The Arthurian Saga: Uther

Uther Pendragon was born one of the Eagles’ Brood, the grandson of Publius Varrus and Luceiia Britannicus and cousin to Merlyn Britannicus. The two men are closer than any two brothers could be, and yet they are as different as fire and air. As a young man, Uther has known instinctively that command in Camulod was for Merlyn and that he, as a Pendragon, belonged among his father’s people, in the mountain kingdom ruled by his ancestors but fortified with as many of the advantages of Camulodian technology as he could use. He is more Celt than Roman, and in his heart he knows that he is a hybrid product of two races and two traditions…and this internal conflict will tear at Uther throughout his life.

Chapter 1

Llagan Longhead did not like the guards, had never liked them, even before the death of old Duke Emrys, whose fear of being murdered had been the spark behind the idea of guards in the first place. But Emrys was long since dead, murdered by time and ill health, and his guards had been helpless to prevent either of those approaching and killing the old man. Emrys was gone, but the guards remained, their presence now surrounding and supposedly sustaining his son and heir, Gulrhys Lot, King of Cornwall.

As he strode through the portals fronting the king’s quarters, Llagan felt the eyes of the guards upon him, and he kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, looking at none of them. Six men stood there, three on either side of the main gate, and he knew they had a superior nearby, within the walls. They would not stop Llagan, or seek to question him, for they well knew who he was and what his business was. He was the king’s closest friend and had been since they were boys together, twenty years earlier, and his access to the king’s presence was unlimited, a fact that set him above and apart from all others. Beyond the portal lay a narrow yard, a mere ten paces long, with a guard hut directly to his right as he passed through the entrance. At the far end, facing him and setting themselves protectively at his approach, two more guards watched him, unsmiling, their eyes scanning him from head to toe until he passed between them and into the coolness of the hall beyond.

Eight men, Llagan was thinking as he blinked in the sudden darkness of the hall. Eight armed Outlander mercenaries to guard the king, in his own hall, from the advances of his own people. There was something fundamentally wrong in that. Lot, despite his adoption of the role of kingship, was the Chief of his people_no more, no less_and the position was not a hereditary one. His father, Emrys, the last warlord of Cornwall, had taken the title Duke, from the old Roman title Dux, or leader, and that had not gone over well with the clan council of elders. Emrys, however, had been powerful and unpredictable, an ill man to offend, and to appease him the council of elders had accepted his self-aggrandizement without overt criticism… It was small matter what a man chose to call himself, they muttered, providing he conducted himself according to the laws of his people, and, by and large, Emrys had respected the ancient laws while enriching his people through his endeavours. Emrys had brought prosperity to Cornwall for the first time in generations, and the men of Cornwall were happy and glad to march and fight in his name, as well as to benefit by the ferocity of the Outlander mercenaries Emrys engaged to lengthen the reach of his rapacious arm.

Llagan paused just inside the door, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the large hall. A heavy, sour stink of old wood smoke hung in the air and thin, eddying wisps of it drifted from the ashes in the massive fireplace in the single stone wall opposite the door. The king’s hounds, eight huge, rough-haired beasts the size of small ponies, lay sprawled in the rushes that covered the earthen floor and only one of them lifted its head to gaze, tongue lolling, at the newcomer. Apart from two more armed guards flanking another doorway in the wall to Llagan’s left, the animals were the enormous room’s only occupants. Llagan coughed, his lungs protesting against the reek of the foul air, and made his way towards the guards as soon as he could see his way between the heavy tables and benches that strewed the floor. When he was within two paces of the guards, one of them swept his sword from its sheath with a slither and brought the point up threateningly, its tip angled towards Llagan’s throat. Llagan stopped dead, tilting his chin downward to stare at the sword’s tip, then looked into the guard’s eyes.

The man was a stranger. Keeping his face utterly expressionless, Llagan moved his eyes slowly to the other guard’s face. This one he knew. No one spoke for a space of heartbeats, and then the second man brought up his hand and placed the back of his fingers against his companion’s blade, growling something in their own tongue. The first man grunted and remained motionless for a count of four, then straightened slowly and put up his sword, sneering very slightly, his eyes warning Llagan wordlessly that this time he had been lucky, and that the man would readily have spilled his blood. Llagan made no response, stepping by the fellow as though nothing had happened, and reaching down for the iron handle before pushing the door open and stepping inside.

Llagan! I’ve just been thinking about you, wondering when you’d be back. Welcome home.” The words were shouted, their tone boisterous and welcoming, and Llagan felt his face relaxing into a smile, despite his thoughts of a moment earlier. Lot had been leaning through an open window, peering out into the yard beyond, and had turned when he heard the door opening behind him. Now he came bounding across the room and tried to catch Llagan’s head in an arm lock that quickly turned into a mighty hug. Llagan clasped his own arms about the king’s shoulders, reflecting, as he did every time, that he had become used to this highly unusual form of greeting. Gulrhys Lot was the only man Llagan knew who indulged in this very intimate, personal gesture, a mannerism he had picked up somewhere in Gaul, and the majority of his men were extremely uncomfortable in receiving, let alone returning the affectionate embrace. To the dour, Celtic mind, such overt demonstrations of friendship smacked of emotional excess, and Llagan had seen many a fearless chieftain and warrior flush with the embarrassment of it. Now Lot thrust him away and held him at arm’s length, gripping his upper arms tightly and peering into Llagan’s eyes.

“So? It was successful? How is your father?”

Llagan nodded. “My father is well and everything went as smoothly as you could wish. The assembly has already begun, and my father will accompany the expedition himself.”

“Excellent, excellent! It will be good to see his frowning face again. Did he hesitate, when you presented my request? And did he like the gift I sent him?”

Llagan turned away, shrugging off his long, travelling cloak and tugging at the buckle of the thick, leather swordbelt that girded his waist. “You know my father, Gully. He’s difficult to read.” The belt came loose and Llagan draped it, with its hanging weapons, over his cloak, which he had thrown across the back of a chair, then began kneading his buttocks. He had been on horseback for almost three days without rest. “But to answer your question, I saw no surprise in him at your request. Why should he be surprised? The materials are yours. He holds them in trust for you. Should he be surprised that you have need of them?” He reached inside his tunic and produced a sealed scroll, flattened by being thrust against his chest beneath his clothing. He squinted at it, and then attempted to press it back into its orginal cylindrical shape before passing it to the king, who tossed it casually onto the table top. The seal had been crushed, and fragments of hardened wax scattered across the wood.

“Forgive me, it’s a little battered,” Llagan said, nodding towards it. “I thought it safer where I put it than it might have been in my saddle bag.”

“Hmm.” The king did not so much as glance at the scroll. “And the gift?”

Llagan grinned. “What about it? Can you think of anyone who would not be pleased with a breeding pair of the king’s own wolfhounds? My father was suitably impressed and asked me to express his gratitude and pleasure…great gratitude and deep delight, was how he phrased it.”

“Excellent! And when will he leave, to come here?”

Good, because I doubt we’ll have much more than that one month. The winter has been too mild. We’ll have those whoresons from Camulod invading us again as soon as the lower hills are clear of snow. Have you eaten anything since you came back?

No, I came directly here, to you. I’m not hungry, anyway. I’ll have something to drink, though.

“As soon as the things you asked for are assembled. Not all of them are in his possession at this time. He has them split among his various holdings and strongholds, for safety and security. The specie_the gold and jewels_he keeps beside him, under lock and key, of course. The weaponry, on the other hand, he stores in a variety of places. Several of the larger pieces, the siege machinery, he holds in place along the coastline, more for display than use. But he’s withdrawing them all to his own stronghold, and there he’ll dismantle all of them for transportation in wagons. He anticipates that all will be prepared within a week or two, three weeks at most, and you will have everything here within the month.”

Lot nodded, but stopped on the point of turning away towards the nearby table that held flagons and cups. His eyes narrowed. “You’re angry about something. What is it?”

Llagan tossed his head, back towards the doorway. “I’m not angry, not really. One of your tame killers out there drew a sword on me when I sought to come in here.”

Lot’s face darkened immediately. “What? Against you? He threatened you? I’ll have the whoreson’s head!” He was already moving towards the door, but Llagan grasped him by the sleeve and turned him around.

“For what, Gully? He’s new, and didn’t know me. The man on duty with him straightened him around. Besides, the fellow was only doing what he’s supposed to do.”

“And what’s that? Threaten my friends?”

“No, protect your kingly backside against imaginary dangers. Am I to have that drink?”

Moments later, as Lot was bringing drinks for both of them, a howl of boyish outrage drifted in through the window, and Llagan crossed to look out to where a cluster of six boys was grouped around a seventh, this one holding his arms tightly clasped around his head and keening at the top of his voice. One of the smaller boys hung back, clutching a heavy dowel of ash wood and looking apprehensive. Off to one side, an elderly, dour-looking warrior stood silently watching, scowling in disapproval. Llagan grunted, smothering a laugh.

“Looks like young Twoey got in a good one on Owen. Is this what you were watching when I came in?”

“Aye. They improve daily, learning the disciplines of fighting intelligently in spite of their dislike of each other.”

“Or perhaps because of it. They are a fractious crew, aren’t they?”

Lot did not respond, other than to cross the room to stand at Llagan’s side, looking out into the small exercise yard that was almost completely enclosed by building walls. Llagan winced to himself, thinking that he might have offended the king. Gully was unpredictable when his sons were the subject of discussion. He could criticize them; others could not. This time, however, the king took no offence.

“Six of them,” he grunted. “You’d think at least two of them could get along.”

“Perhaps it’s their mothers’ fault,” Llagan responded quietly, half turning his head to where the king stood gazing out and down.

“Perhaps? That’s a foolish observation. There’s more jealousy among those six bitches than among all my chieftains combined. I ought to banish all of them.”

Llagan allowed himself a smile. This, too, was a common theme between them. “You chose them, sir King,” he drawled.

“Chose them be damned, they chose themselves, through pregnancy. They are a herd of cows!”

“The regal concubines…”

Lot’s head jerked around. “There’s sometimes too much of the Roman in you, my friend. You are impertinent, with too much Latin.”

“I learned it by your side, lord Lot, from your own teachers.”

“Aye, you did, better than me_”

There came a thump at the door behind them, and one half of it swung open, held by the arm of a guard, to admit Lestrun, one of Lot’s senior counsellors. The old man shuffled in, nodded his head to Llagan, offered the same gesture, perhaps somewhat more deeply, to his king, and then extended a hand full of scrolls. Lot took them and stuffed them into his scrip with barely a glance, then nodded curtly. The old man turned and withdrew, and again the guard’s arm held the door ajar until he had gone. When the door closed again, Llagan looked at Lot.

“Why do you have these people, Gully? It’s hardly as if you need them.”

“Who, my counsellors?” This was said with a half smile.

“No, damnation, the guards. You don’t need guards. To guard against what, your own folk? I had to pass by ten of them from the moment I entered the main entrance to your quarters. Six outside, two in the yard, and two right here, outside your chamber. Are you expecting to be attacked?”

The king’s small smile remained in place, but he did not answer immediately, and the thought occurred to Llagan, not for the first time, that the well-known half smile concealed far more than it illumined. The pause was brief.

“Do you believe I’m expecting to be attacked? Although, of course, I am, within the month. Those rabid dogs from Camulod will be back howling at our doors by then… But here in my own house? No, Llagan, no.” The smile was full-blown now, the voice that spoke the words mellifluous and confiding. “It is not the man who needs the guards. It is the rank, the title.”

Llagan blinked, his brow furrowing. “I don’t follow you.”

“I can see that, but it’s quite simple, when you think about it. I am a king, Llagan. Kings require guards, not to protect them_at least not all the time_but to define them.”

“Define them as what, Gully? You are as clearly defined in my eyes today as you were when first we became friends, two decades and more ago.”

“Aye, in your eyes, my friend. I know that and it pleases me to know that I possess the friendship and the loyalty you extend to me. But you are quite unique in that, Llagan. In your eyes, I have not changed, and in God’s name I swear I have not. But in the eyes of others…” A rising intonation made the statement a rhetorical question. “I have changed my station. I am a king, today…” He turned suddenly and walked away to perch on the edge of the table that held the drink flagons, his left leg extended and his right knee bent and supported by a foot on the seat of the wooden chair by the table’s side. “Sit down, there, where I can see your face.”

Llagan moved silently to the chair the other had indicated, and sat facing Lot, squinting slightly against the brightness of the late-winter sunlight that now fell across his face. Lot waited until he was settled, cup in hand, and then continued, leaning forward slightly to rest his elbow on his knee.

“My father saw the need for…what would he have called it? Higher visibility? He was plain Emrys, in his youth, a minor chieftain of our clan, but among the strongest of our warriors. Through prowess in warfare, he became clan Chief, and as his fame grew and his influence extended, he was able to travel beyond these shores, into Gaul, at first, and then southward into Iberia. On those journeys_for not all them were warlike_he encountered the kings among the Burgundians of southern Gaul, and even among the Franks, whose holdings lie further afield. And he took note of how such men behave: how they dress; how they conduct their lives; and how they govern their peoples.

“When he came home from one such voyage, victorious and rich with booty, he gave himself the title Duke of Cornwall, and set out thereafter to live in ducal style. The Romans, who set store upon such things, were far from stupid. They knew that people see what they are shown. And that is true, Llagan. Show people a humble man in rags, and they will treat him as a nothing_a ragged worthlessness. Show them that same man dressed up in furs and leather, with warriors at his back, and tell them he is called a Duke, and they will bow to him and grovel for his favour, though they know not a duke from a cook…

“From the day my father donned the title of Duke Emrys, he demanded and received far more respect and obedience than he had known in all his life till then. The duke became much stronger, and far more powerful than the man. The duke became a symbol… A symbol of his people, of his clan, of his possessions.” Lot stopped and gazed down at his right hand, one finger of which wore the heavy ring he used to seal letters and documents. He wiggled his fingers, so that the heavy ring flickered in the light from the window. “This seal is such a symbol. It is my mark, my identity, its presence on a document the visible proof that I have approved and authorized the contents.” He removed the ring. “Take it away, and use it in my name, and I should have no option other than to prove its theft, or live with the consequences; smash it with a hammer, and I would have no other way of marking my works until I had another made, just like the first. That would take time, and in the interim, in either case, I should have lost the outward proof_to far-off men_of my reality. Surely you see that?”

Llagan nodded, before taking another sip from his cup.

“Good. Well, a king is another, similar symbol, and a king is greater, stronger, richer than a duke. If the king symbol is attacked and destroyed, or damaged, then his people go lacking the representation he maintained for them. Duke Emrys, my father, brought prosperity to Cornwall and it flourished under his leadership. My task is to preserve and defend both that prosperity and that leadership for those who depend now on their existence. Upon my father’s death, I assumed control of all his affairs, from his coffers and his lands, to his conduct of affairs beyond these shores_both peaceful and warlike. Your father’s stewardship of my father’s affairs passed on then to me. I swore to increase Duke Emrys’s successes in every area, and I did so. I renegotiated with the mercenaries he had hired and extended their range of operations. I increased his former wealth, and I increased his holdings. Over all, I increased his power, except that it is now my own. And within three years of his death, I proclaimed myself King, not merely Duke.” Lot paused, watching his listener keenly.

“But you already know all that, for you were here with me and I have explained it all to you before.” His lip quirked. “Yet not sufficiently, I see. Hence this matter of your distrust of my guards… Llagan, Cornwall is now a kingdom, and I am its head and its chief representative. In all my dealings with others beyond our lands, I must be seen to be a king, and to have the strengths and resources of a king. So, when visitors come to our doors, they will be met by guards, whose solemn duty is the guarding of the king. There’s no more to it than that. What’s wrong?”

Llagan was shaking his head, pursing his lips. “No visitors come here.” For a moment he thought Lot was going to fly into one of his sudden rages, but then the king burst into laughter.

“By the gods, Llagan, you vex me sometimes, but I’m grateful for your thick-headed common sense, nonetheless. No one is going to turn your head with trickery. You’re right, of course, no one comes here to visit…not yet, at least. But they will, Llagan, they will, and soon. They will come in swelling numbers to beseech the favours and the mercy of Cornwall.”

“The siege engines.”

“Aye… The siege engines. It’s time for Cornwall to grow.”

“Hmm. And what about Camulod? That could stunt your growth. Uther of Camulod won’t let you grow as long as he’s alive.”

Lot’s eyes filled with sudden fury. “Then that whoreson will not live long! I have plans for him and his maggot breed. When your father brings the wagons from the south, you’ll see some changes here. Our men will be better armed than the enemy, and they’ll be trained to use those weapons.”

Llagan had heard enough, and had no wish to reenter this debate on weaponry. In his eyes, the long, deadly bows and arm-long arrows of Uther Pendragon’s Cambrian warriors were the most dangerous weapons in existence. Cornwall possessed no counterweapon against such deadly threat, and he had enraged the king on numerous occasions by dwelling on the topic. Lot, quite simply, refused to accept the reality of the Pendragon longbow’s menace, and Llagan knew that this was no time to reopen the wrangle. He tucked away Lot’s explanation of the guards for further thought, and moved back to the window, only to find that the boys were gone, set free by their tutor who was alone in the yard, piling their mock weapons neatly beneath the lean-to where they were stored.

“I saw your wife while I was at my father’s place.”

“Did you, by the gods? And did she send her love to me?”

“No, I had no opportunity to speak to her. I saw her from afar. Why do you leave her there? Why don’t you bring her here, to live with you?”

Now Lot’s smile was fond, embracing both Llagan and his absent wife. “She is a shrew, Llagan. There can be no peace with her and I beneath the same roof tree. Besides, I have sons enough. She was a price I had to pay to form alliance with her father. The alliance was a waste of time and gained me nothing but betrayal and an evil-tempered wife. I’ll bring her back some day, but at my pleasure, and my pleasure intimates no swift return at this time. And speaking of sons, how is yours, the warlike young Cardoc?”

Llagan’s face lit up. “I haven’t seen him yet, but I doubt he has degenerated since I left. I saw his aunt Mara, my wife’s sister, as I came through the gates, and she waved to me. If anything had been amiss, she would have told me there and then, but she went on her way. They’ll be waiting for me now at home, knowing I’m back.”

“You almost did not come back. You really must take people with you when you ride away, Llagan. For a man with the name of Longhead, you can be remarkably stupid and stubborn in some things. I heard about your escapade on the road. What happened?”

Lagan shook his head and shrugged wide, strong shoulders. “Nothing much, but I was lucky that Docca and his fellows came along when they did. I rode too close to a band of ruffians who were braver and more numerous than I at first suspected. More numerous, certainly; that added to their bravery. We were exchanging opinions when Docca arrived.”

“Aye. Docca opined that you had killed three of them by the time he reached you.”

“Four, but I was glad to see him. I didn’t know he was there until one fellow fell away from me, with an arrow in his eye. It didn’t last long, after that. It’s amazing how shortened odds can sap some strong men’s courage.” Llagan turned away and reached for his sword belt and cloak. “Still, I prefer to travel alone, and most of the time I have no trouble. I was careless this time. It taught me a lesson. I should go home. Have you more need of me?”

Gulrhys Lot merely shook his head, his half-smile back in place, and Llagan quickly buckled his belt and threw his cloak over his shoulders before picking up his cup again and draining it, smacking his lips. “Good, then. I’ll take my leave and go and kiss my wife and son, then wash the dust out of my pores and sleep for a week or two.” He started to turn towards the door, then swung back. “Will you need me tomorrow? I would like to take Cardoc fishing.”

“Then take him, my friend, and the lovely Lydda, too. She will enjoy that as much as the boy. If I need you for anything, it will be unimportant enough to wait another day. Go, and take pleasure in your family.”

As the door closed behind Llagan Longhead, the smile faded slowly from the king’s face to be replaced with a look of pouting, heavy-eyed displeasure.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.