Authors: David Gemmell
Revelation stood with his back to the door, his broad hands resting on the stone sill of the narrow window, his eyes scanning the forests below as he watched a hunting hawk circling beneath the bunching clouds.
'It has begun, my lord,' said the elderly messenger, bowing to the tall man in the monk's robes of brown wool.
Revelation turned slowly, his smoke-grey eyes fastening on the man who looked away, unable to bear the intensity of the gaze.
Tell it all,' said Revelation, slumping in an ivory-inlaid chair before his desk of oak and gazing absently at the parchment on which he had been working.
'May I sit, my lord?' asked the messenger softly and Revelation looked up and smiled.
'My dear Cotta, of course you may. Forgive my melancholy. I had hoped to spend the remaining days of my life here in Tingis. The African weather suits me, the people are friendly and, with the exception of Berber raids, the country is restful. And I have almost completed my book . . . but then such ventures will always take second place to living history.'
Cotta sank gratefully into a high-backed chair, his bald head gleaming with sweat, his dark eyes showing his fatigue. He had come straight from the ship - eager to unburden himself of the bad news he carried, yet loth to load the weight on the man before him.
'There are many stories of how it began. All are contradictory, or else extravagantly embroidered . But, as you suspected, the Goths have a new leader of uncanny powers. His armies are certainly invincible and he is cutting a bloody path through the northern kingdoms. The Sicambrians and the Norse have yet to find him opposing them, but their turn will come.'
Revelation nodded. 'What of the sorcery?'
"The agents of the Bishop of Rome all testify that Wotan is a skilled nigromancer. He has sacrificed young girls, launching his new ships across their spread-eagled bodies. It is vile ... all of it. And he claims to be a god!'
'How do the man's powers manifest themselves?' asked the Abbot.
'He is invincible in battle. No sword can touch him. But it is said he makes the dead walk - and more than walk. One survivor of the battle in Raetia swears that at the end of the day the dead Goths rose in the midst of the enemy, cutting and killing. Needless to add that the opposition crumbled. I have only the one man's word for this tale, but I think he was speaking the truth.'
'And what is the talk among the Goths?'
"They say that Wotan plans a great invasion of Britannia, where the magic is strongest. Wotan says the home of the Old Gods is Britannia, and the gateway to Valhalla is at Sorviodunum, near the Great Circle.'
'Indeed it is' whispered Revelation.
'What, my Lord Abbot?' asked Cotta, his eyes widening.
'I am sorry, Cotta, I was thinking aloud. The Great Circle has always been considered a place of magic by the Druids - and others before them. And Wotan is right, it is a gateway of sorts - and he must not be allowed to pass through it.'
'I cannot think there is a single army to oppose him - except the Blood King, and our reports say he is sorely beset by rebellion and invasion in his own land. Saxons, Jutes, Angles and even British tribes rise against him regularly. How would he fare against 20,000 Gothic warriors led by a sorcerer who cannot be bested?'
Revelation smiled broadly, his wood-smoke eyes twinkling with sudden humour. 'Uther can never be underestimated, my friend. He too has never known defeat . . . and he carries the Sword of Power, Cunobelin's blade.'
'But he is an old man now,' said Cotta. Twenty-five years of warfare must have taken their toll. And the Great Betrayal ..."
'I know the history,' snapped Revelation. 'Pour us some wine, while I think.'
The Abbot watched as the older man filled two copper goblets with deep red wine, accepting one of them with a smile to offset the harshness of his last response.
'Is it true that Wotan's messengers seek out maidens with special talents?'
'Yes. Spirit-seers, healers, speakers in tongues ... it is said he weds them all.'
'He kills them,' said Revelation. 'It is where his power lies.'
The Abbot rose and moved to the window, watching the sun sink in fire. Behind him Cotta lit four candles, then waited in silence for several minutes. At last he spoke. 'Might I ask, my lord, why you are so concerned about events across the world? There have always been wars. It is the curse of Man that he must kill his brothers and some argue that God himself made this the punishment for Eden.'
Revelation turned from the glory of the sunset and went back to his chair.
'All life, Cotta, is balanced. Light and dark, weak and strong, good and evil. The harmony of nature. In perpetual darkness all plants would die. In perpetual sunlight they would wither and burn. The balance is everything. Wotan must be opposed, lest he become a god - a dark and malicious god, a blood-drinker, a soul-stealer.'
'And you will oppose him, my lord?'
'I will oppose him'
'But you have no army. You are not a king, or a warlord.'
'You do not know what I am, old friend. Come, refill the goblets, and we will see what the Graal shows.'
Revelation moved to an oak chest and poured water from a clay jug into a shallow silver bowl, carrying it carefully to the desk. He waited until the ripples had died and then lifted a golden stone above the water, slowly circling it. The candle flames guttered and died without a hint of breeze and Cotta found himself leaning forward, staring into the now velvet-dark water of the bowl.
The first image that appeared was that of a young boy, red-haired and wild-eyed, thrusting at the air with a wooden sword. Nearby sat an older warrior, a leather cup strapped over the stump where his right hand should have been. Revelation watched them closely, then passed his hand over the surface. Now the watchers could see blue sky and a young girl in a pale green dress sitting beside a lake.
'Those are the mountains of Raetia,' whispered Cotta. The girl was slowly plaiting her dark hair into a single braid.
'She is blind,' said Revelation. 'See how her eyes face the sun unblinking?'
Suddenly the girl's face turned towards them. 'Good morning,' she said, the words forming without sound in both men's minds.
'Who are you?' asked Revelation softly.
'How strange,' she replied, your voice whispers like the morning breeze, and seems so far away.'
'I am far away, child. Who are you?'
'I am Anduine.'
'And where do you live?'
'In Cisastra with my father, Ongist. And you?'
'I am Revelation.'
'Are you a friend?'
'I am indeed.'
'I thought so. Who is that with you?'
'How do you know there is someone with me?'
'It is a gift I have, Master Revelation. Who is he?'
'He is Cotta, a monk of the White Christ. You will meet him soon; he also is a friend.'
"This I knew. I can feel his kindness.'
Once more Revelation moved his hand across the water. Now he saw a young man with long, raven-dark hair leading a fine herd of Sicambrian horses in the vales beyond Londinium. The man was handsome, a finely-boned face framed by a strong, clean shaven jaw. Revelation studied the rider intently.
This time the water shimmered of its own accord - a dark storm-cloud hurling silent spears of jagged lightning, streaming across a night sky. From within the cloud came a flying creature with leather wings and a long wedge-shaped head. Upon its back sat a yellow-bearded warrior; his hand rose and lightning flashed towards the watchers. Revelation's arm shot forward just as the water parted; white light speared up into his hand and the stench of burning flesh filled the room. The water steamed and bubbled, vanishing in a cloud of vapour. The silver bowl sagged and flowed down upon the table, a hissing black and silver stream that caused the wood to blaze. Cotta recoiled as he saw Revelation's blackened hand. The Abbot lifted the golden stone and touched it to the seared flesh. It healed instantly, but even the magic could not take away the memory of the pain and Revelation sagged back into his chair, his heart pounding and cold sweat on his face. He took a deep breath and stared at the smouldering wood. The flames died, the smoke disappearing as round them the candles flared into life.
'He knows of me, Cotta. But in attacking me I learned of him. He is not quite ready to plunge the world into darkness; he needs one more sacrifice.'
'For what?' whispered the old man.
'In the language of this world? He seeks to open the Gates of Hell.'
'Can he be stopped?'
Revelation shrugged. 'We will see, my friend. You must take ship for Raetia and find Anduine. From there take her to Britannia, to Noviomagus. I will meet you in three months. Once there you will find an inn in the southern quarter - called, I believe, the Sign of the Bull. Come every day at noon and wait one hour. I shall join you when I can.'
'The blind girl is the sacrifice?'
'And what of the red-haired boy and the rider?'
'As yet I do not know. Friends or enemies . . . only time will tell. The boy looked familiar, but I cannot place him. He was wearing Saxon garb and I have never journeyed amongst the Saxons. As to the rider, I know him; his name is Ursus and he is of the House of Merovee. He has a brother, I think, and he yearns to be rich.'
'And the man upon the dragon?' asked Cotta softly.
'The Enemy from beyond the Mist.' 'And is he truly Wotan, the grey god?' Revelation sipped his wine. 'Wotan? He has had many names. To some he was Odin the One-Eyed, to others Loki. In the East they called him Purgame-sh,or Molech, or even Baal. Yes, Cotta, he is divine - immortal if you will. And where he walks, chaos follows.'
'You speak as if you know him.' 'I know him. I fought him once before.' 'What happened?' 'I killed him, Cotta,' answered the Abbot.
Grysstha watched as the boy twirled the wooden sword, lunging and thrusting at the air around him. 'Feet, boy, think about your feet!'
The old man hawked and spat on the grass, then scratched at the itching stump of his right wrist. 'A swordsman must learn balance. It is not enough to have a quick eye and a good arm - to fall is to die, boy.'
The youngster thrust the wooden blade into the ground and sat beside the old warrior. Sweat gleamed on his brow and his sky-blue eyes sparkled.
'But I am improving, yes?'
'Of course you are improving, Cormac. Only a fool could not.'
The boy pulled clear the weapon, brushing dirt from the whittled blade. 'Why is it so short? Why must I practise with a Roman blade?'
'Know your enemy. Never care about his weaknesses; you will find those if your mind has skill. Know his strengths. They conquered the world, boy, with just such swords. You know why?'
Grysstha smiled. 'Gather me some sticks,- Cormac. Gather me sticks you could break easily with finger and thumb.' As the boy grinned and moved off to the trees Grysstha watched him, allowing the pride to shine now that the boy could not see him closely.
Why were there so many fools in the world, he thought, as pride gave way to anger? How could they not see the potential in the lad? How could they hate him for a fault that was not his?
'Will these do?' asked Cormac, dropping twenty finger-thin sticks at Grysstha's feet.
'Take one and break it.'
'Easily done,' said Cormac, snapping a stick.
'Keep going, boy. Break them all.'
When the youngster had done so, Grysstha pulled a length of twine from his belt. 'Now gather ten of them and bind them together with this.'
'Like a beacon brand, you mean?'
'Exactly. Tie them tight.'
Cormac made a noose of the twine, gathered ten sticks and bound them tightly together. He offered the four-inch-thick brand to Grysstha but the old man shook his head.
'Break it,' he ordered.
'It is too thick.'
The boy strained at the brand, his face reddening the muscles of his arms and shoulders writhing under his red woollen shirt.
'A few moments ago you snapped twenty of these sticks, but now you cannot break ten.'
'But they are bound together, Grysstha. Even Calder could not break them.'
"That is the secret the Romans carried in their short-swords. The Saxon fights with a long blade, swinging it wide. His comrades cannot fight close to him, for they might be struck by his slashing sword, so each man fights alone, though there are ten thousand in the fray. But the Roman, with his gladius -he locks shields with his comrades and his blade stabs like a viper bite. Their legions were like that brand, bound together.'
'And how did they fail, if they were so invincible?'
'An army is as good as its general, and the general is only a reflection of the emperor who appoints him. Rome has had her day. Maggots crawl in the body of Rome, worms writhe in the brain, rats gnaw at the sinews.'
The old man hawked and spat once more, his pale blue eyes gleaming.
'You fought them, did you not?' said Cormac. 'In Gallia and Italia?'
'I fought them. I watched their legions fold and run before the dripping blades of the Goths and the Saxons. I could have wept then for the souls of the Romans that once were. Seven legions we crushed, until we found an enemy worth fighting: Afrianus and the Sixteenth. Ah, Cormac, what a day! Twenty thousand lusty warriors, drunk with victory, facing one legion of five thousand men. I stood on a hill and looked down upon them, their bronze shields gleaming. At the centre, on a pale stallion, Afrianus himself. Sixty years old and, unlike his fellows, bearded like a Saxon. We hurled ourselves upon them, but it was like water falling on a stone. Their line held. Then they advanced, and cut us apart. Less than two thousand of us escaped into the forests. What a man! I swear there was Saxon blood in him.'
'What happened to him?'
'The emperor recalled him to Rome and he was assassinated.' Grysstha chuckled. 'Worms in the brain, Cormac.'
'Why?' queried the boy. 'Why kill an able general?'
'Think on it, boy.'
'I can make no sense of it.'
'That is the mystery, Cormac. Do not seek for sense in the tale. Seek for the hearts of men. Now leave me to watch these goats swell their bellies and get back to your duties.'
The boy's face fell. 'I like to be here with you, Grysstha. I ... I feel at peace here.'
'That is what friendship is, Cormac Daemonsson. Take strength from it, for the world does not understand the likes of you and me.'
'Why are you my friend, Grysstha?'
'Why does the eagle fly? Why is the sky blue? Go now. Be strong.'
Grysstha watched as the lad wandered disconsolately from the high meadow towards the huts below. Then the old warrior swung his gaze up to the horizon and the low, scudding clouds. His stump ached and he pulled the leather cap from his wrist, rubbing at the scarred skin. Reaching out, he tugged the wooden blade from the ground, remembering the days when his own sword had a name and a history and more, a future.
But that was before the day fifteen years ago when the Blood King clove the South Saxon, butchering and burning, tearing the heart from the people and holding it above their heads in his mailed fist. He should have killed them all, but he did not. He made them swear an oath of allegiance, and loaned them coin to rebuild ruined farms and settlements.
Grysstha had come close to killing the Blood King in the last battle. He had hacked his way into the shield square, cleaving a path towards the flame-haired king, when a sword slashed down across his wrist, almost severing his hand. Then another weapon hammered into his helm and he fell dazed. He had struggled to rise, but his head was spinning. When at last he regained consciousness he opened his eyes to find himself gazing at the Blood King, who was kneeling beside him. Grysstha's fingers reached out for the man's throat - but there was no fingers, only a bloody bandage.
'You were a magnificent warrior,' said the Blood King. 'I salute you!'
'You cut off my hand!'
'It was hanging by a thread. It could not be saved.'
Grysstha forced himself to his feet, staggered, then gazed around him. Bodies littered the field and Saxon women were moving amongst the corpses seeking lost loved ones.
'Why did you save me?' snarled Grysstha, rounding on the King.
The man merely smiled and turned on his heel. Flanked by his Guards, he strode from the field to a crimson tent by a rippling stream.
'Why?' bellowed Grysstha, falling to his knees.
'I do not think he knows himself,' said a voice and Grysstha looked up.
Leaning on an ornate crutch carved from dark shining wood was a middle aged Briton, with wispy grey-blond beard over a pointed chin. Grysstha saw that his left leg was twisted and deformed. The man offered the Saxon his hand but Grysstha ignored it and pushed himself to his feet.
'He sometimes relies on intuition,' said the man, gently, his pale eyes showing no sign of offence.
'You are of the Tribes?' said Grysstha.
"Then why follow the Roman?'
'Because the land is his, and he is the land. My name is Prasamaccus.'
'So I live because of the King's whim?'
'Yes. I was beside him when you charged the shield-wall; it was a reckless action.'
'I am a reckless man. What does he mean to do with us now? Sell us?'
'I think he means to leave you in peace.'
'Why would he do anything so foolish?'
Prasamaccus limped to a jutting boulder and sat. 'A horse kicked me,' he said, 'and my leg was not strong before that. How is your hand?'
'It bums like fire,' said Grysstha, sitting beside the tribesman, his eyes on the women still searching the field of battle as the crows circled, screeching in their hunger.
'He says that you also are of the land,' said Prasamaccus. 'He has reigned for ten years. He sees Saxons and Jutes and Angles and Goths being born in this Island of Mist. They are no longer invaders.'
'Does he think we came here to serve a Roman King?'
'He knows why you came - to plunder and kill and grow rich. But you stayed to farm. How do you feel about the land?'
'I was not born here, Prasamaccus.'
The Brigante smiled and held out his left hand. Grysstha looked down at it, and then took it in the warrior's grip, wrist to wrist.
'I think that is a good first use of your left hand.'
'It will also learn to use a sword. My name is Grysstha.'
'I have seen you before. You were at the great battle near Eboracum, the day the King came home.'
Grysstha nodded. 'You have a good eye and a better memory. It was the Day of the Two Suns. I have never seen the like since, nor would I wish to. We fought alongside the Brigante that day, and the coward-king Eldared. Were you with him?'
'No. I stood under the two suns with Uther and the Ninth Legion.'
'The day of the Blood King. Nothing has been right since then. Why can he not be beaten? How does he always know where to strike?'
'He is the land, and the land knows.'
Grysstha said nothing. He had not expected the man to betray the King's secret.
Of seven thousand Saxon warriors who had begun the battle, a mere eleven hundred remained. These Uther required to kneel and swear Blood Oath never to rise against him again. In return the land would be theirs, as before, but now by right and not by conquest. He also left them their own king, Wulfhere - son of Orsa, son of Hengist. It was a brave move. Grysstha knelt with the others in the dawn light before the King's tent, watching as Uther stood with the boy, Wulfhere.
The Saxons smiled, even in defeat, for they knew they knelt not before the conqueror but before their own sovereign lord.
The Blood King knew it too.
'You have my word that our friendship is as strong as this blade,' he said, hoisting the Sword of Cuno-belin high into the air, where the dawn sun glistened like fire on the steel. 'But friendship has a price. This sword will accept no other swords in the hands of the Saxon.' An angry murmur rippled amongst the kneeling men. 'Be true to your word and this may change,' said the King, 'but if you are not true I shall return and not one man, not one woman, not one squalling babe will be left alive from Anderida to Venta. The choice is yours.'
Within two hours both the King and his army had departed and the stunned Saxons gathered in the Council of Wotan. Wulfhere was only twelve and could not vote, and Calder was appointed as steward to help him govern. The rest of the day was devoted to the election of men to the Council. Only two survived out of the original eighteen, but by dusk the positions were filled once more.
Two hours after dawn the Eighteen met and now the real business began. Some were for heading east and linking with Hengist's son, Drada, who was after all Wulfhere's uncle and blood-kin. Others were for waiting until another army could be gathered. Still more suggested sending for aid across the water, where the Merovingian wars were displacing fighting men.
Two events turned the day. At noon a wagon arrived bearing gifts of gold and silver from the King, to be distributed 'as the Council sees fit'. This gift alone meant that food could be bought for the savage winter ahead, and blankets and trade goods from the Merovingians in Gallia.
Second, the steward Calder made a speech that would live long in the minds, if not the hearts of his listeners.
'I fought the Blood King and my sword dripped red with the blood of his Guards. But why did we fight him? Ask yourselves that. I say it was because we felt he could be beaten, and there would be plunder from Venta, Londinium, Dubris and all the other merchant towns. But now we know. He cannot be beaten ... not by us ... perhaps not by Drada. You have seen the wagon - more coin than we could have taken in a campaign. I say we wait and judge his word: return to our farms, make repairs, gather harvests where we can.'
'Men without swords, Calder. How then shall we reach Valhalla?' shouted a tall warrior.
'I myself follow the White Christ,' said Calder, 'so I have no interest in Valhalla. But if it worries you, Snorri, then join Drada. Let any man who wishes to fight on do the same. We have been offered friendship - and surely there are worse things in the world to receive from a conqueror than a wagon of gold?'
It is because he fears us,' said Snorri, lurching to his feet. 'I say we use his gold to buy men and arms and then march on Camulodunum.'
'You will perhaps take the barn with you on your campaign,' said Calder. Laughter followed his words, for it was well known that Snorri had hidden from the Romans under a blanket in the broad barn, only running clear when the enemy put it to the torch. He had been voted to the Council merely on the strength of his landholdings.
'I was cut off and it was that or die,' said Snorri. ‘I’ll take my gold and join Drada.'
'No one takes the gold,' said Calder. "The gift is to the Council and we will vote on its use.'
At the last Snorri and four other landsmen, with more than two hundred men, joined Drada; the rest remained to build a new life as vassals of the Blood King.
For Grysstha the decision tasted of ashes. But he was Calder's carle and pledged to obey him, and the decisions of the great rarely concerned him.
That night, as he stood alone on High Hill, Calder came to him.
'You are troubled, my friend?' the steward asked.
'The Days of Blood will come again. I can feel it in the whisper of the wind. The crows know it too.'
'Wise birds, crows. The eyes of Odin.'
'I heard you told them you followed the White Christ?'
'You think the Blood King had no ears at our meeting? You think Snorri and his men will live to join Drada? Or that any of us would have been left alive had I not spoken as I did? No. Grysstha. I follow the old gods who understood the hearts of men.'
'And what of the treaty with Uther?'
'We will honour it for as long as it suits us, but one day you will be avenged for the loss of your sword-arm. I had a dream last night and I saw the Blood King standing alone on the top of a hill, his men all dead around him and his banner broken. I believe Odin sent that dream; it is a promise for the future.'