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Kathleen Cunningham Guler is the author of the four-part Macsen’s Treasure series of historical spy thrillers set in fifth century Britain. Her most recent book in the series, A Land Beyond Ravens, won the 2010 Colorado Book Award and the 2010 National Indie Excellence Award, both in the historical fiction category. The series’ other books include Into the Path of Gods, In the Shadow of Dragons and The Anvil Stone. Kathleen has also published numerous articles, essays, short stories, reviews and poems, and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the International Arthurian Society. While conducting research on her next novel, she is also working on her Masters degree in history.
Please visit her blog on research and writing historical fiction: Finding the Story in History: http://kathleenguler.blogspot.com.
Excerpt from Into the Path of Gods (nominated for the 2012 Colorado Book Award)
Dun Breatann, Kingdom of Strathclyde
Autumn, AD 463
They were coming. Every last one of them.
Marcus ap Iorwerth watched the warrior princes and high-ranking clanlords begin to assemble in Dun Breatann’s great hall. Extraordinary. All nine-and-twenty had obeyed the summons. That showed how Ceredig, lord of the large northern kingdom of Strathclyde, had a fine iron hold on all that happened within his lands, that in autumn fighting men could spare a few days’ travel for a rare gathering like this.
Aye, time to celebrate a good year of warlording. So they had been told. Please the gods they won’t have all cut each other’s throats by midnight.
Marcus suppressed a sardonic smile and let his thick black hair fall closely around his face. Dressed in the simple dark brown tunic and breeches of Dun Breatann’s slaves, he stalked to the hearth, a brick of dried peat across his arms. He imitated the empty-eyed gaze of the other slaves, stood with their slack-shouldered stance and dumped the new brick among the coals.
The rising rumble of voices, music from a small band of players and squeals from slave girls being pinched drowned out the hiss of the fire. Slowly he circuited the smoldering hearth, a large circular fire pit half-sunk into the center of the hall’s floor. Stones high enough to sit on encircled it. He poked at the coals, counting the men. Four-and-twenty so far. And like the leather drapes hung against the walls to cut draughts, Ceredig’s house guards ringed the hall, watching the men for trouble with aloof, cold eyes.
Trestles had been spread with platters of beef and venison, roast boar, bread, apples, pears, dried figs from the continent, jars of drink.
Several slaves had spent the day preparing the feast and were setting out the last of it. Marcus eyed the row of drinking horns, his tongue curling with thirst. Wouldn’t one filled with Ceredig’s good imported Roman wine taste fine indeed?
Soon the warlords would stalk the trestles like wolves and the drink would flow faster than the vast River Clyde that skirted the south side of the stronghold. Then the boasting would begin along with the stench of pissing contests behind the hall when so many inebriated men grew too lazy to walk all the way down to the latrine pits.
“Eh,” Marcus heaved a rough sigh. His craving for wine could wait for a more appetizing time.
He glanced up at the sound of a woman’s voice, its softness out-of-place against the rough speech of the female slaves. Then he remembered—Ceredig had spoken of a distant relation, a woman who lived on one of his many farmsteads. Her daughter was to be handfasted to one of the warlords. Or was it to be a true marriage? Odd to hold the ceremony at such a gathering.
Marcus gazed across the hall, spotted the woman. Three, in truth, and coming towards him, talking amongst themselves, eyes serious.
A private debate they strove to keep private, with a subtle volatility that threatened to explode very publicly, very quickly.
The oldest woman faced towards him when they paused on the opposite side of the fire pit. White-haired, frail and finely wrinkled skin—must be the mother. The second woman, thin and dressed in a plain cream-colored overtunic and mantle, held her face downcast. The youngest, in blue, wore her copious wavy dark red hair loose.
The mother’s pale blue-grey eyes held no warmth and gave him the sense of contrived oppression. The cheerless grey of her clothing contributed to it. She spoke steadily to the woman in cream. The daughter to be handfasted?
This younger woman, her tawny-brown hair loose around her shoulders, stared into the fire pit, brows arched down, lips in a stubborn line. Close to crying, her eyes flicked up and Marcus caught a glimpse of green-blue irises before she turned away in embarrassment.
A betrothal to one of those brutes? He glanced across at the range of men. Most looked at least twice her age and she looked to be a year or two younger than he was himself at eight-and-ten winters. Can’t blame her for a few tears. But choice in marriage was a matter of alliance and the passage of property.
Marcus grunted and turned back to the fire pit. The women were not why he was here. He gave the new brick a poke. Flames swam up around it, thick smoke floated into the high roof. Another layer of soot on the blackened beams and thatch. He shrugged an eyebrow at it. Fine enough.
He withdrew. Near the rear doors he slipped behind the leather drapes. Motionless, he waited. Shortly the last few men arrived and quickly mingled in, each sizing up the other. Who could drink the most? Who had led more raids, stolen more cattle that summer?
Who had bedded the most women? Arrogance. Gah, they could hardly bear each other’s presence. Nor could they resist their curiosity of each other.
The entire collection in one place. Anger surged in Marcus’s gut. He knew the names and faces of each warlord, but he did not know whether one had a connection to an Irishman called Eachan, a broker who had been recruiting Saxon mercenaries for Vortigern, the cursed nobleman who called himself high king.
Marcus grunted in contempt. Vortigern had claimed that title for twenty years now. The last true high king Custennin had left Britain decades earlier. Custennin—or Constantine as the more Roman-like people in the southern kingdoms called him—had taken the remnants of the Roman legions to Gaul to fight for the Empire. In the void Vortigern had wrested control without any council’s approval.
Marcus agreed with the consensus that the king had brought more trouble than he’d solved and kept digging himself in deeper by the day. With no Roman soldiers left to guard the coasts, Vortigern had taken to hiring Germanic mercenaries from the continent, trading their fighting capabilities for land in Britain’s southeast. Over time the soldiers brought in their kinfolk, multiplied, and in turn took more land by force. Confrontations had escalated into a steady stream of dead clanlords and displaced people.
Native resistance increased and as land grew more difficult to obtain, Eachan had turned to the western coastline. His mercenaries had wiped out several smallholdings to gain a foothold, first in Gwynedd, the kingdom several days’ travel to the south, then here in Strathclyde. Alerted, Ceredig had organized his warriors to quell the problem, but the mercenaries continued to infiltrate and Eachan remained elusive.
Marcus stared stonily at the crowd of men. Who was the traitor?
Brace logic against temper, he told himself and choked down the anger. A little patience could remedy this. Eachan, the bastard, had found someone here to pay off. Rumor had it that he might even attempt to meet the traitor during this feasting, a rumor started that morning. Practical tool, gossip could be, Marcus thought. War bands were not the only way to draw out and trap a rogue.
From a small deerskin pouch hung on his hip, Marcus withdrew a ring of bronze and slipped it onto his left hand’s smallest finger. Not worth much, but its distinctive pattern and that it had once belonged to Eachan made it a token as useful as gossip.
He moved out of the shadows and picked up a large serving jar of wine, his left hand placed so the ring could not be readily seen.
Sullen of face, he wove through the hall with piercing vigilance, pouring wine into drinking horns. Who was sweating more than necessary? Which one watched a little too carefully? Who was a bit too unsociable? With each man he approached, he turned his wrist
enough to display the ring for an instant before he pivoted away. Just a glimpse should suffice to mark him as a go-between. Anything more might look like flaunting—a sure way to expose his ruse. A slave would never be allowed to possess any kind of personal adornment and if one of these overly proud men took offense, or if another slave had a fit of jealousy, he could fall to their wrath.
Hours passed. Near midnight and not one of them had reacted. Not even a lingering glance at the ring. Too drunk to notice even their own fingers, let be a ring on someone else’s hand.
A row of woven drapes blocked off several small partitioned sections at one end of the hall, creating private spaces. As Marcus passed them on his way from the trestles with another jar of wine, one drape whisked aside. Ceredig walked out. Tall, craggy-faced, robust and rusty-haired, the king in his late forties still presented an imposing figure in his simple robes, tunic and breeches of fine slate-colored wool. His brown eyes ranged over the crowded hall.
Marcus paused and glanced into the space behind the king. The mother and daughter sat at a small trestle. The woman in blue stood in the back next to a druid.
“You will not ruin this,” he heard the mother argue. “At three-and-ten summers, even Grania has more sense.” She swished a hand towards the young red-haired woman.
“I’m not trying to be contrary,” the daughter said. “But how can you—?”
“It will have to be enough,” her mother cut in. “Why should you be any different than any other woman?”
“Enough. It is time for you to marry. Past time. It must be done before I die.”
Their voices ceased. Ready to move on, Marcus bowed to the king. Ceredig’s eyes skimmed over him and held for an instant. Marcus gave a faint shake of his head, disappointed he lacked news. Irritation twitched the king’s beard and he turned away.
“Drakar!” Ceredig’s voice boomed above the din.
Marcus scanned the hall and caught sight of the massive, fleshy-faced man who belonged to the name. Must be time for the handfasting. So it was Drakar, eh? That made sense. He was the only one who was not a prince or clanlord. Ceredig had taken him on as a minor war commander and he had proven capable. Belonging to no clan and landless, he could only settle for a minimal bride-price.
“Come, lass,” Ceredig coaxed the woman in the cream gown to come forward. Men whistled and gestured lewdly at her, slapped Drakar on the back as he shouldered his way towards her. She froze, her hand gripping the drape to the partition’s entrance, her eyes fixed on the man who would become her husband. White as limewash, Marcus thought. And so thin, even fragile. Gah, Drakar’s bulk will crush her like a bird.
Shaking back his frazzled mass of flaming red curls, the warlord stopped a few paces short of the king. In one hand he held the last of a greasy chunk of boar meat impaled on a large eating knife. Juice dripped along his arm and into his sleeve. He shoved the last bit of fatty meat into his mouth, grabbed a drinking horn from one of the other men and swallowed two long gulps of wine to wash it down.
Ceredig’s eyes narrowed. “Are you ready for this or would you care to clean up first?”
Drakar wiped the back of a hand across his thick beard that was several shades darker than his hair. His indifferent, nearly colorless blue eyes passed over the woman. On their way back up, they snapped towards the row of curtained-off spaces. His brows constricted and he looked back at the king, mouth open.
“No,” the young woman moaned against the hall’s noise. “No, I won’t do this.”
Facing away, Marcus heard her steps pad across the plank floor and fade as rumbles of astonishment grew in her wake. He watched the warlord. The man was too stiff. Angling, Marcus approached Drakar, offered to refill the drinking horn. In the same moment he caught a glimpse of a slave peering at them from the last private space—one he didn’t recognize. The man swiftly averted his face and let the drape fall.
“Drakar,” Ceredig warned. “You’re not acting like a man about to be handfasted.”
Aye, and here was a test. Marcus adjusted his fingers on the jar and let the ring click against the clay surface before he pulled it back and poured wine into the horn. He drilled his gaze into Drakar’s face.
The big man met Marcus’s stare. The pale eyes turned cold.
Marcus nodded faintly.
“Out of my way,” the warlord spit, handed off the drinking horn and shoved past. The hall reverberated with confused chatter as he strode first towards the rear doors then seemed to have an abrupt change of mind. He circled around and left through the front.
Marcus set the horn and jar on the nearest trestle. He swept his gaze across the draped private spaces. All motionless. Had the strange slave already gone? Or—
No, the slave—or whatever he was—emerged from the last one at the opposite end. Thin and agile, he must have squeezed through behind the partitions. He slithered into the mass of people.
Marcus hissed an oath. Two traitors, not one. Which one should he follow?