HEART OF ASH – Excerpt

Here are the first three chapters of HEART OF ASH, a YA historical fantasy complete at 79,000 words. Enjoy!

HEART OF ASH

Connecticut, 1682

               The bonfire roared and snapped in the moonlight. It gave a hot, heady glow that warmed Rebekah’s face. She pulled away. She didn’t want to be anywhere near it.

“Papa, I want to go,” Rebekah said. Her sister, Selah, was fast asleep, slung over her Papa’s shoulder even though she was too old. Rebekah hated her for getting away with sleeping through this.

“We’re staying,” he muttered.

“Please, Mama.” Her voice cracked as she took her mama’s hand. She looked to the side of the fire, around the fire, anywhere but right at the fire and what was struggling in the middle. Her mother wrapped her arm around her as if it would protect her from the sight.

“Go on home, we’ll be there soon,” her mama said. Relief welled through Rebekah and she turned to go.

“Stay,” her father commanded. His light eyes were reflecting the flames behind her.

“I beg you, Papa,” she said, struggling to keep her voice low. The crowd was growing restless, struggling to get closer to the spectacle. He leaned down and grabbed her shoulder.

“Righteous people accept the will of the Lord without question.”

“She is only a little girl, not yet of age,” her mama said.

Papa’s hand gripped Rebekah’s shoulder tight, so hard that she knew she would have bruises in the shape of fingerprints.

The crowd was throbbing with bloodlust, lobbing accusations to the wretched woman at the stake.

“Down with the Devil!”

“Burn the witch!”

The restless flames licked up the pyre and reached for the moon, engulfing the guilty woman tied up in the middle. Howling, guttural screams made the hairs on Rebekah’s neck stand on end, and her eyes welled with tears. The sounds, the sounds were what would drive Rebekah mad.

“Please, Papa.”

Her papa stood unmoved, holding Rebekah in place while staring at the grim scene before him.

“She is ney six years old! Far too young for such a spectacle!” her mama pleaded.

Rebekah tried to look away, but a high shriek drew her eyes to the witch. The flames were on her now, creeping up her legs and catching on her rough-spun dress. A smell like burning pig grease nauseated her.

“Please! I confess! Release me!” the witch cried. Then she screamed as all sense left her in hysterical agony. The woman’s skin began to melt like snow in the sun.

Rebekah bent over and wretched onto the dirt. The crowd was so loud, no one noticed.

With a great lurch, Rebekah broke free of her Papa’s grasp.

“Rebekah, come back here!” His voice quavered with anger, and she knew she would be beaten until her skin split from the switch when he caught her.

She ran and ran until she reached the darkness of the forest.

Rebekah put her back against a tree and sank to the ground, tears streaming down her face. She closed her eyes and sobbed.

What would her papa do when it was her strapped to the pyre?

Chapter 1

Salem Village, MA. January 1692

Bekah watched as Selah ran all the way to the brook without stopping. Her skirts caught against thorny bare branches, ripping the stitching Bekah had worked so hard on. It didn’t matter that Selah was far too old to be without her coif. The white material flittered in the wind, carefree and barely in her grasp. Her long blonde curls flew behind her and were mesmerizing without their white cotton cage.

Ever perfect, ever penitent, ever grateful, Bekah North didn’t have the choice to do as she pleased. It was all well and good for her sister to take off her coif and run around the woods like a nymph. Their papa would only give her a stern finger wag and an amused rebuke.

“Dancing is of the Devil, my girl.”

Bekah walked carefully between branches, making sure her dark gray dress stayed spotlessly clean. She knew for her, the punishment would be worse: lashes with a crisp long switch or smacks with the back of his rough hand.

“Your mama said she found you in the woods. Abandoned by some wood spirit,” her papa would always say after too many mugs of ale. Then he’d chew his lip and eye her through heavy lids. “I was good to you, wasn’t I? Even after that devil spirit gave her the consumption for taking you in?” She knew his thoughts, had heard him mutter in a drunken sleep that she was a great flaw among them, a spur in the side of their goodness.

“Yes, Papa.” Always, yes, Papa. As if he was the only soul who missed her dead mama.

“Bekah! Come here!” Selah pulled off her shoes and long wool socks and splashed into the icy water.

“You will catch your death!” said Bekah, finally breaking in to a trot. The water wended through a path under what was left of sagging winter leaves. Tiny ice crystals hung low over the water from the lace-like branches above it.

“I will not. You worry far too much,” Selah said, the true golden child. She stomped and splashed until her feet turned pale blue.

“Hurry now, we should get on.” Bekah held up the basket overflowing with brown eggs for market. They would sell them to George Pendleton for a good price, and bring home the two loaves they sorely needed.

Finding an extra egg-laying hen wandering in the woods had brought the only real smile Bekah had seen on her father’s face since they moved to Salem a fortnight prior. He had still not found adequate work as a blacksmith.

Selah splashed out of the water, flopping onto a broad rock to pull on her socks.

“When will you learn to have fun, dear sister?”

Bekah twisted her lips at Selah’s complaint.

“I will have fun when we all have enough to eat.” She cradled the basket under her cloak and led the way to town.

Salem Village, on the outskirts of Salem proper, was bustling this early morning. Chickens were squawking before their royal beheadings, and the sound of an axe resonated with a clang as wood was split for a price on demand. And above all else, there was a hum of work as the villagers hurried from one chore to the next. It was not good to be idle, for those made hands of the Devil.

Bekah pushed her way through crowds of soot-streaked slaves and maid servants to the stall of the baker.

“Good morning to you, Mr. Pendleton,” Bekah said, carefully placing the full basket of eggs on the counter. His counter was ever spotless. She stayed carefully back, afraid her cloak might smudge it.

“Girls,” he growled. He took the basket and counted the eggs in his giant, rough hands. Then he held one up, inspecting it against the rays of new morning light. Bekah watched the way his eyes crinkled at the edges as he estimated the egg’s worth. Selah wandered off, catching sight of shiny sewing needles at the next stall.

“I’ll give you one loaf.” He slapped a crusty molasses-colored loaf onto the counter.

“Last week it was two, dear Sir! I must have two.” She tried hard to keep the hunger out of her voice.

“I paid you too much.” He put all of the eggs under the counter except one, which he held in his thick, stubby fingers. “You’re lucky I will do business with you at all, with your papa lying around drunk on Sundays.” He crossed an arm over his protruding belly, pushing out his tobacco-stained bottom lip. He rolled the egg between his fingers.

“Alright,” Bekah said. She slipped the loaf into her basket and walked off to find Selah. This would mean nights with nothing to eat but leftover johnny cake for her, and her stomach ached at the thought of it.

She glanced back and saw Mr. Pendleton leering at a few servant girls clustered near his stall. The faun-colored egg was still held lightly in his hand.

Bekah swiped at the air as if she were batting away a fly. The egg tumbled from his grasp and onto the counter. Rich golden yolk spread into an unappetizing puddle.

She walked faster. It was dangerous, and she knew it. It was like picking at a scab until it bled hot red, sickeningly sweet and terrible. She pinched the back of her hand to admonish herself.

Please forgive me, Father. I am no sinner.

Bekah looked around the market.

It took a moment to find Selah, so frail and small. Bekah spotted her sister’s blonde hair falling untidily out of her coif near the sewing accessories stand, drawing too much carnal attention from the fishmonger. Selah was adored without effort. It was a fact of life, like death and meat spoiling in summer.

“Selah,” she said in exasperation, tugging at her arm. But the girl who turned around was not her sister. She jumped back.

Molly Lawson. She sneered at Bekah and pulled away. Then a smile spread tight over her face.

“Good morning, Rebekah. How are you on this glorious day of our Lord?” she asked, sliding something neatly behind her back. Another bright-eyed girl, Charity Parish, peered around the corner. Her hands were tight behind her back, too.

“Good morning, Molly.” From the first day Bekah had moved to Salem Village, she had felt the eyes of Molly Lawson on her back. The girl was a quick gossip, and had caught on to her papa’s love of ale at once. She had a habit of always stopping to loudly ask why her papa had missed church.

Molly was an orphan taken in by the rich Lawson family. They owned the large, two story house next to the Ordinary tavern. They had a son as well, but he was always suspiciously absent. They were the sort of people who sat up front in church and paraded austerely to the church picnic and public hangings – anywhere their status could be seen and appreciated by the rest of town.

“Now girls, it’s time to be getting back,” came a low voice. A tall woman with caramel skin approached. She wasn’t the only slave in Salem Village, but she was the most beautiful.

“We were just greeting our new friend, Tituba,” Charity said, blinking up Tituba. Charity’s fine red hair peaked out of her coif, giving her a fiery halo, and she shifted her weight to hide whatever was behind her.

The woman glanced at Molly and Charity, a sharp knowing look in her eyes. “I’ll have you put that away, if you know what’s good for you.” She turned to look at Bekah. “Are you one of the new girls? Down past Aker’s farm?” Molly and Charity exchanged knowing looks.

“Yes. I’m Rebekah North,” she said. “I go by Bekah now.” The woman smiled.

“Ah, Bekah. I knew you were coming. I’m Tituba.”

Bekah shivered.

               “Have you seen my sister, Selah?” Bekah asked to change the subject. She took a step to the right, just as Molly shifted her weight. They smacked into each other, and a loud clanging sound resounded through the market. An ornate skeleton key tumbled over the rocks before coming to a stop at Molly’s guilty feet. A long piece of string was tied to the end.

Bekah raised an eyebrow. She knew exactly what that was for. It was a common sin for young women to use keys on strings to predict their futures, and in her last village had become a regular occurrence among a particular group of girls. Bekah brushed her hand against her throat, thinking of the tight rope around the oldest girl’s neck when she was discovered. The girl had been so tall that her toes brushed the grass as she swung under that old Oak tree.

The executioner had pulled on her legs to be sure the girl’s neck snapped clean. Bekah could still recall the vibrations of the sound as they stabbed her own soul.

“Girls!” Tituba snatched up the key and thrust it into her pocket bag so hard she might have ripped it loose. “I told you never outside!” Her cheeks turned pink, and Molly hung her head shamefully. Charity did the same.

“So sorry,” they murmured. Molly shot a look at Bekah through her long, dark blonde lashes.

“Bekah! There you are.” Selah appeared, trotting down the path with a small package in her hand. She stopped short as she saw the other girls. Her coif was slightly lopsided, revealing bright blonde braids that she had hastily done while walking in to town.

“Hello, Tituba,” she said, smiling like a small child.

“It is time to leave.” Bekah took Selah’s shoulder.

“Good day, Miss Rebekah, Miss Selah,” Tituba called after them in a way that made Bekah want to hide.

“Goodbye!” said Selah. She waved as Bekah walked her away from the market.

“You are rude, sister.” Selah snatched her arm away when they reached the village square.

“They are telling fortunes. Do you not remember how Prudence Johnson was hung for it back in Willistown?”

“Charity is the pastor’s daughter. She will never catch trouble.”

Bekah felt her stomach sour. “How did she know your name?”

Selah bit her lip.

“Do not lie to me, Selah North. How did Tituba know your name, as if you two were friendly?” Bekah stopped in the road. “Did you meet her at market, or on your way-”

“It’s nothing important, sister.”

“Do not tell me it’s not important. How would she know who you are?”

Silence. Selah ran the toe of her boot along a crack in the earth. She shoved tiny pebbles into it, avoiding Bekah’s eyes.

Slowly, carefully, Bekah reached out to take her sister’s hand. As her skin met Selah’s, a warm, blood-boiling sensation ran up her arm and filled her eyes with the images carefully concealed in her sister’s secretive glances.

Selah, standing in the parsonage, holding a key on a string. Selah, taking warm cups of tea from a smiling Tituba, a frowning Charity lurking in the background.

“You’ve been with Charity at the parsonage,” Bekah said, seeing her sister’s delicate face again as the images faded. Selah snatched her hand away and began walking.

“How can you always guess?” she said, folding her arms and crinkling the paper of her tiny parcel. Bekah trotted to keep up with her.

“It does not matter,” she muttered. This was a power that she wasn’t scared of using. One could not be hung for guessing well. Still, she didn’t admit any of it to Selah. “Stay away from that woman. Charity dislikes us-”

“Charity dislikes you,” Selah said. Bekah stopped, her lips sewn shut. “I am sorry, sweet sister. I mean to say, she does not know you like I do. I met her in the market, that day you sent me for more rennet. Tituba invited me for tea. It was harmless.”

“Fortune telling is never harmless.” They began walking again. “Pastor Parris says it is of the Devil.”

“And you?” Selah asked, laughing. Bekah shook her head and smiled. Ever since they were small, Bekah had entertained Selah by guessing their future. What kind of kill Papa would bring home from a hunt, when the first buds of spring would push out of murky dirt. Bekah was right so often that Selah stopped betting against her. She stopped her predictions the day after she foretold her mother’s death.

They reached the edge of town and the path that would lead them past Aker’s farm that now lay bare.

“Promise me you will stay away from them. Molly has a gleam in her eye that I do not like. I expect she’ll be plotting something to entertain herself, and might use that dullard Charity for her devices.” Selah snorted in laughter, but Bekah pushed on. “For now we must keep to ourselves. Understand?”

“Fine. But not for long. I want to know who my future husband will be. I could not bear to be a spinster like you,” she laughed. Bekah sighed. Selah had been planning her future husband since they were barely out of a crib. “Tituba claims to be able to predict not only who, but when a man might propose! Why can’t you predict things like that?”

Bekah shook her head. Then, just out of the corner of her eye, she saw something move along the edge of the forest. A face, handsome, dark, peered out at them just at the edge of shadows.

She walked faster, pulling her basket close. This wasn’t the first time she thought she saw something in the woods. Watching. Waiting.

“Shall we have peas porridge tonight with the bread? I got a scrap of fat-back,” Selah said, holding up the tiny package. Bekah smiled, noticing that the face had retreated back into the darkness of the trees. “I traded an old button I found in the river yestereve to the butcher’s son. Someone must have lost it while doing their wash. Imagine, porridge and bread together.”

Bekah took the package and tossed it into the basket on top of the lonely loaf of bread.

“That was clever of you, little sister,” she said, and Selah beamed. “We will have a real feast.”

She looked once more at the forest. He was gone.

***

The young man trailed through the forest, wending his way through long hanging branches and waterfalls of lychen. It was biting cold, and little drifts of snow still clung to shadows where the sun had not been able to shine in many days. He was in a plain green tunic so richly colored that it nearly glowed in the waning light. Anyone who might see him would say he was the most handsome young man they had ever seen, with too-large eyes and angular cheekbones.

He was so handsome, one might miss the pointed shape of his ears.

The young man stopped just short of the edge of the forest and smiled.

“The girl is there, you know. Just inside.”

A rustling from behind him revealed his companion, who came out of the bushes and was short of breath. He rubbed his eyes and blinked at the cottage and the wisps of smoke that curled their way out of the chimney and high into the sky.

“How old is she now, my lord?” he asked. His voice was high and reedy.

The young man leaned against the tree, pulling down a branch before letting it go. It snapped into place with a satisfying thwack.

“Seventeen, I think. Their years mean little to me,” he said. He took a pine needle and bit off a piece, chewing happily. He turned to his companion and smacked him on the back. “Come now. The celebration won’t wait on us, now will it?” He laughed, and the forest echoed with it. “I have a mind for mischief today. Let us hope I do not go too far.”

“Indeed, my lord,” his companion said, twisting his mouth nervously. “Won’t you have a look?”

“No need, Musford. She’s odd. Long and dark while her sister is small and fair. She looks like her mother, and someday I expect she’ll be just as beautiful when she blooms.” He sighed heavily.

“Do you think of her often, my lord?” Musford was half the size of the young man, and skittish. He saw paths through the forest that no human would ever notice, and took them now, walking and dipping over and under a symphony of branches and roots.

His dark brown eyes burrowed into the soul of the young man, which was not surprising. Mice were known to be great burrowers, and enchanted faerie mice who were two feet tall were no different. The young man stopped next to him and smiled.

“Every day, Musford. Every day of my life.”

CHAPTER 2

Hunger finally drove Bekah out into the woods, away from her safe little cottage. After their unfortunate meeting with Tituba and the girls, Bekah had grown wary.

She’d had nothing to eat for breakfast except pine-needle tea and knew she could no longer wait. She watched Selah scrape the insides of the porridge pot from last night’s meager supper. The three bites Selah took were excruciating for Bekah. Then Selah shoved the spoon to Bekah, forcing her to take a bite.

“Have just one more bite, please?” Selah held the wooden spoon out again, the crusty peas porridge surprisingly inviting.

“No more. My stomach hurts.” It was not a lie.

“You don’t have to make everything up to me forever.” Selah’s voice was low. They were never to speak of the incident in Papa’s presence, but he had left an hour ago. Bekah only smiled and sipped her tea.

“Always and forever, little sister.”

Selah sighed and ate the last of the porridge.

Today was different. Today Papa had gone into town early for a meeting at the Ordinary, hoping to find work. He woke sober before dawn, stoked the fire, and whistled as he steeped the pine needles in simmering water. Bekah heard him set down the pails of fresh water near the hearth and scrape out some of the peas porridge from the pot.

And, most amazingly, he had brought in a bag of apples, spilling the contents of the burlap sack onto the table. He had found an unmarked, forgotten sack in an old shed on the corner of Aker’s farm.

“Take these into town and start a credit account,” he’d said, before heading out the door. He took Bekah’s arm and pulled her close. “But don’t eat any. I counted them myself.”

Their collection of eggs had reached a respectable amount. Between skimping on her own eggs and collecting all of the extras from the three chickens, plus the bag of apples, Bekah would be able to buy a pound of split peas, a loaf of bread, and a bit of pork with money left over. She would even let herself eat a slice of the brown bread tonight.

As they walked through the forest, her quavering belly rumbled at the thought. She ground her fist into it to stop the hunger pangs.

Selah saw the stream that lay in the middle of the wood, and bolted.

“Not today,” Bekah said, sighing heavily as Selah tossed the bag of apples onto the mossy ground. She cringed to think of the fruit bruising, losing at least two-schillings worth of their value.

“Yes today.” Selah scooped up a precious apple and bit into it lustily. “Let me have a bit of fun. Not everything is life or death.” Selah stripped off her boots and holey wool socks, and flew into the water.

“You will catch your death in there!” said Bekah, finally breaking into a trot to catch up. She sat down on a large flat rock that was so cold she could feel it through her dress and petticoat. She kicked a tiny pile of leftover snow with her boot, eyeing the bag of apples. Her insides clenched, and she pressed her fist harder into her belly.

“Tituba said that I would be married by the end of the year. Can you believe it?” Selah kicked up frigid droplets onto the leaves that dangled over the water. Bekah was pulled from her sour thoughts and gave Selah a dark look.

“Pray tell, how would Tituba know that?”

“She saw it in my tea leaves. We tried to use the key on a string, but it was not working. Tituba said that evil spirits were preventing it from moving. Perhaps the folk themselves.” She opened her eyes wide and motioned as if she were batting away flies, not evil spirits. She threw the half-eaten apple at Bekah, who caught it, and after a moment’s hesitation, bit into it. She even ate the core.

Selah began to sing, her voice rising and falling over the wind.

Soldier, Soldier, will you marry me?
Let us ride down to the sea,
I will wait, I will want,
Until you stay with me    

Bekah let the sweet notes of Selah’s voice pull her into a sleepy trance, and she rocked in time to the music. She forgot, for just a moment, about hunger and fire and the Devil.

A shift in the air made Bekah come-to. Her neck prickled. She closed her eyes and listened, allowing the presence of living things to flit in and out of her mind like butterflies.

Yes. A presence was here.

She scanned the edge of the clearing, looking for a slave collecting forgotten laundry. Or a beggar coming out of their cave den. Selah’s silly song echoed through the trees, her voice rising and falling dangerously to the sky.

Bekah could swear that she saw him, the young man from yesterday, just out of her line of vision. Her heart raced and she leaned forward as if to catch him.

Selah’s clear, high voice was cut short. Bekah turned in horror as Selah’s body grew stiff, her eyes wide open in shock as if she were being choked by an invisible hand. She threw her arms forward, clawing at the air, and then suddenly went slack. It was as if Selah were a puppet and someone had cut her strings. She crumpled backward. Bekah jumped to her feet as Selah fell into the rushing river.

Selah was on her back, icy cold water pouring over her. The creek tore through Bekah’s old boots and skirt as she slogged through it, numbing her instantly.

“Selah!” Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open. “No, please no!” As Bekah reached Selah and grabbed her under the arms, a strong set of hands scooped in. She fell backward into the creek as a young man picked Selah up like a sack of potatoes. His broadness was like a stubborn young ox.

He slogged through the water to the shore, gently placing Selah on a bed of half-melted snow.

“Is she breathing?” Bekah yelled, quickly getting up and running over to where Selah lay.

The young man was leaning over Selah’s chest, putting his ear to her dress and closing his eyes. His dark hair fell in curls over his forehead.

He flipped Selah on her side, smacking her back with the palm of his hand. Selah shook violently, her pale blue lips quivering with each hard thump.

“Selah!” Bekah cried. He smacked her back again, and this time water came rushing out, trickling to the ground in an icy pool. “Selah! Wake up, little sister!”

“Wake up,” he said, rolling Selah on her back again and rubbing her arms, her legs, jostling her to and fro like an enormous blue-tinged doll. “Wake!”

“Selah,” Bekah whispered, crawling forward to place her face on her sister’s. Her skin was corpse cold, and Bekah could pull nothing from Selah’s mind. Nothing.

But there was breath. Bekah could see her chest rising and falling, but barely more than the shift of the breeze.

“We have to get her to town. There might be a doctor at the Ordinary,” he said. His eyes were a striking, crystallized amber.

She clung to her sister. There were no words — What if Selah died? She owed Selah her life.

Her mind tripped over the unthinkable — Magic. She was magical, wasn’t she? That is what her mother had called it, in reverent tones, when Bekah playfully pushed spilled water back into cups. Or when she made the broom sweep and dance on its own.

“Never show anyone, Bekah. Never!” her mother had whispered, grabbing the broom. “Not even to Papa.”

Her papa was right, perhaps it had been her fault her mama was dead. Maybe it was her fault Selah was almost dead now. But could her magic save Selah?

“If we get her to a doctor, she might live,” he said, putting a hand on Bekah’s shoulder. She shook her head, knowing in her heart he was wrong. What if they didn’t make it in time? What if there was no doctor?

Magic, dark and dangerous, called. But unholy magic could also mean her death. Shame threaded through her, beckoning her to a darkness so deep she could not see.

She was a frail, cowardly witch. With a heavy heart, she gently put a hand on Selah’s arm. She imagined herself forcing that strange, sinful power through her fingertips, through Selah’s skin and in to whatever would make her open her bright blue eyes. She imagined herself victorious, Selah repaired.

She imagined herself burning in a fire, her own skin melting like snow in the sun.

“You must trust me, we can make it there in time.” His eyes bore in to her own, even though he was wrong. They might not make it in time.

She could do it now, beg him to keep it quiet, hope that she could barter with him. The possibilities were endless.

Or she could be killed.

She closed her eyes. She willed the power to come, to flow through her and heal her sister.

               Forgive me, Father, I am no sinner.

Darkness. Nothing  came, nothing rushed to her fingertips, nothing but pure wicked fear.

She opened her eyes.

“The Ordinary. Quickly.”

               Please Father, she prayed as they tumbled through the forest together. Do not punish Selah for my sins. I never chose this.

               Please.

Tears slid down her face. Deep down she knew that this was somehow her fault.

***

The Faerie King owned this land, and knew all who dwelled within. As he watched the girls, he sensed a strange presence he had not felt before. The dark-haired girl was sitting on a rock, smiling a secret smile that he hoped was for him. Then, like a great wind from the North, a chill colder than the snow shot through the air. The blonde girl seized up as the chill wrapped around her and sped down her throat and into her very soul. He could see a white hazy blizzard enveloping her.

With deft hands, he guided the hunter boy near the river – the one with the shotgun who avoided the town at all costs. The Faerie King had taken a special interest in him. He often found this one sitting in silence on a fallen tree, absorbing the sounds of the birdsong.

He waved his hand, giving the human boy a final push.

He did not want to reveal himself. Not yet. The time wasn’t right, and he had practice in waiting. Seventeen years, to be exact. What if the dark-haired girl cast him off? He had to wait for a sign that she was ready. He would know it when it came. And then…

He smiled. And then

His Faerie soul burned at the presence of such Evil. He did not know if they would survive it.

 

CHAPTER 3

Selah’s pale arm laid over a bowl filled with her own blood. The slash the doctor had made with a shiny steel knife was finally clotting. The blood dried on her arm like a cracked creek bed in summer.

“The cut will relieve pressure for now,” the old doctor said. He checked Selah’s pulse constantly. “I have used everything I could find. I am sorry.”

As her life drip, dropped slowly into the bowl, Bekah held Selah’s limp hand. The touch of her cool skin didn’t bring any secrets. Her mind was gone. Bekah hummed the silly song quietly, hoping it would rouse her sister.

               Soldier, Soldier…I will wait…

               Still nothing. The innkeeper had sent for her papa, who had not returned home all day.

Bekah fumed.

“We’ll find him soon,” the innkeeper said. She’d come in with a mug of ale for the doctor. “Once she sees her Papa, she’ll come around. You’ll see.” She put a cup of tea on the table for Bekah.

Bekah counted each tiny rise of her sister’s chest as the tea on the table went cold.

One.

Two.

Three.

“There is nothing more I can do for the child,” the doctor said, one-hundred-and-sixty-five breaths later. He put his hand on Selah’s forehead and frowned.

The door slammed open, and Bekah jumped on her rickety chair. There was her papa, all rage and sweat and wild eyes. His right cheek was peppered with dirt as if he’d been lying in it.

“What in God’s name happened?” he yelled, rushing to Selah’s side. He took her pale arm in his rough hands, rubbing his fingers over the dried blood. “Selah. Selah. My darling girl.”

“She fell in the stream,” Bekah croaked.

“What did you do, child?”

“Charles, this was an accident,” the doctor said, taking off his spectacles and polishing them with the hem of his stained shirt. “Children fall into creeks all the time.”

Bekah vaguely wondered how he knew her father’s name.

Perhaps her father owed him money, too.

“Young girls can let themselves get carried away. You know that. They are full of these kinds of dangerous notions. It is in their very nature,” the doctor said with authority. As if she were an unruly donkey in need of a whipping. Bekah wanted to whip him for saying it. If Selah died, she’d do more than that.

Her papa shook his head and looked back at Selah. He brushed her pale hair off of her forehead.

“I told her not to go in the creek,” Bekah said. “I tried to warn her.”

“There’s nothing else to be done?” Her papa looked at Selah as if his life were the one on the line. And in a way, it was. Selah was his whole world. A tiny, perfect replica of their equally perfect dead mother.

The doctor shook his head. “Nay, and I am sorry for it. We will make her comfortable, but it is time for her last rites. I will have the innkeeper fetch Pastor Parris.”

“Yes. Fetch him.” Papa’s voice quavered, broke and crumbled over the last word. He buried his face in the clean sheets the innkeeper had tucked so carefully around Selah’s legs. His shoulders trembled and the doctor cleared his throat and excused himself.

“How could you let this happen?” he mumbled. “Again, and again, you are the seed of ruin for us.”

               Maybe he was right.

Papa pushed back his chair and walked out of the room. “I’ll go tell that damned Minister to hurry.” Bekah knew that a pint of ale would be his entire request, and doubted he would return at all. By the time Selah slipped from this world to the next, he’d be passed out in a stupor.

She scooted closer to Selah, placing her hands on her sister’s chest. The breath was barely there. It was shallow and shuddered beneath her palms, as if the weight of her hands pushed all the precious air from her lungs. Selah was fading. Soon, there would be nothing left.

Bekah’s heart beat fast. She could sense the swelling – an imbalance in Selah’s head. The doctor would never be able to fix it. She closed her eyes and tried again to master the magic she feared.

It came.

A dark, tumbling energy rushed to her body, filling her with power and dread all at once. It was a hot, heady burning like fire coursing through her veins.

Like being burned alive.

For Selah, Bekah would risk everything that she had been so careful to conceal. For Selah, she would burn.

She opened her eyes and took a deep breath, drawing in the power and fear that was rushing to her. A power that she could now harness, move and mold.

“God forgive me.”

She felt a stirring of movement. Not wind, not a breeze, but a change in the air as if things were shifting beyond what Bekah could see in this physical world. She slid her hands to Selah’s head, pushing her fingers up into her knotted blonde locks.

The candles flickered as Bekah took in another deep breath. As she closed her eyes, the dark power raced through her being, burning hot and terrifying.

Bekah grabbed at it with her mind, wrenching the power through Selah until her body began to shake and convulse. Selah’s body rose from the straw palette as if on ropes. Bekah stood up, leaning over her sister and pouring every bit of that sweet darkness and all the depth of fear she had ever known into Selah’s poor broken body.

A scream ripped from Selah’s throat. Her eyes flew open, and her body slammed back down onto the mattress.

The candles blew out. The room went dark.

When Selah drew a breath, Bekah wept.

“Forgive me Father,” she said, folding her hands over her sister. Her tears were hot and fast. “Forgive me.”

***

Elias walked through the forest as if it were truly the valley of the shadow of death. The trees loomed over him, turning inward to keep him from seeing glimmers of the sky. What was once his reprieve, his true home away from the fine house in town his parents owned, had become terrifying.

Combined with the unholy terror he had come upon with the girls, he didn’t know what to think anymore. He’d never seen a girl so possessed as Selah North. His skin pricked at the memory of stepping into the clearing he had not meant to wander into, and seeing her head thrown back in an inhuman contortion of pain.

The dark-haired Rebekah had been there, too, screaming a pitch that would break the heart of anyone who heard it.

Rebekah didn’t know him. He’d seen her around the village, pulling her vapid sister along. Her name he had gleaned from Molly.

He shook his head to clear it. He’d done his Christian duty. He had brought them to the doctor. The rest was in God’s hands now. If only he could clear the dark eyes of Rebekah from his mind, he might actually find an animal to hunt and bring to town. He and the butcher’s son, Martin, had an understanding. Whoever looked poor and destitute would get the meat free of charge, since he and his family didn’t need it. It was his little way of making up for his many sins.

Sins that kept him up at night, questioning. Waiting.

The woods had been empty of anything good in a fortnight. It had a strange, hollow feeling, as if someone had opened the gates of the woods and all the animals had run out like a careless, mystical shepherd.

He stopped, listening to the unfamiliar cracking of branches. He slowly took his shotgun off of

his shoulder.

A crunch of snow to the left made his heart race, and he swung the gun to point at the animal that lay hidden there. He held his breath, afraid that any movement, no matter how small, would trigger an attack.

He waited. It waited. It didn’t breathe either. His mind raced. What animal could hold his breath, let alone would know to do so?

“Who goes there?” he finally called out. He didn’t want to shoot a person, a hidden Indian or wandering vagrant, by accident. It was then he finally heard it, a deep gurgling breath that clicked and spun in lungs too large to be human. A breath that rattled bones too large to be friendly.

These woods were no longer his play place. They belonged to something else now, and he knew he was face to face with it, even if they were separated by crisply frozen bushes.

A dark mass came hurtling toward him without warning. He squeezed the trigger and heard the buck shot miss solid flesh. Then darkness was upon him, an all consuming nothingness.

The thing pressed in to him, and he punched and kicked and bit with every ounce of strength he had. But his hands connected with nothing, and he could feel no mass above him.

As quick as it had landed on him, it disappeared. He was suddenly alone in the forest, his gun thrown ten feet from him and half buried in the remains of late winter snow. He was sopping wet, and as he sat up to regain his breath, he realized he was sitting in a pool of muddy water. It was a perfect five-pronged shape, like a star. His breathing calmed, and he grabbed his hat and smashed it onto his head as if it might protect him.

“You imagined it,” he whispered, going for his gun. He walked, determined not to admit to himself that anything half so terrifying lived in the forest. But the barrel of his gun had strange, large handprints seared into the metal. As he walked, he wiped them fruitlessly with the sleeve of his coat.

“You imagined it,” he whispered again. “You need more sleep.” And by sleep, he meant ale.

 

 

3 thoughts on “HEART OF ASH – Excerpt

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