The Last Pendragon, Chapter 1

ONE 

The gray fortress of Caerlon rang with the clamor of shouts and curses, the snorting of horses, and the clatter of metal on wood. Inside it warriors fought a mock battle with blunt swords. One side, wearing green strips of cloth tied around their arms, slowly pressed the other side back toward the stone wall.

            Leading the greens rode a young man, helmetless, whose dark hair was cut above the ears in the style Arthur had favored. His resemblance to Arthur was striking. At twenty, the softness of youth had gone from his face, while training with sword and spear had hardened his arms and shoulders. But enough of the child remained in him to be delighted at the noise and sights and smells, the excitement of the mock battle.

            Like a bee among blooming thistles, a small troop captain flitted back and forth between sweating warriors. “Them’s shields, you bastards,” he shouted, “not oat cakes! Carry them like that, the Saxons’ll pick you out of your saddles like maggots out of apples.”

            The young man grinned. A few hundred like Gwythur, he thought, and we needn’t fear the whole Saxon confederation. He dealt a stinging slap to the shoulder of a new recruit with the flat of his sword.

            As the other team was driven in confusion against the wall, the troop captain let out a shrill whistle, calling the drill to a halt. Disappointed, the young man glanced at the late-afternoon sky, measuring the daylight left.

            He wiped his face with a sleeve and trotted over to the captain. “Can’t we go on, Gwythur?”

            The captain pulled off his helmet, exposing a face as weathered and rugged as a granite ridge. He shook his head. “They’ve put in a good day, Lord Irion. At least they’ve learned enough to ride to the latrine without falling off.”

            “But there’s an hour of daylight left.”

            “The recruits are tired. When they get tired they start repeating mistakes. We’ve got tomorrow. And you should be wearing your helmet.”

            “Somebody knocked it off.” Irion rubbed his head, wincing. “I guess they’ve learned more than I thought.”

            He turned his horse toward the gate and followed the weary riders out into the early spring green of the Gwent countryside. To the east the old Roman road plunged into the valley of the Usk, then ran arrow straight toward Caerwent, the capital of Gwent, eight miles away.

            Up the road the fortress rumbled a wagon, bright blue and ornately carved, pulled by a matched team of bays. As Irion emerged, an old man seated next to the driver waved at him.

            “Uncle Ynyr!” Irion shouted. He trotted his horse over to the wagon as it creaked to a halt.

            Honorius, magistrate of Gwent, gathered hi toga and climbed gingerly over the side, groping for the step with his foot. A breeze lifted a wisp of white hair and teased it across his bald head.

            “Did you journey well?” Irion dismounted and helped his uncle to the ground.

            “I’m not dead, but I’m ten breaths short of it.” Considering the small frame from which it emerged, Honorius’s voice was surprisingly deep, like thunder trapped in a narrow valley. His Latin was pure. “When I get back to Caerwent I’m going to parboil my behind in the baths.” He reached the ground and stretched, pressing his hands into the small of his back.

            Irion studied his uncle with concern. Since his mother’s death eleven years earlier Honorius had been his only family. “I’m glad you’re home. I didn’t expect you until next week.”

            “I didn’t expect to be back until next week. But there’s no point sitting in Maelgwn’s mead hall twiddling my thumbs. So I left.”

            “King Maelgwn didn’t see the need for an alliance?”

            Honorius snorted. “Maelgwn doesn’t see the need for his own belly button.” He smoothed back the feathery wings of hair above his ears. “Have you a moment to talk?”

            “Of course. Let me turn my horse out.”

            “I’ll walk with you,” Honorius said. “I need to put some life back in my legs.”

            Irion’s mail shirt clinked as they walked toward a rock-walled pasture that plunged down the long slope toward the river. As the old man hobbled beside him, the breeze fluttered the hem of his toga around his ankles. “The truth is, Irion,” he said, “I failed. Maelgwn has no intention of agreeing to an alliance, even though we have three other chieftains committed. It won’t upset him if the Saxons destroy the smaller British kingdoms one by one.”

            “Does he think they’ll spare him?”

            “He thinks he’s secure in his mountains. And he would rather rule a Britain ten miles wide than serve in a Britain that extends from ocean to ocean.” Honorius acknowledged Gwythur’s salute as the captain rode past. “To be thirty years younger and able to ride a war-horse,” the magistrate said. “Perhaps then I could forge an alliance the way Arthur did.” He sighed. “But then again, I’m no Arthur.”

            The pain Irion felt at the mention of the name must have shown in his eyes. His uncle glanced at him and quickly changed the subject. “How goes the training?”

            Irion shrugged. “The recruits are enthusiastic. There just aren’t enough of them.” He stopped at the pasture gate and began to unfasten the saddle cinch. “The eagles built Caerleon for an entire legion of six thousand. We rattle around in there like dried peas in a gourd.”

            Honorius cleared his throat. “Irion…” he began, and stopped.

            The youth waited, watching his uncle to see if he would scratch his chin, a sure sign he was about to broach an unpleasant subject. Honorius scratched his chin and Irion repressed a smile.

            “Irion,” the magistrate repeated, “you know the war band has been without a tribune since Balon’s death.”

            “Aye. But Gwythur drills them as well as Balon would have.” Irion jerked off the saddle and set it on the wall. With a brush he began to curry the sweat from his horse’s back.

            “Perhaps,” Honorius said. “But with the Saxon threat increasing daily, the war band needs a permanent leader.”

            “How about Gwythur?”

            “Gwythur’s not of noble blood. The council of elders wouldn’t accept him.”

            Irion tried to think of someone else the warriors would follow as tribune, but he knew there was no one else as qualified as the veteran captain.

            “The council meets in two weeks,” Honorius said. “I’d like to place your name before them as the next tribune.”

            Irion stopped brushing. “Me? That’s not possible.”

            “Why not?”

            He glanced at his uncle. “You know why.”

            “I’ve watched you, my boy,” Honorius said, ignoring the comment. “You’re a born warrior and a natural leader. And I trust you. I need someone in that post in whom I have absolute confidence.”

            Irion gazed out over the river valley toward the far ridge lost in mist. During the rare moments of his childhood when he had allowed himself to dream, he had sometimes imagined being a great warrior leading the British against the Saxons. But as soon as that vision appeared, he always stifled it. He knew that he would never lead a war band. “You know the council won’t accept me,” he said. Bitterness lent a sharp edge to his voice.

            “They will if I demand it.”

            “You think they’ll tolerate the son of Medraut, the murderer of King Arthur, leading their warriors?”

            Honorius nodded. “Most people don’t hold the sins of Medraut against you, Irion. They accept you for what you are.”

            Irion said nothing, absently rubbing his nose, broken in a fight when he was twelve, the year he had been sent to his uncle to be raised, the year after Camlann. There had been many fights then, because everyone had taunted him, and he had usually lost. Although he could not hide the evidence of the beatings, he had never told Honorius the identity of his attackers, not for fear of worse beatings, but from shame that they had happened at all; that he had brought them on by being who he was.

            But there had come a time, after one particularly painful attack, when he swore he would never allow himself to be beaten. Irion persuaded Gwythur, an old friend of Honorius, to teach him how to fight with his fists. Soon he excelled at it. Gwythur also taught him the basics of sword and shield, which Irion spent long hours practicing.

            And the bullying had stopped, at least physically. But as he grew many of the townsfolk of Caerwent, especially the nobles, found other ways to torment him. He had learned to hide his anger when he was belittled and snubbed, often taking refuge in the barracks with Gwythur and his warriors.

            “I don’t agree, Uncle,” he said. “Many people will never look at me without seeing my fa—Medraut. Brennus, for one.”

            Honorius grunted. “Brennus cannot stand and make wind at the same time. Leave him to me. He doesn’t have the votes to oppose me in council.” He cocked his head and looked at his nephew. “Is it the opinion of the nobles that bothers you, Irion, or are you afraid of your own ghosts?”

            Irion turned away. Yes, there were ghosts. He knew he had nothing to do with his father’s treason; he’d been too young even to be certain what was happening. But Medraut, people said, had been evil itself. And if his father was evil, he was the seed of evil. He had grown up waiting for the darkness to surface, wondering if he could control it when it did.

            “However much a baby snake would rather be an eagle,” he said, “it will still have scales when it grows up.” He slapped the horse on the rump more sharply than he intended. The animal started and bolted through the gate.

            Honorius raised his eyebrows. “We’re not speaking of snakes. You also have the blood of Arthur, and of Uther Pendragon and of Ambrosius before him. Never forget that.” He laid a weathered hand on Irion’s shoulder. “I believe in you, lad. I know you have doubts about yourself, and I wouldn’t ask this of you if the need weren’t so great. Think it over and we can talk again later.”

            Irion nodded in dumb misery. He watched as his uncle hobbled back to the wagon. Medraut, he knew, had become a captain of Arthur’s war band at the same age. Was it all going to happen again?

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