Annet Beck is hauntingly beautiful, which worries her parents so much that they guard her as closely as a prisoner . . . until the rainy Thursday in October when she disappears. Annet is last seen vanishing over the crest of the eerie Hallowmount, a hill said to be the abode of witches. Five days later, she mysteriously reappears, claiming that she was only gone for two hours.
Enchanted by her beauty, Annet’s parents’ lodger Tom Kenyon is determined to find the explanation for her disappearance: Could it be deceit, amnesia, or witchcraft? Tom’s amateur investigations lead to nowhere until Detective Inspector George Felse finds cause to connect those missing five days with his inquiry into a death.
Flight of a Witch is the 3rd book in the Felse Investigations, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Ellis Peters is a pseudonym of Edith Mary Pargeter (1913–1995), a British author whose Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are credited with popularizing the historical mystery. Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey in the first half of the twelfth century, has been described as combining the curious mind of a scientist with the bravery of a knight-errant. The character has been adapted for television, and the books drew international attention to Shrewsbury and its history.
Pargeter won an Edgar Award in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman, and in 1993 she won the Cartier Diamond Dagger, an annual award given by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, and in 1999 the British Crime Writers’ Association established the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, later called the Ellis Peters Historical Award.
Read an Excerpt
Flight of a Witch
The Felse Investigations: Book 3
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1964 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
Driving along the lane from Fairford, at four o'clock on that half-term Thursday in October, Tom Kenyon saw Annet Beck climb the Hallowmount and vanish over the crest.
A shaft of lurid light sheared suddenly through the rainclouds to westward, and lit upon the rolling, dun-coloured side of the hill, re-kindling the last brightness in the October grass. The rift widened, spilling angry radiance down the slope, and a moving sapphire blazed into life and climbed slowly upward through the bleached and faded green. The blue of her coat had seemed dark and unobtrusive when she had stood at the gate, holding him off with eyes impenetrable as stone; it burned now with the deep fire of the brightest of gentians.
And what was she doing there, in the cleft of brightness between rain and rain, like an apparition, like a portent?
He pulled in to the curve of rutted grass in front of the Wastfield gate, and stopped the car there. He watched her mount, and nursed the small spark of grievance against her jealously, because for some reason it seemed to him suddenly threatened by some vast and obliterating dark that rendered it precious and comforting by contrast.
Westward, the folded hills of Wales receded into leaden cloud, but on the near side of the border the Hallowmount flaunted its single ring of ancient, decrepit trees in an orange-red like the reflected glow of fire. The speck of gentian-blue climbed to the crest, stood erect against the sky for an instant, shrank, vanished. And at the same moment the rent in the clouds closed and sealed again, and the light went out.
The hill was dark, the circle of soft October rain unbroken. He turned the ignition key, and let the Mini roll back over the glistening, pale grass on to the road. Maybe three hours of daylight left, if this could be called daylight, and with luck he could be home in Hampstead soon after dark. His mother would have a special supper waiting for him, his father would probably go so far as to skip his usual Thursday evening bridge in his son's honour, and more than likely Sybil would drop round with careful casualness about nine o'clock, armed with some borrowed magazines to return, or some knitting patterns for his mother; having, of course, a matter of weeks ago, taken care to inform herself as to when Comerbourne Grammar School kept its half-term, and whether he was coming down by car or by train. She would want to hear all about his new school, about his sixth form and their academic records, and his digs, and all the people he had met, and all the friends he had made, to the point of exhaustion. But if he told her any of the essentials she would be completely lost. How do you interpret a semi-feudal county on the Welsh borders to a daughter of suburbia? Especially when you are yourself a son of suburbia, a townie born and bred, quick but inaccurate of perception, brash, uncertain among these immovable families and seats of primeval habitation, distracted between the sophistication of these elegant border women, active and emancipated, and those dark racial memories of theirs, that mould so much of what they do and say? Sybil had no terms of reference. She would be as irrelevant and lost here as he had been, that first week of term.
Mathematics, thank God, is much the same everywhere, and he was a perfectly competent teacher, he had only to cling firmly to his work for a few weeks and the rest fell readily into place. He knew he could teach, headmasters didn't have to tell him that. And all things considered, the first half of his first term hadn't gone badly at all.
The school buildings were old but good, encrusted with new blocks behind, and a shade cramped for parking space, though with a Mini he didn't have to worry overmuch about that. He hadn't been prepared to find so many sons of wealthy commuting business-men from the Black Country at school here in the marches, and their lavish standard of living had somewhat daunted him, until he ran his nose unexpectedly into the headmaster's characteristic notice on the hall board:
'Will the Sixth Form please refrain from encroaching on the Staff parking ground, as their Jaguars and Bentleys are giving the resident 1955 Fords an inferiority complex.'
That had set him up again in his own esteem. And the long-legged seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds who emerged from the parental cars, in spite of their resplendent transport, were not otherwise hopelessly spoiled, and had a shrewd grasp of the amount of work that would keep them out of trouble, and an equable disposition to produce the requisite effort, with a little over for luck. They seemed to Tom Kenyon at once more mature and developed and more spontaneous and young than the southern product with which he was more familiar, and on occasions, when they were shaken out of their equilibrium by something totally unexpected, alarmingly candid and abrupt. But they were resilient, they recovered their balance with admirable aplomb. Usually they were pulling his leg before he'd realised they no longer needed nursing. They weren't a bad lot.
Even the staff were easy enough. Even the three women for whom he hadn't been prepared. Jane Darrill, the junior geographer, could be a bit offhand and you-be-damned when she liked, but of course she was very young, not above twenty-five. Tom was twenty-six himself.
It was Jane who had suggested he should move out to the village of Comerford for living quarters, and put him in touch with the Becks, who had a house too big for them, and an income, on the whole, rather too small.
'If you're going to be a countryman,' said Jane, with her suspiciously private smile, that always made his hackles rise a little in the conviction that she was somehow making fun of him, 'you might as well go the whole hog and be a proper one. Come and be a borderer, like me. Comerford is the real thing. This dump is rapidly becoming a suburb of Birmingham.'
That was an exaggeration, or perhaps a prophecy. Jane was blessed, or cursed, with an appearance of extreme competence and cheerfulness, round-faced, fair-complexioned, vigorous, pretty enough if she hadn't filed her brusque manner to an aggressive edge in order to keep the Lower Sixth in healthy awe of her. Sometimes she liked to offset the impression by leaning perversely towards cynicism and gloom.
Tom looked out of the common-room window upon a Comerbourne which appeared to his urban eye small, limited, antique and charming. He could see the tops of the limes in the riverside gardens, a thin ribbon of silver, the balustrade of the nearer bridge over the Comer. A provincial capital of the minor persuasion, still clinging to its weekly country market, still drawing in, to buy and sell, half the housewives and farmwives of a quarter of Wales as well as Midshire itself. Back-streets straight out of the Middle Ages, a few superb Tudor pubs, a dwindling county society more blood-ridden and exclusive than he'd thought possible in the mid-twentieth century, still conscientiously freezing out intruders, and pathetically unaware that its island of privilege had long since become an island of stagnation in a backwater of impotence, and was crumbling away piecemeal from under its large, sensibly-shod feet; and round it and over it, oblivious of it, swarmed the busy, brisk, self-confident rush of the new people, the new powers, business and banking and industry and administration, advancing upon an expanding future, brushing with faint impatience and no ceremony past the petrified remnants of a feudal past.
That was what he saw in Comerbourne; and to tell the truth, the encroachments of the industrial Midlands into the fossilised life of this remote capital rather attracted than repelled him. But he'd never lived in a village, and the idea still had a (probably quite misleading) charm about it. He thought vaguely of country pursuits and country functions, and saw himself adopted into a village society which would surely not be averse to finding a place for a young and presentable male, whatever his origins. He could have the best of both worlds, with Comerbourne only a couple of miles away, near enough to be reached easily when he needed it, far enough away to be easily evaded when he had no need of it. And it's always a good idea to put at least a couple of miles between yourself and your work in the evenings.
'What are these Becks like?' he asked, half in love with the idea but cautious still.
'Oh, ordinary. Middle-aged, retired, a bit stodgy, maybe. Terribly conscientious, they'll probably worry about whether they're doing enough for you. Not amusing, but then you needn't rely on them for your amusement, need you? Mr Beck used to teach at the Modern until a couple of years ago. He never made it to a headship. Not headmaster material,' she said rather dryly. Tom Kenyon, confident, clever and ambitious, was obvious headmaster material, and, moreover, knew it very well.
'He hasn't got a son here, has he?' asked Tom sharply, suddenly shaken by the thought of having his landlady's darling under his feet, with a fond mamma pushing persuasively behind. He wished it back the moment it was out. A silly question. Jane wouldn't be such a fool as to land him in any such situation, it would be against all her teacher's instincts, and they were shrewd and effective enough. And blurting out the horrid thought had only exposed himself. But she merely gave him the edge of a deflationary smile, and rattled away half a dozen rock specimens into the back of her table drawer.
'No sons at all, don't worry. "He has but one daughter, an uncommon handsome gel".'
'Go on!' He wasn't particularly interested, but he produced the spark in the eye and the sharpening glow of attention that was demanded of him, and straightened his tie with exaggeratedly fatuous care. 'How old?'
'Eighteen, I think! She was seventeen last spring, anyhow, when the row —' She frowned and swallowed the word, shoving away papers; but he hadn't been listening closely enough to demand or even miss the rest of the sentence.
'Eighteen, and uncommon handsome! That does it! They won't look at me, they'll be after some old gorgon of a maiden aunt for a lodger.'
Jane turned her fashionable shock-head of mangled brown hair and grinned at him derisively. 'Come off it!' she said. 'You're not that dangerous.' It had been a joke, and all that, but she needn't have sounded so crushingly sure of herself. Girls had never given him much trouble, except by clinging too long and tightly, and at the wrong times.
'What's her name?' he asked.
'Not Annette. Just Annet. Plain Annet.'
'What's plain about it? Annet Beck. That's a witch's name.'
'Annet is a witch, I shouldn't wonder,' Jane looked thoughtfully back into the past again, and refrained from calling attention to what she saw. Witch or not, neither of them was greatly concerned with Annet; not then. 'Go and take a look at the place, anyhow,' said Jane, off-hand as usual. 'If you don't like the look of the border solitude, you needn't take it any further.'
And he had gone, and he had taken the recommended look at Comerford. Along the riverside road, through coppices scarlet and gold with autumn, and thinning to filigree; out of sight and memory of the town, between farms rising gently from water-meadows to stubble to heath pasture, over undulations of open ground purple with heather, and down to the river again.
The village closed in its ford from either bank, a compact huddle of old houses, considerably larger than he had expected, and comparatively sophisticated, with beautifully converted cottages and elegant gardens on its fringes that told plainly of pioneering commuters or wealthy retired business people in possession. The town had, in fact, reached Comerford, it was almost a small town itself. He looked at it, and was disappointed. But when he lifted his eyes to look over it, and saw the surging animal backs of the enfolding hills, time ran backwards over his head like silk unwinding from a dropped spool.
Ridge beyond ridge, receding into pallor and mist, filmed over with the oblique beams of light splayed from behind broken copper cloud, Wales withdrew into fine rain, while England lay in quivering, cool sunlight. Meadows and dark, low hedges climbed the slopes. Away on the dwindling flank of the hog-back to northwestward the horizontal scoring of ancient mine levels showed plainly. Lead, probably, worked out long since, or at any rate long since abandoned. Round the crest of the same hill the unquestionable green earthworks of an Iron Age fort, crisp and new-looking as though it had been moulded only yesterday. The long green heavings of turf, the deep ditches, the few broken, black mine-chimneys and the gunmetal-coloured heaps of old spoil nestled together without conflict, and the village with its smart new façades and its congealing shopping streets settled comfortably in the lee of the scratched Roman workings, and thought no wrong. All time was relative here; or perhaps all time was contemporaneous. Nothing that was native was alien or uncanny here, though it came from the pre-dawn twilight before man stood upright and walked.
He drove through Comerford, village or town, whatever it was, and the hills melted and reassembled constantly as he drove, drawn back like filmy green curtains to uncover further recessions of crest beyond crest. Arthur Beck's house was beyond, shaken loose from the last hand-hold of the village itself, a quarter of a mile along a narrow but metalled road that served a succession of border farms. On his right the river narrowed to a trickle of trout-stream in its flat meadows along the valley floor, winding bewilderingly, the hills grown brown and fawn with bleached grass and sedge and coarse heather behind. On his left a long, bare ridge of hill crowded the road implacably nearer and nearer to Wales. A ring of gnarled, half-naked trees, by their common age and their regular arrangement clearly planted by man, showed like a top-knot on the crest. One outcrop of rock broke the blonde turf halfway up, another had shown for a few moments over the comb of the ridge, a little apart from the trees on the summit. Sheep-paths, trampled out daintily over centuries by ancestors of these handsome, fearless hill-sheep he was just learning to know for Cluns and Kerrys, traced necklets round the slopes, level above level like the courses of a step-pyramid.
For the first time he was driving by the Hallowmount. The mid-afternoon sun was on the entire barren, rustling, pale brown slope of it, and yet he felt something of shadow and age and silence like a coolness cutting him off from the sun, not unpleasantly, not threateningly, rather as if he was naturally excluded from what embraced all other creatures here. He was the alien, not resented, not menaced, simply not belonging. And suddenly he was aware of the quietness and the permanence of this utter solitude, which seemed unpopulated, and yet had surely been inhabited ever since men began to tame beasts, before the first experimental grass-seeds were ever deliberately sown, before the first stone scratched the earth, and the developing tools were smoothed to a rich polish in the manipulating hands of the first artisans.
A turn to the right, just before the track plunged into half-grown plantations of conifers, brought him down towards the river again, past the gate of Wastfield farm, through a small coppice to Arthur Beck's gate at the end of the farm wall.
There it was: Fairford. An old house, or rather a new house made from two old stone cottages, mellow, amber-coloured stone from higher up the valley. A walled garden in the inevitable autumn chaos, a glimpse of rather ragged lawn, a tangle of trees too big for a garden, but beautiful. Why should he care that the leaves would be a nuisance, tread into a decaying mush all over the paths, and silt down into a rotten cement in the guttering? He wouldn't have to maintain the place; all he would have to do would be live in it and enjoy it. He imagined the summer here, and he was enchanted. Even the name wasn't an affectation, there was a fair ford only fifty yards on, where the river poured in a smooth silvery sheet above clear beds of amber and agate pebbles, bright as jewels in the sun. The masonry of the original cottages looked – how old? – three centuries at least. The place had probably been Fairford ever since the advance guard of the Danes clawed a toehold on the Welsh bank of the river here, only to be rolled back fifty miles into England, and never thrust so far again.
Excerpted from Flight of a Witch by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1964 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I liked it. Ellis Peters seemed to be fantasizing a bit about what it's like to have looks that have all the men falling in love with you. Annet doesn't fit any pretty girl stereotype.
Not as good as Cadfael.