When she wakes, aching and afraid in a stranger's gothic home, he tells her she was in an accident. He claims he saved her. Clare wants to leave, but a vicious snowstorm has blanketed the world in white, trapping them together, and there's nothing she can do but wait.
At least the stranger seems kind...but Clare doesn't know if she can trust him. He promised they were alone here, but she sees and hears things that convince her something else is creeping about the surrounding woods, watching. Waiting. Between the claustrophobic storm and the inescapable sense of being hunted, Clare is on edge...and increasingly certain of one thing:
Her car crash wasn't an accident. Something is waiting for her to step outside the fragile safety of the house... something monstrous, something unfeeling.
Something desperately hungry.
Release date: November 18, 2019
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 291
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Voices in the Snow
“Everything will be okay.” Clare leaned forwards, hunched against the steering wheel as she fought to see through the snow pelting her windshield. “Don’t worry about me.”
The phone, nestled in the cup holder between the front seats, crackled. Thin scraps of Bethany’s voice made it through the static, not enough for Clare to hear the words, but enough to let her know she wasn’t alone.
“Beth? Can you hear me? It’s all right.”
The windshield wipers made a rhythmic thumping noise as they fought to keep her front window clear. They were on the fastest setting and still weren’t helping much.
Clare had never seen such intense snow. It rushed around her, unrelenting. Wind forced it to a sharp angle. Even with snow tyres and four-wheel drive, the car was struggling to get through the mounting drifts.
The weather forecast hadn’t predicted the storm. Clare had been miles from home by the time the snow began. She couldn’t stop. It was too dangerous to turn back. Her only choice was to press forwards.
“Beth, I can barely hear you.”
Even through the static, Clare could hear the panic in her sister’s voice. She tightened her fingers on the steering wheel and forced a little more speed into the accelerator. “Yes. I’m on my way to get her. I’ll be there soon.”
That had been the plan: collect Marnie then drive to her sister’s house. Beth’s property had a bunker. They would be safe there, even as the world collapsed around them.
Clare had been asleep when the first confused, incoherent stories appeared on social media. She’d been in her kitchen, waiting for the coffeepot to finish brewing when the reports made it to an emergency news broadcast. She kept her TV off on Sundays. If not for Beth, Clare might have remained oblivious, curled up with a good book, and been trying to pretend that Monday would never arrive.
But Beth watched the news. She’d seen the blurry, shaky footage taken just outside of London, and she had started rallying their small family. “We’ll be safer together,” she’d said. “We’ll look after each other.”
That included not just the sisters but their aunt, Marnie. She lived on a farm an hour from Clare’s house. Her only transportation was a tractor. Clare and Beth made time to visit her regularly, checking that she was all right and bringing her extra supplies when she needed them. She was the closest family they had. Now that the world was crumbling, there was no way Clare could leave their aunt alone to fend for herself.
“Op—stop—stop!” The static faded, and Beth’s voice became clear. She sounded like she was crying. “Stop! Please!”
“Beth?” Clare didn’t move her eyes from the road. Soon, she would be at the forest. The trees would block out the worst of the snow and give her some respite. Until then, she just had to focus on moving forwards and staying on the road.
“It’s too danger—s—turn ba—”
“I’m picking up Aunt Marnie.” Clare flicked her eyes away from the road just long enough to check the dashboard clock. “I’ll be there before noon, as long as none of the roads are closed. We’ll phone you and make a new plan then.”
She’d thrown supplies into the back of her car before leaving: tinned food, jugs of water, and spare clothes. Worst-case scenario, she could stay at Marnie’s place for a few days until the snow cleared. Marnie might not have a bunker, but Clare wanted to believe they would be safe—in spite of what the news said.
The storm seemed to be growing worse. She could barely see ten feet ahead of her car. Massive snowdrifts were forming against ditches and hills, but the wind was vicious enough to keep the powder from growing too deep on the road. Even so, her car was struggling. Clare forced it to move a fraction quicker. She couldn’t see the forest but knew it wasn’t far away. Once she was inside, she would be able to speed up.
A massive, dark shape appeared out of the shroud of white. It sat on the left side of the road, long and hulking, and Clare squinted as she tried to make it out. It was only when she was nearly beside it that she realised she was looking at two cars, parked almost end to end, with their doors open.
“Dangerous—” The static was growing worse again. “Don’t—as—safe!”
Clare slowed to a crawl and leaned across the passenger’s seat as she tried to see inside the cars’ open doors. Snow had built up on the seats. The internal lights were on, creating a soft glow over the flecks of white. In the first car, children’s toys were scattered around the rear seat. A cloth caterpillar hung above the window, its dangling feet tipped with snow.
Clare frowned. There was nothing but barren fields and patchy trees to either side of the road. The owners couldn’t have gone far in the snow. She hoped a passing traveller had picked them up.
Or maybe they hadn’t left willingly. A surreal, unpleasant sensation crawled through her stomach. The cars’ doors hung open, and the keys were still in the ignition.
She pressed down on the accelerator to get back up to speed. The steady thd thd thd of the windshield wipers matched her heart rate.
The abandoned cars had absorbed her attention, and she hadn’t realised the static had fallen quiet. She felt for the phone without taking her eyes off the road then held it ahead of herself so that she could watch both at the same time.
The call had dropped off. Clare tried redialling. The phone hung in suspense, refusing to even try to place the call.
“Come on,” Clare whispered. She pushed her car to go a little faster, even though she knew she was testing the limits of safety. Reception was bad in that area, and the storm had to be making it worse, but Beth would panic if she couldn’t reconnect.
Clare tried to place the call again. And again. And again. The phone wouldn’t even ring. She muttered and dropped it back into the cup holder so that she could give the road her full attention. As long as she made it to Marnie’s, everything else would be all right. They would find some way to contact Beth and put her mind at rest. And if it came to it, she and Marnie could hide in her rural farm until some kind of rescue arrived.
Something small and dark darted past her car. Reflexively, she jerked the steering wheel and only just managed to correct it before the car began to spin. Clare pressed one hand to her racing heart and clenched the wheel with the other.
What was that? A fox?
It had looked too large for a fox, closer to a wolf, really, and there were no wolves in the area. It had nearly stranded her, whatever it was. She needed to focus more and not let her mind wander, no matter how much it wanted to. The family had stuck together like glue her whole life. They would find a way to stick together now.
A bank of shadow grew out of the snowstorm ahead, and Clare sucked in a tight breath as she recognised what it meant. The forest. Safety. Shelter. She resisted the urge to go full throttle and instead let her car coast in under the massive pines.
Banksy Forest was a local curiosity. Rumours said the growth had started out as a pine plantation. Even two centuries later, from the right angle, the neat rows were visible. But no one had come to cut the trees down once they reached maturity, so they had been allowed to grow and die as they wished, only to be replaced by more pines and any other plants that managed to have their seeds blown or dropped among them.
The forest held an air of mystery and neglect in almost equal parts. It covered nearly forty square kilometres, dividing the countryside. The oldest trees were massive. Lichen crusted the crevices in their bark. The weary branches seemed to droop with age, and organic litter had built up across the ground in banks almost as deep as the fallen snow.
Clare could still hear the storm raging. But entering the forest was like driving into an untouched world. Snow made it through the treetops, but with no wind to whip at it, the flakes fell gently. The temperature seemed a few degrees warmer, and the car’s heater worked a little better. Instead of looking at a screen of white, Clare could see far along the path, as if she were staring into a tunnel. The forest was deeply shaded, and she kept her high beams on but turned the windshield wipers off. She breathed a sigh of relief as the rhythmic thd thd thd noise fell quiet.
The government maintained the road that ran through Banksy Forest. It was a simple two-lane highway that connected Winthrop, near Clare’s cottage, and West Aberdeen, where Bethany lived. The drive through the forest took twenty minutes, and shortly after it ended, a side road would lead Clare to Marnie’s house.
I can do this. The path was clear, so she allowed the car some more speed. As long as the storm lets up before the roads are too choked. As long as there are no accidents blocking the streets. I can do this.
She reached for the phone to try Beth’s number again, but before she could touch it, a strange noise made her look up.
Clare tried to move. She felt heavy and sluggish, like weights had been attached to all of her limbs. Her head throbbed. A slow, deep ache pulsed in her right arm.
She cracked her eyes open and flinched against the light. It wasn’t bright. In fact, the room she was in was deeply shadowed, but even the soft glow sent spears of pain through her skull.
Where is this? Directly above her was a plain cream ceiling. It seemed a long way away, though—higher than her roof at home. She forced her neck to tilt so that she could see to the side.
To her right was a large, dark wooden door and strange wallpaper. Marnie had cheerful fruit-themed wallpaper in her kitchen, but she was the only person Clare knew who still decorated with it. The grey pattern was definitely not Marnie’s warm white-and-yellow paper. It was decadent, with flourishes and floral shapes painted over a dark-blue background. The patterns were layered, weaving over and under each other and playing tricks on her eyes.
She spread her fingers to feel the surface she was on. It was soft. A bed. The crisp sheets were smoother than the ones on her bed at home.
Every movement was taxing, but she turned her head to the other side. She finally found the source of the light. Two candles were placed on a dark wood, ornately carved bedside table. Their glow was soft and warm compared to the harsh white light fighting its way through the gauzy curtains across the windows.
She blinked and squinted. Between the drapes, she was fairly sure she could see snow beating at latticed windows. The storm hadn’t abated. She didn’t know how long she’d been out of it, but she was nowhere near her car. Or anywhere else she recognised.
The last thing she remembered was driving. Driving where? To Marnie’s? It wasn’t for a regular visit… was it?
She remembered a feeling of stress. That wasn’t normal. She loved Marnie. She remembered struggling to see through the snowstorm. That was also strange. She knew better than to leave her home when the weather was like that. The risk of becoming stranded was just too great. There had been something about a phone. Did Marnie call me? Is that why I was racing to reach her?
She tried to get a sense of where she was. Three tall, narrow windows were spaced along the wall. Curtains diffused the long strips of cold, white light growing across the carpeted floor and up the opposite wall, where flames crackled in an oversized fireplace. The room was huge. Every piece of furniture was made from wood and held a sense of importance. Gilded cornices. Carvings. Intricate patterns.
Something moved, and Clare’s heart rate kicked up a notch. Throbbing pain pounded through her head, and she had to squint against it. A man stood near the closest window. His dark clothes had let him blend in with the drapes. He faced away from her, staring through the glass as he watched the snow fall. She couldn’t see much of him. He was tall, though, and wore a jacket. His hands were clasped behind his back.
Clare held perfectly still, breathing silently to avoid drawing attention. She didn’t know the house, and she didn’t know the man. The word abduction ran through her mind, and it was hard not to feel sick at the thought of it.
Quickly, Clare. Focus. Assess.
She wriggled her toes. Even that small effort was exhausting, but her toes worked at least. Without moving her head, she glanced down at her arms, which lay on top of the bed’s quilt. The right arm, the one that hurt, was swaddled in bandages from the shoulder down to the fingers. She tried flexing her hand, and the pain intensified.
She could feel more bandages on her throat, her abdomen, and her leg, but none of them hurt like her arm did.
Bandages are a good sign. You didn’t bandage people you intended to kill… unless you’re a sadist and don’t want your victim to die too quickly.
Her throat tightened, and Clare had to force her breaths back to a slow, even state to keep them quiet. Discreetly, and moving slowly, she wormed her left arm under the covers. She felt around the bandages on her midsection. They seemed to have been applied carefully. She was wearing underwear, but the rest of her clothes had been taken off.
The man swayed as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. She couldn’t get a read on him while he was facing away from her. But he was well over six feet, and broad shoulders suggested muscles hidden under his jacket.
Damn it. Clare looked back towards the door. It wasn’t far away, but its size and age made her think it wouldn’t open silently. Maybe if I had a weapon…
She looked for anything that might give her some kind of protection. The lamps fixed to the walls would make good batons, but only if she could break them free, and she didn’t know if she was capable of that. The fireside chairs and small table would be too heavy to lift. But beside the fireplace, leaning against a stack of dry wood, was a set of metal utensils, including a poker. It was on the other side of the room, which was a long way to walk without being noticed. But it was the closest thing she could see that might offer her even a shred of defence.
Moving as slowly and quietly as she could, Clare squirmed towards the edge of the bed, silently cursing every time the sheets rustled. The wind beating against the house created a soft but persistent wail, and the stranger didn’t seem to hear her. She got her legs over the edge of the bed and carefully, warily sat up. A wave of dizziness washed through her, and the headache intensified. She waited. The pain receded after a moment.
The stranger shifted again, tilting his head to look at something outside. Clare held still a moment to ensure he wasn’t about to turn to her, then she fixed her attention on the fire poker. She could try to creep to it, but she had less risk of being intercepted if she ran. She pictured what she needed to do: a dash across the room, use her uninjured left arm to snatch up the poker, swivel to face the stranger, and be prepared to swing if he was coming after her.
Her mouth was dry. Her legs shook. She took a final second to steel herself then leapt forwards.
She took one step before her knees buckled and dropped her to the ground. Clare gasped then bit down on a scream as pain tore through her arm and her midsection. Her vision flashed white as the migraine stabbed through her head. She couldn’t move. She could barely breathe.
Something large appeared at her side. The man was speaking, but her ears felt as though they had been stuffed with cotton, and she couldn’t make out any words. She clutched her good arm over the injured one, begging the pain to stop and trying not to throw up.
One arm wrapped around her shoulders, then the other slipped under her knees. Everything lurched as the man lifted her off the floor. The headache worsened, and Clare pressed her lips together to keep her pained gasps inside. Then she was placed back down on something soft—probably the bed—and the presence at her side disappeared.
Slowly, the pain began to recede like a swell washing back into the ocean. Clare cracked her eyes open. The cream ceiling swam. Her breaths still came in sharp, staccato gasps, but each one felt less strained than the last.
A cold, damp cloth pressed against her forehead. That felt good. She let her eyes close. The stranger spoke to her, but she still couldn’t understand him. A moment later, she felt blankets being draped back across her body.
She tried to say, “Leave me alone,” but the words came out slurred. A hand pressed onto her shoulder and squeezed very lightly, then it was gone again.
Wind whistled through gaps somewhere deeper in the house. As Clare moved back towards consciousness, the sound, like out-of-tune flutes playing a song without any melody, taunted her.
She tried to roll over, and a hundred little aches and pains returned. She returned to her back and opened her eyes.
The room was the same. Cream ceiling. Dark wood doors. Tall, latticed windows with drapes pulled back and gauzy curtains muting the light. The man was no longer standing by the windows, though. He sat next to her bed.
Clare flinched back. He reclined in a chair, one leg folded over the other, and a mug clasped in his long fingers.
“Don’t try to run again. You will only hurt yourself.”
Finally, she could see his face. He was slightly older than she was—midtwenties, maybe. His thick black hair was a little longer than was fashionable. His eyes were dark and deep set, and his eyebrows rested low. He’d shed his jacket and wore a green knit top.
Clare pulled the sheets higher so that they were under her chin. A hundred questions wanted to be let out. Who are you? What am I doing here? She swallowed them all. She didn’t know where she stood or how much danger she might be in. All she knew was that nothing about the situation was normal.
The man moved to place his mug on the bedside table and picked up a glass of water. “Drink. It will help.”
Clare didn’t want to remove her arm from the safety of the blanket, let alone move closer to the stranger, but she was desperately thirsty. The water sparkled in the glass. Her mouth and nose were dry enough to ache, and at that moment, the water looked like the most beautiful thing on the planet.
Cautiously, Clare extracted her hand from under the blankets and reached for the glass. She kept her attention focussed on the stranger’s expression. He looked impassive, as though there were nothing unusual about the day. He didn’t try to move. She took the glass, pulling it towards herself quickly enough to spill a few drops. Clare brought the water to her lips, but before drinking, she tried to smell it. He noticed. His eyebrows pulled slightly closer together, but he made no comment.
She managed a very shaky smile and tried a sip. It didn’t have any strange tastes, so she downed the whole glass. Her body silently rejoiced as she drank, and instantly, it begged for more.
The man held out his hand, and Clare carefully returned the glass to him. He placed it back onto the bedside table then picked up his own mug and settled back into the chair. He obviously didn’t intend to start a conversation.
Clare couldn’t stand the silence any longer. She licked her lips. “Who are you?”
“So you do speak.” A very small smile flitted over his lips, but it was gone in an instant. “My name is Dorran.”
She’d never heard of anyone with that name before. Mixed with the ostentatious decorations and abnormally large room, it left her with a sense of unreality, as though she’d tumbled through some portal into a fantasy world and couldn’t find the way back out again. “Where am I?”
“My family’s estate. Winterbourne Hall.”
She frowned. “Where?”
“In the Banksy Forest.”
She tried to edge a little farther away from him. “There aren’t any properties in that forest.”
“There is.” He took a sip of his drink. “It is well concealed and not widely known.”
Clare risked a glance behind her. Snow continued to swirl beyond the window. The room was warm, thanks to the fire, but outside looked bitterly cold. Even if she found her way out of the house, she didn’t think she could run far.
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