Dark Magic and Twisted Family Secrets: Revealing The Path of Thorns by A.G. Slatter

She has secrets of her own, dark and terrible—and Morwood is a house that eats secrets.

We’re excited to share the cover and preview an excerpt of The Path of Thorns by A.G. Slatter, a bewitching gothic fairy tale publishing June 14 2022 with Titan Books.

Asher Todd comes to live with the mysterious Morwood family as a governess to their children. Asher knows little about being a governess but she is skilled in botany and herbcraft, and perhaps more than that. And she has secrets of her own, dark and terrible—and Morwood is a house that eats secrets. With a monstrous revenge in mind, Asher plans to make it choke. However, she becomes fond of her charges, of the people of the Tarn, and she begins to wonder if she will be able to execute her plan—and who will suffer most if she does. But as the ghosts of her past become harder to control, Asher realises she has no choice.

Cover art and design by Julia Lloyd

Angela Slatter is the author of All The Murmuring Bones (Titan Books, 2021). She has won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, a Ditmar, an Australian Shadows Award and six Aurealis Awards for her short stories. She has an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing, is a graduate of Clarion South 2009 and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop 2006. Angela’s short stories have appeared in many Best Of anthologies, and her work has been translated into many languages. She teaches creative writing and lives in Brisbane, Australia.


 

 

Chapter One

At last, an ending.

Or a beginning.

Who can say?

My previous three weeks had featured a long series of carriages; conveyances of varied age, cleanliness and distinction, much like my fellow passengers. From Whitebarrow to Briarton, from Lelant’s Bridge to Angharad’s Breach, from decaying Lodellan where fires still smouldered to Cwen’s Ruin, from Bellsholm to Ceridwen’s Landing, and all the tiny loveless places in between. A circuitous route, certainly, but then I have my reasons. And this afternoon, the very last of those vehicles finally deposited me at my goal before trundling off to the village of Morwood Tarn with its few remaining travellers and despatches to deliver.

Or rather, at the gateway to my goal, and there now remains a rather longer walk than I would have wished at such a late hour and with such luggage as I have. Yet, having waited some considerable while with foolish hope for someone to come collect me, in the end I accept that I’ve no better choice than shanks’ pony. My steamer case I push beneath bushes just inside the tall black iron gates with the curlicued M at their apex—as if anyone might wander past this remote spot and take it into their heads to rifle through my meagre possessions. The satchel with my notebooks is draped across my back, and the carpet bag with its precious cargo I carry by turns in one hand, then the other for it weighs more than is comfortable. I’m heartily sick of hefting it, but am careful as always, solicitous of the thing that has kept me going for two years (some before that, if I am to be honest).

The rough and rutted track leads off between trees, oak and yew and ash, so tall and old that they meet above me. I might have appreciated their beauty more if it had been earlier in the day, had there been more light, had it been summer rather than autumn and my magenta coat been of thicker fabric, and had my nerves not already been frayed by the tasks before me. And certainly if I’d not, soon after setting off deeper into the estate, begun to hear noises in the undergrowth by the side of the drive.

I do not walk faster, though it almost kills me to maintain the same steady pace. I do not call out in dread, demanding to know who is there. I do, however, pat the deep right-hand pocket of my skirt to make sure the long knife is there. I have walked sufficient darkened streets to know that fear will kill you faster than a blade to the gut or a garrotte to the throat because it will make you foolish, panicky.

Whatever it is has stealth, but somehow I sense it creates just enough noise on purpose that I might be aware of its presence. Occasional snuffles and wuffles that must seem quite benign, but which are not when their source is defiantly out of sight. Some moments I catch a scent on the breeze—a musky rich odour like an animal given to feeding on young meat and sleeping in dens—and that threatens to turn my belly to water. I lift my chin as if the sky beyond the branches is not darkening with storm clouds, as if I am not being stalked, as if my heart is not pounding so hard it almost drowns out the close-rolling thunder. But I keep my steady, steady pace.

Eventually, I step out from beneath the twisting, turning canopied road and get my first sight of the manor house spread out below. I pause and stare, despite the knowledge that something still lurks behind me. I take a deep breath, give a sigh I didn’t know was waiting in me.

There is a tremble to it, a quaver I’d not want anyone else to hear.

Courage, Asher. There is no one else to have it for you.

It might have appeared quite simple, the structure, if approached from the front: almost slender-looking, two storeys of pale grey stone—almost silver—and an attic, but I’m coming at it on an angle and can see that the building is deeper than it is wide. It digs back into the landscape and I wonder how many rooms there might be. In front are flowering tiered gardens, three, leading up to ten steps and a small porch, and thence to a door of honey-coloured wood set beneath a pointed stone arch. A duck pond lies to the left, and to the right flows a stream, too broad to jump but too narrow to count as a river. I wonder if it ever floods.

Lightning flashes, great white streaks of fire casting themselves across the vault of the world. The crack of it seems to echo in my chest.
I blink hard to rid myself of the strange effect it has on my sight. The colours leeched to black and white like an engraving in a book are discombobulating.

Behind the house itself is a smallish structure, dark wood and white plaster, of such a size as might contain four rooms. It has a tall chimney and a waterwheel is attached to the side, fed by the not-quite-stream-not-quite-river.

Once again, the lightning flashes, striking the ground in two places in front of me in quick succession and a third time hitting an old yew not far away. It stands, a lone sentinel by the side of the drive, and it burns so quickly that I’m astonished rather than afraid. I’d stay to watch, too, except the heavens open and thick angry drops fall hard and inescapable; they will extinguish the tree. In spite of everything, I smile. From the undergrowth behind me there comes a definite growl, all trace of sneakery and concealment gone.

Finally, I run.

I leave the path, which meanders back forth down a gentle slope to the manor, and take the shortest route over the rolling lawn. The journey would have been less fraught had I not been concerned with twisting an ankle and clutching the carpet bag so tightly that my ribs bruise against its contents. I arrive at the entrance no less wet than if I’d simply strolled. My progress has obviously been noted as the door is pulled open before I set foot on the first step.

Inside that door, a blaze of light and a tall man waiting, attired in black, a long pale face, and thinning blond hair scraped back over his scalp. For all his skeletal demeanour he wears a gentle smile and his eyes, deep-set, are kind. His hands are raised, gesturing for me to hurry, hurry.

Just before I pass beneath the archway, I glance over my shoulder, at the lawn and gardens across which I’ve come. Lightning flares once more and illuminates the grounds, silvering a strange, hunched silhouette back up on the curve of the drive, and I think of… something. Something large but of indeterminate shape, something I cannot quite place, nor does its colour even remain in my memory; there’s only the recollection of red eyes. Resolute though shivering with more than cold, I cross the threshold and the door is swiftly shut.

 

Excerpted from The Path of Thorns, copyright © 2021 by A.G. Slatter.

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