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Authors: Gillian Bradshaw

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BOOK: Hawk of May
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One subject king attempted to stint her on the tribute, and denied any “mistake” when questioned on the matter. Morgawse seized his emissaries as hostages, and kept one of these hostages even after the king had paid what was due and more. The king of one of the Western Islands, a land only recently won over by my father, was discovered to have been entertaining emissaries from the king of the Dalriada, a great kingdom to the south. She summoned him to Dun Fionn; he refused to come. She took one of the hostages he had given my father, had him killed, and sent his head back to his lord on a spear. Then the king did come to Dun Fionn. She pretended to believe his oaths that it was all a mistake, and she paid him the blood-price for his servant, but she took his own son as a hostage to supply the place of the one she had killed.

All that she wished for was done, over all my father's kingdom, and if the subject kings hated her—well, they also feared her, and obeyed, Medraut and I also feared her, and adored.

She worked magic, too, that winter, in her room. Usually she was alone, but sometimes she let me watch. Whatever she was doing, it strengthened her. Every day she seemed more beautiful. She went bare-armed in the cold, her long dark cloak flapping from her shoulder, fastened with a brooch set with stones as red as blood. No blood, though, showed in her white skin, and the gaze of her eyes was softer than darkness. Any room she entered seemed to dim, and others, beside her, seemed faint and unreal.

Medraut still said nothing more about learning sorcery, but I could tell that he often thought of it. There were pauses in our closeness when he watched me, thinking, perhaps envying, or wondering what it was I saw which made me swerve about the empty air. But such times were of short duration, and he would come back near to me, asking me about the day's depression or telling me his thoughts. We often rode out together on our ponies, thundering along at full gallop in the low hills, scattering the sheep and trailing plumes of steam, or stopping to throw snowballs. I was most nearly happy when I was with Medraut.

He had his ninth birthday that winter, and entered the Boys' House to begin learning the proper use of weapons. He excelled among the boys of his age, as I had expected. He was quick, nimble, intelligent, and he learned rapidly. He was so much better than the others at riding that he had nothing to learn from his teachers. He was deficient only in skill in composing on the harp, but he made up for this with his speed in learning a song, and his enthusiasm for the music. Being together in the Boys' House we were with each other most of the day, but we shared everything and never quarrelled.

When Morgawse asked me about Medraut, I found myself evading her questions. She was beautiful, she seemed to me perfect, she ruled the Darkness—but I did not want Medraut to follow her.

In March Lot and the warband returned, but only briefly.

I saw Agravain, and was shocked at the change in him. He had now completed his growing spurt—he was nearly eighteen—and seemed entirely a young warrior, and more like Lot than ever. He was tall, and his gold hair, which he wore long, to his shoulders, glowed in the sun. The whole warband was in fine condition. Though the winter fighting had been difficult, the plunder had been rich, and there had been plenty of time to rest—but my brother stood out among them. He had a fine bright cloak, jewelry won from the men of Gwynedd and Strathclyde, Elmet and Rheged, where he had fought; he had mail-coat, and his weapons gleamed. He rode up to the gates of Dun Fionn behind our father on a high-stepping horse, carrying the standard. The people of Dun Fionn, and the clansmen from the surrounding countryside who had come to watch, cheered to see their king and his son together, so splendid they were. Agravain grinned and raised the standard, the warband laughed and shouted the war-cry as one, and the people cheered even louder.

Agravain was once more pleased to be home, to see Medraut and me again. He told us about the war, about the long series of carefully planned and successful raids, about how he had killed his first man in a border clash in Strathclyde, how he had travelled over all Britain, and once even fought with a Saxon raiding party in Gododdin. He had become what he had been destined to be: a warrior prince, a someday king of the Orcades. He no longer resented my few small talents, but accepted my gains in skill with a good-humored laugh and some praise, glad to see me, eager to be friendly. He was confident, and had no more need of pettiness. Medraut was very impressed, and held Agravain's great spear while Agravain talked, stroking the worn shaft. I listened, but mainly I watched Agravain. Splendid sun-descended hero, knowing nothing of Morgawse's “greatest power,” of the strength that lies in Darkness. I envied him.

He did not stay for long. After checking the state of the islands and collecting more warriors, Lot sailed off again. The war was going well. The young men were as anxious to return to it as to a mistress they found beautiful.

By May, when I had my fourteenth birthday and left the Boys' House, the situation in Britain seemed to have taken a definite shape at last. My father stood firmly in our old alliance with Gododdin and Dyfed; Powys and Brycheiniog opposed him uncertainly and Ebrauc squarely—the middle kingdoms of Britain, all anxious to have a Romanized, anti-Saxon king—and finally Gwynedd, the first claimant to the High Kingship, in a shaky alliance with Rheged and Strathclyde—the anti-Irish, anti-Roman party. In the balance was the kingdom of the East Angles, a Saxon kingdom which had sent envoys to both Dyfed and Gwynedd during the winter, and Dumnonia, the most Romanized British kingdom, resolutely neutral. It appeared as though a few pitched battles would decide the war.

But, in June, all plans were swept away together.

The Saxons, as I have said, were restless. Those who had been settled longest raided the most widely, killing, looting, carrying off men, women, and children as thralls, but chiefly seizing lands. They needed it. Since the borders were last determined more Saxons had come to Britain: relations, fellow clansmen, fellow tribesmen, new families drawn by the promise of better land, families, ousted from old lands by new invaders, and single men drawn by the desire for war and adventure. They all wanted land to farm, to own, to build their squat, smoky villages on. They had much of the best already. The old land of the Cantii, the gentle hills and woodland about the old heart and capital of Britain; the fenlands that had belonged to the ancient tribe of the Icenii, and formed another province; the oldest Saxon kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, given by the Roman High Kings to their Saxon mercenaries—all these were theirs, and it was not enough. They were officially subject to the British High King, successor of the Roman High Kings, and they had sworn him the same oath the British kings swore, but they never thought of keeping it. They resented the British who kept them back, when Rome itself had fallen before their kind. They needed only a small excuse to start them on a full-scale invasion of Britain.

And, in June, a great force of Saxons landed on the southwest coast, the Saxon Shore, taking the Roman fort of Anderida, allying themselves with the South Saxons and sweeping into eastern Dumnonia, crushing all before them. Their leader was a man named Cerdic, and they said that he was a king such as men would follow to the gates of Hell. They certainly followed him into Dumnonia. And what Cerdic and his tribe began was continued by the other Saxon tribes. First the South Saxons, then the East Saxons, then the tribes of the Angles, the Jutes, the Franks, the Frisians, and Swabians all swept into their neighboring British kingdoms, not just to raid but to settle there.

Despite this, the British did not turn their attention to fighting the Saxons. The civil war had gained momentum now. There were blood feuds involved in it, and honor, and many ancient hatreds. A man will not suddenly drop so old an enmity for a new one. The Saxons had been defeated before and could be defeated again. So the civil war continued, and the Saxons were allowed to seize portions of the eastern marches, while Cerdic began forging a kingdom. The western lands, such as Gwynedd, which did not have a border with the Saxons, were pleased that their British enemies were in difficulties; and everyone agreed that Dumnonia had been too large before, nearly the whole of an old province; and that it was well that the principal sufferer from the invasion was the one neutral kingdom. My father was annoyed at the Saxons and with this Cerdic, but he was confident that, when the war was over, he could see that the Saxons got some of the land they wanted and that Cerdic, after acquiring honor and a kingdom, was conveniently assassinated (it is not safe to allow great leaders to live among the enemy). Then a Britain slightly reduced in size would be ruled from Dun Fionn.

So, after some dislocation, the war might have continued, had the invasion not elicited another claim to the High Kingship.

Uther's war-leader had been the lord Arthur, from the time that Arthur was twenty-one, and Uther could have chosen many others for the position than this one of his many illegitimate sons. Arthur was twenty-five when Cerdic invaded, and had been fighting the Saxons throughout the civil war, supported only by Dumnonia, of all the British kingdoms. All acknowledged that he was a brilliant war-leader, the most innovative and successful since Ambrosius Aurelianus, who was the first High King after the legions left. And yet, no one had expected that Arthur would take sides in the struggle, or, indeed, that he would do anything but fight the Saxons. But when he saw the Saxons invading on a large scale and realized that the Britons were not going to drop the civil war to fight their common enemy (he thought half like a Roman, when it came to such matters) he was apparently “provoked,” the circumstance my mother had warned against.

He rode with the royal warband to Camlann, the royal fortress of Britain, abandoning his lonely and massively outnumbered position against the Saxons. There he met Con-stantius, king of Dumnonia, and there he declared himself High King, Augustus, and Pendragon of Britain.

This produced more effect on the kings of Britain than Cerdic's invasion had. But Arthur ab Uther did not leave them any length of time for their shrieks of protest at usurping bastards. He raised the largest army he could and attacked first Brycheiniog and then Dyfed. He took the royal fortresses of each land after subduing and dispersing the war-bands, each time defeating forces larger than his own. The kings of both countries were forced to swear him the Threefold Oath of allegiance, and to provide supplies for Arthur's forces. This accomplished, he proceeded to conquer Gwynedd.

Docmail king of Gwynedd never swore allegiance to Arthur, but proudly took poison in his own fortress of Caer Segeint, cursing Uther's bastard son, three hours before Arthur arrived there on the tail of Docmail's defeated warband. Docmail's son, Maelgwn, who was only a year or so older than myself, had been designated by Docmail as his successor. He swore fealty to Arthur without protest.

It was not yet July, and no other king had even had a chance to prepare to fight the man who claimed the Pendragonship. Arthur moved very fast. By the time Docmail died, however, the new claimant to the title found all the nations in Britain allied against him, foremost among them Urien of Rheged and, with our allies, my father. The simple reason for this sudden concord was this: it looked as though Arthur could win.

Arthur was not caught unprepared by this new alliance. It was discovered that, before claiming the title, he had made an alliance of his own with a king in Less Britain. Less Britain is in Gaul, a rich and powerful land. It was first begun as a colony by the High King Maximus when Rome still stood, and it increased in size as the legions withdrew, and men made landless by the Saxons went there for lack of a better place. When Arthur made his alliance Less Britain was not defending itself against the Saxons or the Goths or the Huns, and there was a civil struggle brewing between the two sons of the old king over who would succeed. The dispute had not reached the point of war, but this was inevitable once the old king died. Bran, the younger brother, had once fought beside Arthur, and had leapt at the chance of an alliance. He sailed from Gaul with his warband and a large army besides, landed at Caer Uisc in Dumnonia, and joined Arthur in Caer Segeint a few days after it fell. From there he was immediately rushed to Dinas Powys, which Arthur wanted to take before the other kings could unite their forces against him. There was a brief, fierce struggle in Powys, and Arthur was again victorious. He rode into the fortress in triumph, accepted the fealty of Rhydderch Hael of Powys, and dispersed Rhydderch's warband.

The other British kings finally managed to unite. They were by no means one army, and by no means ready to fight in unison, but their strength was very great. There were Gwlgawd king of Gododdin, and the king of Elmet, and Caradoc king of Ebrauc, and March Ship-owner of Strathclyde, and Urien of Rheged, called the Lion of Britain—and my father, Lot of Orcade, the strongest king of Caledon, the sun's descendant.

Arthur had the royal warband of Uther, which had followed him faithfully during the preceding two years of civil war, and he had his allies Constantius, King of Dumnoia, and Bran of Less Britain, together with sworn and enforced neutrality from Gwynedd, Dyfed, Brycheiniog, and Powys.

The story of the battle between these two forces is one often told, and more often sung, in the halls of all the kings of Britain, Erin, and the Saxon lands. In the Orcades we heard of it two weeks before Lot himself returned with the warband.

It was late in July, a hot day, with the air heavy enough to cut with a knife. The messenger came riding up from the harbor on the east coast at a trot, too hot and tired to go faster. Morgawse received the man in her chambers, gave him the obligatory cup of wine, and impatiently asked his news. I sat on the bed, watching.

The messenger drank the wine eagerly, mixing it with about half water. His clothes were stained and dusty and soaked with sweat. He was one of my father's warband, though not a kinsman of mine, as half the warband was, but a Dalriad attracted to us by my father's fame and generosity. His name was Connall.

BOOK: Hawk of May
13.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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