:: Sunday, October 02, 2005 ::
"Is there any sign of her?" Sir Baigent asked.
"No," Brother Llyad replied.
"You should eat," Sir Baigent said as he handed the monk a bowl of the thin, grainy soup the Druids had prepared.
"Ah," Brother Llyad said as he sniffed the soup. "I have missed this."
"I'm sure you have," Sir Baigent said as he sat on the ground beside the monk. He had eaten a bowl of the soup, and though he had indeed found it nourishing, he had also found its flavor too close to that of dirt.
"Is Estren resting?" Brother Llyad asked between mouthfuls.
"Probably," Sir Baignet said. "Or perhaps he is singing with the Druids someplace -- I haven't seen him in a while."
"He is the first Bard in more than two centuries to come into the company of the Druids," the monk said. "He is no doubt wondering by what measure he so deserves the providence of the Goddess to also be here for the coming of the Promised King."
Sir Baigent sighed and said nothing. He had some thoughts of his own as to the providence of the Goddess that it would little avail anyone to voice just now.
It was going to be a bright morning. The clouds had all vanished moments after Gwyn had gone into the Giants' Dance, leaving a clear, moon-lit sky that was now taking on the purple hue of just before dawn. The sun would rise within the hour, its morning rays falling upon the very spot in the Dance where Gwyn had entered.
"How long has it been?" Brother Llyad asked.
"Hours," Sir Baigent replied. It had been shortly after the middle of the night that Gwyn had disappeared into the Dance, and since then they had neither seen nor heard a single thing form the great stone circle. Sir Baigent hoped that when the sun rose, perhaps they would be able to see into the Dance -- but he was slightly fearful of what they might see when that time came. After the ceremony had ended and the gathered Druids had walked away -- rather laconically, Sir Baigent had noticed, hardly as if they had just partaken in the most important rite of theirs in centuries -- he had approached Horius and asked what it was that had happened, and what it was that they had seen, and where it was that Gwyn had gone. Horius had not given any answers, because he had had none to give. Thus they had done nothing since then but wait, and rest, and wait some more. Sir Baigent had tried to sleep, and he had even succeeded for an hour -- maybe two -- but no more than that. He had to be awake for Gwyn's return. He had to see this King for himself, this man for whom they had risked so much; and more than that, though he would never say so directly to anyone but himself, he had to know that she was well and that her journey had been a safe one. He was still her Champion.
Sir Baigent looked around at the Druids who milled about the camp. "What do you think is happening now?" he asked.
"I couldn't possibly say," Brother Llyad replied. "Perhaps she has gone to Avalon."
Sir Baigent had actually been wondering what the Druids were now doing, but he didn't feel like correcting the monk. "Avalon?" he asked.
"The place where the King was taken after his last battle," Llyad said. "It is the place where his wounds were healed and where he has spent all the days since, awaiting the time of the Promise when the Welcomer would come for him."
Sir Baigent picked up a pebble and rolled it about in his fingers. Rough, with a sharp edge -- not like a stone from a riverbed. "Does it ever bother you that we're relying entirely on legends and stories and tales where no one knows the truth of the matter? We can't know it for history."
Brother Llyad shook his head. "You still have trouble believing?"
"I've seen too much to not believe, but I haven't seen enough to give myself to it the way you have, cleric."
"Perhaps I've seen too much," Llyad said. "It's always been difficult for us to sort out the truths in the tales. So often, there is no perfect answer to the questions we ask. In that way, is not the work of a cleric like that of the seneschal to a lord? Are your choices ever truly clear?"
"They often are," Sir Baigent said, "but only after we've made them. I think--" He stopped suddenly. He had heard something.
"What is it?" Brother Llyad said.
Sir Baigent cut him off with a hiss. He had heard -- it had sounded like -- but now it was gone. Had he heard it? or were his ears deceiving him, over the sounds of the mostly sleeping camp? How could it possibly be--
He didn't turn south, Sir Baigent thought. He suddenly felt very cold, and by reflex his hand moved to the pommel of his sword, just to make sure that it was there. He isn't marching to rejoin his King. He is coming here. "On your feet," he said as he jumped up.
"What is happening?" Brother Llyad asked.
His answer came not from Sir Baigent, but from the sounding of the horns, distant horns but not distant enough, sounding the call of battle.
"That call--is it--"
"It is the attack call of Gwynedd," Sir Baigent said. "Maxen is here."
It could be no one else, Sir Baigent knew. He ran to join the stirring camp.
When dawn rose over Bedwyn, Brother Malcolm took his first look at an army of war. Nothing prepared him for the sight. All the histories of Prydein, all the tales of the bloody wars of years gone by, some penned in his own hand, could not prepare him for the actual spectacle of ten thousand men ready for battle. And here, before them, was the six-thousand-man strong army of Bedwyn. Malcolm could recite the details and dates of so many of the wars that had raged across Prydein, but that was completely different from seeing one, hearing one. The two armies on the field below looked, at once, both vast and small -- although in the case of the Duke's army, it was not an illusion. Cwerith's force outnumbered Cunaddyr's by at least four thousand. Unless they fought perfectly, a siege would be inevitable.
The field was fairly level, so neither force would have the advantage of higher ground. A mile west, off to Malcolm's left, the land did slope down to the river, but the battle would not be waged anywhere near the water, or so Malcolm believed. As was true of most things, that was of no great certainty.
He felt Lord Matholyn's hand on his arm. "It is time," the Lord said.
"You're certain that you want me to come with you?" Malcolm asked.
Lord Matholyn shrugged. "I am hoping that having you nearby will give me cause to hold my temper. When you write the history of this day, I don't want it reported that the battle began because of something I said in a moment of fury." He smiled, but it was without humor, and Brother Malcolm did not return it.
"If anyone on this field has a right to claim anger, it is you," he said.
"The right to anger is not a right I gladly claim," Lord Matholyn said.
The two men walked down from the walls to the main gate, where they joined the party that would soon ride out to parley with Cwerith ap Cellamma, King of Gwynedd and claimant to the throne of all Prydein.
At that moment, King Cwerith was putting on his armor, which he had not donned since the attack on Caer Camyrdin. None of the raids or skirmishes since then had required his presence, and thus his armor had sat in the cases that his pages tended and secured through the days of travel. Today, though, his armor was needed. Not that he would be joining in the actual fighting, of course -- a King did not take foolish risks -- but he would not ride unarmored out to parley with the Duke of Bedwyn. Surely Cunaddyr would honor the flag of truce for those few moments of talk, but Cwerith did not trust all of Cunaddyr's men to resist the urge to throw a well-concealed dagger in hopes of ending the war before the battle even began.
He had hoped that this would not be necessary. He had driven his men hard, as few armies had ever been driven, to take advantage of the possibility that the Duke might not return in time. They had very nearly made it. Only a few more leagues per day would have been the difference. He would have been able to overwhelm the city and only then deal with Cunaddyr and his displaced army, whose morale would have been shattered before the battle ever began. It would have been a decisive rout, and all that would remain would be the Kentish Shore now that Duncan had done his part and burned Londia to the ground. Alas…even as the towers of Bedwyn had appeared on the horizon, Cwerith's keen-eyed watchers had spotted the armies of Cunaddyr, filing out of the city and onto the plain to meet them. Their best estimates put the Duke's army at six thousand men, while Cwerith had ten thousand -- odds favoring the King of Gwynedd, but not strongly enough for his tastes.
Baron Gaddamar, that old craven idiot, had actually asked how such a thing was possible. Cwerith had not bothered to answer him, but Varing had patiently explaiend the additional possibilities for moving an army that existed for a city that lay on the banks of a deep and wide river like the Test, a river which led quickly and swiftly to the sea. "Ships?" Gaddamar had asked, incredulous at the concept. Cwerith had, admirably, held his tongue even though surely the Lord of a tiny landlocked parcel like Gaddamar should know about ships. People in coastal towns, after all, still knew about wagons.
"Watch there!" Cwerith said. The page helping him with his armor had pinched his leg.
"Forgive me, my Liege," the page said as he tightened the fastenings.
Lord Varing arrived and bowed. "The party is assembled," the eunuch reported.
"Has Cunaddyr taken the field yet?"
"No, Your Highness."
"Then we have time." He intended to savor this moment, to revel in it, as surely as Irlaris had savored the look on his father's face when he had seen the banner of Macholugh on the side of the King.
He rubbed his arm absently, not really noticing the pain from the fresh offering Cassion had drawn that morning. He never noticed the pain anymore. It had become part of him, like his hand or his foot, and in any event he had other concerns that were more pressing than mere pain.
Lord Varing cleared his throat. "Their gate is opening," he said. "Cunaddyr's party is taking the field."
Cwerith lifted his head to see. A mile away the Main Gate of Bedwyn was lifting. A horn call echoed across the field from the Bedwyn battlements, the traditional call to parley.
"Let us go," Cwerith said as he pulled himself up onto his horse with some help from his pages. Lord Varing mounted beside him, and together they rode to where the rest of his party waited. He would ride with Baron Gaddamar, a few other lords, and six of his best knights. "Return the call," he ordered his own herald, and the call was returned as King Cwerith's party rode out onto the field to meet Duke Cunaddyr.
"How many are with him?" Cwerith asked when they had reached the halfway point.
"Nine," Lord Varing replied. "Four Knights in corner formation, four in his party, and the Duke himself. Strange -- it looks as if he has a cleric with him."
"Unusual," Cwerith agreed. He would not have dreamed of bringing Cassion with him. In fact, he would not have brought Cassion anywhere… "Who is that man to Cwerith's left? He looks familiar...."
Lord Varing squinted as he tried to recognize the man who rode to the Duke's left, slightly behind him. He was certainly familiar...and then Varing gasped audibly. "My Lord, I believe that is Lord Matholyn of Camyrdin."
"I know," Cwerith said, his voice little more than a growl. He had recognized Lord Matholyn even as he had asked. He reached absently into the pouch on his belt and felt for the rock that he had carried with him ever since he had destroyed this man's realm. At least now he knew why they had never found Matholyn's body.
The Duke held up a hand, and the members of his party cantered to a stop on the cold field that would soon be a place of the dead and the dying, where nothing would likely grow for at least several growing seasons. Brother Malcolm forced himself to draw a deep breath. This was not remotely like any place he had ever dreamed of being. All this would one day make a fine tale, if there was ever again a time for the telling of tales; but such a tale should be his to write, not to actually be named within its pages as one who had played a part. Malcolm glanced over at Lord Matholyn, whose posture in the saddle was as rigid as ice and whose grip on the reins was so strong that had they been a walnut the shell would already have shattered.
The wind stirred out of the north, preceding the arrival of King Cwerith. Malcolm flinched a bit in the face of the fresh, icy breeze, and the aches in his bones flared. He was really too old for such traveling. He had done a good deal of riding about Lyonesse and Southern Prydein in his younger years -- on one such trip finding a young orphaned girl named Gwynwhyfar -- but now he suffered from saddlesores and aching muscles and he wished for nothing so much as a chair by the fireplace in his Library. He looked forward to getting back there, when all this was over -- and then he looked across the field at the army massed against them, and he wondered if he would ever go back. It had truly not occurred to him, until just that moment, that when the day was done he might very well be numbered among the dead on this field.
He felt a new chill, not from the wind, as the Traitor King's party came to a stop, about twenty paces away from Cunaddyr's. Cwerith's herald separated from the rest of his party, and came alone to the midpoint between the two parties.
"Cunaddyr of Bedwyn," the herald said, louder than he really needed to and in a practiced voice with sharper enunciation than Malcolm had ever heard even from the Bards, "the High King of Prydein would speak with you. Will you come forward?"
Duke Cunaddyr cleared his throat, and his horse stamped the ground twice. "If you mean do I consent to parley with the King of Gwynedd, then I do," the Duke said. "As for the High King of Prydein, I see his flag here, but I do not see Irlaris son of Islinbad before me."
That brought some angry grunts from Cwerith's party, but no one said anything. The King himself, Malcolm saw, maintained a cold and malevolent stare at the Duke, who for now only stared at the herald.
"King Cwerith of Gwynedd is the High King of Prydein," the herald said. "He is High King both by right and by battle, and he requires your audience."
"By battle is clear enough, I suppose," Cunaddyr replied. "But by what right does he claim the throne?"
"Such matters are for the King to discuss," the herald said. "Will you speak with him? He commands it."
The Duke shifted in his saddle. "And if I do not?"
The herald blinked, having not expected this. He glanced over his shoulder, clearly indicating the army behind him. "There will be repercussions," he said.
"Perhaps not the repercussions your King believes," Cunaddyr said. "Bring your King forward. I will hear what he has to say -- on a great number of subjects." Here he took an exaggerated glance over his own shoulder, his left shoulder, indicating Lord Matholyn. The herald scowled before returning to his own party.
Sir Jules, who was riding on Brother Malcolm's right, leaned over. "You look tense, Brother. Does something vex you?"
"Isn't it unwise to anger them so blatantly?" Malcolm asked.
"No," Sir Jules replied. "What is said here matters not in the slightest. This is just part of the game. There will be battle, and the words spoken now won't change that one way or the other. We could spit on Cwerith's cloak, or invite him to dinner -- the outcome will be the same."
"And that," Duke Cunaddyr said, "is an invitation Cwerith would not accept. We use utensils at my table." It was not a particularly funny jape, but the men chuckled anyway. Even poor humor served a purpose. The Duke straightened his cloak on his shoulders. "Here he comes," he said.
Brother Malcolm stiffened. Indeed, here came King Cwerith, with his steward and another man -- an older man, some kind of Lord -- also riding along. Malcolm was surprised by the fact that, despite his fine armor which was splendidly decorated and his powerfully handsome war horse, Cwerith of Caer Mastagg was a fairly small man. He had expected, as claimant to the throne, someone larger.
Cwerith and his attendants stopped a mere five paces away from the Duke, where he turned his gaze on each member of the Duke's party -- each member, that is, except for Lord Matholyn. That was the one gaze he avoided.
"Greetings, King of Gwynedd," Duke Cunaddyr said. "What is the occasion of your presence here?"
King Cwerith cleared his throat. "I am claiming my place as High King of Prydein, and I have come here to demand your loyalty."
Sir Jules snorted at that, just loud enough for Cwerith to hear. Nevertheless, he gave no sign of it.
"High King?" Cunaddyr said, raising his eyebrows in exaggerated surprise. "And what of Irlaris?"
Cwerith tossed his head in frustration. "Do not play the fool, Cunaddyr. We are all aware that Irlaris is dead."
"And it is certainly sheer happenstance that you were marching with an army such as this when Duncan deposed Irlaris," the Duke replied. "One might think that this was planned, and that you are not a claimant to the throne but a usurper."
Cwerith's face hardened. "Irlaris was the usurper," he said. "I seek to restore the throne to its true line. Irlaris bought his throne with guile and betrayal. In this he had the aid of certain Lords who previously had been allied with Gwynedd." Here he glanced, for the first time and only for the briefest of intervals, at Lord Matholyn. Matholyn, through some force of will, kept his eyes focused tightly on the reins in his iron-like grip.
"That is not the way the tale is usually told," Cunaddyr said.
"The shaping of tales for the telling is ever done by the victors," Cwerith replied.
"Ask the victor if he has already written the tale of Camyrdin," Lord Matholyn suddenly said. His stare did not waver from his own knuckles, and his voice was little more than a whisper. Still, no man there failed to hear him.
Malcolm looked to Cwerith, and the other man smiled. He actually smiled, and Brother Malcolm shivered to see it. There was no warmth at all in that smile.
"That tale shall be written as what it was: the righting of a wrong done fifty years ago, and the sad fate of a people forced to pay the price for a betrayal half a century gone by."
"Treachery?" Matholyn's voice was like a knife, and now he stared directly at Cwerith. "You dare utter that word here?"
"It is the only word that suffices," Cwerith replied. "Had Macholugh done his duty, those many years ago--"
"His duty to whom?" Matholyn cut in. "To your drunken despot of a father?"
"Mind your tongue, Matholyn. Or yours shall be the first I have cut out, before I execute you." Cwerith's eyes were narrow and his voice had gone even harder.
"Already planning executions," Matholyn said with a harsh laugh. "How like a Lord of Caer Mastagg. The only entertainment in that dreary place is watching the convicted die."
Cwerith bit back a reply, and then he glanced up to the sky. "This winter has done our land so much harm," he said. "I cannot think that your food stores are prepared for a year without a growing season, Cunaddyr. And I wager that they are certainly adequate to the task of waiting out a siege. There are no allies coming to join you. Will you truly doom your people, as did the Lord of Camyrdin when he chose to leave his city even as my armies gathered on his borders?"
It was an obvious ploy, and to Lord Matholyn's credit he did not rise to it.
"Is that to be the way of it, then?" Duke Cunaddyr asked. "Those who join you are spared, while those who do not are subject to flame and steel?"
Cwerith nodded. "A High King can allow neither challenge nor denial of his reign. It has ever been thus -- or have you not heard the tale of the Scarlet King and his sons, and what befell them when they denied High King Prystyl?"
"Everyone in Prydein has heard that tale," Cunaddyr replied. His voice and manner were becoming impatient for an end to this charade of a parley. "Bedwyn is not some citadel sitting atop a hill in the wilderness, I am not some self-styled King who has bought his fortress and his men with all the gold in his possession, and you are not High King Prystyl."
"My name shall eclipse his," Cwerith said. "I will not merely be another High King to be listed among those who came to the throne by surviving a long and bloody war. I will be heralded as the King who brought Prydein through its darkest time, when the Goddess herself lose her power over the affairs of men."
Brother Malcolm shivered anew. Had he heard the man's words correctly? There was a glow in Cwerith's eye that was not the reflected sun, and it filled the Priest with fear, for now he knew what was in Cwerith's mind.
"I will be the King who came in Prydein's hour of darkest need," Cwerith went on, his voice growing in stature. "I will restore the realm and I will be seen as the King whose coming was foretold in our oldest stories."
Cunaddyr's mouth opened and closed, and he exchanged glances with Lord Matholyn. Brother Malcolm could scarcely believe what he was hearing.
"You are claiming to be the Promised King," Duke Cunaddyr said.
"I have been chosen by a Power greater than all Prydein," Cwerith said. "Indeed, greater than the Goddess herself, a Power with the strength to force the Wyrm of the World to do its bidding. A new time is coming, and you can either be a part of its shaping or perish resisting it."
"You are mad," Cunaddyr said. "You have betrayed the Goddess and all of her servants on earth. It is the true Promised King who will come to defeat you."
Cwerith's eyes flashed in a moment of quick anger. "No doubt you wait for the Promised King to come riding from the sky on a great winged horse," he said in a voice that was as full of contempt as could be possible. "Or, perhaps you wait for some King to be escorted back from the Giants' Dance?"
Brother Malcolm's heart stopped for just a moment, and Sir Jules groaned. Neither Lord Matholyn nor Duke Cunaddyr made a sound, but they didn't need to. It was still evident on their faces, and Cwerith laughed. "Yes, I know about the small mission you sent to the Dance in hopes of finding a savior, a man behind whom you could hide from destiny. That mission will not succeed. They will find nothing, certainly no dead warrior waiting for the kiss of some girl; and they will be slaughtered by a force of my men who were sent there days ago."
Malcolm could not conceal his reaction. He knew that he had gone pale, and he gaped at Lord Matholyn, who likewise looked ill. How could he know? Malcolm wondered, desperately.
"The Darkness lies within you, Cwerith," Cunaddyr said. "It is consuming you. No Welcomer has come for you, and your march to war fulfills no prophecy. You have been deceived; by whom, I know not, but the deception is complete and it has consumed you. Turn away from this field, Cwerith. Go back to Caer Mastagg, and pray to the Goddess for guidance and forgiveness, because if you stay on the path you now walk you will surely die."
Cwerith shrugged. "How easily doomed men speak of death, though they know not it comes for them," he said. "I came to this parley for an answer, and I have received it. Know this, Cunaddyr: when next I leave this field, it will be with Bedwyn in flames and your body swinging from a gibbet. And before I head east, I shall pick up a stone to carry with me and remind me of this day, just like this one, which I picked up before leaving what used to be Caer Camyrdin." Now he held up the stone for all to see, and Lord Matholyn breathed a heavy sigh. Cwerith laughed. "Would you like to kiss this stone, Matholyn? A relic of what was once yours, but is now mine as it should have been all these years? It shall be so: before I go from this place, I shall press this stone to your dead lips."
Brother Malcolm winced and shook his head. This man was more vile than he had ever thought possible. Cwerith returned the stone to his pouch and took up his reins again. "Your High King has heard your words and marked them, Cunaddyr of Bedwyn," he said. "And now I mark you for death." He gestured to his attendants that the parley was over, and they turned and began heading back to their army.
"And what price enticed you, Gaddamar?" Lord Matholyn suddenly called out, before they were gone. As Brother Malcolm watched, one of King Cwerith's attendants, an elderly man who looked ill at ease in the saddle, gave Lord Matholyn a surprised glance before turning and following his new liege. Matholyn shook his head when they had gone. "Traitors ever flock to the company of other traitors, though they must know that they too will be betrayed in the end."
"How could he know about the girl?" Sir Jules asked. "If he has truly sent a company of men to the Giants' Dance--"
"We know that there is a darkness in Cwerith's heart," Duke Cunaddyr said. "But I fear we have misjudged the source of this darkness. He does not even claim to serve the Goddess."
Malcolm didn't like the implication. "Can he have turned to the Dark Brother?"
"He will not be the first King to do so," Cunaddyr said. "And we cannot help the Welcomer. All we can do is make our own stand, and hope that we are strong enough."
Brother Malcolm nodded. He was unsure of what to feel now -- fear for himself, fear for Gwyn, fear for Prydein itself, or all of it at once. He rode alongside the Duke and his men back to the city, where he was taken back within the walls while the others remained outside. Malcolm would best serve by going to the Healing Chambers, ready to help tend those already sick and to prepare for the hundreds of wounded to come. He did not need to witness the battle; it was enough that he was here. The history that he would one day write of this day, were he to live through it, would not suffer for material.
Though he did not know it, he was praying over a child dying of fever when the Battle of Bedwyn began.
"How do you know these people won't be armed?" Fflud asked. "It appears to be a large camp. They will number two for every man of ours."
Maxen looked at his second-in-command, and then back to the distant camp. "It won't matter," he said.
"What won't matter?" Fflud said. "If it is an armed camp--"
"It won't matter," Maxen said again. There was nothing to question, no reason for Fflud to think. They were going to strike a blow today, the most important blow. So much would be decided, and it would be decided here -- not at Bedwyn, which would be recorded by historians as the moment when Cwerith became High King in truth, but here, where historians would write of nothing at all. How often had that been the case, he wondered; how often had the historians and the Bards written the tale of some battle or toehr event while the real shaping of history was being done someplace else?
It won't matter, Maxen thought. It would not matter if every man in his command died here today. He pressed on his bandaged stump, and thanked the Power that spoke with the voice of the wolves for the sharp pain that reminded him that he was alive. He gazed on the camp and the shadows of the Giants' Dance that loomed over it, and he smiled.
"Sound the horns," Maxen said. "The call to battle."
"Did you hear that?" someone asked.
Jonn held up a hand and hissed for silence. He had heard something…the call of a bird, perhaps -- or a thrush or a hawk, coming down for its prey…but those things would have been normal, expected. They would not have been out of place here, as morning rose over the plain. This sound that he had heard was different.
"It sounded like--" someone began, but someone else hushed them. Silence fell over the Finders as they stopped just an hour's ride from the Giants' Dance. What had the sound been? And then it sounded again, filling Jonn's heart with fear as he recognized it for what it was, for what it only could have been.
Horns, sounding the call of battle.
Worse, he recognized the call. He had heard this call before, when he had led small teams of the Finders on their strikes against Cwerith's men.
"To horse!" he shouted. "All men, we ride first!" He turned to Gaspar, the young son of his friend Gavidd. "Remain behind," he ordered. "Stay with the women. We will signal you if it is safe to come to us."
Gaspar swallowed. "And if it isn't safe for us to stay?"
"Then flee," Jonn said.
"Yes, Jonn," the youth replied. He sounded calm, but the fear was in his eyes. Jonn reassured him with a hand on his shoulder, and then he turned away.
"Come, friends!" Jonn shouted. "Prepare your fireglobes! Against Maxen, we ride!"
The men of the Finders, all of them save Gaspar, slipped on their wooden masks before they kicked their horses and galloped away.
"How long until they arrive?" Sir Baigent asked.
"You can't judge the speed of an attack for yourself?" Murron of the Arrows said with a scowl.
"I'm testing to see if you still can," Sir Baigent replied.
Murron scowled again, but left her retort unsaid. "A quarter of an hour," Murron said. "No more than that."
Sir Baigent nodded. The mass of Maxen's company could be seen quite clearly now, and it would indeed be here within a quarter of an hour. He spared a backward glance, to where the Druids worked hurriedly to move as many of the refugees to the eastern side of the Dance as was possible. Some of them, though, joined Sir Baigent, carrying bows, and some had weapons of dubious use -- farm tools, mostly, some of which bore a not-very-sharp edge, and three men with very old swords whose blades were dotted with rust-spots. Sir Baigent had little hope that they would be able to make much of a stand against Maxen's soldiers, and no hope at all that they would be able to defeat him. Their only chance, he knew, was in their numbers -- at least five for every man of Maxen's. But few battles were decided by numbers alone. Caer Camyrdin's fate had not been decided by numbers, and the people there had had walls besides.
"All of you! Any of you with bows!" Murron shouted to the various villagers and refugees. "Get up here! You can't do any damage behind us!" Some of these men looked askance at suddenly being summoned to the front of the defense. Not one of them had ever been in any kind of army or battle; they had used their bows to hunt rabbits or some other small animal for the pot, never as a weapon of war against charging men on horse.
"We're not going to be able to do much against them," Estren said.
"I know," Sir Baigent replied. He looked at the Bard, grateful to have at least one person with a sword beside him.
"You're not totally alone," came a voice from behind them. It was Hugydd. His own sword was in his hand -- once an ordinary blade, remarkable now for the device of Camyrdin emblazoned on the pommel -- and he had a group of thirty or so young Druids with him, each wielding an oaken staff or one of the blow-tubes the sight of which made Sir Baigent wince. Sir Baigent gestured at Hugydd's blade, and the former knight-turned-Druid shrugged. "I couldn't toss it away," he said. "It is a reminder of other times. I hadn't planned to use it in battle ever again, Goddess forgive me."
"I'm glad you kept it," Sir Baigent said.
"These are all the men we could spare," Hugydd said. "The others are helping the refugees to the other side of the Dance. Your cleric companion is with them as well. He is a stronger man than he appears."
"Good," Sir Baigent said. "I can tell right now that Maxen is attacking with all of his men, and from the same direction. He is holding nothing back, and he is obviously confident that we will not be able to defend ourselves."
Hugydd looked over the gathering -- a dozen or so archers, thirty Druids, thirty or so farmfolk with sickles and scythes, and three men with real swords. "This will not be enough," he said.
"It's what we have," Murron said. "That's why you were such a bad archer, Hugydd. You never saw possibilities for what you had. All of you were such bad archers...but never mind. Between our arrows and your darts and a handful of brute weapons, we should be able to slow them down."
Sir Baigent looked again out at the approaching force, now no more than ten minutes away and more likely only five, the horsemen leading the way and the footsoldiers immediately behind them. Then he looked back at the now empty part of the camp: hastily abandoned tents, some of them with their campfires still burning. Something stirred in his mind, and an idea began to form. Slow them down, Murron had said....
"Come!" Sir Baigent said suddenly. "There is something we can do. Come with me!"
He led the defenders of the Giants' Dance back into the abandoned camp, where they did as he instructed and began setting throwing all of the remaining firewood onto the campfires and dousing them with what pitch they could find, causing the flames to hungrily leap up. Then they snatched up as much damp cloth as they could -- cloaks, blankets, anything -- and threw those onto the fires as well, and smoke began to rise from them. Then they began to set the tents on fire themselves. Fire served us once before, Sir Baigent thought. Now let it serve us again. He grabbed a torch with his left hand and brandished his sword in his right as he prepared to strike a blow for Camyrdin, for Prydein, for the Welcomer and for the Promised King.
Flames, fire and smoke rose over the Central Plain of Prydein, and then came battle.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::