The harper was singing a song about the death of Arthur. Niniane sat in her wicker chair in the corner of the faded Roman room, winding wool and listening to the familiar tragic tale. The song had more poignancy than usual this particular day; word had been brought to Bryn Atha only that morning that, for the first time since the Battle of Badon, the Saxons were on the war road to Calleva.
The last plangent note died away, the spring breeze rattled the loose shutter at the window, and her father said, "Would to God that Arthur was with us today."
Her brother Coinmail got to his feet and went to the window to secure the loose shutter. Then he turned and said coldly, "There is no use in wishing for Arthur. He has been dead these eighty years. Nor will the singing of harpers bring him back."
The harper raised his dreamy eyes. Kerwyn was an old man whose grandfather had fought with Niniane's great-grandfather at Badon; he had been the prince's harper at Bryn Atha for almost all his life. Now he answered Coinmail: "But he is not dead, my lord. He is only resting, making ready to come again when Britain does need him most."
Niniane looked at the ascetic old face with pity and affection. "That may be true, Kerwyn," she said gently, "but until he does, surely he would expect us to try to defend ourselves."
"The cavalry is gone, buried in Gaul," came the crooned reply. "The horses are gone. Bedwyr the lion is ..."
"Yes, they are all gone. We know." Coinmail sounded almost savage. "And we will shortly be gone too, if we don't do something about the Saxons!"
Niniane sighed. It was true what Coinmail had just said. She frowned down at the wool in her lap. "Naille was quite certain his information was correct?" she said.
"You have asked that question already, Niniane," her father returned impatiently. "Naille was quite certain. The Saxons left Venta two days ago and are on the road to Calleva. Naille's information was that Cynric, the West Saxon king, is looking to expand his territory beyond Venta. Calleva would be a second major city for his kingdom. And if the West Saxons annex Calleva, they will be too close to us for safety."
"We must fight." Coinmail's voice was final.
The wool slid from Niniane's fingers. There had been no battles between her people and the Saxons since Arthur had buried three-quarters of the Saxon army in the Badon pass almost a century ago. Since then the Atrebates tribe had lived in safety, secure in the peace Badon had won for them. But now ... "How can we possibly fight?" she asked her brother. "We are farmers, not soldiers."
"We will have to learn to be soldiers, then," came the implacable reply.
The harper looked confusedly from Coinmail to Niniane's father, Ahern. "Fight? But who are we to fight? The Saxons all lay dead at Badon."
"My God!" Coinmail turned to Niniane. "Can't you shut him up?"
"He is an old man, Coinmail. Have a little patience." She spoke to the harper in a voice that was almost tender. "It is all right, Kerwyn. There will be no fighting at Bryn Atha." Then, to her father: "Perhaps this is just a raid, Father. Perhaps the best thing for us to do is to wait and see what it is they want ..."
Ahern was shaking his head. "No, Niniane. Your brother is right. This is just the beginning. If we let them gain a foothold in Calleva, they will soon have the whole of this country under their rule. We must make a stand." His eyes moved to his son. "I have had all the old weapons taken from the storehouse and put in the winter room. I think we had better go have a look at them and see which ones are still usable."
Coinmail moved eagerly to the door and Ahern turned to follow him. Left behind in the silent room were an old harper and a girl with a pool of scarlet wool spilled at her feet.
The sun was streaming through the bedroom window as Niniane came in carrying a brew of herbs. The harper stirred as the door opened. "Did you sleep?" Niniane asked as she set the drink down on a table and came over to the bed.
"Yes." The old eyes smiled up at her. "I dreamed."
She sat in the chair beside the bed and took his hand into hers. "What did you dream?" she asked gently.
"I dreamed of you. It was a happy dream."
She lifted his hand to her cheek. The hand was strong still, a long narrow hand with long narrow fingers; a harper's hand. He began to cough and she slipped her arm behind his shoulders and raised him up a little. She was a small girl, but he was so frail she could support him with little difficulty. When the coughing fit was over he lay back again and closed his eyes.
"I have brought you something to drink, Kerwyn," she said, and he roused himself with obvious effort to drink her potion. Then he fell once again into a restless doze.
Niniane sat at his side, looking at the pale face on the pillow. He had failed very badly this last year. For a long time she had tried to pretend this was not so, but these last few months had seen an undeniable change in him.
She would miss him so, she thought, her heart aching as she sat watching by his side. He had taught her music and in so doing he had changed her life. The harp and the songs it could make had long been her greatest joy. Coinmail might think him an old fool, and her father might tolerate him for the sake of tradition, but Niniane loved the harper more than anyone in the world. And not just for his music. He had always been her friend; the one person she knew would find her concerns of interest, even importance. As the oldest and the youngest in the villa, the two had formed an alliance for years.
"Niniane!" She heard the voice shouting in the courtyard and ran to the window to look out. A man was dismounting from his horse and, even though his back was to her, she recognized him immediately. There was only one person she knew with hair that color. She ran out of the room and down the gallery to the front door of the villa.
Coinmail was holding his horse as she came out into the courtyard. He scowled at her and gestured to the slave quarters. "Where are the servants?"
"With the livestock, as usual at this hour. You will have to put Roaire in the stable yourself."
"It doesn't matter. I cannot stay. I have only come to bring you news."
Niniane stared at him first with surprise, then with apprehension. "Nothing has happened to Father?" she asked.
"No. Father is fine." His deep auburn brows, the same color as his hair, drew together. "The Saxons are in Calleva," he said.
"We could not stop them. It would have been suicide to attempt to block the road. When we make our stand we will need some geographical advantage. They are more experienced fighters than we."
Niniane's small white teeth sank into her chapped lower lip. "What have they done to Calleva?" she asked in a low voice. "Have they sacked it?"
His laugh was not pleasant. "What was there to sack? Calleva has been a dead city for a century at least. I doubt there are two hundred people living there these days. There was no resistance. They opened the west gate and Cynric and his men marched in."
Niniane reached up to rub the forehead of her brother's horse. "All those beautiful Roman buildings ..." she mourned.
"The man who brought us the news told me that the Saxons were making campfires on the mosaic floors." Coinmail looked physically ill. "Barbarians. They are no better than beasts who live in barns."
Roaire nuzzled Niniane's chest. "Let me get him a bucket of water," she said. "He must be thirsty."
He shook his head. "I haven't time. I came merely to warn you. If the Saxon army should get through us, they are likely to come to Bryn Atha. It is too well-known for them to pass it by."
Niniane knew that Coinmail spoke no more than the truth. Bryn Atha had always been one of the more famous of the villas built by the Romano-Celtic ruling class during the days of the Roman occupation of Britain. It had been commissioned by one of Niniane's ancestors, a prince of the Atrebates tribe who had also served as the Roman magistrate in Calleva. Like all the Roman villas in Britain, Bryn Atha had been built as a country home, but after the legions had left Britain to return to Rome, the cities they had built had begun to fall apart. The native Celts were not naturally a city people and gradually the tribes had returned to the pastoral life that was more natural to them. The princes of the Atrebates had eventually given up any residence in Calleva at all and lived off their own farms, administering whatever laws were left from Bryn Atha itself.
Niniane swallowed hard. "I have buried all the valuables. They will find even less at Bryn Atha than they did at Calleva."
"May God damn them all to hell," Coinmail said through his teeth as he looked around the courtyard of his beautiful Roman home.
"I'm sure He will," Niniane replied. "They are pagans."
Coinmail ran a hand through his thick, burnished hair. "Well, we shall do our best to send them hence, you can be certain of that."
Niniane laid her cheek against Roaire's hard face. Her own hair, lighter than her brother's and more brown-gold than red, glinted in the bright sun. "Are you still camped by Sarc Water?"
"Yes. We have a hundred and fifty-three men. About as many as the war band that accompanies Cynric." Coinmail's dark gray eyes were narrowed. "He knows we're there. He will come out to meet us, all right. The Saxon cannot resist a challenge to fight."
Niniane shivered in the warm sun. "I am so frightened, Coinmail."
"Yes, well, you have cause to be. Listen to me, little sister. You must not be at Bryn Atha if the Saxons do indeed get through us at Sarc Water. You are fifteen years old, no longer a child. You are to marry this fall, a good match for the Atrebates. We cannot afford to lose you."
Niniane's eyes were huge. "Lose me?"
"God knows what the Saxons do to the women they take. They are heathens, with no respect for any Christian virtue. Do you understand what I am saying? You must not fall into their hands."
Niniane took a step toward her brother. "Are you going to take me back to Sarc Water with you, Coinmail?"
He frowned. "Of course not. You would be less safe at Sarc Water."
Her face was very pale, the light golden freckles that dusted the bridge of her short, tilted nose more noticeable than usual. "Well, then," she almost whispered, "what am I to do?"
"Go to Geara's farm. If the Saxons get through us, they are bound to come to Bryn Atha, but I doubt they will bother with a poor farmstead like Geara's. You should be safe there."
"When do you expect the battle to take place?"
"I'm not sure, but you are not to wait for the battle. Go now, today."
She frowned. "I cannot go today, Coinmail. Kerwyn is ill. He became ill almost as soon as you and Father left. I cannot move him."
"Then leave him here. Col and Brenna will look after him."
"Col and Brenna can scarcely look after themselves. Besides, how can I ask them to stay if I run away?"
"Neither Col nor Brenna is likely to be raped," he answered brutally. "You, on the other hand, are. You will be no good to us if that happens, Niniane. Father says you are to get away from Bryn Atha."
She looked down at her blue gown, avoiding his eyes. "All right," she said.
"You will go to Geara's farm?"
He rewarded her with an austere smile and threw his horse's reins over its neck. When he was in the saddle he gave her one more piece of advice. "If a Saxon should try to approach you, use your knife." She understood that he did not mean she was to use it on the Saxon.
After Coinmail had left, Niniane turned and slowly walked back into the villa. The main entrance led into a large reception hall, with a lovely mosaic floor depicting Venus hunting a boar. The room was almost bare of furniture. Niniane turned to her left and went down the corridor to the room the family used most. She sat in her father's chair and stared at one faded blue peacock on the decorative scroll that adorned the plaster walls.
Her hands were cold. She was cold all over. Coinmail must be worried if he had come all the way back to Bryn Atha to warn her.
The Saxons. Ever since she was a baby that word had been a source of terror. "Be a good girl or the Saxons will get you," her nurse had said. They were pagans who worshiped the gods of thunder and war. Some even said they offered human sacrifices in their unspeakable rites. She shuddered with cold. God knows what they do to the women they take.
Perhaps, in a few days, Kerwyn would be well enough to move. Surely she would be safe enough at Bryn Atha until then.
A brisk wind was driving high white clouds across the May sky on the day the Battle of Sarc Water was fought. The Britons under their prince, Ahern, fought valiantly but ineffectively. The efficient Saxon war machine crushed them with little trouble. The British survivors fled into the hills, leaving their dead on the field. The Saxons did not even bother to make camp to care for their own wounded; they pressed on toward Bryn Atha, home of the princes of the Atrebates.
The sky stayed light for a long time this season of the year, and the sun was still shining when the Saxons marched through the gate and into the courtyard of Bryn Atha. Niniane watched them from the window of Kerwyn's bedroom, her mouth dry with terror. She had not really believed this could ever happen. Saxons. At Bryn Atha. Her breathing was coming quick and shallow as she watched the men pouring into the courtyard. Most were helmetless and carried spears and swords and great embossed shields. They had a large number of packhorses with them, but the war band was on foot, save for two men who were obviously the leaders.
"Niniane ..."It was the merest thread of sound and she went to kneel beside the dying harper. "Hold my hand," he whispered.
"Of course." She picked up the hand lying on the blanket and held it between her own small ones. It was burning hot.
"I'm cold," he said.
"Shall I get you another blanket?" Her voice was low and husky; Kerwyn had always loved to hear the sound of it. But her mind was not on what she was saying; her ears were attuned instead to what was happening in the courtyard. She heard the sound of the front door crashing open. They were in the house.
Kerwyn began to cough and she put her arm under his frail shoulders to help him sit up. She could feel how burning hot he was even through the linen of his shirt. He struggled to speak, managed one word--"cold" --then slumped down against her. She felt for his heart; it was still. She laid the old harper back onto the bedplace and slowly rose to her feet.
She could hear the clank of mail in the gallery, the guttural sounds of the language they were speaking. They were looking into all the rooms. She could hear the crashing of the doors as they were kicked open. Her hand went to the dagger at her belt and she remembered her brother's words.
The door of Kerwyn's bedroom burst open. Niniane felt an invigorating flash of anger. There was no need to put a foot through it! A big blond-haired man erupted into the room and stopped dead when he saw her. Niniane stood as straight as she could, raised her chin, and stared into his startled eyes.
There was a moment of silence and then he said something to her. She shook her head. "I don't understand you," she answered in British. The Saxon looked from her to the figure of the harper, frowned, and barked a command. Another warrior appeared at the door and the man who was in the room with her said something to him. Niniane could distinguish the word "Cynric." They were sending for their king.
It was the longest five minutes of Niniane's life as she stood there, under the speculative eyes of the big Saxon, waiting to learn her fate. She took some cold courage from the dagger she held hidden in the folds of her gown. The Saxon appeared to be staring at the brooches on her shoulders.
After what seemed to her an eternity, her captor, who had been leaning his shoulders against the wall, suddenly came to attention. Two men walked into the room, and she recognized them as the ones who had been on horseback in the courtyard. One of them was old, with thick shaggy gray hair and a heavy, still-powerful-looking body. He dismissed her captor with a word.
This must be Cynric, Niniane thought. Cynric, son of Cerdic, King of the West Saxons. The king turned to look at her, and for the first time she saw his eyes. They were neither blue nor green, but an extraordinary mixture of both. She had never seen eyes that color before. He was looking her up and down and her hand tightened on her dagger. Cynric turned to the man beside him and said something.
"Who are you?" the other man asked her in accented but perfectly understandable British.
She tried not to show them how frightened she was. "I am Niniane," she answered, almost haughtily. "This is my house."
The British-speaking Saxon raised his eyebrows. He was younger than Cynric, dark-skinned and narrow of face. His clear blue eyes were set under extraordinary high-arched brows. "Your house? Who is your father?"
She wondered, belatedly, if it had been wise to tell the truth. She tried to swallow but her mouth was perfectly dry. "Ahern, Prince of the Atrebates," she replied.
The brown-haired man turned to the other and began to speak in Saxon. Cynric answered and then the other man looked at her and asked, "Who is that?" He was referring to Kerwyn.
"My father's harper," she answered steadily. "He became ill and I could not move him. So I stayed ..."
The brown-haired one walked to the bed and put his hand on the harper's chest. He looked up at her. "He is dead."
She had backed away when he approached the bed. "Yes. I know. He ... he died just a few minutes ago."
"Poor timing for you, Princess of the Atrebates," the man remarked ironically.
Her hand on the dagger tightened. Her palm was sweating so, she was afraid it was going to slip out of her grasp.
Cynric spoke impatiently and the other answered him. The king's blue-green eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he listened. Cynric spoke again and the British-speaker turned to Niniane, "This is Cynric, King of the West Saxons. I am Cutha, his kinsman. The king tells you not to fear. You can put down your knife. We will not harm you."
Niniane bit her trembling lip. How had he known about the knife? The Saxon king came over to the bed and looked down at Kerwyn's body. Then he looked at Niniane and spoke. Cutha translated: "I too have a reverence for harpers."
Niniane had buried most of the valuable jewelry they still had at Bryn Atha, so there was little in the villa for the Saxons to loot. She was afraid that perhaps they would take their disappointment out on the villa--or on her. But they seemed to accept their slim booty philosophically. The Saxons, it seemed, had given up expecting much in the way of gold from the Britons.
They stayed at the villa for two days only, and during that time Niniane was allowed to keep to her room. They brought her food and otherwise left her alone. No one made the slightest move toward raping her. Cutha had even been kind enough to inform her that her father and her brother had escaped from Sarc Water alive.
It could have been much worse, she thought as she stood at her window and watched the Saxon thanes busy in the courtyard. They had taken a number of household items that apparently struck their fancy: the Samianware pottery, the oil lamps, some of the hangings that still covered the walls. The thing that had pleased Cynric most, however, had been her polished metal hand mirror. Evidently the Saxons did not have mirrors.
Yes, it could have been much worse. They had come, and they had taken things that would be missed, but the villa was still intact, her father and brother were still alive, and it seemed she was safe. So Niniane thought as she watched Cynric's men putting the villa's belongings into the saddlebags of their packhorses that gray spring afternoon.
An hour later, she was thinking that things could not have been worse. The Saxons were indeed leaving Bryn Atha, but to her horror she found that they were taking her with them. "Am I to be made a slave?" she asked Cutha incredulously when he told her of her fate.
He had given her a reassuring smile. "Certainly not, Princess. You are far too valuable to be a slave. You will come with us as a member of the king's own household. You may pack a saddlebag of things to bring with you. We leave tomorrow at first light for Winchester."
It seemed that Bryn Atha had not been lacking in loot after all. Coinmail would say she should have used the knife.