Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 10!

Chapter 10


ARTHUR WITH SIR KAY AND GREYFUS on either side brought their horses to a stop and waited for the small group to approach them.

“Welcome to Cadbury Castle, how may I be of service?” Arthur said smiling.

“Thank you my Lord, my name is Legionus and we seek Arthur, High King of Britain to offer our service. We have travelled many days from the City of Legion, it has been further than we thought and we are a little weary of the saddle.” There was a hint of a foreign tongue, although the common language was well spoken.

“Then my friend your journey is at and end, I am Arthur whom you seek, come let you and your company enjoy some rest and hospitality and you can tell me what brought you all this way south to seek me out. There is room for you to make camp within the castle grounds, as our numbers are not great at the moment.”

Legionus turned and waved his company forward and as they all moved towards the gate Arthur asked Greyfus to show them where to camp, then to bring the guests to join them in the great hall for some welcome refreshment. People stopped and stared as the strangely attired procession made their way through the gate into the castle grounds, as if there was no end to the number of them, nigh on three hundred with four large carts bringing up the rear. Speculation mounted as to who they were and what they wanted. Sir Bors seeing that all was well indicated to Arthur that he and his men would continue on their way unless there was a need for him to stay, there wasn’t, so they departed once again.

Some while later Greyfus, accompanied by Legionus and a dozen of his party, arrived in the great hall and introductions were made all round, Arthur noted that three of them were indeed women. Legionus indicated that the rest were setting up camp and as they had sufficient supplies would not be joining them this evening. They all sat at Arthur’s table and enjoyed the food and drink that the kitchen had hastily put together, just indulging in small talk about their journey south, before Arthur turned the conversation to the topic of what had brought them here.

Legionus took up the story and said that he had been approached by his commander, who had informed him that there was a new High King of Britain who was determined to bring peace to the country, but would need help to prevent warring between different factions, and to keep the Saxons under control. The commander had been approached by the King’s ambassador for help in this matter, and as he knew this wise old man personally gave some thought to this request. The outcome of which was that he asked for volunteers to serve the King directly and were prepared to move south. Merlin has been busy acting as his ambassador, thought Arthur as Legionus continued.

“The Sarmatians are a warrior people, such has been our history, and life has become too quiet for some who want to fight and prove themselves. Others have settled into a different way of life and taken local wives and are happy with the situation as it is. Nobody makes trouble for the City of Legion as there are many Sarmatians and our reputation is well known, therefore those that have joined me are the younger ones who seek to prove themselves and are eager to travel anywhere to accomplish this. You have probably noticed that some of our warriors are women, that has always been the way of our people, they fight as well as any man amongst us, often more so, and they are treated no differently. They all know why they are here as they volunteered and are happy to be of service, all of them understand your language and speak it. At the moment they are not used to taking orders from others of a different race or culture, as they have not been exposed to that before, but we can change that. As a race we respect bravery and good leadership and we have much knowledge of tactics in using horsemen in battle, which we are willing to share with you should you so desire, we live and die by the horse, he is our best companion.”

Arthur listened intently to all that Legionus said and realised that these people were just what he needed, skilled horsemen and born fighters, doubling his available fighting force in one go, before calling for assistance from others should the occasion arise. Merlin had certainly been busy and as good as his word in acting as the King’s ambassador. Arthur was painfully aware that his fighting force was small at present but he looked to increase it over time. It was just like Merlin to look ahead and perhaps he saw, or was aware that trouble was lurking on the horizon, as he didn’t do things without good reason. Arthur must be on his guard and look on it as a subtle warning, perhaps he didn’t have much time to prepare. The conversation continued with Legionus giving an explanation of the clothing and protection that they wore, their favoured weapons in battle and how they used them. Arthur explained his thoughts and vision for the country and the training that they were carrying out to improve the skills of the fighting men. Legionus offered their assistance in this and Arthur gratefully accepted as it would take the burden off Greyfus and Sir Kay, now that Sir Bors and his men weren’t there. The talk gradually turned to where it was thought trouble might likely start and from whom, disgruntled lords or the Saxons. It was difficult to tell as any small event could start a major conflict, they just needed to be prepared. With this the gathering broke up, the talking had gone on for a long while as the day had passed and dusk was upon them.

* * * * *

The days and weeks passed and as autumn began to wane Sir Bors returned with his men, with reports that all was going well and the villagers were responding with all kinds of help, there was an air of hope and joviality amongst them that was not there before. The Sarmatians had settled in and were helping with the training, showing their prowess on horseback and teaching riding skills, which took the pressure off Sir Kay. Regular hunts were organised to seek out game to help feed the increased numbers through the coming winter months and extra corn and flour was sourced from a wide area. Word soon spread far afield that Arthur was building an army and a steady stream of individuals arrived offering their services. Mainly country lads on foot but occasionally an aspiring knight on horseback, some possibly just seeking quarters to see the winter through. All were made welcome and assessed for their skills before being allocated a role in the castle, those not suitable as fighting men were needed elsewhere, in the kitchens, the stables and many other places, to service the steadily growing numbers.

Although Arthur was kept busy he still found time to regularly take small parties out around the nearby hamlets, to keep in contact with the people and listen to their problems and grievances. Nothing had been seen or heard of Merlin or Taliesin other than the unexpected arrival of the Sarmatians, who had settled in well. Arthur was developing a good rapport with Legionus and his subordinates, including the women, one of whom appeared to have taken a fancy to him by the glint in her eyes when she looked at him.

Winter brought strong winds and driving rain for several weeks, then the weather eased and a calm prevailed before the snow came and covered the whole area in a deep white carpet that hung in the trees in beautiful patterns. The bitterly cold air freezing them during the night, the weak watery sun melting them slowly during the day, only to freeze again later into new shapes as night fell. Very little stirred in the countryside and life in the castle was restricted to essential activities only and the great hall became a haven to those seeking a little warmth and company, not just during the day but at night as well, with singing and storytelling being the main activities.

* * * * *

Time passed slowly, but there was an air of calm and peace within the castle, a time for reflection and planning the way forward to bring unity to the country. Arthur spent much time in dialogue with the others as he expanded on his thoughts and vision, listening to their wisdom and digesting their thoughts and concerns also. Legionus and his commanders were impressed by Arthur’s willingness to learn from others, no matter who they were or what rank they were, and shared their insight into the way of different peoples. Battle tactics were frequently discussed and Arthur learnt much on how to deploy cavalry to the best advantage in different situations and in a variety of terrains. The women fighters amongst the Sarmatians commented that they often caused confusion and hesitation with an enemy due to their sex which they capitalised on very effectively. The one called Gelda, who frequently looked at Arthur with a glint in her eye as if stalking her man, stood up and let her long hair swirl around her as she pushed out her ample chest saying that a man soon became confused. Everyone laughed and Arthur smiled at this display as he felt himself become hot and his body started to react, understanding exactly what she meant, and she was not unaware of the affect that she had on him either. The talking continued for some while and then the Sarmatians excused themselves, leaving Arthur, Sir Bors, Sir Kay, Greyfus and Andulus mulling over recent events and how well everything was progressing in such a short time. Sir Kay voiced what was in all their thoughts at the lack of news from Merlin and Taliesin, but Arthur reminded them that they had great distances to travel and that they would hear soon enough if there was major trouble brewing, that was their way. No news was good news and he did not expect to see them until spring eased the grip of winter on the land, enjoy the peace whilst they could he told them as it would not last, but at least they would be prepared. With that the group broke up as night was upon them and each sought some well earned rest before the start of a new day dawned.

Arthur made his way to his quarters deep in thought, how fast everything had moved since he had removed the sword from the stone and been proclaimed High King of Britain. Many supported him thanks to Merlin’s good work, but some didn’t and others like King Lot would wait and see before deciding. Would trouble initially come from some of these kings and lords or would the Saxons make a move before his support became too strong. He favoured the Saxons but there were other tribes as well that had caused the country problems, these could unite and there was no saying where they would strike first or how, but he was certain it would happen. Any new King is there to be challenged by those that seek power and they would do it before he became strong enough to counter it. From what Legionus had said, nobody other than the Sarmatians themselves and Merlin were aware that this detachment had come to join him, so hopefully word had not spread very far yet and would be a surprise to any that caused trouble. They had not sought directions en-route as Merlin had provided sufficient information that had also guided them around large settlements that would otherwise cause comment and speculation as to the nature of their business. The two skirmishes that had occurred indicated that he was developing a cohesive fighting force and the training had progressed well, but he must not be complacent. There was a long way to go yet and much still to do in bringing peace and stability to the country and instigating the same law and justice for everyone. Not an easy task but one that he knew that he had been entrusted with to carry out to the best of his ability. He was human and would make mistakes and errors of judgement, but as long as he learned from them and continued to move forward the right way, then he was confident that in the long run he would succeed and establish a new and better way of life for the people of this country. Maybe his ideas would help to promote peace throughout all the countries of the world, even if his small effort just paved the way for future generations to build on, that would indeed be something. Sow the seed so that others could eventually reap the harvest, from a little acorn the mighty oak grows, this country could show the way for others to follow.

He had entered his quarters and sensed that he was not alone, he heard a gentle breathing in the direction of his sleep area but not having thought to bring a lamp could not see who it was, but it sounded as if they slept. I wonder what the meaning of this is and who it might be, he thought as he moved closer towards the slow rhythmic breathing, reaching out his hand to touch whoever was sleeping in his quarters. Slowly he moved until he felt resistance and traced the outline of a body hidden beneath the animal skins that served to keep him warm at night, being careful so that he did not disturb the sleeping incumbent and startle them. As his hand found bare flesh and long flowing hair the breathing altered its rhythm and he heard a gentle sigh and a soft voice saying how lovely his touch was and was worth waiting for.

Arthur instantly recognised the voice of Gelda and asked gently, “what are you doing here in my quarters and sleeping so peacefully too beneath the skins?”

She replied, “I am waiting for you to join me, it is warmer and more private here, away from the eyes in my camp, my lord.” She paused and then continued, “my father is of high rank back home in my land, a King like you, but I chose to fight with my people and made my way to your country to join them. I know that my life is likely to be short as a warrior, more so because I am a woman and my strength will weaken quicker than a man’s, that I accept as service to my people. I am 22 and there is one thing that I wish before it is too late and that is to be made a complete woman, I have never lain with a man before but I wish to now. Grant me my wish as a lady of high birth my lord, take me and make me that complete woman before my life may end on a battlefield somewhere.”

Arthur, being human and a virile young man, needed no second bidding to honour the request of this good looking young lady and quickly dispensed with his clothing and slipped under the covers to join her. Their desire soon took hold of them as they caressed each other, their passion taking them both to new heights of ecstasy neither had experienced before, as their thrusting writhing bodies exploded in unison time and time again during the next few hours. Until exhausted they fell asleep, entwined in each others arms. When Arthur awoke the sun was already up and Gelda had gone, just the lingering smell of her and their passion remained to remind him of the unexpected but very pleasurable encounter of the night.

* * * * *

The winter solstice came and went with much celebration as that was the turning point that brought the onset of spring closer by the day. Although the winter weather was bitterly cold with the snow lying deep and treacherous in places, restricting activities to the minimum, people were humming and smiling and an air of quiet expectation was about the castle. There was still officially a good ten weeks of winter to get through, but once the solstice had passed it meant that better weather was drawing ever closer and now with the new year dawning there was hope in the air for a better year, such was the way of human nature at its best. Positive thinking that heralds the new era, but unfortunately so susceptible to being set back by even the slightest knock, that it never lasts very long and negativity returns again, and with it the problems that manifest themselves, thought Arthur as he glanced around the castle grounds. How can I instil confidence and maintain it so that everyone can feel positive about tomorrow and break this never ending cycle that revolves around gloom and doom. I must set the example and be positive in my leadership and trust to my instincts, listen to the people and encourage them to think of the good things in life and act on them, he concluded.

* * * * *

The weeks passed, Arthur saw very little of Gelda, the snow melted and the chill in the air decreased but little moved outside of the castle grounds, people were still in hibernation. Then one morning a guard at the gate reported a lone rider approaching and word was sent to Greyfus and Arthur. The first visitor since winter gripped the country, what news would they bring. It was Taliesin, looking weary and worried but smiling when he saw Arthur, noticing a difference and how he appeared to have grown in stature since he last saw him. No longer the boy King that he saw last summer, now looking like every inch a man in his own right, that would make it easier with the disturbing news that he brought.

Arthur welcomed him and bade him join them in the great hall to indulge in some refreshment and warmth, as it looked as if he had travelled a long way. What news did he have? Arthur enquired after he had introduced Legionus and the Sarmatian commanders and Sir Kay and Sir Bors had joined the gathering. Taliesin looked around at their faces and said that trouble was brewing with the Saxons in the southeast, bad trouble by the sound of it and soon.

“They are moving small forces, almost on a daily basis, towards the boundary marked by the Rivers Glynde and Mid-wynd, the south and east of which has long been recognised as their domain. There has been very little trouble there in recent years, except the odd skirmish from trouble makers and looters. Saxons and Britons along with the Jutish settlers have co-existed in relative peace with just the river separating them. All this is changing now, as it appears that Aelle is seeking more land to expand his kingdom by pushing westwards and consequently there is much unease in the area.”

Arthur asked him if he had travelled the Saxon side of the river and seen these things or had it come to him from other sources. Taliesin replied that he had seen the build up of forces with his own eyes but had also gathered some information from influential contacts. Not everyone on the Saxon side was happy with the current events but there was little they could do about it as the power of their leaders was ever increasing and to speak against them was ill advised. Arthur digested this information and asked Taliesin if he had any idea of how long they had before the Saxons would be in a position to push across the river with enough men to take and hold the west bank and secure a strong foothold, enabling them to expand at will. Not long he answered, a couple of weeks at the most, they still needed to bring in more men and Esla of Y Went [the Celtic name that comprised of parts of what is now Hampshire, Wiltshire and Somerset - sometimes known as Gwent] was aware of what was happening and had moved men to the area to counter it. But they were not many in number, as they needed to watch the coastal areas too as the Saxons were known to use their keels to attack from the sea. King Esla was one of those that had supported his crowning and sent an urgent request for help, he was not sure if he could hold them back if they crossed the river and landed along the coast as well. Esla would have his support confirmed Arthur but wanted to know more of the likely numbers that would oppose them and who they might gather support from on the way.

The discussions went on for some time as they worked out the supplies necessary to support them on what might be a prolonged campaign, together with the fact that they wanted to travel light and fast. Greyfus would remain behind with a small fighting force, the rest of Arthur’s men would set out in two days time. Meanwhile Taliesin would return to Esla and advise him that Arthur was on his way with as large a force as he could muster in a short time, and on his journey back attempt to enlist help from others that he was acquainted with.

Taliesin set off the following morning and Arthur with nigh on six hundred horsemen followed the following day with Andulus again acting as guide. He had travelled much of the southern region in his youth and was familiar with the countryside, the direction that they needed to go and the large and small hamlets that they would pass on the way. They were making for Winton [Winchester] initially, some two and a half days ride, stopping at Old Sarum [Salisbury] briefly, as this was roughly mid way on their journey and one of the places that Taliesin hoped to enlist aid for Arthur to strengthen his force. Good to his word Taliesin had secured the help of the local lord, Marcus Tryfig, who together with fifty horsemen joined with Arthur, not many, but every extra man counted. Even better news on arrival at Winton as even more had arrived there to swell the ranks of King Esla as he joined with Arthur as they set off on the ride to Hlew [Lewes in Sussex] some three days away.

Many people turned out to see the High King, his pennon proudly blowing in the wind and their King Esla riding by his side, as the mounted army set forth to do battle with the Saxons. It had been many years since such a large body of cavalry had been seen, even though it was small compared to the likely numbers they would encounter. The Saxons were mainly foot soldiers with only a few horsemen amongst them, their nobility, and they would be at a disadvantage against the speed of attack from a well trained mounted army.

Hlew was on a steep sided hill that overlooked the River Mid-wynd as it passed through the narrow valley below and was an excellent observation post, but there were a few areas above and below this stronghold that the Saxons could cross the river easily at low water, when the depth was shallow. King Esla had mounted troops strategically placed so that any crossing of the river would be seen and a stronger force could quickly be despatched where needed.

The build up had been continuing according to Taliesin, who had been waiting for them, but the Saxons had not yet attempted to cross the river and with luck would not be aware of Arthur’s arrival. He traced the river in the dirt indicating where the Saxons had camped, where the crossing places were on the two rivers and where they themselves were in relation to all those. Taliesin looked at Arthur and said that according to his contacts Aelle was nearly ready to move but would try a probing raid first at two crossing points south of them to draw forces to them, but the main thrust looked as if it would come from the north. The River Glynde flowed into the Mid-wynd here, tracing another line in the dirt, and the best place for a large body of men to cross quickly was at Glynde Reach, marking it with a cross, enabling them to circle round behind and take them by surprise. With luck they did not know that they were there in force, commented Arthur, therefore the surprise was likely to be theirs, so they would prepare that for them. He asked what forces Esla already had in place along the river and where they were located, and having them pointed out looked at Sir Bors and Sir Kay and told them to select a hundred horsemen each and cover the crossing points. But to stay out of sight until the Saxons made their move. Turning to King Esla he stated that it would be good to ride together into battle but felt it necessary that he was seen leading his men in the south, to mislead the Saxons into thinking that this was his main force and that the area to the north around Glynde Reach would be less well guarded.

“Sir Bors and Sir Kay will serve you well. When you have dealt with the invaders leave some men to guard the river and bring the rest to join me as we teach the Saxons a hard lesson.” He addressed Legionus, “I would like you and the Sarmatians to join me in the main force, as that will be quite an unpleasant surprise for these Saxon foot soldiers. I doubt that they have encountered your people before, even if they have heard stories told of your exploits, which I hope they have as that will unnerve them even more.”

Legionus and his commanders smiled at this as Arthur asked if there were any questions, or suggestions if they felt that he had read the situation wrong. No one commented as Arthur asked Andulus to join his party, due to the fact that he would be the only one with them that knew the area. Taliesin would not be required to accompany them as his place was to remain behind, not being a fighting man but an ambassador for the King, it was not his place to be directly involved.

Preparations were made and all left the following morning to take up their stations and wait for the Saxons to make a move. Arthur under Andulus’ guidance keeping well away from the river until close to their destination, where they secreted themselves in a hollow screened from the river by a narrow belt of trees.

King Esla on the other hand was met on the way by one of his river guards from the first crossing point, with the news that the Saxons had crossed the river and battle was in progress. They were losing ground to them as they were greatly outnumbered and would not be able to hold them for much longer. Esla turned to Sir Bors and told him to take his men and follow the guard to the crossing and take control there, repel the Saxons and secure the crossing was his command. Turning to Sir Kay he indicated that they still had two miles to go to the next crossing and speed was now essential, as Taliesin had indicated that the Saxons would cross at two places at the same time, to split his forces. Sure enough that was what they had done and Esla found his foot soldiers hard pressed trying to contain the hordes crossing the river, having to give ground as they were greatly outnumbered. Take the right flank he shouted to Sir Kay and he would take the left, as with his pennon flying he broke to the left to engage the enemy. On the far bank a lone horseman watched the arrival of the king with interest, just as anticipated, and with a smile on his face turned and rode away from the river to take this news to Aelle.

In the hollow at Glynde Reach Arthur had outlined his plan of attack to Legionus and his commanders, he would take two hundred horsemen and wait hidden until half of the Saxons had crossed the river and the rest were either fording it or waiting to cross. He would then attack in arrow head formation, aiming for the rough centre body of men, with the intention of driving a wedge through them and splitting their forces in two. Once he had engaged them and had their attention two Sarmatian commanders would lead their troops out from either end of the hollow depression and attack the Saxon flanks. Legionus and another troop would stay hidden in reserve to deal with any of the enemy that broke through and to reinforce the centre or flanks as the need arose, it was his judgement as and when to intervene. Legionus congratulated him on his sound tactics, he had listened and learnt well on deploying cavalry to best advantage, especially against what would be mainly foot soldiers. Arthur thanked him and reiterated what was already widely known, that he was always ready and willing to listen to those with greater experience and utilise that knowledge gained.

They were interrupted by a lookout arriving with the news that hordes of Saxons had arrived on the far bank and had started to cross the river shallows, thousands of them in fact. Arthur climbed up out of the hollow and into the thin belt of trees to assess the situation himself and the lookout was right there were many of them, but so far all on foot, the advantage would be his. He watched them for a few minutes before deciding that it was time to introduce the Sarmatians to them, and sliding down the bank he mounted his horse and looking around at the men said that it was time to give the Saxons a surprise and unfurled his pennon as he led his troop out of the hollow.

Surprise was perhaps an understatement, as the Saxons had been led to believe that there would be little or no resistance there, as the king’s forces had been drawn south to the other crossing points. Yet here was either a lord or king descending on them out of nowhere with a force of strangely attired cavalry, not that many but enough to cause havoc amongst the foot soldiers. Arthur headed the arrow formation as they ploughed and hacked their way through the centre of the Saxons, turning and driving a wedge to split the force in two, swords flashing in the early morning sunlight amidst the clash of steel.

The Sarmatian commanders had appeared and were attacking from the flanks, pushing the Saxons back towards the river, but the way was barred as others still in the river were in the way, trying to push forward. The battle was fierce and there were bodies everywhere as the Saxons tried to fall back from the onslaught, but having nowhere really to go. Arthur was like a demon possessed as he relentlessly drove through them cutting them down in droves and Legionus seeing him push forward so quickly and the danger that he was getting into, brought his reserve troop out of hiding to protect his King from being cut off and surrounded.

These additional horsemen created even greater mayhem for the Saxons and those still crossing the shallow water stopped pushing forward and began to retreat to the far bank realising how vulnerable they were, caught in open water by such ferocious cavalry. The river turned red as Legionus and his troop showed them no mercy and cut them down as they tried to flee from the onslaught, leaving limbs, heads and bodies barely floating in the shallow water.

Arthur was nearly at the waters edge when he was suddenly confronted by a giant of a man wielding an axe and about to strike with it, instinctively raising his sword in protection. Sword and axe clashed, enough to deflect the blow, but the force of it knocked Arthur from his horse and he went crashing to the ground, stunned and with his sword shattered in two by the impact of the axe. The giant pounced and raised the axe again to finish him off, when a horse thundered up and a sword flashed, the axe and the giants severed arm tumbled to the ground amidst a roar of pain and anguish. Arthur heard what seemed a distant female voice say ‘that’s for my King; and this is for me.’ There was a thud and Arthur was covered in a spurt of blood as Gelda swung her sword again with tremendous force, the giants head hit the ground, eyes staring up in surprise and shock in that last split second of life.

“What would you men do without a woman to look after you my lord?” muttered Gelda as she helped Arthur to his feet and onto his horse, “lets get you to a place of safety to recover from your fall.”

The Sarmatians pushed the Saxons across the river mercilessly, few reached the other side and those that did soon fell as they were pursued and hunted down until Legionus recalled his cavalry, leaving the few remaining survivors to escape and take word back to their leaders of their defeat and massacre.

Several thousand bodies lay on the river banks and in the water, either dead or in the last throes of dying, together with a few horses, not all were Saxons. Gelda was watching him as Arthur surveyed the scene and she asked him what he was thinking, seeing the pained look in his eyes.

“If it hadn’t been for you I would have been one of those bodies laying there, unable to accomplish what I have set out to do, I thank providence that you arrived in time,” he replied looking her in the eyes.

“It wasn’t your time to go sire, not for a long while yet, you will outlive me that I know, we are here to help each other in many different ways, even like you did in granting a lady her most desired wish. When its time we will know that we have fulfilled our task here and it is time to move on to another place and prepare for our next mission in our evolution, it doesn’t matter how long or short that time is, we would have done what we set out to achieve.”

He looked at her saying that she had much wisdom and understanding, and if more people thought that way they wouldn’t have all this needless slaughter, waving his hand towards the battle field, people could live in peace and harmony with each other,

“How long is it going to take the likes of us to help bring that about?” queried Arthur.

To which she answered, “way beyond our lifetimes I fear my lord, but we can at least start that process and hope that others carry it on.”

They were interrupted in their conversation by Andulus shouting out that the other troops from the south were approaching, but he couldn’t see King Esla, Sir Bors or Sir Kay amongst them, and there were only about half the number that had gone to the crossings. That is not good, thought Arthur, I wonder what has befallen them that they are missing, and only half the number have made it here, was Taliesin’s information wrong or did I read the situation incorrectly. He did not have long to wait to find out as the horsemen rode up to him.

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