The Arthurian Saga by Simon Lister
Winter was coming and with it the long darkness. Andala could feel it; a sharper edge to the late autumn air as he stood on the village wall scanning the hillside. His shadow stretched out across the long grass, cast by the low sun that hung above the eastern horizon. Soon the sun would set and the land would be abandoned to the darkness until it returned once more in the spring. He stared out across the western valley floor searching for any sign of the overdue Anglian war band that was to escort them over the Causeway to Britain on the first leg of their long journey to the Western Lands.
He switched his gaze back to the hillside trying to quell the foreboding sense that something was wrong. His disquiet had been gradually deepening over the last few months. There had been no single event to trigger or warrant alarm but the steady accumulation of unexplained occurrences had brought him to the point where he would be glad to leave behind his responsibilities to his village, if only for the six months of winter darkness. With nothing definite to point at he had kept his unease from everyone but his wife, Ceinwen, who had been relieved to discover she wasn’t the only one feeling that something was amiss.
He tried to clear his mind and turned his gaze back to the hillside to resume his search but it was another long hour before he finally saw the lone rider approaching.
The horseman was picking his way down the steep slope towards the river that flowed lazily from the long, sinuous lake that the village was perched beside. The horse under him skittered on some loose scree and slid forward, scrabbling to find a firmer footing. The rider jumped off and looked to be cursing the horse. Andala recognised the horseman with a sudden stab of apprehension and turned around anxiously to look at the ordered chaos within the village below him.
Every year, as the sun set in the East, the villages on this side of the Causeway and those on the other side in southern Britain prepared for the journey to the Haven and the crossing of the Western Seas. This perennial migration cut the months of winter darkness down to three and allowed for a short but critical growing season in the Western Lands. Not everyone travelled on to the lands across the sea, some would remain in either Caer Sulis or the Haven, the two main towns of Britain, but no one stayed behind to endure the harsh winter in their own village.
As head of the village of Branque, the largest village south of the Belgae lands, the unenviable task of ordering the local communities fell to Andala. Had one of his sons lived to come of age then he would have gladly passed on the responsibility some years ago despite only being in middle years himself. He had always said to his wife that at the first signs of grey in his hair he would pass on the leadership of the village and spend his days out on the lake with a fishing line but his hair had turned gradually from brown to grey and then prematurely from grey to white, and his fishing line had stayed coiled up in his roundhouse by the lakeshore.
Perhaps next year, he mused, his daughter Caja would be able to shoulder at least some of the responsibility. He looked for her and spotted her easily enough, not so much because of her long red hair but because she was always at the centre of any activity. Andala raised an arm and called out to her, ‘Caja! Rider across the river!’
She looked around to see where the call had come from and saw her father on the stockade wall. ‘Who is it?’ she called back.
‘Come see for yourself!’
She quickly finished her suggestions for tying down the covers for the wain in a burst of hurried commands and rushed towards the steps at the base of the stockade wall. The wain master looked after her with teeth clenched and lips tight together. Breward, the awkward youth standing next to him, laughed and gave him a gentle push, ‘Go on Jac, say it. She won’t hear you and I won’t tell.’
Jac relaxed and smiled, ‘No. She’s only trying to help.’
‘Only trying, you mean,’ Breward said as he finished tying off the ropes and added, ‘She’s nervous about the journey west.’
‘My gods, who isn’t?’ the older man muttered.
‘I hate this time of year.’
‘It’ll seem better tonight when we start on the harvest wine,’ Jac pointed out.
‘I suppose so. It doesn’t seem like a year has passed does it?’ Breward asked, thinking happily about how he and Caja had increasingly spent more time together over the last year.
They both moved on to the next wain and threw the cover across the top. Breward collected up the ropes then pointed towards the sun that hung low on the eastern horizon and answered his own question, ‘And yet, there’s the proof.’
‘Do you think it’s Cei coming?’ Jac asked innocently, nodding his head to where Andala stood watching the approaching rider. Breward just gave him a sour look in reply. Caja was not a girl to keep her feelings hidden and the whole village knew of her youthful infatuation with the Anglian Warlord. Indeed, it was a source of no little amusement - most of which was aimed directly at her more plausible, if less heroic, suitor.
Caja remembered her composure and climbed the steps up the stockade wall more slowly, not wanting her father to see her obvious excitement. Warriors always escorted the villagers on their yearly journeys to and from the Haven and Caja had become hopelessly infatuated with Cei, the easy natured Anglian Warlord, during the last such journey. She knew it was unlikely that Cei would be among the escort this time but she could not stop herself from hoping and in any case, the prospect of meeting and riding with the proud and strutting warriors of Britain was cause enough for excitement. By the time she got to the top Andala was grinning broadly at her.
He had married Ceinwen a year after his first wife had died in childbirth; the child, a son, had died a week later – his second son to have died within weeks of being born. Ceinwen, like many others, was unable to have children but Andala had fallen in love with her and insisted that her inability to have children was no obstacle. There had been those who had frowned upon a marriage based on such incompatibility believing that it was Andala’s duty to seek out a woman who could bear children with him but he had overridden their objections and most people had realised that Andala and Ceinwen needed each other, if for quite differing reasons. Fate gave them a daughter three years later when an Anglian warrior’s wife died in childbirth leaving the infant motherless and the father with little inclination to raise her. Cei had taken the child to them and they had named her Caja and raised her as if she were their own. Even having one child was more than most couples were blessed with and Andala had doted on her; his love for her was only matched by his pride in her. He smiled at the irony that Caja should have become infatuated with the man who had brought her to them so many years ago.
‘Wipe that knowing smirk off your face, father, and tell me who it is.’
The rider had nearly reached the bottom of the slope but he still seemed to be vilifying the horse.
‘I think he’s having words with his horse.’
Caja turned and tugged at his arm, ‘Tell me!’
‘Though the horse seems remarkably unconcerned.’
Caja cursed in frustration.
Andala casually clipped her on the back of the head, ‘That’s no way to talk, young girl.’
‘Sorry, father,’ Caja replied as she attempted to straighten out her unruly mane of hair, ‘but you know I can’t see that distance!’
‘Well then, it looks like Arthur of the Wessex war band.’ The levity had vanished from his voice and Caja’s face fell.
‘Oh,’ she said, her buoyant mood collapsing immediately. ‘Why Arthur?’ she asked, puzzled.
Andala was asking himself the very same question.
‘Well, I’d better warn the others,’ Caja said, slightly concerned by the look on her father’s face.
‘And you’d better let your mother know first,’ he said trying too hard to sound off-hand.
She climbed back down feeling both deflated and a little uneasy, her previous excitement firmly replaced by a nagging worry that perhaps she had overlooked some essential detail in the preparation for the journey west; a detail, she thought, that the Wessex Warlord would undoubtedly spot immediately.
Andala watched her retrace her steps back past Jac and Breward and he noticed their different glances. Jac braced as if expecting another outburst from her and relaxed once she was past, while Breward’s eyes followed her until she entered the village’s main hall. Caja was well aware of his gaze. Breward glanced up to where Andala was watching him and guiltily busied himself with some unnecessary re-positioning of ropes and ties. Andala made a mental note to watch Breward during the journey west – Caja’s harmless fascination with Cei was one thing but the growing bond between his daughter and young Breward was another altogether. He turned his attention back to the rider who was walking his horse towards the fording point on the river. It was unmistakably Arthur.
Taking a deep breath Andala started to climb down from the wall. He surveyed the scene before him and thanked the gods that the weather had remained dry. The compound seemed to be under a permanent haze of dust but that was infinitely preferable to the mud and standing water of the previous year when the rains had made the whole process almost impossible. Order was definitely coming out of the chaos – twenty-five wains, more or less secured and all fully loaded with maize, corn, vegetables and the various fruits of the summer harvest. The cattle, sheep and goats were paddocked inside the stockade wall and ready for the journey, their noise and smell competing with those of the people crammed too tightly into the confines of the village in preparation for the migration.
Another twenty wains were heaped with feed for the animals. Ten more were packed with dried meats and smoked fish; two others had cages of hens piled high and still more were packed with the belongings from the other four villages that had gathered here. A few remained empty to be loaded at the last minute with his own village’s belongings.
As in the other settlements to the North, and across the Causeway in Britain, villagers were collecting their harvests and preparing to abandon their homes as the summer sun set in the East heralding the onset of the long night of winter. They would return with the rising sun in the spring, once the snows and deep ice had thawed and melted, to start the whole cycle all over again. We do it every year and yet it never seems to get any easier, Andala thought to himself as he made his way out of the East Gate to meet Arthur.
Behind him word was spreading that the Wessex Warlord himself was across the river and was going to lead them across the Causeway and west. Andala could feel a noticeable change in the atmosphere of the busy villagers behind him. The boisterous levity of the hectic last few days seemed to be dissipating quicker than the rising smoke from the main hall. Andala forced himself to pick up his pace. Arthur was already crossing the ford. He decided to stop and wait for him. He had met Arthur twice before in person, though he had seen him twice each year for as long as he could remember, always at Caer Sulis in the West during the Gathering of the Tribes at Lughnasa, the harvest festival, and at Imbolc, the festival for the Wakening of the Sun.
Across the Channel Marshes and over the Causeway the three main tribes of Britain gathered in the West at Caer Sulis in late autumn with all their livestock and summer harvest to celebrate Lughnasa and invoke blessings for the journey across the Western Seas. The King of the Britons, Maldred, held his council at that time, where the chieftains and counsellors of each tribe gathered to settle disputes and to plan for the journey ahead. Caer Sulis was the king’s seat and by far the largest settlement in Britain. Andala remembered the first time Caja was old enough to take it all in; the look of wonder on her face as she gazed at the two storey stone buildings and the wide streets between them still made him smile.
There had been serious trouble with one of their guards on a previous journey to Caer Sulis some years ago on one of the rare occasions when Arthur’s war band had escorted them. Andala had worked up his courage and gone to see Arthur to remonstrate. Arthur had asked him some short questions then summoned the guard involved. Andala could not remember the man’s name and he frowned, trying to recall it. Arthur had questioned the man and woman concerned in front of Andala and then without hesitation he had drawn his sword and killed the man where he stood. It did not seem right that he could not even remember the man’s name. Brynstan? Berwyn? No, but something like that. It did not seem right that he should feel guilty about the man’s death either, yet he did. Andala was lost in thought. That was the day he first met Arthur in person. This was to be his last.
‘His name was Breagan and neither you nor yours have had any trouble since from any warrior.’
Andala started, Arthur was standing no more than five-feet away and staring into his eyes. Arthur’s horse snorted and stamped the ground, shaking the water from the ford off its fetlocks. Andala stared at Arthur half in fear, half in bewilderment.
‘No Arthur, no trouble since.’
‘It wasn’t a question.’
Andala swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. Arthur stood a head taller than he did, and Andala was not considered to be a short man. Arthur’s long black hair was straggled and his beard was unkempt. An ugly white scar ran from his broken nose to below his right ear. That wasn’t there the last time I saw him, Andala thought as he felt another unbidden well of unease rise inside himself. The fear wasn’t prompted by the war gear that Arthur carried – the longbow strapped to his horse, or the round shield slung across his back, nor even the sheathed sword idly hanging from his belt although all these were uncommon enough sights in the villages. He feared the man standing before him; he feared his staring eyes, gray and empty of life. That was how he remembered Arthur’s eyes during the questioning of Breagan in Caer Sulis, empty and flat, lifelessly staring as he judged guilt and punished with death.
Arthur spoke again and life returned to his eyes, ‘How’s your daughter, Caja?’
Andala fell into step with Arthur as he made his way toward the East Gate of the village. He was aware that Arthur was making a conscious effort to make him feel more relaxed but the casual tone just made him feel all the more nervous and he replied, ‘Well, Arthur, well thank you.’
‘How old is she now?’
‘She’s seventeen this Imbolc, seventeen times she’s made the journey west,’ Andala replied.
‘No, Arthur, n-not yet,’ Andala felt his anxiety rise another level and tried to lighten his tone saying, ‘I think she was rather hoping Cei might be coming to take us west.’ He regretted it as soon as he said it.
‘Indeed? Cei has married my sister, Trevenna.’
Andala mentally brought his fist to his forehead and blurted out without thinking, ‘Excellent news, she’ll be glad to hear it.’
Arthur turned to look at him and smiled, ‘I doubt it, Andala. I very much doubt it.’
They were approaching the gate now and most of the four hundred villagers had crammed themselves into the open square at the centre of the village to see Arthur enter. Andala did not want his people to see him nervous or silent with Arthur and forced himself to ask, ‘Was it a good journey here, Arthur?’
Arthur looked at his horse and grinned, ‘Not with this bastard it wasn’t.’ The horse just raised its upper lip in apparent derision.
Arthur stopped on the edge of the square and casually scanned the gathered villagers. They were completely silent. He handed the reins of his horse to the nearest person and said, ‘See that it’s fed and watered.’
Andala gestured to the main hall and the crowd parted as Arthur strode towards it. Andala followed behind with the villagers standing and staring at Arthur as he passed through them.
When he had entered the hall and was safely out of earshot, the noise of conversation started up once more as the dispersing crowd began to recount the tales they had heard of the Wessex Warlord. They went back to their allotted tasks swapping stories of Arthur as they made ready for the journey to the West.
Breward and Jac decided to take an early break and get some food before the midday bell signalled it was time to eat. It would only be for a day or two but while the populations of five villages were confined to this one place it was all very cramped and meal times inevitably became chaotic.
It was sunny and still fairly warm so the trestle tables were set up outside to serve breads and fish for everyone and they sauntered across to the one that seemed most prepared for the midday meal. It also happened to be the one that Jac’s wife Bri was preparing.
She saw them approach, ‘Had a busy morning of it then, Jac?’
‘Usual chaos – but as always, it’s getting there,’ replied Jac, helping himself to some bread and cheese.
‘Luckily Anda’s daughter, Caja, was there to organise us,’ Breward said, keeping a straight face. Jac just grunted.
‘Well, that kept you happy then,’ Bri said pointedly to Breward and continued, ‘though I’ve no idea what she sees in you.’
He poured himself a drink from a flagon of water and said ruefully, ‘I don’t think she sees anything in me at all sadly. Ever since that Cei took us back home from Caer Sulis after Imbolc she’s had moon dreams running around in her head.’
‘Well the sooner she wakes from them the better. It’s never done anyone any good getting messed up with that type – though Cei seemed more civil than others,’ and she glanced across at the main hall.
‘Do you think there’s any truth to that story about Ceinwen being with Arthur when she was with the Wessex war band, before she married Andala and moved across here?’ Jac asked tucking into the food.
Bri stared at him with pursed lips.
‘Probably not, just asking,’ he added hurriedly, noticing the disapproval on his wife’s face.
‘That was all a very, very long time ago. And you should know better than to go dredging up gossip,’ Bri said in a tone that clearly closed the subject.
‘I don’t suppose that Andala is enjoying his midday meal much. A war band leader! For us! And Arthur of Wessex at that,’ Jac said round a mouthful of bread and cheese hoping to distance himself from his wife’s scorn.
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full,’ his wife replied automatically.
‘Makes me nervous just knowing he’s here, let alone poor Andala having to sit and talk with him,’ Breward said.
Jac resumed, having swallowed his mouthful of bread, ‘Why Arthur? Why here? A few from a war band to protect us against any Uathach looking to raid our supplies, fine, but a warlord? And of all the warlords to have, did it have to be Arthur of Wessex?’
‘Perhaps he’s come to take your little redheaded Caja away with him,’ Bri suggested to Breward.
‘Don’t even joke about that kind of thing. I wouldn’t let him,’ Breward replied. The other two laughed out loud. Breward looked offended but did not reply.
‘Now clear off the both of you, I’ve got work to do here and you’d better make sure those wains are perfect, Jac – I don’t want to have to defend you from that monster in there,’ and Bri nodded to the main hall.
‘Listen well young Breward, if my wife doesn’t want to cross our guest and protector then you’d be truly out of your depth. At least the Uathach won’t try to raid us – once they see Arthur with us they’ll turn around and find a softer train.’
They both ambled off to find a quiet place to finish their meal and Bri continued slicing the bread and laying out fruits. They were right about the Uathach, the lawless roamers from the northern tribes of Britain, but it was not the Uathach who were making their way towards the village.
Arthur looked around the main hall. It was large by village standards, almost seventy yards long and over thirty wide. The far end was raised and there were heavy wooden tables down each side. A small fire burned in a circular hearth in the middle of the hall with various spits I
and cooking implements lying around it. Most of the smoke was channelled out of the hall by a wide funnel suspended above the hearth pit. Five or six people were moving up and down the tables beginning to make the preparations for the Lughnasa festival. Arthur unslung his shield and unbuckled his sword, propping them against the lower hinges of the heavy double doors of the main entrance. He unfastened his travelling cloak and put it on a hook above his weapons. Seeing the washbasin he ducked his head under the water and shook the water free then scrubbed the dust and dirt of the road from his hands with the washing stone.
‘Would you like something to eat first Arthur, or would you rather rest?’ Andala asked.
‘Some food first, you can tell me about your preparations,’ Arthur replied and started to walk up the hall to the raised main table where three figures sat waiting for him. There were wooden slat-covered windows down each side of the hall. Although those on the West side were covered, the low sun shone through the open windows on the East side sending smoke-lit shafts across the hall. Those at the table watched Arthur approach as he alternated between the shadows and the shafts of light. They stood as he reached the table.
‘Greetings, Arthur of Wessex,’ Ceinwen said, managing to keep her voice strong and steady.
There was an uneasy silence around the table as Arthur studied her. Ceinwen was a strong-willed woman and she held his gaze for as long as she could but eventually her eyes flicked away and settled on the food laid out on the table before defiantly returning to meet the gray stare. They were in the shadows but even in the filtered sunlight, and the soft glow from the candles that were set at either end of the table, he noticed how much older she looked; grey streaked her shoulder-length brown hair and her thin face carried the lines of the intervening years. Her sharp features had softened little with age and Arthur was pleased to see that her eyes still held some of the fire he remembered. Twenty years had passed and in that time they had exchanged no more than the obligatory pleasantries that their infrequent meetings had necessitated.
Andala watched them both but, like the others, felt unable to intervene to break the silence; whatever the silence meant, or whatever either of them were thinking, everyone else was excluded. He had never felt so distant from his wife.
‘Some food and drink?’ Ceinwen finally asked, gesturing to the food laid on the table.
‘Thank you, Ceinwen, blessings on your homes and families,’ Arthur completed the formal greetings and they all sat and began to eat. Arthur continued, ‘The years begin to tell on you, Ceinwen. Are you well?’
‘As well as the years allow, Arthur. It’s been many years since we last spoke and I’m not Merdynn,’ her eyes held Arthur’s and the others stopped eating at the mention of Merdynn. Merdynn was the King’s Counsellor, every successive King’s Counsellor and a great deal of suspicion and myth surrounded him. Arthur was known to be one of the few whom he counted as a friend and the two had often been seen travelling together or deep in conversation at the great feasts in Caer Sulis. The villagers told their young sons and daughters that the two of them met to decide punishments for those children that had behaved badly but in truth many of the adults wondered if they weren’t the ones being judged.
The tension increased as Arthur continued to study Ceinwen. Finally, he answered her, ‘Merdynn outlived your father. He’ll outlive you. He’ll outlive your child but don’t think the years don’t weigh on him heavier than on any other.’ Arthur’s tone lightened as he continued, ‘Besides, Merdynn has always looked as old as the seas and I certainly don’t remember him dancing to the Bard in the Great Hall of Caer Sulis, unlike you, Ceinwen. Many years have passed since then, for us all, eh Narlos?’ Arthur said turning to the old warrior who sat to his left quaffing down a mug of beer.
‘Far too many. I remember that night in Caer Sulis. Well, some of it at any rate. I was in the Anglian war band back then. Great days.’
‘Were they?’ Arthur asked smiling.
‘No. No, they weren’t. Constant fighting with Uathach bands. That’s why I spent most of my time drunk whenever I got to Caer Sulis. But I do remember Ceinwen dancing there – that was where you two met wasn’t it?’ Narlos gestured towards Andala and Ceinwen, his aged, liver-spotted hand trembling slightly. Ceinwen wondered if the old warrior was tired of life or just too feeble-minded to realise how thin the ice under him was becoming.
Andala placed a hand over hers wishing to bridge the distance which he felt had opened between them, and said, ‘Indeed it was. Amongst that great throng and you picked me out. I still don’t know why to this day, Ceinwen.’
‘That’s why,’ Ceinwen answered as she poured a beaker and handed it to Arthur.
‘And what of you Bernache? Has your apprentice wain-master managed to do as good a job as you used to?’ Arthur asked.
Bernache was as old as Narlos but he sat a little straighter as he replied, ‘Yes, well, Jac’s still learning of course.’
‘Are we on time to start the journey west?’ Arthur asked. He said it casually enough and looked briefly at Andala.
Andala shot a quick glance at Bernache who nodded, and then he replied, ‘We are. Everything should be finished tomorrow and then we can start.’
‘Good.’ Arthur began slicing into a joint of meat and everyone at the table visibly relaxed. Caja came across to the table with an armful of bread. Arthur watched her and his gray eyes became lifeless once again. Andala followed Arthur’s gaze. Arthur sat back in his chair and took another drink from the beaker, his eyes still on Caja. She looked directly at Arthur and then quickly retired back to the kitchen area that was behind the dais.
Andala cleared his throat and said, ‘We were expecting ten or more of Cei’s warriors, Arthur. Is there anything wrong?’
‘Cei hadn’t heard from the Belgae villages so he sent some of his warriors there to see if anything was wrong. He asked me if the Wessex could escort you instead. I came across the Causeway with twenty warriors and I was going to keep ten with me at the Eald villages to the North and send the other ten down here.’
Ceinwen leaned forward at this news and exchanged a glance with Andala before asking, ‘There’s been no word from the Belgae? We haven’t heard anything from the kingdoms to the East either. There haven’t been any traders coming through for the last few months and it’s usually the busiest time of year.’
Arthur looked at them both, his food forgotten. ‘No news at all?’ he asked. They shook their heads.
‘You brought twenty warriors with you?’ Andala asked, wondering again why Arthur had come to Branque alone.
‘Yes, but Eald doesn’t have Bernache, his apprentice, Ceinwen, or you Andala. They weren’t ready. I had to leave those that came with me at Eald to sort out the mess and get them moving. Every year the villages have to do this and every year it’s the same, you’re on time and they aren’t.’ An edge had crept into Arthur’s voice as he spoke.
Ceinwen remembered the tone and what it used to presage. She hastily tried to dispel it, ‘Well, they have much more to harvest of course.’
‘And many more to do it,’ Arthur replied. ‘Next year their chieftain’s son will stay with you for the Gathering. What he learns he can take back and teach. If they don’t learn quickly then they can wait behind for the darkness and be damned. There’s worse things in the Shadow Lands than the Uathach.’
Narlos shuddered and added, ‘Indeed there are. Thankfully I’m too old to ever have to travel in the darkness again.’
‘Or perhaps your daughter Caja can travel to Eald and show them how the village of Branque prepares. She’s learnt from you how to organise this business. Then we wouldn’t have to wait until the year after next to see an improvement,’ Arthur directed his comment to Andala but it was Ceinwen who answered.
‘She’s only seventeen, Arthur, she’s too young for that responsibility.’ There was a slight quaver to her voice and she didn’t look Arthur in the face, speaking with her gaze on the table.
‘Daughters are always too young in their Mother’s eyes,’ Arthur replied.
‘Indeed, but seventeen...?’ Ceinwen’s voice trailed away.
‘At seventeen you were dancing barefoot in the Great Hall and captivating everyone including the king. Did your Mother think you too young?’
‘She did. Perhaps she was right. And I was nineteen, not seventeen, as you well remember,’ Ceinwen said putting down her food. She put her hands in her lap and stared at Arthur but the challenge failed to mask the worry in her eyes.
There was a brief silence as Arthur went back to his food, ‘Well. Think on it. I wouldn’t suggest it if she wasn’t capable enough but it’s a mother’s choice. For now.’
‘We will Arthur, we will,’ Andala said, not wishing a confrontation.
Outside the hall they could hear the hour bell being rung. Most villages had a bell of one kind or another with which to ring out the hours. There was usually a rota among the villagers to keep the hourglass, or read the sundial, and the responsibility often fell to those who spun the wool or to those whose turn it was to nurse the young. Twenty-four turns constituted a day and the passage of the days could be followed during the summer by the sundial that each village usually placed outside their main hall. They normally only slept between four and six hours a day during the long summer months but any length of time spent in the darkness of winter was characterised by idleness and long hours of sleep.
Arthur drained his drink and stood up saying, ‘Perhaps you could show me to a place where I can rest?’
They all stood and Andala said, ‘Of course, you’ve journeyed far. You’ll join us for the Lughnasa festivities later?’
‘Yes. Until then,’ and Arthur took his leave of those at the table and followed Andala down the hall. Ceinwen watched him walk away, once again alternating between the shadows and shafts of sunlight.
Once Arthur had left the hall, Narlos put a hand on Ceinwen’s shoulder and said, ‘Don’t fret yourself yet, a year is a long time and much may change before the next Gathering. Besides, he left it up to you to decide.’
‘Did he?’ responded Ceinwen, clearly not believing so. Bernache mumbled something about checking on Jac and his work on the wains and hobbled from the hall. Narlos sat back down and within minutes his chin was resting on his chest as he nodded off. Ceinwen sat staring sightlessly down the hall her hands twisting together where they lay in her lap. Caja quietly moved out of the shadows and left the hall by a small back door.
Andala led Arthur along a path that bisected an enclosed crop field towards his roundhouse, which was built over the lake. Serried ranks of carrots, onions and potatoes had already been harvested from either side of the path. There was a pasture field to one side of the crops with the bright yellow of buttercups strewn through the long grass.
‘You can rest in my house. It’s away from the noise of the village so you won’t be disturbed,’ Andala said.
Dust rose from the path about their feet as they neared the bridge to the roundhouse. Both the bridge and the house were supported by cut tree trunks sunk into the lakebed. Logs were laid out laterally along most of the bridge’s short span but in the middle was a section of ten-foot logs set end by end. Unlike the others, they were not lashed in place and could be easily removed and on this section the intertwined hazel-latched sidewalls of the bridge could be pulled back too. Several dugout canoes lay on the stony lakeshore, beached for the winter and secured by thick ropes to the supports of the bridge. Inside the canoes were the village’s fishing nets, freshly mended and folded away. Everything about the village spoke of departure.
Arthur studied the roundhouse. Around the walls of the stilted house ran a wooden platform about three-feet wide, which served as a walkway encircling the roundhouse with a low wall of hazel-latched fencing to the lakeside. The conical, reed-thatched roof spread down almost to the platform surface, overhanging the circular walls that were constructed of double layered tight bound trellising, daubed on the outside and filled with fern insulation between the layers. He recognised the many similarities to the homes in Britain, particularly Wessex, although he had rarely seen one built over water like this.
Andala held the door open for him and he entered. It took a while for his eyes to become accustomed to the dim light. As Andala cleared some belongings from one of the partitioned rooms Arthur gazed around the house. The floor was carpeted with dry fir needles and green fern bracken making it soft underneath his boots. In the middle of the roundhouse was a raised clay square centred by a large hearthstone. Three stout branches, tied at the top, formed a tripod above the fireplace and an iron cauldron hung above the embers suspended by strips of blackened leather. On the stones surrounding the fire oatcakes and unleavened wheat bread slowly cooked, filling the large room with the familiar smell of baking. By the hearth was a wide flat stone to grind the wheat on and a fireboard of pinewood together with the strung bow and oak spindle used to fire embers. There was no hole in the thatching above the fire but as the roof was so high above the hearth the smoke rose and dissipated through the reeds without filling the room.
Four small rooms faced the central hearth like open-ended boxes also made with, and separated from each other by walls of interlaced hazel branches. Andala gestured to the room he had been clearing where a low bed laid with soft fern and sheepskin could be seen through the goatskin hangings that draped across its open front. The roofs of these small inner rooms afforded extra storage space and bundled reeds and various farming tools, many old and needing repair, were stacked high enough to reach the thatching of the roof. From oak crossbeams hung leather gourds, pots, tied bundles of juniper to scent the room, and the various clutter accumulated by a family.
‘Rest well. I’ll send Caja to wake you when the feast starts,’ Andala said.
Arthur settled down on one of the low beds. The roundhouse was still and he could hear the gentle lapping of the water fifteen-feet below as he drifted into sleep.
Caja was looking for Breward. She searched through the crowds that had gathered to take their midday meal in the main square before the hall but to no avail. She wandered off to the crafts buildings on the far side of the village, once again without success. Finally she asked the stores master and someone who overheard the question said Breward and Jac had gone out the East Gate before the midday bell had been rang. She went to the gate and saw them sitting on the grass with their backs against a cartwheel, watching the late autumn sun as it hung suspended over the flat, harvested crop fields of the narrow valley to the East. She strode across to them. They both turned to see who approached. She smiled inwardly at their contrasting faces, ‘Don’t worry Jac, I haven’t come to nag.’
‘Good. Want to sit down with us and steal some food then?’ Jac stretched across Breward and offered her his plate. She took it gratefully and quietly.
‘Gods, she’s gone quiet. Doom is at hand if the wind’s gone from her sails,’ Jac said.
‘Jac! Gods man, you can’t say things like that with the journey across the Western Seas at hand,’ Breward said sounding genuinely appalled then turned to Caja, still frowning, ‘What’s wrong Caj?’
‘That bastard in there wants to send me to Eald for next year’s Gathering,’ she replied.
‘Language girl,’ Jac admonished idly and picked an apple off Breward’s plate.
‘Father told me off earlier for saying that, cuffed me actually – I’m a bit too old to be cuffed aren’t I?’
‘And you’re old enough to know not to use that kind of language in front of your father,’ Jac said then added, ‘He’s a braver man than me mind.’
Breward was still staring at her, ‘What do you mean ‘go to Eald’?’ he asked.
‘I’m not entirely sure. He’s angry that Eald messed up their timings again. They weren’t ready so he wants me to go and help them.’
‘Organise them more like,’ Jac said.
‘He can’t just decide that. You’re too young. He doesn’t even know you – he’s only been here an hour!’ Breward did not sound any less appalled but to his surprise Caja jumped up and with a muttered ‘thanks very much’ she strode off back to the village gate.
‘What did I say?’ Breward asked in exasperation.
‘Well, first you said she was too young to do it and secondly that if Arthur knew her better he’d realise she couldn’t do it,’ Jac answered.
‘No I didn’t, I just said... but Eald, that’s miles away – she can’t want to go that far?’
‘I wouldn’t have thought she did but she’s probably feeling quite proud that a warlord could just walk in here, take one look at her and then suggest it to her parents.’
‘You stick to ropes and wains my lad, you know where you are with them.’
‘I’d better go and explain,’ Breward said half-heartedly.
‘Explain it later at Lughnasa, wine always makes things clearer. Less painful anyway,’ Jac said then they lapsed into silence. The sun disappeared behind a bank of growing clouds coming towards them from the North East and a breeze whispered around them. They both noticed the drop in temperature immediately.
‘Looks like Lughnasa will be held inside. It’ll be raining and colder in a few hours,’ Breward said.
Jac stood up and brushed the crumbs from his front before saying, ‘Typical isn’t it? Two fine weeks then the day before we head off a storm blows in. We’d better make doubly sure the wains are all secured and watertight. Come on.’
They walked back to the gate, the long grass around them swaying in waves before the stiffening breeze.
The wind softly nudged at an unfastened wooden shutter in the roundhouse where Arthur slept. The door opened slowly and Caja entered. Ceinwen had sent her to close and fasten the shutters in the roundhouse. Everyone knew what a wind from the East brought at this time of year. She crossed to the shutter and latched it firmly closed. She glanced across to the small room where Arthur slept and walked softly across to it, annoyed that her father had shown Arthur to her room. She turned back the goatskin curtain and crept in to collect her dress for the festival. She looked at Arthur and saw he was sleeping soundly. With her back to Arthur she quickly stepped out of her trousers, unbuttoned her top and shrugged it off. Reaching for her dress she pulled it on over her head and moving her long hair to one side, fastened it at the back of her neck. She glanced at the sleeping figure and started with surprise when she saw Arthur staring back at her. She took a step backward, her heart racing and she nearly clattered into a chair against the wall. Arthur’s stare did not follow her. For a brief moment she thought he was dead but the covers across his chest were rising and falling with each breath. She realised he must be sleeping with his eyes open. She shuddered and quickly and quietly left the room. She wiped her suddenly sweaty palms on her hips and tried to control her breathing before crossing to the entrance and hurrying back across the bridge.
Arthur woke about an hour later. It took him a second to remember he was in a soft bed in Andala’s roundhouse and that it was Lughnasa. He automatically scanned the room to find his weapons and then noticed the wind had picked up outside and was buffeting the wall of the house. The eastern wall. The roundhouse was filled with the roar from the wind-driven waves of the long lake. He cursed and swung his legs off the bed. He sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed both hands up his face and through his hair. Then he remembered the dream. He wished he had not. It was about Caja, but not the redheaded, untroubled, laughing girl who was no doubt already celebrating the festival. No, the Caja in his dream was in wretched misery, tormented beyond sanity. He crossed to a basin of water and splashed cold water on his face but the image remained and he sighed looking down into the water as his reflection reformed. He cursed and picking up his weapons he put out the oil lamp and left the house to find Andala.
As he stepped outside the wind whipped around him, snowflakes were already being blown horizontally out across the lake and through the air around him. It was snowing heavily further to the East and the water below the house was being driven against the stilts. Arthur strode across the bridge and back into the village, head down and leaning into the wind. He looked around the main square as he strapped his sword to his side noting how dark and gloomy it was even for this time of year. People were scurrying between the wooden
buildings, all dressed in their best clothes and heading towards the main hall. Various foods and ewers of wine were being brought into the hall and everyone seemed carefree enough despite the sudden turn to cold. Arthur decided to check on his horse and caught sight of the new wain master, Jac, making his way to the hall. He called out to him but the wind snatched his words away.
Arthur ran across to him, nearly crashing into a small group of scampering children. They saw who it was and fled into the hall. He caught up with Jac by the doorway and put a hand on his shoulder. Jac turned and his already cold face froze further.
‘My horse!’ Arthur shouted above the wind, ‘Where is it stabled!’
Jac pointed to a hut near the East Gate, ‘The stables are by the gate, Lord!’
Arthur nodded his head and made his way to the gate, the wind wrapping his cloak around him. He reached the stables and slammed the door behind him. He looked around the stalls, it had become gloomy outside but inside it was almost dark. His horse was at the back. He untethered it and walked it up to the entrance and put the reins around a hook close to the door. He searched around in the dark and found his saddle and a spare saddlebag. He filled the bag with feed and saddled his horse. He checked the longbow was fitted correctly and that the quiver was full of arrows. He checked the horse’s shoes then stood beside her, his hand absently rubbing his forehead. Uncharacteristically he patted the horse’s neck. As he left the stable the horse gave him a look of deep suspicion.
He made his way to the main hall battling against the wind. Fewer people were now making their way in. Arthur assumed most were already inside. As he reached the doorway a small figure bumped into him. It was Caja. He opened the door and she dashed in, throwing back her hood and dusting the snow from her cloak. Arthur followed and stood his shield and sheathed sword against the wall.
‘Mother had just sent me to the roundhouse to wake you! Gods it’s getting bleak out there! But you must have already woken because you weren’t there and I couldn’t find you...’ she spoke too quickly and fumbled with the clasp of her cloak. Arthur reached out and unfastened it for her. She was wearing a simple flowing white dress under the cloak. Caja felt even more nervous under his gaze and gestured awkwardly for Arthur to join the gathering at the top of the hall.
The hall was packed with the people from the five villages and Arthur did not notice that Breward had watched the interchange by the door. Nor did he notice how people made way before him as he walked to the tables at the top of the hall. People were already eating and swilling down the harvest wine and he realised he must have missed the formal part of the ceremony and the blessings for the Harvest Gathering.
Caja joined Breward who was sitting with Jac and Bri. She imitated wiping sweat from her brow, ‘Gods, I feel uneasy near him!’ she said to them, ‘He even sleeps with his eyes open!’
Jac handed her some wine as Breward spluttered his out over his food.
‘What?’ he managed to say before Caja continued,
‘I had to close the shutters in the roundhouse and collect my dress and when I turned he was just staring at me with those dead eyes! My heart nearly stopped!’
‘But did your mouth?’ Jac asked, already having finished several cups of wine. He got a clout from Bri for his trouble and consoled himself by taunting a hopeless cat juggler from a nearby village.
Bri scolded him for that too and pointed out, ‘He may be hopeless but it’s damned difficult and at least he’s trying. He’s quite sweet actually.’
‘Gods woman! He’s at least twenty years younger than you!’ Jac stood up unsteadily and went in search of more affable drinking company, muttering something inaudible about kitchen girls.
Breward had recovered from his misapprehension and attempted to explain what he had and had not meant earlier when they spoke by the wain. He made heavy going of it. Caja elected not to tell him about undressing in front of the sleeping Arthur.
Arthur joined those at the top tables. He greeted the heads of the other villages and sat down next to Andala with his back to the wall and facing the thronging hall. As before, Ceinwen, Narlos and Bernache were seated at the table. The table was piled with foods and more was being brought from the central hearth, now in full blaze. The hall was warm, hot even, and lit by burning brands lined along each wall. The wooden shutters were all down but not latched so occasionally they would lift slightly as the wind buffeted the hall. The snow was becoming thicker in the air outside.
Arthur turned to Andala and asked, ‘Do you have any guards for this village or any warriors?’
Andala shook his head vaguely, ‘Barely – we set watchers if there’s news of trouble nearby but any ex-war band are old like Narlos here or maimed. Ceinwen’s trained a few of the younger men in hunting and tracking but they aren’t really guards.’
Arthur leant back and surveyed the carefree scene before him. These people had worked hard all summer to raise their crops and then harvest them and now they had an arduous journey to Caer Sulis before them, or even further on to the Haven and across the sea. This was their local celebration of Lughnasa and they feasted, as they should, in their own homes among their own people. The festivities at Caer Sulis would be far grander but they would not enjoy it as much, they would be among strangers there and they would feel unimportant. Yet, despite the casual celebrations of the villagers, he felt uneasy, uneasy enough to have saddled his horse and packed extra feed.
Andala was watching him and growing more concerned as his own pleasant wine-induced shroud drifted away from him. ‘Surely you don’t expect an Uathach attack? In this storm? At Lughnasa?’ Andala asked softly but urgently amidst the din of the hall.
‘It would be an excellent time to do so. A drunk, defenceless village piled high with supplies...’ Arthur took a drink from his beaker of wine, ‘but no, we’ve spent the last two months in the North Country making sure that wouldn’t happen. Still... something concerns me here.’
Ceinwen had noticed their quiet conversation and the look of worry on Andala’s face. She asked Andala what the matter was but to her annoyance he held up a hand to stop her questions.
Arthur spoke again, ‘Get seven of your watchers or hunters, make sure they’re still sober, and put three on the eastern wall, one each on the other walls. Give them sheltered brands to keep near them but not so close so that they’ll be lit-up by them. Place one watcher in a central point and have them signal him regularly. Have another seven stay sober to replace them in four hours time. Do it quietly and do it now.’
Andala got up ashen faced and went down into the throng of feasting villagers. Ceinwen took his vacated seat and leaned towards Arthur, ‘Is there something wrong, Arthur?’
‘No, I merely had a dream, just taking some caution.’
‘What was the dream?’ Ceinwen asked anxiously.
Arthur looked at her but did not answer. Ceinwen suppressed a shudder and resisted the urge to make the habitual sign to ward off evil spirits. Below them someone had struck up a lively tune on a lyre and the more drunken began to caper and dance in a small space before the raised part of the hall. Ceinwen recognised Jac dancing with one the kitchen girls and smiled despite her concern. She was a good-looking girl and holding Jac’s hands they had began to spin in a tight circle. Others gathered around them and started to clap in rhythm to the lyre. It ended inevitably with them both crashing to the straw covered floor and, much to Jac’s obvious delight, with the girl sprawled on top of him. The others helped them up and the space was cleared for some more accomplished dancers to pick up where they had left off.
Andala returned and took the empty seat next to Ceinwen and nodded across to Arthur to indicate it was done. Arthur forced himself to appear relaxed and started to eat from the piled foods on the table but he drank sparingly. Ceinwen heard from Andala what Arthur had ordered and her concern returned. Andala drained his beaker and refilled it then suitably emboldened, leant across Ceinwen to make himself heard above the music and spoke to Arthur, ‘Can I ask you a question that’s troubled me for years, Arthur?’
Arthur turned his attention to him and after a moment said, ‘He was guilty, why think more on it?’
‘That’s just it! How did you even know what I was going to ask? How did you know he was guilty when it was just my word against his?’
Ceinwen watched them puzzled, and then it dawned on her that Andala was talking about the incident with the warrior and the girl on the journey west years ago.
She wanted to stop her husband asking any further questions but Arthur was already replying, ‘And the girl’s word.’
‘Even so, she could have had an axe to grind.’
‘And did she? Did you?’ Arthur half-smiled at Andala as he asked.
‘No. Every word we said was true but you weren’t to know that.’
‘I did know that.’
Andala ran out of courage to carry on and drank deeply from his beaker of wine. Ceinwen tried to indicate to her husband to drop the subject but in a rare misunderstanding Andala thought she was encouraging him and he continued, ‘Some say that Merdynn gave you the Gift of Sight at your birth.’
‘Do they? It’s what I can’t see that concerns me and the only gift Merdynn ever gave me was a cursed horse.’
‘That you can see into people’s hearts...’ Andala persevered before his courage ran out completely.
Arthur turned to face him, ‘Merdynn gave me no such gift.’
Andala tried one last time, ‘Then how could you know, how could you be so certain so quickly?’
‘Enough. Breagan was guilty. There’s been no such incident again from any of my warriors. Nor will there be.’ The subject was closed though not Andala’s curiosity. Ceinwen rested a hand on Andala’s arm to make sure he understood not to ask anymore.
Arthur stood up and said directly to Ceinwen, ‘Heat some broth for those on the walls and get someone to take it to them, and bring them extra winter cloaks.’ With that he made his way off the raised area and strode through the increasingly inebriated villagers to the main door. As he left the hall a dense swirl of snowflakes circled inside the doorway. Ceinwen issued the necessary instructions.
Arthur could barely see fifty yards ahead of him in the gloom and swirling snow. Eventually he saw a man huddled in the shelter of a doorway. He crossed over to him. There was some heat coming from the blacksmith’s forge behind him and he had a timer glass on the floor beside him.
‘What’s your name?’ Arthur asked once he was in the lee of the wind.
‘Colban, my Lord.’
‘Well Colban, is everyone signalling on time?’ Arthur asked.
‘Yes Lord, they’re due to signal again now,’ Colban motioned to the timer on the floor, its sands having run through the glass. He picked up a brand, which had a tubular, holed metal extension to protect the flames from the wind, and they both walked out into the exposed square. One by one the watchers signalled and he returned the signal. They retired to the lee of the blacksmith’s and Colban turned the timer.
‘Stay alert Colban. I’ll make sure that you and your family get good quarters in Caer Sulis to make up for missing your festival. If any signal fails to be returned don’t go to see if he’s fallen asleep but come to me straight away. It’s very important you understand that. Do you?’
‘And call me Arthur, I’m not your Lord.’
‘Yes, Lord,’ he replied automatically then realised what he had just said. They smiled and Arthur fought his way to the East wall. Behind him the first of the broths and cloaks arrived.
Breward was not delighted about being asked by Ceinwen to have to ferry supplies out to the watchers – he had been making good progress with Caja he thought. He had finally managed to convince her that he did not think she was either too young or incapable of helping to organise the Eald villages. He did have to agree he was just probably jealous of not being asked himself even though the thought hadn’t crossed his mind but if it repaired some of the damage then he did not mind too much. He saw Arthur talking to one of the watchers as he carried around the supplies and was soon back inside the warmth of the hall. He felt the contrast sharply. Outside was gloomy, bleak and cold – a far cry from the merry making inside. He looked round for Caja and to his relief saw she was with her parents at the top table and not chatting to any of the lads from the other villages gathered here. He made his way with difficulty back up the hall and sat down heavily at the table.
‘Done?’ Ceinwen asked.
‘Yes, and it’s wretched out there. Only the gods know why he’s decided to put watchers out in this weather, he must be mad,’ Breward said and helped himself to a spare cup of wine from the table.
‘Did you see him out there?’ Andala asked.
‘Yes, he was on the eastern wall.’
‘And did you ask him why he set the watchers?’ Andala queried.
‘No – it was windy, couldn’t hear a thing,’ Breward explained.
Narlos tapped Breward on the arm, ‘That’s his wine your drinking lad.’
Breward nearly dropped it in his haste to put it back down and Caja laughed. He looked shamefaced at his haste but smiled broadly when Caja came across the table and sat in his lap offering him her wine.
‘Are you going to dance, Caja?’ Ceinwen asked.
‘Shall I?’ Caja asked Breward who groaned and said,
‘You will anyway – best get it done.’
Caja jumped up and skipped back to the kitchen area where she had put her daisy-chain circlet ready for the dance. Arthur was making his way back up the hall having completed his circuit of the walls. Breward quickly refilled Arthur’s wine cup and then theatrically examined his fingernails. Narlos laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
Arthur took his seat and Ceinwen said, ‘You’re just in time to see our daughter dance, Arthur.’
‘And does she dance as well as her mother used to?’ he asked.
‘You may judge that.’
The bard plucked a sequence of notes on the lyre and a tambourine rattled as Caja made her way barefoot to the small area before the top tables. She wore the daisy chain circlet around her long red hair that hung down the back of her simple white dress. She smiled up at Breward as the first chords of the song started on the lyre and, as the tambourine set the rhythm, she began to dance. The music grew louder, slowly developing with soft minor chords. The dance told of the sun’s slow passage to the eastern horizon, the onset of autumn and the coming of the darkness.
Arthur sat back and leaning towards Ceinwen said, ‘Just like her mother, twenty years ago.’
Ceinwen stared at him unsure whether he was cruelly taunting her or complimenting them both; she was not the girl’s real mother, she could never have children – a fact that Arthur was all too aware of. Arthur watched the dance.
Gradually the noise of shouting and laughing died down as more began to watch the dance. People craned for a better view as word spread that Caja was dancing. Everyone knew her mother had silenced the Great Hall at Caer Sulis many years ago with a dance that had woven a tale into the music. They wanted to be the first to see if her daughter would do the same here. As drunk as they undoubtedly were, the onlookers became spellbound. People were standing on benches and tables to get a better view.
The funnel for the circular hearth in the centre of the hall obscured Arthur’s view of the main doorway. He did not see it open. He did not see Colban stand there panting or see him sprawl forward to the floor, arms outstretched as if someone had pushed him violently from behind. Those nearest the main doors turned in irritation to see which drunken fool had left the doors open and let the cold air sweep in. They looked at Colban sprawled face down on the floor. They saw the crow-feathered arrow protruding from between his shoulders. They stared blankly at the prone form and just could not register that he had been killed by an arrow. Fully ten seconds passed and the dance continued. Then four black armoured, squat figures thrust the double doors open and stood in the doorway, curved swords held before them. Bri, standing near the door stared at the new horror then let out a terrified scream that tore through the hall and silenced the music. Arthur jumped to his feet, sending his chair flying behind him just as the nearest attacker to Bri leapt at her with his sword already swinging through the air. The sword cut her scream dead and she fell backward, blood showering from her neck. The wooden shutters along the eastern wall were flung open and black-clad, squat figures scrambled through like locusts spilling into the hall. A dozen more appeared at the main door and the mayhem started. People were screaming and trying to get away from the doorway and from the eastern wall where still more attackers scrabbled in.
Arthur shouted to Andala and Ceinwen, ‘Get out! Make west!’ and he leapt for the tables running down the West side of the hall, he landed and slid straight off the greasy surface into the villagers cramming themselves against the wall. He jumped back onto the tables and ran towards the main door where his sword stood against the wall.
Breward came out of his shock and tried to make his way toward Caja. Andala took Ceinwen’s hand and pulled her toward the kitchen area where there was a small side door. There were screams coming from the kitchen and as they approached three assailants burst through, their curved swords already bloody. Andala turned and pushed Ceinwen back the way they had come as a sword took his legs from under him. Ceinwen turned in horror to see the swords hack down on her husband. She turned and fled back into the bloody chaos of the hall.
Breward had battled his way to Caja who still did not seem to understand what was happening around her. She grabbed his hands but before either could say anything a curved sword swung down over her shoulder and cut deeply into Breward’s face. He slumped to his knees then fell forward, his bloody face smearing down Caja’s white dress. She screamed as hands snatched and held her arms and legs, dragging her back toward the eastern windows.
Arthur reached the last table and slid to a stop. Before him the attackers were wading into the villagers, cutting a bloody swathe before them. Still more were pouring in through the doorway. He shot a look across to the other side of the hall to see even more scrambling through the windows and into the hall. There were already a hundred of them inside and a good thirty between Arthur and his sword.
‘Out! Out the windows and run!’ he shouted to those around him and hurled himself at the nearest wooden shutter. He flung it open and as he dived out he grabbed the wooden stake used to prop it wide. Others followed him as the slaughter continued behind them. He sprinted around the corner of the hall and joined the throng of attackers running towards the entrance. They were not looking for someone running with them and he made it to the doorway before cries went up all around him. He swung the wooden stake into the face of an attacker just behind him and sent him sprawling into those following. Lashing out with his foot he cleared the assailant just inside the doorway. He dived for his weapons and slipped his hand through the shield hold and brought it around just in time to catch the downward slash from a sword. Rolling across the earthen floor he swung his sword and the scabbard flew free and toward his attacker’s face who ducked but could not avoid the sweeping sword that followed cutting his left leg off below the knee.
The attackers that were trying to stop the flight through the western windows began to turn to see the commotion behind them. Arthur did not hesitate, roaring he rushed at them and cut down two in as many seconds. They faltered and he lunged at another who tried to turn Arthur’s blade but was not quick enough. Arthur dragged the sword back out of the falling body.
In front of him a single line of the attackers turned to face him, they had been pressing their slaughter on the villagers along the western side of the hall who were still desperately trying to get through the windows. Behind him a band of twenty to thirty attackers were closing on him from the doorway. The eastern side of the hall was a chaotic bloody mess with bodies everywhere and the attackers moving on to those crammed up against the West side. In the moment it took to take this in Arthur saw Ceinwen among those at the top end of the hall trying to escape the massacre through the western windows.
He leapt at the single line ahead of him in a howling rage. The attackers were unprepared for his fury and he cut his way through. Once again he ran the length of the tables, standing on friend and foe alike as he tried to reach Ceinwen. He saw Jac as he drunkenly laid about him with a wooden stool but was already beyond him and did not see the arrow fired at close range that tore into Jac’s throat.
As he neared Ceinwen he lost his footing on a blood soaked table and flew off crashing into a group of attackers. Before he could recover, a curved sword slashed down into his shoulder and blood flew into his face. He lashed out blindly and rolled beneath the table as more swords thumped down into the earth where he had been. Once on the other side of the table he leapt up and turned the table over as the attackers began to clamber over it. He looked to see where Ceinwen was. She was only fifteen-feet away but as he watched an attacker ran at her with a spear. At the last second she twisted away from the thrusting spear and it just missed her stomach and embedded itself in the wall. She kicked out at her attacker who staggered backwards. Arthur hurled himself at the spearman and took his head clean off with one full-blooded sweep of his sword.
He looked at the wreckage of the hall. Where a few minutes earlier there had been feasting and dancing now there was carnage. It seemed that the only ones standing were the black armoured attackers. He turned quickly and hoisted Ceinwen through a window that already had its shutter torn off and dived after her. The freezing wind chilled him immediately and shouting for Ceinwen to follow he started for the stable by the East Gate.
‘Wait! My daughter, Caja!’ Ceinwen shouted and turned back to the window. Even from where she stood she could see that the panic and bloody slaughter continued unabated inside. She screamed her daughter’s name again and again.
Arthur ran back to her and, circling her waist with one arm, half-carried and half-dragged her away from the hall. She struggled to free herself from his grip, her legs kicking in the air and still screaming for her daughter. Arthur set her down and held her at arms length.
‘Where was she?’ he shouted above the wind. She stared at him blankly and he had to repeat the question. She pointed back to the hall and Arthur had to reign in his impatience. ‘Whereabouts in the hall? Near the West windows?’
Ceinwen shook her head.
‘Where was she when you last saw her?’
‘Nearer the East side,’ Ceinwen said regaining control of herself and understanding what her answer meant.
‘Everyone still in that hall is now dead,’ Arthur said still holding her shoulders.
She looked towards the hall and, as if to prove Arthur’s words, she saw someone being dragged back from the window as he tried to escape through it.
‘I can’t leave her, Arthur,’ she said desperately.
An arrow flicked between their faces and they instinctively broke apart and turned to see four Adren charging towards them. Arthur met them and killed two almost instantly. He pressed forward and Ceinwen followed, stooping down to claim a sword from one of the dead. They dispatched one each but more were coming from the hall’s entrance.
Arthur grabbed her by the arm and ran for the stables. As he neared the entrance an arrow thudded into the back of his right thigh and he crashed to the snow-covered ground. He crawled to the entrance and Ceinwen pulled him through. He looked at the arrow with blurred vision and decided he could not push it all the way through. Ceinwen came to the same conclusion and swiftly snapped off half the protruding shaft. She leapt up onto the horse and leaning down helped Arthur as he hauled himself up in the saddle behind her. He nearly passed out leaning forward to untether the reins as the remaining part of the arrow shaft caught on the saddle. He clung onto Ceinwen as she spurred the horse out of the stables. There were black-clad figures running everywhere, looting whatever they could find and setting fire to the insides of wooden buildings. There were screams and shouts still coming from inside the hall and Arthur could hear the desperate screams of a woman from one of the wooden houses across the square. Ceinwen half-turned the horse towards the screams but two arrows sped past to either side of her and she urged the horse forward again. Arthur spat on the ground and they rode out through the East Gate leaving the slaughter behind them.