Paula Brackston: Silver Witch (Blog Tour)

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Parmenion books brings you an extract………

TILDA

Tilda feeds another log into the Rayburn in the kitchen and

is yet again thankful for a solid fuel stove. Having spent a

candlelit night at the cottage, she was surprised to find she did

not miss the tele vision, the radio, or even her music, but was

content to read until the daylight and candle were insufficient

for the print of her chosen novel.The memory of Mat attempting

to convert her to an e-reader prompted a wry smile.Why

not go to bed when the sun did? She was an early riser anyway,

preferring to run with the dawn.

Early to bed, early to rise. Who needs watches to tell us when to

do something, or lights to stop us going to sleep?

In addition, the quiet and gloom seemed to help her sleep,

so that, for once, she has slumbered long past daybreak and done

without her morning run. Since knowing the insomnia that

so often keeps grief company, she cannot remember waking

feeling so rested and refreshed. She knows, though, that an

electricity-free house would quickly lose its charm were she not

able to make a morning cup of tea. The kettle begins to sing

softly. Tilda finds the low light of the kitchen strangely soothing,

and realizes she has forgotten to put in her contact lenses.

The less light there is, the less need she has of them, after all.

But they have long been a part of her daily disguise, her defence

against prejudice and fear. Her colourless hair and her pale skin

don’t cause too much interest. Eyes that have only the tiniest

hint of blue pigment, however, so that they appear pink, unnerve

people. They are what make people stare, and look away, then

look again. Tilda is accustomed to a range of reactions to her

albinism. Perhaps alone on the hill she will have to deal with

them less. She leans against the stove and regards the shaggy

shape of Thistle, who remains curled upon the inadequate

cushion, watching her new mistress’s every move.

‘You don’t look ready for a run yet,’ she says to the dog. ‘Still

sore?’ She wonders briefly if she should have taken the animal

to see a vet, but quickly dismisses the idea.The nearest veterinary

practice would be in Brecon, ten miles away. How would

she get her there without a car? She crouches down beside

Thistle and ruffles her fur gently.

‘Not exactly on a bus route here, are we girl? You’ll be okay.

How about some sardines, eh? Would you like that?’ Tilda

gropes in the cupboard for the right shaped can, opens it, and

kneels on the floor to empty the contents into what has

become Thistle’s bowl.The dog gets stiffly to its feet and comes

wagging over.‘There you go. Better than dog food any day,’ she

says, reasoning the animal must be on the mend if it has a good

appetite. At that moment Thistle stops eating, lifts her face from

the bowl, and stares hard into the half-light of the hallway.The

whole dog tenses. The fur on the back of its neck stands up.

Tilda is aware of her own heartbeat racing. Thistle does not

move or bark, but begins to emit a low, menacing growl. It is

such a raw, basic sound that it transforms the dog from domesticated

pet to potential killer in an instant. Tilda listens and

squints into the gloom of the hallway, but she can neither hear

nor see anything.

‘What is it, girl? What’s wrong?’ she asks, her voice a whisper.

The loud knocking on the front door is so unexpected that

Tilda lets out a small scream. Feeling foolish, she walks briskly

down the hall. ‘Just a minute,’ she calls out as she wrestles with

the aged key and the bolts, which have become sticky through

lack of use. When at last she gets the door open, she finds a

wiry-looking man in a cycling helmet standing on the doorstep.

On seeing Tilda, surprise registers minutely on his face.

She is accustomed to watching the reaction of strangers to her

appearance. Used to seeing herself seen for the first time.Time

and time again. Seeing the curiosity. The unasked questions.

Sometimes even a little fear. She remembers that she is not

wearing her lenses, and so is impressed that her caller does so

well to mask his feelings. He even manages a smile.

‘Sorry,’ he says, unbuckling his chin strap,‘I should have gone

round the back. I’m Bob,’ he offers her his business card.‘You

called me about your fuses.’

‘Oh! The electrician. Of course. Somehow I didn’t expect

you to arrive on a bike.’

‘I like to cycle when I can, if I’m going somewhere I can

manage without my ladders.’ He shakes his head, gesturing back

toward the track.‘Mind you, it’s quite a climb you’ve got there.

Think I’ll bring the van next time.’

Tilda lets him in and shows him to the fuse box. Thistle

slinks in from the kitchen to inspect the visitor, decides he is

not a threat, and returns to her cushion by the Rayburn. Tilda

fetches Bob a cup of tea and hands it to him when he has

finished checking the system.

‘Well? Is it hopeless?’ she asks. ‘It’s bound to be ancient, but

we had a survey done when we bought the place, and I don’t

remember reading that it would need replacing.’

Bob shakes his head. ‘It’s not in bad shape, really. Must have

been rewired fairly recently. Someone did a pretty good job of

it.’ To make his point he throws the main power switch and

light is restored.

‘So why does it keep tripping out?’ Tilda finds herself

blinking, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the new level

of brightness.

Bob shrugs. ‘Must be something you’ve got plugged in.

Something you’ve installed.’

‘There isn’t anything I can think of. Only my kiln, but I

haven’t switched that on yet.’

‘Be careful when you do. Have you got it on the right

circuit? Those things are pretty heavy on power.’

‘Yes, the manufacturer sent someone to set it up.’

They both stand in the hall, waiting. Tilda finds herself

almost wanting the fuses to blow again, just so there is something

for Bob to actually fix.

‘Now I feel stupid,’ she says. ‘Seems like I dragged you up

here for nothing.’

‘No problem.’ Bob finishes his tea in a few gulps. ‘The ride

down that hill will be worth it.’

‘What do I owe you?’

‘Nothing too terrible. I’ll pop an invoice in the post. Call

me if you have any more trouble.’

She watches him descend the lane with increasing speed. It

is still early, and there is a fluffy mist sitting over the lake today.

The mountains beyond rise up through the froth of white, their

peaks dark and sharp against the lightening sky.Thistle pads out

to join her in the front garden. She wonders if the dog will be

well enough for at least a walk in a couple of days.

‘Well, if either of us is going to be up to exercise, we are

going to need some proper food. Come on, let’s see if I can’t

magic up groceries on the Internet.’

Back in the kitchen Tilda switches on her laptop and starts

to feel quite excited at the prospect of fresh fruit, meat, interesting

salad, perhaps some sinful puddings, and a bottle of her

favourite wine.The computer chirrups encouragingly, displaying

the home page so brightly she is forced to dim the screen a

little. She is just on the point of selecting a supermarket

offering deliveries in the area when the screen goes blue, then

grey, then, with a pathetic whirring sound, darkens completely

and falls silent.

‘Damn.’ Tilda slumps back in her chair with a sigh. Before

she has time to do more than shake her head there is a sharp

bang and all the lights fail again. Seconds later she feels her leg

being nudged and looks down to see Thistle, who has tiptoed

over to stand beside her. The dog nuzzles her and wags its tail

anxiously. That the animal should be so sensitive to her emotional

state touches Tilda.

‘What a pair we are,’ she says, gently stroking the dog’s

velvety ears.‘You all lame and creaky, me unable to get on with

the simplest things.And both of us living in a house that doesn’t

seem to want to have electricity in it anymore.’ She takes a deep

breath and snaps shut the lifeless laptop. ‘Okay, we can’t go on

like this,’ she tells Thistle. ‘You stay here and . . . well, get

better. I’m going for a late run that’ll take in the village shop.

I promise I’ll return with food.We can have a proper meal, and

then I’m going into the studio to do some work. That sound

like a plan to you?’

Thistle answers by padding back to her bed and curling up,

nose on paws, tail on nose, clearly settling for a nap.

Outside the air is fresh in the sunshine but drops several

crucial degrees to become chilling once Tilda descends into

the mist. Even though the hour is later than her usual run

time, there are no other walkers out braving the damp and

gloomy conditions along the lake-side footpath. Tilda falls into

the rhythm of running, finding solace in the repetition of easy,

fluid steps. Footfalls crunching on fallen beechnuts. Step, step

breathe. Step, step breathe. Heart strong and steady, lungs

working calmly.

No need to think. No need to feel. No need to remember. Just here

and now. Just this. Only this. You are strong. You are strong.Tilda loves

to run. Tilda needs to run.

She takes an unfamiliar route, but follows a clear path.To her

left, set back among the marshy side of the lake, she can just

make out a small, dilapidated building, so overgrown it is almost

entirely hidden by ivy and brambles. The closer the path gets

to the water, the denser the fog becomes, so that soon she is

running as if within a narrow tunnel through the miasma.

Sounds become muffled and distorted. A cawing crow, its voice

flattened and stretched, flaps from a low branch, the movement

of its wings disturbing the swirling milkiness around it. Some

way off, a tractor rumbles across a field, one second sounding

close, the next very distant.Tilda can make out the honking of

geese upon the water, but visibility is limited to a few yards, so

that she can only see the reedy shore and the shallows of the

lake’s edge. As she runs on she notices that her eyes are struggling

to make sense of the floating landscape around her. Low

branches across the path seem to stretch out like so many arms

reaching for something unseen. The gritty track beneath her

feet appears to rise up and fall away as she strides over it.

Among the sounds of birds and the tractor she can discern

something new. A noise from the surface of the water, rhythmic

and fluid. Splash, swoosh, splash, swoosh.

Oars. Someone is rowing. In this? Why would they do that? Can’t

be for the view. Fishing? Are they fishing?

The sounds grow a little louder. Stronger. Closer.Tilda stops

and peers through the murk toward the body of the lake.

Slowly a shape begins to form, as much of the mist as out of

it. She squints and tries to refocus her unreliable eyes. At last,

she can make out a small boat containing three shadowy

figures. The vessel is wooden, low in the water, and of a

curiously rustic construction.Two of the people in it are rowing,

sitting with their backs to Tilda, pulling toward the shore.

The shape and clothing of the third person are indistinct still,

yet suggest a woman. Tilda blinks away the droplets of mist

clinging to her eyelashes and wipes her face with her hand.

Into her watery vision, as she stares harder, come the striking

features of the passenger in the boat. Now Tilda can see that

this is a young, beautiful woman, her hair concealed beneath

twists of leather and some sort of animal skin headdress. Her

skin is pale, but the light is too poor, the air too disturbed with

mist, for Tilda to make out her eyes or her expression. What

becomes clear is that all three in the boat seem to be dressed

in some manner of costume, as if decked out for a historical

reenactment, or a scene from a movie.

But why on earth would they do that now? Here? On their own?

They are so close now Tilda could call out to them easily.

She raises her hand to wave, but something stops her.

Something causes her scalp to tingle and the breath to catch in

her throat. She can hear drums now, coming from farther

around the lake. Suddenly the mist parts, clearing in seconds,

so that she can see the expanse of water before her and even

the far shore. But things are not as they should be. Instead of

the low roof of the visitor’s café on the north side of the lake,

she can see huts, clustered together, and smoke rising from small

fires. And horses. And cattle. And strange figures moving about.

There are no cars. No motorboats. No trailers loaded with

canoes. Nothing is as she knows it to be.

Tilda’s heart starts to pound, although she is already beginning

to feel cold from standing. Her mind is spinning.

Am I dreaming? How low must my blood sugar be? I must be

dizzy from running and it’s making me see things?

The sound of oars being raised from the water and shipped

snatches her attention back to the oarsmen. The boat has

reached the shallows and the reeds, and the men are allowing

it to coast as far in toward the shore as it will go. Every instinct

in Tilda is telling her to turn and run, but she finds she cannot

move. She is transfixed by what she is witnessing. By the

impossibility of what her eyes would have her believe. And,

most of all, by the strange figure now standing in the prow of

the boat.The woman is tall and her movements graceful.There

is such a quiet strength about her. As she waits for the boat to

come to a halt she turns her head, slowly, scanning the shore

as the mist melts away before her steady gaze. Tilda holds her

breath, sensing the inevitability of what will happen next. She

wants to move, to flee, but she can no more run than fly as the

phantom woman continues to turn, until at last, unmistakably,

her gaze falls on Tilda.

There is an instant of connection. A moment where all else

seems not to exist, nothing but that moment of seeing and of

being seen. It is both wonderful and terrifying. Something

inside Tilda snaps and fear galvanizes her. As she spins on her

heel and sprints away she hears shouts. Clear, loud, urgent

shouts, as those in the boat alert each other to the presence of

a stranger. There is a short silence, quickly followed by several

splashes.

They’re getting out of the boat! They are coming after me!

Now Tilda runs. She finds a speed and power she did not

know she possessed and pounds along the path. She can hear

heavy footsteps behind her. She can feel the shuddering of the

earth as the runners begin to close the gap. Frightened beyond

reason, she increases her speed still more, even as the trail twists

away from the lake, even as the mist returns to swallow up the

fields to her right, to shorten her view to a few yards once

more. Still she runs, blindly, wildly, though she can no longer

hear her pursuers. And as she rounds a narrow corner she all

but barrels into a tall, solitary figure standing firmly in the

centre of the path.

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