Irion and his warriors reached the gates of Caerwent as the sun was setting. After the battle they had buried their dead and rested overnight before riding slowly back. Irion had sent a messenger ahead to tell Honorius of their victory, envisioning in the flush of his triumph a hero’s welcome. But during the ride the exhilaration of the cavalry’s salute had worn off. His leg throbbed and a vague feeling of unease had returned. Apprehension turned to alarm when he found the gates closed and barred against them.
As they halted beneath the walls, a sentry appeared in the gate tower. “Who comes?”
“It’s us,” Irion said. “Were you not told?”
The sentry hurried from his tower and lifted the bar, mumbling to himself as he hauled open the heavy wooden slabs. He held a torch as Irion rode through, peering up at him. “Lord Irion. It’s glad I am to see you.”
“What goes forward?”
“Lord Honorius, tribune. He’s been wounded.”
Cold dread touched Irion. “By whom, man?”
“I—I don’t know, lord. But the council ordered me to shut the gates and be alert.”
“Where is he?”
“They’ve taken him to Catullan, the physician.
Irion looked at Gwythur. “Have the men stand ready until I learn more of this.” He kicked his tired mount into a gallop and clattered through the stillness toward the surgeon’s house. As he sped through the streets he murmured quick prayers to Nodens of the Silver Hand, to Lugh, and to the Christus that Honorius worshiped, to spare his uncle.
Catullan’s surgery filled a narrow building set back from the street to make room for a crowded herb garden. Outside it, an angry glow lit the sky. As Irion drew nearer, the glow turned into a cluster of torches held by a throng of people. Faces made orange by the torchlight silently watched him climb from his horse and hobble into the building.
As he entered, smells of vinegar and herbs assailed him. On a high table in the middle of the room lay a body covered in a white shroud. Beneath a row of pegs holding bunches of dried herbs he saw Catullan. The old Roman-trained surgeon, a close friend of Honorius whom Irion had never seen smile, sat slumped on a stool.
“Is that?…” Irion said.
Catullan nodded. The dour medicus looked even paler than usual and his eyes were red from strain and lack of sleep.
“Does he live?”
“I did what I could, Irion.” Catullan looked at him bleakly. “The arrow punctured his lung. It came out smoothly but the other lung failed. He died a few minutes ago.”
Pain tore at Irion. He willed back the tears and steadied his voice. “Ah, Jesu. Why him? What did he do to anyone?”
The surgeon lifted his hand, then let it drop, leaning his head back against the wall.
Irion nodded toward the body. “May I?”
He went over to the table and lifted back to the shroud. Honorius’s eyes were closed; the furrows and creases life had etched into his face were smoothed in death. Irion’s chest went hollow with a vast, dull ache; he felt as though some living part of him had been torn away. He reached down and took his uncle’s hand in both of his, then bent over and kissed his forehead. “Rest you gentle, Uncle Ynyr.”
He turned to Catullan. “Who murdered him?”
“A stranger. Iceni, I heard. Near dark, Honorius walked home alone from the baths and was shot from behind.”
“They caught him, then?”
“Aye. A guard caught him as he was about to slip out the south gate.” Catullan rubbed his eyes with his fingers.
“What reason had he to kill my uncle?”
“None that I know of.”
Numb, Irion prowled back and forth beneath a hanging pewter lamp that sputtered yellow light on the walls of the surgery. He wondered what to do. The killing had the stink of paid assassination, but he knew of no one on the council who disliked Honorius enough to have him killed. Oh, there were those who had disagreed with his uncle. Brennus was their leader, and he stood next in line to be magistrate. But a sneak killing was not his style.
“Where are they holding this Iceni?” he asked finally.
“In the guard post near the south gate, I was told.”
Irion nodded and limped toward the door. “My thanks, Catullan, for trying. I will go speak with this assassin.”
He rode toward the gate, a part of him numb with grief. But another part of his mind observed the situation with cold detachment, weighing the consequences of the murder against his own fate. He had been Honorius’s choice of tribune, opposed by Brennus and his supporters. With his uncle gone, there might be an attempt to remove him from his new post. He resented the thought. The spark of ambition that had been kindled within him now burned hotly. He was, after all, the grandson of Arthur, the Pendragon, High King of Britain. And he had proved himself a good leader. He deserved to keep the post.
Logrin, the pompous captain of the council guard, stood outside the guard post conferring in low tones with two other guardsmen bedecked in maroon capes and ancient Roman helmets. They broke off their conversation as Irion approached.
Logrin nodded in acknowledgment. “Medraut-son.” He spoke t he name as if it were sour on his tongue.
“I would speak with your prisoner, Logrin,” Irion said, dismounting.
“You cannot. I’ve sent for Brennus. He wishes to question this man first.”
Irion shouldered past him. “I think even Brennus will acknowledge my right as surviving clan chief to avenge Honorius’s murder.” He pushed open the heavy wooden door. The guardsmen followed closely behind, but did not try to stop him.
For a moment Irion could make out nothing in the darkness. He seized a torch from the wall sconce outside the door and held it in front of him. In the far corner huddled a small man with dark hair braided in the Iceni fashion. He wore tattered, cross-gartered braccae and a filthy leather jerkin. As Irion entered, the eyes in the hatchet-thin face slitted open, glittering like small pieces of glass.
“Stand up, back shooter,” Irion commanded.
The assassin said nothing, but glared at him over a small, sharp nose that gave the impression of some stealthy rodent.
“What are you called?”
Still no answer. The man shifted his position and Irion noticed for the first time an angry scar on his neck. He had seen such a mark once before, on Brath, Honorius’s servant, a youth who had been a slave in one of Ceawlin’s steadings and who had been rescued by the British. It was the mark of a Saxon thrall ring.
Irion spoke again, this time in the Friesian dialect he had learned from Brath. “What’s your name?”
Understanding flashed in the killer’s eyes, but he stared sullenly, saying nothing.
Frustration boiled into a black rage. Irion thrust the torch into the hands of the guard behind him and seized the prisoner’s jerkin, hauling him to his fee. Irion’s dagger winked in the torchlight as he held it against the tip of the man’s nose.
“This is a fine job you have, assassin. How many backs have you bitten with your arrows? How many throats have you slit in the dark?”
The man winced as the tip of the dagger pricked his nose, raising a drop of blood.
“Your name?” Irion repeated.
“Who hired you?”
Silence. The dagger winked again and a small piece of flesh flew from the man’s nose.
Angarad shrieked. “Don’t hurt me.” He spoke in Friesian. “Ceawlin Cerdic-son ordered me to do it. I was his thrall. Promised me freedom, he did, if I would kill the old British lord. Promised to kill me if I didn’t.”
Irion gripped the killer for a long moment, a breath away from plunging the dagger into his heart. Then the glare of rage faded and he pushed him away. The assassin crumpled to the ground, cupping his hands around his bleeding nose.
Irion turned away and stumbled to the doorway, gasping for breath as he emerged into the night air. At that moment he hated Ceawlin more than he had ever hated anyone. He vowed to make the Saxon chieftain pay for his uncle’s death.
Then, as the extent of his folly dawned, he stopped in his tracks. He cursed himself. The raid had been a trick after all, a diversion to distract attention from the assassination. And he had fallen into the trap. He should have known. Saxons had tried before to kill British leaders in advance of an all-out attack, to disorganize their enemies. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. A Saxon invasion was near.