Soon enough, Arthur found a number of young Lords who became interested in joining the RDF. It often turned out to be the second and third sons, as Gerraint had originally suggested, and they came with their own horses and some equipment. That was a great help to the treasury, even if they had to be fed. Gerraint also pointed out, “if one of these should prove themselves worthy of admission to the Round Table, granting them the title “Sir” should cause less consternation among the Lords than granting title to a bunch of commoners.” Arthur nodded, but he clearly did not feel too concerned about that.
Arthur had plenty of lances made, though not nearly as long and heavy as they would be in the centuries to come. This time he had the hand-guard built right into the lance and put no barbs on the point. The straight point would be something that could put a hole in an enemy, be pulled out with a relaxed hand, a twist and a yank, and used again on the next enemy. He also had armor made, strong chain on leather, and helmets all modeled after his memory of the armor and helmet of the Kairos. Gerraint imagined it as the first military uniform in history, but deep inside he knew it wasn’t.
All of the Lords and their squires came to Caerleon now and then. Pelenor thought it would make things easier when Arthur got old enough to take what he started calling the grand tour of the land. The squires, of course, went straight for the lances and the practice grounds, and this time their lords were not slow to join them. Arthur began to think that these men would form the backbone of his army, and he was not wrong. Indeed, heavy cavalry would rule the battlefield until the invention of gunpowder. But Ederyn always reminded Arthur that in war, the footmen would still be the vast majority of his soldiers—and the enemy soldiers, too. There were not enough horses for everybody, and even if they had the horses, most men did not know how to ride.
In the spring of 497, Storyteller’s estimate, Arthur turned nineteen and got ready to be certified for claustrophobia if he didn’t get out in the countryside for some fresh air. Gerraint, now eighteen, sat at the chessboard across the table and concentrated, because he thought he might be winning. Pelenor and Peredur sat at the other end of the long table quietly catching up over a bit of beef and a tankard of ale. Meryddin also sat quietly, mumbling to himself now and then, and staring out a window in the Great Hall. He had been saying for some time that they had trouble in the East, and it appeared to be pointed north, but he could not pinpoint it exactly. No one else presently disturbed the tranquility of the moment until Percival burst in the doors and yelled, his sixteen-year-old voice still cracking on the high notes.
“The Saxons are coming out of Essex. They have their eyes on York and on cutting off the whole coast.” Everyone jumped and said “What?” except Meryddin who said something like “I knew it,” and Arthur who said something completely different.
“Salvation!” He threw the chess board up in the air and scattered the pieces everywhere, mostly because he was losing. Ederyn arrived a moment later to explain.
That very evening, Arthur sent out the call. The Lords prevailed on him this time to allow a whole three months for the force to gather. Arthur was willing, but only because he had two hundred fully trained men in the RDF, and another hundred in various stages of the training program. True, most of the trained men were home, working their farms, or in the towns and cities, but they were sworn to be in Caerleon within a week once the call went out.
In truth, it took three weeks to gather and supply the two hundred, but that still felt remarkable, considering. After another week, they were in a position to harass and slow the enemy, and that happened a full two months before the rest of the army was due to gather. When Arthur finally arrived with the army, now four whole months gone by, because it took an extra month just to get across the width of Britain, Captain Croydon had a most interesting report.
“We arrived in time to drive a raiding party from one village, only to find they were spread all over the countryside, looting and burning villages, towns and farms as they went. They were not much of an army. More like a loose collection of Saxon raiders. We set patrols and a strategy of picking off the small groups one by one. Soon enough, they began to run on sight of us, and like cattle, we were able to herd them together. They united at last under the banner of a man named Bearclaw, a Saxon with a nasty disposition, and they are bunched up along the banks of the Glen River, here.” He pointed to the crude map his men made of the area. “Since that time, for the past month, or almost six weeks, they have been arguing. Any small groups sent out to get food and supplies have been dealt with, but for the last few weeks they haven’t even dared to do that. They seem stuck, living off weeds and river fish, I guess, and the occasional horse meat which won’t do their cavalry any good.”
“Casualties?” Arthur asked.
“We lost two-dozen, very fine and very brave men. Another dozen are out of action, being wounded, but we hope they may recover.”
“We must visit them,” Percival said to Arthur, but he looked at Gerraint, and wondered if there might be anything he could do, like let Greta the healer help.
“Before that,” Gerraint spoke up to avoid Percival’s eyes. “What news of York?”
Captain Croyden had prepared for the question. “We have a squad of men, in rotation, that have kept a close watch on the fort there. So far, Colgrin the Jute has made no move to link up with Bearclaw. He is pledged to you, so he may be loyal, but then he has made no move to stop Bearclaw either.”
“He has a good and large contingent of soldiers there watching the Norwegian shore, but he doesn’t have nearly enough to face down an army,” Pelenor said. “Maybe he felt it best to watch the Danes and deal with Bearclaw if he had to from behind his stout walls.”
“Maybe.” Arthur studied the map. “Too bad we have no way into the Saxon camp and no way of knowing what has them bogged down for a month.” He also looked at Gerraint, but it was only a glance before he turned back to the map with a shake of his head.
Arthur made his camp on top of a rise where he could look down on the Saxons and the river. He had seventeen hundred men, which proved better than during the rebellion, but still not near the estimated potential. The Saxons and Angles combined, even after their losses over two months, had closer to three thousand. “As Melwas says, it is a challenge.” Arthur spoke long with Meryddin, and for the first time, Gerraint heard them arguing. He thought it a good sign that Arthur started gaining his own mind, but he supposed that depended on what the argument was about.
Gerraint felt tempted to get off his seat, enter the tent and interrupt, but he got distracted by the approach of Melwas. Melwas became the chief of Lyoness, now that his father had passed away. He came prepared for this war with fifty good men who he said were all volunteers. Gerraint’s stepfather, by contrast, sent twenty under a grizzled old sergeant who had taken the Christian name of Paul. It seemed a pittance, a token compared to what Cornwall could provide, but Gerraint satisfied himself by saying at least it was not nothing.
“Can I talk to you?” Melwas looked uncomfortable. Gerraint felt tempted to say something outlandish, something very Festuscato to lighten the moment, but he knew this would be serious.
“Of course,” he said. “What about?”
“It is about your sister.” Gerraint just listened. Melwas took a moment to come out with it. “She will be sixteen shortly,” he said. “Your mother said I needed to talk to you, and not just her and Lord Marcus, you being her only sibling and all.”
Gerraint knew where this was going, but he needed to hear it out loud.
“You know, sixteen is considered an acceptable age to marry.” Gerraint frowned ever so slightly, but Melwas felt sensitive. “What?”
“A man is considered fully grown when he turns twenty-one. You are what, Twenty-five?”
Gerraint nodded. “A woman, on the other hand, is considered mature when she turns eighteen.”
“So, you are asking me because I am eighteen? Do I look like a woman to you?” Gerraint stood six feet tall, more than big in a five-and-a-half-foot world.
“No,” Melwas admitted. “But your mother seemed unwilling to make a decision.”
“Cordella is her baby. Mothers cling to their babies.” Gerraint stopped talking and waited, but Melwas did not appear to have anything to add. “My opinion, but mother and Marcus have to decide, but my opinion is she should wait until she is eighteen. She will hate me for saying that, but you are a mature man. She should be fully grown as well. Just my opinion.”
Melwas nodded slowly. “I can understand your thinking.”
“Good,” Gerraint said and grabbed the man’s arm gently. “Maybe you can explain it to me. Oh, and just one more thing.”
Melwas smiled a little. “Yes?”
“Tell me, does marrying my sister count as an act of valor or an act of charity or both?”
Melwas’ smile got big just before Meryddin came stomping out of the tent and tromped off to be lost among all the tents. He looked red angry. Arthur followed with a word.
“I told him I was leading the charge and nothing he could say would talk me out of it.”
Gerraint shaded his eyes against the sun as he looked up. “So, we are charging?”