STORIES are important. All things have a natural balance, a weight and a counterweight, and the expectation of an ending once something has been begun.
Jamie Tregellis believed that, right down in the pit of his soul.
Working at The Lamb Inn, as he’d done since a boy, he knew all the stories. Every night, the local banter washed over him and taught him more of the old words that bound the land together. There wasn’t a song, a joke, or tale across the whole of the Lizard Peninsula he’d not heard, from the story of Cruel Coppinger the Wrecker to the plight of Madgy Figgy, the witch of St. Levan. Some nights they even had men in who swore blind they’d seen the fabled Mermaid of Zennor, and for all Jamie knew, they might well have done. Every Cornishman came into the world with the soul-deep knowledge that this land straddled a narrow stretch of shallows between the solid rocks of English practicality and the ocean of myth that lay beyond it.
The old men who sat at the bar until the last minute when the landlord called time still spoke of the little people of Cornish legend; of the knockers—the spirits of the mines who brought rocks down on the heads of those who displeased them, of the water wraiths who lay waiting in streams and pools—and of the bucca dhu, the black imps who played changeling tricks with hearts and souls.
Of course, those same men were the ones who clung to their beer like babies to teats rather than go home to face their wives, and Jamie heard plenty of those tales as well. He knew when a man had caught trouble from his missus, or had his boss breathing fire down his neck. Gossip, prattle, scandal, and fable all came clear over a jug of ale, and all reached Jamie’s ear as he cleaned the floor, stoked the fire, pulled the pints, and generally kept good the house ’til his master gave him leave to take his rest.
It was hard work, but it was honest. And, as the parson reminded Jamie every Sunday, what greater charity could a poor orphan, naught but a ward of the parish from his sixth year, hope for but room, board, and a job of his own?
Jamie sluiced over the stinking, crusted mess by the door—last night’s leavings of old Stodder Pentreath—and reflected upon this. Privately, he considered that while he might have been fortunate, the world must hold more than drudgery even for those who found themselves lacking family and fortune. Or he’d once thought so, at any rate. Of course, that had been before… when he’d thought the world a much lighter place in so many ways.
His stiff yard broom made fast work of the rest of the cleaning, and he laid fresh strewings on the floor, ready to receive the undoubted bounty of the coming night. There was always one, and it usually happened to be Stodder.
Pail in hand and broom across his shoulder, Jamie headed around to the stables for his next chores. The Lamb stood on the site of an old coaching inn, fair cut into the hillside overlooking the bay and, from his position, Jamie had the whole village spread out at his feet. The white-painted, slate-roofed cottages burst out of the grass in tight tiers ranked down almost to the beach. The ground rolled around them, clear days like today turning the sward to green velvet, though Jamie knew from experience that sharp faces of stones lurked there to trap the unwary foot or turn a clumsy ankle. Beyond that were the cliffs on the far side of the bay, with the white gleam of the huer’s hut nestled at their crown.
In the pilchard season of late summer, two lads would sit up there ready to bellow the coming of the shoal, so that the men could run the net out into the sea, the night shattered with the cry of “Hevva! Hevva!” and the thrashing of countless silvery bodies in the moonlight. The whole village would rise to action, men bringing in the catch and women salting and pressing the fish, survival for the winter assured.
Jamie gazed out at the sea as he walked, each footfall deadened in the softness of the grass. The waves rang in his ears, their lazy rhythm an affront to his very soul. Aye, now it lapped into the bay, millpond calm, the way a cat that’s been into the cream will pretend wide-eyed innocence before its whiskers have even dried… but he knew the truth.
Too many dark nights, Jamie had lain awake through storms wild enough to wrench the rocks open. He’d heard the rain and the wind rip the slates right off roofs. He’d helped repair storm damage to the village houses and seen the battered corpses of errant sheep lost over the cliffs in squalls, and it was that which hurt him worst of all, for their sightless faces and broken limbs always made him think of Will. Had he been broken like that upon the rocks?
Or had he perhaps drowned, all that was left of him a bloated, nibbled-on thing, cloaked in seaweed and buoyed upon the waves until he rotted?
Jamie tried not to think thoughts like those. For all he knew, Will Andrewartha might not even be dead. True enough, he’d sent no word since he left, but what reason had he to do so? Jamie had known he wouldn’t. Couldn’t, more like. Leaving the village—going for to be a sailor, as the old song said—he’d be leaving all else behind him too. He made no bones about that, as if he expected Jamie to simply understand. That was the way Will was. He’d said it with a wink of his eye and a smile on his face, just here in the friendly stink of the stables, and he’d laughed while Jamie’s heart split in two.
Jamie stood down his pail and propped the broom against the wall. Only four horses today: Ruby, the old cob mare that belonged to The Lamb, then the pretty gray pony his master had bought for his daughter, and two chestnut hacks owned by paying guests. Tails swished, hooves clunked on the floor, and the sweet scent of the straw melted into the smell of the dung. He’d been nothing to Will, he knew that. No more than a foolish woman is to a man’s passing fancy—and what had it been but that? Yet the remembrance of those sinful hours still brought heat to Jamie’s cheeks, still tightened his breeches as surely as if Will stood before him again, bronzed and broad, the flax of his hair and the depth of his voice, his hands trailing fire after them with every touch….