About your Book:
Hundreds of years ago in a land ravaged by fierce clans, where only the strongest survive…a Legend of the People was born. From the historic tales of King Arthur comes a raw, riveting and passionate series of novels by author L.A. Wilson, who breathes fresh new life into this spell-binding story. Told in first-person by Bedwyr…the person closest to Arthur’s heart.
Set entirely in the Dark Ages of post-Roman Britain, ‘The Silurian’ blends myth, legend and historical reality into a single epic narrative that speaks not only of Arthur’s rise to power, but his battles against the invading Saxons, the savage Picts and the rebel British, described in-depth and graphically honest.
Along with the story of The Silurian, Bedwyr speaks of his own personal life; his journey of love with Arthur, his struggles to know him on a deeper level, and of his own tragedies and gains, of the many battles that shows the violence and power of men who once lived their entire lives within the tight brotherhood of ancient war-hosts, wholly committed to their commanders, and often forming homoerotic bonds of love; British warriors fighting in the style of the long-gone Roman army.
The Silurian will not give you the over-done romance of Guinevere and Lancelot; no magic-wielding Merlin; no forest-dwelling enchantresses who see into the future; no magic swords, only real blades that break; no fire-breathing dragons, save Arthur himself—the Pendragon, the Supreme Commander of Armies in Britannia, the Magister Militum, the Dux Bellorum, his life spoken of in intimate and sometimes grim detail.
The story begins in Book One, ‘The Fox and The Bear’ when Arthur is fifteen and Bedwyr sixteen; this is their journey to manhood, power and glory, suffering and the ultimate death that gives birth to the eternal legend of King Arthur.
Targeted Age Group: 18+
The Book Excerpt:
THE SILURIAN: BOOK ONE: THE FOX AND THE BEAR
EXCERPT – FIRST 5 CHAPTERS
The Fox and The Bear – ‘Honorary Mention’ in the 2007 London Book Festival
The Fox and The Bear is a FREE download on Smashwords:
“The Silurian is art – it is in a different space from the usual publisher’s requirements. For some time art in all areas has been going unrecognised. The Silurian will burst out from your computer in a blaze of fire and passion. And it will reach those, like me, who are searching desperately for nourishment – heart and soul nourishment – the real thing, not endless disappointment. The Silurian lives and will be known!”
Reviewer, Mary Josephina Cade
1: THE WONDER-BOY
CROWS gathered in great flocks overhead as we searched the battlefield through the dead and dying. Some of the birds landed on bodies and I slashed my sword at them, trying to send them back from where they came. I watched them scream up again into the sky before I turned to look for my brothers.
All around me men were dying, their voices dying, already dead men, telling the crows they were ready to leave their bodies for the Otherworld. And as I waited for Cai and Medraut to reach me, as I watched them stepping over these dying men, I shook, and trembled. I was afraid, my heart wouldn’t stop thrashing, and I thought I was crying. This was a terrible battle, our first as new warriors to the field, and I had never seen anything like it before. The horror of it, and I stood waiting in terror, for Arthur was missing. He was out there somewhere amongst the bodies, and so far, we had not been able to find him. And so I stood where I was, shaking, frozen in fear. I could not go on if Arthur was dead, if he had been killed in this terrible clash of arms, where the dead smelled like blood and not men. I swallowed hard and began walking my way towards Medraut and Cai. When I reached them, me and Medraut fell on each other and held on tight.
I sobbed at him, “Where is he? Please don’t say he’s dead. I’m begging the Goddess of War! Medraut, please say he’s not dead.”
“I know, Fox, I know; we will find him.”
“Not dead!” I cried at him.
“Na, not dead, not Arthur. He’s too young, too clever; this was his battle, he won it, how can he be dead, he won it, Bedwyr! Look at me; this is his doing.”
We fell on each other again, trying to still our torment.
Cai joined us.
He said, “Aye, Arthur’s doing and he will have to pay for it.”
We looked around us, everywhere, bodies of the dead and the screaming of those still alive.
Medraut said, “We should put some of these men out of their suffering. I will do it,” and he walked off to put his spear through the chest of a Saxon under his feet. And as he did, he turned back to us and cried, “You know, I saw him earlier, somewhere over that way, he lost his horse too. Fox, come with me.”
Again, the three of us began searching for Arthur. We would not give up till we found him, and as we walked over the dead, with Medraut killing more wounded Saxons on the way, with the sky turning black above us and the bloody crows screeching, I thought I was dying.
I walked like a dead man, for if this was battle, then it had broken my mind, my heart, my reason, and my love. Arthur.
I began to lose my temper. It was naught but fear and horror inside me, and I wanted no part of it. For I trod on the severed arm of a man lying under me, and I almost spewed up my guts to see it. I cried out in horror, a wail to the crows, and Medraut held me up as the sky darkened even more. Black rain-clouds above—it was turning to winter already! And I felt tears of fear fall down my face. I still held my sword, gripped so hard it chafed the palm of my hand. So many dead, I could smell them, the dead. And the carrion crows of the Dark Goddess, Morgan, she sent clouds of ravens, wheeling and cawing over our heads, making my skin crawl, their wings black like the sky.
I sank to the ground in despair.
A day of destruction and despair was this battle.
The sun was going down and the bitter wind snapped at my cloak. If Arthur was dead, then this day would also be my last in this dark world. For I would impale myself on my own sword and follow him, I would. There was no doubt in me that I would, for I would not let him go alone across the divide, alone to Avalon. I would go with him. He would wait for me on the shore, and we would cross the water together. For we were brothers, bound together forever; my foster-brother, my life. A sour taste from inside came up into my mouth and gagged me. I spat on the ground and came back to my feet.
Medraut with me, and we carried on searching, and every step we made, he cursed, “Piss on their filthy Saxon blood! Saxon bastards!”
And he kicked one of their dead, a dead Saxon under our feet.
I looked down at the man, and there he was, Arthur. Lying next to the Saxon Medraut had just kicked. I dropped to my knees, dropped my sword and turned him towards me, saw his face covered in blood. I lowered to feel for his breath, touching his chest to see if he still lived. I felt a beat, a soft beat of his heart, steady but slow.
“He’s alive!” I cried to the ravens that were waiting to pick at his flesh. “You cannot have this one, he’s mine and he’s alive!”
His helmet was split in half and lying on the ground, his head was split too, but it seemed his helmet had taken most of the blow.
Medraut called out for help and men came running. One of them shoved me out of his way as he fell on his knees at Arthur’s side. I watched helpless and in pain as the man tended him, one of our troop doctors, now ordering him taken off the field at once. More men came. They lifted him, his body was limp, and they carried him towards the wains on the edge of the battleground. I jumped up and followed. Medraut and Cai came with me, both of them protesting in anguish when their troop captain found them, and ordered them out to their horses. It was time to evacuate the field, but I had to stay with Arthur. The men carried him roughly and this I did not like.
I cried at them, “Be easy with him!”
But he did not wake even when they dumped him in the back of a wain. I climbed up inside with him; put a hand against his face and called, “Arthur? Are you going to wake up now? Come on, don’t do this to me, wake up!” And I felt confused, why was he not waking up? I looked out of the open carriage doors; saw Medraut and Cai with the rest of their unit running for their horses.
Lord Darfod, our druid and Ambrosius’ chief physician, rode up to join me. He said, “Bedwyr, does he live?”
It was so good to see him!
Lord Darfod was the best doctor in Britain.
I answered him, “Alive, but why isn’t he waking?”
The war-horns were blowing the signal to move out, and all the warriors began wheeling off the field.
“By the Old Gods, I do not know why he isn’t waking,” Darfod answered me as he pulled closer alongside our wain on his horse.
He trotted behind, saying, “If it is a head wound, it will bleed heavily, but he should have woken by now. The Greek doctors are whispering about a koma, the long un-waking sleep. If this happens, he may never recover his senses.”
“But that’s impossible,” I said to him.
I was more afraid than ever. Arthur was too young for this! He was only fifteen. I was only sixteen, and I could not even speak well because my mouth was so dry with thirst.
“How can a man sleep and never wake without dying, Lord Darfod? This is madness. Please make him wake.” But despair took me, and I broke open and cried. Lord Darfod saw me crying, and I did not want to cry in front of our druid. But I gave myself away and cried like the boy I was, for Arthur, he was my life, my foster-brother. I cried for him because he was everything in the world to me.
Darfod said, “Boys your age should never be allowed to lead battles. This will cause problems for you, Bedwyr, with your father. And Lord Ambrosius should be ashamed for letting both you and Arthur take this field. You are too young to fight against Saxons like Hengist, and as a noble entrusted to his care by your clan, this will lose Ambrosius the support of your father.”
Nothing Lord Darfod said made sense to me. All that mattered was Arthur and here the druid was, babbling at me about my father! I looked back at Arthur; he was half asleep, half awake, he was in a dream, sleeping with blood on his face. And no matter how much the wain bounced and rocked, he did not wake up. A groom rode over with his horse, bringing my own with him. All around, I was crowded by warriors, smelled them like I had smelled the dead on the field. There was blood still on my boots.
Lord Darfod rode off somewhere and left me. I felt sick. I began to shake. I could not believe we had survived this battle. If this was what battle was really like, it was naught but hell-fire on land, and I sat and trembled, for the fear of it was still in me. But I had survived and I knew I had fought well, despite my youth and inexperience. I had fought as well as any other man around me. For this I should feel proud, and I did, but I was still afraid, for one battle always led to another, and others we would fight, if only Arthur would wake up!
I put a hand on his sweaty brow, he moaned when I touched him, and I knew he was struggling to come back to me.
Another medicus came running.
He climbed into the carriage with me and began binding Arthur’s wound, a deep gash there on the left side of his head. We were now off the battlefield altogether and moving from east to west with all our surviving host and our wounded. We had battled in the country south of the great Arbus-water, where the Germani were again trying to take our lands, where the terrible Hengist had joined alliance with the Inglass, their forces cut to pieces by a fifteen-year-old boy. I laughed about it to myself, thinking, Arthur, what have you done now? It was not as if he had never done anything extraordinary before in his life. Once, when he was twelve and I was thirteen, he rescued seven of our men from Saxons who had taken them captives and put them to work as slaves, and even before that, he had been amazing his elders, and angering his father.
Arthur was starting to rouse himself now, and I made sure I kept close at his side as we made our way back home, victorious. I stayed with him all the way, looking into his face. Blood was dried and smeared down into his lips, and I tried to wipe it away, touching his face with my fingers wetted with my spit. I did it gently, so as not to hurt him. I wanted to lift him up into my arms and cradle him to my heart, to wrap my arms around him and tell him that I needed him…
What if he died? Could he still die? I cried. I had cried for him before in my life, for the way his father had abused him when we were boys, and I had cradled him through all of his pain, for if I lost him, my life would end with his. And the going did not get any better till we made a course south on the Roman road to Viroconium, and for most of the time Arthur slept, though he woke often, opening his dark eyes and looking at me as if I was a stranger to him.
I sat next to him. I told him over and over, “We’re nearly home; hold up, brother, we are nearly home.”
He looked at me, he said, “So glad they didn’t kill you…”
Three long days.
And by the time we finally got him back to barracks, the orderlies wasted no time in bundling him away into a warm room with a fire and women to fuss and feed him. Aye, this was good and I began to feel better myself, as they fed me too.
Often, I would stop eating when I worried, and other times, I fell into a black sorrow of despair for no reason I could find, but now, with Arthur beginning to recover his senses, or so I thought, everyone important in Viroconium came to see him. Ambrosius the Supreme Commander of Armies in Britain came and looked down at him, as he lay still in bed.
“Now Arthur, how is your head?” the Commander asked him.
“It’s still there, my Lord,” Arthur answered.
“Still sharp-mouthed, I see. This is a good sign. I have written to your father about this, and yours too, Prince Bedwyr. I hope your fathers will fathom the reasons for putting you both to battle on the front-line. How else will you ever learn?”
“The Fox need not have gone,” Arthur told him. “Lord Pedrawg will not like his son being used for front-line battle. I warned you of this, my lord.”
“Then he should not have put Bedwyr into my army, boy. Be quiet now and get some rest.”
Lord Ambrosius put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder; looked at me with a hard eye, and then went marching out of our room.
But Arthur did not pay attention to the old man’s words; he only looked at me and said, “It’s a good thing you were not killed in that battle. Your entire clan would rise against him if you had. Not least having me kill him myself if you were killed.”
“He’s angry at you for taking that battle off him. You bested him in war, Arthur! You bested the Supreme Commander himself, you took control and you are only fifteen, do you think he will stand for this? When you get better, he will knock you down to a foot-soldier.”
“He trained me for this himself, right?”
“You are too brilliant for him, you outshone him. And your first battle. And I curse the rotten gods for making you brilliant and then splitting open your head. What were you doing? You don’t fight Saxons in single combat! You were almost killed, you bloody fool. Do you think I can stand it if you die, if you die and leave me?”
He laughed a little. “I did go wild, aye? I thought I saw Hengist himself, but it wasn’t him. I didn’t kill that Saxon who brained me, someone else did, I don’t know who it was. I fell in a swoon.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now; just do what you are told and get some rest.” I was still angry with him for almost getting himself killed. He was too brilliant to get himself killed. He needed a rein around his neck, or else, have me at his side so I could always protect him on the battlefield. He would take me to war whether I wanted it or not, just so I could protect his disobedient hide. He would take me to war and force me to fight and watch men die. Oh aye, I could see all of this coming—sons put to battle in the wars of our fathers, and where Arthur went, so did I, and he would get himself killed, and kill me along with him. I did not fathom why I loved him so much.
I said to him, “You deserve to shine, not die at age fifteen.”
“I won’t. Fox, stop looking at me like that. Bugger off looking at me like that, or I’ll throw you out! I’m not going to die yet.”
“I’ll let you sleep, you prick…”
So he slept. Over the days that followed, he slept a lot more, and his skin grew pale. Even though his skin is Silurian dark, he grew ashen pale, and I was sure he was going to die. It was not unusual for men to die long after taking their battle-wounds.
This was my fear—that death would claim him before he could fly. That wicked wound on his head, it began doing things to him none of us could have foreseen. He was not healing right, as the very next morning when we were alone together, when our woman healer had gone to make us some porridge, I saw his body shaking as he slept. Not all of him, only his right arm and right leg.
He started convulsing on the bed before me, like a man felled in battle and dying. He began moaning. I did not know what to do, so I stayed with him till the convulsion stopped. And when it stopped, he slowly opened his eyes, unfocused, like a baby just squeezed out of his mother’s body and born. I knew he couldn’t see me, because even though he gazed right at me, he looked as if he did not know me.
But he said, “I was looking for you…”
He was all pale and groggy like a man drunk.
His lips were so dry I lifted his head for a drink.
He sipped it, and said again, “I was looking for you, Fox.”
“I’m here, where do you think I was?” I gripped tight to his hand and started to shiver too because it was so bloody cold in this room. I told him, “I’m going to light the fire then get the doctors, so lie still, don’t try to get up.”
I pulled out of his grip and began at once to build up the fire. My hands were shaking when I put the logs on the flames.
I said, “What do you mean, looking for me?”
“My head is pounding!”
I stood up and went to him, looked at him. He seemed half asleep again and I leant down and shook him. He opened his eyes.
He moaned again and said under his breath, “Let me go…” and he went suddenly quiet and still.
“Arthur…” I dropped down beside him, shook him again, but he would not respond. I would not lose him, not ever!
So I got up and ran from the room. I could not find anyone in charge, so I ran to Caan, our drill-master, and told him to send help, then ran back and was on my knees again at Arthur’s side. Some of the wives of the camp had come in to help nurse him, one of them was already there when I got back. She was trying to rouse him, to feed him with her hot broths, but he was limp in her strong hands.
She said, “He is starved. Once he eats and drinks he will feel better. He is suffering, poor lad.” She spooned beef broth between his lips and he tried to swallow. I told the woman, “That blow to his head has knocked him brainless. I’m scared.”
As I spoke, a crowd of men came rushing into the room. Master Caan and Lord Darfod, after them, two Greek doctors with their orderlies, also Ambrosius’ personal favourite kinsman, Cynan Aurelius, sent everywhere as the Commander’s representative whenever Ambrosius did not want to make himself seen. I wondered if the old man was feeling guilty about Arthur’s wound, for he had not come to see him since that first visit of his. All of these men wanted to throw me out so they could work, but the woman healer stopped them.
“Can you not see the bond between these two boys?” she cried at them. “See how Arthur needs this boy? Leave him alone!”
I loved her for saying this, though it failed to make Arthur any better. The doctors doctored, but his illness went on for another fortnight, though he was well enough to sit up and drink and eat again. He ate everything the women put in front of him, because he was so savage for life that food went right in and never came out again, or so I believed; for this friend of mine did not shit but twice a week, if ever.
So he was allowed only barley-water to drink and blood-sausage to eat, and he did eat, starved like a wolf. He held on to every nourishing morsel, growing like a light, forcing everyone around to love him. Men, women, boys and girls, and even the dogs loved him to madness. He did this to everyone who met him.
Relief came when Master Caan said I could leave off duties till Arthur was up and running around again, because like the woman said, me being with him seemed to help make him get better. And he did that too. Finally. He got so better he started telling me all about the battle he had won. He seemed to believe it had only just happened, as if I had not even been there myself.
Told me all about it in rapid speech, barking like a dog, his mouth always working at a full-charge gallop, “I won that battle, didn’t I? It was me, wasn’t it? This means big things. It means I can go all the way, it means all the captains—”
“It means that wound on your head is no good,” I warned him. “No good at all. It’s going to keep making you sick, I know it.”
“Fox, shut up, will you? Don’t you want to hear the rest of my story?”
I laughed and he went quiet.
So quiet I had to make him get out of bed and start walking. I needed to help him stand and walk, and I felt the heat of his body, felt his limbs trembling with the effort, yet he persisted and persisted till he dropped. He dropped onto the bed and his eyes closed and he stopped breathing. He started to shake in his right arm and right leg. Again I had to run for the doctors. But it was Lord Darfod, our brilliant druid who made the diagnosis of the falling-sickness.
“And there is nothing we can do about it,” he told us. “This is the Will of the Old Gods, something that will always happen for the rest of his life. He will slip away from us and go somewhere else, until he drops and falls and shakes. It is the falling-sickness. That ridiculous Romani-priest of Ambrosius’ said he has a demon in him, but it is not what that idiot man said, but from the wound he took to his head, and it will always be so.”
Darfod put a hand over Arthur’s and squeezed his fingers, said to him, “It does not hurt us, save only to stand here helpless and watch you suffer. How do you feel now, boy?”
“I’m having visions,” Arthur told him. “And colours, and I can fly. So why are you fretting over me? Have you all gone feckless?”
Everyone laughed, except me. I was stunned by the changes in him. He was still himself, of course, but ever since he won that battle and took that blow to his head, something inside him had been unleashed, and I was afraid of where he would lead us next. Surely he would lead us all somewhere unknowable, and all we could do was follow…
2: REJECTING the SON
ANOTHER seven months went by and Arthur fully recovered, though he still had terrible bouts of falling-sickness. And as the world was harsh and violent, our moments of happiness and joy were rare. Everything soon went dark again, for when Arthur was about to turn sixteen years of age, his father, Lord Uthyr Pendragon arrived in Viroconium for a war-council with our Commander. On a crisp cool spring morning, he came with a band of followers. With him came Lot, his brother and Medraut’s father, at his side. Lord Uthyr had sent letters to say he wanted a private meeting concerning his son in the presence of Lord Ambrosius Aurelianus, and my father, King Pedrawg ap Bedrydant, king of Dogfeiling in Gwynedd. My father being high chieftain of the Stag Clan, my kinsmen, we were all of us kinsmen-allies to Uthyr Pendragon of Rheged. And as my father was Arthur’s foster-father, he rightfully belonged at all meetings concerning him. Even I was to be there, called in as Prince Bedwyr of Dogfeiling, as I was, though always I preferred to be called Fox, the name Arthur had given me when we were boys. I was the Fox and he was the Bear.
Yet as we dressed for our meeting, the Bear was so uncomfortable about seeing his father again that I saw his hands shaking when he was doing up his belt.
He said to me, “He’s going to hurt me. I can sense it. I can always sense when Uthyr’s going to hurt me. This is his final cut.” And he made a cutting sign across his throat. “He’s going to try and break me in front of everyone here, in front of you, my foster-father and Lord Ambrosius, even Medraut. All of you.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because of the battle I won, why else? Uthyr will see this as a threat to his own power, that me, his only son, is a greater warrior than he is. Now he fears me, he will reject me outright so he can fight me legally. You watch, I bet you, Fox, he will reject me today.”
A hard look came into his eyes when he said this, but I knew him well enough to know his look was one of sheer pain. Uthyr did not love him. Uthyr was waiting for his chance to reject him, and I thought he was right. The time had come for Uthyr Pendragon to cast out his own son for fear of his growing power.
Crows were cawing over in the trees when we left together to go and join the meeting in Ambrosius’ campaign room in his private villa. And when we walked in, everyone was already gathered. Uthyr and Lot both seated behind a long-table, facing Ambrosius and his attendants. Behind Uthyr stood his own warriors on guard, his Gododdin Guard of the Clan Lothian, powerful and hardened warriors from north over the great Wall, from the land of the Votadini, our forefathers.
With us was Medraut ap Lot, and in the background as a witness stood Ambrosius’ priest of Christ, Calros Clement of Eburacum. Next to him stood Lord Darfod ap Luca, our own mediator between Uthyr and Ambrosius’ opposing camps.
And dominating the room was Uthyr’s old Red Dragon banner, hung up on the wall behind him as a challenge to Ambrosius of the Cornovii, whose banner was Roman—the Roman Aquila. Still the Pendragon banner was taken with Uthyr wherever he went; so beautifully embroidered, hand-stitched by Arthur’s mother, Igrain, herself. And there in the middle of the room waited a single chair, facing the table. I knew at once this single chair was meant for Arthur. No one needed to tell him to go and sit on it, which is what he did without comment. He sat staring not at his father, but at the banner, the Red Dragon there on the wall in front of him.
The room was dark, just one small window above to his left. Arthur sat in a shaft of light, while all the rest of us waited in shadow. And even though he sat in a shaft of light, he looked darker than any of us, with his thick straight black hair and ebony-black eyes, his skin a deep honey-brown when he got out into the sun, and his hair had grown since his illness and he wore a band around his forehead, holding back his fringe. Handsome, even more so than his blond-haired angel of a cousin, Medraut, the son of Lot. For all of us, it was easy to see Uthyr had eyes only for his son. Arthur, sitting before him with his legs splayed open, arrogant, staring back at his father. While in the shadows and against the wall I stood next to Medraut, as we boys were not allowed to sit.
Medraut nudged my arm and went to say something to me, but his father stopped him, “Do not speak, Medraut, or I will throw you out.”
Medraut fell silent, and Uthyr glared at us, then began it.
“I see, Ambrosius, you have failed to keep this—this black-dog son of mine under control. Did I tell you to let him go to battle, and win them? Why did you let this happen?”
Ambrosius replied at once, “I am the Supreme Commander of Armies in Britain, my friend, and you were the one who put your son in my army. I knew you did not expect Arthur to become so brilliant at war. I suspect, Uthyr, that you were hoping he would be killed in my battles, and not your own. You are a devious ally to have. What I do with my enlisted men is my own to command, not yours.”
Uthyr smarted at this truth.
No, he had not expected his son to be so brilliant at war.
He said, “Well, that may be so, but I asked for this meeting so I can give you all a formal declaration…and have your lawyers note this down. I no longer recognise Arthur here as my son, born of my loins. He is Silurian born, born on Silurian soil of a Silurian mother of Silurian descent, aye, his Silurian bloodline is noble, but even so, he is no longer a member of my nation, but his mother’s and her Clan of the Bear. To her side he is legally bound. I reject him. And in exchange for my son, I want my nephew, Medraut. He will come back with me today to Luguvalos.”
Medraut jumped forward, crying, “No! I want to stay with Arthur; fight with him! And I cannot do this from the north! Please, uncle, let me stay here with Lord Ambrosius’ army.”
Uthyr growled back at him, “No, lad, Lot and I want to train you to fight the Picts, not Saxons. Leave fighting the Germani to the southerners here. To Arthur, the Silurian, and Aurelianus of the Cornovi. We Gododdin stay in defence of the North where we belong. So, Medraut, you will come back with us when we leave here, boy, and so should you, Bedwyr. Are you not also Gododdin?”
I glanced at my father when the Pendragon spoke to me.
My father stepped forward on my behalf and said, “My son will stay where I put him, Uthyr.”
My father then glanced at Ambrosius when he said this, and I sensed something between them, an unspoken conflict.
Ambrosius nodded to Uthyr, “Prince Bedwyr will stay with his foster-brother and they will both continue to fight in my army. They are both enlisted men: sons who you yourselves gave to me for training, for war and leadership. But if you want to reject your son from your own clan, Uthyr, what is this to do with me?”
“Nothing, other than I wish you to keep my son here under your full control. Keep him under control, and do not give him a command. Let him be a soldier and nothing else.”
All the time as the men debated, Arthur sat restless in his chair, biting his jaw closed, dying to have his own say, but keeping still till the right moment.
“So be it,” Ambrosius said.
And this was when Arthur finally broke.
He jumped out of his chair and advanced on his father, who sat behind his table, saying to his face, “You don’t know what you have just done by rejecting me! You don’t know what you have done to yourself.” He glanced at the Red Dragon on the wall. He said, “I want that banner. And I will take it from you one day soon. My mother made it, and I want it. It should be mine.” His hand clutched into a fist, and he burned his father with his black-eyed stare, so that the great Uthyr Pendragon paled.
“Medraut, in exchange for you,” Uthyr replied. “And you will never take Igrain’s Red Dragon from me.”
Arthur seemed unable to breathe when his father said these words, but he answered, “I am Igrain’s son. I am hers, you just said so yourself, and what she makes is rightfully mine, my inheritance as a Silurian. She made me. She made the Red Dragon and one day it will be mine.”
Uthyr turned white with rage.
He answered, “When I went to Igrain after she had given birth to you, all I saw was blood. You had split her open and blood was everywhere! You, Silurian, you split her open. You came out the wrong way! You came out feet first, as if you dared to stand on your own two feet from the very moment you were first born. So bright, so clever, so different from the rest of us. You split her open and killed her. You will take nothing of hers because you killed her.”
“The Red Dragon, Father, it’s mine,” and Arthur turned away and walked out of the room, leaving us all standing, with Uthyr breathing hard like a bull in a charge. Ambrosius was forced to dismiss us before more trouble could come. And when we filed outside, we found Arthur gone down in another of his terrible falling-sickness seizures. And Uthyr just had to come out of the villa right at that moment and see his son convulsing on the ground.
He cried, “Aye! He’s got a demon in him all right. Punishment for being so arrogant and killing his mother, my lover. Take him, Ambrosius, and let us see what you can do with a monster like him. No more leading battles for him. Or better still, put him out with your dogs. Even wolfhounds love him more than I do.”
Uthyr turned then and walked away, taking his followers with him. I moved forward and lifted Arthur from the ground when his seizure stopped. Together we saw Medraut being dragged away, held between his father and uncle.
Medraut called back, “Arthur! Don’t forget me! Come for me! You hear me! Come for me!”
So Medraut was suddenly gone, and we helped Arthur to walk. We tried to put him back to bed for the rest of the day, where he complained of a headache. Lord Darfod gave him a drink with some potion in it to ease his pain, and he drank it down in one gulp and almost choked himself doing it.
“Ambrosius said for you boys to take a full day off,” Darfod told us. “Said why not go out riding later for some air and exercise. But he wants you back on duty tomorrow. But wait till this drink clears your head, Arthur, before you get on a horse. I do not want you dropping off if the sickness comes on you again.”
“It won’t,” he answered.
And he looked at me with a veiled smile.
Go riding? Riding was freedom to us. The two of us alone and away from barracks, just us, the Fox and the Bear. Out into the wilds, where I saw the fire inside him burning. There was a fire inside him. I believed his heart was made of flames and his blood of molten steel. He rode his horse harder and faster than any other barrack-boy, and grown men stood back when they spoke to him, because to touch him would set afire to a man’s skin. But on that day’s ride together, Arthur kept his flames to himself.
All day we stayed out. And when evening came, still we did not go straight home, but picked up our horses to a run, racing each other over the flats towards the Wrekin, chasing in circles, tighter and tighter till our horses were almost up each other’s arses. We laughed and laughed, going around and around till we were giddy.
I stopped, breathing hard. Arthur looked at me.
“What?” I said. But he kept on looking deep inside me.
He said, “I think, one day, I will die in your arms…one day.”
And it turned unbearably cold. Mist began rising over the fields.
He said, “Let’s not go back tonight. Let’s stay out all night, out here.”
“We cannot,” I warned him. “The old man will flog us, and we will get broken to foot-soldiers again. We haven’t got any blankets, we’ll freeze.”
“What if we go after Medraut like he said? My father will take him to Deva before going home. We can sneak up there and steal the Snake back again.”
“Don’t act mad, Deva is leagues away. You’re feeling wild tonight because of what happened today. I know what you’re like when you get like this, so dangerous.” I moved my horse closer to him. I said, “What do you mean, die in my arms?”
“You know we are going to die in battle one day, don’t you?”
He leant towards me and whispered, “I dreamt it. You are going to hold me while I die.”
He shocked me, like a knife cutting deep and I answered, low, “No death can separate us, you know that.”
And we were so alone in the world, so cold in the air. Cold over the ground. Cold under the trees and it was dark.
I was shot through with fear.
“There’s no meaning in the world,” I found myself saying. It came out of my heart. “No meaning if you die. It would be worse than this black sky over us now. I would feel as if I was that empty blackness. If I had life and you did not, I would hate it. Don’t say these things to me.”
Somewhere in the forest a dog-fox barked and a black shape of an owl flew over the treetops. Our horses hung their heads and we sat on in the night. We were afraid.
A moment later, he said, “You saw what my father did to me. It hurts so bloody deep inside me, my mind. Fox, I dreamt I died in your arms.”
“Listen to me,” I whispered. “You took a bad wound on your head. Ever since then you have been having weird dreams, and now you have falling-sickness. When you went down from that blow, you were probably only dreaming of dying. But I was there next to you. It was just a dream. Come with me, let’s go home. We are in the shit-heap now!” I turned and took the reins of his horse, just so he would follow me and not linger in the night-time cold.
The gates were closed by the time we got back to barracks. The gatekeeper snorted, and wouldn’t open on purpose to spite us.
But Arthur turned on him, “Open the gates, now!”
And damn his manky bones, the man did as he was ordered.
We rode in, and Caan, our drill-master, broke us immediately, though he did allow us some supper. I was put on all-night guard duty. And sometime when I was about to fall over asleep, holding onto my spear as a prop, I felt Arthur come and take hold of me and lift me back on my feet. We were both rugged up with heavy cloaks and he stood grinning at me in the dark.
“Look at the stars!” he said, cold breath on the air. “Sky full of stars.” He was amazed. He said, “You know what Caan did to me? He’s making me sleep with the new boys in the barrack dorm instead of my own cell. He knows how I hate that. Those little brats won’t let me get any sleep, and tomorrow I have to polish every bloody horse-harness in town before noon. Then I have to polish his boots, but I’m going to put shit in them instead,” and he burst out laughing at the top of his voice in the middle of the night.
“Be quiet will you? I’m supposed to be on guard and you’ll get me broken worse than I am now!”
“I cannot sleep.”
“Oh, and no one else can either?”
“No, those little runts keep jumping on my bed and asking me to tell them stories, so I told them about the haunted forest back home, when we used to see the water-monster from the lake, walking through the trees at night. It scared the living lights out of them, poor little lads. I should not have done that, now they won’t sleep, and neither will I.”
He fell quiet, ashamed of himself for telling the new boys in our care naught but ghost stories.
I said, “I’ll give you a hand, polishing tomorrow.”
He said, “No, you’ll be asleep all day, get some sleep.”
“Go back. You can shove the boys off back to bed now. Get some sleep yourself.”
“No, every time I sleep I have dreams in fabulous colours, dreams of a far distant place. Fox, I think I’m dreaming of the future.”
“Sweet Jupiter’s hairy balls! Don’t start that nonsense again. You know I do not like prophecy and superstitious lies. It’s all dark and eerie out here. Look at those shadows; they could be full of Saxons.” He went quiet, then said, “Saxons…” He hesitated a moment before saying, “See you tomorrow,” and walked back to the barrack dorm.
3: ARTHUR GROWS
A few days later, we were suddenly released from barracks, for a message had come from my father asking to have me and Arthur sent home at once. My mother was dying. Well, my mother had been dying for a long while now, so slowly it was a snail-crawl to her grave. So my father’s request to call us home for mother’s death-day did not come as a great shock to me. Lord Ambrosius gave us unlimited leave.
And once we were home again in my villa in the mountains of Dogfeiling in Gwynedd, we spent all of our time in with my mother. All of her sisters were already home, with my uncle and his wife, and my two cousins, Lucan and Manos. The villa filled up and no one could move. Everyone came to see her die, my mother. It was harsh.
We sat at her bedside, me and Arthur, and watched her dying. She never moved. She seemed deep asleep, breathing as if asleep. Her sisters washed her body even as she was still alive, preparing her for death. Watching this made me cry. Washing her body like they did, softly, gently, lovingly, it meant she was soon to pass over and I cried. We all sat and sat. Everyone wept.
I…I looked at Arthur and he looked at me, the tears on his face were like my own. I looked at my father. He was not crying. As king of the Stag Clan, he would not cry. And when it grew very late in the night, my father told us boys to go to bed.
Arthur got up and kissed my mother’s cheek, then I kissed her. But Arthur was feeling her death deeper than I was. Her death was going to break him. Another mother he would see to the grave, for his own mother had gone to her grave so young, only nineteen years when Igrain died. And this time, it was my mother, his foster-mother, and by the time we came out of her sleeping-room, Arthur was ashen white. We said goodnight to my father, who said that tomorrow, Medraut was coming over to be Uthyr and Lot’s representative at my mother’s funeral, for it was certain she would die this night…
So when it was very late, when Arthur and I were alone in our outhouse room, I looked over at the big pallet-bed where we used to sleep as little boys. Still there and covered with deerskins and blankets of spun wool, so warm in the freezing mountain night. We would have to share it again. The first time since leaving home as thirteen-year olds to go into Ambrosius’ army. We were the lucky ones though, because our room had a large brazier and it was warm enough to sleep naked.
Arthur slept. I did not. I lay awake, listening to him breathing, asleep at my side. I watched the low light from the fire over the walls and ceiling, the room quiet, though I heard the soft wind outside, the spit of burning wood. My mother ill and dying.
Arthur slept naked, facing the fire, away from me, though he threw his right leg against my left. He was sixteen. I was seventeen.
Sometime in the night, he turned over to face me, and all I could feel was the heat of his naked body, flushed as a forge as he moved closer to me, and I gasped when I felt his body roll against mine. My heart thrashed in my throat. We were too old now to sleep together in such a way. We were not little boys any more.
I turned away from him, and darkness fell in the room as I heard his breathing stop. He stayed this way for a moment, till I thought he had died, but he gave out a sharp breath and started shaking on his right side. I turned back to him and put my hands on his shoulders and gently held him down till his shaking stopped.
He disappeared into sleep, immovable sleep.
And as I watched him rest, I felt again an old trouble inside me rise up to choke me. I felt a hard lock form in my throat and a heaviness in my chest. I looked at his face, and thought about his life…more pain in his life than whatever I had known, even with the misery of the coming death of my mother. And as I watched him sleeping, I thought of him being rejected by his father, the punches he had taken from Uthyr’s fists when he was only eight-years old, and this falling-sickness that gave him visions only he could see and sounds only he could hear. He slept on at my side and I watched him, feeling strange things as I stroked the hair out of his eyes. And as I looked at him, I knew I needed him more than my own life, and yet he tortured me, confused me, drove a great wedge into my mind and a sweet spike into my heart. I stroked his hair; I looked down at his face. He was so fast asleep nothing could wake him, not even the owl that suddenly went screeching outside our tiny window, an omen of coming death and I was afraid. I pulled back from him and tried to sleep…
…and when morning came, it was a horrible morning, lashing with rain, and the cold went into my mother’s heart later in the day and killed her. We all gathered together by her deathbed, and when she passed, I saw a look of peace touch her face. A smile touched her lips as I fell at her side and took her cold hand and wept. I cried and cried on my knees, listening to the keening of her sisters, a banshee wail. I cried and Arthur stood at my side. His hand came down on my shoulder, but he did not move and he did not speak. Not even when Medraut arrived did he speak, but went out and sat before the fire in the main room while the rest of us cried on at mother’s bedside, mourning. The rain came down all day. A day that was a lifetime to me. Finally when I came out of my mother’s death-room, I found Arthur sitting still and staring at nothing, with Medraut standing at his side, watching him. But Arthur said nothing.
He stayed silent for another three days, till we took him outside to my mother’s funeral. It was still raining; the hillsides ran with water, the rivers full, the streams gushing, the lake misty. The ground under our feet had churned to mud, and when she went down into her grave, only then did Arthur break. Rain in his face as he went down on his knees at her graveside. We stood watching him. Watching as he pushed his hands into the soil of her grave. But still he did not cry. My father picked him up and we all walked home, bolted inside to change out of our wet clothes, to find something to eat and wait for the sun to come back. And this was just what happened.
The next day was like heaven on earth. The sun blazing out of a clear rain-washed sky, the air so clear and fresh my sorrow lifted, and I knew somehow that my mother would be happy to lie under the soft soil of Britain on such a glorious morning. I felt sad about it, but happy, and going outside, I found Arthur and Medraut sitting together on the log-seat, eating porridge. The horrible sadness seemed gone from Arthur this morn. I found him and Medraut smiling about some private jest. The Snake was telling him about the goings on in Uthyr’s camp, and when I sat down to join them, they told me they were going hunting.
I swore at them, “You bastards! I have to go with my father today to visit some ol’ mad relative of his. Why can you not wait till another day? I want to go with you.”
Medraut said, “It has to be today. I have to go back to Luguvalos tomorrow. Sorry, Fox.” He shrugged, and a smile came on his lips as Arthur looked at me with a cock-sure grin. I thought, bugger you two with sharp sticks. They took up their pig-spears, got up and left me sitting alone. They went away up into the hills over my villa.
I did not see them again till the following afternoon.
Over the time they were away, I worried. I worried and fell into the black sorrow that came on me whenever I worried. My mother had just died, my father was black and bitter, my clan was brooding: they were soon to go to battle again against the Gaels, and I was grieving and Arthur and Medraut were so bloody good together they shook the ground they walked on, I knew this. I hurt inside, a kind of jealous pain, and I never once took a bite of food while they were gone. Together, they were the light and the dark, bound together forever. Though it was the blond and beautiful green-eyed Snake who was the dark one. And my sorrow, a terrible aching black sorrow came again when I thought about the brilliance of Arthur and Medraut together, how they worked the army to perfection, while I hated every stinking moment of army life. Hated it from the very first day I had been sent through the gates of the military city of Viroconium, south of Deva, at age thirteen.
Why had my father put me to Ambrosius’ army in the first place? I was old enough now, I thought, to be suspicious of the actions of battle-chieftains, and my father was king of the Stag Clan of Gwynedd, ally to Lord Uthyr Pendragon, allied to Lord Ambrosius Aurelianus, and my father had put me in his stinking army, contracted and enlisted, legally. For wherever Arthur went, I went as well. And I was beginning to rebel. Ambrosius had put me on the front-line! That man surely did not care for the lives of the sons of nobles, and Arthur and Medraut had left me to rot in this feeling as I grieved for the loss of my mother.
And just as I was about to go and look for them late the following afternoon, I saw them chasing down from the hills, out of the trees, shouting and yelling, brandishing their pig-spears at me. They came running up to meet me, wild as painted Picts.
My father came out of our house at that moment, and stood with me, ready to pounce on them, as I could see he was now as mad as all bloody hell-fire for them staying out all night, without permission. They came running home, all sweet and full of themselves.
These two cousins, who were under my father’s care, had not come home the night before, so again Arthur was in trouble, and I did not care, because I had stayed awake all night fretting about him, starving myself for him. Bastard!
We stood waiting as they came running up to us, filthy with sprayed pig-blood, and I could tell straight away from Arthur’s look that something had gone on between him and Medraut overnight. It was all there in his smile, the enigmatic smile he always used.
And the first thing that happened was my father stepped forward and clouted Arthur hard across the side of his head. The side where he had taken his battle-wound. Arthur staggered back from the blow and almost fell. I jumped to help him, but he righted himself and brought up his spear and dived its point at my father’s chest.
He stopped within inches and warned in a savage voice, “Do not ever hit me again, Pedrawg! That is the last time I will ever let any man hit me. I am not for hitting any longer, and whether you acknowledge it or not, my lord, I am still the son of Lord Uthyr Pendragon, your ally.”
“He rejected you, boy.”
They both stood in silence, eyeing each other. The moment was black. All around us the world had stopped. Arthur standing before my father, immovable.
My father relented first.
He moved aside, saying, “Arthur, you know well enough you were supposed to have come home last night, but you disobeyed me. Medraut, there is a horseman waiting to escort you back to Luguvalos.”
He then turned away, back into the house.
After the door slammed shut, Arthur cursed, “Jupiter’s balls, that hurt!”
Medraut put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right, cousin? What a bastard for hitting you like that. I can tell your father if you want, when I get back. Uthyr will not like—”
“Leave it,” Arthur told him.
“Come on,” I said to Arthur. “Let’s go back inside; you have a lot of explaining to do to my father. You shouldn’t have done this to him. What if something had happened to you? You want to put our clan into conflict with Uthyr?”
Arthur steeled himself and glared at me. He came following me inside, Medraut with him. When we got back into the house, my father was sitting in front of the hearth, frowning. He looked at Arthur and Arthur looked at him. My father said, “Arthur, you are no man’s to control any longer, and I can no longer foster you. I have just lost my wife, and Bedwyr his mother, and you run off into the wild and stay out all night with your cousin here. So it is good that while you were gone yesterday, a messenger came with a letter for you, from Ambrosius.” He stood up and took a black-leather wallet out of a bag, which hung over the back of his chair. He handed the wallet to Arthur.
Straight away Arthur took the letter out and pulled open the Eagle seal. I looked over his shoulder, the letter was written in formal Latin. And I could not read formal Latin. The feeling in the room went from cold to hot in an instant when Arthur explained, “I’ve been ordered home to barracks. Immediate return.”
“Good,” my father said. “The army is where you belong.”
Then Arthur looked at me, and I knew this was no ordinary mandatum. He opened his mouth, was just about to give me an order, but stopped. I was to him his friend, his brother-in-arms, foster-brother, his equal and he always treated me as such. Arthur would never order me.
But the letter had fired him so much he turned to stand before my father and say, “Bedwyr and I have been ordered to return to Viroconium today, both of us, not just me.”
And this was when it all started. My troubles. The very moment when my black sorrow filled me, and drowned me. The moment when everything inside me changed, and even though I had been feeling black for days, this terrible crushing feeling I did not expect. It caught me off-guard, un-shielded, as it was so strong and evil.
There was a moment of silence and Arthur went on, “I am to lead a unit of my own. Ambrosius has given me my own unit to command…and against my father’s wishes.”
I could see the fire burning in his dark eyes, the look on his face, his first command! The way Medraut came and stood beside him, looking at him, awed.
The Snake said, “Wait till Uthyr hears about this! He forbade you a command; now look what’s happened, the old man has ignored your father’s order.”
Arthur looked at Medraut, then back at my father; told him, “We have to leave now.”
My father went and stood between myself and Arthur.
He said, “Ambrosius is using you, boy, to lead his skirmishes. Do you understand? I did not send my son into the military so he could be used as a common skirmisher, and Ambrosius knows this, and yet still he uses my son for front-line fodder. My son is a prince of Gwynedd! A Gododdin prince and he will stay here with his kinsmen.”
My father sounded hard; he stood in front of Arthur and stared him down, as if his foster-son had suddenly become our enemy. And here, my father cared so much for me that he would refuse Lord Ambrosius himself, the Supreme Commander of Armies in Britain, the use of his son in battle. I was my father’s son, a son of Gwynedd and Dogfeiling’s prince.
Yet still Arthur looked at my father, resolute, till he relented.
He said, “I understand, sir,” and he turned and began gathering his things to leave. He and Medraut both began packing their saddlebags as I stood and watched them, feeling torn. As even though I was Gododdin born, I was still enlisted in Britain’s military. Maybe my father’s greatest mistake was to send me into another man’s army—and if I did not go back to barracks now, what would happen to me then?
Ambrosius would see this as a formal rejection of his alliance with the Men of Gwynedd. He would retaliate with accusations of my desertion, and my father would then have to pay a high compensation-price to keep me from being labelled as such; a deserter. And my good name and his would be disgraced and dishonoured in Britain. I would dishonour my entire clan, not just myself and my father. For not only would I be a deserter, I would be an oath-breaker, for I had sworn the words of the sacramentum to Ambrosius himself…so to stay behind while Arthur risked his life defending Britain, and upholding his own oaths, I would be shamed throughout Britain if I did not return with him now. Deep inside, I did not want to go. I hated the army with every bone in my body. A black meanness came over me because of it; because of my father’s mistake of giving me to the military and not to my own clan. I watched my father’s face. I watched Arthur.
They said nothing to each other. It was a deep rend between them, and I stood in the middle. I wanted to stay with my father and be his son and heir, to ride with my Gododdin cousins and fight the Gaels: Lucan and Manos, sons of my father’s brother, Tannan, were their leaders and I wanted to fight with my own clan. I hated the army, and Arthur had stayed out all night with the Snake; for a fleeting moment I hated Arthur too. He wanted to take me back to the army with him and make me suffer. Yet he did not protest or order me to follow him. He knew what the future would hold for us and he no more wanted me to be there on the front-line than did my father, which was why Arthur said nothing more, and made no protest. But right at that moment, I could not see a way out. All I saw was my only friend who was more powerful than any other sixteen-year-old in the land, and it struck me hard. I wanted to stay at home.
When Medraut was ready to leave, he said farewell first to my father, then to me, and went out. Arthur followed him. I stood and watched them through the window; I saw them step out into the street and walk downhill, heading towards the main village square where the Snake’s escort waited to take him home to Luguvalos. Also there was a unit of mounted riders, sent up by Ambrosius to accompany Arthur on his homeward ride. A few paces down the hill, I saw them stop, saw them hug each other. They clasped hands in the way of warriors, saying farewell. Medraut then pulled away and walked on down the hill. Arthur turned and came back into our house, and gathered up his gear.
I said to my father, “You know I have to go. I’m contracted to Lord Ambrosius. Father, you gave me to him yourself.”
He nodded to me. “I am sorry for this now, and I cannot keep you if you decide to go back; you are a man now. This is your choice, Bedwyr. If you want to stay, it will cause a lot of trouble, but if you want to go back, I will not stop you. Decide now. Will you go, or stay?”
“I have to go,” I answered him. “I swore the sacramentum to Ambrosius himself, and he is my Supreme Commander—and to break my oaths would shame me. I will go back.”
“Then let me look at you, a strong lad, my son…”
Arthur stood and watched as my father took me into his arms and hugged me long and hard, kissed my forehead. He hugged me farewell, but he turned his back on Arthur. He went through to his private room and slammed the door on us both. I almost cried; now two fathers had rejected Arthur in one. My father turned his back on his foster-son. I could feel Arthur’s pain. I felt it for him. We looked at each other. He did not say anything to me, and we left the house and walked on down to join the troop for the long ride back to Viroconium.
4: TROUBLE BEGINS
WE were well on our way on the southern road, and I did naught but get into a deeper and deeper fit of intense dislike for the men around me, for the army, for the way I had been pulled out of the loving arms of my father and my clan.
I felt out of place, pulled from my homeland and my kinsmen to fight far from home. I watched these warriors of Ambrosius as they rode, armed fully in case of attack. Swords and shields, riders older than ourselves, with Arthur there in the centre because Ambrosius had ordered them to protect him. I grew suspicious, for what was it Ambrosius wanted so much from this young Silurian? What in all bloody hell-fire did Arthur have that the rest of us did not? There were thirty-five riders around him. Thirty-five! Just for him, when ten would have been enough on this road, which was safe and well within our own territories.
Arthur seemed unmindful to it all. Next to him rode Cynan Aurelius, ten years our senior and a favourite with Ambrosius. Cynan being a distant relation to Ambrosius’ all but gone family, a last distant cousin, a remnant member that kept him clinging to the Commander’s favour; more like a head-lice than a supporter of worth I thought. And Cynan was a prefect, an experienced warrior, and the Commander’s representative. Yet there was always something about him that seemed rotten to me: he was dark-hearted and loved to talk shit. He was talking shit to Arthur now as they rode in front of me. And I wondered why, as Cynan had always hated Arthur to the point of wild madness.
After a moment, when Cynan at last stopped talking, Arthur turned in his saddle and looked back at me. He dropped back then to ride next to me. I could not bear him, and as he joined me, I spurred my horse away from him, trotting forward down the line where I joined a group from our own barrack.
I rode with them and did not talk or look at Arthur again for the entire ride home. I could not fathom why I did that, why I rode away from him like I did. But I did not like him anymore, and because of it, I hated myself just as much, if not more. Yet I could do nothing about it. I felt all twisted inside. I stayed twisted even when we got back to barracks. Our horses stabled, we were fed and watered like the animals, then sent back to where we belonged, slaves to the army, fodder for the front-line. Arthur and I shared the cell at the end of the dorm, next to the drill-master’s own room, where he could keep an eye on us. There was nothing in our cell save two pallet beds and piss-buckets: this was it, and I threw my pack down on my cot, then sat there, watching Arthur do the same.
He sat on the edge of his own cot and we looked at each other. He said, “What are you doing to me, Fox? I didn’t force you to come back. You know I would never give you an order, and you could have stayed at home, and I would have fought on your behalf before Ambrosius to protect you.”
“I came because I’m contracted to the army, and if I had stayed they would only have come and got me, so what’s the point of me staying home? I cannot get out of this mess…I feel like I don’t have a choice, and it’s all happening because of you. I’m stuck with you!”
I jumped to my feet and advanced on him, stared at him as he sat there on the edge of his cot. I pointed in his face. “You…you lure me into a trap, and once caught, I cannot escape. Can’t you just leave me alone? You keep on luring and pulling till you become…a force I’m not prepared for! Why do this to me? Stop doing it!”
He looked confused. “What are you talking about? I can’t fathom what you’re saying. I’m not doing things to you. What are you talking about?”
Oh, dear goddess, I heard naught but pain in his voice.
No, he did not know what he did to me. And I did not know that I had just ripped out his heart.
These things I learned much later…
But then we were saved from something far worse by Caan, our drill-master. He came charging into our room and told Arthur that he was wanted, that Lord Ambrosius himself wanted to see him. Arthur got up and left with Caan, and I sighed in relief when he went out.
All the next day I worked hard, mucking out horses like a stable-boy, doing jobs the older warriors would never touch. After this there was drill, practice in holding lines against attack, sword work, spear work, learning the hand-signals used by the cavalry, cleaning and polishing, then catching up on bloody Latin classes. I hated this, for I was beaten in Latin classes because I wrote left-handed. The Romani Christian cleric, who taught us, constantly beat me for it; he hit me with a stick like I was a dog and called me names. Left-handed men, he said, were the Devil’s men, sinister, and he cracked my head and my hand and I put down my stylus and refused to learn. I walked out of class; I always walked out of Latin classes, and everyone in barracks knew me as a left-handed trouble-maker, the Devil’s own man. For their curses on me, I vowed never to go back to Latin, even though I would be punished for it. I went back to my cell in the late afternoon.
Then Arthur came in, riding into the practice-square with Gareth ap Gan, our trainee scout. He and Arthur were great friends. And Arthur himself, riding in all-powerful, raw and dark…and laughing.
I stood in the open doorway of our barrack, brooding, sore of hand and sore of head, and watched him jump down from his horse and come over to join me. He was still smiling, a smile that could cut through ice and melt snow on the frosted hillsides in winter. I lost the darkness in my heart from Latin class, also from the night before; our fight. His smile burned me. I could not help myself, I laughed and gripped his arm when he stood by me.
There was something brewing inside him.
He said, “I do not believe it!” He shook his dark head, adding, “I have my own unit, though of course still under Ambrosius’ command. I’m leaving tomorrow on a four-week tour of Saxon territory…and he gave me a new war-horse, for me, mine, all for myself! It’s like a dream.”
“A new horse!” I cried. “Brilliant! I have to see him, don’t you dare leave without me seeing him. Have you seen him yet?”
“Aye, he’s chestnut brown, a hot-blood, but well-trained and fast. I rode him down the training ground this morning, but he’s back in his own stable now over near Ambrosius’ quarters. I’m going to name him, Calibus.”
A new horse! It was every boys dream to own their own warhorse.
I laughed and whistled. The lads outside in the square went riding around and around, hitting each other, trying to unhorse each other. The day was glorious with summer; white clouds drifting on a soft sweet breeze, hot in the square when the others began calling us to join them. And it had hardly entered my bone-head about what Arthur had just said. I heard the part about the warhorse, but not the part about a four-week tour-of-duty.
So together we went out to join the group, and I jumped up behind Arthur on the horse he was riding now, not his new one, and we all galloped down to the training ground. Down on the field the trainers had set up their javelin-throws.
We jumped from our horses and ran for the javelins and began a competition in the late afternoon. The air was full of scents and buzzing insects, the sky full of larks and buzzards, soaring above us.
One after the other we launched our hawk-feathered javelins and none of them could beat me. If there was one thing I was good at, it was javelin throwing. The javelin had always been my best weapon, and I could use it like no other. Not only was I the best thrower, but the most accurate. I could hit the target middle-on, while all the others skimmed theirs past on either side. I laughed at them. They tried, but I thrashed them all. There was a trainer watching too, so I threw even further to impress him and I got cheers from the men.
And after I won five games out of five, everyone gave up and wrestled me to the ground. We all wrestled around for a while, then fell into the grass, spent. We watched the sky, listened to each other breathing, felt the coming twilight and we were hungry. Still we lay in the grass, and when the others got up and wandered off to gather their horses, it finally struck me what Arthur had said earlier. A four-week mission to Saxon territory.
This was deadly. At any moment he could be attacked. And the troop would return and tell me what I feared the most—that Arthur had been killed. I knew it was there inside me, but I found it hard to admit. The army would kill him. He was here beside me in the grass, and what he did next was reach over and grip my wrist.
He whispered, “He actually said to me that there’s no other alive in Britain who he’s more willing to have as an heir to the Supreme Command than me, because of the battle I won for him against Hengist. But I’m scared, Fox, I have to leave. I don’t want to leave. Sometimes I think I’m out there somewhere in the world, and without you, it doesn’t matter if I live or die.”
I had no words to answer him, yet I saw everything Arthur was; brilliant, beautiful, dark, and enthralling, like no one else in the world. The way he spoke, his voice, the way he walked…
I rolled over to look at him, found myself saying, “I…I don’t know what it is that you do to me, but it’s deep, and it’s like love. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how to live with you, Silurian.” I put a hand on his chest. I could feel his heart thrashing in his chest. I told him, “I cannot live with you any more, you bore holes into me. I cannot bear you a moment longer,” and I got up and walked away from him, trudging alone back to barracks.
I never saw him again that summer.
It broke my heart, and as the weeks went by, hotter and hotter, I tried to stop feeling the pain, tried so bloody hard to stop thinking about him. But everything got worse and worse.
We were trained harder, and I started to drop behind the others in my work and training. I did not care. I had never fitted in with the barrack-boys or the army in general, though I knew myself a brave and willing warrior. I wanted only to go home to fight for my own Men of Gwynedd, as I should. I was a prince of theirs and I wanted to escape and go home. I grieved and grieved as everything began getting heavier and heavier inside me, blacker and blacker.
But one night Master Caan came to sit beside me as I daubed my boots, and said, “Wonder-boy is down near the Saxon shore, where the new settlements are. It is very dangerous territory to be in. I know Arthur is clever, but the old man pushes him too hard sometimes. He is still just a lad, still growing and finding his way. From what I know of Arthur, he is too wild to be a leader. He talks brilliant things, but can he put them into action, I ask myself.”
I stopped polishing and replied, “Master Caan, where were you when Arthur won that battle at River Glen? Were you dead, you old fool? Arthur can do anything. You shout too much and don’t see what’s under your very nose. I’m not sure it’s a good idea telling me what’s going on. I would rather not know.”
He snarled at me. “What I have seen, Prince Bedwyr, is you are insolent, arrogant, selfish and inattentive in your training. You are rebellious, insubordinate, and un-teachable. You are intelligent, but still falling behind with everything. You do not care. I’m surprised you are even bothering to daub your boots. I will discipline you if this keeps up. A week on full extra duties, and no princely privileges. Back out on the dorm for you, dawn rising as you should. Now go to bed before I have you flogged for insubordination.”
I threw my boots down as he left and cursed behind his back.
I was everything that was wrong; Arthur was everything that was right, and I was glad he was gone, for if he could see the way I was now, failing, breaking, sliding into darkness and rebellion, destroying myself, it would have killed him. And there was no way in the world would I let Master Caan batter me with extra duties or anything else.
I had come to the end. I had had enough. More than enough. Later that same night, I deserted the army. I did the very thing that would shame my name forever. I deserted, and I could not stop it from happening. Everything inside me went black, and so, during the night when Caan was sound asleep and snoring from too much ale, I took a messenger-bag from under his bed. He heard nothing, did not wake. I went down to the stables and took the horse I usually rode and walked him down to the main gates; here I told the gatekeeper that Master Caan was sending me on a special errand. I showed the keeper the messenger-bag as proof. He shrugged his shoulders and opened the gates, and I rode out, galloping off into the darkness.
I had no idea where I was going, no idea what in all bloody hell-fire I was doing; terrified to stay and terrified to go, I just ran with the horse till I reached the nearest forest and fell off, collapsed into the undergrowth and moaned aloud because there was no one to hear me. I felt broken in a black moment of misery and wayward confusion from which I did not recover for month after month, after month…
I did not go home. I was too ashamed to go home, so I became a fugitive, a deserter, low like a bandit on the side of the road who lay in wait for innocents to murder and steal from. Though I swear by the Old Gods, I did not kill innocents and I tried not to steal, but I did, yet only to stay alive. After a few weeks more of wandering, I had to sell the horse in exchange for food. From then on I trudged from village to town and back again. My boots wore to shreds and then I went barefoot. I sometimes managed to get work on outlying farmeries, and in villages, again doing those jobs no one else would tolerate if they could avoid it. I looked after pigs and became a swine-herder.
As I slept in barns, I had no way of knowing what was happening in the military world outside. I tried not to think of him, who Caan called, Wonder-boy. I was so bound within my own misery and how to survive for another day to allow myself to think of him. I forced him out of my heart, removed him from my soul and all my daily attempts to survive. I had decided somewhere in the deep black parts of my thoughts that I would sever myself from him totally, completely and forever. I would never again have Arthur as my friend, and I would refuse him if he and I should ever come together again. I believed I hated him.
5: BEING LOST
IN early autumn, I walked broken and stumbling from hunger and growing cold into Caer Baddan, Aquae Sulis as we Roman-trained soldiers called it. And as I came near the city square, there, right there in front of me sat a group of mounted warriors, and when I looked up, there he was on his chestnut stallion. Fully battle-armoured and wearing a Silurian cloak in the colours of his nation; deep golden yellow with blue and black plaid. He looked powerful and strong. I gasped and dropped back out of sight, though I peered around the corner, my heart hammering. After three months of running and starving, I could barely control my emotions. Seeing Arthur again, so strong, so powerful, and myself so low and miserable, it broke my heart. I could not control what happened next. I sank to my knees and cried in a dirty back lane. For he looked beyond power, like a prince should be. And myself, a true high-born prince by status, knew that before my madness, I was good-looking. And after so much anguish, I was filthy, dirty, unwashed, a miserable scraggly growth on my chin, my hair matted; broken fingernails and my bare feet cut and filthy as my body. I stank. There was no way in the world I would allow him to see me like this…so I cowered back into the shadows and listened to the warriors calling to each other, knowing that I should be there with them. Then the sound of their horses moving out in an ordered trot.
I stayed where I was, unable to move and dying in the street; here I believed I had gone so far into the mire that nothing could save me. I knew I was lost, and I cared for nothing. I only cried about it, and wiped the tears through the dirt on my face, and shivered on the ground. Townspeople walked by me, staring at me some, while others ignored me. A man kicked me, and said to get up and go find some work. That kick, it did something to me, more than just the pain and the humiliation. I finally remembered who I was. I was Bedwyr the Fox, Prince of Dogfeiling. I was second to Arthur of the Silures. There were men in this very city, in the streets of Aquae Sulis who knew my name, knew who I was, as I had been in battle with Arthur. I tried to get up and when I did, I looked around and saw a taberna up the street. I headed there now, intending to ask for work. What I found was a young woman sitting on the doorstep. She looked up at me with eyes as sad as my own. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed, and pretty, though dirty like myself.
I went to walk by her, but she grabbed my hand and held me back; said to me, “My cunt for hire. What will you give me for my cunt?”
I said, “Do I look like a man who has money spare for coupling? Do you know if there’s any work available in here?”
I was surprised by her quick response. I had been expecting a flat rejection.
She went on, “My father runs this place and is always looking for boys to help him. I can take you to him. He wants a boy to help lug the beer right now.” She studied me a moment and said, “You will have to scrub up, shave, wash your hair. I will tell him you are a customer of mine. He always gives favours to my customers. It keeps them in the bar and drinking his ale.”
She then led me into the dark interior of the taberna, introduced me to her father, Befan, who took me on right away despite my scruffy appearance. The first thing he did was order me out the back to wash and shave. He needed no brute like me showing him up in front of his clients, some of whom were warriors of Ambrosius, I was later to find out. I was to be smartened up, and I went with the girl, grateful inside, angry inside, for what had I come to now? Out in the rear courtyard, the girl filled a wooden tub with hot water, then asked me my name.
I told her my name was Darius and laughed about it.
“What are you laughing at?” she said.
I stripped in front of her and got into the water. I cared not if she saw me naked. The water felt like sage-magic to me; the wooden tub deep and I found myself scrubbing at my filthy skin in disgust. The girl gave me a little bag with oatmeal in it to use as a cleaner, then ran off to find a razor and comb. When she had gone I slipped under the water and scrubbed at my hair, even my teeth. The bath made me feel better, but as I lay there alone, out in the back courtyard with a dog sniffing around on the ground, I remembered the sight of Caan’s Wonder-boy on his chestnut stallion. I saw him riding out of town at the head of his troop with the standard-bearer riding behind him, flying the Aquila banner of Ambrosius Aurelianus, Supreme Commander of the mounted armies of Britain.
I began to brood over the details of him; the fine shield on his back, embossed with steel, a silver-tipped scabbard for his sword, the Roman gladius at his hip. A buckler on his arm, a light mail-shirt. And the helm he wore was Roman, a black horse-plume falling over the silver bowl of the helmet that had a small front visor. I had never seen him looking so striking, so vibrant, like a creature from Avalon.
I opened my eyes; saw the girl was back, offering me a razor and more oatmeal, blended with oils to make it easier to shave.
She watched everything I did, holding a mirror for me.
She said, “You have very unusual eyes. Where did you get such eyes?”
I could not be bothered to answer her. How does a man explain the shape of things? Yet under my scraggly beard was my face, handsome as a fox. Here again I saw my thick, dark chestnut hair, clean at last; and aye, I do have extraordinary eyes. Eyes like a fox, the Silurian always said. It had been Arthur who first saw the fox in me, and named me such when I was nine years old. I looked again into the mirror, gazed into my own hooded eyes, light brown in colour and beautiful to look at, I admit that. One time, a city doctor said I had eyes like an ‘eastern oriental’ with folds of skin that cover my lids, but I never understood what the man was talking about. Where he had seen this ‘eastern oriental’. No one else I had ever met had eyes shaped like mine. So I shaved clean and smiled at myself in the mirror.
Good teeth too.
The girl said, “You are so handsome under this scruff, Darius. When you are clean, help my father, have some supper, then tonight you will sleep with me. Father demands it.”
I did everything I was told. I knew how to take orders, even if I did not like it. I was a trained soldier after all, so I lugged the man’s ale, helped him serve it to his customers, cleaned up after them, after which he fed me a huge meal of fish-pie and oysters, such food I had not had in months. Then he sent me to bed with his daughter when the taberna doors were closed for the night.
And that night I was the girl’s only client. I learned her name was Caryn. And she made me strip and get in beside her. She was eighteen, but had been in the business of pleasuring men for money or barter since she was thirteen. First she tried to relax me because I was so tense. She threw back the covers of the bed and stroked my chest, my stomach, before running her soft hands down the insides of my thighs. My rod was already standing up stiff for her to play with, and she pushed open my legs, slid down between them and began to lick me. She made me breathless. I gasped to breathe. I let go of my hurt and pain and cried out aloud, not caring who could hear me, not even her father, for she was now sucking on my virgin prick like a lover—and I had known nothing like it before.
She had me begging her, “Caryn, Caryn, please, just do it!”
She sighed and came up to me, looked into my eyes; disheartened me when she said, “No—not the way you want.” She lay down at my side and rolled onto her stomach. She said, “You have to go in the back-door.”
For a moment I failed to see what she meant. Though when I understood her meaning, I did not care. I went into her back-door, as she called it. This way, there was no pregnancy. But as I went on, I found I could not finish. My moans of pleasure turned to moans of pain…the pain was grief. A huge grief in my body. What was the Wonder-boy doing while I was taking such pleasures? Was he dying in battle with a Saxon axe smashed in his skull? Was he dying even now? I pulled out of her and slumped onto my back and began to cry. I could not help myself. And Caryn held me, soothed me, stroked my hair and face and kissed my lips. She never asked why I was crying; she did not judge me. She only held me. I was so grateful to her for not asking, and I held her tight, a sweet girl in my arms.
And over the days that followed, Caryn did everything for me. She waited on me when she wasn’t waiting on clients in the bar. After a while longer, I became obsessed with keeping her in our bed, and sometimes got up late in the mornings, and angered her father with all my endless pricking of his daughter. Still I worked day after day, and her father gave me free ale, which I drank till I was drunk most of the time. I drank because deep inside, I was broken in half. Being with Caryn could not heal me, because at nights when she slept close against me, it was not her I thought of. And I cried when she was asleep, only because I had taught myself to cry quietly. And I used her father’s ale to wash away my pain.
Every day, I swept the bloody floors and made ale and ran errands, for my payment was Befan’s daughter, his food and shelter. And everyone still called me Darius. After a while the name stopped being funny to me; it spiked me instead. My time in this taberna seemed endless. I worked harder and drank harder as the days went by. And Caryn; we kept each other warm when winter came. We kissed for ages every night before I had her, before we fell asleep. Poor Caryn, I could see she was beginning to love me, and though I desired her, and loved the feel of her naked body under mine, even through all of this, inside me, it was dark and broken. I wanted her and did not want her at the same moment, and I grew ever more troubled because of it. I believed it was growing time for me to find a way to leave. One night late after the inn was closed, we were in bed, stroking each other’s bodies.
She said to me, “I heard some men say things about war today. They said Ambrosius has put up a new young warrior before the chieftains as a possible heir to his command. I do not like this idea. I only like Ambrosius leading Britain. They say there could be a war because of it, that another is opposing Ambrosius’ choice.”
I tried not to show too much interest, but I had to probe. I had to find out if this new young warrior was the Wonder-boy, or if he had been killed and there was another to take his place. And the thought of a coming war chilled me. If the Wonder-boy was not dead by now, he soon could be. So I asked, “What new young warrior? Did they say?”
“No, Darius, I don’t know! Though they mentioned someone named Arthur a few times. And one said this warrior was stricken by the gods and is mad with falling-sickness. That’s all I heard and I don’t like it.”
“No, neither do I.”