The Rushes: Book Excerpt

Jane M. Wiseman

The Rushes

The Rushes

Star-fallen, Book I: Child of Earth

The old folk song, Green Grow the Rushes, Oh, is a counting song with many mysterious verses. The song may have acted as a secret communication.

 

Picture me this way on the worst day of my life. I’m heading back to the house through the woods, a rabbit slung over my shoulder. Don’t look so shocked. Country girls hunt for small game all the time, though we know it’s forbidden. That’s especially important in my family, as my parents have no sons.

Was important. Had no sons.

In this picture I’m painting for you, I move out of the verges of the forest, where the grasses of the meadow surrounding our small house meet the underbrush and then the trees, the trees so tall and old that nothing grows beneath them. The sun slants down to the forest floor. It’s silent there by day; by night, in the moonlight, even holy. Rabbits don’t go there. I have to make my way through these tracts of old trees surrounding our place and descend all the way down to the ravines and riverlands beyond, because there the land is brushy. Rabbits and other small animals have their burrows in such places, and the river teems with fish.  To make this trek takes me all day long, but it’s worth it, because I return with meat and skins, maybe a string of fish, maybe other useful gleanings.

I see I’m circling around the point here. It’s because I don’t want to get there. I don’t want to finish painting the picture of me on that day, a girl with a rabbit slung over her shoulder, her snares and fishing line at her belt, heading home. It’s because, on that day, as soon as I reached the meadow’s verge, I could tell something was wrong. Something bad.

The forest is silent, but the verge and the meadow never are. They hum and buzz with life—birds, insects. If you were a blind person, you’d know when you left the woods and stepped into the verge of the meadow, simply from the sounds. And often, if you are near our house and pause before passing over the boundary into the meadow, you can hear my mother singing.

Could hear her.

This day, everything was silent. The meadow was silent. I didn’t even think about it. I stepped from under the tall trees and their holy silence and I expected to move into the cheerful hum and buzz, but instead everything around me felt flat and dangerous. It took me a second before I understood what was wrong, although not, right away, the cause. But I sensed the danger. I paused halfway out from under the shadow of the trees. What saved me, I think, was the afternoon sun dappling the underbrush. I was in my leather jerkin, the one my mother had sewn for me of rabbit skins I had brought home to her from my own trapping expeditions. That jerkin, buff and brown and mottled, blended in with the dapples and overlapping shadows at the verge.

If I had been wearing my holiday clothes, I would have been dead by the third step I took into the meadow. As it was, even though I didn’t understand what I was sensing, or even, really, what I was seeing, my body crouched of its own accord, and I found myself backing silently into the brush I had walked out of only moments before. From there, hidden, I stared and stared at the thing I don’t want to tell you about.

I must. It’s a matter of bearing witness.

What I saw was our farmhouse, gutted and smoldering. The soldiers of the king were poking around it, and one officer on horseback was directing them. Strewn down the meadow between me and the ruins of our house, I saw crumpled forms. Piles of cloth, distorted and lumpy. At first I couldn’t have told you what they were. But on some level, I knew. They were bodies. My father. My mother. My little sister. Cut down as they tried to run for the safety of the brushy forest verge.

I knew the smallest bundle was my sister Gillie. That’s because, tossed out beside her, I saw a splash of bright yellow. My mother had made her a poppet from some yellow cloth she had left over from her new holiday dress. Gillie loved that doll.

I know the men patrolling around the ruins of my home were soldiers of the king. How did I know that, you’re asking me? They wore his scarlet livery. They were slashes of scarlet in the gray of the smoldering cabin. Slashes of scarlet roaming the vivid meadow.

None of this made sense to me. The scene made no sense. All in my family were loyal subjects of the king. That’s what I thought. We had never done any wrong, not to the king, not to our neighbors. Poaching a little, that’s not wrong, not really. The most it would have earned me or any in my family would have been a sound scolding and a fine levied by the magistrate, especially in our village, where everyone knew each other and nobody bothered to enforce the harsher laws. Why, now, were the king’s men and his officers standing over my dead family members and my ruined home?

And why did I know they were responsible? I could have thought, oh, here are the king’s men, come to investigate a great crime against my family. I must show myself to them, beg them to help me. I didn’t do that. I knew they were the ones who had killed and burned and ruined. This is a mystery to me, how I knew that, so no, I can’t tell you.

But that knowledge I somehow possessed is why I’m still alive.

Perhaps my second sense preserved me. Second sense? Let me explain. My father always said to me, Mirin, you have the second sense. He told me that’s what made me a good hunter. Some kind of knowledge underneath knowing. That’s as well as I can explain it. Something you know, but you don’t know how you know it. No, it’s nothing like witchcraft. It’s just. . .a sense of the way things should be, and a knowing when things are not as they should be.

That’s the beginning of my story, all I know of it. I can fill in the details, if you like. Now they seem like events in the distant past, things I barely remember. But these events took place only three years ago. By the end of that one day, everything I’d known and loved was gone.

Everything but this. This is my gittern. My father made it for me. A friend of his taught me to play. He brought his own instrument with him to our home and noticed how much I longed to touch it and bring thrilling tones from its strings, as he did. So while he was there with us, he taught me. When he left, my father carved this one so I’d have an instrument of my own. My father was clever that way, always carving objects and shaping objects and making things better. He even knew some goldsmithing, although of course he rarely practiced it. He said he learned it from an old man he knew, back when he was a boy. I used to wonder why he didn’t set himself up as a goldsmith. Our fields barely grew enough to feed us. My mother made an exasperated sound when I brought this up to her once. “Who’d have the coin to buy anything he made?” she’d said.

See, my gittern has five strings. You may run your fingers across them, if you like. Pretty, isn’t it? I used to make the strings from the guts of the rabbits I brought home. And see how you play upon it. With this quill. I remember well the first quill I used. I found it in the woods. A hawk had shed it onto the floor of the forest, and I came upon it, and thought, this quill will be the perfect thing for plucking my gittern. Shall I play you a tune?

I’ll sing you one, oh.
What is your one, oh.
One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.

 Thank you for that compliment. It’s a good song. Johnny the Traveler taught it to me. He is the man who stayed with us. He taught me to play many songs like that one. As for the singing, I’ve done that all my life. I suppose my mother taught me, but I don’t remember any actual teaching. She sang, and I imitated her.

I’ll sing you another verse of Johnny’s song, if you like.

 

Chapter One

This is how I, Mirin Farmeadows, was thrown willy-nilly into the events of the past three years. What will come of it all? No one can say. Maybe we’ll all be caught and killed. We probably will be. Some of us have been. Many of us, too many. Such a fate should make me scared, and if I think about it, I am scared, as any reasonable person would be. I try not to think about it. That’s how I’m able to put on my clothes and go about my business every day. Otherwise I’d stay curled in a ball under the furs in our homestead’s big bed and never come out. But those of us in the movement know we have to do what little we can do, risks be damned. We know we have to try.

I myself have to try, because otherwise my family will have died for no good reason, just because some soldiers felt like killing them. You could say the thirst for vengeance keeps me going. I’d say yes, it may be that, but the thirst for justice more. Now you’re probably wondering how I found the others in the movement. It seems unlikely, I know—a young girl with no family, orphaned, no protector. My family’s friends in the village were all too afraid to reach out to me. I don’t blame them. If they had helped me, their own families might have been slaughtered.

But one, Goodwife Cailin, took me aside on Fair Day, when everyone’s attention was elsewhere. She gave me some advice.

“Mirin, you look so thin,” she said. “How are you keeping?” She thrust a piece of gingerbread into my hand, and I greedily ate it, not thinking at all of proper manners or thank-yous. That’s how hungry I was.

“I don’t know what to do, Goodwife Cailin,” I told her. “I just try to keep in the alleys and look out for soldiers. If I see them coming, or if I see the watchman, I hide.”

“But where do you sleep? How do you eat?” I know my dirty face and torn clothes told her all she needed to know, so I didn’t answer her. “Child, you must go to the priests. That’s the only way you’ll stay alive.”

“There are no priests,” I said.

“No, not here,” she said. “But in the market town, there’s a temple to our good Lady Goddess, and you can throw yourself on the Goddess’s mercy there. Then the priests will have to take you in. They won’t have a choice. You don’t need to tell them much. Don’t tell them anything about how you came to be orphaned. No one will recognize you there and be tempted to turn you in. But if you stay here, someone will be tempted. There’s a bounty on your head, girl.” Looking over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching us, she picked up a stick. Then she bent down and quickly drew a map for me in the dirt: the path out of our village, the meandering way it took through the opposite woods and down to the point where it branched off toward the market town. Then Goodwife Cailin drew a round enclosure. I knew this must represent the palisades around the market town. Within the circle of the town, she drew the street leading to the temple from the market square.

A burst of hoofbeats warned us that soldiers were riding through the fair. She grabbed me in her strong washerwoman’s arms and thrust me behind a tangle of barrels. “Stay there til they’re gone,” she hissed at me, then whirled to face the commotion, curtseyed as the soldiers rode past, and made off in the opposite direction as soon as they’d gone.

I lay there trembling for a long time. Then I began to cry, because she had flung me down so hard that I had fallen on my gittern and I was sure it was smashed. It wasn’t, though. I pulled open the drawstrings of its oiled bag and drew it out. I hugged my knees to my body and cradled the gittern in my arms, inspecting it from the neck to the graceful curve of its belly. It was fine. My quill was broken, though. When I pulled it out of the bag, the quill’s top flopped over where it had snapped in two, held together only by a few tough membranes and vanes of feathers. Just then, I suppose because I needed comfort, I longed to play my gittern. I could have used my fingers to pluck the strings. Or just the stump of the broken quill. But of course I didn’t dare.

“I’m fine. Not hurt, not taken,” I whispered to myself. I would go to the market town, just as Goodwife Cailin had urged me, and on the way, I’d look for a new quill, or some other long, thin object I could use to strum and pluck my strings. One of the strings had also flopped loose from its binding, but that was easily fixed. In the shadow of the barrels, I set about threading the string back into the hole my father had made with his awl in one of the hitch-pins he had set into the bowl of the instrument. Then I tied the string off in the tight, neat knot my father had taught me to make. I couldn’t help myself then; I strummed a few notes, softly in case someone was listening, but no one was. The soldiers were gone and the crowds had flocked noisily back to the booths and carts of the fair. I was alone behind the barrels.

After a while, I inched out from behind them and stood up, holding my gittern carefully by its neck. I eased it back into its oiled bag and slung it by its strap over my shoulder. Then, when I was sure I wasn’t observed, I bent down over the map Goodwife Cailin had drawn me in the patch of dirt off the edge of the street. After I had memorized the map, I rubbed it out with the toe of one of my shoes.

I noticed then with dismay that the shoe was nearly worn to tatters. Both shoes were. My mother had made them of some of my rabbit skins and sturdily soled them, but since then, they’d had hard wear. Would they hold up during the long day’s walk to the market town? Maybe, I thought, I’d be able to get a ride on the back of a farm wagon. Someone I didn’t know, who didn’t know me and my dismal, dangerous history. Someone heading to the market town to sell the produce of his steading, as my father had done himself many times in the past.

I spent a restless night curled up on the back step of the village hall, making sure to keep an eye out for the watch and slip into the shadows whenever the watchman passed by. But at the tail end of night, I was so worn out, I slept right through his approaching footsteps. I woke with a start. He was standing over me, holding his lantern high so that the shadows wouldn’t obscure my face.

“Is that you, Mirin Farmeadows?” His voice sent me into a panic, and I rose to try to run. But his hand shot out and he pressed me back down on the hard granite of the step.

“Yes,” I quavered.

“The Lady Goddess keep you in Her care, child,” he said. He slung off his cloak and tucked it around me. “In the morning, just leave the cloak there on the step. I’ll get it then. But mind, be off before the head man comes to open the shutters.”

I nodded.

He put his hand down briefly on my head. “Poor child,” he said. Then he slung his lantern back up onto its pole and strode away.

I knew I might not be so lucky the next time I got careless. The next watchman might not be this one, Hungry Jim, but instead Kenelm One-eye, who hated the world and everyone in it. I was sure that included me. These two men shared the job of night watchman.

So now I knew for certain I would follow Goodwife Cailin’s advice. I would leave this place and head for the market town as soon as it got light.

The next morning, that’s what I did. I walked along the roadway, overtaken by cart after cart, and none of them stopped for a ragged girl holding out her hands in the weeds, a beggar, somebody misfortunate, dirty, perhaps dangerous. I walked, and then I trudged, and then I limped. But I did find a wonderful quill at the edge of the road, where a bird had dropped it. Probably a raven. The feather was glossy black. Its shaft was sturdy. It was perfect.

As I walked along, I took my gittern out of its bag, fitted it under my chin, and began to play and sing.

I’ll sing you one, oh.
What is your one, oh?
One is one, and all alone, and evermore shall be so.

 

As I sang, I saw that a cart pulling past me had slowed to a stop. A farmer sat on the wagon box seat, looking back over his shoulder at me. As I came abreast of him, he gave me a smile. “That was right pretty, young mistress.”

“Thank you, good sir,” I said, and dropped him my very best curtsey.

“Come up here on the wagon seat beside me and play and sing to me as we ride along. The miles won’t seem so long then.”

I looked up into his homely honest face and thought how my mother and father had cautioned me not to go with people who were strangers to me. It’s not safe! they’d tell me. Never do this! they’d say. But I had no choice, not really, and the man looked kind.

So that’s what I did. I climbed up over the big wheel at the side of the wagon and onto the wagon seat at his side, and he never hurt me or gave me the least reason to worry. He took me all the way to the market town gates, and there he dropped me off. He knew I had no papers, so he didn’t dare be caught transporting me into town. I didn’t think he’d inform on me, though. Maybe he would have if he had known there was a bounty to be paid for turning me in. Times were hard. People were poor. But how was he to know about the bounty? I wasn’t important enough to have my criminal status posted all over the jurisdiction. Only in our village.

I’m a criminal, I thought. Wanted by the authorities. It was not right. I’d done nothing wrong, and great wrong had been done to me.

As I watched the farmer’s wagon pull into line behind the others waiting their turn to be admitted into the palisade, I thought over the music I had played and how it had kept me from being as sore-footed as I might have been. I got the idea then that this music I knew how to play was the key to my well-being, maybe even my survival. I waved to the man until he had driven forward and was obscured by another wagon, and then another, and then another. I sat down at the side of the road with my gittern, a ragged girl unnoticed by the wagoneers and too far away to attract the attention of the guards. I decided to sit there until dark. Then I’d figure out how I would sneak into the town.

© Jane M. Wiseman

 

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