Christmas is fast approaching and, if you’re anything like me, you probably haven’t got all your Christmas pressies sorted out yet. Well, if you’re looking for a last minute gift and don’t want to brave the shops (and really, who does?) there’s still time to order The Black Hours and have it delivered in time for Christmas. Or you can download the eBook instantly. It has seven 5* reviews on amazon.co.uk so it’s got to be better than a lot of other last minute presents. And if you’re still not tempted here’s an extract to whet your appetite.
The Black Hours
Alice pulled her cloak tightly around her as she pushed her way through the crowds. The gruesome shadow of the gallows loomed ahead, five rope nooses creaking in the bitter wind that whipped through Halstead’s bustling square. She wanted only to escape these people who knocked against her, surrounding her with their noise and smells. It had been a hard two days walk from Coggeshall in the biting cold and she was looking forward to the warmth and refreshment she would no doubt receive in Hannah’s home.
Around her vendors called their wares, children laughed or cried in excitement; women giggled and gossiped with each other, their breath cloudy in the freezing air, pausing now and then to slap their unruly offspring. Men told raucous jokes and drank toasts of warm ale, their voices rising above the howl of the wind.
‘It’ll be a good one today.’
‘That it will. Wish I’d got here earlier. Might’ve got a seat inside.’
Alice swallowed, her heart beating faster. This was not an execution then; indeed the accused had not yet stood trial. The nooses swayed as she passed by the gallows. Alice shivered as she imagined the poor souls that would soon dangle from those cruel ropes. She quickened her step, filled with a need to get to the safety and quiet of Hannah’s cottage.
She had not been to Halstead since the previous summer. The months since had been full of worry. Her father, Samuel, had taken ill, gripped by a cough that left him gasping for breath, his eyes wide with a fear that turned Alice cold. The harsh, long winter had only made him worse, and Alice and her grandmother Maggie were becoming desperate. Although skilled in the use of herbs and plants, nothing Maggie had given to Samuel had made a difference. Eventually they had been left with no choice but to seek the help of Hannah Woodbury, an old friend of her grandmother’s. Maggie had known the wise woman nearly all her life, and had a high regard for her ability to cure ailments when all other remedies had failed. However, the two women had not been in contact for the past year. Alice had thought it was because of an argument, but as Maggie had packed her a basket of food to take on her journey, her eyes had been fearful.
‘Take care when you get to Halstead, Alice. Mind you speak to no-one. The fewer people that know you seek Hannah, the better.’
Alice had looked at her grandmother questioningly. Maggie had hesitated, then pursed her lips.
‘These are difficult times, Alice. There is so much suspicion.’
A series of wracking coughs from the bundle of blankets in the corner of the cottage had sent Maggie rushing to Samuel’s side. Despite her fear, Alice had smiled at her grandmother. She had to do something to help her father.
‘I will be fine, Grandmother. Do not worry. Besides, if Hannah knows how to help Father, then I have no choice.’
Now, as she finally made her way out of the crowds, Alice felt that fear again. She took a small, overgrown path that was sheltered from the icy wind by a row of scrabbling crab apple trees. The ground was slippery underfoot, the mud frozen around clusters of sharp stones that Alice could feel through the thin soles of her boots. The bare branches of dogwood and hawthorn snagged in her skirts, catching on her cloak as she left the noise of the square further behind. Hannah liked to keep a distance from others, choosing to live in a tiny cottage on the edge of some scrubland on the very outskirts of the town. Alice could understand why. More than once the old woman had been blamed for the bad luck, bad weather and disease that periodically caused death and destruction among the townsfolk. But Alice was sure that whenever those same people needed something, some curative for an affliction, a draught of herbs to see off an infection, or a potion to restore or relieve, they would turn to Hannah, conveniently forgetting the names they had whispered as she had passed them in the street, or the doors they had slammed in her face when times were hard and she was in need herself. And Alice was sure that Maggie had suffered the same way, though she tried to hide it, knew that it worried her as she watched Alice grow and learn about the powers of the plants that grew around them.
It was silent as she walked on, the cold having driven any creatures to ground. All Alice could hear was her own footsteps as her boots struck the solid earth and the relentless whistle of the wind. The path became more and more overgrown, and she was forced to push her way through the branches, the sleeve of her cloak wrapped over her hand to protect her from the thorns. It was as if no-one had passed this way for weeks. Through the silence came the distant sound of knocking. Alice paused for a moment, the cold catching at her throat, and listened carefully. There was definitely some sort of rhythmic thumping ahead of her. Puzzled, she pushed on, the noise becoming louder with each step. At last the branches grew thinner and she eventually stepped free; Hannah’s cottage standing alone in front of her.
It looked more run down than she remembered; the thatch was patchy in places, ivy straggled thin woody stems across the grimy walls and the door swung haphazardly on its hinges. This explained the knocking then, the door thumping back and forth in the wind. It was not like Hannah to leave her home open like this, vulnerable not only to the cold winds. No smoke billowed from the chimney either. Surely Hannah was at home? After all, she would not be in the town; she was not one to attend such horrible gatherings. Apprehension gripped Alice – no smoke meant no fire in the grate; perhaps Hannah was ill?
Cautiously she approached the cottage, her breathing heavy, fear combined with the cold clutching at her chest with each intake. The door continued to bang. As she drew nearer, Alice saw that only one hinge held the heavy door to the frame; the other was twisted, hanging from a single rusty nail. A boot-sized dent had caused the lower half of the door to buckle, the wood broken and splintering at the edges. Tentatively, Alice pushed against the upper half and the door flew inwards, into the darkness beyond. For a second Alice was taken aback by the stench. The air was musty despite the cold and was under laid by a fetidness that enveloped her, a closeness that made it even harder to breathe. It was as if a brimming pot had been left to stand for days. But Hannah was clean, scrupulous even, despite her poverty. Perhaps she was ill then, or worse.
‘Hannah, Hannah, are you there?’
Alice’s voice sounded too loud in the silence. There was no reply, only the howl of the wind in her ears.
‘Hannah, it’s Alice. Alice Pendle.’
Still silence. Grasping her cloak tighter, Alice stepped over the threshold. It was dark inside the cottage, no candle was lit, and the odour was stronger. Wrinkling her nose, Alice waited for her eyes to adjust. The door slammed behind her and then continued its banging, the hinge creaking in time. She turned and wedged her basket in the gap, relishing the quiet for a moment. Once used to the dimness, Alice could see that the room was in turmoil. Furniture was overturned and smashed. Jars lay broken on the floor. A few scraps of what looked like Hannah’s clothing were piled on the hearth, charred and singed. Someone had tried to start a fire with them – but who would do such a thing? Alice picked up a handful of the blackened remains, shaking her head in confusion, suddenly very afraid. Something dreadful had happened here.
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