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

‘What think you of our parson’s words, this Advent morn, Blanche?’ she said as they were walking primly down the aisle, her head held high in her broad-brimmed black hat.

Blanche followed grim-faced, clutching the child’s hand. ‘He talks through his arse, this sobersides!’ she whispered. ‘Does he not know that Christmastide is a season of joy, not mourning? There’s little enough to cheer us in a dark dreary winter of snow and ice, when the lanterns are lit all day and the fires give off little heat. ‘Tis the time when folk need a bit of singing and dancing to look forward to. I will not heed his words one whit.’

Blanche ignored the parson at the door and swept out like the grand lady she once was. It did not go unnoticed. ‘Nonie shall have a new gown and we shall call in our neighbours and make merry,’ Blanche said loudly. ‘I owe it to my late husband to keep a good Christmas. Why, in the old days we drank the cellar dry and ate haunches of venison and beef with fruit pies and all manner of exotics. Now I can little afford to feast but I will sell my last trinket to give my little one her wish. She shall not go without just because some preacher with a sourdough face tells me so. We live in sorrow because Kit can be no longer at our side to protect us. Have we not suffered enough for our troubles?’ Blanche stopped in her tracks to see if he was listening.

‘When I sit and look around this plain church with its bare walls, I see only treachery and self-seeking. Was it not Brother Stickley who knocked on my door and demanded four cows as a penance for our allegiance to His late Majesty? Did not our fine Constable Carr take three pounds from my coffers before my poor Kit was cold in his grave? Were we not passed from pillar to post, hurled from our home to make way for Cromwell’s army to ravage our granary and steal our horses? I am sick of all these ordinances that rob us of any joy in our brief sojourn on earth. If Parson Bentley’s bosom swells with fire then so doth mine for the opposite reasoning, and I shall tell him so.’

Hepzibah had never seen Blanche so animated and careless in her talk. ‘Have a care, Blanche. It does not augur well to anger him. There are those who wish to profit from your distress. Give them no occasion to denounce you,’ she warned.

You are my true friend, Sister, and mean well enough. I can take care of this myself but if aught untoward should happen to me, I trust that your hearth would always be open to my child. Shield her from their envy. I do not always hold with your beliefs, nor you with mine. I come here because I must. I can no longer afford to stay away and pay the fines but your heart is ever warm towards us. Nonie is all that keeps me in this vale of tears,’ said Blanche, grabbing Hepzibah’s cloak.

‘Then think on, dear coz, give no occasion of offence to this parson. Of course Anona is welcome any time to visit. You have fought bravely to keep your lands and chattels. Don’t throw them away in one act of defiance. We are kin and who harms you shall have us to answer to, is that not so, Nate?’ she answered, hoping her husband would back her up, but he was striding ahead out of earshot.

‘This parson is but a bag of wind,’ laughed Blanche, tossing her curls. ‘He likes the sound of his own voice. I care not who hears me!’

‘Shush! I fear for your stubbornness but each must behave according to his conscience and Scripture. Where does it say in the Holy Writ that we should worship on Christ’s birthday?’ she argued.

‘I care not for the printed word. It has no flesh or blood,’ Blanche was arguing. ‘I will not desert the old path just because some black crow caws that I should tread only his highway.’ Blanche lifted the child onto a waiting cart and set off away from the church at a pace.

Hepzibah found herself shivering in the cold sunlight, hearing the rooks in the churchyard screeching. Blanche was too proud for her own good. Surely she would not tempt providence by gainsaying a man of the cloth.

Stone Walling (#ulink_a51f1821-cecf-56b1-ad58-3aa6e83c82e8)

Evie ran through the farmyard splashing in the puddles and the tethered sheepdog, Fly, barked. It was black and white with pale blue eyes, jumping up excitedly as she passed. She would play hide-and-seek from her mother, who was slipping and slithering on the cobbles. There was a line of trees and wood where the leaves were fluttering down like golden snow. Then she saw a rabbit dart from the stone wall ahead of her and she chased it. She would hide from Mummy in the wood and jump out.

This was her playground now, fields and fields of it to explore. This was her fairy wood, just like the story she was reading where people lived in the tops of trees and there were lands you could visit. It was going to be magic. There were so many things at her feet to collect: feathers, stones, pine cones and fallen nuts. She could hear birds rustling in the leaves, drawing her deeper into the peppery darkness. She found some toadstools almost in a ring, jumping into the middle to make a wish. It was the enchanted wood and she expected to see houses in the trees but she looked up into the bare branches with disappointment for there was not even one door in the trunk, just a startled squirrel which darted quickly from her gaze.

For a second Evie felt a stab of fear, suddenly aware that someone was watching her, and she spun round to catch a glimpse of a poor lady with long white hair, dressed in a ragged cloak, who stared like a princess lost in a wood. Evie made to talk to her. How strange to see a white candyfloss mist floating through the trees, and there was a smoky perfume in the air.

Evie blinked and looked again but there was no one there, just the smell of a bonfire. She walked on tiptoe, trying to see where the lady was walking through the thicket. It was getting darker and colder, and suddenly her fear returned. It was time to walk backwards until she got her bearings but even so, she came out of the copse not where she went in. It was scary and exciting at the same time.

There was nothing Nik Snowden liked more than an afternoon’s walling, plugged into Bach and a pipe full of rich tobacco. His tape was playing the Double Violin Concerto, followed by a Mendelssohn Octet, guaranteed to set him up for the day. There was something satisfying in repairing a gap in the wall; eye and hand working together in a harmony of skill, knowing which stone to place where or facing a stone with a chisel to fit a space exactly. It was like making your own jigsaw puzzle.

A good wall was built to last. There were two on his land dated to Celtic times with high stones built in top-heavy fashion. This repair would see him out if he built it up well. It was always a sign of a good farm if there were few gaps in the stonewall boundaries. In the days before the cull he could count up to forty gaps in some stretches on the moors alone, and with grants for walling there was no excuse for slackness. Many of his friends had lost heart and made do, could not afford the expense of a decent stonewaller, but he was determined to put his walls in good nick even if his fields were a mess.

He had been taught by a champion waller. His father, Tom, was one of the best. Whenever there was a row with his wife he would always come out to mend a gap. It soothed his spirits and gave him time to think. It was better than any stress management course, alone on the moors with the wind.

Then he saw the girl from Side House sitting on a piece of bulging stone wall that was far from safe.

‘Get off the wall, it’s dangerous!’ he ordered, but she sat with her arms folded.

‘Why?’ she answered him back.

‘Because I say so.’ He looked up at the sharp little face and piercing eyes staring at him, unused to such cheek from a kid like her. ‘I don’t want my wall flattened and your mother on my heels for letting you bash your head. Just get off my wall this minute.’

‘You can’t make me, Mr Grumpy,’ came her riposte.

‘Yes I can. If a wall breaks and sheep get out, I’ll send you both back south on the next train, Little Miss Rude.’ He was trying not to chuckle. Mr Grumpy just about summed him up these days, but he kept a straight face.

‘You’ve missed a bit … There’s a hole in the wall down there.’ She pointed to a small gap through the wall.

‘That hole is for the sheep to go from one field to another, clever clogs. We call it a cripple hole and you should be in school,’ he snapped, carrying on with his work, ignoring the madam in the orange tights and Puffa anorak.

‘What are you doing now?’ she said, pointing as she leaped down.

He could not help but notice she was a funny kid, typical only child, nosy and solitary, old for her years. He should know, he had been almost one himself. Why was she not in school? Kids today seemed to have no respect for their elders.

All he wanted now was a bit of peace and quiet to see his way through next month’s decisions. The fact they had to take in strangers to make ends meet was no comfort. Now he couldn’t even wall in peace with those eyes on him.

‘Where have all your sheep gone?’ the girl asked, pointing out the obvious.

‘I’m waiting for some new ones,’ he answered carefully.

‘Did all yours get killed?’ she asked nonchalantly.

It was his turn to go pink. He nodded, then he saw with relief that her mother was storming down the field, her red-gold hair flying. They were a pair, those two, like peas off a pod.

‘Where’ve you been, Evie? I’ve been looking for you everywhere!’ shouted the Partridge woman.

‘I was only exploring and I found nuts and leaves and feathers, and a white lady walking through the trees,’ the kid replied.

‘Oh, yes, where did you see her then?’ he quipped, watching the mother’s lips smile though her eyes weren’t.

‘She waved to me but I couldn’t catch up with her and she disappeared right through the trees like magic,’ Evie replied.

‘What do you feed this kid on, magic mushrooms?’ Nik couldn’t help laughing and the mother blushed.

‘Geneva has a vivid imagination. Only children often do …’

Seeing she was rattled, he tried to explain. ‘We do get hippies wandering up the slopes on the magic mushroom trail,’ he offered, well aware that his waxed coat smelled to high heaven and he must look like a tramp himself in his mucky clothes. ‘Just get her off these walls. This is not a playground. I’ve told her if the wall breaks and my new sheep get out, she’ll be for it. The new stock won’t be familiar with these fields and will wander away.’ The woman did have the dignity to blush as she pulled her kid down in one fell swoop.

‘I did see a lady playing hide-and-seek,’ the brat argued, pointing to the far copse.

‘Never mind about that, do as Mr Snowden says,’ Evie’s mother bristled.

‘Will we see lambing time?’

Nik could see that Evie was a persistent kid so he shook his head. ‘Not this year, you won’t, and you’ll be gone before the season starts again.’ What a relief, he thought.

‘Can we stay until the next lambing then?’ asked the girl, tugging at her mother’s sweater.

‘I’m not sure … Perhaps we can come back for a weekend another time and see them then,’ came the mother’s diplomatic answer. ‘Come on, muppet, let’s not bother Mr Snowden any more than we have to.’ She grabbed Evie’s hand. ‘Don’t sneak off like that again. You must always tell me where you’re going.’

‘But I did see a lady in the wood; she was just like Cinderella gathering sticks. I did, I did!’ Evie pleaded in vain.

‘If you say so,’ came the weary reply.

Nik watched as the woman gave him a look and a sigh, not believing a word. They were an odd pair and he wondered just what was driving them so far north with only each other for company. Perhaps they were running away from someone or something. If so, they’d picked a strange hiding place. There was nothing in Wintergill that wasn’t ferreted out by gossips. Dalesmen were secretive about themselves but curious about offcomers, and his mother would be quietly gleaning information to fill in the gaps, he smiled to himself.
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