He heard her voice through what seemed to be an ever-deepening fog and it echoed through his head for a moment before he roused enough to reply.
"Come in." The cold that had kept him in bed for the past three days showed no signs of going away, and Ash knew he had to get better soon. He'd already missed three days' worth of lessons. If he missed many more, he'd never catch up with the rest of his class. He knew he should be worried, especially about Practical Magic, but he couldn't really summon up enough strength to care.
He watched dully as Clara maneuvered a tray into his little room. Her blond hair, piled up under a serviceable mobcap, escaped from the edges and curled prettily around her face. Of all the ten or so serving maids at Darkbrook, Clara had been the only one willing to look after Ash when he fell sick. No one else, save the professors, seemed to care all that much.
"How do you feel this evening?" she asked, setting her tray down on the bedside table. Ash craned his head around to look at the food, causing his headache to return with a vengeance. He winced.
"Not much better," he whispered, wishing he did not sound so much like a toad. "But I must feel better soon, mustn't I?" He tried to smile, but it felt odd, like a party mask stretched across his face.
"Yes, you need to get back to your studies," Clara agreed, and helped him sit up. "The professors are all worried about you, and your classmates..."
"My classmates couldn't care less whether I lived or died." Ash coughed when she helped him sip the tea, and shied away from the odd taste. "What is this?"
Clara smiled. For a moment, Ash thought he saw something predatory in her gaze, but the moment passed as quickly as it had come and her smile contained nothing more than concern.
"Medicine, of course," she replied. "I had Cook mix up a batch of this for you. Sometimes it's nice to work in a school of magic--I did not need to buy any of the supplies for your tea."
Although it tasted oily and heavy on his tongue, Ash pushed away his reluctance and drank the thick tea down. It sat in his stomach like a brick, making his vision swim and his face feel flushed. Suddenly, the heavy blankets were hot and cloying, and he weakly tried to throw them off.
Clara stayed his hands. She was stronger than she looked; a lifetime of lifting heavy pots in the kitchen and menial work had given her muscles Ash couldn't contest in his weakened state.
"Clara?" He could hardly hear his own voice over the roaring in his ears.
She smiled again. This time, there was no mistaking the gleam in her eye. Ash shivered and tried to mask it, but her smile only widened.
"Don't worry, Ash. You'll be feeling much better soon." She turned away from him and busied herself with the tray, mixing the eggs and bacon with fresh maple syrup. Then she carried the tray to the door, as if to leave, but she only turned around in the doorway and dropped the tray. Broken crockery and breakfast splashed across the floor.
"Clara?" Ash again tried to push the covers off, but what little strength he had remaining seemed to have deserted him for the time being. He let his head fall back against the piled pillows. "Clara, what are you doing?"
"I'm doing what I should have done months ago," Clara replied in a voice he'd never heard from her before. She had always been so meek and timid. Ash stared at her. "Years, bowing and scraping to you stupid wizards. Years! And what did I get out of it?" She dumped the pitcher of water on the floor and walked back to Ash's bed, careful to leave clear footprints in the mess. "Nothing. Girls aren't allowed to be wizards."
"Girls are witches," Ash whispered, struggling with the words. "Girls can't be wizards."
"I can." Clara leaned over him and traced something on his forehead that tingled. Ash drew in a breath and smelled a mixture of herbs and the ingredients in the tea she had made him drink. He coughed. "If your precious professors won't let me be a wizard, why, then I have no choice than to learn on my own." She sat down on the edge of his bed and dimpled at him. "Shall I tell you what I've learned while dusting the library?"
Ash struggled to keep his eyes open. He felt as if something sucked him down into darkness, either by whatever spell she had cast or the tea he had so stupidly drunk. "Yes," he gasped, hoping to stall her enough for someone else to see how the invalid fared, but he feared no one else would think to come.
"I found that I can steal your powers, Ash." Clara took a small bottle from the front of her dress and uncorked it. The smell almost drove the sticky dullness from Ash's mind, but something she had done kept him immobile. He struggled uselessly. Clara smeared a thick brown paste at the base of his throat, at both temples, and over both Ash's eyes. "And it won't hurt a bit, don't worry."
"Clara..." She grabbed his chin in one hand and carefully uncorked another bottle with the other. She poured this bottle down Ash's throat. He tried not to swallow, but the room started to swing around his head and the liquid in his mouth burned enough to bring tears to his eyes. He swallowed, gagged, and almost vomited. Clara held his mouth shut until the spasms had passed.
"You're the best student here, Ash," Clara continued, leaving him to retch as she turned back to the mess on the floor. "No one will suspect me. I'm just a serving girl." Her voice took on a mocking tone. "Oh, it was horrible! I thought he might need something to eat--He's been so sick lately--but when I opened the door, it was too late. I tried to save him, but I didn't reach him in time."
The part of Ash's mind not struggling under the darkness that threatened to bear him away realized she was probably right. No one would suspect meek little Clara. No one would suspect a mere serving girl. "What are you planning to do?" His voice scraped across the path the potion had left and he tasted blood in the back of his throat.
"You're going to jump," Clara wrestled with the heavy shutters and finally swung them back. Cold spring air swept into the room, dispersing some of the fumes, but Ash's mind was too far under her spell for the cold air to revive him enough for escape." Clara turned and smiled at him, "You're going to jump out of the window, Ash. Don't worry. You'll be dead before you reach the ground."
Ash stared at her. "What?" he croaked.
"Stand up and tell me your true name, Ash." Clara's voice woke something in his mind that sent consciousness fleeing and he was suddenly a mere observer in his own body, as if Ash-the-person was no longer present. He saw his own hand turn back the quilts, felt the first stirrings of weakness as he carefully stood.
"Your name," Clara commanded.
Ash felt his mouth open without any help from his waking mind. "Ashleigh Stephen Lane." He could find no handholds to fight against her spell--the force that separated him from his body seemed too strong for him to fight.
"Ashleigh Stephen Lane, stand before me."
He moved to stand in front of her, and she placed one callused hand on his shirt, right over his heart. Something wrenched through his chest, driving daggers of pain deep inside his mind. If he could have screamed, he would have. Even without screaming, he knew she saw the pain in his eyes.
She smiled again. "Do you realize what I'm going to do to you?"
He didn't answer. Speech had abandoned him along with reason. He struggled against the bonds she'd placed over his mind, but failed to pierce her spell. Oh, she had been planning for this moment. And she had planned well.
The pain lessened only briefly as she removed her hand from his chest and placed it on his forehead. This time he was almost ready for the burst of fire that filled his head. This time, he very nearly fought it off, holding the very core of his self close to the farthest recesses of his mind so she could not take everything away from him.
He had no thoughts for survival. He already knew he would not live to see the dawn.
When Clara ordered him to climb onto the windowsill, he could not resist. And when she ordered him to fall, the last sight that met his mortal eyes was of Darkbrook itself--that foreboding castle he had so longed to call home.
She had spoken the truth. Ash was dead long before he hit the ground.
One Hundred Years Later
Jacob sped across the lawn on her new bike, heedless of the clumps of dirt that flew up behind her. She skidded through a patch of melting snow and barely missed the fence. When she stopped under the apple tree and stared up through the leafy branches, Emma applauded, her grin matching Jacob's own.
"A bicycle for your birthday!" Emma had no need to scramble down the gnarled branches; she simply let go and floated to the ground. Jacob had always been silently jealous of her ability to do that. "What a wonderful present!"
She'd also been slightly jealous of Emma's exotic accent, even going so far as to mimic her in the shower when she was certain no one listened in.
"Isn't it great?" Jacob ran one hand down along the cold metal and couldn't keep the grin from reappearing. "I've always wanted a bike like this."
"I'd say your parents chose well," Emma said, and leaned over the bike. Her hand followed Jacob's, and she smiled a little wistfully. "I do so wish I could have had some of the toys you have when I was alive, Jacob."
"Do you want to go for a ride?" Jacob offered.
Emma looked askance at the bike. "How? There's only one seat. And it's getting dark. Shouldn't you..."
"It isn't too dark yet." Jacob shrugged off the impending night and smiled. "You can sit on the handlebars just as long as you stay transparent enough for me to see through you." She picked up a fallen twig from the apple tree and stuck it in her pocket. Without it, Emma couldn't travel five feet beyond the tree. With Jacob's help, Emma had gone to school, the library, and an amusement park.
"Really?" Emma drifted up to the handlebars and gingerly sat, her wispy blonde hair flying behind her and tickling Jacob's face. Emma's hair was one thing Jacob never felt jealous about--she liked her own short wild brown curls just fine.
Jacob turned the bike around and slowly pedaled to the driveway with Emma perched on the handlebars like an odd sort of heron. She started down the sidewalk, past Ms. Peterson's white frame house, past the two empty lots and past the little stand of trees the local kids called the woods.
"Oh, Jacob, it's wonderful!" Emma clapped her hands in delight.
Jacob grinned and pedaled faster, turning down Maple Street and swerving around the worst of the cracked sidewalk. She cut up across the elementary school's yard, through the short copse of trees that ringed her own backyard, and ended up back at Emma's apple tree.
"How was that?" She leaned over the bike, a little out of breath from the ride.
"Oh, that was grand, Jacob!" Emma twirled around in midair like a fairy ballerina and clapped her hands again. "That was the most fun I've had in years. Can we do it again tomorrow?"
"Of course," Jacob said, and leaned her bike against the apple tree. "I can leave it here for you tonight, if you want," she offered.
Emma grinned. "Oh, thank you, Jacob. I'll guard it well for you."
"And we'll ride again tomorrow."
As darkness slowly crept across the yard, Jacob glanced back at Emma and her bike and shivered. Something shimmered briefly in the trees behind Emma's apple tree, and she hoped the fairies weren't on the warpath again because of the construction a few streets over.
She put out a dish of milk for them anyway and locked the door.
It was late now; she'd spent a long time outside with Emma, and her parents were already in bed. She hesitated outside her parents' door, silently thanked them again for the bike, and crawled up the ladder to the loft and her bed.
All in all, it had been the best birthday she could ever remember.