"'Tis time to rob the dead."
Nettle kicks me again. I pull my tattered wolfskin closer about my shoulders and curl into a tighter ball, scooting across the packed dirt of the floor to move as near as I dare to the embers in the fire pit.
"Rise up, lass. Stir your lazy bones, or else half the gleanings will be gone before we get there. Do not think to sleep the day away like a princess in a castle."
She kicks me yet again and I open my eyes. Although she is a small woman, she towers above my pallet, her face and shoulders tense as always. If a sorcerer were to bewitch a needle into life, that creature would be Nettle.
Nettle grabs my wolfskin and yanks it from my shoulders. The air is cold and sharp. "Boil a mug of tansy broth for Mad Helga, child, and then we must be off."
"I'm going to the brook first," I announce. "I'll boil the broth when I return." I yank my wolfskin back from her bony fingers.
"There's no time for your foolishness, Gilly. 'Tis already late, and -- "
"I'll not take long, Nettle."
"Gilly, there is no time -- "
Before she can finish speaking, I'm already out the door of our tumbledown hut, dodging the trees and sucking in the cold, sweet-smelling air.
The brook and woods are still black in the mist of the early dawn. At the edge of the brook, just below the small waterfall, I fling off my wolfskin and shift and plunge into the water. I gasp at its icy touch but duck my head under its surface. As my head emerges, I shake back my heavy shock of wet hair and breathe so deeply that it hurts. After the rank and smoky stench of our hut, the forest air is unbelievably sweet. A doe, drinking a few feet downstream, freezes for a moment. I stare back at her until she recognizes me and resumes drinking.
Since there is no one else around, I kneel so the water comes to my shoulders. Under the water and out of sight, I press my palms together. "Make me a tree," I pray. "Let me spend my life pure and clean in the forest. Let me feel a lifetime of wind and rain against my skin. I swear to cast this whole evil business aside if I can be turned into a tree."
I wait. The woods are silent. Even the doe is still. The only sound is the gurgling of the water.
I jump up, waist-deep in the brook, and fling my arms out like branches. "Change me!" I scream as I close my eyes. Make me a tree. Make me a tree. I will ask nothing else if only you will make me a tree.
I hear the doe give a small leap, then run away, brushing through the bushes as softly as a kiss. There is no other answer. I am still a girl standing like a lackwit in the icy water. I begin to laugh and then shiver. For a while I stand there, shivering and laughing like the greatest fool on earth.
I give a quick bow to the sky that is so dark it looks empty. "You are right, old man. I should not be happy as a tree. I would miss running." I add, "But I gave you your chance. You could have stopped all this. Should I take it as your sign of approval, then, that you are willing to have me kill Him?"
I wait for the length of ten heartbeats, but there is still no answer. "Your stars are comely," I call to the sky, "but I do not care for your silence."
Then I step quickly from the water, shaking my body like a wet wolf pup. I pull my shift over my head as I walk back to the hut. As I push the trestle door open, I call, "I'm back, Nettle. I'll brew the tansy broth, and -- "
"Do not bother. I did it myself."
"Nettle, I told you that I would just be a moment -- "
"I do not approve of this folly, wetting yourself down twice a day. 'Tis madness, it is, Gillyflower, and more than one king has died of it."
I squat by the hearth and scoop up a handful of ashes. I begin to rub them across my cheeks and forehead. "'Tis madness indeed, and folly beyond all imagining, but have you not said time and again that I'm the mad daughter of a mad, mad mother and will come to no good?" I rub the ashes down both arms. "My bathing costs us naught and provides me with much joy." Nettle glowers at me. I soften my voice. "You have your herbs and such, Nettle. Leave me the pleasure of my water."
Nettle turns away. "Mad Helga, if you have finished your broth, 'tis past time we should be gone."
From the shadows of the rear of the hut, Mad Helga totters forth, her long ashwood stick stabbing the ground in angry taps. I am amazed that someone can be as gnarled as she and still be able to move. Mad Helga is nearly bald, yet she scorns the wool cap Nettle knitted for her. A thick scabrous growth covers her right eye, and a scar runs from her left temple to the top of her jaw. Several long hairs grow from her chin. Nettle tries to take her arm to help her walk, but Mad Helga shakes her away. Without looking at either Nettle or me, Mad Helga stumps out of our hut. Nettle shrugs and then picks up two baskets, tossing one to me as she hurries after Mad Helga. I snatch my woven girdle from its peg on the wall, twist it around my waist, and run after the women.
We look the way the wood should look were it to come alive and walking. We move quickly and silently through the trees we know so well. All of us draped in earth-colored tatters, caked with dirt. My hair and Nettle's as jumbled as bird's nests, Mad Helga's pate as bald as a new-laid egg. We look like the wild heart of the wood, but walking. No wonder the villagers fear us. If I didn't study my face in the brook from time to time, I could come to believe that I am not a girl, but simply a wild and untamable bit of the wood.
The battlefield is a good walk away, and dawn is fully risen by the time we reach it. There are already a few other scavengers at work, all looking as shapeless and sexless as we.
"See," hisses Nettle. "I said we should be late."
"Hsst!" I can hiss almost as well as she does. "There's plenty for all."
Under the body of a yellow-haired man in front of me, I spot a glint of gold. I kneel to wrestle his arm from under him. It is heavy and stiff, like a tree limb turned to stone. Nettle crows with delight at the sight of the large gold ring that I tug from his finger.
When I first came to live with Nettle and Mad Helga, it bothered me to glean the battlefields. In truth, during my first gleaning, I cried the entire time and suffered screaming nightmares for weeks afterward. Before the second visit, I fell to my knees, tearfully begging Nettle to excuse me.
Then after the first year, the dead men on the battlefield no longer seemed real. They are like trees, I told myself. When I step over a fallen tree in the wood, I do not cry or dream about it. In a way, these dead men are less important than trees. Trees that fall did not die trying to end the lives of others. Trees that fall do not carry instruments of murder in their hands.
This day's field is much like the earlier ones. Perhaps a hundred men lie about, like so many hillocks. In fact, that's how I now choose to think of the dead soldiers. It is more satisfying to think of them as hillocks rather than trees because trees once lived, but hillocks are rock and soil without even the faintest spark of life. These things on the battlefield, therefore, are hillocks, just hillocks, and I am the princess, as in the old tales, exploring the hillock to find the dragon's treasure and take it back to the kingdom. In the old tales, princesses never worried whether it was right or wrong to rob the dragon. So why should I worry about robbing hillocks?
Still, it is a blessing that the victorious army always prowls the field immediately after the battle, killing all their wounded enemies and even killing their own companions who are too badly wounded to make it home. In my seven years of gleaning, only twice have I found a soldier who wasn't yet dead. Both times I quickly backed away, fleeing to the opposite side of the field, but sometimes in my dreams I still hear the moans of those dying soldiers.
Oddly enough, it is the smell that still surprises me each time. The smell is always worse than I remember, that stew of drying blood, loosened bowels, and, occasionally -- if we arrive late and the sun is high -- the stench of rotting meat. Luckily, as this morning goes on, my nose grows more accustomed to the smell, and while it never fades completely, after an hour or so I don't notice it any more.
I tug another pin out of a hillock's draped shoulder cloth. I carefully work it into the weave of my waist girdle, next to the other pins I've plucked from the garments of other hillocks. The baker in the village has six daughters and will always take a few pins in exchange for a loaf of wheaten bread. Wheaten bread makes a nice change from our usual fare, and my mouth waters at the thought of it.
I push another hillock so that it tumbles over. Good fortune is with me this day since clasped in its fingers is the hilt of a dagger. I work it free. I have to hit the fingers over and over with a stone to make them let loose of the prize. The blade of the dagger is chipped. To test if it can still cut, I saw it back and forth across the hillock's tunic. To my delight, the cloth splits in two.
Although it has been a good morning -- a ring, a handful of pins, this dagger -- it is back-numbing work. I stand and stretch. There are hillocks as far as I can see. How did they tell each other apart in battle? They all look much the same to me. A few have more outlandish headdresses than the others, decorated with horns and skulls, but I don't know whether that is the insignia of one side or simply a common soldier fashion. What did they fight about? Which side won? A thought hits me, and I shiver.
Is He among them?
I dimly hear Nettle call out, "Child, stay to the edges. You go too close to the heart of the field."
I know it is safer to stay to the edges, but I must find out whether He is there. Every time we glean a field, I'm terrified I might come upon His body among the hillocks.
He doesn't deserve to die in battle! Let Him wait for me. I must be the one to kill Him. He is mine, mine to kill, not the prize of some lucky soldier. Let Him wait for me. I have marked Him, and He is mine.
"Gilly, stay to the edges!"
Then I spot the most marvelous treasure I've ever seen on a battlefield.
Copyright © 2001 by Rebecca Reisert