Authors: Karen Maitland
Karen Maitland travelled and worked in many parts of the United Kingdom before finally settling in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln. Her debut novel,
The White Room
, was shortlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award.
an imprint of
Published by the Penguin Group
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Published in 2008
Copyright © Karen Maitland, 2008
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
The truth is often a terrible weapon of aggression.
It is possible to lie, and even to murder, for the truth.
Alfred Adler, psychiatrist
Wir haben die Lüge nötig… um zu leben.
We need lies… in order to live.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, philosopher
‘So that's settled then, we bury her alive in the iron bridle. That'll keep her tongue still.’ The innkeeper folded his arms, relieved that they had finally agreed on that much at least. ‘Iron'll counter any curses she makes. Stop anything, iron will. One of the most powerful things you can get to work against evil, saving the host and holy water. 'Course, it'd be better if we had some of that and all, but we don't, not with things being the way they are. But iron'll do just as well.’
His wife snorted. ‘Tell that to our neighbours. There's not a door or shutter in the village that's not covered with iron horseshoes, but we might as well have hung chicken feathers on doors for all the protection they've given us.’
Her husband glared at her. ‘But if the bridle gags her then she'll not be able to utter any curses, will she? So, iron or not, it'll still work.’
‘But suppose she doesn't die?’ the potboy wailed. ‘Suppose she claws her way out through the earth and comes for us in the dead of night?’ He stared round nervously at the door as if he could already hear her scratching at it. ‘Couldn't we drive an elder stake through her heart afore we bury her? Then we'd know for sure she's dead.’
‘God's bones, boy! Are you going to volunteer to drive a
stake into her while she sits there watching you? Because I'm certainly not.’
The potboy shook his head vehemently and shrank lower on his stool, as if terrified someone was going to thrust a stake into his hands and make him do it.
With an exasperated sigh, the innkeeper surveyed the dozen or so men and women slumped on the benches of his gloomy ale room. Though it was still daylight outside, the shutters were fastened tight and the door bolted. Not that the bolts were necessary, force of habit really. It just felt safer to draw a bolt. But bolts would not stop her finding out what was being planned, and as for passing strangers bursting in, no one, unless he had a death wish, would approach within ten yards of a building whose doors and shutters were closed, however desperate they were for a drink or a bite to eat.
The innkeeper had every reason to be impatient. If they didn't get the matter settled soon, it would be too late to act before dark. To face her in daylight was bad enough, to try to kill her at night, with only a candle standing between you and her powers, was enough to turn the bravest man's bowels to water, and after twenty-three years of marriage the innkeeper had no illusions that he was a brave man.
The blacksmith's voice boomed out deep and resonant from the alcove where he squatted in his favourite seat, his broad buttocks spilling over the well-worn bench. ‘Bridle her and bind her tight, cover her in a foot or so of earth, then once she's smothered to death, I'll drive an iron stake into her through the soil. That ought to do it.’ He rubbed an itching flea bite on his back against the rough wall. ‘I'll do it just as the moon rises; it'll impale her spirit in the grave. She'll not rise then.’
The tanner took a gulp of ale and wiped his mouth on
the back of his hand. ‘But I've heard tell, the only sure way is to slice the head off with a gravedigger's spade – once she's good and dead, of course.’
‘That's the way to kill a vampire, but she's not one of them, leastways, there's been no talk of that.’ This from the old woman at the back. Old and frail now, she'd birthed most of the people in the village and seen them buried too.
‘Who knows what she is or what she could turn into once she's dead? She's not natural, that's for sure.’
Several heads nodded in agreement with the tanner. That was about the only thing they were agreed upon. In all the hours of discussion no one had uttered her name, not even the potboy. Even he knew there are some things it is wiser not to name aloud.
‘I'm still of a mind we should burn her,’ the old woman said. ‘There'd be no chance of her rising then.’
‘But she's not a heretic,’ the innkeeper protested. ‘It would be better for all of us if she was. Heretics' souls fly straight to hell. God alone knows where her soul would fly, into the nearest living thing, I wouldn't wonder, be it man or beast, and then we'd be left with a monster ten times worse.’
‘Father Talbot would know the words to send her soul to hell,’ the old woman persisted stubbornly.
‘Aye, he would, but he's dead, don't you remember? As is half the village and we'll all be joining them if we don't find a way to kill her first. And since there's not a single priest left within four days' ride of here, we must make shift to do it ourselves. We can't go on arguing how it's to be done. We must finish her today, before the sun goes down. We daren't risk leaving her alive another night.’
The blacksmith nodded. ‘He's right. Every hour she's alive she grows stronger.’
The innkeeper heaved himself up off the bench in an
attempt to put paid to any further discussion. ‘So then, we're all resolved,’ he said firmly. ‘She's to be buried alive in the bridle. Then once she's dead, William'll fix her in her grave with the iron stake. The only thing left to decide now is who's going to put the bridle on her.’
He looked hopefully around the room, but no one met his eyes.
They say that if you suddenly wake with a shudder, a ghost has walked over your grave. I woke with a shudder on that Midsummer's Day. And although I had no way of foreseeing the evil that day would bring to all of us, it was as if in that waking moment I felt the chill of it, glimpsed the shadow of it, as if something malevolent was hovering just out of sight.
It was dark when I woke, that blackest of hours before dawn when the candles have burnt out and the first rays of sun have not yet pierced the chinks in the shutters. But it wasn't the coldness of the hour that made me shiver. We were packed into the sleeping barn too snugly for anyone to feel a draught.
Every bed and every inch of floor was occupied by those who had poured into Kilmington for the Midsummer Fair. The air was fetid with sweat and the belches, farts and stinks from stomachs made sour by too much ale. Men and women grunted and snored on the creaking boards, groaning as here and there a restless sleeper, in the grip of a bad dream, elbowed his neighbours in the ribs.
I seldom dream, but that night I had dreamt and the dream was still with me when I woke. I had dreamt of the
bleak Lowland hills they call the Cheviots, where England and Scotland crouch, battle-ready, staring each other down. I saw them as plainly as if I had been standing there, the rounded peaks and turbulent streams, the wild goats and the wind-tossed rooks, the Pele towers and the squat Bastle farmhouses. I knew them well. I had known that place from the day I first drew breath; it was the place I had once called home.
I had not dreamt of it for many years. I had never returned to it. I could never return. I knew that much on the day I walked away from it. And through all the years I have tried to put it from my mind and, mostly, I have succeeded. There's no point in hankering for a place where you cannot be. Anyway, what is home? The place where you were born? The place where you are still remembered? The memory of me will have long since rotted away. And even if there were any left alive who still remember, they would never forgive me, could never absolve me for what I have done. And on that Midsummer's Day, when I dreamt of those hills, I was about as far from home as it is possible to be.