The fogs were still dripping in from the Atlantic when Merewyn met the stranger by the Camel River.
The last plodding hours through rainy mist and mud had scarcely discomforted the girl, for she was very young and eager, nor had ever left home before. Besides she was certain that this overnight pilgrimage to the Holy Well at Roche would help her mother. St. Gundred’s Well was famous for its cures. The gentle St. Gundred (who had once lived beside the well and given it her name) had a particular closeness to the angels, and also tenderness for the maladies that bedevil the aching flesh or disordered mind.
To be sure it would have been far better if the sufferer could have made the pilgrimage herself, and bathed in the cool dark water beneath the granite cross; but Breaca, Merewyn’s mother, was far too weak for the journey. So Merewyn made it for her. She prayed by the well, dropped into it a precious silver halfpenny, and a tiny piece of her mother’s sleeve, so that there would be no doubt for whom the cure was intended. She also brought back some of the holy water in a lead vial.
Merewyn had company on her march along the wild lonely tracks, over moors where the furze was golden now in April, around rocks and ruts and through deeply mired fords. One of her companions was her dog—Trig. Trig came of no particular breed. He was simply a large hound, with a long nose, fierce wary eyes, and complete devotion to Merewyn. He would have attacked either wolf or robber in her defense, though such valor had not been needed.
Merewyn’s human companion was her serf, an enormous youth of eighteen, whose body was as thick and solid as a yew trunk, whose shaggy black-thatched head rose a foot above the heads of most men, and who had never learned proper speech.
His name was Caw. Breaca said Caw’s wits had been addled on the Day of Death fifteen years ago in the year of our Lord 958, when he had witnessed the horrors inflicted by the devil raiders from the sea.
Yet despite his handicaps they were lucky to have Caw; he could fish and tend the pigs, and his great strength helped the two lone women in many ways. Nobody had been left alive in the household after the dragon ship full of helmeted and bearded murderers sailed away. Only the baby Caw in his hiding place and Breaca herself. She had been sorely injured; a sword wound in her thigh and an arm wrenched from its socket which even today hung limply at her side.
It felt like early afternoon to Merewyn when she and Caw trudged into Pendavey; there was a tinge of pearly yellow overhead above the swirling mist. At Pendavey the river Camel widened, and here she and Caw had hidden the coracle on the way to St. Gundred’s. It was a rounded little boat made of bent withes and covered with greased cowhide. Now they might float home to Padstow on the current and the tide. The rest of the journey should be quick. The coracle was waiting where they’d left it, amongst reeds under a bank, and Merewyn was about to step into it when Trig stiffened, his hackles rose and he began to snarl.
Caw never looked up; he went on stolidly holding the coracle against the current, but Merewyn peered through the mist. Piskies? she thought anxiously. Yet the little folk were seldom abroad in daylight. Who else then in this lonely place?
She heard a man’s muffled voice. “Help me, maiden,” it called. “I am lost.”
Trig started to bound forward, the girl put a restraining hand on his thong collar. She waited, heart fast beating, until a man on horseback appeared in front of her. He had seen her before she did him, because of a rift in the mist and because she wore—as did most Cornish women—a red woolen cloak.
“I’ve been lost all day,” the man said. He glanced at the straining, snapping dog. “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m a stranger from far off.”
“Ah—?” said Merewyn, thinking this over. A stranger. She had never met one. Not a real stranger with odd clothes and an accent.
She examined him. While she did so the mist broke and the sun poured down. The sunlight made of the young man a figure as vivid as the painting of St. Michael she had seen in the chapel at Roche. The stranger was dark, like her mother, like Caw, like all the folk she had ever seen. Yet he did not resemble these folk in any other way. His black hair, glossy as a raven’s wing, was cut short above the ears, he had no beard on his lean jutting chin, and instead of coarse homespun he wore a soft blue mantle furred with squirrel and embroidered at the hem. The mantle was held at the shoulder by a glittering enameled brooch. He had long leather shoes with a design on them, and his legs were covered by blue trousers, then cross-gartered to the knee with linen strips.
The expression of his thoughtful brown eyes was pleasant. She knew she need not fear him. The dog also knew this. He ceased snarling and sat down.
“You’re lost?” said Merewyn. “Where do you want to go?”
“I’m bound for England, to King Edgar’s Court,” said the young man, smiling.
Merewyn looked blank. Not only was his accented speech hard for her to follow, but in all her fourteen years she had never heard of anyone going to England, and barely knew that there was a king somewhere up there.
“England?” she repeated, and when he nodded, she said, “That’s so far. I’ve just come from St. Gundred’s,” she added proudly. “I spent the night—but I don’t know the way into England where the wicked Sawsnachs live.”
“Where are you bound for now, maiden?” he asked, eying her with amusement. She looked like many of the Cornish girls he had been seeing on isolated farms as he passed; the bare, dirty feet; the drab homespun kirtle; the red muddy mantle; the long flowing hair, somewhat tangled; and yet her coloring was different. The hair was ruddy—like a horse chestnut—not black. Her eyes were not dark either, they were like rippled seawater, blue, flecked by green lights. He did not consider her pretty; on her rosy cheeks and short snub nose there were freckles, and she held herself awkwardly, being embarrassed by his scrutiny. Yet her earnestness was appealing. And she looked intelligent.
“For home—” she said, pointing at the coracle. “Down the river a league or so.”
“Is yonder giant yours?” he asked, indicating Caw, who was still holding the coracle, and waiting incuriously for orders. “Does he know the way into England?”
She shook her head. “Caw knows only what we tell him.” She hesitated a while, added reluctantly, “At Padstow where I live there are some monks. Perhaps they could tell you.”
“Come with me then,” he said, patting his horse’s rump.
“Up here to guide me. That lout can take the boat down himself, can’t he?”
After a moment, she assented. She told Caw what to do, then clambered up on the horse behind the stranger, putting her arms around his waist as he directed. The feel of a man’s body so close was peculiar. She did not understand the rush of warmth it gave her, or the giddiness. Perhaps it was the scent of his mantle, she thought—like the sweet smoke from burning tur...