I thought I’d better let you know what I’m up to! It’s been a while, but I’m burning my way through a touch of burnout and my latest, When First I Met My King, a stripped-back-and-tribal retelling of our endlessly fertile Arthur myth, will be available for pre-order on Amazon very soon. Here’s a taster – I hope you enjoy.
It was Bear who had spotted the water. His guardian, a straight-spined old soldier of Roman descent named Ectorius, nodded in approval. The boy must learn to be aware of the needs of horses and troops, and become adept in meeting them. Their journey had been long, and the animals were thirsty. Ectorius nodded, giving permission for him to lead off toward the glittering burn.
They had almost reached the ruined turret when Bear reined in his horse and stood listening. Ectorius exchanged a glance with his own son, Gaius. Neither of them could hear anything but skylarks, and the long-billed water birds called curlew that sang so joyously up on these moors when the sun came out.
It was shining brilliantly now. The locals all the way from Pons Aelius in the east had complained of an endless winter, and although Ectorius had seen signs of it – barely the beginnings of growth in the fields, the people thin and weary, lambs few – all around them, this spring day was perfect. The good weather seemed to be following them. Gaius, a big, raw-boned lad, with a face as kind and ugly as his father’s own, had teased Bear that the sun had started to shine from his regal backside, and the boy had begun to take such nonsense good-naturedly, instead of trying to engage his stepbrother in mortal combat every time they quarrelled. Now, as often, Bear had seen or heard something imperceptible to other senses, and Ectorius learned to take him seriously. “What is it?” he softly asked.
“I’m not sure. Someone coming, I think. But he moves like a cat, or the wind.”
Ectorius drew his sword. He motioned to the three armed grooms travelling with them to take up defensive positions. Their journey had been safe so far, but up here in the borders, so the tales said, little Pictish hunters could emerge from the very hills to seek their prey. Their reputation was uncanny. Blue ghosts who sailed in on the wind and snatched up lambs and babies from cradles… It was nonsense, of course, Celtic twilight, but nevertheless he made ready.
Yes. He could hear it now, too. Light, running footsteps. Bear had trotted his horse forward to meet them, almost into the shadow of the turret’s arch. Ectorius didn’t think there was much to worry about, and he knew that from now on he had to let the boy fight his own battles. Reining back his horse, gesturing to the others to do the same, he kept a discreet watch.
It was just another lad, and a skinny one at that. But he leapt with such force from the reeds behind the arch that Bear did not stand a chance: in an instant he was dragged from his mount and down into the stream. His thin, dirty assailant crashed into the water with him. “Saxon!” the newcomer bellowed, shoving Bear under the surface, sending rainbows flying. “Saxon pig! This land will never be yours. I defy you!”
Bear was startled into passivity. He was winded, too, and shocked by the water’s cold sting. It was an instant only. Ectorius watched in approval as he twisted out from under and sprang to his feet. His sword had never left his hand. “Saxon?” he demanded in his turn. “How dare you, you savage? I am prince of Cerniw, and my father was the son of the Dragon of the South, as good a Briton as ever lived!”
The blade flashed. The dark-haired lad staggered up out of the water and jumped back, but only far enough to draw his own weapon.
Ectorius leaned forward in his saddle. This stranger bore a sword such as the old Roman had never seen, and he wielded it well. Too well for his protégé? Ectorius tensed. If the boy fell, all was lost…
Then, suddenly, the very air changed. The flaring rage between Bear and his opponent seemed to fall out of it like scales. Bear had been schooled in the rules of combat, and apparently so had the Celtic lad, although God alone knew where. Engagement with a worthy opponent must be fair. Soldiers on the battlefield could hack at one another like butchers, but this boy had offered himself one-on-one. Bear found his balance, waited till the other was firm on his feet too, and made his move.
Blade hit blade, and sparks flew.
Ectorius watched the fight progress. Bear was putting into practice all he had been taught, and keeping his head, too, which could not always be counted on. The other, after his initial burst of rage, had settled into a combat stance that was almost cool, and heaven only knew where he had got that magnificent sword. Bear was actually smiling – had breath and poise to ask, between parries, “Well, what are you, moorland warrior? A long-legged Pict?”
“Pict?” the other demanded, accurately mimicking Bear’s outraged echo of Saxon. “I am Lance, son of King Ban of Vindolanda…” He paused, long enough to spring up the stream bank, obliging Bear to move after him, fighting uphill. “As good a Roman as ever drew breath.”
“Oh? I am Roman, too, by upbringing.”
The boy called Lance seemed to consider this, although he didn’t ease the ferocity of his attack. “In that case we probably have no fight.”
“Probably not,” Bear admitted. He was getting the worst of it. Childishly he added, “But you started it!”, and lunged in with an uncontrolled thrust whose force Lance effortlessly caught and turned against him, dumping him backover into the water once more.
The splash was considerable. Gaius roared with laughter. Lance put up his sword at once and waded in, one hand extended to help.
And Cerniw’s heir lost his temper. He scrambled to his feet, evading the other boy’s grasp. His hair swung round his face like a wet lion’s mane and he seemed from somewhere to gain a foot in height. “Peasant!” he snarled. “You have no idea who I am! How dare you block my way, here or anywhere in this land?”
Ectorius frowned in an effort to keep his face straight. It felt like only yesterday he had watched the child being chased by its nurse around his courtyard for a change of undergarments, but he held his tongue: like the fighting, within certain bounds he must let the budding regality have sway. Lance only looked disgusted. What a change came over that handsome face, when his smile was replaced by disdain! He turned his back and began to walk away.
A mistake. In this state of mind, Bear would not be ignored. And he was a good boy, Pendragon’s heir, but he had the hot Celtic blood of both his parents – the warrior king, and the bride he had stolen, starting a war in the process, and she just as much of a spitting tiger as her new lord could handle – running through his veins. He could only take so much, Ectorius knew, for all the lessons in courteous defeat he had tried so patiently to learn. He might have been gracious, had Gaius not laughed. Instead, he grabbed Lance by the shoulder, spun him round and knocked him down with a flying punch.
Ectorius jumped off his horse. “Arthur!” he barked. “Stop that at once. How dare you treat a worthy opponent so shabbily?” He strode across the stream. A time would soon come when he would not be able to clout his ward over the head to restore his manners, but until then, Ectorius retained full parental privilege. Bear took the blow without flinching, as he had been taught, his eyes wide and fearless on his guardian’s.
Then Ectorius glanced down. The young Celt lay motionless and pale on the turf. His eyes were closed. “By Our Lady, Art. What have you done?”
Arthur’s mouth fell open. His face suffused with shame and horror. “He was defending his father’s land, as you would have done yours,” Ectorius said sternly. “And he has not the benefit of all your training, you spoiled child.”
Arthur tore out of his grip. He crouched down beside Lance. He shook him, then collected himself and began to search for the injury. It didn’t take long: tenderly he raised his head, reached beneath it and sat back with bloodstained fingers. “He fell onto a rock. I have killed him. Oh, Father Ector – the shame to me, that I should have served a noble enemy thus!”
Once more Ectorius repressed a smile. Round and rough-tongued enough in his daily speech, the boy did tend to poetry when he was upset. Somehow it sat well on him. Taking pity, Ectorius knelt down stiffly on the turf himself. He felt for the fallen lad’s pulse beneath his jaw. “Well,” he said. “Perhaps we need not bury him just yet. Don”t sit there gawping, child! Fetch me some water from the stream.”