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Excerpt from The Emperor Arthur
Excerpt from The Emperor Arthur
At last Arthur rode forward, drew up his horse on the brow. The sun caught the golden cross on his helmet, it gleamed as if alight with fire from heaven. He could accept political compromise with Merlin, show consideration for the worshippers of Flora, but he fought against the heathen Saxons under the emblem of Christ. He drew his sword, raised his arm. I was too far off to read the name inscribed on the hilt; but the metal shone red as blood, I recognised Excalibur.
We pulled down the mesh over our faces, adjusted our mailed grip on the reins. The sword was the given signal; when he dropped his arm we must charge.
Beneath us the first of the Saxons approached the bridge, recoiled from the shower of javelins with which the defenders greeted them. Others pressed on tumultuously to reinforce them, gathered in overwhelming numbers to take the crossing by storm. Arthur let his arm fall.
"For Christ and Britain," he called. Already he was galloping ahead of us down the steep hill.
We followed at breakneck pace. The size of our horses, the immense weight of armour that they carried gave a momentum to our progress that we could not have checked if we wished. I prayed that my horse would not stumble, then forgot even apprehension in the exhilaration of speed.
The slope flattened out, but still we rushed on. We hit the Saxons like a thunderbolt, cutting through them like a knife through butter. Few survived who met our onslaught. The bridge was saved, and we turned to attack the main body, drive the whole force back down the road.
I can offer no coherent account of the battle, I was too involved in it, slashing and parrying, to spare attention for what was happening elsewhere. There came a moment however when I knew that resistance was turning to rout, that we were opposed no longer, were pursuing a beaten enemy. Recalling the slaughter now I am amazed that I could take part in it without disgust. I was invulnerable in mail, mounted against an enemy on foot. I felt neither exultation nor pity, plunged my sword into the bodies of living men with as little compunction as when in the barn at Salictum I knocked down rats with my stick.
The Saxons believed that the cataphracts were not human at all, were born with a skin of iron scales, monsters conjured up by sorcery. I know that I am of flesh and blood, I hope that I am a civilised man, humane and enlightened. It is true however that when I put on the equipment I transformed myself into an engine of destruction, and no less true that the battle of Badon Hill, the torn limbs, the reek of death, the plain littered with carrion, turned back barbarism from Britain, preserved peace in our time.
Arthur was proved right in his choice of battlefield. The Saxons had no ready outlet for flight except the pass by which they came, and few reached it, fewer still got safely through; the space was too confined, pursuit too close on their heels. Large numbers of fugitives sought escape over the ridge of hills to the south; but as they struggled up the steep escarpment they were overtaken by our horsemen, ridden down and hacked to death. Others turning north were stopped by the river, and many who leapt in were drowned; those who swam were exposed to a shower of arrows and javelins, seized and butchered when they climbed out on the farther bank. Massacre awaited the wretches wherever they fled.
The Saxon army destroyed at Badon Hill was the largest ever gathered to invade Britain; no such effort was known before to reconcile jealous tribes, unite them under a single command. The scale of the invasion was equaled by that of the disaster. All the most active of the leaders, the pick of the fighting men were killed. The Saxons lost heart, their spirit was broken.