The boys slept in the pavilion at night and explored the countryside during the day. While Grainne and Bleddyn directed the slow-moving wagons south and west, the younger boys would climb trees, jump over streams, and leap from rock to rock. Eventually they would sprint to catch up to the carts again. Grainne would crane her neck and stand up in the cart to try to keep an eye on her boys and would call to them if they left her sight. After the tenth time they disappeared, she looked at Gwilym and asked him, “How can you stay so calm? Don’t you care about what might happen to your boys?”
He reached for her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I worry myself sick when they do dangerous things. But I’m doing them no favors by keeping them within reach at all times. They have to stretch themselves, make mistakes, and learn from them. We discuss what they did during meals and that’s when I make suggestions. I try to make them think that the safer courses are their idea. They don’t want to injure themselves. They just want to try new things.”
Gwilym told her all about his father’s quest to find the Gospel of Joseph and his theories about the life of Jesus. She told him about her childhood in Avalon, the expectations placed on her due to her royal blood, her hopes that she would rise to follow Viviane as Lady of the Lake.
“What’s the origin of the royal blood of Avalon?” he asked.
“There are two royal lines,” she replied. “One is much older and stretches through the Ladies of the Lake. Viviane has that blood, as do her sisters: Igraine and Morgause. Igraine’s daughter, Morgaine, has the blood too. Morgause and Igraine married men so they cannot become the Lady. Morgaine is reputed to have ‘The Sight.’ But she wanders the land and does not seem interested in becoming Viviane’s successor. It is rumored that she had a falling out with her aunt, Viviane, and will not wear the mantle.”
“How are you related to Viviane? Where did you get your royal blood?”
Grainne’s mouth smiled though her eyes belied the mood. “I am the daughter of her younger sister.”
“Does the blood of the man come into play at all?”
Grainne gave him a sharp look. “It does indeed. For the Lady of the Lake royal line, it is assumed that the women choose their mates so that their blood does not become diluted with lesser lines.”
“Incest?” inquired Gwilym.
“Most often the women mate with cousins to keep the line clean.”
“Just like among the Saracens. No one there marries outside the clan. It’s a dangerous practice. Too much inbreeding is bad for a line. Farmers avoid it for good reason. Bad traits are doubled.”
“So are good traits. And if a line has no bad traits, why bring any in from the outside?”
“You are breeding outside your line. That can’t be helping your quest to be Lady.”
“I was following the direct orders of the Lady.”
Gwilym thought for a moment. “You said there were two royal lines. What of the other line?”
Grainne hesitated. “That line is shorter. It entered Avalon less than 500 years ago. That line follows the males. It seems that they only breed boys. They leave Avalon and often become the Druids you see wandering about the land. Merlin is of that line.”
“Why are boys not allowed to grow up on Avalon?” he asked
“Avalon is a spiritual place, a land that teaches girls about the Goddess. They cannot do so around the distraction of boys. Young boys, like mine, are fine but they are fostered out when they turn three.”
“Can Madoc return?”
She shook her head. “To visit. For a few days. We have accommodations for that. But he cannot live there anymore.”
“That must be difficult for you, choosing between your son and your calling. What will you do?”
“I don’t need to decide yet.
Glastonbury and Avalon are next to each
other. Madoc will stay with you and I will visit daily, often stay with him for
many days until Avalon requires my presence. In a year, this spell will be over
and I can decide.”
“We could marry and stay together all the time. Never be separated from your sons until they grow old enough to leave on their own.”She looked at him and stroked his face. “Dear man. Priestesses of Avalon do not marry. Though if they did, they would marry men like you.”
At night, after the boys were asleep, they would make love quietly under the covers. These sessions were slower and gentler than their love-making on the runes. Was it due to the presence of the boys or the absence of the rune? Either way, they enjoyed it and he slept afterwards, her wrapped in his warm, safe cocoon. On stirring in his sleep later, he often found her gone. He looked for her the first few times and found her studying the stars. Gwilym learned she was a night-owl who preferred to stay up late than to greet the dawn. Gwilym was the opposite. Usually, Gwilym lifted her in his arms while the boys packed away the pallet and he carried her into their cart.
The bumping caused by Gwilym’s inexpert guiding of the horse woke her before long. She would get up, rub her eyes and sit next to Gwilym. She would look from him to the horse and back again for a few minutes then shake her head. She would take the reins and, with a few clicks of her tongue and shakes of the reins, guide the horse along the smoothest trail. Her head would droop again and she would appear to sleep while the horse continued down the trail. She would wake at each road turning and, with a quick glimpse at the sky, direct the horse down one track and doze off again. Gwilym learned to give her a couple of hours to wake up then prepare her a bowl of the leftover oatmeal. He had to add a surprising amount of honey to meet her satisfaction. After eating she would be ready for a conversation.
One day Gwilym re-opened the subject of Avalon. “You said you were being told to breed with me as part of your goal to become Lady of the Lake. Yet I am not of the royal line. Aren’t you diluting your royal line so that you can never be Lady?”
“Viviane also bred with the other royal line. It meant she could never have daughters and her offspring could never be Lady following her. But the sons she had! Launcelot, and Ban and… All great knights and leaders. I have no doubt that Madoc and Brice will do as well.”
Gwilym studied her face. What was she saying? Then he noticed something else. She was suffused with happiness, glowing. “You’re breeding again,” he said.
She smiled in contentment and nodded her head.
“That’s wonderful! How long have you known?”
“I felt the baby start in me the night we lay on the tower. Just as I felt them start the last two times. He will share a birthday with Madoc and Brice.”
Gwilym hugged her tight, and then stroked her belly. “I can’t wait to meet my next child. I hope it will be a girl this time. I’ve a hankering to dress up a girl in pretty clothes.”
She shook her head. “It will be a boy, Gwilym. I will only have boys. Didn’t you hear me? The curse of the other line.”
Gwilym put the puzzle together. “You are saying that I am of this other line. This line that only breeds boys. This line that includes Sirs Launcelot, and Ban. How is that possible?”
“It’s simple, Gwilym. Your father was of the line, so you are too. The better question is: Who is your mother?”
“She was a Cambrian woman my father met while searching
Glastonbury for the Gospel of Joseph. They made love at Beltane. She fostered me out with my father when I was a baby. I know no more than this.”
“You know enough now.”
Blood was rushing through Gwilym’s head as he took in this information. He needed confirmation.
“What is the origin of this other line?”
“You already know the answer, Gwilym. It entered Avalon almost 500 years ago. Do the math.”
Gwilym shook his head. “That old rumor? The Holy Grail? The bloodline of Jesus?”
He looked at her for confirmation but she was looking around her. He hadn’t noticed before but they had entered a small village. The Roman road was intersected by a muddy track. An open square covered in straw occupied one corner. This was crowded with people hawking wagons and barrows full of produce. Goats, sheep and cows strained against the ropes held fast to poles driven into the ground. Pens held squealing pigs. The smell and sounds of market day assaulted his senses.
The opposite corner held a prosperous round building, most likely a church. The other corners were occupied by a small inn and a house. People filled the square and the intersection.He looked down at a villager to give a greeting and then he saw what Grainne had noticed. The man was looking from Gwilym to a coin he held in his hands.
“Hail, good sirrah!” Gwilym cried. “What village is this?”
“This be Edithvale,” replied the villager. “Willim, be it?”
“Gwilym, actually! Did my knight friend give you one of these coins?” He pulled out the coin Fred had given him and compared it to the villager’s.
“That he did, yet he gave no feeling that he were a friend of yourn. He told me I’d get a gold coin if I gave word of you.”
A horse galloped by, the rider staring at Gwilym as he left. Gwilym looked around and noticed other villagers mounting up.
“It’s a long story. Join me on the cart and I’ll tell you.” The man clambered aboard. “You have me at a disadvantage,” Gwiylm said as he clasped the man’s hand helping him up and turning it into a handshake. “You know my name and I don’t know yours.”
“Name be Dale. Where be ye headed?” He was scrutinizing Gwilym, Grainne and both carts. Gwilym stood and stretched to his full height. Dale’s shoulders drooped. They drove the carts out through the other side of the village.
“Dale, you want that gold coin and I don’t want that knight catching me. But he has me at a disadvantage. He only has to give one gold coin to the few people who point him my way. I can’t afford to give a gold coin to everyone who doesn’t.”
“Now, three villagers have already left on horseback to tell Palomides where I am. What do you suppose he’ll give to the second villager who tells him my whereabouts?”
“Another gold piece.”
Gwilym shook his head.
Dale thought. “He should give the first one a gold piece. But the second one will tell him the same so he won’t give him anything.”
“And what about the third and fourth?”
Dale nodded and said, “Nothing.”
“Right. The next person to get a gold piece from him will be the first one who tells him where I went after I left the village. I imagine there are already villagers who have figured that out and are vying with each other to be that person.”
Dale nodded again with a sad expression.
“But when Palomides comes to the next crossroads, there is one person who can tell him which way I went. And that, my friend, is where you will get two gold pieces. More gold than anyone else in town. Plus, you will get something even better. Peace of mind that you were the only villager who earned money without sending an ungodly Saracen to kill a pious Christian.”
Dale’s expression cleared with a new hope. “How’s that, sirrah?”
“What was your opinion of Palomides when he talked to the people of your village?”
“He were dark and hairy, with one eyebrow and a huge nose. He smelled bad and talked funny.”
“Did you trust him?”
“I believed he would give the gold. He showed a handful from his purse.”
“Yes,” said Gwilym. “But did you trust that he was looking for me for good intentions. Or did you suspect that he was up to no good?”
“I had my doubts. But he was offering gold. I could buy a fine milk cow for a piece of real gold.”
“And now that you’ve met me. Would you feel right about sending him after me?”
“Don’t suppose so. But it were real gold.”
“Aye,” said Gwilym. He fished around in his belt-pouch and held out a gold piece of his own. “When Palomides comes to the cross-roads, he will ask you which way I went. For the price of this gold, I ask you to tell him the wrong way. You can take Palomides’ gold also.”
“Do you know why Palomides is after me?”
Dale shook his head.
“I have a secret about Jesus that I found while traveling in the
Holy Land.” The mention of this place elicited the usual awed expression Gwilym had seen in British villagers. “Palomides wants to use this secret to hurt Christians. He will torture my children in front of me to get this secret from me.”
Dale looked glum.
“So Dale. I ask you. When Palomides comes to the cross-roads and asks you which way I went and you feel the warmth of this gold piece in your pocket. Which way will you tell him?”
Dale’s expression brightened and he replied, “The wrong way!”
“Good man!” exclaimed Gwilym and clapped him on the shoulder. “How many days ago was Palomides in your village?”
They spoke no more for the next hour until they reached a fork in the road. Dale stole the occasional glance at Grainne when he thought Gwilym was not looking. Twice he looked back at the children following in the other cart and smiled at them.
Dale stepped down off the cart at the fork. Gwilym threw him the gold piece and the family traveled along the southern road.
Once they were out of sight of Dale, Gwilym and Grainne held a hasty discussion. “The roads are no longer safe,” said Gwilym. “That Dale might tell him which way we went after all. He is scared of the knight. We have to hope we have at least a day before Palomides hears where we are. By then, we need to be off these main roads and traveling along open country to
Glastonbury. We should be safe once we arrive there.”
“These carts won’t be much good in the open country. Too many hills, valleys and rivers. Do you know the country here?” asked Grainne.
“I know the main roads. They cut through forests on our way here. I don’t know if there are secondary tracks through them.”
“I know the forests. If you can get us to the forests, I can keep us safe,” said Grainne.
A few hours later they saw a track leading off the main road that showed promise of being more than just a farmer’s drive. They took this and then began an odyssey of tracking their way back and forth across the countryside, through farms and hamlets, around rivers and forests, up and down hills, fording small streams, backtracking around the occasional steep valleys but always heading generally west.
Whenever they approached a settlement or even a farm, Gwilym would hide under covers in the back of the cart. His face was on the coin and he didn’t want to attract attention to their group. The sight of a beautiful woman alone in a cart attracted different attention and Bleddyn would sometimes have to stand and draw his bow to discourage the lewd advances.
They traveled this way for a week, making slow progress toward their destination. Then they reached the edge of a great forest, one that was known to all as a dangerous place, pierced by only one Roman road from east to west and another from north to south. There were other trails reputed to be stalked by bandits. It would take two days to pass through the forest using the main roads. People spent the night at the crossroads where there was a small settlement and a contingent of the king’s soldiers. This was the place Gwilym had stayed on his trip from Huish to Airmyn.
“Palomides may wait for us there,” said Gwilym to Grainne.
“That’s good,” said Grainne.
“Then we can take the Roman road almost to the crossroads, skirt around it and return to the road later.”
Gwilym thought about this and but was concerned about the logic. “But that’s only if he knows we must come this way. He doesn’t know our destination. No. Thinking about it more, I think he’ll place some trusted henchman there while he continues patrolling the roads to find us.”
“No-one has seen you since Edithvale. How will he find us?”
“At Edithvale they saw who I was traveling with. He’ll be spreading the word about you, the boys and the two carts. He probably went down the road that Dale pointed until he reached a settlement and asked there. He would have found out we didn’t come through. Then he would have gone back to the fork and done the same thing down the other road. We didn’t pass through any settlement before we went off the road. If he’s a good tracker he would have gone back to the fork and started making circles on his horse, stopping at every farm and asking about us. Eventually he would have come to places that had seen us and figured out our direction.”
“Where is he now then?”
Gwilym thought hard for a while in silence. “He may have figured out by now which direction we are traveling and that we must pass through this forest. The forest is the neck of the bottle. We either go through it on the road or around it. It will be easy for him to post a few sentries at some points around it looking for us to skirt it and one at the crossroads to catch us there. He hates to stand still so he will be patrolling the roads and outskirts.”
“Then we are in danger here. We can only be safe taking one of the old tracks through it.”
“That’s dangerous. They’re a haven for bandits.”
Grainne pointed at the trees. “That’s an oak forest. I can protect us there.”
“Do you know any paths wide enough for these carts?”Grainne looked at the carts. “With a little work, probably. Follow me, Bleddyn!” she yelled behind her and crossed the last bit of open field and plunged the horses into the dark.
The outskirts of the forest were sparsely treed but the deeper they entered, the closer together they grew and the denser the undergrowth. The sky was soon shut out by an overlapping canopy of branches. The little light that filtered down revealed a ground covered in rotting leaves with roots rising up at random to trip the horses. The animals snorted their discontent, their ears flattening and their flanks twitching. Gwilym strained to see in the dark, his line of sight limited also by the twisting path. Spider webs stretched between the trees and Gwilym had to peel them off his face after passing through. Several times Grainne had to brush a spider off his head from an occupied web. Gwilym shuddered in disgust as one scrambled down his neck.
Grainne steered the carts on a winding path formed by nature, rather than by man. At times, Gwilym had to walk in front and chop down occasional saplings for the carts to pass. It was slow going and the night fell quicker here than on the open plain. They pitched camp in a small clearing where they could draw the carts near each other with room between for the pavilion.
“No fire,” ordered Grainne. “It will attract unwelcome visitors.” She walked around the clearing, sprinkling herbs, twisting branches together and singing. Her enchantment complete, she returned to the boys who were raising the pavilion. “Stay within the clearing tonight,” she said.
As the night grew darker, Gwilym and his sons started at the sounds of the animals and moving branches in the forest. Grainne and her two boys were resting easy for the first time of this trip. Gwilym remarked on this.
Grainne said, “The forests are our natural home. Avalon borders an ancient forest. We learn our herb-lore there, we worship in the groves, and we gather mistletoe. We spend many nights sleeping in forests without protection spells.”
“Should I stand guard?” asked Gwilym.
“I’ve taken care of it,” replied Grainne, kissing him deeply.
Despite Grainne’s insistence, Gwilym woke at every noise and was grumpy when daylight started filtering into the clearing. They packed up and continued in a westerly direction. This day passed uneventfully. They disturbed the occasional deer, many squirrels and birds. They still hadn’t reached the great north-south Roman road by nightfall.
Around midday on the third day in the forest, Grainne halted the carts and pointed up at the rise ahead. “The road is up there.”
“How can you tell?” asked Gwilym.
“The straight line,” she replied. “Only humans use straight lines.”
She pointed at the top of the rise and Gwilym could see the line of the road.
“Wait here,” he said, drawing his scimitar and climbing the rise.
He forced his way through the undergrowth to the embankment and poked his head out of the bushes and into the clearing of the Roman road. It was empty of traffic on both sides. He crossed and entered the woods there, looking for a place to drive the cart. The brush was thick here so he glanced left and right trying to find a space. There seemed to be no path. Then he looked back and saw no apparent path where he had come from. Humbled, he scurried back to Grainne and asked her to find a path.
With a crooked grin on her face, she led him to the right instead of straight up to the road. “You have to think like an animal. Deer don’t like to walk through undergrowth either. They have made paths over the years. Deer like open spaces and sometimes travel in herds so they prefer wide paths between trees. We’d been following a deer path the whole time until you decided to strike out for the road.”
The path they followed skirted the road for about a mile, between five and ten feet below the road’s surface. Then it rose up to the same level and they could be seen from the road. Grainne backed the horse so they were hidden again by bushes. She stepped down and Gwilym joined her approaching the road. There was a large bush near the drainage ditch and Grainne crawled into it, squirming through the low branches until her head was poking out the other side. Gwilym shook his head at her dexterity and waited behind. Grainne pulled her head back into the bush. He heard hoof-beats and froze. He glanced behind him, relieved that he could see no sign of the boys or carts.
The hoof-beats clattered by. From his vantage point, Gwilym saw two sets of horse’s hooves trotting south along the road. Grainne waited a few minutes, and then worked her head back out of the bush. She yanked it back in and Gwilym tensed. Squatting on his haunches was uncomfortable but, given the tension he saw in Grainne’s body, he dared not move to relieve his aches.
Many minutes later he heard the sound of men’s voices. They were approaching from the north. Gwilym looked around, hoping that his body was as well hidden from a walking person as he knew it was from one on horseback.
He held his breath as the men approached within hearing distance. “There be better prey than those two, lads. Gotta wait for t’right oppituny. Bite off more’n ye can chew an’ yer dead right quick. Take t’easy pickin’s I always say.”Gwilym heard some grunts in reply as the men walked past. Then he heard, “Wha’ about t’deer path? We aint looked along it fer a while. Could be somethin’ there.” The men stopped in the road and discussed this for a while. Gwilym grasped the hilt of his scimitar, steeling himself to protect his children.
After a few minutes of argument, the leader said, “We’ll see what’s cookin’ at t’crossroads first and come back to t’deer path after dinner if we get nothin’ there.” They walked south out of sight. Again, Grainne worked her head out of the bush and then stepped onto the road.
Gwilym followed her, stepping first onto the gravel drainage ditch, then over the short stone wall and onto the paved road itself. The roughly pentagonal paving stones were in good repair here. After crossing the 23 feet of road, he stepped over the short retaining wall. He smiled to himself, remembering when Jac had asked him about the short walls that bordered the Roman roads. “That wall is only a few inches high, Da? Are they to keep ants off the roads?”
Gwilym had laughed when he replied, “That’s just the top of a three-foot high wall, son. It keeps all the gravel and stone in that makes the foundation for the road you see.”
They walked over the other drainage ditch and found the deer path again on the other side of the road and saw where it wound into the woods. They returned to the road.
They were crossing the Roman road near the top of a rise. The roadway was visible for about 200 yards on either side of the deer path before it dropped out of sight. The two made a hasty plan. They would go to the last place visible from this point on each side to look for any traffic. When both sides were clear, they would signal each other and then Grainne would whistle to Bleddyn who would drive the first cart over the road and into the woods beyond. Then he would return and do the same with the second cart and the younger boys. Then the adults would return.
Everything worked well for the first transfer and Bleddyn was back with his brothers in the second cart waiting for the next whistle. Gwilym looked down the northern part of the road and saw nothing. He signaled to Grainne who, instead of giving the all-clear signal and whistling, gave him the signal to find cover, and then she dove into the undergrowth.
Gwilym looked around. The undergrowth here was tall but only extended a foot off the road. He couldn’t hide within it and would be seen by a mounted man if he hid behind it. The trees were short here and he couldn’t hide behind any of their trunks.
He heard the hooves coming now, fast, from below the dip in the road that Grainne had been watching. Gwilym ran into the woods and grasped a low-hanging branch to swing himself up. Then he scrambled from branch to branch, getting into the leaves. He noticed that his weight had started the tree swaying. With a quick shift of his weight, he opposed the motion of the tree and brought it nearly to a standstill. He held his breath and listened to the horse approaching. It was a heavy horse, like the warhorses ridden by knights. He prayed for the safety of his children, sitting unprotected in the cart. The horse galloped by.
Gwilym descended and approached the road again. He saw that Grainne was already out there, giving him the all-clear sign. He looked north and saw nothing approaching. He also signaled all was clear and Grainne whistled. He watched north and saw nothing. He looked back at the deer path, seeing the cart crossing the road. He glanced back north. Another horse was approaching. He looked back at the cart and saw it just crossing the road. He thought of signaling to Bleddyn to hurry but realized that any signal could be misinterpreted and could cause delay. There was nothing for it but to hope Bleddyn made it. Bleddyn was already told to hurry so he had to trust him.
When Bleddyn was out of his sight but still not safe within the woods, he signaled to Grainne that someone was approaching. He looked back and saw the horseman drawing near. He had to make a decision. Hide himself and hope that Bleddyn had gotten the carts to safety by the time the man reached the deer path, or slow down the horseman to protect them. His mind raced through the probabilities. He saw that this wasn’t a knight so he could take him by surprise. Yet he didn’t look like an outlaw either and Gwilym didn’t want to hurt a civilian. As someone unthreatening, he might think nothing of seeing a cart on the deer path, though he might make mention of it at the crossroads. He might not see the cart at all. He couldn’t just hail and delay him since Gwilym was the one who was supposed to be hiding from sight.
The time to make the decision had arrived. Gwilym silently pleaded for Bleddyn to hurry to safety and he ran to his tree again. This time he took his time climbing up to avoid it swinging. He figured that this horseman was minding his own business, not looking for them. He shouldn’t be looking to the sides for anything but his eye was more likely to be caught by a swaying tree than by a man’s unmoving body halfway up one.
As the rider passed by, not noticing Gwilym, he saw it was a cleric. He held his breath as the cleric passed the deer path. The man turned his head to the right, looking right where Bleddyn would be if he wasn’t hidden yet. But he didn’t slow down and continued riding towards the crossroads.
Gwilym ran along the road to the deer path and saw nothing. Bleddyn had hidden the cart by the time he arrived. He caught up with the boys and asked them if they had seen anything. “Just a man riding by on a horse,” answered Madoc.
Damn! Grainne joined them and they rode off through the woods as fast as they could. The adults discussed the possibilities as they rode.
“Chances are he’ll mention it at the crossroads,” muttered Gwilym.
“Should we expect someone to attack us from behind?” asked Grainne.
“Yes. Can you cast that spell again; where we look like a big tree?”
“I can’t make it big enough to hide the carts.”
“How far north of the main road are we?”
“About three and a half miles,” she responded.
Gwilym smiled and shook his head in amazement. He didn’t ask how she knew. He figured it came from years of living in the woods. Similar to how he knew where he was in the Jerusalem medina. He started to calculate. The cleric’s horse would reach the cross-roads in about 15 minutes at the earliest. If he didn’t mention the cart, they were safe. But if he did, the knight stationed there would saddle up and would be on the deer path in about 45 minutes. If they continued at this pace, he would find them down this path about half an hour later. So he had a little over an hour to prepare. Less if they stopped moving.
“Grainne. I want you to take the next likely path deeper into the woods and hide the carts. Disguise the tracks. Then move away from the carts and cast that oak spell again. I’m going to try to take out Palomides.”
“A mounted knight? With a scimitar? Wearing no armor? He’ll murder you!”
“I have the advantage of surprise and agility. And with this rope,” he hefted a long coil of rope from the wagon behind him, “He won’t be mounted for long. Don’t come out until you hear me say this secret word.” He whispered something in her ear which made her smile.As he took up a spade she grasped his arm and pulled him close. “Blessings of the goddess be upon you, Gwilym.” She kissed him hard and released her grip.
Gwilym looked up and down the deer path and decided to follow the cart for a little until the path made a sharp turn to the north. There, the trees overhead were dense, leaving the path in shadow. Here he set his first trap. He thought hard about the armor he had seen Palomides wearing when he last saw him outside Huish. The armor was plate mail and his scimitar would bounce off it from the front. But if he could get behind the man, there was access to the backs of his knees and the small of his back. His buttocks were not covered with armor when he was on horseback. This might work, he thought.
It took him almost an hour to set his second trap deeper in the forest, along a narrow track. He returned and hid himself next to the first trap he had laid on the main path. He was sweating from his exertions and he had to concentrate to slow his breathing and listen for the approach. After five minutes he was cooled down and breathing easy. He waited another twenty minutes, crouched uncomfortably in his hiding place. He started to second-guess his preparations, wishing he had known that he had this extra time to make his second trap bigger and deeper. Should I risk taking some more time on it? No! This is where I’ve made mistakes in the past. Better to stick with the original plan.
Hoof-beats! Racing along the path from the east! Gwilym wiped the sweat from his palms one last time and tightened his grip on his scimitar. He didn’t see the knight until the last second, when he raced from the sun-drenched path around the curve into the darkness of the overgrown narrows. The knight didn’t hesitate. He relied on his horse to follow the path but even the horse didn’t see the rope.
The horse’s head passed inches under the rope at full gallop. The rope caught the knight on top of his arms, then up to his neck where it lodged and swept him free while the horse continued. If he had not been armored, he would have lost his head. Instead, he was knocked off his horse and landed flat on his back, right at Gwilym’s feet.
Gwilym stepped out from the bush looking for the place to lay his blow. The helmet protected his head and movable plates covered his neck to his breastplate. Similar movable plates covered his hips to the cuisse that covered his thighs. He had chain mail underneath that protected his knees and then his shins were covered by greaves. His shoulders and arms were protected in a similar manner. The armor was enameled with red and green in Arabic designs.
He reached down to flip up the aventail that protected the neck so he could deal the killing blow. As he did so, the knight shook his head and made to rise. He muttered an Arabic curse that Gwilym remembered being taught as a child. Gwilym stepped behind the knight, hoping that the limited view through the visor had kept him invisible. He looked again for an opening in the armor. If the knight remained still, Gwilym could lift the protections of his neck and slice off his head but he was rolling onto his hands and knees now and preparing to rise.
Gwilym hesitated for a second more, trying to expose his neck but, with the knight shaking his head to clear it and looking around for his enemy, he realized he needed to strike at some exposed flesh now while he had a chance. He saw that the knight’s buttocks were only covered in leather, the protective chain hauberk folded back and hooked onto his back-plate. He stepped closer and swung his scimitar, slicing through the leather and cloth and cutting deep into both buttocks.
A piercing scream filled the air, startling the horse as the knight rolled away from Gwilym. Gwilym followed up his advantage and managed two swings at the backs of his knees. One of the blows drew blood. Then the knight rolled to the protection of the trees and, using them to help him rise, he stood up and faced Gwilym.
“You’ve grown up, old friend,” he said. “But you still don’t recognize your betters. Give the book you stole from us. Father begged us to retrieve it on his deathbed. That is a request we cannot fail to fulfill.”
“We?” thought Gwilym. Then he had to move as the knight stepped forward, drew his sword and swung at him. Being unarmored and less practiced in armored combat put Gwilym at a disadvantage. He was also wielding the wrong type of weapon to use on an armored knight. Fortunately, the knight was moving awkwardly, due to the deep cuts he had sustained.
Gwilym stepped back, swinging his ineffectual weapon, staying out of reach of the knight’s sword. They moved off the path and into the trees where the knight’s swings were limited. Gwilym hesitated. He allowed the knight to close in, then turned around and ran into the woods. The knight shouted a curse and loped after him, dripping blood from both wounds. Gwilym jogged, glancing over his shoulder, keeping the heavily armored knight just behind him.The knight was infuriated and screamed at Gwilym, not noticing that Gwilym leapt a section of the leaf-strewn path rather than running over it. The knight stepped on the leaves and plunged through the sapling and leaf covered hole, sinking to his armpits in the narrowing pit. Gwilym returned and stomped hard on the knight’s sword arm. The knight grasped Gwilym’s foot with his other hand and strained to move him. His leverage was limited. Gwilym kept his position. Gwilym worked the tip of his scimitar between the bands of plate that covered his gauntlets, then thrust his weight down onto it to almost sever the hand from the body. The knight screamed again, letting go of Gwilym’s foot and his own sword. Gwilym picked up the blood covered sword and stepped away.
The knight was screaming in pain, anger and frustration. He was trying to staunch the blood flow from one hand with the gauntlets of the other. Gwilym examined the sword. This heavy bladed weapon was perfect for fighting an armored man. He dropped his scimitar and approached the knight. He was wriggling out of the hole using his good hand and his other elbow. He had worked his chest free and was pushing with his feet against the lower walls.
Gwilym stepped forward and slashed again at his exposed buttocks. This time he enlarged the gash and felt the sword snap bone. The knight slipped back in to the hole. He tried to reach behind him but Gwilym was a full arm and sword-length away. This time Gwilym swung full force at the armor protecting the knight’s neck. The knight was not wearing the gorget that protected many an armored man’s neck. He had, instead, iron bands that hung from the helmet for protection. They didn’t do much to protect from the heavy swing that Gwilym made.
The iron bands bent and broke as the sword swung through the back half of the knight’s neck, exposing the spine. Gwilym stopped the swing and, reversing his feet, swung back at the neck from the other side. The knight’s head fell forwards. Blood gushed onto him from the slash. Gwilym’s third blow was deeper and the sword severed the throat. The head was held to the body by only the skin on the front of his neck.
Gwilym stepped back and vomited in the bushes. By the time he returned to the knight, the blood was only oozing out of the neck and arm. Gwilym swung the sword one last time and severed the head from the torso. Then he lifted the helmet free from the gore and unbuckled the chin-strap, allowing the head to fall free. It dropped onto the forest floor, face first, and then rolled up. Gwilym was shocked! This wasn’t Palomides at all. It looked like one of his younger brothers, Segwarides or Safir. He hadn’t seen either since they were young boys.
Gwilym thought about this for a moment. The knight had said “We,” so Palomides was not alone. Had he brought his brothers with him on this quest? Escalbor, their father, was dead. And he had sent them after him on a death-bed request. That meant that these brothers would stop at nothing to get the book.
He had a pretty good idea why. His father had told him that their Quraysh clan worshipped one of the 360 idols that filled the Kaaba within the trading town of
Mecca. This god, which they called El Ah, had similar characteristics to the creator god the Jews’ Yahweh and the Christians’ God. Escalbor wanted to take control of this trading town by promoting his god above the others. The Kaaba was a place of pilgrimage for all the superstitious Arabs who prayed to their individual idols before and after the dangerous trek though the desert on the spice road. Control of the Kaaba meant control of Mecca and control of the caravans passing through there.
Escalbor wanted to use the book that Gwilym’s father had created about Jesus, along with a book he possessed that Willem believed was the original Gospel of Joseph, to show that El Ah was the only god amongst the idols worthy of worship. He would throw out the other idols and take control.
Escalbor had threatened Willem. Gwilym remembered arguing with his father about this. “Give him the book, Papa. You can always rewrite it.”
But his father had been adamant. “The man is sick with power. We cannot give him any more. He wants to do evil things with any more power he gets. His ideas of law are sick and twisted. He will stop educating women, will buy and sell them as chattel, wrap them up in heavy robes and hide them from sight. He will set up harsh rules about drinking and adultery. He want to hold public stonings to terrorize people into obeying him. He’s mad! Right now he is held in check by the different clans who have more liberal beliefs. We cannot be the instrument to allow him to rise above them.”
That was the last night Gwilym had spoken with his father. And now one of Escalbor’s sons was lying at Gwilym’s feet, half buried and beheaded by Gwilym’s hand. He felt sick to his stomach again but there was no more to retch. Gwilym dropped the sword, retrieved his scimitar and spade, and jogged off after the wagon tracks. He followed them, with difficulty, off the main deer path into the woods until he arrived at wagons.
Where is my family? Oh, that’s right; hidden by Grainne’s spell. What was the secret word I gave her? “Zamzam!” he cried. Why had I chosen this word in a moment of crisis?
His children ran up to him from behind some trees. He knelt down and spread his arms to receive them. They stopped short and looked at him in horror. He looked down at himself and saw that his lower body was covered in the blood that had spurted from the knight’s wounds. “It’s all right. It’s not my blood. The knight is dead. We needn’t worry about him anymore.”
They asked him all about the fight. He told them they would hear more later, when they had cleared this dangerous forest. As Grainne directed the horses back to the main path, he changed his soiled clothes. “Was it bad?” she asked.
“It wasn’t dangerous. I had him at a disadvantage the whole time.” He told her all about the rope and the pit he had quickly dug with the spade.
“Did you leave the body? There would have been gold coins on him.”
“I’ve no wish for his blood money. Let the forest bandits have him. They’ll be blamed for his death that way.”
They made their way through the winding forest path, sometimes having to make large detours to get the carts around narrow passages. Grainne was an excellent guide. She could see the path they must take long before Gwilym knew why she was directing the horses there.
That night, after Grainne had cast her protection spells and they had eaten their cold food, they lay together and both took grateful pleasure in each other’s body. They snuggled together after, spooning their bodies and murmuring soft words.
“What will we do if we come across bandits?” Gwilym asked. “They won’t be so obvious to come galloping down the path after us. They use stealth and will try to kill us before we even see them.”
“I’ll hear them first; you can depend on that. And I will use the spell we always use against them. Have you never heard of ‘The Questing Beast’?”
“Aye. King Pellinore’s quest. Few have ever seen it. It makes the noise of a hundred dogs. You must be granted the quest or born to it like Pellinore.”
Gwilym, who was stroking Grainne’s face, felt her smile as she said, “Tomorrow you may meet the great beast.” She sighed and fell asleep. Gwilym followed her soon after, wondering about her statement.
The next day, the boys were up and Gwilym watched them horsing around outside the pavilion. Bleddyn was showing them tricks he had earlier taught his twin brothers and they were all looking up at him with shining faces. They lined up in turn to ‘walk up the tree’. Here Bleddyn would hold their backs, supporting their weight, as they walked up the trunk of a tree and then, while he grasped them by the shoulders and belts, they walked along the underside of a large bough. They squealed in delight, asking for turn after turn until Bleddyn was exhausted.
Gwilym sliced some bread and mushrooms to make breakfast for the family. Bleddyn switched to another trick. He demonstrated first on Llawen, then the others lined up to try it. He would stand behind them while they stood with spread legs and their hands touching the ground in between their feet. Bleddyn would reach down and grasp their hands, then with a mighty heave, lift up. The boys’ bodies would do a complete flip and land back on their feet. As Gwilym called them for breakfast, he smiled in remembrance of when he used to do that with Bleddyn.
The boys ate and packed up the carts again, saving the sleeping Grainne for last. Gwilym carried her to the cart and lifted her into the seat. Mumbling protests, she took the reins and off they went, into the forest. As he thought about this he realized he was wrong. He turned and shouted to his boys, “How far can a dog run into a forest?”
Bleddyn and the twins groaned but Madoc looked confused and asked Bleddyn what his father meant. “Da always asks us questions to make us think. They’re usually stupid jokes that play on words. Try to answer.”
“A mile!” said Madoc.
“Forty miles!” tried Bleddyn.
“Depends on the size of the forest!” said Jac.
“You’re getting closer!” said Gwilym.
The boys thought about it for a while, tried some more guesses then gave up and begged for the answer.
“Halfway!” replied Gwilym to the boys’ astonished faces. “After that, he’s running out of the forest!”
“Ohh!” said Llawen. The rest of them groaned. Gwilym laughed and then felt an acorn hit him in the back of the head, followed by the raucous laughter of the boys in the cart behind.
That afternoon, after packing up their dinner, Gwilym asked Grainne how long it would be before they left the forest.
“Probably tomorrow morning,” was her reply. “Unless the path stays this wide and we can keep up this pace.”
Her words were prophetic as the path seemed to open around them and the trees thinned out, leaving them with great visibility. The picked up their pace. The horses seemed to have lifted spirits and pulled eagerly.
After five hours of fast traveling, they saw the forest thicken ahead. Grainne strained to find the path. She steered toward a likely path. Before long they were winding their way along a deer path similar to the one they had been traveling along through most of the forest. Gwilym looked at Grainne. She said, “It can’t be more than a few more hours. We’ll sleep tonight outside the forest.” Gwilym breathed a sigh of relief.
“What do you have against forests?” she asked.
“I love forests when I’m wandering with a beautiful woman or playing with my children. But not when I’m being hunted by murderous knights and preyed on by bandits. That is when I prefer the open ground where I can see.”
“That is when I prefer forests. I can always hear them first as long as we stay quiet.”
An hour later she stiffened and signaled to the boys behind to halt and be quiet. Gwilym had noticed nothing. She signaled to Bleddyn to bring his cart right behind her. She led Gwilym to the boys’ cart and whispered to them her orders. “You are going to hear a terrible noise soon, like the barking of thirty pair of dogs. Don’t be afraid. I’m making that noise. But the horses will be scared. The sound will be coming from directly behind us so they will want to run forward. Stay right behind me, Bleddyn. We have to be close together for the illusion to work and it won’t last long.”
Grainne returned to the lead cart and shook the reins to start the horse. She drank a long draught of water. She then held the reins in her knees as she reached behind her for her traveling bag. She pulled out some herbs and powders and spread these on her horses and cart while murmuring some ancient words. Then she lifted her head to the sky, opened her throat and, even though Gwilym was expecting it, scared him half to death with the sound she made.
Gwilym had heard packs of wild dogs before, terrorizing sheep in the hills. But this was worse, closer, frightening! His skin crawled, his hair stood on end and his heart leaped in his chest. How did her small body produce such a tremendous noise? Magic again, he supposed. The horses bolted, held onto the path by Grainne, who still looked up at the sky, her throat convulsing with the sounds she made. Gwilym, wide-eyed, looked from her to the path, not understanding how she managed to steer the horses while looking straight up. He looked behind and was relieved to see Bleddyn following right behind her while the other boys were holding their ears and looking terrified.
They burst into a clearing at full gallop and Gwilym saw two men running off into the woods, dropping their bows in their haste. One of them glanced behind him right at Gwilym, then tripped and fell. The man screamed, scrambled up and bolted into the cover of the trees.
Grainne kept up the spell for 10 minutes, while the horses galloped along the path. Then the noise she was making faded away. She lowered her head and spoke some comforting words to the horse that slowed to a trot. Both horses’ sides were bathed in sweat and their skin was quivering with fright. She smiled at Gwilym.
“What was that?” he asked.
“The Questing Beast,” she croaked.
“And what did that man see; the one who looked back?”
She replied in a hoarse voice, “A large, spotted, leopard with the head of a snake.”
Gwilym shook his head and gave her a draught of water, which she gulped down. “That’s going to cost me,” she said, then fell into a swoon.
An hour before sundown, the light started to increase and Gwilym noticed that the trees ahead were thinning. He had been trying his best to hold to the westward path Grainne had been following. The trees ended in a farmer’s field. He called Bleddyn to halt and they ran ahead to scout out the exit from the forest.
There was a north-south cart track that bordered the forest and the visibility along this to either side was excellent. Gwilym squinted his eyes toward the south and made out a straight line there. “Is that the road?” he asked Bleddyn.
“I think so,” he replied. “Looks like it’s about a mile away. Shall we get back on it?”
“No. Let’s stay on the side roads as much as we can.”
They exited the forest and made their way along the track until they found a farmer’s path leading west.
Grainne woke on the morning after her spell, ravenous and asking to eat meat in the first time since Gwilym had met her.
Traveling over the back roads and open farmland, they spent five more days getting to their destination. Gwilym hid his face at every habitation. It became clear that no-one in this region was searching for Grainne and the boys.
On the fifth afternoon they arrived on the shores of the lake on which Glastonbury Tor rose. They rang the triangle that hung from the small traveler’s hut and waited for the ferryman to bring the barge. Gwilym looked around him, seeing the grass-covered path that wound through the trees to the left. A few rocks stuck out from the surface of the lake edge. His eye strayed to the old willow where he had called for Grainne during Kaitlyn’s fatal labor. He caught Grainne’s eyes. She changed the unspoken subject. “We never finished our conversation of the Holy Grail, Gwilym.”
“The Holy Grail. You said I was of the same bloodline as Jesus. I can’t believe you are perpetuating that old lie about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. That seems so out of character for the man.”
“You can share the same blood as Jesus without Him ever conceiving a child, you know.”
“What?” he looked puzzled. Then his brow cleared. “Joseph? His uncle Joseph fathered a child in Avalon?”
“Yes. The first in a line of sons that has extended for 500 years. And your sons are just the latest in that line.”
Gwilym thought for a long time before asking, “Were all those boys fostered out?”
“Some returned as adults to breed again with the Avalon line. Sometimes the mothers left with them. For two hundred years the line left Avalon. Then it returned to re-energize the other Avalon line.”
“But along the way it must have been mixed with many other bloodlines. It could scarcely be recognizable now.”
“You forget that only boys come from that line. The blood is strong and stays with the boys.”
The ferry approached. Grainne looked into Gwilym’s eyes and told him, “Ask me the question you have been avoiding.”
Tears sprang to Gwilym’s eyes. “Who is…” his words caught. “Who is my mother?”
“I will bring you to her in a few days. She still lives.”
They drove the carts on board the ferry. The boys gathered around the adults to share their excitement at taking this trip. Jac looked at his father. “Why are you crying, Da?”
“I’m just happy to be coming home, son.”
“Why does this priest have funny hair, Da?”Gwilym wiped his tears and looked at the monk poling the ferry. While his robes were typical monastery wear, the man’s head was shaved on the sides, leaving a dome of hair covering his head. He shook his head. “I don’t know, son. We’ll ask Father Drew.”
The family saw many more monks on Glastonbury, all with the same hair style. They at first didn’t recognize Father Drew as he came, smiling, into their presence. “Welcome, Gwilym! Welcome Grainne! And welcome to you too, Bleddyn, Jac and Llawen. And you two must be Madoc and Brice. Let me show you to the guest house.”
Father Drew took them along the street towards the abbey. The houses lining both sides of the street leading from the dock to the abbey were built with knee-high stone foundations and the daub was all in good repair. The walls were all painted white. The roof thatch all seemed twice as thick as normal.
They stopped at the door of a substantial home. The front door opened into a large hall with a fire-pit in the center and lots of niches in the walls full of bedding. There was a trestle table with four chairs and a bench. Cooking implements rested on the short wall of the fire-pit. The fire was going and Gwilym noted with satisfaction that smoke was making its way through the thatch without filling the room. Half of the room had a loft as a ceiling that caused Gwilym to duck his head.
There was a smaller room attached to this hall. Shelves stretched from wall to wall, their ends built into the walls. The shelves were already stocked with barrels of flour, corn-meal and salt. Dried meat, bags of apples, vegetables and fungi hung from a beam.
“Thank you father,” said Gwilym. “We’ll be most comfortable here.”
“I will leave you to settle in here, Gwilym. Shall I escort you to Avalon now, Grainne?”
Madoc gave his mother a sharp look. She smiled at the priest. “Not just yet, Father Drew. Gwilym and I still have things to discuss.”
The priest blushed deep red, looking from Gwilym to Grainne. “Oh…” he stammered. “Will you all join me for supper in two hours?”
Gwilym’s family moved into the house while Grainne unpacked a few items from her cart. Gwilym, noticing this, asked her what her plans were. He had enjoyed the three weeks they had spent together and was afraid of losing her now.
“Let’s walk up the tor!” she announced to the family. The boys raced ahead, Bleddyn with Brice on his shoulders, leaving the adults to walk up alone. Grainne took Gwilym’s large hand in hers.
“You are a wonderful father. You will raise your boys to be strong men. Strong in every way. Smart, caring, learned, careful, funny, loving.”
Gwilym smiled and looked at her, surprised that tears were flowing from her eyes. “What is the matter, my love? Why do you cry?”
“Can I leave Madoc with you? I’ll visit almost every day. But I have to return to Avalon. And he can no longer live there. Can he stay with you? Play with his brothers, learn how to be a man?” Her tears were flowing down her cheeks and dripping off her chin.
“You told him you wouldn’t do that. I thought we could all stay together. Why not marry and raise all the boys together? What about Brice? Won’t he miss his brother?”
Grainne stopped and knelt down on the grass halfway up the Tor. She covered her face but Gwilym couldn’t fail to hear the heartbreaking wail that tore from her chest. He sat in front of her and wrapped her in his arms. “Grainne, my love. Why? What is more important than raising your sons?”
She shook her head and kept crying. Gwilym stroked her soft hair with his calloused hand. He looked behind him to see his boys playing on the top of the Tor, trying to scale the large rock standing there.
Finally, Grainne calmed down and uncovered her face. She looked at Gwilym and he was shocked to see emptiness in her large, green eyes. “You ask what is more important than raising my sons. There is only one thing more important. Protecting them and other children from the danger that comes next year is more important.”
“When the hordes stream out of their boats, do you think they’ll leave our boys alive to fight against them when they get older? Of course they won’t! They’ll slaughter them!”
“Protecting our offspring and other British children, hundreds, thousands of years in the future is more important than staying with my son this year. But I will miss him. And Brice will miss his brother. So we’ll visit almost every day. We won’t be far.”
Grainne stood up and they climbed the Tor. The boys had stopped playing and were watching the adults. They smiled at the boys to reassure them. Gwilym looked over the lake. There seemed to be a connection between the surrounding land and the island through swampy land to the woods. Further away from this peninsula he saw swamp dwellings sitting on poles like herons at the water’s edge. He noted the ferry he had taken earlier today. He was troubled to see that this was the sole island in this portion of the lake.
“Where is Avalon, Grainne? I see the willow where I summoned you many years ago. But this is the only island. And apart from the woods behind us, it seems to be made up of the Glastonbury religious settlement. Is Avalon in the woods? I see no buildings, no smoke rising.”
Grainne gave a half-smile. “We share this island, Gwilym. Avalon and Glastonbury are one place in two different times. The priests cannot come to Avalon but we can travel to
Glastonbury. A trick of the mists. I’ll take you there in a few days.”