Excerpt from Arthur Dux Bellorum
Artorius (the young Arthur), Merlyn and Gawain are on the run from Mordred’s men and take to the Ridgeway path to escape their pursuers….
They set out early in a steady drizzle, leading their horses along the sheep herders’ path that wound upwards. “It is dry underfoot,” Merlyn explained to Artorius, “because of the white rock that devours the rain. We can expect to see travellers and drovers of sheep who use this path for safety as you can see a long distance in all directions. Bandits, bears, wolves and even storms can be seen approaching. There are few trees or bushes on top of the ridge. It is cold and windy because it is exposed, but it offers safety and a direct route towards the north and east. Ancient peoples live here, unaffected by the Roman occupation, and may offer us hospitality.” He stopped briefly to catch his breath, then continued, “…and the way is marked by ancient forts where our forebears protected themselves from attack by men, wild animals, giants and dragons.”
With aching legs, they reached the top of the hill and saw they were at the start of a long upland ridge that snaked into the distance before them. They were now below blue skies and above low, scudding white clouds.
“We have ascended to the heavens,” Gawain gasped in awe, as they mounted their horses.
“Follow me in single rank and keep your eyes open for movement of horsemen below,” Merlyn said, leading the line. The wind had died and their way was pleasant along a worn dirt track, lined by tufts of hardy moor grass and sage scrub, undulating across the ridgeback. After an hour they saw burial mounds on a high plateau, with sheep grazing about them and an indifferent boy sunning himself on a hillock. He briefly looked up as they slipped by, although his dog gave chase to the skittish horses. Shortly after they came upon their first hill fort.
Merlyn called a halt by the gates of the wooden stockade, the tell-tale curls of smoke signalling that it was occupied. “I’ll go ahead with Varden to speak to the occupants,” he said, dismounting. They approached and pushed the unguarded gate open, slipping inside.
Artorius sought out Gawain and asked, “Do you believe Merlyn’s story that I’m Uther’s one true son?”
Gawain smiled and replied, “Yes Artorius, I believe it. I cannot say I have evidence, for although Hector was my fellow knight, I did not see him again after Uther sent him into retirement to his farm in the west, and Merlyn also disappeared from court at that time. But you have the look of Uther – his dark and searching eyes, the same unruly hair and shape of his face. He was bigger in the body, mind, but there is still time.” Gawain squeezed Artorius’s bicep and they shared a laugh. Artorius was mildly content with his answer, but reserved his judgement.
Varden beckoned them to come to the gate and they filed into the fort. Inside, there were two wooden huts built on to the stockade side, a pen with an assortment of animals, and some crude thatched huts in a semi-circle facing a fireplace with a cauldron bubbling over it. About twenty people – family groups – turned and stared at them. Merlyn was deep in conversation with a bearded druid and they stood waiting patiently.
“You are welcome, friends of Merlyn,” the older druid said, indicating that they should tether their horses on the fence of the pen. Dirty children came running with arms fully of hay for the horses. Drying animal skins and clay pots, and sods of peat cut for burning were the only signs of industry in the place. They were invited to sit by the women, who served elderberry-infused water in wooden beakers to quench their thirst.
“We shall eat and rest for an hour and then continue,” Merlyn said, unpacking some object from his saddlebags and entering the hut of the druid.
Varden saw the quizzical look on Artorius’s face and whispered, “Best not to ask.”
“Is Merlyn a druid?” the curious youth asked.
The burly soldier jabbed a stick at a tuft of moor grass and considered his reply. “He often seeks out the company of lonely druids hidden in remote places. They are rarely seen in towns, where Christian priests would round on them and publicly denounce them. And so Merlyn goes creeping around in swamps and wooded places. But he is not a druid, although he shares some of their beliefs. I think he is searching for something or someone.”
Artorius regarded his companion with a quizzical expression. “Why do you think he is searching for someone or something, and who or what?”
Varden laughed, drawing the attention of others. “That I do not know, nor dare to ask. All I know is that he says he is guided by visions and the wisdom he finds in books and scripts – and he has an understanding of our world and what lies in the hearts of men beyond that of ordinary folk. Remember, he was an advisor to two kings.”
They shared some biscuits with the silent locals, in exchange for a bowl of meat and vegetable broth.It was clear they cared not for conversation, offering one-word responses when spoken to, or sometimes merely nodding in the direction of the druid’s hut.
“There is not much joy here,” Gawain muttered, drawing a snigger from Artorius.