King Arthur Trilogy Book Two: Warrior of the West
Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Vortigern, the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheepfold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations.
Artor stood on the summit of the imposing earthworks of Cadbury Tor and stared down at his domain. Below him, like the peeled skin of an apple, the ramparts and cobbled roadways leading to the flagged fortress curled around the tor. Regular redoubts guarded heavy log gates that could be closed and barred to seal any enemy between its walls of wood and stone. If any fortress could be considered impregnable, then Cadbury was one such, for in its long history it had never fallen.
As he stared down at what he had rebuilt, Artor recalled his first, crucial campaign against the western Saxons twelve years earlier.
Older Celts still remembered, and resented, the foolishness of King Vortigern, who had been so lost to reason that when the strong, golden legs of Rowena, his Saxon queen, were wrapped round his waist, he was prepared to accede to her every request. While in her thrall, Vortigern permitted the Saxons to settle in the lands of the Demetae, and for generations Celts and Saxons had dwelt together uneasily, until the Saxons had eventually sought to extend their power by forming an alliance with Katigern Oakheart in the east.
Cadbury and Environs
Glastonbury and Environs
But early in his reign, Artor had ridden north out of Cadbury and defeated the invaders at a time when he was still untried, both as a king and as a leader. For the first time, and in bloody attrition, Artor had used his cavalry against that most fearsome of barbarian tactics, the Saxon shield wall.
A double line of Saxons wedged their circular wooden, bull hide, and bronze shields together in unconscious imitation of the old Roman tortoise. But the Saxons stood well over six feet in height, unlike the Romans, who were rarely taller than five and a half feet. The second row protected the heads of the front row with their shields, and once the shield wall was engaged, the warriors refused to retreat, holding the line until every last man was dead. Like the ancient Spartans, the Saxons worshipped individual heroism and prowess in battle, but without the leaven of Spartan iron discipline. Wild for glory, Saxon warriors courted death and heroism, while the Romans had always been pragmatic, professional, and sanguine fighters.
Artor had viewed the shield wall from a convenient rise in the ground above the forked Roman road near Magnis. He had sighed, anticipating the slaughter that it presaged. The Saxons were accustomed to absorbing the shock of fiercely attacking men, but Artor had changed the rules of engagement. The High King ordered his cavalry to pound the wall in wave after thundering wave of charging horseflesh. No man, no matter how large, can absorb the shock of a galloping horse. As the cavalry disengaged, Celtic spears were used to deadly effect to slaughter fallen men. Inevitably, many horses perished as the berserk Saxons risked everything to gut the animals, but the wall was weakened and eventually broke. The remaining Saxons fled into the
inhospitable mountains. Through inexperience, Artor had mercifully permitted them to escape.
“You’ll have to crush them sooner or later,” Targo, his old sword master, had grunted as he cut the throat of a horse whose leg dangled at an unnatural, painful angle.
“True,” Artor replied philosophically, and stepped to one side to avoid the jet of arterial blood as the horse kicked convulsively, and then died. “But I must soon face a larger Saxon force in the east, and I don’t have the men to deal with enemies on two fronts. These curs will keep till a later time.”
“You’ll not succeed with cavalry so easily again,” Targo warned softly. “Still, I suppose there’s many ways to trap a rabbit, as my old sergeant used to say. They’ll continue to breed until they become a problem once again.”
“Give over, Targo!” Artor snapped, his eyes momentarily cold. Then he laughed ruefully. “I still lack the stomach for carnage.”
“You’ll learn,” Targo replied without a trace of humor or rancor in his cracked old voice.
Half starved and ill equipped, the Saxons had squabbled and skirmished on the rocky hills of Dyfed like parasites until an emerging new leader had bludgeoned them into a fragile unity, linked only by their old hatred for all things Celt—and for King Artor. Intolerant and obdurate, these warriors were born and bred as Saxons, not as Britons, regardless of their mixed bloodlines. They swore that they would never again retreat from their enemy.
After that first successful campaign, the war with the Saxons and the traitorous Celtic kings had raged for twelve long years. Now, all the Celtic tribes south of the great Roman Wall were united against a shared barbarian threat. Now, at Cadbury, Artor waited.
“So many dead warriors, and all good men,” Artor sighed. “Why was so much violence necessary? Reason and compromise could have saved hundreds—nay, thousands of lives. But compromise is another word for cowardice in the Saxon vocabulary.”
“Talking to yourself again, Artor?” Targo muttered, leaning upon
a heavy staff. “When an ancient like me can sneak up on you, then you’re dead.”
“Why do our conversations always hark back to my mortality?” Artor smiled as he spoke. “How goes your day, Targo?”
“Slowly, slowly. As it does for you, my lord. You still await news of your proposed truce from our envoys?”
“The waiting tries my patience, Targo.”
“Your attempts at peacemaking won’t work, my boy. You’ll receive your ambassadors back in little pieces, and the Saxons will believe that you’re growing soft and are too frightened to engage them in battle. I told you in times gone by that they’d breed to cause you trouble.”
Artor sighed with resignation. “Yes.”
The single word fell like a stone into a deep and very empty well.
Targo peered up into the younger man’s set face. Artor was no longer a beautiful young man, and the light of excitement and pleasure had left his eyes. Something harder, more bitter, and wounded had taken its place and Targo regretted the loss of the boy whom he had loved so well.
“I imagine that it’s difficult to send good men to certain death. I wouldn’t fancy it, so I always served in the ranks. No responsibility—no guilt.”
“I will not permit the latest of these Saxon thanes to endanger the west, and I’ll no longer ignore King Lot’s treason when he gives aid to the enemy. He’ll see sense and draw back behind the Roman Wall, or I’ll slaughter every warrior and camp follower that praises the Saxon might.”
“Even King Lot?”
“Especially King Lot.”
Artor’s words were bitter, and as rigid as a bar of iron. Yet Targo cherished this mature, hard, and stern Artor as well as he had loved the boy, Artorex, for he gave his all to protect and guide his people.
To the north, beyond the apple and pear orchards, and the hamlets of conical huts with their thatched roofs, Artor saw the glitter of sunlight on horsemen. A small troop of cavalry was riding in haste
towards Cadbury Tor, the light glinting off bronze and iron discs sewn on leather cuirasses. With the cold reason of his brain, Artor knew the answer to his silent plea already, although his heart prayed that his instincts were wrong.
Flanked by his body servants, Gruffydd, Odin, and Targo, Artor watched and waited for the riders. The way leading up to Cadbury Tor took some time to negotiate, for it was an uphill journey through rich fields, orchards, and pastures of fat-tailed sheep and contented cows. Civilization had sprung up under the protection of the fortress as peace and security promised a chance for a better way of life. In the shadow of the tor, village groups prospered, and life here was sweet-scented and deceptively peaceful. But soon the spring thaw would arrive, and, with it, the months of killing weather as the Saxons moved out of their winter quarters.
“This ordered way of life will last only as long as I continue to win,” Artor stated cynically. “Those same warriors who now swear eternal devotion to my sword will kill me when my back is turned if, like Caesar, my luck doesn’t hold.”
Odin, his Jute bodyguard and one of the last of the Scum of Anderida, knelt on the flagstones, held his arms wide, and looked up at his lord.
“You are wrong, my king. Any of your warriors would die for you if you desired it. They’ll obey you without question, whether your orders are just or not. You are our master, but you are also the High King, and are above us and better than us. We obey out of love, my lord, so please don’t reject what we feel, even though your heart may be heavy.” Odin spoke with a thick, guttural accent but twelve years of close contact with his king had remedied his language deficiencies. In fact, Odin now spoke with all the grace of his master, with simple and profound truth.
“I’ve still got one last battle in me,” Targo offered, “and the Saxon advance in the east is almost at a standstill. You aren’t responsible for their evils.”
“No. I’m not.” Artor’s response permitted no further discussion.
He placed one hand gently against Odin’s face, and the huge Jute rose to his feet, his eyes moist with unshed tears of devotion.
Targo patted his master’s shoulder, before moving carefully down the cobbled courtyard towards the great gateway. If he could intercept the horsemen on arrival, he could discover the Saxons’ work for himself. The report to Artor could then be softened to spare his master some of the consequences that were bound to result from this ill-advised mission. Thus, these two very different men struggled to shield their master from pain.
The small troop of cavalry drew closer and became visible as no more than a trio of warriors. Finally, as the first gates opened before the riders, Artor accepted that there would be no truce, for he could see the leather bags hanging limply across the front of each of the horse blankets. Men stepped aside as the three horsemen rode slowly through the narrow, earthen corridors to the second gate, and then the third. At each stage, warriors clutched amulets or crosses as the leather bags slapped odorously against the horses’ sides, and women turned away, their faces pale and nauseated by the putrid smell.
“Hail, warrior! What name shall I give when I bring you before the High King?” Targo asked as the riders negotiated the final gate and dismounted from their lathered horses.
One warrior stepped forward. His leathers were filthy with dried blood and mud, and his face was grey with exhaustion.
“I am Ulf, from Caerlion, and I ride with Bryn ap Cydwyn and Justus of Aquae Sulis. We bear tidings from the Saxon war chief, Glamdring Ironfist.” Ulf held his head high, although twin spots of color stained the thin skin of his cheeks. He was alive, and he knew full well that any honorable man would now be dead.
“We were ambushed in the hills northwest of Nidum while under a flag of truce. Without any warning, the Saxons slaughtered the emissaries and our brothers in the guard,” he explained dully. “We alone were left alive to bear witness to the brutality of the leader of the Saxons. He gave us these ‘gifts’ for the High King, and the filthy bastard forced us to swear that we would bring them to Cadbury Tor with his
message for King Artor.” Ulf grimaced, and his ashen face flushed with shame. “Lord Targo—for so I believe you to be—please beg the king to forgive the tongues that bring such arrogant words to insult him.”
The warriors were half fainting with exhaustion, yet still seemed determined to fulfill their obligations to the dead, so Targo gave them a grudging nod of respect.
“Artor is a just ruler; you have nothing to fear from the High King as long as your hearts are truly loyal.”
Artor emerged from his dark reflections and strode towards the cluster of men at the gate. The horsemen abased themselves. With their foreheads pressed against the flagstones, the three warriors trembled guiltily, for they believed that the king would order their executions.
“Rise, good sirs,” Artor commanded the warriors. “It is I who should be kneeling before you, for I should be paying homage to those poor men and their servants who went so bravely to their deaths for the chance of forging a just peace. And to you courageous men who have ridden hard to bring home the remains of our heroes—for I can guess what your burdens contain.”
“Aye, my lord,” Ulf replied, as unacknowledged tears spilled over his lashes and ran unchecked down his cheeks. Yet neither Artor nor Targo considered that Ulf wept out of weakness, but for the dead, for the failure of his oaths, and for his consuming guilt.
“We lacked the heart to see friendly faces left in such ugly circumstances,” Ulf continued, “so we stayed alive when honorable men would have preferred death to this dishonor. We chose to return the heads to you so that their kin should have some part of them. We couldn’t save the lives of our masters or our brothers, so it is fitting that we should be ordered to carry the heads back to their loved ones. Their bodies were left for the scavengers, and I now regret that we couldn’t lift our swords in their defense.”
A small group of women, some clutching children, had approached the gates. Targo knew at a glance that they were the kin of Artor’s emissaries, and he tried to spare them from the ugliness of what had happened to their loved ones.
“Women, this is no place for you.” Targo spoke gently. “We will send word to you when we know the fate of your young men.”
But Artor turned to the women, beckoned them forward and then, to their consternation, knelt on the cobblestones before them.
“I may be king, but I beg your forgiveness, daughters of this good land. I knew the risks taken by your menfolk when they agreed to obey my orders. Mine is the blame for sending them into danger. You may hate me if you wish, but I confess that I would still order six more men to parley with the Saxons if there was any chance of bringing peace to the west. I regret that your sons or your husbands were victims of the viciousness of politics.”
One grey-haired matron stepped forward and stared down impassively at the king’s stern, controlled face. Her simple peplum and cloak hinted at her Roman ancestry, but the garnets in her ears, red as dried blood, shouted her quality. Then, with a wry twisting of her lips, she pulled him to his feet.
“Two of my sons have died at the hands of the outlanders for you, my king. The head of another lies in a bag on one of your horses—or so I guess. I’ve one more son who is near old enough to bear a sword, and, if God chooses to take him from me to serve you, then I will make no complaint. You must drive the Saxons, and all who are allied with them, into the dirt.”
Artor nodded his appreciation of the old woman’s savage patriotism, and stripped a golden arm ring, carved with his personal dragon motif, from his wrist.
“The Saxon women are fierce creatures, Mother, but they are no match for matrons such as you. Although gold is no recompense for your losses, I beg that you take this bauble as a gift from a grateful king. And more gold shall be given to the mothers and widows of these brave men who died at my behest. I am ashamed that I can only offer you coin for your loyalty.”
“My grandson will hold it sacred to his house, my lord. But for now, I ask that you give me leave to take my son’s remains and see to his honorable burial.”
Artor inclined his head in permission, and the elderly woman approached the grisly bags, checking each dead face until she found the one she sought. Then, regardless of the odor and the vile ooze of corruption that enveloped it, she clasped the bag to her heavy breasts and uttered a single, high-pitched cry of grief. Then she pattered away down the roadway.
One by one, the heads were claimed and loud were the cries of grief and rage that circled the tor like the screams of hunting birds.
Finally, only one unclaimed head remained.
“Gaheris, my nephew.” Artor sighed. “They didn’t even spare the son of King Lot.”
Targo stared disbelievingly at his king. “What sodding stupidity! How could the Saxon oafs have been so foolish as to kill the beloved son of King Lot, their most loyal ally? Gaheris followed Gawayne into your service, and, at the time, King Lot almost swallowed his beard in rage, but even Lot won’t tolerate such a fate for his son.”
“My lord,” Ulf interrupted, blood suffusing his face at his impertinence. “Prince Gaheris was the very last to die, and he defied the Saxons to the end. He was offered his life if he would resile from his oath to you and return to the halls of his father, but the boy refused. He perished bravely, and died cursing the Saxons as he fell. He said he saw the fate of the Saxon thane. He warned Glamdring that you would exact justice on all Saxons in the name of the dead envoys and their escort.”
“He was a good lad.” Targo offered Gaheris the highest praise he knew. “He was far too good to die without a sword, or the opportunity to defend himself.”
“Tell me every detail of the Saxon treachery,” Artor ordered. “Leave out no detail of your experience. I know the telling will cause you pain, but I must understand the depth of Saxon perfidy.”
Ulf bowed his head and began to speak in little more than a whisper. So vivid and heartfelt was his report that, as his voice began to gain in strength and passion, the listeners could visualize the deaths of the envoys and experience the quiet courage of Gaheris.
Artor cradled the bag containing the young man’s head for several moments, and then opened the drawstring and kissed the purpled lips that were still curved in the rictus of death. A trick of the late afternoon sunlight played about Gaheris’s dead features and captured a trace of Artor’s daughter, Licia, in them. Artor shuddered that Licia could die so easily, just like her cousin, whose head spoke so eloquently of the family ties between them.
“Mine is the blood guilt, Gaheris,” the High King murmured. “And it shall be paid in full.”
The cold part in Artor’s brain whispered that the Saxons had gone too far this time, for even Lot and Morgause could not ignore the murder of their unarmed child, regardless of his allegiances. He turned to his sword-bearer. “Find a box of aromatic wood, Gruffydd, the finest that can be purchased. Wash and wrap the head of my nephew in fine, perfumed linen, and then send it to King Lot and Queen Morgause. They, too, should have an opportunity to mourn what is left of their child.”
Gruffydd came forward. He had aged in the past twelve years and grey sprinkled his hair and his close-cropped beard, but his eyes were still as warm and as sharp as they had ever been. Now they rested on his king with open concern.
“If you approve, my lord, I’ll carry the head of Gaheris to King Lot in person,” he volunteered. “Should I bear a message of sympathy from you to the boy’s father?”
“We wait upon the message from Glamdring Ironfist, but you can recount Ulf’s description of the death of their son,” Artor ordered. “They are entitled to know that he could have lived if he had been prepared to break his oath.”
Gruffydd nodded. Privately, the sword-bearer thought that Artor should use the slaughter of Gaheris to advantage himself over King Lot, but the High King was a man to love because he scorned to cheat or lie.
Gruffydd bowed low, although his back twinged with the bone ache that attacked his joints and made long journeys so painful. Yet,
out of love for his king, he would brave the journey and the rage of the grieving parents. Artor had raised his status in the world, and Gruffydd always paid his dues.
When Gruffydd heaved the leather bag and its grisly contents over his shoulder and turned to leave, the High King called Ulf to his side.
“Wait a moment, Gruffydd,” Artor instructed. He turned to face Ulf. “You may now tell me the exact message sent by the Saxon barbarian.”
Ulf gulped in near panic. “Please don’t judge me by the words I bear, my king. We wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t been needed to return to your fortress with the remains of your emissaries.”
Artor stifled his impatience. He was fully aware that couriers were often executed when their masters were angered by the content of a message.
“You will be safe, Ulf, regardless of what the Saxons have instructed you to say to me. The words come from Glamdring, not from you.”
Ulf heaved a deep sigh, looked skyward as a memory aid, and began to recite his message in a stilted voice.
“To Artor, who is an impostor and a dog. In the name of the dead Vortigern, Vortimer, and Hengist, I, Glamdring Ironfist, demand that you cease all hostilities against the holdings of the dead king, Katigern Oakheart. I command you to relinquish your crown to King Lot, who is the rightful heir of Uther Pendragon. If you comply, you will be permitted to live. If you meet us in battle, you will surely die.”
Ulf stepped back quickly, well out of reach of Artor’s sword blade, but his caution was unnecessary. The High King’s eyes glinted with what looked almost like amusement.
“Gruffydd, you may give King Lot my condolences and inform him of the substance of Glamdring Ironfist’s message, that his son was murdered so that the father could take my place. You will also remind the king that those who trust to the honor of the Saxons are fools. And they are worse than fools, for they are traitors to the Celtic cause. You will say to King Lot that, if he should give aid or comfort to any person involved in Ironfist’s war against me, then his own crown will be
considered forfeit by the Celtic kings. And I will not forget the slight when I arrive at his gates.”
“He’ll not like such a message,” Gruffydd replied dryly, although his mouth smiled within his grizzled beard.
“You may inform him that all of our lands will not be wide enough to save him from my wrath if my messenger is harmed in any fashion.” Artor grinned. “Just in case he determines that he doesn’t like you, my friend.”
“I take your kind addition gratefully, my lord,” Gruffydd responded. “I’m fond of my head just where it is.”
“And if King Lot rails against my decision to place his son in danger, or complains that the offer of a truce was weak and foolish, you may remind the king and my sister that they have constantly pressed me to cease the bloodbath of racial hatred.”
“I will be happy to remind them of their old loyalties.”
“But you should also tell my sister that I weep with her for her lost son. Gaheris was a better man than I am, and would have grown to be a leader of other men because of his purity of spirit and clarity of mind. Good Celts everywhere share in her loss, for all the kingdoms are the poorer without his grace.”
“I will say all that is necessary, my king. Of this you may have no doubt.”
“I don’t, Gruffydd. Take an escort suited to my consequence. You will do all honor to King Lot and Queen Morgause, regardless of past insults and allegiances, for they are the parents of Gaheris, one of the heroes of . . .” Artor paused, and looked to Ulf for an answer.
“We met the Saxons at Y Gaer, my lord.”
“One of the heroes of Y Gaer. I will not permit that name to be forgotten, nor will I forget the appalling cowardice of Glamdring Ironfist. He will suffer for every drop of innocent blood that he shed so unnecessarily at that accursed place.”
The High King was a man who paid more than lip service to the notion of protection for the innocent, Gruffydd knew. He thought of
his foster daughter, Nimue, and how Artor had ensured that the infant would grow and blossom.
Artor transferred his gaze to Odin. “Find shelter, ale, and clean pallets for these good men. Honor them, for theirs has been a terrible burden.”
Odin departed at a run.
Turning back to Gruffydd and Targo, Artor issued his orders.
“Gruffydd, you have my leave to proceed with your task, with my gratitude. Targo, call the captains to attend me for a council of war. Ironfist had best be like his name, for I plan to lock his hands in a vice and squeeze him dry. Then I will rid the earth of this Saxon. We’ve reasoned with him for long enough.”
“It will be a pleasure, Artor, a great pleasure. We have sat on our arses for three years.” Targo grinned evilly.
A WAR COUNCIL was held four days later, long after the remains of the dead were burned with aromatic woods and their souls had been sent to the heroes. The hall atop Cadbury Tor was filled with warriors and chieftains, the greatest of whom sat on sturdy benches and drank from Phoenician glass as the day surrendered to evening.
Many of their number had ridden far, for they had come from the far-flung outposts of Ratae, Venonae, Viroconium, Aquae Sulis, and Venta Silurum. Their horses had been ridden to the point of death, and men had driven themselves, without sleep or pause for food, in order to answer the call of the High King. A sophisticated network of communications made meetings such as this one possible, but only the loyalty and obedience of the captains could bring them to Artor’s court at Cadbury so expeditiously.
Artor’s hall lacked the heavy ornamentation or the pretensions seen in Uther Pendragon’s formal rooms in Venta Belgarum. In true Celtic style, the hall was longer than it was wide, and no anteroom forced visitors or petitioners to cool their heels until the High King
chose to admit them. Simple, beautifully polished benches were provided close to the doors so that weary men might rest their tired legs.
The ceiling was very high and was shaped to draw smoke from the fire pits into a circular hole in the roof that possessed its own cover to prevent inclement weather from entering the building, yet permit the fire smoke to escape. The wooden walls were softened by great lengths of woven fabric, an amazing luxury that provided splashes of woad blue, jewel-bright crimson, and cheerful yellow. The flagged floor was unremarkable, except for the figure of a dragon that celebrated the might of Artor’s totem, the red Dracos. Made of glass tesserae, it was rumored to be the work of Myrddion Merlinus. This Roman dragon, whose origin was virtually forgotten, stood proudly rampant directly before a low dais on which a single, use-polished curule chair rested.
For this meeting, King Artor rejected the raised dais in favor of a long table with benches for seating. The High King sat at one end and his chief adviser, Myrddion Merlinus, was seated at the other; all the men present were equal, and were free to speak and openly express their opinions. Goblets of wine in rare Roman glass and large platters of sweetmeats, fruit, nuts, and even cold meats provided food and drink that would tempt even the most epicurean of tastes, although Artor and his adviser chose nothing but clear, cold water. Wall sconces provided a pleasing light and the wood in the fire pit had been soaked in a subtle, aromatic oil to sweeten the air.
As the council began, Ulf was instructed to relive the tale of the death of the truce bearers and their escort. His face was suffused with blood, but he recited the brutal story with increased confidence.
“I was forced to watch these treacherous murders without the arms to strike a single blow. I will not rest until I have either killed ten Saxons for each of my companions, or I am dead. So do I swear!”
Ulf’s formal words caused a ripple of unease and anger throughout the packed hall. Peace is a strange and addictive state, and Artor had provided three years of relative quiet. The land was in the process of rebuilding after years of neglect, and only fools would choose to cast
away the comforts of soft beds, willing wives, and full bellies for the discomfort and uncertainties of battle.
Now that three summers of relative peace had passed, fields that had been left fallow and had been choked with weeds and nettles were now cleared and plowed. Homesteads, villages, and fortresses that had been neglected were now blessed with the luxury of time to make repairs, neaten fences, rethatch roofing, and repack stones into walls from which they had fallen.
But, while some warriors present seemed unwilling to take offense, other men rumbled their rage and frustration at the insults hurled at them by the Saxons, a white-faced Gawayne foremost among them. The prince took great pride in the bravery displayed by his younger brother, and he was also experiencing a measure of guilt at the premature ending of the young man’s short and glorious life. By Gawayne’s code, the truce breakers had no honor, for they had slaughtered Artor’s emissaries out of hand, like oxen.
Twelve years of warfare had transformed Prince Gawayne from a lanky, enthusiastic boy into a mature, engaging, and handsome man. Of middling height, Gawayne was powerfully built and possessed a horseman’s natural grace. His blond-red hair, a scattering of freckles across his cheeks, and his pale eyes gave him a boyish appearance that was accentuated by his frank and open gaze. Many men underestimated Gawayne because he spoke freely without first censoring his tongue, and his ready smiles deceived them into overlooking both his remarkably acute instincts and his loyalty to his uncle.
Gawayne was ruled by his libido, which was probably his greatest flaw. Women were instinctively drawn to him and the prince loved the fair sex, whether they were old or young, married or unmarried. No woman had any cause to complain of his attentions to her, but many husbands did.
But the prince was now angry, so his good humor had fled. Someone would pay for the spilled blood of Gaheris, for Gawayne had pressed his younger brother to prove his allegiance to King Artor. At the time, Gawayne was being mischievous and was tweaking the
nose of his rigid father. Guilt, as well as rage, now flayed the prince, and Gawayne was determined that the western Saxons would be obliterated.
Myrddion gazed impassively at the assembled group and gauged the mood of those kings who had arrived at Cadbury, and the emissaries of those who could not attend in person. Slowly, he rose to his feet and took Ulf’s place in a spot where he could face all the warriors and kings within the hall.
Vortigern and his yellow-haired Rowena were long dead, but not forgotten, so it was incumbent on Myrddion to recount the memories of his childhood to the assembly. Only Artor knew the full details of the tale that Myrddion told. Only Artor knew how shamelessly Myrddion tampered with the truth to manipulate these superstitious, cautious men.
“I was born a devil’s spawn at Moridunum, and raised near a small town that the Romans called Segontium. Most of you know the story of my birth, even if I have often wondered if my mother concocted a tale so fearsome and strange that no one dared to expose me on a hillside for the wolves to devour. Suffice to say that my mother swore that she was raped by a demon in the privacy of her room, so I grew up with the taint of evil as my birthright.” He smiled across the table at the assembled nobles. “But I need not prattle on about tales you already know.”
The warriors nodded, for all men knew that Myrddion Merlinus was the son of a demon who mated with a virginal Cymru princess.
Now that Myrddion needed their compliance, he was playing ruthlessly upon their prejudices.
“Instead, I will recount to you the tale of how Vortigern’s tower at Dinas Emrys tumbled down again and again while it was being constructed, and how his sorcerers convinced the king that only the blood of a devil’s child could cement the foundation stones together.” Myrddion paused for effect.
Although they might have argued that Myrddion’s story had no bearing on the current problem, his audience listened, gape-mouthed.
The smallest child in the land knew that Myrddion had spirited himself out of Dinas Emrys through the use of sorcery.
“I did not intend to be sacrificed in order to mortar the stones of a Saxon fortress.”
The members of his audience nodded wisely, and Artor grinned appreciatively from behind his hand. Even Targo stared at Myrddion with an odd mixture of reverence and recognition, and Artor marveled anew at how the strongest and shrewdest of men prized the glamour of magic in a world that was bloody and prosaic.
“Any fool could see that the foundation stones were wet with underground water that had soaked upward through the soil. I was barely eleven years of age, but I had two good eyes and I told the sorcerers and their unholy master, Vortigern, to dig into the foundations at a certain spot where they would find a pool of water.”
Myrddion’s listeners were captivated. Their eyes shone in the flare of the torches at the thought of a boy issuing orders to a High King, especially a lord who was so lost to reason that he had welcomed the Saxons into the lands of the Celts. They remembered that the first Saxons to settle in Dyfed had come at Vortigern’s invitation.
“Vortigern accepted your advice, I take it,” Targo stated flatly. “Or else you’d not be here.”
“Aye, Targo. They dug through the foundations and they found the pool, exactly as I had predicted.”
Myrddion’s eyes clouded and Artor could swear that those same eyes rolled back into his head. The warriors’ breathing hissed between their teeth, and the air seemed colder and thicker.
“Within the pool, two dragons coiled and struggled. I could see them quite clearly, although other, wiser men present swore that they could not. One dragon was as white as hoar frost and its breath was gelid with cold. Its claws were curved blades of ice and its tail lashed the pool into a storm of sleet and snow.”
The audience leaned forward, mesmerized by Myrddion’s fair and compelling voice.
“The other dragon was red, and the plates of mail that covered
its body were hot and steaming. Fire poured from its nostrils, and its claws made the pond water boil at a single touch.”
He paused, dramatically.
“The dragons leapt at each other and fire met ice. The struggle was terrible as the breath of the white dragon turned the flames of the red dragon to steam. But where the red dragon clutched with its great claws, and where its plated tail wrapped round the body of its enemy, the white dragon shrank and melted. Terrible was the struggle, but at last the red dragon was triumphant and only whitened, glacial bones lay at the bottom of the pond to testify that the ice dragon had ever existed. Then the red dragon of the Celts spread its wings over the land, rose, and hovered on the breast of the wind. The white dragon of the Saxons was defeated, and Vortigern was doomed to lose his crown and die.”
The warriors sighed, but one princeling wasn’t satisfied. He broke the rapt silence.
“Did Vortigern see this battle? Did the sorcerers not try to aid the white dragon?”
“They couldn’t see the battle, they only witnessed the roiling and bubbling of the water. I fell into a faint, and many of those who were there swore that I prophesied—but I can’t speak for the accuracy of their recollections. One thing is certain. I’ve carried the weight of this prophecy for forty years, and I know it is true. The red dragon of the tribes will destroy the white dragon of the Saxons, and we’ll strike Glamdring Ironfist like fire on ice. I cannot promise that we will always defeat the dragon of the north, but we will be triumphant while the Red Dragon of Artor rides high. We will strive until we turn this troubled land into a haven of peace. This I do swear, as long as Celtic hearts remain faithful and as long as the High King dares to stand against murder and brutality. We will prevail and we will defeat the western Saxons of Dyfed, King Vortigern’s poisoned legacy to the Celtic people.”
All eyes swiveled towards Artor, who stood stiffly, his hands on the hilt of his sword and his head bowed as if in prayer. Slowly, so slowly, he raised his eyes, and even those doughty warriors, his allies,
quailed before his angry, flaming face. His eyes were not veiled as was his usual custom, and the nobles swore later that they saw fire burning deep in their grey depths, as if the dragons of ice and flame still struggled within them.
As, perhaps, they did.
“This High King will not brook the murder of his ambassadors under a flag of truce. Artor will not be content until every Saxon west of the great mountain chain is dead, or else herded back into the sea whence they came. Choose, men of the west, for now is the time for the testing of our hearts and of our courage. Until now, the Saxons have come to us, battering at our defenses and seeking our weaknesses, but we have always managed to drive them back.”
Loud were the cries of assent in the hall.
“Now we must risk all that we hold dear to our hearts. We must do battle with a man who is thane of a country so barren and ruled so cruelly that his forces have withstood all the efforts of Llanwith pen Brynn, and Llanwith’s father before him. The Celts of the Demetae tribe of Dyfed in Cymru are so battered into submission by the descendants of Vortigern’s guard that they wait sullenly for relief. And, fellow Britons, do not think that Glamdring Ironfist and his debased and bestial Saxons are no threat to us. They are at our backs, and a child can kill a warrior if he strikes hard, unnoticed, behind a man twice its size. This particular Saxon hive must be destroyed.”
The room became silent, and Artor could feel doubt in many of the downcast eyes and the covert glances that slid back and forth between the assembled kings.
“Ulf, what did Gaheris say to Glamdring Ironfist when he faced certain death?”
Ulf faced Artor squarely. “He told him that the Saxons never learn—and they never change. Then Ironfist struck off his head.”
Artor turned again to his audience. “Is this not true? Did the noble young prince perceive the Saxon weaknesses clearly? Aye! They do not learn, and they do not change their barbaric practices. They destroy Roman-built garrisons to build their own wooden palisades. They
smash stone towers into rubble. They kill horses and use them only for food. And they don’t change!”
Each word was spoken with measured, bell-clear emphasis, so that each man in the great hall was forced to consider the weight of the message delivered by Gaheris.
Eventually, murmurs of assent became more audible. The spoken words weren’t loud in Artor’s keen ears, but a level of agreement was growing inexorably within the assembly.
Caius, Artor’s foster brother and steward of Artor’s household on Cadbury Tor, rose smoothly as the council wavered uneasily in the face of the High King’s determination. A snap of his slender fingers summoned servants, who refilled wine cups and removed used platters. His clever, black eyes gauged his brother’s determination.
We go to war! Good! Caius thought excitedly, although no trace of his eager anticipation reached his controlled face. Caius was tired of peace and weary of counting hams and the weapons in Artor’s armory, or overseeing the collection of the High King’s taxes. Men such as Caius are only ever comfortable and at peace in the midst of war, when the violence they crave is readily on offer.
“All races are born with the same measure of courage,” Artor insisted. “And courage is a resource that can be used or wasted. Never forget that the Saxons are just as brave as we are.”
The audience stirred nervously.
“Many of the western Saxons have been born in these isles, as were our forefathers. Ironfist is as much a Briton as my foster brother, Caius, who stands here with you. And Caius, for all his Roman bloodline, is still a proud and noble Briton.”
Snickers of amusement ran through the gathering. For, while Caius enjoyed considerable respect as Artor’s steward, his pride and arrogance won him few friends, and most of the kings present were aware that the relationship between Artor and Caius was strained.
Respect among fighting men is a strange and hard-won reward. Caius had proved his courage again and again, just as he had proven his prowess as a fighting man and as a leader. But few men really liked
him, for there was something about Caius that was mildly repulsive. His mouth was a little too full and too red; his eyes glittered a little too brightly; and his manner was just a fraction too obsequious to be pleasing. Prince Gawayne had been heard to say that men such as Caius were either at your knees or at your throat, and most of Artor’s captains would have agreed with this view if pressed for an opinion.
Two hot coins of color appeared on Caius’s cheekbones. He was well aware of how his peers thought of him. He realized that he wasn’t trusted, even though he had served the High King with conspicuous gallantry for twelve years.
Caius willed the color to fade from his face. He hated these smug Celtic lordlings with their crude and simplistic view of the world.
As if he could read his foster brother’s mind, Artor smiled encouragingly.
“No, Ironfist and his warriors are no different from our Celtic ancestors,” he continued. “They are no different, except for their refusal to learn from their mistakes. As their fathers lived and built, so do the Saxons of today. As their grandfathers fought and died, so do the Saxons of today. But, in time, the Saxons will be forced to accept new ideas from other races, just as we Celts were forced to accept changes in our outlooks and in our lives. We took Roman knowledge, and we used it to our advantage. And now we maintain their roads and we recognize the strength of their fortresses. And we’ve learned to use the horse to maintain our military might. At this moment—this rare, fleeting moment—we still have an edge over our enemies. May the gods help us if we cast our advantage aside out of timidity and ineptitude.”
Targo flushed with pride, for Artor had used the voice of authority to force his message upon the great ones. All the wiser heads in council now nodded in agreement.
“When Ironfist falls, the Saxons in the east will be forced to halt their advance. They will settle in the east, and they will bury their roots in our soil. They will marry Celtic women and their lives will change until the day eventually comes when all the races who inhabit these lands may be prepared to call themselves brothers. But that day
has not yet come. Nor will it happen in our time.” Artor gazed into the attentive faces of his nobles. “Do we let Glamdring’s aggression remain unchallenged? Do we hide in our fortresses until Ironfist and King Lot surge out of the wilderness to lay waste to our fields and rape our women? Are we in our dotage that we must accept their uncouth insults?”
“No! No! No!” roared the war council.
You fools! Caius thought contemptuously. Artor can manipulate you at will.
“Even if all of you should vote for peace, it is my intention to ride against Ironfist, even if I must go alone. Make your choices, and make them quickly, for I leave within the week, even though death may take me.”
Then Artor strode from the hall, and the assembled nobles and warriors bowed before him. The High King’s eyes veered neither to right nor left, but were focused on the north.
And the eyes of the shark were pitiless.
Caius wiped his suddenly sweaty hands dry on the sides of his tunic before striding out boldly behind his foster brother. His red lips were curved into a gentle smile of satisfaction.
Slowly, stalwart men followed, both nobles and vassals, and the word raced through Cadbury and the villages like Greek fire.
“We go to war.”