When First I Met My King – Harper Fox

Once upon a time there was a king. Once upon a time there was a king, and his kingdom was an abandoned fort and twenty bare acres of moorland, far and away in the north of Britannia, shadowed by Hadrian’s great Wall. Vindolanda, the Romans had called it. The fair meadows. Once upon a time there was a king, and the king’s name was Tertius, which means third. His mother, who believed in the ancient magic of threes, had rejoiced at his birth. Three fine sons! The year before, the king had been a prince, just like Primus and Secundus, his brothers. Their father—a tribal chieftain named Ban, who’d served with the army, learned Latin, earned honours and been let keep his land—had named his boys with numbers in this dispassionate Roman way, but he hadn’t loved them any the less for that. Tertius had inherited his kingdom one wild spring night, when a gale had blown back from Ban’s fair meadows the sounds and scents of a raiding party of Picts, ferocious hunters no longer held in check by Roman swords. Tertius had been away, hunting on the ridge beyond the Wall. He’d become so adept with his father’s army spear that he’d earned the nickname Lance. He was fifteen summers old when he’d come down from the hills at dawn to the charred remains of the village. He ought to have been sixteen, but that year summer hadn’t come, and everyone left alive had stopped counting. *** The boy and the priest sat in the firelight. The boy, rapidly outgrowing his food supply, pulled skinny knees to his chest.

His eyes were wide and dark. “That was an interesting story,” he said, with the politeness his mother had instilled into him even towards such strange new holy men as Father Tomas. “But I can’t believe this endless cold has come because my people used to worship dragons.” Tomas poked the fire. His fleas were biting, his bones aching and old beneath an older, handme-down cassock. “Used to?” he snarled. “Did I not see the baker’s wife and daughter traipsing off to your damned mother’s thrice-accursed cave this very sunset?” Lance uncurled and stood up. “Curse the cave all you like. Be very careful, though, how you speak of my mother.” He was nothing but a long strip of sinew in ragged deerskin jerkin and leggings.

His cloak had more substance than he did, but that had been his mother’s, the murdered Queen Elena’s. He wore it on his back like a shielding wing. Fear entered Tomas’s heart. “Forgive me,” he rasped. “God knows she alone showed me kindness when I came here, stopped the brats in the street from pelting me with eggs and rotten fruit. It was long ago, years before your birth. I came from the shrine at Brocolitia, you know, after Emperor Theodosius ordered the temple of Mithras there destroyed.” Another tale. The boy had heard this one before, but still he leaned on his father’s spear and swayed with longing. Words—even the meanderings of this worn-out old man—could lift his mind away from his broken, icebound world and into undreamed freedoms.

He and his brothers and sisters had sat around Ban, Elena and Tomas, like baby birds in a circle, eyes and ears stretched open wide for story. But this night was even colder than the last. “You’re hungry,” he observed. “And cold. You and I are like those crabs you told me about, the ones who climb into the shells of creatures larger than themselves and try to make their home there—in this great house, I mean. Now that the others are gone.” “A praetor’s house,” Tomas declared. “Your father did well to take it when the soldiers left. A proper place for a king, child—authority must be preserved. And it stood, good Roman brick as it is, when the wretched thatched huts burned down.

” Lance shivered. “Yes. I think it best we bring the villagers in here tonight. If we gather all the fuel we have, we can fire up the old heating channels under the floor.” “Villagers? And lay my head down beside that of the tanner and the butcher, I suppose? Don’t be absurd. I forbid it.” The boy straightened up. He banged the haft of the spear on the floor. “That’s unfortunate,” he said, “because I command it. Have the beasts brought inside, too, and pen them by the doors to keep out the wind.

See to it, priest, and I will put food in your belly before the set of the moon. I’m going to hunt.” He strode through Ban’s empty hallways, cloak streaming from his shoulders. The snow had ceased, but that was because the cold had turned the skies to iron, unable to shed their burden. A ringing vacancy had opened up across the moors. A slow wind, its progress like a soundless moan, was pushing through every window and door of the praetor’s house. In the chamber Ban had shared with Elena, three surviving deerhounds lay in a heap on the bed. Lance set the spear aside and clapped his hands, and they got down reluctantly, tucking their tails. He reached into the still-warm pile of clothes beneath them and extracted one of Ban’s woollen tunics. He unfastened his jerkin, shrugged out of it and quickly pulled the tunic over his head.

No, not Ban’s. This garment smelled of dogs and better days. Lance stared through the moonlit weave. Elena, happier with a spear than a spindle in her hand herself, had nevertheless made each of her three fine sons his own tartan to wear, and this one belonged to Secundus, who’d beaten Lance into the world by the barest half hour. Secundus, his brother and twin. Like Romulus and Remus, Ban had declared, proudly showing them off in the temple of Mithras, whose destruction was not nearly as complete as poor Tomas thought. Like Holly and Oak, Elena had cried out in the depths of her sacred cave. Lance, who veered from boyhood to manhood and back six times at least in a day, sat down on the edge of the bed and wept. He tried, anyway. But his heart was like a dead coal.

His sobs tore at him like sickness. He should have given all the clothes away, if he’d really cared for the souls who lived on at Vindolanda. Ban’s Roman togas and cloaks could have been sold, and Elena’s fine robes, because she’d been a queen indeed, a Votadini noble from the tribe beyond the Wall. But he hadn’t. He’d left it all here to be slept on by dogs. He didn’t care, even if every breath he drew through tunic’s fabric put his brother back in his arms. On cold nights they too had slept tangled like deerhounds, unaware of where one of them stopped and the other began. Lance fell silent and sat up. The dogs were watching him. When he got to his feet, they tried to follow him, but he stopped them at the door.

He was the king of Vindolanda, after all. “No,” he said. “Not you last ones. You stay here and mind my fort.” Chapter Two The night wasn’t fit for a dog. Lance’s deerskin boots tracked firmly over the turf, but he understood that his body was obeying him from habit and willpower alone. The air was cold in a way he’d never experienced before. His chest made a hollow sound when he breathed in. He climbed the slope to the main street as quickly as his stiffening limbs would allow. The road lay like a frozen moonbeam.

Just within Lance’s earliest memories, chariots had bowled along it, and its stones had rung to the beat of gleaming horses. The beasts and the men astride them had been mythical heroes to the boy, from hooves to scarlet crests. Not all the soldiers had vanished, of course—many were locals, like Ban, or tough souls from Gaul, or Batavia over the northern sea, used to the climate and fond of their native-born wives. They had merged into the landscape like rain. Only now, ten winters later, were green cracks appearing in the finely laid stone. Two women were running down the moonbeam. The elder was covering ground with long, efficient strides, but the girl beside her was stumbling, sobs breaking out of her in clouds of steam. The baker’s wife, Cerys—one of Elena’s cave-sisters, up to her elbows in dough by day, on nights like this a priestess—and her daughter, Lance recognised, raising a hand to hail them. They came to a ragged halt in front of him. “Lance,” Cerys said.

Ice had formed around her lips and in the pleats of her long braid. “You can’t go up there tonight.” The cold had entered Lance’s skull. On some full-moon nights, his mother had allowed him, alone of all his brothers, to accompany her to the cave. On others, he’d been smilingly ordered to stay clear. “Is it… Is it because of the dragon?” “What? No. But the wild things are beginning to die out in the open. A deer without a mark on her, just lying by the lough. We’d have brought her down with us, but the girl began to choke on the very air.” They were both dressed for the rites, in long dark woollen robes.

Sheepskin capes too, but none of it was doing Dara any good. She was doubled up, clutching her mother’s arm. Like most children of the settlement, she’d been hanging on by a thread, waiting for springtime, sunshine and good food. Lance took off his cloak. “Why did you go up?” “Why does Father Tomas drag us to his miserable hut of a church in all weathers and winds?” “Because he thinks his god gets angry and sends punishments. Is that what the dragon does too?” Cerys looked disgusted. “Of course not. But she misses your mother. And she sees so little of the rest of us these days, she’s beginning to fear we’re dead.” “She’s very nearly right.

” Lance bundled Dara into the cloak. “Take her down. Tomas is bringing everyone into the praetorium overnight—look, I can see their lights. Go there.” “What about you? Take back your cloak, stupid boy!” “Make her breathe through the wool. I’m only going far enough to fetch that deer. We need meat.” He watched them retreat down the hill. Then he turned to face north, where the Herdsman stretched out starry limbs across the sky. At the Herdsman’s foot, the star the Romans called Arcturus glowed like a tawny coal, comforting somehow amongst all the bitter diamonds.

In his right hand the Herdsman bore an upturned crescent, hard to see against the shimmer of the full moon. Corona borealis, Tomas had called it: the crown of the north, but Elena had said it was a cup, a cauldron of rich, hot broth you could lift to your mouth, drink deeply and survive… Lance’s head spun. His empty belly clenched so hard that pain rang through him like a bell. He could move faster without the cloak, which had never been his anyway. He set out for the line of the great Wall. This had always been his favourite route. He had often pursued it alone, through the fort’s north gate and down the treacherous cliff-face steps to the burn. The stream’s course had worn, over unimaginable time, a V-shaped gap in the ridge Elena called the Dragon’s Spine, the tilted outcrop of black, enduring rock where the emperor Hadrian had set up and held his frontier. Holes in their natural barricade had not pleased the Romans, but the stream supplied water for all the fort’s needs, and they had straddled it with a turreted tower built into the line of the Wall. This, too, was falling into disrepair, or being aided to it by Picts and villagers in need of stone for their sheep enclosures.

Lance had always found it easy to scramble under its archway and into the moorland beyond. He did so now, forgetting his weariness and pain. He had never understood the differences he felt when he entered the world to the north side of the ridge. He knew that the great spine of rock demarcated a border between nations, between his father’s still-civilised world and the wild wastes where his mother’s people held their hilltop fastnesses against Pictish savages who painted themselves blue, or were born that way, depending on which story Elena had been telling. There was more to it, though, than the dangerous thrill of entering foreign territory. It felt to Lance as though the very ground beneath his feet had come from a different place, a different source in the earth. And when he would press on, during wild, sweet summer afternoons, northwards through the marshy reed-beds and heathers, the first thing he would come to was a magical lake. The lough was no more mysterious than any of the others scattered around the line of the ridge. But when he broached the last rise of land and saw its waters laid out before him, the halo of golden broom that fringed its shores, he would always lose his breath. His heart would tighten with the awe Father Tomas told him he should experience only in front of the cross in the Vindolanda church, and often he’d find himself running, as if to an appointed meeting with a friend.

He never saw the waters the same colour twice, and the mists that rose from them would sometimes weave themselves into dragons and serpents while he crouched among the reeds. Tonight it was a frozen waste beneath a beaten-metal sky. Lance approached in silence. At the water’s edge he found Cerys’s deer, not too starved to be of use, but frozen fast amongst the stones and broken stems. He tried to pick it up. The creature was two thirds his size but he’d normally have managed the heft. Instead he dropped to his knees, and then his belly, and lay flat. He kept his face out of the broken ice by a bare finger’s breadth. Fear seeped out of him along with the last of his strength. He’d come and lain here so often—still as a hunting newt, as a wildcat— that he lost in an instant the sense of his own self as separate from these creatures, as separate from mud and lake and sky.

His margins were blurred into those of the world: existence began to mean less to him than it would have to a stone. At the last breath, loneliness seized him. He flinched in surprise: how could any of that be left? His mother, his father, the pack of siblings in which he’d unthinkingly grown up, companions for his every hour—all had been gouged away from him. This was different. Lance, dying on the shore of Broomlee Lough, suddenly wanted a friend. I’m on my way, Prince of Nowhere. Lance jerked his head up. The voice had rung out like sunshine, rich and rough, honey in an earthenware cup. He stared around him, coughing mud and ice out of his airway. His last breath became another and another.

“Who’s there?” No-one, of course. He was alone in the moonlight. Only one thing had changed, and that was the line of the eastern hill. A frozen deer was one thing, a far-distant promise of food if he survived. A hare—warm and real, almost within one good throw of King Ban’s spear—was another thing entirely. He needed her to come closer. He forced his raw gasps to silence, and he waited.

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