by Doug Pugh
part 1 of 2
Huw looked down at the valley from the not so heady heights of the fortification they had dubbed ‘The Tower’. It stood no more than a man’s shoulder height above the rest of the earthworks. Here, on the lofty heights of Caer Caradoc, there was really no need for a tower. The earth mound above the steep slopes was protection enough from most roving bands.
‘See them, Huw?’ Edrich’s disfigured hand pointed towards the encampment studded with flickering amber torches in the next valley.
‘The bastards must have joined together and slipped through the coastal hills! Think we can hold them?’
‘A day. Maybe two.’ Edrich scratched his straggly beard, picking a louse out and casting it aside.
‘Not time enough for Cynnglann to make it back, then?’
Edrich spat a wordless invective to the gods who had deserted them. ‘No. Even if the message gets through, he won’t get back here fast enough.’
A rattle of beads and dried bones alerted them to the slow approach of Merlin. Between two older and wiser heads, and Huw’s leadership, they had to find a way to survive until Cynnglann’s forces could return. Twenty warriors against four hundred rampaging Saxons that waited below.
‘Good morning, Master Merlin!’ Huw greeted him.
‘Good? How can it be good? Bloody old bones shaken from my sleep. Serving girl still curled up against me. Not even any meat cooked! Good, you say? Ha!’
‘We have a plague of Saxons below, intent on more than disturbing your serving wench’s sleep.’ Huw pointed. ‘Any magics you can throw against them?’
Merlin reached inside his herbal pouch, scattering dried green leaves to the wind. ‘Get ye hence, foul Saxon. Vanish to the depths of hell lest I unleash the mortal peril of parsley upon you!’
He paused, his eyes looking intense under his shaggy white eyebrows. ‘No. They still seem to be there! With these herbs, young Master, I could barely make a good stew! Now, if you would care to go into the valley and find me a little garlic root, a good stew I could make you.’
Huw shook his head. Magic and arms were not the answer. That only left wisdom and guile. He sighed.
“Well, somehow we have to find a way. We cannot hold them, yet we need to hold the fortress. Without it, we leave our Lord Cynnglann with a veritable thorn in his side — a fortress from which the Saxons could send small raiding parties out, and from which they could see all we do. I don’t think our chances of running would be very good, either. Once we hit the marshes below, those Saxon dogs will tear us apart.’
‘Hold them we must!’ Edrich spat. ‘No Saxon takes me alive!’
‘I don’t think our lives would figure highly on their agenda. So, we make it harder for them to get here. How long do you think Cynnglann will take?’ Merlin was at least entering into the spirit of things now.
Edrich considered, ‘Three days, maybe four. To rout those down there, I’d say four.’
‘Probably get some fast riders and maybe archers here in three, even if only to harry them and slow down their attack. Leastwise, that’s what I’d do in his place.’ Huw offered.
Edrich nodded in agreement.
Merlin rubbed his stomach, trying to stifle the gurgles beneath his greasy robe. ‘I’m not sure about you two, but I need to eat before I think any harder. At my age, indigestion sets in and scatters my thoughts if I don’t eat in a morning.’ He emphasized this with a fart whose odours thankfully drifted over the battlements.
Edrich curled his lip in mock distaste, and answered with a forced fart of his own. ‘There! Let those Saxon dogs chew on that while we break fast.’ He turned and headed toward the hide-covered tent in the centre of the earthworks.
Huw scraped the knife’s edge down his jaw line. Grease from the pork he had consumed eased its passage as it sheared short wiry hairs that threatened one day to become a beard.
‘You should let the damn thing grow. It would help you look older, and stop you looking like one of those bloody ‘civilised’ people in Virconey.’ Edrich threw another bone over his shoulder where the dogs slobbered impatiently against the earth wall.
‘No point in a straggly, youthful attempt at a beard, Edrich.A man should grow a beard worthy of being worn, or not bother at all.’ Merlin bit down at the pork on the rib and sucked at it noisily, hiding his teasing smile.
Edrich glared sullenly at Merlin, not sure if the goad was at himself or at Huw. Silence seemed the better option. Fencing words with a Druid never resulted in victory. He busied himself by throwing another sod of peat on the fire instead.
‘At least those ‘civilised’ people can defend themselves. Their small legion and their shields can hold a wall against the Saxons, disciplined and solid they are,’ muttered Huw.
‘Aye, till the waves of Saxons in the lowlands become too much to hold their bridges against, then they will be washed over and trodden underfoot like the rest of them. How much gold do you think they pay to keep the bands away? Once the Saxons want more than they can pay, they’ll be burned out of their villas and columns within a week!’ Edrich had ever disdained the remnants of Rome that clung to the old city.
‘True enough,’ Huw admitted. ‘But we need to work on how can we get out of this trap.’
‘I already have the children and women out scouring the slopes for stones, anything we can sling or throw. Things like that can slow them, if only for a short while,’ Edrich said. ‘The men are making a palisade across the path. If they can find enough wood, we can make two, but each will hold no more than an extra hour, and may cost too many lives.’
‘Every hour may count as much as every man,’ Huw commented. ‘When do you think they will attack? Surely no later than tomorrow morning?’
‘I’ve set four men around the slopes already. They are bound to send at least a small party out today, test us and see if we’ll surrender all in one go. Tomorrow’s dawn will see the start of any big attack, once they’ve drunken enough courage to face their deaths and their leaders have lied about how much gold there is hidden in Merlin’s lair.’
Huw looked at Merlin, sucking away on the pork rib. His wisdom was of dire need here. Miracles and wonders had an important place in the grimmest of wars. Merlin looked dejectedly at the remains of the rib, and threw it casually behind him. The ensuing scrabble between the dogs for the prize caught all their attention. Snapping jaws and barks filled the tent, as dogs slid across greasy packed earth and asserted their rank.
‘Pork fat!’ exclaimed Huw.
‘Huh?’ The other two stared at him. The youth was definitely under pressure and whatever semblance of leadership he tenuously held was looking rather pitiful.
‘Pork fat! We cook everything we have, keep the grease and smear it behind the palisades.’
‘Oh aye!’ growled Edrich. ‘That’ll be a merry jape to play on them! Have them slipping on their arses, just before they come knocking on the door, nothing like a bruised backside to scare Saxons!’
‘No!’ chided Huw ‘Watch!’ He flicked some grease at the fire, watched it flare and spit in the flames as it burned to nothingness.
‘A grease fire pit! Now there’s a thought! That would work. The palisade would become a good trap for frying a few of the Saxons if nothing else!’ Edrich beamed in approval ‘We could also grease up a few arrows and have them rain a little fire too!’
‘And if we throw the spare meat that’s cooked down the slopes? How hungry will their war dogs be? That might stave off the worst of their first attacks!’ added Huw.
Merlin looked on in disbelief. ‘Throw good cooked food at the Saxons? Maybe if you warm up some water for them, we could wash their feet for them, too? I’m sure its quite an arduous climb, and we really do want them to have all the best comforts of home don’t we?’
‘Hmmm?’ Edrich scratched his beard again. ‘We could boil a few cauldrons of hot water and let them run down the path I suppose. Might burn a few toes!’
‘I was joking!’ shouted Merlin. ‘And I suppose you’ll have me throwing warmed parsley at them too? Give them a real welcoming stew?’ He threw his herb sack on the fire in disgust.
The stale acrid stench of burning herbs made them all cough and splutter, as the spill from the pouch started burning furiously red in the flames and smoke billowed around the roasting spit. Huw salvaged the pouch with the prong of a dried branch, and beat out the flames on the singed pouch with a peat sod.
‘Gentlemen. Round up the women folk and leave the children to gather stones. It seems we have a feast to prepare for our visitors!’
Three hours later, the encampment looked like it was preparing a banquet for royalty, littered with fires and roasting spits. The entire herd of goats and sheep had been slaughtered, gutted and forced onto makeshift spits of branches. The normally delicious aroma of cooking meat became overpowering. Huw was sure that he’d never again find the delights of a well-cooked supper appetising in the slightest.
Merlin was swept up in the humour of their defence, concocting ingredients for ‘smoking pots’ that Huw wanted distributed around the peak, with the intention of not only blinding the attackers but also deterring them from assaulting the lair of Britain’s mightiest wizard. Huw smiled at the way the Druid’s pride had been massaged into complying with this crazy plan.
Copyright © 2006 by Doug Pugh