“Father? We have company?” two young women came tumbling out of the tower door. They were followed by three older women who Gerraint imagined in the future would be called ladies in waiting. Gerraint also imagined that one of those ladies had been waiting a long time.
“Gwynyvar, come give your old father a kiss.” She did, but her eyes never left Arthur. “And Gwenhwyfach, my baby.” She also offered a kiss on her father’s cheek, but her eyes were eating Loth, a man twice her age, and Loth did not seem to mind. Gerraint thought it must be Loth’s long, straggly blond hair. He did have a bit of a Saxon look about him.
“Are you going to introduce us?” Gwynyvar asked.
“My daughters, Gwynyvar and Gwenhwyfach” Leodegan said. “Meryddin you know.”
Both girls nodded their heads but lost their smiles.
“These others are Lord Bassmas, leader of the men newly arrived, Lord Goreu, Lord Lot, and, I beg your pardon,”
“Cecil.” Unfortunately for Kai, Meryddin remembered.
“Lord Bassmas.” Gwynyvar clearly liked his look but did not sound thrilled with his name.
“Lord Lot?” Gwenhwyfach tried to mirror her sister, but Leodegan caught it.
“Gwenhwyfach is the younger. She is sixteen. Gwynyvar is my eldest, full grown at eighteen and at the center of this trouble.”
“I cannot imagine her at the center of any trouble,” Arthur said, and watched Gwynyvar turn red. “But do tell the story so that we may know what we are willing to die for.”
Leodegan nodded and waved for everyone to sit. Of course, he did not mean the girls who stood at the two sides of Leodegan’s chair, and the ladies who stood a step back. Meryddin pushed in front of Arthur. Gerraint let Loth and Kai in front of him, which put Loth next to the druid. Gerraint sat on the end and faced Arthur.
“It was about fifteen years ago.”
“Fourteen years, father.” Gwynyvar whispered loudly, like her father might be going deaf. “Five years after Uther died.”
“Ah yes. It was fourteen years ago King Rience sent an invitation to visit him at Tara, in Ireland. He invited all of the Welsh lords from the coast, and I, and two others accepted. He mentioned the Irish pirates and wanting to put a stop to them and instead build good relations with what he called his cousins across the sea. I remember Gwynyvar turned four or so. Gwenhwyfach was definitely two and kept her mother busy. Her mother was alive in those days, before the flu took her… I remember Rience was very taken with Gwynyvar who he called beautiful as a fairy queen.”
Arthur nodded, and Gwynyvar saw and looked away before she turned red again.
Leodegan continued. “Thinking on it, I don’t know what his real plan was, but he seemed to hit on a plan that involved getting me stinking drunk. He talked about marrying his young son Marat and my daughter Gwynyvar when they came of age. I thought he was joking. I was passing out drunk. But now that Gwynyvar has turned eighteen, Rience has come to collect. It started with letters, you know. He cannot have my daughter.”
“I agree,” Arthur said. “A cause worth dying for, but one better to live for.” Gwynyvar looked at Arthur and had a different look in her eyes. It appeared like longing and just a little hope.
“What about the Brit from Somerset, Mesalwig?” Ogryvan asked.
“Yes,” Leodegan laughed a little. “Lord Badgemagus brought him here to woo for Gwynyvar’s hand.” Gwynyvar made a face and shook her head for Arthur. “Now he has gotten caught here with the arrival of the Irish army.”
“So, tell me,” Arthur got suddenly serious, not wanting to get too distracted. “What of the forts along the coast that Uther built against piracy?”
“Still there, I suppose. They were not built to withstand an army.”
“No,” Arthur agreed. “But one of them better be burnt to the ground. If they got paid to look the other way and let Rience just walk in here with his whole army, I will burn them to the ground myself.”
“Yes, I see,” Leodegan turned thoughtful. “But now that the Irish are here, my Captain says there is nothing we can do. We are running out of options. I sent messages to Caerleon to appeal to the pendragon for help, but I don’t know if any got through the Irish lines.”
“We have options,” Kai said.
“We got through,” Loth said at the same time, with a glance at Gwenhwyfach who presently looked fetchingly shy.
“Fifty well-armed men got through,” Ogryvan pointed out. Gerraint had his eyes on Captain Cleodalis by then. He guessed the Captain was good at running a fort and maintaining discipline among the troops, but when it came to battle he got completely lost. His men would defend the walls, but attack would not be on his list of things to do.
“Very well,” Arthur stood, so his men stood with him. “Lend me Captain Cleodalis and Ogryvan. We need to take a walk on the walls and see where we can find weaknesses in the Irish lines.” He turned and walked to the door. Gerraint went with him, but he looked back, since Arthur refused to look back. Arthur started going overboard on sounding decisive and confident, and Gwynyvar had her hand over her heart.
Once out the door, Gerraint got to whisper. “So, are you going to marry her here or take her back to Caerleon?” Arthur hit Gerraint in the arm and Gerraint said, “ouch,” but Arthur smiled. Then Ogryvan, and finally Captain Cleodalis caught up and they climbed to the top of the fort wall. Arthur, Loth and Kai all pointed out serious flaws in the way the Irish laid their siege, beginning with the road they so easily came up. Gerraint remained quiet until at last, he asked one question.
“Where is Rience located?”
“There.” Ogryvan pointed. “That big green tent with the different flags.”
“So, that is our objective,” Gerraint said. The others basically understood, but waited. “I have it on good authority that a snake is not worth much without a head.”
“There are no snakes in Ireland,” Captain Cleodalis objected.
“Then they should not have come here,” Arthur said. “We have snakes in Britain, and we know how to deal with them.”
That afternoon got spent preparing for a morning attack. Horses got extra attention, weapons were sharpened, armor got cleaned and polished. Gerraint had been called to talk to the squires when one of the ladies from the tower came to speak to Lord Bassmas.
“What does she want?” Arthur wondered.
“I don’t know,” Gerraint said with a sly grin. “You’re the bass master. Maybe she wants to know how to catch a fish.” Gerraint paused. That got spoken half in British and half in an English that would not exist for a thousand years.
“Weird,” Arthur said as they stepped out of the tent.
The old woman curtsied. “Your pardon. My Lady Gwynyvar has composed certain questions about the defense of her people and her home and wonders if the kind lord may attend her and give answer.”
“He would be delighted,” Gerraint spoke first, and gave Arthur a little shove. Arthur gave him a mean look, but at least this time he kept his fist to himself.
“I suppose I can take a small break from our preparations. I will do my best to answer whatever questions the lady may have, at the lady’s convenience.” He followed her and Gerraint thought, henceforth everything will be at the lady’s convenience. Arthur might as well get used to that right from the beginning.
Gerraint stepped over to where the squires gathered. Ederyn and Bedwyr were there to assist as they might be needed with a group of unruly teenagers. “Listen up,” he began. “Tomorrow morning, we will be riding out to kick some Irish butt.”
“What?” Tristam didn’t follow.
“Hopefully, kick it right back to Ireland where it came from.”
“Weird,” Percival mumbled. At Nineteen, he stood at the back of the crowd with Urien while most of the younger ones were seated.
“I have no doubt that Percival, Urien and Tristam will fight bravely, whatever the odds. To be honest, a young man is not much of a squire after eighteen anyway. But there are a couple of thousand screaming, wild Irishmen out there and we are only fifty, not counting you squires.” Gerraint paused and got serious for a moment. “Truth is, we may all die tomorrow. You young ones should not be part of that. You haven’t had the time and training to know your left hand from your right, much less how to kill a man. And that is what it means. You have to be willing and able to kill a man. Son.” He looked straight at Uwaine. “Killing and trying not to be killed takes a man’s full measure and concentration. I won’t have one second to watch over you and protect you.” And he thought, but if you go out there, my worry for you might get me killed. He did not say that, because he knew the squires would make up their own minds, and in the end their Lords could not stop them—even as Gerraint and Arthur and Percival made their own decisions. It was an important part of growing up.
“Come on,” Gerraint waved to Ederyn and Bedwyr to follow and leave the young ones alone for a while. Ederyn patted Gerraint on the shoulder in support of what he said. Bedwyr had a different take.
“I never thought of it that way before,” he said. “I mean the part about killing and not being killed.”
Gerraint had his ears turned behind and heard Uwaine ask, “So do we saddle our horses now or wait until morning?”