The Isle of Avalon
Originally in Cambrensis magazine
From the old drovers track across the eastern edge of the marsh, Glastonbury Tor with its tall and ancient towers reared like a giant's tooth out of the mist. The hill was still some six or seven miles distant, a good hours ride across evil smelling fens, picking our way around deep lagoons and pools of stagnant water. Already the November afternoon was beginning to chill and darken into evening.
"A curse on this damned place!" snarled Kei as his horse shied and snorted beneath him. "It's more like an island than a bloody hill."
I smiled at his words. Local people still called Glastonbury the Island of Apples or, occasionally, Avalon. Over the years I had seen the fruit trees, dozens upon dozens of them, which the monks cultivated and the place was, indeed, well named.
Now Ambrosius Aurelianus, last of the great Roman cavalry leaders, had come here to die. As if sensing my thoughts Kei glared at me and inclined his head.
"Come, story teller. Time is short."
I followed him along the narrow path, grey marsh mist coiling around our horses flanks. Kei had found me two days before. Apparently he had been searching for some time, following my trail from monastery to ruined villa, from ancient hill fort to communal village hut. He finally ran me to ground in the old legionary camp at Caerleon-on-Usk.
"Ambrosius Aurelianus is dying, story teller," he had announced.
It was a typical Kei statement - short, sharp, to the point. Despite all the years they had been together, despite the battles and long campaigns - the shared moments of discomfort and fear - I had always felt that Kei did not really like Ambrosius. Feared him, perhaps; respected his power, certainly. But there was never affection.
"What happened?" I asked.
Kei threw himself down onto a pile of furs and loosened the fibula that held his cloak. He drank deeply from a flagon of wine and smiled at me, the scars of recent battle still livid on his arms.
"We won a great victory at Mount Badon. The power of the Saxon is broken at last. They will not come again, not for many years. But Ambrosius was hurt, grievously hurt. We've carried him to Avalon - to the monks at Glastonbury. He is asking for you, Aneurin."
And that was how I had heard. Riding, now, towards the abbey - following the broad rump of Kei's warhorse - I was still amazed at myself. Why had I ever agreed to come? Kei might dislike Ambrosius but I hated him, despised him with every ounce of my soul. So it was, indeed, strange that I, Aneurin the Bard, the greatest story teller and poet of all the Celtic peoples, should abandon my comfortable winter quarters at Caerleon and chase off into the unknown at the behest of some bloodthirsty warlord who had only ever caused me pain and sorrow.
I really didn't know why I had come except, deep inside, there was the faintest beginnings of an idea - if the bastard was going to die then I, sure as hell, wanted to be there when it happened.
They saw us approaching long before we reached the foot of the hill. Soldiers with flaming torches rushed to light the last half mile. Bedwyr, I noticed, had also come to greet us. "Are we in time?" Kei called.
Bedwyr's voice was deep and resonant. He stared at me, eyes blazing with distrust. He and Kei were Ambrosius' chief lieutenants and I knew the way he was thinking. If Ambrosius was dying, one of them would probably take his place as leader of the warband. So now, for Ambrosius to suddenly demand my presence at the deathbed? Just what did that signify?
"Where the hell have you been?" Bedwyr demanded as we came up to his position at last. "You've been gone nearly ten days. Do you know what it's like trying to keep somebody alive with wounds like that?"
Kei shrugged and spat onto the mud. Carelessly he leapt from his horse, stood facing his comrade. They were an ill matched pair, Kei short and fair skinned, Bedwyr looming huge and dark in the gathering gloom.
"I came as quickly as I could. Our little story teller did not leave an easy trail to follow."
Bedwyr grunted and turned away as Kei pushed me roughly through the gateway. Inside the courtyard soldiers stood expectantly, their lances and battle axes close to hand. The air of tension was almost tangible.
Bedwyr lead the way into the Abbey, thrusting aside the monks who came forward with meat and drink. I cursed him soundly to myself - I would have murdered for a mug of ale. We walked down a passageway, coming to a halt outside the door of a darkly curtained chamber. What seemed to be a bundle of rags - half human, half malformed creature - lay across the entrance. Coldly, deliberately, Bedwyr drew back his foot and slammed it into the bundle. Instantly it came alive, leaping and screaming across the corridor.
Kei's voice was harsh, his words bringing the creature to a sudden halt. As he shrank back warily into the shadows I recognised the scrawny half starved features of Arthur, Page and whipping boy to Ambrosius Aurelianus. God knows how he kept himself alive; beaten and abused by every brutal warrior who crossed his path, the boy was a born victim. Ambrosius treated him worse than anybody - even the kitchen dogs lived better than Arthur. Little wonder, then, that the boy was half saint, half idiot. Yet there was no denying his love for Ambrosius - and anybody would have to be demented to care about that vicious bastard.
"Have you come to heal him?" Arthur asked, urgently. "My master needs healing."
I stared at his vacant face, his mouth hanging open, spittle dripping from the lower jaw. Hugging his arms to his side, Arthur jogged impatiently from foot to foot.
"Get out of the way, fool!" barked Bedwyr suddenly.
He gathered himself and smashed his fist down across the boy's head. Arthur fell sideways, slumping to his knees and staying there. He made no sound.
"There's no healing for your master, boy. No hope. He's dying. And soon as he's gone you're next."
He leered at the fallen boy but the significance of the remark was lost on him. At that moment only one thing registered in that poor simple mind. I felt his fingers clawing at my ankle and, looking down, saw tears in Arthur's eyes.
"Cure him, lord. You must help him. Please?"
Gently I eased his hand away and pulled him to his feet.
"I'll do what I can, Arthur, but I have no healing arts."
Even as I said it I cursed myself for the lie. Help Ambrosius? By God, I'd as soon slip in the knife myself.
We went through the chamber door and immediately the stench filled my nostrils. The stale stench of death. Ambrosius Aurelianus was lying on his back on a low couch, seemingly asleep. His once handsome face was twisted in pain, covered with deep cuts and bruises. His beard was matted with dried blood. The death wound, however, was to the stomach, a long spear thrust which had pierced his mail and lanced upwards into the vital organs of the body. Seeing the wound it was astonishing to think that the man was still alive. How long had he been like this, I asked myself? Ten days? Two weeks?
"Ambrosius," Kei whispered. "I have brought you Aneurin. As you asked."
The eyes of the dying man flickered open and swept around the room.
Gradually they focused and came to rest on me.
"At last," he said.
The words took effort, immense effort, and I suddenly realised the sheer will power with which Ambrosius had kept himself alive over the past days. Kei and Bedwyr eased him into a sitting position. It was easily done. Ambrosius seemed to have shrunk since the last time I had seen him. But then, that had been a long time ago, at night, by the light of burning buildings, and the blood on his hands and sword had given him a fiercer, more terrifying appearance. Now he was little more than a frail, dying man.
"Come close," he gasped. "I want to talk to you. Alone."
His eyes swept towards Kei and Bedwyr. Weak and helpless as he was, something of his power remained. They lowered their heads and shuffled out of the chamber. I moved towards the bedside.
"I need your help," Ambrosius said.
I shook my head.
"I don't have the power to heal you. I am a story teller, a bard, you know that. Besides, there is only one person who can help you now."
Cursing, Ambrosius tried to ease himself into a more comfortable position. Pain lanced through him and he fell back onto the bed.
"I know that, you damned fool. I'll face my maker soon enough. I have nothing to regret - I've done my duty, that's all. I've saved this God forsaken country. Me. Not the Legions of Rome. Me - Ambrosius Aurelianus. Single-handed I've beaten the Saxon raiders. They won't come again."
I shrugged. The speech seemed to have drained him and his eyes closed. For several minutes there was silence in the room, only the rasp of his laboured breathing to disturb the peace.
"Maybe. Maybe not," I said, at last. "You did what you had to do. But sometimes much more."
His eyes shot open and he glared at me.
"What do you mean by that? No matter. There's no time for debate. I need your skill, your very particular skill."
"What for, warlord?"
"I want you to tell a tale, Aneurin, a tale more thrilling than any you have yet told. My tale, my life. I want you to weave your spell, to tell the story of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last of the Roman generals. I may be dying but I want the world to remember what I have done. When the Legions left - left us to the mercy of the Norsemen - it was me, me and my warriors, who defended this island. Defended it and beat them off. I want my glory as a general to live forever."
Exhausted, he slumped back, eyes closed. When he spoke again his voice was weaker and he kept his eyes shut. The effort of his words brought huge beads of sweat to his forehead. The end was not far away.
"I want posterity to remember me. I want people in a thousand years from now to know the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus, to know and wonder at my deeds. That's not too much to ask, is it?"
Desperately, his hand shot out and clutched my arm. His grip was still vice-like and I felt my skin crawl at his touch. Somehow, somewhere deep within his pain filled world, Ambrosius Aurelianus felt my repulsion and, with a supreme effort, turned to face me.
"What is it? What's wrong? Why do you shrink away, Aneurin?"
I told him then, quietly and quickly, in short brutal sentences. I had held the pain so long that I thought spilling it out would bring relief, like water pouring over the river bank in winter. In truth I just felt empty, empty as the day Ambrosius and his warband had ridden through our village. We had expected to pay homage - food and drink, and maybe a few of the less choosy village girls might bestow their favours. After all, he was protecting us from the Saxon raiders. We couldn't do that ourselves, not ordinary farmers and tradesmen. Warriors fought the Saxons for us, so we were prepared to pay our dues.
But Ambrosius took more than food and drink. He took our lives and our livelihood. He burned our houses, ravaged our crops, raped our women. Above all he took my reason for living. He killed my wife, raped her and ran her through because she spat in his face. I watched, helpless, while he laughed and then rode away.
Now, when I told him, he was unsure, uncertain even of the time or place.
"I ... I don't remember," he stumbled. "So many villages. It's been so long. There's been so much war."
Anger blazed in my belly and suddenly I wanted to kill him. I grabbed him and shook him like a child's rag doll.
"It wasn't war!" I spat. "That was murder. You were supposed to protect us, not hunt us down like the damned Saxons. We looked to you for protection. You gave us death."
He turned his face away and said nothing. I let go of his tunic but stood there above him, watching and waiting for him to speak again. He didn't.
When Kei came back, maybe half an hour later, we were still there, in exactly the same positions - him flat on his back, me towering over him, rigid as a footman's lance. Ambrosius Aurelianus was dead and I wasn't even sure that he had understood what I had said.
"What did he want of you?" Kei asked, staring almost in disbelief at the body of his leader.
"Whatever it was, it must have been damned important - to keep him alive in his condition."
"He wanted me to create a story. His story. The story of his life"
Kei smiled and turned to face me. Those all seeing eyes knew far more than I sometimes gave them credit for.
"Will you do it?"
For the first time I dragged my gaze away from the dead body. Kei was staring at me intently.
The door to the death chamber suddenly burst open and the boy Arthur hurtled across the room, shrieking in torment and fear. Throwing himself upon the body of Ambrosius, he wailed and pummelled at the corpse.
"Why have you left me? " he cried. "What's to become of me, now? Who will look after me?"
Kei gathered him around the shoulders and, surprisingly gently, pulled the boy away.
"It's over, lad. Come away now."
They took his body and laid it in the chapel. I spent a restless night, thinking and turning ideas over and over in my mind. Too many ghosts had been disturbed, too many phantoms from the past. I slept very little. Eventually, however, towards dawn, ideas began to harden and I suddenly knew what I had to do.
That morning we walked, all of us, in long procession to the water that they call the Mouth of the Severn. There Kei and Bedwyr laid the body of Ambrosius in the shallow hull of a longship and solemnly cast it adrift.
"What will you do now, story teller?" asked Kei as we stood watching the silent vessel drift away towards the sea.
"I shall go back to Wales, to Caerleon. Just a short walk from here. And Arthur - if you will allow - can come with me. I take it nobody here wishes to look after him?"
Bedwyr snarled and turned towards me.
"Take the idiot. It'll save me the trouble of putting a dagger into his belly."
The three of us - Kei, Bedwyr, me - glanced, in unison, towards Arthur. Clad in a huge leather jerkin that had once belonged to Ambrosius - at least three sizes too big - he was staring after the distant boat. He had not heard my words and it was probably just as well as they had not been uttered from affection or even compassion. Arthur was important to me and to my plans but I didn't really care about him.
An hour later we were several miles distant, Arthur and me, free at last from the warband which was, even now, beginning to argue about their new leader. Poor addled Arthur skipped along beside me, happy to be out in the cold November air. Already Ambrosius Aurelianus was just a memory.
Beyond the Severn the blue slopes of the Welsh hills reared huge and solemn in the morning sunlight.
"Your home, Arthur," I said, pointing. "Your home from now on."
He grinned at me and gleefully wiped the spittle from his chin.
"Yes," he said. "Home."
Suddenly his head swung around, staring intently inland. I followed his gaze. Grey bellied hunting birds - hawks and falcons - were wheeling and dipping over the edge of the moor.
"Birds," whispered Arthur. "Pretty birds."
"Merlins, Arthur. They're called merlins. They're hunting for food for their families. Taking it home, to their nests."
He repeated the name over and over again, relishing and tasting its sound. Then he smiled and I could have sworn there was cunning in the expression.
"You are my Merlin. You're taking me home. You are my Merlin, aren't you?"
I raised my eyebrows at him and slowly nodded my head.
"If you like, Arthur. I shall be your Merlin."
He danced gleefully down the track ahead of me, singing "Merlin, Merlin" at the top of his voice.
"And you," I whispered to myself as I walked after him, " shall be my king."
Posterity didn't need Ambrosius Aurelianus but it did need his story. We would all need something to cling to in the dark days and nights that undoubtedly lay ahead. Britain required a legend - the legend of a warrior king, a noble man who was merciless to the enemy but compassionate with the weak. That certainly hadn't been Ambrosius.
Yet I would give Britain that legend, and I would base it on his deeds. I would embroider, I would improve. And this Arthur, this simple idiot boy, would become my hero, my warrior king. The name of Arthur would live forever. I would do that with my skill, with my words, with my gift for story telling.
In a hundred years they would have forgotten Ambrosius. Few would even know he had existed. Arthur, on the other hand, would be exalted as the king for all times, now and in the future. That was my revenge and sweet revenge it was too.
We walked on across the moor. Behind us merlins flashed and darted and far, far away the sun shone on the Isle of Avalon.