from The Dogs of Spring
1: November, 1202 A.D., Wales
A breeze stirred by the stream, and in the purple light of morning a yellow willow leaf twirled down from the golden canopy overhead and settled on the sleeve of Alfred, Earl of Woxbury. The blue smoke of his dying campfire had risen in a straight column all night but now twisted in the breeze; the smoke's tang came sharp and alive in his nostrils. With his one good hand he picked up a stick, gray with frost that melted at his touch and made the bark slippery in his fingers, and spread the coals. The stick hissed, waking up Biter with a start. Alfred smiled grimly to himself and scratched Biter's black belly.
Biter was an old brachet hound who hadn't chased a rabbit in years, but she seemed to enjoy this hunt even though she looked puzzled when her master ignored the obvious signs of good game. They seemed fit for each other; Alfred, who once could split the skull of a running boar with a single blow of his sword, himself hadn't hunted in years, and together they could fumble their way through this one. But they needed to do much better than fumble. Autumn had come and neither of them would live to see winter unless this, their last hunt, were successful.
It was no boar, hart or hind they hunted, but the legendary Temple of Nodens and its Dogs of Healing. They had come a long way west from Mercia, crossing the wide, green swale of Offa's Dyke, and then stopping a few days to rest in Abergaverny and again in Llangattock before following the River Usk deep into the forest that grew dark and thick in the valley between the Black Mountains and the bald tops of the Brecon Beacons. For an Englishman to head into Gwent was risky enough without calling undue attention to himself ‑‑ especially with King John's troubles with Llewellyn ‑‑ so Alfred travelled in a battered peasant's cloak without token of his class, and Biter was decrepit enough now that no one could mistake her for a nobleman's hunting dog. Together this way, they secretly sought the Dogs of Healing.
Alfred stood up with an effort and stamped the coals into the earth with his boot. He adjusted his longsword in its scabbard, pulled his belt tight, gathered his leather cloak about him and then picked up his walking stick. His kit ‑‑ a single iron bowl and spoon and a small glass bottle containing the precious theriac his apothecary had given him for his ailment ‑‑ he left stacked on a soft mat of green moss. The theriac had done him no good, for still his belly hurt and he had no appetite, and the bowl hadn't seen a morsel in the six days since they had left Llangattock; although Biter had caught a lame squirrel two days ago and kindly brought it to him, Alfred let her have it all. Maybe someone else would find a use for his kit.
Biter's eyes rolled up at him expectantly. With his arthritic hand, Alfred gripped a worn, leather bag hanging from a thong around his neck and whispered a prayer. The bag contained a single, time-blackened knuckle-bone, a relic of St. Hubert. The patron saint of the hunt had not failed him yet.
Biter snuffled ahead, and they followed the stream deeper down into the dark valley where the breeze died and the forest changed. Now hemlocks lifted up their shoulders and pushed their branches together into an impenetrable roof. Around the hemlocks' feet, the soft, rust-colored carpet of needles kept down the undergrowth and gave Alfred long views into the woods. Trunk after trunk dwindled into the distance and the gray-green shadows. Here and there, a dim shaft of sunlight slanted down into the darkness, but the deeper into the valley Biter led him, the rarer these glimpses became until they vanished entirely. He had entered a part of the valley where it seemed sunlight had never fallen, no breeze had ever blown, no sound had ever been uttered. The locals had told Alfred that if he followed the river down and headed where the forest was darkest, he would come across ‑‑ what did they call it? ‑‑ a llan, a place of old magic. Well, this certainly seemed the lowest and darkest part. Biter, however didn't seem so sure, and she stopped leading to dog Alfred's heels.
St. Hubert had not failed him yet ‑‑
His foot caught a root, and he stumbled, throwing both hands before him. His palms stung with the impact. Rolling over, he rubbed his hands together, and Biter licked him, paying special attention to the newest sore that had opened up on his cheek. It was no good going on; six days without food was too long, and he was now too weak. His sword weighed heavily at his hip and bruised his thigh terribly, and mustering the strength to continue even downhill now seemed beyond him.
He lay back and stretched out both arms to welcome Death. As his fingers pushed aside hemlock needles in their wide sweep to form a cross with his body, they ran across the root that he had stumbled over. No, no root, but cold, polished stone. Turning his head to look, he found a perfect sphere of white marble. He turned on one side and smoothed away the dirt and dug deeper, but in his weakness could not budge it; it seemed to be the top of a post that went far down. Curious scratches marred the stone's surface.
Alfred knew then that he was near the Temple. Centuries of leaf mould and soil had heaped up around this guidepost. When he was a young boy, he had found a similar one outside the bailey-and-motte castle of Woxbury where his family had dwelled for generations and which he had lately abandoned; legend said that the post, decorated with now-undecipherable runes, had been planted long before William came from Normandy, long before the time of the ancient Mercian kings, long before Christendom, long before the time of the Romans. What else could this guidepost lead to, out here in the middle of No Man's Land, but to the Temple? His heart beat fast with renewed hope; he had but to go a little farther. He picked himself up with a groan, pulled his hood over his gray head and ordered his feet to carry him on. Biter uttered a low whimper and followed. The forest changed again, and bright green bracken filled the spaces between thickets of birch and alder and other scrub trees. The woods had become oppressive in another way now; the air was thick as water and nearly as hard to breathe. But he went on ‑‑ here and there he could make out moss-hidden stone walls, collapsed arches festooned with ferns and vines, tumbled piles of cut rock.
A dark figure passed before him in the distance, a dark, squat shadow among the white birches. Alfred had nothing else to lose ‑‑ even now the will to live was leaking out its last drops ‑‑ so he cupped his hands to his lips and shouted a hoarse "Hallo!" The figure turned and approached, its face hidden deep within its hood. Despite his desperation, a lifetime of suspicion and doubt involuntarily sent Alfred's good hand to his longsword. Biter growled. The figure hesitated.
"The Temple of Nodens," Alfred said. "Can you tell me where it is?"
A woman's voice issued from the shadow. "It's all around you."
He swore. "Benedicte! These ruins?"
"If you were expecting a spa bubbling with mineral springs, a flock of attendants treating the ill with healthful herbs, and meandering through it all walkways decorated with intricate mosaics, then you are eight hundred years too late." The woman slid back her hood and raven hair billowed out. "But let me tell you, the Dogs of Healing did me a world of good."
Alfred's knees gave way and he sank to the ground, trembling.