Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .

As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman – arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire.

In this extract, Walter, who can't work in the fields because he has burnt his hand, is assisting Mr Quill, the man tasked with mapping their small hamlet.

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Chapter Four

AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT, I have been assigned to be Mr Quill’s assistant for the week. My wounded hand excuses me from hard work in the threshing barns. Master Kent insists on it. Once more he proves himself my friend. I shouldn’t try to grip tools or carry anything, he warns. Any pressure and I’ll burst the cushioning of water-whelks and blisters that are already forming at the edges of the burn. I’m not fit for labouring, ‘And never was,’ he wants to say. (Perhaps he would employ me as his man again.) The grain can be separated from the chaff without my help for the next few days. My greater duty is to save my hand. There’re men and women both of us could name who’ve lost a limb and then their lives because a wound has not healed properly. I have to keep it cold and dry but open to the air, so that the savaged skin at the centre can peel away or form a crust. At the moment it’s too swampy to dry and harden. It’s oozing liquids of the sort I’d normally expect to run out of my nose. And the pain, though not as searing as it was, is almost more than I can bear. It is unforgiving. I have not had a wink of sleep all night, well, that much of the night I spent shivering in bed and not out in the rain hunting for the sorceress. And now I walk with one hand raised and cupped in front of me. I am a beggar for the day, I’m told. My neighbours look into my palm, raise their eyebrows, wish me well, but I suspect they’re jealous of my easy occupation. Already they have labelled me Quill-Carrier-in-Chief. They think we’ll make a comic pair: the stumbler and the beggar, both damaged on the left and with only a couple of useful hands between them.

Still, I’m not so wounded that I want to avoid the gleaning field before my hands-free working day with Mr Quill begins. Our boys have been at the edges of the stub since first light, keeping off the birds with stones, clapping-boards and slings but not stepping on the field itself. That’s not their privilege. Their dawn chorus prises us from bed and hurries us out of our cottages for an early meeting with our Queen.

Our village has been washed and muddied by the storm, but the clouds have cleared. It promises to be a steep and sunny day. Already it is bright and hot enough for us to shelter under rye-straw hats. We all feel harvest-worn to some degree, not thick-headed from last night’s ale – well, not only that – and not only burnt back to the soul by yesterday’s two fires and the smoke-stained turbulence that followed them, but fatigued by all the mutual labours of the year. Daily duties have deferred our weariness till now, then sapped us even more by giving us a day of rest. Our muscles are not used to it. An unused muscle stiffens like a drying rag. In this we are at one with everything we see and hear and smell. Despite the sweating soil and the enamelling of puddles from the midnight storm, the land itself is harvest-worn. So are the lanes. We have been too occupied until today to see how beaten down by wheels and hoofs our cartways have become. They’re shiny, worn away and sinking in from the season’s slog and grind, and from our animals’ exertions. Each step we’ve taken since the last frost at winter’s end – an age ago – has left its imprint on our earth.

What wind there was yesterday after we dispatched the final sheaf gathered up and spread much of the lighter, finer chaff. The village has been freckled by the chaff. The service trees between our dwellings and the gleaning field are still embroidered with it and with straw, despite the rain. On the way between the harvest and the stackyard, unsecured bundles of cut barley have dropped on the verges from our wagons and our barrows, providing pickings for the ruddocks and the dunnocks to contest, and there are signs in the disrupted soil that someone’s pigs are on the loose and have been snouting for fallen grain. There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breathe it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial. No one who knows the busy, kindly, scented universe of crops and the unerring traces of its calendar could mistake this morning’s aromatic peace and quiet for anything but Gleaning Day.

Now that we are gathered at the entry to the field, we stay and wait. With the sudden ending of our dance last night and the interruptions of the storm, we failed to nominate our Queen. Such negligence is bound to bring bad luck. We’ve never woken up before on Gleaning Day without a pretty sovereign to rule the stub. But Master Kent has said that we can settle it this morning. So all the girls and unwed lasses have put on their fineries, or more exactly borrowed firstly from their mothers’ ribbon bags or dowry chests and then from their gardens and our hedgerows, making yellow drapes and garlands for themselves from tansy, ragwort and hawkweed blooms. Some of the more ambitious ones have smeared their cheeks and fore-arms with a golden petal paste. They look both pestilent and regal.

We can already see Master Kent bobbing high above the hedges of the manor lane as he rides towards us on his Willowjack. He too has made an effort for the day. His best high hat, usually reserved for marriages and funerals, is sashed with two woven cloths, one lemon-yellow, one apple-green, his wife’s heirlooms. She was fond of brightness. Now we have some moments to inspect our girls and choose which one we’ll raise our voices for. Here is a chance as well to look out across and down the sloping barley field and offer thanks, not to some higher being but to the soil itself. Can it really be almost a year since we last led out our oxen and took our ploughs to it, fixing our eyes on the leaf-bare treetops in the dell to keep our furrows straight and true, on what I recall to be a dull and chilling day? Then once the cold had nipped the clod, we came again for harrowing, flattening ridges to provide the fine tilth that best comforts barley, picking out the surface stones. Can it really be half a year since spring, when we fixed our eyes again on those same tops to see them fattening with leaf and we spread out across the field in rows to broadcast seed, throwing our grain forward equally and to the swing of every step, spreading tiny vows with a plentiful hand? This year the first warm rains were late. The field was slow to blush with green, and what early shoots dared show themselves were shy and flimsy. We watched the barley with anxiety, first fearing drought and then, once our plants reached knee-height, praying that the sky would spare us gales.

That is our custom. We are daily nervous for the crop– though there are times, for me at least and especially at night in my cold cot, when I resent the tyranny of nervousness. I hear the stress and thrust of wind and unaccountably my spirits lift. My dreams are thrilled of late by flattened fields. I wake ashamed and cannot meet my neighbours’ eyes. They might imagine I’ve fallen out of love with them, and fallen out of love with here.

When I first came to these vicinities I thought I’d discovered not quite paradise, but at least a fruitful opportunity – some honest freedom and some scope. Some fertile soil! I’d never known such giving land and sky. I do remember my first week, and – still my master’s serving man – walking through the commons to the forest edge and not daring to go in, but touching everything. I’d found a treasury. I know I pushed my nose against a tree and was surprised by the ancient sweetness of the bark. I know I stood and studied ants, not guessing yet what ant-like labours were awaiting me. I know I picked a flower for my cap. And then I set my eyes on Cecily and saw a chance to build a future here. I wooed her by working at her elbow in her fields, attending to the hunger of her soil. My labour was an act of love. My unaccustomed muscles grew and ached for her. I put my shoulder to the plough for her. I became as tough as ash for her. I had no choice. The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you. It wants to dish out scars and bruises. It wants to give you roughened palms and gritty eyes. It likes to snag and tear your arms and legs on briars and on brambles every time you presume to leave the path. But this was precisely what I most liked about this village life, the way we had to press our cheeks and chests against a living, fickle world which in the place where I and Master Kent had lived before only displayed itself as casual weeds in cracks or on our market stalls where country goods were put on sale, already ripe, and magicked up from God knows where. It didn’t matter if it rained or blew all day and night in town. We pulled on caps. We slammed our doors and windows tight. The weather wasn’t any threat to us. Back then, the sun was neither enemy nor friend.

I cannot say I long for that again, but I am less content than I should be. I have my portion and my place. I’m fortunate. But twelve years here is not enough to make me feel utterly at home – not when I haven’t truly got a home and haven’t had since Cecily was pilfered by the fever, that overwhelming midnight pillager, as brutal as a fox. Without my Cecily, my labour has no love in it. It’s only dutiful. I’ll never be a Rogers or a Derby or a Higgs, so woven to the fabric of the place that nothing else and nothing more seems possible. Their best riches are their ignorance of wealth. I’m not a product of these commons but just a visitor who’s stayed. And now that these latest visitors have come – these three encroachers on our land; this lurching fellow and his charts – I am unnerved. I am reminded that there is another world clear of the forest tops, a world beyond the rule of seasons, a redrawn world, as Mr Quill has said, where there are ‘hereafters’. I stand at the threshold of the gleaning field and wonder what the future has in mind for me.

Master Kent arrives in his cheerful hat and drives my troubled dreams away. In addition to the sashes around his brim, he has also knotted his ankles with golden ribbons and decorated Willowjack’s mane with yellow strings. Mr Quill, who has accompanied them on foot, is trimmed at calf, cuff and throat in ribbons, a merry pillory of cloth. He is all smiles, of course. It’s hard to read a face that always wears a masking smile. The master does not dismount – I think he feels that ceremony should keep him in the saddle; he also looks a little frail today and unusually anxious – but he manages to make a pleasant speech, addressing us from aloft like a huntsman talking fondly to his hounds or beaters. This is ‘a noble day’, he says, as usual. Anything we glean is ours to keep, of course. We are free to take any remaining barley we find to our kitchen pots, for stew or beer or stover. We do not need to add it to the common wealth, or store it in the stackyard for any general benefit. After us will come the livestock, he says, in order of their station: our cattle will be loosed into the field to reduce the stubble, then the geese, for fattening, and finally our hogs will be allowed to root and nose the soil. Surprisingly, he does not mention as he usually does each year that the hogs will precede the plough. This barley field is set aside for next year’s winter-planted wheat (beer before bread, as ever) and so we need to go about its ploughing soon, before the summer parts from us. Perhaps I’m surprised with no good cause, but his silence on this matter, his preference for ‘finally our hogs’, instead of ‘finally the oxen and the ploughs’, is startling. The organisation to all of our advantages that he revealed last night might be more substantial than a dream, or an ambition that need not bother us just yet. It’s possible that Master Kent does not expect our ploughs to be in use again. Our final harvest might have come and gone.

There is happier business to distract us, though. Master Kent suggests that it would be a pleasing courtesy for Philip Earle – our Mr Quill, our fiddler – to choose the Gleaning Queen: ‘He surely can be counted on to be an even-handed judge.’ The girls and lasses are brought forward to pout and curtsey in a line for him. He does his smiling best to be judicial but we cannot help but notice that he rests his eyes for longer on the older girls and that these older girls are more blushing than their sisters and more bodily. It’s not that Mr Quill is a handsome or a well-built man, though his seeming wealth and kindness are bound to be attractive. Nor is there any sense that Mr Quill himself is bidding for a bride. It’s just that this procedure has tows and currents which would not trouble us if every daughter in the line had yet to grow her breasts. The fathers there are both awkward and seduced themselves. They see their own daughters and their neighbours’ daughters in a new, inconsistent light.
Mr Quill is thinking now, dramatically considering. He strokes his waxy, trowel-shaped beard to our amusement. Our laughter is lusty and excessive. We watch him looking out above our heads; perhaps he’s expecting guidance from the trees, or hoping to catch sight of Mistress Beldam in her velvet shawl. Possibly our lopsided fiddler, our even-handed judge, means to raise his hand for her and have her step inside our ring to be the Gleaning Queen. The men turn round and stare towards the woods and to where some of them at least, to my certain knowledge, hunted for her under last night’s rain and where all of them, I’d guess, have wandered in their dreams. I half expect but dread to find a complicit smile on one of their faces, the smile of some quick-thinking lad who turned a profit from the rain by finding Mistress Beldam in distress and then providing somewhere snug for both of them to pass the night.

The judge opts sweetly for the one we least expect. He picks little Lizzie, John Carr’s niece, and one of our suspected spares. She is not five years old, a gawky girl and hardly pretty yet. But she has clearly done her best to decorate herself. She is by far the yellowest. Her happiness at being chosen is innocent and unconcealed. So Mr Quill has made a gentle choice, avoiding older girls. She does not want to let him take her hand, however. She steps back when he draws close, a little frightened by his smile and his lop-sided gait. So Master Kent takes care of her. He removes the green sash from his hat and bends down from his saddle to drop it on Lizzie Carr’s head. Her crown. She is to keep the cloth, he says. The older girls are hugely jealous now.

Lizzie Carr’s father and her uncle, John, make a chair for the Queen by joining hands across each other’s wrists and take her to the edges of the stub. She’s not entirely sure what she’s supposed to do. She only knows she is the centre of attention, not all of it well-meaning. Her own sister has already pinched and hurt her leg. She’d like either to run away and hide or to give vent to tears. But Master Kent has dismounted and come forward to help her from her chair. ‘Take off your slippers, go barefoot, take the first step on the field,’ he whispers to her. ‘All you need to do is find a single grain, just one. Then we will cheer. And you will be our Queen for one whole year.’ He pushes her shoulder gently, and she does what he has said, blessing the stub with her bare toes. The stalks are too tough on her feet at first, but she takes a few wincing steps, finding balder ground. And there she drops down to her knees and leans forward to search for her grain. The sash falls from her head. It is the field’s only splash of green. But Lizzie Carr does not retrieve it yet. She has found more than a grain, she’s found a complete ear, perfectly intact, as long and broad as a man’s best finger, its awns as spiky as a teasel head. She’s old enough to know how to separate out the barleycorn by running her fingers against the bristles. She blows into her palm to winnow off the flake. And now she’s holding out her hand to show her barley pearls to us. The moment is always a rousing one. Our labours are condensed to this: a dozen tokens of our bread and drink, each tucked and swaddled in the oval of a grain, and sitting on a child’s undamaged skin. What should we do but toss our hats and cheer?