The cavalry reached the top of a low hill as the sky paled with the first streaks of dawn. Irion called a halt to rest the horses and eat a quick meal. They had ridden hard all night, hunched against a wind that blew thin and cold into their faces, fretting past them to cry back up the trackway to Caerwent.
During most of the night apprehension had held off Irion’s fatigue: worry that he was leading his warriors into a trap, uneasiness about leaving his home undefended behind him. He tried to reduce his disquiet by planning future campaigns, envisioning personal combat with Ceawlin, killing him to the cheers of his men. Then he saw himself leading an alliance of Britons against the Saxons, taking backBritainand restoring Arthur’s boundaries.
But weariness and the steady rhythm of the horse had finally worn him down. In the end he had fought to keep his eyes open. Now he slid from his horse, cold and hungry and tired.
The moon was setting behind a thicket of brush and the cold light of the stars had begun to fade. As Irion’s boots hit the ground Gwythur rode over, shadowy in the gloom.
“Not here, tribune,” the captain said, his voice anxious. “This is not a good place to rest in the dark.”
Irion looked up, surprised, then glanced around him. Not far from the trail, at the edge of vision, a cluster of dry tone circles stood dimly outlined. Waist high, most of them were open to the air, but some still wore roofs or turf. Once they had been homes of the old, dark ones, built before the memory of any man living, unless Myrddin himself still lived.
Irion nodded. It was still night, and night was theterritoryofAnnwn, the underworld. The dead walked, seeking men’s fires to warm themselves. It would be best to stay as far from the wraiths of the ancient ones as possible. He mounted again and gave the signal to ride on.
The sun had risen when they halted once more. While the men rested, Irion sent scouts north and east toward the outpost to search for signs of the raiders. Waiting, he forced himself to eat some salt beef and a dry biscuit.
He had finished his meal when Kylan, the last of the scouts to return, galloped in and wrenched his lathered horse to a stop. One of twin brothers, Kylan was a skilled archer. His ears, and those of his brother, Cynlas, stuck out at right angles beneath identical thatches of sandy hair. Pug noses and wide mouths completed their remarkable faces, the impression being of two fauns. With their skills as bowmen, Irion would have been glad to have them if they had looked like trolls.
Irion came to his feet. “Saw you any sign?”
Kylan’s face twisted in disgust. “It’d be more of a challenge to track a herd of cattle. I rode to Glevum outpost and followed their trail from there. It leads west, into our farmland, then circles north.”
Gwythur stumped up. “They’ll be moving back toward the Sabrina today. By tonight they’ll want to be safe across, before they think we can reach them.”
“We may have a surprise for them,” Irion said. He looked at Kylan. “How old were the tracks?”
“Made yesterday before dark. Not later.”
“If they’re not expecting us until this evening, they may have camped nearby last night.” To Gwythur he said, “Mount your men. We’ll find them before they skulk back into their holes.”
They splashed across a small stream and cantered east. The raiders had indeed passed that way, leaving behind a wide swath of trampled grass and debris: leather cross-garter straps, sandals, and once, the body of a Saxon raider lying mouth open, staring skyward, throat hacked open.
A short distance from the road stood a farm enclosed in a wooden palisade of pointed logs. Smoke curled from it. Irion took Gwythur to have a look.
The walls, designed for night protection against wolves, had proven inadequate against the raiders. Splinters of broken gate lay scattered about the opening. Inside the enclosure they found storage sheds and byres and a house, front door banging in the wind.
Irion dismounted and, drawing his sword, stepped into the house. Three children, a boy and two small girls, lay heaped together on the floor, throats slashed open. The back door of the house had been kicked off its hinges. Behind the house the body of a woman sprawled on her back, naked, her face twisted in terror. A little way off a wooden milk pail lay on its side, a dark spot marking where its contents had seeped into the ground.
“Bastards!” Irion said.
He motioned to Gwythur and they returned to the troop. Without a word he signaled them forward.
They passed other farms, also pillaged. Some had been set to the torch, and these still burned. Irion knew they were closing in on the raiders.
The sun was nearing itshigh pointwhen Kylan came flying back to the head of the column. “I’ve come onto them, Lord Irion,” he said. “They’ve stopped on the road three miles ahead to eat.”
Fierce exultation swept through Irion. “How many?”
“Two hundred, plus ten or twenty. No more.”
“Saw you any horses?”
“None. Only cattle they’ve looted. They’re completely afoot.”
Irion and Kylan cautiously rode forward. A short distance ahead the road passed between two low hills shining yellow with blooming daffodils. Here they left the trackway and climbed the hill on the right, then dismounted and crept to the top. On the road a half mile eastward of the hills a band of Saxons sprawled at ease around cooking fires, laughing and boasting as they prepared their midday meal.
Lying flat on his stomach, Irion watched them. From its size, this was obviously a raiding party, not a full-fledged invasion. Still, they outnumbered his own force. Even with cavalry he would need to surprise them. If the raiders had time, they would form a shield wall, with those in front kneeling to jab their spears butt-first into the ground, lowering their spearheads towards the attackers. Such a deadly barricade would break any cavalry charge. But if he could keep them disorganized…
He looked at Kylan thoughtfully. “Come,” he said. “I’ve an idea.”
He led the scout back to the waiting troops and gathered his captains around him, then issued his orders. The cavalry he formed into two companies. One, under Cynlas, he sent to wait behind the hill from which he had just come. The other company he placed under Gwythur and sent around behind the hill on the far side of the road.
Kylan he held back. “I have something special in mind for you.” As the archer listened to Irion’s plan his gnomelike face broke into a grin.
Irion rode to join Gwythur, who crouched at the top of the hill watching the Saxons impassively. “If ugly could kill,” Gwythur said, “we’d all be falling dead from our saddles.”
They waited. As the minutes slid by Irion felt even more strongly the burden of his responsibility. If he guessed wrong, many warriors under his command would die. He grasped for the hilt of his sword, finding comfort in its leather grip. His hands were sweating. Beside him Gwythur glanced over.
Irion wiped his hands on his trousers. “Is it always like this, before a fight?”
Gwythur nodded. “I’ve never gone into battle in my life without my tunic sticking to my back.”
At last Kylan appeared. From the west the redheaded scout led a small band of archers at a trot up the road toward the raiders’ camp.
As they passed between the hills a Saxon sentry saw them and shouted a warning. In the camp, men leaped up from their eating and sprang to their weapons. When they saw the size of the approaching force their alarm turned to laughter. Jeering and mocking, they gathered into a rough shield wall across the road.
Kylan led his archers forward until the raiders were just within reach of the great bows. Then he stopped in the classic archer’s stance, side toward the target, feet apart. Calmly he fitted an arrow to his bowstring, drew it to his ear, and released it with a twang.
A Saxon in the front line reeled backward, shield nailed to his chest. The other bowmen shot their missiles and a dozen more raiders fell. Curses and shouts of rage rose. A few arrows flew toward Kylan but fell short.
At the top of the hill, Irion watched, smiling grimly. Another volley flew between the green cloaks and the Saxons, and more barbarians dropped. After the third volley the scant discipline of the raiders collapsed. Screaming their war cries, a small band broke away from the shield wall and charged toward Kylan’s archers. The others followed, unwilling to be left out of the kill. Kylan and his bowmen turned and ran back along the road.
Irion sprinted to his horse. When the Saxons reached the gap between the hills, he signaled, and the trumpeter blew a ringing call. Spears lowered, heads tucked behind shields, the two lines of cavalry began to move, slowly at first, then faster, thundering down both hills toward the barbarians caught between.
Seeing the trap too late, the Saxons had no time to form a shield ring. Against the weight of the great horses their ranks splintered like kindling.
For Irion the battle shrank to the next foe in front of him. A squat, red-bearded man sprang up to his right, both hands swinging a heavy iron sword, more bludgeon than blade. Irion’s spear tip divided the man’s beard and passed through his neck, flinging him backward with a gurgling wail and a spray of blood.
Men find strange voices to greet pain and death, Irion thought. Then he forced his mind from all thought, all compassion. The willingness to kill was the price of his life.
The charge slowed, blocked by a mass of warriors shouting their hatred. Desperately, Irion urged his horse forward. Rearing and plunging, the animal fought its way deeper into the melee. At his shoulder, Gwythur kept pace, his sword arm a blur of motion.
Irion heard a call. He glanced up to see Cynlas spurring his horse toward him, stabbing downward with his spear like a dagger. Behind him surged the rest of his troop. The two companies met and Cynlas rode past with a whoop like a young recruit.
The forces crossed, emerging on opposite sides. At a signal from Irion the trumpeter blew a blast on his war horn, and they wheeled and charged again.
An iron wedge of horsemen drove into the Saxons. This time the charge scattered the raiders, save for a knot of warriors in the center protecting their blond chieftain. Into the midst of the Saxon defenders galloped Cynlas, outdistancing his troop. Irion shouted a warning, unheard in the din of battle.
The captain was soon surrounded, but fought on, an island battered by a great surf. As Irion watched, a Saxon spear caught Cynlas in the back and he sagged forward. The chieftain reached up and dragged him from his saddle.
Irion shouted to his trumpeter and the youth blew two sharp notes. The company wheeled left and fought toward the fallen captain. At the same time, Cynlas’s troop reached the center and crashed into the knot of raiders. The Saxon chieftain fell, an arrow through his eye.
Seeing their leader die, the remaining raiders began to break and flee. The battle was soon over. At Irion’s command the stragglers were ridden down and killed.
The tribune rode slowly back through the field as the fury of battle gradually drained away, leaving his limbs cold, his mouth tasting of ashes. He found the battered body of Cynlas where he had fallen. Next to him, eyes puffed nearly shut from weeping, sat his brother Kylan, staring into the distance.
“Can I do anything?”
Kylan looked up and shook his head.
Irion rode on, uncertain what to do next. Around him warriors wandered the battlefield, or stood in silent clusters, staring at the bodies of comrades. Some trembled as the violent fever of war left them.
Irion stopped and slid from his horse. To his surprise his left leg would not obey him and he sagged against his mount. Looking down, he noticed for the first time the smear of blood congealed around a jagged tear in his leg. He winced as the pain began.
Gwythur trotted over. “Weapons are being collected for salvage, Lord Irion.” He sounded as if he had just been through a training exercise. “Are you all right?”
Irion nodded and took a step. His head spun and he sat down abruptly. “I guess I’m torn enough to need a little mending. I feel as groggy as a hen on her night roost.”
Gwythur dismounted and inspected the leg. “You’ve lost a lot of blood. I’ve seen that make even the strongest faint.” He stood. “It’s a deep gash, tribune, but not dangerous, if it doesn’t take the rot. I’ll find a surgeon.”
Irion tried not to grimace as an army surgeon dressed his wound. “How many did we lose?” he asked the medicus.
“Twenty-eight dead. Twice that number wounded.”
Standing above him, Gwythur nodded. “Very acceptable losses, tribune.”
Not if you’re Cynlas, Irion thought. Not if you’re one of twenty-eight.
Gradually the warriors gathered around. Irion limped among them, praising them, thanking them. Where it started he could not later say, but somewhere someone began chanting Irion’s name, and the chant spread rapidly from man to man. Hands seized him gently and placed him on a shield, then lifted him high in the air.
In unison the warriors shouted, “Hail!” And again, “Hail!” A third time, “Hail!” The threefold tribute was used by Roman troops for conquering caesars.
Astonishment turned to pleasure and Irion grinned broadly.