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Authors: Gill Arbuthnott

Winterbringers

BOOK: Winterbringers
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For James, Calla and les girls
– you know why

My name is Agnes Blair. I am sixteen years old and I am afraid. They came for Beatrix and Janet last night and if they do not confess, they will be put to the question. No one stays silent under questioning. They will give me up.

We meant no harm to anyone. We DID no harm to anyone. We did what we did, meaning to help. We wanted to help all the village. If the Minister would just listen to the truth he would see, but he and the others will only listen to what they expect to hear. They will be deaf to the truth.

I am going to write down the truth and hide the papers if they come for me. When they come for me. That way, someone will find out the truth in a week, or a year, or a hundred years.

After they have killed us.

Josh dipped a toe in the water. It was warmer than he had expected. He backed up a couple of steps and took a running jump into the pool, tucking his knees up under his chin so that he hit the water like a cannonball.

The blue underwater silence engulfed and held him for a few seconds, then his head broke the surface and he shook wet hair out of his eyes.

“It’s good,” he called “Are you coming in?”

“Not like that.” His mother took off her white towelling robe and climbed down the ladder into the water. “I hate this bit,” she said, slowing down as the water rose up her swimsuit. “It’s fine once you’re in, but getting there …” She pushed off and swam across the little pool to Josh.

“That’s better.”

They stood side by side in the chest-high water, looking out at the field just beyond the path outside, their heads level with the ground.

Cold rain was sheeting in, more horizontal than vertical, hitting the glass in the big windows and streaming down them.

“I’m glad I’m in here and not out there,” said Josh.

“Mmnnn …”

“It’s not going to be like this all week, is it?”

She sighed. “I hope not. I don’t want you under my feet all the time. The idea was that you and Charlie would be out most of the time enjoying the summer weather together while I worked. I’ve got to meet that deadline somehow.”

That had been the idea, until Josh’s best friend Charlie had come off his skateboard and broken his ankle the day before he was supposed to come on this holiday with them. It had sounded much more fun then, but now Josh was wondering what he was going to do for a week stuck in the middle of nowhere.

They watched the rain again in silence for a moment before Josh let himself slide under the water and began to swim.

***

They’d arrived at the cottage, part of a small holiday complex, the night before, also in driving rain. They were staying for a week, while his mother, Anna, tried to complete the first draft of a book she was writing on Chartres Cathedral. Most of their luggage seemed to consist of heavy books and files of dog-eared papers which were to emerge by the end of the month, miraculously transformed into neat, coherent print.

They’d come here in particular for two reasons: nostalgia on his mother’s part – she had spent her student years at St Andrew’s University, just a few miles from the village of Pitmillie where they were staying – and the area’s record for weather; much better than elsewhere in Britain over the run of cold and dreary summers that had been the pattern over past ten years or so, (something that scientists bafflingly attributed to global warming). In the last twenty four hours at least, it had failed to live up to its reputation.

At least there was plenty to do at East Neuk cottages even if it did rain.

After half an hour or so she got out of the pool, leaving him floating on his back, staring up at the ribbed wooden
ceiling. After a bit he surface dived and swam a few lengths under water. Even the pool would be more fun with someone else around. He got out and put on the towelling robe to dash back to the cottage through the rain, though why he was bothered about getting wet when he’d just climbed out of a swimming pool was a mystery even to him. When he opened the door however, the rain had gone off and a watery looking sun was trying to force its way through the thinning clouds.

He found Anna hard at work on a pile of papers, her hair sticking in all directions in damp blonde spikes.

“When’s lunch?” he asked as he went to get dressed.

She glanced at her watch. “In about an hour. Why don’t you go for a walk while the sun’s nearly out.”

He opened his mouth to say he didn’t think he’d bother, but before he could, she went on. “You could walk into the village. There are a couple of things we could do with from the shop.” She produced a list she’d already written and gave it to him. He looked at her with narrowed eyes.

“You hate black coffee, so it’s as much for your sake as mine. Go on, it won’t take you long,” she said firmly. “You never know, you might even find you enjoy walking.”

“Yeah, right,” he said with a scowl, but he didn’t really mind: sometimes it was a nice change to have something you had to do.

***

If he could have gone straight over the fields it would only have taken him five minutes, but the way the drive and the roads went he had to walk three sides of a square, so it took fifteen.

At least it wasn’t raining. In fact, the sun had gained enough strength for him to take his jacket off and tie it round
his waist by the time he’d gone halfway.

It was amazingly noisy. He had expected the countryside to be quiet, but this bit certainly wasn’t. Birds were making a racket, cows were mooing, and a tractor taking a clattering path up the road past him was almost deafening him. There was a dog barking close by as well.

That was the sound he concentrated on. He didn’t like dogs. Never trusted them, even the little-old-lady dogs that looked like mop heads and seemed to eat nothing but chocolate drops. He reckoned that, secretly, they all had a taste for human flesh, and they’d bite if they had the chance.

He didn’t know why he didn’t like dogs. (He wouldn’t have used the word scared, since he liked to think he’d made a choice about it.) He’d never actually been bitten by one, though his grandad had had a Collie cross that sublimated its sheepdog urges by herding him round the garden with yips and growls, snapping at his heels.

As he walked on, reaching the first houses in the village, he realized that the barking was coming from behind a high wall, in someone’s garden, and relaxed a bit.

His mother proved to have been a bit optimistic about what sort of food the village shop would sell, but he did his best. At least he got milk, and mousetrap cheddar and plastic ham for sandwiches. Anyway, it meant they’d have to go into St Andrews to shop this afternoon, which would break up the day a bit.

As he headed back towards the cottages, he wondered if perhaps he
could
cut through the fields. There were tall plants growing in rows. If he walked along between the rows surely he wouldn’t be doing any harm?

He looked up and down the road. There was no one in sight. He stepped into the field and started along the nearest row. He’d only gone about twenty metres when there was an
eruption of barking and the biggest dog he’d ever seen shot out of the vegetation in front of him.

He froze, terrified. Even if he’d wanted to run he couldn’t have. Every muscle in his body seemed to have seized up.

The dog stood its ground, barking furiously, tail waving, for what seemed an age, but could only have been about thirty seconds, before a door banged nearby and a girl’s voice shouted.

“Luath! Stop that noise! Come here you stupid dog.”

The dog bounded off towards a girl who had appeared in a doorway in the wall next to the field.

She and Jake stared at each other as the dog lunged for her, rearing up to put its huge front paws on her shoulders. To Josh’s amazement she pushed it away carelessly. “Oh get down Luath, you idiot. Be quiet! Get into the garden.”

The dog slunk through the doorway, head down, whining. She pulled the door shut behind it and continued to stare at Josh.

“What are you doing?” she yelled.

Why had he ever thought this was a good idea? Scared half to death by some hell-hound and now being bawled at by some stroppy girl.

“I was taking a short cut to the cottages.” He jerked his head to indicate where he meant.

She walked to the edge of the field. “You’ll be in trouble if the farmer catches you in his potatoes.”

So that was what they were.

“I’m not doing any harm.” He began to make his way back towards the road.

“Doesn’t matter. You can’t go through a field.” She walked along the edge to meet him as he emerged. “You ought to know that. You’re lucky it was Luath who caught you.”

“How come it’s all right for him to be in there but not
me?” he said angrily.

“He’s a dog. He’s not meant to know to stay out; you are.”

She was a bit smaller than him, sharp-faced, with dark brown hair in an untidy braid. She wore a striped sweater gone to holes at the elbows and cuffs, and a filthy pair of jeans tucked into wellingtons. He didn’t think he’d seen anyone in wellingtons since he was about eight.

“You should keep your dog under control,” he said abruptly, trying to hide his fear under bluster.

She saw through it at once. “He wouldn’t have hurt you. He wanted to play.” She gave him a narrow look. “You’re not used to dogs either, are you?”

He said nothing. How much more of idiot was he going to be made to feel?

She bent down to pick something up – a piece of paper which she read with interest. He realized it was his shopping list.

“Were you hoping to get all this at the village shop?”

He wanted to say it was none of her business, but he had a feeling she’d laugh at him if he did, so he just said, “Yeah.”

“I bet you only got the milk and cheese and tomatoes.”

He smiled in spite of himself. “No tomatoes, but there was ham.”

“Come on. We can give you some of this. We’ve far too much.”

He started to say no, thank you, but she’d turned on her heel and started towards the door in the wall. Bewildered, he followed her.

She shoved the door hard and it opened with a creak of protest. The barking started up again and Josh hung back.

“Luath! Shut up! On your bed, go on.” She poked her head around the door. “It’s okay. He’s in the house now. He won’t come out. George has shut the door.”

His face must have looked as blank as his mind felt.

“George is my grandfather. He and my grandmother Rose own this place.” She gestured round the garden, which he saw for the first time as he stepped through the door.

Although his and Anna’s flat at home didn’t have a garden, some of his friends did, but nothing like this. Mostly they had green-brown patches of grass, and borders with flowers or shrubs, while a few had decks or patios. His friend Calum had a little pond where the two of them used to catch the same tadpoles over and over in the spring. There hadn’t been any tadpoles for a few years now, though.

This was nothing like any of those. Little winding paths of bark led between trees with leaves like outstretched hands, or hearts, or feathers. Flowers bloomed in beds among the trees and the air was heavy with scent. It felt warmer than it did outside the wall.

The girl led him along the paths and past a pond the size of a double bed, covered in white water lilies, towards a greenhouse where a man was working, carefully removing damaged leaves from some tiny plant with hairy silver-green leaves.

“George,” she said, pushing the door open, “this is …” She stopped. “What
is
your name?”

“Josh.”

“This is Josh. Luath just tried to eat him on his way back from the shop.”

Oh no. She was going to tell her grandfather about him being in the field.

“Can we give him some …” She looked at the list. “… tomatoes, a cucumber, red pepper, garlic and parsley?”

“Certainly.” He straightened from his work and looked round at Josh, and held out a hand to shake. “Pleased to meet you Josh. I see my rude granddaughter isn’t going to
introduce us properly. I’m George Ferguson.”

“And I’m Callie – Callie Hall,” said the girl, looking a bit shame-faced.

George sighed. “I sometimes think the dog’s better brought up than you, Caroline. Let’s go and get these things for Josh.”

He dusted compost off his hands and led the way out of the greenhouse and in through the back door of the house. Callie followed, Josh bringing up the rear a bit nervously, in case Luath was about to spring from ambush. He followed them through a workshop that smelled of cut wood and through another door into a cool, dim larder. George and Callie bustled about putting things into a bag, while he stood there feeling like a lemon.

“There you go.” Callie handed him a carrier bag. “Sorry about the dog.” It was the first uncomplicated thing she’d said to him, he thought.

“Thanks,” he said awkwardly. “It was my fault anyway. I shouldn’t have been in the field.” Callie smiled and put a finger to her lips. George, busy in the far corner, appeared not to have heard. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing. We’ve got far too much anyway.”

“Why’s that?”

“It always happens when you grow stuff.”

“You grew all these yourself?”

“Yes.” She was laughing at him again. “You make it sound like magic or something.”

“Anyway, thanks very much. I’d better go – I’m late.”

Callie saw him to the garden door and waved goodbye as he set off, up the road this time.

***

I have lived all my life in Pitmillie village, have never been more than ten miles from it except when Beatrix and Janet and I stepped down into the little boat and went …

But I should tell this in order.

Beatrix Lang and Janet Corphat and I were always friends even though they were five years older than me. We saw the world alike you see, and not as others see it.

I knew what I was when I was twelve. For months I spoke to no one of it, not even Beatrix and Janet, afraid of what they might do. But Beatrix and Janet already knew, of course, for they had made the same discovery about themselves and had already seen it in me.

“You’re afraid, Agnes,” said Beatrix. “But you don’t need to be; not with us, for we’re all alike. We’ve been waiting for you to realize.”

“You’re a witch, like us,” Janet said, smiling. “You’d have worked it out sooner if you weren’t the first one in your family.”

So, of course, we grew even closer after that, and careful too, to do nothing that would make others suspicious. And we never hurt anyone.

We never whistled up a storm when we were by the shore. Any Fife fisher child would have known what we were about anyway. Instead, we did what we could to cure cattle and sheep and help the crops, without drawing any notice to ourselves.

It was Beatrix that had the idea.

BOOK: Winterbringers
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