Irion sipped from his horn of ale and leaned back against the smooth bark of a beech tree. The wind was sharp and chilled his back even as the crackling wood fire scorched his face and hands. Off to the north other fires burned, some on hills nearby, others more distant, only bright sparks in the May Eve night.
He searched the darkness eastward for the bonfire that would be burning outside the walls of Caerwent and found it, a tiny yellow flower in the blackness. His uncle Honorius would be celebrating there, but not around the fire. He and the other elders would be feasting in the great hall, reclining on eating couches in the Roman fashion. They clung to their tradition even though their numbers dwindled each year and the hypocaust, broken now, no longer provided heat to the feast room.
Irion had always loved the festival welcoming spring. With the other warriors on duty he had eaten more than he should of roast mutton and ham and spitted duck. Now he sat and listened, drinking apple ale as his companions argued and laughed.
They seemed content, at least as content as warriors who were not fighting could be. But for Irion the shine of contentment was marred by the new line between them, the barrier that had sprung up when he had been named tribune. In spite of that, he was enjoying his new job hugely. The high point of his life had been standing in front of the council of elders taking the oath of loyalty. Gwythur sat beside him, arguing weaponry with Hywel, captain of infantry, a stolid giant with a chest as thick as a yew trunk. “Only a simpleton would use a sword that short,” Gwythur was saying. “In your hand a Roman gladius looks like a table knife.”
The giant infantryman rumbled to his feet, his shaved head glinting in the firelight. Bending over, he grasped Gwythur under his arms, then lifted him high in the air like a nursemaid lifting an infant. He grinned through his black beard. “Insult me, little man, but don’t insult my weapons.”
“Put me down, you turd-eating oaf,” wheezed Gwythur. “I’ll shave your beard and feed it to my horse, look you.”
“Enough,” Irion said. “Put him down, Hywel.”
Hywel held Gwythur a moment longer, then lowered him to the ground. “I will have an apology.”
Irion stood and handed him the ale horn. “Gwythur meant nothing by his remark. He’s willing to apologize.”
“Must I, by the gods?”
“Aye. We’ll have no quarrels on Beltane.”
Gwythur stared at Irion with a look that was almost a challenge. Irion met his gaze squarely. Finally, the captain broke into a slow smile and nodded. He turned and stuck out his hand to Hywel. “I meant no insult.”
Hywel grunted and handed the drinking horn to the cavalryman, giving him a slap on the back with this other hand that nearly staggered him.
As they resumed their seats Hywel lifted his head like a hunting dog sniffing the wind. “Someone comes,” he said.
Then Irion heard it, too: a drumming of horse’s hoofs on the hard surface of the Roman road. “He’s in haste, whoever he is.”
They stood as the rider emerged from the gloom and made for the fire. In the light his horse’s chest and neck shone with sweat. Foam flecked its mouth. As he reached them, the rider, a boy of about fifteen, reined hard and slid from his mount.
“My Lord Irion,” he gasped. He looked near collapse. His face was caked with dust and grime and in one fist he carried a burlap sack covered with dark stains.
“Who are you?” Irion said.
“Niall, sir. Groom at Glevum outpost. We’ve been attacked. Overrun.” He staggered and dropped the sack.
Irion guided the boy to a boulder and sat him down. The flames silhouetted his face, revealing streaks where tears had washed away the grime. Niall continued to talk disjointedly, as if his mind demanded he free himself of this message. “They came this morning at dawn. Took us completely by surprise.” He shook his head. “We should have known. Where were the outriders? They never warned us. Only thirty of us. I’m the only one left.” He looked up at Irion, eyes pleading. “They broke through. Killed everyone. But not me. They didn’t kill me. I rode all day.”
Irion felt his stomach twist, a cold sickness rising within him. “Who were they?”
“Saxons, lord. They wore red horses on their shields.”
Niall buried his face in his hands. “They seemed to be thousands.”
Irion knelt beside the boy and patted his shoulder. “Think carefully, Niall. It’s very important that we know how many of the enemy there were.”
The boy drew a shuddering breath and appeared to calculate mentally. “Perhaps two and a half hundred at start, lord. But there are less now.”
Irion nodded thoughtfully. Survivors of battles tended to count each enemy twice. The boy might be mistaken, but he would not likely err low.
Standing above them, Hywel asked, “How came you to be spared?”
Niall’s glance strayed to the sack and he shivered. “Their chieftain told me to bring you a message.”
“And the message?” asked Irion.
Niall pointed to the sack and opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Irion lifted a corner of the burlap and emptied its contents on the ground. He drew back in revulsion. From the sack rolled the severed head of a man, its teeth bared in a grimace of pain. Sugyn, the captain of Glevum outpost.
“He said to tell my war chief it was a gift to the British for Beltane,” the boy said.
Irion looked at Gwythur. “Ceawlin.”
“Aye,” said Gwythur. “They came from Camelot itself, like as not.”
Anger crackled in Irion like a gorse fire. He questioned Niall further but could get little additional information. There were no horsemen among the raiders. The chieftain had said nothing else except his name, which was Wiermund. Ceawlin himself was not with them. The boy did not know which way the raiders had gone, for they were still looting bodies as he rode away. Irion praised his courage and ordered that he be given a hot meal and allowed to rest.
Fighting panic, Irion stood. At that moment a barbarian war band looted and murdered somewhere in Gwent. Where? Was the outpost attack only a feint? If Ceawlin’s entire war band was involved, how could he face them with only two hundred cavalry and a handful of foot soldiers? He suddenly felt small and helpless. Standing a little apart, his captains watched him.
He took a deep breath, forced himself to be calm, and thought hard. With the outpost destroyed, nothing would stop the raiders from plundering the unprotected countryside. They had obviously planned their raid to correspond to Beltane, when the British would be sluggish from celebrating and slow to respond. No doubt they anticipated an extra day of looting before Irion’s troops could reach them.
“Gwythur,” he said. “How soon can you have your men ready to ride?”
“By first light, tribune.”
“I need them sooner than that. The moon is four days past full. It’ll rise near midnight. I want them in their saddles by the time it’s up.”
Hywel and Gwythur exchanged glances.
“We ride tonight?” Gwythur said. “Some of the men are going to have vine leaves in their hair, Irion”
“The Saxons are counting on just that. They think they have tomorrow to pillage our farms before we can reach them.”
“A night ride is dangerous.”
“Having Saxons in our backyard is more dangerous,” Irion said. “There’ll be light enough to see, and therefore light enough to ride. I want your men ready at midnight even if you have to strap them in their saddles.”
“Aye, tribune.” Gwythur saluted but remained, looking thoughtful. “Something about this business does not smell right.”
“What mean you?”
“Why would Saxons warn us of their raid? It may have been days before we learned of it had they not sent Niall back with his message.”
“You think perhaps they seek to draw us out toward the outpost while the main attack falls elsewhere?”
“I’ve thought of that also. Yet we’ve had no reports of large hosting in the Saxon lands.”
“No. And Ceawlin will not risk attacking Caerleon, at least, not yet. He prefers unarmed farmers. Still, I smell some fox trick here. Have care, Irion.” He turned and stumped away.
There was no time to ponder the possibilities. Irion ordered beacons fired on hilltops from Caerwent to Malvern warning the villages and farms of their danger. From the gate tower a horn called the men to arms.
The fortress erupted as the men gathered and checked weapons, threw on armor, saddled horses in grim haste. Each warrior received food for three days, to be carried on his back or in his saddlebag, for speed was the chief consideration. The supply wagons and their escort would catch them when they could.
A half hour past midnight Gwythur rode up, saluting. “Cavalry are ready, tribune. We lack Eoin, who is bed-sick with the fire in his belly, and Dengyn, who broke his leg in training two days since.”
“Form the men outside the north gate.”
The warriors assembled in four squares behind squadron captains. One hundred twenty riders rode great horses, descendants of the Parthian cavalry mounts sold to the British when the legions withdrew. Bred for size and stamina, they formed the heavy cavalry, which would lead the charge into battle. Irion had divided them into squadrons of sixty, one under his command, the other under Gwythur. An additional eighty light cavalrymen, archers and swordsmen, rode small, shaggy native horses and were led by Cynlas, one of twin brothers who were Irion’s best archers.
Riders sat in deep saddles with pommels and cantles that rose high in front and back to protect their bowels from spear thrusts. Hauberks of mail rings gleamed beneath their cloaks, and polished helms were slung by straps across their saddlebows. From hooks on their saddles hung shields, kite shaped to protect the left leg, and emblazoned with the red dragon of Gwent on a green background. Long swords hung from baldrics at their left sides.
The heavy cavalry carried spears with bright, leaf-shaped heads, while the light horsemen wore three-foot bows across their shoulders. A few, such as Cynlas and Kylan, also carried long yew bows, nearly as tall as they, unstrung in leather sheaths attached to their saddles.
The faces of the warriors were grim and unsmiling, the festive mood of Beltane having evaporated like mist under an August sun. Irion faced them. “Call off! Light.”
“Light formed and ready, tribune,” said Cynlas.
“Heavy formed and ready, tribune,” Gwythur said.
“Column of threes behind the dragon.”
A rider holding high the red-dragon standard trotted forward to join Irion. Spears raised like a deadly forest, they moved eastward, toward Caerwent, at a ground-eating lope.
The horses’ hoofs beat a drumming thunder and the forest-green cloaks of the riders flared behind them as they swept past the walls of Caerwent. People ran out and watched silently as they rode past, women and children and old men. Some wept, knowing that no mercy would be shown them if these defenders failed.