The Marshlanders

The Marshlanders

by Annis Pratt


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450228909
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/20/2010
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.73(d)

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The Marshlanders

Volume One of The Marshlanders Trilogy
By Annis Pratt

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Annis Pratt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-2890-9

Chapter One

Clare's Promise

Clare ran like mad, dodging between the trees, leaping over fallen logs, and darting through openings in the underbrush. At a sudden dip, she plunged forward and fell flat on her stomach. The wind knocked out of her, she lay on the ground, gasping for air. Realizing she wouldn't be able to hear them coming if she was breathing so loudly, she quieted herself and listened. There was no more shouting. The thud of boots had faded away when she'd plunged from the field into the forest. Only the new leaves stirred. From far away, she heard the song of a wood thrush.

It's all my fault, she thought. That's why they got her!

"This will make a good place or you to sit while I look for the goldenseal," Mother had said, pointing to the wall along the edge of the field. "Promise to keep your eyes on the drove and whistle the thrush song if you see anyone coming."

Clare had clambered up on the wall. The stones had warmed her bottom nicely on the sunny but cool April day.

Clare's mother, Margaret, had taken a considerable risk directing her to climb up that high, but in her dun-colored woolen skirt and shawl, Clare would be hard to see. Margaret hadn't done any healing since the new Guild of Apothecaries, as they called themselves, had forbidden it four years ago. To prove their point, they had persuaded the Maxton minister to preach thundering condemnations of healers. They were devil worshipers and heretics, he had shouted. People had laughed behind their hands that he actually believed those old winter's tales.

But after his sermon, a mob hunted down an old herb gatherer culling thyme in the fields beyond Maxton and drove a stake through her heart. Their bloodlust roused, they had rushed back to the village and hung the pharmacist to whom the herb gatherer had sold her cures. They did it as a further example to the villagers.

Since then, Margaret had done very little healing in Twist. But the day before, well after dark, a mother had knocked on her door, haggard from sleeplessness. The woman had an infant in her arms, thrashing with pain. As a baby, Clare had weighed about as much as the infant the woman held-no more than five pounds-and her arms and legs had been just as thin. While examining the child's mouth, Margaret had seen the telltale ashy color of thrush, a miserable, though entirely treatable, disease of the very young.

"Did you go to the apothecary?" she asked the woman.

"I did, but he gave me medicine that frightened me. Baby went to sleep and didn't wake up for nine hours. I'm afraid to give it again, and her thrush is spreading."

Margaret decided to fetch some goldenseal, a little plant that was fond of moist ground and worked very well for such cases. Clare could keep watch.

"Tell me again what you've promised to do if you see anyone," Margaret had said to Clare.

"I must whistle the wood thrush song three times, waiting in between. I must slip down quietly to the other side of the wall and keep out of sight until I get to the brook. Then I must follow it along to where you are," Clare replied.


But it hadn't worked out that way. The day before, Clare and her friends had played their first hopscotch of the spring. She had lost narrowly, and it had been all the fault of a round-bottomed potsy. She had been telling Mother all about it on their walk together over the fields. Clare always adored these expeditions, though it puzzled her that Mother let her babble away about her friends and their games when, in Twist, she could be so mean to Clare and treated Clare's brother much more nicely. Roger had complained about being left behind today, but it was Clare Mother trusted to sit watch because she was such an expert whistler that she could get thrushes to echo her call.

While sitting on the wall, Clare had spotted a perfect flat-bottomed stone. Keeping her eyes fixed on the drove a half mile away over the furrows, she had jumped down, grabbed it, and then clambered quickly back to her perch. It was a perfect potsy! She had gazed at her treasure in rapture, imagining herself deftly hopping her way to victory. It was just a few stolen looks, but time enough for three tall men dressed in black to appear in the field, too close for her to whistle a warning or slip down the dell to Mother.

She had tried to divert their attention by hurling herself from the wall and darting away over the field. But they must have spotted Mother, who was halfway up the dell. They leapt over the wall, grabbed Mother roughly by her shoulders, and threw her on her back. Holding her down, they had plunged their hands into her pockets. With a triumphant shout, they had brandished the goldenseal. Hauling her to her feet, they had turned her toward Clare, who had stopped to watch, transfixed with terror.

Glaring at Clare, Mother had declared, "Yes, I am a healer, as my mother and grandmother before me, but that is no daughter of mine. She's a changeling. Ask anyone in Twist! She followed me out here, but would I ever apprentice one like that? You can tell she's different by the way she runs-faster than any human being!"

Margaret had wished with all her heart she didn't have to say that, but how else was she to get Clare moving? And it worked! At her hint, Clare had taken to her heels.

The minister knew Margaret had always insisted Clare was not her daughter. But a changeling? Watching the weird child leap like a deer over the furrows, he realized that if they could catch her and cage her below his pulpit, she would provide a perfect prop for his sermons.

"After her!" he had ordered his two companions. "I can bring this one back to the village by myself."

Lying on the forest floor, Clare slowly regained her breath. She had to figure out what to do. It wouldn't be safe to stay in the forest at night. Bears wandered there, irascible and hungry after their long winter's fast, and wolves prowled too. Someone in the village would hide her. The quickest way home would be guarded against her; she'd have to sneak along the forest verge and then through the winter wheat.

It took her a whole hour to get back to Twist. She had been out at night plenty of times when the darkened village had provided a blindfold for evening games. But this was hide-and-seek in earnest! She crept along the house walls until she came to her own, where she inched up to look into the kitchen. The hearth had a lovely orange glow. Roger was toasting bread and buttering it right on the fork. In her shock and terror, Clare had ignored the growls of hunger from her stomach. Now they hit her. Her brother would make her some toast!

Roger, who was not ordinarily alert when eating, had been listening for her footsteps. As she came in, he grabbed her by the collar.

"They got Mother!" he yelled, aiming the toasting fork at her neck. "It's all your fault!

I don't want anything to do with you. Soldiers have been looking for you all day. They said if I bring you in, they'll let me off."

As he dropped his fork to secure both hands around his sister's throat, she kicked fiercely, wrenched herself away, and leaped for the door. She didn't have time to grab bread; she took off running instead. She would have plunged straight into the market square, where the minister was summoning the reluctant villagers to hunt for her if she hadn't crashed into a large, soft obstacle. Weak from hunger and terror, she screamed, but her cry was muffled in Lizbet's sizeable bosom.

"Hush, Clare," her next-door neighbor said, pulling her along. She didn't say anything else until they were crouched in the winter wheat.

"You mustn't go home. Roger will betray you. They have your mother and two stranger women, each with a daughter, in the minister's cow barn. They've set guards all around so that none of us can talk to them. They're searching for you. You can't be seen in the village; they'll have watchers everywhere."

Shattered by this news, Clare crumpled onto the ground.

"Don't take on, child. I've sent messages for good folks to take you to safety, but they can't get here tonight. Do you know the caves above the laundry place?"

Clare nodded, though happy days at the river seemed somebody else's long-ago memory. On spring and summer afternoons she and her friends spread linens out on the stones, playing circle and clapping games while they dried. The warm rocks were an especially healthy place for drying baby clothes. Infants whose swaddling Margaret washed and Clare lay on the river stones rarely suffered from rashes.

"We launder tomorrow," Lizbet reminded her. "That's what made me think of it. Let's get you to the cave. That will give us some time."

Clare knew it would be a good hiding place because custom forbade boys and men where women and girls stripped naked to wash themselves and their hair along with laundry. She and Lizbet darted from shadow to shadow and kept well off every road and pathway as they made their way out of the village.

"If you crawl into this opening, you will come to a turn at your right." Lizbet touched Clare's right arm to be sure she understood. "Take that turn to a place as big as two of me."

From under the folds of her shawl, Lizbet pulled a hooded cloak of thick gray wool and a bundle. "Eat from this jerky. There's a flask of water too. Fill it at the brook where it joins the river above the washing stones, but don't let yourself be seen."

Clare clutched the cloak and the bundle as she crawled on her stomach through a scratchy tunnel. It was hard to breathe in the tight space. She remembered to feel with her right arm for an opening. There she turned to crawl some more until she came to the open space. She didn't eat any of the jerky, but she wrapped the cloak around herself. Burrowing into a warm prickliness redolent of sheep and Lizbet's personal combination of warm bosom and goat milk, she fell into a merciful asleep.

Clare dreamed she had a vomiting and a flux. Mother came with steadying medicine, and Lizbet brought goat's milk in case her appetite returned. There was the dizzy, vulnerable feeling of having been sick to her stomach and perhaps going to be sick again. Clare felt cramps in her gut and a need to relieve herself. Then she woke up. She saw a strange yellow streak filled with shining bits along a jagged wall, and mica glittered where the shaft stroked the stone. She smelled a wet smell, like moss or damp stone.

Mother was not there. No one had brought her medicine. She had a pain in her gut. She was lying alone at the end of a stone tunnel. She sat up and remembered the jerky. She tore into it hungrily, remembering to chew the mixture of berries pounded down with fat and bits of bacon as slowly and thoroughly as she could. When she had drunk half the water in the flask, she thought of refilling it. Painfully, because she had lain on the hard stones all night, Clare turned. She left the cloak and jerky behind and crawled stiffly out of the cave.

She hesitated at the cave's entrance. She couldn't go for water because women and girls were already splashing and calling back and forth above the rapids to the thwack of sodden cloth on rock. This used to be her favorite time of the year, when it was warm enough to launder by the river instead of using tubs in the kitchen. Wading in the water with the first spring sun on her back was exhilarating, and all winter she had looked forward to the games they played while clothes lay drying.

Everyone was still bent over the washing, so it must be early morning. How could she relieve herself with most of the village women down there? There was the ledge, and above it was the path she and Lizbet had descended the night before.

The women and girls looked so tiny! Keeping her eye on them, she crawled until the cliff curved out of their sight. Even then she didn't feel safe standing up, so she went on all fours until she came to a meadow where she relieved her aching gut in the grasses. The voices called more loudly, and young women sang:

I wish I were a maid again! I wish, I wish, 'twer all in vain, A maid again I ne'er shall be 'Til oranges grow on an apple tree!

A line of children formed to play Farmer, Farmer, May We Cross Your Golden River? The girl who was it had her back to Clare, but the rest of the children were lined up facing her. She couldn't get back to the cave without being seen, so she played at creating a village in the grass. She couldn't figure out how to shape Twist's steep streets, so she flattened out a space for the market square and used little forked sticks for people. There would have to be Marshlanders, she thought. They had appeared in Twist last market day, always the bright harbingers of spring.

Twist's modest fame derived from a strong thread women spun with deft flicks of their wrists, up and away from little wheels they held in one hand. Although most of their trade was with other towns along the drove, such as Brent and Breck, they got their raw flax from half-wild fen dwellers who grew the plant on islands among miles of reeds and sedge spreading west to the shores of the Ocean Sea. During the winter when they were often cut off from the mainland, the Marshlanders hackled the pale blue flowery herb with toothed combs. In the hot August days, they exposed the raw plants to the sun to ret out impurities, then separated the good from the useless fibers. When the winter floods receded, allowing the fen dwellers onto the mainland, they traded for supplies they sorely needed by that time of year.

Lately, though, they'd been much out of favor with the upland ministers because they held their own worship among their islands and refused the tithes demanded of them. Militias had been organized to hunt them down and make examples of them, but the fen dwellers knew every channel and reed bed in their watery homeland and easily evaded the soldiers. So far the militias hadn't bothered them when they came to market, though villagers were fearful that they might not be permitted to trade with them for much longer.

Once a month, trading was set up in one of the only flat yards among Twist's steep streets. The villagers bartered their thread for the Marshlanders' flax and fish. At other times, the villagers sold thread to Martin, the dry goods merchant, for coins. Lately, however, he'd refused to give them money and exchanged necessities like buckets, hoes, or nails in kind. Other Twist merchants had decided to ban women from using coins, and he felt he had to go along with them.

As she flattened out the market square of her play village, Clare scratched a little hopscotch game onto it because that was where, from the first days of spring, she and her friends liked to play. The night before last it had gotten dark before they could finish their game. Clare had gotten to the sixth square of the game-a horribly narrow rectangle. She had stood poised on one cramped leg. Her potsy had been too round on the bottom and tended to skitter. Her friends had held their breath as she had cast her stone. It had fallen cleanly into the crescent that was the goal of the game. Gathering herself together for one last hop, her leg muscles had cramped and she had veered and come down on a crack. Her friends had groaned, partially in empathy but mainly because it was too dark to finish the game. As night fell over the village, they reluctantly parted.

Clare had thought about hopscotch all the way home that night, wishing she had won, figuring that it would still be the first game of the year, and wondering when they would get a chance to finish. It was so unfair! Just when good weather finally arrived, they had more chores than ever! The fields surrounding the village were being dug over, raked out, and seeded; later they would need to be hoed, weeded, and irrigated by bucket brigades during dry spells. There were orchards on either bank of the Danner where the villagers harvested apples, peaches, and quinces. The villagers held their orchards and their fields in common, allocating specific furlongs or groves to this or that family, often for several generations. They dwelled close by each other in their village, walking as much as five miles to their fields and orchards. Recently they had heard of folks buying the fields and orchards up with money and then building their homes right next to them.


Excerpted from The Marshlanders by Annis Pratt Copyright © 2010 by Annis Pratt. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: Clare's Promise....................3
Chapter Two: William's Adventure....................20
Chapter Three: The Brotherhood....................35
Chapter Four: A Time for Healing....................47
Chapter Five: A Fine Day for Fishing....................61
Chapter Six: Many Meetings....................67
Chapter Seven: The Fox and the Ferret....................86
Chapter Eight: Sheep, Sheep, Come Home....................103
Chapter Nine: Journey through the Marshlands....................117
Chapter Ten: Beaver Night....................140
Chapter Eleven: Not as Orphans....................153
Chapter Twelve: The Green Man....................172
Chapter Thirteen: The Straw Lion....................186
Chapter Fourteen: Lady, Lady....................194
Chapter Fifteen: The Wolf in the Rye....................207
Chapter Sixteen: William and the Merchant Adventurers....................226
Chapter Seventeen: Brent....................239
Chapter Eighteen: A Weeping of Children....................257
Chapter Nineteen: The Cloak of Darkness....................277
Chapter Twenty: The Gray Mother....................293
Chapter Twenty-One: Winds of The North....................305

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