The psychological power of ritual is a thread that entwines past with present, conscious with subconscious. For tapestry weaver Clarinda Asher, the consequences of her participation in an ancient fertility rite terrified her village enough to banish her to a lonely hilltop, cursed never to pass beyond the waymarker stone that serves as her boundary.
Three hundred years later, weaver Jess Barlow visits the remote village during its May Day celebrations. Together with the “King of the May,” she unearths and performs the ceremony in secret. Or so they thought. Now Jess has been banished and Owen ostracized. But the ritual’s power has been resurrected, and events take a turn that will ultimately circle back to Clarinda.
Clarinda sang softly, her voice as light as her feet as she made her way through the woods, straying off the path here and there to collect ramsons and nettles, pignuts and anything else she could forage to supplement her meager meat stores gleaned from the bony rabbits she trapped, the laying hens she infrequently butchered, the rare leg of mutton for which she bartered.
Supposing I should dirt your gown, my sweet and pretty fair maid,
With your red rosy cheeks and your curly black hair?
Why surely it would wash again,
Kind sir, she answered me,
For it’s rolling in the dewmakes the milkmaids so fair.
She paused. Daniel had whistled the same song, likely to mask his disappointment. Poor man, she thought. She had refused his offer of marriage more than once, but now she wondered how much longer she could turn him away. He had lost two wives, the first bearing four daughters before dying in childbirth with their only son; the second deserting him to live with another man in another parish. The farmer could be bitter and quick to anger, but Clarinda had softened him, out of her own needs and loneliness. And because she understood.
Supposing you should be with child, my sweet and pretty fair maid,
With your red rosy cheeks and your curly black hair?
Then you would be the father of it,
She bent to pluck a cluster of St. George’s mushrooms from a patch of grass, but instead she sank to the ground and rested her chin in her hand. “Yes, you would be the father of it,” she whispered, staring at a solitary wood anemone, its white petals curling inward.
Heavy hoofbeats echoed through the wood, followed by a low whinny. Jumping to her feet, she sprinted toward her cottage.
“Get away!” She dropped her baskets and waved her arms frantically.
The stallion raised its muscular head and regarded her with one wide eye before going back to cropping her lettuces. Clarinda charged at the horse and he backed up, snorted and skittered away, ripping new growth from the soil. She dropped her arms and groaned.
“My dear Miss Asher,” William Burnell said as he stepped from her cottage door, “it is not wise to harry my horse.”
She bit back a retort, gave a halfhearted curtsey, and brushed the grass from her clothing. Two callers in one day, and neither the man she wished for. How cruelly Fate spun her web.
“What brings you into my home, Sir William? The rent is not yet due, and I have little of worth within.”
“Come, Clarinda. I only wish to see the progress of my work.”
She relaxed. “I’ll just go retrieve my baskets.”
The baronet did nothing to assist her, and she noted his amusement when she bumped against the doorway and a few mushrooms dropped to the dusty floor. She let it pass, having learned long ago that being of gentle birth did not guarantee gentlemanly behavior. Certainly not in this man, whom she’d known since the days when she accompanied her father to market to sell the saddle-cloths he’d taught her to weave. Burnell had just come of age, and he enjoyed flaunting his wealth and the fact that his family owned as much of the parish as did the Church. But at least he’d purchased some of her goods.
She went to her loom and threw its protective drapery back, unveiling the unfinished tapestry beneath: a hunting scene, with the baronet in the foreground, musket in hand, obedient staghounds at heel, a highly branched red stag at his feet. Well aware of the man’s vanity, she had improved upon his physique, making him taller, less tending toward portly.
“Blood on my boots. A nice touch.”
Clarinda had bloodied the slain stag as well, and set its head at a broken tilt, knowing that the slaughter would look heroic in the baronet’s eyes. “I’ve only to finish the crowns of the trees and the sky. Another fortnight? I have much spinning to do as well.”
Burnell removed his hat and ran a hand through his thinning, straw-like hair. “Take what time you need.” He surveyed the room with a disinterested mien. “Add a shaft of sunlight through clouds to shine upon my head,” he added, glancing back. “The portrait is to commemorate my baronetcy.”
She let a laugh slip.
He glanced at her with cool disdain. “Yes, cackle away, my crafty maid. Soon you will be begging for a little posterity, or worse. Because your independent days are soon over.”
She scoffed. “I am outcast. How can I be anything but independent?”
He arched an eyebrow. “Come with me,” he said, taking her arm, compelling her out the door and leading her across the yard, past the dozy stallion, down the hill toward the waymarker. Under her own power Clarinda knew every tree root and protruding stone, even in the twilight that now approached. But under his tight grasp and immoderate pace she stumbled and fell into his side. He gripped her waist and set her upright, his hands lingering before prodding her on. When they reached the marker the baronet released her and pointed to the east.
“There lies your future. Tilcombe moves forward, embracing new manufacture, new methods to work faster, produce more.” He dismissed the village below with a sneer. “Maidenvale may as well be living in the plague years.”
Clarinda rubbed her wrist. “That signifies nothing.”
“You are so very wrong, my dear. Already, in Derbyshire, a silk mill is employing more than two hundred workers. Other clothiers are purchasing corn mills and converting them for textile work. Weaving workshops are on the rise. The putting-out system will be no more.”
“Surely that will take many years.”
“Not at all. A man in Lancashire has invented a wheeled shuttle that spins wool at twice the rate of spinning by hand. The cottage spinster will not survive such innovation.”
The heat drained from her face. She stared into the distance, her mind erecting mills like prison towers across the landscape.
Burnell continued in his jocular tone. “In time, your only recourse will be to live in worker housing. Presuming they take you in, given your disrepute.” He gave her an oily smile. “So laugh while you can, Miss Asher, because that is the future. That is progress.”
The gloom of dusk settled into Clarinda’s mind. She closed her eyes.
“Do not worry. I would not expect you to have knowledge of such intricate matters. Men decide the fate of the world, and women must follow. And I can always help you.”
“Help me? How is that?”
He leaned close, his breath dank with traces of fatted meats and brandy. “You are an intelligent woman, despite your meager upbringing. I will not sweeten my words. What I mean is, I look after your welfare, and you take care of my, shall we say, more elemental needs.”
Clarinda refused to take the bait. “You do enjoy your little japes, sir.”
“Almost as much as I enjoy your fire and your talent.” He pulled her roughly by the waist, but she jerked away.
He laughed. “Very well, dear Clarinda, I’ll not tarry any longer.” He turned and started back up Maiden’s Hill.
She followed several paces behind until they reached her house and the baronet’s stallion, which by now had trampled her spring garden and moved on to the immature fruit of her cider-apple trees.
Burnell took the horse’s reins in hand and mounted. He looked down on her, all good humor evaporated. “I shall return in a few weeks for my tapestry. Good evening, Miss Asher. Think on what I have said, and do not make the mistake of taking it lightly.” He rode off, whipping the horse’s flank.
Clarinda grabbed a rock off the ground and hurled it at his retreating back. It fell short. She picked up and threw another, and another, charging after him though far behind, until she saw a blur disappear down the path that sliced lower Maiden’s Hill. There she stopped. “I shall defy!”
Her words vanished into the crepuscular shadows, but not the images of dark and monstrous mills. She ran back to her house and bolted the door. Gasping for air, she wiped her wet palms on her skirts, and then shrank into a huddle on the floor.
Gradually, the cold stone against her cheek and her awkward tangle of limbs stilled the whirling in her head. Dragging herself to her feet, she set flame to candle wicks, bringing light upon her desperation, banishing shadows to their corners. She picked up her spindle and its dangling appendage of wool and sat at her work table to extract blades of grass from the fiber. Then she began anew, staring as the spindle spun hypnotically.
Two propositions in one day, and as different as noon from night. For all her skill in fending for herself, for all that her father taught her to do—chop wood, cultivate a garden, make candles, raise hens and wring their necks, appraise her work for fair barter, spin and weave like a master—for all her self-reliance, it still came to this: her life was a pretty feather to be plucked and discarded by men she did not and could not love.
“Ah, Benjamin,” she whispered, “why did you leave me here for my womanhood to rot, for men to pursue and prey upon me?”
Her eyes caught on the baronet’s tapestry. Damn Burnell and his attempt to turn me into mere chattel. I may accept his patronage but only as a free woman, not his piteous whore. If he persists, I shall destroy the accursed portrait before his very eyes.
The spindle stopped its orbit, the yarn a tangle. Perhaps he spoke the truth: that the world would keep spinning and spiraling forward no matter the cost. That all of England stood on the brink of some upheaval that, when it arrived, would alter the workings of the world.
Clarinda stared at the pile of wool atop the table. If such change was inevitable, at least one good would come of it: the breaking down of her boundary. The same mill damming and fouling the rivers would be the very craft ferrying her from exile. She would, at least for a brief time, be free.
A light flashed past her window. She stiffened, poised for a voice, a knock, an intrusion. When the light dimmed, she rose and looked through the panes.
Daniel Pollard’s burly silhouette moved away from her cottage. As she watched, he turned and tipped his hat. Clarinda sighed as he proceeded down the narrow path. She didn’t like the man hovering over her, but she could hardly protest his protection.
She rubbed her forehead, suddenly aware of her exhaustion. After pulling a trunk against her back door, which had no bolt, she went up the ladder to her bed, where she undressed and crawled under the woolen blanket and curled into a tight wad. She stared at the cracks in the white-washed wall, consoling herself with memories from happier days, to the time of childhood adventures, to the days of stolen glances. To the night at the bonfires. To the last Veil.
About the Author
Lisa Costantino fled the relentless sunshine of southern California to settle in the lit-friendly, rainy Pacific Northwest, where she established herself as a travel writer, book reviewer, and content specialist, while also writing fiction whenever she could find the time. Maiden’s Veil is her first published novel.
She has two new novels in the works. The Prince’s Herbalist is a young adult novel set in fifteenth-century Wales that tells the story of a young woman on the run from an arranged marriage who becomes a healer. The Reluctant Occultist follows the psychological arc of a skeptical woman who joins a school of magick and mysticism, where she comes to realize her own power and the dangers in ignoring its influence.
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