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The Marshlanders Chapter 16: William and the Merchant Adventurers

The chamber where the Burghers of Breck held their council was lighter and airier than the Minister’s library at Brent. It occupied the top floor corner of a weaving house owned by a linen maker named Robert, with tall windows facing east and south. People had been astonished when Robert ordered glaziers to insert stained glass figures in the east window, the first time anything like that had been seen outside of a church. Red, blue, yellow and green rays streamed through the depiction of the burghers of Breck receiving their charter.

This morning they were conferring with a delegation from the Delta, examining design plans and drawings that Anthony, a young Deltan engineer, had spread out on a long oaken table. These illustrated the steps his Company of Merchant Adventurers used to drain agricultural wastelands. Anthony was hopeful of getting Breck, whose burghers were less powerful than Brent’s, to be the first to sign onto the scheme. Brent would not want to be outdone, and Nidden should follow the lead of the bigger cities in venturing funds from their coffers to buy shares in the enterprise.

This was a new experience for a young man more used to sloshing through bogs than standing before an audience in his Sunday best. Like every Deltan, rich or poor, landowner or slave, he had grown up in a vast landscape threatened by floods from both river and sea.

Deltans had developed measures to hold back these waters that flooded everything in their path. From the first time that their cuts and embankments had provided sufficient runoff and containment to keep them dry, they had decided that God had come to their aid. Then, as if He were rewarding them further, the same measures had opened up extensive fields for profitable cultivation. The most forward thinking Deltans had raised militias so that they could subdue challengers, enabling them to drain more and more wasteland, until men like Anthony’s father had become overlords of vast holdings.

The land system they governed depended upon the slave labor of indigenous Deltans –strong, tall Albino peoples who had no tradition of warfare and were easily subdued. In the last two decades, however, some slaves had retreated into the swamps to join strangers — some said Marshlanders, others defectors from northern militias — who had organized them into disciplined bands to make swift strikes upon embankments and machinery before withdrawing into the buttes. A war of skirmishes had dragged on for years until the Deltan overlords had to hire militias from the north, the expense of which was draining away their wealth.

Now the whole south was in crisis, and money was scarce to buy weapons or maintain militias. Anthony’s father had come up with the idea of selling Deltan expertise in the form of shares in improvements upon their own marshlands to rich northern burghers.

Since Anthony was an excellent engineer and draftsman and had a good way of explaining how the improvements worked, he was sent as emissary.

“To review,” he was concluding:

“By digging cuts between embankments and keeping them dredged of silt you can drain vast cachements for agricultural improvement while, at the same time, you create straight waterways for transporting goods more swiftly, thus enhancing production. By building windmills we can keep your new cachements drained throughout the flood season, opening them for winter wheat or pasturage. Nor will the sea pour in at high tide, once we have constructed sluices at the mouths of rivers. These are new days, days of the light of reason! Using our techniques, you can make former wastelands dry and profitable.”

The burghers of Breck were not in the habit of applauding their guests, but they applauded Anthony. The implications of his plans were stunning! Every one of them could think of several ways to profit by them. They were smart men, however, with questions for the young engineer before they would consider committing funds to his venture.

“Our marshlands are full of wild men and women, savage folk who skulk and hide and shoot at you with arrows.”

“They are idle and lazy, they lie around all day or go off fishing when you need them. They would never agree to sign on as laborers! How did you subdue your Marshlanders, and who did you hire for labor?”

“We were lucky there,” replied Anthony, “the Albino peoples native to the Delta have no tradition of warfare. Also, though they have strong backs and can be excellent laborers, they are as subject as little children to our diseases. So many of them had died of measles and chickenpox that they became entirely demoralized. We got their secrets out of them all right: it was they, actually, who invented the idea of cuts and dredging, so they understand the work.”

“You will bring in slaves with you for our draining?” queried Robert.

“No, it will be too cold for them, and they have no resistance to northern agues. Even if your Marshlanders are not interested in improving their lot, your countryside is full of men left landless by enclosures, hungry enough to dig for you if you promise them fields and furrows.”

“If we asked people to agree to improvements upon our weaving business in Breck,” mused a burgher, “they would never go along with it. They would be restive and querulous because they would see that it is we, not they, who profit from such undertakings. The beauty of this scheme is that we can say it is for the public good, wastelands to be reclaimed for the benefit of any who provide honest labor, improvements in their lot for those who bend their backs to the task!”

“To the laborer goes the reward!” agreed the Breck minister, “With God on our side we will reclaim the waste places of the earth, until what was once desert shall flourish, what was barren shall bring forth in abundance!”

“Yes,” concurred Robert, “That’s the way to present it. We hire on laborers, promise them an acre or two for a year of work. Once they have settled out there we can keep them well in hand: they’ll be an easier lot to control than the Marshlanders, I’ll warrant!”

“What about the Marshlanders” interjected a burgher, “there’ll be resistance from wild men and women every time you put your spades in their fens!”

“That is where our Deltan militia comes in. Each company of Merchant Adventurers will be provided an engineer like myself, a foreman to govern the workers, and a company of Crocodiles.”

Neither the burghers nor their minister had ever heard of this militia. But of course, they reflected, the Deltans were marsh dwellers: naturally, they would school their troops in marshland tactics! They watched with fascination as Anthony placed the model of a strange looking boat upon the table.

It was constructed out of a dark wood and carved from stem to stern with overlapping scales. The bowsprit snarled with the teeth of a sinister creature with eyes on the top of its head.

“Perhaps none of you northern gentlemen has ever seen a crocodile: it’s a hard-scaled marshland beast which grows longer than ten feet and can eat a grown man alive. Our Northern Commander is Major General Jay. His Crocodile militia to be as ferocious as this beast, as canny in the waterways as he, and as deadly.

“Twenty minutes later, their heads reeling from Anthony’s account of techniques by which these sleek boats, with razor sharp blades along their keels, were used for ambushes, followed by killing all prisoners after tortures which he described in exquisite detail, they were persuaded that their own intractable Marshlanders could at last be subdued. They decided to use gold from their church crypts to buy shares in the Company of Merchant Adventurers.

As he rolled up his maps and charts Anthony promised that if they could provide laborers for him during the next few weeks, he would proceed into their marshlands, backed by a unit of Crocodiles. By August he would produce a demonstration set of sluices and embankments for their inspection.

* * * * * *

It had been a perfect Marshland voyage, thought William, glad that he had persuaded Mother Eleanor to let him undertake it alone. The Tapestry House would have found it hard to spare a longboat and a companion, all hands being needed for the summer sowing. Besides, twenty-one years old now and deeply pained by Clare’s defection, William needed to be alone. A solitary coracle voyage demanded he keep alert to his surroundings if he were to stay on course and avert danger: in such minute by minute absorption he hoped to find oblivion.

At dusk one evening, he crossed what he hoped was the last of a string of meres within which the Foxes Earth settlement lay hidden. He could have stopped for the night, but he decided to paddle on through the deepening dusk, his coracle twisting along on water that gleamed like a dark mirror. Every now and then there were plips and plops as tiny fish leaped, flashing briefly against the sunset. It was dead quiet, a hush so deep that when a flock of coots came in behind him he could hear their feet brush the lake with a light percussion. Now and then a heron stood sentinel, silhouetted against the sky. Finally even the blackbirds, which had been noisily protesting William’s intrusion among the cattails, were stilled by the onset of night.

It did not remain quiet for long. The marsh symphony tuned up with bellows from bullfrogs and queryings from smaller frogs counterpointed by the trilling of importunate toads. Swifts syncopated their constant clicking as they darted across the sky, and nighthawks cried concordance. William paddled steadily along. He had found solace in reed and mere after his winter confinement but he had had enough of solitude now, and was eager to arrive at Foxes Earth tonight.

When the chorus of frogs ceased abruptly, he stopped paddling. A kind of querying chortle rose out of the grasses. William chortled back. Off to one side a heron cried out to “come fish here, here, here are fish.” At that, William rose in the coracle, balanced carefully, and then cried a heron’s reply. Through the shadows he discerned the Heron, pale and tall in the moonlight, striding through the shallows toward him, his arms held out in greeting.

“Well met! Well met!” they shouted happily, as Marion, Carl, and Rob emerged from the shadows to throw their arms around him and nearly capsize his coracle.

The next morning, William rose refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Everyone was up and busy. All over the mere coracles were bobbling and tipping as older children lay nets for the run of salmon passing their way that week. Smoke rose from a hut at the tip of the settlement where the fish that had dried out in the steady hot weather were being smoked over peat fires. Later, these would be stacked into baskets and taken upland for sale at the autumn markets.

William found Marion cleaning fish. He took up a knife, and as they sliced and gutted salmon so fat that they slithered around the plank table in their own oil, he poured out his heart to his old friend about Clare and his pain when she had fallen in love with Daniel.

That evening they untied a longboat and paddled to an island Marion said would be a good place to sit and talk. But it wasn’t talking she had in mind. She was taken with William’s newly manly build, and her old fondness turned into desire. After four years of Tapestry House strictures, William was astonished by her candidness and amazed that a young woman should want and pursue her pleasure so openly.

As for Clare, Marion told him she understood and had no permanent designs on him. Delighting in the lovely young woman Ruggles had turned into, William discovered a landscape of breasts and belly and the wonders of thighs and deeper delights to rouse the manhood he had too long lashed down. They spent all night on the island, returning at dawn to their chores.

The Fox, a large man with red hair and beard and (Marion told William, red hair all over the rest of him as well, since this island chose their leader from the one with most red hair on his body) was pleased to have William to confer with about Foxes Earth’s problems. Although they had plenty of fish, water fowl and flax to trade for wheat and oats, the villagers and townspeople were taking on airs, treating Marshlanders as inferiors. They gave as good as they got, of course, but what could this portend for the grains, vegetables, and metal goods which Foxes Earth needed to trade for? They might have to find a way to grow their own, and The Fox was anxious to find out how William had made a vegetable garden flourish in the unyielding sandy soil behind the Tapestry House.

Perhaps William’s draining and ditching could help them improve the few high areas where they grew their sparse crops of barley and pastured their small herd of cattle? Should Foxes Earth seek more high ground to plant their own wheat, like they had grown flax and barley from time out of mind? A Marshlander through and through, the Fox cherished his community’s near self-sufficiency. While maintaining their traditional trade with upland towns and villagers, he was becoming increasingly wary of his market partners and was beginning to agree with The Heron that the times called for new plans.

After a week of exploring in his coracle, William decided that the island where he and Marion had been making love had the best soil. One bright summer day he was pacing it off to determine how much could be put under cultivation. Although like all Marshland islands it seemed to have only the barest of elevations above the water, a low hummock rose from the middle. The size and shape of the island not being clear to him, he decided to climb a pine tree. With gum stuck to his clothing and a collection of scratches on arms and elbows, he emerged on the highest branch that would bear his weight to gaze out over the mere. It was brackish where salt and fresh water mixed, high tides flowing from the sea and an upland river emptying on the landward shore. The Fox had told William that when there were steady rains at high tide the mere spread to twice its normal size. He calculated that, like Foxes Earth, this island would remain high enough for winter and spring crops to be safe from flooding.

One arm around the trunk, he was gazing at the river inlet when he startled and nearly fell out of the tree. There was something very odd about it. He ought to be looking at a dark space indicating the gap the river dug between banks, but instead he saw a sheet of solid brown with a protrusion glinting at the top. Scanning the open fields to both sides of the inlet William saw nothing else unusual. Questioning his own eyes, he stared, scratching his head.

All through the noon meal, Marion noticed that William and the Heron were huddled in tense conversation over their food. She felt a proprietary interest in William. After all, they had made love out on their island! But William did not draw her in and, after lunch, he and her father slipped into Heron’s old punt and paddled away over the mere. At that she went down to the docks herself, untied a coracle, and, once they were out of sight, took out after them.

William was surprised that the Heron asked him to pole and took his place in the bow.

“Getting old,” Heron explained genially, “everything aches. My eyes aren’t that good, and I don’t think I hear everything. Comes to us all, does age: best put up with it.”

William reflected that the Heron, who had been in his forties when he adopted Clare, had reached a considerable age for a Marshlander. As the leader of the Rookery community succored at Foxes Earth since the fall of Dunlin, William felt the Heron must take a look at the inlet, though maybe it was only brush or a fallen log. They made the opposite shore as quickly as William could pole, then glided along under willows and alders arched over the banks. They decided that the Heron would stand watch with the punt at the last promontory before the inlet, while William went ahead to reconnoitre.

What he found left him open mouthed with astonishment. A neatly fitting gate made out of a dark brown wood of a kind he had never seen before was extended between bank to bank, with a metal pole and crosspiece at the top of it. It was like the sluice gates at Beaver Mill, but there was no mill here! His Marshland senses picked up a slight movement on the bank. William jerked his eyes from the fascinating piece of machinery. He ducked down into the reeds. Turning carefully in the shadow of the bank, he sent the gull cry for danger to the Heron before turning his eyes to the inlet.

There was a young man of about his own age standing on top of the machine, both hands on the crosspiece, twisting it in a circle. As he did this, the gate rose out of the water, which roiled and poured beneath it into the mere. An exclamation escaped from William, a terrible mistake. The young man tipped his head back, listening, then gave a commanding shout over his shoulder. Down the river above the new machinery William saw a strangely constructed longboat come gliding swiftly on the tidal current, its prow carved into teeth.

That was all he saw before lowering himself gently underwater and swimming away, emerging for air as infrequently as possible, keeping close to the bank to guide him away from the intruders.

Underwater most of the time, and his ears full of mere when he wasn’t, William passed the place he had left the Heron and continued to a cattail stand, where he took cover. That was why he not hear the high pitched yells the Crocodile militia always indulged in when, after stalking their human prey, they closed for the kill. Nor had the Heron heard William’s gull cry, which had been pitched too high for his old ears. The soldiers were on top of him before he knew it, holding him by his long, thin throat, hissing threats in his face while awaiting orders from their officer.

The Crocodile Militia’s Major General Jay, who recognized in the tall, thin Marshlander’s dignity a leader of men, grinned with satisfaction.

“Good work, men! This must be one of their leaders, just the thing to make an example.”

He was a great believer in the principle of anticipatory terror, letting local folk know what Crocodiles were capable of and that it was best not to tangle with them.

“Question him, do anything you like but be sure to bloody him up good, then nail him up on a pole for the ospreys to feed upon!” he commanded, to the great joy of his men, who dragged the Heron over to a tree, tied him to it, and began slashing away at his stomach with sharp knives. If they hadn’t been yelling at the top of their lungs with fierce, high cries of glee they might have noticed that the Heron did not scream as they tore into him, having drawn his head forward and whacked the side of it soundly against the tree to lose his blemish’s poison, which killed him instantly.

“There’s another!” Anthony was shouting as he approached the moil of slashing arms that was a Crocodile company at its favorite work, “I think I heard another!”

Turning his face from the horrific scene of a prisoner being flayed alive, which he had to put up with but which always sickened him, he explained Jay that he thought someone had been spying on the new sluice.

“After him!” ordered Major General Jay, more for the joy of the hunt than any purpose, since their secret improvements must be divulged to the Marshlanders now that the Crocodile was making an example of their leader. “Which way did he go?”

A mile away, William had pulled himself up in a stand of cattails and was drawing his breath in gasps, hoping that he was safe. Shaking the water out of his ears, he forced himself to breathe more quietly. He picked up the faint swishing sound that meant a craft approaching through the reeds. He hadn’t thought that he could have left a trail, nor any trace discernable to any one but a Marshlander. The swishing came closer and closer. Looking frantically around, William realized that he was on the edge of a pond where water lilies were blooming. There was nothing for it but to widen a hole through one of the broad leathery leaves and lower himself underwater to breathe through the stalk.

The water was clear but shallow, not more than four feet deep. William wriggled on his back, flattening himself against the mud. The stalk was not entirely hollow. He had to take short breaths, which made him dizzier and dizzier. Suddenly, where the surface light had dappled green and yellow something dark began to glide over him, the hull of a boat with scales like a fish and long spikes protruding from the keel. Although William knew he was out of reach of the menacing blades, they were magnified in the clear water and seemed to reach lower. Then his eyes filled with silt as poles splashed down, probing the mud all around him.

William had held his breath in surprise. He had to let it out with a blow that might have alerted the soldiers had they not been passing directly above him, stirring the bottom as they probed it for a Marshlander who they knew could hide under such a place.

As the sunlight began to penetrate the pond again, William knew he could not lie there without losing consciousness from the paltry amount of air he had been able to take in. But had they gone? Or were they just waiting for him to surface? He forced himself to remain calm and take long sucks through his stalk, counting out five more minutes until he could contain himself no longer. He turned on his stomach, seizing a cattail to slowly pull himself up. Letting just his nose and mouth rise from the water, he took as long a breath as he could without gasping.

Nothing moved. He lay there, taking breaths and lying still, for another half hour before making his way to a larger reed bed where he could rise to his knees on the matted hummock to look about him. Though it was high summer, William was shaking with cold as he filled his lungs with sweet air, holding himself still and silent. At last he stood up, stretching his cramped muscles.

From a nearby tuft of cat tails he saw the palm of a brown hand held up in the gesture of greeting and Marion’s head sticking out of the reeds to regard him solemnly. They didn’t need to say anything: where peril stalks, an hour standing in place was the rule they followed.

When at last the lovers made their way over to each other, Marion did not tell William that she had found the mutilated body of her father nailed to a tree. He would need all his wits about him, and grief might dull them. She had kept herself hidden, but William had been seen and followed: he must leave Foxes Earth at once. She had her coracle with only the bread and cheese she carried in her pocket to sustain him. He must make his way north, living off of the Marshlands. Perhaps the Beaver would advise him where to go, where he would be safe, while she must bear terrible tidings back to the endangered settlement and tell her brother Ned that he was now the Heron.

Dear Reader,

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sample chapter from The Marshlanders.
If you’ve enjoyed it, I hope you’ll consider buying the book.

Thank you so much for your interest,

Annis Pratt




Copyright (c) 2010 Annis Pratt

All Rights Reserved

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