The twenty approaching riders slowed on sight of the campfire. They let their horses walk forward while everyone stayed hidden. The man out front turned twice in the road before he made his pronouncement. “They have ridden on, back toward Caerleon.” The enemy might have ridden on as well, but a squirrel startled a horse hidden in the woods and it neighed.
“Now.” Pelenor shouted and fired his first arrow. Five arrows followed. Three missed, and the other two wounded two men, one in the arm and one in the leg. Pelenor prepared to fire again when a half-dozen arrows came out of the trees beyond the camp. Whoever those men were, they were dead shots. Arthur’s crew got off one more arrow in the time the strangers fired three. When Bedwyr and his four men came charging back, swords drawn, war cries flying, they saw a few survivors riding away as fast as they could.
Six men, all dressed as hunters came from the trees and bowed to Arthur before they approached Gerraint. They all wore the lion beneath their cloaks so the older men understood.
“Lord.” The chief hunter bowed low. “We do not forget.”
“Thank you, Pinewood,” Gerraint named him, just before the thunder took all of their attention.
“Arthur!” They all heard the voice.
“Meryddin?” Arthur looked up and all around, but of course Meryddin was not there.
“I see a hundred enemies bearing down on you. You must flee,” Meryddin’s voice said.
“Get the horses,” Pelenor shouted. “Put out the fire.”
People jumped, but while they finished packing, Gerraint got to ask.
“Meryddin can sometimes see things and speak at a great distance,” Arthur explained.
“And hear?” Gerraint did not really ask.
“And he can make people see and hear things that are not really there,” Arthur finished.
When they were ready, Bedwyr volunteered to stay behind with his men to delay the enemy.
“No, Lord,” Pinewood interrupted. “We have our bows and plenty of arrows. We might not delay them much, but we should be able to slow them down.”
Arthur looked at Gerraint and Gerraint nodded. “Lord Bedwyr, you need to ride with us.” Arthur sounded decisive.
“Your duty is to protect the Pendragon and see him safely back to Caerleon,” Gerraint suggested.
“Well said,” Peredur smiled at the squires, and Bedwyr made no objection
They rode hard, back the way they came the day before, and Gerraint had time to wonder who Meryddin was to have such special powers. They rode all morning and into the afternoon, this time without stopping for a leisurely lunch, and they spotted the hundred, which Gerraint thought looked more like two hundred, when they came to the open fields outside the town. The great gate looked open in the small city wall, and they passed through untouched. The watchmen shut the gate as soon as they were safe, and then they all went up to the top of the short stone and wood wall to look down on the enemy.
They saw a number of soldiers from the fort alongside the watchmen. Just in case, they said. Meryddin also stood there. He grabbed Arthur and dragged him off to the fort, and did not stay to see the hundred turn and ride back out of sight.
“They have decided not to test the walls,” Ederyn said.
Pelenor looked up and down the well manned wall. “Smart move,” he said.
In the evening, several scribes sent by Dubricius penned letters to call up the fighting men for war. Peredur pointed out that it would not do to send a call to arms to a chief who might be in rebellion, “Like a call to fight against himself,” he said, and the others saw the wisdom in that. So, while they worked on a list of men they knew were faithful, Arthur and Gerraint sat around the chessboard.
“How long before we can move to meet the enemy?” Arthur asked.
Pelenor looked up and spoke with a straight face. “Maybe six months.”
“He didn’t even blink saying that.” Gerraint dropped his head to the table and banged his free hand several times.
“I suppose we could push it to three months, but we don’t want to go without the full complement of men and prepared,” Pelenor said more thoughtfully.
“Thirty days,” Arthur suggested.
“Your move.” Percival tapped Gerraint on the shoulder.
They finally decided sixty days, because the rebels were already gathering, and had been for some time. The older men insisted any less would be impossible. It would not give them time enough to gather the food to feed an army, or make the spears necessary for those who might come unprepared. Meryddin argued on the side of the boys. He said the way this game got played, often it was the first to gather the semblance of an army who won, and sometimes without ever getting to the battle. He strained his far sight to try and discern what the enemy might be doing. He also sent out Druids to spy and report back. They were the ones who identified eleven Lords who made a pact, though really there were only ten that were certain because Kai kept trying hard to convince Loth to stay out of it.
“Mostly Welsh,” one man reported over supper in the Great Hall. “Mostly Lords still committed to the old ways.” He probably should not have said that part.
Meryddin held back his anger with the words, “This is not the time for that.” But Arthur could tell Meryddin was not happy. When he mentioned it, Gerraint wondered when might be the right time for the old ways.
Arthur, Gerraint and Percival spent those months drawing up rules for the round table and the RDF, which is what they were calling the rapid deployment force. Gerraint told the others how the rapid cavalry of the Franks, Visigoths and Vandals, and especially the Huns ran right over and destroyed the great Roman legions. “The day of the foot soldiers would never end, but it would never be the same as it was,” he said. “Horses are the thing, and lances.” With that in mind, they drew up plans for battle, that is, if the Lords of the Pendragon and the rebels should ever happen to meet in battle.
“But the Lords and old men will want to control the order of battle,” Percival groused.
“Not if we move before they are ready,” Arthur said. He had a plan for that.
They visited Bishop Dubricius on Sunday, and in fact made it a regular habit. Percival said they ought to always go to church. Arthur wanted the excuse to get away from Meryddin for a time. Gerraint was willing, but sort of in the middle on the issue.
One day, Percival went dressed in his new tunic, white with a big, red cross painted on the front. Arthur said it looked silly. Gerraint said Percival was making himself into a target for archery practice, and he poked the boy with his finger where the cross met. Percival showed some steam.
“I am a Christian and so is my mother and my father,” he squeaked. Peredur stood right there and he put his arm around his boy. He and Ederyn often went to church with the boys, and even Pelenor went, sometimes.
The Bishop took that moment to walk up and offered his insight. “Arthur. I’ve been thinking about this round table club of yours and I understand one of the key ingredients is to make sure everybody is on the same page.” All three boys nodded. “Well, I think you need to decide if the club is going to be Christian and support the ideals of grace, charity, and mercy and defend the poor, the weak and the needy, or if the club is going to be pagan. You know very well that those two ideas do not get along.”
“Christian,” Percival said quickly. Gerraint held his tongue and deliberately did not look at Arthur so as not to influence anything. Besides, he got busy trying to imagine what a pagan and Druid round table might be like, and he did not like what he imagined.
“Christian,” Arthur said, and Gerraint never asked about that decision.
Gerraint had the carpenters build a protective, hand cup toward the end of the longest spears he could find. He had gloves made in boy’s sizes so they could grip the spears tight, under their arms. He dared not invent Velcro, but he thought real hard about stirrups.
When the Lords began to arrive, Arthur grabbed the squires for some rapid training. Soon, there were as many as fifty young men racing around the huge open court of the fort, the place where a whole legion of Romans used to gather in ordered ranks before moving out. The boys brandished their makeshift lances and struck at the targets Arthur had set up, mostly at man-eye level. There were any number of near misses in those weeks, but fortunately, none of the actual men walking around got skewered. Most of the men just sat back and watched the game and laughed. By the end of that time, some were taking bets on which of the boys would hit the target and which would miss.