Synopsis of Volume I : The Marshlanders
While Clare’s mother is picking golden thread herbs in the forest to cure an infant of thrush, the eight year old sits on a wall to watch the road and call out should anyone approach. She sees a stone that will be perfect for hopscotch. In the moment it takes her to clamber down and grab it, three ministers appear who, in alliance with a cabal of merchants and apothecaries, are determined to wipe out local healers. They realize that the child may be standing guard while her mother forages in the forest below, and they rush into the woods to capture Margaret.
Terrified and self-blaming, Clare runs home, but is driven out by her brother Roger, who has turned against her to save himself. After harrowing days in a riverside cave, she goes to look for her mother, and finds her chained in a barn with two other women and their daughters. When the soldiers load their prisoners into a cart, she follows up the drove to the city of Breck, where the healers are publicly shamed. Rushing across the square to her mother, Clare is set upon by soldiers, who are beating her savagely when Alison and her foster son William come to her rescue.
A calmer, more stoic child than Clare, William tries to bury the memory of his pharmacist father’s murder at the hands of the same clergy and apothecaries by absorbing himself in farming projects and hydraulic inventions. He and Alison hide Clare among the reclusive Marshlanders, who take to the courageous, perky child and adopt her. Although she suffers nightmares and bleak moods, Clare eagerly participates in her new community, helped by high spirits, love of the marshlands, and developing skill as a weaver.
As they grow up, it becomes clear to Clare and William that their old enemies have allied themselves with the new breed of merchant developers intent on draining the marshlands. When William is sixteen and Clare twelve, Dunlin is sacked and soldiers try to rape Clare. She and William barely escape, fleeing to The Tapestry House, a northern weaving community where they are apprenticed as weaver and gardener. William falls in love with Clare, who treats him as a brother. At seventeen she makes love instead with the artist Daniel. Incautious with her first sexual experience, she follows him to the merchant city of Brent.
Exploited for her weaving skills by Daniel’s wool merchant father, Boris, and horrified by the conditions of the children he has enslaved to work in his new weaving house, Clare is helped to escape by Daniel’s grandmother Bess. They rescue the Marshland children and sail north to the land of the Fisher people.