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Need more provisions before more snow comes. The sky lies. I feel it in my aching old bones. But what did a cat know or care about his rheumatic bones, or about the snow for that matter? All Elsa cared for was that she was warm and well fed and had a friendly knee on which to lay her head. Bentley lifted the knapsack up from the floor and slung it on his back; he turned and glanced to the fire, having banked it up earlier — smothered the flames with ash — in the hope that the fire would remain alive and keep his home warm until he returned.

Thick white smoke wormed a tortured path up the chimney breast, fighting against a persistent down-draft. The cat turned also and trod softly to the fireside where she sat licking her forepaws, glancing occasionally to him. The old man watched his loyal feline companion lay down and stretch out on the warm hearth. Too cold out today. Too darn cold for cats. Too darn cold by far. The contented feline cast her waning gaze in his direction once more and then closed her eyes.

A bitter wind greeted the old man as he opened the door. After hesitating, he took a deep breath and then stepped out into the cold morning air, closing the door quickly behind him. He adjusted his clothing, glanced briefly to the smoke rising from the crooked metal chimney that protruded through the roof of his cottage, and then set out in the direction of the village, striding with unexpected vigour across the crisp ankle-deep snow. Dinnertime approached and the children, wet and cold from playing in the snow, made off at intervals for their homes.

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The prospect of a hot meal and the chance to restore feeling to fingers and toes, chilled beyond numbness and turning painful, had lessened the attraction of the snow. Their busy lips expelled misty breaths into the midday air. Of what did they speak? Grief-stricken mourners strode wearily into the cold, wet churchyard, walking without speaking until reaching the newly-dug grave. They shuffled around its four sides and stood staring into its gloomy depths, watching as the tiny wooden coffin, with its luckless occupant sealed inside, succumbed to the insatiable earth.

Hands clasped tight in prayer trembled, and cold lips quivered amid much sniffing and weeping as voices, tremulous and breaking, pleaded with the Lord to take better care of the infant whose visit to earth had all too soon ended. They prayed, too, that Alice might be the last to fall victim to the plague, the cruel plague that had blighted the lives of so many.

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But in their hearts they knew that Alice Mayhew would not be the last. Soil, released from unwilling hands, pattered a hallowed lament upon the coffin lid. Teetering precariously over the edge of the grave, she appeared about to topple in when rough hands seized her ankles and drew her back. Shrieks of protest violated the silence and the men set her free.

Undeterred, Joan Mayhew scurried back to the grave of her child on her hands and knees, bemoaning the injustice of her miserable existence. The burly gravedigger, leaning his bulk on a spade, looked scornfully upon the grieving mother — his dispassionate gait owing much to the procession of misery he had witnessed over the years — shaking his head and dislodging the rain from his brow. With disdainful eyes, he then glanced heavenwards while feet, encased in laceless boots, shifted slowly in the sticky earth. He returned his gaze earthward, yanked the spade from the earth and thrust it into the soil piled high around the grave.

Stones dislodged by petulant action danced upon the coffin lid.

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A grin curled the corners of his lips and, after propping the spade shaft against his thighs, he lifted both hands to his mouth and spat into each palm. Rubbing them together while eyeing the mourners, before picking up his spade, bending his back low and setting about his labour, shovelling the earth, stones and severed tree roots back into the dark hole. Alice Mayhew was no more. Gabriel Mayhew seized his opportunity; he clambered upon a makeshift platform, anxiously seeking his wife. He found her lying on her stomach upon the muddied earth, overcome by grief, her body convulsing and her fingers curling and unfurling.

Gabriel inhaled deeply, he drew the back of a clenched fist across his mouth and turned to the stooped figures shuffling away. The departing mourners halted and turned.


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His eyes were wide and wild, his breathing heavy. The mourners listened in silence, focusing upon him.

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Be brave. Protect your children while they yet live. Do not do as I and wait not for the curse of Murdac to strike.

For then it is too late. The reviled name spoken out loud drew gasps from the crowd, heightening their fears, giving rise to questioning exchanges. But what could be done against the will of the Lord? The cloudless sky stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, but the bright winter sun provided little warmth. Excitable children, though, are immune from the cold, and to the three friends the sub-zero temperature was barely noticeable.

For the umpteenth time, Ruth, Abigail and Morton set off down the steep slope on their flimsy wooden sledge, fast and precarious over the snow. It lay at an ideal depth for sledging; deep enough to allow the conveyance to glide easily over it, but not too deep to ensnare the runners and slow it down. The thrill, intermingled with fear, bestowing a delicious sensation that animated the three friends as the sledge sped faster and faster down the hill, bouncing over ridges and leaping into the air, skewing this way and that. After veering suddenly left, Ruth and Morton were catapulted from it; over and over they rolled in the powdery, cold snow.

Abigail, the least experienced in the art of sledging, had somehow managed to cling on; and with the load lightened, the sledge sped faster than ever down the steep incline. Ruth and Morton, rendered insensible from giggling, rose from the snow together and watched their friend. Morton looked on with envy, hoping that Abigail would fall from it too. But she did not fall off, and the sledge came to a halt at the foot of the hill.

Abigail, relieved that her moment of terror was over, but reluctant to show it, dismounted and turned to her approaching friends. Abigail, eager to assist, hurried to her side. The three children were suitably dressed to combat the cold on that bitter December day. They wore extra layers of woollens beneath heavy overcoats, wellington boots to keep their feet dry, thick woollen gloves on their hands and scarves that were wrapped several times around slender necks.

Morton appeared burdened within the long black overcoat that he wore, being several sizes too large for his small frame — he was shorter than both girls — the ragged hem flapped only inches above his ankles. A dark blue balaclava, knitted some time ago by his mother, kept his head and neck warm.

Ruth ignored him and kicked harder. The sledge gathered speed quickly, almost unbalancing her as raced from her reach. The sledge sped away down the ridged hill, skewing one way and then the other, bouncing off a furrow and leaping high into the air. It landed on one runner and flipped over, throwing Morton from it. He rose quickly spitting out snow, but giddy with laughter. Ruth and Abigail, laughing hysterically, joined him.

Morton removed a wellington boot and rested his stockinged foot upon the upturned sledge, he upturned the boot and slapped the floppy rubber sides to clear out the snow that had worked its way inside.

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When her dog reached her side, she bent and lifted the animal from the snow, setting him down on the sledge. Sputnik had other ideas and jumped from the sledge the instant that it moved. Barking maniacally, he began circling the children again and again until he must have been dizzy. Bedrooms: 3. Sleeps: 5.

Property Manager. Enquiries Member Since Languages: english. Amenities Featured Heater. Bathrooms 1 Bathroom. Location Type Rural. General Heating. Kitchen Kitchen.

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