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eBook by Scott Thomas
eBook Category: Dark Fantasy/Horror
eBook Description: The ways of old merge with the magical and fantastic in this wondrous world. Experience Westermead's thaw and awakening season by season, the lush heat of summer's passion and the retreat into winter's desolate embrace. Come celebrate and mourn with the people of Westermead as they make their way through a world steeped both in beauty and dread. More than just a collection of tales, Westermead brings to life an enchanted country where the supernatural is as natural as the sunrise. Follow the intrepid documentarians, Purdy and Beech, on their hunt for the fearsome Frost Mare. Learn the secret of the stranger whose life little Melly saved in Four Bronze Sisters. Face The Mask of Black Tears alongside Mullein Wick while he fights for his sister's release from servitude. This new mythology is ripe with unique characters, spiced with folkways and mixed throughout with a deep respect for all things natural. Given storytelling this vibrant, it is both easy and thrilling to get lost in Thomas' unique landscape.
eBook Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press, Published: 2006, 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2007
1 Reader Ratings:
"Westermead is an enchanted peek into an older world where folktales come to life in sun-dappled woods and on moonlit nights, and this limited, expanded edition would be a lovely addition to any reader's shelf."--The Harrow
"One of the happy surprises of the year. It's an odd but heady book reminiscent of the pastoral novels of Thomas Hardy, with perhaps a touch of M.R. James."--Kelly Link, The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror 2005
"...depicts an inviting fantasy world of both loveliness and horror through the four seasons."--Publishers Weekly
"Thomas brings to life a strangely magical land through its folk legends and its intriguing inhabitants. This moody collection of dark fantasy stories belongs in larger libraries."--Library Journal
"If you've missed reading fables and tales from when you were growing up, when stories had hidden meanings, eccentric people, and intriguing settings you always wished you could escape to, then you'll thoroughly enjoy Westermead. Scott Thomas shows immaculate talent with a collection of nineteen riveting stories, full of beautiful expression, breathtaking imagery, larger than life characters, and suspense driven ambiance."--Midwest Book Review
Mr. Flax puffs on a pipe carved from the long yellow bone of a bull. He tips his cap to Widow Purdy as she sweeps dust out her door, coughing through the long hair that hangs across her face, hair the color of stone or wool. She grins at the old man, leans on her broom and looks him up and down.
"Headed to the village, then, and what may I ask for, dear old Mr. Flax?"
"I aim to get drunk, missus. It's what I do best."
The woman snorts and goes back to sweeping--ghosts of dust away from the broom.
"Good day then," says Flax, back on the dry autumn road.
"Mind the spiders," the widow calls.
Mr. Flax turns and squints. "Spiders!"
Again the broom rests. "Yes, spiders. Have you not noticed them?"
"Noticed 'em? Didn't I wake this very day to a plump black spider just a sitting on my nose and lookin' me up and down--much as you've been known to do."
The widow huffs and the hair over her face flutters like a cobweb.
"Good day," the man says. * * * *
Ciderbrook boasts the finest orchards in all of Westermead's Midlands, and this day the air drapes cool blue amongst the trees that rank crooked and dark, fruited, and waxy green where leaves spread shade. Gravity came in the night, like a ghostly old man, testing the twigs and the first fruit fell. Nags amongst the trees rejoice and bees bob about the soft, browning fruit. The air is sweet decay, drifting to the old man hobbling on the road.
"My," says Mr. Flax, stopping beneath a tree. "Such a spell of beauty you cast this day, dear lady."
Smoke goes up from his pipe like lies.
"Your eyes so dark, like chestnuts, and your hair fine as harvest corn.
Were I but twenty years younger I would ride you all the day." The horse looks up, blinks, bends back to its apple-munching. "Good day," he chirps and hobbles on. * * * *
Old stones shape the tavern. The roof is steep thatch and phantoms drool from the chimney. Inside there's no one but the master's wife with her breasts like ten packed into two. Old man gravity threatens to drag down her bodice. A young man's heart flits once through Flax's chest and is gone as he squints at the round pallor of her flesh through the smoke of his bull-bone pipe.
"I'm parched from the dusty road, my dear," Flax says and smiles.
Mrs. Scrimly smiles--she's pretty but for the teeth, her hair a dream of summer breeze and furze. "Good Mr. Flax, come sit and rest and I'll fetch you something nice." Flax at a round table worn by warm elbows, stained by dark brews.
"Surprise me, love," the man says. The woman and her breasts are back and she pours from a pewter pitcher. "A secret recipe," she whispers. Mr. Flax makes short work of the drink--a spiced night-colored ale, a mystery of hops and cloves. Another please! * * * *
Half past afternoon. The crows have found their voices, the breeze has found the leaves, and Flax has found another drink--it stares up at him, glinting and brown like the eye of a horse. He sips, his eyes bulge, he spits out a mouthful of spider and ale.
The drunken spider wobbles halfway across the table before Flax slaps a hand down on it. "Ivy Scrimly!" Flax calls and the tavern mistress comes bouncing. "Another so soon, Mr. Flax?" "Another nevermore, I should think. Whilst I appreciate your adding this or that to these secret recipes of yours, I'm not so thirsty that I'll drink spiders!"
Red faced and apprehensively smiling bad teeth, the woman apologizes. "I'm terribly sorry, my good Mr. Flax. It's three times today they've been in my brew."
The woman swipes a hand through her hair; a spider drops and scurries across the table. She shrieks, leaps back and her floury breasts leap out of her bodice like great jiggling eyes.
Fate, or worse yet, some mischievous force with sly fingers that puppet the world, brings Mr. Scrimly in at this moment. He's a squarish man with large limbs, coarse features and slightly wintered hair. His eyes are too close, like a stoat's. His bulk moves faster than it should and before anyone can blink, or say, "bodice," he has Flax's throat in one hand and Ivy's in the other.
"Flax, you skinny rapscallion--I'll have your blood! And you, wench, have ya no shame?"
Mrs. Scrimly hastily stuffs herself back into her garment and rasps, "It's not what you think, Goordie..."
Fate, or better yet, some merciful puppeteer with strange threads to the world and its ways, sends a fourth figure bounding into the tavern. The blacksmith's son, breathless, with wide eyes the color of treacle-colored ale, stutters and mutters and stamps like a trick horse, pointing out the open door.
Goordie Scrimly barks, "What is it, boy?"
"Spiders," the boy manages, "up on Hag Hill..."
Scrimly releases his wife and the skinny old Flax, who goes to his drink like a finch to thistle seeds. * * * *
All rush out from the tavern's gloom, to the sunny road and down it. Others from the heart of Ciderbrook proper have heard the news and join the procession. Through orchard shade, beneath the early moon like the ghost of a scythe on the cool blue air. Flax's pipe leads the way, its smoke snatched by breezes and smashed like ghosts. They come to a bridge that spans a brook where gravity floats apples, its waters a hushed ribbon of drowsy colors.
From the bridge they see the round green belly of Hag's Hill, plump beneath the clear blue sky and that whispered tusk of moon. There's a story to tell when a hill has a name, and this is no exception. * * * *
They say a hag came to Ciderbrook one winter while the orchards slept in pewter light and frost. Shaggy Red took up in a soggy cottage behind a swollen hill. Once, at night, a drunken fellow staggering home saw the shape of the hag, up on the barren mound, with a sack of children's heads and she was planting them in the snow.
Queer as it seems, there were trees there, come spring. They were brittle-looking things, crooked and black, crippled spider-leg trees. Leafless through summer, the trees reared in the wind, a broken crown on the head of the hill. Autumn came, its ferns like hammered brass, its foxes fast like rusted whispers through tall golden grass.
Ahh, but such apples! Fat red apples on every leafless bough! Gallon upon gallon of unborn cider hung from those sickly-looking trees. But it was something worse than envy that drove the other orchard masters to kill the hag.
There was a curse, a blight, its dangling evidence of shriveled, ash-colored apples in every orchard, but for the hag's. The villagers plotted her death in hushed ale voices by rush lights with smoke going up like spectral lengths of wrack.
"At night she climbs naked into the trees and sucks every drop of life from the fruit."
"She dances naked around the trees and mutters queer words."
"The hag lays naked in a field and coughs out strange small birds that flit shrieking amongst our trees."
One had simply to gather two or more villagers about a table at the tavern and, quick as you can say "naked" a new tale of wickedness was revealed.
Curse or no curse, there was another rumor as well...
"She has a great sum of gold hidden somewhere in her cottage."
As if the curse weren't reason enough to do away with the hag, the gold was an added incentive, and why not? Wasn't it true that her purse was growing fat while their crop hung rotting from its branches?
One morning (for the hag slept in the day and did her evil by night) a group of men went to her cottage and stuck her with knives. What of the gold? Well, they searched the walls and under the floor and up in the dank brownish thatch. No treasure was ever found.
That night, with the moon a pale mumble of light behind a shroud of unawakened rain, the dead hag rose from her spattered bed and went to her orchard hill. She was naked, on fire, and she ran screaming through the trees, brushing their skinny limbs with dead burning hands. The trees, in turn, danced in flame and when morning came there was nothing left of the hag and her orchard but a spider-shaped stain of ash. The hill has stood empty since. * * * *
"Tie my danglings in a knot!" exclaims Flax, when he looks upon Hag Hill. Under less extraordinary circumstances, Widow Purdy would be after him with an angry broom for such an improper (in her view of things) utterance. But she, having joined the others flocking to the spectacle, stands numb, her broom clenched like a musket.
They have crowded together at the little bridge with the dull brook beneath, and all of them with their jaws on their chests. Not a soul speaks. Flax feels Ivy Scrimly mashed against his back and a boy behind her, safe in a forest of legs, gives her a pinch. Ivy's laugh is loud in Flax's ear, laughter like a windy summer skirt.
All the black spiders on the vast isle of Westermead have come to Hag's Hill, their armor amassed in great curvilinear patterns against the green slope. Giant shapes of spider ink.
"I think they're words," Grundle Longweed, the blacksmith says.
Indeed. A sentence, in fact, but none in the village can read, but for one...
Mr. Flax takes a step forward and squints through his smoke.
"What's it say, Flax?" demands Goordie Scrimly in his barrel voice.
Flax clears his throat and recites, "The heart of an apple--a fine golden key--the color of cider--a treasure from thee."
Now the air is thick with murmurs as the town folk huddle and buzz.
The popular question ... "What does it mean?"
At the center of this fidgeting swarm, Goordie Scrimly, thumbs hooked in a fine wide belt, announces, "I have the answer to this mystery, my friends ... It's twenty years since we tended to that old wretch Shaggy Red. 'Tis a message from that hag, says I."
"What does it mean?"
"Hah! Plain enough; she seeks to be redeemed so that her spirit might know peace."
"Redeemed?" One orchard master asks.
"Yes, you silly snot! From casting the blight that crippled our orchards and made us all poor."
In the twenty years following Shaggy Red's demise, the crop of Ciderbrook has suffered. The apples come, timely enough, but they are small and tart (like early season cider) and less than abundant. This year, however, boasts a bounteous crop--the finest the village has ever seen. The trees ache with their round sanguine gems, fruit swollen with the promise of cider, misted in powdery bloom.
"I know!" shouts Ivy, "A key--there's a key in an apple!"
"And a treasure!" her husband booms.
"Yes, that's it. A key to a treasure."
The villagers hum like a hive.
Ivy thrusts her ribs out triumphantly, heavy flesh menacing her bodice. "There is a gold key in an apple somewhere in Ciderbrook; a key to great treasure!"
Squeals fly up and the clot of villagers breaks apart, scattering for the orchards. A great drumming of feet over the bridge, then this way and that until Mr. Flax stands alone, puffing away. His eyes are to the hill where the huge black letters begin to crumble. A grit of spiders trickles from the fragmenting words, down the pout of Hag's Hill.
Flax sighs and slowly wheels away. * * * *
Dusk, cool as stone, stitches the shadows of trees together; they shape sticky pools of black cider. Everywhere is apple murder, the sound of fruit dropping a delirious heartbeat against the grass. A boy tugs on an apple clenched in a nag's square teeth, Widow Purdy swipes her broom through leafy boughs, gets knocked on the nose. Apples to the slaughter.
Apples break like skulls, mash beneath boot and rock, their pale, sweet, ripening innards exposed by knife, scythe and a terrible assortment of bladed and blunt implements. Thick red skin cracks and splits, seeds peer out like the eyes of rats. Apples to the slaughter!
Villagers on their knees in pomace, their hands slick with cider gloves. Well into the night they rampage, their torches bobbing in the dark, across the autumn fields, from orchard to orchard, pillaging, shrieking, plucking and hunting. No apple is safe. Apples to the slaughter! * * * *
Midnight comes and goes; the moon--the neck of a swan, long since retired. Stars like ghosts of apple seeds speckle the high black sky above Lennit Noose's orchard. It is the last orchard and the villagers are weary and cold, tired, flecked with pulp, their peasant garments soggy with juice. Still, there is no sign of the golden key.
Ivy Scrimly sighs, sits in damp grass and leans her back against a tree. Her lovely hair is not lovely now and gooseflesh textures the smooth of her bosom. A breeze has come in from the north and it rocks a small round something that hangs on a twig beneath a canopy of black leaves.
"I'm hungry," she mutters, to no one in particular, plucking the apple.
Deficient teeth clamp and crunch and strike the cold metal heart of the fruit.
She spits the key in her hand. Strange how the gold gleams in the dark. She stuffs it between her breasts, shivers. Ivy rises and rushes off in the direction of Hag Hill.
The other villagers, hunched shapes in a dark of sickly sweetness, see her and hiss with whispers like a barrel of snakes. * * * *
She hears the brook before she sees the hill. It is the damp voice of autumn with its breath of rotting leaves. From the bridge the distant hill waits--a ghost. A drowned cricket glints by in the current. The hill comes closer, rising, naked. Ivy's heart itches like a spider and she fumbles free the key.
To the base of the hill with soft steady steps. Soon she will be rich and the thrill is in her blood, sweet as the taste of apple on her lips until...
The shout hits like lightning--her meager history skips girl bones through her.
The others have followed, their torches over their heads like crowns. Goordie Scrimly moves out from the throng and points to her.
"Give me the key, woman!"
Ivy steps back. "It's mine!"
Closer still, her husband offers a large hand. "It's ours, love," he softens falsely.
Ivy knows better than to resist as Goordie plucks the key from her palm, pushing past.
Halfway up the hill and the smirking brute stops. He hears it with his feet ... a tremor from the hill. Again, the stone shoes of a giant, hard on the green grass, vibrate up through the bones of his legs. Something large is coming, something heavy and large. His heart shrinks to the size of a crabapple and his lungs whisper prayers to each other.
Up over the opposite slope of the hill rises a great black spider of painted wood. Its legs creak, its flat face stares. Up the hill; the hill quakes, stars glint on its painted hide like the tears of moths.
Goordie is frozen, his heart an ice fist until he sees the door on the face of the thing. A door with a gold keyhole.
A grin warms Goordie's face and his heart too rejoices in heat, dashing along the summer roads of his veins, dancing around and around his bones. The spider stops, a cow-length away, its inky weight creaking on long, spindly, ash tree beams, creaking under the weight of the golden treasure he believes waits in the belly of the thing!
The flocked villagers hum and Ivy hovers behind Goordie's shoulder, smiling her odious teeth, her drying hair a vapor of honey. The key glints its cidery gold and clicks as it twists in the lock.
The spider's wooden face squeals open and from the darkness spring thin, grey, headless children. * * * *
A whisper of apricot light pierces the dusty little cottage. Mr. Flax stirs in his bed, mumbles and squints. His bones feel heavy, grey where gravity slept, and he rises with a groan, pulls a tattered curtain aside, invites the sun.
Alone these many years, the old fellow has developed his hearthside skills. The only thing he does better than cooking is drinking. There are oat cakes and fenberry scones and pear porridge with its autumn-haunted steam. He fills his dusty belly and goes about the morning chores.
Midday and the roads to the village are dry. A bull-bone pipe dowses toward the tavern; its smoke hints of cherry. Curious, Flax thinks--where is Widow Purdy? Her door is closed up and there's no sign of her broom.
Quiet at the inn.
Quiet in the village.
Quiet in the orchards, but for the crows.
Well, there's just one more place to go, isn't there?
Mr. Flax stands on the bridge and stares at Hag Hill. His pipe drops from his mouth. The hill is bare but for a cider press, like a monument, all red with gore and the villagers, flung like poppets, are heaped at the base of the mound. They have no heads.
Beneath the bridge, the brook slithers, a melted serpent of gurgling red.
"I never cared much for gold," Flax says ... "or apples."
He picks up his pipe and heads back home.