Author's Note: So I said I'd do it and now, at last, I've done it. Here is the new introduction to Apprentice, hopefully improved over the exhaustive old version. If you read the old one and have an opinion to voice on the changes I've made, I always love to hear opinions, especially when they offer me something to improve upon. Also, if you're one of those who have been following this story - thanks for coming back!
Hide shoes scraped across porous stone studded with dry, brittle moss and the rasping sounds of these steps seemed to proclaim the walker's weariness. For several long moments, the girl stared through the vast open space of the familiar valley. She did not heed the breeze ruffling the waves of her red hair, as though wind might try to change her mind – there was no reason for hesitation, anymore. Janet stretched her arms out like the thin wings of a bird that could never hope to fly and dove from the cliff face.
Even as she plummeted toward the rocks below, memories filled her gut with thick, noxious despair. With dark eyes opened wide, she did not see the sun gleaming off broad late-summer leaves or the passing of a swallow.
She saw her mother.
The woman's sleeves rolled to her bony elbows and her graying hair tied back harshly could not compare to the hunger and age that laid bare across her thin face. The dough she kneaded seemed to plea for mercy from the violent hands with which Janet was so intimately acquainted. The girl knew, far better than the naïve dough, that no mercy was forthcoming.
"You're no good." Hard hands slapped flour across pale softness. "Friar Donnavin had the right of it when he had you flogged last spring. Always thought so. You oughtta be working. And here you are, lying to your mother again. Haven't done a decent day's work since I don't know when. Don't appreciate the food on your plate or the roof over your head. Piddle away all your time traipsing through the woods, coming up with new lies and tricks to play… So what are you good for, Janet? More the better if some stranger in the woods found some use for you, I say!" Such hard, callused hands. "No worse than you deserve."
The girl's eyelids fluttered and, in that instant, the scene changed.
A box of a church sat in the village in much the manner of a fat rat lounging in the cupboard, and before it, jutting out of the earth was a tall blackened stake. A girl not much older than Janet struggled against the ropes that held her to that stake and gnashed her teeth on the leather strip that had been tied so cruelly tight that blood dripped from the corners of her mouth and down the front of her white frock. Before her stood a priest, as gray and broadly austere as his church, who read in tones of condemnation from a book with pages yellowed by time and use.
Janet's father, at that time a much younger man, clamped his hands on his daughter's shoulders and made her watch the proceedings.
"She's a witch, Janet. A witch plagued by the devil's madness. She spoke the worst sort of lies a woman can tell and wove venomous untruths against our lord, Master Stutlan, as well as against Friar Donnavin, himself. You don't believe her lies, do you, Janet?"
Janet shook her head as she watched her dearest friend's hair crackle and disappear. A horrible stink filled the air of the village square.
"That's a good girl."
Guilt drove its spiny teeth deeper as she fell. Oh, she believed Magne's stories, now! But Janet could not draw a breath before the next vision was upon her.
He had pounced upon her in the woods like a cat upon an unwary songbird. The struggle had been brief and futile and Janet, her arms twisted painfully above her head, had stared in horror into the yellow eyes of a predator. From a face otherwise shrouded in burlap, those monstrous eyes stared back at her fiercely. Even as fear flooded her to empower a renewed struggle, her attacker had slapped her hard enough to stun her, then ripped open her tunic.
A sickeningly gentle caress, made with a coarse palm, ended with that hand placed precisely above her heart. As Janet began to return to her senses, she heard his muttered words just clearly enough to determine that they were not spoken in her language. Then, his palm began to grow hot.
After a moment, it was as though her chest was being blown apart from within, the force of it shattering each of her ribs and crushing her organs to a fine paste. The agony coursed through her veins until it tore her every nerve asunder. Abruptly, after uncountable minutes, the waves of pain stopped crashing and Janet relaxed – the pressure had caused her spine to bow until only her head and her tailbone touched the ground. It was some time before she managed to gather herself enough to look around. Finding herself alone in the forest, she retched and curled into a ball.
As Janet plummeted toward the earth, her mended tunic fluttered about her torso, brushing against the hand print that had lingered on the flesh over her heart, black as coal. The wool still caught painfully at the mark as it would the leathery tissue of a burn.
"…and those wicked in the eyes of the Lord shall be stricken with more than simple plague of flesh, but the eternal suffering of the decay of the immortal soul!"
She could see the old friar shouting his warnings of damnation. From her humble seat amongst the congregation, she could still smell the sour reek of milk on his breath, could see his jowls trembling in his devotion.
"Thence is the will of God!"
The young woman's body hit the stones and loam of the valley's floor with bone-breaking velocity and she yelped as ribs cracked and limbs crunched, sickeningly loud.
Janet lay as she had fallen, trying to slow her agonized panting, trying not to move in fear of the pain that blossomed at her every breath. Panic welled within her and she wondered how long it would take now for death to find her. Her mind swam with electric pain and imagined predators that would be real enough come nightfall.
She had not meant it to end this way.
Overwhelmed by the pain and fear and the monstrous despair that tore at her heart, the girl sank into merciful oblivion. Merciful, for she did not see the yellow eyes that peered out of the leafy depths, observing her crumpled form.