Magic requires energy. That’s the basic rule – you have to put something in to get something out.
It doesn’t really matter where you get the energy from – sunlight, a candle flame, a gust of wind. There’s energy in life, too: the last gasp of a dying mouse, caught in a trap, or – a stronger, headier rush – the spark of pain as you twist a cat’s neck in your hands.
All that matters is that there is energy, and you take it. Transform it. Push it out again in another form. Take the heat of a candle flame and use it to soothe an aching joint. Drink in the sunlight on your skin and give new life to the grass around you, watching it grow green and lush before your eyes. Take the pounding heartbeat and its sudden stillness and use it to harm – take the energy of a life lived and lost, and curse another life. Dry up the milk of cows, take the sight from a hunting dog, bring gout and ague to those who sneer at you.
There are no true limits. Any power that there is, can be taken. Can be used. Given enough time, and a large enough source, you could wield limitless power – take in sunlight until you grow glowing and bloated with the energy, then release it all to build a forest in moments. Snuff out a thousand lives, steal their last gasps and take a hundred more a dozen miles away.
But that takes time, and attracts attention. Even the little things do – people notice if the flowers bloom early about your home, or if the town’s stray cats are nowhere to be seen. Even with limitless power available, I am still vulnerable. Suspicious men with cold iron in their hands, stones flung by sneering village children. Limitless power means little if you never have the time to use it, if even the subtlest exercise of magic brings the mob to your door.
So I am patient. I use my magic rarely, undetectably. Perhaps a squirrel goes missing from the woods – who’d miss a squirrel? Perhaps my vegetables grow a little larger, a little earlier. No more than chance, no more than diligence might reward. Perhaps those who wrong me, who sneer or reject me, feel pain sometimes. They slip and fall, months after their mockery in the town square, or find their fruit withered on the tree come harvest time. I am careful, I am circumspect. No one has reason to suspect me.
And yet they do. They suspect everyone, not just those who have the power. They accuse, and threaten, and imprison. They execute, without trial or reason, anyone they choose.
The old woman who lived near the well – she must be a witch. The children fear her rotten teeth, so she must be the devil’s doxie. The farmer’s daughter who rejected the governor’s son – surely only hellspawn could resist him? The insolent maid, the rich widow, the crippled beggar-woman. The mob turns on everyone, accuses, invents, punishes. Those who are different, who live apart, who are not pleasing to the eye or choose not to please – they are all taken and condemned.
At last, so am I. I was careful, I was cautious. I am not ugly, nor yet pretty. Not too rich or too poor. They saw no sign of deviltry or witchcraft – I made sure. But the mob needs victims, needs to drown out the deaths of the innocent with more death.
I am taken in the night, strapped to a rowan wood hurdle and rushed through the town. I am locked in the cellar, away from the warm sun. They leave no candle-light for me – I sit in the dark. The cellar is snug and secure, designed for storing food in the winter. No rats or mice can enter. I have no option but to wait.
And then they come again, the next night. The same rush, strapped to the same hurdle. I am pressed against the stout oak pole in the center square as hands roam over me, groping and squeezing as they fumble with the heavy rope.
They gag me then, and ignore me. The young men bring heavy logs, the girls dry ferns and thin branches. They pile it around me, stack it up close to me, almost to my waist. The elders watch from the edges of the square, dark shapes against the feeble torches. I wait.
I wait for the stacking to end. I wait for the crowd to work themselves up, to chant and shriek and demand. I wait to be denounced, to be denied, to be condemned. I wait for the torch to be brought close, to be touched to the dry wood and for the first hungry flames to lick against my skin.
Magic requires energy. It doesn’t matter where you get the energy from – sunlight, a candle flame, the crackling heat of a pyre. You can absorb it, transform it, take it all in and send it out again.
The villagers are gathered to watch someone burn. They will not be disappointed.