Paperback   229 pages

By David Hancocks

Cunval's Mission

£ 5.95 Inc P&P to UK

or send cheque or PO directly to Valley Publishing

Cunval's MissionCunval’s Mission is a historical novel about a young priest setting out to convert an isolated community circa AD 500.

With much strife and humour, Cunval befriends the clan in their fight against ruthless Saxons on land and at sea.

The story is based on real people and places. 

David Hancocks has a life-long passion for history and is now able to recollect his life as a sailor, builder and countryside lover and concentrate on fiction and non-fiction books.


Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Cunval was a frightened young man. Although he was now twenty- one years of age, he had never been alone in his life. The Deacon, Aidan, had distressed him at the outset of his journey by slyly joking that he would probably have his little body dissected by his new master, the fearsome Yarll Brockvael. Cunval well knew that his one over-riding weakness was a lack of confidence; how on earth could he be the man for this important mission? His long years of tuition at Caerleon had not really prepared him for such a personal upheaval.

The journey, with a large back-pack, was in itself meant to be an ordeal; an initiation into the difficulties that lay ahead. Thankfully, he was to visit two priests on the way; two former pupils at the Caerleon college; Brother Madoc, who had been the priest at Caer Bigga for three years and Brother Tidiog, who had been successful in setting up a Christian community at far-off Abermenei. Cunval had heard the harrowing accounts of the abuse they had suffered in the early stages of their rural missions. This had depressed him; however, he had now been entrusted with his own pioneer parish, and he was not going to let his dear brothers down without a fight.

"Don't try to convert them all at once... lead by good example." was Bishop Dyfrig's instruction. Madoc, a fellow native of Ely, Cunval's home territory west of Caer Taf, had a wicked sense of humour. His frivolous advice as Cunval was about to set off into the morning mist was, "If Brockvael is about to cut out your tongue, tell him that your mother is sleeping with the King."

Refreshed by a good night's rest and with some extra food from Madoc, Cunval set off to follow a small river eastwards. After a few hours his feet were sore and his sandals chaffed through his woolen socks. Now was the time to apply some of his practical knowledge; he rested by a spring and replenished his water bottle before taking a small iron axe from his pack. A broken alder tree provided him with the wood to fashion a rough pair of clogs and these he tied to his feet with leather thongs. Stuffing his socks with damp moss in all the appropriate places, he strode up and down until satisfied that his potential blisters would be partially spared. His stout staff was a great help.

Mid-March was Cunval's favourite time of the year. The songbirds had awakened, the trees were preparing for bud-burst and the days were getting longer. In sheltered places on the ground, primroses and violets smiled up at him and when the sun's rays reached through to him they were warm and reassuring. He plodded on till mid-day, resting now and then and adjusting his footwear, all the while singing to keep up his spirits.

Cunval's pack was getting heavier and he needed to shed it for a while to rest his aching muscles. He had been following a track-way up through a small valley and now came to a dry sunny spot on the banks of stream. Unbuckling the straps of his back-pack, he let it slide thankfully to the ground. After setting out his food on a cloth, he lay back on the grass, his head resting on his folded hooded cape and his feet covered with his sheepskin square. He hummed contentedly whilst chewing on a crust.

Cunval must have dozed off to sleep; he awoke to feel a presence; there was no sound, just apprehension. Then he was aware of a shadow and someone gripping his shoulders from behind. He shouted out in fear but could not move. Someone else was lying across his feet.

"Now, don't struggle, young priest, we're not going to hurt you." The gruff, menacing voice told Cunval that he should do as requested. His heart was racing and gripped with fear; he was terrified at the thought of a flashing knife.

"I won't run..." spluttered Cunval, "let me up." He could see neither assailant, but could smell an unwashed rancid body.

"Easy now..." Cunval was pulled up to a sitting position. The teenage boy who had been gripping his feet now sat astride him wild-eyed. An older thick-set man with a dirty beard and a leather cap knelt to one side of Cunval with a knife held loosely in his scabby hand. The look on Cunval's face and his fast-blinking wide eyes brought a contemptuous dismissal from the ruffian as he set about wolfing down Cunval's food. He motioned to the boy to join him. "Thanks, Mocan," said the boy dutifully. He was also dirty.

"Is this clean water?" Mocan picked up Cunval's water bottle.

"Yes...of course," bleated Cunval. "I'm glad to share my food with you."

"Share? Share?" Mocan laughed loudly. "Now, let's have a look in here." He wrenched at Cunval’s back-pack and pulled out the contents; leather pouches of seeds, medicines, carpenter's tools... All spilled out onto the grass.

"Please..." begged Cunval. "These are all I have in the world... they're for my new home at Penhal."

"Penhal?" Mocan looked startled.

"Yes, I'm going to Yarll Brockvael's estate... he'll kill me if I turn up empty handed. He doesn't like priests at the best of times."

Cunval, despite his terror, saw a brisk change in Mocan's countenance; did he know of Brockvael?

"Bah! There's nothing here, boy," shouted Mocan. "Let's be off." With that, the two robbers jumped the brook, scrambled up the bank and were soon out of sight. Cunval quickly packed his belongings and staggered off up the track-way clutching his precious backpack. After a mile of puffing and wheezing, he scolded himself for not offering thanks to his saviour. It was time to kneel and pray.

The rest of the afternoon was spent crossing moorland to the east and looking for his next landmark; the winding dark stream called the Trothee. Nervously, Cunval looked about the landscape. He saw smoke from the occasional farmstead, but dare not approach for his confidence was shattered by the earlier harsh experience and he did not want to be caught out by the approaching dusk. Soon he had followed the Trothee to a river that he had never seen; the mighty Gwei. This was the old tribal boundary of the Cornovi, the most Romanised of the Celtic people and close allies of his own Silurian tribe. The Romans had left Britain almost a hundred years before, and apart from the sparse Christianity and the survival of the Roman tongue among the upper classes, the tribes had reverted to their old pagan ways. Rule was by the Kings and their families.

A footbridge gave Cunval a good view of the hills to the east and a final resting place before his last push upstream.

Walking through the outskirts of Abermenei, he raised little interest among the adults, despite the significance of his brown woollen robe, his ear to ear shaven tonsure and his staff. Brother Tidiog had long been accepted as part of the town community and this was encouraging. A group of children, however, started to throw stones at Cunval and called him a thumb-sucker; they knew that he could not retaliate.

"You can't throw very straight, can you?" jibed Cunval, ducking and weaving. He knew just how to handle children. The rough town kids of Caerleon had given him experience of juvenile human nature. He ran over to an elderly lady, took her arm affectionately and helped her with her firewood bundle.

"Aren't these children sweet?" he declared loudly."Ibet they would have offered to help you home." The eldest boy, aged about ten, glared at Cunval knowing that he had been outwitted. Cunval glared back as the old lady waved her stick at the boy. "That's my grandson... he never does anything to help me." The boy backed off and Cunval walked briskly over to some men who were working a furnace.

"Good evening, good evening," he smiled cheerfully. "I'm visiting Tidiog... where does he live?" The men nodded up the road and carried on with their work.

The children caught up with Cunval again as he was leaving the town through the partly-derelict up-river gateway. However, somebody shouted at them and they left Cunval unmolested.

Tidiog was overwhelmed when Cunval approached his enclosure singing loudly. “I never thought I would see a fellow-priest again,” roared Tidiog. “It’s been so long… aren’t you young Cunval? When were you ordained? You were three years younger than me at college.”

They clasped each other in a brotherly embrace and laughing together skipped towards Tidiog’s humble hut. Tidiog was stocky and dark compared to Cunval’s short, gangly frame and wispy light hair.

“I have some wine… it’s not very good… and look, I was just making supper.” Cunval was very flattered and his spirits were lifted, he well remembered Tidiog at Caerleon - always a hard worker and popular with everybody.

“Now, tell me all the news. Is Bishop Dyfrig well? Is Aidan as crusty as ever? Who else has been given a parish?”

Tidiog's questions were endless and Cunval loved the occasion. Even the story of the robbers now seemed amusing. They talked and talked as the night closed in. The vegetable stew was tasty and the bread was fresh. Tidiog had carefully bathed Cunval's feet and rubbed in some smelly ointment.

"More wine... what about some pork rib... look, nice and fat and..."

"Yuk! " cried Cunval. "I just can't eat meat - and no more wine, thank you. I'm beginning to feel dizzy. Tell me again about your congregation."

"Well, as I say, sometimes as many as twelve people come here on a Sunday... I wish we could sing in their own language instead of Latin; I'm sure that they would enjoy it more. Anyway, they are the same people I work with in the town... repairing the houses, farming, looking after the gardens. That's how I do quite well for food and a little wine or cider. I've now done eight burials in my enclosure and I get along fine with Pedur, the governor of Abermenei."

Cunval was staring blankly into the fire.

"I'm sorry, Cunval. I've been doing most of the talking. Look, I know exactly how you feel right now... you're a little apprehensive."

"Apprehensive... I'm terrified. If Brockvael throws me out, or worse, I'll just die. I'll have to go off into the forest and excommunicate myself for ever."

"No, no... everything will work out, you'll see. Brockvael is an old man now... he dare not upset the King's bishop." Tidiog smiled reassuringly and patted Cunval on the shoulder.

They said their final prayers at Tidiog's small altar in the corner of the hut.

That night, Cunval slept fitfully. Wine always gave him vivid dreams and he continually woke up in a sweat. Daylight was a relief; he went to the river-bank and said his prayers.

"How do you like my cemetery, Cunval? See, it's almost circular around the hut. I've been collecting stones from the river for the boundary... soon I'll have a proper wall. You see how I picked my spot on this raised ground?"

Cunval walked around, counting the graves with their small wooden crosses. Then he paced out the boundary and measured the hut. He stood and admired the high wooden cross near the entrance. "Mine will be just like this," enthused Cunval. "If I ever get the chance!" They both laughed.

Tidiog put his arm round Cunval's shoulder. "Now, don't forget, come and see me in the summer... when you're settled."

After herb broth and bread, Cunval set off for the town. He was obliged to call on the King's trusted overseer, Pedur, an honourable, elderly man who had once been a battle leader for both King Emrys and King Myric. Pedur occupied the old Roman bath-house, or what was left of it; he said that he wasn't interested in the new Christian nonsense, however, he did offer sympathy to any priest who was going to live at Penhal. The old Roman town was a shambles, a heap of rubble and ashes, with dogs barking and locked-up pigs squealing. The Celtic peasants had long forgotten Roman discipline. Food production was the only concern, and all the young men had been forced to join the King's army. The Saxons, far to the east, were a constant threat and district administrators such as Pedur were obliged to keep law and order, but mainly to provide food and trained young men for the army.

Pedur's wife, a delightful lady called Elise, gave Cunval some oat-cakes and a small jar of honey. Cunval thanked her kindly. As he left the bath-house the gang of children were playing in the street nearby. He called them over.

"I'm glad I saw you," he smiled. "Can anyone tell me the way to Penhal?"

"I know," shouted a bright little girl. "You go to the river and then turn right." They all pointed helpfully.

"It will take you all day," scowled the older boy.

Cunval nodded. "Well, I hope to see you all later in the summer." In good spirits Cunval left the west gate and followed the pathway indicated. The fields between the town and the rivers were in the process of being ploughed; several of the labourers waved to him politely and this lifted his spirits. The children had started to follow on, but Cunval's pace soon lost them. He had work to do and psalms to sing. The morning sun was warm as he approached his final river. When he finally turned north into the valley of the Menei, he knew that he was home. Although he had never set foot in the valley before, he knew that this was his destiny; the one place on earth that his bishop had had good reason to send him. The river water was crystal clear from the far mountains, and with a succession of pools and rapids overhung with willow, alder and hazel. Cunval was adept at making fish traps; his favourite food was fish; fresh or smoked. He could not eat meat; it made him sick. However, he was well versed in animal husbandry as part of his monastic life and gardening and farming were second nature to him.

He now relished each step of the way. After a mile or so he realised that the river-bank was littered with piles of driftwood thrown up by the winter floods. This would mean a plentiful supply of dry firewood for the next winter. If Yarll Brockvael granted him some land, he could plant his seeds and his wheat in April. There was going to be so much to do if he was allowed time from his community chores.

Cunval reflected on his now-complete break with Caerleon. He had always been smaller than his contemporaries, but had made up for his lesser strength by being always keen and willing. He would run rather than walk when sent on errands, and his enthusiasm in reading and citing the scriptures had always impressed his masters. As he had progressed through the college he had been given the task of teaching the new younger pupils. He knew well the knick-name that they had given him- "running piglet". He laughed at the memories.

There was only one thing to do to allay his homesickness; he sang loudly, and he didn't care if anyone could hear him and think him mad. The day was long and arduous and Cunval had to stop many times to rest his feet.

Chapter Two

Late in the afternoon, when Cunval realised he had about two hours of daylight left, he quickened his pace. It was starting to get cooler and he hoped that there would be food at Penhal. Travellers were always welcomed at estate halls. It was traditional to offer hospitality after a long journey and after all, Cunval was expected. It had been a request of King Myric that all estates should have a trained priest, a learned man who was expected to toil in the fields and, also, to teach the community the Gospels, farming and good Christian values.

However, the king had dared not interfere too much with the pagan gods of the country dwellers; they were often the very people who had fought with him against the Saxon invaders.

For the moment, the two religions would have to live side by side.

As Cunval strode noisily through the long grass beside a pebble-strewn beach, his thoughts were jolted into focus by the faint call of a child in distress. Had he been mistaken? Was it children at play? Could it be the sound of the next rapids? He forced his way through to the water's edge and ran along the shingle. There it was again- a child screaming for help. Rushing forward he could now see a figure splashing in the river on the far bank. He shrugged off his back-pack and dropped his staff, at the same time jumping and wading through the water. A boy was almost face down in the river, whilst hanging on to some alder roots. Cunval had to dive and swim the last few yards. The boy looked up, terror on his face, and it was only then that Cunval could see that he was trying to pull up another child, a little girl, who's face was barely above the water as she gurgled and swallowed. The water was swirling above Cunval's waist as he grabbed for the huge tangle of roots that bounced with his weight. He clutched at the girl's shoulders but she was stuck, her face would hardly come above the dark water.

"Her foot is wedged," shouted the boy, "she's caught in the roots." Cunval immediately dived downwards and felt for her foot. He opened his eyes under the freezing water, something he had never done before, and could see the child's foot pushed down through a tangle of large roots. In a moment he put both feet against the roots and yanked upwards with his hands. He saw her leg come free as the boy pulled her clear, and gasping for breath they all clambered up the bank onto the grass. The girl was crying and choking as Cunval turned her over and pressed into her back. The mixture of coughing and fighting for breath was followed by quick gasps; she was going to be all right.

"Oh, thank you, God... thank you." Cunval pulled the girl to his chest and rocked her, at the same time he rubbed the boy's back vigorously. "It's going to be all right… we must get you into dry clothes... where do you live? Where's your mother?"

"It was Rees's fault," sobbed the girl, "he was fooling around, and pushed me." The boy tried to express his innocence, but Cunval smiled and laughed with relief.

"You're safe, my babies..."

"I'm not a baby," protested the girl. "I'm ten."

"Sorry, sorry... now let me get you home... which way?"

All three staggered to their feet and set off upstream, Cunval with his arm around the little girl. "You were very brave, both of you, what's your names?"

"I'm Rees... I'm twelve... and this is Olwen. She's always falling over." Olwen had given up protesting, the cold water must have affected her more than Cunval thought; he must get her to a fire.

It was not far to the wooden palisade of the farmstead, they ran through the gate and past various thatched scruffy buildings. The hall house was high with mud walls and a roof black with years of smoke. First the dogs barked, then women came from all directions, shrieking and shouting out orders. They all bustled into the hall and crouched at the central fire, the women at the same time removing the children's clothes.

"What happened? "Rees and Olwen's mother was wrapping them in a large cow's hide held open to the warm fire. They would soon be recovered.

"It was an accident," explained Olwen. "The bank gave away and I fell into the river... I just got wet, that's all."

It was obvious to Cunval that the children were afraid of being scolded, so they were trying to make light of the near-tragic incident. As the women seemed to notice Cunval for the first time, he nodded in agreement. "Yes, I just happened to be walking up the river bank and... and..."

"Give the children some broth." A large metal cauldron was hanging over the fire. Cunval realised then that he too was thirsty and hungry.

Shadows from the doorway caused Cunval to look around. He could not see clearly as the last rays of evening sunshine pierced the interior gloom, but there were many male voices.

Several big men wearing leather tunics that made them look fearsome strode across the clay floor to the fire. The women glossed over the incident of the children and the men laughed. The oldest man, tall and stout and with a matted grey beard, simply growled. He slumped into a low couch by the fire which creaked under his weight. Cunval timidly wrapped his wet clothes tightly around his body trying to look insignificant. A dead deer was thrown onto the floor, its throat cut and its tongue protruding. Cunval shuddered.

"This man helped us, Grandad," said Rees. Yarll Brockvael saw the shrivelled figure of Cunval for the first time. He glanced down at the priest's habit and howled with rage.

"The damned priest, I knew it... as soon as he gets near the place, there's trouble.”

Cunval jumped up. "May I introduce myself, sire," he stuttered. "My name is Cunval... Bishop Dyfrig has sent me here to...

"Brochvael snorted. "I know why you're here... you're going to convert us to this Christian rubbish." All the men burst out laughing and looked down on Cunval's frail form.

"If he's been in the river, give him some broth." A strong young man dressed in furs and leather, and with a sword at his belt, stepped forward. He was obviously a war-leader. The others made way for him as Rees's mother ladled some broth into a bowl.

"Give him a dry cloak... and get those clothes off him." Cunval was grateful, for he now felt quite faint. But he knew that the soldier did not like him, despite his hospitality. He was undoubtedly Brockvael's son.

Before he could protest, several women started pulling off his tunic exposing his skinny body. His undergarment was whipped off and he nearly collapsed with shame; never again could he be taken seriously as a priest. He covered his private parts with one hand and clasped the small copper cross hanging from his neck with the other. The Yarll led the laughter at Cunval's embarrassment and he was thrown a fur-skin cloak.

The men started relating stories of the day's hunting as Cunval once more settled on the floor. The fur was sheer luxury around his shoulders; he was handed a bowl. After a few sips, Cunval retched and the broth sprayed onto the edge of the fire. "It's meat," he gasped. "I can't eat it... I can't..."

"Get him out of here," ordered Brockvael, "put him in with the animals, tonight." Rees and Olwen winced, for Cunval seemed so child-like.

" My pack," cried Cunval. " I've lost my back-pack. All my belongings .." He put his hands to his head in sheer panic and looked at the doorway. " It's on the river bank, I remember now... do excuse me... I'll be back soon... I'll do some work later." As he ran out of the door, the men shook their heads in disbelief. This novice priest was going to be a huge nuisance.

There was still enough daylight for Cunval to stride back down-river, clutching the cloak tightly around himself. He felt utterly miserable, he had made a complete mess of his first meeting with the clan and, if he had lost his precious belongings he was sunk. Arriving at the rescue spot, Cunval looked downstream to the shallower rapids in order to cross. He then became aware of a motionless figure on the opposite bank. An old man stood looking at him.

"Are you the priest?" he shouted above the noise of the river. "I've got your back-pack... and your staff... I kept it safe for you, Father." This was the first time that Cunval had been called 'Father'.

"Oh, thank you, thank you! I was so worried... you're most kind." Cunval started to wade across, holding the cloak clear of the water. He dare not stumble and get wet again.

"I saw what happened, father. I was up in the field, and by the time I got down here you were all off to the hall. Are the children all right?" Cunval, wheezing, could only nod as the old man grasped his outstretched hand. He then led him to the discarded pack, which was still lying where Cunval had shed it.

"I was afraid my pack and belongings would be lost." Cunval stooped as the old man helped him on with the heavy load.

"I'm a Christian, you know. There's only me and my dear wife left... you know what happened to the rest, don't you?"

Cunval nodded and clasped the old man's hands. "I can't tell you how happy I am to meet you... God bless you!"

The old man picked up Cunval's staff, which had a cross carved in the top. "Stay in our house, father. We have bread."

It was only at this point that Cunval realised how providence had shone upon him. He had surely been chosen to be in this place and at this time. He clasped the old man's hands. The riverside pathway felt good under his wet stockinged feet, but his clogs now belonged to the river.