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High Days of Heroes

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A leather bag with the squadron’s daily ration in it, pitifully light. They had finished the salted meat long ago, and now there would be only thin soup, flavoured with the bones of one of the pitifully thin dogs, to go with the small cakes of rye that were all the food that was left.

There was no way to steal the soup. The rye cakes would have to be enough. Tomorrow, all the squadron would be even hungrier than usual for a day.

Levin was fairly sure that none of them would grudge it to him.

The wind was howling around the sleeping-hall with the fire in the centre, and there was hail on the wind too, beating on the door and wooden shutters.

But that was all to the good. The famine-thin wolves prowling outside the old red Roman walls of Trimontium would probably not be out in the wild wind and the hailstorms. Even a wolf preferred to keep his lair on a night like this.

It might have been a pleasant sight, the men drowsing around the hall in the warm flickering firelight, wrapped in blankets and cloaks. Here and there a polished bracelet, a twisted ring-brooch or a bright stone set in a sword-hilt caught the light, for they were mighty, the Companions of Artos the Bear, and had won many prizes in war against their foes, the Saxon sea-wolves, the Painted People, the savage raiders from the shores of Ireland.

It might have been a pleasant sight, if it had not been for the reason for it.

For the winter of the White Beast had fallen upon the old fortress of Trimontium, and on Midwinter’s night they had lost more than half their stores to fire. Now, snow and ice like savage teeth still held them trapped here in Trimontium, and still there was no thaw.

No help would come. Trimontium was manned by the Companions of Artos; it had been supplied well for a harsh winter, if not for a winter with teeth like the White Beast. There was no reason for the people of Eburacum, for the people of Deva, or for the garrison of Corstopitum on the Wall to know that Artos the Bear, Count of Britain, who had hunted the Saxons out of Northern Britain, who had saved Deva and freed Eburacum from the Sea Wolves, was starving to death, and all his Companions with him, because of a spilled lamp that had caught the thatch.

No reason for them to know, unless someone went to tell them.

It was, probably, an impossible task. Not a task that Artos, who was always fair, would ask of any of his men. The snowdrifts lay thick before the gate: there was no way to see where the road lay, the cold was bitter and sharp as a knife-blade.

Reason and practicality said that anyone who tried to walk to Corstopitum would die in a day or so and his body would lie in a snow-drift until the spring came at last.

Reason and practicality also said that if Artos and his Companions starved to death in this remote Northern fastness, then Britain’s princes and kings would fall swiftly to the teeth of the Sea Wolves, and not one of them would be strong enough to save the rest.

That was why Flavian had thought of going, when some of the squadron leaders had met privately to speak of it where Artos would not hear; the hope of buying a future for his little son, safe with his wife at home in Deva, and for his people.

Bedwyr’s reasons, Levin suspected, were more personal by far, and not the kind of thing that Bedwyr would ever speak of. Levin and Gault had said privately to one another, now and again, that it was a pity for Artos that he must tear himself apart over the lady Guenhumara, and could not be content with all he had. Bedwyr would give him everything, if there was any chance at all that Artos would take it; anyone could see that, and the odd thing was that so would Guenhumara. And yet Artos was not content.

But that was Artos; if he were content with the state of things as they were, he would have been a different man.

But both Flavian and Bedwyr had a good deal left to live for, and Levin did not, not now Gault was gone. It had to be Levin who went.

The hail had ended, and the wind hushed. Clouds rushed across the sky, but here and there moonlight peered through the ragged holes in the clouds, and lit the wide white silence that spread far beyond the fortress walls. Time to go.

 

*****

He was cold and tired already by mid-morning, though the snow upon the old legionary road running south into the hazel-wooded hills was not so thick: no more than half-way to the knee most of the time, though the drifts were waist-deep. It would not have been unbearably cold, if he had not been hungry, and without any prospect of being able to find somewhere warm to sleep.

Onward. It had been only three days march to Corstopitum, in the days of the Legions when the roads had been kept in good repair.

*****

“Gault,” he said to the faint figure that walked beside him unhindered by the snow, as the grey light grew into the dawning day. “I thought you had gone on before me. I thought you would not wait.”

Gault smiled at him, that dear familiar smile remembered out of boyhood. “I can’t really be here,” he said. “I died with a Saxon arrow in me, and long ago the Bishop said...”

“The Bishop said that the likes of us were doomed to hellfire everlasting,” Levin said, remembering. One foot before the other. Pull the boot from the snow, make another step, another. Snow was forming into icy clusters around his ankles.

“He did,” Gault said lightly. “And so I am most certainly not here, but damned and burned and gone for good.” He laughed joyfully, and the laugh was perfectly his own laugh. He was wearing only a light tunic, as if he had gone out riding in the summer, and yet he did not seem cold.

“Artos thinks that it’s all one. The Christian faith, Mithras, Nuada. The horned god and the Sun God.” Levin took a breath and went on, step by step.

“The Bishop would surely say that’s heresy,” Gault said and grinned, and Levin smiled too, at the thought of the mouse-like Bishop of Lindum, who had squeaked so valiantly in defense of his lands, his golden chalices and his fine altarcloths, when Artos had come to demand that the Church too should give a tithe of horses to the defenders who would keep the thatch upon their barns and the Sea Wolves from their throats.

“Whether heresy or not, it’s kept his warband together,” Levin said, his breath puffing cold up on the icy air. “And that has kept the roofs on the churches as well as the barns.”

“The priests would say that Artos spent altogether far too much of his youth in the western mountains, where they barely remember Rome, where the good Latin truth of things has got confused and half-forgotten,“ Gault told him, and Levin walked on, one step at a time, and remembered the tall thin fiery priest of their boyhood, delivering a furious speech about sin.

He and Gault sitting side by side in the sun on the grass before the old stone cross, and trying not to catch each other’s eyes and giggle because if they did, then old Diseta would clout them around the ears...

He realised that he could not go on walking any more, and stopped to lean for a moment against a slender leafless hazel trunk. He fumbled a rye cake from the bag, ate it in two bites, and then made himself eat a few bites of snow to wash it down. A drink of warm heather beer would have been preferable, or failing that a cup of water, but the water out here amid the snows was hard as stone. Snow would have to do.

“It’s all about the one that dies and the sun coming back and the oats springing up again from the seed. That’s the heart of it. So Artos says,” he told Gault, who knew that perfectly well already, as every member of Artos’s warband knew it. As long as you would fight for Artos until your last breath, that was all the faith that he required of you. It was a faith that was easy to give, for Artos himself shone in a darkening world like a hero, like a dream of light.

“Surely Artos will burn with the rest of us,” Gault said, and gave him their private grin.

“But what if he’s right? You could tell me,” Levin complained. “You died with a Saxon arrow in you. You must know what comes next.”

“Ah well,” Gault said. “Me telling you could only happen if I’m here, and of course, I can’t be, can I?”

“No, of course you can’t,” Levin admitted, bitterly. “You went on, and I had to stay here, alive.”

“Shall we go on?” Gault was still walking lightly ahead, leaving not a footprint in the deep snow.

“Yes,” Levin said, and pushed himself upright again, to push on, step by step.

He was coming up onto the top of the world, slowly now, so very slowly, creeping like the last living thing left in the world up onto edge of the high moor, though there were still small straggling trees around. All around him was a wide white silent world, empty and dead.

It was impossible to see where the road might lie, and so he followed Gault, or whatever lie or dream it was that walked ahead and looked like Gault.

An interminable, shadowless freezing time later. Levin was almost sure he had lost the road, struggling exhausted through snow that was deeper here. The day was fading into blue and white shadow, and still Gault flitted ahead of him, or sometimes turned back to walk beside him, to make some old joke or recall some moment from their past. They had hunted these hills together, in the long golden summer evenings of the North, when the heather was busy with bees and the sky filled with the song of the lark. There were no larks now, and no bees, only the whiteness that changed everything and left the land a changed place, unrecognisable.

Before long, Levin would have to stop. He had used all the little stamina left to him after weeks of hunger, and he now had no idea where he was.

Behind him, there was a faint, low whistle. Then another, from somewhere up ahead. It could have been a lark, but the larks were gone...

“Gault,” Levin said “Do you think the larks have flown away, or do they sleep all winter under the snow?” But Gault did not answer. Sleeping under the snow seemed like an appealing idea, just then, to let go and fall under the white blanket and sleep.

But there was Artos and his Companions, behind him in Trimontium, and he had stolen the whole squadron’s rations to get here, and besides, Gault, the real Gault, would not think the better of him for giving up, even if he was in the Christian Hell that the priests had said was waiting. At least Hell would be warm. One step. Another step. One more. He stumbled again, and this time, almost could not get up again.

Another whistle. Wolves did not whistle.

And then a tussle of activity, somewhere far ahead in the twilit snow. A wolf, a man, a spear. And then a voice calling him, not Gault this time, but a man of the world of snow and ice.

“Druim?”

The man—who was, somehow, impossibly really there—stepped towards him, his narrow dark face furrowed in surprise and concern. No, it was not Druim, the messenger of the Little Dark People who often came bearing news to Artos, but some other of the People of the Hills, someone so like Druim that it might be his brother.

They say that if you sleep in the Hollow Hills, in the enchanted houses of the People of the Hills, you will wake again after a hundred years has passed, and the world has changed beyond all reckoning. Levin could not risk it, though they offered him a place by the fire in their village not so far away. And besides, he had a task to do.

But the hunting party helped him stumble painfully back to the road, which they seemed to be able to find without the least trouble, though it was thick with snow, and more than that, they helped him find a cache of firewood hidden neatly in a hollow filled with snow, with a hurdle thatched with bracken half over it; a summer-refuge for the herdsmen of the Hills, and pointed him along the road he should take when morning came.

And then they left him, alone, save for Gault, who could not really be there, but looked so much as if he was that Levin’s heart lifted.

He looked at the strips of tough musty-smelling strips of wolf-meat they had given him. “They say you should not eat the food or drink the drink of the People of the Hills, lest you be trapped in the Hollow Hills forever,” he said.

Gault sat down on the opposite side of the small fire, not making any mark upon the snow. “They say the dead are doomed forever for mortal sins without repentance,” he said. “But here I am, and the doom does not seem so dark from here. Too late to repent now, by all accounts, and anyway I don’t want to. I would not be anywhere else, for I still love you.”

“And I love you,” Levin said, without thinking. “But ghosts don’t come back to life. Not nowadays they don’t. You’re some demon or... what did the priest call it? Phantasm?”

“If I’m a phantasm, you could say the name of the Christos and drive me away,” Gault said. “Make the sign of the cross and call the Name, and demons cannot trouble you, don’t you remember? A strong charm against the darkness, or so they say.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Levin said obstinately.

“Nor did I,” Gault said, and laughed. “Eat the meat. The People of the Hills are friends of Artos, and they don’t love the Saxons any more than we do. They want to help him.”

Levin ate the meat, and washed it down with snow. And when he woke, stiff and cold, there was a softness to the smoky air that had not been there before, the faintest smell upon the air that might speak of a thaw coming.

“Are you ready?” Gault said cheerfully, as if they were out together for a morning’s hunting, and Levin ate a small dry cake of rye and got up from the place where he had huddled under the hurdle beside the small fire, feeling, almost, a sense of hope.

Though he had looked for death ever since Gault had fallen, if only he could find a way to fall that would be worthy of his love, still there was a traitor part of him that cried out with relief at the thaw, that longed for life.

For two days, Levin went on through snow that was, now surely, melting. Water got into his boots and he was chilled to the bone, but after noon on the first day, another of the People of the Hills came to him, as if he had risen out of the hillside, to walk beside him for a little while, to guide him back to the snow-covered road and give him a gift of a meagre portion of coarse oat-pudding and a dearly welcome drink of heather-beer.

Another came to him near dusk on the third day, and helped him find a place to sleep that was not too soaking wet, in a hollow of the hills where there were trees. Looking ahead in the last light of evening, he thought that he could see, traced faint against the snow, the road leading down from the hills to Corstopitum.

But on the fourth day, the black bitter wind returned, the dark teeth of the White Beast biting hard, and after it, the snow again, and now there was a sharp icy edge to every step, where the snow had melted a little and then had frozen hard. There was no comfort to be found in stopping, so Levin walked on, and ahead of him, Gault walked too.

He lost track of how many days it was, after that. There was only the cold, the snow and walking on and on, his feet almost without feeling now, save for a dull ache. Perhaps it was three more days, and perhaps it was four, when the long straight road at long last began to be hedged by drifts that had grown around the fence that in the summer had protected someone’s bean-crop, and there was a smell of cooking-fires in the air, and barns, and at last, when the day was almost done, there at last were the great dark walls of Corstopitum and the houses huddled around it. Then there were voices that were not Gault’s or the moan of a cold unpitying wind, and faces that were first incredulous and pitying, and then alarmed as they heard his news.

It hurt more, being warm again, than it had done for a good while being cold. There was a burning agony in his legs, and the smoke caught his throat and made it hard to breathe or speak. He did not dare to look too closely at his feet. There was something terribly wrong about them.

Most of the men who had come to hear Levin’s news had hurried away to count stores, send messages, and make the preparations that would be needed if they were to get a caravan through early with supplies, and Gault was left in a high stone room, wrapped in blankets with a brazier burning near at hand. The window was shuttered tight against the cold, of course, and so the room was dark, but there was a crack in the wood, and through it, the last light of the evening sun shone in one long bright golden ray, clear across the room to light a place on the plaster of the wall where once something had been painted, in the days when when Hadrian’s great Wall had been fully manned: a rose, perhaps, though Levin could not see it clearly from where he lay.

Gault stood by the shutter, and looked out, and the light shone through him. “The sun is setting,” he said gently. “Are you ready to go on?”

“Go on where?” Levin asked hoarsely, and coughed.

“If Artos is right, then it’s all one,” Gault said “The one that dies to save his people, the sun returning and the oats springing up again in spring. No room in that for mortal sin, only for the flame that burns too brightly to ever get old and tired. I waited for you. Let us go west of the sunset together, and find out the truth of it.”

He held out his hand, and Levin got up, leaving his body behind like the tired old husk of an oat-seed when the new life comes through in spring, and took it.