Prologue and Chapter One: Bittersweet

Prologue

To measure reality only by the physical world that can be touched and felt and seen is to risk eternity. Powerful forces work in the dreamscape that lies between waking and sleeping. I know. I am the scribe who lies within the rose, the dove, the oak, the sea, the stone, the one who has chronicled events on Earth since night turned into the first day. Little have I missed. All I know I store within the living planet. I hear the siren song of disaster, know the ageless one who holds the keys of time, and watch the spirit slayer shed the blood of those wandering an unsteady shore. Not all I have recorded can be revealed. What can lies within the pages that follow, translated through a mortal's hand.

inscribed on The Scrolls of Dust in the Time of All Reckoning

Chapter One
Nineteenth Century

Swirling, gray mists shadowed the shrouded form floating toward her, a scythe clasped upright in its skeletal hand. Terrified, she shrank from the wraith and stepped slowly backward over the hay covering the barn loft. Her heel touched air, and she grabbed an oak post to keep from falling to the ground below.

Red eyes glowed through the haze. Closer and closer the specter moved until, even from a distance of five feet, the smell of putrefied flesh filled her nostrils. The scythe whined as the metal spun through the air, striking the post above her hands and splintering the wood. Warm, moist tentacles slid under her flannel nightgown and wrapped themselves around her.

She gasped. The tentacles pierced her skin, buried into her neck, breasts, stomach and buttocks, and tightened, pulling her toward their host.

"No!" she screamed.

Annabella Darby awoke in a cold sweat. Throwing back the covers, she slipped from between the damp, white muslin sheets. She yanked the gown off over her head, dropping the blue flannel on the hardwood floor next to the four-poster. Her hand shook as she lit the oil lamp sitting on the walnut nightstand. The flame gave her comfort, casting a golden glow over the dark wood and rose-petal pink brocaded wall. Holding the lamp in front of her, she stepped to the mirror.

No marks. No blood. No bruises. Nothing.

Annabella tossed her long, golden brown hair back over her shoulders and studied her neck. The nightmare had been so vivid, so real, she felt certain she'd find some evidence, yet, her skin remained unblemished. As she stared into the mirror, the reflection of her bed disturbed her.

The pearl lace billowing from the tester seemed to breath. She half turned. The lace, which appeared even more insubstantial than in the daylight, was now still. Yet, she was certain she had caught some movement in the mirror.

Something did happen, she thought. But what?

*****

On the Cain spread east of Darby Ranch, rifle and shotgun blasts broke the silence of the night. Gunpowder hung heavy in the chill mountain air. The smell overrode the odor of dried hay drifting toward the house from the corral. Of the dozen family members trapped inside, everyone, except the two-month old baby, had been firing or reloading for the past half hour. Although carcasses littered the porch and ground adjacent to the home, the pack of wolves had not scattered.

The pack leader sitting undisturbed on its haunches between the house and the barn spanned half a grown-man's height from paw to shoulder. The creature's gray coat appeared faintly outlined in the pre-dawn darkness, and its glowing eyes could be seen by the family caught inside the two-story home.

The young daughter-in-law firing from the kitchen had watched the pack grow larger. She knew that the darkness was too deep for her kin to see their targets and that the large gray wolf sitting within range of their rifles ought to be dead. Instead, the creature lay resting in the yard, its blood-red, glowing eyes staring directly at her when she fired.

Never in Brenna Cain's twenty-two years had she seen wolves attack like this. When the howling began, she had continued the breakfast preparations and left scattering the pack to the men. The first shots ought to have sent them running and didn't. Instead, the pack had increased in numbers. Even stranger still, they seemed to have no interest in the barn housing the horses.

She'd forgotten about breakfast and began firing, killing the wolves that came within range. She emptied at least six rounds from the seven-shot Spencer carbine at the blood-red eyes haunting her from the yard. She was a fair shot, and should have at least wounded the animal. But she hadn't.

Now spooked, she feared the family was going to die. Not her baby. Not if she could do anything to prevent that horror. Leaning the rifle against the wall, she slipped the .44 Colt dragoon six-shooter into her apron, lifted her baby girl from the crib, grabbed her petticoats and the rifle in the other hand and bolted upstairs.

*****

Annabella stepped closer to the full-length mirror. Tracing her fingers over the interlacing design of feathers and shells carved into the burl-walnut frame, she slowly scanned the reflection of her body. No marks. None at all.

The moonstone she wore glowed softly in the light. Her hand moved to the gold chain. She fingered the necklace absently, turning the stone containing her essence around and around. She mulled over the recurring dream she'd had of two men chasing her in the mists. This nightmare was somehow related to that dream. The chain tightened to a choke hold. She released her grasp, and the stone spun until the chain straightened. Her room smelled of decay. Why had she not noticed the odor before?

She pivoted as her eyes roamed the familiar surroundings, stopping on her mother's chair at rest in front of the white marble fireplace. She stepped soundlessly to the cane-backed rocker.

In a glance, she perused the books and Wedgwood cup and saucer on the tilt-top tea table between her mother's rocker and her own two-piece chaise longue. Nothing appeared disturbed. Great Expectations remained partially hidden under Dante's Divine Comedy, and the green stoneware held the dregs of her tea, now dried, in the bottom of the cup.

She leaned over and touched the rocker's cushioned seat, calling the past to her as she stroked the lavender lilies in the floral needlepoint her mother had stitched. Even though her mother's people believed the spirits of her parents still roamed the land they so loved, she almost never called on them for guidance. Now, she must.

The present moment gave way to yesterday, and she was five again and running free across the field leading to the house. Her parents stood on the porch, their arms sheltering each other. They appeared to be gods, tall and fair and golden in the light. They watched her approach. Her mother waved. The scent of lavender replaced the smell of decay. The vision faded into the hearth's dying embers. A single word took form in her mind, then whispered to her: Alone.

The swiftness of the pain that followed left her breathless. The moonstone could warn her of danger and help bring a vision of her loved ones to her. It could do nothing to ease her sorrow.

Annabella held the stone tightly and willed herself to push aside the sadness. Now was not the time to fret on her losses. She had done what she had to do: Her vision had told her what she needed to know. Despite her conflicting emotions, she felt relieved. What had been in her room was now gone.

She moved to her dressing table, picked up the towel she'd hung carelessly over the stool and began wiping off her body. She could still feel the tentacles sucking her skin. She rubbed harder and eyed the water in the porcelain basin. Cold. Icy cold.

The fire had burned too low to offer much warmth. She didn't care. She dipped the towel into the bowl and rinsed her skin, wondering whether she'd had a nightmare or a dream walk. The episode foreboded ill, but had the phantom been a warning, or the creation of an overtired mind? Had what stalked her found refuge in the barn?

Chilled, she grabbed the white shirt and black riding clothes she'd taken off when she'd fallen in bed exhausted the evening before. After she laced her boots, she reached for her Winchester, slipped from the room, and made her way cautiously to the kitchen door. Setting the lamp down, Annabella picked up the lantern she kept handy, lit the wick in the oil, and stepped silently on to the covered porch.

*****

Brenna walked down the hall to her bedroom, nodding to her brother-in-law who had been positioned there. She laid the rifle against the door frame and took the pistol out of her apron pocket. From the doorway, she fired several rounds into the upper third of the wardrobe. Brushing aside her fear that nothing she did could save her baby, Brenna thought, that should let in some light and enough air until she's rescued. She pitched the clothes on the floor, patted Catherine's cheek and set her inside. Closing the wardrobe doors, she barricaded the front.

"I'll stay here," she said, slipping quietly to the window. "You take my place in the kitchen."

He nodded. "Pauley could go for help if we could get him out of that tree. But the more times I fire, the more shapes I see."

"He could be in the barn loft," she suggested, knowing he wasn't.

"He'd be firing."

They both stared into the darkness. No one inside could actually see Pauley Cain, but they heard him yelling when the gunfire lessened. And his voice came from the direction of the trees shading the corral. The barn some fifty feet away remained concealed by the night. Both saw the gray form of the wolf sitting between them and the barn, but neither spoke of what they saw.

"Yeah, he would," Brenna said, staring at the eyes staring at her. "He's treed for sure. And they're not going to let him down."

*****

The night breeze whispered Annabella's name. She peered out into the darkness but could see nothing in the moonless landscape. She knew something waited there; its strength had been growing every day.

A spiteful and malicious presence had invaded the land she'd known since childhood. The townsfolk said she'd lost her mind, that she'd been overwhelmed by grief. She paid them no mind. They were wrong.

Evil, tangible, real, unseen, yet felt, had descended upon Darby Ranch in the waning months of eighteen ninety-seven, taking first her brother and then her father. She'd been crushed by the losses, but their deaths had not been accidents. And she said as much at both funerals. But her words failed to penetrate her neighbors' denial.

They'd been murdered. Of that she had no doubt.

How and why eluded her. No human hand had struck them down. They'd been found dead in the woods, their ammunition spent. In the last moments of their lives, their faces recorded the terror they'd felt. Friends and neighbors blamed bears or the pack of wolves that had overtaken the countryside. Yet, their bodies hadn't been mauled.

Annabella defied the darkness. "I know you're there. You'll not have me." Even as she spoke, her words sounded hollow. How could she fight the unknown force that had destroyed her loved ones? Pride alone fueled her empty threat.

Again, she heard her name floating in the breeze. Fainter came the sound of laughter. The horses stirred in the corral outside. They knew. When the spirit drew too close to them, they became skittish, jumpy.

Even her mother's people, who lived and worked on the land owned by her family, had taken their stock, all the Darby cattle and most of the horses and gone west, not because they wanted to but because they felt compelled to go. Only Franklin and Clarissa remained behind and only because she was pregnant. Soon the baby would be born, and they would leave as well.

In the best of years, life was difficult on the ranch in the winter. Without the help of her mother's people, survival was a daily ordeal. They'd asked her to go with them and come back in the spring. When she refused, Manitoka Skye had been tempted to force her so strong did the shaman feel his allegiance to her departed parents. Instead, he stayed behind, hoping she'd change her mind, knowing she wouldn't.

Her family fought too hard for this place, her brother and father giving their lives to protect their land. Now she was the last, the only one left.

No one called Annabella Darby a coward. Softly, she closed the door and moved out of the shadows toward the barn. Nothing would run her off the land. Not the neighbors who saw Darby Ranch as easy pickings now that the menfolks were dead. Not Nature's bitter cold nor Her icy winds, threatening to freeze man and beast. Not even the specter of death.

Annabella walked across the yard, her outward manner fearless despite the hammering of her heart. When she set down the lantern, to open the barn doors, her stallion, Nightrider, let out a wild scream. She stepped aside just as the doors blew open seemingly of their own accord. A gust of icy wind poured forth with a force strong enough to knock her down.

*****

Brenna wondered what kind of animal had glowing eyes the color of fresh blood. None she'd ever seen before. "They're not leaving," she said to her brother-in-law. She looked away. She'd seen her death in the wolf's eyes. "Maybe the baby and Pauley will survive."

"When daylight comes, we can see what we're shooting." He reloaded his Winchester 66 carbine.

"We won't see dawn," she said, hoping her husband and daughter would. Perhaps it was wistful thinking on her part, but Pauley did seem to have a chance. He wasn't in the house with them. And they were doomed. She was certain of that. But not Catherine. Oh, please, God, not Catherine. She glanced back at the wardrobe. She would never see her baby girl again. Such a quiet baby. So happy all the time. Even now, she wasn't crying. Please, God, let her live. Let them find her. Let Pauley make it so she'll have family.

"We can hold out." Her brother-in-law moved toward the door, stepped into the hallway and said over his shoulder, "We have plenty of ammunition."

Outside, the gray wolf yawned again, rolled over in the dirt several times, stood, and shook itself off. Holding its head up, the wolf howled, revealing unusually long, dagger-edged teeth and an odd forked tongue. The cry broke through the roar of gunfire.

"Dawn will come too late." Brenna raised the rifle to her shoulder. She took aim and fired.

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Copyright 2004 Georgia Temple, prologue and first chapter from the novel Bittersweet, second novel in The Scrolls of Dust series.

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