England, 1648. A dangerous time for a woman to be different....
Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, and England is in the grip of civil war between renegade King and rebellious Parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands — the marshy landscape of the south coast.
Alinor, a descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.
Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbours. This is the time of witch-mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.
Release date: August 20, 2019
Publisher: Atria Books
Print pages: 464
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TIDELANDS, SUSSEX, MIDSUMMER EVE, JUNE 1648
The church was gray against a paler gray sky, the bell tower dark against the darker clouds. The young woman could hear the faint stir of the shingle as the tide came in, whispering across the mudflats, recoiling from the beach with a little hiss.
It was the height of summer, the eve of midsummer, the apex of the year, and though the night was warm, she felt chilled, for she had come to meet a ghost. This was the walking night for the dead, this night and their saints’ days; but she did not think that her drunken violent husband had been under the care of any particular saint. She could not imagine angelic eyes on his erratic progress from sea to alehouse, and back again. She did not know if he was run away, or dead, or pressed as a sailor in the disloyal fleet that had turned on their king and now sailed under the rebel flag for parliament. If she were to see him, she would know he was dead for sure, and she could declare herself a widow and think herself free. She had no doubt that if he had drowned, his ghost would be coming, dripping water through the misty graveyard, on this white night of midsummer, when the sallow gleam from the west showed the sun refusing to sink. Everything was out of its place and time on this full-moon Midsummer Eve. The sun unset, the throne upset, the world overset: a king imprisoned, rebels in power, and a pale moon, white as a skull amid gray flying banners of clouds.
She thought that if she were to meet her husband’s ghost drifting like a sea fret through the dark yew trees, she would be the happiest that she had been since her girlhood. If he was drowned, she was free. If he was among the walking dead, she was certain to meet him, for she had the sight, as her mother had, as her grandmother had, back through the generations, through all the women of her family, who had lived here forever, on the tidelands of the Saxon shore.
The church porch had old wooden benches made from warped ships’ timbers on either side of the entrance. She tightened the shawl around her shoulders and took a seat, waiting till the moon, hidden now and then by unraveling clouds, should reach its midnight height over the church roof. She leaned back against the cold stones. She was twenty-seven years old and as weary as a woman of sixty. Her eyes closed; she started to slide into sleep.
The creak of the lych-gate and rapid footsteps on the shingle path of the graveyard woke her at once, driving her to her feet. She had not thought that the ghost of her husband would come early—in life he was always late for everything—but if he were here, then she must speak to him. Breathlessly, she stepped from the church porch, nerving herself to face whatever wraith was coming towards her from the darkness of the graveyard, on the whispering breath from the incoming sea. She could smell the brine on the air, she could sense his advance, perhaps soaked in seawater, perhaps trailing seaweed—and then a young man rounded the corner of the porch, recoiled at the sight of her white face, and cried out: “God save me! Are you of this earth or the other world? Speak!”
For a moment, she was so shocked that she said nothing. She stood very still and stared at him, as if she would see through him, her eyes narrowed, trying to see beyond her earthly vision. Perhaps he was one of the undead: undrowned, unhanged, walking in this night, which was their night, under the midsummer moon, which was their moon. He was as handsome as a faerie prince from a story, with long, dark hair tied back at the nape of his neck, and dark eyes set in a pale face. Behind her back she clenched her thumbs between her fingers in the sign of the cross, her only defense against being seduced, or carried away, and her heart broken by this young lord from the other kingdom, from the other world.
“Speak!” He was breathless. “Who are you? What are you? A vision?”
“No, no!” she contradicted him. “I’m a woman, a mortal woman, the ferryman’s sister, the widow of Zachary the missing fisherman.”
Long after, she would remember that the first thing she told him was that she was a mortal woman, a married woman, a widow, anchored in this world by the power of a man.
“Who? What?” he demanded. He was a stranger: these names meant nothing to him though anyone from the tidelands would have known them at once.
“Who are you?” She could tell he was gentry by his beautifully cut dark jacket, by the lace at his throat. “What’re you doing here, sir?” She looked behind him for his servants, for his guard.
The empty graveyard stretched out in the eerie half darkness to the low wall of knapped flints shining darkly in the moonlight as if they had been washed over and left wet. The thickly crowned trees leaned over, casting a darker shade on the dark ground. There was nothing to see but the light of the moon throwing the shadows of the headstones onto the ragged scythed grass, and nothing to hear but the soft sigh of incoming tide under a full moon.
“I can’t be seen,” he muttered.
“Nobody here to see you.” Her abrupt dismissal of his fear made him look again at her oval face, her dark gray eyes: a woman as beautiful as a Madonna in an icon, but drab here in the unearthly half-light, her tattered kerchief hiding her hair, shapeless in her ragged clothes.
“What are you doing here at this time of night?” he asked suspiciously.
“I came to pray.” She would not tell this stranger that it was well known that a widow would meet her dead husband if she waited for him in the churchyard on Midsummer Eve.
“Pray?” he repeated. “God bless you for the thought. Let’s go in then. I’ll pray with you.”
He turned the heavy ring handle on the door and caught the bar as it lifted on the other side so that it made no sound. He led the way into the silent church, quiet as a thief. She hesitated, but he waited for her, holding the door open without another word and she had to follow him. When he closed the door behind them there was only the dim light from the old stained-glass windows, gold and bronze on the stone-flagged floor. The sound of the rising sea was shut out.
“Leave the door open,” she said nervously. “It’s so dark in here.”
He opened it a crack and a ribbon of pale moonlight stretched along the aisle to their feet.
“What did you come here for?” she asked. “Are you a gentleman from London?” It was the only explanation for his clean collar and his good leather boots, the little pack that he carried, and the warm intelligence in his face.
“I can’t say.”
She thought he must be one of the agents traveling the country seeking recruits for either parliament or king, except that nobody ever came to Sealsea Island, and he was alone without companions, or even horses, as if he had been dropped from the sky like a stormbringer, swung low from the clouds, for ill-doing to mortals, ready to blow away again on a summer gale.
“Are you smuggling, sir?”
His short laugh, nipped off when he heard his voice echo eerily in the empty church, denied it.
“You cannot tell anyone you saw me.”
“Nor you tell of me,” she returned.
“Can you keep a secret?”
She sighed a cloudy breath in the cold musty air. “God knows I keep many.”
He hesitated, as if he did not know whether or not he dared to trust her. “Are you of the new faith?” he asked.
“I don’t know the rights or the wrongs of it,” she said cautiously. “I pray as the minister tells me.”
“I’m of the old faith, the true faith,” he confessed in a whisper. “I was invited here, but the people I was going to meet are away, and their house, where I would have been safe, is closed and dark. I have to hide somewhere tonight, and if I cannot meet with them, then I must somehow get back to London.”
Alinor stared at him as if he were in truth a faerie lord, and a danger to a mortal woman. “D’you say you’re a priest, sir?”
He nodded as if he did not trust words.
“One sent from France to do the heretic services with the hidden papists?”
He grimaced. “Our enemies would say that. I would say I serve the true believers in England, and I am loyal to the ordained king.”
She shook her head, uncomprehending. The civil war had come no nearer than Chichester, six miles north, when the little town had collapsed under a brisk siege from the parliament forces.
“They handed over all the papists when Chichester fell,” she warned him. “Even the bishop ran away. They’re all for parliament round here.”
“But not you?”
She shrugged. “No one’s done anything for me or mine. But my brother’s an army man, and very true to them.”
“But you won’t hand me over?”
She hesitated. “D’you swear you’re not a Frenchman?”
“An Englishman born and bred. And faithful to my country.”
“But spying for the king?”
“I am loyal to the ordained King Charles,” he told her. “As every Englishman should be.”
She shook her head, as if grand words meant nothing to her. The king had been driven from his throne, his rule shrunk to his household, his palace was little Carisbrooke Castle, on the Isle of Wight. Alinor knew nobody who would declare loyalty to such a king, who had brought war into his country for six long years.
“Were you going to stay at the Priory, sir?”
“I may not tell you who would have hidden me. It is not my secret to tell.”
She made a little impatient noise at his excessive secrecy. Sealsea Island was such a small community, not more than a hundred families; she knew every one of them. It was obvious that only the lord of the manor would have offered hiding to a papist priest and royalist spy. Only the Priory, the one great house on the island, had a bed and linen fit for a gentleman like this. Only the lord of the manor, sir William Peachey, would dream of supporting the defeated king. All his tenants were for parliament and for freedom from the crushing taxation that came from king and lords. And she thought it was typical of Sir William to make such a dangerous offer and then carelessly fail to honor it, leaving his secret guest in mortal danger. If this young man were caught by parliament men they would hang him for a spy.
“Does anyone know you’re here?”
He shook his head. “I went to the house where I was told to go, the safe house, and it was all dark and locked up. I was told to tap a special knock on a garden door, but no one came. I saw the bell tower over the top of the trees, so I came here to wait, in the hope that if they are asleep now, they will answer later. I didn’t know where else I might go. I don’t know this place. I came in by ship on the high tide, and it looked like a wasteland of sea and mud for mile on mile. I’ve not even got a map!”
“Oh, there’s no map,” she told him.
He looked aghast. “No map? Why has it not been mapped?”
“It’s the tidelands,” she told him. “The shingle bar before the harbor, and the harbor itself changes with every storm. The Chichester people call it ‘Wandering Haven.’ The sea breaks into the fields and takes back the land. The ditches flood and make new lakes. It never stays the same for long enough to be measured. These are the tidelands: half tide, half land, good for nothing, all the way west to the New Forest, all the way east till the white cliffs.”
“Is the minister of this church one of the new men?”
“He’s been here for years and he does as he’s told, now he takes his orders from the new parliament. He’s not whitewashed the walls or broken the windows yet. But he took down the statues, he keeps the altar at the crossway of the church and prays in English. He said that good King Henry set us free from Rome a hundred years ago, and this King Charles wants to take us back, but he can’t. He’s defeated. He’s ruined, and parliament has won the war against the king.”
The stranger’s face grew dark with anger. “They’ve not won,” he insisted. “They’ll never win. They can’t win. It’s not over yet.”
She was silent. She thought that it was long over for the king, who was imprisoned, his wife fled to France, leaving two little children behind, and his son, the prince, gone to the Netherlands. “Yes, sir.”
“Would he denounce me, this minister?”
“I think he’d have to.”
“Is there anyone here of the old faith? In hiding? On this island?”
She spread her hands as if to show him her ignorance. He saw that her palms were scratched and scarred from the shells of lobsters and crabs and the rough twine of the fishing nets.
“I don’t know what people hold in their hearts,” she said. “There were many for the king in Chichester, some of them papists; but they’re killed or run away. I know no one except one or two old ladies who remember the old faith. Most people are like my brother: godly men. My brother fought in the New Army under the general. General Cromwell is his name. You’ll have heard of him?”
“Yes, I’ve heard of him,” he said grimly. He paused, thinking hard. “Can I get to Chichester tonight?”
She shook her head. “The tide’s coming in now, and it’s high tonight for midsummer. You can’t cross the wadeway to the Chichester road till morning, and then you’d be seen. Won’t your boat come back for you?”
“Then you’ll have to hide till low tide tomorrow evening, and go across the wadeway at dusk. You can’t take the ferry. My brother’s the ferryman, and he’d arrest you on sight.”
“How would he know me for a cavalier?”
Her smile lit up her face. “Sir, no one looks like you on Sealsea Island! Not even Sir William is as fine.”
He flushed. “Well, if I have to stay on the island, where can I hide?”
She thought for a moment. “You can lie in my husband’s shed till tomorrow evening,” she offered. “That’s the only place I can think of. It’s not fit. He kept his nets there, and his pots. But he’s been missing for months and nobody ever goes there now. I can bring you food and water in the morning. And when it’s light, perhaps you can go to the Priory, just over there. You could go in the morning privately and ask to see the steward. His lordship’s away from home, but the steward might take you in. I don’t know. I can’t say what they believe. I don’t know.”
He bowed his head in a thanksgiving. “God bless you,” he said. “I think God must have sent you to be my savior.”
“I’ll show you the net shed first, before you bless me for letting you sleep there,” she said. “It’s not for the likes of you. It stinks of old fish.”
“I have nowhere else,” he said simply. “You are my savior. Shall we pray together?”
“No,” she said bluntly. “We’d do best to get you into hiding. I don’t think anyone else will come here at this time of night, but you never know. Some like to think themselves very godly. They might come to pray at dawn.”
“You came here to pray,” he reminded her. “Are you godly? Are you one of the godly believers?”
She flushed at her own lie. “I didn’t really,” she admitted.
“Then for what?”
He ignored her embarrassment, assuming that she had come to meet a lover in some sordid village affair. “Where is the net shed, and your home?”
“At the top of the harbor, near the ferry-house, across the rife from the mill.”
“Broad Rife,” she said. “The river that flows into the head of the harbor. It moves with the tide, ebbs and flows, but it never runs dry. It’s high now. It’s been such a wet summer, the wadeway’s not been dry for weeks.”
“Your brother’s ferry crosses the rife when the tide is full?”
“And there’s a wadeway at low tide for people to walk across.”
“I would not put you in danger. I can find my own way if you tell me the direction. You don’t need to lead me.”
“You can’t. The harbor’s like a maze of paths and there are deep pools and channels,” she explained. “The sea comes in faster than a trotting horse, and spreads across the land quicker than a man can run. You can get stuck in the mud or cut off on a path, or trapped by water. There are quicksands that you can’t see till your foot sinks beneath you and you can’t draw it out. Only us who were born and bred here ever cross the mire. I’ll have to take you.”
He nodded. “God will bless you for this. He must have sent you to guide me.”
She looked doubtful, as if God had not been generous with his blessings in her life. “Shall we go now? It’ll take us a while to get across.”
“We’ll go,” he decided. “What shall I call you? I am Father James.”
She recoiled from the priestly title. “I can’t call you that! I might as well go to the justices and get arrested at once! What’s your real name?”
“You can call me James.”
She gave a little shrug as if she was offended by his discretion. “I bear my husband’s name,” she replied. “They call me Goody Reekie.”
“What shall I call you?”
“Call me that,” she said pertly. “Since you don’t tell me your true name why should I tell you mine?”
She turned from his surprised face and led the way out of the church, waiting patiently as he bowed low to the altar, kneeling on one knee and putting his hand to the ground. She heard him whisper a prayer for his safety and hers, and for all those serving the true faith in England tonight, for the king in his cruel captivity, and the prince abroad.
“My husband’s missing,” she remarked, as he joined her at the door. “He’s been gone for more than half a year.”
“God bless him, and keep you,” he said, making the sign of the cross over her head. She had never seen the gesture before, and she did not know to bow her head and cross herself. Nobody had publicly crossed themselves in England for nearly a hundred years. The people had lost the habit, and those who were still Roman Catholic were careful to keep their faith hidden.
“Thank you,” she said awkwardly.
“Do you have children?”
She opened the heavy door to the porch, looked out to see that the graveyard was deserted, and then beckoned him to follow her. They walked in single file between graves where the stones were so thick with old moss and lichen that only a few letters could be seen.
“Two still living,” she said over her shoulder. “I thank God for them. My daughter is thirteen and my son is twelve.”
“And does your boy fish in his father’s place?”
“The boat’s missing too,” she said, as if that were the greatest loss. “So we can only fish with a line from the shore.”
“Our Lord called a fisherman before he called anyone else,” he said gently.
“Yes,” she said. “But at least he left the boat.”
A laugh broke from him at her irreverence, and she turned and laughed with him and he saw, again, the bright warmth of her smile. It was so powerful and so illuminating he wanted to catch her hand and keep her smiling at him.
“The boat matters so much, you see.”
“I do see,” he said, taking hold of the shoulder straps of his pack, keeping his hands away from temptation. “How do you manage without boat or husband?”
“Poorly,” she said shortly.
At the low wall of rough stone flints at the edge of the graveyard she hitched up her brown skirt and hemp apron and swung her legs over the stile, as lithe as a boy. He climbed after her and found himself on the shore, on a little path no wider than a sheep track, with quickthorn hedges closing in on both sides and meeting over the top, so that the two of them were hidden in a tunnel of thick leaves and twisted spiky boughs. Walking ahead of him, she bent her head and wrapped her elbows in her shawl, striding out in her wooden pattens, following the erratic course of the narrow path. The sound of the sea grew a little louder as she scrambled down a bank, and then they were suddenly in the open, lit by the fitful moon in the pale sky, on a beach of a white shingle. Behind them the bank was topped by a big oak tree, its roots snaking through the mud, its down-swinging branches bending low to the beach. Ahead of them was the marsh: standing water, sandbanks, tidal pools, mud, reed islands, and a wide winding channel of water with branching silted streams swelling and lapping over the mud, flowing in little waves that broke at their feet.
“Foulmire,” she announced.
“I thought you said it was called Wandering Haven?”
“That’s what they call it in Chichester, because it wanders. They never know where the islands are, they never know where the reefs are; the rivers change their beds at every storm. But we, who live on it and know all its changes, who change our paths in obedience to its moods, who hate it as a hard taskmaster, call it Foulmire.”
“For the birds? Fowl-mire? Bird-marsh?”
“For the mud: foul,” she said. “If you misstep it holds you till the sea comes for you and you are foully drowned. If you get free you stink like a foul thing for the rest of your life.”
“Have you always lived here?” he asked, wondering at the bitterness in her voice.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I am mired. I am bound as a tenant to a neglectful lord and I cannot leave. I am wife to a vanished man and cannot marry, and I am sister to the ferryman and he will never carry me across to the mainland and set me free.”
“Is all the coast like this?” he asked, thinking of his landing, when the captain had steered them in the dark, past reefs and over shallows. “All so uncertain?”
“Tidelands,” she confirmed. “Neither sea nor shore. Neither wet or dry, and no one ever leaves.”
“You could leave. I will have a ship,” he said lightly. “When I finish my work here, I will sail back to France. I could give you a passage.”
She turned and looked at him and once again she surprised him, this time by her gravity. “I wish to God that I could,” she said. “But I would not leave my children. And besides, I have a terror of deep water.”
She walked on ahead of him, scrunching on the shingle beach that wound between the bank and mud where the water was seeping inwards. A roosting seagull whirled up ahead of them with an unearthly call, and he followed her shadow over shingle and mud and the driftwood, hearing the steady hiss, as the sea, somewhere out in the darkness to his right, came constantly closer, flooding mudbanks, drowning the reeds, always coming unstoppably on.
She scrambled up another bank to a path that ran higher, above the tidemark, and he followed her between gorse bushes where the nighttime flowers were drained of their color and glowed silver rather than gold, but he could still smell their honey scent on the air. An owl hooted near him and made him start as he saw it, dark in the darkness, wheeling away on wide silent wings.
They walked for a long time, until the pack on his back became heavy and he felt as if he were in a dream, following the wooden heels of her pattens, the dirty hem of her skirt, through a world that had lost meaning as well as color, on a winding track through desolation. He pulled himself up, and whispered an “Ave Maria,” reminding himself that he was honored to carry the word of God, the precious objects for the Mass, and a ransom for a king; he was glad to have to struggle on a muddy path through an unmapped shore.
The sea seeped farther inland as if it knew no boundary. He could see the water creeping through the driftwood and straw on the shingle below them, and on the other side of the bank the ditches and ponds were swelling and flowing back inland as if it were, as she had said, a place that was neither sea nor shore but the land itself that ebbed and flowed with the tide. He realized that for some time he had heard a strange hissing noise overlaying the sound of the lapping water, like the seething of a giant stewpot, like the bubble of a kettle.
“What is that? What is that noise?” he whispered, stopping her with one hand on her shoulder. “Do you hear it? A terrible noise! Strange, like the water is boiling.”
She halted, quite unafraid, and pointed out into the middle of the moving water. “Oh, that. Look, there, out there, in the mire, can you see the bubbles?”
“I can see nothing but waves. God save us! What is it? It sounds like a fountain?”
“It’s the hushing well,” she said.
He was absurdly frightened. “What is it? What is that?”
“Nobody knows,” she said indifferently. “A place in the center of the mire where the sea boils as it comes in. Every high tide, so we pay no attention. Sometimes a stranger takes an interest in it. A man told my brother it was probably a cave, underneath the mire, and the bubbles pour from it when the sea fills it. But nobody knows. Nobody’s ever seen it.”
“It sounds like a seething pot!” He was horrified by the strangeness of the sound. “As if it were hell boiling over!”
“Yes, I s’pose it’s fearful.” She had no interest in it.
“What does it look like when the sea goes out?” he asked curiously. “Is the ground hot?”
“Nobody’s seen it when the tide is out,” she repeated patiently. “You can’t walk to it. You’d sink and the mire would hold you till you drowned on the next tide. P’raps it’s a cave—and you’d fall into it. Who knows? P’raps there really is a cave that holds all the sea, the waters that ebb and flow underneath all the world. P’raps it’s the end of the world, hidden away here in Foulmire, and we’ve been living on the doorstep of hell for all these years.”
“But the noise?”
“You can take a boat over it,” she offered. “It bubbles like a cauldron and it hisses loudly. Sometimes it’s so loud that you can hear it in the churchyard on a still night.”
“You can sail out to see it?”
“Well, I wouldn’t,” she specified. “But it can be done, if you’ve nothing else to do.”
He guessed that there was never a day in her life when she had nothing else to do.
She turned and walked on again. She had no interest in the threatening hiss that grew louder as the bank curved towards the harbor, and fainter as they moved away.
“Were you ever at school?” he asked, trying to imagine her life, living here in this desolate landscape, as ignorant as a flower. He lengthened his stride and walked beside her as the path widened.
“For a few years. I can read and I can write. My mother taught me her recipe book, and the herbs, and her skills.”
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