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The word apparently made no impression on the man to whom I had spoken, so I said it again, raising my voice slightly, despite the absolute silence, to make sure that he could hear me. Again, however, he chose to ignore me, his attention focused on the layer of whiteness that ended at the threshold of the cave that sheltered us. It had started snowing early that afternoon, tiny, individual flakes blown on a chill wind, their appearance unsurprising beside the sudden, harsh reality of the drop in temperature and the wind's strengthening bluster. But the snowfall had increased steadily ever since, so that now, a mere two hours later, the entire world had turned white, and the leaden clouds overhead were already leaching the light from the day, creating a premature dusk.
“What about them?” It was a dismissive response, and he kept right on talking, ignoring his own question, as though by merely acknowledging my reference he had dealt with the chariots in full. “This snow does not appear to be passing us by, my friend. It looks as though we might have to bring the horses inside. We could be here for the night.” Arthur Pendragon, nominal High King of All Britain, squinted at me in the darkness of the cave with snow-dazzled eyes. “That means we will have smelly lodgings, but well sheltered, and at least their body heat should stave off the worst of the chills, in the absence of firewood.” Stooping to avoid banging his high, crested helmet against the low ceiling, he moved inside to where I sat with my back securely in a corner of the wall. He placed his long, sheathed sword carefully againstan outcrop in the cave wall where it would not fall and then nudged my outstretched foot with his toe. “Move over, unless you want the entire floor for yourself.”
I made room for him, and he eased himself down beside me, then bent forward awkwardly, tugged the heavy war helmet from his head and placed it on the floor between his upraised knees. That done, he sighed and leaned back, scrubbing at his short-cropped hair with the palms of both hands before turning to peer more carefully into the depths of the cave that sheltered us, his dark, yellow-flecked eyes narrowing in concentration as he tried to penetrate the gloom back there. He was two and twenty that year, but looked older than he actually was, his face lined prematurely with the strains of leadership, and somehow, in spite of our relationship as High King and Frankish Outlander, he had become my dearest friend in the four years that had passed since my arrival in Britain at the age of sixteen.
“It's dark back there,” he grunted, and I did not contradict him, for I already knew the cave was both long and deep. We were seated in the day-lit area before the cave swung to the right, about five paces in from the entrance. Beyond where we were sitting, the darkness became absolute. Across from us, the corresponding angle in the wall was sharper, a knife-edged projection of stone jutting outward to form a flat-sided baffle that concealed the widening of the cave from anyone looking in from outside.
Past the corner formed by the flat-edged rock, the place widened to become more of a cavern than a simple cave, although it was pitch-dark back there. I knew from my first casual exploration that the roof was high enough to permit a tall man to stand upright, because I had done so and been able to stretch my hands above my head. I also knew there was a well-used fire pit in the middle of a spacious floor, because I had blundered into it, falling forward onto my hands and coming perilously close to twisting my ankle. One outthrust hand had landed on a smooth fire stone, and after I straightened up I had lobbed it into whatever lay in the darkness ahead of me. The pause that followed, and then the sounds as the stone struck the wall and fell to the floor, told me that there was more than sufficient space for men and horses beyond the limits of my vision.
Arthur turned back to me in the fading afternoon light. “It's not exactly a bedchamber in Camulod, is it?”
“It's dry,” I responded, “and it's large. There's a fire pit, too, so it'll warm up, once we drag some dead wood up here.”
His face wrinkled into his familiar half smile. “Up here from where? And did I hear you say ‘we'? Are you suggesting that the chosen Riothamus of Britain should go out foraging for dead wood? That he should slide and slither down a mountain in a snowstorm and then fight his way back up again, dragging a tree trunk like a common charcoal burner? Is that what you are trying to tell me?”
“No, not at all, Seur King.” I wrapped my cloak around me more securely, shutting out the chilly draft that was gnawing at my legs.
“What is that?”
“What is what?”
“That word . . . that expression you use when you address me as king. You could be calling me nasty names, for all I know.”
I thought hard, wondering what in the world he was talking about, and then I laughed. “Oh, you mean Seur!”
“That's it. What does it mean?”
“Nothing dire, rest assured. It is a term we use at home in Gaul. A term of respect used in addressing a superior, as in Seur King, or Seur Something-else. That's all. And sometimes we use it as a personal gesture of honor, when we are dealing with someone who has no royal rank, but who is otherwise admired as a clever or a noble man. Like Merlyn, for example. I might call him Seur Merlyn in speaking to him, or perhaps even Seur Caius.”
“Aye, very well. Now, what were you saying, before I interrupted you? You had made some kind of unacceptable suggestion . . . a hint, if I remember correctly, that I might think seriously about toiling like a common charcoal burner.”
I shrugged. “I was suggesting nothing, other than that you should, perhaps, think in terms of fuel, rather than of firewood, and that there are large amounts of it down below us, quite easily accessible. We could take our horses down with us and let them pull the load up—the snow's not deep.”
“Not yet, but give it time.”
“Hmm. No need. It will take all the time it needs and wants, Seur King, heedless of whether or not we choose to give it any. Most important of all in this discussion, however, is the self-evident truth that I, as a loyal retainer and faithful companion, might well go down there alone, as you propose, and do what needs must be done. But the storm is worsening, as you say, and I might only be able to make one passage. Thus, it seems to me that if you would prefer your kingly arse to stay warm all night long, instead of having it freeze to the bones in the darkest hours, you might consider it worthwhile, for once in your life of slothful privilege, to set aside your dignitas and concern yourself with simple comfort and survival.”
“You mean I should come with you—share the labor—work like a common clod?”
“Did I say that? Aye, I suppose I did. But think of it as sharing the warmth afterwards, rather than the labor beforehand.”
“Put like that, I admit the notion does have a certain logic to it.” He scratched his chin. “Slothful privilege. You know, you're the only man in Britain who would dare say such a thing to me, in such a way.”
I could no longer keep my face straight and grinned at him. “Aye, I know. You keep telling me so. But that, as you are always pointing out, is because I'm nothing but a foreigner, lacking the proper awe of your status and stature.”
“Status and stature? Both in one breath? That's clever, Clothar, that's very good. You always manage to redeem yourself just short of the executioner's sword.” He glanced again towards the back-lit entrance and its curtain of swirling snow. “Damnation, I swear it's getting worse. Even God has no respect for my situation here.” He sighed dramatically. “Well, I suppose we had better go and see to it. No point in sitting here idling while things worsen. Come on, then, up you get.” He rose quickly to his feet, giving the lie to his earlier act of weariness, and held out his hand to pull me up.
“How do you feel?” he asked then, all traces of levity gone as he leaned forward to peer closely into my eyes. I had had a deep-seated headache earlier in the day, probably caused by over-tiredness born of little sleep in the previous three nights, but it had abated steadily as we traveled and now my head was clear. I reached down for our helmets and clutched my own under one arm as I held the King's out to him.
“I'm fine now. But I'll feel better when I'm warmer.”
Our horses were ground-tethered just outside the cave, still saddled. We brushed the melting snow off our saddles and remounted, then made our way down the slope to the wooded area at the bottom.
Within an hour we were back inside the cave and had a healthy fire crackling between us, its light sending shadows dancing high on the vaulted ceilings at the very rear of what had turned out to be a huge and ancient cavern. I was conscious of the melted snow steaming gently around the periphery of the fire pit. It was snowing harder than ever outside now, the swirling flakes agitated by a keen, biting wind that had sprung up just as we put our horses to the upwards slope of the hillside. Each animal had dragged up a large, rope-tethered bundle of dead branches, and we had scampered uphill beside them, clutching their bridles and slipping and sliding on the treacherous slope.
Once back at the cave, our first concern had been to light a fire, and I had spent some time attending to that, working carefully in a corner far from the gusting winds, plying flint and steel against dried moss and wood shavings until we had a flame that would not go out. As soon as we were sure we could leave the fire to burn safely on its own, even though it was not yet as alive as it ought to be, we off-saddled and led our animals into the rear of the cave, where we rubbed them down and left them with their nose bags on, contentedly chewing on a double handful of oats apiece while we busied ourselves in the main cabin, seeing to our own comfort. Arthur wielded my battle-axe expertly, chopping our hard-won fuel into manageable pieces while I laid kindling for a second fire, this time in the shallow pit inside the cave that had been well used for the same purpose frequently in the past. I then carried the live coals from the first fire, over in the sheltered corner, to ignite the main one. The wood we had found was dry and well seasoned, so it burned almost without smoke, and the little smoke that there was drifted straight up and disappeared into some kind of natural flue in the overhead rock.
Warm and reasonably comfortable now that our work was done, we sat with our saddles bracing our backs, eating cold rations together in companionable silence, aware, because we had checked carefully to be certain of it, that no hint of our fire could be detected from the darkness outside the cave.
I could tell from the expression on Arthur's face that something was troubling him and I knew him well enough by now to know, too, that whatever it was, it was far from being a casual, passing annoyance. I said nothing, however, knowing from four years of close friendship with the man that he would speak when he was ready.
Finally he sniffed and folded the remains of his meal into a square of cloth before stuffing it back into the leather scrip at his waist.
“Chariots, you said. What about them?”
I knew better than to comment on the fact that more than an hour had elapsed since I last mentioned them. “I've never seen a war chariot before. Thought they were used only by the ancients. But I counted nigh on a score of them out there this morning, and they're impressive, dangerous-looking things. Where would Horsa's Danes have found such things here?”
“Here?” Arthur's lips turned down in doubt. “They might not have. I've never seen any here. They probably brought them over with them when they came.” He picked up a heavy section of branch and thrust it deep into the flames. “They break down easily enough for shipping, despite the solid look of them. Wheels and axles come apart and are easily stowed, and the bodies are no more than strips of hammered leather, woven over sturdy frames. They'll stack one atop the other. Those Danes riding in them today could have brought the things over years ago—no telling when—and the horses could have been stolen from anywhere. These great Roman roads of ours have reversed the wheels of time, providing causeways to permit our enemies nowadays to put their weapons to the best use they can make of them, with little peril.”
“But they look unassailable, Arthur, and most of them had blades attached to the wheel hubs. They will cause havoc among our horsemen when they join battle, with their weight and bulk and speed.”
The King pursed his lips and nodded agreeably, looking remarkably unperturbed, it seemed to me, considering the gravity of what he was acknowledging. But as I was about to learn, he knew more than I did about this topic.
“Aye, they might,” he said quietly, “were they ever able to reach our horsemen. But they won't be.” He brought both hands up in front of him, arms extended, and mimed the actions of pulling a nocked arrow back to his ear. “No chariot builder, here or anywhere else, ever thought to encounter a weapon with the strength and accuracy of our Pendragon longbows, Clothar. You wait and see. My bowmen will kill every single charioteer before any of them can come within a quarter mile of our ranks. No gamble involved, either, my friend—at least, not on our side. An attacking charioteer, whipping his team straight forward towards combat against us, is a dead man. I don't care how gifted or skillful he may be, or how much he weaves and wavers in his approach. Sooner or later, simply because he is steering a chariot, he will have to turn it around and steer it straight towards us in order to attack. And then he will die, before he ever comes within striking range of us. You wait and see.”
Twice in that little address he had told me to wait and see, and I grinned. “I might have to.” I waved towards the now-dark cave entrance behind us and beyond our sight. “If the snow keeps falling out there, we won't be able to move, let alone fight a battle tomorrow, so the wait might be a long one before we see anything.”
I estimated we were about three, perhaps four, miles distant from our army, an hour's ride in normal weather, but we had not anticipated the snow coming so early or so heavily, and now I found myself wondering if we could reach our encampment at all, with darkness falling so quickly. We had left our forces camped in a valley to the south that morning, while we rode up into the hills to spy on the enemy formations heading southward towards our position. We had been playing cat and mouse with them for a long time now, remaining ahead of them and keeping out of their sight until we could find a suitable spot in which to bring them to battle on our own terms.
Arthur shrugged as well as he could beneath armor and cloak. “We may not be able to move, but neither will they, Clothar. Neither will they. Our enemies and their chariots will be immobilized.”
“What d'you mean, ‘Hmm'?” He turned and frowned at me. “Do you think I'm wrong?”
“No, not at all.”
“Then why do you sound so doubtful?”
I spread my hands, palms upward. “I'm not doubtful, Arthur . . . It's simply that I detect a hint of doubt in you yourself.” I held my hand up now, to prevent the angry retort I knew would spring to his lips, and spoke before he could deny what I had said. “A hint, I said, the merest hint, and shapeless, I will admit . . . but a hint nonetheless. I sense a doubt in you, my friend.”
“Then damn you for having eyes too sharp for your own good. Now look to your own affairs and talk about something else.”
“And how might I do that, my lord? My affairs are all your affairs. I have none of my own and nothing else to talk about. You know that.”
“Then find some.”
“Of course. I shall. Immediately. As soon as the snow stops,” and with that I set aside the remnants of my own meal and pushed my saddle backwards, away from the fire, then stretched myself out to sleep on the opposite side of the fire pit from him.
Copyright © 2005 by Jack Whyte. Originally published in Canada by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group. All rights reserved.