Chapter OneThe Poacher’s Pocket
The prison bell started clanging just after teatime.
It was a low, monotonous dong . . . dong . . . like the bell was taking a breath in between short bursts of gossip.
Inside the Poacher’s Pocket inn, the gossip began blazing as brightly as the fires.
Betty Widdershins stopped sweeping and glanced up in alarm as murmurs rippled through the pub. Her older sister, Felicity—whom everyone knew as Fliss—looked up from the spilled beer she’d been wiping up on the bar and caught Betty’s eye. The bell was a warning: Keep off the streets. Stay inside. Lock your doors. Fliss set down her cloth and began serving the regulars who were flocking to top up their drinks. Wagging tongues made customers thirsty.
“Someone’s escaped, haven’t they?” asked a scowling Charlie, the youngest Widdershins girl. She was sitting at the bar, poking unenthusiastically at a lacy ruffle on the dress she was wearing.
“Yes,” Betty replied. She cast her mind back, thinking of other times when the bell had rung. Living so near to the prison just across the marshes was one of the worst things about Crowstone. And while escapes were rare, they still happened and sent the place into turmoil every time.
“It’s a right racket!” Charlie complained, sticking her fingers in her ears.
“That it is!” The girls’ granny, Bunny Widdershins, banged down a pint of Speckled Pig bad-temperedly, slopping beer over a grizzle-haired customer’s hands. “This is the last thing we need today of all days!” She gave the customer a withering look. “And I thought I told you to smarten up, Fingerty? It’s bad enough that we’re surrounded by riffraff on the outside, let alone having our customers looking like scruff-bags, too!”
“I did!” Fingerty protested with an injured look, but even so, he pulled a comb from his top pocket and began tugging it through his straggly hair as Bunny stomped off, probably for a crafty puff of her pipe.
Fliss slid a nip of port next to Fingerty’s glass with a small smile. “On the house,” she said. “Don’t tell Granny.” Fingerty smacked his lips, his grumpy expression softening.
Betty leaned the broomstick against the nearest fireplace and looked around, trying to imagine the pub through a stranger’s eyes. It was difficult, for the Widdershins not only worked at the Poacher’s Pocket, but they lived there, too. Betty was so used to its shabbiness that, half the time, she barely noticed the threadbare carpets and peeling wallpaper. But today the tired interior stuck out like a robin among crows.
She brushed a hand across her damp forehead. It was rather too warm for all the fires to be lit, but Granny had insisted on it to make the place feel cozier. Betty and her sisters had been hard at work all day, topping up firewood, sweeping the floors, and polishing the brassware until it gleamed. Fliss had even baked in order to fill the place with a homey smell. So far so good . . . except for Granny’s mood souring the atmosphere.
Betty approached Charlie, who was now hovering by the steamed-up window for the third time in ten minutes.
“Granny shouldn’t talk to customers like that,” Charlie said. “Or we’ll have none left!”
Betty snorted. “You think? The Snooty Fox is nearly two miles away, and their beer’s double the price!” She leaned closer to the glass, wiping a clear patch to peer through. “They should’ve been here by now.”
“Wish they’d hurry up so I can take off this rotten dress!” Charlie muttered, fidgeting furiously. “Posh clothes are so ITCHY!”
“At least it makes a change from nits,” said Betty.
Charlie grinned, her freckled nose crinkling. For once, she looked presentable, with her brown hair neatly brushed and in two glossy pigtails tied with ribbons. Betty knew it wouldn’t last.
“Ain’t had nits for ages,” Charlie answered proudly, sticking her tongue out through the gap where her front teeth were missing. “Six whole weeks!”
“Goodness!” Betty murmured absent-mindedly, still staring out of the window. Daylight was fading fast over Nestynook Green, but a few bright spring flowers could still be seen nodding in the breeze that ruffled the grass and set the sign fixed to the wall of the Poacher’s Pocket creaking. Betty eyed it, the two bold words swinging back and forth like a hand waving to attract attention: FOR SALE.
“They’ll be here,” she said, but with each passing minute, she felt less sure. The sign creaked again, like something chuckling nastily at them. A black crow had perched on top of it, and as it watched Betty with eyes like bright beads, it was joined by a second and then a third. An old crow superstition of Granny’s popped into her head:
One for marsh mist,
Two for sorrow,
Three, you’ll journey far tomorrow . . .
Betty watched as the third crow took flight, leaving only two. She didn’t believe in all that nonsense, so why was she feeling so jittery?
“The pub will be sold by spring, you’ll see,” Father had told them after he’d fixed the sign up in the first week of the new year. But it wasn’t. The weeks had stretched into months, and now it was almost May. Granny hadn’t even wanted to put the Poacher’s Pocket up for sale at first. It had been Betty’s idea, and it had taken a lot of persuasion to make Granny see that it was time to spread their wings and leave Crowstone.
“We could go anywhere!” Betty had coaxed. “Just think! Perhaps open a little tea shop by the sea or even an ice cream parlor . . . something more cheerful for us all.”
Naturally, the mention of ice cream had been enough to convince Charlie, and the idea had taken root.
But leaving wasn’t as easy as Betty had thought it would be. While the Poacher’s Pocket wasn’t as shabby as it had once been, it was far from grand. Not a week went by without a tile coming loose or a window shutter being in need of repair. Even now, their father was upstairs mending something.
“It’s a fixer-upper,” Granny had said brightly to the only two people who had come to look at the place since the FOR SALE sign had gone up. “Been in the Widdershins family for years!”
However, the real problem, as they all knew...