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Excerpt from Shadow of the King
Excerpt from Shadow of the King
'Geraint?' Ambrosius ventured. 'It could be Geraint.' Ragnall was squatting on her heels before him, the bowl in her hand, the spoon forgotten, tipping, dripping broth. She met her father-by-law's excited eyes, matched them with her own eagerness. 'Or Arthur,' she ventured, in almost a whisper, as if to say the name aloud would chase this avenging spirit away. 'Could it be Arthur?'
Ambrosius touched her hand with one finger. 'I hope so, my child, in the name of our God, I do hope so!'
The horses came in at the gallop, bringing the corpses of the watch, some still kicking the last of their life-thread as they were dragged like meat skewered on the spit. Some riders wielded sword or club, others carried fat-spitting torches that were tossed inside the openings of tents. The hearth-fires, and the sleepers curled beside them, were deliberately trampled. Difficult for a war-horse, trained not to tread on a body laying on the ground, but obey they did, for Arthur's horses had always been as disciplined as the men when it came to battle. Fire, too, held no fear for these brave-hearted creatures, nothing could stop one of the Artoriani war-horses, save for its rider's hand on the rein or a spear clear through the heart or jugular.
The screams, the panic flared and grew along with that rising blaze of fire. Unprepared, swilled with wine and mead, satiated from the comfort of a warm whore and the belief that the fortress would be theirs come the morrow, the English barely fought back. Those camped nearer the rampart walls stood greater chance, for the alert had given them time to arm themselves, to form rank, to fight back. Aelle stood within his shield ring of thegns, bellowing orders, calling to his sons who fought their way to join him. What had happened to Aesc of the Cantii he knew not, nor had he time to ponder long on the matter; he was fighting for his very life, or already gone to join the gods. Either way, there was little, at this moment, that Aelle, Bretwalda, Lord of all the Saxon kind, could do about it.
Dawn brewed, reluctant to face the dull, persistent drizzle, the bleaching light casting over what had been not two hours before, a besieging camp-place. The coming of light showed tents ripped or fallen, many smouldering, with bodies scattered around. Men huddled, weeping, dying. Blood, dismembered limbs. The horror of carnage.
It was not over. The cavalry, the riders, were beating the Saxons back, but the English had made formation now, a solid wedge, impregnable, determined to survive. It was the Pendragon, the British could see that now, from the vantage-point of the high ramparts, they could see the Dragon Banner as it dipped and swayed. Several times, men would point and shout, 'There! There he is, on that brute of a chestnut!'
'Arthur. Arthur has returned to save us!'
When he was certain with his own eyes that it was indeed the Pendragon, Cadwy had the gates ready to be thrown open and formed the men, those still able to fight -- and God's praise, there were many of them, some bandaged, some limping, one with his face half-torn and hacked from an unlucky stopped arrow, another without a hand, one without an eye -- serious, hard-borne woundings, but still they came to form up into line, still they wanted to be a part of this glorious thing that was happening. It was, surely, to be a battle that would be sung about to the children of their children's children, and they did not want their sons telling that the father lay doing nothing save nursing a bloodied wound in the Hall of Badon while the Pendragon rode to victory outside.
The gates swung open and the men marched out, clamouring the battle-cry to add their weight to Arthur's men, Arthur's three hundred men, who had, in that one, astounding, triumphant charge, slaughtered more than nine hundred of the English.
Aelle and four, five hundred of his men stood firm, their wedge formation as solid as the trunk of a mature oak, back-pacing steadily, foot by foot, giving ground to the Artoriani, but not giving men or lives. Then there a came a disturbance from the rear, men were pouring from the fortress, cheering, spears and swords raised, come to join their comrades -- but met by Aesc of the Cantii instead!
Somehow, later, he said by the protection of Woden himself, Aesc had fought his way clear of the British, managed to scramble around, attempted to link with Aelle. They saw the fortress gates open, unprotected, and changed direction and tactic as easily as a hawk pulls from a dive. Aesc drove hard for the fortress, fought like a man crazed to win his way in, and almost managed it.
The fighting at the gates was furious, bloody, and soon over; but Arthur had to call some of his men away, ride hard to intercept and deal with it, and once his own formation was distorted, it gave chance for Aelle to break and run. The Saxons headed for the easy path of the road, intending to head to the Via Ermin, then swing east for the relative safety of Vicus, that they called Wickham, the Roman settlement.
Arthur cursed as he felled a fair-haired brute coming at him open-mouthed, screaming abuse and baying for blood. A bay horse was beside him, rearing, blood gushed from the man's crushed skull as he came down, Gwenhwyfar's sword finishing what the hooves had not completed. She had kept close to Arthur throughout, her horse Onager's shadow, fighting alongside him, blow for blow; his Cymraes as he affectionately called her, a tribeswoman of the British. Her father had taught her how to fight, how to use sword and shield or spear, her father and her brothers, some of whom were now dead and passed to the Otherworld, the kingdom of God's heaven.