A year after her husband's sudden death, ceramic artist Tilda Fordwells finally moves into the secluded Welsh cottage that was to be their new home. She hopes that the tranquil surroundings will help ease her grief, and lessen her disturbing visions of Mat's death. Instead, the lake in the valley below her cottage seems to spark something dormant in her – a sensitivity, and a power of some sort. Animals are drawn to her, electricity shorts out when she's near, and strangest of all, she sees a new vision; a boatful of ancient people approaching her across the water.
On this same lake in Celtic times lived Seren, a witch and shaman. She was respected but feared, kept separate from the community for her strange looks. When a vision came to her of the Prince amid a nest of vipers she warned of betrayal from one of his own. Prince Brynach both loved and revered her, but could not believe someone close to him wished him harm, even as the danger grew.
In her own time, Tilda's grief begins to fade beside her newfound powers and a fresh love. When she explores the lake's ancient magic and her own she discovers Seren, the woman in her vision of the boat. Their two lives strangely mirror each other's, suggesting a strong connection between the women. As Tilda comes under threat from a dark power, one reminiscent of Seren's prophecy, she must rely on Seren and ancient magic if death and disaster are not to shatter her life once more.
Paula Brackston does it once again with The Silver Witch, crafting an enchanting tale as timeless as it is engrossing.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The Silver Witch
By Paula Brackston
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Paula Brackston
All rights reserved.
All is darkness. Blessed night. Freed from light and troubled vision, my thoughts are fed instead by the howling of the wind outside. The sound forms pictures in my mind, where I see the trees moving in the raging air. Willow and hazel pull at their roots as they dance. Birch and ash bow to the mighty force from the skies. But the oak will not bend the knee. He stands stubborn and steady. Would sooner break than yield. My mind is like the willow; it flexes and springs. My heart is a knot of oak. Let them try to wound me. Let them try.
Feet find firm ground, thudding into dry mud. Nike on hard earth. Breathe in. Breathe out. In on second left footfall. Out on second right. Lengthen stride, a couple of inches, no more. Pace, rhythm, run, step, the poetry of movement, of exertion.
Tilda loves to run. Tilda needs to run. Her style is loose, fluid, easy, but with power and purpose. And with every step she lets her mind overlay the beat with plump, juicy images—images she will gather together for when she returns home, a crop harvested from the amber autumn landscape through which she now runs. All her best work has been created this way. Running charges her body and her mind. If she does not run, her thoughts become composted in her head, overheated and overcrowded, potentially fertile but unusable. Too much of a mass to be employed as separate artistic ideas. She turns off the woodland track and follows the slender path out of the trees and across the open fields.
Breathe, pace, breathe, pace. Heart strobing against ribs. Lungs efficient, trained, strong. Turf opening up, stretching out. The vista is uplifting. Lush, plush, velvet grass. Green is the color of life.
Her left foot hits a small stone and her mind is momentarily jolted out of its meditative state, her rhythm disrupted. Cold air stings the back of her throat. The day is cool but dry. The year is turning the corner away from summer, but the fertile rot of autumn has not yet taken hold of the landscape. The smell of fungi is just faintly detectable. The crunch of broken nutshells underfoot still only occasional. Another full moon will see shortening days and lengthening shadows.
Tilda's long legs stride over the meadow to the bordering hedge. She finds the narrow gap and squeezes through, her breath loud in her ears as she stoops to pass beneath the brambles. A squirrel dashes out and fluffs its way up the nearest trunk. Tilda picks a glossy blackberry and pops it in her mouth, then presses on, winding a now-familiar route between neglected hazel and blackthorn. At last she is in the open again, alongside the lake. A smile, as involuntary as a hiccup, curves her mouth. As on each occasion that she runs here she is reminded of how she is drawn to what she fears. Deep water is the nightmare of her childhood that she never grew out of. Nothing she can imagine would induce her to step off the path and break that silky surface. And yet she loves to run here, to be close, to be fascinated by the terror and the beauty of it. Laughing at her fear a little each time. Like the thrill of watching a horror movie. A reminder of what it means to be alive. And how close at hand death is. Any death. His death.
Mustn't think of it, not now. Mustn't falter. Quicker now. Up a gear. Legs and arms help each other. Calf muscles tightening, ignore that. Run, girl, run. Fleet. Fast. Foot sure. I see you, waiting water. I see you. One more mile. Turning for home.
Home. Though she forms the word in her head it is still hard to think of the cottage as anything other than the place where she lives. For, what is home? Surely more than a set of rooms, a roof, an address? Home suggests belonging. Suggests warmth, safety, companionship. Love. When Mat died, all those things died with him. So she returns to the cottage. It is the place where she lives now, has lived for a month, almost. It is the place where she must live. Where she will work. Where she will simply be. Home is too much to ask of it. For now.
She has not completely circled the lake today, but loops back, so that she passes St. Cynog's church and the Old School House a second time. The church is solid Norman, boxy and stout, built to withstand time and the damp air from the lake. Its graveyard is kempt and well-used, but even so there are some ancient tombstones which lean toward each other at angles that give away their age.
Like so many old men huddled in conversation after a few pints.
The Old School House is a building out of place. A nineteenth-century idea of rural perfection, with its mullioned windows, low eaves, and rustic charm. No longer a school, but the cozy home of an evidently proficient gardener. Tilda jogs on by, taking the footpath to the lane beyond. She crosses the narrow road that will be busy with visitors to the lake at weekends and leans into the steep slope to the cottage.
Ty Gwyn is a humble farmworker's cottage, positioned high on the hill and approached via a testing climb. It sits steady and serene, and ever-so-slightly smug, as if enjoying the view, and laughing just a little at the puffing people who struggle up to its blue front door. The whitewashed stone gleams in the autumn sunshine, sharp against the fading colors of the mountain pastures, while the slate roof is an exact match for the stone walls that mark the boundary of the garden. Breathing heavily, Tilda unlatches the wooden gate at the end of the bumpy track and secures it behind her against opportunist sheep. She reminds herself that one day she will enjoy tending the modest lawn and flower beds and recovering the neglected plants. One day. A path of uneven flagstones leads around the side of the little house to the back door, which she unlocks with the chunky key she keeps beneath a pot of thyme. The temperature inside is not noticeably warmer than out, but she is too warm from her run to mind. She raises the blinds to let the young day into the low-ceilinged room and places the filled kettle on the hot plate of the Rayburn stove. The aged beast heats so slowly it will take some time to boil. Already, in the few short weeks she has been here, she has formed habits. There is comfort to be had in the repetition of simple tasks. Reassurance to be found in ritual. Routine has a way of helping to make the new familiar, of filling the mind with purpose and, in doing so, leaving less room for unwelcome doubts and fears. She takes milk from the fridge and pours herself a glass to drink where she stands, leaning against the sink. She can feel her heart begin to steady after its exertion. The milk refreshes and chills her in equal measure. She glances at the kitchen clock and notices it has stopped.
Another dud battery. So much for value brands.
Tilda levers off her trainers and heads upstairs to the tiny bathroom. The shower is old and temperamental and coughs unpromisingly when she turns it on. She leaves the water spluttering and pulls off her beanie and running clothes before deftly undoing the heavy plait that has restrained her hair. Steam begins to mist the mirror, so that her reflection is even more ghostly than usual. She wipes the glass and peers at the pale young woman who peers back at her. Swirls of vapor blur the image.
I could fade away entirely. It wouldn't require effort. Just grow a little fainter every day.
She steps into the shower and lets the hot water cascade over her. Her white-blond hair becomes slick, darkening to pewter. Her skin flushes. Now she is the most colored, the most opaque she will ever be. She should have come with instructions: To render visible, add warm water. Her mother once told her that when she had first held her baby daughter in her arms she doubted anything so fragile, so thin skinned, so seemingly insubstantial, could survive. But Tilda had shown her. Had grown tall and strong. Had proved her wrong. As in so many things.
By the time she has dressed, dried her hair so that it hangs straight and loose, a crystal curtain down her back, the day is properly awake. She takes her mug of tea and steps out onto the small patio of mossy flagstones beyond the front door. As always, the view is like a deep breath of pure oxygen.
This is why we bought this place. This.
The flat piece of garden extends only a few paces to the low stone wall that separates it from the dizzying drop to the valley below. The landscape falls away abruptly, so that Tilda is gazing down upon a thick copse of trees—still more green than gold—and beyond to the sweep of small fields that lay around the lake. The water is glassy and still this morning, undisturbed by any breeze or activity, save for the movements of the families of waterfowl that have made the place their home. Beyond the lake, the Brecon Beacons rise up, an ancient shield of mountains against the wild weather and people of the west. When she and Mat had discovered the cottage, had stood on this very spot for the first time, he had taken her hand in his and they had ginned at each other in silence. They had both known, in that instant, that this was the place they would start their married life together, would live, would work.
Except that fate had other plans for them.
Three rooks are startled by some unseen danger and fly from their perch, flapping and squawking. The sound is sharp and discordant and provokes in Tilda a fierce reaction. She is taken back to the moment of Mat's death with such brutal speed and vivid colors that she is forced to relive those heartbreaking seconds again. She is no longer in the garden beneath the September sunshine, but back in the car, Mat's car, on their way home from their honeymoon, rain lashing the windshield, watery lights of the motorway traffic flashing past. It was she who had been driving, she who had felt the pull on the steering wheel as the tire rapidly deflated, she who had slowed and halted on the hard shoulder. Mat had got out, walked around to examine the tire. She can see him now, in the cruel memory of her mind's eye, stooping to look in through the window of the driver's-side door. The rain, pouring onto Mat and the glass, has washed his features into a blur. He opens his mouth. He is speaking, trying to tell her something, but there is too much noise. She cannot hear him. He points, forward, and toward the edge of the road. She wipes the inside of the window with her hand, frowning to make him out, to make out what he is saying. And then, in a heartbeat, he is gone. Vanished. She has never been able to recall so much as the color of the truck that swept him away. She was told, later, that it had been empty, returning to the continent after a long haul, its driver not negligent, but not as vigilant as the speed and conditions required.
Tilda shakes her head, rubs her eyes, gasps against the pain of the vision, the renewed shock of the realization, the dragging weight of grief, all assailing her for the hundredth time.
Again. Again. And for how long? More than a year now and still every time as clear and as violent as the first. Will it never ease? Will it always be so unbearable?
She keeps her eyes closed for a moment longer. When she opens them the brightness of the sun makes her flinch. She tips the last of her tea into a pot of geraniums, turns on her heel, and heads back into the cottage. Once inside again she is reminded by the boxes in the narrow hallway, and in the sitting room, and indeed all over the house, that there is still unpacking to be done. She cannot imagine what she can own that fills so many boxes. She has not yet missed any of it, though soon she will be forced to search out a winter coat and some warmer bedding. The cottage is plenty big enough for her needs, but its rooms are small and cannot be used comfortably while the packing cases remain. Tilda knows it is a job she will not enjoy, but she will feel better for having done it.
Like a visit to the dentist, or filing your tax returns.
She can hear her father gently nagging her on both counts. Soon her parents will insist on visiting. To see she is all right. To make sure she has settled in. She must make sure every last book is unpacked by then, if her mother is not to shake her head and purse her lips.
Soon, but not quite yet. Today I begin work. Proper work.
The little barn attached to the cottage had been used as a garage for years before she and Mat became its owners. It had been a fairly simple matter to change the door—fitting in glass sliding ones to allow plenty of natural light—sweep it out and move in shelving, bins for clay and glazes, a Belfast sink, extra lighting, a small wood-burning stove and, of course, the kiln. Tilda regards the iron oven warily, wondering how long it will be before she is ready for a firing. In their old studio, before they had ever thought of moving out to Wales, so many times she and Mat had waited on tenterhooks for the thing to cool sufficiently to be safely opened, and to reveal the success—or otherwise—of the firing. At two thousand degrees Fahrenheit, the heat inside a potter's kiln would reduce a human hand to charred bones in a matter of seconds. Such terrifying temperatures are necessary to create the required chemical reactions within the glazes so that they are transformed from dull dust to colors of shimmering brilliance and mesmerizing intensity. Tilda is ceaselessly amazed by what transformations can occur amid that heat. The process of firing clay within such a domesticated dragon is a timeless and mysterious alchemy. Raw earth is slabbed from the ground, then worked and pounded, then teased and caressed, before being persuaded into forms to suit the craftsman's wishes. The piece is subjected to a biscuit firing, rendering it, as the name suggests, dry, brittle and ready to receive its glaze. These magical powders mixed with water in a thousand variations—a pipkin more antimony oxide, a pinch less chrome, or a spoonful of cobalt to a measure of manganese—cling somberly to their given bodies, awaiting the crucial application of fire to bring about their chrysalis-to-butterfly moment. Every opening of the kiln door is an instant pregnant with expectation and hope, an occasion that will reveal the results of weeks of work and thought and art. It is a moment of exquisite agony every bit as intense as the heat inside the crucible itself.
Well, Mat, at least you are spared any more disastrous firings. I'll just have to face those on my own, won't I?
A part of Tilda believes it might, in fact, be easier. Easier not having to suffer Mat's disappointment as well as her own. She can recall all too well the occasions where they had both despaired of the wasted months of work when a glaze had failed to behave as it should, or a volatile piece exploded and wrecked the entire firing.
And now she needs to begin again. To find the pace and rhythm of her work, as sure-footedly as the pace and rhythm of her running. She rolls up her sleeves and takes a lump of earthenware clay from the green plastic bin beneath the sink. She drops the smooth, heavy clod onto the scrubbed wood of the bench and begins to knead it, letting the repetitive action of wedging the muddy substance steady her mind. Lifting and slamming the clay down with increasing force, she can feel the texture begin to change beneath her palms, the material begin to yield. Lift and slam. Lift and slam. Pummel, turn, scoop, lift and slam. Dull thuds of weight and effort growing louder with every focused, determined movement.CHAPTER 2
The dawn light is soft on Tilda's eyes as she follows the path around the top of the lake. Still she wears her protective tinted lenses, as she always does. This morning a mist rises slowly from the surface of the water, deadening sounds and blurring the edges of the trees as she runs past them. In the gloom she can just make out the fuzzy silhouette of the ramshackle disused boathouse at the top of the lake. Everything appears smudged and indistinct. Tiny droplets of water settle upon her black beanie and her long, pale plait that swings as she runs. She glances at her watch, wanting to check her pace on the specialized timer. To her annoyance she finds it has stopped working. She halts, her heavy breath chasing away the mist as she exhales. The watch had been a present from Mat. A serious runner's watch for a serious runner. Tilda taps it, frowning, but the hands stay stubbornly still, the tiny dials refuse to move.
Excerpted from The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston. Copyright © 2015 Paula Brackston. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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