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Leah Fleming
Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker

She was glad that Christmas would be going ahead. ‘Can I help make frumenty, with the new wheat?’ she added.

‘In a while. Don’t pester now, Meg has enough to do. Yule is no yule without a dish of the finest wheat and cream brose.’ Mama turned over on the bed. ‘Be patient! I will rest and say my prayers for I don’t trust that black crow o’ Wintergill. His heart is hardened to our cause.’

For the next few days there was treason in the kitchen, a bustle of forbidden activities as Meg stirred up the plum porridge and the wheat was soaked for the frumenty, the cream lying thick in its bowl on the slate shelve. Nonie was set to sweeping out the stale rushes in the parlour and dusting the pewter, for the silver plates were long gone, but the last of their glasses were rubbed to a sparkle. When her jobs were all done she was allowed to roll out shapes with pastry dough. Mama laid out their best gowns with the lace-ruffed collars and cuffs, and lengthened the hem of Nonie’s skirt, for she was growing fast.

Then on Christmas Eve she was allowed to go out at last with the yard boys to collect holly and greens to decorate the parlour and the chapel. It was bad luck to gather greens before that day, and boys dragged in a fine log for the fire, one that had been saved secretly in the coppice to see them through the twelve festive days.

Christmas morning dawned dry and clear, and Nonie sat at the window waiting for visitors to appear. They would break fast after the service. In the distance she could make out the shape of old Father Michael coming at first light with boots lined with sacks and wadding. Each year he grew smaller and smaller, bending like a little gnome. She hoped he had got something in his pocket.

The little chapel was dark and chilly, but once the candles were lit and the secret cross and chalice came out of their hidy-hole, she knew Christmas had really come. Out of his pocket the priest brought some carved figures and made a little crib with straw for all to worship. The door was wide open, waiting for the faithful from the village: old men, widows, children of the dale who were huddling against the cold in old cloaks, plodding through the snowy fields from all directions.

‘Why are there so few this year?’ she whispered. There were but a dozen folk standing.

‘Fret not. The servants, prentices and scholars are forced to attend to their work and head counted to make sure they’re not out carolling or mumming,’ Mama replied, and Nonie felt sad that it must be a work day not a holy day, thinking about Uncle Nate out with his sheep and Aunt Hepzi at her wash tub.

The service was well underway when suddenly there was a thunderous rap at the door and in stormed the constables with two men-at-arms, who pushed aside those standing at the back, making their way forward to the altar.

Nonie noticed that Father Michael continued as if they were not present, reciting his office, but her heart nearly stopped when she recognised the intruders as ordinary neighbours. Mama was staring at the constables and Nonie held on tight to her hand.

The men stood abashed for a moment, not sure how to proceed. Thomas Carr had the decency to remove his hat but Robert Stickley stood with his rod, his arms hovering over Father Michael as if to strike him, and she was very afraid.

‘For Mercy’s sake, let him finish the Communion!’ Mama shouted in such a deep voice, her eyes blazing. ‘How dare you interrupt God’s work?’ Nonie found herself pushed forward and kneeling to receive the blessing. Stickley made to stay them but Thomas Carr, to her relief, allowed them all to continue.

One by one the few who remained kneeled before Father Michael with trembling knees; many had already fled from the door, back over the fields, fearing a fine. How can this be happening on Christ’s holy day? There was only one person behind this and even a child could guess who that was.

They were bundled out of the chapel with Father Michael, back to the house where Parson Bentley was already sitting in Mama’s parlour on her very own tapestry chair, his head held up in triumph.

‘How dare you enter my house without a bidding?’ Mama shouted as Nonie hid behind the back of her cloak.

‘Your goose is cooked this time, mistress. I smell roasting flesh on the spit, and have seen with my own eyes the very dish of frumenty, full of the indulgence of your gluttony. No doubt if I search further I will find plum porridge pots and mulled ale. Why do you receive what is but a popish Mass in English from this priest? Why think you that you alone may act in this disobedience above what is lawful to others, pray answer me?’ The raven spread his black winged cloak and seemed to Nonie like the very devil himself.

‘I do as my conscience requires of me. This is Christ’s holy nativity. It must be honoured,’ Mama replied in a soft voice, but Nonie could feel her body shaking, drawing in deep breaths of chill air.

‘And I say you are deceived. You flaunt yourself at your peril, mistress. You pray for the King, no doubt? For Charles Stuart to return over the water?’

‘We pray for all Christian kings and rulers and governors at this tide.’ Mama looked so fierce.

‘Aye, for papists and traitors too,’ the parson replied, and his eyes flashed like flint sparks at both of them.

‘Are we not one under God’s eye?’ Mama was arguing, trying to stand firm against his threatening presence.

‘Do not blaspheme, woman! Who gives a woman leave to hold an opinion on such matters? You will accompany the constables from this place at once. You are charged with delinquency and will appear before the Justice to answer for your disobedience. I will not be overruled by a woman, whether she be of rank or no.’ He wiped his forehead. ‘I did warn your sister in Christ to check your tongue and arrogance but she hath not seen fit to follow my instructions. I will make an example of you before this congregation.’ The parson summoned his two lackeys and pointed to the door.

‘But what of my child? Who will bide with her while I am gone?’ Mama grabbed Nonie tight and she felt a stab of fear in her chest.

‘She goes with you. She attended the service. It is never too early for children to learn the wages of defiance. The priest must come too to explain his treasonous acts,’ said the parson savouring their discomfort. ‘You are a disgrace to your calling, old man.’ He shoved the priest out of the way.

Father Michael touched Mama’s arm for support. ‘Let the little maid go to her aunt, I beg you, in the name of all that is holy.’ Then he turned to the constables. ‘Do as you are bid but there are those who’ll look favourably upon us, I pray. Send word to Wintergill. They will vouchsafe for our good conduct.’

He pressed Nonie close to his cloak and whispered in her ear, ‘You must dress warmly for the journey and take provisions, for I fear more snow in these leaden skies.’ Then he turned back to the parson. ‘Let the child go, for pity’s sake.’

Parson Bentley was in no mood for leniency. ‘You will all walk like prisoners. The Justice will decide what to do with miscreants. You, priest, are a disgrace to your cloth. Have you no shame in perilling souls?’ Nonie cowered as the raven turned on the holy man with disdain.

‘'Tis you, sir,’ answered Father Michael bravely, ‘who shames our calling with the coldness of your charity. It is many miles to walk to the Justice’s lodgings in this bleak weather, a long walk for a child and a widow. In the name of our Lord and His Virgin Mother, be merciful. We must all answer at the Day of Judgement.’

‘Silence, priest. This be my parish and I decide how best to humble the proud. The mother must be taught a lesson in humility and the child be shown that all yuletide celebrations are forbidden by law. This lesson she will never forget.’ His lips curled into a tight line. Nonie peered out from behind her mother, not understanding the man’s words. Her blue eyes filled with tears.

The black crow man looked long and hard at her as if fighting some inner weakness within himself. ‘I will show mercy on the maid, but she must first walk five miles for her penance.’

Father Michael turned back, holding his hand up in protest. ‘Shame on you. Be wary, man of the cloth, that you do not wander too far from the path … I see a cold end for you if you proceed with this business.’

The crow man laughed in his face. ‘I take no heed of your devil’s words.’

Mother wrapped them warm against the weather but it started to snow again an hour into their journey. Even the thick wrapped cloaks were no match for the swirling storm.

At first Anona set out gaily, thinking this some game, but as the storm blew them in all directions at once, she began to cry out with cold and whimpered under the shelter of her mother’s cloak. They took refuge in a barn close to an inn where there was the noise of merriment and ale drinking. Then they were housed as common criminals and she cried for her warm mattress and feather quilt.

‘We must make do with straw, tonight. Tomorrow will be a better day,’ Mama promised hopefully. ‘I will give the guard our fine lace collars to buy us some food. You will soon be on your way homewards to Aunt Hepzi.’

Father Michael looked weary and ill, but slept fitfully by their side, guarding them from rude enquiries and jeers.

Anona sunk into the folds of her cloak, not understanding why the black crow was so angered by a goose roasting. Her hems were sodden with melted snow and there was a stench of dung and hay. Mama tried to shame the constables who escorted them from Bankwell House into helping them. How could they sleep easy knowing how in times past Papa had helped their families? Mama was kind to old Will Carr and kept him in his cottage long after he could not do a day’s work.

Thomas Carr kept glancing in their direction.

Nonie watched as Mama fingered the gold ring on her finger, set with seed pearls, the only ring she had left in her jewel box. It was always kept on her left hand. Then she beckoned to Carr in the darkness and held out the ring. ‘Miss Anona must go no further on the morrow, five mile or no,’ Mama whispered. ‘She’s but eight years old and feels such hunger and cold. By all that is holy, Thomas Carr, please take her back to my cousin at Wintergill. The ring is yours for your trouble. Do what you must to secure her release, I beg you. It is all I have of value but if you do my bidding I will reward you tenfold.’

He moved forward and nodded and she could see that he was sore tempted by the offer and his own discomfort. ‘'Tis less than four miles back over the moor towards Settle and beyond on the high road. Miss Anona must be safe housed at Wintergill with my kin.’ Mama was pleading now, sniffing her daughter’s golden curls that frizzed up in the damp air.

‘I don’t like it here, Mama,’ she wept.

‘I know, but think about that first yuletide when the Holy Mother laid her baby in a manger for there was no room for them at the inn. Here we are in a stable just like them and you smell like a new-born calf, not of our hearth and home or fresh rosemary water. Father Michael will take care of us,’ Mama cried.

That was no comfort, for he was old and sick, but Nonie thought of Jesus in the stable and tried to take heart. They were close enough to the night brazier to glean some warmth for chapped hands and feet. It would be a long night and she was so tired as she lay now strangely at peace with the world in her mother’s lap.

‘Hold on to hope, little one. When Aunt Hepzi hears what has become of us, she’ll noise abroad what this parson has done. Surely the Justice will be lenient, especially if he is in sympathy with the King’s lost cause. There are many such hidden in these northern hills. We will not be harmed.’

She watched the goose feathers of snow settling over carts and rooftops, across the courtyard where the sound of a fiddle rent the chill air. How quickly the white covered their muddy tracks. She could not believe that they were come into this sorry state. Surely it was all some terrible nightmare and she would wake up with the curtains of her four-poster bed tightly drawn against the draughts?

Thomas shook them both at first light. ‘Mistress Norton, I’ve found someone who travels northwards with a cart. He says that they will relay your daughter but only to the inn at the crossroads by the marketplace. She must make her own way from there to Wintergill. It is the best I can do, but no word of this to anyone and I shall say she has slipped away in the night.’ The man turned from her in shame, speaking softly. ‘I thought that this was but a prank to shock you, mistress, not to lead us all abroad on fearful business in such fierce weather.’

‘Thank you, Thomas, I shall not forget your mercy. Wake up, little one, wake …’ Mama roused her daughter into life. ‘Now listen to Mama … you will go back with the carter to Settle and make your way to the wise woman’s house down the passageway into Kirkgate. Tell Goody Preston, the seamstress, what has happened and ask her to send word to Wintergill. Lodge with her until Mistress Snowden sends for you and wait for me there. Do you hear what I say? Do not venture out on your own. Tell the goodwife I shall pay her for all your care when I return.’

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