The Arthurian Saga: The Singing Sword (Bk 2)

We know the legends: Arthur, who brought justice to a land that had known only cruelty and force; his father, Uther, who had carved a kingdom out of the chaos of the fallen Roman Empire; the sword Excalibur, drawn from stone by England’s greatest king. But legends do not tell the whole tale. Legends do not tell of the despairing Roman soldiers, abandoned by their empire, faced with the choice of fleeing back to Rome or struggling to create a last stronghold against barbarian onslaughts from the north and the east. Legends do not tell of Arthur’s great-grandfather, Publius Varrus, the warrior who marked the boundaries of a reborn empire with his own shed blood; they do not tell of Publius’ wife, Luceiia, British-born and Roman-raised, whose fierce beauty burned pale next to her passion for law and honor. The Singing Sword continues the gripping epic begun in The Skystone. As the great night of the Dark Ages falls over Roman Britain, a lone man and woman fight to build a last stronghold of law and learning – a crude hill-fort which one day, long after their deaths, will become a legendary city; a crude hill-fort which one day will be known as Camelot.

Prologue to “The Singing Sword”

387 A.D.
The Tribune recognized the first signs from more than a mile away, just as the road dropped down from the ridge to enter the trees; a whirlpool of hawks and carrion-eaters, spiralling above the treetops of the forest ahead of him. With a harsh command to his centurion to pick up the pace of his men, the officer kicked his horse forward, uncaring that he was leaving his infantry escort far behind. The swirling birds meant death; their numbers meant that they were above a clearing in the forest; and their continuing flight meant that they were afraid to land: Probably wolves. The Tribune lowered the face-protector of his helmet to guard himself from whipping twigs and took his horse into the trees at a full gallop, sensing that all danger of ambush or opposition was long gone.

He heard wolves fighting among themselves while he was still far distant from them, and he kicked his horse to even greater speed, shouting at the top of his voice and making the maximum possible noise to distract them from their grisly feast. He had little doubt about what they were eating.

As he burst in to the clearing, the wolves crowded together, bellies low to the ground, snarling and slavering as they faced the newcomer. He put his horse at them without hesitation, drawing his short sword and slashing at them, his horse using its hooves in its own battle with the wolves. The snarling fury of the pack quickly became a crescendo of yelps of pain and fear as horse and rider laid about them, and soon one, and then all of the lean, grey scavengers broke off the fight and fled to the protection of the bushes that surrounded the clearing.

When they had gone, out of sight among the bushes and safely beyond his reach, the Tribune looked around at the scene he had ridden into. The clearing was dominated by one massive, ancient oak tree that had an arrangement of ropes and pulleys strung across one of its huge branches. One of these ropes reached to a ring fastened to a heavy stake that had been driven deep into the ground. The condition of the ground around the stake _ the grass trodden flat and dead and scattered haphazardly with piles of human excrement _ showed that someone had been confined there for many days. The bodies of three men, one of them absolutely naked, sprawled on the dusty, blood-spattered ground. Flies swarmed everywhere, attracted, like the birds and the wolves, by the smell of sun-warmed blood. The two clothed bodies had both been badly bitten about the face by the wolves, particularly the younger of the two, a blond man whose neck and throat had been slashed by a sword almost deeply enough to decapitate him.

The naked man lay face down, his left arm extended and ripped open on the underside, close to the shoulder, where one of the wolves had been chewing at it. There was another clear set of tooth marks on the body’s right thigh, although the bite had not been ripped away. The only blood visible on this corpse was pooled beneath it. Incongruously, a rolled parchment scroll lay pinned beneath the outstretched arm of the naked body, and the Tribune idly wondered what it contained. He threw his leg over his horse’s neck and slid easily to the ground, where he collected the scroll, carefully making sure no blood touched it. That done, he rolled the corpse easily on to its back and gazed at the massive, eloquently fatal stab wound in the centre of its chest, just below the peak of the rib cage. He snorted through his nostrils, then prised open the seal on the rolled parchment and began to read, whispering the words to himself to clarify the sense of them as he deciphered the densely packed mass of characters. After the first few sentences, he stiffened and lifted his eyes to look at the dead man at his feet, then squatted, picked up the corpse’s wrist and felt for a pulse. There was none. He dropped the hand, stood erect again, and continued to read.

The sound of his men approaching at a dead run brought the Tribune’s head up. As they broke from the tree-lined path and drew up in two ranks facing him, he ordered them to spread out and chase away the wolves hiding in the undergrowth, offering a silver denarius for any wolf killed. The soldiers scattered enthusiastically to the chase, their centurion with them. The Tribune watched them until they were out of sight, then returned to his interrupted reading, his lips once again moving almost soundlessly as he worked his way through the document.

When he reached the end, he made a clicking sound with his tongue against the roof of his mouth, glanced again at the naked corpse, and then read through the entire scroll a second time, scanning the words more quickly this time, his face expressionless until he reached the end again, when his brow creased in a slight frown. He folded the scroll carefully several times, into a compact rectangle, creasing the edges sharply to reduce the bulk of the packet thus formed, and tucked it securely beneath his cuirass. By the time his men returned to the clearing, he had remounted his horse and was deep in thought.

From the corner of his eye he saw the centurion approach him and asked the man what he wanted. The centurion nodded towards the naked corpse, a look of uncertainty on his face. “What d’you want us to do, Sir? With the bodies?” He cleared his throat nervously. “Is it him, Sir? The Procurator?”

The Tribune took his time in answering, but when he did speak, he pitched his voice so that the men standing silently at attention could all hear him.

“Am I in debt to anyone for bounty on those wolves?”

Several of the men shook their heads in concert with their centurion. The wolves had all escaped. The Tribune looked all around the clearing, tacitly inviting his men to do the same.

“I have no idea, at this stage, what happened here,” he said next, “although any man with a brain could probably make an accurate assessment simply by looking around him. The man with no clothes obviously escaped from bondage beneath the big tree, there. You can see the scabs on his wrists, and the ropes and tackle they bound him with, and the the trampled area where he was confined. You can also see from the piles of human dung there that, whoever these other people were, they showed him no humanity. It seems evident that he loosed himself_broke free, somehow_snatched a sword and managed to kill two of his captors before being killed himself. Whoever these abductors of his were, they had allowed themselves to grow fatally careless.

“Your pardon, Tribune!” The centurion, whose gaze had drifted to the naked corpse, was frowning and now moved quickly to kneel by the body. Narrow-eyed, he slipped his fingers underneath the chin, pressing gently with finger and thumb beneath the points of the jaw where, against all reasonable expectation, he discovered a very faint but quite regular pulse. The man was alive. The wide-eyed centurion informed the Tribune who frowned as he heard the words.

“Alive? He can’t be! Are you sure?” He swung towards his troops and pointed at two of them. “You two, use your spears and tents to make a litter, quickly!”

As the soldiers scrambled to their work, he turned back to the centurion. “I shall answer your impertinent question this time, simply to dispel any others. It is not for such as you to be curious about diplomatic matters, Centurion, but I suppose, under the circumstances, it is understandable enough. The answer is no. We were called out to search for the Procurator of South Britain, but these abductors were apparently as stupid as they were careless. This man is not the missing Procurator of South Britain. He is not Claudius Seneca_doesn’t even resemble him, apart from the broken nose. I look more like Claudius Seneca than this man does, which is only natural, since Claudius Seneca is my father’s brother. Mistaken identity. Stupid, as I said. They took the wrong man.” He turned back to where the two soldiers were constructing a serviceable stretcher. “I don’t know who he is, but I want you to take the utmost care of this man. Carry him gently, one man to each arm of the litter, and I’ll flog any man who bumps him. He deserves to live, even if only because of the fight he put up.” He looked at the rest of his men, silently gauging their response to his words. Apart from the sullenness caused by his threat, their expressions were disinterested. They had accepted his assertion completely and without curiosity.

“All right, then,” he snapped. “Let’s get this man to a military sickroom as quickly as we can. But I want these other two bodies brought in, too, for identification. Let’s move!”

By the time the litter was ready for the “nameless” injured man and the procession had set out on its journey back to the barracks at Aquae Sulis, the spa town the local Celts called Bath, no one in the party even remembered that the Tribune had been reading a parchment when they reached the clearing.

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