clear she had somehow lived for so much longer. If it had not been clear from her face, the occasional screams over the past few nights had been indicative.
Suddenly the woman was distracted from her reverie, by the feel of two skinny arms attaching themselves to her waist. With a smile, she looked down at the blond mop that was her son's head.
"Oskar! You should not be out in this cold!" She chided, though her heart was not really in it.
"Ogien is awake." The older woman simply raised an eyebrow at the eight year old, who had taken to calling their guest 'fire'.
"Her name is Rowena, and is she?" At his emphatic nod, the woman turned her gaze to see the other woman staring out at them, a strange expression on her face. "Well then, you'd best get some tea on."
Rowena retreated from the window the moment the mother and son had begun to walk back to the house. Something vaguely resembling pain settled in the bottom of her chest, and she flailed for something to distract herself with. She'd woken up on a straw mattress in the hut, clothed in a different dress, but had no memory of any of that. The woman outside, she recognised as her rescuer, though she did not know her name. Thinking hurt her head, and she realised she was still very weak. As her eyes began to swim, she sunk back to sitting on the mattress.
"Yes?" Rowena responded to the knock on the door, switching from English to Polish, and trying to rein back her Scottish accent. The woman and her son entered, her with a vial of something, him with tea.
"You're up dear, have some tea. This is my son Oskar, and I am Agata." She passed some tea over to Rowena, and indicated she should sit back.
"Thank you, for saving me. And for the tea." Rowena added, smiling at the boy. Agata, nodded and indicated that she should sit back while she examined Rowena. The witch closed her eyes and savoured the warm liquid as the other woman gently felt the bruises and cuts on her face.
"Someone did quite the number on you mloda." Agata murmured. Rowena simply twitched in response, but remained quiet. She was neither young, nor had any desire to discuss the source of her bruises.
"How long have I been out?"
"This is the third day since I brought you in."
"You screamed a lot." Oskar chimed in. Rowena's eyes flew open, as Agata withdrew her hands to shoo her son from the room. The moment she turned back to her patient however, the blond mop of hair once again peered around the door.
"Why don't you tell me a bit about how a pretty young thing like you came to be covered in blood on my doorstep?" Agata watched carefully as the other woman looked deliberately away. She saw the pain war with the need to be heard, war with the fear of weakness. Indeed, this woman had lived such a long life already. To prompt the conversation, Agata gently lifted Rowena's skirts to reveal scars on her legs. "Only way to survive being burned at the stake is to be an actual witch."
As all the colour drained from Rowena's face, the other woman withdrew a potion from her skirts and applied it to the scars. Several moments later, the witch settled somewhat. There was no way she could escape if Agata had ill-intentions; she was simply too weak to truly do anything about it. Besides, why help her at all if she was only going to be handed over to the authorities?
"Indeed." Rowena answered. Agata jumped, she hadn't actually been expecting an answer. "Nearly a year ago now, they caught up with me crossing the border out of Holland. Thankfully I had cast a protective spell on myself beforehand. Unfortunately, the spell started to wear off before the fire had completely died down."
With painful clarity, visions of the burning played across her eyes. Word of her exploits had left England as she did, and followed her through Europe, only to finally catch up with her as she tried to cross the border out of the Netherlands. Her bare feet had been near frozen, which had caused her to fall. If she hadn't, she would have escaped. In the sky far above, the moon had smiled coldly down at her as she was clapped in iron chains and dragged away. There was no such thing as a trial, so within hours she had found herself tied to a stake that embedded splinters in her back, and the local people feeding the flames that would consume her.
She remembered the sound of her own screams merging with the elated ones of the town people, the feel of the iron cutting into her slender wrists as she strained against them. The spell she had faith in, but that did little to abate the fear. For she had once again been made weak, and placed at the liberty of others. Rowena had been terrified, and had cried out until she was exhausted, and slumped against her own shackles. The townspeople had thought her dead, and walked away, leaving her pitiful form to the mercy of the elements. But she had not cared, so exhausted was she. Not even when the spell had begun to wear off, and the fire burned her legs until she was bleeding, did she react. Eventually she had raised her eyes from the dying embers, only to see the same hues paint the sky.
"The wounds heal, the memories do not." Agata murmured as Rowena returned to the present day. The older woman, gently rested her hand on the gaunt cheek of her charge. "Do not let it harden you."
"I will never be weak!" Rowena shook her head violently, displacing Agata's hand as she breathed the words. She ignored the look of pity in the other woman's eyes as she retreated. The round eyes of the young boy at the door however, she could not ignore those. For a long moment the two stared at each other, unwilling to look away. Though who was more afraid, was unclear.
The next morning was once again painted in flames, though not across the sky. Rowena had awoken before even the dawn refreshed, restless, and quite sure that Agata was a witch of some description. Whatever the older woman had been putting in the soups and potions she had been giving Rowena had the witch feeling significantly better. Upon glancing at her legs and finding them rid of any scars, her suspicions that her carer was a witch became a certainty. It was not uncommon to find witches, particularly those skilled with potions, in remote villages where tradition reigned supreme.
One such example Rowena herself had encountered were the Strega in Italy. While strega was the word for witch, it also referred to followers of Stregheria. She had inadvertently wandered into a witches den in a small village. The women had not called themselves a coven. As far as they were concerned, they were simply following the traditions that had been passed down to them. That had included various natural remedies of considerable power. She wondered if there was a Polish equivalent, and idly tried to recall the word.
At that moment a loud bang sounded from the kitchen, and Rowena hitched her skirts and ran through the darkened house toward the noise. The kitchen was in total darkness, but the smell of smoke was distinctly evident. Rowena carefully picked her way forward by slowly extending her toes to check the way was clear. She could hear heavy breathing, and gingerly knelt down, feeling with her hands. They touched coarse strands of something, and the witch realised it had been Oskar who had made the noise. Her knees grazed on pieces of wood that the boy had apparently dropped.
"Mamusia?" Oskar muttered, and Rowena felt his hands reaching toward her. One of them came into contact with her cheek and froze. The boy had realised she was not his mother, but did not pull back.
"Rowena." She responded quietly. When Oskar continued to remain still, she spoke again. "Can you move my hand near the fire?"
After a moment of hesitation, Rowena felt the small hand run down her cheek, neck and onto her arm. The strange ache from the previous day returned to her heart, and as the boy finished adjusting her hand, she realised exactly what it was, and that there was nothing she could do about it.
"Ignesco." Oskar's eyes widened in wonder as he watched the flame that burst forth at her command, while the witch was mostly just pleased she had that much of her power back. While she remained kneeling, the boy quickly fed the fire and stacked the remaining wood. After that chore was done, he returned to her side and smiled wonkily at her as he offered a hand.
"Come on ciocia." Rowena took the small hand, feeling both pain and love, as she followed him out to help with the rest of his chores.
Agata watched the pair go, having come into the kitchen a few seconds behind the young witch, and smiled. She was pleased Rowena was stronger, and that she had found something to soften the guards around her heart. As to her own son, she wanted nothing more than for him to be happy and loved while he remained on this earth. If that meant he claimed a strange woman as an Aunt, so be it.