‚He’s coming! He’s coming!‛ one of his soldiers cried, running past the crude tents. The devil himself on his heels. The sound of the black horse, its hooves tearing into the loamy earth, echoed through the forest. The ominous herald announcing its rider’s approach—the Angel of Death.
Both man and beast found nothing but agony waiting at the end of the man’s sword. Slaughter and brutality his hallmark. He wielded them well.
His men fled, stomachs roiling with fear. The knowledge they had assisted his butchery, complying in mute terror, afraid to raise their eyes to his lest they be next, clear on each countenance. He swore he’d ride them to hell and back, their scalps hanging from his saddle, dripping bloody as tokens for the gods of war if they defied him. They would never be free...
The alarm clock buzzed, its repetitive blare piercing what was left of my sleep. I opened my eyes half way and peered at the red digital numbers staring back at me through dim light. With a groan, I slammed my hand on the clock’s hard plastic top, hoping to hit the snooze button and not the volume. Closing my eyes, I rolled over tucking one hand under my pillow and the other under my chin. But it was too late. My conscience was wide awake and already sparring with itself. Get up! You’re going to be late again. No, I won’t, just five more minutes...
‚Rowen! It’s six-thirty!‛ my mother’s voice shot from the hall.
Five minutes. Just five more minutes.
‚I heard you the first time!‛ I yelled at my closed bedroom door. Why did morning have to come so early and be so loud? I groaned again. If I didn’t get out of bed soon, she’d come upstairs looking for me, and that was the last thing I wanted.
Yawning, I reached over my head and stretched, arching my back to let the blood flow into my resting muscles like a reveille call. Up and at ‘em, troops!
My mother was up early, even by her standards. I wasn’t surprised, though. It was that time of year again. The time when our little shop, The Silver Cauldron, became the town headquarters for spells and charmed candles and, of course, witches brew. The season when the quaint river town of Sleepy Hollow transformed into a mecca for all things creepy.
With my crazy mother organizing everything from the kids ragamuffin parade to the annual costume ball, there was never a spare minute to think or breathe. On top of everything else, she took over as coordinator for this year’s Blaze—over 4,000 hand carved jack-o-lanterns lining the historic three hundred-year-old Van Cortlandt estate. It was no wonder I didn’t want to get up. I was exhausted just being her daughter. My mother, Laura Corbett, was Sleepy Hollow’s unofficial official town witch, and in a place where everyone knows everyone, that’s saying a lot.
‚It’s just Halloween,‛ I mumbled flipping my covers back, but in our house it was never just Halloween, nor was it ever just about trick-or-treating. It was the Witch’s New Year and one of the biggest sabbats on the wheel of the year. Not that I believed in that sort of junk. That was my family’s thing, not mine, even though my mother and grandmother had been trying to make it mine since the day I was born.
I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat for a moment. I’d heard it a thousand times, ‚We’re different, Rowen, embrace it. People would kill to be able to do what we can.‛ Like people needed more reasons to think I was half a freak. And as to wanting to be like me, uh… I didn’t think so.
‚Rowen, hurry up! I need to talk to you before you leave,‛ Mom’s voice called again.
My room looked like a tornado hit. Clothes and shoes everywhere, and the books and math sheets I reviewed last night were still in a haphazard pile across my desk. Two empty Coke cans topped a pile of candy wrappers, and a large, half eaten bag of potato chips lay crumpled on the floor next to my backpack.
Oh God, I didn’t.
At the incriminating sight, my hand shifted to my stomach, and a familiar self-loathing settled onto my shoulders. I slumped a bit, cringing inwardly at what the scale would read this morning.
With a sigh I pushed myself to stand and slid my gaze to the clothes I somehow remembered to set out. My lateness was reaching epic proportions, yet school was only halfway through the first semester. Most of the student body had learned to get out of the way when I came barreling in for homeroom.
Mom seemed to think my tardy nature would improve once I earned my driver’s license, but of course, that didn’t happen. I was seventeen and already driving for the past year. We lived around the corner from the high school, and senior privilege or not, I didn’t relish the idea of taking my mother’s minivan.
Grabbing my outfit from the back of my desk chair, I walked into the bathroom and snapped on the light. I had no problem envisioning my mother, coffee cup in hand, impatiently waiting for me to come downstairs while she planned her latest concoction for the store.
When my mother says she needs to talk it usually means extra work for me, and considering how busy it’s been I’m surprised it took her this long to ask. Not that I mind helping out at the shop with all its curiosities, but I can’t seem to stomach the people who come in just to gawk. Of course, the townspeople wouldn’t dare insult my mother that way, but the tourists loved to look at the whole lot, including us.
I took inventory of my face in the mirror, running fingers over the puffy skin beneath my eyes, trying to ignore the glare from the bathroom’s overhead lights. Telltale dark smudges from my late date with calculus were evident beneath my lower lids, making my hazel eyes look a little muddy. ‚Now, that’s attractive,‛ I grumbled reaching for my makeup remover. Giving each eye a quick swipe, I checked my reflection for any marked improvement. No such luck.
Most of the time, I liked the way I looked. From the dark curls and high cheekbones I inherited from my dad, to winning the genetic lottery for great skin courtesy of mother’s side of the family. Most of my friends hated that I never got zits or blemishes, but Mother Nature evened the playing field, seeing to it I gained weight if I so much as looked at junk food.
I muttered an expletive thinking about the bag of chips I’d massacred and pushed the bathroom scale under the vanity with my foot. One of these days I’d learn not to let the number glaring up at me from between my feet dictate the kind of day I would have, but today was not that day.
The Corbett’s tended to be on the fleshy side, or at least that’s what it looked like in all the family pictures. I wouldn’t know firsthand, though, my dad having died when I was little, and his parents before I was born. Then again, having a mother who leaned more toward the vegetarian line helped a lot in that department.
Gathering my hair, I twisted it into a loose bun at the top of my head. There was a peculiar tension building in my stomach, and I didn’t think it was the potato chips. I was out of sorts, restless for some reason, and a dull ache throbbed behind my eyes. I grabbed my toothbrush and turned on the tap, breaking one of the cardinal rules of my house by letting the water run while I brushed my teeth.
A calculus test was scheduled later this morning, but I was never one for being neurotic over grades. So why was I so edgy? I rinsed my mouth and stuck the toothbrush in its holder. The blunt pounding behind my eyes escalated and I winced, tilting my head down against the pain. That was when I saw it, or thought I saw it.
I stood motionless with my hand frozen in place as I stared at the water in the sink. The slow drain had allowed the flow to gather in the basin and ribbons of red curled and spread like blood streaming into the water. It didn’t look like rust or red clay or anything else. It looked like blood, swirling and coating the white porcelain with streaks and tiny clots. Worse yet, it smelled like blood, with a sharp, metallic tang that lingered in my nose and throat. I gagged, squeezing my eyes shut.
A wave of dizziness hit and I gripped the edge of the vanity, sucking in short shallow breaths trying to work up enough air to yell for my mother. I swallowed against the sour bile taste in my mouth and counted to ten, and when I opened my eyes, only clear water flowed in the sink.
My hand shot forward turning off the tap, and I pumped the lever handle behind the faucet a bunch of times. I held my breath ‘til the last of the water ran down the drain. Did I say half a freak? How about a full-fledged weirdo, complete with psychotic visions? Backing up, I grabbed hold of the towel rack and sank to the floor, the cold tile adding to my already goose-pimpled flesh.
Minutes passed and though my heart rate slowed, my mind raced. Was this some leftover nightmare skewed from Chiller TV? Part of me wanted to yell for my mother, but the other part knew she’d make a huge deal about it, and I didn’t have time for a protection spell or whatever else she’d think to do.
The clock was ticking, and I needed to get myself together and out the door. Afraid to tempt fate and run the water in the sink again, I wet a washcloth under the bathtub tap. ‚No more sleep deprived delusions for me, thank you.‛
The problem was this didn’t feel like a byproduct of too little sleep. Something happened, I sensed it. Gran told me the night of my birthday that my aura was bleeding. Happy birthday, darling, and by the way… Gee, thanks. Love you too, Gran.
That night my mother made light of it, telling me everyone’s aura bled from time to time, it’s part of coming into your own—yet I hadn’t missed the look she shot my grandmother. And what the hell did that mean? Was I coming into my own as a strong, independent woman, or did some weird, cosmic witchiness hit me square in the face courtesy of my messed up gene pool? Right now, I didn’t want to know. I wanted to go to school and take my exams like any other normal teenager.
After slapping on deodorant and body mist, I dressed, not bothering with make-up. I unfastened my claw clip and finger combed my hair before throwing it back into a messy bun, then grabbed my homework and shoved it into my bag. I allowed one last look in the mirror, hesitating about the no make-up, but no amount of cover-up would camouflage my fear-induced, chalk-white cheeks. Instead, I plastered a smile onto my face and headed downstairs, praying my mother’s instincts would be too preoccupied to notice.
The blissful aroma of fresh brewed coffee filtered from the kitchen, making my mouth water before I walked through the doorway. Even more sublime, the scent of homemade pumpkin bread floated alongside the smell of fresh ground walnuts. ‚Hey,‛ I mumbled, scraping one of the chairs back from the table. ‚Smells good. You had time to bake this morning?‛
‚I know how much you like pumpkin bread, so why not,‛ my mother answered, putting a warm slice in front of me. ‚I thought it’d be nice for us to have a treat together, especially since I’ve been so busy lately and haven’t been around much.‛
She thought right, and I took my first easy breath of the morning. ‚Mmmmmm, incredible,‛ I said with my mouth full.
Reaching for her mug on the counter, she patted my shoulder and I cringed. The moment she touched me she’d know something was up. On cue she jerked her head around, eyes already probing.
I exhaled. ‚Cut it out, Mom, come on. I’m tired, that’s all.‛ I shrugged her off purposefully, but she wasn’t buying it. ‚I’ve got a huge math test today, and calc’s been kicking my butt since the beginning of the year, so can we not do the Wicked Witch of Westchester County thing this morning?‛
Taking a deep breath, my mother looked at me the way she looks at her rune stones when trying to divine a hidden meaning. ‚Okay, Rowen, if you say so. But whatever it was you saw…‛
‚I know, Mom, relax. Like I said, I’m just tired. Didn’t you have something you needed to talk about? It must be important or why else would you need to bribe me,‛ I said, waving my pumpkin bread her way before plopping another piece into my mouth.
My mother flashed me a half smile, knowing I’d used one of her trademark moves usually reserved for arguments with Gran. ‚You’re right, but I think I could do better than pumpkin bread if I wanted to bribe you. Truth is, with New Year’s a little less than two weeks away, the store is going to get crazy the closer it gets, and with everything I’ve got going I could really use your help.‛
‚It’s October, Mother. New Year’s isn’t for two months.‛
‚You know what I mean, smart ass, Samhain is next week. And in case you’ve forgotten, Halloween is a fire sabbat that requires a ritual cleansing to protect the town and honor the wandering dead.‛
‚Yeah, but jack-o-lanterns? Seriously?‛
‚Pumpkins are the easiest way to get everyone to participate without them really knowing. Unfortunately, they aren’t going to carve themselves, and we’re short of volunteers.‛
‚I know,‛ I said taking another bite of my pumpkin bread. ‚Don’t worry, I’ll do my part until every last jack-o-lantern is carved and placed.‛ I wondered what the prissy town supervisor’s wife would say if she knew my mother had orchestrated a pagan ritual involving the entire town right under her pious nose.
As if reading my mind, Mom smirked. ‚I knew I could count on you, Rowen, but do me a favor. Don’t be such a teenager this week. The veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. I want you to pay attention, okay?‛
I nodded, and she gave me a smile, but for the first time in my life my mother’s smile didn’t reach her eyes.