The attic always seemed a place of endless night. Lighting the lamp, Jill moved along the pathway she made the day before. Nothing to bar her way, as all the various bits of furniture and curios were moved back. She knelt and placed the lamp beside her on the floor. To her disgust, she found the keys were still sticky with Joe’s blood. After wiping them on the leg of her jeans, she tried each one in the lock. The catch gave way, and she sat back on her heels, her heart beating faster as she envisioned the things she would find inside. Reaching tentatively out, she rested her fingers against the wood for a moment before lifting the lid. The smell emanating from inside was overpowering, and she drew back a little. Bess yawned; the scent had roused her from her sleep. The sound broke the silence of the room and caused Jill’s heart to leap.
“God, that’s bad,” she wafted her hand to disperse the small cloud of dust rising from the trunk’s innards.
It was the odour of musk and decay. Once the initial blast of trapped air passed, it diluted to a more acceptable smell one of herbs, old cloth and the dry, familiar scent of books.
Jill leaned in and started to remove the contents. There were numerous jars, labelled with the names of plants and roots she never heard of before. Some were reduced to dust in their long wait, and she held them up against the lamp for a better view. Others were darker and forbidding, and she shook their containers to make sure they were what they seemed, long dead things. It took her quite a while to empty all the jars from the trunk, and it was only when she had done this that she was able to see what else it held. A dry stick made of wood and wrapped with a sort of ivy leaf. Jill brought it to her nose and sniffed. It smelled of the forest, and the brittle berries still clinging to the vine told her it was, in fact, mistletoe.
Laying it to one side, she reached in and tried to withdraw a large, cloth-wrapped bundle. It was heavy and she was forced to stand to lift it out. It landed on the floor with a resounding thud, and as she started to open the folds of the material, Bess got up to see what she was doing. The books, that had up to now been hinted at appeared. Bess sniffed and pushed her nose so close against them Jill had to push her away, afraid she would damage them. Though there was nothing about the faded covers to give any indication as to what the brown-edged pages held Jill imagined she felt their energy flow through her fingers every time she touched them.
She smiled, when she opened the cover of the top copy, and saw her grandmother’s familiar scrawl. It was a diary of sorts, but not one that held old family recipes or told stories about the day to day running of the farm. Instead it listed cures and charms. How the roots and herbs in the jars must be used for healing. Some small sheets of paper, whiter than the pages, were stuck in the centre of the book, and Jill pulled them from their hiding place. It was a letter addressed to her, and from the date on the top, she saw it was been written three years before her grandmother died. Her knees ached from kneeling on the hard-wooden floorboards, so she eased her way down, and pulled the lamp closer in order to read.
My dearest granddaughter
I know the time I foretold has now come to pass and I weep for your sorrow. Though I have no idea what it is that blights your life, I pray the answer lies within the pages of the books set out before you.
Jill looked at the stack on the floor and wondered how her grandmother knew so much. She felt her presence in the air all around her, urging her on.
Ours is the knowledge of centuries past, and though you do not know it yet, you were chosen to carry on my work. I wonder if your mother has told you about your ancestor, Isabelle. If not, let me give you a brief outline. She was just sixteen when they burned her as a witch. You will see from her records that she, like you, was born with the power, but her beauty was her downfall. It was easy in those far off days to accuse a woman of being a witch, of casting an enchantment spell on a man. A woman in the village pointed the finger at her, saying she had bewitched her husband, and the innocent child was murdered because of this. The same family still resides in the village today. There is no need to give you their name; instinct will warn you of them.
She could hear her grandmother’s sigh of resignation, as she read the next line.
Nothing much has changed throughout the centuries, and women are still not kind to their own sex.
Do not be afraid to use any of the spells that lie within the covers of the books. There is nothing in there that can harm you, or another living soul. We do not consort with those who practise the dark arts, but should your need be great then your ally is among the dead. A soul that does not rest cannot be disturbed. The gift you possess can be a dreadful one, and the art of the Necromancer is rarely used, except in the direst of circumstances. Calling on the dead takes courage, but if you need their help, do not hesitate. I know, my dearest child you would not do so unless all was lost, and though I would like to tell you that it does not have a price, I cannot vouch that it will not leave some dark stain on your soul.
There are maps, charts and other instruments in the cupboard beside the trunk. Never stray from the instructions, and protect yourself with the cloak, and other symbols of light, you will find as your search for knowledge continues. Know this child, those of us who have gone before are watching over you and will guide your steps. Never fear and never falter once you have chosen your path, and remember I am with you always.
Love, until the end of time
Jill was crying when she finished reading. The loss of her grandmother hurt more than ever and added to her pain. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hands, she pushed the letter back inside the book and began to read. Hours flew by with nothing to disturb her. She drank in each word of the diary, and then moved on to the next book. This one was over two hundred years old, the date proclaimed, and it harder to understand, as the words were sometimes spelled differently. There were some things written within the pages that made her shiver. The writer recalled dark days, when ignorance and superstition ruled, and those with the power to heal were spat upon. Here too she found the spells of her ancestors and was careful to replace the pages in the right order as some had come loose from their bindings.
She dropped the book she was holding. Bess jumped at the sound and looked towards the attic door. The voice came again.
“Hello, is anyone home? Jill are you there?”
Christ! Jill stood and picked up the lamp. This was one of the worst things about the country. People tended to walk in when their knocking went unanswered. If that happened in the city, they would be arrested.
“I’m just coming down,” Jill called. “Wait there.”
She extinguished the lamp, and beckoned Bess to follow her down. When she got to the top of the stairs, she saw it was Tom, Rachael’s father who called her.
“Sorry,” he pointed to the front door. “It was open.”
“That’s okay.” she walked down to him. “I was in the attic. That’s why I didn’t hear you. Any news from the search?”
“No, nothing, I’m sorry,” he shook his head. “But I thought I’d come out and see how you were.”
“That’s very kind of you,” she led him into the kitchen. “Would you like a coffee?”
“Thanks,” he sat down at the table, and watched as she threw sods of turf into the remnants of the fire.
“It shouldn’t take long,” she assured him.
She sat opposite him as she waited for the kettle to boil. At first, he seemed lost for words, and the silence between them was uncomfortable. Finally, he spoke.
“Do you mind if I run something by you?”
“No,” she was glad of anything that would ease the tension.
“I have a theory. It’s nothing positive, but I think that it’s someone close to the children who has been taking them.”
“Like a teacher, or….? Jill left the words hanging.
“Yes, that’s what I mean. Someone who has access to them. It could be someone in the shop where they buy their sweets, anyone.”
“Toby doesn’t know anyone around here, and he never goes to the shops on his own.”
“I don’t know what to think,” Tom laced his fingers together to stop them shaking. “But I have a gut feeling it’s someone close to home.”
“Did Rachael go to the same school as Toby?”
“No,” he had to agree that this trail seemed unlikely. “But they do bring the schools together, for sports days and the like.”
“Still, it’s farfetched,” she got up and walked over to the fire.
The dry turf started to blaze as soon as it had hit the embers and the water was now bubbling and spitting. Swinging the arm out from the fire, she wrapped a cloth around the handle of the pot and carried it back to the table. After filling the waiting mugs with boiling water, she placed the kettle back on the hearth.
He sipped his coffee and played with the small granules of sugar that had fallen on the wood.
“Listen,” he cleared his throat,” I’m sorry, if I’ve upset you with my stupid theories.”
“No, you haven’t,” she assured him. “What you said has a ring of truth to it, and it can be no crazier than what I’m planning to do.”
She was saved from having to explain by Bess scratching on the door, begging to be let out. It was dark outside, the yard lit only by the ghostly white light of the full moon. When Jill came back into the kitchen, she looked at the clock on the dresser, and was surprised to see it was gone eight.
“You were saying?” Tom asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” she blushed a little at the thoughts of having to explain about her grandmother’s books.
“No, go on,” he urged. “Anything is worth a try.”
“You’ll think I’m mad,” she warned, before telling about what she had found in the attic.
When she finished speaking, she held up her hand.
“I know, I know, it’s crazy; you don’t have to tell me.”
He said nothing for a moment, and it was impossible to read his face.
“May I see them?”
“What,” she was amazed. “The books?”
“Yes, I’d like to, if you don’t mind?”
“I don’t want to bring them down here. They’re very old, and the air in the attic is dry and suitable for storage.”
“Could I go up there?”
She thought for a moment, and then shrugged. What harm could it do?
“There’s no electricity,” she warned him, as they climbed the stairs. “I have an old lamp, but the oil is running low, and I can’t find any in the house.”
“Bourke’s, in the village stocks that sort of thing. I’ll get you some in the morning.”
He waited as she lit the lamp and followed her along the walkway to the back of the attic.
“It’s easier if you sit,” Jill helped him push aside an old mirror so he could join her on the floor.
“Wow.” He picked up the oldest of the books. “This is something else.”
“I know,” Jill listed the things each of the books contained. “I haven’t got to that one yet,” she nodded at the book in his hand.
He started to read, and she went back to studying where she’d left off. Like Jill, Tom became absorbed in the book, and did not feel the time passing. It wasn’t until his fingers grew stiff that he stopped reading.
“It’s freezing up here,” he said.
“I know,” she blew on her fingers, trying to breathe life back into them.
He looked at his watch.
“It’s after midnight,” he said, surprised the time had passed so quickly. “I better make a move.”
Jill picked up the lantern and led the way out. After sleeping late, she wasn’t tired, and planned to return to her studying once Tom left. She saw, as she passed the small attic window, the sky heavy with stars, an obvious sign of frost. As they walked down the stairs, she silently whispered a prayer for her son. She knew nothing would be gained from her weeping, and there was still a lot to learn from the books.
She shivered at the icy blast from the front door. Bess and her pups came bounding up when they saw them appear.
“I’d like to come back in the morning, if I may,” Tom said. “To continue reading that book, if you have no objection?”
“No, its fine,” she said. She tried to smile, but the movement felt alien. “Then you don’t think I’m mad?”
“I never thought so in the first place,” he assured her. “Or maybe we’re both mad and we just don’t know it.”
“We haven’t got long, you know” she couldn’t find the words. “It’s been over thirty-six hours.”
“I know I’ll be back at first light,” Tom said. “I need to find your son. I don’t want you to suffer as we did, and if we find him,” he corrected himself, “when we find him, I’ll know what happened to Rachael.”
After refilling the dogs’ bowls and watching them eat, Jill locked them in the outbuilding. There was the usual protest from Bess, but she ignored this.
The whole yard seemed to sparkle under the light of the moon. Frost glistened on the walls and turned the moss and cobwebs to something magical. After locking the front door, Jill filled a glass with water and carried it back up into the attic. It was a long time till dawn, and she knew, despite the cold, the excitement she felt when reading the books, would keep her awake. Closing her eyes, she reached out to her son and whispered.
“Don’t be afraid, Toby, I’m coming to get you, and I’m not alone.”