A Cold Season - excerpt from a new horror novel

Here's an excerpt from the new horror novel by Alison Littlewood, A Cold Season.

A dark and disturbing tale from a bold new voice in horror writing: After the battlefront death of her husband, a soldier, in the sands of the Middle East, a distraught Cass decides to move to the bucolic, picture-perfect village of Darnshaw with her teenaged son. Since Cass's website design business can be run from anywhere with an internet connection and Ben could benefit from a change of scenery, a move to the highlands village seems like just the thing.

But the locals aren't as friendly as she had hoped and the internet connection isn't as reliable as her business requires. And when Ben begins to display a hostility that is completely unlike his usual gentle nature, Cass begins to despair. Finally, the blizzards thunder through and Darnshaw is marooned in a sea of snow.

When things look their blackest, she finds one sympathetic ear in the person of her son's substitute teacher. But his attentions can't put to rest her growing anxiety about her son and her business. And soon, she finds herself pitted against dark forces she can barely comprehend. The cold season has begun.

As they approached the gates, Ben pulled away and bounded off toward a group of children. He tapped on someone's back and they put their heads together, gossiping with their hands cupped around their words. The other boy looked up, and Cass saw without surprise that it was Damon. She smiled at him, but he just stared at her.

Ben waved, ran with Damon to the entrance and was gone. Cass stopped. She could not see anyone she knew except one of the mothers Sally had introduced her to. Moira? Myra? She had long hair that hung loose, very straight down her back. Cass caught her eye and smiled. The other woman's eyes slid away and she bent to kiss her child on the cheek. Cass pursed her lips. She was sure Myra had seen her.

Mr. Remick appeared in the doorway and walked toward her, his arms spread in a welcoming gesture. "Nice to see you," he called out. "You too," said Cass, and found she meant it. She looked up at him. It struck her that his face shouldn't be attractive: the hollowed cheeks, the nose with its slight hook. His skin was dry, a little uneven, almost pockmarked, but his eyes -- they were beautiful.

Cass shook her head and tried to look as though she hadn't been staring. She couldn't think of anything to say.

"You look well, Cass. Darnshaw agrees with you," Mr. Remick said in a low, confidential voice. "It's a beautiful day."

She followed his gaze to see the sun shining on the hillside. It highlighted the brilliant snow against the sharp blue sky.

"Really," he said, "you'll love it here." He touched her arm, so lightly she wasn't sure she'd felt it, and walked off, already calling out to another parent.

Cass turned to see Myra watching her, and this time the woman was openly glaring. So that's how it was: She was jealous; all of the mothers besotted with the new teacher, and Sally no doubt starting rumors with her silly jokes. Well, Cass wouldn't let it bother her. She gave Myra a friendly smile, turned to go, and saw Lucy's Land Rover pulling into the lot. She waved and Lucy grinned as she jumped down and helped Jessica from her seat. Lucy noticed Mr. Remick too and waved, but her eyes were distant. It looked like she at least was immune to his charms.

"Funny about Mrs. Cambrey," she called out as Cass approached. Cass had almost forgotten about the teacher she'd spoken to before Ben joined the school. "She had a family problem, didn't she? I wonder how she's doing." It occurred to her that Mr. Remick's tenure at the school might be short-lived.

"I haven't heard anything. I suppose it might be a while before we do, with the phones being down in Darnshaw. She might be ready to come back, but with this snow she'll be stuck on the other side of the hills."

Cass nodded, but her thoughts were on the files, the work that was waiting to be sent to her client. It had been at the back of her mind all morning.

"Is everything okay?" "Oh yes, I'm fine."

"Sorry. It's just you look a bit tired."

Cass knew that Lucy was right, despite Mr. Remick's earlier compliment. "I didn't sleep so well. I suppose I'm still getting used to the place. It's nothing really. It's nice of you to ask."

"Well, come on," said Lucy, and took Cass's arm. "I'll give you a lift home. No, I insist. You're on the way anyway. You can thank me with a cup of tea, and show me Foxdene Mill. I'd love to see it. I'm something of a history buff, but I've never been inside -- silly really, when I drive past it all the time."

"I can even manage cookies -- despite the rationing."

"Oh heavens, has the shop closed already? Ridiculous. You'd think we were in the Arctic, not Saddleworth. Honestly, a bit of snow in this country and everything comes to a grinding halt."

Cass climbed into the Land Rover. "Some people are better equipped than others. I wish I had one of these."

The car climbed easily up the slope and onto the road. "They haven't even salted down here yet," Lucy observed, "or sent the plow. It gets worse every year. Too expensive, I suppose."

"I can't even get my car up the hill." "Have you got plenty of food?"

"Yes." They might have to skimp for a while, but it would do. "Our nearest shop's the size of a postage stamp, but we go straight to the farms in times like this. If you need anything, let me know. I keep the shelves well stocked."

"I don't suppose...?"

"What is it? Anything I can do."

"Well, it's just -- You said before that the phone lines are down in Darnshaw. I don't suppose they're still working where you live? I really need to send some files to someone and if you had e-mail..."

"No problem at all. Our phones were still on last night. Stick them on a disk for me."

Cass's face lit up. "Are you serious?"

"Of course." Lucy turned to her and laughed. "It's no problem, honestly. Happy to help out an almost-neighbor. Most people will, around here. We're not all in the Mothers' Club. I saw that Myra woman glaring at you. That'll teach you to chat up the new fella."

Cass turned, her mouth falling open, and they burst into laughter. Lucy turned the car onto the lane and braked at the top of it. The mill was golden against its black-and-white backdrop. The sun had gained a little height and its rays struck the stone, turning it the color of the desert. It was silent and still and peaceful. There was barely another house to be seen looking down the valley. Lucy caught her breath. "It really is beautiful. You lucky thing."

Cass found herself smiling. "I suppose I am," she said. How many people lived in a building like this, in countryside like this? Not many.

Then she remembered the silent halls, the sense of emptiness pressing in. "It's very quiet," she said. "I think there's only us living there -- except that someone's been getting the papers delivered. I don't suppose you know who else might have taken an apartment?"

"I'm afraid I don't. You're the first I've heard of. I dare say a few more will be snapped up once the roads clear. Then the builders will finish it, I suppose."

"I hope so. That might clear the mice." Rats, Ben had said. "Mice? Oh no! Well, I suppose it is a big empty building."

"As long as they don't swipe the bread." They were laughing again as they jumped out of the car and plowed their way to the front door. Cass's own car was buried in the snow, only a band of metal visible along the side. Everything was colorless except the stone of the mill and the scarred red door.

"Look at that," Lucy exclaimed as they drew near. She went to the door and put her hand toward the thing scratched into the wood, but drew back without touching it.

"I know," said Cass, "it's such a mess. I don't suppose it'll be painted over in a hurry either."

Lucy bit her lip. "Vandals, I suppose." She was leaning in, staring at the mark.

"What is it?"

Finally Lucy did touch it, slipping her glove from her hand and running her fingertips along the length of the cross. "It's strange," she said. "Who would use a cross in graffiti? If it was a cross of confusion, or inverted... but a normal cross? It doesn't exactly spell rebellion."

Cass nodded. "I thought it must be random, or... I don't know, part of a band logo or something." She paused. "What's a cross of confusion?"

"It's a cross that curves -- here -- into a question mark. A sign of rebellion against authority -- any authority, earthly or heavenly, or so it's believed." She grinned at Cass. "I really do like history. Well, the cross of confusion was used as a symbol in Darnshaw to gather witches together -- under its banner, so to speak. Darnshaw was something of a center for it."

"Witchcraft?" Cass was incredulous. She had heard no such stories when she'd lived here as a child--but perhaps they weren't the kind of stories to tell children.

"I'm afraid so. They say the mill workers were among the most dedicated followers. It's a bit nasty, actually: not just black candles and dancing-around-the-campfire sort of stuff, but blood rituals and sacrifice -- even children."

"They sacrificed children?"

Lucy looked away. "I did hear of one case... But it was more a matter of the children doing the sacrificing." She paused. "It was adults who planned it all, of course. They believed that the loss of innocence, by a child committing some terrible act -- well, they thought it gave them power. Nasty stuff. Of course it was years ago." She turned back to the cross. "I'm sure this is just kids messing around."

"It was here? In the mill?"

"God, no -- I'm sorry, Cass, I didn't mean to scare you. There was nothing in the mill itself, at least, not that I know of." She frowned. "It was all down by the river, I think, or out on the moor. And in the church."

"The church?" Cass's eyes widened.

"Apparently so. Christianity took over all sorts of old signs and symbols. You can still see pagan symbols in the building if you look. But it was used for worse things too, unfortunately."

All Cass could see was her father, bending toward her in his black robes, pressing dry bread onto her tongue. This is love. The commitment he'd shown, the zeal of a convert -- had he known about the church's history here?

"It'll be kids," Lucy said, "messing around. Like you said, it's probably random."

"Just kids," Cass repeated under her breath. Children, doing the sacrificing. She shivered, and looked up at the mill once more. It would be easy to let her imagination run wild, being out here alone. Too easy.

"Teenagers with nothing to do." Lucy tossed her hair back. "They're too cool for sledding these days, aren't they?"

Cass tapped the entry code into the keypad, showed Lucy inside, and made coffee, trying not to think about witches hiding around every corner.

While they chatted Cass fired up her computer, already composing in her mind the message to her client. She transferred the files onto a disk and explained to Lucy what she'd done.

"I'll let you know later if he answers," Lucy said. She sat back, taking in the high vaulted ceiling, the tall windows. "This is a great building. However did you find it? Where did you say you were from?"

"All over, really." Cass paused. "My husband was in the Army. We moved around a lot -- it was hard on Ben."

"That's rough."

"This was meant to be a permanent base, somewhere nice for him to grow up."

"It is a lovely place."

"That's what I thought. A good school too."

"You said it was meant to be a permanent base. Aren't you sure anymore?"

Cass hadn't been aware she'd said it. "I don't know. It's not like I remembered."

"You're from Darnshaw then?" Lucy sounded surprised.

"Not originally. I lived here for a while when I was young." "Well, you've not had the best welcome, with the snow and all.

But it is a good place to raise a family. It's lovely, really."

Cass looked out of the window again and saw that yes, it was. The hillside blazed with light, glowing against the crisp blue sky, which deepened in color at its zenith. She had a sudden image of Pete. In his hands he held the blue stones. They were the color of sky, and his lips were moving, but she couldn't hear the words.

"Cass, are you okay?"

"I'm sorry. I was daydreaming." Cass brushed it off, but felt tears pricking at her eyes anyway. "You're right: Darnshaw's exactly what we need--what Ben needs. It's just . . . I miss Pete so much. We both do." She paused. "He was lost in Afghanistan."

"God, Cass, I'm so sorry."

"No, no, it's not your fault. I shouldn't have said anything. We both need to move on. I shouldn't even keep saying he's lost. They said he's never coming back. Lost, I keep saying, and then I expect

Ben to understand that he's not coming home."

Lucy was silent.

"I'm sorry, going on like that. I didn't know that was coming." They sat for a while, not saying anything. Then Lucy straightened up and rose, and Cass thought she would probably never come back, but at the bottom of the stairs she turned and looked at Cass. "Listen," she said, "if you ever want to talk, it's fine. It's nice to meet someone who doesn't want to go on about the best recipe for straw berry jam, or play the 'my-kid's-better-than-yours' game."

Cass thought, You'd rather talk about dead husbands? But she smiled.

"Any time," Lucy said. "I'll see you later. I'll let you know how I get on with the e-mail."

She means it, thought Cass. She's not just trying to get away. "I'll look forward to it. And no tears, I promise." They laughed once more, and Cass waved her off. The Land Rover went steadily up the hill, leaving Cass alone at the scarred red door.

She started to go inside, then stopped and ran her fingers over the splintered wood. When she turned and looked toward the village, she could see the church spire rising blackly over the valley. Pagan signs, Lucy had said. Had her father ever mentioned such things? Cass couldn't remember.

Excerpted from A Cold Season
by Alison Littlewood
Copyright 2013
Jo Fletcher Books