The flames reached out to him like a lover’s arms as he walked naked between the twin fires. He felt their warm caress upon his skin but knew they could not harm him, for they were the flames of Taranis and he was the god’s servant. Another man’s flesh would have been scorched and shrivelled by their heat yet he remained untouched.
When he reached the far side of the chamber, Aymer, high priest of the sect, awaited him with the clothing he would wear on his journey, cleansed and blessed in its turn. The druid was very ancient, a shrunken husk of a man, dried out and worn down by all the long years of toil and study and abstinence in the great oak-walled halls of Pencerrig. But the life force was still strong in him and Gwlym felt it now, along with a palpable expansion of his own mind as the milky, faded eyes locked on his. No words were spoken as Aymer passed to him the knowledge that would take him to his goal, but he saw the path ahead clearly. The black mountains, with their deep gorges and narrow paths along foaming, rock-strewn streams. The great river, swirling, deep and dark, which he must cross unseen. Then, more dangerous still, the flat green pastureland with its well-worn tracks and curious inhabitants, before he reached the final sanctuary of the forests and the faraway sea.
‘It is done,’ the priest said, his voice brittle with age. ‘The cleansing is complete.’
Gwlym dressed quickly and followed the druid into the darkness where the ponies waited. They picked their way through the night along hidden trackways until they reached the edge of a low cliff over-looking a narrow beach. From below came the gentle hiss of waves breaking rhythmically against a pebble shore and he saw a shadowy figure working on the fragile wood and animal-skin craft which would carry him across. The light, or lack of it, made the sea a dull, leaden silver, and beyond it was visible the darker, more sinister contour of the mainland. Shorter routes existed between Mona, the sacred isle of the druids, and the country of the Deceangli, but they would undoubtedly be watched.
‘They will come for us soon.’ Aymer’s words were barely audible. ‘By then you must have completed your task.’
Gwlym nodded. There was nothing more to say. He understood he would never see Aymer again after this night. Soon, the legions of Rome would march through those same mountain gorges to destroy the last stronghold of the druids and break their power for ever.