Merlin had almost reached the first turn of the stairs when a man swept down from above, around the corner and clipped Merlin's shoulder with his own. "Watch where you're going, dammit," he snarled, and continued on his way without a second glance.
The quality of his clothes marked him as a man of rank and as he turned into the doorway leading out to the courtyard, the slanting sunlight caught the stooping eagle embroidered in gold on his shoulder.
Merlin had seen him arrive six weeks before, but had never heard his name. He was one more among the horde of knights and nobles who had come to Camelot to witness Uther's funeral and had stayed for Arthur's coronation.
Six weeks later they were still in Camelot. They hovered around Arthur, attempting to curry favour on the strength of their lands, taking up his time, often to the detriment of his temper. The general feeling among the castle staff was that they couldn't leave soon enough. The castle and its new king had had little time for anything other than matters of state, since Uther had fallen into his final illness and died.
Kay came running down the stairs, all powerful frame and wild, fair hair. He looked like a Saxon, although his parents both came from established British families with their roots in the old Roman gentry. "Did you see where Isen went?" he asked.
Merlin shook his head. "Who?"
"Lord Isen. Young man. He was just ahead of me."
"Oh, yes. He went that way," Merlin said, pointing to the doorway at the bottom of the stairs.
"Thanks." Kay paused. "You all right?" he asked.
Merlin smiled. "Yeah, sure," he said. "Of course I am."
Kay smiled back, his teeth white inside the long moustache that framed his mouth and hung down below his chin. "Going up or down?" he asked.
"Up. Arthur asked me to dig Edgar out of his office and drag him through the cellars to inspect the remaining winter stores."
"I'll bet that he didn't use those words."
"No, but it's what he meant. All these guests are eating us out of hearth and home. Some of them brought supplies with them, but most..."
Kay turned towards the lower floor. "Take Robert, instead," he advised. "He knows more than his master."
"No trouble. You'll find your feet, soon enough." And on that cryptic note, he continued down the stairs and followed the young man with the eagle coat of arms, out into the courtyard.
Merlin spent the next couple of hours walking the cellars with Robert, the Chief Steward's senior clerk, counting the remaining stocks of wine, salt meat, cheeses, turnips and other root vegetables, apples in barrels, bottles of soft fruit and crocks of salt, while Robert recorded the tally. By the time they were finished, Merlin was feeling relieved that they wouldn't all starve to death in the immediate future, while Robert was frowning in concern.
Leaving Robert to write up his report, Merlin escaped to attend Arthur's twice weekly session of court. Already late, he ran the length of the corridor from Robert's office and clattered down the stairs.
When the reception hall came into view, he paused. The room was full of people waiting to enter the main hall, nobles and common petitioners crowded together. Sir Huw and Lord Blane passed him, descending to join the mass. Merlin followed more slowly.
Very few, if any, of the visiting nobles would have cases to present. They were men and women with not enough to do to fill their days, except watch Arthur as he took control of his inheritance.
Since the crowd was still outside the hall, it meant that Merlin was not as late as he had feared. He scanned the room. They were not all strangers. He saw Sir Dagonet and an older man, similar enough in form and appearance to be his father, deep in conversation. Near them, Lady Kenzie's daughter stood helplessly by while her mother flirted with a lord in a long, wolf skin cloak, until Sir Bedwyr came to her rescue, bringing his sister over and drawing her away. The wolf-clad lord was fooling himself if he thought he'd get anywhere with Lady Kenzie; she was actually in love with her husband. It appeared he simply did not recognise the game that even Merlin could see. But Merlin had also seen her walking in the walled garden with Lord Kenzie and seen their faces when they looked at each other, thinking themselves alone.
Merlin took the final two steps to the main floor and edged along the wall towards the door into the servants' passage. On the way he overheard snatches of the conversations going on around him.
"Two pennies a bushel," Lord Angor exclaimed. "I ask you, is that a fair price? I should have had him whipped."
Sir Ector laughed. "But I'll wager you didn't," he replied.
Lord Angor was leaning against the wall and Merlin had to move away from the safety of solid stone to get around them in the crowd.
"...hair like silk," a young man sighed. The lady he was talking to did not appear pleased by the sentiment. The reason became clear a moment later. "She is as fair as the morning," he added, in a tone of voice more often heard from the bard, when he switched from tales of monsters and warriors, to pleasing the ladies.
Merlin had almost reached the door and the promise of escape when, behind him, an older voice commented, "No, not his father. But I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Uther was firm; he forged Camelot into a strong and rich kingdom, but," Merlin paused and pricked up his ears, resisting the urge to turn around, "Uther was a war leader, not a ruler for a time of peace," the man said. "He forged this land, but I sometimes doubted his ability to hold it and mould it."
"He did well for twenty five years," another man said.
"Maybe, but for all his diplomatic missions and temporary treaties, he was becoming more inflexible with each passing year. The son has a finely developed sense of justice, too. I expect he'll shake things up."
There was a snort of disapproval and the first man laughed. Merlin glanced over his shoulder and recognised Lord Connal. "Broga, my old friend," Lord Connal said. "Uther is dead. He can't hear me now, and if he can, he can't object."
Turning slightly, Merlin made a show of searching his pockets, as if looking for something, as an excuse to stay where he was. He could just see Lord Connal's face beyond Lord Broga's bulk.
Lord Broga joined in with Lord Connal's laughter, with a chuckle of his own. "True, true," he agreed. "And you are too old and wily a fox to say anything to Arthur's detriment, now he is king."
"I have no reason to do so."
Lord Connal was tall and thin with greying hair that he wore long and loose. He looked frail, but Merlin had seen him fight in tournament and knew him to be anything but.
Broga, Lord of Garsbury, was about the same age, but in every other respect as different as a man could be. He was solidly built, like a brick shithouse, as certain of Merlin's old drinking companions would have said. His hair was still a rich, deep brown, cropped short like his beard. He was dressed in a fine, fur-trimmed robe that reached to the ground and showed off his broad shoulders. "Yet?" he asked.
"Maybe," Lord Connal conceded, frowning judiciously. "But yet or not, it's all I have. He seems to have some new ideas, already. Of course, he's had control of the army for months, but I swear I saw some manoeuvres I'd never seen before and didn't understand, when I was down by the river, yesterday morning."
"Give me a legion any day," Lord Broga replied. "There's nothing can stand against a well-formed, well-disciplined legion."
Merlin edged away and reached the door.
He hurried down the servants' corridor and into the Great Hall by a side entrance, to take his usual position against the wall, below the dais upon which Arthur's throne sat. Just as he made it to his place, the great doors opened and the crowd from outside streamed in. They milled around for a while, but soon settled, with the petitioners gathering around Geoffrey's table.
The initial noise died down to a steady murmur of conversation that stopped entirely when the doors opened again. Heads turned, following something that moved through the middle of the crowd and, a moment later, Arthur came into view at the front of the hall. He paused before climbing up onto the dais, looked around and caught Merlin's eye. A small, mocking smile twisted the corner of his mouth. Merlin grimaced in reply, straightened his jacket over his shoulders and smoothed down his hair.
The business of the court proceeded, much as it had in the six weeks since Arthur succeeded to the throne, and intermittently during the months before, when Uther was too ill to leave his bed and Arthur had stood in for him.
It was when they were hearing a case of disputed land title and after the plaintiffs had both presented their pleas and called their witnesses that Arthur said, without looking across at him, "Merlin."
Merlin edged forward. "Sire?"
Still not even glancing at him, Arthur asked, "What do you think I should do?"
There was an intake of breath around the room, which developed into a low level murmur. Merlin opened his mouth. "Um... well..."
Arthur finally looked his way. "Come on, Merlin, I'm asking for your counsel," he said.
Both men in the dispute had supporters, who were each powerful in their small way. "Um..." The first snickers began among the gathering and Merlin took a breath. His voice was slightly too loud when he replied, "If there are no records of ownership. And, and the witnesses are contradicting each other." The two major backers exchanged a look behind the heads of the claimants. "Well, there doesn't seem to be any way for an outsider to judge the truth of either claim." From the other the side of the Great Hall, Gwen caught his eye and nodded encouragement, although her smile betrayed her nerves.
"So?" Arthur asked.
"So... um..." Merlin looked from one of the two farmers in front of the dais to the other and back to Arthur. "You could divide the land equally, Sire, and record it properly this time, so ownership is clear?"
Arthur's eyes were solemn but approving. "Yes," he said thoughtfully. Straightening he nodded decisively. "Geoffrey," he said. "Record it so. Cedric Thatcher is to have the formal deeds to the fields on the eastern side of the brook. Aidan Wilson will have the fields on the west. Draw it up and have an accurate map marked appropriately."
Neither claimant looked very happy with this solution, but their two most influential supporters were smiling, so there was a good chance that civil strife would not erupt in Willowdale as a result of Merlin's inexperience.
Supremely unimpressed by the continuing whispers, Arthur brought the court session to a close. He nodded to Geoffrey, and to Merlin, and swept down the central aisle to the doors, which the guards pulled open for him to pass through.
Merlin was left standing where he had been when Arthur put him so firmly on the spot, staring helplessly after him. He looked over at Geoffrey, who merely shrugged and turned away to gather up the rolls and scrolls scattered across his table.
Kay came over and clapped Merlin on the shoulder. Taking a fistful of the cloth of Merlin's jacket, he tugged Merlin into motion. "Come along, boy," he said, for all that he was only five or six years Merlin's elder. "Don't stand there like a post. You have a position to maintain now. That means you have to start acting up to it."
Stumbling into step, Merlin looked up at him. "What the hell just happened?" he asked.
Kay released Merlin's shoulder and stroked his right hand down his moustache. His voice held a distinct note of amusement when he said, "I do believe you just got named as Arthur's first Privy Counsellor."
Merlin stopped walking. "Right. Yeah. Um... Do you think he did it on purpose?"
At that Kay laughed and flung an arm around Merlin shoulders, dragging him towards the side door that led directly out into the courtyard. "Of course he did." They exited the hall and Merlin stumbled down the steps. "He needs you," Kay said. "And this way you have a rank, without having to learn to wield a sword. It was very clever. As well as being very considerate to the rest of us."
Merlin pulled away to glare at his friend, although a grin was threatening to break through. Kay turned to face him and Merlin sobered. "I, I worry," he said. "This is hard and Arthur... he needs...
Kay interrupted. "Arthur is my brother" he said. "We grew up together. We learnt how to be men together, although he out-paced me in that. I know him and you should not worry; what you have... It's good for him."
Merlin gazed up at him, this giant of a man. "Thank you," he said.
As counsellor, Merlin's position at the court sessions changed - most noticeably by the ten feet between his old post against the wall and his new place next to Arthur's throne. It also gave him a different view of the visitors to court, even if it didn't change his opinion of them.
"Lord Broga is a toad," Merlin said. He was lounging along the window seat in Gaius' workshop with his feet propped up against the wall in front of him. "That should be his coat of arms, instead of a swan." Gaius raised an eyebrow and Merlin grinned. "No, not literally. Although..."
"Merlin," Gaius said, sounding exactly as he had any time in the last five years, when he was afraid Merlin was going to do something rash.
"Well, he is," Merlin said again. "He's been here for eight weeks and he's managed to alienate all the servants, as well as raising mutterings among the town's folk. I saw him in the market, yesterday, and he took a shawl from Mother Ella's stall and refused to pay for it."
"So tell Arthur. He won't allow that to stand," Gaius suggested.
"I will. I meant to last night. Except we, we were talking about other things and..."
He trailed off, but Gaius contented himself with no more than a dry, "I'm sure you were," before turning back to his mortar, where he was grinding herbs for a fresh batch of the muscle liniment he prepared for Arthur and his knights. "You think none of the visiting lords are worth their salt."
"That's because most of them aren't. And he rode down Tom Tinker, outside the gates, when he arrived. Did I tell you about that?"
"Yes, Merlin, I believe you may have done. I say again, tell Arthur. In fact, why don't you go and do that right now and leave me-" He was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Come in," he called.
The door opened a crack and one of the kitchen boys squeezed through the gap. He hesitated, took two small steps into the room and bowed low. "Sorry to disturb you, Sir," he said, "but Mistress Gwen says would you be so kind as to come and look at Lady Gertrude, Sir? She's taken a fall."
"Oh dear, yes, of course." Gaius looked the boy up and down. "She's not in the kitchen, is she?" he asked.
"Oh, no, Sir. No. I was... I mean... No. She's in her room. Will that be all, sir?"
"Yes, that will be all. Thank you for bringing me the message. Tell Mistress Gwen I will be with her directly."
The boy grinned with obvious relief at having completed his task and fled.
"Gwen must have sent the first person she saw," Gaius muttered. He collected himself and asked, "Merlin, would you mind finishing this? It just needs mixing with the grease and putting in the jars, away from the air."
Merlin swung his feet down, stood and carefully took off his new jacket, laying it on the seat behind him. "I must be important now," he observed, "you never bothered to ask before." He picked up Gaius' medicines case. "Get away with you," he said, handing it over. "I can look after it before I have to be in Court."
"Reflected glory, that's all it is," Gaius said. He gave Merlin a wry smile, took the box from him and hurried out. Merlin rolled up his sleeves, spooned purified fat out of its big jar into a smaller bowl, set it above a flame to melt and went to find where Gaius had stored his new shipment of Portuguese cork in Merlin's old room.
A loud knocking at his chamber door woke Merlin a few mornings later. The servants were already aware that he was difficult to rouse but, judging by the evidence of his ears, whoever it was, was getting impatient. With a groan, he dragged himself free of the blankets and rolled into a sitting position on the edge of his bed. The mattress behind him was empty and the connecting door to Arthur's chamber was closed, so he grabbed his robe and threw it around his shoulders, struggling to get it on straight. Shoving his feet into his slippers, he hauled himself up, shuffled over to the door, unlocked and opened it.
A page stood to attention in the hallway, his gaze fixed somewhere in the vicinity of Merlin's left shoulder. "His Majesty's compliments and would you join him for breakfast, My Lord?" he announced.
Merlin wrapped his robe more tightly across his chest. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I'll be right there."
Nodding, the child bowed stiffly at the waist and marched smartly down the hall towards the backstairs to the kitchens. It was clear that, in his mind at least, the politely worded invitation was not a request that could be refused. Merlin closed the door and searched around the floor for his clothes.
An hour later, feeling well fed and content, Merlin watched as Arthur leaned back in his chair, rubbed his stomach in a satisfied manner and pushed the plate with the last crumbs of his breakfast away. "Thankfully, the staff know better than to enter the King's chambers before being bid," he said. "We overslept. It was only the knock on my chamber door that woke me."
Merlin glanced back at the door to his own room. "We did remember to leave it open, then?" he said. "I thought I felt you leave."
"Yes, Merlin, we did. And no, you didn't; you were dead to the world. But I was sitting in my own bed, as proper as you please when I bade him enter." Arthur's mouth twitched. "They're so young," he said. "I think the tray was almost as big as him."
"And did you get up to help him with it?"
"Of course not. Obedient and efficient service is still such a novelty, I enjoy watching it in action. He's here to learn to be a gentleman and how better than by waiting on the king? "
"Learning how to be rude and domineering, then?"
A tap sounded on the door and Arthur called, "Enter." It opened and a member of the guard came in, bowed and marched smartly forward to hand Arthur a slim, leather case containing papers.
Arthur took it from him and nodded his thanks and dismissal. "Not much trouble with sorcery, lately," he said thoughtfully to Merlin. "It must be the good weather. I suppose people don't need to resort to such things when the snows have already gone and the season is building fair."
The guard bowed again and backed out of the room.
"What?" asked Merlin blankly.
Arthur smiled. "Just something I've noticed," he said.
"And you, what, felt the need to tempt providence?" Merlin asked.
Arthur's lips quirked. "Why yes, Merlin, I did," he said, opening the folder. He looked around at the table. "You wouldn't mind clearing that, would you?" he asked. "I need the space. I have papers to read."
"And you want me gone."
"Not want, but maybe, need you gone."
That afternoon, Merlin was almost late for Court. Bedwyr had dragged him down to the river to see a strange stone embedded in a rock, exposed by a landfall in the bank. He had insisted they borrow a hammer and chisel from the coppersmith, to chip it out. It took almost an hour of careful work, but eventually it came free - a spiral, small enough to lie in middle of Merlin's palm.
"I've seen things like that before," Bedwyr said. "The common people will say they are snakes, cursed into stone by the gods, but I always thought they looked more like snails."
Merlin gazed at it, turning it over to study the other side. "Thank you," he said looking up at the smile on Bedwyr's face. "I bet Gaius will be fascinated by this."
Bedwyr shrugged self-deprecatingly. "He's probably seen them before, too, but I thought you'd like it." He was about to say more, but the castle bell sounded to signal the gathering of the Court session. Merlin cast a panicked look up the hill and Bedwyr made shooing motions with his hands. "Go," he said. "Run."
Taking the steps from the courtyard two at a time, he slowed as he passed through the door into the entrance hall. Even so, he almost collided with two men standing closely together inside. Backing away, he gasped, "My apologies, My Lords."
Lord Broga turned and looked him up and down. "Ah, the King's jester," he said. His voice was cold and dismissive, but he stared at Merlin with a piercing gaze.
Lord Greagoir, Earl of Lamorak, turned too. He was a man of Uther's age, with a similarly upright, even rigid bearing. He glanced briefly at Merlin, but it was clear his attention was not to be wasted on peasants, no matter how elevated.
Merlin sketched a brief bow and continued on his way at a fast walk.
It was not until the Court was almost over that Edgar stepped forward. It was simply a matter of report, nothing, he obviously assumed, that required action. Mary was merely a servant, a chambermaid, unimportant.
"Murdered?" Arthur asked, his voice grim.
"So I'm told, Sire."
"The Watch found her in the ditch under the walls this morning, Sire."
From his place behind and to the side of Arthur's throne, Merlin had a clear view of the hall, if not of Arthur's face, but he could read Arthur's body and voice. He waited for the moment when he should intervene and prevent Arthur's temper breaking over the poor man.
"Has Gaius seen her?" Arthur asked.
"Umm, I'm..." Edgar turned to his clerk who stepped neatly into the breach.
"Yes, Sire," Robert said. "He went down to the scene and examined her immediately. She was spotted from above and the sergeant sent for Gaius, before he knew she was already dead. It was Gaius who said it was murder."
Arthur nodded and Merlin relaxed.
"Ask Gaius to join us," Arthur ordered. "And while we wait, that market dispute you mentioned yesterday, has it been resolved?"
When Gaius arrived and bowed before Arthur, he looked older than he had when Merlin last saw him, only the day before.
"She was murdered, Sire," he confirmed. "There are bruise marks on her throat."
"Was there anything else?"
"Yes, Sire." He hesitated, as if unsure, not of the facts, but of the best way to convey them. As he usually did with Arthur, he fell back on the blunt truth. "Her bodice was torn, so I took the liberty of examining her more closely and it would appear that she was also violated."
A soft but pervasive in-drawing of breath greeted his announcement. Edgar, fool that he was, was hovering behind Gaius, shifting from foot to foot, and at this he stepped forward. "Sire, I protest, such treatment of the poor wretch is hardly seemly."
Gaius rounded on him. "Seemly?" he asked, his voice at last betraying his anger. "Seemly has no relevance. This girl was violated before her murder, then her body thrown from the walls." Visibly, he gathered himself and turned back to Arthur, saying more calmly, "It was chance that she landed on the bank, rather than in the water where evidence would have been washed away."
"Since the girl is dead, there is no way to know if she was violated, or not," Edgar objected. "We should not be bothering the King with such details."
At this Arthur stood up from his throne and took half a step forward to the edge of the dais. "Edgar," he said. "You served my father long and well. For that I thank you. I honour your loyalty to this court. So many years of service deserve recognition and reward."
Edgar dropped to his knees, crying, "My Lord! Sire, I meant no harm."
Arthur waited for a full count of ten, before he gravely nodded his head. "Your devotion is duly noted." Turning back to Gaius he asked, "Is there anything more you can tell us?"
Gaius waited for Edgar to stand and back away before answering. "Only that she was found under the east wall, Sire, where the guest house overlooks the river."
Arthur stiffened. "Under which window?" he asked.
"I believe that Lord Broga has the room immediately above," Gaius replied.
"Is that the only one?"
"There is one above that, Sire. That room is occupied, at the moment, by Lady Gertrude."
Since Lady Gertrude was eighty, if she was a day, and temporarily bed-ridden after her fall, she couldn't count high among the suspects for rape and murder. Arthur looked around the room. "Lord Broga," he said, with a small jerk of his head when he spotted him. "What say you?"
Pushing through the gathered courtiers, Lord Broga reached the clear space in which Gaius stood. "I do not feel the need to say anything, Sire," he replied, hitching his gown on his shoulders and running his hands down the fur trim on its edges, to expose the richly embroidered swan on his breast. "A serving wench? I know nothing of this, and care less."
Merlin smiled grimly to himself and exchanged a telling glance with Gaius. They would learn, soon enough, these nobles, that Uther was truly dead and gone.
"I care," Arthur replied with deceptive mildness.
Lord Broga appeared more uncomprehending than disbelieving. He turned his head to cast his eyes around the room. The rest of the court were staring fixedly at Arthur. "What did she look like?" he asked when he turned back, addressing his question in Gaius' general direction.
After a nod from Arthur, Gaius replied. "She was not easily missed or mistaken," he said, addressing Lord Broga directly for the first time. "Not tall. The top of her head might have reached no higher than your heart, My Lord. Her hair was pale, almost white. Her eyes were blue and she wore a brown dress with a blue apron." He looked up at Arthur and added, "She was fourteen years old."
For a moment Lord Broga looked horrified. His eyes flashed to Arthur and the fingers on both his hands twitched in turn. Then he relaxed and again smoothed his left hand down the fur trim on his chest, where his gown met.
Merlin stepped down to stand next to Gaius and turned to Arthur. "She was also kind and gentle and the only support to her mother and her two younger brothers, Sire."
Lord Broga looked across at him. "You had an interest?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.
Arthur recaptured his attention. "You will find my Chief Counsellor knows everyone, Broga, and is much loved in Camelot. Did you know this girl?"
"I might have seen her, Sire, from your physician's description, but I deny any knowledge of her, beyond passing her in the halls." Turning to Gaius again, he said, "Even if my window is above the spot where she died, she could have got there by any number of means."
Nodding, Gaius agreed, "But there were no footprints in the mud around her and no mark from a boat coming in to the bank. From the state and position of the body, I believe she fell from a height."
"But who's to say she was strangled?" Lord Broga asked, his mouth pinched. "Who's to say she didn't jump to her death of her own will?"
"The bruises are there, Sire," Gaius said, addressing himself to Arthur, "and will become clearer with time."
"How long?" Arthur asked.
"I should be able to tell you more within a few hours, assuming she died last night, which I think she did, since the poor girl had already entered the state of stiffness that comes a few hours after death."
"Then this inquest is adjourned. It will be the first item of business tomorrow. Arthur looked around the hall. "Sir Kay," he called. "And Lord Isen. Go with Gaius and take note of all he says and shows you, so you can stand witness tomorrow." He turned back to Lord Broga. "Lord Broga, I would not wish to place a man of noble blood under guard, on no more than a possibility. Do you give your parole to stay in Camelot, at our pleasure?"
"Under guard?" Broga spluttered. "But, but this is preposterous. Over the death of a servant?"
"Over the murder of one of my household," Arthur said. "I will remind you that my father threw the King of Mercia in the dungeons."
"Over an attempt on your life."
"I am not my father. Do you give your parole?"
Under Arthur's gaze Lord Broga wilted. "I do, Sire," he said, bowing his head in acquiescence.
"Then this court is dismissed," said Arthur.
The assembled gathering cleared remarkably quickly, no doubt eager to gossip, away from the king's ear.
Having shed his court clothes for more comfortable wear, Arthur strode down the steps and into the courtyard, Merlin trailing behind, as usual. Arthur's horse, Bran, and Merlin's Tageth, were already waiting.
Arthur had lifted one foot to place it in the stirrup, when a disturbance by the gates appeared to catch his attention. Two soldiers in Camelot red were dragging an old woman between them. A gaggle of village folk trailed behind.
Standing back from Bran's side, Arthur nodded to Alwin, his groom, to take Bran and Tageth a few yards away. Meanwhile, he and Merlin retreated to the third step. Catching the sergeant's eye, Arthur gestured for him to approach.
The sergeant came forward and bowed his head to Arthur. "Sire," he said. "This woman has been arrested for the practice of sorcery."
"On what grounds?"
The other guard pushed the old woman forward. She staggered, fell and lay on her side, not moving.
"She is reported to have used spells and charms to encourage the trees in her orchard to fruit more, Sire," the sergeant said. He held up a crude knot of tangled threads, strung with crystals and wooden beads, much weathered but still recognisable as a charm.
"And what do her neighbours say?" asked Arthur, looking at the peasants and fixing on a middle-aged woman who was hovering on the edge of the group, wringing her hands in her apron. She came forward in a rush and fell to her knees. "Please, Sire," she cried. "She is my old mother and touched in the head. She means no harm. It's just for good luck, Sire. It's what people always did when she was a lass and she's like to a child herself, now. I beg you, have mercy."
Looking over her head to the rest of the villagers, Arthur asked, "And you, what do you, her neighbours, say?"
One by one the villagers came forward to support the woman's claims that her mother was touched in the head, but harmless. "Still good with a spindle," one young woman reported. "And happy to watch over the little ones, when we're out in the fields."
Arthur listened carefully to their testimony, smiling encouragement when they faltered. Once they had all had their turn, he nodded thoughtfully. He did not look at Merlin. "There is no case to answer here," he said. "The old woman is obviously not of her full wits. But even if she were, such charms are not of themselves evil. It is the intent and the result that matters. In this case, I see no intent to harm and no harm resulting." He waved his hand at the old woman and her daughter. "You are free to go," he said. "And, as long as I receive no reports of you using your charms for evil purposes, you are free to hang them in the trees, if that will help your orchard to prosper."
Merlin, who had been watching the old woman and trying to assess her for injuries, looked up in surprise and Arthur caught his eye, smiling in a way that did not touch his lips.
The guard stepped back from his charge and her daughter immediately scrambled forward to help her to her feet. "Thank you, Sire," she cried. "Thank you, thank you."
With a nod of acknowledgement, Arthur walked past her to where Bran was still waiting. After a moment of amazed hesitation, Merlin hurried after him.
During the ride through the streets towards the east gate, Arthur rode ahead and Merlin allowed him to do so. He spent his time looking around at the people, attempting to judge their mood from the way they watched Arthur. In the lower town, faded graffiti on the walls depicted Uther engaged in acts that would have got the artist executed, if Uther had known of it. It was almost reassuring that the only graffiti of Arthur showed him with his arms around other men's shoulders.
Beyond the gates, Arthur slowed to allow Merlin to catch up and they rode for about two miles in silence. When they passed through the village of Copthorne, Arthur exchanged some conversation with the village elders, while Merlin again hung back, a model of respectful observance. It was not until they had entered the woods beyond Copthorne that Merlin asked, "Are we actually going anywhere?"
Arthur smiled ruefully. "No, not really. I just wanted to get some fresh air."
"Ah, right. The castle is a bit crowded, isn't it?"
A signal on the reins brought Bran to a halt and Merlin pulled up Tageth at his side. "It's stabilising," Arthur said. "Most of the nobles are with me, especially the younger ones. But some of their fathers are still waiting. Thankfully, there are not many viable pretenders."
"Connal, Lamorak. Even Blane could make a claim. But they all have too many enemies, themselves. If they won the crown, they'd have trouble holding on to it. I have the advantage there."
"She is gone. If she married, her husband might try. But I don't think she would easily submit to wedded rule."
"She would rather usurp the throne by herself. You would hear, if she did get married, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, if she married a man powerful enough to support her claim, even if it were across the sea in Frankland, I would hear."
To change the subject away from a topic that caused Arthur's brows to draw together and his shoulders to drop, Merlin smiled and said, "The common people seem content. I don't think the Copthorne washerwoman would have given you a bunch of lavender, which I'm still carrying, you'll notice, if the populace was about to rise up in revolt."
That earned him a grin. "You smell lovely, dear," Arthur drawled.
Merlin snorted. He studied Arthur. "That was sort of brilliant, you know," he said. Arthur raised an eyebrow. "What you did. Before we left."
"I didn't do it just for you. There are rumours of magic in a number of the powerful families."
"I don't care; I'm still grateful." He paused, grinned again and with conscious cheer added, "And you just revoked your first law."
Arthur threw back his head and laughed. "Yes, I did, didn't I?" he agreed. His face suddenly looked more relaxed than it had in weeks. As soon as he was back within the walls of Camelot he would be, once again, besieged by calls for his attention, but it was good to see the prince breaking free from the cage of the king, even if it was only for a short while.
Mary's body had been returned to her family for burial, by the time Merlin got back to Gaius' room, and Gaius was scrubbing at his table with grim determination. Merlin took the rag from his hands. "Let me," he said. "I've not forgotten how to clean your workshop in a few days." He started to wipe up the excess water Gaius had allowed to spread everywhere, swiped it over the edge of the table and back into its bucket. "You should get yourself another assistant."
Gaius slumped down on a stool, his hands hanging slackly between his knees. "I demonstrated the marks to the witnesses, so they can testify," he said. He looked up at Merlin. "Lord Isen surprised me by his questions. He's a more intelligent young man than you give him credit. And seemed to take his task seriously."
Merlin hurumphed. "He's rude and overbearing," he said, spreading sand across the table top and starting to scrub the surface in earnest. "You should have seen how he talked to John Ostler when he arrived. And all bows and smiles for Arthur, a moment later."
"He's young," Gaius said. "He can't have more than nineteen years to his name. And his own father died less than six months ago."
"Fine, I get that he's young. But I'll still wait and judge for myself, thanks."
Gaius gave a mock sniff. "My boy," he lamented. "All grown up."
Merlin threatened to throw the rag at him and grinned back, but he sobered when he asked, "Were you able to get anything more from Mary's body than you said in Court?"
Smoothing his robe over his knees. Gaius sighed. "Yes, the bruises on her neck and thighs were clear to see, by this afternoon. They were a man's hands. Bigger than mine. About the size of Lord Isen's. And there was a small cut where it appears a ring with a large stone had turned on his finger."
"Many men wear rings with large stones," Merlin observed, "although I can't remember if Lord Isen does."
"If he does, he didn't have it on today. His ring was a plain gold signet."
"Lord Broga will say that it's all circumstantial and the word of a commoner, against that of a noble."
"So he will. Which is, I suppose, why Arthur sent Sir Kay and Lord Isen to bear witness."
Merlin nodded and concentrated his efforts on a dark stain near the end of the table top. He'd managed to shift most of it before he paused and looked across at Gaius. "You really should get yourself another assistant."
Gaius smiled. "How could I find another to match you?" he asked.
Merlin's own smile grew into a grin and he returned to his scrubbing while Gaius chuckled and hauled himself to his feet to fetch the broom.
On his way back to his room to change for supper and, more importantly, to check that Arthur's best robes were set out and waiting for him, Merlin fell in with Sir Brolin, who accompanied him on his way. "For want of anything better to do," he said.
Together they turned the corner in the stairs and Lords Connal and Lamorak came into view in the hall below. So engrossed in their conversation were they, that they didn't see Brolin and Merlin until they were almost upon them. When they did, they broke apart.
Connal laughed and slapped Lamorak on the shoulder. "Very funny, My Lord," he said. "I'll be sure to tell Sir Huw that one."
He turned to Brolin and gave a slight bow. "Sir Brolin, it's good to see you, I was just asking Lamorak here about the king's new policy on witchcraft. The rumours are flying around the castle like wildfire. You were there, weren't you? Maybe you can enlighten me?"
Brolin frowned. "I was nearby, My Lord, and it seemed clear enough to me. No need for rumours. The king revoked his father's law against sorcery."
"So I heard, but I scarcely believed it. It seems... well, in truth, it seems rash. I understand that young men must make their mark, but you'll agree, such a gesture, it is a trifle extreme."
"I believe the king's judgement is that it is the intent and result of the act that must be judged a crime, rather than the use of magic, per se." Brolin turned to Merlin. "Do I have it right, Merlin?" he asked.
Merlin opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say anything, Lord Connal interrupted. "Sir Brolin," he said. "Your word is quite enough for me. I feel fully informed as a result. Tell me, are you going to the hall? Maybe I could keep you company on the way?" He turned to Lord Lamorak. "I'll see you later, at supper, My Lord, and you can recount your amusing story to Sir Huw, yourself, yes?"
Meanwhile, Brolin looked to Merlin, who took a step back, saying, "I, I just remembered, I left my bag in Gaius' room," he said. "Don't concern yourself with me. You were heading to the hall, weren't you?"
"I was, but I'm not in any hurry, if you need a hand with anything?"
"No, no, I'll be fine. I'll see you later." He turned and hurried back the way they'd come, keeping his head high until he rounded the corner of the stairs.
That evening, Merlin paid particular attention to who sat where at the evening meal. He noted who spoke to whom and who was too engrossed in their conversations to listen to the minstrels and laugh at the jugglers. He saw how people mixed after the meal was over and the tables were pulled back to clear the centre of the floor for dancing.
Standing alone against the wall, he was watching the procession of couples down the length of the hall when Kay wandered over to stand next to him. He glanced up gratefully and smiled.
Kay nodded. "Not going to dance?" he asked.
Merlin shook his head. "It's all a bit too stately for me. I'd probably step on my partner's foot, if I could even find a partner willing to stand up with me."
"You have the King's favour," Kay said. "You might be surprised."
"I haven't seen you dancing, either," Merlin observed. He nodded over to where Lady Andrivete was sitting with her father. "And nor is your lady."
For a brave and fearless knight, Kay suddenly looked, and sounded, rather nervous. "Um, no, she's, she's not my lady."
Casting a sly glance up at him, Merlin said, "But you'd like her to be."
Kay hitched his belt and tugged at the hem of his tunic. He almost shuffled his feet, but he didn't say anything to contradict Merlin's assertion. "You should ask her," Merlin said. "Her father couldn't object to you. And she... I mean, even your father would approve."
"He would," Kay agreed. He was silent for a moment then he sighed. "She is beautiful," he said. "And sweet. And she runs her father's house admirably."
Merlin elbowed him in the ribs. "It's only a dance," he said. "You're not proposing marriage."
"How have you been here so long and remained so innocent?" Kay asked, rubbing at his side as if Merlin had actually hurt him. "It's never just a dance. This is the marriage market. If I ask her to dance, again, tonight... I'm not sure I'm ready to put myself up for sale."
"Ah." Merlin nodded. "So that bunch of flowers I saw you with, earlier, was not a gift for the Lady Andrivete?"
"Bugger off." Kay said, but he was smiling when he said it. He fell silent again and shortly after he left Merlin's side to wander in the general direction of Lord Blane and his beautiful daughter. Ten minutes later he was leading her into the dance.
Merlin wandered around the edge of the room, to where Brolin and Bedwyr were talking together. They seemed to be watching, with a degree of fixity, a young man who was proceeding down the dance with an exceedingly young lady on his arm.
Merlin joined them. "What are we watching?" he asked after a few minutes of silent contemplation.
Without looking away from the young man, Brolin explained, "Bedwyr has a bet with Dagonet that young Cas, there, will trip over his own feet, as soon as they start to Strip the Willow."
"Either that, or twirl the wrong partner and end up dancing with Kay," added Bedwyr. "Dago says he's not as bad as all that."
Merlin considered the young man. "So you are staring at him like this, to unnerve him enough that he does trip?"
Brolin cast him a quick glance before returning his fixed regard to the young man. "Just helping a friend," he said.
"Who is he?" Merlin asked.
"Lamorak's whelp," Bedwyr said, his tone causing Merlin to look at him sharply.
"You don't like him?" he asked.
"I'm not over fond of the stock he comes from."
At that moment the music shifted and Cas of Lamorak and his partner, as the top couple, linked arms to twirl on the spot. They broke apart to twirl once with their opposites in the second couple, before coming together again for a single turn in the middle. Breaking apart again, they began to weave their way down the set, spinning with each couple in turn and meeting to twirl once in the middle, in between.
All was fine, until halfway down the set Cas wrong-footed himself and missed the sixth lady entirely, leaving him stranded between the two lines and waiting for his partner. There was laughter from the other couples and Cas's face turned bright red. He kept his head down, watching his feet, for the rest of the dance and slunk away afterwards, towards a dark corner.
Bedwyr watched him go with a nostalgic smile. "By the gods, but I wouldn't be sixteen again for an earldom," he said.
Brolin laughed. "He'll get over it; he's a nice enough lad. He's not like his father. Speaking of which," he said looking at Merlin, "are you all right?"
"Why wouldn't he be?" Bedwyr asked, before Merlin could gather his wits to reply. "Who's been causing trouble?"
"Connal and Lamorak, the elder Lamorak, were being boorish earlier."
"Hey, you two, I'm standing right here," Merlin said. "And I'm fine. I don't need two brave knights rushing to defend my honour. I'll get accustomed. And so will they." He looked from Brolin to Bedwyr and back again. "It's a compliment, really," he said wryly. "I was never important enough to be noticed before."
The dancing went on until well after the last light had faded from the windows. It was not until the hall began to grow uncomfortably hot and smoky from the torches that were lit around the walls, that Arthur signalled the conclusion of the celebrations by withdrawing. Merlin stayed to speak to Gwen, who was dousing the lights while servants damped down the fire and cleared the board, but then he followed. Big suppers and dances were all very well, but there would be a general feeling of relief among the inhabitants of the castle when all the visitors eventually decided to take their leave.
Arthur was true to his word and Mary's murder was the first item of business in the afternoon meeting of Court the next day. Arthur, coming straight from instructing his knights and bowmen in some new manoeuvre on the practice field, hurried into his chamber where Merlin was waiting for him. He strode in, snatched his crown from the table and jammed it on his head, before spinning around and attempting to leave.
Merlin thwarted his intent by staring at the latch until it clicked closed and then physically grabbing him by the back of his jerkin. "Sire, you can't go down like that."
Twisting around, Arthur scowled. "Merlin, unhand me," he demanded. "I can and I will. I'm late."
"You're the king; you can't be late," Merlin said, although he released his hold and held both hands up in the air, palms facing Arthur.
"Exactly. That's what I said. I set the time, so I need to be there."
As he pulled open the door, Merlin said, "Sure; if you want all your visitors to lose their respect for you."
Arthur's scowl deepened but he did pause and push the door closed again. He studied Merlin and seemed to be weighing his options. Merlin held his gaze, still with his hands raised in surrender. Arthur walked back into the room and Merlin came forward to meet him. He lifted the crown from Arthur's head and placed it back on the table. It was a circlet of gold, similar in form to the one Arthur wore as a prince, but set with precious stones and with rich enamel work around its rim. Merlin ran his hand over the design, feeling the tingle of power against the pads of his fingers.
Arthur dragged his jerkin and shirt over his head, dropping them on the floor. Hiding his smile, Merlin went to the wardrobe to fetch Arthur's formal, red gown, while Arthur toed off his boots and shed his breeches.
"I amaze myself, but I do still cling to the hope that one day you'll learn to treat your king with some respect," Arthur said, picking up the wet cloth hanging over the side of the bowl of water Merlin had placed ready and sponging himself down.
Merlin passed him a dry towel and then his clean shirt. "Even kings may dream, Sire," he said.
Once Arthur had pulled on his clean clothes, Merlin held up his robe for him to slip his arms into. He complied with a sigh, pulling the front closed and attempting to do it up.
Merlin smacked his hands away and took over tying the laces himself. "Keeping your court waiting is your privilege," he said. "Gwen told me so, so it must be true."
Arthur gave him an incredulous look. "Are you trying to tell me that Gwen said I should be late? Because I don't believe you."
"Not exactly. She said, 'punctuality is the duty of subjects and the politeness of kings'.” He looked into Arthur's eyes and smiled. Leaning forward a few inches, he pressed his lips to Arthur's, but pulled away before the kiss could develop into anything more. He stood back. "You'll do," he said. "Very kingly."
Arthur snorted. "Come along then," he said, leading the way out of the room.
The Great Hall was packed, news of the previous day's events having dragged in more curious sightseers. Merlin positioned himself to the side of the dais, where he could see both Arthur's face and the crowd.
There were many he still did not know, including visiting dignitaries from other kingdoms, come as ambassadors from their own kings. Lords Kenzie, Connal and Moren stood together. They were old friends of Uther and although they had not spent much time at court, of late years, they had been there often enough for Merlin to have observed them with Arthur. Lords Isen, Lamorak and Calan, the Earl of Haveshum Magna, were the most prominent new faces among those who owed allegiance to Camelot.
Having taken his seat, Arthur called Kay and Lord Isen forward and they recounted what they'd seen, much as Gaius had described it to Merlin the day before.
When they had finished, Arthur looked around and let out a huff of impatience. "Send for Lord Broga," he instructed. "He has a right to defend himself against these charges."
Lord Isen hesitated, took a noticeable breath and bowed slightly. "Does that mean you're charging him, Sire?" he asked.
Only the initiated would have recognised the flicker of surprise and Arthur quickly straightened both his expression and his shoulders. "Yes," he said. "The murder of any of Camelot's citizens is not to be tolerated, whether they be lord, freeman, or villein. The law will see justice."
Lord Isen bowed his acquiescence and Kay signalled to the sergeant and two guards, who hurried after him as he strode out. Lord Isen withdrew to the far side of the room, under the windows. Arthur caught Merlin's eye and signalled him to come closer.
"That is a revolutionary approach to the law," Merlin observed when he was near enough that no one else could hear.
With a slight smile and speaking equally quietly, Arthur said, "It's opportune. I need a gesture that clearly marks my difference. Lord Broga's holdings are not large, but they are strategic."
"I hope it won't come back and bite you in the future, this levelling of worth," Merlin murmured.
Arthur laughed softly. "Don't try to sound too wise, Merlin," he replied. "It doesn't suit you. You'll strain something and it might be something I want later."
Allowing himself a smile in return, Merlin asked, "My fine wit and intelligence, you mean?"
"Something like that," Arthur agreed. He became serious again and added, almost wearily, "No precedent is ever so clear that it can't be circumvented at need," then looked away around the room. Merlin responded to the unspoken request and stepped back a pace.
Time passed, but Arthur made no move to fill it with other business. Merlin studied the crowd, taking the opportunity to memorise more of the badges they wore on their shoulders and breasts: Lord BaIloch's oak tree on a blue ground, Lord Oran's griffin, Lord Isen's stooping eagle, Lord Connal's wren, Lord Lamorak's boar. Lord Lamorak was standing against the back wall, a slight smile on his lips, as if he found the proceedings amusing, which disappeared when Merlin accidentally caught his eye. Merlin gave him a slight bow, which he returned stiffly.
Lady Kenzie had edged her way to the front of the crowd, her hands on her young son's shoulders, pushing him to the fore. He was wearing his father's stag rampant, although it would be ten years before he was old enough bear arms in earnest.
Against the wall to the right of the dais, Gwen was standing next to a servant holding a large jug and she signalled Merlin to ask if she should send him forward. Merlin bent down to Arthur's ear. "Would you like some wine?" he asked. Arthur shook his head, without turning to look at him. Merlin grimaced at Gwen and she sent the servant away through the side door that led to the kitchens.
By the time they had waited for twenty minutes, even Arthur was beginning to look uncomfortable, although only those closest to him would have recognised the signs from the way his fingers tightened on the arms of his throne.
Finally, the great doors opened and Sir Kay strode back in. He marched up the Hall to stand in front of the dais and bowed. "Sire, Lord Broga is not in the castle," he reported. "He was seen leaving on horseback, at speed, mere moments before we went to find him." A muttering rose in the room. "I sent the men to track him," Kay said, "but his horse is fast. I doubt they'll catch him."
"Unfortunate," Arthur said. He looked around the room and stood. "Lord Broga has forced my hand" he announced. "By running he has proclaimed his guilt."
Among those gathered on the floor of the hall, heads nodded in agreement with his judgement.
Arthur raised his voice further, to reach the whole court. "He has declared himself a coward and a traitor. We will ride to flush him out of his hole." He waited for the first shock of new whispers to die down. "Sir Kay, Sir Leon," he said, "A word, if you would."
The rest of the court, recognising dismissal, began to trickle out of the Hall. Merlin glanced once at Arthur's face and followed the crowd.
Over the next three weeks, Merlin watched Arthur perform superhuman feats of endurance. He would get up before sunrise and brief his stewards while breaking his fast. As soon as it was light, he was out on the training field. Merlin still didn't understand what he was doing with his repetitive exercises, but it seemed to involve a lot of Arthur leading groups of knights on horseback, charging back and forth. It was not like in the tournament melee, where they rode at each other in two lines across a field. Arthur split his knights into small groups who rode in close formation. They thundered down the field and crashed through walls of wattle and stakes, after which they'd return to where they'd started while the makeshift barrier was repaired, only to do it all again.
On a clear spring morning in the second week, Merlin returned from gathering fresh herbs along the banks of the River Cama and a few hidden places, further into the forest. The narrow path was hemmed in on either side by hedgerows that were themselves supported by huge standard trees, so it was not until he reached the stile and had clambered over it onto the castle path that he saw Arthur leaning at his apparent ease against the low fence that separated the path from the water meadow.
Arthur was watching a tight group of eight knights charge up the field, with lances couched, into a line of shields mounted on poles. Merlin paused and propped himself beside him. The old wood was soft under his hands, weathered smooth by years of sun, wind and rain. A fly buzzed around his face and he swatted ineffectually at it. "Edgar says it will take ten or twelve more weeks to gather all the men and supplies required to support this enterprise," he said.
Arthur flashed him a quick smile before returning to his observation of his men. "Robert will make it ten. As soon as the sowing is done. But I've already sent out the call, telling the Lords that they are to come ahead of their men. I have work for them."
"This work?" Merlin asked. "What are they doing, anyway?"
Arthur nodded towards the mounted knights. "They are each accustomed to using a lance against another single knight. And they know how to ride against massed infantry, but now they're learning to act together, as one unit. The impact of eight or ten horse in close formation will be far greater than if they act alone. The ancients called them cataphracts. They will be my battering ram."
He watched as the knights crashed into the line of posts. "I need to talk to the armourers about better protection for the horses," he said.
Placing his hand on Merlin's shoulder, he gave it a squeeze, before vaulting over the fence and striding across the field to intercept the knights as they walked their horses back to their starting position.
Merlin shook his head in bewilderment and went to deliver the herbs to Gaius, and to see if he needed any help in preparing them.
After breakfast one morning a few days later, when Edgar had finally left, Arthur paused at the door to say, "There's a wind today, so I'm going to see the archers. Come with me?"
Merlin fell into step beside him and they wandered down towards the lower field. A large group of archers were already there, shooting from a distance at white bed sheets pegged out on the ground. "In combat, accurate archery is a huge advantage," Arthur said. "Clout shooting is the best way to instil good judgement of range and wind." He pointed towards a smaller group who were also shooting, in spite of the presence of a herd of cows between them and their target. "The Sergeant of Archers has the best over there."
"Isn't that dangerous?" Merlin asked. "For the cows, I mean."
Arthur grinned. "War is dangerous, Merlin," he said. "They have to hit the target, not the cows. If any of the cows is killed, the archer gets the carcass, but he has to compensate the herder for the loss. We've had very few cow casualties, all things considered, and they're getting better at hitting the targets, too. They will be my elite. The rest are learning to fire long, so they can harry the enemy's rear, but the best will be able to shoot at the enemy's front lines, even when our own men draw close.
Day after day, Arthur seemed to be everywhere at once, never stopping until evening fell. Only then would he retire indoors to receive reports from the manors and villages, and to begin the paperwork associated with gathering and supplying an army.
It was more than one man could do, even with Edgar's and Robert's expertise in their own areas. Merlin left Gaius to his gathering and cataloguing of medical supplies, to work on the papers in Arthur's room as soon as Arthur left in the morning. As the days went by, he learned to differentiate between what was important enough to refer to Arthur and what he could deal with himself. When Arthur returned, he would glance through the pile Merlin had marked as routine and concentrate on those reports Merlin referred to him. It was painstaking work - cross-referencing the offers of supplies from manors, farms and villages across the kingdom, reported by Edgar and Robert, with what Arthur said he would need, as his army grew and his plans began to take definite form. Even with Merlin's help, he was operating on only a few hours of sleep each night.
Slowly more men arrived in Camelot, sent by their lords in ones, twos and threes, as they could be spared from the land. The inns were full of those who could pay. Townsfolk rented out space in their homes and stables to others, while part of the castle undercroft was converted into a dormitory. The days lengthened as spring began to wax towards early summer and the sparrows' nest in the eaves above Merlin's window emptied and fell silent.
During the fifth week of preparations, Arthur dragged Merlin down to the field again, to see the improvements they had made in the ordering of the army's movements.
The herd of cows was gone. "Just as well," Merlin said, slapping his hand on the top of the crooked fence that seemed to have taken some damage over the weeks. "You'd lose a whole herd of them through here, if the field wasn't full of men to stop them." Arthur directed his attention to the activity in the meadow.
At the far end, a young boy blew a blast on a horn and a line of foot soldiers started to run across the field, their round shields held above their heads, towards a line of tall shields braced against posts and with their pointed bases stuck into the ground. A sergeant stood next to the boy, watching their movements with a critical eye. Another blast sent them running back the way they'd come and they returned to their starting place. The sergeant strode across to them and said something that Merlin couldn't hear.
"Watch this," Arthur said.
After a while, the sergeant retreated and the boy blew his horn again. The men started to run. When they were more than half way to the line of shields, a small knot of horsemen spurred into action and charged after them. The sergeant put his hand on the boy's shoulder and the boy blew again. Without slowing their pace, the foot soldiers spread apart, allowing the knights through. The knights galloped towards the line of shields and crashed into them, flattening most and sending some flying through the air. The foot soldiers followed, using their own shields to knock down any that remained standing.
Arthur left Merlin's side. "Good," he shouted. "That was well done. Now do it again."
Late one evening in the middle of the sixth week after Arthur's declaration of war, Merlin realised that he had just cancelled receipt of three tons of charcoal for the blacksmiths, instead of confirming it. In his attempts to correct his error, he splattered ink across the list he had spent the previous hour annotating.
Arthur, sitting opposite him, looked up and although his grin was tired, it was there. "Just when I think you have the makings of a half decent clerk," he observed, placing his own quill carefully on its stand.
"Sorry," Merlin said. He managed a twisted grin of his own. "I feel it's my duty to live down to your expectations." Placing his hands flat on the table top, he pushed himself to his feet. "I'll clean it once it's dry. I know where I was on the list." He reached across the desk. "My eyes are fuzzy and I'm making mistakes. Robert left two hours ago and you look exhausted. Come to bed. You'll be no good for anything, if a child can knock you over on the field tomorrow."
The expression of offence was fleeting. Arthur sighed and stretched his arms above his head, with his fingers linked. "Yes," he agreed when he'd relaxed and allowed them to fall again. He took Merlin's offered hand. "Yes."
Merlin walked around the desk. "I never realised that war was such hard work," he said.
Arthur allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. He placed his free hand gently on the nape of Merlin's neck. "I fought in my first skirmish and killed my first man at fourteen. I led my first charge at fifteen and was my father's lieutenant at eighteen. I'm an old hand at this."
Merlin leaned forward to touch his forehead to Arthur's. "And I dream of the day when you will be free of that need," he said. "But that time isn't now, so come to bed, My Lord."
As he had hoped, that raised a smile. "So deferential," Arthur murmured.
"Only occasionally," Merlin said, stepping back towards the bedroom and pulling Arthur with him.
"Thank the gods," Arthur agreed.
Gwaine and Lancelot arrived together the next day. Merlin had left Arthur asleep, having unilaterally decided that he needed far more rest than he would willingly allow himself. He also cancelled Arthur's morning meeting with Edgar.
For himself, he retreated to the top of the tower that housed Gaius' workshop, in search of a quiet place to think. Standing, leaning against the battlements, he watched the sun rise over the hills to the south-east. The stone was cold under his hands but the air was fresh and clean and he breathed in deeply, enjoying the solitude.
He spotted the two horsemen from a distance and followed their progress with mild attention, while he made a mental list of his tasks for the day. They drew gradually closer until, just before they reached the town gates, he knew them. Spinning around he ran down the stairs to Arthur's rooms, where he found his king dressed and irritably shuffling through the papers on his desk, but his face lit up at Merlin's news.
Arthur met them at the foot of the steps, in the courtyard, just as they were dismounting from their tired horses. "Lancelot!" he cried.
Striding forward, he embraced Lancelot before Lancelot could bow, or kneel, or do anything except turn in surprise at the greeting. Arthur released him and turned to his companion. "And Gwaine?"
"My Lord," Gwaine said, bowing with a flourish.
"You put out the call within your borders," Lancelot explained." You can't imagine that it wasn't heard beyond them." Belatedly he also bowed and instead of straightening after, he went down on one knee before Arthur. Lifting his head he looked Arthur straight in the eyes. "My liege," he said. "If you'll have me."
Beside him, Gwaine also dropped to one knee and echoed, "My liege."
Visibly pleased, Arthur placed a hand on one of each of their shoulders. "I will have you and gladly," he said and raising his voice announced, "Arise as knights of Camelot."
As they clambered back to their feet, Merlin stepped up behind Arthur and Gwaine spotted him. His eyes lit up and Arthur turned to see what had caught his attention. "Ah, my Chief Counsellor," he said beckoning Merlin forward. Lancelot shot him a startled look but Gwaine merely grinned and engulfed Merlin in a bear hug.
When he released him, Lancelot's greeting was a more decorous double hand clasp, but Merlin wasn't having that and pulled him into a hug also.
Arthur took their arrival as a sign and instead of leaving them to settle and returning to his papers, he dragged them down to the water meadow where the sergeants and knights were still repeating the manoeuvres they'd been practising for weeks. Merlin watched them go and turned back to organise the stabling of their horses before going to find Gwen to ask her if there were any rooms free for two old friends.
That night, Arthur was more relaxed than Merlin had seen him in weeks. It was as if the arrival of the two reprobates had given him new energy. "They've been across the sea and fought in other lands," he explained, as Merlin chivvied him into his court dress. "They understand what I'm doing. I think I can give them each a command." He paused. "Certainly Lancelot."
When they entered the Great Hall, Gwaine was already at the far end, dressed in the uniform of Camelot. The gathered Knights made a proud sight in their red cloaks with their own arms, and the Camelot dragon, on their shoulders and breasts. Elsewhere, the room was filled with a rainbow of colours and a menagerie of arms.
Merlin scanned the room, looking for Gwen, but she was not yet there. As Castle Chatelaine, she would normally be among the first to arrive, having overseen the last minute arrangements, before completing a lightning change from apron to formal gown, but on this occasion she appeared to be late. Neither had Lancelot yet appeared.
Arthur took his seat, with Merlin on his right. The two chairs on his left were empty, but Gwaine came and sat next to Merlin. Merlin raised his eyebrows questioningly but before Gwaine or Arthur could explain, the great doors opened again and Lancelot appeared with Gwen on his arm.
They walked up the centre of the hall, a buzz of muted outrage and speculation following them. More than one great lord or lady watched with patent disapproval as Lancelot, now also resplendent in Camelot red, led the king's housekeeper to the top table.
Arthur stood to greet them, taking Gwen's hand across the board when she rose from her curtsy and leaning forward to raise it to his lips. She blushed and curtsied again while Lancelot grinned, looking as pleased as if he had just been granted his most ardent desire.
"Welcome, Sir Lancelot, Griffin Slayer," Arthur said for all to hear.
Lancelot led Gwen around the table and sat her in the leftmost of the two empty chairs, while he took the one between her and Arthur. "I did not kill the griffin, Sire," he said quietly.
Arthur smiled. "You may have had help, but you struck the blow. And you went against it, knowing it to be indestructible without the magic you did not know would come. I think the title is well-earned."
Since Arthur was engaged with Lancelot, allowing the court to absorb this change in precedence by ignoring it, Merlin turned to Gwaine. "You knew about this?" he asked.
Gwaine shrugged. "I heard him ask Arthur if he might bring her as his guest and I heard Arthur agree."
"He just out and asked?" Merlin said.
"I might have said something." Gwaine grinned. "You haven't had to put up with him and his maudlinism for the last six months. Too bloody noble. And no fun, besides. Full of tragic self-denial for the lady's own good. As if a blind man couldn't see where Arthur's heart lay."
Merlin placed a hand on Gwaine's forearm and gave it a squeeze. "I'm glad you did," he said.
He turned to his other side, to find that Arthur and Lancelot were already deep in talk, apparently continuing a conversation begun that afternoon. "How many battles have you fought?" Arthur asked. "Not single-handed, one-to-one fights, but full battles, with armies and a command structure and tactics decided and sent down from above, that must be followed?"
"I was at Peterton last year."
"On which side?"
Lancelot's smile was wry. "The losing one."
"I'd be interested in your impressions of Lunn," Arthur said with a grimace of sympathy." I heard it was a rout."
"Tell me more. Was the victory a result of greater might, or did Lunn use some trick to fool your leaders."
"I think I can safely say that it was our lack of leaders that was our biggest problem."
Arthur clapped him on the shoulder. "I still want to hear it..." He paused, "But maybe not right now. I think your lady needs to be rescued."
Merlin peered past them both, wondering which guest had the gall to try and victimise Gwen at the king's own table. He immediately saw the problem. Gwen was far from being picked on; the lady at her left had virtually turned her back in her eagerness to speak with her other neighbour. Lancelot acknowledged the command, and the permission. He picked up the wine flask from the table, pouring some into Gwen's cup and offered it to her. Soon they were conversing quietly, quite obviously in a world of their own.
Meanwhile, on Merlin's other side Gwaine seemed to have struck up an unlikely friendship with Leon. The wild-man-half-tamed, that was Gwaine, with sober Leon; it seemed an unlikely partnership, but half listening to their conversation while he talked to Arthur, Merlin thought that 'unlikely' might work.
Arthur did not sit up late. It was barely eight o'clock when he turned to Merlin and whispered, "I'm for bed. You won't be long?"
Merlin looked past Arthur and suggested, "I think we could persuade Lancelot and Gwen to leave with us, for appearance sake?"
Arthur nodded and turned to speak to Lancelot. The four of them stood and Arthur signalled everybody else to remain as they were. They left together, a group of old friends going to catch up on news in private.
Outside the hall, they were met by one of Edgar's junior clerks. "Sire," he said, bowing low. "A messenger has just arrived from the border."
"Bring him forth," Arthur said. A man in the leather armour of a common soldier stepped forward and went to one knee on the flags before him. Merlin, Lancelot and Gwen hung back, but close enough to hear.
"Sire," the soldier said. "I bring news from Escetia. Cenred has gathered an army. Two days ago he marched into Lord Broga's lands. No resistance was offered and he is now in the castle."
Arthur nodded. "I thank you for your speedy arrival," he said. "This is not unexpected. Tomorrow morning I want you to sit down with a clerk and let him record everything you have seen and everything you have gathered from your spies. But now, go with the sergeant and get some food and rest."
The man left and Arthur mounted the stairs to his rooms. Merlin, Lancelot and Gwen followed. He paused outside his door.
"Does this change anything, Sire?" Lancelot asked.
"No. Cenred would have challenged, soon, even without an invitation from Broga. But that is a concern for tomorrow, when we have the full reports. For now, my thanks to you both," he nodded to both Lancelot and Gwen, "for allowing me to escape the hall. Lancelot, meet with me for breakfast and bring Gwaine, Kay, Isen and Leon with you. We'll talk more then."
Lancelot and Merlin bowed and Gwen made a small curtsey. With a nod Arthur entered his room and closed the door behind him. Merlin walked with Gwen and Lancelot, the short distance to his own door, where he bid them goodnight. They replied in kind and he watched them walk away. This war would delay their union, since Lancelot was too in love with virtue to consider taking advantage of Gwen, even if she wished him to do so, but it was clear that when he returned, there would be a wedding.
On that thought, Merlin unlocked his door and entered. Once inside, with the key safely turned again, he hurried across the room and through the connecting door to Arthur's chamber.
Arthur was standing by the window, one foot on the window seat and his elbow braced on his knee. He'd shed his formal robes, but was otherwise still dressed. He straightened when Merlin approached and turned to him.
"Does this change anything?" Merlin asked.
"It is not wholly unexpected." Arthur shrugged ruefully. "But yes, it means that war with Escetia is upon us sooner than I had hoped."
"What if they stay holed up in Broga's castle. Are we able to lay a siege?
"Broga is deceiving himself, if he thinks Cenred has come to help him to the throne of Camelot. Cenred will persuade him to open battle. A siege would not see our defeat, since we could withdraw back here."
"But that would be bad?"
"That would be disastrous. If I had fifteen or twenty victories behind me, I could lift a siege and do myself no harm, but if I lose my first engagement? It would mark me as a weak king and the watching jackals would close in for the kill."
Arthur went over to his desk, picked up a parchment and put it down again without even glancing at it. He looked at Merlin from under his brows. "But Cenred would not get the whole kingdom for himself, if that happened. No, he knows that if Escetia can defeat Camelot on the open field, he can take it all. "
"You have no other option than to win, then," Merlin said.
"Which I fully intend to do. I have right on my side, after all and Justa bella ulciscuntur injuria"
"Just wars avenge injury? I suppose that's true, but it sounds like a quote."
Arthur grinned. "Well done. It is. A priest of the new religion, called Augustine of Hippo, said it."
"You've been reading about the new religion?" Merlin asked, pulling a face.
"I read everything I can. I was raised on the classics, but now I want to hear the new ideas, as well." He took Merlin's hand. "But that doesn't mean I am about to reject our traditional beliefs to embrace their teachings."
"Which traditional beliefs would those be?" Merlin asked, smiling. "Your Saxon ones, or the older ones the druids hold to?"
"I have room for both," Arthur replied. "If they are even very separate, after all this time. Why would I doubt them, when I share my bed with a manifestation of their truth?"
With a bark of laughter, Merlin asked, "Is that what I am?"
"What you are is a man who is keeping me from my rest with daytime talk," Arthur replied, crowding him towards the bedroom. "Leave it for now. Tomorrow is soon enough to concern ourselves with the implications of Escetia joining against us."
The next morning, Leon, Lancelot, Gwaine and Lord Isen gathered around the table in Arthur's office and Arthur locked eyes with each of them in turn, returning to settle on Lord Isen. "Isen, you come from those parts. Do you know the castle?"
"Yes, Sire, I know it well, but Broga won't wait there for us. He'll meet us at the borders of his lands."
"You're sure of that? He won't remain in his stronghold and wait to withstand a siege?"
"No, Sire. His richest land is on this side. And his major source of revenue, from the tolls he charges on trade. He won't want our army seizing that, so he'll not wait." He smiled. "In any case, I've known him since I was a child, our families being neighbours, for all that he is of my father's generation, and he's not patient enough. He never was."
Arthur nodded. "He can't move to meet us. That would be an open act of rebellion. Yes, by waiting at the border he can still claim that I am the aggressor and he an innocent man provoked into defending himself."
"I'm sure he thinks he can argue that case, afterwards, if he survives." Lord Isen did not voice the possibility of Lord Broga winning, but it was there in the air.
Arthur's voice was grimly amused. "Except, he's not going to need to argue his case."
"Of course not, Sire, although he doesn't know that yet." It seemed that Lord Isen knew how to turn a pretty line, to the people he felt worthy of it.
"Maps," Arthur said, going over to a shelf and pulling down a number of rolled parchments. "When Cenred besieged Camelot, I wasn't so occupied that I didn't see how he deployed. This day would have come. It comes sooner than I would have wished, but I'll not step back from the brink."
Merlin left them to their planning, since he knew there was little of use he could add. Instead, he went to his own room to spend the morning annotating lists and, when Arthur's meeting broke up and they all went down to the meadow, he spent the afternoon inspecting the stores again.
The expenditure required for mounting a war was phenomenal. That night he asked, "What about appeasement? You could save a lot of men and money by making peace."
Arthur frowned. "No, Merlin, I will not sue for peace. How can you suggest such a course?"
"Because people are whispering it behind your back and you should know that."
"Who?" Arthur asked. "Who is muttering about defeat, before we've taken one step beyond the town gates?"
"Sire, My Lord, My Love." Merlin raised his hands and cupped Arthur's face between them. "There is some muttering about why you would go to war over the killing of a servant girl. They don't understand. But they will. In time. You know I would tell you, if anything I heard came close to actual treason."
Arthur's eyes narrowed as he assessed Merlin's words and Merlin withstood the glare. "You need to pinch the whispers in the bud," Merlin said. "The sooner the better, but certainly before we leave."
Arthur stepped away from him, over to the window, where he stood, gazing out into the night. "You're not coming," he said.
"Of course I am," Merlin protested. "You need me. Cenred's used magic in the past. What if he does so again?"
Arthur swung around to face him. "No, you're not," he said harshly. "And that's my final word. I can't afford to have you anywhere near the battle, when it comes."
The argument went on for over an hour and Merlin slept alone that night.
Arthur was gone when Merlin got up the next morning, so he went to see Gaius, until Gaius threw him out, and then to sit on the steps in the courtyard. Leaning back on his elbows, he stretched his legs out and tilted his face up to catch the warmth of the sun.
Movement next to him caused him squint one eye open and tilt his head to see who it was. Gwen settled herself next to him and put her sewing basket on the step below. She pulled out a neatly folded bundle of white cloth. Shaking it out, she held up a shift with white embroidery around the hem and neck. There was a tear in the side seam, which she set to mending, all without a word, or even a look.
Merlin opened both eyes. "What?" he asked.
Gwen smiled and shrugged. "It's a beautiful day and I have some mending to do."
"But that's not why you're here."
"He said 'no', didn't he?"
"And you've come to tell me to stop being stupid. That Arthur has a point and I'd undermine him, if I went."
"Actually, yes," Gwen agreed, finishing her locking stitch and starting to sew the torn seam, swiftly and neatly. "If the army knew Arthur had brought a sorcerer with him, they would never know if it was he who won the battle, or you."
"The army? Half the people I call friends don't know I'm a sorcerer."
"Not yet," Gwen agreed.
Merlin sighed. He gazed up at the sky and the light haze of feathery clouds. "It's all show, isn't it?" he said eventually. "All bluff and show."
She glanced at him and there was a hint of pity in the slight wrinkle of her brow. "Yes, it is," she said. She held up the shift to the light. "What do you think?" she asked, "Would this look better with some colour in the flowers around the neck?"
Merlin ignored her question. "What if," he suggested, "Merlin the magician stayed at home, locked in his room, seen only by Gwen, and a certain old soldier," at Gwen's sceptical look he amended that to, "or groom, happened to go with the army?"
Gwen smiled brightly. "I think you need to set up a workshop of your own in Gaius' tower," she said.
Preparations continued. Arthur made a rousing speech about treachery and people who betrayed their kin to treat with the enemy. Merlin forgave Arthur for his cruelty and admitted that he had a valid point about taking magic into his first battle as king. The lords and knights continued to occupy every spare bed in the town and, with the spring sowing finally over, more foot soldiers and bowmen arrived to take up whatever space was left, or to add their tents and bed rolls to the growing village of men camped out in the fallow fields behind the castle. Until, eventually, it was done. The stores were being loaded onto carts and the army was finally ready to move. On the night before their departure, Arthur took one final turn around the walls with Merlin at his side.
"Let me come," Merlin said, one last time. They were standing closely together in a secluded nook, overlooking the river.
"We've been over this. No." Arthur sighed. He gazed across the fields towards the south-east, the direction in which the army would march the next morning. "They don't know you. But more importantly, they don't know me."
"You've been leading the army for years."
"But always under my father's rule." He placed a gentle finger against Merlin's lips. "It's not just now," he said. "It's later, when I declare you my sorcerer. I can't take a sorcerer on my first campaign."
Merlin bowed his head. "I know," he agreed. Looking up he added, "But I don't have to like it."
Arthur laid both hands on Merlin's shoulders, leaned forward and kissed him. "Nor do I," he said. "I'll miss you."
"I won't watch you go." Merlin said. Arthur looked wounded. "Well, I might," he conceded. "But I won't come down and say goodbye."
Arthur's mouth twisted, but he nodded. "I know," he said. "But I will come back."
"You'd better. I'm not sure who I'd put on the throne in your place if you didn't. You're taking all the best candidates with you."
"I'd choose Gwen, if I were you."
Nodding, Merlin managed a smile. "Right," he agreed, "Gwen it is."
Whispering against Merlin's lips, Arthur said, "On the other hand, I could just come back."
Merlin leaned into the kiss, tilting his head to deepen it. When they drew apart, he murmured, "You do that."
The sun had risen, but had not reached the courtyard when Arthur walked down the steps with Leon, Lord Isen and Gwaine. Each was resplendent in their red cloaks, with their coats of arms on their breast - Arthur's dragon, Gwaine's gold pentangle, Lord Isen's stooping eagle and Leon with his red lion rampant on a white ground. "Three days," Leon was saying. It sounded like the end of a longer speech and he seemed to have no more to add. Arthur grunted in preoccupied agreement.
"Cedric Longstaff's men arrived in the middle of the night," said Lord Isen. "Half of them boys and the other half witless. I doubt there's a one of them can hold a pike without tripping over it."
"I'll put them with Dicken," Arthur said. "He can march them back and forth and bring them in at the end, to mop up the stragglers."
He paused on the bottom step and looked around at the activity in the courtyard. Gwaine sidled nearer and leaned closer still. "How did he take it?" he asked.
At that Arthur did laugh. "Not well," he said. "You know Merlin; he's convinced that only he can keep me safe. He gives me no credit."
Leon looked around. "Where is Merlin?" he asked.
"In his new workshop, I think." Arthur appeared unconcerned by Merlin's defection but Leon raised an eyebrow and Arthur laughed again. "He's sulking," he explained. "Where's that man of mine?" He caught the eye of a tall, gangly man with grey hair and a grizzled beard who was hovering near the foot of the steps and called out, "You there, who's your master?"
"I have no master, Sire," the man replied. "I came to fight for my king."
"And your name?"
A groom approached, leading a tall bay horse. Lord Isen bowed and left Arthur's side to go and meet him.
"Well, Myrddin," Arthur said, "you work for me now. Go and tell my groom to bring my horse."
"And mine too," Leon said. "The grey with the black socks."
Myrddin avoided Arthur's eyes as he bowed. He hefted his pack onto his back, turned on his heels and hurried away, putting a slight hitch in his gait, in case Arthur was watching. Lord Isen approached, leading the tall bay, and Myrddin dodged around them on his way to the stables.
Arthur's groom, Alwin, already had Bran saddled, but Leon's groom was nowhere to be seen. Myrddin delivered his message and asked if he should ready the grey.
"Aye, like enough you should," Alwin said. "Bowen's probably saying farewell to his missus and likely to be late back. Serve him right if he has to run to catch up." He looked Myrddin up and down. "You know your way around tack?"
Myrddin assured him that he did and went to work to prove it. He asked Alwin to point him out the knight's equipment and fetched it at once to Betsy's stall when Alwin did so.
The familiar stable smelt of warm horse and fresh hay. Myrddin offered Betsy his hand to sniff and she whinnied gently, butting his shoulder in greeting. Myrddin laughed, running a hand down her neck and whispering in her ear, "There's no fooling you, is there, lass? Let's hope your master and his friends are less observant."
Alwin watched with a critical eye until, apparently satisfied, he led Bran away leaving Myrddin to bring Betsy when he was done.
The stable boys had seen to the animals' feed and water. Betsy's coat shone from a recent grooming, so all Myrddyn had to do was lead her out of her stall and fit her out. She stood patiently while he hurried to complete his task. As a masterless man, his chance of getting close to the king during the campaign would depend upon him winning the favour of one of the king's friends.
He needn't have hurried, as he discovered when he brought Betsy out into the courtyard. Alwin and Bran were still waiting by the steps, while Arthur and Leon wandered between the carts and wagons with the wagon master.
Keeping an eye out for Bowen, Myrddin chatted with Betsy until she was claimed by Leon. Leon threw him a silver ha'penny and a word of thanks once he was mounted, but nothing more and Myrddin stepped back to watch Arthur clatter out through the gate with his knights behind him and his banners flying.
The sun was still below the tops of the walls and the air in the courtyard was chill, with the still, damp cold unique to an early summer morning. Myrddin shivered and pulled his jacket close across his thin chest.
A movement caught at the corner of his eye and Gwen appeared at his side with a basket hanging from the crook of her arm. She looked up at him, coughed politely and hesitantly asked, "Merlin?"
Turning to face her, Myrddin swept her a bow. "My name is indeed Myrddin, My Lady," he replied. "How may I serve you?"
She backed away. "Oh, umm... No. My mistake. I thought, I mean..."
He interrupted her. "Gwen, Gwen, no, I'm sorry. It is me."
Stopping, she glared at him and he hung his head, shuffling his feet in a show of contrition that caused a choke of laughter to escape her. "I've brought you a pasty," she said. "Since I doubt you've had time to pack much." Drawing aside the cloth covering her basket, she showed him its contents. "And a long scarf, a bag of oats and a couple of loaves."
"A silk scarf. Here, take it. My lady will never need it again." He took it from her and slung it around his neck.
Clasping both her hands in his, he said, "Thank you. For everything." She nodded mistily up at him. "You'll look after Gaius for me?" he asked and she nodded again, more firmly.
"Of course I will," she said. "And you'll take care of yourself?"
She gave his hands a little shake and, with a sly grin, said, "Yes, well, I didn't think I needed to ask you to do that; you'll do it anyway." Pulling her hands free, she started to pass him things from her basket.
Shoving the pasty in his pocket, Merlin swung his pack from his shoulder. Crouching down, he opened it and laid his blanket carefully aside, to put the bread and bag of oats inside. He put the blanket on top, pulled the flap over as far as it would go and fastened the buckles to hold it all in place. "I think I have all I need," he said. "A knife, flask, bowl and spoon, medicines from Gaius and a change of clothes." He grinned up at her. "And now I have food, too."
With a flourish Gwen pulled a broad brimmed leather hat out of her basket, un-rolled it and set it on his head. "Now you have everything," she agreed.
It took the better part of the morning to get the last of the wagons loaded and teams of oxen hitched to them. The wagon master bustled from place to place, directing wagons that were ready to form up in the column on the road outside the gates and shouting at his assistants to find so-and-so or whosit and tell them to get their arses into line.
He never stayed still for long enough for Merlin to catch his attention and get an official job, so, while he waited, Merlin helped load a large, four wheeled wagon with crates of arrows.
It was heavy work and the long crates were awkward to load. Merlin dragged them over to the wagon, one at a time, tipped them up on end and then lifted them, sliding them over the tailgate. A young lad, who introduced himself over the third crate as Martin, hauled them up onto the wagon and into place.
Merlin had just hoisted the last crate up to Martin, perched high above the ground, on top of the pile, when the wagon master paused by his side. "Cats!" he exclaimed. "It's like herding bloody cats. How many crates have you there?"
"Forty two," Merlin replied, adding, "Excuse me, sir?" The wagon master looked up from his list, preoccupied and harried. Merlin said, "I'm a groom, if you have a job for me?"
The wagon master cast a quick glance around the courtyard, as if he could conjure a suitable job from thin air. "What you're doing there," he said, "That looks useful."
"Oh, right, so I'll just keep doing this then?"
"That's the idea," he replied, and with a muttered, "Where's that blasted Alfred?" hurried away, leaving Merlin to assume he was now an official member of the wagon train.
The reality of travelling with an army on the march was nothing like Merlin had expected. The front rank of knights on their proud steeds, grouped around and following their king, had indeed been a brave sight in their shining armour, with flying cloaks and pennants, but once they were gone, Merlin saw nothing more of them and little enough of the rest of the army. His fate lay with the supply wagons and camp followers who trailed as an unruly mob at the rear.
At first it was an adventure. There was pride, even for the supply train, in the slow procession down from the castle to the town gates. The people who had cheered the king on his way had mostly dispersed and gone back to their everyday concerns, but even so, many waved and called out wishes of good luck as the wagons passed.
Once beyond the gates, the old Roman road to the south-east sloped up, away from the river towards the woods. As they crossed the open ground, the sun beat down on them, but the air was fresh compared to the closeness of the town. The blossom had been brilliant all spring, after the long, cold winter of Uther's final illness and death, and every flowering tree and bush was loaded down with the promises of a good harvest in the autumn. The occasional wafts of scent from may and briar growing along the verge was almost overpowering. Slowly, they slogged up the hill and when they finally entered the shade of the forest, the relative cool was welcome.
So close to Camelot, the old road was well maintained and the trees kept clear from encroaching, so although the hill got steeper, the going was relatively easy. At the top of the first rise and just before they started their descent into the valley beyond, Merlin paused and looked back. Camelot's white ramparts towered amid the treetops, just as they had the first time he saw them, five years before and, just as on that day, they were awe inspiring - glowing in the early summer sun.
Merlin's inexperience of war and its petty politics meant that he hadn't thought to angle his way into working any of the first wagons in the line and when he tried to get a job with the wagon he had helped load, he was rudely told that his services were no longer required. He ended up leading the team of oxen hauling almost the last cart in the train and as the day progressed, it was clear why the job had been vacant up until the moment of departure. He walked surrounded by and breathing in the dust raised by the wagons and pack animals ahead of him. Pulling Gwen's long scarf up, he wrapped it around his lower face.
Progress was slow and beyond the village of Greater Daunston the road deteriorated. There was not a whiff of a breeze and the air was heavy with a promise of rain that failed to arrive. Merlin took small mouthfuls of water from his flask to clear his throat of dust and was grateful every time they neared a stream and he was able to refill it. There were frequent delays when a poorly constructed cart tipped and shed its load, or simply got stuck in a rut, blocking the road and forcing all behind to halt. Even after the blockage was cleared, one way or another, it seemed to take forever to get the column moving again.
By the time they paused for the midday rest, a blister had formed on Merlin's heel and he broke into his supply of salves and bandages to wrap it. If he could have ridden with the drover he would have, but the team of four oxen apparently needed a man at their head if they were to follow the cart in front. Merlin had doubted this, but it was true that when he left them, to fill his flask from the streams they passed, the cart soon lumbered to a halt or threatened to wander off the road entirely.
They cleared the forest in the early afternoon and a couple of hours later they re-joined the River Cama, where it wound its way across the southern lowlands. The country appeared, at first sight, to be peaceful and prosperous. In the meadows around Allingham the grass was tall and dotted with wild flowers. Within a few weeks it would be ready for the haymaking. But beyond the obvious fertility, there were still signs of the ravages wrought by Cenred's invasion two years before.
As a major fording place over the river, the small town of Allingham had been largely rebuilt, but in the late afternoon they trailed through the village of Ashtonbury, where it was clear the locals were still working to regain their previous prosperity. The inhabitants watched with fearful eyes as the army marched past.
From among a group of silently watching women, a child cried out and was hushed. A man, old before his time, limped out on crutches from behind a cottage with only half a roof. His right leg ended in a stump at the knee. Merlin did not need to see the druidic symbols painted discretely on the nearest lintels to know that without illicit, healing magic, the toll of that invasion would have been far greater. He took a firmer grip on the rope he held, as he led his team out of the village.
There were towns and villages like Allingham and Ashtonbury across the south-east of the kingdom, places that had stood in the way of the Escetian horde.
Beyond Ashtonbury there was another ridge of hills to climb, but this stretch of the Roman road had survived the passing of the years in moderately good condition. Although it was overgrown, there were places in the twin tracks worn by cart wheels where stretches of the original Roman pavement could be seen. For the next couple of hours the column made relatively good speed. The road also offered wide grass verges where the strings of pack ponies could find better footing, allowing the carts and wagons to draw closer together.
The sun sank towards the distant Mountains of Isgard in the south-west and as sunset approached, the end of the wagon train crested a rise. Below them lay the valley of the River Dorn and on the river's banks, among a broad scattering of trees at the edge of a denser forest, were the dotted fires that marked the army's first camp.
One of the wagon master's assistants met them, walking down the column and issuing directions to where they should lay up. Merlin and his team were pointed at a space just off the road, some distance from the river and given instructions for the path to follow to take the animals down to be watered.
Between them, and mostly through Merlin's persuasive powers with dumb animals, Merlin and the drover positioned their wagon and unhitched the team. In spite of a day working for him, Merlin had not learned his name and nor had he asked Merlin's. "I suppose I'll see you back here tomorrow," he said, making it not quite a question. Merlin nodded. He nodded back and led his oxen south, to the path that would take them around the edge of the camp.
Merlin was left to look around and consider the options of trying to light a fire of his own, or seeing if he could get an invitation to join someone else's. He limped slowly away from the road.
Dusk was finally falling and it was darker among the trees. It was impossible to judge the layout of the camp, or see where the tents of the nobility and gentry were pitched. The fires of the common soldiers were dotted widely across the ground, flickering as shadows moved in front of them. Merlin's stomach rumbled, reminding him he'd had nothing to eat since breakfast with Arthur, other than the pasty Gwen had pressed on him.
His second option seemed the most attractive, particularly since the chances were that every scrap of useful firewood had already being claimed.
A few yards away a group of five women were gathered around a large pot over a well-established fire and, judging by the smell, had been cooking for some time. He hitched his pack higher on his shoulder and went over.
His offer to contribute fresh baked bread bought him a place to sit and he pulled his boots off, stretching his feet out blissfully. After a number of men-at-arms had trickled in, singly and in pairs, he also got a share of the hen stew in the pot.
They were twelve in total, by the time the stew was served, and it was clear that there were established partnerships in place, with most of the women settling immediately next to one of the men, amid much laughter and many coarse jokes. Merlin dunked his crust of bread into his bowl and ate.
One of the younger men wondered aloud about where they were headed.
An older hand laughed at him, telling him to get used to it because the poor bloody infantry were never told anything. "We just march 'til we get where we're going," he said. "Then they point us at the enemy and tell us to fight."
The woman who was handing out the bowls of stew paused at his side and gave him a good natured shove in the shoulder. "But you know where we are, don't you?" she asked.
The man grinned up at her. "'Course I do! A good soldier always knows what their high and mightinesses are planning. Usually before they do themselves." He looked around the group, obviously enjoying his position as elder statesman. "We're heading south-east, aren't we? Crossed the Cama, then cut across to here, to the Dorn. The Dorn flows into the Cama down that way." He jerked his head in a westerly direction. "But we're headed that way," he pointed south-east, "to the Bridewell and up towards Compton. That's where Broga's gone to ground. His place at Garsbury's up past there."
"Are we headed for a siege then?" the young man asked. He sounded disgusted by the idea and that was understandable, since he probably had fields and animals that needed him at home.
Merlin bit his tongue to remind himself to keep quiet. He didn't have to resist the urge to speak for long; the old soldier was ready enough with his reply. "Nah," he said scornfully. "Word is we're going to meet in Freydale, on the main road to the eastern sea." He nodded his head importantly. "Old Broga won't want us taking the main trade route to Gaul. 'Cause that's what the Freyl is. You mark my words; he'll come out of his hole to stop us stealing that from him."
The woman with the ladle laughed. "How'd you know all this stuff, Alf?" she asked.
Alf tapped one dirty forefinger finger against the side of his nose, saying mysteriously. "I just does. And I'm not telling. If I told you how I knew stuff, you'd be off finding out for yourself and then I'd starve, wouldn't I?"
Amid the general laughter that provoked, one of the other women started handing out leather tankards and the subject was dropped. Merlin accepted his tankard with a smile of thanks. He almost choked when he took a swig and found that it contained rough spirit, rather than the small beer he'd expected. He put it down carefully on the grass next to his knee.
The woman who had been serving the stew came over and sat beside him with her own supper. He smiled at her and said, "Thank you for this," lifting his bowl in salute.
"You brought the bread," she replied. She looked him up and down. "Not used to the rear, ducks?" she asked. "Not a bowman. Not got the shoulders for it. Foot soldier?"
Merlin laughed. "Groom," he admitted.
"Oh, hoity-toity." There was no malice in her taunt, but it was apparent that she assumed he was putting on airs. It seemed there was a hierarchy on the march that Merlin had never been aware of in the castle. The woman pulled a face and nodded sympathetically. "Lost your master, did you?" She didn't wait for him to respond, nudging him with her shoulder and saying, "Saw you with Gilbert Drover. He's a good enough sort, if a bit soft in the head. Can't drive to the worth of a pinch of salt, but cares for his animals. You can make a good living if you fall in with a man of property, like. He's got a good team there and another at home, I hear, ready to drop a calf. Make yourself useful and you'll be set."
He smiled and nodded at the flood of information. The woman gave him another nudge. "I'm newly widowed, myself."
"Do you, um, do you want me to introduce you to Gilbert?" he asked.
She shook her head, laughing. "Nah, he could get anyone, him. A widow with a nice, snug inn, or a shopkeeper. He wouldn't look twice at the likes of me." She placed a hand on his thigh and edged a little closer, saying, "But you're a handsome fellow."
Merlin placed his bowl down next to his pack and edged away, removing his leg from under her hand. "Um, no, thank you," he said "I'm spoken for."
The woman leant close to his ear, although she kept her hands to herself. "Shame. But she's not here, now is she? No harm in what she never knows."
Merlin edged again and his hand landed in a wet patch of what he hoped was mud. He wiped it clean on the grass and clambered to his feet, stepping back a few paces as he did so.
"Um... I, I just have to..." he waved his arm vaguely to his right. "So I'll just.." He took a breath and started again. "Good luck to you, My Lady," he said, and gave her a courtly bow, which made her laugh again.
"Lady?" she asked. "Bless you, you're as bashful as a virgin boy." She tilted her head and watched him as he gathered his bowl, boots and pack. "You be off then," she said.
He hesitated. "Will you be all right?"
She shrugged. "Don't you fear for me; I'll find someone to keep me warm. You go find your cold bed and much good may it do you. Take care not to freeze to death." Her words were harsh, but there was no resentment in her voice at his unwillingness to be her latest conquest. He bowed again, more moderately, and hurried away. When he looked back, just before he rounded the tail end of a supply wagon, she had already moved across to the other side of the fire and was talking to one of the men at arms.
Merlin settled himself on the ground against the wheel of the cart to finish his stew, then dug into his pack for more salve and bandages. Once he had bound up his blistered feet, he packed his supplies away, pulled his boots back on and hauled himself up to go and explore.
On first inspection, the camp appeared disorganised, with small groups gathered around fires, wherever they willed. It was not until Merlin had almost circumnavigated it, that he realised the baggage train was still at the rear, the knights were in the middle with the archers and foot soldiers in a great arc around them.
He made his way towards where he could see a large group of tents pitched in a clearing at the centre of the camp and, dodging a sentry, ducked between them.
Carefully picking his way over the stays that covered the ground like tripwires, ready to send any late-night wanderer sprawling, he wove his way into the middle of the group. After about ten minutes of careful progress, he spotted Arthur's distinctive striped tent next to a clear space where a dozen or so war horses were tethered to a long picket line.
Skirting the open area, he circled until he reached Arthur's tent. There was no sound from inside. He paused in the narrow gap between it and its next neighbour. Across from him he could see the line of horses. Bran was tethered towards one end, with a bowl of what was probably mixed oats and bran, a bucket of water and a pile of hay at his head. A couple of small wagons were pulled up nearby.
As Merlin hesitated, on the brink of stepping out of his hiding place, Arthur and Lancelot came into view and walked across the opening a mere six feet in front of him. Although they never glanced in his direction, he instinctively drew further back into the shadows between the tents.
In the still of the evening he could hear their conversation clearly. Arthur was speaking. "They'll have scouts out. At least, Cenred will. He's not going to sit and wait for us to appear on his doorstep."
"But not this far beyond Broga's lands, surely?" Lancelot asked.
"No, tonight we're safe enough. And probably tomorrow, on the march. But once we cross the Bridewell, we'll have to deploy our own scouts further ahead."
Arthur ducked his head and entered his tent with Lancelot on his heels, after which Merlin couldn't hear their words, only the rise and fall of their voices.
He settled himself on the ground and waited. Other knights arrived, in ones and twos. They all entered the tent and through the canvas wall he could hear the soft hum of conversation. The occasional word came through to him clearly, but never enough to make sense of. Eventually there was a burst of laughter and a loud call for someone to pour wine. Merlin got to his feet and peered out from his hiding place.
The coast was clear. Leaving his pack where it was, he went over to Bran. "Hey, boy," he whispered, holding out his hand for Bran to sniff and stroking his nose when he whinnied and nudged at Merlin's chest in recognition. "How are you? Missing Tageth, huh? Don't worry; you'll soon be back with her in your nice warm stable. This war won't last long. No siege to worry about. Arthur said so, so you know it must be true."
Bran butted his chest again and he took that for agreement. "Anyone else here I should say hello to?" he asked, looking down the line.
He spotted Leon's grey Betsy and was about to go over to greet her, when a hand clapped him on the shoulder. "Get away from here, you," ordered a voice. The hand tugged him back and whirled him around. Luc of Shernston, one of the corporals of the guard, loomed in front of him. He reeked of rough spirits and he seemed to have spilt a quantity down the front of his jerkin. He swayed slightly on his feet, but his eyes were fixed steadily enough on Merlin's face. "What're you doing with the King's horse?" he demanded.
"I was just saying hello," Merlin said. He held up his hands. "I met him before, at Camelot, I saw him-"
The rest of what he was going to say was cut off by Luc's fist landing in his face. He staggered backwards and fell to the ground. "Hey!" he yelped and rolled onto his back. He raised one hand to his cheek and pulled it away. In the dim light he couldn't see much but there didn't appear to be any blood.
"Come on," Luc said. "Get up."
Merlin stayed where he was. "I wasn't doing anything," he protested, surprised because Luc had never struck him as a violent man.
"You were interfering with the King's horse. When I find that Alwin, I'll give him a hiding for leaving the King's mount unattended. But meantime, you're coming with me to see the sergeant." He came forward, apparently intent on dragging Merlin to his feet. Merlin rolled onto his shoulders before Luc got too close, gathered his knees to his chest and kicked out, catching Luc in the gut and on the thigh.
Luc staggered back a pace but he didn't fall. He gave a growl, shouted, "Guards!" and dived for Merlin.
Merlin rolled to the side and kept rolling, while Luc landed in an ungainly heap where Merlin had been and scrambled after him on all fours. Luc was a bigger man but he was older, and slower as a result. He also seemed to have underestimated Merlin's speed because of Merlin's apparent greater age.
Merlin managed to get to his feet and backed away before Luc reached him. Rapidly he assessed his position in relation to Arthur's tent and his own abandoned pack. Luc levered himself up off the ground and charged. Merlin twisted left and got behind one of the poles that supported the picket line, while Luc staggered past. It would have been easy to jump out and tackle him to the ground, but Luc had more than twenty pounds on him and Arthur's lessons had always emphasised the stupidity of Merlin getting too close to a heavier opponent. Instead, he turned and ducked under the picket line.
Taking care to stay out of range of potential rear kicks, Merlin ran up the line, with Luc in belated pursuit. He got to the end, swung around the end pole and set off back down the other side towards Arthur's tent. He was more than half way there when the flap of the tent was pushed open and a man stepped out, calling over his shoulder, "I won't be long, hold my throw," before walking around behind one of the carts, not noticing the minor drama unfolding across the clearing.
Merlin raised his hand with his fingers spread wide and turned to see where Luc was. He intending to throw Luc onto his back for long enough for him to dodge between the tents, snatch up his pack and high-tail it away to the far side of the camp, but Luc was too close and he had to duck under a swing from Luc's powerful right arm. He twisted away and ran back up the line. Betsey had turned, as if to watch, and was almost facing him. He approached and petted her briefly before clambering back over the picket line, to the other side. He couldn't see Luc and keeping low he made his way down the line, towards his pack.
He had reached the end again when Luc reappeared, looming out of the darkness on his right. Merlin turned to face him and raised his hand, but realised he was now too close to the wagon where the knight had gone to take a leak. With one of Arthur's knights so near, he hesitated. Luc swung on the balls of his feet and his right fist caught Merlin on the shoulder, although without much force. Merlin jumped back, intent on running again.
A hand grabbed him by the scruff of the neck before he could take a step. "What's this?" Lord Isen asked, still doing up his breeches with his other hand. "What's going on?"
Luc staggered to a halt, his eyes widening. Aborting his next swing, he brought both hands to his sides and stood up straight. "I caught him lurking about, Sire, like he was trying to listen to your planning."
Lord Isen laughed. "Much good it would do him, when the plans go no further than the next roll of the dice." He released Merlin, who stepped back a pace, out of range of being grabbed again by either Lord Isen, or Luc. Lord Isen looked him up and down. "What have you to say for yourself, Sirrah?" he asked. "Were you trying to spy upon your king?"
"No, My Lord. I... I was... I mean..."
Lord Isen's eyes crinkled in the face of Merlin's stuttering attempts to explain himself.
"He was interfering with the King's horse, My Lord," Luc said. "I was teaching him a lesson."
Lord Isen looked right and left, as if assessing the distance between where Bran was tethered and Arthur's tent. "Interfering?"
Merlin snorted indignantly and explained, "I was just saying hello."
With a small nod, Lord Isen said thoughtfully, "I remember you." Turning, he gave Luc the same thorough inspection he had given Merlin. He stepped closer. Luc held his ground and straightened further. Lord Isen took a deep breath and scrunched his face in disgust. "This man is one of the king's grooms," he said.
"He what?" Luc made a visible effort to moderate his tone. "Begging your pardon, My Lord, but I've been corporal of the guard at Camelot for more than six years and I never saw him before today."
"You may beg my pardon," Lord Isen replied, "but I see no reason why I should grant it."
Luc scowled and adjusted his belt. He opened his mouth, closed it again and apparently recognised that he could not win an argument and there was no point in trying. He shuffled his feet, muttering, "Well he should have said so,"
Lord Isen's lips twisted into a sneer. "I'm sure he did." He made a show of inspecting Luc from toe to the top, again. "Why are you still here?" he asked.
Watching Luc leave, Lord Isen shook his head, a slight smile on his lips, but when he turned to Merlin his face was immediately sober. "You're not the King's groom," he said. "And the gods know why I just put my reputation on the line to save you the thrashing you probably deserve."
"I wasn't doing any harm," Merlin protested again. "I was just talking to Bran. And I don't know why you interfered, either. Do you realise I'm going to have to spend the rest of this campaign looking over my shoulder, because of what you just did? Luc can hold a grudge and even drunk he won't forget that you dressed him down. It's me he'll blame."
"Ungrateful too, I see." Lord Isen studied Merlin. "There's something about you..." he said, "but I can't -"
A hand landing on his shoulder. "What have we here?" Arthur asked. "A spy?"
Merlin glared. "No, you... I, I mean, no, Sire. I'm no spy."
Arthur glanced at him and dismissed him. He looked at Lord Isen. "They're getting impatient in there. Deal with this and go take your turn. Poor Gwaine has his fortune resting on your throw." He gave Merlin a second, brief glance. "If I get back before you, I'll tell them you'll be with us shortly," he said, turning away. Merlin watched him until he too rounded the end of the cart that seemed to have been designated as the communal latrine.
Reclaiming Merlin's attention, Lord Isen asked, "Myrddin, isn't it?"
It sounded rhetorical, but Merlin answered anyway. "Er... yes. Yes, it is. I mean, I am."
"You seem very familiar with the horses and characters of the castle, for a man who is new to town. Why are you here?"
"Here, as in talking to Bran?" Lord Isen nodded. "Umm, well, he's a beautiful horse, Sire. I, I fell in love? This morning, when I fetched him and Le- the other knight's mount."
"Hmm." Lord Isen still sounded dubious, but all he said was, "If I discover anything has gone amiss with Bran, I will find you and I will gut you. You understand?"
"Yes, My Lord."
"Right. Off with you, then." He stepped back, signalling the end of the interview. "And don't let me see you causing trouble in future, or-"
"You'll gut me, Sire. Yes, I got it. Umm ... thank you?"
Lord Isen turned, walked across to Arthur's tent and ducked inside, leaving Merlin to retrieve his pack. As he bent down to pick it up, he heard a burst of laughter and Gwaine's voice raised in protest. He didn't stay to hear more.
Deciding that having been named groom to the king before a witness was good enough to make it true, Merlin explored the immediate area and laid out his sleeping roll under a small, two wheeled wagon parked close to the horses, at the far end of the line from Arthur's tent. Thanking his luck in finding one that was not already occupied, he spread out his blanket between the wheels.
As he was getting himself settled, he was aware of men walking past, laughing. He recognised Leon's voice jokingly lamenting Gwaine's poor luck, while Gwaine tried to defend himself against the charge. Nearby a dog barked, setting off others, until someone screamed at them and quiet returned. The duty guard patrolled the camp, a pair of legs in stout boots passing by within three feet of Merlin's head. Under the shelter of a large tree, a single glowing spot marked where the cook fire had not been properly damped down for the night. Merlin curled up and pulled the other half of his blanket over himself.
It rained in the early hours and the water found its way through the cracks in the baseboard of the wagon under which Merlin was huddled. His blanket was soon soaked and the cold damp brought him unpleasantly awake. Crawling out into a dismal morning, he packed his wet blanket away in his pack, crammed his hat on his head and set about the spare tasks of fetching and carrying that always accompanied an overnight encampment, taking care not to infringe on any of the duties of the actual grooms. The important thing was for the cook, occupied with reviving the fire, to see him busy.
It continued to drizzle on and off for the next two hours and he was glad of Gwen's hat, pulling it down over his ears so the brim didn't send the water down the inside of his collar. Food did something to warm him; the small boys who acted as the cook's assistants delivered oaten cakes to the grooms, and to Merlin, while the porridge cooked. Hot food did more; as soon as he judged there was nothing else he could do, without poaching on someone else's duties, he made his way over to the fire.
He was shovelling porridge into his mouth and making friends with Dillon, the cook, when Alwin returned from delivering Arthur's breakfast. Coming over, he stood next to Merlin and received his own bowl of porridge from Dillon's boy.
They ate in silence, Alwin's presence apparently enough to still even Dillon's flood of easy gossip.
Alwin was a taciturn man, but Merlin had always judged him to be fair. He had certainly been so in the past, when Arthur sent Merlin down to muck out the stables as punishment for some perceived dereliction or inattention. Eventually, after he had scraped up the last of his porridge and handed the bowl back to the boy, he turned to Merlin and asked, "Looking for a job, are you?"
"Are you looking for some help?" Merlin asked in reply.
Alwin stared at him. "No," he said baldly and walked away.
The rain had stopped while they ate, the sun had broken through the heavy clouds and the air felt crisper. Merlin paused to have a last word with Betsy and Bran, on his way to re-join Gilbert Drover. He was whispering instructions to Bran, to take care of Arthur, when an equine scream of distress jerked his head around. A groom, who had been leading a tall bay out of the line, was now fighting it for control, while its forelegs thrashed in the air above his head.
Leaving Bran, Merlin ran over to help, but before he could reach the pair there was an audible thump, the man cried out and fell. The stallion spun on his haunches, his forelegs hit the ground and Merlin was standing squarely in his path. Other men were rushing towards them and two soldiers reached the groom, dragging him clear. Merlin jumped for the horse's reins and, more by luck than judgement, managed to catch them. The stallion threatened to rear again and Merlin hauled down with all his weight, telling him to behave himself and stop playing the fool. Amazingly, he did as he was told and Merlin brought him to a stand, away from the line and well clear of the groom, who was now sitting on the ground supported by one soldier while the other examined his arm. The groom leaned back into his rescuer's hold with gritted teeth and the occasional gasp as the soldier moved his arm across his chest.
Seeing that the human was being cared for, Merlin concentrated on soothing the bay who was still restive and shaking his head. He held onto the reins near the bit and reached up to run his hands down the horse's neck.
A commanding voice demanded, "What's going on here?"
Answering that question twice in twelve hours was more than was required of him, so Merlin stayed mum with his head and eyes down while Arthur strode towards the group gathered around the groom. Once Arthur had passed, however, he shifted his position so he could watch.
One of the soldiers stood at Arthur's approach. "He's broken his arm, Sire," he reported.
Arthur looked down at the groom, who was hugging his injured arm to his chest. With the help of the other soldier he struggled to his feet. Bowing awkwardly, he said, "I'm sorry to disturb you, Sire. It was a wasp. At first, Romulus was just a bit skittish when it came near. Then he went crazy."
Merlin turned his face into the stallion's neck. "Romulus is it?" he asked. "Well, Rom, are you going to be good now?"
Romulus shook his head and nudged at Merlin.
Meanwhile, Arthur was examining the groom's arm for himself, without touching it. "Get yourself to the sawbones," he said, "and see if he can set that for you. If he can't, you should be able to make Camelot by evening. Gaius will sort you out."
"But, Romulus, My Lord?"
Arthur looked beyond the man's shoulder. "Isen," he called. "It's Hugh. I've offered Gaius' services, if he can get to him. He's your man."
Lord Isen had just emerged from one of the tents and at Arthur's summons he approached. He examined Hugh's arm for himself and, although he appeared to be taking care, Hugh flinched at his touch. Lord Isen grimaced and shook his head. "Go and get it seen to," he said. "I don't care if it can be set or not. Take Ned, he's a gentle ride, and let Gaius see to it, before nightfall, understand? I'll manage, and so will Rom, but you won't. Not without treatment."
Hugh pulled a face, but nodded in acquiescence. "I'm sorry, Sire," he said again.
Lord Isen waved him off and he left, hugging his arm and with the two soldiers as a friendly escort.
Meanwhile, Lord Isen came over to Merlin, who was still holding Romulus. He ran his hands over the horse, checking his legs for injury. When he straightened he turned to Merlin. "We meet again," he said. "Myrddin, wasn't it?"
Merlin nodded. "Yes, My Lord."
"Well, Myrddin. It looks like you've got yourself a job."
Gilbert Drover could find some other willing hand to lead his team. Merlin made a half-bow, but Lord Isen was already striding away to his tent. Instead Merlin was confronted by a young boy, not much older than the lads who helped the cooks, but much better dressed. "I'm Lord Isen's squire," he announced. "I look after his armour and help him dress."
Merlin nodded solemnly. "I'll do as Hugh did and leave you to care of your lord." He smiled. "What's your name young lordling?"
The boy eyed him suspiciously. "I'm Bevyn. Hugh brought us our breakfast in the morning."
"Then I will do the same. Which tent should I bring it to?"
Bevyn pointed to the tent Lord Isen had just re-entered. "That one, with his pennant above the door." He studied Merlin for a few moments, every bit the young lord Merlin had named him. "I hope you're better with horses than Hugh," he said, before he too stalked away.
The horse Merlin was issued with was Lord Isen's spare pack pony. Tageth, Merlin's own mare, was famous for her calm complacency, but Bramble was placid to the point of sluggishness. Ajax, Lord Isen's spare mount, pranced and veered at the end of his lead rein and even the other two pack ponies seemed impatient with Bramble's ambling progress, although they were better behaved than Ajax. For the first couple of hours, persuading Bramble to pick up her pace proved impossible. Eventually, Merlin leaned forward and whispered a few words in her ear. She snorted and shook her head, but became noticeably more cooperative. After that, although Ajax was still a handful, the other two no longer seemed to want to pull his arm out of its socket.
Once he had established his understanding with Bramble, Merlin's morning improved, although the march that day was hard. The old Roman road led them across a large area of peat bog that threatened danger to anyone who strayed from the path, before ascending into the hills on the other side. Between the Dorn and the Bridewell the road was not much used, since traders avoided that treacherous stretch by transferring to the river for transport. As a result it was overgrown and broken in many places. At one point it disappeared entirely, where part of the hillside had fallen away and the army had to take up almost single file to skirt the edge of the drop. They paused there and Arthur split off a detachment of mounted knights to guard the supply train which was falling further behind with each mile they travelled.
It was with a sense of exhausted relief that, in the late afternoon, the army finally reached the ford over the River Bridewell, a few miles shy of Lord Broga's borders.
On the march, the knights' squires and grooms, the grooms with their strings of pack ponies, followed immediately behind the knights and the first company of men at arms. Riding so close to the front of the column, Merlin was witness to how, when Arthur declared a halt, the army moved into action like a well-oiled machine.
Arthur's supplies were unloaded first, under Alwin's watchful eye, and when Arthur returned from meeting with the local village elders, he stood in the middle of the chaos and watched as order asserted itself around him. As soon as his folding desk and stool were set up, near where his tent would stand when it arrived, he sat in the sun, studying papers that he retrieved from his saddlebags and accepting reports from his sergeants, as they brought their companies in.
While Merlin dealt with Romulus, Ajax, Bramble and the two pack ponies, other men were preparing cook fires and arranging the overnight positions of the various ranks of the army.
The camp was situated in a large field, on a gentle slope leading down towards a line of trees and the river beyond. The soil was dark and damp looking, but seemed to have grown a crop of rich spring grass, dotted with dandelions and daisies. A good supply of firewood was available from the forest, only half a mile away.
The sheep that had had sole possession of the field before the army arrived were herded over to one side and the next time Merlin looked, a major butchering operation was underway.
Dillon was one of the first recipients of a pair of carcases. "Roast lamb, tonight," he announced, holding them up by a hind leg in each large fist as Merlin walked by, leading the horses to the river. "The king said the skins are to be left for the villagers, but if you wanted one, I doubt anyone would mind."
"Nah," Merlin said. "I've no time to clean it and it'd smell by the time I got it home."
"Reckon that's what the king thought, too," Dillon replied. "Pity. Won't stop 'em all, but I hear the king paid the village for the flock, so it's not like we're stealing."
"You would though."
"'Course I would. All's fair in love and war."
Laughing, Merlin continued on his way to the river with Ajax and Rom on one side and the three ponies on the other. To get there he had to pass within fifteen feet of Arthur's table. Casting a quick glance in that direction, he was surprised to see that Arthur was neglecting his papers and maps and was, instead, staring straight at him. He quickly turned away and added a small limp to his step until he was down the slope and had found a large enough gap for him to lead the animals through the narrow band of trees that masked the river from the field.
One positive outcome of being volunteered into Lord Isen's service, in addition to the opportunity to keep watch over Arthur, was that the food was plentiful. The close servants of Arthur's inner circle, and on the march a groom counted as such, ate from the same spit and cook pot as the King and his companions. Later that night, he also got to sleep under a well-constructed cart that didn't leak.
Early the next morning, while Dillon prepared breakfast, Merlin and Alwin led their horses down to the river again, while most of the camp was still waking up.
They walked in silence, in step, but not really together, although Merlin had received a slight nod, which could have been approval, for having Romulus ready before the other grooms had begun to stir.
The ground in the lower field was damp with a heavy dew and the air was fresh with the promise of a bright day. When they approached the wide opening between the trees that gave access to the river, Alwin drew ahead. Under the trees, the thick layers of dead and rotting leaves that had covered the ground the day before had been trampled into a muddy path that dragged at Merlin's boots with every step. A patrol passed them and he exchanged a greeting with the leader. The sun made the large leaves of oak and sycamore glow luminous green overhead and occasionally broke through to dazzle the eye.
Beyond the trees and on the wide bank of the river, Alwin went straight to a stretch of sandy beach, just wide enough for his string of five to drink side-by-side. That was the privilege of the king's horses. Gaius always said to drink upstream of other people, so Merlin took his own group in that direction, to a place a few yards along the bank where they could get down and into the water to drink. He allowed them to draw away to the full length of their lead reins, alternating between keeping watch on them and examining the lay of the land.
With the trees masking the camp site and muting its sounds, the scene was tranquil and unspoilt. The broad curve of the river hid the ford and the village beside it. The water meadow was obviously being saved for hay, because there was no sign that it had been used for grazing. The air was fresh with the green smell of living things. Wild flowers dotted the ground among the tall grasses and along the bank. On the edge of the water, reeds grew in clumps with a few clear spaces between that looked like promising fishing spots. Bees meandered around the flower heads of cowslip, betony and yarrow. Above the grassy bank, at the edge of the trees, the usual storm debris lay scattered in the grass. The local villagers had obviously not come this way in their foraging for a while.
Ten yards away, Alwin was also looking around the scene and Merlin caught his eye, nodding in companionable silence. Alwin nodded back. Then his eyes shifted to something behind Merlin and widened. His mouth opened and Merlin spun around to see what had alarmed him.
A loose group of eight armed men on foot were rushing along the bank towards them. Alwin yelled and began to gather the lead reins of Arthur's horses. Turning his back to Alwin, Merlin raised his hand towards the attackers. They were too widely spaced for a single spell to catch them all, so he directed his attention at the nearest. He lowered his head and stared at the man from under his brows, concentrating on the meaning behind the word as he said, "Aflíegung!"
The man lifted off the ground and was thrown back, as if attached to a wire on a spring. He hit the trunk of a tree about ten feet above the ground and fell in a crumpled heap at its base.
The three behind him hesitated but, spurred on by a shout from their right, resumed their charge, yelling as they came.
Alwin, his horses now safely out of the river, pulled out his knife. Merlin switched the lead reins he was holding to his left hand and drew his own. He held it in front of him, using his stance to disguise his focus on another of their attackers. "Ahylte!" he muttered and the man tripped over his own feet and thereafter was unable to find his footing.
The remaining six were closing fast. The nearest carried a spear, with the point levelled at Merlin's chest. Merlin dodged the thrust, jumping back towards the river bank and swerving to the side. He threw his knife, ensuring it flew true with another muttered word and the spearman fell to the ground.
Two of the attackers splashed into the water after the Lord Isen's horses. Merlin looked around. Alwin was circling with a man who held a sword, hampered by the horses whose reins he held and who were pulling and rearing in response to the chaos.
Deciding that Rom and Ajax were the priority, Merlin released the pack ponies and coaxed the war horses out of the water and onto the bank. They milled around him and he struggled to get them both facing in the same direction, whilst avoiding getting his feet trodden on. Rom pushed forward and knocked Merlin off balance. He stumbled and inadvertently dragged on the reins in his hands. Ajax neighed in alarm and Rom reared, pulling himself free. Merlin scrambled after the rein and failed to catch it, losing hold of Ajax in the process. Rom was turning in tight circles. Ajax bolted away from Merlin, back into the river.
Alwin's attention was divided between his opponent and his charges. A vicious swipe from the sword caused him to concentrate on survival and all his horses were free. One bolted up the slope, back towards the camp. Another reared and swung around, galloping upstream along the bank where the two remaining men attempted to intercept it. Arthur's second mount, Algar, bolted into the river although he came to a stop when the water reached to his knees.
Merlin held out his arms and whispered, "cumaþ!" His knife pulled itself free of his late assailant's neck and flew to his hand. A fallen branch of suitable club size came to his other and he tossed it towards Alwin's adversary. It spun end-over-end as it flew through the air, connecting with his shoulder and neck and knocking him down. Alwin, who had a long red gash along his left forearm, closed with the man and finished him, grabbing his sword as he got to his feet again. Shouting, "Get Bran safe!" to Merlin, he stumbled into the water to stop the attacker who had captured one of Lord Isen's ponies and was trying to mount her and go after Algar.
One of the two attackers who had failed to capture the bolting horse, earlier, had grabbed Bran's reins, while his remaining companion had caught Romulus and was attempting to lead him off. Merlin shouted to Romulus and to Bran, who both reared. Bran pulled himself free, but Rom knocked his captor to the ground and brought his front hooves down squarely on the man's chest, silencing him.
The other man, scrambling after Bran's reins, cast a startled glance at his fallen comrades and abandoned his attempts. He started to run back along the river bank, apparently intent only on escape. Letting him go, Merlin caught Rom's and Bran's reins and dragged them with him when he jumped into the river after Bramble and Ajax.
It took a while to get them all back in hand, but although he kept looking, none of the unaccounted for attackers came near him. It was not until he was leading the horses back to the bank that he saw why and stopped to stare.
Sir Huw was engaged with a man at Merlin's watering site. One of Lord Isen's pack ponies was in the care of a man at arms, near the trees. The body of the man Merlin had tripped up earlier was lying at his feet.
Further up-stream, Arthur and Lord Isen were in pursuit of the robber who had run. From his place, five yards into the river, Merlin had a clear view when the man turned to fight. Arthur barely paused. He fell into his 'at ready' position and, all his movements suddenly measured and balanced, kept advancing. Lord Isen stopped running to watch.
Arthur sprang forward, swinging his blade in a sharp upward stroke as he did so. His opponent's sword flew from his hand. Arthur brought his own blade back around and the man staggered, bringing his hands up to his neck as a burst of arterial blood sprayed across Arthur's face and chest. The man fell. Arthur stepped up to him, planted his sword into his throat and pulled it free.
Merlin looked around at the rest of the scene. Alwin was bringing Algar and Lord Isen's other pony back to the bank. The man Alwin had followed into the river was lying face down in the water, his legs caught in the reeds while his arms floated out into the stream. Merlin splashed towards the bank with Bran, Rom, Ajax and Bramble.
Sir Huw dispatched the last standing attacker while Merlin was struggling ashore. He spun around at the sound behind him and levelled his sword at Merlin. "Who are you?" he demanded.
Meanwhile, Lord Isen had gathered up the bolted pony and was walking him back.
Arthur wandered over, inspecting his blade as he did so. "Don't worry, Huw," he said. "I know this man. He's Isen's groom. Half witless, but has a magic touch with horses." With a totally straight face he added, "He has a fascination with Bran. I think he's in love."
Lord Isen handed his charge over to Merlin and Sir Huw relaxed. Lord Isen walked up the slope to the very first attacker, who Merlin had sent crashing into a tree, and slit his throat.
Arthur nodded in approval and turned to Merlin. "My horse?" he asked.
Merlin handed over Bran's reins. There was a wicked gleam in Arthur's eyes when he looked Merlin up and down. "Myrddin?" he said. "That's a version of the name 'Merlin', isn't it?" Merlin nodded dumbly. Arthur's smile widened. "I'll see you later, Myrddin," he said, emphasising the first syllable, and he led Bran away, up the bank, back towards the camp.
That morning they marched south-east, with the sun directly in their eyes, through country that had escaped all the ravages of Cenred's previous hostility. By midday, they were inside Lord Broga's borders and in the early afternoon they reached the village of Brenholm. The road they were on continued up the Bridewell Valley, to Compton, at the mouth of Freydale, and beyond that, eastward to Cenred's kingdom of Escetia.
At Brenholm, the river ran sluggishly between its banks, heavy with silt carried down from the hills. A man stood knee deep in the water and cast a net out into the stream. Women knelt on the bank, beating clothes on the rocks, while their daughters hung clean clothes over the bushes to dry. A group of young children, gathering elderflowers into large baskets, paused to wave.
After the excitement on the riverbank that morning, when all the grooms were gathered around the porridge pot, the rumour had been that the army would head to Freydale. Freydale branched south from the Bridewell Valley and led directly to Broga's fortress. The common wisdom had been that they would meet Broga's army on the main road. Instead, they turned south, a mile beyond Brenholm, into the smaller Crybrookdale.
As they marched through the village, Merlin spotted Leon standing with his horse in hand, talking to a group of men. A young boy took the reins from him and Leon started to dig around in the large satchel he wore. Merlin dug his heels into Bramble's sides, in an attempt to push ahead to where, through a gap between the houses, he could see Arthur on Bran at the head of the troops.
Crybrookdale was a shallow, sparsely populated valley, running up to a line of low crags at its head. The road was little more than a wide path, bordered by dry stone walls. There was pasture on either side, but the fields were also divided by walls, so there was no advantage in breaking away in an attempt to catch up with the vanguard by riding cross-country, unless Merlin crossed the strips of fields to the rough hill pasture above.
After nearly three miles of being trapped behind the men on foot, the army pulled off into a large field and began to climb the eastern slope. Off the road, Merlin was able to pull away to one side and he was not far behind the vanguard when they topped the rise and paused. The command was immediately passed back to the column to set camp.
It was barely past mid-afternoon when Merlin slipped around the back of Arthur's newly erected tent, put his ear close to the canvas and listened. Earlier, after he had groomed the horses and taken Lord Isen a late, mid-day meal of bread, cheese and jam, he had walked up from the camp to the top of the slope, to survey the valley of Avarldale beyond.
The hill top pasture was rough and the grazing was sparse. Merlin had to push through thigh-high bracken that crackled underfoot to reach the top, but from the crest he had an unimpeded view over the valley.
It was more an undulation in the high grassland than a true valley, although a brook ran down its centre. There was no sense of gentleness in the terrain; it was too exposed and bleak for that. As in Crybrookdale, the soil was thin and too poor for cash crops, so it was given over to livestock. The open grazing of the hill tops extended down the slope to a narrow band of enclosed pasture on either side of the Avarl Brook. The few cotters who lived there would spend their summers herding their lord's flocks and hoping to grow enough in their vegetable patches to last them through the winter.
It was not a place where anybody would choose to make their home, if an alternative offered itself. On this particular May day, however, the thing that caught the eye and arrested the attention was the small group of knights on horseback standing silhouetted against the sky on the opposite ridge. They flew the banner of Escetia and, even while Merlin stood taking in the scene, they were joined by a company of armed men on foot. Merlin turned and made his way back to the camp.
Half an hour later, when he walked past Arthur's tent, leading Rom and Ajax to the area of fresh grazing designated for the use of the knights' horses, Arthur, Leon and Kay were sitting around Arthur's campaign table in the open entrance. When he returned and was hauling hay to the pack ponies, he saw a number of other knights arrive to join the conference. Since he had finished work, he had been trying to find the best spot from which to eavesdrop, whilst not attracting the attention of the soldiers still setting up the rest of the camp.
Standing slightly hunched in the narrow gap between Arthur's tent and the one occupied by Lancelot and Gwaine, he could hear snatches of the discussion inside - the occasional question or comment, devoid of any of the context that would have helped his understanding. He hadn't been able to make out anything said by the man who had been doing most of the talking for the past twenty minutes. From the tone, it sounded like Leon, but each time he considered moving around to a different place, something would come through clearly, a question from Arthur or Brolin, a comment by Dagonet that would often raise a laugh; just enough to keep him in one place, in the hope of hearing more. The little he did hear, he managed to piece together into some sort of picture. By dint of an aching back, he learned that one of the council, an older voice, favoured a single pronged attack, while someone else advocated a flanking action from the south, where the approach was relatively clear. These two approaches were discussed at some length. It also appeared that the proposed deposition of the hospice tents was cause for dissatisfaction.
Arthur had not said much, but his voice abruptly cut through the rumble of conversation and debate. "Isen, would you be so good as to find someone to bring us something to wet our throats while we talk?"
Merlin didn't wait to hear Lord Isen's reply. He had just enough time to jump up from his hiding place, sprint five yards, spin in a turn and walk slowly back, as if he were simply passing by the tent, before Lord Isen appeared.
He spotted Merlin immediately. "Ah, Myrddin, well met," he said. "Go and fetch some ale and bring it to the king's tent. Do you know how to serve?"
"Yes, My Lord. I've done so before."
"Good. Be quick about it then." He waved a hand towards the supply cart and turned to go back to the council, adding, "There are ten of us."
When Merlin got back to the tent, fifteen minutes later, carrying a four gallon keg on one shoulder and a leather belt strung with pewter tankards over the other, he saw that Arthur and Leon were still sitting, but Kay had given up his seat to Lord Connal. Kay, Brolin, Lord Isen, Lancelot, Dagonet, Bors and Lionel were crowded around, where they had a view of a map spread out across the table.
Arthur looked up as Merlin came in and caught his eye for long enough for a smirk to threaten at the corner of his mouth. Turning back to the map, he waved his right hand towards his war chest against the wall of the tent and said, "Put it down there and serve, will you?"
Merlin did as he was told, laying the cask on top of the chest. He fished the chocks, to keep it from rolling, out of a couple of the tankards where he'd put them for convenience. With them wedged against the keg's sides, he held the first tankard under the spout of the wooden tap, filled it and took it over to Arthur. One by one, he filled the others and handed them out to the knights. Then he went to stand next to the keg and tried to look both inconspicuous and ready to serve, at the same time.
Arthur sat back on his stool and from where he stood Merlin could see the map. It was big enough to be made from an entire sheep skin and depicted the whole of Avarldale. Merlin mentally rotated it, so he could picture it overlaid on his remembered view.
Arthur looked over at Leon, saying, "Lead us through the geography again."
The positions that Arthur and Leon obviously expected the two armies to take up were marked on the map by blocked squares, blue for Escetia and red for Camelot's forces. It was a good spot for Broga - inside his own borders, so he could claim Arthur was the aggressor, with little cover to limit the scope of the action and giving him a good view of Camelot's advance.
That Arthur would attack was never in doubt. Broga was on his home ground and his force was supplemented by Escetian troops. Arthur had called his fighting men away from their farms, upon which the whole kingdom relied. He had brought ample stores, but he was still dependent on an expensive supply route. He couldn't afford to waste time on threats and posturing.
The stream that gave Avarldale its name ran down to the north to join the Bridewell and then westward to Brenholm, five miles away. From there it eventually joined the Cama which flowed down to Camelot itself, on its way to the western sea.
Sir Leon swept his hand across the southern end of the map, saying, "I expect the scouts back shortly with better descriptions of this area, then I can fill in the detail, but I judged it doubtful the battle would spread so far south and there is no route for retreat. For that reason, this area was my lowest priority." He sat back and studied the map dispassionately. "The villagers of Brenholm rarely come this way, since the valley leads nowhere, in itself, and Freydale, beyond Broga's current position, holds the main road to his fortress at Garsbury.
"Cottages?" Arthur asked.
"A few, but none directly between our positions. As soon as we saw that Broga had-"
"Cenred," Arthur said, interrupting him. "Broga has little to do with this. The speed with which they responded to our attempt to out-flank them is all Cenred."
Bowing his head to acknowledge that point, Leon said, "As soon as we heard that Cenred had managed to turn to meet us, I sent men ahead to scout the cots for ambush and to fire them. The few people who live here have already taken their animals and fled."
"Good." Arthur gestured for Leon to continue with his description of the terrain and Leon went on to describe elevations, gradients, the depth and width of the brook and where there was some tree cover or obstacle in the path of an attack.
"This is interesting," Arthur said, indicating a small stream to the north of Broga's and Cenred's position and close to where their army was making camp. "How steep are the banks on either side of this stream and how wide is it?"
"I have sent John Carpenter to check it, Sire. It was Alfred the Drover who described it to me, as you see it here, but he admitted it is a few years since he came this way. He reported a brook that a child could jump over and good cover from the trees that follow the flow. But there was rumour of felling and clearance to open up the grazing." He shrugged. "John's a good man with an eye for the land."
"Have him sent in, as soon as he returns," Arthur said with a glance at Brolin, who nodded and slipped out to deliver that message to the guards.
Over the next hour a number of men arrived to report minor corrections to the map. Each one was carefully questioned by Leon, who drew in the new details and used his penknife to scrape away the errors, before carefully adding the corrections, each annotated with the surveyor's name.
Dagonet nudged Lancelot and pointed at something on the map, leaning over to whisper in Lancelot's ear. Kay took a sip of his beer, frowning down at the map, his brows drawn together. Brolin moved around behind Leon for a better view. Merlin's left foot had gone to sleep and he shook it, gritting his teeth when it started to tingle.
Even with the flaps pulled wide, inside the tent it was warm and stifling, with not a breath of breeze and ten large men standing between Merlin and the dead air of the hillside. Although he was vitally interested in the discussion around the table, it was becoming difficult to concentrate. He shifted and wiped his brow. Arthur signalled for more beer for himself and Kay followed suit.
John Carpenter arrived and made his report, which largely supported the initial description from Alfred the Drover. Arthur joined in Leon's questioning about distances and sightlines, and Leon drew in the trees as John described them. Once he had left, Arthur sat back, took a drink from his tankard and contemplated the map in silence. Kay asked Leon a question about the apparent width of Cenred's front, as depicted on the map, and Dagonet muttered something that set the knights all laughing and made Arthur's lips twitch. The atmosphere in the tent loosened and the younger knights began to debate what Cenred would do and how he would react to different moves on their part.
Lord Connal was the only member of the old guard present and he didn't contribute much, seeming content to allow the younger men to speculate and theorise. Only when Arthur asked for his particular opinion did he suggest that the lay of the land favoured neither party. "Since neither we nor they chose it, that's fortunate. Your Majesty's early move south has indeed spoilt Broga's plan to make his stand in Freydale, but his rapid response has prevented us from cutting him off from his rear. As to our current position, the slope of the hill is not great and will not slow down a well marshalled charge. "
Since Lord Connal had been at Camelot since before the Coronation, apart from a brief journey home to call up his men, he should have known Arthur's basic strategy and the skin around Arthur's eyes tightened, but then he drew a breath and said, "We have our spies tracking their movements. It would be unreasonable not to expect them to do the same. This knoll." He pointed at a circle drawn on the map. "It has a good view across the valley. I will set up my position there. Cenred holds his knights back, relying on his foot soldiers to fight for him, as the stories say the Roman legions did. But his men don't have the discipline of Rome." He looked around the gathering, as if expecting to be contradicted. No one rose to his challenge and he continued, "They will, however, hold their lines with their shield bases dug into the earth. We need to break through and divide them."
He stood up and his knights tensed as they awaited their orders. "Lord Connal," he said. "You will lead the centre, with Lamorak, his son and their followers. Brolin, take Bailoch, Oran and Maddoc, with their men, to the right. Kay, with Lords Kenzie, Moren and Blane, you will lead the attack on the northern end of their line."
He rapped the knuckles of his left hand thoughtfully on the edge of the map a couple of times while his eyes scanned back and forth over it, then leaned forward, bracing himself on that arm. With his right hand he pointed at the northern end of the Escetian line. "That is where I expect to break them. Cenred and Broga will be stationed here, if they wish to view the whole field." He pointed at a position opposite the knoll he had claimed as his own. "Kay, your attack is slightly further from there than Brolin's and, most importantly, it is near this side valley." He moved his hand to trace the stream that had caught his attention earlier. "His men will have less room to manoeuvre." Looking up he caught Lancelot's eye and grinned. "Lancelot, I want you to take Gwaine and a small group of hand-picked men, and circle around to approach Cenred's troops from that valley. You will leave tonight and I want you in position and ready to attack by dawn. They will have pickets out well beyond the trees, if they are wise, so you must silence them. Can you do that?"
Lancelot nodded. "Of course, Sire, if the men will follow me."
"You are too modest, Sir Lancelot," Arthur said. "Camelot remembers your bravery in the past; they will follow you." He looked around the gathering. "Kay, would you call in the Sergeant Marshal, who should be waiting outside. We need his counsel."
Lord Connal spluttered then. "Sire," he protested. "A common soldier?"
Kay ducked outside and returned a moment later with the Sergeant Marshal of the army, who entered cautiously but without hesitation. Arthur looked around again, pointedly not fixing on Lord Connal and said, "We are all going into this battle, so we all have places around this table on its eve."
The sergeant immediately straightened his back and stepped up smartly to make a formal bow.
Arthur nodded acknowledgement. "Marc Thurston," he said. "Tell us how you have deployed the troops who joined us in the last few days?"
Marc bowed again. He cast a quick look around the gathering. Merlin caught his eye and smiled encouragingly. Marc frowned. Looking across the table to Arthur, he said, "I've spread them about, Sire, and appointed an old hand to each group of three." He stopped and it wasn't clear if he had run out of confidence, or information. Arthur made a rolling gesture with his hand and he continued more hesitantly, "Well, I figured they've not got the training, Sire. I thought the best we could do was to try and talk them into an understanding, over the cook fires." Arthur smiled and Marc relaxed. He took a deep breath and added with a smile of his own, "I believe the result is variable, Sire."
"I'm sure it is," Arthur agreed. "Can you find me thirty good woodsman who can move silently at night, no questions asked?"
Back on what was obviously more familiar ground, Marc nodded eagerly. "Yes, Sire."
"They are to go with Sir Lancelot, tonight. This is very important, so I want only the best hunters and poachers in the army. And only men you would vouch for, yourself."
His expression thoughtful, Marc's lips moved silently, while Arthur waited. After almost half a minute his eyes focused again. He blinked and said. "Yes, Sire, I can pick you twenty-five or thirty who will serve your needs."
"Good. After dark, send two or three groups of men to dismantle parts of this wall," Arthur said, indicating a field wall that cut straight across the line of attack. "Three or four breaches, at the very least."
This wall," he said, indicating the matching field wall on the far side of the brook, "will be more difficult."
Marc spoke up. "I have a couple of lads who could creep across the brook and pull that down, too, Sire. The scouts say the enemy is still bringing up his troops. They'll have a watch, but they'll be busy most of the night, getting into position."
Marc and Arthur exchanged a smile that was almost conspiratorial. "While our men will be rested," Arthur agreed.
Standing back from the table, Marc asked, "Will that be all, Sire?"
Arthur shook his head. "No, you should hear what comes next. And if you have any thoughts, any at all, that you think we have missed something, you must speak."
Marc appeared as taken aback by this command as some of the knights obviously were, but he composed his face into one of grim determination, nodded and said, "Yes, Sire." He moved across to the end of the table, behind Leon's shoulder and opposite Lord Connal, allowing Kay to get closer. Kay slipped into place but, by somehow fitting his large bulk into a small space, didn't force Marc back to where he would not be able to see. Marc didn't seem to notice the consideration. He was staring down at the map, as if he could wrest the best plan from it by the force of his gaze. Kay's lips twitched in a private smile.
"The enemy will have knights scattered along their line," Arthur said, pulling Merlin's attention back to the more important matter at hand. "Each will be commanding his own men. Tomorrow they will attempt to be the immovable object." He flashed a smile around the group. "We must be the irresistible force.
"Connal, Brolin and Kay, you will set off first, with a standard line attack. Dagonet will take Tor, Gareth Goodhands, Daniel and their companions, and do as we have practiced." Looking straight at Dagonet, he said simply, "You will ride as a spearhead and break the line for Brolin." Dagonet nodded and Arthur turned to look at Bors. "Bors and Isen, take Elyan, and Erec's son, Alfred, and his friends, to support Kay." Bors made a slight bow and Lord Isen nodded. Leaning over the table Arthur ran his finger across the map, tracing the field wall on the far side of the brook. "You will wait until the men on foot have reached this second wall before you start the charge. Cenred can see you from the position he'll adopt, here." Picking up Leon's pen, he marked the spot he had identified earlier as Cenred's most likely position, behind the centre-left of the enemy's lines, with an X. "Until you move, he will not question an infantry charge against his line. Nor will he suspect anything from a mounted charge down each side. He will assume you are acting as belated out flankers."
Reaching for his tankard he took a gulp, using the movement to mark the end of that instruction and the start of the next. "Formal tournament tactics have no place on this field. Once you start your charge, you will stop for nothing. Camelot's men know how to clear a path for you. Any who aren't quick enough..." He looked at Marc who nodded grimly. "They will have to be quick enough, because you must stay together and in formation. You will become the vanguard. When the enemy's line is broken, you will turn along their rear. Any men on foot who can follow, will do so. Marc, do your Sergeants at Arms understand that?"
"They will do, Sire. And their men will follow them." At his end of the table, Lord Connal spluttered again. He garnered swift, but fleeting, glances from Kay and Brolin, but the rest of those present were concentrating on Arthur.
Arthur picked up his tankard again and sat down. "Marc, that will be all for now. I thank you for your diligence. Will you go now and select your best men to accompany Sir Lancelot?"
Marc bowed and left. The small group of knights waited in unnatural silence until he was gone, then Lionel shifted uncomfortably and pushed forward until he was standing in front of the table, his shadow falling over the map. He looked behind him and waited until a groom leading three horses had passed. Merlin did his best impression of invisibility. Once the immediate vicinity was clear of uninvolved ears, Lionel turned back to Arthur. "Sire," he said. "We are your elite. This deployment..." Apparently unable to find the words to object without outright criticism, he trailed off and started again. "Our place is with you."
Arthur shook his head. "It is because you are my elite that I must split you. If I can't trust you, who can I trust?" He directed an assessing glance in Lord Connal's direction. "This is what we have been practicing since last summer." Taking a breath, he sat back, staring up at the standing company. "When Cenred besieged Camelot," there was an uncomfortable shifting of shoulders and shuffling of feet which Arthur ignored, "he wasted his knights, keeping them back and relying solely on his infantry. When we were holding the gates on foot, one concerted charge on horseback would have broken us." Under Arthur's level gaze no one voiced any objection, although there was a breath of a half formed protest from someone. With a faint smirk of cynical amusement, Arthur said, "We are lucky that Cenred is poorly read; a study of the classical texts would tell him far more about how the Romans fought than the bedtime stories of his childhood nurse." More seriously he added, "I am relying on you. Tomorrow, the true glory of the day will be yours and the fate of Camelot will be in your care."
Lionel shifted uncomfortably and did not appear wholly satisfied, but he said nothing. Arthur nodded to himself. Glancing back over his shoulder, he caught Merlin's eye and held out his tankard.
Having refilled it and given it back, Merlin looked around the rest of the company and was handed three more to fill, while Lord Connal and Brolin lifted theirs to their mouths, as if they had forgotten they held them until reminded. Arthur took a swig of his beer and put his tankard down on a corner of the map. "However, my kingship will not rob me of a share in your glory," he said. "You, Lionel, with Leon, will hold back." he held up a staying hand and Lionel subsided, "until the enemy has been met. From here," he pointed at the knoll again, "it will be clear where the second charge must be targeted. You and your friends will then join my charge."
Looking at Bors, Isen and Dagonet, he said, "You are my spearhead." Turning to Lancelot he smiled and added, "While you are my dagger. Between you, you must break their line and roll them back." To Lord Connal he said, "You must engage them fiercely, in order to prevent them turning."
He nodded to Kay and Brolin and they nodded back. "Any of Cenred's foot soldiers who break and run, are to be allowed to flee. Make room for them to escape. But any knight who leaves the field, I want him marked."
His men nodded grimly. "And Cenred himself?" Leon asked.
"By the time we reach his position, I expect it to be vacant," Arthur replied, which raised a laugh.
Dagonet turned on the spot, taking them all in. He raised his tankard. "To that, then, if nothing better offers," he said. Arthur stood and he and his company all raised their tankards in reply to the toast. They gulped the beer down and, as one, turned and threw the empty tankards out through the open flaps into the thoroughfare beyond. Merlin squeezed past Brolin's back to run and gather them up before they got trodden into the ground, or borrowed by passing soldiers.
He stood aside while the knights left and slipped back inside the tent to collect the half-empty keg and string the tankards back on their leather belt. His attempt to stay longer was thwarted by an admonitory jerk of the head from Lord Isen, which sent him back out into fading sunlight with his load.
"Have Ajax ready as soon as we leave camp tomorrow," Lord Isen said. An unnecessary instruction to which Merlin made a small bow, keeping his mouth shut.
Lord Isen didn't move, as if he still had something to say, but before he could open his mouth with some invented instruction or question, Gwaine wandered over. "Isen," he said. "You grew up out here in the wilds of nowhere; come and help Lancelot and me inspect these men, will you?"
Lord Isen turned, an easy grin slipping into place. "Of course," he said. "I'm at your service, if you don't trust your own judgement..."
As they walked away, Gwaine threw an arm around Isen's shoulders and the last words Merlin heard were Gwaine's laughing protests that it was impossible for a man raised in civilisation to judge the merits of a wild man.
Merlin went to deliver his cargo and search for his supper. Dillon would be happy to swap his boys' time to wash the tankards, in exchange for the remains of the beer. The chances were good, it would also earn Merlin an extra helping of meat and maybe enough to give Bevyn some. It was doubtful Gwaine would allow Isen to be alone for some time, so Gwaine's man would no doubt look after them both.
By the time he had seen to the horses and eaten, it was getting close to dark and Merlin went in search of Arthur. Slipping between the piles of supplies, wagons, horses and tents, with ease, he proved to his own satisfaction that he could be stealthy when he needed to be. The fact that he had started inside the perimeter guard helped. The fact that no one saw him dodge behind Arthur's tent was due all to his own skill, honed over years of not getting caught doing magic around Uther. Lying down he pushed his head under the bottom of the tent wall. He was right where he'd been standing earlier, next to Arthur's war chest.
Arthur was still sitting on his folding stool, leaning forward with his forearms resting on the table, a single candle standing between them. The tent flaps were drawn down to protect the flame from the evening breeze and he was comparing two sheets of parchment that he was holding up, side by side to catch the meagre light. A goblet and a flask of wine stood at his elbow.
Merlin was about to push through the gap he'd made when a disturbance outside heralded a voice asking, "Sire, may I enter?"
Arthur placed his papers down and glanced towards where Merlin's head and shoulders protruded from under the canvas wall. Merlin pulled his legs in behind the chest and wriggled behind it so he was hidden in its shadow. Arthur gave a small nod and said, "Come in."
The flap was pushed open and Lord Connal entered. He was hesitant, even nervous. He bowed to Arthur. "Sire," he said.
Arthur stood up and walked around the table, drawing Connal's eyes with him, away from the corner between the wall and the chest where Merlin hid. "Connal," he said, his voice cautious. "You have something of import to tell me?"
"Sire, I, I do," Connal said, but having managed that much he seemed to stall. Arthur waited. After an uncomfortable silence, Lord Connal cleared his throat and began again. "Arthur," he said. Arthur's eyebrows rose slightly but he didn't say anything. "Your father was not always a good man. He was sometimes too harsh, but he always did what he believed was right, what was best for the kingdom."
Arthur nodded agreement and folded his arms. Lord Connal cleared his throat again. "I loved him," he said. "From the first time I met him, leaving the field at the Battle of Greenswood, I knew I'd follow him until the day I died." He pressed his lips together in a hard line and blinked once. Taking a visible breath he hesitated and appeared to once again change what he was going to say.
His voice took on an almost avuncular tone. "Arthur, I've known you since you were a stumbling toddler clutching your first wooden sword. And I've seen you grow into a prince with strong principles and fair judgement." Arthur bowed his head in acknowledgement of the compliment. Lord Connal smiled. "I'll admit that when you first put Broga on trial, I didn't understand. I thought you'd lost your wits, to try a powerful baron for the death of a serving maid. But when Broga ran to Cenred, I realised you were wiser than your years. You forced him to display his hand. If you had not, he would have been a permanent thorn and irritant in your side."
Arthur had listened calmly to Lord Connal's speech but the tension of his stance suggested that he was holding on to his patience. Lord Connal appeared to recognise the need to come to the point, or perhaps he had simply run out of prevarications. "Lord Lamorak has been in secret talks with Broga for the past month," he announced. "He came to me, to ask for my support tomorrow."
Placing his hand on his sword belt, Arthur regarded him, his eyes suddenly cold. "And what did you say to him in reply?"
"My Lord!" Connal's indignation did not sound feigned.
Arthur turned his back and walked to his cot. Undoing his belt, he dropped it, with Excalibur, onto the blanket. He turned around. His face was blank. "How long ago did he ask you?" he said.
"Sire," Lord Connal protested. "This very day. I came straight to you."
"Yet he felt confident enough to do so."
"My Lord," Connal said, pulling himself up stiffly. "I came to you."
"Yes, you did." Arthur smiled and in a more friendly tone asked, "And does he expect anything from you?"
"I told him I must sleep on it, given my love for your father. I think he took it in good part and hopes for a favourable answer."
Arthur nodded thoughtfully. "I thank you for your loyalty." he said, eventually. "I will have to change my plans a little. You will forgive me now."
With a nod he dismissed Connal, who bowed low and backed towards the door murmuring, "Sire."
Arthur waited until he was gone then called the guard to say that he wanted no more interruptions that night.
Returning to his stool, he sat down. "You can come out now, Merlin," he said.
Merlin dragged himself out from behind the chest and stood up. "You heard me." he said.
"A deaf man would have heard you. But, even if I had somehow missed the noise, I always know when you are near." Arthur sighed and shook his head at Merlin. "I thought I was deceiving myself, at first. I thought even you would not be so foolish."
Merlin paused in his task of brushed dirt off the front of his jerkin and breeches. "Good thing it's not raining," he said. "How long have you known me? Of course I can be so foolish."
"I'm an optimist and I live in hope."
"You'll be living a long time, then," Merlin countered. He brightened. "Which is good. So I'm doing you a favour, when you think about it."
Arthur refused to be mollified. "Can you drop that look?" he asked.
Merlin pulled a face and tugged a narrow leather bracelet free from his wrist. He dropped it on to the table as the glamour faded away. Spreading his arms wide he said, "Here you have me, in all my glory."
"In all your stupidity."
Merlin shook his head. "I am your wise and valued counsellor. If you call me stupid, it reflects badly on you for choosing me."
Refusing the olive branch of banter, Arthur asked, "What are you doing here?"
"You told me to come."
"I told you no such thing."
Walking forward, Merlin tried to face him down. "Down by the river, you distinctly said- "
His protests were cut off when Arthur surged to his feet, grabbed him by the front of his jacket, jerked him forward and kissed him.
"Insubordinate, irresponsible, disobedient..." Arthur muttered when he drew back.
Merlin grinned. "It's what you love about me." He looked straight into Arthur's eyes and more seriously added, "And I couldn't, I really couldn't stay at Camelot. Not knowing what was happening. I'd go crazy."
He reached up and cupped Arthur's cheek with his right hand. Arthur pushed into the touch. Slipping his other arm around Arthur's waist, Merlin drew them closer together. This kiss was slow and gentle, as if they were both pretending they had all the time in the world. But they didn't. Merlin pulled away.
"What will you do about Lord Lamorak?" he asked. "You didn't send for him."
Arthur sighed. "No," he agreed. "I can't afford the public dissent." He tilted his head and considered Merlin. "What do you think I should do, oh wise and valued counsellor?"
Merlin narrowed his eyes and thought about the question before answering. Eventually he suggested, "Separate him from his men and set Kay to keep an eye on him?"
Arthur grinned. He took hold of a hank of Merlin's hair in each hand and gently shook Merlin's head. "Very good, Merlin. It appears there is hope for you after all. We'll make a counsellor of you yet."
Merlin grabbed Arthur's wrists and pulled his hands away. "Smug bastard," he said.
Pretending deafness, Arthur lowered his head and cocked it to one side "What was that?" he asked. "What did you say?"
Merlin put his hands on Arthur's neck and his thumbs under Arthur's chin, forcing Arthur's head back up. "Nothing. I didn't say anything," he whispered and leaned in for another kiss. Turning them around, he stepped back towards Arthur's cot, pulling Arthur with him.
"Want you," Arthur murmured.
"You are so romantic," Merlin replied, loosening the laces at the neck of Arthur's shirt. Arthur grinned, his hand going to the ties at Merlin's waist. He tugged them free and slid both hands down inside to cup Merlin's arse. Merlin switched his attention to the knot on Arthur's breeches and got it loose. He shoved Arthur's trousers down to his knees and slid his left hand between Arthur's legs in a long stroke over Arthur's prick, to cup his balls. He gave a gentle squeeze.
Arthur pulled his own hands free, pushed Merlin's drawers down and raised his hands to Merlin's chest. He pushed and Merlin toppled in an ungraceful heap onto the mattress behind him. Arthur's velvet blanket was soft and warm to the touch and he had a real mattress filled with down. Merlin crab-crawled backwards, shoving Excalibur onto the floor as he did so, until he was on the bed properly. He reached forward and undid the laces on his boots, pulling them off. Arthur watched, stripping off his own trousers and boots as he did so.
Arthur knelt on the edge of the mattress and leaned forward until he was on his hands and knees, his arms bracketing Merlin's shoulders and his knees either side of Merlin's hips. His cock hung heavy and strong between them.
Merlin ran his right hand gently along its length, a stroke with no pressure. Arthur's breath hitched and he went very still. Merlin brought his other hand up and trapped Arthur's cock between his palms, rubbing softly back and forth, rolling it between them and Arthur laughed. "Stop that," he said.
Merlin grinned up at him, removed his right hand and turned his left to grasp Arthur's prick. He gave it a teasing stroke. "Better," Arthur gasped. Merlin shifted his right hand back to cup and squeeze Arthur's balls again, allowing them to slip and slide against each other inside their sack. With his left hand, he tightened his hold on Arthur's cock and began to stroke. Arthur's back arched, exposing his throat. He pushed into Merlin's grasp.
Merlin let go of Arthur's balls and moved his hand to his own cock. The rhythm was difficult to establish, but he was able to pleasure them both at the same pace, until Arthur allowed his left arm to bend and he fell to his side next Merlin. Merlin rolled over so they were face-to-face and brought his left hand up to run his fingertips down Arthur's cheek. Arthur smiled and placed his hand behind Merlin's neck, pulling his head closer and kissing him. Merlin tilted his head to deepen the kiss, following that by rolling further so he half lay over Arthur, who gazed up at him. Arthur spread his arms wide, over the edge of the bed on either side. "I'm all yours," he said.
Merlin grinned down at him. "So you are," he agreed. "And what to do with you."
Arthur schooled his face into solemnity. "As your king," he said, a smile already threatening to cause the corners of his lips to curve up, "I grant you access, with one proviso."
"Oh yeah? And what would that be?"
"I'll be in the saddle most of tomorrow and I'd hate to lose the battle, and so the kingdom, because my arse made it difficult to concentrate."
Merlin pursed his lips thoughtfully. "You make a good point, My Liege. It would go down in the annals of shame, that a well shagged king lost himself a kingdom."
He bobbed down and dropped a kiss on the tip of Arthur's nose. "As your loyal subject, there is only one thing I can do," he said mournfully. He shifted off Arthur, pulling Arthur over onto his side again. He wriggled around until his back was pressed against Arthur's chest. "I must sacrifice myself. I will lie back and think of Camelot."
Arthur chuckled and kissed the side of Merlin's neck. He ran his right hand down Merlin's flank, over his hip to his cock and gave it an affectionate squeeze, pushing his own cock against Merlin's arse as he did so. Then he pulled back to allow space to get his hand between them. "Have you got some grease?" he asked.
Later, they lay with Arthur's head resting on Merlin's shoulder and his right arm stretched across Merlin's chest. Merlin stroked his hand up Arthur's back, into his hair and started to lightly massage his scalp. Arthur drew a deep contented breath.
"We need to sleep," Merlin said.
Arthur nuzzled into Merlin's neck. "Well you can't sleep here."
Merlin pulled his head back as far as he could and squinted down at Arthur. "What do you mean? You can't kick me out."
Arthur shifted his head on Merlin shoulder so he could look up at him. "I can and I will."
"But... Arthur, you just shagged me senseless. I'm boneless. I'm a puddle, Puddle-Merlin. I can't move."
Arthur rolled over onto his side, pulling free of Merlin's arm. Merlin shifted to lie on his side, facing Arthur, but before he could settle, Arthur took advantage and shoved him so he tumbled off the cot and onto the ground.
Mindful of the guards outside, he didn't yell, but he glared very loudly at Arthur.
Arthur grinned back. "You got yourself into this. You have to live with it, Myrddin," he drawled.
Merlin rolled onto his hands and knees and levered himself onto his feet. "Why can't I make my bed and so lie in it, instead?" he asked.
"Because I can't have Isen's unknown groom in my tent, come morning," Arthur replied.
Sitting down on the edge of the cot, Merlin started to drag his clothes back on, while Arthur pulled the blankets over himself and made a show of snuggling down under them.
"You'll be careful tomorrow, won't you?" Merlin said, looking over his shoulder at Arthur.
Arthur smiled. "And you too," he said. "I don't need to explain, again, why I forbade you to come on this campaign, do I?"
"No, you don't. I understood then and I understand now. I promise not to rain down fire on the enemy, or do anything to advance the battle." He twisted around so he could look Arthur directly in the eye. "But I won't promise not to come to your aid, if you need it."
Pulling his right hand free of the blankets, Arthur reached up and flicked the tip of Merlin's nose with his forefinger. "I won't need it," he said.
"And if that doesn't jinx you, nothing will," Merlin replied, clasping Arthur's hand and bringing it to his lips. He kissed the tips of Arthur's fingers and let it drop. Reaching down, he picked up his boots and pulled them on.
"It was going to happen," Arthur said. "There had to be a challenge, there always is. But this day will confirm Camelot's reputation, under a new king. All my knights will come out of it as heroes."
"But what of you?"
Arthur's lips twisted in acknowledgement. "Think of the glory I garner from being their commander."
Merlin nodded. "True. And so the legend will be born and grow." He got up and went over to the gap he had made in the base of the tent wall by his entrance.
"Hey!" Arthur called. He pointed at the table and Merlin went over and grabbed the leather bracelet and pulled it on.
Kneeling down he prepared to wriggle out again, but before he did so he turned and asked, "Would it be treason to suggest that I don't quite trust your promise to keep yourself safe?"
For the second time since they left Camelot, a brief but heavy downpour soaked both the camp and Merlin just before dawn. Trudging about his duties, he was once again grateful to Gwen for his hat and only wished for a cloak to accompany it.
He had left Arthur's tent just after the change of the second watch, made his way to the wagon he had claimed the night before, crawled under his blanket and fallen immediately into a deep sleep. As arranged, the guard on the third watch woke him, just before going off duty. He did so with a friendly kick, which had not been part of the bargain.
When Merlin dragged himself out into the open and stretched, Dillon's boy was already building up the fire for breakfast a few yards away, so he went over to warm his hands and scrounge some food before he started on his duties. Cheese and hard oatcakes in one hand, and two buckets in the other, he'd made his way down to the stream.
The camp slowly came awake around him while he was carting water and feed to the horses. By the time that was done, the porridge was ready and he delivered breakfast to Isen and Bevyn before getting his own.
The sky began to lighten, the rain cleared and the air smelt fresh and clean; no small feat in a camp crowded with oxen, horses, dogs and men and women sleeping rough. Merlin groomed both Rom and Ajax and laid out and checked their saddles, bridles and accoutrements.
Arthur had been around the camp, too, issuing orders and dealing with questions from his knights and sergeants, but when Merlin finished his tasks and went looking, he was nowhere to be seen. The queue of servants at Dillon's pot had dispersed, although the other fires were still busy. Merlin paused, shrugged and went to beg a second breakfast.
Dillon took one look at him and handed him a bowl of porridge and a leather tankard saying, "Here, this'll put a proper lining on your ribs." Merlin nodded his thanks and set the tankard on the ground at his feet. Dillon gave the cauldron at his side a stir with a long handled ladle. "And if you're still hungry, after," he said, "we've put some fresh veg in the stew from last night."
Merlin looked up from digging in the pouch on his belt. "Where did you get that?" he asked. His hand closed around the handle of his spoon and he pulled it out, holding it up triumphantly for Dillon to see.
Grinning at his foolery, Dillon tapped his nose and looked around before leaning closer and whispering, "Forage party. They found a vegetable patch next to one of the cottages on this side of the brook, where those other bastards couldn't come and pillage."
Already shovelling porridge into his mouth, Merlin mumbled, "I thought the King ordered that the cotters of Crybookdale be left in peace?"
Dillon snorted. "He did. But he never said nowt about that lot over there." He jerked his head in the general direction of the rise. "Anyhows, anything left would be trampled. It'd be a crime to waste it." He glared down at the pot of stew. "Not that there was much left. Some other bugger got to it before me and mine."
"Right." Merlin scraped up the last of the porridge and sucked his spoon clean before stashing it away again. Handing the bowl back to the boy who was squatting on the ground next to the porridge pot, he picked up the tankard, gulped down the small beer and handed the tankard back to Dillon. "Thanks, mate," he said. He looked up the hill. "I have to get back to the horses, now, but if there's any stew left later, I'll take you up on your offer." Hitching his jacket on his shoulders, he straightened his hat and headed towards the picket line.
"I'll save you some," Dillon called after him. "Might have a squirrel or three added, too, by then."
Merlin waved his hand over his head in acknowledgement, keeping his eyes on his feet as he picking his way along the now muddy path between the tents.
Just before he reached the picket line, he passed Bevyn sitting on the grass outside Isen's tent. He was working a whetstone along the blade of Isen's sword, his face screwed up in concentration. Merlin waited until he finished a stroke before he spoke. "Too fine an edge will soon blunt, you know," he said. "They swipe away at each other and hit metal more often than flesh."
Bevyn looked up at him and scowled. "Go away! Lord Isen will have the sharpest sword in the army, or..."
He broke off.
Merlin paused and frowned. "Or what?" he asked.
Bevyn sniffed but didn't look at him so Merlin crouched down to better see his face. "What's wrong, boy?" he asked. "Has Lord Isen been harsh with you?"
"No!" Bevyn looked up sharply. Merlin held his gaze and his indignation faded. He sniffed again and swiped at his nose with the back of his hand. "I, I just want him to come back," he said.
Merlin relaxed. "Lord Isen's a good fighter," he said. "I heard the king himself say so. And, you know, well, he's the king, so if he says it..."
With a tentative smile, Bevyn nodded. "Yeah," he agreed. He hesitated, looking into Merlin's face and then said in a rush, "But if anything were to happen to him, my sister... She told me I had to look after Isen and make sure his weapons were always sharp and his armour was polished, as befits a knight of his standing."
"Is your sister sweet on Isen, then?" Merlin asked.
"No. Well. I suppose so. They were married, this mid-winter past. It was a big feast, just before the old king died and Isen had to come away. When he came back to raise the men, he brought me with him to be his squire, and I have to do it right, see?"
Merlin lifted the sword from Bevyn's hands and held it up to the light, sighting along the edge with deliberation. "I don't think I've ever seen such a well-honed blade," he announced gravely. Looking down into Bevyn's face, he added, "And at my age, I've seen a lot of blades, up close. And sharpened more than a few. I think you can be proud of your service. Never fear, this sword will serve Lord Isen well." He scooped up the scabbard from the grass, stood and slipping the blade away before holding it out for Bevyn to take. "Now, go and set it ready in his tent." he said. "And lay out the rest of his armour. They'll be back soon and they'll be in a tearing hurry when they are. Once they've gone, I have to take Ajax up to the top of the hill, in case Lord Isen needs him. How about you bring him instead, to hold him ready, just in case?"
Bevyn scrambled to his feet and took the sword. "Y-yes. I... Yeah," he agreed with a shy smile.
On the point of turning away to go to Rom, Merlin looked back. "And grab some bread and cheese from the cooks," he suggested. "It'll be a long day of watching and waiting and we'll need to eat too."
The Lords returned soon after and for a while the camp was a confusion of bustling squires, servants and grooms. Merlin brought Rom to the open entrance of Lord Isen's tent, just as Bevyn was fastening the belt around the red surcoat he wore over his mail. Bevyn darted back inside and emerged carrying Isen's plumed helmet. He stood to attention and held it out to Isen with stiff arms.
Isen took it with a laugh and ruffled Bevyn's hair. "Thanks, lad," he said. Bevyn scowled at him and tried to smooth his hair back into order with his fingertips. Spotting Merlin, Isen waved him away. "I'll walk," he said. "No need for Rom to start working yet. It'll be a hard enough day when it starts."
"Yes, come on." Turning to Bevyn, he said, "I'll be back as soon as I may. You hold tight, you hear?"
Bevyn cast an appealing look at Merlin who nodded reassurance and said, "Your pardon, My Lord, but I was wanting to bring Ajax up, too, if that's all right with you?"
"Right." Isen gave a nod of approval. "Yes. Give me Rom, then. I'll walk him up," he said. "You go and sort out Ajax." Bevyn relaxed and smiled at Merlin.
Isen set off up the slope, leading Rom and carrying his helmet under his arm. Merlin and Bevyn went back to the horse line to ready Ajax, before following him.
Twenty minutes later, when they neared the top of the ridge, they found Rom in the care of a soldier and Isen in attendance on Arthur some distance away. Merlin handed Ajax over to Bevyn and told him to stay put. Reclaiming Rom, he went up to the top of the rise.
The bracken had been trampled and flattened, making the ground soft and springy to walk over. The broken fronds whipped at Merlin's ankles and soaked his trousers to the knee. He found a low outcrop of rock that broke the surface of the soil and stood on it to oversee the valley.
Avarldale lay before him, peaceful and almost magical in the silver, pre-dawn light. The valley floor was lost under a low-lying blanket of mist. Only the tops of the few scrubby bushes that marked the line of the brook, stuck up out of the fog. Down the slope, halfway to the brook, was the first field wall, now little more than a heap of rubble. Beyond that, the close-cropped grass of the enclosed pastures spoke of sheep grazing, even if the presence of bracken on the hills hadn't already made that clear. On the other side of the brook, the pattern was the same. The army of Escetia and Garsbury was ranged across the opposite slope, less than half a mile away.
That camp was also awake and men were going about their everyday tasks. A small queue had formed next to a man with a grind stone. Even from a distance his task was obvious from his posture, bent over the frame that held the stone wheel in front of him. A few carts still occupied space that would be part of the defences, but activity nearby suggested they would soon be moved. All along the ridge, small groups of soldiers stood together looking over at Camelot's position. A number of men walked across short stretches of the slope in front of them and the soldiers began to form up into loose lines.
Kilgarrah could wipe them out with a single breath, sending fire from the sky that would leave nothing but charred bones in its wake and not a man of Camelot harmed. But the soldiers of Escetia were also men - men fighting for their lord, to whom they owed allegiance, and they didn't deserve indiscriminate slaughter. So, instead, men on both sides would die, the virtuous and the villains together.
Arthur and his close companions had moved to the foot of the knoll Arthur had mentioned the afternoon before, Isen among them with his back to Merlin. Arthur's campaign table was set up on the summit and Leon sat hunched over it with straight-edge and pen. His quadrant lay near to hand. As Merlin watched, he carefully put down the pen and picked up the quadrant. Holding it horizontally, he directed it towards some landmark, fiddling with the arm as he sighted along it. Bringing the quadrant around, he studied the angle and picked up his pen again.
Merlin edged closer to the knoll, trying to avoid attracting Isen's attention whilst appearing to anyone else that he was dutifully in attendance upon him.
The long dawn of early summer drew closer to sunrise and the sky lightened more. To the east it was streaked with opalescent blue and glowing orange, but low on the horizon, right above Cenred's troops, a narrow band of black cloud hung like a dark omen, making the strip of clear sky below it seem brighter, by contrast. Overhead a few feathers of white cloud stretched across the otherwise clear sky.
Arthur climbed up to the top of the knoll and stationed himself next to Leon. Leon looked up at him and said something. Placing a hand on Leon's shoulder, Arthur bent forward to study the detail Leon was pointing at, his other hand resting on the edge of the table. They spoke quietly, while his retinue of knights waited a respectful distance away.
After about five minutes, Arthur straightened and looked around. He waved Bedwyr and Isen over and spoke to them. Isen nodded and went jogging back towards the camp, leaving Merlin standing gormlessly in the open with Rom. Arthur caught his eye and blinked in subtle greeting.
While he waited for whatever Isen had gone to fetch, Arthur called Kay, Dagonet, Lionel and Brolin forward, speaking to them individually and directing their attention to various places in the enemy's position. In turn, they withdrew to carry Arthur's orders to their own commands.
The mass of Camelot's fighting men began to arrive and take up their positions. In Cenred's lines, oxen were being brought forward and the last of the wagons on the field were moved to the rear.
Time passed and Isen returned, bringing Lord Lamorak with him. Stopping at the foot of the knoll, he allowed the Earl to walk forward alone.
The climb was no more than five yards but Arthur came forward a pace to meet Lamorak, rather than waiting. He drew Lamorak over to the table with one hand on his shoulder. Pointing at the map, he nodded towards the northern end of Cenred's lines and spoke at length. As Lord Lamorak listened, he first looked surprised, then indignant and finally angry. He waved his arm towards where the men from his own lands were gathered, Cas at their head. Arthur replied and it was obvious to anyone who knew him well that he was exerting a great deal of effort to remain calm and civil. Eventually, it appeared that he managed to deal with Lamorak's objections to being separated from his men with sufficient diplomacy, or authority, for Lamorak to give a stiff bow before withdrawing.
Turning his back on Arthur, he made his way to Lord Connal's side, where it was clear more angry words were exchanged. It also seemed Lamorak was trying to draw Lord Connal away, but Connal appeared determined to remain in Arthur's sight. Lamorak left him to go and speak to his son.
Arthur turned to Bedwyr, saying something that made Bedwyr look at Lamorak and when Lamorak walked away to take his place with Kay, Bedwyr's eyes stayed on Cas, as Cas called to one of his men and sent him back to the camp.
The sun finally cleared the band of low clouds to the east, making the damp grass above the mist in the valley glow and illuminating Camelot's army, while leaving the Escetians in the shade.
Arthur threw back his head and laughed. "The sun shines on us," he cried, "while they are lost in darkness."
Merlin watched a shiver of talk roll through the massed ranks. At the edge of one of the groups nearby, Luc of Shernston hitched his shoulders and straightened his belt. From further away a single voice yelled, "For Camelot! For Arthur and Camelot!" which a moment later was taken up as a rolling wave, individual words lost, but with the unmistakable rhythm of a battle cry. Arthur smiled without humour and nodded at Marc of Thurston who nodded back.
"Myrddin," Isen called.
Merlin turned, saw Isen signalling him and drew a deep breath. He took Rom over and assisted Isen to mount before taking up a position at Rom's head. Along the ridge, other knights were also mounting their horses. Alwin brought Bran to the foot of the knoll and Leon left his desk to take Betsy from his groom.
Opposite them, the Escetian army had drawn up in a long line. In the front row, men held their shields before them in a solid wall. Those behind would be standing ready to lift their own shields to make a roof for themselves and their forward comrades. Arthur, mounted on Bran, studied their ranks. He issued an instruction to Sir Leon, who nodded and turned Betsy to go and speak to the sergeant of the archers. Merlin watched him as he actually dismounted and led the sergeant forward on foot, his arm sweeping left and right across the valley as he explained Arthur's desires. Leon could occasionally stand on his dignity, but he also had the common touch and Merlin felt a surge of affection for him in that moment.
Arthur called the Sergeant Marshal over, leaning down from his saddle to speak to him. Marc bowed and turned to yell his orders to his men. The ranks jogged forward, forming a matching set of lines to those of the Escetians. Other than their deployment, to the untutored eye there appeared to be little similarity between the two armies. Where the Escetians carried long shields that came to a point at the bottom, Camelot's shields were smaller and round. They didn't even reach to cover the men's lower legs.
The sun broke free of the clouds. It would not be long before the mist in the valley burnt away and the ground over which Camelot's men would advance became clear in all its detail.
Arthur twisted in his saddle and surveyed the horsemen behind him. "Bedwyr," he called. "Go and ask that cur if he wishes to surrender."
Bedwyr's smile was grim. "Yes, My Lord," he said. He pushed his horse out of the group, which now included Cas of Lamorak, and the shield wall opened to let him through. Arthur followed and took up position in front of his troops, facing out across the valley. The golden band around the rim of his helmet caught the light and the proud red plume on its crown ruffled slightly as he moved. There was no breeze.
Bedwyr trotted down the slope and his horse jumped neatly over the dismantled field wall. When he reached the valley floor, the mist wreathed around him, up to his horse's knees, with the occasional drift lifting higher and momentarily leaving horse and man afloat in a sea of white.
They jumped the still obscured brook and climbed the opposite slope, passed through a gap in the second wall and stopped twenty yards short of the front ranks of the enemy, just south of the centre of their line. A group of men could be seen on horseback behind the foot soldiers, but neither Cenred nor Broga came forward to meet him.
From Camelot's side of the valley it was impossible to hear what he shouted, or what was replied over the heads of the men ranged before him, but when the soldiers issued a cheer and raised their swords and spears to shake them in the air, it was clear the answer had not been conciliatory.
Without waiting for Bedwyr's return, Arthur wheeled his horse around and walked him along Camelot's ranks. He raised his voice, so everyone in the line could hear him. "The cur has said no," he cried. "He came to Camelot and abused our trust." Pausing for a moment, he let that sink in before continuing, "Not mine alone, but also yours." He stabbed his finger towards the opposite slope. "That man killed one of ours! He challenged us all and spat on our hospitality and we will not let such treachery go unpunished!"
Pulling Bran to a halt, he took a deep breath and, placing his hands on his pommel, leant forward. "A man who behaves like that as our guest," he asked. "How does he behave at home?" A mutter and a few sniggers rippled through the ranks and Arthur smiled. "We will liberate his people of that oppression."
Bran walked backwards a few steps down the slope and Arthur took the reins again, sweeping his gaze along the line. "The last time he came against us," he cried, not bothering to differentiate between his rebel vassal, Broga, and the foreign king who had come to Broga's aid, "he had ten times this number, and we had ten times fewer. But we prevailed!"
This was greeted by a ragged but enthusiastic cheer and some of the soldiers lifted their swords and axes to shake them in the air. Arthur lowered his tone, if not the volume of his voice. "There are some who are alive today," he said, "who will not be alive tomorrow." He scanned his gaze along the ranks. "Those who do not wish to travel this path may leave us now. There is no shame in your leaving." There was some slight muttering, but unsurprisingly, no one moved. "For the others, I expect you all to show that Camelot breeds the best of men!" The muttering became a murmur. Close to where Merlin stood at Rom's head, a man of middle years nodded and added his "Aye!"
"They choose to fight," Arthur announced. Once again, he raised his voice to rallying pitch. "And we will wipe them out!" That got another, louder, murmur of agreement. "The enemy will be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. But," He paused. He had the attention of every man in the field. There was no sound, except the occasional clink of a bridle or snort of a horse. It was so quiet, the entire army might have been holding their breath. "The men who fight for him," Arthur said, almost gently. "They know no better. They fight today because it was their misfortune to be born on his land." Then stronger, he urged, "If they run, let them go. Cheer them on their way." That raised a laugh and some of the tension in the air dissipated.
Above Merlin's head and dragging his attention away from Arthur, Isen asked Leon, "Doesn't Cenred have a history of hiring mercenaries to fight for him?"
Leon glanced across at him and smiled. He nodded. "Yes," his replied, "So let us hope that they value their lives more than their honour."
Arthur wheeled back along the line. "Broga will be destroyed," he said with force, "for what he has done!
"And as he dies, he will know his own deeds have brought him to this place.
"For those who wish to fight and die for him." He laughed and his voice was almost conspiratorial when he gave them the punch line: "Well, we aim to please."
An answering laugh came from the men lined up along the slope of the hill before him.
His voice strong again, Arthur continued, "Your deeds today will follow you down through history. And we will not bring shame on our comrades." He paused and looked along the ranks again, making eye contact with individual soldiers. His voice once again softened, for all that he still spoke loudly enough for all to hear, "I have a dream," he said, "of a land at peace. But that day will never come while men like Broga flout our laws and prey on the weakest among our people." Once again, his voice swelled with rousing passion. "Men of Camelot, you fight not only for your king and your kingdom. Not only for your homes and your families. Today you fight for Albion!"
He raised his sword in salute and there was a roar of approval from the whole army, Isen and Leon amongst them. As the cheering began to fade, Leon laughed. "Well, that was unexpected," he said.
Bedwyr came back and fell in at Arthur's side. They returned behind the lines and Merlin left Isen to go and stand at the very top of the slope with Bevyn, who stood holding tightly to Ajax's reins, his expression an equal mixture of apprehension and excitement.
The mist was rapidly fading away and the dark clouds were slowly moving further east. Kay, Brolin and a handful of other knights took up their places on foot at the two ends of the front line, Lord Lamorak following Kay to the north. Lords Connal, Bailoch and Oran marched forward to stand in front, at the centre.
The mounted knights spread out into three distinct groups. Dagonet led Tor, Gareth, Daniel and a number of knights Merlin did not know well enough to name, to the south, to a position behind Brolin's men. Bors, Isen, Elyan and another group trotted over to wait behind Kay's men on the northern flank. Leon, Bedwyr, Lionel and nine others, including Cas of Lamorak, stayed with Arthur.
Merlin watched. The air was still, even on the crest of the rise, and the clear skies promised a perfect summer's day. Connal, Kay and Brolin each held up an arm to signal their readiness and the horn sounded.
With a long, drawn out yell, the line began to run down the slope into the last remnants of mist. The centre moved first, with the wings following so the attack took the form of a huge arrow head, running down the slope towards the brook.
Squires came forward and presented twelve foot lances to the mounted knights, who were waiting their turn.
About half way to the brook, the foot soldiers scrambled over the remains of the field wall and lifted their shields above their heads, still running. A moment later it was clear why. There was a mass disturbance in the uniformity of Escetia's ranks and the sky was suddenly black with a rain of arrows blotting out the sun. Escetia's archers were firing from behind their lines.
Camelot's archers had followed the infantry and paused to loose a volley of their own before moving forward again. Their arrows appeared to do little damage. A few men fell in the defending lines, but their places were immediately filled. By contrast, Escetia's arrows left bodies scattered across the field behind Camelot's advance.
The men of Camelot followed their lords over the brook and started up the opposite side. When they had covered about two thirds of the distance and were approaching the second field wall, the two groups of knights, to the north and south, started galloping after them.
They charged in loose formation, down the hill, jumping over the first dismantled wall and across the brook. From where Merlin stood, it appeared that both groups reached the brook at the same time. The horn sounded again and the archers spread to allow them clear passage. They galloped on with their lances held low, except for Gareth, who broke from Dagonet's group and wheeled around to rally the men on foot. Half the archers ran towards him and he set off again, towards the southern end of the line, where Brolin's attack had met an even heavier volley of arrows than the rest of the advance. The horn sounded again. Gareth's archers began to shoot over the heads of Brolin's men, targeting the Escetian archers.
Meanwhile, the knights on horseback had passed the running infantry and were leading the attack. As one, they couched their lances, without slackening their gallop by even a fraction. The horses drew together to pass through the gaps in the second wall and they stayed together after. The foot soldiers also closed ranks and appeared to put on an extra burst of speed in the horses' wake.
The company of Escetia's archers at the centre ceased their volleys when the range became too short for them to avoid hitting their own comrades. Those on the southern flank were being hard pressed by Gareth's attack; only the smaller group on the northern flank continued to shoot along Camelot's advancing line.
Camelot's archers continued to loose, even as the armies drew closer together. Shooting over the heads of their companions, their arrows penetrated the ranks of the Escetians beyond. The weeks of training in Camelot's lower field were bearing fruit.
From Merlin's position, the entire battle was laid out to view, but so busy that the small movement at the northern end went almost unnoticed. Men were creeping out of the trees behind the Escetian archers and the figure in the lead had to be Lancelot. The rain of arrows decreased dramatically as the archers turned to address Lancelot's and Gwaine's attack from their rear. A flurry in the ranks signalled foot soldiers also turning to meet Lancelot's small force.
Kay's knights, in close formation, crashed into the shield wall at the northern end. From across the valley it was not possible to see any detail, but their lances had to have penetrated the first and probably the second rows of men. For a moment it appeared that Arthur's tactic had succeeded and they were going to break through, but somehow the line held. The galloping horses seemed to shudder to a halt.
Meanwhile, Lord Connal's infantry had reached the enemy's lines. The Escetians stood firm and, unsupported by cavalry, Connal's advance also stalled into a mess of hack and slash. Unable to make progress, they also could not prevent some of Cenred's men turning to meet the stronger attack from the north, the movement of a group being discernable even from across the valley.
Alwin appeared at Merlin's side, holding Algar's reins. He nodded to Merlin and, surprisingly, spoke. "Hot work," he said.
"Aye," Merlin agreed, but kept his eyes fixed on the opposite slope. He scanned his eyes back and forth across the field, logging the plumed helmets of the mounted knights on each pass. To the south, Dagonet's yellow plume caught the sun. Ilyan's dark red was just discernable amid the other Camelot scarlet. To the north, Bors' green and Isen's bright blue were visible.
"My wife's brother is following Sir Kay," Alwin said suddenly.
Sparing him a quick glance, Merlin said, "He'll be all right then."
Alwin nodded. "Aye, like enough."
After that they watched in silence as the sun rose higher and the day got warmer. At some point, Alwin called to a boy to fetch buckets of water for Algar and Ajax. Bevyn came over and pulled bread and cheese from his satchel. They sat on the grass and shared it while they watched, until Merlin remembered himself and sent Bevyn back to keep an eye on Ajax. It would be so good to lie back and stare at the sky and possibly sleep in the sun, but it wasn't possible, not when there were men fighting and dying half a mile away. Not when Arthur's kingdom hung in the balance of their efforts.
The sun was getting higher in the eastern sky and it appeared that Camelot's attack was still making little progress. With the two armies engaged across their entire fronts, it was as if the battle was frozen. There were small, individual knots of confusion, like the one that marked Lancelot's attack, distinct from the rest behind Esetia's lines, but most of the field was a single mass where friend and foe could not be distinguished. An Escetian knight on horseback led a company of foot soldiers from Cenred's position towards the northern flank. Across the field, at the southern end, Dagonet's yellow plume disappeared from view.
Alwin gave a sudden cheer and his hand clapping onto Merlin's shoulder, pulling his attention away from his search for any sign of Dagonet. "Look," Alwin said, pointing.
There was a surge at the northern end of the line and the defenders abruptly caved. Camelot's mounted knights broke through and, in the lead, Isan's bright blue plume galloped forward to engage the knight who was attempting to bring up support.
Camelot's infantry flooded the gap made by the horses, creating confusion in the enemy's ranks. Engaged at front and rear and now broken in half, the ordered formation of Escetia's northern arm began to collapse.
Further along the line, at the centre, however, the defenders held firm and, to the south, Brolin's and Dagonet's joint attack was similarly hard pressed.
So caught up in watching the action was he, that Merlin had no warning of Arthur's intentions. It was only when Arthur yelled, "For Camelot!" that he turned to see Arthur swing his arm forward over his head and Bran burst into a gallop. The band of knights who had waited with him by the knoll echoed his cry and charged after him.
Merlin tracked Arthur's helm, with its gold band and bright red plume as Bran leapt the first wall, crossed the field to the brook, jumped that and started up the opposite slope. Leon and Sir Cas of Lamorak appeared to be trying to keep close on either side. At times it looked as if they were attempting to pull ahead, but with little success; Bran was a fine horse. The rest of the knights held close behind as they galloped towards the centre of the battle.
Arthur's charge crashed into the melee of foot soldiers, just to the south of the centre of the line, knocking aside and crushing friend and foe alike, or so it appeared. The sun caught and flashed off swords raised to swipe down on the heads and necks of men. But the cost in horseflesh was high. One by one the knights, high in their saddles, disappeared into the mass of bodies below them.
Merlin edged forward, keeping his eyes fixed on the gold crown on Arthur's helm and watching its slow progress forward. Bran reared and for a moment he had a clear view of Arthur towering above the battle. Then he was gone.
Frantically Merlin searched, but Arthur was invisible in the mass. Clenching his hands at his sides, he felt the pressure of need tingling and pulsing in his palms, with a dull ache as sharp as needles. He fought to keep it under control, even as he strained his eyes for a flash of red and gold. From behind him, Alwin appeared mounted on Algar and galloped towards the battle.
Camelot's attack faltered. To the rear, a few men began to retreat. In ones and twos, they hesitated and started to pull back. Within moments, it seemed that there was a general movement in Camelot's line, back down the slope. The Escetians gave a roar and started to push forward. There appeared to be a tight knot of men fighting where Arthur had disappeared and that knot was carried downhill also, part of the bulge that was forming in the line of the battle, like a slowly turning tide.
Two knights, Bedwyr and Cas by their helms, were fighting their way in towards the centre. Bedwyr's sword flashed as it caught the light. Suddenly Cas disappeared and Merlin began to raise his hands.
And then, out of the chaos, Arthur's helm reappeared, once more on a horse. He lifted his sword high and by some power beyond Merlin's understanding, the retreat of Camelot's men halted. They turned and Arthur swung his horse around. The mounted knights rallied to his side and he led the charge through Escetia's open line. His men turned too and joined the knights in cutting down the defenders, who a moment before had been chasing them.
Merlin watched Arthur break though Escetia's position, splitting the defending force again, his army behind him. He spared a moment to check the flanks. Red surcoats surrounded the northern end of Escetia's force and were pushing towards Arthur's position. He glanced back to the centre to check Arthur was still alive and mounted. Absently, he noticed Alwin returning, still on Algar. It appeared that, in Alwin's judgement, if Cas of Lamorak gave up his mount for his king, he still did not warrant the king's spare in return. Looking past the thick of the fighting, Merlin saw the beginnings of a rout as the Escetians in the centre began to retreat up the hill.
The battle to the south had concentrated into a knot. There were no mounted knights left at that end and it appeared Camelot had not managed to break through.
To the north, Kay's and Lancelot's joint companies pushed inwards and the Escetians, caught between them and Arthur, also began to retreat up the slope. Camelot let them go, the northern fighters concentrating on reaching their king. As more Escetians fled the field, they speeded up, until the two groups merged and turned as one towards the south.
After that, victory was assured. The sun at its zenith beat down on the field as the southern half of Cenred's army, under attack from two sides, broke and ran.
Merlin scanned the line again, seeing the Escetian forces in full retreat and Camelot charging towards the remaining pocket of resistance near the southern end where Cendred and Broga had stood watching. It was impossible to tell if they were still there.
The northern end of the field was slowly clearing, only the fallen remained, except for two men. By his size, one of them was Kay. The other could not be identified. They faced each other amid the carnage and Kay raised his sword. His opponent did the same. Then Kay attacked, swinging his sword in a blow that his opponent parried against his own raised blade. They leaned into each other. Kay, bigger and apparently stronger, pushed forward and the other knight jumped back, disengaging.
Merlin looked over to where he had just seen Arthur and again failed to find him. He searched the mass of men across the valley, looking for Arthur's scarlet plume, or a glint from the golden band around his helmet. For long moments there was nothing. Then, a single flash in the middle of the fleeing Escetians caught his eye and he was just in time to see Arthur, on a grey horse, disappear over the crest of the hill at a gallop. Merlin wheeled around and ran to where Bevyn still stood with Ajax.
Grabbing the reins from Bevyn's hands, he pointed to the small gathering of cooks, drovers and camp followers who were watching from the brow of the hill and said, "Go and tell that lot to fetch buckets from the camp. When the men start to return, take them down into the valley, get water and see to the wounded." He gave Bevyn a hard stare. "Not just the knights, the soldiers too, understand?" Bevyn nodded. "I'll be back to help, as soon as I can."
Bevyn gaped at him. "Isen?" he asked.
Merlin scowled. "No. I don't know. Now, go!" he said and scrambled onto Ajax's back, wincing slightly as the saddle reminded him of his activities of the night before. He didn't look back to check that Bevyn was doing as he was told. He didn't check to see where Alwin was. He dug his heels into Ajax's sides and set off in pursuit of Arthur.
Arthur had a huge head start on him, but Ajax was a good horse. He galloped down the hill, held on tightly as Ajax flew over the brook and spurred him on when they began the climb on the other side. All around them lay bodies, like rag dolls thrown carelessly on the floor. The wounded groaned under the mid-day sun and calling for water, if they had enough voice to do so. Flies were already crawling over the faces of the living and the dead. Small bands of Cenred's men were being rounded up by Camelot's soldiers and disarmed, before being corralled under guard to await their fate. Individual soldiers wandered among the bodies, looking for fallen friends, or for plunder. Lancelot had Broga in his care and was directing him towards a group of knights that included Gwaine and Bedwyr. Merlin fixed his attention on the point where Arthur had disappeared from view.
Ajax reached the top of the hill and below them was the valley of Freydale, full of fleeing men. Trusting Ajax to avoid any pitfalls underfoot, Merlin searched through the crowds for a mounted man.
Freydale was very different from the narrow and shallow valleys of Avarldale and Crybrookdale. Long, steep slopes led down to a valley floor where wide water meadows stretched out on either side of the Freyl River and the main road from Escetia to the Sea of Gaul meandered around the curves of its contours, just above flood level. At this point, the River Freyl was wide enough and deep enough for shallow barges to navigate. Large groups of trees dotted the landscape, between fields of oats, barley and rye. In every way, it was a more prosperous living than the poor hill land behind him, but he spared it little more than a cursory glance, scanning the landscape for any sign of Arthur. A flash of red caught his eye near a copse to his left and he veered towards it.
When he got close to the trees, he tumbled out of the saddle and led Ajax towards the sound of steel on steel. He rounded a thick growth of elder and may and there were Arthur and Cendred, circling each other on foot. Cendred's horse was untethered, but didn't appear to be in danger of straying. He was standing with his right foreleg bent, the hoof held clear of the ground. Cas of Lamorak's grey mare was placidly grazing nearby, her reins hitched around a branch of the elder. Merlin gave a snort of disgust and tied Ajax next to her.
Cenred was backing away from Arthur and Arthur advanced, bringing his sword high and swinging it down like a hammer. Cenred caught it on his shield, his knees bending to accommodate the blow, and took another step backwards out of range. He got his feet squarely under him and as Arthur was bringing his sword back, Cenred surged forward. Arthur raised his blade to block and danced away. He was tired, anyone who had studied Arthur in tournament could see it in the way his body moved, and Cenred was fresh, having taken no part in the battle of Avarldale.
Cenred followed his sword with his shield, slamming it into Arthur's side and Arthur had no shield of his own. Arthur managed to keep his feet as he staggered back. Cenred tried to follow up, but his foot caught on something on the ground and he stumbled, giving Arthur time to steady himself. They circled each other. Arthur spun his sword teasingly. Cendred tensed and Arthur brought his sword back to the position he always held at the beginning of a duel, almost parallel to the ground and just above waist height, ready to respond to whatever move Cenred made. Cenred chose to launch a low attack and Arthur jumped back from the slash. He twisted to the side, bringing his own sword up and around. It crashed against Cenred's helmet, knocking it from his head. Cenred staggered and almost fell, and Arthur stepped back to allow him to gain his feet again. Merlin groaned in frustration, tugging at the leather bracelet on his wrist and pulling it off. Arthur shot him a glare from beneath his visor.
Once again, Arthur swung his sword loosely around his wrist and Cenred charged. Arthur braced his legs and once again he twisted around the thrust. Attacking in return, he threw himself forward, ramming his shoulder into Cenred's chest. Cenred staggered, the impact knocking him off balance and while he fought to regain his feet, Arthur crowded close. He threw his left arm around Cenred's neck, pulling him into a parody of an embrace. As he did so he brought his right arm back and buried his sword in Cenred's side.
Cenred froze. Arthur relaxed his hold and Cenred crumpled to the ground. Arthur stepped backwards, staring at the body.
Merlin started towards him. "Sire, are you all right?"
Slowly Arthur turned, a weary smile already forming on his lips. "Respect?" he asked. "Were you worried, dear?"
By that time, Merlin was close enough to swat him on the shoulder. "Bugger off, you great prat. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Merlin. Honestly. I'm fine."
He swayed slightly and Merlin jammed his shoulder under Arthur's left arm, throwing his right arm around Arthur's waist. "Sure you are, you idiot." He reached across Arthur and took Excalibur from his hand. "Come on," he said. "Let's get you back to camp. Lancelot's probably already got search parties out. And you have to go and be kingly. Lord it over your defeated enemies, and all that."
As a ploy, it worked. Arthur took a deep breath and stiffened his back. "Right," he said. He grabbed Merlin's left arm and pulled him around for a quick kiss, snatching Excalibur back at the same time.
Drawing away before Merlin could try and make the kiss go anywhere, he pulled an expression of disgust. Pointing at his own face and waving his finger in a circle before pointing at Merlin's nose, he said, "You had better do something about your own appearance, too."
He turned and walked over to his horse. Merlin followed, dragging the leather bracelet back over his hand and smoothing it into place.
"If Lancelot has search parties out, we'd better go and find one and tell them to come and collect that," Arthur said over his shoulder, gesturing in the general direction of Cenred's body. When he reached Cas's horse, he seemed to notice Ajax, for the first time. He turned to regard Merlin with a smirk and although his eyes widened when they met Merlin's, he didn't hesitate. "Myrddyn," he chided. "Have you ridden off with your master's spare horse?"
Sir Brolin's body was carried back to camp with reverence, for transport home to his wife, as were both Lords Oran and Kenzie. Gwaine was limping with the help of a makeshift crutch, but insisting he was fine. Dagonet had taken a slash to his face and was lamenting the loss of his good looks. Kay was nursing a deep gash to his upper arm. Isen's right arm was secured to his chest with a rough sling and he had a bandage around his left shoulder. Cas of Lamorak was laid up in the infirmary tent, in a deathlike sleep from a crack to the head. Bedwyr had a huge bruise on his jaw, but otherwise appeared unharmed. Lancelot didn't even have a scratch.
"Lord Lamorak?" Arthur asked.
"Didn't make it," Kay replied, looking him straight in the eye.
Arthur nodded. "Right," he said, adding, "His son gave me his horse, when Bran fell."
Kay smiled. "As any loyal subject would."
Merlin returned Ajax to his place with Rom and allowed Bevyn to help see to them both. As they were finishing up, the carts began to arrive and Merlin volunteered to help erect Arthur's tent at the base of the knoll. Once it was done, he hung around outside, sitting on the grass cleaning and repairing Rom's tack.
When Arthur finally arrived, with Bedwyr at his side, he grinned privately when he saw Merlin. Turning to Bedwry, he said something that caused Bedwyr to bow and withdraw towards the hospice tents. Merlin scrambled to his feet. Arthur watched Bedwyr go and then turned back. As he came closer, it was as if he began to finally relax and allow the weariness he was feeling to show in his shoulders and face. Always aware of possible evesdroppers, however, he plucked at his vambrace and in his most imperious voice ordered, "You there, Myrddyn, help me with this, will you?"
Merlin bowed and followed him inside the tent, pulling off the leather bracelet as soon as the flap closed over the entrance behind him.
He had barely taken two steps before Arthur grabbed him by the front of his jacket and dragged him close. Arthur's kiss was hungry and rough, his lips demanding and Merlin went with it, giving as good as he got in fisted clothes and grasping hands.
Gradually, the mood mellowed into something calmer and gentler, and Arthur's grip on Merlin's hair relaxed. He loosened his own hold on Arthur's jaw and, when they broke apart, their foreheads came to rest against each other.
Merlin sighed. "You're really not hurt?" he asked.
Arthur pulled away, held out his arms and turned slowly on the spot for Merlin's inspection. "I am really not harmed," he confirmed. "Now, can we get this bloody armour off?"
With a choked off laugh, Merlin stepped forward to undo the buckles and straps, peeling the pieces away, one by one. As he did so, he said, "I can't believe it was just this morning." He struggling with one of the buckles that had taken a blow and been bent out of shape, until, with a snort of frustration, he stared at it, causing it to snap and part. "It seems so long ago, but now, it feels that, while I was watching, it all seemed to happen so fast."
There was a bucket waiting and Merlin assisted Arthur in washing the dirt and sweat from his body. "Battles are like that," Arthur agreed.
He allowed Merlin to dress him, standing and sitting where he was pushed, as Merlin manhandled him into fresh breeches and shirt.
Finally, Merlin picked Arthur's crown out of its travel box and placed it carefully on Arthur's brow. "You have to go," Arthur said. "You need to be in Camelot when the news arrives." He saw Merlin's expression and his lips twisted. "I promise not to fall off my horse on the journey home. But I'm sending you ahead."
"Thank you," Merlin replied. "For not sending me home before."
Standing up straight, Arthur visibly redonned his kingship, as if it was a stiff, formal coat. "Go and ask Alwin to attend me, now," he said.
Merlin bowed and left.
The wounded were recovered and placed under the care of the surgeons. The dead were gathered and the prisoners were sorted, with the peasants allowed to go free while the land owners and most obvious mercenaries were made secure. As evening fell, the remains of Camelot's army gathered below the knoll to bear witness.
A single pyre was built for Camelot's dead and their broken swords laid with them. A separate pyre was built for the Escetians and Leon had overseen the piling of their weapons to one side. Arthur, however, ordered that their weapons also be broken, to accompany them into the afterlife. Cenred's body was hung from a frame, for all to see.
A chair was set up for Arthur. Red cloaks were swathed over a frame made of spears behind it, to provide an imposing and suitably regal backdrop. In the early evening Arthur walked from his tent, through the crowd and took his seat.
One by one the Escetian lords were marched past Cenred's body and brought forward to decide if they wished to keep their holdings under Camelot's rule. None refused and they all knelt to swear fealty. They were then led to one side to talk to Leon and Kay about which of the younger generation of their family they held dear enough to foster at Camelot, where they could be brought up in the company of similar young men and women of Camelot's own and taught the arts of peace, as well as the laws of their new rule.
Those without family agreed to return to Camelot themselves, to stay with lords of similar rank to their own. Kay organised that, while Leon arranged for suitable caretaker wardens to look after their lands and interests and to ensure the peace while they were away from home. The mercenaries were sent on their way, their weapons confiscated.
Arthur sat back in his chair and called Bailoch forward. "Lord Andras," he said. "To you I charge the announcement. Take Lord Isen and ride home and announce this victory. Alwin and Myrddyn will go with you. I want the town and the Council to hear all is well, as soon as may be possible."
Pleasure wiped the weariness from Lord Bailoch's face and he immediately knelt and bowed his head to Arthur. "I will do so, Sire," he swore.
"And please," Arthur added with a smile, "tell my steward and chatelaine that we have guests of all ranks with us, who will need accommodation fitting to their stations."
So Merlin was robbed of the battlefield victory feast and a good night's sleep. Instead, he rode through the night and into the next day. In the villages and towns, Isen passed on the good news to the folk at their doors. "Camelot is victorious!" he shouted, as they cantered by. Unencumbered by arms and baggage, they reached Camelot just after noon.
It was as if by some magic the people of the city already knew the outcome, because the streets were lined with cheering crowds as they entered under the arch of the town gate. All the way up Market Street, more people seemed to gather. By the time they passed the Rising Sun, there was a cheering mob on their heels and, when they reached the gatehouse of the castle, the older Council members who had stayed at home were already gathering, with Gwen, on the top step.
Lords Bailoch and Isen disappeared into the Great Hall. Bevyn and Lord Bailoch's squire were sent with a servant to see to their masters' gear, while Alwin and Merlin took the horses to the stables and handed them over to the boys on duty.
They leaned against a wall together, watching the stable boys un-tack and groom the horses, before leading them into their stalls and filling their water troughs. A small boy of about five years clambered down the ladder from the loft, hefting a bucket of grain and presented it to Lord Bailoch's horse and to Rom, as the aristocrats among their six new charges.
Satisfied by the standard of care, Alwin pushed himself away from the wall with his shoulders and stretched. "I'm for my bed," he said. "Once I find the wife at the market and tell her she's not a widow yet. She'll not be happy, but she'll pretend to be."
Merlin grinned, safe in the knowledge that Alwin's wife was devoted and Alwin knew it. He stood up straight himself and looked around the stables, avoiding Alwin's eye. "I'm moving on," he said.
Alwin hefted his saddlebags from the floor and onto his shoulder. "Aye?" he said. "Reckoned you would." He glanced back on his way to the door. "Probably best be away then."
For a moment, he was silhouetted black against the bright sunlight outside. Then he was gone. Merlin shook his head and followed, chuckling to himself.
Once in the courtyard, he did not follow Alwin to the main gates. Instead, he turned towards the small door hidden in a deep recess at the base of the South Tower. Dragging a key from where it hung on a thong around his neck, he unlocked the door and ran up the stairs, pulling the leather bracelet off his wrist as he did so.
Another door, opened with the same key, let him into his private workshop, which was not quite as pristine as it had been when he saw it last, the day before the army marched.
Gaius looked up from where he was sitting at the desk. "You're back," he exclaimed, hauling himself to his feet and walking around the end of the desk to embrace him. "And from your face, I assume it went well?"
Merlin hugged him fiercely. "Yes, it went well." He pulled away and looked around the room. "What's going on?" he asked.
Going over to a chest, Gaius opened it and pulled out a clean shirt. He pointed at a jug and bowl standing on a shelf against the wall. "Water, over there," he said. "At least clean your face and hands and get dressed. They'll be expecting us downstairs."
Merlin scrambled to obey. He pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it on the floor. Grabbing the cloth that lay ready, he didn't bother pouring the water into the bowl. He simply dunked the cloth straight in the jug and gave it a cursory wringing out, before scrubbing it over his face.
While he waited for Merlin to make himself more presentable, Gaius explained. "You and I have been locked up in here for the past week," he said. "Apart from when I did my rounds. Gwen, the dear girl, has been bringing us our meals, personally."
"That's kind of her. What have we been doing?" Merlin asked when his head emerged from the neck of his clean shirt.
Gaius shrugged. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "Something frightfully complicated that required uninterrupted concentration. Just be vague and you'll be fine." He picked up a long coat from the back of a chair and handed it to Merlin who shrugged it on. "I will admit, I have very much enjoyed the five days of uninterrupted peace and quiet. I think I might be sorry you're back." He opened the other door into the castle. "Shall we?" he asked.
Merlin grinned, bowed and, with a sweep of his arm, signalled for Gaius to precede him.
Arthur and his most trusted knights rode into town in the late afternoon, two days later, and once again the cheering crowds turned out, to welcome him home. Flags hung from every window and a couple of urchins ran across the roofs of the houses, keeping pace with the stately procession. Merlin waited with the rest of the court outside the castle gates.
Arthur led the small group of knights up the road, between the brightly garbed courtiers, to where Merlin, Gaius, Gwen and Edgar stood with the Council. He pulled Algar up and Lionel dismounted to run forward and take his bridle. Arthur smiled his thanks and walked the last couple of yards on foot, pulling off his gloves as he came.
Merlin went to meet him and knelt to kiss Arthur's hand and because he was Merlin and couldn't resist, he pushed the tip of his tongue between Arthur's ring and forefingers and licked at the web. From between gritted teeth, masquerading as a smile, Arthur muttered, "Behave!"
Three days later, Broga was brought before Arthur in open court. Marched down the centre of the crowded hall, between Sir Lionel and Sir Dagonet, he chose defiance. When signalled to kneel, he straightened his back instead. He had to be forced to his knees and Sir Dagonet put a hand on the back of his head to roughly push it down, making him bow it before his king.
Arthur lent forward and braced his right forearm on his knee. "What have you to say for yourself, traitor?" he asked.
Sir Dagonet released Broga's head and Broga looked up, straight into Arthur's eyes. "I am a man," he declared, "and I do not bow to anyone,"
"You bowed to me, this winter past." Arthur observed mildly. Beside him, Leon shifted uncomfortably. "You are a vassal of Camelot and you bowed to my father." A whisper of speculation passed through the court. Arthur smiled without humour. "Or are you hoping to spark the Pendragon temper and win yourself an easy death?"
Finally, Broga did bow his head and more than one person gathered in the court smiled with relief.
Arthur sat back in his chair, his hands resting along the arms and his head high. "You are guilty of rebellion and treachery," he announced. "In addition to your other crimes." The room was silent, waiting. Arthur never looked away from Broga's face. "You are guilty of abusing the common people of Camelot and of the murder of a defenceless child." There was some shifting among the courtiers at this, as if they had forgotten the girl whose death had sparked the war.
At a nod from Arthur, Broga was pulled to his feet and Arthur stood to pronounce sentence. "You will pay with your feet for the peddler you abused when you first arrived," he said. "With your hands for the weaver you stole from and with your balls for the servant you raped and murdered. But, most importantly of all, you will pay with the rest of your life for your treachery to your king."
Merlin, standing behind Arthur's shoulder with Leon on Arthur's other side, gasped. A similar sound rippled through the crowd and Broga collapsed, sagging in Lionel and Dagonet's hold.
"You're no longer a man," Arthur said. "The Druids will care for you, as a favour to me. They will make sure you live a long life. But you are no man."
Turning away from Broga, Arthur looked at Merlin and must have read the shock Merlin felt in his face. Very quietly he asked, "For what he did, are you, of all people, telling me Mary's life is worth less than his?"
Merlin shook his head but also whispered, "Sire, Arthur, you are a civilised man."
Placing a hand on Merlin's arm, Arthur drew him aside. Still speaking softly, he explained for Merlin, as he would never do for anyone else. "Civilised?" he asked. "Like the Romans? They crucified their enemies. It's not an easy way to die - struggling to draw breath, until you drown on dry land." He looked into Merlin's eyes, as if searching for something. After a moment his lips tightened and he looked down. "I do this now," he said, "so I will never have to do it again." He raised his eyes to meet Merlin's. "Lord Broga is the last of his line. He has no heirs, no brothers and no cousins. There is no one who will swear vengeance against me." He smiled slightly. "This is not an expensive lesson for my neighbours to see, but it will be no less effective for that."
Merlin bowed his head. "Yes, Sire," he agreed.
Arthur considered him, the smile lingering on his lips. "You are giving your permission?" he asked.
"No, Sire. I am giving my understanding."
Later, after the sentence had been carried out and witnessed, after the wreck that remained of Broga was roughly seen to by Gaius and taken away in the back of a cart, and after the victory feast was celebrated, Arthur entered his room and walked straight through to Merlin's.
Merlin rose from where he'd been sitting at his desk, waiting, and went to meet him. He lifted his hands and removed the crown from Arthur's head. "It's done," he said. "It's over and now you have peace."
Looking at him with that smile he reserved for when Merlin said something particularly naive, which also amused him, Arthur held out his wrists for Merlin to undo the tight buttons on his sleeves. All he said, however, was, "Yes, it's done, for now. Maybe for this year. And if that is so, it might be that we will be left in peace next year too. After that? We'll see. I only hope for long enough to consolidate my hold on Escetia and get my knights home."
Merlin walked around behind him to help him off with his robe and went to hang it on a hook on the wall by the connecting door. Returning to stand in front of Arthur, he tugged Arthur's shirt clear of his waistband. "But this one's done and it was a good fight?" he asked.
"Yes," Arthur replied. "It was quick." He sighed. "But the cost in good horse flesh was too high. The knights have armour to protect them. We need something similar for the horses, if we are to use them so again."
"Something for you to think about tomorrow, then," Merlin replied, manhandling him over to the bed and pushing him in the chest so he toppled backwards.
Arthur grinned up at Merlin and held out his hands. "Tomorrow," he agreed and pulled Merlin down into his arms.
I set this story in the period of relative peace between the successful Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and the major Viking invasions, but any pretensions towards historical accuracy are completely spurious. In fact, it is about as historically accurate as the show itself.
I decided that either Bedwyr wasn't actually killed by The Questing Beast, or there were two men called Bedwyr in Camelot.
Cataphracts were a form of armoured heavy cavalry utilised in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Western Eurasia and the Eurasian Steppe. Historically they were very heavily armored horseman, with both the rider and steed draped from head-to-toe in scale armor, while typically wielding a kontos or lance as their weapon. They served as either the elite cavalry or assault force for most empires and nations that fielded them, primarily used for impetuous charges to break through infantry formations. Chronicled by many historians from the earliest days of Antiquity up until the High Middle Ages, they are in part or wholly believed to have given rise to the Age of Feudalism in Europe and the later European equivalents of Knights and Paladins, via contact with the Byzantine Empire. Wikipedia Reference
Arthur's Latin quote was from the writings of Augustine of Hippo (November 13, 354 – August 28, 430). He was also known as St. Augustine and was Bishop of Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria). A Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province, his writings were very influential in the development of Western Christianity. Wikipedia Reference He is not the same Augustine who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury a couple of hundred years later.
Gwaine's coat of arms is from Arthurian legend. The red lion I gave to Leon belongs to the de Leon family. If you are the real owner, I hope you will forgive me for borrowing it for one of our favourite knights of Camelot. You never know, you might be one of his descendants. Lord Isen's coat of arms is totally made up, as are most of the others.
A four gallon cask would have capped ends about 8 inches in diameter and be about 18 inches long, depending upon the convexity of the sides and the thickness of the planks it was made from. Nowadays, barrel sizes are standardised and a 4.5 gallon cask is called a pin. Back in Merlin's day, I figure they would be whatever size the planks made practical and the king's personal beer would be transported in small barrels, to stop it spoiling.
Arthur's speech before the battle draws heavily upon Colonel Tim Collins' inspirational speech to around 800 men of the battle group of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, part of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, given at their Fort Blair Mayne camp in the Kuwaiti desert about 20 miles from the Iraqi border on Wednesday 19 March 2003. By using his words as inspiration, I do not intend any disrespect and I hope that no one interprets my actions in that light. Google it, if you are interested. It is worth reading. It was also interesting to note that his offer to allow any who did not wish to fight, to leave, was also a part of King Henry's St Crispin's Day speech before Agincourt, in Shakespeare's play, Henry V.
I recognise that the very existence of tournament jousting in the series means that cavalry was already using lances, but my position (also supported by canon) is that most battles were still conducted on foot. If knights on horseback, with lances, did not operate as coordinated units, then the existence of heavy shock cavalry tactics was probably not known. This would, therefore, be the beginning of Arthur's development of that strategy. It would certainly give him a huge advantage over his enemies and provides a possible clue to his success in uniting Albion.
A small note about one of the names - Broga is a Saxon name meaning Terror.