Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 15!

Chapter 15


THE EVENING TURNED into a merry feast for all as the huntsmen had excelled themselves earlier with their tally. Many of the townsfolk joined them, bringing along a cartload of excellent ale, which was greatly appreciated by the weary soldiers. They must have emptied all their cellars to find so much, which indeed they had, as a token of appreciation for their salvation and the timely arrival of the King’s army. The singing and dancing carried on into the small hours until sleep finally caught up with them all, the horrors of the day having drained from them, with the help of the festive mood induced by good ale.

Late morning saw the camp gradually come to life, with a few sore heads, as the different groups prepared to move out and go their separate ways. The town elders and clerics arrived to renew their thanks once again. Men were already out in the meadow removing the Saxon carcases for burning and Arthur’s fallen warriors would be given a proper Christian burial close to the churches to remind all of their ultimate sacrifice in defending the town. Arthur graciously accepted their thanks, but reminded them it was not just his army that had delivered them from the Saxons, the Lord was with them and had responded to their prayers, providing the help that they needed at the right time. They asked if they could have one last look at his shield before he departed, which he duly obliged, holding it up for them to see. There were gasps as one said, 'but the picture of the Virgin Mary has vanished.' Sure enough when Arthur looked all that remained was the red cross on the white background, he was equally puzzled for it had still been there the night before.

“Gentlemen,” he confided, “we must conclude that it was a sign given to us to strengthen our resolve and put fear into the hearts of our enemies, and that is what it did, the vision will only appear when needed.”

The words seemed to come into his head as he spoke them, as if coming from a higher authority, not his words, as he did not understand what had happened either. No wonder Eudaf Hen had told him that he would know when to remove the cover from the shield. It would be a voice or thought that would spring into his head that would prompt him to do it, and he would not question it.

Looking at the townsmen he told them that they had witnessed a miracle to remind them of the power of prayer. With that he bade them farewell as he gave the command to move out, taking leave of King Esla, Lord Tryfig and Lord Forrester. Sir Agranaut and Sir Bedwyr were returning to Corinium with their troop and those from Glevum whilst Arthur was making directly south west for Cadbury, intending to revisit The Sanctuary at Avebury before they finally left the area. He was drawn to it but wasn’t sure why.

As the army neared Avebury, Arthur instructed Sir Kay to take command and continue in the same direction that they were heading, as he and Berius were taking a short detour to The Sanctuary and would catch up with them later. Sir Kay protested that he should take a troop with him as some of the Saxons had escaped and could be anywhere, but Arthur held up his hand to silence this warning, saying that it would not be necessary, they would be perfectly safe. The two of them rode away leaving Sir Kay a little bemused at the King’s action and apparent disregard for his own safety and that of Berius.

They approached along the centre of a straight avenue of giant stones. Arthur noticed that there were two distinct shapes to them and they alternated as if they were meant to be in pairs, not just within each row but opposing each other too. He queried this with Berius who pointed out that the tall rugged ones signified the male energy and the smoother slightly rounded ones the female energy, a perfect balance. Whichever way you looked there was a pair, male and female, the living Earth joined in harmony. He said that the world was once covered with giant markers like those until man became destructive and tore many of them down, seeking to blame them on the demise of the human race and the golden age. They couldn’t see that they only had themselves to blame, as greed and avarice took hold and spread like a disease amongst them. Luckily this little country of his had managed to preserve many of them, as the peoples' beliefs were strong, but even that waned to a degree and some fell into disrepair and were lost. Many however had survived, their energy as vibrant as ever.

They reach the impressive circle of The Sanctuary and dismounted. The air felt electric by comparison to the avenue, coursing through every inch of Arthur’s body, his whole being alive with energy, strong and bold but at the same time warm and gentle. Waves of it flowed through him. Even Excalibur, swaying with his movement, was humming and vibrating softly by his side, as the energies melded together in unison. The sensation was something that he could not describe, it was beyond words, not unpleasant, just strange until the body adjusted to it, then it seemed quite natural. He was subconsciously pulled slowly towards the centre of the stone circle, without any effort on his part. It was as if he was gliding towards the middle, feet hardly touching the ground. As he came to a stop the energy changed, appearing to come into his body from all direction, running down through his legs and into the earth, his senses heightened, everything appeared in sharp focus, crystal clear and vibrant. Pictures sprang into his mind, but as if in front of his eyes, various scenes played out before him. It took some while before he could piece them together and understand their meaning, then they faded and he felt the energy within him subside to a gentler level, the connection broken.

He stood quietly for some time absorbing the detail of what he had just experienced and seen, understanding more now of the mystical powers of Merlin and the Elders. They knew how to use this energy, connecting to the vibrations of the living Earth and being in many places at the same time without moving. Their vision taking them to wherever they wished to be to see what they needed to know, as if they were actually there. It was all so real and had shown him a glimpse of where trouble would next occur, not in a vague hazy dream with shadowy figures that could not be identified, but sharp and perfectly clear as a bright summers day. Surprisingly he did not doubt what he saw, the strength within him accepting it as a divine vision without question. He knew now where the next major Saxon assault would raise its ugly head, but he had plenty of time to prepare.

He looked at Berius, smiling. “That was an wondrous experience to be given, I understand a little more now how you, Merlin and others of your kind use the living Earth energies, working in harmony with them to great advantage to see the way forward.”

“My lord, you are shown these new things to help you, but only when the time is right, they cannot be rushed, everything happens when it should, and not before, you were ready for this revelation,” he replied.

“Yes,” Arthur answered, “I was drawn to return here, I knew something would happen, but knew not what. I feel a new energy after that experience and renewed hope that all will turn out well. There is still much that needs to be done, but by staying in touch with the energy of this land I can accomplish the task that I have been entrusted with, and my people will benefit for many generations to come. Let us rejoin the others.”

* * * * *

Their return to Cadbury was met with jubilation as befits a King returning from a successful campaign. Merlin and Taliesin were already there to greet them and had organised the welcoming feast with Greyfus, knowing in advance, as usual, Arthur’s arrival time. The King more aware now as to how they knew these things, something that had previously puzzled him, not all of the answer as their mystical talents were many, but hopefully he would learn more of their ways as time progressed.

The feasting lasted for two days during which Arthur spent considerable time with Merlin and Taliesin finding out the details of the slaughter at Bosham, and how the Saxons had caught them unawares. Apparently a local festival and been taking place and much ale had flowed, as was usual at such events. The Saxons had landed at night guided by a clear sky brightly illuminated by the full moon and caught them in their intoxicated slumber. Lookouts had either deserted their posts to join the festivities or fallen asleep, having acquired jugs of ale and over indulged, consequently no warning of the attack was raised until too late. Many were put to the sword where they slept, men, women and children, only a few on the outskirts of the landing area managed to escape into the countryside and raise the alarm, but by then the Saxons were pushing forward inland. Their goal important enough that they did not dally on the way, just slaughtering all they encountered as they moved forward, surprise on their side. Speed was important to them, to reach their target before they encountered any major opposition, as once there they would be in a good position to control the area by holding the major road junction until further soldiers were sent for. Luckily with Arthur’s intervention their plan failed and the Saxons lost yet another army in their attempts to expand their influence. This might make them rethink their strategy before attempting another thrust. It was a bold move on their part to try to penetrate deep into Arthur’s territory, but was always fraught with danger for them if further troops did not follow behind them. Merlin indicated that this was what they had intended. Many more keels were to follow with a second army, but they got caught in a violent storm at sea and most of the ships were lost. The few remaining barely managing to return to harbour quite badly damaged.

Arthur was surprised at this news, he had not thought that there would be others following so soon, but in hindsight it made perfect sense. The situation could have been much worse had the second army managed to land, his thinking had been flawed on that occasion, something else that he had learned. Arthur asked Merlin why he thought they were heading for The Sanctuary initially, as on seeing the place it had no strategic importance. Merlin smiled at this and told him that it was a place that the King had to visit as part of his education, but it was necessary that Arthur worked out the details himself of where the Saxons were really heading and why, another aspect of his learning, and he had passed the test admirably.

Arthur confided in him about his life changing experience at The Sanctuary, how he felt and the visions that he had concerning the next danger spots in the country and when they would occur. How great the strength of the Earth energies were that flowed through him, even affecting his sword. Merlin was greatly pleased by these revelations and said as much. Arthur was coming into his own more now, that was a good sign and he was being rewarded accordingly, as he allowed his strong caring character to develop in the right way, always for the benefit of his people and not himself. The rewards matched the effort that he was putting into his task and would continue to do so provided he did not waver in his resolve, but continued to fight for the good of all, laying the foundations for a better way of life. It would take many generations and there would be setbacks along the way but the impetus would be moving forward, no matter how slowly at times, Arthur was initiating the changes that were needed, and he would be helped in his task in many diverse ways. The King was grateful for the confidence that Merlin inspired in him, the wisdom of the ancients was always worthy of note and their assistance and guidance was greatly appreciated, it made his task that much easier.

* * * * *

Life at Cadbury settled into a relaxed routine throughout the rest of the year, many visitors passed through, paying their respects to the King, a few travellers stayed on, offering their services including Bedwini, bishop of Gwent. All were gratefully accepted. Sir Agranaut and Sir Bedwyr arrived, having decided to join Arthur, bringing with them several other lesser knights looking for adventure, and a steady stream continued throughout the year. Arthur took a small troop out on a regular basis visiting hamlets and villages across a wide area to keep in touch with the people. Receiving a warm welcome wherever he went, as he listened to their problems and resolved minor disputes in his usual fair and just manner. The people were solidly behind him as he showed that he cared about their welfare like no other King had done before, and he delivered on his promises, something that they were not used to. His reputation grew greatly and word spread far and wide amongst the peoples of the land. Not just for his deeds and success in battle against the Saxons, but because he was concerned for their welfare, he treated them all as equals, not as King and serfs.

Summer began the slow transition into autumn and the vivid colours of the landscape began to fade into darker hues as trees began to shed their leaves in preparation for the dormant period of winter. The harvests had been successfully gathered and stored, leaving the land looking barren and brown as it rested until the next sowing. Those animals that took shelter through the winter months hurriedly made their final preparations of food stocks and shelter, whilst others that would see the cold months through as they were, continued to graze the meadows. Life began its gentle run down to the restrictions of winter and Cadbury was no exception. The stock of provisions, ale, oil and wood, had been organised and checked by Greyfus as usual, with plenty to spare should it be a harsh winter, or they had an unexpected influx of people. Feed for the horses had not been forgotten either.

* * * * *

Arthur was not expecting trouble, and none occurred, as one year faded and another blossomed, a year that would be fraught with trouble if his visions were anything to go by, but forewarned was forearmed and he was confident that he would be in the right place at the right time to counter the onslaught. Time to make preparations and think through his plan of action. It was going to be a busy year, that would make or break the Saxon menace for some time, or see his undoing and all the good that he had accomplished so far. Winter was the time for this careful thought and he spent much of his free time doing just that. Sitting quietly subduing his everyday thoughts and allowing his mind to connect with his innermost feelings, seeking guidance for the way forward. He felt his energy vibrations change as he allowed this to happen, as his whole being connected to those Earth energies around him. Not strong like at The Sanctuary, but sufficient to be noticeable as they permeated through him in his relaxed state, producing a calm and stillness that encouraged clear thought.

By the end of the winter he knew exactly what he needed to do and summoned his commanders to explain some, but not all of his thoughts, as to where they would be going and why. Merlin and Taliesin had for once wintered with them. Although Arthur had not asked for their assistance or advice yet, as Merlin had said he needed to work out much himself, he was sure that they would comment if they felt he was wrong.

* * * * *

Spring was not quite upon them. There was still a chill in the air as they sat in the Great Hall with several logs fires blazing away, feebly attempting to bring some warmth into the vast expanse, failing miserably, but the red glow and dancing flames gave a comforting feeling to those present. Arthur explained that he had brought them together now because he was convinced that the Saxons would make a concerted effort that year to attempt to gain a strong foothold in their land. It was up to him and his army to stop them at all costs and push them back to their own territory with such a force that they would not bother them again in a serious way for some time.

The Saxons had tried unsuccessfully to breach their defences in the south and had lost many men in their forays, he felt that they would now switch their attention northward and attack the east coast, thinking that the King had his forces waiting in the south for the next onslaught. His information was that the most likely area would be in the vicinity of the City of the Legion at Eboracum [York], an area that Legionus knew well. It was a strategic fortification well defended, within a day and a half by foot from the coast, but even less if approached from the wide river in that area. He suspected that the Saxons would land a force to the north first in an attempt to draw the army quartered there away from the city. Then their main force would come from the south, having sailed up the river, and attempt to seize Eboracum, which would be only lightly defended. They would be waiting for them and yet again take them by total surprise and they would start to wonder how this King of the Britons kept turning up to confront them wherever they went.

Sir Drustanus asked what they were all thinking, how did Arthur know that he was not being lured there deliberately so that they could attack the south again, knowing that the King’s army was miles away chasing ghosts in the north. Arthur replied that he could never be totally sure but was guided by good information and his instincts, which so far had not let him down. Turning to Merlin he asked him for his comments and whether he had any information that was to the contrary. Merlin smiled at Arthur’s rhetoric and how he had refrained from saying where his information had come from, and told the audience that his information was basically what they had just heard. The Saxons were most likely to attack Eboracum, probably at the time of the spring tides when there was more water in the river. Arthur continued by stating that they would travel first to the other City of the Legion at Deva Victris [Chester] and show the King’s pennon there and enlist their aid. They would set forth in two weeks time. He asked if there were any questions and as none were forthcoming he concluded by saying they would meet again shortly before they departed to review the situation.

Merlin and Taliesin stayed behind with Arthur and Berius after the others had left and continued the discussion on the campaign plan, the King saying that he had a feeling that they might encounter some trouble at Deva Victris, but not necessarily from the Saxons. Merlin agreed saying that it was more likely to be Irish raiders that periodically attacked the coastal settlements in that area. Not in great force, but extremely disruptive none the less. He asked Arthur, even though he knew the answer, if there was anything that he required of Taliesin and himself whilst he was away. The King gave him a knowing smile as he replied that Merlin knew already, and that was for both of them to keep an eye on the happenings in the south and send their thoughts to Berius if anything major occurred that would require him to return immediately. If he had been mistaken in taking his army north when trouble was going to re-occur in the south. Arthur thought this unlikely although there was always a vague possibility, but needed to take every precaution to safeguard his people from the indiscriminate slaughter of the pagan Saxons. Merlin and Taliesin agreed and said that they would take their leave in the morning and go about their business in their normal way. Anything of note they would advise Berius of, otherwise they would see him on his return in a few months. They took their leave of Arthur, as he pondered those last words, both anticipated a long campaign, or other events would keep him away from there for that time, knowing too that it was going to be a busy year.

* * * * *

The King and his army left on time two weeks later, taking supply wagons with them on this occasion as they would be away for some while, too much for each man to carry individually. Greyfus had seen that they were well provisioned. They would follow the Roman roads where possible, heading for Corinium then Glevum before heading north to Viroconium Cornoviorum once again and finally Deva Victris. The journey would take nearly a week.

They made good time, arriving at Viroconium five days later where King Cadell elected to join them with thirty horsemen and a hundred foot soldiers as they continued their journey. As they made their way towards Deva Victris Arthur brought King Cadell up to date on the conflict with the Saxons at Durocornovium the previous year and the events that lead up to it. Cadell mentioned that word had reached them just before winter had set in, but there wasn’t much detail. Just that the King's army had again defeated the enemy, after the unfortunate slaughter at Bosham. That was dreadful news, all those poor souls just mercilessly killed by the pagans, forgetting that British kings had done the same to each other in the past.

The day passed and the next brought them close to Deva Victris when Berius broke his customary silence and suddenly spoke to Arthur warning him of trouble ahead, the animal noises had changed and he sensed the tension in the air. The King immediately summoned two of his men with orders to ride ahead and seek the signs of trouble, but to do so without being seen if possible. He himself had begun to feel a slight sense of unease just before Berius had mentioned it.

The riders soon reappeared with news that the city was some two miles ahead and was being attacked by a large group of foot soldiers, but they were too far distant to ascertain who they were although their garments looked different to those of King Cadell’s men. Irish raiders or Picts most likely commented Arthur summoning his commanders to him and advising them of the situation. The foot soldiers were to remain there and guard the supply wagons, They would break into their usual three troops as they got closer. Himself, King Cadell and Sir Kay with the lead troop, Legionus to the left flank with Sir Agranaut and Sir Bedwyr, Sir Bors to lead the right flank with Sir Drustanus and Sir Sagremor. The commanders gathered their troops and set off following Arthur towards the City of the Legion, ready to do battle.

As they galloped towards the city Arthur could see that the massive gate appeared to have been breached and hordes of warriors were fighting their way slowly in through the narrow entrance. The defenders giving way under the weight of those pushing forward, too many for them to keep at bay. Arthur gave the signal to his commanders to spread out into their positions as they thundered forward towards the enemy with their pennons flying, a mixture of Picts and other strangely garbed men.

The noise from nearly six hundred horses approaching at speed alerted those at the rear of the surging pack. Cries of alarm went up as they faltered, turning to face this unexpected threat. Arthur drew his sword and shouted ‘Excalibur,’ the blade immediately bursting into life cascading tongues of dancing white light towards the enemy. Shouts of dismay echoed at this phenomenon as their ranks broke and they began to scatter in fear, as Arthur and his army bore down on them. The troops under Legionus and Sir Bors spreading out to ensnare them. They rode into the scattering mass of bodies cutting them down at will as they tried to escape. Very few turned to fight, fear was consuming them, their only thought was of escape, but alas there was none, they were trapped.

Arthur’s troop fought their way to the gate, slowed by the greater concentration of men, some still pushing forward not yet aware of the threat behind them, whilst others were trying to flee the King’s onslaught. Arthur with Cadell by his side broke through the mass at the gate, his men forcing their way through with him and spreading out into the wide courtyard beyond. The city defenders had been pushed back to the buildings on the far side of the courtyard. Now with the arrival of Arthur the insurgents were trapped between the two factions, fighting for their lives. Arthur shouted to them to lay down their arms and go free, or die where they stood, Excalibur glowing brightly in his hand to reinforce his words. The High King of all Britain had spoken, they would not get a second chance.

Common sense prevailed as the clatter of many weapons falling to the ground confirmed. Arthur instructed Sir Kay to see that they were all searched for concealed weapons and to take fifty men and escort them several miles towards the coast, making sure that they did not retrieve any weapons from the battle field. If any tried to escape he was at liberty to put them to the sword. Arthur looked at the forlorn remnants of the enemy force and told them to inform their people that any further incursions into his lands would suffer the wrath of the King and be dealt with in a like manner. Sir Kay led them away, passed the hundreds of bodies of their fallen comrades that littered the battleground outside the gates, and the lifeless scattered bodies further out of those that had tried to escape. A timely reminder of the fate that awaited them should they return.

The commander of the city defences approached Arthur and identified himself, thanking him profusely for his timely intervention in what was a nasty situation that was rapidly turning against them. Arthur inquired how they had managed to breach the city gate which was more than capable of withstanding such an attack. The commander said that they had been caught unawares by deceit. Messengers had arrived supposedly from the King of Rheged requesting help as a large force of Irish had landed to the north. His lord, King Cadwallon Longhand of Gwynedd had responded and taken most of his forces to go to their aid, leaving just a small contingent to safeguard the city as it was well fortified. However they had been secretly infiltrated by several Irish supporters. When the enemy force arrived near the gate the guards were overpowered by five men and the gate opened to allow them in. Luckily one of the guards had escaped to give warning of this treacherous act and they quickly responded. It was too late to shut the gate and all they could do was to try and contain them but his men were losing ground when Arthur's army thankfully appeared on the scene. If the Irish had taken the city then his king would have returned to a trap and paid dearly for it and the Irish influence would have spread.

Arthur asked if they had apprehended the infiltrators. The commander responded that three had apparently been killed as the King forced his way through the gate and his men were searching out the other two and they would deal with them accordingly. Arthur said that he would withdraw his men and rejoin their supply wagons and pitch camp within a mile of the city and would be pleased to receive King Cadwallon on his return as he required his aid. The commander thanked him once again and said that it would be done, it was likely that his lord would return on the morrow as he had already sent a rider to recall him. Arthur gathered his men, rejoining Legionus and Sir Bors just as Sir Kay returned with his small troop and they headed back to their supply wagons.

The next day Arthur used as a rest day for his army and just let them relax whilst he waited the return of King Cadwallon. It would take them another week to reach Eboracum, but his vision at The Sanctuary indicated that he had a few days in hand before the Saxons invaded there.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that the king returned with his troops and shortly after rode out to meet Arthur, accompanied by his commander at the city. The King greeted him and invited them both to join his table as food had just been prepared and no doubt the king would welcome some after his abortive journey. King Cadwallon expressed his gratitude for Arthur’s timely arrival and stated that it would be a pleasure to share a hearty meal with him, as they both dismounted.

A lively discussion took place as they ate, concerning the events that had led to the king taking his men to help King Merchiaun of Rheged. It was something that happened fairly frequently, each helping the other when the Irish raiders landed in force and this occasion appeared no different. Cadwallon started to suspect that all was not well when the messengers that had travelled with them disappeared during the night. Then the following morning a rider appeared from the city requesting his immediate return. It would have been too late by then but thankfully Arthur and his army had arrived on the scene unexpectedly, and just at the right moment to thwart the attack, but how did that come to pass he inquired.

Arthur explained that he had received reliable information that a large Saxon army was planning to attack Eboracum on the spring tide at the end of the following week, that was where he was headed. His source also indicated that there was much trouble from Irish raiders in the area around Deva Victris and that Arthur would most like encounter some where his timely intervention and assistance would be required. His journey would also give him the opportunity to enlist aid to help repel the Saxon attack. King Cadell of Powys had joined with them as they passed through Viroconium and his aid was most welcome. King Cadwallon responded that the least he could do after the events there was to offer his services and join with Arthur and show a united front to the Saxons. He would also send word to King Merchiaun of Rheged and request that he join them at en-route at Melandra Castle two days hence. Arthur welcomed his assistance and any additional help from the King of Rheged would swell their numbers to a sizeable force, as the Saxon army was likely to be considerable in strength.

Cadwallon took his leave of Arthur to make arrangements for departure the following morning, remarking that there was a good Roman road all the way to Eboracum that would make their journey easier. Although they would encounter the high ground at Melandra for awhile. The group broke up to make ready for an early start the next morning.

The journey to Melandra Castle was easy going and they made good time. Cadwallon, good to his word had joined them on departure from Deva Victris with two hundred horsemen, a hundred foot soldiers and two supply wagons. Arthur’s army was beginning to look very formidable indeed. Even more so when King Merchiaun joined them at Melandra, with another two hundred men, as they began the long climb up through the valley between the massive peaks, before dropping down to the wide expanse of the dales the other side. Arthur took time to appreciate the rugged bleak beauty of the high ground and the total contrast as they dropped down into the lush green meadows stretching for mile upon mile into the distance. They rested frequently as the King knew that he had made good time and he needed his army fresh and fighting fit when they made their landfall. He felt it was going to be a difficult confrontation with the enemy in an area that he did not know.

* * * * *

Three days later brought them within sight of the massive fortified City of the Legion standing on a slightly raised plateau in the middle of the valley. Arthur stared in wonder at such a sight, it made Cadbury Castle seem insignificant by comparison. How did the Saxons think they could take such a place without a prolonged siege by a large army. Where was its weak spot? wondered Arthur. Legionus, as if reading the Kings thoughts had brought his horse alongside him.

“Impressive isn’t it,” he said, gazing at his former home, “but the river runs right through the centre of the city and a determined enemy could enter that way in small boats or on foot, it only comes up to a man‘s knees in most places. The archways over the river have to be high as the winter rains roar through the centre as the water pours down from the hills and would otherwise flood the whole city. The Saxons could bring their keels all the way from the sea up river as far as the village of Naburn, four miles south, as it is fairly deep and tidal up to that point, then rapidly shallows. However the city is surrounded by many marshy areas and they would need to be aware of those as they approached.”

“That’s very interesting Legionus,” Arthur responded, saying that he was searching for the weak point in the defences, and the answer was in front of his eyes all the time. Then asked him to indicate safe ground to pitch camp for the moment, as it wouldn’t be wise to approach the city in force, it might be mistaken for a hostile act. Legionus lead them half a mile off the road towards a gentle slope that was firm ground bordered by a belt of trees. Pointing out areas of marshy ground between them and the city that could be detected by their darker green colour and thicker grass and vegetation. No sooner had they stopped when Berius told Arthur that a group of horsemen were approaching from the direction of the city, no doubt to discover their intentions as they had obviously been seen by the city guards.

The horsemen brought their mounts to a stop before Arthur and the other kings and the one in the lead spoke.

“My lords I am Dubrovus of the Sarmatian legion, my Lord Peredur, Duke of Eboracum extends his welcome and wonders why such a large army camps close to the city. Do you travel far?”

“Thank you Dubrovus, I graciously return the welcome to Lord Peredur. I am Arthur, High King of Britain, King Merchiaun of Rheged, King Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Cadell of Powys at your service,” as he indicated the others, “We have arrived at our destination in preparation for a Saxon attack against Eboracum. I have brought my army north to thwart it and we seek counsel with your lord on this matter.”

“My Lord I do not question your words or mean any offence but in these times we have to be careful, we do not know you in this region. My Lord Peredur would appreciate a sign of your lineage.”

“Well spoken Dubrovus,” replied Arthur, “I appreciate a man who is careful and diplomatic. Would you take the word of another Sarmatian?”

“Of course my lord, we are a people of honour,” Dubrovus answered.

“Good,” responded Arthur, “Then you would take the word of Legionus or any other of the two hundred Sarmatian cavalry that serve in my army?”

“My Lord Arthur, no words are necessary. If my old friend Legionus rides with you then you are indeed the High King of Britain, as he rode south with his troop to seek you out to offer his services.” he replied.

“My commanders and I will join you on your return to the city, if me may, to avail Lord Peredur of the situation as we see it and to seek his counsel,” requested Arthur.

“Indeed Sire, it will be my pleasure to enter the city in the company of four illustrious kings and their gallant lords. Lord Peredur will be greatly honoured to receive such a royal visitation,” Dubrovus stated.

The group set off for Eboracum with Dubrovus explaining the features of the landscape around the city, at Arthur‘s request. The course of the river with its marshy areas and the great forest that lay a few miles to the north, extending from the centre of the country almost to the east coast. People stopped and stared as they passed through the massive gates, their sombre glances suddenly turning to smiles as they recognised the Sarmatians in the group and a few called out to them by name, bringing a raised hand in response.

The meeting with Lord Peredur lasted for several hours as Arthur explained the situation to him and the information that he had been given (but not how it was given). The Saxons would launch an attack from the north to draw Lord Peredur’s forces after them before those that came up river in the south attempted to take the city. Peredur laughed at this saying it was nigh on impossible as the fortifications were designed to keep an army at bay, until Arthur pointed out that the weak point was the river running right through the city. A determined assault there might be difficult to contain. Once the Saxons had breached the defences they could pour into the city in vast numbers where it would be difficult to use the cavalry, it would be hand to hand fighting in the streets, they had to be caught in the open. Until they knew the size of the two Saxon armies it was difficult to plan a response so it was agreed to send scouts out in both directions to make visual contact with them and ascertain their numbers before drawing up a battle plan. Peredur suggested that Arthur move his army to a better position, one that Dubrovus would show him. A little more secluded and closer to the river whilst the King and his entourage accepted his hospitality there, ready to formulate a plan once the scouts reported Saxon movement. Sir Bors said that he would stay with the army and keep them in readiness for the signal to move, and so it was agreed. There were still three days before the spring tide and all they could do was wait, that gave Arthur time to see the city and check its defences and river exits.

* * * * *

If it hadn’t have been for Sir Bors they might have been taken by surprise. He had ridden along the river bank passing the quiet village of Naburn on the east bank, travelling leisurely southwards. Just absorbing the tranquil beauty of the swiftly flowing water gurgling its way upriver, when voices came faintly to him on the gently breeze. Moving away from the river towards the cover of the trees that adorned the bank on either side and had followed the line of the watercourse for several miles, he moved slowly forward, ears straining for any sound and eyes darting about, alert for any movement ahead. The voices came again, stronger this time and not in his native tongue either, harsh guttural words of the Saxons, and rounding a slight bend he was astounded. The river had widened out considerably there and it was full of Saxon keels. Several had run aground on either side, sailing too close to the bank and swung out blocking the river. Downstream more were making their way slowly forward towards the others, twenty in all that he could see before the river curved away again around another bend. They were large keels that could easily carry two hundred men each. This was a formidable force and there could still be more that were out of his field of vision at the moment. The Saxons had arrived early as the spring high tide was not due until the next morning.

Sir Bors sat still on his horse, hidden beneath the shadows of the trees, quietly watching the scene unfolding before him. He noticed that the river was running downstream now, the Saxons would not be going any further today in their keels. Sir Bors stayed for another hour silently watching the activity, his well trained horse hardly moving a muscle, before the Saxons began to make a move. They appeared to be disembarking on both sides of the river, mostly on the east bank but a considerable number this side too. It was time to make a move and take the news to Arthur. He eased his horse slowly back into the trees before he turned around and keeping under cover quietly left the scene, putting some distance between him and the Saxons before he broke out into the open at the gallop. He stopped opposite the village at Naburn and shouted across the river to attract attention, warning them to make for the city straight away as a large party of Saxons were making their way upriver on both banks not ten miles away. It would not pay to be there when they arrived, with that he galloped off towards the camp to raise the alarm and to the city to alert King Arthur.

Arthur was slightly perturbed at the news, as none of the scouts had reported back yet with any sightings, possibly because they had taken a direct route to a point further downstream and the Saxons were already behind them by then. But what of the scouts that went north, why no news? Arthur pondered this mystery for a few moments, then realisation came to him as he automatically held the hilt of Excalibur. They had all sailed together and were only going to separate into two forces after they had landed. The co-ordination between the two armies would be that much better and the timing of the attacks more certain. No doubt they would send scouts forward to check that Lord Peredur took his forces out of the city to chase those attacking settlements to the north.

Arthur gathered the kings and lords together and outlined his plan to them. He would bring his army into the city away from the prying eyes of the Saxons and await their move. The foot soldiers would guard the weak points where the river flowed through the city and the cavalry would be split into two factions. Sir Peredur would lead his army, together with Legionus and Arthur’s Sarmatians, northwards when news of the Saxon advance in that direction reached them. Arthur would wait with the remainder of his army, out of sight within the city, until the Saxons to the south made their move and tried to breach what they thought would be a sparsely guarded city. Most likely as the day faded gently into twilight and before darkness took a hold of the land. That was the time when men were normally weary and guards less observant. A good time for a surprise attack, and hours after the main army had departed on their fool's errand. So it was agreed and Sir Bors hurried off to camp to bring the army into the city. Then it was a question of just waiting and watching as a steady trickle of people arrived from Naburn and other outlying hamlets, seeking the protection of the great walled city.

Life began as normal the following day, people went about their business as usual, but there was an air of anticipation hanging over the city. All knew now of the threat that was hanging over them, many had been through this situation before, but they felt safe within the confines of the fortifications, built to withstand a siege. It was not until noon before there was flurry of activity as several horsemen arrived in quick succession, the scouts from the north returning with their news. A large Saxon army had been spotted just south of the ancient Galtres forest and they were headed towards the city, but did not appear to be in any hurry. Arthur decreed that it was time to put the plan into action and Sir Peredur gathered his mounted army and an hour later left the city at the gallop, the great gates booming together behind him as they were quickly secured. Arthur had directed that he did not engage them fully, whatever their strength, but to harry them and probe their ranks. Picking them off one by one before pulling away to repeat the action again, wearing them down slowly. Giving ground a little but containing them, until he could hopefully join the fray with the rest of the army, once he had dealt with the Saxons there.

The sun was beginning to fade before the first movement was detected on the landscape. The great ball of fire sinking slowly behind the rugged outline of the hills in the west, casting long shadows wherever its dwindling rays touched. The Saxons made their move, coming out of the shadows and advancing rapidly towards the city, along the line of the river. Arthur, waiting patiently with his cavalry gave the order for the gates to be opened and they poured forth to spring their surprise, and indeed it was. The Saxons had not expected to be confronted by such a large number of horsemen, their scouts had indicated that a major force had left the city hours earlier and had not returned. Where had these men materialised from? they wondered as the King and his men galloped towards them. The Saxon ranks wavering in indecision, should they stand and fight or proceed with all haste towards their goal where the river exited the city. Some turned to fight but their leaders were urging them forward, reminding them why they were there and that they had the strength of greater numbers. Their army was splitting into two, those engaging Arthur’s men trying to hold him at bay, whilst the others made for the weak point in the fortifications. Only to be confronted by a determined force of foot soldiers barring their way. The water flowed red as Arthur and his men swept amongst the Saxons repelling their attack and pushing them across the river as they began to scatter and flee, heading northwards.

The sun had almost disappeared as they pursued them, sinking behind the hills, just leaving a red glow as if the Earth was on fire. An eerie feeling pervaded the landscape as the full moon started to exert her influence in response, bathing the scene with a pale luminescence that gradually grew in strength. Arthur and the cavalry had slowed their pace in the reduced light but continued to pursue the remnants of the enemy, who were making for the forest. Stragglers were quickly dealt with as they encountered them.

Fires began to twinkle in the distance, the other Saxon army or Sir Peredur, they would soon find out as they drew closer towards them, ready for an immediate response should it be the former. It soon became clear that it was Sir Peredur and his men, camped as if guarding the forest, into which the Saxon horde had disappeared. He was delighted to see Arthur and the others and indicated that there were several thousand of the enemy and they had taken refuge in the forest.

They had been almost reluctant to fight and slowly gave way as Sir Peredur and the Sarmatians had attacked them, retreating to the trees for protection. Arthur told him that they had deliberately done that to lure him away from the city until it had been taken, but they would know now that their guise had failed as the remnants of their other force had taken refuge there too. They would probably try to escape back to their keels in the dead of night when most of his army would be in their slumber, the difficult question was how to prevent that happening. He excused himself from the others saying that he needed to give the problem some thought and wandered off to a quiet spot with Berius, as usual quiet and unobtrusively by his side.

Arthur sat quietly on the remains of a fallen tree, struck by lighting at some point in the past. Not yet dead as it was still rooted to the ground, but its life force fading slowly over the years until it would soon give up, yet some of its energy would remain in the form of the young sapling growing tenuously close by. All this passed through Arthur’s mind as he sat, his hands curled around the hilt of Excalibur as he allowed its energy to meld with his and bring clarity of thought, feeling warmth from the old tree that was surprising. The old in its wisdom giving way and nurturing the next generation. What did that remind him of from his younger days?

He turned to Berius suddenly and said without thinking, “are there any bears in this forest?”

“Yes my Lord,” Berius answered. “This is an ancient forest that has been the home of bears for many generations, it is their ancestral home and although their stock has depleted over the years many still live here. Your name is known to them through the caring deed you showed one of their kind when you were a young lad, they do not forget such a rare thing from a human. Do you seek their help in this matter?”

“Yes Berius, it came to me sitting here that they can help by putting fear into the Saxons to the extent that they flee the forest. To force them out into the open before the night is out, right here so that we can deal with them and stop them escaping, just to return again. Do you think they will be willing to aid the King?”

The answer Berius gave surprised him. “I will go and ask them my Lord. I am sure that they will agree, you are a King in their eyes too, they know you are very different to other humans, I will not be long,” with that he disappeared into the night without a sound, except that Arthur thought he heard the gently beating of a bird’s wings in the distance, an owl or some other night creature perhaps.

Arthur sat in silence for what seemed an eternity before Berius suddenly reappeared, as silently as he had left, a smile on his face and with good news.

“The bears do not like the Saxons as they kill indiscriminately, they are willing to assist the King in removing them from their forest. As they remember the kindness that you showed to one of them in the past, in fact he is currently the elder here. It will take them four hours by my reckoning to call on sufficient of their number to make such a noise that it will strike terror into the hearts of the Saxons and make them flee the forest. Most of them appear to be in the vicinity of where we are, but the bears will cast a wide net to drive them this way. The dark of the forest will help generate fear in them and it will appear as if there are thousands of bears on the rampage.”

“Thank you Berius, that is magnificent news, I must warn the army and have them prepare for battle.”

Arthur returned to the camp fire and gathered the kings and commanders together and outlined what was going to happen and how they would respond. The group were astonished at those revelations and looked on Arthur and Berius in a different light from then on. Enlisting the aid of animals was something only spoken of in ancient tales, when many men had mystical powers and used them to great advantage. Now their High King and his sword keeper were making new stories to be told, ones that would generate new deeds and perhaps awaken that ancient knowledge once again.

“It is not ideal to fight at night,” Arthur said, “but tonight the full moon is casting more light than is usual at this time of year, with a cloudless sky sparkling in a vast array of twinkling stars that it appears almost like a dull sunless day, we should take this as a good omen. The Earth and nature working in harmony with man, as used to be the way until the human race lost its direction. Tonight will show that we haven’t totally forgotten how it should be and that we are willing to re-learn what the ancients always understood. We will mount up in two hours and spread out in a new moon formation with kings and lords to the fore to show we mean business and show our crests. Let the Saxons disgorge from the forest before we attack, Excalibur will be the signal.”

The combined army of Arthur and the kings waited patiently, spread out in the agreed formation just half a mile from the edge of the forest, the night was clear and silent, not a breath of wind stirred the trees, their leaves totally motionless.

Almost to the minute that Berius had indicated the peace of the night was instantly shattered by a spine chilling roar, others followed immediately, then more, the ground seemed to shake, the noise was horrendous. Leaves rustled, trees swayed and the noise grew, startled birds took to the air, confused by the cacophony of noise that was emanating from the ancient forest, it was just as if all the trees had come alive too at that same moment. Even the normally docile horses of the cavalry were beginning to twitch and so were their riders, the noise was tremendous, something was bound to happen; it did. The forest suddenly disgorged hundreds upon hundreds of Saxons, fear etched deeply on their faces as visions of dragons and giants gripped their lucid imagination in the dark confines of the forest as they fled in sheer terror.

Arthur waited until the flow of bodies from the trees eased, then raising his sword boomed out ‘Excalibur’ in a voice that he didn’t recognise as his own. The affect was instantaneous, brilliant white light burst from the blade, illuminating the whole landscape, darts of the light burst upon the enemy as tongues of red fire shot from the mouths of the serpents that formed the guard. The Saxons had fled from the forest consumed with terror, now they were petrified as they saw Arthur and the kings bear down on them, the blazing sword at the front striking down all that were in the way.

The fighting was fierce, the Saxons were hemmed in by the forest behind them that still reverberated with tremendous noise, a magical sword and cavalry to the front, and nowhere to escape, they were doomed. The battle lasted an hour. An hour full of sheer terror and death for the Saxons before they finally succumbed. A few escaped into the forest as the lesser of two evils, but none were seen again, and a handful managed to disappear into the night totally traumatised. The land was covered in blood stained bodies, not all were Saxons, the kings had lost men too, but few by comparison.

Arthur surveyed the scene, the bears had done a very good job, motioning to Berius to join him he rode towards the forest, stopping just short of the trees as several bears ambled out from concealment of the thick foliage.

“Berius can you convey to the bears what I am about to say?” Arthur asked.

“Of course my lord, although you could, just by thinking the words from your heart,” Berius replied.

Arthur relaxed as he sent his thoughts out to them thanking them for their valour and help in removing the Saxons, their intervention was greatly appreciated and would be rewarded. Then turning around to face his army he raised his sword as he let his words carry to them.

“Now hear this, I Arthur, High King of Britain do declare that the ancient forest of Galtres is from this day forward and for as long as I live the sacred domain of the bears, they shall not be hunted or taken captive for any reason, upon pain of death. This is their domain and so it shall remain, under the King’s protection, any that use this forest shall respect the habitat of the bears, they have full royal rights in its use and are answerable to no one except the High King, that is my command.”

Berius had communicated this to the bears by his thoughts and as Arthur finished they gave a roar and thumped their chests in gratitude. Arthur saluted them with his sword and slowly turned his horse and moved away, stopping momentarily to turn, as he raised his hand to the majestic creatures in a gesture of peace and friendship.

This concludes Chapter Reviews...

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