Sunday, January 17, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 13!



Chapter 13



A HAPPY REUNION








CARTS HAD BEEN ORGANISED to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades and a mass grave had been prepared for them in the grounds of the villa, with Arthur saying a few appropriate words of thanks for the laying down of their lives for the greater good of the country. He spoke to the congregation thanking them for their splendid efforts, saying there was still much to be done to rid the country of the tyrants, therefore they would shortly be travelling north to give assistance to King Cadell of Powys. The area was being plagued increasingly by raids from the Saxons who were trying to establish a base in the west. They would return to Cadbury first, when Andulus and his men had returned from destroying the Saxon keels, then within a few days head north and whatever lay before them.

It was three days later before Andulus and his weary band returned to the villa from a successful mission, although they had only managed to locate and destroy fifteen Saxon keels. None of them were guarded except one that was anchored mid stream, containing about twenty men, that escaped when Andulus and his men were spotted. That was probably just as well Arthur told him, the Saxon leaders would know that the rest were not likely to return, and that they were prepared for them. He then brought Andulus up to date on the battles that took place and the loses suffered. He went on to explain that he was taking the army north shortly, and as they would be away for a few weeks at least. He would like Andulus to stay and keep an eye on the villa, as well as Pilsdon Pen, as Sir Kay and Sir Bors would be going with him. Arthur told him that he would speak to both of them to find out if they had anyone that they would like to leave behind to assist him, but in the meantime to select forty men that could be split between the two locations, as that was all that he could spare.

King Esla, Lord Tryfig and their retinues took their leave with many thanks from Arthur for their speedy response in time of need, with the hope that the Saxons had learnt their lesson for awhile and would stay in their enclave, but to send word if help was needed. Sir Drustanus and Sir Sagremor who had enjoyed their forays with Arthur and respected him as a leader decided to join him permanently in his quest to bring peace to the country. Sir Kay and Sir Bors were just pleased to be in Arthur’s company again as life had become too quiet, although much had been accomplished in their regions, with the local population reaping the rewards of a better and peaceful life.

Arthur gathered his commanders and outlined his plan of action. They would break camp in the morning and return to Cadbury Castle where they would stay for a couple of days before starting their journey northward. Taliesin was going to Glevum [Gloucester], travelling with them part of the way, but Merlin would accompany them for most of the journey as he had business in that region. Arthur stated that he did not have any knowledge of the area to which they were travelling but believed Legionus did, he received a nod in confirmation. So they would be meeting many new people and hopefully extending their influence. When they arrived at Viroconium Cornoviorum [Wroxeter] they would assess the situation with King Cadell and decide on a plan of action.

The journey to Cadbury was uneventful and as this time they took the direct route, arrived before the day had passed, to a warm welcome from Greyfus with news that all had been quiet and there was a feast awaiting, for those that were hungry. Arthur asked him how he knew that they would be returning that day. Greyfus responded that Merlin mentioned it when he and Taliesin had passed through several days ago, saying all would be hungry as dogs when they arrived. Arthur laughed and said that was typical of Merlin, always seemed to know what was going on, even when he wasn’t around. He had best let the others know that there was food and wine to be had, that would please them. Greyfus replied that they had smelt it and most were already in the great hall, so Arthur had better hurry if he wanted any, before those hungry dogs eat it all. Arthur took off his sword and scabbard, giving it to Berius as they both headed for the great hall to join the others.

The feast did not progress into an all night session of eating and drinking as many were tired and drained from the vigour’s of combat. Sleep and good rest had been sparse of late, now the adrenalin had ceased to flow they all felt it. Some had fallen asleep where they were, whilst others excused themselves to find a place of peace and quiet, as soon they might have to do it all again.

Arthur engaged Merlin and Taliesin in conversation to hear news from around the country and the state of things in general. There was still a feeling of unease in many regions with occasional clashes, but nothing significant except for the Saxon incursions into the land of the Cornovii, and they were increasing by the day. It was a hilly area and the population was widely scattered so it was relatively easy to penetrate deep inland, Viroconium was the major stronghold and whoever held it controlled a wide area, hence the Saxon interest. King Cadell did not have a large force at his disposal, like many of the kings in that region, therefore required assistance from elsewhere when trouble arose. There posed the problem because many of the surrounding kingdoms were still wary of each other and thought of each as a potential threat. Such had been the case for many years, and often justifiably so. Arthur could help in breaking those barriers down, by bringing them together, something that Merlin had been trying to do for a long time, with some success, but he did not have the authority like the King had, progress was therefore slow.

“King Caradog of Gwent,” Merlin continued, “another that had supported you Arthur, would be a prime candidate to assist you and Cadell in flushing out the Saxons. They both rule over large neighbouring areas and could do with supporting each other against common enemies, not just the Saxons but the Irish and Picts as well. This is something that you should work on, and as it happens we are calling in to see Caradog Vreichfras first, so there is a good opportunity to enlist his aid and bring the two of them together for the common cause, under your command as King. A simple guarantee from you to protect each of their territories from any unwarranted intrusion should suffice. They supported you, now it is time to deliver and support them, encouraging them to work together to help bring peace and prosperity to the country. So simple when you think about it but so often outside the parameters of the human ego. Some people do make life so difficult for themselves, they never see the light. Thankfully there are people, like yourself Arthur, that have a wider vision and can help make the necessary changes in the way of life to move things forward.”

* * * * *
Arthur’s army moved out of Cadbury Castle two days later on the journey to Viroconium, making for Caer Baddon [Bath]. Then slowly descending from the higher ground to join the old Roman road as they headed northward towards the great expanse of the River Severn, as it narrowed gradually on the approach to Glevum {Gloucester]. Merlin had said that they needed to cross the river but the nearest point to cross on horse was ten miles below Glevum, but they could only do that when the tidal water was at its lowest, and with care due to the soft shifting sand. Taliesin left them at the turn for the old passage, as it was known, to continue his journey northward, wishing them well and parting with a cryptic comment of see them in a month.

This was a totally new area for Arthur as he surveyed the rolling hills and sharp escarpments that descended suddenly towards the river, with just a few small hamlets and villages scattered across the countryside in the valleys. He noticed that there were a greater variety of trees in that region, most spread across the hills with the lower ground being farmed, the crops spread out in a patchwork pattern and the cattle grazed near the banks of the river. Well ordered and peaceful, he thought, but what problems were there lurking just beneath the surface, was it a false image that he saw? Even the air felt different - cleaner, fresher and with more vibrancy. Was there a different outlook on life here, or was it the land itself and the influence of the river? Did that create a dividing line of some sort, a natural barrier that gave protection from whatever was on the other side, or an escape route from trouble on this side? As they were going to cross to the other side he would be able to test his feelings there, and see if they were any different. He noticed Merlin watching him thoughtfully.
“You feel it don’t you?” Merlin commented, “that difference in the air as we draw near to the river.”
“Yes, it is most strange,” replied Arthur, “I feel more attuned to the land, as if I was part of it and see things more clearly in my mind, but it is confusing, as I do not know if it is real or I am dreaming.”
“It is real indeed,” Merlin answered, “you are the bearer of the sword and water increases its potency, even without holding it Excalibur will bring you greater clarity when close to such a powerful river as this. It belonged to the sea people, as we were once called, and the vibrations of water are in its making, as they are in all living things. It is showing itself to you and connecting with you so that you will act as one in the task that lays ahead of you. The knowledge and wisdom that it contains will be available to you when it is needed to enable you to follow the right pathway in bringing light and life back to your country, as a stepping stone for far greater things in the distant future. Your small country will lead the way in many ways, as the peoples of your world move forward to their new and brighter future, such is the way all things evolve. It will take a very long time to get there, but you are the one that has been selected to start the process and lay the foundations. There will be many pitfalls on the way, not just for you, but for others that follow after. Hopefully the human race will make it this time, unlike previous attempts that failed because the timing was wrong, the people were not ready.”

“That makes things much clearer Merlin but increases the burden on me to walk the right pathway, so much is expected of me I hope that I do not falter in my task.”

“Trust in the sword and it will steer you to the right course if you are ever unsure of the direction to take, use its wisdom, it is there for you that is why you have started to feel the connection. The bond is growing, Excalibur has accepted you and is now willing to serve you for the greater good, listen to its wisdom, its knowledge is far greater than you or even I have.”

The army had arrived at the river bank at the right time, with the water a small flow some distance out in the wide expanse of sand. A line of small rocks indicated the safe passage across, although some had obviously moved with the constant flow of water and hadn‘t yet been replaced in their correct position by the local people. Merlin led the way with instructions to follow in a single line as there was only a narrow path of harder sand on top of a now submerged stone causeway built a long while ago by the Romans. Either side there was soft sand that varied in depth that could suck a man down to his waist, and a horse would definitely be lost. The narrow belt of water in the middle was no more than a foot deep and everyone made it safely across, although a few of the horses were none too happy, but their riders kept them calm and at ease.
Merlin, as guide for the journey, rode beside Arthur and led them back up to the high ground as they headed towards Blestium [Monmouth] where King Caradog should be in residence. He travelled around his kingdom on a regular basis and Merlin said that he had been reliably informed that he would be there at this time, as he was every year. Merlin always seems to know what is going on, thought Arthur, even before others do. His mystical powers are beyond my knowledge but most useful to have available in saving time and wasted journeys, not to mention his apparent knowledge of their enemy's intentions. It's almost as if he knows what is going to happen, even before it does, no wonder he is called a seer by those that know him. His thoughts were interrupted by Merlin indicating that they were almost at their destination and should make camp, it wouldn’t do to approach the town and fort with such a large army, without proper warning. Such mistakes had led to unfortunate battles in the past because the wrong impression had been created. Arthur gave the order to his commanders to pitch camp on the banks of the River Wye that they had been slowly descending towards.

Arthur and a small company of knights, together with Merlin and Berius, crossed the river near the town, approached the gates of the fort and requested entry in the name of the High King of Britain who sought audience with King Caradog of Gwent. The gates that had not long before been closed for the night swung open and a guard beckoned them forward and directed them to the central courtyard where they would be attended to. Caradog, who had been sent word, greeted them saying that he was honoured that the young King had found time to call on him and to alight and join him for some refreshments. Arthur thanked him and introduced his companions, some of whom were already known to Caradog Vreichfras.

General conversation ensued whilst they enjoyed the plentiful food and drink, then Caradog asked the purpose of their visit as it was not often that he was fortunate to have such an illustrious group of knights to entertain. Usually it was just that old troublemaker Merlin (said with a smile as he looked at him) who came on his own and disappeared just as quick, after he had emptied his kitchen and cellar. Everyone knew that Merlin ate and drank very little and this was a common jest that he had become used to. Arthur explained that the Saxons were causing increasing problems in Powys and had stepped up the severity and frequency of their raids, inquiring if Caradog had experienced similar problems. A few he replied, mainly in the west along the boundary of his kingdom, but he never seemed to be in the right place to catch them, they plundered and killed in the villages and moved on, disappearing into the hills.

“The situation in Powys is becoming serious as the enemy are now threatening Viroconium with frequent attacks, if that falls then your northern boundary also becomes very vulnerable.” Arthur paused here for a moment to let the information sink in before continuing. “King Cadell does not have a large force and it is widely spread, as is yours I believe, this leaves you both vulnerable to a concerted attack in strength by the Saxons, or even the Irish raiders.” Another pause by Arthur, “this is why I have brought my army here, not two miles away, to help crush our enemies.”

Surprise passed across King Caradog’s face as that was definitely news to him, no word had reached him of the army being so close, that was worrying. Arthur sensed the unease that his words had caused, the king was an intelligent man and saw the dangers that this lack of information could pose if it was not a friendly force. Continuing he reminded Caradog that both he and Cadell had supported him as the rightful heir to the Kingship of Britain and now he was here to support them both to rid the area of Saxon intrusion. Each had a right to govern their own region without interference from another and he as High King of Britain would see that this was upheld. Working together would help restore peace to the region. Fighting amongst themselves would play into the Saxon’s hands and everyone would lose, just like happened with the Romans. Arthur stopped talking whilst Caradog mulled all this over and absorbed what had been said. After several moments silence, nobody else had said a word, all had listened intently, Arthur asked the direct question, would Caradog join him with whatever men he could spare, and go to the aid of King Cadell of Powys. King Caradog of Gwent looked at Arthur and replied that he now appreciated why he had supported him so positively at the King making council, yes he would support him and let any past grievances with Cadell be forgotten for the good of their country.

* * * * *
Three days later they set out. Caradog and managed to gather nearly eighty foot soldiers, that Arthur considered to be a reasonable number at short notice. Enough for his purpose of showing solidarity with Cadell in his fight against the Saxons and bringing the two kings together for the benefit of all. Their journey was uneventful and although the region was hilly the old Roman road that they joined headed directly to Viriconium. The sixty mile journey taking just over two days, Arthur letting Caradog’s men lead the way so that they were not eating the dust that the horses threw up behind them. Caradog himself rode with Arthur and Merlin, as was befitting his status, allowing them to discuss events across the land and the recent troubles in the south with the Saxons. His respect for Arthur rose considerably as he listened to the King’s exploits since his crowning, Merlin adding his comments when important issues were modestly brushed over. King Caradog was very impressed and said so to Arthur, observing that although he was young in years he had accomplished much in a short period of time, and grown in stature as a consequence. Arthur thanked him and replied that he was only doing what he felt was right for the people and the country, with a fierce resolve to continue in the same way as long as he could. That was the role he have been given in his life, he stated, his vision was for peace and stability for their land, showing the world what could be accomplished if the desire was there.

Their conversation moved on to what was happening in that region, the history and reasons for tribal conflict that periodically occurred. These seemed much the same as everywhere else - greed and power, the downfall of the human race. This was the biggest problem that Arthur had to face, irrespective of the quarter it came from, the only way to counter it was having the people behind him strong enough to influence those that wielded the power, keeping them in check or removing them, whichever became necessary for the common good.

The weather had changed as they approached Viriconium and a wet camp was pitched just two miles from the town, using the shelter of the trees on the lower slopes of the gently rising hills, close to where two small rivers joined. Merlin, perhaps due to an inner vision, suggested that they wasted no time and a small party of kings and knights should go forthwith and seek an audience with King Cadell. He felt time was now getting short, there was a different feeling in the air. Events were unfolding faster than he had anticipated, he confided to Arthur, which was why he had stayed the full journey with him. He had intended to leave once Arthur had convinced King Caradog to join with him, but the situation had been changing and they were needed urgently now. Arthur gathered his commanders and gave instructions for them to inform the men to be doubly vigilant and set extra guards as there was trouble in the air. Legionus was to stay behind in command of the army and to act as he saw fit if the Saxons appeared. If Arthur or a messenger hadn’t returned by noon tomorrow then none of them were able to and he should bring the army to Viriconium at the gallop ready for trouble, before then if he felt it was necessary. Before they moved out Arthur spoke a few words privately to Legionus.
Arthur and his party approached the gates of the town, which to his surprise were wide open with people coming and going, commenting as much to Merlin, who was equally bemused. Nobody challenged them as they entered the town and few took any notice of them. Where were the guards and lookouts wondered Arthur, this place was wide open to a surprise attack, nobody seemed in the least perturbed, he could have brought his whole army in here and taken control in a matter of minutes without anyone realising. If he could do it, so could the Saxons and it would be a total massacre, men, women and children dead, because no one was on guard and able to raise the alarm. He would speak to King Cadell about this. Had they been brought here on a fool's errand, he doubted it as Merlin was always correct with his information, unerringly so in fact. They stopped at the far side of the square, Merlin saying that he would go and seek out Cadell and discover what was going on.

It was some while before he returned with a worried look on his face to report that the king had left earlier in the day with around two hundred soldiers, following reports that a large party of Saxons had been spotted about fifteen miles westward towards Cefn y Castell. That accounted for there being nobody on guard, Cadell had obviously taken all the men he had available in pursuit of them, Arthur commented. There was not much that they could do at the moment, except wait as dusk would be falling soon. They could not go searching as they did not know that area, but they could secure the gate and mount guard lest the Saxons should attack. He looked at Merlin and asked him if he could organise some food for them, as he was known there, whilst they made themselves comfortable in the gatehouse and awaited the out turn of events.
Dusk slowly darkened into the black blanket of night with just the tiny pin pricks of light from the vast array of twinkling stars in the clear sky. The full moon cast its pale glow across the land and created shadows that sometimes appeared to be moving forms of indistinguishable shape that made those on watch look twice to try and discern what they thought they saw. A time when the eyes and mind played tricks with each other, causing a nervous tension in the watcher. Creating something from nothing, just a shadow, a trick of the light, magnifying noise in the stillness, all very unsettling to those unused to night watching. Arthur was bristling with tension but Berius was totally unconcerned, just watching and listening, as they shared the first period of guard duty. He was used to this, having spent much of his time on earth working with the animals and the land, he understood the night life and the amount of activity that went on during this period, when the human race was asleep. Berius enjoyed the peace of the night and knew all the noises and what was causing them, especially the intrusive noise of people moving in the dark. He heard the band of men approaching long before their dim shapes could be seen and warned Arthur. The King inquired if he could gauge how many and what tongue they were using, Berius answered that there were over a hundred with several horses and were of his own tongue, definitely not Saxon. Arthur quietly summoned the others and said that he was going to surprise the approaching group by throwing out a challenge to identify themselves, that might make Cadell think twice in future about leaving his town unguarded.

The body of men drew closer and their outlines could just be seen when Arthur shouted out his challenge, “In the name of the King who approaches the gate by stealth undercover of darkness?”

The men totally taken by surprise stumbled to a stop and then came an answer from the leading horseman.
“Your king of course returning with his men from an encounter with the Saxons. Now open the gates.”
Arthur was smiling to himself as he replied sternly, “I am the King, identify yourself if you wish entry, before I set my troops on you.”

Merlin and the others were all smiling at this little charade that would hopefully teach Cadell a lesson as the reply came back with laughter in the voice.

“Welcome to my domain Arthur, High King of Britain, for it is only you that would have the audacity to challenge me at the gates of my own town, I am glad you have arrived. Might I now be permitted to enter? It has been a weary day and I believe all is not yet done.”

Arthur laughed and opened the gates with the comment, “welcome back to your wide open town King Cadell, thankfully for you I am not a Saxon.”

As Cadell rode through he looked at Arthur smiling, “the point is taken my lord, quite remiss of me,” and seeing King Caradog standing behind him repeated himself, “yes quite remiss of me, it could have been a bad error of judgement, but thankfully all is well.”

The gates were secured again and men left on guard as they all headed for the hall.

Arthur made the introductions and went straight to the point of King Caradog’s involvement explaining that he had put the proposition to him that both had supported him as High King and it was now time to put differences aside and work together to defeat the Saxons and any other enemies. King Caradog seeing the benefits of that had accepted and brought eighty men with him, all that could be gathered in a short time. As High King of Britain he guaranteed the borders of the regional kings and would personally settle any disputes that arose. He looked at Cadell and asked him if he found favour with that and would accept that working together was the best for all. The king looked around at the stern faces watching him and realised that Arthur really did have that strength of leadership that was needed, they were all with him, he should be too and nodding, gracefully accepted.

Cadell then outlined to them all the events and attacks that the Saxons had been mounting in the region. Testing their strength he felt as they would carryout a raid then disappear into the hills, only to reappear a little later somewhere else some distance away. Arthur asked him to outline a map on the floor and indicate where they had attacked and when, which Cadell did. As he thoughtfully studied it he casually asked how many Saxons were in the raiding party? Nigh on five hundred from the sightings that they'd had, was the answer, but sometimes less and each raid getting closer to the town. What were the distances between those places? asked Arthur as he pointed to several points on the map in sequence, Cadell gave him approximate mileage for each and the dates for each raid again.

Arthur studied the map carefully and Merlin was pleased to see that he had a hand on the hilt of his sword, even if he wasn’t aware of it, and the frown he wore spread into a smile at that moment. Good, Merlin thought, he is using the sword because the situation puzzles him, the answer to his question will dawn on him in a moment. Sure enough it did, as Arthur turned to face all of them and told his onlookers that there were three groups of Saxons raiding and probing and that they were making their way towards them there, where they would join up for an assault on the town. Once the Saxons had secured the town they would then bring in more men by sea, having swept the area from the coast to Viriconium for opposition, of which there was very little, then they would begin to spread south and east. That would isolate the western regions from the rest of the country and they could deal with them at their leisure, so gentlemen they should expect a concerted attack within days from around fifteen hundred Saxons, They had arrived just in time thanks to Merlin’s warning.

The others, except for Merlin, were amazed at how Arthur had interpreted the details so easily, but it was so obvious now that he had pointed out what had been going on and the reasons behind it all. He would return to their camp in the morning and brief Legionus and the other commanders and catch the Saxons in the open as they approached the town.

Events however did not happen quite as planned. The town was woken shortly after dawn by the alarm being sounded, Saxons were approaching in large numbers just over a mile away and men were running to man their positions and to secure the gate properly.

“How many?” asked Arthur as he rushed outside nearly knocking Merlin over.

“Several thousand by the look of it,“ was the answer from Merlin, “more than you thought.”

“No,” replied Arthur, “exactly what I saw, but I didn’t want to cause alarm last night so I reduced the number. There should be about three thousand.”

“Near enough,” answered Merlin, “but big trouble whatever the number, without your army here.”

“On the contrary,” replied Arthur, “if we can hold them for awhile then the Saxons will be caught between the two.”

Seeing the puzzled look on Merlin’s face, he explained that before they left camp he told Legionus to post scouts to watch the town and if there was trouble to come at once, not wait until noon. Merlin laughed, Arthur still managed to amaze him at times with his forethought and planning, a far better leader than his father was, and Uther was good, but not in the same league as this lad.

Arthur took command without a thought, it came naturally to him and was his birthright, his orders were obeyed without question, even by the two kings. His decision was to go out and meet the Saxons, but stay within a hundred paces of the gate, directing Cadell to have twenty men remain and keep it secure should they need to retreat quickly.

“We have to keep the Saxons engaged so that they do not hear or see the army under Legionus approach, until it is too late, and they are trapped between us.”

Cadell inquired, “how long will it take for your foot soldiers to arrive. Can we hold the enemy at bay long enough?”

“We are Britons fighting for our land,” Arthur answered, “we will hold them at bay for as long as it takes, my army is five hundred of the best cavalry that you will ever see, the Saxons will not stand a chance.”
With that he swung his horse around, ordering the gate to be opened and led the small fighting force of less than two hundred out into the open to do battle. Caradog and Cadell rode beside Arthur with his other knights on either side whilst Berius and Merlin rode just behind the King. They stopped fifty paces from the gate as the foot soldiers fanned out behind them forming a solid wall of defence. The Saxons continued to advance and came to a halt a hundred paces away, six of them approached closer and their leader spoke in the British tongue with a very harsh guttural accent.

“We wish to take hospitality in your town as we have travelled many miles and are weary and look for a good place to rest for the day.”

“You are welcome,“ Arthur replied, “but first you must lay down your weapons. Strangers are not permitted to bring them into the town, they must remain here.”

“We cannot do that,” replied the Saxon. “How can we protect ourselves if attacked?”

“Then you must remain here,” Arthur answered and made to turn away, gaining a little more time.

“Then we must enter your town by force,” was the answer, “and many of you will die, your women will become playthings for my men and your children will starve. Do you not wish to reconsider?”

“I have given you my answer,” Arthur replied with finality, “the choice is yours, leave your weapons and enter, or stay and forfeit your lives.”

The Saxon laughed, “that is grand talk from a boy sitting on a big horse. Why don’t you dismount and come and take my weapons and show you are a man?”

Arthur knew he was being goaded and played with and smiled inwardly at such an obvious ploy, but he needed a little more time yet before Legionus would arrive and made his decision. He vaulted from his horse, taking everyone by surprise including the Saxon, landing within feet of him as he drew Excalibur. Quick to recover the Saxon chief drew his weapon. There was a clash of steel as their blades met in attack and counter attack and he soon realised that this was no boy he was fighting, but a skilled and knowledgeable swordsman and needed all his concentration to survive. Several times he tried to manoeuvre Arthur so that his back was to the other Saxons, but the King was too wise to let that happen, he didn’t want a sword in his back.

They went backwards and forwards but the chief began to tire and shouted something unintelligible to the others and Arthur sensed another had drawn his sword and was approaching. Next minute Sir Kay was by his side shouting that he would deal with him. Merlin had understood what the Saxon had shouted, but Kay had acted even quicker, before he could shout a warning. Just like old times Arthur had shouted back as he wore the Saxon chief down and with a sudden thrust it was over as Excalibur found its mark and took the man through the body. Glancing round Arthur was aware that Sir Bors, Drustanus and Sagremor had joined the melee too and were engaging the others, but more than that the rest of the Saxons were in uproar and advancing rapidly.

Back to the horses he shouted, quickly before they were overtaken. Two of the remaining Saxons fell dead and the other two were badly wounded as Arthur and the others dashed back to their horses, just in time before the mass arrived. Raising Excalibur in the air Arthur shouted its name and immediately brilliant white light burst forth from the blade dazzling and blinding the enemy such was its intensity, causing them to falter in terror and awe.

The two opposing groups clashed and frenzied combat ensued and soon after Berius shouted to Arthur that he could hear horses, Legionus was on his way and not far distant. How can he hear horses with all the noise of battle going on, wondered Arthur. Sure enough Legionus and the cavalry swept into the Saxons from behind, splitting them into two groups as they smashed a wedge through them. Surprise was total and the slaughter brutal as they fell in their hundreds. From the centre of the formation Gelda appeared with her troop to secure the centre ground and relieve Arthur and his men, with the comment that once again she had arrived just in time to save her King, it was becoming a habit. He laughingly shouted back that it was a good habit.
The Saxons although vastly superior in number were no match for the cavalry and were soon put to flight, chased and hunted down until the majority were accounted for, none being left alive when caught. Arthur had lost few men, surprise again being the key to their success, and that night there was much merriment in celebration of another victory against the Saxons.

The talk of the night was Arthur taking on the Saxon chief in the way that he had, but as he said he was buying them time to enable Legionus to reach them before it became an all out battle, as there were so few of them. Cadell and Caradog had been greatly impressed by Arthur and his natural air of command and were talking quite amicably together about the events of the day, and how a small cavalry army could be devastating against far superior numbers of foot soldiers. So far their luck and good leadership under Arthur had served them well, would it last, only time would tell.

Merlin as usual was quietly contemplating his own thoughts and congratulating himself on what a good job had been done in educating Arthur in the right way, he was putting his knowledge to good use even without the additional aid of Excalibur and that was very encouraging. We will give him a nice surprise on the way back to Cadbury if Taliesin had done his bit, which he knew he had as he had been in touch in his normal mystical way. Let him have a rest here for a couple of days and increase his knowledge of the area, then it will be time to leave. Arthur had done well with the two kings, Caradog and Cadell, bringing them together with the right words at the right time, he certainly knows how to read situations and turn them to an advantage. Our High King is becoming a very shrewd man indeed and a bold and valiant leader, that bodes nothing but good for the country. He treats everyone with respect and compassion, his reputation for being fair and just is growing all the time, the changes that he is making will last for many generations and maybe will help this world of theirs move forward to its ultimate destiny. The highest souls, of which the Elders were the physical interaction to support this evolution, waited in timeless patience for what one day would be the human transition into their true selves. A time of untold joy that would reverberate amongst all sentient beings across all dimensions of the many worlds scattered throughout the great and expanding cosmos. Worlds that had been through the same slow process across aeons of time to finally make that gigantic leap and reap all the rewards of the long journey. It would require many visits here by those such as the Elders, but at least the process had finally started and the more that Arthur could achieve in his time here the sooner it was likely to happen, albeit many hundreds of earth years would pass before that would be achieved. It would happen, as it had already been written. Merlin emerged from his deep thoughts, a smile of satisfaction passing across his countenance as his gaze took in the whole relaxed scene before him, the laughter and joviality of men as they released their tensions after a hard fought battle.

* * * * *
Two days later, just as Merlin predicted, Arthur gathered his commanders and indicated that it was time to return to Cadbury and to get the army ready to move out. Caradog decided to remain in Viroconium for a few more days as the guest of King Cadell and develop a strategy for working more closely together. Both expressed their appreciation for the help that Arthur had brought in their time of need, and for laying the foundations for greater co-operation between them, they were at his service should it be requested, just send word. He replied that it was his duty and task as High King to seek peace and stability for the country but he needed the help of kings such as them, it was not possible to do it on his own. They could help by working together and with other neighbouring kingdoms. United they could defeat the enemy, but squabble amongst themselves and all would be lost, the choice was theirs, lasting peace or constant conflict. He hoped that they would chose wisely for the greater good of the people of this land. Arthur bade them farewell and to think on his words carefully, as he swung his horse around and led his commanders out of the gate to take his army southward and home.

They followed much of the same route on their return journey as before, except that they bypassed Blestium, heading further south and towards the River Severn. Arthur queried this with Merlin, inquiring why they had not headed towards the crossing point on the river that they had used before on their journey north, as he had said that it was the lowest point that they could cross. Merlin laughed and commented on his good observation saying that he wished to visit some good friends at a small hamlet not far ahead, ones that Arthur might remember. This intrigued the King who wished to know more. Merlin laughed and asked him if he felt any different, what sensations and feelings were running through him? Arthur thought about this for a moment and then replied that he sensed familiarity, as if he was going home after a distant journey. That was absolutely right, that’s exactly where they were going, home to where he was born, to the healing sanctuary at Lydney. Arthur smiled, no wonder he felt so calm and at ease inside, such a peaceful place so full of love and harmony, he could feel it drawing him closer. Aloud he wondered if he would see the bears again. Merlin laughed at this and said it was doubtful, but he would see his mother, who was expecting them. Arthur called him an old rascal for keeping quiet about it and not even mentioning how close they had been on their journey northward. It wasn’t the right time Merlin replied, besides Taliesin had to make arrangements before they returned so that they would be expected, He thought that they should stop now as it was only a mile further.
Arthur brought his army to a halt and indicated that they should make camp, informing his commanders that he and Merlin had some private business to attend to at the hamlet up ahead. Berius would accompany them to look after their swords as Arthur thought that it wouldn’t be right to take them into the place that they were visiting, he looked on the sanctuary as more holy than a church - his birthplace.

The three off them rode the short distance, Arthur full of anticipation for seeing his mother again, well his second mother Gwendolyn, who had nurtured him and brought him up. Berius remained at the entrance to the grounds with the horses and the swords and Arthur and Merlin made their way on foot to the stone building set back amongst the trees. Taliesin was waiting for them and greeted them warmly and led them to seats in the garden. Recollection came back to Arthur of all those years ago, or so it seemed, when he sat in that spot with the healing ladies as they taught him many things about nature, the animals, flowers and trees. He could vividly recall the spot where he was sitting when the bears appeared and how he had removed the young one’s pain. Was it that long ago now? He heard people approaching and turned to greet his mother and the ladies and found himself looking at both of his mothers smiling at him, Gwendolyn and his birth mother Lady Igraine. King or no King he moved quickly to them and embraced them both, lifting them off their feet, such was his delight at finding them both there. They marvelled at how he had grown, not just in size but stature too, no longer the boy King but a man in his own right. They moved towards a stone seat and sat either side of him as Merlin and Taliesin discreetly withdrew and joined Berius at the entrance.
Both of the women were eager to hear all about Arthur’s adventures since they had last seen him, so he spent nearly two hours bringing them up to date, from the arrival of the Sarmatians to the recent defeat of the Saxons at Viriconium. They marvelled at how so much had befallen him in such a short time and he had obviously dealt with all of it in his stride. Their pride and joy at what their son had accomplished for his young years showed in the beautiful smile on each of their faces as they listened intently to him.

Arthur eventually paused and asked what had been happening in their lives since they last met, as it seemed an age ago now. The women looked at each other and Igraine nodded to Gwendolyn to tell her story first. There was not much to tell she said. She had returned to the sanctuary to assist the women and was made most welcome by them, as it eased their burden considerably in the good work they did. Life was full of love and peace there and she felt thoroughly at home, pleased that she had made the decision to return and be of service to those in need. They were always busy with people travelling great distances to them for healing many different ailments, as their reputation for unbiased and successful help had spread far and wide. Local folk as well as lords and ladies sought out their expertise and genuine caring. Everyone that came fell in love with the place, so peaceful and beautiful. Her one regret was that they had never seen or heard of the bears again, but perhaps that was a good thing as she felt that they had come there deliberately seeking out Arthur. A strange thing to say maybe but she had that inner feeling telling her that was how it was, because the animals knew instinctively that they could trust him, he would do them no harm, even though he was a human. She told Arthur that she would be happy to stay at the sanctuary for the rest of her natural life, however long or short that was, she knew that she was doing something worthwhile in serving others and it produced happiness and contentment within herself, what more could she ask for.

He asked Igraine what news she had to tell, inquiring as to the well being of Sir Cador and her two daughters, who must both be ladies of the court now. Igraine replied that Cador was handling the responsibilities of being the Duke extremely well but she felt that he was becoming a little bored of court life, just like his father had, and sought more action than the small amount of minor disputes that occurred.
“One day I’m sure he will travel to join you, especially after he hears of your adventures, its in his blood I’m afraid, but it is not for me to stand in his way if that is his desire. As for my daughters, Anna is still the quiet one and Morgause as ever the rebel, so much so that she got her hooks into King Lot when she saw him and married him within the week. I don’t think he had much to say about the matter, he was totally besotted with her. They already have two sons and I expect there will be more. I have a suspicion too that she was with child when they married, before King Lot arrived, but she refused to discuss the matter with me.” Igraine looked pointedly at Arthur when she said this, but continued, “it is of no consequence however with the situation as it is, although I am sure that Lot was not aware of her condition, it is best left unsaid. News is much delayed from the north and as yet I do not even know the children’s names, perhaps I should inquire of Merlin if he knows; talking of the dear fellow I think we should invite him and Taliesin to join us.” Gwendolyn said that she would go and fetch them whilst Igraine concluded her news. “There isn’t much else to tell, Sir Brastias continues to oversee much of the day to day running of the fort and Sir Ector still frequently calls. I will inform him of your adventures, I think they will please him, as he had a very high regard for you and your friendship with his son Sir Kay, who appears to have played a major role in the skirmishes with the Saxons.”
Merlin and Taliesin arrived shortly after with Gwendolyn looking a little flushed complaining that the two of them had caused her a little embarrassment with the very handsome looking young man looking after their horses, but she wouldn’t be drawn any further. Merlin and Taliesin just looked at each other and smiled without embroidering on Gwendolyn’s flustered appearance, despite a questioning glance from Igraine. Arthur commented that the very handsome young man, as she called him was Berius, the guardian of his sword and closely associated with Nimue, Lady of the Lake, whose domain they were currently in. As he had not wished to bring their weapons into such a loving and peaceful place as the sanctuary, Berius had remained at the gate with them.

“We must see this wondrous sword of yours before you leave, and the handsome man of course,” replied Igraine.

They all burst out laughing at this and Gwendolyn forgot all about her embarrassment as she joined in too.
They spent another hour together before Arthur said that they really had to go, although he would liked to have stayed much longer, that would have to wait for another time. He was grateful and happy that the two mystical old men had arranged the surprise for him and it would be something that he would cherish.
They walked slowly to the gate, Merlin and Taliesin leading the way and Arthur following with a mother on each arm, happy and content. They retrieved their weapons from Berius, who gave them a warm smile as he was introduced commenting to the ladies that even the animals and birds were happy there, they understood what the sanctuary provided and they felt the love emanating from it. The women looked at Berius in mild surprise and wonder until Arthur explained that he had spent much of his life with animals and knew their thoughts, another mystical man and good to have along.

Arthur showed them Excalibur and handed the sword to Igraine, who tried to unsheathe it from the scabbard to take a closer look, but to no avail, it didn’t budge. Arthur apologised and told them that only he, Berius and the Lady of the Lake could draw the sword, as the bearer and guardians, nobody else could, not even Merlin. Neither could he hand it to them as it would not leave his hand until he returned it to the scabbard. The women were amazed commenting that it was truly a magical sword and would serve him well, they felt happier that he was so well protected. Arthur refrained from divulging any more of Excalibur’s secrets, saying that it was time to take their leave of them, giving each a big embrace with a promise to see them when he could.

Igraine suddenly remembered that she had a message for him from her daughter, well more of a riddle, she didn’t understand it but hopefully Arthur would. Morgause had asked her to tell him ‘beware the fiery sun that rises in distant lands, give respect that is deserved, ignore at your peril.‘ He said that it did not mean anything to him at the moment but he would think on it. With that he mounted his horse and with a final wave the party moved off, heading back to camp and a continuation of their journey home to Cadbury.

The comment troubled Merlin but he didn’t have an answer to it either, but would keep it in mind and give the riddle some thought.