Chapter One

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Amanda hit the alarm clock harder than was necessary and stumbled up out of her tiny single bed. She stretched, being careful not to bump her head on the steep dormer ceiling of her bedroom. Her back ached. I am an old woman, she thought with a scowl. An old woman of sixteen. She glared down at the too-soft mattress that she blamed for her aching back.

I will get used to it. She would too. This happened every spring and every fall. Amanda Burnson spent most of the summer traveling with her Uncle Darren, going to every Renaissance faire, pagan festival, and craft show in the upper Midwest. She and her younger brother Hunter would bunk up in the back of Uncle Darren's truck or pitch a tent. The first week of sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag would make her back ache, and then she would adjust.

In the fall they came home to Dubuque, Iowa, and to the little cabin on the edge of town that Uncle Darren owned. The first few nights on a soft bed would be almost as hard on her back as the ground had been. Then she would adjust.

She stumbled out of her bedroom and started down the narrow stairway, nearly slipping. She braced herself against the wall to keep from falling and found her footing again. Navigating stairs while half awake was just another adjustment she would have to make.

Downstairs she let herself into their tiny bathroom and pulled the hook-and-eye lock together. She pulled the faded nightgown over her head and opened her eyes long enough to inspect herself in the mirror. She was greeted by a mass of curly, black hair and a pale round face. It frowned at her.

She squinted at the upper left corner of her mouth. Was there a dark hair sprouting there? Gods, that's supposed to be old women! Sixteen-year-old girls don't sprout mustache hair. She found a pair of tweezers in the medicine cabinet and savagely plucked the offending hair. The stinging pain shot through her lip and woke her up. She glared at the reflection. It serves you right, she told her body. You sprout more hair and I will do it again.

A sports bra and a pair of white cotton granny panties joined the nightgown on the floor of the bathroom. She had sexier underwear, but wearing anything much fancier seemed a pointless gesture with her excess body weight. Maybe after she lost . . . oh, forty pounds or so. That might be possible now, she encouraged herself. The summer faire lifestyle featured way too many turkey legs and too much fried foods to think she would be able to lose any weight. But now that they were home and school was starting, she could watch what she ate, and she could lose the weight.

She carefully removed her leather necklace and hung it on a hook next to the towel. Dangling from the end of the necklace was an oval of elk horn bearing a crudely carved rune. It was a protective sign carved by her father and enchanted by her mother. It hadn't protected either of her parents, but then again, it wasn't meant for them. Amanda and Hunter had escaped the house fire. Her parents died in it. Maybe they should have made runes for each other instead.

The shower ran cold, but it was August, and in Iowa this time of year, it was already hot and sticky even this early in the morning. She quickly washed her hair, trying to bring some semblance of order to the thick, black mass. She wasn't sure if she was succeeding.

She got out of the shower and started drying off with a ragged old towel. When she was reasonably dry, she dug through the medicine cabinet again, looking for the new deodorant she had bought yesterday. She sniffed the top of the stick and then her underarm. She caught an acrid smell and scowled. She looked at the shower. Did she have time to get back in? She didn't know. She found a washcloth, ran the tap, and scrubbed both pits with soap and water. When she was done, she raised her right arm and sniffed again. Better. She scowled at the thick, black hair under her armpits. She would have to shave her underarms again soon, but not this morning. She smeared the deodorant under her arms and hoped it would last the day. So far she had yet to find a brand that completely cut through the odor her body insisted on producing, along with the copious amounts of hair it seemed to want to grow everywhere.

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