From the Author
From the Inside Flap
Only on a simple platform at one end of the building could a sharp eye make out any details. In the torchlight, a large man covered by a purple cloak lay on a heap of animal skins. It was almost impossible in the gloom to make out the last traces of red in his hair and beard - the color submerged in gray. King Redwald's eyes were closed, his breathing labored, and his gnarled hands, complete with rings, clasped on his chest. A bronze helmet stood upright by his head; its visor bore a fair likeness of the dying man as he was in his hale middle years. To his right were a battle-worn sword and dagger; to his left lay a round wooden shield with bronze hooks bearing deep gouges.
Two figures knelt at the dying man's feet; no onlooker could fail to note the contrast between them. One was a lank-haired old woman in plain gray robes that had seen better days. The other was a young man, splendidly dressed; his cloak was as blue as a summer sky and pinned at his throat with a golden brooch. A man with a scarred face stepped into the pool of light. His cloak was homespun brown cloth held in place with an iron pin. The long dagger at his belt was as well-worn as his garments.
"It is almost time. All preparations are made."
The old woman looked up at Wulfric, the battle-scarred warrior.
"It must be done the old way. It is wrong to stray from the ways of our Lord!" A young, dark-haired woman took a step into the dim light. A baby was swaddled in a blanket at her breast.
The young woman's accent was so thick that it took a moment for the others to grasp her meaning. The words of the tribe did not sit easily on her tongue. Wulfric turned and gestured her back as one might do to quiet a troublesome pup, but his voice was not unkind.
"Redwald married a British king's daughter, my lady, and the alliance it brought us is no small thing. But nothing was ever said about our people wedding your father's faith. We have our ways. We brought them from the old lands. They are strange to you, and cruel perhaps, but they have served us well enough so far."
The young woman could only meet the gaze of the fighting man for a couple of moments. She looked down at her swaddled infant, and mumbled something about witchery and demons before falling silent.
Wulfric turned back and spoke to the young man in the sky-blue cloak.
"You will soon be king. Would you know what the Spinners of the Years intend for your dynasty?"
The young man looked up and, not for the first time, Wulfric reflected on how closely the boy resembled his father, yet how different they were in character.
Ah well, thought the veteran warrior. Perhaps with time, and the tempering of battle.
"What if the prophecy is ... not good?"
The young man's voice was as unimpressive as his light downy beard. His eyes were wide, unblinking; he was obviously too afraid and confused. Not yet ready.
"The Fates are the Fates," retorted Wulfric. To the old woman he said, "Will they come to us?"
For a moment, it seemed as if the old woman had not heard the warrior's words. The young man made an impatient gesture, but a firm hand fell on his shoulder.
"Give the wise-woman time," said Wulfric. "Hild knows the right road to the high places. She has the sight."
As if in response to his last words, the old woman threw back her head as her eyes rolled back into their sockets. In the darkness of the main hall, there was a sharp intake of breath, the sound of a crowd awed. The young man stared into Hild's white orbs in horrified fascination. He had never seen such a thing before, had never really given much thought to the old ways, still less to the old gods. Until now, he'd thought of them as mere words that were chanted before a feast, a battle, or a voyage.
The hand on his shoulder gripped him a little tighter.
"Courage always befits a ruler, lad. Especially when he faces the unknown."
The old woman began to sing. Her voice was not very impressive, weakened as it was by more than seventy winters of singing, scolding, and gossip, and by love-talk in youth and wise counsel in age. As the song unfolded, the listeners heard her voice grow stronger. At first, she told the tale of the old lands, of its gods and its heroes, and of the king who now lay dying - the boldest chieftain of all. King Redwald led them in their long ships across the unforgiving sea to these strange isles of the setting sun.
Hild's voice grew stronger still, surer and richer in tone, and for a moment, Wulfric saw the woman's face transformed into that of the beautiful girl he knew as a boy in the old country. It was a boundless moment. The torches flickered at a sudden breeze and then the woman was old again. Her song was telling the story of what will be.
The onlookers sighed in a mixture of wonder and relief as the tale unfolded. They heard that the progeny of the dying king would soon lead their tribe to victory, scattering the Celts in confusion and driving them back as far as the Welsh hills to the west. The richest portion of the land of Britannia would be theirs, with all its great woods and broad rivers, good hunting and good fishing, and room for this tribe to build a splendid kingdom.
"Yes! Just as my father said it would be," exclaimed the young man, gripping the scarred man's arm.
"Wait," warned Wulfric. "The song is not over."
He was right. The old woman sang on, her voice rising and falling in the king's hall, as she told of wonders that baffled and delighted the listening folk. She spoke of a realm greater than that of the fallen Caesars, of the rise of cities whose wealth would disappear, even the legendary Byzantium. She also spoke of fleets challenging untamed seas to carry the banners of great kings to the four corners of the Earth.
Whispers filled the hall. This is a true vision! This is a good telling!
But then the old woman shifted to a minor key, her voice falling so that all whispers were hushed and the gathered people strained to hear her. She had to deliver another message.
"All that is needed is one sacrifice, one covenant of blood, to make all these things come to pass."
Her song ended. Hild, the prophetess, descended from the platform and passed through the crowd. She seemed to see no one as the silent people stood aside. Even the bravest was unwilling to even brush against the garment of one so clearly ensorcelled.
Wulfric broke the silence and signaled to one of the bystanders. An old man stepped onto the platform, holding in his gnarled hands an object that entranced all who saw it. It gleamed in the erratic torchlight, shining with the bewitching luster of precious metal and richly-colored gemstones.
Wulfric laid the shining crown gently on the breast of his lifelong friend, the king. Perhaps the weight of the crown was enough to drive the last breath from the man's body. His breathing grew heavier, then he gave a slight moan and was still.
Wulfric stood and paused for a moment, looking at his fallen lord. He reached down and firmly raised the young prince in the blue cloak to his feet, presenting him to the people. The new king was proclaimed, and hailed by all the warriors.
The old warrior released his new lord and took a step forward.
"We have heard the woman speak true of what has been, and speak true of what is to come. The price is one of blood, as is proper for our tribe, the Men of the Knife."
A pause, and silence fell on the assembled people. All waited for the inevitable question.
"Who will stand the long watch with me?" asked Wulfric, drawing his dagger.
There was a long silence. Then, without a word, one man stepped forward into the light. Another pause, and a second volunteer took the fateful step. Wulfric nodded.
"Three is a good number; three is enough to stand guard."