The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson



“Are you sure? It’s a long way.”

“I do have two legs, in case you hadn’t noticed,” she snapped back. She quickened her pace, elbows pumping.

He had noticed, of course. The thought of them made him shiver inside. He fair ran after her. “I do have to be back by sundown to help Will with the cows.”

“Best not be wasting time in idle chatter, then,” Cat declared. She strode out, her skirts swinging wildly.

They took the footpath across the meadow toward Gariss and Hellangrove. Celandines, scabious, and oxeye daisies studded the grass through which they walked like fallen stars. Cat imagined how she would pick them out in a frieze: little cross-stitches of yellow and blue and white against a field of emerald green.

To their left the land rose gently through brambled coverts to wooded hills loud with birdsong. The creamy heads of cow parsley and old-man’s beard laced the hedgerows, and a long day’s sunshine had released the hot, peppery scent of herb Robert and the tang of wild garlic into the air. Gulval Downs rose up in front of them, golden with gorse. Invisible overhead, larks poured their hearts out into the azure sky. Cat looked back at her companion, moodily switching the heads off the taller flowers with a willow wand. “Come on, you laggard! Have you got lead in your boots?” She took off running, feeling like the hoyden her mother would have called her had she seen her.

Forty minutes later they were on the hilltop, in the teeth of a stiff southerly coming in off the sea, flattening the grass on the headland and carving the gorse stands into hawk trees. Cat’s hair whipped back and forth as she sat on a granite cairn in the center of the earthworks. Eroded and grassed over down the centuries, their warlike origins lost in time, the outlines of the ancient hill fort curled protectively around her as if she sat cupped in the hand of the past. Something about the scene made Rob’s heart swell inside him.

“You might be a warrior queen, sat upon your throne. Stay there.…”

She turned to watch him running away from her until he disappeared from view. Discomfited, she frowned, then turned her attention to the sheet of shining sea stretching away to the ends of the world, as it seemed. What lay out there, she wondered, beyond the horizon? Surely marvels beyond price and monsters beyond imagining, exotic lands and other ways of life, where women of talent and ambition were not confined to sweeping and darning and feeding the chickens…

Robert interrupted her reverie. He held something gingerly in his hands: a circlet of gorse and briar rose and tiny ferns fashioned so that the golden flowers glowed through the spiky foliage like jewels. “A crown for a queen,” he said, and bent to offer it to her on one knee, sunlight pooled in his blue eyes like liquid sky.

“Well, you’d better crown me, then,” she said, peremptory, though the gesture pleased her.

He stood and set it gently on her head, and as he did so the wind took a tress of her hair and set it blowing free like a great red pennant. He caught it and wound it around his hand, wondering at its silky texture and the fiery sparks trapped within its length. “They built these fortresses in King Arthur’s day against the coming of the Danes. Reckon that must make you a prize nabbed from the ships of the sea kings, then,” he said, grinning. “Not proper Cornish like the rest of us.”

Annoyed by this inference, Cat retrieved her hair from him. “Why would I want to be Cornish like the rest of you? Cornwall’s a poor little county full of brigands and idiots and superstitious old biddies.”

Robert looked pained. “And which am I—brigand or idiot?”

She shrugged dismissively, avoiding the question. “What were you discussing with the master this morning?”

Rob’s eyes took on a hooded expression; careful, evasive. “Nothing important. Jack and Thom had a bit of information for him, is all.”

“Information about what?”

“Oh, shipping and the like.”

“Shipping? What would Sir Arthur care about shipping? You forget: I saw you, and I saw you hide something.”

But he was not to be drawn. “You can see Carn Galva from here,” he said wonderingly, gazing at the menacing serrations on the distant skyline. “The Giant’s Chair. I never knew that.” He turned, his blond hair blowing around his broad, open face. “And Trencrom and Tregoning and the Godolphin Hills. No wonder the chieftain who built his fortress here chose this spot.” He shaded his eyes. “I can even see the Scillies. ’Twould be hard to take the folk here unawares, by land or sea. It’s said they lit warning beacons from the Mount to here and Trencrom, to Carn Brea, then St. Agnes Beacon, and on to the Great Stone on St. Bellarmine’s Tor, and from there Cadbarrow, Rough Tor, and Brownwilly, all the way through to Tintagel to warn the king that the raiders were coming. Arthur and the other nine kings reached Land’s End by forced march in two days and gave them battle near Vellan-Druchar. So many were slaughtered, ’tis said the mill ran on blood rather than water that day, and not a single Dane escaped.”

“Pity he wasn’t around to save Mousehole and Newlyn from the Spanish,” Cat replied. Her uncle had been among the men who followed Sir Francis Godolphin on that fateful day in July 1595 to stand against the Spaniards who had overrun the village of Mousehole and fired the church at Paul. Outnumbered and ill-armed, the Cornish had been forced to retreat under the bombardment of the galleons’ guns and wait for reinforcements while the invaders burned the better part of four hundred houses in Newlyn and Penzance. Her parents’ generation still spoke of the attack in hushed voices: It was an outrage, an insult that foreign invaders should set foot on Cornish soil, after the glorious defeat of the Armada, a defeat dealt out largely by West Country men. “Anyway,” she said, shooting him a sharp look, “you still haven’t answered my question.”

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