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i was six years old by the final year of the great evacuation, awakening to my life in the Colony we called Camulod, which, like Rome itself, had been built on a hill and dedicated to the high ideals that built the great Republic. It was Publius Varrus’s wife, my great-aunt Luceiia, who had thought of naming the Colony Camulod, in honour of Camulodunum, her brother’s—my grandfather’s—birthplace, an ancient place sacred to Lod, war god of the tribe of Celts the Romans had named the Trinovantes. Today men call it simply Colchester, meaning the fort on the hill, but her brother had refused to use that new, brash, graceless name. By modifying the ancient name to fit a new location, Luceiia Britannicus had honoured both her brother and his monument.
One of the first lessons I learned in extreme youth was that things had not always been as they were. Camulod had not always been rich in horses, nor had its economy been purely equestrian. It had been my own father who had changed everything, I learned, the year that I was born.
My father was Picus Britannicus, and his title was Legate, or General. He was Supreme Cavalry Commander and Deputy in Britain for the great Flavius Stilicho, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Emperor Honorius. In the year of my birth, 401 in the year of Our Lord and the eleven hundred and fifty-fifth year of Rome, Alaric, war chief of the barbarian Visigoths, had threatened invasion of the Roman heartland itself. He had penetrated as far as Stilicho’s home city of Milan before Stilicho was able to assemble an army by means of an emergency summons for all uncommitted legions to return toItalia to combat the threat. My father, a close personal friend of Stilicho as well as a trusted colleague and confidant, had answered that summons, embarking immediately with most of his troops and as many horses as he could transport in the time and the vessels available to him. The remaining stock, no less than six hundred and eighty prime animals, he had left in the care of his father, my grandfather, the proconsul Caius Britannicus, who had been named by Stilicho Legatus Emeritus—Supreme Commander—of the Irregular Armies of south-west Britain. The charge implicit in my grandfather’s title was the interim governance of the south-west, and the protection of its territories against invasion, pending the return of the Imperial Legions following the defeat of Alaric and his Visigoths.
By the time word arrived of my father’s departure, however, my grandfather was dead, murdered by a madman, and my great-uncle Publius Varrus had assumed command of our Colony. Uncle Varrus knew what Caius Britannicus would have wanted him to do, and so he used my grandfather’s seal and sent out soldiers to accept the consignment of horseflesh. This immediate quintupling of the Colony’s herds had a revolutionary and permanent effect on the Colony. Victorex, the stablemaster, had to increase his staff of grooms and stablemen tenfold, and farms that had been under the plough had to be given over completely and immediately to the keeping of livestock. But the concerns voiced over the loss of arable land in this exercise were quickly stifled by the realization that this great influx of mounts gave us the capability to reclaim previously abandoned lands, and even to break new ground, since our corps of mounted troopers quickly became large enough to permit constant patrols in strength, and continuous protection for all the workers employed on these lands.
The biggest impact of all, however, was upon our foot-soldiers. Now that we had the livestock, every man who wanted to ride was able to do so, at least for part of their duty. Very soon infantry patrols of our territories were a thing of the past. Our central core of infantry was reduced from fifteen hundred to eight hundred men, who were distributed as semi-permanent garrison troops to three of our major outlying villa farms, and to the fort of Camulod itself.
As I have said, mine was a happy childhood and I grew in sunshine, shaped into the man I was to be by two stern and loving guardians: my two great-uncles, Ullic, King of the Pendragon, and Publius Varrus, Master of Camulod. My youth was divided equally between the rugged, lovely hills and mountains of the Pendragon strongholds to the north-west, in south Cambria, and the calm beauty of the wooded plains and forests that, seen from the hilltop, spread like a carpet around Camulod.
Ullic’s Celtic hill people taught me to hunt with a sling and to trap with snares. They taught me to shoot with a bow and to fish for trout in the brooks with my bare hands. They taught me to sing and to pluck the harp and to love the history in their glorious songs, so that even before my voice broke from boyhood I was revered as a bard of great promise and had I not been who I was, the Druids would have claimed me as their own. As it was, I spent much time among Druid teachers, learning their sacred mysteries and the lore of their ancient ways, for they respected who I was and dreamed great dreams of fame for me. And while I was among them, they taught me to do all of the other things a boy must do: to run like the wind, mile after mile without respite; to wrestle and fight with my bare hands and feet; and to seek out the nests of the upland birds—the curlew and the plover and the wild ducks and geese—for the succulent eggs they held. They bred in my impatient, questing soul the patience to stalk deer and the strength to ignore the timid, placid gentleness and see only the walking food. They broke me young to the mastery of their wild mountain ponies, so that by the time I was seven there was nothing on four legs that could throw me from its back once I was mounted.
There in that lovely, wild and sometimes savage land, I was always at peace, but Uther, the brother of my soul, was in his element. Uther Pendragon and I were cousins, born, by some strange conjunction of the stars, on the same day, less than an hour apart. From our youngest days we thought as one in many things, and this was something we took for granted. We were alike all our lives, as long as Uther lived, two sides of a medallion—different, perhaps, in appearance, but faces of the same piece.
He was the dearest friend I ever had—warm, loving, generous and kind, and yet possessed of a wild man’s temper and a wellspring of savage, primitive violence that could frighten me when it came into view, for it was utterly implacable. Those who knew him as a friend worshipped the ground he trod. His enemies went in terror of his name, for his strength was lethal and his enmity absolute. He chose to have no living enemies and worked hard to deprive them all of life, for only then, he said, could he trust them and know what they were doing. In his own way Uther Pendragon, King among his Celts, was far more savage than the hordes who sought to overrun this land of ours. It was my fate to love him as a brother and to be in fear of him throughout my adult life until he died.
Violence, as I have said, Uther knew and loved, but treachery was a trait that no man, even his greatest enemy, would think of in connection with his name. No man but I, and I only suspected, nor was I ever able to divine the truth, whether for or against him. Forty years and more have gone since Uther’s death and I still wonder whether or not he did the deeds my mind tells me he did, the deeds my soul curses me for even thinking he could do. I have sworn to myself that, lacking any kind of proof, I have a duty to admit I might be wrong. But still, inside my heart, I know that Uther had a black and fearsome devil strongly chained, deep at the bottom of his soul. And still I ask myself, did he control it at all times, or did it sometimes control him?
Somehow Uther did not belong in Camulod. He bore it stoically, but his heart was always back in the hills of his home, where he had been born the son of Uric the King and his wife Veronica, daughter of Publius Varrus, and thus the grandson of King Ullic Pendragon. Unlike me, he was a poor student, with no interest in books of any kind. He never became literate and was content to leave the esoterica of texts and records to me. The only excitement he ever found in Camulod was in the fort itself and in our cavalry. Uther was a born warrior and every spare minute he had was spent on the drill field or in the stables.
My happiest hours in Camulod, on the other hand, were spent in Publius Varrus’s private rooms. The room he called his Armoury was a boy’s paradise filled with weapons and armour of every description, gathered from all over the Empire and beyond. Uther enjoyed that room too, at one time, but he soon grew bored with it when he found we were not allowed to handle any of its treasures. For my part, I could sit there and gaze at those exotic shapes and dream for hours on end. I even had a special chair there that only I could sit in. It was a saddle of some kind, although a strange, ungainly one with a high, wooden back and dangling appendages, made to fit a boy and found on a horse belonging to a party of defeated Frankish raiders. Its young rider had worn rich clothing and a chieftain’s golden tore. Our people reasoned that he must have been a cripple, the strange device fashioned to support his malformed body astride the horse. My uncle had kept the thing as a memento, an oddity of the kind that had attracted him throughout his lifetime, and it had sat unremarked in the Armoury for years until I grew tall enough to pull myself up and bestride it.
The Armoury had great, wooden doors covered with beaten, hand-worked bronze crafted by Uncle Varrus himself. I had watched them being hung in place when I was just an infant, as I had watched the laying of the solid, wooden floor. That was the only wooden floor I ever really noticed, and my uncle loved it. He said it kept the room warm. I thought he must be mad when he said that, for even I could see that the room was kept warm by a massive brazier housed in an open fireplace, and by the central heating hypocausts that warmed the entire household. I remember asking him one night how the smoke going up the chimney stopped the rain from coming dowri and I remember how he laughed at me and showed me the trick his stonemasons had used in building the great fireplace. They had built the flue at an angle, opening into an upright vent so that no rain could enter.
It was on another such occasion that I asked him which weapon in the room was his most valued treasure. He looked at me in silence for what seemed the longest time that anyone had ever looked at me and then he stood up and towered above me.
“Cay,” he asked me, “do you know what a secret is?”
“Yes, Uncle,” I answered him. “A special thing that you must never tell to anyone else, no matter how hard it is, or how much you want to tell it.”
He smiled at me then. “That’s exactly what a secret is, Cay. Exactly. Because the moment you give in and tell the secret to another living soul, no matter who it is, you have destroyed the secret. It is a secret no longer.”
“I know, Uncle.”
“I know you know, Cay. That’s why I am going to share a secret with you. A secret between us only. Are you ready?”
I nodded, my breath suspended in anticipation. He looked at me, narrowing his eyes, and then went on. “I have one secret, Cay, that I share only with my partner Equus. Now I shall have another that I share only with you, and it is this: my most valued treasure in this room is one that cannot be seen. It is hidden from men’s eyes.”
My eyes darted all around the room, peering into every dark corner. “Where, Uncle?”
“That is the second secret, the one I share with Equus, but I will share it with you, too, some day. Some day soon, I promise. That will make you the third person in the whole world who knows that secret. But before that happens, you and I have some things to talk about.” Some day. Soon. Not today. My disappointment must have been written on my face, because he smiled at me again and tousled my hair. “One day soon, I promise. How old are you now, Cay?”
“Seven, Uncle Varrus,” I said, knowing he knew.
“And when did you learn to read?”
“When I was five.”
“In truth, you were only four. Do you like to read?”
“Yes, Uncle.” Why was he asking these questions? He knew how I loved to read.
“And what do you like to read most?”
“Grandfather Caius’s books.”
“Would you like to read my books?”
I felt my eyes grow wide. What a silly question. I had been asking for months if I could read his books! “Yes, Uncle. Please.”
“Very well, then. I’ll make you another promise, here and now, man to man, between the two of us. You can start reading my books tomorrow. As you do, we’ll talk about them and you can ask me anything you like. I’ll answer all your questions. D’you understand?” I nodded, not daring to speak. “Good. Now, this is very important, so listen carefully. There is one question, one very important question, that I’ll be waiting for you to ask me, and when you are old enough…No! Let me put that in a different way, for this is really important…When you understand enough to ask me that one question, I’ll show you my most valued treasure. Does that sound just?”
I nodded again, almost sick with disappointment. That “when you are old enough” had rung in my ears like a death knell, but I did my best to hide my feelings. A seven-year-old boy’s best. “Is there a lot to learn in your books, Uncle?”
He laughed out loud, his big, deep, booming laugh. “Aye, Cay, I think there is,” he said. “But I’m sure you’ll learn it all quickly, won’t you?”
“Yes, Uncle. I will.”
“Good lad! Now, come and kiss me good night. It’s time you were abed, and tomorrow you start to read my books.”
I slid down and hooked my left foot into the loop in the strange chair, swung my right leg over its high back and stepped down to the floor. Uncle Varrus hoisted me high into the air and kissed me on both cheeks the way he did every night at this time. Then he took my hand in his own hard-skinned palm and walked with me to find Uther and Occa, the servant who slept in our room with us.
I have many such memories of Uncle Varrus. He would talk to me, and with me, which is not at all the same thing, for hours on end. He taught me all he knew of weaponry and armour and warfare, including siegecraft. He told me of Alexander, whom men called The Great, and of Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon, and how the two of them conquered their world. And he enthralled me with tales of ancient Rome and the great Republic where, for the only time in history, a man could make of himself what he wished, secure in his right to be what he desired to be, and free to bear arms to protect that right. He used all his wiles to teach me how the Republic had been warped by men and twisted to suit the designs and desires of a privileged few, and how the resultant Empire had become cancerous, doomed by its own wasting sicknesses. He also taught me the lore of iron and of what he himself referred to as “the other, lesser, metals,” including gold and silver, and I spent one entire winter in his forge, when I was nine, learning to handle iron and to make the metal work for me, since that, he convinced me, was the secret of the master smiths. And because he was my Uncle Varrus and my god, I listened avidly to his words, absorbed his lessons and devoured his writings.
I never knew my grandfather, Caius Britannicus, but I grew up seeing this land of Britain through his eyes, thanks to his skills in writing down his thoughts. From him and from Uncle Varrus, I learned the reasons for the destruction of the Empire before I even knew what the Empire was. I was aware of Armageddon long before I knew that I dwelt in Armageddon, and I saw the High King’s destiny before his parents ever saw each other. And through all of this, through all the years of being a sponge, soaking up every scrap of lore that came my way, absorbing the essence of the great Dream dreamed by my grandfather and his friend Publius Varrus, I was protected from the world by the life I led and by the self-contained society that had been built around me. We in Camulod thought of ourselves as Britons, rather than Romano-British or Celtic people, and in my youth, because of Publius Varrus, I imbued the word with a unique, metallic significance, imagining a Briton to be a carefully crafted alloy, a tempered fusion of the strongest properties of Roman and Celtic greatness.
Beyond our Colony, however, outside the sanctuary of Camulod, in the separate, other world of Britain and beyond its shores, the disintegration of Rome’s Empire hurtled on.
* * *
Our land never recovered from the loss of the legions Stilicho recalled in 401. Five years later, the few legions that remained, feeling forgotten and abandoned there, elected a man called Marcus as their emperor, but he was murdered by a rival faction who elected another, Gratian by name, to lead them. Short months later, he too was dead, and a third prospect, Constantine III, was proclaimed Emperor in Britain. This was the man who dealt the final blow to Roman Britain. Mustering all the troops that he could find, he assembled a fleet of ships from all the ports of the land and crossed with his army to the continent, leaving Britain abandoned at last. We in the Colony called Camulod, the only place in Britain prepared for this development, remained unaware of the event for several months, and when we did hear of it, we were thrown onto the verge of panic, expecting to be victims any day of massive invasion forces.
For a long time, however—almost four years—there was no great increase in the raids, for there were few who really believed that the Romans would not return. But then weeds began to grow on the great roads, and the camps began to show the wear and tear of time and neglect, and as they crumbled, the predators stepped up their raids. The word was passed that the way to Britain lay safely open. The Jutes, the Danes, the Angles, the Saxons, the Picts and the Scots came in ever swelling numbers, and Britain knew pillage on a scale hitherto undreamed of.
Copyright © 1994, 1997 by Jack Whyte