The morning of Stirling’s fight with Cutha dawned as dismally as his spirits: overcast and cold, with a wet wind whipping across Solway Firth from the distant, slate-grey Atlantic. Ragged, racing clouds were a low-scudding promise of more rain before midmorning or Stirling was no judge of late autumn weather in the border counties. Ancelotis merely grunted agreement after their mutual, quick look at the sky. Stirling, with a twenty-first-century soldier’s appreciation of the need for cleanliness, nevertheless muttered under his breath about the tepid bathwater his servant Gilroy brought in a pitcher and basin, shivering in the cold air as the rapidly cooling water sluiced down his chest and back.
Ancelotis, growing impatient with his bellyaching, finally said, The villa’s baths are kept fired, you know. Meirchion and Thaney would hardly begrudge you a long, hot soak. Or if you’re reluctant to trespass on Thaney’s charity, the officers’ baths at the fortress are kept heated, as well. We’re hardly barbarians, the Briton king growled in an irritable tone, due more to pre-combat nerves than Stirling’s naivety about the Britons’ civilized manners. It’s the Saxons who don’t bathe or comb their hair more than once or so a month, he added peevishly.
Stirling blinked, taken completely by surprise. The Roman baths were still operational? A delighted grin chased its way across his face.
Stirling had no sooner finished pulling on clean clothing and his armor, assisted by Gilroy, than Emrys Myrddin arrived. “An excellent morning to you, Ancelotis. One might have wished the weather to grant us more favorable conditions, but I have every faith you will prevail.”
“May your faith in my sword arm be justified,” Ancelotis responded as they strode briskly outside to their waiting horses. Gilroy followed, carrying Ancelotis’ spare weapons and shields.
They rode through the town at a bracing trot, past cheering Britons who closed ranks behind them and followed eagerly toward the field. Little girls along the side of the road waved branches of greenery cut from pines and spruces before joining the throng at their heels and small boys darted in front of Ancelotis’ immense charger, shouting gleefully as they dared each other to dash past the war-horse’s enormous hooves. The horse snorted and tossed his head and pranced almost sideways down the road, proudly flicking the white feathers which hid his feet, slinging mud every which way and having a marvelous time with all the attention directed at him.
Ancelotis let the animal dance, commenting laconically,
Stirling muttered, If all you feel is nervous tension, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
Gunga Din? Ancelotis frowned. Who or what is a Gunga Din? And why do you call me by the name?
Stirling’s ill-advised quotation left him trying to explain Kipling. Ah, yes, well, Gunga Din was a water boy, not a boy at all really, that’s just a name given to natives who carried water to the wounded during battle. A rude name, I’m afraid, demeaning and given to a grown man who was both a native of India and a servant. Two things guaranteed to earn such a man scorn from the British soldiers who had gone to India to win an empire—
British soldiers, fighting a war in India? Ancelotis interrupted excitedly. Building such an empire as exceeded Roman might? Emrys Myrddin has a piece of ivory taken from the tusk of an elephant that came from India, stolen, he says, while he was still a slave in Constantinople. Traders still ply the route from the city astride the Bosporus and the fabled realm of eastern spices and mysterious, veiled women. So far as I know, not one Briton has ever been there. This Kipling, then, was he a British soldier in India?
Stirling tried frantically to recall details of Kipling’s career. Not a soldier, exactly. Well, maybe he was, I don’t remember that part of it, and I ought to. In my opnion, he was the greatest poet Britain ever produced, should’ve been Poet Laureate, the way he understood people and the military—
Poet Laureate? Ancelotis interrupted again, his thoughts both excited and dreamy, this time. Now that’s a grand idea, so it is, to give a laurel crown of victory to the greatest poet of the Britons…
Stirling kicked himself mentally and tried to convince himself that nothing critical would be altered, surely, if the Britons decided to name a Poet Laureate a millennium or so before they were supposed to? Before Ancelotis could ask for the rest of Gunga Din’s story, which put the British in a rather seriously unpleasant light, full of bigotry and pride and arrogance to a man who had given his life bringing water to wounded men who despised him, Emrys Myrddin interrupted.
“Cutha,” the one-time slave leaned in his saddle to speak above the crowd noise, “has spent the week carousing, an activity we have encouraged with plenty of wine and ale and a ghastly excess of mead, which they have drunk by the hogshead. That will give you at least some advantage, since we made very certain that the Saxons were up late last night.” Myrddin smiled a crook-mouthed, conspiratorial little smile. “They’re already celebrating Cutha’s victory, in fact. Drank themselves into a stupor recounting the glorious blows he plans to strike against you. When we roused them at cockcrow, they could barely stand, much less offer anyone serious threat.”
Stirling nodded his appreciation. “While I’ve gone to bed early every night and have taken care to sleep well. It certainly ought to help. After all, ‘Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.'” That quintessentially American tidbit of wisdom didn’t come out with quite the same poetic impact, translated into Brythonic Welsh, but the idea came across well enough.
Nicely enough that Myrddin shot a startled stare his way.
Ah, bugger all, Stirling swore under his breath, if Brenna McEgan’s taken shelter with Emrys Myrddin, I’ve just cocked it up as badly as a fool could manage.
“Yes,” the Druid said thoughtfully, his keen glance revealing his thoughts only too clearly. Ancelotis might be respected as a warrior and man of honor, but quite obviously he was
Stirling vowed to keep his conversations with Emrys Myrddin as laconic as possible, during the eleven months, three weeks and one or two odd days he had left to stay in the sixth century. As they neared the arena, the cheering crowd which had followed them through town abruptly broke away, spilling through arched entryways that led to the arena’s wooden seats, everyone scrambling eagerly for places not already taken. Emrys Myrddin ignored the pedestrian entrances and reined around toward the circus’ farthest end. When they turned the corner, Stirling peered curiously through the starting boxes into the arena floor. He’d been to the arena several times during the week, but hadn’t come down to look through the starting boxes.
Ten racers clad in linen trousers were pelting down the long straight stretch toward the far turn. Sweat pouring down their bare backs suggested a multi-lap event nearing its conclusion, since the day was chilly and full of blustery cold wind. A wildly cheering crowd encouraged the runners to greater efforts. The thing that surprised Stirling the most was the large number of empty bleachers. There didn’t seem to be enough people in Caerleul or even the surrounding countryside to fill so much as a quarter of the viewing stands. No wonder the Dux Bellorum worried about Saxon incursions, when apparently there weren’t enough Britons left to do the fighting.
Too bloody right, Ancelotis muttered, picking up one of Stirling’s favorite swearwords. We cannot breed ourselves fast enough to replace men lost in battle. Meanwhile, our enemies arrive by the endless shipload from lands far larger than our own, all of them eager to plunder and seize ground that isn’t already overcrowded with their uncles and brothers and cousins and their nagging wives and children.
It was, God help the Britons, the classic predicament of civilized nations who found themselves under siege by migrating peoples or by cultures who bred themselves faster for any of a variety of reasons. The runners rounded the end of a low central spine, little more than a meter in height and not much wider, that divided the two straightways of the racetrack. Some of them skidded in the sand as they raced back toward the starting gates once more. Regular and deep holes in the long central spine, digging into its pitted surface like badger holes, suggested missing monuments which had once crowned the low dividing wall. Stirling wondered what had become of them, since the rest of the arena had been maintained well.
To Stirling’s irritation, Ancelotis didn’t know, nor was the Scots king particularly interested in statues and monuments that had vanished more than a century previously. Doubtless any statue depicting a pagan deity had ignited the full and blazing wrath of Caerleul’s Christian priesthood—and anything bronze had doubtless been melted down long since to recover the valuable metal. Britain had been providing the ancient world’s supply of tin for centuries, but it was much easier to melt down existing bronze than create new batches of the alloy from its constituent metals. Bronze hadn’t been required for weapons in centuries, of course, but many a luxury item was fashioned of it.
It was rather sad, however, that the grand arena had been stripped of what had doubtless been its greatest finery, since what was left was heartlessly plain and utilitarian. The one luxurious note stood halfway down the homestretch, shading the only section of stone seating in the entire arena: an awning of purple-bordered white wool, which protected Briton royalty from inclement weather. A wise precaution, given the threat from ragged, rain-heavy clouds racing low across the sky, in tattered banners caught in the crosscurrents of unpredictable winds.
Kings from most of the kingdoms of Britain shared the pavilion, along with their queens, councillors, and a few princes of royal blood from distant Briton neighbors, representing their fathers and voting proxy in the council to be held tonight, after the last of the week-long funerary games. It had taken this long for some of the visiting princes and kings to
He puzzled for a moment over why the royal pavilion hadn’t been set up on the balcony above the starting boxes, which would have offered better shelter from the weather, then decided the view would be better from mid-track. Stirling picked out Morgana under the awning, seated next to her nephew and her two very young sons, Gwalchmai and Walgabedius, names that had startled him when they’d first translated in his mind into their English equivalents: Gawain and Galahad, aged six and four, respectively. The boys had arrived from Trapain Law only the previous day, unable to travel any faster. Stirling’s throat closed, or perhaps Ancelotis’ did, seeing those two small figures huddled close to their mother. Both children had clung to her since their arrival, eyes wide and bereft. Little Gwalchmai, not quite seven years old yet, had gazed up at his uncle with a brave attempt at manliness in his little face. Ancelotis had crouched down in front of the child and very gently removed the heavy golden torque from his own neck.
“You see this, lad?”
The boy had nodded, wordless and hurt.
“Well, my king, ’tisn’t mine at all. It’s yours.” He placed the heavy torque around the boy’s neck, where it flopped down his chest in a forlorn fashion.
“It doesn’t fit very well,” Gwalchmai said uncertainly.
“No, not yet. But it will, my king. Give it time and it will fit you very well, indeed. I’m only borrowing it until then. So that I can protect your mother and your brother and all the people of Gododdin until you’re a man grown and well able to do that, yourself.”
“Will you teach me?” the boy asked plaintively, fear in his eyes. “Better than Father?”
His throat closed. “Better than your father? How is that possible, lad?”
Gwalchmai wiped tears with one fist. “Father let the Picts kill him.”
“Oh, no, lad, never think that,” Ancelotis murmured, drawing the boy close. “Your father was a great warrior. Why, he and Artorius trained together as boys, taught by Ambrosius Aurelianus, himself. In war, lad, it isn’t a matter of
Gwalchmai leaned against his shoulder for long moments, thinking about that, then finally said, “Uncle, I don’t know how to make a battle plan.”
He kissed the child’s hair. “Not yet, Gwalchmai. But I will teach you. That’s part of my sacred charge from the council of advisors, to teach you all the things your father would have done, had he lived long enough. It will be a great honor to teach you, my young king.”
When the boy met his eyes again, some of the deep hurt had gone. “Like you taught me to saddle my pony and take him across the jumps and care for him after?”
His lower lip quivered for a moment, then he put his small hands around the torque and pulled it off. “It’s too heavy, Uncle.”
He had never heard a better summation of kingship in his life.
“When the day comes, Gwalchmai, you’ll be strong enough to lift and carry it. This, I vow before God.”
The child who would be king put the torque into his uncle’s hands and he slipped it back around his own neck. “Thank you, Gwalchmai. I will wear it in your honor until you are ready to receive it back again, as a man fully grown.”
The boy hugged him spontaneously. The slight little body was trembling. “Don’t die, too!”
He kissed the boy’s hair again. “That, my little king, is in God’s hands. But I will take great care, this I promise.”
When Ancelotis glanced up, he found Morgana watching with tears streaming down her face, holding her younger son in her arms and rocking him gently. “Gwalchmai,” he said gently, “your mother needs you, lad.”
The boy looked around, saw his mother’s tears, and ran to her. “Don’t cry, Mamma, I’ll protect you!”
A strangled sound escaped her, then she was on her knees, clutching her older son close and weeping against his neck. Ancelotis left silently, allowing them the privacy their grief demanded. Now, seated in the arena, preparing to watch the ritual combat about to transpire, Gwalchmai all but glued himself to his mother’s side, face a pale blur in the distance. The boy was doubtless terrified that he would lose an uncle, this day, right before his eyes.
And there wasn’t a thing he could have done to disabuse the child of that notion, since he knew in his bones that was precisely what Cutha intended. He would have liked to have spared the child the sight of this combat, but he would do the boy no favors by sheltering him—nor would such a course serve Gododdin’s best interests. It was brutal, the harsh reality that a king must learn from his very childhood, if he were to govern wisely. That ugly reality didn’t stop Ancelotis from wishing, rather desperately, that little Gwalchmai didn’t have to learn it quite so soon.
Ancelotis clenched his jaw even tighter when he realized Ganhumara sat on the boy’s other side, offering neither comfort nor even acknowledgment of the child’s presence. Artorius’ wife blazed in a shimmer of copper hair and flame-colored woolen gown, a startling contrast beside Morgana’s black mourning attire. Ganhumara seemed to flicker around the edges against the slate-colored sky, wildfire against the looming threat of thunder. Ancelotis wasn’t proud of the thought, but couldn’t help thinking it, either:
Stirling, watching through Ancelotis’ eyes, agreed darkly.
A burst of raucous laughter from behind brought Ancelotis and Stirling around in the saddle. Cutha and his personal guard contingent were making their way across a broad meadow beyond the racing arena, through a substantial herd of horses and ponies left to graze by visitors in from the countryside. Cutha’s men were accompanied by a contingent of stone-faced soldiers wearing the colors and insignia of Rheged’s
Whatever the Saxons had been up to, at least they’d done it under the scrutiny of Briton military might. Cutha gestured toward Emrys Myrddin and Ancelotis, then said something that drew howls of laughter from his companions. Most of Cutha’s men swayed in the terminal stages of drunkenness, clearly having indulged in an extended celebration which had continued right through until morning and apparently had no intention of ending until Cutha had actually defeated his opponent on the field.
“Overconfident windbags,” Ancelotis muttered, drawing a chuckle from Emrys Myrddin.
Stirling, however, had noted quite narrowly that Cutha neither swayed in his saddle nor appeared to be even the slightest bit drunk. Creoda, riding in his wake, had gone from looking like a scared rabbit to resembling a potted one, badly drunk and too terrified in his drunkenness to put so much as a toe wrong in Cutha’s presence.
A shout went up from the arena and signal trumpets blared as the footrace competitors, having made one more complete circuit of the track, shot past a finish line marked with white chalk. They slowed to a halt, many of them gasping deeply for breath. The winner jubilantly retraced his route, jogging a victory lap before halting at the royal pavilion halfway down the homestretch. The panting victor climbed sandstone steps up from the track and bowed low to Thaney and Meirchion. The king of Rheged made some sort of speech, which Stirling couldn’t hear, then Thaney laid an honest-to-god laurel wreath on the winner’s head. It had been made from actual leaves, rather than the more opulent golden versions which competitors in the Eternal City had aspired to win although at second glance, they looked more like oak leaves than laurel. As the crowned victor accepted a money purse and turned to bow to the crowd, the arena exploded once more into cheers.
They don’t realize they’re not Romans any more, Stirling thought sadly. They’ve maintained the trappings, but Rome has long since gone from their lives.
Ancelotis’ response surprised him. We never believed ourselves Romans, Stirling of Caer-Iudeu. But we are a civilized people, as civilized as Rome ever was. We teach our sons and daughters Latin and Greek and bring them up on Plato and Aristotle and Julius Caesar and Cicero. We pass on to our children, and their children in turn, the skilled trades which the Roman legions and colonists brought among us, adding to our own skills in metallurgy and healing and the arts and suchlike. And we are just as determined as Rome to preserve our way of life when barbarians threaten our borders. This is all that really matters, is it not? To safeguard the beliefs and learned arts which Britons share, from the Wall to the southern tip of Cerniw, no matter which tribe or kingdom is at immediate risk? Artorius lives for this purpose only: to protect Britons from marauding savages. It is a good purpose. It is enough.
At some unexplored level he didn’t want to probe too closely, perhaps it was.
Weary runners exited through the starting gates, stepping past Stirling and Emrys Myrddin on their way out of the arena. Following Myrddin’s instructions, Stirling reined his charger into the nearest starting stall. Cutha, red-eyed but sitting straight in his saddle—a much inferior type of saddle, possessing neither the Celtic style’s supportive horns nor its innovative stirrups—grinned at Stirling and gave a mocking salute before entering another of the starting gates.
Behind him, Myrddin said, “May God and your ancestors look favorably upon you, Ancelotis.”
Stirling nodded. Gilroy appeared like a silent shadow, handing Stirling a long thrusting spear reminiscent of Swiss pikes, a slimmer Roman-style
He slid his left hand through leather-wrapped iron braces on the back, then slid the pike and the
Directly overhead, a man on the officials’ balustrade, invisible on the parapet from Stirling’s perspective inside the starting gate, began shouting out a speech that Stirling finally realized was a benediction, rather than instructions to the combatants. The exhortations to abide by the rules of conduct laid down by God, to strive with all one’s might to find the truth and live by it, to strike no wicked blows, etc.
The moment the sermon or benediction or whatever it was came to an end, Stirling’s valet fled, scrambling out the front of the starting box, loaded down with extra shields and weapons. Gilroy ran hell-for-leather toward a spot along the sandstone wall that separated the arena floor from the lowest circuit of seats. The wall was just slightly too high for a man to jump and reach the top. Gilroy stacked the shields against the base of the wall and piled a fistful of
Curiously, one of Cutha’s thanes, busy at the same task on the opposite side of the arena, laid out nothing but spare shields, and only two of those. A psychological ploy, perhaps, demonstrating supreme confidence that he would need nothing more? Or sheer, blind arrogance, incapable of imagining defeat? Stirling didn’t care for the implications, either way.
Men with wide-tined wooden rakes worked in gangs to smooth the sandy track surface, removing animal dung from previous horse races, a shoe some unfortunate runner had lost, and dozens of colorful little twists of plaid woolen scraps. Ancelotis, sensing Stirling’s curiosity, commented,
A fairly substantial “if.”
Signal trumpets rang out again from somewhere above Stirling’s head, a shimmer of brassy notes defying the sullen pewter of the sky. His pulse picked up at the sound, thudding in his eardrums and beating at his throat, a heady mixture of anticipation, pre-combat jitters, cold anger at Brenna McEgan for having forced him to come after her, and a healthy dollop of sheer, schoolboy excitement. He was about to participate in an honest-to-God sixth-century duel, with
If he lived to see the end of it.
The trumpets sang out again and the men raking the arena floor rushed toward arched exits at track level, swinging shut heavy iron gates as they gained whichever access tunnel was closest. A series of muffled booms like distant cracks of thunder rolled across the arena as the massive grillwork gates slammed shut. These, clearly, were leftovers from the era of gladiatorial games and bestiary fights, which would have produced a fine and grisly abundance of corpses to be dragged off the field between successive bouts. The arena was, Stirling had to admit, beautifully engineered for its bloody purpose. He was thankful this was
On the balustrade overhead, an official shouted: “Upon the trumpets’ next signal, you will leave the starting gates and ride a countersunwise circle around the full distance of the arena. Cutha will then return to the far end of the course and turn to face the starting gates. The trumpets will signal the beginning of your charge with lances. If your lance strikes anywhere but an opponent’s shield, you will be instantly disqualified and your opponent named victor. The aim of this combat is to exhibit skill at arms in honor of King Lot Luwddoc and King Dumgual Hen, not to maim or kill your opponent. Combat will end the moment a man has been deprived of all his weapons and shields, including those held in reserve, or when he formally yields. A man rendered unconscious will be judged to have yielded, granting his opponent victory. May Almighty God, slayer of heathens, who smites the sinner with His flaming sword, strengthen your sword arm and lend you the cunning to achieve victory. Amen.”
If that so-called benediction was meant to include Cutha, Stirling would eat his horse, hooves and all. Ancelotis gave a snort of laughter.
Stirling had been to Vienna once, to see the Lipizzaners dance, gliding more like great white birds than stallions of solid flesh and bone, descendants of Europe’s finest war-horses, capable of killing a man with those ancient battlefield maneuvers they performed so gracefully. Here, under the sullen rain-bruised sky, there was no chandeliered ballroom, no raked tanbark ring beneath marble balustrades, no portraits done by Europe’s finest master painters, no loudspeakers, no great classical scores penned by Vienna’s most gifted composers. The comparison began and ended with Ancelotis’ war-horse, which had clearly been schooled by similar methods in similar maneuvers and doubtlessly at nearly as great a cost.
Sterling’s presence made Ancelotis’ grip with thighs and calves less certain than normal, sending the animal mixed signals and causing it to fret and sweat down its neck and flank. Cutha’s horse, not nearly as massive as Ancelotis’, had also broken from the starting stall at a canter, sweeping down the long stretch of straightway less than a sword-length’s distance from Ancelotis. Neither man so much as looked at the other, which was intensely irritating to Stirling, who wanted to learn as much detail of the Saxon’s equipage as he possibly could before coming to blows with any of it.
They rounded the great curve at the far end of the central spine, cantering around and down the homestretch, past cheering Britons, a handful of sneering Saxons, and the royal pavilion where Morgana and the flower of Briton royalty sat, the former, at least, as still and white as an ancient marble masterpiece. Her fear, Stirling realized, was as much for Ancelotis, her brother-in-law, as it was for a necessary show of strength before the Saxons. They flashed past the terminus of the central spine and Ancelotis reined around to face the far curve once more, moving his dancing charger sideways until the animal stood more or less in place at the right-hand side of the low spine. Cutha had reined around as well, heading at a gallop for the far curve, where he took up a similar position.
It was to be a joust in fine medieval style, but with critical differences. Both men readied lances, shafts of seasoned ash a full five feet long with wicked iron points that added another seven inches to the weapon’s length. But unlike medieval lances of later centuries, these featured no hand guards, no bell-like flare to help brace one’s grip. Ancelotis tucked the butt end under one arm, securing it as snugly as possible while using hand and wrist to point the tip toward Cutha—no easy feat, given the weight of the weapon. Neither he nor Cutha wore armor that would even begin to deflect such a lance’s point, driven at full power by a charging war-horse. It was abruptly all too clear why men had died at this sport, even when protected by the heavy plate armor of “classical” tournaments of knights. In a.d. 500, the very concept of “knights” had yet to be invented.
The Scots king lifted his shield to protect his torso, draping the reins loosely across the front of his saddle. With a skill that bespoke years of practice, he guided the massive war-horse with knees, legs, and feet alone. They were in position now, weapons at the ready. Stirling tensed, waiting for the signal. The bruised sky flickered with lighting, like bubbling pots and cauldrons in the sky. Wind blasted through the arena and hurled cold droplets against his face, the first spatter of what promised to be a deluge very soon.
Trumpets screamed at Stirling’s back.
Ancelotis and Cutha kicked their horses into a thundering gallop. The central spine whipped past, a blurred red snake in Stirling’s peripheral vision. They crouched low behind shields, lances held like battering rams. Closer… closer still…
The shock of concussion nearly unseated Stirling.
He came several inches out of the saddle, both arms almost numb. Without stirrups, he’d have landed flat on the ground. Cutha’s lance had struck his shield a glancing blow, failing to bite solidly into the wood. His own spear had smashed into Cutha’s shield with such force the collision slammed the young Saxon nearly a foot backwards. Lacking stirrups, Cutha toppled right off his horse’s backside, dragging Ancelotis’ spear with him. With its point deeply embedded in Cutha’s shield, the long shaft dragged at his arm, hindering him as Cutha staggered to his feet on the arena floor.
Stirling’s surge of confidence was short-lived, however. Even as the Briton crowd roared approval, delighted at the Saxon’s early downfall, Cutha tossed the encumbered shield aside, scrambled to recapture his horse, and vaulted back into the saddle. The man detailed to assist him raced forward with a second shield, then put booted foot on the other one and yanked out Ancelotis’ spear, handing it up to Cutha. Ancelotis snarled under his breath, but his own man, Gilroy, had already reached his side, handing up two Roman-style
They made a second thunderous charge.
Ancelotis leaned low over his horse’s flying mane, one
Using knees and thighs, the Scots king urged his charger slightly to the right, in a shallow swing out of range of the unsteady lance point, which passed harmlessly by Ancelotis’ shoulder. The clean miss upset Cutha’s balance, braced as he was for the shock of collision. The lance was considerably longer than the
The Saxon prince sprawled in the dust a second time.
His lance shaft snapped under the impact.
The Britons in the stands went wild.
With both lances—Cutha’s own and Ancelotis’—shattered and two shields damaged, Cutha was left on foot with one remaining shield, his sword, and a fighting axe. Ancelotis turned his mount and thundered down the track in a long, outward swing toward the stands while Cutha was still on the ground, staggering and trying to reach his horse. Ancelotis then swept across in a sharp one-eighty-degree turn and urged his massive war-horse to jump the central spine. The stallion’s quarters bunched, then they were airborne, momentum and the animal’s powerful muscles driving them straight across the sandstone barrier and—not coincidentally—straight into Cutha’s still riderless mount.
The Saxon horse screamed in alarm and shied violently to one side, thus preventing collision by a matter of centimeters. Cutha, in the act of vaulting into the saddle from the other side, went down with a smashing blow from his own horse’s shoulder. He rolled frantically out from under thrashing hooves, blistering the air with Saxon curses. The Scots king brought his charger around in a spinning turn worthy of an American cowhand, drawing his sword in the same instant. They plunged toward Cutha’s already-shaken mount. Ancelotis shouted a blood-curdling string of Briton curses and swung his sword in a circle around his head. Cutha’s poor horse gave another scream and kicked at his infuriated owner in sheer terror, then bolted and ran, leaving the enraged Saxon prince on foot and spitting curses of his own. The glare he turned on Ancelotis made Stirling’s blood freeze.
The Saxon drew sword and war axe, gripping the latter in his shield hand. Cutha’s assistant was frantically dragging iron points out of Cutha’s shield, lunging and tossing the shield to the Saxon prince like a frisbee. Cutha clutched his axe in his teeth and caught the shield in a movement that would’ve broken Stirling’s wrist, if he’d tried it. Lightning split the sky as Cutha thrust his axe into his belt and banged the flat of his sword against his shield, an invitation to mayhem. Thunder rolled across the arena, slapping up against the sandstone walls and reverberating back into Stirling’s face, an avalanche of sound, with him buried at the bottom.
Ancelotis charged before the last echoing peals had died away. He swung mightily at Cutha’s shield. Cutha dodged the blow, leaving Ancelotis out of position. The Saxon whirled around, faster on his feet than the Briton king’s war-horse, which was already trying to pivot and strike. Out of position, neither Stirling nor Ancelotis saw it coming. One moment, the Briton king was turning his charger with knees and thighs—and the next, Cutha was underfoot, hooking the edge of his shield under Ancelotis’ leg and wrenching upward.
The Scots king lost his stirrup, his balance, and his horse.
The bloody horse’s back was taller than Stirling was.
It was a long,
The landing jarred him so badly, Stirling couldn’t draw breath for several critical seconds. Ancelotis’ sword went flying from a numbed elbow, the abused joint having been driven into the ground with terrific force. The only thing that saved him from Cutha’s sword at his throat was Ancelotis’ Briton-bred war-horse. Trained for battle, the massive horse screamed a warning at the Saxon, biting and rearing threateningly, hooves the size of dinner plates lashing out like pile drivers.
Cutha was forced to scramble backwards, unable to get past those hooves and teeth without a lance or even a javelin and unable to maneuver fast enough to strike with his sword. The Saxon retreated, which gave Ancelotis time to drag himself to his feet. He hunted for his sword, couldn’t see it anywhere in the sand, wondered with a chill if Cutha had snatched it up, then spotted it. The weapon had clattered onto the raised sandstone of the central spine.
Spitting curses, Ancelotis faced down the Saxon, who retained shield, sword, and axe, while Ancelotis was shieldless and weaponless. A frisson of real fear skittered through Ancelotis’ gut, an eerie and unpleasant echo of the lightning overhead, which seethed like volcanic vents amongst the clouds. When Stirling looked into Cutha’s eyes, he saw death leering back at him. Breathing heavily but grinning in supreme confidence now, Cutha charged, forcing Ancelotis backward, toward the sandstone barrier. He ducked the swing of Cutha’s sword and scrambled away from the central spine, which lay at his back like a sandstone trap. Ancelotis danced out into the open, where he had more room to maneuver, and faced the Saxon again.
Cutha’s second charge was a feint that lured Ancelotis off guard, but only for an instant; the Scots king was as agile as a wildcat, turning and skidding to get his feet under him again while avoiding the lethal reach of the Saxon’s sword. A bone-deep ache stung one shoulder from a nasty blow from the edge of Cutha’s shield. When Cutha drove straight toward him again, sword point thrusting straight for his throat and the killing blow, Ancelotis hesitated for a fraction of a second—
—and Stirling’s close-combat reflexes took over.
He dove forward in a snap-roll that took Cutha completely by surprise and carried Stirling under the Saxon’s swing. On the way past, he swept Cutha’s ankles out from under him, knocking him flat even as Stirling came to his feet again. The Saxon, astonished by the move, rolled over and surged upwards, face flushing an angry red. Stirling not only sidestepped Cutha’s off-balance blow, he applied just the slightest amount of leverage to that outstretched arm.
The aikido move, practiced hundreds of times in SAS training sessions, sent the Saxon airborne, careening out of control toward the arena’s wall. Cutha lost his sword in the process and the edge of his shield dug into the sand, flipping him onto his back, like a stunned beetle. Ancelotis crushed the Saxon’s shield wrist under one foot, scooped the sword up from the dirt, laid the point at Cutha’s throat, and said softly, “It looks as though you must yield or die, Saxon.”
Completing the Saxon’s ignominious defeat, the sky chose that moment to crack wide open. Icy rain drenched them to the skin. Mud spattered Cutha’s face where he sprawled under Ancelotis’ foot. The defeated prince snarled at him, a truly hideous curse, but made no effort to rise. The Briton crowd had gone wild, rivaling the thunder with their roars of delight. Cutha’s humiliation inspired a veritable hailstorm of coins, headgear, colorful snippets of plaid, even muddy shoes, which rained down onto the arena track.
Stirling slipped Cutha’s war axe from his belt, then stepped back, allowing Cutha to rise. He smiled tightly. “I believe I’ll keep this”—he hefted the axe—”for remembrance. You’re welcome to your sword and shields. I’ve no use for weapons of inferior quality.” He tossed the sword aside, where it landed in the mud with a splat.
Cutha’s already crimson face went deadly purple. The veins in his neck stood out in stark relief, pulsing with the man’s fury. “
“I seriously doubt it,” Stirling replied with a lazy drawl.
Only then did Stirling belatedly notice Ancelotis’ shock at the swiftness and arcane mystery of Cutha’s defeat, when Ancelotis had actually expected to be spitted on the end of Cutha’s sword. Clearly, nobody in the sixth century had ever seen the relatively simple close-combat and martial-arts moves he’d just used.
Stirling groaned, realizing too late just how seriously he’d screwed up—again. If Brenna McEgan sat somewhere in that howling crowd of ecstatic, rain-drenched spectators—and he couldn’t imagine that she
Perhaps there would be a silver lining to this mess? The only one he could remotely imagine was that Cedric Banning might come forward, giving Stirling an ally. All in all, it had been a bloody stupid thing to do, an attitude which puzzled Ancelotis no end. Cutha gave him a stiff, formal bow and stalked away, limping visibly. He collected his horse, leading it out of the arena by way of the starting gates. He plucked his sword from the mud on his way.
Stirling was left wondering what to do next, so Ancelotis retrieved his own sword, thrust the Saxon’s beautifully inlaid war axe through his belt, then rounded up his charger and mounted, moving somewhat stiffly, as bruises were already making themselves felt in a variety of places. Climbing the rain-slick steps to the royal pavilion required careful concentration to avoid falling flat and bouncing all the way down. The awning had kept the worst of the rain off, although Ganhumara wore a sullen look that boded ill for the laundress or fuller given the task of repairing rain damage to the silk he could see layered beneath her flame-colored wool.
Ancelotis bowed formally to his fellow kings and queens. The Dux Bellorum was grinning fit to crack his face and Medraut’s glance mirrored hero worship. Gwalchmai’s eyes shone like lanterns as he danced in place, ignoring the icy downpour as he celebrated his uncle’s victory. Little Walgabedius, confused and too young to understand, nevertheless looked excited as he gazed up at his uncle. Even the young king of Strathclyde wore a stunned and reverent expression. Emrys Myrddin, however, gave him a long, slow frown and Morgana’s gaze was as icy as the rain pouring down his back.
She said coldly, “Congratulations on your victory, Ancelotis. It will doubtless speed Cutha on his way to planning vengeance, when we can ill afford invasion. Wear your crown with pride—it may be the last victory we win against the Saxons!”
Lips compressed in white fury, she crowned him with the traditional wreath, which
Unsure which reaction was the correct—or safest—one, Stirling simply bowed, refused the traditional money pouch, tossing the coins into the ecstatic crowd instead, and descended the steps to mount his horse. He made one victory lap around the arena, accompanied by the tumult of celebration, then exited through the stone starting boxes. He had only one desire, now that the bout was behind him. Stirling wanted that very long, very hot soak in the deepest Roman bath available.
Ancelotis agreed wholeheartedly.