Gerraint and his five hundred men arrived at Percival’s position by mid-morning where he found a crowd of men in his command tent, already gathered for lunch. Gwillim reported a harrowing experience with a Saxon spear that pinned his cloak to a barn door. Tristam extracted him, and his small troop, but he had to leave the cloak.
“And it was my favorite one, too,” Gwillim complained.
“Where is Mesalwig?” Gerraint asked.
“Checking on the front line,” Percival answered. “He is very good at keeping the men on their toes.”
“Really?” Gerraint teased. “I figured he was still in Bath soaking in the steamy, medicinal waters.” At least Gwillim laughed.
“I have a report,” Uwaine said, and everyone grew silent. Uwaine so rarely said anything. “First blood.” He put his hand on young Bedivere’s shoulder. Bedivere looked shyly away. “Next time we’ll get credit for the kill.”
Everyone said good job and congratulations, but Gerraint thought again about chivalry and the Medieval ideal versus the reality of the times which was brutal and bloodthirsty. Curiously, he never really noticed that when he was younger. He felt like saying, oh I am so very sorry, but he said, “Congratulations,” and Bedivere smiled like he won the lottery.
Lancelot told the tale of their battles on the mountain and Gerraint found it almost unrecognizable. For the parts that Lancelot did not know, the Little King was present to brag about it, and that telling seemed even more difficult to believe.
Gerraint got up and walked to the tent door. From there, he could look down on the distant enemy formation. They were at the far end of an open field that appeared deceptive. It looked like flat ground, but it slowly fell away from their position, and by enough gradient to tire the legs of any attackers, men or horses. There, he saw a small but evident rise to the right that ended in a large lump of trees. Those trees continued along the back of that rise and rose to the top of it, looking like a bad haircut. The Saxons were near the bottom of the rise, and it would be impossible for cavalry to get at them. Even if they avoided the incline out front, cavalry from the rear would still have to climb through the trees to get over the rise, and the trees were a deterrent on their flank as well. Horses did not charge well through trees.
On the left, there appeared another rise, a bit steeper, and it ended in an actual forest that went all the way to the village on the river. The Saxon cavalry stayed at the top of the steeper hill where they could look down on the battle and know where to go as needed. And there were eight thousand Saxon men on foot squeezed between those two little ridges. The center did make a bit of flat space, but that got jammed full of men.
“Tough call,” Melwas, Bedivere’s father came up beside him and put a hand up on the shoulder of his younger brother-in-law. “In the old days, we attack with our soldiers and keep the cavalry in reserve. In Arthur’s day, we attack with our lancers and follow with our footmen. But either idea looks like a losing proposition given their strong position.”
Gerraint looked at the man. He retained his hair, but it had all turned gray, including the beard. He had a bit of a belly, which Gerraint chalked up to stress, him being married to Gerraint’s sister and all.
“I spoke to the elders. The village is fortified and they strongly suggested hostility if we go there and thus bring the Saxons with us.”
“They want to hide under their bed sheets and hope it will all go away.”
“Something like that,” Melwas admitted. “I don’t suppose there is any way we can entice the Saxons to attack us.”
“They have the numbers,” Gerraint said, flatly. “They can hold that position and send out all sorts of groups to ravage the countryside while we sit here and dare not thin our lines.”
“Just a thought.”
Gerraint nodded and went back to the table where he had the lunch cleared apart from the parts he used to represent the Saxon positions. By two that afternoon, when they got word that Bedwyr and the leading edge of Arthur’s men were only a mile back, they had a plan that no one liked, but everyone agreed it would be the best of the bad options.
Gerraint got Bedwyr to stop shy of linking up with Percival’s position. “You are all badly strung out,” Gerraint said. “Give Arthur and the rest of the men a chance to catch up.” When Urien came up, angry that Bedwyr called a halt, Gerraint briefly explained for them what the other had come up with.
“We give tonight and tomorrow day for all the men to catch up and rest up. Then tomorrow night we move into position.”
“The path is already laid out. And it will be lit in a way the Saxons won’t see. Trust me.” Gerraint said trust me a lot lately. He would have to watch that, because sometimes things did not work out well no matter how well planned.
Arthur arrived about midnight. Gerraint and Percival laid out the plan for him. “Overall, as good as can be expected,” Arthur said. “I may adjust a bit, but I have to see it in daylight.” That was understood. They all slept poorly.
In the daylight, Arthur decided he needed more cavalry to better match the enemy numbers. Gerraint, who wanted to lead the cavalry, got left instead in the hold position, and for that he had only his sixteen hundred from Lyoness, Cornwall and Devon. He had Tristam and Melwas, and Arthur gave him the men from the mountain, so he had Bowen and Damon and the Little King who itched for a fight. Gerraint instructed Uwaine to sit on the Little King if he had to in order to be sure he stuck to the plan. Gerraint smiled for Bedivere who stayed right at his side, but he avoided saying anything stupid like, are you ready? Or, are you scared?
Arthur moved the rest of the men along the edge of the hill to take up their positions in the distant forest. He did not care what the village elders said. The village and the river were his fallback positions. He would use them if he needed them, but hoped he would not need them. Pinewood and his fairy troop provided fairy lights for the men, lights that were shielded by strong magic so they could not be seen by the Saxons. Bedwyr and the others got their thirty-three hundred men in position easy enough, but then he had the task of keeping them quiet in the night. Arthur had further to go to lead two thousand horsemen to where they could reasonably charge the enemy cavalry. Yet, even they had a few hours to rest themselves and their horses before dawn.
The sun cracked the horizon and the Saxons came out to stand and shake their spears at their enemy and scream unintelligible curses from a distance. They had done this for two days, not knowing when to expect an attack, and might keep it up for weeks if necessary. The yelling in the past stopped about the time the sun broke free of the horizon, and by mid-morning, the Saxons had dribbled slowly away until they were back at their own tents and by their own cooking fires.
The scene up on the hillside that greeted them that morning looked the same as before. There appeared no change in the array of tents and banners since the British took up the position. This time, at daybreak, there were perhaps less men moving about, but that would not be something one would normally notice.
When the sun broke free of the horizon and the Saxons stopped yelling and started to relax, that became the signal to attack. Arthur broke free of the trees and got half-way up the back of the incline before the Saxons even noticed. That back end of the hill was like the front, a gradual incline that would tax the horses, but not too badly. Meanwhile, most Saxon eyes stayed riveted to the action down below. The British attacked, but not across the field to run into a solid Saxon line, thirty men thick. Instead, some three hundred men came out from the trees slammed into the side of that line with enough force to cause the whole line to waver. Three thousand British troops did not even engage the Saxons, but ran instead to where they made their own line, above the Saxons. Then they engaged, moving downhill on the enemy and effectively using the Saxons own heights against them.
The Saxon line on that side of the field began to crumple. Many Saxons ran for safety, but then had to turn and fight their way back up the incline. The large number of Saxons left out of the fighting looked ready to run and join the fight, but Gerraint marched his sixteen hundred up the incline to within bowshot where they looked like they were waiting for a break in the Saxon line. Saxon Chiefs could be heard running up and down the line telling their men to hold their positions. Any movement to help their fellows on the other side would put Gerraint’s men on their flank, or their rear.
Gerraint had the twenty-four unloaded, and the men hurriedly set up the dozen portable catapults. Dozens of balls of flammable material were dropped by the catapults so the mules could all be lined up to stampede the Saxon line should the lancers charge. It seemed odd to Gerraint that seventeen hundred men could hold twenty-five hundred in check, especially if the twenty-five hundred charged they would be charging downhill. Even the three thousand or so that filled the gap between the ridges appeared frozen, not knowing what to do. All the while, Gerraint got prepared to turn and ride back to his own high ground, but the Saxons held the line. That was apparently the order given and they were sticking to it.
Gerraint had a sudden memory flash or another hill full of Saxons. It was 1066, and the Normans, under his command, slammed again and again into that line. When the line of foot soldiers finally broke and charged down that hill, the Normans on horseback lead them on a merry chase to where William waited to demolish them. But William was not a very nice guy, not like Arthur, Gerraint remembered. Then the ground began to shake.
“Dismount!” Gerraint shouted it over and over, until he needed to catch his shaky breath. Most of the men did. The few who did not were taken for a ride and tossed when the full-fledged earthquake struck. A few of those were killed.