cover

About the Book

Born of the Highlands, along shores washed by northern seas, Guinevere has accepted the power offered to her by the Dragon Throne and been crowned Queen.

Her first task is to protect her people from the reviled Saxon raiders. And she must strike quickly or surrender control of the seas. But her warlords refuse to accept that this young queen can know anything of the art of war and offer her an army of misfits and outcasts. Guinevere knows she cannot – must not – fail. Sailing to confront the hated enemy, she summons the spirits of the dead knowing there is a terrible price to pay for their help.

As Guinevere faces her first great challenge as queen, so Black Leg, her childhood companion, begins his own quest to become a man and warrior. He will endure trials both mental and physical, discover inner strengths and primal passions, each experience more perilous than the last, but these will be as nothing compared to the anguish and desire unleashed when he and Guinevere are reunited. For he is the Raven Warrior, the one who will be called Lancelot …

Set in that dark age when history and myth collide, The Raven Warrior continues Alice Borchardt’s bold re-imagining of the story of a king called Arthur and, of course, his mercurial queen, Guinevere.

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Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Part One

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Part Two

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

About the Author

Also by Alice Borchardt

Copyright

TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS
61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA,
www.transworldbooks.co.uk
THE RAVEN WARRIOR
A BANTAM BOOK: 9780553824919
Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781407066745
Originally published in Great Britain by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld Publishers
Bantam Press edition published 2003
Bantam edition published 2004
Copyright © Alice Borchardt 2003
First published in the United States by The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of The Random House Group Inc.
The right of Alice Borchardt to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Addresses for Random House Group Ltd companies outside the UK can be found at: www.randomhouse.co.uk
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About the Author

Alice Borchardt shared a childhood of storytelling with her sister, Anne Rice, in New Orleans. A professional nurse, she has also nurtured a profound interest in little-known periods of history. She is the author of Devoted, Beguiled, The Silver Wolf, Night of the Wolf, The Wolf King and the first book in the Tales of Guinevere, The Dragon Queen.

By Alice Borchardt
Devoted
Beguiled
The Silver Wolf
Night of the Wolf
The Wolf King
The Dragon Queen
The Raven Warrior

PART ONE

CHAPTER ONE

AS I SUSPECTED, stealing from professional thieves takes some skill and a lot of hard work. We took shifts at the oars once we were out of the territory of the Painted People and didn’t, as was more usual among peaceful mariners, go ashore to sleep.

She – the ship – was decked only lightly, boards nailed over her ribs and hide bottom. We were drenched by squalls and frozen by the icy spring seas breaking over our bows. But, Lord, she was fast! Small and light, propelled by ten at the oars by day and six by night. We all took rowing duty, as I said, the ones not pulling at the sweeps eating, then sleeping on the narrow deck between the rowing benches. Or we slept when we could.

At times we would row into an icy rain squall. Then the sleepers had to rouse themselves and bail like mad, not to keep her from sinking but so as not to slow those of us plying the oars. She wouldn’t sink, but if her forward progress were slowed, heavy seas might break her up. Whereas, more or less empty of water, she was able to ride the combers like a floating cork, and in calmer waters, skim along as might a bird.

We had no sail, since we wished to announce neither our passage nor arrival to any watching coastal people. And watch they do, being as they are used to trouble coming by sea.

I don’t like to remember the start of our voyage or our first few days aboard. We were all seasick and none too sure of ourselves at the oars. But Dugald, who is my Druid, gave me medicine for seasickness. True, it tasted like the floor of a town midden pit and stank worse than a herd of goats, but withal – it worked. And most of us recovered well enough to devote ourselves to the oars within a day or two.

I’m not sure Dugald considers himself my Druid. Once he was my guardian, then my teacher. But when I became a woman and a queen, I felt he should be my Druid. He couldn’t agree less. He says I’m a child and only an honorary ruler, and not to be so presumptuous as to drape a mantle of authority over my shoulders.

I wished I had something to drape over my shoulders. Gods above and below, it was cold in that boat. But I knew if I could pull this off, I would be rich and a real queen. So I must make the attempt, no matter how great the hardships involved.

Four days out of port, I understood I had good companions. Our flotilla – there were three small ships – held seventeen men each. ‘Men’ not always being actual men; some were women. But there was a man at the tiller of each boat; Maeniel, my foster father, on one; Gray, an oath man of mine, on another; and aboard this one, Ure, a relative of Gray’s, an experienced man of the sea.

Ours was the lead ship; the rest followed us. Ure knew the coast and its hazards: rocks, reefs, sand spits – though with our shallow-draft, those weren’t a problem – currents, and, last but not least, pirate nests. He told us he would undertake to keep us clear of them all.

In return, we didn’t ask him how he knew so much and promised to devote ourselves to the work of the oars. When I asked him if we shouldn’t have some dry land practice first, he fixed me with an eye cold and green as a breaking winter sea and said, ‘One learns best by doing. And when you do a thing day to day on a regular basis, you will eventually learn all there is to know about it. Sometimes more than you want to know.’

He was right; by now, eight days into our voyage, I knew a lot more about rowing than I ever wanted to. About blisters that broke and bled, scabbed over, then broke open again the next day and bled. About excruciating pain in the arms, back, and neck. About the discomfort of perpetually wet clothing that chafed and itched, or sleeping on a hard, wet, stinking plank among the wet, stinking bodies of fellow crew members. Of huddling together with them to try to coax a little warmth from one another. Not to mention the joys of hanging off the stern up to your waist in the icy sea as the small craft you are clinging to battles fifteen-foot waves while you try to take care of necessities, since there is no room aboard for such nonsense as chamber pots.

See, the water ran to the back of the craft because she was lighter at the bows, so the steersman bailed with one hand while he clung to the tiller with the other. Guess what he used to do the bailing?

When I was much younger, I used to think the sea was romantic.

Despite our many struggles, we moved with almost unbelievable swiftness toward the south and the forts of the Saxon shore. On the tenth day, we arrived at the mouth of the river that flowed through the Fenlands. Ten days of rowing in the heaving, pitching sea. We were all glad to pull the narrow craft into the tall reeds and sedges, rest, and wait for dawn.

It came without a sunrise, a gray illumination of ridged storm clouds. I was sleeping, my head on the gunwales, when I awakened to see Maeniel, as wolf, slip over the bow of the boat next to ours and vanish into the water. I had slept hard and drooled; it dried on the side of my face and left a damp spot on the wood near where my lips rested.

There was no color in anything, and the sedges, reeds, and cattails were a dark frieze reflected in the silvered water. Everyone else was asleep except Ure. He was sitting in the bow and his eyes met mine, green as slag glass and twice as hard. I opened my mouth to ask him where Maeniel was going. His hard gaze edged into contempt.

I reflected that I knew exactly where the Gray Watcher was headed. And Ure had no use at all for what he called senseless blather.

No sense waking half the boat to ask a question when I knew the answer already. I put my head back down on the gunwale. I didn’t think I could, but I drifted off to sleep.

When I awakened again, Maeniel was climbing back into the boat. He was dripping wet and wrapping one of Gray’s mantles around himself. I rose; pulling up my stiffened body was a painful effort. But I stepped to the deck and tiptoed around the sodden sleepers between the rowing benches until I reached the three standing in the bow, Gray, Maeniel, and Ure.

‘What?’ I whispered.

‘Nothing good,’ Maeniel said. ‘The smartest thing might be to turn around and go back.’

Ure grunted.

Gray whispered, ‘Say on, Lord Maeniel.’

‘I didn’t think their strong point would be this strong. The pirates have refitted an abandoned Roman fortress about ten miles upstream. There are seventy to a hundred men there, all mature, able-bodied warriors. Twice our force and more. Better armed, tried and tested in battle.’

‘Ships?’ Ure asked.

‘I counted twenty careened and upside down on land. A few more in the water,’ Maeniel said.

‘We have what?’ Gray said. ‘Forty boys, three men, and eight women.’ He shook his head. ‘We should look for easier pickings.’

I felt my failure, and, yes, the failure was mine. Though I sat on the Dragon Throne and it was acknowledged I had the right to be there, the subchiefs hadn’t fallen in with my plans to carry war to the Saxon raiders who harried our highland coasts and Out Islands. When I visited the villages recruiting among the war bands and coast watch, none were willing to chance such a hazardous endeavor as striking at the Saxons in their home ports.

Yes, they had hailed me wildly at my accession to the Dragon Throne, but in the cold light of morning, they had second thoughts. What did a woman, a child, as yet, know of warfare? I got the useless, the outcast, the weak, the orphaned, the despised among the boys.

And as for girls, the ugly. One had a strawberry birthmark that covered one cheek and part of her mouth. Another was taken captive and left for dead by the same Saxon raiders. Another hid her harelip. The others, drudges, broken by hard labor before they were in their teens, without friends or kin, bearing the load of endless work by day and the weight of their owners’ bodies by night. Leading lives so filled with misery that they had come to believe any chance of freedom was better than their day-to-day existence. If they should fail and fall into death, why then … so be it. Nothing beyond death could be worse. ‘At least I can sleep,’ one called Albe told me.

‘At least we could burn their ships,’ I said bitterly.

‘As I said, there are some in the water,’ Maeniel told me. ‘We would probably be run down in the open sea. The pirate craft are oared and also light and very fast. Not to mention much better manned.’

‘Suicide!’ Ure said.

‘Over the wall by night and take them in their beds?’ I suggested.

‘Full of ideas!’ Ure commented. ‘No! These are children, not blooded. I’m a corrupt old devil, but even I won’t be a party to the slaughter of innocents. For such tricks you need a group of experienced men.’

‘Any others?’ he asked.

I hunkered down and looked up at the three men. ‘Yes,’ I said.

Ure made a beckoning gesture. ‘Say!’ he said.

‘What’s inside that fortress? Is it stone or wood?’ I asked.

‘Wood,’ Maeniel said. ‘But on that scale … you can’t.’

‘I can,’ I said between my teeth. ‘I can.’

Then I reached over the side and fished out a floating branch, narrow, maybe a foot long. Very waterlogged. I clamped my right hand around it. With a whistling hiss, steam erupted around it, erupted the way steam does when water is poured into a hot metal pot. Then from the top to the bottom, the dry stick burst into flame and was ash before it had time to heat my fingers.

‘I’ll go over the wall while you and the rest strike at the gates and burn them out.’

Maeniel studied me. ‘The reason the Romans abandoned the fortress was the damp began to undermine the walls. Like as not, what’s in the fortress that isn’t wet is at least damp.’

‘There’s that,’ Ure said.

I rose from my heels and stood looking the three of them in the face. ‘Bet your life, bet your patrimony, bet your hope of heirs, when I put my hand on something, it will burn.’ I raised my scarred right hand and held it up before them.

‘Yes,’ Ure said, looking at Gray. ‘It’s a plum, this place, and well worth the risk.’

Gray looked uncertain.

Maeniel studied me sadly. ‘Very well,’ he said at length.

‘Nothing is sure, ever,’ Ure said to Gray. ‘Nothing.’

When I turned, I saw the youngsters in the boats were awake, sitting up and staring at the four of us. Outcasts, I thought. Maybe this is the advantage of being in the company of the last and least. None of them looked afraid and most seemed ready for anything.

The Brotherhood of the Bagudae.

Black Leg was already lonely. He moved away from the forest near Tintigal, where he’d left them. He missed his family, blood family or not. Even that terrible-tempered old Dugald, though these days all he did was scold or lick his chops about how ‘she’ was progressing into a real noblewoman.

But, of course, he missed her most of all. He wished sometimes they were still children. When they were young, before the pirates came, the two of them used to snuggle together against Mother’s warm belly. He would turn human just so she could cradle him in her arms. Most times he had no use for the shape, except when climbing around in the rocks to get birds’ eggs or going up trees after fruit. And from time to time attempting to understand some of Dugald’s stranger ideas.

Like those choirs of angels. He had put up a fight when Dugald tried to get him to memorize them, thrones, denominations, principalities, powers, and so on. He’d told Dugald in no uncertain terms that he had no interest in the classification of impossible, nonexistent beings. Dugald told him a lot of people would believe he, Black Leg, was a nonexistent being. Black Leg replied that he was here now and no one could deny his existence. If Dugald could produce an angel, he, Black Leg, would learn how to place it in proper ranking order with no further complaint.

‘She,’ the fair one, thought it was hilarious. Magetsky, up in the rafters, waxed loud, filling the room with raucous laughter. Dugald lost his temper. Magetsky, the raven, abruptly left, pursued by a small, dark thunderbolt. Kyra discovered she wanted to visit Etta, Gray’s wife. Maeniel went hunting, and he, Black Leg, and Guinevere went and slept in the woods.

That was the last time, though. Not long after, Kyra separated them, saying it wasn’t seemly any longer for them to share a bed. People might talk.

‘About what?’ he asked indignantly.

No one offered a straight answer, not even his father, Maeniel.

He didn’t think about it much after that, because then Mother died. Somehow he had known in his heart that a time of innocence and joy was ended. When Mother’s pyre was ashes and she was gone, he told his father that he wanted to learn to be a man.

Maeniel had given him a long, thoughtful look. A speaking one. But wolves do not lightly try to interfere with one another’s freedom or give advice, even when requested to do so.

But he did say one thing. ‘Don’t get involved in their struggles. They are endless and usually futile. Wolves settled things between themselves before the beginning of time, but these creatures have never come to an accommodation with God’s creation or with each other. Still, I suppose you must let them break your heart once. Then perhaps you will learn.’

He had wondered at the time what his father meant. Now he was sure he knew. He remembered her with great bitterness and more than a little sorrow.

The lands he moved through were rugged, wild, and unsettled. He remained wolf as he traveled. There were two or three packs about; they hunted the stony defiles between the hills even as the occasional big cat still ruled the heights. But Mother taught him to be an efficient, able wolf long before he ever thought about turning to his human side. So he had no problem avoiding them.

It was spring and there were females in heat that drew him, but he wasn’t ready, not really mature enough to fight for the father right. In any of the packs, poaching on the territories of the leaders would sooner or later lead to an attack, possibly by the whole pack. Wolf law said you presented yourself openly, took your place in the hierarchy, then challenged the leader. The treacherous interloper would meet the bared fangs of the leader and his inner circle, all yearning to shed his blood.

Farmsteads were scattered on fertile patches of soil throughout the forest, but they were, without exception, surrounded by high, earthen banks surmounted by palisade fences. The resident war dogs that protected the livestock were nothing a lone wolf wanted to mess around with. So he moved secretly and silently through the countryside until one morning, just before first light, he came to a valley with a lake.

He should have known.

From the first moment, it raised the hackles on the back of his neck. A wolf would have left. But with him, there was that human component.

So he trotted downhill into the fog that filled the bowl of the valley.

No humans. That in itself should have made him suspicious. But he was far too inexperienced to have his anxieties roused by the absence of something.

Light was spreading from the east into the silent forest at the lake’s margin, illuminating the haze that hung between the trees with long shafts that were almost as discrete from each other as a handful of sticks. Nothing. No wolves, no humans, and in a place as beautiful as morning in paradise. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. Indeed, he shouldn’t have.

He sensed the water was very close. Then he smelled it and found he was trotting along through a very shallow marsh. Ahead even through the fog he saw a stretch of open water and a dim shape that might have been an island. The light striking down from above was losing its grayness and turning slowly to gold, trees to green, and the water to a multicolored gem as it cast back the reflection of the surrounding forest.

He bent his head and drank, troubling the absolutely smooth surface with his tongue. When he raised his head, he found the fatigue of the long night’s trip weighed heavy on him. He was not used to traveling so far so fast as a wolf.

And then he reflected that, while lonely, he was at least now free of the thousand constraints that had beset him as a human being. He could return to the forest, seek a warm nest in bracken and dried leaves, and enjoy the luxury of sleeping as long as he liked.

He stretched as languorously as a cat, stiffening each of his hind legs in turn, yawned, and just about then …

He felt the weight of a big, heavy hand on his neck … and every hair on his body stood straight up at the sound of a triumphant crow of savage, evil laughter.

Igrane knew from the slightly withdrawn, preoccupied look in his eyes that he was up to something. They had, after all, been lovers now for over thirty years. But since he was far older and smarter than she was, she was unable to guess what.

She hoped the bright lechery she saw in his gaze would prevail over any magical experiments he wanted to undertake. Hoped that he would dismiss the servants, throw her on the floor, and possess her violently.

Sometimes he did it that way. At others he played with her, tormenting them both for hours, until they both reached a frenzy of desire before he allowed her fulfillment and release. Both memories were erotic in the extreme. But they were shadowed by other, darker occasions when his desire to cause her pain and punish her for (as he saw it) ensnaring him into an erotic commitment he despised overrode all other considerations in his mind.

The strongest part of his being was his desire to dominate political events. Women – even boys from time to time, he took both – were mere amusements. But she drained his powerful magical abilities like a leech. She clung to him, she pleasured him as no other ever had. And in return, he kept her young and beautiful.

But sometimes … sometimes he forced her to contribute the unguessable….

When they were both stuporous with food and wine, he said, ‘I have a gift for you.’

It was growing cold on the terrace above Tintigal. Her women were gone and his menservants had rather thankfully melted away into the dusk. They, too, felt the tension between the two adepts at the table.

Over the sea the cloud spires were lifted into flame by the sun’s last rays. They burned over the dark water like the towers of a city in flame.

She shivered. ‘Let’s go in. You can give me the present as we recline before the hearth. Come, my love.’ She reached for his hand.

Suddenly he wasn’t empty-handed any longer. A cup was in his left. The stem and footing were of gold, which girdled the coiled spiral of a shell, a white shell glowing inside and out with mother-of-pearl.

‘It’s beautiful,’ she said, but her heart was hammering and she could barely breathe.

‘Yes. Now take it in both your hands and drink.’

‘Wine,’ she whispered. ‘I’d rather not. I’ve had …’

‘Drink!’

The word had the force of command. At the same moment, she felt his right hand encircle her neck, her long, regal neck. He stroked the hollow at the base of her throat with his thumb. She’d seen him kill men that way, crushing the ridged cartilage of the larynx with his thumb, leaving them to kick and gasp their lives away while he watched with evident enjoyment.

She seized the cup with both hands and brought it to her lips. Its contents filled her mouth and nose both, so she couldn’t even scream when she was drawn into the spiral coil of the vessel.

She seemed to move down a glowing white, curve-walled corridor filled with pale, diffused light. The inner shell was not transparent but translucent. She fled along a rough pathway like one following an ever-narrowing spiral staircase down and down to some unguessable destination, unable to halt or go back because the walls and floor weren’t sufficiently bumpy to allow her to stop or crawl back.

Panic struck as she reached a passage so narrow that she could no longer walk or, at last, even crawl. She screamed, and at her first scream, she debouched free of the shell, rolling across a carpet on the floor of Merlin’s stronghold.

The place both awed and terrified her. It was part of the sea. A sea on some world she was sure the rest of mankind did not share.

The room was luxurious. Soft rugs, jeweled with many colors, lay like pools of brightness on stone floors. Velvet-covered couches were scattered around haphazard flowers blooming in a dark shadowed mezzanine. The whole front wall of the room was glass, some kind of glass that overlooked the sea. And when the tide was in, as it was now, the blue and green waves crashed against the glass, towering over her as she lay on a soft, scarlet rug on the floor.

The glass-not-glass allowed sound and air to pass through its permeable surface and the room was scoured by the sea wind. She screamed again as a gigantic wave towered over her and broke, foaming against the glass wall before her, and the wind tore at her hair.

She scrambled toward the back of the room, where a gigantic double-walled Roman fireplace formed the back of the long sea-view room.

‘That’s it. Incinerate yourself,’ he said contemptuously.

She sat up, shivering. ‘You know I hate this place,’ she whimpered.

‘Too bad,’ he said. ‘But whatever you feel, stop squalling or I’ll have you gagged. Or maybe I’ll just have one of my servants cut out your tongue.’

She knew he was capable of doing either one as easily as the other, so she was silent.

He waved his hand and it seemed the glass between them and the raging sea grew denser. The noise of pounding waves lessened and the wind dropped. She realized it was near night in this place, as it was at Tintigal, and some of the brightness in the room was from the fire at the back, fanned by the wind.

The glow faded and the room grew darker. Beyond the windows, the sea churned higher, the waves now breaking on the roof above the window wall. The trees were scattered around the room in pots, some in leaf, others laden with fruit, and some in flower. Peaches, plums, apricots, apples, and quince. They yielded to his power, dormant flowering, fruiting at his will.

As she watched, he picked a pale white plum, dewy ripe, from one of the harvest trees. He reached down and put it in her mouth, where it dissolved, honey-sweet within, tart and biting at the skin.

‘Spit the pit into my hand,’ he said.

She held back, keeping the fissured seed in her mouth. But then he caught her hair in one hand and shook her. ‘Don’t you dare! I will tear out your tongue!’

She spat the pit into his hand. He snapped his fingers, and two of his golems appeared. She knew this was going to be worse than anything she’d anticipated, maybe worse than anything that had ever gone before.

The golems always frightened her. They were dead men still inhabiting their bodies. Unlike others he raised, they were not zombies suited only for simple tasks. They retained intelligence and volition, even though they were clearly corpses. Gutted, cooked to render away fat, then soaked, tanned the way a hide is tanned, then sewn back on withered muscle and cartilaginous bone. The faces were tight, dry masks, the eyes lifeless, hard, opaque, and pale, but with a dark ring where the pupil had once been and a spark of light at the center.

‘Your clothes,’ he said, ‘or shall I have them strip you?’

She shuddered. ‘No!’ she whispered. ‘No!’

She rose to her knees and was naked in a few seconds. She had been prepared for him, wearing nothing under her gown and shift.

Merlin pointed at a dark stair leading down into another, larger room that she could see only dimly below. She hurried to keep ahead of the two golems, running down the shallow steps into the large room.

Even though night was falling outside, it was filled with light. The roof was a glass dome of fitted pieces, as were the windows of the first room she had been in. Above the dome, the sea crashed and boiled frighteningly.

Once the domed room had been a small bay, carved from the cliffs above by wave action. But someone, something, had enclosed the bay in glass, smoothed the floor – it was polished gray basalt – and pushed out the encroaching sea. Now it thundered and roared as if in mad frustration at this usurpation of its powers.

Yes, this was a place of awesome power; she recognized that. Not sea, not land, and she stood there at the moment of not day, not night, not darkness, not light.

Igrane whimpered with terror.

Merlin wasn’t interested. He whispered an incantation and a symbol flared into life on the mottled gray floor. It was a Saint Andrew’s cross, an X. It was set in the floor among the remains of sea creatures that lived long ago and left their images pressed into the rock caught in stone. Not dead completely, yet not alive, either.

‘Hurry,’ Merlin snapped. ‘The light is fading! Tie her.’

She screamed when the golems seized her. They hustled her to the glowing cross-shaped marking in the center of the floor, then tied her arms, fastening them at the wrists to two lines that vanished into the shadows above. Then one of them kicked her legs apart and placed her feet on the glowing X she stood on, so that her body formed another X above that on the floor.

She tugged and found she couldn’t move her feet. They adhered to the glowing lines beneath.

She screamed again.

Behind her, she heard Merlin test the whip. It cracked across the chamber with the sound of snapping wood. Light filled the room and Igrane looked up and around into what seemed a thousand mirrors, all reflecting both of them.

He was standing behind her, whip in hand. Oddly, she felt relieved. She had been afraid he was going to kill her. But a whipping wouldn’t do that. He had whipped her before and seldom lasted beyond two lashes. By then his desire to see her suffer was at war with his overwhelming need to possess her, and the need to possess her won.

She felt the surge of power from the symbol she stood on; erotic need consumed her. She was almost ready to beg for the lash.

She saw in the thousand mirrors around her the movement, snakelike and savage, of the thing in his hand. A second later, it coiled at her loins.

Her response was a shriek of uncontrolled pain. God, it had never felt like this before.

She saw a weal leap up a finger’s breadth and width across her buttocks and down to her thigh, the tender part just between her legs. Then, as the agony faded into a more tolerable ache, the wound began to leak blood from its center.

‘No!’ she screamed as the next one came coiling around her body above the buttocks at her waist. The tip flicked her nipple and split it like a ripe cherry.

She watched transfixed with horror as blood from her breast flowed down her belly and thigh, and dripped down on the floor. She didn’t scream again, but fought the ropes that tied her wrists and whatever power that caused her feet to cling to the floor like a madwoman.

Then she went limp with almost unspeakable relief as she realized he was walking toward her … he’d had enough … oh, God! A few seconds later, she felt his arms around her waist and his lips on her neck.

‘That was worse,’ she whimpered. ‘Worse than all the other times. Please, please cut me down.’

‘My poor dear,’ he whispered in mock sympathy. ‘Hold yourself in readiness. It’s going to get worse still.’

But he did release the ropes holding her arms and forced her to the floor, positioning her on top of the X-shaped symbol. The light in the room died, and, above through the glass, she saw the green and churning sea. It was almost nightfall outside, and she knew he must be in a hurry to complete the spell before darkness wrapped this coast in gloom, because she saw him glance uneasily upward.

Abruptly, light blossomed all around her and the mirrors returned to the glass dome above her. She saw herself reflected everywhere. She glowed with beauty in the flow of brightness from beneath the floor, naked, her sex shaved clean, skin tawny, her hair a flood of black silk cradling her pale, fair face. Helpless, because she found the X-shaped medallion held her tightly to the floor.

Desire grew and she saw her labia part slightly to reveal the swollen, hot passage that seemed the center of her being. Her image darkened as he covered her with his body, and she found she looked up not at the mirrored ceiling but at his face, teeth bared, a mask of desire.

She groaned with both outrage and pleasure as he entered her body.

‘Oh. Oh, my sweet, hot, tight, soft. My darling, my rich course of all joy. I am enfolded in moist, red velvet.’

Not a good sign, the last clear-thinking corner of her brain informed her. He never spoke tenderly to her, no matter how hotly he desired her.

But the light from the cross-shaped symbol blazed around both of them and her whole body exploded into orgasm. But then, what seemed a tidal wave of pleasure burned away into incredible pain. She threw back her head, almost blinded by its intensity. Even childbirth, the worst pain she could remember, hadn’t hurt so much.

The first sight she had as she lay gasping as the pain at last ebbed away was his face grinning down at her, and the first sound his triumphant laughter. Their bodies were separated, but something like a steel rod parted her female portions. He was trying to enter her again.

‘No! No! No!’ she screamed.

He laughed again. ‘I wonder how many times you will be able to survive it. The best, the very best I ever had, only lasted through five thrusts. He was a strong man – most women only make three. Come now, my sweet, my angel, my beauty. Be nice. Let me in again. You will, you know. In the end you will. They all do. Best get it over quickly. Struggling only prolongs my pleasure and your suffering.’

His next thrust was like being battered by a stone phallus, but somehow, even though her body was glued to the floor like iron filings to a magnet, she managed to twist away.

She had often wondered but never wanted to know how he came by his vast powers. Now she knew. He was able to use this room, this place, to call them up from the earth, call them up into his body and spirit by using those he desired as a sort of intermediary. He took the strength they pulled from this wonder she lay on, but they experienced the concomitant price of such a transfer of power: the pain.

In the thousand mirrors above, she could see him kneeling between her legs, but she was beginning to glow with the excitement of the building fire beneath her. He reached around, palms cupping buttocks, fingers reaching then catching the soft lips of the innermost portal, drawing it open to his rigid member. She threw her head back, trying to knock herself out against the stone floor. Her vision splintered into a thousand lights, but even so, she could feel him entering her again.

When her eyes cleared, she found she couldn’t see the mirrors above. She couldn’t tell if she was half unconscious or if indeed something was happening above him. It was as though she looked up through the meshes of a net, the only difference being these meshes writhed. They moved closer, further down, toward him.

A moment of crystal clarity followed while she weighed her choices.

She could warn him.

No. Never.

It might kill her, too.

Better to die that way than this. Even if, as she saw now, the meshes of this net were snakes, white ones with black eyes and tongues and a faint green line down their slender backs.

An instant later, they enfolded him. She felt the hard, muscular strength of the narrow bones as they wrapped themselves around him. They moved like no snakes she had ever seen, in a completely coordinated fashion.

It was his turn to scream and scream as he rolled away from her prone body across the floor. Then he was silent as he concentrated his entire intellect and will on the struggle.

He tried to kick free, and for a few moments, it looked as though he might succeed. But they wrapped themselves around his legs, immobilizing him from ankle to hip.

He pulled one arm free, but when he tried to claw the other loose, a half dozen coils lapped around the free arm, pinning it to his body.

The struggle ended when one coiled around his throat and deprived him of breath whenever he tried to move. At length, he lay still.

The voice came out of nowhere. ‘Dung fly maggot. Filthy pile of stinking carrion. I’ve been waiting to corner you for some time now. Such vicious games as you play leave you vulnerable, you crawling louse.

‘You told me the boy Arthur was harmless. You told me he would never learn to elude the watcher I set over him. You lied about both matters, and now she is gone. They are all gone. All those caught in the antechamber. Those whose souls I trapped for companionship in an eternity of loneliness. She escaped me. She whom I loved, she who was my only consolation – has set out across the sea of eternity alone without me.’

Then the voice slipped into another language, one Igrane didn’t understand. But it must have been an incantation, because the snakes began to strike. They buried their fangs in his chest and throat, and – she smiled to see it – his groin, just at the spot where the penis joins the body.

His back arched, his mouth opened, but she could hear nothing. The snakes were now lines of light and they sucked his substance away into their bodies, and then very simply, without leaving a trace behind, they were gone.

We picked up the boats and carried them into the marsh. We didn’t want to leave a trail. Or at least, that’s what Ure said, telling the rest of us that a trail by land in a swamp left far less disturbance.

And, oddly enough, I found he was right. The track was muddy or grass-covered; the mud oozed back to fill in footprints and they simply didn’t take on the damp turf. Had we forced our way through the rushes and cattails, we would have left clear evidence of our passage.

It took me a little time to realize I was walking along a road. It wound in and out among trees, past ponds thick with water weed, cress, and lily pads. Or along the edge of more open water, filled with fish. We moved quietly and I saw the fish rise, making circles on the water as they took insects on the surface.

Twice, tree trunks were visible, laid in parallel rows to bridge low spots where we waded up to our ankles.

‘Is this a road?’ I said to Ure.

‘Yes.’

‘There are people living here?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Not now.’

Knowing his lack of affection for chatter, I forbore to question him anymore.

What I most remember about the marsh was its silence. I was brought up on a seacoast, where the sound of wind and wave was a constant background to all human activities. Even in the barley fields, we heard the sea’s roar and the wind swept the heading crops into a bowing, rippling mass, which gleamed in the sun just as the sea waves did before its unending breath.

But here was true silence, broken only by the flop, pop of a leaping frog or fish, or the distant cries of ducks and geese as they fed among the long grasses and sedges that bordered this strange and, I think, ancient, winding road.

‘Snakes,’ someone else, I think Albe, said nervously.

‘Too cold yet,’ Ure answered. ‘Later, when it grows warmer, I would fear to walk here without a stout stick, but we are safe enough now.’

After that, we trudged on quietly, the silence seeming to enter us the way water is poured into a bowl and lies motionless, forming a mirror of sorts for anything above it.

Maeniel, Gray, Ure, and I took the lead; the rest followed behind. Those who had been sleeping took up the boats, automatically leaving the rowers to walk unencumbered. But none of us were really what you would call fresh, not after ten days at sea. And I wondered how much strength any of us would have to call upon when we faced battle.

I was frightened. I might not have the strength in my right hand to make the buildings in the fortress burn, even if I poured my strength, my life, my whole soul into the task. Would it be enough?

About then the wind changed, and we smelled them.

Gray stopped. ‘Christ! What’s that?’

Ure laughed very softly. ‘The Saxons,’ he said.

‘Uncle?’ Gray said. ‘Do you never explain?’

‘No,’ Ure said, and he continued on. But Gray balked mutinously.

Maeniel sighed. What we were smelling now he had probably been aware of for some time. But the wind early in the morning had been at our backs. Now, as the road however tortuously moved inland, we were catching a land breeze, and it reeked, the stench so strong it made your eyes tear.

Ure, seeing the rest of us frozen where we stood, paused again.

‘The Saxons,’ Maeniel said quietly, ‘devote every tenth captive to their gods.’

‘Especially the weak, the old, the sickly, and the rebellious,’ Ure said.

We rounded the next bend in the road and saw them dangling in the trees. Even before the road had been built there must have been a considerable island of dry land, because there were many trees, even those that won’t grow on flooded land. They were festooned with the dead in all stages of decomposition.

To the right of the forested island, I saw a thicket of pilings projecting from the water where a village must once have stood. The pilings were half rotted by damp, but the tops were charred and blackened by fire.

We stood stock-still where we were as the rest came up behind us and looked over our shoulders at the terrible sight. Someone began to cry. I don’t know if it was a boy or girl. I only know Ure’s eyes swept the whole group of us with a look of icy contempt and the weeping was silenced.

‘Well, now you know,’ he said. ‘Make your choice. Run or fight. Which is it?’

Gray was on his knees vomiting at the side of the road. Maeniel wore his wolf look – the gaze he turns on the yearling cubs when it comes time to loose them toward their first kill. I stood paralyzed, feeling both my knees and my guts turning to water.

‘Must we pass this way?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he answered. ‘But I thought it was as well you did. These are not deer you hunt, but men, killers of other men.’

I looked around at the others. Everyone was silent. The girls were bunched behind me, but the equally pale and frightened faces of the boys were indistinguishable from theirs.

Next to me, Albe’s eyes were empty. ‘I will not go living into their hands again,’ she said.

Next to her, Wic, the girl with the ugly birthmark distorting her features, shrugged and said, ‘No worse than my village when it was filled with carrion crows after the attack.’

One of the boys whispered, ‘My master beat me every day. Think on it. None but the queen has anything to go back to.’

‘The queen,’ I said, ‘is not going back. We will abide the dead.’

To this day, I don’t know how I did it. Part of it was pride, I’m sure. I couldn’t let this band of outcasts show more courage than the descendent of the Iceni queen. But the other part was, I knew how important our little voyage was.

The Painted People and the kingdoms of the Out Isles were hard-pressed by the Saxon pirates. Hand in glove with their brethren that guarded the coast, they formed a pincer movement that, in the end, threatened the independence of the rest of the free people of Alba. Uther would soon be hard-pressed to maintain his position in Wales, and the Painted People deprived of their alliance with the Veneti. And without control over the North Sea fisheries and the resources of the Out Islands, they would fall like ripe plums into the hands of the southern Saxon conquerors, led by Merlin.

If no one did anything to stop these raids, the command of the seas would fall to the Saxons. And, make no mistake, whoever rules the sea here also controls the land.

I danced the dance, stretched out my hands, and took the power offered by my seat on the Dragon Throne. Maeniel warned me the night before the dance there would be no going back, and there wasn’t. So I did as a chief should do; I took the first step forward. The rest, without further question, followed. Even Ure.

The view of the small forest on the island didn’t improve as we drew closer. But we continued on. The crows were at them, and at first we thought we frightened the birds, because, with a cry and a rush of black wings, they flew up and away from the things in the trees.

‘I didn’t think we were close enough to startle them away from their dinner,’ Ure said.

But then we heard voices.

Igrane felt the power fade and withdraw from her body. No longer attached to the symbol on the floor, she rolled to her side, then crawled away, whimpering with relief. He had been going to kill her; she knew it. This time he had really been going to kill her.

She had always been sure he hated her power over him, and this time he had intended to be rid of her. To burn her away as a sacrifice to whatever earthly, demonic power resided in this strange place.

She had been to his dwelling before, but never here to this part. Above, the sea roared and the room with its high, domed ceiling grew darker and darker as the light faded from the symbol on the floor. Fearfully, she thought about his two servants. God! She didn’t want to meet them.

She came to her knees. Her eyes searched the room in the growing gloom. She saw what remained of them.

Whatever powers took Merlin, it had dealt with them first. All that remained of them were bags of human hide, full of shattered, dark bone. It looked as though they had simply been crumpled as a bit of discarded paper might be by the fist of a giant hand.

She gave a gasp. Whatever took him must have awesome power. Merlin was the strongest being she had ever met; the creature that could destroy him didn’t bear thinking about.

The light was very dim now, the big room deeply shadowed. She found herself shivering with cold. Something, a robe of sorts, was draped over a sofa nearby. She seized it and wrapped it around her body. It was silk, heavy, raw silk.

It must be his, she thought. He had prepared it so that he could relax when he was finished destroying her. He would have been replete, sated with food, sex, and bloated with the staggeringly rich draft he sucked from her loins, while she lay spent, twisted, and dead on the white symbol below.

The robe hung over her shoulders. It moved of its own volition and wrapped itself around her. Sleeves lifted over her arms and a hood covered her head, then the two halves closed in front of her.

She staggered with fear. Clothing that dressed her, the fabric wrapping itself around her as though driven by a command, was another new and terrifying experience. But the gown was warm and caressed her skin with a thousand gentle fingers.

She was standing near the sofa from which she had taken the robe. It seemed her knees didn’t want to hold her up any longer. They folded. She sat, then drew up her feet and slid to her side and lay down.

Darkness rolled over her like a wave.

‘A wolf!’ a voice screeched. ‘A wolf! They promised me a wolf!’

Black Leg found himself lifted and gripped in the embrace of a pair of powerful arms. Almost paralyzed by terror, Black Leg gave vent to a most unwolflike screech.

Yiiiieee!’ It ended on a high note, and he turned human, the better to grapple with his attacker.

When the owner of the formidable pair of arms realized he was clutching another human male, he backed away, hunched down, and began weeping.

‘No. No. No,’ it moaned. ‘You are not he – they promised me a companion wolf, but you are no wolf but a man.’

For the first time, Black Leg got a good look at his attacker. Got a good whiff of him, too. He seemed old and was filthy. His hair, nails, and beard looked as though they hadn’t been cut in months, maybe years. The dirt under his nails was black, his hair a tangled mass that hung down on either side of his face. And the beard was long, filled with dead leaves, twigs, and bits of whatever the creature had been eating, substances Black Leg didn’t care to speculate about. It was hunkered down on its heels, sobbing, nose running in two mucous streams down the uncombed mustache into its beard.

‘No, no, no! I will despair and die. You cannot be the one,’ it sobbed. ‘The voices said nothing about such powers. Where? Where is the wolf? My wolf, my friend, the promised protector?’

Black Leg was shaken, filled with a mixture of pity and fear. He had never seen a human being in so wretched a condition.

The thing began to crawl away through the shallows, toward the boggy shore. Its mouth opened and Black Leg saw that its teeth were those of a young man, white, even, with strong, pink gums.

Black Leg shuddered, looked down at his own nude body, and realized he had been smeared with filth by the thing’s arms and hands. He waded deeper into the lake to clean himself. He was afraid to turn wolf again, lest he bring on another assault by the fearful being. He sighed with pleasure when he was out far enough to be in up to his neck. True, the water was cold, but only briskly so. Only cold enough to bring up the reflex that heats the blood in the young and can make a swim even in icy water a profound pleasure.

In the first light of morning, the water was murky and he felt the long fronds of waterweeds stroke his calves, knees, and thighs. He was walking on a velvet carpet of vegetation a few feet below the surface. A floor soft and yielding but at the same time crisp and somehow protective of his feet.

Nice. Nice, he thought. But then he noticed the weeds seemed to have a lot of prurient curiosity. He was being fondled and caressed by something that felt finned, scaly, and yet almost slimy like a fresh-caught fish. The touch explored him so gently that at first he was disarmed by an intense rush of pleasure. Then he realized he was being felt up by a … fish!

‘Yeeeee!’ He wasn’t proud of the screech he gave while setting a record back to land. It sounded a bit feminine, at least to his ears.

But when he reached solid ground, he was nervous enough to become wolf again without thinking about his first encounter. But he was reminded immediately.