Authors: Helen Slavin
The Ice King
A Witch Ways Whisper
Vanessa Way: age 10
Cob Cottage sat on the rough grass by the shore of Pike Lake. The building, long, low and curved like a sleeping fox, was older than anyone could remember and every scrap that contributed to its walls had been picked up from the land within Havoc Wood. The earth it was moulded from, pebbles, sand and loam dug and scraped from the shoreline; the wood that lent bones to the structure was a skeleton of Havoc elm and oak; lake water, clear and cold had emulsified the mud with grasses, and fox fur and horse hair to strengthen. Even the glass for the vast round picture window had been blasted out of the sand on the shoreline.
Hettie Way, Gamekeeper, returning from her afternoon patrol, looked up, glimpsed the higgledy piggledy thatched cone shapes that made up the roofline of her home and turned left. It was not long before she was stepping out from the trees at the eastern side of the house, feeling the soft tussocky grass beneath her feet, before the soft clump of her footsteps on the weathered wooden porch. She stepped in through the double doors which creaked open for her.
Inside, the cottage was warmed by the sunlight that fell through the kitchen skylights. Hettie reached for a glass and filled it with water from the curled brass tap and drank it looking out through the back window to where the garden was looking productive and fecund. Hettie and her daughter had been working out there for most of the weekend, weaving themselves in and out of the plot where plants and herbs and vegetables crowded in together, to shelter, help and protect each other.
Hettie sipped the water. It was cool and clear, pumped from the stream that rolled out of Havoc Wood. She took in a deep breath, the comforting scent of the cottage, of tilled earth and birds’ nests today. The low afternoon sun was starting to burnish the ochre colouring of the curving walls. Hettie watched the shadows of the leaves play on the scrubbed planks of the floor and felt settled. She shrugged deeper into the shelter of her black waxed raincoat, time to go to meet the school bus with its cargo of her greatest treasure.
Hettie Way’s daughter, Vanessa, would be eleven in a few months and was a serious girl whose head was always in a book. When they travelled into Castlebury for the big Saturday Market they would always make a stop at Comfort & Co, a vast teetering palace of books hidden inside a skinny and rather ramshackle sandstone and redbrick building off Mount Street. Hettie was more than content to allow a couple of hours for them both to wander the three storeys packed ceiling high with shelves and drift among the heavy dark tables piled deep with volumes. These were the new books but, down in the basement were the old and secondhand books, more yellowed and dishevelled than their upstairs counterparts.
As a small child, although she was not so very tall now, Vanessa had loved fairytales and story books but, school had lit some extra spark inside her and now she devoured science and drank in facts.
“I know a lot about plants and fish and animals and I could help you. I could do small errandy things for you. I could help. ” Vanessa was not whining, which made her scarier in fact. Whining, Hettie thought, she could deal with but Vanessa only dealt out logic. They stood in the kitchen at Cob Cottage and Hettie looked at the determination in her daughter’s face.
“The Lake is dangerous. The jobs I must do as Gamekeeper are sometimes dangerous. We have talked about this before.” Hettie smiled but Vanessa was not convinced.
“I am old enough. I’m going to secondary school in September. And if things are dangerous then there should be two of us. I could run for help.”
Hettie relented a little. She was not expecting trouble today so what harm could be done? She considered it might be better to take Vanessa this time so that the Lake was not so temptingly forbidden. It occurred to her to make the patrol today as boring as possible, so boring that Vanessa would not wish to come along again.
Another part of Hettie Way understood that a turning point was being reached in their life at Pike Lake. Vanessa was of an age, the lake and its environment would be a test and Hettie would know, one way or another, where her daughter’s future might lie. This part of Hettie Way had spoken out before, waking her at night in a sweat and having to be patient, knowing that the turning points were always reached, however much you walked away from them.
As they walked beside the lake, Vanessa’s little black notebook drew Hettie’s gaze. Vanessa took it out now and again and made a note or pinched a seedpod or leaf or flowerhead off and folded it into a page.
“These are umbelliferous…” Vanessa tilted the flowerhead of the hogweed towards her “I like the way all the tiny flowers make up one big flower…see….” Hettie did see, she remembered, that the flower was a vast constellation of tinier flowers, because Vanessa pointed it out. She had not realised how blinded she’d been, focusing on the Lake and her work and not stopping to look at the hogweed in too long a time.
“But they are poisonous too….” Vanessa warned “…the sap of it is if it gets on you…so you just have to be careful…” she stared into the flowers and Hettie was overcome for a moment, had to reach out and smooth at the soft lustrousness of her daughter’s chocolatey red hair.
“Yes, you just must…” she intoned, only just able to push the words out, there were moments when the small, infinitely burning coal of love she felt for her daughter had a burst of fire that crumbled hot embers into her chest.
“A wren…” Hettie pointed as the bird settled on a log nearby. Vanessa liked to watch birds, hence the present of binoculars last Christmas.
” Vanessa murmured to herself and Hettie smiled as they walked onward. Vanessa, after a Romans project at school, had learnt the Latin names for everything that lived or grew around the lake.
Hettie Way had always made it clear during her residence at Cob Cottage, to anyone putting any kind of bait on any sort of hook and chucking it into the water at Pike Lake; it is not fishing, it is not angling - it is poaching and it is not allowed. Most residents of Woodcastle obeyed this by-law.
These particular fishermen, however, both wearing waxed green jackets and waistcoats and floppy green waxed hats, had made a sort of camp. They had pitched a tent and two deckchairs reclined beneath a vast green umbrella alongside a selection of fish baskets, nets and angling equipment. They could, at a pinch, have caught a shark.
“You’re poaching. There’s no fishing here.” Hettie Way’s voice was strong and steady as she stepped towards the two men, one tall and lanky, the other short and stocky. Hettie was holding Vanessa’s hand very tightly.
The stocky fisherman looked unfazed.
“I don’t know who in the Girly Guides gave you your Gamekeeper’s badge love, but they were mistaken.”
“There is no fishing allowed at Pike Lake. You should pack up your kit and head on your way homeward.” Hettie Way’s voice was having a strange effect on the tall thin fisherman; he felt soothed but eager to leave. It felt as if she was promising cake but it might be poisoned. His stocky companion seemed unaffected. Hettie withdrew her mental resources, all too aware of the presence of her daughter. This was not how she had hoped the afternoon would go. Stocky gave her a sly smile.
“As I have said love, if you can show me the by-law that says I can’t fish, in season, in a public lake the…”
“This isn’t a public lake. This is Pike Lake. This is my land.” Hettie was firm but Stocky stood firmer. Lanky was, by contrast, distancing himself from the conflict by knitting something with his fishing line and curling himself smaller and smaller by the second.
“I don’t know where you think you get off…” Stocky gave a sly laugh. Hettie stared Stocky down. A heron landed, stood motionless for a moment as if uncertain whether the fishing ban also applied to him. Stocky took this opportunity to turn his gaze to the water.
“My grandfather used to fish in this lake.” Stocky sounded wistful.
“Your grandfather was a poacher.” Hettie informed him.
“I think you need to take that back, lady.” he loved the way his tongue licked at the word ‘lady’. Hettie was unmoved.
“You cannot fish in this lake. More than cannot…you must not, shall not, will not.” she said it firmly and without drama and Stocky smiled and tipped his idiotic hat. The pair reminded her of old frogs.
“Thanks for the advice there sweetheart…” he gave Lanky a conspiratorial look that was not reciprocated.
“I am warning you.” again Hettie spoke in a flat tone, not hectoring or authoritative, just, factual. Stocky nodded.
“Yeah.Yeah. Run along and call the coppers then Sweetheart. You warn away…” he made a snicking sound with the reel of his fishing rod.
There were the lores and geis in place that crossed and plumbed the lake. Hettie Way was, as she had stated, there to act as steward and gamekeeper. To warn.
“There is no fishing allowed here.” as Hettie spoke Stocky made a yapping gesture with his hand,
“Yah-dah yah-dah yap yap.” he sneered and reached for a beer, the can popped open with a hiss. He took a glugging swig and the smell, sour and bitter, drifted up to Vanessa.
Stocky man gave a smirk “You fancy a crack at catching the monster pike yourself then? Is that it sweetheart?” he smiled, an unpleasant, greasy expression that was quickly hidden by the can of beer.
“There is no fishing allowed at Pike Lake.” her voice was stony. Hettie took a step nearer to them and Lanky took a step back, stumbling.
“We’re on our way missus…We are on our way.” Lanky said making an attempt to fold his deck chair and pinching his fingers. “Just a couple of cans before we go… We aren’t really fishing.”
Stocky sniggered into the beer can, the last dregs of bitter snorting out through his nose. He wiped his face and, with a purposeful look to Hettie, threw the can into the lake.
What Vanessa felt was a heat that prickled out of her mother. The can, heavy with lake water, flew back from the surface of the lake and clipped the man on the temple. He gave out a loud bark and glared at her.
“OW! What the…?” he looked at the water, looked back at Hettie, less sure of himself. “What…? For Pete’s…” Stocky did not finish his sentence, he rubbed at his head, unsettled. Lanky was by now starting to fumble his belongings into his bag. Stocky glared at him.
“We’re going nowhere.” he reached to tug a sandwich box out of Lanky’s bag, Lanky gave a small protest; Stocky glared.
“Poaching’s over. Time to leave.” the growl in Hettie’s voice was very low edged, as if there was a deeper noise underneath her words and it was hard to listen to, it started to make your head ache. Above them a gull had begun to wheel in sweeping circles, casting a deep shadow.
“Time to be on your way…” As she spoke the sky clouded over a little and the brisk breeze that had been cooling in the sunlight was now chilly.
“Seriously Missus, we are on our way. Come on Mike.” Lanky was tugging at his companion’s sleeve. Stocky Mike jerked his arm away.
“In my own good time.” he looked at Hettie. The gull overhead began to wheel in deeper and deeper circles. Stocky Mike made no move to leave, he stepped forward, adjusted his fishing line.
“I wouldn’t do that.” Hettie’s voice warned. Stocky Mike gave a loud burp. As he did so the line twitched, and again, heavily. Gleeful, and with a triumphant glance to Hettie, Stocky Mike took hold of the rod.
“What did I tell you Jamie boy? What did I say?” his tongue was out, lolloppy looking and greedy, he began to wrestle and run the reel.
Hettie gave herself a moment. There was a scent in the air, a cold dankness familiar to her that made the hair on the back of her neck prickle. The urge to run away was very strong but she fought it, she concentrated upon keeping her heartbeat steady and her mind focused on her gamekeeping. In the sky overhead the gull began to glide on shallower turns.
“Let it go.” Hettie’s voice reverberated in Vanessa’s head and chest like a drum.
“No chance.” Stocky Mike had worked himself into a sweaty little frenzy, the reel was rolling out of his control, the whizzing sound metallic and echoing across the stillness of the water. Had these two not seen how still the water had become? Hettie willed them to take notice of their surroundings but Stocky’s mind was almost beyond her, a small box and she rapped hard on its surface with her mental fist.
The rod was curling now, the reel whirring and Stocky, cutting his fingers, catching his thumbs, straining his shoulders, pinching his back, his feet sliding in the pebbles, was one footstep into the water. Vanessa felt the short burst of heat from her mother once more and as she did so, the wheeling gull cried out one long hammering call before releasing a huge off-white splat of bird shit. It splathered down Stocky Mike’s back. He yelled out and recoiled.
“Ugh.” he grunted, his face was turning purple with the effort of controlling the rod, Hettie could hear the tension twanging in his sinews. Lanky Jamie’s heart beat like a rabbit’s, his face looking out across the water.
“Mike…mate…Mike…” Lanky’s voice was higher, keener as the surface of Pike Lake lifted imperceptibly, a cold smooth wave like rolling steel coming to shore. The heat burst from Hettie once more, Vanessa’s fingers prickling with it. The gull swooped in low, once again releasing, the white and green smeared mess landing squarely on Stocky Mike’s face. He gave a cry, his hands letting go of the straining fishing rod which snapped in two, the line at once whipping up and out towards the low wave and disappearing fast with a deep ‘plonk’. The water lowered, settled, the heron took off.
Lanky looked at Hettie as Stocky Mike groaned and wiped at his face.
Lanky stared at Hettie in fear.
“I warned you.” Hettie said.
Without another word she turned Vanessa towards the wood and they began to walk quickly away. Hettie glanced down at her daughter, her small white face showing she was rattled. She reached for Vanessa’s hand once more and, with only a few more swift steps, they were in the cover of the trees. Vanessa stopped.