[On] one of the side benches, withdrawn as though into a world of their own, Gault and Levin leaned on each other’s shoulders and shared the same ale cup, talking together in low voices and with quiet laughter. It is a thing that happens on campaign, where women are scarce, every commander knows that; but sometimes, as with those two, it becomes a part of life.
When Gault rode from our village to join with the Count of Britain, naturally I rode with him. I would not let him go alone, and I hope to think he would not have gone without me. We had known each other for the whole of our memories, as our mothers were bosom friends; we had built castles of sticks together, and we had practiced sparring with each other, and hunted together, and together we had lain many evenings on the riverbank looking at the stars and talking of the future.
The Saxons were raiding often from the east then, and the Picts their allies from the north. We were young, and the future was a misty vision of battle and valour to us. At the river Glein we learned how wrong our imaginings had been.
"Did you see that, Levin!" Gault crowed as he wheeled his horse around toward me. "I've killed another!"
"Magnificent!" I gave him a grin, although I had not seen his kill, being busy with my own sword. "But more come," I added, and they continued to come, until we were weary with fighting and covered in blood. Most of it was Saxon blood, but not all. Gault and I fought shoulder to shoulder, back to back, and we thought we could keep each other safe that way. We thought we had kept each other safe, until we turned back from the river, their war boats aflame, and I saw Gault sway in his saddle.
"You are hurt," I said.
"Na, na. The spear only scratched my leg."
But I could see his face was white in the reflected light from the fire, and he did not look so comfortable astride as he usually did, so I urged my mount closer to his and put my hand out to him. His breath came out in a long, slow exhale. "It was worth the wound," he said only, and I squeezed his arm and stayed by his side until we reached the monastery at Verulamium.
When we arrived, he fell into my arms, and the brothers laid him down and bade me join the others who were less wounded in the hall, but I could not leave him. Instead I took the part of the healers, patting the cool wet cloth onto his brow, and he gripped my hand fiercely when Brother Lucian the Infirmarer took the searing iron to the ugly gash in his leg. Lord Artos himself was there, only lightly wounded. His gaze was gentle as he looked on us, as Gault cried out and the horrible scent like cooked meat filled our nostrils.
I stayed with him that whole time, even after Lord Artos had taken the rest of his host to the old Legionary fortress at Lindum, for he was not well enough to travel, and although my only injuries were bruises I was unwilling to leave him. "He is my milk-brother," I explained, and although I was ready to fight for it, Lord Artos had only nodded gravely and instructed me to assist the brothers in their tasks whilst I remained at the monastery. That was part of his greatness; he understood that all men had their calling and their duty, and that it was not always the same one to another. And sometimes he knew that a man's ability was something greater than what the man himself thought, and he would press and prod and draw it, perhaps unwilling, from that man; but I am getting ahead of my story.
"I didn't mean to cry out," Gault mumbled into my breast as I held him there in the stinking hall, that night. "I am ashamed. It is nothing I can't bear."
"Any man would do the same," I assured him. I stroked his hair and Brother Lucian looked upon us indulgently. I think he believed we were actually brothers, for we looked much alike, especially in those days when we were still youths, the bones of our faces still hidden under soft skin, our hair the same light tangle of straw. He was slightly taller and broader, being seven months older. But we had the same manner of speaking, and the same way of moving, and we did not bother to correct people who called us kin.
When Gault sobbed as the searing iron was put to his leg, I gathered him up and held him, and it was not such a strange thing, for all around me men much older than us were steadying their comrades against their various pains. But it made something twist in my heart. I wanted to keep him safe and whole; I felt like it was I who had failed, that (though it was not true) it was I who had let through the Saxon spear that had torn his thigh, and I vowed to practice my sword-work and my riding, so that I would not let such a thing happen again. And perhaps I even felt a little envious that he had been wounded in the service of Lord Artos, and I had not. That he had been bolder and more valiant than I, and therefore I must match him the next time.
When Lord Artos and his company left I did as he bade me and helped to attend the wounded, and to bring in the grazing beasts at nightfall, and whatever other task Brother Lucian set me to do. Gault and the other three of our company who were too injured to ride could not do anything to help, and it was in my mind that I might somehow repair the breach that had sprung up between the Abbot and my Lord Artos during the company's stay. It did not seem to help, though; the Abbot looked at me with displeasure, when he looked at me at all.
One day, when I had gone to the river to wash out the bloody bandages, one of the brown-robed brothers came and crooked a hand. "I will finish that. You are wanted in the hall."
I thrust the bandages into his hands and ran as fast as my feet could take me. We were all worried about the wound fever, and although Gault was healing well he was still weak enough that a hand clenched at my heart with fear that something might have happened to him. But when I got there Brother Lucian nodded toward the end of the hall where the Abbot sat on his audience chair. I bowed my head and made him all courtesy, and waited for him to speak.
"It is nearly full summer now, and your companions' wounds are close to healed," he began, and then stopped, and looked at me.
"It is because of the great skill of Brother Lucian and the grace of God," I said, feeling this was what he required, and I was right, for he smiled.
"You have been of great service to Brother Lucian, and if you would learn his skill, he would gladly teach you. If you would have it in your heart to give yourself to God, there would be a place for you here."
"But I have given myself to Lord Artos," I blurted out, and then fell silent, shocked at my own rudeness. I knew the Abbot still felt the loss of Gwalchmai, who had ridden to Lindum with Lord Artos, and this was a cruel reminder. "I am sorry, Holy Father. I have chosen another path."
He regarded me for a moment, not speaking, his clear eyes fixed on me as though he could change my mind that way, but I knew he could not. Finally he sighed and settled back into his chair with the slow and careful movements of a very old man. "Then you must gather what you need in the next few days, for yourself and the others. It is past time that you took that path and rejoined the Count of Britain."
The words were gently spoken, but his meaning was clear. It was a dismissal, not just from his presence, but from the monastery. I had not repaired the breach – I could not pay that price – and the Abbot had had enough of tending to Lord Artos' broken men.
Gault's eyes were on me as I slowly walked back through the hall, and I stopped and knelt by his pallet before returning to my labours by the river. "Do you think you are well enough to ride? I am afraid we have been asked to leave."
"That was not what you were asked," he said quietly.
"If you heard him ask, then you heard my reply."
"I did not hear his words, nor did I hear yours. But I knew from Brother Peter that he wanted you to stay."
"If you think I would stay and let you go, you must indeed have the fever," I said lightly, touching his forehead as though feeling for warmth. He reached out to take my wrist, and I let our joined hands fall together to his side.
"I would not leave if you wanted to stay."
"You would stay here?" I think my voice held more incredulity than anything else. "As one of the brown brothers? Na, na, this is not the life for us. We are bound to Lord Artos. And you would follow him in any event; and you know I will stay with you, for as long as I draw breath."
This was the closest I had come yet to saying what was in my heart; what I had thought when I held him as he gritted his teeth against the pain.
Gault looked at me then, his eyes fierce and solemn. "I will stay with you yet longer. Past death, if it come to that."
"I pray it does not!" I said, and I gave his hand a squeeze and then stood, to go back to the work I had left undone by the river. But I felt a goose walk across my grave, the slow shiver of the unearthly down my spine. If I had known – but I did not, for it is given to no man to know his future. And even if I had, I do not think I would have done differently.
We rode to Lindum, and from there to the Abus River, where we joined Lord Artos and the rest of the men at the work of keeping the Sea Wolves at bay. When we took casualties, the lessons I had learned from Brother Lucian were put to use assisting Gwalchmai, but we were greater in number than the Saxons, and had the defender's advantage of knowing the country, so more often it was they who retreated to lick their wounds and bury their dead. At any rate, I preferred to fight rather than to heal, and I learned my lessons in that art rather better.
Gault and I had thought we knew what it was to be warriors. Certainly we were more skilled than many of the other lads of similar age who followed Lord Artos. But swords are different from sticks, and staying on a horse while fending off a Saxon seax has little in common with an easy trot through the countryside. It was not until our first winter in Lindum, in the old fortress of the Ninth Legion of the Romans, that we truly learned how to fight.
Gwalchmai was not just a healer but a cavalryman born, and it was he who showed us the way of fighting on a horse. From him we learned to gallop into the teeth of an enemy so as to frighten him, then to wheel and strike the death blow. Cei drilled us with exercise so that we built muscles in our arms and our thighs, and Owain gave us instruction in the sword, and Artos himself discussed battle tactics with us, and questioned us on what we had learned.
Even then, while we were the youngest and the least of the Company, Gault distinguished himself by his strength, bravery, and cleverness. I was both a little envious and a little proud that he was my friend. His leg had healed with no lasting ill effect, although he had a scar that made the youngest boys' eyes go wide. He was made the leader of a small group of us younger cavalrymen, to answer to Bedwyr in battle. In our second summer we ranged south along the coast of the Metaris estuary, and under Gault's command we lost not a single horse nor rider.
That winter we returned to Lindum feeling less like boys and more like men. It had been nearly two years that we had ridden with Lord Artos and his Companions, and we had become something like the Legion that used to inhabit these walls; or so it seemed to me, anyway. During the short winter days we would mend our gear and do the work of ordinary living, hunting and cooking and tending the animals, and in the evenings we would dice or play draughts, and drink heather-beer by the flickering light of the fire. And we might listen to Bedwyr, if he should chance to give us a song.
On Midwinter Night Bedwyr sang until his voice gave out, for the birth of Christos and that the wheel of the year would turn and bring us back into the light. We had fires and feasting, and all of us sat together in the main hall of the fortress, adding our voices – some uncertain, some raucous – to the song. Gault was by my side on a long bench, and I think the drink had gone to our heads a little – or maybe it was Bedwyr's harp and the songs of home places and quiet joy – for he reached out to take my hand, and I curled my own fingers around his, and we sat like that for the rest of the evening. His shoulder was warm and solid against mine, his breath sweet with the scent of heather-beer when he sang, and I knew a deep contentment somewhere in my belly, that we were here together in Artos' band.
It was still early when he whispered into my ear, "Let us go now." We rose as one, our fingers still intertwined, but I don't think anybody gave us a second look as we made our way out of the hall. We were all brothers together, and there was nothing unusual in hands clasped or an arm about the shoulders.
But when we arrived at the barracks room we shared with eight other men – it was empty, now, as everyone was at the feasting – I followed Gault to his own bed-place at the end of the room, rather than stopping at my own. He drew me down to him and pulled the furs and rugs around us, and we kissed each other; and I think it only surprised me that we had not done it before, as it seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.
It was not brotherly in the least.
"I have been wanting to do that for a long time," he said, when our mouths finally moved apart.
"I as well," I said, because suddenly I realised this was true. It was only that I hadn't known it before, but oh, I knew it now, and it was the only thing I could think about. I reached for his breeches, where he was hard against me; he pushed up my tunic and buried his face against my bare skin. We pulled off each other's clothes as though we were feverish despite the cold, and then we warmed each other's bodies with hands and lips.
When his palm curled around my prick I gasped.
"Don't say you haven't touched yourself before, because I will not believe it," he murmured into my ear. He stroked once, twice, and I was helplessly spending across his arm.
"It feels different when you do it," I told him. He lasted no longer than I had, when I touched him; and afterward we curled under the rugs and slept in each other's arms.
Many times Gault had helped me remove my armour after a battle, but never before had he run his hand across my chest and kissed my neck; many times had I bathed and cleaned the wound on his thigh, but never had I reached up to touch him like a lover. We had undressed to our bare skin and waded into the river many times, laughing and splashing each other as we washed the dirt and sweat from our bodies, and we would do so again many times in the years to come. But after this night, I would never again see Gault nude and shining with river-water streaming from his skin in the sunlight without wanting to touch him, to press my lips to the sharp jut of his hipbone, to take him in my hand or in my mouth and make him shudder with joy and sob my name.
The Church teaches us this is a sin, and if this is so, then we were both of us sinners. But it seemed to us that if we were made to find pleasure in each other, then surely He who made us so would not condemn us for it.
After four more years harrying the Saxons from Lindum we moved on to Deva for a winter and a battle, and thence to Eburacum, where we fought likewise. Gault continued to distinguish himself with sword and spear, and I am proud to say I did the same; we were counted among the best of the band of Companions, and Artos did not seem to mind that the two of us preferred to fight alongside each other, and tend to each other after the battle was over. Gault was made captain of the fourth squadron, and I remained his second rather than advance my own rank.
And then we marched through the tumbled stones that were all that remained of the old Hunnum Gate. Gault and I were delighted to be riding in the foreguard as scouts, for never before had either of us been to the wild and desolate country north of the Wall. Despite the straight Roman road beneath our horses' hooves, we felt as though we were the first to discover this land; the first to see the rolling hills studded with rocks and elder scrub, and the heather just beginning to flower on the moors.
But unfortunately we were not the first; and we were not alone.
"Ho, Levin! On your left!" Gault shouted as I turned a bend in the road at the van. I pulled on my mare's reins and she skittered to the side, giving me the time I needed to draw my sword. There were six of them, Picts who had thrown in their lot with the Saxon, and once they knew we had seen them they yelled insults in their own tongue as they advanced.
"Warn the others," I cried as I kicked my horse forward to engage them.
"What, and leave you?" And there he was beside me, laying about with his sword, and I was glad of it, for more than once he slashed at a man who otherwise would have drawn my blood. Alun behind us saw what was happening, and it was he who galloped back to warn the train; but after a short time the enemy fell back and melted into the countryside.
"They want us to follow," Gault said.
I nodded. "And get slain for our trouble. At least now the company will be spared the ambush."
They were spared that one, at any rate. But during the tedious long journey to Trimontium we were constantly harassed and attacked from every quarter. Our swords were never idle, and we lost a few good friends and more than a few good horses.
The journey was longer than it should have been not just for the daily skirmishes with the men of the North, but because we had so many with us, and so much baggage. And it was not only warriors riding for Trimontium. Since Lindum many of the lads had women with them, and after Deva and Eburacum more women joined us. Artos had spoken out against wives, but there were still camp-followers in the train, and some who kept to their own men and stayed quiet about it.
On campaign along the Saxon shore many of the men joined together for comfort, so nobody paid much attention to Gault and me. When we were at the Lindum fortress, there was the Street of Women in town, but few of us younger men had the coin to spend on their favours, and so it had not been unusual for friends to ease one another's desires. And as I have said, Artos nodded at us and said nothing. There were whispers that he and Bedwyr did more than confer on battle strategy, when they were closeted together, but I did not believe them. Perhaps such thoughts were in their hearts, but even if that were true, it is hard to imagine they would act on it, not while Artos led the Companions.
On the road to Trimontium, though, we got our share of dark looks and the occasional ill-intentioned word. But truthfully, it amused us more than anything. Our laughter would usually reduce the glares to shamefaced silence. And if that didn't do it, Gault and I had strong arms and sharp steel, and friends who would stand with us and fight for us.
A new man among our company might sneer and call me a woman, but he never did so more than once. Our reputations as warriors had been earned with blood, and although we preferred to shed that belonging to the Saxons, we could and would defend ourselves if need be. But it rarely came to that. "You should concern yourself more about the sword in my hand than the one between my legs," I would say with a smile and a meaningful hand on the hilt of my blade; and that would be enough.
We were taking our turn with the rear guard when a rider galloped back to pass the word that it would be another battle for Trimontium. "Of course, another battle," one of the men with us said. He spat on the ground. "It is always another battle."
"Good," I said. "I have not been shot at in at least three days."
"You need not wait for battle," said Gault, grinning at me. "I can borrow a bow and shoot you myself, if you are so anxious for it."
"If you have not improved since the last time you picked up a bow, I have nothing to fear."
"I am at least better than the Saxons!"
"Then I shall let them try instead," I declared, and we kicked our horses forward to catch up with the rest of the company.
That night we made our camp in the bare shelter of the ridge of the wild and overgrown valley opposite the half-ruined Roman fortress of Trimontium, with the wind whistling in our hair and the horses restless and uneasy. The men were uneasy as well; the frequent skirmishes had cost us few lives but much of our nerve, I think, and nobody had slept well along the road. We did not expect to sleep that night, either, as the moon was dark, and everybody expected Artos would choose to attack under its cover.
Instead, as was our habit, we picked heather sprigs to set in our shoulder buckles, and readied our gear; then Gault and I sat watch together in a cupped hollow along the ridge, side by side. I took strength from the warmth of his body next to mine. Whatever happened that night, whether we took the fortress or no, we would face it together; and we would have our men behind us, and our Lord Artos leading the charge, and so we were ready for it.
We had fought the Saxon on the coast and at the rivers, and we had come at Eburacum while they had just freshly taken the city, but this was the first time that we were faced with an entrenched enemy. Their banners hung from the ramparts, billowing and fluttering in the gusts of wind. I wondered how many days it might take to gain the fortress. How many days, and how many lives?
But Artos had planned well, and after the archers had set fire to their barricade we streamed in like a river breaking free of a dam. The hunting horn urged us on, and Artos' hoarse voice crying "Yr Widdfa!" rang in our ears. We shouted back to him, our swords raised in our hands, the battle-lust pounding joyously in our hearts as we leapt over their broken walls to claim Trimontium for our own.
The Picts and Saxons fled, or else they died. When the fighting was over and we'd seen to our horses, Gault put our squadron to work dousing the flames that still burned on the roof-tops. Then we went out to find our dead, and to lay them to rest. Each of us took a turn at digging a grave outside the encampment, a long trench for the men who had so recently fought by our sides. When the muscles in our arms gave way, we stood watch for any enemy that might be lurking near; when we had recovered, we returned to our unhappy labours.
It was a solemn task, as it always is, to say goodbye to one's friends in what I then believed was the most final of all ways. The Church teaches that we will be together again, but although I named myself a follower of Christ I had no great faith, and in any event sinners such as Gault and I had no reason to expect that we would be gathered up with the rest. We believed in what we could see and what we could touch: in the swords in our hands, in the ground beneath our feet. I had no reason, then, to think that I might come to believe otherwise.
As I worked my spade into the earth, I heard a shout from the fortress, then another. "What is it?" Gault asked one of the boys who was running across the camp.
"They have found a girl!"
"Did the Saxons leave their whores behind?" said one of the men. He gave a coarse laugh. "Even a Saxon whore will do, if she –"
"Not a Saxon, she is one of the Dark Folk, and anyway she is dead, the Saxons killed her," the boy breathlessly told us. "I did not see her, but Collen did."
A murmur went through the men. Some muttered of an evil omen and made signs with their fingers. I did not believe in evil omens either, then; but I hoped the Dark Folk would not think it had been us who had killed her. I remembered the strange small guide who had led us out of Deva, through the smoking ruins of his village, and his skill with the bow and their small and deadly-sharp arrows, fletched with tiny dark feathers. I would not want to have those pointed toward me.
I looked to Gault, who nodded, and the two of us set down our shovels and went to see what was happening. We found Artos by the disused grain pit where he had ordered our dead horses to be buried; in his arms was a bundle scarce big enough to be a person, I thought, even though she be one of the small folk, the Little Dark People, as he called them.
"I have the baggage ropes you asked for, sir," said someone in the crowd, and it seemed to me that this was a shameful way to lower a body that had once been a living, breathing girl. I said as much to Gault, and he stepped forward.
"No, Lord Artos, we will do it." He touched me on the arm. "The two of us together should be tall enough, eh, Levin?" He grinned and pretended to measure our heights against that of the pit. The faces around us were grim at the prospect of burying this poor girl of the ancient race, and we ourselves had just come from burying our friends; still, I felt my mood lighten at his smile, and could see that the others looked more at ease as well.
"We will set her down as gently as a feather," I promised.
Gault swung himself lightly into the pit, and I followed; then he crouched and let me climb on his shoulders, and when he stood tall I reached up to take the girl's body from Artos. She weighed indeed no more than a feather, and again I thought of those dark-fletched arrows.
I set her down and we covered her with the bracken the men above tossed down to us. Then they carefully passed down some long wooden beams for us to construct a platform for the bodies of the horses, so they would not crush her, and we laid them in place as best we could. The horses, Artos said, were to keep her spirit from wandering and causing mischief among us.
"Do you think she will like being with horses?" I murmured to Gault as we worked.
"Who would not? Even the Little Dark Ones must like horses. But we should put down a pack-pony for her to ride, as the others are too big."
"As if Artos would sacrifice a pony for anything!" I said, and we both snorted. Horses were too important to us, even the small, sturdy ponies that we used only for pulling baggage carts.
"There," he said, setting his end of the beam into place. It was the last one, and I climbed on his shoulders again. I could just reach the edge of the pit with my fingertips, and I heaved my body up, rolling myself onto the ground above and then twisting so I could reach back down to Gault.
He stood below me on the topmost of the beams and reached up to me. Our fingers touched, but that was all. "Just a little farther!" he called to me, and I inched forward, but somehow the more I reached for him, the more my hands slid away from his grip.
And then, just for an instant, I saw something very strange. At the time, I put it down to fatigue; after all, we had ridden the day to Trimontium, and fought a hard battle through the night, and still had not had any chance to rest. The sky was yet dark, and the pine-knot torches gave a flickering light that cast strange shadows. Later I knew it for what it was, though: a message, a sign, an omen of what was to come.
I looked down to Gault, and for an instant it seemed that there was someone standing next to him. A woman; a small dark woman, slender but proud, with long black hair streaming over her bare shoulders, over her breasts, down to her hips. She stood half-turned toward Gault, a hand resting on his shoulder, but then she turned her head so that her dark eyes met mine. It was only an instant, not even the length of time between one heartbeat and the next; I blinked with surprise, and then someone next to me was tossing the knotted end of a rope down the pit, and the woman was gone.
"What is it, brother?" Gault said in my ear, and I gave a start. I had not seen him climb up beside me. I was still thinking about what I had seen in the pit.
But what had I seen? "Nothing. Strange shadows," I said.
We returned to the grave-diggers, who had nearly completed their task, and helped with the final work of putting our own people to their rest. At last it was over; at least our part was, for there were still noises coming from the fort, although they were gradually beginning to quiet. Gault and I found a quiet spot by the edge of a barn where we could curl up together and sleep.
We settled ourselves into a nest of cloaks and clothing, and Gault yawned and stretched his arms and legs. "That was a long night! I will sleep like the dead."
A cold hand gripped my heart. "Don't say that." I reached my hands around his neck and brought his face to mine, kissed him fiercely. I did not care if anyone saw us; I did not care that we were dirty, bloodstained and bone-weary, that we stank of sweat and of smoke. I held him to me and he wrapped his arms around me and kissed me back, and his mouth was hot and sweet and full of life.
The next time I opened my eyes the sun was shining.
All that summer and autumn we worked hard to make Trimontium a liveable and defensible headquarters. Our squadron was sent out on long patrols to the various villages just north of the Wall, to negotiate for foodstuffs and supplies in exchange for our protection. Gault was especially good at this, with his ready smile and friendly manner.
But the Picts remained quiet, and the Sea Wolves, too, although we patrolled the old Roman roads; we rode to the coast and stood on the rocky strand to look across the sea, but saw no sails coming. The only wolves we hunted that autumn were the animal kind, and we filled our larder with meat against the coming winter.
And then in the spring, Artos had a messenger from the Dark Folk; the Sea Wolves were coming across the water, and the Painted People were gathering across the land. During the next year we made ready for the battle we knew was coming.
"Although I don't see why we can not go after them now, before they have made their own preparations," Gault grumbled, as a group of us sat in the yard making repairs to our horse-tack.
"Artos says we must wait for the moment," said Flavian. And of course he would know; he was no longer Artos' armour-bearer, but he was still closer to him than the rest of us, closer to him than everyone other than Bedwyr and Cei. "He wishes to draw Huil son of Caw down to us, and that will not happen until he has his whole war host gathered."
"Yes, and then they will smash us to pieces. I would rather pick them off now, while we still have more men."
"That is what Cei thinks, too," nodded Flavian, and I laughed, for it was rare that Cei and Gault agreed on anything.
Gault shot me a look, and I shrugged. "What matters is what Artos thinks. So we will wait until the Picts and Scots and Saxons are ready for us to smash them to pieces."
"And how long will that be?"
Flavian shook his head. "I don't know. But I think it will be by the autumn. Druim Dhu and his people are keeping the lookout for us, and they have said that the Barbarians are beginning to move south toward the Wall. No more Saxon boats can cross in winter, so it must be before then, I think."
I shivered at his words. Druim Dhu was one of the Little Dark People, and every time I saw them I recalled the feather-light bundle I had laid in the pit, and the shadowy figure I had seen standing beside Gault when I could not reach him. Druim Dhu and his kind appeared out of the mists to deliver their messages, and disappeared the same way. I had never spoken to any of them; they came to speak to Artos, and then they left.
But Flavian was wrong. It was not until the next spring that the Dark Folk sent up their signal in wood-smoke, telling us that the enemy was gathering for battle in the forest of Caledon. We rode for the place that Artos had chosen and made a quick camp for a few hours' sleep before the battle to come.
Artos had made us to dismount for the battle line. Gault and I followed his orders, but we were both uncomfortable, for we had been 'born astride,' or so we liked to claim, and it was strange to be in battle-armour without a horse. Our squadron was just to the right of centre, between Bedwyr's men and Owain's, and I could see the tension in Gault's body as he strained to hear the signal.
We were all of us tense. Not only did our foes lurk behind the oak scrub, deep in the dark pines that massed as a shadow below the black clouds; but among and behind us were the hunters of the Dark Folk. Though we knew they had sworn the service of their bows to our Lord Artos, few of us were entirely comfortable with their presence.
Then there was a great clamour of war-horns and a rumble from the sky to match it, as the rain sluiced down on our backs and the Painted People came screaming out of the forest toward us; and we held out our spears until they were on us, then drew our swords and fought as best we could. At my right shoulder Gault was a whirling mad thing, cutting down one naked painted savage after another. Yet he still had time to shout his count over his shoulder – our old game, from when we were green soldiers riding under Bedwyr's command – and I strove to meet his tally with my own sword.
The rain turned the earth into slippery mud, which made for a sloppy, miserable fight. I desperately wished I had my sure-footed horse under me, as my feet slid with every step. My helm had slipped and my face was streaked with rain and mud; a Pict had slashed my sword arm with his knife and although it was not a serious wound it hurt with every stroke I made. I could hear nothing but screams and the bellow of war-horns; I could see nothing but the rain and the painted men who ran toward me waving their own weapons. I could no longer hear Gault counting his tally, but I sensed him there beside me, and it spurred me on.
After a time that had no measure we heard Bedwyr calling to Gault to fall back. When we had finished with the men before us, the field was empty of all save bodies. Somewhere ahead of us the light horse pursued the Saxons into the forest; the naked Picts had been for the most part slaughtered. Gault passed the word to Owain, then led the rest of our squadron back to the camp. Along the way we saw bodies upon bodies, broken and bloody, eyes open to the steady rain. The Saxons lay in their chain-mail shirts, while those who had worn only paint were slowly being washed clean; some had great big gashes in them, others only small dark feathers showing where an arrow of the Dark Folk had hit its mark. And among them lay our friends and companions.
"A dismal battle," I muttered. "I will be glad to get back to Trimontium."
"You and me both," said Gault. He reached out to grasp my arm, releasing it quickly at my indrawn breath. "You are hurt?"
"It is not bad."
"You are a liar," he said, and though his voice was light I could hear the concern that lay underneath. He made me stop there, and he bound up my arm with wet strips of cloth torn from the tunic of a fallen Saxon warrior. As he worked we heard a great cheer from the hill where our camp lay; we looked up and saw the great form of Cei, holding something wet and bloody aloft in his big fist.
"It is the head of Huil," said Gault softly, and all I could think was: it is over now, now we can go home.
We went home to Trimontium, but it was not over. All summer and autumn, and even that winter, we worked to secure our position against the incursions of the Scottish and Pictish bands. Now we had to make good on the promises we'd made the previous year to the village chiefs. Our squadron ranged mostly to the west, although once we went to the north, to the ruins of another Roman wall; it was the journey from Eburacum all over again, with ambushes behind every furze-bush and arrows whistling through the air every time we turned, but it was a kind of fighting I liked better than the weary clash we'd had in the forest of Caledon.
The fighting was constant, though, or so it seemed, and Gault and I did not have much time to ourselves during that busy year. When we were in Trimontium we shared the room that was his right as captain of the fourth squadron, but it was rare that we were in the fortress rather than out on patrol. And so the news that Gault was to accompany Artos to visit the western tribes was not welcome to me.
It had been just over a year since Cit Coit Caledon, and the first flowers of spring had begun to blossom in the warming air. Gault and I sat outside, in a rare afternoon of idleness, on one of the crumbling walls that might have once been a granary; it had been too far gone to reconstruct when we rebuilt the place for our needs, and it made a good bench for sharpening one's spear points or mending one's clothes in fine weather.
"It will just be a few of us with him," Gault said. "Flavian, of course, and Amlodd his armour-bearer, and a few others. But I think maybe Conan or Guern could stay here and you could come instead, if you asked Artos."
"You know I cannot do that."
"You asked at Verulamium."
I flushed. "We were youths, then. I should be ashamed to beg my commander that I be allowed to follow my lover as though I were a camp woman."
"It will be only a few months," Gault said, but he didn't sound any happier about it than I felt. "We will be back not long after midsummer."
"And who will lead our squadron? Na, na, I know, it will fall to me." I sighed. They were good men, and I would be proud to lead them, but it would not be the same fighting without him by my side.
"Nobody better," he assured me. "Besides, it will be good for you to take command. By rights you should have been made a captain yourself long ago."
"Oho, I see it now. You want me out of your squadron," I said, to tease him. "But while you are away, I will win more battles than you ever did, and Artos will give the squadron over to me, and then what will you do?"
"I will sit by the river and enjoy not being shot at by Saxons. And when the captain of the squadron comes back, I will see to his needs." He touched my wrist, then slid his hand up my arm and leaned in to whisper into my ear. "Perhaps I should practice now. I think there is no-one in the grove of alder by the pool above the river."
I laughed, and let him pull me off the old wall, and I followed him out of the fort and down to the alder grove. He held me against an old tree and kissed me. "Does my captain ache anywhere? Can I soothe his pain?"
"Oh, I have a terrible ache," I said. I took his hand and placed it where I was truly already aching for him. "Will you kiss it for me?"
He slid to his knees and undid my trousers. I closed my eyes, savouring the feel of his mouth, for I should have to remember it until he returned after midsummer. Afterward we stretched out on the new grass under the bare branches of the tree and I kissed my taste from his lips as I stroked him idly. "If this is how you will serve me when I am captain, perhaps it will not be so bad. I will tell Artos he should put me in command now, and you'll not get it back, after all."
Later I would remember my words, and regret them bitterly. But on this clear spring day we had only lightness in our hearts, and the sorrow of our coming separation was no great thing to be borne, for we thought we had many years ahead of us, and many spring days that we might spend together in the alder grove.
The next day they left, for they were only a small party and had few preparations to make; and in any event they would stop in at Castra Cunetium to get more supplies. There Owain would leave them, to take over that fortress, and Cei would come back from there to Trimontium, and I would take Gault's squadron – my squadron, for this summer – in Bedwyr's train to the east, to secure the shore against the Saxons.
We had much to do to make ready, for only a small force would remain in Trimontium. There was gear to assemble, and supplies to pack, bandages and grain and things we could not get along the wild Saxon shore. And there was the daily business of the fort to attend to, and the things Gault had done as squadron captain which now fell to me.
I had taken the horses down to water them when I became aware of a strange prickling feeling down my back, as though someone was watching me. I turned my head, and there in the grove of alders where I had lain with Gault stood a young girl. Not such a young girl, I decided, when she beckoned me closer; she was small, but her body was that of a woman, and her dark eyes were lined with fine wrinkles; and I realised she was one of Druim Dhu's folk, one of the Little Dark People.
"You are the one who was kind to our sister," she said to me, and I frowned, for at first I did not know of what she spoke. "You and your friend."
Then I blushed, for she was standing in the place where we had been together just two days before, and I did not like to think we had been seen. But the Dark Folk move as silently as leaves carried on the wind, and if she had been there we had not known it. "I am sorry if we have offended," I started, but she shook her head.
"You were the ones who set her gently into her grave."
I remembered that night, and Gault stretching his hand up to me. "That was two years ago." My voice came out in a croak. "Why do you speak of it now?"
"Perhaps the Old Woman had a vision," she said.
A vision, I thought, and I remembered imagining that I had seen a woman standing next to Gault then, in the pit. My eyes widened, and I began to make a sign against evil; but quickly I realised what it was I was doing, and clasped my hands in front of me before their movement could be seen as an insult.
She cocked her head, and I thought I saw a faint smile playing about her lips. "Or perhaps I went to your fortress to deliver a message to Bedwyr friend of Artos the Bear, and saw a flower growing over her resting place, and when I pointed to it, he spoke of what had been done."
I exhaled, feeling foolish. I had never spoken with any of the Dark Folk before; they came and went from the fortress like the shadows of birds, appearing from nowhere, vanishing into the mist. They had been our allies in battle, and Artos counted them as friends, but most of us had no dealings with them, and this woman made me nervous. "We only wanted to show her respect."
"That was good of you. The Sun Men do not always treat our kind with respect."
I frowned. "I hope you have not experienced trouble with our men."
"We have had no trouble from the men who follow Artos the Bear," she said. "Your men follow their paths, and leave us to ours. But to the men who offer us kindness, we offer kindness from us, should they need it."
It came into my mind then, in one of those crazy leaps that my thoughts sometimes made, that if kindness meant burying a dead body, I hoped I should not need that kindness soon! But I did not wish to give offence, so I thanked her, and she nodded and turned back into the forest, and disappeared.
Bedwyr led us to the east, three squadrons of cavalry and a host of light spear and auxiliaries and drivers; in other words, most of us, save for a token force at Trimontium and at Castra Cunetium, and the handful of riders who had gone with Artos. We set up our summer headquarters in the hills, in a meadow that might have been once a shepherd's camp; there was an abandoned turf-roofed bothy near one end, which Bedwyr took for his headquarters, and the rest of us built shelters from branches or set up tent cloths. We had a good spring nearby, and a river not too far below us, and forests where we could hunt for our meat. The river flowed to a landing at its mouth, where the Saxon boats had brought their people to our shores, but they had by now made enough settlements that we could no longer stop them at that source.
As I was in temporary command of our squadron I made Alun my second, but Bedwyr was above us all and so we did as he directed: patrolling the roads and the moors, scouting along the shore, and destroying the Saxon villages and burning them to the ground, so that those who came after would have to start from nothing again.
The last was particularly unpleasant work. I have never minded facing men in battle, sword meeting sword and life fighting against life; but I do not like to kill farmers or women, even when I know they are part of the same invading force that kills our own farmers and women. It is a sorry thing to have to do, but I did it, for we had no choice. But still I wished that I had Gault there with me, to sit by the campfire and talk after, to get the poisoned feeling out of my heart.
We rode and fought and burned, and the buds blossomed and the air grew warm, and the sun looped ever higher in the sky as the days lengthened toward midsummer. On campaign we didn't have the luxury of a true Midsummer's Eve celebration, but we made our new fire and the men drank their small ration of heather-beer, and Bedwyr strummed his harp.
I had volunteered to take the watch duty that night, as the old ways were less important to me than they were to others, and the things I wished to celebrate were kept secret in my own heart. From the picket line I could just hear bits of song and laughter brought to me on the wind. I wondered where Gault might be, and if he danced at a Midsummer's Eve fire on this night.
The eastern sky was beginning to lighten when I turned my post over to the next man and went to the fire to warm myself and eat a little stew before sleeping. Most of the men had already gone to sleep, in their own places or on their cloaks by the fire. Bedwyr, though, was awake. He had put his harp away but leaned against a rock, clasping his knees, staring into the flames.
I squatted beside him, and he turned his head; I could still see the fire reflected in his eyes, and a look that struck an answering chord in my heart. "They will be returning soon," I said softly. I felt foolish as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Bedwyr was ten years older than me, and he knew more than I did about this kind of waiting. And I was afraid he would think that I meant to suggest that Artos was to him as Gault was to me; they were as close as brothers, and as I said before, some whispered that they were lovers, but it was not something you said in their hearing.
Something in his dark and craggy face eased, though, and his mouth crooked a little. It was as though saying the words had shared the burden of waiting, and made it lighter on each of us. He picked a stick from the ground and stirred the fire with it. "Aye, if the chieftains of the western tribes have agreed to follow the Red Dragon. And if nothing goes foul between there and here. I will be happier when Artos is among us again."
Care and concern were evident in his voice; and there was love, too. He could have been talking of his lover, or of the head of our band of warriors. But I suppose all of us spoke of him that way. We followed Artos because we loved him. And our cause depended on his safety, for if he were killed there was no man among the Companions who could replace him. Bedwyr could not, nor could Cei.
I nodded. "But the Damnonii are no friends of the Picts, even if they are not yet our allies."
"Who knows what might happen?" Then reluctantly, as though he had not wanted to say it, he added, "I woke from an evil dream. I do not think it means anything. But I could not sleep again."
But two days passed, and then four days, and then it had been a week, and there was yet no word from Artos. Then ten days past midsummer, late in the afternoon, the lookout spied riders approaching. We had come back from patrol only a short time earlier; I was tending to my own horse when I heard the cry, and I rushed to give welcome.
But it was not Artos and his band; it was Gwalchmai bringing supplies and more men to join us for the coastal defence. And with these things he brought also a message.
"The Scots raided Maglaunus's village," he said. We sat together in the abandoned bothy to hear the news, Gwalchmai and Bedwyr and we captains. "Artos took a spear to his shoulder and is yet too weak to ride. They will stay perhaps another month, until he is healed."
A look of pain crossed Bedwyr's face so quickly I might have imagined it. "That is bad news. But will Maglaunus join with us?"
"Gault thinks he will." Gwalchmai must have heard my indrawn breath, for he looked toward me as he spoke. "It was he who rode to give us the news at Castra Cunetium. He would have continued on with me, but Artos had need of him, so he returned."
I have need of him as well, I thought but did not say. We were both sworn to Artos, and his was the need that must prevail. "Thank you."
Gwalchmai nodded awkwardly. He was of all of us the most ardent follower of Christ; he did not approve of Gault and me, as he did not approve of Cei's women, but he was not unkind. "Eburus has suffered great losses both from Scots and from sickness, and he cannot give us anything other than promises. The other clan chieftains will support Artos. But Maglaunus is the important one."
"If Artos fought raiders for him, he should return the favour," said one of the other men, and the others murmured agreement.
"This raid. When did it happen?" asked Bedwyr.
"It was on Midsummer's Eve," said Gwalchmai.
Gwalchmai journeyed twice more between the war-camp and our fortresses of Trimontium and Castra Cunetium; and then the third time he arrived in our encampment, Artos was with him, and also a group of men coming to relieve one of the other squadrons – and Gault was among them. He leapt from his horse and we clapped each other on the back, grinning like fools to see each other again, and it was as though the last three months had been washed away.
"Artos has taken a wife," Gault told me as we unsaddled his horse and took it to the picket line. "He has wed the daughter of Maglaunus."
For some reason I thought of Bedwyr, and the way his face had softened that night when we spoke by the fire. I wondered what he would think of this news. He was not married, and he did not go to the whores as Cei did. "Is she pretty?"
"It's her dowry that is pretty. A hundred men and horses to join us when she comes to winter at Trimontium."
"A hundred men!" I whistled. "Very pretty indeed! But she's to join us? I would think the fort a poor place for a wife."
"It is part of the agreement." He shot me a sly smile. "Flavian is unhappy, for he must leave his own wife behind. He complained to me bitterly whilst we rode back to the north."
"I have some knowledge of how he feels," I said, touching Gault on the wrist. He twisted his hand and grasped mine for an instant, before turning back to finish securing his horse.
"He has not seen her in more than a year. We are luckier by far." He turned back to me and we started to walk back to the camp. I could hear laughter and raised voices, and I guessed the news of Artos' bride was making its way around the men. "But all summer I wished that you were there with us. I would have liked you by my side when the Scots came in their war-boats."
"I had plenty of fighting here to keep me busy," I said, a little tartly, and he laughed.
"Sa, sa, we were both busy. But it was so dull in the weeks afterward. I would have liked you by my side then even more. I had hoped to see you when I brought word of Artos' injury, but I only went as far as Castra Cunetium and you were not there."
"I heard from Gwalchmai," I said. "But I am glad you are here now."
Gault left his things in my tent, and we went to help unload the supplies; then we made dinner and sat at the cook-fire, watching the evening mist blowing in from the sea, talking about the things we had each of us done during those long and lonely months apart. It was good to share a meal with him again, good to lean up against each other and talk quietly together.
And it was better still when we left our companions at the fire and crossed back through the camp to the tent we would share. Gault was as hungry as I, and we reached for each other as soon as we were inside; neither of us lasted very long, the first time.
"Three months is too long," I said, after. "I cannot imagine a year."
"You are right, I don't know how Flavian bears it. But I will make it up to you now." He kissed my shoulder, then my chest. I buried my nose in his hair and smelled the tang of the cook-fire. "I have missed the taste of you," he murmured against my skin, and his mouth moved slowly down my body. It was as though he wanted to make up not just for the time apart, but for our earlier haste; it was soft and agonisingly, deliberately slow, his lips and tongue on my skin, and I had to bite my own fist to keep from crying out, mindful of the other men in their own shelters around us.
Afterwards I gave him measure for measure, revenge as sweet to him as it was to me. I tried to move as slowly as he had, but he arched under me, reaching for my touch, and I could not resist giving him what we both wanted. His hand clutched at my hair as he pushed into my mouth, and his breath came in soft gasps that were as music to me. I had desperately missed his taste, as well.
Then we slept, and sweet it was to feel the warmth of his body next to mine; another thing I had missed in the past three months. And sometime in the early morning, when the birds had begun calling to each other but the sky was still dark, I woke to find his warm breath on my neck, and his body pressed tightly against my back, and his hand around my prick; and that was the third time, and the sweetest of all.
In the morning we met together with the squadron to discuss how things had been going, and we spent the afternoon doing tasks about the camp, and mending our gear, and hunting for meat. We had no patrols that day other than to guard our own perimeter; I think Artos wanted all the men to see that he was with us, to take heart from his presence, and he strolled about the grounds and spoke warmly to all. He had taken the abandoned hut as his own, and Bedwyr had moved to a tent, but I wondered if he had wanted to stay; not for the roof, which was crumbling, but for the man.
For myself I was content enough to have Gault take over the task of organising the men in our squadron, as we were to ride out on a regular eight-day patrol the next morning. I honed the edges of our swords and our spears, and tended to our horses, and I caught a trout in the river and cooked it over the fire for our dinner. As the sun sank into the western clouds we curled together in the tent and talked together for a long time. I would like to say we spoke of great, important things that night, of our honour and the cause we fought for; or that we spoke the words of love that we never said aloud but that were always in our hearts; but we only talked of petty things, of what the weather might be like in the next days and of the horses and the men in our squadron, and by and by we stopped talking and went to sleep.
In the early morning we rode out. Artos had sent us to the north, towards the great Bodotria estuary that cut into the land like the slash of a blade. I had been up to its shore twice that summer already, as we burned Saxon settlements and hounded the Painted People back to their villages.
It was a hilly country that we rode through, and the soft swells of the land kept us from seeing more than a short distance ahead. But it was familiar territory, within a day's ride of our camp, and so perhaps we were less cautious than we should have been. Perhaps our men had been lulled into complacency by Artos' coming, and his talk of alliances and the hundred horse that would be joining us soon. Perhaps Gault and I were too filled with the joy that comes from having one's dearest friend close by after too long a time apart.
We were picking our way down a shallow draw when there was a commotion in the foreguard; from our position, we could not see what was happening, but soon a rider was visible coming toward us – and in the next moment he toppled from his mount. The poor horse panicked and reared, and the riders behind drew up their own horses and made for the sides of the stony path, but it was too late. Arrows rained down on us from both sides, and with horror I watched as too many hit their marks.
It was an ambush, a band of Saxons lying in wait for us at this place; we did not see them because they had hidden behind the stunted scrub that lined the crest of the hill, with a few men in the valley below where they could see our foreguard ride into view. When the first of their archers attacked they gave the signal to the others, and they rose from their hiding-places and swarmed down upon us like a great cloud of angry bees.
Gault leaned close and shouted, "Go back and up the left side!" I nodded, and wheeled my horse. I heard the trumpet blare, and the thunder of hoofbeats as our squadron formed to defend ourselves and regain the high ground.
"To me, on the left!" I called, and I could hear Gault's mirroring cry for our right wing. We made for the hilltop, cutting down as many as we could as we did our best to take them on the flank, but the Saxon war drums beat fiercely in our ears, and they had the better position. I saw Sulinus run through by an enemy spear, and Alun fall from his horse and be trampled, and I could not think, could not do anything but hold my battered buckler before me, and swing my sword again and again.
When we gained the ridge they lost their advantage, but they had made good use of it in the first moments of the battle, and we were too battered and weary to press them. The trumpet sounded the sombre notes of retreat, and we pulled back and gathered to lick our wounds.
Gault was white-faced and grim as together we assessed what was left of our squadron. Nine dead, their bodies scattered along the draw where we did not dare to retrieve them; eleven injured so badly that we had to tie them to their mounts for the return to camp, or else have them ride double with a less-injured man. Fourteen horses lost. All of us were bloody and broken, and in low spirits at the loss of so many friends.
Slowly, silently, we made our way back. Nobody felt much like speaking, and the only noises were the clopping of horses' hooves, and the occasional groan or sob as the movement of an injured man's horse pulled at a wound. It had been well after midday when we had ridden into the ambush; it was full dark, the clear sky taunting us with a bright sprinkling of stars, when we finally limped into camp.
The men on watch called out our presence and our condition, and soon we were surrounded by our friends from the squadrons which had remained in camp that day. They helped us down from our horses and thrust warm wine and oatcakes into our hands. Artos came out from the hut he had taken for headquarters and spoke quietly to Gault for a moment before disappearing again.
"Someone fetch Gwalchmai," I called over my shoulder, but he was already hurrying over to us, running a hand through his hair – it looked as though he had been sleeping – and he set to work immediately. I took a quick bite of food and then joined in the work of helping the badly injured men from their horses and laying them gently down before the fire for him to tend.
It is one thing to untie a bundle of supplies from a packsaddle and heave it onto the ground; it is another thing entirely to lift the broken body of a friend from a horse, and feel his hands tighten on your shoulders, and hear his bitten-off cries in your ear. I wanted to weep as I saw the pain in their faces, and as I thought of the faces I didn't see, and would never see again. In the five years our squadron had been together under Gault, we had been for the most part lucky. Of course we had thought our light losses in the field had been because we were strong and fierce warriors, banded together under the best of all captains and fighting for the cause of Artos and of Britain. But that was all still true, and yet we had been cut down by the Saxons on this day.
My heart was heavy and numb, and I thought this was the lowest I could feel, the worst that could happen; and I was wrong.
"Levin," said Gault hoarsely, behind me. I straightened and turned to him; the firelight flickered queerly on his face, turning it to a mask of bright lines and shadow. Of course none of us were smiling, but his jaw was set in a grim line I was not accustomed to seeing. "I must report. See that the men are taken care of, that they –" He broke off and closed his eyes for an instant, then opened them again. "Get them tended to, and see to their horses. And then come in to me, if I am still with Artos."
I did not like the look in his eyes, the way they blazed in the reflected firelight. He seemed unsteady on his feet. "Are you hurt, Gault? Are you all right?"
He gripped my arm for a moment, then released me, and said again, "See to the men, then come in to me. I will wait." Then he turned and went into the hut to give his report to Artos.
I gathered up those of our squadron who were not as badly injured, and we left Gwalchmai to his work and saw to the horses, and to our tack and weapons. There were few of us in condition to do the work that ordinarily every man did for himself, and we had only the starlight and the dim glow of the campfires to work by, so it was a slow task, but finally, when all was put to rights, we went back to the camp.
The campfires were quiet, now; the men around them asleep or resting. I went to my own tent to put my things and Gault's in it for the night, but he was not there; he must be still with Artos, I thought, and I hurried over. Lantern-light poured from the open doorway of the shepherd's hut.
"Gault bade me take over and see to the men while he made his report, and so I could not come before," I said, stepping inside. Then I saw him lying on the damp ground, bloody and still, and the rest of my words caught in my throat. Gwalchmai squatted by his side, his knives and other surgeon's tools scattered around a bloody arrowhead; Artos stood between us, holding the lantern aloft; and both of them looked at me with infinite sadness and pity.
I do not know how I got through the next hours. I could not think; I could not breathe; I could not even weep, as much as I wanted to. I could only clutch his body, his sweet dear body that had lain next to mine in love not so long ago, and curse the Christ I no longer could convince myself that I believed in, for taking him from me. I stared into his face, the wild thought in my mind that maybe if I looked long enough, his eyes would open again, the harsh set of his mouth would soften into a smile, and he would say, "Hah, Levin, I fooled you! I was only pretending," and jump to his feet and take me by the hand.
But he lay silent and still, surrounded by his own blood and the smell of death, and I knew he was gone.
Artos murmured something about men coming for him, to bear his body away, to dig a grave and set him to rest. That was mine to do by right, and I told him so; he nodded, but said I must return after.
My eye fell upon Gault's sword, there by his side; Gwalchmai must have cut his scabbard-belt from his waist when he butchered him – I could not think of the healer without bitterness in that moment, for he had not saved him – and I remembered all the times that blade had flashed to protect me, when we fought by each other's side, each watching out for the other.
Where had I been, when that Saxon arrow found him? Why had I not been able to protect him? His blade had kept me safe, and of a sudden I decided that I would have that blade, as a token from him, the only token I could keep for myself. It had saved my life in the past, but that was nothing now – the empty and lonely road ahead was something I could not bear to face – and it would save me again, when I could get by myself and do what I must.
When I took out my own sword Artos thought I meant to do it then and there, and he came at me, alarmed, but I laughed and told him he need not worry. I put it down on the bloody ground and took Gault's sword for my own, and then I lifted his body into my arms, and carried him out of the light of the shepherd's bothy, into the darkness beyond.
We carried him to a spot on the edge of camp, where the hazel and alder scrub formed a sort of natural break between our living-space and the wild moors beyond. It took a long time to dig his grave. The other men of the fourth squadron took turns digging, as was our practice, but I did not give up my spade until we were finished. After we lowered him down, though, I had to look away, for I could not bear the sight of them covering him with dirt and stones.
I stood and looked out towards the sea, and at the stars and the sliver of moon which had risen as we worked, until eventually I turned back to help finish the task. When it was done, the others touched me on the back, or clasped my hand, or said a few words to me – in the squadron we were all of us as brothers, and they knew what Gault had been to me, and I to him – and then they left us together.
I gathered rocks and built a cairn above him, and then I sat down beside him and we looked at the stars together. "Gault," I whispered. "I miss you very fiercely already. Wait for me now, and I will be with you as soon as I am able."
Then I straightened my back and went down to Artos.
It had been in my mind to quit the Company, and to find myself a quiet place for the end. But Artos would not let me leave. He called me a weakling for it, and said I would shame the memory of my friend; he held Gault's bravery up to my face and dared me to match it – dared me to be worthy of him. He told me I must lead the fourth squadron now, and in the end I lifted my head and did as he bade me, though I did not love him for it, not then and not for a long time after.
But I did take the fourth squadron – what was left of us, plus the men Gwalchmai had brought and a few boys who had joined us from the nearby villages of the Votadini – and I drilled them and worked them together until we were fit for battle again. It gave me something to do, I suppose. And when we were sent out on patrol again, I took heart from the chance that I might prove my own bravery as Gault did, that an arrow or seax might find me, that I might go sword to sword with a Saxon warrior, and both of us make an end of each other at once. It gave me a peculiar sort of pleasure to imagine Artos' face as I was brought back broken to be laid beside my friend in the stony ground.
It did not happen, of course. Each time we went out, I returned on my own horse, and with all my men behind me – I was proud of that, that I did not lose any men that summer. We had lost enough – I had lost enough. And after I had seen to the men and my horse, and given my report to Artos, I would go alone up to the edge of the camp by the hazel scrub, to the cairn that marked Gault's grave, and give my report to him.
"Glyn's horse went too far off the track in the marshes on our third day," I might say, "and the two men behind him were not paying attention, and they followed him right into the muck. What a mess that was! It took us two hours to get everybody free of that sucking mud." Not the dry account I gave to Artos, but the story my men were telling at the campfire. The story I would tell him, were he beside me.
It was a foolish, strange thing to do, talking to the stones above his grave. I think I only did it because I felt so lonely sitting there beside him in silence. The sounds from the camp drifted up on the wind, and here and there might be the chitter of a bird or the rustle of some small animal, but I could only listen to that for so long before my mind began to fill with unhappy thoughts, and my heart to fill with grief. And so I spoke aloud, to push aside the despair that was never very far away. I would not say it gave me comfort; or if it did, it was the hollow comfort a drop of water gives a man dying of thirst, the bare hint of wetness that is not enough to slake but only reminds him of his crushing need. But it was all that I had, and it became important to me.
And so it was that when we returned to Trimontium in the waning days of October, I felt the loss; not the loss of Gault, for I felt that every hour of every day, but the loss of the release of telling over my day to a listener who would let me spill my words until I was wrung dry and empty. It would not do to speak to a stone or a tree. But I remembered the woman of the Little Dark People, the one he and I had set into the ground, and I thought maybe she would not mind if I sat by her side of an evening and spoke to her.
"We went out hunting today," I said, that first time. "I saw a fine stag, but my spear missed." She did not chide me for my poor aim, which I appreciated.
So she became my confidante, that woman whose name I did not know and whom I never saw in life. I was careful to only sit by the mound which marked her grave when nobody was about, for I did not want to be thought strange. It was not that I did not have my friends in the Company; but that is a different sort of friendship, and we spoke of different things.
There was one other who I spoke to of Gault. It was in early November that Artos returned from Castra Cunetium, where he had gone to fetch his woman of the Damnonii. Gault had been right, she was not so pretty. But when our eyes met across the hall she gave a start, and turned her head to ask something of Artos; and he looked at me, and nodded, and said something to her in return, and led her over to me.
"Guenhumara, this is Levin," he said. "He is the captain of my fourth squadron, and he was friend to Gault."
A shock coursed through me, but I should not have been surprised; of course she must have met him, for he had been with Artos that summer that he had gone to Maglaunus' village.
"It is an honour to meet you," I said.
"From across the hall you look very like him. The colour of your hair is the same, and the way you hold yourself. Artos told me you were as brothers. I was sorry to hear –" She broke off, looking at my face. I don't know what she saw in it, but her expression softened. "He was kind to me, always making a jest of things."
I smiled a little. "He was like that."
"Come, Guenhumara," said Artos.
She went with him, but before she left she said to me that she would like to tell me more about what she remembered of Gault, and to hear stories of him. I don't know how she sensed that this was something that would lighten my heart; there was a sadness in her, and perhaps she saw the sadness in me. We did not, after all, have much conversation together, after. But she smiled when she saw me, and once she told me about his time in her village, and it made me feel better to know that somebody else remembered him not only as a warrior but as a man.
The following summer we went east and north on the war trail again, and again I visited with Gault, sitting amongst the small heather flowers which had begun to form a carpet over his grave. When we returned to Trimontium, I went back to my habit of spending a little of my time with the woman we had buried together under the horses. That year, Artos decided to return in the war season to Eburacum, to fight again along the Saxon shore south of the Wall, and he left my squadron to hold the fortress until they should return in late autumn. So that summer I continued to speak with her, when nobody else was about to see me sitting by a mound of earth and talking to the air.
I spoke with many of her brothers as well, that year, for the Dark People came and went as they were wont to do. As summer commander of the fortress I was the one they came to speak with when they had word of enemy patrols, or of a herd of deer that might be enough for both their hunters and ours. They did not come often, but they came enough times that slowly they grew less strange to me and to my men.
Trimontium was a fine place to summer. Wildflowers carpeted the three hills that gave the place its name, all red and gold and blue, and the burns in spate sparkled silver-white threads across the green land. To the men of my squadron, especially the youngsters, it seemed as a holiday at first, but I soon put them to work. There were repairs to make to the crumbling walls, shoring up the cracks with mud, and new bracken to gather for thatching roofs that had been damaged in the winter weather. We ranged among the hills for our hunting and our watch-patrols.
There was good hunting for meat, but we saw few of the Painted People and none of the Saxon kind. We congratulated ourselves that maybe Artos was right to have gone south this year, that we had rid at least this land of them. But for me the pleasure of knowing we had beaten back the enemy was mixed with a kind of sorrow. It was the sorrow that was with me always, that I was here, and Gault was not.
I would not find my peace at the end of a seax or a Pictish arrow that summer, but still I thought about it; gazing into the tumbling froth of the river where it ran swiftest through the rocks, or looking from the highest parapet down to the ground far below, I would think about how easy it would be to take that one step too far….
But I had a responsibility: to my men first of all, and to Artos and to Britain. I had sworn to hold Trimontium, and so I would not take that step past the edge. I had told Artos I would not fall on my sword, and I would not break that word. But it did not stop me from standing on the wall, and looking over.
One afternoon in late summer I was up on the wall, watching for the return of our patrol. The sky was a startling blue, the clear bright blue that comes after a rainstorm that has washed the air clean, and I was thinking of the return not just of the patrol I'd sent out from Trimontium, but of Artos and the rest of the Brotherhood, at autumn's end. Would it be that we would range south from now on, and abandon our old camp in the east? Something in me twisted at the thought of not being able to visit Gault's grave; it had been almost a year since I'd been there. Then I told myself that I was being foolish. He wasn't there. It was only his body that rested beneath the cairn.
At that moment a movement in the sky caught my attention. An eagle flew from the blue of the east, across the sky in front of me; a big golden eagle, as we often saw in the skies above the fort. He flew toward the clouds which were massing to the west, and it came into my mind that maybe this was how we went west of the sunset, or to the heaven that the Church promises to believers, when we died and left our bodies. Maybe we became eagles.
Artos returned in the autumn, along with his lady and the rest of the Company, and I was pleased and proud to be able to show them what we had done during our lazy summer. Yet there was more to be done, for Druim Dhu came not three days after Artos' return and warned him that their Old Woman had said it was to be a hard winter, and that he should send the horses south. Flavian and Corfil took the horses, and the rest of us worked to secure the fortress against the coming of the cold season.
Few of the men put much weight on the word of the Old Woman of the Dark People, not at first. We gathered in stores as we always did, for most of us came from villages far south of the Wall, and for us the winters in Trimontium always seemed hard compared to the winters of our youth. But when Corfil returned two weeks later, Artos frowned and grumbled and told him he should have stayed. Then, two days past Samhain, Flavian returned from Deva in a storm so sudden it was as though he had brought it with him. Cold wind whipped around the fortress and snow piled against the walls.
When Flavian arrived, he went in to Artos' quarters; I was just leaving, having brought him a report of the state of the peat supplies, and so I heard him curse, and call Flavian a fool, and tell him that he should have listened to his orders and stayed in south until the spring. Artos loved Flavian well, and the worry in his voice was clear. I knew then that he saw portents in the Old Woman's words beyond what the rest of us did; that he knew it would be no ordinary winter.
The early winter was a fierce and joyous thing. I did not mind the wild gales, the howling wind and the driving sleet, for we were snug in our fortress and it felt like a comforting bulwark that kept us safe. Curtains of coloured light played across the northern skies, and we all crowded together against the cold to watch.
"We call it the Crown of the North," said Pharic; he was brother to Guenhumara, one of the hundred Damnonii who had come as her dowry. "The gods are pleased to give our land a harsh winter, but there is a reward."
"I would rather a bed of flowers, and an endless summer," said Cei, and many of the men nodded. But for myself, I liked the strange fires of the sky. They were something outside our world; something that gave me hope that there was more beyond our understanding than the things we could touch.
But then came Midwinter's Eve, and a fire of a more earthly and deadly kind. I was now always a bit melancholy at our Midwinter celebration, as it recalled to me the night Gault and I had become lovers; it reminded me of my joy, and of my loss. I drank my portion of heather beer with the Companions in the hall, but afterward I stole out to sit by the mound over the woman of the Dark Folk, to whisper my sadness into her ear. It was a cold night, and the drovers and whores celebrated around their fires in the camp. But by her grave-side I had nothing to warm me other than the beer in my belly, and so after a short time I decided to go back into the hall. As I rose to make my way back inside a man ran ahead of me, sober and intent, and when I followed him I saw him go to Artos and give his message.
The aurochs horn sounded the alarm, and every man of us raced out to follow the watchman. He led us to the mill-shed where the flames were already leaping high, but Artos had seen the real danger, and called for us to go to the store-barn which backed onto the shed, where the thatch on the roof was just beginning to catch fire.
Immediately we sprang into action. Bedwyr set men – and women, too, for the camp-women had come out when they saw what was happening – to bring up buckets of water from the well to quench the flames that licked along the wooden beams of the store-barn. But the well was low, and we had few containers for carrying water, and so Flavian and I began scooping snow into our tunics to fling onto the burning roof. Other men fought to open the door and get the stores out and to safety.
"Tear off the thatch, if you can," called Pharic, and I jumped up onto the beams of the building and thrust my hands into the smouldering thatch. I pulled great handfuls from the roof and threw them to the ground, and my fingers that had been wet and cold from the snow now blistered from the heat. No matter, I told myself; the pain is not important. Gault had led us back to camp with an arrow in his side, and had never faltered until after he had brought us all home. I could do no less.
But it was not enough, for by the time the men on the ground had forced open the door, which had jammed tight from the heat, the fire had already broken through. I lowered myself down and joined the men below to work to save our precious stores, carrying barrels of meat and baskets of grain away from the flames.
The wind blew hard from the northeast, spreading the fire against our hard work. Thick clouds of smoke billowed into the air. Our eyes watered and our lungs ached, but we could not stop our labours. I was dimly aware of men working beside me, of women running with buckets of water and skirts full of snow, of Artos shouting orders in a hoarse and desperate voice.
It was as hard a battle as any we'd fought against the Saxons. In the end we salvaged perhaps half of what we'd stored against the winter: burnt grain and charred meat, and a bit of honey left for sweetening our bannock.
"We can make up the difference by hunting," Flavian suggested, when we captains met with Artos the next day to discuss the situation, and decide what must be done.
"Not in this winter," said Artos. "What is the tally?"
Gwalchmai had made an accounting and said that we might have enough to hold us on short rations to the middle of February, saving an early spring that would let us hunt, or allow us to ride for supplies from Corstopitum.
"We are soldiers," said Cei, shrugging. "We can make do with what we have, and when it runs out, well. Perhaps by then we will be able to hunt again."
But in the next weeks the gales blew fierce, and the snow piled deep upon the land and drifted against the walls and the store-buildings. The cold seeped into our bones. We gave up sleeping in our separate barracks and huddled together in the hall around the peat fire that blazed day and night. There was no hope of hunting, nor of riding out for grain and salt beef from Corstopitum.
We had little to do in these days. We made Bedwyr play on the harp until his fingers gave out, and we raised our voices in raucous song. We diced for imaginary apples. We argued over ridiculous things, such as how many Saxons we had fought at Cit Coit Caledon, or how many lovers Cei had taken in Eburacum, or how many hairs were in Corfil's beard. And we all grew thinner and weaker, and many of us fell sick.
I felt my death creeping up on me. And although once I had wished fervently for it, this was not the death I wanted. I missed Gault fiercely, for at least if he were here we could share this, wrapped up in each other's arms, keeping each other alive. January had been too harsh to spend much time out of doors, but by February, when the days grew longer and lighter, and the world thawed for a brief time at the middle of each day, I went out again to visit my friend, the woman of the Little Dark People in her grave beneath the horses.
"We have eaten through our stores," I told her. "We are down to a single rye cake each day for every man, and Artos says we must begin to eat the dogs soon."
"I suppose you should eat the dogs before they eat you."
I looked up, startled. The woman of the Dark Folk sat on the snow that mounded over the pit where we had buried her, and she smiled at me as though amused at my surprise. She was as she had been in the vision I had seen briefly, that I had thought a shadow, when we had lowered her into her grave: no larger than a child, with long dark hair over her naked shoulders, falling across her small breasts to her narrow hips. I thought for a moment that she must be cold, before I remembered she could not feel the cold as we did, that she was beyond that.
"You have not spoken to me before," I said. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt stupid.
"You were not ready to hear me."
"I hear you now," I said cautiously. "What have you to say?"
Her eyes were very dark, and very old. I was put in mind of my mother's mother, although I only knew her when I was a very small child, and remembered little: her hair, her scent, and her dark eyes in her wrinkled face. "That you should not fear death."
"I don't fear death! I long to embrace it!" But I knew that for a lie as I spoke. It seemed the closer I came to the death I had long sought, the more I clung to life. It was that way with all of us, there in the hall. Hollow-cheeked and gaunt, with wounds that did not heal and with bellies that grumbled, shivering from the cold; all of us fiercely fought for life.
"He is waiting for you, you know," she said gently.
I bowed my head so that she should not see my tears. When I looked up, she was gone. The snow over her mound was undisturbed.
We drew lots for the dogs when we ran out of meat. It was of no use; men began to die of the sicknesses that came when one had too little to eat. We could not bury them in the frozen ground but in graves too shallow to keep their bodies from the wolves. It was hard work, and sad work.
Artos' armour-bearer Amlodd died, and we scraped a grave for him outside the walls. There was a hint of the warmth of spring in the air that day; the weak sun shone as bright as it ever did in February, and we could at least get him in the ground, though it was difficult work for men as weakened as we were. I remembered the woman of the Little Dark People who had come to me in the alder grove the day after Gault had left, with Amlodd and Artos, to visit the western tribes. "To the men who offer us kindness, we offer ours," she had said, and I had wondered if this meant she would place my body gently in its grave, as Gault and I had done for her sister, the woman who lay beneath the horses.
It seemed to me that we would all need that service soon. As we looked glumly at the mound of earth and snow that hid his body, I said to Artos and the Companions: "Who will bury the last of us?"
Bedwyr laughed without mirth. "The wolves, brother. And maybe an eagle or so."
I looked up, following his gaze. An eagle flew across the sky as though mocking us that we were still earthbound. And then it came to my mind what I had thought that summer, during that golden autumn of thickly-clustered berries and red and orange leaves, when I had stood on the parapet and considered stepping off the edge; I had seen an eagle flying west, and I had imagined Gault winging his way beyond the sunset.
I was thinking of this and so was not listening to the others for a few moments. But then I heard Pharic say that what we needed was a talking eagle, to fly south and carry the word to Corstopitum that we were in need of grain and meat. And it came to my mind that the distance to Corstopitum was not so very far.
If Gault could be an eagle, I thought, then so could I.
That night I lay unsleeping in the hall amongst my men, and when they were all snoring I rose to my feet and crept out. I took the half-cured skins of the last wolves we'd killed, to wrap around my boots against the snow, and I took Amlodd's cloak along with my own, as he would not need it any more. I hesitated at the store-room door, but only for a moment; I would need strength to make the journey, and a day of food more or less for my squadron would not make a difference now.
I said a quiet prayer to the Christ, and one to Lugh of the Shining Spear as well; I needed all the help I could get. The last stop I made was at the grave of the woman of the Little Dark People. "I am taking the road south," I whispered. "Perhaps I will see you anon."
She did not answer me, and after a moment, I slipped out of the gate and made for the southern road.
The snow was deep on the road, and it made for slow progress. If I were healthy, instead of half-starved and weak, and if the road were clear and the weather fine, I could make the march from Trimontium to Corstopitum in four days. But my feet punched a double line of holes into the snow, and I sunk down to mid-thigh with each painful step. It was too bad I did not truly have eagle's wings.
Following the road between scrub and forest was easy, but across the heather hills the path was not so clear in the dark. Even when the path was obvious it was often drifted deeply, and soon I was wet and cold from head to toe. When the sun came up I could not see the fortress over my shoulder, but I knew I could not have come any great distance.
I ploughed on through the snow for another few hours. By now they would know I had left Trimontium. They would have discovered the missing food ration, and I hoped that my squadron would forgive me for taking it. I wondered whether Artos had guessed my intentions. Nobody would come looking for me, in any event.
Despite the sun warm on my shoulders, I was cold and bone-weary. I ate a few of the stolen rye cakes; then I cleared a space in the snow and curled myself into my cloaks. I do not think I slept more than an hour or two, judging from the sun's position when I awoke, and I did not feel particularly refreshed. But there was nothing to do but to go on.
That afternoon the noonday thaw stretched into the evening. The snow was wet around my legs and under my feet, seeping into my trousers and boots, and it made me feel even colder despite the warmer air. I made a fire when I stopped for the night, and curled close as I dared, but it only took the sharpest edge off the chill, and my dreams were filled with swirling snowstorms and plunges from cliffs into the icy sea below. When I woke it was still dark, and the fire was ashes. I pulled the cloaks tighter around myself and tried to go back to sleep, but it was just too cold, and so I began walking again as the sun rose.
The next two days were warmer yet, and the scent of spring hung in the air. I was making better time as the snow melted from the road. I was not sure how much progress I had made, but surely, I thought, I would see Corstopitum within another three or four days. The sooner the better, for the Company would not be able to hold out for long. I hoped that I had not left it too late for them. For myself it mattered little; it had been in my mind, when I left the fortress, that I was going to my death.
But the thaw turned out to be a false promise. That afternoon a storm blew in on a bitter north wind, and I shivered by my fire as the snow swirled around me. I got little sleep that night, and my body ached with the cold.
The next day it was even worse. I had tried to ration my stolen food, but the cold sapped my energy and I had already eaten more than half. The snow had fallen thickly onto the road, making up for what had melted in the past three days, and so I was back to my old, slow pace. The wind howled, and the snow piled in drifts, and I was no longer sure whether I was following the road. As I plodded along it seemed as though my feet and legs were made of wood. I did not mind so much, as they hurt less than they had before, but it felt strange and awkward each time I took a step. Sometimes I stumbled, and fell into the snow. Each time it was harder to pull myself back to my feet and push on.
Late in the afternoon I fell for the sixth or seventh time – I had lost count – and the thought came to me that perhaps it would be easier just to stay on the ground. The drifting snow would cover me. It might be warmer, there on the ground, covered by a soft white blanket.
"Come, get up," said a woman's voice above me. "You will not help your friends in the fortress by dying here."
"I don't feel like walking any farther," I grumbled, but I gathered my energy and pushed myself back to my feet. There was a horse standing next to the hole I had left in the snow, and perched upon its broad back was the woman of the Little Dark People. "How is it that you are here? The horses were to keep you from wandering."
She raised an eyebrow. "Horses are for riding."
That made me laugh, for after all she was right. "Sa sa, if only I had one, too! We gave you nine of them – can you spare me one?"
"These horses cannot bear you while you live. Although that will not be for much longer if you do not start walking again."
"Then I shall die, and so get myself a horse."
"But if you die, you will not be able to deliver your message. So walk now."
I looked around. It had stopped snowing some hours earlier, but the gusts of wind lifted the flakes into the air, obscuring the landscape. "Which is the way?"
"Let us go this way," she said, gesturing with her arm. I walked, and the horse walked beside me. It did not leave marks in the snow.
The horse was very big, and she was small on its back. "Gault thought we should have sacrificed a smaller pony for you," I told her as we made our way across the snow. "It would have suited you better for riding." The thought of him brought a pang to my heart. "It is not that I don't like having you as a companion," I said carefully, as I did not want to offend her. "But I would like to have him here with me."
"Your people can not cross the boundary between worlds as we can," she said. "It is only because you are so close to that place that you can see and hear me."
"I saw you in the pit with him. For a moment, I saw you." My foot plunged through a drift, making me stumble and fall to my knees. I pressed my hands into the cold wet snow and pushed myself up again. It was like climbing out of the pit, I thought. Only colder.
"He waits for you, and you will see him soon."
"I could not reach him," I said. "Our hands were too far apart."
We had been walking for some time through a sparse forest, but as the trees thickened and drew closer I realised that this could not be the road – that we had left it long ago. I stopped, suddenly nervous. "But this is not the way," I said. "There is no road."
"No," she agreed. "But you must go this way so they will find you."
The ice in my throat seemed to turn solid, and for a moment I could not breathe. "Who is it that will find me?" I finally managed to croak.
"Listen," she said, and I listened. At first I thought it was the wind. Then the sounds resolved themselves into distant voices, although I could not make out the words. They were getting closer.
"Who is it?" I repeated.
"My brothers. They will help you. Come," she said, and she kicked the horse, and it went into the trees. I followed, but she had ridden faster than I could walk in the snow. She was gone.
I looked around me. Panic began to rise in my chest. I had lost the road; I was alone.
"Aie!" came a voice from behind me. I whirled. Three small figures stood there, dark men wearing furs and carrying spears. "You are far from home, Sun Man," said one.
"I have come from Trimontium. The fort at the three hills of Eildon," I added; I was not sure they knew the Roman name we used.
"And where do you go?"
"To Corstopitum, the city south of the Wall where we have supplies. We have run out, and we are starving and desperate."
"I can see that," said another of the men. "Else you would not be wandering witless away from the road."
The man who had spoken first turned and spoke sharply to him in their own language. Then he looked back at me, and his voice was softer. "Come with me." He led me to their camp, which was not far from where we were, and built a fire for me as though I were a child. "Stay here. When we have made our kill, we will return."
I sat by their fire and waited. My feet felt as though they were burning, though they were not so close to the fire. I ate another rye cake from my meagre supply. The sun began to sink below the horizon.
Between one moment and the next the men of the Dark Folk appeared between two trees, a bloody wolf carcass slung between two of them. It was a scrawny thing, like the wolves we'd killed that winter, but it was meat, and I sank my teeth gratefully into the portion they gave me. It was hot from the fire, and the juices ran down my chin.
They shook their heads when I offered them my rye cakes as thanks. "You will need those for yourself, if you plan to go on."
"I must, else my friends all starve."
The man who had built the fire looked at me closely. "You know where it is that you are going." It came to me, like a hard stone in the gut, that he did not mean Corstopitum.
I licked my cracked lips and tried to smile. "I know. I am not afraid. Gault is waiting for me."
After a long moment, he nodded. "We will set you on your road in the morning, then."
"Sa sa sa, Sun Man! It is time that you are up and on your way!"
I sat and rubbed my eyes. I had slept deeply for the first time since I'd begun my journey, warmed by the fire of the Dark Folk. The sun had not yet risen, but the eastern sky was beginning to lighten. Frost thickly coated the branches of the trees around us, and the little man's breath was white in the cold air. His friends were already beginning to pack their things for their own journey.
He gave me another piece of the greasy wolf meat and showed me where the road cut across the land, where I needed to go. "We will make a signal for our people to the south that they will help guide you," he said.
"Thank you," I said, and I set out again on the road.
I have no memory of how many days I walked. Day turned to night turned to day again; sometimes the wind howled fiercely at my back, hurling tiny spears of ice into my neck, and sometimes the world seemed so still that I could believe I was the only thing moving on its surface. Water moved free in the burns, though, and the ice that clung to the rocks melted back a little farther each day. The thaw was coming, even if it was too late for me.
I walked on through the snow. Sometimes the woman rode beside me on her horse, and we talked together; sometimes it seemed to me she walked beside me, and then somehow she became a man of her kind, who would hand me a bannock or a piece of meat, perhaps let me sleep an hour while he kept watch, before rousing me and pointing me on my way. It was like a dream, only it hurt too much to be anything other than real. It didn't matter. I pushed on.
My legs were blocks of wood and my hands were stones. This was not altogether a bad thing. Wood and stone did not hurt as the rest of me did, and it seemed that each day a little more of my body lost the pain of being flesh. My fingers turned white, and then black. I did not dare remove my boots to see my feet. But it became harder to walk, and I moved more and more slowly, and more than once I thought about lying down to rest, knowing I would not rise again.
But the woman of the Dark Folk would not let me lie down. "You can walk another twenty paces," she would say.
"I am tired."
"You are not as tired as you pretend to be. What if your friend were here? He would challenge you to a race, and you would spur yourself to beat him."
I remembered how Gault's smile would flash when we made our friendly wagers, each of us convinced we had the faster horse or the stronger arm. When we were younger we bet for pebbles, or for chores to be done by the loser. Later we wagered kisses; when the stakes became higher, we wagered other services, to be given in privacy.
"You did not like to lose, even when the forfeit was something you would do gladly," she said, and I turned my head sharply. Those things were between Gault and me alone.
"How do you know?"
She smiled. "Men such as you do not like to lose a wager. Not when it is a test of your own speed or strength."
"I did not lose often," I said with some pride.
"Then do not lose now."
I gritted my teeth and walked the twenty paces. Then another twenty, and twenty more, again and again, day after night after day, until the broken teeth of the old wall loomed ahead out of a crust of snow.
I felt like a horse that scents his barn after a long and weary ride. From here, I knew, a fit soldier in summertime would reach Corstopitum in well under an hour. It took me far longer than that, but I was hammering my fists on the gate before the sun had set.
The watchman opened the door, and his eyes widened. I knew what he must be seeing: a gaunt and ragged husk of a man in a filthy cloak, raising blackened hands in supplication.
"I come from Artos, from Trimontium," I croaked. My voice sounded hoarse. I had worn it out in the cold air, talking with the woman of the Little Dark People all this time. "The Company starves. We need –" I coughed, then went on: "The grain, the spring supplies –" Another fit of coughing overtook me, and I bent double with it. I felt a hand on my arm.
The watchman called to someone behind him, and then took me by the shoulders as though I were a child and sat me down on a bench. "But how did you get here? How did you make it through?"
"I had a guide," I said, and turned my head; but she was gone.
They helped me to a bed heaped high with rugs. Someone gave me warm broth to drink. The room was too bright and too loud; it was strange and unpleasant to hear the buzzing of so many voices. They asked me one question after another, and I answered as well as I could. Finally they grew silent, and I closed my eyes and leaned back against the soft cushions they had placed beneath my head.
Then behind my eyelids the light grew even brighter, and I tried to turn my head away. "Please," I whispered. "I only want to rest."
"And rest you shall," said a familiar voice.
My eyes flew open. There stood Gault, not as I had seen him last but as I remembered him best: strong and tall, his pale hair tumbled about his head, a wide and open smile on his face. The bright light behind him turned his skin to gold and his hair to fire.
My heart beat faster; I felt impossibly light, filled with joy. "You're here!"
"Of course I am here. I told you I would wait for you," he said.
"I am sorry it took me so long," I said. "Artos said he had need of me."
"And you served him well," Gault told me. His words spread over me like sun-warmed honey. I no longer felt cold; I no longer felt pain. I felt only the warmth of his love, and my own love and longing for him that could not be contained, like sparks rising from a fire, ever rising. "We have both served him well. But our service is over now."
Then he held out his hand and I reached for him, and our fingers touched and his hand clasped mine; and then he drew me up, up out of the bed and out of my broken body, up into his arms; rising, ever rising, up into the light.