The Arthurian Saga: The Eagles Brood (Bk 3)
Prologue to “The Eagle’s Brood”
I cannot think of Camulod without thinking of horses. They were everywhere and they dominated my boyhood. The life of the place revolved completely around them … them and the men who rode them … and the earliest sights and smells I can remember are those of the stables. Almost half of the entire hill top on which the fort was built was given over to stables and exercise yards, and a huge, barren campus, or drilling ground, had been created at the bottom of the hill. At any hour of the day, you would find anywhere up to a dozen separate groups of horsemen there, wheeling and manoeuvreing at the walk, the canter or the gallop, and sometimes charging in great, massed formations, so that in the summer months a pall of dust hung over the plain and never settled. Horses, and the noises and the smells of horses, were a constant and unchanging fact of life in Camulod, and every generation of them bred there was bigger than the one that had produced it.
I did not know that at the time, of course, because I was a boy, and to my eyes they grew ever smaller. As a child I had been dwarfed by the horses of the mounted troopers I admired as gods. As a boy of eight, they still made me feel small until I mounted one of them. But as a youth, approaching man’s stature, I found that they had become reasonably sized.
Throughout my boyhood, Publius Varrus, who was my great uncle and my Guardian in the absence of my father, kept entire crews of smiths working in revolving shifts in six separate smithies; four within the fort itself, and two more in our villa on the plain beneath the hill. The fort smithies were completely dedicated to the needs of the cavalry. Two of them made nothing but horse shoes and harness and armour. A third made nothing but nails; thousands upon thousands of nails; nails for horseshoes and nails for building barracks and stables and stalls; small nails and studs for boots; and rivets for leather and for armour. In later years, this manufactory also produced the bronze and iron wire for the tiny loops that we joined to make the chain link armour our horsemen used. The fourth smithy in the fort produced weapons for the riders: spears, swords and daggers, fitting products for the largest and the noisiest forge of all.
On the plain below, the villa smithies suppied our the rest of our Colony, producing all of the farming tools and implements and the thousands of utensils required by a population of upwards of four thousand people for their daily working needs.
In Camulod today, the fort, the smithies and the great, barren drill field below the hill lie empty and unpeopled. The villas that it guarded are no more. They are burned, torn down, despoiled, defaced, their glorious mosaics ruptured and destroyed. The Colonists who lived there are dead for the most part, the few, forlorn survivors scattered on the winds. I alone remain, ancient in years but filled with youthful memories, living hidden in the hills close by the Colony, in solitary sanctuary, railing at the heavens by night, and thanking them by day for leaving me with my hands, and my mind, sufficiently intact to allow me to set down my tale.
I have no sense of faith that men will read the words I write. None live whom I would wish to read this tale, and only few who could. The men who roam this land at will today are brutal, fierce in their savagery and awful in their pagan ignorance. They know no gods but Lust and Gluttony; no love but Satiety; and their women match their baseness. The art of reading, and of writing words, is dead in Britain. And yet I write, because I must. Mine is the only voice left still alive, though muted to scratchings on parchment, to tell this tale of what once was and what might _ could _ have been.
All of the treasures that filled Camulod are shrunk to four, and they are lodged with me here in this small stone hut. One is a window of glass, so clear and fine as to be almost transparent. One is a mirror of lustrous, polished silver, owned by my Aunt Luceiia long ago _ I retain it in memory of her beauty, keeping it clear and untarnished, but have not dared to look into it these thirty years. Another is the wondrous, shining sword which is my sacred trust. It lies securely hidden in the pit concealed at the rear of my hut.
The fourth of these treasures has value to my eyes and mind alone. It is a tiny mountain of papyrus and fine parchment, covered in the writing of four clear, separate hands, one of them my own.
Now that I am old and toothless, I am driven to write this story down, to continue and complete the chronicle begun by my grandfather Caius Britannicus almost a century ago, and carried on by his friend, my great-uncle Publius Varrus.
I have been a scribbler since childhood, aping my uncle Varrus, who would spend hours each day writing in his parchment books, but I could frighten myself, I think, were I to give way to the awe I feel when I open my chests of parchments and papyrus and look at the sheer bulk of what still remains of all I have collected down the years. All I require to collate it is time, however, and time I have; time in abundance.
I will not die too soon, I think, although all who gave my life its meaning and its richness are now gone. Longevity is my penance; fidelity to my tale, my burden.
For years now, I have been winnowing these writings, burning the major part, the trivia, and setting aside those elements essential to the telling of my tale. The first part is done, and ashes lie mounded in a shrunken, rain-sodden hillock in front of my house, here in my hidden valley in the hills. All that remains now is to arrange the remnants in sequence, and fill in the few remaining gaps.
This tale is mine, to a great extent, since mine was the living of it. Much of what I have written, however _ the parts I did not experience directly _ I discovered simply because I am Merlyn and men feared to lie to me, believing me magical. I did not care to disillusion them, since it suited my purpose later in my life to be both magical and feared. Those attributes ensured my solitude, and therefore my freedom to do what I must do, and I taught myself well to be uncaring of what men thought of me.
I taught myself well, I say, but it was far from easy. I was not always lonely, nor feared and shunned by men. I was not even dreaded as Merlyn, for forty years and more. My name was Cay, short for Caius Merlyn Britannicus, and I had a sunny childhood, unmarred by pain or sorrow. As a young man, I enjoyed my status as a leader in our Colony and my life was filled with laughter, with adventures, and with friends. Later still, I learned the joys and the grief of love _ and lived beyond them, filling my days with duty as men did at that time, until my forty second year. Only then did I learn the awful secret that divorced me forever from the lives of other, ordinary men and brought to me all the pains of solitude.
I was born in the year that brought catastrophe to Britain: the first year of the new, fifth century from the birth of The Christ; the year the Christians call 401 Anno Domini. The world our fathers had known disappeared forever in the course of that fateful year, when the great change occurred, and yet the awful significance of the change itself was slow in penetrating our world.
It was not that the word spread slowly; news of calamity always travels fast, but this cataclysm was so huge, so overwhelming in its implications, that it defied credence … so much so that people, hearing the news and passing it along to others, remained themselves unwilling to countenance the truth of it. It was so appalling, so terrifying in its ramifications, that people would not talk of it. They could not discuss it. They could not digest it. They could not believe it. Yet neither could they long avoid it, for the emptiness of the roads, stretching unmarched for mile after silent mile bore witness to the truth of it. The brashness of thoughtless children playing noisily in the streets of the deserted camps bore witness to the truth of it. The keening of abandoned women, deserted in thousands throughout the land, bore witness to the truth of it. And the terror of the people of the eastern and south eastern coasts and of the northern reaches below the great Wall Hadrian had built bore witness to the truth of it.
The Eagles had departed … flown away. The Legions had been called home. The Armies were gone, leaving only a skeleton presence to maintain a show of strength while the Empire struggled for its life elsewhere. Within six years, even the few legions left behind had followed that first exodus, and after four hundred years of Pax Romana _ Roman peace, protection and prosperity in Britain _ the country lay soft and undefended, at the mercy of her enemies.