The Witch’s Gates

Here’s a sneak preview of The Witch’s Gates. This story of witchcraft begins in 1762, and then continues in the present day. The Witch’s Gates will be published in 2020.

“St Ouen, Jersey, Channel Islands 1762

Jacqueline de Frais watched the scene unfold as if she stood in its midst, the wind chilling her bones and carrying the smell of the tangy, salted sea. Yet she sat alone and unprotected, in her own home. Her eyes were open, staring not at the richly furnished room around her, but at fate, her fate. She walked on another plane, seeking knowledge, and to know what came her way.

Dawn was breaking as the heavy sea mist drifted in to lie low and tight along the shoreline. The icy tendrils clawed like a living beast as they crept across the cove to haunt the sheer cliffs that towered above the rocky beach. Dense fog was so common in this northern part of the island as to be an unremarkable sight. Many a morning brought news of wrecks lying off the coast, brought low against the treacherous rocky outcrops, which were nigh on impossible to navigate through even in fine conditions. Most merchant ships docked to the south, where a small harbour lay and left the forbidding north to those on less honest journeys. However, this day the fog, denser than usual, was not a natural occurrence but sent as cover, and conjured as subterfuge, to conceal and protect the anchored schooner, patiently awaiting its precious cargo.  Waiting for her.

She stilled, listened and carefully shifted her unseeing gaze. High above the crashing waves, the noise muted by the thick fog, the howling pack came to claim their vengeance in the form of the angry mob baying at the Manor’s eastern gates, locked tight and bound in thick, heavy chains. A necessary precaution that had taken place earlier that morning just as dawn broke, when the first direct threats were delivered, signalling that the minister had reached the end of his patience.

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The manor lay north, on a straight route from the village. Through the wrought iron bars of the heavy gates, a glimpse could be had of the towering rose-coloured granite mansion, which sat high upon the bluff, the cliffs and the sea to its back and the fields and wild woods bordering its other three sides.

Bellemont shivered in anticipation. He had waited an age for this, had dreamt and lusted after the ultimate power since he had known of its existence. The girl would be no match for him. She was weakened by grief and did not have his cunning. With her father dead she would have taken up the mantle of the Guardian,

Being so close to their quarry increased the crowd’s collective vitality and urged them to fulfil their purpose. They fed off each other, unaware that he fed off them. The crowd’s shouts for justice and retribution were punctuated by angry fists and screamed obscenities as neighbours and kin egged each other on. Men and women alike, they surged forward in one seething mass of hatred, their emotions running at a feverish pitch. The bile of their loathing, their focused anger, were lifeblood to the man who lead them, allowing him to feed his hunger, the power within him growing in surges and spikes with each lewd comment, every vivid curse.

On another day, under different circumstances, these people would no doubt have been happy and smiling, grateful to tenant and toil in the manor’s fertile fields and live under the protection of their lord, the women baking and tending the children and homes. Although obviously of the lower classes they looked well fed and, their clothing, whilst functional, was clean and neat. In the main, their feet were shod, even if only with wooden clogs. They looked prosperous. Yet here they were, howling for blood, almost at their master’s door. He smiled.

With frantic fisted hands, they grabbed the solid wrought iron bars, jumping on top of each over to gain passage and try and climb over the top. The crowd pressed nearer, and the gates creaked on their posts, holding firm but for how long?

The usually bustling hamlet, which sat surrounded by the manor’s fields, lay empty and quiet, the labourers and good wives having abandoned their chores and, following the parish minister, had climbed the hill to stand at the gates of Le Fallais Manor and demand entrance, justice and blood. Bellemont would soon have the manor, its secrets and, ultimately, access to the 7th, and forbidden, level of witchcraft.

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Jacqueline sat still and quiet at her father’s carved oak desk in the ground floor library, listening as the mob drew closer. She absorbed the energy, the very emotions of the other inhabitants of her home. The servants heard the voices of their neighbours,  relatives and friends; and Jacqueline chilled as she absorbed their icy clutches of fear and, to her horror, their complicity. The situation was getting out of hand.  The one who usually calmed panics and held their lives together was the person whose name was being shouted by the mob; their prey. And so the loyal servants of Le Fallais Manor, home to the de Frais family as far as memory could recollect, went about their business and did nothing to neither save their mistress nor overtly aid her pursuers.

She clutched at her stomach as nausea rose, her heart raced, and breath quickened. She had not expected it to end this way. She had misjudged Bellemont, and she and the world would now pay the price. She breathed into the count of 3 and slowly exhaled. She repeated the action until her heartbeats were slow and controlled.

She ran her palm back and forth over the fine grain of the ancient wood, pausing to trace the outline of an old ink stain, one of many that marred the top of the beautifully carved desk. Her father had been a prodigious letter writer and journal keeper, but his penmanship could never have been called careful or neat. A swift bittersweet smile flitted across her face as, eyes closed in remembrance, and Jacqueline once again felt the searing ache and embraced the pain that had accompanied her father’s loss this past year. On a puff of breath, she opened her eyes, her face set and resolute. There was only one thing she could do. It would impact her kind beyond measure, but she had no choice.

Rising, and carefully re-arranging the full, wide skirts of her ornately embroidered red velvet day dress,  Jacqueline moved to the casement windows which overlooked the lawns, and looked past the green to the south, to where the land fell down to the sea. She’d left it too late to go. She knew that now and was resigned to her fate. But she had one last task she had to complete.

Lilian would by now be pacing the beach beside the small rowing boat, ready to deliver her to the waiting ship, on which they should have taken the first leg of their journey to a new world, a new beginning. Jacqueline noted that the curtain of fog remained. Good, for Lilian would need all the cover she could muster.

Lilian, her confidante and cousin, who was willing to leave the island of their birth, this spiritual home of their people, leave her own family, her parents and siblings, and accompany Jacqueline into a future which was oblique and clouded, no matter how hard they scryed. Lilian was not yet seventeen, young and untutored in the higher ways. Now she would have to manage on her own as best she could, without Jacqueline.

Jacqueline rubbed a delicate hand over her eyes. She was tired and ached in every limb, in each part of her. For once in her life, she didn’t know what to do, who to turn to.  Her father had entrusted her, on his deathbed, with a great secret, one even now, months later, she found it hard to truly understand the magnitude of. Their people’s ways were ancient and powers manifold but the knowledge her father had passed on to her surpassed anything known to exist, it could topple kingdoms and rule worlds. The secret had taken her young husband’s life and left her a widow at 23. And now it was going to take the only thing she had left. Life.

She could not fight Bellemont, for she just did not possess the strength. She was weakened and fearful and had more to concern herself with than her own miserable life. Besides, the minister knew she was a true believer and would not break the sacred covenants, she would not allow the ungifted to see what her kind was capable of. The laughable part was that all she had to do was show her powers, and Bellemont’s task would be done for him. The villagers, superstitious creatures that they were, would have her charged and sentenced to death in the tremor of a heartbeat.

Jacqueline’s light voice rang out as she spoke to the empty room and the silent shade of a memory. “Well Papa, time for this to be finished, at least in this lifetime.”

Crossing to a wall of leather and cloth bound books she carefully selected a dozen, which had been spread about the shelves in a haphazard order. The numerous journals were unremarkable, covered in plain coarse leather and tied with thin bands of braided, woven material. Flicking through one she noted the cramped, almost illegible writing, the ink-stained pages, such an insignificant memorial to a proud man’s life. Jacqueline quickly re-tied the bindings on the book she had opened, all the while whispering under her breath.

Satisfied that all was secure, she slowly turned in a circle, the journals held tight against her breast, quick eyes surveying the library as she sought what was necessary. Her gaze came to rest on a beloved tapestry wall hanging. Depicted through the colourful threads and sharp needles of a long-ago craft woman was the ancient tale of how Morgan Le Fey, half-sister to King Arthur of Camelot, redeemed herself forever by leading Arthur safely through the mists to the fabled Isle of Avalon and the healing that awaited him there. That would do. Protection, healing and redemption.

Laying the books carefully on the desk Jacqueline pulled a three-legged wooden footstool over to the wall, and perching precariously on the stool, she tugged and pulled at the material until the hanging fell loose and crumpled to the floor. She paused for a moment to gain her breath before carrying on with her task.

Laying the tapestry flat, she piled the books into its centre and, putting a sprig of what looked like a small leaf-covered tree branch atop the books, drew the corners up to make a neat bundle. Holding the gathered edges in one hand, Jacqueline used the other to untie the ribbon that bound her hair, releasing her dark locks which tumbled about her shoulders. She quickly used the shiny black fabric to secure the material together.

She heard a crashing sound, followed by a thunderous roar. They had broken through. Jacqueline rose to her feet, a hand placed on her aching back as she hefted the bundle into her arms, which she held outstretched, grimacing a little at the weight, which was disproportionate for books so slight. Perhaps the importance of the words was trying to break through. Then she spoke the words taught to her by her father, and passed to him by his, should there ever be a need to hide their family records. That time was here.

“By all that is sacred, by Imbolc, by Eostre, by Beltain, by Samhain,  protect these words and hide their powers through the years to eternity, held safe to await the key, the thirteenth key, to release them. Bid my words and heed my plea.” The last was screamed as fire engulfed the bundle in Jacqueline’s hand and, in a blinding light, it disappeared. The voices and pounding feet rumbled closer.

There were no options left, bar the one of acceptance.

Jacqueline walked with the dignity of a queen; head held high, as she moved towards the  Hall, and motioned for the door keep to open the massive oak entrance. There would be no one left of her line. Her family had failed, and she had failed her family.

As the massive oak front door swung open, she stood in isolation as the once devoted servants seemed to blend into the dark of the shadows, not wishing to be associated this one last time with the House of De Frais.

The crowd had broken through the gates and were teeming over the lawns, like so many swarming soldier ants; at their head, the man Jacqueline knew was the cause of the animosity towards her family. He’d soon have his way. Bellemont wanted this house, this land; he craved their knowledge and power, their secrets. He wanted all, wanted everything. She could no longer hope to stop him.” To be continued

©Kelly Clayton 2019


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