Morgana had never been to Ireland.
When the Irish coast rose out of the stormy grey sea, frissons of mingled apprehension and excitement shot through her, while Brenna McEgan gazed at that coast with such homesick longing, it brought tears to their shared eyes. They arrived in a grand flotilla of Dalriadan warships, manned by every able-bodied
Enraged Dalriadans had answered the king’s summons from miles around, gathering nearly three hundred strong to pursue vengeance. King Dallan mac Dalriada had insisted, however, that they sail first to Eire, to raise more sword hands from their Irish kinfolk. And so they had turned their prows west, across the narrow North Channel toward lands that one day would be called County Antrim and County Down.
Brenna had listened very hard to the conversation of the Irish sailors and soldiers on Dallan mac Dalriada’s flagship. Her grandmother had taught her a fair bit of Gaelic. She’d forgotten much of it over the years, but listening to the
Tears prickled in her eyes again when Belfast rose out of the mists, a thriving settlement of several thousand, judging by the smoke curling up from cottage hearths. The achingly familiar profile of Cave Hill rose like a sentinel north of the town. Brenna had explored the hill during school holidays, catching a ride with older cousins who had licenses to drive. Five artificial caves had been dug into that craggy hill by Neolithic inhabitants, for what purpose, only those long-dead people could have explained. They’d seemed magical caves to Brenna and her cousins, three of whom had since died in the violent Troubles, two of them not even making it to their twentieth birthdays.
South of the town, some three miles from the harbor, Brenna could just make out the shape of the Giant’s Ring, one of the most impressive ancient monuments anywhere in Ireland. Nearly six hundred sixty feet in diameter, the standing stones were enclosed by an earthen bank fifteen feet high and more than twenty feet across. The dolmen at the center stood guard over a Stone Age burial site. She wondered what the Iron Age Irish chieftains ruling Belfast village used it for? In later centuries, it had become a popular spot for horse racing.
A crowd had gathered at the harbor by the time Dallan mac Dalriada gave orders to drop the anchor stone overboard. He shouted across the water, greeting someone by name. A murmur of surprise ran through the onlookers as the Dalriadan king leaped over the gunwales into hip-deep water, wading ashore to clasp arms with a tall, stocky Irishman wearing a torque of high rank. Brenna listened closely as sailors ran a ladder over the side for the ladies to climb down into a coracle being rowed out to ferry them in.
“What brings you to Belfast?” the tall man was asking. “Trouble, by the look of it.”
“Grim trouble indeed, cousin. All Dunadd is dead.”
Shock washed white over the tall man’s features. “Daghda help us, what’s happened? Not plague?”
Dallan mac Dalriada shook his head. “Worse. Saxons.”
The Belfast chieftain blinked. “Saxons?”
“Aye, Saxon dogs with treachery behind every false smile. But there is more news even, than Saxon plots against Irish interests.” He turned to beckon Morgana, Medraut, and his daughter forward. “You’ll remember my daughter?”
“Fondly.” He embraced Keelin and kissed her cheek. “You’ve grown, child, lovelier every time I see you.”
Keelin brushed a kiss across his whiskered cheek. “It is good to see you again, Bradaigh mac Art.”
Brenna shot an intent glance in Bradaigh mac Art’s direction. This was the Iron Age chieftain whose stronghold was still called MacArt’s Fort in the twenty-first century? She had little time to ponder it, however, as Dallan mac Dalriada was beginning formal introductions.
“Cousin, my daughter has married this week past, in what may prove the most advantageous marriage in the history of our clan. It is my honor to present King Medraut of Galwyddel, husband to my child, and Queen Morgana of Ynys Manaw, sister to Medraut’s late mother.”
Bradaigh mac Art’s eyes shot wide. He stared from Medraut to Morgana and back to Dallan mac Dalriada. “Have you taken leave of your senses, man?” he cried. “Married her off to a
“I thank you for your gracious welcome,” Brenna said icily, in near-flawless Gaelic. “I am so pleased that my nephew can lay claim to such well-mannered kinsmen.”
A deathly silence fell across the Irish crowd. Bradaigh mac Art’s jaw had dropped and even Dallan mac Dalriada started in surprise. Dawning delight shone in Keelin’s eyes, then she swung back to face her father’s cousin, firmly clasping her husband’s hand.
“Your rudeness shames our clan,” the girl said in a voice nearly as cold as Brenna’s. “When you have recovered a civil tongue, I may be moved to sit beneath your roof!” She switched to Brythonic. “Come, husband, I will not stay on Belfast Beach and be insulted further by my own kinsmen.”
She strode straight into the water and Medraut, glaring briefly at Bradaigh mac Art, followed, lifting her out of the waves and wading toward the ladder still hanging over the side of her father’s ship. Morgana turned to follow, only to halt at Bradaigh’s cry.
“Wait! Please forgive the insult to your honor, Queen Morgana, King Medraut. We have so long been enemies, the news took me by considerable shock.”
Morgana swung back around to find the clan chieftain of Belfast holding out his open hand, cheeks stained red with embarrassment. After a moment’s pause, Morgana stepped gravely forward to clasp the proffered hand. Calling upon Brenna’s reacquired—if somewhat shaky—proficiency in Gaelic, she said, “It is my fondest hope, Bradaigh mac Art, that the sons and daughters of Ireland count Britons as kinsmen and allies from this day onward.”
“Alliance does present intriguing possibilities,” the tall clan chieftain nodded thoughtfully.
A moment later, Medraut had waded ashore and offered his open hand to Bradaigh. They clasped forearms in the greeting of equals and the Irishman offered apologies, one to Medraut and another to his young cousin Keelin, whose frosty gaze thawed somewhat at his obvious sincerity.
“Come up to the fortress, please, and tell me what’s happened at Dunadd, that you’ve made alliance with Britons and speak of Saxon treachery.”
Dallan mac Dalriada explained their grim news as they walked toward the great fortress rising up at the center of the town. Medraut glanced at Morgana and said in a low voice, “I didn’t know you spoke Gaelic, Aunt.”
Brenna twitched her lips as Morgana replied softly, “There is much you have yet to learn about me, nephew. Be thankful that our new kinsmen will never underestimate us again.”
Bradaigh mac Art’s hospitality, once stung into motion, proved cordial in every possible manner. The clan chieftain plied them with good Irish ale and steaming platters of roast boar, geese stuffed with apples, and fresh-baked bread, the dark Irish bread Brenna had grown up loving and had missed during the months in Beckett’s lab in the Scottish Lowlands.
While they ate, Dallan mac Dalriada explained the monstrous act of destruction wrought by the Saxons’ agent, Lailoken. “It is my intention, cousin, to sail with as many men-at-arms as I can raise by sunset tomorrow. All Britain marches to battle against these Saxon dogs. With Queen Morgana’s help in securing safe conduct through Briton-held lands, I will lead an Irish army to strike the Saxons’ southern flank. We’ll take them by surprise and cut off their escape while Artorius and the Briton
Bradaigh tugged thoughtfully at his lower lip. “Where think you this battle will occur?”
Morgana leaned forward to answer. “My brother, Artorius, plans to meet the Saxons at Caer-Badonicus, a fortified hill in the south of Britain. We have left more than enough troops to guard the northern and western borders,” she added with a slight smile, “but Artorius will ride south with at least a thousand men under arms, or I very much misjudge Briton fighting strength. And there are many more already at Caer-Badonicus.”
“More than a thousand men-at-arms?” Bradaigh echoed, visibly startled.
“Artorius,” Morgana nodded, “is Dux Bellorum. Every king in Britain owes him allegiance, supporting my brother’s battle plans with their finest troops. The Romans may be gone from Britain, but Britons are still finely organized under Roman structures of command. The Saxons will soon learn this at great cost.”
Bradaigh tugged at his lower lip again. “And your request, cousin?” he asked Dallan mac Dalriada.
“Sword arms to increase the fighting strength of Dalriada. How many men can you send with me to drive these Saxons dogs into the sea and drown them?”
“By the son of Beli Mawr, I’ll raise a hundred men to send with you by tomorrow night’s tide, and fast ships to carry them. And I pledge upon my sacred honor,” he added, glancing into Morgana’s eyes, “no Irishman within fifty miles of Belfast will raise sword against any son of Britain nor raid British shores for plunder.”
“I am glad to hear it. Medraut has already sent word through Galwyddel that the Irish of Dalriada are now their kinsmen and must be accorded the respect rightfully due a king’s cousins.”
Bradaigh mac Art raised his goblet, finely wrought from silver, in a toast. “To the alliance then, Ireland and Britain joined by blood and friendship—and victory over our mutual enemy, the dogs of Saxony.”
The toast was drunk solemnly around the table.
Then Bradaigh mac Art called for runners to be sent out through the countryside, summoning every firstborn male householder to war. Brenna watched with a chill down her spine. It was now far too late to call back what she had set in motion. Then a rueful little smile twitched at her lips. It was, at the very least, a miracle of diplomacy. And a very good beginning.
* * *
A distant wail of rams’ horns sounded far below, the sound carrying through the grey dawn, in a vast ring surrounding Badon Hill. Stirling drained the last of his breakfast ale and tossed away his cup, drawing his sword and taking his place among the men of Gododdin, with Cadorius’ contingent on one flank and Melwas on the other.
“First rank, to your places!” he shouted, even as other Briton kings, princes, and high-ranking officers were bellowing instructions to their own men. Far below, another blast on the rams’ horns sent hundreds of men rushing forward, spears and pikes held at the ready. Stirling saw no archers at all. But there were javelins in plenty, causing him to duck back down as the first wave of lightweight, sharp-pointed missiles came whistling across the walls. Briton shields went up in a clattering wall of quarter-inch oak. Javelin points thwacked into them, some embedding themselves deeply, others glancing off and skipping across the heads of the defenders to clatter against the stone walls behind their first rank.
At Stirling’s shouted command, echoed up and down the Briton lines, a mass of iron-headed
Saxons and Britons came together at the edge of the outermost wall, with a shock of spears against shields and a roar of bellowing male voices. Men shouted foul curses and stabbed and jabbed with spearpoints, trying to pierce the overlapping walls of wooden shields on both sides of the thick stone barrier. When the second wave of Saxons hit the wall, driving back the defenders, trumpets sang out the retreat, sending Britons scrambling back toward the fourth wall. Even as the Saxons roared forward, Briton axemen were chopping through catapult ropes, sending gallons of sizzling-hot, melted fat soaring out over the walls. Liquid grease fell like rain across the Saxons’ front ranks. Men screamed, dropping shields and spears to claw at scalded faces, beards, clothing. The Britons turned and surged forward with an unholy shout, driving the staggering Saxons back across the outer wall and leaving bodies piled underfoot.
The Saxons, shaken, retreated down the hillslope, pausing in the shelter of their wooden palisades. Stirling could hear the shouts of their leaders, kings and their
“Send word to Cadorius and Melwas, they’re putting the
A glance back toward their own rear lines showed him the women busy tending Briton wounded, but there were far fewer than he’d expected after such a clash, which heartened him considerably and left Ancelotis jubilant. Then the signal horns called the charge again and the enemy’s front ranks pounded up the hill once more. Any serious worries Stirling had, that they faced Britons this time, evaporated when the defenders struck with even greater ferocity than before.
They drove the attacking
And the Britons of Caer-Badonicus waited patiently.
Then the lookout atop the high watchtower called out, “They’re shifting troops northward!”
Stirling raced up the ladder to see for himself what the Saxons were up to. They were shifting, all right, moving the bulk of their men to the spot where Briton defenses were weakest, along their northeastern flank. Stirling whistled sharply, fingers between his teeth, and caught Cadorius’ attention. Stirling waved to his left, held up five fingers and pointed to their reserves. Cadorius nodded, bellowing orders. The Briton reserves, some fifty men from the rear ranks of the Glastenning, Gododdin, and Dumnonia contingents, ran for the northeastern flank, forming up behind the front-line defenders, while catapults were winched around to face the third charge. When it came, they were ready, much to the Saxons’ consternation.
As the front lines came together again with a shock of weapons on shields, the second ranks leaped to the top of the fourth wall. Javelins and deadly
The Dumnonian reserves Stirling had dispatched reeled under sudden attack along their thinned ranks. Saxons poured across the outermost wall in a solid wave of spearpoints and oaken shields. Stirling skinned back down the ladder, shouting for the Gododdin center to pivot and strike the Saxons along their flank. For long, terrible minutes, all was confusion between the outermost and fourth walls. The lines swayed, crumpled, fell back to the third wall, while Saxons howled and leaped across the Briton dead. Then the catapults slapped with a crack like doom, and blazing oil, set alight before being hurled, fell in a fiery rain across the Saxons’ shields. Men screamed, their leather jerkins and quilted tunics set ablaze by the flaming grease.
The contingent from Gododdin let fly a rain of arrows, like shooting pigs in a barrel. The Saxons stumbled, the momentum of their charge broken. Briton defenders poured in from both flanks, catching the Saxons along their vulnerable sides, trapping most of them between the third and fifth walls. And when the Britons drew swords and began to hack and hew at legs, arms, necks, unarmored heads, anything within reach of their deadly British blades, the Saxons fell back in total disarray, unable to match the Britons with the smaller daggers they carried—if they carried any blade at all. Most did not. Spears broken, shields afire and cast down in terror, the Saxons broke and ran. Or died under Briton blades. What remained was ground into bloody paste in the mud.
Stirling thrust and hacked at the retreating Saxons right alongside his Gododdin warriors, shouting encouragement. When the last of the survivors had fled down the hill, Stirling leaned against the third wall, gasping for breath, and scrubbed filth from his face with the back of one hand. His fingers trembled as the adrenaline rush wore off, leaving him shaking with exhaustion. Grim-faced soldiers were stripping the Saxon dead of weapons, tossing the bodies over the walls to roll them after their luckier companions downhill. Wounded Britons limped for the aid stations back amongst the women, where a glance showed Covianna Nim directing a whole host of nurses to tend the injured.
Cadorius limped his way, as spattered with gore and filth as Stirling.
“God be praised,” the king of Dumnonia gasped, “I thank the Almighty you were in position to sound that warning. I didn’t see their shift in time to respond.”
“The Dumnonian lines held,” Stirling insisted, cleaning his sword on the tunic of a dead Saxon. “Gododdin only gave them the breather they needed to regroup and hold fast, which they did. With more bravery than I’ve ever seen in battle, and that is no lie.”
Cadorius smiled wearily. “Then let us agree to praise one another’s men to the skies and be grateful that we’ve men left alive to praise.”
“Agreed,” Stirling said, offering his hand.
Cadorius clasped his forearm, then hugged him with a rougher embrace. “Come, let us see to our wounded while yon bastards try to talk their men into making another try at us!”
The Saxons gave them a respite of two hours, which they all needed, then charged the walls from the southwestern flank this time. Britons scrambled to strengthen the defenses, only to snarl curses as Saxon slingers hurled live coals onto wooden roof shingles and thatched barracks inside the hill fort. Smoke and flames blazed up from a dozen spots while soldiers dodged the children who scrambled with pails of water to douse the flames. Confusion engulfed the whole compound while the Saxon charge shattered the southwestern shield wall and poured into the hill fort itself. Stirling found himself in a desperate hand-to-hand fight for his life, slashing and stabbing with his sword, shouting orders through the chaos, trying to regroup his men in a wedge formation.
“Rally to me!” he shouted, “Rally to me! For Artorius and Britain!”
A rumbling thunder drove through the confusion. Stirling could spare no time even to glance around to see what it might be. An instant later, a mass of cavalry smashed into the Saxon lines,
Stirling waited to be certain the Saxons were, in fact, being driven back before turning his attention to the fires blazing up from the compound. Livestock bellowed and tried to break out of burning pens. Women and children hurled buckets of water onto the flames, while soldiers used axes to cut supports out from under burning roofs, toppling the structures before the flames could spread. By the time the last fires had been doused, they’d lost two months’ worth of supplies, most of the grain for the horses, and shelters for nearly a third of their civilians. Cadorius, cursing under his breath, stalked through the camp shouting orders for temporary shelters to be rigged for the women and children, while Stirling and Melwas ordered the butchering and dressing of the livestock that had perished before the flames could be doused.
As the sun dropped behind the distant Mendip Hills, a single rider rode up from the Saxons’ main encampment, under another flag of truce. Cadorius and Ancelotis waited in terse silence while Melwas ordered the civilians back, out of sight. The courier was not Creoda this time, but Cutha. His arrogant face wore a smug expression as he reined around beside the outermost wall, trying to survey the destruction within.
“Ancelotis, I see you have tasted the beginning of my vengeance!” he shouted across the walls.
Ancelotis didn’t even bother to answer.
“I come bearing a message from my father, king of Sussex. Pay heed, for we will not repeat ourselves and we will offer you mercy only once. Surrender Caer-Badonicus to us and we will allow your women and children to leave the fortress in safety. Defy us and we will deliver to them the same mercy I showed the whores of Penrith!”
Melwas, striding up to join them, clenched both fists and started forward with a snarl of hatred. Cadorius grabbed his arm and slung the younger king to a forcible halt. “No. Let the jackal speak.”
Cutha smirked at them from across the five walls. “Give this jackal your decision, old man.”
Cadorius stared levelly into the Saxon’s eyes. “I will answer the puppy of Sussex when it suits me. Return here in a quarter hour and I will give you an answer.”
Cutha’s lips twitched and he lifted fingertips in a mocking salute. “By all means, confer with your brother kings.”
He set spurs to his horse’s flanks and the animal leaped away, tossing its head unhappily at the steep descent. Cadorius turned a brooding gaze toward Ancelotis. “We have lost much that we needed to hold out.”
“Artorius will come. He cannot be far away, now. Tell Cutha when he returns that you must persuade others to surrender, as the safety of the women and children is your greatest personal desire.”
Cadorius’ eyes flashed. “Surrender is the furthest thought from my mind, Ancelotis!”
“And from mine. But two can play the game of lies that Cutha delights in so greatly. Unless I am very much mistaken, we can strike them a blow at dawn they’ll not soon forget.”
Cadorius frowned, clearly unhappy, but nodded. “Very well. After these past few days, I trust your judgement and cunning implicitly.”
When Cutha returned, Cadorius called his answer across. “It is in my mind to accept your offer of clemency, Saxon, but my brother kings need more persuasion. Grant me the night to confer with them and I will give you our combined answer with the dawn. But look you, I will not give such a reply to mere princelings and go-betweens. If Aelle of Sussex wants to hear terms of surrender, he must come to these walls and take them in his own person.”
Cutha’s smirk was a mortal insult. “Of course. My father, King of the Saxons, will greet you at dawn. Take very great care that you do not disappoint him.” He put spurs to his horse’s flanks and galloped recklessly down the steep hillside once more. Melwas sent an obscene gesture after him, then spat out, “Terms of surrender?”
Cadorius smiled tightly. “You will please note that I carefully did not say
A bark of laughter broke from the younger king. “Very well. Let us go and discuss how to force the Saxons to their knees.”
Ancelotis and the other kings made the rounds of the hill fort, making sure the wounded were being properly succored, seeing to it the children and women were fed, overseeing the repairs to structures only damaged while work crews labored to clear the charred wreckage of destroyed structures out of the way, should rapid troop movements be required again. They had just retired to the assembly hall for discussion of the Saxons’ ultimatum when the lookout in the tower high overhead gave a shout and came skinning down the ladder, bursting a moment later into the room.
“Come quick!” he gasped, snatching at Ancelotis’ arm. “A signal light!”
Ancelotis raced outside, climbing the ladder in haste. The lookout shinnied up behind him and pointed to the northwest, where a light blazed in the darkness atop the highest of the Mendip Hills. The light flickered in a definite pattern. Ancelotis counted flashes, translating numbers in his head.
“Artorius is camped at the edge of the Salisbury Plain,” he said tersely. “He plans a charge at the Saxons’ northeastern flank at dawn. Besides infantry numbering five hundred, he’s brought more than a thousand heavy cavalry. Fetch me a lamp, quickly.”
The sentry vanished into the darkness, returning a few moments later with a lit oil lamp. Stirling shielded the light with the edge of his cloak while his host took a moment to compose his reply, then used a corner of the woolen cloak to occlude the lamp in his own coded series of numerical flashes.
“Dawn charge acknowledged. Saxon command halfway to summit, southeast flank. Greatest force to southeast, two thousand strong. They are without supplies and grow evil-tempered. Aelle demands surrender by dawn. Signal your departure, we will coordinate surprise attack.”
The light flashed back from Mendip’s heights. “Message acknowledged. We ride at dawn.”
When Stirling turned, he found Cadorius perched on the top rung of the ladder, peering northward, his cloak whipping like a maddened snake in the rising wind.
“What is it?” Cadorius asked tersely.
Ancelotis pointed. “Artorius’ signal, in code. He camps at the edge of Salisbury Plain and will charge the Saxon flank at first light.”
“That’s the best news I’ve had in days.”
Ancelotis chuckled, albeit a trifle grimly. “Indeed. Come, we still have much to prepare. And I, for one, could do with a hot meal and a cup of ale to wash it down with, if anything fit to eat survived the fire.”
Cadorius smiled wanly in the starlight. “A keg or two, at any rate.”
They downed hot stew while issuing orders for a double watch through the night, to prevent the Saxons from copying their own night-sortie tactics. “We’ll need to bunch them up, in the morning,” Stirling said around a mouthful of boiled beef, “which shouldn’t be too difficult, under the circumstances. I’m willing to bet Cerdic and Creoda, not to mention Cutha, will insist on being present for the surrender. And they’ll bring a fair number of their ranking
Melwas snorted. “Aelle doesn’t travel
“Which works to our advantage,” Cadorius nodded. “At one blow, we can cripple their entire leadership.”
“Precisely. Covianna—” Ancelotis glanced across to where the master healer sat at the edge of their council. “How goes it with our wounded?”
She answered gravely, “Not so badly as I had feared. Some two score and ten have suffered serious wounds that may yet prove fatal. We’ve had to take shattered arms and legs in a few cases, but no more than eighteen have been so maimed, to my knowledge.” She bit one lip. “The worst is perhaps three dozen men with the onion sickness, for whom I can do nothing. No healer in Britain could save them.”
Onion sickness? Stirling frowned. What the deuce is that?
Ancelotis answered grimly, The women feed onion soup to men with gut wounds. If the scent of onion comes out the open wound, the bowel has been penetrated. Such men will die sometime within the next two to three days. In the old days, victims with the onion sickness were given merciful release with a knife at the throat. Since the coming of Christ, such mercy is called murder, so the poor wretches die slowly. Their sole comfort is the hope of heaven, rather than hell. The women dose them liberally with alcohol and herbs, to keep them as comfortable as possible while they wait for death.
Stirling winced inwardly. In the twenty-first century, even a fourth-year medical student knew enough surgical procedures to save such men. In the sixth century, however… “Thank you, Covianna. I’m sure you will do whatever you can to ease their last hours.”
She bowed her head in silent assent.
Cadorius said, “We’ve lost some hundred more, killed at the walls. Our fighting strength is down to slightly more than five hundred men-at-arms. How fared your archers, Ancelotis?”
“Very well, indeed. I lost one archer in the night operation and two more at the walls during that last charge. That leaves three score and nine remaining. More than enough to gift the Saxon commanders with our barbed reply.”
Grim smiles ran through the council chamber.
“In that case,” Cadorius grunted, rising to his feet, “the best thing we can do for our troops and ourselves is get a fair night’s sleep. Even with Artorius on the horizon and the tricks we’ve prepared for the bastards, tomorrow will not be an easy day.”
Of that, Stirling was absolutely certain.