Excerpt for The Silurian, Book 2: The King of Battles by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

THE SILURIAN

BOOK TWO

THE KING OF BATTLES



#2 of 8

©L.A. WILSON 2003-2018

http://www.pearltrees.com/la_wilson

thefox12@gmail.com



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

SMASHWORDS EDITION









TABLE OF CONTENTS-book 2

1: So begins the South Saxon Campaign

2: First Contact

3: Saving a British Woman

4: Speech on Revenge Hill

5: Gareth’s News

6: Even Better News

7: Bedwyr’s Battle Fury

8: Running up the Fox’s Spear

9. Medraut’s Beauty Halved

10. Escalibor

11. Running away for Breakfast

12. Arthur Invincible

13. Nothing left of the South Saxons

14. Resting with Nightmares

15. Hard Victory

16. Something Between Bedwyr and Medraut

17. Into the Black Mountains

18. Lady Rhosyn

19.Artio, the Bear, and the Black Fox

20. Over the Burial Mound

21. Sighting the Boar Clan

22. Meeting Morganna

23. The Fox Ploughs

24. A Boar at the Gates

25. The Trouble of Leaving

26. Marc

27. Bedwyr gets a Job

28. Marrying the Princess of the Gaels

29. Cai says Arthur is Dying

30 Saving the Bear

31: The Fox’s Mission

32: Fighting with Medraut

33: Meeting Huwel ap Caw

34. The Thing in the Forest

35. Running into Picts

36. Fighting Cynan Aurelius

37. Running away from Picts

38. Morgen’s Dagger

39. Waiting for Arthur

40. Arthur tells his Secret

41. Needing the Fox

42. Stealing the Sword

43. Un-stealing the Sword

44. Taking the Sword to Siluria

45. The Horned King Arthur

46. Arthur’s First Born

47. The first Battle against the Boars

48. Bedwyr and Cail meet the Fatman

49.Arthur’s Dangerous Plan

50. Lady Rhosyn’s Farewell

51: Battle for the Blackfox

52. The Great Boar Hunt

53. Meeting Culhwch

54. Roman Adventurers

55. Becoming Killers

56. Recovery

57. Medraut Returns

END









1: THE SOUTH SAXON CAMPAIGN BEINGS

AFTER our battle against Raedwald, Arthur began planning his first full campaign against the Saxons—against the South Saxons of Aelle of the Saxon Weald. His first campaign as Supreme Commander, due to begin on the day of his nineteen years birth-day. But before his plans were even out of his head, there was another battle to fight, this time for me. With the Snake. When he returned from his patrol, he asked me to meet him in the large house he and his men billeted in. I sensed he needed something, to explain more to me about the thing he had told me about—the Saxon women that he had killed; his need to relieve himself so much he wanted to layer even more of his guilt onto me. I could not refuse him, or else, he would layer this guilt on Arthur.

I went to his billet that night, and he greeted me at the main door, saying, “Later tonight, there is a meeting here in this room, so you need to be ready for everything Arthur throws at us; himself and Saxons, everything.”

“I’m ready,” I answered. “And will you offer me supper? I haven’t had any yet. I dropped everything, just for you.”

He laughed, and took me into a private sitting area where a large long-table was set up, with plates and mugs ready, lamps burned in their bowls around the room. Medraut’s billet was smaller than mine, and he had it set out as best he could, himself being waited on hand and foot by his lads. With him were Dafin and Irfan, Owain and Coll, and Amr.

And Amr, the third of our small Silurian band, lived off Medraut’s every word, his every glance. I noticed this as we went into the room and sat at the table, Amr watching Medraut for instruction.

“Ale,” the Snake said.

Amr went off and poured two mugs, came back and set them before us. “You can go now, leave us alone, no interruptions, boy,” and Medraut gave Amr a long stare.

When we were alone, we sat for a moment regarding each other, because I knew what was going on in his head, the murder he had committed against the Saxon women Arthur had freed back at the settlement. The wife and son of the Atheling Raedwald.

I took a sip of ale as Medraut said, “All right, Fox, I can tell by your look, those women—you cannot pretend to me you find it heart-breaking to have them killed. But I did not kill the boy; not even I could do such a wretched thing.”

Even with the deadliness behind his green eyes, his angel features, his long blond hair, and how like Arthur, both of them flushed with power, Medraut did not move me. I watched him as I drank my ale. Though I told him, “Arthur must never know about this. Never. And don’t forget, you disobeyed his orders and look what happens to men when they do, slaughtered wholesale. You have to make some kind of amends. What did you do with the boy?”

Medraut looked down at the table, where I saw regret, even pain show on his face. “I had him blindfolded as…as the women were killed. I rode with him out of earshot so he couldn’t hear what was happening to his mother. I held him before me and he was still, did not struggle or move or cry out, and for a fleeting moment I wanted to keep him, send him home to Luguvalos and raise him as mine…I saw myself in him…a son I will never have. That fair child, a beauty he was. I couldn’t harm him, so when it was all over, I rode with him out towards the roads to Aelle’s territories and set him free, told him to run and run and never look back. I confess to you Fox, it broke my heart to see him go. So there, now you know.”

He swallowed a mouthful of ale, swallowing his worry. I saw more pain in him now than ever before, as he seemed near to breaking open and crying. He seemed to need help, so I put out a hand and squeezed his wrist. “Medraut,” I told him, “do not go down dark roads; stay in the light. It would break Arthur’s heart to see you go down into darkness, you know that.” But then I said, “If you were holding the boy while his mother was being killed…then it wasn’t you who killed her. Who killed her, them, all of them? Tell me it all. I won’t tell…you know I would never let anything like this get into Arthur’s head.”

Sweet goddess, I saw a tear fall down his cheek and he wept to me, “I had them killed, ordered them killed because it had to be done! I won’t let them Saxon bitches breed in our land! The female cunt is far deadlier than any invading army; but the boy? One day he might come against us when he’s grown, and I’ll recognize him and he might recognize me, and he will kill me, if I do not kill him first. I wish I had kept him. A son I’ll never have. I’m never going to have sons, am I? Put my precious prick in a woman’s hole? The thought of it makes me sick to my guts.” And he downed his ale, then sat back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling.

“Who killed the women?” I asked again, for I wanted to know which one of his men could kill in cold-blood that way.

He said, still staring up at the ceiling, “If I tell you, will you keep quiet about it? I don’t want my beautiful cousin to know about it, do I? He’s got such a deep heart for trust.”

“I know. Tell me.”

“But this will make us closer in conspiracy, Fox, do you want to get so close to me? Maybe take a taste of something dark and wicked? I’m delicious, you know.” He said all this still gazing up above him.

I said, “I think I already know the killer in your unit. What would Arthur do if he found out it was Amr? I know it was that foul little bastard, Amr.”

When I said this, Medraut lost his temper and thumped the table, crying at me, “How do you know? Your animal sense is stronger than any real fox. You sense things like a wolf-dog on a trail. How do you do it?”

“It’s what I’m good at, it’s the genius of knowing, it’s the thing that makes me special, and Arthur knows it, I know it.”

“Then let’s drink to it!” and he made me a toast, and together we stayed and drank for a while, waiting for Arthur to arrive with the rest of the men for our meeting. The man himself burst through the door a moment later, and Medraut and I jumped to our feet to greet him with salutes. He pushed us down, back into our seats, and then leaning on the tabletop, he said to us, “I have it all worked out,” then sat down himself, and smiled.

“You see, Fox,” Medraut told me. “A genius on legs, with a cock longer and heavier than my leg.” He winked at me then, and I frowned at him. I said to Arthur, “Have what all worked out?”

“The next link in the chain of Saxon power,” he answered, unconcerned. “I will break it, that link. Where are those men of mine? I want to get on with this, then I can go out and chase down that girl who works in the horse-stables outside of town.”

Medraut snarled at this, was about to make some answering remark, when the rest of the inner Clan began arriving, closing his mouth on his words, and for that, I was grateful. In came all of our unit captains. Cai, Valarius, Gareth, Dafin and Irfan, Llacheu, Owain and Coll. And when they were seated around us with glasses of wine in their hands, Arthur stood up and finished the night with a quick round of plans and orders: “First, we must go back to intensive training. Gareth, your unit keeps falling into disarray when we make a cavalry charge. I cannot have that, ever. Back to training, intensive dawn till dusk training.”

Gareth hung his head in shame, and nodded agreement. It was true. His unit tended to scatter instead of riding firm and in battle order. It meant there were internal problems with his men—his cousin, Brendon Ro, being one of them and they needed training more than the rest of us. I came next.

“Fox, I want you and Llacheu back out on the field with the horses.”

I nodded agreement.

“And when the training’s done,” Arthur went on, “when I say it’s done…” He paused and everyone sat watching him. Here he told them what I already knew, “I’m launching a full attack-campaign against the South Saxons. I’m not waiting for them to come to us, but we are riding out in full force to destroy them wholesale. The first full-scale campaign out from base camp, and we are not letting go till I have them done.”

Medraut laughed and Cai went wild. He shouted, “Yes! At last!” Jumped to his feet and raised his arms to the ceiling, his huge arms, and began flexing his mighty muscles. “Break and kill Saxons! I would kill them with bare hands and crush them in my arms!” he roared and looked at Arthur, crying, “I would hold you in my heart and you are the reason I live! Arthur, you are my king!” Cai had everyone laughing, toasting him with our wine. We all came to our feet.

Lifted our glasses, and Medraut said, “To Arthur. King Arthur!”

And he laughed like he had just found a way to make our lives even more difficult.

Yet Arthur bowed to us; answered, “Are you ready to fight like you have never done before? I am going to take you into the Saxon Weald. Aelle of the South Saxons is going to see me face to face with my men backing me. Your names will last an age. And if you want me as your king, you have to make me. All of you, you have to make me.”

“I will make you a king,” Medraut told him.

Now Arthur and Medraut stood looking only at each other, staring at each other hard.

“I will make you a king,” Medraut repeated.

And the way he said this stilled us all, because he spoke with power and control and we believed him. The force that was Medraut was the dark side of Arthur. Again the Snake made my blood run cold. Even Cai was stilled to stone.

And Arthur put his wine glass down on the table, untouched; he said, “If it rains hard tomorrow, rest a day. If the sun shines, start training. You can go now, brothers, and thank you for your work, your support. Without you, I would be nothing.”

So we finished our wine and moved out, going back to our billets, Arthur following us out into the rain on the hunt for his stable-girl.

The next day it was bright and sunny, which meant we had to start training; we would train in the old Roman amphitheatre outside the walls of the town, and there was masses to do before the start of the South Saxon campaign. Day after day where I became a tyrant to those I had in my training unit. Most of the younger and newer lads were mine, as always, and I battered them to get them to ride in battle ordered formation, mock attacks and charges, where they must ride and use the spear against the enemy without unhorsing themselves. Others had to ride and fire arrows into targets and control their horses with their thighs and knees.

We ran our horses into mock Saxon shield-walls and as all of this was happening, Arthur disappeared. That is, he left Calleva with Medraut, Sandedd and Cai, and rode south with a detachment to Venta Belgarum. There to woo Atticos Verica, King of the Atrebates, into supporting our army both from city-Calleva and Venta in our coming campaign.

We would need huge supplies for both men and horses, and these supplies would come not just from those two major towns, but the farmsteads around, and others reaching down to the south coast. And while Arthur was away, and still doing my daily training work, I hatched a plan that had been going around in my head for a while. I went down to see the master-carpenter, and here I put forward my plan. I wanted a shield made, a new, stronger, yet lighter shield, rimmed in seamless steel, made to easily turn a Saxon blade. On the shield itself I would have painted a new design, not an upright striking bear, but a goddess. It would not matter which goddess, as all goddesses were one to Arthur, as he loved them all. And if she would only love him as much as I did, she would protect him from all attacks, from sword and spear and axe. She would deflect the stroke that would kill him, the Goddess Britannia.

I planned to give it to him for his nineteenth birth-day. Also, on the twelfth of Aprilis, Arthur will have completed one full cycle as Supreme Commander. He had achieved more in one year than any other commander before him. This I knew to be true, as did every man in town, from the boys in the blacksmiths and armourers, to the highest-ranking chieftains, from the priests of the Christ, to the hidden Druids in the wild-lands, they all talked about the Silurian as a scything power unknown before him. Arthur’s glory had come to a spear-point now, where every distressed voice in Britain cried out for him, and wherever he rode, he would bring us, his heroes with him. He had taken me to the mountaintop just as he said he would.

All over town our boys were packing their gear, getting their weapons sharpened, oiling their swords, their daggers, checking their spears and shields and helmets, working with their horses to pack them for a long ride into unknown territories. And everywhere we went as soldiers, we were hailed by the people; they came out of their shops and houses to shake our hands and give us good-luck trinkets, and little packages of cakes and buns made by the women for us to take with us. I picked up two bags of cakes and five trinkets of gold, one of them a Jesus-god sign, and the others all amulets of safety and healing, one of them a tiny cock with two little legs. Amazing, made to ward off evil, the woman who gave it to me said. I had to wear it, which I did, and so there I was, swaggering around town with an erect prick around my neck.

One afternoon, when Arthur was back from his trip to Venta, I found him sitting at the kitchen table, stuffing his face, as if tomorrow, he would never see food again.

I sat down with him and said, “Can you spare me a moment?”

“I’m eating, and I can’t stop now. What’s wrong?”

“Just something.”

He never stopped eating as he gave me a long look, but did not question me further.

I said, “Come with me, you can finish this later. That mochyn-broth can wait to be eaten.”

“Fox!”

I refused to back down.

“All right,” he complained, and got up and followed me down the corridor and into my room, saying again, “What’s wrong?”

I told him, “Nothing is wrong.”

The lamp on the wall was alight as I had lit it before going out and I turned and looked at him now. “I just want to give you something,” I told him. “I was going to give it to you on your birth-day, but changed my mind. I want it private, between you and me.”

He stood still watching my face. I stepped closer to him, saying, “On this campaign, you will do what you do best; to take the hearts and souls of men and make them love you. You are going to lead us to war, and all I can think of is that far grey battlefield, where you will fall and die. You are all I want, and I want you safe. So I got you this.”

I pulled the skins back from my bed, where under them I had hidden the shield from view. Arthur moved closer to see, and watched me silent and stilled as I took the shield out of its soft leather cover; the steel rim shone in the lamplight, the central boss shone, as around the white goddess Britannia painted there seemed to shimmer and dance, her arm held up as if to ward off a sword blow. For a moment, he did not say anything. Though he took the shield off me and looked at it long and deep, his dark eyes taking in every shape and rivet and line, every movement of the goddess, her white dress floating around her in a mist, her long white hair, and he looked at me, stunned maybe, as all the time he could not say anything.

Then, “This is the best gift anyone has ever given me, so beautiful…and light, because you know I cannot carry the bear-shield any more. It ripped my shoulder to pieces.”

“She will protect you in battle,” I told him. “I know she will. Women love you and so does the Goddess.” I turned to face him again. But all he did was stand and look at me, and I saw it in his eyes, his love for me. “Life is what you will have,” he said. “I will make sure of it, because when I fight for Britain, it is you I’m fighting for. Don’t you know this? Because when Uthyr used to pound me with his fists, I used to think of the mountains of Gwynedd and the home of Bedwyr the Fox, and you kept me alive and living. I will keep you alive, forever.”

I stood and watched him pulling the cover over the shield and pulling the ties and picking it up, and we went back to the kitchen to finish the broth together…

WE left city-Calleva without fuss or crowds of well-wishers to line the streets and farewell us as we rode out of the gates, subdued, so different from the year before when we rode out of city-Deva as the Clan Bear, everything open and exuberant. This time, we went quietly, almost secretively, filing out in long dark lines of riders in the early dawn. Once all out, we formed up in our riding columns, where first, we were to head south to Venta Belgarum.

Arthur was already out on the road, sitting on horseback and watching his men ride by, inspecting the troops and ready to order any last moment changes that needed to be made. On this trip he was riding Big Brown, though behind us came a squadron of spare horses, one of which was his beloved Epona. Everything we needed was coming with us, loaded into the battle-wains, though each warrior had packed his horse to campaign level, equipped with all we needed to sustain ourselves if we should ever become separated from our units. Everyone carried a bag of feed for their horses slung across their rumps behind our saddles, as forage, feed and water for the horses was paramount on campaign.

And as I rode out of the gate with the main mass of riders, I saw Medraut come galloping in last, spurring on past me and joining next to Arthur on the roadside. Together the two cousins, Supreme Commander and lieutenant-general, watched the troops forming up, and Arthur called the command to walk on. We moved off in perfect order, down the south road with the sun rising over the eastern horizon. We rode on steady and sure.

And as we did, Arthur came riding down our outside right, calling out, “Prince Bedwyr! Join me!”

I pulled out and trotted my horse down to join him, where we made our way to the head of the column, and here settled into a walk. I noticed he was carrying his new goddess shield on his back. I said, “Commander,” and saluted him.

We rode on together, side by side, and the land was fair about us. Our first stop was to be at Venta Belgarum, in time for that late breakfast like I thought, and coming towards the town, we saw King Atticos had a welcoming committee all out on the roads to raise hell-fire as we approached; we arrived surrounded by cheering people, as we were already heroes in Venta for saving the city that time from the Jutish and Saxon invasion, but this time, we were more like sweethearts than heroes, the way Atticos poured out his love all over us. The Clan Bear! Attention and respect; food and warm beds for the night at Atticos’ villa—then came the morn, and on rising, it was Arthur’s nineteenth birth-day, and there was no celebration other than what the army gave him in adulation. And our war-horns were already blowing hard. I was out at a jump, found Arthur already gone to his duty. I put my armour on in a rush. From outside in the courtyard I could hear the gathering men, gathering like a storm. The war-horns kept blowing, mustering the troops.

I housed my swords, tightened my belt around my ring-mail tunic and pulled on my boots, gartered my riding breeches to my knees and picked up my gear, my saddle, the black bearskin and the blanket for my horse’s back and settled it all on my bed, turned to check it was all in good order. Found it all good, picked it all up and answered the war-horns, feeling elated. Outside, King Atticos and his family were waiting in excitement, following me out of the gate and down to where the army was camped.

Everywhere people were up and following us, crowds in the dawning light, a feeling of weirdness touching me as I saw the troops out on the field with the sun rising over the eastern horizon and making a line of silver up into the sky, and the noise! Horses neighing wildly, feeling our excitement, men calling and horns blowing, warriors coming from all directions, all of us dressed for battle, though no Arthur. Behind me came Medraut, to the left and right, Val and Cai, Gareth and Brendon Ro, all running for their horses, the other shield-men coming over to join with me; Dafin and Irfan, then Coll, and finally Owain, who had once been my enemy, to ride with me, almost as if I was the one now to lead us into battle. I kept on for the field where I could see my horse tethered in the lines. I ran for Mischief and began to saddle him up, threw the blanket over his back, patted him down to calm him, speaking into his ear, pulling on his ear like Arthur did to Epona. I bridled my horse and looked over his back, checked the padding on my saddle, housed my gladius, hooked my water-bottle on, held Mischief’s head as I led him out and down to the riding column.

Still the horns were blowing; the head of the sun came higher; people running out of the city gates, cheering. I mounted my horse and turned to see what the cheering was all about. Saw Arthur at last, himself riding through the mass of people, his horse shying and jumping and throwing up her head as the people crowded around him, calling his name, trying to touch him as he pushed through them. Sometimes he reached down to take their hands. Many of them did not want to let him go, but held on and pleaded with him, refusing to let go of him.

I saw him force his horse through the mass, and he cantered down to join us, just as fired up as he had been all through the night before, for he had lost none of his strength or power in all this time, but seemed to have gained it, and when he came close enough, I heeled on down to join at his left side. Three hundred and thirty mounted troops. Two units of horse-archers. Arthur, central command, Val and Medraut, captains of the left and right wings, and two new special recruits: Gawain and Gaheris ap Atticos.

“What are you going to do with Atticos’ sons?” I called to Arthur as we rode out under the blare of the war-horns and the men mounting their horses in a mass.

He shrugged. “I don’t know! Let’s see what they can offer me.”

And so it began.

With Arthur urging away from me and turning to call, “Is everyone ready! Is there anyone here who wants to desert me now?”

No dissent.

“Then we ride!”

And we were gone, striking out for our first base-camp directly to the east along an old track-way, used by local farmers and villagers. We rode in good order, with Gawain and his brother last before the wains; a good place for them to learn the way of our army.

For a way along the track, the people of Venta ran with us, boys and girls on ponies, and King Atticos himself to see his sons off, sitting on his horse and waving at us in a sad kind of way; would he ever see us again? His sons coming with us even though they were not trained to fight; we would use them as scouts and errand-boys, as camp aides and grooms, anything to keep them out of the line of attack.

Away, we rode for five leagues to reach the Calleva road, and here turned south. Another league before stopping to make camp after a constant five-hour ride at walking pace to save the horses. First day out, we would not be attacking Saxons just yet.

After setting up camp, Arthur walked over to join me, telling me he was riding out with Gareth’s scouts and did I want to go with him or stay. I opted to stay behind, as I had rubbed up a saddle-sore on my left inner thigh after riding for five hours, and I did not want to ride any more that day. I stayed behind and watched Arthur take to his horse, out with the scouts. With him went Medraut. Later again, a freezing wind came whipping through camp, out where we marked the outer boundaries. So we planted our draco-standards, and as the wind came in and ripped through the dragon mouths it made them scream. The Red Dragon banner, also planted in the centre ground, began to flap and tear. The camp cooks were having a hard time to keep their fires under control. The sky darkened, and I wrapped up in my cloak. It was an eerie afternoon, and by the time the sun began to set, our Commander had still not returned, so I took to patrolling the outer boundaries, watching the eastern sky, all of the time with a distant feeling that something was out there and waiting.

It got later and later, and soon came time for supper, the cooks ready to dish out their camp provisions, and I laughed to myself, because this was when I heard the horn-call to warn that Gareth was returning. I had a feeling Arthur wouldn’t want to miss supper and he would bring them in at the exact right moment.

He did. The troop came riding over the lip of the hill in front of our camp, and when they came close, Gareth stopped before me and leant down to tell me, “He’s insane, he has balls of stone and I’m counting on you Bedwyr, to keep him under control. You are the only one he will listen to. He ran us and our horses to death, and please, we do not need this so soon, tell him.” He rode off in a rage.

Arthur came in, and as he did, all the men came out and saluted him, stopped their work and watched him; he looked untroubled and not blue in the face like Gareth. I stood by the camp-fire, still wrapped in my cloak, watching him. He jumped off his horse and gave her to a groom, who took her away to water. I watched him moving through camp. He stopped to talk to his captains. The Dragon flapped and Arthur ordered Gawain and Gaheris to take the dracos down to stop their wailing. Then he stopped what he was doing and looked around; saw me by the fire. He came over to join me; here he brought with him the sense of being alive, all through him and alive. He watched me, then said, “I don’t have time to waste.”

“Just don’t run them too hard and fast too soon,” I warned him.

Wind blew his hair into his eyes and he shook his head. “Is Gareth complaining?”

“Gave me a mouthful, said I have to control you. Can I do that?”

“I reckon it will have to be you. Medraut cannot do it. No-one can. Come over and listen to what I have to tell them now.”

So I followed him to where the captains were gathering around the standard and the central camp-fire. I glanced over and saw Prince Gawain standing by the Dragon Banner and holding it in his hand, studying it with intent. He must have felt me watching him, as he looked over at me, then came over to join us, Gaheris, his brother following.

And as he came, he asked me, “You are a prince?” He faced me hard and staring into my eyes.

“Aye, I am a Gododdin prince. I know there was no time to meet officially last night: I am Prince Bedwyr, son of Pedrawg, once King of Dogfeiling in Gwynedd, grandson of Bedrydant of the line of King Cunedda of the Votadini and Arthur’s foster-brother.”

“Impressive!” he crowed at me. “I am impressed. And so, not many of you Gododdin fight in the south, and certainly not those who are princes. And the Dragon?” he nodded at the banner.

“You must know already that Arthur is Head Dragon of the North, the Pendragon as well as Supreme Commander here. His father capitulated, and handed the banner to his son along with his rank and title.”

“And now your Arthur is on the road to Imperator—it would be a great honour to join him. My father gave no trouble in giving us into Arthur’s care. Myself and Gaheris are his men, now and forever.” He bowed his head to me, as did Gaheris, standing at Gawain’s side, and staring at me, almost without blinking it seemed.

“Come and join the Clan,” I offered him. “Time to learn what Arthur has planned.”

I led the two princes with to where Arthur was speaking in council to his captains.

Here I stopped and heard him say, “Dawn raids, burn their crops and villages, break their bridges, especially those that connect them to the east, though laws must be obeyed through all of this campaign. My law. Kill only men. Kill only youths with weapons, no women and no children. Kill only women who are armed and who will kill you. But there will be no slaughter of innocents. You will not become like them; you kill their men and only on my orders. Leave their women and children alone.”

“What? So they can grow up and kill us?” This from the Snake. “Then what is the point of it all?”

Arthur rounded on him, “The point is not to become like them, because right now in this time and this place, we are better than they are.”

“And if we are attacked by boys with arms?” Val asked.

“Kill them if they threaten your lives, but only then. But we are not stopping to engage in slaughter. My aim is to take away what it is they rely on to live, not to exact bloody slaughter, do you all understand?”

They understood.

And I watched their faces, grim, committed, Cai nodding his head, and the rest of them, standing in firelight.

Gawain stepping forward, bowing to Arthur and saying, “Commander, so they will come and take revenge on us if we do these things to them. Aelle will bring out his war-hosts and come for us.”

“He won’t come himself,” Arthur turned to him. “He will keep himself and his sons in reserve, but he will send out his war-host. And welcome to the Clan, Prince Gawain.”

They shook hands in the way of the warrior; and to Gaheris as well.

“And that’s just what you want Aelle to do, right Bear?” Cai interrupted. “You want to flush that Saxon out.”

“Flush out the better part of his men,” Arthur agreed. “And once that happens, we can cut them down when and where I want.”

Arthur now began to pace, up and down in front of the men.

They watched him, because there was more he wasn’t telling them now, I knew it. He was not telling them of the larger truth, but only a small part of the weave, a corner of it, a patch from a larger worked tapestry. I knew that.

He stopped pacing and said to us all, “I assure you, I do not like what I’m about to do, what I am asking you to do. I do not like it, because I am asking you to become killers, not soldiers of the defence. But I’m asking you as well as myself to temper this with mercy. No women and children. And all attacks will be halted on my command. I want a high state of morality on this campaign, instilled in this war, and that is mercy on my command.”

I listened, knowing that sometimes Arthur spoke in a way that went over the men’s heads, most of them that is, for none of us had ever been taught that it was immoral to fight, to go to war, to defend our lands and our people, but for Arthur, morality was there on the battlefield in the form of mercy. I was not sure if we could hold to this ideal of his.

I was not even sure the warriors would agree, but they seemed to understand for this moment. Arthur dismissed them, and we went back to our meals and our fires. My place was at the central fire, under the Dragon, and there was a large tree right where I had staked out my claim, the tree was mine to sleep under. Still the wind was high and cold and when it came time to bed down for the night, I decided to roll myself up in the bearskin instead of sleeping on top of it, it was that cold.

Our camp-prefect shouted for quiet, the horn blew for sleep. Silence came down save the branches of the tree over me that creaked and rushed in the wind. I shut my eyes, but did not sleep. I pulled the bearskin tighter and used my cloak as a pillow, then I slept like a dead man till something woke me during the night; a badger sniffing around somewhere in the trees. I sat up against the tree, staring out into the darkness and knowing the sun would rise within the hour. I closed my eyes for a moment, drifted into a kind of half sleep, then opened my eyes again and saw Arthur standing over me; he crouched beside me in the darkness under the tree.

“So quiet before dawn,” he said, low.

“We leave at dawn?”

“Only Medraut is going out this morning, we follow him tomorrow. Reserve units are staying here too.”

I thought about this, then said, “It’s dangerous to let Medraut off the rein.”

Arthur looked at me; he said, “I know. But I need what he’s good at—ruthless killing. He’s going in behind the Saxons from the east, we’re heading along the coast, this way from the west, and from here too, the supply lines are open back to Venta and Calleva. We cannot be cut off, but the Saxons can.” He looked out towards the eastern horizon, where a faint glow was growing. “Medraut,” he said, “out there, alone…”

“That’s right,” I said, “and he will need something watching over him, something to keep him in line.”

This was when I thought of something. I moved to sit up and dropped the bearskin from around my shoulders.



2: FIRST CONTACT

MIST, thick like a fog from the sea—we walked through it in total silence, two days out from base-camp. After crossing the hills of chalk, and constantly moving south, we had stopped for a day at the old Roman city of Noviomagus, a place mostly in ruins and without control by British magistrates, only wild and loose villagers. Then passing on, we headed for the Roman coast road and turned eastward. And with Medraut gone far ahead and swinging into the Saxon rear, our own troop headed along the coast from the west and taking it slow, two hundred men and horses moving through the dense fog of early morning. We were all deadly quiet. Even our mounts were quiet, as if they could sense our mood. We rode down onto the flats towards the sea. I carried my javelins, two cases, and behind us, a troop of horseback archers, ready for action at a signal from Arthur, though before us all was quiet and stilled. We walked on, the sea breeze beginning to lift the mists, and the wind was chill.

The gulls came to flock above us, scared by our horses.

The sea was flat and small waves lapped in gently.

We rode for leagues this way, further and further into the east and the way seemed open, nothing to see but long endless tracks of beach. I had never seen anything like it before in my life, the sea was not my element, and seeing it, the long range of the chalk hills to our north, the equally distant leagues of beach, it enthralled me. I even began to enjoy myself and looked over at Arthur, riding Epona; he could hardly sit still in his saddle. He was loving every moment of our ride. All the time he was nudging ahead, desperate maybe to turn off the track and gallop full pace down the beach. But we kept to our slow walk, watching the fog clearing and opening up the beach-land even more, sea-wind flapped and snapped the dragon banners and a flock of gulls took to the sky in a cloud, and as they winged up and over our heads, I saw what looked like shapes far ahead and down the long beach; again I looked over at Arthur, as he too had seen what I had seen: boats. Keels.

He said, “Saxons. I wasn’t expecting to find any of them so soon…”

Our captains too had seen the keels, Val, Gareth and Cai came riding up, pulled close and Arthur told them, “Keep riding on, same pace, same direction. Though be ready for my orders.”

They saluted and dropped back to their own stations.

We walked on, all the time coming closer and closer, and as we came closer, we could see seven keels drawn up on the beach.

“They look like fishing vessels,” Arthur said to me. “When they carry troops from Germania they come in bigger keels than this, much bigger.”

He looked around at the troop following behind, all still in good order. We kept on walking, all the time coming closer and closer to the beached keels, where we could clearly see men moving about the boats, little figures in the distance. And we came on, no hesitation now, no stopping or easing our advance.

The gulls kept flocking us and screaming and it was not long before some of the men on the beach stopped and turned to face us, and what they must have seen; a huge force of riders coming straight for them. Enemy riders. British riders, fully armed and mounted with our banners carried overhead, the Red Dragon in the lead.

Still we kept to the road alongside the beach and some of us hefted our shields, showing that we were a fighting force, though the Saxons were on our right, and me being left-handed, I was the only one riding with a shield on my right arm.

I said to Arthur, “I’ll be all right if they shoot at me,” and I pulled up my guard, shield-high, but he did not answer me. He was locked to the sight before him, his mind fixed on his target, and I could see the piercing concentration in his eyes.

On we went, our horses taking an untroubled pace, neighing and snorting. By now, all of the Saxons had seen us and they stopped in their tracks, turned to stone as we approached…

…almost on them…

…close enough now to make them out clearly as they stood on the beach, standing by their keels. One man picked up a boy and threw him into a boat; others began gathering their boys, probably their sons and putting them into the keels, while calling to some youths who were further along the beach; when the youths saw us, they came running back and climbed into their boat.

As we got closer again we could see these men were unarmed, fishermen like Arthur thought. Though they were big and mean enough to fight by the look of them, and we kept coming on and on, and as we came, one of the Saxons stepped out closer to us. My heart started to race a little faster, but we walked on by them, one rider after another, two hundred of us, and as we passed, Arthur stopped and reined in. Sat on horseback and stared at the Saxons standing on the beach.

In fear, their leader turned his head and cried something at his men, they all moved, running for their keels and began hauling them out into the waves and jumping inside, lifting their oars, while the leader stayed behind on the beach and faced us. Still Arthur did nothing other than watch, he did not speak, just sat staring at the man with an unwavering gaze. So we watched the Saxons haul out their boats, to row out over the waves and turn into the east, while the leader stood his ground, a tall thin man with long blond hair and beard.

Behind him, some of the youths began crying out and beckoning him to join them, as their boat was ready and turning into the waves. If the man was their father, he was braver than the others; he turned away, but kept his eyes firmly fixed on us. He climbed into the boat and cried some orders. Out in the waves the other boats were rowing east along the coastline. And with the leader’s keel now moving away to sea, Arthur signalled for the archers to move on. He turned his horse after them and as he turned I saw the look on his face, set and determined.

We then carried on our forward advance, moving ever on down the coast road and all the time as we went, we could still see the Saxon fishing boats out on the water in the distance. They seemed to be rowing further and further out to sea and beyond our sight.

After a few more hours walking, Arthur brought us into a faster gait, swung back into the north and moved inland only a league, into a sweeping valley where we could still see out to sea. We climbed the valley hillsides, and it was here that he halted our advance; on the hillside of the valley we were to set up camp for the coming night; the camp-prefects were already marking out our unit sites even before I had got off my horse.

Just before it was fully dark, Arthur sent out riders to scout the land. Now with our fires raging on the hillsides, buffeted by the sea-wind, we settled down to rest for the night. So far we had not seen any more keels. Though there were guards posted all along the headland by the sea, nothing was seen. I positioned myself on ground right on the hilltop; on my right, central camp was made and after supper, we waited for Arthur to come back up and give orders for the following day.

I sat close to the fire, laid down and used my saddlebags for a pillow, stretched out and wrapped up warm in my cloak and bearskin. I was happy enough for now. The sky was bright and sweet and star-filled above, and the sound of our army settling in for the night was comforting. I felt comfortable right where I was…

Till I woke during the night and opened my eyes. I saw a figure standing in front of me, right on the edge of the hilltop. It was Arthur standing there. I noticed the moon had gone down some way and I had been asleep for around three hours, but Arthur was staring away out to sea. The wind was cold and blowing his hair around his face.

I got up and went to his side, said to him, “What is going on?”

He answered, “We’re moving out soon. Drustan came in while you were asleep and said those Saxon keels have turned up a river-mouth not far from here, and have beached their craft. We’re going down to burn them in their harbour.”

Again the wind blew, the sea-wind was sweet, but it was nothing like the scent of home, the scent of mountain air. Arthur turned aside then, gone again to rouse the army to move out.

What rest we had was now gone again as we rode through the early darkness of dawn; we moved, two units to attack, Cai in the rear and our archers on our left flank. The rest of the troop to follow at first-light, every one of them up and ready to ride at a call from our war-horns. We came down a rise of land and saw a wide river in front of us, where on the opposite long sandy bank we found twelve keels, smaller fishing vessels like the ones we saw the day before, all drawn up and waiting to burn.

Though even better still, with these twelve fishing vessels were two full-sized keels, troop carrying keels. Somewhere ahead of us lay a Saxon encampment; they were near, as they would not beach their boats so far from settlement. We found too the river was easy to cross at the mouth, and all within a moment of finding the beached keels, Arthur gave the order for us to cross the river and burn the boats where they stood. We would use the oil we carried in leather bags to start the fires.

Making our way across, we moved quickly, and surrounded the boats; here we began attacking first the troop-carrying keels as they were full of things burnable, old rope and rags and rolled up sails that we saturated with oil. We broke up their oars with the axes and saws we carried to make camp and chop firewood, used the broken pieces to get the fires up and roaring wild. All the time as we worked, guards were out and watching the east for the Saxons to come out to defend their boats, though they never came. Surely they could hear us? Chopping wood and the high cracking sound of burning boats?

The two troop carriers went up fast in the end, as we stacked the insides with wood and chopped oars. Llacheu, Owain and myself climbed into one boat and chopped holes through its bottom, before tearing down its sail and giving it to the archers to start a fire with. All of this took a long time and the sky began to lighten in the east, and as soon as Arthur saw this, he had us all up and out and back on our horses, and whether or not all the boats were burning, he led us on a track east.

Behind us, nine of the boats were roaring up in flames, billowing smoke into the sky and spooking the gulls, those birds were a cursed pest, as their constant squawking and flocking would alert the deepest sleeper to trouble. Over the river we ran into a trot, light in the sky before us, signs all along the beach of encampment. Here stood a few huts leading on to a larger settlement, only five hundred paces ahead. On our left the archers kept torches burning to light their incendiaries, and riding on, we came in our attack formations and stopped.

Everything around us was stilled, all save the bloody gulls and the sound of the rushing waves.

Cai rode up, said to Arthur, “Let me go in first, Bear.”

No reply.

“Arthur? Let me go in first.”

“All right, burn them out, burn down their buildings, burn everything. Take the archers through and come at them from the north.”

“Aye, Commander.” Cai saluted and turned his horse and moved to his men, took out his unit with the archers riding fast with them.

The rest of us sat and watched.

Behind us still the keels were firing up the dawn and the twisting columns of smoke began to blow down, reduced to a heavy fog in the sky. The huts on our right remained shut down and quiet, no sign of people.

Arthur turned and called aloud to the men, “They are gone! There’s no-one here. Those Saxons we saw yesterday must have warned the people here we were coming and they have fled during the night. We wait here for the rest of the troop!”

So we sat, watching Cai’s men move into the settlement and tear out the heart of it, and Arthur was right. There were no people, and because there was no-one home, we all moved in on his order, moving through the settlement and helping the archers light torches to set fire to the buildings. We watched the archers firing flaming arrows into the thatch.

Val came riding in and said, “Why did they leave their boats? Wouldn’t they have gone out on their boats?”

“No, because they are moving inland,” Arthur told him. “That’s why they left their boats behind. As soon as we’re finished here, we can move on.”

“Are we going after those from here?” I asked him.

By now the houses around us were ablaze and billowing thick smoke and Arthur did not answer me. He sat on his horse and looked around the field as the rest of the troops moved in behind us. Owain rode in too.

Then Cai came back. “Nothing!” he called above the noise of the burning buildings. “All the houses and everything they left behind is all near destroyed.”

As Cai said this, the wind began to turn into our faces, bringing the smoke down over us in a choking fog. Our horses began shying from the smoke, men were coughing and gagging, so again we moved, Arthur leading us out and we skirted the fires. With the entire troop following, we carried on our march eastward, still close on the coast road. It was still dark, though growing lighter as we went east, where after another league, always with the beach-land on our right, Arthur halted the march and ordered the men out to break for something to eat and drink.

Far behind us we could still see the rising clouds of smoke from the settlement, all of it gone up in flames, and there would be nothing for those Saxons to return to. The units began to spread out and make a quick morning camp.

Cai came trotting over again and called out, “Arthur, let me take some of my men out and track the people from the settlement. They must be going somewhere, somewhere to take refuge with other Saxons. Let me find out where they are going.”

Yet again Arthur did not reply and I looked at him. He was off his horse now and standing still, looking up at Cai. Then I saw something. For the first time I could ever remember, I saw indecision on Arthur’s face, in his eyes. He looked around again, at the hills far away to the north and the long beach, the flat sea with tiny waves and the cool morning air and the bloody wretched gulls. Cai sat and waited for his orders.

“Track them if you must,” Arthur said. “Take your own unit and track them only for today, take Llacheu with you, he’s an expert tracker. But don’t you be gone long, Cai. No more than today and make sure you are back with us by sundown, no longer.”

“And if we find them?”

“Come back and tell me what you found, for you are right, they must be going somewhere, another settlement. But I don’t want you out longer than a day.”

Cai leant down from his horse and said, “Bear, you still don’t trust me, do you? I won’t do anything stupid. If I find anything good, I’ll send Llacheu back at once with the Saxon positions. Be back myself soon!” and he saluted and turned away, out to gather his unit and ride. The brother princes, Gawain and Gaheris, came over and took Arthur’s horse away, as these boys were acting now as his own personal attendants. Ever since leaving Venta, the two of them had been serving him hand and foot and I thought it right that Arthur should have such loyal aides. I jumped off my horse and Arthur said something to Gaheris. The boy came over to me and took Mischief from me.

I raised an eyebrow at Arthur, he shrugged and said to me, “No reason why I should have two grooms, Gaheris is yours now.”

Gaheris heard him, and nodded his head, saluted me.

Since I had my own groom and servant, I was free to go with Arthur to the supply wains that were now coming in with Nicomede, also bringing the medical supplies.

We had some breakfast, then Arthur sent out two foraging parties back along the coast, one west and the other east. Out too went the scouts, and as all this was going on, we decided to stay where we were for the remainder of the day to rest and graze the horses. We were well camped in by mid-morning. We settled in to wait for Cai to come back.



3. SAVING A BRITISH WOMAN

Our camp that night was Roman-precision, perfect, Arthur made sure of it. And as I watched him in action, it truly struck me how hard he worked, how he never seemed to stop for a moment, commanding everything from how to water horses to how much rations should be doled out from the wains, how much he put himself on the line, how deeply he was loved and trusted by the men. I went to join him when Cai rode back into camp; they were already in deep discussions.

Cai talking, excited as he always was, “I swear it, Arthur, it’s the biggest Saxon settlement I’ve ever seen, about ten long-houses, a large mead-hall, and made like a small town. No defences, no palisade or gate like that one where you shot the pig, just open and waiting to be attacked. The Saxons we burnt out must have fled there.”

“Now they know we’re coming for them and they will be ready,” Arthur answered him.

“Ah! No-one’s ready for you!” Cai bawled aloud, and everyone laughed and Arthur shook his head, and told him, “Tomorrow then, we will attack. You lead the way. We leave two hours before dawn.”

As he said this, the horn call to retire sounded, all save the night guards, as being so close to Saxons meant we ourselves were open to surprise attacks, especially at night, and sleep was not easy to find…

We came through the darkness of night, out before dawn and bringing a full troop of two hundred riders behind us, Cai leading the way. It was hard going and our first ever dawn raid, the object to attack and burn and kill those who attacked us. We would not stop till the entire settlement lay in smouldering ruins and the Saxons left for dead or fleeing; they could flee from place to place and each time they ran, they would only lead us on to yet another settlement that we would destroy.

All the time coming closer and closer to Aelle and his war-host. It was certain to Arthur that the Saxon bretwalda must be aware his territory was under attack. Medraut from the east and Arthur from the west, Aelle would be pinched in place and sooner or later he would be forced to send out his men to face us. So we came across the hills in darkness and silence, Cai showing the way, the battle-wain loaded with incendiary arrows following.


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