(Vengeance Trilogy, #1)
Release Date: July 25th 2014
Genre: YA historical thriller (with paranormal aspects)
Sixteen-year-old Sarah Kelly never expected to meet the Devil’s daughter. She only sought innocent dancing in the moonlight, not a coven entranced by their dark priestess. When her friends partake of a powder meant to conjure spirits - and the results go horribly awry - Sarah is forced to make a choice. To keep their secret risks her own damnation, but to condemn them may invoke the accusing remnants of Salem to rise again.
Winford, Carolina Territory
My freedom comes with the moonlight. A dim ray, broken and scattered by my wooden shutters, spreads over the pine floor of my room. My toes tingle with anticipation beneath the heavy checkered quilt Mother sewed for Rebecca and me. The time for dancing draws nigh.
The rock striking our window ledge quickens my heartbeat.
Something is wrong. The moonlight should be spread over four boards, not one, ere it would be the proper time to leave.
A quiet voice floats through my window. “Sarah!”
“Shh!” Another hushes.
Rebecca stirs beside me on the straw pallet we share.
I stroke her flaxen hair ere she awakens further. “All is well, sweet sister,” I soothe. “Go back to sleep.”
She rubs her tired eyes with balled fists. “But I wish to join you and the others,” she says.
My limbs tense anew. Father will surely wake to their voices soon. I wait, listening. He can be silent as a barn owl in flight when he chooses. Still, even he cannot rise from his rickety bed without it creaking under the movement.
I hear nothing but my own heart pounding.
“Sarah!” the quiet voice calls again.
It must be Emma. An ever-present fear has clouded her since she heard tell of the Tuscarora Indians who raided and slaughtered throughout the Carolina territory. I suppose it hardly matters to her most of the savages were put down a year ago September past.
Rebecca tugs at the sleeves of my lace nightgown. “Please, Sarah,” she whispers. “Please, take me.”
I kiss the top of her forehead. “You are much too young for the dance.”
Rebecca wrenches away from me to pout.
I sweep our quilt of muted blue and white over her head. The breeze from the open window tickles my bare feet and drifts up my thighs like a feather tracing against my skin.
I shudder, and revel in its chill; the same feelings I hope to continue at the moon dance. I gather my thin leather shoes in hand. Turn toward my escape. Though my windowsill is but three quick steps away, my path holds creaky floorboards that will betray my otherwise silent movements. I step over the first of them, and leap sideways to avoid the next two.
Rebecca giggles quietly. It must seem to her I play scotch-hopper.
The fresh scent of strung, dried lilacs from my room dissipates the moment I poke my head out our window. Odors of farm life—sweet-smelling heifers, excrement-sowing swine, and the like—blend together in the night air. Fifty yards away, our four-storied barn is a hulking gravestone casting its long shadow over our homestead.
The nearly full moon is perfect to dance beneath. Not so, however, for one seeking to flee without being seen. To reach the barn will be only a quick sprint. But my friends are not as fast as I, nor as cautious. I wish I had the sliver moon and less light to escape beneath.
Across the yard, Mother’s dogwood shrub shakes. A slender, trembling girl in a dull blue dress emerges from behind it, her narrow face accentuated only by the roundness of her eyes. This eve, they are near the size of tea saucers.
“Sarah!” Emma says.
I raise a finger to my lips.
Another girl leaps from the shrub and yanks Emma into hiding. “Be silent!” she hisses.
Ruth...At least she has the good sense to know they stand before Paul Kelly’s household.
Father is quick with the strap. I harbor no misgivings he would whip the daylights from both my friends if roused by their noise.
Carefully, I swing my leg wide over the window ledge to not snag my gown. I lean forward to jump when there comes a rustling from our corn shuck mattress.
“I shall tell…”
I wheel to face my sister. “You shall not!”
Rebecca raises a rebellious eyebrow.
“Sarah…” Emma calls.
I glance over my shoulder and out the window. Emma again emerges from the shrubbery. The fool stands in plain view of Mother and Father’s window.
I wave her away to hide.
Emma nervously clutches her apron with one hand. She points to our barn with the other. “Ruth leaves us!”
At times, I wonder if Emma were born daft. When Ruth once told her keeping chicken bones in our aprons would ward off evil spirits, Emma carried them for nigh on a year. And when I warned her mythical snipes lived in our barn beneath the hay, she never again ventured inside. How has Emma not yet realized Ruth’s favorite custom is to hide amidst the corn to scare her?
It next occurs to me, for all Ruth’s many virtues, patience is most lacking. She is ever the one who misses dancing most. Mayhap she means to make good on her threat of going alone. I imagine her running down the rows of corn, off into the woods without me.
I snort the thought away. It would not stand for her to share the night whilst I remain here, thwarted by the threat of an eight-year-old.
I turn to face my sister again. “Rebecca…”
Her arms cross, like Mother oft does when in a foul temper. “Take me,” she says. “Or work my chores.”
I dig my fingernails into the windowsill. “No!”
Rebecca dangles her tiny bare feet inches from the floor in warning. “Then I shall wake Father and tell.”
“Saaaarah…” Emma whines.
My sister’s smile is evident in the dim light. Even at such a tender age, she knows time is on her side this night.
“I will do one of your chores,” I reply.
“You will milk the cows?” She says it so quickly I wonder how long she has planned to force this upon me.
I grit my teeth. “Agreed.”
My sister yawns in victory and happily scratches her head, content in her victory.
I pull my gown up past my knees, and drop below ere Rebecca coerces me further. I pause to listen for any stirrings inside my home. Spreading my toes, I take the dewy grass between them to cool my nerves.
A minute passes with no noise; Father sleeps soundly.
I slip my shoes on as fast as possible and hurry to join Emma. She makes a tiny yelp at my sudden pull of her hand. Hand-in-hand, we run toward the barn. Her clumsiness slows my pace, but I will not let go. If she falls, it would not happen silently.
When she does eventually stumble on the cold and slippery grass, I slip my arm under her armpit to keep her afoot. Emma tugs away as we near the barn. No doubt she desires to give it a wider berth ere a snipe emerges to drag her within.
Cornfields lie before us. The stalks stand only six feet tall, yet the dark makes them appear larger. Like a foreboding wall of spears, we must pass into their protection to reach our destination.
I release my grip on Emma. Plunge ahead, five rows deep.
The dry leaves scratch at my skin; a small sacrifice for the joyous reunion to come. A few stalks lie broken near their shafts. I shall need to scold Ruth later. Father will know neither deer nor Indians bent them in such a way.
Emma whimpers behind me. I watch her gently push the stalks aside as if the mere touch of them will taint her perfect skin. “Why did you not come sooner?” she asks. “With Ruth gone, I feared you abandoned me to journey alone.”
“Alone?” I ask. “But where is Charlotte?”
Emma shakes her head. “Her father suspects she has danced.” Her voice trembles. “I fear mine does also.”
I frown. It is not like Charlotte to miss a gathering. Especially not when the last occurred three months past.
The corn crackles three rows over like teeth chattering in the grip of a January nor’easter. Emma draws closer to me.
I step forward. “Who comes?”
“One who has no fear of the darkness.”
An apparition brushes the stalks aside. Ruth’s skin, pale even in daylight, is luminous by night. She has discarded her white bonnet and scandalously tied back her raven hair with a scarlet ribbon. Ruth closes her eyes, tilts her head back to inhale the night air. “Art thou ready to dance, sisters?”
Emma releases her hold on my dress. “You should not have left me!”
“You should not have remained behind,” Ruth replies curtly. “The moon dance waits for no one—nor do I.”
A cold wind harrows through the corn, confirming Ruth’s claims, ushering us ahead. I step in the earthen path between the rows. The hard dirt warns of a frost soon to come. I am glad of it. The solidity will not reveal our tracks so easily as in the wet spring or dry summer.
“Come,” I say to my friends. “We should not tarry.”
We walk for nigh half an hour to our destination. Emma is a constant shadow at my side. Holding my hand all the way, she frequently glances skywards as if she fears witches on broomsticks will fly over us. Ruth tromps in the next row. Her fingers run over the corn ears as she quietly hums a tune I have never heard.
“Emma,” I say. “What shall you wish for tonight?”
“A safe journey home,” she replies, casting another furtive glance at the moon.
“I shall wish for a night that never ends!” Ruth shouts.
I laugh with her. Even Father cannot hear from this far away.
The sound makes Emma jump with fright. Her grip stiffens. “You should not speak so loud. My father would—”
“Your father sleeps at home.” Ruth lazily swats at the corn.
“A-aye. H-H-He would be very displeased to find me here,” Emma shakes her head like a horse with flies at its ears.
“What if he knew you journeyed to a gathering of witches!” Ruth says.
A shudder runs through me. “Enough, Ruth. You should not jest of such things,” I say. “You beckon the darkness upon yourself.”
Ruth grins. “As well I should. I am sister to the moon. A lover of night!” She loosens her ribbon. Her dark hair spills about her shoulders as she lifts her arms. “For why dance if not to beckon the darkness into our hearts?”
Emma looks at me as one betrayed. “Y-you said dancing was innocent. N-not a sin.”
“Dancing is innocent,” I reply. “I said naught of what Ruth speaks to.”
Ruth scoffs. “I thought you were a fellow lover of the night, Sarah.”
“Then why do you come this eve?” Ruth asks. “Dancing can be done by the light of day.”
“A-aye,” says Emma. “I think it best we only dance by day henceforth. My father—”
“Why, Sarah?” Ruth asks. “Why do you come?”
“Only at night am I truly free,” I say. “Free to do as I will with no one to speak otherwise, or—”
“Listen!” Emma says.
I hear it too; the quiet beginnings of a measured symphony wandering over the night sky. The gay pipes call to the wood spirits of Pan. Each hypnotic beating of drums beckons us to venture further.
The gathering starts without us.
Ruth and I grin at one another.
“Race you to the woods!” She runs ahead without waiting for me.
Nor do I pause for Emma. The sprint to catch Ruth is longer than first I guessed. I fear my lungs will give out ere we reach the end of the field. The drums beat as one with my heart to lend me strength. I pass her at the last, bursting from the field and into a clearing of dandelions.
The wind in the corn follows us out. It blows the hundreds of translucent florets away from their stems. Like wisps, they create a rippling blanket of nature to lead us.
A dim glow rises inside the woods. It grows brighter with each passing moment. Shadows from the flames climb the trees as if to escape from Hell and sneak into Heaven.
Emma thrashes behind us, her once beautiful gown now mottled with stains, and her bonnet askew. Even so, she cannot help but smile at the sight of rising fire.
We sisters of the moon clasp hands. Together, we cross the meadow and enter the woods. I have oft visited this same hallowed place to escape my chores and dream of what lay beyond its borders.
Tonight, the woods feel foreign. A place no goodly person ought be.
Tiny, thin bones from some unfortunate forest creatures hang in the trees, strung together as one by thick horsehair to form relics. I see feathers tied to them—crow, falcon, and eagle. There are freshly cut saplings also, interwoven to form odd, twisted dreamcatchers.
I shake whilst walking beneath the jangling bones. Their invisible power is palpable. It seeps through my skin and twins with my soul.
We exit the underbrush into a clearing, seventy feet across. Nine cut elms have been leaned against one another; a towering teepee set alight. A ring of girls surrounds its blaze. Some wear bracelets of silver serpents with rubies for eyes. Others have adorned themselves with necklace reliefs of the moon in all its stages.
Emma gasps beside me. “Ne’er have I seen so many before...”
I watch the unknown girls approach the fire. They tempt its flames to sear their skin and dance away ere it licks them.
Ruth points to a sharp-jawed girl in a forest green gown. “Charlotte!”
Charlotte turns at hearing her name called. She releases hands with the other girls. I watch the circle instantly shrink to fill the void she leaves. Charlotte prances toward us, hugging Ruth first.
“We feared you would not come!” Ruth says.
“I thought the same of you,” Charlotte replies.
A naked girl, dancing in the circle, motions us closer. Her body is a canvas of tattoos. Trained ivy and dragons snake around her limbs. Raven feathers litter her belly and chest. A pentagram covers the space between her breasts.
“Wh-who are these girls?” Emma asks. “They are not from Winford.”
Charlotte looks upon the strangers. “Aye. I gather many come from the north. All wish to share the night with us. They bring…”
Several girls pull their gowns over their heads. They toss them aside with little care. I see their bodies decorated in similar, tattooed fashion.
“Strange customs,” Charlotte says. “They claim there is nothing like a sister’s kiss.” Her face flushes red. “I-I must admit. I wish to try.”
“Yes!” Ruth says. “We shall try together!”
My gaze sweeps over the gathering. I take special notice of a tall, slender woman at the center. A dark veil, lined with scarlet silk, covers the top of her head and trains down her back. Her emerald eyes stare at me from behind a mask of raven feathers that glistens in the firelight.
I look away from her piercing gaze.
Ruth does not. “Who is that woman?”
Charlotte chuckles. “The others name her Hecate, the Devil’s daughter.” She waves at the woman and receives a bow in answer. Charlotte turns back to us. “They say she comes to lead us.” She whispers. “Have you ever seen a woman so beautiful as she?”
I caution another glance.
Hecate approaches us. Her violet robe clings and moves so smoothly it seems painted.
“Good eve to you all.” Hecate purrs. “Charlotte has told me much and more of you…Ruth…Emma.”
I watch her give a nod to each of my friends in turn, then linger on me. She reaches out, gently lifts my chin that I might look her full in the face.
“I find your face even more familiar, child…” Hecate grants me a smile to elicit a marriage proposal from any young man. “You must be Sarah Kelly.”
A lump forms in my throat. “I am, Madam.”
Hecate laughs. “I am no madam. Call me sister, for we are all but daughters held in sway to our Moon Mother, yes?”
“Aye,” Ruth says. “We come to dance in Her light!”
“And you are most welcome.” Hecate bows away and opens her arms to permit us entry to the dance.
Charlotte tugs at my hand. “Come. Let us join!”
Emma falters. “Perhaps we should not…not dance with those we know nothing of. I feel…odd. Ne’er have I felt so at the dance before.”
Ruth and Charlotte will not heed her. They pull Emma and me to join them.
I glance over my shoulder, see Hecate’s glittering gaze trained on me. Why does she watch me so?
Any nervousness I held is lost upon entering the circle. I surrender myself to the melodic tune. The moon dance and my sisters are all that exist. Unknown faces stand before me whenever I chance to open my eyes. I recall Emma’s words. I am among strangers, yet these outsiders seem friendly. I put any question of their intentions out of mind. Tonight we all are moon sisters.
A girl holding my hand lifts it to her mouth. Kisses the back of my hand. When she smiles, I see her teeth have a touch of black stain to them. I shyly pull my hand away. The girl shrugs and is gone, replaced by a new one who only laughs at my discomfort. Her teeth are normal.
I put away the idea I witnessed a demon amidst us, and lose myself to the music’s rhythm again. Only later, when it stops, do I question whether I danced for a few minutes or several hours.
Embers from the fire pop and spark brilliant shades of orange into the air. As if signaled, the drums begin anew in a slow, measured tempo I fear will lull me to sleep.
Hecate elegantly enters the middle of the circle. She has donned a thin, black cloak and stands so near the fire I fear it will catch aflame. She lifts her arms to the night sky, unbothered by the heat. Her light, silky voice commands my attention. “Sisters, sisters, one and all. Your Maiden’s beauty held in thrall.”
The other girls repeat her chant.
I feel the circle of oneness enveloping me into the fold.
I must join them. I think. Or be outcast.
A shadow moves outside the circle. Snaps me from the reverie. I search for its owner, but now there is only dark where the shadow existed not a moment ago.
The drums beat faster, yet they no longer hold me to their cadence.
Not so for the other girls. They continue to sway and tug at my arms, willing me to rejoin them.
The invisible feather returns to drift down the nape of my neck. Now awakened from the music’s spell, I shudder at the oneness the others experience.
These are strangers here. Emma’s earlier fear catches within me. Their customs odd.
I search the circle for my friends.
Emma is easiest to find. She sits across from me—the only other girl not content with the oneness. Her eyes are two deep wells of tears. Save me, they plead. End this nightmare.
My gaze sweeps over the unknown faces. I see more than I first supposed. Were there so many all along? I cannot recall the circle being so large when first I entered.
Ruth sits nearest Hecate, still entranced with the tune. Blissfully swaying beside her, Charlotte, too, remains in the music’s grip.
Hecate thrusts her arms out. The fire at her back makes her appear liken to a bat with the cloak she wears now tightly drawn. An assortment of leather pouches dangle from twine cords inside it. She jerks one free of its binding. “Mother, Mother,” she cries. “Let these who would serve never tire!”
The drums quicken. The circle follows.
My body aches to join. My mind rejects the notion.
Hecate’s escorts slip silently forward. They carry a silver platelet—long and thin like Mother’s griddle—and hold it before her chest.
Hecate unties the binding round the bag and sweeps it over the platelet. A dusky snow of fine, purplish-black powder falls across its surface. “Father, Father. Hear my plea!” Her voice heightens. “Let these who would call spirits, come unto thee!”
I see Ruth rise in a stupor. She strides into the circle’s midst, never stopping until she stands before Hecate.
Hecate places her right hand upon Ruth’s shoulder. With her left, she motions her escort to raise the platelet.
My conscience screams to stop her, but my body seems racked with molasses. I cannot move. Not even when I see Hecate gently push Ruth’s face toward the powder.
Ruth opens her eyes at the last.
I see doubt in them. “No…” I hear myself whisper.
Hecate tilts her head, places a skeletal finger on Ruth’s cheek to draw her attention. Then she swoops low. Dragging her nose across the plate, she snorts the powder in example.
The drums grow louder.
The girls chant as one. “Hama shelabedi—hama shelabedi—hama shelabedi—hama shelabedi!”
Hecate pulls away from the plate, moaning in satisfaction. A thin trace of powder lingers beneath her nostrils. She sweeps it away with a quick flick of her finger. Fixated on Ruth, Hecate points to the plate.
Ruth takes a hesitant breath…and plunges into the powder.
I stand without meaning to, the spell over me broken.
Ruth pulls away quickly, gasping. Her fingers clasp into fists. Her eyes go wide.
Hecate lifts her arms in praise.
The gleeful pipe music begins anew. The circle of oneness is over. Some of the girls dance. Most hurry to have their turn at the platelet. They do not notice Ruth collapse like I do. The others crowd over and around her, each more desperate than the next. All while Ruth’s hands claw at her nose and throat.
Hecate glances over her shoulder. She nods.
A pair of masked and hooded figures emerges from the clearing line. I cannot tell if they be women or men. Unlike Hecate, their bulky garb is not royal—deerskin and beaver pelts. They cross the distance in short manner. Each roughly grabs hold beneath Ruth’s arms. They drag her limp body back the way they came.
I start forward. A bird’s whistle distracts me.
Far outside the circle of light, the shadow has returned. A weatherworn pastor’s hat shields the wearer’s face, but I feel their cold gaze upon me.
A new figure steps into my line of sight.
“Why do you not join us, Sarah?” Hecate asks. “We have come so far to share in the night with you and your friends. You do us grievous wrong by leaving now.”
I take a step back. There is naught but trees where the shadow stood moments ago.
She reaches for me. Her fingers massage my shoulder blade.
I gather the massage will become a vice if I run. My breath is ragged, and this she seems to find amusing.
“Rest easy, sister,” Hecate says. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“But I have no—”
“We all keep secrets, even our Moon Mother. It’s why She only comes at night, when things are best kept hidden. Would you like to know that which She guards closest of all?”
“She hates.” Hecate relishes. “At night She is beautiful and free, all Her mysteries kept. But Her master, the sun, reveals them in the light of day, for nothing is hidden from His sight…just as nothing is hidden from mine.”
I fight off a shudder.
“I see others for who they are.” Her voice holds me. “You are different, Sarah.”
“Your friends lust after forbidden things, as children are wont to do. Thrills and conjures, magic and wonder.” She shrugs gaily. “But our Moon Mother did not bring you here this night for such works alone.”
I shake my head, even as I am unsure of what she presumes to know of my intentions.
“Night is the time for secrets. Truth is best left to the light of day.” Hecate draws me close.
I feel a weight fall into the front pocket of my apron.
“Learn your truth, Sarah,” Hecate whispers in my ear. “As I did.”
She releases me.
Despite the fire’s warmth, I feel cloaked in ice. I stumble out of the circle, and run to the brush where I witnessed Ruth taken.
I fight through the limbs and shrubbery barring my path.
My shin hits something hard. It occurs to me this be the same direction from which I saw the shadow appear. I turn to see if a person wishes harm upon me. Release a sigh when I see only a small stump.
Someone moans not far from me.
I climb to my feet, and hurry to follow the sound to its owner. Twenty feet away, I discover Ruth lying in a pile of dried leaves.
I kneel beside her. “Ruth, we must leave.”
Her head lolls to the side. The veins in her neck pulse feverously. Beads of sweat train down her face. Ruth opens her eyes. She stares at me like I am unknown to her. “I can see…” she says. “Sp-spirits. They call…call me to dance.”
I hear the underbrush trampled. Mayhap it is those who brought Ruth here! I stand and lift a fallen branch to ward off whoever comes. It is only Emma, aiding the frightful mess Charlotte has become.
Charlotte laughs hysterically. She swings her arm off Emma’s shoulder and collapses beside me. A touch of powdery residue remains under her nostrils. She crawls forward. “I wish to dance with you, Ruth!”
“And I with you!” Ruth answers.
Charlotte attempts to stand. I keep her from falling. “Yes!” she says. “Come…come, sister. Let us dance together with the spirits of the night!”
“You cannot mean to stay,” I protest. “The dawn approaches. We must leave—”
Ruth leans upon a tree to help her stand. “The night lingers on!” she snarls. “And the spirits…they need us!”
She is not in her right mind. I think. The powder stole away her wits.
“We are sisters, borne of shadow,” Ruth says to Charlotte. “We—we dance until the dawn!”
Charlotte pitches forward, barely catching hold of a tree to stay upright. “Come, sister!”
Giggling, Ruth stumbles to Charlotte.
What sort of devilry did the powder possess? I wonder. We were only to have danced…
“I like this not at all, Sarah,” Emma sulks. “I wish to go home. Can we not leave?”
I go to her. The weight Hecate gifted me shifts in my apron. I feel a sharp prick dig into my inner thigh. I cast a final glance toward the fire. See Hecate welcome my friends back into her fold. Her eyes find me; hold me in sway to their beauty.
Emma breaks me of it. “Sarah! Please let us go!”
I put my back to the dance, and escort my friend away, out of the woods.
Even so, the music echoes in my ears when we reach the cornfield. And, despite my fearful misgivings, all I desire is to return and welcome the dawn with my sisters of the night.
About the Author
Salem’s Vengeance is Aaron Galvin’s second novel.
His debut, Salted, a YA urban fantasy, continues to receive critical acclaim for its unique take on mermaids and selkies.
Aaron is also an accomplished actor, screenwriter, and film producer. He has worked on Hollywood blockbusters (The Dark Knight, Flags of Our Fathers), starred in dozens of indie films, and he co-wrote/executive produced the 2013 award-winning comedic feature film, Wedding Bells & Shotgun Shells.
Aaron is a proud member of SCBWI and currently lives in Southern California with his wife and daughter.