Monday, January 18, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 14!



Chapter 14




THE SAXONS INCREASE THE PRESSURE







ARTHUR DID NOT SLEEP WELL, his mind kept wandering to what Igraine had said, that she suspected that Morgause was with child when she married King Lot. His mother had given him a questioning look when she mentioned it, as if she knew that her son was the father of the child, which it seemed likely that he was. Morgause had seduced him with gay abandon without thought of the consequences and he had allowed it to happen, his own half sister, although he wasn’t aware of their association at the time. Not just allowed it to happen but taken control of the situation and given her more than she had been expecting, turning the tables on her. The timing was about right according to what his mother had said, no wonder Morgause was in a hurry to marry Lot, she was trying to hide her condition and needed a man quickly, one that she could manipulate and make out that the child was his. A dangerous scheming woman, and what was the meaning of her riddle he wondered, was it a warning or a threat, you never knew with Morgause. All he knew was that she wasn’t happy about losing the battle of words after their passionate encounter, going by the way that she stormed off.

He drifted off into a dream state, but that was no better, he had a feeling that something bad had happened in the south whilst they were dealing with the Saxons at Viriconium. Was he led that way deliberately? whilst the enemy attacked from behind. His dream was vivid as he saw great slaughter and death sweep suddenly, without warning, on a sleepy fort by the sea and continue inland. The pain and anguish on people's faces as they realised no help was at hand. He tried to concentrate, seeking to identify the location, but to no avail, all he could hear was the cries of the people shouting his name in desperation, but he couldn’t reach them in time, he was too far away.

He awoke suddenly, bathed in sweat, with Berius shaking his shoulder asking him if he was alright, as he appeared to be having a bad dream and calling out. Arthur moped his brow and shook his head to try and clear it, answering that he was greatly disturbed and felt that something bad had occurred in the south of the country. Merlin appeared at that moment, attracted by voices. On hearing Arthur’s words commented that he had felt the same vibrations and sent his vision out far and wide to determine the cause, what he saw was indeed bad news. The Saxons had landed in force that night using the clear night sky, illuminated by the soft glow of the full moon to steer their way safely to shore. The inhabitants of Bosham, close to the old derelict Roman Palace at Fiseborne, and right on the waters edge were taken totally by surprise and did not have chance to defend themselves. The slaughter was terrible, all were put to the sword as the Saxon horde swept through the village and other hamlets that they passed on the way, as they headed inland in a north west direction. The attack was so swift and unexpected that no signal beacons were lit, therefore no warning of their coming or arrival had been given, and the south slept unaware of the extreme danger that they were in.

“Indeed that is grave news,“ Arthur commented, “we are several days ride away from them, unable to bring help in their hour of need and too far to warn others of the impending danger. Merlin do you have contacts in that area that you could communicate with in your mystical way? Enough to at least give warning that a large Saxon army is on the rampage and to do what they can until we can reach them.”

Merlin pondered this for a moment before replying, “I will do my best, but there are only a few that are receptive to our way of communicating, where they are and whether they will understand sufficiently is another matter. When I have done that Taliesin and I will take our leave of you and make haste south, we can travel fast when we have need. It puzzles me what the Saxons intend and what their objective is, other than to create as much turmoil as possible whilst you are being kept busy elsewhere.”

“I had wondered that,” answered Arthur, “I get the feeling that I was drawn north deliberately to allow them the advantage of establishing a stronghold on the coast, but why have they moved inland, thus making themselves vulnerable to attack from my forces. It is a puzzle at the moment but no doubt will become clearer as time progresses. I do not think it is just to cause dissent in the area because I am not there to protect the people, there is a deeper motive I am sure, but that alludes me for now.”

Merlin made to leave, “I will waken Taliesin and we will be on our way, head for Glevum then take the old Roman road to Corinium and gather what extra men you need,” he instructed the King, “any news that we have will be sent to Berius, mark his words carefully they should lead you in the right direction. Good luck.”

With that Merlin melted into the night and soon Arthur heard two horses depart the camp as they set off on their errand. He realised that he hadn’t challenged Merlin on his precise location of the attack being at Bosham, how could he be so positive, that was days away from there. Another of his mystical talents that he must ask him more about. How could he see that distance he was only human, or was he, did the Elders belong to a totally different race that was superior to the rest of them? He would enquire of Berius and see what he could glean from him as he was one of them, but then he would undoubtedly only divulge what was allowed and necessary, going by an earlier conversation with him. They appeared to operate by a different code of conduct, as if they should not overly interfere in events that were happening, just act as ambassadors and advisors when necessary. A quiet race were the Elders, just listening and observing most of the time, until asked for advice, then they would share their wisdom and knowledge as befitted the occasion, but Arthur wondered how much they knew that was never said. As Merlin had once said, they had the power to change the world but were forbidden to use it, that must be accomplished by the people themselves, otherwise they would never learn. Arthur was greatly appreciative of their help, without which he knew his task of uniting the country in peace and prosperity would be very difficult and prolonged, but there was still a great deal to do and a long way to go. He would have a few hours rest whilst it was still dark, then gather his army and follow the route that Merlin had indicated to him. He smiled to himself, more of a command than a suggestion. When Merlin spoke, you listened, whatever knowledge or insight that he had he was rarely wrong, it was as well to take notice and act accordingly. Arthur raised his eyes skywards sending a silent prayer of thanks that Merlin and the Elders were with them and not the enemy.

The journey to Glevum was short and Arthur and his commanders sought out the local lord, a Duke no less, and appraised him of the situation stressing that the Saxons, although some days away, were apparently heading in that direction and more soldiers than he had at his command might be needed to stop them. The Duke wanted to know how many of the enemy there were and how sure Arthur was that Glevum was their destination. The King told him that the information that he had was good and there were several thousand Saxons on the rampage. Although he was not sure of their ultimate target there were very few places en-route that were of strategic importance, other than there and Corinium, which was his next stop. The Duke pondered on the situation for a moment, then agreed to gather what men he could spare to join the King’s army, but that he himself would not be able to join them as he was suffering from a malaise that prevented him from riding. He would however send a good commander with them as at times the men could be a little unruly, although stout at heart, all they needed was a firm hand to keep them in order. Arthur expressed his thanks as the Duke invited them to rest awhile and take some sustenance whilst he made the arrangements.

Several hours later Arthur and his commanders took their leave of the Duke with nearly one hundred and fifty foot soldiers led by a surly looking individual called Fergus, snarling his orders at them to watch their manners before the King. Arthur smiled to himself, I hope he doesn’t try to treat any of my men like that, he thought, he would bring on himself a great deal of grief if he did, but maybe it is time for him to learn how to treat people and not try and use fear as a weapon. It would be a good idea to keep an eye on him, lest he caused trouble amongst the men. They rejoined the main army and headed out of Glevum following the Roman road as it climbed steeply to the top of the escarpment and then headed directly towards Corinium some ten miles away. The foot soldiers led the way as they were slower and would not have to continually eat the dust that the horses threw up behind them. It also gave Arthur the opportunity of keeping an eye on them and identifying those that might be the cause of trouble. He had learnt much in his short life so far, one of the most important lessons being that he could distinguish between those that were likely to cause trouble and those that would not, it had become an inbuilt instinct that had served him well.

They set up camp on the outskirts of Corinium and once again Arthur and his commanders set forth to enlist further aid, returning some while later with the promise of whatever men could be assembled by the morning would go with him. He could feel the underlying tension around the camp area of the Duke’s men and resolved to go and speak with them before it spread to the rest of the camp. It was not good to allow that sort of feeling to grow as it eventually affected everyone and would diminish the effectiveness of his army. Sir Kay and Gelda said that they would like to accompany him and Arthur agreed, Sir Bors seeing the look Gelda gave him remarked that he had already seen the King in action, to his cost, when they first met.

The three of them silently approached the Duke’s men and it was obvious a heated exchange was taking place by the raised voices. Fergus was giving a young lad a verbal onslaught, but several others were telling him to back off and leave the lad alone.

“He shouldn’t be here anyway,” one said, “with his mother being so poorly.”

“That was none of their business,” was the retort. “He’s here because I told him to be.”

“Threatened him more likely,” came another voice from the crowd.

“Any more nonsense from you lot,” Fergus exploded, “and I’ll run someone through.”

“Is that why you didn’t give the lad a sword?” came another voice from deep in the crowd, “in case he ran you through.”

This comment brought peels of laughter from the group and infuriated Fergus that much that he was on the point of drawing his sword when Arthur stepped forward into his line of vision.

“What’s all this about Fergus?” Arthur inquired. “Why is the lad here if his mother is poorly? He should be at home with her, not here. What reason did you have for bringing him?”

Fergus was flustered, he hadn’t realised the King had been listening and stuttered in reply, as he looked menacingly at the lad, “because he asked to come.”

“Fergus you are not a very good liar (the crowd drew in their breath at this), you didn’t even give him a sword. What’s he going to do when we meet the Saxons, throw stones at them?” Arthur replied with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

The crowd laughed nervously at this, knowing that Fergus had a short but vile temper and was likely to explode at any time, nobody had spoken to him like this before and got away with it, even the Duke was wary of him.

Arthur spoke gently to the boy, “come over here lad and tell me your story.”

He led the young lad some distance away and heard how Fergus had wanted his mother but she had spurned him, not liking his violent temper. Fergus persevered, to no avail, then his mother became ill and refused to see him and he ranted and raved about all the nasty things that he would do to them both, and his mother’s health declined even more. When Arthur arrived and Fergus was sent for he saw a way of getting even with the lad’s mother threatening him that if he didn’t go with the King he would see that his mother suffered a broken heart and a slow death. The lad did not want that to happen, so agreed, even though Fergus said he could not have a sword until he had learnt that it was not wise to upset him.

Arthur and the boy made their way back towards the group just as the action occurred. Gelda had moved closer to Fergus and was just staring at him, which unnerved him. He was wondering what a woman was doing with the army, then a smile broke across his face and he uttered a vile comment. Next moment he was doubled up in agony as she kicked him hard in the groin and then smashed her fist into his face, splitting his nose wide open so that blood spurted all over him, as she sent him tumbling back the other way to land flat on the ground with her sword at his throat. She asked him if he wished to repeat what he had called her? Through the mist of pain searing through his body he had the sense to shake his head as best he could. She relieved him of his sword and stood up to see the stunned look of amazement on the faces of the crowd.

“In my country,” she said with a voice full of pride, “women fight alongside their King, and we are good, if you don’t believe it come and test your pride against me,” and with that comment she walked slowly away.

Arthur and the boy stood looking down at a very pathetic looking Fergus, cowering in the dust. “That is what happens if you insult one of my soldiers,” the King said to him, “no matter who they are or where their home lies they fight for the good of this country and I have the honour of leading them as their King, do not trifle with them, you are not in their league.” Turning to the crowd he said that Jonas, as the lad was called, had appraised him of the situation. “If any of you men have been threatened or coerced by this pathetic excuse of a man (indicating Fergus) to come on this journey, then you may return to your homes in the morning. I need men to help me with the fight against our enemies, but they must be willing and able, capable of using a sword and not afraid of dying if that be the case. If you cannot find it in your heart to put your life on the line for your country, then you will be a danger to yourselves and your comrades around you. There is no disgrace if you feel this way, I and your neighbours will not think any less of you if you wish to return home, whatever the reason that lies behind your decision, you are all free men and are entitled to free will and choice, that is universal law. However as your King, responsible for seeking to bring peace and prosperity to our country, I willingly forego that choice to accomplish my task. That my friends is my choice in life. Think on my words and those that wish to leave gather here at sunrise and return, like Jonas, to where you are needed the most.” Looking down at Fergus, who was still moaning gently with the pain that refused to subside he said, “you, my little man will accompany us in our fight against the Saxons, with or without your sword, that depends on your attitude and behaviour before we encounter them.”

Arthur bade them goodnight and returned to his own area taking Jonas along with him as he did not trust Fergus one little bit, that man was nasty through to the core and was unlikely to change.

The crowd were quiet for sometime, reflecting on the event that they had just witnessed and the speed with which it occurred. Instant retribution for Fergus, and by a woman at that, but what a woman, good figure, attractive and deadly, not one to pick an argument with. Neither had they heard a lord or a king speak in the manner that they had just listened to, a young lad himself, speaking with the wisdom of an elder and passionate about protecting his country from its enemies. This was indeed something new for these men and stirred their hearts, just as Arthur knew his words would do, creating that feeling of wanting to be part of the fight for freedom under a leader such as the King. The fear and apprehension that Fergus had fed constantly had subsided to be replaced by a personal pride and determination that they wanted to do their part in securing a good future for their families. It was in their hands to help if they so wished, and the majority did.

At sunrise only ten men appeared in Arthur’s camp wishing to return home, their spokesman saying that none of them had ever used a sword or any other weapon. Listening to the King’s words of the previous night they realised that they would be a liability to everyone. They felt awkward leaving their neighbours, some of whom they might not see again. Arthur raised his hand and told them that they had made the right decision, not just for themselves but all the others as well, he wished them well and asked them to see that Jonas returned safely to care for his ailing mother, and that there was no need to inform the Duke of their return.

Not long after the small group departed a contingent of eighty men arrived from Corinium headed by two knights on horse introducing themselves to Arthur as Sir Agranaut and Sir Bedwyr. Arthur extended a welcome to them and introduced his commanders to them. Their eyes rose a little at meeting the Sarmatians, for they had not encountered them before and even more surprised at seeing women amongst them, but they kept their counsel. Arthur told them that the Sarmatians were the best cavalry unit in the country, including the women. Then explained that they were hoping to intercept a large warband of Saxons that had landed on the south coast and made their way inland heading in their general direction, but their destination as yet was unknown.

Turning to Berius Arthur inquired if they had any more news yet and he replied that they should head slightly south east for Avebury as Merlin felt that they could be heading for The Sanctuary. A renowned spiritual and religious centre, close to the village, that was viewed by many as the heart and soul of this country. The energy vibrations that emanated from that site were like the beating of a strong heart uplifting all in its vicinity with an immense feeling of love and belonging to the spirit of the living Earth. No wonder it had a long history of being a very special place for the peoples of this country, it might be that the pagan Saxons wished to strike a blow at the heart of the Briton’s culture and destroy it, claiming it was the will of the gods to punish the people for turning to the one God.

The name of Merlin intrigued Agranaut and Bedwyr as they had heard his name mentioned in many places but had not met him, thinking that perhaps he was just a myth. Certainly not a myth, Arthur corrected them, very much flesh and blood like they were and he was currently trying to locate them, along with Taliesin, and lead him to them. They looked at each other mystified and asked how the King received this information, as they were so far away. Arthur smiled and told them that they communicated news to Berius in their own mystical way. He ended the discussion by saying that it was time to move out, asking if any of them knew how far away Avebury was. Agranaut replied that it was about twenty five miles, following the Roman road towards Calleva Atrebatum then leaving it near Liddington Castle and heading southwest along the Ridgeway, they should make it well before the day was out.

The Romans had constructed many roads throughout the country to link the major administrative centres and they tended to run straight, taking the shortest route, and this one was no exception. The pace was slower than Arthur was used to as normally his army had just been the cavalry units, but now they had to travel at the speed of the foot soldiers who lead the way. Arthur had told a very subdued Fergus to stay at the back of them and just in front of the horsemen so that he could keep and eye on him, any trouble that he caused would be dealt with as swiftly and painfully as Gelda had done. Fergus was not a happy man and still in some considerable pain but Arthur had decided to let him suffer and experience what he had dealt out to others. He was aware that further trouble was likely to ensue at some point as Fergus was the type of person to harbour a grudge and seek his vengeance, but the King was prepared for that and willing to give him the chance to redeem himself.

The journey was without incident, the army resting briefly near the site of the old Liddington Castle, long since abandoned, before striking southwest along the Ridgeway to Avebury. Arthur felt the difference in the air as they approached the hamlet, calm and peaceful but with a vibrant energy about the place. He mentioned this to Berius, who as usual was travelling quietly by his side, and was told that what he felt was the great Earth energies coming together and meeting at The Sanctuary. Something that was understood by the Celt and Druid leaders and many others before them, and now appreciated by Christian followers. The place brought nature, the Earth and people together as one and would bring great dismay if defaced by the Saxons, it was embedded in the culture of the Britons going back through many generations, a sacred place. It could not be destroyed by man alone but the special nature of that area could be changed totally if violated by the Saxons and their destructive energy. The balance would be disturbed and the Britons would feel as if they had suffered a savage blow to the heart of their historical roots. As they came in sight of The Sanctuary Arthur sent a rider ahead to call the foot soldiers to a halt and make camp whilst he took his commanders ahead to survey the lie of the land.

Arthur could feel the energy increase as they came closer to the great stone circles, it seemed to draw him forward towards those giant stone megaliths, standing like silent sentinels in perfect array. Some parts partially roofed and the rest open, but all extending a warm welcome to weary travellers. I wonder who built this, and what it was intended for. It bore no resemblance to a church of any kind and the openness of it all showed that whoever was responsible was not attempting to contain the energy but let it flow naturally in all directions. Perhaps that was its secret, just a marker to show the people that many different energies met here and combined into a greater force that then spread in all directions across the land. Just like a giant spider's web that reached out to other energy junctions spreading across the country, and maybe even further, linking up all the Earth energies as it expanded, thereby keeping the flow constant. The living Earth that survives and breathes because of it, that connects each and everything in our world, no doubt Merlin understands this and uses the energy for his apparent mystical ways, that would explain a lot. Where are these thoughts coming from? he wondered, is it because I am the bearer of the sword or because I have a hidden understanding of these matters, whatever the reason the feelings are good and I give thanks for this knowledge which eases my burden greatly.

His thoughts were interrupted by Sir Bedwyr indicating the avenue of smaller megaliths that headed in the direction of the hamlet some distance away. Arthur led his troop along this to more stone circles, amongst which a few huts were scattered, pausing to enquire from an old gent, wrapped in a Druid robe and reclining against one, if what they saw was the extent of the hamlet or were there other huts further out. The old man replied that what they could see was all that there was, only those that tended the area lived there, most folk found it a strange place and would only visit at certain times of the year. Arthur thanked him and headed his troop back towards their camp with the feeling that surely the Saxons would not expend their effort there, as there was very little that they could do, other than kill a few people and pull down some stones. They would violate the energy, but Arthur felt that it was strong enough not to be permanently damaged, and how many people would realise that they had been there. Their real destination must be elsewhere, but not far away. He must gather what information he could from Agranaut and Bedwyr about the area and look for somewhere that would be of strategic importance to the Saxons.

Back in camp he gathered his commanders and put the problem to them, checking with Berius if there was any further news from Merlin. Not much, but it was encouraging in some respects as the Saxons were still heading towards them but they were deliberately avoiding the larger towns and any resistance that they might encounter that would slow them down, so they hadn’t yet reached their target.

“What we have to decide gentlemen is what would be an important location for the Saxons in this area,” Arthur began, “Merlin is sure that they are headed towards somewhere close to us and he is rarely wrong, Avebury was his first choice on his knowledge at the time because of its significance to our people, however it has no strategic value to them so gentlemen what can you tell me of this area.” this last comment was directed to Agranaut and Bedwyr.

Bedwyr was the one who replied using his sword cutting into the earth to indicate the position of the various places that he mentioned.

“There is not much in this area, Littlecote, ten miles east of us was at one time an important Roman staging post, but is not much more than a quiet village these days. Going back along the Ridgeway we passed Barbury and Liddington castles, neither of which could be called important. Further along we have Durocornovium [Wanborough], a busy and sizeable town at the junction of the Roman roads to Cunetio [Mildenhall], Calleva Atrebatum [Silchester] and our own Corinium [Cirencester]. It is the last Vicus [a provincial non military settlement], used for watering horses before the long climb up the escarpment and out of the surrounding valley, and is not fortified and would be difficult to defend as the buildings were spread both sides of the roads. That is all that we have of any significance within a day's ride of here.”

“Well gentlemen,” Arthur began, “whoever holds Durocornovium controls the road to many important towns within the heart of our land and puts the whole region at risk. If we allow them to gain a foothold they could soon cut a large swathe of the south off from the rest of the country. They would also control Avebury and The Sanctuary and deny access to all, holding the people to ransom until they acquiesced. From the reports that we have from Merlin it appears that only a small part of the Saxon army, a few thousand only, are en-route to attempt to seize and hold the town. If successful they would then deploy a much larger force to the area to subdue it fully, its our task to stop them before that can happen. I will go and speak to the men now to prepare them for the approaching encounter, we will leave at first light and hope that I am correct in my assumptions. Berius will you inform Merlin of my intentions and reasons behind them and see if he has any better idea of the number of Saxons that we are likely to encounter”

Arthur spoke to his army and availed them of the situation, instructing them to get a good rest as it could be a hectic time soon. He noticed that Fergus was still very subdued but had that perpetual evil look on his face. Gelda had really given him a painful awakening, but he was still there and behaving himself and had not once asked for his sword back. Which was just as well as Arthur did not trust him with it, he would return it when they encountered the Saxons. The King returned to his area and sat leaning against a tree, staring up into the sky, letting his thoughts wander, back to Avebury and The Sanctuary and the feeling he had in his body and mind there, wondering if he had made the right decision concerning the Saxons. The tree was warm and he could feel the energy running through it and into his body, just as if it were talking to him, such a pleasant feeling just relaxing this way.

He awoke suddenly, Berius was gently shaking his shoulder and whispering quietly that Fergus was on the prowl, seemed like he was seeking out Gelda amongst the sleeping forms, but not to worry as she was awake and waiting for him.

“How can you be sure Berius?” he whispered back.

“Because I have been into her mind and awoken her, she is very receptive to that,” he replied, “Fergus is going to get another nasty surprise.”

They both watched in silence as Fergus hesitated and stopped by one of the sleeping bodies, having found his quarry. His hand raised in the air and they saw the glint of a knife blade caught in the moonlight. Arthur gave a sharp intake of breath and was about to leap to his feet, he should have thought of searching him for other weapons, when Berius touch his arm and whispered to him to wait. As Fergus brought his arm down and let his body drop the sleeping form of Gelda suddenly sprang to life, her sword flashed, taking him right through the body. He dropped like a stone, crying out in agony as the cold steel sliced into him, the knife falling from his hand as he clutched himself to try and stop the flow of blood. His face contorted into a mixture of unbearable pain and surprise. Gelda stood up, put her foot on his stomach and pushed him off her blade causing him to cry out once more at the terrible pain that seared through his body again as he dropped to the ground writhing. The noise had woken others, but seeing that Gelda was okay they rolled over and went back to sleep. Fergus took a long time to die and Gelda just stood there watching him impassively without a word, until he finally slipped away, then she returned to her bed, having wiped her sword on his lifeless body. Arthur expressed his thanks to Berius for letting Gelda know of her danger, he should have been more wary himself, but at least that was one less problem to worry about and he doubted if anyone would miss Fergus, except for the peace it brought them now.

The army moved out at daylight, Arthur despatched riders to scout the country ahead and on their flanks for signs of the Saxons. No reported contacts were made and they reached Durocornovium at noon, circling the town to pitched their camp to the north, but close to the junction of Roman roads. Their arrival had caused consternation amongst the townsfolk as they had been seen on their approach. A small party of horsemen had ridden out to meet them and discover what a large army was doing in the vicinity. They were the officials and elders and were introduced to Arthur by Sir Kay who had ridden out to meet them as they were observed approaching. They were honoured at meeting the King but what brought him to that region, all was peaceful and business was good. Arthur explained why they were there and that it wouldn’t be peaceful for much longer, unless they were able to deal with the Saxons successfully, it was a large force, not just a wandering warband. They were currently approaching Littlecote, Berius had informed him of this earlier as the latest news from Merlin, and were making for there and could arrive before the day was out. The town's reception committee asked why the Saxons would want to attack their town, the military presence had ceased a long time ago, it was just a business community now. Arthur pointed out that they were in a strategic position at a major road junction and whoever held their town would have control over a large area, he had brought his army there to stop them gaining that control. He and his commanders would accompany them back to the town as they needed to see how it was laid out and how best to protect it as he believed none of it was fortified.

The town was laid out as Bedwyr had said, buildings on either side of the roads, not large but spread out all the same and difficult to protect, surprisingly it supported three churches. The town leader answered Arthur’s query by saying one was built for each road which is why they were only small ones, but well supported. Arthur told them to gather all the townsfolk that night and to take refuge in the churches, bar the doors and remain there until he or one of his men returned to them, and to take water and victuals to last the day. It would be very dangerous to be outside and whilst there they could pray for the King’s success as reports had it that they would be greatly outnumbered. His foot soldiers would be in town whilst his cavalry would intercept the Saxons before they reached there, and hopefully they could prevent them from breaking through. Having seen the layout of the town he sent his commanders back to camp saying that Berius and himself would follow shortly as there was something he wished to do first.

He went to the first church and entered, peering into the dim light and sought out the cleric and exchanged quiet words with him whilst Berius discreetly hung back. Finally the cleric put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and the other on his shield and blessed him. Arthur repeated the process in the other two churches and then rode back to camp with Berius quietly by his side, then gathered his commanders together to outline his battle strategy.

The foot soldiers would go to town at first light under the command of Sir Agranaut and Sir Bedwyr to protect the townsfolk in the churches should any of the Saxons break through. The cavalry would be split into the three groups as usual with Legionus, Sir Bors and himself as troop leaders and Sir Kay would accompany him. The troop under Legionus would be held in reserve as normal to give support where needed or contain any breakthrough, bearing in mind that there were likely to be more Saxons than they had encountered before. Each troop was to supply a scout to survey the land and establish the exact whereabouts of the Saxons and if they appeared to be in one group or several, as they did not want some of them circling around behind them. They would leave at the first sign of daylight before the enemy were upon them.

“At the moment the town should be between them, so even if they have scouts out themselves they should not be aware that we are here, and we will keep that cover as long as possible. The ground to the south comes down from the escarpment, then levels out so we should see them before they see us. We will wait for them to descend to the valley before we attack, but keep your eyes open that they do not go further along before they decide to come down. I have a feeling though that they might use the road from Cunetio as it follows the river valley and is easier going. Although they will be in the open a lot sooner they are not expecting a military presence here and therefore it might not bother them. We will meet again at first light and review the plan, by then we may have received more information.”

It did not seem to Arthur that he had been asleep for very long when he was woken by Berius shaking him, it was still dark, dawn was some way off yet. He had received news from Merlin that the Saxons were no more than ten miles away and had begun to move forward again after a short camp, using the darkness to hide their movement. They were on the road from Cunetio and were about four thousand strong, led by four and twenty horsemen, animals that they had acquired during their attacks. Merlin believed that they might split into two or more groups as they moved closer and dawn started to break, a surprise attack on the town from different directions so that no townsfolk escaped to tell the story. To Arthur this was disturbing news, a change of tactics by the Saxons, moving during darkness in what was a strange land to them, unless they had prepared well for this and sent people previously to discreetly survey the land.

Time to move the army into position before they arrived and hopefully catch them before they had a chance to split into groups. Berius indicated that he was going to do a little scouting and see what he could glean from the animal kingdom and would be back shortly, slipping quietly away into the shadows as Arthur set about raising the men from their slumber. Arthur informed his commanders of the situation and sent Agranaut and Bedwyr to take the foot soldiers to town immediately, and to be wary of attack from more than one direction. The cavalry would try to contain the enemy, but some at least were likely to break through.

Berius returned at this point with news that the Saxons were just over five miles south of the town and appeared to be still in one group. Arthur wondered briefly how Berius had found that out in such a short space of time, he’d have to fly to cover that distance so quickly. He put it out of his head for the moment and returned to the business at hand. The plan of the previous evening would stand, Sir Bors and his troop to the left, the King’s troop to the right and Legionus, with the most men, slightly back in the rear creating a funnel to draw the Saxons in. They would ride out to meet them a couple of miles from the town, whilst they were still grouped together, and just as dawn would be breaking. He looked around for any comments and as there were none gave the order to move out.

They passed around Durocornovium and joined the road to Cunetio with the King’s troop leading, followed by Sir Bors and his men then Legionus with the Sarmatian cavalry, making their way slowly to keep the noise from the horse's hooves as quiet as possible. Arthur brought his army to a halt some two miles from the town and sat motionless on his horse, just waiting. The light began to gently increase as darkness lost its hold on the night. A bird began to sing, then another, two flew over their heads barely visible with their dark plumage, the countryside had started to wake up, a little early for some but they had been disturbed. Berius looked at Arthur and quietly commented that the enemy were less than a mile away and moving quite fast, he would hear their footfalls on the road soon shortly before he saw them.

The King waited, then he heard them and then all manner of things happened at the same time. Unusually dawn burst upon them suddenly, the Saxons stopped in total surprise seeing their way barred by a large host, then surged forward, spreading out, as Arthur gave the same commands to his army. He lead his troop to the right as Sir Bors moved to the left and the armies clashed with a multitude of noise of steel on steel and cries of anguish of those struck down or trampled by the horses. Those at the rear of the Saxon horde started to spread out to encircle Arthur’s army, which was being pushed back by the concentrated weight of numbers at the front, forming a wall that was difficult to penetrate.

Arthur pulled his men back, turned and charged the Saxon wall repeatedly, making some inroads each time but steadily being pushed back at every attempt. Those that had tried to encircle Arthur’s men were being dealt with more effectively as they were spread out, but several small groups had broken through the cavalry and were making for the town, the foot soldiers there would have to deal with them. The enemy were losing men gradually but they kept on coming, with their concentrated numbers still tightly grouped, and Arthur’s army had suffered some casualties too, both men and horses. Where were the twenty four Saxon horsemen? They hadn’t shown themselves yet, most likely at the back urging their men on.

The town was getting closer behind them all the time and Arthur realised he needed to change his tactics before it was too late, so shouted to his men to withdraw and fall back ready to regroup. They disengaged and galloped towards the town with the Saxons surging after them fanning out as they went thinking that they had Arthur on the run, but they had done exactly what he hoped they would and spread out. The King brought his cavalry to a halt just short of the town. Then following a thought in his head, without questioning why, he took his dagger and cut the binding that was retaining the plain looking cover on the shield that Eudaf Hen had given him, ripping it off. His men watched in astonishment at this strange act but were equally amazed by what was revealed. A red cross on a white background, but right in the centre over the lower part of the cross was a picture of a beautiful woman, the Virgin Mary, the image known to many of them. Arthur smiled and held it aloft shouting 'right and justice are with us,' then swung his horse around, drew his sword and held it aloft shouting 'Excalibur.' Bright light burst from the blade with such an intensity that it dazzled the advancing Saxons throwing fear into their hearts.

At the same moment several hundred horsemen appeared from the town, racing to join Arthur, King Esla’s pennon leading the way followed by another and Lord Tryfig as well. This was a welcome sight indeed, just at the right time. Acknowledging them as he lead the charge against the Saxon horde, this time spread out and not bunched together, a tactical error on their part for which they were now going to pay dearly.

The battle was fierce, Arthur’s men revitalised by the secret that his shield revealed and the arrival of some welcome help. The enemy however had become demoralised by the sight of Excalibur and its blazing blade as it cut them down in droves as the King rode into them. They were fighting for their lives and losing and they had nowhere to run. Arthur sought out their horsemen at the back of the Saxon army, still trying to push their men forward. Sir Kay was with him and Gelda joined them with several of the Sarmatians as they engaged them in combat. Several took flight as the rest stood their ground but Excalibur dazzled and confused them as eight succumbed to Arthur’s determined onslaught, as the others dealt with their opponents with the loss of just one of the Sarmatians, who was caught between two Saxons. Gelda extracted her revenge very swiftly for that and both died with surprise on their faces at being bettered by a woman.

The battle was finally over, except for a few that had escaped, the Saxon horde lay scattered across the valley, dead or in the last throes of dying, no pity spent on them for the savage butchering of Bosham. Arthur’s army had suffered casualties too but small in comparison to the enemy, his cavalry had proved themselves highly effective once again against superior odds. He sent a detachment of men to scour the meadow for any wounded men of his and give whatever help they could, the rest of his army he led triumphantly into the town.

More Saxons than he realised had penetrated the town but by the look of it had been dealt with by his foot soldiers and others that had arrived with King Esla. Arthur sent Sir Bors, Sir Kay and Legionus to the three churches to spread the good news that the local folk could safely return to their dwellings, the danger had passed.

They emerged from the dim interiors of their refuges, blinking profusely in the bright sunlight as they surveyed the multitude of the King’s army passing through on their way back to camp to the north. Bodies of the enemy were scattered around the buildings where they had been dragged off the roads to clear a way through, but Arthur’s fallen had been placed close to the churches as a mark of respect, as they would be given a proper burial later.

As more people emerged, smiles of relief on their faces, nervous laughter and ragged cheering broke out as they relieved their pent up emotions of fear on seeing such a welcome sight. Arthur raised Excalibur into the air and acknowledged them, the majority seeing their King for the first time and marvelling at his youthful appearance. He shouted to them that God had been on their side as he raised his shield so that all could see the cross and likeness of the Virgin Mary emblazoned on it, “he serves us well as I serve him and do the best for all my people.”

A spontaneous cheer erupted from the crowd, all their fear now washed away as they started to chatter amongst themselves.

Arthur dismounted asking Berius to mind his horse whilst he revisited the clerics in their churches, going from one to another as before and spending some moments with each, taking his shield with him. All three asked him the same question, the origin of the shield with its holy emblem. To each he gave the same answer, that it had been given him by the spirit of Eudaf Hen with the instruction to remove the cover only when the time was right, his heart would tell him when that was. They were amazed at his revelation and observed that it was divine providence that he had been chosen as their King from an early age, to bring the country together as one. Arthur agreed that such was his task and he would carry it out to the best of his ability but there was still much to be done to bring harmony and justice to the country so that the people could prosper in peace. He thanked each of them for their prayers and blessings, not just for him and his army but for the people as well.

Arthur led the rest of his men back to their camp to review the days happenings with his commanders, and discover what brought King Esla and his entourage to arrive just when they were needed.

Some of the Sarmatians had gone hunting for game to supplement their meagre supplies and provide a good feast for the evening, which was still some six hours away, the battle with the Saxons had lasted most of the morning. Arthur was introduced to Lord Forrester from Calleva Atrebatum who had met King Esla en-route, both having had a visit from Taliesin warning them of the danger and requesting that they went to Arthur’s assistance. Lord Tryfig was visited by Merlin with the same request, being advised not to use the road from Cunetio as that was the Saxon's likely route. All were told where to head for and when they needed to be there by, almost to the hour as it turned out. Each of the groups had arrived at the town within minutes of each other to be informed by Agranaut and Bedwyr the whereabouts of Arthur’s army, not a moment too soon as it transpired. It always puzzled Arthur how Merlin could be so exact with his timing and now he had Berius disappearing in the dark, returning with information in such a short space of time that even a bird would be hard pushed to cover the distance involved. What is it about these Elders that make them so different to us? he wondered, are they an ancient race that still have many mystical powers? There were stories told in some quarters of a race that were masters of this world once, in the long distant past, until something went terribly wrong. Do some of them still walk amongst us, it appears so, but why are they still here if they are not allowed to use the full extent of their powers, is it because of what happened back in their time? Merlin had often said that they were just ambassadors of peace and could not intervene directly, we had to sort out our own problems otherwise we would not learn, words of wisdom indeed. Who or what restricts them from full involvement, is it a higher authority or just their law that they abide by? When the time is right I will enquire of them, either separately or together.

Berius interrupted his thoughts indicating that the huntsmen had returned with several good looking trophies that would produce a good feast later and looking directly at Arthur concluded by saying that he would learn more when the Elders decided that the time was appropriate. Arthur, startled, stared at him, then burst out laughing as he realised Berius had read his thoughts again, one of their many talents. Perhaps that was how he knew where the Saxons were, but then he wouldn’t have had to leave the camp. The comment was valid, he would be patient and just watch and listen in the meantime, that was a good way to learn in life.