The wind blew cold on the top of the hill. Tiny water droplets caught in the gust bit at Safiya’s cheeks as she walked. She wriggled her fingers as she was starting to lose feeling in them, although whether that was the freezing air or her tightly bound wrists, she didn’t know.
“Faster,” Petre ordered, pulling a heavy cloak tighter around him. He walked steadily up the path, leaning on a thick wooden cane for support. Petre looked abnormally well-put together for a walk in the cold rain, his balding white hair stiff in place. Another puff of wind came towards them, and Petre crinkled his eyes, showing new wrinkles and spots. Petre was an old man, with a cold gleam in his eyes and a slight limp in his right leg, for which he carried a cane that often struck any child he deemed impertinent.
A hand prodded Safiya in the ribs from behind. Gerald, the bastard, reminding her to walk faster. He always did as Petre said. Safiya winced and quickened her pace. She rounded the corner of the trail and tripped on a protruding tree root.
She drew in a sharp intake of breath. If her hands had been free, she might have been able to catch herself, but with them bound she had toppled to the near-frozen dirt. A stray droplet fell from the sky and landed on her cheek. Gerald grabbed her by the collar of her tunic and pulled her upright again. He pushed her forward onto flat land.
There were no trees growing on the top of the hill. A ring of huge, leafy foliage surrounded the outer edge, but on the flat land on top, no trees grew. Safiya looked up at the sky, dropping more raindrops by the second. She felt vulnerable.
“Well?” Petre said to Gerald. “What are you waiting for?”
Gerald grabbed Safiya by the elbow and pulled her forward. On the far end of the plateau there was a thick post, hammered into the ground years ago. Or so go the tales told by elder village women over fires late at night. Safiya focused on it, her breathing slowing. The wind died down suddenly, and the rain seemed to curve around Safiya’s head.
Gerald pulled on a loose lock of Safiya’s hair, hard. Safiya flinched and screwed her eyes up tight. The wind roared back to life, the rain poured down on them harder than before.
“No more of that,” Gerald commanded. He tugged on the piece of hair again, less harshly this time. “Or we’ll have to blindfold you.”
Safiya said nothing, allowing him to drag her to the post. Gerald pulled at the knotted rope binding Safiya’s wrists. It fell away at the skilled hands of the Horsemaster. Safiya silently cursed his name.
Lightning struck a nearby tree, and Safiya and Gerald both jumped. He scowled at Safiya and made a sign to ward against evil over his heart. Mercilessly, he pulled her hands behind the post and starting to retie the rope. Safiya winced as pain shot through her shoulder.
Gerald tightened the knot and pulled on it to make sure it was too tight for Safiya to escape. Petre, who had walked over to them while Gerald was tying the rope, opened his satchel and pulled out a dead hen. He threw it on the ground at Safiya’s feet.
Gerald stepped around the post to stand at Petre’s side.
“God have mercy on your soul,” Petre announced, and traced the sign of the cross on his chest. Gerald copied the motion before the two turned and headed back down the hill to the village.
Safiya waited until their heads had bobbed out of view before she let her stony face drop. She slid to the bottom of the post, pushed her knees into the mud, and began to cry.
She had kept herself contained until that point. When Gerald and the men pushed their way into her father’s shop and dragged her to the town circle, when they held sentence, when they made her watch as they hauled her parents away, when Petre’s eyes narrowed and his teeth bared like a mountain cat stalking its prey, when he―
Safiya pulled herself out of her thoughts. She strained the taut rope against the post and awkwardly stood, gazing at the plateau and trying to figure out what had happened.
It had stopped raining. One moment, a heavy downpour that made the top of Safiya’s head hurt, the next, dry sky and a dark shadow.
Slowly, Safiya looked up, dreading what she already knew was in the sky.