― William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Some stories all start the same way; the wind howls through the darkness and across the treetops, bringing portents of change, or it might be a dark and stormy night heralding the ill omens... or just a normal day, like any other. This story starts somewhere in the middle. It was a rainy day, cold and windy, on a maple farm near a little town tucked away in the Blue Ridge. It was early in the year, and my father was muttering about too much rain and the sap rising too thin... you see, too much rain, and it takes more sap than usual to make syrup, making that year more expensive for farmer and customer alike. So far, the rain had not quite hit that mark, but it was coming close. With Dad preoccupied by the rain, and Mom preoccupied with Dad, it left me to my own devices. I had made sure, as soon as I was a teenager, that Dad knew I wanted nothing to do with the family business. I wanted to live my own life, and Monterey was not the place to do it. He had finally come around... we mountain folk are known for our stubbornness, the women in particular... and though he wasn't happy about it, he accepted it.
So rather than listen to Mom fuss and fidget while Dad brooded, I wandered through the maple groves, my raincoat's drawn tight around my face, trying to avoid my parents' complaining. There had been something strange among the trees all winter, something... dark. Darker than a moonless winter night, something shadowed moved through the grove every time I took my walks, and the creeping feeling of eyes upon me crawled along the skin of my neck like a spider. And I, being the person I was, preferred to walk and try to spot the source of the strangeness, rather than stay inside like any sane human being would have. I walked in the groves every day, trying to understand it, trying to find whatever was causing this prickling sensation, but I never caught more than the shadow of a shadow.
I stayed out all afternoon, avoiding the house like the plague. I had absolutely no wish to partake of my parents' troubles; I was set to go off to college in the fall and the last thing I wanted was to leave home weighed down with the worries a farm, any sort of farm, tended to bring. I was twenty and would be turning twenty-one soon after starting classes; I had waited the two extra years on purpose, to decide what I wanted to do while taking various classes and courses at the community college across the mountain. I had found a fascination with biology - botany in particular - and would be studying that in more depth at UVA. I was excited; I could hardly wait, though Dad had a hard time understanding. He was mountain folk, though... he'd never left Monterey. Mom had moved here to marry him, after meeting during the spring Maple Festival, so she understood a little better. But even she was certain I would move back and take over one day, so she and Dad could retire and travel.
I could not imagine my father ever traveling... or retiring, for that matter. Dad would keel over in the grove one day while changing the taps on the trees, like a good maple farmer should.
I was so lost in these thoughts that I did not realize the sun had gone down until I could no longer see the house down the hill; I could barely see two rows ahead of me in the grove. Grumbling, I turned to look around me; the sense of eyes had gone and so had the strangeness. When had it disappeared? I shrugged... shrugged!... and headed down the hill. It was probably close to dinnertime; Mom would be puttering in the kitchen, trying to postpone putting dinner on the table until I came inside. Dad would be following her around the kitchen, trying to steal bites of this or that while she swatted at him with a serving spoon.
I opened the door to the mudroom, scraping the cold mud off my boots before actually stepping inside and taking the boots off. I was still wrapped in my thoughts deeply enough that at first it made no impression upon me that the house was silent, or the air smelled... strange. There was something wrong inside the house. I stopped and listened, but there was no noise... no TV, no fireplace crackling, no dishes clinking... I took a deep breath, and a sharp, metallic scent overlaid the warm, savory smells of dinner. It was a scent I knew. The boys I'd grown up with were avid hunters; I had often been forced to 'ooh' and 'ahh' over the spoils of their hunts, so I knew the smell of blood. Something cold gripped my belly and chest so hard it hurt, and my fists tightened. I was mountain folk by blood, though, so I reached into the closet beside me and drew out the loaded shotgun kept in a rack beside the closet door. I checked the chamber; it was loaded, but I grabbed the box of shells from the closet shelf and shoved it in my coat pocket. Better overkill than dead.
I moved through the house in sock feet, barely breathing, stepping with utmost care. The feeling of eyes had returned as soon as I left the mudroom, and the strange shadow-within-shadows at the corner of my vision seemed to taunt me. I reached the kitchen without incident, shotgun held ready at my shoulder, but nothing met my eyes but the sight of tragedy; two bodies on the floor in pools of their own blood.
My stunned mind noted that the pools seemed smaller than they should be. The shotgun slowly lowered from its place on my shoulder. I shuddered; the stench of blood and worse was strong in here, overlaying the smells of the dinner I had been looking forward to... my body convulsed and I realized I was retching. Nothing came up, but I couldn't stop. My mother's sightless eyes gazed at the wall and I couldn't stop looking, I couldn't turn away. "Dad. Mom..."if I had been here, if I hadn't stayed out all day, would it have made a difference...? Something inside me, something cruel, said no. Their fate would have been mine. Perhaps that would have been kinder.
"When will you humans learn that Fate is never kind?" A rolling, melodious voice murmured from somewhere behind me, and I whirled, shotgun back in its place, finger on the trigger. Nothing was there, and I tried to still my shaking arm enough to steady my aim.
It was a fruitless endeavor. The shadows around me grew and changed, and something struck me from behind. The shotgun slid from nerveless fingers and I dimly heard it clattering to the wooden floorboards. I felt something strong and cold wrap around me, something I struggled against but could not budge an inch.
"Understand that this is not Fate. This is my whim, and my whim alone."
Something pierced my skin, but the agony of it melted quickly into euphoria. The fear, however, did not alter, and I could not help but scream as the shadows took me.