Read The King's Cavalry Online

Authors: Paul Bannister

The King's Cavalry

 

 

The King’s Cavalry

Arthur Britannicus Returns…

 

Paul Bannister

 

© Paul Bannister, 201
4

 

Paul Bannister has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

I - Relic

 

Bishop Candless wanted a dead saint, or at least some part of one. It was, he said, his church’s most pressing need.

He looke
d pious as he said it, but I knew better. He is no holier than I am, which is not a great deal.

Candless has no ecclesiastical right to acquire a dead saint. He isn’t a bishop at all. Truth be told, he appointed himself into the role several years ago when he assumed the title
, along with the robes of some innocent he’d robbed at sword point. It had been a most successful transformation and he had enjoyed a meteoric rise for which I, Arthur, emperor of Britannia, was largely responsible, and now he was wishing to become even more successful, and rich.

The Pictish cleric first came into my life as a clansman who raced howling out of the heather and into battle against my soldiers. Defeated, he had become a ragged-arsed brigand on the run. That was when he had chanced across a real cleric, stolen his mule and robe
, and began living his new life as a self-ordained bishop.

Today Candless
is a prince of the church, living in high style and with even higher ambitions. He is a charming and clear-sighted rogue, a pagan masquerading as a Christian luminary of post-Roman Britain and he is my loyal friend and faithful servant.

It was Iacomus Candless who had produced the fake religious icons that attracted and rallied the Christian force I needed to defeat my enemies, and it was Candless’ soldiers that were helping me retain my hold on Britain. So, when he needed a dead saint, I listened. Skeptically, but I listened.

Allow me a moment to explain.

I was once a Roman soldier, and by the help of Mithras, of whom I am an initiate, and a series of events laid down by the gods
, I had become emperor of Britain. There is a lot to tell, so let me start with my name.

My birth name was Mauseus Carausius, and that served well as my obligatory Latin name when I joined Rome’s legions as a teenage boy. Later, as I rose to power, I became one of the Valerians and in tribute to the imperial Marcus Aurelius, took his nomen. When I became ruler of Britain, I chose a British version of my name, and became simply Arthur. This derived partly from my nickname ‘Arth,’ which is ‘The Bear’ in Britonic and which was earned for my considerable size and gods-given fighting ability
, and partly from my clan name, as a member of the Artorii, an equestrian class originally from Campania.

So my full name and title is ‘Arthur of Britannia, Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Mauseus Valerius, the dutiful, fortunate and unconquered Augustus.’ When I see it chiseled into milestones or on the portico of state buildings, I wonder at it, even in its abbreviation: ‘ART BRIT IMP C M AVR MAVS CARAVSIO INVICTO AVG.’

That is where it stands today, but how it began is more complex. My father was a British jarl, a lord of the northern coast, and he was killed by sea raiders who took my brothers and mother into captivity. I was a small boy who escaped and found myself learning the skills of a river pilot on the great waterways of Europe. Those skills served me well. In time I became admiral of the Roman fleet in the Narrow Sea between Gaul and Britain. This command proved profitable and also gave me the command of several legions.

There was a small misunderstanding with the emperor over pirate loot I had confiscated, and I was called to Rome, which I understood
could lead to my execution. Instead I chose to sail my fleet to Britain, overwhelmed the Roman governor and his force and took the throne as a returning British lord.

The Romans tried to reconquer their colonia, but I had the
better-trained fleet and defeated them, first at sea and later – thanks to a collection of ancient war chariots and the shade of a dead warrior queen – on the land. To underscore my position I executed their captured general, a Caesar, something that angered but also shook the confidence of his fellow emperors. That act earned me the cooperation of other vassals crushed under the Roman heel, so I took my forces to Gaul to join them and together we destroyed the legions at the great battle of Alesia on the River Seine.

After the victory
I pursued my lifelong enemy, the emperor Maximian, across Gaul until I caught and killed him. Slaughtering two emperors is not a common thing for a man, and it had an unexpected result. When he heard of the death of his rival for the throne of Rome the emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantine offered me peace.

This was startling to me, for it was Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus, whom I had executed when he led his forces against me in Britain. It seemed that his son, the embattled emperor
, was pragmatic and wanted to bring Christianity to his empire. He saw that I had a powerful Christian army, he needed no new enemies and I could be a useful ally.

Of co
urse I wanted peace with Rome, even if my role as a Christian king was merely a convenient front. Secretly, I was still a pagan. This was a deception I shared with my fellow pagan and outwardly Christian Bishop Candless, who had baptised me even while I muttered my prayers to Mithras, Jupiter and Juno.

Publicly adopting my new faith had been necessary to give my Christian forces a reason to follow me, although living this lie left me with a sense of great unease. I have spent my life as a worshipper of the soldiers’ god, Mithras, and he has been good to me. I fear he and the other gods might turn away from me because I am now publicly a Christian. However, I hope he is understanding, and I still secretly attend the tauroctony, when a bull is sacrificed to our god.

And I did more. I created a secret temple. Mithras was born of rock and is celebrated in an underground ceremony, so my castrum at Chester has a subterranean temple in proper form, with a central aisle and raised platforms on either side. There is even a water supply for the ceremonial and a drain to catch the bull’s blood so we can drink it. The mysteries of the god are too sacred to recount, but I have been through five of the seven stages and know what it is to be naked, blindfolded, bound and crowned. I know too which of my close companions are brother initiates, and we would die for each other.

This touches on another considerable worry about my secret faith. My private paganism means I am deceiving my soldiers. Fighting men must trust their comrades, and if they discover that they had become Christians to follow a king who does not share their beliefs, they could desert me.

This I tried to explain to Candless but he was more interested in wealth and power, and had no conscience about the deception. He shrugged that if it meant adding another god or two to your prayers, what did it matter? He even joked that I was known by the troops as Arthur Paganus – Arthur the Pagan – as a sort of private joke. That attitude was shared by my lover Guinevia, a Druid sorceress who reasons that the gods know what is in your heart. She added that if I had needed to recruit zealot Christians to help defend Britain, then the good that was served outweighed any doubts about which god was most important or in the right.

Guinevia is coolly practical in many matters. She married our son Milo to the daughter of the most powerful of the Pictish kings and brokered an agreement that the boy will ascend the throne of Alba, land of the unconquered Picts, when King Kinadius mac Ailpin goes to his reward in the feasting halls of the gods. This will unite my kingdom of Britannia with that of Alba and should bring peace to the island.

Kinadius and I buried the old enmity, swore a blood oath of support and for the first time in decades the raids across the Wall of Hadrian have ended.

In this time of peace
the church of the Jesus god was prospering. British Christians had never been subject to much more than official disapproval, although their fellow worshippers in Italia have undergone terrible times at the hands of such emperors as Valerian and Nero. The Romans took it ill that the Christians refused to acknowledge the deity of the augusti emperors. They held that there was only one god, their Jesus, who to the Romans was just a rabble-rouser in dusty Palestine, and refused, traitorously refused to worship the emperor.

Nero sent tens of thousands of Christians to the arena to make bloody spec
tacle for the mob. He tortured and crucified the men, and even turned some wretches into human torches to illuminate his circuses. After Nero, and until a year or so ago, the emperor Diocletian, languishing in his palace at Split, also believed himself a reincarnation of Jupiter and continued the persecutions. He ordered all officials to prove their loyalty to the old gods by first sacrificing to them, then consuming the meat of the sacrifice. Those who refused were uncovered as Christians and were executed. Equally, their deacons and bishops were forced to recant or be executed, their churches were pulled down and their property seized.

He did not act in isolation. His sadistic general Galerius was a
n enthusiastic Christian killer too, ordering them sewn into bloodied animal skins then released in the arena for wild animals to hunt down and tear to pieces.

In time
Diocletian retired fully to his Adriatic palace and left Maximian as emperor, but I brought the Serb to battle, defeated him and, after he fled the killing field, hunted him down myself. I slew him at the aqueduct over the River Gard, near the great walled city of Nimes.

The Roman senate next acclaimed as co-emperors Maximian’s son
, Maxentius and Diocletian’s bloodthirsty general, Galerius, giving them each the senior role of augustus, and grudgingly awarded Constantine the junior role of caesar, a decision he resented. Galerius, however, was dissatisfied with his role as a co-emperor. He regarded Maxentius as a usurper, backed Constantine’s junior role and ordered his general Severus to put down the other augustus. Civil war broke out.

I owed Constantine loyalty as he had offered peace to me, so I made a public nod to his claims to the grass crown by having my British troops acclaim him at our northern fortress of Eboracum
. “He doesn’t seem to hold against me the fact that I executed his father,” I told Candless, “but I am not inclined to put my head into the lion’s jaws to test his goodwill. If I go to Rome, he might well avenge that death with mine. Despite the honeyed invitation, I’m not going to Rome.”

Candless looked a little discomfited, which made me curious. He smoothed his
beautifully-made monk’s habit over his knee, and twitched the pressed white linen cotta with its lace trimmings to sit more perfectly. “You will be safe, Lord, I’m sure,” he said, but I could tell he was lying. He had some other agenda, I decided.

“I am in communication with the bishop of Rome,” he continued, “as I have been with his predecessors, and I feel I will be perfectly safe if I go there.” You probably will be, I thought sourly. You didn’t cut his father’s head off. It’s me I’m worried about.

Aloud, I said politely, “What exactly is it, Iacomus, that makes you wish to go to Rome?” I knew the answer of course, but I wanted him to wriggle a little. I noticed that his ears went pink, a sure sign that he didn’t like the familiar ‘Iacomus,’ but then again, I was his emperor and I wasn’t going to give him his own fake honorific when we were in private.

“My church,” he began, then started again. “The church needs to be a centre of inspiration to the populace.”

I sighed. He was building a vast edifice inside the city wall of Deva, my citadel on the River Dee. It was from here that centuries before the general Agricola had planned to invade Hibernia and had built Britain’s biggest fortress and filled it with the 20th Legion. Deva, called by the British ‘Chester’ or simply ‘Roman Camp,’ was the new capital of Britannia since Londinium had been destroyed in the last Roman invasion. I had chosen to move my headquarters there for its central location and facilities. Now Candless was cluttering it up with some temple to the Christian god.

Candless ignored my sigh. “You know,
Lord, the value of signs or symbols to the common folk.” Indeed I do, I thought. We had rallied the Christians behind a few iron nails, claiming they were from the Cross of Christ. We had displayed our unity with the Celts and our shared new faith by painting our shields white with a red cross and had charged the Romans at the decisive battle of Alesia under a banner which purported to be the miraculous face of Christ.

If only Candless had painted the thing with something that didn’t wash off in the rain, I thought, we could still have had that as an inspiration to the faithful.

The bishop continued talking. “We need an authentic relic, the body of a saint, to bring the people to us,” he was saying. “I have had communication with several of the pontiffs – the bishops in Rome,” he explained at my puzzled look. He continued: “The holy bishops oversee the sacred remains of numbers of saints, some of which might be suitable to inspire the affection and devotion of the faithful here in the north, so far from the centre of the church. I hope that the bishops will release something from one of the saints to inspire the faithful in this corner of the empire.”

For a fee, I thought. For a fee.
But I understood his drift. The fingernail of St Peter or the girdle of the Virgin would be a powerful and lucrative draw for thousands of pilgrims, each of whom would donate to the increasing number of leather and iron bullion chests I knew Candless had stored in his palace cellar. The good bishop would be earning enough to own half of Alba at the rate he was moving along. His plan to go right to the fountain head of relicdom and prise free the body or other remains of a saint or two from the canny Roman presbyters was sound. It would take a sizeable bribe but the lure would bring credibility and great rewards to his church as the pilgrims flocked in.

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