I am delighted to bring you a gripping extract from the new novel, A Shetland Witner Mystery by Marsali Taylor during this varied blog tour by Lynsey Adams of Reading Between the Lines.
It's the dark nights in the run up to Christmas, and sailing sleuth Cass Lynch's first night on dry land is disturbed by strange noises outside her isolated cottage. Tiny footprints in the moonlit snow trail from her front door before mysteriously disappearing. Soon Cass learns others were visited by the same tiny feet in the night.
It looks like ingenious local teenagers playing tricks - but what happens when festive games turn deadly?
Cass soon finds out as a schoolboy disappears, leaving only a trail of footprints into the middle of a snowy field. She's determined to investigate, but uncovering the truth will also put her in danger . . .
I scrambled into my clothes and hauled on my boots, then eased the back door open.
People had been here. Several sets of footprints came down from the end of the garden, between the vegetable beds, spread out a bit as if they were looking at the house, and then joined again to come right to the briggistanes. One set came right up to the door and ended in a scuffle by the cat flap: tiny bare feet, shorter than my hand. There were no prints going back.
A cold shudder went down my spine. While we’d been lying upstairs, someone had come into our house.
It should have made it less scary that Gavin was sleeping so peacefully, but somehow it made it worse. I felt like I was the only human awake while something sinister was stirring in the darkness.
I didn’t want to show a light just yet. I reached for the blinkie by the door and held it in my hand as I leapt over the doorstep, landing clear of the footprints. After they’d looked, after one had gone in and not come out, the others had set off around the house. There were several sets of feet; the moon made sharp shadows of them. I made a print of my own for comparison. Yes, even the largest of them was no bigger than my size four. Child-sized. Little people sized.
Suddenly I remembered the date: the sixteenth of Decem- ber. It was Tulya’s E’en, the day when the trows started their Yule patrol around the houses. A long-forgotten primary school project surfaced in my mind. Trows didn’t come near human houses normally, but in the dark days of midwinter they could come out and work mischief around the crofts. The old folk sained their houses against them with straw crosses and holy water, to keep them from stealing gear, animals or chil- dren. They’d make a plait with a hair from every animal in the byre, and hang it above the byre door, and they’d go round the outhouses with a burning peat on a shovel. The school jannie had done that bit, and we’d followed with our straw crosses. We’d hung the thin braid of all our hair above the classroom door, and on the last day of term we’d baked sun biscuits, pointed all around with a hole in the middle to thread a ribbon through. The boys had eaten theirs, but my best friend Inga and I had saved ours to hang on our Christmas trees.
There was a snick behind me. I jumped, heart pounding, and spun around to find Cat had come out of the cat flap behind me and was sniffing at the tracks. I began to walk round the house, listening intently and pausing at the corner, as if I expected something to leap out at me. Nothing. Cat was going on ahead, plumed tail upright. Kitten pounced out at him from around the corner, and there was a scuffle which ended in them both charging across the snow, tails fluffed out. I found I’d been holding my breath, and let it out. There was nothing strange about when the cats were acting normally. All the same, I didn’t want to follow the prints round the corner, where the house’s deep shadow jutted out on the white snow.
‘Everything okay?’ Gavin asked from behind me. I jumped and spun towards him. He was dressed in kilt and jumper, auburn hair tousled. He reached for his jacket then jumped over the doorstep to join me, kilt pleats flying. ‘Hobbits?’ He bent down, looking at the footsteps closely. ‘Four of them.’
‘Not hobbits,’ I said. ‘Trows. It’s the sixteenth. St Tulya’s E’en,’
Gavin began strolling along the line of footprints. ‘Is she in the Roman Calendar of Saints?’
‘I think it’s a he,’ I said. ‘It’s a corruption of St Thorlak. He was Icelandic.’
‘Oh yes?’ Gavin linked his arm through mine and we went on together, following the line of little footprints around the corner of the house. The snow had come from this direction and piled up against the wall of the house, so the prints were deeper here, clearer.
‘Three of them here,’ Gavin said. ‘The other one went through the cat flap.’ He sounded remarkably unworried about it. ‘One’s lagging a bit, see, trudging footprints, as if it’s carry- ing something heavy.’
‘Hawkeye Macrae,’ I said, impressed.
‘Have I never told you I spent my teenage summers help- ing my grandfather stalk deer?’ The next corner brought us to the front of the house, facing the sea. The kelp at the water’s edge was glazed over with ice, and the rocks of the dyke below the house had snow sticking to the face of each stone, with the crevices between making a black crazy-paving pat- tern. ‘Here we are.’ He stopped at the sit-ootery door, facing out over the sound. ‘He went in through the cat-flap and came out again here.’
I looked at the prints on the window sill, neatly together, facing out from the house, and the pair of footprints, deeper and together, where it had jumped down.
‘Four again,’ Gavin said. ‘All together. One of the bigger ones dragging the little one by the hand. He’s getting a bit tired.’
‘Past even a trow’s bedtime. Or since trows are nocturnal maybe he was complaining about it being too early.’
‘A tidy trow. He locked the window behind him.’
I looked at the window. It was one of those old-fashioned ones with a holed shaft that fitted over pins along the inner sill. The shaft was lying snugly in its place, and I didn’t see how you could do that from outside.
‘So,’ Gavin said, starting to move again, ‘what has your improbable saint got to do with an invasion of trows in the night?’
‘They live underground, but when the nights are at their darkest, then they can come out from their trowie mounds and wander among the houses. The dark nights start at Tulya’s E’en.’
‘Ah,’ Gavin said, entirely unruffled. His breath smoked in the cold air. ‘Well, let’s see where they wandered to.’
Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.