top of page

The Witch of Edaine was longlisted in the Times/Chicken House Children's Novel Competition 2012

The Witch of Edaine

- Prologue -

What on God’s sweet earth was that? A huge metal face. A nose the size of the great blackened cauldron that bubbled in the hearth. Great snuffly nostrils with hair like wire sticking out of them. Eyes like glowing pebbles. A monster? A monster was hanging over her, baring its great yellowed teeth. Screams clawed up her throat, though there were only strange mewling noises. Was that her? Why couldn’t she move? And what was that terrible smell?
    Emmeline could hear a man’s voice. Fading in and out like he was running far from her and then back again in a heartbeat…but whose was the other voice? Deep, so deep that it made her chest vibrate. Words she’d never heard before, alien, she couldn’t even begin to form them with her mouth, her tongue. She opened her eyes for a moment and wished she hadn’t. It was the monster. The monster was speaking, and it was talking to her.
    Where was she? She remembered searing heat, contorted agony, grotesque faces leering at her through the choking smoke. Sweet candy-floss pinks and sly sticky smiles. Then what? Oh yes. Shrill screams and the acrid scent of fear. And the look on her mother’s face, no, don’t think about that…
    Emmeline clamped her eyelids shut, but jagged shafts of light still cut through and stabbed at her eyes.
    ‘Sleep now, Emmeline,’ soothed the man’s voice. ‘You need to heal.’
    She fought it off, then when it embraced her, it was like a tremendous leaden wave, dragging her down, down, down…  

How had it all begun?

- Chapter 1 -

There was something about Mistress Coulden that made Emmeline feel twitchy and tickly like she had to scratch incessantly at invisible rashes. She was huge. It was unbelievable how she could carry all that vast wobbliness around without sinking ankle-deep in the winter mud or crack the furniture in half when she sat down. Usually, Emmeline preferred to hide when she came to visit her mother. But this last time, she’d been churning butter in the pantry and hadn’t heard her come in over the ‘clanking’ of the churn. Unable to make a bolt for the door in time, she listened as she twizzled the handle.
    ‘Have you heard?’ said Mistress Coulden. ‘Maybe you haven’t, as I know your husband was called away on Church business-’
    ‘How do you know that?’ said her mother.
    ‘I watched him ride by.’
    ‘You always see what’s going on, don’t you, Mistress Coulden?’
    ‘Well, someone has to keep an eye on these villagers when the Shepherd has left us. Someone has to watch for signs of the Beast. Someone has to be vigilant. I am merely doing my duty.’
    Nosy old lady were the words that Emmeline would’ve said. Always spying…
    Mistress Coulden continued. ‘So maybe you don’t know yet. It’s absolutely awful.’
    It was funny how she sounded almost gleeful, like telling the ‘awful’ thing made her excited. A whine in her voice made Emmeline want to swat at her like the annoying big blue bottles that crawled out in the hot summer months. And she always seemed to be looking at the rest of the village as if they were slugs or something.
    ‘What? What do you know?’ Emmeline could hear her mother’s eagerness. She knew she loved to sit at the table, darning, while Mistress Coulden puffed her way through a tale of woe that was happening to someone in the village. She never left out one gruesome detail.
    ‘They’ve found a witch!’
    A chair scraped across the floor. Mistress Coulden must’ve pulled herself closer to whisper to her mother. ‘A girl, only eleven, caught in an unholy act, speaking in tongues and screaming obscenities. Imagine that!’
    ‘A child?’
    ‘She cast the most heinous spells on some of the villagers. It is almost too dreadful to speak of.’ Her voice quavered. ‘Milk soured, barren cows, eggs laid with black chicks inside, crops withering. They’ve asked for the Bishop of Lessanes to intervene with the trial. You know what he’ll do.’
    ‘He’ll surely burn her!’
    Emmeline faltered for only a second, then resumed turning the handle. She didn’t want them to realise that she was listening. Burn her? They didn’t do things like that, did they?
    Mistress Coulden practically screamed, ‘Aye, that he will. Those poor, poor folk in that village, they were beside themselves with fear for their very souls.’ Emmeline peered past the doorframe as Mistress Coulden fanned her bulging red-veined face with a pudgy hand, her many gold rings enveloped in fat.
    ‘Where? Where is this?’
    ‘A hamlet close to Souche. My cousin lives there, and I went to visit. I couldn’t get away fast enough when I found out. It was dreadful, yet I had to go and see the witch. I’ll tell you I felt the Devil in her, all right. Told the Priest there too. Testified on the Holy Book.’      
    Emmeline stepped sideways so she could see her mother more clearly through the pantry door. She watched her mother’s face. Her eyes flickered in Emmeline’s direction.
    ‘You felt the Devil? How did it feel?’
    ‘There was something terribly wrong with the child. I’m glad I’m back safe in Edaine with God-fearing and pious people.’
    Again, her mother’s eyes flicked towards her. Emmeline couldn’t move, her feet rooted to the dirt floor. Surely her own mother couldn’t believe that she was also touched by the Devil? But she knew there were too many odd occurrences that couldn’t be explained. There had been one only yesterday afternoon, obviously still bright and fresh in her mother’s mind.
     ‘I’m in no doubt you are.’
    ‘When I hear more, I’ll let you know. We haven’t had a burning in years. It’ll be grand to go and watch. It would do you good to come along as well, bring the little one as a reminder of what happens when you are cursed by the Beast.’
    ‘But this girl’s only a child…younger than Emmeline.’
    ‘A child?’ Mistress Coulden snorted loudly, making Emmeline start. ‘She’s a witch, and as such, she’ll feel the wrath of God as she burns.’
    ‘Yes, of course. I only meant that it’s terrible that the Devil has caught one so young.’
    Emmeline now felt like she’d swallowed a handful of the fluttering long-legged spiders that plagued them in the autumn. The idea of what was going to happen to that girl was too ghastly to think about. A girl nearly her own age.
    Mistress Coulden shook her head and dabbed at one eye. ‘The Beast will catch the unwary no matter how old. We must never forget that there are others out there, in heathen lands, ready to ensnare and defile at any cost. Have you not heard the terrible stories of the painted devils to the North of us?’ Her brow furrowed like a ripple blown across the river.
    Emmeline’s mother drew a deep breath. ‘I remember the tales. My father always told me that if I was a naughty little girl, that they’d come with their devil eyes a-glowing and suck out my soul!’
    ‘Aye, that they will, filthy brutes the lot of them!’
    ‘But they’re only stories, aren’t they? To frighten us into behaving as we should?’
    Mistress Coulden leant forward and laid a meaty hand on her mother’s shoulder. ‘No, no, my dear, they are as real as you and I. If you believe in God,’ she paused, ‘then you must believe in the Devil and his minions. The Beast is everywhere, and our eternal souls are forever in danger! So we must be diligent.’ She patted her chest a few times. ‘That should be a lesson to us not to stray too far from our own hearths and the safety of our beloved church.’
    ‘I will watch for signs of the Beast.’ Her mother made the sign to ward off the Devil’s eye and again glanced back at Emmeline.
    Emmeline wanted to shout at her mother to stop looking at her. Mistress Coulden was a prying old woman whose nose was always in other people’s business. What if she got suspicious and started to ask questions about her? Emmeline could practically feel the flames on her skin. She should have been more careful. Her mind poked at the memory like it was a wobbly milk tooth that needed to be pulled. Yesterday afternoon…

Hell’s bells and little fishes! Where’s the blasted thing rolled to now? She’d dropped a marble only a moment before, but it had spun off, and now she couldn’t see it.
    Emmeline froze. She hadn’t just said that out loud, had she? She peered at her mother. But no, her mother’s head was still down as she was pushing pastry around the lid of a large earthenware bowl. Emmeline knew the pastry was to seal it while it cooked, and she hoped that she’d get an extra piece of piecrust for her supper.
    ‘Poor King Clement.’ Wiping a hand across her forehead, her mother left a faint smudge of white. ‘And her so young at that. Barely thirty, they say. We’ve all known the Reaper, to be sure. But still, ‘tis a sad day.’
    She was bending over the long table that dominated the kitchen. Flour dusted the surface, and vegetable peelings lay in neat heaps. ‘But then the Lord gives, and he takes.’
    ‘He’s taken far more from us,’ said Emmeline.
    ‘Hush now, child. It’s not for you to question the ways of the Lord. He has given as I said.’ She nodded her head in Emmeline’s direction, straightened and tapped her hands together. The flour fell like the wisps of mist that danced across the fields before the early sun breathed them all dry. ‘I’ll be throwing the scraps in the slops bucket in a minute for the goat. Make sure you’re ready, so you can take it outside. It’s cold, so don’t forget your shawl.’
    ‘I’ve got my shoes on, and the shawl is hanging by the back door.’ Emmeline squatted low, careful to bunch up her skirt and looked across the stone-flagged kitchen floor. She was in her one best dress, the same deep blue as her eyes, like a cloudless, late summer’s evening.
      It was a sort of holy day, a day to remember their good Queen Katherine, who’d died of awful pestilence. Even being Queen couldn’t save her from that.      
    ‘At least the Princess didn’t catch it too,’ said Emmeline. She knew there was a lot of praying going on in the village and probably across their whole country of Gresan.
    ‘Some consolation for the poor King,’ said her mother. ‘But you’re right. God has been merciful and not taken Beatrice from us.’
    ‘Yes,’ intoned Emmeline, ‘God has been merciful.’
    So, where was the marble? Ah, there it was. Emmeline could spy it reflecting the fire under one of the benches that flanked the rectory kitchen table. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to get to as the bench was in the way.
    The iron cauldron, half-filled with water, was already bubbling over a log fire. It was held high by firedogs in the enormous arched fireplace recessed into the wall behind her. The heat from the fire made the room stuffy, and her mother’s face was pink and sweaty. She wiped her floury hands down her apron, as she always did, so she didn’t drop the pot when she placed it into the water.
    If Emmeline was going to do it, it had to be now. With her eyes fixed on her mother’s face, she slowly grasped the leg of the bench. Lifting it by one leg, she moved it carefully out of the way, still suspended, then reached in and teased the marble out with her other hand. She glanced down. It was so pretty, one of her favourites, green with swirls of blue in it. But she’d taken her eyes off her mother…she heard a funny sound, a sort of hissing, like her mother had sucked in a breath without opening her mouth properly. Letting the bench leg slide through her fingers, it landed with a muted thud. She nearly bumped her head on the underside of the table as she bobbed up. Their eyes met.
     ‘Emmeline, what did you just do?’ Her mother’s voice had a rough edge to it like she’d eaten a bowl of gravel. She tugged on the mustard coloured oversleeves that protected her honey-coloured dress and took an unsteady step backwards.
    ‘Is something the matter, Mama?’ She knew there was. The look on her mother’s face said it all. Like she’d flashed her undergarments in public or sworn something dreadful at the mayor’s mother.
    ‘I saw you…what did you just do?’
  ‘I found a marble I lost under the table. Was that wrong?’ Emmeline bit down on her bottom lip, unnerved by the sudden change in her mother, who’d gone quite white.
     ‘But how did you move the bench?’
    ‘I kind of pushed it out of the way.’
    ‘No, you didn’t. You picked it up. By one leg. It’s made of solid oak and is incredibly heavy. How could you do that?’ Darting quickly to the other side of the table, her mother bent down and grasped the thick leg of the bench. She heaved, and her arm twisted under the weight. She yelped.
    Her mother stood quickly. ‘Show me what you did.’
    Emmeline recognised the tone in her voice, so she might as well get it over with. Picking up the bench, she made puffing noises, as if she was really straining and it was very hard. ‘Oh, it’s so heavy…’ But she knew she hadn’t fooled her.
    ‘Put it down!’ Her mother walked around the table as if she had a broomstick sewn inside the back of her dress and sank heavily onto the ledge that extended out from the fireplace. The cauldron bubbled unheeded on the tripod that overhung the fire. She pointed, and Emmeline noted her hands were shaking. ‘Go and sit in silence on the stool in the corner there, and we’ll wait for your father to come in.’
    Emmeline did as she was told and sat quiet and still, peering from under her lashes at her mother as she placed the pot into the water with trembling hands, took items from the larder and then put them back as if she’d forgotten what she was looking for. Her mother washed the table down at least four times and swept the floor until there wasn’t a speck of dust left hiding. Then she went into the buttery to find a pat of butter for their supper, cut off a substantial chunk of bread and set the small salt cone in the centre of the table as if nothing was wrong. But her eyes were red. Was she crying?
    Every so often, she would just stop and stare at Emmeline with such a strange expression that Emmeline could only look down and gaze at the stone floor.
    ‘Have I done something terrible?’ But she knew she had. Hung above the fireplace was an embroidered litany, frayed with age and smoke-blackened. The words still blazed as clearly as the day it had been stitched by her great, great grandmama.
    Daughters of Gresan: be obedient, pious, meek and gentle.
    Emmeline closed her eyes for a second. They’d missed off a word, a very special word to Emmeline. It was ‘weak’. Why had she risked doing that? Right in front of her mother. Again.
    ‘Just sit in silence as I’ve told you and wait for your father.’
    The front door finally opened with its familiar squeak.
    ‘Alfred?’ Her mother wrenched the kitchen door open. ‘Come and see what Emmeline has just done. It’s extraordinary.’
    ‘I’ll be there in a minute. At least let me take off my coat.’
    There was a scuffling and then the sound of heavy boots thumping up the hallway. He’d barely got into the kitchen when her mother beckoned at her.
    ‘Show your papa what you did with the bench.’
    Emmeline stood up but didn’t move. Instead, she tugged a thin strand of hair from her bonnet and twined it nervously. It looked like a slender fiery skinned snake had coiled around her finger so tightly that the tip of her finger was turning blue.
    ‘It’s too heavy for me, Mama.’
    ‘I said now.’
    Picking up the bench, Emmeline grimaced and gritted her teeth. ‘It really is very heavy.’ Then she watched as her father also changed colour. Was it so awful to pick up the bench then? But she knew it was. She was a girl!
    Fluttering her hand up and down, her mother seemed to indicate Emmeline’s unusual height. ‘Walking at six months. Talking at nine months.’ She tucked a stray wisp of russet hair, like an escaped lick of flame, back under her starched, white cap. ‘I was the proudest mother in the village, I can tell you.’
    ‘Yes,’ said her father, ‘and didn’t you just crow it to the neighbours. What did you tell them all? Ah, yes, that Emmeline was the cleverest girl in the village.’
    ‘I only wanted them to see that after so many years denied a child, we’d been blessed.’
    Emmeline noticed she looked momentarily hurt.
    ‘You wanted them to believe that we’d been given our own ‘Angel’ by God, which is all well and good,’ said her father, ‘but now we have a problem, don’t we?’
    ‘Papa?’ Emmeline held out her hand to him, although he didn’t cross the kitchen divide between them to take it. She dropped the bench with a loud whump.
    Her mother flinched. ‘I know. But, Alfred?’ Emmeline noticed a quaver in her usually steady voice. ‘Is this normal for a twelve-year-old girl? In fact, is this normal for anyone? It frightened me; it looked like a toy in her hand, not a real thing at all. So I tried to do that myself, and it nearly broke my wrist. I couldn’t even raise it off the floor.’
    ‘Well,’ he turned from them both to face the fire, rubbed a shaking hand across his face and raked his fingers through his beard as if to give him time to think. ‘We should be thankful after so many before had been too frail. How many times did we pray that our next child be strong?’ He gazed at Emmeline intently as if he’d only now truly seen her for the first time. It was like she’d been a sweet little puppy that’d changed into a wild wolf, right in front of him in the middle of the kitchen.
    ‘We’ll keep an eye on her.’ Her father nodded. ‘I mean, she’s good at everything else. Why shouldn’t she be strong too?’ He looked like he thought she might bite him.
     Her mother’s eyebrows rose as if pulled on invisible threads. ‘Isn’t that blasphemous? Women aren’t meant to be strong. How many times have you preached that from your pulpit? We are the gentle sex, obedient and meek like our beloved Princess Beatrice and the late Queen Katherine, God rest her soul,’ she made the obligatory gestures when speaking of the dead, ‘which in my mind is the absolute opposite to strong. Well, Alfred?’
    Emmeline understood. It was like her father had suddenly said the sky was black in the day and the sun shone at night.
    The question hung in the air between them. If Emmeline didn’t know better, she’d have thought she actually saw her father squirming as her mother stared at him. She knew all about the Princess, though. All the women and girls in the village did. There was a statue of a mother holding a little girl’s hand in the centre of the village green. Both mother and child held their heads bent down, their eyes lowered: the words pious, meek, obedient and gentle chiselled by the stonemason into the base. They were ‘every woman and every girl-child', but they were meant to epitomise that even the royal women through the ages obeyed the rules and set an example to be followed. Best to keep her head down at this point.
    ‘We can’t have it every which way, Martha,’ he said quietly. ‘We have a beautiful child after so much pain and anguish, and now you question it all?’
    ‘Yes, I know, but we can’t allow her to do such a thing in front of anyone else. Just think of the ramifications, Alfred.’      
    ‘It’s true our slack-tongued neighbours who have nothing better to do would blow it all out of proportion.’
    Emmeline closed her eyes for a second. Oh yes! That nasty fat woman who came to visit her mother was always spreading horrible, mean stuff about other people.
    Her mother continued, ‘But if word gets out the Priest's daughter is unusual, abnormal even, what could that lead to? Think about it.’
    Abnormal? Emmeline knew what that meant but knew it more by how her mother spat the word out as if it stung her tongue. Being abnormal wasn’t good. Better get extra chores for getting grubby than this…
    Standing immobile in the middle of the kitchen, her mother’s voice was soft, as if she was only talking to herself. ‘I think I’ve glimpsed other things. I put it out of my mind because…whatever I’ve seen isn’t right…do you understand, Alfred?’
    Emmeline wondered which of the ‘other things’ she’d been seen doing? There were quite a few to choose from.
    Her father nodded. His jaw was clenched, and muscles twitched in his cheeks. ‘Don’t worry yourself any more about this, Martha. We’ll teach her to be who she should be together.’
    ‘Together?’ Her mother looked puzzled, cocking her head to one side. ‘All right,’ she said. She turned. ‘Emmeline, it’s time to lay the plates for supper.’
    As Emmeline pulled the pewter plates from the dresser, she caught her father staring at her.
    ‘Are you angry with me, Papa?’
    ‘No, no, child, everything is fine.’ He looked into her face, and she got the feeling he was trying to see inside her head. It felt like he wanted to clip the top off as if she was a soft-boiled egg and have a poke around in the gooey bit inside.

bottom of page