Ember ran, breath catching in her throat. A sense of urgency drove her through the woods, but caution kept her flying feet light on leaves and branches.
“Let the stars lead you, Ember.” Her father’s voice sounded in her ear, as if he were running with her. “The Phoenix guards and guides our family; she will never lead you astray.”
I’m trying, Father, she thought. I only wish I knew where she was leading me.
The sound of a less-cautious foot snapping a branch nearby froze her steps. Ember held her breath to see if it would be repeated.
More sounds penetrated the dense forest around her, and she knew she was surrounded. There was no telling if the men closing in knew where she was, or if they’d simply managed to blunder into position. It didn’t matter—she was trapped either way.
“Oy!” Ember whipped her head around to stare at the man who’d called out, alerting the rest of the hunters. He stood a careful distance away; in seconds he was joined by a loose ring of men bearing the torches of their purpose.
Her calm gaze met each of theirs, but their resolve did not waiver. The drought had been severe, and most of the crops were lost. Action had to be taken—that’s what the pompous elder had told them, and that’s what they believed.
The red speck in her left eye, the Devil’s eye, had marked her. Her sacrifice would be their salvation.
“What right have you, to chase me like an animal? Dare not believe that evil done here will not be witnessed.” Her voice rang with an authority they didn’t expect from a girl so young. They glanced to each other, and for the briefest moment, hope fired in her soul.
“Burn the witch!”
The rallying cry extinguished that fragile flame, and she pressed her slender shoulders against the reassuring strength of the oak. She felt the wavering heat of the advancing torches; as her long auburn hair began to curl and smoke, she raised her eyes to the brightest star in the Phoenix constellation.
When she closed her eyes and bowed her head, the men pressed closer, enflamed by her passive acceptance.
The first torch pressed to her arm.
Ember’s head snapped up, the heat lifting her singed hair to fly wildly around her. Too late, the men saw the fire rise in her eyes and flames dance along her skin as she stepped away from the tree.
Even generations later, the tale of the Phoenix ensured that no naked flame ever entered the dark of the forest. The Phoenix Ring, they called it.
Stones formed like men, circling a broad oak. They looked to have been shaped by a monstrous heat, their faces twisted as if in unimaginable pain, and yet the tree they surrounded was unmarked by fire.
This post is my response to a prompt from Write On Edge to write about either the Phoenix (legendary firebird), or the Phoenix (the constellation). I decided to combine them. I hope you enjoyed Ember's story - please take a minute to leave a comment to tell me what you think!