The Winter Ghosts - By Kate Mosse Page 0,1

smooth and unlined face beneath a shock of white hair. He did not, in any way, look like the medieval scholar Freddie was expecting.

‘Monsieur Saurat?’

The man nodded. Cautious, bored, uninterested in a casual caller.

‘I need help with a translation,’ Freddie said. ‘I was told you might be the man for such a job.’

Keeping his eyes on Saurat, Freddie carefully slipped the letter from its casing. It was a heavy weave, the colour of dirty chalk, not paper at all, but something far older. The handwriting was uneven and scratched.

Saurat let his gaze slip to it. Freddie watched his eyes sharpen, first with surprise, then astonishment. Then greed.

‘May I?’

‘May 1?’

‘Be my guest.’

Taking a pair of half-moon spectacles from his top pocket, Saurat perched them on the end of his nose. He produced a pair of thin, linen gloves from beneath the counter, pulled them on. Holding the letter gently at the corner between forefinger and thumb, he held it up to the light.

‘Parchment. Probably late medieval.’

‘Quite right.’

‘Written in Occitan, the old language of this region.’

‘Yes.’ All this Freddie knew.

Saurat gave him a hard look, then dropped his eyes back to the letter. An intake of breath, then he began to read the opening lines aloud. His voice was surprisingly light.

‘Bones and shadows and dust. I am the last. The others have slipped away into darkness. Around me now, at the end of my days, only an echo in the still air of the memory of those who once I loved. Solitude, silence. Peyre sant . . .’

Saurat stopped and stared now with interest at the reserved Englishman standing before him. He did not look like a collector, but then one never could tell.

He cleared his throat. ‘May I ask where you came by this, Monsieur . . . ?’

‘Watson.’ Freddie took his card from his pocket and laid it with a snap on the counter between them. ‘Frederick Watson.’

‘You are aware this is a document of some historical significance?’

‘To me its significance is purely personal.’

‘That may be, but nevertheless . . .’ Saurat shrugged. ‘It is something that has been in your family for some time?’

Freddie hesitated. ‘Is there a place we could talk?’

‘Of course.’ Saurat gestured to a low card table and four leather armchairs set in an alcove at the rear of the shop. ‘Please.’

Freddie took the letter and sat down, watching as Saurat stooped beneath the counter again, this time producing two thick glass tumblers and a bottle of mellow, golden brandy. He was unusually graceful, delicate even, Freddie thought, for such a large man. Saurat poured them both a generous measure, then lowered himself into the chair opposite. The leather sighed beneath his weight.

‘So, will you translate it for me?’

‘Of course. But I am still intrigued to know how you come to be in possession of such a document.’

‘It’s a long story.’

Another shrug. ‘I have the time.’

Freddie leaned forward and slowly fanned his long fingers across the surface of the table, making patterns on the green baize.

‘Tell me, Saurat, do you believe in ghosts?’

A smile stole across the other man’s lips.

‘I am listening.’

Freddie breathed out, with relief or some other emotion, it was hard to tell.

‘Well then,’ he said, settling back in his chair. ‘The story begins almost five years ago, not so very far from here.’


December 1928


It was a dirty night in late November, a few days shy of my twenty-seventh birthday, when I boarded the boat train for Calais.

I had no ties to keep me in England, and my health in those days was poor. I’d spent some time in a sanatorium and, since then, had struggled to find a vocation, a calling in life. A stint as a junior assistant in an ecclesiastical architect’s office, a month as a commission agent; nothing had stuck. I was not suited to work nor it, apparently, to me. After a particularly vicious bout of influenza, my doctor suggested a tour of the castles and ruins of the Ariège would do my shattered nerves some good. The clean air of the mountains might restore me, he said, where all else had failed.

So I set off, with no particular route in mind. I was no more lonely motoring on the Continent than I had been in England, surrounded by acquaintances and my few remaining friends who didn’t understand why I could not forget. A decade had passed since the Armistice. Besides, there was nothing unique to my suffering. Every family had lost someone in the War; fathers and uncles,