A brand new King Arthur tale for a brand new year
I am launching a new writing project this year, a new way of delivering exciting stories to my voracious readers. It’s a tale about King Arthur, set in a war-torn post-Roman Britain, with lots of fighting, a little bit of magic and some kick-ass dragons. It is the type of story known as Low Fantasy. And I’m going to be writing it in episodes – each one about 20,000 words or 70 pages long, each about a fifth of a full-length novel.
A new episode will come out every few weeks, priced at 99p or equivalent. The series is called the Wormkind Chronicles, and the first novel in there series is called The Broken Kingdom. The first short episode is called Arthur’s Bane, and it is now available as an eBook from Amazon. The second episode is also available here. And the third one will be out in about a week’s time (TBH, I’m still writing it). I hope you will enjoy this new – and hopefully more efficient – way of delivering stories to my readers. And to give you a flavour of the story, here is the first chapter of the first episode to whet your appetites . . .
In the leaden sky, a fleck of gold. A dragon-eagle soared above the rain-cleansed hills and shimmering lakes of that northern land. All seeing, circling on invisible paths, inspecting the earth below for life. The great creature dipped a wing, and turned, its wide gold-obsidian body flashing in the watery sunlight. It swooped. A panicked hare darted for the safety of a hedgerow – and the dragon-eagle moved on. West, it flew, away from the white-capped mountains, over green valleys, fields and muddy woodland, west towards the grey sea. Until, far below, along the bare spine of a hill, it spied a party of men, horses and mules moving in single file along a muddy track. The raptor rode the currents high above the line of earth-bound plodders, watching them, as the winds ruffled its leathery pinions, spreading them like clutching fingers.
Arthur ap Uthur, legionary of Dumnonia, riding in the centre of the bedraggled column, lifted his slumped black head, his keen blue eyes easily marked out the shape of the bird-like creature above him, a bright bar against the limitless fleece of cloud.
The day before he had set out on this endless northward journey, nearly two weeks hence, he had been stripped to the waist, tied to a stout post on the exercise ground at Caer Camlann and whipped until the blood flowed. After a dozen days of hard riding, sometimes thirty miles a day when the terrain allowed for it, the wounds on his back were still refusing to heal cleanly. His mail coat, a heavy garment of iron rings that covered him from elbows to knees, rubbed and chaffed even through the sodden, double-thick woollen shirt he wore beneath it, dislodging the half-healed scabs, scouring the raw skin. He could feel hot, fresh blood trickling down his spine.
Arthur tried to ignore the discomfort. He glared up into the grey sky at the dragon-eagle hovering above the column. The creature was huge, as big as a Frankish hunting dog, and twice as fierce. Its belly was armoured in gleaming black scale; its back feathers brazen as the sun. It seemed to be watching him, and him alone of the nearly two score folk in the mud-spattered cavalcade. Mocking him, perhaps, in his fatigue and discomfort. But this could not be the truth; the enormous avian being was merely seeking prey, a newborn lamb untended by its mother, or perhaps a fox cub.
He had heard tell of these creatures, fell hybrids hatched by sorcery in the wastes in the far north of the world, from his nursemaids. His childhood had been filled with dire warnings that these northern monsters: Wormkind, they called them, the spawn of dreigiau, who would snatch his soul away if he did not eat up all his porridge. But this was the first time he had actually set eyes on one. He had half-thought that these beings did not truly exist. Now he knew he was wrong. He also knew he should be afraid, mortally afraid, yet something about the hybrid raptor’s unnatural beauty, and the absolute freedom of its soaring flight, made envy rather than fear well up from the depths of his soul, as sour as bile.
Would that he could be as unconfined. Would that he were as free.
Self-pity is for weaklings, he told himself – Julius, the Decurion, a crabby veteran of five and thirty years who walked his horse through the spring drizzle a dozen yards in front of Arthur, was very fond of repeating this tired nostrum. Along with other such jewels as “A warrior fears nothing but fear itself” and “A true fighting man would rather die than be dishonoured”. And while these sounded fine and bold in a warm, dry hall, with a foaming horn of ale in your fist, and the hearth crackling merrily by your boots – it was a very different thing when you were soaked to the skin, your whole body begged to rest and every movement of the sway-backed nag between your thighs set your back and shoulders on fire.
He had earned that whipping, there was no doubt about it. He had earned it by losing his discipline, by failing to keep his temper. His bane, that’s what his mother Igraine called it. His propensity to lose control, in an instant, and wreak havoc on all around him. Arthur’s Bane. Some day, his mother said, it would be the ruin of him.
The master-at-arms of Caer Camlann had beaten him hard but without cruelty with a horse whip, and at the command of Uthur the Pendragon, High King of all Britain, not on some whim or fancy. And it was entirely Arthur’s own fault. His older brother Caius – his half-brother, in truth – had taunted him, as usual calling him a bastard mongrel, an Estronwyr halfbreed, and he had lost his temper. Caius had never loved him overmuch and delighted in provoking him. Yet Arthur knew that he ought to have turned the other cheek, as our Saviour had taught, and serenely walked away from the insult. He had not. He had succumbed to his bane. Blood had filled his eyes . . . and when the boys had finally been pulled apart by troopers of the King’s Guard, Arthur had Caius’s shoulders pinned under his knees and he was about to dash his brother’s brains out with a fist-sized rock. His father, the High King Uthur, had ordered a soldier’s whipping for the newly enrolled legionary and had sent a bruised and shaken Prince Caius on a long tour of duty in the furthest reaches of Dumnonia.
It was unfair; Arthur knew this. But what was fair in this pain-brimming world? He was a king’s by-blow, a nobody, a living reproach to his father’s sinful lusts. He should have left the Caer long ago, left the Kingdom of Dumnonia entirely, and made his way elsewhere in the wide world. But he did not know how he might feed himself or where he should go. And there was his mother to consider, too. He was trapped.
Caius, on the other hand, was the High King’s favoured eldest son and heir, born happily to the Queen in that huge, carved royal bed, and destined one day to rule. Arthur knew he should be grateful for the protection that the High King afforded to himself and the slave-born Estronwyr woman, Igraine, the despised foreigner, who was his mother, for the food and shelter generously granted to them both at the Caer, for her freedom, for his schooling in letters, for all the years of hard training at arms and in horsemanship that he had received at the the High King’s expense. And he was grateful. He was. And yet . . . Self-pity truly is for weaklings, he told himself.
And I will not be weak.
To alter the well-trodden path of his thoughts, Arthur looked about him at his fellow cavalrymen, members of the squadron or turma to which for five weeks he had now belonged, and tried to imagine how they might fare if they ever had to face a proper enemy in battle. Who would fight well? Who would flee? Who would soil themselves in fear when the enemy charged howling into their ranks? Although it scarcely mattered. There was scant chance of action on this long, dull journey. The kingdoms of Britain were finally at peace, more or less, under the High King’s rule.
Uthur’s well-trained Dumnonian spearmen had crushed the long-burning rebellion in Kernow in a lightning campaign six months past; Demetia in the far west, had been bribed handsomely to cease their incessant raiding across the Severn Sea of the Dumnonian coast and formally submit to the High King; and, at a huge gathering at Glevum, the High King had forged binding alliances with the powers to the north – Gwent, Powys and Elmet – a peace treaty blessed by no less than six bishops – and all these former enemies had been forced to accept the High King’s authority with varying degrees of grace. Only Gwynedd, the poor, proud, remote mountain kingdom in the northwest, made bold by their island fortress of Ynys Mon, had refused to accept the High King’s authority. But Gwynedd was far away from the path they must take and so far the turma had been able to ride from fertile levels of Dumnonia north along the old Roman roads through hills, valley, farmland and forest, without the slightest molestation. Only Gwynedd and one other land had resisted the High King’s hegemony. Rheged – the powerful northern land beneath the shadow of the great Roman wall, which had been their destination these past twelve days – still resisted Uthur. But not for much longer. An agreement had been made, an alliance formed.
Thank God for peace, Arthur thought. Thank God that he and his comrades would not be tested in the fires of combat. For these thirty turma men of his were in all truth no more than armed nursemaids, more for a traditional martial display than for protection. Their task was to deliver the Princess Morgan – a slight hooded figure up ahead on a pony beside Julius the Decurion – safely from Caer Camlann to King Urien of Penrith, lord of Rheged, the last kingdom of civilised men before the wall.
The men of the turma who escorted Princess Morgan were mostly young, eighteen or nineteen summers, of an age with Arthur. Some had yet to produce more than the merest wisps of hair on their upper lips; others, the lucky hirsute few, sporting more luxuriant growths lovingly tended and shaped with beeswax and spit.
Caradoc was the only one with a full man’s beard, and even the youngest member Geraint had tufts of muddy down on his childish cheeks. The Decurion, Julius, who was old enough to be their father, kept himself clean-shaven in the old Roman style. His armour, an antique cuirass of bronze, sculpted to show improbable metal muscles, gleamed like a mirror, too. Arthur, who had been made up to Decanus, the Decurion’s second-in-command because of his superior training at arms, tried to copy the older man’s style, keeping his kit clean and carefully scraping away the fluff that appeared on his cheeks and chin whenever he got the opportunity. Their bare faces made Julius and Arthur stand out from the others in the turma, as officers should, the Decurion told him. Therefore Arthur cherished his child-smooth cheeks.
The rest of the turma were all armed alike with mail shirts, steel helmets, oval wood-and-leather shields with a heavy polished brass boss. A spatha, the straight-bladed cavalry sword, hung at every left side. Each too grasped a nine-foot steel-bladed spear, with a butt spike. Around their shoulders was tied a thick red woollen cloak, that was their protection against cold and rain by day and their bed-blanket by night. They looked, as Bagdemagus, the turma’s fattest recruit had remarked, like proper Roman cavalry of the old tales, like the heroic, invincible horsemen of Emperor Constantine, mighty fighters, swift and strong, feared by all the barbarians.
Julius had brought him up short after that remark.
“You lot wouldn’t last five heartbeats in a proper scrap,” the Decurion snorted. “You might look the part, but a drunken Gwynedd grandmother could slaughter all of you with one hand tied behind her back. You think you’re soldiers because you wear a pretty red cloak? God save us. I’ve seen flocks of sheep that were more fearsome. And had more brains than all of you idiots put together.”
Arthur believed him. The eager youths in the turma had trained together for not much longer than a single moon; some of the recruits could not even ride properly; others barely knew which end of the sword to hold. One clumsy oaf had wounded himself by plunging the butt spike of his spear through his own foot before they had even left Dumnonia, and had been left under the care of a medicus at Aquae Sulis. Arthur had only to look at the head of the column, at the six grim riders of Rheged, who had joined them as a guard of honour when they crossed the border from Elmet, to see the difference between these raw recruits and seasoned warriors.
Urien’s men did not wear bright cloaks, their arms did not gleam; the black raven devices painted on the round, leather-faced wicker shields slung on their backs were obscured with dried mud and grime. They were thickly bearded men swathed in greasy furs and leather, they slouched in the saddle, but every man bristled with weapons: swords, axes, spears, spiked cudgels, war hammers. Yet it was their scarred faces, blank and hard, with uncaring eyes, that told of their familiarity with slaughter – and worse. These men had stared into the terrifying face of battle and, by the looks of it, had hawked up something foul and spat it directly into its blood-rimmed eyes.
Arthur had never seen battle, not so much as a skirmish. He wondered how he would fare when put to the test? Would he turn and run? Would he overcome the fear? Would he cover himself in glory? Or just die in agony, crying with his guts spilled on the green turf? He did not know. Caius, older by three years, had bloodied his spear several times in punishment raids probing west in the rocky coves of Kernow. His half-brother had told him, ghoulishly, that killing a man was far worse that he could possibly imagine. And far better, too. Cowards could not do it, he said; they balked at the lethal stroke and, if they were not immediately killed by the enemies they spared, they were for ever shamed as weaklings before their comrades.
God send that I do not prove to be weak, Arthur thought.
In contrast to the roughness of its fighting men, the countryside of Rheged they had ridden through over the past few days that spring was lush and verdant and rich. It had seemed almost idyllic. Small sheep dotted the bare gentle slopes tended by grubby stunted boys and their long-haired rangy dogs; the lowlands under the plough were green with many acres of unripe barley, the apple orchards well tended, cleared of undergrowth and weeds. The common people they passed on the road, though unsmiling, did not seen afraid or hostile, and many nodded solemn greetings to the horsemen as they passed. Wayside stone crosses, tall and intricately carved by skilled hands, loomed over them every dozen miles or so, but each one, Arthur noticed, was garlanded with fresh flowers and sprigs of herbs, and often decorated with scraps of brightly coloured cloth, and though they did not venture into the villages and hamlets they passed – Julius had forbidden it – they saw many a cross atop a local church, and often heard the cheerful sound of singing from the congregations within.
Antonius, the priest, who rode beside the Decurion at the head of the column, had preached a sermon when they made camp the night before, praising the men of Rheged for their faith in the One True God. This land was not as rich as Dumnonia, Arthur thought, nor as populous, nor as comfortably warm, but God had certainly blessed it – and it was by no means poor or ill-governed. But for a chill wind that seemed to be a constant feature of the land, whistling down from the hillsides and cutting through his wet red cloak like a blade; and the rain that seemed to fall continuously, he could have happily lived here for the rest of his days. Perhaps he might find a place for himself away from the taunts of Caius, the distain of Uthur, away from the Caer and the shame of his bastard birth, here in this northern land.
The leader of the Rhegedian escort, a short dark-haired man named Haffa, barked an order to his comrades, kicked back his heels and drove his pony into a canter, splashing ahead of the column of red-cloaked Dumnonians and disappearing over the brow of the hill. A war horn sounded ahead. From a rocky ridge line to the right of the road, helmeted heads, dozens of them, appeared and curious eyes stared down at the column of mounted men.
Arthur felt a cold bead of sweat slide down his jaw.
Julius held up an open hand to stop the column, turned in his saddle and shouted: “Drink from your bottles, men, but stay mounted. Decanus, get up here.”
He turned to the small hooded figure on the pony beside his and said: “We are being announced, Highness. We should be welcomed into the King’s Hall shortly.”
As Arthur kicked his horse up to the head of the column, he saw men emerging on horseback from the rocks on the right, scores of fur-wrapped heavily armed folk of the ilk of Haffa’s men. More horsemen were coming in from the left, too, perhaps fifty riders bundled against the rain and the cold. They approached the column swiftly, not menacingly, but it made Arthur uneasy, nonetheless, to see so many grim men converging on them. They were outnumbered three, perhaps even four to one.
“You have personal charge of the princess, Decanus,” Julius said. “Stay by her side and make sure she is safe and doesn’t become separated from the rest of us. Understand? We are near the palace of King Urien. Just a few miles more. But I want you to keep an eye on her until Antonius and I complete our negotiations with Urien.”
Arthur looked fondly over at the pale young woman, in truth, a girl of no more than sixteen summers, who sat wrapped in sodden blue wool, on the pony beside him. She looked terrified, as well she might. She was being delivered, like a costly gift, to the King of this foreign land. She was to be the last knot in a rope-work of alliances and marriages that was designed to tie the Island of Britain together in harmony under the High King. But she had never before left Dumnonia and now she must enter the hall of a strange lord, to submit to his nightly lusts and bear his children, never to see her own family, home and hearth again. All in the name of peace.
Arthur smiled encouragingly at her, looking into her wide, bluebell eyes. “Yes, sir,” he said to the Decurion. “I shall take very good care of the lady, I swear it.”
Princess Morgan smiled gratefully back at her half-brother.
For the last mile before they arrived at the palace of King Urien, they forsook the high ridge line path and rode along the old Roman road that headed spear-straight north all the way to the Wall. The riders of Rheged, their number now swelled by the herd of newcomers, formed up in a fat, unruly, jostling column to the right of the Dumnonians. Haffa, grinning sardonically, had insisted on this route, forsaking the high track on the spine of the hill. This was the Royal Road, he said, and more fitting for an embassy to the High King. But royal or not, it was hard going. Many of the huge, flat stone blocks – the bones of the old highway – had been removed by local farmers to build their own homes and byres, and others were cracked and splintered by frost. The highway was treacherous under the horses’ hooves, the beasts slipping and stumbling, so the men of the turma dismounted at the Decurion’s command and led their horses over the roughest stretches. But Arthur could divine the true reason why the riders of Rheged had forced them to take this path – for the left of the road, the far side from the column of smirking fur-clad warriors, was lined with death.
Every twenty yards, a tree, lopped of all branches had been turned upside down and sunk deep into the earth beside the old road, and to every upturned tree, a naked man was nailed. Thick rusty spikes, hammered through arms, legs, necks, pinned the victims to the wood. They had all been carelessly eviscerated, probably by a single sword or axe blow after they had been nailed up, and from wide bloody gashes in their naked bellies fat blue and pink ropes of entails hung down as far as their knees. Some, too, were eyeless, noseless, earless. Astonishingly, some still lived. These moaned feebly, writhed, croaked piteously for water or the final mercy of the knife.
Arthur could feel the eyes of the Rheged men watching him as he looked at the long row of nailed men, half a hundred victims at least. Though his stomach was roiling, he turned his face to stone and forced himself to look at the grim procession of suffering and death. Three paces ahead of him, Bagdemagus, his short, round body waddling along beside his horse, ducked his head and sprayed yellow vomit on to the road before him. He wiped his big, red mouth, gulped air and spewed again.
Arthur took care not to step in the mess, but the acidic smell burned his throat and he felt his own belly lurch.
“Behold the enemies of King Urien,” shouted Haffa. “See how all those who dare to defy him shall die!” He spoke in the harsh British dialect of Rheged, but his words were easily comprehensible to the young Dumnonians. Arthur saw that several of his turma comrades were white as chalk, some seemed perilously close to tears.
He looked directly at the Rheged captain who was sitting his horse a few yards away. “Who are they?” he asked quietly.
“Thieving Estronwyr scum,” Haffa said. “They come sneaking in from the east, through the passes, they burn our farms and steal our sheep. We teach them not to.”
“Turma,” the Decurion called, loud enough for every man from both Rheged and Dumnonia, to hear. “Turma, mount up.”
As Arthur and the thirty men of the squadron swung up into their saddles, Julius shouted again. “Eyes left!” The recruits reluctantly looked up from their horses necks and looked left, viewing the grisly bodies, dangling from their blood-streaked trees.
“We have seen the King’s enemies,” bellowed Julius. “Now it is time to see the King. Turma, at the canter, follow me!” And he kicked back his heels and rode off the old broken road and through the line of executed men and on to the green sheep pasture behind it. He moved swiftly, and the turma came clattering smartly behind him. Arthur just had time to grasp the bridle of the princess’s horse before they were both swept away with the pack. He glimpsed Haffa’s face, and his mouth opening either in surprise or to object, and then they were all clear of the road and cantering across soft turf towards the round hilltop in the distance where the smoke of a dozen fires formed a smear of cloud above the palace. Behind him, Arthur could hear the pounding hooves of the horsemen of Rheged, galloping after their errant guests.
Like some mad feast-day horserace, the two packs of riders thundered towards the palace on the hill. The smaller group, the red cloaks of the turma flapping like bold victory flags, clods of earth flying from their horse’s hooves, were only fifty paces ahead of the larger Rheged war-band on their tough, shaggy little ponies.
Ahead, Arthur could see a gateway, adorned with a pair of sun-bleached rams’ skulls, and a long mud-and-flint track leading straight uphill towards the spiked wooden palisade of the royal enclosure, and its stout gates. He expected the Decurion to call a halt at the bottom of the hill, to regroup and arrive at the palace in a state of dignified calm, but Julius never slackened the pace. The turma barrelled straight up the track towards the heavy gates of the King’s demesne – which were shut tight against them. The turma’s trumpeter, was sounding the big curled brass horn to announce their coming, and dark heads, thick as hedgerow blackberries, could now be seen on the palisade. The Rheged warriors were only thirty paces behind them.
“Open the gates, open the gates in the name of the High King of Britain!” Julius was bellowing. Arthur looked right, where Princess Morgan, hunched over her horse’s neck, mouth a grim line of determination, was riding knee to knee with him.
“Open the gates in the name of Uthur the Pendragon!” the Decurion shouted.
The gates remained shut. Arthur could see a score of spearmen at top the walls hefting their long-shafted weapons, and archers, too, nocking arrows to their strings.
Behind the turma, the Rheged warriors had spread out in a wide arc.
The gates were still closed; the palace of King Urien was barred to them.
At the last moment, the Decurion called his men to a halt, only yards for the closed gate, and the Dumnonians hauled back on the reins and fought to control their sweat-lathered mounts, who barged and blundered into each other in the shadow of the walls, the frightened animals whinnying in alarm. The Rheged cavalry had slowed on the slope up to the hill and spread out, they advanced menacingly, enveloping the Dumnonians, hemming them in against the tight-locked gates. Arthur fumbled to draw his sword, finally got it free from the scabbard – and very nearly dropped it as Bagdemagus’s frightened mount backed suddenly into his.
“Open the gates. Open, I say, in the name of the High King,” the Decurion was red as a beetroot from exertion and rage. But his shouts went unanswered.
Haffa, grinning like a demon in the centre of of his scowling, fur-swathed horde of mounted killers, pulled an long axe from his belt and raised it high in the air.
Episode One: Arthur’s Bane, the first part of The Broken Kingdom, is available for 99p here. Episode Two: Arthur’s Escape is available here. Episode Three: Arthur’s Revenge will be published mid-January 2024.