It begins in the fog, with a bleak village funeral. In the early hours of the following morning, Merrily Watkins and her daughter Jane are made aware that Aidan Lloyd, son of a wealthy farmer, will not be resting in peace. A rural tradition is displaying its sinister side as an old feud re-ignites. It's already a fraught time for Merrily, her future threatened by a bishop committed to restricting her role as deliverance consultant, or diocesan exorcist. Suddenly there are events she can't talk about as she and Jane find themselves potentially on the wrong side of the law. Meanwhile, DI Frannie Bliss, investigating a shooting, must confront the growth organized crime which is contaminating the countryside. On the Welsh border, the old ways are at war with the modern world. As the days shorten and the fog gives way to ice and snow, Merrily Watkins is drawn into a conflict centered on one of Britain's most famous medieval churches, its walls laden with ancient symbolism.
About the Author
Phil Rickman is the author of the Merrily Watkins series and the John Dee series. The second Merrily Watkins book Midwinter of the Spirit was made into a three-part TV drama, which Wall Street Journal called "impressively chilling."
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The dead of Ledwardine
There were questions you learned never to ask Jane. One of them was, Won't it wait till morning?
Awakened by the scrape of the bedroom door, Merrily sat up in bed, dizzied by the cold. The bedroom window was opaque. There had been several weeks of fog, November slipping out undercover, miserable, warmish and clammy.
A fan of weak light making an energy-efficient halo around the kid's head.
Kid. When you woke up and Jane was in the doorway, she was always a little girl again, the blue woolly dog called Ron under an arm and something in the darkness shaking her six-year-old sanity.
Mummy, you won't die, will you?
Well ... not till I'm very old.
From all those years ago, Merrily remembered superstitiously touching the bed's wooden frame as little Jane came back for the specifics.
How old will you be when you die?
Next day, she'd said happily to Sean, Mummy's going to die when she's a hundred and six. And Sean had laughed. Sean who would die a few years later in the wreckage of his car on the motorway, aged thirty-three – same age as Jesus, although that was where the comparisons ended.
'OK, look ...' Jane wavered in the doorway. 'I know you're out early in the morning and everything but if I don't tell you and then it turns out something bad's happened ...'
Aged nineteen now. A woman. Dear God, how did that happen? Merrily pulled the duvet around her shoulders. There were still times when Jane wouldn't get a proper night's sleep if she didn't take a piece out of yours.
'It's the churchyard. Somebody's in there?'
Not exactly unusual to find people in the churchyard at night, even in winter. And on a Friday night – men walking home from the pub caught short. Just occasionally, some recently bereaved person who couldn't sleep, too British to weep publicly in daylight or be seen talking to the dead, in which case ...
She scrabbled for the bedside lamp.
'Mum, no, don't put another light on, they
'I heard it, but I couldn't see much from my window, so I went down to the East Wing?'
Their name for the furthest bedroom, the only one that overlooked a corner of the churchyard. Unused for years; one of them would venture up there every couple of months to bring down the cobwebs.
'There seems to be a lamp. On the ground or a grave. Not moving anyway, except the light goes in and out, like someone's walking across it, but that might've been the fog. Managed to get the window open, and there was this kind of slapping. Like boots in mud. Suggesting a few of them.'
'What? Grave robbers?'
'I was thinking more like a bunch of kids holding a seance or something?'
Merrily sighed. It was not unknown. Also vandalism, gravestones pushed over in a show of drunken strength.
'What's the time?'
'Not sure. Gone midnight. Like I say it could be nothing. Just thought you should know.'
Merrily was feeling for the old grey fleece she'd been wearing instead of a dressing gown, her eyes refocusing. She'd thought Jane was in her bathrobe, but now she saw it was the parka.
'Have you been out?'
'Well ... don't.'
Merrily swinging her feet to her slippers on the rag rug, padding over to the wardrobe, reaching inside for her jeans as Jane came hesitantly to the point.
'I think it's near Aidan Lloyd's grave?'
'Oh.' Today's funeral – or maybe yesterday's by now. 'How near?'
And she'd know. For Jane, it was a grave too far. Aidan Lloyd, killed in a road accident, was their nearest neighbour now, not far over the wall separating the apple trees in the vicarage garden from the apple trees in the churchyard. When they'd first moved here, there'd been more trees and bushes, even an area of mown grass, then new stones had come shouldering in. The dead of Ledwardine were crowding them. Jane didn't like that.
Merrily followed her down the passage, zipping up the night fleece, stuffing her vape stick into a torn pocket.
They left the passage light on and the door open to see their way into the East Wing with its bare boards and an old bed frame upended against a wall. Merrily pushed the window hard and it flew open with a bang into the cold, curdled night.
'Sorry,' Jane said. 'Should've told you I'd only wedged it. Can you ...?'
'I'm not sure.'
Merrily put her head out of the window and the night wrapped itself coarsely, like a soaking lace curtain, around her face. Below her, the trees in the vicarage garden were wrestling in the fog with the churchyard trees over the wall.
And then, through the tangle, she did see it: a gaseous wisp swiftly smothered and then returning, as if from a distant lighthouse.
'OK,' she said. 'Yes.'
And yes, it probably was on or near the newest grave, just a patch of raised turfs awaiting a stone. She withdrew from the night, shut the window.
'What are you going to do?' Jane said.
'Guess I'd better check it out. If I'm not back —'
'Oh come on! Like I'm letting you go on your own?' Jane against the feeble light, hands on hips, defiant.
'Yeah, all right, but we go quietly until we know what it is.'
'And then maybe even quieter.'
Too dark to see Jane's grin, but she heard it.
For days now, even weeks, Jane had been moody, not her normal self. Perhaps a gap year between school and further education wasn't always a good idea. Without some absorbing work-experience, it could be very flat.
Jane had never liked flat.
Down in the hall, Merrily stepped into her boots, unhooked her waxed jacket and pulled down a scarf.
She was thinking that going out there might not actually be wise. At one time you were expected to police your churchyard, but times had changed quite quickly; not so long since a vicar had been stabbed to death outside his own church. OK, not around here, but a warning had been sounded.
And fog complicated everything. Fog itself was aggressive.
Merrily unbolted the front door but didn't turn the key. Taking in nicotine, the e-cig glowing green, she exchanged glances with Jesus, still compassionately dangling his lantern in the framed print of Holman-Hunt's Light of the World, then turned to Jane.
'Don't suppose if we were to put a ladder up against the wall at the bottom of the garden ...?'
'Too many trees.' Jane was locating the zipper on her parka. She looked up. 'Not that there will be soon if the graveyard goes on expanding. Couple of years' time we'll be burying people in our flower beds. Turning the shed into a mausoleum.'
'Unlikely. The diocese wouldn't devalue this place. When they get rid of me, they'll switch the vicarage to a little semi and flog this off to a nice big family from London. Anyway, you'll be at university soon.'
And might never come back here to live. Who knew? Merrily opened the front door, felt the air. Not at cold as the East Wing, but cold enough.
'I really didn't think that corner was part of the graveyard,' Jane said. 'How long have they had it?'
'Since before my time.'
'So it was just waiting there, getting mowed and weeded by Gomer, just waiting for somebody to die.'
'They're an odd family, flower. Wasn't what you could call a good funeral.'
Aidan Lloyd's service had been short and muted, not well attended for a farming family. The central aisle had separated the father from the mother and her husband. No conspicuous grief on either side, only a sense of impenetrable negativity which somehow seemed to go deeper than death.
'Got your phone?'
'So we can call 101 if necessary?' Jane patting a pocket of her parka. 'Then the cops take five minutes to answer and another five to put us through to Hereford? Where someone suggests we call back in the morning.'
'And it's switched on?'
Jane jerking up her zip.
Merrily pulled on her gloves.
It was long after midnight when they agreed it was finished – the last track on Toxica, the Belladonna album that Lol was producing for Prof Levin's Thin River label. A complicated final mix, and they cracked it. But the whoopees were premature because Prof then got around to telling Lol the good news and bad news.
Although mostly bad, he said, and even the good wasn't all that good.
The sliding doors to the studio were shut, sealing them both in with a smell of coffee strong enough to burn your brain. Sunken bulbs in the false ceiling lit the beacon of Prof's domed skull. He set down a chipped earthenware mug in front of Lol, began to empty coffee into it. Lol held up his hands: no more.
Prof looked at him over his grandad glasses and kept on pouring, coffee splashes scalding Lol's fingers. He sat down, hands squeezed around his hot mug. Prof was a recovering alcoholic, caffeine his methadone.
'So I talked to the agency. It might go out for another month. But not, as I'd been led to think, abroad. Too British, Laurence. Too bleedin' British. Of course, they might decide to play it over something shot in rural Connecticut or somewhere, but ...'
It always had sounded unlikely. One of those long, narrative commercials, promoting later-life mortgages. A micro-movie, and its soundtrack was Lol's song 'Camera Lies', with all its bucolic whimsy.
Remember this one, the day is dwindling Down in Powell's wood, collecting kindling.
With peak-hour screening, Prof had said airily, the music on the ad would probably be making Lol a thousand a day for a while, paying off his mortgage before next summer. But that had been some weeks ago, before transmission. Perhaps, in the meantime, someone had played the song all the way to
Camera lies She might vaporize In cold air.
Lol shut his eyes on the myriad LED lights sprinkled around the room like a meteor shower. Not like he hadn't always been dubious about this bittersweet ditty persuading mature couples to take out new mortgages.
'So what you're saying, Prof, is that the expected big earner has, um, vaporized in the commercial cold air of the —'
'It'll still make some money, Laurence. Still well worth having. Just no longer life-changing.'
'And the good news?'
'The good news, from what you tell me, is that you don't want your life to change. The dream cottage in the dream village with the dream woman, and I believe even the daughter isn't the nightmare she once was.'
'Now you no longer have to agonize about swimming pools.'
Prof drank some scalding coffee, clearly glad he'd got that over.
'Thank you,' Lol said bleakly.
Thin River's farmhouse home in the Frome Valley was most of an hour's drive from Ledwardine, longer at night, and in darkness and fog ... forget it. Thinking he could get back before dawn, Lol had edged down through the powdery air to what had seemed like the side of the lane, before realizing he was standing in the middle of it.
He walked back up the track. At least, in the fog, it was impossible to see the outline of the converted hop kiln where Merrily had gone to perform what had turned out to be an unhappy exorcism. According to Prof, the local people had wanted to demolish the kiln, like the council had with Fred West's house in Cromwell Street, Gloucester. But it was a listed building. A holiday let now.
Apart from the kiln, the Frome Valley was all good memories for Lol, especially Prof's granary, where he'd be spending the remaining hours of darkness, in the bed where he'd slept with Merrily on a hot and thundery summer's night. The first time, neither of them expecting it to happen. An intoxicating scent of cut hay in fields now suffocated by fog. Only days before, he'd written 'The Cure of Souls', a sour song about a man's perceived inability to win the love of a woman priest, his rival the ineffable Big Guy.
Tomorrow he'd have to tell her about the Camera Lies disaster, only weeks after proudly screening it in her bed on his laptop, those misty images of a not-quite-young couple strolling through an autumn wood and a village square with a church.
Here's a moment on the chancel stair The candles warm your face and light your hair Is this the edge of sacrilege?
He might've let the tears come if the fog hadn't parted to reveal Prof waiting for him outside the studio door. He was wearing his ancient navy-surplus duffel coat, the outside bulkhead lamp making his domed head glow like an old gas mantle.
'I've lit the paraffin stove for you, in the granary. The sheets felt a little damp to the touch so give them half an hour.''
They walked across the yard towards the squat tower with the bleary light in a high window.
'This is still a base, Laurence. It's selling albums, selling downloads. Not the way it might've done fifteen, twenty years ago, but it's still a new foundation. To build on. And ... I don't have another album for you to produce right now, but I can get you support gigs, in the spring.'
'Not the Mumfords.'
'Not the Mumfords. And don't knock support. So the sellout audience doesn't know you, it matters not. You give them 'Camera Lies', and it all comes back to them. All those images, the expensive post-production ...'
'From a TV commercial that's no longer running?'
'... the crackling leaves, the frost, the candlelight on the chancel stairs. Beautiful. Haunting. The only thing they'll have forgotten is that it was advertising a fucking bank, and where's the problem with that?'
'I can't do support in the spring,' Lol said. 'That's the problem.'
The stove put blue and pink flushes into the granary's interior walls of whitewashed rubble stone. It was a good stove, once you got used to the smell.
'What are you telling me?' Prof demanded. 'Early retirement, is that it? Vanishing into your own bucolic commercial?' On his feet now, finger pointing. 'Don't you dare give me that. You spend most of the summer doing chickenshit pubs and village halls with your friend, the farmer with the amplifier stacks in his barn, and you return, telling me you've finally overcome your agoraphobia —'
'It was never agoraphobia,' Lol said wearily. 'It isn't the same as not wanting to leave somewhere you've been happier than you thought possible, but you still —' 'A muddy bleeding field? It's not Glastonbury. It's going to be one of a hundred pissy little local festivals that might pull a few hundred punters if it doesn't rain. It'll do nothing for you. Take it from an old sound-engineer who still remembers ambition.'
'It's all they've ever asked from me.'
'The village,' Lol said. 'Well, Barry, at the Black Swan. His idea. He handles the commercial side, the catering. Me, I persuade good people to play for not a lot of money. So far, it's Moira Cairns, maybe Sproatly Smith and some others we're not ready to talk about.'
He stood at the bigger window, by day overlooking the Frome Valley where they grew hops for beer. An hour from Ledwardine which traditionally had produced apples for cider – the Village in the Orchard, home of the muddy field.
'And the vicar – still a street between you?'
'Close neighbours,' Lol said.
At night, he could look from his cottage windows across the street to the lights of the vicarage. Some nights, while Jane was away on her gap-year archaeological dig and he had a day off from touring, they would both look across from his bedroom, at no lights.
'She still doing that stuff like at Stock's kiln?' Prof said.
'With no encouragement at all from the new Bishop of Hereford.'
'They have a new one?'
'Craig Innes. Modernizer. Doesn't like spooky.'
'Pfft!' Prof said. 'Religion. All of it's spooky. Nature of the beast. Don't even ask me about Judaism.'
No way round this. Lol told Prof about Innes's links to a senior faction inside the C of E committed to wiping out what they considered to be medieval practices in the Church. All in the cause of survival in an increasingly secular age. A tougher job in Herefordshire, where the old ways died hard, but he was a determined bastard.
'If he drops her from deliverance – and he will, soon as he can justify it – she can hardly stay in the diocese. That's how she sees it anyway, and she might be right.'
Prof sat down on the side of the bed.
'If she goes ... you would have to follow, yes?'
'I try to think it could be the best thing for both of us.'
Prof's chuckle was arid.
'Farewell to the place that gave you sanctuary when you were a lost boy? The place where you didn't realize you could ever be so happy? Oh yes, I can see the logic in that.'
Lol said nothing. He rubbed at the condensation on the glass. Nothing to see, and no sounds apart from the fizzing of the stove and a slow dripping from the eaves.
'So, essentially, Laurence, things are coming to a head, and you don't want to come back from some distant gig to find cases packed.' Prof's eyes were sad in the mauve light. 'Ah, the irony of it. A boy once disowned by his fundamentalist Christian parents for embracing the devil's music —'
'Prof, please, let's not —'
'— emerging from the darkest period in his life – this is pertinent – with an entirely understandable antipathy to organized religion, only to fall in love with a vicar? Don't tell me there isn't a part of you that secretly hopes this business with the Bishop will drive her out of the damn Church once and for all.'
Excerpted from "All of a Winter's Night"
Copyright © 2017 Phil Rickman.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
All of a Winter's Night,
1 The dead of Ledwardine,
2 Cold air,
4 No visible light,
5 No justice,
6 Many of us,
7 Cut sideways,
8 Zapping the cat,
9 No mates,
12 Having a laugh,
13 Best year,
15 Space to settle,
16 Turn her head away,
17 A dot on the map,
18 Lucky day,
19 Wild West,
20 Grave goods,
21 Latchkey kid,
23 Inhale the darkness,
24 Big farming,
25 Looking at dead police,
26 Nothing set in stone,
27 Being friendly,
28 Severe stomach wound,
29 Safe ground,
31 An oven,
32 First brick,
33 Nice suit,
35 Catching murderers,
36 Man of Leaves,
38 Each of our dyings,
39 Tent over the sundial,
40 This side of the Second Coming,
41 In memory of me,
43 Favours past,
45 Talking to the help,
47 Go figure,
48 A line,
49 Made up,
51 Anybody but God,
52 Turning over the death card,
54 Small favours,
56 Intentional suffering,
57 The fool,
58 The man he was,
59 Hereford's finest,
60 Things that move,
62 Fairy tales,
64 The best is yet to come,
65 Evening work,
66 Complicating the ministry,
68 Foliate face,
69 What we are,
70 Out of it,
Credits and background,