The Merlin Prophecy Book Three: Hunting with Gods

Overview

HUNTING WITH GODS — MERLIN’S DESTINY IS FULFILLED

Disappointed after meeting his father in Constantinople, Merlin returns home to find Britain is engaged in a bloodthirsty war against the Saxons. Spared by the king of the Britons, he begins to train other healers across the land. But the king’s untimely death puts Merlin under the grip of Uther Pendragon, an evil war leader.

Uther orders Merlin to use his magical powers to help him seduce the ...

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Overview

HUNTING WITH GODS — MERLIN’S DESTINY IS FULFILLED

Disappointed after meeting his father in Constantinople, Merlin returns home to find Britain is engaged in a bloodthirsty war against the Saxons. Spared by the king of the Britons, he begins to train other healers across the land. But the king’s untimely death puts Merlin under the grip of Uther Pendragon, an evil war leader.

Uther orders Merlin to use his magical powers to help him seduce the young wife of King Gorlois. The healer is horrified by the High King’s demands but realizes that many others will suffer at Uther’s hands if he disobeys. Can Merlin survive Uther’s madness and enable good to overcome evil? In Hunting with Gods, Merlin’s morality is challenged as never before.

M. K. Hume has won the praise of readers and critics alike with her original take on the Merlin legend. Her background in Arthurian literature provides historical accuracy to a beautifully written trilogy wrought with passion, heart, and adventure.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hume’s post-Roman, pre-Arthurian cycle concludes with a complex tale of warfare and woe. After years of traveling in the Continent, the accomplished healer Myrddion Merlinus and his companions return to Britain, hoping their homecoming will be one of peace and safety. Instead, Myrddion is immediately pressed into service, first under the noble High King Ambrosius and later under Ambrosius’s brother, the violent and treacherous Uther Pendragon. To keep Britain safe from the Saxon invaders, Myrddion compromises his honor and does despicable things. Hume’s narrative detachment makes it difficult to sympathize with any of the characters. The women are particularly ill-treated, and the men have streaks of misogyny appropriate to the era but discomfiting for a modern audience. Hume’s depiction of a Britain just after Rome’s rule has ended is fascinating, however, and the details of the setting make the historical world more compelling than any of the characters. Fans will be glad to see more of Merlin’s tale, but others may find the “exercise of cold-blooded slaughter” too brutal to enjoy. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Merlin’s story, will appeal to those who thrill to Game of Thrones and other tales of intersecting, ever-warring, noble lineages."
Kirkus Reviews
The third volume of the Merlin trilogy follows the legendary healer up to the beginning of a new chapter in both Merlin's and Britain's histories. Hume, a retired academic who specializes in Arthurian literature, presents herself as uniquely qualified to follow the trail of Myrddion Merlinus (Merlin) as he returns to his homeland from Rome. This lengthy and absorbing tale will only boost that claim. The story launches with Merlin's return and subsequent travels to reach home, but along the way he is waylaid by Ambrosius Aurelianus, the son of Constantine III and king of the Britons. Ambrosius recognizes Merlin's value as a healer and adviser, since the slim man with long black hair that has a wide white stripe running through it also has the gift of foresight, something he has inherited from his mother's family. Recognizing the danger of the Saxons moving deeper into the territory occupied and ruled by the various thanes (loosely translated: tribal rulers) in Britain, King Ambrosius and his brother, Uther Pendragon, wage constant warfare on their enemy. Ambrosius talks Merlin and his group of healers into helping him by serving his army on the battlefields, and the two men grow into a comfortable relationship that is threatened only by the menacing presence of the king's cruel but devoted brother. When bad fortune overtakes them, Merlin's life and those of his followers are changed forever. Historical fiction with a touch of fantasy, delivered with some rip-roaring battles and characters that are noble, memorable and unredeemable.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476715162
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • Publication date: 8/13/2013
  • Series: Merlin Prophecy Series
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 269,245
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

M. K. Hume is a retired academic. She received her MA and PhD in Arthurian literature and is the author of The Merlin Prophecy, a historical trilogy about the legend of Merlin. She lives in Australia with her husband and two sons.

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Read an Excerpt

Merlin Prophecy Book Three: Hunting with Gods


Men are in the shout (of war); the ford is frozen over;

Cold the wave, variegated the bosom of the sea;

The eternal God give us counsel!

—BLACK BOOK OF CARMARTHEN

The most eagerly anticipated return to places of one’s past is often a bitter disappointment, for nothing stays the same. And so it was with Dubris, when the travelers returned after their sea journey from Gesoriacum.

Spring had barely come when they set sail, so the healers wore thick cloaks to protect their chilled flesh after some years in warmer climes where even the coldest of winters lacked a true bite. But weather apart, Dubris had changed in the six years since their departure for the Middle Sea. The Saxons had arrived in a slow trickle of traders that had escalated into a flood of unchecked immigrants. Without having to strike a single blow, the Saxon stain had spread throughout the city and out into the surrounding countryside where it began to take root.

Myrddion had learned that the isles of Britain were not the entire world and that their towns were small, unimportant, and bucolic when compared with the great cities of Rome, Ravenna, or Constantinople. More tellingly, the healers had experienced the great ports of the Middle Sea, so that Dubris, which had seemed so large and bustling six years earlier, now seemed a minor center of trade. This impression was not improved by a layer of grime, woodsmoke, and neglect that reminded Myrddion of the port of Ostia. The warehouses and docks were in a similar state of dilapidation, and the faces of the laborers had the same pinched tenseness as those of the inhabitants of the Italic port.

But there the similarities ended. Fish in huge wicker baskets added their own distinctive aroma to small docks of splintering wood that stretched out into the deeper waters. Piles of goods were stacked ready to be carried to the warehouses, while huge bales were being loaded onto vessels of all shapes, sizes, and styles for the voyages to their ultimate destinations.

The faces were as mixed in race as those they had seen in Ostia, but without the exotic tints of Africa and the east. Myrddion even recognized some Franks on a large, disciplined vessel and reminded himself that these northerners had been crude barbarians fifty years earlier when they were scrabbling for land and power in Gaul.

“But the Franks are now civilized and so the world changes,” Cadoc snorted cynically at his master’s comment. “Eventually, the Saxons will be indistinguishable from us.”

The healers began the arduous task of disembarkation, moving their many barrels, bales, chests, and packages into a neat pile on the dock. While they worked, Myrddion wondered at the ease with which the northern tribes had passed down through the land of the Franks and then crossed the narrow channel to Britain.

“At least our homeland still smells of the Britain we knew.” Cadoc spoke for them all. “Woodsmoke and rain!”

“Aye. But this place makes me nervous. We’re attracting far too much attention from the dockworkers, so I’d like to be gone as soon as possible.” Myrddion worried at his thumbnail with his teeth as he examined the mélange of faces. “Work your magic, Cadoc. Find us two wagons and sufficient horses for our needs. And make it as fast as you can, because my shoulder blades are starting to itch.”

“Too many sodding great Saxons—and all eyeing our baggage,” Cadoc whispered in agreement. “I’ll be back as soon as I complete my task, master.”

He disappeared into the crowd on the edges of the wharf.

In the bustle of the dock, Myrddion felt intimidated by the hostile stares that were fixed on the small party. He knew they presented an exotic and alien picture in their outlander clothing, but this wharf was part of home so he felt dislocated and disappointed. Uncharacteristically, he loosened his sword in its sheath, conscious that many covert glances had assessed every weapon of these newcomers.

“You can’t leave your shit on my wharf, my fine young cockerel,” a raucous voice bellowed from behind him.

Myrddion spun swiftly and fell into a slight crouch, one hand on the pommel of his sword and the other gripping his tall staff. The women huddled together nervously, and Finn handed his infant son to his wife, Bridie, in order to reach his own weapon if the need should arise. White-haired Praxiteles, the Greek servant who had accompanied them from Constantinople, merely grinned widely and waited.

“Who are you to accost my party and tell me where or what I may put on a wharf used for public access?” Myrddion’s voice was as imperious and as careless as the tone that would have been adopted by Ardabur Aspar, his father, at the eastern emperor’s court. Sometimes arrogance had its usefulness.

The man who confronted the small party looked, superficially, like any wharf rat grown powerful because of his added bulk and height. A large man, he was very wide in girth, almost fat, which was an unusual feature in a northerner. But, unlike Hengist and Horsa, whom Myrddion had admired, this man was filthy. His nails were black crescents on greasy, unwashed paws, and it was impossible to determine the color of his hair because it was so heavily thickened by bear grease and grime. His eyes were a muddy green, and his face was very brown and weathered, with a ruddy hue under a generous coating of dirt.

When he spoke, he revealed yellowed fangs and several missing teeth, especially in the front of his mouth. Myrddion noted the ridged scar tissue on the man’s knuckles and swiftly concluded that this thug loved to fight.

“I’m Hrothnar of Dubris, master of the docks, and you owe me a gold coin for landing.” The large man grinned as a small group of shifty dockworkers moved into position behind him. “Pay up, my fine cockerel, and I’ll guarantee your women will go untouched.”

Myrddion sneered back at the hulking brute with a contemptuous twitch of his lips. “Is this the way that Dubris greets travelers, Hrothnar?” He smiled as he waited for the big man to make an aggressive movement against them. “What law permits you to levy these ridiculous charges?”

“It’s not a charge—it’s a donation to the poor workers of the docks. And it’s your choice if you pay or not, but three men won’t stop us from taking what is ours to confiscate. What have you got that’s so precious, I wonder.”

Myrddion continued to smile reasonably, but he felt his slow anger eating away at his common sense, and he bit his lip to mitigate his rising fury.

“Beware, Hrothnar of Dubris, for I have friends in high places.”

“You? You’re a damned Celt! No matter how fine your clothes might be, you’re nothing but a stinking, Rome-loving shit eater like the rest of your cowardly tribe. What are you going to do that would stop us taking what we want from those packs of yours?”

“Little Willa began to cry at the raised voices, so Brangaine rummaged in a nearby pack and produced a small cake, drenched and sticky with honey. The lout barely spared the widow a glance, which was foolish, for Praxiteles saw her palm one of her master’s scalpels in her right hand.

“I have served many kings. Among them were High King Vortigern of the Britons, King Merovech of the Frankish lands, and King Theodosius of the Visigoths, and I am owed a debt of honor by your thane, Hengist, who carves a kingdom out of the northern lands of Britain. You would be foolish to presume that I, Myrddion Merlinus, or my companions, are harmless.”

Myrddion had difficulty framing the prideful words with their necessary disdain for lesser mortals, but if he read his adversary correctly, Hrothnar would only be dissuaded from violence if he feared personal repercussions. Unfortunately, greed was too powerful an incentive for the thug.

“Hengist is far away, and he grows old and weak in the north, Myrddion whoever-you-are. I’ve not heard of you, young cock. But you will hand over a gold coin, or I’ll take everything you’ve got.”

“Not easily,” Finn said softly, and drew his sword. Praxiteles produced a stout club from beneath his cloak, and Myrddion hefted his serpent staff.

“Oh, I’m so frightened!” Hrothnar scoffed, beginning to move forward with five of his thugs spread out behind him. He was swinging a leather tube filled with sand, a deadly and effective weapon in knowledgeable hands. The weighted sap hissed through the air as Hrothnar swung it with the proficiency of much practice.

But it never reached its target. The Saxon had chosen to attack Myrddion because he was the leader and seemed to be the weakest among the men in his party, but Myrddion had been underestimated by many adversaries. The serpent staff, purchased at Marathon, was swung in a backhanded movement that caught the lout squarely on the side of his jaw. By luck rather than good management, the blow connected with sufficient force to fell Hrothnar like a slaughtered ox.

With their leader lying insensible on the ground, his followers continued to move forward threateningly in the belief that five men were more than enough to smother any opposition. Perhaps this assumption would have proved to be correct, but Brangaine sensed their distraction and leapt off the pile of baggage with a bloodcurdling, tribal scream. She slashed at the foremost bully with the scalpel she had palmed and the razor-sharp tool caught him across the arm, slashing through cloth, skin, and muscle as if it were slicing its way through butter.

As he stared foolishly at the sudden rush of blood that began to gush down his arm, the man was easily knocked unconscious by Praxiteles’s club, while Finn advanced towards the four remaining thugs with eyes that were reddening with rage. As they saw the blood pouring from their felled accomplices, the louts wavered in their attack and then, confused by the speed at which their fortunes had been reversed, they turned and took to their heels, leaving Hrothnar and his bleeding companion to their fates.

Myrddion sighed and turned to Finn. “See if you can find someone in charge to arrest these two idiots. They obviously practice their trade on any newcomers who arrive at the docks.”

Wary of reprisals, he scrutinized the wooden wharves for further danger, but none of the sailors, traders, or merchants showed the slightest interest in the small, bloody battle that had taken place. Here, wise men walked abroad with their eyes closed. “It’s obvious that there’s no rule of law in Dubris. I’m beginning to wish we had wings to spirit us out of here.”

Finn returned, but without any person of authority. With an expressive shrug of his shoulders, he explained that various thanes controlled different sectors of the city, and these lords would need to know whom Hrothnar served and what his normal duties were before they could take any action against the two wounded captives. Hrothnar was a citizen of the city, and the party of healers had no standing in this new, lawless community.

“We are unlikely to see these scum placed into any sort of custody, so they feel safe to prey on strangers,” Finn explained. “Dubris is much changed since we were last here, master, and the Celts have abandoned the town and its administration to the Saxon traders. To add to my frustration, I barely understood what anyone said. The languages spoken here are quite different from the Frankish tongues.”

“There are superficial differences, but I understood Hrothnar well enough, and heaven knows what race could lay claim to him.” Myrddion frowned with irritation. “What are we supposed to do with these beauties?” He thought briefly, shrugged, and began to hunt for his satchel. “Brangaine, do we have any clean water in our flasks?” he asked. Used to his eccentricities, she nodded. “Good. Then find some clean cloth and we’ll attend to their bumps and bruises.”

Now that Myrddion had decided on a course of action, he turned and spoke over his shoulder to Finn and Praxiteles. “Keep an eye on our sleeping beauties while I stitch them up, although why we should repair them so the damned idiots can rob other respectable travelers is more than I can fathom.”

Grumbling like an old man, the healer cleansed and stitched two broken heads and one slashed forearm. He had barely finished when Hrothnar began to stir, his hands swatting ineffectually at the empty air. When he came to his senses, Myrddion dragged the wharf rat unceremoniously to his feet. The man was heavy, and the stink of his body odor made the other flinch.

“I neglected to tell you that we are healers, Hrothnar, not that you’d have cared while you were robbing us. However, no matter how harmless our group of travelers might seem, we couldn’t have journeyed through the strife and warfare we have seen in the land of the Franks without being able to protect ourselves. If I were you, Hrothnar, I’d consider another trade if you want to survive to make old bones. Or learn to see beyond superficial appearances.”

Hrothnar tried to focus his blurred vision while keeping his aching head perfectly still. His green eyes were puzzled and almost childlike. “Why haven’t you killed us? Why have you stitched my head? I could still turn on you before you have an opportunity to leave Dubris.”

Myrddion grinned ruefully, for Hrothnar was correct in his analysis. A party containing three women and two children, one of whom was a babe in arms, was vulnerable while traveling through narrow, dangerous streets.

“If you can understand the meaning of what I am about to explain, you may learn something that is of lasting value to you. As healers, we are duty bound by our oaths to our profession. Those who perform our trade swear to do no harm to others, even to persons who threaten our safety. I am obliged to repair the damage I have done to you, so you can have no reason to fear us. Nor will you suffer any ill effects from your attempts at extortion, although we have served in the armies of great and ruthless men. We have stood in blood to our ankles as we plied our craft, and we’ve learned from bitter experience the tricks that are needed to protect ourselves from armed enemies. Now, collect your friend and leave us in peace.”

Hrothnar stared blankly at Myrddion as he tried to puzzle out the underlying motives behind the healer’s generosity. Harsh experience had taught him that strength and brutality filled his belly, rather than dispensing mercy or kindness. He knew that the healers could have cut their throats while they were unconscious, and he was certain that he would have removed any fallen opponents in just this fashion. So, in lawless Dubris, that the healers should allow their captives to depart seemed madness . . . unless there was a deeper purpose at work.

As if reading Hrothnar’s mind, Myrddion replied by throwing the lout’s leather purse, which had been dislodged from his belt when he fell, back at him. Hrothnar caught it awkwardly with one hand and hefted its weight. The coins were still in place.

“Why?” Hrothnar muttered thickly. “To be blunt, you have us at your mercy. It would have been easy for you to keep my money and refuse to give it back to me, yet you’ve returned it in full. I don’t understand you, Myrddion Merlinus.”

Puzzled, Finn also gaped at Myrddion in surprise. At the very least, Hrothnar’s purse would have recompensed the healers for the inconvenience that the man had caused.

“If I kept your money, I’d also be a common thief,” Myrddion retorted grimly. “Just like you.”

For the first time, Hrothnar replied with a cynical approximation of humor. “No, you’re not a thief like me, are you? But you are something odd and dangerous, so I’m beginning to wonder just what you are.”

“I know nothing about you, Hrothnar, or what has driven you to earn your bread by a brutal and vicious trade, but I’ve learned much about the world during my travels, especially of its cruelty and the hardships it places on the poor. Once again, Hrothnar, I hope you’ll benefit from this experience and trouble us no more.”

Hrothnar remained silent, for the young healer puzzled and confused him. This young man was either a fool or very dangerous. In either case, Hrothnar wanted nothing more to do with the healer or his party. As he struggled to lift his companion, he bowed his head to replicate a respectful, obsequious nod. Silently, he hefted his unconscious confederate over one shoulder and turned to trudge away, while around him the bustle of the docks swirled and scuttled along as if nothing had happened.

Cadoc returned before noon with a lugubrious face and two wagons, one of which was driven by a bluff young Saxon whose accent was so broad that even Myrddion had difficulty understanding much that he said. The reason for Cadoc’s dismay was immediately obvious.

Oxen!

A single, dun-colored horse was tethered at the rear of the leading wagon, but the beasts between the traces were huge brown oxen with brass-tipped, sawn-down horns and dull eyes. Cadoc loathed oxen because they were slow, stupid, and difficult to master. In emergencies, they had only one pace, regardless of how harshly whips were applied, and the time required to turn them could be fatal if the wagons were under attack. Even Myrddion, who was unbiased, disliked traveling behind a team of oxen as their broad hooves stirred up a fug of dust.

“Would you credit that horses seem to have vanished from Dubris? The best I could muster was this spavined creature from a Dumnonii trader who needed extra funds to return home. The Celts are deserting Dubris in hordes, but there’s no lack of migrating northerners eager to take their places.”

“Aye, Cadoc, we’ve already established that the docks here are more dangerous than those of Ostia, and I thought that was bad,” Finn added. “I’ve dreamed of home every step of the way from Constantinople, and now that we’re here, home is stranger and more threatening than most of the outlandish places we’ve been to.”

“Let’s get out of this foul place.” Myrddion sighed gustily. “I can’t believe that six years have wrought so many changes in Britain. We’ve seen the movement of the tribes in Gaul, and we know from firsthand experience what violence has filled the void created by the Roman retreat. Somehow, I never expected to find it here, in Britain, so we’ve missed astonishing changes during our wanderings.”

“Nothing much of benefit to the people has happened, master, and that’s for certain,” Cadoc grunted as he climbed down from the primitive, poorly constructed wagon, which lacked even the refinement of leather covers. “Look at this thing! Even the wheels are made of wood. Remember those metal rims on the wagons in Rome?”

“We’re not in Rome now,” Finn snapped back unnecessarily.

“I have a strong desire to see broad skies and breathe clean air,” Myrddion muttered under his breath. “Let’s dust Dubris off our backs as soon as possible.”

With the economy of long practice, the healers packed the wagons. They were conscious of the hard, envious inspection of the watching dockworkers, so, nervous of further interference by footpads and thieves, the men worked with dispatch. As they labored, Praxiteles asked numerous questions about the size and quality of Britain’s largest port, and the healers felt a certain embarrassment as they compared grubby little Dubris with the wonders of Constantinople.

Once they had loaded the wagons and climbed aboard, the crack of Cadoc’s long whip urged the oxen into grudging movement. And so, with Praxiteles driving the other wagon and Myrddion riding the dun-colored horse, the journey through Dubris began. The evidence of wide-sweeping and destructive change was all around them, and Myrddion, with his new sophistication, told himself that this shift was the way of the world, as natural as rain or sunshine.

Nevertheless, these fresh scars on his homeland caused him pain. Even the smaller temples had been stripped of stone, while vandals had toppled whole columns in many buildings so that Myrddion could see the clever engineering that had pegged the sections together. Mute, and yet eloquent, naked plinths reminded him that gods of marble had once stood here and blessed the citizens of Dubris with peace and plenty.

“All things change,” Myrddion whispered aloud in a vain attempt at self-persuasion. “To stay still is to rot and die.”

Then the forum hove into view and the entire party was silenced by its complete ruination. Even more poignant were the ragged children who played with shards of marble in the weak spring sunshine. Like young animals, they were tormenting a starving dog by tossing pieces of stone at it. The poor creature attempted to slink away through a forest of columns, but the children pursued it, screaming with excitement. Across the wide road, the roofless remains of the baths still sported slimy green water within the calidarium, where more ragged children were tossing stones into the scummed depths. Myrddion had bathed here only six years earlier, and now . . .? Stone and wood had been dragged away by the immigrants to create makeshift structures on the edges of the city.

A brightly colored object caught Myrddion’s attention from the center of a thick growth of thistles that were flourishing between slabs of cracked marble paving. Without thinking, he leapt from his horse and thrust aside the spiky foliage to retrieve a fragment of carved and painted marble. He raised it like a trophy, and his companions were able to identify his discovery.

A carved marble hand, painted brick red to simulate tanned flesh, raised an index finger imperiously towards the sky. Miraculously, the fingers remained unbroken. A carved ring on the pointing finger had been painted blue and captured the light as if it were a true gem, rather than a mere simulacrum.

“Perhaps it came from a statue of a god? Or it might have been part of a dedication to an emperor or a noble senator. No matter, for it’s now as dead as its owner, or the Roman Dubris we passed through on our way to Constantinople. There is no point in mourning the peaceful days that fled during our absence.”

Still, despite his rational acceptance of the natural and organic nature of change, Myrddion stroked the marble hand and asked Brangaine to care for it until he had time to examine it more closely. Equally reverently, Brangaine found a strip of waste cloth and wrapped the hand carefully, as if it belonged to a man who still lived and regretted the loss of his amputated flesh.

As the travelers passed through the city, hard-eyed men stared at them and recognized something Celt in their plaited forelocks and antique jewelry. But the healers had become hardened and strong from years of traveling, so they carried with them a faint aura of danger that silenced the sullen men and their tall, angular wives. Only the children were either courageous or careless enough to shout insults that followed the wagons through the streets.

“Smelly Celts! Cowardly dogs! Run away home to your smelly huts.”

“Where are your Roman friends now?” a blond woman screamed from the steps of a small theater, as she suckled a child at a brown-nippled breast. “They’ve all scurried away, so you’d better hurry after them to the bastard Ambrosius.”

She shut her mouth eventually when Myrddion drew his huge Celtic sword and rested it across his saddle. With unerring accuracy, she spat at the feet of his horse. The healer stared straight ahead and ignored the woman and the pack of small boys and youths that ran after them.

“We’ll soon need supplies, master,” Cadoc shouted back to his leader without turning his head. The ever-prudent servant was careful not to lift his eyes from the road while they were passing through enemy territory.

“Speak in Latin, Cadoc” Myrddion replied sharply. “There’s no need to advertise that we have money.”

“Aye! But we still need supplies—and that soft spot between my shoulder blades is itching. These streets are full of hidden eyes.”

“We might stop on the outskirts if we can find a safe marketplace. But if we must travel night and day with only water to fill our bellies, then that’s what we’ll do. We’re hated here, so I’ll not pause willingly, even out of hunger.”

Praxiteles held his club easily across his knees while he plied the reins. Finn had also drawn his sword, and, armed and ready, the cavalcade passed through the hostile streets at a steady, lumbering pace. Eventually, night fell and the party was forced to halt. Even then, the men stood guard while the women slept, conscious that the night was full of menace and the rank stink of hatred.

“Welcome home to Britain!” Myrddion muttered ironically to Cadoc as he bedded down under the wagon. “I’d rather sleep on the streets of Rome than in this cesspit.”

Cadoc discovered that he had little to say when he was profoundly troubled. His ebullience and humour had seeped away in the slow journey from the docks. But, like his master, he mourned the loss of so much he had loved.

BEFORE FIRST LIGHT, that hour when the sky faded to grey and the stars were extinguished, the healers were on the road and moving once more. The night had been cold with a memory of winter chill, so they huddled miserably in their cloaks and dreamed of hot food. Fog hung over the buildings of the town and loaned the pillaged ruins an illusion of wholeness, blurring the details of mud and sagging wooden door frames to create an illusion of beauty in simple shapes. Weedy courtyards and rank gardens were softened and clothed in glistening dew. The deserted streets echoed mysteriously, as if the stones remembered the marching, sandaled feet of the legions and the wild, fair singing of Celt warriors as they prepared for war. It was an hour when the ghosts of the past seemed to call to unwary travelers out of the mists, before the rising sun brought back the prosaic, ugly reality of Dubris under her new masters.

“We’ll have left the city by the time the sun is up, and with luck we’ll find suitable markets, master,” Bridie consoled Myrddion as he rode close to the wagon and smiled at the sleeping countenance of her small son.

“You’ve been very patient and brave, Bridie. Bearing a child on board a ship bound for Gaul is no small thing. But you’ll soon return to our lands, and you can present your son to Ceridwen. Then he will become a true Celt.”

Bridie stroked the small golden charm that hung round the neck of the sleeping infant, her eyes shining with the unconditional love that mothers feel for their children. “I thank you for his bulla, my lord. The gold is so fine that you must have purchased it in Constantinople. It is a wonderful gift for my boy, and he will be forever marked by your favor.”

Myrddion blushed, for he had been afraid that Bridie would be offended by the Roman custom of gifting an infant with a tiny casket to hold an amulet. But Bridie had traveled far from Cymru and had learned to judge the hearts of men with instinctive accuracy.

“Your boy deserves a better future than following the fortunes of war from one cruel place to another.” Myrddion spoke regretfully as he watched Finn sleep on the heaped baggage in the wagon. Praxiteles was handling the reins and singing Greek songs in a soft and tuneful voice. “I’d like you to persuade Finn to take my place in Segontium, Bridie. I expect I’ll become a wandering healer, for these are so many souls suffering in the small hamlets and farms. But you and your babe deserve a snug little house of your own. My mistress, Annwynn, who taught me so much in the years when I was her apprentice, is very old and needs a young back and a strong pair of hands to help her prepare her healing remedies. You will build a good life on Annwynn’s farm, and your son will grow tall and healthy.”

Bridie eyed Myrddion sharply under the fall of her plaits. “Do you want to be rid of us, master? Are we an encumbrance?”

Myrddion jerked the reins in surprise and denial, until the stolid horse danced and bridled in protest. “No, Bridie, not at all! My heart will be saddened when we part, but you and Finn must do what is right for the little one.”

Bridie sighed and nodded. “You’ll have your own children one day, master. Will you cease to roam then?”

“I’m certain I won’t father children for many years to come,” Myrddion whispered, his lips twisted with bitter regret. “So far, I’ve displayed poor judgment in my choice of women, as you are aware. Some men are born to be alone.”

“Oh, master,” Bridie whispered sadly, but Myrddion’s horse had moved ahead and he didn’t hear her. Then the moment of intimacy passed as her son woke and wailed for the breast.

As the sun began to light the horizon, the travelers drove into a market that was being set up on the outskirts of the city. The healers were thankful to see local farmers, as well as Saxons, hefting baskets of live birds, eggs packed in straw, and panniers of new vegetables, alongside traders displaying their wares on coarse, blanket-covered tables which proclaimed their affluence. These goods were designed to tempt the crowds who would come once the day was more advanced, and included every tawdry bauble that could be bought cheaply in any of the Frankish ports, as well as ill-made trifles from as far away as Massilia. Bridie, Brangaine, and Rhedyn descended from the wagons and fell on the fresh food with the avidity of desperate shoppers. They were far too experienced to waste even a copper on jewelry that would blacken almost immediately or pans that were so thin they would fall apart within a short period after purchase, and they haggled, cajoled, and demanded the best possible deals with the confidence of women who had learned a smattering of six languages in all the marketplaces of the Middle Sea. Within minutes of completing their business, their purchases were packed in the wagons and the party quit the markets to leave the poor huts on the outskirts of Dubris far behind them. The journey home had begun.

The air smelled clean now and gave off the rich aroma of newly turned earth, fresh growth, woodsmoke, and the wild flowers that flourished in drifts between tree roots. Suddenly, the smell of home was so strong that Myrddion felt his eyes prickle with tears and he was forced to turn his head to one side in case his friends should catch him weeping. He had left Britain in a spirit of mingled adventure, resentment, and excitement, but he had learned that the land of his birth, no matter how backward it now seemed, was a part of his blood and bones.

“I swear I’ll never leave again, no matter what our futures may bring. If Dubris is any example, then we’ll have an inordinately busy time right here in Britain.”

But his companions didn’t hear him. They’d not have argued anyway, for home was everything to them . . . and always had been. Myrddion had pursued his own dream to Constantinople, and they had followed him willingly, but they had never lost sight of their roots.

Never again, Myrddion thought. His fingers remembered the texture of Flavia’s skin and the marvelous fineness of her hair; his lips recalled the taste of her honeyed mouth and her wicked tongue; his body continued to hunger for her. But she had chosen to become the concubine of his father, if only for a season, and Myrddion had vowed that he would never love a woman again. Love and passion did little to assuage his terrible loneliness, and brought only pain in their wake.

From this time onwards, he determined that love of his homeland would be sufficient to sustain the needs of his solitary heart.

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