The Future of History

Friday, 2 September 2011

Setting the Scene

I've been toying with a prologue - a way of establishing atmosphere before the historical investigation begins.  See what you think:

THE winter had been hard.

Hidden away in the depths of the forest, the crazy man had shivered and gibbered his way through the dark months, snow up to his thighs, ice in his beard.  Bitterly he imagined the feasting halls with their bright choking fires, their music and stories and laughter.  More bitterly still, he thought of the great hall of Dumbarton, where his enemy would have celebrated the foreign Christmas feast.

Once, he had worn a golden torque around his neck. Girls swarmed around him like bees to a comb.  But that was before.

In his dreams he saw them.  Their hollow faces floated above him: black mouths spewing accusations.

Only the wolf kept him company, sharing his hunger and his mountain solitude.

He cut an alarming figure.  Short and emaciated, his hair long and matted at the back, the front of his scalp bristling with stubble.  When his eyes were not starting from their sockets they were sunk deep inside their cavities, contemplating things most men would be glad not to have seen.  Blue-black tattoos pricked into his skin with iron awls told his story.  He was a poet, a shouter, one of the inspired ones; he was also a battle-horseman and an enchanter.  He was the madman, the wild prophet of the woods, the myrddin.

For months he had guarded the spring which burst through the side of the world (it was the earth's wound, where the Mother made water).  From the summit of his forest hideaway he could glimpse the great hills of Bryneich and Rheged and the mountains to the north, even those beyond Dumbarton.  He could look down on the ruin of Britain.  The metallic spring water had kept him alive.

Alone with the wolf and the wraiths he kept watch on the skies, waiting for a sign.  He knew it would come.  The world had not ended.  Men would polish their armour.

All winter long, when the madness was not upon him, he had thought ahead.  The tang of iron was in his mouth.  Sometimes the spring water made him retch.  It tasted of blood and weapons.  And then the visions came again.

The battle-fog, the cries of confusion, the killing.

The voices that whispered.

All winter long, up to his manhood in snow.


On the first day of spring, the serpent came from the mound.  That was the way of things.

He was a serpent, coiled inside the cavern where the spring trickled out of the Mother like a running wound.  The men of Rhydderch had not found him.  The skies had turned: the stream froze in its rocky gully - a terrible winter.

It was time for the serpent to emerge from its mound, sloughing its skin like an old garment.

Spring brought the youth up the mountain.  He rode from the lake where he had passed the winter, safe on an island of stones, and left his pony down in the valley where the river was young.  There was still ice in the gully, and the peaks were white.

The boy was a man now.  At the battle, he became a man; now the years had caught up.

The Wildman greeted him.  It was a sorrowful reunion.  Though moons had passed, the youth still wore the battle on him.  But unlike the myrddin, who heard voices in the wind, in the trees, the boy suffered his own recriminations.  The madman was blamed by everybody, the youth only by himself.

They could not talk of plans and purposes until ghosts had been laid to rest.  The man they called Little-Shout, who could talk with the birds, had readied himself for this meeting through endless frosty nights.  He spoke:

'Peiryan faban, cease your weeping.  Aedan will come across the wide sea.  And from Manau a host of excellent hundreds.  On the islands on the way to the hill of the Irish, a series of bloody encounters, like a race.'

He was seeing now, just as he had seen by the winter moonlight.  Long-headed spears, many long lances.  Many red swords, stern troops, shining shields, lively steeds.

'Peiryan faban, fewer tears.  The encounter of Rhydderch and Aedan by the bright Clyde will resound from the northern border to the south.'

The young man listened.  Ahead of him, his sixteenth summer, a season of battles, and beyond that more battles - a lifetime of war, perhaps.  Would they all be as awful as the one at which his friend had gone mad?

'Peiryan faban, try to rest.'

The young warrior gazed down the hillside, his eyes following the course of the water through its rocky gully.  He was taller than his crazy friend but he wore his hair the same way, long at the back.  It streamed from the top of his head like reddish gold.  He had brought the eagle with him.  The creature shared his far-ranging vision and his natural royalty.  Six colours were woven into his plaid.  His bare forehead was speckled with dark spots.

His name was already famous among the tribes.  Druids had prophesied that he was the longed-for one and a brilliant poet had spent the winter spreading the word.

Last summer, he fought his first battle.  This summer, he would lead the armies of the North.  He had become a dragon, a champion, a leader of men.  The Romans had a word for such things.  But his crazy friend had just given him a new title.

Little-Shout called him peiryan faban.

He was the Commanding Youth.

Though the people knew him as Arthur.

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