The girl was a quick learner, though – of fierce intellect and strong memory – and was soon eager to accompany the Queen through the realm, which extended beyond the hill fortress of the Dun down to the river and across to some features she recognised even at almost three millennia's remove – the curve of the river that formed the peninsula on which would be built the hamlet of Fulham, the various islands which reminded her of the eyots of Chiswick and Isleworth, although she knew that these would not be in existence until long into the future – north to what she knew as Peterborough and west to what would become Wiltshire, and she felt at home even if strangely misplaced in time. She slipped from her horse and, to the bemusement of the Queen, felt the ground beneath her, kissed the sod which had been – would be, it was confusing now to tell which – home to the preparatory school she had attended some time before in her previous existence and which even now was the bane of her little brother’s life. How much more enriched might her school-days have been had she but had inklings of this Brythonic existence upon the self same ground.
She was roused from her reverie by rough human grunts and yells of agony coming through from the river bank beyond the thick clump of willow that lined it. She looked, questioningly, at the Queen, who laughed indulgently and said, “Over yonder they’ll be executing some traitors and cowards, I expect.”
The girl was horrified. “But… but that’s barbaric!”
“Is it? Why? What would you do with traitors and cowards, then?”
“Well, I… well… that is…”
“Let me tell you about cowards, my girl – those who will not fight for us might as well be fighting against us, because they be contributing to the enemy’s forces by not acting against them. Surely that’s as plain as bare earth.”
“Yes I understand that, but can’t you give them a second chance? Lock them up for a while, or something – surely execution’s too harsh!”
“Too harsh, you say? As you like. But suppose we lock them up – whose food are they going to eat? They aren’t contributing to our survival at all, and if we give people the message that it’s okay to renege on the duties they owe to the tribe, then others will be tempted to do so. Come with me.”
Immediately, Rhiannon mounted her horse and the pair rode swiftly through the trees. On sight of the Queen the retinue of executioners bowed their heads briefly. Noting the overweight figure being manhandled by the first of the executioners, the Queen asked: “Who’s this?”
“Brian Tew, Majesty”, said the head executioner, prodding the naked, plump body of the wretched captive with a sharpened stave of yew. “He was caught over yonder attempting to steal five head of cattle with a few companions, out of their wits on mead or mushrooms I shouldn’t wonder – there’s one of them up there.”
Both the Queen and Rhiannon looked up to where the executioner was pointing and saw a bloodied body hung by his arms behind his back, still twitching and being attacked by ravens. Rhiannon retched and looked away, the colour draining from her face, but the Queen said: “Very good; proceed.”
At the Queen’s approval, the executioner beat the prisoner with the yew so as to draw blood, and then his team hoisted the unfortunate up into the tree to tremendous howls of pain, made worse by the weight of his body. By this time the girl had removed herself from the scene, barely able to hold herself upright in the saddle, When the Queen caught up with her, she was sobbing.
Eventually, Rhiannon recovered her composure and looked towards the Queen. “That was… disgusting! I can hardly believe…” she said between yells of angst.
“That was necessary, child”, scolded the Queen, her harshness an attempt to regain the situation. “Do you realise that we stand on the knife-edge between survival and annihilation? Of course, we have trade and all the prosperity that brings, and we are fortunate indeed to live here, on the banks of the valley of Tamesis, with the rest of the world beyond our portal. But one tiny mistake, my girl – one lax moment – and we can be wiped out forever. I know – I’ve seen it nearly happen, when I was your age and younger, and it’s not something you want to happen twice in your lifetime, believe me!”
“But what? But nothing – I don’t know what things are like where you came from, but here we cannot afford the luxury of complacency – that’s what nearly did for us last time. And, if I read things a-right, there’s trouble on the way.”
Slowly, the juggernaut of tears that washed down Rhiannon’s gossamer-fine young apple-blush cheeks anchored to a halt, snagged on the Queen’s last sentence.
“H-how do you know?”
“Signs… portents… auguries”, explained the Queen. “I’ve been here before, remember, and it’s not something you forget, even after a lifetime, let alone a mere fifty summers. And ‘though we be fortunate to live here, such fortune brings its own misfortune in that many’s the brigand which would like to usurp our place – and a band of miscreants together, well… Anyway, let’s not speak of it now – it’s a long way off, at least I hope so, and there are more important things to be attending to.”
The two Rhiannons, the care-worn grey with her plaits and her golden jewellery, and the young girl out of her time, made their way from the river to the Dun, through villages and farmsteads and the forests of oak, ash, hawthorn and silver birch that flourished at that time, and the seven miles’ journey to what would, in later times, become Hampstead Heath, afforded them much conversation time.
“I’m perplexed”, said the younger Rhiannon. “Usually, when someone says they know something of the future, they are called mad.”
“Often-times they are, just as people who see things in the here-and-now that cannot be are called mad; then again, sometimes such people are just confused or, in some cases, what cannot be subjectively is objectively the case, and the person who says it cannot be is actually the one who is confused. For instance, there is a chariot around this bend, but you don’t know it because you don’t know what to look out for. But, as you see”, she continued as they came upon it, “here it is. Likewise, experience has taught me that certain things mean certain other things, and those things may or may not be indicative of others, but nevertheless I can use them to predict what will likely happen. And then, of course, there’s the knowledge…”
“The knowledge?” The girl tried to put images of black taxis out of her head, but couldn’t quite stifle a smirk.
“I see you have familiarity with the ways of Cunning.”
“Well, it wasn’t Cunning of which I was thinking – more rat-like guile. But I’m sure it’s not quite the same – go on.”
The Queen gave a sigh of exasperation. “Cunning, my girl, Cunning – knowledge that comes, put simply, from fusing the inner world with the outer world and the world beyond, from trees and animals, the stars and most importantly, from the Gods through you, via dreams and visions.”
“What – like Russell Gra… ummm… I mean, like astrology?”
The Queen stared a reproachful glare, the sort of sanction a librarian might make over the top of half-moon glasses at the sight and noise of a drunken “conga” through the reference section. “I know not of this 'Russell Grahumm' being of which you speak, but astrology is part of the lore. I think the best way to show you is to teach you, if you will accept instruction.”
“Well, I’ve always been told that the sort of thing I think you’re talking about is devil worship.”
“Devil worship? What’s devil worship?”
“Devil worship… you know… worshipping devils!”
“Okay, let’s start from the beginning. What are these devils you’re talking about worshipping?
“Evil spirits, of course!” It was now the girl’s turn to be exasperated. “And I’m not talking about worshipping them – in fact, I’m talking about not worshipping them. At all; it’s not good!”
“Ahh – that’s a relief. I’m not talking about worshipping evil entities of any description either: we revere nature, the Gods and Goddesses of nature, our tribal Ancestors and the land they toiled and tamed for our benefit. It is a good and worthy system: of course, there are evil entities abroad as well, but she is a fool that treads heedless in their company.”
“But I was told any system of Majick is the work of evil entities…”
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