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Greetings, my dear daughter:
I have been thinking about writing to you for weeks now, making up snippets of things to tell you and composing entire passages in my mind as I go about my household tasks, but I sit down to it only now, almost afraid that I might be too late, and unpleasantly surprised, all at once, by how quickly time has passed since I last wrote! Last night, as we sat together before going to bed, staring into the fire, your father remarked that the leaves have begun to turn yellow, and pointed out that, before we know it, it will be winter and both you and Picus's wife Enid will be facing confinement and childbirth. That shocked me profoundly, because my immediate reaction was to chide him for exaggerating, until I realized that he was not exaggerating at all. It seems like only yesterday that I was writing to you, describing my excitement over the newly delivered tidings that you were with child and would be giving us a grandson or a granddaughter at the start of the New Year. And now, so soon, your term is more than half elapsed! And that, of course, means that you have been a wife, a married woman and the mistress of your own household, for almost two-thirds of a year, and for that entire time I have not set eyes upon you. How must you have changed in appearance, from the merry-faced, laughing daughter whom your father and I loved so much and in whom we took such pride, knowing how close we had approached to losing you completely when you were tiny.
I was interrupted, between writing those last words and these, and a full day has elapsed in the interim. Writing is a slow and sometimes painful process, for the hand is unused to clutching a stylusfor so long a time. And yet Publius writes every day, for long periods each time, so I must believe that the pain wears off with usage. I do hope you are thriving and that your pregnancy is causing you no great discomfort. As you know, I went through the entire process four times, and I had not a speck of trouble with you or any of your sisters at any time, except for the anguish (merely occasional, thanks to your father) of having failed to produce a son to carry on the name of Varrus. It is too late for that, now, and so the name will die, I fear, with my dear Publius, for I know of no other males of the family Varrus now alive. God forbid, however, that anything of that kind should occur for many, many years. In the meantime, your father's pride and manliness, his heritage and all his nobility will live on in your children, and although their name will not be Varrus, dren, and although their name will not be Varrus, yet their mother's blood will make them both Varrus and Britannicus, and they will reflect, in their natures, all the elements that made their mother's father the fine man that he is. But I was speaking of your pregnancy and wondering how you are bearing it. Some womenmost of them, God be thanked!take the condition in their stride, dealing with it daily in the passage of time and suffering no ill from it at all. Others thrive visibly on the condition, blooming while they carry the child and achieving a degree of beauty they seldom recapture in fallow times. And then again, there are the others, poor creatures who cannot sustain the role that has been thrust upon them and who suffer untold agonies and endless sickness through their entire term of carrying. These are the ones who, all too often, have Harpies awaiting their delivery and who too frequently die in childbirth. I know that you are of one or the other of the first two groups, my dear Veronica, for had you shown any indications of belonging to the third, I should have heard of it long since, and I would be there with you now, instead of sitting here writingyou this long and rambling letter. Your father is calling me.
Well! Another day gone by. I begin to believe that, once interrupted, it becomes impossible to resume writing the same day. Yesterday, when I went to your father's call, I found that one of the young stable boys had been kicked by a horse. He must have been careless in some way, but we will never know, because he died without regaining his senses. He was only eight years old, and your father was very angry that the child had been left alone to do a man's work. We had a noisy and exciting evening of heated arguments and cold anger as he tried to discover the truth of what happened from a number of people who really did not know. Generally, however, your father is well, in radiant health and strong as a man half his age. He continues to spend the greatest portion of his time in his old forge, banging away at white hot metal, all the while in danger of suffocating from smoke and noxious fumes. But he is happiest when he is there, so what can I, a mere woman, do to dissuade him? It makes me smile to recall it, but there was a time when I thought he must regret that I had so little interest in his forge and what he did in there. I was wrong. I have learned to believe that your father is perfectly happy to have me stay in my place, here in our home, and allow him to do as he must in his place of work. And when he comes home to me, as he always does, I never doubt his gladness at setting eyes on me. Now that is a gift I wish I could bestow on you, daughter. But I cannot. The only person who can grant that gift to you is your own man, Uric, and the only means you have of influencing him to do that is to manage his home, share in his dreams, encourage his visions, and love him.
It is a beautiful day, here, and the sky is flushing pink with the promise of a wondrous sunset. It is strange to think you might not be able to see it where you are, among the hills. It might be rainingthere, or foggy with low clouds. Well, child, now that you are a child no longer, know that we love you none the less, your father and I. Carry your own child proudly and with gladness, whether it be boy or girl, and never fear about your ability to bear men-children for your husband. I produced only girls, but the women of our family have always been breeders of strong men, so perhaps I was an aberration. You, I am convinced, will bring forth boys, and if Uric truly is of Ullic's blood, he will contribute to that bringing forth. I will not insult you by asking you if you would come home to have your child. I know your place is there in your husband's land, as Enid's is here, in her husband's, even land, as Enid's is here, in her husband's, even though Picus is away at war. I remind God every day and night, in my prayers, to keep all of you strong and healthy and safe above all God bless you, child, you are in my mind and my heart at all times.
Your loving mother, LV
I overheard Uncullic this morning telling Uric that he intends to ride by Camulod on his way to wherever he is going in the week ahead. Thus, mindful of the enormous pile of papyrus you sent me recently, hinting that should I ever think to write to you I should not lack the means of doing so, I thought to take this opportunity to write and let you know that I am well and having no trouble at all with the burden I am carrying. The grandchild I will bring to you is all male. His strength and his lack of delicacy and consideration tell me that he could be nothing else. But he has been well behaved, generally speaking, and I am quite sure he will cause me no insurmountable difficulty when it comes time to bring him out to face the world in which he must live. My dearest hope is that you and my father are both as healthy as I feel, because if you are, I should rejoice. And on that topic of rejoicing, we are caughtup in the end of the year celebrations, although Samhain, the winter solstice, has already passed long since and the days are beginning to lengthen. Now that I am living among the Cambrians and have made their way of life my own, I am often astonished to see just how different their customs and celebrations are from ours. I can clearly remember sitting listening to Bishop Alaric on one bright, lovely summer's afternoon several years ago, as he told us about the various ways in which the communities in the small territories wherein we live have come to use different ceremonies and rituals to celebrate the same important events throughout the year. Events like the solstices, when the sun reaches the limits of its flight and sets off again upon its return course. But even our beloved Bishop could not convey the scope of such differences.
I know that our own tradition, in Camulod, is rooted in our Roman past. But the Celtic clans celebrate Samhain when we celebrate Saturnalia. I had heard the name before, and I recall that as a child, I passed the Samhain festival with you and my father in two small communities that I remember as lying to the south and west of Camulod. Neither of those two occasions, however, bears any slight resemblance to what goes on here in Cambria at this time of the year. And then, recently, within those regions and among those clans where Christianity has spread, the rituals and the events we celebrate are changing every year. But all that matters is that we celebrate. It matters not what name we give to the celebration, or how we observe it. The people are glad of the opportunity to celebrate something, anything, and they are ready for the pleasure. The crops are safely in, the fields are all prepared for winter, and the lagging year is drawing to a close, amid the hope brought on by lengthening evenings and small, unseen promises of greener, warmer days to come in a year that is entirely new.
Not all of us in King Ullic's household are celebratingthis year, however. There is one unfortunate woman here whose heart is sore and heavy, and where I, in similar circumstances, would be blessed and strengthened in time of need by my beloved husband, she lacks that source of strength and comfort. She has a husband, but he is a very different kind of man from mine. Her name is Tamara, and her husband, whose name is Leir, is a Druid. He is also related to Uncullic, a cousin of some kind. I do not know the full relationship, but I have been told that his grandfather and Uncullic's father were first cousins, born to the brother and sister of the first Pendragon King of the Federation, another Ullic, as you know: Ullic Green Eye, who ruled almost a hundred years ago. I wonder if that means he had only one eye? Or one green eye and one of another colour? But that cannot be, since all these Cambrian kings must be physically perfect. I must find someone to ask about that.
I stopped when I had written those last words, and walked away from my table, because I found myself writing nonsense. And my fingers were starting to cramp. They are blackened to the first knuckle with ink, too. Unlike you, however, I have been able to come back to the task the same day, for less than an hour has gone by since I stopped writing. I set out to tell you about poor Tamara and her trouble. I have come to know her quite well, these past few months, because like me, she was with child, her first. Alas, no longer. Tamara is very small, a tiny wisp of a woman, but her child, a boy, was enormous, so large, in fact, that there were whisperings of twins among the elderwives here, before her time arrived. Twin births are not looked upon with favor among the Celtic peoples, I have learned, and this is particularly so among King Ullic's clans here in Cambria.
As it turned out, however, and despite what the elderwives might mutter during their shadowy gatherings, Tamara was unfortunate in that she bore notwins. Instead, she bore one single, monstrous lump of a boy who tore her cruelly while forcing his way, a month and more before his time, out of her small body. That was four days ago, and poor Tamara remains abed, too weak even to sit upright. My fear is that she will not recover at all, because I am already astounded that she has survived this long. Mother, she lost so much blood! I knew it was going badly with her. Anyone with ears knew that. And I wanted to do something to assist her in her terrible pain and loneliness, although I know not what that. something might have been, but the elderwives kept me from the chamber, so that I could only listen to her screams and moans growing more piteous as she herself grew weaker. It lasted more than an entire day before the child was finally born, deformed, his head completely flattened on one side by some hideous mischance. In the normal way of things in this land, which can be frighteningly savage, the child would have been stifled at birth because of his deformity, but for some reason, concerning which it seems to me everyone is being very secretive, the elderwives were loath to kill him before consulting with his father, the Druid Leir.
Leir came, eventually, although he had not cared to show his face during poor Tamara's travail, and he spent a long time alone with the child, who was his firstborn son. Everyone assumed that, being a Druid, he must be praying for the infant, but then when he emerged from the room, he refused to let them kill the boy. I know, because I have been told, that the elderwives were much surprised by this, and greatly at a loss. It would appear, however, that Leir has great power, sufficiently great, in fact, to. flout established custom, although I know not upon what it is based. I do know that no one dared gainsay the man. Uncullic might have, and many here expected him to do so, but for some reason, as King, Ullic chose to ignore the matter, and so the child still lives. Leir, unsurprisingly to me, has laid all the blame forthe entire misfortune upon the unfortunate woman Tamara. It is no fault of his, apparently, that there were problems with the birthing of his child; no deficiency could possibly apply where he and his are concerned. It is the woman and her evil, vicious ways that brought the child to grief. The obnoxious creature, Druid though he is, has ignored Tamara completely since the confinement began. And, if truth be known, I think it possible that he has ignored her much longer than that. She is disconsolate, of course, but fortunately she is also far too weak to really be aware of what goes on about her. There is something loathsome about the Druid, and my flesh chills whenever he approaches me. He has a slight cast in one eye and a formless vacancy in his expression.
There is a word that Uncle Caius likes to use to convey the notion of utter emptiness: it is vacuous! I asked him once about it, and he told me it means filled with empty nothingness. It is the perfect word for what I sometimes see in this Leir. There are times when, looking at his face, I would swear he is demented. There are very few who will talk about him at all, however, and that really surprises me, for Uric's people are a talkative clan, much given to minding other people's ways. Those few who will talk of Leir do so with caution and then have nothing really substantial to say.
After four days, it now appears the child, who has been named Carthac, will live, despite the wishes of all who hoped that he would die. Equally, it appears that his mother Tamara will die, despite the best wishes of her many friends.
I am not at all afraid that the tragedy of what has happened to her might have any effect upon, or any similarity to, what will happen to me when my time comes, within the next few weeks. Tamara's case was awful, but it was unique, too, bred of her own tiny stature and the leviathan girth, weight and sheer size of the monstrous child she bore. I am much largerthan she was, and my child is that much smaller. Besides, I have a husband in whose love I float like rose petals upon water, and he has a father who has known and loved me all my life. No harm will come to me here, and my child will emerge into the love and warmth of all his father's relatives, and he will thrive therein until he has the additional good fortune to encounter, at a very early age, the love of his mother's family, too. We have decided that his name will be Uther.
Kiss my father for me. I will write to you again, as soon as I may after your grandson is born. I hope all is as well with Enid as it is with me.
Your loving daughter, Veronica
Even when he was a small boy, no more than four or five years old, Uther Pendragon knew that everyone around him believed that his mother, Veronica, was different from everyone else. They even had a special name for her: "the Away One." He was very young when he first learned who they were talking about when they used it, and it took him many more years to understand what they meant by it. After all, his mother had never been away from him. Veronica was and had always been a constant in his young life, along with his nurse, Rebecca, who had come to Cambria with his mother. Those two women, between them, had made their presence absolute in everything young Uther did during his earliest years, while he was yet too young for his presence to be noteworthy to others. In the beginning, there were only those two.
One of the very first newcomers to join this tiny group of intimates was a woman called Henna, who had been assigned by Uther's grandfather, King Ullic Pendragon, to cook for the newcomers at the very outset of Veronica's life in Ullic's stronghold, eight months and more before Uther was born. Henna had quickly warmed to the King's new daughter-in-law, despite the younger woman's alien upbringing and Outlandish behaviour, so that, for one reason and another, she had never stopped cooking for her new charges and had been completely absorbed into their new life as a married couple. By the time Uther grew old enough to look about him and observe his surroundings, Henna the cook was a fixture of the household in which he lived. And after he had learned to run and to talk, he quickly learned that if he ran and talked to Henna, she would give him wondrous things to eat.
Henna was the first person Uther ever heard using the term "the Away One" to describe his mother, andalthough he did not know then who the cook was talking about, he knew that there was no slight or disparagement intended in the strange-sounding name. Young and inarticulate as he was, he understood perfectly that the Away One was a woman, unfortunate or afflicted in some way. And as he grew older, and he heard the name repeated more and more often by people who thought he was too young to be listening, he soon came to understand that this mysterious woman was different in some important respect from "normal" people. He knew that all of the women who gathered in Henna's kitchen liked the Away One and held her in high regardthat was plain in the tone of their voices when they spoke of herand he knew, too, that they all felt sorry for her in some way, but for a very long time he was unable to discover the woman's identity.
On one occasion, frustrated by something particular that he had overheard, he even asked his mother who the Away One was, but Veronica merely looked strangely at him, her face blank with incomprehension. When he repeated the question, articulating it very slowly and precisely, she frowned in exasperation and he quickly began to talk about something else, as though he had never asked that question in the first place.
Despite having broached the question with his mother, however, he had never been even slightly tempted to ask Henna or any of her friends, because he knew that would have warned them that he was listening when they talked and they would have been more careful from then on, depriving him of his richest source of information and gossip. And so for long months he merely listened very carefully and tried to work out the secret of the Away One's identity by himself, looking more and more analytically, as time went by, at each of the women with whom he came into contact in the normal course of life. He knew that there would have to be something about this particular woman that set her noticeably apart and gave others the impression that she was never quite fully among themthat her interestsheld no commonality with theirs, that she was someone who was not wholly there.
He floundered in ignorance until the day when, in the middle of talking about the mysterious woman, Henna suddenly hissed, "Shush! Here she comes," and his mother walked into the kitchen. Uther was stunned by the swiftness with which the truth dawned upon him then, because it was immediately obvious that Veronica met all of his carefully defined criteria. His mother did not associate with Henna and her people in any capacity other than that of the mistress of the household dealing with her servants, issuing commands, expressing her wishes and expectations, and occasionally complaining and insisting upon higher standards in one thing or another; yet it was plain that they all liked her and that they respected her integrity and natural sense of justice, despite the fact that she held herself somewhat aloof and apart from all of them. Uther had developed the ability to reason by the time he was five and now, having discovered at six years of age who the Away One was, he felt immensely proud of himself, as though he had solved the entire mystery all on his own.
His pride, however, was short-lived, because within the month he overheard another conversation in which a newcomer to Ullic's settlement, a weaver woman called Gyndrel, asked Henna why they called the Mistress the Away One. Henna, a woman who loved to answer a question with a question, promptly asked Gyndrel why she thought they would call her that. Gyndrel's first response was that the name must have come from Veronica's obviously foreign background, from the fact that she came from someplace away from Cambria, but Henna snorted with disgust almost before the words were fully out of Gyndrel's mouth. Veronica, she pointed out, might have begun her life as an Outlander, but she was now the wife of the King's eldest son, and no one in the entire Pendragon Federation would dare to insult or defame her nowadays by hinting that she might be anything less than acceptable. Henna then told the woman, her words dripping with disdain, to stopdrivelling and use her mind for a moment.
Sitting on the far side of the fire from the women, concealed from their direct view by a pile of firewood, Uther nodded smugly to himself as Gyndrel eventually answered with all the plausible reasons he would have given in her place. But his head jerked up in shock when Henna dismissed all of them with a scornful laugh.
Nah, she scoffed, pulling her shawl tightly about her shoulders and shifting her large buttocks in search of more comfort. When Gyndrel grew more familiar with this family and what went on under this roof, she would soon learn that the Away One meant simply what it said, and that the Mistress was all too often far away in a place of her own within her own head, far from Cambria.
That dose of information, unexpected as it was, gave young Uther much more to think about than he had ever had before, and he began to watch his mother closely, examining her behaviour for any sign of these "absences." But of course it was useless to attempt anything of the kind, because his mother's behaviour was no whit different than it had ever been, and he had never seen anything strange about it before. Nevertheless, he remained permanently alert after that for signs of awayness in her.
After that day, too, he took especial pains to safeguard and protect his virtual invisibility in the kitchen while the women were gossiping, removing himself from view, if not actually hiding, from time to time whenever the conversation promised to be especially enlightening, and he never failed to keep one ear mentally cocked for any mention of his mother's "other" name. He learned much, over the course of the ensuing four years, and he began to recognize the "away" intervals in his mother's behaviour, but he never did learn anything in the kitchens about the underlying cause of Veronica's supposedly strange behaviour and he eventually became convinced that Henna herself did notknow the truth, no matter how hard she tried to appear all-knowing.
It would be years before Uther was able to piece together a semblance of the "truth" that he could eventually accept, and the first plausible explanation that he heard came from a conversation between his father and his mother's father, Publius Varrus. It took place in Camulod, in the early autumn of a year in which Uric had brought his wife to visit her parents Publius and Luceiia Varrus, to collect his son, who had spent the entire summer in his grandparents' home with his "twin" cousin, Caius Merlyn Britannicus. The two boys had been born within hours of each other on the same day, albeit miles apart, one of them in Cambria and the other in Camulod. They were very close to each other, in blood if not in actual temperament, and they had been the best of friends ever since they had grown old enough to recognize each other. Caius's father, Picus Britannicus, had once been a cavalry commandera full legatein the Roman legions under the great Flavius Stilicho, Imperial Regent and Commander-in-Chief of the boy emperor Honorius. When his wife, Enid, a sister to King Ullic, was killed by a madman, shortly after giving birth to their only son, Picus's aunt Luceiia, Uther's own grandmother, had adopted the infant Caius as her own charge in the ongoing absence of his father.
When the two boys were very small, barely able to walk and run, Uther's mother Veronica had insisted that they spend as much time as was possible in each other's company, for both their sakes, and for the good of the family, and so it had become normal for Uther to spend much of each summer down in Camulod, and then for Caiusor Cay, as he had come to be known by his friendsto return with him to Cambria for much of the winter.
On this particular afternoon, Uther was once again playing the role of invisible listener, his eavesdropping skills long practiced and sharpened by his years of hiding in Henna's kitchen. It was a dismal, rainy day, andthe boys were playing indoors in the old Villa Britannicus, once the ancestral home of Caius Britannicus, Caius Merlyn's grandfather, but now used as quarters for visiting guests, since the Britannicus Varrus family had moved up to live in the new fort at the top of the hill, less than a mile away.
Uther had been hiding from Cay and his other friends, well concealed behind a curtain in his grandfather's favorite room. When he heard the sounds of approaching footsteps, he remained utterly still, believing it was his companions come looking for him. When he heard his grandfather Publius begin to speak, however, he realized his error and began to emerge from his hiding place, but almost immediately, perhaps by force of habit, he hesitated.
Uther's father had followed Publius into the room and his grandfather asked his first question without preamble. It was suddenly too late for Uther to emerge at all. And so he remained where he was, and listened.
"You can tell me to mind my own business if you wish, but there's something wrong between you and Veronica, isn't there?"
Uther stood motionless, holding his breath as he waited to hear his father's response. The silence that followed his grandfather's question seemed to last for an age, however, and then Uther heard the sound of slow footsteps and the scraping of wood on stone as someone moved a chair.
"Has she said anything to you?" his father asked.
"No, she has not ... not to me, nor to her mother ... but neither one of us is stupid, Uric, and Veronica is not a facile liar, even when she keeps silent. The trouble's not ours, for all that we love our daughter ... it's yours and hers. A daughter and a wife are two distinct and very different creatures, coexisting in a single woman. But, as I said, if you don't wish to talk about it, I'll respect that."
Another long silence stretched out and was shattered by the brazen clash of a gong, its unexpectedness making Uther jump, so that for a moment he was afraid hemight have betrayed himself. Nothing happened, however, and as his heartbeat began to slow again, he heard another voice, this one from the far side of the room.
"Master Varrus, what may I bring you?"
"Ah, Gallo, bring us something to drink, please. Something cold."
Gallo must have retired immediately, because the silence resumed, and then his father spoke again.
"I don't really know what to tell you, Publius. Something definitely is wrong, as you say, and it has been wrong for a long, long time. There's a part of me that thinks it understands, but even so, it doesn't really make sense, even to me, so how can I explain it to you?"
It was some time before his father spoke again.
"Not that we are unhappy, you know ... it's simply that ... well, we sleep together and behave as man and wife, but I know" Uric Pendragon broke off, and then continued in a rush. "She won't have any more children. None, Publius. And I don't mean she is incapable of having any more. I mean she will not have them. Doesn't want them, won't hear talk of them. She takes ... she takes medicaments and nostrums to guard against becoming pregnant. Gets them from some of the old women who live in the countryside beyond our settlement, the ones who are supposed to be the priestesses of the Old Goddess."
"The Old Goddess? You mean the Moon Goddess?"
"Aye, the greatest of all our gods and goddesses. Rhiannon, we call her. She is very real and very present, out there among the people of the mountains and the forests."
"Why on earth would she go to such lengths to avoid having children? That does not sound like the Veronica I know. All she ever dreamed of, as a girl, was having a brood of children of her own. You must have" Varrus broke off and cleared his throat. "Damnation, it's difficult to say some things without sounding wrong. I'm not blaming you for anything, yet ... have you any idea what happened?"
Uther heard his father sigh, a great, gusting breath.
"Aye, Publius, I have. It has to be connected with that first night we arrived in Cambria, newly wed, and the debacle that took place there, the deaths. By the time I discovered what was going on, it was already too late to prevent it. I tried to hide it from her, to take her away and protect her from it, but I couldn't, and I know it frightened her badly ... .
"But then, over time, once all the excitement had died away, she seemed to settle down and gradually grew more calm. I tried to explain it to herall the why and wherefores of how it happened. But she merely listened and said nothingnever reacted at all, and finally I simply stopped talking about it altogether. We never spoke of it again. I thought she had forgotten it at last."
They were interrupted at that point by the return of Gallo, evidently accompanied by another man bearing a tray of drinks. Uther felt his bladder stirring faintly, and resolutely ignored it, concentrating instead upon the muttered, indecipherable mumbles of small talk and the clinking of dishes, and the subsequent withdrawal of Gallo and whoever had come with him. Moments later, he heard the sounds of liquid pouring from one container into others. He translated an inarticulate grunt from his father as a wordless acknowledgment of gratitude, and then came a brief pause, during which he visualized the two men drinking. His throat went tight and dry quickly and he worked his mouth, trying to generate enough saliva to relieve his sudden thirst. Beyond the curtain, someonehe assumed it was his grandfather because it was he who spoke nextreplaced his cup audibly on a surface of some kind.
"So, you were saying she recovered from her horror, eventually ..."
"Aye, I thought she had. She was terrified, at first. I think she believed that the things she had seen were commonprobably thought we burned all our enemies alive. There was a period after the event when she was so ... I don't know ... so gone from me, that I was afraid I had lost her and her love forever. Then Utherwas born, and we were lost in the wonder of watching him grow stronger and more beautiful each day.
"Months went by, and then years, and I began to fret over her consistent failure to have another child. It was not for the lack of trying, and so I began to worry, and to question myself. She'd had no trouble conceiving when we were first wed ... in fact, I had believed she caught with child on our wedding night. But then, when I began to harp on that to her, wondering why it should be so, Veronica reacted strangely. She grew hostile and refused to speak of it, turning away from me each time I raised the subject, and that was when I began to be aware that something was badly wrong between us ... that would have been ... what? Four years ago? No, closer to five. I knew I had done nothing to cause any such wrongness ... nothing harmful.
"I've never doubted that she loves me, as her husband, but there is a deep, deep sadness in her all the time, Publius, a well of grief. And I feel powerless to help her. As I said, she won't even consider having any more children. Not at all."
"And you say you don't know why."
"No, I do, it goes back to that first night, the night of the fires. The last time we fought, she said she would never bring another child into this world to be betrayed and blackened by the Druids."
It took his grandfather some time to respond to that.
"I think, Uric, I would like to hear what really happened on that occasion. By the time we learned anything about it in Camulod, it had all been over for months and everyone was trying to forget it, stepping over and around it and saying as little as possible. I know there was an uprising of some kind among the Druids, and that many of them were killed, and I know that several other people died in a fire. But what did Veronica actually see that night?"
Another long silence ensued, and Uther stood motionless, trying not to breathe too loudly, lest the sound of it be noticeable to the men on the other side of his curtain. He was acutely aware of the tension out there,underlined by the unusual number of long pauses and breaks in the flow of their conversation. Every one of those pauses, as each man thought deeply before saying what he had to say next, was a silence into which he was afraid the sounds of his breathing or his heartbeat might easily intrude. Finally his father spoke.
"She witnessed a burning."
"A burning ... what does that mean? Are you telling me it was deliberate, that she saw someone being deliberately burnt to death?"
"Aye ... more than one."
"How many more, in God's name?"
"Sweet Jesus! Thirty-two men? She was barely sixteen years old! You allowed her to watch thirty-two men being burned alive?"
"No, of course not! I allowed nothing. But there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. We knew nothing about it until it was being done, Publius. Even my father was powerless to stop it. We arrived in the middle of things, with no warning."
Another long silence and then the sound of footsteps pacing up and down. When his grandfather's voice came again, Uther could imagine him standing looking out and away, with his back to Uric. "And what was going on, Uric? I know it was a priests' rebellion, but that's all I know. Tell me about it now."
"There's not much to tell. It all came to a head while we were here in Camulod, for the wedding feast, but it had begun a long time before that, a plot born and nurtured in secrecy, protected by blood oaths and the fear of visitation by demons. What forced it into prominence, however, was sheer circumstance and coincidence. While the King and his strongest supporters were away in Camulod, making merry, a force of Ersemen raided our southern coast. Four boatloads of them. By the merest chance, we had a force of our own down there at the time, under the command of Powys, one of my father's best captains. By the time Powys learned of the enemy presence and caught up to them, however,the raiders had burned four settlements along the coastline. Powys fought them as soon as he found them. Caught them away from their boats and cut them off, then slaughtered themor most of them. But not enough of them, as it turned out. We found out later that Powys had been spending timetoo much timein the company of certain of our Druids, and because of that, instead of simply killing the raiders out of hand, as he ought to have, he had brought them back as prisoners."
"Why would he do that? Your people don't take slaves, do they? And you've no place and no time for prisoners. And what has any of that to do with Druids? Your Chief Druid was with us in Camulod at that time, was he not? I thought he was the one in the red robes, officiating at the nuptials along with Bishop Alaric?"
"Aye, he was. Llew was his name. He's dead now, and replaced by a man called Daris, five years ago. But the trouble had begun elsewhere among the Druids, long before my marriage to Veronica, with a group of disaffected malcontents known as the Black Brethren. These people thought they could break away from what they saw as today's weaknesses and reestablish the ancient ways, or their ideas of the ancient ways. They revived the traditions whispered of in the tales of the great human Burnings, when captured enemies were offered to the gods in sacrifice and Cambria was strong and proud. Such tales as those, you have probably never heard, for nothing of the kind has happened in more than half a thousand years. But the stories persist among our people, and the tradition has never been forgotten.
"These mad priests used their power and their place within our lives to instill deep fear of the ancient gods into those people who would listen to them. And many people did, many people from all levels of our folk. Powys was not the only Chief or lesser chieftain they seduced. And they moved quickly, once they had decided to go forward with their plans. They enforced their viewpoints and their commands in secrecy, usingblood oaths and dreadful threats of punishment for betrayal, exercising fear as the potent force that it is. Their movement, if you could even call it that, was a kind of insurrection against Llew the Chief Druid and his ways. It came to naught, as it turned out, because that single incident of the Tir Manha Burning brought about their end.
"When we arrived from Camulod that night, sunset had caught us within several miles of home, but since we anticipated no danger there in our own lands, we decided to press on in the darkness and sleep in our own beds in Tir Manha ... You can have no idea how much, or how often, I have regretted that decision."
"No, I believe you. But wait you ..." There came another silence, and then Uther heard the sound of more footsteps approaching from a distance.
"Caius?" he heard his grandfather ask, his voice tight with asperity. "What are you doing in here? You know you're not supposed to bring your friends clattering through the house like raiding Outlanders."
"We're looking for Uther, Uncle."
"That matters not to me, lad. If you have eyes in your head and the sense with which to use them, you will see that Uther is not here. Now, off with you and seek him somewhere else. Your Uncle Uric and I are trying to talk, so away you go and leave us to our affairs. Go on, now, but go quietly, because if your Aunt Luceiia finds you charging through the house like that, you'll all be in trouble. And close those doors as you go out, if you please."
Moments later, after the footsteps had retreated more quietly than they had approached, Varrus spoke again.
"So, I gather that you arrived home to find this sacrifice already under way. But you must have known what was happening, from all the lights and the activity. Surely you could have spirited your wife away from all of it? I mean, the glow from thirty-two fires must have been bright indeed."
"Thirty-two? No, there was but one fire, Publius,in the burning pit. The prisoners were all confined in cages, suspended above it." In the space of a few stark moments, Uric outlined the sight that had awaited the returning party on their arrival, and Uther listened, fascinated, as his mind tried to recreate what the scene must have looked and sounded like. When Uric had finished speaking, Publius Varrus remained quiet for a while, absorbing what he had been told before he could speak again.
"By the Christ," he said eventually, in a flat, stunned voice. "I remember your father describing this pit to me, years ago. But he made no mention of that kind of thing. This was barbarism beyond the acts of any barbarians I have ever known or heard of. And Ullic did nothing to stop this?"
"He was as confused as all the rest of us. Nothing like that had ever happened, in living memory, and none of us really knew what to expect."
"Your Druids must have known!"
"Aye, the dark ones didthe Black Brethrenbut they were the only ones. And they had had time to work on those of us who had stayed home, by invoking the three-day law. The prisoners had been captive for three days by then, you see. And our ancient laws decreed that if a prisoner was to die, he should be killed within three days of being taken. Failing that, he should be kept as a working slave, or else set free. Killed after that three days, however, his spirit would remain to haunt and terrify his murderers."
"That is nonsense."
"No, Publius, that is our ancient law ... Druidic law.
"Based upon fear and superstition."
"Based upon our beliefs. Cambria isn't Camulod, Publius." Uther heard his father pacing anxiously, and exasperation in his voice when he spoke again. "You have open spaces, high walls and Roman comforts. You have warmth and light in abundancefine, pure tapers and candles of beeswax, with bright, coal-burning braziers and blazing torches fuelled by carefully rendered tallow and clear oils. Not so with us. We are ruled bythe night and the darkness, and our people fear the beings that infest the night. You, with your Roman-bred beliefs, can smile at us for being superstitious, but we must live with who we are and what we know. We believe that the spirits of the dead walk freely among us, in the dark of night, and that only the goodwill of our gods keeps us from seeing them and prevents them from terrorizing us. When that goodwill is removed, we are at the mercy of the night. We are Celts, Publius, Gaels, not Romans. That is not superstition to us ... It is the very stuff of life and truth, and believe me when I tell you it is difficult to feel that you are being foolish and superstitious when your blood has turned to water and your bones to jelly because of the blind terror that has eaten you up."
"Aye, I suppose ... and your Druids encourage you in all of that."
"Of course they do ... They are our priests."
"So what of this Llew, what did he do, that night?"
"Nothing, he was unconscious, overpowered and knocked on the head by the rebel priests as soon as he arrived, captured out of our sight and carried off before any of us knew what was going on. Then my father's Councilors came to us, suborned as they had been by the black priests, and convinced him that it was the will of all the gods ... and all the Druids ... that the sacrifice proceed and that the spirits of the prisoners be freed, since we could plainly not turn them all loose, nor could we keep them all penned up as slaves and prisoners. My father saw the truth of that and thus permitted them to proceed, albeit with great reluctance, and the sacrifice began. Only then did I begin to see what was going on and to realize what was really happening. The burning pit had always been there, since before I was born, and I had seen it used on several occasions, to burn the remains of highborn men, Chiefs and Druids. But I had never known of its being used to burn yet-living men. I tried to take Veronica out of there then, finally aware of what might happen, but in seeking to protect her I made the mistake of not tellingher what was really taking place, and so she balked and ran away from me, towards the bright lights and the smoke and the sacrifice, not knowing what was there ..."
"And ...? "
"It was a full month and more before she spoke another word, to me or anyone. It was as though she lay in a trance, and yet she ate and drank when meat and drink was offered her. I almost lost my wits, before the end of that."
"Why did we hear nothing of this?"
"Because that was how Veronica wished it to be. As she recovered, she decided that it could serve no useful purpose to upset you and her mother with the word of what she had endured. And by that time, she was well swollen with little Uther and no one wanted to talk much of anything other than that."
"Aye, and your own people, how did they react to what was done that night by these Black Brethren?"
"Well, talking about offering a human sacrifice and actually performing a human sacrifice are not at all the same thing. Once our people saw the smoke and heard the screams and smelled the stink of charring flesh, they quickly lost all their lust for the old days. Tir Manha was a quiet, shame-filled place for long, long weeks after that night."
"Aye ... and what about the priests, these so-called rebels who dreamed up this thing?"
"Well, we found out by the following morning what had been happening, and we found them on the point of killing Llew, just in time to stop them. Then we killed all of them."
"How? You burned them, didn't you? Threw them into their own pit."
"No, Publius, we did not burn them. That thing, that burning was ... there is a Roman word for it, I've heard you use ... an aberration. It was an evil thing, born of a few evil men who made it happen through fear. We Pendragons are not even a wicked people, Publius, and we are certainly not evil. You know that. We havenever burned another person since that night, and we never will. We simply cut the rebel priests down wherever we found them. No ceremony involved. That would have made them seem important. We simply killed them out of hand, no more than that. And then we filled in the burning pit completely and used it as their common grave, leaving it unmarked. There were forty-four of them, in all, in our lands. More than a few, but not enough in the long run to generate any significant threat to Llew, his brethren and their teachings. There might have been others of their kind elsewhere, beyond our territories, but if there were we heard no more of them, once the word had spread of how the Black Brethren in King Ullic's land had died."
"Aye, well ..." Publius Varrus sighed, deeply. "Uric, I know you are not evil. You are my son by marriage. Nor is your father evil. But I tell you honestly, I cannot conceive of such a thing happening, ever, under any circumstances, among our people in Camulod, or elsewhere in any other place that I know of. There is something fundamentally, intrinsically wrong with people who could do such things, no matter what the provocation they have undergone."
Uther listened, his breathing thick in his chest, waiting for his father to digest those words and then to respond to them. And for the longest time, it sounded as though no answer would be made. But then his father spoke again, his voice little more than a whisper.
"You're right, Publius, you're right. There is a darkness there, within our Cambrian spirits, that permits us, as a folk, to do such things. We did them in the dim and far-off past, in the smoky shadows of black night and at the urging of our priests, and we have shown that we could do them still, today, given the proper drive. It is cause for deep shame."
"No, son, it is cause for awareness and great care in future time, but not for further shame. As you have said, you never burned another person and you never will. But be sure to remind your people that they did, once, and that they regretted it. Now, to my daughteragainyour wife. Tell me truly, why do you think she will have no more children?"
When Uther heard his father's voice again, it was filled with certainty and conviction. "Because I believe she is determined that no child of hers will ever grow to live in Cambria, among the Pendragon, and offer human sacrifice. I think she blames all of my people for what happened that night. She has made friends among us, I have no doubt of that, but she will never fully trust any of us, ever ... I believe, too, that something has gone wrong within her mind, and because of that ... that wrongness in her mind ... she fears now that any other children she might have with me will be infected with the darkness that lies in our past and in our blood. That, I truly believe, is the root and cause of her refusal to have more."
"I think the same, Uric. And I believe it rests with you and me to help her forget all about this." There came a pause, in which Uther could imagine the two men sipping thoughtfully from the cups they held. Then, "One more thing. What about the boy?"
"Uther? What about him?"
"How does she feel about him?"
Listening breathlessly, Uther knew the pause that occurred then must have been a very short one, but to him it seemed endless as he waited for his father to reply. When Uric did, his tone was questioning and Uther had a mental vision of his father's face creased in puzzlement.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if she is so upset over the thought of having more children for your Druids, or whoever else she sees as being responsible, to corrupt, then it seems to me that it might be because of something she has seen, or thinks to have seen, in young Uther. You did say that for several years she gave no indication of her fears. Something, then, must have triggered them, and it occurred to me it might have been the boy."
Uther could barely understand what his father was being asked. Was he being accused of hurting his ownmother? Apparently his father was equally confused, because it was some time before he answered, and then he said, simply, "Publius, he's your grandson."
"I know he is, and I could not love him more were he twins. That's not my question. But Uther possesses all the attributes that any other, future child of yours might have ... and that means he has all the failings and the flaws, as well as the strengths. It is those flaws and failingshow did you refer to them earlier, 'that darkness that lies within our past and in our blood?'that Veronica claims to fear. How, then, does she perceive her son? Is she afraid of him, or for him?"
"No, of course not! Neither one nor the other. She loves him. I swear it, Publius, Veronica loves Uther."
To Uther's ear, however, his father's words rang unconvincingly. There had been a pause, a hesitation, between the two assertions, that had lasted a tiny moment too long. His grandfather thought so, too.
"I think you're wrong there, Uric, and I think you know it, too, down in the depths of you. Oh, not in the part about her loving him, for I believe wholeheartedly that my daughter loves her son, make no mistake on that. The love shines out of her like a pure light whenever she sees him. But that's not what I asked you. I asked you if she feared him, or feared for him. I believe, in my gut, that Veronica fears deeply for the boy and always has, ever since his birth, and probably for months before that, now that I know what you have told me here. I believe that is why she has always insisted, ever since the boy was old enough to walk, that he spend as much time as he does in Camulod, with young Caius. Caius's presence there provides her with a reason for her insistence, but I now suspect that Uther would be sent to Camulod each year even if Caius were not there."
When next he spoke, Uric sounded unsure of himself. "If what you say is true, there is no logic in it. I had never thought of it before now, but Uther himself ought to be a shining reason for Veronica to want more children. There's nothing wrong with him."
"No, there's nothing about him I would want to change. I agree with you completely. But we are not discussing logic here, Uric; we are discussing women, their ideas, and their instinctual fears. It is not her unborn children that threaten poor Veronica, it is the dread of what evil men might do to them, and therein lies her folly and her sickness, for if all women were to shut themselves up as she has, refusing to bear children for fear the world might damage or corrupt them, then our whole race of men would soon die out and leave this world to the beasts ...
"Our task, as I see it, is to work from now on to convince your wife that her own teachings will be stronger than the urgings of evil men. She is the one who, as a mother, will show her sons and daughters the lights of hope and goodness that burn in the deepest darkness. You agree?"
"Yes ... Yes, of course I do."
"Good, then let's go and make a beginning." When the two men had gone, Uther emerged, holding the edge of the curtain carefully and lowering it gently as he left his hiding place and moved slowly across the room to where a pair of large, padded and upholstered armchairs flanked the stone fireplace in the end wall. Reaching the armchair that was closest to him he stopped when his hip bumped against it, but made no move to sit. Instead, he stood staring sightlessly into the empty fireplace, his eyes unfocused as he grappled with the strange and troubling new thought that had been implanted in his mind: his mother feared him. His mind had accepted what it heard, because there was no logical reason to do otherwise ... the two men speaking had not known that he was there, so they had no reason to speak other than truthfully. But his mind, overwhelmed by that sudden epiphany, had also failed to establish any difference between the alternatives of his mother being afraid of him and being afraid for him.
Uther Pendragon was now a very different person from the carefree boy who had dashed into this room a half hour earlier. Then, the biggest and most immediateproblem in his mind had been the need to find a perfect hiding place. Now he had been changed forever and had aged immeasurably within half an hour. Now he was fighting to accept, and to adjust to, the awareness that his own beloved mother was afraid of him, afraid of some dark side of himsome elemental thing that lay imbedded in his very nature, some aspect of his being that she had learned to fear and distrust long before he was born, when she herself was a young girl, merely a few years older than he was now. Whatever it was, that thing had terrified her thoroughly, according to her own father, sufficiently so to change her lifelong determination to mother an entire brood of children.
Uther discovered that he had no wish to know what that thing was, for if it had the power to terrify his mother, he knew it would frighten him beyond bearing. He hated the thought that his mother might be afraid of him, but he hated even more the suspicion that she might distrust him in some basic, formless way, or that she might at least distrust that part of him that frightened her the most. He knew she loved him. He had heard his grandfather say that her smile lit up the room whenever she set eyes on him, and he knew that was true because he had seen it with his own eyes. How, then, could she be afraid of him? What was there in him, in his very nature, that could make even his mother fear him?
That was a question Uther Pendragon would never be able to answer, for he could never know that what his Roman-bred mother feared lay not within him, but in the very nature of his Celtic people.
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