Gerraint, Bedivere and young George looked down on the village in the next valley. It looked remarkably like the village in the last valley, but appearances can deceive. The former was pure British. This one was a Saxon transplant. Arthur was not going to like Gerraint’s report.
Fifty years of shortened growing seasons left the nation starving and weak, and the flu that never seemed to go away took too many of the young. Twelve years of infighting coupled with Pict, Norwegian and German raids further reduced the population. It became a mix of many things, but if Arthur had not pulled the sword when he did, there might not have been a Britain left to defend. Cornwall still had some strength, but the loss of Lyoness proved devastating, and Devon east of Exeter seemed questionable. Wales still held fast. Arthur held the eastern line at Caerleon, and the Welsh coastal watch drove off Saxon settlers as easily as Irish pirates. But Britain had all but gone already.
They stopped in the Midlands to visit Percival. His position remained strong because many British flocked to his land as a safe haven. But Pelenor’s family had accommodated to the Saxons so there were as many Saxons on the land as British. Ederyn’s old place had been completely taken over by a Saxon Chief who now declared himself Lord of that land, and the British did not have the strength to throw him out.
Even up here, in the wilds of the British Highlands, the Germans were moving in. A couple of generations and inter-marriages and an outside observer won’t be able to tell which is which. Gerraint did not want to be the one who told Arthur that thirty years of war defending the land actually killed the land. The seventeen years of peace that followed might have helped if Bohort and Lancelot had not stripped the land of her youth for war on the continent. Then to see those youth bring their families to Amorica seemed too much. Little Britain might be repopulated, but big Britain got depopulated to do it. Britain, as far as Gerraint could tell, had already been lost. It already became an Anglo-Saxon world.
They were seen coming down the hill. Several men on horseback came to either welcome them or challenge them. One never knew.
“Heingurt is the one to speak to,” their British guide from the last village spoke up. “Though Hans Bad-Hand is the village chief. The Saxons do things differently, you know.”
“I understand,” Bedivere responded. He took it upon himself to make nice with the various guides they got to help them at one point or another through the Highlands, which suited Gerraint just fine. He kept back, next to George.
“Of course, you have to expect them to be a little jumpy, what with the dragons about. I heard one of the outland farms got attacked a month back. Heingurt wanted to blame us. He doesn’t believe there are real dragons about, but enough of his own people saw it to make him quiet, for now.”
“Thank you. That is good to know.” Bedivere sounded too smooth.
“Do you think we will ever see the dragon?” George asked. Gerraint stayed lost in his own thoughts so George had to ask twice and had learned to raise his voice a little on the second asking.
“I hope not,” Gerraint said. “They are like me. When they get old, they don’t always hear when you talk to them.”
“You talk to them?”
“Sure. Dragon speak, a strange and mysterious tongue.”
“Now, Lord.” The British guide leaned back. “I have never heard anyone say they heard a dragon speak.”
“Doesn’t mean they didn’t,” Gerraint said with a grin. “Maybe they heard the word lunch right before they were swallowed.”
The guide stared, slack jawed. Bedivere covered his grin, but he knew the truth. He heard Gerraint speak some sort of words to the dragon all those years ago when they were on the continent and headed for the lake. The guide looked at Bedivere and saw the grin beneath his hand and threw his own hand out.
“Daft,” he said.
There were five Saxons on horseback, but they looked like ordinary enough farmers, not much different from their guide, apart from the one that Gerraint took to be Heingurt. Heingurt had some semblance of armor underneath his coat.
“Heingurt.” The guide gave a friendly wave before the riders arrived.
“Brennan, with what have you come to burden us with this time?” Heingurt eyed the strangers to judge if they might pose a threat. They all knew the look well by then.
Brennan introduced them. “Bedivere of Lyoness is a Knight of the Round Table.” The men looked impressed. “The Lord is Gerraint, sometimes called the Lion of Cornwall.” Two of the men backed up, but Gerraint spoke up.
“Please. At my age I am more like the house cat of Cornwall.” Heingurt grinned at that image.
“George,” Gerraint practiced his Saxon. “Son of Elrod, Chief of Wessex, and Prince among the Saxons.” Gerraint did not get surprised. They all seemed to know who Elrod of Wessex was. This was not the first time it came up.
“And you travel with these men of Britain.”
“I am squired to Lord Bedivere until we reach the Lake of the Moon,” George said.
Heingurt shook his head. “A daft quest,” he used the British word. “The lake is full of strange people and nightmare creatures. They say men who have gone there go mad or never come back.”
“The Lord is my shield and strength.”
“Ugh.” Heingurt made a sound of disinterest before he confessed. “We have some Christians in the village. Come.” They turned and rode into the village, Brennan with them.
“It would not be neighborly to come this far without paying my respects to Hans Bad-Hand.”
“My Lord once told me it is always wise to pay respects to the king when you come into a new country,” Bedivere said.
“Did I say that?” Gerraint joked. “I must have had a daft day.”
Heingurt took them straight to Hans Bad-Hand. It was obvious where the name came from. The old man’s left hand looked shriveled, like a birth defect. His right hand looked strong enough, and no doubt in his youth it more than made up for the deformity. In his age, though, he looked like he had arthritis in his knuckles and at least one knee, and the belly suggested serious stress and possibly some lower back problems. Gerraint well understood.
“So, you are the Lion of Cornwall. Tell me why I should not take your head? My brother fought among those you slaughtered that day by the hill called Badon.”
“Because it was a fair fight, and your brother lost. I can tell you this; the men I faced on that day fought bravely and well. But here, you are no fool. You lead your people all the way up to this fertile valley and settle in peace. You make friends with your neighbors where you can trade and receive help when the winter grows long. You built this village up from nothing and you have seen it prosper. Your women grow fat and your children grow strong. Why, in the name of God, would you be willing to throw that all away?” Without anything even approximating a threat, Hans Bad-Hand understood that the price for harming Gerraint would be terminal, for him and for his people.
Gerraint fidgeted. “Do you mind if I sit? This old body cannot stand like it used to.” He began to sit even as Hans waved at the chair. “I make poor Bedivere listen all day to my aches and pains. My knees don’t like to bend. My back doesn’t like to turn, especially down low. My hands stiffen if I grip something for too long. I am sure you understand.”
Hans glanced at Heingurt. “My right hand and right arm are still plenty strong.”
Gerraint caught the idea. If Hans showed weakness, he would be challenged for his leadership. He sighed. “Let me tell you, it is like this in Cornwall. I worked hard all my life, building, weeding, making things work, and why? So, my sons and grandsons can reap all the benefits. It hardly seems fair, don’t you think?” Hans nodded. “But the thing is, my sons won’t let me step down. They say there is more to be done, and they trust me to do it right. So, they guard me and watch over the workers to make sure it gets done the way I say. I suppose after I am gone, they will have their turn, but between you and me, I am half tempted to go home and retire. I should force Peter to be king so I can go fishing.”
“That is for some thought. Don’t you think, Heingurt?”
Gerraint interrupted. “I think Hans is a smart man who has made smart decisions and brought prosperity to the people. As I said, why, in the name of God, would you risk that?”
“It is true, what you say about the knees and the back,” Hans smiled as he whispered, but there was no telling if Heingurt honestly got the message or not. “But here, you say this is George, son of Elrod, Chief of Wessex. I knew your father well. In truth, when he was killed, I brought my people here. Did they catch the killer?”
“Mother thought it was Ethelgard himself.”
“Stabbed in the back,” Hans told Gerraint.
“By a coward,” Gerraint understood.
“And how is your mother?”
“Dead,” George said, and pushed his chin up. “Dead at the hand of Red Ulf.”
“That is where we found him,” Gerraint said.
George was not slow to praise Gerraint and Bedivere in his rescue, but he insisted it was the angel of Saint Michael that drove off the murderers.
“That Red Ulf is a bad one,” Heingurt interrupted.
Hans nodded and then smiled. “Stay the night. You should have at least one good meal before you ride off on your fool’s quest.”
Gerraint got ready to say yes when a man ran into the house, yelling. “Dragon.”