‘You will soon be like the blacksmith without his strong arms…’ He pauses. ‘You will be blind by Midsummer’s Day.’

‘How do you know this?’

‘I have seen it before. You have what the Ancients called nazul-i-ah, “the descent of the water”. In Latin it is called cataracta. It means “waterfall”.’

‘How do you know this?’

‘I have seen it in the infirmaries of Constantinople. Prince Edgar believes I have never left these fells and that when he came here, he taught me English and the ways of Christendom. He doesn’t know that before my face was decorated my father sent me into the world to learn its ways. I was away for a dozen years and travelled across Europe and into the great empire of Byzantium.’

William hesitates, shocked by the Druid’s pronouncement about his eyes.

‘Is there anything that can be done about my sight?’

‘No… but keep that boy close to you. You will need him.’

‘You are a fascinating man, Owain Rheged. I would like to hear more of your story one day.’

The Druid doesn’t answer.

In an instant, he is gone — he and his warriors melting into the forest as unobtrusively as they had appeared.

3. All Hallows

William and his men travel for some distance to find the crossing point of the Pennine beck, shallow enough for their horses, before doubling back on themselves to reach the settlement where the Druid had said they would find their quarry.

William’s next Northumbrian revelation is the humble nature of the Prince’s settlement.

The main hall is not much bigger than a freeman’s two-room cottage, and the two smaller buildings are about the size of a peasant’s simple one-room dwelling. The cluster of buildings, which appears to be deserted, cannot be home to more than ten or twelve people.

They search for a few minutes, but no one can be found. The fire in the hall is just a cool ember and has not been tended for several hours. Roger seizes his chance to bid for a rapid retreat to Malmesbury.

‘So, Abbot, the bird has flown; there is no point in wasting our time here. I will feed the horses and we can begin our journey home.’

‘Not at this time, I fear. It will be dark soon.’

‘I suppose I must bow to your judgement — if we can’t start tonight, I’ll find us a place to sleep.’

William gazes into the dense wall of trees surrounding the settlement.

‘Let’s bed down in the hall. I don’t think our host is far away.’

William and Roger enter the modest hall and start to pile wood on to the ashes of the smouldering fire.

‘Roger, hand me those bellows.’

As the young monk reaches for the means to bring the fire to life, a gruff voice speaks to them from the shadows.

‘What do you want here?’

William, startled, turns sharply.

‘Show yourself, we have had enough shocks for one day.’

‘We are the ones who should be shocked. You have entered our hall uninvited.’

‘I am William of Malmesbury, and this is my cleric, Roger of Caen. We seek Edgar, Prince of this realm.’

‘There are no princes here, priest. Are you mad? Why would a royal prince be living in this godforsaken place?’

‘I am sorry; we have been told that Prince Edgar lives here. In fact, it was your neighbours, the Gul, who escorted us here.’

With that, another much gentler voice speaks.

‘Welcome to Ashgyll, William of Malmesbury. I’m afraid we will not be able to offer you the many comforts of the dormitories in your great abbey, but our settlement suffices for our simple needs.’

William and Roger turn to their right as the man they seek steps from the shadows with his steward. At the same time, the first man also steps forward; he is a large battle-scarred man, who is clearly Edgar’s sergeant-at- arms.

William bows and says, ‘My Lord, I am honoured to meet the Atheling Prince of England. You knew of our coming?’

‘Of course, my friends the Gul keep me informed. But none of that “Atheling” formality, that was a long time ago. I am now Edgar, Lord of Ashgyll, but my realm is no more than what you see around you. You must call me Edgar.’

The Prince tells his steward to take care of the horses, then gestures to William and Roger to move closer to the fire.

‘You must forgive my furtiveness when you appeared. I like to remain as anonymous as possible up here. I have chosen a quiet and contemplative end to my life. As a monk, I’m sure you will understand that.’

‘Indeed, although life at Malmesbury can sometimes be far more hectic than I would wish.’

‘How did you know where to find me?’

‘A Norseman. He came to the abbey to sell linen.’

Edgar smiles ruefully.

‘I thought as much. I recall he just appeared one day. He recognized me at Durham and must have followed me here. I don’t know how he avoided the Gul; perhaps he paid them off. I suppose you made it worth his while to tell you where I lived?’

‘Well, we did buy rather a lot of linen from him.’

‘Yes, he was a good salesman — very persuasive; he carried some excellent Norse mead. He probably got me drunk. Anyway, he had already guessed my identity, so there was no point in denying it.’

Edgar shrugs his shoulders, sits himself down by the fire and changes the subject.

‘You are a Norman, young Roger. I know Caen; it is a fine city. And I know the Normans well — especially a very noble one called Robert.’

After a pause, Edgar turns to William and stares at him pointedly.

‘Are you here to hear my confession?’

‘Not exactly, but I would like to hear the account of your many trials and tribulations. My life is devoted to the chronicles of the past.’

‘I know your work and that you have just completed your Deeds of the Kings of the English. The monks at Durham have a copy, which they are very proud of.’

‘You flatter me. How often do you visit the cathedral?’

‘I used to go occasionally, but now the stiffness of old age prevents any travel beyond my weekly trip to Alston, an old Norse settlement nearby. Like so much of the North, it’s not much more than a ruin where the few locals who survive hold a weekly market.’

‘Does that include the mysterious Owain Rheged and his band of Celts?’

‘No, indeed. No one ever sees them. They live deep in the forest — high up, near the open fells. Owain comes here from time to time. I like to drink, he likes to talk; he tells me endless stories about his ancestors and the great Urien Rheged.’

‘He killed two of my men; beheaded one and hanged his head from a tree like an animal. The other he butchered in front of us like a deer in the forest.’

‘I’m surprised he didn’t do that to all of you; he is guarding the safety of his tribe. He still holds human sacrifices, or so I am told. He’s getting old, though, so perhaps he was curious about you. Maybe he was tempted to tell you his story? He must know the end is close for his people. It’s one thing keeping superstitious Saxons and Danes at bay with his sorcery, but quite another to resist the Normans. He knows their brutal reputation.’

‘I don’t suppose there is any point in trying to seek redress for what he has done?’

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