The icy wind swirled around the woods, slashing at Asha’s bare skin like a hundred serrated knives. She pulled her threadbare shawl tighter around her shoulders. It was a clear night, her path moonlit through the creaking trees, but in the distance, wraithlike clouds were gathering, and with them, the threat of snow. She knew that if it fell, she would not last the night. She was struggling as it was; her body tremored against the biting cold, her breath was harsh and ragged, her fingers and chapped lips were turning blue. Every step was a stumble as she caught her sandalled feet on frozen twigs and slippery stones. She had barely eaten anything in the last week. If she didn’t find shelter soon, she would be dead – snow or no snow.
Asha spared a moment to glance behind her. As always, there was nobody there, but she was still fearful that she would see a furious mob pursuing her, baying for her blood. A “witch” they had called her: a disgusting, dangerous, malicious sorceress born to curse their families and eat their children. Asha was only sixteen years of age herself, but nobody listened to her pleas and protestations; not even her own family. She winced remembering the hatred burning in her father’s eyes, the quivering fear of her little brother, the disappointment etched on her mother’s face. As if she’d deliberately wilted her father’s crops after she tended to them. As if she’d meant to kill their neighbour’s goat after petting her. As if she’d intended to strike the miller’s daughter down with a life-threatening fever. It seemed that almost everything or everyone she came in contact with was inexplicably suffering. Cursed, maybe, but a witch? How could she be, if she had no control over what was happening?
Some of the townsfolk, the neighbours she had known all her life, wanted her tortured, or even dead. In fear for her life and the safety of her family, Asha fled her hometown in the dead of night, with the few provisions she could carry. She’d heard that there was a place of sanctuary for people like her, at the other side of the forest. They were only rumours, stories, and she had no idea if there was any modicum of truth behind them. Nor did she know where she was going, blindly blundering through the densely-packed trees in deepest winter. Daylight hours were short and frostbite threatened every night. At last, the woods were thinning, and Asha was convinced that she was nearly there. If she could find the monolith, maybe, just maybe, she would survive.
As the first few snowflakes sliced her cheek on the breeze, Asha saw a structure appearing in the last vestiges of moonlight. She shuffled over, barely any energy left in her aching legs. It was a roughly-hewn column of stone, about her height, with crudely carved swan-shaped symbols near its base. At its top was a small aperture, decorated with a cast-iron framework, which housed a partially-melted candle. Asha let out a shuddering breath, a cloud of vapour billowing in front of her weary eyes. She had become well-practiced in lighting fires over the past week; she pulled two pieces of flint from her pouch, and, with trembling fingers, struck them against each other. With one spark the wick caught, and the candle burned with a glow as invaluable to Asha as the sun itself. Now, all she had to do was wait.
Asha stirred. She had fallen asleep at the base of the monolith. The candle was still burning weakly, flickering above her head. The snow was falling hard and fast, sticking to the trunks and branches of the dimly-lit trees. Asha was partly submerged in a snowdrift, drenched through, and completely numb. She was probably hours away from freezing to death. But something had woken her. There, emerging from the darkness, were hooded, spectral figures – about two dozen. Their cloak-like clothing was made of a lightweight, pale-coloured material unfamiliar to Asha. Each individual was carrying a small candle in their gloved hands. They left no footprints in the snow, gliding gracefully over the ground. She struggled to her feet as the figure at the front approached her, holding, not a candle, but a bundle of furs.
“We saw your beacon, child. Worry no more. We will offer you sanctuary.”
She had a soft, pleasing voice that warmed Asha’s frozen frame. The hooded woman draped the furs gently over Asha’s shoulders, her fragile knees nearly buckling.
“Your Sisters will take care of you,” the woman whispered, “Will you come with us?”
She took the dying candle from the monolith and handed it to Asha. The young girl felt the faint heat spread from her palms, up her shivering arms and throughout her whole body like wildfire. She almost dropped the candle in surprise. Could it be… magic? How else could one tiny candle warm her like a raging fire? Perhaps then these people, the Sisterhood, could explain what was happening to her… At the very least, she trusted them to understand her, and keep her safe from those who would see her killed. Something in her gut told her that this was where she belonged.
“Yes, yes I will,” she croaked.
The woman smiled. She took Asha’s hand in hers and led the nervous girl into the wooded blackness, surrounded by her Sisters, towards the answers she desperately sought.
Emma H, age 27, 05/02/2018
This short story was written for Sue Vincent’s “Shrine” #writephoto prompt. If you’d like to take part or read other entries, you can click on the link below:
I struggled a bit more with the photo this week, but I quite like the way my imagination took me in the end 🙂 I welcome any thoughts or suggestions. Thanks to Sue for the prompt!