“…Something stirred in the ruins.
A vast shape, almost as high as the Trading House, and nearly twice as long, uncoiled itself along the ground, as if disturbed from sleep. In the twilight it was difficult to make it out at first, but as I looked I saw what it was, and then there was no doubt – I did not even try to run – just a terrible sense of cold fear, of the proximity of death. My brother felt it too, and grasped my hand so tight his nails dug into my palm.
It was a firedrake…”
(extract from “The Witch of Glenaster”)
It tells the story of Esther Lanark, a young girl whose family are visited one night by a young guardsman, running for his life from something he dares not name. From then on, everything will change for Esther, as she is thrown into a world of fear, war, and ancient, dark magic, a world that will lead her and her brother to make the dangerous journey to the far north, beyond the cities of men, to confront the Witch of Glenaster…
It takes its inspiration from British and Irish folklore, Anglo-Saxon poetry, and writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
I am currently working on a sequel.
The Witch of Glenaster
Chapter 1 – The Guardsman
I was five when I first heard of the Witch of Glenaster, though no one dared mention her name.
My mother was tracing circles on my belly and my younger brother was chuckling stupidly to himself, and the air in the house was still, and the fire was very warm.
It had been raining most of the day, and my mother’s hands smelled of wet grass and cool stone. As she sang to us in the twilight, I pulled gently at her fingers, smooth and nimble from years of spinning unwashed wool, and she smiled back at me, and laughed.
My father was half-asleep in his chair, a small mug of ale on the kitchen table before him, and his pipe lying empty beside it. All was quiet outside, though I knew the watchman would be keeping his station up the hill, pacing the cabin of the lookout post till his relief came.
The night was undressing the day, and the last of the sun stealing beneath the earth, when there came a knock, soft but insistent, on our front door.
My father stirred, blinked, and rose all at once from his chair, his big eyes weary and bagged, and his arms swinging by his side. He stuffed his pipe into his pocket, and opened the door.
On the other side of it, and half-hidden in the darkness, was a young man, wet, bedraggled, and hungry of face, his eyes flashing in the light from the fire, and something long and thin in his hand. He wore the uniform of a guardsman, though before that day I had seen such things only in books, and he did not seem to know where he was.
“What is it, brother?” asked my father, and his tone was wary, but not unkind. The young man had to think for a moment before replying.
“Brother. Thank heavens. I’ve seen them – at Fair Leat – not two days ago. They had her mark. I had to kill one of them. I have run all this way. I ask only a little food, and shelter. Just for a while. My people are from the Low Country, many miles from here. Please can I come in? I’m sorry to disturb you like this, at such an hour…”
My father didn’t seem to be listening. He was staring instead at the thing the man carried in his hand. It was clear now, even in the fading light, that it was a sword, drawn as if freshly used, and stained, my father told me many years later, with what looked like blood – only a kind of blood, dark and vile-seeming, he had never seen before.
“You cannot bring a weapon such as this into my house, sir. I have children here. You must go to the Head Man’s house, down the hill. I will accompany you.”
“Please!” And now the young man sounded desperate. “You can have my sword. I know that you are good people here. I only ask for shelter. Not even food. Just shelter. I cannot go further before dawn. I think I am half-mad with fear already. Take my sword. You can keep it parked at my throat all night if you wish. I only ask to come in.”
My father did not hurry in his reply. He rubbed at his chin, gazing out at the rain, and the cool night. I felt the breeze on my face. My mother had stopped singing. After a while, he spoke.
“You can leave your sword out here, in the yard. You can dry out by the fire. My wife and children will soon be going to bed. I will sit up with you. But you must be gone by the morning, do you understand? I don’t know how you got past Daniel, the watchman. His eyes must be failing him. But you seem sincere to me.”
The young man nodded, resting his sword against the side of the house. As he was about to step inside, my father put a hand against his chest.
“If I am wrong,” he said, in a low voice, “I will kill you myself.”
The young man nodded again, and entered the house.
My brother and I stared at him, and he forced a smile in return, bowing a little to my mother, before sitting on the small chair my father provided for him, nearest the fire. He seemed to relax once inside, removing his greatcoat, which he hung over the back of the settle. My mother brought him some ale, and a little bread, and we watched him eat and drink, which he did messily and gratefully. My father offered him a pipe, and he smoked quietly for a while. Then he told us of the Witch.
“I was part of a company assigned to guard the passes which run south of the Anvil. There has been talk of banditry in those parts, and some of the trade caravans that set out from Oriel and Hammock City have not returned. Our duty was sometimes hard, but never really dangerous, until…” He swallowed. “There was a storm, on the White Mountain, less than a week ago…”
“We saw it from here,” said my father. “Lit the sky right up.”
The guardsman nodded.
“Some of the horses were spooked, and bolted. Half our provisions were washed away. The company was divided in the confusion, and those I found myself with resolved to return north, for fresh orders and supplies.”
He tugged at his glass, and the shadows caressed his face.
“We were getting close to Fair Leat – it was barely midday – when the sky began to darken. The wind got up, and the leaves were swept from the trees as if it were autumn – and this only May. What happened then I can barely bring myself to say… I was pushed to the ground, as if by an unseen hand, and was knocked clean out. How long for, I could not rightly tell, but when I awoke my companions were all gone, and I could hear only distant screams…”
He paused once more, and clutched hard at the table in front of him.
“And then from out of the woods, I saw them.”
And here his face grew pale, and he stared ahead as if reliving his vision.
“There were three of them. They walked like men, and looked like them, but I knew they were not.”
My father was leaning forward in his chair, listening hard.
“They walked towards me, and they seemed to speak; but it was no tongue I recognized, and their words sounded evil to my ears. They were dressed in cloaks of grey, and on their foreheads they had each an eye painted.”
My mother gave a slight start, and held us close. My father bit his lip. I had never before seen him look so grave, or full of worry.
“The Third Eye,” he said.
The young man nodded.
“I had heard of it. But never did I think to see such a thing, not in this life…!” My father put a hand gently on his arm. “I drew my sword, and that seemed to startle them a little, for they backed away, and looked almost frightened. But those who walk the earth as men and yet do not live among them are not so startled for long. One of them reached towards me. He – he was singing…”
There were tears in the guardsman’s eyes now, and he looked at my father as if entreating his protection.
“I cut his throat. And the blood, it seemed to run and run, and when it met the ground it gave a kind of hiss, as a man gives at his last breath. His companions rushed to his aid, and I ran, down the hill, I ran so hard I thought my heart would burst, I ran and I did not stop running until I reached this place. Oh, my brother…” And he grasped my father’s hand. “I fear I have done a great offence to her. They say she is not slow to avenge those she marks as her own. You are good people, and I will not stay here long. I must depart in the morning. It is likely I will be dead long before I reach my own people.” And his head sank into his chest, and he began to weep; and for a while there was only the sound of his tears, and the rain outside.
That was the last I saw of him. Our mother took us off to bed, and when I looked back the young man had not raised his head. I heard some time later from my father that he had died shortly thereafter, some days’ journey north of our village. His death was sad, though unremarkable – many travellers succumbed to sickness on the roads in those days – except in this one regard: the woman who had found him said both his eyes were gouged out, and that on his forehead was a third, crudely painted.