Amidst the haze of my consciousness, the soft pitter-patter of water droplets hitting a puddle could be faintly heard. In the background, a gentle chorus of bees buzzed, their collective hum delicately teasing my ears. A subtle motion stirred beneath my feet, yet the precise source of these sensations remained elusive. What was causing this faint stir in the surroundings? With great effort, I managed to pry open my heavy eyelids.
It wasn’t a significant tremor, more akin to a feeble ripple. Nevertheless, a searing agony coursed through me, as if every fiber of my being were being rented asunder. It was to be expected. Prior to my descent into unconsciousness, a cruel lash had relentlessly struck my back, leaving me to speculate if my flesh had already been torn apart, my bones laid bare.
“Ugh,” I groaned, as an icy-cold sensation, as if being impaled by frigid needles, intertwined with the relentless pain. I attempted to reach for the source of the pain, but inexplicably found myself immobilized.
Through half-lidded eyes, obscured by lengthy lashes, I cast a downward glance at my own body. An involuntary gulp accompanied the sight that met my gaze. Thick ropes bound my chest, both arms, waist, and knees, securing me firmly to a robust wooden structure. The air was tainted with the noxious odor of rancid oil, wafting from a pile of firewood beneath my feet, threatening to upset my already uneasy stomach.
Though the shifting shadows obscured my vision, an eerie and unfamiliar pattern etched on the ground became faintly discernible. A hushed query escaped my lips, “What is all this?” The words were barely a whisper, but in that instant, the ceaseless buzz that had surrounded me abruptly hushed.
“It appears you’ve awoken,” a voice declared, while the pointed end of a lengthy wooden pole lightly touched my chin. It was Lesph, one of the elders of the White Fox tribe. His weathered countenance bore the deep creases where white hair and beard met.
“Why are you subjecting me to this?” I inquired, each utterance coating my mouth with the acrid taste of blood, as if my lips had been torn.
“Do you not understand? Who do you think bears the blame for the White Fox tribe’s loss of Terra Demorte and our exile to the north?”
“It’s not my fault that we lost in battle.”
“You are heartless. Have you never wondered why we were defeated by the Black Wolf tribe? It is because the land’s deities grew wrathful with you, your mother, and our chieftain Rosou, stripping away their blessings. Your mother and Chieftain Rosou have already met their end, leaving you as the sole offering to appease the gods’ ire.”
“This is nothing but coercion. My death won’t resurrect the land we lost in that war.”
In a swift motion, Lesph seized my hair, wrenching my head backward. An acute pang shot down my spine, accompanied by a muffled thud from behind.
“Ugh,” I involuntarily groaned, and Lesph’s hold on my hair tightened, his actions growing increasingly violent. Tears welled up, streaming down my face as the searing pain felt like my scalp was being violently torn from my head.
“Coercion, you claim? We live in a patriarchal system, where deviation from the mates chosen by the god of the land, Bajak, brings forth a curse we must endure. And who transgressed this rule? None other than Rosou. To compound matters, he fell for a witch of all people.”
“My mother wasn’t a witch. She was merely a gypsy. She possessed no magic,” I countered.
“Silence,” Lesph snapped, and with a sharp sound and a sudden flash before my eyes, one side of my face went numb. I lacked the strength to even blink or close my parted lips, yet Lesph’s furious voice persisted without respite.
“It’s plain to see, both you and your mother bear the mark of witches. The White Fox tribe cannot birth fiery red hair like yours. Eyes as shrouded in mist as yours are unheard of among the Red Wolf tribe. None here would hold a contrary view.”
Lesph dramatically swept his arm, gesturing to what lay beyond him. Behind him, a gathering of roughly a dozen White Fox tribe members, their expressions fierce and unyielding, formed a grim assembly.
The two figures at the forefront held diminutive torches, while the others gripped swords and whips with intent. All shared the common features of lustrous silver hair and obsidian irises. Not a single soul among them boasted fiery red hair like mine.
“Branding someone a witch solely due to their red hair is pure ignorance,” I muttered in a final, desperate attempt. My words seemed to strike a nerve, as anger surged across the faces of the encircling group, led by Lesph. It appeared I had unintentionally hit a raw nerve, but I harbored no desire to meet an unjust demise.