This trilogy of novels is set in the Fowey Valley in Cornwall.
Below is a free chapter from the first story, In which Fintan is given a mysterious flower by a dark stranger travelling the ancient route from the Fowey to the Camel…
Chapter 1. The Gift
The blue-eyed man jumped from the boat. Catching the rope, his clothes brushed against the rigging. Something fell from his belt as I sat watching. It floated to me and I skimmed it from the water. It was a flower, travel-weary and faded, now wet, but unlike any I had ever seen in the valley of my home. A one-sided raceme of tiny, white bells hung on the brittle stalk. I put it inside my jerkin and watched the boatmen as they disembarked at Riversend.
The travellers wore thick hides considering the summer’s warmth but their hands and faces showed a golden-brown, like my own dark-stained, tanner’s arms. The party shifted carry-sacks from the boat while the first man watched.
He had a graceful quality that separated him from the others and he stood by while they unloaded. It was as if he attracted the sunlight to himself. He turned around and looked at me. His eyes were the clear-blue of intense sky and they reached deep into me. His gaze filled me with a sense of icy calm and wonder.
Warmth flooded my body as the man smiled. Should I give him back the flower? His thought reached across to me and he gently shook his head. He broke eye contact and joined his party, already entering the woods to the inland path northwards.
One man remained in the boat. He pushed off and the rhythmical splash of oars filled the river glade and then faded. I was alone with the sounds of wind in trees, water on stone, and a strange gift, the flower.
I was upriver on an errand for my stepfather, delivering goat skins to a trader at Riversend, near the fort overlooking the upper tidal reach of the river. I always stopped here if I could, to watch the boats and people come and go, it was a busy route. From here it was a short walk overland to the north-coast river and then over the sea to Wales and Ireland. Many travellers used the route as a shortcut, avoiding the pirates and treacherous waters further to the west of land. Gold came from the north along this route. Moorland tin and hides shipped from here to trading posts by the sea, controlled by Chieftain Lugh at the fort further down river.
Strayberry was my favourite roan and she always snickered quietly as I stroked her whiskered face. Dobbie, the other pony was tricky. He would pretend to be tame and then throw you off when you least expected, he also nipped as soon as you turned your head. I carefully attached his reins to Strayberry’s tail and we took the gradual slope, following the soft noises of the river down to the flood plain. My stepfather was impatient and sometimes violent if I didn’t return quickly to work at the tannery.
On the way home, I thought of the all-knowing eyes and the warmth of the man’s smile. I could feel the faded flower inside my jerkin like it was a new part of me. I knew this was a special gift. I vowed to keep it secret.
The trees thinned from the river path. I heard the enthusiastic greeting of the settlement dogs, the sounds and smells of home crossing the glade. I emerged from the trees and three of the dogs bounded towards me wagging tails and showing their gums in curious dog-smiles.
As many huts as I have fingers stood in a grassy glade, nestling in the sunrise side of the valley woods. Smoke and the smell of a fresh-cooked stew wafted to me over the more pungent smell of hides. My stomach answered with a hungry gurgle and I urged Strayberry forward.
“Where have you been, Fintan?” it was my stepfather, stepping from behind a large skin drying on a frame.
“I’ve been up to Riversend, like you asked, Da. I delivered the skins to the man you told me to. He said he will see you later for the trade.” I knew it was futile, he was always looking for fault.
As I came within reach he pulled me from Strayberry, holding me bruising-hard by the upper arm. He was a big man and I knew if I put up a struggle, he would just slap me across the back of my head.
“Here,” he said, pointing a pit of skins. “This is what you should be doing. Get scraping.” He shoved me towards them, picked the tool from a log and threw it down at my feet. Leading Strayberry and the other roan, he stomped off muttering about idle children. He was always like this, in a perpetual black mood that sometimes worsened when he drank the rough cider brewed by his cousin. His teeth were perpetually bad and his breath smelt vile, he seemed to take it out on me for some reason.
I had never known my own father. Ma told me he was a brave and happy man, killed in a raid on the river before my first memory. She had given me a few things that he left, which I hid in my tree when Harm moved in. I took the delicate flower from my clothes and laid it safe in the sun to dry.
I hated being a tanner’s boy. As I reached into the pit of horse-piss, bark and roots to pull out the next goatskin I gagged and the stench made my eyes water. I let it drain for a moment and carried it over to the stretching racks. Globules of fat and blood still spotted the inner surface. Harm removed most of the mess before soaking because I wasn’t yet strong enough, as he so often reminded me. The scrapings lay stinking in a vat nearby, ready for boiling down to oil the skins. Another vat contained rotting fish, which was reduced with quick-lime into the stench-mix. Harm’s breath was nothing to this.
I put the skin on a log to drip and untied the dried one from a wooden frame. It was attached with fine plaited sinews of leather woven by my mother. I put the skin in the lean-to on top of the other dried ones and took the frame over to the fresh skin. First I attached one corner, then opposite, then the other corner and its opposite. I attached the middle portions, tensioning the skin properly on opposite sides. As the sun dried it would tighten and aid the cleaning process.
The vile mess ran down my arm soaking into my clothes and adding to my tanners’ stain. Sometimes Harm made me collect this run-off from the corral, a filthy pond of pony stench. I would love just one set of clothes without this taint. I could never get used to it although it hung perpetually about our home. I attached the frame to the upright stakes and started scraping. The bright eyes of the man came to my mind. They had shown huge, open spaces, like winter sky from the top of Hylman Tor, yet the blue was also a depth of summer sea.
For some reason, just the thought of those bright eyes lightened my load. The flower was a special gift. Just thinking about it made me smile. I looked at it, drying on a log in the sun. I put down the tool and picked up the stem. The petals made a delicate noise as I stroked the flower across the skin of my cheek; it was dry. I picked up a sharper blade from the tool log.
Running over to the pile of cured skins I selected a goat-leg that stuck out, Harm didn’t miss the odd piece. I cut it off and scored down the centre, making a wallet for the flower. As I folded it around the frail stem it made a crisp sound. I replaced the flower, encased in its protective layer, inside my jerkin and went back to work.
As I pulled the blade down the skin to scrape the muck, I half closed my eyes and pictured the bellflowers nestling inside my top. The picture came clearly to my mind but the bells hung, new and white, shining in the light of another land. Suddenly a shock of warm glow erupted in my chest next to the flower. It was like inside my chest had just smiled at me. I dropped the scraper in surprise and opened my eyes. The bright feeling faded from my chest.
I shut my eyes again and pictured the flowers. This time the energy grew fast and a quicksilver thrill expanded into my upper torso, shooting down my arms and legs like white fire. I felt I was glowing, my body filling with the bright moment that sun erupts from cloud after heavy rain.
“Fintan!” Boomed a voice behind me. It was Harm. “Stop your daydreaming and get inside. Your mother’s made stew for your lunch. As soon as you’ve finished get on with these hides, I need some for trading.”
“OK Da.” I managed, swiftly coming back to myself. I would experiment later with the new-found gift.
After work, as it was low tide, I walked across the river. Stepping-stones made this an easy task. On the other bank, a little way down in the woods, was a mossy niche that caught the evening sun. There, I could be in private.
I snuggled down into one of my favourite places and opened the wallet to examine the tiny flowers. The withered stem was worse for wear. The dried bells were tatty and now crushed inside the wallet. I replaced it carefully in my jerkin. Shutting my eyes, I brought the picture to my mind. I imagined the petals pure white, gleaming in a summer sun. Soon, the strange energy suffused my body.
I was made of light; a filigree web of pure-fire. I became motionless, suddenly petrified, a young deer caught in a moment of flight or fright. I was aware in a new way of the space around my body. My senses merged with the life under my hands. I felt the soft moss, a cushion from the mass of glittering granite below me. I could feel the flow of the river endlessly skating by at my feet. The warmth of the evening sun on my cheek was the warmth of sun on rough bark. My arms were branches, my hands the delicate twists of latticed twigs. My leaves, turned gratefully to the light, whispered me their secrets.
My senses extended and rooted into earth. I felt the woodlouse in the rock crevice, tasting the air for the scent of rotten wood with my feelers. I was for a moment a water vole alerted by a scrabbling noise in the ground above. A badger, shifting dirt in preparation for her short-sighted night venture. The sleepy owl starting to wake for the night’s hunt, rustling and preening silent wings for deadly flight.
The owl’s hooting brought me from my ecstasy and I ran for home into the deepening twilight.
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