The deer lowered its head to lap up some of the icy cool water of the stream. It was a young buck that had not yet grown its antlers, and it stood about two and a half feet at the shoulder. It had just woken up, and was breaking its fast with the frost-stiffened grass beneath the craggy winter branches, its breath steaming between mouthfuls. [Ed., This post is an excerpt from the excellent novel, The Hawk and the Huntress.]
Nymve watched the deer from her place of hiding, fifty paces away. Silently, she nocked an arrow and lined it up on her target. She could feel the tension in the bowstring, feel it cutting insistently into the three fingers that held it. One of the feathers tickled her cheek just under her right eye.
Nymve mouthed a short prayer to Gwynn, the Hunter, and an apology to the buck. She could hear its thoughts, like the sound of distant river waters chattering over a rocky bed. She wished she did not have to kill it, but her mother, her brother, and her sister needed to eat.
The deer knew that she was there, and lifted its head in curiosity and alarm. It bolted.
Quite calmly, Nymve moved the arrow-head a fraction of an inch to the right, and released the string. The arrow sizzled through the air and, with a sound no louder than a chestnut hitting turfy ground in the autumn, buried itself in the buck’s head, just behind its eye.
The forelegs of the deer gave way, but the body seemed to want to continue, the neck stretched out towards the forest that offered a mocking promise of safety. It toppled onto its side, and its flank deflated as the last breath left its lungs.
Nymve dropped from the tree. She had known she would see the buck, had known even the moment it would detect her and decide to bolt. She knew where it would go and how fast. She didn’t know how she knew. The whole scene had flowed before her eyes moments before it actually happened. She was not aware of seeing it, but when she obeyed such promptings, her aim was always true.
She whistled, and a large, shaggy black dog rose from behind the tree. She drew a small sled out of the undergrowth, dusting some dry branches from it, and spent a few moments fastening the harness to the dog. The sled was made of birch wood, and it was decorated with pictures of horses and deer. On the front panel was the outline of a great white horse, its forelegs stretched in a run, like the one Nymve’s ancestors had carved in huge proportions into the chalk of a nearby hill.
Nymve knelt beside the beast. Her knife deftly cut the deer’s slot, and she pulled out the steaming paunch, swiftly tying a knot in it. The knife flashed about its work as Nymve flayed the skin and laid it, hair side down, on the sled, placing the legs on top of the skin. She opened the belly and drew out the entrails, knotting them and cutting them and throwing them to the dog, which happily set about its own morning repast.
The sun was rising, the frost disappearing from the grass around Nymve as she worked. She wasn’t cold—indeed, her hands were wonderfully warm as she stripped the meat off the shoulders of the deer, cut open the breast, and scraped down the rib-membranes to separate the meat from the carcass. She piled it all neatly on the sled, leaving only the bones behind, then folded the edges of the hide over the meat. Salted to preserve it, there would be enough food here for her family for several weeks. Then she would have to hunt again, but she did not mind that.
“Come on, Cibach,” she said brightly, and the huge dog turned in a wide circle to follow her, the sled bumping over the uneven ground as he lollopped along behind her.
The path Nymve took was the ancient way that led from Caer Luit Coyt, the local market town where she sold her horses, west to Caer Guricon, or Viroconium as it had used to be called. The path ran parallel to the Roman road. The Cornawfi, though, Nymve’s people, preferred the track of beaten earth that curved this way and that, slipping through the curves of shallow valleys and sheltering beneath the craggy arms of birch and rowan where the gods lived and blessed them. Sliding along beside the path was a narrow river, peopled, as Nymve knew, by the water-spirits of her people, who guarded this boundary, as the great horse-spirit, whose image was carved into the hillside, protected the western boundary.
Nymve was the oldest of the three children, and her father had believed that no boy had ever shown such an aptitude for hunting.
She could picture him now, if she tried very hard. The image of his face was murky in her mind, like something glimpsed through muddy water, but she could recall his thick moustaches, the crow’s feet at his eyes, the face that had been tanned to a dark and leathery brown by years of outdoor life. He had been a horse breeder and trainer by trade, and had begun Nymve’s apprenticeship. Then, one blue evening in the early summer, they had heard that there were Saxons approaching their lands. Her father and a score of local men had ridden out to see what was happening. None had returned.
The thought of her father made her stop dead. She found herself staring at a chunk of ice that floated past in the middle of the river, bumping against submerged obstructions as it went. The coldness of the ice seemed to grip her heart suddenly, and she dropped to one knee, her hand to her chest. Cibach had stopped a few paces ahead, and was looking back at her, curiosity in his soft, brown eyes.
The stream waters flowed towards her, chattering through the stones, and they seemed to be speaking to her, murmuring words she could not understand, though the message itself seemed clear.
Nymve sprang to her feet and raced along the stream. Her feet pounded away, and all around her the trees whispered in the winter breeze, but the only sounds in her ears were her heart hammering in her chest and her breath rasping between her teeth.
Suddenly, she stopped. She had heard something on the path ahead of her. She cast a glance back over her shoulder, then raced back to Cibach. Quickly, she unharnessed the dog, and pushed the sled into some bracken.
“Come on, boy!” she whispered urgently, and scrambled down the river bank, hiding herself and the dog in the undergrowth. Cibach’s tail beat two or three times to show his pleasure at the game they were playing. His tongue ran around his lips once, then he laid his head down, snorted once, and closed his eyes.
A moment later, the path was populated by men, all coming along it from the east, from the direction of her village. They were warriors, all of them, men she had never seen before, tall men, broad of chest, with fiery hair worn long and bound in pigtails. They wore leather helmets with nose guards, some with straps of iron that covered their eyes. Each of them bore a tattooed mark on his cheek, the image of a boar’s head, its tusks tipped with scarlet. There were about twenty of them, and they spoke merrily to one another in a harsh-sounding language that Nymve could not understand. The chainmail of their byrnies rattled as they marched within a few feet of her hiding place. About half of them were leading ponies, heavily burdened with packages. The rest were riding, fine stallions with strong, muscular legs and glossy coats.
Nymve gasped. She had to put a hand to her mouth to stop herself from making a noise.
She knew those horses! And that meant . . .
Nymve tensed her muscles, trying to force herself into the ground so that she would not stir and give herself away. She longed to break cover and run, see the wide frosty world flashing past her and feel the hard earth pounding beneath her feet. She yearned for home, the warmth of her hearth and the harsh, crackling smell of the fire. Her fingers dug into dry leaves.
The noise of the men passed away along the path and, in a moment, Nymve was aware of all the other sounds that surrounded her: the watery rattle of the river behind her, the panting of Cibach, and cawing of a crow somewhere in the woods. Cautiously, her eyes scanning left and right, Nymve emerged from hiding. Cibach rose and stretched his limbs, his tongue lolling and his breath steaming the air in little clouds. Nymve hurriedly retrieved the sled, harnessed the dog and fondled him on the head.
“Come on, boy,” she said. And Nymve ran.
She was troubled. She had never seen these men before. They were arrayed for war, and rumour for many years had spoken of the Saxons, barbarians from across the sea who had brought war and destruction to Britain, the Island of the Mighty. Could these men, she wondered, have been some of those Saxons?
An icy coldness filled Nymve, like the waters of bleak winter days, and she ran as if the Great Hunt was at her heels.
Then she saw the smoke.
Nymve’s homestead nuzzled in the lap between two gently-sloping hills, at just the spot where the birch-lined river turned northwards. At the moment, the homestead was hidden by the shoulder of the hill, but a dark smear of smoke rose into the grey sky, and Nymve’s nostrils twitched as she caught the scent of burned timbers . . . and worse.
She came to the first stone wall that was used to enclose the horses. She scrambled over it and threw herself into the pasture beyond.
The bodies of horses were scattered over the ground. Some of them had cavernous, red, and fly-swarming holes in their sides where the raiders had gouged out meat for their sustenance, but others had been just wantonly massacred. Nymve dropped to one knee beside the cold form of Ceffyl, whom she had raised from a foal herself. Its ribs stood out sharply under the hair, and its eyes were wide. She could see its teeth, but the rest of its head was a bloody mess, over which flies buzzed and crawled. Nymve felt a great sob rise into her throat, but she checked it, gritting her teeth as she ran on across the pasture.
The smoke came from the homestead. The low, circular wall was still intact, but the thatched roof was gone, and the contents still smouldered, smearing the air with the dun pall. The barn had been similarly treated, and it was now no more than a pile of blackened timbers, scattered loosely about. Between the buildings lay the still and broken forms of people and beasts. The raiders had taken some of the animals for food, but the rest they had just slaughtered, along with the men and women.
The sight fell upon Nymve like a hammer-blow. “Mother!” she screamed, and ran.
Surely, she thought with a hope she knew would soon die, there was a chance that the raiders had not caught her mother and the children, that they had had warning of the Saxons’ approach and fled, had vanished into the hills. Nymve reached the homestead and threw herself through the door.
Her mother lay sprawled in the centre of the floor. Her clothes had been ripped away from her body, which was bruised and bloody.
“Mother!” Nymve cried again, and ran to take up her mother’s head.
The eyes flickered open a moment, and focused fleetingly on Nymve. The lips, thick and bloody, parted. “Nymve,” she said, “thank the gods you’re alive.”
“Mother,” said Nymve, her voice cracking, “what can I do?”
Her mother’s eyes turned, and Nymve followed her gaze to where a pile of debris lay against the wall. “The children,” said Nymve’s mother. “Find a safe place.” Nymve had to lean close even to hear her mother’s words, and she felt a moment’s pressure on her cheek as she received a last kiss. When she looked into the face again, the eyes were closed.
“No!” Nymve bent her head down onto her mother’s shoulder, and her body was racked with one massive sob after another. With a sudden celerity, Nymve kneaded her mother’s cheeks, massaged her shoulders, pulled open her mouth and breathed into it. “Take my breath!” she sobbed. “Take my breath, and live!” But no breath returned from the cold lips.
Nymve wept, and railed against the gods, and wept again, and around her the smouldering beams sent up a mocking holocaust to the gods who looked down upon her and laughed. “Nymve!” they said. “Nymve! Nymve! Nymve!”
Their voices came to her, reed-thin and piping, not at all like the voices of the gods should be. Nymve opened her eyes. Still, someone was calling her name, and the sound seemed to come from far away. She looked around.
The voice seemed to be coming from the pile of debris, and suddenly Nymve realized that her mother had hidden the children in the food-hole and piled the debris over it. Nymve laid her mother’s head down, arranged her clothes as modestly as she could, and covered the body with her cloak. She strode to the other side of the room and pulled at the wooden beams and pieces of stone. Quickly, she cleared away the junk and pulled open the hatch below.
Inside the tiny space, their eyes white and blinking, were Nymve’s brother and sister, Dialwr and Awr.
“Nymve!” cried Awr, popping out of the hole and flying into her embrace. Dialwr climbed out and dusted himself off.
“Where is mother?” he asked.
Nymve pulled both their faces around to look straight at her. “We must be strong, little ones,” she said. “Come with me, and do exactly what I tell you.”
Awr’s eyes were wide. “You’ve been crying, Nymve,” she said, pointing to the white streaks down Nymve’s face.
Nymve pulled the two of them out of the homestead and into the wreckage of the village.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Dialwr asked bitterly.
“Nymve?” Awr asked.
Nymve took her sister by the shoulders. “My love,” she said, steering her away from the smoking village, “you must be brave.”
But she wept as she said it.
* * *
Nymve put her brother and sister on look-out duty and set about the grim work of dealing with the bodies. Thankfully, there were not many, only about a dozen. Some of the others had perhaps escaped. Nymve found a wagon, laid the bodies in it, and dragged it into the blackened shell of her own hut. She found what personal items she could and laid them about them. She found a knife belonging to Carwyr, whom she would have married next summer, had all gone well, and placed it on his chest, laying his fingers over the top of it because she could not curl them around the hilt. She stayed for a moment, and smoothed the long, black hair from his bruised and bloodied face. She had not loved him passionately, but she had been fond of him, and his loss now was a great, jagged emptiness in the pit of her stomach.
Nymve pulled the bung out of the flask of lamp oil that she had found, sprinkled it over the bodies, struck flint against tinder and kindled a small flame among the twigs and bits of moss she had gathered. A reluctant flame sparked up, then licked the oil and, in a few moments, the funeral pyre blazed bright in the grey winter afternoon. Nymve stepped back and exited the hut, joining her brother and sister to watch the blaze for a few moments.
She knew she had not prepared them properly for the afterlife, as she would have done if she had had time, and the knowledge clawed at her innards. She prayed a short prayer to Garanhir, god of the Cornawfi, for revenge, then she led her weeping brother and sister, the dog following them, up into the hills, where she roasted some of the deer meat.
Awr shivered, although she stood near the fire. “Why did they do it?” she asked.
“Because they are pigs and deserve to die,” replied Dialwr.
“Who were they?” asked Awr.
“Saxons,” replied Nymve. “I have heard men talk of them. They came from across the sea, and they bring fire and sword with them.”
“What is the sea?” asked Awr.
Nymve shrugged. “Like a lake, only bigger.”
In the gathering darkness, Dialwr’s nostrils flared. “When I grow old enough to carry a sword,” he said, “I shall kill every Saxon in the world. And I shall kill the mother of every Saxon in the world.”
Down in the valley, the embers still glowed dimly, like the ghost of their homestead. Nymve watched in silence, and she did not say that she would kill Saxons.
But she knew she would.
* * *
“Where are we going?” asked Awr, when they had been stumbling through the undulating moorlands north of their homestead for above an hour the next morning.
“Pencric,” Nymve called over her shoulder.
“What is Pencric?”
“It’s a monastery.”
“What’s a mostanany?”
Nymve shrugged. “Men live there, peaceful men. They worship a strange god. They will take good care of you.”
“How long will it take to get there?”
“Many hours,” replied Nymve.
“Can I ride on your shoulders?” asked Awr.
And so Awr rode on Nymve’s shoulders as they struck forth across the face of the grey earth, the wind whipping at them and numbing their ears and their fingers. Dialwr scorned to be carried: he was in his ninth year, and considered himself almost grown-up.
“These men at Pencric,” he said as they walked, “what god is it they serve?”
“I do not know his name,” Nymve answered, panting slightly for her sister, though not yet five years old, was still burdensome. “There are many who worship him in Viroconium. I have seen them—they often wear a sign like a fish.”
“Is he a god of fishes?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about him. But I have met them before. Father and I sold them horses once at Viroconium, and once we went there to help with a foaling. There is a stout wall all around their dwelling, and I saw that one of them carried a sword. They can protect you.”
“I don’t need to be protected,” said Dialwr, his fingers tightening on the hilt of his hunting knife. “It is the Saxons who need to be protected from me.”
“Nevertheless, that is where we are going,” said Nymve, breathing heavily because of her chattering burden. “Come on down, my dear,” she said, whirling Awr round and onto her feet. She picked up the bundle of meat from the sled and deposited Awr onto that. “You can ride there,” she said. Cibach did not even seem to notice that his burden had changed.
They reached Pencric in the early afternoon. A circular stone wall right next to a narrow river enclosed a small collection of buildings—a byre, a few round huts with turf roofs, and a livestock enclosure. On the western edge, a watermill had been built into the wall. Trails of smoke emerged from some of the huts, but didn’t rise very far into the sodden air before dispersing completely. Now, Nymve could see barren fields on the eastern side of the river, bounded with low dry stone walls.
When Nymve knocked on the gate, it was opened by a tall and sturdy-looking man, entirely bald except for a strip of short hair across the top of his head. He looked at the three of them, quickly assessed their situation, and hustled them inside the enclosure, closing and bolting the gate behind them.
“What is it you need, my children?” he asked.
Inside, the smell of damp pigs was quite profound. “I need shelter for my brother and my sister,” Nymve said.
“And for you?”
Nymve shook her head. One of the brothers, who was shoveling manure in the pigsty, looked curiously up at the new arrivals. He smiled, nodded a greeting, and went back to his work. “I must go on a journey,” Nymve said.
“Where is your father, and your mother?” asked the man, his brow creasing with concern.
Nymve opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. She gulped, as if she could not get enough air, and then found that tears were flowing down her cheeks. She reached out to steady herself, and the man who had let them in caught her in arms that were gentle, yet hard with muscles. Behind her, she could hear Awr and Dialwr weeping.
“There, my dear,” the brother said softly, “I understand.” His hands were strong and, when he brushed a tear from her cheek, Nymve felt strange calluses on his fingers. She looked with recognition into his eyes, and knew this was the brother she had seen carrying a sword. “What evil times these are!” the brother went on. “You have done the right thing, coming here. We will take care of you, of all of you.” He held her at arm’s length so that she could look into his face. It was a kindly face, with intelligent brown eyes and a nose that had been broken at some point in the past. She thought he must be about the same age as her father, perhaps a little younger. “My name is Brother Nefern,” he said. “What is your name?”
“I am Nymve, and this is my brother, Dialwr, and my sister, Awr. This is my dog, Cibach.”
“I am pleased to meet you. Come, let me find you some food.”
Nymve straightened, and brushed the tears from her dirty cheeks, leaving white smears behind. “I cannot stay,” she said. “I have food, but my brother and my sister need it, and they need shelter too.”
“You will not leave us, sister!” Dialwr cried suddenly.
Nymve turned and looked at her brother, who was now red in the face, his lips quivering. She must strengthen him. She knew she could persuade him to be strong, she had a knack for it. She held him by the shoulder, looked into his eyes, and smiled. She had a good smile, she knew; most people found it irresistible. “I shall return soon, Dialwr,” she said. “You must be strong until then. Brother Nefern will look after you.”
“Come and eat,” said Brother Nefern, indicating the building behind him.
But Nymve shook her head. “I have to go. Every minute I delay is life to my enemies!”
“No, little sister, this is not the way. I cannot let you go!”
Brother Nefern sought to restrain Nymve, but in a single, fluid movement, she had drawn an arrow and nocked it, and the point was aimed directly at his heart. At this range, it could not miss. It would go right through him and perhaps kill someone else as well.
“Is this in truth what you wish to do?” asked Brother Nefern.
After a long moment, Nymve lowered the arrow. “The river sweeps me on,” she said. “I must not say no.”
“Go, little sister,” said the brother of this strange new faith. “Come once again when your soul is no longer empty.”
A tear beaded in Nymve’s eye, but she blinked it away. She looked despairingly for a moment at Dialwr and Awr, then quickly unbolted the gate and slipped through.
She was alone and orphaned, and she was out for revenge.
The Saxon lowered his head to scoop up the icy cool water of the stream. He was a young fellow that had not yet grown his beard fully, but he was already tall, and stood only an inch shorter than Octa, his leader. He had just woken up, and was breaking his fast with some of the juicy pork plundered from the village they had recently sacked. His breath steamed between mouthfuls.
He had just turned to make a remark to one of his comrades when his eyes widened abruptly. They seemed to bulge with surprise. His mouth opened, and a choking sound came from it. The comrade he had addressed rose slowly, staring, for something in his mouth flashed with a dull light, and it looked like metal. Then blood bubbled over his lips and spattered his tunic and the ground and his feet.
The young Saxon slowly toppled forward. An arrow protruded from the nape of his neck, but before his comrade could raise the alarm, another followed, taking him in the throat. He flew backwards, his arms flailing and his feet kicking in the air.
Chaos descended upon the Saxon encampment.
Fifty paces away, Nymve stepped backwards out of her place of hiding behind a moss-grown rock. She dropped into a crouch, keeping her head low as she walked northwards, calmly and without hurry, through a stand of trees.
Harsh shouts came from the Saxon encampment. “Hydan!” came the cry; and “Wealas!” over and again. “Wealas! Mearas Aureles!” Nymve smiled grimly as she pulled a goose-feathered shaft from her quiver. She knew what that meant: that meant her, her people, the people whom these Saxons had been terrorizing for. . .Nymve didn’t know for how long, but it was a very long time, since before she had been born, and probably since before her father had been born, for he had spoken of them with a weary enmity, not the fresh blood that thrilled now along Nymve’s veins.
She brushed an angry tear from her cheek, nocked the arrow, and raised it to her right eye. She could feel the tension in the string. The feather tickled her cheek. Two Saxons had bounded off in the direction they thought the arrows had come from. Others were taking cover, but their flanks were exposed to Nymve. She could take one, she knew, from this position, but then she would have to move. And she knew they would get canny soon.
The string twanged, the air hissed as the arrow sped away. Nymve felt the snap of the string against her forearm. She waited long enough to see a Saxon leap from where he had hidden, an arrow through his neck, and pitch over sideways. Then she was off.
Two days she had tracked these Saxons. Their passage left what to her was a wide swathe of damage, visible even after the snowfall, but she had been dreadfully behind after taking the children to Pencric, and she had spent a whole day just getting back to the road. The Saxons had skirted Viroconium to the south; they were always, she had heard, cautious of cities, fearing the ghosts of the legionnaires that they believed lurked on the crumbling battlements and in the potholed streets and hollowed houses. They feared the forlorn gods in the temples, Cernunos as well as Mercury, for they knew they were stealing a land from a people favoured by those gods. It stopped snowing at about the time they reached the ancient city, and she had found a brooch that her mother had owned, which had fallen unheeded. The brooch depicted the goddess Tyronoe, flanked by a pair of her sacred horses, the sun rising with bright beams behind them. Nymve had taken it up and clutched it to her heart, swearing to keep it upon her person until she had avenged herself upon the last of these Saxon scum.
Now Nymve laboured up a grey, knotty slope towards the crest of an escarpment. She turned and looked down towards the angle of the river where the Saxons had encamped. She knew that the early sun was behind her, and that she was virtually invisible now; but she also knew that her best shot was from the top of the escarpment. She paused a moment, watching the Saxons below her. Most had taken cover now, but she could see several of them. Her nostrils flared in contempt. So much for the brave warriors, so much for their proud vaunting over their cups in the evening! She turned and climbed on.
She knew this area well for, once the Saxons had settled down for the evening, and when the evening’s blue light was still laid upon the hillside, she had paced round and around their campsite, choosing the best places from which to fire her arrows. She had found half a dozen likely places, but she knew she would not have time to use more than three of them. This morning’s work was but a beginning. She would retire, follow them some more, and when they were not expecting an attack, she would take another three or four of them. She would be patient. The fullness of her revenge could wait.
Nymve stopped at the crest of the escarpment. An elm tree, she knew, overlooked the river basin. It would provide her with cover.
A voice came up to her, bright and clear on the sharp morning air: “Naes her! Na Wealas her!” Another voice replied in the same guttural language: “Furthur onweg, sec heom furthur onweg! Synt her!” The rest was lost on Nymve, who had reached the elm. It spread its branches over the road that had brought them to this place, and now she dropped down behind it so that the undergrowth would hide her. She drew an arrow and fitted it to the string.
Slowly, Nymve drew back the string. The head of the arrow pointed towards the Saxons, and she found the man she wanted to take next: a huge man, almost seven feet tall, with wild red hair. A scar, livid against the sunburned skin, ran from his forehead to the left corner of his mouth, and neatly dissected the tattoo of the boar’s head on his cheek. The sword, which Nymve doubted she could even lift herself, seemed tiny in his anvil of a hand.
Nymve released the arrow, which sped through the air towards her target. But, a split second before it struck, another Saxon rose from hiding. The arrow struck his helmet just above the ear with such force that the tip thrust out half an inch from the further side of his head.
But Nymve did not see him fall. A blow like a landslide hit her from the left. Her bow spun from her hand into a thicket. Arrows tumbled from her quiver and scattered over the ground. The world, for a moment, was a whirl of colours, ragged patches of light and dark. She hit the ground, pain shuddering up and down her right arm and hip. Then a remorseless force pressed upon her, pinning her arms and legs down. She wanted to cry out in pain and outrage, but a hand clapped over her mouth, and the breath she had wanted to draw in hissed painfully through her nose. She couldn’t see anything: the long grasses of her hiding place, the tangle of undergrowth, slimy brown leaves. A dead vole, half consumed by scavengers, stretched out on its back six inches from her, one claw held pathetically high. She tried to struggle, but whoever held her would not budge an inch. She could hear his long, controlled breaths in her ear. She struggled again against her captor.
And then she heard something else: the tramp of boots, the jingle of horse bridles, the rhythmic clash of chainmail and the slap of scabbards against thighs. She had never heard it before, but Nymve knew what it was: the passage of a whole army. She could hear voices, too, but they did not speak Brythonic.
It was a Saxon army.
Nymve, who had moments before struggled against whoever held her, went suddenly slack as she realized that he had saved her life. Had she stood to nock but one more arrow, the army would have discerned her from the road, and she would have been captured, or dead. How had she been so careless?
A face appeared before her, and the weight that had pressed her down shifted off her body. The man held a free finger up to his lips and gradually released the pressure over her mouth. Nymve drew in a shuddering breath. She turned over to lie on her stomach, and slid like a snake through the undergrowth to look at the army.
It was vast. She could not see much from her hidden perspective, mainly boots and hoofs and the wheels of carts, but they seemed to stretch on for ever beyond her sight, and they marched endlessly past her hiding place, cohort upon cohort tramping out of the east, until it seemed that the whole world must be filled with Saxon warriors.
Nymve felt an urgent hand upon her shoulder, and she looked round at the man who had just saved her from discovery. He had grey, unkempt hair, and a straggling beard. He beckoned her over to him, and pointed through a gap in the undergrowth.
Beside the river, the vanguard of the army had arrived at the Saxon encampment. The tall red-headed warrior strode over to one who appeared to be the army’s leader. He was a tall man, too, and his hair had once been a flaming red, though now age had paled it. He swung himself down from his horse and embraced the other. He gestured at the dead men, and the other seemed to be explaining what had happened.
“The tall man who has just dismounted is Hengist,” said the man in Nymve’s ear. “He is the leader of this army, king of the Saxons. The red-headed man whose shoulder-companions you even now slew with your arrows is Octa, his son.”
As they watched, a beautiful golden-haired woman with a haughty expression dismounted, and Octa bowed from the waist before her.
“Rowena, Hengist’s daughter,” the man whispered. “Technically, you owe her your allegiance, since she is married to your besotted High King. Come, it is no longer safe to remain here.”
Nymve rose to all fours, rescued her bow and arrows, and sped off, stooping, after her strange saviour.
They passed rapidly through light forest, itself like a grey army of gaunt and gnarled warriors. The man sped ahead of Nymve, never stumbling, never pausing. Ever sure was his foot, swift and silent. At length, he came to an apple tree and, pausing, reached out to the bole and laid his hand upon it as if greeting an old lover. Nymve came to a halt and bent over, bracing herself against her knees and panting breathlessly. The man looked back at her. The branches of the apple tree patterned his face with shadows. As old as he seemed, he was not out of breath. Nymve wondered who he was, and what he wanted. Why had he saved her from the Saxon army? Where were they going?
The man waited patiently until Nymve had got her breath back. Then he said, “Even here we are not safe.”
“I must rest,” panted Nymve.
The man nodded slowly. He watched her keenly, his dark eyes bright in the winter light. His face was otherwise mostly a tangle of grey hair, not particularly long, but sticking out from his head at odd angles. His nose was long and hooked. He looked like an old man, and yet he was agile like a youth: a handsome face, she thought, full of wisdom and even, yes, she thought even kindness. She instinctively trusted him.
“Where are you taking me?” she demanded.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked in reply. “Away from your enemies.”
A shadow of doubt passed over Nymve’s heart. With his long nose and his piercing, dark eyes, he looked exactly like a hawk. She could not tell whether he was young or old. He reminded her of some mysterious mountain lake, wreathed in strange mists, replenished always by fresh water, but surrounded by impossibly old stones. At the same time, there was something oddly familiar about him, like a smell from childhood.
“Who are you?” she asked.
He shook his head. “It would take too long to explain,” he said. “Do you want to live or die?” He looked up at the apple tree, ran his hand once more down its bole, then turned and was off once more.
Nymve had not given an answer to his question, but she followed him anyway. They moved at a somewhat slower pace now, and he led her a long way south and a little to the west.
“Have you been this way before?” she asked him, when they had been walking for almost two hours.
The man stopped and looked around. “Not for a long time,” he said, “not for a long time.” He turned back and looked into her face. He seemed to be examining it, scrutinizing every detail, but for some reason this did not make Nymve feel self-conscious. She wanted him to see her and approve of her.
All at once, it seemed to Nymve that she was floating upon the cool eddies of a stony stream. She was all muscle, sleek and silver, and she slipped through the currents with an easy flick of her hands.
Except that they were no longer hands. She had fins.
Nymve turned her eyes upwards; it was hard to do, since she had no neck. Wavering above her, silhouetted against the bright sky, was a hawk. Its wings rotated with an intense concentration, and it maintained its place in the air while its eyes scanned for prey.
Nymve wanted to leap towards the hawk, but she wondered, if she emerged from the water, if he would snap at her with his razor-sharp beak and fly away with her, dangling and twitching, in his talons.
Nymve shook herself. The daydream drained away, leaving her wistful and a little puzzled, and she stood in the forest with this hawk-faced man, who was peering fixedly at her as if he expected her to say something.
“My name is Nymve,” she said cautiously.
The man nodded. “And those Saxons killed your family.” It was a statement, not a question.
Nymve’s lip curled away from her upper teeth. “And one day I shall kill him—him and all his shoulder-companions.”
The man stepped a little closer, raising a hand. Lightly, he touched her temple. “I believe you will,” he said. The hand dropped away. “Octa is branded with the image of the boar because he is as fierce as a boar in battle. It is common among his people.”
“You know a lot about him.” Nymve’s voice was tinged with surliness.
“I have watched him, on and off, for some days.”
Nymve clenched her teeth. She felt her fingernails dig into her palms. “Did you watch him rape and murder my mother?” she snarled.
The man gave a long, sad sigh. “No, I did not, though I confess I knew that he would be raping and destroying as he went. He had been sent by his father, Hengist, to forage for the main Saxon army, and it was that army that I was watching more closely.”
“The big army? The one we saw?”
“That very one. They are marching west, into the land of Cambria. There, they will capture the High King, whose tower will not be built in time now to shelter him from the wrath of the Saxons.”
“The High King?” The man nodded. “Are you his servant?” Nymve asked.
The man spread his hands wide. “We are all servants of the High King who dwell within his domains.”
Nymve furrowed her brow. “Before he was killed,” she said slowly, “I heard my father speak of our king. Is his name Leodagan?”
The man didn’t answer for a long moment. At last, he shrugged helplessly. “There may be a king called Leodagan. He is perhaps king of this land, which I believe is Cameliard. In my day, the kings of each kingdom answered to one High King, and it is to this High King, Vortigern, that I have referred. Forgive me if I am unclear. I am but a newcomer to this land.”
“But you said you had been here before? Long ago?”
“So I have—a very long time ago.” The man looked around him, and shivered. “Things were different then.” He spent a moment examining a tree, a rock, a clump of ferns, in careful detail. Then, looking up at the grey skies, the ever-changing heavens, he spoke again. “Even the land has changed,” he said in a low voice. “Its bones and muscles are the same, but its raiment—well, the apparel often hides the man. I must look very hard, think, and remember, ere I yet can see it as it was, and know where I am.” His eyes refocused on Nymve. “Ere I can understand how this land is ordered now. I have been away so very long!”
Nymve said nothing. She understood little of what the man said. He seemed to perceive this, and smiled. “Shall we rest here?” he asked, and busied himself about building a campfire.
When the fire was crackling, and a delicious aroma rose from the deer meat, the man squatted down beside the flames and held out his hands towards the warmth, examining his fingers by turning them this way and that. He looked as if he had never seen them before. Nymve watched him silently, marveling at the sudden turn of events in her life.
“Why did you save me?” she asked suddenly.
The man looked up. Tiny sparks floated up between them, borne on swirls of smoke. Behind him, the trees were shadowed with indigo.
“You, I have watched,” he said, stabbing a long forefinger in her direction. “I have been watching the Saxon armies, for I wished to know of their movements, though what will come of my knowledge, I know not. The High King is not of a frame of mind to heed me. He must do what he can without my assistance.
“But yesterday, when I was hurrying to catch up with Octa’s foraging party, I saw you.” He looked directly at Nymve, and once again he examined her face for a long time, and seemingly with careful observation, before speaking again. “I noticed how you followed this band of Saxons so unerringly, with a sure step, as if you followed a clearly marked trail.”
“It was clear,” Nymve remarked. “A blind man could have followed it.”
The man smiled wryly. “I suppose that depends on how blind he was. Most trackers could not have followed that trail, for the Saxons took much care to leave no evidence of their whereabouts, but you followed them swiftly and surely. And I wondered much about you.”
Again, the man looked into Nymve’s face for a long moment before he asked, “Have you ever seen a thing happen in your mind before it has happened in the world? Have you ever known the next word that would be upon a man’s lips? Have you ever lain awake at nights, feeling the sorrows and the joys of the world? Have you ever dreamed of a thing that has come to pass?” Nymve said nothing, but her eyes were wide, because he was right in every particular—not once or twice had such things happened, but over and again, and she had had to pretend that she knew nothing in order not to strike fear into the hearts of her family and friends.
“I wondered about you as you followed Octa and his men,” the man resumed, “and now that I look into your face, I can see too that you have the mark upon you. You have a gift from the gods. You have the Sight.”
The man nodded. “A blessing, or a curse. You are the mouthpiece of the Morforwyn. They speak to men through you.”
“Who are the Morforwyn?”
“The gods of our people, or the servants of the One God, if you prefer. Morforwyn is the ancient name given to them: to Argante and Arawn, queen and king of this land before the ancient time when men gave it the name of Britain, to Garanhir and Tyronoe and Gwynn, to Rhiannon and Olwyth and to Angharad. Yes, and even to Morgana and Balor. Fourteen they were, and but six remain: the Ladies of the Lake.”
“And why have they given me this gift?”
“Who can truly see the paths the Morforwyn choose?” replied the man. “But you have the gift, have you not?” Nymve nodded silently. “It is as I thought, for it has long been my gift too, and I cannot think that our meeting in this most desperate hour, when the armies of a heathen enemy converge upon the High King, can be a coincidence.”
“Who are you?” asked Nymve. “What is your name?”
“Who am I?” asked the man. “I am he who knows why there is an echo in a hollow, why silver gleams, and water flows. I know why milk is white, why holly is green and berries red. I know why brine is salt and ale is bitter. I know where the springtime cuckoos are in winter, and what beasts lurk in the depths of the ocean. I was in the vanguard of the host when the banner fell, I was twice a prisoner, and watched the trees change their robes. I was poet-harper to the kings of Cambria and prophesied before the High King in ancient days. I saw the world before Noah set sail, I sang with Isaiah in the wilderness, and sat in a stable to watch the birth of my own Father. All things are revealed to me, for I have supped from the Cauldron of Inspiration. I have been revealed this day to you in a land torn by strife: I was formerly Emrys, prince of Cambria and king of Eicenniawn, but now I am Merlin, the Soothsayer!”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.