Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 9!

Chapter 9


ARTHUR ENCOUNTERS THE SARMATIANS









ARTHUR AND HIS MEN RELAXED as it became obvious that King Lot was having a little fun and testing the new King out, such was his character, and Sir Bors waved forward the rearguard party waiting outside the castle. As the rest of Arthur’s party arrived the Lady Igraine was surprised to see King Lot, as he had previously indicated that he had some business to deal with before he made his way to Tintagel and she challenged him on this.

“My apologies my lady, but this was the business that I had in mind, to test our new King and see how he reacted, and he has passed the test and gone up in my estimation and if he carries on in the same way I will have no hesitation in supporting him, but it is early days yet.”

Merlin enquired as to the whereabouts of Greyfus, the guardian of the castle, and Lot answered that unfortunately he had been rather difficult with regard to the surprise that he had planned and refused to allow it.

“What have you done with him?” asked Merlin.

“He refused to join us or give up his sword, he is safe but no doubt not very happy with me,” replied Lot. “He kept my men at bay, but we cornered him and locked him in a store hut with a guard on the door, it might be best if you went with one of my men to release him as he is likely to come out fighting, and I wish him no harm, I like his fighting spirit, he is a good man to have around.”

Merlin went off to release Greyfus and explain the situation to him, that all was well and no harm was meant, he was a wise and steadfast knight and would not bear any grudge or malice towards King Lot, which was why he had been left as guardian of the castle all this time.

King Lot showed the newcomers the stables and by the time the horses and pack animals had been seen to Merlin and Greyfus joined them and they all moved into the great hall to have some well earned refreshment. Greyfus was introduced to Arthur, surprised by his apparent youth, but as their conversation progressed realised that he was talking to an old soul and that his knowledge and understanding of many things belied his age and that here indeed was a man worthy of the Kingship. Sharp like his father but with a greater understanding of the needs of the people and the country. He explained to Arthur the layout of the castle, the boundary of his lands for collecting taxes, who the local lords and elders were, the number of men that he had at his disposal and how many of them resided in the castle grounds. The state of the finances, which were quite healthy as Uther had been prudent and fair with his taxes. King Lot was in conversation with Lady Igraine and Merlin and Taliesin were deep in conversation in a quiet corner of the hall away from the others.

Some while later Merlin and Taliesin joined Arthur and Greyfus and stated that they would soon be off on their travels as there was still much to be done in gauging the mood of the country and whether having a new High King was creating any changes in attitude, even though it had only recently happened. The Saxons and other foreign usurpers would undoubtedly soon know of Arthur, even if they didn’t already, and how would they react to this news. Merlin indicated that trouble would probably come initially from the south and south east as that was a Saxon concentration but there was likely to be trouble between British kingdoms at times, as not all were for Arthur and his intervention would be needed and possibly requested by his supporters. That was more likely to be in the west and north predominantly but to be prepared for trouble from any direction as there were still many lords that were not happy with the fact that Arthur had legitimately claimed the Kingship. They were still power hungry and would possibly throw down a challenge.

“You do not have many men locally at the moment so you need to increase the numbers available to you, should the occasion arise that you need them and undoubtedly you will, as you might require some tough bargaining power. As Taliesin and I travel around we will act as your ambassadors as well, if you are happy with that, to illicit mutual help and support when needed. This way we can cover a large area of the country quickly and allow you time to build up your fighting strength here. There will unfortunately be times when to fight for your kingdom is necessary, but hopefully over time you will help bring peace to this country and it will all have been worthwhile.”

Arthur agreed that it would be good for them both to be his ambassadors and help in uniting the country, besides they seemed to be able to cover great distances very quickly, and that had always puzzled him, but he would ask no more of that at present. Merlin and Taliesin smiled but said nothing, it was agreed that they would leave the next morning and return on completion of their travels, which could take some months.

Now it was time for some merriment and laughter voiced Taliesin and to everyone’s surprise began to sing in an unknown tongue. An old ballad of love and romance, in a soft lilting voice that seemed to carry gently to all the corners of the great hall so that everyone stopped talking and listened in wonder at such beautiful sounds. The great hall remained quiet except for Taliesin’s singing, as all were enthralled by such music as they had never heard before. Surprise increased even more as Merlin joined in and harmonised with him at certain points, two voices as one producing wonderfully moving feelings as their gentle melody reached the heart and soul of all those present. All too soon for those listening they came to the end of the ballad with cries of 'more of the same please,' and to oblige they sang one more, even more moving than the first. That set the scene for more brave souls taking up the challenge and breaking into song, and so the day passed into night as all relaxed and enjoyed the festivities.

The next morning was a sad one for all, as those whose destiny or need to depart were leaving to go their separate ways. Sir Ector, Lady Igraine and Sir Cador were leaving for Tintagel accompanied by King Lot and his men. Gwendolyn was returning to the healing sanctuary at Lydney escorted by Merlin, and Taliesin was heading south and east to begin his travels. Sirs Bors had declared that he and his few men would remain with Arthur, and Sir Kay after much discussion with his father, had opted to stay also and serve his friend and King at Cadbury. Merlin had spent a little time with Arthur on his own, going through the final details of what needed to be done to ensure that he was prepared for any eventuality, and to seek advice from Greyfus if needed, as there was a wealth of experience and wisdom in him and he was totally trustworthy and discreet.

Arthur had spent much of his time with both his mothers, with promises to see them as often as it was possible, telling them that they would always be in his thoughts, wherever he was in the country. He gave them both a hug and kiss and wished them well on their journeys. He thanked Sir Ector for all that he had done to help him get to where he was now and promised to look after Sir Kay. King Lot approached him and wished him luck and that if he continued to prove himself then his sword would be there for him at some point, but it would never be against him. Arthur thanked him and said that he would do his best, and Lot replied that was all he asked as he mounted his horse and joined the others as they moved off, with the women looking back and waving as they passed through the gate.

Now I must start my new life, thought Arthur as he watched them depart, and deliver my vision of a stable and peaceful country, although there will be much pain to go through on the way I know that I can achieve it with help and guidance of that greater power within me. If I trust in those inner instincts and do not waver from my task, then I will be successful, to fail is not an option that I care to think of. I must be strong and fair in word and deed and lead by example and look to the needs of the people before my own, though my own are important as well, to help me deliver that which I feel is right and just.

Turning to Sir Bors, Sir Kay and Greyfus he said, “my friends we have much to do, the sooner we start the better. It is time to discuss our future and the way forward, let us adjourn to the great hall and begin the process, lest we waste the day in thoughts of our departing friends, there will be time for that later in the peace and quiet of the night.”

They all nodded in agreement and made for the great hall to start to plan the way forward and what needed to be done and when.

It was a long day but much was accomplished and agreed upon, the priority was to train the men in the castle and get them fighting fit again after such a long period of inactivity. Sir Bors and his men would test skills with weapons whilst Sir Kay would review their riding skills, with Greyfus in overall charge of the training, as he had the experience to co-ordinate the whole thing and was respected by all who knew him. Arthur wished to get a feel for the surrounding countryside and asked Greyfus if he had anyone that would be suitable, with a good knowledge of the land and people and who was known and respected locally. Greyfus had just the man, Andulus, reputed to be of Roman origin through his family line, very knowledgeable about the area and its history and well known and liked by the local people for his friendly disposition.

“That’s good,” commented Arthur, “because I need to be seen and for people to know that I am approachable. When you feel the men are ready Greyfus I intend to carry out small sorties further afield to show my presence, so that the people, local lords and land owners know who they are dealing with, and possibly recruit some extra fighting men, for we shall surely need them at some point. I want to make sure that we are fully prepared and able to respond quickly to any situation that might develop, we have the space here to accommodate more men and thanks to my father we have a good war chest. Tomorrow we need to gather everyone together so that they know who I am and to explain what is going to take place, if I can leave that for you to arrange Greyfus. Those are my thoughts on the immediate future, now I will explain my long term vision to you and what I would like to see for the people and the country. It is not something that will happen quickly but I am determined that we shall be successful and your thoughts and suggestions will be most welcome. If you feel that I have got something wrong, please say so, I cannot be right all the time and your advice will be invaluable in making my decisions, as those are what I will be judged on as poor judgement is remembered more than the good.”

The hours passed and the light was beginning to fade when Greyfus excused himself to go and make the arrangements for the following morning, before it became too late. Sir Bors stretched and said that he too should go and see to the welfare of his men and shaking his head he said laughingly, “and to think I wanted to run you through with my sword my lord when we first met, because I thought you were a cheeky lad acting above his station. Life is certainly strange at times with what it throws at us to see how we respond, thankfully no damage was done, except to my pride, and that was obviously a lesson that I had to learn.”

Still laughing he departed, leaving Kay and Arthur to reflect on how life had changed for both of them in such a short space of time, and the surprises that they had both experienced. They spent the next couple of hours talking about their childhood together, the things they had done and the fun and laughter that they had on the way, both agreed that they wouldn’t experience much of that going forward, but at least they had their memories of those happy times.

The following day saw all the inhabitants of the castle gathered in the great hall to welcome their new King, introduced by Greyfus, and seeing the look of surprise on some of the faces, he added that they should not be put off by his youthful appearance as on his shoulders was a wise old head. “I know,” he continued, “as I had spent most of yesterday in his company and his foresight and vision for the people and our country exceeds even the wisdom of my years, I know his words are not empty words but a passion and resolve within him that will see him successful and I have no hesitation in pledging my loyalty to him. Like his father Uther Pendragon in many ways, but even more of a peoples' King, with a greater wisdom and understanding of what we all seek, whatever our rank in life, he will lead us to that peace. He is the peoples’ King, Arthur High King of Britain.

Arthur thanked him for his loyalty and compliments and said he would do his best to make his vision come about and returned the compliment by praising Greyfus on his excellent stewardship of the castle over the intervening years. He then explained to the gathering his vision and that it would not be an easy task and there would be bloodshed along the way as others fought to resist the change, but he was determined to be successful and carry on what his father had started, but in an even better way for the people of this country. Arthur finished by saying that he hoped that they were all behind him as that would make his task that much easier, thanking them all for attending and should any of them have a problem with any aspect of life he was there to help and they should make themselves and their problem known to him.

“Greyfus will be the point of contact should you wish to speak to me as he will be aware of my itinerary. I will see you as soon as possible and you do not have to declare your reason beforehand if it is of a delicate nature, your confidence will be respected. All those of you who pertain to be fighting men please stay behind and I will explain what we are going to do to get you in shape and improve your skills, which will help you all attain a good age like Greyfus here, and not throw your life away needlessly because you weren’t trained properly.”

Nearly two hundred remained and looking around at some of the faces Arthur surmised that not all had fought before, going by their apparent ages, but he started young and that was no barrier and he would not discourage them. Today’s young were tomorrows fighting men and potential knights, good luck to them. Greyfus soon sorted them into groups, the seasoned fighters, those that had some experience with weapons and those with only a little or none. Those that had weapons he sent to fetch them and for the rest he said that they would be provided with them a little later as they had a good store of a variety of swords, spears and other paraphernalia that they could use. Not wishing to lose any time Greyfus soon had them organised into smaller groups so that the senior and skilled could check on their abilities and divide them into appropriate groups for training. Wishing them well Arthur motioned to Andulus to follow him, leaving Greyfus to carry on, indicating that he wished to ride out and survey the area.

For the next few days Arthur and Andulus travelled the surrounding land, talking to all those that they met en-route with Arthur asking many questions about the landscape, history and locations of the surrounding hamlets. Andulus was pleasantly surprised by his thirst for knowledge and his capacity for taking it all in very quickly. Even the local people that they met were impressed that the King had taken time to speak to them and engage in conversation as if they were equals.

Those first days greatly enhanced the King’s growing reputation as a man of the people, which was just the affect that Arthur hoped for, to build up trust and respect as well as to show that although he was young in years he had a wise and knowledgeable head on his shoulders that would serve him and the people well.

In the meantime Greyfus with the help of Sir Bors and his men, and Sir Kay, were busy with the rigorous training programme to improve the skills of those that wished to serve their King as a soldier when needed. Such was the skill and perseverance of the instructors that progress was good and the cohesion into a fighting troop began to take shape, although there was still much work to be done before they would be good enough to do battle with an enemy. Time might not be on their side so the momentum had to be maintained and each day brought improvement to their knowledge and skills that would serve them well in battle.

Arthur decided that he wished to travel further afield and discover the lie of the land, meet more of the local people and dignitaries and make himself known to them, so he called Greyfus, Andulus, Sir Bors and Sir Kay together one evening to outline his plans. Andulus suggested that they travel a day or two’s ride south towards Cerne Giant and Dorchester, as very little contact had been made for some while with the peoples in that region. Then west towards Pilsdon Pen, finally turning north to Hams Hill, then north east back to Cadbury. Should take no longer than a week if all went well he indicated. Arthur agreed that the route sounded ideal and said that along with Andulus as guide he wished Sir Bors and Sir Kay to accompany him together with eight of the more advanced recruits as a well earned break from their training. He asked Greyfus if he could manage the training for a week with just Sir Bors’ men to help, and received an affirmative. In that case let the trainees know that the eight who showed the best improvement over the next couple of days would be travelling with him, and he would leave the selection of them to him. Turning to Sir Kay he asked him to arrange for the necessary provisions and a couple of pack horses, as they would be travelling fairly light, although they needed to be prepared for any hostile reception that might be encountered.

* * * * *

Three days later the small party of twelve left the sanctuary of Cadbury Castle and headed south, into what was unknown territory for all except Andulus, who had travelled the region extensively in the past. At each village and hamlet they came across Andulus told Arthur its name and introduced him to the elders, if he knew them, or let Arthur introduce himself on the occasions when he did not. They stopped nearly an hour at each one and Arthur learnt much about the local inhabitants and their thoughts and feelings as to what was happening in the country in general and he explained what he had set out to do to help bring peace and stability for all. He did not hide the problems that they all faced but stated that if they all pulled together then peace would prevail. That if any of the young men wished to serve their King and country, then they should make their way to Cadbury Castle where they would be well provided for and given proper training. As the hamlets were some distance apart and they were travelling more or less due south all the time there were not too many stops made and the second day saw them approaching the larger village of Cerne Giant where they set up camp for the night. Riding into the village they found their way blocked by twenty or so men bearing cudgels and staves and were challenged as to who they were and what was the nature of their business.

“Gentlemen,” replied Arthur, “we come in peace and wish to speak to your elders and enjoy the hospitality of your village for the evening.”

“Who are you and from whence do you come?” was the challenge uttered again.

“Arthur, High King of Britain and his small entourage,” Arthur replied.

“We wasn’t born yesterday lad,” their leader laughed, “away with you before we set about you.”

Arthur unfurled the pennon on his spear and asked him if he recognised that?

“It’s the Pendragon,” said a voice from the back of the throng, pushing his way forward. “Is that you I see there Andulus?” asked the old man, emerging at the front.

“Yes Severus it is I,” replied Andulus recognising the aged elder, “and this is your King. What is all this hostility about?”

The elder addressed Arthur apologising for the reception but there were strange goings on lately and they had to be careful when encountering a small band of armed men, “follow me and we shall sit around the fire whilst I tell you about the stories being told.”

The reception committee melted into the shadows of early evening as Arthur and his troop followed Severus to a large fire, situated in the village centre and around which were seated several people. They tethered their horses and joined the fireside gathering as curious faces looked at them as Severus indicated the company that they were honoured with.

“It all began nearly two years ago when we started to hear stories of a band of rogues looting and killing over towards Pilsdon Pen way, then it quietened down for awhile but now stories are coming in regularly as travellers pass through, in a hurry to leave the area.”

“What has Sir Peredrue done about?” it queried Andulus. “Surely he would have hunted them down?”

“That’s the point, nobody has seen or heard from him since it started,” replied Severus, “and he was getting long in the tooth and rather forgetful in recent years, and no one has seen his son either, some say they were killed by these rogues, but we have no proof.”

“Who leads these rogues and how many of them are there?” asked Arthur, curious as to why Taliesin or Merlin had not heard the stories on their travels, but then they had been rather busy in the previous years in many parts of the country. This was obviously a small localised problem compared to what the two of them were involved with and had not spread wider afield to come to their notice, they had been interested in bigger and more far reaching problems.

“The story goes that there are about twelve of them, supposedly lead by Llewellyn, a surly and ignorant man who was once on a retainer to Sir Peredrue but was dispensed with a few years ago because of his nasty temper. Perhaps he heard that Sir Peredrue’s mind had begun to falter and saw the chance to cash in, hoping that his failing memory would not recognise him from previously.”

When asked who collected the taxes and appointed the magistrates Severus replied that from what he had heard Llewellyn and his rogues did and they seemed to be spreading out to more villages recently, hence the reception committee tonight.

“Well,” commented Arthur, “we shall be paying them a visit tomorrow as Pilsdon Pen is on our itinerary and instinct tells me that we should get there with all speed in the morning, as I feel an ill wind there tomorrow, but for now we have other things to discuss.”

Arthur proceeded to outline his views and vision like he had done at all the other hamlets that they had paused at briefly. There followed a lively discussion with many questions being thrown at Arthur, all of which he answered to the best of his ability as to what might happen in certain situations, and the crowd that had gathered appreciated his open and honest replies.

The sun was only just beginning to show itself in the morning as Arthur and his men set out for Pilsdon Pen, some instinct was urging him to get there before midday. Although only fifteen miles away the ground was undulating according to Andulus, with several places where a slight detour was needed to miss the higher ground and woods, and follow the meadows. They varied the pace of the horses to conserve their strength, allowing them to walk for awhile, then canter, then walk again, as Arthur wished to get there without any major stops. Just a little water occasionally when they came to a clear pool or stream, enough to keep them going but not too much that it would slow them down.

The morning moved slowly on as the blood red sun climbed gracefully higher into the sky, just hanging there. Almost as if it was waiting for Arthur to reach his destination with time to spare, and the colour perhaps indicating what was likely to transpire. They passed by several small hamlets without time to pause. Eventually Andulus mentioned that it was not far to go but it would be quicker if they actually passed through the next hamlet and not made a detour around it, as it nestled in the valley and would shorten their journey by a couple of miles. Arthur agreed and slowed them down to a walk as they approached the few dwellings grouped around the shallow stream running through the middle. A few people were about and they glanced curiously at the horsemen as they approached before disappearing into their huts, all except one ancient gent sitting outside one of them who spat on the ground and spoke as they came close.

“Going to watch them burn that poor young wench because she healed the sick?” and he spat again. “You’re the ones that ought to be burned, look at you all, most of you are younger than she is,” and this time he spat directly in front of Arthur’s horse.

“Sir,” exclaimed Arthur, “we have not come to watch any burning, explain quickly as it appears that there is not much time before this is supposed to happen.”

The ancient gent was taken by surprise. “Then who are you and what do you seek if you are not here to glorify such a wicked act?”

“I am Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain and I have come to take Llewellyn, if that is his name, and his ruffians to task for their thieving and killing, to find out what has happened to Sir Peredrue, whether he is dead or alive.”

“Bound to be dead with that lot,” was the reply, “but you had better hurry as they are going to burn her at midday in the village square. Good luck to you Pendragon if that is who you are, now get yourself moving before I spit again, you’ve still got two miles to go.”

He made the motions to spit as Arthur and the troop urged their horses forward at a canter. What was the layout of the village? Arthur asked Andulus, who replied that the track went straight through the square if they stayed on it.

“How easy is it to pass around and come in the other end?” inquired Arthur.

“Very easy, just follow the line of the huts either side, a couple of minutes only by horse,” replied Andulus.

“ Good,” answered Arthur, “you stay with me and Sir Kay and the first two men behind us. Sir Bors take the rest of the men around the hamlet and come in the other end, if any armed men try to escape, stop them but try and take one alive, we might need some answers.”

As he finished speaking the hamlet came into view and they could all see the thin wisp of smoke rising steadily into the air from the centre. Lets hope they were in time to stop this travesty of justice, Arthur murmured as he spurred his horse into a gallop. Sir Bors and his detachment broke away to circle around as Arthur slowed his horse to a canter as he entered the hamlet, then slowed to a walk as he could see the crowd in front of him.

There was much shouting and jostling going on and the mood of the crowd appeared ugly. Arthur could see that they were being kept back by a fair sized group of armed men and he turned to his men and warned them to be prepared and keep their weapons handy as they would no doubt be needed. In the centre of the circle he could see a young woman tied to a stake, her hair dishevelled and tears gently running down her face, but her head held high. The fire built around her was struggling to ignite, as if waiting for Arthur to arrive. One of the armed men was trying to get some life into it but apparently without much success and was voicing his frustration in a vitriolic fashion. Whilst the apparent leader was waving his sword towards the crowd with threats to keep back or he would have their heads. Arthur and his small troop approached quietly, unseen and unheard amongst all the commotion until they reached the gathering, when those at the back became aware of the horsemen and moved aside. Surprised and uncertain of the motive of these new visitors, and a hush descended on the crowd. The leader of the ruffians did not notice the arrival of Arthur until he and his men emerged from the crowd, thinking that his threats had subdued the crowd. Arthur challenged him asking what was going on and why the lady was tied to the stake, noticing that the fire had still not taken hold.

“My lord you are just it time to witness the burning of a witch,” replied the surly leader.

“Who says she is a witch and under whose authority are you doing this?” Arthur queried.

“I say she is a witch by what she has done with her black magik, it is under my authority that she be burnt for her crimes, and that is therefore no concern of yours as this is my domain and I am the law here. Who are you anyway to question my authority?”

“I ask the questions, not you. Who are you and under what capacity are you acting? for this land comes under the jurisdiction of Sir Peredrue not you. Where is he?” replied Arthur in a cold authoritative voice.

The crowd were becoming aware that something was likely to happen here, whoever this young man was he was pushing his luck with the likes of this lot, who thought nothing of killing to further their ends and these young men were out numbered twelve to five.

“Who I am is no concern of yours, so either stay and watch the law be carried out or be on your way,” was the terse reply. “We do not have time to dally,” and turning to the one trying to get the fire into life told him to pour oil on it and that would bring it to life quickly. There were shouts of 'no' from the crowd, 'she’s innocent let her go,' but their cries went unheeded.

“LLEWELLYN,” Arthur’s voice thundered out. “Release her in the name of the King, - now,” and unfurled his pennon midway up his spear letting the wind catch it and display it for all to see.

There were gasps from the crowd as many recognised the Pendragon and what it signified, surely this young lad couldn’t be the King, especially travelling with so few men. Llewellyn momentarily stopped in his tracks surprised on hearing his name and turned, catching sight of the pennon, causing his heart to miss a beat, then smiling as he realised that there were only five of them and his men could easily deal with them. That was when he made his fatal error and turning again to the man with the oil told him to pour it on the fire. As he turned to carry out Llewellyn’s command Arthur changed his grip on the spear. So quick was Arthur’s move that everyone was taken by surprise as the spear flew through the air, taking the man through the side. The earthenware jug crashed to the ground spilling it’s contents on the earth and running towards the fire igniting the wood and bursting into flame. Arthur saw all this as he drew his sword and pushed his horse forward towards Llewellyn, shouting to Sir Kay to get the girl and the rest to protect him from attack. Arthur’s men responded quickly and attacked the ruffians, who were taken by surprise, such was the speed of the mounted assault, falling back in disarray. Arthur raised his voice and shouted for Sir Bors to join them as he jumped from his horse and engaged Llewellyn in combat. Sir Bors and his men arrived in an instant and the ruffians were caught between two factions as the villagers scuttled for safety, leaving them in the open with no way of escape.

The fight was over very quickly and all the ruffians were either dead or dying. Sir Kay had released the young woman just in time and carried her to safety. Although Llewellyn was good with the sword he was no match for Arthur and was bleeding profusely from several wounds before he was kindly put out of his misery by a thrust through his body. Sir Bors came up to Arthur and apologised for not being able to take one alive as they had fought like condemned madmen but he had managed to get some sense out of one of them before he died that he believed that Sir Peredrue and his son were dead, killed by Llewellyn before the rest of them had arrived. Arthur retrieved his spear and asked if there were any casualties amongst the men and was told there were a few wounds but nothing too serious. Sir Kay and the young woman were tending to them in what served as the village chapel, pointing to a slightly larger hut that they were walking towards.

Andulus was helping with the wounded as Arthur thanked them all for a quick and decisive conclusion to the trouble and that they had done well, and he asked the young woman if she was alright after her ordeal. She replied that she was and knew that help would arrive in time but did not expect it to be the King. Arthur confided in her that he knew that he had to be here by midday, but did not know why at the time. Asking where the village elders were she told him that they had been poisoned by Llewellyn with a so called gift of wine. He had discovered that they were thinking of sending for help to find out what had happened to Sir Peredrue, but she had managed to save them with her potions. That was why he had wanted her burnt as a witch, because she had thwarted his plans and he wanted to show the village what would happen if anyone got out of line. Arthur wanted to know if he could see them later and she indicated that she would arrange it if they were well enough, but needed to see to the wounded first. Arthur took this as a polite dismissal and left her to carry on whilst he let Sir Kay know that he was going to take Sir Bors and Andulus and go to Sir Peredrue’s place which he understood was nearby.

Andulus led them to a small hill fort overlooking the village nestling in the valley below. All seemed deserted as they approached, but they took no chances and drew their swords. The place was run down and empty but showed signs of recent habitation, no doubt Llewellyn and his men had operated from here some of the time, as there were fresh horse droppings in the stable and wine and food in the cellars. Possibly some of their ill gotten gains were hidden there too, but that would have to wait for another time. Arthur was in a thoughtful mood as they made their way back to the village. Sir Peredrue and his son were certainly dead, and it was doubtful that there were any heirs from what Andulus had told him, but it needed someone to look after and run this region which covered a reasonable area. He made his decision and would mention it later when he saw the elders.

They arrived back to find the whole village gathered around the large fire, now burning freely without a problem, discussing the events of earlier in the day in a merry and jovial mood that they hadn’t obviously experienced for a long time. Sir Kay stood up as the three of them approached and turning to the elders, who the young woman had decided were well enough to join the celebrations for awhile, carried out the proper introductions. The elders went to rise and Arthur bade them stay seated as they offered their thanks for his timely intervention. On being asked they explained to the King what had been going on in the area for some time, that they were not the only village affected. Initially some people had rebelled against what Llewellyn had demanded, but they just disappeared never to be seen again, so most people fell in line as they feared for their lives.

The elders had decided to send for help but somehow Llewellyn got to hear of it, without them knowing, and had turned up with a barrel of wine for them as a gesture of good will. He and his men declined to join them in a drink on the pretext that they had other barrels to deliver around the villages but to enjoy the wine as it was a good one recovered from a wrecked ship. The elders were wary of the reasons behind this totally out of character gesture but discovered that the wine indeed was good and over indulged themselves. Feeling a little poorly next morning they put it down to too much wine but they all became steadily worse throughout the day and Isabel was sent for to bring some of her potions to put them right. Nothing seemed to work, so as there was a little wine left she took some away to, as she put it ‘to do things with,’ and came back much later with different potions to treat them with saying that the wine was poisoned.

When Llewellyn discovered that the elders were still alive he wanted to know how and found out that Isabel had treated them and saved their lives, so he branded her a witch and sentenced her to death by burning at the stake. Arthur had arrived just in time to prevent that happening to Isabel who had provided her herbal potions for many ailments that people in the village had suffered from. Although some people might call her a witch they knew that it was not true as she did not perform black rituals to harm people, all her remedies came from nature with knowledge she had learnt from her dear departed mother. They were powerless to stop them as they had no weapons and there was great fear upon them should they try and fail, many in the village would have been slaughtered.

Arthur had listened intently and agreed that their choice was indeed a difficult one against armed and dangerous men, and to act differently could have been disastrous for all, then went on to ask about the taxes that Llewellyn was undoubted extracting from them, and was told how he was forever demanding more. Such was the extent in some cases that people did not have enough for themselves or their families. Arthur considered this and saw a fair way to help their situation and strengthen his standing and influence in the region at the same time.

The elders saw that he was in thought and paused waiting for the King to speak. Arthur looked around at their faces and saw the strain there beneath their current merriment. That continual fight for survival, not just against the quirks of nature but their fellow man as well, then he spoke. He explained that for the country to seek peace and prosperity it had to pull together. That meant establishing law and order and justice for all, irrespective of their rank in life, proper administration of all the regions and the capability to defend against hostile intent.

“All these things require the finances to support them and in that respect taxes are necessary, but they should be fair and payable in different ways according to a persons means, such that they are left with sufficient for themselves and their families, with some left over for the bad harvest that can occur. You have been bled dry by a band of thieves and have suffered badly as a consequence. As your King my duty is twofold, one is to see that you are treated fairly as people and the other is that the country as a whole prospers and grows for the benefit of all. We need to work together to achieve this, Sir Peredrue’s fort is run down through neglect and needs work doing to it to make it defendable and habitable. This will be your way of paying taxes as a village, your time and effort, nothing else until the next harvest, by which time I hope to have in place a fair system of contribution for each person. Those that work directly for the local lord will not pay taxes but be paid according to their skills and receive food and lodging in some cases, depending on the work that they do.”

He looked at the elders and the villagers gathered around, seeing genuine surprise at his words, and asked if they had any questions.

“One sire,” said one of the elders, “we do not have a lord with Sir Peredrue having been killed by those ruffians.”

“A good point, and one that I was coming to,” replied Arthur, and turning to his left looking at Sir Bors carried on, “this is your new lord, Sir Bors, he will serve you and me as I serve you all and you serve your lord, King and country.”

Sir Bors was completely taken by surprise and spluttered his thanks to Arthur with an embarrassed smile and genuine appreciation, as although a lord he did not have a proper title until now, he had been a wandering knight with no land to his name. As there were no further questions at that point Arthur indicated that he and Sir Bors would stretch their legs and discuss the finer points of his new role.

Arthur and his party left the following morning to return to Cadbury Castle and they had decided just to stop briefly at Ham Hill on the way. Sir Bors and two of the young men were staying on for a few days to talk more with the elders and have a longer look at the old fort and to take the twelve horses that had belonged to Llewellyn to the stables there where they would be better housed, as the village had very little room for that number.

The return journey was uneventful, they made a brief stop as planned at Ham Hill and Arthur spoke to the villagers there who pledged their support and it was a weary troop that finally came in sight of Cadbury just as the sun had started to go down. It had been a long ride to do in a day, even with the short break, the horses as well as the men were beginning to feel the strain. Word of their arrival had reached Greyfus and he was there to meet them on arrival. Noticing the dressed wounds on some of the men and that they were three short asked what had happened and where were Sir Bors and two of the lads.

“Never fear,” Arthur told him, “they are alive and kicking, we had a little spot of bother to deal with but that was taken care of and these lads did well thanks to your good training. Sir Bors and the others will be back in a few days, but I expect that they will want to get off again shortly after they return as they have much to do.”

Some of the other trainee soldiers had come out and seeing the wounds on some of the returning group wanted to know what happened. Arthur, Sir Kay and Andulus dismounted and gave their mounts to the stable lads and followed Greyfus into the great hall to fill him in on the events of the last few days and to find out what had been going on there, if anything.

* * * * *

Sir Bors and the two lads returned a week later full of smiles that they had accomplished so much in a short space of time, and they had brought one of the spare horses with them laden down with bundles. They carried the bundles into the great hall and unwrapped them. Llewellyn’s loot that they had found in one of the cellars hidden in a large barrel stored with the wine, indicated Sir Bors. There were all sorts, jewellery, gold and silver goblets, crosses and items obviously taken from churches, daggers and weapons and two quite large bags of coins. All this and they still wanted more, thought Arthur, how greedy people become, more leads to wanting more and there is no end to it as they squeeze people dry or steal it, for what, to hide it in a cellar where it is no good to anyone. It’s the power that these people really crave for, the power over others to subjugate them until they break or retaliate and then they dispose of them as being of no further use or because they are causing trouble. How sad and selfish the human race can become when they want to further their own ends instead of working together for the benefit of all, and sharing their good fortune with others. What I have taken on is going to be a long hard struggle but if I persevere hopefully it will make a difference in the long run and change people's attitude, if not we are all doomed.

“This needs to go to the book keeper to be made a note of,” Arthur indicated to Greyfus, “not that we stand much chance of returning any of these items to their owners except maybe the church items, but it will help to top up the war chest if needed.”

* * * * *

The days of autumn rolled on, training the soldiers continued to go well but then Sir Bors decided that he should return to Pilsdon Pen and see how things were going and would take his men with him this time and get organised before winter set in. This caused a rethink in the training programme but had been expected to happen at some point. Sirs Bors and his party set off early one morning whilst the mist was still hanging loosely across the meadows with cries of good luck ringing in their ears.

An hour later a sentry reported to Sir Kay, who happened to be in the main square at the time, that Sir Bors and his party were returning at a fast gallop and it didn’t look good. Sir Kay sought out Arthur and gave him the news and was told to go and get Greyfus and alert the men that there might be trouble coming, as he ran towards the gate to wait for Sir Bors and his troop. Moments later they came riding fast through the gate and seeing Arthur came to a halt and explained that they had spotted a very large group of horsemen headed this way, upwards of three hundred was the guess and they were dressed in strange attire, long cloaks and strange conical helms.

“I hope they are not who I think they are,” stated Greyfus who had just joined the group, “unless they come in peace.”

Arthur did not get a chance to ask what he meant as just then a sentry shouted that they were drawing close and had come to a halt, there were hundreds of them, but a small group were approaching on their horses at a walk. Sir Kay had brought horses for Arthur and Greyfus and they mounted and went out to meet them with instructions to Sir Bors to be ready to close the gates if they were hostile.

“Who do you think they are Greyfus?” asked Arthur seeing the strangely glad horsemen with their colourful robes and pointed helms approaching them.

“The fiercest warriors on horse, both men and women and regarded by the Romans as the finest cavalry - the Sarmatians,” replied Greyfus, “they destroyed our forces when the Romans imported them many years ago, I thought they would have returned home to their own country by now. I wonder what they want?”