Posts Tagged Simon Kewin

Hedge Witch – Chapter One

Hedge_Witch_final

And now, we at Witch Awareness Month, have a real treat for you all, as we publish, exclusively, the first chapter of the novel, Hedge Witch, by Simon Kewin, which will be released 31st October, 2013.

Enjoy and keep a look out for more information at the Morrigan Books site.

1 – Cait

Manchester, England

Cait nearly missed her stop that day on the tram. If she had, everything would have turned out very, very different.

As it was she pushed her way through the crowded carriage and just made it to the doors before they slid shut. Outside, she stood for a moment and breathed. Her eyes had closed more than once on the journey into Manchester, the result of a long day at school and the rocking of the tram as it rattled into the city. It was good to be in the open air. A breeze blew down Mosley Street, warm on her face.

The street was busy: office workers sweating in their suits and ties, shoppers burdened with purchases, rowdy children clouting each other with their backpacks. Beyond them all rose the grey, curving walls of the Central Library, like a round fortress built in the heart of the city.

She sighed. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t get off here. She thought about Devi, Rachel, Val and Jen, the friends she’d promised to meet one stop up the line at the Arndale. She watched the tram thundering off that way now, ploughing through the traffic towards Piccadilly Square. They’d be there already, cruising through the crowds, laughing and shouting, never bothering to move out of anyone’s way. As a group they were invincible. She imagined them veering from shop window to shop window, shouting their disgust at this, their burning desire for that. And no-one, no grown-up, no security guard, would dare confront them.

She loved them all, but in her mind she saw herself at the back of the group, saying nothing, not involved. It was like that some days. She would look at them from a distance, marvelling at how they all talked at once but still seemed to hear what each other said. Other times, without really knowing how, she was a part of that. But not today. She couldn’t face them today.

She looked back down the tracks the way the tram had come. The rails gleamed in the sun, past the oblong bulk of the cenotaph and away out of the city, south towards the suburbs.

Her mother would be getting home about now. Cait imagined her switching on the television, pulling steaming food from the microwave. She should be there, too. Another promise. But she couldn’t face going home just now either. She’d left a message, done the right thing. She’d go back later.

She sighed again. The tram had vanished and she hadn’t moved. She couldn’t just stand there, people would stare. Come on Cait. Back to the real world.

She thought about last Saturday, her disastrous attempt to secure a weekend job at Bling Thing. He’d said that, the manager, as he explained to her why she was so unsuitable for the job.

‘Look, love. You have to live in the real world now. You have to smile, be happy to serve the customers. Be enthusiastic about the products. Be excited by them.’

His words amused her and then annoyed her. He wanted her to be something she wasn’t. She felt trapped, had to fight down the urge to flee. It was all so mundane. Where was the beauty in it? Where was the magic? She’d imagined the man would be old but he was only in his twenties or something. He was smartly dressed, polite, but his staring eyes, the way he gushed about retailing, made her shudder and say little.

His office was a square, shabby room at the back of the store, its walls just breeze-blocks painted lime-green. A kettle and a jar of instant coffee sat on a tray on the floor. Boxes of stock were strewn all around, in contrast to the manicured layout of the shop. When he took his jacket off, she saw the sweat-rings creeping out around his armpits, circles widening towards the white stains of other days’ sweat-rings. And all this was something she was expected to aspire to. To be like him. She thought of herself still there in five, ten years’ time. Interviewing some other girl for a job. Would she be saying the same things by then?

A poster on the wall, the blu-tac holding it up visible as dark smudges in each corner, said Smile – it costs nothing. It wasn’t true. Right then, a smile would have cost her more than she could ever give. And what she actually said to himwas, ‘Hmm.’

And so she hadn’t got the job. She was a failure, it was clear. She knew she was no good at school. She tried, she really did, but she always ended up antagonizing her teachers for some reason. She’d always assumed she could get a job at least, make something of herself. It turned out she couldn’t. Couldn’t even make it as a Saturday girl in Bling Thing. She was a failure, going nowhere. Already it seemed her life was over.

She threw her rucksack over one shoulder and set off, a small pile of text books cradled in one arm. How she hated her black school uniform. She’d tried to subvert it with heels that were slightly too long, a skirt that was slightly too short, the tiny ruby in her pierced nose. None of it really helped. She hated how she looked. She scowled as she walked, warning everyone not to bother her.

Slumped against the grey stone wall of the library, out of the way of hurrying feet and the light of the sun, a man sat on a piece of tatty cardboard. A threadbare blanket was wrapped around his shoulders. On the ground before him lay a hat containing a paltry four or five coins, all coppers. He held a sign in his hands that said simply, Please. The rest of the message, whatever he was begging for, had been torn away. He was asleep, his head nodding forwards, long, matted hair covering his face. The crowd ignored him, probably didn’t even see him.

She wondered who he was, where he’d come from, what his story was. A fantasy came to her that he was one of the few who’d escaped the fire: the blaze in the factory that had killed her father. He had limped out, choking, his clothes smoking, his skin burned. He was disfigured now, unable to work, unable to do anything but sit and beg. The formless pleading of that single word on his sign.

She wanted to go up to him, sit with him, talk to him. She felt suddenly closer to him than all the people around her. They had so much in common, this shared bond of not belonging to the crowd. She stopped walking. A woman dressed in a smart blue business-suit, her gold necklace expensive, white earphones in her ears, tutted loudly at Cait for being in the way.

A flap of the cardboard on which the beggar sat caught the breeze and she saw the words This Way Up in red letters. Underneath, smaller, the name of some company.

The man looked sharply up and directly at her. Or rather, through her to something beyond, as if he couldn’t get his eyes to focus properly. He was young. He couldn’t possibly have worked with her father. Of course. His skin was unscarred, his features thin and pale. Anger flashed through her, an anger that was part adrenalin. The stupid ideas she had. What was she thinking?

‘The hunt! The hunt is coming! Monsters! Run and hide, run and hide!’ the man shouted. No-one paid him any attention. ‘They’ll chase you down, corner you. You’ll see! Sleep safe in your beds, that’s when they come. The dead of night, down these streets, knives flashing. Run and hide, run and hide …’ He tailed off, his head lolling forward again as if he was a toy whose battery had run down.

Cait stood for a moment, feeling ridiculous. He was just some loser, disgusting, probably mad.

Then he looked up again, this time directly at her, focusing on her. A look of surprise filled his face.

‘You?’ he said, not shouting now, but still speaking loudly. ‘Here?’

His mouth moved quickly without any words coming out. Concern, then fear, then amusement flashed across his features. He started shouting again, this time pointing directly at her.

‘They will hunt you! Once they find you, who you are and what you are, they will come! Day or night! You … here all along! All along!’

He started to laugh. A crazy, utterly uninhibited laugh. He flicked his head from side to side, expecting everyone to see the joke.

It was too much for Cait. She turned and ran for the library doors, her eyes down, shutting out the crowd, shutting out the beggar, his words knives in her mind.

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Short Fiction #1 – ‘Slieau Whallian’ by Simon Kewin


There’s a hill on the Isle of Man called Slieau Whallian. Folk legend has it that they used to put suspected witches – women and men – into spiked barrels at the top of this hill to see if they survived being rolled down. If they made it to the bottom alive they would be killed for being witches. I’m sure you get the twisted logic.

Whether any of this actually happened, I don’t know. I do know it’s a very peaceful and lovely hill now. And also a good setting for a story, one in which things don’t quite go to plan for those meting out this “justice”…

 

Slieau Whallian

by Simon Kewin

Ginny Kerruish watched the men roll the herring barrel up the hillside. Her big brother Calum and three others, grunting and straining against its weight. Calum scowled at her but didn’t speak, his face red from the effort. The barrel was empty, of course, but heavy with all the extra ironwork hammered into it. Down at the foot of the hill, earlier that day, Ginny and the other children had peered inside to see the nest of spikes there, like a great mouth full of uneven teeth. The sight of it, the reek of fish, had made her stomach lurch.

The slopes of Slieau Whallian rose steeply off into the blue sky. Wind whistled through clumps of yellow-flowered gorse. She stood and watched as the old woman was led up the hill behind the barrel. Ma Quirk, her arms lashed together with sailor’s knots, another rope tight around her mouth to stop her speaking curses. The children went silent then, watching the old woman they lived in fear of. They all knew the tales. If you crept too near her cottage, if you simply crossed her path, she’d work some spell and you’d be dead by morning.

The woman also glanced down at Ginny. Ginny looked away. She had her own reasons to fear the old woman. Because they’d spoken, once, something no one else knew about. She’d been wandering in the woods, seven or eight, lost in some game. She’d slipped and done something bad to her ankle. Broken it, maybe. The old woman had found her like that, writhing in the mud and leaves.

‘How did you find me?’ Ginny had asked, heart hammering, hands clutching her ankle. She’d feared the worst. ‘Were you following me?’

‘I didn’t find you, did I?’ the old woman had said. ‘You found me. I heard you calling.’

‘I didn’t call you.’

‘Course you did. Heard you in my head, bright and clear. You have the Sight, child, no doubt about it. You’re like me.’

The words had terrified Ginny. Even at that age she knew what happened to those with the Sight. There’d been plenty of whippings and rollings before and there would be more again.

‘No. I’m nothing like you,’ she’d shouted. ‘Leave me alone.’

The woman hadn’t replied. Instead, she’d bound Ginny’s leg, mumbling some charm over it, and let Ginny hobble home. She’d told her mother and brother she’d just twisted her ankle, and that was that.

Then, two weeks ago, five sheep had dropped dead in the night and Father Clegg had denounced Ma Quirk. Said she was dark-hearted; that she danced with themselves and lay with the devil. Everyone knew what it meant. If she survived the rolling she was a witch and a knife would finish her off. If she didn’t survive, she’d be buried in consecrated ground and receive her rewards in the afterlife.

The thought of it all made Ginny tremble with excitement. Because she did have the Sight, just like the old woman had said. She desperately wished she hadn’t. Wished she was normal. But there was no doubt: she could see into people’s hearts and she could make things happen just by really needing them to happen. Of course, she’d told no-one. Not her mother, not Calum, not any of her friends. If anyone learned the truth it would be she bound in ropes and led up Slieau Whallian. And only this old woman could betray her. One way or another, by the end of the day, Ginny would be free of her burden. The prospect of it made her light-headed with joy.

Her friends had argued about where they would get the best view. Some wanted to climb to the top of the hill to watch the old woman being forced into the barrel. But others said the bottom was best. Then you’d be there when they opened it back up to see what was inside. That had swayed them. They left, now, to join the small crowd gathered around the bog at the foot of the slope.

Only Ginny stayed where she was. She very much wanted to go with her friends, be a part of the group, be just a child. But, still, she hesitated.

‘You coming, Skinny?’

‘No. I have to take something to Calum. I’ll be down soon.’

‘Hurry, then, or you’ll miss it.’

She nodded, then turned to follow the barrel up the hillside.

***

Father Clegg stood with Ma Quirk at the top of the hill, along with Calum and the other men. Ginny hung around at the edge of the group, not wanting to come close now, not wanting to see what was about to happen. Why had she even come up here? She didn’t really have anything for Calum. She’d been longing for the moment when they pushed the barrel off down the mountain, but now the thought of it made the feeling of sickness return.

She watched Father Clegg perform his rites over Ma Quirk while two of the men held her by the arms. The wind, stronger up here, made the old woman’s straggly grey hair lash around. She tried to struggle free and Father Clegg, barely interrupting his flow of words, lashed out with the staff he carried, striking her a blow across the forehead. The old woman sagged to her knees, a great purple mark suddenly there on the side of her face. The men holding her laughed. Calum laughed.

Ginny didn’t really know her brother any more. Not since he’d gone off to make his living on the fishing-boats. He was a stranger. She realised she was afraid of him.

Father Clegg stopped speaking and the old woman was dragged on her knees towards the barrel. It had been set on its side in a small hollow to stop it rolling away before they were ready. The men began to push Ma Quirk’s head and shoulders inside. The old woman struggled and fought, but she was no match for them. Ginny heard her brother laugh again as he kicked her.

It was the laughter that made Ginny act. She whispered a curse of her own. She’d done it before, in secret, when no one was around to see. Tried it on butterflies at first, making them drift to the ground and settle there as if dead. Stopped mice and dogs, too, holding them asleep for a few moments. She’d never dared try it on a person, of course. Never dared try it when there was anyone else anywhere near. But by practice, she’d found the words she needed to speak. They were meaningless sounds to her ears, but she could taste their sharp power as she spoke them.

She spoke them again now, eyes closed against the wrenching effort the curse would cost her.

She saw how badly wrong it had gone when she opened her eyes again. Four of the men lay in a circle on the ground as if they’d all fallen asleep. Father Clegg and the three men whose names she didn’t know. But still standing, staring at her in open-mouthed shock, was Calum.

‘What have you done?’ he shouted. ‘What have you done?’

He charged towards her, fury on his face. She stepped back, ready to run from him, afraid of what he would do. He would dash her to the ground, drag her over to the barrel and stuff her in alongside Ma Quirk. She could see the rage burning in his mind.

Then she saw something else, too, kept well hidden until now. Something so surprising she forgot to run and stood still while he charged up to face her.

‘You know,’ she said. ‘You know about me.’

That stopped him. He stood there, breathing deeply.

‘Course I do you little fool.’

‘You know and you haven’t said anything.’

‘No.’

‘Have you told him? Father Clegg?’

‘Do you think I’m stupid?’

‘But, Ma Quirk. How can you do this to her knowing about me?’

‘You don’t understand anything, do you?’

Ginny glanced down the slopes of the hillside. Hopefully people would just think she was talking to her brother while the others rested. But when Father Clegg and the other men awoke, they’d come for her. She didn’t have much time. She saw what she had to do.

She refused to be like Calum.

‘I understand well enough. I’m going to let her out.’

She brushed past him, but he grabbed her by the arm, hurting her.

‘What I’m doing is trying to protect you, little fool.’

‘Protect me? You?’

‘How can you have the Sight and be so blind?’

‘I can see clearly enough. What you are. You and your drunken crewmates there.’

‘Those men are my friends.’

‘Nice friends. Look what they’re doing. Look what you’re doing.’

‘Those men trust me and I trust them. We put our lives in each other’s hands every day. Do you know why I do that?’

She tried to struggle free but he held her firm.

‘Why should I care?’

‘I do it to protect you, little fool. To keep you safe. Father Clegg would need more than a few rumours before he’d dare denounce Skinny Ginny Kerruish because he needs us to do his dirty work for him. He’s afraid of us and he only gets away with what he thinks he can.’

‘Oh, so you expect me to be grateful do you?’

He looked surprised, as if this was a question he’d never considered.

‘And what about her? Ma Quirk?’ Ginny asked.

‘I had no choice about her,’ said Calum.

She felt suddenly furious at him. For thinking he could just sacrifice the old woman. For not telling her he knew, all this time. For not being the funny, exciting older brother he’d once been.

‘I’m going to get her out,’ said Ginny. ‘Try and stop me if you like.’

She pulled away from him. He let her go.

‘Hardly matters now, does it?’ he shouted to her back. ‘Now everyone will know. The Father can’t ignore this. And it won’t just be you they come for, will it? The Sight runs in families, you know.’

Ginny ignored him and ran over to the barrel. Ma Quirk, half her body still inside, was trying to worm her way out. She was, suddenly, just a frail old woman, eyes red with tears and fear. One of the spikes had gashed her cheek open. Ginny loosened the rope in her mouth. She looked around at Ginny, at the sleeping men, at Calum, standing and watching them. It took her several moments before she could speak.

‘Decided to help after all, did you, girl?’

‘I thought you’d stop them.’

The old woman shook her head.

‘Not much I can do with a rope to chew on, is there? Not much I can do anyway when I’m trussed up like this.’

Behind them, Father Clegg began to stir.

‘You have to get away,’ said Ginny. ‘Before they wake up. Please.’

She began to undo the woman’s ropes, her fingers used to the fisherman’s knots. The wind made her eyes water as she worked. Ma Quirk stood stiffly, like she was made of sticks. At least she would be invisible to those at the bottom of the hill, hidden behind the bulk of the barrel.

‘You have to get away,’ said Ginny again.

‘Oh, and what will you do then? Send them after me? Let them hunt me down? And what will he do?’ She indicated Calum, walking towards them, with a nod of her head. ‘Because I could make them believe they’d already put me inside, maybe, but it ain’t going to work on you and it ain’t going to work on him.’

She could still let this happen, she saw. Wake Father Clegg and the others, tell them the old woman had spoken some curse. She could still be rid of her, one way or another. But that wouldn’t really be an end to it, would it? All this time she’d been terrified of what Ma Quirk would say to someone. But it worked both ways, didn’t it? The old woman must have lived with exactly the same fear. And for a lot longer.

‘We won’t say anything, will we?’ said Ginny. She looked up at Calum as she spoke. ‘Tell her, Calum.’

‘It would be safer for Ginny if you were dead, old woman.’

‘Really? You think I make much difference, compared to your friends there?’

‘You’re wrong anyway,’ said Ginny. ‘Because I can’t just pretend I haven’t got the Sight can I? I thought I could. But it’s a part of me. It’s the way I am.’

Calum said nothing for a moment. He looked down at the sleeping men, the old woman, then back at her, the struggle clear on his features.

‘You can really make them think we’ve already put you in the barrel, old woman?’ he asked.

‘I can.’

‘Work your charm and go, then. And make sure you never come near here again, understand? If you tell anyone Ginny has the Sight, I’ll kill you myself.’

‘I know you would,’ she said.

Looking down at the ground, Ma Quirk spoke words unfamiliar to Ginny. Frowns bloomed across the sleeping men’s faces. Then the old woman turned to walk away.

‘Ma Quirk?’ said Ginny. ‘I’m sorry. For not helping sooner.’

The old woman stopped and looked backwards.

‘You just make sure the same doesn’t happen to you, too, girl. Things are changing, here, the old ways dying out. And you, Calum Kerruish, look after your sister by actually looking after her, eh? Not by going around with bullies like Davie Clegg.’

The old woman turned and picked her way down the far slope of Slieau Whallian then, away from the crofts and villages. She moved slowly, limping, but was soon lost to sight among the gorse bushes.

Ginny watched her go, knowing she would never truly be safe, now.

***

The rest of the men, when they woke up, looked confused. Calum pretended to wake with them. Ginny stood back where she’d been. The barrel containing just ropes lay sealed on the ground, ready to be pushed off.

‘Come on,’ she shouted across. ‘We’re all waiting. What’s wrong with you?’

‘She’s … in there?’ asked Father Clegg, sounding confused.

‘Of course she’s in there,’ said Ginny. ‘Where else would the old hag be?’

‘Heave, ho,’ said Calum. ‘Time to push her off before she casts some spell on us.’

With a shout of effort, the four men set their shoulders to the barrel and sent it cartwheeling and jolting down the slopes of Slieau Whallian. Ginny could hear distant whoops and cheers from the people down there.

She began to walk towards them.

‘Ginny!’

It was Calum. He strode over to her, then stopped, as if he’d forgotten what he’d meant to say.

‘You were really trying to protect me?’ she asked.

He nodded, frowning.

‘We miss you, you know,’ she said. ‘Ma doesn’t say anything, of course, but she does. Me too. We could do with you around the place more.’

He looked at her, looked away.

‘Might have to now, anyway,’ he said. ‘Keep an eye on you.’

‘Sooner or later Father Clegg will find out,’ she said. ‘He’ll want to do the same to me.’

‘I know,’ said Calum.

She hooked her arm through his, like she used to. Calum, saying nothing, let her.

 ‘You said he only gets away with what he thinks he can,’ she said. ‘You’re right, you know. Perhaps if we stopped hiding ourselves away, afraid of what people will say, he wouldn’t hold any power over us.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Calum.

‘Those friends of yours. You think you can change them?’

‘Perhaps,’ he said again.

Ginny squeezed her brother’s arm. They walked in silence after that.

She began to think about her own friends, which of them she could confide in. A start. She could see them down at the foot of the slope, now, gathered around the shattered barrel where it had ended up, half-buried in the bog. There were two or three, at least, she thought she could trust.

She smiled to herself as she imagined the look on their faces when they opened up the herring barrel and peered inside for the witch.

 

The End

 

Image: Slieau Whallian © Copyright Jon Wornham.

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