The Last Pendragon

Prologue

 

CAMLANN

 

Arthur, High King of Britain, wearily glanced at the piece of broken spear in his hand and cast it aside. Shading his eyes against the dying sun, he looked down into the valley. The green turf, now smeared with red, lay torn and gouged by hundreds of horses and littered with the victims of the battle. The day had been warm, a summer day with a playful breeze that fluttered the standards of the gathered princes of Britain. It tugged at their cloaks and ruffled the manes of their horses, the kind of breeze meant for hunting the red deer or hawking in the uplands, not for dying in a nameless glen near the River Cam.

            Sweat lathered the chest of Arthur’s albino stallion and dripped down its legs. Its flanks heaved. The King, gray haired and blood spattered, scanned the battlefield.

            At Arthur’s side, the bearer of the red-dragon standard raised his war horn and sounded three sharp notes, rallying the surviving Companions for one last charge. They came to him as they could, many of them wounded, and gathered into a tight wedge behind their King: Cei of the fiery hair and fierce demeanor; Constantine, Prince of Dumnonia, Arthur’s cousin and chosen successor; Rhuawn and Lucas and Gwalchmai; and the others who had remained loyal against the forces of Medraut.

            Last came a dark-haired warrior riding without his reins, guiding his horse with his knees and unspoken will. His shield arm was cradled in his lap and bound tightly to stem the flow of blood from his severed hand. As he galloped past the body of a slain warrior he leaned far over, gripping the sides of his horse with his legs, nearly touching the ground with his sword hand. He seized a spear from the grip of the dead man and came back atop the moving stallion.

            Curbing the horse back on its haunches, he presented the spear to Arthur with a flourish. “Even a bear cannot fight without claws, my lord”.

            The exhausted King looked at him with gratitude and perhaps a little awe. “They say, Bedwyr, that you could gentle the wind to ride, had you a saddle to fit her.”

            “No, lord.” Humor gleamed behind Bedwyr’s drooping eyelids. “I need no saddle.”

            Arthur tested the point of the spear with his thumb and returned his attention to the battlefield. Bedwyr followed his gaze. Near the river a larger band of horsemen waited for the King to carry the battle down to them, for the slope of the ground was against them. They wore the black and gold of Medraut, Arthur’s son, and some carried on their shield the red-horse standard of the West Saxons.

            “Ceawlin still lives,” Arthur said, pointing the spear at a blond chieftain with a huge mustache and horned helmet. “There, under the red horse.”

            Bedwyr soothed his horse’s neck with his right hand, trying to ignore the increasing dizziness from loss of blood. “He’s evil, that one.”

            “And Medraut, you see any sign of him?” Arthur squinted against the glare.

            “Aye. In the center. There.” Bedwyr looked sideways at his King, who seemed to have aged a generation this day.

            Arthur nodded, then turned to the other Companions. “Come, then! We’ll fight such a battle that the bards will sing of it for a thousand years. For Britain!” He set his spurs to his stallion and raced toward the center of the waiting rebels below.

            “For Arthur!” Bedwyr drew his sword and plunged down the hill into the shadows. With hoarse shouts the rest of the warriors followed.

            The clash of spear against shield rattled across the valley. Arthur’s charge broke the rebel line and carried his warriors through the gap.

            Unable to free his spear from an enemy shield, Arthur drew his jeweled sword, Caliburn, and wheeled to slash his way toward Medraut. The sword flashed and shimmered, seeming to draw light from shade. Beside him Bedwyr reached the rebels’ standard-bearer and hacked apart the black-and-gold flag.

            The King found his son, who turned with a snarl and viciously swung his sword at his father’s head. With a bell-like ring Caliburn parried the blow and for an instant the two men stared at each other, hatred in Medraut’s eyes, sorrow in Arthur’s. Then Medraut drove his shield into his father’s face and the swords swung again.

            Medraut thrust toward Arthur’s stomach. At the same instant the High King’s horse stumbled and the parry went wide. The thrust slid under Arthur’s shield and drove deep into his abdomen. Medraut wrenched out the sword and shouted with victory, but his eyes widened as Arthur laughed. He hesitated and Arthur summoned the last of his strength to bring Caliburn down win a high arc, cleaving him between the neck and shoulder. Medraut tumbled dead from his horse.

            The rebel war band, seeing their leader fall, broke and fled. Enraged but outnumbered, Ceawlin shouted threats of vengeance and led his surviving Saxons at a gallop eastward out of the valley, pursued by Constantine’s warriors.

            Caliburn slipped from Arthur’s fingers and he slumped. He would have fallen but Bedwyr reached him, held him in the saddle, and guided him toward the trees. There he dismounted and helped the King to the shelter of a tall rowan tree, where he laid him gently on the ground. He retrieved Caliburn and slid it gently into its scabbard.

            Arthur’s face was ashen with the hue of death, but his eyes opened. As Bedwyr pressed his cloak against the wound to staunch the bleeding, Arthur clasped his hand weakly, holding it to the hilt of Caliburn. His voice was a whisper and the young warrior bent low to hear it.

            “Here the dream dies. The gods foretold this day years ago.”

            “Rest you, my King. Don’t try to speak.”

            Arthur shook his head, the movement barely visible. “Caliburn’s time has ended. Know you the lake west of here?”

            Bedwyr nodded, puzzled. “I know it, my lord.”

            Arthur paused, seeming to marshal his fading strength. Then he said:  “Take the sword and cast it into the mere.”

            Uncertain that he had heard correctly, Bedwyr made no move to leave.

            For a moment, Arthur’s eyes focused and he smiled at the young warrior. “You, Bedwyr, of all my Companions, have been closest to my heart. I would not have our parting come this soon, but fate wills it. Go no. I entrust Caliburn to you.” His eyes closed and his hand relaxed from the Companion’s wrist.

            Bedwyr swallowed back the hardness in his throat. “Aye, my lord.” He bent and kissed Arthur’s forehead, then unbuckled the King’s oiled leather scabbard.

            Toward them rode Lucas, Bedwyr’s brother, slumped in his saddle, arms held against a crimson stain that spread outward on his tunic. He slid from his horse and stared down at the King in disbelief. “How does he?”

            Bedwyr shook his head.

            “They’re dead,” Lucas said. “All of them. Gwalchmai and Rhuawn. Cei. Even Cei. His stallion was hamstrung by Ceawlin and fell on him. All the Companions are gone.”

            Bedwyr scarcely heard him. “Watch over the King for me.”

            He mounted his war stallion and set off at a slow trot toward the marshy lake that received the waters of the River Cam. His shield arm had gone numb and he felt weak with shock. Across the high saddlebow he cradled the sword Caliburn with his right arm.

            At the edge of the marsh he stopped and slid from his saddle, Caliburn gripped in his right hand. Mud sucked at his feet as he splashed through the tall marsh grass to the edge of the lake.

            For a moment he stood gazing down at the great sword. Two golden serpents twined down the leather hilt. On the pommel a single amethyst gleamed purple as if it had a life of its own. Holding the scabbard between his legs, Bedwyr gently wrapped his fingers around the grip and drew Caliburn from its sheath. It warmed to his hand until it seemed to become part of his flesh.

            No, he thought, I’ve heard Arthur wrong. He could not have meant for me to destroy this weapon. If he recovers, he’ll have need of it.

            He slid the blade back into the scabbard and, gripping it tightly, stumbled back to his horse. He turned the stallion and set it pounding back toward the battlefield.

            As he approached the rowan tree, Bedwyr saw shapes moving in the shadows among the dead, and once heard a shriek. Looters, staling gold and jewels from the dead and murdering the wounded. He had to move the King to safety.

            Arthur lay still in the pallor of approaching death. For a moment Bedwyr did not see Lucas and he felt a flash of anger at him for leaving the King unattended. Then he saw his brother, slumped at the base of a spear. Dark blood stained Lucas’s cloak and matted the grass around him.

            Bedwyr slipped from his horse and knelt over Lucas. His brother’s body was already growing cold. One hand gripped the spear and his sightless eyes stared down the hill, still guarding the King.

            Bedwyr shut his eyes against the sting of tears. Forgive me, little brother, he thought. I shouldn’t have left you.

            A groan made him turn. Arthur stirred and in a faint whisper asked for water. Bedwyr took a flask from his saddle and put it to the King’s lips.

            After Arthur had sipped he spoke, his voice stronger. “Do not weep for your brother, Bedwyr, or for me. You can save neither. Did you obey my order?”

            Bedwyr hesitated, glancing at Caliburn on his saddle. The King should not be burdened with such matters now. He would explain after Arthur had regained his strength. “Aye, lord.”

            “What did you see?”

            “See?” Bedwyr thought a moment, but remembered nothing out of the ordinary. “Only a pair of marsh fowl.”

            Arthur searched the last Companion’s face, his gray eyes showing sadness. “You betray me as well, Bedwyr? Go now, and do as I ordered. Cast Caliburn into the mere.”

            The King’s head fell back and his eyes closed. Another shriek sounded from the battlefield. Arthur had to be moved to safety and his wounds tended quickly or he would die. The sword would have to wait.

            Bedwyr fashioned a litter from two spears and Lucas’s blood-stained cloak, lashing the ends to his horse behind the saddle. Then, ignoring the pain of his mutilated arm, he dragged Arthur to the litter and set out slowly eastward.

            He had no plan, only that he must find help for the King. As the horse made its way out of the valley and along a path that wound through a dark forest of beeches, Bedwyr’s mind wavered on the fringes of darkness.

            When awareness returned he found himself at the edge of a shallow lake, larger than the mere, with reeds growing far out into the water. In the center of the lake an island jutted from the glassy surface. Bedwyr knew it: Ynys Afallon, the Isle of Apples, sacred to Christians and Druids alike.

            In the fading light a coracle made its way toward them, poled by a black-hooded figure. Another, smaller figure sat in the bow. As the boat whispered into shore Bedwyr got down from his horse, half falling, gripping the saddle to keep himself upright. The two figures stepped from the boat.

            “Who are you?” He fumbled for his sword.

            “Peace, Bedwyr,” said the smaller figure in a woman’s voice, dark and musical. “We mean you no harm. I am here to receive my brother.”

            “Morgan,” Bedwyr stammered. “I’m sorry, lady. I didn’t recognize you. How knew you that Arthur has been gravely wounded?”

            She did not answer but went directly to the King and, kneeling, touched his forehead gently. “I fear you’ve delayed overlong, brother,” she said. “My healing skills will be sorely tested.” She beckoned to the hooded figure. “Come, Barinthus.”

            Morgan and Barinthus untied the litter and carried it toward the coracle. As they passed by Bedwyr, still leaning bewildered against the horse, Arthur opened his eyes. Caliburn glinted faintly in the twilight.

            “Remember my command, Bedwyr,” he murmured. “Give me your oath you will obey.”

            Bedwyr nodded as the world swam around him. “I swear, my lord.”

            Morgan and Barinthus eased Arthur into the boat and climbed in. Barinthus began poling away from shore.

            Bedwyr stumbled to the water’s edge. “I would go with you.”

            The only response from the boat was the suck and splash of the pole lifting from the mud.

            He watched the coracle float away. “I pray you, my Lord Arthur, don’t leave me.” He forced the words from his lips in a shout, but they came out only in a ragged whisper. “Where will I go? What will I do?”

            For a moment there was only silence. Then Morgan’s voice drifted back to him. “Take what comfort you can, Bedwyr. His time has passed, for now. Yet it may come again.”

            He watched the boat until it was out of sight. Then he sank to his knees in the mud and rocked slowly, cradling his arm in his lap, and wept.

            How long he remained that way Bedwyr did not know. A clink of metal brought him back to awareness. He started and glanced wildly around for a weapon, but the noise was only the horse shifting its weight in its sleep. Bedwyr remembered Caliburn and rose stiffly, staggering until he found his balance. He pulled himself onto the horse and turned him back toward the mere by the battlefield.

            Dark had fallen when he reached it, but a full moon provided enough light for him to see. He dismounted and splashed to the water’s edge, Caliburn in his hand. For a moment he stood, his eyes fixed on the dark line of the far shore. Then he drew back his arm to throw the sword.

            Instead, his fist opened and Caliburn slipped from his grasp to fall into the wet grass. Bedwyr’s cry of anguish shredded the silence and sent echoes shivering across the lake.

            “No!”

            Two mallards took flight with a rush, their wingtips poking holes in the moonlight surface of water.

            “He may live, or there may yet come another.”

            Bedwyr unclasped his own sword and hurled it as far as he could into the lake. Then he bent and picked up the dripping Caliburn and walked slowly back to the horse.

            Near the grazing animal an ancient bog oak survived the encroaching marsh, its gnarled shape black against the silver light. Riven by lightning in some long-past storm, the trunk had fissured and only partly healed. On impulse Bedwyr stumbled over to the tree and thrust Caliburn deep into the crack, pushing it as far as his arm could reach. Then he stepped back and looked carefully. He could see no sign of the hidden sword.

            Aimlessly, consumed by pain and grief, he rode away from the lake.

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