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 turf, like gorse. Strange that a man should smell fragrant. Caw smelled of sweat and dung. “What is your name?” she whispered.
“Romieux de Provence,” he said, over his shoulder. “That’s hard for the Celtic tongue to say. Call me Rumon, as they did in Brittany. I’m used to it.”
“Brittany!” She had heard of that land across the sea to the south. One of the Padstow fishermen had been to Brittany. “That is your country?”
“Oh, no. I spent four months there—that’s why I can speak your language. Breton is like Cornish.”
“Where do you come from?” she persisted. Riding there behind him, savoring the scent of his mantle, her nose almost touching his hair which was clean and shining, her arms clasping the lean waist where she could feel the rib cage rising and falling, she was seized by a poignant curiosity. Her arms tightened around him involuntarily.
He felt this and stiffened. “A shipwreck,” he said briskly. “On the southmost point of your country called Maneage, or the Lizard—a dreadful place—they’re heathens down there. For the rest, it would mean naught to you.” His tone was courteous enough, yet it silenced her.
As they rode Rumon went on thinking. “Where do you come from? Where are you going?” The latter, at least, had always been the question since five years ago, when he was fifteen, and had had the vision.
The horse jogged along the track, which was plain now that the mists lifted. The dog trotted beside them. Here and there a guiding stone cross was set along the way. The sea smells grew stronger, and gulls wheeled shrieking overhead. Soon he would see the Western Sea, if he had understood the girl aright. I’m a wanderer, he thought. A searcher. And I bring shame to my blood that I do not wish to be a warrior. That was what his grandmother, Queen Edgive of Arles, had shouted when she finally lost her long patience with him. “You will not fight to regain our shattered kingdom, you will not even fight the Saracens, which is every Christian’s duty, you moon about with books, you dream of angels and fairylands where no human has ever gone. You shame your royal blood, your doubly royal blood! You sicken me!”
He had felt the shame she wished, and also confusion and sorrow. He could barely remember his parents. His father died in battle, his mother a month later of plague. And he loved his grandmother who had raised him. She was English, a granddaughter of the great King Alfred who had rid England of the Vikings. Her husband had been Louis L’Aveugle, King of Arles. Blinded by his enemy, Berenger, Louis had yet managed to rule over Burgundy, which included Provence and parts of Savoie and Italy. He had died long before Rumon was bom. His empire dissolved gradually, for lack of a strong hand, while the Saracens encroached on the south, and the Frankish kings encroached on the west. At times the Hungarians, wild hordes from the center of Europe, also harried Burgundy. Rumon’s childhood had been hideous with the clashing of steel, and battle cries; the stench of blood; and the screams of torture. He shrank woefully from these. He dwindled and pined and had dreadful nightmares. Edgive finally put him for safekeeping in the great hill fortress of Les Baux, not far from his birthplace at Avignon.
Les Baux castle was a stone stronghold built high on a weird rocky spur which overlooked surrounding valleys. It was inhabited by a fierce Baron and his knights, and was shudderingly called “The Nest of Eagles” by the rest of Provence. The Baron had remained friendly towards Edgive, the old dowager Queen. He revered her royal blood and her spirit, though her power had vanished with the death of her husband. The Lord of Les Baux consented to raise her delicate grandson in his impregnable fortress.
At Les Baux, Rumon was given servants and a couple of rooms to himself. He gained strength and lost his fears. He learned avidly from the castle priest who was something of a scholar and delighted to have a worthy pupil at last.
Rumon soon knew how to read and write Latin. He spoke excellent English too. Edgive saw to that. She brought him an English slave and drilled him in her mother tongue on each of her frequent visits.
He had but one real friend during those years—a blind harper. This was an odd, gentle man called Vincent, who had traveled widely before he was blinded. He knew a hundred songs, describing a thousand marvels. These he sang so movingly while accompanying himself on his little harp that even the old Baron would sometimes listen and applaud. Vincent taught Rumon to play the harp, and to make up songs in the Provençale language. But Rumon, who was devoted to the harper, preferred the times when the blind man would lift his thin face towards the sun, and tell of the old legends he had learned on his travels to the West.
In this way Rumon first heard of a heroic bygone king called Arthur. He heard too of a blessed island called Avalon where all folk might be happy and at peace. He heard the story of St. Joseph of Arimathea who had fled from Calvary bearing Our Lord’s precious blood in a chalice called the San Graal and that the very sight of this holy cup might bestow eternal Joy. Where was Avalon? Where was the San Graal? Rumon would ask. The harper always sadly shook his head. He did not know. And heeding the disapproval of the Baron, who thought Rumon far too much given to sedentary pursuits, Vincent would dismiss the boy, and send him to the knights.
The knights at Les Baux taught Rumon how to ride. They tried also to teach him manly arts—the use of sword and spear and shield; the joys of drinking, and the seduction of women.
Rumon listened to them because he had to, he learned swordplay and hawking, but as he grew older he felt himself increasingly apart from the brawling warriors.
Vincent died one day of an issue of blood from the lungs, and after that Rumon was lonely. Yearning ever for he knew not what. Except perhaps the return of a dream he had had at fifteen, some weeks after Vincent’s death. The dream or vision was of great beauty, though when he mistakenly tried to recount it to Edgive, Rumon could hear that it sounded like nonsense . . . a blessed island suffused with golden light floating somewhere in the West. A transparent ruby-red cup shimmering beneath the wings of a white dove. The light beams from the cup which shot down and touched Rumon’s face as gently as flower petals. There was music in the air and a Voice whose words he could not remember, except that it had urged him on a Holy Quest. The Voice had spoken of the brotherhood of all men, and of peace. It had spoken of love. It had induced in Rumon such awe, such joy, and such a sense of dedication that he awoke in tears.
Edgive was exceedingly sharp in her ridicule of this vision. She had lost her sons in honorable war. She had no intention of losing her cherished grandson in a morass of dreamy inertia which appeared to her very like cowardice; or—almost as bad—she had no intention of allowing him to drift into the cloister. Such a life was not for a prince who descended from the two most victorious kings known to mankind—not only her own line from King Alfred, but Louis L’Aveugle’s line from Charlemagne.
So Edgive treated the vision with contempt, saying that youths of his age were always having peculiar dreams, and she trusted that his would soon take the usual form of voluptuous maidens and lustful dalliance. In the meantime she would search out a suitable heiress for him to marry, since he seemed to be so laggard in finding women for himself.
Edgive found several heiresses. Rumon was agreeable, he sang songs to them, he paid them compliments, he kissed their hands. Yet he did not fall in love, and he continued to make the extraordinary assertion that he did not wish to lie with a woman unless he loved her. He also continued to make the other more extraordinary assertion that he did not wish to kill anyone—even an enemy. He had the audacity to quote the sixth Commandment to his grandmother, and to the knights at Les Baux who were urging him to join them in arms against the Saracens. And Rumon followed up the commandment by quoting the Lord Jesus Christ’s injunction to love one’s enemies.
The knights were disgusted. They said that all that fiddle-faddle was well enough for saints, or might have been a thousand years ago, but the Lord Jesus would certainly be the first to command Christians to kill pagans. Rumon announced that he did not think so. The knights sneered at him, avoided him.
Queen Edgive was baffled and upset. Yet she loved Rumon deeply, perhaps all the more because of his calm almost sorrowful defiance of her wishes.
One day she summoned him to her chamber. They eyed each other in silence for a while. The dowager Queen was old. Her white face was deeply lined, beneath the golden crown her hair was gray and scanty, as it hung in two bound plaits across her bowed shoulders. Yet her eyes were still of a piercing blue—eyes accustomed to obedience. She stared at her grandson seeking to fathom him.
He was dark, fairly tall, rather slight of build as his father had been. His face was thin, though the lips were mobile and full. He was very pleasing when he smiled. Women liked him, they had all shown that—from the high-born damsels she had provided, to the luscious peasant girls she had asked the Les Baux knights to tempt him with. He always dressed magnificently in velvets, gilded embroideries, and furs—as a prince should. He was extremely clean, even his fingernails. He insisted upon the servants hauling water for a daily bath. Another eccentricity which set him apart from others.
“Grandson,” said Edgive at last, and in English which she used for grave moments. “I don’t understand you.” She closed her wrinkled lids, said with difficulty, “Surely it cannot be that you are the kind of man, who—who takes pleasure only in men—like the Comte de Toulouse.”
Rumon shook his head, he gave her a tender smile. “No, my royal grandmother, I am not like the Comte de Toulouse, or any of those. Do not fear that. I cannot tell you what I am. Except that I have a great yearning to wander and to search, that this causes a fever in my breast, and dulls my interest in what most folk consider pleasures.”
Edgive sighed. “I don’t understand you,” she repeated. “But if this is the way you are, then I have decided what you must do. No, you will not object again,” she said as she saw him start. “For I give you leave to wander, at least I send you from here, sad as this makes me. You shall go to England, to my nephew, King Edgar. You demand peace—and his country is peaceful. An envoy, who came to me at Arles last month, says that England is the most peaceable land in the world at present. You will go to Edgar and give him my greetings. Tell him that I miss my native country, that if I were not too old I might have come myself. Tell him that I pray him to find some occupation for you commensurate with your own royal birth. You have talents, I suppose, though they are not to me specially admirable. You can write, and draw, you have book learning, you have a quick ear for music and languages. Perhaps the peaceable Edgar can make use of you. And it may be that in England you will find what you seek.”
Rumon was so astonished and relieved that for a moment he did not speak. Then he ran to her and kissed one of the blue-veined hands.
“Ah, my lady, my dearest grandmother. This plan of yours makes me happy. I have always longed to see England.” England lay in the Western Sea. It was an island. He knew that in some mysterious way this island was tied into his vision, or at least was not antipathetic to it, as everything here had been. And he was heartily sick of Provence where he had no friends.
Rumon set out in September with two servants; they were all well mounted on fleet horses from the Camargue. There was a donkey too, which carried the luggage and sundry presents for King Edgar.
Edgive had not required him to hurry. She suggested that he see something of the countries he would pass through, and also—from her own vivid memories—implored him not to brave the wintry seas, to wait until spring before crossing them.
Edgive wept when they parted, and he was moved out of his youthful self-absorption into realizing how bitterly she would miss him, disappointing to her as he had been. They both knew that there was little chance of their ever meeting again. -
In the chapel he knelt beside her in prayer, but could scarcely keep his mind on the prayers for looking at a little wooden image of a ship which hung near the altar. It contained the carved figures of the Three Maries and Martha, and their companions who had all fled from Judea after the Lord Jesus had been translated into Heaven, and the persecutions began. The boatload had miraculously landed on the shores of Provence. Rumon had himself carved the little figures of the Three Maries—Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister; Mary, the mother of St. John and St. James; and Mary Magdalene. A monk had carved Lazarus, Maximus, and Sara, the black servant. Rumon used to imagine himself in the boat with them on that sacred voyage. The legend of it always stirred him. He liked to think of such things.
When they finished praying, Edgive hid her sorrow under her usual sharpness. “So—farewell, Romieux de Provence! I shall pray daily that you are not so great a worry to your cousin, King Edgar, as you have been to me!”
He kissed her and mounted his horse.