Dragon Lord

Copyright 1998
ISBN: 0-671-87890-5
September 1998

by David Drake

Chapter One

The amphitheatre had been built as a rich man’s toy in the palmy days after Constantius Chlorus had replaced a British usurper with a Roman emperor, when for the first time in decades the armies of civilization were able to fight pirates instead of each other. The structure had never been richly adorned; it was only an oval arena fifty feet by a hundred, surrounded by a five-foot curtain wall of native sandstone. On either side sloped turf mounds which once had been laid with wooden bleachers. In the early days all the countryside, slave and free, had turned out to watch the shows. Sometimes there would be imported gladiators, the acts alternating with local boys battling with quarterstaffs. There were beast hunts, too, though they only used bulls. The bulls were dangerous enough, to be sure, and available—but even more important, they could not leap the low wall the way a hungry wolf had done on one long-remembered afternoon. Gymnasts had performed in the arena, horse-trainers and fire-eaters as well. Once a magnate of intellectual pretensions had even imported a troupe of Greek mimes to put on a comedy of Terence. The actors’ Latin had been so pure that the West British crowd had howled them offstage as foreigners mouthing gibberish, as indeed they had been to the listeners.

Those were the good days. Time passed. Bit by bit, the Empire had passed as well. Trade slowed as markets burned. The amphitheatre became used mostly as a sheepfold, and the bleachers rotted away. The villa of which it was part was too far west for the Saxons to raid it, too far south for the Picts to be a problem. Its owners and their friends met in the evenings and murmured about the state of the Empire, vowing to plant more wheat the next year since the wool market was so uncertain. Then, in the night, Niall and his reavers had landed.

The metal and fabrics, the tools and the weapons, the women they wanted—all those things the Irishmen sent back to their curraghs. The humans they did not take were marched to the amphitheatre where their throats were slit, thirty-seven of them. The Irish joked that a man as fat as the owner of the villa should have had so little blood in him.

Arthur was the first man in a hundred years to find a use for the enclosure after Niall had left it.

There had once been a gate at the western end of the curtain wall, but it had long since rotted away. The men who now entered the dark arena did so through the gap. There were thirty of them of two distinct groups. Six of the men were of Arthur’s Companions, afoot now but obviously horsemen from their rolling stride. Despite their evident discipline, they marched no better than did the shambling recruits they accompanied. Their dress was uniform: leather breeches and jerkins, polished black by the links of iron mail that covered the leather in battle or on campaign. The rounded leather caps were padding for helmets. Though the Companions did not wear their full armor, a sword hung from the belt of each.

Except for their captain, the Companions themselves were as uniform as their garb. They were all stocky men of middle height with faces darker than exposure alone could account for. Arthur had men of all races among his Companions, but for a variety of reasons most of his training cadre was British. They carried flaring torches, the only light in the amphitheatre since the moon was new. The breeze was channeled by the viewing mounds. It whipped the yellow flames. Occasionally it lifted a droplet of pitch to bring a curse from the man it touched.

The chief of the Companions was set apart by more than his arrogance. He stood six feet six, almost a foot taller than the tallest of his subordinates. He was slim at the hips, thick in the wrists and the shoulders. While the other Companions cut their hair short to fit safely under their helmets, the chief’s curled out in long auburn ringlets which had as much of art as of nature about them. The tall man had no torch, nor was there a real sword on his belt. In his left hand he carried a buckler with an iron boss, and in his right was a pair of training swords. Each of the swords was a yard long, fashioned of thick wood and strengthened by a rod down the center. The captain swung them one-handed with a nonchalance that belied their weight. In the middle of the arena he paused, looking over the recruits. He let his lip curl under his moustache, forming the quick sneer that came so naturally to it.

The recruits were varied but by no means despicable. Man by man, they looked to be as formidable a pack of killers as could be hired. Most of them were Germanic—half a dozen Franks besides Goths, Vandals, and Herulians—but there were other folk represented as well. A Moor in a robe of stinking black goat’s wool, his fingers nervous because they no longer held his pair of knobbed javelins; a Greek with a black beard to hide a neck scar, still wearing the accoutrements of the Eastern Empire; and the Irishman who called himself Mael mac Ronan and whose six-foot frame was utterly dwarfed by the huge Dane who stood beside him.

Starkad Thurid’s son was as tall as the captain of the Companions in the center of the arena; he looked twice as broad. For a game, the Dane sometimes straightened horseshoes with his hands and flipped the resulting bars to gaping onlookers. The torsion-heated metal would sear the men who caught it as surely as if Starkad had plucked the horseshoes from a fire. A buckler swung from Starkad’s neck on a leather strap, ready to be raised if he wished it. Generally he waded into battle swinging his axe with both hands. Even now the Dane stood with the weapon’s head on the ground before him, its oaken helve upright beneath his cupped palms. All the other recruits had obeyed the command to turn out with shield and padding only, leaving their mail and weapons at their tents. Starkad’s hands and the carnage his axe left behind had earned him the nickname Cruncher; alone of the men in the amphitheatre, he would have said his Irish friend was the more deadly of the two of them.

For ten years Mael—who admitted to being of the Ui Niall and would change the subject if pressed further—had closed the Dane’s back in battle, drunk him cup for cup in peace, followed Starkad’s whimsies or led the Dane where a black Irish fancy called. The two of them had spent the decade as soldiers and merchants, pirates, and even for one season farmers. That had ended in strayed cows and seven men dead in the garth to which the cows had strayed. Mael and Starkad were outlawed in Tollund for that, but they had made it to the coast before the posse was raised. It was neither’s first outlawry.

The chief of the Companions cleared his throat, a signal to his men. They stilled their banter at once. The murmuring among the recruits, low-voiced and uncertain at all times, died away as they too realized something was going to happen. "Get in a line," the tall captain ordered in Latin. He sneered again, watching the recruits form awkwardly against the crumbling wall. Some had not understood the order; if they did not guess its meaning from the others’ motion, Companions thrust them into place. The Irishman whispered in Starkad’s ear and the two took places at the end of the line. There they waited, giving the nearest of the Companions stare for stare.

"I am Lancelot," rasped the chief of the Companions. For five years he had greeted in this same way each gathering of the mercenaries who sold their swords to Arthur. He explained to his peers that his "demonstrations" served a double purpose: the recruits learned to respect the unfamiliar techniques in which they were to be trained; and they learned to respect Lancelot himself—Arthur’s chief adviser and Master of Soldiers. There was a third reason that Lancelot admitted only to himself. He took great pleasure in humiliating barbarian warriors. All the recruits were symbols of the tribes which had brought down the Empire in two continents and eviscerated it even in the East. To Lancelot, Arthur’s dream was not an adequate substitute for the past, but it was a suitable tool for revenge.

"I am the chief of Arthur’s Companions. It’s therefore my duty to start you on your way toward becoming . . . not Companions, I suspect—there’s few men anywhere up to that standard and probably none among you—" his lip writhed again—"but fair soldiers, perhaps."

Mael had heard the speech eighteen years before. Then it had been spoken in Irish on the training grounds of the Ard Ri’s Guard. He knew what Lancelot was leading toward and he listened with only half an ear. With his right sandal, the Irishman scraped at the soil to test the footing it would give. It was an amalgam of sand and sheep dung rammed into the clay substrate, a pocked, irregular surface but hard as concrete and unlikely to slip out from under a lunging man.

Starkad leaned toward Mael. In Danish and in a voice not really meant to be private, he rumbled, "What does he say, brother?"

"You!" Lancelot called, pointing at Starkad with his right index finger instead of the practice swords he held in that hand. "Do you speak Latin?"

Mael cleared his throat. In Latin as good as the Companion’s, he said, "Starkad speaks your British tongue well enough."

For a moment Lancelot did not reply. When he spoke there was an edge in his voice. "He’ll speak Latin soon." The captain’s eyes swept the line like a challenge. "You all will—because Latin is the tongue Arthur’s Companions speak. There’s no time in battle for a translation, no place for a missed command. And you’ll learn to shoot a bow, ride on horseback, thrust with a sword—all these things, because that’s what Companions do. And you think you can be Companions." Again he glared at the recruits, one by one. This time he spat on the ground. "You should live so long," he said.

"He’s both self-important and a fool," observed Starkad almost soundlessly. His lips were pressed close to the Irishman’s ear. The two men had spent years together in situations where concerted action meant survival. That long experience made the burr of sound intelligible to Mael where another man would not even have known the Dane was speaking. "Let’s you and I walk away from here."

Mael leaned his shoulders back against the stone. He knew—as perhaps Starkad did also—that Lancelot, for all his posturing, was no fool. "I think," Mael replied in the same battle whisper, "that the lancers on guard out there would ride us down in a hundred yards. They make a god of order, here."

Staring at Lancelot as if he were really listening to the harangue about the necessity of training, Mael waited for the Dane’s reply. At first it was only a sigh. Then, "You were right when you warned me, my black-headed friend. But I was so sure the war pickings would make up for the trouble . . ."

"Right now I’m going to teach you how to use a sword," Lancelot was saying. The interest of the recruits revived. They had been restive though silent during talk of discipline; swords were another matter. "Most of you carry one, don’t you? And I’ll wager there’s not a man of you who knows how to use it—by thrusting, not slashing. ‘The edge wounds, the point kills.’ Always remember that."

"I’ve killed my share with the edge," retorted a Herulian in the middle of the line. His hair was black but there were gray speckles in his ruff of beard. Though he was of no more than middle height, he was broad and had the arms and shoulders of a blacksmith.

The Herulian’s jaw was cocked up, expecting a snarled insult and ready to reply in kind. Lancelot instead smiled and said, "Fine. 1 thought somebody would be stupid enough to say that. Come on out and show me how you use a sword." The Companion tossed one of the training blades so that its polished sides made a yellow ripple in the torchlight.

The Herulian caught the hilt in surprise. His own face lit in a slow grin. Just below the edge of his deerskin cap, a long scar crossed the recruit’s forehead. It flamed like a white bar as he flushed with anticipation. His eyes took in the ground, its irregularities and the heavy blocks of sandstone that had fallen from the wall. "Not much of a surface," he grumbled.

Lancelot’s smile was as cold as a king’s thanks. "Before we next fight the Saxons," he said, "shall we have them rake and roll the field?"

The Herulian slipped his left arm through the loops of his iron-bound target. He began to advance on Lancelot without replying. The torch-bearing Companions were spread in a forty-foot arc around their captain. Lancelot raised his light buckler in his left hand, gripping it by the double handles on the back of the metal boss. Other than their shields, the antagonists were similarly equipped. Lancelot wore only his gambeson and a cap. The Herulian’s cuirass was similarly of leather, boiled and sewn with half a dozen iron rings the size of large bracelets. The two men eased together with the mutual confidence of persons who had killed frequently and were both sure they knew the techniques of the business.

Ten feet from Lancelot, the German shrieked and charged. The Companion moved with the lethal grace of a stooping hawk. His right leg slid forward while his left straightened to give him thrust. Lancelot’s left arm and buckler swung back slightly, just enough to balance his right arm and the thick practice sword which stabbed out unstoppably. Its tip caught the Herulian in the middle of the right thigh, just below the edge of the shield. The rounded end of the sword did not penetrate, but its impact—doubled by the victim’s own momentum—was as bruising as the kick of a horse. It spun the Herulian to the ground. His own overhand swing had slashed the air harmlessly.

Lancelot backed a step as if to let his opponent rise. The Herulian rolled to one knee and winced as he put weight on the right leg. He touched his shield rim to the ground to steady himself. Lancelot lunged again, smashing his point into the center of the German’s chest. Even through the reinforced leather, a rib cracked. The Herulian was flung backward. He groaned but tried to stand again. Though the fight was already over, the battering had just begun.

"Shift your footing with your weight," Lancelot said, demonstrating by skidding his right foot forward as he drove at the Herulian’s pelvis. Wood and bone clacked together. The Herulian’s skin, torn between the hardnesses, began to leak blood onto his linen tunic. "Never, never let yourself lose your balance," the Companion continued. The Herulian had kept his feet after the last blow, but a feint at his thigh brought his guard low. The real thrust broke the left side of the German’s collarbone.

Screaming more with frustration than pain, the Herulian dropped his lath sword. He let the target slip from his useless left arm, then seized the heavy round of wood and metal by its rim and hurled it backhand at the face of his tormentor.

Even that was expected. The Herulian’s fury and thick shoulders spun the shield with enough force to kill, but it sailed harmlessly over Lancelot’s head as he ducked away. When the shield struck the ground thirty feet distant, it clanged.

"You can drive down a battlefield, killing a man at every step," Lancelot said to the other recruits in a conversational tone, "if they’re all as inept as this fool." He lunged a last time, his body a perfect line from his left heel through his extended right arm. The sword point buried itself in the pit of the Herulian’s stomach. The German doubled over, somehow keeping his feet though his knees wobbled. He was retching uncontrollably.

"There’s one other thing that we’ll take up later," Lancelot said as he rose gracefully. "Since you’ve already seen it done wrong tonight, though . . . shield fighting. Your shield is a useful weapon, but don’t ever let it out of your hands." The captain stepped to the bent-over Herulian and clubbed him behind the ear with the metal edge of his buckler. All the Herulian’s muscles went slack as he dropped. "You see?"

None of the recruits made a sound, not even the two remaining Herulians.

Lancelot’s chest was heaving but his voice was under perfect control. Its timbre was normal as he demanded, "Well, do any of you women think you could do better than this one did?"

Starkad turned his head and spat deliberately into the darkness beyond the wall. He faced back around without speaking.

Lancelot pointed the wooden sword at him. "You, Dane!" he said in German. "Can you take me?"

"I can kill you, Roman," Starkad said without raising his voice or lowering his eyes. He matched the Companion’s angry stare.

With his foot, Lancelot indicated the lath sword the Herulian had dropped. "Pick it up, Dane," he said.

Starkad’s knuckles tightened, but he did not shift his grip on the axe helve. "I won’t fight you with toys, Roman," he said. "Get yourself a real sword and we’ll holmgang."

No one in the arena doubted that the Dane seriously meant his offer to go to an island for a death duel with the Master of Soldiers. The recruits drew up, weighing the alternatives of mutiny or brutal exercises like the incident they had just watched. The six Companions tensed as they awaited decisions over which they had no control.

Mael stepped forward. "I’ll fight you," he said to Lancelot in Latin. He scooped up the wooden sword. Lancelot smiled at him; but then, the captain had never let his smile slip, even when baiting Starkad.

Mael could have been a model for Lancelot in nine-tenths scale. He was six feet tall, large-boned and covered with muscles that looked flat until they tensed and stood out in knotted ridges. In battle the Irishman wore a mail vest to mid-thigh and a rimless steel cap. Tonight he had turned out as ordered, bareheaded and with only a gambeson of laminated linen covering his torso. Without headgear his one affectation became obvious; he still shaved the back of his head to above the ear peaks, in the fashion of the High King’s Guard. Whenever someone asked Mael about it, he told them loudly that he was a coward who feared to be seized from behind when he fled, and Mael’s eyes dared any listener to believe him. The shield the Irishman carried was a heavy target like the Herulian’s, a round of plywood three feet in diameter with an iron boss and a seamless rim of the same metal. The rim had been shrunk on like a tire to a fellie. The shield was plain and serviceable—and of course new. A good sword was an heirloom that father might pass down to son through several generations. A good shield served once in a hot fight, and its owner thanked his gods then if it got him through that one encounter without disintegrating.

Mael and Lancelot edged toward one another, rotating counterclockwise to keep their shield arms advanced. The Irishman refused the first blow. Lancelot thrust from six feet away, his long sword and longer arm flowing in one supple motion that brought the sword tip to within an inch of Mael’s chest. The Companion recovered as smoothly as he had struck, but there was a glint of surprise in his gaze. Mael had jerked back at the waist, just enough for the thrust to clear him—and no more. There had been no counterattack though, neither the roundhouse swing to be expected from a barbarian nor the lightning thrust of which Mael’s cool precision suggested he might be capable.

Lancelot feinted at Mael’s face and lunged low at the left shin which only the high-laced sandal protected. The point should not have rung off the Irishman’s shield boss, jarring every bone in the Companion’s lower back, but somehow the shield was there. Still Mael did not strike back. Lancelot’s smile was as stiff now as the leather of his jerkin, but he kept his curses within him as he and the Irishman circled tensely.

Lancelot’s third thrust was smooth and precise and guided cleanly past Mael’s face by the edge of the Irishman’s sword which redirected it harmlessly. The missed stroke almost threw the Companion off balance, but practiced reflexes allowed him to recover. The Irishman’s reaction seemed to give Lancelot his first real opportunity, however—Mael screamed something Gaelic and bloodthirsty, raised his sword high over his head, and let his target swing to the side where it did not cover his body.

This was the fatal error Lancelot had expected from the barbarian, the triumph of bloodlust over discipline. He reacted instantly, lunging again in a spray of sand even though his weight was not perfectly centered nor was his left leg set with the care he would have demanded of a trainee. The captain had been rattled by the Irishman’s skill, after all, and he needed a quick victory to retain the prestige that was his life.

Mael’s timing was dangerous but perfect. His left foot lifted as if drawn to the Companion’s blade by magnets. Even if Lancelot had seen the parry coming, he was already hopelessly committed to his lunge. Mael’s hobnailed sandal caught the sword. The weapon and the man holding it spun to their left. The point glided past Mael again. This time Lancelot’s shield was no longer between him and his opponent but rather on the other side of his body. Lancelot could have left the buckler in his room for all the good it did in stopping Mael’s sword.

The Irishman’s practice blade scissored down in the same motion that had brought up his left foot to block Lancelot’s thrust. The sound Mael’s sword made on the Companion’s cap was like the first slap of lightning before the full weight of thunder rolls across the sky. The oaken blade shattered, leaving the hilt and reinforcing rod in Mael’s hand. Lancelot skidded on his face, driven by his own lunge and the force of the blow. His head stopped inches short of a block of stone. There was a collective intake of breath from the other men in the amphitheatre, recruits and Companions alike. For the first moments after the blow, there was no sound at all from Lancelot.

Mael backed toward his place in line beside Starkad. There was a wild light in his eyes. He looked at the vibrating remains of his practice sword and giggled. " ‘The edge wounds . . .’ " he quoted. He giggled again. Then he flipped the rod over his back into the darkness.

Lancelot raised himself to one elbow and stared at Mael. The Companion’s nose was broken. Blood from that and from his sand-abraded face smeared the ground. It shone black in the torchlight. If the Irishman’s eyes were wild, then Lancelot’s were hell-lit. Without taking his eyes off Mael, the captain felt for the block of stone and grasped it with both hands.

The block was coarse sandstone, a rectangular piece of the wall larger than a man’s torso. Lancelot faced it and locked his right knee under him. He was a big man and hugely strong even for his size, but there should have been no way a single human could have lifted that mass of rock. Grunting, Lancelot gripped it by the ends and cleaned it, bringing the block to chest level and rotating his palms under the edges. The right side and shoulder seams of his gambeson ripped. The leather flopped loose over muscles as stiff as the stone they lifted.

One of the Companions dropped his torch and ran to Lancelot, his hands washing each other in the same terrified indecision that knotted his tongue. Lancelot ignored him, did not even see the man although his eyes were open and staring. Before Lancelot was only the red blur of sandstone and the brighter red of the blood bulging the veins behind his retinas. The captain straightened his legs and arms together, jerking the monstrous weight overhead.

There was silence in the arena save for the peeping of frogs in the low spots beyond the wall. Lancelot stood, a caryatid whose face was no redder where blood smeared it than where the blood suffused the flesh within. Then the towering figure took a step forward, toward the Irishman who no longer laughed. The Goth to Mael’s left blundered away from him, stumbling because his eyes were fixed on Lancelot. It was a scene whose like had not been played out in the fifteen centuries since Ajax lifted a boulder and advanced on Hector beneath the walls of Troy.

Lancelot took a second step. Dust puffed from his boot toe and the hard ground shook. He was eight feet from Mael and only a chest’s width more from the wall against which the stone would pin his victim. Mael crouched, his shield raised but useless.

Starkad stepped forward, his buckler swinging like a bangle on its neck strap. The Dane had gripped the four-foot shaft of his axe with both hands. Using the doubled strength of his arms, he brought the ten-pound head up in an arc that shimmered because speed blurred its glittering highlights. The peen led, square and blunt and tempered to take shocks that would shatter the glass-hard cutting edge on the other side.

The axe struck the center of the sandstone block. It rebounded, ringing with a shrill sound that was nearer a scream of anguish than a chime. The metal could shriek and leap back; the rock had no such resilience. It would hold or would crack, and the weight of Starkad’s blow left no choice but the latter.

Lancelot’s breath whuffed again with tension released as the stone split in the middle. It fell backwards out of his hands. The twinned blocks thudded to the sand together and rolled once, dice that gods might have thrown. Lancelot, his balance gone and with it the hysterical strength that had worn his flesh like a cloak, toppled and fell back between the stones. He lay there, his eyes beginning to focus for the first time in minutes.

Starkad’s right hand had been leading on the axe helve. That whole arm was numb to the shoulder. With his left hand alone, the Dane raised the axe over his head. Its bearded edge still quivered like a live thing with the shock. "They call me the Cruncher, Roman," Starkad boomed in British. "Shall I show you why?"

The tension broke in the shadow of that axe. Like a force of nature, a storm or an avalanche sweeping all before it, the weapon was for the instant a thing that no man present could imagine withstanding. Surrender brings an absence of conflict; recruits and Companions relaxed accordingly. When the six mounted cataphracts rode through the entrance to the arena, the men gathered within were too drained of emotion to do more than glance at the newcomers. Minutes earlier, their arrival would have jangled nerves and led to bloody mutiny because the recruits would have thought they were about to be attacked.

The six riders were Companions in full armor. Their gear jingled as they cantered into the amphitheatre. They were of normal height for West Britons, averaging around five and a half feet tall, but in armor and mounted they bulked larger than life. Two of them wore scale mail, tiny leaves of iron sewn individually to a leather backing where they lay in overlapping rows. The result was not as effective as a fabric of rings, each interlocked with four others, but it was within the capacity of any smith and seamstress to manufacture. Scale armor was both cheaper than ring mail and far more readily available.

The four other horsemen wore rings, however; their chief’s had been washed with silver so that his torso danced in the torchlight. Among Arthur’s Companions, as in most professional armies, it was customary to flaunt wealth in fine equipment. The only proviso was that one’s arms must not appear more valuable than one’s ability. Besides their mail shirts, the cataphracts wore leggings faced with scales or rings on the outer sides. The insides of their thighs were covered only with leather, not simply because armor was unnecessary there but because iron would have robbed the riders of the firm grip they needed to stay on their horses. Their saddles had four low horns, two front and two behind—and no stirrups at all. Keeping mounted in a fight was a major part of the training each Companion received.

"Lancelot, what in the name of the crucified God are you doing?" demanded the silver-armored horseman.

Lancelot used the broken stone beside him as an anchor and pulled himself into a sitting position. He tried to speak but blood or a dry throat choked him. He spat out a tooth on the ground. One of his own men knelt beside the Master of Soldiers and ripped a strip of linen from the hem of his tunic. Another Companion splashed the rag with beer from the goatskin bottle hanging at his waist. Together, as carefully as artificers preparing a pharaoh for eternal burial, the two soldiers sponged away at the damage to Lancelot’s face.

"Lord Gawain," one of the training cadre blurted, his eyes flicking back and forth from Starkad to the mounted man, "it was—"

"I’ll wait for your captain to tell me, thanks," interrupted Gawain with a mildness that bit. The trooper bobbed apologetically. No one else spoke aloud while the two Companions worked on Lancelot.

Nearer the wall, two Herulians and a Frank were tending to Lancelot’s object lesson. The remaining recruits had drifted toward them. The nursing gave the men something to focus on instead of the cataphracts and their battered officer. Hot looks came out of the motley throng, directed against the isolated Mael and Starkad. The torches had burned down to embers and a trickle of fire, but they had dimmed gradually enough that those present could still see each other.

"1 think they’ve just written us out of the human race," Mael said to the Dane. He tossed his head toward the recruits in lieu of a more respectful gesture. "They think they’ll all be punished for what I did to that prancing dandy . . . and they’ve seen enough of Arthur’s discipline to worry about it."

"What we did to that one," Starkad corrected softly, staring at his right hand as he clenched and unclenched it. Feeling seemed to be returning. "Men and dogs, Irishman, men and dogs . . . Give me a wolf pack any day. Wolves tear out no throats but their enemy’s—or their dinner’s, of course. But wound a dog and the ones he’s been running with will be the first on him. Since they’re the nearest." The Dane flexed his hand again, turned it over to show curls of hair as heavy and dark as copper wire crawling down the back of it. Even Starkad’s fingers were hairy, except for the skin over his knuckles. Those patches gleamed pale in the torchlight for not being shadowed by hairs. "We could run," he said in the same tones of bored unconcern.

Mael had been watching the riders with a frank, friendly smile on his face. The Irishman looked as if he could not imagine what their dismounted fellows of the training cadre were telling them in low murmurs. "No, I don’t think so," Mael said. "I don’t feel quite like I’m about to die yet, and I surely would die if we ran." He grinned sidelong at Starkad. "Of course, you may be about to die, my friend. That stone was probably a valuable Roman relic—and you’ve heard how this Arthur is about Roman things."

The Dane chuckled, reaching across to knead Mael’s skull brutally. They were in this as in most things—together. Call it friendship or a wish to die. "Next time I’ll have sense enough to use the edge on his skull," Starkad said. "At least I’ll be able to use both hands if I have to, later."

Mael continued to study the Companions. Men in armor were no rarity now in any army apart from the Irish. Long past were the days in which Rome’s legions faced hordes of shrieking Germans protected by no more than a loin clout and a wicker shield. Rome had educated her barbarian neighbors. Part of the process had been by example, survivors around camp fires telling how their points skidded from bronze corselets. Even more destructive of Rome’s superiority had been her practice of hiring enemies as auxiliaries, training them in armored tactics for twenty-five years—and all too frequently having the men return to their tribes across the Rhine or the Danube to pass their training along. When the naked mobs became effective heavy infantry, Rome’s own period of lordship was soon to end.

But while the Companions’ armor was common enough for warriors who could afford it, their array of weapons was not. From the right side of each saddle, just ahead of the rider’s knee, hung a quiver of arrows. A bow was cased to the left, balancing the quiver. Horse archers had been a staple of Oriental warfare for centuries, but they had never been popular among the armies of Western Europe. Even in nations to whom mounted bowmen were standard, the nobles who could afford full armor carried swords and sneered at the drudgery of daily archery practice. These Companions were equipped with both armor and bows. Either Arthur had issued expensive mail to all his forces, or his discipline was so rigid that even the wellborn were forced into finger-burning, muscle-knotting archery exercises. Perhaps both were true. Brief experience suggested to Mael that they both were. The Irishman wondered where Arthur got the money and the authority to put such a program into effect.

Like the dismounted cadre, the riders all carried swords sheathed along their left thighs. The varied richness of the weapons suggested the rank and wealth of the bearers. The hilts ranged from plain wood, in the case of the two troopers wearing scale armor, to Gawain’s, which was of iron forged in a single unit with the blade and quillons. The metal was carven and heavily inlaid with gold and ivory. Its owner’s calloused hand had smoothed the hilt to a perfect fit for him, proving the weapon was no useless toy for ceremony.

One further weapon completed each cataphract’s arsenal, a weapon which Mael knew for the most deadly and difficult to master of all. In tubular sockets hanging from the right rear of the saddles stood twelve-foot lances. The heads were four-sided pyramids, narrow and a foot long. A tang joined each point to an ash shaft two inches in diameter and as smooth and straight as an artisan could fashion.

Lances have only rarely in history been popular. A lancer gets the first stroke at an enemy, but if he misses, the speed of his charge thrusts him into the hands of his foe with no way to strike again. A light javelin can be flung from a distance or its shaft raised to block a hostile blow. A lance is like a glacier, massive and unidirectional. It is too heavy to throw, too clumsy for protection. Worse, when saddles lacked stirrups as these did, a clumsy lance thrust was as likely to dismount the lancer as to slay his opponent.

And yet trained lancers were the terror of every field on which they fought. Lances killed with the unanswerable certainty of catapults, but even greater than their material effect was the moral. A line of glittering lance-heads plunging nearer, backed by dust and thunder and tons of armored horsemen, was soul-shattering.

Mael frowned inwardly, though his face remained bland. He could appreciate the Companions, for he had been raised a fighting man and spent his life in the service of war. But these men were simply too good, too perfect. To conceive of and train them had been works of genius—but a damned bloody genius it must be. It was natural for men to kill and, aye, to make a business of killing. But to turn slaughter into an intellectual exercise was as warped as for a woman to lust after a bull, and the progeny was apt to be as evil. Lancelot sucked beer into his mouth, wincing at its astringence. He spat after swizzling it around. The second mouthful he swallowed. Only then did he look up at Gawain who was waiting with a hunter’s patience while his men fidgeted. "Well?" Lancelot said, shaping the word very carefully.

"The Leader needs to talk to two of the new recruits," Gawain said. Both men spoke Latin but with markedly different accents. The variation was less regional than a matter of education. Although Britain had scholars and orators the equal of any on the Continent, Gawain had never been trained by such. The Votadini, his tribe and his Leader’s, valued other skills than those of civilization. "He sent us to bring them now—the Irishman, Mael mac Ronan, and the Dane who joined with him."

Mael looked at his friend. He popped the big man’s shoulder with the heel of his hand and said "See? That’s why I hate to do anything final. You just can’t tell what’s going to turn up."

Starkad snorted, oblivious to the staring faces around them. "They could still be taking us out to chop us."

"They didn’t have any reason to chop us until now," Mael responded cheerfully, "and nobody got a message out of the arena to those guys." Tugging Starkad by the left shoulder, the Irishman stepped toward Gawain and his half squad. "Here we are, friend. Much as we hate to leave this happy gathering."

Gawain’s chuckle was full and appreciative without being in the least friendly. "I’d intended to put you both on pillions to get you to headquarters," the slim captain said, "but now that I’ve seen your friend I’ll be damned if I have a horse try to carry him and one of my boys besides. You can walk, and we’ll all be happiest if you don’t waste time at it." Gawain glanced back at Lancelot. "Good night, Master," he said with an ironic salute. Then, to his men and their charges, "Let’s go."

Copyright 1998 by David Drake

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Baen Books 03/08/02