Excerpt from Chapter 1
Above the great height of Caer Cadan, the sky swept blue and almost cloudless. The bright, sparkling blue of an exuberant spring that was rushing headlong into the promised warmth of summer. The flowers along the already dry and dusty lane that ran around the base of the stronghold were massed in a profusion of splendid colour. Gwenhwyfar was gathering healing plants-bugle for bruising, poor robin, a renowned cure-all-and flowers for their colour and scent to brighten her chamber: campion; the meadow goldfinch, that some called broom; wild parsley; cuckoo pint...She darted forward to snatch her fifteen-month-old daughter's hand from clutching a butterfly. The child's wail of protest heaved like a cast war-spear up to the soaring sky, hurtling past the defensive earthworks of high banks and deep ditches.
The guard on watch, slowly pacing the wooden rampart walkway, heard and looked down, concerned. Grinned to himself as he watched Gwenhwyfar hug the child and soothe her. It was a glorious day, and all seemed well with Arthur Pendragon's Kingdom of Britain.
Archfedd, a fat-as-butter child, was much like her mother: copper-bright, unruly hair; green eyes flecked with tawny sparks of gold; set, determined expression. She reached again for the butterfly, the sobs coming louder as it fluttered out of harm's way.
Gwenhwyfar chided her. "Hush child! They are not for catching; you will tear the wings." And she had the temper and mule-stubborn pride of her father,
Arthur, the Supreme King. Gwenhwyfar neatly deflected the rising anger by giving the child a handful of flowers to hold. The girl's squawks subsided into a few half-hearted, tearful breaths as she absorbed herself with the new occupation of systematically shredding the petals. Gwenhwyfar left her to it. Better petals than wings.
Horses! The thud of hooves, jingle of harness.
The lane twisted away from Gwenhwyfar's line of sight, slipping between earth banks topped with wattle fencing made from entwined hawthorn and hazel. In the pasture beyond, mares grazing content on the new spring grass lifted their heads and began to prance, snorting, into a bouncing, high-stepping, exaggerated trot. Their foals, those that had them, ran at heel, long-legged and gangling, with bushed, fluffy tails twirling in a frenzy from this sudden excitement. A stallion answered the mares' showing-off with a trumpeting call, and the sound of horses approaching came closer, nearer. They would be around the bend, in view, soon.
Gwenhwyfar lifted her daughter, settled her comfortably on her hip, legs around her waist, and stood looking along the hoof-rutted, narrow lane; waiting, expectant, and hopeful, her heart thumping. The banner she saw first, bobbing above the fenced, man-built banks; the bright white of the linen and the proud, bold, red dragon with its gold-embroidered eye and claws. Arthur! Her husband was home!
Running a few steps with initial pleasure, Gwenhwyfar halted, suddenly undecided, a great clasp of insecurity and fear gripping her. She stood, again waiting, apprehensive, chewing her lower lip. What had he decided after this week of discussion with his uncle? Had Ambrosius Aurelianus persuaded him?
Ah, but then, the Pendragon would not need much convincing. Wherever there was the prospect of a fight Arthur would find some excuse to be there.
The lead horses came into view, the king's escort, the riders wearing the uniform of the Artoriani, white padded tunics, red cloaks. Then the Pendragon's banner and the turma's own emblem-and Arthur himself, riding easy in the saddle, his face lighting with pleasure as he saw Gwenhwyfar and his daughter waiting for him. The happiness faded as he drew rein, looked directly into his wife's eyes. He waved the men on, watched impassive as they jog-trotted past and began to make way up the cobbled track that sprinted steeply to the gateway into the king's stronghold.
Shifting Archfedd to her other hip, Gwenhwyfar returned Arthur's stare. He ran his hand down his stallion's chestnut neck, almost an uneasy gesture.
"You are going then?" she said, more as a statement than question. He nodded, a single, brief movement. "I have to, Cymraes."
As he knew she would, Gwenhwyfar flared a retort. "Who says you have to? Your men? Me? No, Arthur, you do not have to answer this asking for help. Gaul must look to its own defence-as we have had to all these years."
The Pendragon dismounted, throwing his leg over the two fore-pommel horns of the saddle, and slid to the ground. With the coming of summer, he would be thirty and three years of age-but he wore the ragged eye-lines of a man ten years older. It had been a long and often bitter struggle to place the royal torque around his neck and keep it there. Arthur had been king for eleven years. And he intended to stay king for, at the very least, twice as many more.
"I am not answering Gaul. I need to give aid to Less Britain, for Armorica is also of my Kingdom. I personally own an estate three times the size of Aquae Sulis there-do I turn my back on British people because their land happens to lie across the sea?" He stepped forward but made no attempt to touch his wife, knowing she would shrug aside his hand. "The Roman Emperor himself is pleading for my help-personally asking for my Artoriani to join with his loyal allies against the barbarians who seem intent on destroying what remains of Roman Gaul."
Archfedd was too young to understand the distress in her mother's eyes, the determination in her father's. She was wriggling against Gwenhwyfar's hold, her chubby arms stretching for her father to take her. Arthur reached for her, tossing her high as he took her up, catching her in his strong hands, her dimpled smile rippling into giggles of delight. All the while he held Gwenhwyfar's eyes.
"If Gaul falls to the plundering of Euric's Goths, Less Britain may be next. I cannot allow that threat to happen."
"And Britain?" She retorted. "Who will see us kept safe while you are gone?"
Her father's attention no longer on her, Archfedd was demanding to be put down. Arthur set her beside a clump of bright-coloured flowers, showed her how to pick the stems, gather a posy. He straightened, turned, and took up the reins of his stallion, hauling the chestnut away from cropping the rich grass. It was difficult for him to spit the answer out, for he knew Gwenhwyfar's response. His own heart held the same uneasy misgivings. He mounted, said the one name.