Three Horses In the Mist
Those must have been terrible times. No one knew if the Legions would ever be back, or when. In the meantime, Britain was unprotected. The raiders didn't need long to learn how used we had become to relying on others to defend us. Since my grandfather was one of the few men who remained who had practical experience of fighting, and was not too ancient to make use of it, he was put in charge of the local defenses.
It soon became obvious towns and large villas drew raiders the way honey draws flies. When they abandoned the town to rebuild one of the hill forts that had protected the local tribes before the Legions came, my grandfather found himself the leader of a local kinglet's war band. In due course, my father wed one of the kinglet's daughters. When my grandfather became too grizzled and slow to lead a charge, my father assumed his duties.
I was my mother's youngest child; she died giving birth to me. As soon as I was old enough to do without a wet nurse, I grew up among the warriors. Even when he could no longer keep up in the heat of battle, my grandfather still made an impressive figure. I saw him once, in the burnished armor he wore while he still served Rome, and the scarlet tunic he insisted was the only proper clothing to wear beneath it.
He looked much more deadly than many of the careless fellows my father led, with their boiled leather and bits and pieces of metal. His sword might have been shorter then most of theirs, but he held it ready to use. He died soon after that; the effort to aid my father during a perilous winter, proved too much for him and wore him out. Several of my brothers died fighting off raiders before I was even old enough to know them.
More of my brothers died in the awful fighting that followed the disaster at the end of Uther's reign. My father had taught me to fight, but he decided I should learn more than swordplay, so once Arthur was confirmed as our new Rigotamos, our High King (he would not use the old, hateful phrase!), he sent me off for a few years to the Abbey at Yns Witrin, to learn to read and write and whatever else they might be able to teach me.
Those Britons who survived Uther's dreadful blunder were just beginning to feel hope again. Arthur seemed able to defeat our foes, perhaps not every time, but often enough to hold them at bay. When he approached the Abbey one day, I found some excuse to linger in the courtyard so I might glimpse him. He came riding in with a few of his men, and spoke quietly to the monk on duty. I couldn't hear what he said, but whatever it was sent that plump little man scurrying off to fetch the Abbott in a hurry.
The Abbott came at once, and raised his voice as he hurried across the muddy ground. "Bless you, my son! Surely there has been some misunderstanding. All we have here is dedicated to the Christ. Yet the good brother here said you spoke of levying a fee against our holdings?"
Arthur dismounted, and stood before the Abbott. Both men eyed each other cautiously. "That is so, Father Abbott. My men and I must tax the lands we protect, that we might have the means to continue fighting to keep them safe."
"But, my son, if you consider yourself a follower of the Christ, how can you then tax what is His?"
"Don't you recall, Father Abbott, that once the Lord Jesus ordered his followers to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's?"
The Abbott spoke patiently. "Those things that are Caesar's, yes, of course. But you see, my son, our lands belong to the Christ, not to Caesar."
"So the Lord Jesus protects you Himself, then?"
"I don't understand, my son."
"He keeps you safe by His own hand, then?"
"Of course, my son. How could it be otherwise?"
Arthur actually smiled. "Thank you, Father Abbott. It is a great relief to me to know that. In that case, I may hoard my strength if the raiders approach you. Once they have been dealt with, no doubt those that remain will turn tail and run at first sight of my men."
The Abbott looked as if he'd bitten into something sour. "Do not be so hasty, my son! The Christ often relies upon the services of those who are His followers."
"Father Abbott, I would hardly presume to interfere in lands you have assured me the Lord Jesus Himself watches over. He might think I mistrusted His own strength."
"But, my son, if you did not come to our aid we should be overrun!"
Arthur spoke very firmly. "Well, then, Father Abbott, if you must seek my protection, you must also contribute your share to make such protection possible. God Himself ordered the oxen that tread the grain should not be muzzled."
The Abbott opened his mouth, then shut it again. I have never been sure if so many churchmen disliked Arthur because he granted them so few privileges, or because he could outargue them at need. I watched, my heart filling with hope, as sack after sack, barrel after barrel, and even a few precious amphorae, were loaded into a cart which departed with Arthur's men as escort. If he could win such a battle, so easily, perhaps he did have the wit to save Britain from the pit his sire had dug.
As Arthur's victories and his fame grew, I was eager to serve him, but my father needed me by his side. The old king had died, all his sons long fallen in battle, and by ancient British custom, the principal men met to select a new king. My father was chosen, as a son by marriage, and by that time I was his only surviving child. Those were good years, with peace gradually becoming the rule and not the exception, a little prosperity, such as the ancients said had existed when Rome ruled, and men so full of hope they began to make plans for the future.
My father was much older, of course, and in due time he died, and I was chosen to succeed him without much fuss. Arthur was my guest more than once, I sent men to fight beside him, and I never complained at his levies. Still, I never managed to find the opportunity to fight beside him. When he at last decided he must do something about the situation in Gaul, I thought at first I might join the host he was assembling.
In the end, though, I fell ill and was unable to go when everyone else was ready. It was a bitter blow, but I comforted myself with the thought that when he returned, I would surely have my chance. We all waited for word, and for a time all the news was good. Then, no word for weeks, and when word came, it was in hushed whispers. There had been a defeat. No, Arthur had been betrayed. No man could agree on what had happened.
Some accounts said he fell in Gaul, others that he hastened back with an army weakened by battling across Gaul, desperate to put down a rebellion by his son Mordred. When reminded Mordred had accompanied his father to Gaul, they claimed he had slipped away to foment trouble in his father's absence. Many refused to believe Arthur himself was dead. His army was defeated, yes, and he was wounded, but he was being well tended and would return as soon as he healed.
Well, of course none of us could bear to admit he was gone. He was our last hope. When we finally understood Arthur was dead, or if he was only wounded, so badly hurt we were once again leaderless, all our hope collapsed in an instant. Those were terrible times, much like I imagine the days just after the Legions sailed away must have been. No man sure what was true, or what he could expect, and no man felt safe.
I determined that, in case Arthur did manage to return, I would do all I could to keep my little portion of the Island of the Mighty ready to come to his aid. I laid in stores, I trained my men until they cursed me, and I led patrols to put down trouble before it grew too large to handle. I was so busy I hardly had time to think, but perhaps that was a good thing. As I said, that was a dreadful time. Keeping busy gave me something to take my mind off the gradual withering of any hope I still had.
The various tales first reached our ears in the late autumn. It was late the following winter when I felt safe enough to leave the mountains and show the more settled parts of Britain some of us still fought on. We were welcome nearly everywhere we went, except for those places already black and cold from the raider's torch. One day, we drew near to the lands the cursed Saxons had kept for themselves, even under Arthur.
We were all very much on our guard. When one of my men rode up to tell me he thought perhaps we were being followed, I quietly passed the order for every man to stop and take what cover he could. Soon enough, three horses began to take shape out of the mist that cloaked the downs. We sprang out and halted them.
Their leader called out a challenge of his own. "Who are you, then? Who dares to interfere with the son of Arthur?"
The voice was not Mordred's, but I strode forward anyway, to inspect the man who made such a bold claim. When I got a good look at him, I knew who he was. "Cerdic!"
"Yes, Cerdic. Arthur's other son, the one who has never caused any trouble. By what right do you lay hold of me and my companions in such fashion?"
"Ah, my lord, I had not expected to see you. I have been hunting any who might seek to take advantage of our present troubles. When we noticed we were followed..." I trailed off.
Cerdic had Arthur's presence and intelligence. Indeed, it seemed to me if so many Britons had not found him unacceptable because of his Saxon taint, he might have made a far better staff for his father to lean upon than Mordred had proved to be.
He looked at me sharply, then relaxed. "You thought us nothing but scouts for a raiding party, then? It is a good jest, I suppose." If he did not sound entirely amused, he no longer seemed affronted, either.
"Would you care to ride with us a while, my lord?"
"Thank you, but my business is urgent. You may hear from me in the future, but I must see to this matter at once."
"I understand, my lord." God help me, I even felt some stirring of hope, that one of Arthur's sons was alive and taking action.
With a few more courteous words, I let him ride away. And, in so doing, I sealed the ruin of Britain. I could not have known, of course. No one knew, until the word spread, that Arthur's son, the one he got upon a noble Saxon woman, had become King of the West Saxons. Many Britons would not accept him, so we never thought the Saxons might feel differently. No one had ever considered this.
But how could we fight him? For some of us, the very thought of opposing the man who was all that remained of the greatest hero ever to spring from the Island of the Mighty was more than we could bear. For the rest, who hated him for his Saxon blood, knowing he was nearly the man his father had been made them too fearful to oppose him. Men stopped speaking of him as Arthur's son, of course. But they couldn't forget who he was, not that quickly.
For my own part, I believe Cerdic understood from our meeting that I bore him no ill will. Not long after our encounter, he sent me a letter. He assured me he loved his father, and would not willingly destroy what he had built. But he explained he saw no other way, that only by gaining the support of the Saxons could he bring any peace or order to Britain. He has never sought to raid my lands, and he has even sent messengers to me with gifts. I could not hold out against him if he came, so I felt no shame in sending gifts of my own.
I wonder, sometimes, if Cerdic was right. Perhaps his was the only way to salvage anything from the ruin that Britain had already become. But mine was the hand that dealt the final, fatal blow, and I wonder sometimes, what would Arthur think? Would he hate me for bringing to ruin all that he accomplished, or would he understand, and be secretly pleased that a son of his still ruled over much of Britain?
Author's Afterword: I am sure some of my readers still believe Arthur was no more than a legendary figure. Yet, to my mind, the arguments Geoffrey Ashe puts forth in The Discovery of Arthur are extremely convincing. I am satisfied he has finally succeeded in identifying the historical Arthur. This story is my own interpretation of that period in Britain's history, based upon the points that Geoffrey Ashe has uncovered, and my own efforts to reconcile those with the legends. To me, this is perhaps the most fascinating period in history.