He is standing alone on a small rocky knoll, no more than ten yards away. He wears a simple grey robe of washed wool tied at the waist with a pleated cord. His untied hair and beard are long and hoary and he has a heavy silver chain and amulet around his neck decorated with pagan images. His right hand holds a long oak staff topped by a ram’s skull replete with enormous horns, and around the wrist of his left hand is a small garland of mistletoe. His dark, piercing eyes are fixed on them in an unblinking stare. William assumes he is a druid, for he has exactly the mien and bearing that legend describes.

The sergeant-at-arms makes for his sword, but before he can draw it more than six inches from its scabbard an arrow cuts through the air and lodges in his throat, the tip of its head exiting close to his spine. A second hits him square in the chest near his heart, and a third lands inches away from the second. Both are deeply embedded. He is silent and motionless for a moment before reaching desperately for his throat, uttering a muted cry that turns into a sickening splutter as a stream of blood cascades from his mouth. His futile grasp of his gullet soon relaxes and he tumbles off his horse, hitting the ground with a heavy thud.

In that instance, at least thirty heavily armed men appear, as if out of nowhere. They make no sound, not even the faintest rustle underfoot.

William begs his remaining companions in a hiss, ‘Do not move. Stay silent.’

They are clearly Celts, but resemble a breed William has only read about, never seen.

The Druid speaks in excellent English, but with a strong accent that confirms it is not his first language.

‘You are a monk and, I think, an important one. What brings you to our land?’

‘You have committed murder here.’

‘Your bodyguards are not welcome here, and neither are you. This is our land.’

‘Is this not the land of the Earl of Bamburgh?’

‘It is not. Our tribe has owned this land since before the legions of Rome came here. I asked you a question.’

William is thinking quickly.

Could it be possible for a tribe of Celts to have remained here, undisturbed since antiquity? To have avoided or repelled the attentions of Rome’s legions and of Saxon, Dane and Norman?

They certainly look like the ancient Celts of the chronicles. Their bearded faces and bodies are adorned with swirls of pagan imagery, but not in the blue woad of legend — theirs are an ochre colour, not painted on to their skin, but cut in and permanent. Their dress is like the Celts’ of Wales and Cornwall: woollen leggings dyed red; heavy cloaks over their shoulders — the only covering for their bare chests. Their weapons are similar to the seax, spear and shield of a Saxon housecarl, but they do not carry the housecarl’s main weapon, the axe, preferring a short but powerful Celtic bow and quiver of arrows.

‘I will see to it that your crime is dealt with by the Earl.’

‘The Earl? I know no such man. I rule here. Your guard strayed from the Roman path; that means he had to die. This one drew his weapon, which cost him his life. We let people pass, but if they stray into our domain or raise their weapons, they pay with their lives. It has always been so. I ask you for the final time, what brings you to our land?’

William decides that it is wise to acquiesce.

‘I am on a journey with my cleric, Roger of Malmesbury — ’ he chooses not to mention Roger’s Norman origins ‘- to meet a man I am told lives near here. I am William, Abbot of Malmesbury, a chronicler. These are my men-at-arms.’

The Druid does not respond. He looks at his men, then closes his eyes and prays out loud in a language that is unrecognizable. He finishes his invocations by raising his staff with its ram’s head and pointing it at Cross Fell. He then looks at William, but more benignly than before.

‘We respect you. You chose to bury your man and pray over him; few men would have done that, preferring to scurry off the fells as quickly as their horses would carry them.’ He stares at William intently. ‘So, you are a storyteller. Storytellers are welcome here, but your warriors are not. They must go back to Appleby and wait for you there.’

‘But they are here for our protection.’

‘You have no need of them now. You are safe with us.’

William knows immediately that the Druid is right. Whoever these people are, it is certainly their realm. He nods to his two remaining warriors to depart. The older one, visibly terrified, questions the wisdom of William’s decision.

‘Are you sure, Abbot?’

‘I am sure. We are not far from our destination and these people will give us safe passage.’

The man-at-arms leans forward in his saddle to whisper, ‘They are heathens, murderous savages.’

‘They are heathens, and there is no doubting their savagery. But I have travelled a long way for the man I seek and I am not turning back now. Wait at Appleby for ten days. If we do not return, go to the garrison at Lancaster and tell them what you have seen here. In the meantime, say nothing of this to anyone — especially not to Wotus and his family.’

As his men turn and leave, William impatiently begins to ask the first of many questions to which he wants answers.

‘Do I address you as a priest, or are you lord of these people?’

‘I am Lord of the Gul. We do not have priests, or a god, as you would understand them; we worship the earth, moon and stars and follow what nature teaches us. You may call me Owain, for that is my name.’

‘And you are Celts?’

‘We are. Before I take you to the man you seek, I will tell you a little about us. We are the Gul, the last tribe of the great Kingdom of Rheged, a land that once stretched from the Picts of the mountains of Scotland all the way to the end of the fells of Hen Ogledd — what you call the “Old North” of England. Our southern boundary was the marshland where the waters of the Derventi, the Trenti, the Soori and the Irre Wiscce meet. Beyond lived the Coritani people, in what you now call Mercia. We speak Cumbric, which is like the Welsh you know in the south. I am a direct descendant of Urien Rheged, the most famous of our leaders; he ruled here many generations ago.’

‘How do you preserve your traditions? Do you trade with the other people in the area?’

‘That is all you may know about us. You are a storyteller, are you not? Read the poems of Taliesin; you will find them in the chronicles of the Welsh bards.’

‘You must tell me more. You are part of the great history of our land.’

‘I must? Indeed, I will not. We are not part of the history of “your” land. This is our land!’

Owain spits his answer at the Abbot, who realizes he has been given all the information the Druid is prepared to impart.

‘We must leave. The day is moving on and the snow will fall into the night. No man would want to be on these fells at night, blizzard or otherwise. We will help you bury your man. The Prince lives a few miles from here, next to the Water that Roars, near the Norse settlements of Alston and Garrigyll.’

‘How do you know we seek Prince Edgar?’

‘You surely haven’t come here to mine for lead. Why else would an English storyteller be high in the mountains of Rheged, stepping over the corpses of ill-begotten Saxons and Norse?’

William presides over another interment, for the sergeant-at-arms. Then, after several hours of struggle over difficult ground with driven snow increasingly obscuring the track, Owain Rheged and his band of warriors leave William and Roger at the top of a steep gorge. He beckons them towards a raging waterfall that spews its innards angrily into the valley below.

‘The Prince’s hall lies beyond the falls to the south, next to the Grue Water. There is a safe place to ford further upstream. You must show respect here; this place is sacred to us.’

William nods his assent.

Before he departs, Owain moves closer to William. He speaks gently, the ferocity of his demeanour suddenly assuaged.

‘Have you told all the stories you want to tell?’

‘Most of them, Owain Rheged.’

‘That is good. When you pray to your god, save a prayer for yourself.’

‘I always do. Are you concerned for me?’

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