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For Camelot’s Honor — Prologue

The West Lands, Midsummer’s Eve, Anno Domini 350.

Maius the Smith sat beside the river, where the shadow of the bridge would fall come the morning.  He kept a solitary vigil as the evening star rose up from the horizon.  His cloak was thick, but the night was warm, and he had it slung back over his broad shoulders.  The wind blew soft across his tattooed arms and shaved scalp, bringing the sweet smoke of the bonfires that burned on top of the hill.  The rest of his folk feasted themselves nearly sick on pig’s flesh and strong beer.  Later, they would dance and drink and cheer the long days, and make sacrifice of love and life to bring god and goddess down to walk among the grain.

Maius himself had not participated in the bonfire rites since he took the iron hammer from his father.  He had a different watch to keep.

The bridge beside him was made of great stone slabs.  Some said they were kin to the healing stones of the plain henges which were won from the scoti witches on the green isle.  The Roman lords who forced their road beside the river looked at them and shook their heads, talking in their odd, flat tongue of levers and rollers, ropes and weights.  They did not believe what Maius told them, but neither did they laugh.  They lived in strange cities far from the good earth, but they knew well there were other worlds that were none of men’s making.  They knew that those who dwelt there must have their roads, even as men must.

Twice a year, midsummer and midwinter, the crossing was open.  Twice a year, one would come from that other world, tall and beautiful, or small and brown.  They would have a thing to mend — a cup or a jewelled broach, a wheel or a sword.  Their kind could not work metals, but they used them, all save iron which was man’s secret alone.  Maius would take the thing and mend it and bring it back for the morning.  That must be done or those others would be angry, and the great bridge would be taken away, and far more than that.

There was safety to be had dwelling beside the bridge, for there were things that would never come here, but there was danger too.  They accepted that, and the chief stood surety for all of them, and Maius, and his son soon, paid tribute.

Hoofbeats sounded against the stone, and Maius surged to his feet.  No man with wit about him stood unafraid before those that crossed from the twilight road, but Maius’s iron hammer hung from his belt.  No elfshot could touch him, no glamour overtake him, not with iron his protector.

All the same, he whispered a prayer to Rhiannon and Mother Don as the shadow took shape on the bridge, crossing from the eastern side.

The horse drew near enough for Maius to see the rider, and the bulky smith felt his jaw drop.  This was not the tall white steeds favoured by the Fair Ones.  This was only…a horse.  A good horse such that a Roman might not sneer at, but just a brown horse, as the man in the saddle was no more than a man wearing belted tunic of good cloth with a golden torque flashing around his throat and gold rings on his arms.  He carried him a long spear the shaft of which was carved with runes so strange that Maius who knew the mysteries of his craft and more besides, could make nothing of them.

The rider reined his horse to a halt at the edge of the steps, and beast and man looked down on Maius, standing there gaping like a boy for the surprise of seeing a mortal man on this night.

The stranger smiled.  “The gods be with you.  Are you the one they call Maius the Smith?”

Maius gripped the cool iron of his hammer and gathered his wits together.  “I am.  Who are you that comes unafraid by such a road tonight?”

The question seemed to amuse the rider.  “I am the king of the little country, Maius Smith, the ruler of the hidden lands and the secret way.”  He chuckled at his own riddles.

For all he wore gold, he was just a man, and Maius’s astonishment turned fast to anger.  “Well, Little King, I tell you, you should not be abroad, but should take shelter with other men.”

“But, Maius I have come to make your fortune.”

Maius’s brow furrowed.  This stank.  It stank like iron gone rotten with rust.What was this riddling man?  “How’s that?” he asked.

“I have need of smith who knows the deeper mysteries, whose hands know how to work more than earthly gold.  I have come a long way at a dangerous time to invite you to my service.”  His hand reached beneath his cloak, and he tossed something small and dark at Maius feet.  “Come willingly and this toy is the least reward you shall have.”

Maius did not take his eyes from the stranger, but he did bend down and feel through the grass until he found what had been thrown down.  A great jewel lay heavy and cold in his palm, winking in the light of the rising moon.  He could not tell its colour, but in the moonlight, it was so dark as to be almost black, and its facets were so sharp and so tiny he could not count them all.

Involuntarily, Maius thought of what he could do with such a gem.  With gold enough he could work it into a ring that could grace the arm of the Governor’s wife, or the Governor himself.  It was cattle, this gem, it was dowry for his daughters, goods for his house and pride for his wife, perhaps it was even a second wife to grace him.  And more where this came from.

He looked up at the rider, and the man had a serious demeanour.

“I need you, Maius Smith,” he said, his words as weighty as the rich stone in Maius’s hands.  “I need a man who is not afraid to touch the great workings, who can bend his craft to the arts invisible.  No common man can aid me in my kingdom.  You are the only one.”  He stretched his hand out.  “Come with my and I swear you will learn you mysteries beyond the telling and craft such as no smith has worked since the god Vulcan walked on the earth.”

The stranger’s word went straight to Maius’s pride of craft, and from there to his heart.  He looked at the outstretched hand and all the promises overcame sober wisdom.  Not even the shining ones, the tylwyth teg had offered him the secrets of the things he mended, much less such wealth.  With such thoughts filling him, Maius grasped the hand the rider held out to him, and in that oldest gesture, he sealed the bargain.

Before Maius could pull his hand from that strong grasp, the rider swiftly touched the smith’s shoulder with the tip of his spear.  The night shivered around them, split and folded in on itself, and smith and rider were swallowed whole.

The hammer which should have protected the life and soul of Maius Smith lay alone beneath the stars, waiting to be found with the morning.

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