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The Summer Witch

When Carys is married off to an ageing widower by her greedy father, she invents an imaginary lover in the unlikely guise of her husband's scarecrow.

When an encounter with Wayfarers gives Carys the chance to turn her fantasy into reality, it proves a temptation too much.

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Louise Cooper

May 29, 1952 -- October 21, 2009

Louise Cooper was born in Hertfordshire in 1952. She began writing stories when she was at school to entertain her friends. She hated school so much, in fact—spending most lessons clandestinely writing stories—that she persuaded her parents to let her abandon her education at the age of fifteen and has never regretted it.

She continued to write and her first full-length novel was published when she was only twenty years old. She moved to London in 1975 and worked in publishing before becoming a full-time writer in 1977. Since then she has become a prolific writer of fantasy, renowned for her bestselling Time Master trilogy. She has published more than eighty fantasy and supernatural novels, both for adults and children. She also wrote occasional short stories for anthologies, and has co-written a comedy play that was produced for her local school.

Louise Cooper lived in Cornwall with her husband, Cas Sandall, and their black cat, Simba. She gained a great deal of writing inspiration from the coast and scenery, and her other interests included music, folklore, cooking, gardening and "messing about on the beach." Just to make sure she keeps busy, she was also treasurer of her local Lifeboat station.

Louise passed away suddenly in October 2009. She was a wonderful and talented lady and will be greatly missed.

Coming Soon...
Excerpt

Chapter One

From her early childhood, everyone in the district had known that Powl Miller's youngest daughter, Carys, was going to be a beauty. She had that rare, fine skin that the sun turned honey-hued rather than florid, hazel-brown hair with eyes to match, and a figure that promised to be trim and not run to too much muscle. A lovely girl, they said, and a good girl, bright and diligent and obedient to her father as any daughter should be. A few more summers and the lads from a good many miles around would be following her. Powl would have more choices for a son-in-law than a sow had piglets, and unless Carys did Something Foolish he'd make a good match for her, just you wait and see.

Powl Miller was well aware of his daughter's virtues; not least the potential effect that her future marriage could have on his own purse. With only three girls of his own union, and the eldest two unremarkable however generously you tried to look at it, Carys was, to Powl's way of thinking, the insurance for his old age. The mill made a modicum of profit, but a good bride-price for Carys would make the difference between a passable retirement and a comfortable one.

So by the time Carys was sixteen, Powl had begun to keep a weather eye open for suitable candidates. By the time she was eighteen, he had dismissed many of the village lads out of hand, on the grounds of lack of money, lack of standing or, in one case, plain imbecility; one or two others were, regrettably, too far above his family in status for any hopes to be entertained. But Powl watched and speculated, and (as he told his wife, Tibba, one evening when he had enjoyed a couple of sociable hours at the local inn, and was thus more forthcoming and benevolent towards her than usual) he was satisfied that, with a little time and patience, the right match would be found.

One prospect that Powl Miller had never thought to consider, however, was Jone Farmer.

Jone's holding lay on the southern slopes of Crede Hill, the great rise of mixed wood and pasture that dominated the surrounding landscape for miles. It was a favored and fertile location, and the farm had been in Jone's family for generations, making him about as native to the district as it was possible to be. Jone was a quiet man, a few years older than Powl; self-contained but not unfriendly, and as honest as Midsummer Day was long. Carys had been thirteen when Jone's wife of twenty-something years was carried in sad procession to the village graveyard and laid in her final bed. Jone had accepted the cut of fate as he accepted everything: uncomplainingly and with quiet resignation. Sympathy had been widespread, but when it was expressed he had only lifted his high shoulders and, looking into the middle distance with his soft, brown eyes, said in his thoughtful way that that which was ordained must come to pass, and life would continue whether or no.

So for five years now the people of the district had grown accustomed to seeing Jone alone, walking his lands, driving his cattle to the monthly market, riding in his cart with Faithful, the shaggy-fetlocked bay gelding, clopping sedately in the shafts. A pity Jone had had no children, they said. Doubtless he had a good few years left in him yet, but when his time did come, as it eventually and inevitably must, it was a shame that there would be no son—or even daughter, though that would naturally have been less satisfactory—to carry on the farm of his ancestors. Not for one moment did anyone ever imagine Jone remarrying; he simply wasn't the kind.

So when, one market day in late winter, Jone Farmer made a point of seeking out Powl Miller's company, nobody was more surprised than Powl himself to hear what he had to say. The proposition was simple, and made with the same open, modest candor with which Jone conducted all his business. He had a mind to take a new wife. And he would be pleased if Powl would consider the bride-price he was prepared to offer for Carys.

Powl spent upwards of four hours in the market tavern that night, and by the time he left, half the district knew every detail of the contract that he and Jone Farmer had entered into. His friends packed him into his cart and slapped his horse's rump (the animal could have found its way blindfolded, so there was no cause for concern) and Powl went home in a daze of happy inebriation.

Tibba could make no sense of his drunken excitement at first. Only in the morning, when the worst effects had worn off with nothing much worse than an aching head to show for it, did she finally hear the tale in some semblance of order, and realize what her husband had done.

“Well, now!” Her small, sloe-black eyes glinted eagerly. “Well, now! Just think of it, Powl! Our Carys and Jone Farmer—whoever would have thought?”

Powl beamed expansively. “A comfortable widower, with one of the best parcels of land for many a mile around,” he said. “And no children to complicate the picture by making claims on his estate. I can think of nothing better, Wife. Nothing at all.”

“There is the matter of children, of course.” Tibba's face fell a little. “We've the mill to think of, as well as Jone's farm, and grandsons—”

“Will come in time,” Powl interrupted. “Jone's vigorous enough; there's nothing amiss with him that a fecund wife won't put to rights. And he's got a good few years in him yet, if I'm any judge. Time enough for a whole brood of grandchildren. “

“All the same, I see no cause to delay the wedding,” said Tibba. “Jone has no wish to delay. Sooner the better, he said, sooner the better. “

“Then we must tell Carys.” Tibba clasped her hands together and looked at them contentedly, already making embryonic plans for the invitations, the feast, what she herself would wear. “She'll be that pleased, Powl. Pleased and grateful.” She smiled trustfully up at him. “Pleased and grateful.”

 

****

 

Carys, though, was far from pleased. Later, Tibba could only give thanks for the fact that the mill was isolated enough for no neighbors to have been able to witness the scene that took place that evening. There were tears, there were tantrums; and when the screaming and shouting failed to move Powl, Carys had pleaded with him on her knees not to make this bargain. Tibba, shocked and sorrowful, had told her that she was an ingrate to break any mother's heart, and at that Carys had turned on her—on her—and shrieked that if that was so, then let them turn her out of the house in the clothes she stood up in, for she would rather tramp the roads than be forced into marriage with a withered old man.

For a few dreadful moments Tibba had feared that Powl would rise to that challenge and turn Carys out. But Powl had more sense than that, and with relief she saw him, instead, unbuckle his belt and draw it ominously through his hands. That was the tacit signal for her to leave, and she busied herself in the kitchen, humming a little tune she had heard the musicians play in chapel a few days ago, until Powl emerged from the parlor, the belt back in its loops and a sour but satisfied expression on his face.

“She'll do as she's told,” was all he said. And Tibba, knowing it to be true, set her pot of potatoes on the trivet to finish and go floury, and went upstairs to fetch out the family bridal dress, which she and her mother and grandmother had all worn in their time, and which would very soon be used again.

 

****

 

The wedding of Jone and Carys took place on a dank and dreary winter afternoon. A biting east wind blew fitfully, and the weather had been sulky for so long that they had been hard pressed to find enough flowers to decorate the bride, let alone the cart in which she was carried to her nuptials. So it was a subdued and shivering procession that turned out of the mill yard, crossed the stone bridge and set off along the rutted road towards the village and the chapel.

Carys sat stiff and pallid on the seat beside Powl, draped in the green sateen of the family dress, which fitted her in all the wrong places, and with a chaplet of damp snowdrops and aconites crowning her veil. In the back of the cart rode Tibba and her elder daughters, both plain and unmarried, seething at their sister's luck and jealously longing to change places with her. But Jone Farmer had not offered for them. Their only consolation, as their mother had pointed out with little subtlety, was that, if all else failed, Carys's bride-price was at least enough to buy them husbands before they were doomed entirely to lifelong spinsterhood.

The road wound on, with the bare fields of small farms stretching away beyond the hedges to either side. Carys wondered if it would rain. That would seem fitting, matching her mood and adding its own tacit comment to her feelings about this day. Able for once to see over the hedge-tops (she was more used to walking to the village than riding), she stared without interest at the fields. In the middle of one, a scarecrow hung from a pole. It looked stark and lonely on the slope of straight brown furrows; its shoulders were hunched, its arms outstretched in a parody of menace, and the pole had tilted to a tipsy angle so that the figure leaned towards the road. Momentarily it seemed to Carys that the scarecrow possessed its own, alien sentience, that it was watching her as she passed by, mocking her plight. A shiver that was not entirely due to the weather went through her, and she looked quickly away. But as the cart rolled steadily on, leaving the still shape behind, she couldn't shake off the feeling that invisible eyes in the head of rotting straw gazed after her, and a gust of unheard laughter was snatched away on the wind.

A mile further on, they reached the outskirts of the village. The cart now attracted a straggling tail of children who ran or toddled in its wake; the younger ones shrieked excitedly, while the older ones chanted rude rhymes until a granfer with a blackthorn stick chased them off. Neighbors and villagers were already gathered in the little graveyard—Powl smiled his satisfaction at the size of the turnout—and by the chapel door, a little apart from the rest, the groom and his party were waiting.

Carys had thought she could not feel more miserable, but something inside her shriveled utterly and finally as she saw Jone Farmer's tall, spare and slightly round-shouldered figure. How many times had she ever spoken to him? Five? Six? She didn't know him. And for all his kindly reputation, he was older than her father. Yet in the next few minutes she must stand beside him and pledge herself to him, and somehow, somehow, she must force herself not to scream aloud when he placed the brass ring on her finger and the cheerful little preacher pronounced them man and wife.

She could, of course, have refused to take Jone in wedlock. But even during her one small rebellion when Powl announced the marriage contract, that option had never truly existed in her mind. It wasn't that she had been cowed by the strapping her father gave her; that had happened before, on various occasions and for various reasons, and she was accustomed to it. It was simply that, ultimately, one did not disobey one's parents. If they said a thing should be so, then it was so, and there could be no argument. In the bedroom she shared—had shared—with her sisters, she had sobbed long and bitterly into her pillow, but she had accepted because any other course was unthinkable.

The cart jolted to a halt. Powl alighted first, and for the only time in his life reached to help his daughter down. For today, and only for today, Carys was someone special, to be treated with at least the presence of respect and deference. Carys didn't look at anyone as she awkwardly accepted Powl's hand. A fold of the dress caught in the cart wheel, her chaplet and veil slipped sideways as she struggled to disentangle it, and by the time that business was over with she was feeling distinctly sick. And now it was raining, a dull drizzle with a threat of sleet in it.

The groom's party had gone into the chapel ahead of them. Carys stood passively while her mother fussed and tweaked her draperies back into place, then, with the sickness like a lead weight inside her, she walked on Powl's arm under the low arch of door, to the sealing of her fate.

It all went off very properly and unremarkably. The words were said, the promises and pledges made. The preacher then handed Powl a small rope of plaited straw, and Powl symbolically struck Carys on both shoulders before passing it solemnly to Jone Farmer for him to do the same. Jone's touch, Carys noticed, was lighter than her father's; whereas Powl's token scourging carried a implicit warning, Jone's was simply to satisfy the old custom and meant nothing more ominous. She glanced sidelong at him, a little surprised; seeing the glance Jone smiled faintly then turned his attention to the preacher once more. The brass ring had been carefully made to fit Carys's finger without pinching. With dull bemusement she watched it slide on, then the preacher pronounced the indissoluble bond, and from the choir the sound of viol, pipe and shawm struck up a hymn, more or less in tune. To the accompaniment of enthusiastically scraping instruments and lustily singing voices, Carys Jonewife wrote her name in the marriage book beside that of her new husband, and with the congregation falling in row by row behind them, they walked together out into the dank day.

The wedding breakfast was held at the meeting hall near the chapel. Apart from the chapel itself, it was the only building large enough for everyone in the village to squeeze into; and, invited or not, everyone did. Powl, increasingly flushed with drink and triumph, played the host with a jovial bonhomie that seemed to swell in inverse proportions to Carys's unhappy discomfort, and the company ate and drank themselves nearly to bursting point. Finally, the last speeches were made and the last toasts proposed, and the tables were cleared for dancing, to shake the food down and make room for more.

Carys had always enjoyed dancing, but her husband, it seemed, did not share her liking, for as the musicians clambered to their places and argued over the first tune, he leaned slightly towards her, smiled, and said in an undertone, “I think, Wife, that this should be our cue to leave.”

Carys felt something akin to panic take hold of her. She wanted to protest that she would like to stay a little longer. She wanted to coax him, cajole him, persuade him to take the floor; anything to put off the moment when she must be alone with him. Instead, she heard herself say meekly, “Yes, Jone,” and allowed him to take her limp fingers as he rose from the bridal bench.

The movement was seen immediately, of course, and the departure of the newly married pair was a protracted affair of congratulations, back-slapping, ribald jokes and all the other necessary paraphernalia. They were escorted out into the chilly night (at least it had stopped raining) and all but bodily lifted into Jone's market wagon, which was decorated with evergreens, good luck charms and a few less savory items provided by the village wags when no one else was looking. Faithful, Jone's elderly bay farm horse, turned his head and watched the antics bemusedly; then Carys's bride-trunk (which didn't contain very much at all) was heaved into the cart well behind the seat, and to a last volley of shouts and whistles, Jone Farmer and his new wife left for home.

The cheerful noise and lights of the meeting hall fell away into the dark behind them, until the only sound was the steady clop of Faithful's hooves on the rough road. Jone had lit a lantern, and its small pool of brightness bobbed and swayed, reflecting from the cart's big wheels. Carys found the reflection hypnotic, and stared fixedly at it as Faithful plodded along. She could think of nothing to say to Jone. There was nothing to say.

Jone, too, was apparently no great conversationalist, and seemed content to travel in silence. They passed the field where the scarecrow stood; it was too dark, now, to see any sign of the angular shape on its leaning pole, but in her jangled imagination Carys believed she could feel its presence, and its gaze, on the other side of the hedge.

She had seen Jone's farm—her new home—before, but only from a distance as she passed its boundaries on her way to or from somewhere else. The house, as far as she could recall, was a substantial one, with a proper yard, upper rooms in the eaves, and barn and byres built to last. She did not know the acreage, but it was good land, as her parents had repeatedly told her. As Carys Jonewife she would live more comfortably than she had ever done before. Other women would envy her. She would eagerly have changed places with any one of them.

The cart turned on to the track that led to Jone's holding, and a few minutes later they were home. As Jone handed her down, Carys stared at the stone facade of the house, but she took little in; all she truly saw were the three lit windows on the ground floor, and the single candle burning in a room upstairs. She stood back, hesitant, as Jone went to open the front door, then he paused and she realized that he was waiting for her to go in first. Drawing a deep breath, she made herself walk forward and step over the threshold.

She entered a large, L-shaped room, furnished with good pieces of heavy oak: a long table, four chairs, a settle near the inglenook. A fire burned sluggishly in the hearth, and the embers’ reflection glinted in copper pots and pewter plates on and around the mantel. In one corner a long-case clock, taller than Carys, ticked with stately complacence. There were thick curtains, two rugs, and on one wall an embroidered picture of a red cow with a text beneath that said something about “the Milk of Humanity”. Below that, on a smaller table, lay a single book with no visible title on its dark cover.

“Does it please you, Carys?” Jone asked quietly.

She jumped a little at the sound of his voice, and glanced nervously up at him. “Yes,” she said. “It's…very fine.”

He looked pleased. “Izzy has left a cold pie for us, but I've eaten my fill and more. So unless you are still hungry…?”

“No.” Carys had barely touched a scrap at the wedding feast and wanted nothing now. “Thank you,” she added faintly.

“Good. Then we shall sit by the fire for a while and enjoy our solitude. “

She nodded, and lowered herself on to the settle as he raked up the embers and put two more logs on to burn. Who was Izzy? Jone's servant? Did she live in or out? What was she like—and what would she think of the household's new mistress?

With a faint grunt and a creaking of knees that made Carys recoil inwardly, Jone straightened and took a chair on the other side of the ingle. Picking up the book that Carys had noticed earlier, he weighed it in his hands for a few moments before saying, “Your father tells me you can read and write.”

“Ye-es,” Carys admitted hesitantly, “but I'm not learned. Not like a teacher or scribe, or—”

“No matter. You know your letters.” Jone smiled at her again. “Read aloud to me. It will please me.”

She was astonished. Jone, she knew, was perfectly able to read and write on his own account, yet here he was asking her—telling her—to please him with her own poor abilities. She didn't want to do it but felt too intimidated to refuse, so reluctantly she took the book from him and opened it at the page he had marked with his thumb. It was, she saw, a volume of parables and moral tales, and very dull; but as she haltingly began, Jone closed his eyes and leaned back with a look of contentment on his face. He didn't interrupt once as Carys floundered her way to the end of the passage, and when she finished he uttered a small, satisfied sigh.

“You read well, Carys, I enjoy hearing your voice. I think I would like you to read to me often. It will make these dark winter evenings pass very pleasantly.”

Surprised and, she had to admit, a little encouraged, Carys ventured, “Shall I read more now?”

“No, I think not. It's late, and we should be abed.” He stood up stiffly. “I'll carry your box to our bedroom, and then I expect you'd like a few private minutes, hmm?”

This was the moment Carys had dreaded most of all, and she only hoped that her feelings didn't show too clearly in her face as she nodded mutely. She watched Jone disappear with her trunk up the shallow, twisting staircase, then listened to the sound of footfalls overhead and the thump of the trunk being set down. A few private minutes. During that time she must take off her bridal dress (which was to be returned to her mother in the morning), put on the white dimity nightgown (a wedding present from her family, and thus hers to keep) and prepare herself for the duty that she could not shirk. Carys knew what men did to get women with child. In a rural community it was impossible not to know; if children didn't see for themselves how it was with the cows and pigs and horses, they were enlightened soon enough by older or more observant friends. Of the girls in the village who had experimented, some said it was the greatest fun to be had while others claimed it was a dull disappointment. But they had all tested the water with young men of their own age. To Carys’s knowledge, none had given herself to a man ten years older than her own father, and the prospect of what she must face filled her with dread.

Jone came down again to find her standing before the fire, trying to warm hands that were suddenly ice-cold. Helplessly Carys tried and failed to smile at him, then, feeling that her legs were made of putty, she gave in to the inevitable.

Up the stairs and into the bedroom. She knew which room it was, for Jone had thoughtfully left the door open. There were more curtains, another rug; a dark wood dressing-table with a stool set before it; another sampler on the wall: she didn't look at this one. And the bed. The bedstead was of painted iron and the mattress looked very large. When she sat on it, she found it soft and thick; in fact its thickness made the bed so high that her feet barely touched the floor. There were linen sheets, two pillows, and a patchwork counterpane, beautifully stitched and very old, doubtless a family heirloom. Carys thought of Jone's first wife, whose name she couldn't remember. She had lain with him, in this bed and under this counterpane, but he had never sired a child on her. Carys wished that he had. She wished the first wife had had ten children, and not died, so that Jone would have had no reason to look at her.

But the wife had died, and Jone had looked, and there was nothing in the world that Carys could do about it. She started to unfasten the buttons of her dress, and once the process had begun she rushed at it, terrified that Jone would come up earlier than expected and see her naked. The trunk was flung open and the nightgown scrabbled over her head in frantic haste. Tugging it down over her ankles, she scrambled under the bedclothes and huddled there, pulling the counterpane to her chin. She wanted to pray, but didn't know what she could possibly pray for.

Then came the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

Jone did not speak when he came in. Carys shut her eyes as he removed his own clothes and put on a nightshirt and cap, and when he climbed into bed beside her she held her breath for fear that she would scream.

Jone blew out the candle. He shifted his weight, ponderously, a little awkwardly. Their bodies had not yet made contact.

Then he said peaceably, “Good night to you, Wife', turned his back to her, and fell soundly asleep.