I made room for him and he eased himself down beside me, then bent forward awkwardly, tugging the heavy war helmet from his head and placing 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. It was long and deep—I knew that already, although Arthur did not—and we were seated in the day-lit area of the wide angle formed by a change in the cave’s direction when it 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, harder than the material surrounding it, projecting outward to form a flat-sided baffle that concealed the widening of the cave from anyone looking in from outside.
Beyond 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 in there was high enough to permit a tall man to stand upright, because I had done so and stretched 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 as I straightened up I had held on to it, then lobbed it into whatever lay in the darkness ahead of me. The pause that followed, and then the sounds of the stone as it 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, however, knew nothing of this, and now he turned back to me in the fading afternoon light.
“It’s not exactly like 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.”
He turned and looked at me, his face wrinkling 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 . . . I’ve heard you use it now on many occasions but I have no idea what it means. 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 it clicked in my mind and I laughed. “Oh, you mean Seur! I called you Seur King.”
“That’s it. What does that 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 honour, when we are dealing with someone who has no royal rank, for example, 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.”
“I see. Thank you for explaining, It’s not a word I’ve heard before, except out of your mouth, but it’s not a bad word, I think.”
“No, it is not, not at all. If anything, it is an honourific.”
“Aye, very well. Now, what were you suggesting, 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. Is that what you were suggesting?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I was suggesting nothing, other than that you should, perhaps, think in terms of fuel, rather than of wood, 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 here—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 labour—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 labour beforehand.”
“Hmm. 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 leant 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 travelled and now my head was clear. I shrugged and moved away, reaching down for our helmets and clutching my own under one arm as I held out his with my free hand.
“I’m fine now. But I’ll feel better when I’m warmer.”
Our horses were ground-tethered just outside the cave, still saddled. It had only been a space of moments since we had stopped, in passing, to examine this place as a possible shelter. 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 now by a keen, biting wind that had sprung up just as we put our horses to the upward 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. Then, as soon as we were sure we could leave the fire to burn safely on its own, even though it was not yet where it ought to be, we off-saddled and led our animals into the rear area 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 and comfortably 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 and not until then. 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 chariots?”
I shook my head, knowing 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 shook his head, his 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 reached out and picked up a heavy section of branch, thrusting it deep into the flames before he continued, “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 murmured, “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 and nodded. “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.”
He shrugged as well as he could beneath armour 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 looked at me, frowning. “Do you think I’m wrong?”
“No, not at all.” I shook my head to emphasize my lack of doubt.
“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 own 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 moved around to stretch myself out to sleep on the opposite side of the fire pit from him.