The Broken Kings, takes us forward in time by several years from Celtika and The Iron Grail. Merlin, still young and ever reluctant to use too much of his powers of enchantment, is now enchanted by his lover Niiv, a Northlands shamanka, with strong powers of her own. They live in the Iron Age kingdom of Taurovinda, in the Isle of Alba, whose king, Urtha, is a distant ancestor to Uther Pendragon.
But something or someone in The Realm of the Shadows of Heroes, the Otherworld which is separated only by a sacred river from Taurovinda, is hungry for conquest. An army of the Dead is forming at the river’s edge, gathering in the ghostly ‘hostels’, which appear only when there is about to be an event of great importance in the land.
Urtha must raise an army from neighbouring kingdoms to defend his territory. Merlin, meanwhile, is tasked with finding out what or who it is that is causing unrest in the Otherworld!
Though the task will take Merlin, Jason, and his ancient ship Argo across the world, and back in time, the answer lies partly with the Warlord who originally founded Taurovinda, ‘The Fortress of the White Bull.
And the book begins with Merlin’s memory of his first encounter with the man.
Unbroken, they dream of Kings
Late in the afternoon, the last of five chariots came hurtling through the narrow pass towards the agreed meeting place. The young man who leapt down from the light wicker carriage was tall, dressed in the scarlet and saffron patterned clothing of his class and clan, his cloak edged with purple and embroidered with the image of a snarling wolf. His fair hair was tied into an elaborate plait, wound around his head like a crown. The heavy golden torque around his neck caught the dying of the day in a bright, flashing display.
This was Durandond, eldest son of the High King of the Marcomanni, one of the five federations that drew its strength from the forests north of the great river Rein. He cried out a salute to his foster brothers, all of whom were drunk by now, then tossed his weapons into the car. The charioteer carefully turned the horses and joined the other drivers where they sat, some way away, eating and drinking and sharing their experiences of the long journey south, into the mountains.
The smell of a wine-laced, fat meat stew was a welcome embrace to this tall prince.
“You’re late!” was the admonishing greeting of one of the other four.
“Not too late to help with that Greek Land wine, I hope,” Durandond responded. He embraced his brothers cheek and chin, then tipped the lighter of two slim, clay amphorae so that the sharp red wine splashed into his bowl.
“To fate, to discovery – and to the rich lives and noble deaths of our fathers!” he said, and his companions echoed the toast, laughing.
Chunks of goat’s meat and a thick slice of dry bread were passed to Durandond, and he ate the meal with hardly a thought for anything but what he knew as ‘satisfaction and the good sigh’. Starvation was at an end. He patted his belly. His journey was at an end. The oracle man, the so-called ‘wanderer’ who lived a short walk further along the pass, could wait until the bliss of wine had loosened his limbs and sharpened his wits.
This story is not the story of Durandond, nor of his four friends and foster brothers. It is the story of the consequences of what would happen after their meeting with the wandering man. Do not become too attached to these brash, boastful characters. They are only ghosts. But their shades haunt the following tale, in particular, the shade of this last arrival at the simple feast; the last braggart; the last charmer; the last of the young men who had sensed, because they had common sense and had seen the death of older men, that their world was about to change.
They walked in single file along the narrow, winding gorge, Durandond in the lead, approaching each twist and turn along the track with caution. A small stream dribbled alongside the path. Bushes of thorn and gorse tugged at their cloaks. The tangled roots of elms, looming above the pass, bulged out like sleeping serpents, greened with fern and scaled in fungus.
For a long while the gorge was dark with an overhanging canopy. Then Durandond led the way into an open area leading up to a dark cave, its low roof jutting out and slung with the russet drapes of deer hides, a curtain door that was now drawn back to admit a view of the interior.
A tall man stepped into the light. It was hard to tell his age through the voluminous black beard that swathed his face and the lank mass of black hair, threaded through with shells and stones that hung around his shoulders. But his eyes were bright and youthful, intensely curious as he let his gaze drift slowly along the line of young princes. He was clothed in filthy buckskin trousers and jacket; a weatherworn bearskin cloak was draped around his shoulders, reaching almost to the ground, the sides tied together with a bronze clasp.
Instead of a staff, he held a short bow and a quiver of arrows. When the five young men unbuckled their sword belts and tossed the weapons to the ground, he threw the bow and arrows back into the cave.
“Are you the wanderer?” Durandond asked.
“This is the wanderer’s cave?” He made it clear he was unimpressed.
“Wanderer.” The man pointed to himself. “Wanderer’s cave. Yes.”
Durandond could not hide his disappointment. “I’d heard so much about it, I’d expected it to be wider and filled with magic and the oracular acquisitions of your wanderings.”
“I have many caves. I have to. I wander. I range very far and very wide. I walk a circular path around the world. I’ve been doing it for so long I’ve noticed changes on the face of the moon herself. I’m sorry to disappoint you. Is that why you’ve come? To talk about my ‘oracular acquisitions’? To talk about my furnishings?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Then tell me who you are.”
Durandond introduced himself and his companions. The smell of stale animal fat and rank hair was almost offensive to these sons of kings, who were meticulous in their hygiene and were clean and kempt in every detail. But they ignored their repulsion as this young-old man sat down on a three legged, oak stool and leaned forward on his knees, nodding his head to indicate the youths should also sit.
They didn’t sit; it would have been undignified. They dropped to one knee and settled back on their haunches. Then, one by one, they placed their simple gifts on the ground before them. The seer eyed the food and drink, the small spear, the bronze knife and the green woollen cloak, then looked up and smiled. His teeth were bone-white and strong. “Thank you. I shall enjoy the stew and wine. And the rest is very useful. What can I do for you? I must warn you: I don’t look far into the past; and I don’t help influence change. I look to the future, but in only a simple way. I guide, I warn, I help prepare for change. Nothing more. Anything else is too expensive. Not for you, but for me.”
“Yes,” Durandond retorted. “We’d heard that you would prefer to guard your talents rather than use them.” He spoke with the arrogant indifference to the consequences of his words appropriate to a champion and future king. “It doesn’t matter. All our questions are the same.”
The wanderer had smiled thinly at the comment. Now he raised his hands, fingers wide, inviting his guests to use him.
The five princes cast lots for the order, and Radagos rose to his feet.
“Reiving bands from the east, each small in number, are gathering together to raid my father’s fortress on the Rein. My father and I will ride out at the head of an elite of champions. We will be the first to hurl spear and shield into their cowardly ranks. At the end of the battle, will I be king or still a king’s son?”
The wanderer shook his head, meeting Radagos’s gaze with cold iron eyes. “You will be neither,” he said. “Your land will be ravaged. You will be a whipped dog, terrified and bleeding, running and howling to the west, searching for a rock to hide under, a cave to crawl into, a hollow tree to worm inside, and this will be the way until you reach another country.”
Radagos looked shocked and stunned for a moment. “I will be none of that! None of what you say. Whether my father lives or dies, I will not be what you see. You are wrong,” he snarled. “Here. Take your knife!” He kicked the small weapon towards the seated man. The wanderer reached for it and tossed it behind him. Radagos turned and stormed back down the narrow gorge, shouting obscenities.
Vercindond had drawn to place the second question. He stood, his right hand gripping the embroidered edge of his purple cloak. He asked, “When I win the challenge to succeed my father, and rule the citadel of the Vedilici, for how many years will there be peace with the minor chieftains of my country?”
The seated seer shook his head again. “Your first act as king of the Vedilici will be to flee westwards, the smoke and ash of your burning citadel on your back, the dead that you hold precious being dragged by ropes. You will be in pain. You will grieve until you reach another country.”
Vercindond stared ahead of him, thinking hard, then glanced back at the old man. “No. I don’t think so. You’ve seen it wrong. Besides, there is a geis on me from birth that says I must only travel to the west in a chariot and with a retinue of five red-haired women. Some would say that’s a taboo to be broken! Either that or at the time of the longest journey of all, at my death, the journey to the Realm of the Shadows of Heroes. No mention of ropes and corpses. No, you’ve got it wrong. Here, eat your stew anyway. It might help clear your vision.”
He was very calm about it, but very angry. He followed Radagos away from the wanderer’s cave.
Cailum glanced at Durandond, frowning slightly, then stood, holding the fishing spear with its vicious ivory hooks. He stared at the implement for a moment, fingering the sharp teeth. Then he looked at the wanderer. “I’d intended to ask a different question to the others. But all my instincts, and the embedded wisdom of my druid teachers – what I can remember of it, at least — tells me that the answer will still involve my going to the west, to another country. That seems to be the pattern. So my question is: what can I do to stay in the east?”
“Nothing,” answered the wanderer. “Your fate is west; your fate is broken. Your lands will burn behind you. Your citadel will become an open space for wild and scavenging animals.”
Cailum stepped over to him and leaned down, wincing with the odour that curled off the man like a rotting elemental force. He placed the fishing spear on the wanderer’s lap. The two men’s eyes locked.
“Never,” said Cailum softly. “I will never go to the west in the manner in which you have seen. The fortress is my inheritance, my home, my place of birth, my earthmound for when I die. Not until this salmon spear hooks out the guts of the moon will I leave that hill and its city. By the good, strong hand of Belenos and by the hard heart of Rigaduna, I wish your prophecy to be unthreaded and wound around your neck.”
He turned away abruptly. The wanderer felt his neck gingerly, then grinned through his beard.
Durandond had drawn to ask last, so now Orogoth stood up, reaching for the flagon of southern wine. He shook it and smiled, then took it to the seer. “This will only serve to blur your vision,” he said. “So I think I’ll keep my question unasked. Like my foster brother, Cailum, I suspect I can already guess the answer. And ‘west’ will feature heavily. By the way, which way is west from here? I might as well get started.”
He laughed, tugged his moustaches, an insolent gesture, then walked back along the gully, an expression of wry amusement on his sun-burnished features as he winked at Durandond.
The fifth of the brash princes now stood, holding the short green cloak that he had brought as his gift for a gift. The wanderer watched him without expression. Durandond asked, “Do you have a name?”
“I’m very old. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve had many names.”
“A path around the world, you said. That must take a long time to walk.”
“It does. And I’ve done it many times. Some parts of it – the Northlands in particular – are a tribulation. I do not now, and never have, enjoyed the cold. Sometimes I leave the route to go to interesting places; sometimes I stay in those places for a generation or more. It all serves to break the tedium. I come from a world of forests and plains, the sort of wild hunting you can only imagine, the sort of magic that would be incomprehensible to you, a world in many layers, with spirits and what you call gods in many strange and wonderful forms. It is invisible now, but as I shed lives, so they return there. One day I should go back and visit. But the countries through which I wander become more interesting with every passing century. Old lives must wait while new ones are forged.”
Durandond thought hard about this, perplexed, certainly, but also amused, as if he were enjoying being in the presence of such mystery. After a few moments he shook his head, picked up the gift of the green mantle and placed it in the wanderer’s hands. He stepped away, tying his own cloak at the left shoulder and drawing it round to be pinned at his midriff. He bobbed his head in respect then picked up his sheathed sword, winding the belt around it.
It was now the wanderer who was puzzled, surprised by this sudden dismissal. “No question to ask?”
But Durandond nodded. His pale eyes narrowed. He stroked his chin, head cocked to the side, perhaps listening to the future.
“Yes. I have a question. When I am in that other country… When I am in the west…” He hesitated for a moment before adding quietly, “What is the first thing I will do?”
The wanderer laughed, stood up from his wooden seat. He looked down at the mantle and said, “You will find a hill as green as the dye on this garment. You will climb it. You will proclaim it as yours. And you will start to build.”
“More than that. Much more than that.”
“Much more than that,” the young prince repeated thoughtfully, his gaze distant. “Much more than that. I like the sound of it.”
His gaze was distant for a moment only. He looked at me, searching. He was curious, caught up in the uncertainty and excitement of what must have seemed a profound prophesy. “Will I meet you again?” he asked.
How could I answer? I never looked ahead into time to see my own presence. Far too dangerous. That I would be a presence in his world for all of his life was not in doubt. And in his sons’ world, and in their sons after them. Not in doubt.
And centuries later I discovered the green hill that I had seen in my vision, and lived for a while in the great fortress in Alba that the young, cautious, curious man had created out of the ashes of his life. Taurovinda.
When I came to Alba it marked the end for a long while of my walking around the wide Path. Alba embraced me, and the ghost of a future king began to haunt me and to shape me. That is another story and for another time. I was still attached to my new loves, my first loves: and one of my first loves was beautiful, very beautiful indeed. And this is as much her story as it is of the land to which, one day, she had quietly returned in shame.
Sometime during a cool summer…
Extract from The Broken Kings, 2007