Ash Blackbough wiped her feet twice before stepping over the threshold of her lonely home, having finished feeding the chickens and goats and put them away in their pens for the evening. She paused there, listening to the eerie quiet. The one-room house was dark, and too still. It had been several months since her aunt and uncle had passed, but she was still not accustomed to the emptiness of the place.
The chicken under her arm gave a slow, confused cluck.
"Yeah, okay," she muttered to it. She kicked the door closed behind her as she adjusted her grip on the bird, making sure it wouldn't fall or try to fly away.
She crossed the room to examine the book shelf on the far wall. It had been a while since she'd taken the time to organize it. A book on languages of the goblinoid races lay stacked on top of a catalogue of wild herbs with medicinal benefits. Laying open on top of one of the rows was a short text on wildlife of the Neverwinter Wood that she'd been reading the previous night. She moved all of them away, and found her mother's recipe book behind them.
She gently set the chicken down in the middle of the floor. She had thought it would immediately get up and wander away, and that she would have to corral it back into place. Instead, it looked around, confused, then sat down on the floor, too tired to do anything else. Ash frowned. It was a bad sign. She hoped it wasn't so sick that it was beyond saving.
She flipped through the book until she found the folded piece of paper stuck in the middle of it. She unfolded it, and scanned the carefully handwritten lines on it. The words were familiar. She'd said them many times. But it had been some time since she'd done this, and she wanted to be sure she remembered correctly.
She knelt beside the chicken and set the paper down in front of her, where she could read it again if she needed to, and looked up at the chicken. Its head was nuzzled into its feathers, its eyes closed.
Ash took a breath, then raised her hands, and began moving them in the patterns that would allow her to summon magic.
In her mind's eye she saw her mother guiding her hands, saying the words with her. It was her earliest memory, and her only memory of her mother. In truth, she knew the spell more from the directions that her mother had written down than from any demonstration she'd been given. Her aunt and uncle had never been able to do magic-that talent ran only on her mother's side, and had, for the most part, died along with her.
As she spoke the chant, she felt power rising slowly within her. She let her vision unfocus as she turned her attention inward, shaping that power into a spell. It was a thing you did by feel and instinct as much as by memory and precision of movement. The spell was guided by the motions and the words, but it was something deep inside her, something that didn't have a name, that created the power that gave the spell life.
As she said the last words of the chant and waved the final movements, she directed the power outward, toward the animal in front of her. There was a burst of energy, like a bubble rising in her chest and suddenly bursting, as the spell was cast.
It was oddly anticlimactic. There was no flash of light or sound or any physical sign that anything had happened, except for her sudden tiredness. Ash waited, holding her breath.
Then, the chicken raised its head. It looked left, then right, then cocked its head to look up at her. Then it got to its feet to strut across the floor to the kitchen, where it began to peck at bits of something or other on the floor.
Ash sat back, grinning, and watched proudly as it bobbed around the room. It was as if it had never been ill at all.
"Not bad for a lowly hedgewitch," she said to it. It did not reply.
The grin was wiped quickly from her face by a hard knock on the door.
She jumped, snapped the book shut, opened it again, threw the loose paper in, and snapped it shut again. "Who is it?" she called, the irritation loud in her voice.
In lieu of reply, the door opened. Ash glared at the doorway, squinting into the bright sunlight that shone in from outside. Her glare deepened when she saw the man standing on her porch.
Rainer Kendrick was almost exactly two years older than her, and an entire head taller and an equal proportion broader. His hair was meticulously coiffed above his head with some sort of oil mixture that smelled like stale hay and that, Ash had heard, he bought in bulk in Mirabar whenever his family made the trip up to trade their wool. Many in the village of Marwood called him handsome, which assured Ash that her own view of what 'handsome' was must be quite far away from everyone else's.
But the thing that mattered more than all of that, of course, was that they hated each other.
She was not sure when, exactly, it had begun. They'd grown up together. He'd always hated her, for as long as she could remember. And she'd hated him back, as soon as she was old enough to understand fear and hate. They mostly tried to avoid each other, which was difficult since their houses were a stone's throw apart.
He'd been calling her 'witch' and 'sorceress' for years, but only when no one else was around to hear the contempt in his voice. She had never taken too much offense, because it was true-although she tried to keep that information to herself. And in any case, she didn't have much magical skill to brag about, even if she'd wanted to.
These days, she wondered how many of those curses he'd learned from his family, who had always had a similar dislike for her family, though they mostly were more subtle about it than Rainer had been. For how else does a child learn to hate from such a young age, if not by example?
He watched her from the doorway, wearing the vaguely superior look he always wore, and spoke no greeting. Ash rested her hands on her hips. Even the way he stood, too straight and with his chest out a little too much, irritated her.
"Can I help you?' she said impatiently.
Still, he didn't reply at first. It was only then that Ash saw there was a full crowd behind him, at least eight of the village men. None of them smiled. A cold crept over Ash's skin. She could see in their demeanor that something wasn't right.
The only sound, for a few moments, was the hen's pecking at the floorboards, which everyone ignored.
"Do you have anything you would like to confess?" Rainer said, his voice low and languid, with the confidence of one who knew he was about to get his way.
She blinked at him. Had someone been peering through her windows? But all the drapes were closed. Who could have seen her?
When she gave no answer, Rainer turned to Karsten, who nodded. As Karsten stepped forward, Ash realized he was holding something large and limp. He dropped it on the floor in front of her with a heavy thump.
It was a dead goat. Ash looked down at the animal, then up at the men at her door. "What's that?" she said.
The men exchanged glances. Rainer crossed his arms, giving her a disapproving, almost pitying look-the way one might look at a child who'd been caught in a lie. Gods, she hated him.
"It's the third in a month," he said, as if that were clear enough explanation.
"Something's attacking the animals?"
"Not attacking," Rainer corrected her, gesturing down at the goat. "I see no wounds."
Ash looked down at the goat, making a face in distaste. It smelled.
"You're going to have to explain to me why you've dumped a goat's corpse on my floor if you want this conversation to go anywhere," she said.
"You know why we're here," Talen said from behind Rainer, a grim resignation on his face. "Three of his stock dead, so close together? With no sickness, no wounds? That's not natural."
Ash stared at them. "You think...I killed them?"
"It's witchcraft," Talen blurted, and the word brought a nervous fidget to everyone in the group. "We all know that you…" He made a gesture, whose meaning was unclear, and lowered his voice. "That you do those things."
It was not a thing that was usually said aloud, but she had always suspected that most of them knew. She, her aunt and uncle, her mother-they had all served as the village's healers for decades. In most cases, that meant medicine or salves or setting bones. But sometimes, something more was required. Ash had found that folk were much less disdainful toward magic when it was saving their lives.
"There are all kinds of sicknesses," Ash said. "Some of them don't show warning signs before they kill. Why do you assume it's magic? It could be anything."
"And yet, only my animals have been affected, out of the entire village," Rainer said, raising his eyebrows. "Our animals graze close together, Ash. If mine were sick, yours would be, as well. But they are not. Why do you think that is?"
"But they are," she said. "One of my chickens—" She looked down at the hen, which was still circling around the room, quite lively, and very much not sick-looking. "Why should I want to kill your goats?" she demanded instead, crossing her arms.
Rainer stepped through the doorway and into the house, uninvited-a small gesture that, with disturbing ease, sent a shiver of foreboding straight to Ash's core. She took an involuntary step back.
"I want you to know, Ash, that your aunt's and uncle's deaths were not my family's fault," he said, feigning sadness at the situation, as if it had been forced on him and not something he'd concocted. "That was a tragic day, but there is no one to fault but fate, and putting blame on others will not bring them back."
Ash stared at him. "I didn't..."
Her aunt and uncle had been out hunting with the Kendricks when they'd died. It had been a terrible accident. She had never thought otherwise. But Rainer, it seemed, had convinced the rest of the village that she still held a grudge over it.
"When I found the first one dead, I had not much concern. I suspected you were responsible, but I was willing to forgive you for it, seeing as you were grieving," he said magnanimously. "But you wouldn't leave it at just one. You kept going. And you were going to keep going until we confronted you, weren't you? Tell us the truth-would you have left it at killing the animals? Or were you practicing for something else? Something that stands on two feet?"
Ash looked at the others behind him. Their expressions showed varying levels of fear and discomfort and anger. "You don't really believe any of this, do you?" she scoffed. "I haven't done anything."
"Do you have proof?"
"You're a witch," he snapped. "We are not fools. We know bad magic when we see it. You won't be able to persuade your way out of justice. You've already showed us how dangerous you can be. We can't wait for something worse than this to happen."
"This is-this is ridiculous," Ash sputtered. "You can't just come in here and-Get out of my house. Just get out."
Rainer took a step closer, and lowered his voice, as if to speak to her in confidence-as if she was a friend he was trying to help, for her own good. "I cannot, in good conscience, leave you free to harm the village, when I know I can put a stop to it now. I will not be responsible for what you might do."
"I haven't done anything," Ash said.
He put a hand on her arm, and she tried to tear herself away, which only made his grip tighten painfully.
"Don't touch me!" she shouted, panicked, but suddenly there was a rush of movement from the door. Bodies and frantic, loud voices surrounded her. Several hands grabbed at her arms and pulled them roughly behind her back, and she felt ropes being wrapped around her wrists. She thrashed wildly against them, more out of terror and outrage than out of any real belief that she could escape them.
When she was tightly bound, the group stepped back, still watching her with either nervousness or disgust.
"Calm yourself," Rainer said, still holding onto her arm. "Hysterics will do nothing to help your situation."
"Now what?" she demanded. "You'll have me killed?"
Several of the men looked at each other, or at the floor. No one answered. Ash felt the blood drain from her face.
"You're going to face the consequences of your actions," Rainer said flatly. He turned her toward the door, and pulled her along with him as he walked.
"You can't do this," she said, still in disbelief. "The rest of the village won't stand for it."
"Won't they?" Rainer said. They stepped onto the porch, and stopped. Ash stared. The entire population of Marwood, all fifty-something of them, stood outside her house, watching.
They had known what he was doing. They knew what was going to happen to her. All of them. And none of them were going to do anything about it.
A horrible sinking feeling came over her as she realized that no one was going to speak up for her, that this was already decided, and it was really happening. The eyes on her felt like ice, judging and condemning in a single look.
She had known she wasn't well-liked. She had never been as much a part of the village community as everyone else was, even though she'd lived there her entire life. And still, the betrayal struck her like a knife in the heart.
Ash looked around at all of them. Her voice wouldn't come, at first. "You're all just going to let him do this?" she said. "You really believe those things he says about me?"
Rainer pulled gently at her arm. "Ash—"
She whirled on him. "And I suppose this has nothing to do with the fact that there's no one left to inherit my land after I'm gone, and that my family's land is right beside yours?" she spat. "I suppose you could just move right in, couldn't you? No one else will be using it, after all, will they? How convenient for you." She looked around at all of them. A few looked away before she could meet their eyes. Most were unmoved.
"Zelda," she called, to a woman about her age, who was holding a tightly swaddled baby. At the direct address, the woman clutched the infant closer to her chest.
"What are you going to do when the baby gets sick and needs healing? You won't be able to come to me like you did last year. Remember that? You didn't think witchcraft was so bad when it was curing Anna's fever, did you?"
Zelda looked resolutely at the ground.
No one else said anything. Rainer had already convinced them. There would be no changing their minds. Not by her, the village recluse. The strange one. The one who went a little too far out of her way to avoid other people, and was a little too sharp with her words when she was around them.
Rainer shook his head disapprovingly. He took her arm, gently turning her toward the hills. The lightness of the touch felt less like a kindness and more like an insult-a reassurance that he hardly had to make an effort to exert control over her. "For the gods' sake, have some dignity," he muttered. "At least preserve what little you have left."
Ash did not resist as they guided her into the trees, toward the forested hills east of Marwood. There was little point. She cast a glance over her shoulder, watching the houses and the people as they got smaller behind her. The last time she would see any of it, she thought. She took a long look at her family's home before Rainer pushed her, pulling her gaze away.