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The gluttony of Shrovetide was forgotten in the privations of Lent as the ice on the river broke up. The Thames swelled with meltwater from the deep west as London stretched awake from the long cold sleep of winter; snowdrops were budding in the fields outside the walls and the people of the city were impatient for spring and Holy Week, for after that came May Day -- and warmth!
Anne was too cold and too excited to be tired from her long journey. It was hard to remember the silent winter forest she had left -- was it only six nights ago? -- among the clamor and press of people contained within this gigantic mess of buildings.
At dawn on the seventh day she and Deborah walked over London Bridge, part of a noisy crowd eager to enter the city and transact their business. It was slow going as the two women tried to hold a place for themselves on the broken stone pavement of the bridge, hugging the walls beneath the overhanging houses and shops that jetted out above them; it was the only way to avoid being splashed by riders and carts from the roadway's sloppy combination of mud, animal urine, and dung.
Anne's senses were assaulted by the smell and the noise. She had never seen so many beggars before, with their pathetic rag-bound feet, their open sores and mutilated bodies -- or been close enough to a strange man's mouth to smell rotting teeth as he called out to friends among the crowd. Anne was not frightened by disability for very few people escaped childhood without scars and injuries of some sort, but here every third person seemed malformed in some way. Deborah told her that many were veterans from the late wars at home and in France.
That puzzled Anne. "Does no one look after them? What about the king?" she asked.
Deborah's reply was swept away as yet another party of armed and mounted men cursed their way through the crush, forcing the people in the roadway to jump from the hooves or be trampled. Anne was astonished by their rudeness, the callous way the riders laid about the people with whips to clear space for their horses. Were ordinary people to be treated like animals, just because they looked poor?
Before today she never thought of herself as poor, yet when she looked at the Londoners, she saw that their own clothes, the city clothes that Deborah had made with so much careful love, were simple and drab compared to the rich jeweled velvets, the sumptuous furs and silks on the backs of so many men and women riding proudly into the city.
Where they lived in the forest coin money was rare. That didn't much matter because there was little to buy. You grew your own food, made your own cloth, sewed your own clothes, so there was nothing to be envious about in other people's lives. All had much the same. But London was a new world and Anne found herself covetous, for the first time in her life, of the pretty things others had.
Even worse than the way people behaved toward one another, however, was the reek of this place; the city smelled like a dung heap. The stench of animal excreta was compounded by the unseen fog of acrid human sweat trapped in winter's unwashed wool on the bodies all around them.
She, who was used to the clean smell of the forest, and the purity of untrampled snow, had to force herself to breathe -- there was no escape. Breathe in and get used to it. And try not to notice that men she did not know looked at her boldly, their eyes roaming her body to see its shape under her mantle. One man even snatched back her hood to see her face. He laughed at her confusion -- and her spirit -- when she slapped his hand away.
After that Anne became terrified she would lose sight of Deborah, so like a child she held fast to a piece of her foster mother's cloak as the older woman patiently led her toward the farther end of the bridge up ahead.
On the bridge itself, the buildings were huddled so close together that the girl could not see the river below, but she heard it roaring around the great piers beneath her feet; heard the groaning of the ice as it was broken by the raging water. In that moment she was overwhelmed with fear.
What if the bridge, mighty as it was, should break under the weight of all the people and all the buildings and they were cast down into the roiling water below? As if in answer to her unspoken question, Deborah turned and looked at her, smiling confidently.
"It will take more than melt water to tear this old bridge down. Don't fear, small one. Another hour will see us there. Just walk as close to me as you can."
But the noise of the city was overwhelming too. It flowed around Anne with such intensity, she could feel it on her body like a physical buffet. She'd first heard it on the previous day, even before they'd reached the walls of the city and the Convent of the Poor Clares where they had spent the night in the strangers' dorter. Then it was something muttering on the wind that came and went as they'd walked the muddy roads toward the city -- a resonant buzzing hum unlike any sound the girl had heard before. Fancifully, as she had lain awake on the scratchy straw palliasse among the other women in the strangers' dorter, she'd thought it was the voice of some great beast that was never quite stilled, even in the darkest hours of the night. Then she had felt happy and excited to be going to the city.
Now as she followed Deborah across the bridge, and looked up to check the clouds to see what the day would bring, she saw only a small patch of sky above her head between the buildings, and was engulfed by a choking sadness.
For all of her nearly fifteen years Anne had lived among the trees of their forest, hers and Deborah's, but there'd always been the sky and the clouds above their little mud-and-wattle house.
In the warm weather when she sat on the thatch of the highest part of the roof, Anne could see the weather coming and she could see where the forest ended and the straggling village at the edge of their domain began. It had always been quiet in their clearing except for the wind and the calls of birds, or the cough of deer in the depths of the trees. But now the enormous voice of this foreign place was all around, in her head, hardly allowing her to think.
Now, very soon, she and Deborah would part, and she would be left alone here in this buzzing, booming, reeking people-hive.
And all because of last Samhain, the feast to celebrate the time when the gates between the worlds were open and winter began. As usual they had joined the villagers on the common land outside their little cluster of wattle-and-clay houses, and contributed to the feast with good black puddings from the pig they had raised through the last year and just slaughtered. It was blood month, the time when animals that would not be fed through the winter were killed, like their pig. And as the last of the summer beer had flowed, Deborah had pleased the villagers, though not their priest, by future-telling for all those who'd wanted her to. He was a good man, their priest, and tried hard to win his people from their dark, old ways, but he'd given up with Samhain. It had an ancient force, this long day of gluttony and drunkenness, a force stronger than any sermon he could preach to them. So, like a sensible pastor who had the long-term good of his people at heart, he joined them at the feast hoping, by his presence, to curb the wildest excesses.
It was common at Samhain, however, for prophecy to be given and heard with respect, and this time Anne had asked Deborah for a future-telling as well.
"You're too young. This is not a game, Anne. The priest will not like it, you know that." Deborah had taken the girl to one side, away from the long trestle board crowded with shouting, well-fed, happy people. The older woman's expression was severe, and that puzzled the girl.
"Why do you want the scrying?"
"Only to see if I may have a husband too. You seemed happy to tell the others..."
Deborah had turned away when she caught the priest's eye, his shake of the head. Now she looked back toward their home in the forest. It was as if she were listening for something, searching for something among the silent trees, something that was far, far away. Then she sighed deeply and nodded, being careful the priest did not see. "That is fair. Sit here."
Anne settled herself against the trunk of an oak, burrowing into the dry brown leaves of last autumn, while Deborah went to fetch her scrying bowl from the trestle board. There was a little warmth left in the fast-westering sun, and filled with good meat and good beer, the girl had begun to doze.
Deborah's voice had brought her back. "Here, child. Look into the water, tell me what you see..."
That startled the girl awake. "Me? Will you not do the scrying, Deborah?"
Her foster mother's voice was pitched low now, soothing, almost humming. "Look into the bowl, Anne....Concentrate. Just look into the water....What do you see? What is there for you..."
Perhaps it was the last of a dream still clogging her mind, perhaps it was the tone of Deborah's voice, but the girl felt warm and secure -- a child about to drift away to dreams in a warm bed as storms raged outside on a winter's night...
"There is a face..."
"Describe what you see." Again Deborah's voice had that strange humming tone.
Anne hesitated then her face cleared in relief. "Look. There he is. I see him. I can't see his eyes, though...that's because of the battle helm. Oh!" The girl then sat up so quickly she knocked the salt-glazed pottery bowl out of her own hands and the water spilled all over her dress. "Blood! Blood everywhere!"
Her scream had cut through the buzz of the feast; the villagers fell silent, staring at the two women under the great oak. Deborah waved cheerfully. "Too much good ale! And a young head!" she had called, and laughter washed away the moment -- uneasy though it was. Everyone knew Samhain was an uncanny time.
Defiantly Deborah had locked glances with the priest as she'd helped Anne to her feet.
"Do not worry, Father, she's only tired. It's been a long feast."
From that moment things had changed.
Later, Deborah told the girl that with the spring it would be time for her to go to London and into service with a pious household. There she could complete the education that had been begun in the forest, for Deborah had no more to teach Anne in their small, safe world. The girl had cried herself to sleep for many nights, but Deborah was implacable, though it broke both their hearts. And so now, miserably, weighted with a sense of the abandonment to come, the girl followed her foster mother deeper and deeper into the city until they stood before the closed door of a great, dark house.
Copyright © 2002 by Posie Graeme-Evans