Well, my revenues from freelancing are at their lowest ever. However, that’s kind of a good thing. I’ve been putting my creative hat on and wasting time tweaking an old short story into something more substantial. Possibly, it might end up a full novel or novella. Possibly, it will just get resigned to just another never finished project. However, the first few chapters are below.
Enjoy and do share any feedback. - Bad or good, just not too bad…
The Witch Beneath The River
Chapter 1 - Magic
“Did you see?” Beca asked animatedly. “Did you see it, Dad?”
Sunshine sparkling through autumn leaves speckled the track leading Daniel and his daughter from a derelict farm behind, to the start of the river bank. To Beca, the day was beautiful, perfect even. Moreso because of how exciting it was visiting a part of the valley she’d never been before, To her father, though, every step toward a place he hadn’t visited since he was a child, made him increasingly uneasy.
“See what?” Daniel asked, trying to disguise his discomfort.
“The witch!” Beca whispered excitedly.
Daniel tightened his grip around his daughters hand. He hadn’t seen a witch. The very idea was preposterous. However, they were only a little way off from where Daniel had heard a witch cough once. Of course, Beca couldn’t know that.
“There’s no such thing as witches.”
Daniel pulled Beca and encouraged her to turn and walk back down the track home.
“Well, do this another day,” Daniel said. “And when we get home, you can tell me everything you think you know about witches.”
To Daniel, this would be the best political way of asking Beca why today of all days, and why here, she had brought up the subject. He was also eager to know what Beca had thought she had seen on the track ahead. He couldn’t ask outright, though.
“Dad!” Beca shouted interrupting Daniel’s train of thought. “How did the house the witch used to live in get buried under the river?”
Gravity condensed into a sense of nightmare dread and Daniel froze.
“Beca,” Daniel said slowly. “How do you know about what’s under the river?”
Daniel tried not to betray too much of his terror. However, Beca’s hand seemed to shrink inside of his, almost like she suddenly sensed all of it.
“I… I don’t know.”
Beca started to lose her color and look confused and alarmed at herself.
“Dad… Are we in trouble?”
“No,” Daniel said as resolutely as he could. “Just keep walking.”
Flashes from memory of an impossible smoking chimney started to superimpose themselves over Daniel’s view. Daniel ignored them, though. As long as they didn’t go near that place, everything would be okay.
“Just keep walking.”
“Dad… We’re walking the wrong way.”
Daniel stopped. Somehow, they had been turned back around and were heading back toward the corner which they had just turned away from.
“Dad, how did we…?”
“It’s okay. Well, just turn back. Don’t think about it.”
Together Daniel and Beca turned to re-face the direction home. However, as they did, a ragged magpie flapped and came to rest atop a tree framing the old Jones farm gate ahead. The bird stared down at Daniel accusingly.
“His name is Pergamon,” the witch Daniel had once heard cough had told him years ago. “But, you can call him Perg.” It couldn’t be the same bird, though. That would be impossible.
Reaching the farm gate, Daniel reached to lift the steel latch holding it shut against a flimsy, weather-worn post. Above them, the magpie cawed. As it did, Daniel experienced an old familiar sense of motion sickness. Then, instead of connecting with steel or the wood of the farm gate, Daniel found his hand connecting with a snapped tree branch.
Beca dug her nails into Daniel’s palm. “Dad, what’s happening?”
They weren’t at the farm gate anymore. They were back at the corner in the opposite direction. Worse, they were even closer to the end of the track than they had been previously. Through the withered leaves of the broken branch in front of them, Daniel could even see the start of the rising mound of the riverbank.
“Dad, is this magic?”
Before Daniel could answer, the magpie now several yards behind them started to caw excitedly. Taking from its perch, it rose jubilantly into the air, cawed, then stooped into a dive to somewhere by the riverbank ahead.
“Let’s just try again,” Daniel said turning. “Don’t leave hold of my hand, okay?”
“Dad,” Beca whispered tuning with him. Is it true that all withes are evil?”
“Yes,” Daniel said. — Now wasn’t the time for more lies.
“And is it true that they eat children?”
Behind them, the magpie which Daniel now suspected was the same bird he had once known, started to caw manically.
“Yes,” Daniel said. “Sometimes.”
Chapter 2 - Kerry
Kerry had arrived in Llanfair the third year after the fall. By that time, the only road in and out of the village hadn’t borne a newcomer for months. Not even government ration trucks or trailers carrying drifting scrap scouts passed through anymore. People did occasionally leave on the road, though. That’s why by the time Kerry arrived, Daniel and his father were two of just a few dozen remaining residents.
“Let them go to Bognor and Cardiff,” his father had used to say as they watched neighbors panic pack their possessions into what cars still worked.
“Here, there’s water and where there’s water there’s life. Where there’s a city these days, there’s only a concentration camp.”
That, as it happened, had been Kerry’s opinion also.
Daniel had seen Kerry’s magpie before he had set eyes on her waddling toward the village. Of course, he hadn’t known that it belonged to Kerry at the time.
There was peat to be cut, and lots of it ready for winter. Because of this, Daniel had spent all of summer driving his father’s tosg into the earth, cutting and piling slabs of black tarry turf.
“There’s no such thing as enough,” his father used to goad him.
“Every winter, we should prepare for it like it will be the worst one. The more peat we have, the longer we live.”
Days on the fen behind the farm each day were, therefore, spent monotonously cutting earth into long lines and piles. Each one, Daniel would then wrap quickly in what plastic he could scavenge. It was while cutting and wrapping that Daniel first noticed Perg.
The bird was big and ragged and circled Llanfair for days before Kerry arrived. Daniel remembered it catching his attention because it was the first new thing he’d seen in Llanfair since the fall. There were never new things back then, just less of everything, people included.
That’s why when a few days later, Daniel saw Kerry waddling toward town in her peculiar side-stepping way in the distance, the first thing he did was drop his tosg and race to tell everyone.
“Dad! Dad, there’s a woman on the road.”
An hour later, most of the surviving population of Llanfair had been raised and were waiting by the old Inn on the outskirt of the village where the road started. Then, slowly, the woman Daniel had seen from up on the hill started to appear over the cracked asphalt of the horizon.
First, there was her smiling face framed by the side to side motion of a black pendulum ponytail. Then there were her bare shoulders, covered by thin straps of a bright yellow vest. After that followed the distinctive Venus figurine shape of a forty-something woman in short white shorts, each arm weighed down by two old supermarket freezer bags of possessions.
“Oh!” Kerry announced, in a thickly accented Welsh when she was in earshot. “Well, I never! I didn’t expect a welcome committee!
Faces in the crowd remained sullen, but the relief from realizing that the newcomer was a Welshwoman was tangible.
“What do you want?” Someone in the crowd ask shouted. “We have nothing. We had little before the fall, and we have even less these days”
Kerry’s smile half faded. However, she continued toward the crowd. Then, when she was just a few yards away, she stopped, put down her sun-faded red freezer bags and gave a solemn, obviously exhausted sigh.
“A river runs through this place, Kerry called over the crowd. “Probably, it’s one of the last good rivers in all of Wales.” Then she paused before saying with almost the same tone Daniel’s father used to use, “and where there’s water, there’s life.”
Those in the crowd who were familiar with the sayings of Daniel’s father murmured. However, the test of the newcomer was far from over.
“You plan to stay here?”
The call was made by Aelwen who used to run the Llanfair tearoom. She was a widow and one of the village’s oldest residents. How she survived, no one really knew.
“There’s houses here,” Kerry said. “Or so I’ve been told. That’s all I need. Give me a house and I know how to do the rest.”
Kerry cast a knowing look about the crowd.
“I didn’t come here to ask anything from any of you,” she said. “Neither can I give any of you anything. All I can say is that if this place is like every other place where everyone is leaving for Bognor and Cardiff, don’t bother.” The woman in the yellow vest searched all the eyes watching her. “I’ve seen the city,” she said. “Stay here.”
“You have weapons?”
It was a Brynn Williams, Llanfair’s resident engineer.
“No,” Kerry answered. “I can protect myself, but I’m not a danger to anyone. Not unless I need to be.”
“And are there more like you?”
This time it was Daniel’s father.
“Are there more like you on the road? More refugees from Bognor on their way to where there’s water?”
Daniel was always surprised and proud of his father’s ability to think of the right questions to ask.
“No,” the newcomer seemed to say with some regret. “Got to be honest with you, I wish there was. Trust me ma’darlin, it would have made things easier. For the past two weeks, I haven’t even seen an aid truck.”
The crowd murmured. Many had a suspicion that the aid trucks had stopped. Now that suspicion seemed to be confirmed.
“It’s busy at the ports, though.” Kerry continued with an ever more absorbing look of the world about her.
“America says they’re welcoming refugees. They have old cruise ships at Aberystwyth and people are believing that a ticket to the old new world is going to make everything better. — I don’t, but that’s just me.”
“Either way, ma’ darlin,” Kerry continued. “There’s no one coming after me. No tinkers, no needy, just me.”
Daniel had watched Kerry’s arrival pressed close to his father’s side, and initially, he liked her for the same reason everyone else did but didn’t want to show it. Kerry had what almost no one in Llanfair had had from before the fall. That, of course, being knowledge of what was happening in the rest of Wales.
“You can have the Inn,” Daniel’s father said, just as Kerry seemed to be surrendering herself to a longer inquisition.
“There isn’t a keeper. No one has even stepped foot in the place for the best part of three years, but I can send my boy with a meal for tonight.”
Daniel’s father turned to the crowd as if to silently seek their approval.
“That’s all we can spare, though. Stay in the Inn as long as you like. Just know that after noon tomorrow, you’ll be on your own otherwise.”
Chapter 3 - The King of Kenfig
The King of Kenfig Inn had always been a rude building. Unlike every other building in Llanfair, it wasn’t built out of traditional pennant sandstone. Instead, it was built out of garish, red stone. Framed by similarly garish tar black wood windows, the Inn had a sense of being exactly where it should be on the edge of town. Any closer and the King of Kenfig would have felt like an intruder.
“Isn’t this is lovely?” Kerry had beamed when Daniel’s father had un-padlocked the Inn doors for the first time since just after the fall.
It wasn’t lovely, though. Later, Daniel had run from his father’s farm, hands being scalded by a Pyrex dish of broth his father had prepared. With every stride, the Inn had seemed to creep futher into the dim of the distance. At one point it had felt like the building was part taunting him and part luring him somewhere.
On his arrival, Daniel had expected to find Kerry kindling a fire in the old Inn hearth. However, The King of Kenfig had been deserted. All that greeted him were mats of midge encrusted cobwebs.
“Miss?” Daniel called out treading tentatively into the alien world of the King of Kenfig interior. .
Other than the freed padlock on the entrance, there wasn’t the slightest sign that anyone had stepped foot in the King of Kenfig since the fall.
There was no sign of the woman’s freezer bags of possessions. Neither were there scuffs or footprints in the dust of the Inn wood floor.
With evening fast stretching long shadows over the fields outside, Daniel rested his fathers broth on the the King of Kenfig bar. Deciding to search upstairs, he then made for a cracked open door hiding the Inn staircase.
Flaking plaster shivered from creaking staircase walls. At the top of the staircase, though, Daniel was greeted only by more silence — That and a broken open door to a stripped out bathroom.
To the left and right, two short corridors led to the old Inn rooms. All but two were open.
Daniel knocked on the first closed door.
Obviously, the woman wasn’t here. Possibly, she’d been invited to one of the warmer homes. Possibly she’d…
Turning the handle to the first door, Daniel came face to face Kerry.
Inexplicably, it was clear that there was no way that the woman before Daniel could have not heard him calling. More unsettling, though, was her overall demeanor.
The woman who had just arrived in town was sat perfectly still on a wood chair positioned in the dead center of a plaster flaking, otherwise empty guest room. Her freezer bags of belongings sat either side of the chair, and clutched to her bosom was the yellow receiver of an old rotary dial telephone.
“Oh, hello,” Kerry said, neither blinking or looking the slightest bit surprised. Instead, she wore a fixed smile. It was one which Daniel had the unnerving impression had been on her before the door opened.
“Who are you…?”
Daniel wanted to finish with “talking to.” However, his eyes had already traced the telephone line running from the old rotary phone to the bare floorboards between them. It wasn’t plugged in. Even if it had been, there wouldn’t have been a dial tone.
“It’s just Nostalgia,” Kerry said not blinking. “I haven’t seen one of these for years.”
Despite holding the phone for the sake of nostalgia, Kerry kept the yellow plastic receiver squashed firmly to her bosom. It was the kind of thing people used to do when they didn’t want any sound to carry down the open line.
“Thank you for the soup, love,” the woman said holding Daniel’s gaze and snapping his attention away from the unplugged telephone cord.
“Just leave it on the bar downstairs, though. — And make sure to thank your good father for me. I’ll be right down after I’ve cleaned up a bit.”
“Okay,” Daniel said feeling like he was intruding.
“You run along now,” she said, seemingly eager to be left alone. “It will be dark soon and there’s no moon tonight. The faster you get home, the faster you’ll put your fathers mind at rest.”
Almost immediately, Daniel’s first personal impression of Kerry became very different to the one he’d had initially. The woman was either crazy or calculating or both. As it was though, that would mean she would fit right in in Llanfair. However, as he reached the bottom of the King of Kenfig staircase, a chill shivered through him.
“Three eggs?” He heard the woman say behind him into the yellow telephone receiver.
Then after a second of silence. “Yes, I understand.”
Chapter 4 - Firearm
“Do you like her, Dad?”
It had been four days since Kerry’s arrival in Lllanfair. During that time, she had remained in the King of Kenfig and for the most part, the people of Llanfair seemed happy to leave her there.
“It doesn’t matter whether I like her or not.” Daniels father answered. “As long as she keeps to her word, she can do as she pleases.”
Daniel had been staring down to the village, his eyes resting on the King of Kenfig. He had assumed that his father had been doing the same. Apparently, though, he had been mistaken. His father had been staring instead at the Old Jones farm across the valley.
“We need to start bringing in the peat,” he said tensely.
Daniel’s father turned, his head moving as he started counting the piles of black earth which Daniel had spent all summer cutting and stacking.
“Jones hasn’t cut half of what we have,” he said. “That’s going to be a problem.”
A bird nearby cawed in agreement. Turning to look, Daniel realized that it was the same ragged magpie he’d noticed in the days preceding Kerry’s arrival.
“And we’re missing a ewe,” Daniel’s father said in a whisper coming closer. “And at least two sacks of tatws from the cellar.”
Daniel tensed, but also started to feel a sinking heaviness. A ewe and two sacks of tatws was too much to go missing and there be an innocent explanation.
“But we have enough of everything, enough to share if we need to. We did last year.”
Daniel, though, was already aware of how empty his words sounded.
Daniel’s father had been the first to understand the full implications of the fall. Immediately afterward, their neighbors had lined Llanfair’s main thoroughfare every day. There, they had waited even in the rain for government aid trucks. Daniel and his father, though, had instead started growing, cutting, and preserving what they already had.
Come the first winter, evening and early morning knocks had started at the farmhouse door. They helped when they were able to. However cold and hunger in the hills was often enough to turn people to irrationality and moonshine.
“If I give you one ewe,” Daniel’s father had said to Old Jones and a rabble from the village the night trouble came calling. “I’ll have one less ewe, one less lamb, and 100lbs less milk come spring,”
“Give you one hen,” he’d continued, “and I’ve got less eggs and fewer chicks to replenish the coup.”
“Ti’n llawn cachu!” Jones had barked back, breath thick with the scent of moonshine. “If you won’t share. We’ll just tek!”
Snow had started to fall in the rectangular frame of the farm door. Through it, Old Jones led five men swaying with Dutch courage, toward the barn. Torch beams started to point all around, as the rabble scanned for anything else worth making away with.
“Go to the back of the house,” Daniel’s father said.
A minute later, there had then been a loud BANG. Then, after the shot had finished echoing through the valley, it was followed by a metallic clink and the sound of pellets scattering across the frozen farmyard. - That and the deep agonized breaths of the first man to die in Llanfair since before the fall.
“AAAAoooonnnngggggg… AAAAooooonnnngggg… AAAAooooonnnnggg…”
Before Afan, the man Daniel’s father killed first hit the floor, Daniel had assumed that dying was a quiet affair. However, the sound of Afans’ pained gasps as he lay bleeding into the earth and snow still haunted him.
“Cach!” Daniel remembered hearing Old Jones scream as those left standing dived for cover.
Another clink and scattering of pellets.
With his second shot, Daniel’s father put down Gruffydd Owens, the last landlord of the King of Kenfig. When Gruffydd fell, though, he didn’t make the same long, agonized, “AAAAoooonnnnggggg,” gasping breaths as Afan. Instead, he buckled at the knees, attempted to raise a confused hand to where the back of his head should have been, and crumpled into a lifeless heap.
Jones and his surviving entourage were scattering out of sight downhill as Daniel reemerged.
“You could have had eggs and tatws!” Daniel’s father had shouted after them. “All you had to do was ask.”
Up until the point Daniel’s father had shot at Old Jones, nobody in Llanfair knew that there were firearms in the village. Neither did anyone suspect that Daniel’s father of all people would shoot to kill if he ever needed to. After that night, though, nobody had ever again attempted to take from them by force. That this might be about to change was troubling.
“We’ll start putting everything under lock and key.” Daniel’s father said. “Then if anyone comes looting, we’ll know.”
“But Dad,” Daniel whispered finding himself looking down at Old Jones farm. “We don’t have any shot left. What do we do if they do come?”
Chapter 5 - Llanfair
When Daniel’s father killed Afan Davies and Gryuffydd Owens, the post-fall social fabric of Llanfair was instantly and inextricably altered.
In the months preceding the raid on their farm, Llanfair below had been slowly surrendering to chaos. The King of Kenfig had kept the village alive for a while after the fall. There, everyone in the village had gathered every evening to drunkenly reenact the normality of the past.
In a way, the King of Kenfig offered a social sanctuary of sorts. Inside, it was easy to forget about creeping winter cold and looming food shortages. Thanks to Gruffydd Owens, it was also a place were people could warm themselves by something like hope.
“Hydro-Elec-Tricity,” Daniel remembered Gruffydd bellowing drunkenly across the King of Kenfig bar one evening.
Standing on an upturned beer crate, he’d raised a right trunk of an arm over over the heads of Llanfair’s remaining residents.
“We’ve got the brook and the river,” he said.
Putting a glass of lager to rest on the bar, Gruffydd’s glazed eyes found every other pair in the room.
“We’ll dam it!”
“Brynn Williams!” Gruffydd slurred. “You’re an engineer. In my mind, all we need after a dam is a motor — Am I rite?”
“Aye,” Daniel remembered Brynn answering with a nod. “Could be done.”
The crowd had cheered. What glasses were empty were sloshed full again. Then, like always, excited chatter started and new celebratory toasts were raised. Not once, though, did one of Gruffydd’s or anyone else’s grand plans ever materialize.
What did materialize, was the fast diminishing of the King of Kenfig’s supply of beer and liquor. Then everything changed.
With no way for Llanfair to forget anymore, people started to isolate themselves in their own cold homes. When there was a knock at a door, it was either a plea for charity or a test to see if a property was abandoned. If it was abandoned, it was looted. Even its roof rafters were stripped to make firewood.
Shortly after looting started, Llanfair started to teeter on the brink of lawlessness. Gruffydd Owens, Old Jones, and others without kin, appointed themselves feudal rulers of the village.
Gruffydd wanted reparations from the village that had drunk his bar dry. Jones, was a drunkard who had lost his livestock and taken to making moonshine. Booze subsequently became a defacto currency in Llanfair. However, few were willing to trade food for chwisgi. Instead, Jones’s liquor was used to buy the loyalty of those with a taste of it.
Theft, fights, and not so frivolous threats became commonplace. Quickly, it was realized that anything could be done in Llanfair without consequence. At least, that was the case until the night Daniel’s father blew the back of Gruffydd Owens head off.
“No more theft,” Daniel’s father had shouted from the steps of the village war memorial the next morning. “No more threats. No more running Llanfair into a village run by a drunken mob. If anyone isn’t happy with that, cachau bant somewhere else.”
After that, a confused feeling like relief mixed with new anxiety had settled over the valley. People were relieved that they were safe and that something like civility had been restored. All that unsettled people was the fact that it took two executions to do that.
Daniel shifted a tweed sack he was carrying to balance better over his shoulders.
Even today, as he walked through Llanfair with eggs and chicken feathers for Megan Roberts, Daniel could feel the unspoken sentiment of the village. He was the son of its savior. However, he was also the son of its first murderer.
Aelwen Williams who used to run the old Llanfair tea shop waved down to Daniel from an open window.
“Daniel, give me a second, I’ve got something for yur father.”
Crossing the road to the old tea shop entrance, the door rattled as keys in old locks were turned.
“Come in, come in,” Aelwen beckoned.
“I’ve found these,” the old widow said taking Daniel into what used to be the tea shop cafe area.
On a collection of tables pushed together was a stack of rusting metal two door rabbit traps.
“Oliver must have bought them years ago,” Aelwen said. “They were under a tarp in the shed see, but I’ve not been able to get them un-rusty.”
Aelwen cocked her head to one side.
“So I was thinking, see, that your Dad might be able to use them. Clean them up a bit — He’s good with things like that. Then if you can get them wor-ken, you can put them out around the farm.”
“Obviously…” Aelwen tried to say without looking sheepish, “A rabbit or a chicken every nuw and again would be nice if you can get them wor-ken.”
Daniel put down his sack of chicken feathers and started examining what was on the table. To most people, they wouldn’t be recoverable. However, Daniel guessed that all the traps would need was grease and a few new springs. In this case, he agreed to call back in an hour or so.
“Nuw…” Said Aelwen gesturing for Daniel to follow her to the wide old tearoom window.
“What’s this new woman like?”
Outside on Llanfair’s main throughfare, Kerry was waddling side to side up the street smiling and carrying one of her red freezer bags.
“Okay, I guess.” Daniel answered half truthfully. He wasn’t ready yet to tell anyone what had happened in the King of Kenfig. All that would do is cause gossip to start.
“Why do you ask?”
Aelwen hesitated for a second and reached for the silver cross she always wore about her neck.
“Well, I’ve got to be honest with you, Daniel.” Aelwen said in a whisper. “I’m just not sure I like her.”