Paula Brackston The Witch's Daughter

ISBN 13: 9780312621681

The Witch's Daughter

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9780312621681: The Witch's Daughter

My name is Elizabeth Anne Hawksmith, and my age is three hundred and eighty-four years. Each new settlement asks for a new journal, and so this Book of Shadows begins...

In the spring of 1628, the Witchfinder of Wessex finds himself a true Witch. As Bess Hawksmith watches her mother swing from the Hanging Tree she knows that only one man can save her from the same fate at the hands of the panicked mob: the Warlock Gideon Masters, and his Book of Shadows. Secluded at his cottage in the woods, Gideon instructs Bess in the Craft, awakening formidable powers she didn’t know she had and making her immortal. She couldn't have foreseen that even now, centuries later, he would be hunting her across time, determined to claim payment for saving her life.

In present-day England, Elizabeth has built a quiet life for herself, tending her garden and selling herbs and oils at the local farmers' market. But her solitude abruptly ends when a teenage girl called Tegan starts hanging around. Against her better judgment, Elizabeth begins teaching Tegan the ways of the Hedge Witch, in the process awakening memories--and demons--long thought forgotten.

Part historical romance, part modern fantasy, The Witch’s Daughter is a fresh, compelling take on the magical, yet dangerous world of Witches. Readers will long remember the fiercely independent heroine who survives plagues, wars, and the heartbreak that comes with immortality to remain true to herself, and protect the protégé she comes to love.

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About the Author:

Paula Brackston is the author of a travel book, The Dragon's Trail. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University in the UK, and her autobiographical writing has been published in several anthologies. She lives halfway up a Brecon Beacon with her partner and their two children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Batchcombe, Wessex, 1627
1

 
That year the harvest was good. Rain early in the season had given way to a dry summer under a fruitful sun, and the last cut of hay from the top meadow was the finest Bess had seen. She pushed up her shirtsleeves, dark wisps of hair from beneath her cap coiling into the curve of her warm neck as she stooped. Her brown skirts skimmed the mowed grass, snatching up stray stems as she gathered armfuls of hay. Ahead of her, her father, John, worked in swift, practiced movements with his fork, digging deep before flicking the hay high onto the rick, apparently without effort. Atop the stack stood Thomas, at sixteen a whole year older than Bess and a head taller, deftly working the hay into the shape required to repel the weather and hold firm through autumn winds. He shared his sister’s coloring and angular body, both inherited from their mother, Anne, as was the seriousness that he wore like a cloak about his shoulders, but his practical way of being in the world, his measured habit of facing life, those were qualities handed down to him from his father.
Bess paused, rubbing the small of her back, straightening to stretch tired muscles. She enjoyed haymaking: enjoyed the sense of completion of another cycle of planting and growing, of a successful crop gathered in, of the security of fodder for the beasts and therefore food for the family for the coming winter months. Her enjoyment did not stop her body complaining about the hard work, however. The heat was fatiguing. Her sweat-wet skin was gritty with dust and itched from a thousand grass seeds. Her nose and throat were uncomfortably dry. She shielded her eyes with her hand, squinting toward the leeward hedge. Two figures approached. One tall and lean like herself, striding with purpose and containment; the other a small bundle of energy, dark, nimble, skipping over the ground as if it were too hot for her dainty feet. Bess smiled. It was a smile only her little sister could induce. The child was a constant source of joy for the whole family. This was due in part to her happy disposition, her prettiness, and her sweet laughter that no one could resist. But it had also to do with the painful years that had preceded her birth. Bess and Thomas had been born quickly and without difficulty, but later siblings had not been so fortunate. Twice Anne had miscarried a baby, and two who had survived to birth had dwindled in her arms. Another, a rosy-cheeked boy, Bess remembered, had lived to the age of two before succumbing to the measles. By the time Margaret arrived, the rest of the family were steeled for further loss and grief but soon saw that here was a child who would grasp life with both of her tiny hands and live every day of it, however many or few there might be.
“They’re come,” Bess told the men.
They dropped their forks without a second bidding, more than ready for their food after a long morning’s toil.
Margaret squealed and ran to greet her sister, leaping into her arms. Bess spun her round and round until they both collapsed dizzy and giggling onto the hay-strewn ground.
“Bess!” Her mother’s voice pretended to be stern. “Have a care.”
“Aye.” Her father dusted down his shirt front with roughened hands. “The mare won’t eat her feed if it’s had the flavor pressed out of it.” His attempt at rancor was even less successful.
Together, the family made their way over to the nearby oak and settled themselves in its friendly shade. Anne placed her basket on the ground and began to lift out the meal she had brought for the workers.
“We made oatcakes, Bess, look.” Margaret thrust a cloth bundle beneath her sister’s nose, tugging at the corners to reveal the treats.
Bess breathed in deeply, savoring the aroma of the warm cakes. “Mmmm! Margaret, these smell good.”
“Good?” John laughed as Anne passed him the stoneware jar of cider. “Why, Bess, doesn’t thou know the finest oatcakes in all of Batchcombe when they be under thy nose?”
Margaret jumped with delight, performing clumsy cartwheels of celebration. Bess watched the whirl of skirts and petticoats tumbling across the biscuit-dry ground. The oatcakes tasted of the day itself, of sunshine, and plenty, and loving hands. She wished that it could always be just this time of year, the lazy height of summer, the strong sun, the long bright days, the ease of warm weather and abundant food.
“Why can it not always be summer?” she asked of no one in particular.
“That makes no sense.” Thomas spoke through a mouthful of cheese. “If it were always summer, there would be no rain, no time to plant, no fallow seasons, no rest for the land, no gathering in. Farmers would be all in a caddle.”
“Oh, Thomas”—Bess lay flat, her hands behind her head, eyes closed, watching the sun’s brilliance dance on the back of her eyelids—“do you always have to show such good sense?”
“No person ever died of a surfeit of it,” he pointed out.
Bess laughed. “Nor did they ever truly live on such a diet.”
“I think you wish to spend all your life as a child, Bess,” Thomas said, more as a plain fact than a criticism.
Bess opened her eyes and watched Margaret dancing across the stubble. “Surely it is the summer of our lives. Why would I want to leave it? Such freedom. Life is all possibility. And then we grow up and find our choices to be so very few. Everything is set down for us. Who we must be. Where we must bide. How we must live our lives.”
Anne shook her head.
“Most would be thankful to have a place, a home, a position. To be sure of who they are.”
“Not our Bess.” John paused to take a slow swig of cider and then continued, “Our Bess would sooner go where the wind has a mind to take her.” He laughed. “Adventure lies o’er yonder hill or else across the ocean, not in Batchcombe. B’aint that so, Bess?”
“Is it so wrong to want to do something different?” Her eyes glowed with the idea of it. “To change something? To go beyond what is set down?”
“Have a care, Bess,” said her mother. “There are those would call such notions vanity. They would say ’tis ungodly to wish to be other than He has chosen for thee.”
Bess sighed, wishing that just for once her mother would allow her to voice her dream without trampling it into the hard earth of reality.
“Look!” Margaret had stopped dancing and was pointing excitedly at the far side of the pasture. “William! ’Tis Bess’s William!”
Color flooded Bess’s cheeks. “He most certainly is not ‘Bess’s William,’” she said, standing up to hide her discomfort.
“Oh, but he is,” Margaret insisted. “You know he be in love with you. Everyone knows it.” She laughed with delight.
Bess tried hard to remain stern, but a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“They know no such thing, Margaret.” Bess stole a glance in the direction indicated by her sister’s still pointing finger. Two riders were following the narrow path between the grassland and the woods. William, as befitted a young man of his wealth and family, was mounted on a fine animal the color of autumn bracken. The second man rode a simple nag, sturdy and plain. Although they were some distance away, Bess could clearly make out William’s youthful but earnest face. The son of Sir James Gould, local squire and owner of Batchcombe Woods, William could often be found about his father’s business, helping him manage the estate and lands that went with Batchcombe Hall, which had been in his family for more generations than anyone remembered. He was listening attentively to his companion now, nodding from time to time, his expression serious as ever. Bess’s gaze slid to the older man. She knew who he was; his dark clothes and inappropriately proud bearing were easily recognizable. He was nearer her father’s age than her brother’s yet did not have a similarly worn and rugged appearance, which was strange for someone who lived such a rural and basic life. Gideon Masters. Everyone knew who Gideon was, but Bess doubted that anyone actually knew the man himself. He rarely came into the village, did not attend church or go to the inn for ale, and when he was in company was not given to easy conversation. His life as a charcoal maker meant he would naturally spend most of his time in his cottage in the woods, and yet Bess believed he embraced his reclusive existence, more than likely having chosen his trade because of rather than in spite of it. After all, he had not seen the need for wife or family. He spoke without looking at his landlord, gesturing all the while at this piece of woodland and that. Then, abruptly, he turned and smiled at William. Even from her distant viewpoint, Bess could see the power in that smile, the way it transformed his stern features. As always, Bess found the man oddly fascinating. Watching him reminded her of how when they were small, she and Thomas would lie on their bellies in the grass, hands beneath their chins, bewitched by the sight of a cat chewing on a live mouse. Bess had wanted to look away but could not, finding herself horribly compelled to stare at the sharp teeth of the cat as they sank into the twitching rodent. So it was with Gideon. She would prefer not to see him in the same picture as gentle William, and yet of the two riders it was the man that drew her gaze, not the boy. At that moment, Gideon, as if sensing he was being observed, looked directly at Bess. Even with a broad stretch of pasture between them, Bess was certain he was staring straight into her eyes. She turned away quickly, helping herself to bread. She became aware of another pair of eyes upon her. Her mother was watching her closely.
“There is a man best left to himself.” Anne made the statement for all to hear, but she never once took her gaze off Bess.
“He is a solitary fellow,” John agreed.
“Mibben he is lonely.” As soon as Bess had spoken the words, she wished them unsaid. She could not think what had made her voice such an idea.
“He chooses to bide alone,” said her mother. “That is not the same thing.”
The afternoon’s work went well, the whole family concentrating their efforts on finishing the task. Even so, the sun was disappearing behind the trees as they gathered their implements and turned for home. Long shadows followed them across the enclosure, the last of the day’s heat dwindling into evening. As Bess walked she let her ears travel beyond the chattering finches and wheeling rooks so that she could discern the distant sighing of the sea. On a breezy day she could smell it from the open door of the cottage, but in such stillness and heat all that reached her was the exhalation of the harmless summer waves. She loved the fact that their home was so close to the shore. They could not see it from the smallholding, but it was only a short walk to the cliff top. Bess decided she would take Margaret down to the beach to look for cockles and whelks early the next morning.
By the time they reached the cottage, Margaret was dragging on Bess’s hand and yawning loudly. The house sat in a small indent in the landscape, its whitewashed stone pink in the afterglow of the sun, its straw thatch a snugly fitting hat pulled low over its windows. From behind the wooden barn came the sonorous lowing of the cows, impatient to be milked. Thomas and John fetched pails while the women went indoors.
The small house was a single storey with a main room, the hall, a parlor, which served as bedchamber for the family, and the dairy. Here the temperature was kept cool by the addition of heavy stone slabs on which the butter lay wrapped in muslin. A wooden rack of shelves held the maturing cheeses. By the window was the butter churn at which Bess had stood for so many hours, helping her mother produce gleaming blocks to sell at Batchcombe market on Fridays, along with the Blue Vinny cheese that was so popular. In these respects the dairy was the same as any other for twenty miles around. Only the far wall and its sturdy shelves were a departure from the commonplace. Here were bundles of herbs tied tight, hanging from the ceiling. Beneath them were baskets of pungent cloth parcels. And on the shelves, regimental rows of small clay pots and stoneware jars stood to attention. Inside each was a concoction of Anne’s invention, the recipes known only to her, and some latterly to Bess. There was lavender oil for treating scars and burns; rosemary and mint to fight coughs and fevers; comfrey to knit broken bones; fruit leaf teas to ease the pains of childbirth; garlic powder to purify the blood; and rose oil to restore the mind. Pots of honey from John’s bees sat fatly, waiting to treat wounds that were slow to heal or save the lives of infants following sickness. In this dark, quiet corner of this unremarkable room dwelled the secrets of healing and treatments for disease handed down from mother to daughter for generations.
“Leave the door open, Bess,” said her mother. “Let us have the sun’s company while we may. Your father will not begrudge us candles later.”
Bess and Margaret set to laying the table while their mother lit a fire beneath the pottage. They were fortunate in living so close to the woods and having their modest acreage bordered by sizable trees. This meant that with care they need not be short of fuel and could use the manure from the livestock for fertilizing the pasture, rather than having to gather it and dry it to burn in the winter months. Margaret fetched the pewter bowls while Bess took the pitcher to the dairy. She paused a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the gloom. How she loved this room. She stepped over to the wheels of cheese, sniffing their nutty fragrance, her mouth running at the memory of the creamy sourness of a piece of Blue Vinny eaten with warm bread. She wandered over to the corner of the room and ran a finger along the jars, repeating aloud the names of the contents, memorizing the order in which they were stored.
“Rosemary, thyme, garlic. Feverfew, no … comfrey, more comfrey, raspberry leaf tea…” Putting down the jug, she prized the stopper from a bottle and breathed in its fumes. “Ah, sweet dog rose.”
Her mother’s gift as a healer was a perpetual source of fascination for Bess. She had seen her prepare infusions and tinctures and unctions hundreds of times, and yet it never failed to enthrall her. Her mother’s wisdom had been passed down to her by her mother, and her mother before that had gathered herbs and plants to concoct remedies and tonics. Bess lacked her mother’s patience and wished she had more of her levelheadedness so that she might one day take up her work. She knew she had much to learn and at times heard exasperation in her mother’s voice when she forgot which tea softened the pains of childbirth or what oil should be given for ringworm.
“Bess?” Her mother called from the fireside. “Be quick with that cider.”
Bess hastily resealed the oil and did as she was told.
They ate their supper in familiar silence except for Margaret’s occasional commentary and the spitting of the fire. Light summer evenings were a blessing, but they brought long hours of work in the fields, and none of the family was inclined to energetic talk. With the table cleared, John sat by the last of the burning logs with his pipe. Thomas went outside to tend to the stock before night. Anne lit two candles and sat in her beloved rocking chair by the girls, who had already fetched their lacework and bobbins from the linen chest. Bess disliked the fiddly task and was never wholly satisfied with the results of her labors. Margaret, on the other hand, had a natural talent for the work, her nimble fingers speeding the bobbins this way and that with never a loose stitch or lazy finish. She put Bess in mind of a tiny garden spider spinning its web to ca...

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