Excerpt from ‘Blackwood’

Chapter One


CASE STUDY A :   The Sad Tale of Silas, August 1413

It was one of those days. You know the kind. One of those endless, dreamy, summer afternoons full of purposeful bees and dandelion faeries, and grass so high it tickles your knees. A pleasure of a day, when nothing can possibly go wrong.

Silas Crumb spent most of it by the river with his father. It was where they could be found on days both rainy and fine, because Mr Crumb made his living there. He tricked fish from their watery world in all sorts of tricky ways, and sent them up to the castle, where the lord declared they were the best fish ever caught. Silas believed he had the cleverest father in the county of Farthey, to catch only the tastiest fish. He hoped he would learn to be as clever because, one day, his father’s job would be his own.

“Take these fish home and set them to smoke,” he said to Silas, as the sun disappeared behind the trees, “I think the King of the River is waiting for me to catch him today, so I may be some time.”

If he had been a different boy, Silas might have protested. He might have stamped his feet and demanded to see the King of the River. But he was Silas. He smiled at his father, hauled the sack of silvery fish over his shoulder, and set off for home.

As he followed the wisp of a path through the grass, the sopping sack grew heavier, but Silas was glad of the extra weight. The Lord of Blackwood liked his fish and paid well for a good catch. The money would cheer his mother up a little. Since the loss of yet another pea-sized baby from her belly, she needed every little scrap of happiness Silas and his father could gather for her.

By the time he reached the front gate, Silas had to let the sack drop to the floor to rest because his arms ached so much. As he rotated his shoulders to ease the ache, he glanced up and saw a withered old hag on the threshold of his home.

I say he saw her, but he couldn’t seem to look straight at her. If he tried to, she shifted. She would not be caught in his gaze. As his eyes struggled to keep up, he noticed she was holding something shiny in her outstretched fist. Something his mother was reaching for, her eyes wide under her grey cap.

He heard the woman speak, hoarse and low: “For a baby.”

Silas smelled danger as rancid and sickly-sweet as rotting apples, and hurried towards them. In the time it took to travel the path, his mother took what was offered, opened her mouth, and swallowed it. Her throat bulged as it tried to push the gift down.

If he’d had more time, Silas would have been annoyed at that point. Like my mother, and probably like your mother too, she was always telling her child not to take gifts from strangers, and here she was actually swallowing one without a moment’s hesitation.

The old woman hacked out a laugh and reversed down the path towards Silas. As she neared, she fragmented into jagged shards that glittered in the sunshine as she formed, broke apart, and reformed again. Silas had to close his eyes for the sight of her hurt them too much. But just before he did, he saw the primroses on the path wither and die, just like that.

When she was gone, a mere shadow beneath the trees of the Black Wood, it was as if nothing had happened, but for the brown primroses.

Silas ran for his mother. Her throat was still working on the gift. Her eyes bulged from the lack of air. He whacked her hard on the back, and when she opened her mouth it was as if the sun shone in her throat.

“Cough it up,” Silas begged her.

But, just as his mother was turning blue, the gift went down instead. With Silas’s arms tight around her waist, she recovered and smiled down at him.

“At last, Silas, my wish has come true,” she said, “At last, a baby brother or sister for you.”

I don’t think she meant to rhyme so well. Sometimes these things just happen.

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