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Seven Magpies

Lizzie stumbled. A bucket hanging from her wooden yoke tipped sideways, drenching her clothes with ice-cold water. Lizzie cursed. Her sharp words disturbed a tiding of magpies searching for seeds in the corner of the muddy field. She counted as they flew up into the tree tops complaining loudly with long squawks.

“…five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.”

For once, the magpies told the truth. A huge golden sun was dipping behind the wintry horizon almost in front of her, while behind her a slim, crescent moon would soon be shining pale silver light in the night sky. They knew about her secret, too.

Lizzie poured the remaining water into large barrels on the wooden cart. The shaggy pony standing between the shafts stamped his feet, white breath pouring from his nostrils in the cold January air. Instinctively she touched her throat to feel the ring hidden under her clothes on a slender chain.

It only seemed like yesterday Jem slipped the fragile chain holding the ring over her head. They were standing in warm spring sunshine by a huge sycamore tree overlooking the stream flowing through the village. They were both giggling like children, Lizzie with May blossom stuck in her long, dark hair and Jem covered in dirt and grease from taking part in trials of strength and skill which were part of the village May Day celebrations. Jem lived on a neighbouring farm and they were sweethearts.

“I wish I could give you the ring, proper like, to make you my wife, but there’s no time and I’ve no money to keep you while I’m away. It’s my grandmother’s ring.” He twirled the ring slowly so she could see the writing inside – Constant love.

“She gave it to me on her deathbed. ‘Find a good lass, Jem,’ she said and I have. I want you to wear it.”
Lizzie felt herself shiver from the wet clothes; back then she had shivered with fear. Jem wasn’t the only one going off to join Colonel Whitmore’s regiment in support of the King. They were all King’s men in the village, apart from Cousin Collett who preached the Parliament way. Lizzie’s father was going to fight along with her two brothers, Martin and John.

Oh how they laughed and sang as they strode down the road with their pikes and muskets, following Colonel Whitmore on his horse. It was a different story after the real fighting began. Colonel Whitmore was still alive – locked up in a church before being taken away to London. Jem never came home, nor did Martin or John. Someone buried them where they fell.

Her father only survived because he ran away, hiding in a hayrick for two days. He wasn’t the same man who left the farm. A musket shot lodged in his leg and he couldn’t walk, he was in so much pain. Every night he kept Lizzie and her mother awake with his screams and shouts until she longed to sleep in the hayloft away from him. He couldn’t do any of the farm work, which was why Lizzie was down at the spring hauling water into barrels to take up to the animals in the barn next to the house.

Lizzie returned to the spring and stooped down to fill her buckets, a blackberry briar snagging the thin chain around her neck. She paid it no heed, only wanting to be done with carrying water so she could return to the warmth of the buildings at the top of the hill. As she straightened up to fix the handles once more to the wooden yoke balanced on her shoulders, she didn’t notice the ring fall into the stone trough fed from the spring.

She was too tired to grieve its loss when she did discover it missing. Cousin Collett was waiting for her when she reached the farmyard, along with his son, Robert, both dressed in the sombre black of Parliament men.

It would be a good match for both families if they were wed. Lizzie looked at Robert with his solemn face and plodding ways and thought of Jem’s laughter. Pushing the memory far away, she gave her consent.

Several hundred years later another farmer moved onto the land. An electric pump now carried water into a huge reservoir in the top field. From there, gravity fed the water troughs and no-one needed to haul water up from the spring.

Cattle still drank from the stone trough under the ash tree. Fallen leaves and silt gradually filled it, so one bright summer day, the farmer’s daughter, Beth, was sent to clean it out. Her boyfriend, Josh, was visiting her, on leave from his army regiment. Together they emptied the trough, splashing water at each other as they emptied out mud and scrubbed the deep sides clean.

“What’s this?” asked Beth, holding up a lump of hard clay lodged in one of the indentations at the bottom of the trough. Josh took it from her and washed it in running water.

“Well I’m blowed!” He held up a thick ring, dull and lifeless, but where his finger nail scratched off hardened layers of mud, there was a strange gleam. “Let’s take it up to the house and give it a good clean.”

They were both surprised when careful polishing revealed a honey-gold ring.

“Look,” said Beth, “there’s writing inside!” Together they peered at the strange letting.

“Constant,” she read, “Constant love. It looks like a wedding ring.”

Josh cleared his throat, “There’s something I have to tell you.”

Beth’s face fell. “You’re going away?”

Josh nodded, “My platoon is being sent to Afghanistan. We leave on Monday.”

He took a short gold chain from around his neck and threaded it through the ancient ring. “Will you wear this for me while I’m away?”

Beth nodded, dipping her head to accept the chain. “It will be our secret.”




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