duodecimum fuit bellum in monte Badonis, in quo corruerunt in uno die nongenti sexaginta viri de uno impetu Arthur; et nemo prostravit eos nisi ipse solus, et in omnibus bellis victor extitit. -- Historia Brittonum
"Well," says Vedica, "I didn't think we'd make it past Oimelc, myself."
Coveros doesn't turn to look at her. Sometime today, sometime very soon, the sea-wolves will pour through the pass, and everyone in the fort will die, so he keeps his eye on the pass. "That was good, what you did with the horses," he acknowledges, in the spirit of useless comfort, which they seem to be embracing.
Vedica hunches her shoulders in and makes an abortive gesture. "Yes, well. It certainly surprised them for a bit." Vedica was never meant for this, Coveros knows. She used to take hanks of wool and enchant them into mice that would sing if a child held one in his hands. She can turn an ewe's lamb if it lies wrong in the womb, and spell a place dry when everything is damp. His people are not meant for war.
Yesterday, Vedica had enchanted cut brush into wicker horses leashed to wicker war chariots that had flown rustling out of the trees, distracting the sea-wolves for a crucial instant that had allowed the men and women of the fort to hack down the battering ram at the gate, and fire it to prevent it being taken up again, earning them another day.
Another pointless day, for no help was going to come. Trista had ridden out, almost two-score days past, now, with the decision of the moot to sell themselves to the Britons in return for aid. Coveros had argued for it, something he once could not have imagined, but better to live as vassals than be slaughtered, as peoples from here to the coast have been slaughtered.
But its been too long. Perhaps Trista had been cut-down, once she rode beyond the fort's sight, perhaps the Britons simply can not be bothered to fight for the vassalage of a much-reduced people of shepherds and marsh-dwellers. Surely, he thinks, surely it would be so easy for them, because everyone has heard of their sorcerer who fights with the mounted men, they say, laying waste to the enemy by calling down the wrath of Lugu and Camelos. He knows, although Vedica doesn't speak much of it, that she loves Damara best, and indeed, their spring within the walls has stayed sweet and steady all this time. At least they will not die thirsty.
"Lord..." begins Vedica, and hesitates. He is not much called by Lord, outside of a few feast-days, and when some other tribe visits and his people are standing on their pride. "Lord," says Vedica again, "I'm sorry that I'm not-- I never learned to kill a man," she says, and he knows that once she took pride in that.
"The children in the caves will live, I think," he tells her. His sister is with the children, her children, and all the others too young to hold a spear or a sword scrounged from their fallen. Some few of their women, enough to care for the children, were sent with them, and once the sea-wolves retreat with their loot, they will pass overland to see shelter with the Brigantes, among whom they have some cousins.
Vedica half-smiles, recognising what he meant; his sister's youngest was dead at birth, but she sucked the mucous from his lungs, breathed new air into him, and lit him with life again. He's nine years now, and if he had grown larger, he would be holding a spear with his year-mates, but he's always been undersized, and may live because of that.
Then a black spot appears, briefly, on the rim of the pass, and then two more. The horn is sounded, and his men and women, weary, wounded, and ready to face their deaths, pour out of the gate, to hold it as long as they can. Dimly he hears the chant Vedica has started which will hold his wounds closed as he fights, but it is not so loud as the blood in his ears which seems to say death, death, death without ceasing, like a drumbeat or the flap of a raven's wing, and then the sea-wolves are upon them and there is nothing left but cutting, and hacking, and killing, and dying.
Except that, sometime after the sun has turned around, and begun to hang behind their backs, there is a sound like he has never heard before that brings his head up, from panting, hands on knees, trying to regain his breath. It is like the sound of the Morrigan's wrath, like a thousand horses, like thunder from a handspan's distance. The sea-wolves seem to think it is another of Vedica's tricks, for their leader shouts to them in their language, and the few who started quickly settle back into trying to get their ram back for another run at the gate, but Coveros knows Vedica has no such magic, and seeks its source.
There, on the rim of the pass, a line of men on horse-back, with red flags, although he cannot make out their device. Although the day is grey, they shine like the sun, for above them, hanging impossibly, a second sun, crackling with lightning and shaking with thunder, impossible, miraculous. And then they charge.
Coveros, after a moment's stunned incomprehension, calls his people to retreat, to get out of the way, because he cannot imagine they will turn aside in their charge merely because an innocent might be trampled. Horses continue to pour over the rim of the hill, but it seems ridiculous, for surely that ball of lightning requires no man on horseback to clear its path.
One of them, perhaps their leader, on a great white horse, seems to be the point of the charge. The sea-wolves attempt to form up to resist them, for a moment, but the man at the front cleaves through them like a knife in water, and then the charge is among them, huge horses, bigger than any he has ever seen, trampling them under-foot, while men in armour the likes of which he had never imagined, seemingly lean over, slightly, and cut them down.
It's not quite that simple: the sea-wolves manage to reform and the mounted knights are only a fraction of their number, he realizes, once he sees them among the battle, so Coveros and his people rejoin the battle, coming in low when the sea-wolves hold their shields high against the knights, and the knights coming in high when the sea-wolves are trying to stop his people from nipping at their ankles. All the time, the ball of lightning hovers above the battle-field, from time to time reaching out a lazy arm to strike a sea-wolf dead.
Coveros feels light-headed, giddy, almost sick with a renewed sensation of-- life, he recognizes, as he hews into a sea-wolf's shoulder: this sensation is life, and he had lost it.
It is approaching evening, when the battle finally comes to its bloody end. It grows darker, suddenly, when the sorcerer's fire extinguishes itself without fanfare, and Coveros gives up on the search for another enemy. The horses have pounded the ground in front of the gate into a mud in a way a month of bloody skirmishes never did, and some of the knights have begun to haul the bodies of sea-wolves into heaps, preparatory to burning them, he supposes. He reaches out an arm and grabs Tivel, as he limps past.
"See if you can find me their leader," and Tivel nods dumbly, and heads for a knot of them.
The gates open, and he almost raises his voice to reprove Volisios, in charge of the archers, and the gate: they don't know yet if they can trust these Britons, nor what they will demand, but stops himself. It hardly matters, to these knights, their gate is a farce; better not to offend them by implying distrust, however true.
"Let me see your wound," says Vedica, behind him, and he has to swallow back caution again. She's no safer in the fort than outside of it, now.
"I'm fine," he tells her, pointlessly, because when she sustains them with spellcraft she always knows what wounds they receive. And now that she prods it, he realizes he does have another cut on his brow, above the bruise that had just been on the point of yellowing, this morning, a lifetime ago.
She clucks and smears one of her pastes on it.
Tivel waves an arm over where some of the knights are setting up tents--pavilions, enormous and quite unlike what a hunter might take with him to keep him dry if he stays in the forest overnight--so he begins his way over there. Vedica follows.
"Their mage--did you--I've never felt anything like, Coveros. He's like the sun. Like the sky."
His father when he died, passed this tribe into his keeping, and he loves them fiercely, all of them, even Gadel, the idiot, too stupid to even watch sheep, killed two weeks past. He doesn't know how to stop that, when he cedes them.
Up close, it's obvious which is their leader: he's got a great red cloak on over his armour. He's got his helmet off, and looks what, months ago, Coveros would have thought was tired. On recollection, that cape is familiar: it was always moving, somehow seeming to hammer two blows at the sea-wolves where any other man would have struck one. Not just a king, then, but a war-leader, and a fearsome one.
"The king, Lord," says Tivel, and then repeats himself back in Latin, apparently to give them the impression that Coveros doesn't understand that language, for whatever minute advantage that may convey. Clever, and he's glad Tivel is thinking, because his thoughts seem to be moving like tree sap in winter.
"Please invite him in," says the king, gesturing at his tent, "so we may speak," and Coveros is careful to show no comprehension until he transfers his gaze back to Tivel, who repeats it and adds:
"--sacred Epona, have you seen their horses? Buggering enormous! They must get their mares covered by elk!"
"I noticed" says Coveros, dryly. "Tell him I'm honoured, and go get your knee looked at." Tivel hesitates. "Vedica can translate for me." Tivel is clever, but not always sensible, and he needs someone sensible now, to watch him.
Tivel passes this on, again, and the king sweeps aside the hanging door, and gestures them ahead. "Someone bring me wine for the Celt-King!" he bellows, which Vedica dryly translates for him in a mutter.
The king turns back to them, eyes Coveros for a moment, and then fetches a device leaning against some baggage within the tent, and unfolds it into a sort of stool--very clever, and Coveros distracts himself wondering if they could learn how it's made to produce their own. "Please be seated," he says, gesturing, and Coveros doesn't wait for the translation because it's obvious enough, and although he would dearly love to be able to show no weakness, if he doesn't sit, he may collapse.
"I apologize for the delay, your majesty," says the king, and Coveros, who has had some practice not laughing, is glad of it now--Majesty!--and lets him continue. "Your messenger came to us two weeks ago, but we had to retake Caerloyw before we could come, else have them at our backs. I am glad to see we are not too late."
"Not so glad as I," says Coveros, which he belatedly realizes might be seen as criticism, but Vedica, tactfully translates it as:
"I am most grateful for your coming, King Arthur," probably adding the name since she knows he has no head for them and has forgotten, and then she adds, "I have some knowledge of healing, sire. Would you like me to look at your wound?"
Arthur has been watching Coveros as Vedica speaks, and looks startled, then his eyes snap back to her as he apparently realizes she's speaking now for herself. Coveros realizes at the same time that Arthur is wounded, and holding himself quite stiffly.
"I-- No, thank you, we have brought our own healer. Have you many wounded?"
Vedica repeats the last part. "None without wounds," confesses Coveros, "although the most serious still living are only a dozen."
Vedica starts to relay this, but pauses when there's a scratch on the curtain. "Yes?" calls the king.
"Wine, sire," says a servant, ducking under with a flagon even as he speaks. The king seems to be giving him a reproving look, which he hasn't noticed as he unfolds a table the same way as the chair Coveros was sitting on was produced, and sets out two cups, and pours. Vedica finishes her sentence.
"If you like, our healer would be pleased to lend his aid to yours, once he finishes his duty among my men."
Vedica translates this, adding, "And say yes, of course, because there's nothing left I can do for them, and it can't hurt," but the servant's voice catches the attention of both of them.
"How are you still in your armour, then? Where's that layabout squire of yours?"
"Broke his collar-bone," answers Arthur, scowling at his impertinent servant. "Sir Bedivere is lending me Gareth, once he's finished with him. Get along, you have things to do."
Coveros feels some sympathy for the King.
"Don't speak nonsense," says the servant, "I still remember how this thing comes off."
"My gorget is not a --" Arthur clearly gives in, and holds his arm out slightly to aid his servant's efforts, but he rolls his eyes at Coveros, and Vedica gives Arthur his answer, without waiting for him to speak it, which goes to show he has more in common with the Brittonic king than might be immediately evident.
Coveros takes a sip of the wine to stop himself from too openly smirking at Arthur being nurse-maided. It's good, sweet, not too watered, and will have him asleep if he finishes the cup.
"I shall inform--" begins Arthur, in attempt to recapture their conversational thread, but this time interrupts himself. "Are you cutting it off?"
"Some great prat seems to have mashed the buckle, so yes I am," his servant informs him, and he does seem to be sawing at the leather strap with a knife. Then he looks up, and flashes a smile past Coveros, at Vedica. "That was you with the stasis spell, right? That was tremendously clever, I wish I could figure out how you did it."
Vedica freezes, and a moment later, as he realizes who this servant must be, so does Coveros. Vedica stutters, after a moment, "It's-- it's a slowing of certain, um, biological-- for difficult pregnancies, you see, sometimes, to stop her from bearing early, it's--" and he's heard her explain this dozens of times already, so he knows she's just clamped her mouth shut on "very useful in lambing time."
"Brilliant!" the deadly sorcerer enthuses. "I wonder if you might be willing to--"
"Merlin!" interrupts the King. "I can handle it myself from here. Go interfere with someone else's diplomatic process."
"Don't be an idiot," disagrees Merlin. "You can't even get your mail off without help since you broke that rib. Hold still."
"Then do try to shut up, difficult as I know that will be for you," the king grates out, and the sorcerer seemingly accedes, although he doesn't lose the ghost of a smile that seems permanently attached to his mouth and eyes.
Coveros thinks of some neutral topic, "Did Trista come with you? I didn't see her."
"Trista? Oh, your messenger. I'm afraid she's back at Caerloyw. She had some minor injury--"
"Broken ankle," interjects Merlin, muttering,
"Yes, thank you shut up, broken ankle, so she's resting it until she can ride."
"Aaaah," says Coveros, thankful, one less death, and then realizes he didn't wait for Vedica to translate, nor did Arthur.
"You do understand Latin, then" says Arthur, in very passable Gaelic, although the accent is quite unlike any he's ever heard.
Coveros surprises himself into a bark of laughter at this King, blunt, for all his polish. "Yes, and speak it too, if you will overlook the accent," he answers in that language. Vedica sighs, audibly.
"Good, that's simpler," says Arthur, lapsing back into Latin, and then stiffly bends forward so that Merlin can skin him out of his chainmail hauberk. Merlin hisses.
"You're bleeding again," he says, in a reproving tone, at some blood that Coveros can't see.
"Yes, I do it to aggravate you," says Arthur, in an annoyed tone he seems to reserve for servants, or sorcerers, or perhaps just Merlin. "Leave it, it's-- Ow! Stop that!"
"Did you particularly want it to putrefy, then? This is the sort of heroic deed Gwen likes me to keep her informed of."
The king swings back an elbow but doesn't seem to hit anything. "Let us settle affairs between ourselves before we eat," says Arthur, like they are two kings of equal rank.
Coveros swallows. "Vedica, you can leave."
She doesn't turn her head, just glances at him from the corner of her eye. "No, not unless he leaves too." She indicates the sorcerer with her chin.
Coveros feels half ashamed that she will witness this, and half warmed that she is willing to pit herself against Arthur's sorcerer.
"Oh, don't mind me," offers the sorcerer in question, cheerfully.
"Merlin," says Arthur, and Coveros doesn't hear a difference in tone, but Merlin straightens and says:
"Or, or-- I could go-- we-- we could get some air, and you could show me how you did that spell. Sire," he says, taking his leave, and then steps out of the tent, holding the curtain back for Vedica to follow. She throws Coveros one indecipherable glance, and then steps out after.
"I know well what is owed to you," Coveros begins, determined to get past this, but Arthur holds up a hand, and he stops, waits.
The Briton king blows out a breath, and then lowers himself to sit on a pack. "Let there be no talk of debts between us. I'll have no man's oath with a blade at his throat. Call this help a gift between us in hopes that there might be friendship, or say we fought here because I hate brigands."
"Lord--" says Coveros, forgetting momentarily, "I mean, your highness--you lost men today. A man, at least, I saw him fall."
"I will not hesitate to defend my kingdom with a sword," says Arthur, severe in a way he has only seen those who let others die for them be severe. "I will not build my kingdom by the sword. But come to Camelot in the spring, if you wish, for the feast of St. Edalward. There, if you choose it, you may swear to abide by my law, have a claim to my justice, and be made a Baron in my court."
"Your majesty-- is extremely generous," Coveros manages.
Arthur suddenly loses his regal mien. "I'm extremely hungry. I don't suppose you have any food left after this siege? Our wagons won't arrive for a day, yet."
Coveros really hopes it won't cause Arthur to withdraw his offer: "I can offer your knights mutton."
"They'll be delighted. I thank you for your hospitality," says Arthur.
That spring, Coveros rides to Camelot with five men, and his sister's eldest son to be made a squire.
Vedica is coming too: Arthur's sorcerer promised to teach her the spell he used to make pictures from the sparks of the fire.