Malgwyn ap Cuneglas was one of King Arthur’s earliest companions and now is his most trusted counselor. Despite the malice of his enemies, who fear Arthur’s power, and the machinations of the still powerful druids who mightily resist him, Malgwyn knows that Arthur will stop at nothing in his efforts to lead his people to Christ and help to bring civil law and justice to a people who have known little such.
To consolidate his power, Arthur decides that it is time to take a noble wife. But in this Malgwyn knows not only his lord’s ambition but his personal grief, because in order to take a queen Arthur must set aside his love Guinevere, because he believes that the scandal surrounding their affair has tainted her for the crown.
Malgwyn is sent north to fetch the young woman who is to be Arthur’s bride. The way is fraught with tension and disaster for there are forces who would not see the king wed. When Malgwyn discovers a string of killings involving young virginal women who are slaughtered in a horrific manner—not unlike a ritual sacrifice—he is left with a question that he must answer quickly.
Are these murders portents of the gods taking vengeance on the intrusion of a new faith?
Or mortal men plotting to unseat the king?
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About the Author
The Beloved Dead is Tony Hays’s third book in his much acclaimed Arthurian mystery series. Hays is a former journalist who has covered topics as varied as narcotics trafficking (earning his newspaper the Tennessee Press Association award for Public Service in 2000), political corruption, Civil War history, and the war on terror. He currently resides in Tennessee.
Read an Excerpt
By Tony Hays
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Tony Hays
All rights reserved.
“This is not wise, Rigotamos,” I cautioned. “Not wise at all.”
I pulled my fur cloak closer about my neck, my fingers brushing the crossbow fibula that Arthur had given me years before. A mist hung over the countryside, as thick as any I had ever seen. Early morning at Londinium was often like this, not that I had traveled much in these parts. The Saxons had encroached on our lands to the south, east, and north. Londinium was like a finger of high ground amidst the waters of the Saxon flood.
The White Mount, where we now stood, was on the eastern edge of the Londinium of Rome, above the flowing waters of the River Tamesis. Most of the wondrous buildings had fallen into disrepair. As we rode in from Castellum Arturius far to the west, our mood had been dampened by the decay of a once beautiful city, replete with baths, temples, a governor’s mansion, shrines to the entire pantheon of Roman gods. The great circus in the northwest now held pigs owned by a local farmer. Not far to the east of us lay a large temple, but our scouts said that the buildings had tumbled down and the altar destroyed, probably by a Saxon raiding party. But now yellowed grass grew out from the broken stones, and reeds smelling of snakes and mud crowded what had been a clean riverbank, and purple thistles grew where Roman soldiers had walked. And among those abandoned buildings, where once colorful mosaics and bracing baths held sway, were the wattle-and-daub huts of our people, of Britons.
* * *
I was not the first to caution him. All of his councilors had told him this. Aye, when word of his intentions had reached the other lords of the consilium, four of them sped riders to urge him against it. But he was much out of sorts with me (and I with him) and persisted in his belief that this was a good thing. So, on this late summer morning, with three troop of horse in formation around the base of the White Mount, Arthur ap Uther brushed our arguments aside, dismounted, and approached the stone that marked the burial place of Bran’s head.
Bran was a remarkable man, or god; no one was quite sure which. I had heard many stories about him as I grew up, spun by the old folk around the fire, late at night. The ancient tales had it that Bran was a king of all Britannia in the long distant past, long before Arthur or Ambrosius or Vortigern. He had gotten in some family dispute with a Hibernian king over the betrothal of his sister, Branwen. I could not keep all the details straight—he had a brother of unsound mind involved as well—but I knew that it prompted a war between Hibernia and Britannia, and that only Bran and six others were left of the Britons. They became known as the Seven, but curiously, only Bran’s head had survived. Even my old dad looked askance when told of how Bran’s head continued to live even after it had been parted from his neck, often regaling his companions with stories and jokes. But, in time, the head, like the rest of Bran, died and was buried here at the White Mount, facing Gaul to protect Britannia from foreign invaders.
And so Arthur had determined to recover Bran’s head from the mount in order to show the people that they should depend upon the Christ and the consilium to guard Britannia’s shores, not old skulls.
The Rigotamos was nearly alone in believing that this venture was wise. We had all tried to tell him, his foes, his friends, but especially those who cared little for Arthur or any noble but cared deeply for a people bruised and battered by decades of battle and death.
I remembered the recent visit of Coroticus, abbot at Ynys-witrin, to Castellum Arturius. While I had my own differences with Coroticus, on this issue I agreed with him. “You do not stab a dying brother in the throat to hasten his death,” Coroticus had told the Rigotamos, referring to the chaos that still marred our lands, brought about by the Roman departure. We struggled yet with the incursions of Picts and the Scotti, and the more immediate threat of the Saxons. Our lords, at least most of them, were bound in a consilium, headed by a Rigotamos, or high king. First, we had had Vortigern, who betrayed the people and brought the hated Saxons to our shore. Then came Ambrosius Aurelianus, a tall, sturdy leader who cared for the people and carried himself with Romanitas, and, with the help of his Dux Bellorum, Arthur ap Uther, checked the Saxon advance across our lands. Now, after Ambrosius’s rather eventful retirement, we had Arthur, a man who deeply believed in the Christ and cared even more deeply for the people.
“My ‘brother’ is not dying, abbot,” he had answered. “And you, of all men, should not encourage the people to look to an ancient talisman to protect them from harm. Rather they should put their faith in the Christ and the consilium to keep them safe.” And that had been his argument against all opposition. Bran’s head represented dependence on the old ways. The Church and the consilium (though it was not of one mind on the Church) represented a new path. Hence our quest to Londinium, where Arthur intended to dig up Bran’s head and move it to a more suitable burial place.
For my part, I saw no harm in leaving the head where it lay. In truth, it was nothing more than a symbol, just as the Brutus Stone and the Diana Stone were symbols. That the people put faith in its protection was no different than having a favorite tunic or dagger. I knew of men who would not go into battle without their favorite brooch firmly affixed to their cloak. It hurt nothing and calmed their fears.
But, despite all of this opposition and argument, Arthur was still the Rigotamos and we were still bound to follow his orders. So now we had arrived at the White Mount.
* * *
Arrayed beside me were Kay, Bedevere, Merlin, and Gawain. “Rigotamos,” Merlin began, “it is late in the day. We have almost lost our light. Perhaps it would be better if we camped and you completed your task on the morrow.”
Merlin spoke the truth. The afternoon sun was fading in the western sky, and we had not had time to prepare torches. Word of our mission had filtered through as well and a group of the local folk had gathered, their faces grim and foreboding.
Arthur’s face was set in hard lines. The muscles at his jaws pushed at his skin, burnished a deep brown by long days in the sun in recent months. The tension among our entire company was as thick as the mist which oft coated our mornings. After the abortive rebellion by Lauhiir, Teilo, and Dochu (and Lord David, if the truth be known) more than a year before, Arthur no longer indulged his desire to avoid the trappings of rank and to travel, at least outside Castellum Arturius, with only the most modest of escorts. We had three troop of horse, enough to deal with any bands of latrunculi or marauding Saxon parties, but not so many as to worry the Saxon leaders that an invasion of their Canti lands was imminent. Vortigern had granted those lands to the Saxons for their help with the Picts and Scotti.
Finally, his eyes softened a bit and he nodded to Bedevere, who commanded our horse. Barking orders right and left, our soldiers dismounted and began establishing a camp on the summit of the mount. Merlin and I climbed down from our horses as well and stretched our legs. Although Arthur loved his Romanisms, like vigiles and posca (that horrible vinegar and water concoction that soldiers drank), he bowed to reality and to the limits to which he could push his men when it came to making camp.
As a lad, my father once took me to a field near our farm. There you could still easily see the double ditches, grown over and filling up with dirt and debris, that surrounded an ancient Roman marching camp. He walked me around the field and showed where the gates had been and how the defensive ditches had worked. I often wondered how he knew so much, as he had been but a babe when the legions left. He was long dead, though, and I tried not to ponder things that had no answer.
As the men busied themselves with putting up tents and preparing campfires, Arthur motioned to me to join him. With a sigh, I answered his call. I knew what he wanted, and I had no interest in discussing it further.
We walked out from the bustle of the growing camp to a point where we could look over the river. In the distance I could see the twinkling of lamps at a handful of farmsteads. The summer’s heat was oppressive, and my face and body were covered with dirt and sweat from our journey. The dampness in the air soaked through to my stump of an arm, causing it to ache and tingle.
“Malgwyn, you know I have no other choice,” Arthur began.
“My lord, I know that you are the Rigotamos, the highest chieftain in our lands. You have all the choices. No man has more.”
Now it was Arthur’s turn to sigh. “You are smarter than that, Malgwyn. Do not pretend to be unlearned and ignorant. The consilium will not stay together without compromise, and compromise requires sacrifices of us all.”
Sacrifices. I rubbed the remnant of my right arm, remembering that sacrifice. A long time before, I was a farmer. But then the war against the Saxons stole my young wife from me and made me a soldier in the command of Arthur ap Uther, now the Rigotamos, the High King of all Britannia; he was but the Dux Bellorum then, the leader of battles, for the consilium of lords that held our fragmented island together. My knack for reading battlefields and my zeal for killing Saxons raised me in Arthur’s esteem, and I quickly became one of his lesser lieutenants. But a Saxon sword cleaved my arm along the River Tribuit and took my bloodlust away.
Arthur stanched the flow of my life’s blood and saved me, when I wanted nothing more than to die. He took me to Ynys-witrin, and the monachi bound my wounds, healed me, and taught me to write with my left hand, gave me something of a trade since farming and warring were lost to me. Death still seemed my only haven, and I bore Arthur a grudge for my salvation, a grudge that blighted my days and sent my nights reeling into a waterfall of drink.
It was only on the eve of Arthur’s election as Rigotamos, in the wake of the deaths of Eleonore, my wife’s sister, and Cuneglas, my younger brother, that we were reconciled. But with that reconciliation came another with my young daughter, Mariam, whom I had abandoned, and that was worth all that had gone before.
The current rift between me and Arthur had nothing to do with all of that, but it did concern family. While nobility had avoided my branch, another, distant line of the family was indeed noble. In that brood was a female cousin, a pretty young thing, but headstrong and temperamental. Her father had arranged a marriage with a brother of Lord Mark at Castle Marcus. But she rebelled at such a match and ran away to the women’s community at Ynys-witrin, pledging her life to the Christ.
And true to her nature, that lasted nearly as long as it took for her to settle in to her new duties. She found the rules of the community stifling, aye found them threatening to choke the very life from her. The community was one that vowed poverty and chastity. Poverty was not a problem for my cousin; even the most noble of families in those days often had little. Chastity, as her young body matured into a woman’s, became a major concern, one that the sisters could not ignore.
Of course, male visitors to the community were few, but among those was a young tax collector for Ambrosius Aurelianus, a handsome young officer. And he noticed my cousin as she toiled in the garden. Suddenly, he found more and more reasons to visit the sisters. Inevitably, the two entered into an affair, and just as inevitably, they were discovered. My cousin, Guinevere, was cast out of the community in disgrace. The young tax collector, Arthur, suffered little; his sin was but one of lust. Hers was the greater. It was not an uncommon story, but this one was different.
You see, Arthur truly loved Guinevere, and she loved him.
Determined to care for Guinevere, Arthur provided a good cottage along the road from Cadwy’s Castle (which Arthur soon inherited) to Ynys-witrin. The cottage was nestled off the lane far enough to be invisible to travelers. Merlin, even then protecting his young friend, put word about that it was inhabited by a sorceress, an evil woman with the ability to turn a man to stone simply by looking at him.
But that had been years before and few now credited Merlin’s stories. Arthur’s subsequent promotion to Dux Bellorum allowed him the luxury of being seen in public with Guinevere. He could never consider marrying her, though, he believed. She was a disgraced sister of the community, and the people would not accept her as his wife. A Rigotamos must be seen as nearly perfect, Arthur thought. And consorting with a fallen sister also damaged the image of piety that he hoped to project. Never mind that many of our people did not yet embrace the Christ and, indeed, still clung to the old ways, the old gods.
Our present discussion was caused by an envoy from Lord Mark at Castle Marcus who had arrived some weeks before. The young envoy had carried a parchment that only Arthur, Merlin, Kay, and I had been privy to, and its contents had been closely guarded ever since. Even Bedevere had not been acquainted with its message, though that was bound to happen as soon as our task at the White Mount was completed.
The message was simple. Mark, David, Gawain, and a number of other lords believed it was time for Arthur to take a bride. To that end, they proposed an arranged marriage between Arthur and the young daughter of a northern lord, Aircol, who paid no obeisance to the consilium. The group of lords believed that an alliance with Aircol would not only strengthen the consilium through numbers, but would help protect the north. The girl was but fourteen, less than half of Arthur’s age. Still, she was of an age to marry.
Their argument was well spoken and logical, too logical. Such marriages were not uncommon among the nobles, allying families and property. Aircol’s lands were well placed to help defend against Saxon encroachment, and should the Saxons invade our lands, his men could flank them or even come into the Saxon lands to their rear, wreaking havoc and disrupting any invasion.
So Arthur had acceded, and I had erupted.
“But you love Guinevere!” I had shouted.
“Yes. But there is nothing I can do, Malgwyn, and you know that!” came his reply.
“Explain that to my cousin, whose pleasures you have certainly enjoyed for many seasons!”
He turned from me then, unwilling to discuss the matter further, unwilling, I guessed, to risk a complete break.
And so it had remained between us, few words passing and then but grunts and shrugs. Seeing Guinevere, so happy with Arthur, stabbed at my heart, but this was not my message to deliver. If her heart were to be broken, then Arthur would have to do it. I would have no part of it.
Now he wished to discuss it once more. We found a fallen log and both sat, not looking at each other, looking instead to the lands to the south, Saxon lands.
“Malgwyn,” he began finally. “You know that I do love Guinevere, but you know too that the decisions of a Rigotamos are not always his own.”
I chuckled. “Is that so, my lord? Strange that Vortigern never worried about such things. He threw away his woman in favor of a Saxon bride, and no one urged him to do it. Aye, everyone was aghast! But he cared not!”
“True. And he was betrayed! And no one stood with him! Malgwyn, no matter how much I love Guinevere, no matter how much you love her as your cousin, she is still a woman cast out of the Christ’s community. A Rigotamos cannot marry such as her. A Rigotamos must be perfect. And marriages are about strengthening one’s position. Guinevere knows this. And though she be of noble birth, Cadwy is long dead, his property split among his sons. I must make the marriage most advantageous to our people!”
Lord Cadwy had been Guinevere’s guardian after the death of her father. Castellum Arturius had once belonged to Cadwy, but the old man had given it to Arthur. The rest of his lands had gone to his sons, a wastrel lot who never amounted to much.
“My lord, I will concede that a marriage to Guinevere brings no advantage to our strength or our defense. Only a fool would argue that. But I reject your argument that you cannot marry her, that she is unacceptable. You well know that she is favored by the people. They truly love her, and I see no reason why they would object to your marriage.”
Arthur nodded. “That is true. Guinevere is well thought of by the people. But being a beloved woman is just not the same as being a queen. The people would expect more of her, more of me in my choice.”
I was arguing with an oak tree. In truth, he had already decided and no matter how much I challenged him, he would not be swayed. “Tell me what it is you wish of me, Rigotamos, in this matter.”
He sighed and looked off at the twilight, back toward the heart of our lands. “I need you to go with Bedevere and Merlin to escort Aircol and his daughter back to Castellum Arturius for the wedding.”
I started to protest, but his wool-wrapped hand had already raised to stop me. “Malgwyn, I need to show my resolve in this matter, and pay proper respect to Aircol. To do that, I need my most trusted advisors to provide the escort.”
“What of Kay?”
“As Seneschal, he has many duties to perform in preparation for the wedding.” He stopped and smiled. “Already he is finding it a daunting task.”
I could not help but laugh. The Seneschal served as keeper of the Rigotamos’s household. Kay, tall and slender as a willow, was one of my favorites, but he had an infamous temper and had been much out of sorts lately, dealing with the chore of handling Arthur’s servants. He was always more a soldier than an administrator. But after a moment the laugh caught in my throat, and I turned away from Arthur.
“What else troubles you, Malgwyn?”
Off in the distance, to the southwest, I saw a single lamp lit at a farmstead, bursting into life. “I thought you were going to ask me to explain this thing to Guinevere.”
He studied his wrapped hand, the one missing his middle finger, taken at the joint by a well-aimed Saxon spear. “No, that is a job I cannot delegate to another. Do not think that I find any pleasure in this, Malgwyn. I have loved Guinevere for more than ten winters. But marriages for kings are affairs of state, not affairs of the heart. You have no idea how I wish it could be otherwise.”
“You are wrong, Arthur,” I said, taking a liberty I would never dream of taking among others. “Kings are men with the power to do what they please. But you have never understood that.”
“Remember your friend Patrick?” The good Patrick, episcopus to the Scotti across the sea, had died some months before in a sordid affair at Ynys-witrin. I had not known him long, but I came to consider him a good and true man, and that can be said of so few in the world.
“How could I not?”
“You are asking me to be the sort of tyrannus that he denounced.”
“I am asking you to be the kind of king that our land is filled with.”
With that, I felt his hand on my shoulder, wrenching me around to face him. We were close enough that I could smell the mint leaves he had chewed to freshen his breath.
“I am not like them, Malgwyn. I do not want to be like them.” No anger sparked his eyes; no blood marked his cheeks. He said it earnestly and with an intensity that marked a young man, not a war-hardened chieftain.
“I will go for you, just as I came here for you. I know that you mean well, my lord.” My next question was a difficult one. “How will you tell Guinevere of your decision?”
A sad and dark look clouded his face. “Gently, not easily. Part of me wishes to maintain our relationship, but I would not dishonor her nor my marriage to Gwyneira by suggesting it.”
“She would not agree to that at any rate.”
Arthur chuckled. “I know. She already senses that this is coming. She is your cousin, after all, Malgwyn. I cannot think of a good way to tell her this, so I will just tell her and pray that she does not have a dagger near at hand. But know this and know it well, Malgwyn, no dagger she could wield against me would strike any deeper or any truer than the one that this matter has already struck me with.”
“Tell me, Arthur. When you first determined that you wanted to be the Rigotamos, did you think that it would come without costs?”
The corners of his mouth turned up in a half smile. “Trying to do right for the people has forever been weighted down with costs. But I will admit that the vision of sunny days shone more brightly than that of the rainy ones.”
A good answer. An honest one. “I know that you are trying to do the right thing, and that counts for much in this world.”
He rose then, his hand lingering on my shoulder. “Aye, old friend, I do mean well. I fought across this land to bring it peace. But even in peace, there are often wounded and dead left on the battlefield.”
Copyright © 2011 by Tony Hays
Excerpted from Beloved Dead by Tony Hays. Copyright © 2011 Tony Hays. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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