The Battle

The Battle

Eoppa Ceowaldsson stood on the edge of the river bank shivering in the cold morning air. He was fifteen summers old and this was to be his first war. Ceowald, his father was standing with the thegns of the king. Their voices were low as they discussed their next move. The army of Octha, the king of Cantwarra, was spread out along the river, huddled in groups as they waited for the signal to march. Eoppa grasped the haft of his spear tightly, as he strained to listen to the counsel being carried out not twenty feet from him. It was late spring and they should be at home tending to their farms, but instead they were here on the wrong side of the Thames River, ready to attack and take more land from the Britons.

It was all to do with the word from the Gaulish lands. The Briton high king was dead, slain in battle and his army destroyed. How his father had rejoiced at the news, how he had roared and laughed. He had caught Eoppa by the shoulder in a tight grip.

“Now is our time boy! We will go west and win a steading for you. Gather your weapons it is time you were blooded,” Ceowald had said.

At the time Eoppa had been filled with excitement, he had watched with pride as his father donned his mail coat and strapped on his sword. Ceowald was a famous warrior amongst the Jutes of Cantwarra. His name was sung of in halls across the land and the tales of his valour were spoken of with reverence by the old men in the village. At the hosting called by Octha, Eoppa had seen this with his eyes, the way the warriors acknowledged his father with deep respect. Ceowald was a champion.

Octha Hengistsson was a tall man and he towered over the others grouped about him. He was a sullen man of few words but he was a canny war leader. His father, the famed Hengist, had led the Jutes to Britain and riches. Now Octha wanted to extend their rule. Others were coming over the seas every year, Angles and Saxons, seeking lands of their own and Octha wanted to ensure his people’s power over these settlers. Conquest was the way to power.

Eoppa stamped his feet to get some feeling in to them, reflecting that his excitement had quickly disappeared as the warband trudged its way west through the heavy rains. He had never felt so cold or miserable. Whilst his life at home had never been easy, with his days filled with the chores of working a farmstead, it was at least dry and he had warm food every night. The clouds lay heavy in the sky as the counsel broke up and Ceowald made his way over to Eoppa.

“The scouts are reporting that the Britons are massing a day to the west of us,” he said.
“How many?” asked Eoppa unable to hide the anxiety in his voice.
Ceowald smiled grimly.“Not enough.”
Eoppa was unsure what his father meant. Not enough to worry them or not enough for him to kill.
“We march to meet them. Tomorrow or the day after boy, you will finally become a man,” Ceowald said looking intently at Eoppa. It was a measuring look and Eoppa attempted to stand taller and straighter. Once, thought the boy, it must have been so for Ceowald. Standing been appraised by his father as he was about to enter his first battle. Ceowald nodded his head and clapped Eoppa on the shoulder.
“Come let us eat.”

The wind shook the banner where it was planted on the brow of the hill. A crow was perched atop it looking down at the slaughter been perpetrated about it. Long experience had thought the crow that soon it would be able to glut itself on the carcasses that littered the bloody ground. It cawed once; anticipating the feast it was about to have.

Wiping the sweat from his eyes Eoppa looked up at the waving banner and cursed it. Earlier he had been close but in the struggle and madness of the fight he had been forced back. His spear point was dripping with blood. He had killed but had no memory of the act, only the recollection of the frenzied act of thrusting it forward. Around him men leaned upon their spears, their faces holding a desperate haunted look. Ahead they could hear the sound of the battle as the Jutes assaulted the Britons holding the hill. Somewhere up there was his father, Ceowald the Champion, with his sword and shield, cleaving a bloody path into another song. Eoppa took a deep breath and hefting his shield prepared to join the fight.

“Wait, boy, there is no hurry,” a gristled warrior growled at him. He wore no helmet and blood ran in thin rivulets down his face. Eoppa looked at him quizzically.
“Open your eyes lad. We are losing and soon we will be pushed back. You will need your strength then for we will form a shield wall here on the flat ground and hold out until dusk or the Britons grow weary,” the warrior explained.

Eoppa turned from him to look back up the hill and sure enough he could see that more and more of Octha’s men were falling back from the fight. The king himself strode amongst them, gesturing and shouting.
“Back you go, lad,” the old warrior at Eoppa’s side told him. The warrior turned away and began to roar at the resting men to from a shield wall. They numbered about fifty and slowly they grouped together, locking their shields and levelling their spears. Eoppa found himself in the centre of the line with the old warrior beside him.

“What is your name?” he asked of the warrior as he watched the Jute’s stream down the hill pursued by the Britons.
“Beowulf of the Geats,” he replied.
Eoppa looked surprised.
“You are far from your homeland,” he said.
Beowulf laughed grimly.
“Found myself shipwrecked on your coastline, so I sought guest right from your king. He charges a high price for his ale,” Beowulf said with a certain finality to his voice.

The Jutes slowed as they gained the flat ground before the hill and Eoppa saw his father stride towards him. His sword dripped blood as he shook it above his head at the Britons who were following slowly.
“See they are tired too. We may yet live,” Beowulf said pointing out the Briton leaders who were shouting at their men in an attempt to get them to charge. One in particular caught the eye of Eoppa. This warrior stood a head taller than all the others, helmless with a shock of red hair. Ceowald reached them and he thrust Eoppa back with a strong arm.

“Back boy! The work here will be for real warriors,” he said.
“Beowulf,” the old warrior said by way of greeting.
Ceowald looked the warrior straight in the eye.
“Are they true? The tales they sing of you and your deeds,” he asked.
Beowulf smiled and Eoppa thought it a sad smile.
“Most of them,” he replied.
Ceowald laughed.
“Bloody skalds!”
And then Beowulf was bellowing out great laughs as he belted Ceowald on the shoulder. Eoppa looked bemused. The jest if there was one was beyond his ken.
“Here they come!” Octha roared and the Jutes began to beat their shields with their weapons as the Britons advanced. Ceowald and Beowulf stood shoulder to shoulder with Eoppa behind them.

The giant Briton with the flaming red hair strode forward with grim purpose, his loud voice haranguing the Jutes. His sword was a blur as he swung it in great arcs and his step quickened as he approached the shield wall. He did not look behind to see if his men followed but swung his sword in a mighty arc, before crashing it against the upraised shield of a Jutish warrior. The shield splintered and the sword cleaved through it, tearing at the arm behind it. The warrior crumpled to the ground with the Briton chieftain towering over him. A loud angry roar erupted from the fearsome warrior’s throat which was answered by hundreds of voices, as the British host crashed into the Jutes shield wall.

All this Eoppa witnessed from where he stood, trembling, in the rear ranks. He watched as his father engaged the Briton chieftain in combat. Watched as his father, the fearsome Ceowald stumbled backwards and turn, his jaw missing from a savage cut from the enemy leader. As Ceowald fell his sword slipped from his dying grasp to fall on the trampled grass. Eoppa screamed and pushed his way forward. He did not see Beowulf duck under the slashing sword of his father’s slayer to open up the giant warrior’s stomach. Beowulf swung his sword up to cut across the Briton’s face who fell back in a spray of blood.

On his knees Eoppa saw none of this as he grasped for his father’s sword, his wide shocked eyes locked with the open dead ones of Ceowald. He never felt the large powerful hands grasp his shoulder and drag him to his feet. Eoppa’s next cognisant thought was when he was running blindly along in the midst of the fleeing Jute army. At his side ran Beowulf who took in huge gulping breaths as they fled. They did not know if the Briton’s followed them, they did not care. A great panic seemed to inflict the Jutes. They were bloodied and their numbers had been savagely reduced in the battle with the Britons.

Octha suddenly roared out a command bringing his warband to a halt. Men fell to their knees retching and blown from the fight and run. Octha walked through the army cursing them for craven cowards. He stopped when he came past Eoppa. The fearsome king glanced at the sword in the boy’s hand.
“He was a great man and will be sorely missed,” the king said before walking on.
“Bastard,” muttered Beowulf.
Eoppa looked at the warrior in puzzlement.
“We should never have fought the Britons. We didn’t have enough men and they held the high ground. Your king is a fool!” Beowulf said by way of explanation.
Eoppa made no reply but allowed his gaze to wander back over the landscape towards the low hills, now shrouded in mist. One day he would come this way again bringing fire and death in his wake. Beowulf sensed the boy’s thoughts.
“Vengeance is a dangerous thing boy. Never allow you mind to be clouded by it,” he said.

The women keened, their shrill voices putting Ambrosius’s already tired mind on edge. He wiped a dirty, bloodied hand across his face. Fires burned along the valley floor and from where he stood atop the hill, Ambrosius could see as far south as the great forest that surrounded the port of Anderita. Down in the valley a great pyre had been built. It was about this structure that a cluster of women had gathered, the common whores that followed any army on the move. It was they who were screeching out the loud laments for the fallen Pendragon.

Uthyr, my brother, my fool of a brother, thought Ambrosius. He had watched as Uthyr had led the charge down the hill. Watched as Uthyr had broken the Saxon shield-wall and watched as he was cut down. Ambrosius shook his head. Folly. There had been no reason for Uthyr to lead that charge. The Saxons had being broken. But his brother was a great hater and he had despised the Saxons from his youth. Well that hate had now proved his downfall.

Ambrosius walked back down the hill. Another man stood at the foot of the hill, waiting for remaining scion of the Aurelanni family to join him. Cynyr Farfog shook his head at the miserable look on Ambrosius’s face. It was for the best that Uthyr was dead. Far better to be slain by the Sais than by his own, the British kings of the west. Few had forgiven Uthyr over the death of Gorlois even though his involvement in that king’s murder was not proven.
But the very fact that Uthyr had wed Gorlois’s young and beautiful widow and the speed with which the woman had produced a child, had being enough for Uhtyr’s enemies to point the finger.

This was also the reason that so few of the kings had answered the Pendragon’s call to war in defence of Verulumiam against the Sais of Octha. And the only reason Cynyr was here himself was that he had being at the court of Ambrosius at Glevum when news broke of the invasion. It was his friendship with Ambrosius that had decided Cynyr upon joining the fight, for he too blamed Uthyr for the death of Gorlois.

“How goes it, Cynyr,” asked Ambrosius.
“A fine victory, Dux, but a sad one too. Uthyr shall be missed,” Cynyr replied matching Ambrosius stride for stride.
The tall, dark haired Roman stopped and looked Cynyr straight in the eye.
“Bollox! And you know it. But I thank you for the words anyway,” Ambrosius snapped allowing his voice to calm at the end.
“My brother had few virtues and many vices. His one true talent was as a warrior and at that he failed to temper his undoubted skill with intelligence. The bards will sing of his greatness but we who knew him will lament his wasted talent,” Ambrosius said as the two walked towards the pyre.

Cynyr looked at his friend with admiration. Even in grief, and the sorrow was written all over Ambrosius’s face, the cold intelligence and acute mind of the man shone through. They were not far from the pyre now and Ambrosius slowed his pace.
“I have a request to make of you, my friend. No. Before you agree, listen to what I ask of you. You have a son I believe, a lad of two summers. Yes,” Ambrosius said.
Cynyr was puzzled but at the mention of his son he smiled broadly.

“As you know I am childless. All of my children were stillborn or did not live long after the birth. Uthyr has left a son behind him and two older daughters. The girls have already been betrothed but the lad….” Ambrosius said trailing off, remembering the betrothal feasts of Morgan and Morgause the previous summer. A happier time to be sure, but Uthyr could have chosen better for the girls, instead of the two wolves masquerading as kings that he did.

“You want me to foster the boy,” Cynyr said.
“Yes. Now hear me out, friend. I do not have time to raise a child. My time is spent travelling this damned island sorting out the problems caused by too much drink and over weaning pride. Your lands are stable and the your son will have a companion close to his own age. A companion who bares royal blood from both father and mother,” Ambrosius said.
“You forget that my king is Cadwallon, who despised Uthyr more than any man alive,” Cynyr said.
“I will also give you fifty men as the boy’s guard. They will be paid and provisioned from my own purse.”

Cynyr considered this for a moment. Fifty trained men from Ambrosius would greatly increase his own power in Gwynedd and ensure that Cadwallon would keep his grasping hands of his cattle and women! Silently Cynyr cursed all the gods and the Christ of the Romans for plaguing him with a king such as Cadwallon.
“The boy’s name?” he asked.
“Arthur.”
“I will foster the lad but if Cadwallon….”
“Agreed I will take him back.”

They were now standing before the burning pyre. A wild eyed priest was chanting loudly with his arms spread wide to the night sky. Framed in the flames, a young man with long red hair stood watching the proceedings. He held a harp in his arms and he stroked the piece lovingly.
“Who is that man?” asked Ambrosius.
“He is my new bard. He calls himself Myrddin,” Cynyr replied.
“The merlin,” Ambrosius found himself saying to the night.

The Battle

Svalbard

Cork, Ireland

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This is a tale of dark age Britain.

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