Twilight of the Celts Book One: The Last Dragon
This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
—Every nighte and alle,
Fire and flet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.
From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
—Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.
—“THE LYKE-WAKE DIRGE”
When a great king dies, the earth shudders on its axis and even the sun and stars seem less bright and permanent. When King Artor died, no words were sufficient to describe the sudden stutter in the lifeblood of the Celtic nations. There was no time for mourning, only a terror of what would come, now that their protector had perished.
Ultimately, autumn followed a spring and summer of civil war between the Celtic tribes. The farmers obeyed the ancient laws of the earth and harvested their crops, storing grain in neat conical stone and mud granaries, while apples, fish, meat, and vegetables were dried and pickled to see out the long winter. Furrows were dug in the bare earth, still crowned with the last dry stalks of an earlier crop, and birds came to feed on worms and beetles disturbed by the wooden plows. Careless of the fate of kings, the soil has rhythms that cannot be gainsaid by grief or hardship. Planting, weeding, harvesting, and plowing—the pattern will go on until the end of time.
In Deva, the violated streets and burned buildings still bore raw scars of the conflict that had ravaged a noble Roman city, one that had been an open metropolis for as long as men could remember. Those citizens who had escaped fire and sword crawled out of the rubble and began to set stone on stone and rebuild, for human beings are impelled to labor whenever everything they cherish has been desecrated. Build, destroy, rebuild . . . so the rhythm of cities mimics the patterns of the soil, for the trading ships would come again in the spring, bearing trade goods from the Middle Sea, and the lifeblood of Deva would begin to circle once more. But first, men must mourn their losses.
When the cold winds came, women wept for their empty beds and murdered children, while on Cadbury Tor an empty throne stood in the great hall of King Artor. No man, no matter how powerful or able, dared to rest upon the hard wooden seat. The Celtic warriors who patrolled the Roman roads harried the Picts back to their hollows beyond the Vallum Antonini, where they licked their wounds, smiled below their woad tattoos, and waited, knowing that their old hatreds would finally bear fruit. The Warrior of the West had reigned for as long as most men had been alive, and few remembered the chaos of the Great Dragon’s rule when the crazed Uther Pendragon had fought the invading Saxons until old age and madness left him brooding impotently in Venta Belgarum. In those final years of inaction the Saxon barbarians had burned churches and torn down cities of stone before constructing their simple timber buildings and crude palisades in their place.
Later, under King Artor’s long and peaceful rule, the Celtic peoples had prospered, but Artor had died by the hand of his nephew, Modred the Matricide, and no new king had yet been elevated to assume the throne of the Britons.
Pain and loss were followed by collective anger in the rhythm of men’s hearts before hope could finally begin to grow. A rage for all things lost and broken, a fury for the uncertainty of the future, and a realization that the tribes had contributed to their own defeat scoured the spirits of the warriors, leaving a cleaner, brighter anger that demanded to be sated. Still disorganized, the Saxons had not dealt them their mortal blow. But Modred and his allies had killed their future and imperiled their homes, so the traitors must pay before the Celts could begin the healing process. Perhaps a new dragon would rise from dead, cold ashes.
The Matricide was dead. There was no body to display on the walls of Deva, for the High King’s warriors had stabbed, torn, chopped, and kicked at it on the battlefield after Artor had dealt the killing blow. Artor’s own body had been spirited away by the three queens and taken down the long road leading to Glastonbury in the south, while his warriors took their bitter chagrin out on the Matricide’s corpse. Modred was gone into the great darkness, and his remains were beyond the justice of his enemies.
But several of Modred’s allies remained alive. They were free, breathing and cowering in hidden places, still hoping to escape the vengeance of the victors of the battle of Camlann. For those men whose anger burned the brightest, the greatest prize became King Mark of the Deceangli tribe, that ruler who had forsaken his oaths of fealty and been seduced by Modred’s empty promises of land and gold. This lordling was assailable, for his body had not been found when the battle was over.
Mark had fled the field when he became aware that Modred had been slain. Whether King Artor survived his wounds or not was of little importance to Mark, who ordered his surviving forces to retire behind their own borders in a hasty and craven retreat. No man, wounded or suffering, was spared during his mad dash to safety. The Deceangli had always prided themselves on the courage of their warriors, and on that numbing, bone-jarring ride the tribesmen cursed their failure on the battlefield and the cowardice of their king, who had determined that they must live forever with the shame of their flight.
The Deceangli weren’t alone in their shame and impotent anger. The tribes would remember Deva with the taste of wormwood on their tongues, and they would dream of vengeance as they searched the north for pockets of Pictish resistance. In ruthless determination to salvage some shreds of honor from the civil war, the kings ground their teeth and vowed that someone would pay for the debacle. Mark knew he was living on borrowed time in his fortress beside the river at Canovium, and prayed that Artor’s death would plunge the kingdoms into chaos. Which, of course, it did.
While Mark was a weak man with a coward’s sense of self-preservation, he understood the frailties and self-delusions of other men. The power vacuum left by Artor’s death weakened the alliance of kings, so each tribal group drew back to its own boundaries and watched its neighbors with untrusting, self-absorbed eyes. Mark wasn’t forgotten, simply put aside until the wounds of his pursuers were cleansed and healing, and the old rhythms could reassert themselves.
For months, Mark hunkered down in the Canovium fortress, which possessed living rock from the heart of the mountains at its back, the river that rose near Dinas Emrys at its feet and huge ramparts of earth protecting his hall at its crown. Canovium had never suffered the ignominy of defeat, for it had been sited with self-defense as the prime consideration.
“Let them come,” Mark crowed at those times when he had drunk enough wine to numb his sharp, avian intelligence. “They’ll break their backs on my walls. That old bastard Artor is worm food now, so who is left to call me to account? Bedwyr? A Saxon slave in his youth, and now the master of nothing but trees! Gawayne? He’s even older than his damned uncle, and his lands in Rheged are under constant attack from Saxon scum. He’ll not leave his broad acres to settle old scores—not unless he’s got a death wish. Who else is there to care who should live or who should die?”
But, drunk or sober, Mark did not forget the enigmatic king of the Ordovice, a tribe of great power in the west. Bran was said to be linked to the old king by blood, for ancient rumor had suggested that his mother, Anna, was King Artor’s sister, but no man dared ask the question of King Bran outright. Reasoned, quiet, and self-effacing on first acquaintance, Bran seemed too mild mannered to be a threat. Yet Mark worried about a steely glint that showed in the younger man’s eyes when he was thwarted, and a natural talent for leadership which was surprising given that quiet demeanor. Mark was sharp and observant, or he would not have survived for so many years, and he recognized the adoration that the Ordovice warriors gave unstintingly to their king. Such worship couldn’t be bought or borrowed: it had to be earned.
But word had come that Bran had been dangerously wounded in one of the early battles of Modred’s campaign. Within his hall, Mark hugged himself in the cold and drew comfort from the younger man’s illness. The wound would slow down any intemperate actions on Bran’s part, even though his bitch of a mother had Uther Pendragon’s long memory and was capable of leading a band of her warriors straight to the gates of Canovium. Fortunately, Anna was elderly and her brother was dead. She would be obliged to mourn Artor’s loss.
Endlessly, Mark worried about his own safety as he watched the roads that led from the north and the south. Tortured and lacking the energy to rule, he waited as winter plunged the north into a prison of sleet, snow, and black ice.
In those bitter days, the king often laughed or wept until his frightened servants were unable to discern the difference in the ugly sounds that came from his hall. At other times, he was heard talking to the empty chair where his wife had once sat in state, crooning endearments or cursing her vilely by turn. On these occasions, the servants and his personal guard shunned Mark lest he should see the contempt and pity in their eyes, for every soul in the fortress had heard how Queen Iseult, whose name meant fair to look upon, had broken her marriage vows to their king, judging him a lesser man than Lord Trystan, King Artor’s spymaster and sworn servant, and had killed herself in front of her husband.
“Ah, Iseult, my sweet little bitch, you shouldn’t have forsaken me. Don’t you understand how you were the cause of everything’s going wrong? I’d never have bothered with that madman Modred if it weren’t for you. Why wasn’t I good enough? What did Trystan have that I didn’t? I had no choice but to punish you, and you knew it, woman. Else I’d have been a joke in my own hall. A man, especially a king, can’t allow himself to be cuckolded in his own house.”
It was ten months since King Mark had returned to Canovium, and behind the wall hangings his servants crossed themselves or gripped their amulets with pious fingers as they listened to his crazy ramblings. “I pray that our master dies and rots before the other kings turn their faces towards us,” his seneschal, Mellyr, whispered to the captain of the King’s Guard. “They’ll kill us and burn Canovium to the ground if we continue to harbor him.”
The officer pretended not to hear the treasonous words of complaint, so the seneschal slipped away to dine with the house servants on mugs of ale and newly buttered flat bread in the kitchen of the fortress. The household regularly fed on gossip to quieten the steadily rising anxiety that came with each new day, for the roads remained empty of King Artor’s troops or the warriors led by their neighbor, King Bran, who would soon be forced to call Mark to account for his treason. As Mellyr was fond of saying, every day the kings did not come was one day closer to the hour they would turn the road white with their dust.
Rather than grow complacent at the lack of immediate action, all sensible men in the fortress realized that the kings would never forget Mark’s treachery. They would come. Their failure to arrive at once spoke only of their contempt for the Deceangli lord and his warriors, men who had cast aside their oaths of fealty and then deserted the field of battle.
“You were there when Lord Trystan and Queen Iseult died, Master Mellyr. Tell us about them,” one loose-lipped, heavy-bodied house servant asked, his eyes alive with excitement. The kitchens were warm and the ale was fresh and clean, so the servants found comfortable places to sit in anticipation of illicit entertainment, for they knew their king would punish any discussion of his queen and her infidelity. But talk of a local tragedy would divert their minds from what real disasters the morrow might bring. Outside, the winter winds battered at the fortress’s upper walls and whistled through the bolted shutters as they sought to wind their cold tendrils into the empty rooms of Mark’s palace.
“Who could not remember the tale of Queen Iseult and Lord Trystan?” Mellyr’s voice was warm with affection, for every red-blooded male in the fortress had fallen in love with Iseult’s astonishing beauty, either as an ideal or as a fantasy. The other servants nodded, remembering coal-black hair with the midnight-blue gloss that was seen on the wings of ravens. Iseult’s eyes had been an unusual color, the irises so pale within their dark blue rims that they could have been grey or green, depending on the light. Her skin had possessed the perfect thick white texture of a statue rather than a living woman, so that she resembled someone carved out of ice or wax. She was so remote and so cold that she seemed almost inhuman in her unnatural calm and stillness, like a goddess out of old legends. Her servants agreed that such loveliness was both a blessing and a curse.
“And then Lord Trystan came to Canovium with his harp, his clever fingers, his glossy hair, and his fine words,” Mellyr said softly. He remembered that first visit distinctly, recalling how Iseult had bloomed in response to Trystan’s compliments. Under his bold, admiring stare, a delicate rose flush had stained the skin over her cheekbones and melted the ice in her blood. Her teeth, like small river pearls, had glowed within her parted red lips, and she seemed to breathe faster as Trystan sang of perfect love. Iseult had been beautiful before Trystan’s arrival, but on that night she had been incandescent. “I never believed that love could strike so quickly, but I saw the queen open like a bud that has been frozen by a long, cold night and has been suddenly warmed by morning sunshine.”
“You’re an old fool!” one of the household’s oldest servants sneered. “You sound like a bad poet or a fond father. You loved her too, so you should admit that you blame our king for her death, although any man would have been enraged if he had stood in King Mark’s shoes.”
The sudden silence in the kitchen held the charged tension of an open conflict. The king’s defender, Pedr, jutted out his chin aggressively while he bit into a torn slab of new bread with the intensity of a deeply affronted man. The servants weren’t surprised, for if the king had an unswerving supporter in Canovium, that man was Pedr.
As the seneschal of Mark’s household, a position of status earned over many years of service, Mellyr stiffened. “Thank you, Pedr, but it is not your place to criticize where I place my affections. Aye, the queen did have a magical glamour that forced people to admire her, but she was a good wife to a husband who was thirty years her senior. She was obedient and respectful, like a loyal daughter or a granddaughter, but my position took me close to them and I saw that there was no love between King Mark and his wife. You should refrain from judgment, Pedr, because you insult your betters. Iseult didn’t love her husband, but she served him as her position demanded. Any decent man would feel pity for her, for the poor girl suddenly felt the full force of physical love for a handsome young man when Lord Trystan visited the king’s hall. I watched that storm of passion strike her when Trystan smiled at her and kissed her hand, and my attachment to her memory is born of an old man’s longing to replace the ugly memories of her death with something fairer. Our mistress was doomed from the moment Lord Trystan cast his eyes upon her flower-fresh face.”
Pedr grunted over his cup of ale. “I’m not saying you’re right, Mellyr, and I’m not saying you’re wrong. But a man must be able to believe that his wife will remain faithful.”
“Aye, Pedr. But our master bought her from her father, so there was a price on her body. Who can buy the heart, Pedr? Who can place a value on the soul?”
Disgruntled, Pedr nodded his head and the awkward moment passed. The puzzled servants, who had watched the altercation with avid interest, settled back on their stools, ready for more entertainment.
“Whatever Queen Iseult’s motives might have been, I watched her husband’s face as I served him during the feast. You were the cupbearer that evening, Pedr, so you must have seen the way King Mark watched his wife whenever Trystan spoke to her. And you must have seen the way Artor’s spymaster toyed with him! The young man flaunted his virility so bluntly that the king was forced to compare his old age with Trystan’s youth. Trystan humiliated King Mark for his own amusement. He niggled at him, while joking openly that our king couldn’t compete with him in physical contests. His whole attitude was fucking obvious . . . excuse me, ladies.” Mellor nodded in the direction of two kitchen maids who were pretending not to eavesdrop. “In the foolishness of youth, Trystan flaunted his talents at every opportunity. I watched, and suspected from the start that the queen’s new passion would eventually end in tears.
“Within a few weeks, I was forced to acknowledge that Trystan came to visit the queen in her apartments whenever Mark stirred out of his hall. And if the queen went riding, her retinue would gamble coin on whether Lord Trystan would appear, uninvited and charming, telling jokes that displayed a dangerous gaiety and effrontery. They were rarely disappointed. I also remember the times Lady Iseult stole away in the dead of night without even a maid to accompany her.”
Several kitchen hands made rude gestures with their hips, miming intercourse. They laughed crudely, but Mellyr silenced them with a single black glance.
“The poor girl was in love for the first time. Trystan was also smitten, although, if rumors are to be trusted, the young man had won more maidens than I’ve had hot dinners. The lovers weren’t careful in their trysts, either. Inevitably, word reached King Mark, for the queen’s beauty bred jealousy in the ladies of Canovium. I was with our king at Cadbury when he dared to order the High King to place a leash on his servant. I was certain that we would all be punished after such presumption, but the Dragon King made a wise response. He left our master in no doubt that it was his task to discipline his wife. He refused to intervene in what he felt was a family matter, but in doing so he forced Mark to face up to his own impotence so that, ultimately, he was easily tempted to join the cause of the Matricide, when Modred offered inducements of gold and power. I believe he felt there was a score to settle.”
An old man called Elystan, who had been dozing on the stool closest to the fire, raised his head like an ancient tortoise searching for the sun. Inside their web of sagging skin and wrinkles, the man’s eyes were very sad.
“Weak men resent the voice that speaks their shame out loud. When the High King told King Mark to bring his wife to heel, our master knew he couldn’t do it. And that made him feel even weaker. He needed strength, so he took steps to be strong in any way he could. Better to sit by a warm fire alone than suffer with a beautiful young wife who’s been purchased with red gold. All men are fools in matters of love—even kings.”
“Aye. You have the right of it, Elystan, and we have to live with the consequences,” Mellyr agreed.
“And we’re like to die of them as well,” Elystan answered, leaning towards the fire as if he felt a sudden cold. “Don’t be so foolish as to believe our master hadn’t already met King Modred and become part of the conspiracy long before it became common knowledge. Mark traveled regularly into the south at that time, and only lacked an excuse to openly adopt Modred’s cause. The High King gave him that excuse.”
The servants nodded their heads glumly, and Pedr slammed his horn mug down on the table top so hard that the ale splashed on his neighbor. In retrospect, the romance between Queen Iseult and Lord Trystan was anything but a source of humor, for the lovers were damned as traitors when their liaison became common knowledge. Ostensibly, Mark made his decision to betray his oaths to the Celtic tribes because of the lovers’ shameful behavior and his own impotence, frustration, and greed. But, inevitably, he would have betrayed the High King anyway, for he had been one of the first of the kings to voice his disapproval of Artor before the coronation at Venta Belgarum. Even Pedr, faithful as he was, could find no valid excuse for his master’s actions.
“We can talk forever about why our master decided to act as he did on that fatal night, but all our wisdom can’t change the past,” Mellyr continued. “Such an adulterous passion couldn’t be allowed to continue, and King Mark believed the queen had decided to cast away her status, her reputation, and her crown to flee Canovium with her lover. Our King pretended to leave for the south. Queen Iseult . . .” The seneschal’s voice faltered, and he crossed himself with Christian piety as he considered the events of that night.
“The queen arranged to meet Lord Trystan on the beach to make good their escape. I became aware that she intended to flee because she asked me to pack her saddlebags for a long journey. I swear that I said nothing to King Mark—nothing. I cannot tell how Mark became aware of her plans, but someone must have informed him of their intention to beg King Artor for sanctuary at Cadbury. Such public humiliation! They only reached the old ruined cottage at the headland to the north, where they planned to hide for the following day. On the night they eloped, a small troop of warriors was ordered to pursue them and surround their refuge, and our master and I went with them.”
Mellyr permitted the silence to stretch as his audience tried to imagine how the queen had felt. Excitement, a giddy sense of freedom, and an overwhelming faith in the power of love must have made her feel invincible, even if only fleetingly. Every man and woman present could recall a time when their future seemed full of promise, only to have it dashed away as if by a pail of cold water thrown in the face.
“Mark managed to enter the hut on his own without alerting the lovers. It was late in the night, the witching hour before dawn when our blood moves slowly in our veins, and every man understands that evil things prowl at that time. Wickedness went into that hut with him, I swear, although Mark will tear out my tongue if he hears what I’ve said.”
“You’d do well to keep your mouth closed then, Mellyr,” Pedr threatened from alongside the guttering fire in the kitchens. “No man should have to tolerate the betrayal of his wife with another man. By the goddess, I’d have killed them both if I’d been in our king’s shoes.”
“Perhaps you have the right of it, Pedr.” Mellyr’s mouth twisted as he spat into the red embers of the fire. “But where’s the honor in killing Lord Trystan from behind? You’d own that it’s an unmanly thing to do. Although our master had the right to kill them both, I’d have preferred that he faced his betrayer man to man.”
“And how do you know he didn’t face him, Mellyr? You’re all hot air, for who can know the truth of what happened in that hut? I’ve heard more rumors about that night than I’ve had silver coins in my hands. You presume the master played false. Shame on you, Mellyr, for that man is our king!” Pedr’s voice was harsh, and the seneschal remembered that the hulking tribesman had served the kings of the Deceangli tribe since boyhood, as had his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, back to the happy days when the Deceangli had been free of even King Vortigern’s poisoned interference in their affairs. Pedr was a king’s man to the horny soles of his feet, but Mellyr chose to reveal the truth as he knew it, and damn the consequences.
He raised his face to confront Pedr, his black eyes hard and unforgiving. “I was the only man of the whole retinue who entered that hut—the only one who dared to see what really happened. Do you understand what I’m saying, Pedr? Were I not the Keeper of the King’s Keys, and had the wars of Modred not intervened almost at once, Mark would have had me killed because of the things I witnessed. As it stands, I stay out of King Mark’s way so he’s not reminded of his deeds. I was there, and I know what I saw.”
Pedr was silenced. Mellyr had seen something that had destroyed his faith in his king so irrevocably that he was openly speaking treason. The tribesman’s curiosity was sharpened.
“So? Out with it. What did you see?”
Like many poorly educated men who climb high in the world through their natural abilities, Mellyr had the natural gifts of a storyteller and the power to hold an audience by the seduction in his voice. Now that persuasive tone softened, and his fellow servants leaned forward to hear every word.
“I entered the hut because I heard the queen shrieking like a mad woman. King Mark was standing behind the corpse of Lord Trystan, who had fallen from his stool onto the floor. Clearly, Trystan had been sitting at a table with his back to the door, and his hands were empty of weapons. He had been killed from behind, unaware of Mark’s presence. Iseult’s warning came too late.”
“How did he die then?” one of the kitchen servants interrupted. His slack mouth was open and his eyes were gleaming as he enjoyed the vicarious violence. “I heard he was beheaded!”
Mellyr felt a little disgusted. “The king’s blade had struck Lord Trystan at the base of the skull so that the point of the weapon was forced upwards under the bone. Trystan’s bowels and bladder had voided but there was very little bleeding, yet our king had become spattered with blood. He must have twisted the knife with some force to be so soiled.”
The servants shivered deliciously as they imagined the gruesome tableau. Like all men who serve and have no power themselves, they were rapt, captured by the frailty and fallibility of their master.
“The queen knelt beside her lover and cradled his twitching body in her arms, careless of the blood and shit that soiled her skirts. No matter how I try, I can’t forget her face. Her expression was so blank that she seemed unaware of what was happening. She had become a woman of ice again, so that her face registered nothing, not even grief. She knew what her fate must be, although I’ve often wondered whether Mark would not have killed her but instead brought her back to Canovium, bound and helpless, as proof that he was the better man. He is still besotted with her, even after her death, so who can tell? He might have spared her to slake his lusts and to answer any lingering doubts about his manhood. We’ll never know, for Queen Iseult took her life into her own hands.”
His audience leaned towards him, even Pedr, who prided himself on not being easily convinced by honeyed words.
“She didn’t speak; she didn’t weep. When our master ordered her to leave the corpse, she obeyed, although she made a little cry of protest when King Mark sheathed his knife and drew his sword. I think I protested as well. It seemed an unworthy and unnecessary act to desecrate a corpse, but in the throes of his anger and spite our master felt no such qualms. He cut off Trystan’s head, although he lacked the muscle to sever it with a single blow. He struck Trystan’s throat twice with his blade before the head rolled free.”
Mellyr paused and someone pushed a horn cup of ale into his hands to oil his throat.
“?‘Where’s your famed beauty now, Trystan, spymaster and whoremaster?’ our master demanded. ‘Where’s all your courage now?’ But our queen said nothing. She flinched when Mark kicked the corpse, but her face seemed frozen, as if she were already dead.”
Mellyr could feel the eyes of the servants fixed on his face, so he gulped down half the ale in his cup. “Then our queen drew a pretty little knife from under her traveling cloak. I can see it still in my mind’s eye. It was heavily decorated with gold embossing and cabochon jewels, and didn’t seem strong enough to do any damage. The blade was so very slender.
“?‘Would you kill me then, wife?’ King Mark asked, and I confess I moved forward, ready to stand between them. But there was no need for me to intervene.” Mellyr paused for so long that his audience became restive.
“Well, finish your tale, man,” Pedr demanded, captured by the vividness of the story despite his determination to remain untouched by the queen’s punishment.
Mellyr sighed deeply. “Our queen was so beautiful that she could make even my old body stand to attention, and never more so than when she stared at her husband with her knife, a gift from her lover, held firmly in her hands. She was magnificent. ‘I’ll not sully this blade with your accursed blood, Mark,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sorry that I’ll not see you humbled, or live to watch your accursed, miserly soul dragged to judgment for your crimes—but death is far better than another moment of life as your possession.’ That’s all she said, but the king’s face became so pale that I believe he’d have killed her then for her insults, had he been given the chance. But Queen Iseult died the way she had wanted to live—on her own terms. She reversed the knife and used both hands to drive it into her breast, right here.”
Mellyr tapped his own chest to indicate where the queen had driven the blade between her ribs, and directly into her heart.
“She stood for a heartbeat, her eyes fixed on the king with an expression of such contempt that I’ll never forget it. Then she pulled the knife out with the last of her strength, and folded as if her knees had collapsed under her weight. She died where she lay, and the expression of loathing in her eyes never changed.”
“What happened after that?” Pedr asked. The description had been so vivid that he was desperate to know the king’s reaction. His long years of loyalty demanded some mitigating excuse in the tawdry tale of love, lust, and revenge.
“I don’t know. I fled like a coward, because I had seen what I should not have seen, and I feared the king’s retribution. The rest you know. Trystan’s body was set afire inside the hut and his remains were left for the scavengers, although Mark’s warriors were disgusted by such undignified orders. Lord Trystan was a warrior of many gifts, one of King Artor’s most trusted vassals, and to treat his corpse with such disrespect was a stain on their honor. We all knew that the Dragon would demand reparation for this murder—for murder it was, despite the provocation. But fortune favored our king, and Modred plunged us all into war before Artor could take action.”
“Yet he buried Queen Iseult with all the dignity of her status, despite the fact that she’d made him a cuckold. Surely that stands to his credit?” Pedr protested.
“Some women are so lovely and so compelling that they drive men mad, regardless of their characters or their intentions. Our queen was married to an old man when she was little more than a child, and before her adultery scarcely anyone in the Deceangli lands did not worship her for her piety, her goodness, and her care for her people. I believe Mark dared not anger them by treating her corpse with disrespect.”
“That, at least, speaks well of him, although I’ll admit that the murder of Trystan is a stain on his honor. Old men in love can be so very foolish,” Pedr said, and Elystan cackled his agreement from his stool by the fire.
In the dark corner near the hearth, a young boy pushed his cowl away from his sleepy head. Although he was exhausted from the labor of cutting wood and laying fires during the day, he had listened to the cruel story with interest. Hesitantly, he added his own mite to the story of the queen’s death, making the blood of all the men present run cold with disgust.
“Why did our king keep her body for so long?” he asked naively. All eyes swiveled towards him. “She was lying in the king’s hall for over a week . . . until she started to smell too ripe to remain above ground. I set the fires for her every morning and evening and scraped out the ash. The king often visited her corpse while she was waiting for the burial rites.”
“What are you maundering on about, boy? It’s normal to lay out an important personage so that her subjects can pay their respects.” Pedr added a cuff to the boy’s ear to his scornful comments.
“Ow! What did you do that for, Master Pedr? I was only asking a question. You know that the king permitted nobody to come into the hall while the mistress was laid out there—just me. Everyone knows fires have to be lit and hearths cleaned, so no one notices me and my brushes. So why did the king . . . er . . . touch her?”
Pedr could think of nothing to say, and even Mellyr was momentarily lost for words at the awful implication of what the boy was innocently suggesting. Then, with a sudden indrawn breath, the seneschal found his voice. “What do you mean, lump, when you say touch?”
The boy looked awkward. “Our master stroked her body a lot when he forgot that I was there . . . and he talked to her as well. I saw him pulling down her skirts one day when I was going into the room. She was dead . . . so I couldn’t understand what he was doing.”
Mellyr crossed himself and even Pedr swore a gross oath under his breath. In the hushed silence that followed, every man present wished he was somewhere else—anywhere but in this room.
Mellyr was the first to find his wits. “You’ll say nothing to anyone about this, boy, if you value your head on your shoulders. I don’t care what you understand—or don’t understand—just keep your mouth shut about what you saw, for all our sakes. Or we’ll all swing for it.”
Shamefaced, the servants dispersed to their beds or their duties in haste, aware that their souls had been stained with something so unclean that no amount of water would wash away the unwanted knowledge. Even Pedr suddenly looked like the old man he was.
In the hall, Mark continued to berate the dead Iseult while tears of self-pity ran down his gaunt face. Outside, shivering with newfound knowledge, Mellyr checked that the guards were on duty, found a new flagon of wine in case his master should call for it, and then scuttled away to his cold, unhappy bed.
For the first time, the seneschal considered the possibility of flight. He was well over forty, his sons were grown, and his wife had died of brain fever four years earlier. He knew he had reached the latter part of his life span, and his tongue found a broken tooth in the back of his jaw that reminded him of his age. Soon he would be in his dotage. A daughter dwelled in faraway Pennal. Perhaps there, where the ocean winds scoured the black beaches clean, he could free himself from the filth he had seen and heard. Perhaps he could forget the scorn in Queen Iseult’s dead eyes and this new horror could be cast out of his imagination and his memory.
“By Ban’s head, I swear I can imagine what Mark was doing,” Mellyr whispered into the darkness of his narrow room, where his status allowed him to sleep alone. “I can see his old man’s hands stroking the queen’s thighs, even though her flesh must have been cold and swelling. May God preserve us from such abomination!”
His mind flinched away from his new awareness. The darkness offered no possible justification for the king’s actions, and the wind chilled the air in the narrow cell so that Mellyr shivered in his woolen robe.
“I think I’ll steal away to my daughter’s croft in the morning,” he said to himself. “There’s nothing to keep me in this place of pain and misery. At least, I’ll not have to watch Canovium soiled by our king’s downfall. Such a fate will come, because God doesn’t permit such sins to go unpunished.”
Finally, when he had made his decision, the seneschal was able to sleep. No night terrors were visited upon him, and in the morning he awoke to a roll of thunder and the whispering wind of a growing storm.
• • •
LONG AFTER THE seneschal had fled, and numbed by the boredom of endless servitude to a master who was too frightened to leave his citadel, the warriors of Canovium were caught unprepared when King Bran and his son Ector, nominated heir to Artor’s throne, eventually arrived to smoke out King Mark. Nearly eighteen months had passed since the High King’s death, but the council hadn’t forgotten the treachery of the Brigante and Deceangli tribes. At a hastily convened meeting at Viroconium, the assembled kings had cast both tribes out of the confederation and then set a huge blood price of gold in punishment for Artor’s death that must be paid promptly by the conspirators. Ultimately, the debt was paid by traders and landowners, even though they had taken no part in the decisions to break their oaths of fealty, because they feared another bloody conflict if they refused the kings’ demands. The Deceangli debt was paid in full, but the southern kings still demanded the body of King Mark, preferably alive, so warriors were dispatched under Bran and Ector to advance on the fortress of Canovium.
Mark raved and railed against the Ordovice king, swearing that he’d never open his gates and submit to Ordovice arrogance. Drunk and terrified, he swore he’d commit suicide in the forecourt of his fortress rather than submit to such oafs or permit them to drag him off in chains like a common felon. But the lords of his court and the merchants of Canovium knew that his end had come, so they sent a petition to King Bran in which they promised to deliver the person of King Mark—alive or dead—if the Ordovice warriors spared the town.
Politics always works to the same pragmatic pattern. When a ruler becomes a liability to trade and business, even the most faithful of his friends will look the other way as he is dragged down from his throne like a worthless slave. Mark was overcome by his own guard. His hands and feet were trussed together, despite his struggles, before he was delivered to King Bran on a spavined horse. Thus Canovium saw their loathed king no more, and the citizenry swore that the air became cleaner after his departure. The landowners of the tribe selected a distant kinsman with an honorable reputation to take Mark’s place, and life went on for the Deceangli tribe as if he had never existed. Such is the realistic attitude adopted by men and women who must earn their bread through toil.
Ector was twelve and growing tall, although he had not yet won his place as a warrior. But he had watched King Artor die at Camlann with such gallantry that the boy’s pride in his family name had increased tenfold. Too young to rule, regardless of King Artor’s intentions, the lad nursed a fierce resentment towards the Brigante and Deceangli tribes, and the cowardice of King Mark had only served to heighten his loathing. Coldly, Ector suggested that the traitor should be imprisoned by the shattered citizens of Deva until the loyal kings could gather to decide his fate.
So Mark was locked in the darkest recesses of the old Roman prison of that city, where his jailers ensured that he should take no physical pleasure from continuing to live. The Romans had understood the indignity of pain, so Mark’s cell was so small that he could scarcely move in the confined space. Rotten, vile-tasting food and stagnant, slimy water sustained his body, although the prisoner was forced to scavenge for vermin and insects in his cell to supplement his diet. He was aware that his jailers urinated and defecated in his water and thin gruel, but starvation robs even the most fastidious man of pride and he devoured what was given to him in an effort to stay alive.
Kept naked except for a filthy blanket, he was always cold. Lightless, his eyes forgot the warmth and vividness of the sun; verminous and filthy, he lost the power to smell his own stench. With pleasure, the people of Deva refused him any dignity or honor, and treated him worse than the Saxons treated their captives, for he was no longer granted the status of humanity.
So King Mark awaited his fate in torment, while around and above him Deva healed herself. Life went on.