There is a tradition that there was a king in ancient Britain called Bladud, son of King Hudibras and father of King Lear, who lived some time between 800 and 500 BC. His story even today is honoured in the Somerset area of England, where many of the dramatic events of his life were said to have taken place.
It is said he was descended from Brutus who, in turn, was descended from Aeneas, the Dardanian prince who fled to Italy after the Trojans were defeated by the Greeks in the war Homer describes in The Iliad. Brutus came to Britain (the Pretanic Isles) with his wife, who was a Greek princess, and together they founded the impressive dynasty to which, after several generations, Bladud belonged. As High King, ruling from his capital Trinovantum, New Troy, now known as London, he inherited the traditions his ancestors had brought from Troy, Italy and Greece, but he was living among and ruling a people who were a mixture of the ancient peoples of the land and Celtic immigrants.
It is not known exactly when the first Celts from continental Europe came to Britain, bringing with them what has come to be known as the Iron Age – but it is usually assumed it was in the eighth to the seventh centuries BC. Artefacts have been found in Britain from this time, attributable to the Celts, which may have come in by trade or by immigration. But artefacts alone cannot give us a full picture of a period in prehistory. It is often necessary to look at the living myths and legends of a people handed down by word of mouth through generations to supplement the fragments found in the soil by archaeologists. The author of this book has looked closely at such myths and legends.
The Game of Fidchell
The night was drawing closer. The birds winging home in flocks alerted the prince to the danger. Soon the western sky would be fired with glowing gold as the sun left the Lands of the Living and, in a blaze of regal magnificence, visited the Lands of the Dead. Left behind would be a cold, dark world where only malevolent beings, murderers, robbers, wolves and owls – the scavengers of the night – dared move about. All others would gather close against the hearth, with wooden doors made fast against unknown terrors.
Prince Bladud urged his tired steed forward, anxious to reach the hill-fort before nightfall and before the gates were locked and barred. He could see the hill now, rising high above the plain and topped with steep, smooth, man-made ramparts. The forests had been cleared in the immediate vicinity so that the watchman on the ramparts had a long, clear view of any enemies approaching. Bladud had no doubt that at this very moment he himself was being observed, the summer dust from his horse’s hooves drawing interested attention.
The shadows of the trees on the plain were stretched dark and long across fields unnaturally bright by contrast. He could hear the herd boys shouting to the cattle as they drove them in to shelter for the night. The first hearth fires were being lit, and thin plumes of smoke rose from one or two of the clustered homesteads on the plain. The lord of the fort, Keron son of Mel, was obviously not anticipating any attack or the alarm would have been sounded and these homesteads would have been deserted, their inhabitants already clustered in makeshift tents within the safe confines of the hilltop fort, their animals lowing uneasily in unfamiliar pens.
The strangely intense light of the evening seemed to isolate every blade of grass, every flower, every rock and bush. There was a splendour and a glory about more precious than the gold so coveted by kings and so laboriously won from the earth. At this moment of transformation from day to night, it was as though all things had paused – poised – breath-holding in awe at the delicate, fragile balance of mystery on which our lives depended. In this light small men were giants, birds were harbingers, and all were suddenly uncertain of their own role in the universe. Bladud wondered at himself. What was he doing so far from home? What was he seeking? Who, indeed, was he? A man awakened – or a man dreaming?
The watchman called to him from the tower beside the great wooden gate. Bladud felt it all unreal – and unreal his reply.
‘Bladud, Prince of Trinovantum,ref1 son of Hudibras the High King,’ he called back. But who was he really – and why did he feel that the name he gave was that of a stranger?
He was now on the steep incline rising up to the gate, and armed men were coming out to meet him. He was surrounded, challenged, greeted and accepted. Bladud of Trinovantum, son of Hudibras, rode in to the hilltop fort of Keron son of Mel. The huge gates of oak crashed closed behind him. The bolts were drawn against the night.
The prince noted the jumble of little hovels of twigs and straw that lined the streets winding up to the great house, the sullen people who drew aside and flattened themselves against walls to avoid his horse’s hooves. The place had none of the grandeur of his father’s rath. There seemed no order to it. Smoke rose through ragged and rotting thatch and hung in the air unwholesomely. The smell was foul. Goats and pigs and children ran in and out of the huts – occasionally pursued by an adult wielding a stick. What kind of master is this who allows such filth and disorder in his realm? Bladud could not help wondering, comparing it with his father’s fortified town where every house was in good repair and there was separate fenced space for the animals. The children back home would greet any strangers with bright and curious eyes, and the smoke rose in neat columns from well constructed hearths to dissipate far above the town.
Leading his horse by the bridle, the young man plodded on, looking neither to left nor right. A woman leaning in the doorway of a hovel shouted something to him, and Bladud glanced with disgust at the creature, her hair a dirty tangle, her clothes stiff with muck. She made a rude gesture after his retreating back. Three children, so thin they looked ready to die of starvation, emerged from the darkness behind her and clung to her skirt, staring after him with hollow eyes. He began to wish he had not made such haste to reach this fort, but had instead spent the night in the fields or the forest. Wolves and night hawks would seem preferable companions, and one would as likely risk attack by robbers here as there.
Rounding a corner of the mean street, he found himself for the first time in an open space – and before him stood the house of Keron. What a contrast to the rest! Its walls were solid oak like the main gate, and it rose high above the untidy, sprawling village at its feet. Guards stood at the door and torches were already lit on either side, though the darkness of the night had not yet fallen. This place feels as though it would be dark – even on the sunniest day, Bladud thought, and glanced up at the sky. It was the colour of blood.
The guards exchanged words with his guide as he dismounted. He looked anxiously over his shoulder as his steed was led away, wondering if these men knew how to care for such a noble horse. But before he could intervene, a tall, thickset man appeared – the lord Keron himself. Clad in fine linen and well decked with gold and jewels, he extended his hand in greeting. Bladud had met him before at his father’s court, for he was one of the many vassal lords who came to the High King’s castle to deliver tribute. Was that torc of slender yellow gold around his thick red neck the same one given to him only last year by King Hudibras? Bladud had not paid him much attention then – he was only one of the many who pitched their tents around his father’s rath at festival.
* * * *
Prince Bladud was weary and longed to retire to bed, but the Lord Keron was delighted with such distinguished company and was determined to make much of him. He insisted a feast must be prepared, which was not ready before midnight, and during all that time, growing hungrier and more exhausted by the moment, Bladud was forced to listen to endless anecdotes of Keron’s prowess in battle or in single combat; Keron’s cunning in dealing with his rivals.
Bladud soon learned a great deal about this petty ruler, and the more he learned the more he distrusted him; but, bound by the strict rules of accepting hospitality, he could not break away or speak his mind.
Casting around in desperation for something to distract him from the boredom that was beginning to smother him, his eyes fell on a young girl, Keron’s daughter Rheinid, whose duty it was to serve the honoured guest with mead. Her hair was as black as a raven’s wing, loosely bound away from her face but tumbling in a thick cascade down her back. She never spoke a word to him, but her dark and flashing eyes left him in no doubt that she found him desirable. He began to watch her every move, fascinated by the way she advanced and retreated – one moment boldly challenging him, the next, with long lashes lowered, playing demure and untouchable. She was dressed in fine russet-coloured cloth, with jewels on her arms and around her neck. Even her hair was clasped with gold. She moved with the grace of a cat and as the evening wore on, and as Bladud consumed more mead than he intended, he contrived to touch her arm and then her thigh as she leant over him to pour the heavy liquid. He did not notice the satisfied curl on Keron’s lips as he talked on and on, watching every move and every changing expression on the young man’s face.
At last the feast was ready, and servants entered the hall with plates and bowls and huge quantities of food. Bladud found the sudden smell of roasts and herbs almost unbearable; he had eaten little all day and was ravenous. As though Keron was deliberately torturing him he strung out the formalities of seating the various members of his household as long as possible, changing his mind several times as to where the honoured guest should sit. Eventually he decided that Bladud should take his own great carved chair at the head of the table, because, as son of the High King, he should take precedence over his humble self.
Bladud protested politely, but with no conviction – desperate to get the matter settled, and some food in his stomach. But Keron pretended to take his protest seriously, and once again the seating arrangements were changed.
Bladud bit his lip and moved his position once more. As he sat down, anger was forming a hard knot inside him and it would not take much more for him to forget the rules governing guest and host.
Suddenly he felt the cool and soothing touch of a hand on his neck, and turned his head to find Rheinid close behind him.
‘My lord,’ she whispered, ‘forgive him. He entertains few such honoured guests.’ I wonder that he has any guests, Bladud thought bitterly, determined never to set foot again in this miserable place. But the girl’s full lips were now close to his face as she leaned over him, her breast pressing against his shoulder . . .
‘Rheinid,’ Keron said smoothly, ‘sit now and enjoy the feast with us.’ He gestured her to sit at the prince’s left hand, the position usually occupied by a man’s wife. The look in his eye left no doubt in Bladud’s mind that Keron was throwing them together deliberately and he flushed. He felt tired, he was hungry, but he was also young and virile, and, at this moment, torn by conflicting emotions.
* * * *
First light was already creeping over the hills and the first birds were stirring in their nests before Keron at last let Bladud leave the feasting hall. All stood up around the long table, eyes on the youth and the young girl, as their liege lord ordered her to show the High King’s son to his bed. Dazed with exhaustion though he was, Bladud did not miss the ripple of lecherous amusement that passed around those present. Was he expected, after all he’d been through, to bed this woman?
Rheinid raised a lamp above her head and turned towards him, smiling. She looked beautiful and seductive, but he felt only a desperate urge to sleep. He followed her, staggering slightly with weariness and too much mead, and had to steady himself more than once against the walls. Later he could not be sure whether in reality he was led deeper and deeper into some labyrinth or whether he was dreaming. The sun’s golden light might be unchaining the world from darkness outside and a million living creatures might be freely on the move, but inside Keron’s castle no beam penetrated. The lamplight flickered in the stale, thick air while grotesque shadowy shapes clustered at his back. It seemed to Bladud that they walked and walked, twisting and turning down corridor after corridor, their footsteps covering an area that must surely be ten times the size of the whole hill-fort, let alone the castle. Staggering, he sank to his knees, determined not to move another step but to sleep where he was on the cold flagstones, greasy with dirt. He was vaguely aware of the girl kneeling beside him urging him to rise. He felt her arms around him, attempting to pull him to his feet. His eyes seemed to close under lead weights, and he felt as though he was falling into a deep and bottomless pit. Her voice came to him from far away – hollow and echoing. Then he was aware of nothing more.
* * * *
He awoke to find himself naked on a bed in a windowless room, two lamps providing the only light. Beside him, curled against his side, lay Rheinid, also naked. He raised himself on one elbow to look down at her, struggling from sleep like a swimmer who had almost drowned.
Had they . . . ? He could not remember. Her cheek was flushed from sleep, her hair soft against his chest. Almost without meaning to he ran his hand lightly over the curve of her hip – his own body instantly fired by the touch. She stirred and turned and, half asleep, they made love.
Bladud had never experienced such ecstasy, but it was short-lived. When it was over he felt fully awake and sober, remembering the details of the night before. What kind of father would offer his daughter so blatantly to a stranger? A scheming father, he thought; one who wanted some advantage from the High King. Bladud felt sickened to think how easily he had fallen into this trap.
Had Rheinid knowingly played her part? Was the smile on her lips one of sexual satisfaction, or something more sinister? He could not read her expression. They had been as intimate as only man and woman could be, but now they were strangers.
He drew away roughly and stood up, turning his back on her as he pulled on his clothes. Now he could not wait to leave this place! The exquisite pleasure of a few moments earlier was gone, and in its place was all the unease and disgust he had felt the night before.
‘My lord . . . ?’
But he could not bring himself to look at her. This liaison had not been of his making, and he was angered by his own weakness. If he looked at her now he would see her beauty and would feel unsure again. He would be once more vulnerable – out of control.
He felt a surge of anger, bitterness and, perhaps, fear. He had to get away from here. Far away.
He lifted one of the lamps from its stand and left the room without a backward glance. It was a very different young man who strode through the corridors now, demanding imperiously of the first servant he met that he be taken at once to his horse. When the man hesitated, Bladud drew his dagger.
* * * *
Bladud had intended to leave without a word to his host, but Keron appeared as he reached the great front door, and saw the unwilling servant still held at knife-point.
‘My lord prince, what is this? Stealing out like a thief?’ Keron’s voice was suddenly cold, his eyes narrowed dangerously as he looked from the dagger in Bladud’s hand to the youth’s embarrassed face. Bladud sheathed his knife, but responded sternly.
‘My lord, I had a dream that I was held prisoner in this place – that I was forced to play a role I had no stomach for.’
‘And you would insult me and abuse my servants because of a dream?’
‘The dream was most convincing, my lord.’
‘But nevertheless only a dream,’ Keron said.
Bladud lowered his eyes beneath the dark and penetrating gaze of the older man. Perhaps he had indeed imagined the sinister aspects of what had occurred in this place. It was natural for a host to feast an honoured guest until the small hours of the morning, so perhaps there had been no plot to force Rheinid upon him. Had he misinterpreted all the hints and looks that had so disquieted him?
Perhaps he himself had dragged the girl to his bed in a drunken stupor. After all it was he who had instigated the love-making on waking. He was suddenly ashamed – and Keron was quick to exploit his youth and inexperience.
‘Prince Bladud,’ he said quickly, the icy menace of his voice now overlaid by smiling obsequiousness. ‘Your dream insults me, but I will not take offence. Come. A meal is prepared. Let us go in.’
‘I . . . I am not hungry, my lord,’ Bladud stammered. ‘I thank you for your generosity, but I need to be on my way.’
‘What! So late in the day?’
Bladud looked puzzled. Was it not morning?
‘The sun is already setting,’ Keron said. ‘You have slept the whole day.’
Another night in this place! Bladud thought in despair. Every instinct told him to flee, but the web encircling him was so subtle he could not even be sure that it was there.
‘I would prefer to go, my lord,’ he repeated, making an effort to be decisive. But Keron had already taken him by the arm and was leading him back into the great hall.
* * * *
That night Keron challenged the prince to a board game. At first Bladud wondered if this vassal king was regretting the previous night and trying to make amends in some way, for a man who played so ineptly should surely not wager such generous stakes. The young prince won game after game, and each time he was rewarded with gold and jewels, weapons and horses. At first there were only a few members of the household watching, but, as the evening wore on, more and more gathered round the table until a hedge of faces seemed to isolate them from the rest of the world.
Halfway through the evening Rheinid slipped in to take the place of the servant pouring the wine. Time and again he covered his goblet with a hand to indicate that he wanted no more wine – but no matter how often he sipped at it, his vessel was always full.
‘I am at a loss, my lord, to suggest what stake would be appropriate now, since you have all but ruined me,’ Keron said, at last.
‘Only on your insistence, sir, for I had no intention of doing so. I suggest we quit now. I am weary and I must make an early start in the morning.’
‘One more game, I beg of you, my lord. Just one more, and then we will all go to bed.’
There was a drunken murmur of assent from the men who were pressing close around them. Eyes red with wine and ale, Keron’s entourage had watched every move in silence. Bladud felt their hostility towards him growing palpably.
Perhaps one more game, he thought. The concession might pacify them.
‘One more game,’ he agreed aloud. ‘You choose the stake.’
Bladud fancied that a sigh passed through the watching crowd.
‘Will you abide by whatever stake I choose?’ Keron asked very quietly, and Bladud, if he had not drunk so much or felt so confident, would have been warned by something in that voice.
‘Of course,’ he said, anxious only to finish the game.
Keron stared at him closely.
‘If you win, a year from today you can come to me and demand anything it is in my power to give you. But if you lose, a year from today you will grant me what I ask of you.’
Bladud was already setting up the board.
‘I agree,’ he said wearily. ‘Your move first, this time.’
Up until now Keron had made foolish mistakes in the game, but this time – this time with such a dangerously openended stake – he moved decisively and with consummate skill. Within a very short time indeed, Bladud knew that he was in trouble and, struggling against the fog induced in his mind by too much wine, he fought to regain the ground he was so rapidly losing.
‘My game, I think,’ Keron said triumphantly, his voice barely disguising his feelings at having executed the plot so well.
As Bladud looked at the board in disbelief, he barely heard the wild and discordant cheering of the crowd behind him. What had he promised? He had hardly paid attention to the stake proposed by Keron, so sure he was that he would continue to win. But perhaps it would not turn out so ill: the man would doubtless demand gold and jewels, and although his father would chide him for his carelessness, Bladud did not anticipate his refusing to honour his son’s debt.
‘I see you are a better player than at first appeared,’ Bladud said ruefully. ‘I will gladly give you back here and now all that you have lost to me, and more, rather than have you wait a year for your prize.’
‘I am in no hurry,’ said Keron with a smile. ‘A year will suit me very well.’ And he rose and stretched as a cat does after a satisfying sleep, raising one fist on high to indicate his victory. As a roar of delight shook the hall, Bladud turned to go – and found Rheinid waiting at his shoulder.
Not again! he thought, but nevertheless he went along with her. And this night he made love to her knowingly before he went to sleep. She was passionate, and it was good, but he still could not shake off the feeling that somehow she, and not he, was in control . . .
When he thought it must be near morning, he rose, and, with determination, left the castle.
This time no one tried to stop him. The guards drew back the bolts without his having to instruct them. His horse was ready and waiting. It was so easy.
As he rode through the great oaken gates and into the golden, singing countryside, he felt uneasily that something had gone from him – that something of himself had been left behind as hostage . . .