I did not cry again.
I smiled at each Saxon throat I cut. I smiled at each rotting Saxon body we left on the battlefield. My fellows thought it odd that I smiled so much at death and devastation, and after a while they called me "Smiling Malgwyn." They did not understand that the smile ate at me like a disease.
Arthur saw something in me though. Before one battle, I sat on my horse on a ridge and studied the land before us. Another horse rode up alongside, and I took it for one of my fellows. "If Arthur is smart," I said, "he will place forces in hiding there, there, and there." My finger pointed out low hills. "When the Saxons ride to face our main force, they will be trapped with their backs to the river."
"I agree," a deep voice said. Arthur. "You are Malgwyn ap Cuneglas."
"Yes, my lord." I said, turning quickly and giving the salute, surprised almost as much by his sudden appearance as by the fact that he knew me.
He nodded, smiled faintly, turned his horse and left. Within minutes, the troop dispositions were made as I had suggested. When the Saxons made their charge, the course of battle ran just as I predicted. We crushed a large Saxon force, shoving the last survivors into the river to drown. I was given my own troop of horse to command and a place in the war councils.
Had I known then what that brief encountered portended, I would have killed him there. It would have saved me a great deal of pain and misery.
Arthur's odd pronouncement cleared my eyes, and I began to focus. I yearned to return to the wine and the wench, but the set of his jaw made me want to know more.
"Death is a constant of this life, my lord," I observed. "It is all around us. Why is this one different?"
Arthur lowered himself onto a stool that I had lashed together out of an armload of trimmed branches and scraps of leather. He was dressed as a common man, in a woolen tunic hanging down nearly to his knees and tied at the waist with a leather belt, and braccae. His huge feet were covered with leather shoes laced across the top in the Celtic manner. He liked to go abroad in peasant's garb, without the fine linen camisia his wealth and station afforded him. A dagger protruded from his belt, and I suspected that one or more of his men lingered in the darkness outside my hovel.
"A servant girl from my hall was found dead an hour ago in the lane. She was lying outside Merlin's home."
"Ravaged?" I gathered my own braccae and slid them on. In front of any other man, I would have been humbled, but we had shared too many campfires to worry about such niceties.
"That is not for me to say, but the poor child was gutted like a deer, slit from throat to belly."
"Odd. But, why does the death of a serving girl disturb the great Lord Arthur?"
"There was a knife lying by her body, covered in blood. It belongs to Merlin."
And that explained it all. Merlin, though some called him Myrddin hereabouts, was a harmless old man, a counselor to Ambrosius Aurelianus and Arthur's old teacher at Dinas Emrys, where Arthur was schooled. He came from a town in the far north, Moridunum in Roman days, Carmarthen now. Some said that he was of a long line of prophets, whose deeds gave rise to the town's name, which meant "inspiration" in our tongue.
Once he had given good counsel, but the years had played tricks on his mind, and he thought himself a sorcerer now and sold potions made of valerian root to the gullible. When he was in his right mind, he could cut through the thickets choking a problem and strike at the root of the matter. Plus, Arthur loved the old cantankerous fool.
Excerpted from The Killing Way by Tony Hays. Copyright 2009 Tony Hays. Excerpted by permission of Forge Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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