About the Author
M. K. Hume is a retired academic. She received her MA and PhD in Arthurian literature and is the author of The Merlin Prophecy, a historical trilogy about the legend of Merlin. She lives in Australia with her husband and two sons.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
King Arthur Trilogy Book One: Dragon’s Child Chapter I
THE EDGES OF MEMORY
For a certain order embraces all things, and anything which departs from the order planned and assigned to it, only falls back into order, albeit a different order so as not to allow anything to chance in the realms of Providence.
The forest embraced the boy like an ancient cloak, ragged at the hems, but still serviceable and strong in the weave. The roots of the oak trees twisted out of the deep, moldering earth, and their branches were so thick and tangled that the boy felt as if he had plunged into cool, green water after the humid brilliance of the fallow fields. The threat that this adventure would lead to stern punishment meant little to him, for he would be punished anyway. If not for these hours of sensual pleasure, then some half-forgotten sin would stir his foster father to wrath.
In a dense canopy of alder and oak, the trees starved all grass of the necessities of life. The boy walked through a perilous coverlet of leaf drifts, fallen branches embroidered with the verdigris of moss, and strange, fleshy flowers that covered hidden badger setts. The eerie beauty of this half-lit world fascinated the boy and set his heart racing with the promise of danger. Anything could dwell in these sudden hollows of almost midnight blue. Within the shadows, anyone could be close enough to touch him in this half-imagined landscape where his foster father’s power was reduced to less than dust. He himself could be anyone, and he could dream whatever he chose without hindrance. Here, he was neither safe nor unsafe, but most truly himself.
Myrddion’s Map of Pre-Arthurian Southern Britain
The boy found a favored natural glade, some ten spear shafts across, where tree trunks mimicked pillars and a slender blade of light reached to the forest floor. A great rock, covered in white lacy lichen, squatted off center in the glade, and the boy ran his narrow hands over its surface until he felt the worn whorls and lines roughly hacked into its flank. For some half-instinctive reason, he chose to seat himself as far from those barely visible patterns as he could while he stared hard at a hollow, barely the length of his hand, which had been chipped out of the rock at its center. It was tilted strangely, for the boy had once sacrificed a little liquid from his goatskin water carrier to fill that shallow, manmade cup. He had watched transfixed as some of the water drained away, following the spirals and whorls until the rivulet fell onto the forest floor.
Something dark always flexed its wings in the boy’s mind when he touched that hollow. He could imagine a sticky, viscous thread of blood snaking away from his fingers into the pattern and filling his nostrils with the unsettling scent of iron.
“Things have died here,” he whispered to break the sepulchral silence of the glade. “But they are so old . . . perhaps as ancient as the trees themselves.”
The boy rarely thought beyond the wonders of the present, but this small green space had always stirred some atavistic part of his brain. The bright green grasses, heavy with long seed heads and the occasional small flower, always reminded him of the places where the servants were buried after they had died. In the lee of the separate farm building that was their sleeping quarters, small patches of unnaturally bright green grew lushly on the slightly mounded earth and below the fieldstone rocks that bore the names of the dead. On these plots, the weeds grew freely until the women pulled them out and scattered flower seeds in their stead, so that any swathe of viridian made the boy think of death.
Sitting on the sun-warmed, ancient monolith, he shuddered as if winter had already come and turned the surface slick and sticky with ice.
He loved to frighten himself with his imaginings, even though he was a sturdy boy who was taller than his birth age of twelve years. Already the shape of manhood was coming upon him, and he drove the Saxon serving woman, old Frith, half crazy as he outgrew his leather trousers and strained the stitches of his tunics at the shoulders.
“He’s a beautiful lad . . . everything I could wish for in a grandson,” Frith always insisted, even when the kitchen servants made fun of him. “He pretends to be heedless and uncaring, but he’s only protecting himself from hurt. My boy would never cause me a moment of pain, nor anyone else, I swear . . . although some people treat him shamefully. But I’ll mention no names.”
Frith was a tall, lean woman, but she seemed to swell with indignation until her white hair, narrow face, and pendulous breasts reminded the other servants of an intelligent, bad-tempered goat.
“A great lump of a boy,” his foster father explained to the occasional visitor. “Half wild as well . . . a little wanting, if you take my meaning.”
The master, Lord Ector, was himself tall and broad in shoulder and girth, but Lump, as the kitchen slaves called the boy derisively, threatened to tower well over six feet in height.
“A little barbarian,” his foster brother would drawl to his friends, from his advanced age of seventeen and the impregnable reality of full manhood. “He scarcely uses the baths—and his hair! Once his beard grows, he’ll be a walking mop!”
The young epicures laughed, for Caius aped the airs of a noble roman dilettante, although the Dracos Legion, the last to protect Britain, had been gone for many years. Roman by birth, as he described himself with pride, Caius had no time for Lump, who appeared to have none of the true blood in his veins. Caius conveniently ignored his own Celtic paternity.
“Why my pater accepted him defies imagination.” Caius smoothed his shining black hair, which he kept militarily short and carefully curled over his forehead.
“When he was an infant, he cried constantly until the women put him in a linen chest. Then, when he grew older . . . well, look at that vacuous face. He’s learned his letters, it’s true, for Mater would never tolerate an ignorant son, foster or no, but he never reads the scrolls or conducts himself as a well-born youth should. Targo beats him regularly, for all the effect it has on him, for Lump just stands and takes the blows with that vague expression on his fat face.”
Caius and his Celt father, Ector, were wrong.
The boy read the scrolls in the meager scriptorium, but only when the rest of the house was asleep and he could steal a little oil for his lamp. The flickering light made the Latin words dance with a life quite apart from the ancient memories they shared with him. But he had eaten the stale crusts of charity every day of his twelve years, and they made an unpalatable and indigestible meal, scrolls or no scrolls. He would ask for nothing from the Poppinidii family, not even affection.
So Lump simply went away whenever he chose—either to the woods or to the deepest caverns in his head. Beatings or tirades or ridicule had no power to harm him in that dark place. The boy, Lump, had learned to control his feelings and to drive them inward so he could face the world with a fatuous, affable smile. But inside? Rage, hurt, and confusion boiled and bubbled so deeply buried that Lump barely recognized its heat as real.
The boy stretched his long, smooth legs on the rock’s spine. What hair his body grew was certainly very pale, so his limbs were burned to a rich bronze by hours in the sunlight. His face was neither fat nor featureless, but was broad and already sharply angular at the cheekbones. His hair curled so wildly that no amount of combing could completely tame the spiraled ringlets that formed a red-gold nimbus around his head. His eyes were unusual in a world of largely brown, hazel, green, and black-eyed people, slaves and masters both, for they were so pale and grey that they seemed almost blind in his smooth face.
Those eyes trapped the light, but nothing of the soul behind them escaped as a warning to those who would torment him.
With regret, the boy left the glade as the blades of light narrowed, then slid behind the dense foliage that towered above him. The air had a sultry heaviness, as if a storm was coming. He would have welcomed the steady driving rain from a downpour, but his empty stomach was warning him that he must return to the villa—or else go hungry for yet another night.
“Farewell, rock,” he whispered to the body-warmed stone. “Farewell, trees.”
Arriving in the forest was always more pleasant than returning to the villa. As the boy pushed his way through the waist-high grasses of the western field, avoiding the stinging nettles that grew in dense patches, he put on his “family face,” as he called it, and assumed his accustomed untidy shamble.
When he reached the outbuildings of the Villa Poppinidii, his back was bowed and his feet scuffed the crazy stone pathways between the stables and the piggery.
“You’re wanted, Lump,” a pert housemaid giggled at him as she emptied slops into the swine trough. “You’ve been wanted for hours. The master has visitors.”
“Ugh!” was the boy’s only reply.
Now he would have to bathe. He’d need to find a clean tunic as well, if Frith had found the time to mend his second-best clothing.
He eyed his filthy toes in their ragged sandals with ill humor. He’d be late—and Ector would not tolerate a tardy foster son.
I’d best be moving then, the boy admonished himself with little enthusiasm. He sought out Frith in the kitchens where she was most usually seated, warming her old bones before the large open ovens. Frith’s age and her long service to the Poppinidii gens had earned her the right to these small comforts.
She turned to gaze upward at Lump’s clean-cut face, and she smiled, revealing the last of sturdy white teeth that had scarcely shrunk away from her gums, despite her great age. Her faded blue eyes shone with real love as she reached up to remove dead leaves from the boy’s wildly tousled, bent head.
“It’s a good thing I am fond of you, young rapscallion,” the old woman mumbled through the gaps in her teeth. “I’ve mended your tunic and found you a leather belt to fit that waist of yours. And don’t forget the perfumed oil,” she called out after him. “Perhaps it will train that hair of yours—it’s full of twigs.”
“I thank you, good Frith,” he called back over his shoulder. “Sleep well by your fire.” His odd grey eyes were soft and lambent with intelligence, but none of the servants noticed Lump’s sudden change in expression. The boy was only Lump, a child of no real status in a villa where every person had a clearly defined role.
“That Lump will never amount to much,” the sour-faced cook snapped as he fiddled with a brimming pot filled with boiled eels and root vegetables.
“Ah, but it’s amazing how balanced his temper is when he’s treated with kindness,” Frith replied tartly. “It’s also remarkable how agile the boy becomes when he thinks no one is looking.” She had been nurse to the last Roman child born to the House of Poppinidii, the sweet and tiny Livinia, and she knew all the secrets of the villa.
“Go back to sleep, Grandmother. You’ve been out in the sun too long,” was the cook’s acerbic reply.
PAUSING ONLY IN his narrow, airless cubicle to gather up his clothing, his old strigil, and a small bottle of rather rancid oil, the boy ran to the very end of the east wing of Villa Poppinidii, taking care to skirt the atrium, the eating couches, and the triclinium in his haste. In truth, the boy loved to hear stories of the world beyond the villa, which only visitors brought. For him, a little scrubbing was a small price to pay for a night in the corner, listening to the men talk of strange and alien places while he served the adults their wine and sweetmeats.
Hastily, in the mosaic pool of the calidarium, the boy scoured and heated his skin in the hot water. He had scant regard for the proper civilities and order of the bathing rites, but concentrated on opening the pores of his skin and rubbing in the sickly oil while he tried not to breathe the stench in through his nose. The boy then dragged the old strigil over several days of accumulated dirt. He even paid cursory attention to his nails so that, eventually, the worst of the day’s excesses were removed.
Then, after a quick splash in the frigidarium to cleanse and close his pores, he gave himself a rough toweling and attempted to tie back his wet, wild hair with a leather thong. Finally, he donned a tunic, belt, loincloth, and sandals, and ran through the silent colonnades to the room where all visitors were entertained.
“There you are, boy,” Ector snapped. “At least we must be grateful that you are clean.” He smiled at his guests to soften the sting of his criticisms. “And now you can assist with the serving,” he ordered. “As is your duty.”
Ector was a big man, thick in the body and broad of shoulder, but his legs were unnaturally short and bandy. His face was florid and almost smooth of wrinkles, for the master of the house rarely fell prey to extremes of emotion. His mouth was good-humored, and his pale, blue eyes were slightly protuberant, giving his face an expression of perpetual surprise.
But only a fool underestimated Master Ector, a man raised in the warrior tradition, to which the hard muscle of his body bore witness. Having served his time in the fortresses of the north, Ector now enjoyed his broad acres, his fat cattle and kine, and the peace of a quiet middle age. However, should external peril threaten his house, Ector would rise to fight like an old battle hound.
Ector and his wife, Livinia, their son, Caius, and three unknown gentlemen were all reclining in the Roman fashion on carved couches around a low table that was piled high with delicacies. Eel in aspic, a boar’s head splendidly presented with boiled barley, a sliced haunch of venison, salted vegetables, and periwinkles that swam in exotic sauces were displayed on the low, central table.
The triclinium was quite large, as befitted the honor of Livinia’s ancient family, and gave directly onto the atrium where, under a pale moon, water danced and splashed from an imaginative bronze statue of a monstrous fish. Sweet-smelling oils burned brightly in rare glass vessels, and the best torches hung on heavy iron wall brackets, yet no unsightly stains of oil smoke marred a fine fresco of an olive grove. Ector might be a bastard Celt, but he had married the last child of an ancient family, and had taken the Poppinidii name as his own. In the nearest town of Aquae Sulis, he was deemed to be a man of significant wit—and extraordinary luck.
“Yes, Foster Father,” the boy replied neutrally ignoring his foster father’s acerbic tone that was devoid of the respect accorded to servants. He bowed formally to each guest, even the hateful Caius.
He sought out the villa’s steward, a Greek slave called Cletus, and collected large jars of honeyed wine from Gaul and the crisp, clean vintages of Spain. Ector was noted as a connoisseur of good wines, and it was the boy’s task at these functions to ensure that the gilded cups of the visitors were kept full to the brim.
The boy was also adept at becoming invisible. As the meal progressed, h...
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