At the beginning of October, I announced that my Witches of Pendle series is half price on ebook for the whole month of Halloween!
To continue the Halloween celebrations, today I’m pleased to bring you an extract from the first book in the series, The Gisburn Witch. In this chapter, Jennet and her new friends Elizabeth Device and Old Demdike go in search of a magic circle, said to have been used by a powerful cunning man. The women find themselves in woodland as the evening draws in and darkness and strange spirits abound…
Southern Pendle Forest, Near Huntroyde Hall
“Are you sure we should be looking for this?” Jennet asked. Her earlier excitement had been replaced by nerves, and she kept glancing over her shoulder anxiously. The evening seemed unusually dark for the time of year, even by the standards of the Pendle countryside where day could often become night with remarkable rapidity. The weather was also beginning to turn, and Jennet noted the force with which the wind was toying with the tall trees overhead, teasing apart the delicate branches so that they appeared to swirl against the backdrop of the fading light. Although much of what was known as Pendle Forest had long ceased to be covered with the thick foliage to which it owed its name, this particular area did contain some small areas of woodland, and it was one of these little woods that Jennet and her two companions now sought.
“Mother is determined to find his circle,” replied Elizabeth. “Anyway, we’ve come too far to turn back now. Look, over there you can see the light from Huntroyde. We must be close.”
Jennet nodded. Elizabeth was right: ever since Edmund Hartley’s execution a month ago, the talk of the forest had been filled with tales of the bewitching and the magical, and through these tales Elizabeth’s mother had heard about a magical circle used by Edmund to ward off those who would do the devil’s work. Old Demdike had not been able to curb her curiosity and according to Elizabeth she had talked of little else these past weeks. With good reason, Jennet had thought, when Demdike had enthusiastically recounted the full tale to her during their journey. The recent events at Huntroyde Hall were nothing short of fascinating.
Two years earlier, a cunning man of high repute, Edmund Hartley, had been brought to Huntroyde to cure the two Starkie children, John and Anne, of the bewitchment which had taken hold of them in the form of seizures. After administering certain charms and remedies, Edmund appeared to have been successful, and the children were cured until about six months ago when their symptoms returned. In making more strenuous attempts to cure the children permanently, Edmund had created a circle so powerful that he could use it to command spirits to help him identify and defeat the witch who was cursing the children. The circle had ultimately proved to be his undoing, as he involved his employer, Master Nicholas Starkie, in the ritual and in the end, when Starkie decided that it was Edmund who was bewitching his children, he brought the story of the circle as evidence against him. Invocation of the spirits was, of course, punishable by death and Edmund was sent to the gallows. However, none of this had seemed to deter Old Demdike’s enthusiasm and she was determined to find the circle. Jennet was not certain of the exact purpose of her quest, although she suspected that the aged cunning woman hoped that, through mere contact with this magical artefact, she might emulate a practice which had previously been beyond her powers.
“Ah!” exclaimed a voice. “Here it is!”
Jennet peered in front of her, forcing her eyes to focus in the dim light. In the dusk she could just see a circle carved in the dirt and not much more. She could see Demdike slowly and deliberately bend down and trace her fingers over the ground. The old lady’s eyesight really was poor and Jennet reflected that it was nothing short of miraculous that she had managed to locate the circle this evening, which really showed her determination to find it.
“A circle made up of four parts, just as I thought.” Demdike spoke affirmatively.
“Should you touch the circle, Mother?” asked Elizabeth. Jennet could sense her growing reservations about their expedition.
“Perhaps not lass, but its magic is spent, I am sure of that.”
The conversation was interrupted by the sudden and fierce howling of the wind and the three women shivered with the realisation of the growing cold.
“Let’s return home,” said Elizabeth. “I feel a chill in the air, and we don’t want to get ill. Besides, I left John with the children and he will be wondering where I am by now. Have you seen all you need to see, Mother?”
In the dark Jennet sensed the old lady nod in agreement and the women turned to follow their path back home. As they did so, they heard the sharp and urgent sound of twigs breaking underfoot. Fearing their discovery on Starkie land, Jennet tried to stifle a gasp as she turned to see who was there. To her surprise, she could not decipher any human shadows in front of her. Instead, in front of the circle, where they had been standing moments earlier, were two eyes, glowing green and staring intently at her. By now the light had almost faded from existence, but Jennet could just about make out four legs and a creature which was just about the size of a dog. She breathed a sigh of relief.
“It’s just a dog,” Jennet informed the others. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
“A black dog,” replied Demdike.
The three women returned to Malkin Tower late that evening, much later than Jennet had anticipated; in her ignorance of Pendle’s exact geography she had not realised just how far away Huntroyde Hall would be from her new friends’ home. At this late hour, it was impossible to return to Gisburn tonight, in the dark and unaccompanied. Her companions realised this and upon arriving back at Malkin, they offered her some blankets so that she might stay the night. The three children and John, Elizabeth’s husband, were sleeping and for the first time Jennet was able to appreciate the peace and calm of this house, alone and isolated as it was on the Blacko hillside.
Jennet was tired and weary from another long walk, yet also elated, fuelled by the adrenaline of their venture. Her two companions had talked of nothing but the strange black dog they encountered at Edmund Hartley’s circle all the way home. It had just looked like an ordinary dog to Jennet, but Old Demdike seemed quite fixated upon it, as though it held some significance to the remains of the ritual she had examined, as though it had held the key to what had happened to Edmund Hartley. The more Jennet thought about it, the more it unnerved her, and the less inclined she felt to ask about it, even now in the safety of Malkin Tower.
“Won’t your husband worry?” asked Elizabeth, interrupting Jennet’s thoughts and clearly concerned for her new friend.
“Probably,” replied Jennet. “But he would be more concerned if he discovered I walked home alone, in the dark. If you don’t mind the best thing for me to do is to stay here for tonight.”
“Of course we don’t mind,” replied Elizabeth, kindly.
Both women glanced at Old Demdike, who was muttering to herself about the evening’s events.
“What is it, Mother?” asked Elizabeth.
The old woman appeared to be wild with her ideas. Jennet was momentarily concerned by her incessant mumbling, as though she was suffering a sort of madness. Hearing her daughter address her, Old Demdike looked up and remembering they had company, she composed herself.
“The sight of that black dog is troubling my mind,” she replied, with a hint of weariness. Clearly the afternoon’s events were beginning to tell on her physical and mental state.
“But surely, it was just a black dog? An animal from the nearby estate perhaps and it had simply lost its way and found itself in the woods?” asked Jennet.
Demdike looked at Jennet and released a sharp intake of breath, appearing to physically deflate as she did so.
“It’ll be difficult for you to understand, Jennet, I know. But you have to believe me when I tell you that it was not a mere black dog that startled us all tonight.” Old Demdike lowered her voice to a whisper. “Some say that the Starkie children are troubled still, even now that Edmund Hartley lies cold in the ground and despite the efforts of the two preachers who have been brought to Huntroyde to cast out their demons. I have heard that they are menaced by animal spirits and mainly by a black dog.”
Jennet gasped. “So it is true, then? Edmund Hartley was a witch? He brought the devil to Huntroyde to torment the children after being employed to help them?”
“Many folk around these parts think so, no doubt the Starkies do too,” replied Demdike. “I have my own theory: the black dog is one of the animal spirits that Edmund Hartley invoked to counter the magic of the witch who was attacking the Starkie children. However, because this spirit was attached to Edmund Hartley, because Hartley was his master and Hartley is now dead, the spirit remains here still, haunting the lives of those responsible for his master’s death.”
Jennet was incredulous. “And we saw it tonight?”
Demdike laughed. “Fear not, Jennet. The spirit has no business with us, you can sleep soundly.” The old woman yawned. “Speaking of which, I am exhausted and you must be too. We should all get some rest.”
Demdike turned to head towards her bed then quickly turned back to Jennet as though she had forgotten something.
“Oh, Jennet?” she said.
“Yes?” replied Jennet, half-yawning herself.
“I have something to help you with your troubles,” said Demdike, giving Jennet a meaningful stare.
The old woman handed Jennet a piece of cloth, inside which something was wrapped. Jennet gasped as she opened the piece of cloth, for inside was a small object, modelled in clay and shaped like a man’s penis.
“What am I to do with this?” Jennet asked, barely able to whisper.
“Place it under your pillow and sleep with it there every night. Once you are with child, leave it under your pillow until after the child is born. I gathered from your words to my daughter earlier that you have suffered the loss of many children. This will help you, as long as you don’t remove it until after you are safely delivered from child-bed,” Demdike advised in a very matter-of-fact manner, as though she might be a physician offering a remedy to a patient.
Jennet nodded in response. It was the strangest-looking item and indeed the strangest idea that she had ever heard. She could only imagine what William would say when he saw it. She couldn’t imagine what he would say if it actually worked.
“Thank you, this is very kind of you,” she replied, with genuine gratitude.
“It’s no trouble, Jennet,” Demdike said kindly. “You came with us tonight, hardly knowing either of us, and facing considerable danger, yet you came nonetheless. I doubt my daughter would ever have agreed to come with me if it hadn’t been for you. This is my way of thanking you.”
Demdike glanced at Elizabeth, who had been listening quietly and who smiled in agreement. Jennet nodded again. Without a further word between them, the three women retired to their beds, exhausted by the day’s events. That night, Jennet dreamt of the child she wanted, the child she had dreamt of many times before, the daughter with the brown curls in her hair, the freckles on her nose, a nose which wrinkled when she laughed. This time, however, the dream seemed different: they were running through the grounds of Westby Hall, laughing, and the girl was so vivid that Jennet could almost touch her. When she awoke, instead of sobbing as she normally did, Jennet smiled. This time she felt sure that the girl would be born, and that she would live.
The Gisburn Witch and A Woman Named Sellers are available from Amazon and most other ebook retailers and are £1.99 until the end of October.