Read an Excerpt
There is no more important day in a man's life than the day he formally takes up a sword for the first time. At that fateful and long-anticipated moment when a youth extends his hand for the first time, witnessed formally by both his elders and his peers, to grip the hilt of the sword that will be his own, his life and his world are changed forever. In the eyes of men, he has become a man, and his boyhood is irrevocably and publicly discarded for all time, much like the shed skin of a serpent. Far more important and traumatic than his first knowledge of a woman, the commitment of taking up the sword is the last and greatest rite of the passage across the gulf between boyhood and manhood.
Arthur Pendragon's transition, and the ritual entailed in it, was a source, for me at least, of joy, wonder, great satisfaction and an immense, deep-glowing pride. It has been extremely difficult to condense into mere words. A score of times I have set out to write of it and ended up with inkstained fingers, a blotted, much-scratched sheet of papyrus and a quill destroyed because its feathered end is chewed, matted and soggy with my own sucking. Only recently, after many attempts, have I been able to assemble a coherent account of the occasion, and of the events leading up to it, from countless scraps and annotations. Even so, I fear it resembles less a chronology than an anthology of incidents and impressions. Each of those incidents, however, had a directbearing upon the way in which Arthur came to that threshold of manhood.
Did ever a more alienating gulf exist than that which stretches between boy and man? Few things can be more difficult or vexing than the task a grown man will face in the attempt to recall how it felt, or what it meant, to be a boy. The very coin of life in which the two must deal is different. Boys in their prime, between the ages of eight years and twelve, are yet unburdened by sexuality; they are consumed by other, no less insistent forms of curiosity, and are intent upon learning and discovering everything there is to know about being male and potent, powerful and victorious. Men, on the other hand, may still be curious in their prime, but all their curiosity is tainted by their sexuality: for the ruck of men, all that they do is dominated by the urge for gratification of their sexual needs.
Because of my unique relationship with Arthur Pendragon throughout his life, I was able to observe him closely as he made the transition from one state to the other, but analyse it as I will, I can recall no catalytic moment that marked the transition from boyhood to manhood in the youth whom I had come to regard as my own son. The outward, public moment is a matter of history, but I cannot tell, to this day, when the boy became the man within himself. I know only that I was, and I remain, grateful that all I had loved most in the boy remained present and vibrant in the man. His adult sexuality, all-consuming though it frequently appeared to be, never quite broke free of the restraints imposed by his gentle nature and his fierce, boyhood sense of justice and the fitness of things.
In the years that elapsed between the destruction of the enemy Erse fleet at Ravenglass in the great storm and the day when Arthur Pendragon took up his sword, many of the goals I set out for myself were accomplished, and many of my schemes were set in motion; conversely, many planned events did not transpire. Inever got the chance to leave Mediobogdum and travel with Arthur as I intended to. Fear for his safety, and a threat to the safety of our Colony on two fronts, in Cambria and in Vortigern's lands to the north-east, eventually dictated our return to Camulod that spring. And so our final winter in Mediobogdum came and passed with a swiftness I would not have believed possible.
Connor arrived in February, a full month and more sooner than any of us could have thought to look for him. Though an unseasonably early snow had spoiled much of our harvest and threatened a harsh winter, the ensuing season, in fact, had been so mild as to have been no winter at all. In Mediobogdum, the dark, intervening months between the snowfall and the first promise of spring brought almost incessant rain and heavy cloud cover that seldom broke. Only the high peaks of the Fells above our heads showed their normal whiteness. The fierce winter storms that normally ravaged the coastal waters did not occur that year. All of Britain, it seemed, enjoyed the unprecedented warmth and calm.
Connor, never one to linger safe at home when there were things he might be doing, had taken full advantage of the mild weather, keeping much of his fleet afloat year-round for the first time in the memory of his people. Normally, his vessels would have been beached all winter long, for the annual cleaning of their hulls, but, defying all the gods of sea and storm, Connor had kept them in the water, plying up and down the hundreds of miles of coastline of his father's new northern holdings and dispatching galleys individually, in rotation, to have their hulls cleaned and stripped whenever he or his captains came upon a suitable expanse of beach.
He arrived in Ravenglass without warning, and then appeared at our gates the following day, accompanied by a smiling Derek and riding in his flamboyant personalchariot at the head of a cavalcade. And of course, as it always did, his advent brought joyful chaos for the length of time it took everyone to grow used to his mercurial presence and the excitement caused by the appearance and behaviour of his colourful companions.
He came, as usual, burdened with giftsfor me, a clasp knife, made of bronze and iron, its handle clad in plates of polished ram's horn mounted in silver. He tossed it to me as soon as I arrived to welcome him, almost running in my haste to greet him before anyone else could. He had not yet climbed down from his chariot and he paused half-way, with his false leg suspended before him, before lobbing his gift to me. For an instant, before he began to move, I saw an unknown, yet strangely familiar face beyond his shoulder. I had only a momentary glimpse of it, however, before I had to concentrate on catching the magnificent knife, and for the next few moments I was caught up in admiring it, depressing the bronze dorsal spine with my thumb to release the iron blade from its clasp, then flicking my wrist, allowing the blade to spring open. Connor came striding over immediately in his swinging, wooden-legged gait and paused in front of me while I examined it, then stepped forward with a great grin to throw his arms about me when I looked up to thank him. As I embraced him, I looked again for the face I had seen behind him, and saw the stranger being embraced by Donuil. The family resemblance was unmistakable.
"Welcome, old friend," I said into Connor's ear, hugging him hard. "I see you've brought another brother with you this time. Which one is this?"
"That's Brander." He released me and turned to where Donuil and Brander were talking together, looking each other over in the way people do when they meet after having been apart for many years. "Brander! Come you here and meet the man you should have met long years ere now."
Brander and Donuil approached us, their heads closetogether as Donuil finished saying something to his eldest brother. Brander laughed, and then looked directly into my eyes as he stretched out his hands to me.
"Merlyn Britannicus, finally. I feel as though we have been friends for years."
I clasped hands with him, liking the man immediately. "Brander Mac Athol, Admiral of the Northern Seas. You are welcome here in Mediobogdum, as you will be in Camulod should you ever come that way. Your brothers, and indeed your father, when I met him, have had nothing but good to say of you, and your deeds on behalf of your people ensure you of a place of honour in our homes."
Brander inclined his head and smiled. "They were right, my brethren. They told me you had a golden tongue and more charm than you need to hide the iron in you. I thank you for your courtesy." He paused, his head tilted slightly to one side. "You look ... perplexed. Is something wrong?"
"No, not at all! Forgive me, it is more curiosity than concern you saw." I glanced from him to Connor, and then back to Brander, shrugging my shoulders. "I simply never thought to see both of King Athol's admirals together in one place without their fleets. Who have you left in charge, up in the north?"
Both men laughed together, but for a fleeting moment I thought I detected a hint, the most fleeting suggestion, of something unspoken, some minor tension, passing between them.
"Oh, the fleet is in good hands," Brander answered me. "I've always thought the best thing that the Romans left for men like me and my brother, here, was a single word: delegation. Authority passed downward from the commander, is that not what it means?"
"Aye, it is, from the Legate." I had to fight to suppress the smile tugging at my lips. "I'll admit to you, though, Admiral, I have not heard the word itself inmany years, and never thought to hear it used by an Erseman."
"I'm not an Erseman, Merlyn Britannicus, I'm a Gael." He pronounced it "Gaul" as in the name of the country across the Southern Sea, but there was no rebuke in his words. "All of us came from Gaul once, long ago. Didn't you know that? Julius Caesar did! So we have taken once again to calling ourselves by the ancient name, in order to distinguish ourselves and our blood lines from the likes of the Sons of Condran and the Children of Gar, who are barely human, and who remain, you will note, in Eire while we seek sustenance in a new land. So we will be Gaels, henceforth."
"Why not Scots?"
He gazed at me with narrowed eyes, apparently considering my words, then nodded. "It's a Roman name, but it sits well on the tongue." I waited, but it was plain he had finished.
"So," I looked again from the one seaman to the other. "What is it that brings you here?"
"Lust," said Connor, laughing explosively, so that heads turned our way. "Brander has finally fallen to the common fate of men. He has married."
"It's true," Brander admitted. "I have never had a wife till now. Never had time to see to it. But now the wars have slacked a bit. The Sons of Condran and the others from Eire have not dared to show their faces in our north these past three years, and will not do so again, I judge. So I have had time to spend ashore, and there I met" He broke off, turning to look about him, and his brother cut in.
"The fair Salina! Merlyn, I watched the dissolution of this man, this dauntless warrior, from the moment he first set eyes on the woman who is now his wife."
"Salina? That is a Roman name. Is she?"
"No, she's a Pict, from the mainland of your Caledonia," Connor answered.
"In truth, she's not." Brander had been gazingaround, clearly looking for his new wife, but he now turned back to me. "She is of the Painted People, as they call them, but not from the mainland. She comes from the farthest islands to the north, beyond the mainland, a place called Orcenay. Ah, there she is, among the other women. I'll bring her over."
When he returned, he was accompanied by two women, the younger tall and radiantly beautiful even from afar, and the other older, richly dressed, walking slightly behind them, head downcast as she looked at something she held in her hands.
"She's glorious," Donuil breathed. "And so young."
Connor snorted. "Young? That's her niece, Morag. Think you your brother's an old goat? Salina walks behind her."
As they drew closer to us, the woman Salina raised her head and quickened her step to walk beside her husband, and I watched the way Brander took her hand and brought her forward, slightly ahead of him, to present her to us. Perhaps because of the youthfulness of her companion, some part of me was surprised that this new wife should be so mature, "old" being a word that no man with blood in his veins would ever have thought of applying to a woman such as her. She was a woman in her prime, beautiful, with high cheekbones and a full, sensuous mouth beneath deep-set eyes of blue so bright that even the whites surrounding them looked blue. She wore a hood of some kind, covering her hair, and she moved with great self-assurance and dignity. I watched her closely and with intense curiosity as she greeted her good-brother Donuil, taking his hands in both of hers and smiling radiantly into his eyes. It was clear she had heard much about Donuil, and equally clear, from the flush that suffused his cheeks, that Donuil was abashed by the unexpected warmth of her greeting, so that he sounded flustered making excuses for the absence of his wife, who had ridden off into the hills just after dawnto commune with her own gods on the anniversary of her birth.
Then the younger woman, Morag, moved forward and was presented to Donuil, and I lost awareness of her aunt. I felt Salina's eyes fasten on me, but I was too smitten by the beauty of her niece to look back at her. I was amazed at how Morag had changed in the two score paces she had taken since I saw her first. In that first glimpse, she had appeared a glorious young woman of eighteen years; now she was a beautiful child, tall and slim and delightfully formed with high, proud breasts. But breasts and face were startlingly at variance, for while the former denoted a woman grown, the latter shone with the utter innocence of youth. It was a truly lovely face, with wide, grey eyes and a laughing mouth set between silken, dimpled cheeks. I gauged her age now, on seeing her this close, as being less than Arthur's; newly thirteen, I thought.
And then it was my turn to meet Salina, but as I turned to greet her I saw Tress approaching, tucking her hair hurriedly into place and looking flustered. Her first thought on hearing we had guests had been that our guest quarters were all unprepared, and she had rushed off to rectify that. I smiled towards Salina, holding up one hand in a mute plea for her indulgence while I turned very slightly away, extending my other hand to take Tress's as she arrived.
"Lady," I said then, returning my full attention to my new guests and bowing slightly from the waist before looking fully into Salina's eyes for the first time. "You and yours are welcome here in Mediobogdum. Our home is yours, and everything we possess, crude though it is, is yours to command. Your arrival fills me with pleasure, the more intense for its gladdening suddenness. I have heard many wondrous things about your husband, but none of them mentioned his eye for beauty." I looked from her to Brander. "I wish you well in your new marriage and will pray for many years ofhappiness ahead for both of you." I urged Tress forward, holding her tense fingers tightly in my own. "May I present my own lady, my Tress? We are to be wed soon, too." I smiled now at Tress, who was wide-eyed with trepidation. "Tress, you've heard much about the celebrated Brander, Admiral of the Northern Seas and brother to Donuil and Connor. This is he, and his new wife, the Lady Salina."
As Tress exchanged greetings with the newcomers, I glanced across at young Morag, with the intention of including her in my welcome, but she was standing, wide-eyed and oblivious, staring at something behind me. Curious, I turned my head and saw Arthur, gazing back at her transfixed.
I might have said something to Arthur at that moment, had I the time, although I doubt if anything could have influenced the outcome of what had already happened there. I know I thought of introducing him to young Morag, but even as I raised my arm to sign to him, I saw the thunderstruck expression in his eyes and knew I might as well be miles away. At precisely the same instant, I saw swift movement from the corner of my eye as Connor surged forward to sweep Tressa off her feet in a great hug, and then the civilized pause we had enjoyed gave way to a swirl of movement and the noisy exchange of greetings among friends.
Connor had more gifts to present, including a supple and intricately worked, fleece-lined leather coat of ring-mail for Arthur and an array of weapons, equipment and clothing for the other boys. Tress was dumbfounded by the gift he gave to her, and it was plain to me he could not possibly have pleased her better. It was a carved, wooden chest of ancient, blackened oak, filled to the lid with hundreds of brightly coloured balls of yarn and threadyellows and reds and blues and greens and blacks and white and greysall dyed, Connor maintained, in the mountainous northern mainland close by the islands where he and his father's peoplenow lived. Unable to respond adequately with words, Tress merely smiled at him through tears and then caressed his cheek before removing her treasure, with the willing assistance of several hands, to a private place where she could pore over if in solitude.
As we ushered Connor, Brander and their immediate party through the throng to the quarters they would occupy for the duration of their stay, I learned that Brander's visit was, on the surface at least, simply a temporary and belated visit to his brother Donuil, predicated upon opportunity. Without a war to demand all of his time, Brander had found himself uniquely able to spend time with his new wife, and as a wedding gift to her, he had decided to accompany her southward to visit her sister, who was wife to the Pictish king of the peninsula called Gallowa in Caledonia, a mere two days' sailing time to the north of Ravenglass. Morag's mother had been unable to attend her sister's nuptials, so Morag had attended in her place, and the bridal couple was now escorting the bridesmaid home to Gallowa. Naturally, since chance would bring Brander thus close to Donuil, whom he had not seen in twenty years, he had decided to combine one pleasure with another and to meet, at last, not only Donuil and his wife, but also Merlyn Britannicus, whom he had missed by mere hours years earlier, at the outbreak of the Eirish war, arriving from the northern isles with his father's fleet just after we had left to sail eastward to return to Camulod. It struck me immediately that the political ramifications of a visit from the admiral of the upstart Island Scots to a Pictish mainland king, when both of them had wives who were sisters, were too obvious to be remarked upon then, during a casual stroll. I resolved to find out more about it later, when the timing would be more appropriate.
The quarters assigned to Brander and his people were the best we had at our disposal. As we reached the doors and entered, a group of cleaners rushed toremove themselves, flowing around us on either side to reach the doors, their hurried work completed. The beds, I could see, all had fresh, dry coverings, the concrete floors had all been swept and covered with fresh rushes, and fires had been lit in the braziers on the flagstone squares in each room. I thanked Ascoridorus, the one in charge and the last to leave. He smiled at me and nodded, glancing only briefly at my companions and dipping his head in silent greeting to Connor, the only one he recognized, before he left.
I closed the door behind him and looked again around the room we had entered. The shutters had been opened and bright oblongs of light painted the rush-strewn floor. "Good," I said. "Brander, this entire block of quarters is yours. Distribute your own people where you will, but you might wish to save this space here, on the end of the block, for yourself and your wife, since it is the largest. Connor's accustomed spot lies at the other end, and it is the same size. There are eight living units between the two, and each of those can accommodate as many as four people easily, and six if need be."
Brander had crossed to the brazier and was warming his hands at the new fire, smiling as he looked at his wife. Salina was obviously pleased with the spacious brightness of the room, and Donuil was lounging by the window, leaning against the open shutters.
Beside me, Connor shrugged his heavy travelling cloak free of his shoulders and folded it over his arm. "Well," he grunted, "I don't know about anyone else, but I'm looking forward to undoing this damned harness on my leg and lying back at ease in your hot pool, my friend. I've had a long winter of cold water, and the thought of your bathhouse has sustained me since we set sail almost a week ago."
I grinned and bowed again to Salina. "We'll leave you now to gather yourselves after your journey, and I will have hot water brought to you immediately." I saw hereyes brighten at the thought. "You will be comfortable here, I think. These quarters are reserved for the use of King Athol himself, should he ever come to visit." I glanced at Brander. "How is the King, by the way? I trust he is in good health?"
As I asked the question, everyone went still, and my heart jumped. I saw the way Brander looked immediately to Connor, whose eyes then shifted towards Donuil. He, in turn, stiffened, as alarmed as I had been by the sudden change in the mood. Connor and Brander both looked back at me.
"Of course," Connor said, "I knew that would be one of your first questions, but we had hoped to put it off for at least a little while longer." He turned to Donuil. "Our father is dead, Donuil. He died last summer, while I was at sea to the south, on my last call to your good-father Liam, in south Cambria. By the time I arrived back here, on my way home, he was already dead and in the ground. I found out when I arrived back at his hall."
Donuil's face had drained of all colour. He drew himself up to his full height, sucking in a great, deep breath, then moved away from the window to where he could lean one hip against a high table for support. My eyes were flicking swiftly among all three of them, looking forwhat? I could not have answered that question had my life depended on it. Nonetheless, I looked, and carefully. For long moments none among us moved, and I felt Tress's fingers digging deep into my arm. Finally Donuil spoke, his voice tight.
"What" He coughed, clearing his throat. "What happened? How did he die?"
Connor looked at Brander, inviting him to speak, and the eldest brother cleared his throat.
"He fell, Donuil, boarding my galley. It happened suddenly, as he was stepping from the gangplank to the decka fit of dizziness, a sudden nausea, none of us know what caused it, but he threw up his hands to hishead, reeled and suddenly staggered backwards. I was right there, and I lunged to help him, but his foot slipped from the gangplank and he fell back, against the wharf. He broke his back." The silence stretched until Brander spoke again. "We pulled him unconscious from the water, thinking him dead, and carried him home. But he revived."
"His back was broken?"
"Aye. He lay paralysed thereafter, completely unable to move from his shoulders down, although he could use his arms and hands for several days. On the fifth day, he died. We did all we could for him, but there was no way we could ease his pain."
"Did he ... was he able to speak at all?"
"Aye, he could speak. Much of the time he was out of his senses with the pain, but there were intervals when he would talk, mainly to me, sometimes to others. Salina was there throughout. I sat with him for hours at a time, and my wrists were blue from the grip of his hands as he fought the pains that racked him. By the time he died, I was thankful to the gods for releasing him, for I had begun to think of killing him myself, so great and ceaseless was his agony. I could not bear it, simply watching him."
Donuil turned away and stood staring out the window, his massive shoulders slumped and his hands dangling by his sides.
"He spoke much of you," Brander told him, "for among us all I believe you were his greatest pride. And he passed on to me much that he wanted you to know. You will not want to hear it now, but I'll be here when you are ready to listen."
Donuil turned back to face into the room. His face was lifeless, his eyes seeking out Salina. "What were you doing there, in my father's hall?"
"She was there to discuss an alliance," Brander answered, but Donuil cut him short.
"Let her tell me," he said in a dull tone.
Salina glanced from him to her husband. "I was there to discuss the terms of treaty with your father," she began.
"Treaty? A woman, discussing terms of treaty? Women have no business with such things."
"In Eire they may not, but in my land they do. Among our folk, in the far north-east, the women fight beside the men, and often against them. I am Chief among my people, and I am a warrior, as much the king in my home as your father was in his. You call us Picts, a Roman word drawn from our tradition of going into battle painted in the colours of our ancient gods. Your father sought secure holdings in Tod of Gallowa's northern lands, in return for which he was prepared to offer certain accommodations. Tod saw advantages in such an association, but he could not treat openly with Athol for various reasonsamong them the fact that his neighbours on all sides would have come together against him, had they suspected he was making alliance with an Outlander king. I could treat with Athol openly, however, as Tod's envoy, since his southern people think, like you, that women have no business with such things and hence they would never consider that a man like Tod would use a woman for such purposes. So I went. While I was there, King Athol had his fall."
"And had you made this treaty, when he fell?" Donuil sounded utterly uncaring.
"So there is no treaty."
"No, the treaty is in place."
Now Donuil frowned, clearly perplexed. "Made by whom?"
"The King of Scots."
Connor cut him off. "Donuil, Brander is king now."
I felt my heartbeat begin to pound in my ears as I turned now to gaze at Brander, seeing him suddenly in an altogether different light.
"King? King Brander?" Donuil seemed bemused, then he gazed at the floor in front of his feet. "Of course," he said quietly. "With Father dead, that's as it should be." He looked up again at Brander and then nodded, once, in acknowledgement, before turning and making for the door. No one sought to hinder him as he made his way outside, but Salina spoke up as soon as he had gone.
"My love, perhaps you should go with him. This has hit him hard."
Brander nodded and followed his younger brother, and when he had gone I heard Connor expel his breath in an explosive rush. When I looked at him he was shaking his head.
"I know how hard it hit me, when I found out," he said. "But Donuil loved the old man even more than we did. I've been dreading this." He paused. "My father Athol is sorely missed, but even so, things have proceeded swiftly. You and I have to talk, Merlyn. I know you'll have a hundred things to ask of me, and I have half a score of things to talk with you about, but" He stopped, and turned to face the women apologetically. "But it must be alone. I ask for your understanding in the face of what may seem surliness, Salina, and Tress, but what I have to say is truly for Merlyn's ears alone at this time. What he may choose to do with the information afterwards is his affair, but I must deliver it in confidence. Will you pardon us? Merlyn?" He turned to me again. "Take me to my quarters, if you will."
It was some time before Connor and I were truly alone. When we arrived at his quarters, four of his men were moving his gear from where it had been piled in the road outside, stowing the chests and boxes neatly against the wall that faced the door. While we waited for them to finish and leave us, Connor hung his cloak on a peg by the door, placed his helmet on the table bythe window and began undoing his armour. I helped him with the buckles that were most difficult to reach, then moved two chairs close to the brazier, which had now been alight for long enough to throw out solid heat. A jug of Shelagh's mead had been placed on the table where Connor's helmet lay, and I poured us each a small measure. The news of Athol's death had shaken me and I wanted to drink deep, but I restrained myself, aware that this was one time when I needed to be clearheaded, for I suspected much that I was about to hear would be surprising; I could only hope it would not be unpleasant, too.
Connor's men left as I moved to sit down, holding the two cups, and he held the door open for them, thanking them for their services. When they were gone, he closed the door and clumped across to where I sat, scratching his armpit and evidently deep in thought. He took the mead I offered him, then stretched his legs towards the brazier, and sat staring into the flames for a spell, sipping occasionally at the cup.
"Well," he grunted finally, turning his head to look at me, "I imagine your head's in a turmoil. Ask me anything you want."
"No, better for me to listen at this stage, I think. You're the one with all the information. I have matters of my own to discuss with you, but even those may be affected by what you tell me now. What is so urgent that we have to speak of it alone?" I waited, saying nothing, giving him room to think.
"Change ... Or changes ..." He was thinking aloud, rather than speaking to me, but his voice, and his focus, hardened rapidly, and he launched into a flood of words the like of which I had never heard from him before. "It has been, what, ten years since we first met? Probably more although it seems like less. In that time I've seen more changes than I could ever have thought possible. We've left Eire behind, abandoning our holdings there, and moved our entire people to the north, successfully.So successfully, in fact, that those who choose to stay there now are calling themselves Islesmen, and with pride ..." He lapsed into silence for a while, then grunted in disgust.
"I wish I could spend all my life at sea, Merlyn, because I'm not suited to deal with stubborn, stupid, discontented people and their changing wishes all the time, and since my father died it seems that's all I've done. Sometimes I wish I had been born a kern with nothing more to worry over than my next good meal or my next bloody fight or even my next belly bump with some wet, willing woman ..." He stopped, staring into the fire and picking idly at the hairs of his moustache. "But I was born my father's son, as we all are, and that means I must shoulder my father's burdens ...
"Think of what was involved in moving all our folk from Eire, Merlyn! It was a fearsome task, demanding years, a whole lifetime, of effort, and it was my father's life that went into the doing of it. Oh, we all took part, but his was the vision. He was the one who had to face his people and convince them that the land could no longer support them and their neighbours and that wars and famine were unavoidable unless they, his people, did something they had never done before. Then, on top of that, he had to make them believe they could live better lives elsewhere, beyond the home their fathers had created from the forests, beyond their family fields, beyond Eire itself, in a distant land that none of them had ever seen. I tell you, my friend, I could never have done that, had the task been mine. But Athol Mac lain did it, and then, having lit the flame of hope within their breasts, he brought them there in safety, despite a raging war against far greater numbers than he himself commanded.
"And what then? After it all was done and they were safely moved, many of the ingrates, hundreds strong, looked about them at the islands of their new home and decided he was wrong to have moved them! They couldnot stay there, they cried. They wanted to return, knowing well that the old place was lost to them and that no life there would be possible. Faugh!"
"They still wish to return, today?"
"No, they've already gone, long since ... late last year, five hundred of them, not counting children."
"But how? Were they simply landed there and left to die in their old home?"
He looked at me quickly, frowning. "No, what do you take us for? They landed on the northern coast. They'll build a new home there."
"But what about Condran and his people? That's their territory, is it not?"
"It was." His voice was absolutely flat, and the way he said the two words, and then paused, raised the small hairs on the nape of my neck. Fortunately, his pause was brief, because when he spoke again I discovered I had been holding my breath.
"The Sons of Condran have seen change, as well. Brander's last voyage brought an end to them as any kind of force. He sailed right into their harbour and caught them unprepared, in high summer. He took a great risk in doing it, hazarding everything upon surprising them, but it succeeded. He planned his campaign carefullydrew off their main fleet in pursuit of part of his, and as soon as they had cleared the horizon, he struck at their home base, which lay upriver from the sea, much like our own old base to the south. Condran himself was killed in the early fighting, along with three of his blood sons. That kicked the resistance out of the remaining defenders.
"Brander then destroyed their shipyards systematically, managing to capture half a score of unmanned galleys in the process. He made sure that all their master shipbuilders had been either killed or capturedhe knew all their names and paid willing turncoats in the town to betray their whereabouts, and he took pains to identify the corpse of each one who died in the fighting.He wanted to leave no possibility of new war galleys being built there in the time to come. Then he set fire to everything that could be burned, the entire town. When that had been achieved, he left some of our men to occupy the lookout posts in the approaches to the river mouth, to give no hint to the returning enemy galleys of anything being wrong, and he withdrew further down the coast to await the return of the enemy fleet. He attacked it in the river mouth and destroyed it by setting fire to all the galleys he had captured earlier and then driving them into the fleet. It was a crushing victory, final and complete. The Sons of Condran will not emerge from their holes again."
"What happened to the smaller part of Brander's fleet, the ships their main fleet chased?"
"Nothing. Brander had sent them out to sea, to pass by Condran's base unseen, on a southward course. Once there, they turned about and waited, concealed in a cove, for a foggy dawn. The remainder of Brander's fleet lay to the north. When the fog came down, the smaller group rowed northward as though they were returning from raiding to the south and were lost in the fog banks, so that they had blundered and been seen. They fled, and Condran's folk gave chase. Our galleys were double-crewed and kept ahead of them, close enough to be pursued, but always too far off, thanks to their extra oarsmen, to be brought to fight. They kept the main fleet occupied for several days, so that the fires on shore had time to burn and die. When Condran's fleet gave up and returned home, they burned, too."
"My God," I whispered. "It sounds final enough almost to be a Roman vengeance."
"Aye, well it was the vengeance of the Gael," he said.
"That was last year. Since then, we have re-seeded the north coast with some of our folk, as I told you. They have their own galleys and can guard themselves, and we are close by, should they need us."
"Changes indeed. Tell me about the mainland, this treaty of Brander's."
"A different kind of change." Connor sipped again at his mead. "The treaty was necessary, and I hope it's merely the first. It will be, I know. My brother Brander may have the makings of an even greater king than Athol Mac Iain was."
"How is it different?"
"Well, for one thing, we have become, over the last ten years, a race of fishermen. Now that is a change that alters every aspect of our lives. We've always fished, of course, because we lived beside the sea, but now we live among the seas, so now most of our food comes from the water. We eat fish, and shellfish, and seal meat, and sometimes whale meat. We eat birds that taste of fish. Most of our lands are rocky and inhospitable to crops. The bigger islands have good soil, but they're all forested, and until we clear them we can't farm them. We grow a little grain, and we have a green crop, kale, that grows well in shallow soil, even through a mild winter. It's not the most pleasant stuff to eat, but it's nourishing and wholesome enough.
"We have hundreds of islands on which we can live, although many more are too small for human habitation. Our people have spread out among them in the past few years, though, and will survive. But we need land that we can farm, and that means we need a foothold, at least, on the mainland, and not simply on the rocky shoreline. Soon after we arrived and had begun to spread our folk about, that need became too urgent for my father and his counsellors to ignore. Our fishing boats were few, back then, too few. So we sent out ... scouts? What's the word you'd use? Peaceful messengers, looking for opportunities to deal with other kings ..."
He looked at me, quizzically. "If you say so. Emissaries. Sounds impressive. Well then, we sent out emissariesto the kings up and down the mainland coast. They went unarmed, and bearing gifts, and some returned alive. One of the first such groups made contact with a king in the region called Gallowa, to the north of here, a man called Tod, who showed an interest in an alliance. He was willing to exchange land in his northern holdings in return for the protection of our galleys along his southern shores. Turns out that the Sons of Condran had been harrying him for years. He has large armies, but they're almost useless against a fleet, unless they happen to know in advance where the fleet will strike."
I nodded. "I know. The Romans had the same difficulty." I had a sudden thought. "Do you know a king called Crandal?"
"No. Should I?"
"Hmm. He's a Pict. I thought you might have heard of him, at least. I hear he has raised an army and is marching southward into Britain, over in the north-east."
Connor shook his head. "We have made no great attempt to penetrate that far inland. The whole mainland is a morass of different tribes, all at war with each other and all divided by mountain chains. Any attempt to travel is madness, even for the Picts themselves. It means fighting new enemies every step of the way. Worse than it was in Eire. We've heard of one great valley that divides the whole land from sea to sea, with mountains to the north and south of it, but we hear it's thickly peopled and the folk are warlike."
"Then if that is the case" I stopped, perplexed. "If things are as chaotic as you say, with constant warfare"
"Raiding," Connor interrupted me. "It's more raiding than warfare. No large armies, no long campaigns, merely one raid after another, unendingly."
"If that is the case, then, how did Salina and her sister come to be involved with your King Tod? You said shecomes from Orcenaywas that the name?in the far north-east."
"Aye, but she's like us, an islander. Her people have boats, galleys of a kind, and travel by water."
"Tell me about these people. What do you know of them?"
He shrugged. "Not much, but I know they are not the same people as the mainlanders. They're very different. Not greatly numerous, from what Salina has told me, but fierce and warlike." He anticipated my next question. "And Salina is a chief. She rules one of the two groups of islands they control. Her brother Lot is king over all, in name, but Salina's is the power that counts in her domain."
"Lot? Did you say Lot? I hope he's no relation to your former good-brother of Cornwall?"
Connor barked a laugh. "You know, I had almost forgotten that! No, he's no relation. His name's not even Lot. That's just a name they use in dealing with strangers. His real name's unpronounceable, one of those grunting, cough-like sounds no normal human tongue can grapple with. Every time I hear someone say it, it sounds like he's retching and I pull my cloak around me to avoid being splattered. Salina's is the same. She chose the Roman name herself, for her dealings with people she calls Outlanders, like us.
"Anyway, Salina's sister married Tod of Gallowa some years ago, and there's some trade between the two kingdoms. Mostly sheep's wool coming down. I don't know what the Gallowans send back. When our emissaries arrived in Tod's kingdom that first time, Salina had just arrived with four of her ships. She took part in the talks, and when it became clear Tod would have problems with some of his chiefs, who knew nothing of us and hence did not trust us, she offered to sail to us and to deal with my father on her good-brother's behalf. That first visit led to Father's crossing to the mainland later that year to meet with Tod and his chiefsand counsellors. The meetings were successful, but it took two more years before a treaty was forged." He paused, remembering.
"It was completed last spring, when Condran's fleet carried out some heavy raids the length of Tod's coastline. Suddenly it became an excellent idea, they realized, to conclude the matter. No sooner were the final agreements reached than Brander sailed off to deal finally with Condran. Of course, we have made no mention to this time of the true extent of the destruction of Condran's sea power. It would be foolish to announce the removal of the prime need for the treaty. And besides, Condran's destruction really makes no difference to the substance of the contract, which promises the protection of our fleet in return for the right to farm the lands in the far north of Tod's holdings, which were lying empty and unused."
I had but one more question for him. "You said you expect more treaties of this type?"
"Aye. We require more mainland territory. Brander is dealing now with four more kings, further to the north, although they call themselves chiefs. He'll be successful, too. He has great strength in that kind of dealing. Then, once we have established footholds for our folk on fertile land, we can leave their prosperity to time and human nature. And we can hope for success now. With the extermination of Condran, we are at peace for the first time in many years. That's why Brander decided to get married, and then to make this journey with Salina and the girl. When we leave here, they'll sail to visit Tod."
"And where will you go?"
"On patrol. Now that Brander is king, he will be bound ashore. I am sole admiral."
I told him then about my decision to return south to Camulod within the month, abandoning our temporary home here in Mediobogdum, and I asked him if he would ferry my main party southward, one last time.He listened quietly, making no attempt to interrupt, but when I had finished he grimaced.
"Normally, I would say yes, but you've reminded me of what I set out to tell you before you distracted me with all this talk of treaties. Do you recall the big ship you encountered, in that coastal town, that first time you met Feargus?"
"Of course, the Roman bireme that the Berbers brought to strip the marble from the buildings of Glevum. What about it?"
"Liam Twistback arrived in the islands just before we left to come here. He undertook the journey in the winter, with only three companions, preferring to run the risk of storms and shipwreck rather than remain where he was, on the coast between Camulod and Cambria. He says the invaders from Cornwall have two of those things, aiding their troop movements. Massive vessels, Liam says they are, with multiple banks of oars and enormous sails. He says they have wooden decked towers, fore and aft, for soldiers and bowmen to fight from, and one of them even has siege engines mounted on the stern platform ... catapults, can you credit that? And they have long, metal-clad rams projecting from their bows, below the water-line, for sinking enemy ships. They make our biggest galleys look like coracles, Liam says."
"Ironhair possesses these things?"
"No, I did not say that. Twistback knows nothing of this Ironhair. He merely said that the forces invading Cambria have two of these wondrous vessels assisting them."
"Aye, then they're Ironhair's." I heard the deadness in my own voice. His words had stunned me, but hard on the shock had come an immediate though unwilling recognition of the truth of what he had told me. Ironhair had proved already in the past that he was no fool and that, like his predecessor, Lot of Cornwall, he knew the value of money shrewdly placed and lavishly provided.The fact that he had followed Lot's example and procured an army of mercenaries with promises of plunder bore that out, but now it was evident that he had carried the procurement of alliances even further and ensured his maritime superiority with these great ships. I looked at Connor more carefully.
"You're sailing south, aren't you?"
"I had considered it." His tone said Yes, I am.
"Then you'll take us with you?"
"No. I won't. It's too dangerous. You have women and boys in your party, one of them my own nephew, Arthur. His presence alone would make this voyage far too dangerous."
He cut me short with a slash of his open palm. "Sit down, Merlyn, and think of what's involved here!"
I was furious, insulted by his outright dismissal of my request. Harsh, angry words sprang to my lips, demanding to be spat out. Yet I knew I was wrong. Finally, I mastered myself and sat down, aware that Connor had much more to say, and that he, not I, commanded on the sea. He watched me with narrowed eyes, and when I sat down, moving slowly, he continued, speaking clearly and calmly.
"Merlyn, I have no idea what we'll encounter when we arrive down there, but the very last thing I might need is passengers aboard my vessels, women and children. I might round some headland there and find myself committed to a fight. We're sailing south, right into the middle of a war, and I tell you frankly, I have no plan, no stratagem for dealing with these ... things, these biremes. I might have to turn tail and flee before them. I might not find them at all. Then again, I might not even have the opportunity to approach the coast, let alone find a suitable place and sufficient time to land you and your party. Then where would you be? You'd be stuck there, aboard my vessel headed north-west, with no safe way of getting back to Camulod. Betteryou return by road, with your own garrison. That way your party will be safe and well protected, and you'll experience the land you haven't seen yet." His mouth twisted into a small, ironic smile. "You'll probably arrive in Camulod long before we could deliver you there, given the probable congestion on the waterways."
I sat gazing at him in bafflement, unsettlingly aware that I was missing something here. Finally I grunted in belated realization of another point. If these biremes had seemed threatening enough to Liam Twistback to encourage him to face the perils of a sea voyage in winter in a tiny boat, they also represented a threat to Camulod, which lay within a two-day march of Liam's farm.
"Did Liam say if he had managed to warn Camulod about these vessels?" I asked.
"He didn't have to. Some of your people were there with Liam, on their regular patrol, when the things last approached the shore. They wanted Liam to return with them when they rode back to warn the Colony, but for some reason he chose to sail north and take his chances with the winter gales. Anyway, they know in Camulod. I imagine all their defensive preparations are in place by now."
All at once I knew what it was about Connor's words that had been unsettling me. "Liam was the last of your people down there, wasn't he?" He nodded. "So why are you going there at all? You have no interests to be served down there now."
His mouth twisted again in a wintry smile. "What about gratitude to you and yours and to the Cambrians who let us use their land?"
"Admirable, but unnecessary. What would your people have to gain from such a course? God knows, you've much to lose, going against such ships."
"I want one of them."
He spoke so softly that I barely heard his words, and then I doubted my own hearing.
"You heard me clearly, I want one of themat least one. Both, if I can have them."
"Are you mad? You've never seen these things. I have. The two of them together could probably defeat your entire fleet, just by their combined weight and strength. Your galleys would be wrecked and ruined before you ever could approach them. Those catapults you mentioned are used to hurl burning pots of oil into an enemy's rigging and sails. You know what fire does to ships, Connorit was you who described it to me, on the walls of Ravenglassand you've just been telling me about Brander's destruction of Condran's fleet with fireships. And even without the fire, their prow rams would smash even your biggest galley beneath the water-line. Then the weight of the forepart of the ship, propelled by hundreds of great sweeps, would thunder down and crush your vessel like an egg. Their archers would slaughter those of your men who didn't drown immediately. No, Connor, if you have any mind for the welfare of your ships and men, empty your mind of any thought of fighting these machines. They're Roman-built, my friend, and Roman-designed to be invincible in their own element."
"Aye, Liam said something of the same, although he didn't know the workings of the things as you do. Where did you learn all this?"
"From books. I read it all. The Roman navy ruled the seas for hundreds of years, and their genius lay in taking infantry to sea. Their warships were built as floating platforms for their soldiery"
He held up his hand to prevent me from saying any more. "I'm as sane as you are, good-brother. I've no intention of sailing to my death and hearing the noise of my own galleys being destroyed."
"I shall wait. They must put into land at some time or another, these mighty beasts. They sail like othervessels, and they're being used to supply the armies on the mainland. The Pendragon Cambrians have no naval force, so these great ships can have no opposition. They'll be like shepherds to the smaller galleys in their fleet, plying between whatever southern port they use and their base in Cambria, and when they arrive, they'll put into shore, to be unloaded. That's when I'll take them."
I laughed aloud in simple disbelief. "You intend to walk on board and take over a ship like that? Don't you think they'll be guarded?"
"Of course they'll be guarded, dear good-brother, but how well? Think about that. These things are without equal on the sea, requiring special skills and seamanship to operate them properly, and when they come to shore, they'll be among their own. They will be guarded, certainly, but who among their crews would dream that anyone would ever be mad enough to think to steal one from its base ashore?"
"How will you get close to them?"
"Mercenaries, Merlyn. We'll be among their own, in their own camp. Why should they suspect us of anything? We're not their enemies. In fact, they won't know who we are or whence we came. We'll be but mercenaries like the rest of them."
"By the sweet Christus! What happens then if you succeed and get aboard, past the guards? How will you get the thing away?"
"We'll row it out of there! If we can be mercenaries on the land, why shouldn't some of us be afloat, too?" I realized only then that Connor was extemporizing, improvising even as he spoke. "Who will know we are not theirs? They have no enemies afloat, they thinkor I believe they think that." His brow was creased now with the speed and concentration of his thoughts. "A small number of galleys, extracrewed, their arrival timed to coincide with our attack ... But returning galleys ... galleys that left the same harbour the day before ... noone will think to question their arrival, if they think it's their return. And when the moment's right, we strike. We take the ship and board a crew from the galleys, on the water side. It will work, Merlyn, it will work!" He slapped his hands on his knees and stood up, suddenly alight with resolve.
"When will you leave?" I half expected him to rush off then and there.
"A week or so, no more." He clumped his way across to the window, his false leg sweeping aside the rushes on the floor with each step, and opened wide the shutters, twisting his neck to lean out and look up at the sky. I was surprised to the see the sun was still shining brightly. I felt as though we had been cloistered here for hours.
"Have you any food around here?" he asked. "I'm famished."
I had to smile. "We'll find something cold in the kitchens, but there won't be anything hot until the evening meal."
"Then cold it is, so long as it be soon."
As we walked towards the kitchens in the refectory block, my head was spinning with all we had discussed, and I had the feeling that much of the ensuing week would be dedicated to the Admiral's new-developed stratagem for enlarging his fleet.
Copyright © 1999 by Jack Whyte