The Winter King
The Warlord Chronicles: I A Novel of Arthur
By Bernard Cornwell
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1995 Bernard Cornwell
All rights reserved.
A Child in Winter
Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened. Bishop Sansum, whom God must bless above all the saints living and dead, says these memories should be cast into the bottomless pit with all the other filth of fallen mankind, for these are the tales of the last days before the great darkness descended on the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are the tales of the land we call Lloegyr, which means the Lost Lands, the country that was once ours but which our enemies now call England. These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I have wept for Arthur.
It is cold today. The hills are deathly pale and the clouds dark. We shall have snow before nightfall, but Sansum will surely refuse us the blessing of a fire. It is good, the saint says, to mortify the flesh. I am old now, but Sansum, may God grant him many years yet, is older still so I cannot use my age as an argument to unlock the woodstore. Sansum will just say that our suffering is an offering to God who suffered more than all of us, and so we six brethren shall shiver in our half-sleep and tomorrow the well will be frozen and Brother Maelgwyn will have to climb down the chain and hammer the ice with a stone before we can drink.
Yet cold is not the worst affliction of our winter, but rather that the icy paths will stop Igraine visiting the monastery. Igraine is our Queen, married to King Brochvael. She is dark and slender, very young, and has a quickness that is like the sun's warmth on a winter's day. She comes here to pray that she will be granted a son, yet she spends more time talking with me than praying to Our Lady or to her blessed son. She talks to me because she likes to hear the stories of Arthur, and this past summer I told her all that I could remember and when I could remember no more she brought me a heap of parchment, a horn flask of ink and a bundle of goose feathers for quills. Arthur wore goose feathers on his helmet. These quills are not so big, nor so white, but yesterday I held the sheaf of quills up to the winter sky and for a glorious guilty moment I thought I saw his face beneath that plume. For that one moment the dragon and the bear snarled across Britain to terrify the heathen again, but then I sneezed and saw I clutched nothing but a handful of feathers clotted with goose droppings and scarcely adequate for writing. The ink is just as bad; mere lamp-black mixed with gum from apple-bark. The parchments are better. They are made from lambs' skins left over from the Roman days and were once covered with a script none of us could read, but Igraine's women scraped the skins bare and white. Sansum says it would be better if so much lambskin were made into shoes, but the scraped skins are too thin to cobble, and besides, Sansum dare not offend Igraine and thus lose the friendship of King Brochvael. This monastery is no more than a half-day's journey from enemy spearmen and even our small storehouse could tempt those enemies across the Black Stream, up into the hills and so to Dinnewrac's valley if Brochvael's warriors were not ordered to protect us. Yet I do not think that even Brochvael's friendship would reconcile Sansum to the idea of Brother Derfel writing an account of Arthur, Enemy of God, and so Igraine and I have lied to the blessed saint by telling him that I am writing down a translation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the tongue of the Saxons. The blessed saint does not speak the enemy tongue, nor can he read, and so we should be able to deceive him long enough for this tale to be written.
And he will need to be deceived for, not long after I had begun writing on this very skin, the holy Sansum came into the room. He stood at the window, peered at the bleak sky and rubbed his thin hands together. 'I like the cold,' he said, knowing that I do not.
'I feel it worst,' I responded gently, 'in my missing hand.' It is my left hand that is missing and I am using the wrist's knobbly stump to steady the parchment as I write.
'All pain is a blessed reminder of our dear Lord's Passion,' the Bishop said, just as I had expected, then he leaned on the table to look at what I had written. 'Tell me what the words say, Derfel,' he demanded.
'I am writing,' I lied, 'the story of the Christ- child's birth.'
He stared at the skin, then placed a dirty fingernail on his own name. He can decipher some letters and his own name must have stood out from the parchment as stark as a raven in the snow. Then he cackled like a wicked child and twisted a hank of my white hair in his fingers. 'I was not present at our Lord's birth, Derfel, yet that is my name. Are you writing heresy, you toad of hell?'
'Lord,' I said humbly as his grip kept my face bowed close over my work, 'I have started the Gospel by recording that it is only by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and with the permission of His most holy saint, Sansum' – and here I edged my finger toward his name – 'that I am able to write down this good news of Christ Jesus.'
He tugged at my hair, pulling some free, then stepped away. 'You are the spawn of a Saxon whore,' he said, 'and no Saxon could ever be trusted. Take care, Saxon, not to offend me.'
'Gracious Lord,' I said to him, but he did not stay to hear more. There was a time when he bowed his knee to me and kissed my sword, but now he is a saint and I am nothing but the most miserable of sinners. And a cold sinner too, for the light beyond our walls is hollow, grey and full of threat. The first snow will fall very soon.
And there was snow when Arthur's tale began. It was a lifetime ago, in the last year of High King Uther's reign. That year, as the Romans used to reckon time, was 1233 years after the founding of their city, though we in Britain usually date our years from the Black Year which was when the Romans cut down the Druids on Ynys Mon. By that reckoning Arthur's story begins in the year 420, though Sansum, may God bless him, numbers our era from the date of our Lord Jesus Christ's birth which he believes happened 480 winters before these things began. But however you count the years it was long ago, once upon a time, in a land called Britain, and I was there.
And this is how it was.
It began with a birth.
On a bitter night, when the kingdom lay still and white beneath a waning moon.
And in the hall, Norwenna screamed.
It was midnight. The sky was clear, dry and brilliant with stars. The land was frozen hard as iron, its streams gripped by ice. The waning moon was a bad omen and in its sullen light the long western lands seemed to glow with a pale cold shimmer. No snow had fallen for three days, nor had there been any thaw, so all the world was white except where the trees had been windblown free of snow and now stood black and intricate against the winter-bleak land. Our breath misted, but did not blow away for there was no wind in this clear midnight. The earth seemed dead and still, as if she had been abandoned by Belenos the Sun God and left to drift in the endless cold void between the worlds. And cold it was; a bitter, deadly cold. Icicles hung long from the eaves of Caer Cadarn's great hall and from the arched gateway where, earlier that day, the High King's entourage had struggled through drifted snow to bring our Princess to this high place of kings. Caer Cadarn was where the royal stone was kept; it was the place of acclamation and thus the only place, the High King insisted, where his heir could be born.
Norwenna screamed again.
I have never seen a child's birth, nor, God willing, will I ever see one. I have seen a mare foal and watched calves slither into the world, and I have heard the soft whining of a whelping bitch and felt the writhing of a birthing cat, but never have I seen the blood and mucus that accompanies a woman's screams. And how Norwenna screamed, even though she was trying not to, or so the women said afterwards. Sometimes the shrieking would suddenly stop and leave a silence hanging over the whole high fort and the High King would lift his great head from among the furs and he would listen as carefully as though he were in a thicket and the Saxons were close by, only now he was listening in hope that the sudden silence marked the moment of birth when his kingdom would have an heir again. He would listen, and in the stillness across the frozen compound we would hear the harsh noise of his daughter-in-law's terrible breathing and once, just once, there was a pathetic whimper, and the High King half turned as though to say something, but then the screams began again and his head sank down into the heavy pelts so that only his eyes could be seen glinting in the shadowed cave formed by the heavy fur hood and collar.
'You should not be on the ramparts, High Lord,' Bishop Bedwin said.
Uther waved a gloved hand as if to suggest that Bedwin was welcome to go inside where the fires burned, but High King Uther, the Pendragon of Britain, would not move. He wanted to be on Caer Cadarn's ramparts so he could gaze across the icy land and up into the middle air where the demons lurked, but Bedwin was right, the High King should not have been standing guard against demons on this hard night. Uther was old and sick, yet the kingdom's safety depended on his bloated body and on his slow, sad mind. He had been vigorous only six months before, but then had come the news of his heir's death. Mordred, the most beloved of his sons and the only one of those born to his bride still living, had been cut down by a Saxon broad-axe and had then bled to death beneath the hill of the White Horse. That death had left the kingdom without an heir, and a kingdom without an heir is a cursed kingdom, but this night, if the Gods willed, Uther's heir would be born to Mordred's widow. Unless the child was a girl, of course, in which case all the pain was for nothing and the kingdom doomed.
Uther's great head raised itself from the pelts that were crusted with ice where his breath had settled on the fur. 'All is being done, Bedwin?' Uther asked.
'All, High Lord, all,' Bishop Bedwin said. He was the King's most trusted counsellor and, like the Princess Norwenna, a Christian. Norwenna, protesting at being moved from the warm Roman villa in nearby Lindinis, had screamed at her father-in-law that she would only go to Caer Cadarn if he promised to keep the old Gods' witches away. She had insisted on a Christian birth, and Uther, desperate for an heir, had agreed to her demands. Now Bedwin's priests were chanting their prayers in a chamber beside the hall where holy water had been sprinkled, a cross had been hung over the birth bed and another put beneath Norwenna's body. 'We are praying to the blessed Virgin Mary,' Bedwin explained, 'who, without soiling her sacred body by any carnal knowledge, became Christ's holy mother and -'
'Enough,' Uther growled. The High King was no Christian and did not like any man attempting to make him one, though he did accept that the Christian God probably had as much power as most other Gods. The events of this night were testing that toleration to the limit.
Which was why I was there. I was a child on the edge of manhood, a beardless errand-runner who crouched frozen beside the King's chair on the ramparts of Caer Cadarn. I had come from Ynys Wydryn, Merlin's hall, which lay on the northern horizon. My task, if ordered, was to fetch Morgan and her helpers who waited in a pig-herder's mud hovel at the foot of Caer Cadarn's western slope. The Princess Norwenna might want Christ's mother as her midwife, but Uther was ready with the older Gods if that newer one failed.
And the Christian God did fail. Norwenna's screams became fewer, but her whimpering more desperate until at last Bishop Bedwin's wife came from the hall and knelt shivering beside the High King's chair. The baby, Ellin said, would not come and the mother, she feared, was dying. Uther waved that last comment aside. The mother was nothing, only the child mattered, and only then if it was a boy.
'High Lord ...' Ellin began nervously, but Uther was no longer listening.
He tapped my head. 'Go, boy,' he said, and I twisted out of his shadow, leaped down to the fort's interior and raced across the moon-shadowed whiteness between the buildings. The guards on the western gate watched me run by, then I was sliding and falling on the ice-chute of the western road. I slithered through snow, tore my cloak on a tree stump and fell heavily into some ice-laden brambles, but I felt nothing, except the huge weight of a kingdom's fate on my young shoulders. 'Lady Morgan!' I shouted as I neared the hovel. 'Lady Morgan!'
She must have been waiting, for the hovel door was immediately flung open and her gold-masked face shone in the moonlight. 'Go!' she screeched at me, 'go!' and I turned and started back up the hill while around me a pack of Merlin's orphans scrambled through the snow. They were carrying kitchen pots which they clashed together as they ran, though when the slope grew too steep and treacherous they were forced to hurl the pots on ahead and scramble up behind. Morgan followed more slowly, attended by her slave Sebile who carried the necessary charms and herbs. 'Set the fires, Derfel!' Morgan called up to me.
'Fire!' I shouted breathlessly as I scrambled through the gateway. 'Fire on the ramparts! Fire!'
Bishop Bedwin protested at Morgan's arrival, but the High King turned on his counsellor in a rage and the Bishop meekly surrendered to the older faith. His priests and monks were ordered out of their makeshift chapel and told to carry firebrands to all parts of the ramparts and there pile the burning brands with wood and wattle torn out of the huts that clustered inside the fort's northern walls. The fires crackled, then blazed huge in the night and their smoke hung in the air to make a canopy that would confuse the evil spirits and so keep them from this place where a princess and her child were dying. We young ones raced around the ramparts banging pots to make the great noise that would further dizzy the evil ones. 'Shout,' I ordered the children from Ynys Wydryn, and still more children came from the fortress hovels to add their noise to ours. The guards beat their spear-shafts against their shields, and the priests piled more wood on to a dozen flaming pyres while the rest of us screamed our noisy challenges against the evil wraiths that had slithered through the night to curse Norwenna's labour.
Morgan, Sebile, Nimue and one girl child went into the hall. Norwenna screamed, though whether she cried aloud in protest at the coming of Merlin's women or because the stubborn child was tearing her body in two, we could not tell. More screams sounded as Morgan expelled the Christian attendants. She threw the two crosses into the snow and tossed a handful of mugwort, the woman's herb, on to the fire. Nimue later told me that they put iron nuggets into the damp bed to scare away the evil spirits already lodged there and laid seven eagle stones around the writhing woman's head to bring the good spirits down from the Gods.
Sebile, Morgan's slave, put a birch branch over the hall door and waved another over the writhing body of the hurting Princess. Nimue crouched in the door and urinated on the threshold to keep the evil fairies away from the hall, then she cupped some of her urine and carried it to Norwenna's bed where she sprinkled it on the straw as a further precaution against the child's soul being stolen away at the moment of birth. Morgan, her gold mask bright in the flamelight, slapped Norwenna's hands away so she could force a charm of rare amber between the Princess's breasts. The small girl, one of Merlin's foundlings, waited in terror at the foot of the bed.
Smoke from the newly set fires blurred the stars. Creatures woken in the woods at the foot of Caer Cadarn howled at the noise which had erupted above them while High King Uther raised his eyes to the dying moon and prayed that he had not fetched Morgan too late. Morgan was Uther's natural daughter, the first of the four bastards the High King had whelped on Igraine of Gwynedd. Uther would doubtless have preferred Merlin to be there, but Merlin had been gone for months, gone into nowhere, gone, it sometimes seemed to us, for ever, and Morgan, who had learned her skills from Merlin, must take his place on this cold night in which we clashed pots and shouted until we were hoarse to drive the malevolent fiends away from Caer Cadarn. Even Uther joined in the noise-making, though the sound of his staff beating on the rampart's edge was very feeble. Bishop Bedwin was on his knees, praying, while his wife, expelled from the birth-room, wept and wailed and called on the Christian God to forgive the heathen witches.
But the witchcraft worked, for a child was born alive. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. Copyright © 1995 Bernard Cornwell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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