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Excerpt from Pendragon: An Historical Novel
Excerpt from Pendragon: An Historical Novel
The brass trumpet sang clearly over the distant bull horns. Artorius nodded to Bedwyr, and the advance party went cantering breakneck across the slope, quartering it slightly to reduce the grade. The troops assigned to the breakthrough followed more slowly in echelon. Artorius took a quick look back along the ridge before joining them. A dense mass of Saxons had now emerged from the tangle of brush and was slanting south at a dogtrot, about two hundred paces from Gwalchmai's cataphracts. If there was any delay . . . . He glanced down the hill to see how Bedwyr was progressing.
An outcry from the rear guard pulled Artorius' attention back. Like some old war god in glinting mail, Lanceolatus was hurtling all alone along the ridge toward the very center of the Saxon army. A length behind him, uttering futile cries, followed Hector.
This must have been the death Lance had in mind, to be hacked to shreds in the midst of a throng of barbarians, delaying them for a precious fraction of time by his very daring. In his anguish Artorius started to kick heels into Llamwyr to follow, then checked himself and looked down to where Bedwyr's men were starting to drag off trees amid a shower of throwing axes and javelins. Six hundred men and five provinces he had to save, not just one friend. In his moment of indecision he saw that Gwalchmai had decided already. Ever since Lance had urged his acceptance on his first arrival at court, Gwalchmai had loved him, and with a mind less accustomed to Roman complexities, he acted more directly. At the head of his squadron he was charging after Lanceolatus, now barely visible above a tossing sea of Saxon helmets.
Artorius saw the unexpected opportunity. "Caius! Tell Bedwyr to drop the trees and act as rear guard! Burrus! Lucanius! Gruffydd! Left wheel and charge in echelon!"
Gwalchmai's onset had already brought the Saxons in that area to a stumbling halt. The three ponderous troops Artorius had in hand lumbered back up the hill and broke from laborious trot to headlong gallop as they neared the crest. Their successive impacts threw back the disorderly mob of barbarians who had started to follow the original downhill movement. Recoiling against the tangled maze of their own abatis, they frantically tried to organize a shield wall.
Let them. They were pinned against their own siege lines, with only the one narrow gap to retreat through.
Artorius had his trumpeter blow the recall. The cataphracts withdrew fifty paces, reformed, and took fresh lances as needed from the auxiliaries who had rejoined them. Baldulf and Octha's men had little room for maneuver. It would be a good situation for an archery attack, but too many bows had been ruined, Cerdic was pressing Bedwyr slowly up the hill, and men were starting to appear from Guecha's camp on the north. There was no time for arrows. Artorius sent word to Gwalchmai on the left to strike this time for the gap in the abatis, and if he got there to face both ways and block it. With luck Lance must now be with him. The three other squadrons he sent in one hammerstroke after another, each of them an iron wedge tipped by the armored men on the armored horses, with the lighter troops behind to exploit any breaks in the shield wall.
By the fourth charge both Burrus and Lucanius had penetrated to the abatis, and Gruffydd was close. Saxons everywhere could be seen dropping their arms and crawling into the wall of brush where horsemen couldn't follow except with thrusts of their long lances. Bedwyr rode up with Tor's cataphracts. Cerdic had apparently given up his allies for lost. Sending Tor to bolster the auxiliaries on Gwalchmai's left, and Burrus and Lucanius to sweep further down that side, Artorius at last felt he could join in the fray himself.
Drawing Caliburn, he flung himself against the press of Saxons crowding toward the gap where Gwalchmai's men, like the stopper on a wine jar, held them from escape. Llamwyr reared and whinnied, striking out with his hooves. Artorius hardly noticed the spear thrusts against his shield, the swords that struck his greaves. For a few moments his whole strength and being flowed down his arm to the blade of Caliburn. Somewhere ahead he saw the raven standard and turned Llamwyr toward it. A tall Saxon rushed at him from the right, his sword raised in both hands. A backhanded cut, and it fell harmless to the ground. The raven standard tottered, and when Artorius reached it, it lay on the ground beside Baldulf.
Then he was among Gwalchmai's men, with a broad avenue now leading to the gap. Lanceolatus stood in the middle of it, leaning on his sword, pale and bleeding. Artorius jumped to embrace him and ask why he had ridden alone. "Why, Lance, why? Any number of us would have joined you."
Lance looked at him curiously. "You gave me the rear guard. I used my judgment to hold the rear." He wavered a moment on his feet, and Artorius steadied him. "What does it matter? God doesn't mean I should die today."