difficulty understanding. Wotus makes just enough to survive by serving the itinerant charcoal-burners and lead- miners who come to his house once a week to drink themselves stupid and stare longingly at his comely daughters.

After a couple of days’ rest, William’s men conclude that, although the Northumbrian’s daughters are worthy of a modest detour, his ale and mead are far less endearing, his beds are in desperate need of fresh straw and his midden not fit for pigs.

And so, they move further north. The chill wind of winter begins to bite and snow falls from the gull-grey clouds above them. They lose touch with humanity. All signs of life — or death — disappear. Roger looks out across the bleak scene.

‘What kind of man would choose to live up here?’

‘One who has many memories to dwell upon, and perhaps a few regrets. When people who have lived a turbulent life come to face the end of it, it’s often the case that they seek solitude in which to reflect.’

William and Roger spend many hours speculating on the long and fascinating life of Edgar the Atheling, all of which only increases William’s impatience to meet him. But their idle musings are brought to an end by the increasing remoteness of their route.

Their men-at-arms look tense; they are not easily unnerved but are not accustomed to such hostile terrain. The boundless swathes of primordial forest, untouched by the hand of man, are dense and dark, and above them the high fells rise like menacing shadows. Only on the very crests of the fells is the ground clear, where relentless wind and bitter cold make it difficult for anything to grow except moss and heather.

On the third day north of Sedbergh, their sergeant rides back from his lead position to speak to William.

‘My Lord Abbot, is it wise to go on? This place is wild.’

‘Sergeant, the man we seek will have chosen this place deliberately. He is a prince of the realm — if he can venture here, so can we.’

‘I fear we are being watched… perhaps for the last couple of hours. I’m not certain, but I think I can see movement in the trees.’

‘Be vigilant, Sergeant. Send your best man to higher ground to see if we’re being followed. And tell the men to stay alert.’

The sergeant sends out his senior man, Eadmer, with instructions to work his way around to the back of the small party and check if anyone is following them.

They eventually find the key to their passage: the Maiden Way, an ancient Roman route, cut over the fells a millennium earlier to link the lead and silver mines of the northern hills to the routes heading south and to the fort at Carvoran on the Great North Wall of the Emperor Hadrian.

William has often reflected on Rome and its achievements. When writing his chronicles of the English kings, there were many monarchs he admired, such as the great and noble Alfred. He has marvelled at their courage, wisdom and triumphs. But if only he had been a scholar in Ancient Rome, then he could have been the chronicler of men who had conquered the known world; those who built a civilization so sophisticated and powerful that it endured for hundreds of years.

Now he is approaching the last outpost of their empire. He shivers, partly in awe at contemplating their triumphs and partly in dread at what he is getting himself into in this fearful place. He wonders what the intrepid Romans must have thought as they trudged northwards. Rugged and resolute, no doubt, they were men from the Mediterranean, southern Gaul; perhaps as far as Anatolia, North Africa, or Phoenicia. They must have been as anxious as he is now. What men they must have been!

The Maiden Way is little used and difficult to negotiate, but at least it cuts through the forests, fords the rivers and points true north.

‘Abbot, do you know the route?’

‘I do; the Norseman’s instructions were very clear.’

‘May a young monk, who is perhaps often too sure of himself for his own good, confess to an overwhelming feeling of terror at his current circumstances?’

William smiles and turns to his young companion.

‘There is much to fear in this world: nature and its wild and unpredictable habits; man and his bestial depravities. But it is God we should respect the most, for He controls everything. Pray to Him and ask for His protection.’

Roger kicks on, not at all reassured, scanning the trees intently and twitching at the slightest sound. After a while, he blurts out another question with an anxious tremor.

‘I know Edgar is the last English claimant to the kingdom, and I know what you said… But are you really sure he is worth such a perilous journey? He’s probably nothing but an incoherent old fool by now.’

‘Far from it, my young friend. The Norseman said he was not only lucid but a fount of stories. Remember, Edgar was announced as King of England after Harold’s slaughter on Senlac Ridge. He had powerful friends, including the Kings of Scotland and France. After being reconciled with the Conqueror and befriending Robert Curthose, he went to the Great Crusade with him — and both men came back in one piece, an outcome not afforded to many.’

‘I have been doing my arithmetic. He was too young to succeed the saintly Edward in 1066 — fifteen or sixteen, I think — so, he must be in his mid-seventies. I hope he keeps warm in this miserable place.’

‘I think we will find a man of some resolve. He fought in the wars between the Conqueror’s sons and must have gained their respect, otherwise King Henry would have had him killed or thrown into an oubliette.’

‘And you think this abode any better!’

‘My son, you have obviously never been in one of the King’s dungeons.’

2. Kingdom of Rheged

They are now approaching the high moorland and the trees are thinning. Roger stops suddenly and crosses himself.

‘God bless and save us! It is Eadmer.’

He points to the last tree before the open moor. Hanging from it, severed from his body and tied by his hair, is Eadmer’s head, blood still oozing on to the ground. Bizarrely, despite the gruesome scene and the horror of his death — perhaps only moments ago — his eyes are closed and at peace, and he looks strangely serene. Nearby, his body has been propped upright in his saddle and his horse carefully tethered.

‘It is a warning to turn back.’

The sergeant is already turning his horse as he speaks.

‘Where are you going, man? You are a soldier; your father was a housecarl in King Harold’s army. Get a grip of yourself! We will cut him down and give him a Christian burial.’

With that, the renowned scribe of Malmesbury takes the sergeant’s sword and removes Eadmer’s head from the tree, placing it on the ground. They then pull his body from the horse, lay his corpse in a shallow grave and hold a short service.

A piercing wind shrieks at them as William reads from his Bible. The skies darken and the snow begins to fall more heavily, swirling around them in wild flurries. William seems oblivious to everything that has happened; the others are in a state of terror.

It is Roger who voices their fears.

‘Abbot, the men want to turn back. So do I.’

‘Roger, calm yourself. We haven’t come all this way to turn back now. We’ll find a place to camp over there in the trees and see what the morning brings.’

‘This is madness. We are in the middle of the wilderness and someone has just beheaded one of our men!’

In silence, and with grim determination, William leads his group to a small copse of trees barely a hundred yards away. As they enter the grove, looming above them, far off in the distance, they can see the mighty crest of Cross Fell.

Then the Druid appears.

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