Read an Excerpt
My traveling monk came again today. We sat in the monastery garden and he told me of a thing he had seen. I record here his words as I remember them. �I climbed a green hill. There was an oak at the top of the hill, and I thought to take my rest in its shade. But in that tree were three birds, one yellow, one red and one blue. They cried out with such loud shrieking and lamentations that I was driven away. But as I fled that place, I saw movement around the roots of the tree. A green serpent uncoiled from the grass where I would have sat myself, and slid away.
�Sir Kai, tell me, what do you think it means?�
I told him I thought it meant he�d been drinking too deep of the water of life, for there are no snakes on this isle. It is a fact well known.
He looked at me with those keen eyes of his then, and leaned his big forearms on his knees. �And you have never seen a thing that should not be?� he asked me.
His words affected me strangely. I was agitated in my mind by them. No, I answered him. It was not my gift to see what was not.
He smiled then, and asked me of the work of my writing. I told him I had it in my mind to spin myself some romances, in these my final days. To remember the good and the golden of what I had seen, and perhaps what I had passed lightly over as a younger man. I asked him was it not an old man�s privilege to dwell on the trivial and the foolish?
�Why is that which is good trivial and foolish?�
I have no answer for this, nor did I then. For the end of my time with Arthur is still the clearest, and my own part in it, and that anger that will not leave me. Surely it was the end that was most important of all; that we all failed him. What could be more important than that?
I do not speak of these things with anyone else. I will not now break my life�s habit of keeping my own deepest counsel. This man, though, who comes and goes as he will, he puts no names to the tales he tells me. He will keep my secrets, and I am old enough and tired enough that those secrets are a heavy burden on me.
�It is the good in us that is the illumination of the divine,� he said. �How can that be foolish?�
I answered that perhaps God himself is a fool to let himself be so badly reflected in the hearts of we lesser fools. I thought he�d be insulted by this, but instead he laughed. �If God is a fool, then what could be more important than the foolish?�
He left me there with his words, and I pondered them for a time, wondering what I might have said to have gotten the better of him. Old habits die very hard indeed. Then I thought me again on his story, and the three birds that I think, had I been there, I would not have seen. But I knew once a man who would have seen them, and he had long ago won him a lady who would have known what they meant.
And I found myself wondering if my monk knew that, for he had walked more than one land. Perhaps he had crossed the Lady Elen�s bridge and heard her tale, which stretched from the West Lands to Arthur�s court and back again. I am sharpening my quill again. I will set this down and show it to my monk when he comes back again, for I now remember whose birds those are. It was Elen who told me of them while we spoke on those far gone summer evenings. Perhaps it will shock him to know where those birds of his come from.
But then, perhaps, he already knows.
Let me begin.
Kai pen Hir ap Cynyr
At the Monastery of Gillean,
The West Lands, Midsummer�s Eve, Anno Domini 350 Maius the Smith sat beside the river, where the shadow of the bridge would fall come the morning. He kept a solitary vigil as the evening star rose up from the horizon. His cloak was thick, but the night was warm, and he had it slung back over his broad shoulders. The wind blew softly across his tattooed arms and shaved scalp, bringing the sweet smoke of the bonfires that burned on top of the hill. The rest of his folk feasted themselves nearly sick on pig�s flesh and strong beer. Later, they would dance and drink and cheer the long days, and make a sacrifice of love and life to bring god and goddess down to walk among the grain.
Maius himself had not participated in the bonfire rites since he took the iron hammer from his father. He had a different watch to keep.
The bridge beside him was made of great stone slabs. Some said they were kin to the healing stones of the plain henges which were won from the scoti witches on the green isle. The Roman lords who forced their road beside the river looked at them and shook their heads, talking in their odd, flat tongue of levers and rollers, ropes and weights. They did not believe what Maius told them, but neither did they laugh. They lived in strange cities far from the good earth, but they knew well there were other worlds that were none of men�s making. They knew that those who dwelt there must have their roads, even as men must.
Twice a year, midsummer and midwinter, the crossing was open. Twice a year, one would come from that other world, tall and beautiful, or small and brown. They would have a thing to mend�a cup or a jeweled brooch, a wheel or a sword. Their kind could not work metals, but they used them, all save iron, which was man�s secret alone. Maius would take the thing and mend it and bring it back for the morning. That must be done or those others would be angry, and the great bridge would be taken away, and far more than that.
There was safety to be had dwelling beside the bridge, for there were things that would never come here, but there was danger, too. They accepted that, and the chief stood surety for all of them, and Maius, and his son soon, paid tribute.
Hoofbeats sounded against the stone, and Maius surged to his feet. No man with wit about him stood unafraid before those that crossed from the twilight road, but Maius�s iron hammer hung from his belt. No elfshot could touch him, no glamour overtake him, not with iron as his protector.
All the same, he whispered a prayer to Rhiannon and Mother Don as the shadow took shape on the bridge, crossing from the eastern side.
The horse drew near enough for Maius to see the rider, and the bulky smith felt his jaw drop. This was not a tall white steed such as were favored by the Fair Ones. This was only�a horse. A good horse such that a Roman might not sneer at, but just a brown horse, as the man in the saddle was no more than a man wearing a belted tunic of good cloth with a golden torque flashing around his throat and gold rings on his arms. He carried a long spear the shaft of which was carved with runes so strange that Maius, who knew the mysteries of his craft and more besides, could make nothing of them.
The rider reined his horse to a halt at the edge of the steps, and beast and man looked down on Maius, standing there gaping like a boy for the surprise of seeing a mortal man on this night.
The stranger smiled. �The gods be with you. Are you the one they call Maius the Smith?�
Maius gripped the cool iron of his hammer and gathered his wits together. �I am. Who are you that comes unafraid by such a road tonight?�
The question seemed to amuse the rider. �I am the king of the little country, Maius Smith, the ruler of the hidden lands and the secret way.� He chuckled at his own riddles.
For all he wore gold, he was just a man, and Maius�s astonishment turned fast to anger. �Well, Little King, I tell you, you should not be abroad, but should take shelter with other men.�
�But, Maius, I have come to make your fortune.� Maius�s brow furrowed. This stank. It stank like iron gone rotten with rust. What was this riddling man? �How�s that?� he asked.
�I have need of a smith who knows the deeper mysteries, whose hands know how to work more than earthly gold. I have come a long way at a dangerous time to invite you to my service.� His hand reached beneath his cloak, and he tossed something small and dark at Maius�s feet. �Come willingly and this toy is the least reward you shall have.�
Maius did not take his eyes from the stranger, but he did bend down and feel through the grass until he found what had been thrown down. A great jewel lay heavy and cold in his palm, winking in the light of the rising moon. He could not tell its color, but in the moonlight, it was so dark as to be almost black, and its facets were so sharp and so tiny he could not count them all.
Involuntarily, Maius thought of what he could do with such a gem. With gold enough he could work it into a ring that could grace the arm of the governor�s wife, or the governor himself. It was cattle, this gem, it was dowry for his daughters, goods for his house and pride for his wife, perhaps it was even a second wife to grace him. And more where this came from.
He looked up at the rider, and the man had a serious demeanor.
�I need you, Maius Smith,� he said, his words as weighty as the rich stone in Maius�s hands. �I need a man who is not afraid to touch the great workings, who can bend his craft to the arts invisible. No common man can aid me in my kingdom. You are the only one.� He stretched his hand out. �Come with me and I swear you will learn mysteries beyond the telling and craft such as no smith has worked since the god Vulcan walked on the earth.�
The stranger�s words went straight to Maius�s pride of craft, and from there to his heart. He looked at the outstretched hand and all the promises overcame sober wisdom. Not even the shining ones, the tylwyth teg, had offered him the secrets of the things he mended, much less such wealth. With such thoughts filling him, Maius grasped the hand the rider held out to him, and in that oldest gesture, he sealed the bargain.
Before Maius could pull his hand from that strong grasp, the rider swiftly touched the smith�s shoulder with the tip of his spear. The night shivered around them, split and folded in on itself, and smith and rider were swallowed whole.
The hammer that should have protected the life and soul of Maius Smith lay alone beneath the stars, waiting to be found with the morning.
Pont Cymryd, Anno Domini 521
�So, your mother welcomes the men from Camelot?�
A shadow fell across Elen where she knelt beneath the trees. She did not turn. She recognized the booming voice well. Elen sighed toward the morning�s treasure: an oaken stump that had yielded a magnificent and unexpected crop of crooked-capped mushrooms. Reluctantly, she stood, carefully brushing off the skirt of her dress, then her hands, tossing her black braids over her shoulders and then smoothing down her green cloak.
It was only then she turned to face Urien, whose followers styled him y Tarw, �the bull.� He certainly looked the part. He was a bluff and rugged man with thick red-brown hair and arms like a smith�s that were banded with blue tattoos and silver rings. He rode a shaggy black beast of a horse. His iron knife and nail-studded club hung in plain view on his leather belt. His broad shoulders were only partly hidden by the green-and-brown striped cloak that was clasped with a silver brooch in the shape of three cranes. Behind him, on uncombed ponies, rode two of his men. Both were hulking creatures with thick shoulders and strong hands. The one on Urien�s right had a round face with a toad�s goggling eyes. The other was a starved wolf, his brown hair and beard equally tangled. He kept looking down the path, as if he expected enemies to leap through the trees.
Elen wanted to ask him what he feared so, but she made herself pay attention to Urien. �Arthur�s ambassadors came with all signs of respect and asked for the hospitality of our house,� she said, keeping her tone carefully bland. Whatever she thought of him, Urienwas the chief of the cantrev Eufaen, their neighbor immediately to thewest. As such, he must be given at least the showof respect. �Is it your counsel, sir, that my mother should have turned them away?�
Urien�s face clouded. Not that it was not dark enough to begin with, Elen thought sourly to herself.
�It is known that since your father died your mother looks east.� Urien�s black horse stamped impatiently. Elen clenched her jaw. Father had thought well enough of the High King at Camelot, and mother had concurred, but it would accomplish nothing to remind this man of her father�s feelings. It was the shade of her father that kept him at bay, and that shade was stretched very thin these days.
�My mother has not yet shared her thoughts with me on this matter.�
�I don�t believe you.� Urien leaned over his mount�s neck to peer more closely at her. �In this cantrev, the women rule.�
Elen picked up her basket, although it was only half full and she had not yet picked the stump clean of its treasures. The earthy scent of mushrooms rose invitingly, making her stomach growl. �Do you wish to speak of this with my mother? You will find her in our house.� Elen did not have the patience for the verbal dance. She had work to do.
�Perhaps I will, that.� Urien took up his reins again. �As her daughter seems to know so little of what happens in her family�s house.�
Elen held her peace, but only with difficulty. Overhead, the wind whispered to the trees and their branches swayed back and forth. A crow cawed three times. An omen, surely, but of what? Elen shook her head.
�You are a bright spark,� Urien went on. �You look suspiciously on this embassage of Camelot�s, and I�ll wager your brother does, too. He�s no fool, either.�
Elen opened her mouth, but did not know what to say. It was no help at all that she was in truth worried by the arrival of these men. Urien had a darkness in him, but at least it was a darkness she knew, like the storms in summer. What came from Camelot was utterly strange, and to her shame, that strangeness frightened her. But she would not give voice to any such thing before Urien.
The sound of footsteps on the path saved her from having to answer. Carys, her brother�s betrothed, picked her way down the crooked path, a pale basket resting on one ample hip.
Copyright � 2005 Sarah Zettel