Irion and Gwythur slowed their horses to a walk as they started down the hill toward the Sabrina River. Behind them, laughing and talking, came a small company of armed warriors cloaked in the green colors of Gwent. Here the Sabrina was still wide and flecked with white foam, more sea than river, and a rising wind carried the tang of salt. Far ahead the water narrowed, glinting like metal in the noon sun, they made their way north and east, roughly parallel to the shore as they patrolled the border of Gwent.
A new recruit, face reddened by the spring sun, shouted to a companion in front of him: “They say there’s a witch lives in yonder woods who brews ale from moonlight.”
“Do they, now?”
“Aye. But the drink is a strong as venom on Saxon knives.”
“I’ll not go there,” said another warrior, a man with a great hooked nose. “I’d fear the hell-hag would lay a hex on me and I’d wake up with the head of an ass.”
“You already have the head of an ass,” Captain Gwythur growled. “Now stop chattering and keep a sharp eye.” He glanced at Irion. “Your mood’s as gray as winter, boy.”
Irion had ridden most of the day in silence. From time to time he chewed on his fingernails as he struggled with his uncle’s request and with his own doubts, answering questions in monosyllables or not at all. He shook his head, then shrugged. “Ride forward with me a little, will you, Gwythur?”
They nudged their horses into a trot and drew ahead of the patrol. Gwythur looked at him, waiting.
“Lord Honorius wants to name me tribune.”
There was a pause, then Gwythur said, “Och! A good choice. I could think of no one better.”
“I’d prefer it were you, Captain.”
Gwythur grunted. “My blood’s not blue enough. But I fail to see why you’re gloomy.”
“Should I accept?”
Irion fingered the hilt of his silver-handled dagger, the only gift his father had ever given him. The fact that it had once been Medraut’s embarrassed him now, but he had kept it, although he was not sure why. “Do you think the warriors would accept me?”
Gwythur’s eyebrows drew together as he considered the question. “Aye. I do. They’ve come to know you, Irion, and they respect you. Anyway, many of them are too young to remember Medraut. They’ll follow you.”
They rode for a moment in silence, save for the clank of fittings and the creak of leather. Gwythur squinted at him. “There’s more than that, isn’t there?”
“Aye.” Irion sighed. “You knew my father, Gwythur. Am I like him?”
The gnarled captain looked surprised, then thoughtful. “Medraut had a few good things about him,” he said slowly. “There are times when I see pieces of him in you. But,” he added, “there’s more of Arthur than Medraut. You even look like your grandfather.”
Irion said nothing. It was who he resembled on the inside that concerned him, not his face. He knew he could handle the job of tribune. And he had realized soon after Honorius spoke to him that he wanted it. But he was only now coming to understand why. Whit it, he could lead the fight against the barbarians, recapture the British land Ceawlin and his West Saxons had taken. He had even allowed himself to think about retaking Arthur’s great fortress of Camelot, now used by Ceawlin as a base from which to terrorize the British to the west. If Irion could win back the fortress for the Cymry, perhaps he could clear away his father’s shadow once and for all.
Gwythur halted suddenly and Irion was jerked from his reverie. The captain pointed. On the shoreline a mile ahead, a plume of smoke rose, too dark and too large to be a cooking fire. Gwythur gave a command and the patrol broke into a canter.
The track veered toward the river, winding through tall marsh grass, then up a small rise. On the other side of the knoll at the water’s edge a dozen or so huts had been reduced to smoldering circles.
Gwythur raised his hand and the patrol halted. There were no signs of the raiders. Save for the black tendrils of smoke writing up from the fishing village, nothing moved.
Irion gripped his sword hilt. “Saxons?”
The captain nodded. “It has the stink of Ceawlin.”
They rode cautiously down the rise and into the village. The raiders had struck at dawn, catching the villagers still in their huts. Most of them contained charred bodies. Outside one of the houses a boy of no more than ten summers lay trampled by horses. Near his body lay a small, rusted sword, its blade pitted and useless.
Skirting the rubble of a hut, Irion’s horse shied. Inside the smoking ring lay what had once been a man. His ribs had been chopped free from the backbone and spread outward.
Gwythur spat. “The blood eagle. A Saxon amusement.”
“Can we catch them?” Irion trembled with anger.
“No. They came down on these folks like wolves and probably left as quick.” Gwythur looked out across the brown river. “By now they’re back in Camelot, proud of a good day’s work.”
“They could have gotten no profit from this. These people had nothing to steal.”
“The profit is in killing British,” Gwythur said. “And soon they will not content themselves with raiding fisher folk.”
The patrol buried the bodies, then searched the area around the village, but they found no sign that the raiders had gone inland.
When they rode away from the ruins, Irion hung back, brooding on what he had seen. Ceawlin had been Medraut’s ally at Camlann, and Irion remembered his father talking about the Saxon chieftain the day before Medraut left for the battle. Medraut had come to see Irion’s mother at her villa in Dumnonia. He had stayed only a few hours, but his visit made a great impression on Irion – for once his father had been friendly to him. Medraut had pulled him up onto hi great war-stallion and taken him for a ride in the field behind the villa, boasting about his new ally, the fierce yellow-haired Saxon who would help him kill Arthur and win the High Kingship for himself.
When Medraut left he had given Irion his dagger. “Be good,” he said, “or I’ll cut off your ears when I get back.”
Watching his father ride away, Irion had wondered if Saxons were really as terrible as he had been told. Since then he had discovered their cruelty for himself.
The rest of the day he rode alone, grim and silent. By evening he had made a decision. He spurred his horse and caught Gwythur.
The captain glanced up and Irion looked him in the eye. “I’ll need your help,” he said.