Authors: Abi Elphinstone
First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd
A CBS COMPANY
Copyright © 2015 Abi Elphinstone
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.
The right of Abi Elphinstone to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
PB ISBN: 978-1-47112-268-2
EBook ISBN: 978-1-47112-269-9
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
who named Gryff and is like him in so many ways
here are footprints in the snow, sunken marks picked out by the moonlight. They weave a path through the forest, round the ring of ancient oak
trees and on towards the wooden hut. But there they stop, and the smoke curling out of the chimney is the only sign that anyone is inside.
Seven cloaked figures sit round a table, their hoods pulled up despite the fire crackling in the grate. At first, they whisper together, their voices low and guarded. And then the whispers fade,
heads drop and lips curl back. A chant begins. There are no words, just grunted sounds scratching at the back of throats.
One of the figures pushes back her hood and long grey hair falls about her shoulders.
‘Not this!’ she cries. ‘You said it wouldn’t be this . . .’ She shakes her head and makes as if to stand. ‘I – I won’t do it. It’s not
But the others surround her, closing in like hungry shadows. They force the old woman towards the fire and, though her legs scrabble beneath her and her arms grope for the table, the flames loom
‘Not my hands!’ she sobs. ‘Please, no!’
But the flames are already licking her knuckles, shrivelling her skin black. She shrieks in agony, again and again, but the others only grip her harder, joining together in a crooning chant:
‘A curse we seek, we call it near,
To brand this hag who turned in fear.
Follow her close, all through her life,
Let her never escape our curse full of strife.’
The old woman falls to the floor, whimpering, but even she cannot stop the charcoal mark that seeps through the skin on her forehead. She rocks back and forth, cradling what is
left of her hands.
The other figures turn back to the table and, when they are seated, repeat their wordless chant; it gathers pace, throbbing with a rhythm all of its own, and then shadows twist up from behind
each figure, swelling in the air to form a cloud of darkness.
The figure at the head of the table stands, beckoning the darkness closer with long, thin fingers. It settles in the outstretched hands, a black shape shifting up and down, as if breathing
gently. The figure withdraws a hand, reaching inside its cloak for a small glass bottle. Flicking the lid back, the figure tips the clear liquid into the darkness. The shape shudders, then there is
a brittle sound like frost crunching underfoot and the darkness hardens into something long and black.
The figure draws back its hood and in its hand is a shard of black ice. ‘So it begins,’ the figure says.
And, from somewhere deep in the forest, an owl hoots and snow starts to fall.
Ten years later
oll woke with a start, her eyes wide, her body drenched in sweat. She spun round on her hands and knees. Her bed, her wagon, the camp: gone. She
was alone in the forest with the darkness and it swelled around her like misted ink.
Heart thudding, she waited for her eyes to adjust. Brambles twisted up around her, closing over her head, curling round her back. Moll tensed. To get inside the bramble tunnel, where the forest
was knotted and wild, she must have run past the Sacred Oaks, climbed over the sprawling creepers, then crawled through the undergrowth. Not difficult for Moll usually, but – her heart raced
faster as she realised – she’d made this journey
in her sleep
She scrambled back down the prickly tunnel – away from the darkness, away from where the nightmare had taken her. Brambles tore at her skin and thorns sank into her bare feet, but she
struggled on. The nightmare – the one that came for her every night with the drum and the rattle and the masked figures – was growing stronger. It had pulled her out of bed before now,
but Oak, the head of her camp, had always found her, always brought her home. Until tonight. A bramble snagged Moll’s long dark hair and yanked her backwards. She twisted free and blundered
‘It’s over,’ she panted into the night. ‘The nightmare’s not real . . .’
But the sound of the drum and the rattle was still pulsing inside her, roaring like an untamed animal. She burst out of the tunnel, gasping for air, her feet scored with cuts. The forest around
her was still, a tangle of moonlit trees. Barely drawing breath, Moll bounded over the creepers and darted between the ferns – back towards the safety of her camp.
And then a shiver crept down her spine as she remembered. She stopped suddenly. On any other night she would have been safe there. But tonight was different. How could she have fallen asleep?
Tonight was the night she had planned to break her promise to Oak and that meant ‘safe’ was the last thing she’d be.
She snatched a glance around her, beating back her fear. Somehow her nightmare had lured her from the camp without waking the watch and now she was exactly where she wanted to be – just
moments from the river boundary she’d promised Oak she would never cross.
Moll hugged her cotton nightdress to her. She wouldn’t be beaten by her nightmare, by something that wasn’t even real. She ducked beneath a yew tree and gave the trunk a sharp
‘I’m needing protection tonight, tree spirit, and a bit of that pig-headedness Oak says is bubbling away inside me. None of this falling asleep and wandering off into brambles or who
knows what. I’ve got a plan to carry out. You hear me?’
A breeze sifted through the ivy, brushing Moll’s skin like a whisper. Taking a deep breath, she turned and ran. Back towards the river.