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The muscles in Elena's arms strained as she struggled against the ropes binding her wrists behind her back. Coarse fibers bit into her skin, scratching so deeply that blood, warm and sticky, ran down her wrists and pooled in her palms.
She bit her lip, holding in a cry at the sting. But that pain was nothing in comparison to the heat of the flames springing up around her. Sweat ran down her face, nearly blinding her, but still she could see a man on the other side of the flames. A hood covered his head; a dark brown robe concealed his body. But his frame, his height and the breadth of his shoulders, identified him as male.
Others stood behind him in the shadows and smoke, also clad in those dark brown robes. They chanted, their voices rising above the hiss and crackle of the flames.
The words were unfamiliar but she suspected they called her a witch.
"Nooo" She wasn't a witch. The smoke choked her, cutting off her protest and her breath.
Her line of vision shifted, away from the cloaked figures, to the woman bound to the stake in the middle of the circle of flames. Was Elena the witch? The woman's hair was dark and curly, not blond like Elena's. The woman's eyes were dark and wide, not pale blue.
Uncaring of the pain, Elena continued to struggle, trying to free herself from the hold of the ropes, of the dream. Of the vision.
A scream tore from her throat as she kicked at the covers and bolted upright in bed. Shaking, she settled into the pillows piled against her head-board and gasped for breath, her lungs burning.
As the woman was burning."
Even awake she could see her, illuminated by a flash oflightning inside Elena's mind. She squeezed her eyes shut and began a chant of her own: "It's just a dream. It's just a dream."
But she wasn't sleeping. She hardly ever slept anymore for fear of dreaming of torture and murder. The images rolled through her mind no matter where she was or what she was doing. They weren't like the "dreams" she'd had her whole life, the innocuous images of something someone might do or say a day or two after she'd dreamt it. These weren't little revelations of déjÃ vu. They were murder, and she was an eyewitness to the unspeakable horror.
She reached out, needing the comfort of strong arms to hold her, to protect her. But for the blankets tangled around her legs, the bed was empty and cold. Her husband no longer shared their room. She'd been the one to throw out his stuff after accusing him of cheating. Not even his tyrant of a boss would send him out of town as often as Kirk was gone.
Truthfully, she'd been gone a long time, too. Despite the fact she'd rarely left the house, she'd been absent from their marriage. She'd pushed him away. But why hadn't he fought for her, for them? Had he ever loved her or only her money? The hurt that pressed on her heart wasn't new, like an ache from an old injury rather than a fresh wound.
She fumbled with the switch on the lamp beside the bed and flooded the room with light. Real light. Not that eerie flash only inside her head. The warm glow of the bulb in the Tiffany lamp offered no comfort, either.
Although he denied the cheating and only moved as far as the guest room, she knew Kirk was lying, but she hadn't told him how she'd gained her knowledge of his affair. She'd "seen" him with another woman. At first she'd passed those images off as she had her others, figments of her overactive imagination or products of stress or paranoia. Finally she'd forced herself to face the truth about her sham of a marriageand herself.
She didn't love Kirk; maybe she never had, because she'd never trusted him enough to tell him anything about her past or herself. During college their relationship had been mostly superficial and fun, things that Elena's life had never been. But their relationship had never really deepened, despite marriage, despite the beautiful four-year-old daughter they shared, and it had stopped being fun a long time ago. Sick of all the lies, his and hers, she'd finally filed for divorce.
For so long Elena hadn't been able to discern truth from fiction. Although she hadn't seen her mother in twenty years, she could hear her lilting voice echoing in her head with the words of a gypsy proverb, There are such things as false truths and honest lies.
When she'd been taken away from her mother two decades ago, she had also been separated from her younger half sisters. She'd only recently reconnected with Ariel. Elena had been twelve, Ariel nine and their youngest sister, Irina, just four when social services had taken them away from their mother. They'd never seen Mother again. Alive.
Ariel had seen her dead, though. Her sister could see people after they passed away. She hadn't wanted to see Elena and Irina for the first time in two decades the way she had their mother, so she'd searched for her sisters to warn them that someone had started a witch hunt. She hadn't found Irina yet, and had only stumbled across Elena by accident.
But Elena had already known about the witch hunt because of her dreams. She'd fought so hard to suppress her visions, to convince herself that they weren't real. When her sister had found her, Elena had had to admit to the truth, if only to herself.
The visions were why Elena was cursed, not the three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old vendetta that had started the first witch hunt. One of Elena's Durikken ancestors had been accused of killing the female members of the McGregor family and was burned at the stake. But like Elena, she'd seen her future and urged her daughter to run. That child, for whom Elena was named, had found safety, and she'd continued the Durikken legacy, passing on to her children the special abilities that people mistook for witchcraft.
Now someone else had resurrected the vendetta that Eli McGregor had begun three and a half centuries ago, of ritualistically killing all witches. Elena had dreamed, sleeping and awake, of his murders. While she saw his victims, she hadn't seen the killer; she couldn't identify him. Helplessness and frustration churned in her stomach, gnawing at the lining like ulcers.
"I don't want this!" she insisted to the empty room, as she had for so many years.
Leaning over, she wrapped her fingers around the handle of the nightstand drawer and pulled with such force that the drawer dropped onto the floor. Papers flew out, scattering across the thick beige carpet. Her copy of the divorce papers. Her husband refused to sign his. She couldn't continue their farce of a marriage, which had been over long ago and was past time to officially end. If only she was a witch, like the legend claimed, then she could cast a spell on Kirk and make him go away forever. Somehow she suspected that a big check would do the job.
Elena rolled out of bed and dropped to her knees on the floor. Instead of picking up the papers, she pushed them aside. In the dim light, she couldn't see what she sought. Blindly she ran her fingertips through the carpet, raking it, until her nails grazed warm metal. She dug the pewter charm from the thick fibers, then dropped the little star, the tips dulled with age, into her palm. Twenty years ago her mother had pressed the star upon her, telling Elena that as well as keeping her safe, the charm would ensure that she never forgot who or what she was.
Images flashed in her mind like snapshots. A woman hanging. Another woman crushed beneath rocks. Another woman burning. Pain knotted her stomach and pounded at her temples. Her hands fisted, the points of the star digging into her palm.
She didn't want to remember those horrifying images.
She didn't want to be a witch.
She lurched to her feet and staggered to the bathroom. She lifted the lid to the toilet and dropped the little pewter charm into the water. Drops splashed up from inside the bowl, spattering the rim, as the star bobbed. Hand trembling, she reached for the handle. Maybe flushing the charm would stop the visions and make Elena normal. Her fingers closed around the metal handle, which was cool unlike the charm. The little star radiated warmth, always.
Her sister believed the charms held some special power to protect them, that if all three sisters united with the charms, they could stop the witch hunt. Elena's fingers slipped away from the handle. Then she reached into the bowl and pulled the star from the water. She'd held on to the charm too long to get rid of it now. Even though Elena didn't share Ariel's beliefs, she didn't want to shatter her sister's hope.
Her breath coming in shallow pants, she moved to the sink, turning on the gold-plated faucets to wash off the charm and her hands. Because of the soap, she kept a firm hold on the piece of metal, careful not to lose the star down the drain. She glanced at her image in the mirror, the disheveled blond hair, the wild light blue eyes, the silk chemise nightgown baring her shoulders.
"Liar," she called herself. She hadn't just lied to her sister when she'd claimed that the charms held no power; she had lied to herself, about so many things.
The marble floor cold beneath her bare feet, Elena walked from the bathroom. With one hand, she fitted the drawer back into the nightstand, then laid the star inside. The charm's warmth had already dried it, so it glistened in the soft glow of the Tiffany lamp.