The Saxon Shore (Camulod Chronicles Series #4)by Jack Whyte
"From the building blocks of history and the mortar of reality, Jack Whyte has built Arthur's world and showed/i>
"The very best storytellers keep their readers glued to the story with plot, character, and a keen sense of the dramatic.... Whyte breathes life into the Arthurian myths by weaving the reality of history into them." --Tony Hillerman on The Skystone
"From the building blocks of history and the mortar of reality, Jack Whyte has built Arthur's world and showed us the bone beneath the flesh of legend." --Diana Gabaldon
Read an Excerpt
The Saxon Shore
By Whyte, Jack
Forge BooksCopyright © 2003 Whyte, Jack
All right reserved.
I could not identify the clattering noise that woke me, and for a space of heartbeats I lay befuddled, not knowing where I was. The sun was high and hot, and I felt my bed tilt alarmingly. Then I became aware of the warmth of the tiny baby held cradled in my arm, and I remembered everything.
We were adrift in a small galley or birney that was much too large for me to control alone, even had I known how. The smell of the bearskin pelt on which we lay mingled with the scents of sun-warmed pitch and timber. A heavy, rusted, three-pronged grappling hook had landed on the planking beside me, close to my head. As I focused on it, the thing leapt away from me again, before burying two of its points in the solid timbers of the boat's side. I rolled away from the child and struggled to my feet, throwing myself to the side of the boat and looking up and out.
Above me, towering over and dwarfing our small boat, was a great galley with a single, soaring mast and a rearing, giant, painted dragon's head at the prow. In my first glance I saw a row of long oars, glistening with water, raised vertically to permit the two craft to come together, then a red-bearded warrior standing on the prow behind the dragon's head, leaning backward against the pull as he drew in his rope, hand over hand, dragging my smaller craft towards him. Beside him, another man was in the act of throwing a second grappling hook, and I pulled my headdown and out of sight as the metal head landed behind me and was jerked back to thump into the birney's timbers, lodging farther forward, beside the first. As I sprawled away to one side, a roar of surprise told me that my appearance had disconcerted them no less than theirs had me. A third and then a fourth hook clanked aboard and made themselves fast, and I felt our boat being hauled in like a fish, its motion changing as it struck laterally against the waves.
This time I raised my head cautiously and saw that it was the target for a score of bows, all of their arrows pointing at my eyes. I raised my hands high above my head, fingers spread, showing them I had no thought of fight or flight, and immediately slid back down the sloping side before stepping hastily back to the centre of the deck, my hands still high above my head as I fought to keep my footing, waiting for the first arrow to find me. Below me, the child had awakened and begun to howl with hunger, his tiny, angry protests lost amid the noises that now swelled all around us.
I glanced towards him and my eyes were suddenly filled with the bulk and substance of the heavy, golden signet ring with the red dragon crest that hung on a golden chain against his tiny chest. I threw myself towards him and removed the thing from around his neck, stuffing it hastily into my own breechclout and hoping it would remain lodged securely there and not fall out onto the deck. It was the only recourse open to me, and I had no time to improve on the instinct that prompted me to hide the ring there.
Moments later, the first of our "rescuers" leapt aboard from the raised deck of the other ship, closely followed by a half-dozen others. He landed lightly, then stepped towards me, noting that I was unarmed but extending his sword point towards my naked throat and glancing around him in curiosity as he closed the distance between us. He was big, as big as I, and hairy in the way of the Celts, with a full black beard, long hair and moustaches, and thick black chest hair showing through the open front of a sheepskin tunic worn fleece-outward. As I lowered my hands and made to speak to him he drew the point of his sword away from me, then brought it swinging, backhanded, to clout me almost heedlessly across the side of the head with the flat of the blade. I fell sprawling and stunned.
I huddled there, my knees drawn up instinctively to protect the contents of my breechclout, clasping my head in my hands, almost blinded by the pain and waiting for his attack to continue. My assailant, however, had done with me and ignored me completely thereafter. By the time my vision cleared enough to see him again, he had stepped away and was bent over the discarded pile of my armour that lay where I had thrown it on the bottom of the boat. My eyes moved onward, ignoring the others who had come aboard with him, searching frantically for the black bearskin that lay at the foot of the central mast. There, surrounded by three of the newcomers, the baby kicked and squirmed, and even through the racket all around me, I could clearly hear his anguished screams. The three men were looking down at him, arguing among themselves. After a single and dismissive glance towards me, one of them shifted his axe from his right hand to his left, stooped quickly and picked up the child by the ankles, crushing them together carelessly.
My head swam with panic.
Once, twice, he spun the tiny form around his head and then released it to fly into the air, high over the vessel's side.
Afterwards, I was unaware of having moved, let alone risen to my feet, but suddenly I was upon them. I heard my own roar of rage as my shoulder took the big man low in the back, hurling him forward and off balance, and my fingers gripped the shaft of the axe that had hung from his left hand. Still reeling from the momentum of my charge, I swung one foot around hard to kick one of his companions behind the knees, sweeping him off his feet. The third man, caught by surprise, simply stood there, giving me time to shift my weight, grip the shaft of the axe firmly in both hands and spin again to bury it in the killer's shoulder, splitting him from neck to breast bone. Pulling him towards me, his flesh locked around the blade of the axe, I used the dead weight of him for leverage and leapt high onto the edge of the boat's side. I saw a flash of white among the waves and threw myself outward towards it, bringing my hands together above my head to break the water.
* * *
The sea was far warmer than I had expected, and after the first shock of my plunging dive my head was cleared of noise and pain. A thousand bubbles hissed all around me, and I opened my eyes, searching frantically for a glimpse of the infant. There was nothing, no matter where I looked, and I kicked my way back to the surface, treading water as I looked around me, shaking the hair and water out of my eyes. I surfaced at the top of a wave and quickly found myself in the trough between it and the next, from where I could see nothing. Allowing myself to relax, I waited to be lifted again to the wave top, and heard a zipping noise as an arrow sliced into the water ahead of me. Now I was high again, and saw the galley, enormous from this vantage point, riding high above and in front of me. More arrows hissed into the sea around me, and I heard a distant chorus of shouts and jeers. I ignored them and tried to turn myself around as I went sliding to the bottom of another trough. Moments later, as I rose to the crest of the next wave, I saw the baby on the surface very close to me, disappearing again as I caught sight of him. I filled my lungs, gulping in air until my chest would hold no more, before folding my body and kicking my feet vertically. In the booming, reverberant silence beneath the surface an arrow dropped in front of me, wobbling harmlessly before falling vertically into the depths below. I strained my eyes towards where I thought to have seen the tiny shape of the child, and there he was, pallid and insubstantial at the limit of my sight, floating beneath the waves. I kicked out strongly towards him, knowing I was too late. The shock of hitting the water alone must have killed him, and with him the hopes of my family.
There are times when the mind of a man performs the most amazing feats; when the speed of thought is so enhanced that lifetimes seem to pass in moments; when the mysteries of life seem crystallized, are clearly understood and then forgotten again in the blinking of an eye. Later, I was able to recall the chaos of my thoughts as I swam towards the baby, and to piece them together into coherent patterns that bore no resemblance to the panic-filled, despairing screams that echoed in my mind during those moments. This was my cousin and my nephew both, this babe of two, three months at most, drifting in the clear, warm water just beyond my reach; the son of Uther Pendragon, my dearest friend whom I had sworn to kill. And now they both were dead; as dead as my own unborn son, denied a chance to live, murdered in the womb, I had once believed, by that same Uther. I felt a swelling, aching, unbearable hardness in my chest that told me I was going to have to breathe very soon, and then saw the baby drifting upwards to the surface, rising away from me to where the waves formed a clear green ceiling streaked with lines of writhing, golden light. I kicked harder, forcing myself through the water, clawing my way towards him and seeing without really noticing the way his tiny arms and legs moved rhythmically, almost as if he himself were swimming. Suddenly my face touched him and I grasped him close, breaking the surface, raising him high above my head as I fought for breath, coughing and spluttering and sinking again as I waited for the arrows to find us, finding some insane satisfaction in the knowledge that we would meet death together, united in our blood. Again I broke surface, and this time was able to breathe and keep myself afloat. The galley loomed above us, very close now. We were an unmissable target. I closed my eyes and hugged the baby close, holding his head above the water.
The arrows did not come. A wave broke over us. I opened my eyes and blinked them free of water, and as I did, a rope came snaking down, uncoiling as it fell, to land across my head. Unknowing and uncaring whence it came or why, I grasped it with my left hand, twisting coils of it around my arm as I went under yet again, mouth open and inhaling. Choking in agony, my lungs revolting against the sea water, I felt myself being dragged forward and up, and hands grasped at me, catching my arm, my tunic and my hair. Someone took the child from me, and I felt myself propelled upward and inward and then lowered, quite gently, to the decking of the ship. I rolled onto my belly, coughing and vomiting the brine I had breathed and swallowed, fighting the searing pains that racked my chest and lungs.
The paroxysm passed eventually, leaving me spent and breathless, and I pushed myself up to lean on my elbows, gazing down at the planking of the deck between them and waiting for whatever would befall me next. I had no thought of avoiding it, whatever it might be, knowing that it would be death in one form or another, blooding and vengeance for the man I had killed with the axe. That was why they had dragged me from the sea. They required blood for blood, and death by water would not suffice. The manner of my death was beyond my control, and beyond my caring. The only matter of import in my mind was the death of the child and what it meant to Camulod. The dreams of many people had perished with that baby boy, and I saw them all there in my mind as I gasped and heaved for breath. Caius Britannicus, my grandfather, and Publius Varrus, his friend, both of whom I had revered throughout my life; Picus Britannicus, my father, and Ullic and Uric Pendragon, father and son, and a host of others who had dared to dream of surviving in the face of conquest by barbarian hordes, the same hordes who had now wiped out their line. My mind filled up with the image of the baby boy I had discovered wrapped in a black bearskin here in this very boat, and I recalled the pride and the passionate, exultant tenderness that had swept over me in realizing who he was, in knowing this was he, the one who would arise to call the peoples of our land to action and to unity; the future champion for whose hand Publius Varrus had crafted the sword Excalibur. And as I felt the pain of that memory, I also felt another, sharper, localized pain against my pubis, where the signet of Uther Pendragon was evidently still secure, wedged uncomfortably between my body and the deck of the ship.
My chest constricted and I retched again, moving at the same time to ease the discomfort caused by the ring and gasping against the agony of the convulsion that racked me, and as I gulped for breath another image came into my mind: a tall, young man with long, bright golden hair; a champion who perhaps, even now, would be in Camulod, and into whose hands I had commended Excalibur should I not have returned within the year; Ambrose, my own half-brother, absent from my mind since my discovery of the boy.
A heavy foot kicked my elbow and I snatched it away, falling face downward into the bile I had just voided. I lay helpless as my wrists were snatched and bound together at my back, the rough rope burning my skin. When I reared my head back and tried to look around me I saw only legs. At least a dozen men surrounded me, and I saw now that I was on the big galley, not the birney as I had supposed, and that I was lying at the bottom of the well that held the rowers. They hauled me to my feet again and thrust at me, turning me around and pushing me forward until I saw what they required of me.
There was a lateral bench of some kind at the level of my knee, pressing against me. Above it, a narrow wooden step descended from a planked walkway that ran the length of the galley, front to back. Urged onward by the point of either a spear or a sword at the small of my back, I climbed upward, making heavy going of it with the rocking of the vessel and the awkward weight of my arms, tied tightly as they were behind me. I managed the ascent without falling, nevertheless, and stood swaying on the causeway.
I was somewhere approaching midway along the boat, facing the rear. Below me, ranged in rows on either side, a sea of faces glowered up at me in silence. The men were resting on their oars, evidently waiting. At the end of each row, closest to the centre of the keel and within their owners' reach, were piles of axes, swords and spears. Barbarians. The expressions on those faces I could see varied from wild-eyed hatred to dull disinterest. I ignored them, refusing to acknowledge their presence, although I had time to estimate their strength at close to a hundred. A hundred in one galley! That bespoke great wealth on the part of its owners and great skill on the part of their shipbuilders. I looked straight ahead to where the massive mast reared, thick as a horse's barrel, from the bottom of the ship, beneath the planks of the central causeway, which parted around it, leaving enough room for one man to pass on either side. A great cross-spar, half the thickness of the mast itself, was attached to it about head height, though I could not see how because of the billows of dense, saffron-coloured sailcloth that lay draped across the spar.
Prodded roughly from behind again, I made my way rearwards, passing the mast and dipping my head to avoid the overhead spar. The rearmost part of the ship, I estimated about one sixth of the vessel's total length, was decked over completely at the level of the causeway, fronted by a solid wooden wall with a single doorway leading to the enclosed space below. A group of men huddled on this platform, their backs to me. I counted eight of them as I approached, and their armour, such as I could see of it, was mainly toughened leather of the kind our own Celts wore, bossed with iron and bronze, although one wore overlapped iron strip armour in the Roman fashion and another wore a shirt of ring mail. Three wore long cloaks, so I could see nothing of what they wore beneath. All eight wore helmets; conical iron caps, two of which were horned. Alerted by some signal, they swung around as one to look at me, then stepped back to form an open, wedge-shaped grouping that reflected the taper of the vessel's stern and directed my gaze to the man they had concealed.
I stopped short, trying to absorb what I was seeing, and no one pressed me further. The man himself was, of course, the first thing I perceived, but immediately after that I saw the device in which he hung suspended, and my eyes devoured it, attempting to define what it was and how it operated, disdaining its occupant temporarily despite the fact that he obviously held the order of my dying.
Four thick beams, each a handspan square, had been erected from the body of the ship, mortised into the rail that ran around the deck and cantilevered inward at a uniform angle, supported from the deck by other, smaller struts. I saw instantly where they should have met to form a pyramid, but each had been truncated short of that to provide a corner support for a heavy, rectangular frame that hung thus suspended, level with the deck. I had a vision of the great catapults and siege artillery depicted in the books of Publius Varrus, and as my eye took in the workmanship I knew instantly that the craftsman who built it had been the same man who designed and built the galley. The device was a natural extension of the ship. Below it, suspended by ropes and pulleys from strong hooks attached to each corner of this frame, hung a seat, apparently made from strong leather, stitched and shaped and strung from an open-fronted girdle of iron as thick as my thumb. Thin hempen ropes, three of them, hung from this metal chair rim to the floor, whence they passed through a ring bolted into the deck and separated to three other rings, where they were stoutly knotted, one in the back and one on either side. They looked for all the world like reins, and I realized that they were nothing less. The person seated in that chair might ride the turmoil of the waves in comfort, suspended above the deck and able to master all but the wildest motion of the seat by pulling on these ropes.
All of these thoughts had coursed through my mind in less time than it takes to speak of them, and I grew conscious of the silence that hung around me. I looked then at the leader of this crew.
He sat slouched in his hanging seat, wrapped in a great, long cloak of thick, green wool embellished with red symbols unknown to me. Beneath him, one long, booted leg stretched indolently to the deck; the other jutted out horizontally, seemingly rigid beneath the cloak, pointing at me. I gazed at him, looking square into his eyes, holding my own head high.
He had the look of a Celtic chieftain, saturnine, swarthy, with long, dark, flowing moustaches and a small beard that covered his chin but left his cheeks clean shaven. His nose jutted, fine edged and arrogant over cleanly shaped, narrow nostrils, and great black-browed blue eyes, so bright they seemed to glow, swept me from head to foot, taking my measure. I saw the breadth of his high forehead and the long, dark, curling hair swept back behind his ears, the line of it forming the suggestion of a peak exactly at the centre of his brow. He wore a heavy, ornate golden torc, the collar of a chieftain, about his neck, which was thick and strong, hinting of a deep chest and broad shoulders, although these were concealed in his cloak. We faced each other mutely, neither allowing any trace of emotion to paint his features. I was aware of the tension of the men who surrounded me. A wave smacked against the side of the galley, setting the deck atilt beneath my feet, and hemp ropes creaked in protest.
And then he threw aside the cloak, exposing the baby that lay nestled, sleeping or dead, in the cradle of his right elbow. The sight, the unexpectedness of it, caught me off guard and I sprang forward, uttering a cry that was cut off in my throat by a heavy blow across the neck and shoulder that felled me to the deck. As I lay there, struggling for consciousness against the sudden violence that had clamped my eyes tight shut and the roaring of my own blood that filled my head, I heard their voices speaking the tongue of Donuil, the prince of the Eirish tribe we called the Scotii or Scots, whom I had held hostage against his people's good behaviour. They were discussing me.
"Well? Shall I kill him now? He's an Outlander. You'll get nothing out of him. Can't even speak his language." This was a heavy, growling voice, well on in years, and it was greeted by a chorus of consensual muttering. They all fell silent as the next man spoke, and I knew I was hearing the voice of their chieftain.
"Aye, you may be right, Tearlach, but we won't know until we try, will we? He may have information we can use. I think I want to spare his life for now, from curiosity, if nothing else."
"Why waste your time and ours?" The growling voice was filled with menace or disgust. "The whoreson killed Lachie. An eye for an eye, I say, and be damned to your curiosity. Let's spill his tripes and dump him to the fishes."
"Arragh, but why did he kill Lachie, and for what?" There was a ring to the question that made even me wish to hear the answer, and the others fell silent again as the voice went on. "If he's a Saxon, as he would seem to be with that head of yellow hair, then why would he die thus gladly for an alien child? Look at this boy, all of you, and tell me where your eyes are. Look at him! Look at his eyes! Here is no Saxon. This child is pure Celt. Why then, ask yourselves, would this Outlander behave as he did in killing Lachie? Or are you all solid bone clear upward from the necks? Where is your desire to know how such things work--what men will do under dire provocation? Could this be the man's son? Ah! In that case, his anger would be yours, had you seen what he saw..."
The child was alive! Even in my pain I felt my flesh tingle with the knowledge of what could only be a miracle. The voice above me pressed on.
"And if this be his son, what then? A Saxon father protective to death of a Celtic child?" His voice faded, then resumed more loudly, cutting short the man Tearlach's effort to interrupt. "What concerns me, my friends, is how this yellow-headed wolf came to be aboard yon birney, and adrift at sea. Our birney! That concern is not going to be resolved by killing the creature without trying to discover what he might know. Where are our own men, Red Dougal and Alasdair, Fingal and the others of their crew? And far, far more important, where are the women they were sent to find? I'll tell you, my lads, if we cannot find means to loosen this man's tongue, I for one will take little pleasure in the thought of sailing home with such news as we have to bring my father."
A babble of voices broke out as they began to argue among themselves and I made an attempt to rise. It was a forlorn attempt; the hampering effect of my bound arms allowed me only to kick my legs uselessly, squirming around on the planking. I felt a foot insert itself between me and the decking, at the point of my shoulder, and then the heave of a leg turned me so that I almost rolled over onto my back--to be stopped again by my bound arms, coming to rest with the full weight of my body on my tied wrists and one elbow. In spite of my gritted teeth, I could not stifle an agonized groan. I lay squinting up at them while they all stared back. I ground my teeth against the dementing pain in my arms and managed to draw a deep breath.
"I can tell you what you want to know." I grated out the words painfully in their own tongue, through my locked teeth.
The shock on their faces might have been laughable at any other time, but the humour of the scene escaped me until much later. To hear their own liquid gutturals spill fluently from the lips of one they took to be a Saxon Outlander left all of them floundering. They recovered themselves quickly, nevertheless, led by their leader, at whose word two of them leaned over and hauled me to my feet again, bracing me between them. Behind us, I could hear the shocked muttering of the crew as word of this new development spread quickly from one end of the ship to the other.
The leader had pulled himself out of his slouch, sitting erect now, although his right leg still stretched stiffly before him, shrouded in the folds of his long cloak. He held the baby, which had fallen asleep, casually, yet with the assurance of practice, supported by his bent forearm against his side. He gazed at me now through narrowed eyes.
"You understand our tongue."
I nodded, my breathing still too shallow to allow me to speak strongly.
I tried to answer him, but my tongue failed me. I heaved a breath, shaking my head in a mute plea for patience. Finally, when I felt I could articulate the words without faltering, I said, "I learned it from a friend...It is not unlike my own."
"Your friend is Erse?"
I nodded. "He is."
I heard a muttered curse from the largest of the men on my left, and recognized the grumbling tone as Tearlach grunted something about a traitorous dog. I ignored it.
The leader was gazing at me fixedly. "How come you here, adrift in this vessel?"
"By hazard," I responded, shaking my head. The pain in my arms had begun to abate now that I was standing again. "I had no thought to leave the land. I merely sought to save the child."
"Save him? From what?"
I blinked at him, surprised that he should have to ask. "From death," I said. "The boat was drifting on the rising tide, floating away from shore, when I heard his cries. I climbed aboard and found him, then found I was too far away from shore to return." I hesitated, unwilling to show ignorance, but knowing there was no way to conceal it. "I have no knowledge of the sea, or ships, and knew not how to return the craft to land."
"You can swim; you could have swum ashore." His eyes were piercing bright, watching me closely. I shook my head.
"No, I wore armour and had no wish to be without it. So I stayed in the hope we'd drift ashore again. Besides, I might have drowned the child."
His eyes moved aside and I followed his glance to where my discarded armour, ring suit, helmet, sword, dagger and cloak lay piled against the ship's side.
After that one glance, however, he chose not to pursue the matter, apparently accepting the truth of my words. "The child is that important to you? Why?"
I said nothing, but he would not accept that.
"Why did you kill my man Lachie, and why leap overboard after the child?" I merely glared at him and he went on. "You thought to save it?"
I could not respond. His question was too alien.
"Well, did you? Did you think to save the child? Answer me, man!"
"Yes." The single word, repeated in his voice, sounded far different from the word I had said. On his tongue, it dripped scorn. "From what, from death?" He lowered his head again to look at the child before facing me again, his eyes now filled with anger. "What kind of fool are you? It would have been a kindness to the babe to let him drown. Now he will die of thirst and starvation, for there is no food here for him. He is new-born, fool, fit only for suckling at his mother's teat! He cannot eat, or drink, or feed himself, and we have no milk here."
His angry scorn confounded me, for I had not thought of any of this. In seeking to rescue the child I had thought only of his life, not of the means required to sustain that life beyond the moment of salvation. Realization of my foolishness removed the sting from his angry words, however, and I nodded in acquiescence.
"That's true," I said. "I had not thought of that."
"Hmm." He changed the subject, looking down at the sleeping baby in his arms and rubbing one fingertip against its tiny cheek, and now his voice was softer. "What of the men who crewed the boat, did you see them?"
"Aye, they were all dead. Slain."
"All of them?" His head came up and I heard disbelief in his voice.
"All of them," I repeated. "The women, too."
He sucked in his breath with a sibilant hiss, and I saw a fleeting expression of pain in his dark eyes. "How many women?"
"Eight. Eight women, twenty-one men."
"And you were left alive?"
"Not left alive. I was not with them. I arrived late, too late to help them. Could I have a drink?" My throat was raw.
"Later." He was frowning now, a deep, vertical cleft marring his open brow. "Tell me of this. Who are you, and how came you to arrive there at all, let alone too late to help them? And who was responsible for their deaths? Did you watch from safety until the slaughter had been done and then come forth to plunder the remains, or were you one of the killers?" He paused, watching me closely. "I warn you, think carefully before you speak another word."
I looked back at him, eye to eye, and held myself erect. "I rode in pursuit of the man who killed them, thinking him someone else. I saw them from the top of a distant cliff, clustered upon the sands around their boat, which had been stranded high and dry by the receding tide. Even as I watched, I saw their pursuers close with them, and they seemed well matched, man for man. I rode around and down to overtake them, but my horse was hampered by the sand, so that by the time I arrived the fighting was almost over."
The frown was still etched upon his brow. "And they were all killed, every one, on both sides?" I heard his disbelief.
"No, when I came, six of the attacking force remained alive. They were killing the wounded. It had been a hard-fought fight."
"I killed them."
"All six of them, you alone?" His disbelief was total.
"Aye, with a bow, from well beyond their reach." I had decided, as I spoke the words, to make no mention of the man I had spared.
Now he looked back at my discarded armour. "I see no bow."
"No," I snapped, knowing I was being reckless, "nor do you see my horse. I left both on the beach."
He pursed his lips and said nothing, and the child in his arm kicked and snuffled.
I felt myself swaying with fatigue, and my bound arms burned with agony. The pain in my head, which had been dulled, took on a new sharpness and located itself, it seemed, right in the middle of my forehead.
The seated chieftain continued to bite thoughtfully at the inside of his lower lip, saying nothing for a spell, then returned to the subject of the women, asking me how they had been killed. I told him haltingly, fumbling for words, reliving the scene in which the attacking force, led, I had thought, by Uther Pendragon, had snatched up the eight women and used them as living shields against the arrows of the defenders. I avoided, however, naming names, either my own or Uther's. My own confusion, watching the affair, had been profound, since I had known neither that the man I thought was Uther wore only Uther's armour, nor that the bowmen facing him were Uther's men. I ended my recital to find myself facing another question.
"You were pursuing one man, thinking him someone else, isn't that what you said? Explain that."
"He was my cousin," I told him, reeling so the men supporting me had to renew their grip. "I thought he had killed my wife, and I had hunted him for many days. He warred against Lot of Cornwall."
That captured his interest, but not, it appeared, in Lot of Cornwall. "You thought he killed your wife? You thought? You did not know it?"
"No, I did not know, but I believed he had, and I sought vengeance. I saw him from afar, as I have said, recognizing his armour, but when I caught him, it was someone else, an Outlander who had already killed my cousin and stripped his corpse for his own use."
"So your cousin is dead?"
"When did this take place, this slaughter?"
I squinted up at the sun. "Today, although I don't know how long ago. Shortly before or after noon, I think. We were blown out from land and there was nothing I could do but wait until we were blown in again. I lay down with the child and fell asleep."
The man facing me shook his head in wondering disbelief and his lieutenants burst into guffaws of raucous laughter at my innocence of the ways of the sea.
"You may be fortunate we saw you before you fell beneath the horizon," the leader said. "Where did this happen, do you know?" He read the answer in my eyes and spoke to one of his own men. "Sean, how far would he have drifted with this tide, and from where, in, what, four hours?"
The man addressed leaned over the side of the rail and then looked up at the mast top, to where a banner fluttered. Then he leaned outboard, hawked and spat, watching his spittle fly off with the wind. His voice, when he spoke, was peculiarly high, almost a falsetto, a grotesque sound to issue from so big a man.
"Six leagues? Eight? Perhaps ten. The tide is to the east, so the place lies west, and northward."
"How long to get there? Do we have the time?"
Again the squint up to the masthead. "We have a wind, not much, but it should do. With all men on the oars, we could be off the coast close to the place by nightfall, if we go now."
"So be it." The chieftain looked back at me. "You have until nightfall, if we reach the coast, otherwise till morning. The truth or falsehood of your words will be plain when we find the spot." He paused, his head cocked to one side, looking at me obliquely.
"The resolution lies with you, so I hope you will recognise the place we seek. Failure to do so will prove you have lied, and you will die." He spoke to one of the others. "Cut him loose and find him somewhere to lie down until we sight the coast, and give him some water and a bite to eat." Then to me again, "Rest yourself well, Yellow Head. You will have need of all your faculties."
They cut my bonds and led me to the corresponding platform at the decked-in front part of the boat, where they gave me to eat and drink and threw me a skin to sleep on. I drank the water thirstily but fell into sleep before I could eat the bread.
* * *
My body stiffened while I slept, so that by the time someone shook me awake my aches had settled deeply into my bones and I had a hard time rising to my feet, beset with cramps and pains and a head that threatened to burst apart with the clamour of my surging blood. That possibility concerned me, for I had twice in recent years been saved from death by the ministrations of a trusted friend whose skills in medicine had prompted him to drill a hole in my head to relieve the pressure of blood on my brain, what he called hematoma. Once upright, I leaned for a spell against the fore part of the ship, close by the great, thrusting dragon's head, allowing the gusting wind to clear my head and ignoring the jostling of the fellow sent to fetch me. I braced myself against the surging deck, stretched myself to my full height, closed my eyes and drew deep, steady breaths, holding each one for a count of three before expelling it completely and filling my lungs again.
The exercise worked, and calmed me to the point that I could tell the present pounding in my skull bore no resemblance to those other, far more ominous headaches I had known. The root of this one lay in the hard, flat metal of the weapon that had hammered me to the deck, bruising my neck and shoulder, both of which ached in concert with my head.
As my various pains died down and I approached mastery of myself once more, I realized that I had awoken to noises that were alien to my ear and offered nothing to appease my aching head: the steady, rhythmic pounding of a deep drum that was not, as I had thought at first, the surging of my own blood in my head; the creaking, grunting, strangely shuffling rhythm of the oarsmen; the groaning of straining ropes and the thin, shrieking whistle of the wind; and among all these, the constant, wailing shriek of a hungry child.
I rubbed the sleep crust from my eyes and followed my escort back along the length of the galley to the stern platform, and the first thing I noticed as I set out was the angle of the great cross-spar on the mast. A strong wind had sprung up, and the spar now slanted right to left from fore to stern to catch its full power. The bellied fabric of a mighty sail swelled out above me, blocking out the sky, angled away from me so that I looked into the cup of it, its heaviness anchored to a second great spar high above that must have overlain the lower one when the sail was lowered. Now I could see that both spars were tethered to the mast by large iron rings bolted firmly to the spars themselves, and held in tension by a bewildering array of tight-stretched ropes that permitted the angle of the spars to be changed to catch the wind. I glanced to my left then and saw the shoreline of Lot's kingdom, and below me the swaying bodies of the oarsmen moved to the steady tempo of the drum, thrusting the vessel forward so that it seemed to skim over the surface. They rowed two men to an oar, one facing the rear, the other forward so that one pushed while his fellow pulled, and even as I watched, the drum fell silent and the oarsmen changed places, ducking beneath their oars to resume their beat again before the vessel had time to lose way.
No one looked at me as I slowly walked the length of the ship, bracing myself against the heaving of the deck. My presence was of no importance for the time being. The baby's cries grew louder as I approached the stern platform and, although no one indicated anything by look or word, I felt sure that the patience of these men must be close to breaking point. I was surprised, however, to see that the leader, still seated in his swinging chair with leg outstretched, continued to hold the child. The only man with him, the one he had called Tearlach, saw me coming and threw me a withering, disgusted look before swinging himself down to the rowers' level, where he disappeared through the door beneath the deck. The leader watched me as I approached to stand beside him, then indicated the screaming infant with a nod of his head.
"Take note of what I said earlier. You would have done the babe a kindness to let him die. Now he is starving."
I swallowed, clearing a film of mucus from my mouth, not knowing how to respond. "I'm surprised you let him live till now then," I said, my voice no more than a croak.
The man in the chair looked at me sharply, offended, and his response was flat and hard. "We are not all as hard as Lachie," he snapped. "I have children of my own. Your folly was to bring the child aboard at all. Allow me the folly of being unable to kill him out of hand." I saw no benefit in seeking to point out that I had sought, not brought, the child aboard. He kicked off with his foot and the chair swung, while he lowered his head and gazed at the child. Finally he looked up at me and brought the chair to stillness with the guide-rope reins he held in his left hand.
"There's the coastline," he said, indicating the shore. "Do you recognize it?"
I looked, but we were still far out, our beak pointed towards a headland that jutted out from the shore to intersect our path. I shook my head.
"No. We may be too far out, but it looks too flat."
"Aye, that's right, you spoke of cliffs, high cliffs. Well, we'll close presently, and once around the headland there, you'll see cliffs aplenty. There are some bays along the shoreline there. One of them should be yours." His tone of voice added, if what you say is true. He lifted the child up, resting it over his shoulder against his breast, and then asked, "Are there cattle there?"
I blinked at him. "Cattle? Where?"
His frown was quick. "Ashore! Cattle, man, cows, or goats or even sheep. This child needs milk."
Again I shook my head, bewildered. "I don't know." And then I remembered. "But there's a woman there, with milk! I found her--saw her there--this morning. She was mad... insane with grief, kneeling beside the bodies of her man and children. One was a tiny babe, as small as he. She must have milk."
"Are you sure? And could you find her again?"
I nodded. "Aye, I could. I would have to ride back the way I came, retrace my steps. But she will still be there, I think. The poor creature had nowhere else to go."
"And you would bring her back?" I heard the cynical sharpness in his tone.
Now it was I who was offended. We were alone, the two of us, on the platform. "Think you I'd leave the child with you, after what I've gone through for him?"
In response he moved the child again, holding it up in front of him to peer into its angry red face. I swung away in disgust, looking upward as I did to where the great sail bellied above me, and as I did so, the wind died for a space of moments, then gusted again, so that the fabric emptied and went slack, then filled again with a mighty, cracking sound, stretched and taut, thrusting its emblem into my astonished gaze.
The sight of it sent my mind leaping instantly, back through time, to Camulod and a conversation I had had with a young Erse chief, Donuil, whom I had held hostage. He had warned me, that day, that none of the Hibernian tribes--he called them Eirish tribes--save his would be bound by our bargain. The clans of Eire warred constantly among themselves, he said, and each had its own emblem. His father's emblem, the black galley of his clan, would, Donuil had sworn, stay clear of our seas for the five years of his captivity.
Above me, blazoned on the saffron-coloured sail of this great ship, a huge, black galley swelled against the sky.
The realization of where I was, and the myriad complications thus involved, left my mind reeling for a spell. I was conscious that I stood on a threshold of some kind and that the next few moments might decide my future, for I knew that here, immediately, could lie life or death for me and for my helpless, hungry ward. I turned to the side and gripped the handrail, taking care that the man behind me should not see my face while I tried vainly to recall the rest of that conversation, when Donuil had spoken to me of his brothers and their feuds and jealousies. One of them he had loved, the crippled one. And then I had it.
I turned back to the man in the chair, and he raised his eyes to meet mine, his face expressionless.
"It was a bear that took your leg, Connor, was it not?"
He stiffened, and the colour leached from his face. I felt better at once, but I held my breath, nonetheless, and allowed the silence to stretch until he should break it.
"How could you know that? How do you know my name?"
I allowed myself to breathe again.
"You are Connor, son of Athol, High King of the Scots of Eire."
He was rigid, eyes wide, and then he darted a glance sideways, as though looking for assistance. I held up my hand.
"Peace, I am no magician. The knowledge came to me but now, when I looked up and saw the galley on your sail and remembered it. The Black Galley of Athol. Your brother Donuil told me of you."
"Donuil? You know Donuil?" His voice was tight with tension.
I nodded. "He is the friend I spoke of. I am Merlyn Britannicus. Of Camulod. I am the one who took young Donuil captive and held him hostage."
"You!" The tight-wound tension left him visibly and the colour began to come back into his face. He heaved an enormous sigh, and slouched back in his chair. "Donuil, by the stones of Cuchoulain. You had me going there, for a moment, man. I thought you were a..." He allowed the thought to die and I did not pursue it.
I sought to press my advantage. "It should please you to know Donuil is well, or was, when last I saw him less than a month ago. He rode northeast on a mission for me, to the lands of King Vortigern, to find my brother." I smiled. "And now I have found his."
Still he said nothing, staring at me in perplexity, and I realized that well he might. Friendship was a term that normally had little significance between captor and hostage. I spoke into his silence.
"I released Donuil from his bond to me more than three years ago. He won his freedom in my service and is now my good friend, as close as any brother." Brother-in-law, my mind added.
One of Connor's captains, Sean the navigator, came striding towards us and Connor stopped him with an upraised palm. "Leave us, Sean," he said. "We're talking."
Sean threw me a speculative look. "Aye," he said, his high-pitched voice offering no opinion on the matter, "I see that, but we're about to round the headland there; it might be rough, and you with that babby in your arms. Will you want me to take it?"
Connor looked at him and smiled, the first time I had seen him do so, and the act transformed his whole face, so that I saw a different man. "No, I'll be just grand, Sean, and so will the babby, now away you go and leave us to our talk." As he said the words, the galley pitched steeply, its nose tilting sharply upward and then falling in a swooping, spiralling lurch to crash jarringly into the first turmoil of the waters surging round the rocky point. Caught off balance and completely unprepared, I staggered sideways, groping frantically for the rail, my eyes sweeping upward, awestruck, to where the top of the huge mast whipped in a dizzying circle. Only now did I notice that two men had climbed the great mast and moved out to the end of the spar, where they now leaned suicidally outward, far above the surface of the sea, clinging to lines and anchored by ropes around their waists, peering down into the shallow waters as they watched for rocks and shoals.
By the time I had recovered my balance, having fallen painfully to one knee and clutched at a handy rope that helped me to regain my footing, the atmosphere aboard the galley had changed completely, urgent with raised voices shouting orders as the oarsmen battled to realign the ship, to point it straight into the waves and keep it thrusting forward amid the sudden turbulence that surrounded it and seemed, to my untrained eye, to be threatening to overwhelm it.
"What's happening?" I yelled above the pandemonium.
Connor's attention was on his crew, but he heard the sudden fear in my voice and glanced back to where I stood clutching the rail.
"Nothing to worry about," he shouted, cradling the baby calmly. "Conflicting currents, that's all. The tide from behind us is meeting the ebb from the other side of the headland, so it will be choppy until we round the point." Even as he spoke, the pitching, crosswise motion eased and the ship slid into smoother water. I waited, nonetheless, until the vessel had resumed its former, sweeping gait, before I released my death grip on the rope and the handrail beneath my hands.
Once in the shelter of the headland, however, the wind died with the leaping waves and the sail above me lost its belly, its fabric settling under its own weight to hang inertly from the upper spar. In response, the rhythm of the oarsmen's drum grew faster, and the boat leapt ahead, gliding parallel to the shore, which now lay less than a longbow-shot from where I stood. I stared ahead, looking along the length of the vessel to where high cliffs now appeared, rising one behind the other in serried banks. I raised my hand and pointed.
"That looks familiar, over there," I said, realizing that I no longer needed to shout.
"Let's hope you're right," Connor answered, quietly. Something in the tone of his voice made me look back at him. He was staring at the shoreline, a look on his face that I could not identify, and I remembered his earlier comment.
"What's wrong?" I asked him. "Am I still to die if I can't find the place?"
He shook his head, dismissing my question, his preoccupied gaze still fixed on the land. I asked the next question, unable to recall what Donuil had told me, unsure of how Connor might respond.
"Were you very fond--" I broke off and cleared my throat. "Were you close to your sister Ygraine?"
This time he showed no surprise. He merely closed his eyes for a moment and then turned to look at me. "Ygraine, too?" he said. "How do you know Ygraine?"
"I didn't," I replied quietly. "I only knew of her. Donuil had told me at the outset, when I first met him, that her betrothal to Lot was part of the price of your father's alliance with Cornwall. That was years ago." He was looking at me passively as I continued. "I had forgotten her thereafter, until I heard her name again several days ago, on a battlefield."
"On a battlefield? My sister was discussed in the middle of a battle?" I could not tell from his tone whether he was angry or merely disbelieving.
"No," I said, seeking to explain myself. "The battle was over when I arrived. I met a survivor, one of my own men, who told me Lot's wife had escaped the carnage. That's when I remembered who Lot's wife was."
He shook his head in what might have been commiseration or, again, rueful disbelief.
"It's a Druid you should have been, Yellow Head. You seem to have the great talent for arriving on battlefields after the fighting's all done, wouldn't you say so?"
"Aye," I grunted. "It must seem that way. But--" I broke off abruptly as old Tearlach approached, followed by the navigator and two others. Their expressions were grim, and I hurried to get my next words out before they arrived within hearing distance. "Connor, we must talk more. I have much to say to you."
"Hmm'ph'mm!" That was a sound I had heard Donuil make a thousand times, and it had a thousand possible translations. He swung to face the newcomers. "Tearlach, Padraic, our yellow-headed captive here knows much about us."
The older man scowled, his glance sweeping me up and down dismissively. "Aye, do ye tell me?" he growled. "And what could he know about us that would bother us any more than a midge bite through thick cloth?"
My retort was quick, stung by his disdain. "I know you are honour-bound by the word of your High King to stay far from your stinking ally Lot of Cornwall and far from our shores until the release of your prince, Donuil!"
His eyes widened in shock and his head snapped around to look at Connor, who smiled and spoke to all of them. "He speaks the tongue well, does he not? 'Twas Donuil himself, he tells me, who taught him the knack of it, teaching him the Erse out of the crude Gaelic his own people speak. They became friends, rather than captor and captive, it seems, and Donuil earned his freedom."
"And you believe him? Where is Donuil now, then? He never came home." His surprise mastered, Tearlach's scowl returned. The others ignored him, their eyes on Connor, who took his time before answering, swinging his seat back slowly until he faced me.
"Aye," he drawled, finally. "That is true, and it has been five years and more since he was taken. And yet, I think I believe him. Donuil is still here in Britain."
"Dead meat, too, if I'm any judge!"
Tearlach's words went unanswered. Connor sniffed, glancing down at the sleeping babe.
"Here, Sean," he said. "Take the wee boy and place him somewhere where he'll come to no harm."
The navigator moved to take the child and carried it away, disappearing in the direction of the area beneath the deck. Mine were the only eyes that followed him, but a movement from the seated chieftain brought my attention back to him. Slowly, his eyes never leaving me, he reached up and undid the clasp that held his cloak in place, then he reached up above him with both hands and grasped two of the ropes from which his chair was hung. Smoothly, effortlessly, the muscles of his arms bunched and he pulled himself erect, the cloak falling from him unheeded as he moved. When his weight was fully on his left leg, he swung the other and it fell to the deck with a solid thump, revealing a carved, wooden peg that stretched to his knee and was attached there by a large leather socket. The limb was a tapered cylinder, perfectly turned out of some dark, dense wood and polished to a high lustre. Above it he wore a rich, woollen tunic in the Roman style, pale green with a Grecian border in the same deep red as the symbols on his cloak, and the thigh beneath the hem, before it disappeared into the leather socket, was solid and roped with muscle. A breastplate of toughened, polished hide, moulded to his torso in the Roman style was all the armour that he wore, and from his shoulders hung a crossed pair of belts, one supporting a sword and the other a dagger. I had great difficulty in not staring at the wooden leg, but I judged it wise to ignore it.
Connor stood there, still holding the ropes by which he had pulled himself up, and no one moved or spoke as he dragged his wooden leg back to where it would support his weight. The end of it was capped with several layers of leather, cut and fitted to the shape of the appendage's base. He lodged it firmly and then took time to feel the rhythm of the ship, swaying his body slightly to the motion of it. Finally, when he judged his balance sufficiently secure, he released the ropes and stood unsupported, looking at me.
"I still fall sometimes, but not often and I'm used to it now." He turned and walked to the rail around the deck, crossing the space in four steps, swinging the wooden limb out and around each time he moved it, so that his motion was more of a swagger than a walk. When he reached the rail, he turned back to face me, leaning his buttocks against it and bracing himself with his hands. "Well, Yellow Head, I don't know what to make of you, or what to do with you." He glanced at one of the others. "Padraic, what say you?"
The man addressed hawked loudly and spat over the side without looking at me. "I say Tearlach has the right of it. Donuil did not come home. This one should not go home, either."
The navigator reappeared and joined us, glancing from one to the other of his companions, trying to gauge their temper.
"We are talking still of Donuil and his fate," Connor informed him. "Tearlach and Padraic think this man should die. Do you?"
The navigator shrugged. "The babby's going to die. Donuil has been dead to us all for years. Everybody dies."
"The baby will not die," I interrupted him, addressing myself to Connor. "I told you, I know of a wom--"
"Be silent! You will hold your peace until required to speak." The reprimand was whiplash quick, savage and implacable. I subsided. Connor looked back at the navigator. "Sean?"
The navigator shook his head gently and with finality. "Throw him over the side."
"He can swim, Sean."
Sean sniffed. "Lachie could swim, too, but not after this one clove him with the axe. Could he do any better than Lachie?"
Diarmid was the only one of the four who had so far remained silent, a large, red-faced man with a wild beard and a head of hair to match, judging by the thick, coarse ringlets that hung from beneath his big, horned helmet. Now, addressed directly by his leader, he turned his gaze on me and I saw his eyes, pale blue and cold. "He's an Outlander. Kill 'im."
I followed all of this with disbelief, amazed at the change this Connor had undergone in the space of moments. When I had told him of my friendship with his brother, I had thought he believed me. He himself had said as much. What I was witnessing now, however, gave the lie to all of that. He stood, looking down towards his knees, the fingers of his right hand scratching idly in the hair that swept back behind his ears. He finally withdrew his hand, inspecting the tips of his fingers as he rubbed them pensively with his thumb, then made a tutting sound and heaved a quick, sharp sigh.
"Well, Yellow Head," he said. "You hear the verdict of my trusted friends. They want you dead." He sucked air reflectively between his teeth. "But the decision is mine. And what do I have to guide me in the making of it? You!" He shot out an arm and pointed a long finger in my face. "You tell me that my brother is alive, and well, and living in Britain as your friend. As proof of that, you offer me words that he could have told you at any time, under any kind of duress, and I have said I do believe that he is here in Britain." The arm fell back to his side.
"But Tearlach could have the right of it. Donuil might be dead in Britain. How am I to know?
"And what of the child, the starving babby there? Whose child is he? Not yours, for you said you did not know beyond a doubt your cousin killed your wife. Your wife is dead, but had the child been yours and taken by your cousin, then you would know, beyond a doubt, his guilt. And then the 'cousin' that you found was not your cousin, but someone who had killed him and stripped his armour for his own purpose. Did he take the babby, too, for his own use? Or are we to believe you bore the infant with you, into war, new-born just weeks ago, in all your armour?
"So...the child's not yours. And yet you value it enough to risk your life to save it, not once, but twice? Whose child is this? And what could be his value to you, to me, to anyone? Here is a mystery, Yellow Head, and too profound for me. If the babby be not yours, and not your cousin's, then whose can it be, for it must belong to someone? And then I mind me that there were women among the slain whom you arrived too late to help. But who were the women? You say Ygraine, my sister, was one of them. I doubt that, Yellow Head, since you yourself have said you did not know my sister, other than by name. You may be lying, although to what end I could not guess, other than to extend your life, which might be good and ample reason."
"Deck, there!" The hail from above brought every eye sweeping up to the two lookouts on the spar above. "There's a body in the water!"
As everyone thronged to the side, I looked towards the shore and recognized the dunes and the rising hills I had descended earlier that day. Connor stood beside me, staring down, searching the water. I nudged him and pointed towards the land. We were close inshore now.
"This is the place. Look, you can see bodies up there on the sand."
He glanced to where I pointed and swung to the navigator. "Take her ashore, as soon as we have secured that body!"
Copyright 1998 by Jack Whyte
Excerpted from The Saxon Shore by Whyte, Jack Copyright © 2003 by Whyte, Jack. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jack Whyte is a Scots-born, award-winning Canadian author whose poem, The Faceless One, was featured at the 1991 New York Film Festival. The Camulod Chronicles is his greatest work, a stunning retelling of one of our greatest legends: the making of King Arthur's Britain. He lives in British Columbia, Canada.
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I am hooked on this series. This 4th book in the Camulod series does not disappoint. Historical fiction with a touch of the mystic. Read the books in order. They are all outstanding.
The saxon shore is the best book i have ever read. The way Whyte throws fantacy into the historic fiction is truely amazing. Each character has an absolute personality individual to themselves. The setting is wonderfuly constructed and the event through out the book are exelently timed. I recomend this book to everyone who enjoys reading. I gave it a 5 star!
I loved the series. The best ever written about the coming of Arthur and Myrlin!