Gandrik shambled into the hall of Great King Utter “Broadblade”. It was a dark, smoke-filled place hammered together from stout timbers and heavy thatch. No windows had been built into its walls to allow light within.
It was a high place with a steep sloping roof. Men on the road said that King Utter refused to allow even one saw to be used in its construction. His serfs and architects had used only whole trees, the branches and roots lopped off.
None of this impressed Gandrik. His long robes were stained with mud from the ill-repaired road and street sewage from the beggarly village below. But he always wore faded brown wool, precisely because the grime could never be seen on it.
His was a withering burden. On his stiff back he carried a bundle of willow branches tied with red-dyed leather and enough years of wisdom to fill two men’s lifetimes. It was the wisdom which made him stoop and shuffle. Gandrik could bear the weight of willow well enough.
“Who are you, traveller?” a voice cried from the other end of the hall, unmistakably the voice of King Utter.
“I am Gandrik.” the old man shouted back.
His clouded eyes picked out a glint of iron amid the hollow black shadows. It was a short, fat sword. As he drew closer with aching, blistered feet, he discerned the outline of the giant who held it. He sat almost six feet tall, so that Gandrik at first thought the lord must be standing.
King Utter’s body was a rolling mass of grey furs and black skins. Men on the road had said that he took the pelt of every wolf pack which stalked across the border of his kingdom. Even beneath that mass of dark swaddling, Gandrik could tell by how the king sat that his figure was not wasted in paunch or sloth. He was a tower of muscle, ready to pounce with the speed of a cat and force of a bear.
“Welcome to my hall, Gandrik. What brings you here?”
Hunger. He thought. I am cold and I am hungry. For longer than any man alive I have wandered these isles in search of a place to rest. Gandrik sighed and bowed his head. Yours, Great King, is by far the most miserable hovel I have thus far encountered. It shames me to remember, when I was still a youth, how the Romans kept a paved road through this putrid mire you call a kingdom and built a brick bathhouse where you now squat in the brackish ruins to empty your bowels.
“I have come to offer my services to the mightiest and greatest king in Angland.” Gandrik said, and thought Saxon pig.
“What service can you offer me?” he asked, tapping a huge foot against the rotting rushes that littered his hall’s floor.
“I am Gandrik, Keeper of Wands.”
Gandrik almost wept as he reached over his shoulder and drew out a slender strip of willow. It was not just the pain of his creaking joint which pricked his eyes. It was the knowledge that his precious bundle would come one step closer to being stripped bare. He had cared for it longer than living memory. Where would he be once it was gone?
The wand grew hot in his hand, but he held it steady. Its trembling length pointed at the king, conqueror of that reach of the isles and scourge of the Britons. Gandrik muttered a few choice words in the old tongue, Druid words. They did nothing, merely a comfort for him to hear.
A bolt of fire spat from the end of the willow branch and tore through the dark air. The wand splintered in his hand and Gandrik hobbled back to the doorway. He stopped over the threshold and looked back, watched Great King Utter “Broadblade” being swallowed by a churning inferno that blazed through his mountain of furs and melted the sword in his hands.