In a fit of I’m-not-sure-what, I lowered the price of Cold My Heart to 99 cents across all platforms (though it will take a while for Smashwords to distribute it to Apple, Barnes and Noble, etc.). Meanwhile, you an buy it at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/67v6cfl Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/5vxrm67 and Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52673
And here’s the first chapter and a bit . . .
(Translated from the Latin)
To Archbishop Dafydd:
We must speak of the evils wrought upon us by my nephew Modred and his Saxon allies, how the peace formerly made has been violated in all the clauses of the treaty, how churches have been fired and devastated, and ecclesiastical persons, priests, monks and nuns slaughtered, women slain with children at their breast, hospitals and other houses of religion burned, the Welsh murdered in their homes, in churches, yes at the very altar, with other sacrilegious offences horrible to hear….
We fight because we are forced to fight and are left without any remedy…I do not ask for your blessing in these last endeavors. Only your understanding.
Arthur ap Uther,
King of Wales and Lord of Eryri
November, 537 A.D.
11 December 537 AD
“Get over here, Myrddin!”
I urged my horse across the clearing, through the ankle-deep snow and towards Gawain, the captain of my lord’s guard. He resembled a greyhound, whip-thin but muscled, his grey-streaked hair held away from his face by a leather tie at the nape of his neck.
“Sir,” I said.
Gawain pointed to a stand of pine trees some hundred yards away on the other side of the Cam River. “What do you see?”
At thirty-six, after a lifetime of soldiering, my eyes weren’t what they used to be. I stared anyway, trying to glimpse what Gawain had noticed. Christ! It can’t be! Cold settled into my belly. “The branches are moving.” I glanced at Gawain. “Didn’t our scouts check those trees?”
“Yes.” The word hissed through Gawain’s teeth. “They did. I saw to it myself.”
“The company must move now,” I said. “It isn’t safe here.” I forced myself to remain calm instead of shouting the words at Gawain as I wanted to.
“No, it isn’t,” Gawain said. “I said as much to the King before we began this journey.”
“Maybe he’ll listen now.”
“I’ll speak to him,” he said. “For your part, take four men—Ifan, Dai, two others. Clear out those trees. I don’t care how you do it.” He clapped a hand on my shoulder, punctuating the command.
I directed my horse towards the north, riding past the church, St. Cannen’s, that squatted in the middle of the clearing. An up-and-coming half-Saxon lord, Edgar, son of King Arthur’s youngest sister, had sent a letter asking to discuss the transfer of his allegiance from Modred to Arthur. That his overture was genuine had always seemed unlikely, yet Modred’s war had gone on so long that Arthur felt he had to grab any chance that came his way, on the hope that he could shift the balance of power in his favor. Recent victories had given us real hope that we might prevail, but if those trees held Saxon soldiers, then the King was going to die, along with all of his men. Including me. He’d walked into a trap from which none of us would escape.
“Ifan!” I waved my friend closer.
He spurred his horse to intersect mine. “What is it?”
“Mercians,” I said. “Possibly.”
Ifan, as pale as I was dark such that a man could mistake him for a Saxon, had campaigned beside King Arthur even longer than I. He didn’t ask for details. Once I’d collected several more men, we circled behind the church, heading for the ford of the River Cam on the northwestern edge of the church property. The trees along the river shielded us from the field beyond. Once across the Cam, however, we left their cover.
“Shields up,” I said—and just in time. An arrow slammed into Ifan’s shield and a second into mine.
“Back, back!” Ifan shouted, wheeling his horse to retreat down the riverbank. “We’ll have to go around!”
But before we’d ridden halfway across the river, a company of Saxon cavalry burst from the woods to the west of the church. A quick glance revealed their considerable numbers—more than the eighteen men the King had brought to the rendezvous. Along with half a dozen of our compatriots who reacted at the same instant, we raced to intercept them, splashing through the water and back into the clearing. Our numbers wouldn’t be enough to turn them aside, but as I met the first Saxon sword with my own, I put our chances from my mind.
I slashed my sword—once, twice, three times—before my horse stumbled, a tendon severed by a man on the ground. I pulled my feet from the stirrups, leaping free in time to meet the advancing sword of yet another Saxon. He glared through his visored helmet, a thick, red beard the only part of his face I could see.
The call came from behind me. I almost laughed. Retreat where? The church had little advantage in defense over the clearing. Admittedly, I’d last seen Arthur standing alongside the priest in the nave near the altar. In the back of my mind, I’d held onto the hope that if he made his last stand inside, even a heathen Saxon would be loathe to kill my King before the cross.
I ducked under the Saxon’s guard and then burst upwards, one hand on the hilt of my sword and my gauntleted left hand on the blade. I thrust my weapon at his mid-section, forcing it through his mail armor. I pulled the sword from his body and he fell. Then I turned and ran full out for the front of the church, hurtling past the small knots of men battling between me and the front door.
But the King had already left the safety of the nave. A pace from the church steps, Arthur faced two men at the same time. The King had twenty years on me yet fought like a much younger man. He slashed his sword at one Saxon soldier and snapped an elbow into the face of the other attacker a second later. Blood cascaded from the man’s nose.
I launched myself at the Saxon soldier, driving my shoulder into his ribs and sending both of us sprawling. Hardly pausing for breath, I pushed up on one knee and shoved the tip of my sword beneath his chin. Helmet askew and blood coating my surcoat, I stood, spinning on one heel, determined to defend my king to my last breath.
Except King Arthur had already fallen, overcome by a third knight coming late to the fight.
Aghast, I drove my sword into the man’s back, just as he raised his arms for a final strike at the King. As the Saxon died, I knocked him aside and turned to stand astride the body of my lord. Even if it meant my death, I would gainsay anyone who dared come against me. But as my sword met that of the next Saxon warrior, the back of my head exploded in sudden pain from a blow I hadn’t seen coming. Barely conscious, I fell across the failing body of King Arthur.
2 November 537 AD
Nell surged upwards from her pallet, disturbed far more by the shouts echoing through the stone corridors of the convent than by the abrupt ending to the dream. It felt real every time she dreamt it, but once awake, she acknowledged it for what it was: a dream, a seeing, if such a thing were possible, and a weight around her neck since she was a girl. Arthur ap Uther was going to die a little more than a month from now at the hands of the Saxons. A man she knew only as Myrddin—a man she’d lived for more nights than she could count—would die with him. And Nell had no way to stop it.
The shouts came clearer now. Thrusting her heavy braid over her shoulder, Nell pulled on her habit to cover her night shift, adjusted the thick wool around her waist more comfortably, and slipped into her boots. She slid through the cloth doorway that separated her room from the hall. As the infirmarer and a senior member of the convent, she had her own cell, separate from the dormitory where the novices and younger nuns slept.
“What is it?” Nell reached out a hand to stop Bronwen, a blond-haired, blue-eyed initiate who was far too beautiful to have chosen this life at such a young age. Unfortunately for her, she was heiress to extensive estates and her uncle had seen to her speedy incarceration in the convent after her father died. The old abbess wouldn’t have allowed it, but all discipline had broken down since the Saxon invasion of Anglesey, which had followed hard on the heels of the abbess’ death.
“Soldiers!” Bronwen said. “They came to the door and the watchman let them in. The Saxons are coming!”
Dear God. They’d been foolish to think their lone convent could escape the Mercian barbarism that had become so common in recent months. Lord Modred’s soldiers had pushed King Arthur’s forces out of every haven but his last stronghold in Eryri, or Snowdonia as the Saxons called it. They would overrun all Wales if Arthur died as her dream promised. Once upon a time, that moment had resided in the impossibly distant future. Not anymore.
Bronwen made to run but Nell still held her arm. “Not that way. Did you see Sister Mari?”
“Yes. In the dormitory.”
Nell nodded. “Good. Tell her I said to gather as many of the girls as she can. If we can get to the chapel, we can bar the doors from the inside. Bring them quick as you can. Remember—the chapel, not the church. From the shouts outside, the Saxon soldiers are already there.”
“Yes, Sister,” the girl said, Nell’s evident calm easing her fears.
Nell released her and Bronwen ran back the way she’d come. The Saxons hadn’t penetrated the convent this far as yet. Sister Mari was not only a good friend, but reliable. She would come. Meanwhile, Nell needed to discover what had happened to the abbess, who had left her room. Nell hiked up her skirts and trotted down the stairs towards the common areas of the convent. As Nell arrived in the dining hall from a back entrance, having already searched the warming room and the scriptorium, two sisters spoke to one another, alone and in quiet voices, near the main door a dozen yards away. Her abbess’ posture was as if nothing untoward was happening in the courtyard beyond.
“What are you doing here?” Nell hurtled up to them, heedless of decorum or her dignity. “We must flee!”
“Lord Wulfere told me to wait here for him and he would explain everything.” Abbess Annis’ eyes were wide and guileless.
“And you believed him?”
“Of course,” she said. “He told me that his soldiers merely needed to commission a quantity of our foodstuffs.”
“Commissio—” Nell broke off the word as a man flung open the door to the dining hall. Tall and dark, with a bushy black beard that obscured his face, Wulfere, the commander of the Saxon forces on Anglesey, strode towards them. He towered over Nell who was slightly less than middle height for a woman. His heavy boots left a muddy track across the floor, evidence of the unrelenting rain that had fallen over the island during the last week.
Wulfere had set up his camp to the southwest of the convent, in preparation for the moment Modred allowed him to cross the Menai Straits and attack King Arthur’s seat at Garth Celyn. The Traeth Lafan, the Lavan Sands, had served as a crossing point of the Menai Straits for millennia, but the waters in the Straits were unpredictable and treacherous, even to those long accustomed to their moods. To counter that unpredictability, the Saxons had built a bridge of boats, a hundred of them lashed together and anchored at both ends. Wulfere was waiting for Modred’s signal to cross. Meanwhile, he amused himself the best he could. Apparently, now, with us.
“Madame Abbess,” Wulfere said, in butchered Welsh and Saxon, giving Annis a slight tip of his head. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Annis simpered back, the loose flesh around her mouth giving way to a vacant smile. “It is our honor to serve Lord Modred, our rightful king, in whatever way we can.”
Nell bit her lip. King Arthur had no heir and whispers had begun already that when Arthur died, stability under Modred and his Saxon allies was preferable to the chaos that would inevitably ensue as Welsh stakeholders fought among themselves for Arthur’s crown.
“Are you mad?” Nell kept her voice low and even so Wulfere wouldn’t react to the tone, if not the words themselves.
“It’s not just foodstuffs they want!” Sister Ilar chimed in, for once supporting Nell’s position. “They’ve turned Queen Gwenhwyfar’s coffin into a horse trough!”
“It is our duty to bring peace to Anglesey,” Annis said.
“Do you object, sister, to assisting those in need?” Wulfere asked Nell. “Are not my soldiers as much God’s children as any other men?” He gazed at the three women, amusement in his face, and although Nell wanted to stare him down, she didn’t dare defy him. Annis might be blind to what was happening in her convent but Nell was not. It was time to leave. Annis wouldn’t act, so it was up to Nell to stand in her stead.
“Excuse me.” Nell curtseyed to both Wulfere and Annis. She backed away. Just as she turned towards the side door that led to the cloisters, a half a dozen Saxon soldiers came through the door behind Wulfere. Nell didn’t wait to see what they wanted.
I can’t believe she just opened the convent to them! How could she betray us so? But Nell knew how it was possible. In an effort to quell what the Church viewed as a convent of too-independent women, Archbishop Dafydd had appointed an un-ambitious innocent to lead them. For all that Annis was approaching her fiftieth year, she knew nothing of men, the world, or anything in it. Nell was not so naïve.
Nell closed the door to the dining hall. It had no lock but it was futile to try to stop the men from reaching the cloister, since it could be accessed by four other entrances. They hadn’t found it yet, but perhaps that was because the cathedral church and food stores were keeping them occupied. They would ransack them and then turn their attention to the women. The Welsh were hardly more than animals to the Saxons and they treated them as such.
Nell was relieved to see Bronwen and Mari, a cluster of sisters in their wake, hustling towards the chapel from the dormitory entrance. Nell intercepted them at the chapel door. “Thank the Lord you’ve come!” She grasped Mari’s hand and squeezed it, trying to convey her relief and reassurance.
Mari leaned forward and spoke low, so as not to alarm the other women. “What’s happening, Nell?”
Nell let the rest of her sisters file inside the chapel before replying. “The worst,” she said. “I must see to those in the infirmary. Some might be well enough to travel with us. Perhaps I can hide the rest.”
“I’ll come with you,” Mari said.
Nell shook her head. Mari’s eyes were too wide and her hair had come loose around her shoulders, a match in color to Nell’s, although Mari’s red-tinged strands were shot with grey. “No,” Nell said. “Stay inside the chapel. Without you, the younger sisters will fall to pieces. Bar the door until I get back. If I don’t return within a count of one hundred, you must go with our sisters into the tunnel beneath the crypt.”
“I can’t leave you!”
“You can and you will.” Nell’s heart pounded in her ears but she fought the rushing sound and the panic, determined to hide her feelings so as not to upset Mari further. Mari was soft-hearted, which is why she mothered the younger novices, but not one to take charge. There was no one else to lead if Nell didn’t. “But I hope you won’t need to.”
Without waiting to see if Mari obeyed her, Nell dashed towards the entrance to the infirmary, situated at the very rear of the complex and isolated from the rest of the living quarters by a narrow passage, in case a quarantine was ever necessary. The sisters could access the room from the herb garden beyond, and Nell had a secondary thought that her sisters could flee that way, if the tunnel proved impassable.
Nell pushed at the thick oak door to the infirmary and froze on the threshold. Hell on earth stared her in the face. Blood ran from the beds to the floor, soaking the undyed wool blankets a deep red. The half dozen sisters who’d lain under her care, along with the elderly sister who watched over them at night, had been murdered as they slept. The far door that led to the outside world bumped against the inner wall, moving in the gusting wind. Beyond, darkness showed. She couldn’t risk escaping with her sisters that way, not with the men who’d done this so close. Nell stared at the carnage, then spun on her heel and fled back to the chapel.
Mari had disobeyed. She’d stayed in the doorway, hovering on the threshold to wait for Nell’s return. “What is it?” Mari asked when Nell reached her.
“They’re dead.” Nell pushed Mari into the chapel, looking over her shoulder at the first Saxon soldiers spilling into the cloister, torches blazing in their hands.
“You there!” A soldier said, in Saxon.
“Hurry!” Mari’s voice went high.
Nell slammed the door shut and dropped the bar across it. As more shouts filled the cloister, she faced the other women. Mari stood three paces away, taking in huge gulps of air, her hand to her heart. Nell’s lungs refused to properly fill with air either.
A young voice piped up from the rear of the group. “What about the rest of our sisters?”
Someone thudded a fist on the door. “Open up!”
Nell set her jaw. She grabbed a candle from a shrine to St. Tomos and pushed through the small group of women and girls. “We can’t help them.” She led the way down the steps into the crypt, trotting past the ancient tombs, the voices of the soldiers fading behind them the deeper they went.
King Arthur had commissioned Llanfaes Abbey upon the death of his beloved wife, Gwenhwyfar. Her grave lay in the cathedral church, which the Saxons were sacking even now. The chapel was older, far smaller, and had served the people of Anglesey since Christianity came to the island, back when the Romans ruled it. Rather than pull it down, King Arthur had constructed his abbey around it—and refurbished the Roman tunnel that ran beneath it which matched the one underneath Garth Celyn.
Some might have said that the King was overly cautious to have expended so much effort on the chance that a hidden escape route might one day be needed. As far as Nell knew, none ever had, either here or at Garth Celyn—until today. Given the actions of the Saxons over the last month, King Arthur was proving not only cautious, but prescient.
Maybe he saw too.
The convent itself sat a hundred yards from the edge of the Menai Straits so that King Arthur could look across the water to the spot where he’d buried his wife. A current of air bringing the smell of damp and mold wafted over Nell as she approached the entrance to the tunnel. The near constant autumn rain on Anglesey, coupled with having built so close to the sea, meant they couldn’t stop the water from seeping between the stones.
“Here it is.” Nell came to a halt in front of a blank wall.
“Here what is?” Mari peered over Nell’s shoulder at the unadorned stones.
“The entrance,” Nell said. “I need more light.”
Someone raised a torch so it shone at the wall. Nell handed her candle to Mari and then pressed both hands on a rounded stone at waist height. With a scraping sound, the door swung open on its central pin, revealing darkness beyond. The tunnel that led from the crypt stretched north, under the protective wall of the convent and beyond.
“We have to go inside?” Bronwen said. “What if there’s no way out! We’ll die in there!”
“The dark can’t hurt you,” Nell said. “Saxon soldiers most definitely can.”
“But how do we know—”
Nell grabbed Bronwen’s arm. She’d never thought of Bronwen as one of the more outspoken novices, but that was proving the case tonight. “Because all the sisters in the infirmary are dead, slaughtered as they slept. I don’t want that to happen to you!”
“But Lord Modred wouldn’t—”
Nell cut her off again. “It’s time to grow up, Bronwen. All of you.” Nell cast her gaze over the faces of each girl in turn. “It doesn’t matter if you support Lord Modred’s claim to the throne, or King Arthur’s resistance. Both sides have committed atrocities in this war. Do you want me to list all the religious houses the men out there—and others like them—have sacked? The villages they’ve destroyed? The women they’ve raped?”
Bronwen shook her head uncertainly.
“If you don’t want to be one of them,” Mari broke in, “I suggest you do as Sister Nell asks.”
“Yes, Sister.” Bronwen said, her eyes downcast.
Nell turned away; she didn’t think it her imagination that her sisters gave her more space now than before. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know what went on beyond the walls. Many of them had lived at the convent their whole lives. At fifteen and newly married, she’d been as ignorant and innocent as Bronwen. But Nell had come to Llanfaes as an adult, ten years ago at the death of her husband and her two little boys, four year old Llelo and infant Ieuan. She’d seen—and she’d seen—what men could do.
Once inside the narrow passage, Nell let the others file past her, Mari in the lead still carrying the candle. She then pulled at the door and allowed it to close with a gentle click. Her shoulders sagged in relief that they were safe, at least for now. At worst, she was wrong about Wulfere’s men and Annis could administer to Nell whatever penance she chose for leading her sisters astray and into the wild in the middle of the night. As unpleasant as that might be, Nell wished for it.
But she wasn’t wrong. Now, the scent of smoke, from a source not as far off as she might like, drifted from the chapel through a crack underneath the door, pulled into the tunnel by the open air at the far end. Without further hesitation, Nell hefted her skirts and trotted after Mari.
“Are we almost there?” Mari asked when Nell reached the front of the line of women.
“It’s not much further,” Nell said. “Before her death, Abbess Alis entrusted me with the secret of the tunnel. As soon as the Saxons landed on Anglesey, I came here to make sure the tunnel hadn’t collapsed. That was some months ago, of course.”
Mari nodded, and then asked, her voice so low Nell could barely make out the words, “do I smell smoke?”
“I fear they are firing the chapel,” Nell said.
“Why would they do that?” Mari said, and then answered her own question before Nell could, her voice flat and accepting. “Because they couldn’t open the door. They think we’re still inside.”
Nell canted her head, agreeing, but not wanting to give more emphasis to Mari’s guess than that.
But Mari wasn’t finished. “Without this tunnel, our choice would have been to die, or to surrender to the soldiers.”
“Llanfaes is an abbey patronized by King Arthur,” Nell said. “Wulfere sees nothing wrong with leaving no one alive to remember it.”
A hundred steps later, they turned a corner and the tunnel began to slope upwards. Mari’s torch reflected off the wooden beams that supported the roof and then finally the trap door that led to one of the Abbey’s outlying barns.
“This is it?” Mari said.
“Yes,” Nell said. The height of the tunnel had shrunk to just above Nell’s head. With the flat of her hand, she pushed up on the square of wood, three feet on a side, which loosened and then popped free with a snap. Nell froze, but after a count of ten, couldn’t see or hear anything amiss. She shoved the cover to one side and grasped the edges of the opening. With a boost from Mari and another sister, she pulled herself out of the tunnel and into a sitting position on the floor of the barn.
Hay lay scattered about in the stall in which she found herself. While the hay loft above her head was full, the horse stalls were empty. They only used this barn at harvest time and when the overflow from the Abbey with visitors was such that there was no more room for equine guests in the Abbey stables. Nell got to her feet and walked to the far wall. Hidden in plain sight among the tools and farming implements was a short ladder. She removed it and brought it back to the hole.
“It may be we’ll be safe here for the rest of the night.” Nell looked down on Mari’s upturned face. “Let’s get them into the loft.”