It almost took less time than Arthur thought before the sons of Caw came charging out of the north. The Scots made no effort to stop them. They dared not. Loth and Kai were hard pressed to keep a safe zone for twenty miles around their forts and hundreds of people flocked there while thousands fled South, to York. Outside of those forts, the Picts had free reign, and they slaughtered whole villages and burned farms to the ground with the people inside the farmhouses.
Things balanced a little when the RDF arrived after the first month. The RDF, particularly out of York, saved hundreds of people, and fought the Picts about even, with losses at first on both sides. By the time Arthur got on the way, the RDF started gaining at Pict expense, particularly the men from York who had spent much of their time surveying the land to become familiar with the terrain.
With Arthur’s arrival, the Picts went back above the wall and took all the loot they collected up until then. There were oxen, wagons, horses, sheep and cattle, and there were tons of farm implements, hoes and plows, and even some gold and silver. All Arthur had to see was the burned remains of one family, burned alive in their own home, and he became uncontrollable. It took until the end of the day before he was able to talk.
“Even the Romans never dared enter the Celidon Forest. There are ghosts and terrible monsters up there.” Bedwyr summed up what everyone thought.
“There are,” Gerraint agreed, his eyes fastened on Arthur’s receding back. “But this time the ghosts and terrible monsters will be fighting on our side.” People looked at him like he might be as mad as Arthur, but at least Percival and Uwaine smiled.
Twelve hundred men were brave enough to follow Arthur into the wild north. Mostly, they were RDF and members of the Round Table, but some were men who lost homes and loved ones. Arthur left the rest of the army at Edinburgh, Guinnon, and York in case some Picts circled around and tried to come back, “Or if the Scots get restless,” Loth said.
Then it became a simple matter to march north. The Scots stepped aside. The Picts had been wild and angry, but these men showed something on their faces and in their silence that felt far more frightening.
In the afternoon, the army reached the northern wall. The men and squires set camp while Arthur, Gerraint and Percival climbed that portion of the Antonine wall where the stones still stood. The forest that started some distance away looked shrouded in a strange mist, more like a cloud that had fallen to the ground than an ordinary fog. The sky seemed otherwise cloudless. The stars would be out in the night, and the moon that looked nearly full would shine down on the world and light the way for weary travelers.
“They are mostly in the east,” Arthur said. “The city of the high chief is on the east coast. The islands and western wilds have begun to fill up with Ulsterites.”
“Where did you hear that?” Percival asked.
“They made a mistake attacking the Norwegians along with the Britons south of here,” Gerraint explained. “If it was not for the coastal watch, the Danes would have swallowed up Caledonia long ago.”
“Now they are inspired,” Arthur said.
Gerraint took a good look all the way around. Meryddin, defender of the Scots and Picts went missing, and that bothered him. His little ones were anxious to help, but he was not convinced he would let them beyond guiding lights and bumps in the Pictish night. He felt afraid to let them get too close. He feared what Meryddin would do if he captured one.
Percival said nothing. He simply looked around with Gerraint before he got down and went to his tent. After a moment, Arthur and Gerraint got down and went their ways. The morning sun would dawn on a different world.
Deep in the night, Arthur heard a cry. He thought at first that it might be a sheep or goat trapped in a twist of briars. He heard it again and thought it might be a songbird disturbed in the night. On the third call, he sprang out of bed. It might have been Picts sneaking up on the camp, but this sounded like a woman in distress. He snuck out to the wall where the mist had fallen over all the open ground and slowly crept over the wall. Arthur hesitated, but then he heard the woman again and he understood the word, “Help.”
Once over the wall and covered in the thick fog, he had only his hearing and internal sense of direction to guide him. “Hello?” He spoke softly in the hope of eliciting a response. He shook his head several times. The fog seemed to be penetrating his brain. “Hello?”
“Arthur?” The word struck him like a hammer and he lost all sense for a minute. He knew the voice. “Arthur?”
“Gwynyvar.” He raised his voice, but in a moment, she fell into his arms and he held her tight. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?” He asked, but found his voice again in a whisper. The fog seemed to require silence.
“Just hold me,” she said, and then she reached up and kissed him. “The fog,” she tried to explain something, but he got busy kissing her and his mind was not right. He couldn’t think straight. Her nightgown fell away and she tore at his clothes until they were naked in the mist beneath the moon. They made love in silence and not a thought between them until something clinked nearby.
Arthur sat straight up. “What is it? Who is there?’ He saw a blue hand and then a blue face in the mist and he jumped back, reached for his sword, which he had abandoned on the ground, and he pulled Gwynyvar behind him. The face grinned a grin of stark yellow teeth, and the eyes were wide to show plenty of bloodshot white, but the man did not move. Gerraint called out into the dark. “Arthur, stay where you are.”