Very happy to be able to share this extract from Paula Brackston’s latest novel, The Winter Witch (the sequel to The Witch’s Daughter). The novel, part of the Shadow Chronicles series, is published today by Constable & Robinson in the UK.
How dare he touch my books! He was rifling through my possessions, as if they belong to him now. As, indeed, they do. As I belong to him, I suppose. Am I to be left nothing of myself ? I lift the lid from the crate once more, just to reassure myself that nothing has been taken. No, they are all here. He was looking at Pilgrim’s Progress. Has he ever read it, I wonder? Has he any interest in stories? I have seen no books in the house thus far. Perhaps he keeps them to himself, in his room. The room he will no doubt expect me to share with him one day. What would a man like Cai read? A man who has lived all his life in one place, save for droving, what would he choose to read?
Dada selected these books. Each and every one meant something to him; his choices were never whimsical or left to fate. He had his favourites. This one, with its fine red leather binding, he never tired of – Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. How he loved this book! And how I loved to hear him read from it, or to recount tales from memory, as he often did. The cover feels warm, as if my dada had just this minute left off reading it. As I run my thumb across it the title spells itself out to me, cut into the leather, even though the gilding has long been rubbed away by palm and lap. A heavy sadness settles upon me, as it so often does when I recall the pain of his leaving.
When I remember how he was one day there, and the next not. And how when he went away he took my voice with him.
Of a sudden I am overcome by weariness. The journey, the dragging sorrow of homesickness, this strange house, unfamiliar society, the heat... all have taken their toll so that now all I wish to do is sleep. And yet I fear still I will not be able to. If I clutch Dada’s book close against me, tight to my heart, it may be I can bring to mind some- thing of the warmth of his presence. Here, I will lay myself down on the rug in this pool of sunshine that brightens the colours of the woven wool. I close my eyes and wish I could go to where dear Dada is. But he is lost to me. So many times I have tried to find him, to travel as only I can to be near him. But he is gone. So completely. The only comfort left to me is to remember. To revisit those soft-edged images and rememberings of my time with him. To recall one of those precious moments my memory has entombed and preserved like an ancient treasure. A moment when he was close to me. I shut my ears to the cry of the serf ’s cuckoo outside. I curl myself around the book, burying my nose in the dry, powdery pages so as to keep away the bitter aroma of burnt vegetables and sulphurous coal fumes that drift up the stairs. I screw my eyes tight shut, allowing only the dappled dance of the sun on my lids. Slowly images appear. A dark night, still and warm. A fire, outside, at the far end of the garden. And at last, Dada, sitting beside it, his face illuminated by the flames. He always preferred to be out of the house, much to Mam’s displeasure. So long as the weather would allow it, after eating he would retreat to this quiet little place, assemble twigs and branches, and within minutes would be settled by a cheerful blaze, his clay pipe in his hand, an ease relaxing his shoulders. An ease which eluded him when he was forced to remain enclosed with slate or thatch separating him from the stars. I would clamour for him to tell me a tale and, after a token resistance, he would agree, sucking on his pipe, eyes raised to heaven as if looking for divine guidance for his story selection. And then he would begin. Oh, he was an excellent storyteller! My young mind, flexible as willow, would follow the twists and turns of the adventure, pictures flashing bright before my eyes, the howls of wolves or the singing of maidens filling the night sky around me. I was enthralled. Spellbound. Indeed, most of his best-loved tales turned upon some sort of magic. Magic, he told me, was some- thing to be taken seriously.
‘Travellers understand about magic,’ said he. ‘I’m not claiming they’re all sorcerers and such like, only that they know magic when they see it. Your Romany ancestors crisscrossed the globe, Morgana, and on their travels they saw many marvelous things and encountered many wonderful beings. That’s how they gained their knowledge, from distant lands and strange customs of even stranger people. Travelling was my habit, my natural state, you might say, until your mother caught me in her web.’ He laughed. ‘She’s a good woman, your mam, but she’s not like you and me, girl.’ He leaned forward, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial level. ‘You have the magic blood in you, Morgana. I’ve seen it. Do not fear it, as some do. It is a gift, though there are times you may not think it so.’ He sucked hard on his pipe, which had gone out. He paused to light a spill in the fire and touch the glowing end to the bowl of tobacco. Abundant smoke temporarily obscured him, slowly dispersing, wisps of it curling from his nose. I was seven years old and I had a dragon for a father.
‘If you are not able to travel,’ he told me, ‘the next best thing is to read. Read all you can, girl. And store up that knowledge, for you never know when you will need it.’ He paused, sitting straight, looking thoughtfully at me. I have often, over the years, tried to see what was behind that expression, what it was he was trying to tell me. ‘A person has to tread his own path, Morgana. Life will set things to pulling you in all directions, tugging you this way and that.’ He puffed once more, leaning back so that the light from the fire could scarcely reach him, two smokinesses rendering him faint, ghostlike. The only substantial thing about him was his voice. ‘Tread your own path,’ said he once more.
The next morning he was gone, and I never saw him again.
The memory lulls me to sleep and when I awake some hours have passed and the room is in darkness save for a short candle flickering on the windowsill. I am surprised to find the patchwork quilt has been taken from the bed and placed snugly over me. Cai must have done it. Must have come to speak with me, found me sleeping, and thought to make me more comfortable. The man is a riddle. I might sooner have expected him to wake me and tell me to make his supper. I rise and peer out of the window. The night is bright, constellations clear, the moon aglow. It is hard to judge the exact hour, but the house is quiet, as if I am the only one awake.
I drop the quilt on to the bed and snatch up my woollen shawl instead. I take the candle and lift the latch on my door carefully. Again, as I pass the door to Cai’s bedroom, I sense something out of kilter with the still silence of the night. I have the sensation of being observed. I pull my shawl tighter about me and continue downstairs. I have already identified those boards and stairs which complain at my footfalls, so I am able to descend to the kitchen quietly. The fire in the range is out. There is a faint smell of smoke lingering, but the unpleasant evidence of my calamitous attempt at cooking has gone. The table is cleared and everything returned to its proper place. Conflict unsettles me. I am glad proof of my clumsiness has been erased, but I am uncomfortable at the thought of my husband having to wash away the grime of my error. It should not fall to him. And now I feel strangely in his debt. Hunger rumbles in my stomach and I fetch a lump of cheese and a hunk of bread from the pantry. I am about to sit on the window seat when I see Cai is sleeping in the carver at the far end of the table. I wonder I have not woken him with my blundering about. How often, I wonder, has he fallen asleep down here? I remember after Dada went away I would sometimes find Mam in her chair by the kitchen range. She would explain it away as having been overtired and having drifted off. Only later did she admit to me she found her bed too lonely. Does he still miss his first wife so? Am I to compete with a ghost?
Now I notice the corgis curled at his feet. Bracken opens one eye, recognizes me, surely more by scent than sight in the dimly lit room, gives a half-hearted wag of his tail and goes back to his slumbers.
Hush, little one! Do not wake your master.
Cai is sleeping deeply. I am close enough to reach out and touch him. He looks younger, somehow. In repose his features lose something of the sternness that I see. Or at least, I see it when he looks at me. Am I so perpetually bothersome? His collarless shirt is of good quality, and that is a fine woollen waistcoat. I can see the fob and chain of a gold watch. He likes to look... respectable, I think. Even when at home, tending his livestock. Not the image some of the drovers have, with their long coats and rough ways. I admit, though, he has always presented himself well. On the occasions when I saw him at Crickhowell market he was well turned out, despite being on the move with the herds. Mam and I sold cheese there when we could, buying cheap milk from Spencer Blaencwm’s dairy where we worked. Mam would pick wild garlic and together we would churn it into creamy rounds to sell. Business was always good when the drovers came through. That is where Cai first saw me. He could have been under no illusions as to what I was. A dairy maid with a sometime cheese stall at the smallest market in the shire. He would come to inspect our wares on the evening of his arrival, and in the morning before the drove went on its way. Then he would visit on his return journey, when he was unencumbered by his many charges. A year and a half of passing through and pausing. Snatched moments in which to convince himself he had found a suitable bride. And to convince Mam my future lay with him. I will say, he purchased a large amount of cheese! Perhaps it was that which led him to believe I might be capable of cooking. I recall he did his best to look prosperous, sensible, dependable.
And now look at him. Longer eyelashes than a man should be blessed with. Skin tanned from the outdoor life, but not yet weathered. His hair is streaked gold by the summer sun. There are several years between our ages, yet as he sleeps I see the boy in him. Unsure of himself. Vulnerable. Oh! He is stirring. I have no wish to be found standing here, watching him. He mumbles something, his eyes still closed. Both dogs lift their heads from their paws. I hasten from the kitchen and back to my own room.