The Last Pendragon

SEVEN 

A day out ofRome, Bedwyr met a group of other mercenaries whose contracts had expired, and who traveled toGaulto place themselves in spear service to the feuding grandsons of the Frankish King Clovis. They traveled up the west coast of Italia along theAurelian Road, which their efforts had for the moment made secure. Westward they curved around the middle sea to the port city ofMassilia, then north to Lugdunum and finally to Lutetia, whichClovishad made into his capital and renamedParis.

            As they rode through the green countryside they passed ruins of great villas formerly owned by Gallo-Roman nobles. It was a rich land, and Bedwyr found himself thinking that it would be a fine place to settle and raise horses. But a smudge of dark smoke on the horizon reminded him of the nearness of the barbarians, and he rode on.

            InParis, Bedwyr bid farewell to his traveling companions and set off along theSeinetoward the coast. He reached it late on an afternoon that saw the sky turning sloe purple under great, flat-topped storm clouds. Before he could find shelter the clouds dumped their rain and scurried away, leaving behind ankle-deep mud. As he rode, the great wolfhound slogged behind him, belly matted black, growling occasionally at the mud.

            A cluster of ramshackle buildings at the river mouth served as a port. Bedwyr located a dilapidated inn and went inside to learn whether any ships sailed forBritain. The sun’s rays filtered through a small common room, made smoky by a turf fire. From a lean-to kitchen came the reek of fish stew.

            He spoke to the innkeeper, who had just enough Latin to understand his questions. He was in luck. Yes, a ship now loading sailed forBritain. The captain’s name? Caedmon, called the Crosser. No, he did not know whether he would take passengers.

            Bedwyr paid for a night’s lodging and saw his horse rubbed down and fed. If he found passage he would have to sell the animal for considerably less than its value, he was certain. The residents of the port enjoyed a buyer’s market.

            He walked to the quay. Two wooden piers jutted into the water, and at the side of each rolled a small cargo ship. One of them, squat with a short mast, looked badly built. The other promised better, with a raised cargo deck fore and aft. To Bedwyr it appeared slow but seaworthy, and he hoped this was Caedmon’s ship.

            Crewmen swarmed over it, mending rigging and scouring the decks, while others bustled up the pier carrying crates of pottery, amphorae of wine, and tightly bound bundles of soft-looking dyed leather. From his station near the gangplank a bald man with a ruddy, weathered face and a brown beard feathered with gray shouted instructions.

            Bedwyr walked out to him, dodging crewmen. Behind him stalked Fergus, looking with deep suspicion at the water on both sides of the pier.

            Bedwyr spoke to the man in Latin. “I seek the ship of Caedmon.”

            The man looked at him blankly and shrugged. Bedwyr tried again in Celtic. The man nodded. “I’m Caedmon.”

            “Are you bound forBritain?”

            Caedmon’s eyes narrowed. “Who’s wanting to know?”

            “My name is Bedwyr ap Gruffydd. I need passage. I can pay.”

            Behind them a cask thudded onto the pier and the captain looked up. “Two men to a cask!” he shouted. “Is it I have to tell you everything?” He turned back to Bedwyr. “I take no one on board, crewman or passenger, who cannot handle a sword. This is sea wolf water.”

            “I know how to use a sword, if necessary,” said Bedwyr.

            The captain looked him up and down. “Aye. I believe it. Well, then perhaps I’m bound forBritain. Where on that suffering island do you go, and what’s your business?”

            “My business is none of yours. But I go to Gwent as a start.”

            The captain grunted, his eyes flickering with amusement. “Fortunate. Gwent’s the only place I make port in these times. I meant no discourtesy, but it’s not uncommon for pirates to plant one of their number on board a merchant ship to take the crew from behind, while his murdering cohorts board her.”

            He scratched his beard, then nodded once. “Och! I’ll carry you. You’ve not the look of a pirate. Though,” he glanced at Bedwyr’s missing hand, “it seems you’ve looked at no few battles from the inside.”

            After brief but intense haggling they agreed upon a fare, but it cost Bedwyr an extra silver coin for the dog’s passage.

            Caedmon said, “We sail at dawn. Without you, if you’re not here.”

            As Bedwyr turned to leave, a glint of sunlight caught his eye. From the open sea a low-bellied ship plowed into the bay. Its square black-and-saffron-striped sail lay furled, and at the ship’s sides sixteen pairs of oars dipped and flashed rhythmically. As it drew closer Bedwyr could see the swing of the rowers’ arms. A man stood at the stern holding the steering oar; another leaned over the prow, from time to time casting a weighted sounding line overboard to read the depth of the water. After each reading he shouted in a guttural tongue.

            As they neared the quay the helmsman put the steering oar hard over and the ship swung slowly around in a half circle to the far bank. The crew shipped oars that glistened with water, and men jumped over the side, splashing ashore with mooring lines.

            Caedmon’s face turned grim. “Sea wolf. A Saxon pirate.”

            “In a Gaulish port?” Bedwyr said. “Do they think to attack you here?”

            “No. They make port from time to time, here and in other places. They’re like all ships, needing water and food, and to make repairs. Peaceful enough, so long as they’re here. If they looted every port they made they’d soon run short of places to refit.” Caedmon spat into the water. “But mark you, they’ll note our presence. Once we leave the quay we’re fair catch.”

            “Will you stay in port, then, until they sail?”
            “No, for they can outwait us. We sail tomorrow still.” The captain looked at Bedwyr from under bushy eyebrows. “Have you represented your wish to sail with me?”

            Bedwyr shrugged. “I’m not so good a swimmer as to try the narrow sea.”

            Caedmon laughed. “Aye, you’ll do. I have a trick or two that may throw the sharks off our tail.” He squinted at the sky. “There’ll be fog tomorrow, I’m thinking. Be here an hour ahead of dawn.”

            Bedwyr made his way down to the ship in near-total darkness. He had slept fitfully with evil dreams, and a nameless feeling persisted, a sense that he was alone in a universe of oppressive gods. With a whining yawn, Fergus stopped at the bottom of the gangplank and refused to board until Bedwyr stroked his head and crooned into a drooping ear.

            As they stepped on deck, they were challenged quietly by the watch. “Who comes?”

            “Bedwyr ap Gruffydd.”

            “They’re here, cap’n. Punctual as an unpaid money-lender.”

            Caedmon murmured some orders, and the crew hauled in the plank and cast off mooring ropes. Once away from the pier, twelve pairs of oars slid out from uncovered oar ports and dipped quietly into the water. They moved like a ghost ship through the bay, with no sound but the hiss of water against the hull, and the faint splash out of the oars.

            After a time dawn drifted out from the shore, revealing a glassy sea. Astern, Bedwyr saw nothing but a wake of bubbles. With the dawn came fog, white mist that draped over the ship and thickened, until Bedwyr felt as if he were packed in damp sheepswool.

            The ship, heavily laden and designed more for sailing than rowing, moved slowly. Caedmon stood at the steering oar, turning it slightly from time to time, and Bedwyr wondered how he could navigate in the fog. He questioned the watch, who leaned over the bow, peering ahead.

            The man flashed a gap-toothed grin. “That’s why he’s named the Crosser. Caedmon can find his way across the narrow sea when no one else dares.”

            They rowed and listened by turns. A long stroke, and the crew lay back on the oars for a count of seven, then another stroke. Between strokes they listened for the sound of other oars in the fog, or men talking, but the only sound they heard was the slap and gurgle of water under the hull.

            The fog still showed no sign of lifting when Bedwyr heard Caedmon call softly, “Make sail.”

            The crew shipped oars and several scrambled to run up the square sail. Moments later Bedwyr felt a puff of breeze on his face, and soon the sail snapped and billowed as it filled with a southeast wind. The breeze shredded the fog, sending rags of mist drifting past his face like cool cobwebs. Ahead he saw open water. They were out of the bay.

            As they rounded the point running toward open sea, the roll of the ship became deeper, the wind grew stronger, and they ran free before it. Southward, Bedwyr heard the boom of the surf and saw tiny waves break white on the dark line of the shore.

            He climbed onto the raised stern, where Caedmon gripped the steering oar, his face serene. “Have we lost them, think you?”

            “Aye. They’ll not follow us out here. Saxons are coast crawlers, hugging the shorelines. They fear the open water.” He peered at Bedwyr, his eyes crinkling in amusement. “You’ve not sailed before, I’m thinking.”
            “Once, only.” Bedwyr smiled. “I crossed the narrow sea the other way some years since. A storm hit us and I was sick the whole voyage.”
            Caedmon chuckled. “That is the way of it with most land lovers, at first. But if they sail enough, they come to know the pleasures of a sea voyage.”

            “If they don’t drown first.”

            Caedmon patted the steering oar with a horny hand. “No. Treat her right and Brigit will do right by you.”

            As if she heard them, the sturdy ship grew playful, flinging spindrift over her bow onto the faces of the crew.

            The wind continued favorable and they made good speed. Late in the afternoon Bedwyr saw in the distance the cliffs of Dumnonia. On the morning of the third day they roundedLand’s End, making toward the Sabrina estuary. The voyage passed so pleasantly that even Fergus, who had spent the first day lying grumpily against the mast, began to walk cautiously around the deck with Bedwyr, nose snuffling the salt spray.

            They had just climbed the ladder to the stern deck when a shout came from the watch: “Ship to starboard! Running hard!”

            Bedwyr swung around to see a longship coming from the southeast, high prow carved into a dragon’s head. Its bows split the sea, flaring translucent green waves along its sides. A long row of multicolored shields lined the gunwales, and above them heaved a square sail, emblazoned with a black sea serpent. It raced down on them, swollen sail straining in the wind.

            “By the Wind and the Sea!” Caedmon’s face turned gray.

            “Can we outrun them?” Bedwyr said.

            The captain shook his head. “Not possible. That’s a Northman longship. She’ll do ten knots.”

            The longship closed on them, sun and sea sparkle flashing off swords and spears. A man stood at the stern oar and three men in the prow, heads turned their way.

            “Prepare to be boarded!” Caedmon shouted.

            The crew pulled weapons from beneath the rowing benches. Caedmon swung the steering oar hard over, and the Brigit shuddered, heeling sharply. Behind them the Norse ship matched the maneuver and drew closer.

            Bedwyr could see the Northmen lining the gunwales, huge, grim warriors in horned helmets, who watched the Brigit with hungry eyes. They carried weapons of every kind and size; their chieftain, a red-bearded giant, fingered a throwing ax.

            Standing on the stern deck, Bedwyr strapped his shield to his handless arm, buckling the leather thongs tightly. As the longship closed to within a spear’s throw, its crew struck the sail and it glided alongside. Long-handled boat hooks reached out and grappled the Brigit to the Norse ship.

            The pirates leaped over the side, and the Brigit’s deck, already crowded with armed crewmen, disappeared in a chaos of bodies and clashing weapons. A Northman slashed at the rigging and the sail collapsed onto the deck, burying three crewmen.

            The Northmen outnumbered the Brigit’s crew by half, but sailors as well-armed as these surprised them for they took as their usual pray unarmed and defenseless ships, or coastal villages. Still, they drove Caedmon’s crew back and laughed fiercely at the sport offered.         

            Caedmon plunged into the thick of the fighting, leaving Bedwyr on the stern deck, alone, save for the great wolfhound at his side. Silently Bedwyr waited, watching the fighting below. Fergus growled, hackles raised, listening to an order from his master.

            Then a Northman brandishing a war hammered scrambled up the ladder.

            “Sic!” Bedwyr said.

            Fergus launched himself at the raider’s throat, and they crashed to the deck below.

            Out of the melee a throwing ax spun toward him and Bedwyr dodged. The ax flew past his ear like an angry goshawk and buried itself in the rail behind him.

            The horn-helmeted chieftain bounded onto the deck, following his ax. He grinned, spat, and drew his sword, then came in hard, thrusting his shield into Bedwyr’s face, trying to knock him off balance. Bedwyr ducked under the shield and parried the expected jab to his belly.

            The chieftain was strong and fought with brutal skill. For Bedwyr, time slowed. His enemy’s movements seemed languid, dreamlike. He heard no sound but the hiss and clang of sword on shield, and he studied the huge Northman’s reactions as he swung and thrust, circled and parried. Then Bedwyr saw his weakness. The man threw his weight too far onto his toes when he lunged, and recovered slowly.

            Bedwyr drew back and lowered his sword a little, enticing the thrust. The chieftain lunged and Bedwyr swung his sword up and down on the man’s neck. The Northman fell like a stone.

            Below, the raiders saw their leader fall and hesitated. Bedwyr waded into the fighting, his sword cutting a murderous arc ahead of him. Man and weapon became on entity, a ravening messenger of death. Five more of the raiders fell.

            Astonished, the survivors broke off their attack and leaped for their ship. Dying in battle promised passage toValhalla, but living guaranteed they would plunder again another time. They hacked the grappling hooks in two and the boats drifted apart. Throwing their weapons aside, the Northmen scrambled to hoist the sail, and the great dragon prow turned and knifed away into the sea.

            On the Brigit the only sounds were the wind whistling softly through the rigging and the groan of wounded crewmen.

            Fergus padded over to Bedwyr and sank down on the deck. Blood dripped from a wound on the dog’s shoulder, and he licked it. Bedwyr kneeled to inspect the wolfhound, running his hands over the rough coat. There was only one wound, the gash in the shoulder, and it did not look deep.

            Finished with his inspection, Bedwyr looked up to see the crew staring at him in awe. Caedmon limped over to him, holding his right thigh where a sword had nicked it.

            “Who are you?”

            Surprised, Bedwyr answered: “My name hasn’t changed since I have it to you at the pier. Bedwyr ap Gruffydd.”

            Understanding, then fear, spread across the captain’s face. “By the Eight Winds of Heaven! You’re Bedwyr Mawr. The Great One!” He spread three fingers of his right hand behind him in the sign against enchantment. “But you were killed at Camlann.”

            Alarmed, the crew backed away. “He’s a demon or a wraith!” said one.

            “Demons can’t cross water,” the captain said. But he looked uncertain as to whether Bedwyr was indeed a ghost.

            “And dogs cannot abide wraiths,” said Bedwyr. He fondled Fergus’s ears and the hound thumped his tail on the deck. “I’m as alive as you are, Caedmon.”

            Caedmon hesitated, then grinned in relief and nodded. He turned to the crew. “This is Lord Bedwyr of the Companions.”

            A cheer rose from the crewmen, and Bedwyr felt his face redden. “No. No lord of yours, Caedmon. Nor of any man. Only a tired cavalryman who needs to clean his sword.”
            Caedmon watched him silently for a moment, puzzled, as Bedwyr wiped the blood from his sword with a rag. Then the captain limped away to appraise the damage.

            Three crewmen had died in the battle, and eight of the raiders. The survivors stripped the bodies of the Northmen of valuables and heaved the men over the side. Caedmon ordered their jewelry be given to wives or kin of the dead sailors, whose bodies they wrapped in sailcloth and weighted in preparation for submergence.

            The crew looked expectantly at Bedwyr, as their battle leader, to say some words of comfort over the bodies. He turned away and looked out at the empty sea. Knowing no comfort for long years, he had none in him now to give others.

            Caedmon sensed his distress and spoke in his stead. “The spirit’s voyage through life is but a short journey to theharborofGwynved, where it will feast and dream through time beyond counting.” He praised the skills of each of the crewmen, and invoked for Dai, who had followed the Christian religion, the name of Simon Peter, the fisherman.

            As he spoke, waves lapped idly at the ship’s sides, and she rose and fell with the swells. The pilot worked the steering oar to keep her bow into the wind.

            Bedwyr looked at the bodies and saw only death. He too had once believed that his spirit would feast and dream after death. Arthur had believed in the Christian heaven. But his Christ had deserted him, as the old gods had abandoned Bedwyr andBritain.

            The funeral over, the crew set about making repairs to the Brigit. Rigging mended, decks scrubbed clean of blood, she soon moved again, sailing up the Sabrina estuary. Gulls wheeled above the mast as they sailed up the Usk on the tide.

            Ahead, Bedwyr saw the massive walls of Caerleon. He was back inBritain, but he knew he was not home.

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