The Girl with the Red Ribbon

Linda Finlay
THE GIRL WITH THE RED RIBBON

To Pern for his continued support and encouragement

CHAPTER 1

Brigid, beloved Brigid, pray listen, I beseech thee.

On this sweet night of Imbolc, set the freeze of winter free,

Fan your flames, warm the tilth, release energy that wilth

Bring these new seeds to birth.

Raising her arms to the heavens, Rowan chanted the ancient rhyme as she danced around the circle cast on the ground before her. The mirror glinting among the frosted blades of grass reflected her lithe form as she leaped high into the air, her movements becoming more frenzied as she gathered the energy of the night. Her riot of copper curls tumbled over her shoulders, fanning out around her slender waist as she dipped and swayed in the darkness of true midnight.

As if on cue, the full moon climbed from behind a curtain of cloud, silvering the girl's white nightgown, contrasting vividly with the slash of red around her wrist. Falling to her knees, Rowan reached out with her right hand and scooped up seeds she'd saved from the last year's harvest. Carefully cupping her left hand over them, she completed the rhyme.

Brigid, beloved Brigid,

Bless all that lives

Between my right hand and my left.

So mote it be.

Taking
a deep breath for each seed, she thrust them into the holes she'd made in the frozen soil. Finally, to complete the magic charm, she leaned forward and kissed the earth three times.

From his bedroom window Edward watched proudly as his daughter performed the primordial ritual just as her mother had taught her. She looked so like his beloved Hazel before she'd been cruelly taken that the breath caught in his throat. Lost in thought, he didn't hear his new wife creep up behind him and he jumped when she placed her arm through his.

‘It's cold, Edward. Come back to bed,' she murmured enticingly. Then, catching sight of Rowan dancing on the earth below, she stiffened. ‘That girl will catch her death if she's not careful, cavorting around half naked like that. Why, it's enough to spook the spirits,' she muttered, striving to keep the venom out of her voice.

‘Don't fret, my dear. You'll soon get used to our country ways,' Edward said, patting her hand before turning away from the window and sinking down onto the mattress. ‘Come on then, my dear, time for roost.' But Fanny pursed her lips and stayed where she was.

As always after carrying out her nocturnal rituals, Rowan felt both exhausted and energized as she made her way back to the thatched farmhouse, built beneath a rocky outcrop on the Devonshire slopes for protection against the elements. Trees surrounded the fields like sentinels, dark and eerie against the soft light of the moon, and a fox padded towards her, amber eyes gleaming as it nodded a greeting in passing. She smiled back, safe in the knowledge that all the chickens were secured in their
coops. When the white spectre of a barn owl glided from its roost she stopped to watch, marvelling at the magnificent sight as it swept silently by so close she could feel the stir of air beneath its wings. How she loved being at one with nature and she revelled in the stillness and quietude of the night.

It was some time before she noticed the silhouette of her stepmother watching her from behind the curtain. Even from this distance Rowan could feel waves of hostility emanating from the woman towards her on the midnight air, and her good mood evaporated like dew in the rays of the sun. Remembering the warmth of her own mother's love, Rowan instinctively rubbed the red ribbon on her wrist and clutched the precious mirror tighter to her chest. She'd known her father's remarriage would bring changes, and now realized with a shudder they weren't going to bode well for her.

With a shudder, she hurried indoors and stood in front of the fire, but the heat from the glowing embers failed to penetrate her chilled insides. Knowing she had to be up early in the morning, she made sure the fire was safe for the night and then tiptoed up the stairs. Despite her misgivings, she fell into a dreamless sleep.

Woken by the cock's first crow, Rowan groaned. She was tempted to pull the covers over her head and go back to sleep, but the lowing of cattle in the shippon below penetrated her befuddled thoughts. Aware that her father and Sab would be hungry, she forced herself out of her cosy bed. She rinsed her face and hands, shuddering as the icy water tingled her skin. Dressing quickly, she was about to go downstairs, when some instinct stopped her.
Going over to the bed, she removed her precious mirror from under her pillow and, without really understanding why, carefully wrapped it in an old flour sack and thrust it beneath the mattress.

In the kitchen Rowan stoked the fire into a blaze, lifted the pot over to heat and set about preparing breakfast. The aroma of simmering oats was wafting temptingly from the pot when her father came indoors, rubbing his hands together.

‘Morning, Rowan, my dear, and a mighty raw start to February it be too,' he said, tossing his woollen cap onto the bacon settle before going over to the hearth and holding his hands up to warm.

‘Morning, Father,' she answered, ladling a generous portion of porridge into his bowl and setting it down on the long scrubbed table.

Moments later the door clattered open again and Sab came in, sniffing the air appreciatively as he tossed an armful of faggots down beside the hearth.

‘Thought you'd need these for your bread making later,' he said. ‘Ah, that smells good.'

Rowan smiled and shook her head at the freckle-faced youth with hair like cropped corn, who'd been raised alongside her like a brother.

‘Oh, Sab, you say that every morning, even though we always have the same thing, apart from on the Sabbath, of course,' she said.

‘Yes, well, happen I can remember a time when I was hungry,' he said, his cheeks flushing as he held his hand out eagerly for the dish Rowan was filling for him. She watched as he settled himself beside her father. Poor Sab,
she thought. Memories of the miserable start he'd had in life obviously still haunted him all these years later. Her parents had told her how they'd rescued him from the foundling hospital when he was four and a half years old. Their hearts had gone out to the half-starved, miserable waif who'd seemed afraid of his own shadow, and they'd brought him home to Orchard Farm where they'd raised him as their own. Now, all these years later, she and Sab were as close as any siblings could ever be.

‘No Fanny yet?' her father asked, interrupting her thoughts.

Rowan shook her head.

‘Why, it's only just past milking,' Sab quipped, winking at Rowan. ‘And I'm surprised you're up this early after all that prancing around last night, young lady.' He wagged his finger at her.

‘You know how important it is we observe the natural rhythms of nature and pay our respects if we want to reap a bountiful harvest,' she replied, her emerald eyes glistening with sincerity.

‘Ah, but it's the moon's phases affecting the rising of the water in the ground that really makes the difference to our crops,' Sab countered.

‘Now, you two, I've told you before, there's wisdom in both practices, and everything we can do to ensure a good harvest is to be encouraged,' said Edward, stroking his wiry beard thoughtfully, ‘although Fanny was quite concerned in case you caught a chill last night.' Rowan stared at him in surprise, but before she could say anything, he'd risen to his feet. ‘I'd best go up and check she's all right. She was saying yesterday that this move down to
Devonshire has taken it out of her,' he said as he mounted the stairs.

Sab raised his eyebrows at Rowan. ‘Uncle Ted's been seeing to the animals since before daybreak yet that woman lies in her bed like Lady Muck. 'Tis not right, Rowan,' he muttered, shaking his head.

‘I know, Sab, but Father's that smitten, she can do no wrong in his eyes. Still, I must get on. The bread oven won't light itself, nor will the flour magically turn into loaves, more's the pity,' she said, scraping her bowl then putting it on the side.

‘And with the moon starting its third quarter it's time for fertilizing, so I've to empty the privy ready for spreading its wonderfully ripe contents over the top field as soon as this frost starts to melt,' Sab said, wrinkling his nose.

‘You get all the good jobs,' Rowan teased.

‘Talking of which, you have so much to do, I hope Fanny's going to help you with the chores around here.'

Thinking of her stepmother's pristine appearance, Rowan thought that was highly unlikely, but before she could say anything Edward came back into the room.

‘I know you're busy, dear, but Fanny wondered if you could take her up a slice of fresh bread. She'd also like some warm water for washing,' he said, looking sheepishly at Rowan.

‘But I left a jug of water on the washstand last night, Father,' Rowan said. ‘And as for fresh bread, I've yet to start on the baking.' Then, seeing her father was looking uncomfortable, she forced a smile. ‘Still, I'm sure I can find her something.'

‘Perhaps she'd like a nice thick layer of bramble jelly on
it, too,' Sab said sarcastically, but Edward had missed the tone and his eyes lit up.

‘Yes, that would be grand. And if you could heat up some water for her ablutions, Rowan …? Apparently her soap doesn't lather in cold. We must remember everything's new to her here and try to make her feel at home,' he said, tugging his woollen cap right down over his ears so that his soft brown curls sprang around his shoulders.

‘Ready, my boy?' he asked Sab. ‘After we've seen to the privy and muck spreading, we'll be hedging up in Five Acre Field, Rowan. Tell Fanny I'll see her for supper,' he called over his shoulder as he disappeared outside.

Sab raised his eyebrows again at Rowan, then followed after him, whistling for the dogs as he went. She heard their joyful barking as they bounded to meet him and she couldn't help looking over to the fireside. The kitchen seemed soulless without the dogs' companionable presence, and Rowan could still barely believe Fanny had banned them from the house, or that her father had gone along with it, even if they had growled every time they saw her.

As the door clattered shut behind them, Rowan looked at the pile of dishes that needed cleaning before she could begin making the bread. Sighing, she picked up the pot and went outside to the well house. Really she had enough to do already without pandering to her stepmother's whims, she thought. Then she chided herself for being mean. Her father was right about making Fanny feel at home. Not that she could ever take her mother's place, of course, but Rowan could at least try to make the woman welcome. The slosh of cold water over her bare feet stung
like needles, bringing her thoughts sharply back to the task in hand.

Back indoors, she set the pot over the fire, then stacked the bread oven with the faggots, before setting light to them. At least it would be heating up whilst she got on with her chores. In the scullery she cleared away their dishes, then got out the big mixing bowl and took it through to the kitchen. Once she'd gathered her ingredients, she set about her task. As usual, the rhythmic kneading of the dough soothed her spirits and she found herself wondering how her life was going to be affected now that Fanny had moved into the farmhouse. Although the family had been devastated when her mother had died, the years had turned grief into acceptance and gradually they'd sorted themselves into their daily routine.

However, Rowan did miss the female things she and her mother had done together. They'd always been close, sharing an affinity with nature. Her mother had trained her to recognize which plants and herbs could be used for cooking and healing, and she'd taught Rowan the importance of celebrating the change of the seasons.

‘I'm that hungry my stomach thinks my throat's been cut,' Fanny's querulous voice cut across Rowan's thoughts, making her jump guiltily. She'd been so absorbed in her task she'd quite forgotten to take her stepmother any breakfast. It was strange, though, Rowan thought, frowning, she didn't recall her voice being shrill like that before now.

‘Just coming, Fanny,' she called back. Hurrying out to the dairy, she picked up the dish of butter, hoping that if she spread it thickly over the heel of two-day-old bread,
her stepmother wouldn't notice its hardness. Then, having poured a jug of small beer, she made her way upstairs.

Her stepmother was sitting up in bed, a lacy shawl draped elegantly around her shoulders, fair hair still hidden beneath her nightcap. Rowan smiled and set down the tray before her.

‘It's a beautiful morning with the frost sparkling like diamonds,' she said brightly.

‘And what would you know about diamonds?' Fanny asked, sharp grey eyes studying her curiously.

‘Well, I've never actually seen any real ones, of course, but Mother Nature scatters the grass with hers, doesn't she?' Rowan answered.

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