THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XXI: Arthur’s Wars
What I would most like to do—before the intrusion of the FBI, what I planned to accomplish in life, someway, somehow—was to use The Grail’s knowledge to write a definitive history of King Arthur. What I am actually doing is writing a novel about The Holy Grail.
The next several sections were the hardest for me, with those two tasks battling for dominance. But I’ve managed it, more or less. Ripped the history of King Arthur right out of this novel, along with big chunks of my heart.
* * *
Merlin hated war more than anything else. War destroyed lives, it destroyed the harmony of creation, and it destroyed the land. Since the first decade of Arthur’s reign was pretty much nonstop warfare, Merlin and The Grail weren’t with him most of that time. Instead, they spent their days traveling. Sightseeing, pretty much.
Sightseeing, my ass. The first three years, as Arthur struggled to put down King Mark’s rebellion, we spent every day we could spare from our primary mission in Gaul wandering from court to court. Wrangling with lesser kings, trying to get them to switch sides. Negotiating with Mark himself. Pleading with the council of druids, trying to get them to intervene wherever possible.
Curiously, the real problem turned out to be that Arthur was too good on the battlefield. There was no way that the proud King Mark could ever accept defeat at the hands of a teenage king. The breakthrough took place only after he caught Arthur by surprise and drove his forces from the field. After that, it felt more like a true negotiation between equals, and we were able to bring peace to the land.
* * *
The Germanic tribesmen were an enemy of an entirely different sort. They came from a tradition where men spent long hours rowing longboats; swinging their favored weapon, the battle axe, was like a vacation. Plus the land where their ancestors lived was poor and crowded. The siren song of the rich earth of the British Isles had been irresistible, but if they were driven out, they had nowhere to go.
In order to prepare for the upcoming war with the Saxons, the most important task that Merlin and The Grail did while Arthur fought to get his kingdom in order was horse trading.
Back when Arthur was leading King Ban’s forces against the Franks, a grim situation had often been saved by the timely appearance of mounted, armored reinforcements. In Less Britain these were usually limited to Arthur’s three companions and the half-dozen sons of noblemen who could afford horses and armor. But Arthur believed heavy cavalry to be the future of warfare and gave Kay the task of breeding enough horses to mount a squadron. So Merlin and The Grail journeyed to the court of Clovis and purchased a stable of the finest horses that they could talk the crusty old monarch out of, big brood mares and ill-tempered stallions. Other visits persuaded experts in the field of breeding and raising horses to leave the continent and come work for Arthur.
But breeding horses takes time. So for six long years brave men slept on the ground, ate camp rations, killed and maimed each other, and died from any of the dozen diseases that thrived in Dark Age armies while Frankish horses mated, happily ignorant of the turmoil going on around them.
The bulk of the British army was composed of shire levies—undertrained and poorly-equipped peasants called up from the fields to fight at the king’s call. The typical soldier went into battle with nothing more than a spear and a shield, plus whatever scraps of armor he had managed to scrounge from earlier battlefields. So Arthur’s strategy for the first five years was to fight a holding action, give his troops experience and a chance to capture some better weapons and armor from the enemy, and wait for the cavalry to get there.
That sounds like a line from a western movie, but it’s not.
The cavalry finally showed up at Baden Hill, possibly the first use of massed armored horsemen on the British Isles. This battle is listed in many of the earliest chronicles of Britain, but nothing factual has even been known about it.
I wasn’t there, but I heard a lot of songs sung about the battle, including a handful of good ones. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m proud of my small but critical part in that victory—I confess that I never did totally embrace Merlin’s disdain for battle. Without the horses that Clovis begrudgingly sold us, there would have been no knights; without Arthur’s knights, the Saxons would have triumphed in the end. Arthur’s legacy would have been no more than a Welsh poem or two celebrating courage in the face of inevitable defeat. But as it was, my adopted son was able to drive the Saxons back into their treaty lands and keep Britain British—at least for a while longer.
According to the bards, King Hronager and a hoard of South Saxons had encircled a contingent of Britons less than half their number on an old hill fort carved into the rocky top of Baden Hill. Hronager was determined to annihilate his foes before reinforcements could arrive, but he couldn’t. Their commander was the nephew of Old Duke Gorlois, the nobleman with whom Uther had picked a war so he could sleep with his wife and sire Arthur. But although young Gorlois had plenty of reasons to hold a grudge against the young king, he was as loyal a follower as you could ask for. Wounded in the shoulder so badly he couldn’t even wield a sword, he roamed tirelessly up and down the lines, exhorting his weary men to hold on for one more hour, Arthur was coming.
And then Arthur was there, at the head of The Companions, as he had named his new mounted elite company. When they reached the edge of the woods that covered the approach to the great bald scar that was Baden Hill, Arthur led them in a thundering charge against the rear of the Saxon line. Right through the tribesman smashed the new flower of British knighthood, while Excalibur flashed its magical light and Saxons died. Within minutes Hronager was mortally wounded, and the Saxons were broken and fleeing.
THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XXI: OUTTAKES
Sightseeing, my ass. The first three years, as Arthur struggled to put down King Mark’s rebellion, we spent every day we could spare from our primary mission in Gaul wandering from court to court.
“Um, you realize that you don’t actually have an ass?”
I have you, so at least I have a wise ass. What do you suggest?
“How about, ‘Sightseeing, the underside of my base!”
Accurate but hopelessly inelegant.
“I’ll work on it some more.”
* * *
“I’d think the combination of Arthur and Merlin would have been pretty much impossible to resist. So how come defeating the rebellious kings took so long?”
If Arthur could have thrown everything he had against Mark, he would have been able to crush him rather quickly. The rebel kings were outnumbered as well as out-generaled. But Arthur always had to hold back half his forces to keep the Saxons from overrunning the land while he was busy with Mark and his cronies.
Plus the true enemy, Mark’s ego, was a more formidable foe than his men-at-arms. No matter how persuasive we were, as soon as we left Mark reverted to his old mule-headed self.
“So if Mark had been a woman, none of this would have taken place?”
You said it, Brad, not I.
* * *
Without the horses that Clovis begrudgingly sold us, there would have been no knights; without his knights, the Saxons would have triumphed in the end. Arthur’s legacy would have been no more than an obscure Welsh poem or two celebrating courage in the face of inevitable defeat.
“Sounds like an old poetic proverb:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
“I think there’s more, but that’s all I remember.”
Well, I think the horses that the knights rode were more important than a dumb horseshoe nail from a nursery rhyme.
“You’re probably right. What boy would ever read King Arthur and his Footmen of the Round Table?”
* * *
But as it was, my foster son was able to drive the Saxons back into their treaty lands and keep Britain British.
“You do realize, of course, that the Saxons won out in the end? Within another hundred years or so, they’d pretty much conquered the island south of Hadrian’s Wall and displaced or incorporated the Celtic inhabitants. Today our language, our culture, and our legal basis all largely come from the Anglo-Saxons.”
Yeah, I know. Just don’t expect me to like the bastards!