The Arthurian Saga: The Fort at Rivers Bend
We stood together on the forward deck of a galley that moved slowly forward through a bright, still September morning, mere months after the incident that had prompted our departure from Camulod. The large, square sail sagged limp in the languid, early morning breeze that wafted the fog softly from the surface of the bay into which we rode, dispersing its drifting wreaths into nothingness. The oarsmen who propelled the vessel did so cautiously, their eyes intent upon the boatmaster, Tearlach, who directed them with arm and hand movements, his own eyes fixed on the wharf that stretched to meet us.
I stood on the stern deck with the galley’s captain, Connor Mac Athol—Connor, Son of Athol, Son of Iain. Connor’s father was the King of the Scots of Eire, the people whom the Romans had called the Scotii of Hibernia. Connor of the Wooden Leg, as his men called him, was the king’s admiral in the Southern Seas. I followed his gaze now to where two other galleys, one of them dwarfing its consort, lay already moored at the long wooden pier, on the side farther from us. They were unmistakable—warships like the one in which we rode, sleek and deadly in their aggressive lines—and I could tell from Connor’s face that they were not his. They seemed to be deserted, their massive booms angled at the tops of their masts and their sails furled and bound. Beside them, the score or so of fishing boats that shared the anchorage, at that main wharf and at the smaller pier built to the south, seemed tiny. I glanced back to Connor.
“Whose are they?”
His face betrayed nothing of what he thought, but his tone betrayed tension. “They are Liam’s. The Sons of Condran.”
“What will you do?”
“Nothing. Ignore them. Then leave before they do.”
“That one is huge, larger than this.”
“Aye, it ships forty-eight oars to our thirty-six. That’s Liam’s own galley.”
“And? Will you fight them?”
His features creased in a wintry little smile. “Probably, but not here. Not in Ravenglass. This is neutral ground.”
“Forgive me, I don’t understand. What does that mean?”
He turned his head now to look at me. “Simply what it says. This is the only harbour in the entire north-west where ships can call and provision themselves in safety. It has always been that way, since the day the Romans built the fort. All warfare ceases once a ship enters this bay, otherwise it is denied entry. The fort, there, as you can see, is walled and occupied. It can’t be taken from the sea, nor can it be surprised from overland, so it sits inviolate and inviolable, and all men use it as a base for gathering provender. We’ll rub shoulders with Liam’s men inside the town, but we’ll ignore them, as they will ignore us. If any trouble does break out, the party causing it will be denied re-entry in the future. No trouble ever surfaces within the town.” He smiled again. “Of course, when two groups such as ours meet here, it creates a certain tension when the time arrives to leave.”
“How? You mean there’s an advantage to being the first to leave?”
“Aye, there is. The same advantage that the smith has over the iron he works. He may swing his hammer as hard as he wishes, and the iron is pressed flat against the anvil. The coast becomes the anvil when you are the last ship out.”
“But you have three ships to their two.”
“I do, and that may make the difference. We’ll see.”
He turned his head now, his eye seeking Tearlach, and then he nodded and returned to the side rail, where he leaned forward, his attention focused closely on the spot we would occupy here in the harbour called Ravenglass. It was clear to me he had dismissed me from his mind for the time being, absorbed now in the berthing of his long, sleek craft, which had borne us swiftly and effortlessly northward. We had skimmed around the coast of Cambria from the estuary south of it by Glevum, skirting Anglesey, the sacred Isle of the Druids, to seaward before swooping back into the coastline, driving north-east again to where the rugged coast of the region known as Cumbria waited to receive us, across from the humped shape on the horizon that Connor called the Isle of Manx. Accepting that other priorities had claim on him, I turned away and looked towards the prow, where my own party stood gazing forward as raptly as Connor to the new land ahead of them. These were my friends, my family and all my world, now that we had left Camulod behind us in the distant south. Others there were who had set out with us, and those were split between the two galleys that rode as escorts at our rear, but these eleven were my special ones.
The youngest of the men, a giant who towered a hand’s width even over me, was twenty-four years old and brother to the galley’s captain, Connor, although no stranger would ever have taken them for such. Where Connor was black-haired, blue-eyed and dark of skin in the pure Celtic way, his younger brother Donuil was fair-skinned and light-haired. His face was clean-shaven in the Roman style, like my own and his eyes seemed to change from brown to green, depending on the light. Connor was no small man. He was above average height, huge in the shoulders and deep through the chest. Great, sweeping moustaches drooped below his chin, emphasizing the thickness of his neck, a solid pillar of muscle, and directing attention to the heavy torc, an ornate, intricately worked chieftain’s collar of solid gold, that encircled it. Yet even Connor appeared small when seen beside his younger brother. Donuil’s enormous height—he stood a full head taller than most full-grown men—combined with the graceful proportions of his physique to belie the true bulk of the man. His shoulders were broader than his brother Connor’s, yet seemed slighter; his chest was larger, yet seemed not so deep; and he seemed slender where his brother appeared broad and bulky—all due to his height.
Looking at Donuil now, and seeing the ease with which he stood, one arm about the waist of his wife Shelagh as they gazed together at the scene ahead of them, I wondered again, as I had a hundred times, about the influence this clan of aliens, this single family of Scots, had exerted upon my life.
Athol Mac Iain had not lacked progeny. All of them had, however, been born in Eire, far from where I had grown up in Camulod, ignorant of their existence. One of them, his youngest daughter, Deirdre, had become my wife and had been killed while pregnant with my child. Long before her death, however, her brother Donuil had become my hostage, captured in war and held against his father’s promise of non-intervention in our ongoing conflict with the warlord Gulrhys Lot of Cornwall. None of us knew of the link that bound us until I eventually brought my wife home to Camulod and Deirdre and Donuil were reunited, each stunned by the other’s reappearance.
Another sister, Ygraine, had been wedded to my arch-enemy, Gulrhys Lot, to bind the early alliance between her father’s people and Cornwall. Angry and disgruntled at her treatment by her inhuman spouse, she fled with my cousin Uther Pendragon during a long campaign, and the two became enamoured of each other, producing a bastard son. I later found Ygraine on a lonely beach on the Cornish coast, being violated by a man wearing my cousin’s armour, stripped from Uther’s corpse. I held her as she died, and I barely managed to rescue her infant son, Uther’s son. I leaped aboard the boat where he lay crying and drifted with it, helpless, out to sea, where we were found by yet another brother, Connor, dispatched by his father the king to meet Ygraine and bring her safely home to Eire. That same boy, Arthur Pendragon, my lifetime charge, now stood by his Uncle Donuil’s side, peering towards the land.
Remembering, I shook my head again at such a host of wild improbabilities. But I no longer thought or sought to question them. I am a Christian, by birth and upbringing, but I am also a Druidic Celt, trained by my mother’s people, the Pendragon of Cambria. The Celtic half of me has always believed in fate and the inevitability of things decreed by forces greater than human. The Christian, Roman-British half of me, thanks to my great-aunt Luceiia Varrus, has come to believe the same: some things are meant to be and will come to pass, despite the blinking disbelief of humankind. That thought brought a smile and a stirring of goose-flesh as I stared forward now to the wooden wharf that drew closer with every gentle stroke of the oars, for there stood the crowning proof of what I had been thinking.
The man who slew Uther Pendragon and stripped him of his armour was a man I had met before—an enemy, but not a mortal foe. I believed him when he told me he had not known Uther’s identity when he killed him. His surprise at learning he had slain Uther Pendragon was too genuine to doubt. And so, sickened by the carnage I had seen throughout the final battles of the campaign in Cornwall, I made no effort either to fight him or to detain him that day. I simply watched him ride away unscathed. His name was Derek, and he called himself the king of Ravenglass. Now he was awaiting me, among the crowd thronging the wharf.
The great galley slid smoothly to the side of the long, wooden pier, propelled by one last sweep of its thirty-six oars. The oarsmen brought their long sweeps up in unison, scattering drops of water inboard as they held the oars briefly at the vertical then brought them down, blades forward, lowering them hand over hand with the skill of long usage and dropping them in overlapping rows along the sides of the craft, atop the rows of benches. Two men crouched at prow and stern, poised to throw mooring ropes to eager hands waiting on the wharf. Four others hung far overboard, positioning great pads of hempen cushions to protect the vessel’s side against damage from the barnacle-encrusted timbers of the pier. The galley slowed, its forward motion bleeding away with the dying impetus of that final thrust until it barely moved through the water, and a stillness fell as everyone waited. Then came a gentle nudge as ship met moorings. Ropes flew outwards and were seized by willing hands, and an involuntary roar of approval came from the watching crowd, which surged forward in welcome. Crewmen leaped down onto the dock to secure the heavy gangplank, which was already rearing high above the galley’s side, hoisted by ropes and pulleys from the recessed well in the central causeway that housed it. Momentously, ponderously, one end swung outward over the rail and was lowered gently to the dock where, in moments, it was safely grounded and secured by the waiting crewmen.
Satisfied, Connor turned away from the rail and moved towards me, walking effortlessly despite the carved and tapered wooden cylinder that had replaced his right leg from the knee down. He was smiling, taking no notice now of the crowd bustling on the wharf.
“Well, Yellow Head,” he said to me, “I’m first ashore, by custom, so you have a few moments to collect your thoughts.” His smile broadened. “This is the worst part for me—the transition from ship to shore, from sea legs to land legs. It’s bad enough on two feet.” He stamped his peg leg against the decking. “I’ve ended up on my arse more than a few times, and you’ll notice that my men take care not to look at me until I call to them.” He shook his head, his smile now one of self-deprecation. “I’ll see you over there.”
As he spoke, a rope came swinging, apparently out of nowhere, and he raised his hand to seize it, almost without looking. I spun to see whence it had come, and almost before I’d had time to realize that it dangled from the same pole that had hoisted the gangplank out from the ship, Connor had grasped the rope in both hands and quickly placed his foot in the loop at the end of it. Immediately, he was snatched upward, swinging smoothly out and over the side to be lowered gently to the dock. There he removed his foot from the loop again and stood slightly spread-legged, retaining his hold on the rope, which remained taut, until he had achieved balance.
I glanced around me and it was true: none of his fierce-looking crew was watching him. A moment longer he stood there, swaying slightly, and then he released the rope.
“Take it, Sean!” he roared, and it swung inboard again as the captain turned towards the onlookers on the shore, who had watched all of this with curiosity. He threw his arms wide in a gesture of triumph and greeting and was immediately engulfed in a welcoming crowd. Now the galley was suddenly filled with the moving bodies of the oarsmen, who normally sat in serried, disciplined ranks for hours on end, working or resting. Released from their oars, they appeared to fill the ship beyond its capacity as they crowded towards the gangplank in a noisy, undisciplined tide. I could see there was no point in attempting then to walk the length of the vessel to my own party on the foredeck, so I resolved to wait and go ashore with my people at the end of the exodus and with a modicum of dignity. As the thought occurred to me, I heard Tearlach, the boatmaster, call to me.
“Merlyn! Come you forward now and we’ll clear a way for you.”
I shook my head, smiling at him and holding up my hand. “No, Tearlach, not yet. Let the men go first. I have to talk with the boy before we leave the ship.”
Tearlach shrugged and shook his head. “Please yourself,” he muttered, and he swung away to start shouting more orders.
I turned my eyes back to the crowded wharf, seeking the man who called me “Yellow Head,” but my view of him was obscured by the oarsmen filing down the gangplank, their brightly coloured Celtic clothing ablaze in the early-morning sunlight and their weapons and armour glittering and gleaming where they caught the light. These men were warriors, with a wildness in their looks and in their bearing that boded ill for any who might seek to bar their way. And yet it was evident from their demeanour that they were at ease, that this was not their first time here. None sought to flee their presence, and there were many, indeed, who greeted individuals by name and bade them welcome. As the crowd swirled upon itself, Connor’s head came into view again and I found him looking at me. He nodded, raising one hand to me casually, unseen by his companion, Derek of Ravenglass himself, who stood with his back to me. Another group moved down the gangplank and my view was obscured again. I glanced to my left, into the body of the ship, and saw that fully half the men had gone ashore and that I could now begin to make my way towards the prow. I set off, moving slowly along the central causeway, pausing occasionally to allow crewmen to pass in front of me from one side of the vessel to the other.
Ahead of me, the oldest member of our group, my closest friend, Lucanus, watched me and nodded, one eyebrow raised sardonically in an amused half-smile as I approached.
“Well,” he murmured as I reached him, “Derek of Ravenglass has weathered the years well since Verulamium. A bit stouter, much greyer, but I recognized him instantly. Has he seen you yet?”
“No. Connor has managed thus far to keep him from looking up here, but he will not be able to for much longer. I had best get down there.”
“Hmm. Are you sure you would not like me to come with you?”
“Quite sure, but thank you. I must go alone. Whatever comes of this visit must take place between him and me. I want no other eyes or ears there in the first few moments.”
“So be it, then.” Luke’s eyes were on the crowded scene below. “But bear in mind, my friend, that if he refuses it will only be a setback we are already prepared to take in stride. The arrangements are in place for us to travel onward if we must.”
“Aye, but but let’s hope we need not travel so far, Luke. Arthur!” At my call, the boy stopped what he was doing and turned towards me instantly, his large, wide-set eyes reflecting golden in the low-angled, early-morning sun. I beckoned, and as he reached my side I nodded towards the wharf. “I’m going ashore to speak with the man talking to your Uncle Connor. He is the king I told you about, and he may wish to meet you, since he met your father once. In the meantime, whether he does or not, I want you to wait here patiently and behave like a grown man. Will you do that for me?”
The boy smiled at me, showing far more maturity than his eight years might indicate. He said nothing, merely nodding his head.
“Good lad!” I ruffled his hair and made my way directly to the gangplank, aware of all their eyes watching me. I was aware, too, of the spring of the down-sloping passageway beneath my feet, and of the fact that the press of bodies on the wharf had thinned out greatly. But with all of my being I was aware of the broad shoulders and imposing height of the man Derek, who stood with his back to me, waving an arm to emphasize what he was saying to Connor. As I drew near them, Connor grinned at me over Derek’s shoulder, then stretched out a hand to grasp the other’s arm, silencing him.
“Your pardon, Derek,” he said, smiling still. “I have brought a good friend with me, whom I believe you know already.”
Arrested in mid-word, Derek of Ravenglass swung around to face me, and I watched as a series of expressions swept rapidly across his face: puzzlement, recognition, surprise and finally a close-guarded look I could not define; I saw suspicion there, and a hint of fear or defiance.
“The Dreamer,” he said, frowning.
I nodded. “Merlyn Britannicus.”
“Aye, I remember. Cornwall, by way of Camulod. The first time we met, you used another name.”
“I did. Ambrose of Lindum.”
“That was it. You’re Roman.”
“No,” I shook my head. “No more than half, and that in name alone. I’m British.”
“British, what’s that?” The scorn in his question made it plain that Derek was far from intimidated by my sudden reappearance.
I shrugged. “The other half of me is Celt, like you. The combination makes me British, since I am neither one nor the other, yet was born here in Britain.”
“You’re a talker, I recall that from our first meeting, when we were on the road to join Lot’s army.”
“You were on the road for that purpose. We merely rode along with you.”
“Aye, you did, then disappeared.” He paused. “Your physician paid me gold to take your wounded through the meeting place that time, to safety beyond Lot’s army.”
That was true. He had taken the gold, but then had failed to fulfil his end of the bargain in entirety. That no ill had befallen our people had been due only to Lucanus’s quick thinking on that occasion. I knew I would have to speak with care here if I were to avoid aggravating the situation by stirring up feelings of guilt on his part.
“What was his name, that physician of yours?”
“Aye, Lucanus. Did he survive?”
“He did, with all his men and wagons.”
“Ah, he did. Good, that pleases me. I’ve often wondered about that.”
This was not what I had expected. I had been attempting to analyse his tone, listening for signs of truculence or real hostility.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He looked me straight in the eye, then sniffed, glancing sideways at Connor.
“It was a foul-up, all around.” He cleared his throat. “We came to Lot’s gathering place without problems, but instead of proceeding clear through, we had to stop when I was summoned to a meeting of commanders. Some fool had seen us coming and passed the word that I had arrived. We left your people on the outskirts of the encampment—couldn’t very well take them with us, right into Lot’s camp, could I? Anyway, the gathering was enormous, and I rode on in with my men to find the rest of our contingent, most of whom had come down the coast by water, ferried by Lot’s galleys.
“As things turned out, Lot wasn’t there and never did appear, and one thing led to another and I couldn’t get back that night—held in a so-called planning session all night long. A dog-fight was what it was, more than anything else. With Lot away, everyone wanted to be a general, even though most of them couldn’t find a latrine if they were standing in it. Later that evening, when I finally realized how things were going to be, I sent some of my people back to find yours and lead them on through, but by the time they reached the spot where we had left them, your people were all gone. No sign of them at all. My own men thought nothing more of it, and I didn’t hear of it until the following day. Didn’t know what to do then. I asked some questions but found no answers, and I didn’t want to be too specific. I heard nothing about any disturbance or fighting or disagreements over wagons, and so I let it go. But I’ve often wondered what happened to them, how they got away.” I was smiling by this time, feeling much relieved. “Why don’t you ask Lucanus how he did it? He’s here, on the galley.” I nodded towards where Lucanus stood on the foredeck, watching us. When he saw the astonishment on Derek’s face, Luke smiled and nodded a greeting.
“Well I’m damned,” Derek muttered. “And there’s that other one, too, the one who rode with you. The big Scot.”
“That is my brother Donuil,” Connor said.
“Is it, by all the gods?” Derek turned back to us, his eyes moving from me to Connor and back to me. “Why are you here, Merlyn the Dreamer? What do you want from me?”
“Nothing that may not be within your power to grant or to withhold,” I responded, smiling and shrugging my shoulders. “Food and lodgings, for the night at least, for me and mine, and perhaps sanctuary.”
“Sanctuary?” He frowned as he repeated the alien sounds. “I don’t know that word.”
“It means shelter, respite.”
“Respite from what? Or from whom?” He glowered now at Connor, his face clouded with suspicion.
“There will be no trouble here. You know Liam, Condran’s admiral, is here?” Connor nodded. “Coincidence,” he said. “Nothing to do with anything. Liam has never seen or heard of Merlyn, and is no part of his cares. The rules apply, as always.”
“Hmm.” Apparently mollified, Derek looked back at me. “So? Respite from whom?”
I shrugged. “It is a long story—not long in the telling, but complex. I would be happy to tell it to you.”
“Hmmph.” He looked away again, towards the galley. “You have women with you, and children. How many?”
“Twelve, counting myself, aboard the galley.”
“Aboard the galley… And elsewhere?”
I indicated the two escort galleys that held their place outside the harbour. “Six more, split between the other vessels.”
“Why do they stand off like that, MacAthol? Afeared of the Sons of Condran?”
Connor smiled and shrugged his great shoulders. “Not since they learned to stand on two legs. Simple courtesy, my friend. We had no knowledge of the enemy’s presence until we arrived, but it makes no difference here. They merely wait to be invited to enter. Three galleys at one time might have seemed too much like an invasion.”
“Aye, well, signal them in. They are yours, and therefore welcome. Feargus, is it?”
“Aye, and Logan.”
Derek spoke again to me. “The hospitality, for a night at least, presents no difficulty. It would have been extended anyway. Further, I’ll not commit. But your story should be interesting.” He paused. “Tell me, do you still dream?”
“From time to time,” I answered, smiling. “I dreamed of you less than four weeks ago. That is why we are here.”
He sighed deeply. “I was afraid you would say something like that,”
“I saw you wearing Uther’s armour,” I said. “Do you still have it?”
“I do.” His voice was level.
“When did you last wear it?”
“Not since I returned home, after we last met. I had my belly filled with war and warfare, and I’m grateful to the gods I’ve not had to take a sword in my hand since then. Why do you ask?”
“Is it in good condition?”
“Aye, perfect. I could strap it on again today if the need arose. Is that likely?”
My smile widened to a grin and I shook my head. “No, but I might like to buy it back from you some day, were you willing to sell it.”
He gazed at me for some time, sucking on the inside of one cheek, before he responded. When he did, his voice was thoughtful. “Some day, you say? And how far off might that day be? I warn you, it could make a difference to my decision and to my price.” He glanced back towards the galley and then nodded to me. “Bring your people ashore and come you with me. One of my men will conduct them to a place where they can rest and clean themselves. We have a Roman bathhouse here, if they would like to use it.”
“You mean a working bathhouse?”
“You think I’d offer you a broken one?” The big man was glaring at me from beneath lowered brows, but I saw the glint of humour in his eyes. “Should I be thinking now you are surprised to find we might be clean, or clever enough to maintain a furnace, even though its Roman owners are long gone?”
“No, by all the old gods,” I demurred, straight-faced. “Such thoughts would never have occurred to me.”
“Hmm. Well, bring your people off.”
I beckoned to my party on the galley and they gathered together immediately, moving towards the landing planks, already prepared to disembark. Connor cupped his hands and called to Tearlach, bidding him summon Feargus and Logan inshore. As men began moving about, preparing the signal to the waiting galleys, the first of my group, Dedalus and Lucanus, stepped onto the wharf together and made their way to us, followed by the others.
“Lucanus,” I greeted him. “Derek remembers you from the road to Aquae.”
“As I do him,” Luke answered, smiling slightly. “You look well, Derek, little changed in twelve years. Who would have thought you and I would ever meet again?”
“Not I, but you are welcome here, Physician. Merlyn tells me you brought all your people home, that time, even without my help.” His eyes moved from Lucanus to Dedalus. “Derek of Ravenglass,” he said, nodding.
“Dedalus,” the other answered, nodding in return. “I am a friend of Merlyn’s.”
“Aye, from Camulod. I can see that. You’re no physician.”
Ded’s mouth quirked into a half smile. “No, I’m a centurion, but not from Rome.”
The others had joined us by that time and I introduced each of them, including the boys, to the king, their host at least for the night, and told them that arrangements would be made for all of us. Derek had been joined by a man whom he introduced to us as Blundyl before instructing him on the housing and distribution of our group. When he had finished, Derek took me by the arm.
“Come. You and me. Blundyl will see to the others for now. I want to talk to you.” He walked away immediately and I followed him, exchanging expressionless looks with Lucanus and Shelagh as I went. We walked the full length of the wharf, apparently ignored by all, except that I was conscious of a curiosity in many of the people, who took pains to show no awareness of our passing.
Once through the portals in the central gate-tower of the western wall, I found myself in a Roman fort the like of which I had never before seen. It was a standard cohortal fort, built to house and maintain a garrison of five to six hundred men. I had been in several similar places over the years, all of which had been in varying stages of ruin and decay. Most of them had been abandoned and deserted many years before the start of the legions’ withdrawals from Britain, during my father’s boyhood. Compelled by harsh economies, thanks to a total lack of reinforcements from beyond their shores, the central garrisons of the province were being remanned and reinforced at the expense of lesser, more outlying forts. Such had not been the case, though, with Glannaventa, as this fort had been called. A garrison had occupied this place right up until the final days of the withdrawals, during my own boyhood, and because of the importance of the natural harbour, the place had been reoccupied by the local folk the moment the legionary garrison abandoned it. It was like stepping backwards into the time when, in forts like this all over Britain, the life of the country was maintained and closely governed in good order.
All of the barracks buildings that had housed the garrison were still in use and still in good repair, their log walls tightly mortared and their tiled roofs free of moss, betraying no sign of rot or sagging. A number of new doors in the long walls indicated that they were occupied today by families, rather than by military squads. These buildings, six of them, each constructed to accommodate close to a hundred men plus their centurions, were laid out laterally in two blocks of three. Behind each block, looking very similar to the barracks buildings, but serving another purpose altogether, were two more long, low buildings, dedicated to the service of the troops and housing smithies, tanneries and a variety of other manufactories. One block of four of these buildings lay on each side of the wide central road that joined the main gate behind us to the east gate in the opposite wall more than three hundred paces distant, and the eight of them completely filled the front half of the fort, the Praetentura, the section which lay closest to the main source of enemy attack. In the case of Glannaventa, that source had been the western sea.
Now, as we walked swiftly along the straight, wide avenue towards the stone-built central buildings that had once housed the garrison’s administrative centre, I stared about me avidly, curious to learn all that I could about the life Derek’s people lived here in this ordered place. Derek himself was striding ahead of me, immersed in his own thoughts. As he drew abreast of the end of the last barracks block, and I lengthened my stride to catch up to him.
“I’m impressed,” I said. “You modified the barracks into family units.”
He looked at me and then beyond me to the building on my right. “Aye,” he growled. “That was a nuisance at first, until it became clear we had to do it properly. At first it was a haphazard thing, people doing what they wanted to do, whether they were capable or not. Then others started carping because some people had more space than they had, and that was true, but it seemed there was nothing to be done by then. And then one fool ripped out a wall and brought down an entire building—killed four people. That’s when I decided something had to change and the changes had to be according to a plan.”
He stopped, abruptly, and turned to look back the way we had come. “That one there,” he said, indicating the second building on our right. “That’s the one that collapsed. Never know it now, would you?” He did not wait for an answer. “After that, I put every builder in the place to work, systematically. Some of them, most of them in fact, had worked for the Romans, so they knew what was required and how to do what needed to be done. We gutted the interiors, divided them equally with new walls, cut doors in the outside walls, and turned each building into housing units for twelve families. No more problems after that.”
“All the units are the same size? What about the centurions quarters, on the ends here? They look larger.”
“They are. What of that?”
I shrugged. “You said you had no problems. How did people decide who lived where?”
He spat into the road. “They didn’t. I decided, and no one argued. I’m king here.” He turned on his heel and began to walk again. “Most of the people who live in these buildings are our best artisans and their families. Their workshops are here, too, in these last two buildings, courtesy of Roman efficiency—smithy and foundry, cobblery, barrel maker’s cooperage, carpenter’s yard, pottery and tilemaker, stonemason’s yard. All in one location; everything the garrison needed. Clever whoresons, the Romans. I could see no point in not using these places for ourselves.”
We had now arrived at the central rectangular space containing the three main buildings of this and every other Roman military installation: the commandant’s house, the headquarters building, and the central granaries and storage warehouses known as the Horrea. These stone buildings sat apart from all others, isolated by the main lateral roadway, the Via Principalis, which crossed in front of them, and the second-largest street, the Via Quintana, at the rear. Since time immemorial, these two lateral streets had divided the interior of every Roman military camp, regardless of size, into the front half, the Praetentura, and the rear half, the Retentura. Derek pointed his thumb towards the massive commandant’s house.
“That where I live.”
“The Praetorium? You live there?”
“It is my house.”
“Aye, I suppose it is. You are the king.”
I examined the Praetorium as we approached it, but could see little to indicate that it was a king’s house now, rather than a Roman commander’s. High walls surrounded it, pierced by one large, central double portal, the doors of which stood open but were cloaked in shadow. I could see no guards anywhere and reflected that this king must have no need of such.
We cut diagonally across the main road in front of the king’s large house and he led me into the building flanking it which had been the former Principia, or garrison headquarters block. This had been changed greatly since the legions left. It had been built originally around an open quadrangle containing a fountain, with the main entrance facing the cross-street. The principal part of the building, at the rear, occupied more than a third of the total area of the block and had once housed the garrison’s most precious properties: the regimental chapel where the standards, colours and battle honours were stored, the regimental paymaster’s vaults and the personnel records office of the regimental clerk. This part of the headquarters block also contained the tribunal briefing room, where the officer commanding, down through the centuries, traditionally received his staff at formal meetings, addressing the assembly from the rostrum of the tribunal at the far right of the long room.
The building’s open quadrangle had once been the off-duty domain of the garrison’s officers. Wide, colonnaded walkways on both sides and on either side of the main entrance gave access to a series of lesser offices around the building’s exterior. Sometime within the past three decades, after the departure of the Romans, the open space of the quadrangle had been roofed, leaving only a large rectangular hole in the centre to vent the smoke from the enormous firepit that had replaced the obligatory ornamental fountain in the open yard. Great beams of hand-hewn oak now spanned the space, supporting a second framework, less massive, that reared above them to hold a peaked and gabled roof of heavy thatch, open around the overhanging eaves to permit the passage of air among the rafters. This roof was intricately built, evidently engineered and erected by a master carpenter, but I thought it a pity that it should shut out much of the light along with most of the bad weather. Gazing up at it, it struck me as the local equivalent of King Athol’s Great Hall in Eire.
All of this I saw as I strode at Derek’s heels, for he made no attempt to play the guide for me. Matching him step for step, I followed him as he swung right, up to the colonnaded walk, and proceeded to the first door on his left. The bottom half of this door was closed, a hinged flap on its back raised to form a broad counter behind which stood a man evidently on duty of some kind. As Derek spoke with him, exchanging muttered greetings, I edged forward curiously to peer into the dim room at his back. It was a spartan place, bare of furnishings, with high, deep shelves lining every wall.
“Weapons,” Derek grunted. I stared at him blankly. “Your weapons, take them off. They stay here until you leave.”
“What, all of them? Am I to go unarmed among strangers?”
“Aye, along with everyone else, so you won’t be lonely. That’s the law in Ravenglass—no weapons. This room is for your people. Condran’s crowd left theirs in a room on the other side. If someone else arrives while you are here, there’s place for their things, too.”
I had already loosened my swordbelt, catching it up and wrapping the loose ends around the scabbards of my long sword and my dagger. “How long has that law been in place?”
“Ever since this port was opened up to passing ships after the Romans left. It saves a lot of strife and bloodshed.”
“I’m sure it does, but don’t you find enforcing it to be a little…hazardous?”
His teeth flashed in a tiny, swift grin. “No, not at all. You don’t want to comply, you leave, assisted or otherwise, and you don’t come back.”
I could only shake my head as I passed my bundled weapons over the counter to the custodian.
“Different,” I muttered.
“Healthy,” the king responded. “Come on, then.”
He led me once more through the courtyard to the main entrance, where he turned sharply and made his way between the walls bordering his own house on our left and the headquarters building on our right. We emerged on the other cross street, the old Via Quintana, which we crossed to continue moving towards the eastern gate now visible ahead of us. In this portion of the fort, too, most of the buildings had been converted into living quarters, although I could smell the aroma of fresh bread and other delicious smells which spoke of the enterprises being pursued here. I noticed another stone building, close by the rear wall.
“Is that a hospital over there?”
“It was, but there’s no need of it now, and no surgeons to use it. It’s more living quarters.”
“What about the stables? What happened to them?”
“Outside the walls, now. We needed the living space.”
We were close to the rear wall now, and I looked up to the empty parapet walk between the turrets. “You don’t post guards up there?”
“Against what? My people are farmers. They have their fields to tend, beyond the walls, and the only threat to us would come from the sea.” He nodded towards the distant mountain peaks that reared up inland. “We have the Fells, there, at our back, and only one road through them, impassable in winter and easily held, if need be, in the summer. We have no need of guards. I told you, I have not had a sword in my hand since I came home, seven years ago.”
“Seven? It was eight years ago we parted, and you were homeward bound then.”
“Aye, I was, and it took me the better part of a year to walk from there to here. I lost my horse soon after you and I parted company.”
We passed through the double gates in the eastern tower and I stopped dead in my tracks.
“What’s wrong?” Derek had stopped, too, and was staring questioningly at me over his shoulder, shouting above the noise that had suddenly engulfed us.
I shook my head. “Nothing,” I cried. “I’m surprised, that’s all. I did not expect this… It’s bigger, far bigger than I would have thought.”
He looked around him. “It may be,” he shouted back, “but it’s still too small. We have no room to build, and no good stone to build with.”
Somehow, arriving from the sea and entering the bustling confines of the high-walled fort, my mind had formed the notion that the fort was all there was. I had expected to emerge into open farmland beyond the walls. Instead, I found myself at the edge of a thriving vicus, the township that had grown around the fort for hundreds of years until it stretched farther than the eye could see, in the shape of a large funnel, its narrow spout blocked by the eastern wall of the fort itself and its swelling shape defined by the steep, tree-clad hillsides stretching up and away on either side.
We were standing at the edge of a congested marketplace, the tables of the closest vendors placed against the walls flanking the gates at our back, and chaos swirled about us. The air was filled with the sounds and smells of animals and poultry, the voices of the crowd that thronged around and between the stalls and the cries of the vendors whose wares were everywhere in evidence, in an enviable display of prosperity and wealth. There was fresh produce of all descriptions, from onions and fat leeks to green-leafed clumps of growth that I had never seen before. The smell of fresh-baked bread came from my left now to mingle with the odour of fish from somewhere ahead of me. I smelled the heavy musk of frying garlic, and saw a stall with deep, metal dishes and a stone-framed fire on which a woman fried fresh shrimp, stirring the mass of them with a large, heavy wooden ladle. Saliva spurted from beneath my tongue, reminding me I had not eaten since the previous night.
“Market day,” Derek grunted, needlessly. “Come on.”
I stayed close to him as he picked his way among the crowds, nodding from time to time and sometimes returning a spoken greeting to those who called him by name. Ahead of us on our left and towering above the intervening stalls, I saw the sandstone walls and arched roof of yet another Roman building and tugged at his arm, motioning towards it as he turned around.
“What’s that place, over there?”
“The bathhouse. That’s where we’re going.”
Moments later, I heard my name shouted. Sean the Navigator grinned at me from behind a baker’s stall, where he stood clutching a steaming pasty. I waved to him, then had to rush to catch up with Derek, whose height alone had prevented me from losing sight of him among the press of bodies. I now began to notice others of our crew among the crowd, but few of them saw me, and those that did ignored me, apart from an occasional cool nod. The Sons of Condran were there, too, I saw, but neither group paid the slightest attention to the other, and when I jostled one of Liam’s men by accident, he passed me by with no more than a grunt and a surly look. From then on, I concentrated only on keeping Derek in sight.