THE SHADOW OF A KING
– Chapter 1 –
Glastening Abbey – AD 472
‘No… please, do not move him. The King is not to be moved… I beg of you.’ The nun stepped in front of the advancing warrior and pushed her hands against his chest, hindering his passage further into the dimly lit cell. ‘There must be some mistake… the King is gravely ill.’ She was flustered, almost beside herself in her wish to turn these intruders around and see them gone. ‘The Abbess is not here, she sleeps now, but she left instructions that he cannot be disturbed… you may kill him.’
The warrior looked down at the small figure blocking his path. Her gown, as with all of these nuns, was a covering from head to foot of coarse black wool, stained and showing signs of many repairs. This nun was gazing up from beneath her cowl with a look of abject horror at his intrusion. Her pale white hands fluttered ineffectually against his stained and dented breastplate; then she glanced towards her charge, the lone figure that lay upon the cot within the damp, dark cell. Beside the cot, a single stub of candle was set upon a small table, its light reflecting from a thick torc of twisted gold, the dull metal gleaming in the candlelight; the candle guttered in the invasive draft sending shadows dancing along the rough, stone walls.
‘Spirits preserve us, what a piss-hole,’ the warrior whispered under his breath. Rats were moving close by, he could hear them, squeaking and rustling amongst the floor rushes in the darkness; the whole place reeked of vermin. This was a godforsaken place, even if it was an Abbey. Rank with the smell of rat piss, burning herbs and rotting flesh, it was still an improvement on the gathering of tribes he had so recently left. The Abbey was deathly cold, but at least it was out of the incessant, drizzling rain. The warrior raised a hand and rubbed absently at the knot of wires, shaped into the form of an intricate cross that hung between the ends of his own, somewhat thinner, gold torc at his throat. The cross was not a Christian emblem, but something far older, a connection to the ancient spirits of the land. For like many of his ilk, the warrior was still a follower of the old ways. He had not yet been won over by the honeyed words or threats of certain damnation delivered by the priests, should they not turn their backs upon their ancient Gods and follow the one nailed God. He didn’t like nor trust them. Touching the cross had been an unconscious reflex to ward off the evil that he felt dwelt within the Abbey. He had not wanted to come here this night, but then fool’s errand or not he would do the Druids work and so be it.
With a sigh, he removed his helm and brushed his fingers back through long, greying hair. It was thinning badly as the gesture rudely reminded him. He was tired, weary to the bone truth be told, and his arms felt heavy from a clash with a Saxon raiding party during the dark hours of their riding to the Abbey.
They had met upon the wooded road, both groups startled to come upon the other, neither wishing to tarry yet both needing to pass the other. After a brief period of both parties shouting and taunting each other, each attempting to force the other to turn and run, they had fought, which of course had been inevitable. The clash had been brief and violent, but on this particular occasion, they had not taken any losses and sustained only one small wound to a member of their party. The Saxons, once past the Britons and heavy with raided goods, had fled towards their own border; it wasn’t deemed prudent to pursue them considering the mission the Druid had tasked them with.
Drawing a deep breath, the warrior calmed himself. ‘My name is Sir Ector, and I am sorry lady, I surely am, but there is no mistake. My orders were spoken by the lips of the Druid Merlyn himself; our King must rise.’ Turning, he threw his helm back into the hands of one of his men, gently brushed the sobbing nun to the side and approached the low sleeping pallet.
While he dropped to one knee beside his King, his two companions entered fully into the cell, bringing with them dampness and the sharp smell of the rainy dawn that had settled on the metal of their mail and armour.
‘Sire. ’ In the inadequate light from the flickering candle, Uther Pendragon, High King of the Britons, appeared for all the world as if he may already be dead. Sir Ector studied the dying man and felt the small light of hope that he had been desperately holding onto, begin to dim, this surely could not be a man who within days would be leading a mass of warriors into battle. It would be some kind of Christian miracle if the King ever rose from this pallet ever again unless it was to be taken to his funeral pyre.
‘Sire.’ Sir Ector studied his King for some sign of life, some indication that he was hearing him. Yet there was nothing. The King’s skin was white and mottled, hanging upon his bones as if it were made up of gossamer layers of autumn leaves, dry and yellow in the candlelight. The closed eyes of Uther Pendragon, eyes that were once so fierce and full of pride, were sunken back into their sockets, seemingly lost within the shadows of his soul.
‘Uther, can you hear me, or is it that you are already walking in the shadowland?’ The room was silent as all within watched anxiously for something. Reaching out, the leather and metal of his armour creaking, Sir Ector placed the back of his hand close to Uther’s mouth, holding it still for a few moments as he felt for breath. As he moved his hand up to the King’s brow, the eyes fluttered open and Sir Ector drew back sharply.
‘Forgive me Sire. I would not have disturbed you, but… ’
The eyes blinked several times as the King returned from wherever it was that his Soul had travelled, possibly to the gates to the shadowland itself? Turning his head, he cast about the dim cell and finally found the features of the kneeling warrior. ‘Ector?’ The voice was weak, brittle, yet more than just the whisper Sir Ector had been hoping for, Uther Pendragon still lived.
‘Sire, forgive me… the Druid has summoned you to the battlefield. He tells that the spirits have spoken to him and it is time for you to lead us once more.’ Sir Ector turned and gestured. One of his men stepped forward, and together they went about the task of gently raising the king to his feet.
It was a shock to find that Uther Pendragon weighed no more than a child. The King was pulled upright to hang limply between the two warriors. His head lolling down against his chest, the dirty white tunic he wore coming to just above bony knees, the heavy woollen leg wraps falling untucked about his ankles. Sir Ector began to wonder anew if these pitiful remains were just some hollow shell, an empty husk of the man who had once united the tribes of Britain, his former King, his friend. Had he witnessed life in the dying body, or had the King’s soul merely turned back one last time before finally moving on? Despair returned to fill him once again, a fear that both the spirits and the old Druid might be wrong.
They dressed him quickly in warm woollen clothing and then placed a heavy cloak about his shoulders, then shuffled out of the cell with the nun’s shrieking protests following them into the rush-strewn corridor.
More nuns arrived, drawn by the commotion and it immediately became more difficult to manoeuvre with their charge as now several Holy sisters began to wail and protest at seeing their King being moved.
The Abbey had been built as a fortified home by a former baron and been gifted to the nuns by Uther when its previous owner had lost both favour, and then his life, in the King’s court, But that had been some time ago. It was a narrow, dark labyrinth of halls, rooms and passageways. Old and in a state of advanced neglect, it was damp, the thatch of the roof green and black with mould and mildew, the rooms and passages teeming with mice and rats. As they pushed through the nuns and moved through the confines in search of the main passage, the mixture of aromas became even stronger, mould and decay, vermin and unwashed bodies, concoctions of herbal medicines and communal cooking.
The spluttering candles that the warriors held sent a confusion of shadows ahead of them making it difficult to find their way out to where they had left their horses.
It was Sir Ector who led them, still pushing aside nuns who wept and implored him to take the King back to his rest. They sought to bar his way and confuse his direction, but he pushed on. And so, after much confusion and no little time, it was he who was first to emerge into the damp, but thankfully, sweeter chill air of the new morning.
Towards the east, he could see that the dawn sky was growing lighter low on the horizon, and it was just beginning to chase away the clinging darkness within the small enclosed square of the Abbey where they had left their horses.
He stopped; the rain was pattering against his armour. Lit by the light of flickering torches that spluttered in the drizzling rain, twenty or so nuns sheltered beneath the eves to the sides of the courtyard. However, it wasn’t the nuns that had caught his attention and stopped him, it was the tall figure dressed in black who stood alone in the middle of the open area, hood raised against the rain. As soon as they had emerged carrying the slumped body of Uther, the figure had raised its arms, palms out to bar their way. Somewhat startled, Sir Ector held up his candle aware of others coming out of the Abbey behind him. He was relieved to see the figure was no spirit, but as evidenced by the slim white wrists, that it was a woman, almost certainly the Abbess herself.
‘What madness do you bring to our Lord’s house?’ she hissed. ‘The King is dying. Does he not warrant your respect in these, his final days? Has he not done enough for his people that you must steal him away in the dark of the night? In the name of our Lord God, I tell you that he cannot be taken, he is the King. You will return him to his rest and leave him here to pass in peace.’
The Abbess stood unwavering, defying the heavily armoured group to leave with their burden. Behind her, horses skittered and moved nervously, alarmed at the sudden raised voice and flickering torches. Eyes wide and staring, their warm breath clouded in the chill air, they continued to shuffle, the sound of their hooves clattering on the stone cobbles echoing strangely about the enclosed place, which only brought them more distress. They were big horses, bred for battle in open fields, not confined spaces such as the Abbey’s courtyard and they were unusually skittish. The tribesman holding their reigns in both hands, whispered soft promises and affections to them, pressing his face into the muzzle of the biggest, a mottled roan, as he tried to reassure them. The horse tapped the ground with its hoof and snorted, but his efforts seemed to calm them.
The Abbess was a tall woman and, as her position dictated, she was accustomed to being obeyed, yet after a moment’s hesitation, whatever spell she had woven broke and Sir Ector and his men pushed past ignoring her and headed towards their mounts. The Abbess watched, her arms slowly returning to her sides as the King was hoisted unceremoniously up upon the back of one of the horses. He swayed in the saddle, yet somehow managed to keep his seat as his feet were thrust into the stirrups and then lashed into place. His eyes were closed as the warriors moved around him. As he began to slump forward, Sir Ector and one of his men quickly moved in to pull him back upright and then held him while an oak plank was set against his back and a length of flax linen wrapped tightly around both the King and the board, securing him erect and in place. The Abbes walked forward, dropping the hood of her cloak as she did so, and placed a hand upon the King’s leg in a strangely familiar gesture. Long hair as black as her robes framed a striking face that appeared ghostly in the predawn light. Reaching up, she thrust an object into his hands, just as they were being tied to the pommel of the saddle. She felt him grip the object as the rough hemp of the rope dug into the flesh of his thin wrists.
‘Go with God, Uther Pendragon, and I pray that the spirits may also be with you through this day. It seems your tasks among us may never be complete. I fear your people ask too much of you.’ With a hand covering her mouth to stifle a sob, the Abbess stepped back into the company of the weeping nuns.
Armour was attached to the king; grieves for his legs and a breastplate to cover his chest. Over this was placed the heavy wool cloak that was tied in place to protect him from the rain and also to shield the ropes that held him in place. The tribesmen all mounted, and in a final gesture, Sir Ector produced a golden crown from a bag set behind his saddle and tugged it firmly into place upon his King’s lolling head. Preparations complete, he finally looked across to the Abbess.
‘I am truly sorry, Morgana, but you know this is Merlyn’s doing and not mine. I would let him die with dignity, here with you, but Merlyn says that he has communed with the spirits, and they have called for the King to lead us in battle one final time. You know I cannot argue with either the spirits or the Druid.’ Without waiting for a reply, he kicked his horse into motion, and the five mounted men clattered out into a cold grey dawn, the sound of their departure disturbing a host of crows into flight, the birds rising like winged smoke from an old, dead elm to circle raucously above them.
The Abbess walked to the gateway and watched the riders go, four men moving at a trot, whilst the fifth bounced from side to side, appearing stiff and ungainly as they rounded the Tor and past the muddy track that led up to holy Avalon.
‘Close the gates.’ She waved impatiently, and two nuns rushed to do her bidding, dragging the large, heavy gates closed with an echoing boom, shutting out the world of man.
One of the nuns stepped forward. ‘Mother, we must pray for the King. Our Lord God shall cast his light of protection over… ’ The Abbess held up a hand as the rest of the nuns gathered around her expectantly.
‘Sisters, you must indeed pray for our King, assemble in the chapel. However, I shall make my own preparations and then retire to my chambers and pray alone.’ She clapped her hands, and the nuns moved off into the dark Abbey while the Abbess headed towards a separate doorway, intent upon devotions of her own.
His body did not feel his own. Shapes and sounds drifted to him as if through a fog. It felt as if he were constantly falling, turning around and around, yet never landing nor coming into contact with the ground, just a never ending drop where he spun and spun yet felt no need to scream, it was as if he were watching from afar. The consciousness of Uther Pendragon sat well behind the clouded eyes letting the sounds of cheering, calling and crying wash around him; it was all a dream that he would either awake from and laugh at, the absurdity of it all… or, perhaps, he may never wake again, it mattered not to him.
‘Is he dead?’
‘No, he is not dead.’ Sir Ector glared around, spat with distaste and then raised his voice above the murmuring of the gathering crowd. ‘Uther Pendragon lives and has come to lead us to victory against the Saxons.’ Standing up in his saddle, he shouted out above the heads of the gathered tribesmen, ‘Step aside and make way for your King.’ The growing huddle of battered warriors moved reluctantly to either side as Sir Ector, and his men led the horse carrying Uther Pendragon through their ranks and towards the cluster of pavilions set at the highest point on the hill. Wiping a sheen of wetness from his face, Sir Ector glanced up at the blue and white encampment on the hill above them, the wet pennants upon the pavilions as limp and lifeless as the gathered tribes.
There was less mud on the higher ground, but a direct route up the slope would mean more chance that the King might fall, and that could not be allowed to happen. He guided his charge towards a gentler, more winding path upward and they plodded on, trailing warriors that were keen to see the return of their King. Sir Ector looked back at the men traipsing after them through the mud. They were filthy and wore a ragtag assortment of armour, crests and colours. Each man carried either a bow, a sword or the majority, a spear; none walked unarmed. They were tired and disheartened, but not yet defeated. He realised that the sight of their King had already sent an energy amongst them that he had not seen for many long days. Glancing up he saw that even more men and women were running in from the outer shelters as news that the King had returned reached them and still more from the far woodland where those less fortunate had been sheltering. He glanced across at the white, unconscious Uther Pendragon as he swayed and rocked with the movement of the horse and wondered, not for the first time, what magic the Druid was about to unleash.
It was a terrible thing to be doing to a King, to the man he had stood beside, fought beside, eaten and laughed beside as he had risen from being a snotty kid with a big sword to the unifier of the tribes after his brother had died. The fact that Uther had been raised in an Iceni village was also a point of honour of course. As leader of the now landless Iceni, since the Saxons had forced the tribe to leave their ancestral lands, Ector knew his place was beside the King. He had known it was his place to bring him back if anyone was going to do it, but it hurt him to see the man, his friend, his King dying like this. To see him struck down, so close to death and yet not crossing into the Shadowland to be with those who had passed before him, it was not right, it was beyond his understanding, but he knew it was not right.
At the top of the hill, men had begun emerging from the pavilions, drawn by the commotion that the King’s entrance had caused. As yet, he couldn’t see the Druid, but he knew he would be there. They moved on.
It didn’t take long to reach the top and more level ground, and as soon as they reached it Sir Ector let out a sigh of relief that his King hadn’t fallen backwards into the mud on the climb up. He tugged on the reigns of Uther’s horse so that it drew alongside him.
‘Sire,’ he hissed, trying to keep his voice from carrying. ‘Uther… wake. Spirits help you, but wake Sire.’ The King continued to sway in his saddle either asleep or dead it was hard to tell which. Sir Ector muttered an oath and tugged on the reigns again as his horse stepped forward. Three men had moved away from the group at the pavilions. They were walking towards them, the youngest already several strides in front of the others. Sir Ector saw the smile of joy turn to a frown of worry. The young man broke into a run and took the bridle of Uther’s horse as soon as he reached them.
‘Father? Oh, God, what have they done to you father?’ He glared across at Sir Ector.
‘My Lord, you were instructed to… ’ But the words died on his lips as the other two men arrived. Releasing the reigns, Sir Ector sat taller in the saddle, fearing that he may now have displeased both the future King and also the Druid. Yet as he approached, the Druid was smiling, nodding at him.
‘Well met, Sir Ector. Fear not, you have done well.’ The old Druid moved forward, still smiling at them all warmly as if Uther were fit and well and strong enough to lead a horde of warriors against the whole Saxon nation. Sir Ector glanced at the King, just to be sure he was still the same dying man he had dragged from his death bed, and indeed, with eyes closed and lolling in the saddle, Uther still appeared to be far more dead than alive. The horse shifted, and Uther’s head rolled alarmingly.
‘Father! You… help me get him down.’ The young man, aided by two warriors began to disentangle the King from his mount while around them, several hundred tribesmen watched in silence. The only man who appeared delighted by the whole spectacle was Merlyn.
‘Did you have any trouble at the Abbey, Sir Ector?’ enquired Merlyn as Uther’s hands were being untied. The King swayed backwards, but Sir Ector quickly reached across and held him upright again.
‘No, my Lord. All was as you said it would be.’
‘And Morgana… the Abbess, how is she, did she delay you?’
‘She was most vexed at us for retrieving the King,’ Sir Ector stared into Merlyn’s blue eyes, most vexed indeed, but that was the whole of it.’ Warriors were untying Uther’s feet from the stirrups, and it was all Sir Ector could do to hold onto the King until he could be lowered gently to the ground.
‘No, the King must stand.’ Merlyn moved forward as the horses were led away and Sir Ector dismounted.
‘My Lord Druid. The King, my father, cannot stand. Indeed, we still pray for some sign that he still lives. I shall want the reason and truth behind this or… ’
‘Patience Arthur. Have a little faith and find some patience. Believe in your father because he needs you now as much or possibly more than he has never needed you before.’ The old Druid, white robes flapping in the breeze and long grey hair wet and plastered to his scalp, approached the sad King as he slumped between the two tribesmen. Passing his staff to Arthur, he reached out, cupped the King’s head between his two palms and then studied the King’s face closely. He pressed his forehead against the King’s.
‘Wake up, Uther. It is time to come back and live in the world of man one last time; I’m sorry old friend, but you must… awaken.’
As the Druid stepped back, Uther Pendragon opened his eyes, shook the two guards away groggily as if unsure how they came to be holding him and gazed about at the gathered men. A wave of murmurs and cries travelled back amongst the crowd until after just moments, cries of ‘the King, the King’, almost became deafening.
Merlyn stepped forward took Uther’s shoulders, and stared into the King’s eyes once again. ‘Welcome back your highness. I think it may be best if we had a little talk.’