Crispin: The Cross of Lead opens the day after Crispin’s mother, Asta, dies some time in 1377. Asta’s death sets a chain of events in motion that disrupts the dull but stable life Crispin had known up to that point. Crispin overhears John Aycliffe, the local steward, speaking with a stranger. When they realize he has been listening, they try to capture him. Failing, they make a public proclamation that Crispin stole from the manor house and declare him a “wolf’s head”: someone outside of human society, who can be killed at will. The village priest, Father Quinel, advises him to leave the village, but he also tells Crispin surprising things about his mother, specifically that she could read and write. Those abilities are rare in the fourteenth century, and they mark her, and Crispin, as special.
Crispin goes to Goodwife Peregrine’s home. The priest has arranged for her to help him, but the boy Cedric, who says he was sent in Father Quinel’s place, leads Crispin into a trap. Crispin runs, and when he does, he stumbles across Father Quinel’s murdered body.
Crispin flees across the countryside alone. Searching for food in a village where everyone was killed by the plague, Crispin finds only bodies, until he hears a voice singing from the village church. Crispin investigates. The singer is a large, strangely dressed man. The man quizzes Crispin about who he is and quickly uncovers that he is a runaway. The man claims Crispin as his own and makes him swear an oath of service.
This strange man, Orson Hrothgar, is better known as Bear because he is so large and strong. Rather than living and working in one place his whole life, like everyone Crispin has ever met, Bear travels, earning his living as a juggler, dancer, and entertainer. As they walk, Bear educates Crispin, explaining politics, the social organization of English society, religion, and his (Bear’s) own views on truth, faith, and the meaning of life. Bear also teaches Crispin practical skills. He shows him how to juggle, how to sing and play a recorder, and how to observe details in people’s actions. At the same time, Bear helps “unteach” Crispin some of the narrow beliefs about life the boy picked up in Stromford, including Crispin’s acceptance of his own outsider and “wolf’s head” status.
Crispin is becoming accustomed to Bear’s strange ways when they run across John Aycliffe and some armed men waiting for them. Bear and Crispin cut across fields and eventually end up in the village of Lodgecot. Once there, Bear and Crispin entertain the locals and make good money, though one of Bear’s tricks angers a one-eyed young man.
The pair travel on toward Great Wexly. As they do, Bear begins to teach Crispin how to fight with weapons. As they approach Great Wexly, they see more travelers. Bear uses this as an opportunity to explain more about social classes. When they arrive at Great Wexly itself, the city is walled, and everyone must enter through a few narrow gates. Men are stationed there, looking for Crispin. Rather than trying to hide, Bear has Crispin play the recorder and dances them through the gate.
Bear takes Crispin to the...