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Preview extract for James Oswald’s WHAT WILL BURN

She always knew she would die like this.


They come in the night, crashing through the undergrowth and pushing through the trees. They don’t use the path that meanders up the slope from the road; that would be too easy. Neither do they come in one band, but surround her cottage as if she might slip away round the back while they hammer on her door at the front. She could no more slip away than stand, but that makes no difference to them. A mob knows no reason, and this is most surely a mob.


She glances towards the unlit fire, the cat lying hopefully in front of it. ‘You should go. While you can. Find a safe home.’


It looks at her with wary eyes, ears cocked at the sound coming closer, ever closer. That stare is knowing, calculating. A moment’s hesitation, and then it rises, stretches, nods its head once, and disappears. She is relieved. Her time may have come, but the cat still has many lives left to live.


The sound of breaking glass comes a few minutes later. Stupid, really. The door wasn’t locked. Someone curses loudly as they climb in through the back window, and she catches a whiff of blood on the breeze before it is overwhelmed by the stench of men. Where before they were loud coming through the trees, now they are silent. Not stealthy, but not speaking either. She doesn’t know how many of them there are, although it feels like a multitude. Fit, strong, young. Angry. They swarm into her small room like cockroaches, start smashing things before they’ve even realised she is there waiting for them. Perhaps they thought she’d be in her bed.


She doesn’t resist when they grab her; that would only encourage them. And besides, she is old and weak. Utterly at the mercy they so obviously lack. Her passivity only angers them more. She thought she was prepared, but nothing really prepares you for this. She hasn’t many of her own teeth left now, but they knock them out anyway. Arthritis has swollen her knuckles, and the pain when they break her fingers makes her scream. With the sound, their bloodlust grows, their animal instincts taking over. Except that no animal would do what they are doing. Not to one of their own. She folds in under their savage fury.


‘Don’t kill her, boys. We need her still breathing.’


There’s a familiar edge to that voice, but she’s not sure whether she recognises it or simply the obedience it demands. She can taste blood in her mouth, feel the broken bones in her hands, her legs, the slide of fractured ribs that threaten with every breath to puncture a lung. It’s nearly over now, but there is one last thing to do before the end.


‘With my dying breath I curse thee.’


The words come out as a mixture of whisper and bloody gurgle. She had meant to look up at her killers, but she is too old, too weak, too broken. A rough hand grabs her hair, pulls her head back in a yanking motion that sends a bolt of pain down her spine.


‘You say something, old crone?’


He is very young, the one who holds her. Not much more than a boy. Shaven head, tank top straining to contain his gym and steroid muscles. There’s scarcely a spark of anything in his eyes, certainly not intelligence.


‘With my dying breath.’ She gasps in a lungful of pain. ‘I curse thee.’


‘Aye, well yer right about one thing.’


The hand releases its grip on her hair, throwing her back as it does so. To some unspoken order, the men step away. Something wet splashes her arm, and for a moment she thinks they’re pissing on her. Then it hits her face, soaks into her clothes. Fumes reach the bloody broken mess of her nose, and she realises it is something far worse than piss.


She barely has the strength left to lift her head. Petrol stings her eyes as she blinks to see the blurred figure standing in front of her. The leader. He has something in his hands, although she can’t see what it is. No need to see; she knows well enough.


‘With my dying breath …’ As she wheezes out the words, something flares in the man’s hand. She traces its passage as he flicks it towards her, a tiny flame on the end of a matchstick, tumbling over and over in impossibly slow motion.


She always knew she would die like this.


After all, she’s done it many times before.